Sunday, April 10, 2011

An Archaeology of Memory

This is a gaming post, rather than yet another post about my new computer, but bear with me for just half a second, because the inspiration for it came from setting up the computer. Because this new computer has a big hard drive, when I copied over the 9 gigs or so of gaming files into the more-than-a-terabyte hard drive, I thought to myself "It dropped like a stone into the memory, almost without a ripple."

Which made a mental association with the book Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, in which younger species, when they discover ancient computing systems, dig through the layer upon layer of programming inside them, mining them for something that could be sold or used.

Which led to the interesting idea, which is the idea of some thing in an adventure that remembers layers of different events or facts. One might need to get through them in order, figure out work-arounds to get to the important ones, or distinguish which ones come from different time periods. Although he was a science-fiction writer, Philip K. Dick was just about the grand master of fiction that entailed memory and perception. There are probably a lot of his stories that could themselves be mined for an adventure (or adventure location) that would turn upon this concept.

The dungeon itself often functions in this manner - as you adventure into a dungeon, the players are often discovering bits and pieces about the dungeon's history, possibly about some important events that took place, and -- if it's written in the Gygax style -- about the truth that lies behind everything (drow, or some other mastermind). The dungeon is an archaeology of memory. You don't see it all at once, but facts and hints are preserved therein.

In any case, how about this -- there's an artifact in the dungeon that has been damaged in such a way as to modify its recollections of past events. Whatever it says to the characters the first time they encounter it will probably tip them off to (a) the nature of the problem, and (b) the fact that if they can convince or deceive the artifact about something, they will get some benefits. However, in order to assemble enough information to either (a) jog the thing's memory or (b) lie convincingly to it, they will need to adventure further into the dungeon. I don't mean the sort of "you need five keys to open this door, and by golly, there's one on each of the next 5 levels of the dungeon." I mean that various tapestries, letters, statues, or other similar clues can be pieced together well enough to tell the players a story of the dungeon's past. And that story contains enough clues to let them put together a plausible story to tell the artifact.

The idea is still jumbling around, so I can't really write up an example of what I mean, but perhaps that's for the best. I think there are enough possible variations on the theme to make the general description more evocative than a specific example, anyway.


  1. I did something similar to this for a NERO live action event, D&D in the woods, once and it worked out pretty good.

    The centerpiece was two dozen pottery pot pans, basically disks 6 inches in diameter. On those disks I painted the story of what happened in the past.

    The event was held over a weekend and ran until midnight saturday. (Sunday was cleanup). Friday Night I ran stuff to establish the plot, and that there was problem. After climatic event Friday Night, the players realized that they need to find these painting.

    So Saturday day was spent scouring the area for these paintings and overcoming the challenges that surrounded them. Some of them were smashed and had to be pieced together.

    Finally early saturday evening they had found almost everything and pieced together what they had to do. What was interesting about that was they didn't find every last piece so had to figure out what was in the gaps and was it important. Also there were two point of views painted so they had to figure which was which and what it all meant.

    They got close enough and were successful in confronting and destroying the menace. Overall it was one of the most successful events I ever ran.

    The only downside is that it definite catered to a particular player type, the guys in NERO we like to call puzzle solvers. The stick jocks, the guys that like to fight, were not too interested. It wasn't a big issue at the event because I made sure I included a little of something for everybody. And I recommend the same for this type of adventure.

  2. I agree that every adventure needs combat -- in fact, I was thinking of this as something that wouldn't be mission critical at all. Very beneficial if it's figured out, but not required for general success. This would probably be "too hard" or at least frustrating if it were mission critical. The way I design adventures, any puzzle that is mission critical has to be dead easy. Harder puzzles are great when they lead to rewards, but it's a really bad idea to block the party entirely with a tough puzzle.