The Scholars’ Game is a method of collaboratively generating background details for a Campaign, typically through the medium of a Wiki or other online tool. It was inspired by my recollection of a game I read about on Wikipedia, and then failed to find again when I needed the rules to play. Thus, I wrote out a set of rules for us to use in our Tales of the Hero Wars.
Subsequently, I have stumbled across the rules on my computer, and I can share with you that the game was originally called Lexicon. My version only creates 26 Main Entries, as opposed to 26 per Player in the original. This is certainly a more manageable number, and as we hope to be playing in the created setting early in the New Year, then we want to move through the process at a reasonable speed.
However, my version includes footnotes to each entry from the other Players. Thus, we are all commenting upon the same subject, but deliberately disagreeing, or focusing upon a different aspect of the topic. In this way, we create a degree of uncertainty about the subject, which makes the process more suitable for a subsequent game.
Ideally, during the course of the subsequent Campaign, we will encounter many of the topics created in the Game. Due to the conflicting explanations of a topic, there is still something to explore in the Campaign. This is not just about deciding who had the “true” idea. Rather, the Scholars’ Game should give all Players a toolbox of possible facts that can be woven into the Campaign.
In this way, the correct interpretation of any Main Entry in the Scholars’ Game will be uncertain until such time as it is encountered during the course of the Campaign. The process of the Scholars’ Game has given everyone a set of parameters for the forthcoming Campaign, but it should not spoil the sense of exploration for the Campaign, as there is still so much to discover.
The Scholars’ Game in Action
Perhaps a short example will make this uncertainty clearer.
Our version of the Game is creating an arcane-blasted wilderness filled with nomadic beast riders. For the purposes of this article, let us say that the Main Entry for “C” was the Charred Oasis.
This former water hole has been heavily burnt by Wildfire, a rogue fire elemental. The water is soot-laden and undrinkable, while the surrounding vegetation consists of charcoal trees and a carpet of cinders. Any movement through the oasis sends clouds of choking soot into the air. Small fire elementals still play in the ruins and thus make the Oasis easy to find at night.
This Main Entry creates a basic version of the oasis, that has been ruined by pyromancy. However, the Footnotes can present contradictory views
The Charred Oasis is a pool of pure water in the bottom of a deep crater. The sides of this crater are formed from fine black sand, giving the oasis its name. Despite a total lack of vegetation, the oasis is home to the Soot Riders, a band of renegade nomads. These nomads have pitched their black tents around the sides of the crater, superbly camouflaging their encampment.
Despite foolish claims to the contrary, the Charred Oasis is a pool of burning liquid, surrounded by trees of living flame. The oasis was formed by a Prince of Genies as a permanent portal to the Plane of Fire. The deserts around the oasis are patrolled by fire elementals seeking to keep the area free of intruders.
The True Oasis
So which is the true Charred Oasis? Until it is encountered in the game, then any of the versions could be correct, or none of them. Or perhaps it will be a synthesis of all three.
However, the process has created a sense of expectation about the Oasis. While there may or may not be water there, it seems that fire elementals are likely, along with a blackened environment. Within the framework, the GM has a lot to work with, and the Players will know a variety of rumours about the Oasis.
Bringing it all Together
The Charred Oasis entries have also created other topics that could be referenced later in the Scholars’ Game. Wildfire, Soot Riders, a Prince of Genies and the Plane of Fire could all appear later in the Scholars’ Game, either as full-blown entries, or just referenced in passing. Over time, more and more details of the setting are thus created. Those topics that are not expanded upon during the Scholars’ Game may still be encountered during the campaign itself.
Premise of the Game
During the Scholars’ Game the Players take on roles of competing Scholars. These individuals need to be named so that each entry can be properly attributed. The exact role of each scholar can be decided upon by the Players. Possibilities for the Game include Sages, Priests, Shaman, Poets, Playwrights, Philosophers and Storytellers.
The theme of The Scholars’ Game is the creation a Folio of papers drawn from various sources. The work of each Player forms the content of the Folio, but may vary in tone and intent. It is best to assume that the Folio describes an event in the past, so that the Players’ work has a degree of unreliability about it. Thus, it will make sense for the various texts in the Folio to contradict each other.
This contradiction is important, as it creates uncertainty about the subject matter. So, in the example above, if all the entries had described the same oasis, then there would be no sense of mystery about the location. Thus, the Scholars should bicker, disagree and generally seek to belittle each other. Not only does this make the entries a little more interesting to read, but it also creates the all-important creative space for the GM to surprise the Players during the Campaign.
Rules of The Scholar’s Game
- Players take it in turns to compose an alphabetical series of entries
- On their Main Turn, the Players create a Main Entry for the next letter in the series, following the Main Entry Rules
- The other Players each then create a Footnote disputing the Main Entry, following the Footnote Rules
- Once each Player has composed a Footnote, then a new Player creates a Main Entry, and the game rolls on
- Main Entry Rules
- Approx 100 words about a topic that begins with the appropriate letter
- Must follow the ABC Rules
- Must follow Subject Rules
- Footnote Rules
- Approx 50 words that disputes, refutes or otherwise disagrees with the content of the Main Entry
- Must follow the ABC rules
- ABC Rules
- A = entry must feature subject matter that begins with the appropriate letter in the alphabetical sequence of Entries
- B = entry must cite a subject that begins with a letter LATER in the alphabetical sequence
- C = entry must cite a subject that begins with a letter EARLIER in the alphabetical sequence AND that has been previously referenced in another entry OR forms a previous Main Entry
- Entries 1-5 (A-E) need only follow Rules A & B
- Entries 6-21 (F-U) need to follow Rules A, B & C
- Entries 22-26 (V-Z) need only follow Rules A & C
- An entry may cite additional subjects, so long as the ABC Rules are also met
- Subject Rules
- Four categories of Subject matter are recognised for Entries;
- Ideas or Abstracts
- No more than TWO Main Entries in the alphabetical sequence may be about the same subject category
- A Scholar may not write consecutive Main Entries about the same subject category, looking at their previous Entry, NOT just the alphabetical sequence
- A Scholar is required to write at least one Main Entry about each of the subject categories
- Four categories of Subject matter are recognised for Entries;
- Wiki Layout
- As preferred by the GM, but it is best if the Main Entry & Footnotes form a single page
- As required, but a fast turnaround is recommended. Ideally, you want two or three Main Entries each week, if not more. Negotiate a suitable creation speed with the Players.
- To speed the process, you can decide that so long as the previous Main Entry has at least one Footnote, then the next Main Entry can be created.
The Scholars’ Game gives you faster prep, because you are sharing the burden with your Players. Plus, the process of the game will create a web of entries on your campaign Wiki, saving you the need to do that yourself.
The biggest benefit of The Scholars’ Game is that it creates more story for you. The combination of the Main Entries and the Footnotes will produce a vast reservoir of topics to explore in the forthcoming Campaign.
Even better, the Players will be invested in the topics, as they have had a hand in their creation. The Players will be engaged with the subject, and will come into the Campaign knowing a slew of rumours about the people and places that they may be about to meet.
Finally, through the course of The Scholars’ Game, the Players are telling you what they want to encounter in the following Campaign. Mix and match the story elements from the various Players that were outlined in preceding The Scholars’ Game to heighten the engagement with the subsequent story.
Have you tried collaborative setting creation? Share your experiences in the comments.