Tag Archives: story

Story and Setting

Hmm, I was reading Trollsmyth’s post today, and it led back to a storygames thread that is handwringing over  “can setting be good in a storygame?”  I would have thought “duh, yes,” as in other genres a well realized fictional world is a powerful tool in creating an interesting story, but apparently opinons are mixed.  People are worried about the need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the setting, and of contravening “canon.”

A couple thoughts on that.  First thought is David Mamet’s rant from yesterday about  HOW you present story information in a way people care about – via the drama, not via infodump.

Some folks in the thread mention doing helpful setting summaries; I recently saw a cool one in PowerPoint for Paizo’s Golarion.

But I have a more fundamental observation.  You don’t NEED to give them all those loads of info.

a) What does a local yokel (the prospective first level character one is to depict) in a semi-medieval land know about history 100 years ago, let alone detailed ancient history?  Nothing.  Tell them about their hovel and the immediate political concerns it has.  Most people know this.

b) Canon is crap.  It is non-binding.  If the PCs haven’t experienced it in game, it doesn’t exist.  If they go into a hex and you tell them it’s farmland and later you read a supplement and there’s a lizardman camp there instead – who cares?  Are the RPG police going to bust in through your windows and tell you “you did it wrong?”  This may be a PARTIALLY legitimate concern with a game world based on well known IP like Star Wars, but really, get over it.  Even in that case, you just tell the players at game start “look, this is MY instance of the Star Wars world – things may differ from canon and your actions may alter official history.  P.S. There’s no Ewoks.  Yay!”

c) Don’t info dump.  Go read Mamet again.  Players don’t listen and don’t remember.  Show, don’t tell, and make the showing part of the drama.

Here’s an example.  In my Reavers game recently, the PCs came to a new island, town, and noble manor house they were casing out and infiltrating.  It was from a scenario (Green Ronin’s Mansion of Shadows) that had all kinds of setting detail.  Did I just up and tell it to the PCs?  No.  They discovered what they discovered as part of their actions.  It was very helpful to me to have the detail there, so that I wasn’t having to make stuff up all the time when they decided to go bust down a random door, but I was neither tied to it nor did I need to tell them about anything they didn’t personally see, fight, screw, or pee on.

And that works.  During the climactic battle, the PCs remembered a minor setting detail – one of the noble women had a key that let them in through a small door in the inner defensive wall, allowing them to flank the defenders.  Why did they remember that?   Because one of the PCs was snuck through that door by the noble woman so they could go bang.

There was a town, with all kinds of location descriptions.  I didn’t give them a map or explanations of locations they didn’t go to.    Places they went and interacted with, they went back and interacted with again and formed relationships, plots, etc.  It works in a dungeon, in a town, in a country, in a world.

  1. Show, don’t tell.
  2. Don’t just show, involve in the drama.

There is also a lot of concern about “players that know more about the setting than another.”  My response: so?

Do people that know more about history in the real world have some kind of advantage over other people besides a vaguely smug feeling of superiority?  No.  In a group of adventurers, so what if one guy knows all about thirty gods and the other one doesn’t?  Either he’s a helpful information resource (good), or a know-it-all twerp that introduces dramatic conflict (also good).   I guess sometimes other players get some kind of inferiority complex if someone else knows more?  Well, handle it just like the real world – have your character beat theirs up.  That’s a bit tongue in cheek but maybe I’m just not relating well to the concerns of the “there should be no GM, just the players making the world up as they go” crowd.

Anyway, JDCorley has a lot of good posts in the storygames thread, check ’em out.