Monday, January 30, 2012


I am pleased to announce we are working on a line of PDF games and supplements to both support our print products and offer exciting alternatives to our regular products. These will mostly be fifty pages or less, cost efficient and experimental. We will continue to put out regular print material, this is just a way for us to get more stuff out there while remaining within our budget.

Last week Bill and I started work on a game called Slayers, our first PDF mini-game. It developed very rapidly after our initial discussion on the premise and I am very excited aout it (if it does well, we will eventually put it into print). The concept is very simple: gritty fantasy in the style of Excaliber and Dragonslayer. The first fantasy movie I fell in love with was Excaliber and the news of Nicol Williamson (who played Merlin) made me think about why I like it so much to this day. So alot of those conclusions have made it into our design objectives for Slayers. What are our goals?

1) A simple and sleek system that focuses on imagination over tactics. We have a really solid core mechanic in place and will be playtesting it over the next couple of months. It is very different from the Network System, but similar in its core approach to games. So far it feels right. Slayers will not be written with miniature play in mind. Battlemats are great but sometimes it is good to build a system without them.

2) Deadly combat and mysterious magic. Combat in Slayers is unforgiving. This is a game where sizing up your opponent is important because skill weighs the odds heavily in your favor. Characters have a small pool of HP and many weapons are capable of eliminating them all in a single roll.

Magic is deeply inspired by films like Excaliber. It is dangerous to wield, hard to obtain and difficult to use in combat (though not impossible). Miscast spells can unleash shades, damn your soul and age your body. Use them at your own peril.

3) Anachronistic Dark Age Setting: One of the things that made Excaliber work was it embraced the anachronisms of Le Morte d'Arthur and works like it, which were written in later periods and often projected high and late middle age elements onto an early middle ages setting. So we intend to do the same. Or setting will be fictional, but vaguely resemble the early middle ages with lots of later developments thrown in for flavor (knights, chivalry, full plate armor, etc). I am still developing this part of the game.

There is much more to Slayers than this, and things could always change as we playtest it. As soon as we feel it is ready, we will release it in PDF.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

World Building Part Two: Going Local

In World Building Part One: The Longue Duree, I talked about taking the big picture view of your setting by shaping its long-term structures in broad strokes. Having the outlines of your setting is important. This ensures some level of consistency and makes for a coherent final product, but you also need to think about things at the granular level, where there is change and interaction between the various components of your setting.

First, zoom in. Take a section of you map, for example of small northern province of the Calecian Empire we were just developing, and create one or more regional maps detailing that location. As with the other maps, you will want to note your ideas and decisions down in a setting bible (you will also want to reference this document as you work so as not to introduce inconsistencies. Before you draw anything, look at your world map and consider your setting bible. What elements should be on that page? How are those elements influenced by the local geography? What natural lines of conflict exist there?

Remember an empire isn't just a broad swath of homogenous space. You can be sure it is a textured landscape of peoples, languages and cultures. Suppose you look at your map of the Calecian Empire and decide to focus on a province you have called Rhuna. Looking at your world maps, you see that halfing tribes inhabit the area. You also notice a swath of hills and mountainous terrain lines its eastern border. Before you even get to the elves, think about these details for a moment. The province is called Rhuna, perhaps that is because the halflings in this area speak a shared language called Rhunic. So establish that even though they are divided by tribal loyalties, they have a common language and probably a common culture.

Yu should at this point develop that culture. What are their religious beliefs and practices? What are their political structures? Are any of the tribes united? There are countless ways to answer these questions. For example, the Rhunic people are divided into seven tribes who occasionally war with one another and their neighbors over territorial or personal disputes. Each tribe is ruled by a council of elders, and once every year the elders from the different tribes meet at a grand council to resolve conflicts and address grievances. For the most part the tribes exist together peacefully, but they are ever-threatened by the hill people (who are also halflings and speak a dialect of Rhunic) from the eastern mountains/hills. Every so often these hill halflings descend from their pastoral lands and invade for food and supplies. The Rhunic halflings worship a fertility goddess named Sarva who requires an annual blood sacrifice to fertilize the soil. The answers can go on and on, but you can see the point.

Now that you have established roughly what was there before the Calecians came in, you need to plot out the conquest of the province and its impact. Maybe it wasn't a very violent conquest, the Rhunic people just want to go about their life peaceful and avoid tensions with the hill folk. A brilliant Calecian general offered them the empire's protection if they allowed it to set up colonies and collect tribute from the tribes. Of the seven tribes, five agreed and two resisted. Though outnumbered by the empire and it's Rhunic allies, these two tribes united under a charismatic leader named Dhunar. Eventually he was captured and killed, causing an end to open rebellion, but to this day a small resistance remains and draws inspiration from his memory.

Soon you will want to elaborate on life in Rhuna under Calecian rule, but first dwell on more mundane details: what resources are available in the area? what natural challenges do the people face (cold winters? dry summers?)? what is their daily life like? Do they have written language? What technology do they have? How did all these things impact their interaction with the Calecians?

Once you've established these details hone in on the present arrangement in the province. Maybe the Calecians initially only asked for tribute in exchange for protection, but eventually imposed their system of government on the halflings. So far the Calecians appear clever and diplomatic, perhaps they took a soft approach to assimilation and lowered the tribute of tribes that allowed Calecian "speaker" to govern their communities. This raises a question with the tribes that accepted the offer (and we shouldn't assume they all uniformly accept): what is the political role of the council versus the Caelician speaker? To avoid conflict, the Speaker is put in charge of all financial matters in the city, but the council is given a say on issues of law and has full control of the local religion. This may change overtime, but for now the effect is that the speaker holds weekly meetings with the council to decide legal matters (you will want to devise the precise system). Against this backdrop of assimilation, a new resistance is forming around a mysterious leader. They can't face the Calecians openly, so the resistance murders Caelician officials hoping this will drain their morale and unite the tribes against the occupiers. Since most communities have a sizable population of Calecian elves now (mostly descended from the original soldiers who conquered the land) there is ample opportunity for the resistance to make it's point.

This is just the beginning of course. Since this is a fantasy setting you need to consider other things like local monsters, the role of magic, etc.

After you have done all this, you need to focus on specifics. Map out and describe each community (remember there are two types: those under Calecian Rule and those under control of the councils), create all the major players in your area (the speakers, important council members, resistance leaders, etc), elaborate on local trade, design interesting locations to explore, etc. This is where you really bring things to life. The personalities and places you develop here will be endless fodder for adventure.

Now take it one more step. Take a single community and plan it out in as much detail as you can. You don't have to do all of them, just one to give you an idea of how the different communities work. Determine it's population, name, major structures (both physical and cultural), key inhabitants, resources, conflicts, sites of interest. Daily activities, etc. Imagine your PCs walk into the town; what do they see? who do they meet? where do they go to get answers? where can they sleep and eat?

Now create interesting relationships between these elements. Maybe Yorva the barrel maker wants to marry the fishmonger's daughter, but can't afford the dowry. Perhaps the local council of elders is narrowly divided in it's loyalties to the Calecians, creating two factions in the settlement. To protect themselves against the hostile faction, the twenty or so Calecian residents hire body guards (often times recruited from the hill tribes mentioned earlier). Every once in a while there is conflict and even bloodshed (usually on a small scale and involving ale). Slowly what emerges is a community on the edge, filled with local tension because of the divided loyalties in the council.

This is just a sampling of how to approach local design. The key is it helps clarify the big picture by bringing those larger structures into focus at the street level. It is one thing to say "here there is an empire", but to make it live you have to examine it's roots and bowels. Together with the Longue Duree, this approach should provide a solid foundation for any campaign.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

World Building Part One: The Longue Duree

NOTE: Have been blogging lately on my iPad so please excuse any typos or autocorrect issues (I can't scroll down to edit).

World building has been on my mind since we started work on Sortorius (for which Bill and I are designing a complete setting). It is an aspect of gaming I really enjoy, sitting down in a quiet place and plodding out the details of a fictional setting. But it presents a number of challenges, the first being: where do I begin?

Before I answer my own question, a bit of personal background is in order. In college I was a history major and one of my favorite subjects was historiography. Historiography is essentially the study of the history of history and its various schools of thought (that is what it means to historians anyways). There are all kinds of fancy names historians employ to describe the different approaches they use in their craft, but two stand out as particularly appropriate for game design. The first is associated with annales historian Fernand Braudel, who viewed history through something called The Longue Duree. This basically means looking at long term structures like geography when analyzing the past. It also means you take the long view of history. Braudel's history of the Mediterranean begins with the geologic history of the region and slowly advances to about the time of the Romans (If I remember correctly). He places great emphasis on how geography shapes culture. This is the first approach. Just to be clear there is much more to Braudel and the annales than that, but for our purposes, this is the part to focus on.

The second approach is sometimes called micro history, and is associated with Italian historians like Carlos Ginzburg. Micro historians examine a very small and focused area of history in great detail. For example a micro historian may write a history of a small French hamlet and the people who lived there in 1790. Or he may write about the heresy trial of an Italian miller during the inquisition. This is an approach to history many GMs can appreciate because it is so local. When combined with The Longue Duree, it yields a good deal of clarity.

In my opinion it is usually better to start, just initially, with The Longue Duree or big picture of your setting's history. I will abuse the term slightly and use it to mean any of the big picture parts of the setting. Not just geography, cosmology, races and monsters but also countries, political structures, etc. Basically in this step you are planting the seeds of your long term structures as well as charting the developments of those structures over time. However, you will want to dip into the local level and take a micro historical approach to keep things in order and to illuminate your own sense of the setting from time to time (more on this in part two).

First start with your cosmology. In a fantasy setting everything begins with your assumptions about the gods and the supernatural. So you will want to establish that before you go anywhere else.

Next draw a map of the entire world you plan to use. It may be useful to just focus on a single continent for now. Put in the major geographic features, then look at those features and ponder where your races fit in. Don't write anything else on the page, just think. Now print five (or more copies of your map). You are about to chart the Longue Duree of your setting.

It is now time to decide how the races came into existence and where they begin on your map. I usually like to think of my races as tribes created by the gods and start them out in general locations. Mark down where the elves, where the humans, where the dwarves, halflings and orcs live. Let that page be your first several thousand years.

Map two will be the next stage in your history. Perhaps you decide the elves migrate to the coast, driving the dwarves north into human lands, or far up into the mountains. Maybe the elves settle here and master agriculture, building your first cities and political structures. Draw in the cities, some arrows to indicate the movement of the races, and then think how things might play out on the remainder of the map.

With Map three you further develop the ideas you've worked out so far. Also keep the unsettled people in mind. Traditionally settled people's have been subject to attacks by pastoral nomadic peoples, so if have humans living in those mountains near the elves, they may be a source of conflict and bloodshed. The time frame for the maps is up to you, but this one probably follows closer on the heels of the previous one, say five hundred years or so. You decide that the elven cities clustered on the eastern coast unified, while the others remained largely fragmented. This unified culture you call the Calecians. They set up colonies in area occupied by other elven cultures but also in regions dominated by tribal halflings and humans (who probably have started their own rudimentary settlements at this stage). This is an important development as it means a lot of the cultures in your setting might share characteristics inherited from these early elven colonies.

The idea is you keep building you world in stages like this. Eventually empires and kingdoms will appear on your pages. All the while you will want to think of important structures that can't be charted on the map. For instance wizard orders and religions. How to create religion for a gaming world is an essay unto itself, so for now I will just say focus on where it started and where it spread (does it overlap several cultures and political boundaries?).

Start a small setting bible. This will keep you from being inconsistent. Write this alongside or maps as they develop. Include a timeline (very important to nail down key dates) and rough history to explain what is on the map. The bible should also include all or major power structures, races, gods, political powers, etc.

At this stage, when you are approaching the actual period your setting will be set in, you are ready to examine the local level in depth (though it should always be in the back of your mind). The local level is important because it is the point where the individual intersects with the broader strokes of the setting. This is where most gaming occurs. By thinking about small pockets you make the larger elements that much stronger. It is great to have a broad concept of a large elven empire, but it is also very important to think about how it operates at the local level. And that will be the subject of the next world building essay.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Script Immunity

Everyone has a different take on character deaths in RPGs. I've been gaming for over twenty years and have seen everything from players who want unlimited protection from death to those who prefer meat grinder campaigns where only the clever or lucky survive. While the world is big enough to support both extremes and everything in the middle, this topic is a frequent source of argument at the gaming table (and endless flamewars on the Internet). Therefore I think it is important for game masters to listen to their players preferences and find an approach that works for the group. With that in mind I would like to advocate my own position on the issue, which is this: please kill my character.

Maybe it is because I come from I slightly competitive background, but one thing I can't stand in an RPG is the GM using kid gloves or offering script immunity to PCs. To those unfamiliar with the term, script immunity means the PCs, by virtue of being the "stars" of the show, have varying levels of protection from death. Sometimes this means the GM only let's them die when they take foolish risks, but it might also mean defacto invulnerability. It can arise because the players themselves don't want to lose characters they've invested hours to months developing, or it can arise because the GM doesn't want to deal with the hassle of having the flow of the game disrupted by loss of an important PC (and for a host of other reasons as well). In my opinion, this strips the game of most of it's fun.

Yes, character death is an inconvenience and few shout for joy when their beloved PC bites the dust. But removing it from the game reduces the stakes of the game, which for many of us also reduces the thrill of adventure. When the outcome isn't a foregone conclusion things are just more exciting. Doubly so when you the outcome includes the possibility of a PC kicking the bucket. To me script immunity is like playing a video game with the cheat codes on. The luster and the excitement vanish when there is no true threat facing my character (sure the threat can be other things like loss of reputation or power, but pound for pound, nothing matches character death).

Character death immerses you in the game. When the protective hand of the GM is obvious and characters don't die when they clearly should, it disrupts my suspension of disbelief. If my dwarf dives onto the back of a dragon and falls down a thousand foot shaft, he should die, he shouldn't make a surprise appearance later in the adventure. If my secret agent takes a grenade to the face and the damage is enough to kill him, please don't have him wake up in a hospital bed down town. I'd rather my character die than disrupt my immersion in the setting.

Besides the obvious reasons of immersion and excitement, there are a couple of less obvious reasons character death makes the game better.

The first is that makes your heroic character that much more heroic. If your character isn't truly risking his life, then how much claim does he have to greatness when he is a 16th level slayer of dragons. If the dragons were never capable of killing him in the first place, it drains the heroism from his exploits. But if the dragon slayer was in peril every step of the way, always at the mercy of the dice, that makes his accomplishment truly badass.

The second reason is character deaths provide fun stories to tell by the table. My best gaming stories revolve around the final moments (profound and not so profound) of my favorite characters. There is something to be said for regaling your friends with the tale of Evander Mightyfist's graceless slip into a pool of acid.

So don't be afraid of character death. If you have been hesitant about it in the past, give it a try. Run a "let the dice fall where they may" game and see if it amps up the excitement a bit.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Monday, January 16, 2012


Bedrock Games is developing a fantasy RPG tentatively named Sortorius. Over the next year Bill and I will build the mechanics (with the Network system as a base) and the campaign world. Here is where we know so far (all subject to change of course):

PREMISE: The game features powerful magic and wizards. There will be other character options but magic is going to be king. So mages are potent but, like characters in all Network games, they are still "squishy"

RACES: Will include many standard fantasy races like elves, halflings, dwarves, etc. We also plan to feature orcs and snake men as player races.

RELEASE DATE: We are going to give ourselves plenty of time to fine tune this product, so the manuscript won't go into layout until at least 2013.

SIZE: This will be much larger than other Bedrock books (over 200 pages).