Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mistborn Part 2

Continuing a look at the Mistborn and how some of the things in it may be useful to many types of campaign.

1. Keep the NPC's motivated. In this book, Vin, one of the main characters, is sought out by the Inquisitors several times. It's related to her background, but not as a hero of destiny, but rather, as a device by which the NPC can shame another character and take their power. Have the players allies that would rather not be dragged out to the light? Do they have aliases or friendships with individuals who would look bad simply for knowing the players let alone helping them? By capturing Vin her and forcing her to confess who her father is, Vin dooms that man to a harsh death and catapults the Inquisitors to a new level of greatness. See if there's anything in the players own backgrounds or actions in campaign to use in a similiar fashion and see if they can figure out what the NPC's are trying to do.

2. There's always another secret. This mantra comes up several times. In Mistborn, the Final Empire, Brandon Sanderson does a great job of wrapping up everything and yet leaving the scenario open for more books to follow without ending things in mid stride as many authors tend to do. While the Lord Ruler is dead at Vin's hands, his dying words indicate that he was doing something special, something that only he could do and that his death would bring in new problems. While the city has fallen from nobel hands, a new society does not emerge overnight and must be carefully cultivated leaving many adventure seeds for future campaigns. While the villains are defeated, what happened to their wealth that wasn't where everyone assumed it'd be?

In fantasy games, this could be as simple as providing multiple cave entrances in a dungeon that lead in different paths. It could be the players knowing that the foe they currently face isn't the most dangerous, only the most immediate. It could be that the foes they face aren't necessarily the real enemy at all and rather, they are on the retreat from something oh so much more powerful that they'd rather fight the players than stay where they were and die. Keep the players moving forward while giving them good 'pause' points to think of what the next move forward is.

Mistborn is a solid book and provides a lot of example characters and magic systems that in and of themselves could inspire their own RPG. Use the plotting and pacing as guides of how to bring the action and when to take a pause.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Mistborn the Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson Part 1

Below I'll be discussing Misborn the Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson. This is a series I decided to pick up when I heard he would be taking over the Wheel of Time. I haven't read the Wheel of Time for several books now, but I figure if it's ever actually completed, I'd like to see what the author whose taken over it can do. And I am pleasantly surprised.
Any page references are to the science fiction book club edition. Note that there will be spoilers below so those who are not looking for spoilers, go no further.
Brandon Sanderson uses many of the formulatic methods of writing fantasy that are familiar to those with a wide background of fantasy material.
1. The Prodigy: One of the heroes, Vin, is a Mistborn by blood. Her powers come from her father and his bloodline, mixed with that of her race, the skaa. She is a natural at the things it takes others months if not years to learn. She's also capable of quickly coming up with new strategies and methods with her powers that others for a thousand years haven't thought to do. In many ways, her ability to be a game changer, makes her a good sample player character.
How so? In the standard campaigns, if the NPC's acted like the PC's do, using their powers in many practical and purposeful methods, the whole setting would be vastly different. By having Vin not do things by the standard, it allows her, the prodigy, to be the game changer.
2. The Mentor. Vin is initially a lowly thief who doesn't even know of her power but she falls under the guidance of Kelsier, a man with a shady past. He teaches Vin her power and gives her something to believe in. In a role playing game, mentors are hard to pull off. Make them too powerful and they can steal the spotlight. Make them too weak and the players will soon pass them by. Kill them and make their deaths heroic and serve and as example to the players? Works here.
3. Thieves with a heat of gold. Intially hired to perform their mission, Kelsier and his 'crew' all follow through with the plan even when the one hiring them is killed and the money isn't there. In many role playing games, the default assumption is the players have a heart of gold. If the players are only motivated to adventure for the money, they could be cavaran guards or something of that nature where the adventure isn't really an adventure. It could work for some groups, but by having motivations that move past the financial, even if those motivations are still item based, they have reason to go hunting things that they just can't earn down the corner.
4. Urban Campaigns are character driven. In this book, part of Vin's duties is to act as a spy in noble society. She encounters numerous nobles and their servants and learns that despite the higher wealth and easier life they live, that the nobles have their own problems, most often, the other nobles. When having adventurers stay in a city, try to keep at least a list of twenty places that they either know about or can visit and at least three people involved with each of those twenty places. Urban campaigns can provide a change of pace from adventuring in the dungeon, but require a bit more work as the players, unless they'll be leaving the city very quickly, aren't going to just hack and slash their way through problems. Although there is always the city...
5. The powerful evil minon. Initially the evil Inquisitors are so powerful that Vin and her mentor can't overcome one. Then the mentor does. Then the secret for their destruction is passed out. This can be done in a game like 4e relatively easily. First, as the characters advance, the unbeatable becomes, well, defeatable. Next, the GM has the ability to make monsters minions. One of the great things about games like Mutants and Masterminds is the Mook rules in which if the players can damage the enemy, they've beaten the enemy. It's the old Ninja or Sentinel (Marvel comics old X-Men foes) problem. One of them is vastly difficult to beat requiring a pulling out of all the stops but dozens of them? They fall by the wayside.
6. The invicible enemy. Many fantasy epics have their own takes on such enemies. For example, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time is leading up to a showdown between Rand and his nemesis. Other fantasy tales use dark gods, demon lords or other such villains. Here it's the Lord Ruler, the "Sliver of Eternity". If you can introduce the big bad early on, and provide a scene to showcase the big bad's vast and unopposable strength, when the players finally manage to get the device to beat the bad guy or finally have enough raw power in levels to do so, allow them to earn that victory.
7. Character Growth: Part of the young prodigy being in the novel means growth. Initially a scared thief who trusts no one and wastes no food, Vin grows into someone who not only comes to trust her crew, but to love her mentor, and finds the ability to trust a strength she didn't know it could ever possess. Too often novels will keep characters in some odd timeless state and they'll grow stale. If the players are able to effect real change on the world and on non-player characters, have the way others treat the players change. Allow the world to grow around the actions the players commit.
These are some standard staples of the genre but Sanderson does them with an agile hand by allowing the characters to grow, using a lot of foreshadowing that you may not even be aware is foreshadowing till another event happens, and drawing the reading into the world of the Mistborn through quick pacing and characters that relate to each other like people.
By giving the players something to care for, the players motivation will be more than money and will provide the Game Master with clues as to what types of campaign they enjoy.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Wolf of the Steppes: Vocabulary Building

Over here on good old Google books is a preview of Wolf of the Steppes by Harold Lamb. Here are some various words that I was like... must look that up.

Atamans: General officer of the Cossack.

Bogatyr: Similiar to a knight errant.

Hetman: Title of the second highest commander from 15th-18th century in Poland and the highest in the Cossack military.

Zaporogian Siech: The Cossacks of the sixteenth and seventeenth century called their isolated war encampment.

Kurens: Barracks

Nankeen Breeches: Cotton cloth

Sequin: Coins used in the Mediterranean. Also used to make jewelry like viels of Sequin.

Versts: Equal to 3500 feet.

There was a wide variety of language in the book that piqued my interest and made me look up terminology. In today's era it's pretty easy with the internet to act as a guide and much of it being found at good old Wikipedia. Still, the fact that so much of it is unfamiliar to me, gives me an idea of how, when I run games, if I want players to know that they're no longer in a standard dark ages generic fantasy, can use language and vocabulary to build on the differences of the cultures. Language is an excellent tool for communicating the familiar and for showcasing difference.s

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Age is Not Just A Number

When creating characters, either as Game Master and breathing life into NPCs or as a player, think about the age of the character. What does it say about the character?

While reading Harold Lamb's Wolf of the Steppes, the age of the main character, Khilt the Cossack, made me ponder the value of age. In this case, Khilt is not quite the Old Man of the Mountaint, but is an older man. In some of the tales, he notes that these days, he survives more than the use of tactical genius rather than sheer brawn.

Those who encounter him often have one or two thoughts. One, he's an old Cossack and that makes him dangerous. Warriors don't live to a ripe old age on the steppes. Two, he's old. He's no longer a threat.

In a fantasy game, that might be a little more difficult to acheive because there are so many options in terms of what a character can do. However, if playing something like Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition, making the character a martial class whose primary ability isn't in fighting, such as say a Warlord, may allow the character to speak openly and mour about his lost fighting prowess but at the same time inspire the youth of the next generation to take up arms.

On the opposite end of the specturm, we have Marvel Comic's graphic novel, The Gunslinger Born, in their line of The Dark Tower series. Here, Roland is a pup. Few take him seriously. While he manages to excel at his tasks, while his skill with the gun is not rivaled, his youth makes him brash and perhaps foolish. It allows other to prompt him to take action instead of thinking.

Roland manages to break records and strives to "remember the face of his father" but thanks to his youth, manages to fall victim to things an older individual, like Khilt, may have avoided.

In any game system, it's often easier to role play the brash youth. The trick thought is eventually showcasing some grwoth in the character based on events that happen to him.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

New To Me: Harold Lamb

I had several goals in mind when thinking about books I wanted to read for Appendix N.

1. Books I already own. I have some serious collector issues going on. I own more books than I've actually read. In Chicago, there is a wide variety of methods of getting books for very little cash thanks to an over abundance of book fairs and other events. Mind you, I haven't gone to any of these in quite some time, but Half Priced books, library sales, Science Fiction Club blow outs and other things keep the books coming in at a pace greater than I've read. I've tried to curb this, no, I've tried to stop this completely as I live in a small apartment and it's overflowing with paper but so far no complete luck. It's how I wound up reading the Crown of Stars series by Kate Elliot. The Sci-Fi club had a booksale on one of her series in a bundle and I snagged it where it sat on the shelf for many years.

2. Books of the New: This isn't quite accurate. For example, Steven Brust. I've read some of his material. His work isn't quite as old as say, Robert E. Howard or Michael Moorcock. I've heard good things about it. Karen Miller, Brent Weeks, and Joe Abercrombie are also authors I've heard positive reviews of and they are on the list.

3. Books of the Old: Part of this was inspired by seeing Paizo reprint Planet Stories, as well as other reprints, like Doc Savage, coming back into vogue again. Part of it was seeing authors like Charles Saunders with an older book, Imaro, with a different menu than typical sword and sorcery. In that vein, I picked up Harold Lamb's Wolf of the Steppes, volume one of the Complete Coassack Adventures. To me, these older books act as a lense through which one can view some of the ground work of the role playing games origin point. These books have far less to do with a lot of how games are designed these days that are not deliberate 'retro clones', for example, Exalted, but they do showcase how a genre came into being from myth and legend and historical action adventure tales to its own thing.

Harold Lamb's book is good stuff. While there are no overt elements of the supernatural in it, and it does suffer a bit from the time in which it was written, Harold Lamb does a great job of providing life to an era not often explored in the venues I normally read. I'll be posting more about Wolf of the Steppes but thought that for those looking for 'old school', to see some of the authors that influenced Robert E. Howard and others of his time, you can't go wrong looking at Harold Lamb.

Friday, January 8, 2010

It's Evolution Baby

The Reavers of Skaith, published by Paizo, written by Leigh Brackett, is the third book in a series following The Ginger Star and The Hounds of Skaith. Below I'll be discussing some ideas that floated through my brain as I read it. This includes spoilers so if you insist on knowing nothing of the book, do not read on.
First off, the cover. Here, Eric John Stark is fighting off Children of the Sea. These are people who in the long ago past were changed at a genetic level so that they should thrive under the waters.
When looking at the origins of the races in your campaign, what if you throw a touch of some of the old school in there. In several campaigns that span the earliest time of the RPG origins, the past was not always one of swords and spells. Both Blackmoor and the Wilderlands, as well as Arduin and even parts of Greyhawk, have their nods to technology in one form or another.
In 4e, this would almost make more sense. Suppose that Dragonborn and Tielflings are NOT the results of devilish bargains and dragons making martial guardians. Suppose instead they have one common origin and were supposed to guard the land against all others and the other races were put into place as servants and guides for their perspective duties. Most would say that elves, still being elves, still being known for their forest lore, have succeeded. Ditto for dwarves and perhaps even plausible for halflings. But Tielflings and Dragonborn who've never had a strong root in gaming history?
In the core of 4e background, they each had a mighty empire and both were destroyed in a clash. What if that mighty empire's origin lies in genetic engineering and super science? What if they were one empire at a time until a race divide seperated the two and eventually lead to war? It provides a lot of opportunities to expalin with genetic engineering some of the strange races and monsters in the game as opposed to merely hand waving everything away as magic or some crazy deity.
The other thing that comes clear from The Reavers of Skaith is the powerful place of religion. There are several different sects with various followers here. Many of them with fanatics willing to die for the cause. If the Game Master can impress upon the players the importance of religion, not necessarily to the characters, but to certain factions within the campaign, it can act as a guide for what to expect if those factions ever come into conflict with the players.
For example, there are several instances here where the fantatics fight to the death. In the real world, even with all the advanced secruity and technology we have, unfortunately, we've learned the power of a man determined to die who has explosives with him. The point being it's hard to reason with someone whose already determined that if they're going to die, they're taking you with them.
Lastly, there is Halk. A broad shouldered swordsman who wishes to kill Eric John Stark, but keeps finding reasons not to. If the players do a good job at their various duties, if they treat the NPC's with respect, if they work out their differences, show that it has an effect on the game by changing the way that the Non-Player Characters react to them. At times the reader isn't sure if Halk is going to go for that vengance, but at the end with the characters have their last verbal confrontation, we know that Stark has Halk's grudging admiration.
Keep in mind the various points of origin of your world. Keep the role of religion and the various things it can make a man do in mind. Keep in mind that the players can effect real change in the campaign and have the world react to it.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Leigh Brackett's The Hounds of Skaith

The Hounds of Skaith, written by Leight Brackett, and this edition published by Paizo, a company whose RPG interest in Pathfinder, their own online store, and other fields, includes bringing back many books of the Planetary Romance field. The Hounds is book two in the trilogy featuring Eric John Stark, following the Ginger Star.
But what does that mean for a role playing game?
A bit of it can be looked at in terms of world creation. Skaith is an old world. It's star far past its prime. The planet suffers from a slow cooling that prevents the world from supporting as many people as it had in the past. Many fantasy campaigns tend to have strange sections of the landscape that don't impact others. In the old Mystara world, it was hand waved away with some expalantion bout those parts of the setting that were vastly different than others as being closer to an elemental realm. In others, it's a pure magic expalantion like the Great Glacier in the Forgotten Realms series.
When putting the fantastical in the setting, think about the wider implications it may have. Especially if the phenomena is new. While it might be more effort than it's worth to try and assign ecological issues to an already existing problem, what if something causes one of these magical ecological disasters in a different spot that they players have to fight against?
The Hounds also brings in the old cursed magic item in the form of the Hounds themselves. These dogs are telepathic and kill with their minds. They cause a form of paralysis that allows the pack to chew on down. However, they must have a strong leader and they have ties to different factions that prevents them from coming into full use. In 4e, these types of items aren't that common anymore. The closest one might think of might be a bloodthorn item where it does a little extra damage than standard but the user takes some damage in return. In older stories, heroes would often use items that were powerful, but had unintended consequences or could turn against them. Think of Elric and Stormbringer or Corum and his original hand and eye. Items that brought pain and death to those around the Prince even when he didn't wish it so. In that way, the Hounds also function. Great to have on your side, but something you have to watch at all times.
The book also brings up environment as the enemy. I've mentioned it before in other Stark books and I'll mention it again. The environment, while lacking a personal face, while being an enemy that can only be survived and truly beaten, is one that is worth looking at adding to the game. While some may cry out against the lack of personality, the GM has a lot of variety in how the environment can play a role in the campaign. For example, a youth tries to lead Stark to a sinking swirl of sand and lose Stark in the desert. While Stark avoids the trap, it does showcase that you have to watch out for those you think can cause you no physical harm. Sure, the boy couldn't kill Stark, but by using the environment to do his dirty work, the boy doesn't have to. He can get the environment itself to do it.
Use the environment's deadliness as a reason why the players may need guides. And if players act as they sometimes do with the lording and the superiority, have the guide abandon them and spread word to others not to hire on for the players. On the other hand, if they treat the guide with respect and listen to him, perhaps even save his life, have the guide insure that the party is never without a trustworthy scout.
The Hounds of Skaith has one last bit that's hard to use in the campaign. A timeline. Stark must move quickly in his efforts to secure passage off world for his foster father because the lords of the world are cutting off all contact with outsiders. Failure to act quickly means complete failure. If the party is dithering and not moving, spending too much time planning, too much time with intra-party bickering, or just too much time messing with the Gameboy and PSP, give them a time limit that something has to be done in. The biggest problem with a timeline though is the opportunity for failure if that timeline is passed.
If the timeline motivated the players and got them into the game, don't punish them for missing it. Provide them another opportunity to make up their failure but make it one they have to work for. This way the game keeps moving even as the palyers have to work for their goals.
When looking for ideas on both dune dwellers and the strength of one man's resolution, The Hounds of Skaith is a good book to have.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Inevitible Crossover?

As the caretakers of the comic side of the Star Wars setting, Dark Horse has a lot of material to play with. This gives them access to numerous timelines, each one essentially acting as it's own setting.
In Vector Volume 2, we get a little of the more modern bits with the 'star' of this time delayed crossover, Celeste Morne, is a jedi with a sith artifact that feeds her knowledge of the old rackghouls, entities first introduced in the video game Knights of the Old Republic (and don't quote me on that as I know there are some rabid Star Wars timeline guardians out there.)
Her apperance in the Legacy era though, allows he to meet Cade. Her impression? Close to the dark side but a desire to be left alone.
Remember that assassination mission I mentioned in my last Star Wars based post that the Jedi Council decided to pass on? She's intrigued enough by Cade's ability to heal the ravages of the ghoul plague to help out.
There's a massive battle, Celeste almost falling to her artifact, Cade taking up said artifact and destroying it, the fall of a sith lord, not at the hands of Cade, but at the hands of one of his own, and a future that well, despite the 'success' of the hero, looks bleak.
But as always, what does that mean for your game?
One, if it's a game system based on ye old Dungeons and Dragons rules, it probably has multiple settings. Don't be afraid to mix and match elements to get a better game of out of the engine. I can't be the first person to use draconians in a non-Dragonlance game, and in 4e, they're not even based in Krynn anymore.

Don't be afraid to use 'official' materials to bring said worlds together. While there are whole settings devoted to the concept such as Spelljammer and Planescape, the author Michael Moorcock never had a problem using gates and other dimensional spanning devices, like the Ship the Sales the Planes, to have his characters such as Elric and Corum meet to have truly cosmic adventures. And don't let others tell you it's not 'old school' as the Judges Guild used to have a series of four sourcebooks that also acted as adventurers that included such classic as the Portals of Torsh, Irontooth, Twilight and another whose name escapes me at the moment. Each had a meta story that tied together but the actual ties to each other where shallow.
Don't be afraid to bring in characters that might not fit the setting. While character crossovers can be terrible if done ham fisted, when done in a manner where it all meshes, everyone can enjoy it. In the short stories collection of Elric/Eternal Champion based tales, Karl Wagner does a hell of a meeting between Elric and Kane.
In overall campaign arcs, love your NPCs but don't be afraid to let them die. Celeste, despite going through several phases and timelines, doesn't get an easy off. Darth Krayt, despite his power, suffers the same fate many who rely on evil minions do, the inevitible betrayal. Let the NPCs have their storylines, let them have their moment of glory, and then, let them go into that good night.
Have fun when mixing up the pace and let the NPCs do their duty before heading off into that final sunset.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

I Am Spartacus!

So while sick for the New Year's, I noticed an abysmal amount of reruns, unscripted live shows, game shows and other horrid things that my mind seeks to purge in a fit of medicinal use.

To help ease the congestion of my illness, I put on the Criterion Collection of Spartacus.

But how can this be of use to a role playing game?

1. The player might not be the important part of the campaign setting. While this attitude and opinion may not be popular, in Spartacus, the main character's final fate and indeed, his whole movement is little more than the political power players of Rome making their moves back and forth on a massive chessboard that includes not only Spartacus and his army, but various alliances with fellow senators, future leaders, and pirates. If the players remain ignorant of the wider world despite knowing of it and that comes back and crushes them in the face... well, they too may suffer the final fate of Spartacus, which from a legend standpoint, probably isn't bad but from a gaming standpoint...

2. The players have interesting things happen to them. Consider it fate, but when first introduced to his new life style, that of being a gladiator, Spartacus has been condemned to die. Why doesn't he die there? Does he spend an action point and someone shows up and goes, "Hey, I'll buy that slave!" or is it merely background story? What about later during his initial fight to the death? Spartacus loses that fight but doesn't die. Why? Perhaps because the other gladiator isn't a player character? But note what happens immediately after. The setting changes. The gladiator school falls. And it falls at the hands of the player.

3. I Am Spartacus: One of the main character's greatest abilities, isn't his fighting ability. He realizes that he's going to lose early on in the film. He realizes that in many ways, he's an ignorant man. He admits he can't even read. But he has a powerful believe and he knows the power of words, of poetry, or touching the human spirit and striving for equality for all. When his comrades and co-gladiators are given a chance to turn him in, to return to a live of slavery or die a brutal death of crucifiction, a fate they can avoid if only they will turn Spartacus in, one by one, they stand and each proclaims, "I am Spartacus!" If the players can engage the Non-Player characters of the setting, if they can prove by deeds, words, and a legacy, that they are worthy of such loyalty, give it to them.

4. Unintended Consequences: When the film starts, there appear to be certain characters that are going one way and at the end of the film, they are in nearly opposite stances. Take a young Ceaser in this moive. His initial apperance would not put him where he ends up at the end, nor where he will be placed in history later on. Indeed, it could be argued that the events of Spartacus' rebellion and how the Senators of Rome try to handle it mold the political power of Rome not by the act of rebellion, but by how the various factions within it wish it handled. Some hold onto old traditions, others act in a way that will end things quickest. Those that wish for the best of both worlds find that they can't have it. When the players engage vile sorcerers for spell components, when they work for cruel warlords, even if it's merely removing goblins or orc raiders, have those actions have consequences. The sorcerer can now afford the components necessary for his master summoning, the warlord, unhindered by humanoid raiders, is ready for a full scale invasion. It shouldnt' be something that hits the players out of the blue, but doesn't necessarily have to be a "ignore the man behind the curtain" moment either.

Give the player a background in which they can influence events and be epics in and of themselves and even if meet with failure and death, their efforts will have changed the campaign world and make them eager for another go around.