Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Step Two: the Research

Originally posted at Sword's Edge Publishing on November 13, 2o08

In the previous post, I described how I got the group together. But once that group is together, then what?

I gave lots of options as to what we could play. I was going away to Korea for a month, so I wanted to have an idea of what we would be playing before I left. Not only did I leave the system choice open (though I stated I hoped to play True20), I gave campaign ideas from high fantasy to dystopian SF, from Greek hoplites to space marines. The sheer number of options may have stifled some people--sometimes too much choice is a bad thing. A couple of people piped in mentioning sword & sorcery and Vikings.

So I suggested an S&S Vikings game, and no one disagreed, so that was to be our campaign.

The options I provided were all ones I had considered or on which I had done some preparation, so none of the choices would have been odious to me. Being a new group, none of whom knew each other, I think there may have been some hesitancy regarding choosing the kind of game. What I didn’t want to do was dictate a type of game and then lose players. Perhaps I gave too many choices or perhaps the players just wanted to play something--anything. Whatever the case, before I left I had my campaign genre.

I had plenty of time to prepare while in Korea. We were visiting family rather than doing the tourist thing, and I had time during my daughter’s nap, when no one else was around, to read, speculate and make notes. I had a notebook specifically for the campaign with me. I also brought three books to use for reference and inspiration.

The point of having a notebook--to me--isn't to take long notes or develop anything, it's there to catch all your thoughts. I just scratched down anything I read that sparked my interest or gave me insight. There was no rhyme nor reason.

Now the notebook I had was divided into 4 sections. This is useful because now I use the first section to scribble anything that pops into my head. The second section is where I develop ideas. The third section is for developing NPCs. I don't know what the fourth section will be for, though I'm sure I'll find a use.

I would suggest at the research stage, you only worry about getting ideas, gathering background knowledge, and sketching out general concepts. If a particular scene comes fully formed into your head, absolutely write down something more substantial, but don't worry about form. Get the idea down in a way that you can return to it and develop it.

As for the books, I took three because that's what I had room for. I was travelling. If you are at home, you have access to many, many more. Since my return, I have fleshed out my knowledge with some other references I'll refer to below.

A Brief History Of the Vikings: The Last Pagans or the First Modern Europeans? by Jonathan Clements was my main Viking reference. This gave me what I needed for the historical background of the Vikings and their culture. It is a very high level, global consideration of the Vikings and their history, focused clearly on the Viking Age, from around the 8th to the 11th century. It also gave a nice background on the Viking religion and superstitions.

I used the Last Apocalypse by James Reston as a general guide for the era leading up to the first millennium. I had read the book before, and I remembered enjoying it. The discussion of issues surrounding Scandinavia made much more sense after learning about the Vikings and their history.

I read the Long Ships (original title in Swedish was Röde Orm, or Red Orm, a reference to the main character) by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson for inspiration. I had developed a concept from reading Clement's history, but the Long Ships gave me another, more practical and grounded quest--the search for the Bulgar Gold. Also, it gave me some concept of the actual environs of the eastern trade route with Constantinople, at least up to the cataracts.

All of these references gave me tidbits that I added to my background information notes, as well as plot ideas and character concepts. Further, they all provided names. This is something that I prize like gold. I like to have a list of names for men and women so that NPCs can all be named.

On my return, I was able to borrow a copy of Vikings, a recorded lecture series by Kenneth W. Harl.

This series of recordings was much more in depth than the Brief History, but it also ate up almost all my podcast listening time. To be honest, it was worth it. Dr. Harl is a good speaker, at least on CD, and I actually listened to the lectures in order once, then I listened again to the ones I thought of particular value. As a podcast listener in the first place, listening to a series of lectures wasn’t something out of the ordinary. For others, it might not go as well. Also, as I was usually on the bus or walking while I was listening, I couldn’t take notes as ideas hit me, so it was not ideal for me.

And I, of course, consulted Wikipedia often, especially to verify my notes from Dr. Harl's Vikings once I returned the CDs. But Wikipedia was also useful to read about things like the Volsung Saga or Hrolfr Kraki, to get a kind of cultural grounding.

The 13th Warrior was also a huge influence on the game I had conceived and therefore a type of research. I loved the scene bringing the group together, which is why I poached it. I loved the fatalistic philosophy of the Vikings in that movie--no man escapes his destiny, you die when it’s your time no matter what, so why try to hide from death? I loved the specific roles for the characters. This was all a large reason for my choosing to pursue a Viking game.

With a solid idea of the background and historical context, a good grasp of the game I wanted to play, I began to compile my notes and actually got down to writing the introductory scene. I had already adopted the scene in which the 13 warriors are chosen in the movie the 13th Warrior as the method I would use to glue the group together. Their destinies would be tied, and to break faith would mean they would all die within the year. That gives a narrative impetus for the group to remain together, even if in the game there is character conflict.

But I didn’t go too far. Not until the first meeting.

But that’s another story.

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