Sunday, March 29, 2015

Who runs things?

It is my belief, and I think history bears me out, that the more distant the authority is, the higher the chance that something local will fill the void. Honestly, it is more likely that this is based not on how distant the authority is, but instead on how distant the authority is perceived to be.

What do I mean? If the king is in the capital and never comes to this town, then someone in the town is going to become the “town’s king”. It might be the mayor, whether elected or appointed by the king. Maybe the tax collector, the sheriff. Could be the local priest or whoever has the most money or the most employees. The same is true in neighborhoods in major cities. Can I show an example? Well, if the citizens believe the police are ineffective, it is common for a local gang to hold more power over the people than the police. I’m not only talking about street gangs here, but also about organized crime.

It is not always a bad thing. In exceptionally rural towns there have been situations where the local pastor gained the authority of law. His sermons may as well have been the laws of that town. It wasn’t that there wasn’t a police presence or an elected government, but the pastor was still the leader.

How does the “true” authority regain its place? By being more present. Today, it is easy to think about our government, but we have a 24 hour news cycle constantly streaming into our homes. In your fantasy world, some of those farming communities cannot even imagine what the king looks like. He’s nearly mythical to them. That allows the local power to take over. Life does not exist in the vacuum, because it fills the vacuum. How are the power vacuums in your smaller towns being filled?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Campaign Continuity

I’ve always hated “rod of seven parts” type missions. Go out and find many pieces of this one thing and then put them all together at the end. It always seemed wrong to me that so many items of power were split into multiple pieces that would all still function if jammed back together. I dislike them because I think it shows a lack of GM (or author) imagination, and by the time you hit piece five or six, the players are bored and just want it to be over. I think any time you make the party do the same thing more than three times, you’ve lost them.

So do I not believe in campaign continuity? Absolutely not. I believe that campaigns really need a form of continuity or they become a chaotic mishmash and prevent character growth. By growth I am talking about role-playing ideals, and not experience and gold farming. If nothing other than building your list of contacts, then at least you’re showing some history building.

So how would I do an item of many parts mission, assuming I thought that was something necessary? I think first they need to learn that it exists. If some wise scholar comes up to them and tells them about it, then are they just getting the stuff so he can have the item? If not, why would he tell them about it? If you’re going to spend that much time working on something then it should be pretty important - like save the city important. So let’s assume that an ancient enemy of the player’s hometown is marshalling their forces and getting ready to move invade. But someone (hopefully a player character while on a different mission) stumbles onto a find of some historic device, maybe either an artillery weapon of some kind, but in order to build it, they need all sorts of really strange parts, and they need them yesterday.

Now the players can go out on different sorts of missions to acquire the parts, but there should be other teams out doing the same. Maybe the “bowstring” on this thing needs to be dragon tendons because nothing else is strong enough, so they go out and kill some dragons. Meanwhile, another team goes out to get the granite needed to form the thing’s base and another team goes out to buy raw industrial diamonds for the ammo. So upon returning, they find out that steel isn’t strong enough so they need to go and purchase some magical metal from the dwarves, but they expect the dwarves to be jerks and maybe not let them buy what they need. Turns out the dwarves are cool about it, but at some point on that journey, the enemy has sent a hit squad to stop the party from succeeding, so they get their fighting, just not how they expected. But they return to find out that the diamonds were stolen by a bandit group before the other team got there and that team is now tracking the bandits through some major forest. So they have to go and basically bail out that group because they are really all captured by the bandits by now.

Meanwhile, back at home, the city has been besieged. They are all working feverishly on building this thing(s), but without the diamonds for ammo, it won’t work. So after the party kills the bandits, recovers the diamonds, frees the other team, now they need to break into their own city through the siege. They also probably have to fight through some scouting parties sent out by the attackers as well. And don’t forget that one of the hit squad got away and is now following them and basically calling in all sorts of trouble against them whenever they can, so they might want to take care of them as well.
What did I change? Well, first of all, I think it makes more sense that if it were really important you would send multiple teams. It makes it more fun to find that one of them needs to be bailed out. The time pressure typically adds to the excitement, especially when they effectively fail at meeting the deadline. These are not all - kill dragon-like thing - take body part missions. (It’s not an MMO for crying out loud.) There was one of those, then a trade mission (with spies), then a rescue/recovery mission, then a war game mission. Then once the thing is built, it may help turn the tide of the battle, but it isn’t going to do it all by itself. The party will still need to fight in the final decisive battle, and the artillery weapon may be helping, but will not directly aid them. It’s not like each of them just picked up a super duper magic sword.

As always, these are just thoughts intended to give you ideas and make you think. Take a strand of what I laid out here, make it your own, and run with it!

Bulking up your History

So let me tell you how I’ve been wasting my spare time. I say wasting, because I don’t think it will ever result in publishable material, however, I truly believe that by knowing my world better, I will better be able to develop plots and sub-plots that will factor into both my active campaigns and could serve at least as background for Fletnern and Fletnern based material.

Much of what I have worked on over the last twenty years is centered around the Barony and City of Forsbury. The current list of merchant cartels in Forsbury shows 25, though some of them might not truly reach the definition of “cartel” as it is used in Forsbury. In any case, this is a different list than the one I used when we first started basing adventures and campaigns out of Forsbury. Why? Because things change. A stagnant game world is, well, stagnant, dull, boring, keep going with the negativity.

So the thought occurred to me - If things have change in the last 7-10 years of game world time, how much they have changed over the last 70-100 years of game time? In a lot of cases, I had a decent idea of how the cartel started, but had never fleshed out the people and events surrounding these data points. So that’s what I’m doing - I am bulking up the history of Forsbury in order to better lay out how things were over the last generations.
Why? Is this as I just said - all about knowing my world better? Well yes and no. What I am really looking to do is to fill out my already excessive cast of characters. Phase one of you seeing this extensive list is to check out Royalty which will give you a 10,000’ view of the nobility. What I am talking about now is basically the same type of thing for the merchants. Is that why? Because I want to be able to publish 100 Merchants? No. Mainly the reason I want to do this is because I want to figure out who the losers were. I know which cartels closed their doors over the last six years of game time. If I knew which cartels closed their doors over the last 60 years of game time, I would have a fantastic list of families that had been beaten or cheated out of their fortunes. I would have lists of disgruntled folks looking at the cartels, caravans and warehouses of Forsbury and burning with a desire for revenge. And many of these people would still have some things of value that just might make it worth someone else’s time to carry out their vindictive ideas. That’s what I need - passionate losers bent on revenge, or maybe just survival.

It’s not as tough to do as you think. Step one: flesh out the cartels that are in existence: when did they start, how did they start, who started them. Step two: create or flesh out the families that link the cartel founders to the current cartel big wigs. Step three: Once I know when cartels started, it should be obvious that they would not have been able to start if they were not filling a hole in the consumer demands, so figure out who did it before them and why they aren’t doing it any more. For instance, Freddy Frumpt runs slaves in and out of Forsbury, very profitably I might add. But he’s a first generation slaver. Admittedly he is sort of a branch of his father’s business in Garnock, but he has certainly expanded his revenues in Forsbury. Someone must have been running slaves before he came to town. Who, and why aren’t they in business any more. A big part of Freddy’s rise was the hits the Dawinstrovstat cartel took during and after the Merchant War of 647. Now they moved Dharvic slaves, while Freddy is moving slaves out of Garnock. So did the racial make-up of slaves in Forsbury change over the last few years?

But I don’t want to forget the history of the world and how it fits into this. During periods of war, were the weapons merchants scoring record profits? Could they maintain those once the wars ended? If one city-state took over another’s region, would that have caused a collapse of the merchants who were dealing with the now occupied region? If there had been a drought in one part of the world, could a merchant have risen to supply them, and then what happened after their own crops started coming back strongly?

I get it - I am probably the role-player most fascinated by trade and economics in the world. But knowing who has the money and how they got it, knowing who is angry, but probably has a sizeable piggy bank, and knowing how fortunes have changed over the years tells me where the money is. Remember the famous saying, “Follow the money”. If you think mercenaries and adventurers don’t follow the money, then you’re not paying attention to your player characters.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Dry Goods Store

I often have trouble trying to figure out the kind of store they would have in small fantasy towns. If you read Urban Development, you’ll see that any village of 500 or more people should have two or more stores. I always assume the first two are the dry goods store and the grocery. But what do they sell at the dry goods store?

So it hit me how easy this is. Do you have a farm and ranch store near you? There’s a bunch of these but by far the best is Tractor Supply Company. Take a walk through there and the ideas should just pour out. Now obviously, you have to convert modern to fantasy. Non-power tools are likely exactly the same, though no wrenches or screw drivers. Any vehicles or trailers need to be broken down to wagons and carts and the number needs to be reasonable for the population (probably only one cart and one wagon). Clothing probably doesn’t exist, but might be replaced with fabrics. The again - some clothing might work: belts, gloves, lederhosen, maybe even a jacket.

Forget the power tools, but maybe not their function, such as an auger instead of a power drill. Don’t forget the animal feeds, but would they be in bags or piles? Truck boxes might be chests; tarps might be canvas instead of plastic. Ropes, chains, fertilizers, pesticides, even wheel lubricants should be there made from era appropriate materials.

What about food? Well the jerkies seem a good fit, maybe even some of the snacks like pretzels. The food probably depends on what the grocery store stocks, but maybe it’s rations at the dry goods store and flour and other foods at the grocery. If your world has beer in bottles, this might fit too. Just like TSC, the dry goods store has no refrigeration.

TSC works well because they have a very broad selection of stuff but not as deep a selection as you might find at a hardware store. Think of a big box hardware store - you would get lost in the hammer aisle. Even still - you need to lower the inventory; small town shop keepers cannot afford to carry inventory.

Why does it matter? Because personally I’m sick of not knowing what’s for sale. PCs stroll into town and want horses, saddles and spurs. Not at this country store. But if they need a weapon, how about an axe or a hammer? Knowing, or at least having a pretty good idea, really makes it easier and better.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Vampires in FRPG

Yes, I am well aware that White Wolf has a hugely successful line of vampire based games, but to me, that’s not FANTASY RPG. I’m thinking about the more fantasy based games, well like [[Legend Quest]].

In the current edition of Legend Quest (Gold Edition), vampires take up almost a full page. In comparison, the four dragons would probably only fill a page together if it weren’t for that big illustration of a dragon in the way. Why are vampires such an important part of fantasy based RPGs? (In defense of the dragons being “shorted”, we had always intended to come out with Monsters and Other Menaces where I go into vast details on dragons, dragon breath, dragon armor, etc etc etc.) This has really come up in my thoughts, because I keep wondering how much space I am going to give vampires in the new 25th Anniversary Omnibus edition.

OK - First, why do they need more text? Because they have powers different than most other creatures. Dragons eat meat, bite people with their fangs, and breathe massively powerful flames, but they are flames. Fangs and flames are covered in most rule books in multiple places because other creatures do them too. But a vamp’s bite is different. He can turn you. You also have to think about his weaknesses - how much do they affect him in combat? (FRPGs are all centered around combat, even LQ which has other aspects still has a lot of combat.) What about his other powers?

That’s part of the problem. Vampires have been covered in so many different works of fiction, that it is difficult to pick and choose which pieces of lore will affect your game. After all, do your vampires smolder in sunlight, turn to ash or sparkle? (If your vampires sparkle in the sunlight, please stop reading this blog. Delete any links and never come back!) Are they unable to cross running water? Must they sleep in their own earth or will any dark place work? Even legitimate vampire lore disagrees on a huge number of subjects, and if you’re writing a game, you have to set up some rules.

But I think it’s more than that - or at least it should be. Vampires have captured our imaginations. If we took a poll, vampires would probably be voted most popular monster. But I want to take it a farther step. In your campaign world, how powerful are they? How instrumental are the vampires in controlling the world and the world’s major events?

Don’t think I’ve gone off the deep end. Vamps are immortal, they can create armies of their own kind (which are tough), and they are typically very intelligent, at least the masters are. How much could you accomplish in your life if you knew it was going to last another three to five centuries? My point is that if you are not considering vampires as a major race in your world - able to compete with the elves, dwarves, humans and halflings - you are being unfair to a really cool monster.

On Fletnern, there is a region that was inhabited by kobolds, goblins and other “prey” races. These are the smaller races that often get pushed into the worst areas but still raided by the bigger races when the bandits need easy targets. Here the vampires have come and set up castles (or at least forts). In exchange for a number of servants who will act as servants and as meals, the small races get the protection of a vampire lord. In theory, the vamps drink small amounts of blood from each servant and have enough servants so that they can heal up in between the encounters. In this way, a small number of “slaves” pay for the protection of the community. If any bad guys come by, the vampire goes out at night and hunts them down before they can attack the fort or village. Few bandits are willing to risk nighttime attacks by vampires in order to loot a kobold village; it is not like they’re sitting on a gold mine. Meanwhile the vampire gets to live like a king, hardly ever exerts himself to hunt, and has a large group of followers who will protect him during the day. That’s a win-win.

Oh, and there are a number of vampires in the Tunnel World. There they typically have to buy slaves to feed on, so they must have some manner of job. They also collect in larger numbers, including a couple of religious cults. Yeah, cults of vampires are really nasty!

How do you do it for your world?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Make it your own

If you read this blog or Board Enterprises’ books, you will see that phrase: Make it your own. By that we mean, take ideas from other sources, but change them enough so that they are your own original creations. It doesn’t matter where the spark of the idea came from, as long as by the time you are done, it is your creation.

Case in point - You may have seen that I was thinking of having a civil war break out in my world of Fletnern. Thinking about civil wars and other forms of revolt, I realized that first things first - everybody makes a mad grab for all the weapons. Well, if that’s a pretty standard activity throughout history, then other things that happen during these armed insurrections could be pretty standard fare as well. In fact, I was telling myself that I could rewrite the American Civil War into a fantasy campaign without even working up a sweat (figuratively). Don’t believe me? How many people are watching Game of Thrones?

Game of Thrones is a fictional reenactment of the Hundred Years War, especially of the War of the Roses. But I have a problem with Game of Thrones. First off, I read some of George R. R. Martin’s early works and I’m not a fan. To each his own. But with Game of Thrones or probably better yet with the Song of Fire and Ice, I just don’t feel that he made it his own. Yeah - I’ve avoided this topic because I’m going to attract a lot of hate with this, but it has been boiling inside me for too long. I am not outright accusing GRRM of plagiarism because you cannot plagiarize history, but when fans can so easily see right through your barely changed names and your cloned characters ...

OK, here comes the hate - GRRM does not have original ideas. He took some history, jammed a whole bunch of it into a much shorter period of time to make it more exciting, then added just enough fantasy elements to make it seem fictional. Look - I’ve sort of liked watching Game of Thrones. I won’t read the books - I’ve got much better literature I need to read - but I’ve watched the show. And I can even sort of respect the kitchen sink aspect of it - as in, they threw everything including the kitchen sink into this. Even if you hate half the characters in the show, you might be interested enough in one of them or their story line to tune in to see what happens. I say that because I hate at least half the characters, but I do enjoy watching them “get theirs” which they seem to do with regularity. Then again, the good guys die a lot too, so, not like it’s a guilty pleasure.

Why should you care what I think of GoT? Because he’s made the mistake that so many young and inexperienced GMs make - He made his world look too much like his source material and he didn’t make the ideas his own. Happens all the time! I would hazard to say that every GM under the age of 19 made this mistake in their early years. Hey - for so many of us, our worlds looked too much like Middle Earth or characters looked too much like Elric, could have been anything. GRRM went for the history angle, but his source material is showing through in all the wrong places. Don’t do this! Your players are not going to be fanboys. They’ll rip you apart over this, or at least rip the campaign apart. Once they smell the source material, they will start making decisions based on who they think your NPC really is and what his motivations are. At this point it is their perspective on your source, which likely differs from yours. This will either send them spiraling down a rabbit hole or if they are right, then the player knowledge will overwhelm your plans.

Look - Not every idea is original. Several literary critics believe there are a finite number of plot lines in the world, so there cannot be original ideas. But you need to do enough work that your final product doesn’t feel derivative and, let’s face it, plagiarized.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Where are the weapons at?

I came to a conclusion the other day. I was considering what I could do on Fletnern to add a little drama to the backdrop, but not necessarily suck the PC parties into the action. The thought occurred to me (probably due to some Tamriel time) of a civil war. The regions the PC parties are in are pretty stable, so by putting an uprising somewhere else, I am adding to the perceived action without having to try and handle adventurers in the middle of massive battles.

The conclusion I came to as I starting to lay out the timeline on how this would occur is this: All revolutions, insurrections or civil wars all seem to start by both sides trying to acquire more weapons or prevent the other side form getting weapons. French Revolution starts with rioting in the streets, and the first major “action” was the storming of the Bastille. Why? To free the Marque de Sade? Nope! To get the 250 barrels of gunpowder. (I once heard a quote attributed to Margaret Thatcher, something along the lines of “How can you trust a people whose national holiday is based on a jail break?” If someone could find me the real quote, I would be eternally grateful.)

Want some more? The assault on Fort Sumter was part of a series of actions taken throughout the South. State governments took over federal possessions within their boundaries after they had succeeded from the Union. President Buchanan allowed the military commanders to surrender their forts and armories without violence, but Lincoln ordered the federal military commanders to hold on. President Davis ordered Fort Sumter to surrender, and they refused. Thus began the American Civil War. It was all about grabbing the weapons. Lexington and Concord - The British forces moved to cease weapons from the Massachusetts colony that had been declared in rebellion. John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry - trying to gain the weapons from the federal arsenal.

OK - So why? In Legend Quest - Optional Weaponry, we laid out the rules for breaking weapons. Fundamental to these rules is that weapons come in different grades. For example - revolutionaries seeking to overthrow their ruler (in a fantasy setting) would likely be armed with hunting bows, hunting arrows, boar spears, and axes for chopping wood. They would want to attack the armory in order to gain heavy crossbows with armor piercing bolts, lances and pikes, and war axes, as well as shields and other armor. It makes a difference, just as it makes a difference between hunting rifles and assault rifles. The way we described it, there is a difference between a silver plated letter opener (ornamental), a steak knife (standard), a butcher’s knife (tool grade), and a knife strong enough to parry a sword attack (combat grade). You can still stab someone to death with a letter opener, but neither it nor your steak knife are going to hold up against armor. Depending on the culture and economy, would major arsenals also have some magic items in them? perhaps a stock of healing potions and some magical arrows at least?

Just to pitch the differences in games, in Legend Quest, you rarely see magical arrows, because each one would need to be enchanted individually so it would not be worth it. Further, healing potions cannot be administered to unconscious people, so they would be more likely to give their officers and combat medics healing balms which can be applied to unconscious folks. So sometimes generic ideas do not carry all that well from game to game, at least not literally. Then again, it doesn’t take much to make it work - one of the reasons we publish so many generic supplements.