Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Effects of Scale on a Game World

You know I don’t want to bad mouth my own products, but the thing I am most disappointed in with Fletnern is the city populations. With the populations of the cities, and therefore the countrysides being so low, there is not a lot of wiggle room within the economies. Mainly - Without an overabundance of taxes and governmental spending, there is far less room for organized crime.
How does this matter? Well, in the USA, we have lobbyists - lots and lots of lobbyists. Why? Because government is so freakin’ huge that they can make huge money by sidetracking some of that waste towards their clients. Often the waste or special favors are only a tiny percentage of the outflows, but here - a tiny percentage can be millions of dollars. Look at the well-known cronyism going on: the bridge to nowhere, solar companies getting subsidies in order to go broke, Al Gore’s blatant attempts to pass cap and trade in order to become a billionaire. That doesn’t all work in Fletnern.
On the tax collection side it doesn’t work that well either. The only city where it makes sense to smuggle goods is Brinston, because the tariffs are so high. Smugglers are nearly unheard of in other parts of the world because it isn’t profitable enough to smuggle things into a walled city. Without smuggling of illegal contraband, where does organized crime make all their money? In Fletnern, most things we see as illegal aren’t. Booze, prostitution, gambling - all legal, again taking money out of the pockets of those organized criminals.
Look, if your major cities all have a million citizens, and the ports are crammed with cargo ships going in and out, you might be able to hide graft and corruption within the system, and it may go on for a long time. Sometimes I wish Fletnern had that, but then we wouldn’t be able to suggest that a small but determined party of adventurers could actually change the world - certainly not as easily. Oh well, you take the bad with the good.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


Last post, we discussed what Lex Luthor would do. I don’t want to insult any of you, but Lex Luthor is way smarter than we are. In fact, Lex Luthor is smarter than just about everyone. Look - In real life, I have an IQ that is at the top end of the charts. I didn’t just make genius, I’m a couple of standard deviations farther up the curve from there. Even I’m not as smart as Lex Luthor. More importantly, while I do from time to time sit around and think up ways for my NPCs to hold their power over the world, I do not have as much time to devote to such musings as a full time super villain, I mean hero. So what to do.
Ever see a really intelligently run con game film or major suspense story? Don’t you love it when the smart guy goes, “I knew you were going to do that, so I have prepared this trap for you”. OK, I know I cannot write dialog. In any case, there are times in film and literature when the smart guy can guess every move of the less smart guys. You need to let people do that in your games.
Some players might call this cheating, but you need to have a means by which the super smart guy can show that he’s super smart. Super smart guys should not allow some thief to hide in shadows, get around behind him, and back stab him to death. That would not be super smart. In fact, having a lair where people could sneak around behind you, would be pretty dumb. So let’s assume that after you wrote that mission, your players are now sneaking around behind your brilliant NPC mage, and you know one backstab is enough to end his life. What to do? Add in something that the mage would have prepared. If you have to, take a bathroom break and give yourself a chance to think. Is he a necromancer with a skeleton hidden in those same shadows? Is he an illusionist with a blinding light spell set to go off if anyone tries to backstab him? Is he an alchemist with a form of living stone behind him that will attack or at least trip anyone trying to get him from behind? Or is he some manner of alien who has never encountered a rogue who uses backstab as their major attack form and is therefore completely surprised by this incredibly obvious move?
The point is, that there are those characters who are supposed to be able to reasonably predict other people as though life really were a chess game with limited outcomes. If your players use a common, but effective strategy, then the super genius needs to be able to predict that type of attack and have a counter on hand - even if you as the game master did not. When it comes down to it, the players have many minds to come up with really cool strategies, you have but one. Sometimes you need to use that almighty GM power to even the odds.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

WWLLD? (Another What Would ...)

Many times, when I am trying to put together a massive political, military and economic plot, typically led by a mastermind or group of masterminds, I think to myself: What Would Lex Luthor Do?
To me, Lex Luthor is the penultimate hero of the planet Earth. No one else is willing to intentionally provoke Superman. No one else has been able to see through Superman’s hypocrisy and see the truth, that Superman is in fact an alien invasion. No other fictional character I can think of has so perfectly blended political, economic, scientific, and military forces in order to actually come to the point of ruling the world (or at least becoming president of the USA).
So what would Lex do? Obviously, it depends on the situation, but I can tell you this - He’d find the weakness in what his rivals (or enemies) are doing and exploit it. He’d find a way to change the opinions of the common people and use them for the power they actually hold. He’d lead his enemies to underestimate his forces and then deliver the knockout blow after they had committed their forces directly into his trap. In other words, he would be brilliant!
You know why it matters? Because somewhere in your FRPG world, there is a ruler who is supposed to be brilliant. He’s supposed to be this world class thinker and doer, holding power in his fist and ruling with authority. But when the adventurers show up, he’s completely lacking in strategy. We all know why this happens - because you don’t have time to think up everything for every one of your NPCs. But for the really smart ones, you need to.
Mr. Luthor is the penultimate hero - He’s as good as it gets. He can even be humble when it suits him. Your leaders may not be like that. My elven leaders are smart, but they are constrained by their culture and traditions, as are the dwarves. When I think of what my military powers (usually orcs or one of the various human cultures) would do, they are constrained by the logistics of it all - How can they both attack the world and provide safety and food back at home? Even the most powerful mages often forget that not everyone can control magic or they forget that physical power is equally as effective, if used properly. Not everyone can be as good as Lex. But every once in a while, there needs to be someone who is.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Retreat, Rout and Running Away

Some games have it all set to determine when people flee from battle. They have some manner of morale check and then go scampering off. We intentionally avoided writing specific rules for that because too often players will tailor their characters to force those morale checks and then they never have to fight. You have to fight sometimes in a role-playing game (even though we constantly harp on making it a role-playing game and not just a battle system).
But what do you do about it in game? Earlier this week I was running a game where the elven bandit was at half his Life’s Blood (hits to kill) and facing two warriors by himself (his partner having been killed the last turn). Does he run? They killed his buddy, they hurt him, how much does it take? Well Legend Quest has a Willpower attribute, so I forced a Willpower check on him to see if he would stick it out. He passed the Willpower task, but I still had him start walking backwards - fighting retreat. #1 - He had allies back there, including a sniper who was hidden. #2 - I just couldn’t see a light elven bandit standing toe to toe with a human fully armored knight and a half-orc killing machine.

So when does it happen? Too often, it never happens. Characters (both player and non-player) stay in combat until they die. Are we really that stupid? Shouldn’t there be a point where you understand that you’re going to lose, at least that you’re going to lose here? Shouldn’t you then retreat, either get out of there completely or go find a better spot to fight? Well, if the game rules allow the enemy to have a freebie hit against you, then I understand why you don’t run - running could get you killed.

In Legend Quest, one of the best ways to run away is this: You let the other guy take his attack. Chances are when he tries to hit me, he is not going to take a negative for a “walk modifier”. Well, that means that he cannot walk this turn. (Characters in LQ can always “free walk” but this is usually 5-7’, not 30’+.) Now, I can take a walk modifier and walk backwards. I might even hit him as I’m retreating. Smart teams will have wanted to put an enemy behind me to stop me from doing that, but they may not have had the chance yet. With this rule, an enemy often has a chance to retreat without getting killed.

But still - When? The reason I don’t want to put numbers around it is that I think it is entirely different for when a bandit flees vs. when a soldier flees, and not only because of their Willpower, though that is also a factor. I think as a GM you need to know this type of thing when you create the NPCs to fight. Are they religious fanatics? They never run. Are they soldiers who feel a sense of duty? Are they bandits or mercenaries who care only about profit and expect to stay alive? And if they consider running away to be a perfectly normal course of action - Do you prep them by giving them some sort of advantage? Does the spell caster have a fog or obscurement spell? Does the horseman have some caltrops? Does the thief have a potion of invisibility? And if they do (have a means of escape) are your players and their character smart enough to recognize that and take advantage of it when they meet the next patrol of enemies?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Rhum is NOT Rome

One of the first supplements Board Enterprises ever produced was our city supplements on the fantasy city of Rhum. It was the second city designed in the World of Fletnern, and extensive work was done on it. My Rhum Master file is currently 396 pages long. That’s about 680 locations described, and some of those are office buildings filled with service providers.

Anyway - One of the most common questions is how it is pronounced. OK, not a question, because everyone thinks they know. But a lot of people are getting it wrong. It is NOT Rome!!! It’s more like the sound a little boy makes when he is playing with his cars and trucks. “vrroooum”. But not “room” either, and not “rum”, though that’s a lot closer. No, I did not name all my cities based on booze, but yeah, “rum” is about as close as I can hope folks will come.

Years ago, one of our major distributors had a guy working there who’s last name was Rhum. I asked him how his family pronounced it, and yeah, we had it right. By the way - Sorry about all the hassles the guys gave you over us using your name; it was entirely unintentional!
So - Not the most earth shattering blog post, but possibly interesting to some of you.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Campaign Specialization

Every campaign is different. Because of that, it can be hard to write books of magic items or similar subjects. Sometimes you need something a little more specialized.

What if in this campaign (or story arc), the party is against a whole bunch of werewolves or were-whatevers. Now you need a list of magic items that are nearly useless in any other style of scenario. You’ll want enchantments that make it easier to turn, force a turn, special silver delivery missiles, protection spells, protection from silver spells, more powerful beast forms (spell? ability?) and what the value of a werewolf hide is, or maybe just the fangs. Do they retain their fur if killed as wolf or do they revert back and therefore there is no pelt?

The point is not to dwell on a lycanthrope based campaign, but instead to show that there simply are times that where the game master will want to put a little more effort into coming up with things that are not in any of the rule books. Honestly, Dragon Magazine use to be good for that. Truth be told, 30 years ago if you were reading the magazine, you either went, “That’s so cool! I’m using that!” or you said, “That’s so lame, why did they waste ten pages on something no one would ever use.” Chances are, different people said both those things about the same articles.

I like specialized campaigns, or at least the story arcs. Spend four missions going against a similar enemy, then take two or three off and then go back to the main theme. It really holds the campaign together! Making up magic items is so much easier than you think, and if you don’t want to make them up, just give the bad guys special powers. “Anytime Bart wants, he can summon a flock of seagulls.” No, not the music group. You don’t always have to put a die roll on it, just let him do whatever when it is cool.

Too many “traditional” campaigns have no continuity. They are just a series of missions performed by the same characters for no real reason, other than possibly because someone would pay. Fighting various types of weres, or undead, or dragons, or slavers, etc - players remember that. They remember how they had to work their way through the lesser critters to find the big boss at the end of four missions. They had to earn the fight. They’re also a lot more excited by getting some minor magic items that specifically relate to their immediate danger.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Spice of (Fantasy) Life

This is a puff piece - just wanted to warn you

I do far more research into fantasy era stuff than any sane human being would do. Even still, I have had a couple of folks challenge me on some of my assumptions and descriptions, so there are folks who are even more far gone than I am.

One of the things I love figuring out is what people in fantasy environments would do with what they have. Let’s take spices. First off, while modern “chefs” dump tons of garlic on everything in order to seem brilliant, I have my fantasy types dumping onions into anything that might be described as savory. But that’s easy.

Lemons and limes don’t grow well in most climates and don’t ship well, so what do you do? Verjuice! Verjuice is (typically) the juice of sour grapes. (I will spare you my sour grapes puns, they were really bad!) In so many ways it was used the way we use lemon juice now a days, sour, easily gotten, typically locally grown. You can use vinegar instead, but that completely changes the flavor. But speaking of vinegar - Fletnern’s cuisines are dependent upon what types of vinegar they use. Wine? Cider? Malt? I normally don’t like vinegar, especially the way it is frequently used in German cooking, but I do love malt vinegar on my beer battered fish.

The other big one I have had to add into my fantasy world is garum. This was a Roman condiment - a kind of fish sauce, typically the fermented guts of fish. Sounds disgusting, right? If so, then why did they use it so much? I’ve never had it, but I have to admit something in my life - I flavor things with anchovies all the time. I know a lot of you just threw up in your mouths a little bit, but I put anchovies in chili (not cooked in it, added afterwards or the flavor overwhelms the whole thing), in tuna salad, in salads, etc. Anchovies - not just for pizza anymore! I think the flavors must be sort of similar - fishy and salty.

So - verjuice, vinegar, and garum - three condiments that were extensively used in ancient times that can be added to your campaign world to toss in some realism and some culture shock. I still believe that if you can get your players talking about the fantasy world as though it were real, you have gotten them to invest in your game, and they’ll keep coming back!

All is Good

OK - All the computer issues are over. I have a working computer that will allow me to write books and blog posts as well as kill trolls and dragons. Not certain which of those is more important to me, but clearly, both are.