Sunday, October 31, 2010


So outside of working today, I managed to drive home, finish off some miniatures and ponder what, if anything, I could speak of on my blog.

For example, today is Halloween. I'm not expert on the roots of the holiday or where its origins are or even some of the more interesting things that series like Ghostbusters with Samhain.

And that in and of itself was my idea.

Today's populace isn't versed in the origins and roots of the holidays. In a fantasy setting or in a setting that's old and incredibly ancient, this can be a dangerous hubris. It may be during these holidays that the dances and celebrations and rituals are designed to keep things our or to keep things the way they've always been. They may be times when things from outside push against the boundries of reality in terms of being ready willing and able to serve.

For example, in Warhammer, demons are pure magic. The reason they don't dominate the world is that the world is magic poor. During certain holidays, perhaps that's no longer true and on those times, the demons are out.

There could be visitations by ancient entities from those origin points. If something dark and horrible and cyclopean staggered through time into our era, in America, would it be pleased to see how commercialized it's all become? Would it ponder why another holiday is already in mid celebration even though another holiday is before that? Or would it simply shrug it's shoulders and go looking for some candy?

Anyway, when thinking about the holidays in your campaign, don't forget their real origins for your campaign and what the current people think those holidays mean. The two aren't necessarily one and the same.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Darkside of Aquarius

Music provides an interesting type of stimulus for me. On one hand, lyrics are key. On the other, if I don't like the music going with the lyrics, well, the lyrics are really going to have to pull at me in some fashion.

Fortunately for me, Bruce Dickinson, the lead singer of Iron Maiden, has quite a lot of solo work I enjoy and much of it mired in fantasy imagery. One such song, Darkside of Aquarius from Accident of Birth.

The first hellrider came

On wings a-plenty in the dark

Hauled out his poison

And he blew away his mark

The fascist from the east is coming

Mothers, hide your sons

The second hellrider came

From flaming seas and molten sands

Half his play in Hell's commands

Hauled out his poison

With his promises of promised lands

Glad, good times of lying leaders

Here come the riders

As the wheel of time's running out of time

Here come the riders

As the wheel of time's running out of time

The third hellrider came

Teaching brothers to kill brother man

And the fourth hellrider waits

On an acid trail for an acid world

Walls of old religions' fools and superstitious men

Throws some scary Tarot cards and...

Here come the riders

As the wheel of time's running out of time

Here come the riders

As the weird illusion's stepping out to light

The Darkside of Aquarius

Has robbed us of our souls and minds

Here come the riders

As the wheel of time's running out of time

From the star-lit sky on a silver sea

A lonely silver surfer comes to push the wheel for me

A lonely silver surfer comes to push the wheel for me

Gotta move, gotta move

Gotta move that wheel right 'round

Gotta move, gotta move

Gotta move that wheel right 'round

Gotta move, gotta move

Gotta move that wheel around

Gotta push the wheel of time around

Push the wheel of time around

Push the wheel of time around

Push the wheel right 'round, right now, yeah

I've gotta move the wheel of time, I've

Gotta move the wheel of time, I've

Gotta move the wheel of time, oh

Move that wheel right around

Lots of great visual inspiration there.
The hellriders for example. This oculd be an organization or a tightly knit group, like the Four Horsemen of  the Apocalypse or a Traid or a Trinity. Each one with its own powers and abilities.
Some of these could be more insideous than merely leading the battle. When one of the lines speaks of teaching brother man to kill brother man, that is a far more dangerous threat than some giant standing on a hill throwing boulders at you. You know how to wonder, has everyone gone mad? What is the underlying source of this animosity? Can it be stopped?
The more subtle foe there, reminds me of other things, like Nurgle. Oh sure, you killed the plaguebearers, but hey, is it just you or do you feel a little sick here? Is everyone else a little pale around the face? A little unsteady on their feet?
That's the nature of good inspiration. One thing bounches off another in the mind until something, hopefully something useful, creeps and oozes along.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Berserk Illustrations file

It's difficult to tell from the tiny cover, linked from, but Kentarou Miura is a fantastic artist. I was hooked into Berserk through the anime. It ends in a... bad spot so to speak, and I wanted to know what the hell happened after the event.

The manga is where I decieded I'd find out. Thankfully, by this time, Dark Horse has picked up the license and was zipping them out fairly quickly.

For several years, I lived in Mount Prospect and we had a Mitsuwa market there. One of the asian stores was a bookstore that had manga and other bits in the original language, region free DVD players, and a ton of anime soundtracks.

Among those treasures was the Berserk Illustratons file. It's a large table sized book, larger than the Warriors and Warlords of Angus Mcbride, but in softcover. I can't remember how much I paid for it, but I was fascinated by it. Kentarou's art, much like George Perez of comic book fame, is meant for large screen viewing. He has a great sense of motion, of detail, and of control.

While many of the illustrations within are the same as the covers of the individual books, having them in the expanded size is nice. Some of them are also new to me and I'd never seen them before.

When I'm in the mood for something of the fantastic and the macarbe, if it's seeing the monstrous Zod in all his transformed glory looking like a fallen angel of beastial might, or sseing the evolution of Guts from a child soldier to a soldier to a slayer of evil, the Berserk Illustrations file is never far from my bookshelf.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Warriors & Warlords: The Art of Angus Mcbride

Art has always been a powerful motivator for me in terms of creative thinking. It has served as a shared medium among friends when I use an illustration to show something instead of explaining what something looks like.

Among those artists whose skills I find to tweak my particular taste, Angus McBride is right up there. I probably first saw his work, as many fantasy role players might have, in I.C.E.'s old Middle Earth line. Angus seemed to do a lot of work for I.C.E. back in the day, even covering their Rolemaster line with a series of great illustrations using the same characters for each cover.

The strength of the art, for me, is that it looks 'real'. While some artist like Wayne Reynolds are popular today, and they do pieces I enjoy, don't mistake that, I find that sometimes the art is so far from the subject matter that it makes it actually harder to relate to the art and the subject as opposed to easier.

When Angus illustrates two miles, the Latin term for warrior, and shows two French miles with mail hauberks and large Norman shield with spear and sword, he also includes a peasant on the side with an axe whose son is arming a hunting crossbow. In the background a bird flies easily while out at sea, gulls swarm around a boat. Some might find it too mundane, too earthly. However, perhaps due to some of my own roots as a fan of older sword and sorcery material, ranging from Conan and Fafrd, I'm okay with not every illustration being some crazy horned woman whose body couldn't exist in the real world due to the exaggerated pose.

The art of Angus is well worth a look, especially if you can find his fantasy based material. The only problem you might have though is that it appears some of it goes in and out of print. The Warriors and Warlords book for example? It's out of print. While it's not deep on details, it does have enough to speak the imagination as well. When players come up with terrible sounding names, a quick look through the historical section shows that we have such naming conventions as Alexander the Great, El Cid, Sala al Din Yusif ibn Ayyub known as The Victorious,  pr Sa;adom.  'Arthurian Age', the ship names Long Serpent or Iron Beard... these are real names. If they can exist, how silly is Rus the Red or something along those lines?

Anyway, if you're looking for inspiration or how things might have been and how they might have looked, The Art of Angus Mcbride should be right up there on your reading list.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

If You Listen To Fools...

Another look at some of the elements of the Wolfman.

When the prodigal son arrives into town, one of the first things he does is to visit the local tavern. Here the small minded folk speak of the recent rash of murders. One man blames it on a trained bear of the gypsy camp, another on a madman. A third speaks of ancient tales and of silver bullets and not leaving his house at night. Of course there are some insults, inadvertantly thrown the way of the Talbot heir but those just showcase the small minded nature of the town.

Rather, it's the bit about the silver bullets and not going out on a full moon that are of more interest. I've seen some Game Masters trying to ignite the original passion that burned in their imagination when they first started playing by trying to describe everything and avoid naming everything if at all possible. The old D&D setting Ravenloft often used this tactic to avoid naming things and to try and instill a sense of fear of the unknown in the players.

But if the uneducated masses know what a werewolf is, and in parts of Dracula if Van Helsing knows what he's doing, and other examples I'm sure could spring to mind, in a fantasy setting, try and keep in mind that chances are the normal day to day townsfolk know what an orc, orgre, goblin or other typical maruding humanoid is. They've probably heard about various types of 'famous' monsters.

I can appreciate a GM trying to expand his game through detailed descriptions. These can be vital clues in the foundations of a certain type of orc culture or a certain style the GM is trying to bring to it. At my age though, what I can't stand is the GM trying to force ME, the player, back into that babe in the woods shell that I haven't had for over twenty years. My first time learning what an ogre was is done. Surge, describe the beast in all its glory but if my character knows what it is, don't get surly about it.

After all, as one man says to another here, "I didn't know you hunted monsters. "Sometimes monsters hunt you." If you're an adventurer and going out and fighting for your life on a daily basis and the GM wants to bust on your meta gaming that you know what a goblin is, well, we all have different tolerance points for gaming styles we don't like.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Wolfman aka Talbot Hall

Talbot Hall

Say what you will about the originality or strength of the plot of the reimagined Wolf Man movie but the scenery involving Talbot Hall was amazing. This magnificent manor had all the trappings of a haunted house or a chateau that has seen better days.

Prior to arriving on the property proper, the prodigal son passes through a gate acting as a way marker for the Hall. These gates are designed to act as a shield to the outside world, to indicate that you are now passing into the Talbot grounds. The land ownership involved here is immense. There are herd animals being taken care of and various buildings where the employees live.

There are ruins dotting the country side; ancient buildings that have collapsed due to misuse and the relentless weight of time pressing down on them. Here, the elements having taken their toll leaving only a few stone walls and windows empty of glass and woodwork allowing the wind and rain to pass through with no resistance. The grounds broken up and dangerous as sub levels are covered by years of fallen leaves and decay but not solid enough to hold dup a grown man running.

These grounds are heavily wooded with clearings only around the manor hall itself and by the mausoleum. The manor proper itself surrounded by more stone work and on higher ground than the surrounding. Due to this, there are numerous stairwells and bridges giving the grounds a near maze like appearance and providing potential chase scenes.

Imagine if the characters are riding their horses up and above them is a bridge where some creature waits to pounce on them. Or if going the high action route, while chasing a foeman through the manor grounds, their enemy leaps down atop of a moving carriage and the players have to make some Dexterity and Skill Checks to follow through.

Other aspects included by the size of the grounds include a river running through it. Another instance of more bridge work. Other streams created from waterfalls creating a divide between two sections of land where players or monsters may fall into the rushing river.

Another area is a nearby large body of water either an enormous pond or a small lake. On the borders of the lake are numerous small stones perfect for skipping, but signs of decay are also abundant here. There is a crypt partially sunken into the wetlands bordering the pond with only the roof and the surrounding statues poking out of the water, victims of relentless time marching on and the eroding of the nearby land to marsh.

Also present is the garden with the greenery carved to resemble various animals. Although I did not see it, a shrub maze would not be out of place in the decadent splendor of the massive manor grounds.

And in all of this wilderlands and all of this savergy, is the mist and the fog and the clouds and the moon. They cast a phyhsical presence over the entirety of the movie and definately over the landscape here.
Before even getting to the hall, the outside of the manor is one of vanity with statues and a fountain surrounded by clean cut hedges, the fountain itself also a piece of art. The interior of the manor is massive. When Del Toro walks into the main greeting hall, there are a wide variety of sights for him to take in. First off is the massive central stairwell that appears large enough for three men to walk abreast of. There are massive chandeliers with candles shedding their flicking lights.

On the walls, those leading to the exterior are heavily laden with windows. Those on the interior either have murals, paintings, or mirrors. In front of the walls is no different with either stuffed animals, parts of animals, like massive tusks of ivory wrapped in gold. These stuffed animals can be used either as decoration or in a game like Rolemaster, as defenders of the manor. Under the right circumstances they gain new life acting as the guardians of the interior to protect it from thieves.

In a story telling manner though, the types of animals and monsters stuffed around the manor can provide clues and details as to the patterns and habits of the owners. If in their youth or in the founding of the wealth of the manor lords, they were renown gentlemen adventurers, having dinosaurs that were hunted and brought back for stuffing from the lands of the Isle of Dread speak more volumes than having a bear, even a dire bear, stuffed along the wall.

Some of the objects are weapon racks from ancient civilizations, next to the most modern and sleek weapons of the home society. These weapons could tell their own story if the GM wants to introduce a new weapon to the campaign or a player has a particular desire to use a different weapon. Alternatively, if the players are lacking a specific type of weapon, they may wind it here.

For example, if the players are in a hunt for werewolves, perhaps some of these weapons on display are of the silver variety. If hunting fey, perhaps of the cold iron variety.

Other things that would be out of place in most homes save for the rice? Games and toys. Fully painted wooden toys and perhaps even some famous game like chess but with pieces carved out of exotic materials.  Other even more expensive 'toys' might be like the telescope or in some editions of Dungeons and Dragons, the old Waterclock. If the game has a massive piece of equipment that is often out of range for dungeon crawling due to its size and cost, it may be found here with a room dedicated to its purpose.
The display of wealth lies heavily upon every object in the manor. The chairs are not merely chairs, but carved works of wooden art. The tables, massive things where even three people sitting cannot easily converse with one another or pass food back and forth requiring some sort of intermediary man servant to do such. The centerpieces of the table massive and view blocking. The fireplace in the dinning hall, massive enough to warm the entire room but also sending out waves of oppressing heat where comfort is stifled for all save the most comfortable in a warm climate environment.

The floors are either tiled and patterned or covered in ornamental rugs with foreign designs or draped over with some type of animal rug. In a fantasy setting, instead of a bear, it could be an owlbear.

The hallways in the manor are large enough to accommodate chairs and couches on one side and tables adorned with urns and vases on the other while still allowing people to walk through them. This doesn’t count the various candle holders and chandeliers placed throughout the manor nor did the massive windows spread thought or the murals and paintings placed about on various walls.

These wide areas and numerous objects could easily make for dramatic fighting hall and location. Priceless artifacts and objects de art being potentially smashed and ruined cutting into the treasure values that the players may loot at a later date.

Despite the abundant wealth obvious in every room, the weight of age sits upon the manor like a gauntleted fist crushing the life out of the inhabitants with relentless pressure. The manor is huge and vast, but so old that it appears in need of repair. Perhaps not an appropriate quote, but one that links itself to the terrors of the past, "The past is a wilderness of horrors."

The weight of the manor also comes through in the small things. The imagined chattering of children that are not there when a door is opened. The many rooms where once guests and dignitaries might have spent their time now covered in thick dust covered cloth.

The paintings are fantastical and priceless, but peeling and in need of being touched up and cleaned. The chairs covered with fantastic materials, are worn through and need to be reupholstered. The weapons, wither the latest fashions from the nearby lands or ancient and forgotten relics of a bygone era, are covered in grime and soot, requiring hours of painful maintenance in order to bring up to use again. Some of them so old and worn that to use them in combat might be the use of a one hit weapon where the steel is no longer any good and the weapon breaks under the stress of actual combat.

Light is generated either through the use of the windows allowing in the natural sunlight or the reflective moonlight. For those times when this natural lighting is not enough, there are hordes of candles shedding both flame and light. In the movie, those flames come to pass for their purpose of destruction showcasing that age is not proof against fire.

The crypts, separate from the main estate, had locations above ground that had winding stairwells leading down. The sarcophagi decorated with the finest carvings where the robes of the dead almost seem to flutter with the wind with the deepest crypts being so far below ground that they are carved out of the earth instead of being worked stone. Pushing through the ceiling, the roots and winding branches of the above trees poke through.

While not on the manor grounds proper in the movie, in a fantasy setting, the ‘asylum’ that the son goes to would make for some excellent torture chambers that could be hidden out of the way below the manor grounds proper, further explaining why the building itself it build off the main ground.

These chambers could include the room of elemental ice where servants use gears and cranks to dip an individual strapped down to a chain into water filled with frost. Another room where the character is electrocuted methodolicaly to make him numb.

Other rooms designed to hold individuals in their straight jackets while drugs are administered to them.  Of course once you've started adding these types of chambers, the 'traditional' ones with the Iron Maiden and other instruements of torture become easier to place.

The set screams out potential and if you watch the Wolf Man and come away with nothing else, the Talbot Hall alone makes it worth the price of the viewing.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Conditions of Roads

One of the things I thought interesting about the default 4e assumption in its points of light approach, is that things were better. This isn't necessarily something unique mind you. Even in it's glory publishing days, the Forgotten Realms hailed a things were better approach but usually that only came through in the spells, magic items, and sizes of the empires.

But the first 4e module noted how in need the roads were. When reading King of the North, the importance of roads reminded me of that with the following dialog;

"Pity you can't keep the Elabon Way repaired up to the way it used to be," van said, "but I suppose I should be greateful there's any road at all."

Gerin shrugged. "I haven't the masons to keep it the way it was, or the artisans to build the deep strong bed that holds up to traffic and weather both. Cobbles and gravel keep it open in the rain and mud, even if they are hard on a man's insides and a horse's hooves."

"To say nothing of the wheels," Van added as they jounced over a couple of particularly large, particularly rough cobbles. "Good thing we have psare axle poles and some extra spokes in case we break' em."

"This isn't even a particularly bad stretch," Gerin said. "Those places farther south where Balamug wrecked the roadway, those are the ones that haven't been the same since in spite of all the effort I've had the peasants put into them." (p.121 paperback edition.)

Those little bits right there give the reader an insight into the setting. It has nothing to do with fight. It has nothing to do with magic. It has nothing to do with potential raiders on the side or the road, choke points or ambush spots. It's just that the roads aren't as good as they could be due to the scarcity of resrouces, in this case, trained manpower to handle the delicate tasks of the road.

Living in and about Chicago my whole life, let me tell you, it's not just some fantasy concern either. The rain, heavy traffic, and the snow, have lead many an auto parts dealer to riches when replacing ruined tires, rims, and cars that have shattered vulnerable parts thanks to massive holes in the street, and this is an age where we have the technology, just apparently, not the funds or the brains to know when the roads are in such dire need of repair.

The next time the players are heading out as caravan guards, give 'em a little jostle and let 'em know that there's more to the road than bandit attacks.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Last Ino Story

When you're running a campaign, sometimes an NPC doesn't fit into the overall plot you had. Sometimes an NPC is poorly conceived. Sometimes you give the NPC a goal that, hey, he acheives.

On the other hand, sometimes you have a player who had a memorable character, but the player had to drop out of the campaign or wanted to play something else.

What happens to those old characters?

While on the road, Usagi and Gen are haunted by a premonition of death in the form of an owl. The owl almost seems to have a keen intellict and a mocking nature that upsets Gen. It haunts them through the whole story. In some ways, the owl is a character in and of itself. The idea of superstion is highly in use here and it's a common theme for Usagi, and indeed for 'primitive' socieities that want to provide their own structure and order to the unknown.

The owl's vision of death comes true when Usagi and Gen, on a narrow ledge, are set upon by bandits with bows. Clever shots, the duo are forced ohit directly under them and climb up hoping not to fall to their deaths. The use of the environment an enemy is clear here. A few skill checks or dramatic naration would do the job.

After Usagi and Gen make quick work of the bandits, they get drenched and seek shelter from an abandoned building. When they get to the building, a character familiar to readers, but not to Usagi and Gen is there trying to kill the duo ronin. They quickly disarm her and learn that their old comrade Ino is here, injured to the point of death by the bandits, a deep arrow wound that's infected.

The duo go through several stages in helping Ino, with Gen chasing and trying to fight off the owl and its vision of death.

While Ino lives, he doesn't know why the duo saved him and the owl? It meets a gruseome end of it's own completing it's vision of death.

Giving the players some closure on an old character or a character that they know of can provide some glimpses to how the rest of the setting works when not in use by the players. At the same time, at least in this case, by not simply killing off Ino, Stan is able to go back to the character if the need ever arises. This gives him the best of both worlds.

Try to give the NPCs a good send off, even in retirement. Make it something that the players talk about after the game session.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Return of Kitsune

One of the things Stan is able to do with his characters that brings me back to the reading, is not only to have Usagi meet a wide cast, but also how those Usagi meets also, usually at least, get to meet that cast and how different their reactions are to those individuals.

For example, when Gen meets Kitsune, he is taken with her beauty. Of course latter on he discovers that she's a thief and pick pocket and has suffered her skills he's a little annoyed at fellow Ronin Usagi who uses Gen's own words about being a busy body as to why Usagi didn't warn Gen.

But more than that, Kitsune, as a thief, has a habbit of stealing the 'wrong' thing which leads to many individuals coming after her, requiring her to need her own protection. In this case, Gen and Usagi provide ample protection.

This is easy to do in a RPG as well. If the players know some street urchins or if there is a thief in the group, having them rob the wrong person at the right time can lead the party into all sorts of trouble.

In this case, Kitsune steals a letter that promises war and oil shortages. An oil merchant is trying to corner the market and has no problem killing a thief and a few grubby ronin to do it.

That in and of itself might be enough to satisfy the needs of a game, but Stan goes one further. Seems the initial note is a fraud set up by the oil merchant's rival in order to trick that rival merchant into purchase his own oil supplies at a premium price. These little touches showcase how a 'living' campaign isn't necessarily about all of the exact things going on around the players at that very moment, but branch off and touch different 'departments' of the setting.

Other little touches Stan does, like Usagi polishing his sword, are part of the repetition of the things Samurai do that aren't straight out combat, even if it involves combat. Little touches go a long way in making the atmosphere of the campaign something that the players can not only follow along, but participate in. They may do this in degrees, for example, one warrior may not bother to clean his weapon, hoping that it infects others with disease, even as his fellows long down on him for the poor care he keeps it in. Another may always be forgetting about it and be embarrassed when he does remember to do so. Little character traits don't necessarily have to overwhelm the game but can easily add depth.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Gen's Story

One of the things I've mentioned before, is that in the Usagi setting, everyone has a backstory. We might not always get to see it but that backstory helps expalin who the characters are and what their motivations originate from.

Here, Usagi meets an old woman and her single retainer asking for a meal. Usagi obligies, recognizing the noble spirit in Lady Asano. Turns out that the Lady's house was betrayed and they have spent all of their money and time looking for the traitor.

Gen's father? A famous general who also sought out the traitor, even though it meant his family had to live like destitute beggars and the mother had to perform acts that perhaps bordered on prostituion although full details are never given.

In this light, Gen's character and shape come into sharp contrast. Events of the past, such as his reluctance to help the poor children or his self serving attitude, those come into a more reasaonable being.

But Gen is not a one dimensional character. When Usagi is in trouble, Gen helps him. When the chips are down, Gen is there for him. In some ways, Gen is even fooling himself. "Well, he does have all the money." It's important that characters in a campaign, even if they are not all friends, even if they don't all have the same motivations and the same purpose in adventuring, are all loyal to one another. It just makes the game run smoother. If the players have to come up for reasons why they'd help each other, like Gen, they need to fake it.

I know there are some games that thrive on inter party conflict or at least the promise of it, but in most standard games, especially those not necessarily design for 'clan' politics, it's best to keep all the players loyalties above the surface unless one is deliberately running a deeper game of espionage where trust itself is a treasure well worth having.

Bringing in Gen's background is a sort of 'round robin' technique that GMs can incorporate into their own games. If the players provide some background elements at the start of the game, and the GM isn't necessarily running adventurers out of modules (nothing wrong with that in my own opinion), he can use a round robin method of having someone's background crop up every other game or so to keep the character's past in the now and to use different characters to move the characters against different elements.

In terms of GM tricks though, Stan pulls out a great one. When Gen and Usagi are captured by the tratior to the house, Gen rummages through the weapon storage and grabs some new weapons. He even notes that he was never as attached to his weapons as Usagi is to his own specialty blades. After the fighting is all said and done, Gen notices that the swords are those of his father, the famous general, and takes a moment to reflect how they must have come into the traitor's hands.

Providing characters in a game with legacy items, not necessarily those of power, but those that have a connection to them, is a way to establish a powerful bond between the campaign history and the player's place in it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


One of the things that I enjoy about Usagi's travels over his imaginary Japan, is the wide variety of characters that he meets. One of those, Kitsune, is a street entertainer who uses tops, knives, fans, and other objects to provide street shows and accept tips. Of course, sometimes these tips are not enough to even eat off of and then her other skill, that of being a thief, comes into play and is the source of her catchphrase, "A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do."

When players are on the road a lot, it falls to the GM to fill the rest of the world. Often those that the players meet may be enemies. Usagi has left a crimson tide behind him of dead bandits, rogue ronnin and those who thought they were above it all. However, when he meets someone like Kitsune, even though she robs him, he's not a cold hearted killer and when she helps him in a fight, he doesn't even bring it up. It's a strange relationship they have and one that might be difficult to do in a role playing game where money is a constrant source of contention between the players and the Game Master in the first place.

For example, if the players need X amount of funds in order to purchase Y items, as is often the standard in 3.5 and 4e, then having one of the party memebers be a rogue who steals from them, unless they are providing some service equal and above that in terms of value, simply isn't going to work no in game terms, much less the players putting up with it.

The nice thing about bringing Kitsune in for Stan however, is he gets to talk about tops, battle tops, name some entertaining moves that the Fox does, as well as what the tops are made of and how they are quality, made by a reknown crafter. by adding those touches, it adds depth to the setting.

Lastly, the art. While the whole rabbit samurai thing may not be for everyone, Stan isn't one to shy away from work. When looking at the double page spread of Kitsune doing her show, you have children pearched atop a wall watching, you have someone walking in the background on stilts, you have the woodcutters, peasants who are often seen on the move and have run into Usagi on several occassions. There are tokai moving about as well as bugs on the floor. The depth of detail can capture your attention for a few moments and remind you as the game master that you are responsible for making the world come to life for the players.

Unless you and the players are using a lot of shared experiences and commonalities that you know each player and you share, the players are blind when you say, "It's like the anime Berserk." or "You know, like that movie." Those can be useful shortcuts in description and in setting the tone but if you're the only one whose read the Black Company, describing your campaign as the Black Company meets Berserk isn't going to do anyone any good. Be ready for the little details that life is full of and it will expand the depth of the setting.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lady Evil

One of the things I enjoy about heavy metal artist like Black Sabbath is that they tend to embrace fantasy as just another piece of subject matter to write about. There are many songs in the catalog that would make for some great bits in any fantasy game. For example, off of good old Neon Knights, Lady Evil...

We get the Lady, a servant of the darkness who feeds it and yet at the same time needs it. This could be someone with a dark pact with the powers of darkness or perhaps a vampire/witch.  She's a figure of legend, spoken only in hushed whispers.

We get Witches' Valley, a palce where the wind won't blow and the rain won't fall yet there are thunderstorms aplenty. The valley is known to distort sense of direction and those who enter tend not to leave.

The lyrics!

There's a place just south of Witches' Valley

where they say the wind won't blow

and they only speak in whispers of a name

There's a lady they say who feeds the darkness

it eats right from her hand

With a crying shout she'll search you out

and freeze you where you stand

Lady Evil, evil

she's a magical, mystical woman

Lady Evil, evil in my mind

She's queen of the night

all right!

In a place just south of Witches' Valley

where they say the rain won't fall

Thunder cracks the sky, it makes you bleed

There's a lady they say who needs the darkness

she can't face the light

with an awful shout, she'll find you out

and have you before the night

Lady Evil, evil

she's a magical, mystical woman

Lady Evil, evil on my mind

She's queen of the night

So if you ever get to Witches' Valley

Don't dream or close your eyes

and never trust your shadow in the dark

'Cause there's a lady I know who takes your vision

and turns it all around

the things you see are what you'll be, lost and never found

Lady Evil, evil

she's a magical, mystical woman

Lady Evil, evil on my mind

She's queen of the night

Gonna do you right!

She's the queen of sin

Look out, she'll pull you in!

Lady wonder!


There is an old saying; You Can't Go Home Again. Now Joseph Campbell on the other hand, incorporated part of going home into his monomyth and Usagi here tries to determine what his role is.

In going home, Usagi meets his old childhood rival, Kenichi, his old love, Mariko, and as if internal conflict wasn't enough, when he arrives, Kenichi informs Usagi that Jotaro has been captured by bandits.

The adventure has a few build points.

Usagi and Mariko: The two still have feelings for each other but both stay true to their ethos in "honor and duty", things that will always keep them apart.

Usagi and Kenichi: There is a point where Usagi is hanging off a cliff ready to fall to his death. Kenichi, with no one around to see it, rescues Usagil. I've mentioned this before but it's important enough that I'll toss it out there again. If you can develop rivals and antagonist for the players that do not involve killing each other and do not necessarily want the other party dead, you've made a character that will possibly be resuable for several sessons and can be returned to further down the line.

Usagi and Jei: Jei was supposedly killed by lightning right? Well, here, Jei seems to have more attributes of the supernatural as he captures Jotaro knowing that he has something to do with Usagi. Usagi and Jei's duel ends with Jei going over a cliff with a spear in his guts. We'll probably see him again eh? Jei fills the role of nemesis more than Usagi's childhood rival. Both are outcast samurai. Both are unusual in their approach to fighting. To change things up though, Jei favors a spear. But Jei is supernatural. Jei's character comes across more in further issues so I'll save some of those other comparissons and contrasting bits for them.

The thing I wanted to take from Jei though, is that he's an enemy recurring character that cannot be finished off, only pushed further into the future. In the previous fight, Usagi thought him destroyed. In this fight, Usagi thinks him finished. By giving the villain an out, the GM is able to reuse him. However, what if you don't want to keep using the same character because the players feel it cheats them of their victory or their just tired of dealing with the same guy?

1. Family: The enemy the players just finished off has family and they are on a mind to take revenge.

2. Organization: The enemy belonged to an organization. Either the organization is out to avenge their comrade, the school's honor, or they use those as justifications for a cover reason for attacking the players wishing to steal their wealth or the players have come into possession of something they weren't supposed to have.

3. Friends/Allies:  More likely to happen in a super hero setting in many cases where the hero is down and almost out and his allies come not to defeat the villain, who usually mows through them, but to give the hero a second chance, to allow the hero to 'power up' and take the fight again. for villains, the same thing might be possible. Some allies arrive just in time for the villain to heal himself and enter the fray again.

Usagi and Jotaro: Surprise! Turns out Usagi is actually Jotaro's father. Before Usagi left, he and Mariko had a picnic where one thing lead to another and well, Usagi off to war and serve his lord and Mariko left behind with the rival Kenichi who also loved Mariko... the thing is, it's not just that Jotaro is Usagi's son. He adopts a pet lizard and names him Spot, instantly creating resonasance with readers who say Usagi do something similiar earlier. Jotaro,as we'll see further down the line, becomes another recurring character.

In a long running campaign, one that uses time as a measurement of things going on, as opposed to some of the adventure paths that have adventuers running one into another into another until the players are 20th level, the possibility of children might crop up. By having Jotaro be Usagi's years after the fact, the author is able to play with Jotaro a little more than he would if Jotaro was only an infant.

In some genres, going home is equal to retiring. If you're fighter retires to the small town he came from and opens a bar and you want to keep playing him but the other players aren't ready for that journey, it can be problematic. In a long running series, it often works better to keep the characters moving forward, even if they don't always know where they'll wind up.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Salt and Pepper

I don't know if I've mentioned it before, but I have 'car' books. These are books that I'll buy at Half-Price, usually on the dollar spinner rack, and read while I'm waiting to pick someone up or waiting to go someplace at a specific time or something along those lines.

The current book I'm reading, King of the North by Harry Turtledove, is apparently the second one in a series. So far it hasn't mattered that I didn't read the first book, which I'm taking is Prince of the North.

The book seems well written and is very 'earthy', almost grim but not quite in the parts I've read thus far. In the start thought, it gets me thinking about exactly how much I take for granted on an everyday basis with a simple description of a meal.

"I wish we had pepper," he said, fondly remembering the spices that had come up from the south till the Empire of Elabon sealed off the last mountain pass just before the werenight.

"Be thankful we still have salt," Selatre said. "We're beginning to run low on that. It hasn't been coming up the Niffet from the coast as it used to since the Gradi started raiding a couple of years ago." (paperback version page 15)

The first thing I thought of when I read that, was players acting as smugglers to earn a tiddy profit on the mundane. The whole laws of supply and demand, of scarcity and value cropping up into the game to make spices worth more than gold.

I've run such bits before in my campaign. The only thing I've ever been leery about is setting stone cold prices. I'm trying to run the game and make it one of action and adventure, not necessarily of commerce and consumerism. The value of gold for players in later editions is especially statted out to be X by Y level so this can be a bit tricky. In the older editions, if the playes went under some of the assumptions, they might use excess funds not necessarily to buy magics items, but to build strongholds, pay and house their followers, grant land to their personal henchement and otherwise use money the way real merchants, lords, or nobility might.

When looking about your own house, when cooking in your kitchen, think of the variety of spieces you may have access to through your local supermarket and think of the possible world wide travelling it may take to bring that nutmeg or vanilla bean to Waterdeep or Greyhawk and of the possible profits to be had doing it.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Player Narration and Game Master Narration

After Usagi's trials and tribulations on the road for the past several books, he decides its time to go home.  As he's walking home, he recalls the last time he saw his mentor, Katsuchi and how his mentor was attacked by Dogora students intent on avenging the default of their school by Katsuchi's pupil who just happens to be Usagi.

Usagi arrives just in time to see Katsuchi lose an eye and fall to his 'death' off a cliff.

To me, this could be the player narrating how things happened to his mentor. But it could also be a little back and forth between the GM. For example, the GM could ask, "So what happened to your mentor." at which point the player relays the information ending with, "And he was killed by the school" but the GM asks, "What if you saw him lose and eye and fall to his death above a raging river?"

I say this because Usagi decides to stop by his mentor's old dwelling and surprise, not only is the mentor still alive, but he's taken on students. When he fell, the river dragged him further downstream and he was saved by two orphans. One of those orphans had already left Katsuchi's training but was killed... in a duel against the very same Samurai that Usagi just dueled to the death before coming home. There's that foreshadowing again. We now know how there can be another swordsman with Usagi's style because it's his mentor's style and the man is still teaching.

By leaving areas of the character's background open, the player and GM allow each other some room to play off the character and their background elements. It's equally important though not to trash each others ideas but try to come to some accord. If the player insisted that his mentor was dead, or Stan decided yeah, that guy is gone, the readers would havel ost out on some great bits like the further volume Duel at Kitanoji. By allowing the background elements to influence current events, the whole has more fabric to it, it's a stronger material.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Duel

Usagi is a part of the samurai class. Like many caste systems, the samurai class has many rules and traditons behind it. It also has a lot of pride caught up in all that honor.

One way that often gets expressed is in a duel.

But what if others are betting on the duel? what if others are setting you up for a fall in a duel against an opponent whose superior to you?

Thankfully, if you're Usagi, you're the best student of the sword skill that the opposing samurai thinks he's seen all of it before and you take him out. Note this is important. The enemy samurai knows of Usagi's style. This is another example of the author foreshadowing future events in the series. After all, if Usagi is one of the last if not the last of his teacher's students, where is the new practioner coming from?

In a role playing situation, duels can be an easy thing to insert into a setting. The trick, which Stan manages to easily pull off, is to give the readers some connection to the other side to make it a little more than just some random fight.

In this case, Shubo, is a samurai who allies himself with a bet taker and evaluates opponents for the bet taker. By doing this, and by being right, he is able to make a tidy profit. When the local champion falls to Usagi's sword, the  Shubo sets up Usagi to fight in a duel to the death against himself so that he can make all of the money be being the underdog. His wife and child await Shubo on the hill... but this being Usagi Yojimbo and not Shubo Yojimbo, it is Usagi who winds up with victory.

One of the things you have to be careful of in later editions of D&D, is the 'side' action. For example, if you have players that are involved in duels for financial gain as opposed to honor, then you need to take into account that in 3.5 and 4e, there are certain standards set that characters are supposed to have and allowing players to surpass those could allow them to make purchases past their level. This isn't necessarily a terrible thing, but it is something that the GM should be thinking about if allowing side action to happen and not using that as a method of supplementing the characters wealth in the first place.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Usagi Is Not Stupid

In Book 6: Circles, there are a few more encounters with the supernatural. One of these is with a demon that inhabits a bridge and her powers are greatest there. She has a standard set of times she appears and attacks and a plethora of powers unrelated to one another.

When Usagi first meets the bridge demon, he is unaware of it, rather making a lightning attack behind him as he suspected someone of coming up behind him only to turn around after unleashing hell, and finding nothing there.

At first he thinks the townspeople are crazy as they relate the story of the bridge demon and since he just came across that bridge and didn't encounter it, is about to part ways with the inn when they point out that the back of his shirt is ripped to pieces.

The next morning they discover a severed hand on the bridge. A priest is sent for to exorcise the demon from the bridge. Prior to that happening, an old woman with one hand visits asking to see the severed hand of the demon but Usagi notes, after tricking the demon, that her having only one hand was too much of a coincidence. This happens a few times and where some writers might have the main character act uncharacteristically stupid, Stan usually lets Usagi be... well, Usagi. A well seasoned warrior that is aware of the existance of the supernatural and while perhaps not able to fight all of it, is able to rely on common folklore on how to fight it, such as spilling the water out of a kappa's skull cap.

When your players use 'common' folk lore knowledge or are able to pierce through something you thought was clever, don't punish them for it, reward them for it. There will be time to crush them latter.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Yojimbo: Miniature Figures

JCFigures is releasing a Yojimbo miniature warfare game. Looks to have some great figures in their shopping line. Between these new releases and all of my old Legend of the Five Rings miniatures, I'm almost tempted to start up some Oriental Adventurers style gaming again...

Lone Goat and Kid

This one appears to have it all. The foreshadowing of Lone Goat and Kid started last issue so it's a quick follow up. In a game it would be like mentioning to the players different courses of action they may be interested in with an immediate follow up the next sesson.

We have the homage character, Lone Goat and Kid who stand in for Lone Wolf and Cub.

A brutal fight showcasing the fighting abilities of Lone Goat.

A setup of the conflict between Lone Goat and Usagi.

Stan hits the buttons quickly to get Usagi and Lone Goat to battle but in his initial set up, like many parts of the series when examined, intersect with Usagi by are not necessarily Usagi's background.

This gets back to my point, especially in Stan's writing, of everyone having a background. Because of Lone Goat's background, events are set up so that Usagi is the target of an assassin contract. If Usagi slays the Lone Goat, the villains win. If Usagi is slain, well, it's just 500 ryo that the bad guys are out.

Things don't work out as planned and Usagi saves Gorogoro from certain death after it is revealed that those who hired Lone Goat are actually trying to have him killed. The Usagi and the Goat don't necessarily part as friends, but no longer as enemies.

When designing NPCs around characters and situations, it helps if you make them just incompetent enough to give them the flavor needed to get involved with things not necessarily on the right side. For example, the one hiring the Goat wants to see him dead and is so observing the fight. He's also got a secondary agenda on his mind though. If instead he waited for news or reports or simply had his men observe the battle, things would have turned out differently for him.

With him there, he's committed to his course of action. So committed is he, that he betrays his allies, thinking to kill two birds with one stone. So there's no turning back. It's one of the options spoken of when GMing NPC's; kill your children. Sure, this character might have been interesting. He might make a good foil. But the way the scenario here rolls out, there's no logical reason for him not to die at the hand of the Lone Goat and Stan follows through on that.

If the NPC's do things that should lead to their deaths, then have those things happen. You can always make more. Don't fall in love with the characters you create.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Way Of the Samurai

Different cultures place different values on different actions. One way to showcase these changes to a default setting is to allow players to see the action prior to becoming involved with it.

For example, if the players are the 'strangers in a strange land', they may find it odd that an older samurai suffering from a disease is determined to die in combat. On the other hand, as default Dungeons and Dragons tend to have knights, who have their own brand of honor, the idea might not seem that strange to them.

Stan also is able to use the visual medium to showcase daily things that the samurai do. For example, when Usagi is speaking with General Oyaneko, the general is polishing his sword with great care and dedication to the blade which he refers to as his 'soul'.

These visual and verbal clues can be great aids to players new to role playing as it allows them to see and experience how others in the setting go about their daily business.

For more experienced players though, they may need a little more out of a meeting with a general. For Usagi, part of it is that the general has reknown. For players in the campaign, this can be copied a bit by either having the players meet famous NPCs of the setting, if they enjoy that vein of the game, or by having them meet their old characters or versions of their old characters, who have gone on to different things.

When the general engages Usagi in a duel, the two don't actually battle. In 4e, or with the right frame of mind and the right skills in play, 3e, this might be considered a skill challenge. Usagi uses old samurai wisdom to counter the codes of bushido that the general uses to justify his action. In a 4e situation, if Usagi failed to make his appointed number of rolls, then it would go from a skill challenge to actual combat. For players and

Game Masters more comfortable with role playing, if the players can provide an out for combat, especially against one they admire, they should role it out to the nines so to speak. Having game mechanics in place for something is not necessarily always the way to run the game if your group is comfrotable with other methods and it doesn't impact the group.

If that in and of itself isn't enough, there is always the set up for the next adventure. Here Usagi learns of a samurai who was framed and now seeks revenge. A samurai who travels with his son. A samurai commonly known as Lone Goat and Kid assassins.

Chi No Tsubasa

One may wonder, does Usagi always stubmle across someone in need of help and then provide his assitance?

The answer? No. Sometimes he's wandering along and hears a blood curlinging scream and goes to investigate as is the case with Blood Wings.

One of the interesting things about Stan is that he doesn't feel confined to making all of his animal creatures exactly the same. When you look at Gen, a rhino, and you look at Usagi, a rabbit, they shouldn't be anywhere near the same class. But for the most part, almost all of the animals don't have abilities based on the type of animal they are.

And then there are those animals that do have special abilities based on the animal they are such as the Komori or Bat Clan ninja. The other notable exception is the mole ninja that Usagi dealt with back in his home town. By ignoring some of his own rules, Stan is able to stretch the types of stories he can tell.

After all, while a great deal of the material in Usagi is researched, he's already shown himself well past a historical piece with animals for Samurai with the mystical elements. The pushing of the envelope with creatures having innate abilities isn't that far of a stretch.

One of the themes that pops up here, and may have in the past though, is gold as a prime mover of events. Anyone remember the old anime Ninja Scroll? The first movie? Where the set up was after gold? Same thing here. While the gold mine is safe from attack, the gold shipment? Not so much.

One element might be for Usagi to go warn the gold shipment but Stan goes another route. The ronin rabbit is captured but makes a quick escape and rallies the village against the bats. The part I find different, is that while Usagi saves the village and while he manages to avoid being slain and avenges the deaths of the villagers, the gold shipment? The important one that sets up other aspects like the bat ninja's test in the first place? He doesn't even get involved with it and the best, from this story, that Usagi can hope for, is that the komori will not be able to raid further shipments because now the authorities will now what to look for.

In his capture, Usagi could easily have been killed. One of the bits of advice from the newer DMG books is that if you don't have to kill the players and want the story to keep moving on, the player can still fail at that action, but they now suffer a setback. Something 'interesting' happens to keep the game moving. If the players aren't hard core and have a whole "to the death" thing going on, try running with that a few times and see where it leads.

The good news here, is that Stan provides the reader several reasons why the Komori Ninja do not outright slay Usagi. Because of the secretive nature of their own mission, it is vital they know what Usagi knows prior to doing anything with him. Having an unknown like Usagi in the game, as most player characters are, gives them a little more flexibility in what the GM needs to do with them.

Another interesting aspect to the bats though, is that one of the traditional weapons of the samurai, the daisho, isn't of much use against the bats because they don't get into melee range that often. For characters, always remember that its a wide world and going with a signature weapon doesn't mean you can't have some type of backup. For example, outside of the sword, samurai are also masters of the bow, which Usagi is able to put to good use here.

Specialization, especially in game mechanic form, can provide substantial bonsues but leave you weak in other areas. You don't necessarily have to be a master of all trades, but made sure that when the manticores and other beasties with the range weapons come out to play, your strategy isn't limited to, "It's gotta run out soon."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Usagi Yojimbo: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy

The Clouds Gather
Book Four of Usagi Yojimbo, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, is a bit different than most of the previous work by Stan Sakai. The entire book is devoted to one story and is of a more traditional nature that graphic novel formats are often used for and which, according to many fans of individual issues, is a loathsome thing as it forces deconstruction of the story to fill so many issues. Regardless, I'm not here to talk about comic collections and methodologies!

The Clouds Gather is a setup for several of the 'main' characters of the series to meet and have a large scale adventure.

Tomoe, the ever loyal samurai, is sent by her master to investigate a nearby lord's activities and report back to her. Tomoe is often seen in the employee of her lord. The benefits of having a lord to tie plot progress into can be overused, especially in a role playing game, but it is also very easy to handle additions to the game by having the players act on behalf of  an employer.

Usagi on the other hand, is out in the rain when he sees Tomoe as a prisoner. The author has already set up Usagi's role here in his introduction of Tomoe's piece by noting that this lord is hiring many ronin. Of course as a ronin himself, it provides a perfect position for Usagi to work his way into the lord's hire.

The other two threads that start here and are further interwoven through the series are Zato Ino and Gennosuke. This is probably the first time I can recall Stan setting up Gen's bounty targets as having an easy time of things while Gen, hot and heavy on their trail, has a loathsome time catching up to them. It's a running gag.

The Wind Howls
In further terms of bringing the main characters togther, Usagi comes across a vilalge that has been slaughtered. He cleans up the bodies to prevent scavengers from getting to them, but does so under the eye of Shingen, a ninja that he has foiled in the past.

So in short order, Usagi and Shingen wind up battling. The ninja seems to die as he falls of a cliff. I've mentioned before, especially in the Usagi setting, that if there's no body, there's no death. That proves to be true here as well. If as a GM you want a character to make a recurring apperance, set up some scenario where the players are unsure if the character has been killed or not.

While Shingen isn't a major character, he has proven to have a high level of competency and is a worthy adversary of Usagi.

More importantly perhaps though, by being a minor character in a cast of larger characters, what will his fate be in the end? You could almost compare Shingen to a guest player at a sesson. While his death isn't guaranteed and he may rise to the occassion or merely fade again into the background, the status of being a 'minor' character places him in a different perspective.

When having guest players over, see if they have any long term plans to show up or if they'd mind taking on the roles of characters already introduced in the campaign to maintain more coherency to the setting.

This chapter continues the role of poor Gen running after Zato in the rain and having to forgo the company of two beautiful woman who are interesting in drinking. As a GM, you could either run this as a running gag or make it a skill check where if the player fails, he gets to pick his poison. Keep on the trail of the bounty in potential, or give it up and take the pleasures of shelter from the rain with those who are looking for compaionship. Gen being a true professional, who despite mere seconds earlier in his inner monolog was thinking that nothing coudl get him out in the rain, decides to follow the bounty.

For Usagi, now as a member of the lord's ronin forces, he is able to quickly recognize several elements of the lord's tactics. If the players aren't getting what you as the GM are trying to do, engage them in casual conversation with some of those around the area. In this case, Usagi is able to bounce ideas not only of bushido off of Captain Rorame, but also some information that he might otherwise not have access to.

In this, the use of NPCs to relay information and showcase similarities in thinking, Stan is also setting up the inevitable betrayal. Usagi isn't here to join the captain's forces. He's here to rescue Usagi. The ideas they bounce off each other of loyalty and feidielty to a lord are clothed in the real meanings. The captain is loyal to his lord and will follow that lord even down bad paths and Usagi's first loyalties, now that he has no lord, is to his friends, specifically Tomoe. Without either knowing the other's path, the two could easily be friends and it is this interconnection between characters that makes things more personal when the end does come.

Usagi tries to rescue Tomoe but instead has to leave her behind in the downpour and is then cut off from his own escape and as he plummets to darkness in a fade to black scene, sees the enemy ninja above him with a cruel look.

The ending of a comic depends on where in the story its ending. Here, the author is building anticipation in the next issue. In a role playing sesson, if you can end on such a note, where the players are going to be talking about what's coming up next sesson and reviewing their own actions of the past to see what lead to this sesson, you're doing something right. The ability to place anticipation into the game isn't dictated by what game system you play, but by the timing of the elements and how much buy in the players have in the setting. A lot of that unfortunately, is on the Game Master's shoulders and it's not always something you'll be able to bring to the table.

Sometimes the game doesn't flow the way you want. Sometimes the players get caught up in role playing with the smith and his attractive daughter. Sometimes they bump into a group of guards and instead of apologizing or even giving them the cold shoulder, decide to attack and possibly wind up dead in the street or in jail. But knowing where you want the campaign sesson to end that night and taking into account the actions of the players will go a lot farther than just hoping it ends where you want it.

Thunder and Lightning brings us to a gathering of forces at last. The ninja has learned the truth about hsi slaughtered people. The blind swords pig and the bounty hunter have it out but before they cam complete their duel, are interrupted by Usagi and his new ninja ally.

There are a few elements here that bounce back into the continuity of the series. One is that the blind swordpig doesn't necessarily like anyone. When offered a chance at a reward, he scoffs at it. However, with his pet 'Spot' there, he realizes he can't keep running forever.

Gen doesn't come out unscathed. He suffers the loss of his horn during the fight. Not a mortal blow or anything 'serious' but it is nontheless like a scar and it's something he carries with him in even the latest volumes. If the players are sometimes out of their leauge and despite warnings and efforts to 'scare' them off the trail, if you as the Game Master don't want them to die, scarring them and leaving them with another opportunity to fight again may be an option you want to look at.

Now with almost all of the pieces gathered in one spot, the forces attack the castle and this 'issue' ends with a splash shot similiar to the cover with all of the forces in alliance attacking the fortress.

Mind you, the four heroes here also have assitance from the ninja clan and Tomoe is still insdie but it's a pretty big moment. A group of heroes fighting against a lord in that lord's own castle under cover of night and rain. It's big. If your players are always fighting bandits and random encounters, try to occassionally break out the 'cool' for them. Even if at the end the results don't necessarily change the campaign setting one way or the other, if the players have the spotlight to look and do cool things, chances are they'll enjoy the sesson more.

The Heart of the Storm
Several important battle scenes take place here with some strange matchs ups.

Gen and the blind sword's pig stick together. Gen wants to make sure that if something happens to the pig, he gets the bounty. Heck, he wants to make sure that he's the one who does something to the pig. But the pig is injured saving Gen's life. A moment changer for Gen who despite his tough outter shelf is actually a decent person in many aspects.

Usagi duels the captain. Usagi knew he wasn't loyal but swore loyalty and now has to fight the man he swore that loyalty to. Note that Torame showcases himself here as a badass cutting through ninja and surviving their ambush while his allies are kileld about him. It's another way of showcasing the character's strength, of implying that "this is one bad mother."

For Usagi though, it's another one of those battles that is oven quickly but showcases that Usagi is a ally well worth having. Having the players have to fight those they know and may even agree with showcases a 'reality' if you will where alignment is not the end all be all of determine who your actual friends and allies are.

Due to the involvement of the ninja clan, the entire affair is covered over fairly quickly, and what isn't covered over, is passed onto Tomoe's lord. Usagi and Gen, being the wanderers they are, move on. Zato, injured while saving Gen, is 'taken' out of the setting so to speak and put on a path to peace where he encounters an isolated village where he can live in peace of he chooses to do so.

With an epic scope in nature, that of preventing a civil war with the Shogun, the story is relatively self contained and doesn't need future expansion. The author manages to bring all the characters together relatively quickly and move onto the action. In a game setting, this could probably be done in a sesson if all of the character of a relatively independent nature, such as Super Heroes that don't belong to one group, or players in a more traditional game that only game one off now and again. It allows for the passage of time and for the flowing of character destinies in a more organic way.

Stan is a master of pacing and timing and bringing up and down 'ticks' to the reader in order to encourage them to see what happens next. If you're not a fan of shorter stories or want something a little more epic, The Dragon Bellow Conpiracy would work great for a Legend of the Five Rings mini-campaign or as a Jadeclaw adventure.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Dark Horse Myspace

Just wanted to drop a quick note reminding those readers who enjoy Usagi that there are some freebies in full color no less, over at Dark Horse's MySpace page. Some entertaining stuff. "It flinched!" More of that Stan humor.

Blade of the Gods

Blade of the Gods introduces the 'boogey man' of the Usagi Yojimbo setting, Jei. It's a deliberate bit too because when people add the san address to his name, it then becomes Jei-San... like a certain Friday the 13th character who always comes back...

During the fight, Jei is apparently killed by a lightningbolt that also knocks Usagi out. So no body, no visible evidence of death. He'll be back.

In traditional Stan methodology though, everyone has a backstory. The latest graphic novel collection, Return of the Black Soul, even features the 'origin', if you will, of Jei. Think about that. From Book Three to Book Twenty Four, the author is able to add little bits and details to the character in order to continue to make him more than just another nameless monster that Usagi fights.

When people talk of reoccuring villains, they need methods on bringing those bad guys back. In this case, the unrecovered body of Jei is a good indication that the bad guy got away. Stan does this with a lot of characters and it happens in several instances ranging from falling into the water, off of a cliff, in a cave in or something similar where the body of the character cannot be found.

But here is where the medium is a huge asset to the author. There is a physical document that the author can always return to, not to mention any private notes and information that the casual reader may not have access to. If you want your own campaigns to have this same level of internal consistancy, then you have to keep your own notes and details about what happened in past sessons. You can ask players to write down things as they see them happening, but if you get three players doing so, don't be surprised to see three different things happening from three different perspectives.

Having some type of document that you can go back to after the game is over in order to use it as a reference work will save you the trouble of having to think, perhaps incorrectly, about what happened in the last few sessons. This is particularly true in long running campaigns where the individuals players meet at low levels might now in and of themselves be higher level.

Usagi Yojimbo: A Mother's Love

One of the things I enjoy about reading Stan's work is that he throws in the odd vocabulary here and there but doesn't overwhelm the reader with it. For example, as the ronin is sitting with an elderly woman, he calls her obaasan (old woman). Little touches like these can add flavor to the game that has nothing to do with game mechanics.

In the 'old days', Planescape was famous for it's method of speaking, the 'cant' so to say. Thieves also have their own way of speaking and the whole thieves tongue is one of those old bits where you can lay down some words without going completely overboard to showcase how a different style of life lives. Harold Lamb and Chalres Saunders were also good with this placement of foreign words to bring their settings alive for the reader.

But that's not what I wanted to talk about in the story, A Mother's Love. Rather, it's that you can't trust old people!

The story would work perfectly well for almost any setting. A chance encounter with an older woman whose out to pray for her son leads the characters to befriend her. She invites them to her home where the players learn that the son is a poison upon the town.

While Usagi initially doesn't take up the challenge of killing the son at the mother's request, player's might do so. In the story, Usagi is forced into fighting the son's minions as the mother has warned the son that Usagi is coming to kill him. When Usagi fights throught the minions, he learns that the mother has already killed the son and wishes for Usagi to kill her as well because she doesn't have the strength to do it.

In a role playing game, the character, as noted, might decide to take the job in the first place. This makes it a fairly straight up mission of taking out the son. After the son is slain though and the pay is collected, do the players then follow through and honor the mother's final request? Do they put the mother out of her misery and allow her to join her son in the next life?

And if the player's don't take the mission, the GM can still roll with the option that Stan uses here. The mother sets the son against the party members and the party members have to fight their way through the minions anyway. They might even be surprised to learn that the mother did it to divest the son of his bodyguards so that she could finish the job herself.

Let the motives of the NPC's surprise the characters and let their actions showcase what their intentions are about. While them other doesn't want Usagi to get hurt, and indeed, after seeing his swordskill, is confident that he won't be, she could have been mistaken. She was willing to put a stranger, a kind stranger at that, in risk so that she could end her son's life because the damage he was doing to the town was that horrible that she felt that much responsiblity for it.

Other aspects to remember when working on a setting also come through though. There is a reverance for the elderly. For example, Usagi carries the old woman home because he doesn't want to leave her on the road by herself. Even though he doesn't want to get involved in a family matter, he also intimidates the son into apologizing to his mother for his cruel treatment of her.

Little touches like this, and like how samurai are an honored caste, allowed to stay as peasants houses and share their meals, shine through in various adventurers that Usagi has. While not all of these touches are appropriate for all campaigns, try to keep in mind the way the characters perceive and are perceived by the world about them.

Usagi Yojimbo: Book 3 or Pet Tricks...

Usagi Yojimbo volume three starts off as many of Stan's beginings do; a wandering ronin comes across a sitution that he decides to butt his nose into.

In this case, one of the setting's dogs, portrayed by lizards (tokage), is chased up a tower by a shop owner tired of the animal stealing food. Usagi decides to help the creature off the watch tower but in doing so, causes more trouble for the shop keep ranging from dropping hot tea and his 'thermo' onto him, to eventually crashing into the shop keep's store.

The story has some cute elements to it and showcases karma at full play in the setting, but it's not necessarily that which comes across of interest to me.

As a long term reader of the series, it's the 'dog' that I'm interested in. It's not that this is a super creature or that it's able to fight against all odds or that it's even a long term companion. It's how the dog is used in the story.

I'll be bouncing up against some other stories here to illustrate the point.

1. The animal saves the blind swordspig latter by warning him of an ambush.

2. The animal then comes between Usagi and Zato and joins the swords pig looking for peace and a place to live.

3. The animal is killed during a bandit attack where Zato finds a home.

4. Usagi meets Zato again and learns the fate of the animal.

5. Usagi, the 'uncle' of Jotaro, finds that Jotaro has claimed a dog of similiar style with the exact same name.

The use of this one small story, used with a strong internal consistency, is what sets up these events to come later on down the road. When players do something unepxected, keep note of it and the potential long term effects that it will have on the setting. These don't have to be campaign changers or things that will punish or advance the characters, but if they are things that touch the player's characters, then it can be more of a buy in from the players when knowing their actions have consequences.

For example, if the players take to occassionally feeding orphans or homeless, they might be accosted at various cities by children. Perhaps some of the children even take to following the players. In terms of potential benefit, the players get some information that they might not otherwise have access to. The children could lead them to discover some problems that the local guards can't handle on their own and don't want to draw attention to.

On the other hand, in older editions of D&D, and in other games like Warhammer FRPG, having an actual pet or war dog, is a very valid option, especially at the lower levels of old school D&D. Having that extra body around to take some damage or to dish it out could be the difference between life and death. When fighting giant rats and other vermin, a war dog makes a good companion, especially for a lone wanderer.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Usagi Yojimbo Book 2: Odds and Ends

One of the things about Usagi's setting, is that while it is mostly historical in nature and most of the enemies that Usagi battles, regardless of their animal like apperance, are mostly 'human'. Rogue samurai, fellow ronin, bandits and opposing lords on the other side of the battlefield.

That isn't always true though. As a matter of fact, the first apperance of Usagi has him fighting a goblin. After the majority of the background tale earlier in book two, Usagi winds up metting a kappa.

Stan does some interesting things though. At first, when the kappa approachs Usagi, the ronin is able to keep the kappa at bay with a bride of cucumbers. As the wikki article points out, kappa prefer the taste of cucumbers even over children. When Usagi continues on, he is greeted by an old mother who shares her meal with him and then exclaims in horror that she left those cucumbers as a bribe for the kappa for her own son!

Here Stan brings out the more traditional, well, at least traditional from an adventurer's point of view, method of handling a monster; fight it out. Usagi manages to save the mother's son but is then shocked to learn that the mother the samurai was visiting was herself dead, killed by the kappa last year! Yeah, Stan would make a great writer for the Twilight Zone show.

In terms of applying something like this to a role playing game, I'm more tempted to point out the utility of using myths and lore and history to bring a section of the setting alive. Kara-Tur, Legend of the Five Rings, and other 'Oriental Adventure' based settings have the advantage, at least in the United States, of having a background with a fairly broad setting that is fairly easy to research because of old school Samurai Sunday and America's love of the idea of a warrior caste ranging from semi-modern movies like the Last Samurai, to modern film makers doing their own homage to the material ala Kill Bill or just bringing over the material similiar to 'Presenting Iron Monkey'.

When using a setting that isn't generica land, using those specific monsters, myths, and magic items of a given region and provide more depth and specific feel for a land. Long ago when dinosaurs ruled the lands, Mayfair Games did a series of books called Role Aids and they featured many a book on Mythic Treasures and Monsters of Myth and Legend. These books provided a wide variety of information on cultures not traditional covered by role playing games in any detail back then. As the internet use has risen and research has become easier, there's really no reason not to be able to throw some specific monsters and myths into the campaign.

This doesn't mean that you should make every encounter such a unique event though. If every fight the players are butting heads with the mystical, it tends to make the mundane even more mundane. Stan manages to avoid this by having the monstrous and mythic elements of the setting only rise to the foreground every so often and having them stand out in their unique features.

Next up, Usagi goes to the silk fair. Like many of the wandering ronin's encounters, it takes place with him witnessing some bandits attacking a peasant. As the busybody he is, Usagi interrupts the attack. Note that this is a common feature of the series. Usagi doesn't necessarily have his own goals and ambitions in mind. He stumbles upon these events. He wanders into them. If your gaming group is okay with this type of set up, don't argue with them about it, run with it. It's a convient set up that saves time.

But the thing I wanted to mention isn't Usagi's strange method of adventure starting. Rather, it's Matsutaro, a samurai hired by the merchant Kaiko. The towns folk believe that Matutaro is a powerful warrior and his bluster and apparent willingness to fight tend to showcase that side.

When action comes though, Matsutaro flees.

It's a setup I've seen my fellow Game Masters use and I've used myself. By making someone appear strong and powerful, the players may come to overestimate the individual. In one of my friend's campaigns, good old Mike, back in the Forgotten Realms, probably first edition, there was a competition of swordsmen where if you won, you earned a flat out 10% chance to critical with every strike. It wasn't an arena thing, it was a wandering encounter thing.

Anyway, one of my friends, Kashi, was playing a bad ass fighter-thief or some sort and the GM described how a fellow wandering questioned him about the contest. When Kashi replied that he was in. The young man put his backpack to the side and challenged Kashi. The GM described in detail the katas and stances the young man went through and then the initative dice were rolled. Kashi won and pulled out his most powerful magic item and used it, completely destroying the wanderer.

We then heard the cries of an anguished mother who was running behind her young son to prevent him from engaging in the contest and she pointed out that her son was inexperienced and only knew how the moves looked, not how to actually perform them. The mother cursed Kashi's character and the rest of us had a pretty good chuckle at how the GM got in his head.

I've done the same thing to the point where the players sometimes over compensated for their enemies. In my experience, players tend to pay attention when the GM starts providing unique descriptions to the bad guys. It's a verbal cue that more than the normal is going on here.

On the other hand, as the game system has continued to evolve, methods of determining how powerful an opponent are have worked their way into the game. In this way, the GM can be like Usagi, and know that while the enemy appears to be formidable, he's really not. This allows the players some freedom in how they will react and what information they may pass along.

In Usagi's case, it's a matter of waiting and seeing what happens and taking advantage of the situation that crops up when the reliable and powerful samurai runs out of town. For your players? Try it out and see.

Usagi Yojimbo 2: Samurai

Usagi Yojimbo 2 has a massive section devoted to the backstory of our wandering ronin. The background though, starts with an encounter that is witnessed by Gen.

Seeing the fight, Gen inquires about the reason behind the duel which allows Usagi to launch into his background.

In doing so though, Usagi also fills out background for other characters in the series that have already been introduced, as well as introducing still new characters.

Some of these bits are closed back ground elements like his lord, who readers from the first graphic novel will realize is deceased, while others, like his mentor, appear to be open.

If players are joining the campaign and leaving the game, if the players between themselves can come up with reasons why their characters know each other that does not invalidate the previously established background, then the GM should be willing to work with them. It provides greater context to the characters relationship and allows the players to engage in some small elements of world building and ties their own investment into the campaign higher.

In other aspects of Stan's work, he does a fantastic job of illustrating the world as more than just the characters. There are bridges they walk across. There is a lush background they stand against. There are fruit trees that they eat from. The characters are not merely talking heads with no context behind them.

When running the game, try to remember the little elements around the characters. If playing in something like a default points of light setting, how are the roads? Has there been effort to fix them that has run out of funds and manpower? Are there abandoned keeps and towers? Are ruined wagons left on the side of the road? Are there famous spots in the byways that showcase the might of arcane users dueling that have never been repaired that require wheeled wagons to go far around them?

The background of the setting in little details can have an enormous impact on the game without being something that grants a bonus or hinders the characters with a penalty. It can add its own character to the setting and remind the players of where they are.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Blind Swords-Pig

One of the things that Stan Sakai does in his Usagi Yojimbo series, is take inspiration from a wide variety of sources. Some of these are purely cinematic such as Zato Ino, the blind swords pig. This is a direct 'homage' or spoof if you will, or Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman, a character with over twenty five movies and a television show, much of which is playing on hulu.

Homage characters or tribute characters have a long history and are widely in use even today, especially in comics and cartons. For example, the infamous Venture Brothers carton series has its own Fantastic Four parody, and the previews for this season have shown a parody of Spider Man. In the Wildstorm setting, a branch of DC comics and prior to that, its own thing and prior to that part of Image, had several characters that were indirect homage characters to big name DC characters like Superman and Batman.

An homage character is one that allows the audience, if familiar with the homage or tribute, to quickly identify what this character is supposed to be. Depending on the creator's intent, it can be either to have his own version of the character without worring about copy rights (although Shazam will show that doesn't always work), or to tweak such natures to show a dark flip side as the comic series Marshal Law or Wanted does.

When designing such characters, try to get a feel for how well the party will react to them. If the party doesn't watch the genre or source material, congrats. You just managed to create something that will hopefully provide some entertainment to the group. Even as a player, if you make an homage character and the rest of the group doesn't know it, you've saved yourself some brain power and provided your own tribute to the source character.

As a player and a GM, I know I've been guilty of this myself. Back as a pre-teen, I was a huge fan of a certain albino swordmans and while I never went the direct route of the albino elf, there were character who had demonic swords and were related to the nobility or were cursed or had some dark gloom or fate hanging around them. Even more recently, with the character Guts from the Berserk manga, I've played a few characters who either min-maxed with things like a full blade or monkey grip.

If the rest of the group doesn't mind the homage, or if you've got an iron will and can stand potential mockery, speak with the GM about incorporating source material you find inspirational. In many instances, gamers draw their inspiration from the same pool and when we don't, there is a fair chance that by exposing it to others, you'll find new fans of the material who may also want to use it as source material.