Today’s post is in honor of Tom Clancy, unparalleled techno-thriller author who died this morning.
I have sometimes made comment about how I end up learning the oddest things while GMing. Generally speaking, when I sit down to plan out a campaign or upcoming session, I try to make it a believable as possible. I certainly hold myself to a higher standard than Hollywood! I have found myself researching Napoleonic infantry formations for use in Mecha games, quantum physics for use explaining hyperdrives, evolution of languages for a game set during the Crusades, European and Asian heraldry for use in East meets West steampunk setting, various phrases in many languages for any number of games, and a hundred other odd topics.
Even so, you’re still not going to be an expert in the topic! However, I’ve found that knowing something about the topic is better than completely making crap up when it comes to portraying a given thing in your game setting. Why make up some babble that sounds sort of French when you could grab a cheap phrasebook and actually learn a few real phrases? The party going to be in turn of the century London? Go look up a few articles about famous buildings and people of the time. Mentioning a popular kids game, juicy scandal, or political debate from the time period can really help get Players immersed in the setting.
Try to do the best you can, enjoy learning new things, and try to make the setting as realistic as possible (with respect to the style of setting itself, of course). The trick, as with many things, is to not over do it! There’s a balance between having the party’s Cop/Detective Player fill out a printed form on the crime scene (fun!) and making the Player learn every single facet of criminal law (boring!) If your Players start looking like the Economics class in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off you’ve gone too far. Dial it back some, abstract the paperwork or procedures with a Bureaucracy or Protocol roll. If the character knows the skills and the Player doesn’t, that’s fine. That’s sort of the point of role-playing. Let the story unfold and keep the action moving! Even Tom Clancy himself would occasionally go into just a bit too much detail at the expense of keeping the story going. Sometimes you just have to say “Cool rifle bro, let’s not discuss the history of its bolt mechanism”. Well, not unless it’s the key to the murder mystery…
“A writer cannot do too much research… though sometimes it is a mistake to try and cram too much of what you learned into your novel. Research gives you a foundation to build on, but in the end it’s only the story that matters.” –George R.R. Martin
It’s a bit like that middle chapter in Snow Crash, the one where you learn the Complete History of Sumerian Mythology with a side of CDC Viral Biology Reports. It’s painful, it borders the very bleeding edge of what your audience can be expected to sit through, and it’s utterly needed for the plot to make any sense at all. A bit of a conundrum, really. It’s the sort of Info Dump that most GMs issue as Handout Packets, short stories, or the occasional “Go watch this movie before next session.” The key is to find out how much the Players are willing to follow/learn to enjoy the game. Showing your work that the Quantum Cosmic Teleportation Blinky Lights Machine is based on 36 hours of physics research you did is utterly irrelevant if the explanation isn’t critical to the plot or the Players are bored silly. Bored players blow stuff up. Probably using the Quantum Cosmic Teleportation Blinky Lights Machine.
Remember, if a player gets up in your face about the intricate details of a thing that you only researched slightly you need to either incorporate their expertise (which is invariably being used to break your plot) or calmly enforce that you’re the GM and what you say goes. “In this setting, it works in the way I described” can get you out of a lot of arguments so that you can get on with the fun. We’ll talk about dealing with Power Players and Munchkins in more detail in another post.