Thursday, December 31, 2009

Backstory Begets Backstory

In The Hidden Temple, the crew visits Cade's uncle. Here is more backstory. Not everything Cade knows is dead.
While there, Cade is visited by Azlyn Rae, another bit of Cade's past. A fellow student who appears to be a bounty hunter but is in fact working for the empire.
So while some have allied with the old emperor that Azlyn serves, spying on old friends tends to make them... trust you less no matter how good the good times were.
This can be problematic at times when the character's backstory continues to influence the current course of the campaign. However, when running a non-standard dungeon crawl campaign, the Game Master may need to expand his own ranking of NPC's and having the characters make backstory allows the Game Master to hang more backstory onto them.
The first thing the GM should do in these cases is explain that the character's backstory is 'open' and that you'll occassionally be adding bits and pieces that mesh with the bits and pieces they've added to it already. This allows the player to have an uncle whose got all sorts of skills, but then allows you to add another contact that the character once knew and who served under the uncle giving the character a solid in to the setting.
In terms of the Hidden Temple itself, it acts as a focus for this book in many ways. First, it's a place of refuge for Cade who has a bounty on his head. Players should have some type of safehouse that allows them some downtime, even if it's not in the best and brightest of situations.
Two, it allows the GM to parade out other NPCs who may be useful in the future. There are a few more potential easter eggs in the jedi that Cade finds waiting for him.
Three, with those NPCs, it allows the GM to showcase one opinion and force the player to take his own action. In this case, Cade suggests assassinating the Sith Lord. With a bounty on his head and the Sith Lord committing genocide, he figures it's time for the jedi to do make some tough decesions.
The jedi debate it, but the outcome is never really in doubt. If you want to do the job, do it yourself.
This is one of the important elements to think of when players may want to question why someone else isn't doing something that they could do. In games like the Forgotten Realms, where there are a lot of powerful NPCs, why aren't they always out saving this or doing that? Sometimes, it may simply be that it's not their way.
That to take direct action isn't their philosophy and that it's better to move through others.
Sometimes it may be a deliberate ruse to see if the enemy will act.
Sometimes it's because to act would be a suicide mission.
Here, while the Jedi might be able to take out one Sith, they don't know who will rise to replace him and they don't have the numbers or manpower to take out all the Sith as a Jedi army. Even though many of these Jedi have shown themselves to be more powerful than the average dark force user, even though they could probably inflict some horrific damage to the enemy, to do so would be their end.
In some cases, the players don't need to know why the NPCs aren't taking care of things, all they'll know of it, is that they're not taking care of things. If the players wish to spend time pursuing why the NPC's aren't taking care of it, then that in and of itself can become an adventure.
For example, I ran a Champions campaign using the Palladium setting of Nightbane. Many of the super heroes quickly started working with the invaders. The players initially couldn't figure out why until they began to follow the American. In the campaign, the America was essentially a Superman clone. What they discovered was that the Night Lords kept the American's family under constant surviellance and that any disloyalty by the heroes would result in family member's torture and then death. This was something the players accidentally caused to happen in their own explorations.
It didn't matter to most of the players, because that group was a Wolverine love child where there were no parents or children or relatives or DNPC (Dependent Non-Player Characters) to be found on the character sheets.
That campaign took a few interesting twists and turns but it showed that sometimes even the powerful factors have their hands tied by things that have nothing to do with their own innate abilities.
Even as you give the players a safehouse to rest and recover, to debate and analyze, remember that they're not filled of the motivations and methodology of the Non-Player characters and that motivations for anyone outside of their own group may be far different than they know.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Actions Lead To Consequences Which Lead to Actions...

Legacy Volume 4 brings two things to mind for me.
The first is that action begets action. There is a bit of rebellion and it leads to the Sith lord declaring genocide. This of course is an action and reaction bit, but it has further consequences down the road.
Next up, is that to be as stupid as the Sith are, you have to be really powerful. Much like Vader from the original trilogy of movies, the Sith here have no problem in killing high ranking military officers.
This would be a tremendous lack of motivation but yet, they keep coming.
In such cases, if the players ask why, the Game Master should have some reasons.
1. Overwhelming arrogance. How many bad guys think that they aren't the guano? How many top teir villains are going, "Man, I'm so happy at rank three, I hope this goes on forever." Most of the time it's an arrangement of failures by multiple tiers that cause the top bad guy to fail in the first place, but hey, I won't have that problem right?
2. They had it coming. Similiar to the arrogance factor, these individuals may not think of themselves as being better as being top bad ass, but may think of themselves as being better in that they and they alone are surely indespensible and nothing would ever happen to change that.
3. No other option. When you're the number two man and the number one gets axed for failing to live up to his job, what do you think they'll say if you go, "No, I'm good here." These types of organizations tend to be move up or move out.
There are other bits here and there. The former Emperor, a military man with a touch of force training and a carde of elite knights, also with their own force training, is still in rebellion against the Sith Emperor. This leads them to an alliance with the old Alliance... It's just about as classic as curse you for your inevitable betrayal but as I've mentioned in other posts, it's a classic for a reason. The immediate needs of the many take priority over the urge to kick the snot out of that foe whose done you a personal wrong.
Of course not all players may see things that way so be aware that when trying to set up such an alliance that things may not work out as you envision them. In a purely mercenary game or one with highly driven plots determined by the players, all of whom might not be on the side of angels, one of them taking the time for some personal sweet revenge isn't that far out of the line. There's more than one classic story of the 'hero' winning through his initial plot only to go back for seconds because of someone that did him a personal wrong in order to finish it. Sometimes the hero doesn't make it out of those situations...
Star Wars Legacy continues to build on the previous issues by expanding the scope and range of the universe with new characters and different viewpoints. Keep the plots of the game wide and far reaching and allow the players to pick their own paths.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Easter Eggs and Other Surprises

In volume 3, we get the name of the Sith master, A'sharad Hett. For those who've been following various other Star Wars books, set in different time lines, this is no stranger to the Star Wars universe. Indeed, by using sith techniques to prolong life and spending time in statis, Darth Krayt has managed to live through the Clone Wars, the movie's time line, and this time line, set over a hundred years after the movies.
This allows the authors to use the expanded universe to its fullest and bring in individuals that the reader may care about. It also allows the authors to use various other trappings and add little so called Easter Eggs all through the series allowing the reader to enjoy the ones they like and skip over those they don't know.
In a role playing game, this has to be done off of previous experiences in the actual game itself. If none of the players are familiar with any of the old Non-Player Characters or haven't played with your gaming group before, bringing out some of the most interesting and well loved characters of the past campaigns as villains will have no shock value and no real emotional impact.
In the 'greater' realm of the shared experience on the other hand, the greater experience of the Dungeons and Dragons game, Wizards of the Coast does this all the time ranging from book titles, to updating magic items, to updating concepts that fall into and out of favor. For example, demons. During second edition, demons and devils were given the boot, the demon lords removed from the game until they were brought back later on, still during second edition, and even allowed players to have a huge potential role in the bringing back of one of the most famous of the big bads, the demon prince of the undead, Orcus himself.
By using the wider mythology of the Dungeons and Dragons game itself, Wizards of the Coast and back in the day, TSR were able to try and bring bridges to gap not only the edition differences, but also the differences in years from when various people may have started playing the game. This allows people who haven't played with one group to still have some background elements in common thanks to the shared background of the game, to share those elements in the game that nether has played before.
When planning out encounters, and using characters that may make multiple apperances, let synergy by your guide. Nihl was one of the Sith that killed Cade's father and cost Cade's mentor his arm. Here, Cade cuts off Nihl's arm. Tit for tat but also synergy in how wounds dealt may come back. Showcase how past actions may be reflected in the game as it continues to unwind.
This doesn't always have to be true though. For example, many characters have a masked identity. This ranges from the modern era of Super Heroes and Pulp Heroes to older heroes like Zorro. What if the players have an ally whose actually an enemy or an enemy that's actually an ally? Masks, methods of preventing detection, and other methods, can go a long way in concealing someone's identity. Give the players a start next time they hire on a torch bearer who is actually the mayor of the town.
For combat, don't forget the social aspects of it. When Cade fights against the Sith master, the Sith taunts Cade numerous ways. When Cade returns the favor, it drives the Sith into a near berserk rage that makes him forgo any style or panache and costs him the fight and drives the Sith lord onto a horrible plot for revenge latter. If the players are able to get under the skin of their enemies, give them some type of bonus. Perhaps the bad guy doesn't use his best attack. Perhaps he only targets one of the players instead of all of them. Perhaps he targets the rogue with the glib tongue even though the fighter gets a free attack by doing so. Don't let the game mechanics dictate everything. Let combat unflow through the use of social and martial methods.
In terms of character opportunities and role playing potential, Cade Skywalker works with the Sith while trying to determine what he is going to do. Doing so is potentially dangerous for anyone as the whole Force and Dark Side bit tends to be addicting. As the Darth master himself notes, "What we pretend to be we often become."
In terms of character planning, the author shows the readers a recuse attempt being crafted and how the characters go through equipment and use their skills to insure that no stone goes unturned. It works well. This is not to say that there should never be an issue, some surprise, some last minute problem that crops up, but if the players are smart and spend the time and resources and back those plans up with the abilities, allow that planning to go through.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Lesser of Two Evils Is Still Evil

Volume Two, Shards brings the reader an Empire torn apart. See, the old Emperor was betrayed by the Sith and civil war tears apart the lands.
So there are numerous factions that the people in the middle may have to deal with, and not all of them are completely dedicated to the cause, some of them not dedicated to the cause at all, and some of them loyal not to an idea or to personal power, but to their allies and personal friends.
In looking at Shards, if the Game Master is not running a dungeon or site based campaign, that campaign needs to have numerous enemies and threats within it to motivate the players. The actions of the players against those various factions can lead to different elements coming into play.
For example, the Skywalker viewpoint here, Cade, is responsible for a jedi being caught and he sees a vision of that jedi being tortured. So now Cade has an oracle inspired mission. Well, not an oracle, but it's something that the Game Master can use, in this case, the Force, to 'nudge' the player along.
In typical fantasy games, the Game Master always has the use of dreams, omens, prophecy, priests, ancient texts, and other things that may tie to a character and that character's recent actions that can be used to spur the party onto the next big thing.
For example, say the party meets and defeats a group of bandits on the road. Unknown to the party, that group of bandits was part of a fallen group of knights being lead by the younger brother of a knight in retirement who now wants vengance against those who've done his family wrong.
Or the party meets a group of bandits on the road and avoids them to betraying their own travelling allies and handing them over to the bandits only to be troubled by visions and dreams that those comrades they've betrayed may have been more important to the party than they initially realized.
When leaving the dungeon, personal motivation, the acts of the characters, the ripples those characters have on the setting, ranging from their backgrounds, weapon choice, career choice, and current methodology, all become tools necessary to keep the campaign flowing.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Living Up To The Legacy

In addition to manga, Dark Horse has long been the comic care taker of the Star Wars property. One of those veins of gold they mine, is the Star Wars Legacy era, 125 years after Return of the Jedi. Over here is a summary and preview of the first collection of legacy comics.
As with all Star Wars comics, one of the first things a Game Master may take from it, for any game, system, or genre, is that apperance matters. When I was a kid, Darth Vader didn't stand out so much because of the high end special effects and fighting sequences, but rather, the visuals that came with him. The bounty hunters like Fett? Ditto.
Giving the main characters a distinctive look will go a long way in ingraining them to the players they must interact with.
In addition, because these are Star Wars comics, even though they are in a different time line, they share many of the same elements.
If your group is looking for a standard game of Dungeons and Dragons and they start off as breaking out of their shells as lizard men in some swamp that has no humans and is a pre historic world with dinosaurs and dragons as the masters, it may be an awesome setting, but it's not what they've signed up for. The elements of the familiar can help the players quickly get into the game. When people look at Dragon Age and claim it has no originality, that doesn't seem to stop it from selling or from people enjoying it immensely. When critics talk about Terry Brooks, Ryamond Feist, or a certain Dennis of being Tolkien copy cats to various degrees, they may be over looking the fact that many people like the 'comfort' food category that these elements fit into.
For players, Star Wars Lgecay has a few words about being a legacy character. "The point is-- I have a legacy, too. And I'm just as trapped by mine as you are by yours. Sometimes I wish I could just change my name-- make a new life...I envy you your freedom but I'm not walking away from my responsibilities."
When looking at a legacy character, is your character like Roy from the dreaded Order of the Stick? Willing to go the distance for the family honor and legacy but going against the wishes of the one who sent him on the path? Is he like Cade from this series? Possessing of the powers and abilities but seeking to surpress them in order to ignore that legacy? How a character interacts with the elements that make up the character's legacy will define the role that the character takes in the campaign.
Legacy characters can be a lot of fun. Like the new Batman, who started off as Robin and moved onto Nightwing, they can represent a logical growth and extension for the character. Like the various comic extensions of Marvel's 2099 line, they can be either inspired by the originals or perhaps even time displaced copies of the original who have a name and title to live up to. When using legacies in the campaign, as either a player or a game master, make it interesting enough so that its fun for the whole gorup without overshadowing eveyrone else.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Enemy Of My Enemy

Berserk 32 picks up with Zodd, an old 'friend' of Guts, literally crashing into him as he's recovering on a dock ward after being knocked out of the sky by the Kushan Emperor.
Guts needs Zodd's wings. Zodd needs Guts sword. Together, they fight crime! Well, not quite but you get the picture. By acting together, the two are able to do what one alone could not and disperse the Emperor's astral being.
In thanks, Zodd allows Guts to walk away from the situation so that he can take care of Casca. This is part of Zodd's personality at times. The willingness to let others recover so that he can face them at full strength. So that the blood thirst he has can be meet at full. This has been shown before, such as when the Skull Knight first dragged Guts out of the Eclipse.
Mind you, this is far different than a healthy opponent fighting Zodd and being injured. Zodd doesn't stop once it gets going.
By having a rich campaign world with multiple elements in it, the Game Master can sometimes put the players in the unenviable position of having to ally with something that they may normally want to attack, in order to overcome something even worse. For example, orcs are probably better to have around than undead. The undead on the other hand, may be better to have around then say demons.
This volume also showcases the benefits of high level characters fighting against minons. While possible for the minions to deal some damage, the higher level characters will often have numerous ways of recovering from minor damage quickly. This is another reason why high level wizards, no, not even wizards, spellcasters in previous editions of Dungeons and Dragons (pre 4e), were a force to be feared. A fireball isn't all that impressive against a large enough force. Control Weather, Earthquake, and other spells being cast that a normal enemy can't really fight against?
It's one of the reasons why pseudo Middle Ages armies tend to be on the low end of the steak against anything 'weird' in the Dungeons and Dragons game. An army versus a dragon for example, probably isn't going to go to well for the army, especially if the dragon has some immunity to non-magical weapons or some innate regeneration. Then yo uget into the whole make up of the army. Are there spellcasters? Are there clerics? Are they psions? When you start peeling back the layers of a fantasy campaign's army, be careful how far you peel. Too far and it's not longer psuedo history.
The volume ends with a show case of Griffith's long term planning coming to a head. After Griffith's Band of the Hawk overcomes a force that was essentially surrounding the city and preparing to destroy it, Griffith plays down his cards.
1. He's a hero of the common people.
2. He's the one who rescued the blood Princess.
3. He's the one with the divine revelation of being the Hawk of Light and is honored as such by the highest of the holy, the pontiff.
Some of these elements have been set up volumes ago and come to fruition here. If the party smartly plans out their actions well in advance and has the proper allies and methodology, the Game Master should give them the fruits of their labor. Nothing is more frustrating then dotting all of your is and crossing all of your ts only to be told that it doesn't work and there's no good reason why it doesn't work.
Allow the players the benefits of their planning. Allow them to reap as they sow. Allow the players to make alliances with those they need to in order to get the job done. Everything should not be smooth as silk, but everything should be possible.

The Spirit of the City

Berserk 31 starts off with the group still trying to get that boat. Surrounded by an invading monstrous force there to lay siege to the various knightly orders of the Holy See brought in from numerous countries.
Guts manages to hold the curse of the Berserk armor off of him for much of the initial fight, giving his witch time to summon up a spirit of the city. Initially, Schierke noted that spirits were harder to reach in the city because most people there looked past magic.
But the city has a spirit of its own, the Burning Wheel. Not, not the RPG, but a spirit of fire that manages to cook all of the enemies about them. She's able to summon this spirit because she's gained experience dealing with these higher level entities while travelling with Guts and his friends.
When that in and of itself doesn't prove enough though, she manages to focus that Burning Wheel spirit right into Guts sword in order to take out another powerful entity. During that fight, the villain screams out, "You've shortened your life!"
In such a situation where the characters can draw upon great power but at a personal cost, think about what you're potentially setting up. If the characters are going to be killed unless they use this power, why wouldn't they use it? At worse they use it and die, just as they would even if they had never used it! At best, they use it, gain some experience with it, and surprise the enemy.
I know in older editions of Dungeons and Dragons, when the haste spell could age you a year per casting, most people in the party didn't want it used on them every fight but they enjoyed having a scroll of it around just in case. The trade off of power versus age was one they were willing to take for the 'big fights'.
Towards the end of this volume, Guts meets the Great Emperor of the Kushan lands. Noting that Guts is human and branded, he offers Guts the opportunity to work for him. Offering a player an opportunity to work with a bad guy can be an interesting opportunity, but at the same time, can present the campaign with its own set of limitations if it's just restricted to a single character. What happens if the player does decide to have the character go off? Do the other players follow? Does the character become an NPC? Does the GM solo that player on a different day and session?
Offering players temptation is always an interesting way to judge their character development but be sure to have a plan B in case the players take that temptation.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Power Seeks Power

In Berserk 30, we start off with a little intra-party conflict that doesn't result in anyone's death, but does showcase some more of the inner personalities of the characters. For example, Isidro, a youth who strives to become a swordsman, doesn't think that Guts and Serpico are fighitng 'for real' but when it turns out they are, he takes a moment of self reflection, perhaps pondering if this is what he really wants.
This is behavior that has been touched on in previous volumes where he has no problem fighting against monsters and stealing from people, but did have a problem with a 'killer instinct' against humans.
We see Serpico worried that Guts and his berserk armor will get his own ward killed.
And we see Guts who perhaps could have killed Serpico instead use the flat of his blade to knock him down.
In several role playing games, one often has the option to do subdual damage to knock an enemy out as opposed to killing them. When players wage war against one another, try and subtly remind them of this option. While there are no laws against players killing one another, it can lead to hurt feelings among the members engaged in the fight and if the group isn't mature about it, then the group has to worry about the new character coming in being out for revenge even though the new character had nothing to do with the old one.
When the group catches up with Farnese, they are surrounded by nobility. In this meeting of nobles, the nobles come under attack and are saved only by Guts and his comrades. When possible, the party members will always try to take the brain out. The enemy should be no different. If power is gathering in one spot, power will be sent to deal with it.
Guts and his crew manage to fight through numerous obstacles and we see new characters come to light. The Holy See is lead by a pontiff, referred to as his holiness. Like many before him, he too had the dream of the hawk of light. And Griffith has sent along Sonia and her duck protector in order to show the holy pontiff the light. This further sets up the stage of the world as a larger and larger place while at the same time, being a power play that doesn't come into the light until later.
As time allows, continue to expand the world the players occupy by expanding the people they know and the people who know the people they know. If a player is a cleric of Tempus, who does he report to in church? Who does that church report to? Is there an overall grand marshal? Are there divine angels who serve the sword of Tempus that the players may one day run into while travelling the planes? Religion often plays a small role in the games despite it playing such a huge role in the era many of these games are based around. While one doesn't necessarily have to 'keep it real' by burning witches and having faiths splinter into numerous cults and sub cults, having more details, titles, rankings, and other mundane information on what memebers of the church actually do can only be helpful if the players ever want that information.
When the players have their gatherings and are of a power in and unto themselves, don't have them forget that bringing together the lord of thieves, the master of blades, the holy hand of the three blind gods, and the last caster of Albion makes them a tempting target for anyone who'd like to proceed with their own plans.

Individual Spotlight In A Group

In Berserk 29 there is some party seperation thanks to the size of the city and the need of the group.
Initially Schierke and her new friend Sonia are on the docks and while not accosted by pirates, a misunderstanding leads them and their allies Isidro and the duck knight to having to fight the pirates and are saved by an unlikely ally whose apperance is known by the readers.
During the fight, we see Isidro who has no problems stealing, fighting strange monsters, wieldling magic items, or even sparring with a swordsman like Guts, not go for the kill against the human pirates while the duck knight has no such problem.
A player's personality and character traits can come out in combat. Because so much of games like Dungeons and Dragons are combat focused, that's indeed where it most often comes out. Are they part of a special order that has a particular loathing for the undead? Do they hate fighting against members of their own race or culture? When you know what the players prefer in the campaign, its easier to customize the battles to both please and antagonize them.
For example, players who hate to fight against paladins may be struck by a sense of befuddlement if they learn some vampire count has an elite carde of paladin knights protecting his castle. But what if those knights are the only thing keeping certain things IN the castle to begin with? Do the players try to fight their way through, work out an arrangement with the paladins or something else?
Latter on in the story, Farnese, who hails from a noble family, feels that she can be of use to the party using those connections. Here, a character whose background hasn't been extensively dwelt on gets more page space and we see her father, mother, and one of the brothers, even as we learn some of the other brothers in details.
These 'side' missions if you will, allow the players to bring up more details and background and allow the Game Master to weave a larger world. For example, the brother Farnese meets, Manifico, has a marriage arrangement for her with Roderick, that turns into an ally, whose utility isn't in his sword play, but in his trade of being a navy man.
Some might groan at how fickle fate is to provide just what is needed when its needed but on the other hand, its partially a reward. The party has made it to the city, the party has done a little snooping and a little shopping and done a little mingling. Unless the goal is to never give the party the means to move on, having events fall into the party's lap is exactly what should happen. Even bad televsion shows like the Seeker know that "there are no coincidences'.
In terms of not keeping the party seperate for long, there are numerous reasons why. Mostly it involves the Game Master having to entertain one person at a time and having other players just sitting there doing nothing. When possible, let the events fall into place naturally but don't be afraid to keep things moving. Idleness, especially if the players aren't really sure where they should be going next, can only hurt the flow of the game.
By the book's end, Guts is on his way for a reunion with Farnese but Guts comes into conflict with Serpico. Guts is a wild card to Farnese and one that Serpico worries will get her killed so he challenges Guts to a sword fight. This is a clear case of player motivation versus party motivation. When not overdone and not resulting in the death of players by players, it can add drama and tension to the session. When playing with an adult group that is more interested in how the story flows than how powerful their characters are, even character death isn't necessarily a bad option if it flows organically.
But as the fight gets started, it's apparent that Serpico has lead Guts into a position of strength for himself. The so called Forest of Pillars within a colonnade chamber with little space between the columns with a large number of them. This works to his advantage because Guts wields a huge blade. It also continues to showcase how quickly and easily Serpico uses the terrain and the unknown to his advantage. Keep the terrain a part of the combat itself and keep the players wondering what utility they can gain out of it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Stealing Stealing Everywhere

Sometimes it's important to note why something has impacted us the way it has. Sometimes we can take positive lessons from it and sometimes ways to avoid negative lessons.

I've mentioned before that I think crafting a good story is important in writing a good adventure. Mind you a dungeon crawl can be an excuse to throw the min-maxed characters into the dank darkness and have at thee so to speak, but even big dungeon crawls like Pyramid of Shadow try to throw character, plot, and other 'writing' elements into the mix.

But what does that have to do with the title? While this blog entry here isn't meant for a role playing game, I'd be a little surprised if a Game Master didn't agree with the majority of it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

To Protect or to Contend?

Berserk 28 brings Guts face to face with the Skull Knight again. The readers at this point know a little more than Guts does at who or what the Skull Knight is. This mysteriousness allows Kentaro to use the Skull Knight in various ways and while Guts thanks him at this point, he, much like the reader, doesnt' know what the Skull Knight's end game is.
Here, the Skull Knight warns Guts that continuing to wear the armor will continue to have greater and greater consequences. "Color fades from the eyes, the tongue loses teaste, shivering plagues the fingertips... Each time you wear that armor and fight as the berserk, light, voice, warmth, you will come to lose many things."
And the ole Skull Knight knows all of this because he once wore the armor. Still in his role as Guide, the Skull Knight informs Guts that there will be apostles soon and they may be lead by Griffith but Guts will be unable to take the fight to Griffith if he wants to heal Casca, whose still insane after her ordeal many volumes ago.
This is where the title of the column comes from this time. The Skull Knight notes that to protect or to contend comes from. Guts can either follow his heart's desire to fight Griffith or to fight that desire and do what many would consider the right thing and protect Casca. But it's even more as Guts learns that it's not just protection, but if he gets her to Puck's elf land home, she can be cured of her insanity. But that may not be all that Guts wants as if cured, her desire may not be the same as his own...
Here, one of the character's own background as a herald of arms comes into his own as the group enters Vritannis, a leading trade city, Serpico throws down some quick information on no less than five different countries troops that all have the Holy See in their lands. The Holy See would most resemble some fantasy version of Christianity with the religion being in several different countries, all of whom might not always be on friendly terms, but when invaded by an outside force with an outside religion, are capable of pulling together.
Guts on the other hand, acts as a guide as to how mercenaries gather their troops. By having the leader make a direct 'sales pitch', the mercenaries get to see what shape the leader is in. Guts throws out the following observations.
Does he look dependable?
Does he look wealthy?
Does he get on well with the soldiers?
"Mercenaries aren't patriots or chapions of some great cause. It's all about earning enough to eat. Strength is the rule for a mercenary band, but first you gotta see if the boss if on your side or the employer's."
Here the book stumbles a little. Some recall Griffith, but no one recalls Guts, the captain of the Raider's? Even more ironic is Isidro being inspired by Gut's hundred man kill, but not knowing Guts name. It's a little flub in that it seems everyone would know but if pressed, it's understandable. Years have passed, Guts was never seen enjoying the limelight but rather enjoying training, and the kingdom in which he earned his nick name is in shambles.
The book also showcases a few things in brief. The spirits of the dead, invisible to all those who are used to the hustle and bustle of city live, are trapped here. Condemed because they were slaves of the wrong race when war broke out, their spirits linger.
Next, it showcases that despite having magic laws, that there is not just one way for magic to work. Schierke encounters Sonia who is able to sense things like souls, the strange nature of the apostles, and other things that border on well, psychic as opposed to magic.
This works well in a role playing game environment. For example, the old Rolemaster was traditionally broken into three methods of magic;
Channelling: Taking divine energy and well, channelling it through you.
Psychic: Magic based psionics.
Essence: Essentially gathering the flow of energy, much like the force, and turning it into say, Lightning Bolts.
As the game line expanded, there were other bits.
Psionic: Taken straight out of good old Space Master.
Elementalism: Energy from the elemental realms.
Arcane: Prior to the split of magic into the three original forms, magic was more raw, perhaps more powerful, and perhaps more difficult to use.
In other words, if it can fit into the campaign and isn't overbalancing, why not say yes? Different methods of magic can work great in making one culture different from another just as spell selection within a magic school can work to make one branch of study different than another.
Keep the options open and allow the players to have multiple paths but don't be afraid to remind them that they may not be able to master all the paths they seek to.

Curse of the Berserk Armor

Berserk 27 showcases what a cursed item can be. First off, look at the cover here. Notice that the experience of using it has given Guts a white streak.
Inside, Guts is essentially consumed by the armor's persona, becoming an engine of rage and carnage. Defense? No needed. Defending others who can't fight the same foes? Not needed.
Guts is pulled out of this trap by his new comrade, a young female witch known as Schierke. She sends her astral self into the armor and it's a place of pain and anguish. It showcases how Gut's ego is almost dissipated into the armor's curse.
This gives the reader a first hand visual of what is going on in the cursed item.
If in your campaign you're using a cursed magic item, what does it feel like when the curse takes place? Is the user trapped in his own head like Kyle was during his episode as Parallax? Is the person's personality destroyed as Gut's almost is? Does the person have no memory of the actions done as Elric when he accidentally slays his friends while in a feeding frenzy for his soul stealing sword Stormbringer?
What about the visual of the item? Guts Berserk armor initially does not resemble it's final form. This form is an combination of the initial Berserk armor and Gut's own personal hell hound that's been haunting him for several issues. The helm looks like a wolf's face with sharp teeth and the arm is
Another defining point of the armor, is that it doesn't stop. As Guts is walking along the beach, he notices a trembling of his hand. More powers of the armor?
Next up, villain motivation. With Griffith back to the real world, it would seem all of the Apostles follow him. Wrong. There is one, conviently, the leader of the Kushan army invading Midland, who figures, "To hell with him. I've got the largest empire in the world and he's going to have to fight me for domination of the world." It's a good show case that not all bad guys get along together even if they're from the same race and breed. There's always someone who wants more and is willing to fight for it.
It also showcases that even for those who serve, there may be a turning point. A young price of an exiled clan of assassins is shown that his ruler, the emperor of the Kushan empire, is breeding demonic forces in a manner that no human could endorse. Since this young exiled prince is human, it calls into question his future loyalty. Will he continue to serve in some vain attempt to please this mad demon king emperor or ?
Keep things moving in the game. Don't be afraid to showcase the power and peril of magic items and how they can continue to effect the user long after he thinks the item's worst spells are over.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Do You Have What It Takes to be a Ninja Assassin?

Below I'll be discussing Ninja Assassin and this will include spoilers so if you want not spoilers for this movie, read no further!

Weapons with style: The Kyoketsu shoge is a blade attached to a chain. With it, the main character, Raizo, is essentially, what 4e would call a martial controller with a secondary roll of striker. The weapon gives him range, enables him to target multiple foes at one time, and its most masterful utility is that it looks impressive.

Much like Bruce Lee did with Nunchucks back in his day, Raizo does with the Kyoketsu shoge in this film.

It's about having the characters, both good and bad, have weapons that can quickly identify them to the players and to each other. When they see the soldiers with the broad swords and hilts resembling wings, they know what army they're fighting. When the players see a shadowy figure launch out with the spiked cahin, they know most likely it's their old ally. Keeping things on a visual medium allows a quick connection between material and player.

In terms of motive, at first, it may seem that it's all about revenge, but it is? Raizo endured a hellish training. He endured watching the woman he loves leave him. He endured watching her murdered in front of him. He took his first mission with well, vigor might be best to describe it. It's only when he's put in a situation identical to the one that cost his love her life, that he decides to turn against his 'family'.

This could be seen about being pushed too far and finally, pushing back. And it's not just a murderous streak either. He wants the authorities to take them down, and he wants to save people while doing it. This is a bit more than the loner out only for revenge.

Next up, turning assumptions on their head. During the movie, Raizo is captured by the authorities and warns them of the impending ninja attack. Suffice it to say, it goes down much like the Aliens versus the Marines at first with the soldiers being hindered by a black out and by the narrow space they fight in. Having lots of firepower in an enclosed space against a team highly trained to use melee and short ranged weapons? Not a good combination.

However, it turns the invicible ninja theory on its head when latter on the government forces, who when they stay out in the open, are able to use superior firepower to mow down the enemy.

This also showcases another old problem with many genres and mediums. Alone, a ninja seems invicible. In groups? They die in droves. In Marvel Comics, depending on number, brand, and who they're righting, the X-Men's old foes, the Sentinels are exactly the same one. One may tackle the whole team but as a group? Pitiful. They go down like dominos. In 4e, this can easily be represented by the minion rules. In earlier editions, these weak ones are just different monsters with the same apperance. A little more leg work for say, 3rd edition, but not that hard if you're reskinning things by now.

The enemy organization; In this case, the ninja clan of the black sand uses a sealed envelope of black sand that is sent to the target. They consider themselves one family. The members are rasied by the 'father' and are all orphans. This allows any thing that falls outside what the father wants to be against the family and tends to destroy individualism in these groups. They also, of course, have unique clothing, weapons, and ninja powers, such as the ability to move in shadows and apparently teleport form shadow to shadow.

There is also the use of foreshadowing here. The start of the movie shows a group of, perhaps yakuza thugs, with the leader getting a tattoo. The tattoo artists notes that when the thug opens up a package of black sand, that they will all die, and the he should already be dead, but his heart is on the wrong side. This whacky science comes back at the end of the film when one of the main character's whose been stabbed fatally in the heart... yes, has her heart on the wrong side.

In terms of the main character, he showcases a lot of similiarites to the hero Guts from Berserk in some ways. For one, he's almost more interested in killing his enemy then he is in preserving his own life. In two of his big fights with the clan, he's decimated. These encounters, and his harsh training, have left Raizo a man criss crossed with scars. In addition, when he gets into fights, he's not some untouchable phantom, but rather, is slashed and cut like anyone else, adding more scars to him. The character, especially during the last scenes, exudes a sense of grim determination that is reinforced by his grizzled apperance.

Ninja Assassin is far from an art flick. It's razor thin on plot and story. It is however a stylish film whose action sequences you'll want to incorporate into your own game and curse when a rules heavy engine prevents things from moving as smoothly as they do in the film.

The Berserk Armor

Berserk 26 provides Guts with his power up. Now since he's not going to get rid of his sword, what else is there?
Most characters can be defined in game terms by how hard they hit and how hard they are to hit. Guts has some great armor crafted by a master smith, but it is still only human armor.
Here, the title comes into play again, Berserk, as he's giving, the Berserk armor. Now in the past, we've seen the title referred to as part of Guts standard fighting style. We've seen the title as part of Guts being possessed. Now we see it as a magic item that Guts gains.
But the item is both beneficial and harmful. See, it doesn't care how injured you are and it doesn't actually patch you up, it merely allows you to keep fighting.
In many ways, this type of armor is perfect for Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition. As a minor action, it would allow a user to burn off a healing surge and keep the user fighting to the point of death. However, if there are no active foes around, the user must make a save or attack the nearest creature, even if it's a comrade. It would also have to have a high enchantment but the bonus of the armor is minor compared to the ability to keep fighting. In 4th ed, the healing surges represent every ability to recover, but usually they have to be burned off with help like from a cleric or warlord. The ability to burn through your own healing surges makes the armor very powerful but once it's done, it's done. There are no extra points off life to keep going.
On another venue, the book continues to explore perception. Here, Grunbeld, the draogn night, battles a very weakened Guts and is vastly disappointed that Guts proves to be so weak. Expectations versus reality. What are the players expecting to fight against what they are fighting. It works both ways though. If a dragon goes all out on the party using allies, minions, traps, and the environment to best the party, it may think the party weak. When the party gets the dragon on their terms, they may be able to show the monster the error of its ways.
And lastly, a look at motivation again. If the players understand the motivation of those they're battling, it makes it easier for the players to relate and see how things work in that manner. For example, Grunbeld, despite being a monster, much like Zodd, wants the thrill of fighting an equal. He wants to showcase his loyalty to Griffith. In this case, that's by attacking an old woman in a remote forest. But by having a chance to cross weapons with Guts? Makes it all worth it.
Earlier, Guts encounters one of the five angels. The female member of the God Hand, Slan, materializies in the lower reaches to toy with Guts, she does so because of her fascination with him and his ability to survive on hate and fear and pain. However, she also enjoys the pain and agony that comes to herself when fighting someone like Guts. Being a member of the God Hand, merely having her physical form destroyed though is no guarantee of her destruction and hence, may in part expalin her love of pain, both her own and others.

Berserk 25 puts the newly empowered group that has gathered around Guts with their new items against trolls.
These trolls are not like standard trolls we see in games like Dungeons and Dragons. For one, they are short. Perhaps as tall as a teen. But they're bulky, like dwarves. And fur covered. And... and... and...
In short, nothing like standard Dungeons and Dragons trolls.
There is also an ogre. Once again, nothing like the standard Dungeons and Dragons ogre. Not a big hairy stupid looking man, but a monstrous entity whose bone proportions are way off and whose head is completely inhuman in it's shape and use.
If you're using a home brew setting, you can do stuff like this all the time. You can customize the world to your characters and setting. If you're running the standard rules though, make sure to inform the players that you've made a lot of changes to the campaign setting and not to expect the same old thing. That you, as the Game Master, will tell them what their players know of opposition meet.
This can be useful in that it cuts down the players who already know everything from playing the game for years, if not decades. However, as useful as it is to the Game Master to leverage surprise and newness among the group, it can be frustrating for those who've spent years gathering this lore to have it suddenly rendered useless. Try to gauge how the party members are reacting to the world.
Readers also learn a bit about the cosmology of the setting. Like the dreaded real world, the mainland church here has managed to incorporate many bits of older religions into itself. Doing so has essentially muted those old names and powers and requires efforts to gather those resources back. Divine lords of the elements become archangles for example. Churchs are built atop old religious sites in order to deny them to the 'pagans'. This shows a richness of history that runs parallel to the real world and showcases how events in the real world can be mirrored in your fantasy setting.
One of the things that 4e brought a little more back into focus is how the Fey Realms overlap the world. What if they're not the only ones? In this volume, with Casca and Farnese both captured by trolls, the party has to search for them. During that time, as they descend into caves, the caves become stranger and stranger and the insects and animals that might be found in such a spot more and more bizzare. Turns out that due to the event of Griffith coming back, the barriers between worlds are thin and all it takes is a wrong turn to end up in a place like Qliphoth.
This is "The Astral World's Region of Darkness." The spellcaster here notes that ethereal bodies tend to gravitate toward ods of the same nature. In essence, like attracks like. It makes a lot of sense in most Dungeons and Dragons settings too as that's usually what happens in the different planes.
It's hard to describe the bizzar nature of Qliphoth and it's inhabitants as visualized here. This is another huge benefit to Berserk being in a manga form. The artists, Kentaro Miura, is top notch. In the old western comics, I'd compare his style to George Perez. Seeing the weirdness that pours of of Kentaro's mind on paper makes it a lot easier to describe to your players by simply using the old copy machine for personal use.
Finally, the book ends off on a cliff hanger. This is a good reminder that the end of a campaign session should accomplish something in and of itself. For example, at the end of a massive battle where everyone is tired and weary, having the characters safety reach home is one option. For another, having the party be out on the road and have an encounter and ending it there? That's another option.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Power Up

Berserk 24 brings us to a different point in the series. While there has been a lot of 'evil' magic and monsters roaming about the world, there hasn't been any counter point to them. It might be a question that a noisy player asks, "why haven't the monsters taken over everything?"
To be fair though, the monsters do have a lot of power in this setting. In the first few volumes, the ones Guts was fighting were nobles, rulers even.
But still, why not? It might be that there are magic users but as in many forms of sword and sorcery, they tend to rely on ritualized magic and they tend to remain hidden away from a world that at times fears and shuns them and at other times demands their services.
In this installment, we have another guide for Guts. Like the Skull Knight, this is an individual whose experiences with magic and history we don't know, but based on the information here, it comes out that the witch has almost sage like capacity to answer questions.
Sages are a long used method of getting players particular information. At times they are also useful for spurring the party onto new quests.
In this instance, because Guts ans his allies are going to be helping the witch, the witch in turn provides them with a few items of power tied into the elements. Guts ironically enough, declines, wishing to stay with his dragon slayer blade. He finds it easier to use.
This is another thing to think about when playing. Are the players prepared for what's coming around the corner? By giving them a boost in power, the game master could be saying a few things.
1. I've screwed up. You guys are only alive because of excellent team work and power selection.
2. It's time. The campaign has reached a point where you'll need these standard items to move on.
3. It's really time. The campaign has reached a point where you'll need these above standard items to move on and possibly survive.
The latter is a bit of a 'no guts no glory' thing but it's fairly common, especially in older editions of Dungeons and Dragons where a low to mid level party may stumble across something like Black Razor, a soul devouring sword, in their travels.
When possible, make the items something that can advance with the players. In some systems like Hero, that might be as simple as adding more points to the item at a latter date. In others like Dungeons and Dragons, you may want to allow the item to grow in power with the players, changing the item's level as the character levels goes up. If you do that, keep in mind that you've increased this item's level and ability and to take that away from future magic item treasure drops.
Magic items can add a lot of personality to a campaign and the types of items you provide can make the game more unique or make it more of the same. Choose wisely.

Killing Armies and Taking Names

Berserk 23 is a nice showcase into how much of a basket case Guts actually is. Not that this should be surprising to anyone whose read this far mind you.
It does provide fertile ground though, for having that 'other voice', the one that subtly nudges a character to do things that might not exactly be heroic in the name of getting the job done.
It also showcases the strain of trying to achieve two goals at one time. In Guts case, it's protecting Casca or going after Griffith. He's bound to Casca but oh does he want to get Griffith.
There are also things going on outside of Guts that influence him. For example, in this series, incubi haunt dreams. They take the mind and twist it into things that it probably shouldn't be. Take the most extreme things and force themselves into the forefront of the mind.
And because of the Brand itself, Guts is under constant attack. And sometimes that attack is not just a physical attack. The spirits and hosts of undead can also possess an individual and make them do horrible things. Was it the spirits? Was it the dark dreams? Was it just lack of self control?
Another battle showcases a group of the new Band of the Hawk. They're all high level apostles but here, in human form, they're like heroes. No, more like super heroes. They spur through an army like a hurricane. In many ways, this is what a high level group of adventurers is like when facing lower level opposition. The enemy can't hit the characters. When they do hit, it's for relatively minor damage. The characters can pull tricks out of their bag that these low level entities may never have even heard of.
And... if the characters have earned their power honestly, then this is the way it should be. Even in a game like Warhammer where it's a bit more grim and gritty, a character on his fourth career, especially with several other allies on their fourth careers, is going to mow through most standard opposition like orcs, goblins, and even humans. It's just the nature of the beast of increased toughness, attacks, and strength. These factors allow one hit kills. Mind you the open ended nature of damage may turn that around but in the meantime....
Lastly, when recruiting armies, think about how its done. In this volume, there are two methods given note. The first is that captured prisoners are turned against their former countrymen. This is a demoralizing tactic but could easily backfire. Espeically if the players are part of the captured. The second is captured prisoners in a similiar manner, but if they survive three engagements, they can either go free of join the army and earn promotion and rank like anyone. This works well when fighting against rival armies that are composed from many different nations and may not have a single unifying leader for the entire army. Perhaps some of those from one nation hate another so much that they'd be willing to join another army.
Lastly, don't forget the common folk for bringing characters more information. In this case, the group learns from a shepherd provides the group details as he tends his flock.
Allow the characters to claim as much action as they want but remember that they'll never know everything and may still have to rely on the common folk for the coming and goings of various events.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Stealing Names and History

Berserk 22 starts off with Guts and Griffith having a meeting atop a hill. Ricket, under the guidance of Gordo, fashioned swords for practice and used them as grave markers for this hill of swords.
A site like this lends itself up to a few possibilities. First off, there is the creation of the site itself. A single man honoring his comrades has a resonance that can be felt wither the event just happened or happened hundreds of years ago.
Second, it's a potentially dangerous place to fight. Guts, not really happy to see Griffith again, charges at his old leader only to be stopped by Zodd. As the two fight on the hill, through the swords about them, Guts uses his old infamous Sunder attack on Zodd's sword, just as he did when they first meet, only to have Zodd reach down and grab one of the nearby swords to augment his fighting style, which is countered by Guts kicked up one of the swords managing to wound Zodd.
This maze of swords can be used as something like a skill challenge where you can inflict an extra dice of damage on the enemy or replace a broken weapon.
The thing I was thinking of though, would be what if you were a wounded soldier holding a magical sword and needed a place to hide it? Now I know it's a bit of a cheat since players can always use detect magic or other means, but placing the sword among the other swords already out could at least slow down just yanking it off of the soldier.
Another element here is that of the Nemesis. While the word initially has a mythological context to it, depending on its context, it can mean a long term enemy. Zodd and Guts have crossed swords before and as the end of this fight showcases, may do so again.
In a fantasy RPG, especially one like Dungeons and Dragons or Rolemaster, where almost everything earned in terms of experience to gain levels, is a direct result of killing things and taking their stuff, it can be hard to have a single nemesis. On the other hand, there are things that can be done to make a 'feel' for a Nemesis.
One, the foe is just that much stronger than the player. This allows the first fight to be one in which the player probably won't win and perhaps even in the second fight.
Two, the foe is actually an organization. This can be a family that has a grudge against the players or can be a cult that the players have thwarted. To give it a personal feel, the GM should have someone at the head of the organization or family that the players know is in charge and is continuously putting them in danger, but can't actually do anything to physically harm that individual. It might make them think of ways outside the box to harm the individual such as pooling their money and trying their hand at the game of finances, trying to bring ruin to the individual in that manner, or for those groups which have bards or other social types such as nobles, using a slow and sure methodology of destroying that person's reptuation.
Three, the foe is essentially immortal. In Marvel comics, Ultron is a robot that returns again and again and unlike many comic book foes, each time he's defeated, it's apparently permanent. But by being a robot in the first place, the writers are able to use any old excuse around to bring him back. In a game like Dungeons and Dragons where there are spells like Wish, Clone, Reincarnate, and now in 4e, rituals, not to mention the various templates and ideas that can be applied to a dead individual, such as coming back undead, demonic, etc..., it could be easy to bring someone back from the dead in some form or another. Heck, have the players meet a warrior they thought dead come back as a half-golem!
The trick though, is to make the nemesis someone the players want to fight again even if their characters don't necessarily want to fight again. A lame nemesis can be good in a game like say Paranoia but unless the group is enjoying it, just brings down the mood. In addition, the appearance of the nemesis should count for something. When first introduced, Zodd is the herald that the world is not normal. That there are things larger and more monstrous beyond the ken of mortal men. In his second apperance, it's just before the Eclipse where Griffith sacrifices the band of the hawk. In his third apperance, it's to prevent Guts from attacking Griffith. This indicates to Guts at least, that there are things going on that he has no clue about. Note that these apperances are as they pretain to what the character, Guts knows.
Next up, powerful Non-Player Characters. There are times when reading online forums, I have to wonder why the players are even bothering to play. They try and nit pick apart all things at all times. In this volume, Griffith leads... well, is present at a counter attack as the invading army of Midland learns that the Apostles are not to be trifled with. Each one of these aposltes appears as a great warrior, some of them of some reknown. But we as the readers haven't seen any of them before.
This can easily happen in a RPG. The scope of the game, as in the scope of the comic, has to be on the here and now and can be expanded. To continuously question why the character's wouldn't know of this 'Dragon Knight' or Locus, the Moonlight Knight. And the short answer is that they didn't exist before. The long answer, depending on the circumstance, is that they were thought dead, retired, from another country, etc.. etc... etc... This is another case where the longer and more forward thinking the Game Master can be in terms of whose who in the campaign, and introduce at least the names and deeds of those individuals, that they appear as more than just upstarts when they first make their apperance.
However, the Game Master must keep that door open for the players as well. For example, in this volume we get some more background information on Lady Farnese and Serpico. In many ways, these two might be players. Why then after they've been introduced do we need this background now? Where did it come from?
As a player, I'd be lying if I didn't say sometimes I just want to play and think of the background latter if at all. I like to see how the character evolves through paly. On the other hand, there are times when I have a definitive idea for my character and write out a brief background on it. If a character presents background details that don't clash with the campaign, or if he presents information that can be incorporated into the campaign and actually make it a fuller, more weighty campaign, then the Game Master should allow it.
Even if it's the exact same thing that the players are crying about, history and characters bursting forth into the scene that didn't exist before, it has the same effect in making the game fuller.
Keep the locations interesting. Use the nemesis sparringly. Keep ideas of long term character introductions at the start of the game and be prepared for the players to ambush you with background at any time.

And That's Why The Players Are the Heroes

Berserk 21 brings Guts more conflict with a wide array of foes and a resurrection of the one who tried to sacrifice him.
But more importantly than that, Guts has a few scenes where he's showcasing some important differences between those that do and those that wish. Between those that take that action and initative, and those that want others to take that action.
"All they do is pray. Every last one of them. When the fire's under their own ass all any of them do is bow down. Tens of thousands of people shouldn't cling to just one woman."
Kentaro writes.. He stands without retreating in the midsts of this overwhelming nightmare. The one and only thing that is certain.
These two bits illustrate one of the things I've tried to mention about how players might be preceived. They're the ones that do things. While they don't control the world, while they have nemesis and enemies and allies, it is the player's actions which should stand out to the players.
The scenarios and situations that the Game Master designs should be based around the actions of the players. If the players are asking why the NPC isn't doing it, why are they asking? Is the NPC so obviously capable? Is the mission so far beneath them? Try to build bits out of what the characters have done and the players won't have to worry about getting jobs from patrons in low key taverns but will instead be seeking out NPCs in order to further their own goals.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Go Big or Go Home

Berserk 20 is the image of previous events, the great eclipse from the old volumes 12-14 happening again in a similiar manner.
This means bad things for a lot of people but it does it in a big way.
For example, Guts normally has to fight one apostale at a time. But during that original configuration that wasn't true and here, it's also not true. Lots of big bads coming from left and right.
The tower itself falls pray to the "current of causality" as it crumbles due to internal battles and external forces and comes to resemble the God Hand's initial launching point of a huge five fingered hand.
The people who sought shelter within? Fodded for the maddness about.
And Guts? The hero strives on, as he did previously, but once again, seemingly helpless to prevent the sacrifice.
Here we see huge things happening in the scope of the series. An ancient tower falling, a whole city worth of people devoured by darkness, and the plot line for future stories that won't start taking place till say... volume 33 and up, coming to fruition.
When the players are of a high level, make the scope of the game larger and make their actions have direct impact on it.

Try and Try and Try Again

Berserk 19 reminds me of the old Billy Joel Shaver song, "Try and Try Again."
Guts is out to save Caska.
He starts off by interrupting a whipping about to take place. Once again playing the part of the lone stranger.
Then has to deal with cultists. And this time, due to Casca's presence and nightfall, where here brand acts up, the Cultists get a signifcant power boost. Remember what I've mentioned about having those templates ready for skinning purposes.
When reunited with Casca, he doesn't have time to enjoy it and must rely on others to take care of her... which leads to Casca being captured by the Holy Chain Knights and to the next arc where Guts must prevent her from being burned at the steak.
But what does that mean for the game?
In terms of the background, the characters, continuing to have them act towards the players based on the players actions and have them continue to absorb new facts about the players. For example, when Guts last met the Holy Iron Knights, he was in no shape to fight and they took him down with relative ease. They try to repeat this tactic with expected results.
In addition, things that are unknown, people will try to explain with the known. When the cultists come under the possession of demons thanks to Casca's brand, no one jumps to the conclussion that it's a supernatural posession. No, rather, they would all prefer to believe that it's a cultists drug they take that augments their strength and endurance to monstrous levels. Sound familiar? It should. It's the same reasoning that the old Arnold movie where he's featured as a mechanical assassin was used. Something along the lines of "yeah, cocaine is a hell of a drug."
People prefer to believe in what they know and won't take in new facts until they are explained again and again to them. When they have a plausible expalantion, they'll cling to it. If the players are on the know and can convince others what's going on, those NPCs may come to rely on the players for their ability to see things as they truly are, not how they wish them to be.
Lastly, let the players take advantage of situations that they come across. Here, Guts winds up fighting a swordsman whose skill, perhaps not as skilled as Guts, but who uses terrain in a huge way to prevent Guts from using his sword. If the players, or the monsters for that matter, can put the terrain to good use, such as on crumbling ledges, or icy floors, allow them to do so. It allows the combats to be more organic and keeps things moving.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Not So Innocent Bystander

Berserk 18 starts off by using an old stand by of role playing games and fantasy novels (and probably Westerns as well.)
Guts comes into conflict with an invading force by merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time and we the readers, are introduced by Isidro, a youth whose skills apparently include stealing and wishing to be the world's strongest swordsman.
Guts saves Isidro and this is a common method of introducing new plot points or quests in a game. How often have we seen the old man on the side of the road being attacked or having the heroes approaching home only to notice fires in the distance?
It's old hat but it works and if not overused, it shouldn't strain the players to take the bait.
The series also continues to showcase how evil people can be... 'good'. For example, the clerics in this particular setting are some of the dark examples of heretic hunters, putting many to the rack and death. Several of these individuals that follow the Father, are unique in apperance, 'freaks' in some people's eyes. But the Father has taken them in and given them food, shelter, and at the very least, the comarderie of each other. This binds them to the Father like iron chains in a bond that will not be broken , regardless of what they do in that service even though when not punishing heretics, they don't seem to be of the "enjoying evil for evil's own sake".
If the game master can find a way to show case individual elements that are normal, things that everyone does, such as enjoying time with a pet or telling tales around a table, it gives the players another dimension of those they battle to consider.
Next up, how about some cult action? Here we see a few things at work. First off, is the use of drugs and sex to act as binding agents of loyalty to those who are in the cult. Those who won't partake of these 'joys' are not members. It's an old trick of sorts where you make everyone take part of the guilt. By doing this, you bind those who are in your cause to you with the same guilt. It's similiar to say, how a movie like Lord of War has Cage's character become closer to an arms buyer who does him a favor and has Cage kill a man whose killed one of Cage's family. The ties that bind...
But beyond the physical, there is the potential spiritual. During the rituals of drugs and sex, there is a vision of a goddess with fiery wings in the flames. She bears a remarkable resemblance to one of the God Hand, indicating that there is more than just the standard events going on here.
Another old stand by used here is the fall from a great height that "no one could survive!" It's been used at least once before in Berserk and it's one of the classics, good for both players and non-player characters. No body may mean that they're not dead. Something that players, especially seasoned ones, will well be aware of so don't overuse it.
Lastly... bait and switch. The cover is a clear indication of Guts getting ready to battle the Immortal God of the Battlefield, Zodd, with Griffith behind him. Nothing of that sort appears in the actual tale. A clear case of bait and switch. Player's often don't like it, so use the old bait and switch with care if at all.

Subtle and Not So Subtle Reminders

This volume of Berserk takes us to the halfway point of what's been published for the series.
This time around, we start with Guts as a prisoner.
This is a tough thing to pull off well in a role playing game. Unless you're going to dedicate a lot of time and resources into making a lot of interesting places and people for the characters to meet, such as in the video game, Escape From Butcher Bay , where the escape itself is the adventure, it's best to just do what the author does here.
Have an immediate getaway.
After resting and recovering, Guts is able to get away from these individuals because he's a much more powerful character than those around him for the most part. He's able to do so because he's the star of the story. He's able to do so, because it keeps the story flowing.
Now during his escape, he takes a female, Lady Farnese, captive, reversing the roles they just had. During this escape, his brand summons the nightly horrors and they take possession of wild dogs. Another case of having a 'skinning' ready to go. If you've got a lot of monster stats that you'll need frequently, having some descriptive terms ready for whatever you decide the monsters are for that enounter, can make things go much faster.
In terms of role playing opportunities, something happens or almost happens that reminds Guts of how he got his brand, lost his eye, hand, and woman. It's enough to make Guts follow the title. In terms of the actual game, if the GM keeps notes on significant events in the campaign, he can allude to those events by having similiar, if not exact events, happen again. This theme of repetition can lead to reinforcing behaviors of the players for both the good and the bad.
Dreams are also used as an oracle of the future. People see the various horrors of the land, plague, earthquakes, invasion, and other events, all being pushed aside by the return of the Hawk of Light.
In addition, while investigating a city overrun by plague, one of the former allies of Griffith runs into an old man who hasn't abandonded the city and this allows the old man to act as a mouth piece as to what's going on here. By placing an individual of low worth, one without gems, jewelry, or a high xp value in the player's path, the GM can provide the players with quick roadside information that they may need for future sessions.
Another method of providing options for future campaign seeds is provided with a group of standing stones. Because these stones are of a magical nature, Guts brand won't attract the horrors of the night. However, it does allow another visitor to provide Guts with information that his commander, Casca, is heading for another sacrifice.
This starts Guts on the way home in several ways. The blacksmith who forged his weapons is astonished at the damage they've taken. Even with the high quality, it's a sign of the quality of foes he's fought. Having players have to do a lot of boring maintenance on their weapons can be boring, but pointing out the wear and tear on their arms and armor every now and again and having them seek out a high quality black smith to repair said weapons can be a quest in and of itself.
The black smith, Gordo, is also dying of old age. This is not a common fate for anyone in most role playing games, but using it to showcase a personality flaw or trait of an older character that the players may know and respect, may force them to think about why their characters act the way they do, for good or for ill. Ironically enough, despite the black smith's initial sayings, Gordo acts true to his own nature even in his illness, recasting Guts weapons at the cost of his little remaining health, telling his apprentice to tell Guts to not end up like him.
Keep your options for providing the characters with information open. Don't be afraid to remind them of what they've done and what options they have in the future. Keep the player's aware that death can strike at any time but that the future is worth fighting for.