Let me ask something: does the reader feel overwhelmed? I've talked about a wide range of subjects regarding gamer experience: the importance of difficulty, the responsibility inherent in taking up the mantle of DM, rule-making, game structure and function, narratology, modelling, despair at venturing into new game design, reverse engineering as we play games, operational logic and the concept of game flow.
Are you lost? This is all interesting stuff but how in hell does it set an agenda for what you're going with your world or your game? Have you already forgotten most of it? Has it fallen right out of your head?
Don't be surprised. I'm finding it hard to keep it straight. My only saving grace is that most of it has been floating around in my head for decades, without my knowing that the academic work I've been posting and deconstructing existed. Clearly, it's hard to find; and I think that most of this content falls on deaf ears, given that it sets out to correct misunderstandings about concepts such as "fun," "reward," "rules" and "worldbuilding." These are not concepts that common game makers or users want corrected: they have already fixed in their minds what these words mean and any effort to create a measurement thereto will be bound to encounter resistance.
Yesterday, prior to writing my post about setting, I spent a couple of hours looking for a definitive university-level book on developing a dramatic setting or a game setting, to compare with the examples that I had found online and among juvenile how-to articles. There wasn't one, at least not that I could find. I found plenty of books with a high complexity describing setting in Greek tragedy or in Shakespeare, or related to the Bible or other general categories of literature and drama. Yet I could not find an authoritative, meaningful book on "choosing a setting" as more crude sources would approach the subject. From my own academic experience with creative writing, I have to admit the matter was never approached in that manner. I don't approach setting myself in that way. I would never think before starting a book, "I want to create a story that takes place in such and such a setting; I will make the setting first and then decide what sort of story I want to tell there."
[I know, this seems like I'm going to go back into setting again, but I'm just going around the barn; I'll come back, I promise]
Any story I've wanted to tell has always been about something I believe or something I want to believe; substantially, the most certain sorts of thoughts that it is possible for me to have. For example, Pete's Garage is about how a fellow approaches not being able to work and live as a musician, but only knows a life lived among musicians. Pete still knows what he knows about music; he's wise in his manner and he's forgiving of the musician's lifestyle and the musician's quest.
I didn't want to write a story about a music agent or a music promoter, and I had minimal experience with those things. But I knew a place, Connections, when I was 19 and 20 that rented rooms by the hour to musicians who wanted to practice, where they didn't have to worry about how loud they were. It was a shit little building downtown that has since been ripped down and made into a parking lot (coincidentally, connected to a place where I worked on the 5th floor for five years in video-on-demand, but that's not important). To reduce the noise between rooms, the management hung nets on the walls full of ripped up foam rubber, like one of those nets you probably fell into when doing the high jump in high school. The carpet was old and rotten, with the wooden floors showing through, the place stank, the floors weren't level, the management were assholes and the vibe was equivalent to a meth lab. Yet I spent hundreds of hours there, moving from room to room, talking to musicians, writing stories in the corner while they played, blasting my ears since I was about four feet from the bass and drums, and loving it.
In writing Pete's Garage, I wanted to recreate that: so in a way, it could be argued that I "invented" the setting first and then came up with a story. But no. In fact, I invented the story and then remembered a setting that would work with that story. If I'd never known a place called Connections, I'd have used something else from my memory. That's how writing works. We begin with the idea, then we cast around for concepts that will fit that idea and make it believable and interesting.
If the idea is bad to start with, nothing we do in the way of story, characters or setting will save it. That's important. Most ideas are bad. In fact, statistically speaking, all ideas are bad. Good ideas are a non-statistical anomaly. That is why most of the time, creators just steal good ideas. The chances that you, as a creator, will have an honest to gawd original good idea is a statistical impossibility.
Thankfully, I'm wise enough to know that only means it's highly improbable. People get confused about that, however.
All this comes back around to the problem of how do to set an agenda. See, no one taught me to do this thing of reaching back into my memory for things that would fit with a recently acquired idea. It came with time. And with the understanding that the method will serve bad ideas as well as good ones. That's important too. There's no real way of knowing if you have a good idea or not; this is largely what has me paralyzed with regards to The Fifth Man right now. I go through periods where my complete lack of confidence makes me question the logic of spending any time on the book, like Marty McFly asking, "What they say, Get out of here kid. You've got no future. I mean, I just don't think I can take that kind of rejection."
When my struggle is difficult, I'm weak that way.
But you're fine, right, gentle reader? You don't experience misgivings like that. You don't have doubts about your campaign or your players, or about what you're doing with your game or your life. Everything about your world's design is going exactly as you want it to and you're one hundred percent certain that when you bring in a new idea or a new adventure for your players, they will love it. One hundred percent.
We want good ideas . . . but at best, we're working with what we have. No one can teach you how to do that; you've got to experiment and play. On top of that, you've got to be open to the possibility that the idea you have is bad, even if that possibility is uncomfortable and keeps you awake at night. Even if that possibility paralyzes you for a time. It is better that you be aware of your potential failures, of your moving down the wrong path, than blindly stumbling along, happy go lucky, until you've destroyed any and every opportunity you may have had to find your way back.
All this game stuff ~ if you're not self-aware and mindful of your game in this manner, none of this will do you any good at all. If you're not mindful, chances are you'll never be. Chances are you're not mindful because you're terrified of what you'll find if you look at yourself, your choices and your game too closely. Looking at it too closely could result in your discovering that it is all shit.
Chances are, you're not ready for that. And that you'll never be ready for it.
I envy you, a little. But then I remember, if I were making my world or writing my book with the sort of cheerful confidence that disallowed me any misgivings that either might be shit, they would almost certainly be shit. With statistical certainty.