Tobold's Blog
Friday, August 14, 2015
Handling lore

I find that my attitude towards lore is very different between playing a MMORPG and a tabletop RPG. In MMORPGs I tend to completely ignore lore. Part of that is because when I was young I read a lot of fantasy literature and learned to tell the good from the bad, and the writing of a typical computer RPG is usually rather bad. I mean, does the whole Warlords of Draenor alternative timeline story make sense to anybody? The other problem is that in a MMORPG lore tends to clash with gameplay. I play different alts, so I end up killing the same main villain several times, or worse I find myself in a script of being betrayed and can do nothing about it in spite of already knowing who the bad guy is. In the other direction lore is nearly always completely irrelevant for gameplay, the game never asks me to make any decisions based on my understanding who is good and who is bad. The good guys have a green name and I can't attack them, the bad guys have a red name, and outside scripted events I can attack them; that is all the lore I need to know.

In a tabletop RPG the situation is very different. Especially for me as DM, being lorekeeper is part of my job. Now there are different approaches to that: Some DMs make up the lore on the spot, as the world only exists when the players come into contact with it. The disadvantage is that this requires a very good memory, because stories tend to loop back to NPCs and other lore elements you described before, and then you better remember what you invented on the spot several sessions ago.

So my approach is usually one of preparation. Especially if I play a campaign or adventure that I haven't written myself. I will read the adventure and campaign material several times and think about the various relations described in there until that virtual world becomes kind of real in my head. If I know the history of my campaign world and the NPCs that are principal actors in it, I can respond to any situation that comes up in the game with a consistent answer.

For my new campaign I was lucky with the timing. This is Europe, with its long summer holidays, and in a group of 1 DM and 6 players it isn't easy to play during summer, because everybody is gone at some point or the other. That creates a huge gap between the last session before the holidays and the first session after the holidays. But as this year we finished the old campaign just before the holidays, and only had time for a short introduction of the new campaign (character creation and a warm-up fight), I had all summer to prepare the new campaign. As the Zeitgeist campaign is *huge* (the first hardcover with the players guide, DM guide, and adventures 1 to 4 has 562 pages), I could really use that time. Now I feel well prepared, having understood the interaction between the various power groups in the campaign world, and events about to happen that the players will interact with.

When I started playing tabletop roleplaying games in the early 80's, the written modules and campaign guides were all you had to prepare. Today there are other sources, because other people will have played the same campaign and put their experiences in blogs, podcasts, or even videos. 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons works well with videos, as long as you stream your virtual tabletop in the video. There are various videos on YouTube basically showing people sitting around a table for hours, and there an audio podcast would have worked just as well. In any case, it is interesting to hear how a different DM describes the same campaign world, and what the reactions of different players are to certain situations. Sometimes it helps you to identify pitfalls in the adventure, where the players ask a perfectly reasonable question or take a logical course of action that the adventure failed to foresee. Seeing that happen in somebody else's campaign helps to avoid the gap in my own campaign. On the other hand every podcast or video is full of player interaction and dice rolls that have no relevance for my own campaign.

The big difference between tabletop RPGs and computer RPGs is that lore actually makes a difference in the pen & paper game. There is a much larger possibility space for players to make decisions in, and only if you have meaningful decisions to make becomes the lore important as a basis for deciding who to help and who to fight. The best a computer RPG can come up is a decision system where you better be consistently good or consistently evil to get to the maximum power level of your alignment-based powers.

Current cRPGs allow very few ways for you to interact with the world and any meaningful decisions you do make just switch story down a different pre-determined path.

tRPGs have an unlimited number of interactions which can all influence NPCs

cRPG AI is getting better at giving NPCs motivations that influence their actions and allowing them to adjust to the world around them, but we are still missing the massively-interactionable portion. I can only act on the NPCs in a few limited ways as imposed by the developers.
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