Sunday, January 24, 2016

Why Did They Go To War?

In the history of the world of Fletnern, there was a major war, not too long ago. Depending on which campaign you’re in, it was 25-30 years ago, or as I like to think about it - the last generation. But why did it happen?

Well, in reality, it started 10 years before that (game time) when I was running a campaign and wanted the party embroiled in the war. The group of players didn’t really work out, so when that campaign died, I sort of postponed the war. It had already started, so I had to come up with game reasons that it got postponed. So then it started up again, and the new campaign(s) got involved. Those were the olden days when I really wasn’t that good a GM and I let the party win every time. So the obvious winner of the war wound up losing. Now I’m older, wiser, and a better GM (at least I think so). So now I have to ret-con the whole thing. Most of this pretty close to the original, but I’ve added a lot.

The original cause of the start of the war (35-40 years ago) was that a group of thieves had stolen the crown jewels of the continent’s military power house. They fled to a city of mixed halflings, humans and centaurs, with the army just a couple of days behind them. The thieves were a little surprised at the reaction to their caper, never expecting the entire army to be mobilized. What they didn’t know was that the army had been drooling for a chance to attack a couple of cities and expand their territory. This was the excuse they needed.

After sacking the thieves’ city, they realized that the crown jewels weren’t there. They also realized that going after thieves with an army isn’t exactly the best way to get things done. Not only are soldiers bad at spotting thieves, but what would happen if some enterprising infantry man were to find the jewels and not tell his officers? Not only that, but the logistics guys were completely unprepared for war. The food and rations had not been stored, nor had the arrows and bolts. There was no way they could properly support the full military in the field. So the military returned home and began to plan for the future. Lessons were learned during that “skirmish”.

Now the military powerhouse is run by a “conclave” of generals. These guys don’t always agree with each other, so it took ten long years before they were able to negotiate their aggression against the other cities. When next the military came out and started to move north, it was a different model. This wasn’t a screaming horde of men bent on vengeance, but a disciplined army determined to conquer key strategic points on the continent in order to make it impossible for any force to even move against them in the future. Contingents accepted the surrender of the two unwalled cities (northwest and northeast), and the main contingent laid siege to largest (and walled) city on their northern border.

The siege went well. They attacked in early summer when last year’s grain was getting a little thin, but none of the current crops had been harvested. It is nearly impossible to maintain a city of over 200,000 entirely on stores. (The army had also negotiated peace and support from some of the larger intermediary countries without letting the secrets get out.) Peace talks did little to stall the inevitable. Within a couple of weeks, the defending military was already starting to weaken from hunger and the people were not willing to form a militia and face the massive military outside their gates. Rather than wait for the defenders to launch an offensive, the attackers attacked the city with an unending barrage of artillery. When the ram hit the main gate, it more fell over than was knocked in.

With the nobles and refugees streaming out of the city, the army walked in and took over. Three cities down - easily. But this is where we have to stop. Why? Why did the most powerful military in the continent decide they needed to take over other cities? Why risk the lives of their sons in order to take other cities and invite the anger and “liberating forces” of other city-states? Well - There is the idea that they were open to attack on this border and needed to secure their own borders or risk attack. Everyone, even the lowest soldier, knew that was pretty much bullshit. After the battle ten years ago, they took some war slaves. This was probably one of the main motivational forces. Combining greed (for war slaves) with the idea that a large military must do something or it becomes too much of a drag on society, and you have the main points of why they went out. Why else? Well there have been some who believe that the businesses who supplied weapons and armor lobbied strongly for offensive action expecting that war would be good for business. This may have some merit, but it is not as though they weren’t making money before the war.

Motives - They're great for not only making sense, but for giving you more sparks that lead to adventures and missions.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

High Fantasy - Golems vs. Robots

My son is heavily into steam punk. I like it, but I don’t know that I see it as all that different from other fantasy or sci-fi, and I generally like it all. But it occurs to me that different steam punk producers (writers, artists, programmers, etc.) see it differently. (Hang with me! I’m getting there!)

In the modern age - when we think of a “machine” or convenience, we generally expect a black box that takes something in and puts something we want out. But this is where some of the steam punk guys are getting things wrong. For example - If a steam punk inventor were building a pancake flipping machine, would he build a contraption where the pancakes went in on a conveyer belt, cooked one side, flipped inside the machine, cooked the other side, and the delivered the pancake onto your plate? That’s the kind of thing we would want today - black box. Add a bunch of gears and whistles, and it’s steam punk. I think steam punk and fantasy have their mind set on human or animal power. I think a steam punk inventor or fantasy enchanter would instead build a robot or a golem that would be taught to flip pancakes - at least a robotic arm that would wield a spatula.

Why does it matter? Well, if you’re trying to apply magic to technological issues/solutions, I think you need to put yourself in this mindset. Yes, in Fletnern, the dwarves have perfected a perpetual motion machine (enchantment) and they cast this spell on gears which then become engines. But everybody else, if trying to make a magical engine would craft a golem with huge strength and no ability to fatigue and then have that golem turn a huge crank. Or a golem ox that they could yoke to something and have it work. The ogres craft zombies and use them for nearly everything: porters, workers, guards (well, meat shields), etc. But on zombies, it’s a little easier because you’re forced to think of them in humanoid form.

It is more efficient to build the black box - fewer things to break and fewer parts have access to the outside world. But that’s how these guys would think. I personally believe that the change in thinking probably comes with the weaving machines, the ones that used punched cards. The idea that one machine could do multiple things depending on which punched card was inserted - that’s a pretty important change. Assuming your tech level is prior to 1800, no problems, go with the “man” power, not black box.

This might not feel like a major change, but the implications are pretty huge. Less likely to see “bombs” or tanks, and more likely to see automated ballistae and “knightly” golems. Honestly, it takes a little more thought, because we are all children of the tech age, but both the feel and the “coolness” of your game is vastly improved.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

World Building through Consequences

Little bio on me: I was tested as a genius in first grade. So instead of continuing to allow me to disrupt the class (because I was always done first and bored), they sent me off to play chess against fifth graders. I learned to program around the age of 11. I say this because I see the world as a chess game, as a massive series of if/then/next nested loops. In other words, I believe that everything that happens, happens as a result of something else.

That’s why I like this approach to world building. I’ve brushed on it in other posts, but I believe this one might explain it best. Assuming I am right and nothing happens in a vacuum, every settlement, every town, every country; they are where they are due to something else happening. What do I mean? I will use Fletnern for my examples. Check out the wiki if you want to learn more.

There are a number of centaur settlements on the eastern coast of Drentae. The centaurs were brought to Drentae from Koaluckssie as slaves (by the elves, but that is a whole other story!). In their homeland, there had been a legend/myth that the centaur god instructed them to “follow the setting sun” (that’s east in Fletnern) when threatened. So escaped slaves and later those released during the abolitionist movement fled to the east, as their myths told them to do. When they smelled the sea air, something primal in them was triggered and they knew this is what their god wanted for them. So they settled down. Centaurs: origin = Koaluckssie, current home = Eastern Plains - explained.

The Southern Point Citadel was an attempt by well-meaning humans to stem the tide of orcish/goblin expansion north. The orcish expansion was simply the result of a fairly consistent peace amongst the Wembic Empire that allowed the tribes to grow and therefore need more land. The Citadel was in some respects a civil crusade and attracted many of the lesser sons of Velesan noble families (again, thriving and expanding due to a relative peace). When various disorganized raids did not stop the citadel from being built, the Wembic Empire took coordinated actions. They restocked the Fortress Vonastog, which had lain all but dormant for decades. With a base of operations, the orcs were able to field far more efficient raids against the Southern Point Citadel, including all but destroying the citadel twice. So why is there this “cold war” between the Velesans and the orcs, with this one isolated spot of open violence? Because both sides are able to shift their hot heads into open battle here without risking all out war. Both sides hope to eventually win, but for now, there is this one “hot zone” surrounded by relative peace. There’s also the whole orc part in the taking of Parnania a Velesan city that helped to fuel the furor of the humans, but that’s mostly propaganda at this point.

This is a no brainer, right? Why are these people here? Because there was too much peace and they thrived, or a natural disaster and they fled, or a war and they got pushed out. The history of Europe is filled with these population movements (especially during the Roman vs. barbarian eras). You can easily justify why people are where they are because of their history. If you don’t do this, you get a world that feels hodge-podge. Sometimes it is better to know what really happened and then make up lies that the people think. No one wants to think that they live in a beautiful valley because they use to live on a beautiful shore, but someone beat them in a war and they were forced to move. They want to pretend that it was all their idea in the first place. Hey, some of those centaurs I mentioned earlier believe that they just followed the instructions of their god. They forget the whole - fleeing slavery thing, and the elves don’t want to remind anyone that their cities were built by slave labor, so they help the lie along.

So what do you do? Start developing your world and world history from the dawn of civilization? You don’t have to. There’s nothing wrong with looking at your world as it is and starting to ask some questions: Why are the centaurs there? Why is there a human fortress there? Why are those guys living on the edge of a swamp? Depending on how developed your world is, you may see obvious answers, or you may start creating some really cool retcon. In either case, the farther you go the more things will just snap into place. I love it when a plan comes together!

Friday, January 1, 2016

High Fantasy - Anti-Magic

OK - so how I came up with this topic. I wanted to bring some magnets to work, but how? In one pocket is my keys (with the transponder thingamajig). In the other pocket is my phone. In the brief case - wallet (with magnetic strip cards) and a computer. OK - I’m probably paranoid, but I won’t risk putting magnets near any of these. So I got to thinking - what causes that kind of concern for magic items?

First thought - lead, but that’s not right. Lead just blocks or resists magic, it doesn’t mess it up. So unless we’re going to think of the lead as draining the magic out of the items, this won’t work.

So what are magnets? They are electricity caught up in an object. And what is our tech? Electricity and magnetism. So magnets mess up our technology, because they are our technology. So the analogy would have to be that magic is what messes up magic. Hmmmmm.

So I am still trying to think through this. These thoughts are at best half baked. I think there would have to be some manner of “opposite” magics that would start to interfere with each other. Example - If you have a sword with magical poison on it (assuming death magic) and armor that gives you regeneration (life magic), then at some point, they would interfere with each other. A flaming mace and a ring of fire resistance. Tunic of flying and bow of petrifying other people (assuming elemental air and earth here).

So if you drag a ring of fire resistance across a flaming weapon, does it automatically wipe it out? No, I don’t think so. So when? Well, I think you would need to store them separately. I think if the two objects were left in a treasure chest for centuries, the two would both be ruined by the time they were rediscovered. On a more immediate case, I think it would somehow take a fumble or the equivalent to have the two items either wipe each other out or have one wipe out the other.

So if a fumble can wipe out your magic items, then you might want to think about not carrying off-setting items. You might want to hope you can get your magic to overwhelm your enemy’s when the two weapons clash (probably a critical). I’m still working this out, but you get the idea. What are you thinking now?

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Silver Mines = Silver Coins (and that’s a good thing)

I actually read a lot about ancient economies, especially during the medieval era. Yeah, I’m a geek, but you’re a role player, so can you throw stones? Anyway, one of my favorite books on the subject mentioned something that has had an impact on me for some time now: It was important where they mined the silver they used to make coins.

OK, this seems logical and all, but it is actually a lot more important than you might think. Just as happens today, the “world’s currency” (today considered to be the US Dollar) gets to have a far bigger impact on the value of things than the other guy’s get to. What does this mean in your game world? Well, if most of the world’s silver is coming from one region and most folks use silver to make coins, then what the silver miners think something is worth is most likely what it’s worth, even if the iron miners think differently. Why? Well, because people have to trade with the silver miners in order to get their silver. Oh, you can trade your stuff to the iron miners to get silver from them, but that’s adding middle men and is never going to be your best deal. The same holds true if gold is your main currency - the gold miners hold huge influence.

So what? Assuming you don’t just trust your FRPG rule book to tell you what things are worth in your world (and OMG please don’t), then it matters that the silver miners prefer caraway and cinnamon to mace and cayenne pepper. It matters if they think that rubies are better than sapphires, even though chemically they’re practically the same thing. It matters far less if there are silver mines in every country of your world, because then their influence is distributed.

I have another point to make, but I want to avoid getting too deep into monetary policy: The amount of “money” in the world can be measured in many different ways. Modern countries do not agree on what constitutes money, even when each of them has 5+ measurements. Because of that, it is really tough to say this, but ... Only about 10% of the “money” in the US is actually currency as you would see it. How? OK, let’s take a fantasy example: Ben the merchant gives Alan the store owner sixteen bolts of wool cloth. In exchange, Alan gives him a “check” that Ben can cash back in the capital when he sees Alan’s cousin Dean. (Dean will give Ben coins for the check.) While Ben is traveling to the capital, he thinks he has 100 gold coins, because he has the check. Meanwhile, Dean thinks he has 100 gold coins, because he hasn’t made good on the check. Did Alan create 100 gold coins? Of course not, but now the world thinks it is 100 gold coins wealthier than it was before he wrote that check.

Again, so what? While I cannot believe that a fantasy era society would have 90% of its “money” wrapped up in deposits and other “digital” era creations, there still are questions that you might want to answer. Are there banks that lend money to people so they can buy homes, and did those banks get that money by taking deposits from other people? How much does it cost to borrow and how much does it pay to invest/deposit? Or, do the nobles hold all power of loaning money like this because they are the only ones with the money to lend? In Rhum (Fletnern), it is illegal to use the money given to you for safekeeping (on deposit), so they will never have a bank failure, but very few people can afford to buy homes (everybody rents). You may not care about a lot of this stuff, but it does have an impact. Let me give you some mission ideas:

A bank holds the deposits of all the members of the _____ guild and invests them by lending to merchants who trade via ocean going ships. What happens when a ship is taken by pirates? A huge amount of the guild’s money (people’s nest eggs) has just been stolen and the bank is not going to get it back without help from some adventurers. Seems like a “normal” retrieve loot adventure, right? Well, the bank doesn’t want anyone to know what happened, so it has to be kept quiet. Plus, the bank is going to lie to the adventurers and overstate the cargo of the ship hoping that they manage to bring back the ship and more of the pirate’s loot than the ship originally had. If the party does, who gets that profit? Should the party? the bank? the depositors? the original owners? It can get complicated! If the ship sank, are there sea laws as to who owns the cargo while it is on the bottom of the ocean? Today these laws can get pretty sticky, and the local “king” may think the cargo is his. (or the merman king might think it’s his.)

What if Ben gives Alan’s check to the party as payment for something? They go to the capital only to find out that Dean doesn’t have a brother named Alan and refuses to honor the check. Maybe they’re brothers and maybe they’re not. Maybe Ben is the thief or maybe Alan is, or perhaps Dean. The party wants their money but may have to do some serious investigating to figure out who it is that is cheating them. Then they can kill everyone in the house, because we know that’s what adventurers do, right?

Keep thinking about how this can affect your game world. We’re talking about a lot of money here, and a lot of money means a lot of opportunity for paying adventurers.

Monday, December 21, 2015

High Fantasy - Invisible Allies

The easiest way to give a character in a FRPG more power is to give them more allies. Since these are high fantasy games we’re talking about, how about giving them an invisible ally? I am not talking about an invisible assassin who sits in the corner with a cross bow, I am talking about supernatural allies.

Is the character a necromancer or in some other way in league with the dead? Would some manner of ghost or haunt stay nearby? Religious? whether a priest or not, those who benefit the gods are likely to have a minor angel or demon hovering around them at all times. Mages? Are there spirits of magic in your game? how about sprites or pixies? Hunters or other nature dwellers could have dogs or something more like a dryad.

Am I suggesting that you dramatically increase the ability of the character to fight battles? Oh my God NO!! If that is really how you took that, you’re probably in the wrong blog. What I am suggesting is that having unseen supernatural allies around serves a number of incredibly powerful purposes. For instance - The spirit of the dead or the magical spirit might be able to sense things like clairvoyance or other snooping spells. A dog, especially a supernatural one, would sniff out invisible assassins as they were moving in (even if the dog was useless in battle afterwards - still hugely valuable). Depending on the god or devil who sent the “minion” they could do just about anything, from warning of impending dangers to healing to casting some manner of defensive/protection spell. It seems perfectly reasonable for major landowner (Count or Duke) who encourages his people to worship a certain deity to have an angel who can cast a “summon armor” type spell on the nobleman, or a devil who can do the same. Of course the appearance of the armor would be dramatically different, but the effect would be the same.

A couple of examples in one of my campaigns: There is a warrior who has inadvertently done several missions for one of the major war gods. Because this warrior had never “declared” that they worshiped this god, he cannot wrap them in his full protections, but he did assign a messenger type angel to follow them around and report back what they do. (My gods are not all knowing; they need to have agents.) Not only does this angel spy and report, but it serves a guardian of sorts. Should any other god try to get their hooks into this warrior, the angel is there to warn them off. Eventually they did “declare” for this god, and a more powerful messenger showed up, as well as some rather serious “markings” of the war god’s “territory”.

One of the characters married the local baron. As Baroness, she gets involved in all sorts of issues in the city and region. One thing she did was suppress the racial bigotry against what is effectively the gypsies. Not only does she have a fortune teller (with real magic), but she has made a point of bringing guards into their neighborhood when there were people looking to terrorize them. In return, they gave her an incredibly artistic deck of cards. There’s no extra magic on it, other than the standard fortune telling magic (that the gypsy herself has), but only the baroness is allowed to handle the cards. The fortune tellers know that one of the spirits of fortune telling will detect the deck and latch onto it. The fortune telling spirits (in my campaign) can be incredibly vain, so only a powerful spirit will be able to claim this deck as its channel to the mortal realm. That pride will work in the Baroness’ favor as that spirit can then be manipulated using its pride to find out things that lesser spirits might not be able to learn, thus making the deck more powerful.

This is the kind of crazy stuff that needs to be in a high fantasy campaign. Can a fortune teller tell fortunes using tea leaves? Yes, but when you introduce a fancy ebony wood deck with gold and silver leaf and its own personal vain spirit, that’s when it is not only cool (from a role-playing POV) but also has some impact in the actual playing of the game. How often was the war angel useful? Never. Well, once - a priest of the same god wasn’t trusting the party, but he noticed that the angel was there, and immediately changed his tune. The players didn’t get it at the time, but that’s OK. I may rant against a certain author who is the darling of novels and HBO, but he has reminded us that supernatural things happen, and not everyone needs to understand them for them to still be both fun and memorable.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

World Building - Cultures that Don’t Work

I have come to realize that I’m not the only one who does this, so I thought I’d bring it up. In some ways, I see world building as a cathartic social commentary. What do I mean? Well, have you ever created a culture (current or historic) that follows some social policy that you believe is completely stupid? The point of your creation was to demonstrate what would happen if this social policy were used.

Let me give you an example (not mine!). There are folks out there who refer to themselves as anarcho-capitalists. They believe so strongly in the free market that they think that all governments should be abolished. They believe that the free market will encourage people to advance and everyone will thrive. One of our fans has two of these guys in his gaming group and set up a new campaign for when they all got back to school in the fall. A big part of the plan was that the core region follows these anarcho-capitalist principals and then to show how horrible everything becomes. (In my mind - the Lincoln County War is an example of what happens in a nearly complete anarcho-capitalist society. While I hate the levels that the current world governments have achieved in suppressing business, I do accept that a government preventing businesses from using force against its customers and competitors is a good thing.)

So what’s the point? The point is for you as the GM to let your imagination soar! Pick a region of your world that might be ignored at the moment, or perhaps more easily, pick an era. Build up a society that is/was using those principles that you believe to be foolish. You will need to determine if these people building this society are true believers or simply using this as a bullshit excuse for how/why they are taking over. Then think through what would happen as this society starts to run its course. Try to be fair, or if you feel that the issue is that this concept cannot survive a “jolt” (any emergency issue), then give them some run time before you jolt them.

But why? #1, because it can be cathartic. Honestly analyzing how this social principle will affect a culture can either prove your theories correct or give you some legitimate criticism of your criticism. #2, because it is cool. You have now just developed a region or era that you far better understand and would be able to GM if you had to. Also, because you will probably have wanted to consider the interactions between this society and its neighbors, you have probably deepened the history and lore of your game world, which is always a good thing.

For the non-role-players who don’t care about history or culture, crazy societies do crazy things. If they are sacrificing gold to the lake god, then the bottom of the lake is now covered in gold - you only have to slaughter the natives to get it. If they believe that mortal and demon interactions are fruitful, then they probably crafted a whole bunch of demon infused weapons. These weapons have a tendency to cause huge amounts of damage, but then corrupt the souls of those who use them. This means the gold farming player gets his massive damage weapon and the GM gets to teach him that the role-playing aspects of the game are important. There are always adventure sparks hidden in these histories you are creating!