Presenting Background

Posted: January 5, 2011 in design, games, publishing
Tags: , ,

One thing I’ve been wrestling with recently is the notion of background material in rpgs, and how we can best convey it to a) the reader and b) the player. This has come about because, unlike Dead of Night, a couple of my current projects have background of their own, and I’m pondering how I can get my own ideas about a setting across in a useful and relevant way.

Historically in rpgs, the way this has been done is very much top down. The background was presented via the medium of rulebook and supplement to the GM (and often the GM alone, because, you known, campaign secrets/spoilers abound). The GM would then convey the setting material to the players by some nebulous and unspecified means – perhaps by showing and telling in the game, perhaps by handouts or maybe even by homework of reading vast reams of text.

I used to do this, but inevitably grew frustrated when the players didn’t always pay attention or get onboard with the background – but why should they? They had no buy in, no investment, no connection in their own to the world . I remember Weapons of the Gods strove someway to alleviate this, with aspects of the background that the players could ‘buy’ as their own, almost giving ownership of different areas of knowledge to different players. But in many respects this still wound up with the same problems as the GM imparting knowledge – fundamentally the players had to do the legwork by reading up on all the background to see what interested them in the first place.

Of course, the pendulum has swung the other way somewhat. Many games nowadays don’t have set background at all (or only very roughly sketched background) and instead the players create the background around the table as part of play. Burning Empires coined the phrase ‘world burning’ and the name has kinda stuck. This gets all of the players onboard, investing them in the setting by harnessing and using their own ideas and creations.

But sometimes you don’t want to make up the setting, sometimes you want to play in an established setting that you know and love (but the players might not). What to do then? Is there a compromise? How can you create buy in and investment without necessarily creating from whole cloth?

  1. Hey Andrew

    I’ve actually been thinking about conveying world build for a project of my own at the moment. I’ve always felt part of the problem to be the necessary depth of information that the PCs need to know and IMHO there’s three basic ways of doing this:

    Run on Genre: Generic fantasy settings (for example) have a lot of leeway, in that sword & sorcery is a pretty well-known concept and you just need to give a bit of info for names of your local deity/death cult/warlord. There is sufficient information out there in general knowledge that you only need to make a few setting specific points, the rest is sufficiently filled by the genre itself. Dead of Night actually makes a feature out of this approach by reinforcing the genre in-game.

    Run on theme: White Wolf’s World of Darkness is a good example of an approach that simply states ‘its like the modern world but…’ the game specific elements can be easily introduced as a learning experience to the characters, leaving the wider game world as a slightly altered model of the real. This gives the major advantage that for a mortal game you can simply say ‘its like the real world, but darker’ and then get on with it. However, this is fine as long as everyone around the table acknowledges the same level of change from the real world. If the degree of alteration is never discussed, you can end up running a different world in everyone’s heads – some assume a slightly increased crime rate, others assume that its the kind of world where bodies turn up on street corners every day.

    Run on the Books: Games like SLA industries present a game world that is unique – there are many elements to them that need to be understood by the players. Something as simple as the response of emergency services to a fire can be game breaking if not understood. This approach provides a rich, interesting game, where the background itself plays a major part of the story. However, it does require the players to invest some time and effort studying the world as lack of knowledge can completely disrupt the game.

    Buy-in is probably the appropriate term. For a run on the books approach, your group has to get really excited about the setting and want to read up on it (in some games this can be hampered by the information being spread throughout a several hundred page book). For run on genre, your players have to know that genre to the same extent – you are going to have trouble running a Star Wars: Noir game if your players having differing knowledge of Star Wars or Noir fiction. Running on theme is the easiest approach, but has the lowest level of buy-in – because players don’t *need* to think about the setting much, they can assume it to be whatever they want, which can be problematic when that assumption is challenged.

    Whatever your approach, I think the key is to find a way to hook the players interest – the equivalent of a trailer or blurb – short, easily accessible and easy to digest. Once the players are excited they’ll want to know more, whether thats by book, genre or theme.

  2. Kev says:

    Hi Andrew,

    After my excitment and purchase of Dead of Night 2nd edition, I’m still sorry to say I’ve not been able to play yet. I’ve not been too good for a while my memory is pretty shot and even playing risk is a challenge (damn kids). Things are looking up and hopefully shall get back to my roleplaying soon (the sunshine helps, just need some more of it), shall just need patient players or a very good cheat sheet for a while. Hope sales have been good and are comtinuing to be good. How is you scenario supplement coming along?



    • andrewkenrick says:

      Hey there – make sure you let me know when you get round to running it, especially now summer is nearly here.

      The supplement is getting there, slowly but surely! Need to stop getting distracted by other ideas…

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