WARNING! MINOR SPOILERS FOR PAIZO’S KINGMAKER ADVENTURE PATH LIE WITHIN! I’ll bracket them where they appear – they apply to the first book in the AP.
I have run three of Paizo’s Adventure Paths, though never to completion – the campaigns are difficult and TPKs (Total Party Kills, for those of you who don’t run in those gaming circles) brought each campaign to a close. One of the things I noticed in running each of those campaigns was the rich background that Paizo wrote for the adventure. Unfortunately, the very next thing I noted was how difficult Paizo tends to make it for a GM to communicate that rich background to the players.
Some players, perhaps even most, are not overly concerned with the whys and wherefores of what they do. Dungeons exist to be explored and bad guys exist to be smote and relieved of their awesome gear. Perhaps it’s the result of 30 years of GMing, but I just can’t do that – I pretty much always want to know why the bad guys do what they do, what the history of the places I explore is, and how the party’s actions fit into the narrative of the people and locations they pass through. Today I want to encourage you, as GMs and story writers, not only to tell your players what is going on, but to integrate that information into the story so that the characters, not just the players, understand what is going on around them.
How we receive information can be just as important as the information itself. Taking the time to present the players with information so that it is passed through the filter of their character is one of the most potent ways to encourage players to deepen their roleplaying. A semi-spoilerific example follows:
In the first book of Paizo’s Kingmaker AP, “Stolen Land,” the party encounters a tribe of kobolds being manipulated by an insane kobold sorcerer named Tartuk. Tartuk, as it turns out, was an evil gnome that, following his death, was reincarnated as a kobold. In the AP, it is noted that Tartuk has a journal that shares this information. When my group played through this scene, our GM (who I had the good sense to marry in my youth) took the time to write out the pertinent pages so that the party’s gnome, who had something of a mad-on for kobolds (they are racial enemies in Pathfinder), could encounter those pages. The result was our player getting a genuine dramatic moment and the character being confronted with his own prejudices, albeit housed in a more highly destructive person. Rhetorically, this is the sort of moment I live for – a player taking the time to understand where negative emotions come from, seeing their impact, and thinking through the reasoning of why he felt that way and why that might need to change.
Taking the time to present background information to the characters, and not simply to the players in aftermath, helps crystallize the difference between a roleplaying game and an adventure board game. We learn and grow by gaining knowledge of context and circumstance. The same is true of our characters.
As writers, this means we need to be thinking about how all the cool story we’ve come up with for the lost caves of Fred, or the complicated history of Emperor Frank, can be doled out to the characters: journals, eyewitnesses, and even art can share a story and make the party feel as though they’re part of events, rather than a highly violent sort of tourist. As GMs, it is incumbent on us to pick up where the writers leave off – identifying those story elements we think may relate to our PCs’ own histories and worldviews, and taking the time to help nurture those connections along. That’s the stuff of which great RPG stories are made.