January 28, 2014

The Campaign Bible

A Series Bible is a reference document that some screenwriters for TV shows use to keep track of characters, settings and other notes. It actually has two uses. One is when it is used to promote the show before it becomes produced. This use has character notes, interactions and setting details designed to showcase the potential of the show. Second is when a series is in production and things change to the characters and locations and need to be kept track of for future episodes. Obviously, there is a direct parallel between the format of an episodic TV show and an ongoing rpg campaign.

As an example of a series bible let’s take a look back at the old Lone Ranger TV series from the 1950’s. (For the record I am not from the 50’s, but I did see a lot of the show in reruns growing up.)
Here are a few guidelines set down for the series…

-The Lone Ranger is never seen without his mask or a disguise.
-The Lone Ranger always uses perfect grammar and precise speech completely devoid of slang and colloquial phrases, at all times.
-When he has to use guns, The Lone Ranger never shoots to kill, but rather only to disarm his opponent as painlessly as possible.
-Logically, too, The Lone Ranger never wins against hopeless odds; i.e., he is never seen escaping from a barrage of bullets merely by riding into the horizon.
-Names of unsympathetic characters are carefully chosen, never consisting of two names if it can be avoided, to avoid even further vicarious association—more often than not, a single nickname is selected.
-Criminals are never shown in enviable positions of wealth or power, and they never appear as successful or glamorous.

There were also other things such as “Kemosabe” meaning “trusted scout” and the name Tonto meaning “wild one”, which became a part of the regular lexicon of the show, even though neither is a real word…except that tonto means “dumb” in Spanish and his name was changed to Toro in Spanish language versions of the show. They were made up words that the shows writers gave meaning to, much the same way an rpg writer will give meaning to people and places within their own setting.

I do the same thing when I’m designing my own worlds for gaming. I tend to associate a particular race with a specific real-world language. For instance, I might have my dwarves’ language based off of Lithuanian. When naming locations or NPCs the players might meet or know of, I translate a word I want to associate with that person/place into the foreign language. For example, the king of the dwarves might be Rokas Kateras, which means “rock cutter” in Lithuanian. From there I make a note in my “campaign bible”, otherwise known as “campaign notes”, that dwarven names and locations are based off the Lithuanian language.

Having a Campaign Bible allows for greater consistency within a setting/campaign. By tying my dwarves into a specific language I can be consistent in my naming habits. It can be real jarring to have your player characters meet Rokas Kateras and his two sons, Charles and Emanuel. The son’s names are perfectly fine but not when placed into the same culture. It breaks the immersion a good designer wants to build.

That is the greatest strength of building a Campaign Bible during world building. It allows the writer to check back to what is behind the choices they make in their design. All world designers keep notes, but sometimes we forget where we get the ideas from. For instance, if I’m working on race design but then move onto some other project, I may forget I chose Lithuanian as the default language of the dwarves when I get back to working on the dwarven lands. Keeping the notes of how we make decisions can help down the road.

However, a Campaign Bible is also good for a game after the world building is done and play has started. Player characters are always meeting new NPCs and finding new adventures that were not there during world creation. Adding them to an official list of notes keeps a GM from forgetting them. Also, relationships of the player characters will change over the course of a campaign. The characters may be banned from certain villages or a cult may be eager to gain revenge on the party or the GM may have had to invent a relative for a PC in order to move a story along. These are all the sorts of things that need to be recorded. Our memories are never as good as we think they are.

Why is this important? Let’s
look at the Lone Ranger again, specifically the movie recently released in 2013. The movie is considered a “commercial failure” for many reasons. While not the only reason, I think one cause was that many of the things set down in the original Lone Ranger series bible were ignored or outright contrary. In the movie, the Lone Ranger was unmasked for much of the film, he killed people, the criminals had full names and the criminals were in positions of authority. Sure many of these changes were subtle and no one consciously made note of them, but there was an undercurrent throughout the movie that this was not the Lone Ranger. It had diverged too much from its source. The viewers lost faith in the movie.

By forgetting what has come before the concepts can fall apart. The same can happen to an rpg campaign. A solid base and a consistent world can elevate a campaign from a random series of un-connected adventures to something truly special. A Campaign Bible can help with that.

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