Monday, September 28, 2009

The Gathering Storm by Kate Elliott... Part Two!

"You would even teach the common-born folk?" Bertha demanded. (p. 692)

In a pseudo middle ages fantasy role playing game, the assumptions about class and status, outside of the players, are fairly woven into the standards of those eras with a lot of equality spread around.

But what if the players want to push those boundaries? What if they want to make of the campaign something different?

As the old quote goes, "So be it young Jedi."

Let them change things around. Let them showcase new abilities and new methods. Let others come to them to learn. Let them have an active effect on the campaign.

Now in a campaign that has a definate start, middle, and end, that's pretty easy to do. Regardless of what happens, the campaign is going to have some type of ending and the players will be able to look back on that campaign and indicate where they made their mark. In an 'open' campaign that needs to have a certain level of... same old same old, like a television show, you should think long and hard about what the changes the players are trying to make to the campaign will mean.

It's not that the players methods or motivations are wrong, but if it's an open campaign that's going to continue to host characters for long periods of time, what will the long term ramifications be? It's one of the reasons why Marvel and DC, despite having characters smart enough to create interplantary and time travel, still use gas in their cars. The further you get away from the 'root' of the game, the further the 'connection' to the game gets.

On the other hand, it's always fun to take what the players are teaching others and use it against them. One of the best moments of the original Squadron Supreme limited series back in the 80's is when Nighthawk is explaining that the only reason the Utopia project of the Squadron is working, is because the Squaadron is so good. But this machine that they've set up is easily prone to abuse and those that come after the Squad may not be so pure of heart that they can be trusted with so much power.

"If the children hadn't explored here, none of the othersm ight ever have noticed." (p.735)

How are old ruins discovered by those in the 'modern' era? How do old horrors come to light? Often, one old staple is having the characters awaken something that man was not meant to know about. But there are other individuals in the setting whose intentions are far more innocent than the characters. In addition, if the Game Master uses a little elbow grease, he can turn the discovery of such ancient ruins into an adventure in and of itself as the players now have to go and find the children who haven't returned.

"The lapis lazuli ring Baldwin had slipped on his finger winked blue." (p.776)

In this instance, Ivar is about to be attacked by otherworldly elves. However, a ring given to him by a friend glows. The ring may or may not be magical, but the important thing is that the elves recognize it and allow him safe passage.

What are the signs and sigils of the world that people in power recognize? What tokens of friendship pass between kings and nobility? What wizard marks indicate that the bearer of such a mark is not to be triffled with.

When desinging adventurers, have players note elements of those they come across that could be taken as them having some sort of royal protection. Have them receive such gifts and call upon those lords who offered them such friendship in the first place.

"To go against OldMother was beyond him. He bowed his head, knowing he had lost Alain and the hounds. He had failed his brother." (p.876)

Here, Stronghand, a ruler among his people, was set a task, to find Alain, his blood brother. Yet now he has a new mission.

If the party is floundering, give them direction. If they don't know what to do, use a vision, a sign, a divine inspiration, an NPC, something to get them moving again.

And to challenge the party, don't be afraid to throw multiple elements at them at the same time. Throw quests at them that have a limited time frame open to them that are all vital and allow them the decesion of which quests they will follow. By doing so, you'll not only see the party in action, but you'll get a taste for what type of adventurers their more interested in.

There are more passages I could quote but in the end, the Gathering Storm is another huge novel with a huge cast that tries to cast realistic aspirations onto its many characters whil thorwing many hindrances in their way. Game Masters looking to move beyond the world of hack and slash and dungeon crawls should remember to keep the NPC list full and connected to the characters even as they continue to add things that the players enjoy to the game.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Gathering Storm, Volume Five of Crown of Stars by Kate Elliott

While I didn't skip over volume four, I didn't take any notes outside of a general mental note that the cast is growing wider and vaster and that the numerous little details that Kate uses in her writing contribute to a sense of a gritty realism in the story.

I picked back up my notes for Volume Five and below are notes that may be good reminders for your own game. As always, beware of spoilers if you're interested in reading the material.

"Because there will be a price." (p.74 paperback).

One of the main characters is off on essentially, a player character type of quest. While the "NPC's" of the setting are involved in political schemes, Sanglant is off trying to save the world from the doings of evil spellcasters. One of his plans involves griffin feathers which are of use against magic, but he's also interested in allying himself with others who have mastery of magic.

When the plarers are looking for something, be it a magic item, an ally, or information, what is the cost that they will have to pay for it? Is it in time thanks to travelling? Is it in coin thanks to barter and merchant services? Is it doing something for someone else to get what they want in the first place? Try to insure that things aren't as simple as walking into a 7-11 and that the characters have to earn what they're trying to get.

"Too many travellers came into a port like Sordaia for three scruffy visitors to create lasting wonder." (p.114)

When dealing with samll land locked villages and low population density hamlets, any visitor is a visitor worthy of making note. Any news they bring is news worth hearing. In a massive walled port city that has hundreds if not thousands or tens of thousands of visitors by the day, they may not exactly be the grand news anymore.

If the players have struck out on their luck and crossed one too many locals at the small towns they visit, it might be time to lose oneself in the big city.

Game Masters can use a port city to introduce a wide variety of things. This can range from missions for the players to go on ranging from the mundane of guarding spices, to the more exotic of locating new lands. Of course there's also the benefit of shaking things up. If the current campaign isn't moving along and things are locked up in the campaign, shake them up by having the characters become enslaved and win their freedom out at sea where they'll now be forced into a new direction even though they're free.

Even in cities that in and of themselves don't tolerate slavery, slavers may merely be waiting for the unweary to fall into their hands. In Waterdeep for example, there is a whole city underneath the main city that deals in all manner of goods. In a fantasy campaign, the limits as to where a 'dark mirror' of the city are limitless. This can range from bad parts of a city, such as dock wards or slums, to a negative image of the city on another plane or an underdark counter part to the city as in Waterdeep.

"His armyr rushed heedlessly past the bodies, although some of the dogs stopped to feed on the corpses and had to be driven forward through the open gate." (p.168)

Okay, I know I'm not the only Game Master whose guilty of this, but I have on many occassions had mosnters not act in a manner appropriate to their intelligence. Too often creatures with beastily intelligence don't actually behave the way they're supposed to. In part I do it to keep the game challenging and in part so that players, especially the defenders, feel that their abilities are coming into play.

However, when it makes sense for the animal to act a certain way, don't begrudge players attacks of opportunity caused by marking the enemy or when the enemy tries to make a full get away. Sometimes they'll miss and it'll lead to other interesting opportunities.

"When Biscop Constance raised me to the abbacy of Herford Monastery, she strickly enjoined me to see that travellers were well cared for." (p.218)

All too often, clerics in a fantasy game are used as band aids to quickly heal a near dead party back to full strength to continue their dungeon looting.

But what else does the church do? Does the church have any political standing in the setting? Is the church known for it's kindness? Does the church take in orphans? Does it send doctors out to fight the plague? Does it take in the homeless? By mapping out what role the church plays in the campaign setting, the game master is providing the setting with more detail than merely having the church be another arm of the government to pull up templars and other religious knightly orders. The Game Master should ask himself, "What does the church do when the players don't see it. What happens behind the gates when the clerics aren't fighting. What does it mean to the campaign overall and in details to this particular church."

"The bench rocked back. The ground jerked so hard that she slammed into Margret. She fell forward, banging her knee on the bench in front of her." (p.265)

Player characters tend to focus on one thing in the game and that thing is their enemy. But what if they're in the midsts of something that isn't necessarily a physical foe like say an earthquake, flood, plague, or fire?

In 4e, the use of Skill Challenges can be used to determine how players stay safe in such a harmful environment. The players can describe what skills they're using to safeguard themselves and the Game Master can explain what happens if they meet an appropriate level DC. For those who don't necessarily enjoy the default skill use, over on good old,
damilir has posted some of his ideas on using Mouse Guard, a Burning Wheel variant, as a substitute for standard skill challenges.

"Do not fear. The creatures that abide in the earth have done no harm to us. I wish I could say the same of our human brethren." (p.304)

For me, 1st and 2nd edition D&D were an interesting mix of having seperate rules for NPCs where the NPCs could pretty much do what you want, stated up as monsters, or follow player rules and even have specific classes, often more powerful than the core classes. Other games like Mutants and Masterminds or Hero went a rotue that 3e tended to emulate that an NPC was essentially a PC.

4e returns the NPCs to either monster or character status, whatever the GM is looking for. In that, it allows humans to be done up relatively quickily and can make humans a viable threat for characters of any level again.

In making humans, or demi-humans, the enemy, the Game Master should have some sound reasons why those who are of the same race as the players would wish them ill. This could be as simple as the 'bad guys' worshipping a dark god, such as Vecna or Asmodeus, or being Unaligned and the players being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"Who will notice if a handful of isolated nuns vanish?" (p. 326)

I bring this one up for a point. In a fantasy game, dozens if not hundreds if not thousands of small sects and cabals can exist for no other reason than for the players to meet them, learn at their hand, and then disappear. It's cliche but it's a well used one. It's something that heroes often encounter ranging from Elric meeting the Ship that Sales the Planes to this passage where a small cabal of nuns is in danger of being exterminated with extreme prejudice. As long as things make sense to the players and it fits into the context of the world that the players will see, everything should work out fine.

"What does his lineage and mine and yours matter then? Isn't it true that in the Chamber of Light before God, we all stand as equals?" (p.547)

In many ways, this is a player truism. Players, at least my players, are often reluctant to embrace what it would really mean to be in a more realistic dark age setting where nobles would have a much stronger rule over the people than players are prone to accept. Still, the old saying is something like, "It rains on king and commoner alike" and players, who often follow the whims of Fortunes Wheel, are often at the certain of important happenings merely because they are the players.

Even if none of the players have any relation to nobility, even if the Game Master isn't using churches or other social structures to give divine characters a reference to hang a framework on, the Game Master must remember that without the players, there is no story. All that rich background and effort goes to the wayside if the players aren't put front and center of the story.

On the other hand, there is a saying about giving the players enough rope to hang themselves with. If they engage in the odd bits of role playing here and there, don't be afraid to take those threads and run with them. You might just surprise the characters with what effects their actions have on them latter on down the road.
Providing variety in the scenery while making that scenery more than backdrop for the players to loot dungeons in, can provide the Game Master and players with a deeper connection to the campaign.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sins Of the Father

When looking at character background, some Game Masters are worried that the option of having the characters come from noble background could provide too much leverage to that player.

While its potential for abuse is present, the Game Master should also be aware of the potential adventure hooks for such a character. In Crown of Stars, King Henry is determined that his bastard son, Sanglant, a half-elf, should be king after him. The prince has his own ideas. A man raised from birth to die from servicing King Henry's army as the leader of the Dragon's (heavy cavalry), the Prince doesn't' really fit into the noble world. And since his mother abandoned him, doesn't even know what the elf world is like. This makes him a potential outcast in both worlds even though his father holds great love for him. His father has plans for him. His father tries to set things in motion so that things work out as his father wishes.

In another medium, Yet Another Fantasy Comic, the Maula Bloodhand is a female orc warrior of old blood and impressive fighting prowess. A changing of the guard occurs among the leadership in the underground dwelling in which they all live and the leaders of the various factions decide to elect her. She at first declines until it comes clear that no one else would be suitable.

However, she has a bastard son , a half-human half orc named Glon. And unlike other comics, in this instance, the half-orc side is actually the side that would be in charge if the other orcs didn't see him as a weakling bastard.

This leads to some potential issues as when given the leadership, the orc queen notes that if she does take over, that it will be a return of her tribe and methods to prominence and that her son becomes the heir.

The comic isn't far enough along to know how this new action will play out, but in a game, things can take many different turns depending on how the players react. The players, unlike the characters in a novel, tend to have a lot of individual will that they wish to put into play. They don't want to be the pawns of the NPC's. While there could be fantastic benefits to being the son of nobility, the players will most likely avoid any of the responsibilities that come along with such duty.

For example, if the family follows a certain deity, the nobles may not allow the player's character to associate with clerics and paladins or other divine champions, of a different faith. In a campaign with a group of five, this could easily happen where there are multiple players with a divine power source and worship different deities. What happens if the nobles don't want them to be in the same crowd anymore?

In addition, nobles often have various family duties to attend to. This may not only include marriage to someone they don't even know for political gain, but may include guarding other members of the family that are going to be married for political gain. Imagine if the player has to go on a 'quest' to escort his sister or younger brother to a far away land in order to cement a relationship. What happens to the rest of the party? Would the nobles allow a group of relative strangers to escort their children?

Nobles may also be involved in various dealings that may leave a sour taste in the characters mouth. For example, what if they have alliances with slavers? What if they have dealings with those who are not slavers, but might as well be? What if they have dealings with drug slum? The power base has to come from somewhere and most likely, its not all perfect. The Game Master can use such events to move the campaign forward.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Putting Crown Ideas Into Play

I'm running H2 right now. The players are known as orc slayers and are seeking higher and higher patrons to do their work.

One of the things interesting about the Silver March, an old softcover 3.0 book, it notes that Silverymoon has a church of Lathander that is leaderless. One of the players in my game is a deva Invoker who follows the 'Risen Sun' heresy that stats that Lathander is another god and indeed, during the 4e timeline, becomes that other god.

So I've had fun using that character as a spring board for the various 'conflicts'. He mocks the church for not doing enough. For being safe in the city. They mock him for travelling alongside a cleric of Bahamut and a paladin of Torm, asking him how loyal is he to this false god under the Risen Sun if he can't even convince his comrades who are on this dangerous road of his to join him.

In doing so though, I've added NPC's that are lesser nobles and introduced the concepts that the churchs are a political power of their own due not only to the wealth and power they have, but due to the people who make up some of the higher ranks of the church, second and third born nobles who stand to inherit very little. The players have also befriended some of the 'lesser' brothers who come from the ranks of the peasants who have to struggle for survival and have provided the church with many a fine worshipper in exchange for the blessings and protection given to them from the church.

While it certainly doesn't have the depth of Crown of Stars, it does add other elments to the campaign outside of the hack and slash that comes when the characters go into the Nether Mountains to explore that ancient city with its strange magics.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Dark World by Henry Kuttner

One thing that Paizo has been doing for a few years now is, no, not bringing sexy back, but rather, bringing old school back. I don't mean by supporting old editions of the game, but rather, by supporting some of the foundations upon which the old game systems were build. Today's fiction library is far different than yesterday's.
In that vein, what could you possibly gain from some old school fiction?
"Listen," she said, and I felt a soft touch on my shoulder. "You must understand this. You have lost your memories." (p. 28)
Memory loss is a great way to get a higher level campaign started. How does your character, whose never been heard of before, know how to do exactly what he does? Why is he so powerful?
Memory loss.
This can be useful for a wide number of things but is most often seen when the character was a former villain and is now on the side of angels. Next time one of your players is prepping a new character and he has a blank look on his face when you ask him about his background, ask him if he'd mind having memory loss and is a foundling. This will allow the Game Master to plug different pieces of the campaign around the character.
The important thing though, is to not overdue it. Unlike a novel, the role playing game has other players and each one should be as important as the next.
"Beside me, Medea had risen in her stirrups and was sending bolt after arrowy bolt into the green melee ahead of us, the dark rod that was her weapon leaping in her hand with every shot."
The Dark World at first seems to rely on a lot of wizardry but in fact, most of it is science disguised as magic.
"The wands. Though no technician, I could understand their principle. Science tends toward simpler mechanisms; the klystron and the magnetron are little more than metal bars. Yet, under the right conditions, given energy and direction, they are powerful machines.
"Well, the wands tapped the tremendous electromagnetic energy of the planet, which is, after all, sipmly a gargantuan magnet. As for the directive impulse, trained minds could easily supply that."
Which brings us to...
Exotic Weapon Proficency:
Black Rod: 1d12 damage, +3 profiency bonus, 10/20
A Black Rod is a device of science that requires a user to attune himself to the object through the expenditure of a feat. Unlike standard weapons, if the user is not attuned, he cannot use the weapon at all as opposed to just losing the profiency bonus.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Burning Stone by Kate Elliott

The Burning Stone continues the epic Crown of Stars by expanding an already large cast and using a larger net to continue to link events to one another. Below I’ll be discussing some of the various happenings in the book which could be considered spoilers for those who haven’t read it. If you’re interested in reading and wish no spoilers, do not read further.

“IN any village, a stranger attracts note and distrust. But Eagles weren’t strangers, precisely…” (p. 16)

When characters are moving from town to town, as often happens in lower level fantasy games, the people of the town will not only want news of the outside world from these characters, but will be notable to those in the town. They will come under a great deal of scrutiny. Depending on the nature of the town, guards may want them to bind their weapons, if they allow them to keep their weapons at all.

In this way, most fantasy games give the players a ton of options that may not have actually existed. In essence, if they’re not nobles, the adventurers are essentially riff raff. But much like the Eagles, special messengers for the king, they’re not normal armed bandits. Rather, in a setting where adventurers are a known quantity, they might be very welcome to any town they come to once their mettle is known.

Let the players know that they are under observation. Let the people ask questions of the players such as who do they serve? What deities do they worship? Do they have any weapons of a unique nature or design that would mark them as servants of an enemy empire? Do they speak any languages that would mark them as outcasts?

Margrave Judith’s procession came into view on the road. Her banner, a panther leaping upon an antelope, flew beside a banner marked with the Arconian guivre set between three springing roes, two above and one below, the sigil of the old royal house of Varre.” (p. 69)

Sometimes when reading, I’ll come across a word I’m vaguely familiar with. In this case, Margrave. The last time I remembered actually seeing it in fiction, was probably in a Moorcock book in the Corum line. Heading over to the old Wikki, I was impressed by the amount of information this title has. In many ways, players who are going to be made into royalty, or into part of the royal estates, would fit the concept of a margrave perfectly.

Even the lowliest lady with her small estate and dozen servants must contend against bandits and the depredations of her ambitious neighbors.” (p.119).

It just goes to show, no matter what your status, there will always be those out to take what you have for your own. In a points of light setting, the range of things that would want to destroy you just to make a meal of you if far higher than your typical pseudo middle ages fiction.

In addition to bandits, you have monsters. In addition to monsters, you still have all the problems of people wanting what’s yours. In fantasy campaigns though, that’s generally not only about your land and your titles, but rather, your individual possessions because most fantasy characters will have items of some power. Items that will grow in potency as the players do. Characters also tend to have first hand knowledge of different magics than most people due to their travelling.

When having the characters interact with patrons, insure that the patrons also speak of their own problems that are being handle in the mundane fashion and don’t need the players help with. The patrons must be more than simple quest givers for the players to have a way to interact with them outside of ‘clicking’ the yes/no option.

“It was hard going. Roots had torn up portions of the old pavement; water and ice had shattered others. Liath stayed on her horse and didn’t complain. Eventually the woodland opened out and beyond a river they saw a thread of smoke marking a village. The old bridge had fallen to pieces, planks lost or gaping. Sanglant scouted the shore but could find no boat, and in the end he volunteered to lead the horses and mules across one by one. In some places he had to shove planks together. In others, he simply laid his shield down over the gaps so they could get across. In this way they made it to the other side. Of the servants he saw no sign, but one of them blew in his ear teasingly.”

Sanglant and Liath are at this point part of a royal kingdom. This kingdom though, is not as grand or powerful as the old one. When trying to create a ‘points of light’ feel for your campaign, even if the players are going from kingdom to kingdom, little things that the players see and experience first hand along the road can quickly give the players an idea of what the overall setting can be like.

Bridges and roads in dire need to repair alongside forests that are no longer taken care of alongside wide spread bandit attacks and a lack of food and goods to serve all of the kingdom speak much higher than telling the players that it’s a long way between cities.

“You have served God and this throne faithfully, Alain. I offer you this choice, that you walk away from Lavas Holding now and never return to any lands under its watch on pain of death, or that you accept a position in my Lions, fitting to your birth, and serve me.”
That fast, he had tumbled down Fortune’s wheel. It was simply too stunning to grasp.” (p.580)

Alain’s rise and fall is based on the court. In a role playing game, where characters tend to carry their power with them, the Game Master must dance delicately if he is going to strip them of their power. This is more true in a level based game than in a point based one. The difference in point based games is generally lower until the players have achieved a lot of experience. In a level based game, a 5th level character and 10th level character are often like different animals completely.

The major things a character tends to hold include personal wealth, magic items, and power. If the game master doesn’t want to tinker with those things, and those things are dear indeed to most players, then the game master needs to weave a world about the characters that the players like and whose loss will strike them like taking away wealth, magic items or power.

On the other hand, if you’re a bastard GM, having the characters encounter a horde of undead rust monsters with some type of wrath template put onto them will do the trip in a heart beat.

“It was shaped something like an eagle with a tufted eagel’s head and a noble beak, but it wanifestly no eagle. They couldn’t grow so large, and eagles didn’t have gold feathers, as if they’d been gilded by flying too close to the sun. It was magnificent, with tail feathers that seemed to blaze and eyes that even from this distance sparked and glimmered like starlight. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in his life.” (p. 585).

When describing monsters to the players, try to insure that the sense of wonder you had when you first encountered a strange monster is there. Try to insure that each meeting with a new creature is not simply one of charge and attack. If you can give the players pause with your description, then you’re doing your job as a Game Master.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Everyday Inspiration Game Masters Need

One of the problems with running a campaign is describing everything that happens. One of the easiest ways to get assistance doing this, is to watch everything.

For example, say the group has just completed a tough mission or that they are preparing a celebration prior to going on a new adventure. What type of foodstuffs can you describe to them?

Looking at a menu for Sweet Baby Ray's, how about...

A succulent spit roasted pig with a variety of encased meats with omelets, French toast, brisket, hash, eggs, potato salad, grilled vegetables, jalapeños and onions along with fresh cornbread and fruit?

In and of itself not a full description but enough to get the mind thinking. If it's a campaign setting with a lot of detail to it, such as unique fruits or customary baking methods, add them. If it's one with details on different types of animals that are suited for eating, describe them. "The dire board is so huge that it requires several shifts of several grown men to turn it."

Little touches can be found wherever you look as long as you're willing to take a moment and add them.

In addition, even the little things can lead to big adventures. For example, are there any famous chiefs? Do they have any special ingrideients that they need the players to get? Are there any special herbs or spices? Not everything has to be about purple worm steaks after all.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Prince of Dogs Final

When reading an epic length book like Prince of Dogs, there are probably dozens of ideas that you can grab ranging from names and organizations, to mannerisms for your Non-Player Characters.

My finishing off of the book leaves me with the following.

"Lady's Blood!" swore Leo. "Fire!" (p. 326 SFBC edition.)

It's easy to get caught up in the fantastic of a campaign setting. However, the mundane should always be ready to be pulled out when needed. Fire is a terrible threat to a city with no easy means of water or manpower to utilize it. When looking at your cities, think of which parts are made of stone and which of wood. Are parts of buildings, like old forts, made of both? If a fire were started, how would it spread? How would it be fought? Are there people enough to have a professional force of fire fighters? Are there spells or rituals that can be called into in order to combat a fire?

Fire in and of itself is powerful, but the results of the fire can be even more so. Nobles and peasant alike may lose their land and all their possessions. Who steps in to remove the burnt down husks? Are any old family secrets brought to the light when the basements are laid bare? Use the fire as an event that can be a springboard for other adventurers in the campaign.

"No, my lord. Duke Conrad closed the pass." (p. 337).

Fantasy campaigns, especially at lower levels, tend not to have the quick benefits of using instant transportation. Unlike modern settings, characters can't just get in a car and cover vast distances quickly.

While 4th edition tries to showcase some of this hardships with the concept build into the 'core' setting of points of light, the Game Master can easily increase the time needed to get from one place to another through a few simple methods. In this case, an Eagle, a king's messanger, is initially cut off from the pass by natural disaster and then latter, through efforts of royalty not aimed at halting the King direclty, but at handling a rival and indirectly coming into conflict with the Duke.

Being put in a situation where the characters have to go out of their way, and out of their way several times, gives the Game Master time to do several things. First, it showcases that things don't always go the way of the players. Second, it allows the GM to throw in some more random encounters. These can range from random assaults by various fiends always lurking in the background, to chance encounters with Non-Player Characters that have access to something that the players may need. This can also act as foreshadowing if the NPC is befriended and can be of use again latter.

"This food is scarcely fit payment for such tales as you have told us this night." (p. 365)

To further point out the differences in how things work in the here and now with the there and then, the Game Master should try to remember that events happening in one part of the world, even if not very far, may be unknown to another part. Normal citizens with little cause to travel may not know if the king is dead or alive, if a heir has come of age or even if there are more dire situations around the bend.

Without access to virtual instant communication such as we have today, many people in the psuedo historical fantasy settings remain woefully ignorant of the events of the world. The players, due to their travels, generally have a head start on others when it comes to the lay of the land. Remark on how common folk stand in awe of the player's experiences. Have bards try to woe them in exchange for tales of their doings. Have nobles invite them for dinner in order to learn what events have transpired recently. Remember that knowledge is power and that most people in such a setting would fear to venture beyond their own homes.

"No ambition for myself. For my son." (p. 558)

In terms of doing good deeds or of doing deeds for various patrons, the players should be aware that not all that is done is done for the here and now. In this case, Lavastine has taken a city under hostile control not only for the glory of doing so, not only to secure for his son a well made marriage, but because by doing so, in the future those lands may pass through his son's inheritance. These are potentially long term plans.

In these events, if the campaign is mainly about stomping dragons, it could be difficult to place something with a long term pay off into the campaign. Most foes that the players meet will quickly fall to blades and most plans contain no more depth then onto the next dungeon.

To foster some type of longer term plans in such a campaign, the Game Master should let some clue of what's to come further down the road into the player's hands. By doing so, the Game Master gives the players the opportunity to properly arm themselves. For example, if the Game Master knowns that undead will be in an upcoming crypt, clues of the undead's presence should be felt. If creatures with a specific vulnerability to silver are to be featured, the players should have time to arm themselves with such.

"You know what they call you now, some of them, don't you? The prince of dogs." (p. 576)

Names have power. Names grant recognition. If the players don't take a name for themselves, don't hesitate to give them one. This can come from numerous things ranging from the way they dress, arm themselves, the foes they've fought or the items they've used. In some cases it may be seen as complimentary and in others, an insult. For those who don't take the time to name themselves, take that power away and name them as you would.

Prince of Dogs finishes off with more potential story lines and a lot of character driven events that proper it onto the next book. If the Game Master can draw out the characters of his own campaign and interact them with the players to propel them onto the next adventure, then the Game Master is continuing to do his job.

Prince of Dogs 2

"But I did nothing," he protested. "I was afraid. It was the hand of the Lady of Battles which protected me, which struck down those Eika." (p. 175 SFBC ed.)

One of the things that 4e does is puts all of the characters on equal ground essentially for 30 levels. In previous editions, once the wizards and other spellcasters started to get around tenth level, rogues and in some cases, fighters became some excess baggage.

But the powers that fighters have now seem a little too good at times and perhaps border on magic, despite the description of the fighter power source being martial.

But what if these powers aren't necessarily something that they have full ownership of? What if they have a patron saint or ancient guide allowing them to push on when they would faulter? While it possibly borders on the Divine power source, letting players claim to have no inherent skill of their own and attributing their powers to another source can go a long way in say explaining why they have abilities in 4e that they can only use once per encounter or once per day. It's because that's all their patron has given them.

"And she wanted the power. She wanted the knowledge. She could do so much with it. So much that needed to be done." (p. 231)

The villain's motivation, especially those that are long term, should be on the mind of the Game Master when creating their master piece characters.

In addition, it never hurts to know what the players want. What the players seek to do with their own abilities. What limits the players will cross in order to increase their own personal power. In this case, Antonia is entering a bargain with a costs lesser than what was initially asked, but in her desire, its clear that eventually, she will give in to that initial demand. That she will indeed go further. "You can onl ytake as much power as you are willing to give yourself." After all, Antonia already is thinking. "Imagine how much good she could do with greater powers, with the ability to compel others to act as she knew they truly wanted to." (p. 230). It's a slippery slope from augmenting one's own abilities to thinking one knows what's best for others.

"The Arethousan princes are never allowed to leave the palace, you see my dear Bridiga, because they are such barbarians that only a male can become emperor among them, and only one among the sons and nephews and cousins of the reigning emperor can become emperor after him." (p. 299).

When it comes to lines of succession, are there any specifics that the players have to worry about in their own vocations? Do they possess items that belong to the family once the character passes on?

One of the problems with many role playing games is that while they often have instructions on how to build a higher level character, they don't necessarily talk about what happens to the loot of the former character that died. For example, if you're playing in 3e and have a 10th level character die and make a new one at 10th level appropriately armed and armored, the party in essence has a huge free windfall.

The Game Master should try to get from each player ahead of time what will happen to that character's loot. Wizards could have their material donated to their guild. Clerics and other divine agents have their materal go back to the churches. Martial characters may have family in need of their equipment. Think ahead of time what will happen to the loot that these characters own unless you are comfortable increasing the loot factor through character death and are willing to deny gold and items to characters in the natural course of adventuring to make up for that.

"When the su nstands still, certain pathways otherwise hidden become clear and certain weavings otherwise too tangled to unravel become straight." (p. 319).

One of the things 4e does to a greater extent than previous editions is to make planar travel a little more feasible for lower level characters through the Feywild and the Shadowfell. This could simply be walking a pattern in a certain way, waiting for certain stellar arrangements to fall into place or the performing of rituals.

Using these methods, the Game Master can add little bits here and there that might not have as big an impact on the campaign world as would otherwise be the case. For example, if the players are being pursued through ruins, perhaps they can only escape by going into the Feywild where their enemies can't follow them.

"...the Dariyans... conquered and ruled the largest empire the world ahs ever known. Only in the myths and tales of the ancient Arethosans do we hear of older and greater empires, that of Sais which was swalloed by the waves, or the wise and ancient Gyptos peoples across the middle sea." (p. 320.)

Most fantasy campaigns are based off of some type of psuedo Middle Ages. For the most part, there was a lot of ignorance in those times. Players often confuse their own knowledge of a setting with what their characters may know. If the Game Master lets the players know ahead of time what they may know, based on the character's region and background, and lets them know that changes have been made and that corrections will be made when incorrect assumptions are placed out, then they could be cutting trouble off at the pass.

In these cases, it's vital that the Game Master has some type of understanding as to what the player is trying to do with the character. If the player is trying to represent some ancient esoteric order and that order doesn't exist, the Game Master should have something similiar or, if it's a minor campaign alteration, be ready to add that of the player into the campaign.

By informing the players that history is huge and that no one, from the haughty noble to the gods themselves, knows the whole of it, the Game Master can focus on putting emphasis on different parts of the setting and keep know it all players on their toes. Note however this doesn't always work as some players will be outraged at any change to what is considered the 'cannon' of the setting. The Game Master should try and get all of these issues out of the way before the campaignh gets too deep or any changes that the player discovers will likely be meet with protests.

Prince of Dogs continues to reveal the depth of the setting one piece at a time and continues to weave a wide variety of character through it. By slowly introducing bits of background and culture to other socieities, the book gives us a brief glimpse at how huge a campaign setting can be.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Prince of Dogs by Kate Elliot Part 1

Prince of Dogs is book two in the Crown of Stars series. Like the first book, it is packed with characters far too numerous to list and detail. That in and of itself, like many series of this nature, continues to illustrate the benefits of having a rich cast of characters that the Game Master can use to draw the players into the setting.

"A Lion who is unfit to serve because of a wound in battle can expect a handsome reward from the king, a plot of land in the marchcountry or fenland."
"Aren't those dangerous and difficult places to farm?"
"In some ways, but you're free of service to the lordlings who demand tithes and labor. The king only demands service from you to man the marchcountry watchforts." (p. 46 SFBC)

Many fantasy settings in games, are filled with characters who are not mere merchants or bartenders. This book at least gives a passing possibility to why that might be. In a standard fantasy campaign, why would anyone go to frontier lands that are difficult to hold and keep? In a place with no king or emperor, who holds the law?

In such dark places, retired military men, or in the case of a fantasy campaign, adventurers, might make their way. Perhaps one of the reasons why so many heroes are called forth from the standard farming operation, is that their parents or grandparents fought hard for that freedom from service but now dark tidings have come again.

In addition, it also lays the foundation down for where players may wish to put characters that may not have died, but have lost something essential. In such a place, the Game Master can always bring such a character out of retirement to bring news of far away lands or simply to reunite with old comrades.

"They never scout with their dogs, and its just as well for us. I swear the dogs are harder to kill than the damned savages." (p. 51)

Outside of a few old stand bys, such as goblins and dire wolves, many humanoid menaces aren't fleshed out enough to have anything beyond further variants of the humanoid monsters themselves. In the 4th edition, this is no longer quite true with drakes and other monster filling in certain roles and in addition, they have numerous use as mounts that give special abilities.

When introducing monsters, think of what exactly you're introducing to the campaign. Do they have specific mounts? Do they have pets? What type of deity do they worpship? Do they have allies? Do they have ancient enemies that they fled from long ago that the players may seek help from? By adding details to the campaign that fill in these holes, the Game Master is doing more than merely providing sword fodder to the players.

"But it would heal. It always did, cleanly and without infection." (p. 94).

Some characters have remarkable abilities. Powers that don't necessarily let them die like standard characters. What happens when such a character is captured by an entity that doesn't necessarily have to kill them right away? What punishment might they suffer?

In most cases, it's best to have the player make a new character while the old one lingers in prison. The Game Master can provide the player with brief snippets that describe what the old chraacter is going through and can provide updates that might eventually allow the old character to escape, but in most circumstances, if the character is in such a situation that he needs saving, the players should have a back up character ready and able to go.

"He, Ivar, son of Harl and Herlinda, must be the one to kill Hugh or, preferably, to humilate him." (p. 103).

When the players are no longer on the field of battle, no longer using sword, shield, and spell to fight for their live, what happens when they have enmies at court? What happens when they have fellows in their guild or in the halls of their deity that wish them harm? It's best to have ways for the characters, either through skill challenges or through adventurers set up to prove their ability, ready in the wings.

For example, if one of the players is a cleric and he is loud and outspoken, perhaps another cleric makes it his duty to embarrass or insult said character? Instead of a duel of spells, the Game Master could call upon the player to make a series of skill checks which can represent the two verbally dueling. Or he could let the cleric player know of an ancient and lost lore that the church has been striving to retrieve. Doing so would quickly put the Non-Player Cleric in the negative and showcase how valuable the players are.

Friday, September 4, 2009

King's Dragon Part Two!

Had some free time and managed to finish off this mammoth tome.

"And lastly," Wolfhere said, "no man or woman is given the Eagle's badge until she has seen a comrade die. Death is ever at hand. We do not truly become Eagles until we accept and understand that we are willing to pay that price for our service and our king." (p. 260 SFBC edition).

In most campaigns, the players will have numerous options when it comes to organizations to join. One of the quick hits in the Forgotten Realms would be the Harpers. In many such settings, guilds have a tremendous amount of power.

If the players are part of a guild, or members of multiple guilds, what is expected of them? What do they have to do in order to 'earn their wings'? What do they have to bring to the guild to make it accept them? If a wizard is always out adventuring with his fellow sellswords, what does the mage guild expect of him in turn?

It's not that you want to make these memberships in and of themselves a burden, but rather, a springboard. If the players are always out and about, then the guilds the players are members of would not only recognize this, but use it to send them out for various guild business. It's essentially free labor for them and plot points for the campaign. Are there certain monsters you want to use? The warrior's guild informs the fighters and rangers that their time away from the guild must be earned back with varlous battle against these invaders. The mages guild informs the wizard that certain bits of these creatures can be used as components in a ritual. The divine elements dream of their deity demanding the death of these offending monsters.

"This is certainly grave news, but what am I to tell the people of Gent? Given enough time, the Eika amry outside will burn and batter down Gent's bridges, and when they have done that, they will have free passage up the Vester whether we will it or no." (p. 274 SFBC)

The Game Master should make efforts to show why the players are needed. In some campaigns like the Forgotten Realms, one of the 'strikes' against it is that it is filled with NPC's who should be able to solve all of the problems. But well, so is reality. America for example, truly has enough wealth to offer health care to everyone, but it's not necessarily in the interest in all of the powers that be to spread that around.

The 'good' NPC's of a setting have their own problems to deal with and even when what the players are involved in is campaign shattering, it's up to the players to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and be the heroes of the campaign setting.

"The soft ones are not true people, of course, but they are a kind of people. People can talk. It is the lesson the WiseMothers teach. It is what they whispered to him when he was a half-grown pup and dared venture up the mountainside to the sacred palce tended by the SwiftDaughters to see whether the WiseMothers would speak to him or else kill him for his presumption.

"The knife and the tongue are equally strong weapons."

One of the interesting things about 4th edition is that it somewhat eliminated the wide range of alignments that Dungeons and Dragons has relied on to guide so much of its behavior. Players and NPCs may have motivations that aren't necessarily so crystal clear that every orc child must be battered against a rock.

If the players are able to make a real influence against their enemies, either by sparing them, communicating with them, or showing them a better way, if the Game Master can incorporate that into his campaign instead of just shrugging his shoulders and having the monsters continue to attack brainlessly, the players will see that their actions have a direct influence on the growth of the campaign.

"So do some of us work today to ban inheritance through the male line." (p. 453 SFBC).

When looking at parts of the campaign world, how are things determined in a time of inheritance? The old joke is the son of my daughter is my grandson and the son of my son may be my grandson as one never knows. Of course with modern technology and all that comes with it, and possibly with rituals and magical aid to dtermine in a fantasy campaign the same could be said, but it does bring into question rights of inheritance, differences in culture, and things that players may not be used to in a standard psuedo historical setting.

King's Dragon boasts a wide cast and uses a huge array of characters to tell merely a part of a story despite being over five hundred pages. If the Game Master can take some of the ideas for setting that don't necessarily happen in his game now, ranging from humanoid invaders that are harsh because they come from a harsh land and climate, to patrons that can't always protect their wards, then King's Dragon can act as your own book in your own Appendix N reading list.

First and Lasting Impressions: King's Dragon by Kate Elliot

“A rider approached. Armed in bright mail, it guided its horse forward at a sedate walk, untroubled by the raging wind. ..The horse was beautiful, as white as untouched snow, almost blinding, and the woman- She was a woman of middle age, scarred on the face and hands, her boots muddied and scuffed, her coat of mail patched here and there with gleaming new rings of iron. Her long sword, sheathed in leather, swayed in front of him. A battered, round shield hung by her knee, tied to the saddle… Her gaze was at once distant and utterly piercing. If her eyes had color, he could not make it out. They seemed as black as a curse to him.” (p. 27 SFBC hardcover)

“Who are you?” he whispered. The sword, like death by pain, was lifted. Her reply rang out and yet was muted by the howl of the wind. “I am the Lady of Battles.” (p. 28 SFBC hardcover)

A good description goes a long way. Ask each player to not only describe themselves, but make sure they have a description written down so that they can refer to it for future reference. Do the characters dress in a certain fashion? Do they wear certain styles of cloth? Are their clothes new or old? Do they have fine silks or worn through materials? Are their weapons nicked from long use and battle or well oiled?

Having a good description for an NPC goes a long way too. Make sure that when doing so, you have the description ready if you plan on using the character again. Insure that things that are unique about the NPC are bolded so that the players can recognize these characters when meeting them in the future. When introducing them, give them a unique persona not only through what they wear and what they are, but by your own actions as a GM. Hand gestures and voice are some of the greatest tools you have at your disposal in such a case and making the same hand gestures in association with a certain NPC, will ingrain that habit into the minds of the players.

“It is necessary that we act. We must find another to consecrate at the altar. One who will not be missed.” (p. 170 SFBC hardcover).

This falls under the rule of no good deed goes unpunished. When attempting to push their own views of right and wrong on the setting, the GM has many options, especially when trying to showcase that the players cannot be everywhere and do everything at the same time. In this example, Alain has saved a savage humanoid from a gruesome death. In response, another is taken in place for sacrifice.

If the players are known defenders of one place, can they be at another? If the players champion one cause, do they directly or indirectly, oppose another and cause people who follow that cause hardship?

When trying to follow the old adage of no good deed goes unpunished, it’s not necessarily that you as the GM are trying to showcase that the world is a harsh and cruel place, but rather, that actions has consequences both intended and unintended. In some games, one of the standard methods here is the players freeing something long dormant from an ancient crypt in their running around and digging up the dead.

“But the blessed Daisan fasted and prayed for seven days! He didn’t suffer!”… “So the church taught falsely for years. So this truth was proclaimed as a heresy at the Great Council of Addai over three hundred years ago.” (p. 175 SFBC hardcover).

“Which fort?” she asked, then knew what he meant: This fort, the old Dariyan fort built by order of Arki-kai Tangashuan seven hundred years ago, reckoning by the calendars she knew. Now of course it was known as Steleshame, a small estate under the authority of the freeholder Gisela that was also an official posting stop for the King’s Eagles and thus under the king’s protection rather than that of the local count.” (P. 250 SFBC hardcover)
Depending on what campaign setting you’re using, either home brewed or store bought, the history may be so vast and grand that things players tend to take as everyday events and elements may be prone to change. One way to introduce these changes is to simply note that some time in the campaign’s past “THIS” is what had actually happened.
But then why doesn’t the campaign reflect it? Take the Forgotten Realms and it’s new incarnation for 4th edition. It incorporated many elements of the 4e default setting by taking a massive hammer to the setting and instead of allowing that unknown history to be discovered by the players, its thrust upon them. Have the characters be the ones who discover these ancient things. Have the players be the ones to discover that Lathandar is actually a different deity. Have the players discover that in prewritten history there was another land. Have the players discover these hidden facets of the setting so that they may be the new authorities and can be part of the change as opposed to just being battered about the head with it.

And as the second quote shows, sometimes the campaign will reflect it. People change. Monsters migrate. Fortress rise and fall. Things have multiple names and multiple purposes depending on who you ask and whose living there now. When dealing with something of great age, have multiple names for the old forts that stretch back into history. Have multiple names for the elves who have seen hundreds of years. Have variety when the players discover a long lost weapon that once served on the front line of battle against shadow and shade.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Fortress of Dragons by C. J. Cherryh

“He he knew his body had lost the resiliency of his boyish years; for the first time he accounted how he would pay for all the little follies of youth. .. at seven, he had cracked his knee falling through the stable-loft floor: that came back to haunt him. The elbow he had affronted in weapons practice not five years gone, that afflicted his shoulder as well. The time Danvy had pitched him off over his head, the slip of the ice when he was twelve, the times his mother had warned him about leaping off the side of the staircase… you’ll break your feet, she had said, and he had not remembered his mother’s voice clearly in years, but he could now, in this long watch.” (p. 166 SFBC hardcover).

Many times the dice roll against the characters. Critical hits, the GM wisely using his monster’s abilities, traitors in the group, and the dice falling where they may, can lead players to experience all levels of pain that their super human characters can endure.

But what about when they’re not in combat? In combat, if you can spare it, take a few seconds to note critical hits and note how you describe them. Remind the player later of that pain. In most cases, the players probably will suffer only light scaring if even that thanks to quickly being healed through magic, but what of death? What if the players have to bring back one of their own? What marks will death leave on the player? Will it leave him with a stutter? With it leave him with a limp? Putting role playing elements in that have no game mechanics can give the players more ties to their own history in the campaign.

“He drew his sword and with it traced a Line of his own on the stones, slowly, surely, drawing the Line with the touch of the metal on stone, securing it with the touch of his boots on the floor and the strength of his wishes in the stones.” (p. 259 SFBC hardcover).

Many magic systems are tied into rite and ritual. In the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons (4th ed as of 2009 still), rituals are methods of using magic that often take time and do a variety of utility needs. However, most of these rituals are vaguely described in terms of how they’re actually performed as opposed to what they do. Like much else that is scant in 4e, this is an opportunity for the Game Master to put his own touches on the campaign or even better, have the players put their own personal touches on the setting. When a player tells you he’s using a ritual, ask him how exactly he goes about it. Ask what items are brought, ask when its performed, ask if there are any unique rituals and movements.

These things, following the old five W (who, what, when, where and why) along with how, can allow each character to have some unique traits that aren’t impeded by game mechanics and provides them with unique flavor.

“It threatens everything,” Tristen said, and could not bid Crissand avoid it: could not bid any one of his friends avoid it. It was why they had come, why they pressed forward, why they had gone to war at all, and everything was at risk.” (p. 282 SFBC hardcover.)

As the campaign progresses, it’s not longer enough to guard the town. It’s not longer enough to watch over wagons. It’s not enough to save the city nor the country. Sometimes the very nature of the world itself is at stake. Such gambits can be hard to pull off and should be near the maximum levels of the game’s limits, or when the Game Master or players know ahead of time that the campaign will be coming to an end. By letting the threat elevate to new levels, the GM can bring a sense of urgency to the campaign that a standard villain may lack. In this case, the true enemy is something beyond standard naming conventions, it’s beyond being merely an evil entity. Much like the One Ring from Lord of the Rings, it’s powers lie in corruption, but much like Sauron himself, the real power is always waiting in the background, waiting for its opportunity to rise, to strike, to take it all when the time is right.
Fortress of Dragons ties up C. J. Cherryh's fantasy tale of friendship not only on a high note, but also on a note of future exploration. When ending your own campaigns, try to insure that even though all the immediate needs are filled that there is always the possibility of coming back to that campagin.