Monday, October 20, 2014

Prehistory Fantasy Setting: As Open as One Can Get It

Lately I've challenged myself to conjure up game mechanics that test my players' abilities to improvise and innovate within a particular game setting. Most of my recent game ideas have sprung from the concept of a prehistory fantasy setting, and this conjecture is no different.

I'm curious, to say the least, about what players would do in a setting that asks them to move forward in a four-dimensional campaign, rather than through the traditional three. What if players not only have to solve local temporal issues of 'find this' or 'kill this' or 'save this', but are actually responsible for a culture's progression, technologically-speaking? What if-and this is where my brain starts actually overheating-players were the ones who decided how gods and magic appeared in the world?

What does this mean for players?
Well, obviously it represents a drastic shift in the objectives of the players themselves. They can't be passive receptacles for plot; at least not all the time. Players have to look at their game world not as something static, but as an evolving machine that they do not have all the schematics for.

Obviously there must be strictures in place, because despite our best intentions, there's going to be a type of player that 'decides' he's going to discover that magic comes from his farts. It's important to have the requirements of your world in place, what you might call the world's natural laws. Perhaps the manifestation of magic requires a substantial sacrifice by the user. Perhaps it requires an appeal to a god, who may or may not even exist yet. Having these canonical and physical restrictions in place draw the line between the campaign where players refill their mana by eating beans (god help you, poor GM) and the campaign where one mostly-annoying PC spends a few days in a cave farting and (hopefully) realizes that maybe something else needs to happen first, or in addition to his own flatulence.

There is also the concept of need-based innovation. Fire was invented (or brought down from on high by Prometheus, depending on your worldview) because humanity needed something to keep the chill of night away, or to keep the monsters at bay. Wheels came about due to the need to transport quantities of goods that a normal human couldn't carry effectively on their own. But what if your players don't ever encounter that problem? What if they could bribe a giant into doing all their heavy lifting? The need for innovation drastically decreases when that first 'want' is already alleviated by a historically unorthodox solution (in terms of the real world).

What does this mean for GMs?
As already stated, you need a set of guidelines as to how players will interact with and develop technology; however, this is only for your purposes. The last thing you should be giving players is any kind of handout detailing exactly what, step for step, they need to do to accomplish what they set out to do.

Instead, what you should do is ask your players what their goals are: short term, mid term, and long term. Obviously you should have some quest lines for them to follow while you're plotting out how to incorporate what they want to do in the story BUT - and this is an important but - after finding out what your players want to do, start incorporating some of the how into that generic session. So, for instance, if a player wants to invent or discover wizardry, bring in an NPC character that is old and wizened. Have them be a master in some kind of wizardry (preferably not all wizardry), but also express in their description and dialogue exactly how long it's taken them to master this tiny aspect of the arcane.

Thus, without providing your players with some kind of generic checklist, they get an inkling of the concept of sacrifice and determination that is required to achieve their goals. It gives intuitive players an idea of where to start with their objectives, but allows them to connect the dots without handholding, so they can take the concept of what you've presented and maybe put their own unique spin on it.

Now, obviously, this puts quite a bit of work on the GM in the front-end. You'll be crafting concepts and natural laws in addition to NPCs, quests, conflicts, etc. However, once players get the hang of the concept you're trying to impart onto them, it's likely they'll use the laws you have in place and come up with their own solutions.

Just some food for thought.


  1. Unknown Armies handles magic and reality-shaping in much the way you're talking about here. It even divides things up into tiers; at first, you're feeling around blindly, not sure what is pointless ritual and what is actual magickal power. By the end, you're competing to become a god-figure incarnation of a particular aspect of the universe. It's set up as a modern-day urban horror thing, but it might be worth taking a look at for some general inspiration.

    Closer to the fantasy genre, this is the part where my brain clicks into place and I think to myself, "He just needs to run a Glorantha campaign." See, in addition to being an obsessive Arthurian scholar, Greg Stafford is also an honest-to-goodness shaman (his next big writing project is a non-gaming-related shaman's guide to Oaxaca), and Glorantha, his other legendary contribution to gaming besides Pendragon, is all about the low-tech (it's basically Bronze Age tech at best), the coalescence of reality out of the raw stuff of magic, and of traveling between different planes of reality. In other words, a primordial fantasy world.

    Runequest, progenitor of BRP, was the first system to support Gloranthan gaming. Later, Robin Laws did a more "narrativist" take with HeroQuest. You probably don't realize it, but you've got an iteration of HeroQuest on your shelves at this very moment: that copy of Mythic Russia you picked up is powered by HQ. (In Mythic Russia, the different planes are represented as aspects of Russian paganism and Orthodox Christian spirit worlds.)

    So yeah, check out Glorantha! It might just be suitable to run out of the box, either in its Runequest or HeroQuest incarnations, and at the very least there's a treasure trove of goodness in there. Also, the HeroQuest mechanics might help form a basis for doing something non-Gloranthan, should you go that way.

    Here are some links to whet your appetite: (The Broo seem like the sort of monster you would relish unleashing on your hapless players. :P)

  2. I mean, look at this shit:

  3. I'm interested to see what HeroQuest is about, but some of the negative reviews have me somewhat concerned. I'm all for more narration in games, but not necessarily at the cost of the actual game concept of dice rolls. I'll definitely pick the book up sometime and see if my concerns are valid.

    1. It's a heavily narrativist system, no doubt--what else do you expect from Robin Laws? ;)

      There is actually a soupcon of Pendragon mechanics in there, though, in that skills are rated on 1-20 and numbers going above 20 create a sort of modifier, if I recall correctly.

      My only exposure to the system has been via Mythic Russia. You can probably get a good enough idea of the nuts and bolts of the system by reading through that.

      I will say that the people who like HeroQuest (2e--apparently earlier versions were much more problematic) seem to really like it:

    2. Here's a positive review of HQ2 from someone who seems to share preferences and prejudices similar to ours:

    3. *sigh*

      That last link sent HeroQuest from the bottom of my wishlist to a 1-Click Buy.

      It'll be at my place on Friday.