Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Sealed Envelopes

One of the neater little susbsystems on Road to Amber is something that equates to an automated system of sealed envelopes. The player receives the meta-object, which contains any number of seals, often sequential, but sometimes parallel. Each seal has its own requirements to be opened, such as being in the right place, using the right skill, or just spending enough time on something. Once the seal was opened, the player would get some information, and perhaps something else would be triggered (like a change elsewhere in the game, or maybe opening up a new power for purchase).

I'll take some credit for the idea, but Fuzz/Amberyl actually made it work, and work well. There are a lot of things this lets you automate as an online GM. For example, if you want to do a murder mystery without having to run every scene, you can hand someone a packet with a seal for each room in the house, containing the clues that might be found there. Designed well, the seals might demand cooperation or collaboration from players, and thus drive play. It's good tech.

In and of itself, it doesn't translate well to the tabletop. It is, ultimately, a tool to help allow play when there's no GM around which is much more of an online (or LARP) concern. Still, it came to my mind when thinking about sealed envelopes after some conversation that @SarahDarkmagic had on twitter.

See, the underlying idea is pretty simple, and probably best exemplified by Lore Sheets from Weapons of the Gods. At the start of a campaign, during chargen, the GM can create a stack of interesting hooks and spread them on the table, allowing people to pick one or more of them as something that player is interested in. The example from the twitter conversation is "Recover my father's sword", and I find it a nice, clear expression of the idea.

Now, the idea doesn't just stop there - there's a large question of what you do with it. For example, are these hooks going to define the campaign, or are they going to be the B plots? Either approach is appropriate, but it's important to go into that with the right expectation.

Similarly, there's a question of mechanical hooks. There's nothing that _requires_ these hooks have a mechanical element, but I think it's much cooler when they do. What exactly those hooks are depends on the game. Weapons of the Gods has a whole neat little system in place that also ties into buying the most powerful weapons in the setting. In 4e, you could probably use the backgrounds as hooks (provided you did cool backgrounds, like the ones in Neverwinter).

All well and good, but I find myself curiously dwelling on the *physicality* of the choice. And that's what got me thinking about sealed envelopes.

It's no secret that I love cards in chargen. The element of concrete choice paired with the capability for randomness is just incredibly important in my mind. One of the elements of these hooks is a certain amount of information compression. The hook itself is quite straightforward - easy to write on a card - but the associated data and mechanics are usually much more involved. Maybe that extra information is hidden until it gets selected, maybe its not, but either way, it's a lot more data.

This was always the problem with Lore Sheets for me - while brilliant, they also consist of two or three printed pages of material apiece, which means they're either pretty awkward to juggle or require some aggressive photocopying (and the additional organizational burden of that). Using 4e backgrounds would introduce similar complications.

But part of that limit has always been my fondness for cards. Ideally, I want the hook on one side of an index card, and the details (or questions!) on the reverse. That works, but it limits scope. And that's where envelopes start getting a little more interesting. Yes, it totally requires more printing/photocopying and some organization, but the result could be very satisfying, especially with a little bit of extra crafty flair (nice paper, wax seals and such).

Now, there's nothing demanding that you go the extra mile in this. You could just have a list and have players pick from it, and that would be that. But this is a hobby of imagination and flair, and there's no reason that shouldn't apply the most when you're drawing people in. Whatever specific thing you intend to do with hooks and background, put in the little extra effort to make it fun and exciting for your players. The payoff in investment will be larger than you expect.


  1. Sealed envelopes are an aspect to Risk: Legacy as well, to branch over to that game for a second. And like the example above, they can only be opened and affect present and future games if the requirements are met.

  2. Erick Wujcik apparently designed a sadly unpublished game called (from memory) Aliens Among Us, in which insane, mass-murdering, undetectable space aliens have infiltrated human society. Humanity is so terrified that we authorize a group of agents (the PCs) to stop them by any means necessary, including means that lead to significant innocent deaths. Naturally the aliens sign up too. The GM prepares a bunch of sealed envelopes, each with a card that says, "alien" or "human". Players pick and open one during character generation. As a result, no one, not even the GM, knows who is an alien. PCs were intended to be created and die quickly, so there was regular churn in who was who. There was value in not even the GM knowing who was who, since the game actually had a concept of "score," based on how many aliens you killed (if human) and how many humans you killed (if alien). I found it a really interesting use of sealed envelopes and a way of forcing the GM to not meddle in individual character's stories based on knowledge not available to in-world characters (assuming you want such a thing). There are definitely some interesting possibilities in using sealed envelopes to provide unexpected or mid-game information or rules in a way that no one else, not even the GM know or can predict.

    (This is based on attending a talk Wujcik gave at Gen Con, probably in the late 1990s. The game was not published because he developed it around the time Paranoia was published, and he was afraid it would be labelled a Paranoia knock-off.)

    As an involved LARPer, for larger, theatre-style games, sealed envelopes are essential to minimizing the number of GMs you need to run the game while still allowing some types of stories and puzzles.


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