Interactive Histories for Pathfinder and other RPG’s

I am currently writing a “How to” for campaign development in Pathfinder over on the Iron Tavern blog where I guest post every Monday (USA time).  I am really trying to aim that stream at new to intermediate GM’s who want to get a sense on where to start and what needs to be done to get the campaign up and running.  I have had some great feedback about the post from my target audience, including one piece of feedback of someone who took my advice and found it really useful.  What I also got though were a bunch of experienced gamers telling me they do it differently and I realised that this would be the case so I have decided that I would do a set of more advanced approaches that could be used on my own blog and this is the first of those.

The inspiration for my campaign building Interactive
Histories concept, Aria Canticle of the Monomyth

This first approach is one that is new to me.  I have never used this prior to this week and I am using it as an experiment or as an alternative to a history that I have written to the game that I am writing, Detritus.  That said it can work in any setting and I will relate it to Pathfinder here as it is a game that I love to play!  The idea of the Interactive History campaign development style is to come up with a rich and detailed background and land that the players are invested in and know very well.  The style of development involves the entire playing group and I have adapted it to be done a week or two before the game begins (so the GM gets a chance to work out what to create after the history is done).

The idea comes from a couple of rule books to a game called Aria printed by Last Unicorn Games in 1994.  It is an imposing tome and a more imposing read with a very intellectual theoretical basis supported by a bunch of terms you just have to know (you don’t) to play the game.  It is a game that was designed not to play a single character (persona) but actually a long lineage of characters through the aeons of an interactive history.  This kind of game interests me and I always wished I had played it as the game but in reality it was a little too new age and a little too ambitious for a lot of the players I was gaming with at the time.  But it dawned on me as I was making my game that if I took certain portions out of this game and used it I could still create a vibrant and realistic setting.

The worlds book of Aria, not quite as useful as the core
book but still got some good ideas in it

As the GM you are considering creating a new campaign world to play in or you have one with an unexplored region you want to create.  You still need to come up with a seed for the game (it’s hook or theme) and it also helps to sketch out a map of the world/ country/ city/ village/ encounter setting, whatever that you want to build and then before working with your players you want to answer some questions about the reality that you are creating so you can answer the players question initially.  The template of questions that I suggest you answer is the following:

  1. World/ Continent/ Country/ City/ Village/ Whatever name: This is obviously dependent on the scope of your campaign or what you are developing but it should have a name so when you start to explain to the players what you want to achieve you can tell them a name they can remember.
  2. Reality Concept:  This is the theme or hook that you want to explore.  This will allow the players when they participate in the interactive history to work toward what you want to represent in the game.  It acts as a good counterpoint for them to focus their endeavours to highlight this concept.
  3. The Origin of the World: Describe here where the setting is in comparison to everything.  This may be the creation myth of the cosmos and be heavily influenced by gods or it could be much like the Village in M Night Shyamalan’s movie where <spoilers> the village is a primitive village started by the elders to escape the corruption of the outside world and they created a beast to keep the residents from wanting to leave and find the truth<end spoilers>
  4. Origin Form: How does the origin look?  Where does it fit in this scheme?  Do you have a map? What races are involved?  Do you need to create any races?
  5. Origin Connections: Does your campaign world connect to the standard view of the cosmos as laid out in the Gamemastery Guide from p.p.164-169 (or here from the PRD) or are you going to create your own cosmology.  If you do, there will have to be thought given to what happens to summoning and certain types of creatures like demons, devils and in fact all outsiders.  How do they fit in now?  This matters because in Pathfinder, mechanics rest on these concepts.  What are the powerful relationships in this concept that often affect the reality if any?
  6. Origin Relations: What are the relations of the origin to the creation.  Those that created or formed the world (if they had form as opposed to just a big bang) interact with it how and why?
  7. Omnessence or Magical Realities: What styles of magic exist?  Arcane, Divine, Ritual, Words of Power? All three?  If there is Divine but no Gods in your reality where does the Divine power come from (This may be a great campaign in and of itself to find out the why)?  Who holds the power and teaches the functions of all of this?
  8. Magic Availability: Is magic a common thing (e.g. Forgotten Realms) or very scarce (e.g. Conan)?  What form will magic items look like?  Are they altered from the base rules?
  9. Who do you want the players to control in the Interactive History: When you describe all of the above to the players what are they going to take on the role of when it comes to building the interactive history?  A secret society?  A kingdom? A group of Knights?  A magical order?  

You want the answer to all of these questions to reflect the things that you want to use often in the game.  It is no point building an interactive history for the players to assist in fleshing out and then creating an adventure that in no way relates to the history you have created.  Mind you, there is a difference between secretly building a seemingly unconnected adventure that then suddenly highlights a part of the history when it is all complete.

Always good to have some inspiration at hand too!
So, once you have the answer to your questions you just need to find a starting point from which to build your history from.  In Detritus (the game I am developing) the interactive history began with the origin of the first race.  The first race spoke with the God or Great Spirit of the reality.  You may want to start it at an established point and plan to throw some curve balls at the players and whatever society or country etc. (I am just going to call it society from here on in) that they are involved in.  Curve balls could come in the form of natural disasters, extra planar incursions or plagues etc.  Also make sure that the player understands what the society is all about.  Give the society a name, a scope (what it was formed for), detail about military and technology if appropriate and the general resources and makeup of the society.

Once this is all set and the players are sitting around the table with you and they have a good understanding of what their role is you start by choosing a timeframe of history (normally around 5 year intervals but 10 year or greater could be used for less detail or 1 year for intricate detail) and you ask each of the players what they are trying to achieve with their society for the time frame.  Have them explain how they are trying to achieve it and get them to offer what they think may hinder them.  Encourage the players to be inventive and add material.  They may be nervous doing this, especially if in the past they have just been part of established settings but encourage them and show you are keen to add their input to the game.

Continue this for some time.  Throw curve balls and complications at them often.  You are still and arbiter and a recorder here.  When a player says they are looking for an artifact that will give his realm prosperity, create one and then use the following trick.  Have the players role play a session as the heroes the king (or the king himself and companions) go on a quest to try and get the artifact.  Have some sheets photocopied from the NPC Codex at hand (or printed from the PRD) and a random dungeon ready, grab some Bestiaries and go for it!  Experience is not really all that concerning unless the characters are low level heroes and the players will be OK with that as they will realise that this is just a mechanic of the interactive history, not their own characters.  Ad-lib and dungeon crawl or have them head into the deepest forests of the land.  Roll dice, let them lie where they fall and have the result of this adventure be a turning point in the history.  Be it for the benefit of the realm (they find the artifact) or the detriment (the entire party was never heard from again though a journal was later found).

If there is a massive court intrigue that arises out of the game 

Thanks to for this image!

you may not even need character sheets.  Ad-lib the court intrigue.  Tensions between two neighbouring kingdoms?  Assign the players roles as diplomats and have them role-play out the negotiations that may diffuse, enrage or simply fail the situation.  before too long the players will be building up a history that is not only interactive but also alive to them.  No longer do you need to explain every nuance of setting to them before you include something in your game as they lived through the relevant history, and even better to them, they had a part in the making of it!

Do as many rounds of this as you need to have built the campaign to a level you like.  This may be a one session thing or building the history may take many sessions to get just what you want.  Once it is there tell the characters that they will be starting into the campaign proper and for them to build their characters.  They will be intimately involved and aware of the setting and will likely be very inspired to build a character that reflects something they did in the history or something that they want to explore from the history.  As the recorder and arbiter you will see what the players are excited about in the interactive history and it is likely that you will be inspired to draw on this to continue the interactive history into the players own characters histories.

This is really beginning to turn out to be a fascinating and brilliant way to build a world or campaign.  I am doing mine a little more strictly for my game than I have detailed above but even with a little more rigidity I am excited about this.  The game is really beginning to form and already as I compare some of my notes from the interactive setting to the notes that I wrote myself just as a fictional exercise I can see that the interactive history is brining the world so much more alive.  If you give this a try pleas let me know how it turns out.  A lot of the indie games emerging (Fate Core and the like) really advocate this kind of collaborative setting creation and I am beginning to see why!

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