Aside

Throw him in the…Fortified Underground Defense Facility!!!

Many years ago, when I worked underground, I had a bumper snicker that said:  It’s not a Dungeon.  It’s a fortified Underground Defense Facility!  Then, It was particularly funny (at least to me), because that’s pretty much what I worked in.  There was a reason it was located where it was and why the doors were locked.  But, why Dungeons?  Dragons are obvious…western myth of these powerful fire-breathing creatures abound.  The are powerful and terrifying and a great evil for hero’s to slay (yeah, right!).  But where did the labyrinthine compounds built beneath the ground come from and why do orcs live over there, next door to the rust monster, just upstairs from the poison spore fungus, that the gelatinous cube leave be?

B1map

The dungeon, as far as I can tell, does have at least a bit of provenance…however tenuous…

There are the Mines of Moria, and The Labyrinth.  (You know, from Crete? Built by Daedalus?)  But since they were included in the name of the Grandfather (D&D) they can be found in almost all fantasy games and many games that are NOT fantasy!

(←Kudos to those who recognize that map!)

Hmmm…I have several hundred slaves, a lot of shovels and a bunch of doors, but no stone masons or brick makers…what can I do???

For the evil overlord who has the manpower, but doesn’t want a crenelated tower spoiling his view of the countryside, digging an underground complex might be the answer.  What other reason could a person have for building the monolithic multilevel complexes of hallways and separate chambers?

From a GM point of view, Dungeons are a great mechanic.  You know that the players are limited in their actions…(unless they decide they are just going to leave…but there are ways to counter that!  Ask My Lady wife about it!)  Almost all action that take place there are mechanical, rolled on dice, and it can become a great limit on resources…do they drop the latest treasure, or keep another week of food?  However, most settings just leave the dungeons in place because of these benefits.  They litter the countryside, and are filled with myriad creatures to challenge your players.  But then we get back to the question above.  Why?  A fortress?  Well, why not build a fortress?  You never have to worry about cave ins, and you can grow food, and save a huge amount on your torch bill!  A hidden fortress?  Better.  Why do you need a hidden fortress, and why doesn’t magic, or technology, work better to keep it hidden?  Do you have an army of underground builders who don’t know how to stack stones on top of each other, but can mold stone like clay?  Very good reason…how do you get water?  Air?  Food? Light?  All of these are questions that would push people away from using the traditional dungeon full of locked doors and death traps.  Are there any reasons to?

Earthdawn, one of my favorite settings, has a perfect reason for dungeons to exist:  Horrors.  The very short version of the great back story is that evil creatures exist that are unstoppable except by building magically protected cities beneath the earth.  With that  setting, you have a great reason for dungeons, with built-in Big Bad at the end!  However, it is not the only reason.  What if the surface of the planet is hostile, so denizens all live beneath the surface, with an inverse strata…those farther from the surface are the wealthier, because they are more protected from the inimical surface hazards.  Lost paths, or those that had sprung a leak to the surface…Instant abandoned (or recently re-inhabited) dungeon!  With only a little thought, you should be able to determine if dungeons will work in your setting or not.  But, maybe you can use dungeons that aren’t a series of man-made or natural caverns.  What about a badlands made up of canyons and gulches, that are generally to steep and unstable to climb…or that the hostile Indian tribe watches the surface and shoots anyone who comes out?  Perhaps they get into an office building…no windows on the first 5 floors, security you understand.  And the door that they entered cannot be opened from this side!  They need to find a way out…and of course the robots that patrol the corridors don’t recognize the intruders…

All right.  You have decided that you can use dungeons and so you begin throwing Orks over here, giant centipedes in this hall.  Skeletons down these stairs, and giant spiders in the other room over there.  That should prove a challenge!  Well..yes, it does…a challenge to the suspension of disbelief!  When keying (or populating) your dungeon like complex, think about why it is here.  You obviously know you are going to use it…but why?  Is it an abandoned Dwarven stronghold?  Why did they abandon it?  Is it a maze with a minotaur at the center?  Is it an ancient kaer in which the citizens have forgotten why they buried themselves and degenerated into a dog eat dog stratification?  Once you have thought out why it is there, you should see some obvious current inhabitants.  The ancient bane of dwarves is the goblins!  So, mostly what you find is goblins or goblinoid creatures…and don’t goblins often set traps?  Do they keep pets?  Wild boars for food, and for cavalry?  or maybe they eat large spiders!  But Refmentor!  When can I put in the dragon?!!  Well…There wouldn’t be a dragon in this complex.  Unless it is what drove out the dwarves.  And if that is the case, will the goblins still be hanging around?  Not likely.  It is possible that a few scroungers have taken up residence well away from the dragon, but they are either very cunning, or completely stupid…and fighting might well rouse the super senses of the main resident.  (We will talk another time about when to use such creatures in your settings). 

Dungeons do Not have to be part of every story, but the can definitely be used for certain purposes.  But, as this is an “Ecology of…” article, there is one final consideration for your fortified complex (Underground, overground, or where ever) and that is…ecology!  What do your resident eat?  Do they need water?  What about waste?  Where do they live?  Why is there a magic pool, not alone a dozen in one room?  Although you can create a food web, and then determine what the byproduct of that web are, how things decay, or degrade  and so on, or, like so many other things: think about it.  You can be very detailed, or general.  Flora generally needs soil, light and water.  There are real world exceptions, so there is no reason you cannot have exceptions…Giant leathery mushrooms that absorb water from the air, and actually blacken and weaken in sunlight…not very tasty, but full of nutrients!  They naturally occur, but are often cultivated, but the glow ball fungus never grows with them, and always on the edge of running or at least not-stagnant water…OK…You have a basic food source and even some light.  A particular breed of cave pig is bred to eat these fungus, but they are eaten as well, and their waste can be used for fuel for fires!  OK…Now you have food, light and fuel…now place things that raise/eat them…with a “Bottomless pit” that is used to get rid of waste…bones, feces, dead grandma’s…

With a bit of thought, you can have a relatively believable location with reasonable encounters…It might take a little more investment than you had hoped, (ARE there undead that spontaneously generate?) but as with most everything else, the more you put into it, the more the players get out, which give you more back!

 

Well, That’s the story.  Take it, or leave it.  My trucker buddies, they believe it!

Murder is Bad, um-kay?

Ways to deal with Characters in the setting

Before I go into this post, I want to explain something…I am not posting a (directly) world building article.  But, there are a couple of reasons for that.  1st…I wanted to post this article.  Second, World building is a HUGE topic.  As far as RPGs go, it really is setting building, so any of the “Ecology” articles will be relevant.  What are people looking for?  The various and assorted dregs of ideas that I use to build new settings?  Tools to build world/universe maps? Building stories and plot arcs?  I guess I set the question too broad…So, I will be posting another poll…but it will be a fill in the blank…What kind of things do YOU want to see?  And lastly…what do you think of my new layout?  I might be playing around with them a bit in the near future.  Please NOTE: The hexes at the top Right are the menu’s!

Now…to the point!

One of the issues that ref’s have is dealing with disruptive characters.  The player is usually fine, but the character is causing problems (usually a psych type motivation or maybe a bestest) .  The fighter who gets into fights with the least provocation…not with fellow PCs, but with NPCs…bar patrons, thugs, etc.  The thief who feels the need to pickpocket every merchant they see, and relies on quick feet when the roll fails…the assassin who routinely murders people because they look at them cross-eyed.

None of these are necessarily BAD character types, but they can make for disruptive games.  So, what can you do?  Actually quite a lot, ranging from the “settle down” comment to the player, to the Blue bolt from the sky, leaving only a smoking pair of boots! (Yes, even if the character was barefoot…but that is a bit of a more  gruesome sight…)  But, this post has a bit of world building to it, so let me lean on that.   I have already addressed some of the problems of the troublesome player, and will assume you have taken care of that.

The first thing is character boundaries.  I have discussed the need for building a team of characters.  So, the first thing to do, if your character wants to play a low down murdering scum bounty hunter / assassin, but your game is about lawful obedience to gods of light…you might veto the character.  OR you might sit with the player, explain the arc, and see if this character can be led to a path of redemption.  If that works, then you have a hook…the first priest who assigns the task has seen this poor urchin, and charges one of the paladins to convert him from his heathen and un social ways!  (sorry…we are not worried about hooks…but that one was too easy!)  If the character doesn’t fit the adventure, find out what appeals to the player and see if you can fit their wants into a character that does fit.  Or, would everybody rather play a dark and EVIL campaign…(I will cover EVIL campaigns sometime).  I won’t go into this discussion for now, we already have a given that the PLAYER is not the problem.  The next, and perhaps most important thing, is societal boundaries.  One of the biggest jobs for a ref is to try to suspend disbelief in a game about the Ahlflin, a small creature with small eyes, big ears and Huge teeth, who is driving the living spaceship at 100 times the speed of light through the heart of a black hole in pursuit of one of the mighty space dragons.  Part of that suspension  is to represent the society in which they live.  And society has rules.  I am not talking LAWS and I am not going to get on my high horse about legislation and morals…Rules for people to live together.  No matter the setting, Killing people is bad.  Behavior that disrupts society is BAD,  and every society has a way to enforce that.  A society is any group of people.  a party of 4 have their own society.  And they have ways of enforcing it.  A star faring civilization of trillions of souls have a different society.  The general rule is that the larger the society, the more rigid the standards.  It is ok for a single couple to live however they wish, doing what ever they wish…but, when millions are involved, the rules are more restrictive to keep order, if not peace.  So…how does this play to RPGs and reffing?  ENFORCE THE RULES!

I am not talking about the game book.  I am talking about the society.  If someone attacks a city militia member, they will be, at the least, shunned.  If no one saw it, and the perpetrator ensured their were no witnesses, then the militia/guard will increase their patrols…either nobody traveling alone or more often patrolling the area.  If entire guard patrols are wiped out, then every available guard will be called out…they may fail morale checks, and for a while, your characters may rule a town out of fear…but that leads to secretive enemies, who may try to murder them…and eventually, they will send for a band of adventurers to deal with these evil tyrants.  What about Assassins?  OK.  You allow assassins in your games, fine.  Do you also include guilds, or are they all self-employed and freelance? Either way, the establishment will likely not appreciate people working “their turf”  without sanction…and any assassin worth the title won’t kill for free…and they then becomes a target of the locals.  Thieves and pirates will draw the ire of law enforcement.  People who don’t pay the graft to the keepers of the shadow market will be separated from their outlet…at least!

How can you catch the player who is breaking these societal norms?  Investigation!  Somebody will be in charge of seeking out the ne’er-do-wells.  How can they find them?  What tools do they have?  Magic?  Science?  Divine guidance?  What value is magic in criminal investigation? How difficult is it to kill someone when you can bring in the local necromancer to ask the spirit of the victim who killed them?  So how does your murderer keep the spirit from speaking…oh what games just that trail of crumbs could lead to!   What about a theocratic society, based upon a pantheistic belief?  They may use Paladins of the god of justice to investigate crimes.  Priests of the goddess of Revenge to carry out punishment.  Temple of the Patron of Slavers to deal with sentencing.  Technology…extrapolate any CSI type show.  In short, you can use whatever tools available to carry out enforcement of rules.  Maybe is just the Biggest thug that hangs out at the dock…for a few coins, he visits the perpetrator with a whack-bonk.  (What’s a whack-bonk?  A leather bag filled with lead shot…whack someone upside the head, and you hear a bonk as the head bounces off the floor!).  Maybe it is hiring gunslinger from San Francisco…he has a gun, and he travels!  Summoned Demons?  Summoned Angels?  Created bio hunters that track a single DNA pattern that never sleeps?  Or just calling the police.  All of these can be used to keep players in line.  Your game, no matter the setting will have some rules and some punishments.  It may range from a death sentence by stoning for any infraction, to banishment, to weregild  Man has inflicted some harsh punishments upon other men throughout history.  Sometimes it is just because they were the enemies…but sometimes they were enemies because they couldn’t live in the rules of their society.

Simply put, think about the society.  What are the rules of that society?  How are the rules enforced? And then have your society enforce them!

 

That’s my story.  Take it or leave it. My trucker buddies, they believe it!

Lets make a Stalk setting

This episode of RefMentor is brought to you by the garden of imaginary things…where game settings come from!

The Ecology of the Setting

Recently I was asked by a young GM about his setting.  He had a map and had started a timeline.  Great beginning, but he was trying an unorganized top down design.  And, if you have ever tried that…you know it can get out of hand very quickly!  So, here is a method that I recommended to him.  The analogy is not great, but it does work.  It is really a middle out built, disguised as top down.  Let me try to set up the idea:

When you are creating a setting, you have lots of ideas that you want in it.  so, you throw out a bunch of seeds and let them grow.  Hopefully you can tell the difference from the weeds and the planted seeds…and what if the seeds don’t work well together…so I recommend that you plant a central stalk of your setting, and then associated pieces can bud and branch off that central stalk!  OK.  That is the very general  description that might not make any sense, so now I will, as I often do, go into more detail, then try to give an example.  Granted, the topic of a setting in the length of the se posts is daunting, but if you want more, let me know…I’ll work on detailing it more!

When you are building  a setting…and for this purpose, I am not going to touch on game system, as that is a later decision that should have minimal influence on this step of your setting, you have ideas for what you want to play.  Sometimes it is a couple of things you want to see, and other times it is lots of ideas that you want to be present.  The first step is make a decision about what is the most important aspect of your story.  Map? A Culture? A business? Magic? Technology?  A language?  Whatever it is, that will be your stalk…the central trunk of your setting design.  Once you have your stalk, then you are going to build it, let it grow beyond what you think you might need.  As you build the central core idea, you will have things, little branches that will act as hooks for all of your other ideas.  Try not to worry about making them, and when you see them, make a not of them rather than try to make them complete branches.  Once, you get this stalk built, when you are satisfied that nothing else would add to what you have, then…Take a break!  Seriously…Take a break away from this…get a drink…find a distraction…play a game or ref another game.  This is important because when you come back to it your fresh.  Re-examine what you have.  Decide if it still is what you want to use.  If it is, decide if there is something you want to add to it.  Do it as needed.  THEN…find the natural breaks. A map has natural boundaries…large mountain ranges, oceans, big rivers.  A culture has breaks, when governments change, or borders expand.  Each of these natural breaks should be considered as a place to splice in the next piece of your setting.  Now…look at what you had identified as hooks/tags/branches before and add these new breaks to it.  If you have other ideas that you want to see, look and see if they will hang off of one of these natural places.  If not, do you have a place that you want it to be?  Then force a break in the stalk and put it in!  That shouldn’t change the main part of your stalk, but you may find, if you review everything, that maybe the stalk has a few things that make more sense to be changed with this new influence.  I would suggest that you work more on tying those ideas to the natural places, but if just won’t work then shove it in there!

This is where you develop those ideas that you wanted in there…remember that an idea may branch completely off from the main stalk and never touch it again, or it may wrap around the stalk and twine in and out of it.  This method allows you to keep a focus on what is important. Don’t be afraid of free association…maybe, in building this, you may find a branch actually becomes a new stalk!  Ideas can build on each and every branch and always reach back to another one…the natural world has all of these weird interconnections, why can’t your imagination place?!  The biggest concern when using this is to get carried away!  Not that is a bad thing, but if you get to far from the central stalk, the more work you are doing.  In some cases, you may be developing a setting for years or even the rest of your life.  Other times, you are creating a setting, to tell one story (which of course should be your stalk) so you don’t need to go far from it.  Put as much work into it as you want, but this technique will allow you to be certain you have what you want, and may reveal interesting new options that never occurred to you before!

Now…an example…Obviously just a stalk itself could take pages, but I hope this will illustrate the point.  I’ve mentioned a setting that is roman empire in space.  Well…that statement right there gives me the important stalk.  Obviously I want an interstellar civilization that is based upon early roman democracy.  So, I start with the stalk and it will go something like this: The Empire never fell.  The madness of the Ceaser’s was cured by divine magic and they ruled for a millennia.  Because Rome remained in power, and because of divine cures, the polytheistic belief system kept Christianity and other monotheistic beliefs on the sidelines, but they have always had active followers.  Because of this, the dark ages didn’t happen, so technology has advanced more rapidly, putting the tech tree about 200 years ahead…computers in the mid 17th century…The empire eventually dominates the world, opposed by a small but significant guerrilla movement in the far east, and a resolute native American (Indian, Mexican) forces. resistance.  Like the original Romans, they would have citizenship rules, castes and slaves…And on and on…it would obviously need to have a general timeline, the discovery of FTL drive, the Planet of New Rome, current home of the Senate, and so on…

Now we look at the timeline.  We see a guerrilla movement in Asia…so, let’s have a rogue theft of an early FTL by a Chinese agent…and they have formed a small, but resolute alliance of worlds.  So the guerrilla have become a full force, and the American resistance has overthrown a few planets, but these are backwater, frontier types that the Roman  Stellar forces and the Asian Universal Alliance cannot afford forces to take back over, but they both impose trade sanctions…and these rebel ships are considered pirates and smugglers in any non-rebel systems.  So, now we have the Cowboy/lawless feel of the rebellion, but they specialize in stealth tech and maneuverable ships.  But they make few breakthroughs because whenever they get big enough to do the required research, the site becomes a target…

There we have it…just a few minutes of thought, and much less than the minimum of work on the stalk, and we have a divinely guided Roman stellar empire, opposed by a resolute force of Asians…that still need a lot of fleshing out.  As well as rebel cowboy spies…with fashion and culture defined primarily by the Roman empire…and, as I set here writing , I see so many possibilities…A Star Wars variant…a Firefly variant…A Space Spies game…Roman Star explorers…

And with that little bit done, I could start a bottom up detail level and write specific adventures with a well established setting to reach back to for support.  Still a lot of work, but it can spark ideas, and maybe a new hobby of world/universe building! (Something that will always help an aspiring Ref!)

 

As Always:

That’s my Story…Take it or Leave it…My Trucker buddies, they believe it!

Room at the Inn (of the Harpy’s Roost)?

Here is the first in a series of Ecology posts.  One of the things I love doing as a ref, as I have stated before, is making worlds and settings.  This is mostly going to be Top down type detail, but it is of use to the bottom up crowd, and any in between, as well.  However, they will be very broad stroke and should lead a setting builder to many questions.  Hopefully, it will help them with a logic that will underlie their ideas and answers to those questions.  The concept of these posts was brought up with one of my kids when we discussed how far apart to place inns on the road…and I realized that these kind of questions come up all of the time, and they are ones that I spend significant (OK, maybe too much) time on.   Some of these ecology posts will focus on a particular setting, a particular creature or ecosystem and sometimes it will cover general “Suspension of Disbelief” type questions…like inns on a road in a fantasy campaign setting…

How far apart should I have inns along the king’s road?

First off, look at your question.  You already have made a couple of assumptions based on your setting, or at least the setting you are contemplating.  You know that 1: The ruler of the land is a King. 2: The kingdom has roads that the King claims. 3: There are inns along the king’s roads.  Next, you need to figure out what you are asking, or define your need a little better.

Let’s say, you want there to be inn’s that are privately owned along the roads.  These inn’s can receive incentive from the king (tax breaks, annual stipend, supplies, etc.) if they meet a certain security standard and will house a given number of the the kings guard, who patrol the road, for no charge.  So, in breaking down that question, and thinking about why we asked it, we have come up with a better definition of what we are asking.  It has also laid out a few other things that we might want to know.  Is there a standing army, or only road patrols?  do these patrols travel in large numbers, or just pairs?  What is the required security standard and so on. 

As you can see, like in top down world building, a simple task can branch and grow into a month long exercise just to work out roads and inns and so on.  While you could go there and work all of these questions out, you have a few ways to approach it.  Top down and you will be working out details like where the wood/stone/iron comes from to determine how much could be afforded at any given inn, that we still haven’t located….and so on.  For Bottom up, ( or even an episodic story?  more on that in another post) why worry about how far apart they are.  Does the story call for a fortified road side inn?  Then, the characters arrive at the inn you have detailed (as well as close surroundings, staff and owner) and they will have the encounter/information/adventure that needs to happen there.  But either of those still don’t really answer that question.  So, how do we get there?

Lets re0look at the question:  and state it as a need.  I need there to be inns along the kings road separated by a reasonable distance from one another.  The simple answer might be to look at your kingdom.  Do people walk, ride horses (or ostrich, or camels, or xubecks), or drive wagons?  If the inns are there to support the kingdoms travellers, then they would be about a day apart.  maybe 20 miles if most people walk…40 if people ride, or maybe only about 15 if the inns are in place for the much needed merchants and their wagons.  Simple.  BUT…now you have the basic answer to the original question, you have opened up a consideration of other issues.  If most people ride, are there established roadside camps along the road at walking distance?  Do these inns, or indeed these camps, have wells?  What about firewood or coal?

By looking at this simple question, you can add a lot of detail to a setting.  Let me elucidate:  Our setting is a typical fantasy, based on medieval Europe. So, we have magic available, probably no fire arms, at least one other kingdom at war or unease as well as the roaming monsters and bandits.  Because of these threats, or king has determined that trade needs to be protected, and he has teams of Rangers patrol the roads in bands of 6 – 10 men.  The typical caravan consists of three wagons and as many as a score of people (merchants as well as guards).  The mounted rangers can cover roughly twice the distance that a wagon caravan can.  So, there are inns that are somewhat defensible, heavy reinforced doors, shutters that can be bolted with arrow slits.  Stables as well to house a score of animals, assuming that the caravan and a team of rangers may sleep there all on the same night.  Water is available at every inn.  These inns are places that messages or packages can be left to be picked up, effectively making them a post office.  The rangers are not charged for their stay, but the caravans are.  The supply caravans, that bring food to these inns, are always escorted by rangers and they receive a substantial discount to their room and board.  The  Inns are built by the crown and the innkeeper is considered a royal appointment.  They are far enough apart that if a party is delayed more than an hour, they will be arriving after “Travel hours” so may encounter a barred door.  Half way between each inn, is a road camp.  These camps have a fire circle, and all travellers are expected to replace at least some of the wood they use.  some have wind breaks, or defensive log walls.  Most have a well or spring located at them, but some have water butts.  Tampering with the water source is considered a crime equal to highway robbery…which means summary execution.

 

Lot of information from a very simple question…but with simple effort, a whole new aspect of the game setting comes to life!  What do you think?  More of these ecology’s?  or is it too far off base?  Let me know!  I AM going to try to get at least two posts out a month from now on…So, until next time!