In LARPing, there is a playstyle (not exactly a character archetype) defined by deep engagement with the setting lore and ardent pursuit of its mysteries. This area of gameplay is of particular interest to me; my first long-term character, in Shattered Isles, was a dedicated scholar, and the enjoyment I got from that ensured my lasting addiction to this hobby. In creating Dust to Dust, we wanted to create as robust a “lore game” as its predecessors had, and I think we have made a good start of it. In this post, then, I would like to offer a few thoughts on how to create a lore game with a good chance of drawing players in. As a preliminary note, though, a lot of this is fundamental to all good setting construction; if you’re already proficient in setting creation, I am about to spend a lot of time preaching to the choir.
There are a ton of DM-advice columns and blogs out there that tackle exactly this topic. I don’t think it’s a great exaggeration to say that every new indie game that comes out includes one or more tips (in the form of rules) for how to either manage the campaign’s lore, or get players engaged in generating that content. This is the point in this post in which I note that I come from a school of thought in which the GM/Plot generates the overwhelming majority of the setting’s lore, and specifically looks at that work as a series of challenges for the players to unravel.
My review of Technoir, while more at incandescent than merely glowing, noted in some detail my reservations about any content-generation methodology that meant that there were no mysteries for players to unravel. 13th Age has been praised for its notecard-based… actually, yeah, I can probably call it a CMS, technically. It directs GMs in weaving plot threads that the players care about back into gameplay and serves as a brainstorming tool.
What I’m trying to say here is that tabletop games have been tackling a lot of the same things I’m talking about here, in all kinds of different ways. Some of those solutions are excellent tools for implementing the directives I’m talking about; others approach the concepts of setting depth and engagement from such different angles that there is no common ground to find.
Consistency: Create a Setting Bible
This is the most important and fundamental thing. There is probably nothing more important than making your setting consistent. Even weak points in the overall design can be worked around, explained, and explored to find interesting detail, as long as there is a foundation of consistency. Whatever Emerson may say about foolish hobgoblins, consistency lets the players feel confidence in a logical process of discovery and educated guesswork. Further, surprise is as simple as the subversion of expectation, and expectation comes from a solid foundation of world consistency.
Managing information so as to build a foundation of consistency is not easy. There’s a lot to handle, from individual NPCs on up to realm-level politics and laws of magic. This is the fun stuff of setting creation, but make sure that you don’t run so fast and so far in your creation that it collapses in on itself. The line between “glorious mess” and “impenetrable jumble” is a fine one, though the difference between the two is sometimes just good exposition.
I worked on LARPs prior to Dust to Dust, and prior to the proliferation of the wiki across the whole internet. We managed campaign information through a plot-side website that was rarely updated and a message board. The wiki format for data storage still has its issues (such as rarely taking the time to engage in full wiki markup of a page or addition), but it’s a hundred times more comprehensible and navigable than a message board of several thousand posts that have no interconnections.
As I work on the Aurikesh setting, I am creating both a player-side and DM-side wiki to organize the setting details. I am aware that there are gaming-oriented wikis that I could be using – Obsidian Portal and Epic Words are justly famed – but I have become attached to the minimalism of PBWorks, and I keep on with it. Also I secretly believe that using a gaming-oriented wiki is bad luck for a campaign’s long-term survival. Call it gamer superstition, or an obnoxious reluctance to learn new things.
If the campaign is to be anything longer than a one-shot, your setting bible is going to be a living document. I am not enough of a guru of information management to give advice on how to make that happen, and in any case a deep discussion of this topic is outside the scope of this post. If you have advice on this topic, though, I charge you in the name of all that is holy to share it.
Build a Secret Into Everything
This is a tip I read, oh, probably close to fifteen years ago now in Dragon Magazine. I don’t recall who might have written the article, but I am deeply grateful for it, because that tip has stuck with me throughout all of the settings I’ve tinkered with over the years. This rule applies to large game elements as well as small ones; the power of the idea (when it comes to creating a lore game) really comes through when a number of small elements (each with their own secrets) add up to a large element. Ideally, the big secret could be derived, or at least roughed out, from the many small secrets; that moment of realization is the Jackpot Payoff of the lore game. I don’t think I need to explain the emotional impact of solving a mystery, though; there’s a whole section of your favorite local bookstore dedicated to that feeling.
This part goes without saying – it is damn near unavoidable – but: link the secrets together. In my experience this will start to happen organically after a certain point. Once you’re, oh, twenty or so hours of writing into creating your setting, it starts to become obvious to you how secrets fit together. That sense of interlocking is something that makes you look like a certified genius after the fact, but when you’re in the writing process it feels natural, automagical. (Every once in awhile, force yourself to do the thing that doesn’t feel natural. See above commentary on surprises.)
As you do all of this writing, you will probably grow as a writer if you are not already at the absolute pinnacle of the profession – and if Messrs. Brust, Gaiman, or Martin, or their equals, are reading this, then I invite them to disregard this comment. You will also get to know your world and characters better, which is to say that you are more able to express the writing talent that you have developed. (Disclaimer: I venture to hope that I have a lot of growing left to do as a writer. If this is the best I will ever be, that would distress me.)
As an alternate statement of this point, write at least a few paragraphs of background on every person, place, or thing that enters the campaign – all but the most utterly mundane things. It’s okay, of course, to have a stock character to get through a scene, just as it’s okay not to develop a unique story around this one healing potion. If it is a mundane thing (in the conventional sense of the word), it’s fine to note it and move on. For all that it takes a lot of work to create this much content, though (no one knows that better than the DtD committee), it pays off without apparent limit in giving players things to talk about.
I’ve talked about this a number of times, particularly in my praise of D&D Next’s magic item system. The first game of my knowledge to implement a mechanical reward for pursuing the lore game – and thus require the GM to build a secret into every magic item – was Earthdawn. I have many complaints about Earthdawn’s mechanics, but magic item attunement and growth through learning the object’s history was unqualified genius.
Quick digression: It is damned hard to work with a published setting heavily built on secrets, because it is so hard (for me, at least) to develop the sense of ownership and agency of the setting that revealing Big Secrets requires of the GM. Otherwise you’re spending a lot of time rewriting material during session prep or on the fly, and that’s hard enough work that you might not be saving any time by using the setting in the first place. This is not a major consideration for most LARP-writers, as published LARP settings for campaign-length play are not common as far as I know, but it is a big deal for tabletop writers. I do think that Dawning Star and Eberron are remarkable examples of doing this part right – they highlight the setting’s open-ended questions, suggest a few possible answers, and then resolutely refuse to pick one for you. This has the effect of dragging a GM into a sense of agency, because sometimes you have to make a big decision for the game to work at all. Once you’ve done that once or twice, it starts to get a lot easier.
I no longer remember where I learned this tip. It might have been from someone reading this right now. Anyway, when you’re writing the stories of each element of your setting, name everyone and everything. If you are like me, you will be strongly tempted to say “a certain fellow” or “at such-and-such a place.” Resist this urge, and just give the players the name. (There’s a right time for breaking this rule, but follow the rule until you are damn sure you have found that right time.) It’s a pain in the ass to come up with names, but if you’re bad at names… well, try very hard to get good at it. (If you are bad at naming things, you probably hate me right now, and I’m sorry about that. I can’t give you good advice on this problem.)
Write these names down in your wiki. Figure out where those people are in your setting’s timeline. If two characters are contemporaries, do something with that. If two characters have some other thing in common but were not contemporaries, do something with that. By the way, all of these names are people, so give them secrets.
Once you’ve named a huge number of elements, you get to be lazy for a little while. Having named it, you can have it show up elsewhere. When players run into that repeated element, they feel smart if they can draw that connection – recognition is a kind of skill mastery, after all. I often find myself drawing connections through name re-use, only to find that the situation doesn’t (on its face) make any sense, and explaining it requires another bit of story, and so on. As long as you show a modicum of self-restraint here, you’ll wind up with compelling questions; the players will always know that there are more answers out there that will lead to new questions. Ta-da! you have a lore-based game loop.
Applications During Gameplay
This is an expansion of my earlier point about secrets, but I want to beat that horse just a little more. Generate situations in gameplay in which knowledge of the world, its characters, and so on pays off in some way. This is a good general principle, but I know exactly how hard it is to implement. The most basic “application” during gameplay successfully draws in the hardcore lore nerds: the competition between scholars to put oneself forward as the most erudite. There are also collectors and completionists – these kinds of players are great for caring enough to chase down anything and everything, no matter how obscure. If this is all you want for lore-based gameplay in your campaign, the preceding commentary is still valid. If, however, you want to draw in more of your players, read on. (Disclaimer: I have not worked out how to get everyone interested. If you know how to do this, I bow to your superior ability and hope you’ll write your own blog post on this topic.)
It’s like this: everyone has some price that is right to make them care about the lore game. For hardcore lore nerds, that price is an emotional reward. For everyone else, some increasing amount of promised or potential reward is necessary, and it would be nice if that reward made some kind of direct sense, but wasn’t so overwhelmingly good that PCs feel their arms being twisted. It’s very tricky to hang a whole encounter on testing whether or not a PC remembers a particular fact – among other things, this will usually mean that the lore nerd steps up to answer, or whispers the answer to the character you really wanted to reward. Not surprising, though – this is about the same as using standardized testing to get students to care about Moby Dick. This is one of those areas in which all PCs are fundamentally students.
That’s a lot of blather to say that making it a pass/fail test won’t do the job. It also points out two goals that are in tension: on the one hand, you want players to talk to each other about the game’s lore constantly, and on the other you want them to learn it for themselves, rather than just sending all questions to the dedicated scholars. It is by no means easy to foster both cooperation and secrecy, but you need them both.
Okay, so what else can you do? Well, there’s in-character research. This is not easy to do in a tabletop game, though I have some ideas I hope to implement. In the process of this research, the players can benefit from all kinds of different resources, including success in skill challenges. One form of skill challenge has been the logic grid puzzle – we reskin these to use details of world lore, some of them generated specifically for that puzzle and others taken from things already established. We have had only a little luck in looking for other kinds of puzzles to inflict upon players; the great majority of logic puzzles are too abstract to have anything to reskin. Also, anything the players have to decipher to learn, they remember keenly, but one would be very unwise to demand that players decipher a document in the same event that they receive it. Mensa-level puzzles are not a good idea for people who have probably not slept more than four hours in the last forty-eight.
The other benefit to research is that just learning the name of a spell or formula can be a big deal, since it gives you something new that you can definitely research, and we have written many ritual and production formulas to reference other formulas and texts. This goes back to interconnection, as discussed above.
On a tabletop note, puzzles of this kind don’t tend to fit into tabletop play all that well. The main problem with them is the very thing that makes them desirable for LARP usage: they are very time-consuming for a single player or small team of players. I haven’t yet made a serious effort at creating puzzles for the players to solve in their spare time between sessions, but that might interest some of them – so long as it felt like a bonus and not a requirement.
Player-Directed Information Gathering
This is going to be a more controversial area of commentary, and that’s appropriate, because I’m about to equivocate like crazy. One kind of player-directed information gathering adds a huge amount to the lore game; the other undermines it rather badly. To start with the latter: player-directed divination. It’s a big problem in games, because once you get past something on approximately the level of augury, and even with a simple detect evil, you’re often in serious plot-ruining territory. It’s fine and good to have divination in the GM’s toolkit, sending prophetic dreams and the like to spur the PCs into action, but writing plotlines in such a way as to account for “ask any one question” divination is a tangled nightmare. Once the PCs have commune, you can pretty much forget about it.
The main problem is that, by their nature, divination spells are almost never limited to “what some scholar has previously written about.” Instead, they cover the entire range of knowledge that has not been warded with divination-blocking spells – and there’s an arms race that can quickly take over a whole campaign. I strongly recommend limiting PC-controlled divination to the simplest of functions.
At the other extreme, you have Lore or Knowledge skills: the ability to ask questions, with or without the investment of extensive time and energy (in the form of a downtime action), on a limited topic, and with a scope of knowledge limited to what previous academics have written down. The reason this is important, particularly in LARPs, is that it gives the players agency in pursuing the mysteries in which they are invested. It’s altogether too easy to leave one player’s topic of interest by the wayside for a few events, just because things slip through the cracks in event planning. If there can only be movement in a plotline when NPCs appear on-camera to make that movement happen, it’s all but guaranteed that not everyone will see progress in the course of an event.
Then there’s the case of tabletop games. Be careful that the player(s) with the big scores in Knowledge skills don’t monopolize the DM with a question-and-answer session. This would be exactly like a player in a LARP expecting 100% of a marshal’s time to answer questions related to a particular Lore skill – there are other players, and the DM’s attention is what makes the game go forward. For that reason, I think Knowledge skills are at their best when they help the players avoid obvious-to-the-DM mistakes, or give the players extra confidence that their plans and decisions fit what their characters would know. There’s still a place for using Knowledge skills to help the player operate with the full range of knowledge that the stats say the character has, but the best way to do this would be some kind of downtime action (possibly handled over email) between the player and the DM.
This has covered the application of skills to lore-based gameplay only in generalities, in a way that will offer little to the experienced setting creator. Since this is already one of the longest posts in the history of this blog, I’ll leave off here, and possibly revisit this topic when my thinking on it has had time to develop further.