As a general rule, Ben and I have tended to stay platform-neutral in our posts. We’re less interested in what rules people use for their campaigns and more interested in how they craft them. I do, however, believe that certain rules systems constrict or expand the options available to players and GMs in ways that subtly influence the choices they make. I especially feel like this happens in game systems where the rules are tightly interwoven with the setting.
The Sapir-Whorf Theory of Game Systems
The Sapir-Whorf theory in linguistics, or at least the way that it has come to be popularly understood, is that language is the framework of thought, and that if a language lacks a word for a concept, it is more difficult for someone who thinks in that language to conceive and manipulate that concept. Similarly, if a language has numerous words with subtle distinctions for a similar idea, then a speaker/thinker of that language will be more adept at using that concept. The common (though unfortunately untrue) adage for this is “eskimos have thirty words for snow.” The implication is that different types of snow matter for them, and that their expanded vocabulary on the topic gives them the ability to speak (and therefore think) very quickly and precisely about complicated snow-related topics.
The flip side of this is the isolated tribe with no word for war. They don’t have the word because they don’t have the concept. This doesn’t mean that they couldn’t invent or come up with the concept. If they have an idea of two people fighting, or 5 people fighting, it is possible to envision five thousand people fighting. They could probably also come up with the idea of strategy, of feints and ambushes and flanking. But because they lack words for these things, they would speak and think about them cumbersomely. This is why people use jargon – it speeds and simplifies the ability to discuss complicated concepts. As their language expands to include new concepts, their ability to use those concepts also expands.
Like language is the framework of thought, game systems are the framework of the play experience; which one a group chooses to use can similarly empower or impede them.
Wizards Can’t Use Swords*
The most common place where we see this limiting effect is in the character generating process. Many game systems, particularly the ones that are tied to a specific setting, start by having the player select a few broad characteristics for their character. In Dungeons & Dragons, this is your character’s race and class. In Vampire, it’s their clan. In Shadowrun, it’s their race and archetype. You get the idea. Then, having selected these things, the character is granted certain strengths and weaknesses, and a pool of skills to choose from.
This is a common practice because it works. For one, it significantly speeds up the character creation process. It also does a good job of balancing the power levels of different players, preventing Scotty McMinmaxer from making a character with a grab bag of the most powerful skills from each class. Lastly, it ensures that the characters will have skills and abilities that are useful in most campaigns in that setting. These archetypes are tried and true, and there are good reasons to lead people towards them.
This sort of approach, however, can be stifling to creativity when it comes to character creation. It leads, perhaps even encourages, players to start their character concept by saying “I want to play a Dwarven Illusionist,” rather than “I want to play a character with a tragic past and a mean streak.” In a dungeon-crawling hack-and-slash campaign, it might be rewarding to play an archaeologist (that happens to know magic or swordplay or whatever) who studies ancient ruins and marvels at the architecture while the other players loot the treasure. But that occupation doesn’t show up on the list of classes, so people are unlikely consider it as an option.
I Don’t Have a Chapter Here for Spaceships
So let’s say that you are a new GM and your game group wants to play a campaign in a fantasy/space opera/cyberpunk/modern day setting. So you go to the store and you buy a system that is customized for such a setting. After a few sessions, you and your players have figured out the rules. After a few sessions, your players have decided what sort of characters they like. And by the end of that campaign, you’ve probably found your style as a GM.
Everyone had a good time, so it’s time to play the next campaign. What are you going to play? Chances are, it will be another campaign in the same milieu as the first. There are are a couple of reasons for this: Firstly, your players were interested in that milieu to begin with, and they had a good time, so it’s not shocking that they might want to do it again. The other reason isn’t quite as positive. For the vast majority of gamers, learning the rules is not the fun part, it’s the thing that you have to do to get to the fun part. So once they’ve learned a particular set of rules, they’re going to be averse to learning another one. If that set of rules is tightly coupled to a particular setting or genre, then that implicitly limits the group to playing that type of game.
When the group gets bored with their current genre and wants to try something new, they then have to learn another set of rules, and it is easy for people to associate the discomfort and disjointed play of learning new rules with the setting. In my opinion, this is why it is so common to hear somebody say “Yeah, I’ve been playing [setting-specific game system X] for years. I tried [other game system Y] once, but I just didn’t like it.”
Roll a d….26?
The other problem with world-based systems is that they tend to be opaque systems. This is to say that they are optimized for making setting-specific tasks easy and flavorful, and not for letting GMs see how the sausage was made. There might be one set of rules for casting a spell, and a completely different set of rules for picking locks or shooting a gun, for instance. The problem is that, inevitably, the GM will be faced with a situation that the rules just don’t cover. In a system with a consistent and transparent set of rules for all/most situations, this isn’t so hard. You come up with some sort of skill or default and an appropriate penalty, and you move on. In opaque systems, this is more difficult. At the core, the process is the same — the GM is deciding some way to handle it that is slightly outside the rules as written. They are using judgment to decide how hard that thing should be, and they’re making a call as to how to handle it. The problem is that if it takes too long it breaks the player experience.
Part of the reason that those first few session with a new rules system are so annoying is that the rules get in the way of getting immersed in the play experience. When both the GM and the players are well-acquainted with the rules, they become natural and secondhand. They fade into the background and people cease to really think about them. Whenever the GM has to bust out the rule book and figure out how something works (otherwise known as every time that grappling occurs), the immersion is broken, and people are reminded that they are sitting around a table playing a game. If the GM can say, “I don’t have anything for that. Uh…Roll skill and skill.” that’s not too disruptive. If, however, he has to pause the action to debate which of several disparate special-case rules to model his spur-of-the-moment house rule on, it’s going to be impossible for the players to stay in the flow.
Opaque systems also make custom character traits more difficult. If your game system makes characters pay points for skills or abilities, or awards them benefits for taking on disadvantages, it is common for a player to want a skill or attribute that isn’t listed in the book. Generic systems, because they have to be flexible to handle any sort of situation, usually provide guidelines for how to create new character attributes and cost them in a balanced way. World-based systems, which are optimized for a particular setting, streamline the process by obfuscating how things are costed. This makes life slightly more difficult for the GM, and can lead to good ideas being left unused because they’re not in the book.
Generic Systems are Hard
So if world-based systems are so constricting, why do people use them? Because they’re quick, and they’re easy. A system of rules that can accommodate combat using any sort of weapon from any time period is going to be more complex than one that only worries about swords and bows. Creating characters is faster and easier if the book can guide you through the process and give you a small set of options to choose from. My GMing style lends itself to discrete campaigns with a beginning and ending, and I like to change the setting dramatically from one campaign to the next to keep things fresh. I also really enjoy non-traditional characters. I think that it is more rewarding for the player to invent a character that intrigues them in a setting and then figure out how to make it work than it is to hand them a list of occupations to choose from. So for me, the extra investment of learning a generic system is well worth it. I wouldn’t judge someone for limiting their options by playing a setting-specific system as long as it is meeting their needs. As always, the important thing is to make sure that you and your players are having as much fun as possible.
My current campaign, Kjemmen, is drawing near completion. As such, I’ve been talking more and more with Stewart about the next one, which will be set in the Firefly universe. One of the players who’s slated to join us for that one has been pretty proactive in wanting to talk about his character, etc. We’d been talking over one detail of his character that just wasn’t fitting right. It has to do with a secret, so I’m going to have to be vague, for which I apologize.
Basically, we were working one angle of this idea over and over and none of us were happy with it at any stage. On a whim, I suggested something else, more as a way to jog us out of what I was worried had become a mental rut. But it turns out that the player had some personal experience related to my idea and felt he could bring that to the table in a creative way. Major win, there. The thing is… I had no idea ahead of time that that idea would be any good. I was just spouting off randomly.
It made me reflect on several things to do with Kjemmen and I realized that a lot of Stewart’s and my best ideas are actually totally accidental. On the one hand, I think it underscores the importance of brainstorming and not worrying if an idea is actually good before you say it (I have a really poor brain-mouth filter, so this is particularly easy for me, personally). On the other hand, I think it implies that there’s a skill to identifying those good ideas when you happen across them, which is something I think you can practice and intentionally improve.
I’ve written before about how your players will create awesome situations and that you should try to identify those and run with them. This recent thought is sort of a super-set of that. As another Kjemmen example, let me tell you about Parchak. When Stewart and I were making up NPCs, we had our work cut out for us: We have 15 noble houses each of which needed a minimum of a paragraph about the head, but 5 of which needed pretty robust NPC lists from advisor to scullery maid. So after getting the most important NPCs down, we got to the point where we just wanted to have one thing that set this NPC apart from any other person in their job.
For Parchak, the advisor of one of the city’s houses, we decided he should be from far away Chementol. Then we realized we’d already used that one. So… what if he were a spy from the church in Chementol (whose god killed the god of the Kjemmic churches)? It seemed reasonable to us and so we moved on entirely expecting that not to ever come up.
Almost a year later, some events occurred in the campaign and the PCs were going to need a Kjemmic priest to do them a favor, which, of course, means he wants them to do something for him first. Parchak came to mind; it seemed reasonable that he knew there was a Chementoli spy in Kjemmen, but not know who he was. He set the PCs on the spy’s trail and told them to kidnap him and bring him back. At this point the PCs were in a pretty rough spot (you know the part of the movie where it seems like everything’s falling apart and the protagonists are doomed) and were looking for pretty much any ally in their goal of stopping the evil Kjemmic god from coming back to life and “bringing death to the world”, but had managed to make enemies of pretty much every powerful person in the city.
When we set them on Parchak’s trail, we never expected that, instead of kidnapping him to curry favor with the priest, they would befriend him. They told him about how they’d been hired to kidnap him and warned him of a plot against him and told him about how his church’s ancient enemy was about to return. They had managed, much to our surprise, to find and befriend the one person in the entire city who had a moral impulse to help them out.
When we started talking through the implications, we realized that Parchak would probably get in touch with the home office and basically call in the cavalry from Chementol. It also made sense for him to put the PCs in touch with some of his local resources for acquiring useful equipment. This drastically changed the situation the PCs were in as well as the path of the campaign as a whole.
None of this would ever have happened if we hadn’t invented this no-one character, Parchak and his throw-away fact for differentiation when we were fleshing out NPCs for the various Houses. There are two key points I want to draw your attention to from this story: It’s okay to spend time on details that will probably not matter. That is only a probability, not a certainty. You never know how players’ actions will change the focus of things. Also, the campaign world feels much more real if apparently throw-away characters have some depth, or a least a seed you can build on if you have to make something up on the fly.
The second is that it’s important to remember you’ve got those characters in your pocket and to keep your eye out for an opportunity to use them. Or, rather, for when circumstances need exactly that thing. Identifying those moments when the current situation would be much more awesome (or even just feel more natural) if you pulled something flagged as “unimportant detail” into the spot light can be tricky, but it can have a significant impact on the feel of your game world and your players’ perception of it’s realness.
This is the fifth and final post in a series. In the first post, I created a fantasy setting called Karthasia. Then in the next three posts, I created example PCs for that setting. In this post, I’ll go through the process of creating an outline of a character-focused campaign using those PCs.
Step 1: The Setting
Karthasia is the name of the game world, and Drania is the country in that world where most of our action will take place. Drania is a theocratic kingdom that spans from the swampy lowlands of the south to the great forests of the north. Its capital is a port city in the south called Barotha. It is bordered on the east and west by large mountain ranges. Drania has traditionally been governed by a theocracy run by an order of benevolent priests called the Albanists (who worship a deity named Alba). Albanist priests are able, through their deity, to heal wounds, bless and strengthen others, and to create light. The police force and army of the Albanists are known as Protectors. The Protectors are white knights, complete with horses, plate armor, and blessed weapons. The Albanists, while generally “good,” are intolerant of those of other faiths. If someone does not worship Alba, or performs magics other than those that come from Alba’s blessing, they are considered to be heretics and pariahs.
Among those shunned by the Albanist priests are the Order of Arcane Brothers, a scholarly order of sorcerers who have learned to control the forces of the four classical elements – Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Though their magic is effective at any location, being near the presence of great elemental forces improves their study, so their keeps tend to be located in remote and exotic locations, such volcanic islands and cliff faces near waterfalls. The Order is both secular and politically neutral, and requires all of its members to disavow all gods and nations when they join for the sake of the pursuit of pure knowledge.
Though the mountains on the borders mean that Drania has few foreign enemies, the Albanist government has battled for many years against The Nine Tribes, a loosely confederated nation of primitive woodsmen who inhabit the great forests of the north. The Nine Tribes are governed by their shamans, powerful shapeshifters who can call upon the spirits of the forest to control plants and animals. Over the course of several centuries, the Albanists have driven the Nine Tribes further and further into the wilderness while expanding and building new cities.
The last major faction, the Xanx, are a sect of demon-worshipping priests. They can speak to spirits, raise the dead, and place deadly curses on those who oppose them. Although they are ancient enemies of the Albanists, they have been dormant for many years, and were thought defeated. Three years ago, the Xanx performed a surprise coup, slaughtering most of the Albanist priests and protectors, and installing their own government. They coordinated this surprise attack with the Nine Tribes, and promised them that they could reclaim the lands that have been taken from them.
The Xanx installed their own rules and laws, enforced by Enforcers, black knights accompanied by fearsome hellhounds. The few surviving Albanists have been driven into hiding, and have formed an underground resistance. The Nine Tribes slaughtered the inhabitants of the northern cities, and have begun moving further south. Through the power of their shamans, the forest is swiftly regrowing, and the cities and roads of the north are broken and overgrown as though they had been abandoned for centuries.
Step 2: The Cast
- N’Kava Tharak is a warrior of the Nine Tribes who was banished for killing one of his tribesmen in a duel. He may return to his land only if he somehow convinces the government of Drania to recognize the Nine Tribes as a nation, and name N’Kava as its ruler. N’Kava is headstrong and stubborn, and doesn’t like to take orders. He doesn’t go out of his way to find fights, but when he fights, he will not stop until his opponent is dead. N’Kava fights with the traditional spear, bow, and axe of the Nine Tribes, and he is not above sneaking up on someone and killing them when they’re not looking.
- Olcanor Parin is a member of the Order of Arcane Brothers who is a devout believer in Alba. He wanted to be a priest, but when forced to choose between his faith and pursuing his talent for sorcery, he chose the latter. Though he swore to renounce Alba and Drania, he was never really able to kill his faith. When he heard that Drania had fallen and the Albanists had been slain, he left the Order to help the resistance, effectively ending his membership in the order. Olcanor is a man of great moral principle. He is honest and forthright, and will only use violence when he is absolutely forced to do so. Through his magic, he is able to control the forces of Fire and Water.
- Alsa Corvino is an Enforcer in the Black Guard of the Xanx government. Before that, she was a Protector for the Alabanists, but she had become disillusioned with the Albanists, and was persuaded to betray them. Since the Xanx have taken over, she has definitely noticed a difference in how things are run, and has begun to regret her role in the coup. Alsa is tough, competent, and a skilled soldier. She is very direct (perhaps even tactless), and dislikes subterfuge. She fights in the heavy black armor of the Dark Knights with a broadsword and a shield, accompanied by her hellhound Kimo.
- Dranis Io, head of the Xanx government, and the mastermind behind the coup. This guy is most likely The Big Bad for the campaign, and consequently the most important NPC. It would be easy to just paint him as being purely evil, a pastiche of every corny villain. But it’s far more interesting if he has at least a slight degree of sophistication. So, let’s say that our villain is a former Albanist priest that saw all of the small evils and impurities that come along with trying to run a government and though he struggled to remain pure and virtuous, the realities of the world forced him to make tough, gray-area choices. Eventually he decided that being purely virtuous was impossible, and that he might as well be selfish and evil. He devoted his life to overthrowing the Albanists, so that others would not have to toil under the expectations of morality.
- Ravello Gormas, Chief Enforcer. In this case, we can use an NPC that we created when we were making Alsa Corvino – Ravello, the protector that persuaded her to betray the Albanists. Ravello is an opportunist and a mercenary who is only working for the Xanx because they are willing to pay more.
- Yavik Aresto, leader of the Albanist resistance. One of the few remaining priests, who led up some obscure branch of the church/government. He’s now considered to be the Theocrat of the Albanist church/state in exile. The equivalent of the Secretary of Education becoming the president. He’s resilient and unyielding in his faith and confidence and provides a good example for the resistance, but he’s overly cautious and afraid to take risks. He knows that if he makes a bad decision, the last traces of the Albanists could be destroyed. He was one of Olcanor’s teachers before he joined the Brothers.
- Gravin Nor, white knight. The most highly ranked of the surviving protectors. Gravin has a fiery temper and a fierce desire to take the battle to the enemy, but is kept in check by Yavik. He was Alsa’s commander before the coup, and would/will have a hard time trusting her again.
- Silas Calinathari, crime boss. Barotha doesn’t have a mafia per se, but Silas has managed to put himself into a situation where he gets a piece off of most of the action. Silas is a violent cutthroat opportunist, but he always comes through on his end of a deal.
Step 3: The Big Story
Now that we’ve established where we’re doing things, and who shall be doing them, we can finally address the question of what they shall do. The setting has one obvious story hook, the evil Xanx government that overthrew the benevolent Albanists, and consequently all of the characters have stories that relate to it in some way. N’Kava needs to get some government to appoint him lawful ruler of the Nine Tribes, Olcanor seeks to restore the Albanists to power, and Alsa seeks atonement for her role in the coup. The Big Story for this campaign is almost definitely going to be the PCs working to overthrow the government, although each will do it for their own reasons.
The most important question, when crafting a character-focused campaign, is how to get the PCs to work together in the first place. Since they don’t start as a unified party, and each has different goals for their character, this can be a bit tricky. When I’m working on a four-player campaign, I usually try to have two threads to the story at the beginning, and have two of the PCs be interested in each thread. Then later, when the two threads turn out to be related, all four PCs are working together. In the case of a three-player campaign, there are often still two threads to the plot, but one character bridges both. If you get really clever, you can create three threads, with each PC having ties to two of them. This makes them extremely likely to encounter one another naturally, but can seem a bit contrived.
I develop these plot threads by knowing my endpoint (the PCs working to overthrow the Xanx government) and my begin points (the PCs initial goals and situations) and then creating a story that leads them naturally from one point to another. In this case, the characters’ motivations are already skewed a bit towards overthrowing the Xanx*, so few machinations are required.
Olcanor is actively seeking to restore the Albanists, so his earliest actions are most likely going to relate to finding the underground resistance. As the resistance is underground, that should be no easy feat, especially since he, as an Arcane Brother, is persona non grata in their religion. There is no way to know exactly how a player might approach this problem, but there are a few obvious lines of inquiry. The first would simply be to walk into town and openly tell people in taverns and the like that you are looking for the resistance and want to help them. Another way would be to seek out people who are likely to know about things that go on outside the law and ask them. This could be a place where Silas, the crime lord would come into play. There could be some fun tension between Olcanor’s morals and the tasks that Silas would ask of him for payment. Either path has the potential to get him in trouble with local law enforcement, and consequently put him in contact with Alsa.
N’Kavak’s first goal when he gets into town is going to be to contact someone in the Xanx government to try to get them to name him as the leader of the sovereign nation of the Nine Tribes. There are a lot of different ways that he might go about that task. He could walk into the temple/government offices and demand to speak to someone, or he might ask around in taverns and try to arrange a meeting with someone. Either way is likely to attract attention, especially since he’s probably the only Tribesman in the whole city. If he causes a ruckus, I would be inclined to have the cops come to get him, and finagle a way to make sure that Alsa is part of the group that comes to pick him up. If he is particularly tactful and/or clever, I actually think that it would rockmost for him to be allowed to speak to Dranis Io, the head priest of the Xanx government. He could plead his case in person to Dranis (with guards, including Alsa, present) and be told that there is no way that the Xanx will ever recognize the Nine Tribes as a nation. In either case, it shouldn’t be too difficult to arrange a circumstance where he will realize that the Xanx will not negotiate with him. The real question is what happens after that?
In order for his story to progress, he would need to find and join the rebellion, but his character lacks the sort of social skills that will make that task a reasonable one to rely upon. So I think that we have the rebellion find him instead. Since he’s a savage in the city, and the savages have been, well, savaging other cities in the north, he is likely to be attacked. As he’s not the type to walk away from a fight, and has a disadvantage that requires him to fight to the death, he’s likely to have more than one scuffle that others will see. Additionally, he is well-suited to escaping a small number of guards – he wears no armor, carries light weapons, and is very quick and agile. Evading a few armored men carrying heavy swords and shields long enough to climb up on a building should be a reasonable task. All of which is to say that his presence in the city is likely to cause a stir, and he would probably come to the attention of the rebellion.
This way, it doesn’t really matter how N’Kavak proceeds through the story; if he causes a commotion but escapes the cops, the rebellion can approach him with a promise of safety and a place to hide. If he ends up captured and locked up in prison, then they could arrange a jailbreak, or a covert operation to have him freed. Why would they want him? Well, maybe they have a need for a stealthy warrior to lead a strike in the capitol. Or perhaps they need someone to go to one of the captured and overgrown cities in Tribesman territory to obtain a powerful item, and they need a guide. I like that last one, as it could make for a good setpiece.
Now let’s look at Alsa. My intended story arc is to have her be forced to do and see things that make her decide to turn against the Xanx and work for the resistance. We’ve also established above that she will probably be the “glue” character that ties the PCs together, so she’ll have run-ins with both Olcanor and N’Kava before she is given an incentive to quit. All of this poses a tricky timing problem. Without our characters feeling railroaded, we want all of them to join the rebellion at more or less the same time. Olcanor is on a direct line to find and join them, N’Kava has a little bit of legwork to do first, and Alsa has a fair amount of things to do beforehand. We’ll need to add some buffer for the other two.
There’s also the problem, for Olcanor and Alsa, of convincing the rebellion to accept their help. Olcanor is a heretic and a pariah in the eyes of their church-in-exile, and Alsa was(or still is, depending on how she chooses to play it) a high-ranking Enforcer. If this were a video game, she would be required to go on a quest to bring back an item and prove her worth. But since this isn’t a video game, we have more subtle options at our disposal, and I think that we can do better than that. What if she captured a high-ranking member of the rebellion, or freed one who had already been captured? That seems like it would go a long way towards getting them to trust her.
In fact, depending on how N’Kava’s story came out, the same jailbreak that freed him might be the one that released one of the alliance leaders. In this case, he’s probably not the target of the jailbreak, just a lucky beneficiary that they pick up since they’re already there. We could bring Olcanor into it by creating some task as part of the jailbreak that requires his unique gifts.
Then, after the three PCs have joined the resistance, they get sent to a city in the north to retrieve the powerful McGuffin of McGregor or somesuch. They return to the city, McGuffin in tow, and then plan and execute a raid on the palace to overthrow the heads of the Xanx government (for the sake of cinematic story, we can assume that the common folk hate the government enough that they will rise up in other cities once the central power has been removed). Sounds like a campaign to me.
Step 4: The Small Story
As we decided above, we’re going to have to come up with some stuff for Olcanor and N’Kava to do so that the timing with Alsa’s story coincides correctly. So first let’s lay out Alsa’s story to see how much time we need to pad for them.
The first couple of sessions in a campaign are really critical, and I have specific goals that for them. Firstly, we need to give the player a chance to get the hang of their character, and to get a feel for their strengths and weaknesses. We probably want to create some sort of minor combat for them, and a situation where they have to use some of their other key skills. Basically, it’s a chance for them to find their feet before the stakes go up. The tricky part here is giving them something to do where they can afford to fail, but what they are doing still matters to the story somehow.
For Alsa, her occupation makes it easy for us to craft a scenario where she gets into a winnable fight early on. Her boss, Rovello, tells her that they have a tip about a rebellion hideout. She’s to take a handful of Enforcers and go capture or kill them. The battle can last just long enough for her to take out a couple of people, and then the rebels surrender. During the fight, she sees a tall, young guy with snow-white hair sneak out through a secret passage. One of the captured rebels is a big deal leader-type. She takes him back to the palace and delivers him to the dungeons. As she’s leaving, she can hear him being tortured for information.
The next morning, she gets sent to collect taxes from a family that hasn’t paid. The family is very poor, and she ends up having to take one of the oldest brothers into state slavery to pay the debt. That afternoon, she runs into one of her informants, who tells her that there is some foreigner in robes asking after the resistance. She goes and has her encounter with Olcanor – either fighting him** or just telling him to lay off.
The day after that, she ends up having to deal with N’Kava in some fashion, depending on how he handles things. On her way back to her quarters, she sees Ravello, along with a whole bunch of Enforcers. He orders her to accompany him. They go to a cellar where some rebels are hiding, mostly women and children. They fight off some guards, then board up the cellar and set fire to the building. She can hear the screams from inside and smell flesh burning. This (hopefully) will be the trigger that makes her decide to join the resistance instead. From there on out, we can’t really script what will happen.
So, she encounters Olcanor on day 2, and N’Kavak on day 3. That means that we need to give Olcanor something to do before he gets into the city. He’s coming from a volcanic island by ship, so how about pirates? Everybody loves pirates. For a character with Fire and Water magic, a wooden boat at sea should be a fun place to test out his abilities. To tie it in to the story, we can have the ship captain mention that the pirates are actually paid by the Xanx to collect “taxes” for the government.
N’Kava needs two days worth of lead time before he hits town. Since we know that we’re going to be sending the players to one of the ruined cities in the north, we could have him start near there. He’s traveling on his way to the city and gets hired on by some merchants for protection. They are looking for a specific item from the city, and have a map to the temple where it is supposed to be found. A minor dungeon crawl ensues, with some battles with beasties. For his second session, they are ambushed by Tribesman as they camp in the city. He can choose to fight for either side. Then, in his third session he gets to town, (almost definitely) gets into trouble, and runs into the law.
And that’s about it. As the GM, we’d need to polish off some of the details. First we’d flesh out some of the NPCs mentioned above (the merchants, the informant, the captured rebel leader, etc). We’d also need draw a rough map of the northern city (which needs a name) and the temple within it. Once those things are done, we’re ready to get started.
*As I mentioned above, this is because I really only provided one interesting hook for the setting – the evil government in charge. If I wanted a more complicated campaign, there would probably be a handful of other interesting forces and things going on (all of which would end up being related at the end) for the players to latch on to.
**I think that it’s totally fine for the PC’s first interactions to be confrontational, and to even result in combat. Players enjoy fighting against players when given the opportunity, and they will usually find a way to end the confrontation non-lethally.
The other day, I read a post entitled Show vs. Tell: Why “Visual” is Not Optional by Aaron Diaz. I encourage you to go read the whole thing, but for those that don’t want to, or don’t want to right now, he talks about how the writing and the art in a comic cannot be separated and produce a good comic. He is basically asserting that the co-existence of the two is the hallmark of the medium and that if they don’t feed back into each other, then you’re not playing to the medium’s strength. He then shows a lot of examples of framing leading the eye and building up the information conveyed in words in a sort of symbiotic way, rather than just illustrating the action dispassionately. In another post, he talks about creating focal points and drawing the eye from place to place within a frame and how that can be used to make a comic awesome.
The thing that got me thinking, and inspired this post was that in those two posts (and several others), he refers to established understandings from academia about things like painting and writing. And he examines how their pairing in comics differs or augments the usual rules for those two things. It reminded me strongly of the whole RPGs as a Medium category we have on MR.
And it made me realize how little we have to fall back on that’s akin to painting and writing. We can look to acting a bit, but improvisational acting is the closest to roleplaying and it’s mostly used for comedy, so not all lessons there are relevant. We can also look to story-telling or oratory… whatever you want to call the art of telling a story aloud. But it seems to me that academia hasn’t spent nearly as much time talking about storytellers as it has about painters.
So I think that makes a stronger call for me (at any rate. I certainly welcome help) to pay closer attention to the things that are absolutely central to the rpg medium. I posted about the Circular 4th Wall before, which is certainly something unique to roleplaying. It seems like it’s more of a pitfall to be aware of, though, than a technique to hone.
So I’m officially starting out on a journey to identify the things that are not optional in good GMing. Especially the tactical things that really happen at the table, not in planning ahead of time. One very fruitful avenue that I feel I’ve ignored up to now is the oral storytelling aspect. I don’t know where this will lead, or if it’ll bear anything fruitful, but I’m going to find out and I’ll let you know when I come across something interesting. If you have any ideas you want me to investigate, let me know and I’ll plan a detour in that direction. Once I feel like I’ve identified the words-and-pictures-must-synergize of roleplaying, the next step is, of course, to figure out how to become good at that.