RPT#104 – 5 Ways To Work Information Into Your Game
A Brief Word From Johnn
Cool GM Article Resource
I’m not sure if you’ve checked out the cool online RPGs at Skotos yet, but I found a very interesting stash of GM articles over there that cover more than PBeMs and interactive gaming. Many of them are perfect for face-to- face RPing and contain some good GM advice. Check’em out at:
Cheers and Happy Holidays,
Johnn Four firstname.lastname@example.org
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Guest Tips by Julia Pope
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Getting the information that’s necessary to your plot down on paper might be easy for you, but how should you communicate it to your players? Of course, you can always give them hand-outs, and this can be very helpful at the beginning of a campaign, in order to get the players familiarized with the well-known features of the world.
I usually give out a document entitled “The Known World” at the beginning of any campaign, which contains the important information each character would be expected to know (basic history, religious beliefs, famous legends, current political situation, details about neighbouring nations, and so on).
But what about the more obscure stuff, the material that is kept secret, or only known to a few scholars, or that is just something the PCs wouldn’t know at the start of the game? Here are a number of ways to impart information to the players within the context of the game.
- Tell Them A StoryThe bard in the tavern, the old man in the village square, or the child playing in the forest can all tell the PCs a story. It could be about a great hero and his deeds, a bloody battle, or an angry fairy who cursed the land.This is one of the easiest ways of getting information across, since the PCs will generally be listening attentively. They may even ask questions, and you should be prepared to tell them if and where they might find more information. (“Well, I heard the story from my grandfather, who said it was a common tale in his part of the country…”) It is important to bear in mind that tales change with the telling – one village might have a very different version of a particular story than their neighbours across the river. In fact, the differences might be the most important part, if they illustrate the confusion or disagreement around the incident in question.
- Write A Poem Or SongGreat or infamous events have a way of getting recorded in poetry or ballads. If you’re energetic and/or talented, write it yourself. Players are generally very forgiving of early efforts in this vein – most of them will just appreciate the fact that you went to that much effort for the game. Otherwise, there are many great websites with searchable poetry databases where you can find someone else’s poem and adapt it by changing the names of people and places. Or, take some song lyrics that seem relevant and use those.Books of old ballads can be particularly good for a medieval-style campaign, while your own CDs might provide some fodder for a more modern setting. Again, players will usually pay quite a lot of attention to information imparted using this technique, since you are drawing their attention to it in a rather obvious way. Like stories, however, songs don’t always tell the exact truth – they can change details to make things more poetic, or just to make them rhyme.
- Show Them SomethingWhen you don’t want to hand the information over so easily, showing the PCs what you want them to know can be a bit more challenging (both for you and them!) Let them pass through a village festival that features a ceremonial re-enactment of an ancient truce between two races. Point out landmarks as they travel (the place where no grass grows, the huge rock split in two).Chances are, if you mention something unusual like this, the PCs will ask someone nearby for more information. They will feel a certain amount of satisfaction if they discover ‘on their own’ (from asking the right questions to NPCs, rather than having you simply tell them outright) that the barren spot marks the place where Good King Gordovar was killed by his own son, or that the boulder was split in the Age of Bronze by the fist of Elanya Giantkiller.
This has some risk attached – the players might not pay close attention to your description, and thus miss an important piece of information. Be prepared if you use this technique, to introduce the necessary details in some other way if the plot cannot advance without them. I prefer to use this technique for information that is not absolutely necessary, but is helpful or interesting in some way.
- Tomb-RaidingFor information that isn’t commonly known, or perhaps isn’t known at all any more, you will often have to present very old sources of information. In some campaigns, long-lived races such as elves or dragons might be possessors of such lore, although they would probably be reluctant to divulge it to just anyone without good cause. In other settings, ancient cities, tombs, and inscriptions are frequently the prime source for lost information. I needn’t tell you how many adventures can derive from searching for, in, and around such places…Put the necessary information in an ‘ancient language’ or a code, or leave it incomplete (due to intentional damage or simple age and wear) or otherwise ambiguous for an extra challenge. If you have some artistic talent, you might consider drawing some pictures or pictograms (or perhaps something like a rebus) rather than writing a text. This can lead to all sorts of interesting misunderstandings, but it’s a nice change for the players.
- ResearchWhen all else fails, the PCs may actually try to find a sage or library and do the necessary research in books. In my opinion, this course of action should generally be quite expensive, since it’s the easiest for the PCs in many ways – after all, they can just sit around while someone else does most of the work, and it will rarely subject them to serious danger.But, if the information is actually there to be found, it would be cruel to keep them from finding it…after a while. Of course, if you don’t want them to find tons of useful material this way, there are ways of blocking their path:
- Imposing outrageous prices for hiring the needed sage or getting access to the required tomes (perhaps they are owned by a temple that requires a considerable ‘donation’ from researchers)
- Having the information only made available to certain people (nobles, wizards, licensed historians)
- Letting them discover that the necessary book has been misplaced (or stolen?)
However, if you do decide to permit them to find significant information this way, a good technique (though somewhat time-consuming) is to actually write a good-sized chunk of material yourself (perhaps a page or two). This has a couple of benefits:
- First, you can show off a little bit in your presentation of the material (I like to use interesting fonts and papers);
- Second, it forces the players to work for their information much harder than simply telling them what they have found does. They have to read the document carefully, pick out the important parts, interpret ambiguous passages, and most importantly, draw their own conclusions.
For an extra challenge, you can present them with two or three different documents, each of which contradicts the others in some way.
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- Help The PCs Plant Roots
From: Dan H.
A final, useful element is to cause your characters to put down roots in your campaign world. If the characters are in a town and a revolution is sparked, why should they care?
Well, they shouldn’t if they are just passing through. Philosophical (alignment) concerns are a pretty weak reason to get involved and can become pretty tiresome. But, if they have roots or some special interest, then when something important happens, they will have a concrete reason to get involved.
Now, there are a few traditional ways to do this.
- One, the players may decide on their own to care about the world. A cleric in my game spontaneously decided to devote himself to the local church because, well, he considered that good role-playing. That’s great but only a few players really do this.
- Two, you can seed the history of the player’s character. In my game, players frequently want to create a history for their characters and turn to me (the DM) to help. So, I suggest that they have some family or church or some other thing that they care about. This helps, too, but it isn’t really motivating in my experience. The character history is something that happened *before* the game so it is hard to get really unhappy about it. Really, if your character’s NPC mother is going to be lynched by revolutionaries, the player knows he *should* care. But, pretty soon, the player gets annoyed: “What have those stupid NPCs gotten themselves into this time!” (It is enough to make a character want to fail and let the NPC die, just to be done with it!)
But, I use an untraditional way: Give out free stuff.
Nobles, rich merchants and kings have a lot of money and lots of land. And, they realize that some wimpy fighter today may become the Hercules of tomorrow. So, they spread some gifts around the adventuring community, including the characters, so when somebody does become powerful, these rich guys can say, “Yes, I know so-and-so. I gave him some land. He’s a friend.”
Sometimes, the characters get land. It may be ownership of a little farm which has a family on it that generates 20 g.p. per month. When they get this land, they usually worry about taxes. But, I assure them, that 20 g.p. is after taxes. Then, they worry about the family getting killed or kidnapped. But, I don’t let that happen. Nope, every game month, a servant shows up with 20 g.p.
Or, maybe a noble gives them a sweet deal on training. “Use my training grounds for free,” he says, “they just sit around otherwise. And, when you come back to town, let me know and we’ll have dinner. And, I’m really interested in stuffed monster heads so drop by when you find one of those and I’ll give you my best offer.”
So, a few months later, the revolution springs up. Now, the character is going to have an opinion. The man on his farm says, “Boss, I’m going to do this dangerous mission.” The characters may say, “Hey, let us take care of that”. If the man dies, they figure, the farm won’t produce that 20 g.p. per month. Or, the noble says, “I’m a bit worried that I might lose my lands or get killed in the revolution, what about you?” The characters say, “Gulp, maybe I’ll build a fort.” Or, if they hear about it from far away, “Maybe I’ll hire and send some mercenaries back there to keep my lands or friends safe.” In the end, the characters are going to put some effort into making sure that the sources of their “free stuff” stay alive.
Over time, with this method, the DM builds up a network of favors. The characters owe favors to NPCs but, also, a lot of NPCs owe favors to the PCs. The favors are in different forms: some promises, some contracts, some vague “I’ll do you this favor and you promise to help me when I ask” and some “this guy helped us out before so let’s help him out now.” It all draws them into the world. If the noble goes to war, maybe his PC friends don’t fight the war for him. But they are affected and maybe they do some scouting for him.
The key is for the NPCs to bring value. If NPCs are always suffering and dying, always in need of saving, they are irritating. But, if NPCs bring good things, characters will trust them. They will be involved.
- World Creation Idea
Good morning, afternoon, or whenever you happen to be looking at this. My name is Dmechy and I currently GM an ADnD sort of RPG called Mystic Tides. As I was sitting in science class and looking around, I saw a photograph of the Periodic Table of Elements. It had a short history of the elements including naming.
My idea was to make a world with countries based on the descriptions of elements. Examples:
- Cobalt. Named after a demon called a kobold because of its poisonous properties and the danger involved in mining it. The country is named Clobat and is a extremely poor country where the plague is rampant and is run by a corrupt and evil government.
- Silver. One of the first elements recorded. It is mentioned in Genesis. The country is Slivver and has been around for 6,000 years. The inhabitants use scientific methods for everything. The country is fairly wealthy and holds much power over neighbouring countries.
- Helium. Named after the sun in which traces of it were first identified. The country is named Helios, its inhabitants are a wild, red haired people who worship the sun and fire. They are quite volatile and willing to fight for any cause.
I have even taken things a step farther and organized things into groups. Silver, Gold, and Platinum are one alliance of countries, while Cobalt, Nickel, Plutonium, Uranium, and Helium are each allies.
All you need to make this world is some creative map making and a descriptive periodic table, the latter being easy to find all over the internet.[Johnn: this is a great example of how to pick a theme and transform it into a world concept. Other themes, thinking off the top of my head, could be gems (i.e. The Black Company novels by Glenn Cook), animals, weather, insects, and colours. Depending on your campaign goals and GMing styles, this is a great technique.]
- Introductory Sessions Tips
From: Brian E.
In the last few weeks I’ve run two solo sessions with players that have never played before to introduce them to roleplaying games. At the present time I’m not running any long term campaigns so I couldn’t simply let them watch or guest in a group of players who are ‘in the loop’. Both games were D&D 3rd Ed.
The first one didn’t go so well. Though the player was able to realise the possibilities of RPGs, she wasn’t exactly hooked.
The second one went excellent, probably my best first session of a campaign yet, and she was eager to go home and think about her character and wanted to come back. So, here is my analysis of the difference between the 2 games…
I think one of the keys to the success of the second game was the fact that I didn’t set any high expectations and that the player approached it very modestly. Prior to the first game I hyped RPGs too much and acted as if anyone who writes stories (like the first player did) would love it and get into it easily. Moral: Set modest expectations, especially for the first few sessions.
In the first game one of the problems was that the player had come in with no ideas for what kind of character she’d play and she was constantly relinquishing her ‘power’ to me.
She would often ask for my advice on how her character should act. I tried to offer suggestions and ideas. In the successful game the player had an idea for what kind of character she wanted to play (an evil knight) and was able to act with resolution. Moral: Try to get the players to make decisions about the character they play prior to the first session, even if they don’t understand all the workings of an RPG.
I also noticed that it works better if the new players are not started in wilderness or totally fantastic settings. This is because they don’t easily relate to the situations much and start to get the impression that RPGs are abstract games, closer to Life or Clue than actual storytelling.
So, I try to give new players encounters with humans that are easier to imagine, characters with more typical motivations like greed and generosity. Don’t limit the encounters to crazed lunatics, religious fanatics and ancient tree spirits.
So, I hope these suggestions help. Good luck to you and all of the Roleplaying Tips community with the next 100 articles.