Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Virtue of Being Stingy with Information

Image by Prettysleepy from Pixabay 

Fellow game developer and World of Weirth campaign member Haven Mirabella had an interesting question on Twitter the other day she wanted to push her players to join one or the other faction in her Pathfinder 2e campaign. Their choice will significantly shape whether they are working for the forces of good or evil. She wanted to know how she could help make sure the players made an informed choice.

She got a lot of solid advice on lines of letting the players sit down and talk to the leaders of factions, giving them time to collect gossip and fallow up on rumours, or going on short adventures for each faction you get a feel for what they would be doing working with them.

All in all, the Twitter peanut gallery gave lots of suggestions about how to give the players time and help them use that time to make their decision. I was a sole dissenting voice (though no less a part of the peanut gallery) . If anything, I argued, they should neither get time nor much information to make this decision. Instead, it was time to turn up the pressure.

To me, giving them all that time to make a decision will be what anyone would want in the perfect world. But, the whole point of a role playing game is to make the best you can in terrible situations with what you've got in a world that is very far from perfect. Why should learning about factions be any less perilous or improvisational than exploring a dungeon?

in fact, giving the player characters too much information chips away at their potential for drama and their agency. If they know Faction A is big on protecting poor farmers, while Faction B likes sacrificing the Virgin daughters of said farmers, the choice becomes far too easy. And it is very tempting to inject my preferences as to what my players should do by way of how I frame my information dump. 

I would rather my players have less information so that the true motives, goals, and structure of the factions can be revealed over time to create adventure opportunities.

So, instead, I suggested that she turn up the heat. Have an oncoming conflict or disaster that will force them to side with one faction or another at least for a short period of time. Let them stand out and shine in service to the faction in times that are not normal. And make sure they don't have much to go with other than how the factions were introduced and their gut.

By offering them very low information, you create the possibility that player characters make a choice that isn't ultimately in their interests or match their alignment, goals, or religion. The Revelation that they have chosen poorly can have an incredible effect on how the campaign plays out.

If the player characters, for example, only discover that the organization they are working for and doing good work througn is an evil cult when they're asked to kidnap their first virgin, it will lead to them suddenly needing to decide what their morals are. This will lead to them questioning what they have done while in the cult's service. They may choose to take power over the organization to keep doing good work. They may choose to try and root out the cult and see their fellow members discover what they have been serving. They may have to go on the run against someone who knows them well. or they may have to switch sides and become spies for the good guys.

it's also possible that neither choice is the right choice; that both factions are deeply flawed, and the players have to decide to redeem one or the other, or cut their own path going against both sides.

For example if they leave the faction that is a recruiting ground for an evil cult only to discover that the other faction is secretly funding a revolution against the King that will plunge the nation into civil war, they might choose to back neither faction, and come to the King with evidence. Or they might start their own faction to oppose both. 

None of these are possible if the player characters had too much information at the start.

One of my all-time best campaigns was one in which the player characters got themselves into a serious bind at first level. They were rescued by a company of mercenaries known as the Bright Blades. They were invited to travel with the Bright Blades and help them on a couple of side jobs. They were even offered official membership in the company.

The players got to know and love the Bright Blades very quickly. What they didn't know, was that they were aiding and abetting the 'Blades in kidnapping a crown princess. 

Unwilling to be a party to High Treason, the player characters turned against the Bright Blades, but not without a great deal of drama as friend turned against friend. The player Characters then spirited the princess away to what they thought was the safety of the home of the local countess. The Countess was happy to invite the PCs and the Princess into the fold of a secret society of nobles dedicated to seeking out and bringing down criminals and rebels like the Bright Blades before peasant revolt or Civil War could break out. They also considered it there sacred duty to make sure that the Crown was worth defending, however, and dedicated equal energy into quietly punishing abuses of power: they were dedicated to the status quo.

Another faction that got involved was the high holy Church of Pelor, which saw the Princess as one of their own, as she was raised in a monastery. 

As the story progressed, it became clear that the Princess was being used as a pawn. the Bright Blades and their backers wanted to kidnap her in order to blackmail the Crown into making certain concessions to a revolutionary peasant organization. The Secret Society was so dedicated to the status quo because, it turned out, they were mostly undead who required a stable kingdom to collect the resources they needed to attain  true immortality. The church was horribly corrupt, and slowly purging ley clerics who would not support their bid to become a political powerhouse and plant a puppet Princess on the throne.

in the end, the PCs decided that the side they were on was the Princesses'. They fought to bring down the undead nobles, expose and punish the revolutionaries (but also make concessions based on their valid points,) and force a reform of the Church. They became the trusted agents of the Crown to ferret out political bad actors.

Eventually, they founded their own knightly order, and one of the PCs became the duchess of a major frontier settlement. They shaped the kingdom through a major religious reformation, the return of high chivalric ideals and eventually a huge expansion into territory the kingdom was previously forced to abandon to famine and plague.

Had they known too much early on, the treachery of the 'Blades and the Secret Society would not have given them the impetus to go their own way and totally remake the campaign world. It was far more interesting than either being revolutionaries or secret agents for the undead nobles. 

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