Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Tractable Settings

My brother and I wrote up a murder mystery party for our friends. It was about 25 people, with brief character prompts and very light mechanics, so the majority of preparation was just figuring out what each character prompt would be. But about halfway through, I realized that certain elements of the game could be more easily interacted with. Working through how taught me a lesson about how to run games.

In the party, some characters had "wealth tokens" that represented resources they could bargain with. Each token was valuable on its own, but they were each qualitatively different-- one might be "buckets of ducats," while another might be "the hand of a countess in marriage." Which one is more valuable? That's up to you.

But some of the tokens had special rules: a perfectly balanced sword that could kill, a bishopric that gave you extra influence over papal conclaves. Characters could infer that some of these would be more helpful than others, but in a second draft of the party I gave one character, a banker, the ability to "appraise" wealth tokens, which allowed them to learn if they had any special abilities. This made the question of what wealth tokens did more tractable. If you wanted to learn more about one, there was a procedure you could follow: convince the banker to look at it, and trust him to give it back.

This points to a more general aspect of roleplaying design. If you're going to use a mechanic, imply that it exists. If one character is an impostor in disguise, give some hint or it's never going to come up. If there are going to be factions for voting in the next pope, at least one character should know that those factions exist. If players don't know how to interact with something, they won't.

Marc Simonetti

I don't use many random tables when I run tabletop games, but I have three in Holy Selmat: a folk belief table, a relic loot table, and a scholarly text table. They all have a base level of tractability-- players will figure out once you start rolling that there is a bank of potential items or information they can access. The next level is giving them something to do with that. Wealthy patrons interested in purchasing the relics they find is good, an artifact dealer willing to trade other relics for theirs is better. Libraries interested in purchasing their texts is fine, a scholar whose stock and trade is ancient texts will be even better. With that, I provide the following three NPCs who can be found in Holy Selmat:

Wyker, halfing merchant. One of the few countrymen the party is likely to meet. Came to Selmat to trade for gold, then bring it to the halfling enclaves in the west where it is considered currency. (Everyone else uses a bargain economy.) Later decided that trading in saintly relics is a better deal. Knows every archeologist within 200 miles. Wants to recover a saint's body, then turn it into dozens of relics and get rich off pious patrons. (A saint's body is a relic, but every piece of a relic is itself a relic...)

Tzetzes, Ulama scholar. The people of Skarbor think of him as a Nivian, because his mother was one. Nivians think of him as Selmati, because his father was one. Everyone thinks he's an asshole, except him, who thinks he's the best. He cites himself in arguments as an authority on all things, and annotates casual letters so the recipient will get all of his wordplay and jokes. Claims to have a photographic memory, and will trade tome for tome. Made himself immortal and now wants to die, but can only do so by killing the other man who performed the immortality ritual with him.

Tamar, gossip monger. As a young girl, Tamar made a deal with a demon to hear every lie uttered in Selmat. She quickly went insane and undertook a fifteen-year odyssey to get the curse reversed. Still flush with falsified wisdom, she resides in an estate in Birit, supplementing her knowledge of conspiracies with the experiences she won firsthand. Will absolutely offer rumors for free, and will trade more hidden information for important and recent secrets. She still has that demon trapped in a ring, and she thinks about the exhilaration of lies, and wonders if she is now strong enough to bear it...

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