New Rules of Fantasy #3: No Man is an Island

New Rules of Fantasy #3: No Man is an Island

I know how strong I am and how fast I can run. I have a rough measure of my intelligence and also how persuasive or good looking I am. I know that I can or cannot cast spells and what skills I possess. I have a name. What do I know about my character?

Not much. A lot of what we're doing when we build characters is we build them from the inside out. We fill our character's attributes and traits, but we have no clue what culture our character comes from (and no elf or dwarf is not a culture), and because we don't know really what culture the character comes from, we don't have any clue what the character does or does not believe.

Before you start hunting out the systems that do deal with culture, another gentle reminder that I am looking at general trends and I am looking at systemless approaches to the issues I account for. While it would be nice to just say "everyone play game XX", I don't think it's practical. To be honest, I don't really want to prescribe a one system-fits-all solution for any of this. Systems are great, but what I care most about is how I'm thinking. A lot of things get done because that's how they've always been done and very little reason beyond that. I want to look at these assumptions and pull the thread a bit.

Not having a cultural reference point is rarely a problem in modern or near future games because we get to use the time we live in as a reference point. But the underpinnings of even a stock fantasy world are such that lacking culture is the equivalent of lacking character. We can try to overwhelm this lack with a big backstory, but I've a rather dim view of doing a bunch of story before we even start playing. After all, we're sort of playing to tell the story, right? If you come into the game with 10 pages of background, you have a lot of detail, but all that history in practice can really stifle play. Plus, in order to really bring it into the story, the whole table really needs to know it, so that they may steer play to interact with it. Multiply the big back-story by several players, and you soon have background that makes actually playing a bit difficult.

Without this, characters are hard to get a grip on until we actually play for several sessions. We are forced to make decisions, and merciful GMs usually let people undo some of their choices early in a character's life to make sure a player is playing the character she wants to play. That's a fine workaround to characters lacking background, but fundamentally I think the problem is that we build characters as individuals first. It is very common in our fantasy gaming to build an imaginary person and then bolt culture (if we have any reference points for it) on later. That makes sense, right? Our stories are those of individuals making some change in the world, so what is wrong with building that component?

The problem with that is that no one exists alone. Try as you might, you exist, right now, in a political, geographical, and social context. Humans are first and foremost creatures of culture. To understand any human fully, you must understand the place and times in which they live first. Knowing this will let you know where they are typical, where they are atypical, where they struggle and where they excel. Every person is a product of their society. Even if you play the typical anti-social loner character, that character's anti-social behavior is reflecting off of some other culture. Your anti-social loner who has left a culture of nomadic desert people likely carries a different set of beliefs and traits than my anti-social loner who comes from a agricultural culture in temperate climates.

Culture informs the basics of what we believe and how we perceive the world. Culture implies a history, as culture is often a reaction to events happening to a people. Culture also implies culture, as significant shifts in context (racial, geographical, religious, et al.) create alternate histories (really alternate views of history) which in turn create different reactions which then become different subcultures.

In this sea of culture and history are the individuals who live in it right this moment. Your character is one of them! Now that you know you came from the nomadic desert people, what can you say about your character? How does your race affect that context? Did folks treat you differently? Why have you left it? Do you identify with it or reject it? When we start our character creation culture first, all of these questions emerge quite naturally. Once we get a sense of where a character is from, determining the character's attributes now take a whole new dimension. Determining who are individual is in the context of other people in a time and place makes everything else make sense. The great thing is that it even gives us purchase when we reject things! Rejection and acceptance of cultural norms are both equally powerful in terms of character definition, and the act of simply accepting or rejecting everything from our culture is an easy way to make a powerful character. It might seem unsubtle, but there's even room for nuance by approaching matters in detail.

The problem here is that using culture to start character creation requires having cultural hooks to begin with. There is a lot of setting detail that fantasy games have, but for the purposes of actually playing games, having to read all that material isn't going to work for most people. "You need to make a character, so go read these forty pages first" is not very appealing. How then, do we approach culture-first characters?

I've created some Gameable Culture tools that will get you started. Condense the relevant cultures of your setting with these tools, and make a 1-2 page reference for your players. They will not have the entire history of your setting, but they'll have enough to ground them and start playing. The trick here is that you don't need a setting's entire narrative to engage with it. Evocative hooks work incredibly well here.

It's important that you portray each culture as worthy to itself. If there is a culture where lying is acceptable and corruption is commonplace, don't write their defining statements as if they think of themselves as liars — find the reason that they find lying acceptable. Everyone is the hero of their own story, so make each culture worthy to itself without judging from the outside.

The upside to this approach is that you then create room for characters from differing cultures to productively disagree. If my culture sees yours as liars, we might be able to talk about that thing. Your character might choose to explain how you see it, and I can accept or deny it. The key isn't that there are right or wrong answers, it's that we create interesting, layered hooks for play.

I know that it seems I've delved into moral relativism, but let's put this in the proper context: We are playing games that produce stories. What makes stories interesting are detail and conflict. By providing the hooks and details for cultural interaction, what we are doing is creating a space for our game to have richer detail and conflict. I don't believe that we need to believe the things our characters believe. I think sometimes the most interesting characters to play are those who see the world very differently. But to run those characters, we need the groundwork for building how they see. In all cases, the way to know how someone sees the world is understanding what it is that they've been shown, and what they have already seen. Understanding their cultural context is the most sure way to get that.

Icons of the Drow: The Spider Queen

Icons of the Drow: The Spider Queen

I’m not cool with the typical dark-skinned, evil matriarch drow society. Just like I did with Lovecraft some time ago, rather than abandon it, I thought I’d build something that I really liked instead. This icon and the description of the drow/spider elves that follow are my attempt to do that.

This represents an alt-history 13th Age, where the Silver Folk don’t exist and the Elf Queen no longer rules all elves. The source of elve’s long life is also made a touch creepier.

I hope you enjoy it!

A bone-white elf with eight long limbs, Lolth is rarely seen, and heard only in the whispers she grants to her progeny. The courts of the high elves record her as being exiled from the lands of Fey, but her followers, insist that Lolth was simply an elf who rejected the corrupt pacts that elves unwittingly live in.

To high elves, Lolth is anathema. She represents the negation of all that is sacred and cherished in elvish culture.

To the spider elves who worship her name and live deep underground, Lolth represents choice, and freedom. She is life and family, the mother of all broods.

No one knows Lolth’s true motives.

Quote

“I am evil? But it is you who’ve come here to kill my brood on some insane crusade. Even if I let you, would our destruction make you any less corrupt?”

Usual Location

Lolth is rarely seen, as she spends most of her time in a pocket dimension that is one giant web. Most refer to this as the Hellweb, but Lolth and the spider elves refer to it as the Lifeweb. It is from her that Lolth typically connects and plants her whispers in every elf she can reach.

Common Knowledge

What most know of Lolth is her patronage of the Drow. She influences the matriarchal society occasionally through telepathic whispers. Interpretation of her will is varied and often contradictory. Many broods claim to speak her true word, but such claims and truths are owned by those with the most power.

It is said that Lolth has the ability to enter any sentient beings mind to converse. The Spider Queen is very persuasive.

Adventurers and the Icon

Though many fear her influence, Lolth can only mindspeak to elves. It is to these adventurers that she might ask for a favor or make a bargain with. She can grant little in the way of divine might, but she can often unlock insights and offer wondrous goods to help an elf pursue her goals.

Lolth delights in getting elves to reject their gods. If she builds rapport with an elf, she will certainly tell the tale of what is wrong with elvish society. She will give example after example of why the elven gods actually serve another power who secretly maneuver elvenkind to fulfill their insidious agenda. Every inconsistency or injustice commited by the elven society finds its way into conversation.

Whether Lolth lies or is truthful, there is enough truth in her words to cause doubt. And where there is doubt…

Enemies

The Elf Queen will not even hear Lolth’s name spoken. Consorting with drow is punishable with exile or death. Some say the Elf Queen hates Lolth, but just as many say the Elf Queen fears the Spider Queen.

No other icons trusts the Spider Queen, but all of them have worked with her on occasion.

History

Lolth was once a high elf. Her relentless curiosity fueled a rapid rise through the ranks of her Houses’ magicians. Lolth’s specialty was portals which allowed her to sate her curiosity by jaunting around the planes of existence. One planar excursion revealed to her a truth about her society. The gods she worshiped actually served another set of masters. She could not look upon their plane for longer than a fraction without risking her sanity, but she knew then that she must find a new path for her people. Frantically searching for answers, she discovered a the Lifeweb, a plane capable of nourishing and feeding elven immortality while reducing their dependence on these strange, cold gods.

Lolth told others. First her peers mocked her. Then they began to fear her. Her once-promising career in shambles, and at the verge of being exiled, Lolth retreated with a few faithful to a place where no star could reach. From the Underworld the Spider Queen began to build an alternative for elves. She built a society of elves free from the alien influences of the Star Gods she glimpsed.

Almost no living being knows this story.

The True Danger

The world will know fear when Lolth reveals the true masters of the elven gods. The world will change forever when Lolth’s true master makes itself known.

New Rules of Fantasy #2: Action, Not Violence

New Rules of Fantasy #2: Action, Not Violence

Violence is overrated.

Let me tell you something about myself. Since kindergarten I've been obsessed with combat sports of all types. I've consumed probably hundreds of ultra-violent pieces of media, and am a mega-fan of UFC and MMA in general. I don't think that violence is something that can be 100% avoided in this life, and I am by no means a pacifist.

But I'd like less fighting in my games. More specifically, I want violence to be just one of many expressions for conflict. When I was talking about evil races I think it was a bit easier to grok because it parallels to life. It's easy to see where art imitates life and how that might be problematic of stifling.

But this…am I saying RPGs should not have combat? That I should take the action out of an action-adventure game? On its face that is what it seems, but where I really want to go is in-depth on what action is. What I want is a broader palette of what constitutes "action" in the first place and to be willing and capable of serving different modes of action to players instead of different types of fights.

I want to put the action in action-adventure games, and action is not violence. Doing this in my own games produced for me a more vibrant region of play. As I created more scenes that where action-oriented but not combats, it signaled to players that they had more expressions of character capability more than just how they could swing a sword or cast a combat spell. As the players learned that there were more types of action than fighting, they proceeded to try more things. One of the reasons I like to GM is to have players surprise me with their solutions to problems, so you'd imagine my delight as they came up with crazy things they want to try.

Another reason that violence in my fantasy doesn't always fit well with me is because it is too easy to get into this mode where all of your problems will be solved if you stab the right person. I understand that this resolves moral ambiguity and makes for cleaner storytelling, but the formula over these almost thirty years doesn't do much for me; maybe I've just been doing it too long? Whatever the reason, I don't want games that are just strings of "other stuff" to pad the time between combat. I want fights, but I want them to be exciting and well-suited to the situation. I can't stand the thought of random encounters in a tabletop games. When I play tabletop games, what I'm really sitting down for are interesting narratives and interactions; I'm really not looking to spend significant time killing things in my imagination. I can scratch that itch more immediately and more profoundly by playing Diablo III or Street Fighter IV or just about any good action video game on the market. I want tabletop to provide different things, things that it is better at. I don't think RPGs are great for combat as a major mode of play. People are tempted to bring in their favorite system, but I am not interested in looking at this from a systems point of view. I look at this starting from the viewpoint of our sensibilities; what do we think we should be doing, and how do we get there? When we change our assumptions, we can use almost any system we prefer to do what we want.

So…what is action? Let's start by being boring:

  1. the fact or process of doing something, typically to achieve an aim.
  2. a thing done; an act.

It's a start? Really it's too sweeping and generally applicable for us to use at the table. This definition of action is pretty much everything we are doing, from talking to rolling dice.

So let me try a working definition of action in a storytelling game:

Action is any fictional sequence that changes the state of the fictional world through by creating tension and then resolving it through navigation of one or more dynamics.

So, asking the GM, "what do I see?" is not action. There is no tension in the fictional world, just perception. There is no dynamic at play. You just want to understand what it is that your character perceives. Your GM tells you to some degree and then you move on.

You'll note that combat in almost every RPG fits this definition. There is a tension — Do I live? Do I win the combat? — and varying dynamics that propel us towards answering that question. So when we engage in combat, we feel like we are taking action in the world, whose state will certainly change depending on whether we win or not.

Don't lose the thread and start hunting for different combat systems! We can find combat systems with more or less detail, or systems with very minimal/non-existent combat rules, but these exceptions are notable because of the general trend they go against.

There is a tendency for skill systems to be the opposite of this. You make a roll and succeed or fail. There is a bit of tension, and a state change, but dynamics are usually missing or flat. Again, there are great games that are different than this, but I'm speaking high level/general trends. I'm even going to move away from systems at this point, because what's important is how we break this down ourselves. I find that when start thinking differently about action, we can build systems that satisfy our thoughts and rebuilt assumptions.

Where we create dynamics is where we point players to interacting with. Part of the fun of games is the pachinko effect, where you drop your chip down the top, and you get to see where it comes out. We want to generate surprise and by obfuscating the realm between the player and the fiction, we can build systems that turn out just differently enough that meaningful engagement can possibly emerge and delight us.

I believe combat is the heart and soul of what we tend to understand about the hobby because it can speak so directly to this. But when you break it down, it becomes a liability to have it as our sole expression of action. Is combat always life or death? If it is, I am encouraged to be as safe as possible, because over the course of many fights I am risking a character I love with one or two bad rolls. Similarly, don't my opponents have to engage at this level as well? Combat feels like an action where failure is so bad that, while it is often a common expression of action, it also risks ruining a campaign or session. We want the tension of death, but the reality of death is that it's final or we have to engage in unsatisfying workarounds. One step is to build a whole new set of outcomes for fights….but that's another post.

Let's look at building up that lexicon of action. Something I've found is that you can make interesting actions with a four step process:

  • Define Your Context
  • Create a Question
  • Define Your Verb(s)
  • Define Opposing Forces

Define Your Context. What's the situation? Where are the characters and who surrounds them? What are the stakes?

Create a Question. the question is what everything is about. Can the characters arrive to the church on time? Can the characters successfully climb the mountain?

Define Your Verb(s) this is the start of the dynamic. What are the characters doing? Are they climbing? Running? Singing? Are there multiple ways to get there?

Define Opposing Forces. You know what the characters are doing, but what is to stop them from doing it? What opposes them along the way? How does the opposition oppose them? Once you know what the characters are doing and how and by what they are opposed by, you've got the creation of an interesting dynamic.

Once you've define the action this way, you have built something for your players (and by extension, their characters) something to hook into. Again, feel free to use your favorite system for mechanics, but I think this simple rules-agnostic method gets you in the correct mind-frame.

Here's an example:

** Down the Mountain **
-Situation. Characters are coming back from a fruitful exploration of dwarven ruins. They carry back some artifacts with them, but the spirits do not like being disturbed.

-Questions. Can the characters descend safely? Can they find some way to appease the disturbed spirits?

-Verbs. Climbing, rappelling, navigation. Negotiating.

-Opposition. The snow-covered mountain, with its avalanches and harsh climate. The spirits, who try to scare and sabotage the character's trip.

We could make a few rolls and be done, we can hand-wave getting down the mountain and do something else. This isn't a tool that you have to use for every scene, but isn't it nice to have options? Isn't it nice to run a game where action can mean a whole host of things?

That's the type of fantasy I'm building and playing these days.

New Rules of Fantasy #1: Evil is a Choice

New Rules of Fantasy #1: Evil is a Choice

I'm bored with fantasy.

I love fantasy.

I'm torn regularly by what fantasy gaming has been to me and what it has not been to me; I anguish a bit about what fantasy gaming is and what it could be. Anybody who knows me knows I'm always full of these hopes and anxieties, negatives and positives waging war for my heart.

When I love something, I embrace it then run for the edges and boundaries: What if we did this? What about that? When I hate something, it ceases to exist: if you can get me to discuss it at all you'll get nothing more than a cautionary tale. When I can't fully reconcile something, when I oscillate between love and hate, I like to rebuild it. Rebuilding gives me a way to excise what I hate, while strengthening what it is that I love about the thing, whatever it is.

So, cloaked in hubris, I've decided to rebuild fantasy gaming from a cultural perspective to something I can vibe with. I shouldn't even need to say this, but I will: These are my rules and my thoughts, for how I intend to build and run fantasy games in the future. I'm not going to entertain what has already been done because it's umm, already done. By all means do what you like and if the status quo works for you, do it. I'm all for people enjoying the games they enjoy, but I have to go here because I'm not really enjoying gaming and I want to. I design games, so I can just make the games I want to play.

For the portion of the Internet that doesn't understand and/or will hate everything I'm about to say, I say: I don't really care. You have the games that you want and you can keep what you've got. You win, I'm done and doing something else. That something I make will be for me and maybe for others as well. I won't be bothered to argue about what's better, because I don't believe that there is some objective truth for gaming. It's all about meeting one's needs in the most fulfilling manner possible, which is what I am doing in this post.

For everyone else, let's have interesting discussions about this.

Rule #1: Evil is a Choice

Kobolds and Goblins have always made me uncomfortable. It's not on an aesthetic level, as they were made to be grotesque and non-human. It's the notion that they have been labelled in D&D and it's derivations as innately evil, or that they are inherently prone to evil acts.

Evil to Who? Centrality

To even talk about good and evil, we need a reference point. In D&D we have alignment as a strict tool, but simply the notion of good and evil applied at a racial level implies that there is a universal set of standards being applied to a whole planet of people. Kobolds are evil, but who says? Do Kobolds think they are evil? I don't think even evil people think they are evil. They feel they have to do things based on what they have seen and what has been done to them. All thinking beings try to do things that they think will benefit them or help them avoid harm and punishment.

But who gets to say what and who is evil? Who is the reference point. The typical fantasy answer is humanity does. We'll note that generally humans are the only race in these worlds with totally flexible morality. They stand in the center of all talks of morality and alignment. This flexibility to choose is generally posited as humanity's main advantage over races that can be smarter, tougher, or more numerous.

What is wrong with humans being central to fantasy? We are, in fact, humans when we play these games. While this can't be argued, the problem I see is that we end up telling one story. When there is only one central point, all we get is one look at a group and one look at the world. That one view can get monolithic really quick, and then no matter how much we try to add new elements and vistas, our setting is not truly being enriched. When we enforce a centralized worldview on our settings, we turn everything into a comparative exercise with the people or culture at the center. So kobolds are evil as opposed to humans while angels are good; dwarves are shorter than humans and elves are taller. It's hard to express the truly unique aspects of our fantasy world when the most powerful mode of expression always ends with "…as compared with humans." If we are being honest, we are not even looking at humans broadly; we are only looking at the views and morality of ancient European civilizations, and even then only through the filter of where we were raised (so for me, an American filter).

Loot Machines

One way we can approach how we got to this problem is to look at fantasy's dealing with race through a sort of racial determinism, an insidious tie to real-world views that some races are just naturally X and are bad at Y and prone to Z. I've certainly heard some gamers argue for exactly this.

As much as I'd love to deflate and debate this in fantasy gaming and real life, what I want to do to be more productive is look at an even simpler game decision that I think drives this on a more conscious level: Who do I kill to get XP?

If one race is good (compared to humans) and one race is evil (compared to humans), it's then pretty easy for you to point your blade at the former group and not the latter. I don't kill elves because they are good, but I kill kobolds because they are evil. Kobolds give me XP, and possibly loot!

Many fantasy games make racial evil a necessity by driving character growth through murder and violence. For my character to grow in capability, I have to kill someone. I'm not judging this, or failing to recognize exceptions; this is merely a large driving function in many fantasy games.

If killing is how you grow, and you expect characters to be heroes (even anti-heroes), they need some motivation or reason to kill that is higher than "get loot" –that is nakedly sociopathic behavior and probably not something many people want to do for their recreation.

So we dress it up. The kobolds are evil from birth and when you see one, it is probably going to be attacking you and you are OK to slay it. It's a convenience, and it's a reason I grow more and more disenchanted with it. I'll be honest and say when I think of this I think about my own life as an African-American and how many times I am pre-judged to do be all of these threatening things when I am really just a nerd trying to raise a son and be a good employee, father, and husband…and all of a sudden I feel for the kobold. It's not that being a kobold has anything to do with being black; it's that in both of these cases we are told this is who we are by societies and people who know nothing about us as individuals. It is frustrating at times.

More importantly, it's not what I want to be doing with my free time anymore. The best and worst thing that ever happened to me was to start taking my gaming more seriously. Doing game design and re-examining the lens of gaming has made gaming more fun but it's also closed a lot of doors. I just can no longer go back to hordes of evil races that I can kill without guilt. It's just too real for me and not fun.

In real life what people do is label people as evil to justify performing atrocities to those they've labelled. Is that what our fantasy has to be?

Choosing Evil

So if we can't have races full of people born evil, do we abolish evil?

Nope. Evil is still a great narrative tool, and still carries constructive energy to use in our stories. We just need to restructure its use, and stop using evil as a shortcut that means "you can kill me".

It means looking at the motivations for our characters individually, and seeing what choices they've made, and then reacting.

Some kobolds are attacking you and trying to kill you? You of course have to defend yourself. But why are they attacking you? Not every fight has to be a moral conundrum, but just understanding a basic motivation like "These kobolds want your stuff" gives us a richer basis to understand what the kobolds want to do, how to react, what to do next.

And when we say evil, let's be explicit whose worldview they are evil from. Making a universal, centralized evil is completely convenient but ultimately hollow. The dragon terrorizing town might be evil to the humans in that area, but what if the dragon is afraid that it's babies will fall victim to the bandits in the area. We might have to fight the dragon to the death, or maybe we learn the dragon's situation and compromise. Maybe we go after the bandits!

When people are choosing, we have options. When people are on tracks of behavior, we have almost no options. This dragon must attack the town because it is evil gives you way less options than the above scenario does.

I know people are often afraid to unpack fantasy's shortcuts and conveniences fearing that doing so will make their games to heavy or morally complex. I say that embracing a decentralized morality makes our games richer and more vibrant.

That's the choice I've made.

This is Not a Manifesto: Technique Talk in RPGs

This is Not a Manifesto: Technique Talk in RPGs

manifesto

Thinking about RPGs has taken me to some weird places lately. I’ve toured around many regions of the activity, and I’ve looked at the culture and traditions of RPGs with a focused, critical eye. I’ve certainly appreciated the parts of RPGs that have always been amazing, and revisiting them critically makes them more amazing, not less. But that critical meta-glance makes the parts of RPGs that don’t fit stick out even more.

If that sounds like the beginnings of a manifesto piece decrying traditions and advocating new patterns of thinking and playing, well…sorta. Manifestos often read nicely, but are short on actionable pieces of information. Manifestos are greating for drawing lines and making people choose sides, but I’ll admit that I am always more of a techniques guy.

I like techniques because they teach implicitly. I prefer techniques because good techniques meet you where you are. They don’t force you to take sides, they offer you a potential solution for a problem you might have. If you don’t like the technique, you can keep doing what you’re doing and having fun.

I mean, I of course I know what I like, and how I want to run things, and I even think some of these things should be regularly practiced. But our hobby has had a lot of line-drawing when some simple, neutral technique sharing could make our discourse more productive and more amiable. Techniques are good because they can be discussed and judged on effectiveness. Even if efficacy is varied (this worked for your group but not mine) we can look to find situations where it does work. If there are very few places where it works, the technique might not be the greatest. If only corner cases seem to derail it, we have something we can broadly use.

More importantly, we can argue about things that have actually happened. My problem with theories and manifestos is much of the arguments occur in mental/social place with no physical representation at all. This makes those arguments prone to ad hominem digressions and hurt feelings. When you argue with someone’s theory, it’s much more likely to be confused with arguing with that person, and disagreeing on a deeper level. I’ve seen it happen so many times that I just can’t discount the situation as aberrant; I want productive talk about games and games design so I have to address it.

So that means talking about actions and procedures we can take, and their results. I guess I can’t avoid theory altogether, though I more often muse on twitter. Twitter for me is a test stage for certain theories and ideas I have. After hashing out these ideas with other people, I can gauge initial viability and also interest (some things I talk about bring 0% of my timeline to the yard; other things bring close to 100% engagement). From there I focus on bringing something practical to either my blog or my projects.

I don’t think I can drop theoretical discussion altogether, but I do have a heavy preference for discussing implementation. On the blog that’s what I intend to focus on from here on out. When I talk theory, I’ll usually have a sample technique or procedure accompanying it to ground the theory into something practical.

Icons of the Schism: The Marauder

Icons of the Schism: The Marauder
Defending the natural order at any cost

Defending the natural order at any cost

(written/created by Rvyen Cedrylle, illustration taken from Ertai’s Lament)

The Marauder is the living embodiment of the world’s inertia, the order of nature given fangs, claws and cunning intelligence. If the Tao were to become violently enraged, it would be the Marauder. Its influence lies as much in what it is credited to have done as what it has actually done. Unexplained murders, tragic accidents and the occasional assassination wind up becoming stories of the Marauder’s grisly hobby. Though it has no true followers to speak of, the brave and the insane alike claim to study and use the Marauder’s tactics. Staged fights between animals or sentients (or both) are held in dark corners of civilization in the Marauder’s name.

Quote

“Do what you will within the boundaries apportioned to you. Step outside of them and I will take not only your foot, but your leg and your arm as well.”

 

Usual Location

The Marauder constantly wanders the territory between nations. It maintains no single base of operations, but has a lair of sorts in any land where arguing states encroach upon each other. The Marauder does not let itself simply be found; it does the finding.

 

Common Knowledge

The Marauder is known to be a heartless killer and avid hunter. It is claimed to have been encountered in humanoid and animal forms, so rather than attempt to depict the Marauder personally, it is often shown only by a set of large, bestial footprints in the snow. The Marauder is said to be most active in places where communities ‘overstep their bounds’, so nations with dreams of empire lose their best and brightest to the Marauder in its attempt to maintain peace by fear. It also takes scholars, clergy and explorers who unknowingly break the Marauder’s obscure ideas of humility.

Adventurers and the Icon

The business of adventuring is not one the Marauder takes kindly to. There are however far more adventurers than the Marauder can personally deal with, particularly if some bigger threat to the Marauder’s status quo is also identified. All adventurers should assume themselves to be on the Marauder’s hit list. The Marauder will occasionally enlist adventurers for its self-described policing duties with the clear intent that end of the mission, any surviving adventurers will find better things to do.

 

Allies

The Marauder doesn’t see allies so much as “things that are not prey”. It finds the Speaker personally weak, but respects (his? her?) effectiveness. The Twin Serpents have been encroached upon by the humans and deserve their apportioned boundaries back. The Marauder also appreciates the Prisoner’s self-imposed exile and will generally leave his agents alone.

Enemies

The Marauder and the Scrivener hold no love for one another, as the Marauder is constantly attempting to thwart the Scrivener’s plans for learning and progress. The Steam King similarly toys with forces beyond his grasp and should be ended. The Usurper is currently useful given problems with souls moving on to the afterlife, but should the Death God ever come back, the Usurper would provide a welcome challenge to hunt and eliminate.

 

History

The Marauder has existed since before recorded history and likely will continue to exist long after humans meet their end. Legend says that the Marauder was in fact killed once, but apparently death was no excuse to stop working.

 

The True Danger

The Marauder is kept in check largely because it refuses to work with anyone else for very long. A lasting alliance with another Icon would certainly spell disaster.

Icons of the Schism: The Speaker

Icons of the Schism: The Speaker
Does he speak all truths or all lies?

Does he speak all truths or all lies?

(picture from The Gamer Effect.)

Depending on who you ask, the Speaker is the weakest or most influential man the region.  The leader of the dormant Death God’s church, he has kept not only his position but the position of his church in Laeda and even in Kitan prominent and influential.  Lacking real military or divine power to aid his church, the Speaker uses his skill of negotiation and oration to somehow get what he wants and needs.

Quote

“I do not doubt your ability to kill me with your sword.  What I do doubt, however, is your continued desire to do so once you consider the consequences and reflect upon the more appealing actions that you can take instead.”

Usual Location

The Speaker is never in one place for too long.  In part, this keeps him safe from enemies of his ailing religion, but also it allows him to connect with his many allies and partners across Laeda.

Common Knowledge

A common joke about the Speaker maintains that he has more alliances than parishioners, and it is not that far from truth.  Though the Speaker’s god lay dormant, he still performs the rites of passing for the many suffering through the war.  Though he cannot guarantee passage to the afterlife, he still offers comfort and solace to those he meets.

Adventurers and the Icon

The Speaker can use anyone. It is more of a matter of when and how the Speaker can use an adventurer at any given time.  Most adventurers have at least one run-in with the Speaker where they are asked to do one task or another.  Most times, working with the Speaker is beneficial, though are some tales of adventurers not returning from their missions.

Allies

The Speaker has no true allies or many allies, depending on who you ask. Even the Steam King has made an occasional bargain with him.

Enemies

The Speaker has countless enemies or no enemies, depending on who you ask. The Steam King wants his head.

History

The divine power the Speaker commanded before Nethane bled to death in Reach was undeniable. He lost all of that personal might when Nethane died, yet seems more powerful than ever. It is rumored that the Speaker knew of The Usurper’s plan to steal Nethane’s shadow, but why he would forsake his power is a mystery.

The True Danger

Everything will be fine until the Speaker’s true master reveals itself.

Icons of the Schism: The Scrivener

Icons of the Schism: The Scrivener
She guards knowledge

She guards knowledge

(created and written by Mike Hasko, illustration from Dylan Meconis. What is the Schism?)

She has no shrines, for each book is her temple. Her hymns are whispers shared between friends, her prayers state secrets discovered by spies, and her rituals tests given by school master and tribal leaders alike. Some claim her to be the paragon of knowledge, other see her as a shadowy hoarder of secrets.

Offer her something she doesn’t know, however, and she could be your greatest ally.

The Scrivener sees herself as Laeda’s eventual redemption: all history, knowledge, and culture that has been lost and that exists today must be recorded so it may live on forever. Much has been forgotten in the trials of history, and more still will cease to exist if not recorded.

 

Quote

“What you don’t know can kill you. What you do know is of particular interest to me.”

Usual Location

The Scrivener stays where there is some forgotten lore or skill to be learned, moving to the next workshop, ruin, or battlefield as soon as she is done with the current one. Rumors of a new technology or the discovery of an old ancient text are just as likely to summon the attention of the Icon.

Common Knowledge

Though she records and observes much, she gives little to those seeking it in return. Those wanting something from The Scrivener must be willing to offer up a useful fact of equal value in return.

Adventurers and the Icon

Though the Scrivener knows how to fight, it wastes time that could otherwise be spent archiving and cataloging. She often asks for assistance in clearing out old ruins so she may work in safety, or seek out artifacts to assist in her current sphere of study.

Allies

The Scrivener keeps a neutral distance from most of the Icons. Most always have something new for her, but many are jealous of what she knows and desire it for themselves. She is closest with The Muse, who offers much from her travels and requests little in return, and detailing The Steam King’s constant evolving creations fill many a journal.

Enemies

The Scrivener knows what the Prisoner did and she alone has the facts to absolve him of the crime, but also knows this can never be, and does her best to avoid him. The Ursurper’s actions have constantly caused stores of knowledge to be destroyed, something the Scrivener cannot forgive her of.

History

It’s believed that across her studies, The Scrivener has found some way to avoid dying, or even aging. Most of the major historical events of Laeda have had sightings of The Scrivener. Her presence is sometimes thought as an ill omen because of this.

 

The True Danger

Some secrets must remain such for the safety of all sentient life.  The Scrivener is unknowingly close to uncovering one of these facts the universe itself is ashamed of.

 

Chromatica Gaming: Broken Waves Part 1

Chromatica Gaming: Broken Waves Part 1

I’ve been in the mood to do some Burning Wheel – and finally get a hold of my friend Les after the holidays and set up a time to do some gaming online.   We decide on doing a high fantasy game, set in a fantasy/Polynesian-ish setting.

Our Protagonist:

A’lepoi, 27, a man who is a healer with the magical ability to glide atop water without a board.  His family has always had various water-related magical abilities, but actually are relatively low on the caste system, for unknown reasons.  (We worked this out based on the fact that healers with magic ought to have some kind of status, but he’s got a 0 Resources stat, and the lowest of Reputation scores, so it’s sort of a fun mystery we’ll find out as we play.)

Story:

A few hours after sunset, Royal warriors come to A’lepoi’s post by the sea – they tell him to gather his belongings for a trip – the King has orders for him.  As he steps outside, a pair of temple acolytes confirm he has everything before burning the hut he stayed in while praying over the fire.

The task required demands a clean start, even unto destroying the place you begin from.

The Island of Temples is the source of much of the local islands’ abundance – at it’s center is the Great Temple, built around the Elder Tree, which blesses everyone with amazing fertile land.   Three times A’lepoi is cleansed – by water, by purified sands, by smoke of fire, and holy words sung just so.  Within the temple, he is brought past the first layer of curtains, another prayer, another layer of curtains, another prayer, another and another.  Nearly to the center, he stands besides a handful of others – a noble, a warrior, a priestess and a seawoman.  They are brought before The Tree and introduced, as they were called for a task.

No one else is allowed to hear the task, for the seeds of destiny are not lightly planted in the hearts of humans.

The great trunk splits open, revealing a withered old woman, made also of wood.  Achingly she stands from the seat within, and A’lepoi is left awestruck by her mana.  A voice of rough wood drawn across rough wood, of wind through branches, speaks.  “I am at the end of days.  My magic will sustain the land a day and a year more, but not beyond that.  To the east a seedling of mine has kindled life.  Seek her.  Give her my necklace, and bring her back.”  And before he can move again, the elder spirit has passed a necklace to the priestess, and returned to her chair.

A heaving sigh and a gentle breeze of her last breath, a withering of wood, and the trunk seals again, twisting itself as a tree left battered by too many storms.

A’lepoi brings himself to breath again and a single, brown leaf falls from the tree.

Our story begins with the death of a god.

The path out of the temple is silent, and every priest has their heads bowed.  Outside, Ehehene, the priestess looks to the group of souls burdened with this task – “We do not speak of what has happened here.”

Some things are too sacred to repeat.  Some are too dangerous.   This? Both.

The group gathers a small distance away.  Lady Ehehene looks to them – “Before we leave – there is a small matter.  We are going on a quest of utter importance.  But…” – she looks to A’lepoi – “…one of us stands here without rank.  We should grant him a rank before setting off.”   Although addressing the group as a whole, her plea is to the young Arapata, the second son of the King.

For A’lepoi it was always the question of his family…  Everyone knows them as healers, as magically gifted.  But as long as they’ve been around, they’ve never been granted rank.  A rumor sits that perhaps they’ve given some great offense or committed a crime in the past, or perhaps are cursed in some way.   No one knows, and that unease has always lingered.

Perhaps it was too much too soon – to risk changing something that has been the same way for generations.  Or maybe it was just the fact they just witnessed the death of the lifegiver of their kingdom.

Or maybe it was for exactly the reasons that came from Lord Arapata’s mouth, “Although it  would be helpful to grant him a rank should we be divided along the journey, if we are divided… the 5 of us, we would be in much greater trouble than what can be solved with hastily granted titles.   And… if we hurry now, we might avoid troubles yet to come.  Time is short.”

Even without rank, the young man would show his worth.  Perhaps, though, this was a mistake nonetheless.

Hours later, they approach the Island of Southern Winds.  A fierce night battle is seen, raiders and warriors battling just a distance up from the beach.

“Our allies.  We should help.  And gain glory.”, proclaimed the warrior, Inia, who readied his spear.

Kahani, the navigator, gave a sharp look.  “If we fight, we are delayed.  If we are injured, we are delayed even further.”

Lord Arapata again, choose the path of speed, “They have their own warriors.  And if we fail to bring back the Seedling, everyone will starve.  We cannot afford to stop.”  The decision was made.

But not for A’lepoi.

“I will just take a quick look.  To make sure their warriors are doing well enough.” and off he hops onto the waves, gliding across the water faster than a boat would carry him.

At the beach, the raiders have left their boats.  He grabs an oar and quickly begins cracking the hulls and piercing the bottoms.  Many of the raiders will not find their way home tomorrow.  When the raiders realize his deeds, he grabs a fallen flag of the Southern Wind, and dashes across the water holding it aloft.

“The Southern Wind has more allies than the waves! And they will not rest!”

The island’s defenders, heartened by this supernatural feat and brave cry, redouble their efforts, and the raiders are driven away.

“I am a healer.  My duty is in the saving of lives.” Great deeds from simple reasons.

A few hours later, a storm is nearly upon them.  The water is choppy and danger looms.  The options are few: rush back to the Southern Wind Island, drive forward and hope to reach the Land of Three Mountains before the storm strikes… or go to the closest available land – The Isle of Tall Stone.   Three generations ago, there was war between the Temple and the Tall Stone, and neither have spoken since the barest of peace was made.

Some favor retreat.  Inia swears his spear will create peace if there is none.  Lord Arapeta decides on meeting the Tall Stone and suing for hospitality.

They land and are greeted.  A tense and formal greeting ceremony is held… when A’lepoi sees, the raiders, too, have decided to come here to avoid the storm.   The alarm is raised, warriors grab weapons and children are pushed into homes.

Rakapa, a young warrior of the Tall Stone exclaims, “Years ago the last time you came, you brought bloodshed to our shores.  Let us see which side of it you stand today!” as he hands A’lepoi a spear with a grin and a nod.

A’lepoi grabs a flag of the village, ties it to the spear, along with the flag of the Southern Wind, and strides upon the water, leading the warband, screaming to the raiders – “Did I not say the allies were greater than the waves?!?”   Their shock buys a few precious moments where the sling stones and javelins of the Tall Stone find mark and the raiders turn and flee, paddling as fast as possible…

Without striking a blow, two islands have been saved today.  In time, though, some will say it was the water walker himself who summoned the storm to slay the raiders entirely.

Returning to the Isle of Tall Stone, they celebrate indoors as the winds and rain batter the land and ocean.  Rakapa shares drink with his new friend and asks, “I never expected a healer to be the first to seek battle!  Without a boat, striding the water no less! We have never heard of your family? They must be renowned, tell me of their deeds!”

A’lepoi quickly evades, “My family are healers.  I, myself, rescue those at sea who are bitten by sharks, stung by jellyfish – for the Island of the Temple, I am a life guard.  …and yours too!”

Rakapa, pauses.  “Say that again?” and half the room goes silent.  A’lepoi’s words hold more meaning than he realizes.

“I am a life guard… and yours too?”

“So you are!”

An elder stands up and offers a toast:  “Whatever happened with the war before…  That was a mistake.  This summer we will visit!”

As the life magic of the Elder Tree begins to fade, the world will only know it is as the time when the Island of the Temple sent forth great heroes – mighty warriors, powerful kahuna, and diplomats and peacemakers… all from the few actions of a man without rank.

Game stuff:

All of the above happened with 2 hours of gameplay.  I took the initial idea Les gave me and did the math to get his character together in about 30 minutes the day before.  After we worked out “high fantasy” I figured to start with the death of a god to kick it off.

Between deciding on a quest-style game and it being a one-on-one game, I figured having a party of NPCs would be useful for both character interaction and setting up conflicts.  The videogame equivalent is The Walking Dead videogame, where the player is constantly put into choosing sides between various NPCs, most of whom will have a good reason to suggest one option over another.

Instead of doing the full social roll, I just have Les make a social roll as the “tie breaker” one way or another, sometimes giving an extra Advantage die if he has a very valid point, or if he says something in line with the NPC who is most influential on the topic.

Early in the game he was constantly failing the rolls by a single success.  By the end, he made some uber successes, even as Beginner’s Luck rolls.  Even still, this session was a testament to the value of “Conspicuous” as a skill.

You Enter a 10×10 Room: Thoughts on Description

You Enter a 10×10 Room: Thoughts on Description

one-hour-refined1

 

I just got done running 5 sessions of an incredible Tenra Bansho Zero game (I’ll talk more about this later, but check out Chris’ post if you want to know why Tenra rocks). I thought I did an OK job on the GM side of things, but one thing I wanted to do a little better is tweak how I describe things. I don’t think I am bad at it, but I do want to improve. When I’m looking to improve some skill, my normal approach is to first look at the things I don’t want to be doing. What do I want to stop or cut out?  For starters:

No more trying to sound like read-aloud text. I really don’t like read aloud text that much, though I’ve certainly written it for products and certainly used it in the past. One reason I don’t want to ape that style is that I run highly improv games that don’t give me time to deliver honed sentences,  so I’m emulating a formal style that I can never truly prepare for.

Talk too much. This sometimes goes with trying to sound like box text, but most of the time it is the result of not having a structured way of describing scenes or action. I hate that feeling of me rambling on and on trying to describe a sequence of events because I don’t have a good way to shorten the description.

Avoid cookie-cutter approaches.  Whatever approach I choose must be easily varied. I can’t follow a script that says “include this, then include this” because that will get boring for everyone really fast. I want structures, not scripts.

When I first described my need to improve, it was suggested that I offload description to players.  I try to do this as often as I can, but also feel that I need to do what I can to establish a model that players can follow. Otherwise players can fall into the pitfalls I listed above! The flow of a game is so important to me that I want to preserve it no matter who is doing the talking.  I’ve found that if I develop good structures and model them, then players naturally fall in line and we get everyone moving and flowing.

So, what do I want to see in description in my games?

Cinematic flow. Cinema has a rich visual language that you can borrow from.  In addition, everyone in your group watches movies and TV to some extent, meaning they’ve absorbed some of this language. Rather than describe like a book, I want to describe action like one would in a screenplay or a director describing a shot. I don’t want to double down on cinema jargon, but I do want to frame my description cinematically.

Incorporate reactions. One thing I thought I did well with one of the players was to incorporate her reactions into scene descriptions.  Her character was really tormented, so any scene that I thought  would torment her character, I would tend to take a moment to get the character’s reaction, which everyone really liked. I realize there are more ways to do this, and want to use that more to get a quick sense of a character’s reaction, “cutting” to their face as they enter a battlefield, or stumble upon a murder scene.

Instill a sense of wonder. Sometimes when describing, I’d trail off or not explain things.  What I noticed in these situations, was if the scene description was vivid enough, leaving something out, or explicitly calling out the unknown portion drew the players to it. That sense of wonder, that sense of “whoa, what’s going on here?” is something I want to capture more frequently with description.

If it’s not yet clear, I look at the act of describing action and scenes in games as a tool for player investment. The most important thing you can do in a game is get your players invested in what’s happening! Once you do that, common problems tend to resolve themselves, and you can focus on renewing and rewarding that investment, which is at the heart of what RPGs are about.

I’ll share more of my thoughts as I develop them on description, but in the meantime, share with me your thoughts about description.