In roleplaying games, the D&D game especially, characters delve into mysteries that surround them. They might wish to bring light into the darkness of the world. Curiosity could drive them. A desire for wealth and fame might be enough motivation. Whatever the case, adventurers go in search of the unknown.
Discovery is a process. It requires motivation, followed by exploration and a willingness to keep going despite setbacks. In games, it also requires that the truth is discoverable. Someone has to know the facts, or something has to exist to help lead seekers to the situation’s reality.
Mysteries must have answers in all roleplaying games. At least, the secrets the players wish for their characters to uncover should have some means of being laid bare. That means the DM, at least, has to know, or have an idea, where a path of exploration leads. In the case of published work, the designers should know such answers and, more important, reveal them.
We designers fail to do that sometimes, however. In books, we make statements such as:
Iyraclea is the mistress of the Great Glacier. From her realm beneath the ice she spell-snatches young, vigorous mages for some unknown but doubtless sinister purpose. Iyraclea worships Auril the Frostmaiden and commands magic of awesome power . . . . Few see her castle of sculpted ice and live to tell the tale.
Half a century before the start of the Last War, an unknown evil infected the lycanthropes of the Towering Wood, stirring them to violence and driving them east to wreak chaos in settled lands.
I’ve been guilty of it:
Known also as the Wood of Dark Trees, this dense jungle is home to all sorts of dangerous creatures. The animate and malevolent trees from which the forest gets its name are numerous, as are venomous flying snakes. A pair of chimeras with black dragon heads lives deep in the forest, lairing not far from the Mound of the Sleepless and attacking any who approach. What the chimeras guard is unknown.
My sensibilities have changed over time. Once, I might have tolerated such vagueness in my own game writing. Now I see this type of ambiguity as a disservice to DMs and players. It’s unhelpful at best, and maybe even lazy at worst.
I know the reasons for leaving narrative elements undefined. We primarily tell ourselves that we’re leaving space for the DM to create, or we’re avoiding imposing our “official” ideas on users. Maybe we’re even evading canon bloat. We’re protecting DMs, in case the players read “the truth” in the campaign guide. Further, our blank space is a call to design for those who use our products. Occasionally, the “unknown” is the subject of another product such as a novel or adventure. To me, this situation is even weaker than the aforementioned reasons. It also misses a chance a cross promotion, but I digress.
All those rationalizations are malarkey.
This sort of design gap does little to live up to any ideal of leaving imagination space for the consumer. What it really does is force users, whether DMs or players, to work for the answer without any help. Designers fail even to give hooks for ideas. To me, this unknown is unacceptable.
A designer should—no, must——provide inspiration. That means the “unknown” should be filled with clues, hints, and rumors. What do ordinary folks think? If common people know nothing of the mystery, what do those in the know believe or imagine? If no one really knows, what might investigation uncover?
It’s okay for a designer to go ahead and reveal the truth, too. Tell it like it is. Even if no one on Faerûn knows the facts of the matter, it’s fine if the DM does. In fact, that’s essential. It’s easier on the DM if he or she has a list of options to start from.
Although I’ve made some to-do over the power of canon and official material to impose an outside reality on what is really a personal game, I still believe it’s a designer’s job to give possible parameters rather than wide-open space. Rumors and sagely (or not) opinions give fodder for the imagination. A situation’s overarching truth does the same, but gives fewer choices and can make some users feel restricted.
Even then, a user is always free to ignore a designer’s clues or story. Such ideas exist only as inspiration. Their absence, however, is the absence of such inspiration, the refusal to offer a helping hand. It’s less than a designer can and should do.
Besides, rumor and speculation, as well as the counsel of the learned and discoveries of the adventurous, give the world some semblance of life. Normal people always wonder and make wild guesses about the scary and the strange. Sages constantly formulate theories, sometimes based on little more than common conjecture. Explorers go on to uncover evidence, offering further suggestions to the actuality of a given enigma.
For instance, if a dragon lives on a mountain, someone or something knows it’s there, knows it’s name, and knows what it’s doing. It’s a failure to give the dragon no name and driving force. Think about what The Hobbit might have been like if old Smaug was just some red dragon with an unknown lair and purpose in the area of the Lonely Mountain. If no one has survived an encounter with our supposedly unknown, mountain-dwelling dragon, the adventuring party who overheard dragonblooded kobolds of the lower slopes referring to the “great gray god Yarzog” is enough to hang an entire adventure on. That reveal also takes a sentence of space.
Although hints or full reveals are possibilities, hints and clues win out over solid facts. Such revelations give the DM something to work with while protecting players from too much truth. If a player reads the possibilities, it’s little different than the character hearing rumors. Players can’t know what their DM picks from among possibilities until the adventure is on.
This whole essay forms a generality that, of course, has exceptions. Some truths are too big to impose on the whole audience. A few are so massive that rumors are simply prevailing currents of theory in a sea of possibilities.
One such instance is the truth of what happened in the Mournland of Eberron, something James Wyatt rightly vowed never to decide or reveal in any venue. That some cataclysmic magical force laid waste to the fey beauty of Cyre is obvious. Where that force came from, and whether it can happen again, is a matter of wild guesswork in Khorvaire. So chilling is this unknown that it ended a continent-wide war. Still, the Eberron books contain numerous theories to the Mournland’s cause. Any or none of these might be true in a given campaign. (I blame House Cannith.)
And that’s the point. Designers need to give clear idea hooks when a definitive truth cannot or should not be revealed. In a setting or adventure, the truly unknown is ultimately a place no adventurer goes.