In tabletop or live-action roleplaying communities, GMs often use setting primers to introduce players to new settings (particularly homebrewed ones). Traditionally these primers breathe life into the setting through either fiction, a historical overview, or a general description. For instance, a GM might provide the players with a timeline of the defining politico-military conflict(s) of a fantasy world, or give them some bullet points summarising the galactic cultures that will feature in a sci-fi game. In some cases, the GM may dedicate an initial session to talking the players through the setting, or may even prepare a wiki, reference sheet, or similar aid for the players. For popular settings, the GM may point the players in the direction of existing primers prepared by others, such as a Player’s Guide. All of these are relatively well-trodden routes to engage and excite players, and to orient them within a new setting. While there’s nothing wrong with any of these approaches, they can get a bit dull and repetitive; moreover, these techniques often provide the players with one of two kinds of information, neither of which is necessarily what the players really want. On the one hand, fiction and historical accounts often provide a lot of information about the past of the setting and the exploits of other characters within it. Players, by contrast, generally want information about the present and are less interested in what has happened in the setting’s past than in how their choices will determine its future. (This is not to say that information about the past can’t be relevant to the present, of course. If you want to write a history, focus on what the the players learn about the present from the past, and how they can interact with it – perhaps they try to re-establish contact with a lost civilisation, for instance.) On the other hand, lists of information and descriptions of complex systems like cultures tend to produce dense information that conveys little in the way of mood. Furthermore, establishing authority over the facts of the world detracts from the ability of players to co-create it or shape it through their actions.
I want to propose another option for GMs, which we might consider to be halfway between the other two approaches – an approach inspired by the work of Jorge Luis Borges and Stanislaw Lem. These authors are paradigmatic of a what might be called pseudo-non-fiction, or fictional non-fiction. Sub-genres within this genre would include fictional scientific reports or philosophical papers, fictional histories, fictional encyclopaedia entries, fictional book reviews or literary criticism, etc. I give some examples of stories below. The application of this form of literature to roleplaying is inspired especially by a passage from an essay by Lem on this kind of writing. First, Lem emphasises that his work is not world-building in the traditional sense, in that he purposefully limits his output:
“I try to get to know the “world” to be created by me by writing the literature specific to it, but not whole shelves of reference works of the sociology and the cosmology of some thirtieth century, not the fictitious minutes of scientific expeditions or other types of literature that express a Zeitgeist, the spirit of a time and a world, alien to us. After all, this would be an endeavor impossible to accomplish during the short life span of a human being.”1
Lem further notes that he “write[s] criticism in the form of the reviews of nonexistent books or forewords to them (A Perfect Vacuum, Imaginary Magnitude).”2 He comments: “I do not publish these things any longer but use them to create my own knowledge of another world, a knowledge entirely subservient to my literary program – in other words, to sketch a rough outline that will be filled in later.”3 So, the aim is to create without too much detail, to suggest possibilities without closing too much off. Lem leaves room for later deviations, reinterpretations, revelations, and so forth in developing his worlds. Suppose that a setting primer refers to “the famed tome ‘Discourses on Blood Magic’ written by Argyole, the Change Mage (suspected by some scholars to be a pen-name for Bathior the Necromancer).” In a way, less is more, here. The GM (or even, perhaps, the players) can decide later about the content of the book, whether the scholars are right about its authorship, etc. By leaving questions unanswered, we open up possibilities that can be pursued during play, without defining in advance what the answers will be. We therefore invite the players to participate, especially when either the game or the social contract at the table allows for players to establish facts without explicitly seeking the GM’s agreement or approval. Lem characterises his way of fleshing out a fictional world further, suggesting some evocative sub-genres of fictional non-fiction:
“I surround myself, so to speak, with the literature of a future, another world, a civilization with a library that is its product, its picture, its mirror image. I write only brief synopses or, again, critical reviews of sociological treatises, scientific papers, and technical reference works…There are also historicophilosophical papers, “encyclopedias of alien civilizations” and their military strategies – all of them, of course, in a kind of shorthand, or I would need the longevity of a Methuselah to create them.”3
Lem describes this collection of writings within/about a given setting as a “library for a given purpose.”4 He suggests that while some of these works are of high enough quality to publish in their own right, most merely for the purposes of world-building. I want to suggest that GMs would do well to consider writing a “library for a given purpose” rather than either form of traditional setting primer. Offer players slices of the world which bring it to life and create a range (or if you are feeling more adventurous, an interconnected network) of open questions, possibilities, opinions, generalisations, contextualisations, etc.
Rather than explain in detail the paradigmatic examples of this genre of writing, I’ll simply name some examples and link to more information. Examples from Borges’ writings include The Book of Imaginary Beings, The Library of Babel, The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, etc. Lem’s examples include works like A Perfect Vacuum, Provocation, One Human Minute, Imaginary Magnitude, Non Serviam, etc. Other writers have done similar things in their work from time to time also: for example, Franz Kafka‘s A Report to an Academy, Before the Law, A Message From the Emperor, The City Coat of Arms, The Problem of our Laws, etc are early and undeveloped examples of the style.
Borges tends towards encyclopedia-style articles, whereas Lem has a bias towards fictional literary criticism. Both authors also integrate fictional historical accounts into their work, but these are very different from the closed-off, completist style favoured by many GMs, as readers will no doubt notice. Kafka’s examples are often parables, and thus have less obvious tension between their fictional nature and non-fictional presentation, since readers are used to the cultural convention that parables are presented as true stories, etc. I’m sure other authors could be identified whose work might be useful in informing the GM who wishes to write primers in this style.
While this post focuses on entire pieces of writing, even throwaway comments can be rich in creating a certain atmosphere and situating players within the world. To illustrate this, let us pick just a few examples from the Star Wars franchise:
- Han drops in a reference to the Kessel Run that is never explained in the original trilogy;
- Luke comments “I used to bull’s-eye womp rats in my T-16 back home,” without giving us details as to what a T-16 is. As for womp rats, we know nothing save that they are “not much bigger than 2 metres” (which we learn from the same line);
- Leia calls Han a “nerf herder,” but we are never told what a nerf is, why someone might want to herd them, or what kind of a person would take part in such a profession.
Together these comments, along with many others, create the ‘fish out of water’ feeling that a truly alien setting should induce, whilst at the same time situating us very much within the setting. They do this by handing us a setting element (such as the Kessel Run or the womp rat) without holding our hand and feeling the need to explain it to us – our imagination is left to fill in the gaps based on reasonable assumptions and inferences. Therefore, even without the appropriate frame of reference, we understand from context and tone of voice that ‘nerf herder’ is an insult, or that the Kessel Run is difficult. This technique of casually mentioning setting elements without giving out too many details is also associated with H. P. Lovecraft, although he often interwove these off-the-cuff references as his writing progressed, bringing them up again in later stories and adding new details, etc – this is what allowed the creation of a ‘mythos’ that remains flexible, open to reinterpretation and recharacterisation. One GM’s Nyarlathotep is not the same as another’s, for instance.
Allow me to summarise with some ideas of how we could prepare different kinds of materials for our games to give players an insight into new settings, cultures, etc. These could, of course, be used not only by GMs but also by game/setting/scenario designers.
- A technical/instructional manual, user’s guide, or end-user license – this need not be for high tech (does a Wand of Raise Dead have a legal disclaimer?);
- A contents page, index, or glossary to a larger work;
- An academic paper or scientific report of some kind (or its abstract) – perhaps a white paper issued by a think-tank, or an account of new research in a certain discipline, a meta-study of research in a certain field, or a work of art history;
- A statistical report issued by a governmental or private institute or department (e.g. a summary of census information, or annual inflation statistics; in the latter case, consider not only what the inflation rate is, but how this society calculates it – what commodities are considered representative of an average ‘basket’ of goods, and how is information on prices collected?);
- A contract of some kind – employment, property rental, prenuptial, indenture, etc;
- A recipe book or nutritional guide (is Venusian daggerworm high in protein, how are its poison sacs best removed, and does it taste best when fried or boiled?);
- Rules for a game, sport, or similar contest;
- A prosyletising tract/pamphlet for a religion;
- A personnel file, medical record, or school report;
- Quiz or exam questions (preferably without answer key);
- A myth, parable, fairy-tale, or collection of proverbs.
1 (Stanislaw Lem, Microworlds, 1984, pp. 23)
2 (Stanislaw Lem, Microworlds, 1984, pp. 24)
3 (Stanislaw Lem, Microworlds, 1984, pp. 24; emphasis added)
4 (Stanislaw Lem, Microworlds, 1984, pp. 24)
5 (Stanislaw Lem, Microworlds, 1984, pp. 24)