Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Elder Scrolls, In-Game Books and Player Info-Dump Opt-In (or Out)

I came late to the Morrowind and Skyrim party (though Daggerfall, which bored me to tears, was some where back in my past). Truth be told both games ate up inordinate amounts of my blog writing time and energy as is my addictive wont.

One positive take-home I received from playing both games, Morrowind in particular, is how unobtrusively the game designers worked in layers and layers of setting depth by scattering hundreds of in-game books to be read at the player's leisure—or not. Here is a book that details the site-specific account (and gameably useful) of a long-past archaeological expedition, there one dealing with the intricate cosmology of the demon-like Daedra, and another purely some fictional in-setting story.

See I love this. 

I am a notoriously impatient player of crpgs with their invariable info-dumps—far more even then my customary tabletop “five minutes and I am out” intolerance—abruptly clicking over and over again through cut scenes and NPCs monologues. But that kind of impatience is at odds with my love of worldbuilding and leisurely exploration of the layers of a setting's mysteries—and of course successfully playing the game.

Others have explored the games' successes with creating an expanded world beyond the bounding of each game's sandbox. I am way more interested in how the technique might be useful to my own sandbox campaign where the players seem to want to explore this stuff at varying levels and with their own hand on the throttle.

So far it has seemed to work very well on both ends. The players approach me individually during downtime, hiring a sage or doing direct research in a temple library, and ask specific sets of questions about ranges of background they want to explore to achieve party and individual goals. I get a chance to put my cracked, 3 am thoughts about the Hill Cantons to paper. Win, win.

But why describe when I can show. Here are a couple recent examples.
Five Shades of Azure
[Bundled up this week with the usual curt dispatch papers from the Decade King's courier is a gift: a rat-gnawed, leather-bound manuscript penned 518 years ago by a  Kežmaroki march-officer, Balazas. A short note from Prince Vdelko tersely reads “of obvious interest.”]

Contrary to the prejudices of the Rock [High Kežmarok] our Pahr subjects here on the Shore are not quite the uncouth louts they are made out to be in polite society. To the contrary, I have had many a pleasing—if such a word can be used when suffering the pains of court exile—moment here at Vygrot in their hearty bearded company laughing at their colorful tall tales, seeing the blush of the red-cheeked village maidens in their white linen and floral bodices...[long, racy and embarrassingly clumsy digression].

Month Five, the Longest Patrol
I can understand the nervousness of the men as I pass in quick inspection, the local reputation of the Ruševin is one of utter fear—when it's not being studiously avoided with a stubbornly-cultivated ignorance. To be sure the hollow bones of the dull malachite walls and jutting, skewed spires sprawl oppressively along the crest of Bojan's Peak and the saddlebacked ridge behind.

But my station now affords no question and orders remain orders to those in service. Mounted, me on my charger, the wardens on their shaggy steppe ponies, the patrol takes the switch-backed, broken ruin of a road up from the valley floor. Passing through the curtain of tall, black pines, an eerie stillness and  a strange buzzing sensation descends over us, hushing the coarse jokes and gossip. The outriders find their way hemmed in by the treeline and gladly regain the quiet comfort of the main column.

Closing in on the western slope we can now make out features of the ruins. Rubble fields and a few free-standing walls seem to rule on this side, giving way to a wide boulevard which stretches north-south from the hulking mass of the gatehouse and the gleaming mass of the outer walls. That central avenue threads its way up to a large enclosed structure—its proportions even from this far distance huge in dimensions.

What giants or demons must have raised such an edifice and for what purpose? Not a single window pierces its massive, long-running walls and the only egress seems to be enormous stone portals that look several stories tall.

With a shudder we are glad to leave this site [sic] behind as the trail turns north to the snow-clad peaks. Even combat with the fire-dwarves that haunt those heights seems welcome to spending time contemplating the horrors that must lurk in such a place...

Lost Vlko and Romuilak the Lupine
[The monograph as commissioned by He Whose Howls Echo Among the Ages, His Fecundity, Tazrun, the Illuminious and Mighty Seneschal of All the Southlands.]
For a people who had their origin in the horse-stunk nomad hordes of the Sea of Grass the Pahr people have been remarkably at home in the scrubby hills, rounded peaks, high valleys and crags of Zem. While many of the hill clans have long since been domesticated into the (slightly) more sedate lives of Overkingdom cantons, tales of the “lost kingdoms”, Old Pahr petty mountain kingdoms that dropped from the historical record centuries ago--and into the popular imagination of this day.

One such tale that looms large in the so-called Southern Cycle, that great collection of folk ballads and tall tales of how the Pahr came to migrate, conquer and be conquered in the post-Hyperborean era, is that of Vlko and its hirsute, half-wild founder, Romuilak the Lupine. Many a man of science would like to believe that Vlko still exists, nestled high in the Cerny mountains, with a people prospering by the simple, bellicose virtues of the Old Pahr hidden and secure from modernity.

“Wild Child” and Twin stories are common amongst all the peoples of the Overkingdom and often mix the heroic and divine. Romuilak's story begins along archetypical lines, an unknown, yet presumed lordly father and harassed mother abandon two twins. Where upon Romuliak is raised by a pack of bog-wolves (known to be great nurturers) and his brother (whose name is lost in time) by an occular bat.

Growing to adulthood, the two are reunited, go on great adventures and gain possession of three mighty items of great magic: the Bear-Cloak of Molak, the Shaggus Staff of Oldest Lhoma and the Cyclo-Crown of Hming the Arched. With these mighty items and a swelling army of druzhina, amazons, reverse centaurs and war-ocelots they sack and raise Xol, the last great Hyperborean successor city-state.

Anger issues satiated, the twin warlords then began to construct a great city, Vlko, on the summits of the two massive, rubble piles of Xol's wreckage. Shortly thereafter a routine sibling spat over who was allowed to sit on the right side of the mead-hall table spilled over into tragic violence and Romuilak slew his twin with a single, greasy blow of a pork chop.

The aggrieved and heart-broken Romuilak swore to make war no more, closed the borders and devoted his remaining years to making Vlko a shining petty-kingdom on the hill...


  1. Good stuff. Playing in the Hill Cantons is a bit like what it must have been like to play in Tekumel with Barker. It's a more "standard" d&d world (though I hesitate to use that term) but it has it's on feel and layers of evolving richness to it, that isn't encountered all at once but is revealed slowly.

    It's really well-done, and I for one would love to see a setting book one day.

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  3. I'm the opposite with regard to ingame lore books. They are a very lazy way of providing backstory when the game designers can't come up with anything else.

    It is just lore for lores sake, that often has no bearing whatsoever on game play that it is quickly forgotten the next time you have to open yet another such tome.

    Endless cutscenes are likewise annoying, especially when repeated such as the mission and raid dialog scenes in Star Wars TOR.

  4. Our play session would start in one of the game's three starting areas: elder scrolls online