The Alphastream Game Design Blog
Our books, especially those from older editions, are full of lore. DMs typically enjoy reading lore, but are also intimidated by lore. We ideally want to enable DMs to easily portray a rich world. One solution is actionable lore.
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Now for actionable lore…
Remember how we discussed that D&D wants to not have a timeline, but also wants to have adventures link back to past events? Similarly, D&D wants to create a rich world but not define so much that lore and canon become cumbersome. It’s very hard to achieve that.
This all started with a conversation with Enrique Bertran and Keith Ammann on Twitter:
I butted in with the following:
Here’s what I mean. Sourcebooks, particularly from older editions, tend to have dense historical lore. At the heart of all the lore is an interesting topic, such as the history of the ring of winter artifact, how the Cult of the Dragon came to be, or how Candlekeep functions. We want to use this in our game, but the material is encyclopedic. A DM can feel as if they are back in school, studying for an exam. Worse still, they may worry that a player at their table will know the material better than they do!
This problem is even greater for designers. As a freelancer, I talked about how Shawn Merwin and I began researching the lore of Candlekeep for Confrontation at Candlekeep. It was really intimidating at the beginning. There were several novels that visit Candlekeep! A video game! And many sourcebooks and boxed sets. What to do?
What was super interesting is that there was actually very little lore that was relevant to creating a Candlekeep adventure. The novels I read? The novels told me Candlekeep has nondescript rooms with books in them. (Thanks, novels.) The sourcebooks had some useful lore, and the video games had maps, but it was still surprisingly little and at times contradictory. Most of the lore was encyclopedic and unlikely to ever impact the players and their characters.
Here is an example:
There is a 5E adventure where, in the middle of the wilderness, we can run into Artus Cimber and his saurial companion. Artus is featured in novels and carries the potentially world-changing ring of winter artifact. We are told he is unlikely to trust the party or tell them who he is, what he is doing, or about his artifact. His appearance ties into an earlier adventure, but due to the levels of play the same characters won’t have played it, and the structure of that adventure means there is only a small chance the players actually dealt with that storyline. There is a lot of design work here, but it doesn’t really benefit the characters.
So, what can we do?
When you add lore, whether it be for your home campaign or as a designer, think through the purpose of that lore. If you are writing a section that needs to be encyclopedic… say, the history of the Cult of the Dragon… so be it.
If the lore is at all intended to help play, or is something the DM should use in their game, then it needs to be actionable. (And, even if you are purposefully writing encyclopedic lore, I would argue you should add a section that is actionable.)
Actionable lore comes with instruction for the DM on how to use it. Consider these two examples:
The two paragraphs are very similar. In the first, the lore happened in the past, and if the characters hear about it, it may be interesting. But it is unlikely to be actionable.
In the second example, the lore is active and actionable. There are two groups, and the characters might investigate and attack both, pit one against the other, or ally with one. The lore becomes a key factor in how play will develop. Some groups might even try to get to the dragon first, and convince it that neither faction is worth following!
Here are some guidelines for actionable lore:
What do you think? What sourcebooks and adventures have handled lore well? How do you help lore resonate in your campaigns or your design?