Sunday, October 4, 2015

Filler NPCs that have feel real

So often, our game worlds feel like stage productions where there are a couple of people with lines, but everybody else sort of fades into this scenery - or is only assumed to exist. Think about it. When the player characters walk into that tavern to coincidentally run into the guy with a mission, does anyone know who else is in the bar? Beyond the mission giver, the bartender (typically the owner), and maybe a waitress, do you know who’s there? That’s just one example. If things are happening in an established town or even city in your world, how much do you know?

But you’re a game master. You have a job or classes that fill tons of your time and don’t have a lot of time to think up folks who just don’t matter, right? So you can buy pre-planned products, we sell several. [Royalty is probably one of the best as it lays out the entire court of a decent sized kingdom or barony. More characters than you should need.] But sometimes, you need to make them up yourself to have them actually fit in your world. Here is what I think is one of the easiest ways to do that: fill out the family.

Here’s how you do it: Let’s assume that a couple of missions ago you laid out that bar where all the hiring of adventurers happens. As we suggested, you know the owner and the waitress and the owner’s wife who works as the cook. So what’s next? Who else do they need at the tavern? Is it an inn (do they rent rooms)? If so do they need some manner of maid? Do they need a handyman? If the owner is the bartender he can’t do everything. Maybe you add a couple of bartenders who work every other night. This didn’t take too much brain power did it? Good, let’s move on. Let’s fill out the maid a little. Let’s make her the owner’s sister-in-law. That adds drama right there! Give her a touch of backstory. Does she work here because she’s a widow and her sister and brother in law are being charitable? Does she feel she works too hard and isn’t treated like a member of the family? Let’s move on.

How old is the owner? Did he inherit the inn? Assuming he did, does he have any siblings and how pissed are they that he got the inn? Maybe his younger brother owns the stable across the street - his inheritance. That sort of makes sense, right? Any other siblings? Let’s add a sister who married a farmer and lives outside of town. How do we hook her in? Well, her husband makes some of the ale they serve at the tavern. Lower quality, but he’s family so they do what they can to support him. What happened to the owner’s parents? Are they dead or retired?

OK, so far we’ve added extra characters to your town hopefully without taxing your imagination. You don’t need fully fleshed out characters, but you are building depth simply by keeping track of the familial relations. Let’s skip the rest of that extended family and try something else. Assuming that this is a heavily agricultural region, then one of the most important folks in the town is going to be the miller. Probably one of the wealthiest too. We’ll assume he inherited the mill from his parents. How many siblings does he have? How upset are they that he has the mill? Maybe he was the only son and has two sisters. His folks got those two married off to farmers with reasonably large farms (through large dowries), so the sisters aren’t angry, but they do have sons of their own. Does that mean our miller has nephews working for him? Are they good workers or lazy? Let’s assume they are good workers for now. What about the brothers in law? Are they still trying to get more out of their wife’s family? Maybe one is a good guy and happy that his sons are finding solid work at the mill. The other is a schemer and is trying to figure out how he can inherit the mill that his brother in law owns. By just thinking about one guy (the miller) and his family, we have now gotten a couple of notes on two farmers, two farm wives, several mill workers, etc. And all of these folks would likely be gathering at the tavern on a cool autumn night when adventurers are being hired.

Does it matter? Well, yeah sort of. If the barroom brawl breaks out, those three mill workers may have seemed boring and unassuming, but they’re cousins and will protect each other no matter what else happens. That one table may have two women and a man arguing, but they are the miller and his two sisters. They may look like the common folk (which they are) but they are the wealthiest common folk in the town. Not only do you now have these little surprises waiting behind the scenes for your players, but the further you get into this, the more mission oriented things are going to pop out. Think of it like some of the online/console games you play. Ever pick up a major mission only to find out that there are a couple of side quests that you can get done with relatively little extra effort? Well if the mission is to kill the local bandits, then maybe one of the major farm wives wants you to recover a piece of jewelry that was stolen from her by the bandits. Maybe her son wants to come along and help (because they robbed his mother). Maybe insulting the ale in the tavern is an insult to owner’s family pride, no matter how bad they know it is.

The point is NOT to waste time coming up with all this stuff! The point is (or at least is intended to be) that with 15-30 minutes of brainstorming, you can generate a couple dozen characters with interconnectivity and a touch of history. That makes your whole world seem so much richer! But be careful. Not every family is the Bushes. Yes, in the US there is a family where dad and son were both president and the other son might be president soon. These types of families (where everyone is important) are excessively rare. Remember to make up some boring people too! Not everyone is successful. Most families have a couple of losers. Many losers are quite content to be losers. You don’t want your campaign world focused on these losers, but knowing who they are shows everyone how great a GM you really are!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

More on campaign and world styles

Since I opened the door, I’m going to jump through. I am not a big fan of GRRM nor of any of his books, including the hugely popular series. So many people I have talked to about them, and I will likely classify these folks as minor fans, believe that GOT is the latest LotR. GRRM woke up at some point and decided he was going to out do JRRT. I mean what’s that with the initials anyway; isn’t that a huge tell? Because I’m not a fan, I haven’t listened to long interviews or anything like that, but it is very clear to me that GRRM never intended to write the latest version of LotR. What he did set out to do (consciously or unconsciously) was to write the newest version of War and Peace.

What do we all know about War and Peace? One of the longest books ever written. So many characters no one can keep track without a score card. A historical fiction - based on real events and in some case real people. Envelops a war to include some action even though it’s really never about the war(s). LotR may have a huge number of characters, but it’s never really about all of them. It’s about a small group of them (the Fellowship plus maybe a few more like Faramir). And the battles and war matter. They aren’t just backdrops that people can give dialog in front of them.

Do I have more to my argument? Well, what do we all joke about with Russian literature? It’s depressing, right? All this talk about death. LotR is an adventure story with true heroics. GOT is a blood bath where everybody gets killed at some point, usually a lot earlier than you thought they would. It’s just so depressing! Most folks would say that the most noble of the characters in the series was Ned Stark, and they kill him off early on. I would say that Jon Arryn was probably a good and possibly heroic character, but his death is what kicks the whole thing off.

Maybe this isn’t the right place to talk about these types of things, being a gaming blog, but I think it serves as a lesson to world builders. Know what your goal is! I’m not criticizing GRRM for rewriting War and Peace set during the War of the Roses (at least I’m not right now), but how many of his “fans” get it? Does it matter? Yeah! If your players think they’re sitting down to LotR and you serve up War and Peace, eventually they are going to catch on and be disappointed if not feel betrayed. And you don’t have Dan and Dave to rewrite things into a more exciting format.

GOT vs. WOW - Which is your game?

FRPG campaigns come in all flavors, and different styles appeal to different players. Stay with me on this one, because I think if you better understand what you’re doing subconsciously, you’ll either change direction or do it intentionally and better.

Some campaigns are like World of Warcraft. They have numerous combat encounters with some story lines in the background. Face it - Most WOW players don’t read the mission text, they see what they need to accomplish and get to it. Your game might be like that. I had players whose favorite line at the beginning of a mission was “I get in the car and go.” They were blatantly saying that they didn’t care why they were doing it, didn’t intend to do any planning, and just wanted to get into the action. You know what? They’re the most common. At major tournaments, the best players only listen to the mission intro in hopes of getting a clue as to how to beat the boss monster at the end. They aren’t there to participate in a grand story, but instead to kill some stuff for fun. Hey, no judgment here.

Some campaigns are more like Game of Thrones, but very few. Here you have to listen to what everybody says. If you listen carefully to all the subtext, you can get an idea of what everybody’s motivation is and knowing their motivation you can use it against them. These campaigns are more often run in game rules like Amber with fewer die rolls and more role-playing. Combat heavy games (those without actual social skill “rolls”) cannot handle these types of campaigns. Here the players get really invested, but they have to pay really close attention and to be honest, few are willing to do the work. Fewer GMs are willing (or able) to put in the front time to make these work.

Some campaigns are more like Lord of the Rings. These are epic battles against horrific sounding enemies and in some way the actions of a party of adventurers turns out to be more important than what all the kings and armies are doing, though the kings and armies set a pretty cool back drop to the “actual” action.

Having been a GM for a bunch of decades, I have some theories about these. I think the WOW style constant action with just the hint or pretense of a story are the kind of campaigns that many of the beginning players and GMs go for. They want the action; it’s like going to see a Schwarzenegger movie. They’re fun, but can be a little like rock candy - too much of a good thing. I think those guys grow into the more LoTR style campaign. Now the GM has a better handle on his world, and the players have “been there-done that” with most of the major monsters. Now they need something bigger, something grander. But it is a little hollow. The party has saved the world from destruction multiple times, but still needs to pay a copper coin in the bar for a beer. As the GM writes more and more for his world, he wants to draw the players in deeper and deeper. Now he’s getting into the GoT style of game. There are more NPCs than the players can keep track of and more plots then either the players or the GM will ever be able to get to the end of.

So what’s the best? The obvious answer is that the best solution is a mixture of all three, but how do you do that? First off, you need to make sure that what the GM wants and what the players want is the same thing. Assuming they’re close, you lean towards what everybody wants. I’ve made every mistake I have alluded to in this post, but you get to learn from my mistakes. Let me give you some hints:

Combat action is probably necessary in every FRPG mission. If nobody fights, it really doesn’t feel like an RPG. But the fights should make sense. Fighting through random encounters in the woods that occur because the random encounter die roll says it should is a waste of everyone’s time no matter how much experience or gold the PCs get. Stationary monsters with no food sources make no sense. It really isn’t that tough to say - I know there’s a pack of wolves in this forest that the PCs need to get through. I assume that they eat the deer and lesser animals in the forest, but they must be hunting. When the party comes into their territory, the wolves will hunt them too. Just having the wolves come from behind the party or ambush at night makes so much more sense than acting like they were cockroaches that go scrambling into battle when someone enters their clearing.

Epics can be very cool, but you should probably align the party with someone or something that has true power. If the party is a group of scouts for the main cavalry force in the country, they can still get into scrapes that matter without being the ring bearer. Something like this allows the king/general to be the huge hero and the party to be his favorite group of problem solvers instead of them actually being the end all and be all. King, general, court wizard, dean of the college, historian, admiral, mob boss - any of these guys could be the big boss, and the party works with and for him. Still part of epic stuff, just a touch more realistic when after they help to save the world, they’re still not worshipped in the temples. After a while, one of them might become that general or maybe king consort, but then you’re really going to be moving into the next style.

If you truly want to have an expansive world where everyone has their own motivations and their own personalities, then as a GM you need to be ready to adjust the outcomes for what your players do. Whether your players are saints or jackasses they are going to kill off one of the important people. Then you have to adjust. How does that change things you were planning? Don’t get mad, get clever. Also - They are not going to remember everyone from week to week. There is nothing wrong with giving your players cheat sheets. Make multiple copies or they’ll fight over it. Give them notes on who is who and what they already know. Being less confused, they are going to be a lot happier and not feel like they had to study for a test.

This was really long, I know. Maybe you see something you’re doing or not doing. Hopefully you got an idea or more than one. There’s nothing wrong with playing the way you want to play, but none of these styles of play taken in the extreme is going to please everyone in a moderately sized group of players. Blending is the absolute key!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Linking those darned adventures

Remember Raiders of the Lost Ark? The whole thing starts with Indy going to find the headpiece to the staff of Ra, something his buddy Abner Ravenwood had already found. So the biggest adventure ever starts by going back to something that was already found.

The more I think about this, the more I love it! So the party goes and raids a pyramid in order to wipe out the undead that have been messing up the neighborhood - normal stuff. Inside they find a helmet/head piece with some cheaper rubies in it, along with other fantastic mummy jewelry. The party does what? They sell it as loot, even if the rubies are low value. Four missions later, a guy comes into the bar to hire the party: I understand you are the group that raided the pyramid. I need you to help me find the lost temple of some god, but the only way to do it is to have someone wear the helmet and cast a relatively normal spell. You still have the helmet, right?

Of course they don’t! Now they have to go back through their fences and remember who they sold the helmet to. What if he passed it on? What if they started dismantling it? What if they forget where it went? This only works if you as GM have a semi-decent idea of who they sell their stuff to, and what they do around the city between adventures, and other things along these lines. But that’s the point - You get to start with an urban adventure and then move into the lost temple mission.

This is just one example of using an item to link adventures. I don’t think the linking item should be a mundane thing. It would have to be something reasonably unique. Might even be historic, so the fence may sell it to a museum for huge money - vastly more than the party received. Obviously the specifics in this post aren’t important, but having an item that is linked to a future mission is what matters. Might even be funny if the person holding the item has thrown it into a chest filled with similar “junk” and has to sort through to find it.

Why? Because campaigns need to have links. Because players need to feel that their characters are alive - alive in between missions, not just during them. Because it might make your players think twice before dumping everything for whatever meager gold they can get for it. and lastly, Because a link like this makes people invested in the missions and their characters, which makes them want to come back for more of your games.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Fantasy Factories

I mentioned that I have factories in my fantasy world (in Fast ideas follow-up) and thought I should probably clear some of that up.

First off, the benefit of factories is that while everyone is working, there are people around taking care of the little things. Like what? Well, cleaning up, bringing supplies to the workers, managing, handling suppliers, perhaps maintenance or other repair of the equipment, all those thing that those of us outside that industry would never think about as necessary, but are part of the normal work day. So when I’m working on all those economy things (like Grain Into Gold or Pockets), I usually give a worker 7.5 hours of work in a 10 hour day. In a factory, there are a bunch of other people around, so the workers are actually doing 10 hours of work in a day. So as long as you can pay some kids to sweep the floor and deliver supplies, then you will be saving money instead of having the craftsmen do those little jobs. But that’s the economics of the things.

So how do they work? Well none of my cultures utilize assembly lines. Even in factories, a craftsman makes the entire item. For the most part, interchangeable parts don’t exist, though the dwarves have achieved this in many of the things they do (at least within the clans - between the clans, parts are still not uniform). But there are some circumstances where the casting of metal parts do bring most cultures near to this. Why do I mention of all this? Because you need to forget what you think about when you picture a factory.

So what is a factory like? They are all different. A brewery is a factory because they are using huge tanks to brew beer that is mostly standardized - consistent quality. A brick making factory has the craftsmen making the bricks with teams of guys bringing in the clay, hauling off the bricks to the kiln, firing the kiln, and stacking the bricks. Ceramics factories (like where they would make plates, pitchers, and steins) work mainly the same way except that it takes extra time to craft a pitcher compared to a brick. A sawmill is a factory (under this weird explanation) because you have lumberjacks bringing in the trees, “craftsmen” operating the machinery, and other guys handling the drying of the lumber. Now a grist mill by comparison would likely not be a factory, because the miller is probably dealing with customers, determining the scheduling, running the milling, managing the staff, etc. all by himself.

An enchantment factory has enchanters working on the magic, while all sorts of servants and apprentices bring them the items they need. Each has his own “workstation” which is typically a granite work table. In the enchantment factory, they can have appropriate guards to protect the workers, the raw materials, and the product. They can also share some of the magical equipment and tools that are probably hugely expensive, but if you have five guys all using the same expensive tool, it doesn’t turn out to be as expensive. I mainly use enchantment factories for those cities that have massive armies and can afford to have a factory churning out low powered magical items for the officers and special operatives. Don’t believe there should be enchantment factories? Think about the cost of a single cruise missile or low light goggles in the modern world.

I’m not suggesting that every small town will have a factory, but in the major cities, greed for profits will find efficiencies where they exist. Any time a guy can get a bunch of people working for him and make a boatload of money, he’s going to do it.

Friday, September 4, 2015

d1000 - Pockets

Board Enterprises has just released d1000 Pockets, as in What has it got in its ...

Yep - You read that right - d1000. Actually there are over 1,100 items in the book. Why? Well, it is a random loot generator for when your players are picking pockets (or otherwise looting folks). d100 gets boring really fast! Even d1000 can get a little weird when items that feel like they should be really special show up a couple of times. That’s why this chart has over one hundred alternates and other side items that don’t show up normally in the random sequencing. If you roll something that doesn’t seem to fit, just use the alternate for that item.

So what is it exactly? A random loot chart. But there is more. First off, it has a very good random coinage chart for determining how many coins a person has in their pocket. None of the 1100+ items are spare change. Second, it has a reasonably good way to determine what a “pocket” is - or more commonly, what kind of coin purse is this character carrying.

But wait, there’s more. Every item in the book is priced at base, wholesale and collector values. Base is what the materials are worth. Easy enough on a small silver medallion - it’s worth the weight of the silver, if you were to melt it down. Sometimes these are a little better, as in a hammer being worth what a handle costs and what the steel is worth (instead of just steel and generic firewood) or a shirt being worth what the fabric could be sold for.

More commonly, the “craft” or wholesale price is what the item is worth due to the craftsmanship that went into it. That’s normally what you’d get when fencing or selling the item. Then again, if it’s a ring with an engraving, it might only be worth the weight of the gold. The collector value doesn’t enter into Pockets too much, because that’s what the item would be worth to a collector. This covers antiques, but also things like poker chips (no real value, but still some value at the right vendor!).

So why do you want to buy d1000 Pockets? Well, because you want your game to have cool loot, but you don’t want to spend your time figuring it out. Pockets is a loot chart. And the items are often intriguing enough to have the players say, “No, I’ll keep that. We don’t need to sell it.” The second reason is that it gives you the wholesale value for 1100+ items that follow the Grain Into Gold economy. Now it isn’t a perfect fit as a price guide, because there are a lot of items that are not worth a copper coin to a vendor (a couple of cookies or a few spare leather straps for instance). For anything worth a copper or better - it’s a pretty good price guide.

It’s 37 pages of content, and you know Board Enterprises. We did not waste space on artwork. That’s 28 pages on the d1000 chart, a page on the spare coinage chart, another page on the types of coin purses, and the rest on descriptions of how things work etc. (narrative). Hate to let the surprise out of the bag, but it’s $3.99.

Those of you who read this column regularly know how long we’ve been working on this. We can promise you: d1000 Pockets makes sense! The prices, both base and craft follow an established formula that started in Grain Into Gold and was massively expanded for this book. That does not mean you need to own Grain Into Gold to use this book (but why wouldn’t you want to own GIG?), but it does mean that we’ve got this thing down! From here on out, we should be able to turn around loot and treasure lists vastly quicker than it took on Pockets, while still maintaining that game balance that is vital to long running campaigns. Yes - The long term goal is a book I have been referring to as “The Great Big Book of Loot”. I won’t even say coming soon, just coming.

See it on RPG Now or on Warehouse 23.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

FRPG Global organizations

I have a problem with global organizations in fantasy eras. Now, this is going to sound hypocritical because I have global organizations in Fletnern, but I think that it takes something really powerful and special to have a global organization.

First - Why are they a problem? With the ability (or more importantly the lack of ability) to communicate over long distances, how do these organizations organize? How can the “mages guild” have chapters in every city? OK - They can have chapters, but they should not be seen as a global organization, more like franchises of major organization based somewhere else.

It really is this communication issue and the lack of organization that I think is the problem. If you have a “global organization” but they do not communicate frequently, enforce their rules, and constantly maintain a strict, common code, then it isn’t really a global organization and shouldn’t be considered all that global.

Some examples of how it can work: The High Order of Telepathy in Fletnern - These guys are all mentalists who can communicate across major distances. They act as a style of telegraph office for sending messages. But before you say I just wiped out my argument about any global organization communicating, the messages are like telegraphs - 10 words per message unless you’re willing to really pay through the nose. Also, each relay telepath gets the message and then passes it along - so no secrets can move this way. Further, there is a central school where most of them are trained, and they have a secret police force that can easily look into your mind and determine truth and intent, so you really can’t just trick them. They have the ability to control their own communications and enforce their rules. These guys work.

The Roman Catholic Church of the past - Global organization, right? Well, yeah, but how well did that work for them? Even with the Pope sending envoys and other guys out to try and keep the radicals in line, all sorts of nonsense happened. Now your modern Protestant will likely blame these on the church as a whole and forget that they too were part of that church at the time, but that’s beside the point. I bring this up because I think it is a fairly good example of how even the most powerful organization in the Western World at that time was unable to truly act as a global organization - way too much variation from country to country and lots of in-fighting. No, I am not saying they are/were evil, just unable to maintain a global organization with the level of technology they had at the time. For a global religion to work, the divine would need to be extremely actively involved, basically handling communications himself (sending angels down and stuff like that, not just to a prophet here or there, but to pretty much every bishop or regional leader). Hey - It’s high fantasy. You can do that if you want.

The Cartographers Guild - This is less a global organization and more like a loose federation. It works because map makers have a tendency to travel, so they can handle their own communications. They share their maps and try to go for honest and truthful maps. When they find a cheater (someone selling false or inaccurate maps), they report that guy to the local king. They cannot enforce their own rules, but rely on others to do it for them. Not only that, but they tend to inform the local king by letter as they are leaving town, just in case the king happens to be the map maker’s brother in law.

Slavers’ Guilds - This is the thing I really hate. These occur in literature, and they give these guys nearly omnipotent powers. They don’t do it intentionally, but they do give them extreme powers. Yes, slavery should be a part of fantasy adventure. It occurred too often in history to be assumed to be rare. Yes, they travel around, delivering slaves to markets all over the world, so you can say that they might be able to communicate. You might even think that they could have enforcers who audit slave auctions and make sure no one is cheating (however that works with their rules). What I really object to is the idea that the slavers would/could all work for the same global organization and in some fashion pay taxes and all work together. Slaver traders might need some level of organization and rules, but they are among the most despicable people in the history of the world. Are we to assume that the slavers who are typically capturing people in lesser civilized places or buying captured war slaves are going to agree to and follow a set of rules? I just cannot buy it (no pun intended). Each slaver would have a solid fighting force, more than enough to disappear a couple of auditors. Imagine how powerful and able to cross incredible distances a slaver lord would have to be in order to enforce his will on these powerful, secretive and cunning slavers.

Way too long - Hope I made some points. More, I hope you thought of a couple of ideas for things you have or are going to put into your world. Either figure out how your global organizations interact with themselves or agree that they really are just franchises and don’t typically believe the same things.