Saturday, February 26, 2011

Adventures vs. Encounters

In Legend Quest, “experience” comes in the form of character points- points you use to build your character, increasing attributes like Strength or skill levels like Magical Power - Sorcery. There are no character classes. (Don’t get me started on classes - that will be another blog and not a nice one.) Well, the two main ways to get character point are adventures and encounters. Now adventures consist of extended things that make you encounter dangerous things several times over (and make you late for supper), while encounters are more typically single events. Case in point: Exploring the hidden forest while fighting off wolves and bears, eventually finding the hidden castle, and getting past all the evil wizard’s guards to rescue the princess and then escape through the hidden forest - That is an adventure. Going to the bandit camp and fighting all the bandits there to recover the stolen goods is an encounter. Now if you had to track the bandits across hundreds of miles, dodge hostile tribes along the way, and battle first the bandits and then their conjurer leader and his minions, well, that would probably be an adventure too.
But what about normal life, or at least non-hostile things? It is suggested that during the normal course of life in general, a character would earn about 10 points per year. Using this logic, I tell players that their starting characters are either going to be 25 years old or be able to tell me why they have earned more than the base average points per year. For most this is no big deal. Veteran of a war, gladiatorial experience, travels to distant lands (even without conflicts), these all can legitimately explain earning points outside the 10 per year. But what else?
The possibilities are endless, but I want to put some thoughts in the heads of you GMs out there. Think back to your childhood. (Probably not that far back for some of you.) Remember playing baseball or soccer in the summer? Most years you played on a team, got to know some guys, maybe even got a little stronger - the normal stuff that should be included in your 10 points per year. But was there one year that was different? One year where you were legitimately in the running for the championship maybe? You trained harder, you paid more attention to the coaches, you bonded more strongly with your team mates. Not only that, but while the other years on a team kind of blend together, that one summer stands out in your memory. Know why? Because it was an adventure.
Maybe it wasn’t sports for you. Maybe it was one year at summer camp. Maybe it was a really long vacation you took with your family. There was just something different about it that made it more of a learning experience, more of a life directing (not necessarily altering, but certainly focusing) experience. Probably some things went wrong, but those experiences taught you something that stayed with you the rest of your life. That’s it! That’s the point of experience. Something happened to you, and now that you have survived it, you know better how to handle that situation in the future. Maybe you were just scared, not actually in danger. Maybe you and your friends tried to start your own newspaper. It could be anything. But it stuck with you. That is what experience is supposed to be like. The number of monsters you kill is a poor substitute for figuring out what you may have learned along the way. As a GM, you need to try and figure out if this adventure they just went on was enough to alter the character’s perceptions of life.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Modern Prices

It is often very easy to look at a modern thing and assume that they reflect what stuff should cost in a fantasy game, but that’s not even close to the truth. I want to be able to say - A banana costs 50¢, and an apple costs 25¢, so if an apple costs 1cc then a banana costs 2cc in game. Yeah - doesn’t work. Here’s why.
Start with the cost of marketing in the modern age. How much does marketing cost? Compare the cost of a store brand cola to Coke (not on sale). Yeah - not only is the difference caused by the advertising, but Coke should be able to have economies of scale that allow it to be produced more cheaply.
Then factor in the automation. We go to the store and buy T-shirts for next to nothing. Fantasy era characters have to pay for the weavers and the tailors. These weren’t garment district illegals here, but skilled craftsmen. Don’t think about what it would cost for a shirt from Wal-Mart, think about a hand knitted sweater imported from Ireland.
Don’t forget that we get our fruit from South America, and it’s still cheap. The characters will only be able to buy those things that are grown locally IF they are in season. Fruit probably cannot be imported, because it would rot on the ox drawn wagon. There would be pickled versions or other preservation strategies, but fresh fruit from somewhere else? Forget it.
Grain Into Gold tries to show these issues and more in the pricing schemes. One of the major pluses that we didn’t mention here (but is in the book) is that there are fewer middle men. Think about how many shippers and forwarders touch the stuff you buy as it makes its way from China to the US. There should be far fewer of these guys in the way, making things that much cheaper. Just like real life, corn is a lot cheaper from the farmer’s road side stand than from a grocery store.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Nameless, Faceless Monsters

I’m tired of nameless, faceless monsters. Ogre Warrior followed by stats - DULL!! Human Barbarian Warlord - YAWN!! More games need more zip in their bad guys.
My 30 years of game mastering has taught me a couple of things. (Yeah - spooky huh? it really is 30 years) One thing I never know is when my players are going to stop to talk to somebody. Now I can’t figure out every single character they might meet (see a couple entries ago for the conversations about BSing during the game), but I think a GM needs to have some understanding of his bad guys. Case in point - My players were doing a good job of harassing a start-up orcish nation, so the leaders put together a goon squad and sent it after them. 30 mounted orcs came over the crest of a distant hill, and the player party (of ~8) took off running. [Side note - In Legend Quest, especially my campaigns, you don’t think “Orc = 1HD. Easy kill.” You think, “Their probably 500 point orcs and any one of them could kill me.” It’s lots more fun that way!]
Anyway - after a couple of skirmishes, the party was hold up in a hotel, and the goon squad found them. Huge fight out by the stables as the party tried to escape. With two party members unconscious and maybe a third of the orcs dead, they started a conversation. Now, here I am, in the middle of a fight, trying to figure out who these orcs were and what they might be thinking. Fortunately, it was late, and I called a stop to the game, to resume the next week with the conversation. It’s not like I put a ton of thought into this. I just assigned pro-wrestler names to each of the surviving orcs. Now, I had personalities to go with my characters. Some were crazy violent, some were reasonable, and some were simply stupid. Seeing as the hit and run fighting kept up for two more gaming sessions, knowing who the bad guys were really helped!
So what do I think GMs should do? I think you need to at least describe the general culture of any group of enemies your party will be fighting. Want it easy? Get a copy of A Baker’s Dozen Tribes; there we have thirteen examples of what we mean. But you can easily do this on your own:
1) This tribe of orcs uses wolves as steeds and spends most of their time as raiders and bandits. They live in the hills and are at home in the forests. Done. Now you know their motivation (looting) and which environments they will be best in.
2) This tribe of goblins is mainly shepherds, but their flocks have been diminished and now they have to raid their neighbors in order to survive. Done. They are more likely armed with slings and staves, than swords. They have experience fighting wild predators, but not with armored people. They are more likely to loot livestock than liquor.
3) This dragon has been the only predator in this area of the swamp most of her life. She hunts the huge rodents that live there. Done. She will not be use to things that fight back. She will be aggressive if she learns of any other “predators” in her territory. She will likely be curious until she gets hurt.
You don’t need to write out every soldier’s family tree back four generations, but if you know he’s from a country that is similar to ancient Rome, you’ll think about a disciplined soldier with experience and a name more like Marcus, Pompii, or Flavius (NOT Bob!).
So what if you spend the time to do this, but then don’t use it? What if your players kill the guys from a distance and never learn their names? You save it for the next time!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Looting a House

As you can see from our products like An Army’s Arms or Grain Into Gold, I love detailing out treasure. We’re hoping to release A Baker’s Dozen Treasure Hoards and What Has It Got in Its Pockets, a d1000 random encounter chart for pick pockets. So I’m really into this!
I just had a tour of the Governor’s Mansion. Yeah ... I’ve known this for a while, but this tour really brought it home (no pun intended). No matter how detailed I want to be, I can’t actually detail the loot to be found in the simplest of homes, and REALLY can’t detail a mansion’s wealth.
Look around your house. There are probably 1,000 items in view right now! (This assumes you are not living in a bachelor pad with milk carton shelving, but even then???) Even a poor home would have 100s of kitchen tools and utensils. OK, not all of them are valuable, but anything made of steel likely would have some plunder value. For expensive homes, everything has value. Think about plundering a palace. Some of the items might be valueless on their own, but the fact that they came from the palace would grant them “artifact” or historic value. Even assuming that the looters would not take the heavy furniture (which would be hugely valuable), what about the rest of it?
Honestly, I write up those things that are of obvious value, and sometimes a few that aren’t so obvious. Then, if a character says something like, “This is an office, can I steal some paper or some blank scrolls or something?” I just give it to them. Of course, I make them roll for Scrounging, but come on, that’s a huge + modifier.
What I think is really required, and I will likely do going forward is this: assign some values and some weights. Let’s take a poor home: For 10 pounds, you can loot 25sc worth of miscellaneous. For 20 pounds, you can loot 35sc. For 30 pounds, you can loot 40sc. Maybe a wealthy house is more like: For 15 pounds, you can loot 100sc. For 50 pounds, you can loot 300sc. For 150 pounds, you can loot 600sc. With the poor house, you’re taking bigger and bigger kitchen steel. For the wealthy house, you’re starting to take paintings off the wall and rolling up carpeting. (These numbers are meant as examples and should NOT be used.) I have also done it where the longer you spend searching, the more you find of value, the idea being that you wouldn’t notice the kitchen knives if you just look at the counters, but if you go through all the drawers, then the semi-valuable knives would be found. This also can be used to factor in things like ripping the hinges off the doors and prying the marble out of the fireplace. One important note - don’t let them know the value unless they make an Appraisal roll. Make them decide whether or not to haul all that junk away first, then let them know what it was all worth.