A Gentle review of a Savage system

A new favorite game!  Could be the only game I’d need, forever, except…

One of the things I had planned to do with this blog was game reviews.  And I have decided it is time to do one, the first one!  My first review is of Savage Worlds, specifically the deluxe edition, but I don’t into to get into the detail that separate the versions I am familiar with.

To start, lets talk about what savage worlds is and what it isn’t.  So, without further ado…

savage-worlds-logo

Savage Worlds

What is it?

Savage Worlds is a setting neutral (or generic) game.  It is hard to call it rules-lite because its core rule book is fairly densely packed with rules.  However, many of the rules are designed to address specific issues that may come up in a variety of settings.  Since the core book is only ten bucks, and you can get the test drive rules for free, it is well worth the investment.  The test drive rules are the rules lite version of the rule set, so the powers and setting rules are very curtailed, but you could acquire the test drive rules and, say the wizards and warriors supplement (also free) and have a pretty good fantasy savage world to try out. 

The rules are not a game setting, but a rule set that allows the playing of any setting you want.  It is very well supported with settings, both licensed and fan made.  These range from standard settings like fantasy,pirate, modern or sci-fi, but they also include a great number of unique and mixed genre settings as well.  The default rules tend to reflect life as an action movie, but it has mechanical adjustments that can make it more realistic or gritty.  

The tag line of the game is Fast! Furious! Fun! and it lives up to it pretty well  It has several separate resolution mechanics, but they all work well together, and are mostly easy to learn.

What it’s not…

Savage worlds is definitely not a simulation type game.  All of the rules tend to be fairly abstract and simplified.    Because is setting neutral, there are few rules dealing with unique situations and those that do, like radiation exposure, can best be read as guidelines.

How does it, uh, work?

The basic mechanic of Savage worlds is: Target Number of 4, if you roll over that number, then you succeed.    What does that mean?  Well, lets dive a little bit deeper.  For this part of the discussion, I am just going to keep to Core rules, but even when using the companions, these mechanics don’t change significantly. Characters are made up of 5 stats rated from a D4 to a D12+2 or higher, with an average human score of D6 in each.  Each character has a number of very broad skills, 23 in the rules, also rated from D4 and up.  Broad as in the Shooting skill covers a bow, a crossbow, a rifle, a laser carbine, or tank gun.  These skills are linked to attributes, so that if the character has only a D4 in Smarts, it will be more difficult, but not impossible, for him to become a world renown scholar in hydrotherapy!  To enhance the characters, there are Hindrances and edges that make further define the character.  A Major hindrance of Stubborn, for instance may make it just about impossible to change the character’s mind even from a bad idea, while an Alertness edge grants a bonus when looking for things or to pick up on subtle clues.  The rules cover separate races as well as define how to make your own by modifying their base stats, skills or edges and hindrances. Dwarves, for instance, are slower, but have low light vision and increased Vigor, while Elves are penalized when working with mechanical items, but have higher Agility and low light vision.

Next, one needs to understand Wild cards and Extras.  Player characters are always wild cards, as are some significant NPCs.  These are main characters of the story.  They have access to “Bennies” as well as an increased damage tolerance.  Bennies are a mechanic to alter mechanical outcomes, such as avoiding a failed die roll or making a deadly wound merely a flesh wound.However, perhaps the most dramatic thing that Wildcards have access to is the Wild Die.  Anytime they roll a test die, they also roll a D6, taking the higher die. Extras do not have access to a wild die, do not usually get bennies, and if they are wounded, they become incapacitated, while a wildcard does not become incapacitated until the 4th wound.

One more thing, the dice in SW explode! (That is, if any dice rolls the max, it is rolled again and added together, without limit, so, yes, it is possible to score over 20 when rolling a D4-2, particularly when a wild card throws a D6-2 as well, using the higher of the two).   As I stated above, the general requirement to perform an action is 4.  So a character rolls the appropriate skill, and wild die if able, and if they score a 4, the task succeeds, and improve their result for every 4 above that.  There are lots of modifiers to that number and to characters rolls, but that is the core mechanic.

The last thing to cover about the mechanics of the system is powers, AKA Arcane Backgrounds.  In the core book, there are 5 types of powers: Magic, Miracles, Psionics, Super Powers and Weird Science.  Their specific mechanics each vary in their implementation, but they all use the same power list, just flavoring them with their own background.  There is a list of many powers in the book and they define the pure mechanics of the thing.  For instance, the power ARMOR increases a persons resistance to wounds.  A mage might flavor it as actual spectral armor, or magic robes.  A priest might be wreathed in holy light. A psionisict might have telekinetic shields around him, while the super power might grant hardened skin, or the weird scientist creates a force field belt.

There are a few mechanic’s in the game: Melee Combat, Missile Combat, Social Combat, Dramatic tasks, Mass Battle’s and even chases and vehicle combat.  While each of these mechanics are abstract, they work very well in the system.  Each one is internally consistent and mechanically quite sound.

What I Love

SW has a lot to love.  The characters are simple but rarely simplistic.  As I said, if you have a character idea, you can pretty much create that character in only a few minutes.  Another aspect of this, and partly as a consequence of the Extras idea, NPCs can be created by the dozens in minutes.  The range of edges and flaws, while extensive, are easily modified with a moments thought.  Everything in Savage can be skinned or altered to meet specific tastes.  Your character is good-looking?  Attractive edge, but what if they exude pheromones that make people comfortable around them?  Attractive edge accomplished that, just call it Friendly Pheromones (Attractive) and done!

This same idea is replete in the powers.  One of the powers is BOLT.  This is a basic attack spell, magic missile, fire bolt, ice dart…just the coat of paint that makes it look like something else changes it.  But SW also has specialized skins, called trappings.  For instance if you skin your bolt as a fire bolt, perhaps it has a chance to actually ignite something it hits.  If you trap it as an electric spark, it may do extra damage to electrical systems. 

Because the game is very modular, pieces can be added or removed without much trouble.  Say you want your setting not to have Psionics, and miracles can only be used to heal, then remove the Psionics background, and limit the miracles background to only healing type spells.

Anytime the game goes to rounds, The Fast! Furious! Fun! mantra comes to life.  First, cards are dealt from a normal card deck, instead of dice being rolled.  Some edges or hindrances may affect which cards a player can use.  Because the system emulates action movie physics, a character can take as many actions as they want, with penalties for the more actions.  This is another thing to love, as it is not the I hit you, you hit me of many other combats.  Wildcards are quite robust, and it is somewhat difficult to kill them.  Not to say they cannot die from a punk kid with a shiv…exploding dice can be a bitch! 

What I Don’t Love

Hard to find too much that falls into this category, except…it is so adaptable.  That’s right, its greatest strength can be its biggest weakness.  If you don’t want to play a game with action movie physics, then you can dig into the innards of the system, and throw a few switches, like setting rules, that might change it.  For instance, if you want any good cut to hinder the victim, then use any variations on Gritty Damage.  A small layer of complexity for a pretty significant change.  You see, you really can play just about anything you want, but…

That very strength can make the game somewhat daunting to someone not familiar or without a lot of experience.  I don’t want to make you think that it really is secretly complicated, but if you want to modify things, the system might crack under your modifications.  How do you handle someone throwing an opponent against a wall?  well…there is no rule…what is it like?  It could be a push…or  maybe it’s a grapple with a throwing trapping.  What about …well, none of those are wrong. But knowing the rules well enough to make that choice quickly.  As I said..it is a rules dense system.

In an earlier post, I talked about how much change a system might need to fit your idea.  Savage Worlds makes those decisions easy, but that sheer simplicity might not fit the idea of what you want.  If you need a system that requires characters to make things, particularly a detailed part, Savage might not cut it.  You could run it as a Dramatic Task!  F!F!F! answer….but does it meet your idea?  If you want a More detailed skill system, maybe a performance and or an oratory or Politics skill.  In Savage, you could just make a Common Knowledge roll, but that may be too abstracted.  If you start adding skills, do you leave characters too weak when starting or do you need more skill points?  Or do you want to make an edge that fills those criteria…see what I mean.  Whatever you want to do you can do!  Will it fit your need?  Maybe.

Let try an example to make this clear; A foot race.  For this example I will compare two favorite systems Savage Worlds and Role Master Standard System(RMSS).  In RMSS, the participants would roll, add their relevant running skill (Sprinting or distance running) and look on the Movement/Maneuver table.  This would then provide a value to multiply by your base speed (ranging from you fall down and break a leg, to 2 times the speed and wow everybody with your prowess).  You would repeat this until one of the runners had completed the established distance.  Very mechanical and precise, making those who are taller (who have a slightly higher base speed) have a slight advantage, but more than made up for by having an appropriate skill.  In SW, you look at it from a plot view.  If it is important, but not overly critical, everybody roll an Agility, with a bonus to someone with the Fleet Footed edge…highest score wins.  Or, to deviate from the F!F!F! aspect, you could have everybody just roll a run die, move the appropriate distance, first one there wins.  If it is a key point of the plot, you might run it as a dramatic task, drawing it out to maybe 5 rounds, and collecting successes.  This raises the tension with the end result of the winner having the most successes.

To Wrap it up

So!  Is Savage Worlds the only system I need ever again?  Almost.  It sets up quickly, plays well, fits with just about any setting.  I can set up an evening game in a matter of minutes.  There are so many settings already made, and it is so easy to create my own.  I have enough practice that the open system is great fun.  On the other hand, as an epic gamer, the system lacks some of the grit needed to deal with some of the story details that I often want to play.  I can completely endorse Savage Worlds, and think it should be on every bodies shelves.  But, I won’t be giving up my other games, even though they have dropped into the minority of game time.   The stories I tell in other games have definite flavors and details that Savage doesn’t emulate that well.

Savage is exceptional for Episodic stories and very good at Epic-sodic, and not bad at epic story style.  It definitely is designed as a collaborative storytelling game, what with bennies (and the Adventure deck if you use that), and I talked about my feelings toward that already.  Savage could bend my feelings a little bit, though.

I hope that as a first review, I gave you something to consider.  Thanks for reading.  Let me know if you have another topic you want me to cover, or game to review!  Talk to you in about a month!

Advertisements

Genre Acceptance

I was considering a Halloween game. Based on an old The Dragon magazine enclosure, about a group of scouts in a Haunted House.  I considered it, then discarded it, as i didn’t think any of my players would like the idea.  (Also, I didn’t have the time to play)  But…it definitely got me to thinking about playing characters who might do something that experienced players would be unlikely to have their characters chose to do…

When setting down to a gaming table and working out the social contract as well as what you are playing, it might be needed to consider the genre tropes you would expect.  For instance, there is that recent GEICO commercial where the kids are hiding in the woods and one of them suggests getting in the running car a drive away, but the others decide to hide behind the running chainsaws…This commercial is obviously poking fun at a great number of the slasher flick tropes.  The one character is the voice of common sense…Most players would normally play this character.  But, if the game you are getting ready to play is the Jason Vorhees story line, the players need to accept that their characters are blind to, or completely accepting, of the trope of this kind of story.  There are many fairly obvious examples of this, and some that may not be so obvious.  Lets consider this, As well as the player types and how they might be convinced to play these genre appropriate characters!

OK…Slasher horror flick, pretty obvious.  Your character need to not think about the general survival rules of these shows…never have sex, never separate, never go downstairs to investigate the noise or look for a weapon…Because, to play in this game, it needs to be understood that most of the characters will die.  Of course, the GM can just force them into the kill situations using tricks or just saying “after smoking the weed, you find yourself in a dark bedroom upstairs in just your underwear…roll to see if you notice the closet door opening!”  What about any zombie story since George Romero?  Every person who has the slightest understanding of modern fiction knows that they need to have their brain destroyed!   Again, the ref can change that by saying that his zombies need to have the heart, or the left pinkie toe destroyed…so the players are as clueless as their characters.  How ’bout we consider a favorite setting of mine: Deadlands.  Once the players have played for a few session, and likely from the moment you set down to discuss this setting, the players will know that evil is afoot.  And, If they finish a story arc, they will have a very good feel for what is going on.  But what about their next characters?  The classic Will-o-the-Wisp:  How many experienced players are going to go traipsing off in a swamp to check out the oddly flickering lantern?  On the other hand, if the character is youthful, and has heard that some treasure hoarding  fairies can be spotted at twilight in the same swamps…The wisp becomes an obvious threat again.  (Unless of course they have heard the legends or had an ex-adventure that took an arrow to the knee tell them about when they lost the thief when he went after a thief’s light in the swamp…

Horror type stories are obvious for this type of acceptance, but any setting, like superhero, or exploration need to have this acceptance.  So, to make these game better reflect their source material, or to maintain the replayability of a setting, players need to be willing and able to accept this.  Like the difference between Player and Character knowledge, this is a matter of suspending disbelief for the sake of playing the game.  The player may know that going into the rat infested cellar is actually a way to get them into the cellar and trapped in a caved in sewer, they may avoid it, unless that is the way the story starts.  It may seem that experienced players would be hard pressed to fall for some of the genre tropes that a new player might, even if they are playing the young and inexperienced new adventurer.  But take hope!  Experienced players will likely willingly embrace these tropes even easier than someone who does not have much practice at suspending their dis-belief, if appropriately baited enticed!

If that’s the case, how do we lay the groundwork.  Well, let’s go back to our player types!  The Bestest character type may be the hardest to convince to play with a handicap, such as not being aware that zombies are only vulnerable in the head.  How can they be the best if they have to wait like everybody else to learn that?  These characters need to understand that they can BECOME the BEST, but need to start behind the power curve like everyone else.  Once the characters start learning the secrets, then they can become their goal.  Until that point, they may become the mad experimenter…the best at figuring out how to deal with the issues…But in general, for the good of the game, they will have to delay their gratification.  Sorry.  The rule about a lot of things for them to do can keep them distracted!

How bout the escapist?  They are pretty easy!  Because they are often not at the forefront of action, they can easily accept that they don’t know that crossing the streams is really not as bad as expected!  Weather a tag-a-long or a dabbler, let them play the character who is there just to learn how the story turns out!

The Active explorer, profiler and storyteller may be your easiest to convince.  They play the game to explore the world and/or their character…so it is just natural for them to separate what the player knows or doesn’t from her character.  When you discuss with them the tropes of the game, particularly the latter two, they will likely embrace the challenge and the entertainment they derive.  The exceptions are probably the troublemaker and the avatar.  The troublemaker tries to break the setting, or at least test the boundaries.  For them, the ref and the other players will simply need to remind them that breaking the trope is not the same as breaking the boundaries.  As long as they keep that i mind, they should be controllable.  The Avatar is probably as difficult as the Bestest for this, maybe more so.  No body want to play a different version of themselves that has obvious dangerous flaws.  The avatar player is likely to be one of the least likely to embrace a character’s death or major flaw, and by defining their character with this weakness will be nearly anathema to them.The best way to deal with them is probably bribes!  The other option for the Avatars and Bestest might be for them to play the more sensible characters.  The Stick-in-the-mud virgin in the horror story, or the grandparent who doesn’t “ken to no nonsense” or the nerdy scientist type.

All of these thing considered, this really is just a form of Player vs Character knowledge.  When playing any game, part of the enjoyment is transporting everyone to some-PLACE else.  If you bring a modern player into a medieval setting, the player may know how to make gunpowder, rendering most of the armor useless.  You don’t let them do that, because it goes against the spirit of the theme.  This is exactly the same issue.  Most players know that getting in the running car and driving away will keep their character alive to fight another day.  But if the trope of the game is we need to tough this out and survive til morning, then hiding behind the running chainsaws might seem a perfectly viable plan!  Of course, no one would want to WIELD one as a weapon, (Too dangerous, I’m sure) until they are the last one standing and must face down the machete wielder! (Lets hope they haven’t run out of gas!)

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!

Jeepers, fella’s! It’s the cops!

In last post, I suggested ways to deal with troublesome characters but only as a pure thought experiment.  In this post I want to give an example of how you could apply the thoughts in different settings.  So, in each of the next paragraphs, I am going to consider this situation:  A character murders a low-level street thug, who turns out to be a chosen of a local crime boss.  The simple assumptions that will hold in each setting are that the constabulary are generally a law-abiding bunch who do their job because the think it is important to have a just and lawful society.  The murder took place in a waterfront alley, in the dead of night.  It was quick so their was minimal sign of struggle. The thug was murdered because he caused the character to lose face with his companion, which is important to him.  The character is not a professional killer, but is knowledgeable on the ways of police practice.  The local crime boss has a few “Friends” with the constables, but cannot expect them to out-right break the law…but he has a few minions of whom that is their specialty.  He is not the Capo of the area, so he is restricted on the amount of mayhem he can raise without repercussions from both sides of the law. So, given these situations, which of course will usually take place completely off-screen, unless your players are the constables (which is a whole different article unless they carried out the murder and are trying to sabotage the investigation from the inside…) you can make a quick decision based on how you want to deal with the character….and then you can even explain what happened!

1st, we will look at a fantasy setting.  This is a typical mid-high fantasy setting, so magic is not uncommon.  The constables, with the exception of the King’s Sheriff and his hand-picked deputies are the city militia, who, for day-to-day patrolling, answer to the Sheriff before the commander of the watch.  Murders happen regularly in this small city, and the patrols do their best to set it to rights.  The law is handled first by the Sheriff, but allows appeals to the God of Justice, who does not always judge only on the crime at hand.  Anyone who appeals to the God, turns over their fate to the will of his priests with no recourse afterwards.  The first thing the patrols do, is question around and see if anyone noticed anything.  In the set up-the only thing noticeable was the loss of face, so except on an exceptional die roll they will not find anything.  The Crime boss however wants vengeance for his chosen son, so sets out all of his watchers and ruffians to dig up what they can.  Their tactics are a bit more direct, so they have a 50/50 chance of finding at least the defacing incident.  If they do that, then they have a good chance, say 3 in 4, of confronting the killer.  Where it goes from there is a role play (with a bit of roll-play) event.  Because of a “donation” to the sheriff, he send his deputies to the mages guild to request a magical investigation.  In some worlds, they might be able to call the spirit of the deceased and ask him about the last day of his life, but such necromancy is seriously frowned upon, so they have a mage perform some psychometry to see what they can find.  If the mage is successful, they may have a decent lead.  If he is not, or if he is but the magic didn’t let him find much (such as seeing through the victims eyes his last few moments so only gets a quick wire around his neck…maybe a ring or distinctive scar on a hand), they don’t have much.  If he is found by the sheriff and the “good” guys, he will face a sentencing by the sheriff and then the option of facing judgment by the priests of justice (who, of course have many ways of finding “the truth”).  So, the player may face the block, prison, or at least burning several favors.  If they are found by the crime boss…he will probably be ambushed and join his victim.  And If he survives, the boss may take it up with the capo of the area…

What about a futuristic setting?  Lets replace the waterfront with a spaceport on the fringes of the New Roman Solar Empire.  While science can replace magic as above, it seems unlikely that they would have the possibility of summoning the spirit of the deceased, so they need to rely on the purely physical.  Ever hear of Clarkes third law?  Using this , you can use the exact same logic as above.  However, the setting is sufficiently different as to need a different approach.  Law is dispensed from the representative of the local senator and his Praetura Sentries.  Assuming the victim was a citizen, then he will be given proper attention and the killer will be ruthlessly sought.  So, was the killing observed by a small patrolling Security Drone?  Maybe not, as this is an out-of-the-way planet, but it is near an imperial spaceport…so it was likely to be caught on a camera, or at least the confrontation between the victim an his killer.  What about a DNA trace tool?  Well, hopefully the killer disposed of the tool.  Oh, he did?  well, what DNA/Pheromone/epithelials were left on it?  He destroyed it entirely?  Good.  But, what about the crime boss.  He has access to drugs and brain scans, and is not above bringing anybody with a questionable past, who would be afraid to report to the Sentries, in to interrogate what happened.  If you, as a ref, want the killer to be found, you can.  There are lots of ways to get there…and don’t forget divine providence.  The Senate will likely rely on omens and divination as well.  Or, you can leave it to a dice roll and assign a chance of being found.  Once he is arrested, then he faces trial with all the evidence.  Then punishment.  Maybe, if the killer is a citizen as well, he is banished and all possession given to the victim’s family.  If he is not a citizen, then perhaps the local coliseum games have a new event to come!

The whole point is not to have to take a great deal of game time out to punish characters for breaking the local rules.  Just realize, that as ref, if you feel the need to remind players that they are  living in a society, their actions have consequences.  As you can see, you have reasonable tools to use with just a little thought.  And, the investigation can run and cause problems for the characters during their main adventure.  Or, it can be the adventure itself!  The worlds we create to play these games are not always the wild west solving every problem with a pistol.  Sometimes that is exactly what they are, but…it is not the only way to deal.  Either way, it is important that your players are aware of the social mores and restrictions that their characters would know, otherwise you may be meting out very arbitrary punishment!

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!