Tuesday, July 14, 2015

World Integration

I have gotten a bunch of feedback on Heroes By Trade that suggests that people want a more comprehensive background and history system.  I think the game has plenty of strategy and build options to keep things interesting in combat but I struggled to add a lot of backstory mechanics because I simply didn't know what world the characters would be adventuring in.  You can't provide a consistent system for figuring out who the characters are indebted to and who might try to send an assassin after them if you don't know who is influential in the first place!

13th Age has a nice feature here, in that they don't describe much about the world at all but instead simply have a group of powerful figures that dominate world politics.  The Diabolist, the Crusader, the Dwarven King, the Priestess, etc. are the people the system talks about.  Characters don't have any more specific background than that though, so if you want to be rich or affiliated with the merchant bank of Lor'Dai or have a baron after your head the game has nothing concrete for you.  The idea of a few specific people who dominate the world is cool and provides some serious structure for world building.

Another example that I don't know if I can follow but which is useful is World of Darkness.  That game is set in the modern day so there are backgrounds for being really rich, for political power, for having minions, friends, or an influential mentor.  However, the game is specifically supposed to take place in a particular city so it isn't easy for characters to get away from their pasts.  In Heroes By Trade the world is a pseudo medieval magical setting so if everyone decides to get on a boat and head to another land there is nothing stopping them thematically or mechanically but it would mean that most of their background would suddenly vanish or be irrelevant.  People can hop on a plane and find you anywhere in the modern world but that sort of thing isn't going to work the same way under the Heroes By Trade world assumptions.

I came up with a bunch of ideas to help people build backgrounds, like spending points on wealth, contacts, friends, and experience and letting them take enemies, issues, and problems to counterbalance that.  Problem is, if I build that into the system then a lot of it won't make sense or come into play at all if the group decides to be a roving band of thrill seekers travelling far and wide.  Your friendship with the local blacksmith's guild and the fact that the sheriff wants to find any reason to string you up is irrelevant when you are three weeks travel away past the Swamp Of Doom.

To make a background system that stays relevant I need to tightly control the world.  I would have to make up a lot of the stuff that influences the lives of the characters and mechanically ensure its continuing importance.  That is possible, but such control really pins the GM into a corner in terms of storytelling, and means that repeat stories feel quite odd.  Every story having exactly the same set of powerful people or precisely equivalent factions just feels wrong.  When I make a new campaign in a new world it is wild and woolly and very idiosyncratic.  No way would I be interested in a system that required my campaign to conform to specific constraints the way 13 Age does.

Which I guess means that the very simple system I currently have in place where characters pick a couple of Assets and a couple of Problems and then work with the GM to define those things is really about my style.  I like characters having some hooks, both good and bad, and I am happy to work those into whatever story or setting I have going.  What I don't want is a system that manhandles their social connections and history into some fixed structure that doesn't mesh with the world I built.

So I guess what I am concluding is that I built the game I want to play, and although I can probably do some useful stuff to improve the current background structure it is the structure I intended to build... so many I should just accept that and go with it.


  1. Don't let them outrun their past.

    In the real world, it's not easy to be a person without proof of who you are, where you're from, and why you're in the place you're currently in. You need work visas, permits, passports, licenses, and people to vouch for you, in most countries today, before people who don't know you will trust you or let you travel in their lands. The same idea existed centuries ago: you needed a letter of recommendation from someone that a master knew and trusted before he would take in an unknown apprentice, you needed the seal of approval of a noble before people would believe you were carrying an official document, and so on.

    In a medieval themed fantasy world, the laws could be as fluid or as draconian as you like, and might in fact help guide the characters to the places you want them to go. (e.g. "Let's avoid Country X: it has an extradition treaty with Country Y, and half of us are wanted for fleeing from there on trumped up charge, so it's just not a good place to be. Let's go to Country Z or The Free Commons instead")

  2. If you want, you could even start the PCs out with a "criminal record" of sorts; or have it available as a background. In medieval Europe, the peasants were considered to "belong to the land"; when the land got sold, the new owner got the peasants along with it. If a peasant tried to leave, he might well be committing a crime similar to theft: "stealing" a valuable peasant worker (himself) away from his lord's lands.

    In a fantasy setting, you might want there to be a few chaotic, lawless areas where there is little, if any, government: but such areas tend to have high crime rates and low productivity; so it should be easy enough to require that characters have to be able to at least PASS as legitimate citizens in order to travel to most places in your game world.

    And if they break the local laws, sure, they can probably outrun the local sherrif, and get to the next town; but depending on what they've done, and which noble owns the surrounding countryside, they might just be running from the frying pan into the fire.

    Word travels as fast as telepathy in a magic society; and even in a pure medieval society, carrier pigeons fly at close to 100 km/hr, so word of characters running away from the law or skipping out on debts might well travel faster than the characters themselves. Just when the characters have made it out of "the boonies" and into the nearest major city, they might well find that the city watch won't let them in, or else lets them in, and proceeds call in re-inforcements while they place the PCs under arrest.

    If the PCs skip town with something really valuable, the former owners may well be angry (and wealthy) enough to hire trackers or even bounty hunters to find the characters, and drag them back "to justice". Remember, if the law is strong, then the PCs have to follow it, or contend with an entire nation full of law enforcement; if it ISN'T strong, then the PCs have to watch out for people with deep pockets who hold grudges, and hire hitmen.

    And, crimes aside, if you make them part of a larger social framework, you can give your players complex social choices to make; ones where they have to weigh a series of only partly known costs and benefits.

    For example: Do they do what Dad wants, and drop off a present with his relatives two towns over, or do they do what their Uncle wants instead, and take a different route in order to drop off some cargo with one of his business associates? Their Uncle is offering to give them a letter of recommendation to an instructor they want to learn from in exchange for doing him this favour, but if they disobey their father, many of their other relatives will shun them for being disloyal to their father, and hence, to their family honour.

    Remember the saying: "gossip is the only thing that travels faster than light". In a world where message spells, dream communication, remote scrying, and teleportation is possible, gossip may even travel faster than that; provided, of course, that it's juicy enough to justify the cost of sending it.

  3. I suspect this is why D&D has a "base world" that it uses as a reference point. That way it can imbue flavour as needed, but things are also open for people to build their own worlds.

    Because you have these new races and classes, I think you need more flavour than most "standard fantasy" games so that people can relate. Lands where one class dominates, or special sects or religious orders or whatever. Anything to make them stand out in the reader's head and build a story for them. I know what a "ninja" or "thief" is, I don't know what a "marauder" is specifically. I know dwarves...or at least I thought I did, but in HbT it turns out that I don't.

    Of course, adding this flavour is a supplement to the game. A challenge when you are trying to create tropes is that you have to spend valuable complexity points and effort bringing players up to speed. I suspect this is why existing franchises do well.

    Solution: Quickly write some best-selling novels about your world. Then HbT will be a much easier sell.

  4. I definitely agree that I am starting at a massive disadvantage because of lack of familiarity. DnD isn't popular because it did everything better, it is popular because it has all that familiarity built in. It has to do so much less work to get people to the table feeling prepared that other systems struggle to break in.

    I agree that I could use more flavour and backstory to get people ready. I suppose I need to build a bunch of cultural icons and maps and stuff to get things feeling more ready for people to just sit down and play. They can always ignore it if they want.

  5. @Kevin

    I agree that all these things are possible. When I build a world myself I try to have the character's actions have real consequences. Part of doing that is making powerful people and institutions that the characters have to care about. It is far easier to get people to pay attention to world dynamics when they have names. 'The guards' aren't scary and nobody cares about them. 'Baroness Valdoof the Wizard - who is known to possess the Orb of Distant Sight' is a real and serious force to be reckoned with. Even if he primary way of keeping people in line is just random guards things work better when people see the threats potentially arrayed against them.