Content Presentation: the Mystical Vignette 3

Following a considerable gap in posting caused by a Dust to Dust event, I want to talk a bit about a common thread between DtD and several of my favorite games, culminating in thoughts on applying the concept. Nobilis may be the first game I saw that communicated a huge amount of its flavor and factual setting detail through vignettes in the margins; you could just read the main body of the text, but doing so leaves out most of what’s compelling and otherworldly in the setting. I talk about Echo Bazaar a lot in this blog, and in this case it’s pretty much the perfect example, as the entirety of the game is presented in brief, evocative chunks of text. I understand that there’s also a lot of game content exclusive to Twitter, so that pretty much explains itself.
A short, evocative paragraph or three on a topic is a case of shaping game content into digestible chunks for players who have been well-trained in the letters “tl” and “dr.” The first problem is actually making the text compelling to the reader, and the rules here are quite different from the rules in other areas of writing. When you’re trying to keep it short and sweet in a game, telling rather than showing is fine, because you don’t have many words to play with in the first place. Mostly it is best to avoid dialogue, though it has its place. Every single fact that you can imply rather than state outright is a good one.
Arkham Horror is one of the best examples of this that I could name, as every time you take an action in a location, in either Arkham or the Outer Planes, you draw a card with a tiny bit of narration – as little as “A gate opens and a monster appears!” or as much as two or so paragraphs and instructions to resolve a few die rolls. The game uses a ton of different decks of cards, so each area has game content customized to it. Differences in flavor and decision-making aside, it is about as much like Echo Bazaar as it could possibly be in its approach to content.
Now, I wasn’t thinking about vignettes or other bite-sized content when we decided that every ritual formula and every production formula in Dust to Dust would include some text other than the rules text. I was thinking instead of Wildlands South, where there was interesting text on each spell or production formula – not that I, as a late-to-the-party staffer, ever really had a chance to read any of them. I loved the idea, though, and I also knew that with ritualism working the way it does, the wizards were going to have spellbooks, which meant I might have some extra space on the page or pages of the spell. If there’s going to be text, then, it should relate to the setting somehow, and we handled that by dropping names and adjectives like crazy, as well as writing a lot of “segments of a longer work” and the like.
Based on player feedback after three events, I feel that I can safely say that this approach has been very popular with the players that have gotten involved with it. For starters, text props are always popular. There’s not a scholar PC yet born who doesn’t want every last scrap of text-colored paper she can get her hands on. The text also often has the names of other rituals or production formulas (mostly, but not always, within the same skill) that exist, or once existed in the game’s fictional history, and we’ve found that players especially look for these kinds of cues to give them ideas of what to ask for in their spell research.

But this post isn’t actually about DtD’s text props. This post is about the new edition of D&D and density of content. I think DtD’s text on our formulas has done a lot of the heavy lifting of exposition for us, as well as giving players something interesting, creepy, or funny to look at during play. I’d like to take a shot at delivering setting exposition in a tabletop game in the same way. I’d also like to try a version of D&D where the PC spellcasters had a few starting spells, but otherwise had no definite knowledge of the more powerful spells they could learn in the game. Sure, some of them are going to be renamed versions of the spells you’re used to seeing in every edition of D&D, but more of them are going to be tweaked in some way. As long as the spellcasters aren’t spending feats on improving the throughput of specific spells, I think this could add a lot of interest and engagement with the game. As a DM, I always kind of hoped one of the PC spellcasters would decide that spell research sounded fun, though of course I’ve never seen an edition of D&D try to do anything more mechanical with spell research than “okay, let the player have the new spell when you think he’s suffered (or paid) enough.”
The problem that I face is that DtD is a lot of work in its own right. We’ve written somewhere in the neighborhood of 125 formula texts so far, maybe a bit more, and that’s been a serious burden of work even spread out over our committee. As a DM for a tabletop game, there’s absolutely no way I could add “write spell formulas” to my bi-weekly session preparation, and I figure the overwhelming majority of DMs are in the same boat – or if they aren’t, it’s still time they’d kind of rather spend cooking up new and more horrible forms of PC torment, rather than messing around with writing that has to be hooked into the rest of the setting, laying out the spell formula, and so on.
What that means to me is that I, and maybe one or two other writers, should write a setting in spell formulas, and publish that setting as a PDF, so that DMs who like our setting can just print off copies of the spells on fancy paper and call it a day. Delusions of grandeur? Yeah, maybe. Frankly, I’m not great about finishing things that aren’t DtD, but I think we’d have a really good time along the way.
There are a few other problems with such a product, of course. One is that the second campaign a DM runs in that setting with that PDF needs a new set of mysteries to explore. Ideally, though, the PCs have only seen enough in the first campaign to get comfortable with this unorthodox way of showing them the magic system, and a second campaign just gives them room to pursue spell concepts they never got around to before. Maybe by that point they’ve had enough setting names seeded in their imaginations that they’re able to engage with the setting on a deeper level as well.
Secondly, there’s nothing intrinsically appealing to fighter and rogue PCs – to this I point out that a book of magic items with similar vignette-stories would also be a workable idea. Dozens of articles of DM advice have recommended going out of one’s way to make each magic item interesting rather than feeling “off-the-rack,” if you will – the problem I always had as a DM was coming up with a neat story for the third +1 ring of protection that the party has found, so there might be interest in a similar product focused on magic items. The other point I want to make, though, is that shuffling around papers and combing through them for useful tidbits is specifically a part of the immersive experience for scholars, which in most settings is almost exclusively wizards and bards.
Thirdly – and this is only problematic from a certain point of view – it isn’t inherently easy to adapt this product to other settings, what with the detailed inclusion of place-names, character names, and artifacts. A find-and-replace might be workable here, but it undermines the structural integrity of ideas that makes the whole thing compelling to me to write, so I plan to view the work as the presentation of a single setting.
Lastly, I’m not a 5e playtester, so I don’t have an accurate list of the spells that will be in the game to go ahead and begin adapting. On the other hand, this is D&D, and there are some spells that are so abundantly likely to be part of the game (magic missile, fireball, lightning bolt) that I can comfortably begin poking at them.
We’ll see if I ever get moving on this idea, and if so, how long it takes. It could be fun!

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3 thoughts on “Content Presentation: the Mystical Vignette

  • Kainenchen

    You know I love this idea. Also, Magic The Gathering does this somewhat in their flavor text… I always wanted to collect every card which had snippets of, "The love song of night and day," because Awesome.

  • Stephen

    I'm a big fan of the Earthdawn-style "research to unlock its powers" magic items, though I'm less in love with how those have previously been mechanically balanced (i.e., thread weaving is confusing and expensive).

    I keep thinking it's possible to do a D&D game where every magic item is an item of legend that you can unlock and use from 1st to 20th level. You could potentially do something neat with your research system by postulating:

    * Unnamed items never have much more than a +1 equivalent effect and may be altogether nonexistent.

    * Named items tend to become better at their main focus and pick up some decent secondary bonuses (e.g., a sword that also builds up save bonuses).

    * Unlocking item powers ties directly into the same research system as spells, so non-casters have more bandwidth to focus on improving their signature items while casters focus on their signature spells.

    That might make it easier to lavish story on items, knowing that players are only going to have a few and keep them around for a long time.

  • Brandes Stoddard


    I couldn't agree with you more about Earthdawn's approach to magic items, both the good and the bad. Some of my other commentary on this I can't share here, since it may eventually be read by current DtD PCs, but I'll explain sometime.

    As to those lesser magic items – my thinking is to make them all connected to a single legendary event or location. For example, every +1 ring of protection is mystically connected to the Twin Pillars of Kyprosa, a massive and rune-covered set of pillars that guard the mouth of a certain river against enemy ships. The connection isn't, in my off-the-cuff imagining, intended to have deep mechanical meanings, except that the alteration of the pillars might introduce a new feature or flaw into all grades of rings of protection.

    Named items gaining additional traits through exploration of their nature needs some cosmological underpinning for me to find it satisfying, though of course there are dozens of options open to the setting creator there. In principle I am a fervent supporter of named items.

    I really like the idea of non-casters wanting downtime to improve their gear through research, while the casters treat their spells as the gear they're improving. We should work on a tabletop-appropriate (and broadly applicable) research system at some point.