Function and Purpose, Part 2: Function of the Ancient Lands

As I quoted Tao of D&D in my previous post, “Function, then, is always incorporated into the world with an eye towards the desired behavior of the player”. Or in other words, the function of a setting is to encourage a certain style of play. I could just as well set my campaigns in Forgotten Realms or Dark Sun, but they are not quite what I want. And it isn’t even that I think certain elements of those settings are bad or just dumb, but neither quite captures the style I have in mind. A GM should not tell the players how they are supposed to play the game and how their characters should act. Giving the players only one option and denying them any kind of choice never makes the game fun for anyone. You can, however, place the PCs into situations in which the players will want to play in the way you intend. Because they conclude for themselves that this is the most effective and most fun way to deal with the situation. There should still be many options to take and choices to make, but if you prepare the game cleverly, most of these will match with the style you have in mind.

So the first question when adressing the subject of Function in the Ancient Lands would be, what style I do have in mind. My favorite examples of the kind of character interactions I would like tosee have long been Star Wars (movies), Mass Effect, Knights of the Old Republic (game and comics), and Ghost in the Shell, as well as Alien, Blade Runner, The Thing, The Witcher (games), Princess Mononoke, Yojimbo, and Conan the Barbarian. And you probably immediately notice something interestingly, which is that most of these are science fiction, with only two real examples of Fantasy among them. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Should the AncientLands be a science fiction setting instead? Well, that has been done before. People keep agonizing about original ideas, and here’s something moderately different pretty much happeningby accident. Setting a generic fantasy hero story in space worked out great for Star Wars, so why nottransport postmodern science fiction into the Bronze Age?

With this step out of the way, it now comes to identifying what behaviors of characters from these movies and games I want to see from players in my campaigns.

  • Defeat enemies while minimizing the risk to yourself. Don’t try frontal assaults against enemies who greatly outnumber you.
  • Play dirty and exploit every advantage you can get.
  • Accept cooperating with despicable and untrustworthy people to deal with bigger problems.
  • When things get too hot, cut your losses and run to fight another day.
  • Take what you can get and resist getting too greedy and lose everything.
  • Respect people who deserve it, but refuse to submit to those who abuse their position orrefuse to admit their failures and make way for someone more capable.
  • Never trust the words of known villains.
  • When faced with two bad choices, keep looking for a third option.
  • When there really is no alternative, do the thing that has to be done, but nobody wants to do.
  • You can’t change the world, but you can make a difference here and now.
  • For everything you do, there will be consequences, and you will have to live with them, however things will turn out.

This is what I want to see. This is the kind of thinking I want the players to develop, and the kind of behavior I want them to follow. From here on, all development follows in light of the question “how do you get the players to see this as the right way to go?”. Not every little detail has to contribute directly to that goal. But whenever a new detail is added, be it a dungeon, a magic item, a special rule, a cultural custom, or some kind of organization, it always should be examined in regard to that question. If it doesn’t really make a difference but seems cool anyway, it can still pass. But considering that a setting can easily get overloaded with junk, that makes it harder to find the important parts for players and GMs reading the material, you should really stop and think a moment if it’s really worth bothering with. Even if you work purely for yourself and a single campaign, there is only so much time you’re going to put into it, and it’s rarely worth the effort to develop an elment the players are never going to see in any way.

Function and Purpose, Part 1: Purpose in the Ancient Lands

I found an interesting article on world design at Tao of D&D from about a month ago, that had kept me thinking for the last couple of days. It makes the argument that when outlining the goal of a setting and adding elements to it, you should be considering what the function of your world is going to be, and what purpose the elements are supposed to have. But what exactly is the function of a world? Basically, it comes down to this:

“Function, then, is always incorporated into the world with an eye towards the desired behavior of the player.”

I think he’s really on to something here. I have a pretty good idea what I want the world to feel like, and what kinds of campaigns and adventures I want to run in it. But an important thing to always remember is, that a campaign setting, unlike a movie or novel setting, is not a piece of art to be admired from the outside. It is there to be used by people, and unless you’re a terrible GM, players will use it in whatever way they like. For the players, the campaign and its setting are their toy to play with as they enjoy it. They are not helpers who assist the GM in playing with his toy in the way he wants to. If you want players to interact with your setting in certain ways, you need to design the setting so that the player will want to interact with it in the way you envisioned.

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My favorite articles on Gamemastering

5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System
5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System
5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System
5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System
5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System

When it comes to running adventures and campaigns, nothing can replace actual experience. However, that is not to say that you can only learn from making your own mistakes. There is actually a great number of excelent pieces of advice on the topic of preparing and running games, but strangely it’s something that almost no RPGs ever care to mention. Things make perfect sense when you already know and understand them, but they can be far from obvious and quite difficult to figure out on your own unless someone explains them.

The following is the list of my favorite articles on Gamemastering, which I consider to be really eye-opening and great advice for GMs both new and experienced. Some of the things covered in them may only make complete sense if you’ve already run into the problems they adress. But even if you’re familiar with RPGs and Gamemastering only at the most basic level, I still believe it’s advice that can still be usefull even if it is only half understood.

5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Skill System by The Angry DM

5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System
5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System

5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System

5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System

5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System

5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System

5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System

A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming by Matthew J. Finch

Adjudicate Actions Like a Motherf$&%ing Boss! by The Angry DM

Adjudicate Actions Like a Motherf$&%ing Boss!

D&D: Calibrating Your Expectations by The Alexandrian

Don’t Prep Plots by The Alexandrian

Four Things You’ve Never Heard of That Make Encounters Not Suck by The Angry DM

Hex Crawling Encounters by LS

How to Build F$&%ing Awesome Encounters by The Angry DM

Making Encumbrance Work by LS

Rules vs. Rulings by The Alexandrian

Sanboxes and the Roguish Work Ethic by Zak S.

The Death of the Wandering Monster by The Alexandrian

The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding by Kobold Press ($15 pdf)

Three Clue Rule by The Alexandrian

RPG Review: The Spider-God’s Bride and Other Tales of Sword & Sorcery

The Spider-God's Bride and Other Tales of Sword and Sorcery
The Spider-God’s Bride and Other Tales of Sword and Sorcery

XP1: The Spider-God’s Bride and Other Tales of Sword & Sorcery by Morten Braten from Xoth.net has come up frequently during my search for material on how to run Sword & Sorcery style adventures and campaigns. People who mentioned it seem to generally regard it quite well, so I was willing to part with the 7€ and give it a chance.

It’s a 200 page black and white pdf file that contains 10 adventurers plus a 33 page section of new character options for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition/Pathfinder. Even when I still used to run D&D or Pathfinder, I always prefered to play with the basic rules only and ignore all splatbooks and most setting-specific material, so I really can’t say how well this chapter compares to other OGL releases. I didn’t see anything that stood out and looked intriguing to me, though.

The real meat of the book are the 10 adventures, aimed at characters from 1st to 10th level. Each one starts with an interesting backstory and setup, but in the execution all of them seem to be primarily detailed descriptions of dungeons and some cities. Which frankly is not at all what I was hoping to get. The style seems to follow quite closely that of the old classic TSR modules, like the Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun or The Lost Caverns of the Tsojcanth and their ilk. Which I can’t find any use for either. Maybe the dungeon and city descriptions are actually quite decent for people who love such products, but I am not one of them.

I think a great part of my dissatisfaction with this book are the different ideas about what makes Sword & Sorcery that I and the author have. As I see it, the writer seems to confuse a desert setting with evil wizards with the style and structure that really defines the Sword & Sorcery genre. But even when you ignore this issue for a moment, I still think the adventures mostly make the same major mistake. Especially in the Sword & Sorcery genre, but in RPG adventures in general, I am a very strong proponent of the “Story now!” paradigm. In an RPG, the players are both the participants of the story and its audience. While running games is a great pastime in itself, the story that develops from the interaction between the players and the GM needs to be entertaining to the players. A mystery plot is of no use to the players if they only learn about the existance of a mystery at the very end, or they might never actually learn about it at all. I remember an adventure from Dragon Magazine about shapeshifting spiders impersonating people, which looked really cool until I reached the final page and there still wasn’t any reason why the PCs would ever find out about it. And this is a mistake most of the adventures in this book seem to make. There is always something going on, but to the players it will look like they are doing a completely normal dungeon crawl to retrieve an item, and only at the very end will an NPC reveal that they actually just helped some evil sorcerer with his grander plan. (Spoilers Ahead:) Good example being eponymous The Spider-God’s Bride. All the PCs are doing the whole time is working as caravan guards or mansion guards for a foreign sage. At the very end the sage and his two kinsmen retreat to a secret basement, and while the PCs are distracted with a group of attackers at the gate the three are acting out the whole berayal and creation of a demon-spawn among themselves. When the PCs have disapatched the attackers and finally arrive at the scene, the survivors will tell them an elaborate lie about their betrayal of their master, which the PCs might actually believe and be on their way to another adventure. (Spoilers end here.)

This is just bad, and a problem that trouble all the adventures in this book. Is it a bad book with 10 bad adventures? I am a bit hesitant about making such a sweeping statement, as I can’t see any value in many of the most classic D&D modules, which still have a great number of huge fans. But what I can say is that I don’t like this book at all. At 7€ it wasn’t a big loss, but I didn’t actually get anything out of it. Except maybe the idea to create an actually good story about the spawn of a spider-god for my players one day.

My personal rules for GMing (that I still keep forgetting all the time)

Many people frequently tell new GMs that everyone totally sucks at first and that you can only get better at the job by doing it over and over and learning from your mistakes. While actual experience is indispensible, I wouldn’t go nearly as far. There are numerous pieces of advice that you can understand even if you don’t have any practical experience yet, though you might come to realize their full impact only at a later point. In another way, simply keeping to do something poorly doesn’t make you any better by itself. You need to understand what actually went wrong and what parts of your GMing performance you want to improve. And while it’s usually not a problem to observe other players to get the hang out of playing the game, it’s not uncommon for GMs to be the only GM they ever get to see in action.

Over the last couple of months and recent years, I’ve found a number of very helpful hints that helped me a lot in understanding why my own performance did not end up entirely satisfying to me (though from what I can tell, my players are having a blast every time). Now the only thing I need to do is actually following my own advice, but I think these are some tips that could be immensly helpful to any new GM, or GMs wanting to improve their current work.

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Exploring Dungeons isn’t exciting

I know, a bold statement.

But think about it? What are the really cool and exciting scenes you love from novels, movies, comics, or video games? And how many of them have the characters walking down corridors and opening every door, to deal with the things they find in each room one at a time? Sure, sometimes there are really cool scenes that take place inside of dungeons. But these usually are not about exploring the place, but generally about seeking something or someone very specific inside that place. It’s the sneaking past the guards to reach the target and then finally confronting it that makes the whole event exciting.

I readily admit that both as a player and a GM, I very much favor a highly narrative style. And a game of managing resources and collecting treasure can be fun. Risk and Settlers are my favorite board games and I spend insane amount of time when playing STALKER to search every piece of rusted pipe and then drag myself back to camp massively overburdened with 40 first aid kits and a dozen high quality assault rifles to sell. But reading GMing advice and keeping up with many of the popular RPG forums, I often get the impression that these two quite different aspects of RPGs get thrown together as if they were the same. Which they are not.

Having a dungeon with lots of unique rooms, that each have special features and often include interesting creatures is a good thing. If you are playing the game to have a dungeon crawl. My personal favorite style of fantasy is Sword & Sorcery and I wanted recreate the special traits of that genre in my current campaign, which I’ve started this January. And while my players all seem to have had great fun so far, I am personally rather disappointed with what I’ve come up with so far. Because, as I think now, I was still approaching the adventures starting with the dungeons. I had my Monster of the Week and laid a track to its lair for the PCs to follow, now all I needed was to add some padding to stretch the game between finding the entrance to the lair and encountering the monster. Actually, a lot of padding, because you just need to have a cool dungeon.

But looking back, the dungeon wasn’t cool and in the end it really was just pure padding. The only result it had was draining some hit points from the PCs, and that really only because they had no priest or any healing potions. I havn’t written the summary of our last session, because there really isn’t much interesting to say. And as I’ve said in another article two weeks ago, if a part of the adventure is not worth retelling later, it didn’t had to be in the adventure in the first place. Instead, I should have spend much more preparation on the encounter with the boss at the end of the dungeon, who really just ended hitting the PCs with his claws as soon as they opened the door until he was dead.

In closing: A dungeon is not an adventure.

A dungeon is the stage for an adventure, but even the coolest dungeon can not substitute for a story. (Which in a dungeon crawl wouldn’t be an issue.) Right now, this is just one piece of insight I want to share here and I don’t have a lot of advice what to do about it yet. But it took me over 10 years to figure this out, so maybe this can be a nudge for other GMs to rethink what they’ve been doing so far as well.

Jump into the deep end! – Starting Sword & Sorcery adventures

About a year ago I discovered a new appreciation for Sword & Sorcery fantasy, and when I started my new campaign this winter, I new that I wanted to take it into this direction. I did start with a fairly simple and straightforward idea, but soon I got all kinds of cool additional ideas where the adventure could lead to in the long run, how it could be part of a much bigger picture, and how some elements are actually connected to things the characters had been dealing with much earlier in very unexpected ways. It’s a really cool concept for what could be an incredible story. For a novel trilogy or a four season TV show. But for a pen and paper campaign it now seem very poorly suited.

Sword & Sorcery differs from the classic Epic Fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time not only in the setting and themes, but also, and possibly even more importantly, in its structure and pacing. Lord of the Rings spends chapters only on establishing two of the main characters and we only learn about the actual purpose of the whole story halfway through the first book. It works, but I still don’t know anything about how Conan came to wander Hyboria or how Geralt of Rivia got his special powers. Might actually be told somewhere, but it’s entirely irrelevant to any individual story. Sword & Sorcery not only tends to be episodic, it also starts at the point where the actual story begins. And so should S&S inspired rpg adventures!

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Reactions, not Reflexes

One rule of thumb you very often get to see about planning and running a game and also writing stories, is that the characters should be “acting instead of just reacting”. But I think except for special cases in which the PCs are trying to establish a domain or something like that, this is not really a good way to describe the issue.

In virtually all cases, every story, both fiction and academic history, is about dealing with an extraordinary situation and returning things back to normal. What is considered “normal” depends entirely on the perspective of the people who are in the center of story. If you have a society in which group A keeps group B in slavery, and has done so for generations, the state of slavery would be the “normal” state of things for people who side with group A. But for those who are siding with group B, the situation would still be extraordinary. It just has been that way for 200 years. But when someone does start getting active in any way, to end the state of slavery, from his perspective it will be all about turning things back to what he considers normal. It does not matter if the extraordinary situation began 5 minutes ago or has been going on for centuries. Any character who feels he has to change things or stop an ongoing crisis does so because someone else, at some point, upset the normal state of things.

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Good artists borrow, great artists steal – Laying the foundations for the Ancient Lands

When I started working on the Ancient Lands, I wanted of course to create a world that contains many of the things I already love in other settings, but would wish to be more explored or developed a bit differently. Not all the things I love, because that doesn’t really lead to consistend and belivable world, but rather to a mess of randomly thrown together pieces. But still a selection of a good amount of things from my favorite settings that I have come to love a lot. Here, I want to provide an overview of the major geographic areas of the Ancient Lands and the works that inspired them. These don’t cover the whole world, or even the whole continent, but are the selection I made for those regions I want to develop in detail, while leaving the rest simply untouched. There’s something there, of course, but I don’t know what it would be either.

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What I learned from reading Fate Core – Part 2: Starting a campaign

One thing most GMs will realize probably quite quickly is that you can’t really start a great campaign with “You are all meeting in a tavern” (unless you’re going for a pure treasure-hunting dungeon crawl, I suppose). Even if you have an overarching story in mind, it’s often difficult to slowly build up to the really big issues that will define the campaign. At first you get to kill some rats in the basement and then slowly work your way up until you eventually get to explore a goblin lair where the actual hook for the major part of the campaign will be found. And as easy as it sounds, it’s quite difficult to make it work well and be exciting and enjoyable for the players.

Fate presents an interesting take on this: Every new campaign should start with at least two big issues (though don’t overdo it or it gets too cluttered and confusing). These can either be current issues or impending issues. Impending issues are the things I just mentioned. The definitive story with a clear villain and a specific goal for the PCs. But something that seems to be usually overlooked in RPGs are the current issues. Instead of dropping the players into a world where everything is mostly fine until they run into the plot hook, you can (and I think should) also start the campaign with some kind of major conflict or other problem already in place. It’s something that is very common in fiction and in many videogames as well. Take for example, once again, Star Wars, where there is already dissent against the new public order and rebellion brewing in secrecy before Luke and Han get involved in the actual plot at all. It’s the background environment in which the specific adventure of delivering the Death Star plans and saving the princess takes place. It’s the context for what they do and makes that simple delivery run matter, even before they end up joining the rebellion and taking up the goal of defeating the Empire. The game Skyrim is also a good example. You get the Dragon storyline as an Impending Issue that slowly builds up during the first three or four hours of the game, but there is already the Stormcloak uprising against the Empire as the Current Issue, which has been going on for quite some time before the players character gets drawn into the story.

Now I really wish I had been thinking about this a week ago, so I could have made use of this simple method to start my new Castles & Crusades game, but with only the first session played so far, it should be easy enough to do this retroactively.