Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Adventure Rumors & J.J. Abrams’ Mystery Box

Rumors sown during the opening stages of an adventure help nurture the players’ sense of mystery throughout the action.

In some recent feedback on the fantasy roleplaying game I have in development I asked playtesters to comment on the rumors table I included in the test scenario. “Rumors tables are always fun,” one playtester said, noting in fact that the players took several rumors seriously in the early stages of the adventure. I’d included the rumors table as a means to set the stage and add some mystery to a fairly basic dungeon crawl, but wasn’t sure such seemingly archaic embellishments still served a purpose in contemporary adventure design.

I’ll divert here to a related paradigm: J.J. Abrams’ “Mystery Box” TED talk, in which he traces his love of the unseen mystery and how it drives his storytelling style. In essence a compelling story -- or adventure -- moves from one mystery to the next, sometimes solving them along the way, other times adding more unsolved elements to perplex viewers (much like Abrams’ Lost television series). Heck, he even uses Star Wars: A New Hope as a reference in his talk about how viewers bound from one mystery to the next in the first half of the film (“Have you guys not seen that?”). Granted, the talk includes a seemingly rambling, manic style, but it’s well worth watching for some storytelling -- and adventure design -- inspiration.

Which leads me back to the inclusion of rumors in game adventures…essentially how they help enhance the initial mystery presented in the scenario set-up. Rumors help foster that sense of mystery and misdirection essential in magic. In playtesting I’ve found random rumor tables seed the character’s expectations and anxiety about an imminent adventure as a great way to encourage the “Mystery Box” mentality. Players get the idea into their heads that they’re going up against one challenge when in fact it’s something quite different, and they never know if the information is true or a red herring.

For instance, in the playtest adventure, the heroes set out to investigate a deep well along a woodland travel route that has begun emitting smoke. Here’s the initial premise:

“An old well half a day’s hike along the forest road south of the tavern has long served as a camping spot for the occasional traveler, providing cool, clean water and a safe clearing in which to spend the night. Several passing by recently reported smoke drifting up from the well and an oily smell emerging from the pit; many fear the well poisoned and thus the overnight spot and the surrounding portion of the road are no longer considered safe.”

Here are the rumors the might hear before they set out to investigate:
  1. An oafish tavern regular claims he saw a small dragon lurking near the well once (F).
  2. A woodsman says the small game has fled that area and wolves were heard in the forest to the east (T).
  3. The tavern keeper believes old legends tell of a lost burial barrow in the area (T).
  4. A fellow traveler claims anyone who drinks from the well receives protection against poison for a week (F).
  5. Two peasants claim the last time they visited the well they saw sinister, small footprints in the ground nearby (T).
  6. The tavern maid thinks this entire region was once part of a vast ancient empire that fell into ruin long ago (T).
These initial notions can fuel anxieties and expectations as the heroes investigate the well and delve into a nearby tomb complex.

I’ve not done a comprehensive survey of early rolelplaying game scenarios, but in my mind (at least) I feel like rumor tables seemed a fairly well-used element in early adventures. Certainly the venerable Dungeons & Dragons adventure module B2 The Keep on the Borderlands used a random rumor table. The classic module X1 The Isle of Dread developed rumors one iteration further in the ship’s log of Rory Barbarosa, which told of his discover of the mysterious island and provided a rough map of the coastline, enticing characters to seek out and explore it to gain fame and riches.

It’s not just a old-school-gaming phenomenon, either. Readers might feel more sophisticated developments made “random rumor tables” obsolete or dated, but in many ways the means of delivering rumors simply changed. Player handouts helped illustrate this transition, especially when one considered such sources as newspapers and eyewitnesses remain inaccurate or biased. Cyberpunk 2020’s adventure idea section quite elegantly presented scenario hooks as two-page pieces: the front page consist of a Night City Daily “screamsheet” (the equivalent of a newspaper summary) with the second page containing the actual adventure outline itself, usually tied into one or more stories or personalities mentioned on the first page.

I employed this technique in free scenarios supporting my Pulp Egypt setting sourcebook; each one contains a player handout front page of The Egyptian Gazette containing stories that not only offered some contemporary stories to place them in the historical context but included notable people, places, and events that figured in the related adventure. For instance, in the adventure Enemies on the Horizon the player handout Egyptian Gazette includes stories on the characters’ archaeological expedition, a visiting German airship, and the safety of zeppelin travel. What are the chances the heroes run afoul of Nazis in an airship that proves unsafe?

While not an essential adventure design element appropriate for every scenario, rumors in one form or another can help provide a greater sense of mystery, uncertainty, and misdirection to further enhance the roleplaying game experience across the wide range of genres.