#RPGaDay2021 Day 6 "Flavor"
My Favorite Flavor: Exploration
I love exploration games, where there is a safe place you can start from, but where the interesting, valuable, dangerous and different are available for the experiencing, if you go just a little farther.
In video games, I'm a huge fan of No Man's Sky, Subnautica, Astroneer, Don't Starve and now Valheim. Some of these involve looking for resources; some involve looking for secrets. The common thread with these and others like them is that the more you explore, the more interesting the game becomes.
In thinking about the flavor of my own tabletop role playing games, today, I realized that exploration is one of my favorite themes to run, as well. I love running sandbox style games, where the players choose what they do, but I also love the idea of mysteries in a world.
This is what draws me to sandbox gaming in D&D, Numenera, The Strange and Invisible Sun, just to name a few. In each of these, the only way to really start getting something out of the world is to choose to go looking for it.
That said, in terms of flavor, I'm going to talk about four exploration-related themes that players of anything I run should experience during the game.
The world is to be explored and discovered
Numenera, to me is the epitome of a world to be explored. It's a world where if it wasn't created in the last year or so, it's probably something weird and interesting, with equal potential to be helpful or dangerous. The new version, Numenera Discovery and Destiny, up the ante from that, with the idea that you can have a home base, and explore outward from there, to improve and protect that home. But even then, the good stuff gets found if you wander farther afield.
Climb a mountain that people generally avoid, and you're likely to discover creatures, ruins, artifacts and mysteries that have been lost for thousands of years. By definition, those discoveries are going to be weird. Some of them will be dangerous; some of them will give you new resources to use; some are just amusing.
The other games I mentioned: The Strange only really gets interesting if you translate from your world to another world where the rules are different. Once there, you are of that world, yet some of what you see or experience will be very different than what you knew when you left. One of my favorite examples is a gun-wielding agent who goes through the portal. And on the other side, he finds that he's someone who shepherds the spirits of the dead to their final resting place. Sometimes, such translations are chance, and sometimes they are a sort of cosmic payback for the life they live in the other realm. (In the example given, someone who kills for a living must now treat the goals an destiny of the dead with respect in order to be successful.)
Even my D&D game is setup to explore. The difference is that the exploration might be a different country, a different part of the city, or just a new neighborhood in the city they've spent a year in. The same concepts exist sometimes just on a smaller scale: a new merchant might have a new perspective, a new tip, a different product or just be an interesting person to meet.
The world has mysteries
This is another big theme in my world, to the point that I did a Toastmasters speech about it. When I create a scene, encounter, character or event, I try to populate it not with details, but with mysteries. Details which a smart, interested might notice, and might want to pursue, or they might put it on a backlog, or they might not prioritize it at all. Because it's a sandbox world, I actually don't care. What I want is for them to see it and know that there are other things beyond the obvious.
One of the best examples of this: the key person-of-interest for a main storyline last year was a woman with red hair. In this part of the world, nobody has red hair. That meant she was from the north, and that added a new layer to the story? It turned the question from "why is she doing these things" to "why would someone from the North be doing these things." A tiny detail, and the players could address it or ignore it, but it was there for them to explore if they wanted to.
In the last year, just in D&D, I've introduced a travelogue with one really weird section, not mentioned before or after in the book. There is The Rock, which has the High Holy Place where the old gods are given a place for remembrance, worship, or respect. And things happen there, which are never explained.
The important thing is that the mysteries may be ubiquitous, but any given mystery is fairly discrete. I am not a fan of ever-deeper mysteries. If the players focus on a specific one, they'll find an answer, or will find a path to an answer, or they'll know it's a dead end, at least for now. The X-files "there's always another level of mystery below that" style of mystery handling always devalued the character's contribution in trying to solve it.
The world can be dangerous
It's an RPG game world. Of course it can be dangerous. But it's essential that the players and the characters know that the mysteries of the world can throw them off, and put them at risk.
Sometimes, there are little things. CR 1/2 kobolds with 5 fighter levels can be eye opening all by itself.
But I've introduced fey that just don't follow the normal rules. I had one that really didn't even get engaged until you killed it, then it got mad.
And speaking of fey, when you're dealing with creatures that have a non-linear sense of reality, hospitality, time and hierarchy, things can get very strange very quickly. One misstep and could end up in a dream world, 20 years in the future, angering the entire tribe, or owing them a debt that seems impossible to pay.
While I'm not a big fan of the concept of the "20th level fighter barkeeper, who is retired" I am very much a fan of people being different and surprising: "The tavern owner? Yeah, he's the governor's favorite nephew." Three-door Jack? So called because he's died three times and come back under his own will.
Mimics are an especially fun concept. While most characters are aware that chests with teeth are dangerous, that concept can be extrapolated so easily, and make the most mundane item be truly life-threatening.
And one of my most creepy and successful dungeons? A Numenera game, where the "dungeon" was actually an organic entity. The corridors were organ or circulatory paths and the most common foes were antibodies of various capabilities and danger levels.
They have an effect
My final flavor element is that I always want the players to feel that they are having an effect on the world. This doesn't mean they have to save the country or change the cosmos, though those are the endings of my last two D&D campaigns.
Rather, I want any storyline, however small or personal, to have a real outcome with implications to the world that they can see.
An example of this is that in one of the last sessions of my recent one-year GMing arc, a player finished his journeyman project--a masterwork puzzlebox. His trainer/master burst into tears when she saw it, because it meant that he was no longer her apprentice. This reaction hit the entire table. Yes, he had rolled sufficiently to complete a project. Yes, it was nice. But the effect on the world was that he had just changed the life of a favored NPC.
Another example was that they found a lost dwarven necropolis. They found that it had been recently looted, leaving one body behind. They told the dwarves about the location, and what they had found, and instead of a thanks and a bag of gold, they were invited to a feast in their honor. They were told (in excruciating detail) how important this necropolis was to the families of the city, and how it's discovery had brought solace to the families. They were given a Major favor and hospitality with the dwarves. They also got gold and offers for more if they'd help find what was taken, but it was the real connection to these dwarves that stuck with them.
I try to think about the situations the players encounter, as well as the successes, failures and loose ends play out, and in some way, bring it back as an element of the story.
And sometimes, it's as simple as going into a bar, and having someone say "Didn't you win the junior division contest at the festival of the war god?" at which point, they drink for free that night.
The key is that their accomplishments mean something, and that sometimes, the world tells them that they noticed.
To pull it all together: The flavor theme of virtually all my games is that the story is largely in the players' hands, that there are always more elements to explore, that some of those elements may kill them, and that if they succeed, the world will notice, and hopefully reinforce that the whole cycle is interesting, worthwhile and truly about them.
About the Art
Today's image comes from Indian artist, Indro (Indranil Saha.) He has a wonderful portfolio of art on his Instagram page. He also has some really good "how to do it" tutorial videos on YouTube. His specific work, The Doorway, was chosen because it visually represented the idea that what a character is experiencing now might be completely different than what they'd experience if they made just one specific choice.
The choice in his image is between a rocky sci-fi landscape or an idyllic plain with fields, sunsets and a single acacia tree. While most things in my worlds aren't so radical, it's the same that no option is forced. And having chosen, the traveler will certainly know the outcome of their decision, and in choosing or not, will know that their decision may be a one way trip.