Sunday, February 28, 2010

Dissolution: More historical mystery

Dissolution by C. J. Sansom is the first book in the Shardlake historical series. After I read Dark Fire, I managed to score a copy of the first book at Half Priced, the old british version published by Panmillan.

Quotes will be taken from that version.

In the book, one of the most important aspects of the historical setting of England is religion. This takes all manner of aspects in the book. This ranges from the personal, introspection of the main character Shardlake, a man who once wished to be a member of the clergy and was denied due to his hunchback, to churches owning land, trying to pass laws, selling beer, and having vast sums of treasure that make them a target for others.

“The skull of St. Barbara,” Cromwell said, slapping the casket with his palm. ‘A young virgin murdered by her pagan father in Roman times. Form the Cluniac Priority of Leeds . A most holy relic. ‘ He bent over and picked up a silver casket set with what looked like opals. “And here- the skull of St. Barbara., from Boxgrove nunnery in Lancashie.’ He gave a harsh laugh. ‘They say there are two-headed dragons in the Indies. Well we have two headed saints.’

Human remains of the famous and the holy were often assumed to have power that could be granted to those that would go and see them. Fakery of such objects were not uncommon during the Dark Ages and in other eras. The Game Master could easily give such items minor powers for a campaign that only work for those who are of the same religion or could easily send the characters on a hunt for ‘true’ relics as opposed to those that are fake.

The real trick would be to discover which ones are real and which ones are fake. Depending on how robust the skill system is, for example, 3rd edition had a few skills that might work with some different skill checks. 4e might make it into a skill challenge or even a minor ritual, “Divine the Relic” or something of that nature. Other editions can be hit or miss, but the fun in those cases is in having the players hunt down the information when they can’t solve things with just a skill roll.

In terms of the main character’s lack of acceptance by the church, his deformity is noted as a restriction. If all men are made in God’s Image, having one who is not a whole specimen stands against that theory and none who suffer any physical deformity were allowed into that church where Shardlake studied.

“To the left , against the far wall, stood the usual outbuildings- stables, mason’s workshop, brewery.” Pg 40

A church, especially a monastery that may not be inside of a city, is not necessarily one building nor it is necessarily only occupied with those of the church. In this example, the church actually sells beer by exclusive contract to the town. They have more employees than actual church members. These little touches can add a lot to a campaign when dealing with the role of religion.

For example, a fighter may not actually be a member of the church, but may still believe. A rogue may have done work for a church in past, selling their liquors and perhaps developing a taste for their special brand of liquor.

Like the sequel Dark Fire, I strongly suspect that Dissolution will contain more strong writing invocative of the era.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Dark Fire: A Historical with Punch!

I read historical from time to time. They provide a nice touch of what was and perhaps some potential elements for a role playing game based on such elements. A good one is a great stepping stone into another time. I saw Dark Fire on sale at Borders during one of their various fire sales and picked it up. Even though this is the sequel to Dissolution, I had no problem reading it from start to finish and pondered its evocative images of a time long gone by.

But how does that help a person running a RPG? Below I’ll be discussing Dark Fire, using quotes from the trade paper back by Penguin books.

“There was a pleasant breeze; we were too far from the City walls here for London smells to penetrate.” pg. 31

When describing the background, remember that there are five senses. Smell can be a powerful one. Sight is the standard. Hearing can be used to point out some unusual elements or some very standard ones when trying to reinforce how a particular place is. For example, the lull of the waves against the shore. Taste is one not often used because it’s often only thought of during eating. However, a thick mist that taste of sea salt… not so different but still telling.

“His face hardened. ‘And because you care too much for the fate of the Wentworth girl and, finally, you are too afraid of me to dare cross me.’ Pg. 63

“What’s that in your pocketA?” Barak asked as we rode up Bishopsgate.” (pg. 75

One of the ways to get to players that they are in a place that matters, that what they are doing matters, that where they are going matters, is to put effort into it by providing names to locations, events, and people. It definitely takes more time as a game master and can be frustrating when the player’s don’t bite, but at the very least, at least you’ll have those names if the players come around that way again. This is most often useful for places that the players will be again and again. It allows the players to get an idea of the size of their home, the types of people that live there, and what is currently going on.

Shardlake’s patron is none other than Cromwell who has charged him with finding an ancient formula for Greek Fire, also known as Dark Fire. The important thing though, is this isn’t a simple “here’s 50 gold to do the mission.” This is a patron of many passions whose good to his friends, but always a hard man. If the players have a leader that is a Non-Player Character, why do they work for him? What does he do? How well connected is he? Is he a man with a reputation that insist one should not cross him? With the alignments in 4e simplified, it’s probably a little easier to handle a patron like that then in previous editions where players were often assumed to be working for the ‘good’.

“You’ve killed Sam?’ Toky’s voice was a horrified croak. “You’ve killed Sam!” pg. 446

Toky and Sam are two mercenaries who have been a plague on Shardlake and his comrades, getting into the spots they need to long before them, killing those they need to talk to, and seeking to end the life of Shardlake and his comrade.

However, they do not come across as nameless brutes or thugs. While doing research on whose attempting to get in their way, the backgrounds of Toky and Sam and brushed up and they’re given a little more character.

When you can give the bad guys flavor and flair, don’t be afraid to do so. It’s far more interesting to fight Toky the former mercenary with the plague ravaged face than another level 6 brute.

“He took a shuddering breath. ‘Lord Cromwell has fallen!’ Pg. 482

One of the continuous criticisms of the Forgotten Realms, is the wide plethora of powerful characters. Here, the author takes a real world figure, one of great power, perhaps only second to the king, and show cases that even when the players are successful in their own mission, that it may not always be enough. With their patron fallen, Shardlake and his comrade have new venues to explore and new adversaries and allies to discover. If the campaign is getting stagnant, don’t be afraid to kill the NPC’s and leave the players to their own devices. They might surprise you.

“She shook her head. ‘Class is everything. I am a Vaughan. Once I would have been happy to know you, you are one of those fit to be raised up, as my husband was. But not now, given your past loyalties and who the new powers are in the land. And I will not be lowered to your status Matthew.” She shook her head again.” Pg. 489

For a game based, in theory, on a certain time period of history, it does a bad job in many aspects of capturing those elements. One of those, is in class status and social levels. Perhaps back in the day when Unearthed Arcana first rose as one of those original hard cover supplements and its random tables allowed you to roll on them, did the core game concern itself with those elements.

And in those elements, there are a lot of potential role playing opportunities. Class in and of itself, is often seen as a divine right. It’s often seen as a right of arms. It’s seen as a right of inheritance. It’s seen as a right of the noble blood.

The benefit of using class in this manner, is that most characters are completely unconcerned with class. Now mind you, if your game is heavily focused on social class and status and you’ve been running such games for a long time, you already know this. But it’s a potential gold mine of role playing for characters because when they don’t care about who you are, but rather, as most players do, what you can do, it upsets the existing standards greatly.

This can be a useful tool for launching various aspects of the campaign. It can also be one for showcasing personal failings. For example, despite Shardlake’s kind spirit, he has failed to notice that one of his own workers is half blind and that is the cause of the numerous failings we find the lawyer yelling about in terms of quality. Even Shardlake, the hero of the story, has his own flaws as he merely thought his man incompetent and lazy, not suffering.

Dark Fire is full of great descriptions and it comes through by using a wide cast of characters and having numerous plot lines in the air. It provides descriptions that often come to light latter and provides a twist at its ending that doesn’t cheat the reader. If you’re looking for something to inspire, C. J. Sansom’s Dark Fire might have what you need.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Borrowing from Fringe

As sad as my movie viewing habits at the theater are, such as seeing Sherlock Holmes just recently as opposed to the months before it was out, my television viewing habits are probably just as bad. While I find reality shows not my thing, and don’t care how much damn talent America has,I do think that shows today tend to be written tightly and have layers to them that break from the older routine of episodic trends to more encompassing overall arcs.

The bad part I find about that though, is I get lost easily when I don’t watch the show on a regular basis. For example, Lost. I was okay the first two seasons but after that, it was all over for me. Other shows changes so quickly due to poor writing like Heroes, that I find it’s easier to just catch up on a series on DVD.

For example, Best Buy had fringe on sale for $9.99. I’ve heard good things about it and my mother is a fan of the show. I figure, for $9.99, I’m willing to make the investment.

As I’ve been watching it, Fringe is filled with good ideas.

Fringe, much like the older show, X-Files, tends to start with a situation that will soon involve the characters. The GM can help set the scene and the potential pace of the session by either handing the players a interlude sheet or telling them of a particular instance in ‘narrative’ format. Letting the players know that it’s not something that they directly know as their characters, but that it’s there for their mood setting.

The first episode for example, starts off with an airplane flying in turbulent weather with the passengers coming down with a case of the melting flesh. Before we’re introduced to the characters or any of their background, we’re introduced to the potential situation.

Oliva Dunham, the professional agent, is in many ways, an adventurer from the get go. Her job is to investigate and bring to a closure things of the unexplained. Much of her work, indeed, the work of all the characters, isn’t necessarily beating down some vile foe in continuous combat, but rather, to find out how these events are happening, to explain them to the audience in a manner that is at least plausible. Her initial team includes FBI and CIA. This is taking what could essentially be considered the best of both worlds.

In a campaign, having a special agency or organization is a solid method of having the players know one another. Paizo, publishers of the Pathfinder Roleplaying game, use the Pathfinder organization. A guild dedicated to bringing new knowledge of exploration and history to others.

One of the clear benefits of such an organization, is it has a chain of command. The players can get their missions straight from the top. Their own personal backgrounds and events in play, can be incorporated into the guild. During the first season, Oliva’s own background comes into the show and she finds herself at odds with her job as technically you’re not allowed to investigate anything involving yourself. Yet she does. As would players.

Another benefit is that it is an easy way to allow the Game Master to prep the session with numerous Non-Player Characters ranging from assistances to superiors to friendly rivalries. Some of these perhaps, not so friendly. An organization may reach out to other organizations, perhaps ones that the players have had direct contact with before, and perhaps not in a friendly way. This could lead to some intense role playing situations where the players are forced to rely on those that may not have their best in terest at heart. This could encourage the players to do their own politicking on their own side or to trust that their own actions will lead to others doing that for them by default.

In terms of the organization, one of the other potential benefits is the inside agent against the players. It makes a change from the external threat as the players must know ponder who to trust. How far does the corruption go. Who is likely to have motivation to betray them? Why? What organization do those traitors work for? These elements can go a long way in bringing the players into the campaign setting as opposed to fighting another kobold tribe.

Organizations do not exist in a vacuum. Often, these organizations must interact with other organizations. In Fringe, the corporation Massive Dynamics continues to come into play, often involved with many of the elements of the ‘fringe’ elements of the show itself. The corporation, in many ways, becomes a go to for the organization that Olivia works for.

The idea of Fringe as a tool for fantasy role playing games though, may initially seem odd to readers. But while much of the setting is pseudo science, fantasy games have magic. There are magical monsters, demons, metals, and of course magical diseases. Several of the iconic monsters of the Dungeons and Dragons game are even the result of wizards playing god with genetics long before such terms were common. Mongoose Publishing even did a 3.5 book on Crossbreeds for wizards who wished to specialize in such methods.

The benefit of such mutants in the campaign, is that it easily allows the Game Master to tailor the campaign menaces to the strengths of the characters. The origins of such creatures can range from deliberate acts of a single source, to one involving the accidental use of magic.

Gates between planes for example, can leak energy and change those who are infected by them.

Magical explosions, such as the one that destroyed a country in the Eberron setting, can also lead to horrors that survive the wastelands. This is a common element to post apocalyptic settings like Gamma World. That the fall out and forced evolution of the natives.

Magical diseases which cause the infected to change as the disease progresses are another staple. One of the most famous being the old Zombie Virus.

For players, Fringe has potential too. Walter of course, brings the most to the table. With his various eccentricities and his mad science background, the viewers discover that much of what goes on in the series is related, in one way or another, to Walter’s former experiments or those he used to know back in the day. Imagine playing a mad wizard, alchemist or cleric whose initial entry into the party is based after years of being out of the game.

What physical actions would such a character have. What nervous ticks? Would they stutter? Tap their fingers constantly. Whisper to themselves?

At first, Walter’s son seems to be somewhat the odd man out. Not a member of the special agent force, not a brilliant man with the same background on his father, he’s there to play intermediary with his father. But he does act as many things. His contacts indeed, become a major focus for helping on the show. He always knows someone. In addition, he’s always willing to challenge his father, leading to some interesting scenes which can be excellent role playing material when dealing with characters that are related.

One of the things that the show starts off with though, is that in order to get things done, you have to make the characters have skin in the game. Olivia for example, is willing to undergo a potentially lethal order in the very first episode on the basis of how much she needs information.

In 4e, this could be something of a skill challenge relating to the event in question. The player, per standard, has to make a series of skill checks against the DC of the ritual. Each failure bringing with it racking pains. With older editions of the game, often the suggested challenge would be in assembling the ingredients in the first place.

In terms of theme, in a 4e Points of Light default setting, that might be a little more difficult. According to the first episode of Fringe, one of the themes is that society has reached a point where technology has come so far, that its past regulation. This type of evolved science, or in the case of Dungeons and Dragons, magic, requires some solid foundations to lay those stones upon.

On the other hand, much of this could be rediscovery of what caused those ancient empires to collapse in the first place and the players are some of the few specialists society has in dealing with those terrors from a bygone era.

Another element that Fringe tends to handle well, is the campaign with episodic components. While many of the episodes are seemingly self contained, there are often references and continuations of previous episodes that manage to give the show an overall arc. Using individual elements in the campaign and occasionally having a larger theme or campaign in the background can lead to a potentially richer campaign if you get player buy in.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Powerful Artifacts? Why Not? Glen Cook's The Swordbearer

It's been a while since I've read the first novel in the Elric series. I recall Elric having to do quite a bit of questing in order to secure his artifact black blade, Stormbringer.
Here, the main character Gathrid is essentially handed an artifact level blade.
Should you do such a thing for your own campaign? The immediate response many people may have would be no, but its possible to have the players have powerful items and still not be undefeatable.
Gathrid stopped. He was surprised at himself. "Oh. Yes. All right." He felt a moment of shame. He was becoming arrogant behind his despair. He was getting too confident of his immunity from every peril but Rogala's dagger." (p.135)
Rogala is the one who presents Gahtrid the sword. He's also the one who usually ends the life of the sword bearer. As the old saying goes, "I brought you into the world and I'll take you out." Having a specific individual that can claim responsibility for the artifact that isn't the player can quickly qell certain types of player behavior common to those mad with power.
"Nieroda picked up a javelin. She bounced it in her hand like an athlete getting its feel. She cast it too quickly to follow. Gathrid brought Daubendiek round to deflect it.... He was not its target. It slammed through his mount's breastplate. The animal dropped instantly. It never made a sound." (p. 157)
Say the character is very difficult to handle. He's still got to get places. If using standard modes of transportation, those themselves can easily come under attack. Even in several of the Elric stories, despite the pale prince's sorcerous abilities and his black blade, he's found himself in dire situations. The oceans aren't impressed with a powerful sword.
"Gathrid reflected on the Mindak and grew cold. Ahlert was as much Choosen as he. They were pawns of the Great Old Ones." (p.197)
As powerful as the characters may become through their items, they are not the only ones in the world that may have such powerful items. And generally, items of such a nature tend not to work too well together, although they are notable exceptions (such as the old Hand and Eye of Vecna).
"On the narrow veranda surrounding the Raftery the remaining Toal were assembling ballistae and training them down the Hundred Steps. One salvo would end the threat of the Swordbearer. He might deflect a shaft or two, but not an entire flight." (p. 219)
It's mentioned at several points in the book, that as powerful as his sword is, the swordbearer isn't invulnerable. Mind you, characters in a role playing game tend to be a little... I don't want to say sharper, but have a lot of options, especially in terms of outside powers and abilities that characters in literature are never meant to have.
Be that as it may though, next time you see a powerful weapon and think it's not for your campaign, think about it again!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The City of Sherlock Holmes

I'm one of those people who is often late to the party when it comes to movies. I have little patience for crowds of the ignorance most often found in crowds. Still, I manage to get out and see a movie or three when the mood strikes me and the movie's already been out for several weeks.
In this case, it was Sherlock Holmes.
One thing that struck me about the city in which Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law are running about, is that it has many elements of a city I try to incorporate in the background, but often forget to. For example, the ending of the movie reaches its showdown in a massive structure still under construction.
Cities should be constantly evolving. Different stylings of buildings, ranging from their age to waves of migration should be visible. People should always be seen in the background doing 'great works' ranging from bridges, road work, temples, statues, and castles, to more mundane building or even repair after successfully repelling, or at least surviving an attack. Keeping the city in a state of evolution may seem odd, that it will propel the city into some odd future too soon, but the real trick, especially in settings taking place in ancient times, is that things took time. Castles and chruches could take years to complete.
The other thing that struck me was the various cultures to be found. When Sherlock is doing his brawling among the Irish for example, or when his nemesis of this movie uses French and Chineese muscle to work his will. A city should be home to many cultures, even if all of them don't get along or share the spotlight. The potential for conflict is one of the things that can drive adventurers forward.
In the dreaded 'real' world for exmaple, many Muslims rioted in France. Cars were set afire. This was no third world that was happening in. That was France. In a fantasy setting, if the players are in with the local militia and powers, would they be willing to attack those who were out venting their rage at the unjustice social system? Would they be willing to shed blood to bring peace to the city?
Would others be willing to force such conflicts in order to hide their own activities? Nothing like a mob starting a riot in order to acheive other, more subtle goals that need a little diversion.
Lastly, when thinking about cities, remember how huge they are. In this movie, the set up for the sequel is in play throughout it, but to me, it felt fairly organic if a little pushed. The infamous Professor, never even seen in the light so to speak, set up as a major power player without coming to the front of the game. When using the city, always have multiple potentials in the air. This doesn't necessarily mean that the players should be hunting down each and every clue, but by providing the players with some hints about other inhabitants of the city that could prove of worth later on down the road, when those individuals are introduced, you've already laid the ground work and it's not just bringing in another character from stage right.
Keep the cities thriving with the people who live in them. Keep those nationalities and ancient rivalries in mind and let the players know that they are not the only inhabitants of the city.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The City of Ravens by Richard Baker

I'll be discussing the City of Ravens, written by long term Forgotten Realms author Richard Baker. Any page references used will be from the paperback.
"How do you intend to divide five gems, Jack? Four or six present no problem, of course, but five are difficult to split between two partners." (pg. 5)
One of the things that may not always be thought of before the group actually hits the road, is how to split the money. In most of the groups I've run and those that I've been a player in, for the most part, it wasn't a big issue. All coins were split evenly. Gems and jewelry or other art objects were sold. Magic items were given to the person who could use them best, or sold and the funds evenly split.
There were a few tense times when multiple people wanted an item that anyone could use. I'm sure those groups I was involved in during those terse times aren't alone. Having some sort of plan ahead of time might have smoothed out even those transactions.
"The Game of Masks?" Jack tried not to wince. The Game was a noble diversion, an ongoing series of play acting events wherein the participants took on various roles and tried to solve puzzles, stumble through a plot or play at great deeds." (pg. 38)
One of the reasons I tend to favor city based adventurers isn't that it's an escape from the dungeon. After all, there are often dungeons in the castle. The sewers under the streets can be considered dungeons. The maze like alley ways of the dock wards are another dungeon.
No, I tend to enjoy cities because there is often more to do for those whose interest do not rest soley on testing their powers in new and interesting ways against monsters of various caliber. In a city, you can do wine tasting contests, engagements of skill, and even things like the old Game of Masks.
"In the name of all the gods, why should I know who that was? He was your identical twin! Are you telling me that you have no idea why someone who looks exactly like you showed up at my doorstep, ushered me into the coach, and started pawning at me like a lovesick orc?" (p.148)
Individuals who make a name of themselves also make a face for themselves. Others might decide to put that face and reputation to their own use. In a gmae like Dungeons and Dragons, there are spells, monsters, magic items, and other methods of capturing an individual's likeness and then using that reptuation to perform various acts, all of which might not be what the original would have done. It can be quite a challenge to overcome a perception problem where everyone who believed the character to be one way, now have to ponder if the character was every truly that way.
"I... I think I'm all right," the mouse piped. "Oh thank you, Master! Thank _" And that was all, for at that moment the wheel of a passing cart rolled right over mouse and wizard's hand both, crushing each beyond hope of repair. (pg 98)
The hand of fate is often fickle. Try to make sure that the fickle nature of reality is helping the players as much as it is hindering them. There's no shame in allowing a few entertaining moments to happen and help the players out of a jam, especially if it's one that they couldn't avoid or one brought on soley by poor dice rolls. If it's organic and follows the rest of the campaign, the player's probably won't mind being saved in suc ha fashion.
The City of Ravens is another of what I call my 'popcorn' books. It's not a deep read, but it's a fun one and Richard Baker does a solid character whose a well intentioned rogue with a dash of magical ability. The Forgotten Realms setting, especially the city of Ravensbluff itself, gets some well deserved attention here and provides the reader with much to draw on ranging form the city's vast history, to various liquors, to the material I've quoted above.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Arthas Rise of the Lich King by Christie Golden

Some may see a World of Warcraft title and moan at the cheese factor. Ironically enough though, many RPG elements, long standing ones, are present in the World of Warcraft. After all, it, despite the gloss and polish, is the spawn of old school RPGs no?
For example, it's a setting with a massive history, most of which is unknown to the people with vast swathes of time going by with important things seeming to happen only when important characters are about. Sounds a lot like the Forgotten Realms to me.
This is important to me for a few reasons. For example, when Arthus encounters the Nubians. These spider, insect humanoids are an unknown prior to the meeting. But right after that meeting? A valuable part of the army. So much like a role playing game. For example, who had to introduce a race of tielfings to the campaign or the dragonborn? Whole new races and cultures introduced at a snap of the fingers and in some cases, like in Blackmoor, always assumed to be there, just not known to the players.
For example, important characters abound in the fiction and setting itself, but may not always be encountered by the actual players. These characters tend to have magic items powerfully associated with them, if not more infamy. Sounds like Greyhawk, where spells and magic items are often named right after the original parties and put into many of the Player's Handbooks of long ago lore.
Anyway, enough of comparing RPGs to the WoW's setting. How can something like Arthas be useful in a role playing game?
First off, it's a compiled and brief history of Arthas from his youth to his latest actions in the north. For a role playing game, this could be something as simple as a guide to detailing out some portions of an important NPC, to giving a player some ideas on personality shaping events to crib and change for their own characters.
Or it could be used as a guide on making a reference work for the campaign's own big bad. Arthus, unlike many villains in the setting, is not some ancient legend come ten thousand years out of sleep. He's not some other worldly entity invading the land. He's a relatively young prince, corrupted and empowered by those energies. A slightly different perhaps to those fighting him, but an important one.
In your own campaign, are there any friends or allies, even friendly rivalries that may have a similar story? That they have been corrupted by power? That they may not even think themselves in the wrong but go about their own tasks with such ruthless efficiencies that those who know them best know that this is not the way to achieve progress and that the cost will be so tremendous that its best to find another way? Friends often disagree, but when those friends are at the head of an army and wielding rune blades, those disagrements may be more than mere words.
Besides the history lesson though, the book hits major points of the condensed timeline of the setting. Are there spots in your own campaign setting that the players can touch? Are there ancient cities that they could have learned at? Are there old mentors that might have taken an interest in the players? Are there rival houses that offered the players shelter during a time of need? These background elements are best used when you can bring them back into the campaign at a latter date. They can showcase the continuity of the setting.
The book also benefits from the setting. It has a list of further reading that numbers many books. Having numerous authors and various ways of interacting with the setting allows the setting to benefit, and suffer, in ways that a setting designed by a single person can't do. For example, the details. The cities. The various races and events. On the other hand, some of the writers tone and methodology is so different that the consistency of the setting may suffer. It's part of the problem of appealing to the largest crowd.
When dealing with players who want to know everything, a careful hand must be used. It's great to get players interested in the setting. Its terrible to get players who think they are the final authority of the setting. Remember, as soon as your players make characters, indeed, even before that, as soon as you decide to use that setting, it's not longer a setting of 'official' only materials. The players don't exist in those official written documents. Some of the characters, maybe all of the non-player characters you make, may not exist in those settings.
When using a setting, make it your own. For those players that insist on having the setting only use official material, you have a few options open to you. I always prefer the first, I tell that player that it's not going to work that way and if they want to play, drop the attitude. Of course others may not want to go that route. Some may want to find out the root cause of the devotion of the 'official' setting. Perhaps they have a character idea so deeply ingrained into the setting that some change invalides it. The degree to which you wish to placate your players will vary tremendously from Game Master to Game Master, and from situation to situation. Handle it in a way that leaves you as the Game Master and with a game you're willing to run.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

THe Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sander's Mistborn comes to it's conclusion in the Hero of Ages.

Some of the things I'll be discussing below I've mentioned before, but as they continue to come up in books, they tend to reinforce their utility for both writing fiction and crafting entertaining games.
1. Vague prophecies. The Hero of Ages is an old prophecy that started off the series. It's been mentioned time and time again. It's been vague enough that many could fit the title, and when we, the readers finally discover who the hero of ages is, I wouldn't be shocked if many readers, much like I, were indeed fooled by the way the books had gone up to this point.
It wasn't a bluff nor a lie as people thought one character or another was the hero, but because it was vague, it was applicable to many fields. In a role playing game that may have several players in it, this is a good thing, allowing different players to fill in different parts of a propehcy.
2. The environment. The main foe here, Ruin, isn't a physical being. It's one of power. On a whole seperate plane of existance. It's destroying the world through continuous ash fall from volcanic mountains and earthquakes. No matter how might a physical foe, such as a dragon or giant is, often, there are ways to beat them that fit into the content of a role playing game. When it's trying to see through ash fall that storms down, the prospects of using a daily power or a utility power against it aren't quite so good.
Environmental disasters also offer something that Game Masters can use and that's a time limit. If the players are unable to keep moving, then the world ends and they lose. This is useful if you're players are the types that like to expand all of their neat toys in each and every fight and suffer the "fifteen minute a day" adventuring syndrome. By putting a time line on events, they don't have the time to wait a full day and recover their abilities, they have to keep going.
3. The prize. In this case, if the heroes lose, the world is doomed. And even if they win, the world is forever changed. At the end level of almost every edition of D&D (Advanced, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th), once the players can start using 9th level spells, and have magic items of the appropriate level, they should be the ones helping to determine the final fate of the setting. Go big or go home as the old saying goes.
4. Campaign styles: Here, the author has done a very solid job of making the campaign setting be very coherent. The world building ties together very nicely and many elements of it come together in this final volume. One of the benefits of doing a home brew as opposed to an off the shelf setting, is a home brewed can allow the Game Master to hit specific elements and themes and have them be consistant. Purchased settings, like Forgotten Realms and others, tend to be very emcompassing, allowing a wide range of player arche types to mix and mingle with one another without regards to the consistency of the actual campaign setting. It works if you don't examine things too closely but can fall apart if you try to figure out why faction Y hasn't simply abosrbed country B, etc...
In addition, some feel that they shouldnt' change an established campaign setting. Be making up your own, you completely negate that whole fear and worry. You can hold different games in different eras, allowing players to see the effects of their previous characters on the campaign setting, which can be very satisfying.
The Hero of Ages brings a satisfying conclussion to the Mistborn series and does so in a fasion that leaves the setting changed and the reader, perhaps a little shocked at the events, but satisfied nontheless.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

More thoughtso f Ascension

One of the things that I try to keep in mind when I'm reading a book, is that even if there are some great ideas and it reads solid, it may not be appreciated if incorporated into the game.
For example, Vin, is certain of a particular course of action she must take. Her scholar friends are also convinced of it. She must not take the power of the Well of Ascension for herself.
Turns out that was a lie and that she winds up releasing something that leads us into the next book.
Works well for a book. The hero must go to some levels of redemption.
In a role playing game? It might not work quite as well because as far as I can tell, the characters all put in time with their specialties and were essentially flat out lied to by the Game Master.
Don't get me wrong. I have no problem giving players enough rope to hang themselves with, but if you're going to let players have specilties and have them go through various trials and tribulations and lie to them anyway to have them set up the next episode of the campaign, it's a railraod and it's probably close to the Game Master wanting to write fiction as opposed to Game Mastering.
In addition, Vin, who I've described before as being very much a player character, initially has such a massive distrust of her kandra servant due to past issues, that she doesn't follow her questioning nature at first which smacks of not using every tool at her disposal. She eventually does start following those lines and it works out that her ally, the kandara, a race of near dopplengangers, will simply not answer some questions about their culture thanks to their own lore encoded in 'the Contract'.
It's okay if the players want to know about each and everything in the world, but that doesn't mean that every Non-Player Character is there to just spill out the history of their people. First off, many people, especially in a dark ages style setting, are ignorant of the real past of their people. Most don't leave the small towns they grew up on. It's one of the reasons they often welcome outsiders to gather news of the outside world, even as they may be insular themselves.
When looking for inspiration, remember that it's a group game and don't try to force the players down one path if they're not interested in it. On the other hand, don't be afraid of leaving some red herrings out there. There's nothing like providing just enough rope...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson part 1

Brandon Sanderson's sophmore novel of the Mistborn picks up one year after the end of the original book, The Final Empire.

This break provides an interesting contrast to many adventure paths, especially those in the former print Dungeon magazine. Several of those adventurers almost ran right into one another.

By providing the readers with a pause, you give some space to allow things to have happened and pick up the pace again.

The main character, Vin, continues to master her Mistborn powers. Like Rand from Wheel of Time, or Pug from Magician, the reader gets to see that those with power, especially in a setting that lacks weapons like guns, are essentially super heroes.

There are several scenes where Vin cuts lose with such power and martial authority, that those she faces are little more than sheep.

When running the game, think about how you want the players to fit into the campaign setting. Vin's power level gives her a reputation. Her training at the hands of Kel, gives her a reputation. Her continued exploration of the world about her and the powers of Mistborn in general, continue to push her reputation.

In some games, the Game Master wants the players to be in fear for their life. Every combat is a grim and gritty affair where a lucky kobold or lowly goblin may finish them off.
It's not absolutely necessary to run low powered campaigns for such threats however. For example, in this book, one of Vin's arch enemy is Zane, who is also a Mistborn. The Mistborn 'burn' metals and there is one metal that provides its user the ability to see the future actions of his enemy. Vin has run out of this metal and Zane hasn't. This gives their fight a sense of grim and gritty without making it a brawl in the sewers fighting over a crust of bread.

In terms of world building, when looking at a book and looking at a fantasy campaign, beware the differences and enjoy them at the same time. Here, one of the threats to Vin's home is a race of humanoids, the koloss are brought to the forefront. The koloss continue to grow but their blue skin does not. It rips and tears. They are savage and brutal, probably similiar to Fomorians in good old Dungeons and Dragons.

Because larger koloss are stronger koloss, they can represent a variety of threats. This is a solid way to present an enemy. However, it's still just one type of enemy. Most campaigns, indeed, most adventures, will use many more types of adversaries than that. Don't ignore the potential of culture building and trying to make the races unique and interesting in and of themselves, but if the players are biting to fight some undead or demons, don't foster your own favorites on them time after time.
The Well of Ascension continues the path started by the Final Empire and I'll ahve more to say of it in a future posting of Appendix N!