From time to time, I post thoughts on various subjects to twitter using the hashtag “#Musing”.
I did just that a little while back – and then thought some more about what I had written and realized there were game implications/applications.
The tweet said, “Traditions become empty when the meaning behind them is forgotten. We don’t teach enough relevance to create reverence.”
Every culture in an RPG should have traditions, and in most cases, the meaning behind them has been long-forgotten, so it is deemed acceptable to simply create a fictional tradition without regard to its significance – Invent something and move on.
This is incredibly short-sighted, neglecting an opportunity to deliver background and verisimilitude in the one sugar-coating.
The players, too, will be used to empty ceremonies and meaningless rituals – and to ignoring them if they are inconvenient. All it takes is an NPC to take the PCs to task for ignoring the tradition – and then to explain the meaning. If the information subsequently proves relevant (and all the game history that you deliver to the players should be relevant at some point), then you can bet that the players will never take ritual, ceremony, and tradition in your games for granted again.
Instead, these will become recognized as “GM Code” for “relevant briefing material” – all you have to do is describe something as “traditional” and the players will want to look into it, unless they are totally overconfident in their abilities to cope with anything you might throw at them. In other words, they ignore this “GM Code” at their own peril, because you’re offering them a hint.
After all, the GM has done the fair thing and made the essential information available to them; they have chosen to ignore it. He is thus totally justified in taking full advantage of their ignorance – which will only remind them of the lesson in future. That means assuming that the players have taken the hint on-board when balancing the encounter.
So, what do you need to know in order to take advantage of the opportunity this principle offers?
As with a lot of campaign and adventure planning, it’s easier to start at the end result desired and work backwards. In this case, that essentially means deciding on the encounter which will showcase the significance of your tradition, then designing a tradition to be relevant to that encounter, designing a historical significance for the tradition to hold, creating one or more ways of celebrating the tradition, and then applying the gauzy web of confusion and lost history to those practices that obscure the original meaning. Finally, it’s always good to look for other ways that the event being commemorated by the tradition might have influenced the present day. The result is a rich campaign element with immediate relevance. And the best part is that since every society has traditions, this technique can strengthen any campaign, regardless of genre.
A note on modern-day settings
That being said, modern-day settings pose an extra challenge: we all live in the modern world and already know many of the traditions, even if we don’t know the significance.
There are three solutions to this problem:
- First, apply the technique to cultures and societies other than the one in which the players live, giving you a little additional freedom to play around with things;
- second, for traditions you are introducing to the society in which everyone lives, make them deliberately limited and local – a great example being the presidential tradition of pardoning the turkey at Thanksgiving – which makes it more obscure and more likely that the players/PCs won’t have come across it, lending it verisimilitude; and
- third, also for traditions affecting the society your players all know, do some research on obscure and forgotten traditions which you can resurrect and re-purpose. Unfortunately, this may not be as easy as it sounds – I was unable to find a comprehensive website dedicated to the subject, so I suspect that you will need a host of better-targeted searches, or to spend a lot more time on it than I was able to.
This isn’t the encounter in which the PCs learn of the tradition or its meaning, this is the encounter when the tradition’s relevance is important. As such, it’s important for there to be some obscure little quirk about the encounter that the tradition can focus on.
I don’t know about you, but I always assume that my players know the Monster Manual (or equivalent) backwards, forwards, and sideways – especially the quirks, strengths, and vulnerabilities of the listed creatures. I usually get around that by importing creatures from other, similar sources, and by adding my own little twists to creatures to create variations and sub-varieties that the players have never heard of.
A great example are the five varieties of Troll in my Fumanor campaign:
- Common “Green” Trolls – these are as listed in the Monster Manual. Green Trolls only inhabit foothills and lowlands; they have a limited ability to cope with the slightly-lower atmospheric pressures at altitude.
- Two-headed Trolls – Green trolls reproduce by a process of fission that starts at the head and proceeds through the body. At the same time as the the second head is forming, but before it achieves self-awareness, a second arm sprouts on one side, creating a two-headed, three-armed monstrosity that is twice as strong (+10 to STR) as normal trolls. Because of the fission process, these trolls are somewhat less well-protected than the usual (-5 to AC) but the same process hyper-accelerates their regenerative capabilities (twice as fast) and adds to their vitality (+10 CON, double hit dice) making these the most dangerous trolls of all.
- Blue Trolls – Trollish regeneration is inhibited by wound cauterization and flame damage. During the Godswar, when certain mages sought to become gods and created new species of life to demonstrate their divinity, one made the mistake of producing an ice-loving flame-retardant variety of troll. Blue Trolls do cold damage with their touch (in addition to the normal); they regenerate more slowly, but are relatively strongly armored, and are almost-totally immune to fire damage. They inhabit snow-topped mountain peaks and other exceptionally cold locations; in winter, they will occasionally roam into inhabited regions. The PCs have never encountered them, but legends of Blue-white trolls made of ice persist and resurface every year. They have become bogeymen with which to scare children, and in some parts, it is now customary to hang a side of beef in the barn, just in case.
- Black Trolls – A rare variant on the Green Troll with Black Skin, these trolls are smaller than normal and quite intelligent, though filled with malice. Their regenerative capabilities are compromised relative to other Trolls, and they are unable to reproduce alone; they need to capture a Green Troll who is about to divide and “infect” the newly-forming troll with “The Black Trait”. Green Trolls, left to their own devices, would kill the Black Offspring, but when threatened and confined, the mitosis will not mature; the Green Troll diverts physical resources into its own survival/escape. So the Black Troll has to stalk its’ “prey” throughout the gestation period, then overcome a far larger and stronger Troll to rescue the “newborn” Black Troll before it is too late. Black trolls have one other major advantage over Green Trolls; they are not susceptible to the lung weakness of the Green, and in fact prefer mountains as habitats. They cannot abide the cold, and hibernate through winter in the same manner as bears.
- Gold Trolls – The rarest variety of troll, and the least intelligent of them all. When a troll is killed by a Dragon, and the corpse exposed to Dragon’s Blood, it resurrects into a strange form of Undead. Their skin develops a metallic yellow tone, and their regenerative capabilities are halved – but unlike most types of undead, even after being “destroyed” by turning, they recover, as the lost regenerative ability is directed toward “healing” the effects of being Turned. To date, no-one has discovered a means to permanently kill a Gold Troll. NB: The PCs have never encountered this variety of Troll, as they have not yet come into existence; they are one of the building blocks that have been put in place for a planned sequel campaign to the One Faith and Seeds Of Empire campaigns. Nor have I revealed all of the secrets that I have put into these creatures!
So the first stage is to develop the encounter that will give purpose to the tradition, from the PCs point of view, and you want that encounter to be as interesting and memorable as possible. You’re going to be hanging a lot off it, so it’s worth investing some extra time in getting the details right.
This is also the most critical decision of the whole process. If this choice is poorly made, it undermines the value of the entire encounter; instead of adding depth it will emphasize superficiality. This technique provides a vehicle to convey depth and make the campaign setting and background directly relevant to the daily lives of the PCs; don’t waste it. Choose an encounter that adds depth and meaning to the campaign, or that connects to subjects of significance.
The encounter should have lasting significance. A great example is the Gold Troll mentioned above; the mere discovery of them and their characteristics will pose a serious threat to the future of the campaign world. When first encountered, these will be like Terminators – you can slow them down, you can inconvenience and hinder them, but they will – not – stop. But an equally-valid example was the players’ first encounter with a Black Troll; they were nowhere near as wary of it as they should have been, but it lacked the campaign-changing ultimate significance that the Gold Trolls will have; it simply expanded the scope of the campaign.
The significance doesn’t have to be in the nature of the participants, of course. An encounter can be meaningful for all sorts of reasons; that’s just the easiest one to work with. Last week’s article referred to “The Pandorica Opens“, an episode of the fifth season of the rebooted Dr Who series, and that entire season and the mystery of the Pandorica and the “crack in time” that is a recurring motif within the season is a great example of how to build a significant element into your plots that isn’t about a creature type. We hear about the Pandorica in the first episode, but everyone’s attention was then diverted onto the crack in time, a plot element that became increasingly significant as the season progressed. Only in the aforementioned episode does the Pandorica re-enter the plot, when it is revealed that the crack in time is about to destroy the universe, and the Pandorica is a trap carefully devised for the Doctor, who is blamed for the problem.
As an aside, you may be tempted to read up on how the Doctor solves the problem, if you haven’t seen the series. Don’t bother with the wikipedia page on the final episode of the season; it has about as useless and confusing a synopsis of that final episode as it is possible to imagine. Entirely factual, there’s nothing actually incorrect, its just virtually incoherent unless you’ve just watched the episode. Instead, use the more comprehensive and far more comprehensible plot description at Tardis Data Core if you’re interested.
Once you know the events that will make the tradition significant, and you have decided on what that significance is going to be, the next step is to connect the significance to a prior event in the campaign history – preferably one that already exists, but insert one if you have to (provided it doesn’t conflict with what’s already been established, of course).
The Blue Trolls described above are a great example, because of the way they tie in with the Gods’ War and the Hubris of the Mages (if you want to know more about those events in the Campaign History, click on An Introduction to the Orcs and Elves series part 3 and search the article for “The Age Of Ambitions”).
But it doesn’t have to be about the origins of a species. It could be about the legendary first appearance of a variety of creature, or the historical motives for something to be built or created, or even how it was that the society of the time had the capability of building that something in the first place. Or it could be about the last time a species demonstrated atypical behavior – if that atypical behavior is what the encounter is all about.
These are the events that are going to inspire the tradition, so it’s important that the historical end of the story is something to commemorate or something to cause an ongoing response that can in time become traditional, the significance forgotten.
A key decision to be made is how much time is needed for the relevance to fade into obscurity; I have to admit to fudging on this quite a lot. Sometimes I have ruled that a century is long enough, other times hundreds of years or millennia are needed. Considerations include the nature of events, the lifespan of the populations involved, and what has happened in between. I’ll use any convenient date that is even marginally plausible if necessary, and suggest that you do the same; but the less you have to assume that things get “conveniently forgotten”, the better. It’s sometimes helpful to think of time in terms of “generations” instead of years:
- One Generation: Parents have first-hand experience of events, so rarely plausible unless the truth of events can plausibly be held as a state secret.
- Two Generations: Surviving Grandparents, and Parents who were only children at the time, have first-hand experience of events – so unless intervening events have decimated the population, this is still only marginally plausible.
- Three Generations: Surviving Great-Grandparents have first-hand experience of events, and so do Grandparents who were young children at the time will do too, and surviving parents and grandparents will have been told first-hand stories. This is on the verge of plausibility, but still pushing it unless intervening events or “state secrets” can be used to enhance the verisimilitude of the proposal.
- Four Generations: Grandparents would have received first-hand accounts from their Grandparents, but those will probably be getting vague by this point. The very very elderly might have been very young at the time, so first-hand accounts would still be available – but increasingly uncommon. If the events were significant enough or striking enough, the story would still be remembered and commemorated, so this is acceptable for some choices but quite implausible for others.
- Five Generations: Now begins the slide into legend; sometime between this point and the previous generation mark, the last of those who heard the story first-hand will have died, leaving only second-hand accounts. And anyone who played “Chinese Whispers” (with apologies to anyone who finds the term offensive) as a child will know how reliable they can be. Leaving a buffer to ensure credibility, this marks the point at which im-plausibility begins to end. And, at the usual human rate of 20 years to a generation, this is a century since the event.
Creating The Tradition
It was during a church service that I first began to understand symbolism in a detailed way (it was for a funeral, I think). Unlike every other such service that I had attended, the priest took the time at each stage in the service to explain why people stood, or sat, or knelt, and how it reflected the relationship between worshiper and deity at that particular moment. In other words, he explained the symbolism, and the lesson stuck with me.
Every tradition is, or contains elements that are, symbolically representative of the events being captured or commemorated by the tradition. There is, in other words, a kernel of meaning. The tradition may be directly representative, a metaphor, allegorical, or may simply be suggestive through circumstance.
There’s a fine line to walk; you need the connection between the tradition and its relevance to be obscure, so that players can’t pre-empt the plot, and yet for the relationship to become obvious and completely natural in hindsight once the secret is revealed. You certainly don’t want it to feel tacked on, forced, or artificial in any way, or the players will feel like they are being manipulated and the game is unfair.
The place to start is to break the original event down into key narrative elements. Each should consist of only one specific action by someone; tell the story in bullet-point form. At the same time, you don’t have a huge number of these bullet-points to play with; between three and six, no more. To make this possible, you need to identify the one action that represents the broader picture of what was happening at the time, that symbolizes it.
Most of the time, your historical breakdown will closely resemble a basic pattern that you will have seen time after time without realizing it:
- Establish the circumstances
- Establish the villainy of the enemy (Villainous action)
- Establish the virtue of the heroes (Heroic action)
- Villainous action (Setback)
- Heroic action
- Resolution (result of Heroic Action)
The obvious repetition in the above list makes it obvious how to reduce it to a four-element pattern; you simplify the conflict to one Villainous Action and a Heroic response:
- Establish the circumstances
- Establish the villainy of the enemy (Villainous action)
- Establish the virtue of the heroes (Heroic response)
- Resolution (result of Heroic Action)
The same pattern can be adapted to traditions that are not conflict-based; instead of “villainous actions” you have “challenges”.
- Establish the circumstances
- The challenge
- The Heroic response
- Challenge (Setback)
- Heroic response
- Resolution (result of Heroic Action)
Sometimes you can combine heroic action and resolution (the last two items) and/or circumstances and challenge (the first two items), and by skipping the set & heroic action response, you get down to three elements.
- The challenge (including circumstances)
- The Heroic response
- Resolution (result of Heroic Action)
The symbolism of the tradition begins to define the tradition’s interpretation in modern times. You want the original form of the tradition to symbolize the events being commemorated, and even to tell the story of what happened, one symbolic reference at a time. The technique is to translate each individual bullet point into an object (the symbol) and an action. Where possible, objects should be reused.
The more layers of meaning you can incorporate into the object, the better. Color, form, construction material – they are all important. An object made of Maple-wood can symbolize both the source, and the culture, and the object itself (I don’t know about you, but I hear “Maple” and think “Canada”). Your game cultures will probably not have such an immediate correlation in the minds of the players, but you can prepare the ground for your tradition by choosing and establishing national symbols in advance – and this helps establish the unique identity of that culture in the first place.
The action should be symbolic of the action that takes place in the historical anecdote. Something raised overhead can symbolize belligerence, or triumph; something pointed to the left and then the right can symbolize being trapped into a course of action; something being touched to the lips can symbolize love, or commitment, or passion, or loyalty. There are thousands of possibilities.
This is one part of the tradition construction process where blank page syndrome can definitely be a factor. Once you have one idea, many others will usually come to mind in a maelstrom of creativity; but getting that first idea can be harder than choosing between many alternatives. If you get stuck, I have advice on dealing with the problem in part one of my series on writer’s block.
Readers may find these links of use in developing their symbolism:
- Symbolism – from Denotation to Connotation (Google Doc)
- Dictionary Of Symbolism from The University Of Michigan Fantasy & Science Fiction Website (searchable, with some essays and articles) (May not load the first time, refresh your browser if necessary)
- Examples Of Symbolism from Your Dictionary
- Symbolism in Literature – Definition and examples from Literary Devices
- Symbolism Wiki – “an online, wiki-based guide to symbolism in literature” with lots of articles
- Symbolism dot org Symbolism Of Popular Culture
- Wikipedia’s article on Tradition
- What is Tradition? by Nelson H. H. Grabum – an article for the American Anthropological Association, provided by Columbia University’s Law Website.
Here’s a real world example: The Romans believed that Wedding Rings should be worn on the third finger of the left hand, because a vein from that finger runs directly to the heart. Thus, a ring on that finger symbolizes love. If your historical event ends with two lovers being united against the odds, or if that can be symbolic of the victory or achievement, then the placing of a ring on the ring finger of another can represent the success/outcome of the historic story.
At this point you have a ritual involving one or more objects and multiple actions. The next step is to obscure the connection to the original story by compromising the symbolic elements. There are two ways of going about this: the generalization of details, and the rise of alternative interpretations from these generalized elements.
An important principle to bear in mind while obscuring the tradition is that the part can be representative of the whole. What is an elaborate ritual can shed elements until all that remains is an irreducible core of the original. It’s as though you were taking a story told in six bullet points and boiling it down into a single (vastly oversimplified) sentence.
Start by working on a copy of your bullet-points that omits all references to the original events; it should consist of nothing more than the objects and actions. Replace the objects with the most generic form that still permits the actions to take place. Then eliminate any specific details within the actions, leaving only the most general and broad statements except for those in one of the actions. This, more detailed, action will become the centerpiece of future versions and reinterpretations of the tradition.
How do you choose which one? That’s a little trickier; it should be the one that most strongly represents the one-line summary of the historical story (for all we know, there was originally an elaborate ritual that accompanied the placing of a ring on a finger. Those were eroded away, one by one, and others – such as the husband-to-be getting down on one knee to propose – took their place. It’s known to have happened with other traditions and rituals, why should that one be an exception?)
Once you have obscured the tradition with layers of generality, the next step is to create as many alternative interpretations of the tradition as you can. One of these should be relevant to the modern society of the campaign, giving a reason for the tradition to have survived into the modern era. The best two or three of the other interpretations should also give rise to related traditions; the connection between them might be obscure or obvious.
For example, there is an obvious connection between the giving of engagement rings and the giving of wedding rings, and both are thematically connected to the concept of commitment – but the Engagement Ring originated relatively recently in 1477 when Archduke Maximilian of Austria presented one to his beloved, Mary of Burgundy. Of course, marriage is full of symbolic representations of commitment, second only to traditions symbolizing purity or wishes for fertility. For example, the “Something blue” in the tradition that starts “Something old, something new” also has this meaning, while the “Something new” from the same verse is supposed to symbolize a commitment to the new life together over the old.
I have been told – but have been unable to verify – that the tradition of West Point awarding their graduates class rings, which started in 1835, was intended to be symbolic of the new Officer’s commitment to the ideals and obligations of Military Service. As a theory, this makes perfect sense to me, and if true, it obviously relates to the tradition of the wedding ring. Certainly discussions on the history of class rings and wedding rings both refer back to the traditions of the ancient Egyptians (who believed that the circle or ring was symbolic of eternity, because it was without end), and to the Roman Empire.
It is even possible that the first wedding ring was actually an Officer’s Ring, and that it was given to the bride as symbolizing her conquest of the officer’s heart – that’s just romanticized speculation on my part, mind you, but it does tie the traditions and histories of both together in a plausible way.
Getting back to the subject at hand, You need these alternative relevancies because you want the players to be introduced to the tradition completely separately to the true relevance being revealed, and these give you a way to do so.
The penultimate stage in creating your tradition is to take your traditions (as they now stand) and refine them. Modify and tweak the specifics of the ritual to represent specifically and clearly each of the interpretations. Discard elements that don’t fit that interpretation. You can change any detail, go from generalization to a specific – it doesn’t have to be the specific that you started with; once again, use symbolism to guide you. Most traditions evolve over time, and what you want to do is evolve your tradition from its base in each of the directions you chose in the previous step.
Once you have clarified the rituals, it’s time to put fresh spins on them using your campaign background. There are two ways that the background can apply:
- Your tradition can blend with an existing tradition or celebration of an event prior to the incident that sparked it; many of the traditions of Christmas started that way.
- Alternatively, a new event may come along and usurp the tradition, creating new connotations and associations.
As a general rule of thumb, one interpretation will be forgotten by all but the best educated and the strongest traditionalists; one will find a new relevance; and one will tap into a broader relevance, becoming just one of several traditions around that theme. Think of all the traditions we associate with weddings – everything from the throwing of rice to the groom being forbidden to see the bride before the ceremony to the wearing of white to the wedding cake, and that’s without any of the things that I’ve mentioned already in this article. Each of these traditions evolved separately, though each may have originated with a specific marriage, and then became a part of the whole, evolving to integrate with the existing traditions that go with the common circumstance.
Introducing The Traditions
Having designed your tradition, and the various forms that it has degenerated into, the next thing that you need to do – if you can – is to introduce one or more of the corrupted traditions to the players, along with part of the story of that tradition, or an explanation of the symbology.
One of the reasons for having three corrupted traditions is to give you flexibility to match an appropriate in-game event to one of them. Of course, if you can manage to insert more than one, so much the better. On top of this, you also need to bring in the uncorrupted tradition, though the significance – as discussed earlier – has been long forgotten. This is all groundwork for when the real story emerges to provide a vital clue to the PCs.
Note that these events don’t have to directly involve a PC, making the task a lot easier. For example, if one of the traditions survives as a funerary ritual, any reason to get the PCs to a funeral is enough to expose them to the ritual; it might be that they need to speak to one of those in attendance, for example, or that someone picks a pocket and then runs through the funeral rites in an attempt to escape – with one or more PCs in hot pursuit.
In fact, as a general rule of thumb, it’s better to underplay the incident as just another random bit of color – just distinctive and significant enough to be memorable without being overly important. You don’t want your players making soup out of these particular bones if you can help it.
Using The Real Tradition
This should be relatively straightforward, because you have built the entire structure around making the real meaning of the tradition relevant to an in-game event. In fact, the hardest part is avoiding the threefold dangers:
- telegraphing the plot;
- getting caught up on a plot train; and
- jumping too quickly or too slowly.
But these are always dangers to be avoided. If that’s the worst that you have to deal with, it should be smooth sailing.
I couldn’t resist one final example:
One of my first articles at Campaign Mastery was A Quality Of Spirit – Big Questions in RPGs, in which I advocate answering the big questions during campaign creation – what is life, what is the soul, what is magic, how does the afterlife work, and other such questions. A new “monster” that I have described below gets into the heart of several of these questions, making them of immediate life-and-death relevance to PCs that may encounter them:
Tradition: Jewelery and other personal property belonging by innocents who suffer violent deaths at the hands of another should be blessed by a cleric and then donated to the church; under no circumstances should they be returned to the families of the slain.
Why: Sometimes the souls of those wrongfully killed burn for revenge and find their way back to the world of the living. Most times, these return as Ghosts of limited power, usually within 3 days of death, but sometimes they get lost along the way. And sometimes those lost souls wander into one of the prime material planes and absorb some of the essence of that plane, gaining power vastly beyond those of ordinary ghosts. This matters little if the vengeful spirits do not eventually find their way to the Prime Material Plane, but the memories of the slain prompted by their personal property serve as beacons to eventually guide those Empowered Spirits home, months or even years later. Empowered Spirits cannot be permanently destroyed or turned so long as the focus that drew them back remains whole; with memories that have faded during their sojourn, they usually lash out at everyone they encounter, though if their wanderings consumed only months, their targets may match the general parameters of their killer in some specific respect. They might all be blond, or all Military Officers, or all tall and lean, or have some behavioral trait in common.
The additional powers possessed by Empowered Spirits vary according to the planes visited; as a rule of thumb, one additional power or additional dice of power per month, with an initial amount of three dice.
- Earth: Pick up and throw stones at a distance, open pits beneath the feet, no need to breathe, shape earth, earth to rock, pass through walls, meteor swarm.
- Air: Discorporate and re-incorporate at will, flight, transform air into poisonous gas, create a void in the air, explode lungs with a touch.
- Fire: Flaming touch, immunity to fire, ability to throw fire, fireball.
- Water: Drown with a touch, travel from one source of water large enough to contain a human to another eg barrels, shape water into solid limbs, attack from several different places at once, turn any source of water into a weapon.
- Positive Energy: Shocking Touch, Lightning Bolt, Raise undead, restore healed wounds from the past, posses the living
- Negative Energy: Wither limbs, Steal healing from those around (regeneration, loss of healing persists for 48 hours). cloud minds, control undead, control higher undead, Confuse enemies.
In addition, Deities of revenge and justice will sometimes shelter and aid Empowered Spirits, granting them clerical spells as though they were a cleric of level equal to their Hit Dice.
All Empowered Spirits also receive the characteristics, benefits and abilities of “standard” Ghosts.