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Thread: Aesthetics vs. Believability/ Usefulness

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      Altrunchen is offline
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    Post Aesthetics vs. Believability/ Usefulness

    One thing that I struggle with all too much in map-design, specifically architecture, is whether or not to make the building pretty or to make the building as efficiently laid out as possible.

    Too often I see buildings that may look great on paper or from outside, but inside I hear so many complaints about how oddly laid-out and awkward it is to navigate the building's interior. It seems as if contemporary building design embraces the artistic side of architecture more than the engineering side and to the effect that we have very pretty buildings that make little sense on the inside.

    And I even see a similar effect in computer and video games such as The Sims 3, where people often make houses or buildngs that look amazing from afar, but inside they are cramped and awkwardly laid-out, limiting the inhabitant's movement unnecessarily.

    So I put to you guys, how to strike a balance, an optimized equilibrium between the two?

    I find that simpler floor plan shapes that favor circuits and symmetry tend to be more easily navigated, but they are very boring and simplistic and are often shunned by fellow map-makers as amateurish. For example, a rectangular building is simple, easy to make, easy to navigate usually, but frowned upon as lazy and badly designed. But then I find that complex and irregular designs, while difficult to design, are needlessly difficult to inhabit and navigate. It seems that modern structure design has become somewhat elitist and inattentive to the actual usefulness of the structure that it produces. Look at M.I.T.'s newer buildings for God's sake *facepalm*.


    How does a building that looks this way benefit the users at all? Why does it need to be so irregular? Is this not then just a wasteful design that is more of an ego-trip for the architect? Could you imagine being the contractor or a fireman trying to understand this building while erecting it or trying to test it for fire-safety?

    I will confess, I am a big believer in form following function. So it's natural for me to poo-poo designs that seem to have little regard to their function whatsoever.


    Though I hate Falling Water with a passion because if you design a building where all the contents have to be purpose-built for it, then it's obvious that you don't intend to enable and encourage a wide variety of usage, you're just making a fancy building to go into your portfolio. I am referring to the furniture for this structure. The doors and furniture were specially made for Andrew Lloyd Wright's designs. Could you imagine how expensive replacing one would be if it broke or got too old to use? Again it seems that some modern architecture considers artistic appeal far more than practical application.

    ---

    So then I try to make a pretty map for my D&D group but I quickly realize that if it's pretty, then it just doesn't make much sense to me why it'd be designed that way and waste as much resources to build as it does:

    Why would elves build in trees? What if there was a lightning storm? What if invaders used flaming arrows and greek-oil to set the trees on fire? What if termites eat the tree's roots away? Is it really worth the building expenses, then, to build up there? If it was then wouldn't we humans have done so more often instead of building on bedrock and stone foundations that don't rot and erode much slower?

    And why would Dwarves build such huge hallways and rooms if they are so much shorter than humans? Why would they limit themselves to building underground when they could more easily get fresher air and access to agricultural bounty above-ground? Hell...what if there was an earthquake? Our friends in the trees and below ground would equally be screwed wouldn't they?

    If you say: "Because there's magic" then I will glare at you and think mean thoughts. Magic is present to expand our horizons in speculation and creative role-play, not to create excuses for us to design something silly and impractical.

    Speaking of which: why do dungeons have so many traps and secret passages? Who built them with that kind of money to throw around? How did they intend to keep things like that a secret from the hundreds of builders they had on site at the time? How the hell are the orcs inside supposed to get to the bathroom if there's a DC 26 spike trap between their barracks and the john and the doorway to the restroom is guarded with a ruby statue of a gargoyle who demands solutions to riddles? I mean there's fantasy and then there's fantastic crap. Things don't need to be complex and original to be good. Sometimes the simplest solution is truly the best one.

    I mean there's a reason why the simple designs are still around: because they work. Because they don't cost as much to build and maintain as hipster's wet-dream amalgamations of material like M.I.T.'s pock-marked building:


    But then I'm just one guy, and I'm no architect, nor am I a civil-engineer (which I feel should be BOTH utilized when designing a building by the same exact person) so I'm curious what you guys think?
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    Guild Artisan eViLe_eAgLe's Avatar
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    Magic. That settles all problems.

    (I'll get back to you with an actual answer, when I finish reading.)

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    Guild Artisan eViLe_eAgLe's Avatar
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    Foremost, Architecture is art and a science, just like how Cartography is. There are ones that go for function, and plausibility, and others go for the outlandish, and artistic (At times - that pockmarked building is just weird.)
    And getting an equilibrium is hard, it's easier to make something so useful and solid that it is beautiful, and to make something so beautiful it works, but it's hard to make something that both works, and is beautiful.

    Why would elves build in trees? What if there was a lightning storm? What if invaders used flaming arrows and greek-oil to set the trees on fire? What if termites eat the tree's roots away? Is it really worth the building expenses, then, to build up there? If it was then wouldn't we humans have done so more often instead of building on bedrock and stone foundations that don't rot and erode much slower?
    Not to throw magic around, but most elves in settings have magic, or don't live in tree houses at all, but rather live in the woods as a hunter gatherer who sleeps in trees without houses. Said magic could enhance the trees, and stop most fires from happening on the tree.

    And why would Dwarves build such huge hallways and rooms if they are so much shorter than humans? Why would they limit themselves to building underground when they could more easily get fresher air and access to agricultural bounty above-ground? Hell...what if there was an earthquake? Our friends in the trees and below ground would equally be screwed wouldn't they?
    Inferiority complex, they feel small, and so they build big. And why compete in the above ground with a massive crap ton of other races vying for the above lands, when you could have one entrance to an entire underground nation self sustained by mushrooms and underground water? If you add under-dark into the equation, that's also another reason to build in the ground - so you can have access to all the exotic meat, plants, and wonders of that place.
    You're also mistaken about earthquakes, people are much safer below the ground during an earthquake (I'm talking about more than just a basement.) people in mines don't feel earthquakes at all, and if they do they're minutely small, and if tree's fell because of earthquakes that easily, there wouldn't be alot of forestry would they? These things are natural, and can handle themselves from disasters - in that way, they make perfect shelters at times.

    Speaking of which: why do dungeons have so many traps and secret passages? Who built them with that kind of money to throw around? How did they intend to keep things like that a secret from the hundreds of builders they had on site at the time? How the hell are the orcs inside supposed to get to the bathroom if there's a DC 26 spike trap between their barracks and the john and the doorway to the restroom is guarded with a ruby statue of a gargoyle who demands solutions to riddles? I mean there's fantasy and then there's fantastic crap. Things don't need to be complex and original to be good. Sometimes the simplest solution is truly the best one.
    I completely agree with you here - minus traps and secret passages - I don't like dungeons that do that unless they have a good reason. There're secret passages and traps in dungeons in real life, it isn't that far fetched, really. Fantasy might be taking it a bit over what would be considered realistic but it is fantasy. Look at the pyramids for example, they have alot of secret passages and traps, to protect something - their pharaoh. I completely agree about the orcs though, I try to never do that in my dungeons unless I absolutely have to.

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    For what it's worth, I think you might be forgetting one crucial part of the equation: history. Most buildings in the world today, and most buildings that have ever been created, were not designed. People build what they need, when they need it; it was only the rich and powerful who tended to add embellishment and design to their structures. Thus, a simple rectangular house - possibly only one room - is not only a plausible design for a building, I'd wager it's also the most common historically.

    The key factor, though, is that the rectangle might be extended at some point, based on needs and circumstances: a new baby in the family? Add an extra room. A new tenant who makes pots? A kiln/workshop might appear. Through processes like these buildings can evolve over time. It is relatively rare that a structure will be demolished when use changes, as it is so much cheaper to keep what is already there. The interesting thing about this process is that the building form does follow function, but the function changes, and so the building becomes less and less coherent.

    So my advice to you: design your buildings so they look undesigned.

    Another piece of advice (for all mapmakers): what looks boring on a sheet of paper (a rectangle, a grid) would not necessarily be so in reality. The addition of doors and windows, brickwork, furniture etc would obscure the simplicity of layout, as well as making the place look 'lived in'. That, I think, is why isometric drawings/maps are so popular here on CG.

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    Guild Artisan eViLe_eAgLe's Avatar
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    Oh, one thing I forgot to add is the golden ratio, so most houses wouldn't be just square.
    Golden ratio - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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    Featureless boxes of glass, with every floor of the box a set of rigid white corridors, each indistinguishable from the next. It's not a terribly livable design for humans, even if it does appeal to a small segment of the population. Human memory is associative, meaning that you need a context in which to know things. Variations in form and style between the floors of a build and between buildings themselves helps members of the community to navigate efficiently. If everything looks the same, most of the population will get lost fairly quickly.

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    The whole "lots of intelligent races so that it's OK to kill non-humans instead of humans" argument never quite works for me. To me, having different races requires magic or something indistinguishable from it.

    Why would elfies live in the treeses? Perhaps they share in the life energy of the trees. Perhaps the secretions of the trees enable their breeding behaviors. Perhaps they simply like the sounds of the leaves. Is it more efficient for them to have a different lifestyle? Maybe. There may be whole groups of elfies out there that are house-living, dirt-grubbing critters distinguishable from other races only by the very thin veneer of pointy ears.

    Why woould a dwarf live underground? It's usually associated with their creation myths. It's where they feel comfortable. Maybe they do like open spaces, but the sight of the sun and stars terrifies them at a level few can tolerate. Maybe tall galleries are much, much easier to ventilate due to the use of convection to move air around but without having to feel the breeze.

    I do agree that most dungeons seem to be just a random collection of things stuck together. More precisely, they are a collection of elements strung together to provide the PCs with a challenge first and foremost, and any other elements are secondary. Very few dungeons have good ventilation, a good food and water supply for all of the inhabitants, and a good sewage system. But most people don't care because it's irrelevant to the problem they're trying to solve (have a good time). Fantastic races and unrealistic settings are the norm because they don't want to role-play the exciting "shuffle the cards, deal out hands, and try to put together matching sets of colors" game over and over and over and over and over and over and over.

    My experience is that a whole lot of folks don't prefer to be running or playing with a clockwork simulation. Those folks that do, well we usually call them "engineers."

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    Guild Master Gracious Donor Midgardsormr's Avatar
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    I have a similar reaction to postmodernism in architecture. Sure, deconstructing architecture in specific and art in general is useful, but I don't really think we need 60 years worth of making things wrong just to prove that tradition has no hold on us. I think a lot of buildings should be designed that should never be built. The Denver Art Museum is another good example of a ridiculous design that has a significant negative impact on its usability. They've replaced the roof at least twice, and at great cost because of the odd materials and shape. There seems to be some kind of notion that art is only good if it's "innovative," but innovation isn't about simply doing something that hasn't been done before. It can't be forced that way; when you try it just comes across as pretentious. In my not-at-all humble opinion, of course.

    I do somewhat disagree with you concerning Falling Water. True, you aren't going to have manufactured goods going into it, but what you will have are careful and proficient crafters maintaining it. It will be expensive, but anyone who can afford to own Falling Water in the first place has plenty of money. I would actually like to see a lot more of that kind of work in the world—products that depend upon and contribute to a small economy rather than a gigantic one—although not on that particular scale. On the other hand, that particular house has a big longevity problem. Between the water and the trees, its days are numbered, even leaving aside the structural problems it's had since day one.

    In my opinion, good design is functional as well as beautiful. A rule should not be broken for the sake of breaking rules but because the rule is standing in the way of better design, and the consequences of breaking that rule need to be thoroughly understood and compensated for.
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    I'd first point out something about the "bad" examples you give: I've seen pictures of the outside, but I've never actually been inside any of them. Have you been into the Stata Center, or Simmons Hall, or Fallingwater? If you have and they're terrible inside, then I guess that's that; but I've been into a lot of buildings that look boring on the outside but are still barely functional inside. It's certainly possible to trade off aesthetics with functionality, but it's not necessary. You have to use custom furniture in Fallingwater ... but just because it's harder to replace, does that mean you shouldn't use an eminently comfortable chair that fits in perfectly with its surroundings, slides under the table like they were meant to be together (they were), and is beautiful to boot? The Stata Center look strange from the outside, but floor plans look pretty normal on the inside - rooms are rectangular, corridors just bend at angles slightly different from 90 degrees.

    As to your complaints about fantasy worlds, I have to point out that we create fantasy worlds to scratch different itches. Do we aim for verisimilitude, for a world that looks enough like our own that the players can project their expectations of real-world actions faithfully onto the conworld? Do we aim for aesthetics, try to create a world that is strange and beautiful and wondrous? Do we aim for a reflective world, through which we can explore bigger issues? And I'm sure there's other considerations to take into account.

    So, from your post, elves living in trees. From a functional viewpoint, this is a bizarre idea: it's not for nothing that hardly any societies throughout history, and none past the stone age, have lived in trees. It's hard, it's dangerous, and you gain hardly any advantage against things smarter than wild animals. If the players expect their real-world logic to work in the fantasy world, they'll immediately notice the same drawbacks you did and burn the forest down rather than besiege the elves. From an aesthetic viewpoint, though, it might make more sense: elves aren't human, they're something strange and wondrous, they're closer to nature and live in tree-cities built of gossamer and fog! This might also work from a reflective viewpoint; maybe the GM is using these elves to explore environmental or alienation-from-nature themes in the world building.

    The explanations traditionally given for "but why?" (like "Magic!") are usually justifications of choices made for aesthetic reasons; and this isn't a bad thing! It lets the players experience something built for aesthetic or reflective reasons and still have some idea of how things will work from a functional perspective. It makes players push their willing suspension of disbelief a little further; and, while it may be a little too far for a player expecting hard verisimilitude, it might not be too far if the players are open to more aesthetics or reflection on larger themes.

    tl;dr: You can have aesthetics, and functionality, too. But as long as your audience is okay with it, you can give up some of one for some of the other.
    Last edited by gilgamec; 09-12-2013 at 10:14 PM.

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      Altrunchen is offline
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    Quote Originally Posted by eViLe_eAgLe View Post
    Foremost, Architecture is art and a science, just like how Cartography is. There are ones that go for function, and plausibility, and others go for the outlandish, and artistic (At times - that pockmarked building is just weird.)
    And getting an equilibrium is hard, it's easier to make something so useful and solid that it is beautiful, and to make something so beautiful it works, but it's hard to make something that both works, and is beautiful.



    Not to throw magic around, but most elves in settings have magic, or don't live in tree houses at all, but rather live in the woods as a hunter gatherer who sleeps in trees without houses. Said magic could enhance the trees, and stop most fires from happening on the tree.



    Inferiority complex, they feel small, and so they build big. And why compete in the above ground with a massive crap ton of other races vying for the above lands, when you could have one entrance to an entire underground nation self sustained by mushrooms and underground water? If you add under-dark into the equation, that's also another reason to build in the ground - so you can have access to all the exotic meat, plants, and wonders of that place.
    You're also mistaken about earthquakes, people are much safer below the ground during an earthquake (I'm talking about more than just a basement.) people in mines don't feel earthquakes at all, and if they do they're minutely small, and if tree's fell because of earthquakes that easily, there wouldn't be alot of forestry would they? These things are natural, and can handle themselves from disasters - in that way, they make perfect shelters at times.



    I completely agree with you here - minus traps and secret passages - I don't like dungeons that do that unless they have a good reason. There're secret passages and traps in dungeons in real life, it isn't that far fetched, really. Fantasy might be taking it a bit over what would be considered realistic but it is fantasy. Look at the pyramids for example, they have alot of secret passages and traps, to protect something - their pharaoh. I completely agree about the orcs though, I try to never do that in my dungeons unless I absolutely have to.
    Admittedly I was sounding a bit closed-minded in my op. I will further admit that my reasoning wasn't exactly well...reasonable. I suppose my real gripe was with myself in that I tend to overthink my own projects to the point that I criticzie myself and my own styles so much that I tend to second-guess myself far too much.

    And I have indeed heard that caves and being underground in general is actually quite a safe locale during an earthquake. I suppose if you think about something enough you can find a reason to do it and for it make sense. Somethign I obviously wasn't doing too much of.

    Quote Originally Posted by TheHoarseWhisperer View Post
    For what it's worth, I think you might be forgetting one crucial part of the equation: history. Most buildings in the world today, and most buildings that have ever been created, were not designed. People build what they need, when they need it; it was only the rich and powerful who tended to add embellishment and design to their structures. Thus, a simple rectangular house - possibly only one room - is not only a plausible design for a building, I'd wager it's also the most common historically.

    The key factor, though, is that the rectangle might be extended at some point, based on needs and circumstances: a new baby in the family? Add an extra room. A new tenant who makes pots? A kiln/workshop might appear. Through processes like these buildings can evolve over time. It is relatively rare that a structure will be demolished when use changes, as it is so much cheaper to keep what is already there. The interesting thing about this process is that the building form does follow function, but the function changes, and so the building becomes less and less coherent.

    So my advice to you: design your buildings so they look undesigned.

    Another piece of advice (for all mapmakers): what looks boring on a sheet of paper (a rectangle, a grid) would not necessarily be so in reality. The addition of doors and windows, brickwork, furniture etc would obscure the simplicity of layout, as well as making the place look 'lived in'. That, I think, is why isometric drawings/maps are so popular here on CG.
    I suppose so. Isometric maps definitely let the art and beauty of the architecture shine. My old issue, though, is that it can feel well...gamey and abstract after a while. And while that isn't really a weakness, it just makes me feel like the map could be more than it is.

    Quote Originally Posted by eViLe_eAgLe View Post
    Oh, one thing I forgot to add is the golden ratio, so most houses wouldn't be just square.
    Golden ratio - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    I suppose the word "rectalinear" would have been a better choice of words. Thanks. >.<

    Quote Originally Posted by waldronate View Post
    Featureless boxes of glass, with every floor of the box a set of rigid white corridors, each indistinguishable from the next. It's not a terribly livable design for humans, even if it does appeal to a small segment of the population. Human memory is associative, meaning that you need a context in which to know things. Variations in form and style between the floors of a build and between buildings themselves helps members of the community to navigate efficiently. If everything looks the same, most of the population will get lost fairly quickly.
    And I've seen depressing examples of this with Soviet architecture with blocks and blocks of buildings that all look the same. The hard part about mapping this sort of thing out is making these kinds of interpretations of space when in reality it would have been made by hundreds of people over the years.

    Quote Originally Posted by waldronate View Post
    The whole "lots of intelligent races so that it's OK to kill non-humans instead of humans" argument never quite works for me. To me, having different races requires magic or something indistinguishable from it.

    Why would elfies live in the treeses? Perhaps they share in the life energy of the trees. Perhaps the secretions of the trees enable their breeding behaviors. Perhaps they simply like the sounds of the leaves. Is it more efficient for them to have a different lifestyle? Maybe. There may be whole groups of elfies out there that are house-living, dirt-grubbing critters distinguishable from other races only by the very thin veneer of pointy ears.

    Why woould a dwarf live underground? It's usually associated with their creation myths. It's where they feel comfortable. Maybe they do like open spaces, but the sight of the sun and stars terrifies them at a level few can tolerate. Maybe tall galleries are much, much easier to ventilate due to the use of convection to move air around but without having to feel the breeze.

    I do agree that most dungeons seem to be just a random collection of things stuck together. More precisely, they are a collection of elements strung together to provide the PCs with a challenge first and foremost, and any other elements are secondary. Very few dungeons have good ventilation, a good food and water supply for all of the inhabitants, and a good sewage system. But most people don't care because it's irrelevant to the problem they're trying to solve (have a good time). Fantastic races and unrealistic settings are the norm because they don't want to role-play the exciting "shuffle the cards, deal out hands, and try to put together matching sets of colors" game over and over and over and over and over and over and over.

    My experience is that a whole lot of folks don't prefer to be running or playing with a clockwork simulation. Those folks that do, well we usually call them "engineers."
    I'm not sure I follow what you're saying. Do you mean to say that most people don't want to think too much about a game and want something simple and enjoyable?

    Quote Originally Posted by Midgardsormr View Post
    I have a similar reaction to postmodernism in architecture. Sure, deconstructing architecture in specific and art in general is useful, but I don't really think we need 60 years worth of making things wrong just to prove that tradition has no hold on us. I think a lot of buildings should be designed that should never be built. The Denver Art Museum is another good example of a ridiculous design that has a significant negative impact on its usability. They've replaced the roof at least twice, and at great cost because of the odd materials and shape. There seems to be some kind of notion that art is only good if it's "innovative," but innovation isn't about simply doing something that hasn't been done before. It can't be forced that way; when you try it just comes across as pretentious. In my not-at-all humble opinion, of course.

    I do somewhat disagree with you concerning Falling Water. True, you aren't going to have manufactured goods going into it, but what you will have are careful and proficient crafters maintaining it. It will be expensive, but anyone who can afford to own Falling Water in the first place has plenty of money. I would actually like to see a lot more of that kind of work in the world—products that depend upon and contribute to a small economy rather than a gigantic one—although not on that particular scale. On the other hand, that particular house has a big longevity problem. Between the water and the trees, its days are numbered, even leaving aside the structural problems it's had since day one.

    In my opinion, good design is functional as well as beautiful. A rule should not be broken for the sake of breaking rules but because the rule is standing in the way of better design, and the consequences of breaking that rule need to be thoroughly understood and compensated for.
    I very much like your ending point there. "A rule should not be broken for the sake of breaking rules but because the rule is standing in the way of better design, and the consequences of breaking that rule need to be thoroughly understood and compensated for." I could not agree more with you there.

    Quote Originally Posted by gilgamec View Post
    I'd first point out something about the "bad" examples you give: I've seen pictures of the outside, but I've never actually been inside any of them. Have you been into the Stata Center, or Simmons Hall, or Fallingwater? If you have and they're terrible inside, then I guess that's that; but I've been into a lot of buildings that look boring on the outside but are still barely functional inside. It's certainly possible to trade off aesthetics with functionality, but it's not necessary. You have to use custom furniture in Fallingwater ... but just because it's harder to replace, does that mean you shouldn't use an eminently comfortable chair that fits in perfectly with its surroundings, slides under the table like they were meant to be together (they were), and is beautiful to boot? The Stata Center look strange from the outside, but floor plans look pretty normal on the inside - rooms are rectangular, corridors just bend at angles slightly different from 90 degrees.

    As to your complaints about fantasy worlds, I have to point out that we create fantasy worlds to scratch different itches. Do we aim for verisimilitude, for a world that looks enough like our own that the players can project their expectations of real-world actions faithfully onto the conworld? Do we aim for aesthetics, try to create a world that is strange and beautiful and wondrous? Do we aim for a reflective world, through which we can explore bigger issues? And I'm sure there's other considerations to take into account.

    So, from your post, elves living in trees. From a functional viewpoint, this is a bizarre idea: it's not for nothing that hardly any societies throughout history, and none past the stone age, have lived in trees. It's hard, it's dangerous, and you gain hardly any advantage against things smarter than wild animals. If the players expect their real-world logic to work in the fantasy world, they'll immediately notice the same drawbacks you did and burn the forest down rather than besiege the elves. From an aesthetic viewpoint, though, it might make more sense: elves aren't human, they're something strange and wondrous, they're closer to nature and live in tree-cities built of gossamer and fog! This might also work from a reflective viewpoint; maybe the GM is using these elves to explore environmental or alienation-from-nature themes in the world building.

    The explanations traditionally given for "but why?" (like "Magic!") are usually justifications of choices made for aesthetic reasons; and this isn't a bad thing! It lets the players experience something built for aesthetic or reflective reasons and still have some idea of how things will work from a functional perspective. It makes players push their willing suspension of disbelief a little further; and, while it may be a little too far for a player expecting hard verisimilitude, it might not be too far if the players are open to more aesthetics or reflection on larger themes.

    tl;dr: You can have aesthetics, and functionality, too. But as long as your audience is okay with it, you can give up some of one for some of the other.
    You're right. I do lack in personal experience to make these sorts of broad judgements. I was being a bit too opinionated and bombastic I suppose. And you make an excellent point in that, ultimately, map design should provide for the players and not for one's own satisfaction. Otherwise why in the world are we Dmming anything at all? I guess I was being a bit self-centered.

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