Sunday, January 25, 2015

Animals of Fletnern

In the previous post, I mentioned that simply saying "horses" is not a sufficient answer. So what are you to do? Well, I thought about horses (and related animals) when I was first crafting my world of Fletnern. Link to this page to see some of the animals I established. Obviously this is not all of them. In fact, I have charts for most of the regions of the world listing the various different types of animals there. Each area need predators (including an apex predator who is often a "monster"), as well as herbivores that do not entirely interfere with each other and other prey animals. It was fun for me to do this a couple of times, but trying to get this done for all the regions has proven more work than I have found the time (and will) for. For example - where I have marsupials, there are no wolves, only animals based on some of the extinct marsupial carnivores. Also, since my Central Plains region has relatively few wooded areas, I felt deer animals (including moose or elk) were the wrong way to go, but I wanted the Barons of the Council to be big game hunters, so I moved the kudo into the Central Plains. No reason I can't do that in my world. It makes for a little bit of fun confusion, plus, and this is great for most of you GMs: If you can say to the players, "No, there are no deer in the Central Plains. The major hunting animal in the Central Plains is the various kudo, " then your players get the feeling (right or wrong) that you know everything about your world and they get a little impressed or intimidated. OK, probably an exaggeration, but it is kind of impressive when you know stuff like that. It makes the whole thing that much more real.

Why did I do all of this? First, because I was sick of people saying they wanted to buy a “draft” horse. Could a Clydesdale be a draft horse or a war horse? and if so, why were they different prices? (well training etc., but that is not what this one is about) But also (second), I was working on the continent of Hughijen and needed to explain why the dragons could survive around the Dragon Lakes. At first I said they were raiding the Anglic regions for cattle, but that did not entirely make sense. Eventually the Angles would move their ranches farther and farther from the Lakes in order to make it too far for the dragons to range for food. (Which they did.) And the idea of dragons eating mountain goats annoyed me to no end. It seemed undignified. Well, the region is known as “the Dragon Lakes”, so are they fishing those lakes? Why not? Honestly, it was on my honeymoon (in Alaska) that I saw what can only be described as a vortex of eagles - probably 90-120 - circling together and taking turns diving into one area and coming out with fish. There must have been a massive school of fish right there, because the eagles (some bald, some golden, many I could not identify from the distance) just kept hitting it and then flying off with fish. Why couldn’t the dragons do that too? OK, not the vortex thing, just getting tons of fish. But I did have to add some big freshwater fish to the lake, but with a little study on Lake Superior, that was pretty easy.

OK - for you gold farmers out there who see absolutely no point to this post: Here is what you can take away from figuring out what the dragons eat: You now can figure out where they fly to hunt (from their caves to the lakes). You can now figure out that an old dragon (let’s say sick because we know that other game thinks elderly dragons are unstoppable) unable to compete with the others for fish might be forced to move his lair into the Anglic cattle regions, making him a target of the next adventuring party. (This really makes me think of Shere Khan. If you haven’t actually read Jungle Book - you don’t know what you’re missing. I love Disney, but the book is phenomenal and not necessarily for kids.) Since you know what the dragons are eating, you can sort of think of some of the treasure and garbage that would be found in their lairs - fish bones, perhaps caviar that might still be fresh enough to be of value, fresh water pearls, are there any fresh water monsters in your game?, don’t forget that there probably would be some mountain goats and their horns, etc. left here too, because of geography, in Fletnern, this leads to the strong possibility of a unicorn horn or two as well. I know I keep pounding on the idea, but figuring out the mundane really does set you up to know things that spawn adventures and help you while you’re writing them!

Fast ideas follow-up

OK, so I mentioned the idea last post about thinking about getting to and from work in your fantasy and how that differs for the common folk and adventurers. If you look at that idea and say “on a horse”, you’ve screwed it up. Now, you can start with “on a horse”, but then you have to think about a number of things: If people are riding horses to and from work in a major city, where do they “park” them? Where do they park them at home? Are there that many stables in major cities? How do they feed all these horses? Do the wagons filled with hay, straw (for bedding) and oats wander the streets? Do the clean up wagons collect the horse manure at night? Can simply craftsmen afford to own horses (I mean the feeding and housing, not buying a cheap one)?

OK - So I can’t just say you’re doing it wrong and not offer the way to do it right. Honestly, this has been an issue with me from the first time I started mapping out the city of Rhum (about 35 years ago). I had residential neighborhoods in one part of the city and industrial stuff in another. Now I have shifted things around (before publication) and I have sort of surrounded the more industrial area with residential neighborhoods, so the workers don’t have to walk more than 10-20 minutes to get to work. I think that’s pretty reasonable. That covers the factory workers, and yes, I have factories in my fantasy world. Maybe not what you are thinking, but breweries, brick makers, ceramics factories where some guys set up the clay, some throw the items and others fire them in the kilns. Most of the other craftsmen live very close to their shops - often above them.

But I also had an issue with the Farmers’ Market. The farmers don’t live in the city, so how do they maintain their farms, get to and work in the market, and get home at night before the gates close? I had to think about that one a lot! I surrounded the city with some smaller farms, so that farmers could still get into the city and back home every day. I started altering who was in the market - not the farmer himself, but instead his wife or daughter. I also had to start thinking about the concept that farmers in fantasy worlds aren’t selling watermelons all year long, just at the end of summer. So some of the Farmers’ Market stalls are empty on certain days. This also led me to start thinking about things like: pickled vegetables, fruit preserves, apple cider and other things farmers would sell to get people through the winter; the fact that there probably was no fresh milk in cities without refrigeration; and how do farmers make all of their money at one time of the year (after harvest) and yet survive the rest of the year hopefully avoiding bandits.

OK - That’s not so bad for the common folks, but how does this affect the adventuring party? A couple of minor points: I now know that near the city are small farms, while away from the city are the huge plantations. For Rhum, I knew this was barley and other cereal plantations, but before thinking it through I did not think that the plantations could afford to be at a distance, while the small farmers could not. In thinking about the adventurers “getting to work”, I had to make sure that I had established roads that go from one city to the next. I had that. I had to think about what happens when a slow moving caravan is blocking the road, either for another slow moving caravan or for the fast moving adventurers. OK, I came up with the proper etiquette for that. I had to figure out how long it takes to get from one city to the next. Ok, maybe I didn’t have to do this, but wasting game session time trying to figure out stuff like this is not where I want to be, so I made up a chart for my world.

What else? hundreds of things! Do your roads have signs that direct travelers to the next city or town on the roads? How good are the roads? Who maintains the roads? Are there tolls? How bad are the bandits in different sections? Why are there bandits in the different sections? What’s wrong with those governments or are those just lawless parts of the world? Where do people eat and sleep along the way? Are there inns or campgrounds? How safe are these? How expensive are these? How do the inns get their food and supplies? Does it come in on caravans or from locals, and does that make a difference? probably makes a big difference in pricing. What do people ride? Horse is not specific enough. Mules, Donkeys, Horses, Ponies, something far more fantastic? If someone is riding a carnivorous steed, can the inns help them? What happens if someone is using a flying steed? Are there laws about flying over certain places - I’m thinking mainly city walls here? What different breeds of horses are there and what are they used for? Are the adventurers riding war horses, riding horses or draft horses and what is the difference in traveling? Should they be riding one type of horse and trailing their battle steed? What do they haul their stuff in? Do they wear armor in the saddle while traveling? Where are they getting their water from and does it cause them any issues? Can they let their horse munch on grass along the way or does that upset the locals?

Ok, we’re starting to beat a dead horse here, yeah pun intended even though it wasn’t a very good one. You can have one of two attitudes towards that list of questions: 1) No one cares about the mundane stuff or 2) You know I hadn’t thought about some of that stuff before, but there’s something in there that sparks an idea for me. Maybe it was the idea of a carnivorous steed causing trouble at an inn or a water elemental causing trouble at an important watering hole, but there are adventures mixed in with the mundane stuff. Every time I think through the mundane stuff, I come up with the foundations of adventures, and I think good GMs do the same. Otherwise you may as well be playing some MMO.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

When a GM’s ideas come too fast

If you’re trying to write for your game world or campaign and need to generate ideas - let me tell you how it went for me this morning: (there’s a point I swear)

I’m writing a book currently called Lifestyles. This book is going to make it easy (I promise!) for GMs to charge their player characters for living between adventures in such a manner that it builds the role-playing aspect of the character and the campaign. Anyway, because I was thinking about how a standard housewife in Forsbury or Parnania would start her day and I, of course, came to my standard question: Why? Who cares? Well, without having some understanding of the culture, I cannot truly understand how an adventurer would fit into it. Plus, I was trying to make sure I wasn’t forgetting important stuff that would make Lifestyles a mess.

I assume that adventurers live sort of like college students. Yes, they work, but they have a lot of free time and party a lot. I remembered back to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser - They were always broke, even to the point of having to pawn their weapons. I also thought of the song by Jimmy Buffet, “I made enough money to buy Miami but I pissed it away so fast”. Yeah - That’s how I see adventurers. So where a mother of three if in need of money to feed her family would get a second job, even if it weren’t a “real job” such as taking in laundry or babysitting or cleaning homes (I know those are a lot of work, but I normally don’t classify them as “jobs” - let’s not let vocabulary take us off the point), what would an adventurer do if he was broke and could not find a job? Well Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser would go out and pick a few pockets, but that (oddly enough) I consider a job. So if they really couldn’t find a job, they’d find work that would feed them. Caravan guard is the one that always comes to mind. The caravan master would rather pay less and feed his crew so if you’re broke, at least you get fed and you might get to see the world or travel to where there might be work. I also assume that adventurers have no ties to the community. If you had ties to the community, you are far less likely to go wandering around in old ruins risking your life for profits.
You know I posted something of my opinions about adventurers not being altogether sane and normal folks on a forum and I got a bunch of negative “votes”. I guess that’s what you get from D&D players who have never really thought about role-playing or character development. Anyway, I also thought back to Burn Notice where Michael frequently tells us about what makes a good spy. An affinity for languages and a stomach that can handle both foreign foods and the bugs that come with them. But he also talks about how having an abusive father taught him to read people and stay constantly alert. Also how you can learn combat moves in a class, but it’s fighting with your siblings that actually teaches you how to fight effectively. So once again, I stick with my base edict that adventurers are a little touched in the head, or at least have some serious issues.

OK - This may or may not have been interesting to you, but you want the pay off, right? Back to the immortal question: Who cares about any of this? Well, you may not be as ADHD as I am. Your brain may not run through all these ideas as fast as mine does, but if you have the ability to concentrate, then you can probably intentionally go through this process. Start somewhere - breakfast in your major city, whatever you’re doing now, getting to and from work in your major city, whatever. What comes next? How do they do it in your world? How is it different in the different cultures? Now how is it different for the adventurers? Thinking about how your adventurers do things in your world and how it is different will most often lead you to think about what your adventurers are or should be doing in your world, and that will help you develop the world or come up with an idea for a mission. For me - The ideas come too fast. Hopefully your focusing skills are better than mine (that’s a pretty low bar!).

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Treasure Selections

If you’ve seen An Army's Arms: Thunder Doom then you have an idea of how much we think about treasure. Not only did we have a chart for miscellaneous equipment, but also for personal valuables and for the loot that these guys were probably hauling around with them. Why does this show how we feel about treasure? Well, the personal valuables section was specifically different from the one found in An Army’s Arms: Slyvanian Infantry, not only in what would be different for an orcish warrior vs. an elven soldier, but also the precious stones were different because they are from different parts of Fletnern. Then the loot table was based on what they would be stealing for the benefit of their tribe.

You see, I love my treasure! When I collected lead figures (yeah, that was back when lead figures were not considered dangerous. How many kids ate their lead figures anyway? Who are we protecting?) ... Anyway, when I collected figures, I collected a lot of treasure figures. I’d also take my mother’s old costume jewelry apart and use the plastic stones from there. I was also know to get rings out of the gum ball machines so I could “loot” those too. I loved nothing more than setting up a display of treasure, typically hiding it under a handkerchief until the party got to the last room.

So there’s my bias. I love treasure! I considered myself a successful game master when the players write down a piece of treasure instead of instantly converting it into coinage. So it should not come as a surprise that when I create loot, I think about what the NPC would have had. Was this character religious? Then his jewelry will have a religious tendency to it. What gems and precious stones are common in this area? This extends to if these are a primitive people, then they are more likely to have ivory jewelry and no faceted gems. It may seem unrelated, but as a GM, I have insisted that both PCs and NPCs think through what rations they are carrying - typically as a means of identifying a little more about their character history, but certainly working in some flavor. (Iron vs. standard is not what I mean! Is the jerky beef, venison or buffalo? Raisins or prunes? Hardtack or cornmeal?)

What’s the point? My point is this: Whether you are trying to add realism or because you are stuck for ideas, just think about the guy you’re about to assign the treasure to. Does his culture wear wedding rings? Is he married? Do you know where different gem stones come from? What’s local? The orcs - Are they show offs? Do they decorate their armor with bronze rings to strengthen it or do they have silver chains to show their wealth? Do they decorate their weapons? with feathers and claws or with gem studded hilts? Back to the earlier question: are they religious? If not are they patriotic? are they loyal to their military unit? Each of these styles of allegiance will likely have some manner of art or jewelry that depicts what they focus their life on? It could be a signet ring, a charm on a necklace, a cameo style medallion, or even some manner of statuette in their belt pouch. What do they consider important? Come on, you think about some of these things when you’re doing treasure already. Do the mages have books that are valuable while the priests have religious artifacts and the warriors have everything from golden belt buckles to sword blades inlaid with silver?

Maybe some of this has an impact on the game. A sword with silver might be of some value against lycanthropes or perhaps the undead, or the guy might think it has value. The religious stuff might have an impact on channeling holy spells or something. This doesn’t mean that they are necessarily magic items. I am not suggesting you develop a backstory for every bandit wandering the woods, but you probably know generally what the bad guys are about. Use that. Charge your imagination with this stuff, and make the game that much more fun for the players, who may only come to understand their foes as they sift through the loot. And if they choose not to care about who their enemies were, well, there are ways to make that bite them in the ass.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Mermen and other aquatic races

Many years ago I wrote a book for another company called Beneath the Waves. I don’t think it is in print anymore, but I think they did fold it into their world. So I thought really hard about it at the time and I still think about this today - How do mermen live? Or how does any aquatic race live? Here’s why I think it is so important:

At some level (I know this is an exaggeration, but it is at least partially true) - all technological advancements were based on fire. What do I mean? Well, the Stone Age became the Bronze Age became the Iron Age because of the smelting of metals - fire based. Pottery - mud bricks are OK, but the kiln is what makes them strong - fire based. Glass blowing - fire based. Steam engine - fire based. Go back farther - fire allowed for warmth, light, protection from animals, and cooking of foods. Yeah - not much technical advancement without those. But think about it differently - how many things could have been accomplished without metal? Nearly every tool commonly in use is metal - axes for felling trees, most weapons, nails, rivets, saws, etc. I’m trying to avoid saying hammers, because you can have wood or stone hammers, but not for real construction.

Let’s try to be fair. The American Indians (hope no one gets offended by that term) did pretty darn well without metal working, but they still had fire. They had pottery (fire based), they used flint weapons (no fire needed), they were skilled leather workers (probably no fire needed), and they even farmed to a degree (with non-metallic tools). But they still had fire. You think I’ve gone completely off topic, but I haven’t. So without being able to light a campfire under the water - how do mermen live?

Well, I gave them some tech - I figured they could still use shells or some other containers to do alchemy. (This is a high fantasy game!) I allowed them a manner of tanning that could be done underwater, so they had a form of tanned “leather” fish skins. (Been a while, but it may have required whales.) They had ropes and nets that they could braid and could also make other textiles out of them. Most importantly, they needed to rely on animal parts. They used sharpened shells for knives and even something resembling a macana (those Aztec swords with obsidian embedded in the sides), though I think that used shark’s teeth. They used a lot of sharp and pointy objects, that were recovered from dead sea creatures, to form their weapons, but also their tools. They couldn’t make chisels; they pretty much had to find them.

So what’s the punch line? Why should you care as a game master and world builder what the mermen are doing? Well, you might not. You might never care what the mermen do because your characters aren’t going in that direction. Or you might assume that the mermen can trade pearls for everything they need from the surface folks (but then you need to consider that trade in your economy). I prefer to think that not every culture in my game world needs to be based on something out of Medieval England or the Lord of the Rings. Nothing against LotR, but it’s not like JRRT fleshed out the orcish culture. Legend Quest has a race of winged humans called lurians. I’ve had to wonder - do they have any smiths? Wouldn’t the heat of a forge or smelter singe their feathery wings? So are they basically metal-less too? Maybe they would have pottery and baking, but not metal working. What about lizardmen? (OK, LQ doesn’t really have those, but many games do.) Are the swamp dwellers smelting metals? probably not. I’ve even thought through dragons and whether or not they should have smiths or craftsmen. I have usually thought they would have an easier time of maintaining slaves to do that work for them, but you never know. Maybe your elves, dwarves, humans, halflings and orcs can all live roughly the same lives, but not the more exotic races. If you don’t have fun thinking your way through how these different folks would live, are you really building your own world, or are you just drawing maps?

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Children’s Magazines

Maybe I didn’t notice as a kid, but I don’t think that’s it. I see the magazines that my kids get (I happen to be talking about one with Disney Princesses and one with Marvel superheroes, but I remember that the Lego magazine was like this too). These are 9 pages folded to 36 pages of nothing but drawings. I swear most pages have less than 50 words on them. Even the “puzzles” are a joke, solved in under a minute. I know that not all magazines are this bad, because we still get Boy’s Life, and it has content in it.

My whole life I have measured “entertainment” by time. A movie is likely two hours of entertainment, where as a book is likely cheaper and lasts 10x as long. Same as a concert vs. the album. So it won’t surprise you to hear that I seldom go to the movie theater, but watch a bunch of stuff on Netflix. Netflix costs me about as much as going to the movies (not counting the popcorn and drink) and lasts a month, OK, not a full month of entertainment, but likely in the 12+ hours range. I’m not cheap - I’m demanding. I demand more for my money than two hours of entertainment.

Why does this matter? Because this is the way I think, and this is the way Board Enterprises produces our products. Do not buy Royalty or Urban Developments if you are looking for great art! Royalty has the 263 characters described. None of them have a portrait. I could have filled at least twice as many pages with art, and many companies out there are doing that. But then I have to charge you for that art. There are a lot of people who don’t like our products because we don’t have enough art for them. Honestly, I think these people are stupid. If you buy a source book and want really nifty art instead of solid ideas you can use in your game, then buy a comic book. Your chance of getting valuable source material is extremely low, but there’s art. Probably cheaper than the art heavy source books too.

So as always - Do you want pretty? Go read Disney Princesses magazine. Do you want better games? Read Board Enterprises. May I suggest Grain Into Gold?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Gold Rush Fever

If you read this blog regularly and have checked out Grain Into Gold, you understand that #1 - I like my treasure (OK, that’s probably more An Army’s Arms Thunder Doom and the Slyvanian Infantry) and #2 - I get caught up in economies. It’s probably because I spend my days up to my eyeballs in the modern economy, but I do spend my nights in Fletnern (or sometimes Tamriel or Azeroth).

So it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that I was thinking about the Dutch Tulip Mania. If you don’t know what Tulip Mania is/was, it makes for interesting research. I wish universities taught stuff like this to students instead of politically correct classes, but I digress. Tulip Mania seems stupid to modern folks. Why would someone pay the equivalent of half a million dollars for a tulip bulb? Because other people had made huge amounts of money doing similar things. Just like nowadays any grandma can open her own store front on the internet, back in the 90s, people were investing enormous sums of money in the dot coms - most of which were a couple of idiots in their parent’s garage with a PC. Trust me - The dot com bubble of the 90s will be seen as insanely stupid by the next generation. I know guys who had no business day trading telling me (an actual trained and experienced investor) that I was an idiot for actually doing my job during the day. I lost nothing during the dot com crash.

But that is the issue isn’t it? It’s Gold Rush Fever. It’s why the Canadian and US governments had to stop people from going into the Klondike during its gold rush. You had guys from Texas and Oklahoma who were wandering around Alaska wondering how in the hell it could be this cold. While they were in Seattle, they weren’t the least bit worried - They had the coats they brought with them from home. They may have known how to mine, but they had no understanding of Alaska and what real cold is.

You think I veered again, don’t you. But I didn’t. Gold Rush Fever, whether it is about gold, tulips or IT stocks all comes down to the same thing - People think they understand the rules and the risks, but they don’t. Fortunes and even lives are lost. This is one of those times where you need to think - What would the stupid folk do? It’s not about thinking things through logically and allowing them to evolve over time. Nope, this is fast fast fast - do something stupid.

And it does matter to your game world. History tells us that these kind of economic bubbles happen throughout history. If there is one going on in your game world now, what is it doing? Well, it is changing prices across a broad region if not the world. If it is something more like a gold rush, then where is it and what do they need? If it’s in the desert, they will be buying up all the camels they can, and probably shipping in building materials, because those are pretty rare out there (I mean wood and fabrics). If it’s in the arctic, then it’s heavy fur clothing and dogs for the sleds. (What the Seattle ship captains did during the Klondike Gold Rush to supply dogs to the prospectors was despicable.) Mountains? Mules, donkeys, and horses, plus ways to haul water. Then there are the ways that people are making money off the folks who are doing the work. Boom town prices! All of this can lead to some very fun and very quirky adventures for your players, or it can be a semi-interesting distraction while they are busy in other parts of the world.
I keep wanting to fully develop a boom town economy, but I cannot yet figure out a way to roll it into a supplement. The closest I’ve come is the boom town that developed around the rediscovery of the Lost City of Ballogfar. Ballogfar was the capital of an ancient Goblin Empire - ruled by ogres with orcish soldiers and goblin workers. After the civil war (when the goblins and orcs headed south), the ogres replaced them with undead zombies and skeletons. Well, that only worked for so long until the undead caused a massive plague and wiped out the ogres. Once rediscovered, there was a flood of adventurers racing to get there to plunder the ruined city, and the vendors that were willing to risk setting up shop there were getting richer than the adventurers. Oh well, someday, after I hit the lottery and don’t have to work for a living, I’ll publish The Lost City of Ballogfar. It will rival those other “biggest dungeon ever” supplements, so don’t look for it soon.