Sunday, September 28, 2014

Things I’ve Learned from Grain Into Gold

Grain Into Gold is Board Enterprises’ best-selling book. It describes a fantasy game world economy building from the price of a loaf of bread and going all the way up to the cost of an ocean crossing merchant ship. It goes into great detail about why things cost what they do, most of it based on real world research seen through the eye of me - a game designer with over 30 years of experience in writing worlds, games and missions.

If you read my mail (or even some of the reviews) of Grain Into Gold, one of the chief criticisms is that I made too many assumptions. Maybe I did. I included a lot of those in the original book, because I wanted game masters to understand where the assumptions were in case they wanted to alter them for their own worlds. So what have I learned? I learned not to show all my cards. Going forward, I’m not going include the assumptions, just the end result of the calculations. Now I know why a shovel costs 10sc, but I don’t need to let everyone know the value of the handle vs. the weight of the steel vs. the labor of the smith. As long as the whole system works together and the prices make sense in comparison to each other - people are going to be happy about them. And oddly enough, the less they know the better.

I have also learned that there are people with really deep feelings about medieval craftsmen and exactly how they did their crafts. Now I expected that from the type of people I consulted when I did all the research. Yes - I have spent untold hours watching YouTube videos of re-enactors, reading books about European banking and mining, talking to people at those Colonial and Civil War living museums, and even trying to do some of these things on my own. The issue is that when I try to do them - I normally don’t have the best techniques, nor the right tools. But it isn’t those guys who argue with me - maybe they don’t read Grain Into Gold. It’s the guys who also read some of the same books as I did (or sometimes similar but different books). I can’t prove them wrong - but I still think that on the whole, I’m closer to being right.

I have also learned that even after 68 pages of narrative and 13 pages of price charts, I cannot make everyone happy. The most common criticism is that I either stressed too much on Western cultures or not enough on weapons and armor. On the weapons - I wanted it to be generic, and thought bashing my system’s way into the purchasing of weapons would make it less generic, and hostile to the systems that people loved. That’s why I listed nine weapons (long sword, long bow, battle axe, a few more, and on top of the nine are arrows and bolts). I thought GMs would just use my examples to interpolate the rest of the systems they needed in their games. Probably a bad guess - though there are a lot of math geeks who are game masters. On the Western thing - that was an unintended bias on my part. I bothered a few Europeans with my American terms as well (especially “corn”). Anyway, I was trying to avoid incorporating Fletnern (my game world), and I think that steered me towards those things that truly were generic - standard role-play game stuff.

So what else have I learned? I’ve learned that I can do it right. I’m getting closer and closer to releasing two d1000 random loot charts. These are going to dramatically expand the items in the lists. This time - I think I’m done telling everyone where the prices came from and just giving the values. I’ll also see what can be done about expanding into some of the other cultures. That might be more for Coins of the Road - our long delayed trade supplement. Stay tuned! There is definitely more to come!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Fletnern Wiki

Major milestone for us - The World of Fletnern Wiki has gone over 200 pages. Check it out, or get the quick Fletnern at our corporate site's Fletnern page.

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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We apologize, but there has been an enormous problem with our email. It started slow - only affecting some incoming emails, so we didn't see it at first. If you have emailed us and it bounced, please know that we are reasonably sure that it is now fixed. If you email us and it bounces, please put a comment here and we'll get the tech guys on it again.
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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?