Monday, March 18, 2019

Kill your Darlings

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

So wrote Stephen King, even if he didn’t originate the notion.

It’s plenty good advice for game designers and referees alike. Developing Library Data entries helped refine my thinking about the Into the Interface game: the act of selecting entries required me to consider what elements I wanted to emphasize to the players.

But it also forced me to think hard about how much information I wanted to provide. As I noted at the outset, the genius of the early Library Data entries was their brevity: they could quickly convey just enough information to provide context and spark interest, but not so much detail to become boring or confining. One of the key insights of the Old School Renaissance was an appreciation for the terse, open-ended nature of early adventures and setting books.

And yet, as I worked on my own entries, I kept fighting against bloat.

It’s a natural struggle, really. I’ve had a lot of fun tinkering around with Magyar sector, developing histories, fictional personalities, generating system details, and so on. They’ve been interesting exercises and produced a lot of raw material over the years.

But it is vital for a good referee to understand the difference between material that is personally interesting, and material that is actually important to the players. The important material usually only represents 1/100th of the interesting stuff. That doesn’t mean the interesting stuff is useless or wasted, but it does mean it has to have its place.

Plenty of professional game designers miss the distinction. Popular games naturally accumulate more and more details over time; these eventually calcify into canon. While fans like these details—I like these details—they can be overwhelming, particularly to new players.

So I chopped my Library Data entries, but even so they could still use even more pruning.

Take, for example, the Interstellar Wars, the birth of the Third Imperium, and the Solomani Rim War. All are major events in the Official Traveller Universe and Magyar sector. They’re all interesting, but they aren’t directly important to player characters. These events are as distant to the PCs as King Solomon, the First Crusade, and World War I would be to us. If you’re going to visit Paris, your guidebook might have some very brief historical notes, but it’s not going to have a major treatise on Bronze Age culture. You turn to the guidebook to find a good meal, a nice place to stay.

And when you start thinking about Library Data as future guidebook excerpts, you start looking a lot more critically at your entries. Here’s a good example of an entry that should have been hacked more:

Gjerdingen (Magyar 3123 X5758A9-5). An interdicted wet world on the Rim Main in New Mars subsector. The mainworld has a standard oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere tainted by bioweapon agents.

In -4445 the rapidly expanding Vilani attacked the small Vegan interstellar community in the Solomani Rim. In response some 200,000 Vegans fled down the Rim Main, settling on an uncharted world they named Dzosuiken. They were able to remain independent until -3400, when Dzosuiken was forcibly absorbed into the First Imperium. A remnant Vegan population persisted onworld for at least another 2,000 years before passing from history. As the Long Night fell across Magyar sector, the Aslan led by the Tralyeaeawi clan assumed control of interstellar trade in the region. During this period Gjerdingen was a prominent and relatively safe world on the route connecting the Solomani Rim and Dark Nebula. While Reaver attacks drove Vilani and Terran refugees to the world, who named it Nisuru, Aslan also settled there, naming it Hlokherlyal.

During the Solomani period both the Aslan and Vilani-identified populations suffered greatly and developed deep resentments. Gjerdingen has been settled for over 5,500 years by various species and cultures. As a result of the Rim War the ruling Solomani government was replaced, but the world quickly descended into vicious ethnic fighting that was covertly supported by both the Imperium and the Confederation. The troubles culminated in the release of a genetically engineered “superflu” in 1053 that killed nearly 40% of the world’s population. In response the Imperium interdicted the world and naval forces carefully patrol the system preventing unauthorized landings.

Over the last 20 years the Imperium has occasionally deployed peace-keeping forces onworld in an attempt to prevent complete genocide. Today the mainworld is a haunted ruin of empty cities and broken infrastructure, reduced to an early electricity tech level. The most powerful faction is lead by a dictator dedicated to the Solomani Cause.

As much as I like the story of Vegan refugees, it's literally ancient history to the players. Maybe worth retelling if they interact with Vegans or visit Gjerdingen, but otherwise? Not important.

That said, one can chop too much: there needs to be something in the entry that sparks interest, some quirk or hook. Some of the OSR products went much too far down this path, and here’s an example of one of my Library Data entries that needed just a little more juice:

Schaut (Magyar 2418 C830115-9). Also known as Lirkig, a poor, desert hellworld with a thin atmosphere, a Class C starport, and a low population, early stellar society. The system is located on the Walpurgian Main in Voyager subsector. The mainworld is a former holding of the Dootchen Estates and had a Class B starport that was destroyed during the Solomani Rim War. The world is under the control of the Magyar Redevelopment Corporation, an Imperial agency funded by the Ministry of Commerce. The few inhabitants working for the Corporation are engaged in ongoing cleanup of the old highport, which scattered debris over millions of kilometers when it broke up in Schaut’s atmosphere.

Just a couple of extra sentences tell a much more interesting story and provide some possible adventure hooks. Maybe the players have been hired to salvage radioactives from a cordoned-off region? Maybe an Aslan merchant ship laden with platinum was docked at the highport when it was destroyed? Maybe Imperial funds or materials earmarked for Schaut’s cleanup keep disappearing?

After playing around with the format, I think a good entry length is probably about 100-120 words, with a maximum of maybe 200 words. Any more than that and you either have something that should be split into multiple entries, or a lot of stuff that should be left on the chopping block.


  1. My rule of a thumb when writing commercial setting material is that *every* paragraph should have *at least* one plot-hook usable by a referee in an actual game. If it doesn't translate into action around the table, it usually has little place in a commercial setting or setting-related book.

  2. I believe in dual entries. I write the full version for me, and then rewrite for the players, with less detail, and occasionally lies, myths, or urban legends. If they look into that issue, they sometimes learn something new, and feel they have unlocked a new piece of the puzzle. Just by playing on their knowledge, I whipsawed their loyalty between gods and their goals for many sessions before they realized both of them were bad.

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