Showing and Telling in RPGs
It’s true. I’m obsessed with storyworlds and world-building. I’m also a huge fan of tabletop RPGs. And while these things go together like whatever “two things that go together” cliche you like (I prefer “like peanut butter and bananas” myself), mashing them together does raise some challenges.
Me: “Hello, gaming friends! I have picked up the Dino-Elves RPG and it is amazing! But before we get started, I’d like you to listen to me tell you about the setting for an hour, so we’re all –“
Friends: (Threatening growls and reaching for sharp objects.)
Me: “On second thought, why don’t you all take it home and read it over. It’s only 200 pages of –“
Friends: (Flip the table, snatch the book from my hands, burn the book, burn the table for good measure.)
Me: “Or… we can stick with the game that we’ve all been playing for 20 years because — I get it — who’s got time to learn a new world just to play a game?”
Learning new RPG worlds is work. And it’s stressful when you’re looking at 50-200 pages of storyworld, and don’t know what’s “fun to know” versus what’s “essential to play the game.” Of course, if you’re the GM and it’s a world of your own creation, it’s not quite such a hassle, but even then, it can be intimidating or annoying for your players.
With this in mind, I’d like offer a few tips for you Game Masters who want to introduce a new game world without assigning homework, or having your table flipped:
Go Broad: Explain the storyworld in the broadest terms possible, giving your players just enough context that they can create characters or start playing without being completely lost. (“It’s a post-apocalyptic fantasy world that used to be full of high magic, but is now a low-magic wasteland populated by psychic elves who ride dinosaurs–that’s you–fighting evil mutants–that’s everyone else.”)
Expand as You Go: Bring up details as they become relevant, and not before. But again, keep them as broad as you can; the goal is to keep the game going, so don’t get bogged down in minutia.
Make it Personal: Possibly an exception to the “as broad as possible” rule, you may wish to give players details about the setting that their characters know. So instead of having all the players read five pages of background, give five players one page, and let them share their information with each other as it comes up. (“The acid swamp? I’m actually from there! We’ll have to watch out for swamp-squids and albino gators, but the tree goblins are actually friendly.”)
Make it Rewarding: Background details can be valuable. This could be a mechanical reward (“You learned the true history of the Bird-gods of Cerland! Here’s 100 experience points!”), a narrative reward (“Now that you know the dirt on the Bird-gods, the people of Cerland will join your revolt!”), or some combination of the two. The point is that the adventure causes the players to ask questions about the storyworld, then rewards them for finding the answers.
Encourage Expertise: If a player loves some aspect of the storyworld and becomes an expert in it, run with it. Let her memorize the Giant List of Dinosaurs and Their Habitats, and let her character expounds on the topic, even if that character doesn’t technically have the “Know Stuff About Dinosaurs” skill. Make sure there are opportunities for that player’s knowledge to pay off. After all, she’s put in the work. Give her a chance to shine!