Dynamic Hexcrawl: More Thoughts On Aesthetics

Man, I have been slacking on writing. Altogether. It's not just a blog thing. I could lie to you all and talk about how I have no free time anymore, that all the shit I'm doing is eating up all my writing time, but that's nothing like the truth. The truth is purely and simply that I've not been writing like I should because I've allowed far too many things to distract me. So, let's get back to the dynamic hexcrawl, shall we?

When last I wrote, I talked about the importance of establishing an aesthetic for your dynamic hexcrawl. Since then (it was more than a week ago now; again, I've been slacking), I've had a few more thoughts about aesthetic and figured they'd be worth sharing. Well, at least I hope they're worth sharing.

Not Just One Aesthetic

Here's a wizard I drew for Ripley
Stonebrook's next issue of
Lair of Swords & Sorcery
You will probably need more than one aesthetic. You may have one overarching aesthetic, with several, smaller sub-aesthetics beneath it. You may have very different aesthetics that butt up against each other and exist as diametrically opposed, mutually-exclusive counterpoints to one another. You can have one, you can have five, you can have one thousand. All of that makes no difference. All in all, you will have to have enough different aesthetics that you can answer the question "What's it like?" for each time things are different.

Case in point, the Iron Coast campaign has its specific over-arching aesthetic, but underneath that umbrella, many other aesthetics butt heads. There are religously syncretic vikings over here and this what they are like. There are embattled colonialist merchants who've turned to voodoo over here and this is what they are like. There are brain-slave theocrats dying in their devotion to alien gods over here and this is what they are like. Beneath it all is the World Below, a mythic subterranean wonderland full of strange and nightmarish creatures and this is what it is like. Adjacent to the real world is the Dreaming Dimension, home of the elves and their fabled city of Alvlantesk, and this is what it is like, and this and this and this. There are as many different aesthetics in use in the Iron Coast as I need to answer the simple question "what is it like?" wherever the PCs are and whomever, whatever they're interacting with. That having been said, the core aesthetic -- what makes the Iron Coast the Iron Coast rather than any other campaign -- is the true guide and all of these sub-aesthetics have to fit within it.

The Aesthetic Justifies Itself

I've started writing this part several times, and I think I keep failing at it. Hopefully this time it won't suck as bad. Here goes.

Another wizard for Lair. This one feels a little
more Elric-y
In the game, there are no truths that we, the collected players and DM of said game, do not create and, to one degree or another, agree to. There is no objective world in which our adventures occur, no hyperreal substratum in which facts and stats and adventures inhere. Instead we agree to a collective fiction, surrendering some of our agency to make decisions about what is real within the context of the game to the DM in order to have, you know, adventures that we don't have complete control over, preserving the mystery and tension and FUN of the game.

Where things get shaky is when we start building WORLDS, because somewhere between World of Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms, we got all hoity-toity about "world building" and attaching some insane primacy to the creation of a series of facts that exist independent of being experienced by adventurers. In other words, shit that is not the game. Because, as I've said before, the game happens at the table. I know there are DMs out there who do all this prep -- like, insane amounts of prep, right +Donn Stroud? -- and who seem to enjoy this sort of shit more than actually gaming. That's cool, whatever, write your novel. It won't help you at the table. And the table is where the game is, nowhere else.

When I started talking about aesthetics underpinning everything within a dynamic hexcrawl, there are some folks who balked, and some folks who dug what I laid down, but then paraphrased it incorrectly. Establishing a central aesthetic for a game doesn't help you in the game, from a DM's standpoint, it is the game. Every decision you make as a DM stems from the aesthetic, stems from the decisions you made that things are like this. The aesthetic you establish is the primal reality of your game in a way that no list of pretend facts or random tables or dungeon keys ever can be. It is the wellspring from which all of the DM's art pours.

It's not just here to "set the mood" or "create immersion" or anything like that.

It is the game.