Sunday, May 26, 2013

Major Wars in RPGs

Years ago, I wrote a magazine article on this, but I’m guessing that most people reading this blog do not have access to some old out of print regional RPG mag. After that last post, I wanted to give some reasons that major wars are great for RPGs -ALL genres of RPG, but I’ll focus on fantasy. First - governments spend more money on weapons and defenses during a war -huge money! For fantasy, this means the government paying for magical weapons to be created to give to their operatives or officers. This increases the number of magical weapons and defenses in the world, expanding the stuff people can loot. Plus, they tend to get more inventive during wars, so there will be different types of magical stuff then there might have been before. Second - no war is going to be over quickly. That means that they serve as sub-campaigns within the overall campaign. I mean, that is where the term campaign was borrowed from. So these aren’t one shot adventures, but instead developing sub-plots that can really hold the interest of all the players. Third - the enemy should have so many men, that the player characters cannot simply go out and kill them all. If the PCs can slaughter the whole enemy army singlehandedly (and in the old D&D rules, they really could), then you need to be playing a different game! The fun part of this is that some players have never actually met their match in battle. By putting them up against an invading army, even if they are six times better than the common enemy soldier, they will get worn down by the constant press of enemies until they retreat or die. My last point (and I could really go on for hours), is that wars force GMs to develop different types of missions. Maybe the first thing is defending a wall. Does the wall hold or do they have to flee? As they flee, there will be skirmishes along the way to the next battle site. Are their raids against each other’s camps? Do the players need to help with the logistics (maybe hunting some meat, gathering more militia, guarding a weapons shipment)? Do different styles of units need to be handled in different ways? (Wow, I hope so!) Can the players get involved in any of the negotiations, maybe simply as bodyguards or messengers? Are there any dirty tricks going on, either offensively or defensively? Clearly the point is to develop the war as a major thing - tens of thousands of soldiers converging on a couple of spots, some drama leading up to the actual battles, reactions to the battles themselves, etc. I actually write out how the major battles are going to turn before playing through them, because I refuse to believe that a small squad of adventurers can turn the tide of a major battle. A couple of times, I’ve needed to alter that course, which is fun too. By knowing how things are going to turn, I can write it up almost like it’s a wilderness adventure with a series of encounters, which makes it easier for me to run.

The Corn Fields of War

No, seriously, that’s the title of this blog entry. OK, I spend a lot of time, both in my personal game world development and in my published books describing things like corn, corn prices, corn meal, as well as wheat, wheat prices, flour, mills, etc. Why? I’ve probably lost the gold farmers already. They’re like, “This is stupid, there’s nothing I need to know about plants that don’t attack people.” Of course, they’re wrong. Who remembers the Battle of Cannae? I don’t mean personally, it was like 2,000 years ago. Why was it cool? Hannibal kicked the @$$ of the Romans even though he was outnumbered. Why was he there? Because he was cutting off their supply lines. He was stopping the city of Rome from getting its grain. I’ll try to make this point briefly: If you don’t know how your capital cities get fed, then you cannot figure out how an enemy would attack them. And if you’re not using major wars in your campaign world, then you are missing the most dramatic element you can find in any role-playing game, no matter what the genre. Those of us who have spent a little time thinking through things like which farming regions support which massive cities can easily determine what an invading force would do upon entering the region. Obviously, it’s a lot more complicated than what we’re making it out to be here. Invaders would have to determine whether to go after food production, water resources, possibly iron or other military metals, possibly precious metals or gems - whatever the natural resources of the region are. There could be major military engagements where one army walked up to a neighbor, “conquered” their gold mining and smelting area, took everything, and went home. Now the embarrassed city has to decide if they want to mount up and go after their stolen gold. But you can’t think of cool scenarios like that if you haven’t figured out how everyday life in your cities work. I’ve been a little harsh in this post, but I do believe it. The more you know about your fantasy world, the easier it is to come up with things that can happen in it. If you can easily come up with things that will happen in your fantasy world, then you’re never stuck for adventure ideas. Plus, this type of adventure mission puts the characters directly into the history books. They are participating in something that truly affects their homeland, something that can be built on for future missions and encounters, because now they know more about your fantasy world too. Stuck for ideas about how to develop your cities better? Check out Urban Development from Board Enterprises. If reading through that book doesn’t give you dozens of ideas about your world and missions you can run, I’ll eat my hat - and I have a lot of hats!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Fantasy Aliens

I use lots of alien races on Fletnern (my FRPG world). None of them showed up through the use of space ships; they always have some magical or rarely mentalism way of traveling here. I find it a great way to add some really odd/crazy creatures into the mix without having to justify how they survive in the environment. But, to my way of thinking, if I want to have them show up, I have to justify why they show up. Why did they leave their home world and come to Fletnern? Well, the less intelligent ones normally wander through an open “portal”. You see, I designed this “spiral staircase” that all the worlds are “on”. The worlds are not actually on the spirals, but they appear to be due to some 20+ dimensional mathematics. On different but related planes of existence, a double helix of worlds is spinning in opposite directions. Imagine a piece of DNA where one side of the double helix spun to the right while the other spun to the left, all the time revolving around a central sphere. Here’s the best part - you don’t really have to picture it! The result is that every so often, certain worlds come so close to Fletnern that a person can cross from one to the other. Sometimes this is done accidently. Sometimes powerful magics are used to craft bridges that can stay in place for months. That’s how the aliens typically get here. So why do they come if it isn’t an accident? I think I’ve overdone the whole running away from something else scenario. Lots of the aliens are or were refugees, either from a natural disaster or from conquerors on their home world. To say that a conqueror would come to a world simply to conquer it seems like an immature reason, though some conquerors are immature. Some come for the slaves. Dragging alien creatures back to your world to work in the most dangerous mines (or whatever) seems a far better reason than simply conquering. Others need to gather resources. Admittedly, those resources might be slaves too (for food this time). You’ve seen all the sci-fi movies - they come for gold, for water, to steal our atmosphere, whatever. I do think gold and diamonds are reasonable excuses to go world hopping because of their rarity, plus it puts them directly at odds with the locals who are not willing to give up their gold and diamonds. Why use them? Because they are so “alien”. They can have alien powers. They can use materials that are either unheard of in your main world or so rare in your main world as to be never considered as a building material. I had one alien race from a volcanic desert world using obsidian for all their containers, as well as for weapons, eating utensils, mirrors, needles, etc etc. Best - some of these materials might give them magical items that either cannot be reproduced or will “wear-out”. Maybe those spears shoot lightning bolts, but only three or four times, so even if they wind up in the hands of the PCs, they won’t change the game balance. I like cool stuff like that!

FRPG Schools

In our modern era, most people would be able to tell you what every child learns in school: The 3 Rs (reading, ‘riting and ‘rthimatic), as well as possibly history or “social studies” (no brain washing here! right). They may break some of these subjects up, but these are the main ones. Some schools might still have art, music, gym, shop or even home ec, but not too many it seems. But should you fold those same concepts into your fantasy cities? I don’t think so! First, ask yourself why these people are being educated. This isn’t our modern, Prussian-based, public schools intended to teach reading, maps, geometry, and civil patriotism so the next generation would be better suited to the artillery in case Napoleon rose again. (No, really, that is what the USA’s public school system is based on.) My fantasy schools depend on what city you’re in, because they all have something different as a priority. In Brinston, they believe that anyone who can master magic must be among the smartest, so in order to become a business person, you need to attend (and graduate from) a magic university. No, they aren’t all accomplished mages. The ability to squeak out one spell is enough to graduate, but they will all refer to themselves as “mages” because that proves they’re smart. See? In Helatia, the first major university was intended for naval military officers, so now every school teaches navigation as a major subject. No, it has no benefit to most of the students, but they all study it! In Rhum, the best advanced school is run by (and largely for) spell singers or bards. There, nearly all of the students take some manner of singing class. It is not “required”, but it is socially expected. So what classes are normal in your world? Recitation (from memory) strikes me as one of the more important. Imagine all those epic sagas and how bad they would get without proper recitation skills. What about geography, rhetoric, philosophy, law, military strategy, or astronomy? What about basic bookkeeping? Is that required because the graduates are expected to become business folks or do the lesser educated folks handle the actual math? Are they taught negotiation? Are they expected to become deal makers and/or court lawyers? Whatever the expectation (real or imagined), that is what they will be taught in schools. You don’t have to be logical. Maybe they are all expected to memorize some epic poem about the history of their country, but the poem is pure propaganda. Maybe they are expected to learn all about other cultures and how inferior those other cultures are to their own. Maybe everyone is trained to enter religious service, so the theology is the most important course, but so many of them fall away to pursue other careers. (This last one seems very likely if the churches control the schools.) For Fletnern - It’s all of the above!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Setting up the Future

I have plans in my campaign world that have been in the works for years. I’m a little tired of the lack of progress, so it’s time to start setting up the future. How? Well, the players in my world have a tendency to use fortune tellers, but the fortune tellers have relatively limited range - only a few weeks. So I need to use a different form of prophesy. Those street preachers - you know, the ones who keep saying it’s the end of the world - well, they’re going to start saying the end of the world is near, but they are all going to start saying the same crazy story. No one will believe it, but the various crazy gods who feed these crazy preachers are actually telling the truth. This truth is so many steps away that no one can conceive it. Truth be told, even if they do believe it, it will likely be two or more years before it really gets going. None of my players remember things like that until it’s too late. So even if I give them answers, they won’t understand the questions until the prophesy has been fulfilled. This type of set up takes a while. Not everyone knows the direction their world is going a few years out, but even if you plans don’t come through, then the crazy guy in the street really is just a crazy guy and not a true prophet - that’s easy enough to believe. But when it does happen a couple of years later, someone will look back and go, “I can’t believe it. You told us this was going to happen years ago.” Then you can smile and nod, basking in the glory of your own brilliance.

“Gritty” vs. “Mundane”

Let’s set a stage - imagine it’s the early 60s (1960s - I know it’s a fantasy blog, but please keep up) and all you’ve had to read are Superman comics. You know - Clark Kent changes into Superman, gets threatened by kryptonite, then saves the day and turns back into Clark Kent. You know - BORING!! Then this guy Stan Lee comes around and brings Spiderman. Peter Parker has to actually worry about his personal life, things like paying rent, holding onto his job when he mysteriously disappears, keeping the cops off the tail of that masked vigilante, etc. If you think about it, it’s backwards. By bringing a breath of realism into the story, it got more interesting. Less unbelievable stuff = more fun. So, I’m like Stan Lee. I had to put that out there. I don’t really think I’m “like” Stan Lee. Wish I was! OK, I was inspired by Stan Lee. That’s a lot more accurate. Huh? Let me explain - no, takes too long, let me sum up. With Legend Quest, I brought in things that other games wanted to forget about: brewing, sewing, the exhaustion caused by running, bleeding damage, armor weighing too much, but having skill levels to offset it. Legend Quest, following the model set forth by Marvel Comics and Spiderman, brought a touch of realism into a world previously completely devoid of intelligence and believability. And in so doing, by that slightest twinge of reality, all of a sudden, things became actually believable and therefore got a lot more exciting. Legend Quest has been called “mundane” for including skills that don’t relate to combat. It has been called “gritty” for its bleeding damage (which prevents you from standing in a fight and being perfectly offensive when you have only one drop of blood left in your body) and armor rules. I didn’t like either description, though gritty is a lot easier to live with than mundane. But I can accept their point of view - just not agree with it. I see it this way - there really is only one kind of physical damage you can take, the kind that reduces your hit points or life’s blood or vitality or whatever you call it. So many games put so much emphasis on coming up with a variety of ways to cause that damage that they don’t bother making any sense out of the differences. Whether it is fire damage or blunt damage or rainbow magic it doesn’t really matter. In Legend Quest it matters. Every point counts. Soldiers (including adventurers) typically have about 36 Life’s Blood (compared to 24-30 for a civilian). A long sword or heavy crossbow can cause up to 20 points, plus at that point, you would be bleeding to death. 36LB - 20 piercing damage = 16 left or less than three minutes before you bleed to death. Oh yeah, there are first aid rules too. So - for anyone who really liked those boring Superman comics of the 50s and 60s, play the other games. You can come up with dozens and dozens of ways to do exactly the same thing, overcome the kryptonite or do damage. But if you’re more into a touch of realism that brings the excitement to life - Play Legend Quest. Have a fully rounded character that is what you wanted, not one of four choices. Do something in your role-playing game besides just damage.