As a player in a role-playing game, I appreciate the sense of wonder that comes from a well-designed, interesting world — and that sense of wonder is bound up in discovering that world. This is true as a reader of fiction, too, but the GM has a harder challenge than the author: his storytelling is a collaboration between GM and players, possibly over a period of years. Your players, unlike your characters, don’t always behave as you plan or pick up on your clues.
When my friend Ralph sent out email to a group of friends asking who was interested in playing in his campaign, I was happy to sign up. Ralph was a novice GM (though experienced player), and he said there would be plenty of “beating up monsters and taking their stuff” but that there was an overall story and we should expect a cinematic campaign. He wrote:
The thematic questions of the story [will] be along the lines of “what’s going on?” and “How can we fix it?” with an occasional lagniappe of “Is it still gaining on us?”
We would play once every two to three weeks for, it would turn out, four years.
In this series of posts I plan to do two things in parallel: share the story of this world, and share how the GM revealed its secrets to us over time.
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Our story begins in a small village in the Duchy of the Gastreyr in the Empire of Agondre. The capital of the empire is far to the north, in Cardior. Locally people don’t hear much about the empire. The locals don’t know a lot of history either — the Cataclysm was, oh, maybe 500 years ago, but things seem to be ok now.
It is the 28th year of the reign of Duke Leopold. The Gastreyr is bountiful farmland, and this year’s crop is looking good. Duke Leopold will be pleased, as he very much enjoys good food and drink — he is easily the largest, fattest man most locals have ever seen.
Larissa has been struggling to understand some newly-developed abilities — magic is hard to control and there is nobody here to teach her, but she’s trying to figure it out. She hasn’t broken too many things and nothing that happened to her younger sisters caused irreparable harm, but her family is getting frustrated. One night in late summer she is sitting in the tavern, contemplating the local brew (yum!) and her future.
A gnome has been hanging around for a few weeks — she doesn’t know where he came from, but every time she sees him he’s winning at card games. There have been some loud arguments. Tonight there is another stranger, a man named Turok who comes from a foreign land he calls Gurosha-Kara or, in our language, the Dragon Empire. Nobody here has ever heard of it, and he has not said how he came to be here. He carries a nice sword that he calls Kotara-nar, but has no armor.
The tavern is hopping — until suddenly the floor caves in and Our Heroes find themselves below ground in a tunnel nobody knew was there. And off we go.
The group — soon joined by a pair who arrive together, a half-elf named Liandra and a halfling named Kyle — have “typical dungeon adventures”. They encounter, fight, and ultimately befriend the “ratkin”, intelligent bipedal rat-like beings, who tell them that something bigger and nastier is pushing them along. The group finds an ancient room (not like the local stone at all) with a statue of a dragon in it. And there’s a pool of foul, festering liquid.
After dealing with the immediate situation, most of the group likes the idea of getting out of town, and they leave with a merchant who, having seen this, would like bodyguards. They soon have more encounters with unnatural monsters (even more unnatural than run-of-the-mill monsters, I mean). They come to a town afflicted by a plague; many have died and most of the rest are sick. Another town is under a curse of lycanthropy; the group learns this the hard way, seeing the fierce creature that attacked them turn back into a boy upon its death.
And always they find pools of foul, festering liquid. And usually ancient stone that does not match the local stone. And sometimes dragon statues.
* * *
At this point in the game it’s obvious there’s a theme but not at all obvious what it means. The pools, odd stone, and statues are Obvious Clues. It would be easy to miss subtler clues provided alongside these, and we did for a while.
Early on the players asked the GM what our characters know about this Cataclysm. Not much, but it sounded important.
The key to planting clues, I found, is to provide them at a variety of calibrations and over a long period of time. You can’t just load up a bunch of clues in the form of rumors or discovered writings or something on Day 1 of the campaign; you might as well just send the Exposition Fairy to do your work for you. You want the players to figure things out, and they have to play in your world for a while to do that. Later in the game I would look back at notes from the early days and ask myself, perhaps unfairly, “how did we miss that?”, but other times we noticed something subtle earlier than we might have been expected to. And different players pick up on different things. Clues are not one-size-fits-all.
Clues are also pretty unpredictable. A secret should never depend on a single clue, because players can be remarkably dim about noticing clues. But a secret should not emerge fully-formed as a result of one clue either, because if the players notice it too early it spoils the fun. In this game we had several repeating patterns (maybe we missed more), and later we would encounter a variety of other clues. I’m guessing that if we only picked up on half or two-thirds of what the GM planted, that would have been enough to advance the story.
As a GM, this means you’re going to craft things that never get noticed or used. You might be sitting there thinking “c’mon! figure this out! I have plans for this!”. It’s just part of the GM job.
Clues and seeming coincidences are but one part of world-revelation. Our GM used other aids, and when the players added their own creativity to the story (which we did from the beginning) the GM was able to react to that. In the next article in this series I’ll talk about the use of letters, diaries, and other writings.