From Party Play to Law and Leeway

The last two articles in this series both addressed plots in your game world, although from different aspects. This one addresses a handful of smaller issues, such as encouraging party play, dealing with legal systems, approaching the mythology of your world, and dealing with matters of practicality. Your game world may seem like a normal world to you, much like one that you’d create for a fantasy novel, but a roleplaying world is different and has different concerns.

Party Play

It’s always good to have a game world that encourages party play–i.e., it encourages player characters (PCs) to hang out in a group and get involved in plots as a group. In some games this is institutionalized; there are specific mechanisms for PC interaction (“Werewolf’s” packs (White Wolf); “HackMaster’s” adventuring companies (Kenzer & Co.); “Doctor Who’s” group of Time Lord-plus-companions (FASA)). Such an approach can be extremely helpful to PCs who need an extra nudge to work together. Luckily you can take your own approach to this. If such a hard-and-fast institutionalized style doesn’t suit your game, you can take a more subtle avenue.

Party Play and Genre

One factor to consider is your genre and world atmosphere. If you’re working with a genre that implicitly encourages a loner archetype (such as private eye/mystery genres) then you’ll need to put some extra work into encouraging and providing mechanisms for party play. In contrast, fantasy works often make use of an “ensemble cast,” so there’s a greater assumption that the PCs will work together (some horror works this way as well).

Institutionalized Party Play

If you provide groups, races, organizations, professions, character classes, etc. for the PCs to belong to, then come up with units within or across those groups that can be used to bring parties of PCs together. A company might organize its people into divisions or teams. A university could put people together into research groups. A race could encourage its young to develop strong social ties to one another, going so far as to group handfuls of them together. A character class or profession could encourage its members to group together with members of other classes for simple survival reasons.

Encouraging Party Play in Small Ways

Mix plenty of small reasons to work together into your world background. If your world is dark and dangerous, then it might be a common assumption that people work together because you need someone to watch your back. Make sure that you talk about things like this when describing your world; don’t just call the world dangerous and then assume that the PCs will draw the right conclusion. You need to explicitly show the social effects that such an atmosphere will have.

When you give examples of characters within your world, make sure they’re always provided within a party play framework; try not to represent them as loners. This seems like a small thing, but players often take a large cue from your material when they create their characters. Obviously this can get a little difficult in fiction; it’s tough to play with an ensemble cast in a short or short-short story. Even when you want to use a single main character, however, you can find ways to work groups of characters into your stories in other ways. At least consider parties of characters when you use examples of play, example characters for character creation, and so on.

Think about issues like this while you’re creating your game world, and try to work in general reasons (both big and small) for people to stick together. You don’t have to write it into every race and social structure, but it helps if it’s in there somewhere.

Law and Leeway

This one is a little more dependent on the genre than some of my other suggestions, but I think it belongs here nonetheless. If you want the PCs to be able to run around with weapons having combats and doing things that would be considered illegal in today’s society, then you might want to make the law a little loose.

In other words, the law enforcement isn’t necessarily going to come running the moment there’s a problem. PCs aren’t going to be arrested just for carrying weaponry. Make response time a little slower; make the law a little less upright (perhaps the PCs can bribe their way out of problems). Alternatively, make the law less concerned with things like weapons and violence. A great example of this comes from “Chosen,” a game from Clockwork Games. The Space Traffic Control System doesn’t care about most things that go on in space–only whether or not you’re obeying the traffic laws!

Even more importantly, justice must be dealt out much more swiftly than it is in modern society. If PCs do get arrested or put on trial, you want the whole thing to go by fairly quickly. You don’t want PCs cooling their heels in prison for months (or years) of game time awaiting their trials.

Tension vs. Annoyance

Obviously your mileage will vary with these suggestions. Having the PCs almost get caught for carrying illegal firearms is tension-heightening, after all. But forcing the PCs to go through an elaborate set-up to try to hide their firearms and make use of them without getting caught every night is often boring and annoying. Similarly, you could get an interesting plot out of putting a PC on trial for a while instead of having justice move swiftly–once. If this happened regularly, however, it would just be irritating. By and large, I think you’ll find that making things a little looser, giving the PCs just a little more leeway can make the game flow more smoothly.

Alternatives for Playing with Legalities

  • If your game world is particularly expansive you might work different legal systems into different parts of the game world. That way the GM and players can pick a part of the game world that suits their style and preferences.
  • Or, given the same irregularities across the game world, the GM can make use of travel to play with differing levels of legal trouble.
  • You could also set up a legal system that’s more dependent on the mores and morals of individual law enforcement units, such that the party’s experiences might differ widely between specific officers, judges and counties. This allows the GM to play with the tension of effective law enforcement once in a while, while removing the irritation of having to take it into account all the time.
  • Play with the number of law enforcement officers available in your society. More law enforcement–the more they can afford to look into. Less law enforcement–the less they’ll be available to deal with, and the less they’ll care to spend their precious time on.
  • Think carefully about what matters to your societies (see “Develop the Mythology of Your World,” below). There may be things that matter to them that aren’t important to the peoples of our world, and vice versa. What do you get out of this? Well, you can allow actions that are common to roleplaying game plots to be legal, while making some interesting, odd things illegal that the GM can work into the game occasionally.

Plenty of Ideas

If you’re developing this game world for other people’s use, then you should provide a bunch of plot ideas as starting places for other GMs. You’re familiar with your world, after all. You’ve probably been playing in it for a long time. The sorts of plots you might play with are obvious to you. They aren’t necessarily obvious to a GM who just picked up your game, particularly if he doesn’t have a whole lot of experience.

Do him the favor of including at least a brief bullet-list of plots (or a handful of one-paragraph adventure seeds); it’ll get him started while he warms up to your world. Even better, include a short starting adventure or two in addition to the adventure seeds.

Develop the Mythology of Your World

When I use the word mythology I’m referring to the collective hopes and dreams of your world’s populations. Their creation stories, their larger-than-life heroes, their whispered bedtime stories. Their deities, their legends, their superstitions. Consider the stories of the Greek gods and goddesses for a moment. They weren’t all huge, battles-of-the-gods sorts of things. Many of them revolved around the gods behaving with all the foibles of mankind. They were small stories told in a large fashion.

Myth and Reality

What are your societies’ myths? How have those myths affected society’s development? What do they say about the hopes, dreams, and motivations of your races? How do they relate to the truth of the world? In a fantasy world, myth might be perilously close to reality. In a science fiction world, myth and science might blur together a bit. In a horror world myths might be dark and dangerous things whispered about around campfires.

Myth and Understanding

To have an idea of your society’s myths gives you a better idea of the bounds of your world. If you define what is myth, what is larger than life, then you give the players a better idea of what they can expect from the reality of your world. You get a better sense of what your society reveres and loathes, what motivates them. You give the GM a better idea of what he can play with and how far he can take it. You’ll find it easier to keep your world consistent, particularly with respect to such things as power level and genre.

Myth and Inspiration

Defining your world’s mythology is also the exploration of the inspiring and enchanting elements of your world. It reminds you to put some thought into creating not just a useful world, but also one that will inspire, excite and captivate those who play in it.

Be Practical, Too

While you’re considering all of this neat inspirational stuff, however, also consider the practicalities. What are the consequences of the details you’ve introduced into your societies? How will the realities of the game world be reflected in everyday life, laws, governmental issues, the economy?

One of the best examples I’ve seen yet of this sort of practicality is the game “HackMaster,” from Kenzer & Co. It delves into the effects of adventurers bringing wealth up out of dungeons on local economies. It goes into the practicalities of hiring henchmen and supporting them. And on, and on! It addresses all of those niggly little details brought up by the clash of the adventuring conceit and your average medieval society, and figures out the results. You need to do the same sort of thing with your world. Even if the players don’t end up seeing most of the tedious little details, you need to know how they’ll shape societies, religions, and institutions. It’s the only way to keep your game world consistent.

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