Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Prep Where Prep is Due

A gamemaster needs to spend his preparation and development time on those things which will provide the greatest benefit at the game table. That's often a difficult rule to follow because creating a campaign and running is a creative act. But oddly enough it is also like a sales presentation or pitch. You need to have in mind your target audience, you need to know what you're trying to sell and you have to be able to close the deal. Your presentation has a limited amount of face time and you need to make it effective and engaging. I'm immediately dissatisfied with the analogy there because GMing is such an oddball mix of roles. Let me focus on a particular example:

Having a rich history and backstory for your world or setting is great. But a GM needs to think about what the players need to know. What I see too often and what I've fallen prey to in the past is an overemphasis on backstory. Fantasy rpgs most often sink under this weight. They mistake world-building for actually providing something people can play in. Elaborate histories, extensive genealogies, details on the flora and fauna sound great, but most of the time they don't help a player make choices. By make decisions, I mean the following:

-How do I play my character? & What do I do in this situation?
This is often the worst thing. Giving a player a long document which details the history and ethos of various nations and races usually doesn't give them a sense of who they are as characters. By their nature, PCs operate at the micro-level, seeing things as they happen on the ground. Some players will trudge through that stuff, but most won't or they'll only get a superficial sense of what is going on. In either case, the time and effort that you've put into writing all that up has been wasted. You might be able to work it in later (at risk of falling into game lecture mode) but your time could have been better spent.

If you're going to provide info, Players need quick summaries of things like races, groups and nations that they have to choose from. That should help them generally select what they want for their character. What they need after that is information that talks about what it is like to be a member of whatever group they choose. Some of the best material I ever saw for this was from Runequest/Glorantha. On the surface that setting seems impenetrable-- with a really complicated and insanely details history. But the game setting has always made it a point that the PCs don't really know that stuff. Each group in RQ has an entry called "What My Father Told Me..." consisting of a narrative from some kind of authority figure. They answer the following questions:

Who are you?
Who are we?
What makes us great?
What is the difference between men and women?
Where do we live?
How do we live?
What is important in my life?
Who rules us?
What makes a person great?
What is evil?
What is my lot in life?
How do we deal with others?
Who are our enemies?
Who are our gods?
What is there to do around here?

These are the things a player needs to know in order to start to play a character from a culture or place which is vastly different from their experience. You spend about a paragraph per answer. I guarantee it is the most effective time spent to help a player get what they know and what they're about. They can agree with it, they can change it, they can rebel from it, but in any of these cases they're at least reacting from a solid grounding. Telling someone the history of the Dwarves' wars with the Orcs and the Elves doesn't do that-- they learn a couple of things (Dwarves don't like Orcs) but that's not usually enough for a player to come up with a character who will stand out.

All of this comes about when Sherri pointed out to me how much time I was spending on writing histories, doing gazetteers, building timelines and trying to reconcile events. Those things are backdrop and can serve as color as a game progresses, but generally they look and feel to players like an info dump. They're already dealing with the info dump of the situation they're in so adding more complexity makes matters worse.

And it isn't an effective use of time.

(more again tomorrow maybe)


  1. Once you've had a "what my father told me..." introduction to a culture, you never do want to go back. It's got everything that gives you a handle on a new character--a sense of what the people were like that you grew up among, what "good" means to you and what "bad" means to you--even if you decide to be the exception to every rule about your people, you still know far better what it REALLY is that you're rebelling against.

    I really do think it was the first time I "got" roleplaying in the sense that the character I was playing could be more just my own ideas about right and wrong coated in a little wish-fulfillment skill pointage.

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