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.

What I learned from reading Fate Core – Part 1: Environment Zones

While I was pondering whether the new Star Wars RPG by Fantasy Flight Games might be something worse purchasing instead of sticking with Star Wars Saga Edition (the FFG game require three $60 books, of which only one has been released yet; but SE is a d20 game with all the baggage that includes), I considered giving another chance to the generic class-less games that are out there. There’s a lot of praise for Burning Wheel and Savage Worlds, but Fate Core brings with it the huge advantage of being entirely free for download.

I have to admit that I am still not a big fan of Fate Points (Action Points, Bennies, Force Points, Luck Points, whatever you want to call them) and I can say outright that I think using Fudge Dice only has the purpse of selling special dice to me (though the game appears to be perfectly playble with 2d6 instead), but there’s really a lot of ideas in that game that frankly should be in every pen and paper game ever published! It’s not even strictly mechanical stuff, but really just some basic ideas how to approach the creation of character personalties, campaign setups, and encounters. Things that can be applied to probably every RPG that exists.

One thing that I really, really like – as someone who thinks miniatures have no place outside of tactical wargames – is to define the battlefield for encounters as a number of zones. The idea is, that you come up with a location for an encounter and divide it into a couple of zones that represent different kinds of environment. For example, an attack of a small hut could have the zones “Inside”, “Front Porch”, “Back Porch” and “Roof”. On each characters turn, they can move from one zone to another one and still get to take one action. In the first round, you could enter the “Front Porch” zone and then throw a smoke grenade through a window, and in the second round you move from “Front Porch” to “Inside” and try to tackle the enemy. The effect from the smoke grenade would now also affect only the “Inside” zone.

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That’s no ordinary rabbit!

I got this idea watching a video about Machine for Pigs a few days ago, in which the primary enemies are pigmen. For some reason it got me thining about werwolves, probably because a half-man-half-pig is similar to a half-man-half-wolf. However, one is a person afflicted by a disease that makes him turn under the light of the full moon and invulnerable to anything but silver, while the other is an alchemically warped hybrid of two creatures that doesn’t have any of these special traits.

With a werwolf, you know exactly what you are dealing with. You know what caused it, what triggered it, how the creature behaves, and how to kill it. But while a pigman might also stalk the night an brutally tear its victims to pieces, you don’t know anything about its behavior patterns and how it can be killed. And that’s the key to making horror monsters. Fear is essentially a response to not knowing how to respond to a dangrous situation. When you understand the danger, you can deal with it in a safe way, or at least get yourself out of harms way. You are in control of the situation, so there is no reason to fear.

So when it comes to creating or using horror creatures, it’s vital that the players do not know what they are dealing with. And I think it might be even more effective if the players think they know what they are dealing with and that they are in control of the situation, only to have them realize that the weapons and protective items they brought don’t do anything against the creature. Right now, I really want to make a short adventure in which an unseen creature attacks people during nights of the full moon, leaves behind mangled corpses, and is only seen as a shaggy bipedal shape that jumps in great leaps over roofs and walls. But then it keeps attacking even after the full moon has passed and its entirely unaffected by silver and wolfsbane. Which the players will only realize once they sprung their trap and have the beast cornered.