Thursday, December 11, 2008

History as Textbook vs. History as Discovery

Or, as I like to call it, The Silmarillion vs. The Hobbit.

So, the next book on deck, the book that should carry me through my two weeks' worth of Holiday vacation, is The Silmarillion. I like LotR well enough and I've got no problem with Tolkien, but I've never been a crazy big fan of Middle Earth, and while I've owned a small paperback of the book for a long, long time, I've never gotten around to reading it. But a week ago on a whim I picked up The Children of Hurin, and my buddy Darkwing informed me that reading the Silmarillion might be a good idea before I start in on CoH in order to have a better idea of the backstory.

Well, the Silmarillion is a pretty hefty text. It's basically a history of the origins of Middle Earth, but written in what you might call a "pseudo-homeric" style, so it's not really textbook writing so much as something like the Bible or the Aeneid. It's laying out multiple thousands of years of history and great big world-making and world-shaking events - seriously heavy stuff here. I'm sure at 16 I didn't have the patience to read this beast, and I'm hoping now that I'm twice that age, it'll come along a little easier.

But what I want to talk about, after all that, is this. Say you read the Silmarillion before you read the Hobbit. Wouldn't it change the perspective from which you viewed the story considerably? Taking this a step further, if Bilbo (and later Frodo) had read that text, would it have changed their perspective on things during the course of their adventures?

All this circles back to gaming. I, at one time in my foolish youth, loved to bang out these weighty, multi-page treatises for my players to read, detailing the lush history of their gaming world, the customs and cultures of all its peoples, yadda yadda yadda. Some read it, some didn't, no big whup. Now that I'm older, I tend to shy away from doing this because A) I don't have the time or energy for it anymore, and B) neither do my players have the time or energy to read / process it. Instead, I like to start real small - a village or hamlet or whatever, and just kinda build the history and culture in my mind (and the minds of the players) during gameplay. I'm much better at improvising stuff on the fly that I am cobbling together huge plots and ideas beforehand, so this tends to work for me.

Back to the Tolkien reference. If you sit down and write up a big ol' treatise on the history of your campaign setting and hand it out to your players in order to prep them so they know about your campaign world, is that better or worse than just giving them a few small details and then letting their players discover the world and it's history organically through gameplay? On the one hand, it might save you the time and effort it would take to have to explain out things when they come up "Ohhhh, you mean THAT war against the elves. Gotcha!", but on the other hand, it might dampen the thrill of discovery, the "sense of wonderment" players / PCs get when the full tapestry of the game world is revealed thread by thread and their imaginations get the joy of weaving it all together.

So what do you all say? Do you prefer to hand out / have handed to you a "campaign history", or do you just start off with / want given to you a couple of basic details and let it all come out during play? And specifically for GMs, do you try to really build a fully realized history for your campaign setting even before gameplay starts, even if the players don't see it , in order to give your gaming perspective, or do you prefer to just have a few broad-brushstrokes ideas and make it all up as you go along?


thanuir said...

A very much not old school game I am currently running is built around the idea that a rich campaign setting with history will be built along the way. Thus far it has generated interesting material, but it needs more playtime to really start shining (or break down).

Zachary The First said...

I do a primer. Its a basic snapshot of some regions, a timeline, a bit on religions, and a little bit more about the sort of world we're adventuring in. I don't give them a novel, but after many years of a collaborative homebrew, there's plenty waiting in the wings as needed.

Darkwing said...

If I felt up to it, I'd write the long treatise, but not necessarily share it with the players. As the game starts I'd give the players info on a "need to know" basis.

If, however, they started asking questions, etc., having written the treatise I'd be able to answer them immediately without having to make things up on the fly.

David said...

This sort of thing has never really come up in my campaigns. Though I enjoy writing histories and making worlds, my players basically just don't care. If history is presented, even in the form of treasure (a sword created by the elves in the orcish wars or something), the players will say "Ok. So does it do extra damage to orcs? No? Ok then, got 1 longsword."

That said...

I think it'd be a better idea to have a short primer, as Zachary said, and then work out the plot as time goes on. The primer is good so that they can have an idea of the conditions of the nation(s) the PCs grew up in, but explaining it all at once will end up with glossed-over eyes and bored players.