Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Ginger Star by Leigh Brackett

The Ginger Star is another book I've plucked from the Paizo Planet Stories line. It's part of my 'back to basics' in terms of trying to catch up on the older books I've missed. Material which may or may not have had an influence on the progression of role playing games, but which should have been known in those early eras.

Leigh Brackett's main character here, Eric John Stark, is a man of a setting that's somewhat space opera. Technology exists in many fashions including planet to planet travel, but it's more of a background element as Start often solves things not with lasers or ship to ship combat, but through his own barbaric nature.

For those who haven't had a chance to read any of the Eric John Stark books, unlike today's mammoth beasts, they're fairly easy to digest and they have the benefit of already being 'done' as opposed to some other mega series which are impressive in scope and depth but never seem to end.

Anyway, below are some thoughts I had that I'll try to keep in mind when I'm running my Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition game. Page quote numbers come straight from the Paizo edition.

"He was, as the old phrase had it, a wolf's-head- a totally masterless man in a society where reveryone respectable belonged to something. He bestowed his allegiance only where he chose, usually for pay. He was mercenary by trade, and there were enough little wars going on both in and out of the Union, enough remote peoples calling on him for the use of his talents, so that he was able to make a reasonable living doing what he did best. Fighting." (p.16)

In terms of character motivation, sometimes it's a natural talent that brings the character to their chosen profession. It's not a matter of being raised proper, it's not a thing for pondering why, it's a life style determined by the character's raw ability and how best they use it. It's a popular theme and one of Marvel Comic's most popular characters, Wolverine, has his own line, "I'm the best there is at what I do." If the characters are struggling for motivation, having them take pride in their own physical prowess isn't a bad thing.

He let the city flow around him, absorbing it through all the senses, including one that civilized men have largely lost." (p.21)

Try to engage the players on multiple levels with the setting: How does the road they walk on feel? What does it look like? What scent is carried on the air? What background noises are standard and which don't belong? Is there a sense of wrongness in the air? By bringing all of a character's senses into play, it makes it potentially easier for a player to get into character. The setting is more real the more they can relate to it.

"He is the Dark Man of the prophecy." (p. 27)

When looking at oracles and divination, the more vague they are from the Game Master's point of view, the more wiggle room the players and Game Master have in what actually happens next. Some prophecies may be so open to interpetation that it applies to everyone. In the comic Nexus, there is a sequence when Nexus and his good friend are teamed with the insane Badger, a martial artists of questionable sanity, and the three come to a village where they are hailed as saviors, or at least better then the three that came before and Nexus and his allies are smart enough to head out even as the next three of prophecy come along.

"Start sprang like a wild beast for Gelmar and bore him into the sea." (p.28)

Expect the unexpected from the players. If the characters are on a mountain and driven to the edge over a sea, don't be surprised if they jump into it and try to take some of the enemy with them.

At the same time, if the Game Master can think of things that the players can use in the environment to augment any encounters, all the better. Building different elements into an encounter that may or may not be used can be aggrevating in terms of work lost by the Game Master, but it can all be worth it when the players take advantage of it.

"You took him into the sea. Don't you know that it is forbidden, absolutely forbidden on pain of death, to lay hands upon or interfere with a Wandsman in any way?"

"I was already under pain of death, and it seemed to me that in any case, Gelmar needed a lesson in manners." (p. 37)

When you push the players, the players push back. The game master must keep note of any potential campaign elements that can derail the game if the players push too hard against those elements and more importantly, why the players wouldn't push in that direction if the game master is herding them in that manner.

If the game master has a nobel and his loyal followers meet the party on the road and has it in his mind that the party will take the absuse of the noble because after all, the character is a noble, the game master may be in for a rude awakening.

When such potential issues come up though, the game master should work with what the players have actually done and why they've done it and incorporate that into future game sessions not only in how they've effected the world, but in building future encounters that don't encourage the behavior that the Game Master may have issue with.

"Killing is a solemn matter," Mordach said, "and salutary. It ought not to be wasted." (p.56)

In terms of taking the players alive, depending on who the players are fighting, their deaths and more importantly, the manner of those deaths, may be more useful in keeping the campaign going then in merely killing them out of hand. For example, in the campaign I'm currently running, the players are on a section entitled, "The Well of Demons". There are numerous gnolls practicing dark arts here and that provides a great opportunity to allow any defeated players to be captured and taken for future sacrifice, allowing the other players a chance to rescue the player or the downed players to showcase some of his skills. The end doesn't necessarily have to be the end if there is a good reason for it not to be.

"One is born on a world. It may not be perfect, but it's the world one knows, the only world. One adjusts, one survives. Then suddenly it appears that there is no need to struggle because one has a choice of many worlds. It's confusing. It shakes the whole foundations of life. Why do we need it?"

"It isn't a question of whether or not you need it," said Stark. "It's there. You can use it or not, as you please." (p.100)

In most fantasy games, there are other worlds beyond that the players live on. In some cases, the players may actually come from those other worlds. What do normal people think of these old worlds? Do they close themselves off form it? Do they try to ally themselves with it? In 4th edition, right from character creation, there is evidence of multiple worlds with tielflings having pacts with ancient and dark powers and eladrin coming from a fey home. Do people seek to recreate those pacts that made the original tielflings? Do they seek to exploit the eladrin's home land? What trade opportunities are there? What long term ramifications for such vast span to the world?

"We live all our lives in a state of siege. Anyone, anything, may come. Sotmetimes the great snow-dragons, with the frost white on their wings and their hungry teeth showing. Sometimes a band of Outdwellers who run demented across the world and take whatever they can lay claws on. And there are creatures who wait, hidden just out of sight, smelling the warm food that walks and hoping they can snatch it." (p.124)

Keep the players on their toes. Let them know that it's not merely a matter of a kobold cave or a wild bear or a single dragon. The world is filled with danger and anything that the players are unaware of is merely that, their own foolishness in thinking that things are normal and safe. There is an air of caution in a setting where anything can happen. The brave and the bold may take powerful stakes in such a setting by fighting through these terrors.

It also allows the Game Master to lay down the footwork of future encounters. Just because the player's haven't encountered the snow-dragons doesn't mean the snow dragons don't exist. Just that the players havent' encountered them.

"In the time of the Great Wandering we were the free plunderers who fed on the roof-dwellers."

Stark thought that probably she meant that quite literally." (p.135)

Foreign cultures do things differently. They think differently. Their whole morale compass may be so alien to the players that they seem monstrous. Keeping the differences of those the player's don't know in mind and showcasing those differences can send some strange thoughts into the character's thinking when they see the foreigners do the same things that the characters do in terms of how they relate to their friends and allies.

The Ginger Star showcases an alien world that would fit into most D&D games with some of the humanoid monsters being the result of ancient genetic engineering that the modern survivors couldn't replicate. It has the old masters, things of such power that they cannot be replicated in today's standards, but in this case, it's from a technological mastery. Readers looking for a quick read could will be in for a surprising ride.