Monday, December 22, 2008

The Note On The Body

Keep On The ShadowfellI'll do my Game of the Year post in the first week of January, so you can look forward to the mystery being resolved then, but in the mean time I wanted to talk about the note on the body.

I'm currently running Keep on the Shadowfell for a group of friends. Keep was the first official pre-packaged adventure released for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. Also, it's awful.

D&D is 34 years old. As a franchise, it has had an exceptionally large amount of time to get it right. The combined expertise and development resources of Wizards of the Coast should ensure that a D&D pre-packaged module is the finest tabletop RPG experience you will ever have.

Pfft. It's D&D. Storytelling is something that happens to other people.

Keep is classic D&D. This is something that could have been published in the early 80s. It's all 10 x 10 stone corridors, goblin chieftains, and giant magical traps that don't make a lick of sense. And there's nothing essentially wrong with that. That sort of stuff is what D&D is good at, and it's the reason you might be playing D&D rather than an actual roleplaying game.

But it tries. Keep has a story, and it tries to tell it. It's not a great story, but it's just enough to give some context to a bog-standard dungeon crawl. Providing the players ever learn it.

And this is where Keep falls down - because it can't tell a story. It sets out the whole backstory in the Dungeon Master's explanatory text - so the DM will know it, at least - and then provides very few ways to get that information across to the players.

It makes some attempts. There are a couple of bearded mentor-types who are capable of regurgitating the backstory to the players. They're only around in the first third of the game, so if you want to use them you'll either have to frontload the exposition into the first couple of sessions, or use flashbacks or suchlike to pace the story out. Later there's a ghost who does a "hear my sad story" number, but by the time the players get to him they'll have missed all the spots where knowing what's going on could have enriched the experience.

The other thing Keep tries is the note on the body.

It's not alone here. This is an RPG cliche, and you'll find it not only in pre-packaged tabletop offerings, but scattered across the entirety of the computerised RPG canon. Going back as far as the SSI Gold Box games, and spotted most recently for me in Mass Effect, it's a terrible storytelling device that just won't seem to die.

It works like this: the player finds the corpse of a fellow adventurer, who's met a sticky end. Upon searching the corpse (as one does) the player finds a letter, or note, or diary, that details the manner in which the adventurer met his or her death, warns of some danger, and entrusts the player with a quest of some sort.

This is terrible storytelling. Just... terrible. First of all, it's an infodump. It's a big string of information in a row that the player or players have to rapidly absorb. At worst, it's the DM talking non-stop for a couple of minutes while the players frantically take notes, and at best the DM's transcribed it all onto paper for the players to hand around and read one at a time.

Secondly, it's non-interactive. The players can't ask questions, they can't interrupt, they can't express themselves in response to the narrative.

Thirdly, it's not immediate. It's the past speaking to the present, and even if what killed the poor adventurer is still nearby, it's a non-dynamic event and doesn't have any of the drive and urgency that good narrative demands.

Fourthly, it's non-descriptive. Even the most floridly written note telling about how the adventurer was mauled by a bear isn't as vivid as seeing the adventurer mauled by a bear, but being too late to save him.

Fifthly, it's just dumb. Apparently it's some kind of adventurer tradition to always write some expository information on nearby paper immediately before meeting your untimely demise. It stretches the bounds of credulity, and it's a cliche to boot.

Forget the note on the body. It's a bad idea. As a storyteller, you can try harder. Let the players see the adventurer meeting their fate; have them fail to prevent the death. Let them encounter a dying traveller and have a conversation about what's happened to him, and experience his final moments.

Failing that, let the scene speak for itself. If the players are going to find the partially digested corpse of an adventurer inside a gelatinous cube, there's no need for it to be carrying a note reading, "Ack! Gelatinous cubes!" If you want the players to tell someone about a dead body, have the corpse be carrying a locket with a picture. Identifying the picture is a lot more fun than following directions on a note and it's more emotional as well.

This cliche works for villains too. Keep is full of characters who the players can kill, and then find a note on their body reading, "Secretly, I was a traitor, working for (insert name of major villain here)." It seems to have given up on the concept of players who talk first and kill second, and instead of building scenarios to encourage drama it's just defaulted to tacking on the exposition at the tail end of all the slaughtering. The whole module seems pathologically afraid of the idea of players having a conversation with an NPC.

I'm sick of it. I'm going to try and rework Keep to fix its apalling storytelling, but if you're thinking of telling a story to me in future, could you at least make an effort to avoid the note on the body?



Grant said...

Like all storytelling techniques, the "note on the body" has rich dramatic potential as well as a risk of being an excuse for lazy writing.

They use it to great effect in Morrowind, when you suddenly see a man plummet to his death out of nowhere, and when you search him you find his journal that ends with him planning to test his super-island-crossing-jump potion.

There isn't a way to make that little encounter funnier than with the note in his body.

Greg Tannahill said...

There's exceptions to every rule, and a clever storyteller can get a lot of mileage out of a cliche providing he knows that it's a cliche.

The Morrowind guy is an excellent moment, but it's actually precisely what I'm saying you SHOULD do - the player gets to see the dramatic event happen, a mystery is created ("What the heck?"), the act of travelling to the body creates anticipation, and then the note is the punchline. It would be poor if you simply encountered the body without seeing the fall.

Anonymous said...

This also brings to mind a scene near the start of Fable 2, where you find three dead adventurers, each with a note revealing that they were planning on killing the other two.

Greg Tannahill said...

Yes. That was poorly handled; a lazy joke shoehorned in to try to conceal what was an otherwise uninteresting section of dungeon.