Monday, January 19, 2009

She's Not Heavy, She's My Setting!

I know, I'm hilarious.

This topic has actually been one of some consternation in the Burning Zeppelin household. The Abigail and I have been arguing about the concept of narrative weight. I suppose I hope - just a little - that by writing it out I'll be able to articulate my thoughts more clearly and bring a little peace to my home. We'll see.

What do I mean by narrative weight? I mean the details, the clumsy meat and gristle that gets attached to the pure, simple skeleton of themes and motifs that make up a setting. Now, if you were paying attention to that last sentence you know that narrative weight isn't a bad thing. Though it can sometimes be awkward to have too much flesh (which is why I'm a member of Weight Watchers, which I incidentally recommend without reservation to anyone trying to lose weight), your skeleton won't move without it. The same holds true of narrative weight. For all that you admire the grace and simplicity of the skeleton, it's those little details that make the skeleton dance.

But what is narrative weight made of? When do you have too much and need to put your story, setting, roleplaying game, or whatever on Weight Watchers and when do you have too little and need to buy it a narrative cheeseburger? That is the real question.

I will attempt to lead by example. Of the many roleplaying games I have mentioned in this blog, three stand out as prime examples of narrative weight in various positions: Weapons of the Gods, Dogs in the Vineyard, and Exalted.

Exalted stands on one end of the spectrum with a truly massive amount of narrative weight. The themes of Exalted are power and responsibility (and corruption, of course) and the danger and opportunity presented by a world on the edge of disaster. The motifs include high-flying, anime-inspired martial arts action, impossibly powerful sorcery, improbable fantasy technology, and a corrupt and decadent empire living on the ruins of an even bigger, more corrupt, more decadent empire of the past. However, although that is a somewhat large and unweildy thematic skeleton, that's not where the real weight is. The real weight is in everything that has been added to the game since it's inception. Exalted has five factions of Exalts - super-powered heroes and villains chosen by the gods and demons of the game to save or damn the world - each of which is chosen by a different deity or group of deities, each with different powers, goals, and responsibilities. White Wolf has provided a huge wealth of setting material, informatio on the cultures, practices, beliefs, and standard of living in various parts of the world.

I wouldn't say that Exalted is a bad setting; in fact, it's one of my favorites. However, it is, undeniably, heavy.

On the other hand, we have a very similar game, Weapons of the Gods. Ostensibly based on a Chinese comic book, Weapons of the Gods is another high-flying kung fu action game. However, it is much lighter than Exalted. The themes: power and responsibility and the dangers and opportunities afforded by living with one foot in society and one foot outside of it. The motif: high powered kung fu action. Note that it doesn't take me nearly as many words to describe Weapons of the Gods's themes and motifs. The weight... not much. The setting is described in broad strokes, with many options that could interellate, but don't necessarily. Or, rather, those interellations are not detailed. Absent, for example, are powerful gods who empower and therefore take an interest in player characters. Instead, each character is simply an ordinary person who chose to empower himself through kung fu. Also absent is a single corrupt empire that defines the setting. Instead, there is a corrupt empire - the fading remains of an empire that once claimd the Mandate of Heaven - and several other kingdoms, clans, societies, and factions. Again, the relationships are not detailed, only hinted at. Finally, there isn't a huge amount of detail about the setting. This is mythic China. The people live like the mythic Chinese did. They are farmers and cow herders, pretty much everywhere, with a few merchants and nobles living in luxury. That's all you really need to know to play the game.

This doesn't mean that Weapons of the Gods is a better game, just a lighter game. There's less to it. A Weapons of the Gods character can more easily embody the game's themes because they are closer to the surface.

On the third hand (third hand?) we have Dogs in the Vineyard, an example of a setting so light it's practically anemic. In very broad strokes, the author paints a picture of a wild west (specifically, Utah) that never was, with groups that are allegorical to the American government, the Mormons, and the Native Americans living in an uneasy equilibrium. Other than a few details about the theology of the pseudo-Mormons, that's it. That's all she (well, he) wrote. The rest is left to the imagination. The themes are faith and morality and dealing with the burdens of being a moral authority.

I think it's pretty easy to see how the themes of Dogs in the Vineyard are right there, on the surface. Just to be fair, I'll also point out that Dogs in the Vineyard has some problems due to it's enormous lightness. Just reading Dogs in the Vineyard I sometimes find it hard to figure out what I'm supposed to do with it. The characters wander from place to place, solving moral dilemmas (and getting into badass gun fights, and possibly encountering supernatural evil, if that's your bent), but the book doesn't supply any advice on how to make it any more complicated than that. Exalted and, to a lesser extent, Weapons of the Gods, is full of a huge plethora of plot hooks. With those games, it's hard not to know what to do with them.

Being a setting-building (and setting writing) concept, the idea of weight applies to fiction as well as roleplaying. When a setting is portrayed in broad strokes, a minimalist masterpiece that gives you just enough information to know where the characters are and what they're doing, it's light. Works of urban fantasy, where most of the world is just the ordinary world we live in, like War for the Oaks, comes to mind. Heavy literature include worlds where the setting is huge and rich, full of conflicting themes and tiny details. Pretty much anything by Ursula Le Guin seems an appropriate example, but I'll keep it concrete by giving you a link to The Left Hand of Darkness.

The problem is applying this concept elsewhere. Can a character be heavy, for example?

I'm still mulling this concept over. My thought is that characters have 'weight' directly related to where they connect to the setting. Does she connect to the setting in terms of its themes, or does she also have numerous entanglements with the setting's assorted chaff? I'm not sure, yet, how to measure this aspect of the concept, but it seems that it might be useful and compelling.

Fiction, on the other hand, is an easy transition. We all know the difference between light and heavy stories. The fairy tale is the quintessential light story. A well-written fairy tale is all themes and no details, a simple allegory conveyed with sparse, evocative prose. Of course, fairy tales are probably too light. Like light and airy snacks, they are tasty, even memorable, but a diet of them would leave me wanting more. For heavy, greasy fantastic fiction, consider The Wheel of Time. Case in point. There's something clunky about the Wheel of Time and it's cousins, even when they are more tightly written than Jordan's work. At the same time, there is something enormously satisfying about them.

I think I've outlined my thoughts on the matter as they stand now. I hope you enjoyed my post.

* * *

  • Have you ever encountered the concept of narrative weight in your own work? Have you ever written anything you can now identify as "heavy" or "light?"
  • What about in books and roleplaying games? What have you read that was a good example of heavy and light?
  • Is this concept compelling for you? Does it explain anything, or did I just run off my metaphorical mouth for two pages?


Albert said...

the book doesn't supply any advice on how to make it any more complicated than that.

Believe it or not, you don't. The characters wander from town to town resolving the situations that you built using the Town Creation procedures, with the GM tailoring each town to push harder on the buttons he discovered from the previous towns. At some point, your characters have grown so much that their story is done, so you end it. That's it.

Plot hooks, things the characters do; the real meat of that lies in the town creation procedure. Unlike Exalted, the setting isn't the set of active narrative forces, it's just the place where your stuff will happen.

Ben said...

I've encountered something similar to this concept. I've heard authors and readers talk about how much research to put in to a book, about a book that got too tedious or heavy because the author didn't know when to stop putting in details from their research. I've never read a book like that, personally. R. Scott Bakker's "Prince of Nothing" series is pretty heavy. You just get dropped into this complicated, messy world with very little coddling. Another roleplaying game that's extremely light is Polaris. I've always wanted to try it but never had the chance. Same with Dogs in the Vineyard.

Anonymous said...


I'm aware that the game functions beautifully with the setting exactly as shallow as it is, but it doesn't appeal to everyone. Some people like a little more meat in their games.


Polaris just wasn't my thing. Not because of the light setting, but for other reasons.

I've never read Bakker but you are right about how excessively well-researched books can become tedious.