No time like the present

I’m currently reading again the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding (it’s that damn good), and it got me once more thinking about the role of history in setting design. Lots of settings have backstories that cover thousands of years, while for the players the only thing that matters is the present. Past events only matter when they return and become a problem in the present day.

But stories of ancient heroes and how they shaped the present world are often pretty cool ones. Sometimes even more than the things that are happening right now. It’s a common standard that the golde age of great heroes is long gone and the present day is just a shadow of it. I understand why Plato and Tolkien loved the idea (to tell the rest of the world how much they suck), but this isn’t contemporary criticism, this is roleplaying! Why should we play in the boring times after the interesting things are mostly over?

So I was thinking, that I like the idea of campaigns where the players are not just drifting around in the wake of great history, but are actually riding the crest of the wave. However, paradoxically, I’m not a fan of epic stories. My interest lies much more in the outstanding individuals among the common folk. I also loath metaplots in campaign settings and am still considering the option of a small-scale public release of my own setting. How to solve these conflicting goals?

I think one quite interesting approach is to make the timeline rather short and most of the defining events rather recent. Why set the current year for a campaign in the year 2437 when you can also set the date to 437? The great city state does not need to be 900 years old. If it’s just 90 years old, thats still longer than anyone can remember. A setting does not need to be still entirely dynamic, but it’s sufficient to have things seeming to be settling down instead of being firmly established. Drastic changes like new empires or collapsing ones might be unlikely in the lifetime of todays people, but the long-term survival of recently established dynasties could still be uncertain and specific borders not yet be set in stone. I think one reason histories are often set at such long periods are because elves and dwarves live for so long, and something just doesn’t seem that ancient if your grandfather has told you how he has seen it with his own eyes. But the simple and obvious solution here is just not making such races that extremely long lived. If elves live only for 300 years, that’s still amazingly long for a human to consider. But a 150 year old elf wouldn’t ever have talked to anyone who was alive just 500 years ago.

Since I haven’t yet nailed down a clear timeline, I’m quite curious how it might turn out approching it from this perspective

How about not saving the world?

End of the World plots are popular because they are easy. Characters don’t need any personalty or background to save the world. Everyone wants to live and the end of the world is the one situation from which nobody can simply walk away. It’s the absolutely lowest common denominator, there isn’t anything more basic in storytelling than that.

If you want a different kind of threat, then the characters need to have something they want to protect. Bob the chaotic neutral human thief does not value anything but his life. Why should he care and not just run away?

Continue reading “How about not saving the world?”

An alternative way to track character wealth

Coins in RPGs have always been something that seemed more like an annoyance to me than something that makes playing the game more fun. Sure, finding treasure and buying better equipment is often one of the most enjoyable parts of an adventure, but all the accounting that goes into keeping track of all your coins is right at the opposite end of the entertainment-scale. In many games, most mundane pieces of equipment have prieces that are completely negible, being counted in silver or even copper coins. When you’re carrying around thousands of gold coins, buying such objects isn’t even felt in your purse. And if you’re playing in a fantasy campaign in which there are no magic items for sale in stores, you can easily have the best weapons and armor that money can buy by third level. You have more money than you could ever spend on most mundane expenses like food, lodgings, and clothing. It is very tempting to simply tell the player not to bother with substracting the 2 silver pieces and 7 copper pieces they just spend. I’m also no fan of pure dungeon crawling, and the hunting for treasure isn’t a priority in my games. It’s something that happens more by accident at the side while the PCs are fighting their way through a place to find a person of item of special significance.

However, I am also a fan of the Sword & Sorcery genre and a big part of it is heroes being completely broke at regular intervals, being forced to get by with barely anything more but the shirts on their backs and having to climb back up towards fame and especially fortune. Especially in some OSR games, you also have some focus on hiring mercenaries and raising small armies of followers, who all need to be equiped, fed, and paid. And I don’t like to just handwave such things and let the players have whatever they want.

Encumbrance is a similar annoyance with all the fiddly accounting involved, and I’ve adopted the simplified Encumbrance system from Pencils and Papers, which has been working out really well for us so far. So I’ve come up with a similiar idea to simplify the tracking of character wealth:

Under this system, players do ignore any costs that are negible, but what constitutes a negible amount of money depends on the amount of money the character currently has in his coinpurse.

  • Platinum Class: A character who has more than 100 pp worth of coins (1,000 gp) tracks his money in platinum pieces. Any item or service that costs less than 1 pp (10 gp) is not substracted from the characters wealth.
  • Gold Class: A character who has more than 100 gp worth of coins tracks his money in gold pieces. Any item or service that costs less than 1 gp is not substracted from the characters wealth.
  • Silver Class: A character who has more than 100 sp worth of coins (10 gp) tracks his money in silver pieces. Any item or service that costs less than 1 sp is not substracted from the characters wealth.
  • Copper Class: A character who has less than 100 sp worth of coins (10 gp) tracks his money in copper pieces. Any prices the character pays is substracted from his wealth.

It’s up to the GM to judge when a purchase is considered to be a single item or the character bought something in bulk. While a character in the platinum class might buy a shield worth 5 gp and not substract the amount from his wealth, buying 100 such shields (500 gp/50 pp) to equip his guards would be a single purchase that does get substracted. Similarly, a single roll of linen cloth wouldn’t count as treasure for the same character, but a whole wagon load of linen could still be sold and add to his wealth. If something is bought or paid for on a regular basis, I think a smart way to handle it would be to check how much it costs the character per month. In Pathfinder, the daily wage for an untrained hireling is 1 sp. So a character of the platinum class could have three such servants in his home, and since their wages total up to only 90 sp (9 gp), it would still be negible and not be included in his expenses. Another important thing to note is, that there can be a difference between the wealth a character has stashed in a vault at his home or is carrying in a coinpurse while on adventure. A character could easily have piles of gold stored in his home, but when his coinpurse gets stolen, he may have to pawn some trinkets just to get back to silver class until he returns home. And when you’re really low on money, finding cheap ways to get a place for the night is getting interesting again. Being a high ranking officer and having to sleep in a barn would be an indignity that greatly enhances the game. (Really, indignities are the best driving force behind great roleplaying. There’s only two ways to hurt a player: Stealing their money and hurting their pride.)

Game Review: Bound by Flame

I saw this game a few weeks ago and had never heard anything about it before. Reviews have been very mixed, but usually being either ver negative or quite positive, so I looked a bit closer at what things people thought were bad or good, and decided to give it a try. The biggest issue with the game is, that it’s clearly overpriced, it’s not a 45€ game, and I bought it second hand on ebay for just 20€.

With that in mind, I was otherwise pleasantly surprises. The game has some similarities with the first Witcher and Dragon Age 2, but is clearly more low-budget than the big games of the genre from recent years. The craftsmanship isn’t anywhere near Mass Effect or Skyrim. But other than that, I think it’s quite decent, and personally I’ve been growing to its B-Movie charme. After all, Sword & Sorcery originated in pulp magazines and all movies are B-movies of questionable quality, so the game is in good company here.

Bound_by_flame_5I particularly like the combat, which is the meat of the game. And instead of the combat systems in Dragon Age 2 (press attack really fast) and the Witcher (press attack at a steady speed), you actually have to think a lot more when you strike and when you block and even use quick reflexes to evade in split seconds at times. On a few times I died quite a lot because I wanted to get through without potions, but even then the autosaves are really good and you always start right before the fight in which you died,with no repeating of previous enemies. The other quality of the game are its style and looks. The engine isn’t great and the levels no huge monuments, but I very much enjoy the experience, like in Mirror’s Edge or Shadow of the Colossus. You are in a band of mercenaries in a world overrun by the undead hordes of a group of mysterious sorcerers and help out a group of sages who have an idea how they could improve the chances of survival for some people by summoning a spirit of fire. It doesn’t work quite as intended, but you end up with special powers and fire magic, which give you a significant edge aginst the undead and the demons leading them. It’s not great literature, but a decent enough background story for a quite fun game with both swordfighting and sorcery.

I would rate the game 4/5, though with the added advice to get it for less than full price.

New Witcher 3 Trailer

A new trailer for Witcher 3 has been released a few hours ago.

If you remember a bit about the kinds of games I’ve been describing in previous articles, it won’t come as any kind of surprise that I love the Witcher games. This trailer looks really good, though it’s also a strong reminder why I usually don’t watch trailers or read previous for games I am interested in. This one does give away some details of the story, that would have quite surprised me if I’d be playing the game for the first time without knowing anything about it. It’s nothing major and thinking about it, it was mostly just me being dense that I hadn’t seen them coming since the moment I finished Witcher 2. It does, however, do it’s job of making me really excited about seeing how everything will actually turn out in the final game.

The Dead and the Dying

I was playing God of War again, which has lots of great bosses and ridiculous amounts of violence. And it got me an idea:

In many RPGs, player characters go unconscious when they lose their last hit point, but are actually dead only once they reach -10 hp. For the sake of simplicity, this is often ignored for enemies, and once they are out of hit points, they are simply dead for all intents and purposes. However, to add a little more gritt to my campaign, I plan to adopt a rule that any enemy brought to exactly 0 hp is not outright dead, but severely enough wounded to go down and lose the ability to fight, move, or even make any loud shouts. So at the end of a fight, there’s a certain chance that two or three of the defeated enemies are still not quite dead and semi-conscious. It’s then up to the players to finish off the dying, ask them a few last questions, use magic healing or treat their wounds so they will survive, or just leave them behind to die.

In Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea and probably most OSR games, a Trauma Survival check might be appropriate for enemies who are left to die, but the chace for that (default 75%) seems much too high. I probably go with an Extraordinary Feat of Constitution in AS&SH, which would only be 4% for most enemies, and maybe 8 or 16% for the tougher ones. Of course, if an enemy should survive, the GM would be pretty much obliged to have that NPC appear again later on in the campaign.

I can very much see why such a rule doesn’t appear in most RPGs, though I would kind of expect to see it in Lamentations of the Flame Princess. I’m usually not a fan of gore, but I think in this case some additional appaling consequences of violence can go quite a long way to reinforce the feeling of Sword & Sorcery, and also is a great opportunity for players to flesh out the peculiar personalties of their characters.

Hey, look at this: Making a character in every editon of D&D

I recently found this video series in the creators thread at the EN World forums, and I think it’s something that should really be shared around more.

Despite the title, it’s not just about creating a 1st level human fighter (as the lengths might indicate), but he also goes into detail about a good deal of other parts of the game and how they change over time. As someone who started with D&D in 1999, a lot of things on the older editions have always struck me as really weird or nonsensiscal, but they are not actually that silly when you hear them explained in context. And some are actually quite cool, once you understand what the creators had in mind. (As I frequently mention, TSR D&D was just horribly bad at explaining things to new readers.)

Magic Item: Shaman Mask

Shaman’s Masks
These masks are made from wood or bone, but sometimes more exotic materials as well. Most cover only the upper half of the wearers face or leave an open space for the mouth. They are usually painted in stark colors or decrated with feathers or leaves. These masks are used by shamans to help them communicate with spirits, as it makes them appear not quite human and separates them from the mortal world, and allows them to peer into the spiritworld and see things normally hidden from human eyes. Each mask is different in both appearance and specific abilities and the more powerful ones have often been handed down from masters to apprentices for many generations. Common abilities are:

  • Infrared Vision (as the spell).
  • Detect Magic (a limited number of uses per day or permanent).
  • Surprised by spirits only on a 1 in 6 chance.
  • +2 or +4 Willpower bonus on saving throws (replaces and does not add to the modifier from Wisdom).
  • Immunity against fear.
  • Immunity against mind reading and mind control.
  • +2 or +4 bonus on reaction rolls against spirits.
  • Observers are unable to identify the wearer of the mask and can only remember his clothing (including the appearance of the mask).
  • Wraithshape one or three times per day.
  • Permanent charm person.
  • Suggestion three times per day.

Character Sheets: Splitting the inventory

I made my first own character sheet yesterday, and having used them in our campaign today, one element I included already proved to be really quite useful. What I did with the space for inventory was to split it into two tables. One for items worn on the body, and a separate one for items in the backpack.

The reason for this is simple: If you are using Encumbrance in your game (and I recommend taking a look at this very practical system to manage it), players have many reasons to consider leaving behind most of their gear in a camp or with followers to explore and fight without being encumbred. It’s particularly useful for thieves, who often need to have no encumbrance at all to use their abilities and rarely have high strength, but can also become very relevant if the PCs have already collected a lot heavy treasure that could weigh them down considerably.

By making the content of the backpack a separate table from the rest of the inventory and writing down the total amount of load for each, it becomes a lot easier to see what difference it makes when the backpack is dropped. It seems obvious to me now, but I think all character sheets should structure their inventory this way.

I also made separate boxes for coins that are carried in a coinpurse on the character, in the backpack, or stored in a vault at a home base. In most games, characters can become ludicrously rich, and it would be nonsense to carry around hundreds if not thousands of kilos of gold and silver all the time. Also, it’s less painful when the characters happen to get robbed or lose all of their gear. (And allows for NPC burglarizing the PCs home while they are away.)

Function and Purpose, Part 3: Application

Now, after I made a list of the kinds of behavior I want to encourage in players of the Ancient Lands in the second post, the next step is to think about what elements would be required or very vulnerable to risk,  in achieving that. In a way, this is defining the Purposes I’ve been talking about in the first post. You don’t necessarily have to start with an idea for an element and then find a place for it to fit. Particularly in the early stages it makes s lot of sense to consider what roles there are that need to be filled.

As I outlined in the previous post, I want players to be suspicious about authority, stand up to their convictions, and question established structures, yet accept their limitations and coming to terms with doing things they are not proud of. How is that done in the works I mentioned as references? What makes those characters develop in the direction that they do?

Continue reading “Function and Purpose, Part 3: Application”