In Revelation for RPGs 1 I talked about setting the stage and planting clues, and in Revelation for RPGs 2 I talked about using written artifacts (like letters) to reveal secrets of your world. In this post I’ll talk about ways to use the people in your world who aren’t your player’s characters.
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After a series of sickness-themed encounters and some early clues about the nature and history of the world, the players have concluded that the land itself is sick and that’s what’s causing the monster-spewing pools of slime. But what does it mean for the land to be sick — how does that happen? And what can be done about it? The group’s druid observed that one of the pools even looked like a wound — what did that mean? We had plenty of questions; answers were elusive.
While exploring one of the underground sources of sickness the group comes, again, to a stretch of stone construction that was definitely not local. They eventually encounter a mad gnome wizard named Nithelin, who had been working away in his lab doing things only mad gnome wizards can understand, until he noticed that people were no longer bringing food deliveries to his tower. He tells the party that there was a great upheaval and now his tower is underground — but hey, his lab came with him, so no big deal. In fact, he tells the group, he’s even been able to make some new creatures, saying he made the ratkin by crossing rats and humans — information that will later cause an existential crisis for our ratkin friend Tobin. The party tries to deploy its own gnome wizard to untangle Nithelin’s babbling, but with little success.
Implementation note: the GM had “mad gnome wizard” ravings prepared so we could experience the madness directly. This is “show, don’t tell” applied to games.
While Nithelin only showed up in one game session, he became part of the background of the campaign, somebody we kept hearing about from time to time. The party’s gnome wizard was very interested in Nithelin’s research, they corresponded (and later spoke regularly by Scry), and when, years later, the gnome’s player left the game, in-game we sent him off to work with Nithelin on exciting new research. The GM used Nithelin to share small amounts of possibly-important information, but wrapped up in a character who was sufficiently disconnected from reality that we were never quite sure what to do about it.
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Nithelin was a minor character with limited impact, and I’ll be talking about some more-important ones shortly. I bring up Nithelin to point out that even a minor character can be used to create long-lasting hooks, both character connections and worldbuilding background. Nithelin’s “great upheaval” correlated with the patches of unfamiliar stone we kept finding, and maybe even with the dragon statues. (Later the party’s patron, Lord Marius, would supply a hint about the dragon statues.) From Nithelin we also learned that while some of the creatures we were encountering were wholly born of diseased slime-pools, at least one new creature race had been made.
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The group encountered another minor-seeming character while investigating a lead from an ancient letter. Renard, a warrior (we would later learn) from the time of the Cataclysm, had suggested in the letter that his friend Therion seek out the temple of Dorl Tavyani to the north — the god sometimes speaks to his supplicants. The group is eventually able to figure out where this might be and pays a visit.
After overcoming various obstacles and rescuing an elf captive they found there, they finally encounter what is supposed to be Dorl Tavyani himself — who turns out to be an undead, ghostly being, vicious, obsessive, and seemingly insane. (This was a combination we would see again later in someone else, though we didn’t know it yet.) From his journal the group learns that Dorl Tavyani was once a man and a wizard, he obsessed about aging and sought out immortality, and he decided along the way that he was a demigod, set up a temple, and recruited a high priest. Sometime after that, according to his journal:
“A supplicant arrives at the temple with an excellent pair of weapons: a beautiful green sword and green dagger. The supplicant says that the green sword means Death and the green dagger means Disease. Dorl Tavyani covets the sword and demands it as a sacrifice. There are oblique references to High Priest Orbiss handling the problem; the net result in Tavyani’s journal is that the supplicant offers both weapons as tribute.”
The ancient letter from Renard had also mentioned his companion Garrett becoming obsessed with a green dagger. The group makes the connection: Dorl Tavyani’s green disease dagger is Weeping Wounds, later owned by Garrett. What Garrett had done with that dagger remained a mystery.
I will have more to say about Dorl Tavyani in a later post.
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The richest enhancements to the game, and most-effective tools for the GM, were the characters who were more strongly tied to the player characters.
Once the group figured out that the land was sick, going to the home of the druids to seek guidance made sense — druids are tied to the land, after all. Because we had a druid, Liandra, it was easy for the GM to add personal connections for her. Consulting a wise NPC can lead to bursts of exposition; consulting characters known to your party, over time, allows the information flow to feel more natural. With a personal connection, there was no reason for the group not to make frequent visits in which smaller bits of information could be shared, instead of doing the equivalent of seeking the wise man on the mountaintop — once.
The group’s first visit to Oakhame, Liandra’s home, was a visit to Oakhame first and a way to get information second. The group arrived near the time of a major druidic celebration (solstice), and so interacted with the people of Oakhame in that context first. Even if there had been no “game-relevant” information from that, rounding out the world and the characters in it makes the game and its world feel more fully-baked. (And besides, you never know what will turn out to be relevant…)
The group met Lady Mairead, Liandra’s mother and the ruler of Oakhame, and Seamus, an experienced bard. Both provided ongoing support for the group for the rest of the campaign.
From Seamus the group heard the last song of Therion (the intended recipient of Renard’s letter) — Therion, Elys’, and Renard were trying to avert the Cataclysm somehow, and while Renard went to Cardior (to do something; we didn’t know what), Therion and Elys’ went to the Caverns of Laryn. Therion sang a lullaby to put the land to sleep, and he might still be there. Therion was also in love with Elys’. Over time, Seamus would help the group do research, and occasionally he would suggest lines of investigation (well-packaged hints from the GM if we players were going off-track).
During the group’s first visit to Oakhame Seamus also helped Turok explore some changes he had undergone (which I plan to talk about in a later post). Interactions that weren’t about the sickness in the land helped make him a more three-dimensional character. Later Seamus would also get involved, with Larissa, in magical experimentation, which was a long-running theme for that character.
While Lord Marius was a recurring character without a strong connection to the group (he was an employer), Seamus and Mairead — and others I’ll talk about later — were recurring characters who mattered to the players’ characters. Having both types allows a GM to use the method of revelation that works best in any given context — a family connection, a long-running theme among friends, or instructions from an employer.
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In the next article, I’ll talk about how geography, history, and a magical vision helped the players understand the nature of the land and its sickness.