Friday, December 16, 2016

What Do YOU Think is Going On?

Let's say your D&D/OSR campaign involves running a bunch of different modules written by a bunch of different people - for example, let's say you're like me and you tend to use a whole bunch of LotFP adventures in the same campaign. A lot of the setting elements presented to the players - deities and other religious or mythological forces, factions, magic items, political and social elements, locations, cultures, the state of the economy, the level of technology available, etc. - might seem random, unrelated, or even contradictory to your players. You might have a dungeon built by Cthulhu-worshipping ancient serpent people who ruled the world in prehistoric times in one adventure, then have satan-worshipping cultists who summon Biblical demons (or angel-worshipping cultists who summon Biblical angels, because that could be REALLY scary) in the next. Or you may have an adventure which suggests that elves come from inside the Hollow Earth, and then another adventure which provides evidence that they're aliens from another dimension.

In this kind of situation, I bet there's a good chance that one or more of your players will ask stuff like "How does any of this make sense? How does this all fit together? Does any of this fit together? What kind of weird-ass setting is this? Is anything consistent around here? What the fuck is going on?"

Now, the obvious solution to this problem (assuming you see it as a problem, which you don't have to, especially if you're running either a purposefully goofy campaign or a purposefully gonzo/pulpy one) is to prevent it from happening in the first place. You could come up with the connections between the major setting elements of your campaign ahead of time and figure out a way to make them all "cohere," historically and/or metaphysically. (You could also do the same thing "after the fact," spending some private time between adventures making sense of the world you're building.) A related tactic is to change details of the adventures ahead of time so that they fit together in your setting in the way you prefer or in a way that you think makes sense. These are the approaches I lean towards in my current campaign, "Lamentations of the Fallen Lords." Another way to prevent the problem from happening is to be more selective about which adventures and other materials you use in the campaign, being careful to only use stuff that seems to make sense when combined into a greater whole at the table.

But here's another way of dealing with the problem, which I've heard suggested here and there, and which I'd love to do more: When your players ask those kinds of questions, respond with "Well, what do YOU think is going on? Tell me what you think you've figured out so far. Give me your theories." And then, of course, listen to what they say, take notes, steal the best stuff (in terms of either being the coolest individual possibilities or just the ones that make everything cohere in the most satisfying or interesting matter), and pick some of their theories to be explicitly wrong, too, in part or in whole, just to keep the mysteries fresh and offer some future surprises. Give them the potential joy of discovery in the future as they unravel the facts and innuendo and find out what they were right and wrong about.

Furthermore, this could be a fun way of engaging in collaborative world-building without making a big, complicated...thing out of it. Your players might not even realize this is what happened, at least not at first. Consider it surprise collaborative world-building.

I might not be a scientist, but as a player I think there's nothing like coming up with a hypothesis and then proving it right. There's also nothing like thinking you've figured everything out and then being blindsided by something unexpected. Some of the best things about playing a game like D&D are the emotions you get: pride at solving a problem or mystery and being proven right, wonder at the strange things you discover exploring a magical world, relief (and more pride) at overcoming an obstacle that seemed insurmountable, fear when the DM shakes their head and starts rolling a bunch of dice, joy at the fact that somebody brought fresh cookies to tonight's game.

P.S. No matter what solution you choose, if any, it's still up to the players to figure out the greater backstory of the setting through play, if they want to investigate it - I think there's usually no need to spill the beans and subject the players to some kind of potentially boring infodump just because somebody asked you out-of-character to explain stuff.


  1. Players love it when their guesses and predictions turn out to be right; it doesn't matter if their guess is what gave the GM the idea.

    1. I think that might be a possible advantage of using a whole bunch of seemingly unrelated material in the same campaign: the conspiracy theories that players come up with to tie it all together could make for some cool gaming.

  2. Dark Soul style story!

  3. I recently ran a game where the entire campaign was a series of scenes from death/black metal album covers, mostly randomly-determined. Pop an album cover up on a screen, "this is what you see," give some details on the action and atmosphere of the scene, see what the players do. (It had the advantage of being basically prep-free, too!)
    What interested me is that a plot DID emerge, in a manner similar to that last solution that you expounded upon. The players - and I also - were in the position of making vague guesses and connecting the dots of the various scenes and events of the campaign, and it ultimately created a surprisingly compelling world that drove deep character choices (it ended with two of the characters turning on a third character, while the fourth stood by paralyzed by uncertainty. My gaming group that semester was so great!)

    1. Wow, that sounds excellent! I should give that a try!
      How did you handle stats and such for something so ad-libbed? Did you have some pre-written stuff to pull from and just reskin it in whatever way made sense at the time, or did you just use your instincts and previous experience to make up stats as you went?

    2. I basically used a streamlined homebrew ruleset (still d20-based, though), which was important because it allowed me to use an very shallow leveling curve and thus cut out a lot of level bloat: estimating how powerful a monster or foe should be was fairly easy, as there wasn't a radical difference between, say, a 1st-level PC and 4th-level PC. (PC advancement was mostly in the terms of discovering new spells and magic items, rather than HP increases or to-hit / saving throw progression; I tried to give PCs expanded options as the game progressed, rather than bloating their basic options.) I basically estimated monster stats on the fly, since nearly everything was on a 1-to-10 scale and most properties were derived directly from basic ability scores (no HD, no proficiency bonuses, etc).
      I'll definitely be doing a couple of blog posts on this whole experiment at some point, so stay tuned, haha.