The Alexandrian

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Let me clue you into the Golden Rule of Gaming, by way of Ben Robbins:

Players pay attention when you describe treasure.

(See, it’s the Golden Rule because gold is treasure. Get it? Get it? … Okay, never mind.)

The one time you’re guaranteed to have everyone’s undivided attention at the gaming table is the moment when you’re opening the goody bag and getting ready to distribute the goodies.

Want them to know about the ancient dwarven empire that ruled the surface world aeons ago before the Dragon War forced them to retreat into their mountain citadels? Then let them find a cache of ancient dwarven coins with the Imperial motto “All that the sun shines upon shall be shaped by our forge” written upon them. Place the forgemark of the Greatfall Armories on the next magic sword they find. Give them a treasure map leading to the ancient ruins of a dwarven palace.

Sometime knowledge itself can be the treasure: Lorebooks, diaries, and the like can all be looted.

And sometimes you can use knowledge to boost the value of the treasure. For example, they might find a very nice tapestry worth a few hundred gold pieces. With a successful History check, however, they might recognize the tapestry as being a famous depiction of the Battle of the Firebane. Find the right collector, and the value of the tapestry has quintupled. Now the Battle of the Firebane isn’t just a bit of fluff text — it’s the reason they’re earning the big bucks.



Take your lore, break it down into a series of specific revelations. Then use the Three Clue Rule to liberally sprinkle your campaign with the requisite clues necessary for figuring out each revelation.

If the players have to struggle to figure something out, then they’ll focus on it. And feel a sense of accomplishment when they finally piece together the truth. Of course, this usually means that you’ll need to find some way of motivating them to figure it out. (Unless you’re lucky and have players who motivate themselves at the sign of any enigma.)

In many ways, making it a mystery is really just a specific way of making it short (by parceling the information into separate revelations) and making it plot (by providing the players with a motivation to figure it out).



Let’s return for a moment to Lord Dartmouth’s destruction of the village of Cairwoth. The event can be made instantly memorable if Cairwoth was the home town for one of the PCs… and their parents were slaughtered by Dartmouth.

Of course, making it personal for the PCs doesn’t mean it needs to be traumatic. Let the PCs find documents suggesting that they might be a direct descendant of the Silver Duke of Amartain, for example, and you’ve got a fairly good chance that they’ll lap up whatever information you choose to dish out about the Silver Duke.

These personal ties can arise during actual gameplay, but they can also be established during character creation.

In my campaigns, character creation tends to be a collaborative process:

(1) I’ll provide the player with my standard handout describing the campaign setting.

(2) The player will pitch me their character concept. This concept can range from the barebones (“I want to play a human wizard”) to the brief (“I’d like to play a barbarian from somewhere up north. I think it might be cool if my village was attacked by slavers.”) to the elaborate (a detailed, three page biography).

(3) I’ll take the concept and, using my greater knowledge of the setting, begin to flesh out the details. (If they tell me they want to play a barbarian, I’ll give them a specific tribe and provide them appropriate cultural and historical detail, for example.) My goal here is generally not to¬†change the concept. I’m just working to help them¬†realize the concept.

Most of this work is done via e-mail, and it’s not unusual for the character concept to get passed back and forth several times as we polish it up. Sometimes my suggestions will be completely off-base, at which point we go back to the drawing board and try a different approach.

But I digress. My point here is that this collaborative process of character creation can be used to establish information regarding the world. Maybe it’s something that will become important during the course of the campaign. Or maybe it’s just something that you find cool and feel like sharing. But, in either case, you’ve put yourself in the position where (a) the player will care about those details and (b) they’ll do the heavy-lifting in terms of sharing those details with the other players.

(Another tangent: Things don’t always go like you plan, of course. In one campaign, I thought I had gotten things setup so that one of the PCs (whose central character trait was the desire to learn secrets) was in a position to receive various pieces of secret lore. I thought I could use the character’s passion for learning secrets to funnel information into the campaign. The only problem? It turned out that the character liked to learn secrets… so that she could keep them. The information funnelled into the PC… and stopped there, creating a very different dynamic than I had anticipated.)

To be continued…

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