Tuesday, April 16, 2013
Backstory, Actual Play and "Show, Don't Tell"
On the one hand, you should probably show more than 10% of the iceberg, since it's not clear which 10% will be above the water in actual play. On the other, there is often a lot of backlash - for instance if a standard adventure module contains more than a page of background, reviewers will complain about the amount of time spent on this. I think what's important is that the authors want to show off a complex backstory behind the dungeon, while reviewers want game-relevant information.
That's why I think a second writing adage is even more important to RPG writing: "show, don't tell." What this means in gaming terms is that detail should be given in a form that has a reasonable chance to appear in actual play. A long and loving history of a dungeon is fine, if it is presented in terms of places, objects, encounters or magical effects that show off what that history is. For instance, I've fed bits of Stonehell history through the dwarven architect Snorri Broadshoulders, and found that the murals and statues and weird encounters do a good job of giving an impression of the place. But 6 or 8 pages of pure backstory would never make it into play, or at best inspire sporadic bits.
I would also say that good gaming material has another adage that doesn't apply for fiction writing. That is: hint but leave some things open. Think of how many fledgling referees cut their dungeon-designing teeth on the reference to the Cave of the Unknown in B2 Keep on the Borderlands. For me this is the key to good game writing; a backstory should hint at legendary things, when possible ones with evocative names, that referees and players can fill in with their own imaginations. You may not know what exactly a Wind Duke is or where Aaqa lies, but a single reference to the Wind Dukes of Aaqa (in the Artifacts section of the Dungeon Masters Guide) creates fertile land for imagination.
On the whole, the products I've enjoyed most give me some depth but with lots of room to grow. Depth should be selective with a heavy emphasis on things that will appear in play. After all, what good is showing me as the referee the deep layers of the iceberg without giving me a way to show it to my players?