Monthly Archives: August 2014

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.


“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…


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.


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.