Sunday, August 30, 2015

FRPG Global organizations

I have a problem with global organizations in fantasy eras. Now, this is going to sound hypocritical because I have global organizations in Fletnern, but I think that it takes something really powerful and special to have a global organization.

First - Why are they a problem? With the ability (or more importantly the lack of ability) to communicate over long distances, how do these organizations organize? How can the “mages guild” have chapters in every city? OK - They can have chapters, but they should not be seen as a global organization, more like franchises of major organization based somewhere else.

It really is this communication issue and the lack of organization that I think is the problem. If you have a “global organization” but they do not communicate frequently, enforce their rules, and constantly maintain a strict, common code, then it isn’t really a global organization and shouldn’t be considered all that global.

Some examples of how it can work: The High Order of Telepathy in Fletnern - These guys are all mentalists who can communicate across major distances. They act as a style of telegraph office for sending messages. But before you say I just wiped out my argument about any global organization communicating, the messages are like telegraphs - 10 words per message unless you’re willing to really pay through the nose. Also, each relay telepath gets the message and then passes it along - so no secrets can move this way. Further, there is a central school where most of them are trained, and they have a secret police force that can easily look into your mind and determine truth and intent, so you really can’t just trick them. They have the ability to control their own communications and enforce their rules. These guys work.

The Roman Catholic Church of the past - Global organization, right? Well, yeah, but how well did that work for them? Even with the Pope sending envoys and other guys out to try and keep the radicals in line, all sorts of nonsense happened. Now your modern Protestant will likely blame these on the church as a whole and forget that they too were part of that church at the time, but that’s beside the point. I bring this up because I think it is a fairly good example of how even the most powerful organization in the Western World at that time was unable to truly act as a global organization - way too much variation from country to country and lots of in-fighting. No, I am not saying they are/were evil, just unable to maintain a global organization with the level of technology they had at the time. For a global religion to work, the divine would need to be extremely actively involved, basically handling communications himself (sending angels down and stuff like that, not just to a prophet here or there, but to pretty much every bishop or regional leader). Hey - It’s high fantasy. You can do that if you want.

The Cartographers Guild - This is less a global organization and more like a loose federation. It works because map makers have a tendency to travel, so they can handle their own communications. They share their maps and try to go for honest and truthful maps. When they find a cheater (someone selling false or inaccurate maps), they report that guy to the local king. They cannot enforce their own rules, but rely on others to do it for them. Not only that, but they tend to inform the local king by letter as they are leaving town, just in case the king happens to be the map maker’s brother in law.

Slavers’ Guilds - This is the thing I really hate. These occur in literature, and they give these guys nearly omnipotent powers. They don’t do it intentionally, but they do give them extreme powers. Yes, slavery should be a part of fantasy adventure. It occurred too often in history to be assumed to be rare. Yes, they travel around, delivering slaves to markets all over the world, so you can say that they might be able to communicate. You might even think that they could have enforcers who audit slave auctions and make sure no one is cheating (however that works with their rules). What I really object to is the idea that the slavers would/could all work for the same global organization and in some fashion pay taxes and all work together. Slaver traders might need some level of organization and rules, but they are among the most despicable people in the history of the world. Are we to assume that the slavers who are typically capturing people in lesser civilized places or buying captured war slaves are going to agree to and follow a set of rules? I just cannot buy it (no pun intended). Each slaver would have a solid fighting force, more than enough to disappear a couple of auditors. Imagine how powerful and able to cross incredible distances a slaver lord would have to be in order to enforce his will on these powerful, secretive and cunning slavers.

Way too long - Hope I made some points. More, I hope you thought of a couple of ideas for things you have or are going to put into your world. Either figure out how your global organizations interact with themselves or agree that they really are just franchises and don’t typically believe the same things.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Random Appearances

Just a quick little blurb: Want to generate random appearances? Have a relatively modern computer RPG? Just let the game run some random “looks” for you. Often times, I hit the random key on looks, and the guy staring back at me from the screen just looks like a _______. There are only so many times you can do this before the descriptions start to get redundant, but then again, people’s descriptions do tend to be a little redundant. How many brown haired, brown eyed “plain faced” folks do you know? In any case - it might spark character ideas in you. It might just give you a description for a character you have a personality for, but no picture in your mind. I have done it a couple of times, and it usually works to spark something in my brain, though it can lead you down the rabbit hole as you start creating characters you never expected you would be creating if it gets you going in a direction you were not planning for.

When you run out on one, switch games. Come on, I know we’re all playing multiple computer games, or at least you still have them loaded on your computer. If you run out between WoW and Skyrim, you’ve probably already done a load of work!

Loan Sharks and other “friends”

When I wrote Rhum, seemingly centuries ago, I said that most folks did not own their property in the city. They rented. One of the main reasons for this was that there were no banks. The reason for that is that it is illegal (at least in Rhum) to use funds that were given to you for safekeeping. If a bank cannot use the funds you deposit into a savings account, they cannot make loans and they will not pay you interest on your money. So instead of banks, Rhum has what we would deem a collection of safety deposit box businesses.

Does that mean you cannot get a loan? No. In fact there are pawn shops and organized crime figures who are loan sharks. But what do they charge? In Warrior Guilds of Rhum, one of the pawn shops (described as a friendly guy) charges 10% per month, but only lends for up to two months (and does not compound the interest). But he has your goods, and if you don’t pay him back, he is typically able to sell your goods for about double what he loaned to you. So he’s pretty safe, even at 10%.

Honest research from one of my favorite books on the economy of the Medieval Period says that depending on what was going on, lenders were normally looking for about 20%, maybe 10-15% if they were lending to a stable government. OK, but we’re now going to talk about loan sharks, not the national debt. Loan sharking is incredibly more risky than lending to a government. How much more risky? Well, I think a loan shark lending to a gambler would probably want either regular interest payments of 10% per week or perhaps 20% per month if the guy was dependable. Loan sharks aren’t about long term debts or compounding interest, they are about collecting the interest regularly or breaking your legs. So this is not, “Thanks for the 1,000 gold coins, see you in a couple of months” kind of issue! Every week you pay the interest (the vig), until you can finally pay off the principal, which the loan shark probably doesn’t want you to pay.

One last point on this line - I think that the courts of Fletnern would be slow to allow people to confiscate property. At least the courts run by the priests of Brakin would be; the courts of Jassper might be quicker if that is what the contract said. Land/property has a different meaning than just something you own. It is likely a responsibility given to you by a nobleman, and you cannot give that away. This would be another reason that mortgages should be rare. Today, the bank forecloses on your house - happens far too often. But if the courts were going to prevent the banks from foreclosing, then the bank would be foolish to lend you money with a house as collateral. Then again, the courts would likely overlook the fact that the loan shark broke your legs and give him all of your worldly possessions (that weren’t land) to repay the debt you foolishly got into.

So what? If you did not see multiple mission ideas (“sparks”) in this post then I am ashamed of you! First - there are a ton of safe deposit businesses in Rhum. Second, there are a ton of loan sharks who need leg breakers. Not only do they need leg breakers, but they likely need hunters who can go out and retrieve folks that they lent money to, people who are trying to get away. What if the security on a loan is too heavy for a normal loan shark to cart away? Would he be willing to hire a gang of adventurers to go collect it for him? Maybe it isn’t too heavy for them, but maybe it is, and part of the mission is figuring out how to return it to the boss without damaging it. (Yes - I love non-combat related portions of missions.)

Not enough, think about loan sharking further! What if the loan shark lends money to a church and the holy relics are the security? If the church is late on paying, then what? Are you ready to steal relics from a church? What if the church is relying on this fact and effectively cheated the loan shark? What if the security is land, but the vassal knows the “king” will never let the land be turned over to the loan shark? Again, someone is using these rules to try to cheat the loan shark. Yes, sometimes you send in a thief to steal as many valuables from this cheater as you can and he uses stealth and all that stuff. Then again, sometimes, you send the collectors to the front door and they bust it down with their Thor hammers of thunder in order to collect. These do not have to be missions just for the sneaky guys!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Reasons for Dungeons

I have to admit that I hate the idea of dungeons. Maybe it’s an adult gamer thing, but I find it increasingly difficult to accept the concept of a “dungeon”. You know what I mean, an underground complex filled with monsters and traps where you can go from room to room slaughtering them. With or without a dragon at the end, I can’t suspend belief that these creatures can survive within a dungeon with concepts of feeding, cleaning (excrement), and simply not killing each other while they sit around and do nearly nothing. So having stated my bias - I know how much some gamers love the concept of a dungeon. I mean they are so easy to run - funneling the players down narrow halls, etc. So I have to justify the use of a dungeon. Here’s one:

What if the reason the dungeon has not been explored is that it collapsed? But there are all sorts of rumors, and some guy with some money determined that this site could be the location of the lost artifacts/treasure. So he brought out a crew, and they started digging - digging out the tunnel entrance. The digging crew was astonished when some of their people were killed as they were about to breech the gate.

This “lair” was a strange point of contact between the forces of evil (underground monsters, demons, stuff like that) and the surface world. I like to think of it as the fantasy “dark net”. There is something about this place that allows the evil guys to come into physical contact, and it was here that they were trading things back and forth. Now that the gateway (both the gates that were dug out and the lair itself) has been exposed, the evil guys are going to try and break out. It was some of the little ones who killed the first diggers, but now bigger, tougher guys are coming.

So the rich guy with the diggers first has to try and re-secure the gate. He’s going to start with brick and mortar, but that won’t work for very long. He’s going to need to bring in the party - super toughs who can handle these types of things. But what will they find? A smugglers’ den of the blackest type. There will be meeting rooms, store houses, and security check points. There might even be some manner of temples or chapels that some of the folks were using to communicate with dark forces “on the other side”. There will likely be some dead folks here, but they’ve probably been “affected” by the demons over the centuries. Bad guys include demons coming through as well as some undead and possibly some golem types.

But this will not be all. After they find a way to defeat the bad guys who came through, they will have to stick around for a little while so the gate can be locked up again. Yeah - evidence should show pretty quickly that the entry way didn’t just collapse but was sealed. But while exploring the lair, there may be some tunnels that don’t do what is expected. They might lead to some of the more established manor houses in the city, showing that at least their ancestors had some questionable dealings. Maybe some tunnels to the temples too. Probably some evil doers lurking within the city, and they’ve been here a long time.

Good hunting!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Bringing Action Oriented Politics into your Campaign

As you have probably seen from this blog - I like getting the player characters involved in the politics of the region. But there are a lot of campaigns out there where this likely seems either boring or too difficult. Let me see if I can convince you otherwise.

First off, why politics? The honest answer is that after game mastering for the same crew for decades, I ran out of ideas for traps. Remember all those fun ticks and traps that you would find in dungeons and you needed to figure out? Well my players love those, but they know me too well. I just couldn’t surprise them anymore. So I looked for something that would get their brains working without a dungeon. I tried a bunch of things, but the two that worked best were: Putting them in situations I had no idea how they could get out of and politics.

Politics can add that level of intrigue, suspense and surprise that you probably can’t get from folks who have been playing FRPGs for more than a couple of years. Let’s face it; after you get good at these games, it is no longer all that interesting to open a dungeon door just to see what is on the other side. By putting politics in, you can surprise them and make them think, and surprises in RPGs are usually pretty cool.

So what do you do? Let’s do what I think is the easiest way to introduce it: I call it, the Little Mermaid Gambit. You remember that movie, right? Forget the source material, we’re thinking mainly about the movie. Princess falls in love and because she is forbidden to marry her love, she risks everything: her life, her father’s life, the kingdom, etc. Even non-feminist women seem to hate the idea that a stupid girl gets herself in trouble only to have boyfriend pull her out after she basically killed her father. How does that play in a FRPG?

It plays perfectly. In politics, it is often about motives and secret motives. Let’s turn this gambit into an adventure: The party has a reputation as guys who can get things done, possibly get things done quietly. They are called to the palace and meet with one of the king’s advisors. It seems that the princess has gone missing. The advisor wants to pay the party to “rescue” the princess without alerting every peasant in the kingdom to the fact that she’s gone. You see the princess is beautiful, just about marrying age, and loved by the people (even if she is a little bubbleheaded). Odd thing is, and the PCs may not pick up on this, the advisor seems to know a lot about where she is.

So the party goes off to retrieve the princess. They probably encounter a few things along the way, just to make them think this is a “normal” adventure. I think we say she’s at some rural cabin, and there are some wilderness encounters along the way. So they get to the cabin and assault it. Inside is a hunter who immediately surrenders. Let’s hope the party accepts his surrender and doesn’t just murder him, but that might depend on your players and the kind of games they’ve played. So they question the hunter and though he admits that he and the princess are in love and have been trying to find a way to run away together, she didn’t show up. She was supposed to come to the cabin the night she disappeared.

So now they have a mystery on their hands. If they need to track, the hunter can probably help with that. You might want to distract them by making them kill a band of bandits that the hunter thinks may have intercepted her. But they need to get back to the palace and talk to that advisor. The advisor knew all about the hunter and assumed the party was just going out to retrieve the princess from her secret boyfriend. Problem is, many people in the palace knew about the boyfriend, and several of them knew she was planning to run off with him. What really happened was {feel free to go any direction you want here} the king’s younger brother/uncle/whatever actually had his goons kidnap the girl, knowing that the hunter would be blamed. He is holding her in a secret part of the palace. The king agreed to marry the princess off to a neighboring prince, thus instigating her desire to flee. Now the king is going to have a huge diplomatic issue on his hands if he cannot produce his daughter when the foreigners come for the big announcement. Meanwhile the evil guy is planning on holding the princess until his nephew/brother looks stupid, then “rescuing” her and giving her to the foreign delegation. This will make him look great and the true king look like an idiot. It will also make the foreigners (who are probably far more powerful than this kingdom) see him as the true power in the kingdom. This is probably just the first step towards the bad guy making an idiot of the king and eventually taking his place.

So what’s different here? The PCs need to start accomplishing tasks without killing people. Killing the main bad guy will be unacceptable, no matter what his crimes are, because he is of royal blood and in some way in line for the throne, though he might be third to sixth in line. Killing the foreign delegation will also be unacceptable - it would lead to war. So no matter what the players may want, they cannot kill some of these folks - at least not and keep their heads. They also need to talk to people in order to learn things. Remember all those spells they didn’t bother to take like charm? Yeah - now they need them. Who’s the bad guy? Even if they figure out where the princess is and rescue her, the bad prince has kept himself distant enough from them that he may not be implicated, so they may fight his hired hands but they never figure out who Mr. Big is. Of course, he’s still actively trying to discredit the king, so more stuff will happen (more missions), which the king will want the party to do because they were so good at this one.

This is actually an overly simplistic write-up. There won’t just be good guys and bad guys. The king’s bodyguard(s) may be good guys who want to protect the king and princess but they might hate the party for showing them up, or just for being riffraff off the streets who shouldn’t be trusted to carry weapons so close to the king. The king’s wife might have been given to him as an alliance prize, and she has her own agenda. She may only be the crying mother while her daughter is missing, but once she’s safe, her true desire to subvert this kingdom under her father’s rule might surface. Who’s the heir? What does she want? What about the lesser nobles? Are they looking to get some pressure on the king to lower their taxes? How far will they go?

I really hope something here jogs something in your brain. Most of what I have been running for some time now works similarly to this. Really not able to come up with any plot lines? Think about Batman - The World’s Greatest Detective. No, not that Joel Schumacher crap, some of the good stories. The more of these you run, the more characters you will be creating for your game world, because unlike dragons at the end of dungeon romps, these guys tend to stay alive. For anyone who has been playing RPGs for more than four years, you’ll make the old new again.

The Endless Dungeon - GENCON

The RPG Blog Carnival has put out the theme this month of GENCON and convention-ing. No Board Enterprises blog post about GENCON can ignore the Endless Dungeon.

When we debuted Legend Quest at GENCON, we wanted to run as many demos as we could, but that doesn’t really work in a single booth. Besides, I got the teaching time on the game down to about 30 minutes, and people in the exhibitor hall rarely want to stay still for that long. (I got it down to 25 by the end of that weekend, but still...) So here was my big idea: The Endless Dungeon. We were going to run a single dungeon style adventure for the 60 hours of the convention. No, we weren’t going to run the demo 15 times, we were going to run one continuous adventure for 60 hours. Play as often as you wanted, but if you left and came back for a later slot, someone else may have killed the character you were playing, or something worse.

Expecting that characters would die, there were a bunch of places along the way where the party would have the opportunity to rescue folks who would join up, so the composition of the party would change as the weekend went on. I had it all figured out. Yeah, except for the toll that game mastering for forty straight hours takes on you. OK, it wasn’t straight. It was 16 hours Thursday (with an hour break for dinner), 16 hours Friday (another one hour dinner break), and after 8 hours on Saturday, they pulled me out. I had eaten while running the game, but when my voice started to hurt, I decided to numb it with screwdrivers. We still argue over whether it was a violation of the MECCA rules to drink in the gaming room. I was discrete.

OK so I did take about a six hour break Saturday afternoon/evening, but I jumped back in to give it a good strong finish Saturday night, and I think I only took an hour on Sunday. (My back up GM was good, but not knowing the whole dungeon the way I did, he couldn’t adapt it to the number of players and time constraints the way I could.) The most memorable player? Yeah - part of the 25 minute tutorial was when I said, “You don’t have to do any math. The character sheets have everything worked out for you.” One of the players needed a calculator to subtract 9 from 14. Yeah - Had to add that one into the sales pitch from then on: “You don’t need a calculator to play this game, unless you are unable to subtract 9 from 14.”

So how bad was it? Not that bad actually. I needed to be in the booth, so that was bad. But I found the perfect person to run the booth when I wasn’t there (and then married her so I knew she’d stick around). Gaming halls are always loud and trying to be heard for a crew of 12-16 players in a hall like that is always tough. I probably should have paced myself better in the beginning (when things were more “normal” or along the lines of how it was written) so that I’d have more energy towards the end when it needed more off the cuff. Still - Board Enterprises published most of the Endless Dungeon as adventure modules. I have to admit that I think the first part - a simple adventurers vs. goblins piece published as Blood in the Slave Pits - is the best adventure mission I’ve ever written.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The True Nature of Magic - The Balance

In my last post, I mentioned “the balance”. This is a huge concept in some games and on some game worlds. I don’t believe in it, but that doesn’t mean it is not important.

So what don’t I believe in? I don’t believe that there is a precarious balance between good and evil, order and chaos, or stuff like that. I do believe that eventually there would come a tipping point, where if chaos gained such a strong hand, then order wouldn’t be able to regain its strength. But I also believe in the yin-yang concept. At some point, chaos would grow so powerful that it would destroy nearly everything, but then chaos would have created order. Likewise if order were to dominate (and remove random or chance or chaos), then the systems created by that order would become so complicated that at some point, a very minor random effect would bring down the whole system.

But I believe that what most authors and even world builders see as “a precarious balance” isn’t all that precarious. I think the gap where thing fluctuate back and forth is huge and reasonably stable. For a short time on Earth, the Mongols forced a peace that was pretty much unknown before its time. Even the Pax Romana paled in comparison. This would then be “order”. So what happened? Well, it fell apart, just like the Pax Romana had. I think we’ve had one of these recently with the Western cultures forcing peace on the world for the last, what, 60-70 years? I am not forgetting Korea or Vietnam, but relatively isolated wars were taking place in relatively isolated places. But now we have the Middle East practically exploding, and we’re just seeing the beginning of this. Have we reached the point of no return? Has chaos been building strength for decades and is now ready to completely destroy all order? No. The pendulum swings. We are moving from a stronger period of order to a stronger period of chaos. Neither can truly be conquered by the other.

OK - This wasn’t where I wanted to go. Where I want to be is here: People who are caught in the middle of these conflicts (between what they perceive to be good and evil) believe that there is a “perfect state”. Most often they think they understand a certain period of time and believe that it was the perfect time, either perfect balance or best hoped for reduction of order or chaos. But we’re human. We cannot fully understand the entire globe. What may seem like a perfect state of balance in one area could be pure chaos in another and calm/order in another. The pendulum keeps swinging, but we think there is a point where we can make it stop. It may sound like I am arguing for “balance”, but balance is as illusionary as bliss. The excessively complicated system that is our world (and should be your game world as well) is pretty stable, no matter what we do to it. Even if one side gains strength for a long period of time, things will eventually slip back, without the agents of “balance” coming to the aid of whichever side they think needs it.

So I think you should keep your agents of chaos or order or balance in your game world (but get rid of alignments). Let them be fully dedicated to restoring the balance or whatever, but know that they never can. Every victory they think they’ve achieved or loss they think they’ve taken is completely inconsequential to the system as a whole. That doesn’t mean they’ll stop; they might even work that much harder as they realize that what they did did not have the effect they hoped for. Obviously (to them) it was not enough and they will need to work harder at it. Fanatics, misguided but they make for a lot of cool mission ideas.

The True Nature of Magic

OK, so I have to admit, I was watching a chick-thing (not a chick-flick, because it was for TV) about magic and witches. Yes, this is what happens when I look through Netflix instead of just choosing off my already extensive list. Gorgeous women chasing after the only two guys on the show - not bad. But stupid things keep happening around the witches, because they’re witches. Effectively, they don’t fully control their powers and stuff happens. This isn’t all that different from Sabrina the teen-aged witch.

But I think in game worlds where rules matter and we think of things as die rolls and success or failure, we don’t do that. Random stupid things don’t happen around our mages, unless we need a plot device for a mission. I think it should come down to the yin-yang relationship between order and chaos. Probably not where you thought I was going, but without making this incredibly long: Is magic a natural force in your game world or is it something else?
On Fletnern and in Legend Quest, magic is referred to as a “vanetil” source of power - meaning it comes from the energy of life and chaos. A dead planet (sort of like our moon) would have no magic, or extremely little because there is nothing going on there other than the rare impacts or other forces acting upon the moon. But in a world with life, weather, tides, etc. - Here there is an energy created that can be tapped into via magic. So I guess for me, magic is natural.

But it’s not completely magical either. I got to spend some time with the writer Steven Brust and recall a “fan” arguing with him about magic causing an orange pollution in his world. The idea of an orange haze existing over cities with “too much” magic going on has stuck with me, and I think I incorporate some of that into my world too. Magic may have a natural origin, but the way it is being used by sorcerers and necromancers is not necessarily “natural”. The quickie definition is that they are abusing magic in an unnatural way.

If there is any part of magic that is unnatural, then I think it needs to have some outlets. I have written in the past about how magic needs a dark side. (Slaughtering dozens of people in a day with fireballs has to have some manner of unintended consequence!) But I think it needs to have some silly aspects too. I am NOT suggesting that you have a random encounter chart and every day something goofy happens because there is magic in the world. (Even one of our d1000 books wouldn’t have enough ideas to handle that.) But I am going to start having little random things happen where the world is trying to put itself back to “right” by offsetting magic. Maybe the world actually needs a certain minimum of beauty and if that beauty is destroyed by magic (such as burning a forest with fireballs), then mystic butterflies will appear randomly around the world for no reason. If lives are cut short by magic spells, would that life energy infect plants somewhere else, causing them to age/grow supernaturally fast? Some guy on a desert island wakes up one morning and a full size pine tree is now standing in front of his hut where only palm trees grew before. Silly, chaotic things that may be caused by an imbalance or by the “natural” spirits (and gods) of the world looking to strengthen the things they care about. After all the fire magics used by player characters in my world, I could legitimately see the wind spirits blowing clouds full of rain right over a naturally occurring forest fire in order for the water/rain to lessen the fire. They’re just trying to restore the balance, or at least the balance as they see it. Then again, the idea of air magic causing clouds to “explode” in crazy patterns in the sky sounds just silly and unexpected enough to be fun. Then again, my players would probably think it meant something in the storyline and we’d waste two hours while they tried to scientifically test the clouds for enemies.