Sunday, April 24, 2016

Pantheons or how to keep track of fantasy gods

When I wrote Gods & Demons, I referred to pantheons, but I really glossed over them. I figured everyone knew what a pantheon was, so we were OK, but I’m not sure if my specific use of the word makes sense to everyone.

Eons ago I wrote some stuff for another company (Beneath the Depths for Kenzer & Co’s Kingdoms of Kalamar - I think it’s now included in their major world book, or at least part of it is). We had similar thoughts on how gods should work, though they are stuck with that whole alignment issue. In their world, there are only a dozen or so gods, but they are interpreted differently in differently regions. I go a bit farther than they did in how different the gods might be region to region, though I have far more gods mucking up things on the mortal plane.

So what’s a pantheon? To me, a pantheon is a group of gods related by stories or myths. What does this mean? Well, if one god is seen as the son of two gods, then they must be in the same pantheon. If three gods are seen as brothers, then they and all their offspring are in the same pantheon. If a goddess is seen as married to a god, they are in the same pantheon. I include that last one, because I don’t want you to think it is only family or at least not simply blood relations. If there are no stories on how the gods are related, aligned or otherwise work together, then they are unlikely to be in the same pantheon. Gods known to be enemies are not necessarily in the same pantheons, but a less common example would be where the god of mercenaries was working against a pantheon right up until his employers sold him out. He joined the pantheon and is now their god of mercenaries.

So why does it matter? Well, it might not. On Fletnern, pantheons are most important when the pantheons go to war. So that means that gods can only be in one pantheon, right? Nope! If a god is in more than one pantheon they either need to stay neutral during the dispute or choose a side and assume that they are going to lose “membership” in the other pantheon. Does it matter if you lose your membership? Well, “exiled” gods (I cannot think of a better word, but I’m sure there is one) will likely find their religions outlawed and their shrines/temples torn down or rededicated to someone else.

So does every mortal fully accept that the gods are in multiple pantheons? No! Tell a worshiper in one region that they are worshiping the same god as someone in another culture is, and they are likely to get hostile. Tell a priest and you will at least be cursed. Just because the gods are above the petty squabbles of mortals doesn’t mean that these religious folks are. To the gods, the more worshipers the better, so there’s no reason to not reach out, especially when a neighboring pantheon seems to have a hole that their powers can fill.

Examples: Really quickly on this: Uilsilar is the god of agriculture (irrigation) in one region while being the god of a powerful river in another region. His power over the river is seen in how he keeps the chaotic river spirit (a water dragon) from flooding the farms, but allows it to flood in early spring to bring water and fertilizer to the fields. He’s an agriculture/irrigation god in both cases, but in one he’s a builder of canals and dams, and in the other a dragon defeating knight.

Meanwhile, Pento Tabochkis the judge of the dead. He is worshiped as Pento Tabochk by the humans, but as Zachoat by the orcs. In both cultures, he sits in the cavernous underworld and sends the dead down particular tunnels to arrive at their eternal rewards. This one is clearly seen as the same type of god, though they will fight bitterly as to whether he’s a human or an orc. (Gods are above such unimportant issues as race.)
What do I want you to take from this? Well, unspoken is that a pantheon needs to cover all the important aspects of life. If they don’t gods from other pantheons will start to “bleed in”. Gods can be in more than one pantheon. And lastly, you need to have a good heavenly brawl every once in a while. I have one brewing in Fletnern. If you follow my Fletnern stuff, you’ve seen some of the first signs of it, though no one can see it coming yet. The prophets will be notified soon.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

World Domination - Semi-Secret Societies II

Hey - Same political “spoiler alert” on this post. What is said here is going to contradict what your sociology professor told you. So if you think I’m too political, skip to a post about magic items.

It occurred to me that you might have read the last post and thought that I assumed that some of these groups had too much power. Maybe. If De Beers controls or destroys the world market in diamonds, so what? Well, it has consequences, but maybe not earth shattering ones. But let me point out some of the things that have happened because of the world oil supply as controlled by OPEC.

In August of 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Beginning in 1991 a coalition of nations led by the USA kicked the holy crap out of Iraq. The UN imposed harsh sanctions on Iraq. Iraq spends the next ten years refusing to follow the sanctions that were imposed, including (but not limited to) shooting at weapons inspectors, blocking the weapons inspectors from getting into places, refusing to allow the weapons inspectors out of some places, admitting to being involved in biological weapon research, having Russian missile parts “hidden”, and being officially noted (as late as 2003) by UN inspectors for violating the resolutions concerning their missile programs.

Finally, the USA leads a much smaller coalition into Iraq and shock and awe ensue.

What does this have to do with OPEC? Well, you may not be old enough to remember it, and hopefully you’re not believing the hype on either side, but the USA had a very difficult time getting the UN to enforce the sanctions and to build a coalition. You’ve been told that was all due to the Bush administration faking the evidence about weapons of mass destruction. Guess what? It was all about the oil baby! The “Oil for Food” program was supposed to keep Iraqi civilians from starving to death. Instead, it put an estimated $10 billion (yep, with a B) into the pockets of Saddam Hussein and his cronies. But it didn’t stop there. The problem at the UN was that many of the member nations were profiting from illegal oil trade with Iraq and didn’t want the USA to stick its “goody two shoes” nose in and mess the profitable (but illegal!) business up. Only one of the investigations showed that the corruption wasn’t as bad as previously thought, though most folks question that investigation. One of the top guys on the sunny investigation agreed to be a whistle blower, until someone put a bomb under his car.

So what am I saying? Due to controls on the oil markets, we have modern day examples of organized corruption across multiple countries and the UN. We have examples of people being assassinated. Why did everyone defend Kuwait? Because it was the front door to Saudi Arabia, and we couldn’t let Iraq control the Saudi oil fields. You want your blood for oil? It was in the first one, not the second. Now I don’t think we should ignore small countries that are taken over by bigger more powerful countries, but in recent history no one went to defend Ukraine. No one marshalled a coalition of nations to defend the folks in Rwanda. OK, maybe that was a civil war, maybe, but no one seemed to care about genocidal issues going on inside Iraq before they threatened Saudi Arabia.

OK - Maybe OPEC did not directly orchestrate either of the Iraq wars. I think they might have, but I cannot prove it. So assuming that they did not directly cause them, did they indirectly cause them? I say yes. Iraq wanted more oil wells, so they invaded Kuwait. Europe (including Russia) wanted more oil, so they created a situation where sanctions could not work which directly led to the second war.

Even if you don’t believe me, and too many of you have been too indoctrinated by your universities to believe me, you should still see the fictional wealth here. Just suppose that there was a war like country in your game world. They annex their neighbor, feeling that they must for their survival. The next neighbor in line gets nervous and drums up support for the liberation of the annexed country. This only works if the neighboring country has something everyone else wants. We may have moved from secret societies into the secret machinations of countries, but they are similar. And remember - countries have ambassadors, who may be the front face of the secret organization working behind the scenes. This would give the ambassador real power outside his own country. Maybe it’s a religious organization serving as a front for the real criminals? That would allow the ambassador easy access where he wouldn’t be watched.

I’m getting a huge slave lord vibe here. The slavers are using the politicians to cover up their activities while also instigating wars in order to gather more war slaves, and to kill farmers, which drives up demand. I’ll want it to be hugely complicated, so it’s going to take me a while to craft it, but my players better look out once I do.

World Domination - Semi-Secret Societies

Secret societies make for fantastic long term enemies. The party keeps doing missions, each time peeling back a layer of the onion, until they find the Illuminati at the core. But how do you run those secret societies as a GM? You could do some research and try to run them the way that conspiracy theorists (and I do not see that as a derogatory term) believe they run, or you can take a look at those groups of people in our modern day world that are quite public about their desire to control the world, or at least some portion of the globe.

Before I get going - for those of you who think I get too political, click out. While I am going to describe factual situations, I cannot keep my opinions completely out of it, so there will be some “spin” here. I don’t think it’s too much, but you’re warned.

OK, now that we got rid of all the thin skinned guys ...

Let’s start smaller: De Beers. For at least decades, the De Beers Company controlled the world’s diamond supply, by some estimates peaking around 90%. They used aggressive, but typically legal means to hold and enforce their monopoly. Things change and by most accounts, they no longer have an iron fist on the diamond supply, though they are still a major player. I don’t want to get too deep into the economics of what they did, but in a nut shell, they controlled the best distribution and forced manufacturers/miners to use their distribution channels or be shut out of them. They also flooded the market when they needed to to reduce the price of other guys’ diamonds in order to drive their revenues down so low they couldn’t say in business. Plain and simple economic power.

La Raza - In case you don’t know these guys, La Raza means “the race”. Basically it would be like the KKK rebranding themselves as “The White Supremacists”. You really don’t get more blatant than this. Many (I’m sure there are some groups that describe themselves as La Raza and swear they have none of these intents, but they are probably lying) of La Raza groups are looking for the “liberation” of the assumed Mexican territories that are currently within the USA, mainly Oregon to Texas. So they are an admitted racist group seeking to take land away from the USA. OK, maybe not world domination, but definitely ambitious. I’m still waiting for the French version to demand we give them the Great Plains since we “stole” them from Napoleon. So how do these guys operate? Typically through propaganda, but there are elements willing to use terrorism. They accuse others of being racist and of discriminating against Latinos, while trying to convince others of their ethnicity to join them. The power of words can be forceful.

OPEC - The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has a lock on oil prices around the world. Before OPEC it was the Seven Sisters, oil companies that controlled the world market in oil. What happens when you attempt to work against the OPEC nations, like when the USA started fraking? OPEC turned the oil wells in the Middle East on “11”. They flooded the markets with cheap oil, and drove the price down so low that the frakers couldn’t compete (because fraking is more expensive to do than pumping oil in Arabia). Now that they’ve shut down many of the frakers, the wells slow down, supply is reduced, and the price of oil is going back up. Let’s be clear. This is not a secret society pulling strings behind the scenes. This is a global cartel with a global monopoly using thuggish economic practices to maintain that monopoly.

My last example of a group bent on world domination is the World Bank (throw the IMF and the World Trade Organization). Folks - This really is the Illuminati. These guys really do control the world. New World Order? Yep - it’s these guys. The World Bank, WTO and IMF decide “cases”, better to say arbitrations, in secret and oddly enough the richer “person” (could be a country, could be a corporation) nearly always wins. Now I’m a citizen of the USA, so my countrymen typically win, but I recognize tyranny when it’s shoved down my throat. No matter what country you live in, the WTO gets to make decisions that are binding on your government and trade within your country, and your government is basically unable to exert its own sovereignty. The problem here is that these three organizations have such a wide reach and have decided so many “cases”, that no one has the time to show the ramifications of them all. So let me hit just one of the more famous ones. Europe wanted to oppose the importation of USA beef grown using certain hormones or non-organic stuff. I’m actually in favor of huge steers, but I do think that the European countries should have the ability to govern their people. Nope! WTO said Europe has to take any beef the USA wants to export. Think about what else they can do, and have done.

Look - The point of this is not to complain about fair or unfair trade in our world. The point is that if you want to create a secret world controlling society for your game world, you have ample real life organizations to model. You may disagree with my categorization of some of these, but they are all seeking to dominate their part of the world or their part of world trade. I would think that most of them, especially La Raza, would need to operate in some manner of secrecy in a fantasy/feudal area, but how much secrecy? These organizations hold power - real, raw power. This isn’t some secret group of stock holders who are trying to buy an election. When you create your secret society - Think bigger! Then think bigger again!

NPC Ideas

I get it! We all develop our ideas in different manners. I tend to come up with way too many ideas and then have to try to pick the best ones before I forget everything. Others of you can find coming up with NPCs more difficult. Maybe you have great ideas for the big nasty evil guy at the end, but you have more trouble with the more mundane guys.

Every campaign, even the ones with the bare minimum on role-playing, needs to have a couple of mundane NPCs. I’m thinking here mainly of the bartenders, innkeepers, and others that every adventuring party runs into and typically interacts with. How can you make these guys sort of interesting without spending a ton of time on them because it really might not matter? Here’s an easy fix/idea:

Please remember that I’m OLD!! Like ancient! Like married with kids old! OK, so there are some singers who are really good story tellers. Most typically a “story song” is either about one person or maybe a couple, though Lou Reed likes to include a catalog of characters in his. Borrow someone from one of these songs. The two singers I think make this the easiest are Harry Chapin and Jimmy Buffett. Anyone of the songs on Greatest Stories Live or Songs You Know By Heart should easily give you a solid character for your game, and (especially Buffett’s) they do seem to be perfectly designed for bartenders and others around booze.

As always - listen to the songs, but make the characters your own. You only need the songs for inspiration, that spark that gets you going. Unless you’re actually running your campaign on a tropical beach, not every character is going to fit perfectly. With a touch of luck, your players may be way too young to really know this music and will find the characters fun and inventive, having no idea that you borrowed them a bit.

OK - So I feel obligated to throw a commercial in here, but you're now forewarned. If you still need more help with your NPCs, try Character Foundry. Tons of ideas for NPCs and quite a few hints on generating more.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

GM Cheats - Languages

I don’t create languages for my world. JRRTolkien was a linguist and passionate about the etymology of words. So he created a fantasy world and filled it with languages that he had created, built from their very foundations. I am a numbers guy. I sometimes have trouble translating pig-latin. I created a fantasy world and then immediately figured out how much everything cost and how those costs were paid, and where the money went to and came from, OK I’ll stop before that gets out of hand.

But I do find myself saying things like, “his name means pig skinned”. So do I have a dictionary of words that I am defining as I build my world (and have been for going on 36 years now)? Nope! I cheat. That last comment, about what his name meant is always followed with something like, “in the dialect of the region of the Greenlands where he was born.” Dialects, my language cheating source.

If I claim the word means something but then give myself an out by saying it comes from a dialect, then if I ever were to contradict myself later on, I could claim that the dialects were different and so therefore it wasn’t a contradiction. Hey, I admitted it was cheating.

The truth is that I find languages in role-playing games to be a distraction - probably because I’m not good with them. Oh, I love the impact of languages, especially when translations can be taken in a couple of different ways, but trying to remember what words mean. It’s not for me. So I’m sharing my cheat trick with those of you world builders out there who are like-minded in your lack of desire or inability to create your own languages. Dialects even allow your players to make up words without messing with your carefully crafted universe!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

What magic items do they need?

You watch James Bond movies, right? Of course you do! Ever notice that James is never given some massive weapon? Here is one of cinema’s most successful killers, and he’s doing the vast majority of it armed with a hand gun. Just a pistol, even if it does hit like a brick through a plate glass window. Sure, he electrocutes guys with fans, kills with shark pellets, throws people out into deep space, etc., but he’s a major movie hero and he never needs a bigger weapon. Can’t our FRPG heroes be more like that?

But then, what kind of magic items would we give them? The ones that compensate for people who are not in the party. Ever have a party of paladins and warriors in huge bulky armor and no thief type? OK, these guys need magic items that will allow them to do things that normally you’d have a thief for. Like what? Well, maybe a magical skeleton key that can pick certain kinds of locks. What about a magical telescope that allows them to scout from hugely long distances, so they don’t need anyone to get in close. Maybe something that quiets that armor a bit so they don’t sound like a high school marching band as they close on the sleeping dragon.

OK, there can be things that more directly affect combat too. How about the magnetic watch is some bracer or gauntlet that exerts a magical magnetic force against your opponent’s weapon or shield, making it tough for him to hit you with it? Maybe an amulet that protects against arrows in some fashion, because it takes so damn long to get those heavily armored guys into melee. (Wow, James must be inspiring me now, because I almost wrote “armoured”.)

Now Bond is a spy, but he is also an assassin. As a spy, knowledge is power, so his items do reflect his need to gather knowledge. This lack of massive weapons also forces him to use the things laying around the room to help him kill folks, which can be hugely fun in an RFPG. It would be pretty silly for him to walk into the casino in his tux with a bazooka strapped to his back, but this is a fair analogy to what some of your “adventurers” are doing.

In writing this, it occurred to me that this is what many of the items in XCom do. You can take the perk that makes you immune to panicking, or you can carry that alien artifact thing that does the same. That’s just one example. You could give those knights in armor a “flash bang” grenade that distracts the enemy, a grapnel hook that will hold them and their armor (allowing limited “flight”), or an attachment to that armor that prevents certain types of attacks, like garrotes or even poison clouds. Look, I don’t want to change every FRPG campaign out there, but isn’t there a point at which we have to say if you can’t kill some guy with a reasonably normal weapon, then you’re kind of a pussy. You should be so good at the killing thing that you don’t need to have the sword equivalent of an ICBM.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Missions with that little touch of role-playing

I like adding slang into my world. Things like an “UhOh” is what a lot of folks call a heavy crossbow (because it’s what the burglars say when they see one at night). Another is “baker’s hours”. The idea is that in order to make bread for the people to buy in time for their morning meal, the bakers need to get up in the middle of the night and start the dough. It needs to be made, rise, kneed, rise, bake, all by sunrise. Think of the old “time to make the doughnuts” commercials. Yes - This was to be a parody of “bankers’ hours”, but it did take on a life all its own.

So who cares, right? Slang - It’s so role-play! But even goofy things like this can spark missions, and this one sparked a really cool one for me: What if the king’s prized baker couldn’t wake up in the mornings because he was having awful nightmares? That would be the kind of thing they would hire wizards to figure out and correct! But I like missions that can “go either way”. So instead of just laying this one out there, I tried to figure out why someone would have cursed the baker with nightmares. Here’s what I came up with:

The king’s baker is the most celebrated baker in the kingdom. Not only graduating from a famous school, he has shown himself to have tricks up his sleeves that other bakers would literally kill to possess. But this all went to his head. Early in his career as the chief baker at the palace, he tried to woo a scullery maid. Well, he’s an ass, and he wound up raping her, but due to their different positions in the palace, no one cared what happened to her. So he did it again. And she ran away.

Well, she was half Yugsilanti (think gypsy if that isn’t too politically incorrect these days). She returned to her people, and the crones taught her some things. The maid made a deal with a nightmare demon (there are lots of them!) and cursed the baker. Now with the proper magics, it is almost easy to figure this out. You have to wait by the baker’s bedside until he’s having a nightmare, and then have the right type of spell caster either monitor the dream, or detect the “demon”/spirit. Then you have to summon the spirit and question it. This is not a loyal follower of the maid, and it will sell her out for any type of bribe. So then they track down the maid, now a witch and somehow get her to remove the curse (probably without killing her, because then how would she remove the curse?). OK - A little complicated, but a pretty straight forward mission, right?

But how do they play it? What’s the king really like? Does he value his morning pastries over justice? How does his answer sit with the party? This is in many ways a “funneled adventure”, meaning that the party is funneled into one series of actions that should lead them to the maid/witch. But once resolved, what then? Something this silly (a baker and his nightmares) could shake the relationship between the party and their king if he chooses the less honorable path of ignoring the rape.

Forget about role-playing silly slang terms. This is what needs to be role-played. What would these adventurers do in this situation? and how does that affect the king, the palace, and the court? This is when it gets fun! At least for me! Hope it does for you and your crew of players too!