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The problem

What are the best practices to overcome that certain “complexity paralysis” that may strike a GM when trying to learn and immerse himself in a setting that has a lot of intricate background information?

An example

For example, let’s say you’re a GM who decides to give a try to running Shadowrun for the first time in your life (no matter how experienced you are in other games and/or settings.) You settle on an edition — only to realize that the game has been around for decades, and it has so much background info it could fill half the Encyclopædia Britannica (well, not literally, obviously, but you get the point).

Hesitatingly, you decide to get some focus, cut away a huge chunk of the looming material, and set your story in Redmond, Seattle. Sure, you get an official handbook for Seattle, and read through it (quickly, because gaming night is upon you) — but in doing so, you discover that there are tons of relevant, related sourcebooks (like... on magic, critters, the matrix, cyberware, etc.).

Sure, you can ignore the sourcebooks and go for a minimal approach... but even so, when you start designing your adventure (already feeling out of touch with the world of Shadowrun simply because of knowing how much you don’t know), you realize that besides the setting info, there are tons of in-game factors to consider, think through, and work into even the simplest campaign. Corporate politics and workings, magical aspects and relationships, shadow politics, gang politics and workings, the nuances of running the shadows, and so on. Of course, without reading as much as possible of the official sourcebooks, you’ll have no idea about the existence of a ton of factors — as if the sketchy stuff you learned from the core rulebook and the city sourcebook weren’t complicated enough.

And, by this time, you’re gripped by the title’s setting complexity paralysis. You’d love to run the game, but you feel you have no real idea how stuff should work, and no time (let alone a reliable entry point) into the hypercomplicated, cross-referenced lore. And with that, you return to running something you know, be it a world you’ve been following since its inception or one that you’ve built yourself. You skip running Shadowrun.

Mind you, I’m definitely not looking for answers focused on Shadowrun. It’s just an example. (Sure, it’s okay if you use it as an example for general suggestions.) I could practically have brought up quite a number of other worlds. Star Wars EU. WoD & nWoD. The Forgotten Realms. Warhammer FRP. And so on, and so on.

Summary

What I’m looking for is methods that help you, the GM, through this “setting complexity paralysis”, this disheartening and disappointing block that hits you when you face a huge amount of background material without which your game won’t feel authentic, just a bad copy, an alternate universe of an alternate universe.

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I'm inclined to say, "start with just the core material/first published book", but I'm sure you have thought of that already, so can you explain, in your question, why that won't work for you? –  GMNoob Aug 24 at 10:18
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@GMNoob Because everything else is there already, and you want to be as authentic as possible. This, I believe, is already there in my Q ("Sure, you can ignore the sourcebooks...") -- and I'm not sure how I could put it differently. I'll try and think of a different angle, and will update the Q if I manage to come up with one. :) –  OpaCitiZen Aug 24 at 10:30
    
Ah, when you wrote "ignore the sourcebooks" I thought you meant ignore all sourcebooks entirely, not ignore the extra sourcebooks beyond the basics. Perhaps change it to "Sure, you can ignore the extra splat books.." ? –  GMNoob Aug 24 at 10:33
    
@GMNoob I think that's strongly implied. The preceding paragraph says that you do go as far as reading a single city book (or something similarly relevant, considering that this is just an example), and that it's exactly reading that single book that makes you realize how much more is out there that you should read to achieve an acceptable level of authenticity (acceptable for both yourself, and for your players, who might be ahead of you by a few novels or something.) –  OpaCitiZen Aug 24 at 10:41
    
Ah I see, that that wasn't clear to me before. Thanks –  GMNoob Aug 24 at 10:45

7 Answers 7

without which material your game won't feel authentic, just a bad copy, an alternate universe of an alternate universe.

I started writing an answer about how to narrow down and use a small, immediate bit of setting to get a small, immediate situation, and I came back and read this part again.

That's your problem. You have a strong commitment to setting fidelity, but you're realizing that the setting is, for many of the games you're looking at, in fact, massive and probably more work than what you're willing to do for a new game, or possibly a short run.

You end up with two choices:

1) Only play games that have very minimal setting so you don't have to study and wade through a massive amount of text to get fidelity to setting.

2) Give up on requiring hard setting fidelity so you can work with a more reasonable amount for play.

One of the problems I've watched over and over again with massive settings is for nearly every group, it makes it harder to coordinate rather than easier - because you end up with a massive disparity between the hardcore players ("Well, on page 22 of the Silmarillion...") and everyone else who hasn't read as much, and the differences even between those groups.

This is also true when it comes to GMing that kind of game - you're already having to learn the rules, manage pacing, NPCs, etc. and also juggle setting details for fidelity? It's really no wonder most GMs burn out trying to do all of that.

"Authenticity" to the setting is not an issue - coordinating a common setting in play for you and your group is what's going to matter.

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+1 to this. Also, setting mistakes are generally easy to fix. If the setting really is that complex, chances are a lot of that complexity manifests itself in background details that only rarely come up, and which can be safely retconned into a campaign without any effect on the established details of your game. Anything else can just be worked out with the players as needed. –  GMJoe Aug 25 at 4:33

Short answer is start from the bottom and advance upward. That is instead of jumping into a massive open sandbox campaign from the start you set the game in a very small and narrow sub setting. Now I don't know Shadowrun but if I'm allowed to use Forgotten Realms as an example that too is a huge and massive world with lots of information. However, if you start off your adventure in a secluded village with a single specific problem you won't need 99.99% of all the available information.

Then as your players move around and up in the world you can just look up the necessary info for the moment and keep ignoring the rest until it slowly becomes relevant.

Also the players themselves will restrict the scope of the campaign by their actions. If they are just a bunch of murder hobos that are just interested in plundering dungeons then you'll never need any information about politics and social settings.

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Starting from the bottom is a cool technique worth remembering. Thanks. (However, it isn't suited for every setting. To stay with my example, though doable, it's pretty hard to execute in Shadowrun without severely limiting player choices at character creation.) –  OpaCitiZen Aug 24 at 11:08
    
not really, if you're talking about SR5. I mean, there are some niche builds that won't work without specific splat books (Offensive Healer adept comes to mind, with the two core powers coming from Run and Gun and Bullets and Bandages), but other than taking away some specialty weapons (and the Rain Forest Carbine, my favorite weapon ever) and armors, most build options are fine with just the corebook. –  gatherer818 Aug 24 at 12:51
    
@gatherer818 I'm not really talking about build options (guns, armor, various wares, traits, whatever.) :) I'm talking about the internal workings of a setting, primarily. Adding or leaving out yet another gun doesn't matter. Not knowing what, for example, the extraterritoriality of the megacorps really means likely matters more (unless you're playing a shoot'em up, which is nice, but you could play that in any system, it won't really be Shadowrun without the fluff.) And maybe SR5 hasn't detailed that yet, but it's there in the novels and previous rulebooks... and it moves the whole SR world. –  OpaCitiZen Aug 24 at 19:44

I'm currently struggling with this because I'm getting into Glorantha, which is one of the Big Three settings (Tékumel and Hârn are the other two). The Big Three dwarf even settings typically considered huge, like the Forgotten Realms, and it's daunting to try to figure out how to eat this aircraft carrier, let alone how to prepare some of its most choice bits for my players.

Two things have helped me immensely:

  1. My setting will vary.

    This isn't a choice I'm making, it's an inevitable fact that the Glorantha community hammers into newcomers, and it's true of all campaign settings. It's impossible to create and play adventures in a setting that are 100% true to existing canon, because there are always details that you have to make up and those will be different than what the creators would have put there. They might even contradict your decisions with a future book! At some point during play, you will say something that contradicts canon, and that's OK. It's true for this game, and the play's the thing!

    This is true of all settings that see actual play. And you want to see actual play with this setting, right? That means you have to hold your nose and jump into the messiness of actually using the material, knowing that you're going to "break" things by playing with them. That's okay though: a toy left in it's pristine packaging isn't a toy, it's a collector's item. If you just want to read and enjoy the setting as a written artifact, you can totally do that and that's a valid consumer choice! But if you want to play with it, you have to let your toys get marker on them and sandbox sand in their joints. Toys that are played with inevitably change from how they were originally crafted. It's the nature of play.

    (Fortunately, when it comes to settings you can have your cake and eat it too: you can appreciate the setting as a literary creation as well as play with it, so you can keep a collector's item and have a toy copy to play with. Scratches your toys get won't change the literary canon, and your appreciation of the canon will inform your play organically as you exert your creative muscles during play.)

  2. You don't have to eat the whole cow.

    A big, complex campaign setting isn't something to consume in its entirety before regurgitating it to your players. It is raw material to use in your actual table-time gameplay. If a bit of material is not getting used, it is fundamentally useless. If that bit of material is actively preventing play, it is worse than useless. You have to—for the moment—abandon the urge for authenticity that your love of the setting inspires in you, and instead go for pragmatic utility.

    Instead of trying to portray the setting to your players as a perfect, untouchable jewel (see how unplayable that sounds?), treat it as a massive treasure pile to mercilessly pillage for bits and pieces as you need them.

That's the theory and mental gymnastics to get back into a useful frame of mind. But how about practical advice?

Zoom in. Break it down.

No game will ever use all material from a big setting. Pick a spot that interests you, and ask yourself "What is here?"

You can answer that question however you like, drawing on stuff you've already digested about the setting and your own novel creations. You don't have to respect the canon over your own creations either, since this isn't about Perfect Jewel Setting Appreciation (PJSA), it's about getting the toys out of their packaging and into the backyard to produce Fun™.

Your answers will prompt more questions. Answer them in the same way. Build out your own imagination as you prepare your notes for playing in this area. Not only will you achieve freedom from the PJSA paralysis, but you'll also have the details relevant to playing here closer to your fingertips than if you were relying on the pre-written canon as your reference.

There was a great thread on Story Games about exactly this process: how to zoom in on a big, complex setting and create something that's table-level gameable: Giant Detailed Settings And Story-Gaming! (Don't worry about the "story-gaming" in the title. It turned out to actually be about the GM prep that's universal to GM'd RPGs.) I discovered the thread earlier this month and reading it has massively de-escalated my GM paralysis around how to play in Glorantha.

The executive summary of the article is:

  1. Pick a setting, any setting. You don't even need to know anything about it for this to work—knowing stuff is bonus.
  2. Pick a place in it. You can pick by opening the book to a random page or by choosing it, it doesn't matter, the method works regardless.
  3. Read the introductory blurb about the place.
  4. Reading nothing more, chop that up into four factions. You might be making stuff up about something mentioned merely in passing at this point to get four, but that's OK. The point of this is that you're thinking local now, instead of global. The paralysis is abating already...
  5. Take two of these factions and ask how they could be in conflict over or via a third. Leave the fourth in reserve. This is your campaign premise.

    (This might sounds like you're about to embark on a scripted campaign, but it doesn't—if you're wanting to run a sandbox, you need situation and moving parts as context, and this gives you that. But yeah, if you're going to make a plotted campaign, this gives you your plot frame. It's flexible.)

  6. Now expand your idea by going and mining the setting for related details. Again, the big setting will provide raw material, but you'll be crafting with them: bending, cutting, folding them and providing the glue ideas.
  7. You now have a situation that's big enough to generate dozens or more of sessions of play, and local enough to be actually playable. And you're really familiar with it!
  8. This step is whatever your usual campaign-preparation and first-adventure-writing process is, now that you've broken past the GM paralysis of the big setting.
  9. Go play!

The point of the summary is more to show how simple it can be to use a Big Damn Setting for actual play. The actual thread is well worth reading in its entirety for the discussion of the method and related issues. But for convenience, here are direct links to the [four] posts the method and some of its commentary is spread across (these don't correspond to the number above, that was just my own breakdown of the process): 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.

But what about incorporating material later?

You're creative, you'll figure out how to incorporate material that you're excited by into your ongoing campaign when you come to actually doing it.

This is one of those things that is only worrying when you're not actually facing it, and is obvious how to tackle when you get to it. For now, remember only this: the material is incomplete before it hits actual play, and needs your creative decisions about how to use it, in order to be gameable. Big settings are saying, "You complete me!"

Relapse will happen

You will keep struggling with the desire to preserve and represent to your players the perfect jewel that is the canon. You can't help it, you love the setting. But as often as you need to remind yourself of it (and I need it a lot): remind yourself that your actual-play setting must and will be different than your canon-appreciation setting, by the very nature of having the privilege of playing in it.

Just think of all those GMs out there who are actively running this setting: they're out there breaking it! They're getting marker on their Barbie dolls and sand in their vintage Transformers, because that's what play requires. Be envious of the GMs who get to actually play in this setting. Make a personal talisman of this envy. Work that envy up real high so that it will motivate you, too, to break the setting out of its bubble package so that you can join them.

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This is excellent. The precise instructions are cool, and the "Be envious of the GMs..." part is brilliant. Thank you. However, when I tried to visit the site you linked, my browser has given me a warning saying "You attempted to reach www.story-games.com, but instead you actually reached a server identifying itself as *.gridserver.com. (...)" Have you encountered the same, or is this a very recent problem? –  OpaCitiZen Aug 24 at 20:37
    
@OpaCitiZen They appear to have a configuration problem with their web host, in that the hosting company is using their own security certificate for the site instead of getting one properly signed for the site. It's harmless in this case, but wigs out browsers as they are (justifiably) paranoid about that kind of thing. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 24 at 20:41
    
Ok, thanks. I know (the bare minimum about) how certificates and these discrepancies work, yet I tend to shy away from sites with such misconfigurations. Just like my browser, I'm rather paranoid about things like that, especially with sites I've never seen before. :) –  OpaCitiZen Aug 24 at 20:48
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@OpaCitiZen Me too. I happen to personally know the site is trustworthy, but that doesn't really help others. I'd forgotten about the certificate problem when I used that link in this answer. I just left a comment in their thread about the January server change asking if they know about it / plan to fix it. It makes the site rather unfriendly... And they're not indexable by the Wayback Machine, so I don't have a mirrored link in the meantime. :-/ –  SevenSidedDie Aug 24 at 20:52
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I wish I could give this more than a single up-vote... It just helped me solve nearly the exact same problem! –  thanby Aug 25 at 15:33

When I am overloaded with too much setting material, I head online instead. Normally in the various play by post forums, or other forums and wiki articles online, I'll be able to find a summary of the important information.

Here is what I look for when skimming:

  • Adventure introductions in PbP game advertisements such as those on Myth-Weavers. These normally give me a good idea of what key terms I'm missing, and what setting specific knowledge I'll want to look into to run the adventure.
  • Try to stick to published adventures and then alter them if something doesn't look fun. By sticking to a published adventure, you'll normally have most of the information you need in the adventure, or at least enough to know where to look when a question comes up.
  • Keep notes of what you don't know enough about. If there is a topic which just looks too large to investigate clearly, make a note of it. If the topic comes up in play, don't be afraid to say, "I'll give you an answer to that next session."
  • Look for wikis that summarize enough to make you sound like you know what you are talking about, and then slowly build up your knowledge over time.
  • Make note of the source materials that are most often quoted, so you know which splat books will give you the most utility.

Only after I've gotten a good idea of what I can get from online do I then look to purchase books and read the detailed information myself and build up my knowledge base.

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Starting on the web and looking for introductions and summaries is a great option. I haven't thought of PbP game advertisements / sites (I've never played them), they could prove rather useful indeed. The other tips are cool as well. Thanks. –  OpaCitiZen Aug 24 at 11:05

When I use heavily developed RPG settings like Shadowrun and the Forgotten Realms, I deal with setting fidelity in a couple of ways.

Use an underdeveloped part of the setting

Even the richest, novel-laden settings have thin spots. Some regions just aren’t detailed as well as others. Some parts of the metaplot lie fallow for ages. Often, all you need to do is ignore the game’s canonical “home base” city. For example, set your Shadowrun game in your home town instead of Seattle. If you get away from the most popular parts of the setting, you can get some information while still leaving yourself breathing room.

I set my own Shadowrun game in the San Francisco Bay Area. While there is a fair bit of setting material for California Free State and the Bay Area, most of it is old and out of print, effectively ancient history. The important bits are summarized briefly in the core rulebook and the Sixth World Almanac. There’s more information out there if I want it, but I don’t need to worry about it in a current-era campaign unless I want to.

Many campaign settings deliberately leave some regions undeveloped to help GMs who prefer a blank slate. For example, early versions of the Forgotten Realms setting deliberately left some of the Dalelands unspecified so that GMs could do whatever they wanted, although later on that got dragged into the metaplot too. Which brings me to my second point.

Accept that your campaign is an alternate timeline

Any time you use somebody else’s setting, you run the risk that later developments will conflict with established facts in your own campaign. Even if you meticulously research every current fact about the setting, the metaplot can change things out from under you at any time. Sometimes, the metaplot makes for a fun surprise twist on the campaign, but sometimes it just stomps on your plans instead. Don’t worry about it, that’s just an alternate timeline. If you ever do a full reset and start over, you can realign yourself with setting developments then.

The same thing can happen when you pick up an old setting book for a new region, and you discover that the stuff you made up doesn’t fit with established history. Again, you can use the alternate timeline technique – or (this is perfect for Shadowrun) you can claim that the old setting book is full of propaganda and revisionist history, and your players know the truth.

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Notably, the authors of those novels do the first. Salvatore's underrated Cleric Quintet is set in (what was at the time) a tiny smudge of land inside a giant blank on the maps and lore. Icewind Dale was only a bit more than a name before he got ahold of it, and so was much of the Underdark and drow culture. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 24 at 19:11

We have a saying in the software industry. (One that seems to be less and less heeded as the years go by, but I digress). It's called "YAGNI": "You ain't gonna need it."

What this means is that by sheer scope of the setting, you have to start with the bits that are the most relevant to your PCs and work outward. This is especially true with a setting that has the weight of so much canon; not just Shadowrun, but say Star Wars. Are you going to read every sourcebook, watch every movie, the entire five seasons of The Clone Wars, plus the micro series, and then read every Extended Universe novel in existence to have a complete grasp of the setting? Okay, then oh bugger; someone just released a new splatbook/novel/whatever. Your work is never done.

Read the core rulebook and start there, then if you insist on bringing in extra stuff, focus on the stuff relevant to your characters. If there's no mages in the party, skip the Extended Magic Handbook (with over nine thousand new spells that we in no way simply threw together to make more money from GMs who gotta buy 'em all!) and simply work off of the core magic rules for any mages who you use as NPCs. You don't need to know how every corp works and interacts in the setting, especially if your runners only work for BigCo. You just need to know who BigCo's rivals/enemies are and work with those.

So, in short, you have to start small. Eventually you will probably get to know all of the canon, but as you've noticed... if you try to swallow it all at once you're just gonna puke. Especially since YAGNI.

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You have expressed two conflicting goals. In a comment:

you want to be as authentic as possible

in the question:

read through it (quickly, because gaming night is upon you)

You would not expect to be able to write a historical novel set in the court of King Edward IV of England that is "as authentic as possible" with a quick skim of a history book. There are arbitrarily many matters of background flavour that could arise (do people use forks? Handkerchiefs? Habitually speak English or French?), some of which would be covered in an introductory history book, but inevitably some would require further and perhaps difficult research if you needed to use them. Aside from this there's the politics -- depending on the date, the Earl of Warwick might completely support the King or completely oppose him or (spoiler alert) be dead.

So fundamentally you need to change your goals. If you want to run a game that draws on 25 years of published in-game history, you need to forget about running it this week and steep yourself in the background material. Maybe you should run a different game for a while, that requires less prep, while reading about Shadowrun online and in however many of the books you can afford. Once you have a command of the material, run Shadowrun. The way you avoid complexity paralysis is by taking the time needed.

However, it's not "wrong" to run Shadowrun in a different style. Pick up the basic books plus whatever you most like the look of, run it as far as is written in those books and invent anything you like or need. Buy more books as and when you feel like, and if anything in these new (to you) books contradicts a GM call you've made, or a character or setting you've invented, then your game is not "authentic" and your call overrules the published material. So be it. Maybe your second Shadowrun campaign will be closer to canon. That is how most people start playing in an established setting. The way you avoid complexity paralysis is by making your own call, accepting that it might contradict canon.

Naturally this leads to a few unrealistic results: not using a book that you know exists, because you haven't read it yet, is a restriction on the setting. You buy the Rigger Black Book, and suddenly both the PCs and their antagonists have ready access to vehicles that simply didn't exist in your game before. You can worry about this: introduce the new kit gradually over time, claiming that when you introduce it is when it hits the market, or manipulate the game such that buying the RBB coincides with the rigger getting access to a new and better supplier. You can ignore it: just figure that the game world hasn't changed overnight but the things your game chooses to focus on have. Buying a new city book coincides with the group's first trip to that city, and so on. There might be NPCs or events in that city that could have affected the group's home city prior to that, but in a common convention of all kinds of fiction, the fact is they didn't affect the group until the narrative had time to introduce them properly :-)

Despite those glitches, this isn't really any different from playing the setting as published, since exactly the same thing happened to everyone's Shadowrun games when the first Rigger Black Book was published in 1991. I know that Shadowrun dealt with some of those issues by stating that the splat books were literally tracking improving technology as it appeared in the game world, but that didn't resolve all issues -- the canon position is not that the first ever Adept was trained on the date corresponding to when the Grimoire was published. Even if your game is 25 years behind the curve, and moving faster to catch up, it's not in any worse position than campaigns that tracked canon all along. Plus you don't have to worry about past splat resets due to each edition obsoleting previous ones, you can go straight to the 5th edition versions of everything.

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I don't think "read through it quickly" is actually a goal. It's just part of the story the question tells as one example of how enthusiasm for a big setting often turns into paralysis. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 24 at 19:15
    
@SevenSidedDie: well, I think the underlying goal is to start running the game shortly after deciding you like it. "Read through it quickly" is the way the questioner tries to achieve this rather than the goal itself, but still, it's the part I think the questioner has to let go of in order to respect thousands of pages of canon ;-) –  Steve Jessop Aug 25 at 12:55

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