Nov 112013
 

The Marvel Comics way that I’m referring to is in fact pretty old news at this point, but in how it pertains to the way campaign worlds can be managed, I think it still has some relevance. You see, way back in the dim and distant, DC comics was an unstoppable juggernaut, crushing everything in their path, but they would tell stories about their main stable of characters in a way that would seem odd today. The Batman who appeared in Detective Comics, for instance, was not the same Batman who was in the Justice League, or who joined forces with Superman in the Brave and the Bold. Each comic book line was in fact  self contained universe, with no need for anyone who wanted to read them to have to pick up a bunch of ancillary comic books to get the full story.

Then Marvel comes along, and decides to do things a bit different. First, they did away with the idea of fictional cities as homes for their heroes. I’m not saying that they’ve never made somewhere up, but they certainly didn’t go to the lengths of creating Metropolises and Gotham Cities, just to give a main character their own distinct playground. They set their stories in the real world, mainly new York, and this gave the readers something they could recognise. It’s true that Gotham is a distinctive city to the legions of Bat-fans out there, but not so much as the New York skyline is.

This is part of one of my idea; don’t worry too much about making up towns and cities if you’re setting your game in the real world, either historically, contemporaneously or even in the future. When it comes to the past, there are countless online and real world resources out there to flesh out a city that actually exists, and although the research time will need to be spent, it will be probably be quicker than making an entire working city from scratch. At least in my experience. Your players can also do their own research, and although you may have had to change a few details to make your plot work, it will give them the chance to get under the skin of your setting a lot more than they could do if it only exists in your head.

The second thing they did differently, and this eventually had an impact on DC, and lead to them running the Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline, was that all of their heroes, be they mutants, superheroes, or masked vigilantes, all existed in the same universe. This meant that Spiderman could tangle with the Punisher, and the X-men, if you wanted to get totally crazy, could battle the Avengers. Although this spawned one of comic book’s greatest travesties – the multi-comic title crossover event – it meant that consequences could be felt throughout the entire marvel universe, because of the actions of one hero/villain.

I know that most of the awesome GMs out there on blogs and forums already have a pretty good handle on the way that consequences of actions should affect the game world, and the characters within in, but I thought I’d try and go a bit further with that today. Like at least a few others out there, I have a couple of favourite settings that I keep going back to. One of which I am revisiting for the first time in many years the next time I GM, and the other is a lovely little Neo-Victorian horror game called Unhallowed Metropolis. I’m not even sure how many campaigns I’ve ran in this world, but they all take place in the same continuity.

This means that if a group of players needs to find a fence to get rid of some stolen items in one game, then they find their fence with a simple streetwise skill check, and I get to play some kind of lovely cockney rogue for a while. Some months later, a player who has created a consulting detective character needs some info on a heist, so finds a fence he can trust. I have one ready, and can flesh out some details by having him refer to things the other party may have done. In a certain game, I went even bigger.

The plan was to run a very long campaign with a three act structure involving a serial killer, and unknown plague, some ghostly goings on, and an undead horde. It was going pretty well until a fight broke out between the player characters when they were on route to a location in them middle of the wastes with no one around for miles who would care what happened to them. There was one survivor who made his way back to Hull, but was so traumatised by the events that he was sent to an asylum. The thing was, I’d put a whole bunch of work into the adventure, and didn’t want it to go to waste.

So the employer of the first group tried again, using a different recruiting process, and about a year after the failed mission, another group set off. They succeeded – as much as they could do in the circumstances – and saw several shadows of the last attempt. the stories of a lunatic in the sanitarium screaming the name of their employer for one. And my personal favourite, finding the burnt out camp of the previous expedition, complete with rotting corpses of those that came before them.

This added a whole lot to the experience, for myself and the players, and I think if you have a game world that you love, you should try something like this yourself.

Jun 172013
 

I live in a large town in the north of England that used to be known for its woolen industry. These days we seem to be little more than a net importer of students, but that’s not a bad thing, as it keeps us fairly well stocked on new recruits for our gaming society. One other thing my home town does pretty well is places to grab a drink. True, a lot of the pubs I drank in as a teenager, and even in my early twenties, have long since closed their doors, but there is still a huge array of choice for the discerning drinker. This is how it should be in any large settlement, but in most fantasy settings, pubs are either bawdy taverns or gentile gathering places. I’m going to show you some other options.

One of my favourite watering holes. Click for pub website.

One of my favourite watering holes. Click for pub website.

The Adventurer’s Rest. This is what i think of as a typical tavern in fantasy settings, and even in some cyberpunk and sci-fi worlds too. It tends to be run by someone who used to make their living in much the same way that the player characters do now. There’ll be a board with adventuring opportunities, and plenty of shady corners for people to smoke pipes in. All much of a muchness, so lets move on.

The Student Bar. Most large cities have some form of higher education institute. Just think about Ankh-Morpork of Discworld fame. Although the Unseen University is by far and away the most famous – and in other fantasy cities, a Mage’s college is not too difficult to include – each guild could reasonably have a training college. So imagine a city of thieves in a fantasy world. There would almost certainly be either competing guilds, or one large one in charge of most municipal affairs. Having a college devoted to teaching anyone who can afford it the finer arts of sneak thievery and cut-pursing would be a great way to make more money. And the moment any kind of institute of education opens up, local publicans are quick to cater to young people with spare cash and a far from restrictive schedule.

Adding such a watering hole to a campaign world is pretty easy then, but why would the characters go there – unless students themselves, in which case; job done – for a pint. Hiring a student to a do a job is far cheaper than bringing in professional help, although risky to say the least. It is also not unheard of of faculty to share a drink with the students, and could be a way of getting an informal audience with someone whom has no desire to converse with adventurers.

The old man’s pub. I’m half way through my thirties, and have been a fan of this kind of pub for a very long time. I like being able to chat with friends rather than shout over other noises, and the choice of ales that are available are usually top notch and more varied than the more popular watering holes. In a game world, this will be about as far removed from the bawdy taverns and nightclubs as it’s possible to get. I know it doesn’t sound very interesting in role playing terms, and using this may get differing mileage for different GMs, but it can be quite good fun.

Seething resentment can be well hidden in such venues, with cliques that have existed for decades still sharing the same 12 foot of bar with their bitter enemies. New people coming into the pub are treated with suspicion, and if you’ve ever seen an American Werewolf in London, you’ll know the kind of thing I mean. There are usually bar games to play though, and I imagine that a lot of retired adventurers are much more likely to be found in such a pub. Not everyone likes having it rubbed in their faces that they’re too old to do what they were great at only a decade or so ago.

The Sports bar. They exist in any world that enjoys organised sports, even if the GM has totally made them up himself. Decorated in local team colours, with prints on the walls of famous players, and maybe even a trophy cabinet. The atmosphere will certainly seem jolly from the outside, but team affiliation is key in some of these venues. Walking in wearing the wrong colours can be enough to ensure you don’t walk back out, in the rougher class of drinking houses. They do have their uses though, as mobs can quickly be formed from their patrons, and famous folk from around the city like to call in to show their devotion to a team.

In some worlds, it’s far from a stretch to imagine that organised crime cartels would have something to do with such establishments too. Book making and contest rigging are sure fire ways to make money, and if a sport is very popular indeed, it can do a gangster’s credibility good to be seen with such respected public figures. Hell, maybe the characters are just fans of the sports team, and fancy a drink in friendly pub, what happens after that is up to the GM.

So there you go, just a few examples of how to change your drinking holes into something a bit different. I hope some of it was useful, and feel free to share your own ideas in the comments section below.

Oct 202012
 

As my readers probably know, I’ve recently hit a big milestone, and offered something to the whole gaming community online. For anyone who asked, I would write a background and description of one NPC of their choice. So far I’ve had a great response, but I could’t have done it without the support of a few other RPG bloggers. They will be listed below in no particular order, but you should all go over and pay them a visit.

G*M*S magazine, my site’s sponsor, has been good enough to tweet to his whole audience about the offer, so you should all go over there right now, and thank him by downloading his podcast. They’re always golden, and worth listening to if you have any interest in RPGs, board games, or how to make them.

Tenkar’s Tavern took the time (apologies for the heavy alliteration there) to promote my idea too. They’re one of the best known, and in my opinion, consistently  awesome OSR blogs out there. Sure, there are others, but this is the one you should be checking out. And I say this as someone who makes no claim to be part of the OSR movement, but loves awesome blogs.

Hero Press also gave me great coverage. This a perfect example of a catch all blog, with cool video links and trailers, some great inspirational images, and some top notch RPG commentary too. Add it to your reader, you won’t want to miss a thing that gets posted on this site.

Cirsova was nice enough to talk about me too, and even share the NPC that I created for them. The blog is one built around world design, and not only is it a great read, but contains some lovely inspiration for any other people out there wanting to do the same.

I hope my readers take the time to explore those sites, and if any other bloggers out there want an NPC, I will happily link to your site.

Sep 032012
 

My first post since someone out there decided I was officially awesome. I better not screw this one up…

I was reading in a blog somewhere this week about inspiration for RPGs, and where it comes from. I used an example in the comments section about reading the back of a book that looks interesting, and then with no other input, imagine the plot taking part in your game world and how it would work. It’s a simple enough trick than can be very rewarding if you put the mental effort into it. Today though I want to talk about the way a massive body of work inspired me, and how I turned that inspiration into a campaign that I plan on running for roughly nine months.

What inspired me was the work of Comic book writer Warren Ellis; more specifically, his masterful run as the creator/writer of cyberpunk comic book Transmetropolitan. If you haven’t read, I strongly advise you to do so. Maybe not right at this second, but by the end of the week I expect you all to have made the effort. There may well be a test. It’s not so much the characters that inspired me, or even the story he told, but the world that he created. It’s how I went about turning that into a place people can role play in that I will be discussing today.

First off, I needed an intimate familiarity with the world. This wasn’t hard, as I was happy to take a weekend and read the entire run once more (I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve done the whole series in a single sitting) to get the feel of the setting as fresh in my mind as I could. Then I broke out a note pad and pen, and started reading again…

I had several pages with different headings, each for things I wanted to incorporate into the game world. There may well be other stuff that pops up that comes from what I remember from the comic books, or just my own imagination, but these lists are the things that I wanted to touch on that would help define the post-cyberpunk feel of the setting. Details will be a little vague if you don’t mind; I know that several of my prospective players read this blog, and due to the nature of the characters they will be playing, I don’t want to spoil too much.

The first things to go down were the easy bits that make great window dressing; the things that one can buy. Since I’m using CP2020 as my system, I knew that shopping could be a big part of the experience, and as well as keeping the basic stuff from the four chrome books – just for the sake of ease – I also wanted to make it uniquely Transmetropolitan. So every time anyone in the comic book ate something or watched an advert for a product, it went on the list. This means the players can eat baby seal eyes whilst drinking Ebola Cola.

The characters would of course need somewhere to buy these fine products from, so any shop in the books also got a list. In actual fact it was a small sub-list of general places to go. Due the sandbox nature of my GMing style, I fully expect the players to explore the wider city, and I wanted to give them a different feel for different places and wealth levels. As an example, the print district is right next to the upper class con-urb area known as Puritan Mewes, and you won’t find chain store burger bars or gun retailers in that area, more your bespoke luxury foods and weapon emporiums. I was a bit tempted at this point to consider mapping the city out; as I say, I want/expect the players to explore, but I often find that maps can be a bit of a hindrance to me when I GM. If the world exists as more of an abstract in my mind, then I can play with it a bit more to suit the needs of the game and the expectations of my players. I know some gamers and GMs may frown on this, but it works for me.

Next came the most fun bit, and also the longest list by far; fun things to do/see when wandering around the City. Because of the open world feel, and the fact that plot hooks are fairly well distributed around the game world, I needed fun things to keep the players occupied while they explored. This meant several pages, split into sub lists by the length of the experience, of just stuff. Off the top of my head as I sit and type; humans that have turned themselves into floating clouds of nano-computer robots with the ability to restructure matter, just floating past, having fun turning people’s clothes into bananas. That’s just a quick one, but for a longer term sub-plot, the players could decided to investigate a historical reservation; a place where cultures from the earth’s past are kept alive in perfectly enclosed areas. With willing volunteers re-creating them, down to the most exacting detail. The characters who wish to visit them will be totally decontaminated and vaccinated against everything that their bodies no longer have a defense for, and can interact with the past; the people living in it having had implants in their brains allowing them to see people from the real world and process the experience without being driven insane.

Add to that a couple of generic lists of names and time-lined events that I may or may not use, and I have built up a pretty good picture of a world for my players to have fun in. It took quite a bit of time, and would almost certainly have been easier to play in an established world with splat books detailing all of the above for me, but I’m such a fan of the comic book that it was totally worth the effort. And you know what they say, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. So if you’re reading this Warren Ellis, please see it as that, and don’t sue me…

Aug 172012
 

I know that a lot of the people who read this blog will be doing those things, and if at GenCon won’t really have the time to digest anything huge at the moment blog-wise. The people who aren’t there at the moment though, who may not be too fussed about D&D next themselves (I know I’m not the only one; I tried to get a play test group together out of my local gaming society, and had only two volunteers out of a possible 25 players) might be in the mood for something that has nothing to do with either. Presented for you then is inspiration. Inspiration in the form of an article I came across on the BBC news site a couple of days ago that had my mind going into overdrive, thinking about what I could do with this information. So I present for you here, China’s ghost towns and phantom malls.

I hope that like me, it gives you some inspiration, and if it does, feel free to sound off below and share them with anyone else not lucky enough to be at GenCon.

Jul 162012
 

One thing that has become clear in my vast month long experience of RPG blogging, is that every other GM who blogs does about twenty times the work I do in planning and running a game. That’s not to say that my games suck, I have an awful lot of people who would say otherwise. But I manage to do it without the buckets of effort that others put in. This will probably be the first of many blogs where I talk about short cuts and GMing tips that could, if you’re confident enough, take a lot of the hassle out of running your own game. To start with I’m going to talk about populating a small settlement in a way that takes less time but still looks well rounded.

I start with NPCs that players will meet. People in shops, mostly, or someone plot related who introduces themselves. These NPCs are statted in the simplest way possible, and this is a method I use with every system for any NPC that doesn’t deserve its own character sheet. The system I was using last time, so the one I will be drawing examples from, was Unhallowed Metropolis. I love this system and setting and have run games using it that have lasted years.

Before we get into their stats though, lets think about names. I like having fun with this, and do take a bit of  time to prep before each game coming up with a list of name. Last time I compiled a decent list of Lovecraftian names, and whittled out the most recognisable ones to leave me with a few sides of A4 of random men’s and women’s names. Leave a line between each name, and pick out a few at first for the NPCs that you know you’re going to need and quickly jot down a few things that will flesh them out enough to be recognizable to your players, and you, when you need to play them again. Any stat that’s different from the average, just make a quick note of it and the difference, throw in a specialty skill and you’re almost done. Next pick a quirk, either physical or social that means they’ll stand out and make a note of that too. After that, anything else you need to remember just make quick notes of, you don’t want too much to read if you’re playing the character as it slows down the flow of a game.

That leaves a bunch of other names on your list, but don’t worry they’ll get used soon enough. The village will have a bunch of other people in it, farmers, workers, kids and the elderly. 90% of them will never be needed as the players will have no reason to talk to them, so don’t worry about them until the players feel the need to find anything out about them. This works very well with imaginative players who will think of solutions you may not. Do they need someone in town who used to be in the army? You never thought of that, but twenty of the farmers are just one dimensional shadows at the moment. So go to your list, find an appropriate name, give them a stat boost and extra skill that makes sense, a quirk that would be fun to roleplay, and respond to your creative player, “yup, the barman tells you about a good old boy who comes in of an evening telling stories about his time in the Deathwatch”, and away you go.

When it come to stats, UnMet has a pretty basic set and the usual skills. Choose your human average, in this case 2 across the board, and a set of skills most people would have a level in, then one per NPC that they’re trained in and can have at level 2. Then pick a stat or two that differ from the mean, usually one up, one down, but play around with as much as you want; they’re your characters and don’t have to fit the mean if you don’t think they would. This applies to everyone in your little settlement, and takes a matter of second to make the notes next to name you’ve not used yet.

A lot of people use random tables and feel free to go for it if the idea of picking quirks out the hat during a game is a bit daunting. But my best advice would be to prep a list – or steal it from a much better prepared blogger out there – and familiarise yourself with it a little before you run the game. That way you should have in your short term memory a few ideas that you can quickly take down without it looking to our players like you’re doing it all off the roll of a dice and are instead putting a lot of thought into each decision.

I hope some of that was useful, and as soon as I think of some other ways to speed up your GMing prep, I’ll share them with everyone.

Jul 092012
 

I find religion in RPGs can often leave me a little disappointed . I suppose that a lot of that has to do with my opinions of religion in real life, and I know that what we’re dealing with is a fantasy world, but it still contains people, just like our own world. Just throwing this out there as I’m not writing this to offend, but I am an atheist and will be writing from that position. If you would like to turn your head away now, please feel free. If you want to post comments based on your own beliefs, I draw your attention to my thoughts about what goes into the comments section of this blog. Now, onward to the good stuff.

It’s easy to assume that most fantasy pantheons have a lot in common with Greek/Roman gods; a whole host of them, each with a domain they watch over whilst competing with other gods for whatever the divine equivalent of prestige is. I do see the appeal of this as both ancient mythologies are still very popular and have plenty of gold left to mine. The only real problem I have is when they are over used, when every other system has a thunder god, a god of love and a god that just loves to get down and party.

Yes, there are variations, but most of them follow a very similar path; a god of magic, of necromancy, a god that exists just  to help out healing  injured adventurers. This is all well and good, but it can lead to a dead-end roleplaying wise. A god will want you to behave in certain ways to get the benefits of following it, and this means a follower of god A, will act that way. Not saying that all of them will, but enough to make them look like an homogeneous lump of personality clones.

When comparing this to real world religion, with more gods and beliefs than you could shake a stick at, we see this does not happen. Almost every religion in the real world has fractured at some point in its history and these schisms have become separate entities with grudges against people who believe in the same god, but choose to show that deference in a different way.

A big reason for this is that when  a lot of real world religions were founded, most of the cultures were isolated or were empires who could push down hard to enforce a ‘one true god’ religious structure. When this happens everyone in the society has to find their place, and people with wildly differing personalities have to interpret the tenets of their faith in a way that allows them to fit in. This has happened in a fantasy game I’ve played in. A D&D 3rd game in a world built for the most part by the GM. The player group were all Dwarven, and all believed in one god, whose name I currently forget. Because this was the way it had been for centuries, at assumed that being born a dwarf meant you would follow this god, no matter what your career or class. this meant no matter what alignment you played, or class, you were one of the faithful. I was the group cleric and played it lawful/evil, but was still accepted because I was such a faithful devotee and acted within the law. This very true of real world religions where the extremists are propped up by the massive amount of more moderate followers.

Early modern English history however teaches that schism can happen within one country for matters as simple of dynastic continuity/wanting to shag someone else and not have the kid be declared a bastard. With this kind of thing happening so little in fantasy games, I was again left scratching my heads as to the why fore. Then a simple thought hit me; gods in a fantasy setting actually exist. They can be seen, communed with, and preform miracles that go beyond the natural.

But do they have to? I have played some great games where magic is explainable within the physics of the setting, changing it from supernatural, to the natural. By this I mean the kind of thing that could be measured under laboratory conditions. Could the same be said of gods and godlike entities within the same settings? If they were real and acted within the confines of the natural world, they would have no reason to be worshiped en masse, instead being seen in the same light as giant ‘magical beast with sentience’, dragons spring immediately to mind. There are those who would still look upon them as otherworldly and choose to venerate them as gods, as there are in the real world. This could lead to just as much re-interpretation and fracturing of the faiths as in our own world, and I just think that this would make playing a believer a hell of a lot more interesting from a roleplaying point of view.