Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Backstory, Actual Play and "Show, Don't Tell"

I want to talk briefly about how two fiction writing adages apply to RPGs. One is illustrated figuratively by the picture to the right: the idea that a well-developed character or story is like an iceberg, where only 10% actually appears above the surface. The rest is the backstory that the writer knows but the reader doesn't. There are two ways that RPG products can take this, and it's worth talking about both.

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?


  1. Thorough agreement.

    The importance of evocative names and hints is hard to overstate. When writing for an audience of D&Ders, I naturally assume them to be an imaginative lot. As such, a fantastic name or image ("The Lost Treasure of the Electrum King" or the "Weeping Crystal Trees" or etc.) does more for the imaginative Judge than do paragraphs of turgid prose: "Long ago, 1,671 years to be precise, the good King Ledogrand formed the kingdom of Yodald. He came from a long lineage of royalty, and he married a daughter of the crown princess of Dokalt. Their son (Ledogrand II) became king in the Year 29 of the Common Age, and he hired masons and wizards to constuct a grand dungeon in the very rock of the earth. Long decades they toiled, hewing winding passages and chambers in the earth's depths." Etc, ad nauseam.

    1. Right, and when you detail something legendary in a matter-of-fact way, it always loses some of that faraway glitter. The Clone Wars, for instance, on film and TV will never match what I imagined at 10 years old.

  2. "hint but leave some things open" seems like a different way to say the iceberg idea. Good advice for gaming and writing either way.

    Here' another adage aimed at writers that I've used to good effect in games:

    "Every character should want something, even if it's only a glass of water."
    -Kurt Vonegut

    An orc becomes much more than just an orc when he hates/worships/desperately wants to prove himself to the ogre a few rooms down.


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