Thursday, 25 June 2009

adventures without violence: politics

The question was asked (by siskoid) - why not politics? And why not? Now while I'm more used to violent politics (I blame civil wars, insurrections and terrorist attacks and that's just the 15th - 17th century) there are those situations where violence gets you nowhere; if it did Dangerous Liaisons would be a very different story indeed. There are numerous other political situations where violence is no solution at all.

While this may seem to be a charisma-fest; there are functions for those who treat any kind of intellect or interaction-based attributes as their dump stat. Consider the Renaissance courtier Castiglione, whose Book of the Courtier mentions that courtiers should be physically athletic and attractive as well as skilled in oratory and verse. Perhaps that rogue gets to show her skill with throwing stars to provide some diversion for jaded nobles to open the door for other things...

The noble courts are home to intrigues in history since Babylonian times; from gossiping court functionaries to influential factions arranging social events like feasts or hunts, when a goblet falls in court, everyone hears the impact. Of course, court has social mores; games of skill, romantic liaisons, wagers, showing off what you spent some of that money on, trying to outdo your peers in sport to win royal acclaim - that kind of thing.

From such small acorns do Olympic games grow. How else would you demonstrate the strength and skill of a nation in such a visible manner? It's no coincidence that a number of contests in the Olympics involved the use of weapons though in a non-lethal manner. The tradition of athletic games continues to this day and huge amounts of money are spent on contests in order to find royal or presidential favour and to also size up potential opposition.

Diplomatic missions are one time you do not want violence. The tension of negotiations with another nation may be fraught enough - imagine two nations, neighbours by geography but with divergent ideology; ranging from French Revolution-style smuggling of noble relatives to liberty to ensuring war over a simple misunderstanding is averted (examples include Mars Attacks! and Dr. Strangelove) before violence gets out of control.

A chancery (or court of law) is another instance. Maybe not an entire adventure (unless you are a fan of A Few Good Men) but certainly more than a few encounters could be spent in court; the hearing is perfect episodic structure and the research and preparation beforehand would make it interesting - criminals defending their interests? Never! Add the presence of magic or psychic powers and suddenly you have a whole new dimension to 'reading their rights'.

The creation of a business has been mooted before and could be an adventure. Getting money may require negotiation with merchants, nobles, criminal syndicates or moneylenders; the caravans that many adventurers wind up guarding need to buy goods in one location and then sell them at another for profit. Naturally your business must deal with the local goverments and they will want their share of your good fortune.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

tides of the darksea war

The Darksea War has raged in the Underdark for as long as aboleth and illithid have competed for territory, food and slaves. Their inventiveness and longevity killed thousands over the years as aboleth lake-cities are raided by illithid and their allies; in return aboleth command servitors to dam water courses, reshape caves and tunnels to expand their domain while denying life-giving water to their enemies.

Aboleth overseers use rituals for other purposes than servitor creation. They also make magical items for use against illithid and their allies - such items are designed for aboleth or are perilous to non-aboleth. Understanding of how Far Realm denizens think is required to use these items; such understanding is corrosive to sanity and the few students of aboleth lore are unpleasant folk.

Of note is a magical crystal lens called a meniscus of control that focuses the mental powers of the aboleth to extend their domination attack further (increasing the range of such by 50%) - of course the illithid are interested in obtaining an intact meniscus but to do so means descending into the slime - something no sane illithid will dare. Also the meniscus (a piece of crystal at least five feet in diameter and concave on both sides) is often inset into a building as a window.

The aboleth also discovered that certain of their slimes can attract oozes and cultivated ochre jellies to clean their cities; using their slime to pacify any aggression towards the aboleth, they have caused certain ochre jellies to aggregate into huge masses of jelly with an appetite for organic matter in the manner of slime molds. The illithid are able to pacify the oozes but their inedible nature and their attrition of minions makes them a constant source of... irritation.

The battlegrounds between illithid and aboleth can over time become infused with evil and death warping the very stones themselves. Some areas become blood rock while others may become haunted or attract umbral taint. Undead have been seen working for both sides; the illithids try to broker deals with sentient undead (and become liches themselves) while the aboleth cultivate undead guardians out of those who died on the field and use the kuo-toa to make others.

The glyph script that the aboleth use is sometimes carved onto particular stones; a lone servitor is sometimes sent out to build a cairn using these stones. As the servitor dies due to dessication it's life energy is trapped by the glyphs and the servitor arises as a ghost. Trapped between the worlds with memories of servitude, betrayal, the agony of it's death and hatred for it's enemies, the result is an insane, violent ghost bound to a specific location.

The illithid are not averse to buying undead from the drow; armies of skeletons made of former illithid victims marched against the lake-cities in the past. Abandoned lake-cities become horrific boneyards later consecrated to evil and lairs to undead monstrosities formed out of those who died there. The aboleth are careful to collapse tunnels that link these places or to ensure there are kuo-toa priests between them and the active lake-cities.

Monday, 22 June 2009

adventures without violence: exploration

The idea of adventure without violence is something which may seem a bit of an oxymoron in RPGs but which in story writing is far less difficult to conceive. Imagine a game session where violence doesn't take place; where the elements and environment are adversaries rather than a bunch of mooks or minions and a big bad behind them. The extremity of a situation can be tailored by the game master to the adventurers in question.

Skill or ability checks will be able to fill a dice-roller's need for resolution while roleplaying buffs can enjoy negotiating with native locals for supplies or engaging in diplomatic relationships with a nomadic tribe as Marco Polo did while exploring treacherous mountain passes or dog-sledding over trackless snow. The dungeoneering equivalent would involve travelling through caves and negotiating with peaceful denizens for directions or food supplies.

I confess I'm writing from the position of a boyhood love of Jules Verne and exploration-type adventures here. Even the explorations of Conan or Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser have travel in exotic locations where the ability to climb glaciers or treacherous mountain passes to escape or get ahead of the enemy matters more than skill in battle or magic. Even if it does come to that in the end; the journey is often as dangerous and often as exciting as the final fight.

Trail-blazing would make a simple structure for an adventure; conquering a mountain may be an adventure in it's own right. Climbing steep cliffs, rock slides, avoiding avalanches or falling off and dealing with extreme environments that can be found (hypothermia, a lack of oxygen, treacherous ice) may provide plenty of challenges and entertainment. Treasure may be found in the form of mineral wealth, animal nests or even the remains of former mountaineers.

Discovering a new trade route for ships is another adventure to consider. The exploration of islands with drinkable water and food may become a primary concern. Dealing with your unruly crew, charting navigational hazards (sargasso) and surviving storms. Treasure may take the form of pearls (extracted from pearl beds), gold left as offering in abandoned temples to pre-human deities (complete with traps and possibly a curse) or even exotic livestock.

Another alternative is the foundation of a frontier settlement; finding food and shelter for your party, making deals with merchant traders, settling peacefully with neighbours, managing prospectors who discover gold in the hills nearby and who wish to tear up your settlement with their new wealth, avoiding pacification by soldiers wanting to horn in on their good fortune and acknowledging the rulers who gave you the charter to explore in the first place.

Combat is a form of conflict that is readily accessible to an audience; it is however not the only game in town - there are other ways to challenge adventurers and despite Alexander the Great, a sword doesn't solve everything. Exploration and taming the wildnerness is a part of adventure and presents a different challenge for those facing a never-ending stream of combat in the dungeon (or dungeons) of their campaign.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

weekend warrior: vargrim

The Vargrim are natural sailors and raiders; their settling of lands not their own lead to conflict between them and both the Artorians and Pidonar. The Vargrim persist for their own lands are hard to farm in comparison to Artorian lands. Undisciplined, individualistic warriors driven by a culture that values courage as much as wealth and their warlike gods, they are known for their bravery and fury in battle.

Vargrim Skirmisher
About 30% of any Vargrim force is made up of skirmishers who fight on foot; these warriors are fierce in battle yet know the wisdom of employing bows. The skirmishers will fire arrows before they charge into battle with handaxe and shield. The skirmishers also have some woodscraft about them and can forage if need be for a while; letting them travel further than most raiders might.

If attacking a fortification or a ship skirmishers often use crude flaming arrows on targets and aim for wood, cloth or straw. The resulting fire adds to the mayhem and it's not unknown for these arrows to find living targets and then start a proper fire when they die...

Vargrim Raiders
About 25% of any Vargrim force is made up of these warriors; the raiders are fierce and strong if not always tactically sound. Yet these warriors is not easily contained, heavily armoured and given to devastating charges at the start of a fight, they reap an enemy headcount as their axes rise and fall with devastating effectiveness.

The raiders occasionally take time to pillage if no immediate threat is apparent; usually in battle they are too incensed or engaged in combat to be able to search effectively. Instead they are more concerned with glorious battle and fighting foes so they can loot at their leisure. Fleeing a raider is often cause to gain an axe in the back as well.

Vargrim Bear-sarks
These warriors are known for the red rage that fills them in battle and the bearskins they wear; their fury is such that it terrifies many who face it. About 15% of any Vargrim force is made up of bear-sarks. Their lack of discipline makes them a risky proposition but in melee, few soldiers want to face them.

The bear-sarks are incredibly tough and employ scarification and tattoos to lend themselves a near-inhuman air; such cruelties are to them as natural as breathing. The howling they make when they render a foe helpless terrifies any who hear it for they cannot believe something could make such an inhuman noise.

Vargrim Wolfs-heads
About 20% of any Vargrim force is made up of these warriors. They have survived life as a raider and are now eager participants in raids and violent assaults on the enemy. They are named for the wolf pelts that they wear; each wolfs-head is part of a society of warriors who emulate the wolf's ferocity. Among the bear-sarks, the wolfs-heads are respected for their skill in battle.

The wolfs-head make use of bow and dagger in order to ensure guards die quickly and subtly; however in a battle, the presence of battleaxe and large shield are a comfort to Vargrim for the wolfs-heads are unafraid of sorcery and perils caused by troll or giant. Undead give them pause, not least because to the Vargrim, such a creature would be declared abomniation.

Vargrim Hero
These hardened warriors comprise 10% of any Vargrim force and are called hero by their own people; to victims of a Vargrim raid, different names are used with a look of horror and disgust. These scalemail-clad warriors relish battle and move with a grace belied by the bulk of their armour and shields. The other Vargrim keep a subtle distance from him, even the bear-sarks know that a hero is someone you don't cross.

The grudges that a Vargrim hero carries are often legend, their endurance in the face of battle, especially when the blood flows makes them tenacious opponents and their skill with the hero's sword makes them noteworthy amid a horde of axe-wielding warriors. It's said that a hero will go to the end of the world to fulfill a vendetta and the Vargrim are known for this kind of extremity; the hero in particular will think nothing of attacking at the time that best guarantees victory.

Monday, 15 June 2009

one day, all this will be yours...

Inspired by the Penny Arcade cartoon Lookouts.

Children NPCs in RPGs are oft-overlooked figures; relegated to the genealogy of a character, a convenient rescue subplot or ethical dilemma for military actions. They are to borrow a nice bit of BBC terminology 'little people' and deserve consideration. A skill challenge to train children in skills or how to recognise and avoid monsters may be fun for those of a 4E persuasion and such a scenario may challenge roleplayers using another system.

What can children bring to your story? Apart from the obvious tropes of angelic benefactors, abuse victims, cruel monsters, friend to loners, precocious prodigies and vulnerable innocents; they symbolise concepts like future, hope, love, imagination, wonder, a need for responsibility, fear, the interaction of a society with itself and goodness. All elements that can find their way into a story, although children are occasionally over-used in horror fiction.

Three examples of how children made history.

The Princes In The Tower - A series of intrigues around two illegitimate sons of Edward IV of England who were imprisoned in the Tower of London by Richard of York before he ascended to the throne; even though there were other children, they were not sent to the Tower nor did they vanish under mysterious circumstances for fear of attempted coup using them as a figurehead; history ironically vindicated this when a rebellion against Henry Tudor (Richard's successor) was led by Perkin Warbeck who falsely claimed to be one of the princes.

Thomas The Elder, Archbishop of York - Born of a priest, with Odo, Bishop of Bayeux (iconic archetype of many 1E D&D clerics) as patron, who became a royal clerk in the reign of William The Conqueror. Thomas studied alongside Lanfranc, who became Archbishop of Canterbury and the pair were political rivals requiring papal and royal intervention despite Thomas making oaths of obedience under royal duress when the Normans wanted a clear hierarchy of command in the church.

Norbert Weiner
- A child prodigy gifted in mathematics and languages, he is a poster boy for home education, having been taught almost entirely by his father. Gaining a degree in mathematics at 14, then studying zoology and then philosophy and gaining a doctorate at the age of 18 for his dissertation on mathematical logic and set theory. He later goes on to become the founder of cybernetics.

Monday, 8 June 2009

shemps, templates and lifepaths

Over at UncleBear, there is a recurrent concept of 'shemping' after Shemp Howard (really Samuel Horowitz, pictured opposite), recurring character in the Three Stooges movie.

This involves getting the same individual to play different parts - Berin has extended this to stat blocks for NPCs and monsters; a fine and noble tradition alluded to by Jeff Grubb in Spelljammer and even earlier than that during the time when people brought in characters based on people they knew in stories.

Berin hints at levels of Eternal Champion-style recursion when he suggests bringing story arcs into the back story for the shemp when they move from system to system. If the bodyguard in one story loses their ward, perhaps in another story when they are used as a gruff war veteran, they have a facial scar and lost a friend in a fierce firefight. You can extend these stock characters to have their own mythology.

So, can this process be automated in a system-free manner?

I say "...and why not?" Sci-fi games like Cyberpunk 2020 and Traveller use a lifepath method of providing characters with skills and backstory. So why not use a system-free method to give a character additional depth without intensive amounts of scripting or even a hugely detailed background. As you'll only really need to know maybe three or four major things... so maybe this could become some kind of random generator. Have to write this one out I think.

Care would have to be taken to avoid obvious transplanting or cliché with the generator; so a visit to TV Tropes may be in order to prevent this from sinking into stock (even though that's what we're after) so we need to finesse some things into the mix. Is this a viable concept?

Sunday, 7 June 2009

steel, steam and spit

This month's RPG Carnival is hosted by Mad Brew Labs and deals with steampunk and klokwerks. Some have noted steampunk seems to comprise two divergent streams - the utopian steam-based science and dystopic punk social dynamics; you can mention Gibson & Sterling's The Difference Engine, Moore & O'Neill's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. You may even mention the movie Wild Wild West (or it's TV inspiration) without too many outraged looks - alright, maybe that last is a bit... colonial. You get the idea.

While there is plenty of the steam, there is not so much about the punk elements - a shame because there is an awful lot to rage against for any subversive. The historic eras that steampunk draw on were times of massive social upheaval and reform.

How do you consider poverty caused by massive industrialisation leading to slum living? Or the rocketing abuse of gin and opium? Maybe prostitution and the hypocrisy of the public towards the 'unfortunates' who were committed to asylums to reform or being subjected to humiliating inspections by public officials if suspected of having an STI?

Or child labour and exploitation? How about the conflict between creationism and evolution? And the rise of feminism and the suffragette movement? All at the same time? The enforced social mores and repressed conservative attitudes yield much for punk ideologies and ethos to illustrate and attack - whether it be Fabian ideals, patriotic socialism or an alternate morality.

A sense of manifest destiny grants divine right to conquer and exploit in the name of your nation, God, Reason or Progress. Ugly? Industrialisation isn't always pretty. Finding the focus on technological marvels lets us embrace a sense of wonder inspired by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Yet there is a darker edge to steampunk, dealing with social ills that still hang over us.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

weekend warrior: turalar

Turalar are nomads of plains and steppe; following their herds and raiding other nomads or settlements. Skilled horse riders and archers, their mobility makes them unpredictable foes and their savagery is both boundless and renowned. Turalar horses are small, yet fierce - treat them as riding horses with warhorse programming; they do not flee danger, will kick but cannot trample. Reavers and ravagers ride captured warhorses and lack any such constraint.

Turalar Rider
Of any Turalar force, 40% will be these lightly-armoured nomads. They often ride in groups of four, patrolling or scouting future opportunities to report to their leaders. They rely on speed to outrun sizable opposition but return with other Turalar to prove a point.

The riders are opportunistic and will take what is weakly guarded unless told not to by the leader. This is accepted practice among the Turalar and tactically has led them into fights that they have later come to regret - yet they are unwilling to learn from experience on this.

Turalar Raider
Of any Turalar force, 30% will be raiders. These have seen some success with previous raids and managed to find some armour as well as other ill-gotten booty; as a result they are more inclined to fight for any prize that becomes apparent. Like all Turalar, the raider is a superlative horserider who prefers to ride the hardy and fierce Turalar horse.

The raiders are renowned for moving swiftly during battle and keeping enemies on their toes, specialising in the wolfpack tactics of their neighbour. The raiders refer to themselves as 'wolf-brother' to the alarm of enemy spies who suspect werewolves hide among the Turalar, something occasionally used by the Turalar as a weapon of terror against superstitious cowards and used with some irony by werewolves who live near Turalar lands.

Turalar Reaver
Of any Turalar force, 20% will be these seasoned warriors; experienced raiders who have traded for scalemail and for a warhorse. This opens up new realms of pain for enemies as reavers are completely happy about trampling foes or using their warhorse to overbear weaker opponents.

The reavers are especially fierce for their skill in opening up weak points in a foe's defence. Combined with the wolf of the steppes maneouver, this can cause havoc around an enemy formation - something which a reaver knows and will capitalise upon.

The reaver is known as a 'dragon-brother' among Turalar warriors because of his scalemail. Spies are less inclined to believe the Turalar on this matter. Yet the reaver can evoke similar fear when backed up by other Turalar and this warband can rival a dragon in settlement destruction.

Turalar Ravager
The leaders of any Turalar force, they make up 10% of the group. Their authority however is continually in flux due to the nature of the Turalar and often only have an authority within their sight. That said, the mobile nature of the Turalar ravager gives them quite a lot to see.

Like the reaver, the ravager is skilled in horseriding and will capitalise on the superior armour and warhorse that they possess. They often practice atrocious rites where they massacre innocents by running them down, cutting them up and then throwing the pieces into a fire.

The ravager is not particularly keen on points of etiquette preferring appeasement or bloody-handed murder to any kind of negotiation. Captives of the Turalar find death is not the worst fate yet, the slow death that a ravager will inflict in their rites is exceedingly unpleasant.
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