Thursday, May 17, 2012

In Their Hands: Building Player Materials

In my post from Monday- Secrets,Rumors, and Hearsay: Player-Facing RPG Materials- I tried to pull together various rpg products which included player-facing materials. I have a couple more thoughts on the topic. More than handouts, these products give players rich stuff to play with. They offer something physical and tangible. They present a living puzzle which different players can address in different ways. Some add to the verisimilitude of a setting, presenting an artifact from the game world itself. They can give expertise to the players. Even more importantly, they give players control, allowing them to make choices based on that material.

So I’m fond of this type of material, especially when well crafted. The published stuff I mentioned is all pretty good- but perhaps difficult to port over to another campaign. Conversion and change up can be difficult- although with more electronic materials out this, this process has been made easier. One suggestion mentioned by Eric Dodd (Red Wine Pie from RPG Geek) is the possibility of materials from one game being used wholesale as artifacts for another. In this case, notes or handouts from a 1920’s campaign being found by a group of modern CoC investigators. I’ve done that once, where the play notes of a previous PC group served as the backdrop and backstory for a group of later PCs.

Of course one the dangers of player facing materials is that it can overwhelm your players. Especially if provided in a dense chunk, a larger booklet or folio, players may be intimidated. I’ve said before that a GM shouldn’t count on players having read material you’ve given them. That’s a practical fact- people’s schedules, levels of interest, and even learning styles can impact this. So you’re left with a choice of penalizing players for that or trying to find an approach that takes that into consideration. In some ways, larger player-facing materials may create a split within a group- between those who wish to engage with the material away from the table and those who don’t. If some players become experts in the material, they can drive the game, pulling the other PCs along.

That’s not to say that either position is bad, but that GMs have to consider that when handing out player-facing material. That can start simply with the physical nature of the material. If you don’t have enough copies of something, then some players will be stuck waiting or will have to listen as another player narrates, which defeats the purpose. One alternative could be to have the object or material broken up, with a part for each player to digest. Then the players can do some negotiating and synthesis at the table. I played in a game where the player text was a tape-recording. It was a great starter device, with a dynamite feel, but the GM didn’t have a transcription ready as well. That meant we had a break of weeks before we actually had something like that in hand, losing a good deal of the power of the device. It ended up more a novelty than a significant tool for the GM.

The other basic fact I often forget is reading takes time. If you hand out written materials at the table, that brings the scene to a halt. Saying “don’t read this now” undercuts some of the excitement of the discovery. I think that the best places to drop in this stuff are at the beginning or end of a session. The beginning can allow the players to develop a plan and follow up on it; the ending means players can read it outside the pressure of the game’s clocks. Perhaps they’ll stick around and go over it, perhaps they’ll take it home.

I can see two really good approaches to handling player facing material- both, of course, demonstrated by a Robin Laws product.

Piecemeal: The end goal is a larger body of player facing material, but as a GM you dole that out in pieces over time. Each piece should be significant, standing on its own. It should have enough material that the players can wrestle with it and figure things out. As they get more pieces, they can start to build connections. The ArmitageFiles takes this approach. Each document is a couple of pages long. Individually they offer ideas for a mystery and hint at the meta-plot. By breaking the full player text apart, the group has a chance to digest the material.

Consider crafting a longer document and then cutting it apart. Part of the puzzle with be figuring out the chronology. Other puzzles and riddles can be worked in depending on the order. A campaign might look very different based of which piece comes first. You might even have a literal puzzle or image which the pieces show. Over time the players will accumulate a substantial reference work.

Grab-Bag: On the other hand you could also hand the players a volume of material and not put any pressure on them. The material serves as a cool, in-game reference work- a briefing, an outline, a guidebook provided by sources. The players can choose to go through it or not, at their leisure. If they do, they can discover hooks, people and places than they could follow up on. If they don’t they can later turn to the material for background when they come into contact with a person, group or idea. 

The Kaiin Player’s Guide takes this approach. The players’ have everything they need to know about the city, but there’s no “test.” They can flip through the guide until they spot something cool and then zoom in on that. It’s like catalog shopping. In some ways the player’s book from City of Lies does this as well. By breaking things up into small entries- with clear headings, players can jump around and look for whatever excites them. The design of the product should be comfortable, with easy and bite-size information. One benefit of this process is that it allows you as the GM to do some world building, but still leave the choices open for the players. You can expand on the details they follow up on.

I’ve tried this approach a couple of times and had pretty good success with it. When I ran my Exalted campaign, I put up a couple of short entries every other day as a countdown to the start of the campaign, covering places and people of the city the game would be set in. I ended up with a pretty substantial gazetteer. When we got to the table, the players had the flavor of the city and a solid product in the consolidated guide put together for them by their elders. I also did this for the superhero campaign I ran set in New Orleans. In the lead up to the campaign, I sent out articles that went through key NPCs in a number of different areas. I hoped this would offer players people they could contact or follow up on. The group ended up more task-focused and less interested in that sandbox approach.

GMs now have access to some amazing electronic tools. DTP software can easily be found and even basic word-processing programs can be used to assemble something decent looking. That’s a great advantage, before we even get into what kinds of image and art materials GMs have access to. However, there’s a thorn in these modern tools GMs need to be wary of. Doing something electronically, while making things easier doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll get used. And GMs should always be evaluating prep choices in terms of the time invested: table play payoff. For example, wikis are a great resource. We have a number of wikis for the various different campaigns. Some of them have been nicely cross index. My wife enjoys working with those and the process of building connections between entries has helped her uncover some of the mysteries of the campaign and see patterns.

But despite having some really excellent wikis, with a ton of material, they get used rarely. I can see the hits and the edits, and most players don’t look at that stuff or look at it infrequently. It is a great tool for me as the GM, an excellent archive, but it only really works because it is player created. If I were doing it, it wouldn’t be nearly as nice or complete. Wikis also mean updating and if someone gets behind then the material quickly loses relevancy as the campaign continues. I suspect most of the reason for that is players don’t take “plotting” or investigative approaches away from the game table. On the other hand, a wiki could be great for players to do look up on at the table, with tablets or the like. But that invites a host of other serious problems…

All of that said, building this kind of material takes time and energy on the part of a GM. I’ve gotten better in recent years about building playable material. I don’t worry so much about the historical details or full encyclopedia entries for places and things. I focus on what players will contact and thinking about how that will appear to them. Obscure details of a particular battle don’t matter unless it impacts the story. Otherwise I don’t have to write it up, I just have to be able to improvise convincingly.

With my bona fides as a lazy GM established, I’ll point to the easiest way to build solid, interesting and immersive player-facing materials. Any kind of collaborative building exercise creates rich details that the players own just as much as the GM. History creation in Microscope, cluster development in Diaspora, clan creation in Blood & Honor, city building in Dresden Files- all of these create player facing materials. And each time I’ve done this, the players have created things I never would have thought of. They give me the tools to raise the armies against themselves. They get a thrill of recognition when the group they created knocks down their door to kill them. The trick is that you really aren’t giving over that much control as the GM- you still get to fill in the cracks, you still get to spin things in new directions. For example, one of the players wanted to have unicorns in the last fantasy campaign. So they threw them into the timeline with a slight mention. We knew little about them…so I made them the secret masters, the Illuminati manipulating the horrors from behind the scenes.

Oh cool, a unicorn… *glork*

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