Saturday, December 15, 2018

A Revelation about Revelations

Sometimes the journey is the destination.

And yeah, I know it sounds silly when I put it that way, but I'm going to stand by it. And even explain why below.

The Journey Begins Here, Kinda

All right, kids. It's time for a NSTWW1 story. It should be tolerably short, and quite relevant to this discussion. At the same time, though, it needs to be spoiler-free, as it would otherwise contain information about a nameless2 scenario I'm playing through at the local FLGS.

Vaguebooking, taken to the nth degree


*taps microphone*

We had to look into a thing at a place for some people. We got there, talked with someone at the place, and found out that he was interested in this other thing that we didn't know about until just then. We went over, talked to the owner of the other thing, got them talking with each other to negotiate a deal, they couldn't quite agree, and they casually went their separate ways afterwards, though one of the parties did give us a little reward for helping to broker the conversation.

The end.

*clumsily knocks over mic stand as he walks off stage*

It's possible that there's still a spoiler in there, but it's going to be hard to spot.

The Advantage Tucked Deep Within the Shortcoming

Yeah, that sounded like a whole bunch of nothing, didn't it? Negotiation? Talking? Where's the heisting? Where's the naked lumpen greed driving people to take on opposition well above their punching weight? Where's the poor impulse control?3 Sometimes it feels like we're not doing enough of what this scenario was designed for.

And there are a few side-jobs like this in the book, that don't seem to lead to anything fantastic. Some of them just kind of meander about the town.

Except that this one did provide something interesting, if you prize knowledge. Did you spot it? And it got me thinking about how exposition works in games like these.

The great irony here is that I saw within an apparently lackluster design decision made in this published scenario a way to liven up many other games by doing approximately the same thing. That in turn gets me wondering how lackluster that design decision really was.

Show, Don't Tell

You know that writer's dictum about how you should reveal information to the reader rather than simply spelling it out? Because simply spelling it out is crashingly dull storytelling? Through what feels like a minor job, the scenario does just that.

The key words in the block above are "other thing that we didn't know about until just then." In the investigation, we were told about the location (A) with entity (A), who was interested in object (B) owned by entity (B). Until that time, we had no idea there was an object (B) in play. We didn't have to do anything with it then, but knowing it's there opens up possibilities later if it turns out we need it. Then we can negotiate with entity (B) for its use. Or we could heist it. You know how these scenarios run...

Shining New Vistas in Bland Exposition

That rather vaguely boring job was essentially an assignment to adjust that floral-print elephant cozy over there, in the place where we hadn't looked yet.

And indeed, the usual consequences followed, albeit more subdued out of necessity. The cries of "Aaaaah! Elephant" were much less pronounced, and there was no running around because we didn't want to scare the poor dear off or chase it down a hole somewhere it might hurt itself. We just walked away calmly, quietly giggling up our sleeves and muttering to each other, "Hee hee hee... elephant!"

If it wasn't for that yawner of a cozy-shifting job, we wouldn't even have known the elephant was there.

And that's kind of the point here: Showing doesn't always have to involve theatrical lighting and glitter4. Sometimes it can just sit there in the background as the main characters run lines in front of it. As the mystery authors will tell you: "It was in the scene, there for anyone to observe. We performed our duty; now due diligence is on the reader/viewer."

The less light you shine on it, the greater the chance that it'll be overlooked or missed, but you can take that kind of liberty with the side-detail stuff that isn't relevant to the main plot. Or you can reinforce it more gently, if you highlight it a few additional times (shoot for at least three references to drive it home).

As it happens in this particular case within the Dragon Heist "module," the elephant did have two or three spotlights on it, and maybe just a little glitter. Suffice it to say, it was noticeable, and we did notice. What we do with that knowledge remains to be seen.

Worldbuilding Begins with Fill Dirt

This narrative trick is useful for displaying to players (either showcased or quietly in the background, where the mystery writes put things they only want clever people to notice) those elements of the setting or location that you think may eventually be important.

Let's look at my case. I'm running Starfinder, and while I'm using the setting's general frameworks like faiths, technologies, and so forth, I'm not using any of their campaign arcs. I create my own star systems using the GURPS Space rules, though that's a bit like killing a fly with a tacnuke, and then populate them with the elements of the overplot. In the current case, Praduhn is a subtropical world with a history of warfare. These days, they're more into archaeology, tourism, and some light manufacture.

I can't spoil my own plot yet, but suffice it to say that there is an overplot, an eventual chain of events that'll shock and awe, and some fancy stepping that the PCs will have to do to avert literal disaster.

So here's an environment in which a major thing is happening. There are a bunch of ways they could How do I get the players to notice the things it's important for them to see without simply pointing them out in a dull-as-dishwater exposition?

Have you tried... [Insert Name Here]?

I think the techniques above will prove most helpful, with some callbacks to the elephant episodes above. I have a few groups involved up to their eyeballs. I need to create more groups for starters, hiding the elephants in a room full of elephants. Mind you, some of those elephants are still under cozies.

Once I have those different groups, they'll have different needs, and they'll be able to pay the PCs for little jobs fulfilling those needs. Those jobs will pay something at least, and it'll take them to new places. And in those places, they will see things. And those things will be useful, or important to keep in mind. I will create for them minor jobs that lead to those bits of the setting that I created and want them to see.

At least, it sounds like a plan to me.

Plaintive Wail for Feedback

What's your situation? Do you have things in the background if your campaign that you'd like your players to notice? Think this technique could work for you? Post in the comments, and lets' start some conversation.

  1. No (something), There We Were
  2. Oh, the hell I won't name it. It's Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, which I'm playing in as part of the Living Adventures series. That said, it should be clear why I'm not spoiling it.
  3. It's over there in Fiasco, right where we left it.
  4. Seriously, don't use the glitter. They call it the "herpes of arts and crafts" for a reason. That schnitt gets everywhere and is almost impossible to pick up, even with a shop vac.

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