Category Archives: rpgs

Is The Witcher Romantic Fantasy?

Working on a new setting that draws heavily from The Witcher and considering starting a new campaign in the forseeable future, I was remembered of how Joseph and Trollsmyth defined Romantic Fantasy and it’s application in RPGs.

And all of them really lines up very well with The Witcher. It’s not actually wrong to describe Geralt’s story as him trying to save the last true heir to the throne of Cintra from being murdered in a struggle between ruthless monarchs. But it’s much better described as the story of an aging warrior who stops at nothing to rescue an orphan girl he has taken in his care from impossibly more powerful foes. And despite being the protagonist, he’s not doing it alone but is always a part of a greater circle of friends.

I think it’s actually one of the best examples around for what Joseph is talking about.

Friendship is Magic.

In related news, I just learned that the Witcher RPG by Talsorian Games is still being worked on, and from what scraps of information have been released recently, it appears to be very far in the development process, already dealing with the layout of the book. It was announced well over two years ago with barely anything heard since then, so I don’t know how soon we can expect it, but it’s nice to see that it hasn’t completely faded off the world.

Refocusing

Building on my post from last week, I have made some more significant insights into the telling of fantastical stories. I had my start in creating fantasy material with drafting up a campaign setting of my own after I had become dissatisfied with the world of the Forgotten Realms, and the Ancient Lands literally had their origin as the realms of the High Forest 4,000 years in the past. It quickly grew into more and more of a unique thing as I made changes I considered improvements and artistic upgrades and added ideas from other sources that I found very appealing. However, I have to admit that I never was really satisfied with the Ancient Lands as a campaign setting. In the several campaigns that I ran, I always had the feeling that I wasn’t really able to showcase it’s creative features and make it feel to the players as something more than a pretty generic D&D world. I had great ideas that I still really like, but was never really able to work them into the active game.

When I started dabbling at writing, I took a lot of the aesthetic ideas and concepts from the Ancient Worlds, but for this purpose they turned out to work even worse. And I think I am starting to see why. The style I refined and the worlds that I designed are tailored to what I consider interesting, inviting, and attractive. But at the same time they are completely different from the many works that I find really inspiring. Asthetically, the Ancient Lands style takes a lot from Warcraft 3, Morrowind, and the Tales of the Jedi comics. But I don’t really enjoy any of these for their stories and they are actually pretty bad in that regard.

When I want to tell a story that I find compelling, or set up an environment that funnels players into creating stories of that kind, I need a setting that is designed for such stories. A quick look at my favorite stories that inspire me to be creative makes it very easy to discern a pretty specific shared style and tone: There’s movies like The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Arc, Princess Mononoke, Blade Runner, and Ghost in the Shell. There are the Witcher books and the Hellboy and B.P.R.D. comics. There are videogames like Metal Gear Solid, Thief, Legacy of Kain, Mass Effect 2, and Mirror’s Edge. None of them are set in vast wildernesses inhabited by barbarian tribes. I find it a culturally fascinating environment and aesthetically very pleasing, but these works are all dark and set in quite advanced societies with complex political environments.

Bronze Age tribes are a very fascinating environment, but I am starting to see that I don’t really have a good idea what kinds of stories would fit into such a setting that I find compelling. This is not where my creative capital is located. I don’t have the toolbox to craft stories for it.

So with the creation of the Kaendor setting I want to go all the way back to the start and refocus on what the essential elements are that I want to and can work with. With the Ancient Lands I put some considerable effort into not doing what has been done a hundred times before, like going with Dark Lords, demonic invasions, lost Golden Ages of magic and technology, a good and evil duality, an intelligently designed universes (that is about to break down), and a generic medieval European setting. But in hindsight I think I went a bit overboard in some of it and ended up designing a world in which there isn’t really anything to replace these things as big background sources of conflict that force characters into action. Right now, I think I might be able to salvage the idea of small clusters of civilization separated by vast stretches of uninhabited wilderness. While a tribal Bronze Age society and settlements don’t look like they would work, I can take the asthetic styles of various Bronze Age empires to create a style that is distinctively different from the medieval European Standard Fantasy Setting. And the ambigous and unsettling spirits could become more actively prominent with a big Lovecraftian boost of weirdness.

In a way, I could see many of my ideas work in a setting that is actually more similar to the fantastic world of Morrowind. More great houses, more tongs, more daedra, and more living god kings.

Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game 30th Anniversary Edition

Now that’s a game I have not heard from in a long time. A long time…

This comes completely out of nowhere. Fantasy Flight Games, the current license holder for Star Wars pen and paper Roleplaying Games, is releasing a 30th Anniversary Edition of the one and only original Star Wars Roleplaying Game.

It looks to even be the first edition, which is widely regarded as the best edition of the West End Games game because of its simplicity, and even as the best Star Wars ever made. It’s described as a limited edition but priced at a reasonable $60. Which leaves the question how limited it will really be.

It’s a fantastic game, but I think in the current RPG market there is probably little risk of this becoming any kind of threat to FFG’s own Star Wars game. Small and tidy games don’t seem to be making it big these days and customers love their piles of splatbooks with lots of pictures and endless character customization. Which this game certainly doesn’t have.

If I could get my hands on one for $60, I’d definitely buy it.

What’s the point?

I have been dabbling a bit in writing for a few years in addition to working on RPGs and campaigns, and the main problem that kept my stuck with writing something compelling and that’s always been the hardest part about campaigns is to come up with a plot. I am always doing great thinking about worlds and characters, but these aren’t any good if there is nothing interesting happening.

But now I’ve finally come across a great piece of advice. Plot is not really about conflict. Plot really starts with a goal.

Conflict is what follows from the goal not being easily reached and that conflict is what makes up the plot. But the reason why the protagonists are doing anything and how they approach the challenges they encounter result not from the conflict but from the goal.

Instead of trying to come up with a plot by picking a cool and exciting conflict, the process really begins with picking a goal. And then thinking about circumstances that get in the way of the goal, from which you get a conflict. This even holds true when your initial idea starts with a cool villain. The hero does not simply want to oppose the villain just because. He opposes him because he’s an obstacle to reaching his own goal. A villain does not make a conflict. The goal that the villain is blocking creates the conflict and in turn the plot.

Knights of the Old Republic: The Sith Empire Strikes Back

Knights of the Old Republic

THE SITH EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

Fifty years have passed since the returned Sith Lord Darth Revan has been destroyed for a second time in the Battle of Chandrilla, bringing an end to his seemingly unstoppable invasion of the GALACTIC REPUBLIC. With the death of their master, the surviving Sith forces were driven back to the Outer Rim.

Under the leadership of the mysterious SITH EMPRESS the Empire has been rebuilding its fleets and recovered its strength, slowly conquering many of the small independent systems in the Rim. Many fear the threat of a new great galactic war on the horizon.

Concerned by reports of recent activities in ruins of the Great Sith War, the Jedi Council has dispatched a group of its agents to the burned remains of the Jedi Enclave on the remote planet Dantooine.

  • 5000 BBY (1098 years ago) – Great Hyperspace War: The Sith Empire discovers the Galactic Republic and tries to invade corruscant but is defeated and almost entirely wiped out, but the Dark Lord Naga Sadow escapes with his followers to Yavin 4.
  • 3996 BBY (94 years ago) – Great Sith War: The Dark Jedi Exar Kun and Ulic Qel-Droma declare themselves the new Dark Lords of the Sith and attempt to conquer the Galactic Republic with the help of the Mandalorians.
  • 3976 BBY (74 years ago) – Mandalorian Wars: While the Sith had been defeated, many of the Mandalorians had survived and dispersed throughout the galaxy. Mandalore the Ultimate united them again as the Neo-Crusaders and started another war against the Galactic Republic, causing Revan to gather an army of Jedi against the will of the Jedi council.
  • 3958 BBY (56 years ago) – Jedi Civil War: Revan and Malak declare themselves Dark Lords of the Sith and create a second Sith Empire. Revan is defeated by the Jedi but Malak escapes.
  • 3955 BBY (53 years ago) – The Dark Wars: Darth Malak returns with a new fleet from the Unknown Regions to attack the Galactic Repubic. Revan kills him in the Battle of the Star Forge and then turns on the Republic Fleet, completely destroying it and killing Admiral Dodona and Master Tokare. Shortly after the disappearance of the Republic Fleet in the Unknown Regions a Sith force attacks the Jedi Enclave on Dantooine, wiping out most of the Jedi in the Outer Rim.
  • 3952 BBY (50 years ago): Revan is slain in the Battle of Chandrilla and the remains of his fleet flee to the Outer Rim. The Republic Fleet are in no shape to pursue and both sides decide to focus all their resources on strengthening the defensesof their worlds, for the time being.
  • 3902 BBY: Sith Desciples send by the new Dark Lord start poking around on Dantooine.

I didn’t post much this month so far because I was busy. With work on my Ancient Lands setting being pretty much complete but the launch of a new campaign still being a while off, I once again turned to my other hobbies for fun. Videogames from the early 2000s (being already old enough to prefer stuff from when I was 16-20 to new releases) and Star Wars.

And I always wanted to run a Knights of the Old Republic campaign, but never got around to it. And just having discovered the Apocalypse Engine games and also started replaying the KotOR game, I simply have to do this now! I am actually getting new inspirations for refining the Ancient Lands all the time these days and don’t expect to be able to stay away from it for long. But for the time being, expect a good amount of Star Wars material around here.

I have a dream!

An Apocalypse World hack based on WEG Star Wars d6 1st Edition and running a Knights of the Old Republic campaign.

I’m not really sure why, but Star Wars seems to be really well suited to the way this game is structured and how it is described to be played. In particular, pretty much everything that involves Han Solo seems to perfectly fit the procedure of the player making a move and the GM responding with a move in turn. Han’s encounter with Greedo in the cantina, his attempt to impersonate a stormtrooper in the detention area, and of course the whole scene in the trash compactor. “It could be worse.” *roar* “It’s worse.

Or the whole ordeal with getting the Milennium Falcon to hyperspace in The Empire Strikes Back: Stormtroopers arrive; they start assembling a heavy blaster; hyperdrive doesn’t work; there’s an asteroid field; they send Tie-Bombers to flush them out; there’s mynocks in the cave; it’s not a cave; there’s a bounty hunter hiding in the trash; Darth Vader already arrived just before them. A long, long string of the GM throwing move after move at the hero who keeps failing his rolls.

Thoughts about Star Wars Sandboxes

Recently I’ve been thinking about a sandbox campaign set in the Star Wars galaxy and whether these two things could actually work together in a way that gives them both justice. And I’ve come to believe that yes, it can be done. Though with some limitations, however.

The People

Broadly speaking, there are three main categories of heroes in Star Wars. Rebels, Jedi, and Scoundrels. Of these, I think only scoundrels can actually work as a party for a sandbox campaign. Scoundrels are great because they are inherently proactive. Because they are always looking out first for Number One. They are interested in their own benefit, which more often than not means credits. Smugglers and bounty hunters always have a default goal they can pursue in absence of anything else pressing: Make more money! This puts them into immediate conflict with the law and generally involves messing with pretty violent people. A scoundrel campaign is pretty much writing itself, which is what you want in a sandbox.

Playing rebels is more of a problem, though. The goal of rebels is to take down the Empire through military actions and targeted sabotage. But just going around collecting stormtrooper helmets is not going to do that. There is effectively an endless supply of those. To make a real difference, their attacks have to be part of a bigger strategy and need to be coordinated with lots of other people. Which means that all the big decisions are being made by rebel leaders who have a more or less complete overview of the entire military situation. If the players are getting orders from higher up, it’s not really a sandbox, regardless of how much freedom they are given in the execution of their orders. If they play military leaders than you’re playing a wargame. Doing things you like doing and opening new adventures where you spot them does not work when playing rebels. And neither does it work when playing Imperial officers or troops.

Jedi are more flexible compared to military characters, but they are by their very nature completely reactive. Jedi wait in vigilance until the Sith rear their ugly heads somewhere in the galaxy and then go chasing after them until the status quo has been restored again. This doesn’t really work as a sandbox either. It’s always the Sith or oder Dark Jedi who have the full initiative and drive the plot forward. As long as there are no Sith stirring shit up, Jedi don’t have anything to do that would be proper Jedi adventures. As with rebels, you can give Jedi a great amount of freedom in how they go after their enemies, but they need to be given an enemy to chase after. They can not really start things on their own, which is a pretty big deal in a sandbox campaign.

The Places

The galaxy of Star Wars is big. Really big. There are thousands of inhabited planets that are each a full world in their own right. Trying to map all of this in the traditional way is, and in this case literally literally, impossible. But the way characters are interacting with space and distance in Star Wars is completely different from the way you find in Dungeons & Dragons for example.

For one thing, travel between any two places in Star Wars is effectively instantaneous. Various Star Wars RPGs have various charts for distances and spaceship speeds, but if you go by the movies, hyperspace is almost teleportation. In the scene where Luke first trains with his lightsaber on the Milennium Falcon, Han comes from the cockpit apparently just having put the ship on autopilot after making the jump from Tatooine. And the same scene ends with everyone going back to the cockpit because they arrived at Alderaan. And when Anakin is fighting Obi-Wan on lava world, the Emperor has a premonition that he needs saving and gets his shuttle ready. It’s not clear how long it takes the Emperor to fly all the way from the Core World to the Outer Rim and back, but they didn’t bother giving Anakin any medical attention before they are back at Corruscant. Doesn’t look like the whole thing took more than half an hour at most. In addition, aside from Interdictor Cruisers that know exactly where and when to ambush you, nothing can interrupt a hyperspace jump. There are no random encounters in interstellar space. Even if in your game travel between planets takes several days, it’s empty time in which nothing happens. Local planetary travel is also never really adressed. You can get from any one place on a planet to any other place just as fast as you can get to the other side of the galaxy.

A map for a Star Wars sandbox would look completely different than a map for a Dungeons & Dragons sandbox. When you can go to any place in the galaxy almost instantly, distances and relative positions become irrelevant. Instead of going to specific places, you really are going to visit specific people or buildings. On the whole planet of Dagobah, there is really only a single place. Yoda’s home. You could also consider the Dark Side cave as a second place but that’s really it. Corruscant is massive, but as long as you don’t have the specific adress of a specifc person, nothing on that whole planet is of any relevance to the players who have no reason to visit it. Instead of making a map for a Star Wars sandbox, you really need an adress book. People and specific places like cantinas, stores, hideouts, and bases are what makes up your sandbox.

The Other People

However, places are almost always defined by either something that is hidden inside them, but most often by the people who are staying there. There are very few places in Star Wars that are interesting by themselves in the way that great dungeons are in D&D. The stories in Star Wars are always stories of people, not of places. When you prepare a Star Wars sandbox, preparation shouldn’t start by drawing a couple of dungeons that the players can exmplore. The real heart of the sandbox are the NPCs. The villains and the allies. Of course Star Wars has lots of absolutely fantastic and stunning locations, but their purpose is always as a dramatic background for interactions with other characters.

NPCs really are everything in any Star Wars campaign. They are what will make or break the game. And when you make NPCs for Star Wars, always go full out. Hold nothing back. Make them as outragously awesome as you can possibly get. In particular the villains. The villains are what your players come for when playing a Star Wars game and they want, and only deserve, the most awesome ones. Darth Vader and Boba Fett leave pretty big boots to fill, but you should aim that high. If the NPCs are not really that interesting, then it just won’t reach the awesomeness that is Star Wars.

2,000 miles from edge to edge

When creating a “world map” for a fantasy setting, I generally find it rather pointless to actually make a map that shows the entire world. Most fantasy worlds aim to be late medieval to early modern in the kind of world they describe and in these time periods much of the Earth was yet unknown even to the people with the most complete maps that existed. Also, an Earth-sized planet is massive and there is no way you could ever actually visit all those places, no matter how many books you write or games you play. At the very most, what a setting can practically make use of, is a region that covers all the major climate zones and ecological environments.

While the distance from pole to pole is a bit over 20,000 km, the north to south length you need for a map that provides all the environments you could ever wish for is much shorter than that. I took some measurements on world maps and the numbers that showed up again and again were all in the range of 3,000 to 3,500 km. Or in fantasy units, 2,000 miles.

It is the distance that takes you from the northern coast of Africa to the northernmost extend of the Baltic Sea. It’s the distance from Russia across all of Mongolia and China to northern Vietnam. It’s from Hudson Bay in Canada to Cuba and from Alaska to Baja California. The distance from Rio de Janeiro to the Falkland Isles.

If you really want the full range of possible climates from the thickest tropical jungles to the permanently frozen artic tundra it’s more like 3,000 miles, but with 2,000 you are already on the pretty safe side in your ability to cover any landscapes you might want to put into your world.

Wilderness Adventures for characters of level 4+?

Common wisdom appears to have it that parties in B/X transition from pure dungeon adventures at 1st to 3rd level to the wider world of wilderness adventures after reaching 4th level. The Expert Set adds rules for characters of 4th to 14th level and rules for wilderness adventures. And of course B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 The Keep on the Borderlands are the most classic dungeon adventures and X1 The Isle of Dread was the first D&D hexcrawl. So obviously it must be true. Basic characters stay in the dungeon, Expert characters expand outdoors.

But I’ve come to wonder whether this really is the intention behind the way rules are split between the Basic and Expert Set. My suspicion is actually that the choice to split the rules into multiple sets was done with the intent to introduce both players and GMs to the rules gradually and not overwhelm them with everything at once. Which I think might have been a pretty good choice. The original Basic Set was a total of 60 pages. The Rules Cyclopedia comes to 300. That’s a lot of stuff to digest in one go before you feel confident that you know what you need to start playing. If you want to teach the basics of the game, you do need the dungeon, but outdoor adventures are indeed something that can, and perhaps should, wait for a bit later. Once everyone who is completely new to the game has got the hang out of the basics. By putting level 4 to 14 into the next set, the amount of spells that players (and GMs) are exposed to is much easier to overlook and you also get a collection of monsters that for the most part wouldn’t be absurd to face for a new beginning party. (Looking at you here, Dragon.)

I suspect that the separation of content was done as a teaching aid, primarily for GMs. It’s not so much that adventures change at higher levels, but that GMs can expand once they have become familiar with the basics. When you look at the Expert Set it says that “now” new paths of adventure are open, but does not do so in the context of character level. It is “now” that the GM has access to these expanded rules of the game. The Rules Cyclopedia does not touch upon this whole subject at all, from what I was able to tell.

Another strong piece of evidence, as I see it, are the modules B10 Night’s Dark Terror and X1 The Isle of Dread. Terror is a Basic module for characters of 2nd to 4th level while Isle is an Expert module for characters of 3rd to 7th level. Both begin at Basic levels and continue up into Expert levels and they are both wilderness adventures. The creators of these modules clearly did not write under the assumption that “you have to be this high” to go on adventures in the wilderness.

Raise Animated Dead

Resurrection of dead characters is a difficult topic when it comes to fantasy in general and to RPGs in specific. To make it short, I am not a fan of death being an effect on a PC that can be removed with the casting of a spell. Once a character in the party has access to this spell, players can mostly expect their characters to live forever. As long as the cleric survies the battle, everyone is probably going to be fine. If the time limits are generous, then it becomes mostly a matter of having the money and transporting the body to a high level NPC, which can become an available option much earlier in the game. This significantly changes the game and doesn’t really line up with pretty much any fantasy fiction. It just doesn’t seem right for my prefered style of Sword & Sorcery and so I created the aspect of life and death in the Ancient Lands around the assumption that resurrection is impossible. There is no soul separated from the body and once the life has been extinguished it is forever gone. Nothing there to bring back into the world of the living.

However, resurrected NPCs can be pretty cool when used sparingly. The undead sorcerer. The returned hero of old. The helpful ghost. I don’t really want to have these completely banished from my campaign.

One possible solution, that I think could be quite fun, is to make it possible to return a body back to life but the resulting creature ends up being somewhat odd. It looks like the person and has the memories of the person, but ultimately it’s something different. A magical construct. For antagonistic NPCs this is good enough. They can still be villains without any special limitations. For helpful NPCs this would still allow them to perform some kind of task that benefits the PCs, but they can’t really return back to their old life. Of course, you can get endlessly philosophical about the question whether a being with the same appearance and memories would be the same person or an artificial fake, or perhaps a separate but still fully human twin. I think usually they would be, but I believe it should be possible to come up with ideas to make them sufficiently similar but different that they would not be welcomed back into their old lives. That’s another step to be figured out later.

But regardless of how the world reacts to such resurrected characters, the players might and will quite possibly have very different oppinions. Players might have no problem with playing a character who has all the traits of their old one but has only philosophically changed. To make it effective, resurrected PCs should be unappealling to play on a continous base. One quick and easy solution would be to make it impossible for them to gain any more XP. This might make it appealing to have the character complete his last quest for dramatic reasons while not really offering much incentive to keep going after that. Another nice limitation that might help in making the characters unnatural nature apparent would be to not make this return to life permanent. Maybe it lasts only a month or a year after the character is gone for good or it takes continual magical rituals to preserve this temporary return to the world of the living.