Monday, February 27, 2012


Perhaps curiously, for a guy who created a blog mostly to ramble on about my fantasy setting (and book reviews) I think settings aren't really all that.  This comes out of a discussion I was having online earlier with a guy who didn't understand why he had a hard time interesting potential players in his great idea of mixing every d20 game ever made under the sun.  d20 vampire jedi, Cthulhu Sanity, cyborg World of Darkness d20 mages, and an elven gunslinger in a post-apocalyptic world, attacking tanks with katanas, etc.  All in the same game.  Why isn't anyone interested in anything that's obviously so awesome, he wondered.

The discussion eventually wandered to, "well what in the world is that game about?  How can anyone make a character when they have no idea what a coherent character concept is, and how to work it out with the other players, and what else was going on, etc.?

In other words, players care about their characters and what they can reasonably expect to do.  Basking in setting is a GM activity that notoriously bores players fairly quickly.  A little bit of it goes a long way.

Perdido Street Station
Not just GMs, of course.  I read Perdido Street Station before starting this blog, so I never posted my review of it here.  My biggest complaint is that Mieville just can't get around to having a plot, to writing interesting characters, or creating interesting conflicts for the better part of 200 pages because he's too in love with his own setting and wants to just explore it pointlessly.

Even after the plot eventually starts, it still struggles to stay focused, because he wanders into pointless asides that exist for no reason other than to show off how imaginative he thinks his setting is.

And, to be fair, it is pretty imaginative.  However, it doesn't really matter.  Without interesting characters and an interesting plot, the setting simply cannot support the weight of a 650 or so page novel, and it can't do it for a roleplaying game either.  It's nice to have a great setting.  But that can't be the only thing your game brings to the table.  Setting details can be dribbled out slowly here and there when relevant and appropriate, and the setting can become an element that the players (or readers) really love and appreciate.  I think fantasy fans in particular appreciate setting more readily than do fans of other genres.  But they still don't appreciate it so much that they'll give up plot or characters for it.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Social contract at the table

Gaming is an inherently social activity, and as such, there is an implied—if not explicit—social contract between gamers.  Often this boils down to the simple maxim: "Don't be a jerk" but more often there are nuances, and these nuances can often get in the way of smooth operation of the game at the table.

I don't actually recommend explicitly drafting a social contract.  It's a little too... I dunno, it's a red flag for me if there's a need to do so.  But at the same time, it's worth giving some thought to what the elements of that contract are, and what you believe them to be.  Here's a list I found in an old forum post from long ago that lists a number of elements that a social contract—even an implied one—could have.  Hopefully the maxim "Don't be a jerk" already covers many of these, but others of them it does not, and some clear expectations certainly can't hurt.
  • The game system or edition to be played;
  • Supplemental materials that will be employed or specifically ruled out;
  • Explanation of DM-created house rules that will be used;
  • The number of players, and a process for adding new players or "writing out" players who leave the group;
  • Logistics of meeting places, provision of snack foods or meals, or sharing expenses;
  • The expected duration of the campaign;
  • Meeting days/times, session frequency and duration;
  • Attendance expectations, and what happens if a player is chronically absent;
  • Procedures for canceling a session;
  • The overall tone of the game, and expectations that characters will contribute to that atmosphere instead of undermining it;
  • Table conventions, such as how often a person can speak out-of-character or, my personal favorite, the you-said-it-you-did-it clause, for players who try to make everything into a joke;
  • A stance on whether or not player characters may attack each other;
  • Policies about note-passing, whether or not die rolls must be made in plain view, and ethical concerns such as allowing evil player characters;
  • Procedures for handling player-DM disputes; and
  • Rules regarding physical contact between players.
Many times even guys who aren't attempting to be jerks can make a faux pas of some sort or other.  Inviting a friend or relative to game with the group without checking with the GM and the rest of the group, for instance, is one I've seen once or twice.  My current group had an issue where tone expectations clashed.  We have some players who's real life responsibilities make their attendance spotty.  Some of these things can be worked out by reasonable, responsible and mature people as they become issues—certainly that's worked well for me before, but sadly not all gamers are reasonable, responsible or mature.  You shouldn't be gaming with them if they aren't, but sometimes you have to make do with what you have.

Some of the other items, like expected duration of the campaign—well, that doesn't really need to be spelled out, but it can't hurt to have an idea before you start.  It's not necessary, but it's still a good idea.

I'd say my own preferred social contract goes something like the following, with details not included, as yet:

Welcome to the DARK•HERITAGE game!  The game will be run using the m20 system, which can be found online, or I can provide you printouts at our first session.  It's a fairly rules-lite system, which means that GM rulings will be an important part of the game.  We'll play every other week on yadda-yadda day at blah-bitty-blah-blah time.  The m20 session allows for up to ten complete levels of play; once every player has hit tenth level (if not before), the game will start winding down for its eventual conclusion.

As GM, my purpose in bringing this game to you is to entertain you for a few hours every time we meet.  As in any good story, entertainment happens when crappy things happen to the characters, and they have to deal with them.  Keep in mind the tone of this game, which is meant to be swashbuckling and action-packed, but also laced with an element of horror and noir.  Characters aren't expected to be heroes, and the game could be a solid PG-13 at times in terms of content.  Characters may not always get along—just make sure that any conflicts remain between characters and not between players and we should do OK.  Don't identify too much with your characters.  While I may "punish" your characters from time to time, I'm not attempting to punish you in any way, and the intent is to create situations that are interesting and fun to explore.

Please feel free to give me feedback; I want to make sure that I'm providing the best experience possible for you and  your fellow players.  Just keep in mind that the game is, of course, about all of us and we may have different things that we like about gaming.  I'll try and make sure everybody gets their "moment in the spotlight".


Where the various mountain rivers and streams all come together and plunge down a three thousand foot rock wall into the valley that makes up the course of the Palar River is called Ishkur Falls. Right here is where the city of Ishkur--City of the Cliff Dwellings--is located. An ancient city founded before the time of the rise of the Empire, Ishkur grew tremendously under the reign of the Emperors, and stayed important and vibrant after the fall and dissolution of the Empire as well. Ishkur is a city of tens of thousands of people--mostly drylanders and hamazin, which is most notable for being build right on the sheer cliff-face. Never in the history of the world has such a vertical city been seen, where streets are thin and cramped and have only two thin rows on either side of thin, tall buildings. Mounts are very rare, and people are lean from day in and day out having to climb up and down numerous steep stairs, ramps, switchbacks and ladders.

Many of the wealthiest people live right up next to the falls. During the late summer and fall months, when the flow is thin, they have sunny verandas and patios to sit on and enjoy the warmth and gorgeous view. During the spring, when the falls are fueled by melting snowpack from the mountains, the falls are much more powerful, and their verandas and patios are slick with constant mist and water. During the late spring, when the air is warm yet misty and clouded, each weekend is a festival for the wealthy, where they bath nude on their verandas in the mist, then come out in the sun to dry off and warm up. This has given the people of Ishkur a reputation that they don't entirely deserve and is a famous draw for voyeurs of all types.

The Great Rainbow refers to a thick stone bridge that connects the two halves of the city and crosses in front of the waterfall. Far enough out from the main falls to avoid any fears of structural damage, the Rainbow is still very wet most times of the year, and visibility is reduced to only a few feet in some instances.

There's also "Undertown" the "flat" part of the city that has spread across the ground at the foot of the falls. As the massive cliff has become almost completely overbuilt, this is the only way that the city can continue to expand. This is a more unsavory district, as the residences here are not very desirable. Loggers, trappers, and miners house their families here, as well as those who service the river traffic and merchants who are common throughout the city.

Ishkur's economic lifeblood is the river trade with Simashki at the mouth of the Palar river. Because of its location at the base of the Kindattu mountains, Ishkur is where almost all of the raw materials--ore, coal, lumber, furs, and more makes its way downstream. Boats come the other way as well, bringing crops and finished goods back from Simashki. The Simashki and Ishkur alliance is the strongest among all of the successor city-states of Baal Hamazi, and they see themselves as "brother cities" ready to come to each other's defense if necessary at a moment's notice.
That said, there are many factions within Iskhur's political elite, and many of them favor expanding their network of alliances, fearing that over-reliance on a single ally is a risky proposition akin to putting all your eggs in one basket. Few of them advocate breaking off the profitable alliance with Simashki, but it takes all kinds.

DHH - final?

Well, there's the rules. I "hacked" Old School Hack (along with a bit of Redbox Hack and DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND Basic Game--all of which are variations on the same ruleset, basically) into something that I can use for my setting.

For the most part, I went with Kirin's version of the rules--that is, the Old School Hack version, but with Corey's class sheets--minus the ninja classes, which were too specific to his setting to really fit in mine. When I imported Kirin's Fighter and Thief classes back into the mix, I also discovered that Corey had re-used a bunch of talents from the various OSH classes and mixed them up. That meant that I also needed to "remix" some of the talent offerings a bit to make sure I didn't have any duplication (since there's a rule for taking cross-class talents already, I figgered duplication was a Bad Idea™.)

Other than that, where I differed most from Kirin's vision were in two ways--1) I didn't want to emulate any version of D&D (Redbox Hack curiously doesn't feel nearly as much like Redbox D&D as OSH does--which I'm sure was one of Kirin's design goals for modding it into OSH), and 2) I really dislike role-protection, and wasn't interested in following that route. I also didn't catch a few other latent "Old School" isms in the rules, like the way in which stats are rolled and assigned; I didn't follow suit. On accident at first, since like I said, I didn't notice the difference, but now that I've had them pointed out to me, I prefer the way I have it set up anyway.

The "hack" games are a curious artifact in some ways--while in many ways they are meant to be nostalgic and reminiscent of "old skool" D&D gaming, in many ways they're also very modern in the way that they operate--very rules-lite and easy to run (not that Redbox D&D wasn't also relatively pretty rules-lite, but it evolved into something that was not, of course.) Since I feel a bit less nostalgic than many gamers about my early D&D days--y'know, the days that drove me away from D&D and into (eventually) the arms of the Storyteller system with their pretentious approach to gaming--it's natural that what I'd like best about the Hack games are the more modern aspects and what I care quite a bit less about are the more nostalgic elements.

Also, I added a few new elements. They weren't exactly revolutionary, but they were new to the Hack family of games at least--the concept of Race that's separate from class, and the concept of Sanity. I treated Race as mostly a roleplaying hook, but each race has the ability to take a racial talent. This takes the place of a class talent if you choose to take it. You can never take another race's racial talent as a cross-class talent. And, of course, you have to choose to take it in place of one of your class talents, so it's not a freebie talent. And Sanity works very similarly to Health in many ways. It's perhaps a little bit more complicated when you get a "mental scar" but as someone who's had tons of fun in the past with Sanity episodes in Call of Cthulhu games, I think that the minor complicaton addes significantly to the game for those who like that kind of thing. If you don't--well, it's easy enough to ignore.

Only one or two of my talents were newly written by me; so I was more about reorganizing the existing game into something that fits my setting than I was in actually designing stuff.  I don't really consider myself a game designer anyway, and writing mechanics is something that I don't particularly like doing or feel comfortable with much.  But kitbashing existing mechanics into a new form--I'm all over that.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

S is for Glittering Simashki

I'll be adding a fair amount of setting detail over the next little bit, because I've been bulking up the Baal Hamazi section of my wiki in anticipation of a game that will be set in that corner of the setting.  Since it's easy to do so, I'll just cross-post wiki entries here for "free" setting updates.  How's that sound?  Brilliant, right?

The Streets of Simashki

Simashki the "glittering" is one of the more successful city-states to emerge in the post-Imperial Hamazi region. Located on the southern shore of the Indash Salt Sea at the mouth of the Palar River, Indash is a mercantile and naval powerhouse on the sea, as well as a major land power that has pacified much of the Palar river region, opened important ties with it's neighbor Ishkur in the Kindattu Mountains. As well as it's mercantile and military power, Simashki is well known as a region of learning and scholarship, and the sages of the Indashtu University, loosely modeled on the Academy at Razina in the south, are among the most honored and respected academics in the world.

Simashki is also among the most cosmopolitan of the successor states to Baal Hamazi, and the reigning philosophy of its rulers has been that of eschewing the ruinous privilege of the hamazin in favor of a semi-meritocratic state of affairs. Citizens of Simashki include, of course, many drylanders and hamazin, but also include a number of people from farther away--Terrasans, Tarushans, and even Qizmiri and Kurushati scholars, merchants, soldiers and mercenaries. Simashki values its diversity and cosmopolitan take on life, and sees it as its strength.

But the hints of coming problems loom large over the city-state as well. The libertine attitude of its citizens and its rulers means that very little is illegal. Simashki has become a major hotbed of intrigue, smuggling, drug harvesting (and use), revolutionary ideals, and those who don't mind making naked power grabs find that Simashki has much to offer them. Whether its semi bohemian utopian society can survive the inevitable consequence of the laxness of its laws remains to be seen.

In addition, the city is currently home--at least temporarily--to a number of refugees from the north, who bring garbled tales of the rise of Hutran Kutir, reborn in the desert, and angry as all get-out that his empire has come to ruins. In addition to this vague threat, the Untash tribesmen continue to be a thorn in the side of the rulers of Simashki, and as they have grown in numbers and power in recent years, that threat evolves from being somewhat vague into being much more real and urgent. Already caravans attempting to reach Simashki are more and more failing to do so unless they have Untash guides. While many Simash citizens simply say that trade can continue on the river and the sea, that is a short-sighted approach, for the Untash block many of the routes to both as well, and that would enable Simashki only to trade with its nearest neighbors on the coast.

In addition to the land around Simashki itself, the city-state claims the Luhhan Isles, a group of small islands in the Salt Sea. While settlement of the isles is sparse, there is some farming that can occur there without fear of Untash raiders, and the coastal villages also provide a great deal of fish to the city.

Taan Orakhun, the shazada of Simashki, rules. He is an elderly yet sharp-minded drylander, who is most concerned with keeping potential problems at bay until the end of his life. The fact that he is in his seventies and there is no clear successor when he eventually dies is another worry-bead for the elite of Simashki--that is, those that have the sense to be worried instead of seeing it as an opportunity for their own advancement.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Post president's day

I mostly finished by modifications to DHH.  It's a short enough game system that putting it out there on the wiki wasn't hard.  Right here, in fact, you can get the entire game system.

My attempts to get a game off the ground, on the other hand, are moving much more slowly than my attempts to get the rules hammered out. 

I'll keep the blog posted either way.

Monday, February 13, 2012

DHH Guiding principles

I've now spent a fair bit of time looking over the three "hack" documents I have, "Redbox Hack," "Old School Hack" and "Dino-Pirates of Ninja Island: Old School Hack Version."  Curiously, I've found that all of them have things that I prefer to the other two, but none of them alone really completely "does it" quite right for me.

"Dino-pirates Hack" is the closest, but that doesn't completely work either.  Here's a few comments on what I like and don't like about each version.  Or more honestly, in many cases, it's not about what I like or don't like as much as it is about what works for DARK•HERITAGE and what doesn't.

Old School Hack is an ENnie Award winning game, and the first one that I heard of and read.  It's certainly got the best presentation, the best layout, and the tools near the end to facilitate a graphical representation of the arenas and whatnot is really pretty cool.  Curiously, it's also a much better emulation of "Red Box" D&D than Redbox Hack.  Of course, that's also part of where I have problems with it.  It's too D&D.  I don't really like Elf and Dwarf or Goblin as character classes.

I'm also not convinced on the Awesome Point economy and the way it's set up.  I know that it's worked in plenty of playtests, but I don't know that it's been playtested as a campaign vehicle as opposed to a one-shot or shorter game vehicle.  I can also imagine the incentives that it's supposed to engender, but I tend to find those kinds of incentives built right into the games that blatantly come across as kind of corny and gimmicky.  I can imagine leveling up happening way too fast for my taste as well, based on the Awesome point economy the way it's structured.  I prefer Redbox Hack's more traditional "XP" system to a big bowl full of Awesome points that anyone at the table can give to anyone else, and which they have every reason to as often as they can..

Also, I have a dislike of landscape format documents and character sheets.  I don't know why they seem to be more popular these days in pdf format.  I'm a traditionalist there too, I guess, in preferring portrait style layout.

Speaking of which, Redbox Hack eschews fancier layout for clearer text, in my opinion.  I had an easier time following the thread of how the game works in that document.  Despite the shortness of all the documents, I still find my eyes glaze over reading mechanics these days, so that was appreciated.  Kirin's layout on OSH occasionally had me wondering what part of the page I was supposed to go to next, and I felt like just following along with the text was occasionally difficult, because it bounced all over in little boxes and columns and non-traditional page layout that made it a bit hard to follow.  Although it looked really Spartan in comparison, the RBH organization was a lot easier for me.

The implied setting is a bit weird however; anthropomorphic animals being a character class isn't something that I'd likely get behind.  I also thought the attributes in OSH made a bit more sense to me than those in RBH for whatever reason.

Dino-pirates Hack (not its real name) was the one that was closest to what I'm looking for right out of the box.  However, it really wasn't meant to stand alone, and well... it doesn't.  The one-page summary of the rules is nice as a reference, but you couldn't possibly understand how to play just from reading that.

The classes were a lot more likely to be useful to me, although I'd still need to customize them a bit for DARK•HERITAGE before using them.  I also really liked the sample adventuring goals page, which was a nice little addition--not necessary, but quite helpful.

So my hybrid DARK•HERITAGE Hack will feature attributes from OSH, classes mostly from DPH, and advancement and the Awesome point economy mostly from RBH.  I'll add a few tweaks to all of those, especially with regards to advancement.  I also want to inject a bit of roleplaying elements into a game that's not necessarily designed to focus on them--I want to include a Sanity trait, and have a Sanity mechanic that harks back to the classic Cthulhu mechanic of the same name.

I also want to include a small bestiary and a few other tools as part of the game up front; none of the three has that, although there is an online supplementary bestiary for OSH that I could use as a starting point.


Although the name initially quite seriously turned me off, for completely unrelated reasons, I finally got around to checking out my friend Kirin's Creative Commons uber-short game Old School Hack.  And guess what?  I found it quite good.  I also checked out my other friend Corey's adaptation of OSH to his Dino-Pirates which is actually a closer analog to anything I'd be interested in doing with DARK•HERITAGE than the original OSH is.

The system is a good one, I think, for my goal of having a simple, fast and loose system that works well for Pbp (although it's a great party-game system to pick up and run in person too.) 

To that end, I decided that if the whole Red Box Hack was only 23 pages, the original Old School Hack was only about 25, and the Dino-Pirates substitution document was about 10, then I could certainly come up with a DARK•HERITAGE HACK (DHH) without too much trouble and put it out there too.  And with the Creative Commons license, there was no reason that I couldn't.  And because Kirin and Corey are friends of mine anyway, I didn't expect that even without the CCL I'd have any trouble with it.

So, in addition to my ongoing series of FRPG posts about running a non-D&D fantasy game, and my ongoing setting detail posts, I'm also going to have a few posts here and there about my DHH as I work on it, and then, of course, I'll post the completed document here too.

And then I can also have it as another option for rules.  My DHH will probably be more closely based on the DPoNI hack of OSH than on the original OSH itself, which has a more standard D&Dish feel to it in many ways.

Still, go check out Old School Hack, Dino-Pirates Hack, or even the original Red Box Hack for an interesting take on a rules-lite approach to gaming with a focus on being fun and kinda crazy.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Creating a campaign wiki

A campaign brief is a good document, but it's usually not enough by itself, for an ongoing campaign.  What do you do when you want to organize all the information that the PCs have learned and know about the setting over time?  It's important to do--it keeps you straight on details, and the players as well.  If it's formatted and presented in a "friendly" enough layout, it might even be something that your players utilize frequently and even contribute to with their own notes about what's happening and so-on.

My recommendation, and the format that I've used several times to good effect, is to use a wiki.

There are a number of free wiki sites available out there.  I've been involved with wikis on pbwiki, wikispaces, and Obsidian Portal.  I'll put some links in this post later on (although my links page will have many of these already.)  I've only ever used pbwiki as a player in someone else's game (and that wiki is not public, so I can't link to it and have it be something you look at) but it seems pretty comparable to wikispaces.

Does it matter which one you use?  I don't think so.  Obsidian Portal is more overtly gaming focused, so it has a few "tabs" that are useful. I also like some of the layout options there.  However, there's no good sidebar menu option for the wiki.  On the balance, I think I actually prefer wikispaces, but honestly only by a slim margin.  Both options (as well as pbwiki) are free, both can be set up as public of invitation only, and for both you can add all kinds of detail to your setting to your heart's content.

But waitaminute... I didn't say a setting wiki.  I said a campaign wiki.  The Aquerra wiki, a wiki by the guy who sold me on the concept of using wikispaces and wikis for campaign management in general (Osvaldo Ortega--nice guy), is a setting wiki.  If you click on the sidebar menu item Campaigns, you'll see that there have been no fewer than 15 campaigns run in the Aquerra setting, and this wiki is for all of them... as well as other setting material that isn't necesssarily directly relevant to any of the campaigns.  That's a pretty ambitious wiki.  I certainly don't recommend that you start out that way.  However, for long-running campaigns, or settings that have multiple campaigns in them (especially if there's overlap with the players) then you can grow a wiki to be this big.  But I'm going to show you two examples from my own gaming that are much more modest... and which ended up being completely sufficient for my purposes.

The first one is for a finite campaign that finished well, called Demons In the Mist.  This was my first campaign wiki, and it was a rather slap-dash campaign that was literally kinda thrown together as it was being run.  I started with very little material for the setting, and frankly, I didn't necessarily add much to what I started with.  Let's go through the material on the wiki real quick.  Look at the side bar, and we'll follow along, with some discussion, from top to bottom.
  • Home.  This takes you to the main page of the wiki.  Always have this be the first link on the menu, anyone on the wiki can easily get right back to the beginning.  I also recommend, although this is a more recent refinement on my part, that Home page be the campaign brief, or at least a good chunk of it, if it isn't put somewhere else.
  • Places.  This link takes us to a small, simplified map of the area.  This page also has a number of links to other pages that describe some of the small countries and territories throughout the setting.  Note that this isn't big.  I'm not mapping out the entire world here, like a gigantic Forgotten Realms map or anything.  I have a modest map with about ten links on it to some more detail--and some of those were added after the campaign started.  If you follow the links to the individual countries, you'll also find that most of them have little more than a few paragraphs of description.  It's neither necessary, nor even useful (nor is it a good idea period, in my opinion) to give too much detail.  Just enough to give the PCs a flavor for what the region is like.
  • People.  A list of PCs and NPCs, and a link to some info about each.  For NPCs, I certainly don't have character sheets or other mechanical details.  In fact, my players create and wrote most of those pages.
  • Religion.  I included this just because some weirdo mythological like religion is interesting to me as a fantasy setting fan.  This could be religion; you could also have any other details about anything else about the setting that's important or relevant for the players to need to know--Organizations, Goverments, Religion, Customs, Local Music Traditions--whatever you think is important.
  • House Rules.  My game was predicated on being "weird stuff within D&D and not being standard stuff in D&D" so I had to have some specific inclusions and exclusions.. as well as a handful of minor houserules.  This is all on a single page, and prints out to only about half a page.  How many house rules is too many is a discussion for another post, though.
  • Group Spoils.  This was another page created and maintained by the players, just to list interesting stuff that they'd come across.  It wasn't always up to date, but nice idea.
  • Other links.  Pretty much exactly what it sounds like.
As you can see, a pretty modest wiki can get the job done quite well.  Keep in mind that it's a campaign wiki, not a setting wiki; i.e., it's more about the campaign and what happened in game than it is about the setting, and you'll be good to go.

For another successfully used campaign wiki I created a few years ago, check out my Freeport campaign wiki.  In some ways, this is even more sparse than the earlier one (although that's also in part because the campaign was shorter and had fewer people involved.)  Just as another example.  The Jinkies! page was created by a player who wanted to sort and list all the weird clues about weird things that they found out in game.  The premise of that game was sorta like a fantasy version of The Hangover--the PC's started off the game in prison with no memory of the last month or two, and had to gradually uncover what was going on around them.  Because of that, clues were more important than normal, and keeping that sorted out was a helpful addition to the wiki.

In general, I think that's the secret to a successful campaign wiki.  Be fairly light, quick and dirty on setting detail, give your players access to update the wiki, and encourage them to use it in the ways that best fit their needs.  Tracking loot, clues, NPCs, or other campaign notes is more important than trade routes in an out of a city, or detailed lists or shops and taverns.  Create only what you think will be useful in the immediate or near future, and don't spend time or energy going beyond that.  If you do, there's a good chance you'll never finish with the stuff that you actually need to run the game.  You've gotta show some discipline, and you've gotta show some focus.  But if you do, you can create a tool that will keep you and your players engaged with the game on an ongoing basis.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Campaign themes

One advantage to using D&D is that the "story" of D&D is well known.  D&D is fundamentally a game about going into a hole in the ground, facing monsters, killing them, and taking their stuff.  That's not to say that all D&D campaigns resemble that--but let's face it; most do.  And to the extent that they don't, they need explaining away from those expectations in order for them to work.  I would say that this is one of the main reasons why D&D is so easy for people to run--what the game is about, what the PCs are going to likely be doing, and what the implied setting is like--all of that is well-known without you having to say anything.

So, if you're going to run a fantasy game other than D&D, unless it's in a setting that's well known from some other medium, you'll have to communicate that clearly and concisely to your potential players.  Which also means that you'll have to make sure that you have a solid handle on what your game is going to be about.  What's the "story" of your game?  By that, I don't mean that you already know what's going to happen throughout the campaign, of course.  I mean, what is the game about, who are the PCs likely to be, and what are they likely to be doing, in broad terms.

This is especially important in games or settings that are likely to be unfamiliar to your players, since otherwise they won't have any clue as to what kind of characters to envision or what the game is likely to entail.

In one of my campaign briefs for the two potential DARK•HERITAGE games that I wrote up, I wrote that the theme of my game was: "The Black Company and The Godfather meets Sergio Leone and Pirates of the Caribbean. Swashbuckling fantasy action meets investigation and horror. Sword & sorcery on the surface, but just below that, this is Call of Cthulhu. Intrigue and investigation are more important than High Fantasy conventions. This is sword & sorcery noir, with a strong dose of horror and the occult. This particular campaign takes place in the northern area of the setting, which is more like the American Old West would have been if sabertooths and mammoths and all that jazz hadn't gone extinct. Flintlock guns, prides of hungry dire wolves, nihilistic, hidden cults, savage tribesmen amid islands of civilization--the leftovers from a crumbled daemon-touched empire of the past--that's the setting in a nutshell."

Here's another example from some of the preview material Wizards of the Coast gave us for Eberron after it had been selected in the Great Setting Search and before it had been officially released: "The setting offers a traditional fantasy world filled with pulp noir-style action and adventure delivered with cinematic flair. Keith (Baker) described it in his original one-page propasal as being like "Lord of the Rings meets Raiders of the Lost Ark and Maltese Falcon." If you can imagine what your favorite Dungeons & Dragons adventure would be like if it were turned into a hollywood action-adventure block-buster, you've got an idea of the kind of experience your characters will have in Eberron."

That's a great start.  It covers much of what I want to communicate.  In fact, the Eberron one makes mine look a little wordy and repetitive.  But how do you come up with a campaign theme that's strong enough to suggest adventure of the kind you hope to run, as well as communicate to the players what kinds of PCs they should make?  What kind of elements to a good campaign theme should you include?  What needs to be communicated, and what needs to be "held back?"

First off, I think a good campaign theme could and should include the following elements:

1) You should be able to sum it up in just a few sentences.  If it's too complex to fit into a simple paragraph about the length of one of the two samples above, it's too complex period, and needs to be further distilled.  Note, of course, that that doesn't mean that your setting can't be complex.  Just that you need to be able to describe the theme of it fairly quickly.  In fact, not only should you be able to sum it up in a paragraph, but you should be able to sum it up in the opening sentence or two of your paragraph, with the rest just adding a bit more color and detail.  For DARK•HERITAGE, for example, the sentence, "Swashbuckling fantasy action meets investigation and horror," sums it up in a single sentence.  For Eberron, "The setting offers a traditional fantasy world filled with pulp noir-style action and adventure delivered with cinematic flair." does much the same thing.  Curiously (or not) you'll notice some similarities in gross thematic description between my setting and Mr. Baker's.  That's not entirely coincidental--my feeling that Eberron was a great idea that was partly hampered by being too closely tied to D&Diana was one of a couple key inspirational realizations that had me striking out on my own in this direction.  But that's neither here nor there.

Both of those summaries convey to the players what kinds of activities the campaign expects to cover, what kinds of characters it expects to entertain, and it does so in a single sentence.

2) A good way to convey this in another way that will also reach your intended audience is the "Hollywood pitch" idea, which I've talked about before.  Compare your campaign to some properties or concepts or ideas that the players should already be familiar with.  For example, "The Black Company and The Godfather meets Sergio Leone and Pirates of the Caribbean." or Eberron's "Lord of the Rings meets Raiders of the Lost Ark and Maltese Falcon."  Be careful not to compare too many disparate elements, or elements that are not as likely to be as familiar to the players.  Unless your group is made up of a really esoteric and eclectic crowd, for example, "Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment meets James Joyce's Ulysses and ancient Tuareg mythology" isn't likely to be very helpful (nor is that game likely to appeal to many players, but that's neither here nor there.)  Again; the point of this is to convey in simple shorthand what the PCs are likely to be like, what kinds of things they are likely to be doing, and what what kind of tone and feel the game will have.  It's important that any "Hollywood pitch" type comparisons utilize ideas or properties or titles or franchises that have a strong feel of their own.  The Maltese Falcon or The Black Company or Raiders of the Lost Ark or Sergio Leone are famous for their tone and feel, for example, making them better examples than more "wishy-washy" concepts.

This is also your chance to "sell" the game a bit. Try and get your players excited to be playing it.  It doesn't just have to be dry and descriptive; in fact, it shouldn't be.  This is a great example to point out where you think the game will be similar to things that your players (hopefully) already love.

3)  Any other ideas that are helpful without being overly wordy and detailed.  I included a bit about sabertooths and mammoths, for example, just because it was easy to say and conveyed a great deal of information--exotic and dangerous animal life and wilderness exploration is an important part of the game; it's not just urban intrigue or whatever.

Monday, February 06, 2012

What happened to the Eberron novels?

Although I'm always skeptical of D&D or other property tie-in novels, hope always springs eternal, and I'm always interested in following what's going on with D&D novels.  Eberron, as a setting that hit several notes that I myself was interested in as a gamer and fantasy fan in general, was one that I liked better than most--certainly better than the endless tread of Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms novels, most of which I'm politely disinterested in.

However, I was just at Barnes & Noble recently (picked up two Arkham Horror novels--how's that for straying into new tie-in territory?) and was quite curious to note that there were absolutely no Eberron novels on the shelf anymore.  There were a lot of Forgotten Realms ones.  There were a lot of Dragonlance ones.  There were a few D&D generic ones (the "points of light" setting.)  There were a number of other books here and there based on other properties.  Black Library and Star Wars had a lot of shelf space, unsurprisingly.

But Eberron was completely gone.  MIA.  No explanation that I can find.

Did the Eberron novel line get cancelled?  I don't think a new Eberron novel has come out for quite a while.  Has the setting been benched and put in mothballs?

Is anyone who knows anything about this likely to come across this blog post? (No.)  Still, I ask it anyway.  Of all the WotC novel lines, that was the one I was most interested in seeing, and the Eberron novels that I've read tended to be amongst the better D&D novels in general (not counting The Crimson Talisman.  That book was pretty terrible.)

Friday, February 03, 2012

New sample campaign brief

Well, a little bit unexpectedly, I was asked by an old friend who now lives out of town if I would be interested in "getting the band back together" and running a game online for a variety of now widely scattered friends.  I've done a few online games before, and while they are a challenge in some ways, I've had some success with them.  And with widely separated geography, it's the only way that it would work for us anyway, so it's that or nothing.  He's also run some successful online games himself, but professes to not have time for it currently, so naturally, suspicion fell to me as the next most likely culprit.  I actually think I'll do it.

I don't want to use the campaign brief I just submitted, though, because it's a little bit too similar to another game I already ran for them in a Freeport game, and I want to branch out into slightly different territory.  For this campaign brief, I'm just going to do it as a blog post--actually, below this section of this post--and then cut and paste the same material as a homepage on my campaign wiki.  Campaign what, you may ask?  I'm a huge fan of campaign wikis.  In fact, it was my intention to try and make my second FRPG post of the week about campaign wikis specifically.  Looks like it'll be first up next week.  My weekend's too busy this week to count on it getting done.

Because I've been maundering about with this DARK•HERITAGE setting for so long, naturally I'm itching to make it part of the game.  Since I've already run Freeport for them, Porto Liure seemed a little too familiar.  Instead, I'm going to set the game up north in Hamazi.  Naturally, since Hawaii 5-0 is one of my favorite shows on TV right now, I'm going to name my campaign HAMAZI 5-O and go for the pun.

Now, I've only done some somewhat limited development of that area, although I clearly see it as "core" to the setting, as opposed to some areas that are more "fringe" and may not get developed with any detail anytime soon (if at all.)  So, I've got my work cut out for me a little bit in terms of having something ready to run the game in as a setting.  Fortuitously, I was at the point in my ethnicities of DARK•HERITAGE series that I needed to cover the ethnicities of the Hamazi region (see last post.)

Other than that, what else do I know about the Hamazi region?  Well, Baal Hamazi is kinda sorta my analog to the Points of Light setting fallen empire of Bael Turath.  So, it's the home of the hamazin, which are kinda sorta my analog to tieflings (although frankly, I was more inspired by Darth Maul and the X-men's Nightcrawler than I was by D&D tieflings when I envisioned them.)  It's also the area that I see as my analog to the lost, great American west--its mountains are like the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, and it's vast deserts are like scenery I've enjoyed in the Colorado Plateau (Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, the Grand Canyon, etc.) or other scenic desert areas of the American southwest (Big Bend National Park, Saguaro National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, etc.)  It's crawling with critters that used to live there during the Ice Age... but keep in mind that even during the Ice Age, the southwest had pretty mild weather.  Big lakes like Lake Bonneville or Lake Lahontan covered vast stretches of the land, the puny, shrivelled remains of which are the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake today.  Columbian mammoths, sabertooths, giant American lions, dire wolves, giant long-horned bison in vast herds, two types of native horse/zebra relative and several types of giant sloths to name just a few of the now extinct animals that wandered the land in those days... and therefore wander my setting too.  The very land around them and most of what lives on it is hostile. 

Typical Hamazi countryside
Tribes of hostile natives, dangerous human-sacrificing cults and more make up the dangers that you can expect once you leave one of the several city-states that vie for recognition of the mantle of fallen Baal Hamazi.  The city-states themselves are--naturally--wretched hives of scum and villainy.  Even glittering Simashki itself.  A leader claiming to be Hutran Kutir, the First Hamazin, is building an army in the northwest, and has already taken over two city-states in his march towards the area the player characters will be starting the game.  Politics and intrigue will feature prominantly.  The Cherskii Mafia is more "pure" here--less an organized crime group and more an organized terrorist/revolutionary group, raising the next generation of super-soldier hamazins to rebuild the empire. 

To the south of Hamazi are the northernmost extensions of Terrasan culture, and the east are the Forbidden Lands--overtly Lovecraftian areas of the map.  (Although I haven't posted it yet, because it's hand drawn on posterboard and trying to turn it digital has so far been more difficult than I hoped, I do actually have the entire setting fairly completely mapped out.)

Anyway, without further ado, here's the new campaign brief:

Campaign Brief -- Feb, 2012

Campaign Themes
The Black Company and The Godfather meets Sergio Leone and Pirates of the Caribbean.  Swashbuckling fantasy action meets investigation and horror.  Sword & sorcery on the surface, but just below that, this is Call of Cthulhu. Intrigue and investigation are more important than High Fantasy conventions.  This is sword & sorcery noir, with a strong dose of horror and the occult.  This particular campaign takes place in the northern area of the setting, which is more like the American Old West would have been if sabertooths and mammoths and all that jazz hadn't gone extinct.  Flintlock guns, prides of hungry dire wolves, nihilistic, hidden cults, savage tribesmen amid islands of civilization--the leftovers from a crumbled daemon-touched empire of the past--that's the setting in a nutshell.

Character Creation
Southern humans come in a Mediterranean-type look and feel.  Characters with names that sound Spanish or Italian sound like locals to that area.  Characters who sound like northerners (Viking or Slavic names) are also not unheard of, and characters with an Arabic or Persian name are immigrants, traders and pirates who come from the east.  The local humans, on the other hand, the former underclass in the hellspawn empire, are usually bronzed, with dark brown hair and brown, green or blue eyes.  Like the famous National Geographic afghan girl, if you will.  Their names sound like ancient Middle-eastern names.  In addition to those three broad human culture types, there are a few non-human races that are known in the area, including:
  • Hellspawn, or hamazin.  From the far northern deserts and canyonlands, beyond the sea shores, come the daemon-touched hamazin.  With soot-black or gray skin, dark hair, and a small “crown” of 3-4 inch horns around their heads, their physical appearance is unmistakable.  This is the land where their empire used to stand.  Many of them welcome the newer, more open present, while others pine or plot in bitterness to return to a role of privileged caste.
  • Jann come from the eastern nation of Qizmir, which they founded recently after conquering the kingdoms and hamlets of simple fishermen and farmers who lived in the east.  Claiming that their distant ancestors come from the fabled City of Brass in ancient times before blending with the mortals of this world, the jann have an exotic look to them—brick red skin, pale wispy hair that often resembles a dancing flame, and shining golden eyes like a lion or wolf.  Most of the jann in this area will be exiles or adventurers not well integrated into Qizmiri society, but traders, merchants and diplomats are also not an uncommon sight.
  • Wildmen are people touched with a watered-down and “acceptable” form of lycanthropy.  As the potency of the moon faded in their blood over generations, the wildmen started incorporating more into society.  Their heritage is still evident in their physical forms, however—browned hirsute skin, sharp teeth and small claws, sharp eyes and ears, often hunched posture, as if their loping walk is unnatural and they yearn to drop to all fours.  Many wildmen remain close to nature, and are consummate trackers, scouts and trappers, but increasingly they also serve as muscle for the Cherskii mafia.
Don’t worry about needing to come up with a “balanced party.”  It’s my responsibility to serve up a game appropriate for the characters I have, not the other way around.  The game doesn't have levels, or really much in the way of mechanics per se, but when creating your character, try to think of them as equivalent to a lowish level D&D character in terms of general competency.

The Window.  The game is available 100% for free online, and it has very little in the way of mechanics, which should help it to run more smoothly online, without me having to stop and handle mechanical issues.  The context around which the mechanics are written is bizarrely pretentious, but ignore that and just pay attention to the rules.  Amongst the optional rulesets, the Sanity and Luck ones will be required traits; Magic is optional.  Keep in mind, though, that this is much more influenced by sword & sorcery and dark fantasy than high fantasy; more Call of Cthulhu than D&D.  If you decide to take a magic trait, well expect your character to pay for it in all kinds of fascinating and devastating ways.

People in DARK•HERITAGE are more likely to be superstitious rather than overtly religious.  There are a number of gods and divinities recognized, and it’s important to propitiate them rather than worship them—they don’t care for mortals except to ensure that they give them the proper respect.  The important deities are the Four Horsemen, Ciernavo the Black Pharaoh (conquerer), Peronte the Thunderer (war), Culsans the Miser (famine) and Caronte, the King in Yellow (death).  Other divinities include Istaria, famous for her temple prostitutes, Cathulo, a god sleeping at the bottom of the sea, Susnacco, the ultimate traveler, Selvans, the god of the wilderness, and Moloch, a god of fire and the sun.  A few other gods exist, although propitiation or worship of them is strictly forbidden by law: Demogorgon, a primal god of the earth, Huudrazai, the blind, idiot stargod, and Yaji Ash-Shuthath, known as The Gate, who’s worship leads to nothing but insanity.  The hamazin in particular honor Ciernavo as their patron, and he looks like the prototype for their race.

Local Detail:
The campaign will start out in the cosmopolitan throng of glittering Simashki, on the southern shore of the Indash Salt Sea, a vast body of water comparable to Lake Bonneville.  The Palar River enters the sea at Simashki, and river traffic from Simashki's ally, the city-state of Ishkur further upstream is a constant.  The dangerous and unpredictable clans of the Untash tribes wander the Shutruk savannas to the south.  Other city-states, each with their own philosophy on how to pick up the pieces of fallen Baal Hamazi, dot the Hamazi area as well.  Lately, refugees from the north have come by land and by water into Simashki, telling disturbing tales of Hutran Kutir, the semi-mythical founder of the Baal Hamazi empire itself, reborn and conquering his empire anew.  These rumors are to date very vague, and exactly what's going on in the north is anyone's guess--and everyone's speculation.  There are not yet so many refugees that Simashki is strained for resources, but the inns and streets are fuller than normal, and the sense of desperation is more palpable than normal.

Simashki is--like every city in any campaign I ever run--a wretched hive of scum and villainy.  Corrupt leaders, organized crime, dangerous cults, spies from other states--all are common in Simashki.  The shazada of Simashki, Taan Orakhun, has taken you into his confidence (kinda) and tasked you to be his secret problem-solving team.  Operating with little oversight and total deniability, you're often on your own with little direction from your nominal "boss" who keeps you well supplied with a generous stipend and small house to use as a base from which to operate in the city.  As such, you're the 5-O in Hamazi.

NPCs of Note (not meant to be a comprehensive list of everyone you know of in the city)
  • Taan Orakhun - the shazada.  The leader of the city-state of Simashki.  An elderly man who employs you, but you've only met him once, and he was distracted and patronizing.  You're not exactly sure what he wanted to engage you for, since his goals other than "keep an eye out for problems and solve them quietly" have not been well defined to you.
  • Tarana Matlat - a matronly hamazin woman with gray hair, a ready smile, and kindly gray eyes.  She's a ruthless crime boss who lives in the building across the street from you.
  • Holmgaut Savinkov - a butcher and meat-packer, who also runs a small restaurant with fresh meat on all items on the menu who lives near you.  He's a huge, middle-aged iron-haired southerner.  His sons Leonid and Sigulf, as well as his daughters (he has five) do most of the work now, and Holmgaut tries to get out of town as much as possible to hunt his own meat.  He's got a nearly encyclopedia-like knowledge of the local area for about a 15-20 mile radius.
  • Gia Azizaj - one of the least bestial-featured and most beautiful wildman women you've ever seen.  She's a bit of a local celebrity--famous for being famous, mostly, since her accomplishments that you know of are very small--who seems to be very well connected with the social elite.  
  • Lavinia Castracani - a minor bureaucrat from the far south on Taan Orakhun's staff.  At least, that's her cover.  In reality, she's his secret chief of staff and problem solver.  She's also your main contact and patroness, since the shazada himself keeps himself at arm's length.  Or further.
  • Gusztav Manyoki - a Tarushan "gypsy" who's quit his wandering days and set up shop in a permanently parked (because its axles are broken) colorful wagon near the smaller city cemetery.  He's also got a reputation with "those in the know" as an expert consultant on the occult and arcane, although nobody seems to have ever witnessed him perform any sorcery of his own.  He's very quiet about his past, and it's assumed that he had some kind of run-in with the vampire overlords of Tarush Noptii.
  • The Prophet - this nameless elderly Untash tribesman used to be seen as a fraud; his time preaching in the streets merely  a cover for his real work as a fence for stolen goods.  However, disconcertingly, suddenly his "prophecies" have started coming true with alarming regularity.  And now he hasn't been seen by anyone in a few days.

Ethnicity in Dark•Heritage, part 4

Continuing the series describing race and cultures in the DARK•HERITAGE setting; this is the second to last update, and the last one that details human cultures.  The next update will discuss the non-human ethnicities.

The four ethnicities described here are all native to the Hamazi region; both within the old borders of the shattered Baal Hamazi empire itself, and much of the wilderness that surrounded it.  While originally there were many separate ethnicities with very distinct differences between them, that began to change during the years of the Baal Hamazi empire.  The various tribes and clans are now divided into three major branches, but they are not nations, merely vague cultural units.  Interaction and intermarrying is common between the various tribes, as is the taking of slaves.  The tribesmen show a high degree of social permeability, which means disaffected settled former Hamazi citizens often leave their homes and join them too.

Despite that, it is still possible to see four vague divisions amongst the inhabitants of the Hamazi region; the Untash tribes, the Haltash tribes, the Tazitta tribes, and the settled drylanders who eschew tribal life and try to regain or retain their civilized imperial lifestyle to some extent.

Haltash warriors
• The Haltash tribes are on the extreme southwestern fringe of the Hamazi area.  As such, they are in many ways the least "diluted" from their original state by having mixed with the other ethnic groups.  Many of them, especially on the far southern and western fringe, still maintain a very distinct physical appearance.  Of course, many of them have spread throughout Hamazi as independent mercenaries, or as slaves.  Women slaves of Haltash descent have also contributed to many mixed birth children who, in many cases, are now full fledged tribal members of other tribes, greatly enriching the ethnic diversity of the more central regions.  There are also rumors, and many Haltash tribesmen believe this, that a large number of their brethren crossed to the south through the Vajol downs and contributed to the ethnic mix of Calça as well.

The Haltash are the least nomadic of the tribes, and tend to set up shop on fortified hillsides.  Many of their younger warriors still range widely, herding lean longhorn cattle (who roam feral through much of their area), hunting deer, pronghorn and bison, and otherwise providing for the tribes, but the elderly, young, and the caregivers of such live settled lives, gardening and gathering and trapping.  In some ways, this makes them more vulnerable to raiding, but their fortified hillforts also tend to be well maintained and difficult to sack, especially by mounted raiders without any siege equipment.

The Haltash are frequently blond or brown-haired, with fairer skin than their neighbors, and frequently with blue or green eyes.  They are tall and robust.  Their manners of dress and appearance are often quite esoteric and individualized.

Bison from present-day America (left) next to long-horned bison of Hamazi
• The Untash tribesmen occupy a vast central heartland of Hamazi, and surround the settlements and cities of the drylanders like a hostile sea.  They are not seamen, though, so they are effectively split by the gigantic Indash Salt Sea.  They also avoid the marshes, and therefore are only able to maintain some degree of connection by utilizing the broad valley between the Kindattu Mountains and the Salt Sea.  The strong patrols of Simashki and Tahrah as well as the two difficult river crossings ensure that this connection is but a trickle.  Some Untash tribesmen actually live within the mountains and valleys, but mostly there are northern Untash of the canyonland plateau and southern Untash of the Shutruk savanas.  More recently, these southern Untash have spread even further east in the wake of the fall of Baal Hamazi, and now roam the badlands to the east of the savanas as well.  Highly nomadic, the Untash have few permanent settlements, but move with vast herds of horses, and survive by hunting, especially the gigantic long-horned bison.  They set up temporary shelters made from long sticks and bison hides called tipis for which they are famous.  The Untash are notorious amongst the other inhabitants of the area as superlative warriors, due to their perfection of hit and run tactics.  The best horsemen the world has yet seen, Untash warriors have been observed dropping to one side of their horses and releasing up to six arrows under its neck before the first arrow even lands.  After releasing this deadly volley, the warriors will retreat, then come in again until the enemy is destroyed.  While many decry these tactics as cowardly (especially amongst the Haltash, who value strength in hand to hand combat) they are incredibly effective, and the Untash do not suffer significant defeats militarily.  All of their neighbors live in fear of their raiding parties, which can range for hundreds of miles easily, and which leave no survivors.  Men are tortured and killed, women gang-raped and then either killed or enslaved, and young children dragged behind horses until dead.  Only the slightly older children are kept alive as slaves, or more rarely, adopted into the clans.

Tall and rangy in build, the Untash have coppery skin, long, straight dark hair, and glittering black eyes.  Their beards--when they have them--are sparse and thin, although braided or adorned moustaches are not uncommon.  They tend to dress in natural, undyed bison buckskins.

Although some trade and other relations exist between northern and southern Untash (with the new eastern Untash forming a recently separated group from the southerners), Untash tribesmen are often as likely to fall upon each other with violence as they are anyone else they encounter.  While their raiders are rightly feared, when encountered on their own lands by small groups, they can be friendly and hospitable.  Many Untash clans have also actively encouraged trade across their lands, offering protection and guides to caravans for a price, of course.  In most cases this is little more than a protection shakedown racket, but they do provide a valuable service, and a caravan with a few Untash guides and warriors is very unlikely to be attacked by another clan, and the guides provide valuable knowledge of the lands through which the caravan must pass.

Untash and Tazitta clash
• The Tazitta tribes live in a vertical "chimney" between the Dagan mountains to the east and the Salt Sea to the west.  They are separated from the northern Untash by the Indattu River, which is difficult to cross, but they are not separated from the southern Untash at all, and the two cultures clash with regularity.  Tazitta braves often volunteer to serve as scouts or warriors to settled drylanders if there is a chance that they will get to encounter and kill any Untash.  The Tazitta have a similar physical appearance to the Untash and the drylanders, although in the core of their heartland, many of them are actually darker skinned than the other tribes, and their hair is less likely to be straight, with wavey or even occasionally kinky-curly hair.

The most notable feature of Tazitta culture are their death-cults, which I won't reiterate again here.  Because their land is very rocky and hilly, it is more difficult for fast-moving horse warfare, and the Tazitta do not have a similar culture of horsemanship as the Untash.  This is not to say that the Tazitta do not domesticate horses of course, merely that their tradition of horse warfare is considerably less advanced than the Untash.  This puts them at a significant disadvantage when clashing in open territory, and the Tazitta's best defense has often been to retreat to terrain more favorable to them, where they can ambush unwanted Untash raiding parties.

Drylander girl
• Drylanders are the settled inhabitants of Hamazi.  For the most part, they are descendents of the many humans who made up the vast underclass of the Baal Hamazi empire.  While their own ancestors lived in tribes and clans, not unlike the Untash, Haltash and Tazitta groups today, most drylanders have lived a settled lifestyle for so many generations that even their tribal names and affiliations are long-forgotten..  There is little to differentiate the drylanders from the tribesmen physically or genetically--in fact, some estimates have the current population of tribesmen at nearly 50% descended from drylanders "gone native."  Mostly, although not exclusively, the drylanders have bronze skin and darkish brown (but not black) hair.  Many of them also have dark eyes, but striking blues and greens are not at all uncommon either.

Most of the drylanders live in cities, not unlike the Terrasans in terms of the "highness" of their culture and civilization.  This was the direct result of Hutran Kutir, the First Hamazin, who according to the scholars of Simashki brought back building techniques and urban planning from ancient Tarush Noptii, possibly with a vampiric advisor in tow.  Hutran Kutir's empire gradually favored the hamazin over the drylanders, so drylanders today have both an uncomfortable legacy of servitude and lower-class status, as well as a rebellious streak as in various ways in various successor city-states, they have attempted to put that legacy behind them and move foward.  In some cases that meant abandoning the settled life and joining one of the three remaining tribal groups to "live as their ancestors did" before the Empire, but in most cases, it means charting their own destinies as new states.  Many drylanders have also fled the chaos of Hamazi, and expatriates are not uncommon in the lands of the Terrasans

The streets of Simashki
 But Drylanders are also proud of their own accomplishments.  Simashki, they say, is the equal to any southern city, and it is a specifically drylander accomplishment, since it was a rather sleepy fishing village during the Imperial times.

However, other cities are also grand of architecture and culture, and their citizens are rightly proud of them as well--Tahrah, Baal Ngirsu, Nishur, Baal Hishutash, Ishkur, Shushun, Pnakot, Isin and others.

In some of these city-states, hamazin still retain most positions of authority and power, and in all of them, hamazin are an important (although not majority) part of the population.  The relationship between the drylanders and the hamazin varies greatly from region to region within Hamazi, and from individual to individual.  Many drylanders hate them for centuries of oppression of their ancestors, many hate them for percieved oppression now, and in some cases the hamazin themselves are now oppressed minorities, in a reversal from the historic past.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Writing an effective campaign brief

One of the sad facts of being a homebrew gamemaster of a fantasy or other setting is that your players will never care about your lovingly crafted world as much as you do.  Yes, it's true.  Those same players may have read dozens of books on Forgotten Realms, Star Wars, or the "Dresdenverse" and can create characters that know more about the setting than you do, but for your homebrew, that will never be the case.

It's important, of course, to communicate some setting detail to the players--stuff that they need to know to make appropriate characters, and play an effective game--but it's easy to overdo it and start loading them up with details that they don't need.  And that's a great way to lose them, frankly.  If you make playing the game turn into actual work for them, then they won't do it. 

So for today, I'm going to discuss for a bit how to put together an effective campaign brief; a very small document that you can give to prospective players before the game and have a reasonable expectation that they'll read it, understand it, and come prepared and excited to play.

To be fair, I don't always prepare a "formal" campaign brief.  Several times in the last few years, I whipped up quick and dirty wikis, or sent a series of shorter emails.  The effect was, however, pretty much the same.  For this example, I'm going to write up a sample DARK•HERITAGE campaign brief as an actual document and attach a link at the bottom of this post so you can see one that's better organized and a bit more formalized, though.

Here's a few tips on how to make one that's effective:
  • Make it short.  Like I said, if it's actual work to figure your setting out, then the players won't do it.  3-4 pages is an absolute maximum in terms of size, I think, and 2 is better.  It needs to be sufficiently small as to not intimidate the players, and be inviting to read!
  • Make it relevent.  If your setting is--to use a familiar example--a fantasy version of medieval England, then it's not impossible that a character who is a samurai from feudal Japan could show up, but it sure as heck is unlikely.  Therefore, don't talk about Japan!  Talk about the region of medieval England where characters are likely to be from.  It's nice to give players some info on places where their characters might be from, but there's no point talking about things that they don't need to know.  In general, broad historical, economical, ethnological or political information is much less relevent to PCs--especially at the beginning of a campaign--as are more prosaic details like what are some local places and people that they will likely start out the game knowing.
  • Make it limited.  While this sounds counter-intuitive to many GMs, it's actually great advice, and a bit of a riff off of Ray Winninger's DungeonCraft advice.  Don't give the players all the options that you can potentially envision.  It's OK to say, "look, the campaign is going to take place in medieval England.  Your characters will be English."  Just don't mention the Japanese at all.  A good friend of mine once ran a D&D campaign where the starting characters could only choose from three classes and one race (human) with really only one culture that they knew of and could make characters from.  Is that really restrictive?  Yeah, maybe, but by the same token--it's OK too.  Don't go out of your way to make big lists of options.  Just keep it to relatively short, quick, well-organized highlights.
  • Make it flexible.  On the other hand, don't get too proscriptive.  Leave some wiggle room for your players to exercise some creativity on their own, and unless they're really off-track, let them have their way.  And if your campaign brief is effective, then they shouldn't be really off-track anyway.
  • Make it simple.  Don't start getting carried away throwing in esoteric terms from your campaign, names that the players won't recognize and other details that are only going to confuse your players without a setting specific glossary to consult.  You aren't writing an ethnologue, just a quick guide for players that should serve as a tool for them to engage with the setting.
Here's my conception of elements that a campaign brief should have.  There's some leeway in how much information to include here, of course, but most of these items should at least be addressed somewhat, even if it's only a sentence or two.
  • Theme and tone.  If your game is going to play more like a horror game than like a traditional fantasy game, as DARK•HERITAGE does, then it's important to include that right up front on your campaign brief.  Set the tone and establish what the games going to be like first off.  Highlight anything that may be different than what your players would otherwise expect, to make sure that there aren't any misunderstandings later down the line.
  • Character creation.  Many--maybe even most--of my D&D campaign setting books, start off by talking about setting specific rules and guidelines for creating characters.  This is, after all, the first thing that a player needs to know how to do, as well as one of the most important.  I agree with adding a section covering this facet of the game next, but with some cautions.  Most of those campaign settings start off very dry and dusty--a bunch of mechanics right off the bat does not make for good reading.  My suggestion is to include some prose discussion of what players need to know to make characters, and then refer to houserules, but keep them part of a separate document.  If you have custom races that they can select, don't include all the detail for them here--a quick three or four sentence summary of what the race is about is fine.  But have the houserules document with the custom race on it ready to go.  Include a link.  Let it be a pull type information exchange, not a push type.  If the players don't want to play that race, then they don't need to go read the mechanics for it.
  • House rules and systems.  Anything that will have a major impact on how the game plays should be mentioned here.  If your houserules are extensive and detailed, then you don't want to literally include them here, just refer to them, as I mentioned in the dot-point above.  Make sure that the fact that houserules exist and are important is front and center.
  • Religions and beliefs.  While in a non-D&D fantasy setting, there may not be clerics, or other types of characters that need to know about the divine, it's still a common enough and important enough factor in both fantasy worlds and the real world that making at least some mention of religions and divinity in the setting is probably important.  If you don't, your players will almost certainly ask about it.  Or at least wonder.
  • Local detail.  Really, probably the bulk of the document--at least half of it--should be made up of local detail.  Where does the game start?  What kind of community is it?  Who are important NPCs that they should know?  What are some important local points of interest?  How about organizations that they may interact with in the first few sessions?  Resist the impulse to turn this into a detailed guide, but put some info here.  This is the players' first chance to start engaging with the setting.  Make sure that this local detail is relevent.  A local farmer might be an important person to a village, but what does he offer to PCs?  Unless they plan on buying horses or vegetables from him, probaby not much.  A well traveled former courtesan who's retired to the countryside, on the other hand, could have important information to impart about the movers and shakers in the kingdom, or a crotchety old town drunk who, when plied with moonshine, can tell you secrets that the rest of the community wants to keep hidden has obvious use to the PCs.
And with that, here's my sample campaign brief for DARK•HERITAGE.