Posts Tagged ‘background’

Yesterday I showed off the cover for Lost Days of Memories & Madness, my game of intrigue and insanity at the court of the elves. Today I thought I’d post up another piece of art and talk a little about the background for the game, as this piece forms the opener for Chapter 1: The Elves of the Eternal Court.

I’ve posted it up in full colour because I wanted to share George’s awesomeness, but the book is in black and white. You can see for yourself now – I’ve put the PDF up on RPGNow for sale.



Setting is characters, the rest is just color. Figure out how to express what you want from the period through the people.

– Rob Donoghue

That’s what Rob Donoghue posted over on twitter a while back in a discussion about historical settings and I’m kinda conflicted about it. I was trained as a historian, so I can see both sides – I appreciate how historical characters, traditionally kings but in recent times more common folk, are great at providing a lens through which we can examine an era. Conversely, I dig the historical events and setting themselves – the battles, as it were, or the colour as Rob puts it. To me, they’re more than just flavour, they are the setting.

Yet it’s easy to get bogged down in the minutiae of a setting, providing the readers with tons of needless details in the hope that you’ll bring the setting alive, but in reality running the risk of burying any sense of flavour or interest they might have had.But of course it’s possible to go too far the other way, instead of providing a setting overview just providing a series of character descriptions and hoping readers can infer what they need to for the biographies. I think the right mix will vary from game to game – to me games like Polaris and Hot War get it right, providing enough setting to spark my own imagination, and enough characters to give me an idea what to do with that setting.

Looking at the game I’m currently working on, Lost Days of Memories & Madness, I can see room for both styles. Consider these two takes on the same piece of background, about what happened to all the dragons. First up, battle style:

Here be Dragons

The once-noble creatures known as dragons were perhaps the first victims of elven conquest, for these great reptiles were no less arrogant and independent than the elves themselves and neither race would bow to the other. As mighty as the dragons were individually, they were few number and overpowered by the armies of the elves. Those rare creatures that still live are as shadows of their former selves, broken and bound by elven magic to serve as steed or pet, their memories of past glories long since stolen by the elves. But it is whispered that, somewhere in the hidden corners of the world, true dragons still live. For the memories of such a beast – full of simmering rage long harboured – to be harvested would be a treasure highly prized indeed.

And now from a ‘king’ perspective:

Kesar, the Last Dragon

The once-noble creatures known as dragons were perhaps the first victims of elven conquest, for these great reptiles were no less arrogant and independent than the elves themselves and neither race would bow to the other. Kesar is the last of his kind, saved from a life of slavery by the draconic magic that changed him from dragon to elf, allowing him to bide his time and plot his revenge from within the Eternal Court. That the elven memories that crowd his mind alongside his own threaten to drive him to madness is of no concern to Kesar – his thirst for revenge drove him insane long ago.

Now, both pieces have their own advantages and disadvantages. For me, I think the former just edges it, giving me a glimpse at the world and allowing me to fill in the blanks myself. The second piece offers me the same glimpse, but I find a little too focused, a little too ‘zoomed-in.’ In focusing the lens through the eyes of a single character, there’s the danger of it just saying something about that character, not the setting he inhabits.

Which do you prefer? Are you more a fan of ‘kings’ or ‘battles’ when it comes to background? And what settings have got that balance just right?

Perhaps I should have held off on this morning’s blog post about presenting background, as this afternoon Jeremy Keller has expanded on the notion of Transmissions by bringing the goods to the table and showing us an actual Transmission. A thing laden with promise, I’m sure you’ll agree, pulsing with ideas just ready to be used in the pursuit of story.

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?


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?