Saturday, January 29, 2011

More (urban) ideas

From the last post, you’ll see that my campaign uses urban settings a lot. Many of the NPCs are developed and the PCs all have a decent idea of what is going on in the city, if not the world. At first, this was mainly to help me come up with semi-believable characters that would later be used in published content. After all, if we were playing in the city a lot, I would develop more characters and businesses and more importantly, inter-action between them. Think about your city/setting. I’ll bet you have more developed then you think.
Why does this matter? Because coming up with ideas can be tough. We’ve published Forge of Imagination and Character Foundry to help you come up with plot ideas and character ideas, and people buy them because often all you really need is the spark of an idea. Here’s how it all ties: Need a plot device, but you’re blocked? Think of a character in your setting/world that you haven’t used for a while, then advance their story. Did the party help a baron recover his kidnapped daughter? Maybe the baron needs more help, or the daughter is about to be married, or the daughter has her own daughter now and that princess was kidnapped. Does the party always hang out at a particular bar where they know the owner and bartenders? Maybe the brewery that supplies them needs help. Maybe the owner has come into a treasure map. OK - This probably sounds really difficult, like these ideas are no easier to come up with than any others, but they are, because you have some idea of who these NPCs are and what they care about.
Recent update in my campaign world - One of the top weapons trainers (a gladiatorial coach) hasn’t been used in a while, but had been an every week part of the campaign. OK, here’s a former slave who won his freedom and now trains freemen to fight, either in the arenas or on adventures. How to advance him? Well, he’s single, so let’s get him a wife. Where is he going to meet chicks? Well, he buys one. That part was pretty easy. I had a character; what was the next stage of his life cycle? OK, so now what? Well, I just added a slave woman to the city, and she needs a back story. Slave back stories aren’t that tough to develop. So, eventually he learns her language and learns that she was taken from her homeland and was separated from her child. He actually cares for his slave wife and wants to help her find her child, so he wants the party to help him. Would I have thought - let’s go after slavers in order to save a child? Probably not, but simply by advancing one seemingly forgotten NPC, I got a spark.
So, what’s new in the lives of the kings, merchants, innkeepers, captains, miners, bandits, priests, and healers in your world? Anything new there that could make for a cool adventure? It doesn’t have to be an ally’s life you’re advancing. What about the villains? Did any get away? Want to give any of them younger brothers who are out for revenge? You already spent the time creating these characters, why not make use of that effort and use them again. Besides, reusing NCs makes the campaign stronger, or at least more coherent.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Military Recruiting

I have been thinking about how the soldiers get into the armies. For the smaller armies, it makes sense that the officers do their own recruiting, but for the big armies, there would have to be recruiters out there. Sure patriotism and desire for a better job than hog farming are strong motivators, but there has to be someone out there either strong arming these guys or convincing them. For towns with strong war gods, I would think that the recruiters were either associated with the temple or actual priests themselves. In Rhum, the Temple of Manoto sponsors a club for young boys where they learn wrestling and other teenage martial skills while being taught patriotism - practically a junior ROTC program.
I’m thinking mainly about the bigger militaries. Do any of your cities have standing armies that number in the thousands? There has to be recruiters out there supplying men, even if the officers actually have the responsibility, they must be willing to pay the recruiters to bring them “fine, young men”. I can see a recruiter going to a small town. First he convinces one of the more popular kids to join the army. Probably tells him all the stories about how the chicks will dig it, and he’ll be an officer in four months. Then he dresses this kid up in the full uniform with his weapons and uses him as a shining example of what the other boys in town will want to be like. I recall some stories, I think from the Civil War, where guys were joining up because the uniform came with a pair of boots, and they had never owned a pair of boots before. Certainly something similar would be true in a fantasy game.
What about conscription? Does every man have to serve two years? If so, how would you explain straight mage classed characters? What about “shanghaiing” recruits? Some poor slob gets drunk and wakes up on a naval vessel heading into a war zone. Maybe the lord of the manor has the right to simply assigning his peasants to his military force, like conscription, but more specialized.
There’s a lot more about this I feel I need to flesh out, because each of the cultures in each of my cities is different, but the more I think about it, the more I think how someone gets into the military is just as important as how many are there.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Maps and the necessity (or lack thereof) for them

So have you mapped your world? Have you mapped your major cities? Parts of me want to scream, “YOU HAVE TO MAP!” But other parts of me keep thinking - but if I fill in all the spaces, then I can’t continue to be inventive. After all, once the space is all filled in, then I have to send the PCs somewhere else.
I love maps in fantasy fiction. My best set of Lord of the Rings has fold out maps attached to the back covers, so you can read the book and follow along on the maps. (Oh come on, I can’t be the only one with multiple sets. You don’t loan your hardcover boxed set to friends do you?) As a GM I have felt that I needed to lay out the skeletal structure of the world: continents, mountain ranges, major rivers, major cities. As long as these were fairly sparse, there was always a ton of space between them that I could fill with details later on. In fact, there were times when I’d look at what I had done and thought - what the heck was that all about? and then I’d have to come up with a reasonable answer that didn’t tear the political structure of that part of the world apart. Usually - that worked pretty good.
My real problem is with the cities. Rhum was mapped out down to the 10’ squares. Then I needed it to be bigger, so I changed the dimensions and mapped it out to 20’ squares. Then I needed it bigger again. Now, all the tax districts are mapped; most of the main neighborhoods are fleshed out in some way, but huge parts of the city are completely undrawn. The result? I haven’t run an urban adventure in Rhum since.
Forsbury is even worse. The map looks like a badly drawn circle with numbers indicating where the major landmarks are. Yep, only the major landmarks. Now I can BS whatever I need, but I know my consistency is 0. Six months ago, there was a tavern across the street from someone’s house, and this month there could be a laundry. As long as the players are as forgetful as I am, this works, but their multiple brains always seem to remember what I forgot, and then the whole illusion is shot. I hate that!
The obvious advice is to write down the nonsense that comes out of my mouth so I can remember it for the next time, but that never works. I can’t stop in mid-BS to jot down notes, and the unimportant parts have fled my brain by the time the session is over (typically because I’m pretty much going to sleep right after the game).
So I remain torn. On the one hand - stability, continuity, the illusion of a real world. On the other - infinite possibilities, though most of them are ill conceived because you had to make them up on the spot. I know there’s a happy medium, I just don’t know if I’ve figured it out yet.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Winter Foods

I have to admit, I’m fascinated with how people lived without modern technology. I camp a lot, but that’s different. I can still bring a can of sweet corn and frozen beef with me to make my dinner. But our fantasy era characters didn’t have metal cans or freezers, so what did they do?
No, this isn’t an article about what they did. If you want more of that, check out Grain Into Gold and the upcoming Coins of the Road. I really just want to plant the idea in your head, that there were some really cool and inventive ways of providing food all winter long. Let’s face it, they needed to provide food all spring long too, because it’s not like fresh food just appeared the first month of spring. Things we consider weird, like pickled fish, were not only perfectly normal, but they were necessary, perhaps even special treats.
Does every GM need to know the amount of salt it takes to make a corned beef and what the shelf expectancy of the final product would be? No! But you do need to have some understanding of it. Otherwise you can’t create your cities and the homes in those cities. Do your farm cottages have root cellars for the potatoes, carrots and beets? Are they pickling their products, maybe a barrel of sauerkraut? What are they doing to keep the rats and other vermin out of the flour or meal? On a different track - How do they store up fuel for the winter?
You think it was rough on the East Coast this year? Think about a farm cottage that runs out of fuel when 20” of snow hits them.


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Saturday, January 1, 2011


This is an article I wrote for a small press gaming magazine 15 years ago. The magazine went under before it was published, but I thought it would make a good blog post.
In a tournament I once ran, one character was an inquisitor (a torturer). He had worked for the Duke of the region for many years and become one of the most feared men in the region. Upon the Duke's death, a wild romp had begun over who the successor would be (the main point of the tourney). This inquisitor backed a nephew of the old Duke and the two of them were able to bluff their way into the palace and passed all of the guards protecting their rivals (well, all but the golem that killed them both, but that's another story).
These characters did not fight and kill everyone that opposed them, they intimidated. "Do you want to be the next one on my rack?" is quite a fitting argument to avoid conflict. Granted the torturer was skilled in intimidation and had an extreme presence about him, but this type of "attack" can be quite powerful.
In many games people are afraid of dragons. Anyone not afraid of dragons either has a game master that has been too nice to them or a lack of good sense. Why are people afraid of dragons? Because they breathe bone-frying flames and can bite a steer in half. Pretty good reasons to fear dragons.
What about normal adventurers? Farmers and merchants should have a healthy fear of these battle hardened veterans, even if only because the rumors of short tempers and fast blades. Not to suggest that adventurers should be able to bully their way through any town, but they should certainly be respected and treated with care.
A solitary orc guard facing a troop of six armored and mounted men backed by a dangerous looking wizard should flee in terror or quickly lose his life. There is no reason for the orc to stand his post only to be cut down by the first initiative rolled by the adventurers, yet this happens time and time again. Common sense, even in a simple and stupid creature, would have the orc flee no matter how afraid of his boss he might have been. Only a religious fanatic or other berserker warrior would face down six opponents when any one of them could easily defeat him.
Remember the gun-fighters in the old westerns? The second they walked into town, parents started bringing their children in off the streets. Store keepers closed early. The local sheriff walked out to discuss the fact that he "didn't want no trouble". How did the people in these little town know that these were gun-fighters? Could it be the fact that they walked into town wearing weapons in plain sight? Could it be the fact that their clothing often looked like it had been through a battle? Could it be the killer look in their eyes? Could it be the fact that nobody looking like them lives anywhere around here? Do these things sound exactly like how most adventuring parties enter a town, no matter what the genre?
The people in the town they have just entered not only know they are there, but they will know where they are staying, what they look like, and have made up several rumors about what their real purpose is. These adventurers should have an awe power over the generic farmers in a town. They should be able to intimidate just about anyone. The civilians will either worship them as heroes or fear them as the vilest villains.
As for the adventurers themselves, why are they not afraid? Should the thought of annoying the local baron and bringing down the full weight of law enforcement intimidate the party? One would think it would, but typically the local baron had better have several warriors more powerful than the party if he wishes to keep himself safe. Unfortunately with the average adventuring party, powerful guards becomes a test of machismo vs. machismo. No self-respecting adventurer can allow the baron’s bodyguards to scare him away. Killing the baron becomes a matter of honor, whether there is a reason for it or not.
Even in situations where the game master outright tells the characters that acting against this certain person will mean your death, they typically insist upon testing the theory. OK, so only berserker warriors, religious fanatics and adventurers will fight battles that they have no reason to believe they will win.