Setting the Scene

Introducing the game world is, like character creation, a major problem for role-playing games. Most games end up with several volumes of world information, running to thousands of pages; Ars Magica is certainly no exception to that. Reading this information and discovering the game world is part of the fun for a lot of people. However, feeling that you need to read several thousand pages before you can play a game does tend to discourage casual players, and make it hard to try new games. It’s even more of a problem for my design, where I want people to be able to start playing within fifteen minutes, and to do so without a gamemaster, and thus without someone assumed to know what is going on in the game world.

A bad approach to this problem would be to provide lots of material to be read out by the players. Reading is fun, but it isn’t playing, so this also delays people getting into the game. In addition, the players are not going to remember everything that is read out to them, particularly if it’s about an entirely fictional world, or something historical or from a remote culture. Boredom and confusion are the likely result, and neither of those is fun.

On the other hand, the information does need to be contained in the scenario, because there’s nowhere else to put it. However, it is better if the information is supplied as needed, rather than in large chunks, and if the information supplied is closely involved in the action being taken. This is the “show, don’t tell” rule for writing fiction, transferred to a role-playing context.

The concrete application of this is to the description of the actions the characters take, and to the description of the characters themselves. Each individual problem needs to be described, and that description should introduce part of the world. Further, each action that the characters take should be described, and further the world’s description. Describing the problem is relatively easy; this can be a bit of text that one player reads out. It can be kept short, and it’s immediately relevant to play, so boredom and confusion can be avoided.

Character actions are a bit more difficult, because the players should have control, but don’t have the necessary knowledge. I think the best approach may be to provide two or three options for actions in each situation, with a description, and then let the player choose which one the character does.

Character features, which grant additional dice to roll, should also describe part of the background. They won’t go into detail, but they’ll start to reveal something of what the game world is like. And, if they’re chosen, they’ll be linked to the character, and thus easy to remember and important. Of course, they should continue to be important in later parts of the scenario, but that’s just a matter of careful design.

Finally, there’s the background itself. What is the world like beyond the immediate concerns of the characters? Here, I would like to introduce elements that characterise the world, and the particular location where the characters are working. One possibility is to make two elements available at each action, with a brief description of each one. Then, the player can choose to incorporate one of the available elements into the description of her character’s action. If she does so, she gets an extra die to roll, and that element is confirmed as being present in the immediate environment.

A possible development of this is to have more detailed descriptions of certain elements, which become available when a basic element is in play. Later players can choose to involve them, making the description richer, and getting extra dice for their characters’ actions.

However, there’s going to be a lot to keep track of here, and scratch paper may not be the best way to do it. Instead, I think it might be a good idea to print the descriptions on cards, around business-card size. The cards can then be placed between the players, so that they can see what elements there are in the environment, and how they are built up. The cards could also have pictures on, although, as I can’t draw, that is unlikely to happen in the first stages of development. Actually, the whole thing could be made multimedia, with images and sounds, even animations, and then run on a laptop, tablet computer, or smartphone. However, I’d have to learn to program to do that, as well as get the multimedia from somewhere, so that’s also not going to be the immediate form this takes.

Another advantage of using relatively small cards is that it limits the length of the descriptions, which is an important consideration. The elements might build up into a lengthy, detailed description, but they start small. Since adding detail means going back to an element that has already been added, that will remind the players of what is around them, and, again, makes it important that the individual elements are short. Reading over a lot of long descriptions repeatedly risks creating boredom again.

This is going to require quite a lot of work from the author of the scenario. He will have to make sure that the elements work together well, support the story of the scenario, and let the players generate interesting characters. They will also need to be structured so that it is very difficult to produce something that doesn’t make sense. Thus, each background element card will need instructions for what replaces it in the pool of available elements if it is used, or, for incompatible detailed descriptions, what has to be taken out. For character elements and elements of the thing being created, the scenario needs to specify what is available at each point, possibly depending on what was chosen earlier.

However, it is important to avoid closing off options. We must remember that the players do not know what they are doing; they should not be allowed to make choices that mean they cannot do, or be, something significant in the game world, at least not early on. For example, in a classic fantasy game, players should not be able to exclude the possibility that their character belongs to a particular race until they know enough about the races to make that choice sensibly.

Again, looking away from the scenarios, this information can also be gathered into books about the game world, so that they are available for people who like to read that sort of thing. A player could learn about the background from books, which would just mean that he knew more about how the elements introduced in a scenario connected to the rest of the world. That wouldn’t, normally, be an advantage, since the characters would be assumed to know even if the players didn’t. It would also be possible to produce packs of background elements, for use with any scenario, that introduced new features of the game world.

I’ve been very vague in this as to the nature of the background, because that’s the next thing I have to decide. In broad terms, what is going to be the setting of my game?

Posted in Game Design.

One Comment

  1. Although I have nothing to contribute to your decision about the setting for your game (other than the fact that I think you doing an historical Japanese RPG would be awesome), I wanted to note that for my Ars Magica games, I provide the players with a little “encyclopedia” of stuff about the setting that communicates basic common knowledge about various things in (ideally) no more than 250 words per entry (some I stretch to 500). For instance, I have an entry on “Food” that VERY briefly sketches the medieval diet. That way, players can look up answers to common questions as needed, without having to wade through reams of “homework” for the game…

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