Friday, January 15, 2010

Culturally Enriching Your RPG

A moment from Thunderstruck nicely demonstrates the kind of exposition PC interaction could provide.

One thing about Maelstrom is that I really, really want each race (even the different peoples among each race) to have unique worldviews, which in turn serve to enhance the quality of the game experience. This isn't just motivated by personal preference. The whole point of this project is to develop a setting that's highly original, to avoid deriving too much from other works/genres by instead pursuing the internal logic of Maelstrom's core backstory. But since the setting's one of adventure and discovery, I don't want to actually reveal this origin story- better to have it be a grand mystery!

Unique worldviews help with this matter because they're elegant way to deliver clues. The markedly different explanations they offer for a given topic (everything from the nature of a given species to the color of a planet's sky) serve to deepen your understanding of the fundamental principles the world follows. It's not just a matter of every version containing "grains of truth"- each cultural perspective is largely accurate, but only covers one side of the bigger picture. And that's just the first brainstorm this matter has given me. . .

Including mystery in a pen and paper rpg setting is difficult, because players learn about most of your world in a metagame fashion rather than doing so through their character. Eberron, for example, has some really cool secrets and intrigues that would be the stuff of stunning plot twists- but the impact is diminished because the people at the table tend to already know about them. The origins of the Blood of Vol, the truth about Karrnath's king, these are common knowledge among anyone geeky enough to have done a moderately thorough job browsing of the core rulebook. Dwelling on this a while back, I came up with one possible tactic- include each culture's account of the setting, as separate sections or even small books (available individually or accompanying the core rules as a set). Not only could this be a great method for avoiding information overload, it would be an effective way of conveying distinct flavors through each culture.

Say we have a multicultural party, and they encounter some creature for the first time while traveling between worlds. Player A's knows what this creature is- the book says it's a sacred guide whose kin led Brave Hunter Malani to many great treasures. Player B's also heard of this creature- his book identifies it as a fiercely territorial predator who picks a new home each year, leading to many attacks by them on ships that were following trade routes usually regarded as safe. Player C's book has very little info on anything space-related; all he knows is that it's one of the biggest space beasties he's ever laid eyes on.

Each 'textbook' would be written with a distinct voice- or even multiple distinct voices, each matching the source for the society's mainstream understanding of the current topic. So if you took this approach for colonial Britain, the book would adopt an educated/scholarly tone when providing information on the neighboring nations of Europe (Maelstrom's equivalent being the other worlds orbiting the same gas giant), then shift to a more 'gentleman adventurer' voice and provide a sensational account of the exotic foreign continents. To round things out (both regarding the information the text offers about the setting and the picture it paints of your own society), I'd sprinkle short anecdotes throughout the whole thing, each from a person whose station is unique to their society- a traveling judge, a tribe's champion hunter, an outcaste begging on the street corner. Returning to the example using colonial Britain, the sensational account of a foreign people's barbarous ways might come with a brief counterpoint by a missionary who spent many years among them, praising their close-knit families and willingness to dedicate themselves to God.

Maelstrom's one of the projects I write about least (and there's alot of competition for that honor, believe me). Everything described in this post, I came up with at least a year ago. Today, though, I came up with another idea in the same vein- something much more revolutionary. I'll lay it out in my next post.


The Fifth Rat said...

I've seen something like this, yeah. Often the secrets every player (and character, subsequentally) privately knows from the beginning are made up by the GM, and not "established truths", though. Mostly because those, as you said, don't really last too long. Of course the secrets I'm talking about are a bit different from the cultural things you're talking about, but it's still limited information and providing players (and characters) different perspectives through that.

One good example is The Mountain Wich, which is pretty much based on this. All the characters are a masterless bunch ronin, masterless samurai, who come together to earn fame and fortune (and for personal reasons) to destroy the witch living on top of a mountain.
At the start of the game, each player is given a note describing their character's secret, which will quite certainly conflict with at least somebody else. The secret could be that they're actually the witch's lackey trying to thwart them, seeking revenge on another character, haunted by what they did in the past and such.
The characters will then try to earn each other's trust, because trust is what allows them to succeed in their quest, while at the same time not knowing who they can really trust or not. This is made especially scary and uncertain because betraying someone provides an extremely attractive carrot for doing so and succeeding. So the players try to hide their secrets, while at the same time trying to find out who they can trust and how to reach their goals. And there's the witch, and other challenges ahead too, so if they cannot trust anyone, they're bound to fail.

I know, this is really not what you're talking about, but I think it at least brushes the topic, and it was an intresting game, so I figured I'd mention it.

Dagda said...

No worries, this post kinda wavers between two topics-mysteries in published rpgs and multicultural PC groups.

One of the sources of inspiration for this post (and the next one) was a cultural sensitivity exercise I heard about, where you have players play cards- but 1: they can't talk, and 2: the instruction pamphlets you gave them all secretly had some different rules.