Thursday, October 28, 2010
Rumor Mill. Although it probably shouldn't be your main source of adventures and plot hooks for the PCs to follow, it certainly doesn't hurt to have a rumor mill in the homebase area. You know, the kind of place the PCs can go hang out if they don't know what to do next, and they can expect plot hooks to start coming their way. In many campaigns, this is one of those colorful inns, like the infamous "Prancing Pony." Here the PCs can expect to hear stories from travellers, potentially find patrons looking for someone to do a job for them, find someone in trouble who needs help, or whatever you need.
Again, you probably don't want to rely on the rumor mill overmuch, or the campaign will have a strange forced feel to it, as well as miring in clichés, but as a backup plan, especially when the PCs are feeling stuck and don't know where else to go to progress the game, a rumor mill can be very useful. In fact, more than one rumor mill might be helpful. Some other standard ideas include "adventurer's guilds", a busy marketplace with a penchant for illicit deals, or a public bath-house. Depending on the campaign style, you could have different rumor mills for different kinds of rumors--a public bath house run by a local organized crime group and is infamous as a meetingplace for those who wish their business to remain secret will obviously give very different kinds of plot hooks than a rowdy inn where off duty soldiers, caravan guards and other mercenaries gather to drink cheap ale and boast of the latest amazing sight they saw on the way into town.
In fact, for Iclezza, I'm going to depend on just those two ideas. Far into the city itself, up near the roads and gates that lead to the Ridge, as a matter of fact, is a tavern called The Curious Nun. The clientele tends to be a rough lot, although friendly enough at most times--not surprising, since the curiousity that the tavern's sign seems to imply is wildly inappropriate for a woman of the cloth. Off duty soldiers, constables, sailors and mercenaries in particular like to gather here. In addition, the tavern employs three musicians of uncommon skill and taste. At any given time, one or even two of them might be travelling, looking for tales or songs to bring back to the clientele. When they sing and play, the tavern gets noticably quieter as most people there want to listen. "The Nun" also features a number of private booths where, for a fee, a reasonable amount of privacy can be established. Many mercenary contracts, or hiring of guards for a caravan or other job, are conducted in these booths. In addition, the inn is always good for a very unusual story or piece of gossip--from near Iclezza or beyond. By it's nature, "The Nun" gets a fairly cosmopolitan common room.
Deep in Mudtown is "The Steams"--a unisex bath house funded by local criminal elements. "The Steams" has two or three cold pools, two or three hot pools and several small, private saunas. Not only do rumormongers frequent the area--and they can sell their rumors for a price--but at least half a dozen organized crime scenesters are on hand at any given time. "The Steams" is the kind of place to go if you need mob help, or some other hook or clue that is a bit more "illicit" in nature.
Interesting NPCs. Now, next time we're going to talk more specifically about NPCs, but at this stage of the setting development process, you should give some thought to a couple of NPCs that are "fixtures" if you will of the homebase area. Don't push yourself to go too far--a few good ideas at this stage are better than many mediocre ones. What are some elements of good NPCs? Here's a small list:
1) Obvious secrets. An NPC with an obvious secret is begging to have his secret uncovered. Always a good plot hook.
2) Something to offer. An NPC that can teach or give the PCs something of value tends to be interesting.
3) Obvious need. An NPC that is just asking for the PCs to help him is also good.
4) Not what they appear. An NPC who seems to be one thing, but actually is something else is interesting. This doesn't have to be as sinister as disguised dopplegangers, you could simply have a famous warrior who actually can't fight, or is a coward, or some such.
5) Distinctive physical features. Speaks for itself. Also helps players to remember them ("You see a familiar pox-scarred face enter the room..."), etc.
6) Mysterious prophets. An NPC that makes mysterious pronouncements or prophecies is bound to be interesting and get the game moving.
7) Involve the PCs in adventures. An NPC that causes trouble, either on purpose or inadvertently, is interesting. Ray uses the example of a bumbling wizard that always needs the PCs help in cleaning up his latest failed magical experiment, for instance. Don't go too far with these NPCs--you really just need a concept and an idea of what they'll be and how they relate to what you've already gotten for your map.
For instance, in #6, I came up with the idea of a rivalry between the Inquisition and the constables, in large part, based on their position relative to magic and witchcraft. A few obvious NPCs that could interact to some degree with the PCs are suggested by this. First, an Inquisitor officer named Gauvain. Although an Inquisitor, he's a bit more tolerant of magic than others of his ilk, in deference to local laws. However, he's the kind of person who needs help in rooting out the truly dangerous sorcerers; the kinds that the Inquisition should be looking to eliminate. He's also a person who has something to offer the PCs--if they work on any of his assignments, they might have access to Inquisitorial equipment, which is of high quality.
His little sister, Alainna, on the other hand, is an accomplished mage. She also could be a person in need, if the Inquisition gets the wrong idea about her and she needs protecting. She does a lot of "freelance" work for the constables, though, and generally makes herself useful. However, she's also a "not what she seems" NPC--a few years ago, she made sacrifices to increase her power. I don't know exactly what yet, but suffice it to say that both occult forces and the Mob have a death wish for her; she's on the run and in disguise from bounty hunters and demons alike. Although fairly capable of taking care of herself, she could easily involve the PCs in cleaning up the inevitable mess when someone discovers her.
Something related to a Secret. Ray prefers to pick your secrets at random at this stage, but for now, I want something related to "the big secret": the overarching secret of the campaign setting. I'll also need to incorporate clues relative to other secrets at some point, but my mantra here is "one thing at a time." Just as a reminder: the big secret in my setting is twofold. First of all, the race that preceded humans on this world are not really entirely gone. Secondly, the local Empire, the Terassan, was formed when its Emperor made a pact with demons for the power needed to defeat his enemies. Now, I've got to be a little bit careful. Giving clues to such a massive secret that could be the focus of an entire campaign can be tricky to avoid giving away too much too soon. For that reason, I'm not going to incorporate right away a clue for the second half of the secret, but I'll put one up for the first half.
Actually, I'll make it a two part clue. At "The Curious Nun" is an old fighter, that if pressed or drunk, might occasionally start to tell stories of the strange alien beings he onceencountered deep in the canyonlands up north. Although the PCs shouldn't realize it right away, the descriptions of these should match those of statues found in ruins predating the rise of humanity. If, for whatever reason, it turns out that the PCs don't look like they'll ever make it to any such ruins, then I can have someone come through "The Nun" that has a miniature version of one of the statues from a visit to the ruins for some reason.
I like this clue because it forces the PCs to be a little bit proactive, find the two halves of the clues and put them together to reach the conclusion that these guys are still out there somewhere.
Now that we're done listing out all the things needed in the setting, we're ready to start drawing the map! For Iclezza, let me make a quick list of the elements I need to be sure to include:
1) The Ridge, Mudtown and a more generic urban ward as three major sections of the city.
2) A constabulary headquarters, complete with clank repair areas. Possibly also substations of the headquarters at various parts throughout the city.
3) Market areas for each ward.
4) The Inquisition HQ.
5) Roads that lead to the various factories, mines, etc. that occupy the townsfolk.
6) "The Curious Nun" and "The Steams."
7) A "mage guild" of some kind, under the protection of the constabulary, where Alainna lives and works.
Tip #1: Use Graph Paper
Although not a requirement per se it can't hurt to draw your map on graph paper. Why? To make sure you have the proper sense of scale as you draw it, and to make sure you have the proper sense of scale as you use it. You might not ever need to know how long it takes to run from one end of town to another, but if you've got the map on graph paper, you do know if you ever need it. Be sure and adjust the scale so that you can fit the entire town on one sheet. A map is much more useful if it's all in one place, so you don't want one that spills over multiple pages.
Tip #2: Get as Fancy as You Can
The map of your homebase, unlike other maps you'll later make for the setting, is one that you'll want to show to your players. After all, this is their homebase, and presumably an area with which they are familiar. If you can use color, computer software, or anything else to help make the map more "worthy" as a player handout, feel free to do so. Personally, I like the hand drawn look, but I'll draw it on parchment (or resume paper that looks like parchment, more likely) and use my colored pencils to do so. In addition, I'll add little decorative items and labels here and there to make the map look more like an "authentic" map that one might have of the area.
Tip #3: Make the Map Useful
Within the confines of what the PCs should know, you can include all kinds of useful information on the map. A legend of the scale is essential, as are labels of important point of note. Notes that show where important NPCs can usually be found are nice, guard patrol routes, black markets, thieves' hang-outs, or anything else that the characters concieveably should know can all make an appearance and will help the utility of the map immensely.
Tip #4: Don't Be Too Predictable
Don't have every small town in the setting have the same layout. Make each place feel unique in some way. Local geography is one way of doing this: in the case of Iclezza, the Ridge and Mudtown are both unique features due to the geography and the politics of the area. But whatever you use, try to breathe some life and uniqueness to all your maps.
Tip #5: Be Logical
Keep an eye out for obvious things like access to water for residents, access to inns for travellers and visitors, and those types of things. Giving this just a little bit of forethought will go a long way towards improving your map design.
Next time, we'll talk a little more about NPCs and what you do with them in a custom campaign setting.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
1) The first type of roll is called a Check, as in "Give me a Strength check." Checks can be made against traits or skills. To make a Strength check, look at the Strength trait, see what type of dice it is, and roll that dice. You need to meet or beat the Target Number with this check. The default Target Number is 4, but of course, the GM can assign any Target Number that he thinks is appropriate given the difficulty of the task. Using a Strength Check to catch and hold a falling steel portcullis might be quite a bit more difficult than 4.
The GM is also responsible for adjudicating what happens on a success or a failure. On the example above, the GM might assign a difficulty of 8 or even 10 to catch a portcullis. A success means that the character has managed to halt the fall of the portcullis and the group can sneak through before he lets it fall again. A failure might mean that the portcullis crashes into the character, crushing him and calling for a Health Roll.
2) An Opposed Roll is one where two characters (player characters or non-player characters) make opposed rolls; i.e., instead of a Target Number, to be successful, one character must beat the check rolled by another character. A Perception Trait check vs. a Sneak Skill check would be one example. Two characters in melee combat would make Opposed Rolls using their Fighting Skill. (A character who wants to shoot another character probably also rolls against the other characters Agility Trait assuming they attempt to dodge out of the way, modified as necessary by the GM. For example, for shooting a modern firearm at close range, I'd give the defending character's agility roll a significant penalty; maybe -6 or even more.) Again, the GM is responsible for defining what success and failure mean. In melee combat, it could mean that the losing character has to make a Health Roll, for instance. In a Perception vs. Sneak check, obviously the Perceiver notices the other character if he wins the Opposed Roll and does not if he loses it.
3) The third and final of the basic rolls in the game is the Health Roll. This is what happens when something bad happens physically to a character, and the Health Check is made using the Health Trait. Both the Target Number and the results of a check, either successful or failure, are up to the GM and are highly situation dependant. Getting punched in the face and failing a Health roll might only stun the character for a moment, while getting shot in the face with a shotgun will have a much higher Target Number, and failure might mean instant death.
As a general rule, as with other Checks, a Health Check baselines to a target number of 4, but could fluctuate considerably based on circumstances. As a very general rule, failed Health Checks could temporarily reduce the Health trait by a step on the dice scale. So a character with a d8 Health skill could temporarily go down to d6. This, however, represents relatively minor damage, and any given situation could be considerably worse.
In general, the more steps you lose, either cumulative or through a single devastating failed Health roll, the more difficult it is to recover, and the more recuperation is needed, as well as possibly first aid or protracted medical care.
This isn't really handled in the rules, though. There's a Heal skill, and GMs can adjudicate based on what they think is appropriate. Because what is appropriate is as much based on the genre as it is on anything realistic, then that can vary considerably.
Lastly, there are some optional rolls. The Luck trait can call for a Luck Check, which the GM can call for as a "safety net" for catastrophically failed rolls. Characters never announce their intent to make a Luck Check; it can only be used when the GM says it is appropriate. It doesn't change a failure to a success, but it could change a catastrophic failure into a more routine one.
And Sanity, for games that use it, work very much like Health checks, except, naturally, for mental rather than physical health.
Now, Ray also recaps the purpose of a homebase, and here's where I disagree with him, if you recall from earlier installments. Ray sees the purpose of the homebase as a safe haven for PCs to return to after adventuring to split treasure, plot strategy, heal wounds, rest, craft magic items, buy stuff, etc. He sees the homebase as a change of pace from a "wild and woolly" campaign setting taking place somewhere else. Me? I prefer the homebase to launch the "adventures." I prefer the homebase to be the source and often the location where such adventures take place. I prefer the homebase to be a place where intrigue and plots are being hatched. I prefer the PCs to not get too careful and think they can rest on their laurels just because they made it back home. Don't get me wrong; PCs need to be able to do the things Ray says, but they don't need to be able to count on it! The homebase isn't like homebase in hide and seek--bad things can still happen to you when you're there. I don't like the strict dichotomy between adventures and downtime; it's unrealistic and breaks the verissimilitude of the campaign, and it makes the experience feel much more like a game and much less like a story. Either that or I'm just naturally a "rat bastard" GM, as the expression goes, and I want to hound my PCs even in their supposed downtime.
However, having said that, very little of his specific advice moving forward doesn't apply in any case. Even if you disagree with some of his minor points that follow (as I do) you need to give each component of a homebase some thought, and if you deviate from what he suggests, it works best if you know exactly why you are doing so and if you have alternate plans of some kind to back them up.
A Local Authority: Rare indeed is the homebase that doesn't have some force that is dedicated to keeping the peace and providing at least some measure of security to the populace. Darker games may have this authority be corrupt or relatively powerless, but that's a question of flavor. Also, this force doesn't need to be overwhelming, just enough to suggest some sort of protection. After all, if you assume the majority of any populace is low level commoners, it only takes a few warriors to keep them in check and appear relatively formidable. For the purposes of mapping this into the homebase area, you probably want a jail or stockade of some kind, and maybe a barracks. Large medieval cities also feature essentially huge fortresses of the local authority; the Bastille in Paris being a notable example, or the Tower of London.
For my Dark•Heritage campaign setting, I've already said that High Lord Nicasi is the local authority and his rule is absolute (in theory if not in practice.) Although he's a relatively benign ruler, I still need to give him a method by which to enforce his authority. I'll have a small contingent of what are mostly the NPC warrior class with a few fighters, rogues and others mixed in that make up a constabulary for Iclezza. Later, while detailing a few NPCs in another installment, I'll probably even give a nod to a few characters in this outfit. However, there's a wrinkle; the Inquisition also has a presence here, some higher level PC classes (although fewer in number) and some troops of their own, as well as some steampunkish spy constructs: smaller units that are designed for espionage. The Inquisition is technically outside of the High Lord's authority, although they'd be reluctant to anger the High Lord, especially since they don't enjoy popular approval and the High Lord operates autonomously from the capital in Terassa. These somewhat competing and uncomfortable rivals allow me to devise a few details about the local setting:
1) There's an intense political and emotional rivalry between the two groups.
2) There's some degree of corruption as the two groups either try to one-up each other, or alternatively occasionally turn a blind eye to something non-kosher.
I introduce a bit of a church vs. state conflict, as the Inquisition represents the Church rather than the High Lords directly. I'll also decide that the Church "reports" to another High Lord that has authority over it, rather than a regional authority like many of the other High Lords. I'll also want to develop an interesting provision on the laws of the town--the Constables actually have mages that are accepted by the High Lord, but which aren't technically part of the Ministry of Sorcery. Because of this, mages are not typically prosecuted by the Constables, and in fact, are often protected against the Inquisition, which still views them as heretics notwithstanding. This is the root of the rivalry between the two organizations; magic-users of any kind typically being viewed as dangerous and heretical throughout the Terassan Empire, and witchcraft trials being commonplace.
Townsfolk. You don't want to go and roll up tons of NPCs at this point, but you do want to give some thought to what kinds of residents there are in your homebase. Are there weaponsmiths? Mages that can make magic items? Local clerics that can provide healing and restoration? Sages that can decipher ancient runes? How do all these people live? Are there residential wards in the town, or are residences and shops typically housed together? Does the city follow the typical Medieval pattern of housing large families in single houses, or is it more "modern" in terms of space utilization? What's the infrastructure like in terms of getting water, commodities and goods to the residents as well as waste away from them?
So how do I want to develop Iclezza? Because my setting assumptions don't work well with small villages, I'll imagine that Razina is a relatively large town; certainly it has several thousand inhabitants. It's not a huge city of millions, but it's big enough to get lost in if you wish. I'll also imagine that a good 80-85% of those people are poor working people who are dock workers, miners at the iron mine, or other manual laborers. Most of them live in small, cramped, warren-like neighborhoods with houses crammed so close together that what separates them is better described as narrow alleyways than as streets. There are two such wards, one which is slightly more upscale than the other; it includes a few wider roads and a few plants. The true ghetto is for the itinerant workers, though. This entire neighborhood, several miles square, is a cramped ghetto of mud, efluvia and continually low hanging smoke and pollution. The constables rarely go into Mudtown, as this area is called, so it is a place of relative anarchy, organized and unorganized crime, where the inhabitants live in constant fear. The other low class neighborhood has open air, and is for a "lower middle class" so to speak. This area is much smaller, but much more pleasant. Both of these wards have giant bus-like wagons hauled by elephants or massive horse crews that ferry workers to the mines or the nearby lumber camps all day long.
Other than the relatively squashed wards where most of the residences are, there is also, on a tall ridge above town, away from the stench and smokes of the lower classes, the residences of the nobles and the nouvou riche of Iclezza. Because this class of folk tend to like their privacy, this ward is walled and probably features private security that is much more competent (or at least better equipped and manned) than the constabulary. This is where most of the stone construction in town is, although it's often seen as a point of local pride to have timber constructed mansions anyway.
Shops. Obviously the PCs will need to get equipment from time to time, or upgrade what they do have, or simply to spend the gains of their adventures. Having some place to spend this money is crucial, as is making available items they may want to use. There's a few guidelines to making equipment available, though. First, for simplicity of mapping, it's a lot easier to centralize your shops. Either make more generalist stores, or make market areas. If you've got PCs hiking all across town just to pick up essential adventuring goods, then you're making things more complex than you need to. Note, this isn't a rule of Dungeoncraft, just a guideline, and I think it's a good one. Second, don't assume you have to make everything available. Especially if your homebase is a relatively small one, you can assume that lots of items are difficult, of not impossible, to obtain locally. There's a couple of reasons this is a good thing. For one thing, the syndrome of creating "Ye Olde Magic Items Shoppe" in every little village, which have racks of Holy Avengers or whatever other exotic items for sale at all times, stretches credulity and makes items much more disposable than they otherwise should be. Second, if the PCs decide they absolutely have to have something that isn't available, you've got an instant adventure hook as they have to go in search of it.
For Iclezza, I'll decide that most mundane articles are available, although not necessarily for sale in any shop. Firearms are available in very limited supply; you're better off signing on with a mercenary or security force to get one rather than trying to buy one outright, but with the right connections, and the right funds, you could still get one, as well as maintainence and ammo for it. Advanced technology--the clockworks and steamworks, are not available for purchase from any shop, although you might be able to buy one on the secondary market if you really tried. There is a shop or two to repair these types of items, though. Magic of any kind is not available to be bought except on the black market.
Each ward will have market areas, although Mudtown's is more like an armed yard. Most things in this area are picked up via barter rather than through purchase. In addition, anything over about 50 gp can only be bought on the Ridge, and access to that ward is limited to any except those who live there or can obviously afford to.
Temple. Ray Winninger suggest making a temple available so the PCs can get higher level healing, restoration and the like before they have anyone capable of casting the spells themselves. I can't argue with this methodology, although personally it grates against my taste. One of the reasons I'm severely limiting regular D&D magic from my campaign is to eliminate these types of cliches. However, in another campaign, this is probably a good idea. Also, the temple can be a springboard for ideas; parish priests typically have a good handle on potential problems in their area that the PCs can be asked to help out with.
Take your religion section that you wrote up already and look at how you can incorporate a few temples from it. Depending on your religion decisions, you may decide to have more than one temple, if you have more than one deity that would fit the personality of the town. Don't go too crazy though; the point is to try and avoid adding more details and complications to your map and homebase than you have to.
Of course, as you no doubt noticed in previous installments, I don't really have much in the way of clerics in the Dark•Heritage campaign setting, and in keeping with the genre, I want the populace to be relatively irreligious anyway. However, the Church as a juggernaut of a political force is also a feature of the setting. Just outside of town, I'll have a massive, fortress-like churchyard that serves as a center for worship, as well as--clandestinely, although it's an open secret--the HQ of the Inquisition.
Fantasy Element. Ray has a great idea here; something to add a little color and fantasy to your fantasy roleplaying. Your homebase should feature something unique and "fantastic" about it. Some suggestions he offers: a barkeep that keeps a leprechaun in a cage, a centaur that serves as a scout for the watch, or from his own setting, an ornate elevator that moves people around to the treetops. That last isn't fantasy in a magical way; it operates on winches and pulleys and is pulled by guardsmen, but it's certainly unique and characterful, and isn't something you'd expect to see in a pseudo-Medieval campaign setting.
Now, to Iclezza. A number of fantasy ideas come to mind; in fact my first thought is that the characterful district of Mudtown might well qualify already. I have a better idea, though, that also reinforces the slight steampunk angle of the setting. Public transportation by means of magical and steampowered constructs ("clanks" I called them earlier) will be available in limited supply in Iclezza. First there are the cab services; two-legged clanks that are hooked up to two and four wheeled carriages and run by youths around the city.
Next time, we'll incorporate these elements we discussed today and actually draw a map of the homebase!
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Ray takes a bit of a break for day 5 and explores naming conventions. I should warn you up front; this article is extremely opinion-based, and my opinion doesn't necessarily coincide with Ray's in all cases; some things he feels strongly about I'm indifferent too. In addition, Ray seems to have missed (or maybe they weren't available at the time) a number of resources that I consider to be indispensible. Nevertheless, there's a lot of good advice, and at some point, campaign naming conventions probably need to be considered. With that, let's dive in and have a quick look at them.
First of all, you need to decide how important naming conventions are to your campaign. D&D, as most know, originated essentially more as a wargame than a roleplaying game, and roleplaying elements were relatively gradually added on until it more resembled a storytelling mechanism than a game per se in many regards. Many campaigns still keep fairly close to these old roots (although I doubt many campaigns of which the authors are interested in these articles.) If your campaign is more about popping underground to slay some monsters and level up, then there's nothing really wrong with having characters with names like "Evil D" or "Squeeky" or "Spongebob." If that's true, then little of the advice given here is likely to be of much importance to you, so you can probably skip this article entirely. However, in other games, in which highly dramatic story moments culminate in the campaigns dastardly villain making a speech to Spongebob, the atmosphere and feel of the campaign is ruined. For these kinds of games, having good names is important. Exactly what a good name is debatable - Ray makes several "bad" examples that are actually a good deal better than names that have survived for decades in D&D "canon." I couldn't take seriously a campaign that featured Blibdoolpoolp in any way shape or form, for example. Here's some specific advice:
Never append adjectives to your character names. This is generally good advice. Cuthbert the Brave as a character is just a bit silly. Cuthbert the All-Powerful is even worse. I have yet to see an adjective that I thought sounded "cool" in the least. In real life, an adjective should probably only be appended after the fact as the character's exploits enter into legend, if at all. Ray's advice to GMs who have players who do this; handle it in game. Have NPCs mock the character, or worse, challenge him to live up to his handle. Of course, you could just rule up front not to allow it. Another related syndrome, which I personally find just as bad, is the use of kennings as names. Kennings are similar to adjectives, but are combined from two words jammed together. Unfortunately, this process is very entrenched in D&D, including in official products and novels and the like. A character with the last name Battlehammer, for instance, or a city named Waterdeep; to me they sound absolutely silly (although they work better for locations than for people, at least.) It's just a slightly fancier way of applying an adjective to a name, or worse, using an adjective for a name. Some of these are downright bad; a rogue with the name Lucien Stickyfingers is just asking for the local authorities to clap him in irons.
Some better advice is to borrow an existing language. In past years, I long ago decided that picking up an Old English, Welsh, Gaelic, and Norse dictionary was a great way to get words handy that sounded authentic, yet appropriate for a fantasy campaign. In addition to using words from dictionaries, its relatively easy to find sources of actual names. Years ago, I discovered a site called http://www.kabalarians.com which I recommended at ENWorld. I've since seen it pop up relatively quickly anytime anyone asks for advice on names; it's truly a remarkable site with thousands of names sorted by culture. The advantage to using something like this is you get a "resonance" for your cultures. If one kingdom all has names picked from the Armenian category, for instance, while another has names picked from the Old Norse section, they will sound different and the obvious kinship of names from one area vs. the other will be apparent. Unfortunately, kabalarians has recently switched to a membership format, so it will cost you $15 a year to browse their list of names. However, a search for names by culture on Google will give you plenty of hits. There's also a book, The Writer's Digest Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon which does the same thing, and is handier than web browsing during a play session. Sadly the book was out of print for many years and used copies seemed to go for a pretty steep amount if Amazon is any guide. This has very recently changed, though, and my latest search of Amazon suggest that it was recently revised and re-issued, and now is not hard to find at very cheap prices. This resource is highly recommended.
Another good point Ray makes is not to be afraid of English names! Especially if you want a "Medieval" feel, a lot of names that are still in circulation were very popular during the English Middle Ages. Obviously, you don't want names like Blane or something that's a trendy name, but something like William, John, Robert; those names are scattered throughout stories like Robin Hood, Ivanhoe and the like. Also, a lot of names sound good as just English descriptive names. The Black Sea, for example, or the White Mountains, sound just as good as anything exotic, and the descriptions inherent in the names could be used as adventure hooks. Keep in mind, that if you throw constant exotic names at the players, they will likely get them confused and muddled. Exotic names are great for building that exotic fantasy feel, but they need to be used in moderation.
Ray goes on to name several other sources of names, but I can summarize the rest of them a little more quickly. Basically, he makes the very good point that you can rip names off from fiction or history or what have you when you find them. Just be careful not to use names that are too familiar; if you have inkeepers named Frodo or Gandalf or Darth Vader, you'll find it difficult to get your players to take the campaign seriously. The phonebook is a good source of names as well, and features more "exotic" and useful (for our purposes) names than you might initially think. Another resource that Ray missed is the collection of name generator tools available. Some of them even allow you to create custom language paramaters, that generate names that sound like they come from the same language, but are different than anything you'll have heard before. Others focus on more traditional-like names. Keep in mind, you may have to generate quite a few to find the real gems in such a process, but I've found these to be very useful tools. I've got at least three such programs on my hard drive, and I use all three from time to time.
Another method I've read (in the book mentioned up above) is to create a chart with syllables in it and numbers on the top and side edges. If you have a chart 12x12 in size, you can roll 2d12 and pull up a random syllable. Combine these together to create names that also tend to have a "family resemblance." The last method I've used from time to time is even more straightforward: pick about a dozen or so letters from the alphabet (works better if you use relatively common letters -- r,s,t,a,e, etc. are much better than using x,q, or z) and create a simple chart that converts these letters into another letter or cluster of two or three letters. Then, take existing names and plug them into the formula. As an example; say I use the following chart:
* a => ei
* d => r
* h => '
* s => z
as an ultrasimplified example, would change my own name Joshua Dyal into Joz'uei Ryeil. Not half bad. Run a few more names through the same process, and you'll probably find a few that look pretty good. You may need to clean some of them up a little bit, but in general, I've had good results with this as well.
An important point is that you need to work with your characters to develop their names. I personally am a big fan of having the first session, or part of the first session, be a character generation session, where everyone sits down together and plans and generates their characters. This is the time to specify any guidelines for names, or veto any characters named "Batman" or "Debbie Dallasdoer" or whatever other bad names you may end up getting. In my experience, bad names rarely come from players who are just trying to be funny (although that does occasionally happen) they come from characters who consider making up names very difficult and don't get any guidance from the GM on how to do it and make names be appropriate. If you don't want the "chargen" session, you can accomplish the same thing by prescribing character creation guidelines via e-mail to your group (you'll probably do that anyway) and include naming guidelines in there as well.
Now, I've already gone through the naming process of most of the details of my campaign setting I've come up with so far, including naming the homebase area, the kingdom in which it resides, the ruler of the area, and several other things in my campaign. The main cultural influence over much of my campaign is the Terassan Empire, for which I use Catalan and Occitan and other more obscure Romance languages for my names. These sound vaguely Spanish or Italian, but not quite (which makes sense because Catalan and Occitan are related to Spanish and Italian) so they're just a little exotic, but not so much that they're difficult.
For the northern, or Balshatoi cultures, I use slavic and norse namelists: Russian and Viking, in particular. Baal Ngirsi tribesman and urbanites both speak Infernal, and for that I'm using namelists from extinct Middle eastern languages Elamite and Hurrian to represent. The Qizmiri have an Arabian Nights feel to them, so Persian or Arabic names are important.
I've got a few other languages and names here and there scattered throughout Dark•Heritage, but there's no reason to get into too much detail now. Remember Dungeoncraft rule #1!
Next time, we'll take a look at detailing our homebase area and preparing to drawing our first map!
Monday, October 25, 2010
First, choose Polytheism or Monotheism. Polytheism refers to a collection of multiple gods (many real world mythologies believe in a system like this), while monotheism refers to a single god (many real world religions today follow this pattern.) There's advantages and disadvantages to both, of course, but they can be more similar rather than different as they appear to be at first blush. Many monotheistic religions still have a host of saints or avatars or other divine servants that practically speaking play the roles of other gods in a polytheistic system.
Polytheism is the default assumption for most published D&D campaign settings, and there's a reason for this. Polytheism gives characters more choice in whom to worship, and gives the cleric class in particular more flavor and options. Polytheism also introduces potential conflicts between the churches of various gods that may have opposing idealogy. However, polytheism could potentially take more time to flesh out; after all, you need to name a few gods and assign spheres of influence to them. This can be done relatively quickly if you stick to the bare bones, of course.
If using a polytheistic system, take a moment to think about the heirarchy between the gods, if any. Greek myth, for example, has Zeus as the "King of the Gods" and his brothers Poseidon and Hades together form a sort of Triumvirate of the most important and most powerful gods. Other gods are wives, sons or daughters of many of these original gods, and the relationships between them suggest something about the setting that ancient Greeks believed they lived in. In many D&D pantheons, however, there is no heirarchy or order per se, instead each god or goddess is on their own, or limited to whatever alliances he or she can cobble together.
After coming up with a handful of gods, it's important to also give them "spheres of influence." This can also be tailored and flavored with the selection of domains the god makes available to his clerics (typically three or four to choose from.) For example, a god might be designated the war god -- he'd probably thus get the war domain. If he also gets the evil and the destruction domain, for example, that says something about how that society views war. If, on the other hand, he gets the strength, good and law domains, that says something else. There's no reason more than one god can't have influence over the same arena -- the Norse mythology has Thor, Odin, Tyr and others who are all "war gods" for instance, but since you don't want to invent scores and scores of gods at this point anyway, you're probably best off limiting yourself to just a few major ones; half a dozen to a dozen tops. Other than their domains, you may also want to give your gods a weapon of choice.
If you choose monotheistic, your choices are obviously simpler. Monotheistic deities typically offer access to all the domains. An interesting variant of the monotheistic system is the dualist, in which two cosmic opposites work at constant cross purposes. One is typically good and positive, while the other is often associated with evil, but other opposition schemes could be contrived easily enough. You also need to decide if there are "sub-deities" such as saints, angels or avatars that the PCs could potentially interact with. It wouldn't hurt to give some thought as to their nature as well--are they lesser divine servants, or are they ascended mortals, ala Catholic saints?
Take a moment to describe whether or not your gods are personified, or something else. Many real world mythologies, such as the Greek or Norse mythologies have their gods acting essentially as super-powered humans in many ways, with emotions, goals, foibles and the like. Even the Egyptian pantheon, which doesn't appear very humanistic at first glance, has easily identified strains of this same line of thinking. However, other religions percieve the god(s) as simply unempathic forces that are pretty much beyond mortal comprehension. Taking this to a further extreme, you get "Lovecraftian" deities, awesome entities that are so far beyond human understanding that they aren't even capable of percieving us as more than infinitesmally unimportant motes. These types of gods make for a very grim campaign, as the gods don't care for even having worshippers, and their plans might accidentally annihilate the entire world without even realising we were on it.
Humanistic deities is a choice most D&D campaigns use, because it provides for easy story ideas. If you go this route, give each deity a quick couple of sentences to describe their personality and motivation, and maybe develop some relationships between them. If you do not have humanistic deities, give some thought on how the deities interact with the world and how that can suggest story ideas. For example (using Ray's own sample campaign) a non-humanistic earth-mother clearly relates to all the organisms that live on it, and certain threats to the well-being of the goddess would clearly impact those who live on her.
For just a few major gods, give some thought on how they are worshipped. Is the pantheon open or closed? Most real world pantheons were closed, i.e. you worshipped all of the gods in the pantheon, depending on what specific help you were looking for. Holy men likewise typically served the entire pantheon at a time. That doesn't mean mystery cults devoted to a specific god didn't exist -- in fact they were quite common, but in general the pantheon was a unit. An open pantheon, on the other hand, is the default for most D&D settings. In this type of pantheon, you typically only worship one of the gods, and that's your religion and your church. There's some mechanical considerations to each, of course, relative to domains available to a given cleric character, favored weapon and the like.
Also take a moment to think about a few sample religious services and a couple of "dos and don'ts" for each church, religion or sect. These are particularly useful to the cleric or paladin players, but they could also be important to other classes if the characters happen to be religious. In some campaign settings -- Forgotten Realms for example, all characters typically are at least somewhat religious. Giving them something they can actually roleplay related to that makes the setting come alive. Don't get carried away with any of these details; it'd be easy to spend hours detailing gods and ceremonies and lists of commandments; just a few small bullet points should be sufficient.
Just to give the religion more than simply a dry, mechanical rundown, a few myths explaining some of "the great mysteries" are helpful. Where did we come from? What happens when we die? How was the world created? How did civilization start? What's the relationship between humans and nonhumans? Where does magic fit in? These are the kinds of questions you should look at. Don't write long stories, a paragraph or two should be sufficient, and share it with the players ahead of time.
In an open polytheistic environment, you've probably already done this, but otherwise, you probably want to take just a moment to give some hints of other religions that believe differently than the main religion of your campaign. Perhaps elves or dwarves have different creation myths or a different set of deities, for example. If you do this, though, be sure and come up with, at least for yourself, how these various religions interact. Is one right and not the others? Are they all wrong? Are they all right? Are competing pantheons related in some way, or is there an actual divine war going on between them mirrored by the conflict between the worshippers?
So now it's time to look at the Dark•Heritage setting again to see how I did it as a sample. I decide that I want a polytheism model, and that about a dozen gods sounds about right. The gods themselves will be humanistic, and will have a very loose heirarchy, with each god more concerned with his personal sphere of influence than in gaining more power per se. I'll also decide that my pantheon is closed -- the church worships all of the gods at once. But I'll get into organizations and religions later; first I need to detail the gods themselves.
Czernoboch (CHERN-uh-bock) "The Black Prince" - As his name implies, Czernoboch was originally a Balshatoi god; perhaps even the chief god of that people. His cult has spread throughout the surrounding area, however, and he is an important figure in the religion of the Terrasans, and even moreso in the religion of Baal Hamazi, who view him as their divine "father." In most representations, he looks like an ideal hamazin; jet-black skin, handsome, sharp features, and a crown of six horns poking up through his hair. His concerns seem to be with civilization, although that has taken on a darker pall in many cults, where he's also seen as the patron of the seedier side of civilization: thieves, plague, corrupt politicians, bandits, and worse.
Perun (pare-OON) - He also sports an originally Balshatoi name, but Perun, "The Thunderer" is associated with war, and as such, his mystery cults have suffused the Terrasan military for generations. As he's worshipped today, he's a hybrid of the original cult of Perun and the cult of the war-god of the south, Belcadros, and is sometimes referred to in full as Perun Belcadros. Perun is usually depicted as a primitive warrior, wielding a spear, hammer or ax, all of which are metaphors for his thunder and lightning.
Ashtarte (ash-TAR-tay) - Also known as Ishtar or Ashtar, depending on the dialect of the speaker, Ashtarte is one of the goddesses most associated with civilization. She's sometimes known as "The Divine Librarian" or "The Goddess of Knowledge." Her search for knowledge is only one aspect of her worship, though, and older cults still remember her as a more generic goddess of civilization, to whom fertility was as important as knowledge. To this day, heirodules, or "temple prostitutes" make up an important part of her religious observances.
While the search for knowledge is an important part of her worship as well, and the libraries of her temples are amongst the greatest in Terrasa or beyond, Ashtarte's priests are notorious for lusting after knowledge they shouldn't have, and the more forbidden the knowledge, the more they seek after it. Even the old myths talk about Ashtarte stealing forbidden knowledge in scandalous ways (as a courtesan, or through murder.) The temples of Ashtarte have to cover up the scandalous actions of her too-curious priests with disturbing regularity. Ashtarte is usually pictured as a voluptuous naked women with angelic wings, seated on a coiled serpent for a throne, and with a smaller serpent in her hand. In her other hand is a book.
Orcus (OAR-cuss) - The God of Death is not much worshipped or revered locally, but since his temple has charge of preparing dead bodies for funerary rites, it remains important nonetheless. Ironically, the priests of Orcus are notorious for trying to escape death--urban myths of the priest of Orcus who turns to dark necromancy are common bogeymen that mothers use to frighten their children. Orcus himself is never pictured out of superstitious fear; nobody knows what he's supposed to look like--or if they do, they're not saying.
Dagon (DAY-gonn) - One of the most respected and revered gods near any body of water is the Lord of the Sea. Since literally everyone in coastal areas depends on the sea to some degree or another---either for food, livelihood, or at least in the hopes that it won't rise up in a tropical storm and wipe them off the map---Dagon's ceremonies are the most attended of any in those regions, and icons of him appear in almost every single building. He's usually shown as a merman with a flowing beard, but he's also occasionally pictured otherwise; one popular variant is a shark-like creature with grasping tentacles and mouth and eyes similar to that of horrible deep sea hunters.
Veles (VELL-us or VELL-eez) - Veles is the goddess of magic, and few are the arcane spellcasters who don't at least give her some nominal votive offerings from time to time. Her priests are famous for selling charms that protect the faithful from minor harm and bad luck. Most people agree that they do indeed work, although some decry the practice as charlatanism.
In the myths of many peoples, she is linked with Orcus, but the nature of that linkage is obscure, and varies from place to place.
Susinak (SOO-sin-ack) - Susinak is the ultimate traveler. Most people about to embark on a long journey will stop by the temple district and touch the hem of the robe of her statue. Most cities have a brass statue of her in an important plaza, but temples are few. Clerics and other faithful clean and polish the brass statues daily. They do, in fact, frequently start to lose some of their detail and definition because of the constant polishing. The etymology of Susinak is unclear. While clearly not a native word in Terrasan, she is a goddess who's cult originated in the south, perhaps amongst neighbors of the old Terrasans.
Charun (char-OON) - Charun is a bull-headed god famous for his feats of strength. His temples are small shrines that are simply a roof supported by four pillars with a granite altar in the center.
Selvans (SELL-vans) - "The Horned God" is often seen as a dark god; a representation of nature "red in tooth and claw", and frequently associated with wolves or wulfen. Hunters and outdoorsmen worship him, but these are hard and cynical men, usually. This representation is common, but his name varies wildly from place to place. He's also known as Cernunnos, Herne, and in the southwest, in Kurushat, as Yinigu. There, he is seen as the patron of the entire nation, and associated with hyenas instead of wolves.
Vanth - The God of Penitance is not a popular god, but one that you occasionally hear about from those who have had to spend time in prison. He encourages extremely dilligent penitance and flagellations, so his followers are at least easy to spot. Mythology supposed a link between Orcus and Ashtarte, usually hinting that Vanth is a discarded lover of Ashtarte, and a former prisoner of Orcus.
Moloch (MOLE-ock) - The god of fire and the sun. His worship is more prevalent in tropical, open areas (unsurprisingly) where he is seen as a harsh and demanding master. In more temperate climes, he's more likely to be viewed benevolently, as a bringer of clement weather and bountiful harvests. In hotter regions shake their heads knowingly, and watch their own crops go sere with Moloch's displeasure.
Human sacrifice, especially of slave children, has been strongly associated with Moloch's worship in the past. In most Terrasan regions today, this is no longer practiced.
Culsans (CULL-sans) - While never openly worshipped, this god of thieves is very commonly given a quick prayer by the land's many less than upstanding citizens. Also known as Frezur Blue as a nickname (origin unclear), many invoke his name only to make fun of it, and ask what part of him is blue (usually with a randy joke about his sex life) which causes the priests of Ashtarte or other more learned theologians no end of frustration. They simply roll their eyes, comment that "Blue" in this case is merely a mispelling of his proper name anyway, and although Frezur Blue may seem to be an easy-going god who doesn't mind a few jokes made at his expense, only the truly foolish think that it is wise to upset the god who can take away everything that they own, and even steal their very souls.
You'll notice that few of the gods are good, or even bear a semblance of it, in keeping with the dark and grim nature of the campaign I'm trying to develop. Old time D&D players may recognize that several of them are relatively transparently the same as some of the major Demon Lords, which also accomplishes that same idea, as well as being a bit of an in-joke to savvy players.
Since I've now developed my type of pantheon and the nature of the major gods, it's time to have a look at religion and organizations.
Essentially, in my main kingdom, all religion is a province of the Ecclesiastus, an organization that has been scrabbling to hold on to political power for decades, only to see it gradually fade as the populace has turned in recent generations from being highly religious to being largely superstitious. Now, they see the Ecclasiastus as a helpful advocate to keep an unfriendly god from giving you a very bad day, as well as the source of most scholarly pursuit. That said, agents of the Ecclesiastus dabble in all kinds of things, many of them things that they should not, and strange mystery cults within the organization of the church itself have even more sinister motives.
My descriptions of the gods does ennumerate a number of myths, but for one that I'd like to develop at this stage: how humanity got their freedom from the Old Ones that created them in ancient times. Supposedly, at that time, the Old Ones worshipped strange gods, fell and uncouth that had no love for humanity, or even for their own subjects. The current gods were their children, and they chafed under the rule of the cruel Elder Gods. In a legendary reenactment of the freeing of humanity from their masters, the New Gods rebelled against the Elder Gods and threw them down to take their place. In order to purge the world of the influence of the Elders, they brought about the downfall of the Old Ones themselves and adopted humanity as their worshippers.
Finally, as Dungeoncraft Rule #2 compels me to create a secret about my religion, I'll jump from the myth I created and say that it is more or less true. Of course, my secret from an installment or two ago was the demons helped humanity overthrow their masters, not the gods. This is because these "gods" that are worshipped aren't gods at all, but truly are demon lords, vying to corrupt humanity as much as possible. True gods, if they exist at all, probably are the Elder Gods, although humanity is undergoing a true apostasy, and any real knowledge of them is long gone.
Next time, we'll look at naming and organization and start to get ready to draw the first maps.
Friday, October 22, 2010
Keeping in mind the two rules of Dungeoncraft introduced last time, we can start to take on developing some real campaign specific details. What we'll work on today is the development of a "homebase" for the players, the place they begin play, as well as some local government and culture surrounding the homebase. I'll explore various options and what the implication of each is for the game.
First of all, keeping in mind Dungeoncraft rule #1, we need to think about government and politics on two levels. You need to have a "national" level politics, but luckily we don't need to develop this much beyond a basic idea. However, you will need to look a little more closely at "local" politics, because that will impact the PCs right away in their homebase area. Also, keep in mind as you develop these to implement Dungeoncraft rule #2, and add secrets to these elements as you develop them. It might be handy to keep these secrets written down on index cards or somesuch -- you'll end up with a fair deck of secrets, each of which is a plot hook for the PCs to eventually follow up with and give you a great deal of gameplay.
Ray Winninger believes, and I actually disagree with him on this, that a homebase area should be an area of relative security, seperate from the "adventure" areas. Because of this, he believes a good alignment, relatively peaceful area is ideal for the homebase. Personally, I believe the homebase should be the source of a good deal of the adventure seeds--and even the adventures themselves--that player characters navigate through the coarse of a campaign. So, I'll present his theories modified to what I prefer, but also note where he differs from my opinion on the matter as we go through the development of a homebase. As to his basic premise--a good aligned and sleepy little homebase requires that the PCs follow leads to somewhere else to find anything interesting, which I disagree with, but I do also agree that PCs need a place to hole up after taking a beating so they can regroup and prepare to move on to the next phase of the campaign.
Rather, I'm more interested in a homebase that follows the first rule of dungeoncraft, and is easy for me to create with a minimum of initial effort, so I can gradually fill in details as appropriate later. What does this mean? It means I want a homebase that is cosmopolitan enough that I can have urban adventures, wilderness adventures, and everything in between, yet isolated enough that I don't have to invent all kinds of complicated trade routes, relationships with TBD regions and areas and the like. A homebase that is too big or cosmopolitan probably requires you to develop much more than you want to at this stage just to explain everything that goes on there. Similarly, a homebase that is too isolated and sleepy requires you to develop surrounding areas with more detail, because that's where the PCs will likely be going just to do something interesting.
The first option for a homebase is an urban sprawl--a large city. These are fun, adventures can be entirely self-contained in the city as PCs struggle with thieves guilds, corrupt politicians, underground sewers crawling with monsters, or whatever other fantasy city ideas you want to throw at them. The PCs also potentially have access to things like libraries, shops, black markets, and all kinds of other interesting things. All of these are great gaming opportunities, and very much along my taste. However, there's one big problem with using a city as a homebase: it takes more work to develop it sufficiently to actually use it than the other options. You need a relatively detailed map, and a good idea of where things are in the city. You need lots of NPCs. Especially in a traditional fantasy setting, large cities are probably rare, so any that exist are likely to be very cosmopolitan, and this means you'll have to develop even more of your world just to explain where the "dwarftown" ward came from, for example. This can be partially avoided if you're good at inventing stuff on the fly, but few of us are, so you're probably better off grabbing some tools to help you. Lists of names in different languages that you can pick from if you need a named NPC immediately come in handy, as do lists of tavern names, shop names, ship names, or whatever else your PCs are likely to encounter as they go about their business in the city are invaluable. A good idea of what the various districts are like in the city, and what various things there could be to do in them is important too. With these tools, contrary to popular belief, you don't need to detail too much of your city ahead of time after all, but you do need to to spend some time setting up the tools to allow you to run the game smoothly. You also need to be a good note taker. In my experience, the most obscure, unexpected and unanticipated NPC or locale inexplicably becomes a PC favorite, and if you're not consistant in your portrayal of something that you might have literally made up on the spot, then they'll notice. While I love urban adventures and frequently set my campaigns in fantasy versions of the classic "wretched hive of scum and villainy", i.e. the city, I can only guardedly recommend that option, and only for those GMs with a bit of experience.
Another option is the stronghold. A stronghold is a fortress of some type built along a border region. It may be a stopover for various people, and a local trade center, but they are typically fairly isolated from major population centers. The fact that they are in border regions makes them ideal also in that the hostile territory on the other side of the border is a ready-made adventure area, and even within the stronghold itself, spies, threats of invasions, border raids, etc. all provide potential story fodder. In addition, because they are relatively isolated, and are bulwarks of safety in an otherwise relatively hostile region, most fortresses tend to attract towns near or around them that are populated by civilians. If you play your cards right, you can even get many of the advantages of city gaming without many of the disadvantages of having to invent lots of campaign material to explain it. Ray Winninger calls this out as a seperate option, the feudal town, but since that assumes that feudalism plays a role in your campaign (it may very well not) and doesn't add anything particularly new to the mix, I've consolidated it here with the stronghold.
Rural villages have many of the disadvantages mentioned above, in that they are typically not located near borders, and so certain types of adventures require the PCs to hike a considerable distance in order to get anywhere interesting. They do offer peace and stability, and if you want your PCs to be able to dabble in things like item creation or spell research, they are places where these kinds of things can be done relatively easily without interruption. They aren't locations brimming with adventure ideas, though -- unless you want to make the village the headquarters of some kind of evil cult or somesuch, which does at least give you a very Lovecraftian feel. That, however, defeats the primary advantage of the village, according to Winninger at least. I'd suggest villages are better as stopping points when the PCs are traveling, rather than permanent base camps.
Ray's last example is a bit interesting: the homebase could be a mobile camp of some kind. Whether it's a traveling merchant caravan, circus or camp of nomadic herdsmen, the advantages of a wandering camp are that it allows you to make up campaign detail at your own pace (when you've got something new, the camp moves) and it is full of story potential (PCs could be scouting for new areas for the camp to move, or smoothing the way through hostile territory as the camp moves, or even working security for a camp that is having trouble with attacks from bandits or hostile natives.) You do need to figure out exactly why the camp moves--are they following herds, seasonal hunting grounds, or are they wandering traders or a circus, for example. Also, what kind of structure does the camp have--most would be meritocracies in which the most capable are the authority figures. There is a real communal sense to camps, and they don't tolerate troublemakers or internal threats though. PCs have to tread a bit more carefully than they might otherwise, or risk getting booted out.
After you select your homebase type, you'll want to take just a minute to give it some life via a few vague details. First of all, what's the basis for the local economy? You don't want to spend tons of time working out detailed trade routes or the like, but give the matter some thought, at least. Here's a few ideas:
- Residents are hunters or farmers, and trade for other commodities.
- Perhaps the residents work a mine, or other commodity and trade for food instead.
- Alternatively, the region could be renowned for its skilled tradesmen or some kind -- maybe local weaponsmiths are the best in the region.
- Maybe the region is funded through the community--some noble or the ruler himself might have established it as a military installation, for example, and supplies it out of government funds.
- Something unusual--maybe the region is an area that recieves pilgrims, or has a famous oracle in residence, or guards a choke point that charges a toll for all travelers.
As noted earlier, don't go crazy with details, just pick a broad description; that's enough to work with for now. Other than the economy, you probably want to come up with a local custom or tradition or two that sets the area apart and gives it some local color. Some historical examples include the warrior culture of ancient Sparta, the great library at Alexandria, or the great games held in Rome's coliseum. This also leads somewhat into the next step, where you flesh out a litle bit the politics and government at a bigger level--how does the countryside beyond the homebase region itself work? Luckily, because this probably won't have a major impact for some time yet, all you really have to do is pick a broad category and move on to the next step. Here are a few options:
- Despotism: a dicatorship of some kind. Freedoms are likely curtailed, loyalty to the ruler is a favorable quality, although subversive, rebellious elements are also a key element of this kind of campaign. However, despots don't have to be evil or oppressive despots -- that's just one way to handle it.
- Monarchy: a monarchy is similar to a despotism in most ways, except that they generally have more stability because there's a clear system for handling succession when the ruler dies or steps down.
- Republic: a democratically elected government of some kind, or at least one that is representative of some section of society. Truly representative democracies are extremely recent on our world, but Rome and Athens both offered prototypes for a more traditional type of republic that you could establish. Not that a fantasy campaign setting has to resemble the real world all that much, of course.
- Anarchy: interesting for a change of pace. An alternative to this is the city-state -- basically a collection of mini-nations that all operate independently. Typically anarchies are easy pickings for more organized nations, but Greece was able to hold off Persia quite handily as a collection of city-states.
Once you've got these broad details established, try to come up with an interesting twist or quirk to the basic assumption. The example of a good despot is one such example. Anything unusual about the nation's history, culture, a unique custom or commodity -- all of that helps to flesh the area out. Then, invent a few neighboring nations, each with as little detail as you've got here (a name, maybe, a government type and a twist is all) just to refer to vaguely. They can be fleshed out much later, if they become important to the campaign.
So, to look at my example campaign, let's try out this methodology to give me a workable nation and homebase with a minimum of effort. I'll choose a frontier city as my example, the city of Iclezza. Iclezza is situated such that it is a major trade hub. It's a coastal city and a seaport on the widely traveled Mezzovian Sea, so it gets traders, diplomats, and other visitors from the south, east and west (Iclezza is on the northern edge of the Mezzovian Sea. If the Mezzovian Sea can be compared loosely to the Mediterranean, then Iclezza would be smack dab on the coastline of Italy.) In addition to it's seafaring trade, Iclezza is situated at the mouth of a river that flows from the Garriga Mountains to the north, and timber floats down this river to its ultimate destinations. Furiers are also an important part of the economy, and trappers and lumberjacks and panhandlers from the wild regions to the north frequently flow into Iclezza as well.
To rule Iclezza, I've decided on a governer who is a (somewhat) distant member of the royal family. Because he's important and is a recognized member of the peerage, a small court of sorts has sprung up in the area in spite of its rough and frontier nature, including minor nobility and successful burgeouis traders and merchants. This in turn has facilitated a relatively cosmopolitan array of service industries in the area to meet the needs of these nobles and nouveau riche.
Tacking a few names to these features, I've named the nation itself the Terassan Empire, and the ruler of Iclezza is known as the High Lord; his real name is Galceran Nicasi. Iclezza needs a few interesting features and local color, and I've decided that because of the prevalence of timbers, much of the entire city is made of logs; even the streets are logs laid down side by side and covered with dirt and gravel. This makes the city a fire hazard, so one of the few strictly enforced set of local laws are related to fire control.
On a larger level, the Terassan Empire is, of course, a monarchy, but it is a decadent and impotent one, on its last legs. Iclezza is one of about half a dozen major urban centers that operate almost as if they were merely loosely aligned city-states, as control of the hinterlands and far flung provinces slips away from the central government that hasn't the will or force to maintain colonial interests anymore. The Empire's seat is on the southern rim of the sea, and the native Terassans are from there; the original inhabitants of Iclezza were another ethnic group altogether known as the Balshatoi. With the fading of imperial power, Balshatoi culture is undergoing a revival of sorts all along the northern Rim, but in Iclezza itself, the inhabitants tend to see themselves as Iclezzans first and their other ethnic and cultural differences as a distant second consideration. This is because Iclezza is also infamous (or famous, depending on your point of view) as a hotbed of religious reformation and revolution. A generation or two ago, this caused Iclezza to also be a hotbed of the Inquisition, headquartered in the south, and many prominent local personalities were hung, burned at the stake, drawn and quartered, or otherwise publicly and messily executed. Finally the Iclezzans had enough, killed most of the Inquisitors in town, and precipitated a retaliatory crusade from the south. For six months the city was under seige until they managed to negotiate cessation of hostilities. This means that Iclezza pulled together as a municipality; "Iclezza-ness" versus the decadent southerners is highly valued amongst the patriotic and almost jingoistic locals. It also means that Iclezza remains a popular destinition for religious pilgrims of all stripes even today.
Now, the second rule of Dungeoncraft compels me to develop a secret for these campaign elements I've just now introduced. Here's a couple:
The High Lord's wife, a very young woman who is noted for her beauty and strong-will, has been involved with illegal and heretical occult--the summoning of ghosts and demons and the like for seances. She's not evil, she just likes the titillation factor of doing something potentially so dangerous. However, unbeknownst to her, a web of intrigue has been building up that may bring her down because of it; several much more serious occult players want to exploit her to enact rituals without fear of reprisals which would bring real danger to the area. In addition, certain members of the local Inquisition (who now keep a much lower profile than in the past!) are aware of her activities. They haven't moved yet, because the High Lord is such an important personage that moving at the wrong time would likely cost them their heads. But they are biding their time and waiting for the perfect opportunity to catch her in something illicit and expose her. The PCs could become involved in several ways, either trying to prevent disastrous rituals from taking place, exposing the High Lord's wife, or depending on how things work out, trying to keep her from being exposed from the Inquisition.
For a secret on the national level, the High Lord Imperator who rules in southern Terassa is just crying out to have secrets developed about him. The High Lord Imperator has, in fact, been alive for centuries; since the founding of the empire even. Because he rules from seclusion, few guess at his longevity, and it is presumed that multiple generations of heirs have all born the High Lord Imperator's name and title over the years. The reason he still lives is a combination of arcane and occult magitechnology that has made him a combination of undead and semi-living construct. However, living in a decaying artificial husk has snapped his mind, and he does little to actually lead the nation anymore, while many of the High Lords grind the people under their heels for their own benefit in his name. This secret isn't terribly difficult to guess for players who are used to looking for the worst in all the NPCs I develop, so it probably needs another layer. The High Lord Imperator was one of a group of conspirators that originally made a deal with demons to overthrow the past local powers and cause his people and nation to become ascendant. The reason he's so scared of dying is because he and his original co-conspirators promised their souls as payment to the demons at the end of their lives. He's the only one still alive. However, the demons that entreated with him so long ago are getting impatient and are looking for a loophole in the deal. They will likely start sending demonic hordes against Terassa in an attempt to bring it down and harvest souls in the thousands. I can detail exactly how this is supposed to happen later.
Next time, I'll have a look at the last cultural details we need to develop before we start drawing maps, including religion.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
That said, I've often said and read that it's important to look outside of ones chosen genre and see what else is happening in the world of entertainment lest one become so insular and calcified in ones taste that one is missing out. So, today, I'm going to talk briefly about another of my favorite movies of all time, one which on a whim I watched again last night, the 2005 big screen adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice (using the ampersand in the movie title, although not the novel title.)
This may seem surprising to some, and maybe even heretical. Seriously? Pride & Prejudice? The ultimate chick flick storyline from before there even were flicks for chicks? Yep, that one. And yes, this really is one of my favorite movies of all time.
Although I've never read Austen's book in its entirety (and probably never will) I first fell in love with the story when my wife made me watch the 1995 BBC/A&E adaptation featuring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle in the two starring roles. Pride and Prejudice takes place, like all of Jane Austen's books, during the Regency era, and I'm convinced that living the life of the landed genry during the Regency must have been one of the most boring professions in the history of the world. In a society where laughter, emotion, or wit was considered vulgar, and the gentry prided themselves on not working, or really, in not doing much of anything at all, I couldn't imagine how I could possibly enjoy five and a half hours of what I imagined to be the driest, most dull bit of television ever filmed. Frankly, my sympathies were with the Regiment; going to the Continent to fight the French seemed a perhaps desperate, yet also desperately needed cure for a life of unremitting dullness.
While that description may possibly have applied to the five or six previous attempts to film Pride and Prejudice as a BBC miniseries (I don't know and am unlikely to at this point; the two P&Ps that I've seen almost universally beat the pants off of any prior adaptation in every review of the subject), the 1995 one humanized the main characters considerably, and I found myself surprisingly charmed by the likeable and often humorous characters and the fantastically witty dialogue. I later went out and bought a copy on DVD for my wife, and found that more often than not, I wasn't able to convince her to invest the time in watching it when I was interested, so I watched it alone or with her several times.
In 2005, when the Keira Knightly and Matthew MacFadyen led cast put their efforts out on the big screen, I was a bit sceptical, yet excited to see what they'd done with it. And, for the most part, I found that the things I liked about the 1995 adaptation were strengthened and bolstered. In the words of Roger Ebert, "this is not a well-mannered "Masterpiece Theatre" but a film where strong-willed young people enter life with their minds at war with their hearts." The movie felt very much more alive and passionate than anything that even the 1995 adaptation had done. While I found myself a bit dizzied at times by the pace, and disappointed with things that had to be cut from a five and a half hour long adaptation vs. a slightly longer than two hour adaptation, everything that the movie did do, it did better than its predecessor. I even thought MacFadyen managed to carve out his own niche in the long shadow that Colin Firth cast in the role as Mr. Darcy. And the soundtrack, largely piano with some subtle string orchestra at times as well, is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written to accompany any cinematic endeavor. The only thing I found disappointing was the casting and reduced role of Mr. Wickham, which felt like barely more than a nod to his role in the longer adaptation or the book. In fact, if he wasn't actual crucial to the development of the plot, I think the screenwriters would have eliminated him entirely, which they nearly succeeded in doing anyway, making his pivotal role seem almost a bit surprising when it occurs (or well, it would if I wasn't mentally filling in the gaps with material I remembered from the prior adaptation.) Both adaptations fail to provide the epilogue that the novel does, which is probably wise, but as we come to quite admire and like these characters, it is unfortunate that we don't get to see just a hint of their further development.
How is this helpful to fantasy adventure roleplaying? Well, honestly it probably isn't, at least not directly. If you're planning on integrating Regency manners stories into your game, you're on your own. Even an avowed fan of the movie like me wouldn't touch that with a ten foot pole. However, indirectly, the interactions and the dialogue have had a big impact on my portrayal of characters in general.
And that's really where I'm going with this. If you don’t expose yourself to conventions and viewpoints and plots and characters and paradigms from other genres, your toolkit when it comes to portraying all of these elements is going to be extremely shallow and limited. I've even heard some fans express the fact that they only read D&D novels… not even other fantasy novels! This needlessly limited and sadly provincial attitude can perhaps be overcome by a person with a natural talent for developing plots, characters and situations, but wouldn't it be easier to simply tank up on good influences you can adopt with less work? I make no bones about the fact that my fantasy RPGs tend to feel like fantasy versions of Robert Ludlum spy thriller plots, and that my settings' hinterlands bear an uncanny resemblance to the Old West, especially as portrayed in the darker and grimmer spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone. My urban scenes feel like fantasy gangster flicks or hardboiled detective novels.
Are those unusual influences in fantasy? Possibly. But, I'd like to think that's part of what keeps my games somewhat fresh. To be honest with you, I'm completely done with retreading tired old high fantasy cliches or reflecting the "hero's journey". It just doesn't sound appealing to me at all anymore.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
• Don't force yourself to create more than you have to.The first rule might make a lot of sense if you've ever started creating and burned out before even getting to a single play session. Don't feel the need to create more than what you need for some basic background and the next few sessions or so of play. Not only can you later fill in details that better match the players as play progresses, but you can get started much earlier without having written the equivalent of the Forgotten Realms book before you start. That doesn't mean that there isn't some frontloading of the work involved, but minimize this as much as possible and rechannel that energy into things that are practical. You don't need to develop prevailing winds, trade routes, 1000+ year histories or the like. Although it won't hurt, it likely won't help your campaign either, at least not for a long time. The second rule is obvious as well -- it gives you hooks right off the bat that can drive gameplay by giving mysteries for the players to gradually uncover. Not only that, this gives the illusion of depth. Your players may not ever feel as if you are working on a campaign setting that is only developed a little bit beyond their next sessions, they will feel as if the campaign has a rich history with all kinds of things going on. Be careful about the pace at which you dole out these secrets, and they can last for months if not years. But they should be developed, at least as a core idea, when the campaign element they match is developed. That way you can drop hints and foreshadowing long before the secret actually is revealed.
• For every campaign element you introduce, create a secret to accompany it.
Of course, I don't necessarily follow these rules to the letter all the time. In fact, much of my noodling with setting design is done during my "off seasons" when I'm not actually running the game, so I can feel more relaxed about development and work on whatever strikes my fancy. But when you need to run soon and need a setting right away, focus on what's important right away and ignore everything else for the time being.
The main idea of this installment, though, is to create a "hook" for your campaign setting. The hook is something that can be summed up very quickly, and which differentiates your setting apart from other settings "at a glance." There's no reason you have to have just one hook, but too many of them, and your game will feel very different from traditional D&D and might also be difficult for your players to digest and understand. The whole point is to be able to describe how your setting is different from "generic fantasy" in just a sentence or two. If you've got to describe more than that, chances are you've gone too complicated. The guys at Paizo have pitched the idea of the "Hollywood pitch"--and then described their first novel, Prince of Wolves in terms of calling it "Indiana Jones meets Brotherhood of the Wolf in Transylvania." That's the level of simplicity you should be able to reduce your hook(s) to.
Hooks can be classified by type, as discussed below. One thing to keep in mind about whatever hook you develop, is that it should suggest campaign action. A hook that doesn't suggest stories, adventure seeds and the like isn't very useful except as flavor. If that's all the hook adds, that doesn't mean you can't still incorporate it, but it can't be the only one you use.
The first type of hook to develop is a cultural one. Standard D&D assumes a pseudo-Medieval Western Europe in terms of culture, but by changing this base assumption, you can automatically make the world feel very different. These types of changes also typically suggest character ideas and things for the characters to do, as well. As an example, look at the published setting Rokugan which is based on an Imperial Japan instead of Western Europe. Clearly, character types are different, with an extremely sharp division between noble and commoner, samurai as character classes, lots of politics and intrigue suggested by the campaign setting, large cities and many other things that are different than what you'd expect normally.
A unique environment is also a campaign hook that can strongly change the feel of the game. Dark Sun for instance, is strongly influenced by the harsh, unforgiving desert that makes up almost all of the landscape of the setting. Characters struggle for even basic necessities of survival, rather than marching from one friendly tavern to another, making pit stops in dungeons along the way to gather treasure.
A campaign that focuses more tightly on a class or race can be interesting, although it may also be difficult to pull off. Some players are enamored of playing a certain race or class, and not having the option doesn't feel like D&D to them. However, especially as a more short-term game, this might be lots of fun. In general, though, if you make restrictions, you should probably diversify your options in some other way. As an example, if you want to have a wilderness focused campaign that uses rangers and druids, you might want to consider using some other alt.ranger type classes, or something along those lines, so your players still have choices. If you're doing an elf campaign, you might want to consider opening up subrace options such as gray elves, wood elves, wild elves, etc. Also, be aware of the potential problems if you eliminate access to arcane spells, healing spells, or the like. This doesn't mean you can't pull it off, you simply have to be careful and account for those types of things up front. If there is a monster in the Monster Manual that assumes you will have access to certain spells, and is very difficult to defeat without them, for example, you need to be aware of that before you send that monster against the PCs. Still despite the potential hazards, the built in story potentials make this type of hook an intriguing one for experienced GMs who don't mind the challenge.
Another interesting campaign setting hook is opposition that the players will regularly face. A campaign setting ruled by dragons, for example, or over run with undead, (two of Ray's examples) offer immediate story hooks for both you and the players to dig into and get interesting gaming started almost immediately. The only thing you have to watch out for are opponents that don't suggest anything -- as Ray said, a world dominated by stirges suggests… what exactly?
A situational hook is one that works really well. This means a world in which a major story is clearly already in progress and the PCs are caught up in it. Midnight by Fantasy Flight Games is one such setting. In that setting, which is like an alternate Tolkien in many ways, the Dark Lord won the final battle. The PCs are typically the resistance fighters trying to preserve what small amount of light they can. Scarred Lands also has such a hook -- it produces a mythology much like Greek mythology in which one generation of gods (the gods) overthrows the prior one (the titans) and begin to remake the world in their image. The hook here is that this just happened a generation or so ago, and remnants of the titans and their armies still cover huge portions of the world. Outside of the d20 movement, White Wolf's World of Darkness games all feature an impending apocalypse of some kind that the PCs tend to get caught up in trying to prevent.
Finally, a hook that Winninger didn't mention but which is a popular one at least with me and the gamers I know is a genre hook. For the most part, D&D assumes some middle ground between sword & sorcery and high fantasy, but a lot of new writers in the field have been making hay with splicing that concept with other genres. What about a game that's steampunk fantasy (a la Iron Kingdoms or Perdido Street Station?) How about caper/heist fantasy, like Scott Lynch's "Gentlemen Bastards" series? Horror fantasy is a popular one, and D&D itself has dabbled in that with the Ravenloft setting, which was classic gothic horror spliced with traditional D&D.
As I said earlier, more than one hook isn't necessarily bad; it can be very good, especially if you find a way to tie the hooks together, which gives the setting more coherency. For my sample setting, I'll start with more of a singular hook, but some of the other types of hooks will come out in play, particularly the kinds of plots and adventures that the PCs will encounter, which are reminiscent of thriller mainstream novels by folks like Robert Ludlum.
Last time, I discussed what I wanted for flavor, and a lot of that suggested (if not outright dictated) what I was going to have for my campaign hook as well. Of course, my Dark•Heritage setting's actually been around in various forms for a few years, so it's evolved and developed in my head for some time, but putting it through this Ray Winninger methodology should hone it to a very useable and practical state. My first incarnation was primarily environmental, and inspired by space opera set on Mars, such as written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline, Leigh Brackett, and even Ray Bradbury, I had a harsh, cold desert world full of alien creatures. This hook started to feel a bit too "one trick pony" for my taste after a while, plus whenever I started trying to describe it to other gamers, they immediately thought of Dark Sun (which was completely coincidental and based on drawing on the same sources, I think. I'm actually not very familiar with Dark Sun at all.) So my concept and my hook evolved from a more environmental theme to one of genre. Now, using James Sutter's "Hollywood pitch" style summary, I describe Dark•Heritage as "Pirates of the Caribbean meets Charles Dickens with a strong dash of Lovecraft as directed by Sergio Leone." What kind of action does this suggest?
First, it suggests a great deal about the environment, even though it seems like two incompatible environments at first blush. Is it a sailing type setting with a strong nautical theme, or is it a harsh frontier setting with small settlements of amoral tough guys surrounded by hostile bandits and savages? Why not both? In my case, since I was tinkering with the setting during my off season, I've spent some time developing a bit more detail and a broader scope than I might otherwise have done. I really liked both of those themes, and while it seems unlikely that both will feature at literally the same time and place (some areas will be more swashbuckling mayhem while others are more gritty cowboy like in tone) PCs could come and go from one region to another over the course of the campaign. In fact, setting the campaigns' start at the tail end of the "cowboy" region; a southern peninsula that serves as a port city and outlet for trade from the fur, logging and mining industries in the interior, and a haven for ships and sailors, often of dubious morality, allows me to get the best of both worlds to some extent, and easily go one way or the other as my whim strikes me.
Secondly, it suggests a great deal also about antagonists. In many ways what it suggests is that many antagonists will be human or at least humanoid. Pirates, bandits, "indians", and hostile, head-hunting or cannibalistic natives on the islands… that's the kind of pulp/adventure vibe that I want to cultivate for much of what the PCs will face. But there's also the Charles Dickens---urban criminals and mafia-like organizations, crooked politicians, and worse. And, of course, a strong dash of Lovecraft is where the fantasy comes in: evil sorcerers, dangerous cults, and strange and terrifying monsters and daemons (as opposed to the frequently--and sadly--routine monsters of a normal D&D campaign). These various suggestions are enough to build many campaigns; heck, I could run stuff non-stop in Dark•Heritage for the rest of my life and probably not run out of interesting things to do.
The only thing to do now is create a secret associated with these hooks. Because the hooks are kind of vague at this point, that will also help further define them and make them something that really "pops" during play, as these secrets are gradually revealed. I'll keep my secrets somewhat vague too, until I have something a little bit more detailed to develop a secret about. As I develop my home base area, with its political factions and whatnot, that'll be ripe territory for secrets. For now I'm going with a vague "big picture" secret, and I'm not going to be subtle or even surprising about it. In fact, I'll mine familiar territory with a Lovecraftian secret history of the setting. Buried under the vaguely Mediterranean-like Mezzovian Sea that sits smack dab in the middle of my setting are the remnants of the pre-human inhabitants of my world. And while they seem to be on the decline and mostly quiescent… they're not really, of course. Isolated coastal regions are vulnerable to attack or corruption, not unlike Lovecraft's own Innsmouth.
Further to the north, the landscape has an even more sinister secret history. The Mezzovian Sea is the remnant of a once much larger ocean, and the land to the north was once submerged. It is, in fact, the semi-legendary lost continent of Muuh, sunken below the ocean when its inhabitants delved too deeply into the secrets of the prehumans, and then raised again as the ocean waters receded. Those few occult experts who suspect this relationship of the lands of Baal Hamazi to the north of the Mezzovian Sea and Muuh, suspect that it also might be linked in some way to the rise of the hellspawn (i.e. tieflings) in that region.
Come back next time, and we'll have a look at politics and government, as well as developing a homebase for our first group of PCs. As we get more into the details of the setting, we can sink our teeth into secrets that we can start dropping clues about immediately as well.