Monthly Archives: October 2014

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”)[] , 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!