Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Heroes: films inspiring RPG

The plan for this blog post was to ask you who your favorite action hero is (character, not actor). While I am still interested in knowing, I have a feeling that if you think about it, your favorite character is not always going to be the guy who does the most damage in the movie. Right?

Most of us like a hero who is interesting. I have said before that my favorite “action hero” is Allan Quatermain. If you only know him from one of the many horrible film interpretations of King Solomon’s Mines, you owe it to yourself to read the actual book(s). In MMO terms, Allan is the hunter/DPS. Sir Henry is probably the “tank”, while Captain Good would be the “off tank”. He’s intentionally described as being a little scrawny, and not all that handsome. What he is, is an exceptional shot with a rifle. He also has a way of dealing with people that normally leave them feeling like they owe him a favor or at least some respect. He is incredibly interesting, even though he’d die in his first minute of showing up on Dragon Ball Z.

My favorite movie is Kelly’s Heroes. Yeah, it’s 3 hours, but it’s worth it! Here there is a squad of soldiers trying to survive in WWII when they get involved in a bank heist, yep! a bank job 13 miles behind German lines. Only Big Joe and Kelly would be characters that anyone would want to play in most RPGs, but even they show that their importance is not in how much damage they can do, but in how they lead and how they think. They are interesting - see the theme here?

Think about the “parties” of adventurers in Cowboy Bebop, Star Wars, Braveheart, Lord of the Rings or whatever your favorite action/adventure movie is. Your favorite(s) - are they just the ones that do massive damage or are the ones where the writers put a little extra effort in and created interesting, “cool”, multi-dimensional characters? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you really do want the massive guy who can punch through everything or the guy who isn’t that good but has the best magical weapon. Hey, those are easy to play in FRPGs! But if your favorite characters are always the ones who are well developed, shouldn’t you be doing the same in your RPG?

Sorry this was kind of preachy, but I hope it holds up.

As I was about to post this, I thought about X-Men. Sure, most people like Wolvie, but not only because he’s a huge damage dealer. It’s his back story. His striving to not just be the berserker, but at the same time maintaining that truly abrasive attitude. I like Cyclopes, who is another massive damage dealer, but I like him because he is the “paladin”. They specifically wrote his back story to make him unquestionably loyal to the Professor, and only when forced to start questioning that does his character really start to grow. These are role-playing games we’re playing; let’s make sure there’s a role to play instead of just dice to roll.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Fantasy City Living

It was over thirty years ago that I first visited Rhum. Back then it was a smaller city, not the grand thing it is today. Of course, that was before it was attacked by Garnock and was forced to rebuild on the open plain where it is today. Then the wall was a wooden palisade, smoky, tarred timbers erected around the core center of the city with suburbs sprawling around it below the hill. I was there as they started building the wall around what was at the time termed “New Rhum”. Back then, I knew some of the construction workers, militia men mostly. I knew their names and their families, though now I am hard pressed to recall a single name or face from my memories. Honestly, it is now rare that I leave the area of the city around what is the north gate. There is adventure enough for me right there without risking my life and my coins in some of the “darker” parts of the town.

Around that time, I spent time in the city of Brinston too, not living in either city, but visiting frequently as time allowed. I never fully understood the sheer size of Brinston. Sure, I had seen maps of the city as though someone were flying far above it and looking down, but even those were impossible to relate to at street level where you’re trying not to walk under the wrong window at the wrong time so as to avoid a chamber pot being emptied. I admit, that while I could have walked through nearly any part of Rhum (in the daylight), there were entire sections of Brinston that were forbidden to me, not being born into one of the many noble houses.

It seems odd to admit, but for almost a quarter of a century, my main visits have all been in Forsbury. I find the city fascinating. I had ignored it at first. 30-35 years ago it seemed just a cattle town where people bought steers at auction and then drove them to where they would be slaughtered. Admittedly, I had probably bought into the propaganda in Brinston. Brinston always frowned on Forsbury, questioning how the city could truly by a trade center if they had no port and no ships. But when I first visited there, I found a vibrant city, bursting at the seams, growing so fast you could see the changes by the month.

Forsbury has more than doubled in the few decades, going from roughly 15,000 people to a population likely closer to 40,000. Some are refugees from Parnania, refusing to live under martial law imposed by the orcs there, but far more have come to Forsbury because of the possibilities for jobs, new industries, and of course, adventure. Most Forsbury adventures seem to be dull in the extreme. You agree to ride along on a dusty wagon train moving at an ox’s pace. While you’re doing it, it seems to be an endless grind of bad roads and worse smells. Looking back, there were a lot of high points, but I missed them as they went by. Stopping and talking to the road crew in Parnania and learning that many of the men were thrilled to work on a road crew for the orcs, because it meant bread for their families. Watching them load the wagons at the coal strip mines. Trying to understand the crazy accents found between the city-states. And catching glimpses of elven girls collecting wild rice in their baskets as they waded through the streams of the Slyvanian Forest. As always seems to be the case, beauty is most often recognized only in memory.

I worry about Forsbury now. It’s grown so fast that its spirit of entrepreneurs and risk takers is, well, at risk. The cowboys are still there, but they’re outnumbered by the caravaneers and possibly even by the townies. They used to say that nothing was ever made in Forsbury but deals, but now there are all sorts of craftsmen hawking their wares. Change is probably good, but if the dominant cartels become too powerful, I don’t know what the city will grow to be like. Brinston? Gods I hope not! I need to laugh at myself more - I am sure this is what they thought for the last four generations as changes affected this wonderful town, always assuming that a couple of individuals could change what made it so fascinating to me in the first place.

I wish I had more time to spend in these wonderful cities! The problem is that visiting them is just a hobby for me. My work is found elsewhere. As with all hobbies, work, family, life itself; they all sort of interfere. Nowadays, the joy is in sharing these cities and the world around them with others. Sometimes, I get to sit with an old friend and drink in his or her stories of Rhum or Forsbury. The more I learn, the more I realize how vibrant this world really is, even through the haze of heat and road dust along a caravan route out of Forsbury.

I wrote this as I see it. I almost called it “An Author’s Bio” but honestly, I didn’t think you’d click on it. I have always referred to my writing about Fletnern as “going to visit” because in my imagination, I really do go there. Not every time, but a lot more than you’d think. My game world is alive in my mind and so are those NPCs that tell me their versions of the stories. I really do want to share it - the reason so much of it has been free.

I know a lot about it, far more than I expect I will ever get the chance to share. If you have some pieces you are more interested in, please let me know! I will be happy to share those pieces too!

Fantasy Religions and their Churches

On Earth - one of the most common methods to call people to worship (at least in our Western or European based cultures) is the use of bells. Church bells are so common that most people think first of churches when they hear bells or of bells. This might be those of us old enough to have grown up hearing church bells; you younger snots may not. Probably an urban vs. rural thing too.

But bells are expensive - no really expensive! And just because they are what were most common on our world, are they right for your high fantasy world? I like to think that different kinds of religions would use different methods to call the worshipers to prayer or to reminded them of their religious obligations.

So what am I thinking? Drums carry for decent distances - drums may be more appropriate for religions that are more in tune (no pun intended) with hunting or animals and less with metallurgy. What about trumpets? Their sound carries too. It probably takes two trumpeters, at least to make a cool impression; where as one old ugly guy could probably ring the bells. Trumpets may be a flashier version of bells for money and trade oriented religions. Plus, bells are a huge upfront investment. Trumpets would be cheaper up front but more expensive day-to day. What about smoke or incense? This might be more difficult to sense immediately, but it the person knew to keep their eye open for it, it could probably serve as a proper signal. Maybe grey smoke is a warning that services are about to start, followed by blue smoke (the five minute warning) and then steam as they put the fire out as services start (now you know to run). I am thinking that putting some manner of incense or other scent in the smoke would help catch people’s attention, but in big cities, the stench from medieval life must have been overwhelming, so it may be unrealistic to think they’d be able to smell the incense over the manure in the gutter. I think smoke signals work for some fire or sun related religions, or even religions of the dead, but that’s probably because I use to do the incense at funerals. Then again, sun worshipers might use mirrors to reflect light all over the town.

But this is high fantasy! Do the magical religions shoot fireballs or lightning bolts into the air? Do the mentalists send out a massive wave of telepathic messaging? Does the captive dragon get poked in the butt so he screams out his call? Especially if your game has all the priests pegged as spell casters, maybe they have special spells. It would be pretty cool if the priest walked out of his temple ten minutes before services and threw an aurora borealis into the sky.

We always seem to come to this question: Why does it matter? Fantasy worlds have hundreds of gods. (If you need more, check out Gods and Demons!) Each god and perhaps even each religion needs to be different from the others. You can’t have the services for the war god and the magic god be the same as a Judeo Christian service. Since you aren’t going to have your players attend services for other gods, then the way that the faithful are called to worship will be how they perceive these religions.

OK - You need something more combat related? If you know this stuff - You can write missions. The goddess of beauty has a series of musical bells summon the worshipers, but someone stole the bells - They must be retrieved before the major festival next week. The sun god’s priests clear the skies above the temple so they can shine the mirrors around and summon the faithful, but their spells are not working. The storm god’s priests are controlling the weather too and the two faiths are competing over sun vs clouds. Do the players get involved? Is a civil war brewing? (maybe just mob violence) Why now? Why did the storm god’s followers choose right now to mess with the sun god? Variety is not just the spice of life, but the spice of adventures as well!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Role-Playing - Horror

With about 35 years of role-play gaming under my belt, I am going to give you the benefit of what I have seen in those three and a half decades: Horror role-play is not for beginners. In fact, horror role-play is only for true role-players. What do I mean by “true” role-players? I mean people who are more into the role-playing aspect of the game than I am.

Why? Well, in order to actually be scared by a game, you need to forget about the rules. When you know the rules, you know that something either can happen or chances are it won’t. But horror requires surprise. I’m not talking about startling experiences; I’m talking about actually being scared. The more you know the less scary it is. Works in real life too, unless you know that the guy with a shotgun is completely insane and likes firing shotguns at people, in which case you would probably be more scared than if you didn’t know the guy. Bad example.

Anyway - For horror role-playing to work, the GM has to do things that you as a player didn’t think the rules would allow. For a guy who writes rules, that can be disconcerting. Let me give you an example: I was playing a famous horror role-playing game based on a famous New England author where everyone seems to go insane. I was told that deep in the cavern, my character saw a beautiful beach and sea. While trying to freak out the other players, I described how I was going to go for a swim and then dove head first into the many mouths of the very creepy monster. I as a player I knew that I had been driven insane and was only seeing what the monster god thing wanted me to see. I sacrificed my character for the role-playing aspect of the game.

But I don’t do that. I play role-playing games for fun, sure. To tell stories, yeah. To gather fame, fortune and experience, yeah, that too. Playing a RPG in hopes of being driven insane and then sacrificing my character; nope, not why I’m playing. I don’t want to start a new character every mission or even every other mission.

You don’t have to be like me. Maybe the story is everything for you. Maybe the role-playing challenges of trying to be true to playing a now insane character appeals to you. Maybe you revel when your GM blatantly twists the rules to allow for something “supernatural” to happen in the game. Guess what - You’re a role-player! A big time, dyed in the wool, devoted role-player. And you’re more into it than I am. That’s cool, but I think you’re in the very small minority.

Now to get back to the fantasy RPG stuff.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Tasks vs. Attacks

I spend time in this blog talking about “actual” role-playing games vs. combat systems. I think I may have stumbled on one of the easiest ways to segregate the two: Does your game talk about how to attack or how to accomplish a task? In Legend Quest, attacking is one action you can take, but the skill system works basically the same way for combat/attacking as it does for any other action: carousing, foraging, tracking, or brewing.

I know - The gold farmers have already clicked out to go look at something that will add another 0.2 points of damage per second, so I can go on without offending them. My biggest complaint about games that only let you attack is that they only let you attack in one way. It’s like you and your character are a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot. For those of you too young to understand, that was a toy where you controlled the plastic robots in a ring and they punched each other. They could only move around a little and could only punch forward in an upper cut. Hey, when I’m attacking a guy, I want some variety.

What do I mean? Well, when I played other games, this actually came up: The character wanted to use his grapnel hook, catch it on the chandelier, swing across the room, snatch the crown off the bad guy’s head (it was a magical crown in his defense), and land on the window sill on the other side of the room. Guess what? The chandelier did not have an armor class. Neither did the crown. Neither did the window sill. This is stuff right out of an Errol Flynn Robin Hood movie, and the game really did not allow us to do it. Oh I made some crap up and we pretended to try it. (He missed by the way.) But if I didn’t know it before that, I knew then that that game was just a combat system and it simply could not handle actual role-play.

It doesn’t have to be this silly. I know a lot of FRPGs have tried to move towards being a paper MMO. Therefore they have all manner of “special” attacks. But do they really let you act and react? Do they let you play offense, defense or a mix of the two? Or do they tell you that hitting with a sword and hitting with a sword with a special fiery boost is different?

You owe it to yourself and your characters to give them more to do than just upper cut the other robot, and I’m not talking about shooting a bow. Find yourself a better game - one that lets you defeat your enemies socially, magically or physically. Legend Quest works!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Corner Bar

There’s a cop show we watch on TV, and the bar where they all hang out keeps changing owners and decor. I think it’s every season that it changes. The spot that they hang out in doesn’t change (same place, same name, same layout), but silly theme changes keep happening. It was a plain old corner bar, then a “progressive” place (with stupid table plants and veggie menu); I don’t think I always picked up on the changes.

While I stress continuity in campaigns, I think this is a really cool idea. Maybe not cool, but fun! So what am I suggesting? Well, for the first couple of missions, they come home to a corner bar, a little rough, but good for adventurers. Then they return after being gone for a while and it has gotten a good coat of paint, some fancy candles in glass, and a musician playing soft music. Not a big enough change to make them stop coming, but different. Probably the same owners, so there is even more reason for them to hang out. Next time they leave town for an extended period they return to find that the bar is now decorated in the oddest “magical” symbols and has an illusionist entertaining. Probably new owners, but pretty much the same crowd, so they continue to hang out here, but it should be pretty comical that there is a bunch of blue collar workers and hired thugs hanging out in a bar trying to attract the young mage crowd. I think having a mission based on some sort of stupid thing the new owners do (paint symbols on the wall out of a book that happened to summon some manner of demons into the bar on the right day) will keep the party coming back, especially if the new owner gives them free drinks for saving his bar from the demons.

Is this a role-playing thing? Yes! Is this a mission starter thing? It absolutely can be. It’s just a fun way to add some life to the game. It might be a good way to ease a party of players who just don’t care about anything but gold and damage into role-playing. Once they sort of ease in by using the bar as where they get hired for the first missions, they should be willing to keep it going.

OK, I do want to throw in one advertisement - If you need to provide something other than “beer”, “ale”, “wine”, take a look at 100 Bar Drinks. Yes, you can look at it simply as a series of drinks to serve in bars, or you can pay attention to the companies that make the booze and use them to flesh out your world, or at least get some ideas. On Fletnern, some of the wine makers are some of the wealthiest and most powerful noble families in the world.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Xenophobia

I spend a lot of time trying to get my fantasy cities to be cosmopolitan. You know - How do elves and dwarves fit into a mainly human setting in an intelligent manner. Why? Because my players tend to play all different races and if the city the campaign was based in didn’t like non-humans, then it would be kind of crappy to play a non-human.

But how realistic is that? In many case, it is probably OK. Truth is, most of my cities do have racial biases (racism if you will). The Rhorics of Rhum don’t like elves, because they sided with the dwarves in the recent Elf-Dwarf War. Similarly, the Marils of Brinston don’t really like the dwarves because of the same reason (as in they sided with the elves). Meanwhile the Angles of Myork really don’t like the elves (because they consider the elves of the nearby Circle Forest to be rebels) and they think all dwarves are incredible blacksmiths. Yes, it is still racism if you think someone is cool just because they are a certain race.

But shouldn’t there be places or at least pockets where other races are not welcome? Yes! One way I have tried to reflect this is when halflings or dwarves intentionally build inns and taverns with 5’ ceilings. They don’t want humans and they don’t want any humans that come there to feel welcome. Not only that, but it’s pretty tough to brawl while your head keeps knocking into the chandeliers.

But how else can we do this? It is not as if it has to be as subtle as short ceilings. Signs on the door reading, “No humans allowed here” should do the trick. Or simply having a deputy stand on the road into town gesturing for anyone of the wrong race to take the side road around the town instead of the one through it. Any adventurers who feel that the deputy would be an easy kill (and he would) should have been smart enough to think before they slaughtered a member of law enforcement and should soon be fighting in the shade of all those arrow volleys coming in on them. Yes, killing a deputy is reason to have the army mobilize and rain death down upon you, especially if they think you have magic and can only counter your magic with enormous numbers.
But race is only one reason to hate an entire group of people. Some cities should be deemed “holy” and members of the wrong faith(s) should be barred from entering upon pain of death. There are still some regions in Fletnern where magic is considered evil (or at least certain types are) and anyone deemed to be a “witch” will be barred or arrested. Some small towns might be closed to anyone who is not a member of a specific tribe or other small group within a race. How exactly they tell who is or is not a member of the tribe could make for some interesting role-playing and problem solving.

The more I think about where I want to do this, the more I realize that I already have, but need to be a little more clear (even to myself) about exactly who is or is not banned from certain places. My centaurs are pretty xenophobic, and so are my orcs. It would certainly make sense if the people they barred were ready to bar them right back. Great, now I have to start thinking about the wilds of Fletnern again, when I was actually getting somewhere on the more civilized parts.