Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Various Perils of Power

In Berserk 16, Guts manages to acheive some victories and taste defeat.
But how does that effect your game?
I'll mention NPC motivations again. Here, the entity that Guts has been battling, a semi-elf demonic child, has only one friend and puts herself in danger time and time again to save that friend. This is a fact that does not go unnoticed by Guts who puts this knowledge to good use.
This is a bit of tit for tat though. Players often have friends, family, and other contacts that the Game Master can weave plots around, often by having something horrible happen to those individuals to drag the players into the new session. Turn about is fair play.
If the Necromancer King is reknown for his love of a captured princess, rescuing her before launching the all out assault may make the Necromancer King more prone to seek up close and personal revenge, forsaking guards and other protection that the players would have to spend precious resources on. It doesn't have to be something so obvious as that, but if the NPCs have things they care about and are willing to sacrifice for, it acts as a good lead for the players to follow.
There is a brief pause in the action as we see the old Skull Knight, an ally of sorts to Guts who moves through the battlefield collecting his own trophies. If possible, think about doing some sort of interlude for the players so they have an idea of the wider scope of the world. It doesn't necessarily have to involve something they're directly involved in at that exact moment nor does it have to be something they know about, but it should be painting a larger picture for the players to understand some of the other factors going on in the campaign.
Lastly, Guts is wounded from his fight. Badly wounded. In comics, it's fairly common to see a super hero take out someone near or above his power level and then at a weakened state, get taken out. Sometimes, as with Batman and Bane's first encounter, it's by an adversary who is normally equal to the character.
Othertimes... not so much. In this case, Guts encounters what would be spoiled nobles playing at being knights who have two individuals with talent with them. Were he at full strength, he'd be able to blast through them. However, as weak and wounded as he is, they manage to score a victory.
This isn't necessarily important, but it does showcase that if players aren't able to marshal their resources, they may face the shame of being defeated by entities much weaker than they are. Sometimes however, that might be a good thing. For example, it can lead to the introduction of new characters that can act as new sources of information. Or in some cases, if the party has been split up or players have suffered character death, it can even act as a pool for new characters to emerge from.
Keep the overall scope of the campaign moving even as you continue to challenge those players, especially those that waste vital resources.

No Children's Tales Here

At this point in the manga, Dark Horse has moved well beyond the cartoon.
The series continues to showcase things that every good game master should involve themselves in.
First off, world building. Here we learn the story of Peekaf, a child with strange ears and red eyes who teased as a youth, runs away to find the elves only to discover that the elves cured him as a baby and left side effects. He runs home only to discover that time flows differently in the fey lands and his parents are long dead.
This is a small tale but showcases some common themes of loss and regret, of giving up what you already have for something you may never acheive. In addition, it showcases that things don't work the way we think they do in terms of setting. Just because time flows one way in one place doesn't mean it flows the same way in another place.
The material also makes me want to mention 'skinning'. THis is where you take the game mechanics or effects of one thing and apply them to something else. Because Guts is cursed, he's always fighting ghosts that possess nearby things. While entertaining perhaps to stat up possessed hounds, humans, and other bits, it's perhaps not the best use of one's time. Having a set of stats that represent the creatures base powers that can be easily modified on the fly is a useful ability for a Game Master to have. In some game systems, like GURPS and Hero, it's essentially expected for each player and Game Master to customize their abilities based not on what the ability does, but what it's 'effect' is. For example, in Hero, a d6 for damage is a d6 for damage regardless if it's a punch, a fire blast, an ice blast, a sonic blast or some other type of damage. Having an ability to quickly guage what something does and 'skin' it on the fly is useful for when you want to keep the game moving.
Don't forget the holy men. Even in small villages and towns, there should be a priest or three to take care of the spiritual needs of the people and to act as a contact point for any religious orders, pilgrims or religious events that need interpetation. Even here in a dark and dismal world where few survive, the small town that Guts is travelling through has a priest who speaks with the holy knights moving through and on Guts trail.
Lastly, don't forget about the characters actions. If the characters are having an effect on the game world, this should be something that is noticed. In this volume, the holy knights trailing Guts are doing so because in his persona as the Black Swordman, he's continuously killing things that are not meant to be, causing quite an upstir. The knights seek to understand what this means for their religion and what is going on in the larger scheme of things and if Guts is involved.
Keep the setting real by telling the players stories that take place in the setting. Let the players know their actions are felt by having their own stories enter the legends of the campaign.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

So its turkey day here in Chicago. Well, in America I suppose would be better said.

When thinking about it, the holiday is quite ritualized no?

A series of thanks given based on some old events.

A feast of a specific animal and veggies.

A post holiday series of shopping events.

In a fantasy campaign setting, things like that can be pretty standard.

Things that also should be looked at, are magical events. Every year, something happens at a specific time with specific results.

More unique opportunities though, are when you can have a creation of a holiday while the players are playing. Perhaps the death of a dragon? Perhaps the destruction of an orc horde? Every year after that, orc paper mache entities are crafted, destroyed, and set alfame to rerpesent the destruction of the orc horde.

Every year the city imports spieces and herbs to flavor meat and give it a certain taste, almost a dragonic taste...

There are enough ideas in a fantasy setting that it should be fairly easy to make something not only a holiday, but to make the players part of it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Beyond the Anime

The anime left the Berserk series off in a terrible place as far as telling a complete story. It's one of the reasons why I picked up the manga from Dark Horse.
Here we get to see a little more of how and why things worked out the way they do.
For example, the sword Guts uses? It's a dragon slayer sword made by his smith friend Gordo in a time long ago and far away. It's so big because it's not meant to be used by a normal person. It's a dragon slayer because humans can't fight dragons because they're well, human. The fact that Guts can use it? Well, that's something else.
In addition, Gordo the smith also knows a thing or two about firearms and mechanical limbs. And with the right magnet in place, Guts can use both hands on the sword. The firearm packed into the machine arm proves to be Guts salvation time and time again in the manga in latter volumes. One might almost argue that these creatures Guts fights are vulnerable to the damage that it inflicts.
But outside of some background information on Guts, what can we use in this volume?
One, no one escapes from the inquisition! In Crown of Stars by Kate Elliot and dozens of other fiction series, the chruch is not an entity to take lightly. Here, they're following Guts trail and have their own series of prophecies. Ironically enough, this group, Holy Iron Chain Knights, are for the most part, made up of nobles who donate heavily to the chruch to insure that their children stay out of the way of inheritance issues and serve faithfully. The naming conventions are good and the idea is often used that the second or third sons and daughters must serve the church.
Two, life is cheap in a points of light setting. It's important to note not only for the every day horrors that bandits commit against the innocent, such as selling girls into slavery, but what can happen to the common children. Here, the enemy is an 'elf' based demon who turns children into elf like entities that are flesh eaters and use a horrifying swarm attack to strip the flesh from anything they attack. The other part of horror here is that when slain, these monstrous elf children revert to their human form.
Three, the enemy comes in many shapes and sizes. For example, Guts has to not only fight the demonic elf children, but when souls of those slain in ritual sacrifice around a tree are awoke by the brand on Guts neck, he's got to fight a undead tree possessed of a lust for his blood and warmth.
Four, revenge is always a standard emotion for getting a player involved in a long term quest. Even in old classics like the Princess Bride, if a man is wronged, he will seek to right it. In Guts case, being damned, having all his comrades murdered, and his woman violated, well, these are powerful reasons to want revenge. It's best not to overdo it though. In this case, that's achieved by having these reasons by the foundation that launches Guts on his mission, not necessarily something that's repeated infinitely each issue. After too much loss, the players may get to the point where they expect it and no longer care.
Five, always give the players the option of being heroic but don't force them to do so. In 4e, the alignment system has been pulled back a lot. It still has quite a bit of material there, but in a grim and gritty campaign, such as Berserk or the Black Company might be, the characters are most likely going to be Unaligned in 4e. This means that if you want them to do good things for the sake of doing good things, you'll probably be disappointed.
On the other hand, if you align the characters end goals with the things that others consider to be good, well, things work out well for everyone.

The Brand!

Berserk 13 takes the manga beyond the anima.
It explains why in the first issues that various undead and other night hauntings were happening to Guts.
See, Griffith gave Guts a little present; the Brand. This makes him and makes him visible to entities that live in another world.
It also lets Guts detect them.
In many ways, it's a perfect Game Master tool.
Want to let the player know how powerful an enemy is? The brand really burns. Want to know where there is an infestation of vile entities? The brand pulls you west.
There are methods of stopping the attraction and draw of the brand. For example, Guts ally and lover, Caska, is ruined after their last adventure and could not survive with the brand in the outside world. Fortunately, elf hills are rich with elf metal and this apparently is good enough to keep the brand from attracting the wrong kind of attention. Further volumes also illustrate different methods to keep the brand from activating.
For those looking for a quick way to get the players to battle a monster of the week like the early episodes of say Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Brand of a tool like it does the job.

The Great Nocturnal Festival

The preview page with summary and bonus materials can be found here.
For me, Berserk 12 was one of the books I'd most looked forward to in the series. See, what I may not have mentioned in the past, is that I was introduced to Berserk not through the manga, the illustrated graphic novel style of Kentaro Miura, but rather, through the anima which ends horribly in the middle of things as 'season one', which was never followed up.
So this volume and future series really help to cement and clarify things for me and it's one of the reasons why I enjoyed this volume so much.
But what can it bring to the game table?
One, loyalty. Guts left the Band of the Hawk, but his own battle skills are so great, that those he lead in the past, the Raiders, want him to lead if he takes off again. This mirrors the character Salgaunt in Kate Elliot's series, Crown of Stars, where the main character, despite in essence having nothing, starts gathering, unintentionally, his own followers.
In a role playing game, actions speak louder than words. If the players showcase exceptional ability and treat their allies well, their names should be treated with respect by those who know them and their word should be their bond. Their allies will vouce for them and insure that those who are worth while allies, are introduced to other, similiar minded worth while allies.
Destiny is hard to see. I've mentioned it before, but if you can weave larger threads around the characters, you can pull those threads home. Griffith has relied on the Egg of the King several times, it saving him from Zodd and a poison arrow among other bits, but during his 'bad times', it was lost and he finds it by complete chance. But of course, it's not really chance now is it?
Showcasing unique events. When the laws of destiny are finally enforced, make it big. Have a demi-plane collapse in on itself. Have the players thrown through time and space. Have magic work odd world wide or something so large that the players have no choice but to stand up and take notice. Here, the group is cut off from the outside world and taken into what is essentially a miniature version of hell. It's a quick, brutal process but it's something that once seen, cannot be taken away. Prepare descriptions of what's going on around the characters ahead of time, try to have answers for questions that may crop up ready. Note down any game mechanics that may not work the same in this new place under this one time event. Michael Moorcock uses the conjunction of a million spheres in several of his tales for example. Large numbers make things seem large. Don't be afraid to use them.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Repitition of Themes and Soldiers Mantras

Work has got me beating the gong quite often these days so I'm trying to knock out some of these ideas on the Berserk series before I forget where I'm going with it. For those who aren't fans of manga, I apologize for the near constant stream of Berserk coverage but I find it easier to hit the series as a whole then to chop it up and come back to it.

Dark Horse continues to provide the previews and summaries over here. I keep posting the link because I find the series very well illustrated and find that a picture speaks a thousand words.
So last volume we learned of a dread group of knights sent out to hunt down our hero and his allies in the Band of the Hawk. Here, the Black Dog Knights lead by the strange Wyald gets to the heart of the action.
Note though, the names being thrown around here. Descriptive to a point and entertaing in and of themselves. In a quick flashback for example, we learn that Wyald became the leader of his unit, a group of thieves and worse, by killing Barbo the Armor Hacker. Giving your characters little extra names gives them a little extra character and might let the players know what to expect. Indeed, it may give the players a little step up when facing such characters.
In terms of the value of a campaign, when looking at Berserk 11, it's important to keep in mind that there are campaigns of all types. There are campaigns that are just starting. There are campaigns that are starting, but starting in the heart of the action at a high level. There are long term campaigns.
In those, the long term campaigns, the Game Master should be keeping track of what the common folk know of the players and their allies. Here, because the Band of the Hawk is well known and well loved, Guts and his allies find their initial escape through the country fairly easy. However, its important to remember what happens to those who help outlaws. Well, that's not entirely true.
See, many times, writers use a standard trick to make the players hate certain NPCs. That trick is to make them as vile as possible. Here, as the Black Dog Knights catch up to the Band of the Hawk, the Black Dog Knights have decorated their pole arms with the remains of those who've just helped the Band of the Hawk. Actions has consequences in all cases. Here, the players have made those who've helped them the victim of those who seek them. If word gets out about such attacks, how long could anyone expect to receive help?
In the ongoing fight, Guts realizes that the enemy is fighting not out of loyalty, pride, or enjoyement, but out of fear. Their leader, another mosnter like Zodd, fears nothing so he encourages his men to live by facing death, a death that bounces harmlessly off him wither it's collapsing bridges, explosives, volleys of arrow fire, or even a direct attack by several members from the Hawks.
Another elment though would be the game going into new territory. In this case, Guts manages to win his fight with Wyald despite the latter turning into a real monster. We see not only the strength that Guts brings to the fight with his oversized sword, but the weakness of the monsters in terms of their 'skull' being a vital part of them. This knowledge will be vital as in the first few volumes, we've seen Guts able to fight these creatures on an almost one on one basis.
Another important element I've forgotten to mention as I've been going through the Berserk volumes though is distinctive features. While I've mentioned Guts himself, many of the other characters in the series have a very distinctive look and this makes them stand out. This ranges from Zodd's barbaric energy to Griffith's overwhelming charisma, to Pippen being a near giant and Ricket being a youth barely old enough to swing a sword. By making the characters, including the NPCs distinctive, the Game Master gives the players more 'coat racks' to hang their mental imagination on and makes it easier for them to enjoy a more fully realized game.

An Expanding Road Leads To More Places

Over here is the standard summary, preview, and cover for Berserk, this time, Volume 10.
Berserk 10 brings many elements that can be used in a role playing game.
Expansion of the setting. Griffith, having fallen from grace recently, has been at the bottom of a fallen tower and is in the process of being rescued. During the party's descent into the pit, they learn the origin of the land's name, Mid Land, in that it's in the middle of the former great kingdom.
As the party makes their escape, they come across more enemies from foreign quarters.
As the party beats these odds, the King demands an elite unit, one so terrible, that during the hundred years war it was never used in the homeland but always send to the front and the frontiers of the war because they were too cruel, be called out.
But what does this mean expanding road?
By continuing to introduce new elements that are already in the story, Kentaro is reinforcing certin myths of the setting. For exampel, a great unique entity that apparently came from no where has a lot of similarities to say, Griffith, who was initially a no one who rose from obscruity.
For example, bringing in these assassins from a foreign land, leads the reader to know that the setting is larger than it appears. This ties into future volumes when we see much more of those elements.
By having the king speak of how dire and evil these Black Dog Knights are, we know that future volumes are going to showcase another epic battle. A side benefit though of the way the Black Dog Knights are introduced, is it doesn't strain the reader's "yeah right" bat sense too much. Many comics and other graphic forms of entertainment try to white wash certain elements so that they can bring new ones in without having to rework the entire mythology that has come before. In this case, because the Black Dog Knights were never with the main army, it's natural that the readers, whose point of view has more or less followed Griffith and his Band of the Hawk, wouldn't know about them. It kills two birds with one stone.
Having a road that continues to expand in front of the players is as natural a progression as say, having the players initially fight against a cultists and eventually face the big Orcus himself.

Keep Them Guessing

At Dark Horse comics, you've got the cover, summary, and preview for the volume 9 of Berserk.
Over at En World, on the ole General RPG Discussion, I've been in the middle of several debates involving the use of Non-Player Characters.
One of the generic elements of the Dungeons and Dragons game is accepting employement from people who may be more powerful than you. In my own campaigns, the reasons why the players do it vary and the players never fully trust the NPCs due to my own handling of said NPCs, but it's rare that they question the motivation of the NPC by asking why the NPC doesn't do it.
Which got me to thinking about the power levels of NPCs. Most of them don't go around carrying huge signs and at a certain point, most characters are going to appear to be fairly potent even though they're not. A high level minion is still high level no?
In this book, during a fair, we're introduced to several characters. One of them, the Skull Knight, is something of an oracle in that he predicts vague futures. I've mentioned before that if you're going to try to use propehcy in the game that you should make it as all purpose and open to interpetation as possible. This prevents you from wedging yourself into a corner or using some odds and evens to make things work as they've been predicted to.
Another one of the characters introduced is Valancia, the King of Massacre who is supposed to have killed over one hundred soldiers while the other is known as Silat and uses the weapons of his home country. Based on the illustration, you'd think that Valancia would be the quick win.
You'd be wrong.
Mix it up with the players by going into description of how fierce and determined their foes look. Make sure the players see the well worn weapons their foes are using, that they know these are experienced enemies.
And then let them take down those foes like wheat! It's part of 'letting the players be cool', but it's also a showcase that there's always someone more powerful than you. After all, despite Silat's impressive performance against Valancia, the foreign fighter gets taken down in the tournament and then again when the stakes are more serious.
Another thing to note the use of NPCs here, and it's a minor one that could (and in the case of Berserk does), lead to foreshadowing, is using them to showcase the width of the world. Silat is from a near Middle East/India/Mogul style land with weapons that would be considered exotic and foreign in many standard campaign settings, another parallel with the Black Company series when the soldiers go south.
By using unfamiliar elements that have similiar functions to existing equipment, the Game Master can provide the players with a touch of the exotic and allow them to know that the world is larger than just this town, just this country, just this continent or even at higher levels of play, just this world.
Keep the players guessing as to what's coming down the pipeline and they'll be eager to see where the rabbit hole goes.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Characters And the Court

Berserk 8 finishes off one long arc of Guts background and starts a new travel.
First off, we continue to see long term elements cropping up. For example, Guts and Griffith fight again to determine if Guts will stay with the Hawks or go on his own.
In previous posts, I've mentioned that Guts focus has been improving his sword play while Griffith has had to change gears and work on many different elements at the same time.
Sufficie it to say Guts wins in a single strike without actually hurting Griffith.
This is an opposing parrallel of the initial encounter and can act as a nice bookend to showcase how players can grow out of a GMNPC's shadow and do their own thing. How they may no longer need patrons of a certain rank and file anymore.
In addition, Zodd makes another apperance, but it's almost an offstage one that helps further Griffith's story arc along, althought at this time it's at Guts benefit.
But there is more than merely the advancement of long standing plots, of using parallism to showcase advancement. With the off stage Zodd's help, Guts makes short work of an enemy commander, giving another victory to Griffith. This leads to more members of the court, including the Queen herself, to seek his death.
In a role playing game, it may take more than a single effort at poisoning someone to deserve the type of retalitation Griffith plays on the nobles with Guts help, but it gets back to the idea that the game setting is not a safe one. That the players are agents of change and that they can expect push back from all of those venues where their own abilities push them in. If they are well known warriors and knights, then those who are well established in those fields, indeed, who may be noble because of those fields, may feel threatened.
If they are powerful masters or arcane magic, their own promienence may cause others to seek the players out instead of the NPCs. The patrons of the magical arts may donate to the players. Those with specific problems may come to the players.
Those with master divine energies may find that the voice of their deity sounds clear to all, but jealousy drives out the call in those NPCs who see the players rise to prominence as a damning factor in their own faith.
Those players which are good at providing a public face to the world as an actual group, a true mercenary band, may find that those others who make their living as mercenaries take them as a real threat because now those NPCs are no longer getting jobs from others. All patrons are flocking to the PCs who've showcased their strength time and time again.
As the players continue to improve in ability, the GM doesn't have to have the world curse and snarl at them. They can easily slide into spot and take their place without any difficulties. After all, Superman is most often seen as standing for Truth, Justice, and the American Way and is often well thought of by everyone. But others, say Spiderman, are also putting their life out there on the line and they are often hated, sometimes hunted, and rarely give nthe open trust by the public that someone like Superman is. Think of how you want the players to be thought of in the campaign and which provides the most seeds for future conflict in the game and move on from there.

The Glory of Minions

The Dungeons and Dragons game engine has gone through many changes. In early editions of the game, fighters didn't have a lot going for them in terms of special abilities as they advanced in levels.
One interesting option though, was to gain as many attacks against lower level enemies as the character had levels.
This was meant to represent them being able to cut through vast hordes of goblins, orcs, hobgoblins and other vermin.
In 4e, they've borrowed the minion mechanic. A minion is an entity that requires a single hit that inflicts damage to kill.
Why mention this background of game mechanics and Berserk?
Here, Guts and Caska are hunted down by a minor NPC villian whose brought with him one hundred mercenaries to capture or kill these two who've given him such trouble.
Here is an allowance of "letting the players be cool." Guts, heavily injured and a little weary at the end of it all, earns the title, "hundred man slayer" at this point. It's a title and accomplishment that follows him through the series as people recognize him based on that feat. It's a title that showcases Guts ability as a warrior with few equals.
When possible, throw the players some opportunities to showcase their cool. Players are there to enjoy the game and by allowing them the chance to shine, they'll grow to appreciate the game and to enjoy looking for opportunities to do so again.
In terms of things outside of bloody slaughter though, there are other things that one could take heart from. For example, Caska informs Guts of her own past and motivations. Providng players with world views from Non-Player Characters that they trust, allows them to get different viewpoints of how the world actual works. Allowing characters to see how others preceive the world about them at no risk or harm and injury but through comrades, allows them the opportunity to think about their own role in the setting. Players may not always design their characters with a lot of background and details and indeed, may not have long term goals and plans for their characters and merely enjoy the game.
But letting the players know what motivates the NPCs of the game and what opportunities exist in the setting gives them, at the very least, things to think of for future sessions when they may not be in a dungeon setting.

Party Focus In The Big Picture

So over here is a summary, preview, and other details about Berserk 6.
What can you take away from it for your own campaign?
Introducing NPCs. Give the NPCs some quick quirks that the players will notice. For example, we're introduced to Princess Charlotte this volume and she takes to Griffith like a moth to flame.
We also see how many parts of the setting work in between noble and 'commoner'. Julius is the brother to the king and a general of his own army. But that army isn't doing it which is why Griffith is needed in the first place.
Many of the nobles in Midland have huge issues with a group of commoners being lead by a man with no noble blood moving up the ranks so quickly.
Some of them, like Minister Foss, can be more dangerous than the monsters and mercenaries faced in the field.
For example, while taking no part in it himself, Foss convinces Julius that the best way to take care of Griffith, is a hunting 'accident' during the king's hunt where Griffith's forces will be the escort for the nobles.
The hunt itself is another good example of making the campaign setting larger than merely the dungeon. What do the people do when they're not going on adventurers? In this case, the nobles enjoy hunting, they enjoy having horses, fine armor and fine weapons with the land in which to do so safely.
Continue the use of foreshadowing. If you've had a campaign running for a while and things are continuing to go in the same vein, keep up the good work. Here, Griffith is apparently assassinated with a well poisoned arrow but it's actually blocked by the egg of the king, introduced before this and a device that's saved his life before. It continues to showcase it's vitality.
In addition, Griffith's knowledge base continues to grow while Guts continues to train. This makes the former more apt and able in the new circles he travels, but it makes the latter far more dangerous on the field of battle.
Next, make sure to be prepared to allow the players to figure things out. Griffith's assassin initially makes away with no problem but there are numerous clues that point to the person responsible. If the players are smart enough to figure out things and move forward with those well laid out plans, allow them to succeed.
But some may be asking, what's with the title?
Towards the end of this volume, there is a massive battle where whole armies are put to the field. Guts and Caska, another commander, become seperated from the main group and the story then shifts focus and attention to them.
If your stories aren't in a dungeon and are more freeform, it can seem to be difficult to allow the players the focus of attention they deserve as they are the players, whle putting them in a larger context.
There are numerous ways to do this. In an army battle, the players handle the hot spots. In a city siege, the party becomes seperated from the main army through collapsed streets, fallen buildings, or other natural disaster.

By keeping the focus on the party as opposed to the world, you allow the party to influence what happens in the world as it effecs the party. Perhaps in a city siege the party is seperated from the main body of soldiers but in doing so, gets access to information that is vitally needed. Perhaps they are able to use old sewer systems to launch an assassination attack at the commander of the enemy forces. Perhaps in the forest the party discovers a group of stones that when activated, allows the party to cover vast distances quickly, allowing them to act as a vanguard for an army invasion.
The game requires the party to be the focus of the campaign in that the party, and what the party learns and how they react to it, define the world.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Swords, Sorcery, and Supernatural Horror: Nosferatu Zodd

When you first start reading Berserk, you might wonder what's going on. The introduction show cases Guts fighting enemies that are the exception to humanity, using a variety of weapons that he does not possess in the 'origin' arc that follows.
But Berserk 5 starts to showcase the depth of the world. In another mission for the enigmatic and charismatic Griffith, Guts winds up fighting Nosferatu Zodd. "Among mercenaries Nosferatu Zodd is a legendary sowrdsman. They say he's killed hundreds, even thousands on the battlefield." and another mercenary notes "There are some mercenaries who reverse Zodd as a battlefield God!!"
So far that doesn't sound good.
Follow up with a up close Guts talking with the soldiers under his command, the Raiders. "We sent almost fifty men in thee and no one's come out...!!" Guts shouts.
But then someone does come out. Torn up and weakling whispering the name Zodd.... Nosferatu Zodd before dying.
Guts investigation leads him through slaughter where his men are strewn about like broken and shattered rag dolls until he encounters Zodd. At first, Guts does what any sword swinger might who doesn't realize what's going on. He charges.
Until Zodd whips the corpse on his oversized sword at Guts and smashes him into the wall at which point Guts thinks... "What the hell is this?! This overpowering sense that's got me tied up?!"
Note that Guts doesn't actual sit there and whimper. He realizes that there's something supernatural about Zodd. He knows that there's no chance based merely on his own strength that he's going to win. He takes a gamble and wins that one but alas, it's not to be and Guts winds up being saved by Griffith, both being injured by Zodd who leaves an enigmatic message behind.
So a few things to think about.
1. Supernatural Horror can be used in a standard fantasy game. Amp up the description of what's going on. If you've got a good group, the atmosphere you create will be picked up by the players and they'll go with it. If your group is of one mind and that's hack and slash, nothing less than full fledged insanity and horror rules are going to make them role play it out anyway so move onto a system that supports that.
2. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosiphy. Just because the players may be experienced with certain types of foes doesn't mean that the GM can't throw in some new enemies when the opportunity arises.
3. You don't always win. The players may decide at 3rd level to take on that elder worm. Sure, let 'em. If you've got a long term plan for them and that worm at a higher level is part of it, the worm may wind up doing some significant damage to the players but isn't necessarily out to kill them because...
4. Long term planning can pay off. Griffith in a previous volume has shown Guts the 'egg of the king', a charm on a necklace that resmbles a crimson face in disarray. When Zodd sees it, he stops his rampage and gives Guts a dire prophecy of the future.
After the fighting's all said and done, and perhaps even before that though, we can see somethings happening. In games like Hero, GURPS, and D&D 3.5, if you didn't follow a certain 'proper' path, you could wind up with a very well rounded character that could easily fall to enemies of the appropriate 'level' because you weren't following the standard.
Here, we see Griffith taking his place with the nobles while Guts? Guts is out practicing with his weapons. After the fight with Zodd, we see Griffith, whose at this point a war hero, speaking with the nobles while he recovers. Guts... yeah, he's continuing his mastery of the blade.
Long term planning continuing to take its seeds here, but what usually happens when one person continues to pursue a single mastery at the risk of all else while others continue to spread their focus about?

GMNPC: Thy Name is Griffith

Over at the ole Dark Horse website, we've got the cover, summary, and preview for Berserk #4.
Here we get a lot of background on Guts. We learn that as a chid he continued to use weapons larger than he could handle because the mercenary company he was a part of didn't carry 'child' weapons and so he overcompensated for it.
We see some horrific things happen to him.
We see the fickle nature of mercenaries as they go from mocking Gut's adoptive father and both hating him and fearing him to hating Guts for being born from his mother's corpse under a hanging tree and brought back from near death by Gambino, Gut's adoptive father's woman, Shisu, a prostitude who recently miscarried.
But more than any of that, we meet Griffith. To put it in short, he's a GMNPC. This is a Game Master Non Player Character. Now in theory, every character that's not being controlled by a player, is a NPC. A GMNPC however, is special.
In Griffith's case, he's handsome. He's charismatic. He's a military genius. The biggest 'sin' though of Griffith, is that he's a better swordsman than Guts.
Or at least those would be Griffith's sins in a role playing game where the players have no patience for a long term and told story and don't want to have to share the spotlight at any time.
For example, in future volumes, Griffith's abilities rarely come into play as far as they interact with Guts. It's a campaign tool that allows Griffith to move Guts into positions and 'missions' that Guts is best suited for.
A good fiction example with potential similarity is the Lady from the Black Company. Far too powerful for the Company to even think of fighting until they believe she's betrayed them, the Lady is the one who provides the Black Comapny with employement.
The thing about NPCs though, unlike the players, is that they are capable of changes in many fields ranging not only from attitudes and outlooks, but in power levels. Those who've read far along in the Berserk Manga or the Black Company series know that the Wheel of Fortune is often not kind to those it keeps at the top for a long time.
When thinking about patrons for the players, be aware of their own personal likes and dislikes. If they have an intense hatred of GMNPCs, even if those characters are merely used to provide opportunity for further advancement of the player's own goals, there's a good chance the players will walk away from that NPC and perhaps even from the campaign. Some players have no problem accepting a fantasy society where technology has stayed the same for ten thousand years but get up in arms when asked to do a mission for a high powered NPC who they feel should just "do it themselves."
Keep that in mind and use when and where appropriate.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Letting the Lyrics Work For You Via Alice in Chains: Last of My Kind

I listen to a lot of music. I don't have the longest commute in the world and I listen to a lot of public radio. However, I have no interest in sports and often public radio repeats itself so it's a flick of the dial to power on the old CD player.

I've been listening to Alice in Chain's newest release, Black Gives Way to Blue, and the first three tracks, All Secrets Known, Check My Brian, and Last of My Kind are very solid tunes. The lyrics in that last one especially seem appropriate for a fantasy or science fiction based game.

A Wolf Alone Upon the Hillside
I live on what they throw away
I go to sleep behind the eight ball
I live to fight one more day

One of the most overused origin stories for heroes is that of the loner but perhaps just as used is the humble origin. In this case, we get both. Sounds like the background for many an assassin who dwells in the lower reaches of society.

Take What I Wanted, and
Break all the lies and
Defeat the f****ing liars...
Smash all the temples, and
Crawl through the rubble, and
Cry to the Fallen

Adventurers are notorious for doing things their own way. They are willing to cut through the lies that civilized men tell one another in order to keep the peace. I recall a Conan bit where Conan doesn't turn in one of his friends and just goes wild in the court room. Something about keeping a civil mouth of well, let swords handle it.

Players are quite adept at taking their own abilities and driving those who stand against them to the wall.

The name of the song itself though, also brings to mind something a lot of players want for their characters. To be the last of their kind. No, not necessarily the last elf or the last of a particular race, although as Superman has proven, that does have it's own affinity. Rather, they want to be the masters of something that no one else is. This could involve having a powerful magic item, a set of abilities that no one else has access to, special background or titles. Something that makes them stand out from the other characters including characters the player has run in the past.

Keep the players in the spotlight and let them be the last of their kind.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

How Important Communication in Your Campaign?

I recently received an e-mail whose contents I thought should have been delivered in person. It got me thinking, how do communications work in your fantasy setting?

In many standard fantasy settings, for those with the wealth to afford it, magic is the ultimate utility in terms of communication. It can be used to send messages or with the right power, people straight to where they need to go.

Communication has the same limitations as many other elements that involve travel. In most fantasy settings, it's a fairly dangerous world once you step outside the safety of a town or city. Once in the wilderness, anything goes.

In Kate Elliot's series, Crown of Stars, the King had Eagles, specialized messengers. In various Thor comics from Marvel, the old Odin often relied on his ravens to spy on others and rely what they had seen to him.

Thinking about how to use communication can add some elements to the campaign that you may not have thought of.

Letters, being perhaps the most mundane, would probably be the most common, especially if attached to messenger birds as was common with homing pigeions. The problem with that though it is takes a lot of birds to hopefully get one message though. In addition, does the right message get through. Piegions aren't very tough and can easily be replaced.

But what it a message does get through? How long can it be? How much cramped writing can be put onto a small piece of parchement to be pinned to a bird's leg? Not much.

Letters will not contain the hand gestures, the tone, posture, or other signs that another form of communication may. Indeed, letters can provide little more than words that the user at the other end has to assemble into something of meaning.

For other messages, kingdoms might develop a series of towers, each one using mirrors, fires or other markers bright enough that another tower can see it. The problem with such a signal though is that it's visible to everyone. Something to be used only in the most dire of circumstances, such as when say, calling on another kingdom for aid.

In some campaigns, the kingdoms of old had various gates or pockets into another dimension where travel was much quicker. In the 'modern' fantasy setting, often these gates are greatly reduced in number. They may not function as they once did. There may be problems using them. Those other dimensions may now be haunted by dire monsters. The other dimensions may not be suitible for life as the characters know it. The other dimensions may have bleed over into still other dimensions and there is a chance that those who go into such places may never come out again.

When thinking of how news gets from one part of the kingdom to another, think about both the mundane and magical methods needed to get that news out.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Limits of Temptation in Berserk

So over here at Dark Horse Comics, we have a summary of Berserk volume 3, cover, and some sample pages. Below are some ideas that you might think of when doing Non-Player Character design.

One of the reasons I keep coming back to non-player character design is that it's one of the key elements you can add to a campaign. I was going to say one of the few things, but any Game Master worth his salt has come up with new traps, monsters, magic items, and other bits.

But with Non-Player Characters, as a Game Master, you've got a chance to showcase how the world works for people other than the characters. You've got a chance to put some characters on display in a non-dungeon setting.

Last volume, the audience was told that the count changed seven years ago. His daughter provides a story of how heretics killed the count's wife and this hardened the count's heart and how his daughter is his only prized possession.

In the fight with Guts, the count becomes so injured that on the point of death, he summons entities of such power that they are essentially gods or demon gods or well, things so powerful that stats are meaningless. In this time of need, they agree to raise the count to his full power, to restore him and kill the count's foe... in exchange for the life of his daughter.

During this time, the reader learns that no, it was not heretics that killed the count's wife, rather, the count's wife was a member of a cult of heretics and engaged in an orgy to depraved deities. Seeing this drove the count into a rage but he couldn't kill his wife. Rather, he offered her as a sacrifice to the demon lords, the Godhand. They offer the count the same exchange here, but this time, he fails and dies.

Having lines that the NPC's won't cross no matter how tempting or how useful or how much they would gain by doing so, shows the players that they're not the only ones who have rules in place. That there are ways they can fight against those who pester them that don't necessarily involve putting everything to the sword.

Not a perfect example in this volume, but here, Guts uses the daughter as a shield. The count won't attack while she's in danger. In other volumes, incidents happen that may not be 'heroic', but in Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition, with it's unaligned alignment being a prime choice, it may beat having to kill dozens in order to acheive a goal.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Berserk #2: Not Patrons But...

Another look at how Berserk, the Manga by Kentaro Miura, can be useful in stiring the stew of inspiration! There will be spoilers and other bits below so beware those who want to remain virigin in terms of what Berserk is all about. For those curious about it, there's a preview of this issue right over here at the Dark Horse site.
Berserk #2 starts off with Guts on the run from the city's militia after he insults the ruler. Yeah, he's got PC written all over him.
The person whose assisted Guts on his escape though is another unique character. Not rich, not powerful, but rather, weak, crippled, and scared and frightened. Certainly not the traits of a patron.
However, he doesp rovide Guts with an up close and personal bit of information about the person Guts has some to battle. This weak creature, Vargas, provides some key bits of information including the time when the Count changed. Including the fact that the count isn't human. In addition, Vargas owns a few things.
These are minor trinkets overall in terms of their influence on a campaign, but they showcase that even a poor NPC may have items that the players may be interested in or that the Game Master can utilize to showcase a larger world. For example, one of the items Vargas owns is a pickled elf. In this setting, elves are like faeiries in that they have wings and fly around. For Vargas to have one indicates that while they are rare, they're not that rare. The Game Master could also use such an individual as to showcase specific things. For example, what if the game was set in the Forgotten Realms and there was an arquebus there? What would old Vargas care if the PCs wanted it and his limited supply of smoke powder?
The thing about Vargas though, is that while he possesses no money, his motivation, revenge, is very strong and very easy to recognize. When plotting the use of NPCs, try to tie them into the player's own motivations.
For example, while Guts plays off his superior strength, it's important to remember what Guts already looks like. He's covered in scars. He's missing an eye and an arm. While Vargas is worse off and can't fight at all, Guts has a lot of similarities to him that fuel his rage.
By playing off of the similiarities that an NPC has to a character, the player's may be more motivated to help them if alignment itself isn't enough.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tortured Heroes with Berserk and the Goon!

Most of the material I've mentioned has been taken from books. These are, for the most part, books I've read this year and am in the process of reading. Part of my Appendix N kick is to read material I don't normally read, read material that is older and may be at the genesis of modern fantasy fiction, and to read books I've had piled on my shelves for years that is simply taking up space.

However, there are a wide variety of resources to draw material from.

At the blog site, B/X Blackrazor, he's mentioning 'tortured heroes'. His definition is a little tight for some, but for the characters I'm going to talk about, it probably fits.

First, let's look at Guts.

He could probably fit most people's definitions. From the cover alone, you may not be able to tell, but his left arm is mostly mechanical. An unfeeling piece of metal. His body is riddle with scars. His right eye is gone. In addition, he has a brand on his neck that reacts to the presence of the supernatural.

In and of itself, these elements make for strong descriptor elements. They make him a memorable character based on description. In Hero, he'd have distinctive features as a disadvantage.

However, his scars and wounds are not the only distinctive things about him. His sword is huge. One of the dreaded blades like those found in Final Fantasy VII used by Cloud and his ranged weapon is a reapeating cross bow mounted on his mechanical arm. These are also distinctive weapons. They are useful in terms of making a character stand out.

In the first volume, and beware, the spoilers are going to start hot and heavy here. If you're interested in the idea of Berserk, check out Dark Horse Comics here for a preview and more descriptions.

The series starts off with Guts in the act of lovemaking on the side of the road. Sounds a little weird right? But then it gets stranger as the woman turns into a massive demon only to fall prey to Guts who apparently knew what she was all along.

So for Game Masters out there, remember, things aren't always what they seem. Most often shapechangers fall into the demon, magic user, or creature with innate ability to transform into something else. In this case, the apostales as their called, have a normal guise and a demonic guise where their full strength in in power.

Guts encounters some hard times and eventually gets to the goal of fighting what he's there to do so. But in the process, many of the townfolk are killed. Guts notes that you can't worry about the ants beneath your feet or you'll never be able to walk.

I've mentioned before that sometimes characters are so powerful that their mere presence can cause issues. A standard encounter for a character of Guts level is indeed enough to decimate the town.

Guts has some similiar elements though to another character that also comes out of the Dark Horse stable. This time however, instead of manga, we get comics collected into Graphic Novels featuring the man known as the Goon! For those interested in learning more about this character, check out Dark Horse here!

Perhaps not obvious from the cover, the Goon also suffers physical injuries. What's more, he's a man with a 'hard' personality whose concerns are generally only for his corner of the world and his friends. Or are they? Perhaps the tortured hero with a conscious would be a better descriptor for the Goon.

The Goon lives in a world where zombies, pulp super science and other elements walk hand in hand with pulp noir action and is broad enough to have a crossover not only with Hellboy, but with the old boys from Metallocalypse.

In looking at tortured characters, figure out what makes them tortured. If it's just a single element that they could easily solve, why are they still tortured after that? If it's just a case of angst, move on!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Lessons From Yet Another Fantasy Gamer Comic

Yet Another Fantasy Gamer Comic is a little on the adult side so NSFW!

In short, it's essentially a Dungeons and Dragons based comic with a little more of an 'evil' slant to it. Characters have motivations, go on quests, meet strange and interesting cultures, etc...

Over here and over here are examples of what I would call non-combat related rewards.

In the former, it showcases the value of family without invoking drama. It presents events over the course of a visit, over a holiday.

In the latter, it brings to the conclusion a long running bit on the halfling Clover. It's something that doesn't necessarily make her more powerful in terms of fighting ability, but it does present a new level of potential wealth.

The real question the game master should ask after looking at something like the strips above, is what motivates the players outside of wealth?

Political position: The character is a member of a guild and seeks advancement in it or beyond it.

Love: The character has relatives he has not seen in a long time.

Exploration: Not all ruins are haunted and not all unmapped territories need to have death at every corner.

Hobbies: What things can the character be looking to expand on when not actually preparing for battle?

Bring opportunities for the characters to have encounters outside the dungeon that can't be solved with steel and fire and see how the players react.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

An Ending to Crown of Stars by Kate Elliott

This seven series book, Crown of Stars, was one I've taken two pauses in. The first was because I only owned the first three books in science fiction book club edition. The second because I waited and purchased the second two books at Half Price and then finally used some of the old e-mail coupons to buy the last two at Borders.

While not a challenging tale in and of itself, it does illustrate that people have options. In a fantasy campaign, it's important to keep those options in mind when designing encounters not because you want to put a clamp on them, but because the more aware you are of what the characters can do and how your players think, the more likely you'll have results ready for anything they try to do. You don't do this to pin them down to a predetermined course, but rather, so that you can keep the game itself moving. When the game slows down because the game master wasn't prepared for something the players didn, everyone loses.

Anyway, onto some thoughts on Crown of Stars.

"I am puzzled," said Rosvita, "by what he meant by men with animal faces." (p.19)

Description without explanation is a mysterious thing. A large humanoid can be any number of things. In the case above, the men with animal faces are actually primitive elves who wear animal masks. Coming to the people third source however, it may craft images of a far different manner. Think about how the players learn about the campaign setting. If they're willing to play with the background details you've given them, while they won't experience that first rush of discovery at an orc as they may have once, it will prevent things from being same old same old.

"No one would ever know the whole, now that Anne was dead, and even Anne could not have comprehended everything because in many ways she had also been their pawn, their creation." (p.163)

Often I hear bitter complains about the evils of railroading.

Let me tell you something.

If you're doing a good job running things, the players not only won't know if and when they've been railroaded, they'll enjoy the story as it moves along like a thing of destiny. This isn't saying put up massive impenetrable forests if they move off the road or to have a quest spell laid on them to get a certain item but if the events require a certain way to do things, run it to the players fun as much as possible and they'll go with it, often not even knowing it was a rail road.

"Or she could stay in the Eagles, like Hathui, always and forever, because she loved being an Eagle even after all this, even after everything. Here she felt at home, standing watch in the middle of the wilderness with enemies all around and a few stout friends at her back, all in service to the regnant. Here she felt a measure of peace, perched on the wall with the damp air and the spattering of rain and the night wind breathing on her. Not knowing what the next day would bring and aching with the misery of wondering what has happened to the ones she loves." (p.184)

Why do the characters do what they do? Sometimes it could be easier to show them through an NPC. A ranger or other wilderness styled individual who still owes alliegance to those in power can be a showcase of how one can be rugged and on the outside, yet still serving a greater cause. The old post over here on Grongnardia offers some interesting thoughts on that.

"Laws are silent in the presence of arms, so it is said." (p.206)

In America, most of us are very fortunate in that we live in a world of laws that are not necessarily enforced by strength of arms. In most fantasy campaigns, that's not true. The further from civilization with its many layers of protection the characters are, the more likely they are to discover the value of the presence of arms.

Game Masters can work this contrast between safety and civilization and the wilds and danger. Using the times the players are in the city to highlight the various options they have to them ranging from different types of food, clothing, and even companionship and past times to what they have to make do with on the frontier and how a well forged sword may be worth someone's life.

Of course civilization, especially in a fantasy setting, doesn't necessarily only have to showcase how things stay together. But that's a topic for another post.

"Hugh had no power of his own except what he could wreak against others, a man armed wit ha sword who must stand on the field against disciplined ranks of archers and cavalry. This made him no less dangerous. A man with a sword can still kill anyone who comes within arm's reach. As long as Hugh could twist others to do his will, he could and would, harm his enemies and every innocent soul who got in his way." (p.235)

In a civilized land, it's all about who you know. After all, if you know the captain of the guard and he's one of the greatest warriors around, whose going to mess with you? The ability to confuse men and make them serve causes not necessarily their own has been showcased in many classic characters including one Gríma Wormtongue of Lord of the Rings fame.

"The ancient law?"

"Stil lheld to in Alba, I might add, and in much of Varre. The identity of a woman's children is always known, since they have sprung from her womb. That of a man's offspring-- well, no matter what anyone says, i nthe end it is always a matter of faith."

In dealing with the laws of succession in a kingdom, how does it fall? Does it fall to the eldest son? Does it fall to a woman who can prove her fertility and thus worth of carrying on the bloodline? Most fantasy settings assume the eldest male with young men going into church or other forms of service but don't be afraid to mix it up.

"We hear rumors of reavers with poisoned arrows harrying travelers along the roads leading east into Fesse." (p.267)

I've mentioned it before but always keep the rumor mill flying. Things should always be happening, even if the player's don't follow up on them. The larger the setting feels to the players, the larger it effectively is.

On the other hand, "reavers with poisoned arrows" is just a damn fine encounter. How dangerous is the poison? Where is the supply coming from? Can the supply be cut off? Is there a common cure? Is there a anti-toxin that adventurers can take before hand to minimize the threat? Foes who have methods of dealing great death and destruction always get a player's respect right out of the box and make them think more than mere numbers.

"Henry should have killed Sabella after the first revolt!" said Liutgard. "He was too lenient!"
"Wendish do not murder their kinfolk, not even to the pursuit of power," said Sanglant mildly. "We are not Salians, Liutgard. Thank God." (p.350)

I've mentioned it before, but trying to prevent a group of players from being men men reavers who kill all they encounter can be a difficult thing. Most fantasy engines are designed to reward the defeat of the enemy and keeping an enemy alive is often more problem than its worth.

But what about family? What about family that may be redeemed? What about family that's very close to the character, a direct relative as opposed to a distant one? Is it still loot the dungeon and let the deities know their own? Kinslayers can have a nasty reputation that could easily mar the reputation for the whole party if they are known associates of such an individual.

"Liutgard smiled tinly. "There is no traitor's gate, Cousin."

So named in the book as a crawling spaced where a small group of men could creep in to surprise the defenders of a castle. Sound like a job for adventurers or what?

"It was Hugh of Austra who murdered her, when she was sleeping and helpless, and for no better reason than that he wanted no apprentice of Meriam's to challenge his knowledge of the magical arts." (p. 379)

When looking for motivation for the bad guys, one simple thing may be that they like their toys so much they don't want anyone they don't directly control to have them. Liches and other ancient undead can horde power by killing those who may know their arts or similiar arts. Great warriors may hunt down those who know their style in order to maximize the effectiveness of their own murderous arts. Always look at what the players can do and think who doesn't want them to have that ability. In some instances, it may be a whole race. For example, what if the elves so regret teaching humans the magic arts that they send out highly trained assassins to kill all human mages?

"Ai, God," whispered Alain... "He is a good man. Can you not fly after him and bring him back?"
"Why should I?"
"Because Heribert loved him." (p.455)

A good villain may not be well rounded but it should have something to it that the players can understand and that the players can work against them. In the above instance, Sanglant is essentially unkillable by man or woman but this entity Alain speaks with is essentially a other planar entity that rips his soul out, leaving his body souless. The thing does this looking for Heribert, whom the entity loves above all others thinking Sanglant is hiding him. By appealing to the thing's love of Heribert and that motivation of doing what the one he loved would want down, Alain manages a victory without combat. In D&D and Burning Wheel, among other games, skill checks can be a great way of engaging this types of challenges without rolling for damage.

"Despite the trappings- the primitive standard, the gaudy lacework that gridled his hips and thighs, the jewels drilled into his teeth, and the bare chest painted in spirals and crosshatches- he was not what he seemed. He might appear savage, but far more dangerous current surged within." (p.477)

Appearance isn't everything. One easy way to shake things up is to pit the characters against an enemy who seems to be one type of thing but is actually far beyond those humble origins and in fact holds a far different role than the players may assume.

"it was the king of grunt made by a person who has just realized that, in fact, he will have to haul those damned logs all the way back up the hill and that there is no use complaining because the master is harsh." (p.484)

If you have a gaming group and they're always complaining about the way the game is going, it might be time to find a new gaming group. There is a massive difference between grumping in character because things aren't working the way you'd like and grumping that the game sucks, that the magic item ratio is too low, that the game master is against you, etc... Engage the characters when possible but don't waste your time as a game master on people who are only there to complain.

There are numerous other parts of a Crown of Stars I could quote, but instead I'll do a dreaded summary.

The Crown of Stars itself. This item is found late in the series, the old artifact of the old emperor. At the end, instead of using it as a symbol of old power, they return it to the original statue where the old king is buried and forge ahead on new paths of unity.

The ending. I'll admit, it didn't do it for me. It took a generational look at a character I just didn't care about. However, it also had a small "what happened to" section on a character I did care about and that part redeemed the ending. When ending a campaign, it might be better to do a fade out shot of the characters, especially if they're reached the upper tiers of the campaign, as opposed to having the players hear some wish washy NPC they never liked speak of the deeds of their children.

The length. Try to maintain a sense of the campaign for the long run. A series like Crown of Stars runs thousands of pages and can be a beast to devour all at once. Don't be afraid to take side journeys on that path as long as you return to the road.

Last but not least, make sure that you as the Game Master, are enjoying the road you are on. There is no point in making the group happy if you're misearable because sooner or latter that misery will make itself manifest!