Matthew Colville explains running a game

Two years ago I made a post about a video series about making a character in every edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Yesterday I went to check if the series had been continued, and it did. And not only that, Matt also recently started a series in which he talks about the basics of running a campaign and teaching new players.

One year ago, I wrote another post in reply to something the Angry GM wrote about the failures of game publishers to adress the teaching of gamemasters to run their games.

I think Angry is one of the best people around who really is making a big effort to explain the gamemaster side of RPGs. But having made my way through the last two months of Matt’s videos, I think he’s at least a very close second. I think for many people, he might actually be even much more of a help as he is so far adressing more of the basics in a well presented manner, while Angry goes pretty deep into quite advanced stuff in his own unique and particular style.

I think he’s doing a really good job at keeping things clear and easy to follow, while still packing a lot of content into each video. Even as someone who has been running games on and off for the last 16 years, I still enjoy them very much, even when it’s sometimes just nodding along in agreement on things I had a hunch on. But it really is stuff that every new GM wishes would be explained in the rulebooks. (But it never is.)

I hate it when this happens

This week my worldbuilding efforts for the Old World have been spend mostly on trying to develop the role and nature of demons and the Underworld. And the unfortunate conclusion that I’ve reached is that my original ideas really don’t work for the kind of setting the Old World has become.

Lovecraft Horror in the Bronze Age is a cool idea, but the focus of the Old World lies somewhere else, and it just doesn’t fit in. I really, really like the six types of Underworld creatures I had planned, but they are just way too much like space aliens. (Partly because five of them are straight up adaptations from sci-fi videogames.)

But it just doesn’t work. The Old World will be a much better setting without them confusing things. In such cases there really is no point in dragging along dead weight that will only be a burden. So they just have to go.

Perfection is not reached when there is nothing left to add, but nothing left that can be taken away.

But I think I might still be able to at least salvage the aboleth archetype. Instead of being some eldritch being from before time, it can still work as simple one big ass evil fish. This picture is just too cool not to do something with it.

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A simple mechanic to assemble a posse

The Old World is a setting in which money and treasure plays only a minor role as there just isn’t a lot you could buy with it. In a campaign, even the best types of armor are trivially cheap while magical objects are valuable beyond measure and not something that can be bought or sold. And since most trade takes the form of barter, there aren’t really many coins around to begin with. It’s a world that runs on obligations, favors, and debts. It makes little sense to track the contents of the PC’s purses in such a campaign.

However, there is one aspect of playing a B/X style campaign that I very much like, but which falls through the gaps when you have no money, and this is the hiring of mercenaries. When numbers and tactics matter much more than individual armor class, hit points, and attack bonus, being able to bring a bunch of archers and spearmen to a fight makes a huge difference. And I am a big fan of the Combat is War approach to battles in RPGs. It’s not about showing your personal abilities, but about making the fight as unfairly tipped in your favor as possible. Any good battle is won before the fighting even starts. (Of course this would be boring, but players always have limitless potential to plan really badly, which then makes it all the more exciting when they suddenly have to improvise.)

Hiring such reinforcements doesn’t really work in a game where there is no money. But you can still always assemble a posse.

the_militia_by_pervandr-d46r27s

In an Old World campaign, most adventures take place in villages or small towns where the PCs are staying in the home of the local chief to help reinforce his warriors for the protection of the community. These settlements are always very Wild West in character and all of them have numerous people who have weapons and know how to fight. If the players need additional manpower to drive bandits from the area or bring down a dangerous beast that has been seen nearby, there’s always a pool of potential helpers. The players might either ask the chief to give them some of his men as backup to protect the village, or they can make a call for volunteers in the great hall or the main square. Either way, the outcome is the same.

I am always a fan of making sub-systems as simple and easy to remember as possible and making them well integrated with the already existing rules. So this really isn’t anything particularly fancy or special beyond the initial idea.

To gather a posse, one character in the group rolls 2d6 and adds his Charisma modifier to the roll. Using the LotFP rules, I am also adding the character’s attack bonus to the roll, but for other systems you can add the character’s level for fighters and half the character’s level for any other class. This reflects that more people will be willing to go into combat behind a leader who knows what he’s doing when it comes to fighting.

The result of the roll is the number of level 0 NPCs who come forward as volunteers, or are ordered by their chief. If the posse is gathered to defend the community from an immenent attack, or to hunt down a particularly vicious criminal, the number might be doubled. However, the number should usually not exceed 10% of the total population of the community. (Any major NPC who has a personal interest in the PCs plan might also come along.)

The base Morale score for the posse is 7, modified by the Charisma modifier of the leading PC. If the warriors are fighting for the safety of their homes, Morale can be increased by +1 or +2. If the party leads the posse into seemingly suicidal situations or attempts a needlessly reckless plan, an apropriate penalty to Morale should apply.

The posse is gathered only for one specific task. Once the task has been acomplished or resulted in a failure, it will disband and the warriors return home. If at the end of the task the players want to continue to a new task, a new recruitment roll has to be made. (Obviously a higher result than the current number of warriors will not make the posse increase beyond its current size.)

The true origin of alignment?

I never made a secret of my opinion that the introduction of alignment in Dungeons & Dragons was one of the biggest mistakes ever made in the history of RPGs and that we’re all suffering from it to this day.

A few years ago I made an attempt to find out what alignment was originally meant to represent, since you probably won’t find any two rulebooks that agree on this rather important question. In the Original D&D game, alignment is just there without any comment or information what it means and what it is for. Holmes Basic and Moldvay Basic remained very fuzzy about what it means and AD&D didn’t really clear up anything either. This is where my research ended, assuming that alignment had just been thrown in at an afterthought because Michael Moorcock had it in his stories and it was cool. But as far as the evidence went, there had never been a clear concept of alignment. Only the interpretation of people who were just as baffled by the terms as all the other players.

But today I came across this interesting quote, which was apparently written by Dave Arneson himself.

We began without the multitude of character classes and three alignments that exists today. I felt that as a team working towards common goals there would be it was all pretty straight forward. Wrong!

“Give me my sword back!” “Nah your old character is dead, it’s mine now!”

Well I couldn’t really make him give it to the new character. But then came the treasure question. The Thieves question. Finally there were the two new guys. One decided that there was no reason to share the goodies. Since there was no one else around and a +3 for rear attacks . . .. well . . Of course everyone actually KNEW what had happened, especially the target.

After a great deal of discussion . . . yes let us call it “discussion” the culprit promised to make amends. He, and his associate did. The next time the orcs attacked the two opened the door and let the Orcs in. They shared the loot and fled North to the lands of the EGG OF COOT. (Sigh)

We now had alignment. Spells to detect alignment, and rules forbidding actions not allowed by ones alignment. Actually not as much fun as not knowing. Chuck and John had a great time being the ‘official’ evil players. They would draw up adventures to trap the others (under my supervision) and otherwise make trouble.

Finally, finally! there appears to be an explanation of what alignment was supposed to be and what it was created for. A very simple “stop fighting each other and play as a team!” It didn’t work and the creator himself admits that it was a mistake.

Why it ended up in the eventually published product anyway, I really do not know. But we’re still having regular “Should the Paladin fall Mondays” all over the internet to this very day.

Thinking about NPC levels in an Old World campaign

So here I am again, writing about RPGs. Even though I am creating the Old World as a fiction setting, I can’t shake the constant thought that it also would make for a really great campaign setting. And once more I am finding myself getting back to B/X, specifically LotFP. Yes, I know: Oh, the irony! Aside from the magic system (for which I have a complete replacement almost ready) I just really love the game in all its simplicity. Combat, character advancement, and monsters are just exactly the way I really want it.

With my experiences in fiction worldbuilding, my look on preparing a campaign setting for an RPG also changed a lot. In the past I used to attempt to emulate the structure of settings like Forgotten Realms, Eberron, and Golarion, and for a long while really didn’t know what to make of things like Red Tide, Yoon-Suin, or the Wilderlands of High Fantasy. But having learned a lot about Sword & Sorcery worldbuilding in fiction, this very much changed and I am seeing what’s the deal with the later and how it fits my own purposes. Often less is more, and in this case it is much more less that is so much more. I am no longer interested in precise maps, borders, or population numbers for cities and countries. Making up new villages and dungeons as I go will be good enough.

But even when you have a setting that is defined by culture and environments and not by specific places and organizations, to have a campaign in which the players have real agency is that you know who the movers and shakers in the campaign area will be. And one topic that none of the many guides and introductions for running unscripted campaigns ever touch upon is the creation of NPCs. What class level should the major NPCs in the campaign have?

kingconan

Now one very easy solution would be to not set a level for NPCs until the players run into them for a fight. But that causes a pretty major problem. The decision of the players to fight an NPC or not is based on whether they think they can win such a fight or not. Chosing to start a private war with a powerful local leader is as big a choice as players are going to make, and it can only be an informed and meaningful decision if the strength of the NPC is fixed before the decision is made. If you create stats for an NPC only once you know that the players are looking for a fight, their choice will have been meaningless. When you decide to make the NPC beatable or unbeatable for the party at its current strength, the players are completely without power to influence the survival and victory of their characters. Over the years there has been a lot of talking over what makes the differences between the videogames Morrowind and Oblivion (and now Skyrim as well), and one thing that really changed how the games play is the adjustment of enemies to the level of the player, or the lack of it. In Oblivion and Skyrim it has become irrelevant what places you chose to visit and what quests to try, because the difficulty will always be the same. When you discover an area that seems too dangerous for your character, you might choose to leave and go somewhere safer for now. When you then return a long time later, after lots of great adventures and getting many powerful new weapons, and it’s still just as hard as it was the last time, then it really feels like you didn’t make any progress at all and didn’t become more powerful in any way either. What’s the point of reaching higher levels and gaining better weapons and armor if it doesn’t make any difference? In Morrowind monsters and NPCs are always the same strength, regardless of how powerful your character is. While this does mean that you will occasionally have to admit defeat and retreat, it really makes a huge difference to the sense of accomplishment and progress, that is an important part of unscripted videogames and RPG campaigns alike. Losing is good, because it tells you that any victory you gain has been earned.

Continue reading

My Old World Music

I am always very strongly influenced by sights and sounds and music always helps me a lot at focusing on a mood and aesthetic when working on my worldbuilding. I got a big collection of fantasy and sci-fi soundtracks from movies and videogames, and these are the ones I like the most for getting into the right mindset when writing for the Old World.

  • Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal: Baldur’s Gate was my introduction to Fantasy as a wider world of fiction (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings had been isolated one-off things for me) and was a huge influence on me (hence I am writing stuff like this today), and when the second game came out it was even greater. But it’s particularly the expansion Throne of Bhaal that greatly inspired my vision for the Old World and the new music thar came with it is a great match. (Somehow, as a compulsory completionist who always plays a full series in order instead of just individual games, I never actually played this one since my first playthrough after its release in 2001.)
  • Berserk: Short, but nicely dark.
  • Bound by Flame: This is a game that is little known and was rather poorly received, though I think it was mostly just well overpriced. But for perhaps half the price it’s a very nice little Sword & Sorcery game about a world that has been overrun by ice mages and their undead armies, with a few surviving mercenaries and sages attempting to prevent the complete extinction of humans and elves. The presentation of this fantasy postapocalypse is very nicely done and the music does a great part of it.
  • Diablo III:: The world of the Diablo series has almost nothing in common with the Old World and I never even played the third game. But the music is very nice.
  • Dune: The one from the 80s. Saw only pieces of it when I was 8 or so and Dune is nothing like the Old World. The music is very nice and fitting, though.
  • Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2: While this series is all out sci-fi (or is it?!), the adventures of Shepard and her crew are exactly the kind of tales I care about. Possibly the single most important influence on the Old World and the reason I am interested in writing stories in the first place. Not sure if the music is that great a fit for the Old World by itself, but after having easily played 200 hours in the series it has all the right associations for me. It’s dark, mysterious, but also bold.
  • The Empire Strikes Back: Of course it’s here. It’s in everything where I am talking about aesthetics and atmosphere, being the best movie of all time and apparently the blueprint for the art design of Mass Effect. The Bespin and Dagobah pieces are all perfect for the Old World. In fact, the whole aestetic of the Old World is based on the presentation of these two planets.
  • WarCraft III: Another big fantasy game of my early youth and one that influenced the style of the Old World almost as much as The Empire Strikes Back and Mass Effect In particular the orc and night elf campaigns set in Kalimdor, a continent quite different from any other I’ve seen in fantasy and without any of the generic stuff from the rest of the series. The orc and night elf music is the sound of the Old World.

Old World Animals

The Old World is a world that is intended to evoke an atmosphere of mystery and wonder, but at the same time be relatively easily accessible with no need for long exposition. A good way to do this is by using familiar things that the audience recognizes as a shortcut around unelegant infodumps. Possibly the best example of this method is Star Wars, especially the first movie. Everything you need to know you learn in the first two or three minutes with just a few words from C-3PO. The Rebels are running away in a cool looking ship with very big engines, the Empire pursues them with a ship that is just totally fucking humongous! Then the door explodes and through it comes a hord of guys in skeleton armor shoting everyone. And then this guy in black armor, a black cloak, and a black skull mask follows behind them. And he is accompanied by officers wearing Nazi uniforms. Barely any words have been said yet but you already know everything you need to know about this conflict.

I am using a similar approach to presenting the wildlife in the Old World. It’s different from the animals found in Europe and Northern America, but mostly these are animals that are very similar to what we are already familiar with on Earth. For that reason I am drawing heavily on prehistoric animals like dinosaurs and early mammals. They are very much like normal animals, but they also don’t look like anything we’re used to, which matches my overall approach to the worldbuilding for the Old World. Distinctively different, but not too alien.

In addition to being a convenient shortcut to create a plausible and easy to grasp ecology, basing these creatures on real animals also helps with establishing a clear difference between natural beasts and supernatual monsters. An important element of making things both fascinating and unsettling is a good amount of uncertainty what you’re actually dealing with. In settings in which the natural world is mostly identical to life on Earth, it is very easy for the audience to tell the difference between what is normal and what is alien. When you populate a world primarily with fictional creatures, this becomes a lot more difficult. Is something supposed to be threatening or not? The audience has to understand that to get into the thoughts of the characters who are dealing with it. By keeping the natural beasts of the Old World to animals that did exist or could very well have existed on Earth in the past, I am hoping to make this distinction more clear and easy to grasp.

There are no stats for any roleplaying game attached to them at this point, but to help getting an impression about their strength, each is given a threat class ranging from 0 to 6.

Arag

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The arag is a predator about the size of a large dog. Their appearance is somewhat similar to reptiles and weasels and they are covered in sleek gray and brown fur. They have a very wide range and are found in almost all parts of the mainland, but are rare on smaller islands far away from the coast. Arags usually stay away from settled areas, but have little fear of single travelers in the wilderness and will sometimes even attack small groups. (Class 2)

Draga

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A draga is a big reptile about the size of a lion but of a more slender build. It’s tough hide is a deep emerald green but tends to be more brown in regions where forests are less dense and there is less vegetation and shadows. Arags are usually solitary but sometimes hunt in groups of three or four, which are able to kill almost anything they come across. (Class 4)

Droha

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The droha is a big reptile found in all the tropical and temperate forests of the Old World, except on smaller islands. It’s about the size of a camel and has been domesticated in many areas as the main beast of burden. Drohas often live in herds of one to three dozen individuals. (Class 2)

Garai

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The garai is one of the largest predators found in the Old World. It’s a huge lizard bigger than the largest crocodiles and found throughout most of the southern regions. They are not terribly fast and rarely chase their prey far, but are surprisingly adept at hiding in the underbrush despite their enormous size. (Class 4) Continue reading

A New Magic for the Old World

In the 5 years or so in which I have been working on a Sword & Sorcery setting I have learned a lot about worldbuilding and the genre, and recent revisions of my previous work have lead to great changes in the geography and wildlife of the world and a slight shift in focus and general approach. Learning more about the inclusion of mystery and the weird in fiction got me to rethink my approach to magic and the changes that resulted from that have made the Ancient Lands different enough to think of the world as a new setting. The Old World is not a snappy title, but it will have to do for now.

In the previous setting, magic worked very much like the Force from Star Wars and was mostly about directing the flow of energy within all things with your mind. It’s a good magic system, but not one that would allow for the contemplation of the mysteries of reality, and certainly not one that goes into the weird. This new magic system builds on those previous ideas but is designed to have much more room for the exploration of spiritual mysteries and Lovecraftian madness.

The Nature of Reality

In the minds of ordinary people the world consists of the normal world in which they live their everyday lives, and the Spiritworld, which is a separate land where spirits live. But this is not at all the case. There is only a single world, but one that consists of multiple overlaping layers. The world that mortals think of as their own consists merely of the layers of touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste, but in reality there are many many more which they can not perceive with their senses. The spirits are not just watching them from another world, but are actually physically around them everywhere. They are merely existing in layers that are invisible to ordinary mortals and as such can not be touched, seen, or heared. But perhaps the greatest insight made by shamans and witches is that even mortals as themelves do not only exist in the five layers of their senses, but that their bodies and minds also extend into several other layers of which they are normally completely unaware. People who have been cursed are being affected in those other layers but are only aware of the effects on their bodies in the layers of touch and sight. All such things in which there is a visible effect in the layers of the five senses but the source is something that is happening in other invisible layers falls into the realm of magic.

As witches and shamans have discovered, mortals are not completely blind and deaf to the other layers of reality, but their senses of perception in those layers is usually extremely weak. Intuition and premonitions are the result of things perceived by these underdeveloped senses and common in all people to some degree. But trough years of meditation and the use of strong potions these senses can be greatly improved, allowing a person to see spirits and to see the presence of curses, spells, and sources of great magical power. And it is not only possible to passively perceive this Spiritworld, the parts of the mind that extend into those layers can also manipulate it. People who have acquired this rare skill are called shamans, witches, or sorcerers.

As everything that exists in the layers of touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste also extends into many other layers, the potential powers of magic are possibly infinite. But in reality the full forms of people, animals, plants, mountains extend only into some of the many layers that exist and not all of them can be learned to be perceived, regardless of training and commitment. And even the greatest sorcerers and most ancient witches have a perception that is very hazy and blurry and their powers of manipulation are clumsy and feeble. Spirits see much sharper in those layers and their abilities of manipulation are much finer and often much stronger. The most powerful magic is never the work of witches or sorcerers performed with their own power, but that of great powerful spirits who have made pacts with mortals who have pleaded for their aid.

As not only mortal people and animals exist in more than the five layers of the normal senses, but everything that exist, seemingly mundane substances can be of great use for the practice of magic. Salt has many important uses in everyday life, but in some layers its presence forms an almost impenetrable barrier for spirits even in small quantities. While a circle of salt is no hindrance at all for beings in the layer of touch or all those layers in which mortals exist, it is an extremely powerful substance in some of the layers inhabited by spirits. Iron is an ordinary metal to touch, and one of low quality compared to bronze, but being stabbed by a blade of either material hurts just the same way to mortals. To spirits it’s a completely different story and while bronze does very little to harm them, iron hurts them much more than simply cutting their shapes. Like salt, iron has effects on spirits much larger than the extent of its physical shape. Just as the heat from a large fire can be unbearable even considerable distances away from the flames.

The Truth of the Underworld

While all these things are understood by all students of magic, the whole reality of the world is truly grasped only by few and missed even by many shamans and witches. Even with the enhanced senses to perceive additional layers of the world, mortals can never learn to perceive all of them. And as hard as it is for mortal minds, this is not just the case for a few layers but in fact for most. The true extend of reality is unimaginably vaster. Ordinary people see the world like the surface of an ocean while witches and shamans can see a hand’s length below it. The spirits of mountains, rivers, and forest live in the layers from the surface to perhaps an arm’s length below it, but below those there are many more miles of additional layers that even the spirits can’t fathom.

“Normal” magic takes place in the topmost layers that are close to the five layers of the senses and directly interact with them on regular bases. Creating fire, clouding the minds of others, or making a tree walk are all things that happen here. But the world of spirits extends further than this and those who attempt to see the gods of the land in their true form find them and their existance to be far stranger and more alien than what a typical village shaman ever experiences. And beyond that lie realms inhabited by beings that normally don’t interact with the five layers of the senses at all and they are the stuff of nightmare and pure madness. Those who are delving into the more remote realms are called sorcerers, and while their magical powers have the potential to accomplish things outside the powers of witches, shamans,and even spirits, the dangers that come with it are unimaginable. When you look too long into the abyss or too deep, it will also look back at you. And it might get curious and try to reach up to you.

Undeath

When a mortal creature dies from natural causes, its existance ends in all the layers that it occupies simultaneously. When this happens it is gone and can not be returned by any means. However, there are ways in which only parts of a being are severed from the whole and the rest of it continues to remain in a state between life and full death. These are the undead. The most common kind of undead are ghouls. These are people whose bodies can still be touched, seen, and heard, but who have lost some of the parts that made up their mind and life energy. They are mad and feed on corpses and though their appearance changes they are still very much like living creatures. An even stranger creature is a wight, which has not only lost parts of its mortal self but also gained completely new abilities it did not have before. Sometimes the physical body is lost and the creature can no longer be touched but still be seen and continues to exist as a wraith. A shade is little more than that. A shadowy outline with barely any trace of a mind that somehow did not cease to exist with the rest of the former creature. As any aspect of a creature that has been destroyed can not be restored, undead can only be dealt with by destroying the rest of them. There is no way to restore them to the people they once were.

As you know…

Why on earth does the phrase “As you know, …” exist in dialogues? Why would any person ever use it in conversation? It does occasionally come up in lectures and presentations, but then it means “as you should know, but I am saying anyway to spare you the embarrasment of asking the question, …” When you know the other person in a conversation knows these facts, it just makes no sense. Even as a writer, if you want a character to say something that is redundant because everyone in the conversation knows it, why would you draw attention to it by adding “as you know”. It might have gone by unnoticed that the statement was redundant for the characters if those words hadn’t been there.

Don’t draw attention to your flawed scene setup!