Sunday, February 22, 2015

Make it your own

If you read this blog or Board Enterprises’ books, you will see that phrase: Make it your own. By that we mean, take ideas from other sources, but change them enough so that they are your own original creations. It doesn’t matter where the spark of the idea came from, as long as by the time you are done, it is your creation.

Case in point - You may have seen that I was thinking of having a civil war break out in my world of Fletnern. Thinking about civil wars and other forms of revolt, I realized that first things first - everybody makes a mad grab for all the weapons. Well, if that’s a pretty standard activity throughout history, then other things that happen during these armed insurrections could be pretty standard fare as well. In fact, I was telling myself that I could rewrite the American Civil War into a fantasy campaign without even working up a sweat (figuratively). Don’t believe me? How many people are watching Game of Thrones?

Game of Thrones is a fictional reenactment of the Hundred Years War, especially of the War of the Roses. But I have a problem with Game of Thrones. First off, I read some of George R. R. Martin’s early works and I’m not a fan. To each his own. But with Game of Thrones or probably better yet with the Song of Fire and Ice, I just don’t feel that he made it his own. Yeah - I’ve avoided this topic because I’m going to attract a lot of hate with this, but it has been boiling inside me for too long. I am not outright accusing GRRM of plagiarism because you cannot plagiarize history, but when fans can so easily see right through your barely changed names and your cloned characters ...

OK, here comes the hate - GRRM does not have original ideas. He took some history, jammed a whole bunch of it into a much shorter period of time to make it more exciting, then added just enough fantasy elements to make it seem fictional. Look - I’ve sort of liked watching Game of Thrones. I won’t read the books - I’ve got much better literature I need to read - but I’ve watched the show. And I can even sort of respect the kitchen sink aspect of it - as in, they threw everything including the kitchen sink into this. Even if you hate half the characters in the show, you might be interested enough in one of them or their story line to tune in to see what happens. I say that because I hate at least half the characters, but I do enjoy watching them “get theirs” which they seem to do with regularity. Then again, the good guys die a lot too, so, not like it’s a guilty pleasure.

Why should you care what I think of GoT? Because he’s made the mistake that so many young and inexperienced GMs make - He made his world look too much like his source material and he didn’t make the ideas his own. Happens all the time! I would hazard to say that every GM under the age of 19 made this mistake in their early years. Hey - for so many of us, our worlds looked too much like Middle Earth or characters looked too much like Elric, could have been anything. GRRM went for the history angle, but his source material is showing through in all the wrong places. Don’t do this! Your players are not going to be fanboys. They’ll rip you apart over this, or at least rip the campaign apart. Once they smell the source material, they will start making decisions based on who they think your NPC really is and what his motivations are. At this point it is their perspective on your source, which likely differs from yours. This will either send them spiraling down a rabbit hole or if they are right, then the player knowledge will overwhelm your plans.

Look - Not every idea is original. Several literary critics believe there are a finite number of plot lines in the world, so there cannot be original ideas. But you need to do enough work that your final product doesn’t feel derivative and, let’s face it, plagiarized.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Where are the weapons at?

I came to a conclusion the other day. I was considering what I could do on Fletnern to add a little drama to the backdrop, but not necessarily suck the PC parties into the action. The thought occurred to me (probably due to some Tamriel time) of a civil war. The regions the PC parties are in are pretty stable, so by putting an uprising somewhere else, I am adding to the perceived action without having to try and handle adventurers in the middle of massive battles.

The conclusion I came to as I starting to lay out the timeline on how this would occur is this: All revolutions, insurrections or civil wars all seem to start by both sides trying to acquire more weapons or prevent the other side form getting weapons. French Revolution starts with rioting in the streets, and the first major “action” was the storming of the Bastille. Why? To free the Marque de Sade? Nope! To get the 250 barrels of gunpowder. (I once heard a quote attributed to Margaret Thatcher, something along the lines of “How can you trust a people whose national holiday is based on a jail break?” If someone could find me the real quote, I would be eternally grateful.)

Want some more? The assault on Fort Sumter was part of a series of actions taken throughout the South. State governments took over federal possessions within their boundaries after they had succeeded from the Union. President Buchanan allowed the military commanders to surrender their forts and armories without violence, but Lincoln ordered the federal military commanders to hold on. President Davis ordered Fort Sumter to surrender, and they refused. Thus began the American Civil War. It was all about grabbing the weapons. Lexington and Concord - The British forces moved to cease weapons from the Massachusetts colony that had been declared in rebellion. John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry - trying to gain the weapons from the federal arsenal.

OK - So why? In Legend Quest - Optional Weaponry, we laid out the rules for breaking weapons. Fundamental to these rules is that weapons come in different grades. For example - revolutionaries seeking to overthrow their ruler (in a fantasy setting) would likely be armed with hunting bows, hunting arrows, boar spears, and axes for chopping wood. They would want to attack the armory in order to gain heavy crossbows with armor piercing bolts, lances and pikes, and war axes, as well as shields and other armor. It makes a difference, just as it makes a difference between hunting rifles and assault rifles. The way we described it, there is a difference between a silver plated letter opener (ornamental), a steak knife (standard), a butcher’s knife (tool grade), and a knife strong enough to parry a sword attack (combat grade). You can still stab someone to death with a letter opener, but neither it nor your steak knife are going to hold up against armor. Depending on the culture and economy, would major arsenals also have some magic items in them? perhaps a stock of healing potions and some magical arrows at least?

Just to pitch the differences in games, in Legend Quest, you rarely see magical arrows, because each one would need to be enchanted individually so it would not be worth it. Further, healing potions cannot be administered to unconscious people, so they would be more likely to give their officers and combat medics healing balms which can be applied to unconscious folks. So sometimes generic ideas do not carry all that well from game to game, at least not literally. Then again, it doesn’t take much to make it work - one of the reasons we publish so many generic supplements.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Looting the Populace

This morning, I was thinking, ‘How do the poorest folks in Brinston survive?’ Here’s what we know: Brinston is built on a cliff overlooking the river. The river runs into the ocean right there. The poorest folks are the fishermen who do not own boats. They live in shacks on the sandy beach or under lean-to tents. So how do they survive?

Well, these folks have “nothing”, right? Well, then they die. So if they are alive, they must have something. I have often assumed that the poor on the beach worked for others for food. The fishermen go out before sunrise (depending a bit on the tides) and bring in as much fish and other ocean products as they can as early as they can. Then their wives hurry the catch up the stairs (up the cliff) to the Fishwives’ Market to sell. But the people of the city (even the poor folk) don’t typically want to buy whole fish. They would rather buy fish that had been gutted and cleaned. So the fishwives clean the fish in their stalls while selling it. But if the fisherman got lucky with his catch this morning, she may need help. Enter the really poor guy. (The fishermen are pretty poor, but they have boats and houses - small houses.)

So the poor guy walks the market and offers help. Some of the fishwives will want his help with the catch, so he can clean and gut the fish for her. But he needs a knife for that - and not a shiv, an actual knife. Also, if he’s working with some manner of mussels or shell fish, he might need that kind of knife too. These hard working women are not going to pay him in coins - those are too precious. They will pay him in fish and mussels. But how does he carry that? In a bucket. Also, that knife is going to see a lot of hard work today. He needs a sharpening stone. So now we know that a working poor guy in the Fishwives’ Market in Brinston needs a bucket, one or two knives (a fillet knife and a clam knife), and a sharpening stone. Now that’s pocket change for an adventurer, but this guy was supposed to have “nothing”, and now he’s got “the tools of his trade”.

OK - So he gets back to his shack and he has a bunch of fish and mussels. His life may be extremely hard work but at least he’s eating. Now you may think he trades those fish for coins or something else, but he can’t, not really. If he knew how to sell, he would probably be better off in life. We know he’s at least worse at it then the fishwives in the market are. Besides, who is going to buy fish from “a beggar”? So he plans to eat his fish and mussels. Does he have a pot? Does he have wood for a fire? Things I know about Brinston - the supply of fish is very high, so selling it (even trading it) takes skill. The supply of fuel is low, because it has to be brought in. There are too many people on the beach to think driftwood will heat their homes, and the forest is 10-20 miles away depending on which direction you head. So no matter what we think about his ability to come up with a pot, he is not going to come up with fuel on a consistent basis.

So does he die? Well, probably not. I thought - Maybe the government would provide fires for the beggars, but that doesn’t fit the culture. If he were in the USA now, he’d have a home, an EBT card, a cell phone, free internet and a bunch of other things I pay for, but he doesn’t. So they need to rely on the churches for charity. Thinking about the culture of Brinston, I developed a new religion (I’ve been doing that a lot lately). This one is now called Marina’s Merciful Ministry. They form small, almost communal homes for the beggars. The beggars are expected to come in with something, in this case fish, and the chapel will provide for the larger community using all the little things that the poor bring in from their days of working. The basic tenant of this new religion is this: Brakin (god of life and justice) gives life to the mortals, but in his sense of justice, he wants their lives to be hard. Marina (goddess of the seas) in her mercy provides for the mortals by having fish, kelp, mussels and everything else in the sea for them to harvest. Life is still hard, but with Marina’s bounty and everyone working together, all can survive.

See, I tried to figure out a beggar for my upcoming Lifestyles book, and came up with a new religion as well. Just keep asking the next question as you develop your world and it will work!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Super Fantasy Sunday - the missions

Last post (link here) was all about determining how to figure out sporting and spectator past times. This one is more about why it matters and how you turn those ideas into missions and cool things for your adventures.

In a game like Legend Quest, the characters have skills outside of combat. Whatever the youth sport of the region is, you should expect that many of the characters will have those skills. For example, if horse racing, rodeo or polo are the main sports, most of the young boys (and some girls) will have horse riding skills before they enter their late teens. I mentioned that Brinston was more of a track and field region, including javelin throwing. Well, expect running, jumping and javelin experience. Wrestling and boxing are clear carry throughs. So knowing what the local sports are should give you a start on character building. The same can be said of rowing, camping, archery, or other hobbies.

But how does this help you as a GM? Think about other things. Trying to assassinate someone? Knowing what spectator sports he loves can place him in a public, but very loud, place. Hoping to find mercenary or guard work? Where do the merchants gather? If they are all going to be at the race track every Saturday afternoon, you can meet them there and strike up conversations. (I despise the “OK, you’re all in a bar and this guy comes up to you.”) Instead of trying to come up with other examples, let’s just say: If you know what their hobbies are, you will better know their movements and motives.
But don’t just think of this as a pastime. Horse racing and gladiatorial matches can be big money, both the purses and definitely the betting. What are people willing to do to get that money? Whatever it is, I’ll bet they are willing to hire adventuring types on both sides to earn it - assassins, poisoners, bodyguards, sentries, etc. This doesn’t even start to consider what could happen once you add magic into the mix. Could a mage of some kind use a spell to unbalance a major sporting event? Interfere with a horse, fatigue a gladiator, trip a runner, any number of things could be done to change the outcome. This creates an abundance of mission opportunities, and none of them have anything to do with a dungeon.

But let’s look at the other side of things. Since we’re making the Super Bowl comparison, what’s the trophy? Do they get rings? Is the trophy like a Super Bowl trophy where there is a new one every year or like the Stanley Cup where the trophy goes to the winners and last year’s winners wind up with nothing? I think the America’s Cup is like that too. Well, what happens if someone steals that one of a kind trophy? The event runners will do anything they can to recover the trophy, even hire adventurers. If that trophy is made of gold or silver, it would make sense that the bandits would have stolen it and it needs to be returned - returned in time for the event. Nothing better than a mission with a time limit. If it’s a ring and everyone gets one, where is the guy who earned it sixteen years ago? Is he captain of the guards? Is he the chief enforcer for a merchant cartel or for a crime gang? Someone like that would have the juice to pay a group of adventurers to return his prize ring. And who would have stolen it? Well, the people on the opposite side of the law - the guards, the organized criminals, or the rival cartel.

Just to wind this up - hobbies are a big part of decorating your house. If you have one of those trophies, it will have a major display. In any case, champion polo players probably have horse motifs in their home - horse paintings, sculptures, horse suede furniture, could be anything. Don’t forget that just their normal equipment will be there too. A champion polo player is going to have fifteen different saddles, most of which will be works of art themselves. If the guy is a sprinter, the shoes may have cost him a ton of coin, but probably not something that can be fenced by adventurers. Then again, think about that for most of these treasures. Fencing a Super Bowl ring is not the easiest thing in the world to do. It can be done, but it has to be handled delicately. And once word gets out that someone is fencing such a ring you have another opportunity for the adventurers to get involved in recovering it.

Really hope this gave you some ideas on why role-playing ideas and culture have an impact on games. These may seem a little forced, but once you start to develop things this deeply, the ideas (for culture, for missions, for treasure) will really start to flow.

Super Fantasy Sunday

I’m going to run this one in two parts. Part One (this one), is going to be for the world designers and role-players. Part Two (link here) will be for the gold farmers. OK, that was intentionally harsher than I really mean. Even world builders and role-players need to design missions and treasure, so Part Two is for both sides of the FRPG fence.

So why is this Super Fantasy Sunday? Well, I am sitting around waiting for the Super Bowl to start. Not really - I was playing a fantasy game, not really “waiting”, but most people see that as doing “nothing”. Anyway - I don’t care about either team. I don’t care all that much about sports. I typically don’t watch more than four or five football games a year, but one of them is almost always the Super Bowl. Let’s face it - America pretty much stops to watch the Super Bowl. How does that work in your game world? What is it that is so important (OK, important is the wrong word to use, but to so many, it is the perception), but still leisure that causes your game world to pause.

Let’s start in a simpler format. With the issues of no media and horrible travel, there may be no sporting event that attracts the world’s attention. So start smaller - What sports do they play? What sports do they watch? One of the things you have to consider, is what equipment do the kids have access to? The wealthier folks may play polo, but the poor folks sure aren’t doing that. Honestly, I think soccer balls are beyond most lower class fantasy era folks, especially if you think about the balls as being filled with air.

So what have I done? Well, one of the main “kid” sports among the humans is sort of like rugby. They usually refer to it as kick ball. The “end zone” is a tall stake jammed into the grass at one end of the field (one stake for each of the two teams). You score by hitting the stake with the ball. You can throw it, kick it, tag it (with ball in hand), any touch counts. Some cultures put a little stone on top of the stake which should fall off when it is jarred to signal that the point was scored. (I think that’s like cricket, but I’m an American.) The ball is made from scraps of leather and therefore sort of looks like a soccer ball (pieces sewn together, but it is filled with boiled feathers. (That’s the way they use to make golf balls.) Oh, this ball is typically about 16” in circumference, so Chicagoans should think of it as a soft ball in size, but the rest of you have to think of something else. It is probably heavier than a soft ball because of the densely packed feathers. They can play catch with the ball too, but organized games are typically kick ball. By the way, it’s kick ball, because it is far more difficult to stop a ball that small that was kicked past people than to prevent a throw or something more at hand/arm level.

What else? Well, horse racing and gladiatorial matches are huge show sports, the kind of things that attract spectators and betting. Most of my gladiatorial matches are “circle fights”, which I have described as “rough and tumble sumo matches”. (Because people don’t die, so it costs fewer gladiators and they can compete more often.) In some ways they are a little like professional wrestling, but hopefully the outcome is not predetermined. Both gladiatorial matches and horse races can take place in open fields (or gypsy camps) or in full on arenas and built coliseums. There are also pit fights that typically take place in taverns specially built for them. These can be ruthless bare knuckles boxing, cock fights or dog fights, or very rarely armed gladiatorial matches.

Yes, the upper classes play polo. One of the last competitive sports that attracts a lot of attention is the rodeo circuit. Here “everyday” guys can compete in events that can win them big purses, big enough that it makes it worthwhile for them to travel from town to town to compete - in a circuit. Are there jousts? Yes, but those happen over on Hughijen, and we seldom adventure there so we seldom talk about it. Back to rodeos - Men and women compete in different events and even the kids can get involved in calf chasing and ram riding events. It also brings out the county fair kind of event - sports (the rodeo events), food, contests (best steers, best cooking events, etc.), and the locals can try to compete against the travelling guys - the professionals.

So think about it in your world. Do the everyday guys have horses? then is rodeo or horse racing likely? If the leather industry is big here, then they can probably make leather based balls. How densely populated is the city? Do they have parks big enough to play sports or are the kids playing in the streets. No fantasy city is likely to have flat enough courts for tennis or basketball (no bouncing balls), but they might have gyms that teach boxing or wrestling, especially as a gateway to getting those boys into the military or at least the militia.
Where does it vary? Well, in Brinston, they compete in more track and field style contests, even to the point that the various army and policing units typically have their own teams (including ringers). Running, jumping, and don’t forget javelin. In the Wembic Empire (orcs), wrestling and boxing are the norm, plus some archery. But they also play Blan Zar. Blan Zar started as a children’s treasure hunt (think Easter eggs), but when the children started to rough each other up in order to win, the adults started to get involved. Think of it as a cross between an Easter egg hunt, rugby, and capture the flag, but really violent.

Does this matter? Yeah. Figure this out, and you know what people do in their off time. You might know what some people’s hobbies are - and some of them might be rabid fans. Why does that matter? Because knowing what drives people can give you all sorts of ideas on what they do, why they do it, and what their homes are like. Check out the next blog post for more “whys”.