Small Changes

   Lets say I decide that – instead of a bonus Feat – humans in my world get Darkvision. I’m planning to run a city-based intrigue campaign with much of the action after dark, and having everyone carrying torches, candles, or lanterns to avoid falling in the gutters doesn’t fit in at all with the mood I have in mind. Just as importantly, Darkvisions limited range means that opponents can easily be out of sight while remaining in earshot, greatly improving my ability to have the characters overhear other groups – or be overheard by them. Specialists may be a little bit rarer – but most specialists are simply expert NPC’s in any case.

   And all that’s well and good. Unfortunately, it goes a lot further than that.

   When someone asks “What shops are on this street?”, and I casually inform them that there’s “a butcher, a cooper, a wheel-maker, a blacksmith, a candle-maker, and a leatherworker” I’ve got to be prepared for some bright player to abruptly note that candles are rare, special-order, items and that that shop must either be a cover for something or be doing a lot of business with non-humans; otherwise it couldn’t stay in business.

   Now, if non-humans are scarce, or the non-human kingdom to the east is hostile, or some such, I may have just sent the entire game off on a random tangent. Worse, if someone spots my efforts to get things back on track, I’ll just feed the notion that “there’s no need to pay attention to the details, the GM will keep us on track anyway”. Say good-bye to investigative scenarios, to trying to deduce what’s going on, and to role-playing. The players will never be able to tell what’s relevant information and what’s just another GM mistake.

   There’s nothing wrong with making changes – but you really need to consider their impact on your setting before you implement them or your setting will stop being believable.

   The most dramatic example I can think of was from a Champions game: one player literally wanted to try playing God – and the first phrase was “I make ‘c’ (the speed of light) equal to infinity!”. The response was “there is a very bright flash, then everything gets very dark and quiet”, since such a change instantly destroyed the universe in a flash of infinite energy. After a few moments the player announced “I put the universe back!” – to which the response was “there is a very bright flash…”. Announcement number three was “Er… I put the value of ‘c’ back to normal and THEN put the universe back”… After being god for a few minutes – and accidently destroying the universe several more times – the group decided that this was losing its amusement value and went back to the usual game.

   What will a few moments of thought tell us about humans having darksight? Well, first, the candle, lantern, and torch-makers will be almost out of business. There won’t be nearly as many accidental fires. Wood will be a bit cheaper, forests a bit less managed, and wildlife likely a bit more plentiful. The population growth rate will be a bit slower and evenings will be more productive. Children will be slightly rarer and more valued. Beekeeping will be less profitable, since there will be less demand for wax, so honey and mead will be more expensive. That might have a secondary impact on crops, but wild bees will probably take up the slack. There will be far fewer mine explosions. Street lights will be non-existent and any torch sconce or lantern-hook is likely to be taken for an obvious secret-door trigger or evidence of a non-human architect. With slower population growth, the Orcs will probably invade the civilized lands more often. Textured tapestries, sculptures, engravings, and reliefs will probably take precedence over paintings and similar works of art which won’t show up well to darkvision. Most sentinels will be able to see perfectly well in the dark – and city guard street patrols will appear abruptly out of the shadows, rather than giving clear warning via their torches. Children won’t be afraid of the dark.

   Hm. Even a minute or two really considering this gives me enough material to make this culture subtly distinctive, with a personality all its own. Little details that the players can pick up as they go, and which will serve to give this campaign some consistency and detail – otherwise known as depth. The players will know that mysteries are indeed mysteries, not just errors, and can really feel that their exploring an alien world – not just looking at the backdrop for their next fight scene.

   Given a chance, the players will usually help you out. They’ll gladly invent minor details, discuss how things would change, and theorize in front of you. Listen to them, and when one of them comes up with an idea you like, or theorizes about something you’ve forgotten, or spots an inconsistency, steal the idea, let it serve as a reminder, come up with an explanation, or use that inconsistency to lead them to a clue, plot, or mystery that explains it.

   You don’t have to go as far as Tolkien and invent distinctive languages for your various races and thousands of years of history for your kingdoms – but wouldn’t you like your world to be as absorbing as his? Consider your ideas for a few minutes, and listen to the players, and they’ll gladly help you make it that way.

7 Responses

  1. This is largely what I try to do, although mistakes do creep in. I hope that I keep player awareness of that fact to a minimum. I do let little odd details slip out and watch the players either ignore them or meticulously pick them apart and do a large amount of the work for me.

    It makes it all that much more engaging to me. Although the best minor tweak of standard humans I liked was granting them the legionaire feat as a racial bonus. It helps explain so much in so many settings.

  2. True enough, although that was the writeup for Xilian Champions humans as I recall… Hm. I forgot to put in a paragraph on the social effects of humans losing that bonus Feat – but there really aren’t too many other than “high-level specialists – who needed that feat to qualify for something – become a bit less common” and possibly a note that – since the non-adventurer population at large is likely to concentrate almost entirely on skill enhancing feats (given the standard selection anyway: Eclipse would be a completely different story) – the net effect would be small: a +3 skill bonus or a pair of +2’s really isn’t that big a deal – especially for mundane tasks. Now, if they’re all free to choose that “troll-blooded” Feat that granted regeneration, that would be quite another matter.

  3. If people aren’t afraid of the dark, large portions of subtle presumptions regarding metaphysics become void. “Lack of light” is no longer an indirect way of saying “horribly evil”. A subtle thing, but

    “Evenings will be more productive”- would humans even be primarily diurnal if they could see in the dark? That’s hard for an unusual number of people to keep up *now* unless they have to.

    Darkvision is one of those things that would change large portions of civilization primarily because being sight-based and light-requiring is one of the basic things that shaped human civilization. You would get equally whacked-out results with things like making the social drive slightly (slightly!) weaker, making pregnancy easier, changing the number of accepted social genders, or taking away opposable thumbs in favor of a different kind of prehensile whatsit.

    Candles, though- they could remain common just because the local gods like them in their ceremonies. :3

  4. Interesting. Uh, on the bit about forests being a bit less managed. How much so? People are still going to want to cook meals, and heat their homes.

  5. Oh yes, it’s a major change in terms of human behavior – part of the point really – but a small one in terms of the game system.

    As far as humans being primarily diurnal – they probably would tend to drift into a variety of different schedules, quite posibly dependent on the seasons; out at night during the hot summer, out in the day when the sun is up during the cold winter, mixing to suit themselves in the spring and fall. I may add another paragraph, but this does tend to be a quiet default assumption in games anyway. The people with the time for RPG’s all live in industralized countries, and an awful lot of them tend to assume a lot more night activity then there usually really was.

    I’m nost sure that some of the other changes would really do much: there are countries that accept other “social genders” without major changes and – as long as the ability to manipulate objects was similar – there might not be any non-superficial changes resulting from a difference in prehensile digits. After all, in game terms, “all fingers are fully opposable” might mean that all grips are redesigned, and provide a bonus to escape artistry or to manipulation skills in general – or it might just be flavor text, in which case it may not make any real difference at all.

    Candles could certainly remain common due to the demands of the gods (The old gods cannot see in the dark! They gave up that power to grant it to us, and it is our job to ensure that – in gratitude – they never lack for light!.. Oh, now there are some interesting theological possibilities. Only the evil gods, who would not sacrifice for their people, can see in the dark. What is done in the dark is done in secret from the benign gods! – still, that’s drifting off-topic).

    As for the forests – likely just a bit less managed. Wood has lots of uses beyond building, but with fewer large-scale fires the average demand will still be cut back a bit. Come to think of it, harvesting will be a little more efficient: you can work just about as efficiently at night, so you can get stuff in faster before possible storms and such. A bit less demand for marginal fields there, so there may well be more patches of woods near the ciies.

    Thanks to everyone by the way: a little more inference from the original premise and we’ll have enough for an interesting little setting – all flowing from one little change in the race discription.

  6. there are countries that accept other “social genders” without major changes and

    Depends on what you mean by “major”. It’s not as major as, y’know, basic biological change, but that gender works the way people here tend to think it does is a pretty basic assumption. Or at least, from looking around, it seems to be.

    as long as the ability to manipulate objects was similar – there might not be any non-superficial changes resulting from a difference in prehensile digits. After all, in game terms, “all fingers are fully opposable” might mean that all grips are redesigned, and provide a bonus to escape artistry or to manipulation skills in general – or it might just be flavor text, in which case it may not make any real difference at all.

    Well, yeah, in a game system you can just gloss it over. But I was thinking and I would say there’d be definite impact from, say, being a four-legged critter that has to use one’s mouth, or something with a tail or another limb which is not mostly used for (and due to constraints, does not evolve to be primarily used for) the purpose.

    Game designers really do not give enough credit to the fact that usually tails do not count as fine manipulation, even if they are nimble enough to pick things up. :D

    You’re welcome. I love speculation.

  7. That really wouldn’t be either a small change or equivalent manipulation abilities I suspect. Always fun though.

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