Into the Unknown

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.

15 thoughts on “Into the Unknown

  1. Slowly moving players from a home campaign I’m still working on, I’m somewhat inspired by the area I live in. In Madison, WI, if you don’t know where you’re going, all the roads seem to bend back in toward the Capital Square.

    In this way, as players venture out into different directions and take on quests, they will learn new information that ultimately bends back into the higher plot arch. Again and again, seeing different pieces of the plot’s impact… and gradually gaining some idea of the “truth”.

    Having the information established is certainly important… but I think I have more trouble with what facts, rumors, or clues to expose and when to keep things moving in the general direction that the campaign is intended to go.


  2. Chris, I agree wholeheartedly… and yet, I’ve based 2 campaigns in 3.5 D&D and now 1 in 4e all in the Forgotten Realms, all because of a small snippet in “Lost Empires of Faerun” which suggests a prophecy about the “return of the sons of Vyshaan”.

    However, because that whole book, cover to cover, is rich in lore of an already lore-rich world/setting, I think that’s why one “vague” sentence can strike me a spark.

    In my own DMing, I love “Oh S*%T!” moments, where you’ve laid crumbs and crumbs leading up to the reveals, and when one or two players suddenly “gets it” or “sees it”…

    It also makes me think of 4e MM1, where people demanded more and more story built around the monsters, not just a set of stats. Sometimes I guess, we like the designers to give us lots of goodies, even if totally discard them, instead of a blank slate to fill in from scratch ourselves.


  3. Thanks for calling this out. I have to admit I cringe when I read cop-outs like those. Something I find difficult as a DM is gauging how much information I need to give the players in order to hook them in (or in order to simply keep them interested once they’ve bitten). More than once I’ve found myself planning an adventure as a mystery chase that needs to be solved, then find out that I never really told the player’s what the story was about. I’m working on more detailed story structuring, and I find that the more I outline, the more I’m able to tell the players without spoiling any intriguing mysteries.


  4. At the root, I agree: designers need to give clear hooks. But I’m not sure that’s all that tied to unknowns and how they’re presented.

    I think the difference between the Last War/Lycanthropes and Eberron example isn’t one of clues or rumors per se, I don’t know much about either setting but Cyre is still way more interesting. It’s partially in the presentation and partially just in the concept: a destroyed nation is interesting, angry werewolves not so much.

    John Harper’s Lady Blackbird is full of mysteries with no hints, rumors, or absolute truths behind them. They’re just very interesting blanks, which people then want to fill. The fate of Cyre and Uriah Flint’s true nature are both provocative questions, so we fill them in or dance around them without any need for hints or rumors written into the text.

    Maybe the best mystery I know of is on page 8 of Lady Blackbird. The relative size comparison of sky ships has a sky squid, but we don’t really get anything more than a descriptive name and some text about tentacles and ink. It’s the kind of thing we want to know more about, so it doesn’t matter that it’s pretty much just an outline on the size comparison chart, an empty mystery. People still latch onto it and fill it in.

    I think the reason rumors or hints of the truth, or an actual answer, can make mysteries more interesting is that sometimes they’re the provocative part. Chimera guarding something isn’t intrinsically interesting, so rumors or a truth behind it may provide that compelling thing that makes people care.

    Anyway, very interesting article, thanks for getting me started thinking about this stuff.


  5. This is a great essay and I agree with most of it, but I think you start it on the wrong foot by decrying unknowns and suggesting authors provide definitive answers. I definitely like books full of mysteries a lot better than books full of reveals. I’ve seen game and novel lines go downhill big-time by revealing the answers to earlier mysteries… only to have those answers be, well, kind of boring. Mysteries unsolved are never boring.

    But I think you can get the “best of both worlds” here by offering MULTIPLE theories. For example:

    Bad: What the chimeras guard is unknown.
    Bad: The chimeras guard a chaos fragment, a weapon of great power belonging to the demigod Larthax.
    Better: What the chimeras guard is unknown, but it is somehow connected to the animate trees. Some scholars claim it is a chaos fragment.
    Good: What the chimeras guard is unknown, but it is somehow connected to the animate trees. Some scholars claim it is a chaos fragment, or possibly one of the lost glyphs of power. Local legend claims the chimera’s treasure is a dragon prince locked in enchanted slumber, or a sealed portal leading to one of the nastier parts of the elemental chaos.

    Multiple theories is a good litmus test. Zero theories leaves the DM high and dry; one theory leaves the reader with nothing to do; multiple theories gives everyone options and means that the real truth can only be discovered during game play.


  6. I /mostly/ agree, but I recently realized a few things:

    1. I suck a writing coherent, over-arching mysteries. I can’t make them internally consistent AND interesting AND finished in time to just get on with things. I don’t feel too bad about this, because the supposedly professional writers of lots of popular TV shows suffer from the same affliction. My advantage is:

    2. I am not really under that much of an obligation to reveal everything to the PCs. I hate to say a “wizard did it” but sometime a wizard actually DID do it. Abstraction helps a lot with this, for instance mapping only what’s relevant to the adventure. There are other, larger tunnels the dragon might have used to enter the complex, but they’re not anything the PCs could have made use of.

    (I’ve never done this, but sometimes when a PC asks an NPC a question I don’t have the answer for I’m tempted to say, “He tells you the answer, and it is amazing/average/boring.”)

    I’m running a group of spies in a counter-intelligence operation right now, but I’m not a spy so in order for the operation they’re foiling to be worthy of actual spies parts of it need to remain unclear to them. It’s a MacGuffin because that’s part of what MacGuffins are for: to move the story along while trying to sidestep the problem of someone saying “Well, why didn’t they just….”

    I guess that might be what you mean by exceptions. Still, I’d rather get a game going and work out the details (or even broad strokes) as I go then let another game fail to launch because I didn’t have enough ready answers to the questions that the adventure might pose.

    (Leaving details uncharted can also be a good opportunity for players if the DM says “What do YOU think the answer is?” If the idea is good, the DM can steal it and the player has contributed to everyone’s enjoyment.)


  7. Another solid article. At first I was starting to disagree (coming from the standpoint of being a DM who likes to keep some of the story behind the curtain), but then when you mentioned simply giving possibilities, rumors, theories, etc. it really pulled it all together. A DM in a hurry can simply grab one of those and run with it while a DM who truly wants to craft his own unique twist can still do so and is given the out presented by the “theories” as opposed “truths”.


  8. As usual, a really interesting post.

    My first reaction was “wait, they do that to leave room for the DM to create” when i read on i completely agreed with you, there is no reason why they cant and actually should introduce at least hints or possibilities for events they wish to remain uncertain, it provides way more help for a DM than just “Its unknown, now take it.”


  9. I think the take home for DMs who aren’t looking to publish anything is the dragon on the mountain example. I can think of too many times where the players would go into a dungeon, cave, what have you, and encounter monsters that really should have had some information escape… a rumor, a name, a rough description. It helps guide PC tactics, and gauge expectations. Plus there’s a lot less chance of “fridge logic”: “how the heck did this dragon get here without anyone knowing?” Unless that in and of itself is the mystery…


  10. I was going to mention the Mournland as a great example, but you got there at the end. 🙂

    What I love about the Mournland in particular is…

    Why did it stop at Cyre’s CURRENT boundary? Not before reaching the borders, not after? Why _there_?


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