Vincent Baker says that “seed content” is important. Seed content is “You are Mormon troubleshooters moving from town to town”, it is “If you want to be a Sorcerer you must first be Scholar”, it is a standard list of beginner’s spells including Magic Missile and a very weak summoning. It is all the explicit or implied setting material that comes with a game.
Content doesn’t arise from people + creative process. It arises from people + seed content + creative process.
Why? At the time of writing (2009), Baker was seeing a lot of games that just said “work together as a group to make your own setting and then use these generic rules”. And he saw that this caused three problems:
1. Without seed content, most groups will come up with pretty poor settings, full of whatever’s big in pop culture at that time. When Baker was writing, this was usually zombies. Maybe it still is.
As Brand Robbins points out in the comments on Baker’s post, some groups are very creative and won’t have these problems. But most people, most groups, aren’t like that.
“Well established groups with strong creative methodologies for working together obviously do better at this. I do know a handful of groups who can pretty consistently end up with zombies as a metaphor for the alienation of the moder human in the urban environment and how dreams are our last refuge, but being attacked there represents the final succumbing of the human spirit….”. (source)
I also suspect that people new to co-creation of settings, new to all players have setting-defining power, are likely to enjoy their first few super-derivative or super-batshit settings, at least for one-shot or short-run games. But they will tire quickly.
2. If your rules aren’t built around some seed content, they will tend towards the flat and generic
As Baker puts it:
What you get are games where pushing someone down has the same range of possible consequences as setting fire to a planet’s atmosphere, and where “my mother is the moon and my father is the evening wind” is mechanically equivalent to “I have a motorcycle.”
He notes, in the comments, that seed content isn’t the only way to have this problem. Highly generic rules can also cause it:
In a Wicked Age suffers from this, even though I provide good seed content, because I stuffed too much possible content into too few game procedures. I wrote rules that treat the endeavors of a village midwife and the endeavors of an ancient god of vengeance and war the same way – which meant I wrote rules that are abstract, mannered, flatly interpersonal and over-explicit. I referred way too much back to the social level.
That last quote resonates with my recent experience running Beyond the Forest. That was deliberately very simple, especially at the outset (I added the more specific magic and injury rules when both groups were several sessions in). BtF has Burning Wheel -style “GM sets difficulty and stakes”, which helps to address Baker’s motorcyle-vs-godhood, but it leaves almost all the details of that up to the GM. When running it, it often felt that the game was “running on me” rather than having any substantive rules.
Baker goes on to say that design that takes account of seed content means that “In each moment of play, the seed content can be, if you design your process to work with it, last moment’s content, live and electric.” I’m not sure about this; I’m not sure that design-for-seed-content is the only way to do that. I guess Baker is suggesting that if you know what kind of content your rules have to handle, than you can build processes and moves and such that handle the content well, keeping it alive rather than letting it die or go dull.
3. Of Baker’s “three insights” that you can express in a game design, working without seed content limits you only expressing insights into “roleplaying as a practice”. You can’t address those you have into the subject matter or into human nature.
WRT the subject matter, Baker’s right by definition. WRT human nature, I guess it’s not actually impossible, just harder — you can say it only via the rules of the game, not by the nature of the imagined world.