Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Making Your Setting More Accessible

Usually when I do a primer for a new homebrew campaign, I give out a brief description, not unlike you’d find in a travel guide or history book. Yet lately I’ve been rethinking this approach—or perhaps more properly, of adding to it with some short fictional excerpts.

I like little excerpts that casually suggest a larger picture through names and events that are sort of casually mentioned in the course of the text. It doesn’t make them the center of the focal point, it doesn’t demand that you know about them, but it gives the idea of depth. Think of the aliens in the background of the Mos Eisley Cantina—many movies made aliens the forefront or focal point of their picture, but in Star Wars, they’re just sort of skulking in the back. It gives the idea of a much deeper and more diverse galaxy without taking away from the story at hand.

I’ll be the first one to admit that this isn’t a strong suite of mine, but really, how many players are going to read through textbook-like material to get the gist of a setting? I want my settings to be deep, but almost immediately accessible. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with writing about the Roman Empire-esque Hegemony of Aerris by giving population, culture, and political facts, but I worry that all too often that blends together. Instead, for the Hegemony of Aerris, I’m going to start with something like this:

The Hegemony of Aerris

History records that the city-state of Vekkon would not bow to the wishes of the Hegemony of Aerris. Despite being officially a Friend and Ally of Aerris, Vekkon would not join the Hegemony.

The Hegemon’s envoys were not be deterred. They had many gifts for the Hierarch of Vekkon. They gave fine wines, bushels of wheat, rings of gold—all representative of the great wealth the Hegemony commanded. The Hierarch did not change his mind.

The envoys then sent a crew to build a fine road for the Hierarch, showing the wisdom and talent of engineering that the Hegemony commanded. The Hierarch did not change his mind.

The envoys then displayed hundreds of books, the crème of knowledge from the cities of the Hegemony and well beyond. The spoke glowingly of the reason, civilization, philosophy, and medicine at the command of the Hegemony of Aerris. The Hierarch did not change his mind.

The Hegemon’s envoys left.

Six months later, a massive army showed up from the Hegemon to besiege the city-state of Vekkon.

At that very instant, the Hierarch changed his mind, and all know Vekkon now prospers as a member of the enlightened humanity that is the Hegemony of Aerris. Long live the Hegemon!

Or this one, for Skeldenland, a loose jumble of murderous, irreverent raiders. Here, I not only give a short background for the Skelds, but also a bit for the mysterious isle of Peln, where the Seers deliver the pronouncements of the gods:


King Otha of Skeldenland envied the Isle of Peln, where he believed the Seers of Peln held knowledge that could make him king of all kings. So the Skelds loaded up 100 ships with only the best of the Skeldish warriors. They made the long journey to Peln—so skillful were the ship-masters of Skeldenland that only 1 boat was lost.

The Seers of Peln saw of his approach, and sent a vision to proud Otha, saying, “Beware your doom, Otha, for no ship launched in anger may touch the shores of Peln. Journey here, and defy the rule of the gods.”

Otha laughed contemptuously at this, because he had little use for gods. Within days, Otha had his ship within sight of Peln. But as soon as his ship touched the Pelnian shore, the sea itself rose up and devoured King Otha’s fleet. Only two slaves survived, chosen to spread the story to all those who would defy that which the gods decreed.

After this, the Skelds were much diminished for a generation, and caused little trouble until the rise of Orreth One-Thumb.

I think that in telling a brief story or fictional account of the territory described, there’s a much better chance it’s going to stick in someone’s head. If I can work these into each primer entry without getting too ornate or long-winded, I think it will help convey the basic points of the setting much better.


Stargazer said...

Hey, that's a great idea!

The Basic Fantasist said...

Ya like Moldvay's short gazetteer of the Known World has in The Isle of Dread has always been more memorable and useable (for me anyway) that the expansion gazetteers.

Rob L said...

Great idea. It also allows a mix of myth and history/fact. Not all of it has to be 'true', but it all can be 'what they say'.

Jenny Snyder / Level 30 Yinzer said...

You know, I did something similar when I started my homebrew - I gave the players some very very short essays written by some anonymous author. One talked about the large, corrupt religion that runs the central government. Another talked about the "old ways" or the wild spirits that used to walk the land. I think another talked about heirarchy within human settlements. All of them were maybe a half-page to 3/4 page long, and I released them in intervals so my players wouldn't be crushed under an infodump.

It was fun when they finally got to meet the "anonymous author" in game, too. So not only was it a way to give them a feel for the place, but it set up plot for later.

clash bowley said...

I used this technique - called a "vignette" BTW - in Sweet Chariot and Book of Jalan. It can be very efective so long as the write doesn't consider him/herself a fiction writer because of it... :D


HinterWelt said...

Yes, I employ a very similar technique. I find it effective.

Aaron said...

Well done. Let us know how well your players remember the information.