RPG-a-Day Catch-up Day: Six and Seven
Welcome back to our RPG-a-Day 2021 catch-up series! If you’ve never heard of it, RPG-a-Day is a month long series of prompts from Autocratik and Casting Shadows to encourage creativity and conversation in the TTRPG community. You can see the full calendar and a little more discussion of what RPG-a-Day is in our post on the first prompt, Scenario.
Our the first part of our catch-up, we talked about Rewards and Community – both good topics that really deserve longer articles in the future. In this part, we’re going to discuss our day six and seven topics, Flavour and Inspiration.
It’s good that these two topics end up side-by-side and, funnily enough, I ended up delaying day six’s write-up as I think these two topics go perfectly well together and can be talked about in a way that intertwines them. This post might drift a bit away from TTRPGs – but at the same time I’ll try to tie it all back to them.
As some readers are aware, I’m a huge fan of card games in which you build your decks ahead of time and bring them to the table to face your opponent. Often called trading card games, living card games, or customizable card games, these all seek to deliver a fun game experience while trying to deliver you a little slice of the world which the game takes place within. Some examples of these that immediately pop to mind (all games I play) are Magic: the Gathering, Arkham Horror The Card Game, and Star Trek CCG. While each of these games are played with little pieces of cardboard with pictures and words on them, they go a long way towards immersing you in their worlds by virtue of the flavour they bring and help build a picture of those worlds – and how they go about this can be brought back as inspiration for tabletop games.
The first thing on a lot of these cards I want to talk about is, appropriately, the flavour text. Everyone of these games features bits of text on some of the cards describing little bits of the world. As an example, I picked a random Magic card out of my collection and found the card with the following flavour text:
There are no weapons allowed in the Biblioplex, but a clever mage is never truly defenseless.
Just this line alone tells us something about the world that the game takes place in – the Biblioplex can be assumed to be a library or some sort of book storage from the name and the rest of the text shows us that whoever runs it wants to protect it by banning weapons from it. The text also shows that mages are interested in the Biblioplex and so it’s likely contains a storage of information related to magic or other important information. Lastly, it shows that mages of this world are never truly unable to defend themselves.
The card in question is called Bury in Books and comes from the recent Magic: the Gathering set, Strixhaven: School of Mages. On a level beyond the name of the card, it plays on some interesting things and hits a couple points both thematically and mechanically. On a flavour level, this is a card about using your surroundings – books in the Biblioplex – as weapons to protect yourself against dangers. In this case, it’s literally burying your enemies in books to give you time to breathe or escape.
In this particular case (a very happy accident), it also plays upon a bit of a pun with game terms – the deck you draw from in Magic is called a library and the effects on the card place the threat in that library, actually burying it in “books” (cards) to buy you time to come up with a better solution. It’s one case where the in-world flavour carries over nicely into the mechanical flavour and comes out to be an amazing overall design choice to build the world.
And this is where we can take inspiration from these games – though only being able to present the world on each card through a card name, a little bit of game text, and sometimes some flavour text, the designers need to make sure every bit works together to create the flavour they want to convey to the players. It’s a less-is-more approach that requires us to focus on the most important bits when you building out the world of our games and presenting it to players. Instead of overwhelming the players with massive drops, it’s often better to focus on the details of the things we’re immediately trying to present to players and ensuring they accurately present to your players what you want them to know about the world. Don’t present information unnecessary to the moment and keep it as concise as possible.
As an exercise, take a large scene with a lot of details – or pick a piece of art – and try to describe the essence of what you’re seeing that art, with as many flavourful details as your possibly can, in the fewest words possible. Try first with a hundred words, then fifty, then twenty five, then ten. While as few as ten may be slimming down too much, it’s a good exercise for figuring out the most important information; similar exercises can be found in the “badly describe X” threads you find all over the internet.
A little talk on just inspiration: don’t be afraid to use popular media as inspiration. Do you love Game of Thrones, The Witcher, or Star Trek? Borrow the parts you like and adapt them to your game. No one cares if the NPC you’re presenting them with is clearly Geralt of Rivia with the serials filed off – what they care about is whether or not their interactions with the character are fun and interesting. Want to base an entire campaign off the MCU’s Infinity War Saga? Go right ahead. Players want to have fun and, at the end of the day, as long as they do that’s all that matters (and remember that you, as a game master, are a player as well – your fun is just important as everyone else’s at the table).
So, that’s it for our combined discussion on Flavour and Inspiration. I’m sure this will inspire me at some point in the future to have further discussions on this and I hope to come back to it again – especially the topic of Inspiration; there’s a lot that could be said about adapting material to a variety of genres.
Until tomorrow, when we’ll talk about day eight’s topic – Streams.