A few years ago, one of my players asked me why I had the Guinness Book Of Records amongst my RPG referance materials, and I told him that it was an essential source of colour for my campaigns. This puzzled him somewhat, because while he could see the applicability to a modern-day campaign, he knew that most of the campaigns that I was running were (and still are) fantasy campaigns.
Because we didn’t have a whole lot of time to spend discussing the subject, I gave him a quick-and-dirty example, which from memory, ran something like: Which of the following is better: ‘The target is too far away for bowshot,’ or, ‘Not even the legendary Halwein, holder of the record for longest bowshot at 2,192 yards, would dare attempt such a shot…’?”
The question was so obviously rhetorical he didn’t bother answering, merely nodding to indicate his satisfaction at the answer before returning to the task at hand. Well, we’re not quite so rushed at the moment, so I thought I would go into a bit more detail.
Record Achievements add to your campaign’s uniqueness
You can never have too many sources of colour text, also known as flavour text, to tie your campaign together, and records can be a memorable and distinct source. However, if stated baldly, they are dry, dull, not especially memorable, and can actually make it harder to distinguish one campaign from another. The key to using records as touchstones for your campaign is to wrap each in a metaphor or anecdote that tells (in very succinct manner) the story of the achievement and connects it back to some other unique aspect of the campaign. That connection associates the story with the specific campaign, and the story itself makes the record more memorable.
The off-the-top-of-my-head example that I gave my friend is a good example – if a GM were to mention ‘The Legendary Halwein’ in this fashion in a campaign that I was playing in, I would immediatly and briefly be diverted from the in-game task at hand to asking about this Halwein character and what made him so legendary?
Every session of play will have a certain number of diversions from the game-play. As a rule of thumb, I expect one, plus up to one for every 2nd player, every hour, and a minimum of 1 every 20 minutes or so. There seems to be a psychological need to switch focus, and relax the concentration, even briefly, at regular intervals (one of my friends thinks that we’ve become accustomed to it from TV commercials). Deny the players this break and play starts to get sloppy, people lose focus and start to miss key pieces of information, and the attention begins to wander. A diversion for a minute or so gives people time to assimilate and digest what’s happened since the last break and permits renewed focus on the game situation at hand.
There’s an art to establishing a rythm of such diversions that could theoretically be manipulated so that the GM can conceal key information ‘in plain sight’ from the players, but I can honestly admit that I havn’t mastered it. Environmental factors play a big part in the timing, especially conditions that make it harder to focus on what someone is saying (noise from other conversations, for example) or that make the mind naturally tend to wander (high temperatures and humidity, lack of sleep, etc). And not everyone has the same tolerances to these factors. Nevertheless, while the timing can be hard to predict, the fact remains – there will be digressions and diversions and occasional bursts of side-chatter.
My experience has been that if you can make some of those diversions and side-conversations relevant to the campaign, they still satisfy people’s itches for something else to talk about, and can be used to spoon-feed elements of the campaign to the players that would bore the pants off them if delivered in thick, heavy, doses.
Legendary athletic prowess for colourful comparisons
These are the most obvious types of achievement, and the most obvious means of inserting the anecdotes into your narrative. Who is the strongest man ever to live? Who is the tallest man ever? Who is the shortest? Who is the fastest runner? Going beyond the hard-and-fast records, you can often find children’s stories and fairy tales that in turn provide an endless series of metaphors for use in the campaign. Hercules is still synonymous with strength, many thousands of years since the fall of the Greek Empire. In the minds of many, Michael Jordan is renowned for his height, but so is the Giant in Jack And The Beanstalk. Tom Thumb is an obvious candidate for the shortest man, and as for who the fastest man alive is…
But, if you were to ask a Viking Warrior, he would have very different answers to these: Thor; a fire or frost giant; a Dwarf; and Loki (who was fast enough to outrun his own shadow) come to mind.
Prepare specific information packets for each PC and major NPC
In many ways, there is never anything new under the sun; everything has an analagous antecedant, a figure who serves as legend and inspiration and prototype. Writing up a short information burst – just a brief paragraph, or a single anecdote – for each character, based on their class and/or race, gives them a window onto the unique perspective of the world that their class and/or race enjoys.
Take a character who is an Archer for example. In our modern world, we would immediatly call to mind the achievements (however apocryphal) of William Tell and Robin Hood. So why not steal some of these tales and give them to a historical figure in your campaign? And why not take the opportunity to drop in some information about the sociology and history of the world? Even with little or no context, the result becomes a touchstone, a “corner piece” of the jigsaw puzzle that is your world. Informing characters as to the legendary achievements and iconic figures in their ‘field’ or ‘profession’ connects the character to the campaign.
Legendary Achievements as historical touchstones
Who is the most learned wizard? Who is the most foolish? Who is the most renouned tracker of fact or fiction? Who is the most daring thief? Who is the most despised betrayer? Whose names are synonimous with star-crossed love? Who fought the longest battle, and who the shortest war? Who is the most renouned military leader, the wisest ruler, the greatest detective? Who were the greatest explorers? Who is “the fairest in all the land”, and whose beauty is now legendary?
I’m sure that for each and every one of these questions, a name leaped to mind – whether fictional or historical. Merlin, Mickey Mouse, Aragorn, Ali Baba, Judas, Romeo & Juliet, the trenches of World War I, the 6-day-war, Julius Caesar, Solomon, Sherlock Holmes, Columbus, and Cleopatra are the names & events that these labels conjured for me – though there were others which crowded in hot on their heels in some cases.
The equivalent names should leap to the minds of your characters. Of course, if you dumped the whole lot onto your players in one go, they would drown each other out; but dropping in one every game session, in an appropriate context within the scenario, helps bring the campaign to life. And it doesn’t stop there.
Legendary natural wonders to bring the geography to life
Every geographic feature should have some unique tale to tell. Don’t tell your players that they “cross the line of hills and enter a broad valley” if the place is known to their characters, or they have a local guide; construct a myth or two. “A line of hills, known as the bootlaces, leads to a depression with fairly sheer, rocky sides; local legend has it that a Giant once stopped here to repair a broken lace on his boot. While standing on one foot to replace the lace, his weight carved out the valley, and the discarded bootlace formed the line of hills.” Is it true? Is it Myth? Either way, the characters will better remember and relate to the terrain because of the anecdote.
Even if you don’t relate the story to the Players at the time, having it up your sleeve makes the local geography come to life for you, making it easier to describe vividly and easier to remember.
Beyond the local geography, what is the tallest mountain (and has it ever been climbed)? Where is the most impassable range, and what is it called? Where is the tallest cliff? The longest river? The widest bay? The hottest desert? The thickest forest? The most treacherous swamp? You can use these as comparisons to the local geography, and give your players a glimpse of the wider world beyond their current horizon.
Exploring New Ground
Everything I’ve talked about so far has been relatively obvious, extrapolations of the original example. But it doesn’t take a deep examination of records before wider issues get raised, either directly or by implication; all of which have analagies within your campaign world. These questions can provide a pathway for the exploration of aspects of the background that you havn’t even thought of, as well as a means of communicating your results to the players.
Consider, for example, the recent fuss over the South African woman and her world record time. This raises questions about the handling of issues of gender and race in sports that can be reflective of wider attitudes in society. Are Ogres permitted to participate in wrestling matches – or is that considered cheating? How about Elves in archery contests? Do Halflings compete as adults, or as children – and aren’t both choices unfair on someone? How about Mermen and swimming contests? Are flying creatures at an unfair advantage playing tennis – or an unfair disadvantage? How about Titans playing Basketball?
Babylon 5 raised the question of how baseball would cope with a Martian team – due to the inherant assumption of normal gravity in the game’s rules, the standard field layout made it easier for them to hit a home run, making it almost inevitable that they would reach the finals of the World Series. The ball didn’t drop as much (easier to hit – once you get used to the gravity) and travelled further and faster when struck. In fact, the more you look into the implications, the trickier the question raised becomes – you could make the field bigger, but that means that it gets harder for fielders to reach the ball. The simplest solution to that is to enable more players to be in the field. Before you know it, just to make the contest a fair one, you have completely different rules of the game. And that wouldn’t lead to endless debate in bars, would it?
What sporting events would arise from the presence of magic? Clay Pigeons using Lightning Bolts? Weightlifting using Tensor’s Floating Disk? Harry Potter‘s Quiddich is just the tip of the iceberg!
What happens when cybernetic enhancements produce athletes that are the equal of the best non-enhanced athletes – will the Paralympics merge with the Olympics? And what happens when technology takes them further? The fracas over “supersuits” in recent years will seem trivial in comparison.
It doesn’t matter what your campaign genre is – sports will exist, in some fashion, and so will gambling. Issues of racial equality, race relations, and gender equality will all play out in those spheres. The arena of sporting competition can drive progressive attitudes, or reflect conservative attitudes, giving glimpses of local politics and society.
I used to write SF short stories, and a lot of them were created by trying to imagine how a mundane item would change in the future, extrapolating outwards from the trivial to a broader picture of the ramifications. Generating the sort of information that I’ve discussed in this section is the opposite – looking at the big picture and extrapolating to the trivial consequences of everyday life, then using those trivial consequences to lead the players to an appreciation of the bigger picture.
Legendary Performances outlast Records
The achievement of Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics in the 1930s is still remembered today – not because his record still stands (it doesn’t), but because of the contradiction between his performance and the ‘Aryan Supermen’ claim of the Nazi government. A discussion of some analagous feat, starting with the sporting performance in question, would provide the ideal springboard for informing your players about some repressive society in your game world.
Here’s another curly one to think about – would magic be considered the equivalent of performance-enhancing drugs? How about paranormal abilities in a superhero campaign? The similarities seem obvious on their face.
How does this affect the facilities for audiance participation? How does it affect the rules? How can teams attempt to cheat, and how will the authorities try to stop them from doing so? Which teams have a reputation for exploiting the grey areas?
On such questions are the common man’s attitude towards these abilities founded in a society.
Drawing Inspiration from Records
Finally, the next time you’re designing an encounter, try flipping open the Guinness Book Of Records to a random page and selecting an item at random – then finding a way to require the PCs to perform an analagous feat in the course of the encounter. Perhaps they have to leap across a gap or chasm, or have to squeeze themselves into a space too small for easy passage, or have to endure an endless speech. Sometimes you can’t find a suitable way to use the item; but a lot of them will provide inspiration and uniqueness.
Sports, and records in general, can be considered a microcosm of a society, and a painless path towards introducing cultural attitudes and natural colour into a campaign. And that’s the longer answer that I didn’t have time to discuss with my friend.