Love Letters: Best Practices

Hello all, I’m trying to write some love letters for a game that will be jumping forward a few weeks. From my limited time playing I’ve come up with the following characteristics of love letters, and I’m wondering how closely people cleave to this or if I’m missing the point. So, love letters…

  • tend to be told in the first person, like a diary entry.
  • tend to involve some kind of roll to see the impact/fallout of the off-screen action
  • tend to limit player choices (you are telling them what their character did in that time), but with narrative import (it has an impact on the narrative you’ve collectively shaped)
  • can be used to bring back an absentee player or transition to another place/time
  • are distributed to players, who then read them aloud to the group.

What else do you see from love letters?

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They’re usually written in second person, the GM/MC to the character. Often with a clear editorial voice from the GM, though that voice might be tailored to the individual PC.

So, like “Dear Nowlenn… You’ve managed to hold together this delicate alliance of rival clans and miscreants, but… oh… my… gods. It’s been exhausting.”

Often, but not always. A good love letter could also just ask them to pick X of Y. Maybe “pick up to X…” (where X are bad things) "…and for each one you pick, hold 1. During the session, spend hold 1-for-1 to… " (list of good things).

Or a love letter could just ask them to answer one or more pointed, provocative questions. The roll is common, but not necessary.

Yes, definitely. Also, to skip over conflicts, challenges, or other details that might take up lots of game time.

Note that you can also be pretty heavy-handed here, transitioning them into a very bad, specific situation. Like maybe the last session ended on a ship, and maybe the Captain biffed a roll, and you ended on a cliffhanger… well, the love letters next session could frame the situation as “big storm happened, ship was lost, you made it to this island.” Use with caution, and keep to your principles, but it’s a pretty cool trick.

IMO, a good love letter hard-frames events that have now happened in the past, off camera. So you, as the GM/MC/author can assert a lot. But they can (and I think should) also invite meaningful contribution from the player… either by inviting them to fill in the details, or making meaningful picks from a list, or a combination of both.

So, like this…

"Dear Nowlenn… You’ve managed to hold together this delicate alliance of rival clans and miscreants, but… oh… my… gods. It’s been exhausting. Tell us who you’ve been leaning on most heavily these past few weeks and then roll +CHA to see what you’ve gotten accomplished. On a 10+, pick 2; on a 7-9, pick 1:

  • You’ve negotiated a peace between the Saltdiggers and the Ashpickers (otherwise, tensions are still running high)
  • You’ve gotten palisades erected around all of the clan encampments (otherwise, the Ashpickers and the Red Shepherds are camped in the open)
  • Sandr is still seeing you as an asset to exploit, and not a threat to his leadership (otherwise, he’s getting worried)

On a miss, hey, at least no one’s actually trying to kill anyone. Yet.

…has you (the author) establishing that Nolwenn (the PC) has been instrumental in keeping the alliance together, and asserting that the alliance is holding together, and that a few weeks have passed since we last saw her on camera. But it’s also asking her for meaningful contribution to the fiction (“Tell us who you’ve been leaning on most heavily”) and prompts her to pick her victories (on a 7+).

I think the other thing that good love letters do is that the choices they prompt imply all sorts of stuff about what has (or might have) happened during the downtime, and about what might be going on during the session. In the example above, even if Nolwenn chooses that Sandr still sees her as a resource to exploit, it sets up the danger that he will eventually come to see her as a threat.

So if I was going to add to your list of things they can/should do, I’d go with something like:

  • assert events that have happened off-camera
  • prompt the player to make meaningful contributions or decisions about what happened
  • establish interesting details that might become issues in the upcoming sessions
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I generally address the players kindly, but also with a touch of the Claremontian narrator at times.

I like to give my players a choice which doesn’t require a roll, often with free-format answers such as how they evaded capture from anti-superhero hunters. Then a more binary option, often with a roll attached which can cause some chaos. In games like Masks, I’ve generally used these for the aftermath or the start of a new season, letting the answers and some rough ideas direct what happens in the first session. Then I can plan around their responses after rolling with the narrative punches initially.

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And this isn’t a straight rule, but one of the big purposes of love letters, IMO, is to propel absent players back into the plot via a new plot element. So they generate new threads or new angles on existing threads, progressing the plot and carrying implications.

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One other thing they can do by is help clue you in as an MC what the player is really interested in, by presenting clear options and seeing where they go. It’s a good way to take that time spent dithering about choices off the table.

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Agree with a lot of things people are saying here, especially the judicious use of Angry Claremontian Narrator voice. For fun, I’ll link you to a few example love letters from various points in my recently-concluded Masks campaign.

You’ll see that I used rolls in some of these, but not all. A lot of cool stuff happened when I simply presented the players a choice like “Which NPC do you save from getting captured? Which do you fail to save?” And several of these love letters resulted in the creation of whole new characters or plotlines, like the Invictus-dealing classmate who eventually becomes a Delinquent PC and the long saga of Torq trying to obtain the Time Sloth.

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For those unfamiliar with Claremont - he is a comic book writer known for extensive narration boxes in his books.

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And explicitly, angry second-person narration boxes: “You are Iron Fist. And you are pissed.”

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Love letters can be used to skip over offscreen action, and to offer significant choices to the players.

You’ll generally want to write them so you can:

  • Wrap up a storyline or situation, so we can all move on to the current situation together. (For characters who are starting to have too many distractions!)

  • Introduce new situations - threats and opportunities - to draw the characters into intrigue or action. (For characters who have faced their immediate concerns and are currently aimless; the ones you’d be tempted to say, “so, what do you wanna do next?” to at the opening of the session.)

  • Flesh out a situation we are concerned about, so we quickly get into the next action/scene/situation. (For example, last we saw Abus, he was leaving his stronghold to go assassinate the Sultan. Cool, we write a letter saying that he did it! And then to determine whether he is being pursued, whether he’s found other information, and whether he’s left evidence of the murder.)

  • To feel out which aspects of the current situation a play is most interested in and wants to focus on. (The abovementioned “of these three people, which one do you save and which do you condemn?” is a great example.)

I had some fun writing fairly involved love letters for a sort of “Apocalypse World module” I put together a while back:

http://apocalypse-world.com/forums/index.php?topic=9096.0

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Definitely use them to reintroduce characters who were away.

Say the character Fred was away for session 3.

Dear Fred, while the others have been fighting off the zombie horde in the next town over, you’ve heard reports of furry upright beasts in the woods. If you hit the library to research furry upright beasts, roll with brain, if you went to check the area yourself, roll with tough. 10+ You have a clue to the creatures weakness/plans and one of their locations. 7-9=as 10+ but they are looking for you.

For me a key is to link in any loose plot thread from earlier sessions.

This way you
1-show Fred was not in limbo/stasis while the other characters lives continued, he was doing stuff in genre/setting.
2-you still give a choice based on style (you can tailor the results of the roll accordingly)
3-have an in game reason to remind characters of things they’ve forgotten/overlooked, for example the cultist they dealt with in session one was sending emails to an ally, the pcs didn’t follow this up, and this ally is involved with the furry upright beasts in the woods.
4-gives you an opportunity to link in an unused/underused npc/contact too.

this will give the character and the story a more fleshed out feel, rather than ‘what did your character do? oh umm yeah I watched kimmel and munched on cherios’’ which will undermine tone/party cohesion.

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Wow, I didn’t even know about Love Letters, but the more I learn the more I like it!

I have a lot of fluctuation in my f2f group, and I will try and implement this into our sessions. It will not only serve to narrate the absent characters back into the action, it might also mark a clear transition from ‘we’re all friends complaining about our jobs’ to ‘hello, we’re playing now’.

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