Bridging gaps in cultural context and actual knowledge

edited February 2011 in Story Games
We've had a thread about actual knowledge ruining a game. This is kinda the other side of the coin.

A few of Jason Morningstar's recent bite-sized APs have included references to really cool obscure stuff I'm very much into, such as Project Cybersyn, but they also included references to certain other historical events and subtleties that I wasn't aware of and had to check up. So I'm wondering how I would fare myself in that game...would I get all of the potential overtones, implications, inside jokes? How well does Jason's group groove on all that (shared I suppose) knowledge?

I made a thread on Praxis recently, where I dumped a ton of media titles and asked people to tell me what associations popped into their heads when they read them. To me, all those texts and movies and books were strong influences on a game I'm making, one way or another. But I need to learn how to communicate that monstrous amalgamation of references, that hypertext, through my rules etc. In my head, there's a picture where all these things come together. How do I share that without making you read hundreds upon hundreds of pages?

Sometimes I'm struck by a bolt of inspiration and I want to announce in excitement that my next D&D game is going to be "Like a cross between Simplicius Simplicissimus and Gargantua & Pantagruel, you know, with a dash of Vance and maybe Baudolino! Isn't that cool? It's sooo cool." But then I imagine the vast majority of gamers that I know of and play with would just look at me like "What?".

So to have games that are so tight and rocking on actual knowledge and cultural context as Jasons', do you just have to be lucky and have players that are into those exact same things?

I remember reading some A Taste For Murder play reports where lack of knowledge of the source material was a definitive problem. I wrote a little Agatha Christie story game myself and it was pretty fun for me and my girlfriend, but I can't imagine how it would fare with people that aren't as well-versed in the Three Act murder mystery structure, all the tropes and counter tropes...Once you've seen and read all the Poirots and Marples it becomes second nature and then the game flows, but otherwise...

How many games require some degree of familiarity with source material? How many game/setting pitches suggest that it's like media X crossed with media Y and if you don't know those, what then?

This is tangential to large published settings like Faerun, Ptolus etc. where knowing the setting in depth can really enhance (or poison) play. But I'd like to avoid that side of the discussion for now.

When do we leave the point where you missed my reference and we just breeze on and get to the point where the differences in our cultural subtext and knowledge break our play?

Food for thought.


  • Posted By: TeataineSo to have games that are so tight and rocking on actual knowledge and cultural context as Jasons', do you just have to be lucky and have players that are into those exact same things?
    God, no. Here's how it works for me and my crew:

    1. Somebody finds some cool thing. He reads up on it, then finds a Wikipedia article and shares the link.
    2. Half the group reads the link and choose characters that are cleverly intertwined with the situation or premise or location.
    3. The other half stumbles in on game night half an hour late.
    4. We play. The clueless ones are brought roughly up to speed as we go.
    5. Usually there's a fight with a giant robot or something.

    So everyone gets out of it what they want. I groove on manufacturing the true secret origins of the CIA's 1973 coup in Chile, my brother gets to fight a giant robot. Everyone else fits somewhere on that continuum.
  • edited February 2011
    So, if someone drops into the game without having a clue what Cybersyn is, it's no big deal? From your condensed AP it sounded more involved. Cool.

    Maybe I'm exaggerating the problem (hell, I always do), but it just struck me today that sometimes it's just darn hard to share the excitement for certain concepts, periods, genres, whatever all across the table. Of course you try to give everyone something they can have fun with (a giant robot in your instance) but sometimes (like in the Agatha Christie example) the gap between designer and players or player and player can be damn hard to cross.

    EDIT: On an emotional level it's probably that I worry too much about other people. In your case I bet your brother is having all the fun in the world fighting the giant robot but I would keep wondering if I'm being unfair to him because I'm doing the secret history stuff and I get to fight the giant robot.
  • It depends on the game, I think.

    For Montsegur 1244, you needn't know the setting. For Steal Away Jordan, you must know something about the setting. For A Taste For Murder, you needn't know the setting, but you must get the style right (for example, you must lead slowly up to the thing you want to talk about).
  • edited February 2011
    Posted By: TeataineSo, if someone drops into the game without having a clue what Cybersyn is, it's no big deal? From your condensed AP it sounded more involved. Cool.
    In our isolated case, no, it is never a big deal. In that case someone would shorthand it - "It's January 1971, we're in Chile to shut down this proto-Internet built by the daughter of a Nazi mechanomancer." That's everything anyone needs to know if they are in it for the giant robots. The people who are really engaged with the setting and historical details do the heavy lifting with color and situation, and in my experience it isn't long before everyone is roughly on the same page.

    It's worth noting that we are all dear friends who have played together for a decade. Everyone trusts each other and we're all very willing to go with whatever hare-brained idea any of us has come up with and is excited about. That enthusiasm is always contagious.
  • I've encountered these kinds of problems twice, once was in the contest of an L5R game in which the GM was more familiar with Rokugan and Japanese culture, which he found very frustrating even though everyone else was enjoying the game and the other has been anytime I've tried superhero gaming with people who don't like/read superhero comics. Its always just kind of "off" in tone, which is probably the hardest thing to communicate.
  • Posted By: masqueradeballanytime I've tried superhero gaming with people who don't like/read superhero comics. Its always just kind of "off" in tone, which is probably the hardest thing to communicate.
    This is a really interesting case - I never read comics as a kid and cannot play these games. I've tried, it's a mess. It is like navigating the etiquette of a foreign culture and is unsatisfying for everyone involved.
  • You know what's a great setting? Warhammer 40K.

    I played a Warhammer 40K LARP on Saturday. I'd had no previous experience with the setting. It's fabulously detailed, so my lack of setting knowledge should have excluded me from the LARP.

    But, actually, it's really easy to pick up. For example, there are people called psykers. You can guess what they do, without explanation. There are chaos gods and tyrannids. You may not quite not know what they do, but they're bad. There's an Inquisition. You know what that does.

    So there you go. That's an anecdote, which I will call a "data point" to make it sound useful.
  • Yeah, Warhammer is a glorious kitchensink of tropes. Even if you don't know the setting, you probably do, because everything that's in there has been cribbed from elsewhere and wrapped in a nice bundle of cliches. If you explore it more in depth, there's actually a lot of obscure and "insider" lore, but the general feel of it is very recognizable and easy to adopt.

    Another "data point", very similar to Jason and Nolan's comments about comics: Danger Patrol. I tried to communicate to the group that the game was inspired by old pulp shows and serials. I showed them a bunch of pics from The Shadow, Doc Savage, Weird Tales, all that stuff. We even watched an old Flash Gordon serial before the game, with spaceships, rayguns, ancient temples all that. Then we start the game and at least one person was totally off, colour-wise. Frex, he made his weapon a nail-gun. He didn't get into the vibe. We accepted his contributions, of course, but everyone felt it was off and said so.

    Which raises an interesting tangent: How important celebrating the source material really is to Danger Patrol?

    I don't think I have a point, just "wow, this is really interesting to think about."
  • Another good example of this sort of thing: people being totally mystified by Dying Earth or Amber if they haven't read the source material. The first time I tried to play Amber with people it was just... wrong. The game book itself makes for a decent replacement for reading the novels, but is quite a read in and off itself. Another genre example of a slippery slope is "anime."
    Back when BESM was still in its first edition we brain-stormed this game about a crazy band that toured around the country and each different band mate would be this crazy character type. There was a vampire and some kind of alien and a ki-energy-ball throwing martial artist. My character was a robot girl who could turn into a drum machine and grow to giant kaiju-like proportions. The first game session theres a gun fight and I had my character simply ignore the flying bullets and start talking to one of the shooters all innocent and confused. This seemed very "anime" to me, but the GM responded by having the guy shoot my character in the face, thus killing her completely. It seems that we had entirely different ideas of what was and was not an "anime" thing to do.
  • Expectation clash can be huge, like that, or very small and niggling.

    Some people dislike cussing in Star Wars games ("these movies are PG!"), whereas I think the relevant equation is profanity + Star Wars = comedy.

    I haven't found a lot of ways to get people on the same page for everything, though a nice thorough relaxed discussion beforehand can really benefit. When I told my current group that I saw Firefly as primarily a Western, not a science fiction show, it helped them see how I was going to approach it. (Bandits! Hats! Six-shooters!) And they were able to tell me how they were going to approach it too. Some had a more of a sf approach than I did, knowing it in advance let me know to let them lead me a little. My wife wanted to play one of those genetically experimented Whedon girlz and so I've been following her lead on that kind of thing.

    Nevertheless there is almost always going to be some situation in which someone goes somewhere you didn't expect. Sometimes this is a very good thing. ("I never thought of it, but yeah, the Sith philosophy really is based on cowardice and petulance, I can't believe nobody in the movies pointed that out.") Sometimes this, as you note, can be a bad thing. I think it's just the nature of imagination and taste. What I took away from reading a game might not be what you took away from it. I read In A Wicked Age and immediately thought of The Shield, not swords-and-sorcery fantasy, and I'm probably not the most wacky person ever to read IAWA.
  • Posted By: TeataineWhich raises an interesting tangent: How important celebrating the source material really is to Danger Patrol?
    This IS an interesting tangent. Already as a big fan of pulp sci-fi, Danger Patrol initially was like a really cool concept that I wanted to jump into right away. Before even playing the first time, I could imagine the different possibilities and exploits that I wanted to play.

    ...and then my friends got a hold of it.

    Now, I should say, each time we played Danger Patrol, it was always a hoot. But among my friends, I'm probably the only one with a real fondness for the pulp sci-fi genre. Of the regular players, one had the mentality of four-color superheroes, one leaning towards the movie Equilibrium, and two who were distinctly Frank Miller SinCity in style. Yet, despite these differing approaches to the game, and my tale-weaving in the style of Buck Rogers and the Green Hornet, we were able to have a lot of fun. Well, I should say one of the Frank Miller-ites always seemed kinda bored (and he's not really the Story Game type of person), but he still contributed. But the result was nothing what anyone really expected to get from the game (and it actually usually devolved into silliness and parody of all the above).

    I think where I'm going with this is, as long as you have a good, solid system that gets people involved, it really isn't important to be completely in-tune with the background concepts. And, sometimes it helps if there are subtitles or little explanations here or there. That would've probably helped me enjoy Amber more than I did.
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