In order to keep stories interesting, the information about the setting needs to be delivered in a variety of ways, and it needs to be spread out across a certain amount of plot development or action. This applies to games as well. In film, overt ways to deliver information about the setting are narration, dialogue, and written exposition (such as newspaper headlines). A subtler way is when the information is implied by features of a scene, but the scene itself is about something else entirely. The characters need to interact with these features to draw attention to them, but it is still less overt than talking about the setting itself.
Since the main goal is to make the setting matter during play, this means it needs to be interacted with. Usually, this means some form of reward for using these features of the setting. The difficulty with a reward system for interacting with features of the setting is that the reward often needs to be an in-universe one. This will become apparent once some examples are used. Since often the players are surprising, the GM needs to prepare some guidelines for how they’re going to handle ad-hoc in universe rewards.
Four ways of delivering information about a setting in an RPG are: GM Exposition, NPC Exposition, Handouts, and Scene Construction.Of these, scene construction is the most important for RPGs. Scene construction provides the tools for making the setting matter in combat scenes, skill related challenges, and general dialogues. For the sake of completeness, however, the other 3 will be mentioned quickly here.
Any information the GM tells the players directly at the game table is GM Exposition. It can be as simple as “the town has an inn and a market.” Many GMs prefer lengthier descriptions of places, and like to try and craft a subtext to help convey the themes and moods of the setting. The GM guides that come with each game will usually talk about how to do this. The information conveyed through this is often supposed to be objective and factual, but many GMs will break this rule for the sake of “flavour.” For example, if a GM ever says “It is a horrific sight” they are imposing a certain emotional response on to the PCs for the sake of flavour. This isn’t a bad thing to do, but it’s something to keep an eye on. Telling the players’ how their characters feel is often bad, regardless of how indirect it is.
Information relayed to the PCs through an NPC is NPC Exposition. This is not objective, and not always factual. Some NPCs are reliable, others are not. This is much more interactive than GM exposition, as it takes the form of a dialogue. Often an NPC can be used by the GM to remind players of the consequences or implications of their actions. This is especially important in an exploration game, because the actions of the players will often impact the future of large populations, organizations, or cultures. Sometimes players need a bit of help to think of their actions as having far reaching side-effects.
Handouts are written documents, pictures, and doodles. Long handouts are often a bad idea in an exploration RPG, because learning about the setting should occur mostly during play. If the game is to be about exploration, giving the players 20 pages of background information on the setting is counterproductive. However, short handouts can be very useful. Exploration games are perhaps the kind of game where it is most sensible to use visual supports to encourage creativity, and to present puzzles that can be solved using spatial reasoning. This requires quick doodles. Also, beautiful or terrifying photographs of places are a great way to get players more interested in a particular place. Many players really feel more interested in a place if they can see it. Note that the abstract nature of doodles make them better for encouraging interaction, problem solving, and creativity. The aesthetically pleasing nature of photographs make them better for fostering player interest.
Constructing a scene so that it implicitly communicates information about the setting is actually quite easy. The key is to place an object into the room, link that object to something in the broader world, and then make sure that the object is useful if the players interact with the object.
Step 1 is to identify the players’ goal or the conflict that is driving the scene. This is normally very intuitive. If it’s a combat, the PCs either want to defend themselves or they want to defeat their opponent. If it’s a dialogue, the PCs probably want either some help, information, or to persuade someone to change their course of action. If the scene is a skill challenge, the players are probably climbing a mountain, fixing a nuclear reactor, or doing something else that is clearly objective focused. The PCs’ goals will be obvious and implicit in any given scene.
Step 2 is to identify one neutral feature of the scene that do not yet imply anything about the setting, and the feature has effects on play. Examples include cover during combat, someone’s apparel during a business negotiation, or the posters in a workshop. They could be people, objects, events going on in the background, etc.
Step 3: add a detail to any neutral object so that it does relate to the setting as a whole. For example, the cover could be crates with an Ares Macrotechnology label. Note that this does not impact the action of the game right now; it merely introduces Ares Macrotechnology into the background of the scene. Just in case you are curious, Ares Macrotechnology is a megacorporation in the Shadowrun Universe.
Step 4: If you are unsure how this neutral feature will impact playing the scene, improvise a fast rule. The default bonus of +2 from d20 games is great for this. For example, if a PC sees that the person they are having a business meeting with is dressed like a punk, perhaps they’d get a bonus on a check if they tried to butter them up by talking about punk music. On the other hand, if the person was dressed in a fancy italian suit, perhaps they should talk about yachts, sports cars, or some other hobby that is only available to the affluent. The important part is to reward players who acknowledge and interact with the detail. Greater degrees of interaction may warrant new or novel bonuses. For example, if a player takes cover behind the Ares Macrotechnology crates, and then reasons that “wait a minute, Ares Macrotechnology makes weapons too,” maybe the GM might just decide there’s a grenade or two for the player to be used inside one of the crates. Evaluating degrees of interaction can be hard for open ended “skill challenge” type scenes. Presenting these scenes as puzzles, and communicating the information using visual supports, can make evaluating the degree of interaction more objective.
Some words of caution: do not overload the scene with too much information. If using visual supports, a GM could probably include 2 neutral objects by introducing one verbally and the other visually. If you do much more than that, you run the risk of taking subtle implications and turning them into overt GM exposition.
The PCs are exploring a mountain range in a post-apocalyptic setting.
Step 1: They want to reach the mountain peak so they can see the entire valley at once. There is a cliff in the way, so they will find a way around or over it.
Step 2: Neutral features of a cliff in the wilderness could include rocks, plants, or animals. I’ll go with a rocky outcropping on the top of the cliff.
Step 3: I will put an old, frayed rope hanging part way down the cliff. To me, this implies that someone was here recently, or is even at the top of the cliff right now! Maybe these people live nearby, or maybe they are fellow explorers.
Step 4: Lets say I (the GM) present a picture to the players, and players A and B explain what they want to do with reference to the picture. Player A wants to climb to the rope, and use it as an aid to get all the way to the top. Player B thinks that someone might be camped out on the top, because the rope being there makes very little sense otherwise, and is concerned that the person may be hostile. They’re going to climb up far away from the rope, and then investigate while sneaking around. I would say that Player B is showing a high degree of interaction with the feature of the setting, and should get a bonus. Player A is not acknowledging that it is very bizarre for that rope to be there in the first place, but is at least acknowledging that the rope is there. I’d certainly want to give player B a larger bonus, and give player A gets a smaller bonus. However, this might be hard to justify with in universe logic.
Most games make room for different types of numerical bonuses. For the most part, numerical bonuses of the same type don’t stack. In d20, if a GM is specific about the types of bonuses being earned, this can be sufficient to make the reward for interacting with the setting more logical. In the above example, just call player B’s bonus an “insight bonus” and the other character gets an “equipment bonus” and leave it at that. Since bonuses of the same type don’t stack, but different types do stack, this can make character builds impact the way players want to interact with the setting. This would be quite beneficial.
GURPS: Action provided a framework that is much more exciting, and easily adaptable to other systems. In a GURPS: Action game, every PC needs to be lucky. This means they need to take one of the following 3 advantages: Good Luck, Serendipity, or Daredevil. Good Luck is used once per session to get a small numerical bonus after rolling. It’s mostly used to stay alive in emergencies. Serendipity is used to introduce an object of some kind into the location as a small “lucky break.” It is normally used during chase scenes to introduce objects necessary for incredible stunts. Daredevil is a bonus when doing incredibly risky things, and is most often useful when behaving very aggressively. Players can earn additional uses of these in a session by behaving in genre appropriate ways.
The goal here is to encourage interaction with the setting; not behave in a manner appropriate to a genre. Depending on a player’s reasoning about the object we can identify whether they are being cautious, innovative, or direct. Caution should give the players a chance to choose when they get a small bonus (presumably for defenses). If it’s very direct, an immediate and larger bonus. If they’re being innovative, their reward is that the GM will slightly contrive the setting or events to facilitate the player’s innovative solution: if they ask for a small lucky break, they get one..
A common problem with interacting with the setting, however, is that often a logical implication will be that the PCs get new gear or money. If they are able to reason convincingly about why it ought to be there, this should be rewarded. However, this has the potential to significantly alter how powerful the PCs as a whole are. I want them to see a benefit, but I want this benefit to be temporary. As such, the size of the monetary reward needs to be sufficient for consumables (potions, ammunition, etc.), or the reward would need to be a consumable item. In GURPS, how much money this would take changes with tech level. However, I would aim for 1% of the characters’ character points, transferred into money. In Pathfinder, this changes with character level. Just see what the most expensive potion is at their level (or wand with only 1 charge, at higher levels), and use that value as a cap.
To use this kind of reward system, then, the GM needs to be prepared for 4 kinds of interaction with the setting during play: cautious, direct, innovative, and materialistic.
My next post will get to analyzing films that feature their setting very prominently, to see how quickly they pace the information to the audience. This will serve as a guide for how much information to present to the players, and when to present it. The film I’ll be using as an example is Bladerunner. If you’re interested in well crafted settings, I suggest watching it.