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.