Thursday, October 4, 2012

Where's the writing on the wall?

So, I just got back from a tiny excursion to Rome. My head is bursting with ideas. But one of the big things I'm taking back from visiting those monuments is the use of writing in a D&D game. So often we ignore that list of languages and some skills like history or religion on a character sheet, when they could be constantly used for hints.

First off, if literacy is common in a game, there will be graffiti. Whoever made it to a fancy overlook or a cave mouth or a ruined monument is likely to at least write their name on the walls or door. Its really no different from how things work today. Most of it will be useless stuff (think: Thomas was here) but some of it could be warnings etched in stone or scribbled on scraps of parchment or broken pottery. A lack of graffiti is also a key sign that you're not in terra incognita. But being able to distinguish between graffiti written by the original inhabitants of a dwarven city and the orcish invaders might be a key hint as to what's up ahead, where treasure may or may not lie, etc.

The boss isn't worth a rat's ass
Second, planned inscriptions may be huge. If a dungeon has a designer, he probably left his name on the front door (or at least near it). If the structure was commissioned by a king, prince, high priest, or noble, you'll often know it from the inscription. Now, inscriptions can be hard to read, so it would make sense that only proficient language users could decipher them. Abbreviations are common, they might use archaic forms of the alphabet, or terms that aren't in common use today. You're most likely to learn the date, and the name of the person who had the structure built. Whether its a crumbling cathedral in the wilderness or a the name on a tomb, writing is going to be present in a literate culture.

Finally, not all these inscriptions will be words. Symbols are powerful, and there may be a lot of different symbols in use for any given organization. A god may have a standard holy symbol, but it may also have a favored weapon, sacred plant or animal, or image from a the mythic cycle or of cult practices. While a skull might be a standard holy symbol for a plague god, rats, flies, a sickle, and a four-fingered hand might do the trick too. And these symbols aren't likely to be like modern brands with just one "logo". The design might be accompanied by a short inscription, like a blessing or curse, or a few of the other symbols. This, of course, is where those history and religion type skills come in useful.

Partial inscriptions can also be fun or maddening. Don't assume that someone else might not have done their own graffiti over a key word or symbol, or that time hasn't eroded things beyond recognition. Using the "fail forward" notion, its often best to grant the players partial understanding for a failed roll, while success gives more information or reveals a clearer clue.

Overall, I think graffiti and inscriptions can add a grand sense of history to the game. I wish I had thought of this years ago.

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