When Darkness is Light: Rethinking System

When Darkness is Light: Rethinking System

Does an RPG needs stats?

Does it need dice?

Does it need conflict resolution?

Does it need quantitative character progression?

If a game has some or none of these things, can it be called a “true” RPG?

Normally, whether something is a “real” RPG is the most boring conversation I can think of happen.  Debating the reality of a method of creating fiction is banal in the best case scenario, but usually, such conversations are just gatekeeping in a flimsy disguise.  “You don’t play the way I lik, so your way is false.”  The most frequent scenario this conversation brings forth is one defending one’s thoughts and ideas of fun to a bunch off jerks, and rarely brings out interesting debate.

So, I guess I want to start this off by saying that I guess I’m not really trying to design an RPG anymore. The problem is that I come from RPGs as a consumer, player, and designer, and I don’t yet have language to call whatever it is I’m working towards something else. I think that anyone reading my blog is going to clearly see my origins, but may be unclear or even irritated or upset at where I plan to go. I love and respect my origins.  I love many old and modern RPGs still, but I don’t think it’s what I’m going to design anymore.  I am building the type of things that have other names.  I’ll name it later, but I want to talk about the whys of this change a bit. It will be easy for the usual suspects to take offense, but I really look at what I’m doing as a fork of the current model of RPGs, not a replacement.

I’ve spent the last year or so designing and pulling apart the threads of collaborative storytelling as I’ve experienced them.  I’ve found that when things are going right, system is almost un-needed, but when you really need it, system often muddles storytelling.  System –and by system I am talking about the way we convert meta-fictional decisions (what players do) into fictional outcomes by way of abstractions (stats,dice,conflict resolution) — only partially does in practice what in theory it should do all the time. What I’ve seen in myself and others is that we are often bending ourselves towards this system or that, stretching to incorporate new mindsets and rules and procedures for our storytelling to live in. We are always looking for a more elegant box for our imagination to exist inside. I appreciate constraints –it is the starting point from which creativity emerges — but I have wondered if our current model for systems is really providing the right constraints. I’ve seen perfectly good, dramatic moments come to abrupt halts as the table figures out how to quantitatively express the moment, or search for a rule that will capture it.

Here is one thing I believe: Humans are hard-wired for story.  When there is no narrative we create it.  Where there are voids, we create meaning. We are creatures with minds strong enough to not only create math and science, but also myth. Given the roots of the hobby in wargaming, I can see the push for elegant quantitative expression and fiction as emergent from game play, but what does it look like if we take another approach?  I feel that our current approach to system puts the onus on people to learn and master the system before they can tell the story, but I think that’s inverse to the truth of things. If humans are natural storytellers, should we not build systems to support that innate drive and ability? Should we not trust people to imagine and create, and only insert procedures and system when creative fatigue or disagreement settles in?

When I am ranting these days about how the pillars of RPG system design might be hindering our storytelling rather than helping it, I often recieve comments that amount too “how will we find our way to stories and imaginative play in the dark? The system is our light.” What if that light exists as a torch inside darkness?  What if the light simply helps us navigate the cave we are in? System  feels like a mechanism that humans learn to support, but what if we invert that and build systems that support us when stumble, and trust us the rest of the time?

I’m wondering what that looks like, and building towards that in my designs. As always, I reserve the right to fail or make a mess of things, but I reserve the right to try and to talk about it on the blog.

I Second that Emotion: Creating Fiction with Feeling

I Second that Emotion: Creating Fiction with Feeling

I think about why I play and design roleplaying games, and when I clear all lesser reasons out of the way, I’m left with this:

I play RPGs to feel.

Am I connecting to my own feelings? I may be, but i think it goes deeper. When I am playing an RPG, I am connecting to what other people feel.  It’s hard to accurately perceive one’s self, and almost as hard to perceive real people outside of oneself. It’s difficult to analyze the circumstances that you yourself occupy. I suspect that fiction makes the act of empathy easier but no less real. To create and inhabit fictional worlds and create these opportunities to safely but deeply see how another person might feel and deal with the world around them is a gift.

It may or may not be odd to think of empathy as a core by product of RPG play, but it’s where I’m at. It is totally possible to play a tabletop RPG in a way where empathy doesn’t enter your brain –you can run through the killing fields with your mind unfettered by empathy or compassion — but  honestly I feel that such play is running away from what is great about RPG play.

Remember when you didn’t know the rules properly for whatever game you started with but you still managed for a few moments to imagine what this fictional person who you described with numbers and words on paper might experience?  I can still remember being 11 years old and thinking to myself “how would this fighter feel if there were all these kobolds around and I had 1 hp?” What would I be doing? I’d run probably.  I’d want to live and adventure another day.  But what if I wasn’t me? What if honor demanded I stay my ground?  What if my best friend was on the ground beside me? What then?

Though I don’t find myself in these “slay the demi-human” situations anymore, I appreciate those early exercises of wearing the shoes of fictional people. I don’t have much nostalgia for the content of the games of my youth, but those feelings I can access so easily.  Joy, terror, triumph, delight, all readily accessed through the filters of fictional people. When I’m designing games now, several decades removed from those formative experiences, I still call back to those emotions when I’m stumped. How did I feel? Beyond any emotions, I  felt connected. Yes, to a fictional person, but it shouldn’t take me to tell you that fiction is real in its way.

At your table and in your game design, how would it affect your experience if you viewed the prime output of RPG systems as emotions instead of outcomes? Could that deepen your experience with an RPG?

Tough but Funny: Tone and the Art of Resilience

Tough but Funny: Tone and the Art of Resilience

I am thinking about Five Fires and another interesting game that I'm working on and the matter of tone keeps coming up. There is simply so much grim dark content out there these days, and while the quality on many products is good, I want the games I'm working on to have an upbeat tone and nature. Five Fires, while it certainly can touch on crime and corruption and poverty, is also meant to be celebratory in a sense. I don't want a game worn with platitudes and empty cheering and cheerleading, though, so how do I get there? How do I build a fictional space that is upbeat and positive without being saccharine or stale?

It occurs to me that the tone of a piece of media is often determined by the resiliency of its protagonists. Resilience, as I use it here, is the capacity of fictional characters to "snap back" to their basic frame of mind and attitude after experiencing dramatic stress and/or trauma. This resiliency can encompass physical resilience but is more a measure of mental resilience.

Resilience affects tone because it is in resilience that audiences can find safety and comfort, even humor, in the face of repeated conflict and stress. As a fiction trends towards high resilience, it trends naturally towards more humor and comedy. At the far end we have animated comedies like Looney Tunes, Family Guy, and Archer. The characters undergo major mental and physical stress but are often back to normal in both body and mind by the next scene. Even Archer, which often uses permanence of stress to create long running gags throughout one or more seasons, allows the characters affected to be functional and sources of humor in other ways.

Looney Tunes operate with characters possessing such absurd resilience that we almost forced to laugh at the violence they suffer on screen. Wile E. Coyote isn't ever permanently hurt by his backfiring schemes, so it is then amusing to see them backfire. But imagine the feel of the same backfiring scheme if we then followed him to the hospital as he fought for dear life, each episode a chronicle of his former life and battle to continue living. It represents a deep shift in tone, and is most likely not upbeat or humorous at all.

When the audience knows characters will be essentially OK after stress, we introduce levity into the scene without even having to make site gags or explicitly humorous conventions. By establishing that our characters can essentially survive what they encounter, we signal for our audiences to relax –their favorite character is going to survive, so just enjoy the show and the ups and downs that come.

When we approach darker, grittier, "realistic" works, what we find is, although the characters are tough, although they are often stoic and capable of masking their emotions and going through extreme pain and anguish, the actual construct of their character is not resilient from our perspective. The characters in these works are likely to change permanently from their trials and tribulations. There won't be any snapping back for these characters to some platonic ideal of their character.

We don't often laugh when one of these characters is hurt because we know the hurt will stay. The longer and more severe the consequences of our fictional space, the less humor we embed naturally in that space. Characters who are moved and effected by stress move us in many ways but not often towards laughter.

Drama and consequences are great! I really love shows that explore the lives of their fictional characters in the midst of their triumphs and failures. I'll always be a fan of Breaking Bad, for instance. But you'll notice that the show starts with a death sentence and moves towards that the whole time. Walt is tough and resourceful but he is no Wile E. Coyote: Walter White is a completely different person at the end of the show then when he starts. Stress alters him and changes him. He carries everything with him. And while he can survive and get out of the worst situations, we don't often laugh at his plight because the character's structure is not resilient enough to "snap back" after each incident.

While Breaking Bad certainly has moments of humor, the overall arc of the show is towards drama and consequence. It's always good to break up the mood of a fictional space by making detours and journeys into different tones and feelings. A show that demonstrates great range while maintaining a generally upbeat natures is Cowboy Bebop.

In case you haven't seen it, Cowboy Bebop follows a group of intra-stellar bounty hunters and their (mis)adventures. It's one of the most brilliant anime ever made on multiple levels. It's tremendously upbeat, even when they are showing us elements of horror and drama. But yet, it's not a comedy, though it has a lot of funny moments. How is it so upbeat?

The characters are all very resilient (you saw this coming, right?). It's not that the characters don't have problems. In fact, some of the characters have big problems. But the show gives us the impression that even when the worst happens, even when the characters are at their lowest, they'll have the ability to not only survive, but be very close to a version of who we knew them to be before the trauma. Now that we as an audience don't have to worry too much about the characters, we are free to get in the rollercoaster and enjoy the ride.

What I'm attempting to assert though is that controlling the overall tone and mood of your fictional space is really a question of how you treat your characters when they are stressed. When you want to inject humor into a fictional scene, think less about and gags or jokes and first look at creating a scene that your characters can recover from easily or a scene where the consequences are light. Conversely, if you want to heighten drama, make sure to create scenes that will bend a character. The more serious the bend, the more serious the drama.

Once you approach tone from the character-centric perspective, it will provide a more solid base for any other mechanics or storytelling you want to do.

New Rules of Fantasy: The Tyranny and Power of Defaulting

New Rules of Fantasy: The Tyranny and Power of Defaulting

A warrior leaps at his opponent, ready to strike a lethal strike…

Stop for a moment. When I said, warrior, what did you picture? What was the color of the warrior’s skin?

It’s OK to say white. If it was something else, that’s OK too (and congratulations for building a different default image!) Many people are going to say this. Why? Because white is the default person in our fantasy (often male too). Some people get defensive when you even bring this up, saying that one is “racist” for discussing race, but the only reason that these folks don’t need to discuss race in the first place is that “white” is the accepted default. If I don’t say anything, the majority of people will assume I speak about someone white. See the trick there? To talk about any other ethnicity is to be forced “to bring up race” and “be different”. I’m forced to be other even if I am describing myself and my life because I have to describe my difference from the accepted norms.

And yeah, it sort of sucks and is problematic in a variety of ways in and out of gaming, but what I want to talk about it is how defaulting from my understanding works and most importantly how we can use it to make gaming more interesting.

To start, let me dispel the notion right off hand that a thing you don’t talk about is a thing that you can effectively change. One is not going to diversify one’s fiction by “just not talking” about race. Ignoring it means we go to the default. And the default is not yet diversity. We apply conscious commitment and effort to change things, not a stifling silence and inability to discuss them.

Defaulting is the creation of assumptions within a culture that establish a baseline identity and context for discussion and action. It can be bad when used to cancel or negate other identities, or to encode hate implicitly in one’s speech. Can defaulting ever be good though?

I say yes. The power in defaulting, and why it is so powerful and why people just want to use it, is that it provides a shortcut. It is simply easier to say “I’m American” than it is to say “I’m African-American”. And definitely easy to hold one model in your head than it is to hold multiple models at a time. Context-switching is a real thing. People save time and energy when they default. You build one model of the world with your defaults, saving time, energy and effort.

Defaulting seems to fight diversity. But what if you apply conscious efforts to build different models? In real life, one’s defaults are heavily influenced by locality and experience. In a fantasy world we have a lot more control. Instead of applying a blanket default of eurocentric ideals and appearance, let’s get specific and explicit. Then let’s create smaller defaults for regions that characters go to.

What would our games be like if we were explicit about skin color? If you said that a character was white instead of not saying it (and simply assuming it)? “The typical person in the village has ruddy skin” establishes a default in a specific place, but being explicit about color has some unusual but beneficial effects.

First, yay we can create a platform to discuss ethnicity and race without weird fantasy stand-ins! Being explicit about everyone’s race seems like the opposite of comfortable, but in my experience being direct about descriptions in this way is fine and actually starts to rev up people’s imaginations. You create diversity implicitly when you actually put different types of people or the possibility for different types of people in your game.

If we don’t ever bring up skin color, everybody assumes it’s not a particularly important thing and leaves it on the table. If we “pick it up”, other people observe that and now see that as something that they can play with too.

Next, we add more texture to our backdrops. When players switch reason, we are going to change the model. We are going to describe more to them than race of course, but we are going to create a brief model of what people are like in an area. You can use Gameable Culture as a guide to do this. We are going to use our player’s attraction to shortcuts to give them different looks. We aren’t going to shift the model every second, but as they move through regions they will have different defaults given to them. They will see the differences in culture and appearances in different places that they travel if we impart that information well. Every important region in our game has it’s own baseline of how people look and act. By giving players a slice of that when they travel, we create a richer set of experience and bring our worlds more to life.

Defaulting can be used to oppress and silence, but if we embrace it and use it consciously, we can charge up our worlds of imagination. I mention race and ethnicity here, but you can use this model for any particular thing you care about with positive results.

Everyone gets 15 Minutes of FAE

Everyone gets 15 Minutes of FAE

I need to talk about  Sleepy Hollow.

I’d heard that this show was quite good, but I am classically late to any and all TV phenomena.  I just tuned into it a few days ago, and it is a very fun show! It is a modern-day retelling of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in which Ichabod Crane finds himself awoken in the present-day, where he must fight off supernatural foes with the aid of Lieutenant Abigail Mills. The show isn’t always at the high end of the truth and reason scale, but all I really ask of a show in those cases is that it entertain me when it stops making sense.  If you can entertain me when I make major suspensions of disbelief, I’m all good.

The plots in this show are pretty clever and the cast is at once likable, believable, and intriguing. Most importantly, dear reader, this show makes a great starting point for a roleplaying game.

I think every RPG nerd spends time figuring out how to translate his favorite piece of media into a storytelling experience. Statting up protagonists is an activity as old as roleplaying itself.  RPGs model some version of reality of fiction, so why wouldn’t you expose some of the fiction and reality you consume and live to some statting?  Statting characters becomes simpler the more you do it, and the more experience you have in the system you are using to stat.  The problem in my mind is how do you mimc the tropes and highlight the dramatic selling points of the show? That’s much trickier.

The problem for me comes in having to move from narrative to quantities and numbers.  How can I make the narrative arcs of the shows fit numbers?  Yes, I can develop systems and mechanics for this, but what if I want to just get something together really quickly? Let’s say I want to play Sleepy Hollow as an RPG in about 15 minutes?

This is the part where I want to introduce you to Fate Accelerated.

You can stat up a character really quickly using approaches (which describe ways to do things, not just raw stats) and Aspects, which allow you to move from narrative to natural language, which is a much smoother transition.  Once you have that, the main conceit of Fate with invocation of Aspects and Stunts is generally great tech.  If you want to develop a more advanced ruleset, you can add the additional layer of tech and rules that Fate Core provides without missing anything.

Even better, you can get some genre/show-specific items for free with little effort.  I decided that I wanted to highlight specific approaches and aspects of Sleepy Hollow, but instead of adding in a lot of new rules, I added different approaches. The approaches tell you a lot about the game you are playing, and act as world-building attributes. The fact that my Sleepy Hollow FAE approaches are Historical, Supernatural, Fighting, Investigative, Lawful, and Rebellious tells you an awful lot about what is happening on the show, doesn’t it?

In addition, the Aspects that you use give you a lot of information about the characters and the setting. You can use normal Aspects like High Concept and Trouble, but since Sleepy Hollow often spends a lot of time in the past, I also added a Flashback Aspect, which lets a character tell a story from their past as they invoke it.

All of these were easy to add, and I had the skeletons for this in about 15 minutes or so.  Then I just started making characters, and we’re ready to play!

I’ve been thinking about doing this for awhile, and now that I’ve done it I would suggest that everyone familiarize themselves with this ruleset and use it to put it to use.  If you want a fast way to tell your own versions of the stories you like to read or watch, I just don’t know if there are better systems in terms of ease of use and fidelity. Please try it out!

And while you’re at it, take a peek at my 10000% free, fan-friendly FAE adaption of Sleepy Hollow.

Five Fires Beta

Five Fires Beta

I wanted to make something that spoke to my soul.

I love RPGs, and I love hip hop.  I know that there have been games that have focused on urban life, but for my tastes most of those focus too much on violence and/or gang culture and not enough on music and culture. I wanted to make a game that used what I love about hip hop and that would focus on the artistic side of it. I wanted a game that was really about making art, and one that would focus on people with everyday problems who use the criminalized expression of hip hop to help them solve their problems or just to relieve the stress that their problems cause.

I made Five Fires to do just this.

In Five Fires, you play a regular person with extraordinary talent in one of the elements of hip hop — graf-writing, b-boying, MCing or DJing — who is looking to get exposure for her art, solve problems and find her own way through life.  Play is meant to take roughly an hour per session and each campaign, known as an Era, is six sessions long. At the end of an Era the problems yo’ve solved and the exposure you’ve gained lets you determine how your character’s story ends.  If you want to play in the same city afterwards, you can start a new Era in that city with a brand-new crew. What do they do with the legacy of those in the previous Era?

This is  beta for people who like RPGs and like art; this game is meant for those who like hip hop who don’t yet know that they love RPGs; this is or gamers who love RPGs and hip hop and want a game that speaks to those loves.

If I can be blunt, I really wanted to make Beat Street: the Game, because I love that movie and it says the things about hip hop that I want to say.

It’s in beta right now, so there are typos and some playtesting to be done.  There is a lack of setting text, so it is assumed that you know something about 80’s hip hop (though you can pick any time period of rap and play through it easily).  The game is also very, very player-directed, which allows the GM (titled the Opposition) to focus on a few things with no prep but requires players to be more pro-active

I hope if you love hip hop that this game speaks to you on some level. Here it is.

I want to thank everyone in my Patreon for their support, and all of my playtesters (I will enumerate everyone in the full edition of the book).


New Rules of Fantasy: On the Road

New Rules of Fantasy: On the Road

Adventuring is weird profession, isn’t it? As an adventurer I wander around the region looking for monsters to kill and ancient treasures to grab. If you’ve ever heard the term (“murderhobo”)[http://1d4chan.org/wiki/Murderhobo] , you’re starting to see where I’m going, but I want to go even deeper into the awkwardness of adventurers.

First: who is letting all of these very powerful people roam their kingdom doing as they will? Gritty fantasy constrains the impact of a small group of individuals, but in heroic fantasy, what king or queen wants a party wandering within the borders who can create an extinction level event? I’ve always felt that, unless a group of adventurers quickly aligned themselves with rulers and power brokers, they’d gain as many enemies as they have people thinking of them as saviors. There is no way that those with power can allow powerful people to just snowball into huge problems for them later.

The next issue is what you’d expect from me: who is it that pours power and skill into people and then says “you’re free to leave! Enjoy your life”? Historically, this did not happen. You were trained, you apprenticed, you served some person or organization’s purpose. There are always people who made their own way of course, but I doubt there were many people who left these organizations with a smile on everyone’s face. Similarly, I care most about how our characters got our skills and what connections that acquiring those skills gave them. If you were a member of the guard, then who do you still know? If you still work for them, what do they ultimately want you to do?

Taking this further, what I want in my games is to take away adventuring as a “profession”. What I’d rather have is adventuring as something that emerges from the result of my crazy job, and the crazy people that I meet. I want to keep mobility so characters can travel freely, but I want to give characters a purpose in the world besides gaining power and money. Rather than being the sole purpose for taking action, adventure becomes an emergent part of characters engaging in activities they are doing.

The real trick is: what professions do the characters take? There are any number of low-fantasy games that actually address what I am talking about, but I want to deal specifically with heroic fantasy as a genre. To do that, I need to make the scale of my professions scale. In a world where magic is a real thing, our professions need to embrace this. I’ve got two basic rules for professions that lead to adventure:

  • Travel is a must. The job must have a high amount of travel involved, whether by choice or necessity.
  • Personal judgement placed highly. This profession can’t be one where you are forced to follow orders to the letter. You are given general orders or specific missions and then you are left to decide how they are done.
  • Community built in. this profession comes with a built-in community. Whether it is an official organization or loose affiliation of like-minded people, this is who you know and who you may have learned from. It’s a source of connection, drama, and also plot as you move forward. Sometimes you need things from the community, sometimes it requires action from you.
  • Feed into fantasy. These professions don’t need to echo mundane real world professions. We can assume mundane professions exist, but we want to make professions that drive the fantastic and unreal aspects of the world.

Here is one example of what I’m talking about.

Gravemen. The Sacred Order of Headsmen is a guild for those trained as executioners and gravediggers. Though the guild has higher aspirations, its members are typically pulled from the lowest ranks of society. The work is grim, brutal, and lucrative, offering a chance at rising in station for those with the stomach for the work. Gravemen are not popular, and sometimes must retreat from mobs incited by more politically-charged executions. The guild provides safe-houses to gravewomen, and any other member of the guild is obliged to help anyone who can give them a “sword” or “shovel” coin, given to members of the guild after the apprenticeship period is over. Gravewomen typically serve at a station for a few months at a time before moving to the next assignment, though political realities can shorten that time period.

Gravemen have a bad reputation, as many think of them as psychopaths who also rob graves instead of digging them. The latter notion is somewhat true: Being specialists as digging graves and burial rites, gravemen are given access to location of tombs and mausoleums filled with riches. Those who like to take their life a little easier avail themselves of this knowledge, but gravemen are also the first suspects when tomb’s riches go missing.

Despite their bad reputations, Gravewomen are considered indispensable for their burial rituals that ensure a body cannot be woken with necromantic rituals, and for political expedience when a ruler must make an unpopular execution. Often unfairly, an executioners take the blame for the killing. A King’s executioner can be masked and therefore have his identity hidden, but a Gravewoman cannot be masked. Any retribution from a mob can and usually does fall squarely on her shoulders. This relieves the pressure from the person who ordered the execution, and can normally settle down even the most volatile of situations.

Gravewoman similarly serve a purpose of providing an neutral outsider to dispense the most brutal justice. Some communities will not dispense the proper justice to criminals because they risk censure from the community. Having a member of a smaller community be an executioner often meant isolating that person from everyone else so that she would not become to attached to those she might later have to kill. The lives of these executioners were bleak and miserable, and created distrust in the communities.

For these reasons a gravewoman is always begrudgingly welcomed into a community. A hardened outsider who will do what is needed and move on in time is seen as the perfect way to dispense justice and put people to their final rest.

What “adventure-ready” professions would you put in your world?

Naming our Narrators

Naming our Narrators

Here’s a thought that I can’t guarantee will leave us in a productive place: I can’t believe that meta-fictional narrators in RPG texts are neutral.

As I was working on the write-up to the drau, it occurred to me that the strongest part of the article was when the drau got to speak for themselves. The third person description in the first part was less compelling. And why was that? I didn’t know who was telling you about the drau. If I don’t know who talks to you about these people that I’m describing, how can I give you the proper perspective? How can I understand what this person is saying to you? I feel when the drau got to speak for themselves, they gave you a very biased outlook on who they were. The tension that the explicit bias creates is part of the appeal in the write-up.

The third person description, being neutral and meta-fictional (I don’t in anyway frame it as someone who lives in the same world as the drau) is bloodless and not as compelling, though I think it had some interesting details. But who is telling you all this detail?

Is it a drau historian? Is it a high elf? A human? Is the person a traveller who has seen all this, or someone who is getting a lot of information secondhand?

It’s not that there is no precedent for fictional narrators. Many books have and currently use it. Really what I want to do is call attention to it so I can use it explicitly with some of the content that I’m creating. Some of my favorite setting books were old school Shadowrun books. Bug City is to me a masterpiece of setting work. While long narrative description of setting is something I’m trying to avoid, that book is one heck of a good read, and a lot of that is because it represents so many viewpoints of the world. Enough that you never buy an objective timeline of events, but become engaged in the process of learning who to believe and how to interpret the events as reported. To run your own Bug City game, then, was to immerse your group into these events and to decide what is actually true. You want to know what things are really like, who is telling the truth? Play to find out.

Here’s what I’m thinking: What if we borrow a page from 13th Age (I’ve borrowed a lot of pages from 13th Age :)), and have narrators as icons? they won’t be prime icons, of course, but maybe a writeup of a few historians and travellers will give us a way to frame information that is at once more grounded and more interesting. Knowing narrator A is telling you something as opposed to Narrator B forces you to do a little guesswork if you know about their biases and prejudices. These opposing narrators might say completely different things about the same set of events…and that is great!
So as I’m doing more of these fantasy write ups, & I working more on revising my strategies for world building, I come into problems like this. And my first tendency is to question my assumptions. I know that the first answer to this question is because we’ve always done it this way. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But I want to know what happens when we do something else. I want to know what happens when we don’t take these things for granted and then we try something else.

At this point I think I’m rambling, but I will put it out to you: what do you think of the history text approach to describing fantasy fiction? Are things fine like they are? Am I really just staring at my navel too intensely?

I think this is something worth talking about, and will probably be up a conversation on my Twitter

I am but a Simple Merchant: The Drau.

I am but a Simple Merchant: The Drau.

As a follow up to my alternate Lolth, here is a write-up of the drow. I am tweaking the spelling of the name here as drau to simply note the difference between what I’m doing here and more canonical representations of the race. Pronunciation is the same, but if you are writing it, using drau will make it easy to denote If you like drow as they are, I encourage you to keep enjoying them as you will and simply pass this by. If you are interested in a different look, take a peek and see what you like and what you might incorporate into your games! I recommend that you read about Lolth before delving into this.

Also, thanks to Brian Cooksey for suggesting the nickname “silk elves”. It fits perfectly and I love it. Thanks again!

Most who live on the surface rarely encounter a drau (also known as “silk elves”). But those who have met a silk elf know the phrase “I am but a simple merchant”, a common phrase spoken by drau silk merchants plying their trade far from their subterranean homes. The arrival of drau merchants in a place is anything but simple. The arrival of a silk caravan brings the opportunity for cultural enrichment and is a platform for intrigue. No drau merchant is simply what she appears, but what she is and what she wants is a mystery, sometimes even to the merchant herself. Lolth’s will is impossible for even her faithful to contemplate. Many locales have been irrevocably altered by the passage of these simple merchants, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.

Even with the possibility for mayhem, most cannot resist the incredible properties of drau silk nor the enchanting music and poetry of the drau. The somber tones of drau-silk cellos can make even the gods weep, the silk merchants lie (but not by much).

Physical Characteristics

The drau appear as other elves do, with elongated, pointed ears and fine, pointed features. Drau bodies are long and lithe, though they can hold deceptive amounts of strength. Their skin is bone white, adapted after milennia spent underground. The most common eye colors for drau are a vivid pink and a cold steel blue. Wide variance in eye colors exist for drau, though the colors are always either exceptionally bright or muted.

Their pale skin means that the exposure to sunlight can quickly harm their skin. When on the surface, drau don multi-layered garments known as sun-robes. The first layer is a wrapping of drau silk to cover the flesh, while the outer layer is a brightly colored robe embroidered with stories and histories from that drau’s brood. To protect their eyes in the sun, the drau don crystal googles to filter light. When the weather is too hot, the outer layers of clothing can be stripped and the drau’s skin will still stay protected.

A drau garbed this way is what most surface dwellers see; few have ever seen the bare flesh of a drau unless visiting the drau in their own underground cities, where sun-robes are not needed.

Drau are creatures deeply attuned to magic like other types of elves. Whereas other elves are connected to the lands of fey, the Drau are connected with Lolth to the Lifeweb. The Lifeweb (other elves call it the Demonweb) grants silk elves with the ability to communicate with Lolth (when she deems it necessary) and to receive power and blessings from her. The Lifeweb possesses ambient power of its own, and all drau gain the access to create life loam, a living clay that can be sculpted and animated to perform the will of its maker. Drau with deeper connections to the Lifeweb can weave together the fabrics of organic things through intense concentration. When people imply that drau cities are full of life, they mean so literally, as loam guardian statues and servitors can be found everywhere within drau civilizations, as can incredible structure built from silk, moss, and lichen.

Drau Culture

I’m used to (and you probably are as well) supplying a long narrative about a culture to give you a picture of who they are. What I’m going to do in this article is I will try to use another format I’ve built for what I refer to as ‘gameable culture’. This format sacrifices narrative thoroughness for a more emergent, easier to play experience. It is told from the perspective of a drau and details elements of culture and belief. If I’m doing this right, you should be able to take the above overview and the below information and let characters quickly step into playing a drau or encountering and interacting with drau. I hope you try this format and let me how it does or does not work for you! Just be aware that I know I haven’t supplied you with a long list of detail. This is purposeful, so you can integrate the silk elves into your games more easily.

Where I’m From

(What are things the drau do?)

  • We gather in extended familial organizations called broods, each ruled by a matriarch “Broodmother”.
  • Each drau has her own private connection to Lolth, but one’s status determines how much weight we place on that relationship.
  • We will go to great lengths to get elves to forsake their gods.
  • We travel above ground rarely, and never just to trade silk.
  • We expect others not to trust us. We use their distrust to further our own purposes.

Heroic Archetypes

(what are common heroic archetypes for the drau?)

Simple Silk Merchant
Loam Artiste
Sage of the Lifeweb
Fey Infiltrator

A Drau is…

(how do drau see themselves? What characteristics seem virtuous to them?)

  • enigmatic
  • creative
  • reverent
  • soft-spoken
  • clever
  • faithful
  • independent
  • sly
  • sarcastic
  • multi-faceted

Drau History

(important events -evocatively named but left purposely blank- how did these events occur in your setting?)

  • Banished from the High Court
  • Abyssal Invasion of the Lifeweb
  • The Silent Year when Lolth Refused to Speak

So now comes the fun part. Given this material, can you stat up drau in your favorite system of choice? If the drau interest you, I’d love to see what you come up with. If you draw them up in D&D, Pathfinder, 13th Age, Fate, Savage Worlds, et al. please post a link on this article. If we get a good response I’ll make a page for the Drau that links to your write-up!

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.