Tuesday, November 25, 2014

DON'T

I am beginning to think the word "Don't" is my least favorite in the English language. Recently it seems like this is largely what I encounter online in the form of advice articles on gaming or writing, and it feels like this is just creating an ever-expanding list of things people are not supposed to do for often vaguely explained reasons. I worry that we are simply in the habit of critiquing with a dose of snark and in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Whether it is an essay on tropes that need to die, or things game masters should stop doing, I think rather than inspiring people to game better or write better, it just creates paralysis where people hesitate with each step as they navigate a maze of new taboos and fashions that separate the elite from the everyday. It makes people overly self conscious about their own choices and leads to folks trying to do things they think will impress others but forgetting to impress themselves and their players first. 


When I was younger my parents bought me a reprint of an old victorian book of etiquette and the name of the book, oddly enough, was Don't. It was essentially an extensive list of byzantine rules for behavior in social situations. The book was reprinted because in hindsight the code of etiquette was stifling and a bit amusing from a modern perspective. There was also a strain of snobbery and elitism that was unmistakable. It was the sort of thing me and my friends would read from and laugh. But I think that mentality is beginning to reassert itself in the form of people telling us what tropes are sophisticated or tired, what styles of play are fashionable and what are out of date, etc. 

Personally I am not a big fan of this. I think it is a bad trend (a good trend for critics, but a not so good trend for the people creating things and running campaigns). Don't get me wrong, criticism can be very useful. I always welcome negative criticism more than positive feedback when I am working on a new project because it helps me improve the final product. But there is an overdrive of criticism going on online and it just feels like all anyone wants to do is be the smartest person in the room by tearing things down. 

Now when I see articles that start with "8 Things to Avoid When World-Building" or "10 Tropes that Need to Die in the Fire", I just roll my eyes and move on. Ninety percent of the advice I generally disagree with or think is heavily overstated. For the most part, I would be much more interested if the person writing the column showed me examples of what they would like to see. If you want people to embrace something different or new, it is much better to show them how it can be compelling than to sneer at the familiar. Sure some things do get overused and I get tired of seeing them all the time, but there are also old standards that exist for good reasons. And even with tropes I may be tired of, they still feel fresh to someone just discovering fantasy for the first time. 

And I say all this as someone who takes some pride in offering a line of games that are a bit different, that take chances and go in strange directions. This is why we gave Sertorius a more Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Asian feel than a Medieval European one. It is why we did Servants of Gaius, Arrows of Indra and why we made Terror Network. But we also didn't shy from the familiar, or from old gaming tropes that work well for creating adventures. Again there is a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater when you tell people to stop using something in game design, writing or world building just because you've seen it one too many times (or because you want people to notice that you noticed a pattern). 

So my advice is don't  listen to these people (I know, I know). Be suspicious of advice loaded with snark. When it comes to gaming, you know what you like, and you know what resonates with you and your players, so do what works. If that involves going outside the box, great. If it means using a familiar trope, fine. Whatever it takes to have an entertaining evening with friends.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

SWORDS OF THE FOUR TAVERNS PART V: DEFENDERS OF THE NEW FAITH

This is a report of the fifth session of our Vaaran Kingdoms Sertorius session. You can see session four HERE

The party:
Gaius: A Ronian-blooded aristocrat
Uloff: A Gru Trader
Garoff: A Gru Bounty Hunter
Dreckergael: A human hunter who casts spells randomly when wounded
Tauq: A human tribesmen from the march between Palus and Apprea, serving in the house of Alu-Bora under Archon Emmanuel. 

Important NPCS:

Belga: A Dwarf Sertori with blue skin who believes he is a Gru 
Vaela: A Hasri Sertori who has grown loyal to the party
Hamil Kar-Harba: The brother of the King and Gaius' uncle
Gesara: A Sertori hunter who leads a wing of the Church of Ramos against spell casters
Ruega: Daughger of Goff-Tannerhauch

Much of this session was devoted to dealing with the aftermath of the previous adventure. The party is now part of a council of Sertori established at the Tower of Goff-Tan with a large base of support in Goff-Tel, a nearby village. The council is called the Ser-Vel, mostly former prisoners of the previous occupant of the tower (Goff-Tannerhauch). They came to power by killing Goff-Tannerhauch and taking his family hostage. One of the daughters, Ruega, escaped.

At the start of the session the group had the second meeting of the Ser-Vel. They decided to divide into groups to handle help develop their strategy and tactics for reclaiming Palus from the current king. Uloff would lead Tauq, Vaela and Gregos to track down Ruega (Goff-Tannerhauch's daughter). Harch, Gaius, and Golgar would manage research into Goff-Tannerhauch's library to learn about the tower, Sertori and the Church of Ramos. Garoff, Belga, Crassus, Beor and Roona were placed in charge of managing diplomacy, defenses and tactics (Garoff and Belga focused on levying troops). Arius and Melqart were charged with developing methods for countering the blood cult and the Gesarians (mainly by reading Goff-Tannerhauch's extensive notes on his experiments). 

Uloff's group tracked down Ruega to the village of Narna, a settlement under the authority of Goresios Maorides and managed by his son Lucas, the local Eparkos. Vaela had an information contact at the Red House of Narna who informed the party that Ruga was at staying at the Church and that she had sent two messengers earlier that day. Tauq, Vaela and Gregos went to the Church, while Uloff took a couple of followers to find the messengers. 

At the church Tauq and the others were created by Mother Karima. Also there were six blood cultists pretending to be be lay people. The church was made of stone and a Tholos structure which indicated Ronian design. A second floor had been created with wooden crossbeams. Tauq told Mother Karima they were there to attend the daily sacrifice, and she allowed them to participate. Afterwards Tauq said he wanted to spend some time in the temple. Mother Karima allowed it but went to the upper level. As soon as the party started snooping around, one of the blood cultists attacked. In the course of combat Tauq was badly burned by a spell and Vaela managed to Captivate two of the cultists. Gregos used Impaling Spike to kill two of cultists, causing the remaining hostile ones to flee. When the party walked up to the second floor they found Ruega who immediately cast Vortegan's WHirliing catastrophe. She failed the casting, which meant the spell still worked but she had no control over it. A tornado of destruction ravaged the area killing Mother Karima and all the blood cultists in the first round. Tauq was knocked out and nearly killed, while Gregos was seriously harmed. Vaela evaded harm and pulled Tauq to safety. As Vaela dragged Tauq from the building Gregos exploded the upper floor with an Avalanche of Flame. He and Ruega were both killed by the whirling catastrophe the following round. Of course Tauq knew nothing of this, waking up hours later in the inn. 

Meanwhile Uloff tracked down the two messengers and captured them. One had a verbal message he was to take to Drungarius of Castle Tongasha asking him to send word to the king and send forces to Goff-Tan. The other had a written message from Ruga that stated the following: 

To the Sage and Pius Gesara Namburi of Palus,

Disaster has arrived. Father was attacked by the Sertori of the House of Bora and the entirety of the cellar. They killed him and Ruegar. There are many of them and you must tell to the king to prepare for conflict. I will go North to Qelna. It is our only hope of containing the Sertori. Before you send men to stop me know this: Qelna is no legend, nor is it the ruin the world believes. I have seen it with my own eyes, for it is visible to our kind upon close inspection. There is a weapon there, an artifact that only we can wield. With the sword I will be more powerful than an army and impervious as stone. Have no fear Gesara, father trained me well. I know the temptations, I know the limits of my own spirit. I will not succumb but defend the Kingdom from this evil horde.


Ruega

Uloff returned to the Inn, and once they learned the fate of Gregos and Ruega, everybody set out for Goff-Tan once again. Before they left, one of Vaela's informants told him about an assassin named Rasimon who had been sent against the Ser-Vel by Ruga. 

Garoff and Belga spent much of their time levying troops, estimating they could probably get 3,000 by the end of the next month. 

Days later the Kings Brother, Hamil, arrived and the party decided to receive him as they would the king himself, making it clear he had the power and the council served a separate function. 

The party investigated the assassin and learned about a medicine man who had recently come to the village and was staying with a local family. Investigating further, they became convinced of his guilt and decided to confront him. They surrounded the hut where he was staying and asked him to step outside. Gaius called Rasimon by name and said they knew what his plans were. However he said came to make a deal, not to harm him. They wanted to hire his services for themselves. Once Rasimon learned of Ruega's fate he was open to negotiation. He agreed to work with the party for 1,000 gold a year, a seat on the Ser-Vel and a small Palan Castle of his own. The party agreed. 

They held a meeting of the Ser-Vel the following day in the court, with Hamil seated on Goff-Tan's chair. They discussed possible alliances with foreign powers, including the imperials of Caelum (as the Republic was embroiled in Civil War). They also discussed the different lords in Palus, who might join their cause, and how many soldiers each Lord could raise. They estimated the King had a total possible  force of 50,000 troops. Their own forces maybe reached 15 to 20,000 at the present moment. They decided to send an emissary to the Imperials and an Emissary to Eshmunzar, the Lord of Hakdar-Kane (because they estimated he could raise 16,000 soldiers). Rasimon was also sent to kill the loyalist lord Vargus of Gel Hauch and his son (because Hamil believed they could position someone in their own family to take over his holdings). Many other matters were addressed. They discussed the possibility of working with Goresios (but this was rejected for the time being), sending assistance to Darios Tyrna and investigating the City of Qelna mentioned in Ruega's message. Arius was tasked with constructing a point by point refutal to the writings of Gesara. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

CAMPAIGN CALENDARS

I am a big fan of using calendars for my campaigns. It doesn't matter what kind of game I am running, from modern crime to ancient fantasy, I find calendars very useful for managing the flow of events, particularly when player characters or NPCs make plans and set things in motion. Calendars help you maintain consistency and breath a sense of realness to the setting. They can be daunting if you are not used to them, they can also lead you astray if you are not careful, but with a little bit of preparation and forethought they can serve you well. 

The first thing to do when setting up a calendar is decide how the passage of time is handled in the campaign. If modern day, you can just grab a daytimer and you're good to go. If the setting is more fantastical or set in the future (or in the past) you may need to make some adjustments or create a custom calendar. For the sake of simplicity in my own campaign I try to cleave as closely to our own calendar as possible but you can have a lot of fun researching different calendars in history and tailoring an approach that reflects your world's history and its people. I kept our months but put the local name for the month in parenthesis. While days of the week appear on the calendar, the region where the campaign is set has no such convention, however these are still handy for communicating the passage of time to the players. 

I use the calendar for several things. The first and most obvious is marking the passage of time. In my Swords of the Four Taverns Campaign, this became important as the party increasingly involved itself in politics and war. The second is tracking all the moving parts of the campaign. I needed to know how many weeks had passed since they started levying troops and how long it would be before that message they sent reached Eshmunazar. I also needed to track the plans of my NPCs and significant events in the region. By committing things to the calendar they stay consistent and fair. 

My method is pretty simple. Each day that passes on the calendar is marked by circling the number. Any major event is written in blue or green and underlined if it involves the PCs in anyway. I use blue ink to write the actions and plans of NPCs, but green ink to write the actions and plans of PCs. 

While it may be difficult to read if you look at the image of my calendar, you see that on the 11th it states "Rasimon sent to Vargus". This is because the players sent an assassin named Rasimon to kill Vargus, a Castle Lord who commands a large number of soldiers. On the 20th it states "Rasimon strikes at Vargus". This means that is the day Rasimon makes his attack against Vargus. 

But the players themselves were also subject to an assassination attempt. On the 6th it states "Assassin arrives in Goff-Tel", on the 14th it states "Intended day of assassination". Because the players information network uncovered the assassin's presence before he could strike, they were able to deal with the threat prior to that date. 

I also use the calendar to mark festivals and holidays. So on the 21st it states "Feast of Druza begins". This is an eight day feast that is mainly just setting backdrop (Druza was the prophet of one of the major gods worshipped in the region). But it could become important as either the players or their enemies might use the feast to their advantage. 

You don't have to use this exact method. Perhaps two kinds of ink is a bit much for your needs, or maybe you need three or four colors of ink to distinguish different types of developments and events. Perhaps all you need is to mark the passage of each day. Personally I find it incredibly helpful. It is easy to forget when the players set a plan in motion and marking it on the calendar really makes that much easier to manage 

What I like about keeping track of the passage of time in this way is it gives a sense of concreteness to the world. I am not just having festivals pop up out of nowhere or shooting from the hip when it comes to figuring out when a crucial message reaches the king. 










Wednesday, November 19, 2014

NEW SERTORIUS RACE: KITHIRI

This is a new optional Race for Sertorius I've been tinkering with. 

KITHIRI
Advantages: 1 Free Skill Rank in Reason, Wits, and Empathy
Penalties: -1d10 to Persuade, Command and Deception rolls against Non-Kithiri. Multi-Ego. 
Gift: Flexible Mind
Common Homelands: The Free Cities of Eukos, Machaea, Polyra, Rapistos

Common Languages: Khubsi, Ronian, Agarian

This is a humanoid race found in isolated clusters or alone on islands in the Varian Sea. They look human except their skin is bronze in color with a vaguely metallic hue. Sometimes they pretend to be human, passing for Ronians or Agarians. Kithiri an be from any culture but tend to resemble Human societies found in the Southern Varian Sea. The few pure Kithiri settlements that do exist speak Khubsi, favor rule by council or even direct democracy of some kind. 

The Kithiri are not widely known and many regard them as a  myth or even a recently created race. They tend to blend easily and can go unnoticed by the other races. It is believed they were created jointly more than one god.  

The unique feature of the Kithiri is their minds are made up of six personalities or egos. Each ego is distinct but they all share the same memories and perceptions. The egos can communicate internally but express themselves as a single voice externally (though Kithiri use the pronoun "We" rather than "I").

Balancing the Egos is very important to the Kithiri. When one or more of their personalities dominate this is disruptive to their well being. It causes them to suffer (see Multi-Ego below). 

Flexible Mind: Because their mind is made up of multiple egos, each capable of thinking independently, Kithiri can perform up to six mental tasks at a time. This has a number of effects, the most important at character creation and for advancement during play is that Knowledge Skills cost them half the normal amount of Skill Points or Experience Points. But this also has a number of implications as well. It affects any Skill roll or Spell that involves thinking alone. So a Kithiri can make a Reason Skill Roll and an Empathy Skill roll as a single action. They can never cast two spells at the same time this way, but they can cast a Spell and make additional Mental and Knowledge Skill rolls during the casting. 

Multi-Ego: Each Ego has its own distinct personality and motivation. Generally the egos function collectively and agree upon courses of action. Sometimes one Ego manages to dominate the others and run amuck. Whenever a Kithiri experiences great physical or emotional stress check to see if the Egos become unbalanced by rolling 1d10 against the character's Resolve (examples of such stress include taking 2 wounds in a round, making an Endurance Roll. etc). If the result equals or beats the Resolve score, then roll randomly to determine which personality is dominant. The player should play that personality for the full day. 

If the result of the Resolve roll is a 10, then the personality is desperate to enact some sort of scheme or plot against the other egos. This isn't self destructive. The Ego doesn't try to harm the character but rather assert itself. The GM should determine what this is and explain it to the player. While in this state of inner conflict, Kithiri take 3 Extra Grim Points for Cathartic castings. 


EGO PERSONALITY GENERATOR
Players can make up the six ego personalities or roll on this table: 

Table One
Roll 1d10
1  Intellectually Curious and Inventive
2  Compassionate
3  Social and Friendly
4  Defensive and Wary
5  Aggressive and Assertive
6  Greedy
7  Reliable 
8  Heroic
9  Moderate
10  Roll on Table Two

Table Two
Roll 1d10
1  Dogmatic
2  Vindictive
3  Pretentious
4  Cowardly
5  Violent
6  Thieving
7  Obsessive 
8  Reckless
9  Reluctant
10  Roll on Table Three

Table Three
Roll 1d10
1  Zealous
2  Opportunistic
3  Manipulative
4  Paranoid
5  Cruel
6  Exploitative
7  Anxious 
8  Destructive
9  Disobedient 
10  Pure Evil


Sunday, November 16, 2014

THE IMPERIUM OF SERTORI

A player in my Sertorius campaign recently pointed out that some aspects of the game sneak up on you. Reading the rulebook it is not always immediately clear what a chaotic influence Sertori are on the world. This is discussed in the GM chapter, in key places of the Gazetteer and in the history section but it is somewhat buried. So a lot of players are surprised when they start their first campaign by how powerful the party is and how easily their characters can shake up the politics of Gamandria. 

In Sertorius, characters are strong out of the gate. They begin with abilities that would place them at mid-level in many other systems. This means they become important quickly, they rise through the ranks quickly, they disrupt the balance of the world quickly. It is not uncommon for a party of Sertori to begin seizing power for themselves very early in a campaign. 

This does depend on a number of things. There are considerations the GM needs to weigh when dealing with parties on the rise. Not every campaign will handle this in the same way. 

The party's spells are crucial here. Sertori begin with four spells, so the spells they choose matter. In a party of four or five characters, how their spells compliment one another is significant. Most parties, even if they do not possess obvious combat spells, can use their magic cleverly enough to work situations to their advantage. But there are some combinations that are better suited for taking crowns than others. 

Another important factor is location. The more civilized places of the world usually have institutions in place that keep Sertori in check. They simply have more experience successfully managing Sertori and have built on that (and these institutions are typically made up of Sertori themselves). For example The Caelum Republic has an order called the Caelcori. These are all Sertori and they function as a kind of secret police who enforce an ancient law preventing spell casters from holding certain offices. There is also the Fellowship of Promestus in Ronia, and the Phra Jao in Khata (a kind of governing body of Sertori). Frequently the Sertori themselves are in control (as one might expect). The ruler of the Mandaru Empire is a Sertori for instance. In these cases, there is a certain level of stability in the relationship between Sertori and non-Sertori.  Away from places like this, things get considerably more chaotic. Even where there is a Sertori in control, it only takes a more powerful Sertori or group of Sertori to buckle the established hierarchy. 

The presence of other Sertori is also something GMs need to consider. Many cities and kingdoms are ruled by Sertori. Where Sertori do not rule directly, there are Sertori behind the throne, supporting it and protecting it. Taking power is not usually as simple as killing a mortal king and his guards, it can be quite a dangerous undertaking. 

Non-Sertori themselves are still able to kill Sertori. While Sertori can cast spells and are physically more powerful than normal people, they are not invulnerable and they can still die. A hundred soldiers firing arrows at a Sertori will kill him unless he has a particularly appropriate spell to the situation. Six wounds. A Sertori can sustain six wounds before dying. Non-Sertori who plan ahead can easily manage that. 

The total population and distribution of Sertori is another key consideration, and this varies from one campaign to the next. The number of Sertori in Gamandria was left deliberately vague in the rulebook. We gave a possible range of 200-3,000 Sertori existing in the setting. Ultimately the exact number is up to the GM. If there are only 200, that means a lot of places won't even have Sertori (because the Caelcori and the Fellowship of Promestus alone take up about half that number). In a campaign with very few Sertori, there are more opportunities for PCs to wreak havoc but also a greater assumption of stability. In a campaign with more, there may be fewer opportunities and more impediments, but likely a greater degree of chaos (though perhaps not, this was a subject we debated a lot and the conclusion was not always obvious or agreed upon by all three designers). 

I encourage GMs curious about campaign power levels in Sertorius to read CHAPTER THIRTEEN: GAMEMASTERING GAMANDRIA and to take a very close look at CHAPTER NINE: PEOPLES AND PLACES. In particular I suggest reading the following entries to get a sense of the impact Sertori have on the setting (and their limitations): Trade Routes (235), Atroxis (257), The Caelum Republic (264), Donyra (274), Khata (281), Mandaru Empire (283), The Marite Kingdoms (285), Matruk (286), Midbar Valley (288), Ogre Gate (290), Phra Goa (291), Qam'ua (294), Ranu and the Ranu People (295), The Ronian Empire (298), Tajem (314), The Taksiri Pirates (315), Talyr (315), Traya (318), Tungat Oasis (318), and Ubara (319). Another section of the book worth examining closely is CHAPTER EIGHT: RELIGIONS, ORGANIZATIONS AND TEXTS. It includes many entries relevant to Sertori including The Children of Nong Sai (227), The Cult of the Emerald Serpent (227), The Cult of Karima (227), The Cult of Kwam Jao (227), The Cult of Sukat, The Caelcori (230), and The Fellowship of Promestus (230). CHAPTER TEN: HISTORY AND LEGEND also illustrates how Sertori have shaped Gamandria in the past. 

In the end this is your setting to use and tweak as you wish. Nothing beats thinking about the nature of power and deciding things for yourself. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

TIME TRAVEL IN GAMANDRIA

Time travel is possible in the Sertorius setting of Gamandria. It isn't something we draw a lot of attention to but it is an important assumption of play. It was a key development in one of our previous campaigns. 

There are two time traveling Thauma (miracles) characters can gain access to as they acquire more followers: Returning and Sending. Returning can send you back in time while Sending can take you forward in time. However there are some serious limitations on both these powers. 


Returning can send the caster and up to six other people back in time to a random date. The caster cannot control exactly when they will appear but is able to choose whether they go back years, decades, centuries or millennia. A character using this Thauma might decide to go back centuries, and the GM would roll 3d10 and arrange them in order to determine how many years the player goes back in time. A result of 3,6, and 8 would mean the characters goes back in time by 368 years. Had the character opted for decades the GM would simply have rolled 2d10 (if the results were 3 and 6 that would mean 36 years back in time). Sending works the same way, except it takes you forward in time. 

One major problem this presents for characters is you need both Thauma to have any hope of getting back to your own time (unless you only go back a few years and wait). Another hurdle is the problem of crossing your own timeline. Any character who interacts with him or herself risks being wiped from existence or suffering a major random change. The rules for this are relatively small and just part of the Thauma, but because time travel has factored into some of our own campaigns, I've been working on a new method for managing all changes characters make to history. 


This new approach is still a work in progress, I still need to hash out the final details and work through the tables. But here are the basics and here is the first result on the table. 

There are some basic guidelines for the GM to keep in mind first:


1. All significant actions have a chance of producing change

2. All changes to the past change the future in an amount equal to the distance in time

4. Obvious changes are determined by the GM, non-obvious changes must be determined randomly

5. Exception: A person cannot write themselves out of existence if they are operating within their own lifetime (they can cause their death though)


6.Special Rule: An obvious paradox increases the chance of large change, shifting the Outcome table by 1 to the right. 

Further Explanation
Anytime the player takes significant action in the past (significant action includes killing something, creating something, altering the outcome of an event, etc), determine whether it produces an obvious change to history or if it is unclear.

If obvious, simply decide how history is changed and if this affects any of the characters directly.

If it is unclear, then assign a percentage chance of how likely the change is to occur. As a general rule of thumb, the chance of change is arrived at by taking the distance in time between the two dates in the timeline and dividing that by 10. So a person who goes 100 years into the past and kills someone, has a 10% of changing the future, someone who goes 1000 years into the past and kills someone has a 100% chance of changing the future. Roll using this percentage chance, if the result shows change occurs, roll on the Outcomes table below. 

The further back in the past one goes, the bigger the change. Anything within 10 years, only produces Superficial Change. Anything that between 11-100 years produces Minor Change. Anything between 101 to 1,500 years in the past produces Massive Change. Anything over 1,500 years produces Catastrophic Change. This determines which column to use in the Outcomes table when you roll for change. 

2D10 Roll
Outcomes

Superficial Change
Minor Change
Massive Change
Catastrophic Change
2
A random person you know (an NPC) dies
You Die or no longer exist if possible
A random place in the world (major city for example) no longer exists
Open permanent gate between your time of origin and current position in time. Everything can move freely between these two points.

I am going to work these table results out over the course of my next campaigns and will post the final version of these rules at that time. Until then, I welcome suggestions and thoughts on the subject.