A few weeks ago, two of my readers were kind enough to provide me with questions on the implementation of a lore game. Owing to preparation for a Dust to Dust event, I couldn’t provide an immediate answer, but I will attempt to do so now. As a disclaimer, I will say that there is no certification class for Expert in such a thing, and I am still learning a lot – hence the title of this post. While my statements will be phrased in the first-person singular, there would not be a campaign at all if it were not for the time, talents, and considerable treasure of the DtD Plot Committee.
How do you balance the integrity of your overarching story and world history with the desire to have players be able to impact it, and tie in to past events? How do you deal with the desire to tell “your story” but the need to engage players by making it theirs?
How you balance this, and where you put the emphasis often means the difference between a railroaded game, where the staff is just focused on telling the story, versus that wonderful synergistic place where players are able to see how their actions and their histories have impacted the world?
The first thing I want to say about this is that I did not create Dust to Dust so that I could tell a particular story. The setting and its aesthetics were, from its earliest conversations, the only thing that mattered to me to express. There are some things that are very likely to happen at a given point in the campaign, but in general those are open to movement based on player actions. Therefore the difficulty that we face is not in preserving the beat-by-beat flow of the story, but in balancing the aesthetics and social rules of the setting against what best supports playability. We spend a lot of time during our Plot meetings discussing various probable outcomes, but we try not to hang dependencies off of the outcomes we see as most likely.
It would be a total dodge to leave off with that answer, though. Historical Events have turned out to be a boon here, to a greater extent than I had personally foreseen. It’s an opt-in system that, depending on the role the player chooses, represents some amount of fame, infamy, or straight out people-trying-to-kill-you. The original point of Historical Events was to give characters a place in the world from Day One, “earned” in the sense that the player could only choose a limited number of roles. Players made some unexpected choices, though – switching the gender of roles, combining two roles into one character, or assigning roles not to their own characters, but to NPCs from their character histories.
All of these created useful story connections. As the campaign goes on, many minor plot threads are practically written already, while others gain nuances that break them out of conventional patterns. To put that another way, I wasn’t specifically thinking of how complexity increases in a narrative as time goes on, because the Historical Event system gives complexity (here used as a positive) a leg up. Also, we have continued to create more Historical Events even after the Day of Legend, comparable to the Whispered Tales, Port of Call, or INN Reports of our sister games.
Other than the Historical Events, I have to give credit to the players themselves – Dust to Dust is blessed with an incredibly clever, thoughtful, and engaged playerbase. Once the players start developing and implementing plans of their own, the effects that players have on the world becomes self-evident. We also put puzzles into the game that weren’t solved in the same event, and weren’t intended to be. From that point, it was out of our hands, though we had a few levers left to us if we wanted to hurry things along. This meant that the revelation of some major campaign secrets was, in a sense, a bomb on an unknown countdown. Putting information in-play that way was very liberating to us as a Plot committee. It also suggested to players that the answers to some mysteries were in-play and waiting to be solved, rather than keeping the players in a mode of waiting for revelations.
Not every mystery is seeded or solvable in this way, but enough of them are that players who care deeply about those kinds of puzzles have things to do. (On the other hand, a thirty-ish page book of encrypted texts is a huge amount of work to create – I wish we had time to make more of them.) The point I want to make is that the players who solved those puzzles can know that their own efforts changed the timeline of campaign secrets, and they can start doing things to explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate those secrets.
Is the seeding of information across various groups, people and interests a deliberate attempt to discourage information hoarding and encourage discussion and sharing? And, assuming so, was this a deliberate choice as Game Designers? And how much work does it take to pull off?
We seed information across multiple groups for a number of reasons. The primary goal is to create a game environment that promotes interaction between players of many different groups. That interaction won’t necessarily be sharing; I can certainly imagine players holding such information hostage from one another, as in the case of cabals competing over spells. If players do decide to share, they are creating a new channel of communication and, presumably, mutual benefit. Sometimes these interactions do us the favor of being someone’s favorite scene in the whole event, from something that was not much more complicated on our end than the content we were already going to be creating.
The second goal is to present a setting with consistent, believable connections between things beyond the field of play. For example, imagine an NPC who has ties to a warrior order, a mystery cult, a First Age culture, and a modern culture. (The last two are practically unavoidable.) Someone who was only interested in the warrior order might reasonably learn details that plug into what someone investigating only the First Age culture has learned. The behind-the-scenes truth of the setting is that a lot of things connect to one another if you follow them in enough different directions.
I can’t exactly say that we are discouraging information hoarding; it’s a little more complicated than that. If a player sits on what he learns, I don’t care, as such. The player made a choice, and gets the good and bad consequences thereof. The player would probably be having more fun with increased sharing, though – since pretty much everyone likes piping up with the crucial piece of information that someone else needs. It’s fun to feel well-informed; I suspect that this appeals even to people who haven’t gone in for the lore game as a whole.
The actual goal is to distribute enough content that no one player is the go-to source of all of it. Otherwise, the game only “needs” one lore-focused character; we’d rather see a setting in which an eighty-player base needs multiple loremasters, each with their own specialties.
It’s easier for a player to take interest in something going on if you’ve heard a name and possibly a few pieces of information about it before. Thus, when players sit down and compare notes, they’re actively doing a lot of the heavy lifting of exposition for us. On the other hand, this is where games of Telephone (I imagine that in DtD this game is called “Drunken Scribe”) come from… which means that when someone digs into a topic again later, the things they learn may seem contradictory or nonsensical. As long as the Plot committee is clear on canon, though, errors of fact are eventually discovered and resolved.
As to the amount of effort involved, my only points of comparison are the games I worked on before. The considerations of how to build a vibrant lore game were part of my thinking, but nowhere near as important to me then as they are now. I don’t recall ever putting anywhere near as much time or energy into StarQuest or Wildlands South‘s second arc. This may be indicative of my failings at the time, of course…
Many thanks to JohnKazuo and Lilisonna for sending me questions! If more of my Gentle Readers wish to send me questions that have anything to do with the topic of this blog, that would be great! Questions that don’t relate to Harbinger’s topics may wind up in some other blog instead.