Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Usagi Yojimbo Book One: Bounty Hunter I and II

Usagi meets quite a few interesting characters in his time as a wandering samurai. One of those he meets is Gen, another masterless samurai like himself.

Where the two differ though, is that Gen is more 'realistic' about how the world works versus how Usagi would like the world to work. He has no qualms about robbing the dead, even honored samurai dead. After all, they have no future use for it right?

And where Usagi is on a journey to increase his own swordskill, Gen is a bounty hunter.

Ever since a green covered book by Bard Games called the Compleate Adventurer introduced me to the concept pf the Bounty Hunter, a subclass of the hunter in this optional AD&D compatible rule book, I loved the idea.

Bounty Hunters are perfect arch types in many ways for players to follow. They are often on the move. They have to go where their bounty is. They may be feared and needed by the local lords, but at the same time, they are not wanted. It could be considered a show of weakness that the lord cannot handle a particular issue himself, or it could be that the bounty hunters outstay their welcome or any number of social issues that happen when you have masterless men who are skilled with weapons around with no steady work.

Gen and Usagi have an interesting relationship at first. In many ways, they could both be player characters if the two players were friends. You see, Gen and Usagi, at first at least, have a bit of pranking going on. For example, Gen sticks Usagi with the bill the first time they complete am ission together. The second Usagi returns the favor.

Gen is a good recurring character because he is not 'bad' and is trustworthy even when he is not necessarily doing things the way Usagi would prefer.

When making allies and enemies for the players, you don't always have to go for the extreme. The players may be able to handle an ally who occassionally uses them for his own needs, as long as that same ally doesn't take dramatic action when the players do the same to him. And its up to the GM to provide the players with the opportunity to do the same with him. No one likes getting made into a chump multiple times by the same person and in a RPG setting, swords and spells can easily become the solution to that particular problem or worse yet, they ignore the NPC because they're just tired of him.

When players engage in this sort of behavior, the GM has to decide ahead of time where he's comfortable with it. Discussing it with the players before hand is not a bad idea in any case. If one person is playing a paladin and another plays a sneaky rogue whose still got a heart of gold, if the paladin insist on converting or killing the rogue when they first meet, there is likely to be party friction in such an instance. Try to remind the players that it's not always necessarily about "what their character would do", but how the game itself needs some trust between the party members if things are going to get beyond the killing of players by each other. While it's entertaining to read about PVP in places like Knights of the Dinner Table, it's not one of my preferred activities. I've got enough monsters and obsticles for the players to overcome.

Putting the players in a lurch can be a difficult thing to accomplish without going too far, but when done well, the players will remember and be looking for their own payout.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Usagi Yojimbo Book One: Homecoming

It would seem that one of Stan's favorite methods to get the action to his character Usagi, is to have him simply come upon it. In this instance, on a cold winter road on the way home to pay homage to his father's gravesite, Usagi comes across a gorup of travelers who decide he is a village who is not listening to their warnings.

The usual fight occurs and Usagi saves the hostage, a small child, that the ninja moles possessed. When the ninja retreat, he meets an old child hood sweet heart, Mariko, and we get a flashback of a tender moment between Marko and Usagi. During that flashback there is some banter, but also a quick showcase of Usagi as an artist, with Usagi himself noting that the brush is part of the samurai's discipline.

Usagi is a little shocked to learn that the child he saved is Marko's. Apparently she married Kenichi, Usagi's nemesis from when the two where children with another flashback.

The use of flashbacks here do a few things. They provide the character a reason to interact with his environment and they provide context for the action that takes place.

The use of an old rival married to his childhood sweetheart, could also have gone several ways. In some media, the old rival would look for any chance to dispose of Usagi in any way he could. Here however, the rival even winds up saving Usagi, with Usagi doing the same for him. This character who doesn't like Usagi is in some ways more interesting than someone whose just out to kill him.

How do players react to not being well liked? In the game I'm currently playing in, one of my friends makes a lot of characters because half the time he's in love with trying out different game mechanics and the other hanlf of the time he's trying to be a helpful player and fill a niche that the group is missing. His latest character is a sorcerer skill hound who comes from a noble background, Count Victor.

I kept referring to him as, "You." and when Count Victor pressed me on this matter, I explained that I'd already travelled with several other short stinted comrades and after a few weeks I might bother to remember his name. His response was to bribe me with an item we found later that night, asking my character, "What's my name." It was a funny moment at the table as his character was played the way the player wanted, with his desire to be well liked coming out even in simple things.

In terms of the background flashes, these additional flashes to do conflict with the earlier flashes in the book, but rather help to flesh out not only the characters but the setting. If a player has some idea for adding some elements to his background, before vetoing them, think about what those background elements actually mean to the game. Ask the player to define his relationships with others if he asks if he knows someone.

For exmaple, a member of a noble house may often have had guests and on the road may meet them. Ask the player how those interactions went and if it works with the campaigns themes and mood, run with it. Let the players do some of the campaign lifting when you can. It will allow you more time to come up with combat stategy and allow the players a better fit into the setting.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Usagi Yojimbo Book One: Chapter Two

In a role playing game, the characters are central to the action, but not necessarily central to the world. This is even more true when the characters really hold no political ambition and have no desire to mire themselves into the games politicans. This is in many ways how Usagi Yojimbo operates. He's a masterless Samurai whose interested in increasing his sword skills and doing things by what he considers the code of Bushido.
Having said that characters are not necessarily the center of the world, chatper two of Book One starts off with an introduction of characters that will be used through the series from this point on; Tomoe a female samuaria and her lord, Noriyuki. They stumble unto Usagi and are pursued.

It brings the action right to the characters door. Now while this method might not work for everyone, it will start a game going.

For example, in an evil campaign, the characters might attack the lone samurai and her lord. They might seek an alliance with Lord Hikiji who seeks the death of the Geishu lord. One of the things about role playing is that as the GM, you're not writing a script so things can always happen that surprise you. Use events and hooks that you think the players will go for or will go for in a way that you want to happen.

If you have a blackguard, half-orc assassin, a necromancer and demon-summoner in the party and throw the lone guard and lord, yeah, expect it to go a far different way than even a standard group of adventurers who might want to be on a lord's good side but want a little incentive for it.

One of the ways you can augment the chances of things happening as you as the GM might like, is to set up parallel events. The enemy of Tomoe, Hikiji, is also just by chance the same one who wound up killing Usagi's old lord.

In terms of adventure writing, the GM should have different elements in mind. One thing that crops up in Usagi with some frequency is the weather. During his efforts to elude capture for Tomoe and her lord, night travel proves difficult. How often does the environment come into play as you prepare material?

During one fight, while Usagi does his bodyguard thing, Tomoe is surprised by a disguised assassin. In a campaign where magic is often as common as it is in standard Dungeons and Dragons, these disguised individuals could be anything ranging from a standard doppelganger to a dragon. In a more grim sword and sorcery or historical adventure like Usagi, just being in the right place at the right time with the right clothes is enough to make a thin disguise that may work against those in a hurry.

The GM can also use elements outside the characters to indicate that things might not be what they seem. In some games, this might be resolved by a standard perception or other skill check. It's a valid method that's worked for years. But in some 'old school' methods the players might be awarded the benefit of not being surprised if they notice animals moving in a certain way or if their new stray dog is indicating danger ahead.

The world building in Usagi doesn't happen instantly but it does happen. As Tomoe and her lord are walking, the peasants sing of their hard life. When the lord encounters the stray dog, he takes it home and it becomes his pet. Tomoe and the lord make several appearances in the series and the relationship between the ronin and the clan grows and deepens.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Usagi Yojimbo: Book One, Chapter One

Usagi Yojimbo is a hell of a comic. It's often described as "A masterful adaptation of samurai legend to sequental art."  The story is that of a masterless samurai named Miyamoto Usagi who often acts as Yojimbo or bodyguard.

I was introduced to Usagi many years ago but can't recall the specifics. Unlike the manga Berserk, published by Dark Horse also, I actually don't own all of the Usagi books yet. The series has been around for a long time and is still being printed and still being collected.

In this first chapter of the first book, our Samurai Rabbit approachs a house and asks for shelter and it is granted. The elderly woman inside relays that her husband was killed in a great battle, one that Usagi also took part in. 

Here Usagi's background comes out just a little. We learn that he served a lord and failed. The lord died but Usagi escaped with the Lord's Head to prevent it from being disgraced.  Usagi asks the old woman why she doesnt' fear the goblin of the region and she says it is not here karma to die by such a creature's hands.

During the night when the beast attacks, Usagi is ready and quickly dispatches it. He learns that it is his old mentor's betrayer and that he was once 'normal' like Usagi but guilt and rage drove him to become monstrous.

The part I'd like to touch on here is the background. It's brief but it presents a motivation for Usagi to wander. It's brief, but ties into the scene. It's brief, and it can be expanded.

In that I'd like to offer my own character Rus as a way of comparrision. One of my friends was running a Forgotten Realms 4e campaign. He is known by the group to be a pretty fair GM, one who gets into character's background and other bits. I didn't both putting down anything because I was more interesting in some light popcorn style playing and testing out some game mecahnics and more importantly, my friends and I were aware that despite his good habits as a GM, his worst habit is being a flake and quiting after running for a brief time.

So the inevitable happens. He stops running. But another player picks it up. He's interested in our backgrounds and would like more details. I resist the urge and put only the faintest bit of background into it so that I can keep gaming. It provides the other players, who are mostly new, with a lot of scenarios designed around them, but I still don't know the new GM so I hold off on it.

I do however, write out my character's take on how various adventurers go based on what happens to the game and throw some reference to the background ideas I have there. After a few months of this the GM wants some more information directly from me and I provide it in layered spades as at this time, I'm pretty sure the GM is going to be running for a while and is more than capable of taking things into the game from background.

The thing that I'll tie this into Usagi though, is that as the game has continued, I've added little bits of background to the game. In one instance, this was to form a tie or link with another new player. I thought it best if the new character had some ties to the campaign. The other time was when I was adding some details about the character's family. 

Neither instance effected the current campaign save to provide it with more opportunities.

This is more easily accomplished if you're not playing a wet behind the ears character. Sure, it may seem strange to flashback to your character being roughly as effective as he is at higher levels, but this is in part the nature of the game. If the Game Master is willing to let the players narrate their past histories with the setting and to include events in it, the Game Master can take those elements and add them to the campaign. This allows the world building to be done by the players and gives them more interest in the setting as they've now helped to develop it.

When thinking of background, it can effect current game play but most importantly, shouldn't get in the way of game play. 

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Burrowers

Ah, the modern use of the internet. One of the people I follow on Twitter mentioned that the Burrowers was worth a viewing, and it was indeed. Not a modern masterpiece of Western Horror but filled with some interesting ideas.

Some of these ideas are not new mind you. Looking at the first one where man is often responsible for his own plight. This was true when I was a young man watching reruns of movies like Them and Food of the Gods, to the Burrowers. In the former movies, it was often man's entry into the Atomic Age that caused natured to rebel against man and to spew forth giagantic and horrific monstrosities.

In these cases, its easy to see why man is responsible. Often these are thinly disguised lectures about the dangers of things man does not and perhaps was not meant to know. In fantasy settings, this is often replicated with some type of fantasy holocaust. Eberron has its Mournlands, the Forgotten Realms has Thay, now a land of the undead. There were several sights in the Forgotten Realms that because sources of Wild Magic during the Time of Troubles, the recent Spellplauge has added its own areas of unrest, and the examples flow from there.

These magical regions of chaos are usedful when creating new monsters, when providing a location for monsters, or for providing a safehouse that only a madman would use. In Eberron, the Lord of Blades has picked his home quite well.

In the Burrowers on the other hand, prior to all of this atomic age stuff, man was still doing bad things. In this case, the Burrowers, used to feast on the buffalo. Western settlers are responsible for the destruction of vast herds during their settling period and well, in this case, the Burrowers still have to eat. Next up on the food chain? Why man of course.

Another problem that is brought to light here, is that man often thinks he knows more than he does. In this case, those who investigate the Burrowers, by proxy of a missing family, think that it's a native attack and kidnapping which leads to the creation of the party of rescuers. There are small signs at first that things are not what they appear to be, but these go unheeded.

In this case, the casting of stones, the thinking that the Native Americas are to blame, leads to several gun fights with the Natives as well as casualties on the 'heroe's side. In a role playing game, this might be done through the use of red herrings. In this case, it's easier to ignore the tell tale signs that something different is about than it is to think that something unknown and unknowable is out there.

The ignorance is eventually lifted when the party encounters the Burrowers. These are some strange creatures that move about on all fours and use a poison that could be similiar to spider venom in that it essentially makes people easier to eat as it turns them... soft after a period of several days. Depending on the dosage, the individual may become completely paralized. In Dungeons and Dragons 4e, this might be represented with something like a disease track where after missing so many saves, essentially you're finished. Might start with Dazed, then Stunned, then Stunned and Immobilized. Not a good thing but in a system that features magic cure alls, not as bad as it would be in a historical setting.

In many adventurers though, the players are not allowed to stay in ignorance. The lifting of ignorance can be brought about by several means. One of those found most often in Call of Cthulhu games includes research into tomes, papers, recordings, and interviews with people who may be knowledable about the situation. In this case, the information comes through in bits from several natives that try to warn the search party away from the Burrowers and to go back to their homes.

The interesting thing here though, is the addition of the language barrier. When there is a language barrier and only a few characters can speak with the knowledge base, they are now on a different level of power. If that is the Dungeon Master's intent, he should go with it, providing the answers to any questions in written form only to those who understand the language being spoken. In some instances, such as the movie, where the one of the searchers is essentially finished from poiosning, he keeps that secret hoping that he can find a cure.

Another twist on things is the use of bait. In one scene, two of the characters wake up and realize that their leader has left the fire growing untended which makes them an easy target in the darkness. Latter on this circle is carried around as that leader is then poisoned and left for bait for the burrowers. It's a tactic used in the post apocalyptic Tooth and Nail as well. By poisoning a food source, the players can gain an edge up against thier enemies and the GM shouldn't hold that smart thinking against them.

The movie ends of a down note though as the last surviving character learns that his own guide to killing the Burrowers and his allies, have died under circumstances best described as embarrisngly stupid which leads us back to point one where man brings a lot of the pain he suffers in this movies upon himself.

In the end, The Burrowers showcases what could very well be a group of standard adventurers, each of them men with weapons enough to kill a dozen men over, meeting something of the supernatural and the horror of things man was not meant to know.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Oath of Gold; The Deed of Paksenarrion Book III by Elizabeth Moon

Oath of Gold is the third and final book in The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon.

So what did I think of when reading it?

Don’t be surprised if the readers, aka the players, figure out your plot points and hidden agendas before you’re ready for them. I knew what the big twist here was probably fifty to sixty pages before it was ‘officially’ revealed in the book and those parts I read in between the figuring it out and the big reveal were almost ‘wasted’ to me.

If the players figure out that the local Duke they’ve been working for is actually a lost half elf heir, then run with it then. Don’t make them travel all around the campaign setting collecting little clues and bits of lore to verify it unless you are absolutely certain those pieces of the puzzle are going to blow the players out of the water. You don’t want to bore the group with how smart you are.

In terms of the lost heir, this is a common theme and dates back to the big baddie of them all, the Lord of the Rings. This is not a problem. Some Game Masters are unhappy if their campaign has any links to the original material. They feel that elves, dwarves and Halflings are all overdone and that only by having a ‘pure’ campaign setting, can they ‘evolve’ their campaign.

If you’re playing with new people who’ve just seen those movies on Blue Ray though, they make excellent ‘touch’ points. The reason authors like Terry Brooks and Dennis L. McKiernan are essentially able to add fan fiction additions to the setting and sell, is because people like these common fantasy themes. Some of the more esoteric settings like Talislantia and Journe might be so off the path that none of the players can relate to them and thus languish.

Use that enthusiasm the players bring to the table and when possible, provide them your own recommended reading or movie list if you find that those ‘old styles’ don’t necessarily mesh with your own campaign running. Nothing worse then bringing new players to the game who are eage to play reclusive elves who are master of the bow only to learn that in your setting based on Dragon Age that all elves are slaves.

Another thing I though, was that songs are a part of many a campaign setting. While I’m not saying you as a GM need to write out some golden oldies hits, songs are like legends and lore in the campaign setting and can reveal the character of the setting itself. By writing out a few songs and insuring that the players know them, the GM can provide further bits of culture to the players so that they have a better, firmer grip of the setting they live, fight, and die in.

In terms of power source, Paks, being an unordaned paladin in any official church sense, is accepted by the official members as her powers are given to her straight for the deities. She gains a sense of purpose and a sense of right and wrong that make her know where she should be and where she should go.

In Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition, and to a lesser extent previous editions, characters are defined by their power source. Paks would be ‘divine’. In such an instance, the Game Master can use that divine power source as a source for pushing the party in a certain direction. It allows the players to have a patron larger than any one particular individual while still giving them plenty of space to work.

4th edition for example, has tied psionics into the Far Realms and the GM could easily substitute a call to action against local aberrations as opposed to a paladin being nudged to go a certain direction.

In terms of Paks abilities, one of them is to sense evil, or at least powerful evil. When she meets the Duke’s intended, the woman sets off the alarms in Pak’s head. If Paks had just been a regular warrior, then that plot line could’ve have gone on for several books being built up in the background. Paks takes care of it in a few pages.

This is just a reminder that you need to refresh yourself with the abilities of your players. If you design an adventure around certain plot points that the players are able to easily overcome or avoid thanks to their abilities, you’ve missed something in the preperation. While some GMs are happy with a result like this because it can showcase the players own unique talents and abilities, be sure that’s why you’re designing the encounter that way in the first place.

As a game master, the weight of the game often falls upon the game master’s shoulders and to create what is not needed is essentially a waste of time.

In the end, the three volume series, The Deed of Paksenarrion costs me $3.00 from Half Priced books and was well worth those funds. If you’re looking for something that has echoes of The Lord of the Rings with a more military ring to it and a quicker progress, you might enjoy the Deed of Paksenarrion.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Divided Allegiance by Elizabeth Moon

Divided Allegiance is book two of The Deed of Paksenarrion written by Elizabeth Moon.

As in the first book, Elizabeth Moon showcases a strong grasp of everyday subjects that the characters in such a setting must go through. This includes Paks cleaning of her black stallion’s hooves, checking them for wounds, cuts, and training. This section alone could be used as a hand out to a player who enjoys mounted combat but is unsure what the standard duties of taking care of such a mount might be.

A large part of the book, is what Paks wants to do with herself. She’s not really clear of the idea of what she wants to do or be but she knows that she wants to be a competent fighter. She seeks high end t raining from the warriors of Grid, a patron saint of warriors in the setting.

During her training, she is accepted to become a paladin. For some games, this may seem strange as the paladin may be a core class. In others, the paladin may be a rarity. In earlier editions of Dungeons and Dragons for example, the paladin had to have fantastic stats and this alone made the class fairly rare. In a late 3.5 option book, Unearthed Arcana, there was a Prestige Class devoted to allowing one to become a paladin. Prior to that, there were several prestige classes that allowed one to become a holy warrior.

4e has both Paragon Paths and Epic destinies. Depending on how the Dungeon Master runs his campaign, he may want to know what the players are interested in branching out at a very early point in their career to provide that training in game. Other GMs may just allow the players to take such a class with the assumption that the player has always been training for it.

When the complaints of rapid level advancement hit the game table, the GM can slow that down with in game events. Previous editions of the game often called for a xp limit, that you could gain no more xp than necessary to raise one level. Others included training time between levels that cost gold. Part of that though, was in older editions you gained experience points for gold and would often wind up with an amazing amount of loot.

In her search for further training, she is initially prodded on by not enjoying the dirty work that she is forced to do in the Duke’s mercenary employment. This isn’t dirty work in a sexual fashion, but rather, the taming and conquering of cities by sword and hangman. It’s work that a person whose preference is for clean combat does not like.

This is another important element that I’ll get back to. If you are taking the campaign in a certain direction and start getting clear signs from the players that they do not want to go in that direction, don’t go in that direction. You don’t have to change what’s happened in the past, but provide an out for the characters so that they can move the campaign in a direction they want to play in. Paks does this by leaving her company and seeking higher training. She does so on good terms and when she meets the Duke later, they are still friends.

There are other aspects to the book that almost fall perfectly into RPG terms. For example, this setting has its own version of dark elves. Unlike the traditional RPG dark elves who have black skin and are obviously evil most of the time, these are more like the Warhammer dark elves who caused a war between dwarves and high elves through deception because no one could tell the physical difference.

While I wouldn’t recommend another whole race of evil elves, it certain can’t hurt to have the players encounter elves who are not pleased with the rise of man or the forces that may be as old as them. This can be showcased in a number of ways ranging from the subtle to the outright attack. Having some background elements in mind for these renegade elves would be a good thing to give them a little more depth than might be standard for dark or demon elves.

Other traditional gaming elements include the arena. My copy has a cover of Paks standing victorious over several dead orcs with a massive spider behind them. IN the book, Paks is captured by these dark elves and made to fight time and time again and her wounds are healed with dark magic that allow evil and anger to take seed in her soul. That leads to other problems.

However, the quick succession of battles she fights would easily be possible in a standard 4e campaign. The only real trick would be players burning too many healing surges or using their daily powers too quickly. The GM could of course allow players longer resting times to regain those healing surges and daily powers, but if doing so, should make the initial encounters more difficult so that each encounter has the threat of death to it.

During the course of her adventures, Paks loses her inner fighting ability; her courage, her resolve, her steel will. This leads to her being unable to pick up a weapon and leads to her going into dangerous situations and almost being raped.

Note I said almost. If this was another author, one going for a more ‘realistic’ style, I have no doubt of what would have happened to Paks. However, and its important to remember this for a role playing game as well, the GM should not necessarily be out to strickly impose just his idea of the campaign to the players. Might it stretch the credibility of the campaign? It could. Does it stretch the campaign any further than having demons, devils, demi-gods and other high power entities all floating around in the background until the players reach the appropriate point? Not at all. Prior to engaging in activity of this sort with a player’s character, the GM should speak to them ahead of time and ask them what they expect and what they’ll accept. If it’s worth losing a player to keep your setting real, that’s your decision.

Lastly, have the characters be part of something big. Here, Paks frees an old elf home and destroys a great evil. That in turn leads her to discover an ancient fortress used by the comrade of Grid. These are grand events in the setting and can be reference time and time again. If the players start off by saving a village, have the villagers spread their fame in the local area. If they defeat a tribe of orcs, have the orcs allow them free passage through their lands as a tribute to their strength. If they destroy a temple of Orcus, have them given welcome at all good deities temples. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to showcase the players direct actions on the setting and doing so makes the setting more alive and organic over time.

I’ve mentioned that as a GM, you may not be able to please everyone all the time. For me personally, this book ends in a horrible spot and is meant to act as a direct lead into the next book. It’s a cliff hanger.

In a game however, a cliff hanger may be the exact place to stop. It insures that the party will have to start the next session right in the middle of something and that they need to come to the came with their wits sharp and on the ball. It provides a quick “into the game” mindset that is difficult to achieve with other means.

Divided Allegiance may not be to everyone’s taste. The book read, to me, a little dry at times. However, Elizabeth Moon knows her subject and it comes through in the clear descriptions she provides. For $1.00 from Half Priced Books, I’m well satisfied with it.