Oracles: Piecing Out Content

February 3, 2009

Shreyas is talking about the weaknesses he perceives in setting material derived from oracles (along with a bunch of other cool folks, check the comments). The discussion is going in multiple different directions there, so here’s my response:

Oracles are, I agree, an imperfect method of generating a deep, vivid setting. You get these little snippets semi-randomly and are supposed to assemble them into a whole. If the setting ends up being any good, it’s probably because 1) the little snippets were good to begin with or 2) the stuff you can up with on your own, to connect the snippets together, was really good. But if there’s depth or real life in the setting, it’s something the group inserted into it, because the little snippets themselves don’t really give that to you. Even if you’re talking about Simon’s culture-generation thing that we used for HBC (which is basically an oracle), the power of it comes in the players implementation of the snippets, not the snippets themselves. So oracles are basically like, “Here are these interesting tidbits; make a setting,” and if you don’t really know how to make an interesting setting, they don’t help you that much.

However, and here’s my main issue with the discussion so far, I don’t think oracles are intended primarily to be a setting generation method (though it’s possible that folks are using it as such). I think oracles should be primarily thought of as a way to bring setting content to the table, which I see as the far more difficult aspect of setting. Sure, generating setting material that is good is no simple task. Most of the setting stuff you see is cliched or overblown. But, even assuming you have setting material that is good, the much more difficult part is figuring out when and how to bring it into play. Oracles are helpful in this regard because they break down setting material into snippets and apportion them out to players in manageable amounts, instead of giving you 20+ pages of setting material and no instructions on which bits to start with. An oracle might tell you that this session, this scene, or this character is dealing with issues XYZ and, boom, you’re ready to go.

The weakness, as folks have pointed out, is that oracles — at least as they have been implemented so far — are rather indiscriminate about which bits to give you next. There’s not a natural progression from one snippet to another or a way for the oracle to sense what you’ve already done and generate a snippet that is appropriate for your needs. So there is this sense of getting a whirlwind, surface-level tour of a setting, jumping from bit to bit without exploring any of them especially deeply. In order for an oracle to really have real depth, it would have to be multi-layered and massive in scope, probably too massive for it to be elegant to use.

I think complaining about the weaknesses of oracles is mostly useful as a way of pushing for more tools that help people implement setting at the table. Oracles were definitely a major step forward in this regard, as the acclaim shown to In A Wicked Age and Simon’s cultural differences oracle indicate. Personally, as a designer and player I was like, “Wow, this just made my job a lot easier and less stressful.” Oracles are much more empowering, in this way, than any 20 pages of setting description. However, yes, there should definitely be many other tools for helping folks implement setting or other bits of pre-determined content at the table.

6 Responses to “Oracles: Piecing Out Content”

  1. Andy K Says:

    Yeah, makes sense.

    I think that, while the setting it generates is “shallow” unless you deepen it by bringing it up and doing things with it in play, it’s certainly better than the kind of setting that:

    * Is wholly owned by the GM.
    * Is wholly owned by the setting book(s).

    The Oracles are just one way to do that. Basically they are situation-generators, not setting-generators. It’s just that bits of setting are attached to them in the process, really “rooting” the situation in something other than the character relationships.

  2. Brand Robins Says:


    Jonathan and I were just talking about this on gtalk.

    What I said was:

    The other thing is.. and this is going to sound odd, so give me a second.. I don’t really use oracles to make “setting” I use them to make situation.

    Like, a lot of oracles carry some setting material, but much of it is really context dependent on people in the game already having an idea of what the game is going to be. (Try doing some IAWA oracles with people who’ve never read fantasy for some funny funny not funny.)

    So, really, when I use them a good chunk of the setting is already assumed “medieval swords and sorcery” or whatever. What the oracles do is bring specific characters and situations to the table, and we create situation from that. Really, they’re a focusing tool as much as anything.

    So I think you could use detailed setting and oracles together — like, I don’t think they inherently clash. You just would be using oracles to be like “what do we focus on this week.”
    There are ways in which I did the Tribe 8 oracle like that. Like, the oracle won’t make sense if you don’t know Tribe 8. The oracle is pretty much just “what part of this detailed setting are we playing this week.”


    So yes.


    The idea that setting is owned by books is a problem all its own, that doesn’t inherently have to do with this so much as it has to do with authorial ownership and cannon bullshit in geek circles. Pre-set settings, from the fictional to historical, don’t have to belong to books on any level.

    And as far as the game belonging to GMs, I think there is part of that which is due to the fact that mostly we sell books to individuals where games are played by groups. Really, the default mode seems to be “one guy will buy this book, like it, and sell it to the rest of the group, most of whom will never read it all.”

    Which makes everything rather odd.

  3. shreyas Says:

    Andy, why are GMs and setting resources so much inherently worse than group creation? I’ll agree upfront that there are benefits to the latter approach, that’s obvious, but I don’t see that those benefits are overwhelming or universal.

  4. Willem Says:

    Oracles have saved my play life, and that of many of my play group. Too many of us just don’t see reading/digesting setting as “part of play”. It feels like “doing work so that we can play”.

    But I want the whole thing to feel like play, because I just wanted to play a game. Not do work.

    I love Ben Lehman’s writing in Polaris quite a lot. When I read it to my core play group, they love the sound of it. But we all feel frustrated, because we want to play, not read things (or have things read to us). I wish Ben had written an equally awesome Oracle instead of the setting text (which he almost does in the beginning of the book, in the list of scene snippets).

    I know other folks who like text, and lots of it. But I feel quite satisfied with the level of richness and consistency that oracles bring and inspire my core group to bring to the table. I may have more-creative-than-average group, I don’t know.

  5. shreyas Says:

    Willem, I don’t know if you’ve read my discussion on this or not. Here’s a thesis: Oracles don’t actually provide setting. They give you a scattering of elements from a setting (this is evident in the way reskinning oracles works: instead of changing the oracle consultation and usage methods, you just change the items the oracle invokes) that you assemble using shared knowledge of the implicit (or explicit) setting from which those oracle elements arise.

    What say you?

  6. Willem Says:


    Yes, and that makes perfect sense. If I can elaborate on it;

    In fact, one of my group, J, after going to her first gaming con ever (GoPlayNW), said “I need to start reading more fantasy books!” for the reason you mention. Partially she didn’t get a bunch of the literary references folks made, but also I think she instinctively understood that everybody else had done the “background research”. They had more “creativity” at the table, which means more experience with the genre/setting.

    However, on the other hand, J has no problem with settings placed in her preferred genres (folklore) – she has done the research to only need what an Oracle provides, to underscore your point.

    But where does this leave us? It seems that for folks like those in my group, who don’t sit down at the table to read setting but rather to play, they have no use for anything more than an Oracle. And actually, J herself really loves Polaris (per my example), and still can’t/won’t read the book. She just treats the Aspects, Offices, Names etc. as a kind of choice-based Oracle.

    Even as I say it, it seems odd – but for whatever reason, I see this pattern amongst my mostly newbie role-playing group. They sit down to play, in their preferred familiar genre and settings, not read the new fiction of a game’s setting.

    It puts me in an odd fix; I don’t like to stand alone as the only one who has read the setting fiction for the indie game we want to try. I can handle more setting ficiton than them – but even I have my limit! And I’ve read widely enough that most Oracles call up very vivid and rich setting that I feel familiar enough with.

    What do you think about all that? This seems to me a newbie player issue – but I don’t know – have you experienced this ‘setting-phobia’ in your groups?

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