Monday, May 14, 2012

Secrets, Rumors, and Hearsay: Player-Facing RPG Materials

The more I GM, the more I want to share responsibility with my players. I want them as engaged in the process of world and story creation as I am. Having ownership and authority over those worlds aids in immersion...or at least spurs interest. In that vein, some game lines produced unique player-facing products, offering players information to explore and control. In this case I'm not talking about mechanical books with new powers, options or abilities. Or even books that present generic perspective or stories about class or the like (i.e. splat books). Instead these materials offer specific, detailed and tangible narrative materials for a campaign setting- directly placed in the players' hands. 

These are more than simple handouts. Many games have awesome bits and materials. Campaign classics like Death on the Reik and Horror on the Orient Express supply lovely pieces. But these usually offer an illustration, rather than providing a text for the players to return to repeatedly and explore. So I've left off many games with handouts if those handouts don't significantly shape the game experience.

Some of these products are artifacts from the game world. They remind me of metafictional texts like House of Leaves or Dictionary of the Khazars. Both of those offer reading as an exploration game, not unlike a story-focused rpg. I crafted something like this for my Changeling campaign, my Wayward notebook prop. That gave the players something to grab on to and use as an anchor. I suspect this is an incomplete list, suggestions are welcome. I also wonder if I've missed some video game rpgs with outside supplements or texts which qualify? 

For more on this see my post In Their Hands: Building Player Materials.

One of the best campaign sets I've ever bought. City of Lies provides GMs and players with all of the tools they need to run an amazing and distinct campaign. Part of what makes this set so impressive is that there's nothing generic about the city they chose- a major holding of the suspect Scorpion clan, an opium crossroads, strong presence of the marginalized Unicorn clan, and a host of other details. Some city books and materials could be easily lifted and purposed elsewhere. Ryoko Owari is its own beast, complete and whole, and very hard to imagine being used for another game or campaign.

The designers help players enter into that setting through two devices. The first is the 88 page players' guidebook, written to the characters' viewpoint. The default assumption of the campaign set is that the PCs are new arrivals, most likely magistrates having to keep the peace. The details of the player's books come from the notebooks of several major characters, former recent inhabitants, including two predecessor magistrates with different temperaments. The idea is that their superiors have assembled these materials to aid the party in orienting themselves. Beyond background and geography, this guidebook provides an overview of all of the major NPCs, with different takes on their motives and purposes. It introduces and suggests several major mysteries which the PCs can choose to investigate. All and all it remains one of the best approaches I've seen to creating a tool the players can use throughout the campaign.

The other major device- SPOILERS- is a similar, smaller booklet. It contains the more secret writings of the
mysteriously murdered magistrate they're replacing. It offers deeper insight to the open puzzles, the stories from the player's book, and demonstrates just how unreliable a narrator that magistrate may have been. This booklet is a great turning point reward for players in the campaign. I should also note the AEG used a similar device with the S-1: The Tomb of Iuchiban set, which had a substantial journal the party could obtain and delve for insight on the plot.

Robin Laws continues to build game concepts that overturn or revise old approaches. That makes some of his products polarizing. But I come away with a new perspective on gaming every time I read one. Kaiin is a city guide, but only for the players. There's no GM's guide to the city at all. Instead players have access all of the ideas and materials for the different and bizarre districts and stories of this setting. Each chapter provides an overview of the neighborhood, the people in it, and the various rumors and activities going on there. It makes players an expert on this chaotic city, rather than outsiders or strangers.

The idea is that players can look through and pick the stories they want to explore and then head off to hunt those down. They can offer spin to the GM who then riffs from those leads. The players make their own pitfalls and misery, in keeping with the tone of the whole Dying Earth setting. It is a striking approach, and one that could be used elsewhere. However to do that you'd really have to invest in a city and make it the focal-point of a campaign. GMs would also have to be willing to share that power with their players. In some ways, I imagine the city creation tools from The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game serve this same function. We've used Microscope to do something similar with a wider scope.

While many great games have handouts, most of those illustrate or suggest a single clue. Some may even have a single puzzle hidden within them. This city supplement, for the Kingdoms of Kalamar setting, has an even richer player-driven framework. Called RumorQuest(tm) it puts choices in the players' hands and immerses them in the setting. It does this by providing 110 rumors, each on individual cards. These are arranged in thematic sets for the GM. Cards in a set tend to deal with a particular plot or group, but also include mundane details, red herrings, and local color. There's an excellent guide section for the GM on how to use these and how to distribute them.

I like it for a number of reasons. It offers players a feel for the city while allowing them to choose the path of any investigation. The cards have a tangible feel to them, a physical object they can read or pass around. It also gets around the "parrot problem" in that a GM can hand the rumor to the player and they can spin it for the group, rather than just repeating the GM's words. The basic RumorQuest structure could easily be expanded on- perhaps potential plots could be thrown in. If the players follow up on those, they then make a decision about what's relevant and important in the game. It could be an excellent tool for a sandbox campaign. I did notice that Kenzer didn't produce any other products using the same approach as far as I can tell.

Another Robin Laws product that changes up the basic approach of the game. Like Geanavue mentioned above, the player-facing mechanics are really just handouts. But the depth and use of these handouts sets it apart from other games. The Armitage papers are literally and figuratively the key to the game. Each document is an artifact: the textual content, the illustrations, and even the appearance suggest clues about the plot. Players can return to the documents for hints and suggestions during adventures and over time they can uncover patterns of connections between them. This puts investigation and control in their hands. These handouts become the spine of the campaign, and over time the PCs will assemble their own book, complete with interpretations and marginalia.

This series isn't completely player-facing, but many of the supplements do offer significant and substantial player-exclusive tools. Beginning with GAZ4: The Kingdom of Ierendi, the Gazetteers added separate player and GM booklets. Many of these had mechanical material (new classes, spells, skills and so on). But many also offered cultural perspectives and ideas, helping players to make sense of the region. They presented a version of the history and a guide to the culture and rules of this place. That allowed players to become experts at the table- if they chose a character from that place they could offer insight and a reasonable interpretation. It also meant the player didn't have to rely on the GM, but instead had that under their control. The best of the Gazetteers gave the players perspective, but then present revelations in the DM's book which subverted those expectations.

Obviously this kind of thing can have be handled as the chapter or section in a larger book, but I like the idea of being able to individually provide players with this background. In my own campaigns, that's pushed players to really think about their people. They've come up with richer and more interesting ideas to support those presented in the books. They participate in the world creation process because they have a sense of ownership.

This is a series I regret not buying more of. I picked up the basic sets for Birthright, mostly because I was curious about the warfare options at the time. You play regents, powerful lords and ladies of various types (priests, warriors, wizards) each commanding a domain. Each supplement in this series offers the details of one such domain for the player. So, pick which country you want to run and then pick up the booklet for it.

The supplements are pretty short, 32 pages plus cover and maps. Each has an overview; run down of the history & geography; a look at the law and culture; the key NPCs (with stats); a breakdown of the Holdings (key features); and brief snippets offer plots- secrets, rumors and problems in the domain. This gives the player everything they need to play out their campaign. They can choose to look into the problems there, they can plan their adventures, they can decide who they want to talk to. It is a kind of amazingly forward-thinking approach for a game from the mid-1990's. I can imagine building something like this on a smaller scale for other campaigns- perhaps something like Reign which has players in charge of companies. How about an abstract fantasy campaign where each player controls something like a guild or organization?

This is one of a number of smaller booklets White Wolf produced for their lines, "artifacts" which mimicked legendary books and offered insight into the setting (for example The Book of Nod, The Erciyes Fragments, The Silver Record). Most of them seemed to be aimed at flavor over utility, but some had some merit. The could be used as interesting in game resources to give players a tangible background or a mystery to untangled. Mage's book The Fragile Path: Testaments of the First Cabal could be used in this way.

Hunter Apocrypha stands out as the best and most useful of these. It's an example of the kinds of documents and writings a Hunter PC might find. It represents the crazed way in which their traditions might be passed along. And the book itself could spur a Hunter campaign, since it has many leads, mysteries and shadowy characters a GM might bring to bear. Unreliable narrator doesn't even begin to get at what's going on here. Piercing together those details with events in a campaign could be a great and satisfying thing. I played in a campaign where the GM did this tangentially, but disappointingly dropped it, making it feel more artificial than organic to the campaign.

This is another great example of an in-game artifact which can be used to shape long-term campaigns. A companion volume to Bookhounds of London, it presents a guidebook to Occult London. Commissioned mysteriously, the author died before completing the manuscript. The book serves as flavor text, a guide, and also hints at many mysteries including the death of the author. A GM could easily have the discovery of this book be the starting point of a Bookhounds campaign, with references driving the players back to the pages for clues.

It is wonderful products like these that really go beyond classic handouts. Especially now, with easy access to DTP technologies and the ability to craft reasonable facsimiles of ancient pieces, GMs are living in a golden age. Rumor has it that Pelgrane plans to produce a similar book for their upcoming Night's Black Agents game. This would be a kind of modern and shattershot Van Helsing guide to dealing with certain monsters.

In some ways, solitaire adventures (like Flying Buffalo's series) and Choose Your Own Adventure books represent the ultimate player facing rpg material. They're still tabletop in form, but they lack a certain amount of interaction. I haven't played it, but Sweet Agatha promises something of the CYOA but in a kind of metafictional way, with the multiple players working through and piecing together the actual story of the events. The book itself is an artifact and a puzzle, and multiple solutions or answers might be created. I like the idea of putting something that offers multiple interpretations in the hands of the players and letting them talk/argue out some kind of solution.