In Revelation for RPGs 1 I talked about setting the stage and sprinkling clues about the world throughout the campaign. In this post I’ll talk about using writing to add depth — letters, journals, songs, even a recipe.
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As the party continues to accompany the merchant, they have more encounters with things that are thoroughly unnatural. Some of the creatures now resemble slime or pus and exude sickness, and some of the foul pools contain lumps that ultimately turn into creatures. The pools of sickness are, it seems, spitting out many disgusting monsters.
There is only so much that one party of low-level adventurers, playing one game session every couple weeks, can encounter, though. If the GM waited for us to directly witness enough to put all the pieces together, the game might become dull — repetition enforces patterns but variety excites players. So, the answer is to remember that the characters live in a world that contains other people, some of them people they know.
After several adventures the first letter from back home catches up with Larissa, the only character originally from the starting town (Shepford). The village priest, Brion, shares some rumors of other afflicted towns, and also provides an update on the ratkin, whom the party first fought and then befriended in their first adventure. This was the first sign that the ratkin, or at least one of them, might become significant in the game — not just a passing encounter. (I strongly suspect that the GM was not initially expecting us to befriend them and had to hustle a bit when we did, by the way.)
Letters and rumors like this, combined with direct adventures, helped the party figure out that the land itself was sick — the pools of sickness, failing crops, plagues, and monster invasions were all connected. Later they would figure out that all the land was connected as if it were one body. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The letter from home also helped to fill in character background, particularly when Larissa replied to the letter. Little of religion had previously been specified, but having a cleric involved in the story forced us to work out the broad outlines of what religion in this world is like. (Nobody really liked the D&D “many pantheons, many gods” model. And no player character was a cleric, so we hadn’t been pushed to figure this out yet.) The GM made up some details; when I wrote Larissa’s reply I made up some more (offering the GM a veto); and over the course of the game I added more details as needed.
While the GM had built the world, this aspect of it was built collaboratively between the GM and some of the players. We saw similar collaboration when Liandra’s player helped define the druid culture, and Turok’s player (Turok was the warrior from a distant land) was adding color from the beginning. This collaboration built player investment, but the GM retained ultimate control because he was the only one who knew what was really going on.
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Over time, as the party continues to investigate a quickly-worsening situation, the group is enlisted by a minor noble in the Gastreyr, Lord Marius. Marius sends messages to the party via (magical) carrier birds, so while Brion and Larissa can write longer letters, Marius’s messages are more constrained, written telegram-style. For example, the first message said, in part:
Rumor: much afoot near Cardior. Severe attacks.
Thoracis search party for Emperor lost. Emperor nowhere to be found.
Armies in disarray. Pls investigate?
Info: dragon rampant ancient symbol of Agondre.
Perh more info in Cardior?
Great mage Theodocious @ Durgam’s Folly.
Enlist for help against attacks?
A different style of written communication added complexity to the game, in both the sending and the receiving. Here we see the barest of hints that, were everyone in a room together, could be elaborated with much exposition. But there is no wordcount for exposition, so the players are going to have to figure out more on their own.
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Not all letters were addressed to our party, of course. After some time the group found an ancient letter written around the time of the Cataclysm. The names and events mentioned in this letter provided hooks for the characters to investigate:
One more word of warning, though I hesitate to say aught: Garrett has been acting oddly lately. I cannot put my finger on it, but ever since he gained that green dagger, he has been more aloof and secretive. It is possible that within him is a worm at the heart of our fellowship. (Say naught of this to him, forsooth — it may well be that I leap at shadows.)
The letter contained other names and references. There was a friendly bard among the druids, which gave the characters a mostly reliable path to tidbits of information. Bards do embellish sometimes, we must remember. But as a GM, be careful: your players won’t hear as many songs as their characters will, so be wary of introducing too many red herrings.
Later the GM would even present one of these songs as a song; he had enlisted a musical friend to set his text to music and record it. This would have been a lot of work to do for all songs, but for one pivotal song in the campaign, it made an impact on all the players.
The ancient letter ended:
May the glorious Dragon Empire of Agondre last forever!
Dragon Empire of Agondre, you say? The characters were left wondering how this empire related to Turok’s Dragon Empire. Hmm…
The letter was accompanied by a recipe for some magical protections that would become quite important later on. This, too, led the group to exploration that revealed details of the world. The unicorn needed to complete the recipe would become very important to one character in particular.
There were also journals and “lab notes” from sometimes-deranged mages. Some made sense only in retrospect.
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Next up: how the GM used non-player characters to enrich the world and its depiction, and how a character’s journal played into refining the GM’s world.