Whether we are aware of it or not, our upbringing and life experiences have a dramatic influence on our perceptions. We carry those preconceptions into the fictional gaming worlds and then impose our preconceptions onto the world to make them fit our understanding. Not only are these preconceived ideas at odds with many game worlds, they can wash out the true colour and wonder of the worlds in which we game. Instead, we should seek to make each game world feel like a new vibrant world filled with new experience, rather than a collection of comfortable tropes.
We are What We Consume
If you are a gamer, chances are you also read a lot of books and watch a lot of fantasy/sci-fi movies. It is from those media that we gain our understanding of what another world might be like. Lord of the Rings is at the foundation of most Fantasy, providing the blueprint for elves, dwarfs, hobbits (halflings) and even orcs. We also use it, and similar worlds to interpret everything from how kingdoms are run through to how to properly wear a sword. The problem is, these stories are created to prioritise entertainment over realism.
To take just one example, everyone knows when you draw a sword it makes a *shing* sound, so in game, if you sneak up on someone to ambush them, you have to be careful to muffle the sound of your blade being drawn. Except this is entirely incorrect. Sheaths were made of leather and were often lined with a soft material like lamb’s wool. This not only kept the sword clean but it minimised wear on the blade. Noisy sheaths are a complete fabrication by movie makers to help let the audience know that a weapon is being drawn; it’s theatre, with zero basis in reality.
Why Preconceptions Need to be Challenged
One of the wonderful things about the role play hobby is the escapism from reality. Escaping into another world allows us to shed the burdens of reality and allows us to experience something truly unique and impossible to grasp without this story telling medium. The more you can distance yourself from the banality of daily life, the more you can immerse yourself into something new and fascinating.
Paradoxically, the more real and otherworldly you can make your campaign setting, the more imagination you can unleash. Originality also gives every campaign setting it’s own unique identity. What’s the difference between Mystara, Blackmoore, Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms? Sure you know they are different, but how and why are they different? Other than a few superficial things like notable NPCs and races, I doubt many people can describe what makes each unique fantasy setting feel different.
As a GM, or even a player, if you can find elements that make each campaign world stand out, then you can begin giving that world a unique identity of its own. Players will prefer one world over another not because of the different character types they can make, but because they love the unique type of immersion offered by that world. In essence, the game rules become secondary to the world setting. Any time you can make rules secondary to story, you’re doing well as a GM.
How to Find Your Preconceptions
Without a doubt the hardest thing to do is to uncover what your preconceptions are. Does a fish have a word for water when water is so constant they have never had to think about it? Of course not, they are a fish and don’t have a verbal language. You on the other hand should think about how you have come to understand certain things. Let’s start with a list of common perceptions people have, just to create some samples for discussion:
- Women play a supporting role in medieval settings.
- Crossbows can punch straight through plate armour.
- The katana is one of the most advanced blades ever created.
- Full plate armour was incredibly heavy.
- Vikings all came from the Scandinavian lands.
- Two handed swords are always worn in a sheath on the back because the blade would drag on the ground if worn on the hip.
- The dwarven double bit axe is based on the similar Norse axes.
- Swords were the primary weapons of the medieval age.
All pretty logical and believable right? It might surprise some people that all of the above preconceptions are in fact false, either wholly or in part. They are misconceptions which are either complete fabrications, or are from poorly informed historical assumptions based on erroneous preconceptions.
How to Dispel Preconceptions
The easiest way to overcome the media programming is to inform yourself. Read books, watch videos online and question everything. Never believe only one source and always critically challenge anything you learn. Learning about the pros and cons of various weapons from someone with years of LARPing experience should carry less weight than information from HEMA.
Be very careful to not just seek out information that supports what you want to believe. It’s really easy to find a ton of lies, misconceptions and just plain stupidity online to support any point. Always seek to disprove what you believe then carefully evaluate the logic behind the options.
To take an example from the list above let’s look at the weight of armour. It’s true that plate armour is heavy, and there are a couple of old pictures showing men helping an armoured warrior onto their steed. However, those pictures are of jousting armour which was excessively heavy so as to avoid injury. Logically, if armour was so heavy that a knight couldn’t stand on his own, then beating a knight would just be a matter of pushing him over. Modern recreations of armour using period techniques indicate that because the weight of armour is borne by the entire body it’s actually rather easy to move in.
Of course magic and other items of fantasy can counteract many real world things. Which is why the fantastical elements should be put under review as well. If magic is common then how does that change the world? If the Mend cantrip can mend any small article of damage then how is that going to affect the livelihoods of local craftsmen? Chances are, the crafters would go through the Guild, who in turn will approach their ruler, petitioning them to forbid mages from doing the work of craftsmen. Suddenly the Mend spell becomes forbidden magic in that kingdom.
Under any game system that uses level based progression, difficulty scaling would be something most people would understand. This is a good excuse for making sure adventures are level appropriate. Local officials would have a good idea what level party can handle threats like a warband of gnolls or a wandering red dragon. This style of Meta-gaming is likely to carry across other parts of society, such as people being happy to sell a home for cheaper if it means a high level character might take up residence in the area.
The point I’m hoping to make here is that good gaming can become great gaming if you put in the time to create a more detailed and believable world. How you portray a world has a massive impact of the immersion and originality of the setting.