A while back I thought a little about how best to present background as part of a roleplaying game and I wanted to revisit that topic with some fresh ideas.
Something Jeremy Keller posted a few weeks back as part of his design thoughts struck a chord with me and is potentially the missing piece of the puzzle that I’ve been looking for – how best to present background and get the players to buy into that.
With regard to his latest game, Technoir, Jeremy talks about the role of Transmissions, which are self-contained capsules of information regarding different aspects of the setting (chiefly different cities), principally as a means to generate plot ideas for the GM. This got me thinking – what if these capsules not only delivered plot ideas for the GM, but also in-game background for the players to easily digest?
This reminded me of something Matt Machell talked about over at the Collective Endeavour recently with regard to his game, Enlightenment & Entropy, about District Sheets and how they interact with the game. In essence, these work in much the same way as Jeremy describes Transmissions – they are short snippets of setting overflowing with plot hooks, characters and other ideas to get the juices flowing, all presented on the back of a postcard. Not only do these provide information and ideas to all of the players, but each is owned by a different player, who is responsible for portraying the district in the fiction.
I dig both of these ideas a lot, so tried to map how they might work both as a means of conveying background, encouraging ownership/buy in of the setting and offering up a load of instant story ideas.
For example, in a Star Wars game, you could have Tatooine, Coruscant, Endor, even the Death Star, as a different capsule, perhaps presented as a postcard. On one side the card could have different tables, allowing the GM to quickly generate stories and plot ideas when the players are interacting with that part of the setting. On the other side a succinct summary of the planet’s background could be provided, along with key words, notes and a character, to bring everyone up to speed and onto the same page. Each player could have ownership of a different planet – perhaps their home planet – and be responsible for describing it or answering questions about it in game.
Similarly a game set in Westeros, from a Game of Thrones, might have each of the Seven Kingdoms as a different postcard. On one side you might have a brief overview of the kingdom, some random names and places, a quick bit of history and a stereotype or two. On the other side you could have a couple of famed characters and a big ass table of random encounters or locations for events.
The closest I’ve come to this is in Ordinary Angels, which already has a similar thing built in in the form of parables. These are small, self-contained, player-administered aspects of the setting affiliated with the various angels’ portfolios – snippets of scene and plot yet to happen, essentially. Although each doesn’t necessarily convey background, each does offer a selection of things that the players want to see in the game and provide the other players and the GM with an idea of that player’s worldview, all of which the GM can draw upon in the heat of the story.
I’d like to go one step further though and embrace these ideas fully, and there are a couple of ideas brewing under the surface that might just make use of them…