Monday, August 25, 2014

Fantasy World What Ifs

A while back (A New World for a New Campaign), I laid out how I thought I/we could develop new campaign worlds. There’s a reason I think about things like that - Fletnern (my current campaign world - available here for FREE!) is over 30 years old. Plans I have had in place for >20 years are still brewing. I just can’t bring myself to dramatically alter the world in a way that I haven’t had planned for at least a decade. Yeah - I know - that’s a personality fault, possibly related to OCD.

But the truth is: I absolutely love “What If” comics. Take characters and settings you know and love and then twist a major plot point. I love those things, but in the back of my mind is that lesson that all creative folks should have learned from the “lost season” of Dallas: No one wants to wake up and find out that Patrick Duffy is alive and in the shower. OK - That wasn’t really the lesson, but you know what I mean. No one wants to invest time and energy into getting involved in a story line just to learn that it was all “a dream”.

I actually have a usable technique for this, though it is a little too comic book based: I use alternate realities. Here’s the reason - In an alternate reality/timeline, you can change things, tweak the past to develop a whole new future, and then return home without having that timeline affect your main campaign. BUT! You can also return to that timeline at some point, so it doesn’t really go away. It is like having a series of pocket campaign worlds where you don’t have to redraw the maps.

You can of course do it any way you want, but I would greatly limit who can jump the time streams. In my world there are really only two ways this has happened: 1) there is a titan who can move from one timeline to another and he takes an interest in the people who are critical to various time streams (read “the adventuring party”) and 2) I have allowed an ancient ogre/goblin/orc spell to do it. Before you misunderstand this “spell” - it is based on the style of magic called Ceremonial Dance. If you know the history of the Ghost Dance, this might sound somewhat familiar. To get up enough magical energy to make the spell work, you need to get entire villages and towns of people performing the same magical dance together. Though I never defined it all that well, it takes well over 1,000 spell casters working together in an enclave style.

The titan is a lot more fun, because he takes people with him. He reports back on what your alternative selfs are doing. Since half the timelines move forward (as we live) and half move backwards (not that they accept they are backwards, they insist you are living backwards), he doesn’t actually time travel. He slips into the various time streams and until he winds up where he wants to in yours, then transfers out. So in order to travel back 120 years, he has to wait 120 years in an alternate time line. Since there are currently at least two of these guys running around, at least one of them learned how to magically hibernate, so he doesn’t actually live through everything, though he has less detailed information than his alternate twin.

This is already way too long, but why do it? Ever make up an enemy or enemy group that you loved, but your players made mincemeat out of? Well, in an alternate time line, the party failed and these guys got their way. Now the “only group to have defeated them” needs to time slip in and kick their asses again, only this time, they are vastly more powerful having been successful in building up their base. Were they on the winning side of a war? Alternate timeline - they lost, and now the last surviving member of the party has come to beg for aid. (I’d use a loyal follower here and not actually one of the player characters.) Yes - This is pretty Days of Future Past, but it is also Star Trek, Dr. Who, and generically every other sci-fi show at some point. Might even think Terminator.

I think it is very important to let them know that this isn’t their reality. Maybe not at step 1, but definitely early on. Otherwise they feel like their characters were written into a bad Dallas season.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Wonders of the World are Losers?

Building both on Monuments - The Really Big Ones and Even the Losers Get Lucky

What happens to the losers when they are really huge? I’ve always been fascinated by the Seven Wonders of the World - even before wasting enormous portions of my life playing Civilization I-V. Did you know that of the Seven, only one still stands today? Only the Great Pyramid can still be seen in the modern world. What happened to the other six? Well, most were destroyed by earthquakes or other natural issues. But shouldn’t they still be “visible” even in ruins? Nope!

I think the best example is the Tomb of Mausolus. Though at one time the most magnificent tomb in the world, in the end, it was dismantled and used to build castle walls. The stones can still be seen today as “bricks” in the massive walls. Worse yet, the statues were burned to make quicklime for the mortar of those castle walls. That’s just insulting and embarrassing. The Colossus of Rhodes was originally built (depending on who you believe) either from the equipment left behind after a failed attack on Rhodes or from the profits from the sale of that equipment. That’s where they got all that bronze. So the Colossus is both born from a loser and later (only 56 years later) becomes a loser itself when it collapsed. But they left the “corpse” there for hundreds of years until a conqueror sold the bronze as a war prize.

So - Where are the ruined monuments in your world? Were they carried off as trophies like the statue of Zeus? Are they possibly mythical, as some believe the Hanging Gardens to be? (I’m in the camp that they simply weren’t Nebuchadnezzar, but instead Sennacherib, but that’s not the point of this post.) Were the pieces and parts used for another project, perhaps one equally as impressive or maybe pathetically not so? The number of castles that no longer exist because the locals treated them as quarries is countless.

OK - for the gold farmers - Why should you care? Well, the statue of Zeus was ivory and gold - HUGE wealth. In a fantasy world, it seems most likely that projects of this size would have used magic. That magic would still be left behind. Think about massive religious magical artifacts - something powerful enough to have a massive temple built around it. Even in ruins, that magic should still be there. Even if it is not - Did the guards have magic of their own that might still be there, in use or not? We all know ruins can be valuable, especially those that were set up for important (monumental) but not practical purposes.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Are Your Weapons Indestructible?

Are your weapons indestructible? From the earliest versions of Legend Quest we had optional rules to handle damage to weapons and damaged weapons. They were optional because we knew they would add additional time into combat; time we didn’t want the players to spend. But even with intentions this old, we’ve never really released rules on weapons breaking due to excessive wear and tear.

In Legend Quest Optional Weapons, we introduced the Breech/Break/Batter rules for when people would target your weapons. I always kind of hate the idea there because I don’t want to be the GM who gives a guy a great magical sword and then has the next villain try to break it. We also have other optional rules covering weapons breaking due to fumbles and weapons used too long in combat without being sharpened. Here the long use in combat lowers damage but does not actively weaken the weapon itself, only its usefulness. Still, I think I’m OK with that. Your weapon can take damage and it can become less effective. Of course weapons that are magically sharp don’t need to be sharpened, making even the lowly simple sharpness spell of great value.

To me, indestructible weapons (as you find in most games) are like combat systems without bleeding damage. You stand there toe to toe with a dragon right up until you fall over dead. Right up until that last point of life, you are fighting at full strength. Fantasy game or not, I don’t like it. My biggest issue here is that by most game rules, an armored knight with a magic long sword fighting against a farmer with a hoe - and there is no risk to the hoe at all. Of course, the farmer will be dead in less than 10 seconds without ever having had any chance, but the hoe - indestructible. I get that doing it right takes more time, but sometimes it’s worth it!

Oh, and on Legend Quest optional rules: 2016 is our 25th anniversary. We’re planning an omnibus edition of the rule book which will contain the optional rules that have been appropriately playtested. OK, maybe some that haven’t, but that’s where you’ll see the optional rules. Oh, and you’ll have a chance to playtest them before publication. We’re still planning, but we’ll let you know everything as we get closer. 2016 is the Year of Legend Quest! It’s really not as far off as you think!

Even the Losers Get Lucky

We GMs study history and often try to use the strategies and tech in our fantasy campaigns and campaign worlds. But are we only studying the winners? How often do we consider the losers? I don’t, at least I don’t often enough. What do I mean? I think we need some examples:

- For every Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, how many tech entrepreneurs bombed? What happened to them? Are they working for Microsoft or Apple or are they teaching community college computer science? Do they have a huge chip on their shoulder or intense bitterness?
- Remember all those barbarian tribes that gave Rome such a problem? Most of them were doing that because more powerful tribes were driving them out of their homelands. They were actually the losers of other wars attacking Rome because they were caught between a rock and a hard place. We all think about the Huns and the Mongols, but how many small wars did their expansions create? Where did all the refugees go?
- Irish Potato Famine - There are a ton of us in the USA who know exactly where those refugees went; they came here. Anti-Irish prejudice was rampant, and they had a horrible time trying to find work and feed their families, but a couple generations later, they were the politically powerful in areas that had been slums and ghettos. By the way - Did you know that there was enough food to feed all of Ireland being grown in the country? It was being exported. I agree that modern historians should consider whether this was a natural disaster or an evil social engineering.

OK - next two are hugely politically incorrect, but still historic and should be considered. You’ve been warned.
- We all know the Nazis killed millions of Jews and others during their reign, but right now focus on the money. When those Jews were wealthy and had great artworks, the Nazis confiscated them and individual party leaders often attempted to hide that wealth away. Later when the Nazis were put down, many of these art treasures were found, but you cannot return them to someone who was mass murdered. There are still court cases today 70+ years later. It gets really complicated - If a Jew sold a treasure for 10% of its value in order to raise funds to escape Germany, are his descendants entitled to that treasure since it was in many opinions stolen from him? Also - You now have a country with quite a few mass graves. After that many people were killed, those bodies have to go somewhere. Let’s not forget that many believe that the reparations forced on Germany after WWI are directly responsible for the rise of the Nazi Party and therefore are one of the chief causes of WWII. So, the winners and losers of WWI caused WWII by their actions. That makes the losers pretty darn important!
- After the USA Civil War, all slaves were freed (eventually). Where did they go? Many stayed put and lived lives not that different from how they lived before. Many flocked to places where they thought they would be given a fair chance, but that didn’t always work out either. Even though they were effectively the “winners”, they still created a refugee issue. And what about the South? Things were completely messed up by the loss of so many prominent citizens as well as the inflow of carpetbaggers and other scoundrels.

The point is that after a major conflict, something needs to happen with the losers, and the ramifications of that are often more important that what happened to the winners. The winners often go on living as they did before, though sometimes with vastly more territory. The losers’ lives are changed forever.

I do use these ideas in Fletnern. I already discussed the Dethebs fleeing their earthquake ravaged homeland and being turned into slaves. There was a Goblin Empire civil war that caused the orcs and goblins to flee south (to the Gold Mountains) pushing the dwarves out of their ancestral homes. The elves fled Kouluckssie (don’t let them hear you say that!) and built a new country for themselves in the Slyvanian Forest. But in the need to build a new homeland, they needed more muscle, so they brought satyr, centaur and minotaur slaves with them. Later these slaves were released due to changing moral ethics, but then they needed to go somewhere too. Perhaps the best example - The Lats of Garnock attacked Villai. They won, but lost far too many men. So they retreated and regrouped, for a generation! They stormed back out and almost took over the continent. This time when they retreated, they closed the gates of their city and lived another generation as isolationists. But the Lats held Parnania for almost a generation. When they eventually pulled out of Parnania, there were major issues of who owned what land: the owners before the war? the Yugsilantis who liberated the holds?

Sunday, August 3, 2014

What’s a silver coin?

According to Coins of Fletnern (yep - it’s FREE), the standard silver coin is the Brinston crown: “The silver Crown measures approximately an inch across and is roughly an eighth of an inch thick. While this is roughly the same diameter of a U.S. quarter, it is twice the thickness. It is however three times the weight, because silver is heavier (actually denser) than the zinc and copper used in the quarter.”

But what is it worth? The average salary in the USA (based on the social security records for 2012) is roughly $44,300. (Remember that this average includes those 1%ers that everybody always gets so jealous of.) That’s $21-22 per hour. That feels to me like someone who has a skilled job and some experience at it. I’m going to compare this rate to a skilled craftsman in Grain Into Gold, or about 12sc a day. Doing the math - That means one silver coin represents about $15USD in 2012. That’s a lot! When we first wrote Legend Quest in 1991, I remember thinking 1sc=$5. (The same math says that really would have been about $7.25, so not entirely wrong, but a bit low.)

Why does it matter? Well, the main reason it matters is that I only have copper, silver and gold coins. 100cc=10sc=1gc. This means that 1cc=$1.50. I created “bits” for Rhum, which are quarters of copper coins. That worked really well in the 1sc=$5 world, because 2 bits = $0.25, just like it did here. Now my smallest coin is effectively $0.375. It makes me wonder how the poor buy things.

I’ve recently done some math on the minting of coins, and the truth is, the person who mints the coins loses money on minting copper and silver coins. He makes quite a bit on the gold coins, no matter how I go about the math, so that’s good, but it means that unless the government is either minting the coins themselves or strictly controlling the coin minters, no one would be making silver or copper coins. That’s OK, because if you look at the US Mint’s site, they spend $0.024 per penny and $0.1118 per nickel. Dimes and quarters do pay for themselves, because dimes are cheaper to make then nickels. Still - I hate the idea that copper coins are actually a loss. (In one of my best case tries, silver coins came out really close to even. If you get the metal straight from the mine (instead of from foreign coins you buy/trade), you make money on silver and gold, but still not copper, but these guys cannot just be making brand new coins. Also, if you have to pay tax to bring the silver into the city (assuming the mint is in the city), you’re back to losing on the silver coins, though a government would probably not have to pay their own tariffs.

In Rhum, I wrote that the coins get reminted every five years. This was both an anti-counterfeiting measure as well as a means of controlling the currency. I think I need to alter that to say that the silver and gold coins are reminted, but the coppers are left as is - it just isn’t worth the effort.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Multiple Genres - How to make it really work

I am a bit embarrassed to admit - I watched the movie Frankenstein’s Army over the weekend. Was it good? No. It was very reminiscent of those classic B-grade monster movies I used to watch every Saturday night with my father on Son of Svengoolie. (I know - only you Chicago folks will fully understand that, but every town had their “creature feature”.)

So, at its core, this movie was a monster movie, on the verge of being a horror movie. But it was so much more than that. It was set during World War II and was also effectively a found footage movie. Now you might say that monster, horror and found footage are all the same genre, but I don’t think so. At least the other found footage movies I’ve seen in the horror genre dealt with a single evil menace, so the “army” aspect (there being a bunch of these monsters) I think makes it enough of a difference.

So what? Why should you as a GM care at all about this schlocky movie? Because they did such a good job of combining the genres. The platoon of Russian soldiers was perfectly WWII movie genre. You could say they were so true to the genre that it was cliché, but that’s why it worked. They didn’t have to spend time getting into the characters of guys you knew were going to die, because they standard WWII army movie platoon guys. Just here they were Russian, with the standard non-American played as a Pole. The found footage aspect had a legitimate reason (as legitimate as monster movies need for plot devices), and was played well, though I kept getting surprised that after being assaulted by zombies with scythe arms, the guy filming was still alive. I thought the blades would have shredded him from the way they seemed to be attacking, but whatever.

So - basic monster movie with WWII and found footage angles; maybe that kicks off something in your brain on how to combine genres for your game, but it didn’t stop there. The monsters were reasonably well thought out. One had a huge dome-helmet-turret on its head that prevented them from crushing its brain, which everyone knows it the way to kill a zombie. Another had a spiked diver’s helmet on. So they thought through the standard zombie flick monsters and advanced the genre itself by coming up with new angles on keeping the monsters from becoming too easy to kill by bullets. I loved it! It crossed three genres together perfectly while still being (slightly) innovative in its own base genre.

I don’t actually recommend anyone waste the time to watch this movie, but I am so energized by the fact that there are people out there doing what I always preach - cross genres to make the old new again, without spending extra time reinventing the wheel. I don’t pretend to say that they got the idea from me, but I will go with “great minds think alike”!

Teleporting

Legend Quest is both more and less restrictive on teleporting than that other game (at least the editions that I played). First - It either works or it doesn’t. There is no “do it and then figure out how dangerous it is to your life”. If there is something in the way - you don’t die, it just doesn’t work. But because it requires a hefty fatigue (especially long range teleporting), it can knock you out, and even kill you (you being the caster, even if you are not the one sent).

So when you teleport into a space, there needs to be nothing in the way. But obviously, there is gas in the way. I usually assume that the arrival causes a sudden rush of air, because the person is displacing the air that is there. Similarly, the place the person left would likely have a “pop” as the air rushed into the void left behind. Now on Fletnern, long range teleporters establish “receiving platforms”. They all know each other’s platforms and they send folks to friendly teleporters in other cities. This works because that person who just arrived probably wants to teleport back and now they know just where to get that service. The platforms are kept clear so incoming folks have a safe place to arrive.

If teleporting can displace gas, can it displace water? I don’t think so, but if I had a merman who teleported, I would probably assume that his was different. Can it displace smoke? Probably - Smoke isn’t that different from air. What about bugs? Would a teleport fail if there was a mosquito flying across the “landing zone”? I guess not, but that would make a funny issue: New Mission - find a way to save the ambassador who teleported in and now has a horsefly stuck inside his chest. What would be the maximum mass/weight that can be dispersed without incident vs. causing a failure?

I would think stretching a net across the landing zone would prevent folks from teleporting in. If blocked from teleporting in, I normally assume that the caster could then send people to a “safe place”, but what is that? Would a grassy hill be safe? No, because the grass would be in the way, unless you teleport them higher than the ground, but grass can get pretty tall. Over a river or pond? Yeah - safe, but messy as the person now splashes down. Anywhere public has too high a chance of people being in the way or even if they are not, then the risk of startling too many. Most of my cities have laws about teleporting, because you are effectively smuggling (avoiding taxes). That plus they don’t want you teleporting in assassins and other threats, but let’s face it, that is part of the business.

I think high fantasy requires this style of magical service, but you can’t make it easy.