Sunday, July 27, 2014

Multiple Genres - How to make it really work

I am a bit embarrassed to admit - I watched the movie Frankenstein’s Army over the weekend. Was it good? No. It was very reminiscent of those classic B-grade monster movies I used to watch every Saturday night with my father on Son of Svengoolie. (I know - only you Chicago folks will fully understand that, but every town had their “creature feature”.)

So, at its core, this movie was a monster movie, on the verge of being a horror movie. But it was so much more than that. It was set during World War II and was also effectively a found footage movie. Now you might say that monster, horror and found footage are all the same genre, but I don’t think so. At least the other found footage movies I’ve seen in the horror genre dealt with a single evil menace, so the “army” aspect (there being a bunch of these monsters) I think makes it enough of a difference.

So what? Why should you as a GM care at all about this schlocky movie? Because they did such a good job of combining the genres. The platoon of Russian soldiers was perfectly WWII movie genre. You could say they were so true to the genre that it was cliché, but that’s why it worked. They didn’t have to spend time getting into the characters of guys you knew were going to die, because they standard WWII army movie platoon guys. Just here they were Russian, with the standard non-American played as a Pole. The found footage aspect had a legitimate reason (as legitimate as monster movies need for plot devices), and was played well, though I kept getting surprised that after being assaulted by zombies with scythe arms, the guy filming was still alive. I thought the blades would have shredded him from the way they seemed to be attacking, but whatever.

So - basic monster movie with WWII and found footage angles; maybe that kicks off something in your brain on how to combine genres for your game, but it didn’t stop there. The monsters were reasonably well thought out. One had a huge dome-helmet-turret on its head that prevented them from crushing its brain, which everyone knows it the way to kill a zombie. Another had a spiked diver’s helmet on. So they thought through the standard zombie flick monsters and advanced the genre itself by coming up with new angles on keeping the monsters from becoming too easy to kill by bullets. I loved it! It crossed three genres together perfectly while still being (slightly) innovative in its own base genre.

I don’t actually recommend anyone waste the time to watch this movie, but I am so energized by the fact that there are people out there doing what I always preach - cross genres to make the old new again, without spending extra time reinventing the wheel. I don’t pretend to say that they got the idea from me, but I will go with “great minds think alike”!


Legend Quest is both more and less restrictive on teleporting than that other game (at least the editions that I played). First - It either works or it doesn’t. There is no “do it and then figure out how dangerous it is to your life”. If there is something in the way - you don’t die, it just doesn’t work. But because it requires a hefty fatigue (especially long range teleporting), it can knock you out, and even kill you (you being the caster, even if you are not the one sent).

So when you teleport into a space, there needs to be nothing in the way. But obviously, there is gas in the way. I usually assume that the arrival causes a sudden rush of air, because the person is displacing the air that is there. Similarly, the place the person left would likely have a “pop” as the air rushed into the void left behind. Now on Fletnern, long range teleporters establish “receiving platforms”. They all know each other’s platforms and they send folks to friendly teleporters in other cities. This works because that person who just arrived probably wants to teleport back and now they know just where to get that service. The platforms are kept clear so incoming folks have a safe place to arrive.

If teleporting can displace gas, can it displace water? I don’t think so, but if I had a merman who teleported, I would probably assume that his was different. Can it displace smoke? Probably - Smoke isn’t that different from air. What about bugs? Would a teleport fail if there was a mosquito flying across the “landing zone”? I guess not, but that would make a funny issue: New Mission - find a way to save the ambassador who teleported in and now has a horsefly stuck inside his chest. What would be the maximum mass/weight that can be dispersed without incident vs. causing a failure?

I would think stretching a net across the landing zone would prevent folks from teleporting in. If blocked from teleporting in, I normally assume that the caster could then send people to a “safe place”, but what is that? Would a grassy hill be safe? No, because the grass would be in the way, unless you teleport them higher than the ground, but grass can get pretty tall. Over a river or pond? Yeah - safe, but messy as the person now splashes down. Anywhere public has too high a chance of people being in the way or even if they are not, then the risk of startling too many. Most of my cities have laws about teleporting, because you are effectively smuggling (avoiding taxes). That plus they don’t want you teleporting in assassins and other threats, but let’s face it, that is part of the business.

I think high fantasy requires this style of magical service, but you can’t make it easy.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Divine Right of Kings

This isn’t just an anti-government rant - stay with me for a minute.

I guess I’m pretty naive when it comes to the governments of the world. I expect individual politicians to lie to me. I even expect entire news agencies to conspire against me and withhold the truth. But I normally don’t expect my government to conspire effectively against me. Effective is the important word here, because I don’t believe the US government is effective in anything they do. So when we find out that some of the conspiracy theories are true (IRS bullying conservatives, spying on Americans including the press, intentionally denying veterans medical services in order to get bonuses, the list is way too long to go on!), I am at first amazed that our government was able to accomplish anything like this, because I considered them too inept. They fooled me.

But with evidence that a government established by the people for the people with checks and balances in place has proved to be corrupt and actually detrimental to the people, I can only think what would happen in a monarchy? (A real one, not the constitutional monarchies like the UK.) I’ll bet most of your fantasy kingdoms (or empires) are monarchies. They might be feudal or autocratic or whatever, but at the top are a small number of folks (a family, a guild, a religion) that holds ultimate authority, and there isn’t anyone in place to slow them down. Man, what are they like?

The Fletnern government I spend the most time on is the Council of Barons, specifically the Barony of Forsbury. Edward Highell is the Baron of Forsbury, a land that is roughly 70 miles (N to S) and 45 miles (E to W). (That’s bigger than Delaware, but smaller then Connecticut.) Edward is not a nice guy, but he doesn’t abuse his subjects in these manipulative (scandalous) ways. He abuses his enemies like this! He has sent assassins to kill people who were spreading lies about him. He has had one of his closest friends seek out and murder any woman who claimed to have his illegitimate child (to secure the ascension of his legitimate son). Many of these women were lying, but some weren’t. Oh - and of course the children were killed as well.

Maybe the issue with the blatant manipulation of your own people does come from the fact that too many in government see people of the other party as their enemies, so when they break the law and then stand up and lie about it in such flagrant tones, they see themselves as protecting their own and standing against a powerful enemy. I have multiple factions in some of my governments, but they don’t hate each other with the venom that seems to exist here. This is probably because I am naive.

I know people say that our government has never been more polarized then they are now. I don’t know. Our history books were dumbed down because our educators thought children were stupid. Hamilton fought a duel with Burr, so they must have truly hated each other (even if the “reason” for the duel was a matter of honor). The state of affairs after the Civil War has had hundreds of books written about the time. Throughout history political enemies have so hated each other that they did resort to poisoning, or accusations of witchcraft (which led to death), or wars, or kidnappings, etc. etc. This goes right back to my True Evil post. Are we as game masters and world creators including enough evilness in our world leaders? After all, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

I’m going to make one counter point here about fantasy government corruption. In the USA, politicians often come from wealthy families, but not always. In any case, they are not raised knowing that they will one day assume supreme power. Knowing what’s ahead and being trained to handle it can be a good thing. It can be a horrible thing and breed kings who are condescending from the age of 1, but it can breed rulers who believe/understand that the people of the land are theirs to care for. In the same way that Christians are called to be stewards of the world by God, the divinely appointed kings often wanted their people to prosper. Prosperous people pay more in taxes, and happy people are typically less likely to rebel. For these or less selfish reasons, a king would want his people to succeed. This is how most of my Fletnern kings rule. They want their people to be happy. They want wealthy (or at least well fed) people who are happy with their rule so that they will rise up into a militia should the king ever need them to. Many of these rulers are inept, but they don’t persecute their own people. I think I’m going to stick with this theory of nobility, but I may have to add some really nasty buggers in there as well, just to keep the reality.

Manifestations of Magic

In Book of Wishes, we had a small section on Magical Variations. In it, we talked about how magic is an art and not a science, and it is important for casters to “color” their spells to their own personalities. In D&D, I use to have mages choose a style of magic missiles that suited them. One of my guys was a mentalist and a mage - a real academic, so his missiles were purple hexagons that flew in geometric patterns. An elven F/MU archer had his missiles look like his arrows. Another guy’s were “bolts of crimson light”. We also often varied the way the guy cast his fireball. Did it just whoosh out of nowhere? I know one started as a marble and went out to where it belonged and exploded then. Another was more of a wave of light that exploded - this was cool and odd because it really used water imagery for a fireball.

But I’ve been thinking about these things, and I really want to take it another step in my games. In Legend Quest, we do use the same types of imagery for magic bolts and fireballs, even allowing magic bolts to actually be fire or lightning or whatever (no change in damage done, but sometimes the type of damage matters). But what about magic items? I’ve used a lot of imagery around talismans. Talismans are enchanted objects that you cast spells through and augment the spell. We don’t hand out “wand of fireballs” that casts the spell for you. LQ gives you access to a wand of fireballs that may give you more range, a bigger area of effect, or increased accuracy (yes, or more damage). Typically the talisman glows when in use or something like that - some are cool, others are boring. (I can’t always amaze on the environmental stuff.) But what about defenses? Most game have some manner of protective magical items. How do they look when they’re working? The knight in my current campaign is getting a shield from the spirit of super bronze. I haven’t decided exactly what it will do, but it is either going to protect him from physical or magical attacks, but how? Here, I want the magic to manifest as a force field. When it protects him, I want a coppery (bronzey?) glowing half sphere to flash into existence and block the attack. There is absolutely no reason for a divine to grant a gift to a mortal if that gift doesn’t impress the hell out of the people around him.

So how does a ring of protection +1 work? or in Legend Quest an amulet of defense-physical +5 (or greater). Does it glow? Does a little circle of energy appear and block the attack (like the three little shields for the SDF1 on Robotech)? Does it change the patterns of fate or luck and thus warp reality? Does it matter? Yeah it matters. If the effects are visible, then the winners know they have to find the magic item on the guy while looting him, because they will have seen some of what it does. That sounds pretty good when you’re the winner - not so good if you’re the loser. But how does a +1 ring work exactly? It doesn’t sound like it should work. I mean, after all, it’s a tiny ring. It certainly isn’t blocking the attack itself. Where it could really matter is if the protection manifests as a dark grey circle that blocks the attack, and later the party finds another that manifests in the same style. Now they know that there is an enchanter working for the enemy, or at least selling to anyone willy-nilly. This could spark its own adventure as the good guys need to shut down this enchanter to stop him from buffing up the bad guys.

Honestly, I don’t think you really want to explain every little trinket and how it functions or manifests. Adventurers carry too many trinkets to keep track of them; you really don’t want to complicate it by trying to remember how each one looks. But the divine stuff should definitely manifest in a flashy and remarkable way. Divines survive on adoration and fear. Having the bad guys $#!+ themselves when they see their best attack glance off a divine shield literally feeds the gods. They’re not going to pass up that extra energy. For the important items, it makes sense to have their power visible, even if it is just atmospheric.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Rescuers

The main party playing in Fletnern right now is referred to by several nicknames, but one that I started using is “The Rescuers”. From the second mission, they seem unable to complete a mission without bringing someone home with them. Yes, a couple of the missions were rescue missions, but the others were not.

This has changed a lot of things in the campaign and honestly forced me to do some fancy thinking to handle things. Example - In an early mission, they were supposed to retrieve a spell book considered to be far too dangerous. Well, they didn’t kill the conjurer who had it - they captured him. Seems normal enough, but the trick was that he didn’t really have the spell book, only a couple of the spells that he had copied out of the actual spell book when he fled from the cult who really had it. So, inadvertently, they kicked my tail as a GM. Now it wasn’t a matter of tracking down the cult, they just questioned the guy. OK - poor planning on my part - good thinking on theirs.

But ever since then, they’ve been bringing folks home. Some are liberated; some are captured. All are valuable. The folks they saved are now useful contacts around the city. It is obvious that anyone who was saved by a team would be willing to do favors for their saviors. These folks have also passed on their respects and gotten the party new missions (and new contacts). The prisoners always know more when questioned over the course of weeks than they reveal if questioned on site. Since the missions the party was doing were generally for the “good church” in their city, the church and their political counterparts easily had the means to hold and question prisoners, which helped the party in later missions.

How did it help? Well, as mentioned, the first guy clued them into the fact that there was a cult, and the cult was using the spell book. This actually saved them from having to do a filler mission to learn there was a cult. The next mission therefore was more of a capture mission where they went after the only interpreter known to be able to translate that language. He had more information about the cult. The mission after that, they started to see real benefits. They had an idea of what the guards and leaders were like (equipment, skills and spells). They knew about a secret way into the ruined castle, because it was the way the first guy had escaped. They knew there was more than one “cell” of cult members, though they did not yet know where the others were. Maybe this doesn’t seem like a lot, but knowing that you’re going up against fire mages, when you thought you were going up against conjurers is a big deal (to anyone who uses a strategy other than kick in the door and attack).

None of these things was impossible without the captives, mainly because I had not planned for them to gather so many. But it made things a lot easier! Going forward, I am going to write my missions with at least an idea of what might happen if some key bad guy gets captured or someone gets saved. The benefits will continue to be on the minor side - hints about how to get past guards or a trap or perhaps where a hidden treasure is. I really like that this happened, and I find it more fun because it was spontaneous, though they are learning - far better to capture and see what they get out of it, than just be The Slaughterers.

True Evil

I run a pretty “mature” game. By that I mean, we talk about beheadings, there is always a fear when a princess gets kidnapped that she could be “violated”, and there is an assumption that not only do married people have sex, but some of them are having sex with folks who aren’t their spouses. But when it comes to some of the more realistic depictions of true evil, even I tend to shy away.

What am I talking about? Well, serial killers for one, the guys who legitimately kill other people because they like killing people. Any quick Google search or just about every night on ID or Ion, you can learn about some truly depraved people. Other truly evil folks include folks like the famous mass murdering tyrants: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, you know these guys. Or even on a small scale - some of the cult leaders that have arisen over the last century and left mass suicides behind them. (No, the Branch Davidians may have been kooky, but they did not commit mass suicide; they were slaughtered by Janet Reno. So does that put her on the list with Hitler?)

My question - both to myself and to all of you GMs out there - is this: Are our evil guys evil enough? In fantasy games, some of these bad guys are truly evil - guys who have sold their souls to demons; some of your games even assign the classification of “evil” to characters. Are we portraying them as evil enough? Should we? Is a game played as a hobby the place for encountering true evil? I wouldn’t have thought that cable TV was the place for encountering it on a nightly basis, but apparently I was wrong.

The question runs deep, and not in the most obvious ways. Do you include horrifying cultural things in your game world? What about foot binding? What about sacrificing hearts to the sun god? Feeding virgins to dragons? Successful genocide? Female circumcision? OK, not all of these are “true evil” but the ick factor is way up there. Seriously, does your campaign world include the truly depraved? You know, mine doesn’t. Truth be told, I don’t think I could role-play truly evil NPCs. I expect most people to think in some logical fashion - which limits my NPCs far more than they should be limited. The idea of killing someone because the voices in your head told you to do so doesn’t make any sense to me. That’s a good thing by the way.

The answer, as with almost everything in gaming, is “it depends”. Here, it depends on you and your players. Some players might find it atmospheric. Some (and I think I include myself in this) would feel weird and uncomfortable delving too deeply into a realistic depiction of the darkest parts of life. You’ll have to decide for yourself. I think I’ll continue to suggest what these truly evil folks are doing without actually getting too clear in my depiction.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Magical Spirits vs. Natural Spirits

I haven’t clearly stated this before, but in Fletnern, the magical spirits and the natural spirits don’t get along. Wait, you’re thinking - how can you have a non-magical spirit? What I mean is this: The spirit of werewolves (a magical spirit) does not get along with the spirit of the timber wolf or the spirit of the red wolf (natural spirits). Why? Well, because they’re different.

Even if the werewolf has some power over regular wolves, well all the more reason for the regular wolf spirit to get upset. The werewolf is controlling his subjects. It is more likely for the werewolf spirit to befriend the wererat spirit, then the other wolf spirits. They are not all the same, but I see this more in the sense that the natural spirits are more like the traditional guys. They like the way things run, and everything runs well when magic isn’t interfering. Meanwhile, the magical spirits are like the rebels without a clue. Sure, the werewolf spirit probably thinks it would be great if everyone were a werewolf. He hasn’t thought it through to say that if everyone was a werewolf, then there would be no one left to eat.

Anyway, I like feuding divines. They like to carry their battles and disagreements to the mortal plane.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Putting your History in Context

So your game world - Do you know its history? Probably. Probably have a good idea of how some of the kingdoms came to be and what might have happened to some of the kingdoms or empires that have fallen. That’s good!

Here’s the trap - If you learned history in a USA school, then your chances of legitimately getting the context of history are nearly 0%. I don’t know about other countries’ schools, so I won’t get into that, but since the American style is based on the Prussian model (where did you think “kindergarten” came from?), I’m guessing this is more than likely true beyond our borders. Any history teacher that had you memorize dates and names, but did not actually draw out time lines cheated you of understanding the context.

It’s really important to understand that during the “Dark Ages” Muslim scientists were making fantastic advances in mathematics and other sciences. In fact, it was Muslim map makers who made Columbus believe he could sail around the world to India. (Not their fault - Columbus was the idiot who got his measures wrong - think of it as reading feet when someone said meters, not a good analogy, but close enough.) I could go into a ton of other examples (barbarians vs. Rome and why, Chinese trade expeditions, etc.), but that is not what this post is about.

In your world, you figured out where and when some of the wars were, right? You know how the winners ended up, because they took over the land. But what about the losers? Did they all just live as subjugated people? Were there refugees who moved somewhere else changing the population of that place? Were/Are there pirates and other sea raiders who plunder and pillage the sea shores? Have they driven those coastal people inland? Was there a plague? a famine? a really crazy and sadistic king? What happened after all those people died?

Really important historical events have a ripple effect. People get pushed from place to place. Resources get used up. Ruins get left behind, and sometimes repopulated. If the rampaging horde pillages the center of the country, but is eventually put down by the heroic northern city state - What happens to the center of the country? For that matter, what happens to the place the horde came from? Now that they’re gone, their enemies will want to move in, so you might get a fierce civil war. Meanwhile, someone is going to move in and take the center now that it is basically abandoned. Also meanwhile, the heroic victors are now low on adult men due to casualties and low on steel because it all became weapons and armor. Do they allow foreigners to start marrying widows? Do they turn to bigamy? Do they turn their swords into plows? One big war and several ripple effects.

This is not just true of wars, but it is easiest to see there. The Black Death is likely the cause of the rise of the middle class and the end of the serf system (because labor was all of a sudden really valuable). I know we don’t like to talk about it, but slavery worked because the crops from this previously unknown and under populated land suddenly became worth huge amounts of money overseas. Thinking back to the horde example - During their civil war, would the losers be sold into slavery to the new folks in the center land because they needed the additional labor?

I’ve been working on Fletnern for well over 30 years and I still come up with ripples as to why certain things are what they are. Nothing makes me happier than when I look at some historic event and know that something else happened around the same time, and I can have one of the events actually cause the other. I love it when a plan comes together! Give it a try. If nothing else, you’ll write a lot more history than you have documented now.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Sound of a Fireball

So I was watching a crime drama where one cop shot off his gun in the car, nearly deafening the driver. It got me to thinking - Does a fireball make a sound? I mean, it’s an explosion of fire, right? So how loud is that? What about other spells? Webs? Magic bolts? Do lightning bolts carry thunder behind them?

If spells are hugely loud, like gun shots, then they would warn others in the area about the battles. If not, then mages can be quieter killers than guys in metal armor, and that doesn’t seem right. Spell casters need to voice their spells, and in Legend Quest, spell singers actually increase range by increasing the sound of their voices. Even if the spell itself doesn’t make noise, the spell caster probably does. I think most of us include that in our games (hearing the sounds of spell casters chanting), but I don’t think we factor in the sound of the spells themselves. As with so many of my posts, I think the answer is that it depends on your game, your rules, and your players. For me, I’m still thinking. You know - wouldn’t a fireball and a lightning bolt have a distinct smell too? Man, this gets complicated.