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Episode 402: NBIMBY

July 3rd, 2020 | Robin

Beloved Patreon backer Bob Grider invites us into the Gaming Hut to discuss top-down vs bottom-up design.

Discerning Patreon backer Allen Wilkins invokes his Ask Ken and Robin powers to request a mash-up of Night’s Black Agents and The Prisoner.

The History Hut looks at Saskatchewan-born strongman Édouard Beaupré, aka Beaupré the Giant, and his excellent reasons for haunting Montreal. (Before you write in, Robin misspeaks at one point, referring to tuberculosis as “eradicated” instead of “brought under control.”)

Finally esteemed Patreon backer Wayne Rossi steps into the Archaeology Hut to ask Ken to discourse on a random item listed in the book Spooky Archaeology by Jeb Card, which the die roll decrees to be the Tomb of Maeshowe, in Orkney, Scotland.

Want to pose a question to the show? Get your priority question asking access with your support for the KARTAS Patreon!

Snag Ken and Robin merchandise at TeePublic.


You know your dance crew is the hottest around… but now it’s time to prove it. Breakdancing Meeples is a real-time dexterity game of, you guessed it, breakdancing meeples, designed by Ben Moy and published by Atlas Games. Two to four people, ages six and up, compete for dancefloor glory, in five exciting minutes.

You’ve heard him talk about it. Now you can get it at retail or in the Pelgrane Press store: The Yellow King Roleplaying Game. Shatter your world with this eerie, physically imposing GUMSHOE game of decadent art and multiple existences. For a limited time only, enter the voucher code YELLOW at the Pelgrane shop to get 15% off all Yellow King items when you combine the core set with Absinthe in Carcosa and/or The Missing and the Lost.

The treasures of Askfageln can be found at DriveThruRPG. Get all issues of FENIX since 2013 available in special English editions. Score metric oodles of Ken Hite gaming goodness, along with equally stellar pieces by Graeme Davis and Pete Nash. Warning: in English, not in Swedish. In English, not Swedish. While you’re at it, grab DICE and Freeway Warrior!

Arc Dream Publishing’s Shane Ivey brings you Swords and Sorceries, fifth edition adventure in a sea-swept world inspired by ancient myth. Seek your fortunes, or find gruesome death in the tombs of forgotten gods and evils best left buried. Seize all three adventures, Sea Demon’s Gold, Song of the Sun Queens, and Tomb of Fire, today!

3 Responses to “Episode 402: NBIMBY”

  1. Michael Cule says:

    I have never used ‘top-down or bottom-up’ in that sense. In RPGs I always use it to describe the two approachs to creating a setting.

    You will recall all the long lists of ancient ages of the world, dynasties and dates of battles that appeared in the early releases of settings like Harn, Tekumel and Glorantha. Everybody was in awe of and in imitation of Tolkien. It was the thing to do.

    But what actually makes the game work is how the player characters see the world, from the level of the street or the battlefield. They don’t care for the deep history except how it affects them. A barbarian in Robin’s Pavis game won’t care for the story of Harmast Barefoot: he will care that there’s a temple of Orlanth for him to attend.

    And in the real world, a civilian in a war zone won’t care about the history of the Austro-Sardinian war (let alone the Battle of Solferino) but he will care that there’s this thing called the Red Cross that will try to treat him, feed him and get him out of danger.

    So I tend, when I’m creating my own settings, to make the immediate starting environment of the player characters the detailed and interesting bit and leave the deep history to be filled in later as the demands of plot and character demand. (“Harry, did you know your character’s homeland is the hereditary enemy of Tony’s King? Well, it is now.”)

    I sometimes think there must be a more nuanced way to put this and a deeper, perhaps mixed approach and of course it doesn’t apply nearly as much if you go for ‘start with Earth’. Is there a middle way?

    • Douglas Sundseth says:

      “♪ On the thirteenth day of Christmas two sailors went insane. ♫”

      As to top-down vs. bottom-up, I have two different versions. For game design, I would use “bottom-up” to indicate a design from the details. E.g., the Runequest combat system was designed to provide something that felt more like what a bunch of early SCA players thought made more sense than the combat system of D&D: “Armor doesn’t keep you from being hit, it prevents damage. And combat rounds that last a full minute are silly; fights often take only seconds!” “Bottom-up” game design tends to fall afoul of chaotic elements (as in “chaos theory”), such that while each element is carefully designed to feel right and explicitly replicate the thing the designer finds most important, small problems at each step (and unrealized missing steps) usually end up with major problems in the final game. The difference in actual WWII combat between the US .30 cal. MG and the German MG-42, which had about 2½ times the rate of fire, was nothing like a 150% advantage for the German weapon.

      OTOH, “top-down” in that realm refers more to effect-driven design, so you start with the feel or results you want to get and then build whatever systems will support that, preferably without violating the expectations of your players too much. In general, that form of “top-down” design is much more common these days (at least among the bigger companies) than “bottom-up”. My understanding of the investigation systems of Gumshoe, for instance, is that they are designed to produce a specific gaming experience, not to explicitly replicate the experience of an actual investigator.

      For world design, I see those philosophies as well. The idea of starting with a full ‘living’ world design and then creating a game to fit in the world was very popular early on, in parallel with, or following the example of, Tolkien. Greg Stafford’s Glorantha and M.A.R. Barker’s Tekumel being famous and influential early examples of this style. That kind of world design is still pretty common in the published worlds of big gaming systems (see Pathfinder, Traveller, D&D, Vampire: the Masquerade, ….) To some extent, I think this is simply to meet the expectations of the customers.

      Like you, I’m not willing to go to that extent for a new campaign I’m designing. If the campaign is intended to be a Bildungsroman starring peasants from a small village, I might well start with only the village and one or two encounter sites and some vague notes for what else might exist. That sort of peasant might well not even know the name of his baron, count, or king, having never met anyone but tax collectors sent by those august personages. I can always add to the world around as the game progresses, and the amount of wasted work otherwise can be daunting. If your primary hobby is world design (see Barker and Stafford, for instance) rather than running games, full-featured world design is not a bug, but that does not describe me.

      That said, I think it’s worthwhile to consider a bit more than just the things closest to the PCs in many games. In a WWII game, for instance, while the average soldier isn’t likely to care much about Japanese participation in WWI, US mediation of the Boxer Rebellion and the Russo-Japanese War, or the French invasion of Germany in 1925, he is likely to know about the Munich Agreement of 1938, might well have read about the Schneider Trophy races, and probably cared deeply about some sporting competition or other.

      In Pavis, an adventurer will certainly care about where to repair or replace a broken sword, where to go to worship (and buy spirit magic), and which boarding houses have the fewest vermin. But he will also likely know that the Lunar Empire invaded a decade ago and was eventually kicked out. He and his friends might well have assigned the bad-guy role to the kid whose stick sword was least straight. And it’s pretty likely that he will have heard about the reason the River of Cradles is named what it is.

      In order for a GM to handle that kind of miscellaneous knowledge (and to foreshadow future events, of course), at least some of that should really be available from the start of the campaign. Fleshing out the details can be left until later, but I think it’s important to have at least some random bits of weirdness floating around from the start, both to give more atmosphere and to give the players something to work toward.

      My preference is to have at least some of the wider world and its history built in my head, including interesting (not necessarily important) details, but to put most of my effort into the things that will directly affect my players. Which I see as kind of a middle ground between true top-down and bottom-up world design.

  2. Coot says:

    I knew Jeb Card when he was a visiting scholar at Southern Illinois University in 2008-09. He’s a gamer! I remember talking about Call of Cthulhu with him. There are quite a few archaeologist gamers.

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