Monday, August 31, 2015

World Building

I just finished a run through with Diablo 3. Much like with I Admire Its Purity,  I will comment on what Diablo 3 ("D3") might bring to the tabletop game.

I played the original Diablo years ago. I fondly remember going down in some hole, slaying lots of critters, and gathering up a bunch of loot. There may have been a plot, but other than something opened up a rift and demons were attacking, I do not recall much. But that was not the point of the game anyway.

My first impression of D3 upon firing it up in the Xbox is that it looked a bit dated to me visually and mechanically. I really wanted to change the view and "see" the world. It looked interesting, but outside of seeing the world from the fixed camera it was a limited visual experience. But I quickly fell into the fun of hack and slash. Much like Shadow of Mordor, the game knows what it wants to be and focuses on being very good at it.

What surprised me is that there was a decent amount of
  1. Plot
  2. World building, and
  3. Development of the personalities of the NPCs. 
I did not play D2 and I have heard some complaints that D3 is a rehash and repetitive, but since I did not play D2 I cannot comment on that. While the worldbuilding was basic, it was elegant and made sense. The main backstory is that angels and demons have fought a war since time began. Some got fed up with the War, stole a Worldstone and made the world Sanctuary. But eventually offspring and humans came into existence, and that brought unwanted attention from heaven and hell. All the lore comes out small bits as you play. And the best part is that the lore does not get in the way of the hack and slash - you find a piece of lore it is voiced to you while you continue hackin' and slashin'.

Over the course of the game you get to know the stories of three companions, 2 artisans, and a few other NPCs. This is all given out in bits and pieces while you are "on break" selling stuff and upgrading gear.

It got me thinking about just how does a GM get more detail of their world in the hands of the players? My group is a bunch of older gamers that you really only have their attention on game night. In my 50 Fathoms game it was petty easy to get that lore out there. Some of it was names people knew from history. The other is that the map was not "full" - you had a set number of islands that people would go to. Another was sourcing - if there were monsters, they tended to fall into a couple of buckets as to their source (the Red Men and their summoning, "natural" creatures, and abominations from the Hags). There was also narrow set of cultures - the Spanish, the English, the Kierian empire, and the rest was "Caribbean" in feel. So a nice portion of the "world" was a port over from our own.

My real concern is when I eventually run Hellfrost from Triple Ace Games. Lots of lore and detail. One of the hardest things to do is to get your players interested and knowledgeable about the gameworld. Lets face it, players are lazy and unappreciative of our work as GMs, so what can we do?

Now, I wrote what follows a few years ago for myself just to capture the ideas. That was pre-Hellfrost (for me) and likely pre-Savage Worlds. So my references are Eberron, which was my "go to" setting at the time and still a favorite for me today.

Pondering on this, here is my suggestion to eventually attain the "immersed player" (I define this as the players being able to push the plot forward based on their knowledge of the world instead of the plot pushing them forward). I am basing this on my experience of trying to bring Eberron to life.

  1.  Pick a campaign world (homebrew or published) as your long-term world. This will contain the majority of your campaigns (ignoring one-offs as a change of pace). For me, that is Eberron.
  2. Pick an area that will be the home base of most of your campaigns. For cities, you might want to pick a couple of iconic neighborhoods (in Ptolus, the Delver's area comes to mind). In Eberron, Sharn is the likely home base of many of the campaigns. This will allow the players to have something familiar to them in most campaigns.
  3. The first campaign or two highlights the world. Tell the players up front that it may have a rail-road feel to it. The goal is for the *players* to learn the world through play (given that you can never get them to read up on your perfect world outside the game - useless players :) ). If you look at the initial modules for Eberron, they are very rail-roady in nature, but they expose the players to the cool parts of the world - the city of Sharn, elemental vessels, flying ships, lightning rail, the Mournland, and the politics of the Houses. The adventure structure introduces the world but it does not require the player to have extensive knowledge of the world to make the adventure fun or for the players to feel like they can make decisions.
  4. After you have run a campaign or two (depending on length), then build the more complex adventures. In the first campaign(s), you show. In the following campaigns, you let them drive.

Lets use an examples from Star Wars - specifically Tatooine (we shall go in order of the release):

Eps IV: we are introduced to the planet as the home of Luke. We learn it is a desert, has Jawas (scavengers), Sandpeople (nasty), and a spaceport full of scum and villany. The rerelease does show us Jabba as well. This was all shown to us - no knowledge of the world is needed before for us viewers to "get" what is going on.

Eps VI: really introduces Jabba the Hutt and expands on the rough 'n' tumble world. Still pretty much 'a show', but we do not have the be told that the place is pretty rough. We just learn how rough and who is in charges (Hutts)

Eps I: So, did anyone need explanation of who the Hutts were and what they looked like? They are hardly mentioned (Qi Gon (sp) has an offhand comment of who rules the system) and they show them attending the pod race. But, we all know who and what they are and how they fit into the society. Also, it does not surprise us that Sandpeople are shooting at the pods.

Eps II: Lets take this from a player's point of view. If you were Anakin and you were out to free your mother, would you as a player know what to do given that previous "adventures" of Eps listed above have been experienced by said player? It would play pretty darn close to the movie.

Likely steps taken by players
  1. Go to your old slavemaster to find Mom. Find out Mom is not there anymore. Then kill old slavemaster after you get the information because its time to start turning Dark Side.
  2. Go to the new owner of your mother after asking directions. Find out mother kidnapped by the Sandpoeple, who live in the desert.
  3. Look for tracks (single file), then slaughter tribe when you find your mother. 
Much like D3 giving out bits and pieces of lore over time, taking a similar approach to campaigns gives the player enough experience to make a logical plan of attack and can feel like they are driving the story. Lets compare given out a player driven quest in Eps IV of Star Wars. The GM would have to feed player a lot of information - who is Old Ben vs. Obi Wan Kenobi, what are Sandpeople, where do they live, why is/was my mother a slave, etc.

For "smaller" worlds (say 50 Fathoms) or even just in regions of a world, this can be done as phases in the campaign. Make sure the that players get to revisit certain areas so they can refresh their memory, pick up new information, and then have more actionable options.

So aside from just handing the players a book, what techniques do you use to get information to your players during your gaming sessions?

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