Tuesday, February 6, 2018

A sense of wonder and putting Orcs in a custom setting

So I am running another two group campaign  (Similar to how in Xan Than Du I had two competing play groups racing through a Victorian setting) and that means building something new and trying to keep the info-dump as small as possible.

One thing that is hard to replicate from your own personal early days of gaming is the sense of wonder and the unknown.  The first time players ever encounter any particular monster or trap is a very different feel than a similar encounter twenty years of gaming later.  The character's may never have encountered a beholder before but the players know what it is.

When people see this as a bug rather than a feature, in that they want to recapture that feeling rather than use its replacement "familiarity" as a tool for enjoyment, one of the more common bits of advice I see is to create novelty.   Don't use goblins, orcs, elves, and dwarves but have whole new paradigms of reptoids, sentient insect swarms, and robots (or whatever fits the flavour of the campaign setting). That works for people, but I see a few problems for my own style. 

First, as the years of play grow longer the game has to get more and more bizarre and removed to keep that feeling of novelty which removes much of the "real world" grounding where you can fathom how the world works outside of the adventure (and yes, with skill and effort that can be minimized). 

Secondly it makes it harder to have rumours and background assumptions without providing an info dump.  You don't have any real idea before running into them that sentient insect swarms are a thing nor any idea what they might be about if they do exist. You could give players some rumours and have some of them be false, but that always feels off.  In the real world you aren't sat down and told "Here are four facts, some of them are false",  and if you don't flat out state "these are rumours and may be false" it can be interpreted as if it were information that is known first hand. If I say "Goblins are Blue Skinned" as an info dump fact,  it could be interpreted as if that is known because the character had seen them directly before.  If I say "You have heard Goblins are Blue Skinned",  then its an immediate red flag when the words "you have heard" are spoken.  This isn't to say this doesn't work (and it is better than nothing), its just not as smooth and organic as I'd like. 

So,  instead I say flat out  "People say there are Orcs over there",  its obvious its a rumour.  Players will ask "What are orcs like?", and I will state that they have competing rumours,  pretty much in line with what you as a player envision orcs to be like.  There are a scatter-shot of rumours, all second hand but probably have core truths.    World of Warcraft Orcs,  Warhammer Orks, Lord of the Rings Orcs (and Uruk-hai), and AD&D Pigman Orcs are all possibilities and they know the truth of what Orcs are belong somewhere in the Venn diagram of those examples.

I also never name monsters until the players do.  I will never say "You have encountered an Orc raiding party",  I will describe exactly what they see and let the players declare them to be Orcs or not without ever being sure if those are the legendary Orcs they heard of.

In my current game,  the two parties have between them encountered three different groups that might fit into that Venn diagram that they suggested could be orcs, and, delightfully, both of the groups are leaning towards different choices of what they declare to be Orcs.

A common example of where this technique is used in games are "Vampires".   Vampires have so many variations of their powers and weaknesses (right up there with Golden Age Superman) that groups often have a sense of wonder when they first encounter them in a custom setting as to what EXACTLY they are..

They definitely drink blood... but may also drink other things or just drink blood as a medium to steal life force.

They probably are affected by sunlight and are usually killed by it (but maybe not, Dracula didn't die)

They probably suffer from holy symbols

They may be able to turn into a bat, or a wolf or two tailed cat

They may die from a stake to the heart

They could have problems crossing running water

They might need to count things, like spilled rice

Hypnosis is a possibility, as is turning into mist.

The blood of dead people may poison them

And so with all of those in mind, there is a palpable sense of exploration when first encountering a vampire.   If you never actually call it a vampire before the players do, that adds to the sense of exploration.  What if this ISN'T a vampire, but some sort of ghoul or revenant and the REAL vampire is somewhere else?

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