What Things Remain: Tangible Lore and Oracular History Generation


Table of Contents 
Making Lore Tangible
I've been in a funny place recently with regards to the blog: I'm posting less than ever, but I've got more things I'd like to write about than ever. Really, I've just had to work some ridiculously long days at ridiculously tedious jobs, which has given a lot of time to think about things and very little time to actualize them.

But, now with a pandemic putting me out of a job, I at least have the time to get some shit done. That's some monkey's paw shit right there. Sorry everyone.

"Lore" "History" and "Worldbuilding" are pretty common topics of controversy in the frothing pit of squirming tongues and snarled hair that is the ttrpg scene. Some folks skew towards massive world bibles and exhustively researched histories, and others take the hardline stance that capital L Lore is nothing more than meaningless, intangible and masturbatory fluff that the GM indulges in and the players ignore, or, occasionally, are forced to memorize and forget. 

Far from taking some sniveling centrist stance between those two poles, I'm here to say that the second party is correct. I've successfully mediated the argument and saved the day. Having a lengthy, bespoke history for your campaign world, while fun, is something that only benefits yourself, and requiring knowledge of it in order to engage with the campaign is a capital offence. 

However, now that I've successfully alienated half of my potential readers, I'll drop the weird holier-than-thou tone that I slip into with concerning ease and regularity and say that giving your players a world that feels like it has some sort of meaningful existence outside of their interactions with it is hugely valuable. It prompts players to think about the fiction as a place of real weight and value, something which is undoubtedly valuable to even the most non-diegetic and mechanics driven games, and of utmost importance to a game like my own Pyrrhic Weaselry, which relies on the players having a consistent shared idea of the fiction as much as possible. 

If the way you achieve that goal is by spending a couple months writing a world bible, so be it. However, I submit that there are three issues with that method:

1. It takes a lot of time and effort
2. You need to do it really, really well for it to work at all
3. Even if you do, the end result is intangible

By intangible, I mean that no matter how well crafted your lore is, it cannot be experienced by the players in the game. It is, by definition, shit that has happened already. Which means that if your players do want to educate themselves about the world, they have to do it outside of the game, which, if you have players at all like mine, means that they will just not do it.


History contained in an pdf or google doc or printed handout or whatever can be cool, and provide context, but only if someone reads it, and, more importantly, reads it closely enough to internalize it and act on it at the table. If the end goal is to treat your game world as though it has some actual weight and internal reality, you have to face that 99.99999999% of the time, all that history will only ever be known in a meaningful way by you, the person who wrote it, and thus will contribute precisely nothing to the texture and depth of your game. 

So then, what do. How to provide a method that:

1. Makes your campaign feel lived in

2. Doesn't take a boggling amount of prep
3. Makes your lore tangible, that is, something your players can engage with in game

There's a lot of good answers to that question, and only one of them is mine, but if you're still reading, I figure that's the one you're after, so here you go.

What Things Remain

or

How To Make Your Lore Tangible


Well, if we want to make the history of your world tangible, the best way to do that is to just do it. Don't hide your history. Don't make it some abstract thing that only exists in the minds of the people who actually read your handouts. Instead, make it stuff. Make it things that people do, or say. Make it places that people go, clothing that they wear, food that they eat, art that they make. You know. Like real life.

"Ah, but Screwhead" you say "Isn't the best way to do that to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the birthing rites of elves and the saffron trade routes across the Bay of Belts?" The answer to that is "sure." Sure, if you'd like. If you really really just wanna try your hand at a world bible and you've got some time to burn and you promise that you won't make anyone read it you'll just sprinkle in interesting and interactive tidbits into your game, sure.


The thing is, with a world bible, for every interesting bit you do include, there will be entire chapters that you write that never, ever, ever see play. That's a lot of wasted time and effort. Additionally, if you want to write a world bible, you've gotta have an entire bible's worth of good ideas, which is just not something I usually have on hand.


So, what I do, rather than write up a comprehensive history of anything, is to just create some interesting things that have happened in the past, and then turn those events into real, tangible things that I can use in my games. 

 And, because I will never come up with an idea unprompted if I can instead make an oracular generator to interpret, I've done just that.




Oracular History Generation

To start with, determine around 4 Ages. An Age will be a period of time in your world's history defined by thematic similarities. If you've already got a handle on your world's history, dope, this should be easy. If you don't, like me, then use the Age Generator (inspired by and created with the help of the lovely Archons March On and their wonderful Lands Generator) and click through it till you get one that gets your mind whirring. Do this till you've got 4 to work with.

Age Generator



Each Age will have a Oracle Table associated with it. If you read either of these posts, you'll have the idea. Similar to Chris McDowall's Spark Tables, but a little more involved. We'll interpret the results we roll on these tables to make Fragments, little bits of history that stand out to us. 

These tables look like this:
d20
Theme
Focus
Actions
Descriptive Details
Concrete Details
1





2




3




4




5




6





7




8




9




10




11





12




13




14




15




16





17




18




19




20





Don't worry, I'll explain what each category is for, and and give an example for each one. 

First, identify the four Themes of the Age. What do you want the players to gain from this? Why are you telling them? What are the principle things you want to communicate about each Age?

For this example, I'm going to fill out a Fragment table for the Age of Conquering Kings (just the first result I pulled from the generator.) That to me speaks to an age of immortal god kings - I'm thinking like Egypt, Babylon etc during the alliance of the Great Kings in our own world history, but with a mythic spin. Something fairly basic and recognizable, but evocative nevertheless. I'm thinking the Themes for that age will be as follows:

1. The Elements are Chained to Our Will
2. Gods Bow at the Feet of Kings
3. The Princes of the World Bring Us Tribute
4. Our Kings Will Live Forever
I think those phrases effectively capture the tone, attitude, vibe, or what have you of that Age. 

Second, determine the Focuses of the Age. These are the kinds of people, places, things, events etc. that are important to your Age.

These are the Foci I chose for the Age of Conquering Kings:
1. Sword 
2. Battle
3. Poet
4. King
5. God
6. Siege 
7. Love Affair
8. Wedding
9. Sacrifice
10. Feast
11. Dance
12. Queen
13. Princess
14. Prince
15. Warrior 
16. Sage
17.  Monster
18. Priest
19. Temple
20. Garden

Third, fill in the Actions. What kinds of things were people doing in this age that sets it apart from others?

Here are the Actions for the Age of Conquering Kings:
1. Worshipping
2. Slaughtering
3.  Revelling
4. Adoring 
5. Supplicating
6. Conquering
7. Dancing 
8. Singing
9. Praying
10. Building 
11. Ruling
12. Decreeing
13. Inventing
14. Mastering
15. Binding
16. Demanding
17. Receiving 
18. Wielding 
19. Feasting
20. Praising

Fourth and Fifth, determine your Age's Details. These come in two varieties: Descriptive and Concrete, more or less Adjectives and Nouns, respectively. Think about what character you want your Age to have, what sort of things you want it to evoke, what you want to include that you haven't included yet. 

My Details look like this:

Descriptive Details 
1. Perfect
2. Beautiful
3. Terrible
4. Splendid 
5. Genius 
6. Passionate
7. Colorful
8. Noble
9. Brutal
10. Glorious 
11. Towering
12. Shining 
13. Dazzling 
14. Dusty
15. Perfumed 
16. Enchanting 
17. Lush
18. Lavish
19. Bloody
20. Poisoned

Concrete Details
1. Gold
2. Ivory
3. Blood
4. Silk
5. Coin
6. Tears
7. Marble 
8. Roses
9. Fountain
10. Dragon
11. Bronze
12. Tiger
13. Serpent
14. Tower
15. Music
16. Demon
17. River
18. Ruby
17. Lily
19. Death
20. Tower


Once this is done, you should have a finished product that looks like this: 

The Age of Conquering Kings
d20
Themes
Focus
Actions
Descriptive Details
Concrete Details
1
The Elements are Chained to Our Will 



Sword
Worshiping
Perfect
Gold
2
Battle
Slaughtering
Beautiful
Ivory
3
Poet
Reveling
Terrible 
Blood
4
King
Adoring
Splendid 
Silk
5
God
Supplicating
Genius 
Coin
6
Gods Bow at the Feet of Kings 

Siege
Conquering
Passionate
Tears
7
Love Affair
Dancing
Colorful
Marble
8
Wedding
Singing
Noble
Roses
9
Sacrifice 
Praying
Brutal
Fountain
10
Feast
Building
Glorious
Bronze
11
The Princes of the World Bring Us Tribute 

Dance
Ruling
Towering
Dragon
12
Queen
Decreeing
Shining
Tiger
13
Princess
Inventing
Dazzling
Serpent 
14
Prince
Mastering
Dusty
Tower
15
Warrior
Binding
Perfumed 
Music
16
Our Kings Will Live Forever
Sage
Demanding
Enchanting
Demon
17
Monster
Receiving
Lush
River
18
Priest
Feasting
Lavish
Lily
19
Temple
Wielding
Bloody
Ruby
20
Garden
Praising
Poisoned
Death



Go through this process for all four of your Ages. Here's a link to a doc with the completed tables for my sample four.


Fragments

Now that you have these 4 Tables, it's time you use them to generate Fragments. Fragments are what I'm calling the random interesting bits of history that you're going to be including in your game. Rather than generate an entire narrative or chronology for each Age, it will serve our purposes better to create five moments, individuals, places, items, or events that hold special significance within the Age.

To create a Fragment, roll on the Age's Fragment Table that you just made, record the results, and then interpret them to write something that includes all of the elements that you rolled. I like to roll once for Focus, twice for Action, then once for each Detail. If I feel like I need or want more, I'll give myself another detail roll.

Unless you hit on something particularly brilliant immediately, you really must try to include all rolled elements: it is in the puzzling over the bizarre juxtapositions that the Oracular Generation method does its best work.
Here's a sample Fragment:
  • The Ruby Blood of Dal-Ep
    • Theme: Our Kings Will Live Forever
    • Focus: Princess
    • Actions: Shining, Praying
    • Details: Dusty, Ruby, Blood
      • When the Princess Dal-Ep was born, oracles in the employ of her father, King Altef told him to rejoice, for his chance to seize immortality had come. His life was bound to Dal-Ep’s and as long as she lived, he could not die. He told her of this miracle early, and she was raised to shoulder its burden when she came of age. When the time came, she was sealed in a ceremonial tomb, watched over by statues of her ancestors. There, she mediated and prayed on her life and that of her father, and of all those who had come before him, and all who would come after. So great was her prayer that from the time she entered the tomb, the years did not touch her. She remained, petrified and preserved by her faith, a living statue. Centuries later, when a physician of her father’s came, as they often did, to see that she remained in good health and to brush the dust from her frozen hair and face, they found that though she still drew breath, they could not draw her blood - it had crystalized, turned to solid ruby in her veins.

Your Fragments don't need to be anywhere this long. A couple jotted notes will do for almost all cases; I just got particularly inspired by these rolls.

Here you will find the complete list of all my sample Fragments. 

Legacies

Now that you have all your Fragments and have some idea of the sorts of things that happened in each Age, it's time to put our money where our mouth is: all these Fragments have got to be turned into stuff. And because even if we only spent a couple of hours filling out and rolling on tables, that's an hour we'll never get back, we want each Fragment to pull its weight. We're gonna pump a whole lotta junk out of each one. 


To do that, first we're going to fill in another Oracle Table: 

Fragment 
Actions
Descriptive 
Details

Concrete Details
[Age 1]
1

Legacy
1. 
2. 
3. 
4. 



2




3




4




5




[Age 2]
6

Legacy
1. 
2. 
3. 
4. 



7




8




9




10




[Age 3]
11

Legacy
1. 
2. 
3. 
4.



12




13




14




15




[Age 4]
16

Legacy
1. 
2. 
3. 
4.



17




18




19




20







First, fill in the Ages appropriately. The most ancient age should be first, the most recent, last. Then, fill in in the Fragments, just noting down the title of each. 

Next, determine the Legacies for each Age. A Legacy is the stuff we've been talking about, the tangible thing that will represent your Fragment in the game.

Think about how you want each Age to manifest in your campaign, what each age left behind. Each Age gets 4 Legacies, chosen from or rolled on the following list:

1. NPC
2. Landmark
3. Game
4. Food
5. Fashion
6. Weapon
7. Armor
8. Tool
9. Ruin
10. Building
11. Saying
12. Tradition
13. Religion
14. Order
15. Monument
16. Artwork
17. Technology
18. Curio
19. Dream
20. Innovation

For example, for the Age of Conquering Kings I rolled Landmark, Fashion, Ruin, Story.

Next, you must fill in the Actions, Descriptive Details, and Concrete Details. Do this using the same Actions and Details that you filled out the Age Oracle Tables with, choosing your favorite Actions and Details from each age to carry over to the Legacy Oracle Table. A completed Legacy Table can be found here

Now that the Legacy Oracle Tables have been filled out, you can begin to use them. Simply roll to determine which Fragment this Legacy will be grounded in, then roll to determine the sort of Legacy it is. I then like to roll once for an Action, then once again on each Detail Table, but you'll get a feeling for whatever your preference is.

Once you've rolled, take your results and synthesize a Legacy, using much the same method as when you created your Fragments.

You'll note that this method gives you Legacies grounded in a Fragment from one Age but given flavor with Actions and Details from other Ages. Again, this a loose way to give a nod towards the inevitable intermingling of customs, inventions, etc. across time periods. The present is, after all, a product of all past ages.


Here's a sample Legacy I rolled up: 


Fragment: The Death of the Wind God
Legacy: Fashion
Action: Parading
Descriptive Detail: Perfect
Concrete Detail: Medal 
A medal of immaculately polished bone carved in the shape of a flute. Known as “Diyadar’s Flute” or sometimes“The Bones of the Wind,” this honor is awarded to those pilots who exceed all others in the annual review of the Governor’s Flight Corps. 

Automation

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of automation, particularly when it comes to projects like this one that involve rather involved tables. I'm a huge advocate for people learning to automate things for themselves, and I also serve as living proof that you don't need to know jack shit about coding to make this happen. 

All my generators are created using Paper Elemental's excellent tools. They're extremely easy to make use of, and I strongly encourage giving them a shot. I'll do you one better though. To make things comically simple, I'm providing templates to make the Oracle Tables into generators. 

Just fill out the template, copy and paste it in the "text area" on Paper Elemental's site, and you've got a working generator. 

Now, to prove they work and for anyone who'd like to use them, here's a few of my own generators:

Age of Conquering Kings Fragment Generator


Age of the General Fragment Generator


Age of the Vulture Roads Fragment Generator


Age of Mechanical Governors Fragment Generator


Legacy Generator



And at long last, we'll wrap this one up. Hopefully you found some of this useful, or if not, at least inspiring or diverting. If anyone does end up using this to generate a setting, please let me know; I'll do a post featuring any and all creations made with these tools.
Enjoy, and until next time (hopefully somewhat sooner).

Comments

  1. I'm sorry to hear about your job, but I'm glad to see you posting again! Good luck with everything. You should compile this and Pyrrhic and other stuff into a book and start selling on itch or drivethrurpg.

    ReplyDelete

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