I don’t believe that tabletop RPGs are about telling stories. Tabletop RPGs are special because of player agency and immersion, so when you start out with a specific narrative and plot in mind, you are already starting down a dark road of stripping these elements away. It’s also just so much more fun to not know what’s going to happen as a DM!
Instead, a story is a byproduct of a good game. You make decisions, live with the consequences , and engage with the world. When you look back on the events, there’s a story there every time.
So, I was going to run a west marches, open table game for my FLGS for players that are so saturated in linear, published adventures that they would be looking for the Plot and assume I was driving them to some scripted event.
The idea was to let a radical level of freedom wash over these players so that they might disconnect a little and realize that while this is still “dnd”, it wasn’t really the same style of game, yet the pieces of a greater puzzle are there.
…Also dark souls is a thing and I wanted to try to emulate how it uses little details to convey a setting and narrative of events. I especially love Skerple’s abandoned concept of a Alexander romance dark souls and thought it was a great fit for what I had in mind with it’s romantic take on history and general tone of the game.
The plan was to tell a story with little details, out of sync, using pieces of the story that players discover on their own. This way they think they are discovering a big revelation, and they are! Why are some men 20 feet tall? Who were the priests of iron and why did they all die out?
This also was meant to allow players who don’t care about the details and are only there occasionally the ability to play and not care about the “plot” of the game they missed. There isn’t one, but they still hold part of the information if they care to share it.
And finally my hope was that players would end up engaging and talking outside the game session as they realized that these details actually were related. I wanted to inspire a miniature version of the dark souls lore fandom you find around the Internet…and then mine their ideas and make some of their theories real for a big pay off, or subvert them with a bigger surprise.
I created this formula to follow in order to begin:
- Write 4-5 stories as a short paragraph or two, spanning multiple eras of time
- Break it into smaller parts, like symbols, famous items, peoples names, etc
- Hide those parts in the world as details and room descriptions
- Just delete a few so it is never 100% Complete.
And then I made a list of parts to make or use:
- Beasts, pests
- Dialog from a NPC
- Weapons, Armor, clothing, tools
- Magic spells or disciplines
- Religious organizations
- Military groups
- Governing bodies or other groups
- Statues, painting, art
- Written histories, charcoal etchings
- Buildings, architecture
Every weapon, location, person, etc was going to tie back to the original 3-4 plots I wrote then broke apart. The descriptions and styles would match up, or they would bear the names or languages of an area, or just have some sort of relationship to be discovered. Since these weren’t all events that happened at the same time, there was a historic component to it as well – while this keep flies a ragged old banner of a red hawk now, the basement has shields with a tarnished elk and Laurels. What’s up with that?
Information in Games
Note that I’m not talking about skill checks because I hate them and I’m not even going to waste time explaining why here. I stand by that no game of dnd has ever benefited from a “arcana” roll or a history check. In this situation all lore is learned by playing, not by a die roll, or because your character would obviously know about it based on their past.
Instead I’m thinking of having a few scholars that are competing and will pay for information. I found that the video game Horizons Gate does this and I really enjoyed being rewarded for caring about the little details. Plus it gives a great excuse for why someone would buy weird old relics from dangerous places.
Players who write notes, draw maps, etc will be paid in game or given some sort of “good boy points” to trade in for rare items or services, and since they shared it with a scholar it would be shared in real life with the group. This encourages that community of lore buffs I wanted to form organically.
I’ll also give players each a few randomly generated snippets of knowledge to start with so they already have a few things that they know, ranging from neat but ultimately frivolous to very useful but possibly unclear why at first.
If you’ve got any input or thoughts about how to approach this idea or know someone who has, please let me know! I am still in the early design phase and am on the lookout for any sources to blatantly steal from.