At the Far End of the Bell Curve

When I spin together a world for a tabletop roleplaying game, I always make sure that I, at least, understand why the world works the way it does. I don’t need to know every single law of physics, magic, or society, and I have no interest in filling in every potential gap, but I make sure I know why things are in their current state. Most of the time, this is economics, politics, and society, the reasons people do things, what they want, and what their goals are. In one of my D&D games, this means that I had to know why the world exists in the state it does.

I’ve mentioned this game in the past. It is a mish-mash of genres, tropes, and interesting ideas, all seemlessly woven together to create a cohesive world with strong narative underpinnings so that it can bear the weight of everything the players want to see in it. Most worlds don’t just exist like this, there’s always a reason the space between civilzation centers is unsafe. There’s always a reason magic has been defined and pinned down to the point of becoming technology. There’s always a reason the unseen ruler of a massive, sprawling unequal society encourages inequality, strife, and economic uncertainty. While I always keep my mind open to new possibilities, different interpretations, or general player input, I always make sure I have some idea of why the world is in the state it is in.

I also make sure I know where the world is going to go from its current state. After all, a moment in time is the only occasion a society is still. Something is always happening, something is always changing, and there’s always new problems that need solving. The future may not be static, but those with power have a goal in mind and will frequently get what they want barring outside intervention or unpredictable actors.

Enter the players. They are my little nuggets of chaos tossed into the smooth machinery of the world that will cause it to buck, jump, and grind until it either all breaks down or a new machine emerges from the wreckage. In order to provide them agency and the opportunity to change the world around them, I have to develop systems they can either participate in or knock over. Most of the time, these take the form of societies or towns or entire cultures and they fall into them without thinking because finding all this treasure only has value if you can sell it to someone in exchange for material wealth, to use as you wish to pursue your definition of a comfortable life.

Sometimes, this takes the form of an experimental magic item tag table you give to your player whose character is a product tester in a techno-magic advanced society. And, since you know why the world exists the way it does, you know what people want, you know how the dominoes are set up, you decide to include a trigger. You don’t tell the player what it does, only informing them that it is bad if it comes up and that it’ll require a special conversation if they roll that specific number. And then sometimes they use a different property from that same table to make sure they get the trigger.

Since I understand how the world works, why things are the way they are, I know that this specific combination of events means something to the world. It means something special. It means I was prepared for this scenario, that I had notes written just in case this happened, because I know that if I tell a player that this button is dangerous, they are probably going to hit it. I also understand that they’re going to hit it even if they don’t know its there, just to see what happens. So I prepare and wind up derailing an entire D&D campaign because of one of the least-likely scenarios I could come up with actually came to pass.

I told my players during our latest session’s wrap up that this is the plot now. They joked that the character could just remove his head since he’s a robot, and that this was inevitable. I told them that they had less than half the story so far, that there was more to come, and they said they’d get back to the “main plot” soon. I gave up at that point. The problem with being the only person in this game who can view the bell curve (by design, since I’m the GM) is that it is difficult for people to appreciate how far off it we are without revealing what is going to happen.

I’d write more specifically about this, but it might impact multiple campaigns at this point, I might want to reuse some of this stuff in future games, and I can never tell which of my players will randomly decide to read my blog on any given day. While I haven’t done the math yet, this only happened because of the combination of six specific item tags being knowingly used to thumb the scales so this other specific tag showed up and then the one final tag required to create this abomination was rolled immediately after it. It’s probaby more likely than I’d think, since statistics can be weird and the combo of six tags doesn’t need them in a specific order, but I still never thought it would come up in EXACTLY this way.

That shows me, I guess.

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