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?”

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.

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.

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”

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.

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.

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.