Games Design - Presenting Background

Posted by: Andrew Kenrick On: Jan 6th 2011

One thing I've been wrestling with recently is the notion of background material in rpgs, and how we can best convey it to a) the reader and b) the player. This has come about because, unlike Dead of Night, a couple of my current projects have background of their own, and I’m pondering how I can get my own ideas about a setting across in a useful and relevant way.

Historically in rpgs, the way this has been done is very much top down. The background was presented via the medium of rulebook and supplement to the GM (and often the GM alone, because, you known, campaign secrets/spoilers abound). The GM would then convey the setting material to the players by some nebulous and unspecified means – perhaps by showing and telling in the game, perhaps by handouts or maybe even by homework of reading vast reams of text.

I used to do this, but inevitably grew frustrated when the players didn’t always pay attention or get onboard with the background – but why should they? They had no buy in, no investment, no connection in their own to the world . I remember Weapons of the Gods strove someway to alleviate this, with aspects of the background that the players could ‘buy’ as their own, almost giving ownership of different areas of knowledge to different players. But in many respects this still wound up with the same problems as the GM imparting knowledge – fundamentally the players had to do the legwork by reading up on all the background to see what interested them in the first place.

Of course, the pendulum has swung the other way somewhat. Many games nowadays don’t have set background at all (or only very roughly sketched background) and instead the players create the background around the table as part of play. Burning Empires coined the phrase ‘world burning’ and the name has kinda stuck. This gets all of the players onboard, investing them in the setting by harnessing and using their own ideas and creations.

But sometimes you don’t want to make up the setting, sometimes you want to play in an established setting that you know and love (but the players might not). What to do then? Is there a compromise? How can you create buy in and investment without necessarily creating from whole cloth?

Posted by: Claus On: Jan 6th 2011

Yes! Although my answers seem a bit obvious so I might not understand your question fully, but I'll shoot from the hip and you just tell me if I'm completely missing your point.

The most obvious buy-in-phase is character creation and more importantly character relationships. Let the players create meaningful backgrounds, friends, enemies and families that will be the key cast of your setting. Ideally the players create much of the cast, but you can of course make it a collaborative process or even ask them to create relationships with existing NPCs.

This works because as long as the players care about the characters in the story they should by extension also start to care about the environment (aka setting).

Also, just because the setting is established doesn't mean that the players' role in that setting is defined. Neither are their aspirations. Again, if you establish these during character creation you can focus on them during play and thus give the players the experience they want.

I'd also say that some players love creating content, while others hate it. Do they want to discover the world before play or during play?

I think for the long term you get players to invest by making their characters important and giving them a lot of control over the direction they take the story during play.

Posted by: Matt On: Jan 6th 2011 edited

Some of the work I'm doing on the E&E district sheets touches on this. See here

I'm getting really keen on providing setting touch points that can be picked up or dropped depending on where the interest lies in the group. Stuff that distils down the essence of a setting to make it easy to pickup, doesn't require a high buy in, but feels in depth.

What I found helped was being really ruthless and stripping everything down to the point of "can this be used in play off the bat? No, then change it so it is or remove it." Then tagging each district so that their features are easily picked out for play by the group and we just ignore the stuff that the group aren't interested in.

Still a work in progress, but I think it'll really help with setting rich material with a low buying. Kind of what splats try to do, but end up waffling way too much and being diluted by supplements.

Posted by: Neil Gow On: Jan 7th 2011

I think there are a number of ways to look at this, leading to a similar solution.

The first is understanding why you want to play in a certain setting and what stuff from that setting has inspired you to play within that setting. That way, you can distill things down when it comes to communicating the setting. What is important and what is irrelevant?

Example: You want to play within the Middle Earth setting and you want to play a game where the PCs are a band of dwarven brothers at the height of Moria's power. So you might want stuff about Dwarves, maybe goblins, gold, Things That Dwell in the Deep etc. You really don't need to know anything about hobbits, the lineage of Gondor or the races to the South. You might know they exist, but its not crucial.

The next thing for me is 'what do the players NEED to know so that I probably won't have to correct them during a session.' That sounds strange, right? Well, if you DON'T correct them when they get things wrong (ie. Oh yeah, the dwarf kings name is ... Duncan Von Stroodle') then you are making up your setting as you are going along. If its important enough that you feel like you cannot let it lie, then they need to have a chance to know it. These could be specific factoids, or they could be more themes and understandings of the setting (cf. the propaganda posters in Hot War deliver far more feeling and tone than they do facts.)

Then you have to work out how you transmit this information to the players. I would resort back to the joys of visual/auditory/kinaesthetic learning here. Present a montage of film clips? A slew of powerpoint slides with images on them? A couple of sides of A4 with bullet points? A soundtrack selection - possibly a shared youtube or spotify playlist? Some rocks and stones and metals to touch? Costume jewelry?

And finally do this little and often, rather than a massive download at the start. Adding little lore pieces or additional information as it becomes important in play eases the workload. One thing I did for my Dresden Files game was start each session with a little spoken radio or TV broadcast which filled in some colour of the setting and also added little bits of mundane lore.

And where the detail is inconsequential to the veracity of the setting, let the players make up their own stuff as per 'usual'. And then they begin to build a little of their own stuff too.


Posted by: Joe Prince On: Jan 8th 2011

I generally hate background fluff in games.

I think it's best to just give the players what they need to get going and let the background reveal itself through play. Maps are good!

Posted by: Andrew Kenrick On: Jan 8th 2011

How would you do that though? What would you give them to get going? And when you say let it reveal itself through play, do you mean reveal it as it becomes relevant, or make it up when it becomes relevant?

Posted by: Joe Prince On: Jan 10th 2011

Well, at the risk of sounding like cop out, it depends on the game!

Presumably the players have already been hooked in some way and their character choices are the starting point for background material. The PCs are the way into the world.

For example, if they are all playing hive gangers then they don't need to know about ancient alien craftworlds, but they probably would know who's running the best stim smuggling operation and what sectors the muties control - this helps inform player choice in a meaningful way. Obviously taylor the info to what you want to focus on in your campaign.

If the GM has an established setting in his own mind then absolutely yes, reveal it as it becomes relevant to the PC's actions. Making it up when it becomes relevant is fine too, but gives a very different kind of game - the GM should be upfront about this, the PCs are not exploring a wider world in this case - the world is literally adapting to them and morphing around them.

Hope this helps!

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