Friday, January 23, 2009

Ale Break: Use of the written word

It's nice to take a break every now and again and reflect upon running role playing games in a way that adds drama and excitement to the experience.

The written word doesn't tend to take place so much in fantasy worlds, partly due to the historical precedent of illiteracy in Medieval European societies. However, most player characters end up interacting with the upper classes and powermongers of the societies they roll in, so at some point, they will likely encounter the written word.

This can provide a fun game element, especially if many of the characters do not read the official written language. Present your characters with a riddle, cryptogram or a set of hieroglyphs and watch the players try to solve the puzzle. This will likely lead to various competing interpretations, which, if your players are really role playing, will play out in their interactions. A cleric may consider it a message from a god and consider it his word and thus up to him to interpret. A rogue may see it as a coded message leading to a treasure. A fighter may see it as a document of surrender. An elf may find it primitive dribble. Hopefully your players will find a more nuanced position, assuming you present the right symbols.

For sources, check out books in the library or have a look online in old books for something that looks right. Or make one up yourself. It's easy to sit down and write something up. For instance, in a recent session, I presented my characters with a sheet that was nailed to the door of an abandoned keep. What was written wasn't as important as that fact that it was written in three distinct languages. So I made up some characters and used them in ways that looked like a fancy, almost magical script, a character-based language, and a hieroglyphics-inspired pictoral representation.

In addition, consider using writs of passage and official documents that travel the land, as well as secret messages sent out during the night. These present opportunities for characters to be sent on missions as couriers, and end up starting or preventing a war upon delivery, involving them very directly in the overarching story of the campaign and thus have the players feel agency in the game itself. These scenarios also allow the party to discuss the ethics of opening mail before it arrives at its intended destination, etc. Some may find this despicable, others may consider it the only way to ensure that the right things is done. Still others may be dastardly rogues who just want to meddle in other people's affairs. All of these are welcome (nay, encouraged) in fantasy role playing games!

This drama is harder to sustain and play out with the common use of message, sending and other spells. Limit the use of these spells in your campaign if you want the written word to have any use. I recommend it; in my opinion, convenience kills role playing. It is urgency that propels storylines, not convenience.

The same is true for the use of multiple spoken languages. One way to spice up your game is to give NPCs who do not speak so-called "common," or perhaps speak a different common than the PCs, strange accents and broken use of the language. Imagine a Frenchman or German speaking English. Even when they do speak it well, there are regular pronunciation artifacts that tag someone as having a "French or German accent." This can be a great way of linking an NPC that the party knows nothing about with a specific region, based entirely on accent, no in-game "Where are you from?" "I hail from the Kingdon of Blah" dialogue, which can be cumbersome, and not necessarily realistic. Why would this person who doesn't know you tell you where he's from or even more fundamental, why would this NPC parley with the party in the first place? But if the characters overhear him gloating about killing a giant, they learn much about where he's from and what's been doing.

Of course, spells like tongues can completely negate the use of different languages in your game. This is why it may make sense to remove these spells entirely from the game, or have them only be able to be learned after a considerable amount of work or a quest.

Questing for spells is another way to add texture to your campaign. More on that in a later post.

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