The Other Guys

Some other great characters who don’t really fit the general adventurer type but still end up in them.

Doctor McCoy (Star Trek), snarky starship doctor.
Vir Cotto (Babylon 5), good-hearted aide to a horrible diplomat.
Samwell Tarly (Game of Thrones), scholar conscripted into an undead-fighting army.
Tali’Zorah (Mass Effect), starts as an apprentice engineer.
Zayne Carrick (Knights of the Old Republic), failed Jedi apprentice.
Anna Volovodov (The Expanse), nurse, charity worker, and Methodist minister.

(What is it with all these doctors?)

I also remembered last night that I’ve been at this place before. Four years ago I already wrote a couple of posts about turning high fantasy adventures into the opposite direction of murderhoboing. In A Case for Hope and Heroism I was still thinking about making slight adjustments for how adventurers could be part of their world, but it came out of the same general idea.

Back then, I lined out nine points for how high fantasy campaigns could possibly be less confrontational and focused on violence:

  • The heroes seek to restore peace and order over destroying evil.
  • The heroes get involved when witnessing injustice.
  • The heroes aim to be examples to others.
  • The conflicts have sources that won’t go away by killing the enemy leader.
  • Mercy and offerings of peace will pay out in the long run.
  • Violence can help to get out of a tight spot but will always mean more trouble down the line.
  • The antagonists have various reasons to fight and at least some of them can be persuaded to change to other methods.
  • Heroes will sometimes fail, but having tried is what matters.
  • The heroes give and risk more than can be reasonably expected of them.

I think all these points still apply when you have a party of player characters who don’t qualify as traditional adventurers. Certainly a line of inquiry to follow.

The more I think of it, the more I feel like a campaign like this should be run with a system based on the core principles and mechanics of Apocalypse World. (Or something else, but I’m somewhat familiar with AW.) The main thing on my mind to start with is the choice of basic character attributes. Having stats like Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution wouldn’t really reflect the defining traits of such PCs.

What I think most probably should be an attribute is Courage. That’s what it would be all about in the end. Though I am not fully certain what this would mean for characters with a low Courage score. I also think that something like Sanity in horror games is a bad idea, because fear and panic is something that the players feel for their characters. Not something that the GM tells them their characters are feeling. Courage might run into similar issues, depending on what such an attribute would be used for.

Persuasive is also a no brainer. And I think Athletic would also be a good one, for when you have to rely on your strength, endurance, and agility to do what is needed.

But, being a game of high fantasy, I feel that a combat system still is a must. Not necessarily something that you’d want to use, but something that the situations will sometimes require.

This is all a very long way from being anything like an actual game, but I’m feeling quite motivated to see where this could be taken to.

I used to want to be an adventurer, like you…

Since my last D&D campaign wrapped up, I’ve been thinking about where to go with fantasy campaigns in the future. The campaign always felt the most fun and entertaining to me as GM, when it was the least like D&D, and I didn’t really enjoy running it during the parts that were conventional dungeon crawling. These past weeks I’ve been spending a good amount of time with researching and working on ideas about fantasy campaigns that are not either “kill lots of monsters to get rich” or “kill lots of monsters to stop the Dark Lord”.

This hasn’t been a completely new thing for me, as I’ve been coming back to the questions of what fantasy RPGs could look like if they are not mostly fighting for the sake of fighting. But after running D&D 5th edition with a group of mostly other D&D GMs as players, and often talking with them about how certain things worked out, it’s become really noticeable for me how much “kill lots of monsters” is baked into the most fundamental assumptions of most fantasy RPGs.

One new idea I was pondering was to make a campaign that is all about exploration, revolving around characters who are explorers driven by curiosity instead of greedy treasure hunters or killers for hire. Almost everything that is written about exploration in RPGs really is about mechanics for overland travel and wilderness survival. Which to me isn’t exploration. That’s a resource management minigame. The remaining part about exploration is discovery of wondrous places, things, and phenomenons. This can be a very considerable draw and player motivation in videogames, but visual art to be experienced at your own leisure doesn’t translate to a almost entirely verbal group activity. To really play a roleplaying game, you need interactivity and you need a story. And exploration and discovery in itself is not a story. They are elements to support and embellish a story, but the story itself still needs to be about dealing with obstacles. “Exploration” is not the answer. It’s something that I definitely want to be a major part of future campaigns, but I think it does not work as a simple replacement for “treasure hunting” to achieve the shift that I want.

After making the choice to step back from exploration as the main goal and focus, I had some talk with other GMs and players about what a fantasy campaign could also be, which led me to looking at and thinking about games like Blades in the Dark, Pendragon, Ars Magica, Legend of the Five Rings, and Call of Cthulhu. Which all are very much not dungeon crawling games. And something they have in common is that the player characters generally don’t fall into the category of “adventurers”. There is fighting in these games and there are plenty of ancient abandoned places, but adventuring is not the profession of most PCs. Now I don’t have any interest in playing an anthropomorphic toad in a waistcoat that drinks tea and debates human rights with a giant talking mushroom. Or even a nobleman discussing strategy and the justice of their fight against evil neighbors in a throne room. I still want the adventure, with spooky caves and weird monsters. But perhaps stepping back from the idea of the PCs being full time professional adventurers might be a step into the right direction. Instead of facing constant violence and threat of death as a way of life, it can be an extraordinary event in the lives of the PCs? And something that is dispreferable, not just ethically but also mechanically.

Okay, now after this very long preamble, I come to my actual point: I’ve been browsing though my favorite works of fantasy/adventure fiction to look for characters who could make interesting templates for PCs in a fantasy RPG without really fitting into the adventurer category.

Princess Leia (Star Wars), politician, diplomat, and rebel leader.
Lando Calrissian (Star Wars), smuggler, gambler, and scoundrel who tried going straight becoming a resource magnate.
Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit), ignorant, self-interested rentier.
Sallah (Raiders of the Lost Ark), wealthy man in Cairo who knows stuff.
Naomi Hunter (Metal Gear Solid), Rhodesian doctor of genetics and ambiguous morals.
Olga Gurlokovich (Metal Gear Solid), which is cheating because she’s a hardcore badass, but her involvement in the adventure is very interesting.
Dandelion (The Witcher), who embodies every single cliche about bards but is still a great guy.
Shani (The Witcher), medical student.
Cedric (The Witcher 2), trapper and trader who probably does not participate in the terrorism of his associates.
Khan (Metro), Madman? Prophet? Wizard? Ghost?
Nux (Fury Road), cannon fodder.
Tanda (Serei no Morbito), physician.
Ginko (Mushishi), Exorcist? Pharmacists? Witch doctor?

The very first thing I notice with these is that more or less all of them are supporting characters, who provide primarily moral support to heroes who are legendary masters of combat. Indiana Jones isn’t really that known for his amazing fighting skills, and Bilbo counts as protagonist on grounds of being the point of view character, but I think you see what I’m getting at. (Ginko is clearly the hero of his story, though.)

They are people you wouldn’t pick as backup when planning to go into scary holes in the ground or face savage foes in battle. (Except Olga and maybe Lando.) But they all do end up in circumstances where this becomes a necessity and handle themselves very well, often ending up participating in the resulting violence.

What could a campaign look like in which all of the player characters are people like these? Where they are not following around a master swordsman, gunslinger, or elite special agent? Really more a hypothetical concept at this point than even work in progress, but a direction I really want to follow further.

It makes me think that perhaps some kind of Apocalypse World hack would be really well suited for such a game. While there a piles and piles of those, strangely enough almost none of them are high fantasy games. The only notable exception is Dungeon World, which I think completely dropped the ball by trying to recreate the experience of D&D. What’s the point of playing D&D adventures with mechanics designed to be a full anti-D&D? Unfortunately I am not familiar with the ins and outs of AW hacks, and the one that is the most similar to my idea is an example of what specifically not to do with the system. So I don’t feel like I should be the one to make it, but it certainly would be neat to have one.

Perang’s Mansion in Tual

The house of the merchant Perang sits on top of a tall spire of rock, similar to the homes of most wealthy and powerful people in Tual. The poorer people live in shacks clinging to the base of the spires, resting on wooden posts, where they frequently get flooded or swept away by the stormy seas.

In the Green Sun campaign, Perang turned out to have been replaced by a doppelganger, who died at the hands of the heroes. Tual still exist in Planet Kaendor, and I might use Perang again as an NPC.

AW moves in BoL campaigns

I believe that is the lamest title I’ve ever used for a post. But it does get across what’s inside: How about implementing some of the moves from Apocalypse World in Barbatians of Lemuria?

Now there is already a Sword & Sorcery conversion for Apocalypse World that basically just replaces all the names with S&S terminology, and simply using that for a fantasy campaign is an option that I did serious entertain some time back. But as cool sounding as it is, AW is a very strange game, compared to which BoL seems like a much “safer” choice for introducing new players to a new setting. Bur many of the concepts and principles of AW are quite fascinating and I’ve long been wondering how much one could adopt them for running other systems ad well.

The core mechanic of Apocalypse World is the move. There is no initativr system, instead players simply announce when they want to do something, and its up to them to share the spotlight, with some moderation by the GM if it becomes necessary. Hostile NPCs take their turns as reactions to the players making a move. Or more precisely, a reaction from NPCs or the environment is part of the various moves that the players take. If one player wants to push on the stage and take four moves in a row, he also can expect to be the target of four reactions and consequences, and with the way character endurance works you usually want to spread the return fire among the party. (In adition, the rules make it very clear that if the players are paralyzed with indecision, the GM can just throw a reaction at them at any time to shake up the situation and get the action moving again.)

It’s a pretty interesting system, and while the existing combat mechanics of Barbarians of Lemuria make the combat moves of Apocalypse World non-applicable, some of the more interaction oriented moves should be quite easy to incorporate. Both systems use 2d6 for rolls, with an attribute modifier that usually ranges from -1 to +3. AW generally requites a 7 to succeed and BoL a 9 before any other modifiers are applied, and a 10 in AW and a 12 in BoL results in a greater than normal success. This makes importing AW moves into BoL very easy.

In AW, characters can read a charged situation, that is any situation that looks like it could lead to conflict, and ask verious questions about useful information about the situation from the GM. Using this action in BoL, a Mind roll of 9 would be a success and allow the player to ask one question. A roll of 12 would be a mighty success and allow the player to ask three questions. These can be things like “Who is really in charge here?”, “Who is the most dangerous person present?”, “Where would be the best escape route?”, “What do these guys really think of us?”, and things like that. If the roll is a failure, the player still has to ask one of these question, but the answer will reveal a new complication that wouldn’t have been present if the player had rolled a success or not rolled at all.

There is also the move to read a person. The mechanic is the same, but the player can ask things like “Is that guy telling the truth?”, “What is that character really feeling?”, “What is he going to do next?”, and “What does he wanting me to do?” These are things that players might already ask in most campaigns, to which the GM would probably either reply to make a suitable attribute or skill check, ot that the character can’t know that. In games like D&D, where the core if the gameplay is the overcoming of obstacles with the powers and resources the characters have, GMs will probably go mostly with the later option, and when a roll is allowed, failure would simply mean that the player learns nothing or gets false information. BoL is not really a game like this, and letting players have generous access to information to make individual scenes more dramatic and exciting seems like fair game to me.

A third move that I feel should fit quite well is seducing or manipulating a person. In BoL, that would be an Appeal roll. On a 12 the roll will be a mighty success and the character will go along with what the player wanted. On a 9 and a regular success, the character agrees if the player offers something of comparable value in return. If the toll fails, the attempt will come to bite the player in the ass. Maybe now, or maybe much later. It could turn out to be something that no longer matters when it happens, and the NPC might still give the player what he asked for.

The beauty of these resolutions is that they provide an easy mechanic for failing forward. One of the biggest killer of momentum and cause of games stalling is when players come up with an idea or a plan, but a random die (or a GM who set an impossible target number) determines that “nothing happens”. From a gameplay perspective, nothing is the worst thing that can happen. It’s better to either give the players what they want, or something that they didn’t want. Either way, the situation has now changed and the players need to think of a new best idea for a new problem. Not of a second best idea for the old problem.

Apocalypse World also allows all player characters to perform a kind of basic divination at any time. Basically the player asks for some kind of useful hint related to the current situation  andthe answer from the  GM could be basically anything. In return, the higher powers ask something about the character. The player than has to share something of the character’s backstory or personality, or make up a new addition on the spot. The GM will then file away that information to maybe be exploited in some way at some point in the future. On a success the information will be vague, and on a mighty success something really useful. On a failure, something unexpected and bad will result. It’s definitely one if the weirder elements of Apocalypse World. (But by far not the weirdest.)

I am really wondering if this could also be incorporated into BoL. I could see it as a cantrip that could be performed by any characters with at least 1 point in the Magician career. That would make it unavailable to many player characters, but it also would contribute to making sorcerers dangerous and strange even to their allies. Really not sure if it’s a good idea, but I think it sounds too fun not to try it out.

All these moments will be lost in time…

Despite my expectations, I actually stumbled across a great idea for my Planet Kaendor reworking yesterday, shortly after writing the last post.

I’ve had a long on-again, off-again relationship with Sword & Sorcery campaigns. I’m absolutely a huge fan of Conan and Kane, but generally enjoy reading them in small portions. For long term campaigns, the typical bleakness and violence seems like a bit too much for me, and when you descend down into the abyss of Sword & Sorcery fandom, you get quickly swept up in the currents of hyper-violent grimdark orthodoxy. Which in my opinion is considerably more extreme and intellectually hollowed out than the tales of the great masters ever where. Yes, they always were violent, reveled in (implied) debauchery, and had elements of horror. But the popular perception today is like a copy of a copy of a copy that only captures the most extreme expressions of black and white and losing all nuances.

But I digress.

The piece of advice for S&S campaigns that I came across was a reminder that the stories are usually highly episodic and the heroes begin each new adventure in a completely different place, with all the gains from their last undertaking already lost and forgotten. Which was put in direct opposition to the infamous quote from Gary Gygax that “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT”. I never was a fan of Gygax and his ideas of adventures and gamemastering (*boo*, *hiss*, I know…), but this piece of advice I always found very compelling. And I did rigorously apply it during the Inixon campaign, though that turned out to not have made any difference because we never went through with managing long expeditions into the wilderness from a fortified base camp.

But now that I think about it, this is really an approach to managing time that works in direct opposite to the aesthetic goal of making the world feel unmoored in time, with no real sense of either the past or the future. The rest of the world is not keeping track of what happened before, then why would the hero. The inevitability of all their deeds being forgotten and leaving no lasting legacy is supposed to be part of the setting’s tone.

To take it a step further, you could not just stop using a calendar (even though I made such a cool one) but also forgo keeping detailed records what the players did entirely. Taking notes about what is currently going on in the current adventure is of course still a good practice, but once it is wrapped up and the campaign moves on to the next adventure, you can discard them and rely entirely on your own fallible memory. When the players ask who exactly an NPC was who they supposedly had been talking to some adventures earlier, just shrug your shoulder and tell them that their vague memories of those encounters are probably reasonably close enough to what really happened. Don’t try to help them remember. At this point it doesn’t matter anymore anyway and whatever they can agree on now becomes the new reality. Even if as the GM, you still remember what really happened.

Same stuff, different destination…

So here I am, again, planning a new fantasy campaign, again, determined to make it so much better than previous attempts. Again.

Now my last fantasy campaign did end differently and sooner than I had expected. But it did finish with an actual conclusion. With the villains beaten and the day saved. Which by this metric makes it the most successful campaign I’ve ever been involved with. At 19 sessions in total, it was also the longest campaign I’ve ever been involved with. And in the early and middle parts, I felt that my performance as GM was leagues above anything I’ve ever done before. In part because I really learned quite a lot about gamemastering in the four years or so since I had last run a campaign, but I think at least to an equal if not even higher degree because I used a much more open-ended approach to what the story will be. Despite my initial plans, it wasn’t really a sandbox campaign by any stretch of that term, but dropping the players off in a place with only vague hints that there are some useful things in the area that could help them later on their journey directly resulted in the most fun sessions I’ve ever had as either GM or player.

It was only on the final leg of the campaign, when I made it into a more conventional dungeon assault to reach some kind of conclusion, that I felt myself increasingly fighting with the constraints of D&D and my enthusiasm for the game dropped considerably. The players still seemed to have a great time, but my heart really wasn’t into it anymore. I was already looking forward to try again with mechanics that work for me, not against me.

Down the Dungeon

One realization that I made during the later parts of the Inixon campaign is  that dungeons really don’t do it for me. I am a huge fan of the idea and the aesthetics of magical caves and ruined cities. But I really don’t like the gameplay concept of the dungeon.

When did this become…
…hotter than this?

Having a dungeon with a few dozen rooms which are inhabited by various groups of guards and creatures makes sense for a dungeon crawling campaign. But I found that when the players go to a place to meet a NPCs, be it to rescue, negotiate with, or fighting them, going through an entire dungeon really just becomes a drag and a nuisance that gets in the way of making progress with the game. A castle may well have hundreds of rooms, but the story of sneaking into one specific room in that castle does not require hundreds of scenes to play out. Look at books and movies that have cool locations that could be considered dungeons, and I think almost all of them come down to really just three or four rooms in which all the scenes play out. Jabba’s Palace: Main gate, throne room, rancor pit. Thulsa Doom’s Lair: Main stairs, cave passage, throne room. Fully mapped dungeons are for dungeon crawling games. For narrative focused games, they seem to be out of place.

From Crawling to Walking

Very much related to purpose of dungeons is the usefulness of resource management. Typical fantasy adventuring gear is mostly for dealing with the many obstacles that are encountered in dungeons. Most objects can be used in scenes in a narrative focused game as well, but there generally isn’t the expectation that you always have to carry around your golf bag of adventuring gear with you all the time because you know you’ll be needing most of it very soon. Tracking how much stuff characters can carry makes sense when you have an expectation that supplies will run out after frequent use and restocking won’t be easily possible before that happens. It also becomes relevant when the weight of all the stuff impacts how fast or how slow the characters can be progressing through the places they are in.

When I prepared the Inixon campaign, doing a traditional wilderness exploration based on long expeditions into The Isle of Dread had actually been my plan. But while we were playing Against the Cult of the Reptile God we already settled into dynamics and character motivations that were much more narrative focused. And it became even more so during the completely unscripted stay in the pirate town that went on much longer than the one or two sessions I had calculated for it.

The experience with these parts of the campaign had been amazingly positive. Not only did I get great responses from the players, I also felt like my performance as GM went up steeply and the workload both during games and when preparing new content seemed to plummet down to a fraction. You can of course set up a wilderness crawl completely blind and leave it entirely in the hands of the players to do or die. But I feel like this would only be fun with players who really want this style of game and who are quite decent at it. Otherwise making sure that the obstacles they are facing will be challenging but not too dangerous and keeping an eye on how much resources they have left and will need to find in the near future becomes quite a lot of work. Work that I now can absolutely live without. Resource management is another thing I want to leave by the side for the time being.

More Weirdness

When I am sitting by myself, coming up with great ideas for worldbuilding, the Sword & Sorcery setting I imagine is full of alien and exotic stuff like Tekumel, Barsoom, or Morrowind. But in every single campaign I’ve run in this type of setting, I always ended up describing a fairly ordinary generic fantasyland to the players. In this case it was generic pirates and serpents fantasyland, but that’s still just in a different climate zone in fantasyland.

And once again, I suspect a primary source of this might be D&D. In particular, it’s power gradient as monsters and other enemies are concerned. I tend to to create monsters of a style that makes them seem like they could potentially be actual animals that once existed somewhere on Earth, or which at least are not inconceivable as hypothetical branches that could have had evolved naturally. When statting such creatures for D&D, it usually is the easiest way to simply reskin some kind of monster that already exists, like an owlbear or rhinoceros. But when you do that, you already have locked in the relative power level of many of your new original critters. And in my case, the more exotic and stranger creatures are almost all more dangerous and powerful than the more mundane ones, so their D&D stats have to be correspondingly higher as well. And at that point I had already trapped myself, making a good portion of the more interesting creatures so powerful that PCs would have to have a good number of levels under their belt to face them with a real chance to win. Now the Inixon campaign ran over 19 games and at the end the PCs would have reached 6th level if the campaign would have continued. It was a long campaign with a not unusually slow advancement, but even so I never got an opportunity to show of many of the creatures in their natural environment without wiping out the party.

What actually happened was that I filled the encounters that the players got up with the smallest and most uninteresting of critters. Mostly cultists and snakes, with the occasional wolf-reskin and yuan-ti boss. Total fail. It also didn’t help that so much time was spend fighting those little critters because you need to get plenty of fights under your belt to get to the higher levels. Time that wasn’t spend interacting with the local cultures. This really ties in directly with the issue of dungeons.

Hopefully I can avoid this mistake when I am converting my material to Barbarians of Lemuria.

More Desolation

This is something that I’ve never got to work. Not even remotely. The aesthetic and tone that this type of Bronze Age Pangea setting is meant to evoke the style of Dying Earth fiction. With a world that is huge and wild and covered in ruins, but barely inhabited by people at all. Nothing of that kind ever came up in any of my previous campaigns. I thought the solution to that would be to have long wilderness journeys on which the players have to chart their course along landmarks and manage their supplies and deal with the difficulties of transportation. Usually that never happened because the PCs never got a level where I thought they would be ready to deal with such a challenge. And with a more narrative focus for the next campaign and ditching resource management, that won’t really be an option either. No real clue how to work on that, but it’s one more priority in which I’ll have to find ways to include it.

Why are we doing all of this?

One thing that had really bothered my for several years when setting up new campaigns was with setting up situations and environments in which it would feel believable to me that the PCs are risking their lives to go on these adventures. Typically in fantasy RPGs, you get two kinds of characters: Murderhobos and magic boy scouts.

When you’re running a dungeon crawl campaign and the goal of the campaign is to overcome monsters and get their treasure to get XP for being able to overcome more powerful monsters to get their treasure, then there really is no need for anything more complicated than characters who are risking their lives for riches and don’t really concern themselves with anything else. But for something that has more focus on an unfolding narrative where more time is spend on conversations and making arrangements between various competing groups, such characters won’t work. They just want to know where the monsters with the treasure are.

On the other hand you have the shining heroes who have nothing better to do with their lives than permanently wandering around looking for any opportunity to risk their lives against terrifying foes for people they don’t have any connection to. These are characters that work for games where everyone knows the campaign is about brave heroes saving the world from evil. But I don’t feel them being suitable for campaigns where there is no black and white good and evil, and no obvious end goal that all PCs would automatically pursue. Which I think is where all the much more interesting stories take place.

I’ve struggled for many years with finding a good description of what kind of people “adventurers” are in my setting and what players should expect of their role in the campaign. But now I think I always made this much more complicated than it really needs to be. I think all you really need to get players engaged with a dangerous situations and get invested in the outcome is to tell them to make characters who are deep down decent people and put them in situations where they have the means to make a real difference for good. Most sane people really like doing good things but avoid being heroic in everyday life out of uncertainty and fear of doing something wrong or getting into danger. In a game, this isn’t really a factor. Games let you do the right thing without any actual risk or cost, and in these situations most people are more than happy to play the hero. Many videogames check off trophies and achievements for ending the game in a heroic or villainous way, and in most cases you see vastly more players who did save all the kittens instead of kicking the dogs. (And I believe large numbers of those who kicked the dogs did it on a second or third playthrough after having saved the kittens in their first run.)

And also take into consideration my earlier choice to drop the idea of regularly clearing out whole dungeons of all the monsters. This drops the total amount of lethal fights that PCs get into considerably and makes a much higher fraction of them actually directly matter. You get much fewer situations where the players would be killing bands of goblins or swarms of giant centipedes simply because they are there. This makes the life of an “adventurer” seem considerably less suicidal and makes it much more believable that relatively ordinary people would accept the risks that come with it. Think of the four hobbits for example. They didn’t sign up to clear out Moria or conquer Mordor. And the story doesn’t make them do that. I have no idea of their kill counts during their year long quest to reach the heart of their enemy’s power, but I think most of them would be able to count them on one hand. Or at the other end, my two favorite scoundrels Han Solo and Lando Calrissian. They aren’t selfless people full of endless compassion and driven to self sacrifice. But when they find themselves in situation where a terrible injustice has to be stopped, and they have the means to attempt it, they find their decency to not just stand by and ignore it.

Getting away from D&D’s class system probably might help with this as well.

And what is it all about?

Now we’re going to get really pretentious. When I was learning more about ancient cultures and their belief systems back in university, I got the strong impression that all civilizations with organized states and agriculture develop a belief that they are separate from nature and that humans are really much more similar to the gods. They are the masters of their environment, and in some cases the world really was made for them. Today it becomes obvious how that attitude leads to huge environmental problems and disasters, but to some degrees this has been going on for thousands of years. I thought it would be really interesting to come up with fantasy cultures in a world where there is absolutely no doubt that nature does whatever the hell it wants, the constant environmental changes are much faster to be more visible during a human lifetime, and people get inevitably crushed if they think they can make nature obey their wishes. There are no natural disasters. There are only extreme weather events. They only become disasters because humans build inadequate houses in high risk areas and have no plan B for when their human-build infrastructure is destroyed.

My idea for such a setting is to make it an extreme weather world, where typhoons, earthquakes, and active volcanoes are very common, and the nature gods in charge of these phenomenons pay no attention to the needs and wishes of mortals. This world is not made for people to live in and make use of. Going with my favorite Eldritch Abomination quote: “You exist because we allow it. And you will end because we demand it.” Except that the nature gods wouldn’t bother explaining themselves to mortals.

One analogy I came up with and that I quite like is that in this world, people aren’t the apex predators like bears or tigers, but sit more in the middle like weasels. They certainly are predators who have no trouble killing almost everything else in their weight class and can even take on other animals considerably larger than themselves. But there’s absolutely nothing they can do against a bear and their only option is to get out of the way. (Not counting wolverines and honey badgers. Those are just fury and madness.)

To bring in the Dying Earth tone, even though it’s a world that is full of life and going nowhere, my idea is for people to have an approach to history that nothing that they do will have a lasting impact in the long run. They can build cities that might grow into small kingdoms, but it’s inevitable that sooner or later something will topple their walls or destroy their farmland, and the people will return to the wilderness to live among the savages, with their descendants knowing nothing of their civilized origin. That’s how it always has been, and always will be. The broken ruins that stand as proof are found everywhere. Refusing to see the signs and abandoning the dying cities for a better life elsewhere will only make the inevitable end worse.

Of course, there are always some powerful people who don’t accept this fate and believe that they have the strength to avert this doom and create a legacy that will last forever. And some of them are turning to dark magic to pursue this goal or even seeking immortality. They always fail, but the terrifying results of their foolishness survive in infamy long after other kings and cities have been forgotten.

I think this is a really cool concept with some real solid substance to it. But it never really came up during low-level exploration adventures. But I think it might be more useful in a campaign with a more narrative focus, where the sorcerer king doesn’t have to be a 15th or 20th level wizard. As with many other things, I don’t really have anything definitive nailed down on this front yet. But it’s something I want to focus on much stronger going forward from here.

To wrap up this sprawling abomination of a past, this is where I stand right now in both my hindsight reflection on previous campaigns and with my lofty ambitions going forward. Currently I am feeling that I don’t really need to change much regarding the worldbuilding of the setting. I don’t think there’s any need to drop existing creatures or create new ones, alter the general geography, or come up with different ideas for the cities. I don’t seem to have to make any changes to my big box of toys. Instead, I feel this process will be a lot more about how I could be playing with them in different ways, and perhaps spend a lot more time with some of the stuff that’s so far been lying unused at the bottom of the box.

So yeah, rambling’s over. I worked three days on this without any real major revelation to share with the world. This is what I got right now, but there’s been quite some response from a number of people for this topic, so I hope it’s not been completely in vain. I’m looking forward to see where this is going myself.

If at fourth you don’t succeed… (and why system does matter)

Last month I finished my fourth campaign in which I tried to bring my ideas for a Sword & Sorcery wilderness setting to life. While the campaign was overall a great success, and by far the longest of the four, the way the setting came to be actually realized in practice was not at all what I had been aiming for.

I believe I first had the idea for a Bronze Age Barbarians & Dinosaurs setting some six years ago after reading Robert Howard’s Conan and Kull stories and Edgar Burroughs A Princess of Mars, and remembering my old affections for Morrowind and dinosaur books.

The first attempt was Ancient Lands, which I ended up using in a short lived Pathfinder campaign. Not being happy with the result I tried reworking it as Lands of the Barbarian Kings for the low-level E6 variant for D&D 3rd edition. Still unhappy with the results, I brought back the same basic ideas when I got interested in rules-light oldschool RPGs as Ancient Lands (v.2), first for Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea and later Basic Fantasy. After that campaign I threw a lot of material and ideas out once again to get a better focus on the elements that really mattered for my core concept in the form of Green Sun. Which I wanted to run in original B/X, but convenience at the moment led to me giving it a shot with D&D 5th edition instead. Which again, also didn’t really lift of, ignite, or whatever other metaphor you want to use.

Some of the players actually really tried to dig into the setting that I had outlined in a basic overview file. Which I really did appreciate, but at that point, the events of the campaign and goals of the party had already set the future adventures down a pretty clear path. And I didn’t feel like I wouldn’t be able to keep the great quest coherently together if we were to set out to new unrelated detours. Maybe it would have been possible to do, but at that point I was already clear on not wanting to run D&D 5th edition any more than necessary. Keeping a straight heading towards the ultimate goal of the party to conclude the campaign and then start over with something else seemed the much preferable option to me.

Looking back at all the campaigns now, it seems pretty obvious why each one only brought a slight incremental improvement towards realizing my concept, but never making an actual breakthrough. Each time, for reasons of convenience, I ended up running some variant of Dungeons & Dragons again. And at the heart of all the sweet, sweet awesome ideas I have for a Sword & Sorcery campaign in a Barbarians & Dinosaurs setting, is that I want it to be specifically not like Dungeons & Dragons.

I don’t have anyone to blame for this but myself, but still, curse the tyranny of market leader!

At first I was genuinely thinking that my ideas should work with D&D without problems. Dark Sun did it, right? (I’m not sure, I never got to actually see Dark Sun in any kind of prolonged action, and lots of settings look much better on paper than in play.) Going from regular Pathfinder to E6 with limited classes and my own bestiary seemed like a sufficient solution. Looking around on my site, it’s actually been almost exactly two years since I had great ideas for trying make the setting concept work better with Apocalypse World. But at some point I got interested again in the dungeon and wilderness exploration system of B/X and thought that would work just as well. That I thought 5th edition could be a suitable substitute when response to a B/X campaign invitation was muted is just my own damn fault. I got seduced by the warlock class.

I think the problem is not just strictly with the mechanics. D&D and it’s derivatives all circle around the permanent hunt for XP and climbing the ladder of level advancement. And the way the combat systems are designed, they are really made for lots of smaller fights rather than the occasional big ones. It’s also, which might be even more important, that playing D&D brings with it huge amounts of expectations from the players. And as a GM, I am always very conscious of not acting like the kind of jerk GM who tells the players how to play the game correctly, even if I had something else in mind for how the tone and dynamics should play out in action. I understand the role of the GM to be an entertainer, not a conductor. I make it possible for the players to play their story, I don’t direct them to play my story. With the group I had for the Inixon campaign, the players really were interested in exploring the world that I had prepared, which makes me feel that I am at least on the right track with my ideas. But I just never could consider telling them to stop playing like it’s D&D. I invited them to play D&D and they joined the game being excited to play D&D. That’s just not something you do as a GM.

But now the campaign is concluded (actually concluded and not just sputtered out and abandoned), and while it wasn’t the epic grand finale that you always imagine to get, it still ended with fighting a giant snake on the roof of a tower rising above a ruined city, it’s shattered body being slain by arrows and magic bolts, in mid-transformation into a sorceress after being blown over the edge by one of the warlocks. That’s still pretty metal.

After having distracted myself for a couple of weeks with the preparation for a Star Wars d6 campaign (which still has to wait until later this year), I am still drawn back to the lizard infested jungles to once more try it better. I had considered Barbarians of Lemuria several times over the years, but with the many lessons learned from the Inixon campaign, I now feel more certain than ever that I really should go through with this. It’s a rules light game that is very quick to set up and easy to learn, giving it a very low entry barrier for new players. And if any players bring existing assumptions about a BoL campaign with them, it’s probably something like Conan the Barbarian, which in this case suits just fine. Maybe it will be a bit of an uphill battle to get even just three or four players together for that, but I now feel that this will be necessary to make the setting concept work, and there are no easy shortcuts around that. D&D is no longer an acceptable substitute.

Using the Gambling skill

I’ve recently been part of a discussion about rarely used skills in Star Wars campaigns. Gambling in particular seems like a skill that has little actual use for players and that is difficult for GMs to work into adventures in a meaningful way.

In this case, I think the burden of making the skill useful really does fall primarily to the player. You chose to invest points into the gambling skill, or to take gambler as your character archetype. Of course it is good form for the GM to be accommodating and make an effort to allow players to play to their characters’ strengths. But when you want to play a gambler, or any other character with a focus outside the typical adventure activities for the setting or genre, it falls to you to come up with an idea how it will be part of the campaign.

While I don’t have the slightest idea how to make use of basket weaving in an adventure campaign, I do see quite a number of options of how you can make gambling a meaningful part of a Star Wars campaign, and to some extend in RPGs in general.

When you think of the main purpose of gambling, making money is the obvious answer. But in a Star Wars game, money generally does not play a meaningful role, as all the equipment you really need is a blaster for every character and a small ship for the whole party, which you often get at a very early point of the campaign. It’s not a setting where characters are constantly upgrading their equipment with potato peelers +2 or you have a dozen types of increasingly protective and expensive suits of armor. Like in Sword & Sorcery fantasy, money appears as something much more abstract within the stories, really only mattering when the characters are faced with a massive debt or huge expense that will be impossible to cover unless they take on that one suspiciously well paying job or find the fabled treasure of legend. The need for large amounts of money is an adventure hook, an excuse to get the players to go to a place where the GM has something prepared for them. And in that case it’s in nobody’s interest to have some characters spend a whole session in a casino and play 50 rounds of cards. Which is why the amount of money you can make with gambling or picking pockets is usually trivially low.

My suggestion is forget about money. Don’t go gambling to get rich as a simpler (and boring) alternative to go on an adventure. What really makes gambling interesting from a story perspective are the debts that result from it. When you play a gambler, or any character with a high gambling skill, try to get into games with imperial officers and gang leaders and get them into debt. Because debt means leverage.

This is one of the cases where the GM has to be accommodating. The GM can always say that the NPC in question does not gamble, doesn’t play with the PCs, stops playing when the credits run out, or has the necessary money at hand to pay the debt. But I think when you approach the GM with a plan to try manipulating an NPC through gambling debts, most GMs will be quite happy to give you a chance in at least some situations. It doesn’t make sense for all  NPCs and in all situations, but this is just the kind of creative problem solving that I always love to see from players, and which makes running games the most fun.

When you have an NPC in debt, you can have the leverage to either get information or a favor. Have the NPCs tell you about other people you are really after or about places you want to get into, or ask them to do small things that will greatly help you overcoming some obstacles for your big plan. Getting you access keys, disabling alarms, planting bugs, distracting guards, that kind of thing.

But as it says in the name, gambling is always a gamble, and there’s always a real chance that even a master gambler fails and ends up being the one losing a lot of money. Which ultimately can lead to the player ending up in deep debt to important and influential people. Which from a narrative perspective is awesome! We get to increase the tension for the current adventure and have the players facing even more obstacles than they did before, and they all know perfectly well that it’s purely the result of their own actions. These are the best kinds of consequences and a fantastic example of failing forward.

Another way in which gambling can be useful is simply as a cover while spying on NPCs or checking out places. When you’re sitting at a table loosing great amount of credits (or winning them), nobody is suspecting you to be in the place for other insidious reasons. Gambling is a nice way to get NPCs into conversations and to make them let their guard down by either separating them from their credits or making them enjoy a winning streak. The richest and most powerful people usually tend to play in places where the stakes are very high, and being very good at gambling is a classic trait of various villainous archetypes. You might be able to get a simple customs officer or low ranking gangster into a low stakes game in some cheap cantina, but when you want to go against crime bosses and moffs, you have to be able to play with the pros. Both in skill and the money you bring to the table. So as your gambling skill increases, you don’t just improve your chances of success, but also gain access to more influential and important people.

There doesn’t seem to be any obstacles in a typical adventure that your character can overcome by making a gambling check. And while it may look like a way to make some easy money at the side, like you can do with picking pockets and cracking safes, you really should think of it more as a skill to help you get access to information and objects that are not easily available otherwise. More than anything else, gambling is a social skill. When you approach it like this, the potential situations in which it can win the day broaden considerably.

Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook – A book that teaches gamemastering

Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook, West End Games, 1993.

The Star Wars Roleplaying Game by West End Games was first released in 1987, four years after Return of the Jedi had been in theaters. It got a second edition in 1992, which this time also included a Gamemaster Handbook that was released in 1993. This was 14 years after the first Dungeon Master’s Guide for AD&D 1st edition, and 2 years after the 2nd edition DMG. At the same time, Shadowrun had  been around for four years, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay for seven, and Call of Cthulhu for twelve, so it really wasn’t entering into any completely unknown territory.

While I can’t really say anything about the later games, I am quite familiar with all the Dungeon Master’s Guides other than 4th edition, as well as the GM sections for a dozen or so retroclones based on B/X and AD&D 1st ed. But when I managed to get my hands on the Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook and read it, I discovered something that seemed amazing:

The Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook tells you how to be a Gamemaster!

“Well, duh!” you say? “That’s obviously what a gamemaster book is for.” Well, it should be obvious, but when you look at what passes as Dungeon Master’s Guides in D&D, it really isn’t. In the many editions I had both on the internet and with the players of my D&D 5th edition campaign (most of who have much more experience with it than I do), people regularly bring up how 5th edition is really unclear on how you’re supposed to actually run the game because it seems to assume that you run narrative-driven campaigns but all it’s rules are for dungeon crawling. Particularly older GMs express that the 5th edition DMG fails to even mention such basic things like how you make a map for a dungeon and fill it with content.

But this isn’t really a new thing. Since the very beginning, D&D has always assumed that GMs already know anything there is to preparing adventures and running the game, and all the GM content in the books consists of optional mechanics, lists to roll for randomly generated content, and magic items. What are you supposed to do with those to run an enjoyable game for new players? “Well, it’s obvious. Isn’t it.” But no, it isn’t.

The Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook is the complete opposite. It’s 126 pages and except for the example adventure that makes up the last 21 pages, there is a grand total of two stat blocks! Both as examples for the section that guides you through the process of creating named NPCs and translating them into game terms. Which don’t even take up one page in the twelve page chapter dedicated to this topic.

  • Chapter 1: Beginning Adventures, 10 pages, gives an overview of the process of coming up with adventure ideas and turning them into playable content that has some narrative structure to it.
  • Chapter 2: The Star Wars Adventure, 11 pages, expands on the previous chapter and goes into more detail about making full use of the unique setting and capturing the tone, pacing, and dynamics of Star Wars in a game.
  • Chapter 3: Setting, 11 pages, has great advice on using places and characters from the movies or creating your own material, with a focus on explaining what kind of elements you actually need to prepare, what is irrelevant, and the reason for it.
  • Chapter 4: Gamemaster Character, 12 pages, is all about thinking of NPCs as people first, and imagining them in ways that are memorable and makes them relevant to the events of the adventures and campaigns as individuals, and how to use them during actual play. Creating stat blocks for them is only a minor subject at the end of the chapter.
  • Chapter 5: Encounters, 13 pages, deals with encounters primarily as social interactions and what purpose individual encounters could serve to further the development of the narrative. There are a few sections on selecting the right amounts of hostiles for encounters that could turn violent, but it manages to do so without using any tables or stats.
  • Chapter 6: Equipment and Artifacts, 11 pages, is all about gear and related stuff, but doesn’t include any stats for specific items. It’s a chapter about resources that can be made available to PCs and NPCs and how they can drive the developing narrative of adventures as they unfold.
  • Chapter 7: Props, 7 pages, is about handouts and maps and the like.
  • Chapter 8: Improvisation, 8 pages, explains in simple and easy to understandable terms the concepts of prepared improvisation, or the art of equipping yourself with the tools you’re likely going to need to quickly address completely unplanned situations on the fly.
  • Chapter 9: Campaigns, 9 pages, lays out some basic ideas of running games for a long time through multiple adventures, in many ways approaching it from a perspective of sandboxing.
  • Chapter 10: Adventure “Tales of the Smoking Blaster”, 17 pages, is a simple adventure consisting of four episodes that shows how all the principles from the rest of the book could look like in practice.

To be fair, none of the things I’ve read in this book are seemed in any way new to me. I knew all of this before, and it doesn’t go very deeply into detail. But it took me 20 years to learn these things on my own and soaking up the wisdom of several dozens old-hand D&D GMs. And here it is, black and white on paper, spelled out in simple terms that are very much accessible to people completely new to RPGs, in a 27 year old book!

Now I am not a dungeon crawling GM. I am not a tactical fantasy wargame GM either. And there are different goals and requirements for different types of campaigns. But I feel that this is hands down the best GM book I’ve ever come across. It even beats Kevin Crawford’s Red Tide and Spears of the Dawn. They are very impressive books in their own right and do a great job at explaining the practices of sandbox settings in a D&D context. But they also fail to mention most of the information that is in the Gamemaster Handbook, like how you run NPCs as people and set up encounters to be interesting and memorable, apparently assuming that these things are obvious and already known. Like all other D&D books on gamemastering.

I think for most people reading this, there won’t be much new or particularly enlightening in this book either. But I think when any of us are asked by people who are new to RPGs (or maybe not) and first want to try their hand at being GMs but have no idea where to start, I think this book is still very much worth a huge recommendation. Not just for Star Wars, but for all RPGs in general. All the things that are laid out in this book would be really useful to know even when you want to run an OD&D dungeon crawl.

This book is fantastic, because it’s the only GM book I know that really teaches you how to be a GM instead of telling you about additional mechanics not included in the main rulebook. If my favorite RPG posters all got together to put together a guidebook on how to actually run games in basic and easy to understand terms, I don’t think I’d expect anything to be in it that isn’t already in the Gamemaster Handbook for the Star Wars Roleplaying Game 2nd edition from 1993.

I’m done with Dungeons & Dragons (again)

This week I finished my D&D 5th edition campaign that I’ve been running almost weekly over nearly five months for a total of 19 games. This has not only been the longest campaign I’ve been involved with, but also the first one that actually reached its conclusion. I think it’s also the best one I’ve ever run by a considerable margin. My experiences from running campaigns on and of over the many years since the 3rd edition was first released, but also the many theories about gamemastering that I’ve learned about in the seven years since I started this site finally came together in a way that made me feel like I actually knew what I was doing, and that things turned out more or less as I had intended. And in the process, I think I learned even more from this campaign than any other I’ve ran in the past.

So all taken together, this really was a huge success.

But one important thing I realized in the final third or so of the campaign is that D&D really is not the game for me. I feel like I am done with Dungeons & Dragons, but also with dungeons, as well as dragons.

One of the reasons is the particular style of fantasy that D&D is both build upon and it perpetuates through the mechanics of its rules. D&D fantasy is fantasy that does its primary worldbuilding through establishing mechanics and standards for how things work and how beings behave. It’s a form of fantasy that is structural and rational, with clear rules that everyone can understand, leading to expectations that players automatically bring to the game. It is the opposite of being magical, wondrous, and elusive, which to me defeats the overall purpose of fantsy. Everything becomes systemised, quantified, stiff, and bland. I do have some fond memories of The North of the Forgotten Realms, and think there’s some really cool sounding ideas about the less popular lands in the distant east. Dark Sun looks really cool with really great concepts, and there’s something unique and compelling about Planescape. But when you play campaigns in these settings, you’ll always be playing D&D, and players looking at everything through the D&D lense, trying to analyze their situation and formulate their plans by D&D logic.

While I think that the D&D mindset is not my cup of tea and that other styles of fantasy are much better, this is something that I could live with and accept as something that comes with entertaining the players. As a GM, my job is not to get the players to play the ideal fantasy campaign that I would want to play, but to give them the opportunity to play the way they want to play. (There is only darkness and despair down the path of telling the players how to play the campaign right.)

The bigger problem, and I think ultimately the dealbreaker, is that D&D is build around certain structures that I simply don’t find compatible with where my strength in the preparation and running of adventures lie. I just don’t get dungeons.

And it’s not like D&D needs dungeons because they are in the title of the game and players would be disappointed if they don’t get them. The whole game is based around dungeons on the most fundamental level. The game needs dungeons, not just as locations within the story but as a structure in gameplay. D&D is a game of attrition. If the party is facing just one villain, even one surrounded by guards and minions, the fight will either be very short, or very lethal for the PC. Single fights are not meant to be difficuly, they are meant to gnaw away on the endurance of the party. To play the game as it is designed to work, you need environments where the players will be facing six, eight, or ten fights in a row. And that is just not something that works in the kind of stories that I can create. For situations that make sense to me and that I feel will be rewarding for players, it almost never makes sense to have more than two or perhaps three encounters before leaving the place to regroup for the next outing on another day. When I make larger dungeons, they always end up as huge piles of guard creatures that serve little narrative function. Classical dungeons also regularly have puzzles, but I almost never find situations in which the presence of a puzzle would make sense and wouldn’t be nonsensical. You also can have nonhostile NPCs and creatures, and I often include those, but they don’t contribute to the attrition that games like D&D need. I often feel like I do rationally understand how dungeons are supposed to work, how they are structured, filled with content, and the purpose they have in a game. I just find them somewhat dull and completely out of place in the kind of adventures that I know how to make compelling and fun.

So what then about simply forgetting about all that attrition stuff and embracing the unlimited freedom to make the way whatever I want it to be. Yes, that certainly is an option. But what would really be the point of that? The main thing that broke the camel’s back for me with 3rd edition was the abundance of new class features and special abilities that characters get at almost all levels. And that’s something that is still present in 5th editon. Not quite as heavily as in 3rd, but still very much. Way too much, I think.

D&D is ultimately a game about pursuing experience to get access to new abilities. At least in the editions of the last 20 years, but it’s been like that for spellcasters since the very beginning. D&D is a game about getting new special abilities. It’s a main element of what drives players forward, and the prospect of new abilities is what makes players pick their character concepts. The group I had for my last campaign was amazing. They all went all in, head first, with all the narrative freeform nonsense I presented to them. But even these players were constantly talking about the new abilities they were looking forward to after and between games, and they were always proud to tell each other what cool new tricks they just got when they reached a new level. This is something that is baked into the game. This is what the game is about. And I feel that when you run adventures for the group in which most situations don’t result in fighting, then what is the point of running D&D? I am feeling very confident that I am certainly able to run cool and fun adventures. But when I run D&D, I have to provide plenty of opportunities for the players to use their wide and always increasing range of cool special abilities, and I simply don’t see how to do that in adventures that are cool and fun.

Dungeons & Dragons is not for me. If a group of players I like to play with invites me to a game of D&D, I probably wouldn’t say no. As long as I don’t have to come up with adventures that provide something to be entertaining for the players, I have no problem with it, even when I think other games would be even more fun. But running D&D sets requirements and limitations for the GM that don’t work with my abilities as a GM and what I consider enjoyable about gamemastering. Perhaps if the planets happen to align and some unexpected circumstances arise, I might possibly run a B/X campaign or something of a similar type. They are nowhere near as burdened by special abilities, but in the end they are still games about large dungeons filled with monsters and puzzles. I much more see my future with heroic fantasy games looking like Barbarians of Lemuria. Or perhaps some Apocalypse World. But for now it’s Star Wars all the way. And not the Star Wars with the D&D class features, or the Star Wars with the funky dice. The original Star Wars d6 game, where all the dice you need are d6s, and all your character’s abilities are the basic skill rolls. Rules light rules at their best.