Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Too Much Information?

It can often be a struggle, when introducing players to a new campaign world, deciding how much background information to give them right up front.  A common school of thought is that players should start out knowing nothing and be allowed to learn about the world as they explore it.  There is a lot to recommend this approach, especially if the GM hasn't done much background work on the campaign world yet; the campaign can begin and the details can be filled in later.

But what if you're introducing new players to a world you've been developing for years, rife with details and a well-established history?  You might not always want to start the campaign in the village where they grew up and even if you do, even the most isolated villagers are likely to know something of their history and culture; the sort of information that helps players define their characters and understand the flavour of the setting they are playing in.  The question is, how to present it?

I've often resorted to the 'campaign guide' approach.  You know; the thesis-length tome of background information that you give to the players, who struggle through the first few pages of boring history before giving up.  This becomes painfully obvious after the first few sessions of play when the party is confronted by the infamous Lord Misanthrope, whose cloak-flourishing, moustachio-twirling appearance is met, not with gasps of horror, but blank stares.

"You know...Lord Misanthrope," you prompt.  "Destroyer of worlds, defiler of maidens, stealer of candy?"
More blank stares.
"Oh, come on!  I described  him on page one-hundred and thirty-two of the campaign guide, didn't you read it?"

There is certainly nothing wrong with campaign hand-outs, and I find a big campaign 'bible' handy for my own use and reference, but there are probably better and more interesting ways of passing that information on to the players than dumping it all in their laps at once.

If you follow From the Sorcerer's Skull (and if you don't you're really missing out on a visually stunning and beautifully written blog), then you're familiar with Trey's approach of describing his weird game world through a series of posts that are presented like travelogues.  Each post is a vignette without any structured order or context; just a snippet of interesting information about the world - a bit of pop-culture here, a monster there - each one providing a fun and interesting insight.  Before too long, almost without realizing it, you come to understand Trey's world almost as if you were a local.  This is just how I've always wanted players to feel in my settings, but have never quite managed to pull off without many years of play.

Trey commented on his recent post, The Dead Travel Fast, about drag-racing culture in Hesperia, that it's more fun for him to write random pieces as they interest him than to present the information in a structured, linear format.  It occurred to me that it's probably a lot more fun for people to read it this way, too, and likely immerses the players in the setting  more quickly and thoroughly than any other way.

This is one of the great advantages of blogs as campaign aids.  They offer us new ways of communicating information and imagery to players in a way that can easily be referred to without having to keep track of reams of paper that always end up getting lost.  Back in the old days, I always took it upon myself to write up session notes for any game I was playing in - it was the only way that we, the players, could remember all the plot threads from session to session.  The problem with this method was it that relied entirely on my presence - if I missed a session no one had any idea what was going on.  With session notes recorded on a blog, everyone can stay up to date, and even players who miss games can quickly get caught up on what happened in their absence.  I've even seen players looking up stuff on my blog using their cell-phones during play sessions.

Nonetheless, I've been slow to really appreciate how useful the blog format is as a play aid; new and cool uses keep occurring to me, such as the metaphysical kick to the head I got the other day while reading From the Sorcerer's Skull.  The next time I create a new campaign world, I plan to follow Trey's lead and introduce the players to their new sandbox by way a series of digital travelogues.  And I'll be keeping that campaign bible in my binder, where it belongs.


Greg Christopher said...

In the campaign I am currently working on, there are pages handed out at game start. You cut the page in half and you keep the top half and the GM gets the bottom half.

The top half contains a bit of story about why you are going into the game, such as you are going to deliver a letter on behalf of your father to your uncle, who is rich.

The bottom half contains the twist, in this case the text of the letter in which your father says that you are being exiled for an act that you thought was kept secret. And that when you find your uncle, he is actually poor.

So this really commits the character to the campaign, while providing some context.

I used to do big handouts as well, but people don't read them. This way, it is personal to them, so they pay attention. And each characters gets a little bit of the world to serve as an anchor.

Sean Robson said...

Great idea, Greg. It's nice for each character to have some personal connection with the world at large and gives them a great hook to get started with. Thanks for sharing!

migellito said...

Excellent call Sean. I've been reading Trey's blog for a long time, but it never occurred to me that this would be a great way to give my players information about my own game worlds. Thanks!

@Greg - a great method by which to organically disseminate lore, well done.