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?