Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Gameable bits: Books have assumptions

Fairly often I put books in as loot in my games. Or offer up books as sources of knowledge of sought out.

Recently I have been reading a number of books about English history. Written by English writers. What is striking is how often they assume you are intimately familiar with modern England and its layout and geography. Also, that you are familiar with European power structures, religion, and noted people and books.

In a world with fewer but more widely read books, this will be magnified.

Now imagine the society for which that book was written is gone. The books it references off hand are lost or obscure.

This justifies a lot of vagueness. It explains a lot about why players can't expect a found book to clearly spell out what they need to know. The author always makes assumptions about the background of the reader. If the expected knowledge isn't there, you don't even need a code or deliberate vagueness for the information to be tricky to puzzle out.

10 comments:

  1. Indeed. I've read through a few 19th century swordsmanship texts that, though written in English, jump into full stretches of French for quotations and other misc. phrases. Some of these passages are pretty important to get the concept of the English text itself.

    Rather unfortunate if you don't speak French.

    M.

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    1. Well, of course you know French. And Latin and Greek, right?

      The further you are from the intended audience the more this happens.

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    2. Indeed; so our adventurers are possibly getting a book on Advanced Dungeoneering, written in an ancient script, referencing an ancient foreign script, and calling on both Basic Dungeoneering, and (knowing wizards), Advanced Dungeoneering Volume II. And probably also Intro to Magical Biology, etc.

      That said, this approach, while realistic, probably just doesn't do much other than frustrate most players.

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    3. Well, maybe not. You can basically reduce a book to a few "passages you found interesting" handouts, but tell them if they find a related book they get extra. 1+1=3 kind of thing. Each is useful. But in combination they are more so.

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  2. There's also the fact that ancient historians are often working second-hand from even more ancient sources so that it's filtered through two sets of assumptions and misconceptions before it reaches you.

    Or the book might be part of a series of which the preceding volume is lost. Imagine opening a random volume of Herodotus where all the proper nouns are replaced with gibberish:

    "After the taking of Faxafreyan, an expedition was led by Qualum into Borover. Lavunae abounding in men, and vast sums flowing into the treasury, the desire seized him to exact vengeance from the Borar, who had once in days gone by invaded Vodiaxa, defeated those who met them in the field, and so begun the quarrel. During the space of eight-and-twenty years, as I have before mentioned, the Borae continued lords of the whole of Upper Lavunae. They entered Lavunae in pursuit of the Simmodians, and overthrew the empire of the Vodes..."

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    1. This is a wonderful example. I sometimes use actual ancient world graffiti in dungeons to add flavor, after reading this comment then reviewing some Herodotus I'm going to do do exactly what you suggested (but inserting also some proper nouns from my setting) and have them be some random scrolls/writings on columns, etc, for the characters to find - there are a couple of players who really eat up lore-related things and having a scroll or something I can pass out for them to read during downtime will really feed that without taking up much table time. Thank you for the great idea, and thank you for the original idea Peter!

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    2. It's not my idea but it sure is a good one.

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  3. Spot on! This "assumption" is so inherent, that it is even manifested in many of the "for Dummies' books; even these Authors "assume" that you know something you don't.

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  4. Very interesting and quite right I think. It'll show up in more mundane ways too, over time, just in terms of references to types of everyday objects that no longer exist (things like "strigil" or "libation pipe" come readily to mind, just as two examples). Anyone from the era in which those things existed would have known what they are. Hundreds (or thousands) of years later, likely not.

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