Friday, June 5, 2009

Expositionary Tool: Discussion Cards

At the beginning of tonight's one-shot, I needed to lay out some exposition. It was 2011, and the PC astronauts on the ISS were using the newly installed Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. They were processing the data from it, when they noticed an anomalous reading that might just represent confirmation of Dark Matter or Strange Matter, in quantity, and alarmingly close to the earth. There's plenty of theoretical particles cropping up in such a discussion. The characters are scientists and astronauts, likely to be well versed in theoretical and technical aspects of spaceflight and astrophysics. How do you get that information dump in an organic and non-boring fashion?

I tried a method, that worked pretty well. It has a lot of potential, anyhow, and I'll likely use a similar method the next time I find myself in such a position. I made two decks of "cards" - just slips of paper, really. One was a "nuts-and-bolts deck", listing possible instrument malfunctions (and the likely fixes) that could account for the anomalous readings, and one card indicating how long it would before a new spectrometer sweep could be done. The other was a "theoretical particle deck", listing interpretations of what the readings (if accurate) might mean, with details of whether or not they constituted a danger. Each deck was only 6-8 cards in size, each card just a couple sentences.

Depending on character background, you got two to three cards, either from the same deck or one from each. I gave everyone a minute or two to read their own cards quietly to themselves, then started the scene. We roleplayed out the crew's discussion about the strange spectrometer readings, with each player doing their best to slip in the information presented on the cards they drew.

While it was a little rough around the edges , I think it worked a lot better than a dry info dump. In a few cases, folks had cards that were semi-contradictory, and that allowed them to banter about which theory (WIMPs vs MACHOs vs Strangelets) was correct, and that worked well. What few problems this method had involved the random deal. If I do it again, I'll use pregen characters or player-made characters whose personas are established, and customize the cards to the PC.

Overall, it seems to be a useful tool for downloading info to players without a long boring speech from prepared notes / boxed text. The differences between techies and physicists were established in scene one, which was nice. All the characters came off sounding like experts (or as close to experts as my non-expert-level research and understanding could fake), and that gives me hope that this method could be used for future scenes in other games where the PCs are experts in fields the players are unlikely to know much about.

And don't worry, this wasn't as dry a science game as the above might make it out to be - before the end there were Positron-Emitting Dark Matter Zombies aplenty, and the PCs had to crash the International Space Station into the alien ship to save the earth.

4 comments:

jamused said...

Wow. I like that a lot. I've got to try that sometime soon.

Mortal Man said...

Thats a nifty trick. Gives it that Star Trek style dialogue quality, since you hand the information to a player and let them say it.

"Captain, the zombies seem to be emitting some sort of positronic radiation. I theorize this radiation is their way of communicating. If we calibrate an ionic pulse, we may be able to neutralize the field and stop their horde from advancing.

r_b_bergstrom said...

Funny that you mention Star Trek. I actually got the idea from a Star Trek one-shot (nearly a year ago) where the GM had prepared some notecards of sensor-readings, so that he could pass them out when PCs scanned enemy ships, the planetary surface, etc.

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"Captain, the zombies seem to be emitting some sort of positronic radiation. I theorize this radiation is their way of communicating. If we calibrate an ionic pulse, we may be able to neutralize the field and stop their horde from advancing.

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While that is definitely the sort of thing I was aiming for, I went with mostly shorter cards than that, to encourage the players to improvise and draw their own conclusions.

I used sentence fragments, so they'd have to fill in words of their own (or, I suppose, they could have chosen to sound like illiterate idiots, but luckily no one did).

r_b_bergstrom said...
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