Sunday, September 21, 2014

Royal Divinity

Continuing our thoughts on what fantasy royals would do (Divine Right of Kings) ...

What are the myths about your royal lines? This is more likely one of those things you have thought about. Do they have the blood of dragons in their line? Descended from the gods? Talk to angels? Have the power of an ancient line of magic? What, besides being royalty, sets them apart from the rest of their race?

The royals and the nobles always want the people to be completely terrified of them, to know that they are different and cannot be equaled. So what stories do they tell? The myths can be powerful, especially if the people believe them. Even if they don’t, the myths serve as a means of inspiring the people. You don’t need to believe in Pegasus and Bellerophon to find them majestic or at least “cool”. Think of the art. Think of the stories and the songs.
Think too of the rivalries. Is one noble house descended from the constellation of the cobra and another use the mongoose in their crest? OK, that was too blatant. Maybe the dragon and the angels? You get the point. Sometimes the myths are used to tell the truth, when the truth cannot be spoken. Then again, it is a fantasy world. Maybe the king really is descended from dragons.

Does it matter? In a high fantasy game - absolutely! Kings with even a little divine blood should have serious advantages when trying to get the attention of the gods. Royals with dragon blood may be immune to fire. (Not all of the family as many people have seen in a popular TV show.) The noble line protected by the spitting cobra may be immune to poisons. The ideas for having a little “family magic” are countless.

Let’s take a completely different approach - TREASURE! A royal family that has been protected by unicorns will have ivory unicorn statues throughout their holdings. Or they will have paintings of the famous unicorn sightings. Or they will have silver unicorns inlaid into their gold signet rings. Or they will have whatever wood is closest to white inlaid into their tables in the form of a unicorn. Their staves will have unicorn heads. Their swords will have unicorn pommels. Let’s go with “all of the above”. I am unquestionably a fan of cool treasure, and ideas do not always just fall out of the skies. Knowing the heraldic symbols and legends of the locals gives you countless ideas for cool, artistic treasures; treasures that hopefully the players will appreciate, right before they turn them in for a boring number of coins.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Character Introductions late in the campaign

We’ve all had those issues - You either get a new player into an existing campaign or a character dies (with no hope of retrieval - outside of a comic book plot) and needs to be replaced. Assuming that you’re not running a campaign with multiple characters for each player (and most of us aren’t) - You need to introduce a new player into an existing party.

I’m funny - I don’t like to rely on people I don’t know to watch my back when someone might be trying to put a knife into it. As an adventurer, I would only want to go out on missions with people I generally trust. So I hate the concept of: Bob rolled a new mage and he’s going to start with the party tonight. I don’t care if Bob’s character is a starter character or somehow appeared fully formed with experience and magic items. Why would I trust this person in dangerous situations?

So I have a method I’ve started using. When a player has a new character to insert into an existing campaign, I give the player (and the character) knowledge about the next mission that no other character would have. Let me explain before I give an example. If the character knows things - maybe she is the one who actually introduces the mission to the party or he is the woodsman who has lived in this area his whole life and knows how to sneak in through the back entrance - then that character becomes valuable. So valuable, that the party needs to bring them along. By forcing the party to bring the new character, you are giving the party a chance to get to know this character, both in game and amongst the players. Maybe the character worships the same god(s) as one of the other players and is therefore easily befriended. Maybe the character is identical to another in the party and therefore kind of worthless. It’s a trial run to see if it works. If it doesn’t (like if the character is a backstabbing bitch and the rest of the party is the fantasy Red Cross), then tell the player they need something that fits better. Better that then trying to endure all the blatantly stupid gaps in the story that we all know are going to lead to the party fighting each other.

Examples: Easiest one - The new character is the quest giver and needs to come along for some reason. The issue here is explaining why it will later be OK for the character to join the party full time. The character is the only one in the city who can read the language written throughout the mission site. The character is the only one to have survived when the castle was overrun and is now the only one who knows his/her way around. Some part of the mission requires the new character to get past it - like a ghost who is their ancestor needs to open a portal and won’t do it for non-relatives. The gods demand that the new character go because they plan to reward him with some magical item that will help him bridge the gap between his lack of experience and the party’s higher “level”. (OK, I really hate that one. It’s crony capitalism.) Lastly - Some known barrier requires someone with this new character’s skill - acrobatics, tracking, flight, shape shifting, extremely light weight or small size, etc. In order to get where they need to be, they need this expert, and if they work out, they can stay. Just don’t let extremely powerful adventurers meet each other in a bar and decide to go off risking their lives and sharing (politely) treasures. I mean, come on!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Non Character Threats

Probably my favorite story/character of all time is Allan Quatermain. First off, he’s not that handsome dashing hero. He’s a very practical man, though he certainly has his honor. His “super power”? He’s just a really good shot.

But the important point for this post is that his biggest challenges are not other people or even the terrifying animals of Africa, but instead the terrain. Oh, he’s faced armies of natives and had a pod of hippos try and crush him, but the thing that always comes closest to actually killing him is the terrain. Deserts, disease ridden swaps, seemingly impassable mountains; these are the things that nearly kill Allan and his “party”.

I don’t think that we GMs use these tools enough. I always wanted to write a book, or a series of books, that laid out what GMs can do when the PCs face up against catastrophes. Which catastrophes? Well, that was always fluid. After all, a hurricane is a serious issue and will normally bring floods, so is the catastrophe the hurricane or the flood? and can a description of hurricanes be described without also detailing the flooding afterwards? So did the hurricane book cover both? Then did the sea water flood then destroy the fresh water in the area? So is the issue of not having enough water part of a hurricane or is it a desert issue? What about crops being destroyed? Famine? A catastrophe? part of a hurricane? Can you discuss the winds of a hurricane without also running into tornadoes? You can see how these probably belong on one book - but WOW is that going to be a big book!

Games are different. Maybe your game has some of these covered, either while discussing some spells or elsewhere. I think the issue comes down to one of drama vs. action. It’s tough as a GM to build drama and tension in a game setting, especially one where the players are almost equally interested in the drinks and snacks as they are in the game. Action is easier, and FRPGs are notorious for covering the action parts and not as much the drama parts. But having spent a considerable time tied up in a campaign centered on political struggles that only rarely break out into battles, I’m becoming more excited about the huge plots and not the little skirmishes. A warning, when you’re worrying about whether or not your character is about to die of thirst, a lot of little details become important: movement rates, fatigue factors, endurance in the face of dehydration, etc. Worrying too much about the little details will ruin the drama! My suggestion - Try to run the numbers before the game starts when no one is there. Then whether the players go down the route you expected or not, you have some pretty good information about how the rules would play out. I’ve never been one who could just throw the game rules aside and decide whatever I wanted, so by having some of the math done early, I could base the results on what I had earlier calculated. The best of both worlds - following the rules and shooting from the cuff.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

How to Grow a Fantasy Economy

No, this is not how to increase the size of a fantasy economy if you are a fantasy ruler. I could teach classes on that, but I won’t. This is how to take a couple of small things and start building them into much bigger things.

You need to start somewhere. Over 30 years ago, I drew a map of Fletnern, placed the major cities (poorly), and wrote really short descriptions of them. One of the items in those descriptions was what their major exports were. That’s a good enough place to start! Do you know what the natural resources or at least major exports of one of your cities or regions is? Good!

Let’s begin with an example. Two of the major exports from Rhum are beer and ceramics. We’ll start with ceramics. The soil in many places around Rhum is great for various types of ceramics. So, at some point over the last 30 years, I decided that inside the city of Rhum are several ceramics factories. They make different things, but one makes plates, another makes steins, and I forget what the rest might have been. So, we know that there are wagons filled with ceramics products moving out of the city. But in order to run a ceramics factory in the city, you need to bring in wagon loads of clay. OK - sounds a little weird, but we can do that. So now that you have the raw materials, there must be some pretty large kilns as well for firing those ceramics, so we’ll need some fuel. Rhum is surrounded by forests and the coal deposits are further south, so we’ll have them bringing in wagonloads of charcoal to fuel the kilns. The point? We started with “ceramics”, but now we know that plates, platters and steins are being crafted in the city. Honestly, they must be reasonably fancy or no one would bother “importing” clay - They’d just do it right there at the clay pit. So we know better what’s going out and what’s coming in - charcoal and clay. We’ve started.

But there should probably be that industry right there at the clay pits too. There, they make bricks. So we now also know that there are wagonloads of bricks floating around the city too. Moving on to beer: there are major breweries in the city. So the raw materials going in include barley, but do they? If you know anything about beer, they brew it not from barley, but from malted barley. So let’s have the malting process outside the city at the barley farms and plantations. So the thing coming into the city is the malt. What else do you need? Well the hops (they use hops in Rhum), is really minor, but there would need to be some of that. Also - there would need to be barrels. We’ll have the staves cut and dried in the field and then imported, so the barrel making is going in in the city. What about the hoops? saplings or metal? How about both?

OK - Without letting this get way too long what have we started to do? We started with ceramics and beer as exports, but now what do we know. We know wagons filled with clay, charcoal, wooden staves, saplings, copper, malted barley and hops are being brought into the city. We know wagons filled with fancy plates, platters and steins are going out as well as wagonloads of barrels of beer. But we know a lot more too. We know that the countryside is going to be filled with barley farms, clay pits, brick makers (with their own kilns), and colliers (that’s a charcoal maker). We know those barley farms have special buildings for the malting of the barley. If you want to get fancy, you know that there are ice houses near small lakes because they need the ice to control the temperature of the beer in summer (as opposed to brewing ales). That’s actually a lot about the culture of the region from two tiny ideas.

What’s next? Well, you know they grow barley, but what do they eat? Are the people heating their homes with charcoal too? with wood? Are they using horses or oxen to pull the wagons? donkeys? mules? Where are those animals bred and sold? Where are the wagons built? locally or are they brought from somewhere else? Beer doesn’t seem like a major export, because it is typically cheap, so this must be pretty good beer. Is everyone buying it, or just certain other cultures? What is blatantly missing? Well, iron and steel seem to be noticeably missing, so those must be coming from somewhere. Glass is missing, but if the ceramics are so good, maybe they don’t care. Maybe nobody in Rhum uses wine bottles. Maybe they don’t drink wine.

This wasn’t a lot of work. We knew some of the common exports. We assumed that the artful craftsmen were in the city (preferred to live in the city), and the cruder craftsmen lived outside the city where it must be cheaper. We brought the raw materials and supplies in. We defined the outputs just a little bit better. We wound up describing a whole bunch of stuff that people moving around outside the city would run into. We even defined a major section of the culture within the city because there are factories where large numbers of people work on the same goods. That means people tend to work for a major boss, and not for themselves, at least these folks do. Does that affect their lifestyles? Probably. By the way - One of the other exports of Rhum is furs, especially beaver. Even assuming that the pelts are coming in tanned and stretched, this is whole huge aspect of trade that must be going on. What’s going through the gates of your cities?

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.