Monday, 23 December 2013

Creative Constraint and Beekeeping

An intermittent theme on my blog down the years (see e.g. here) has been creative constraint: how providing strict boundaries in terms of what the DM and players can create (particularly during the setting up of a new campaign) can actually allow imaginations and inspiration to flourish.

Take beekeeping. The latest Econtalk podcast is all about the economics of beekeeping. While it is wide-ranging and covers everything from how to transport bees to CCD (which means Colony Collapse Disorder - don't you know anything?) to externalities to the almond-growing industry of California, the most interesting section by far in my mind is where the conversation moves onto the idea of migratory beekeepers. This may not be the case in other countries, but apparently in the US many beekeepers spend their working lives travelling around: based in the South, say, and moving to California for the early almond pollination season, then travelling up the West coast through Oregon and Washington for apples, berries, cherries and so on, and then pitching up in the Dakotas to allow the bees to spend summer gorging on sunflowers. Then it's back down South for winter. Similar migratory patterns go up and down the East coast from Florida to Maine and so on.

Saying that you are going to run a beekeeping campaign and you would be characterised as some sort of dangerous eccentric in most RPG circles; not because of the subject matter but because it seems so very limiting. The PCs really have to start off as beekeepers and nothing else? And all they're going to do is travel round with, and manage, bees?

But once the limits are set, the mind starts to whir with possibilities. How about, rather than just having honey bees, the world is full of many different kinds of bee, all with different characteristics, tastes, and vulnerabilities? And how about a d100 table of random bee pests and diseases that might strike at a given moment? What about all the possibilities for hexcrawling: where do you stop for the night with your hives? Where do you migrate to - do you follow the spring as it heads Northwards, or strike off on a different, less travelled path where there are fewer competitors? What kind of monsters and bandits lie in ambush on the well-journeyed routes? What kind of monsters does honey attract in general? There would need to be a set of tables for generating competitor beekeepers, their hives, and helpers, of course. Each would have their own agenda, their own rivalries and alliances, their hidden ancestral knowledge. The same goes for the farmers. There would need to be a system for determining costs based on the presence of competition, weather, crop type...and rudimentary rules for trade in general.

And of course, there would need to be complicated procedures for what happens when bees make honey from the nectar of poisonous plants, or whatever kind of weird fantasy flora you happen to come up with.

I'm not suggesting that the beekeeping campaign is the one we should all be running, you understand. The point is simply this: once constraints are set in place, creativity starts to flourish. Envisage human creativity like water: without barriers it floods endlessly in a very thin and ever-spreading sheen. With constraint it bursts upwards like a fountain. And I give you metaphors like that free of charge.


  1. damn! I read it as BeerKeeping ;)

    1. Ha, and I read Erik's comment as Bearkeeping, which lead me to this idea:

      A major chunk of the income of the fortress city of Ursapolis comes from selling their specially trained and bred riding bears to the Dwarven Empires. Unfortunately there is only enough hunting and fishing in the immediate vicinity of the city to support the Royal sloths (the collective noun for bears), and importing cattle is expensive and seriously cuts into the profit for the smaller independent bear breeders. These breeders are migratory as a result; in most cases spending winter in Ursapolis while the bears are hibernating, and then spending the rest of the year moving from one place to another to allow the bears to feed.

      The PCs are one group of such breeders, so the game ends up being a bit of a combo of hex-crawl and economic management. With some areas well known, so they can more easily avoid the dangers there, but there will be more other bearkeepers competing for the limited game. And then there is the problems of dealing with the locals who might not be happy about a sloth of bears turning up in their forest and eating all the deer.

      Of course beerkeeping could work if you're a little flexible as well. The PCs are all part of a religious order dedicated to one of the Gods of booze (they wouldn't have to be Clerics, just members of the religion), and they're on a mission to catalog the beers of the world. Basically it's a fantasy hex-pub-crawl. :-P I image you'd have to have a fair variety of alcohols available for the players to drink to make sure everyone stays in the right mood throughout the game as well.

    2. Bearkeeping?

      I'd just start cribbing from Shardik, because who in their right mind has read Shardik recently? Insert half-a-dozen Yogi bear cameos and you're done.

  2. I get this from time to time with my love of Star Trek gaming.

    "We all have to be Federation? I can't be a Klingon or a Romulan?"

    "Do we have to following the chain of command and the Prime Directive and all that" Can't we just do what we want?

    "We all have the same motivation. I want my character to be special."

    These are questions from players that I generally don't want in my games. Not because they don't necessarily like Star Trek or Star Trek gaming but because anyone who can't figure out how to answer these questions themselves is not going to be able to keep and have fun in a campaign I am running.

    The trick with Trek (at least my kind of Trek) is: Assuming we're all Starfleet Officers of various Federation species going where no one has gone before, how do you make your character special and memorable.

    Answer that and you're golden. Fail to and you'd best get the hell off my ship.