Sunday, March 29, 2015

Venus in Copper: Gaming Lindsey Davis' Ancient Rome

Detective stories are often hard to capture in a role playing session. There are often times when a system will rely on characters having select specialized skills to gather the specific information needed, and lacking those skills can cause the game to grind to a halt.
This is not a unique feature of detective games mind you. I remember when Green Ronin brought Warhammer FRPG back. One of their first ‘Adventure Paths’ involved some wilderness exploration that required characters to have some wilderness or tracking skills and well, things wouldn’t move forward without those skills. It’s been a while so bear with me if I’m not remembering some 10+ year old adventure with 100% accuracy.
Some products and systems, like the Gumshoe system, try to move beyond such limitations by always allowing the players to move forward in the mystery, allowing the other parts of the game to take the crunch if you will.
For example, I’ve mentioned Lorefinder before. It’s got all the crunch of Pathfinder but the investigative components are specialized into the Gumshoe style which allows potentially more satisfying results than just “make a skill check.” Mind you the more skilled such individuals are, the more information they can unlock with their skills.
But in dealing with role playing games, there are many facets that should be considered and utilized when possible. When of the things that Lindsey Davis does, is brings excellent description to the reader. The first person narrations of Falco, have the detective meet an Oracle who Falco describes in the following flowery manner:
“She looked about sixty. Her straight dark gown hung from two small silver niello shoulder-broaches, so her arms were bare, thought hidden in spare folds of the material. Her hair was rather thin, mostly black yet with broad silver streaks. Her face lacked professional mystique, except for severely hooded eyes. The eyes were no special colour. It was the face of any businesswoman in the male world of Rome: accommodating, yet with an underlying stubborn strength and a trace, faint as snail tracks, of personal bitterness.”
It’s a great list and includes age, clothing, hair, eyes, along with a few other characteristics thrown in.
If this were a role playing description, other elements, such as any noticeable aura, weapons, or other strangeness, like say, floating Ioun Stones, would be marked.
Description is the character’s key to the world. It doesn’t matter how much detail the Game Master knows if he is unable to relay that information to the players.
Players tend to perk up on details because they assume that the Game Master is providing them for a reason. When in combat, it can be vital to know where a pillar is. How many feet between floors in a three story building. How many skeletons are climbing out of the graveyard.
The details in description can provide a lot of depth and information to characters that pay attention, but know your group. Just because you provide the detail, does not mean that your group is paying attention.
If your group is one who loves combat, all of the loving details about the weather, the increased temperature, the rise in the flu, and other bits that hint at events, are probably going to go by the wayside.
As a Game Master, you’ll have to focus on what the player’s are paying attention to. See if they pay attention to description’s of NPCs. See if they pay attention to rumors. See if they pay attention to local events and holidays.
Another aspect to look into when running a detective game, is investigation. The facets that should be examined include the old standards: Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why.
In a role playing game, the Who can be easy. In this  case, Falco is hired before a murder, to insure that no murder takes place! Serverina is a three time widower former slave making her world in the ancient Roman world. Those who've hired Falco want to insure that their friend, ally, and business patron, doesn't fall to her.
To know about Serverina, Falco goes through learning about how the past husbands died. Learning about how Serverina used to live. Learning about those who've hired him, just in case they themselves are not always what they seem.
This provides numerous character hooks and builds the whole of Rome in that it allows many characters to enter the realm of possible murderers, especially when Servenia’s husband to be dies BEFORE the wedding. If she was a gold digger as feared, then there are other suspects at play.
In addition to the investigation, a role playing game can have other elements. One of the fun things about gaming, are the rewards. In traditional games like Dungeons and Dragons, this is usually a more powerful magic item. Some things might included non-traditional rewards like titles or land.
In this novel, Falco is awarded with a turbot.
A turbot in this time, is a fish of royal importance. When caught it was often given to the Imperial House to carry favor. Falco getting one? When he doesn't have the house or means to properly prepare this giant fish? It borders on comic.
Giving players a reward that has social status and requires them to work with it to get the full benefit of that status? It can provide solid entertainment. Are there characters with skills in music? Get them into a bard college for a special performance that requires a special instrument.
Are there players who are master weapon smiths? Have them learn how to craft exotic weapons, but have to provide the materials and space to the trainers who will teach them.
With a little give and take in the reward, the reward itself becomes part of the story.
One of the things that players can learn, is a deeper history of their surroundings. For example, consider this exchange between Falco and Severina.
“After a moment Severina lifted her right hand, showing the cheap ring with a crudely etched Venus and a small blob that was meant to be Cupid nestling her knee. ‘Now copper-‘ she dlcared obscurely, ‘that’s for eternity!’
‘Eternity comes cheap! Did you know, copper is named for the mountains of Cyprus, where the oxhide ingots come from? I collect obscure facts. ‘And Cyprus is the birthplace of Venus, so that’s why copper is the metal of Love-‘
These bits of historical information may provide interesting tidbits of trivia to have, or may be important clues to something coming down the pipeline.
Lastly, I would say that detective stories, especially those set in a large city like Rome, benefit from set pieces. Having a place that the characters can use as a compass, to know where they’re at, that is a local spot that knows what’s going on around that particular location.
For instance..
‘Before I stalked out the gold-digger, I wanted to explore the Hortensius menage. People tell you more than they think by where they live and the questions they ask; their neighbors can be even franker. Now I had gained a general impression, the sweetmeat stall where I had been given directions earlier was ripe for a return visit.
‘When I got there a hen who liked the high life was pecking up crumbs. The place itself was just a shack opposite a stone pine. It had a fold-down counter and a fold-up awning in front, with a small oven tucked away behind. The accommodation in between was so scanty that the stallholder spent a lot of his time sitting on a stool in the shade of the pine tree on the other side of the road, playing Soldiers against himself. When a customer turned up he left you long enough to get excited over his produce, then sauntered across.
‘The freeholders of the Pincian discouraged shops: but they liked their little luxuries. I could see why they let this cakeman park on their hill. What his emporium lacked architecturally was made up for by his bravura edibles.
‘The centerpiece was an immense platter where huge whole figs were sunk to the shoulder in a sticky bed of honey. Around this circular dish were tantalizing dainties set out in whorls and spirals, with a few removed here and there (so no one need feel reluctant to disturb the display). There were dates stuffed with whole almonds the warm colour of ivory, and others filled with intriguing pastes in pastel shades; crisp pastries, bent into crescents on rectangles which were layered with oozing fruits and sifted with cinnamon dust; fresh damsons, quinces and peeled pears in a candied glaze; pale custards sprinkled with nutmeg, some plain and others cut to show how they were baked on a base of elderberries or rosehips. On a shelf at one side of the stall stood pots of honey, labelled from Hymettus and Hybla, or whole honeycombs if you wanted to take someone a more dramatic party gift. Opposite , dark slabs of African must cake drowsed beside other confections which the stallholder had made himself from wheat flour soaked in milk, piercing them with a skewer and drenching them with honey before adding decorative chopped filberts.
Lindsey Davis makes ancient Rome much more interesting then just a place where detective stories happen, and by engaging the players on multiple levels, you can do the same for your own campaigns.
If you enjoyed the ramblings, please +1, share, or comment. Talk about unusual rewards and what you’re players did with them. Speak of skills rarely used save for those special occasions.