I first came across the concept of the “supernatural dial” in Dogs in the Vineyard, but I’d encountered it in casual form long before. Sometimes the supernatural dial is expressed as “How gritty do you like your fantasy?” or “It’s a low magic setting”, while similar analogues exist for modern and sci-fi games. (“Is the tech Hard SF, or space opera?”)
In Dogs, the towns you visit are plagued by demons—but depending on your specific Dogs campaign, demons might be walking tempters with red scales, while in others “demons” are just random misfortune and social feedback without independent reality. Similarly, the character’s “magic” might be as difficult to document persuasively as real world prayer, or as blatant as deflecting bullets and leaving trails of sparks. Often the two correlate—a “high fantasy” Dogs game can have the town’s faith manifest as a tree of light in the city square, while sorcerous rot spreads across the glimmering roots, driving people mad.
High magic worlds can call for sorcerous controls; if one person can unmake reality, the inhabitants probably don’t want just anyone having access to magic. Troy mentions worlds with magical training regimens, like Dragonlance’s Tower of High Sorcery, or the White Tower of the Aes Sedai. Governments are also reluctant to grant unaccountable power to anyone, often including their own agents…
Supernatural Dials In Hidden Worlds
Hidden World settings often center themselves around the power or conspiracy that sets it apart from everyday reality. Many settings are the modern world we all experience, with a twist. Sometimes magic is real—just well hidden.
In the first Hidden World article, I listed several concealed realities used in popular games—many of which include magic. Of those settings that eschew magic, many include super-science or alien technology—but that’s not an essential property of hidden worlds.
The Dial Starts at Zero…
A hidden world game can play out with the supernatural dial set almost to zero—say, action movie coincidence at most. Spy and military games are often close to this; James Bond might occasionally have a useful gadget, but rarely something incomprehensible— the devices are often only slightly more advanced or miniaturized than is practical today. A game like this is often all about the conspiracy—finding out who runs things for real, acting behind the scenes as members the UN’s black-bag squad, or investigating the week’s unusual cases… even if you can never convince Scully that there’s more to them than she’ll admit.
Sometimes the game world is 99.9% the world we see outside… until you stumble across a crazed ritual deep in the woods. Even experiencing that ritual isn’t always enough to classify the world—you never know if the ritual’s real unless you wait to see what happens. Sure, the crazy person says they were summoning Azathoth, but no one showed.
Tightly restricted, or not terribly advanced alien technology can also keep the setting feeling grounded and low key. If there are only three phasers in the world, you’re unlikely to be assigned one on your next mission. Of course, both looming horror and super-advanced-but-rare alien technology imply that the world is different; if even one phaser exists, who knows when the aliens will return with more?
…Moves at Quite A Clip…
Once you visit the alien’s homeworld, your character knows the universe is a bigger place—even if they don’t come back with proof. [Contact, anyone?] Similarly, just encountering a Vampire reveals that a lot of what the character learned about reality is false. If ghosts exist, do witches? Werewolves? Aliens from Alpha Centauri?
With the supernatural dial set this high, games often involve characters learning to manipulate this deeper, more complex reality. Unraveling the vampiric conspiracy is critical—but to do that, you need to learn this universe’s rules for vampires, not just what their executive board’s org chart looks like. Mystery plots in these worlds often explore “how can that be done?” in the early exploration, continue into figuring out “who has the power/knowledge/tech” to do that (to build a suspect list), and resolve based on a traditional “who had a motive” sleuthing from that winnowed pool.
…the Dial Goes to 11
When your supernatural dial pegs, the question becomes how (and whether) your characters interact with reality at all. Archmages may interrogate the Spirit of War on the Plain of Eternal Battle, or your planeswalker may shift from one reality that has grown inconvenient to a world of her dreaming. At this point on the supernatural dial, the stories often become about interests of the characters—they might consider everyone else a projection of their delusions. Or view them as cogs empowering the Matrix, who need to wake up and fight.
Plots on the Dial
One of the biggest factors that changes as the supernatural dial increases is the relation of the PCs to the world. At low points along the supernatural dial, the characters are still very tied to people and everyday life. The conspiracy is interesting, but because it’s subtle, you probably spend more time with ordinary people, trying to map its influence.
When the supernatural dial cranks up, the GM needs to remember to keep normal people vibrant. This can be tricky; it’s hard to spend a lot of time on making the waitress feel realistic if she’s a part of the world the PC’s going to leave in a few minutes and is unlikely to return to. Part of what’s needed to make these worlds feel real are people who haven’t been sucked into the Hidden World yet. There’s a tension here, because the PCs who start dealing with the supernatural are likely to cut back their contacts with people they want to save… exposing their friends to the conspiracy only exposes them to danger. But it’s these human interactions that do such a good job of showing the character’s growth and increasing alienation. As a GM, you might have to encourage these “random” interactions to illustrate the PCs’ growing estrangement from the average citizen.
Dials and Games
I enjoy games all over the spectrum, in terms of the Supernatural Dial. Do you have favorites? Do you have similar problems keeping characters with tremendous power connected to daily life? If you have approaches to keep a characters interacting with the whole world instead of just the “in the know” clique in games high on the dial, I’d appreciate your advice.
Do you insist on high fantasy, no matter the game? “If I wanted reality, I’d go bowling.” Or do you enjoy variation from game to game? Have you tried to drift your game–turning a high fantasy ruleset into something a little more low key? Tell us about your experiences, and warn us away from pitfalls you discovered!