28 December 2013

Starting from scratch, pt IV

The Appetizer Round

In my last installment, I promised that in this one I'd get to the New Campaign's first adventure.  Alright, that turned out to be a modest fib.  Before I do that, I want to talk about how to play NPCs.



What I am is a method actor; I put myself into the shoes of damn near every NPC.  Part of this is acting like real people do, and not like faceless red shirt existing only to provide unyielding opposition towards the PCs, or speaking like a pompous 50-year-old college professor.  If the words in your mouth sound stilted and wrong, it's probably because they're coming off stilted and wrong.  Beyond that ... 

1)  Real people don’t fight to the death en masse; it’s an enduring military truism that a force sustaining 25% casualties will probably break, and a unit sustaining 50% casualties will almost certainly break.  Many systems have morale rules ... use them!  If they don't, fake it.  Let's say a low roll means an individual will surrender or bug out, a high roll means he's holding the line.  Add simple modifiers where appropriate -- if the other side's got a Conan-type who's covered in the blood of the NPC's comrades, if the NPC's side has a strong leader rallying the troops, if there's a hereditary enemy involved.  It's easy to figure out.

2)  Real people don’t stolidly respond “I dunno” to a PC’s questions; most everyone knows something, or think they do, or at the very least will shoot their mouths off to appear that they do.  Not even a dumb mook wants you to believe he’s a dumb mook.

3) Give every mook, and I mean every mook, one or two personality traits.  “Old Jon” is a stereotypical sailor in a red striped shirt, always with a concertina or a dirty bottle of rum, and is always willing to help newbies learn the ropes.  Larghos has an odd cowrie shell charm he claims came from his “mermaid wife” and protects him from drowning.  Natyzha abandoned her home and family for the sea due to crushing debt and means never to return.  There are user-submitted sites full of lists of folks like that, and automatic NPC generators on the Web that can do that much too.  It really helps, it doesn’t take much work, and you can easily recycle the lists.  The first time you see a mook go down in a battle, and another screams and runs and flings himself on her body sobbing, well ... the PCs might finish them off anyway, but many of them will pause and reflect.

4) As far as the mechanics go, acting is like any other skill ... you get better by practice.  I do a lot of different voices, and it’s to the point where I can voice several different NPCs sequentially and folks can distinguish them easily, but I’ve had a lot of years of practice at it.  It’s pitch, intonation, cadence and the use of idiom.  Heck, it doesn’t take more to establish a very formal, snooty, upper crust NPC than to use a measured, even tone and decline to use contractions or slang!

5) On the female front ... I speak with a somewhat modulated, quieter voice and employ some body language, but of course my female characters come out as contraltos; I’m not descending to Betty Boopesque caricature.  That being said, the problem of most male GMs nervous about portraying women might be not so much that they come off as creepy or whimsical, but that they're convinced they are out of self-consciousness.  My advice is not to worry about it.

6)  Stick in a viewpoint NPC.  I've editorialized about it in this blog post, which pretty much covers it.

And with that out of the way, I seriously will put the dinner on the table next time out.  Promise.

The Starting From Scratch series:
Opening Gambit: Your town and its NPCs
Faith Manages: Designing religions 
Setting The Table: Party composition and equipment
The Appetizer Round: Tips on portraying NPCs
The Main Course: Your First Adventure
The Dessert Round: Random tips and suggestions 

21 December 2013

Starting from scratch, pt III

Setting the Table



I can’t quite call myself a “zero to hero” partisan.  To a large extent, being a GURPS GM mitigates against that.  In stark contrast to many a game system, beginning GURPS characters can be competent in a number of skills, or very good in one or two.  It takes a pretty high level of tactical idiocy for a beginning party in GURPS to get rolled by a handful of mook spearmen.

But that doesn’t mean a GURPS fantasy campaign can’t start low-key.  A game setting I admire is Columbia’s Harnworld, which is the closest I think the hobby’s ever going to get to an honest, accurate, gritty representation of medieval life.  Harn keeps beginning equipment sparse, coinage scarce, social mobility low and introductory adventures very low key indeed ... a scenario where the payoff is the price of a single new sword is considered pretty decent for newbies in Harn.

And that’s the way to go, I believe.  Start a party dripping with gear, start them off rescuing the Kingdom from certain destruction against the Hordes of Evil, where do you go from there?

So ... in my campaign, I start players off with 500 silver sinvers.  That’ll get you a broadsword, a suit of cuirbolli armor, the equivalent of a riding mule, some camping basics, and that’s about it.

But you could get even more restrictive.  Remember that small town I suggested as a starting point in the first SFS post?  Use that, and that’ll help solve a classic problem with new campaigns: why are all these people adventuring together, and how do they get together in the first place?  The quandary leads to sorry-ass cliches of the You-All-Happen-To-Be-In-A-Tavern type.  They were lame in 1975, and they’re full of dry rot today.

Instead, make the party members townies who’ve known each other all their lives; this cuts short the usual angst over how these disparate people get together and why they’re supposed to trust one another.  The party members reflect the demographic: teenagers eager for Adventure.  You’ll have the children of hunters, skilled in the wild and used to privation; the herbalist’s apprentice, who knows a good bit about healing; the son of the village’s wacky eccentric scholar, who turns out to be a mage; the granddaughter of a retired long-term soldier, who taught her little girl something about battle; the altar boy or girl who serves the village priest, and whose simple and deep belief has caused him or her to be touched with the fingerbrush of divinity ... Enforce the paradigm.  This is the type of character they’re permitted to take, period.  They likely know a great deal about one another, and the gestalt works a lot better if they do.

Indeed, it’s an excuse to cut back on initial equipment further. It’s not a rich village, and the players aren’t going to be outfitted with much: hunting bows, slings, boar spears, leather jerkins and caps for armor (maybe), belt knives, camping gear.  One or two might have Grandmother’s sword off of the mantlepiece.  Horses represent significant material wealth, and it’s far likelier that they’d get away with an ornery pack-donkey at best.  Magic?  Alchemicals?  Hah.  Lily’s been made to help compound in her mother’s shop since she was old enough to work a pestle, so she’s got a few packets of useful herbs.  Clots wounds, reduces fevers, put a pinch of that in a fellow’s mug and he’ll be out cold in a half hour, that sort of thing.  (Never mind that pack of spices ... the trail cooking will actually be tasty for a few weeks!)

It also gives you an excuse to keep skill levels down.  However naturally talented, someone whose healing skills come from holding towels for the village midwife just is not going to be an expert surgeon.  However physically gifted, a teenager whose combat skills come from the retired one-armed soldier putting her through her paces a couple times a week after the farm chores are done is not going to be outdueling warlords any time soon.

And that’s how the table is set for the group’s first adventure.  I’ll get to that next installment.

The Starting From Scratch series:
Opening Gambit: Your town and its NPCs
Faith Manages: Designing religions 
Setting The Table: Party composition and equipment
The Appetizer Round: Tips on portraying NPCs
The Main Course: Your First Adventure
The Dessert Round: Random tips and suggestions 

14 December 2013

Starting from scratch, pt II

In my previous "Starting from scratch" post I talked about some basics of setting design.  The second installment concerns an element that probably has the highest ratio of importance for a setting to settings in which it's done badly: religion.

Faith Manages

If you have religion, make it matter.  If the PCs aren't devout followers of the god Upuaut, his priests will have nothing to do with them, and their healing magics will not work on them.  If locals of the farming district all attend temple, and the outlanders conspicuously don't participate, they'll be viewed with suspicion at best.  Shut the whole town down for the saint's parade, and man, don't they have a lot of those in the spring months?

A generic "Oh, Naseer is the God of Goatscrewing, and his priests all wear green and silver and have a goat brand on the right wrist, and their symbol is a green X, and they're Chaotic Evil, and their temples are always made of basalt" is about as far as many settings go, and is the sort of thing anyone can roll up on a Random Deity Generator.  (I recommend Chaotic Shiny's, if you like random generators.)

We’re working from two basic principles that color the creation of your setting: that you should keep things simple, and that you’re starting with a region away from it all.   Want some tips?  Funny you asked:

* Honoring the first principle, just have a handful of faiths: the white light good-guy religion, the pastoral/agricultural deity, the fire/forging/war deity, the death/magic/power deity.  It’s less work, and more for your players to remember.

* Please, please do me and yourselves a favor and don’t do what 90% of gamers do: mimic the medieval Roman Catholic church, in all its intricate, baroque hierarchy.  (I've been alerted to a delicious TV Tropes term for the syndrome -- Crystal Dragon Jesus.  Too funny.)  I’ve always found this slightly bizarre – if fantasy faiths have so many interventionist deities as all of that, why do they require massive, convoluted hierarchies and rigid, top-imposed doctrines?  Wouldn’t the deity him or herself instruct the priesthood?  Might there be a heavily decentralized situation (e.g. Presbyterianism)?

* Consider some questions that direct how a faith works: why are we here?  Why do we suffer?  How are we supposed to conduct ourselves in our daily lives? Where do we go when we die?  What happens to apostates or unbelievers?  How do we believers interact with the authorities?  With those of other faiths?  Is divine revelation complete, or are there more prophets (or a messiah) to come?

* Consider having splinter sects, deep divisions in the faith’s ranks, or outright heresies.  A recent historical event in my own gameworld was the (seemingly permanent) appearance of two new moons in the sky.  This has caused a detonation in the faith of the Moon God, and the factionalism and infighting are strong and ongoing.

* Pen some simple prayers.  Alright, I might be a writer and a poet, but I don’t expect you to be.  One of my faiths has “Lead us on the path” as a quick prayer by the devout; it’s the shortened version of the chorus of a multi-verse chant.  “Holy Fire, hold my oath” is another one, referring to the sacred flame devout worshipers of my fire god keep in their homes, and over which they cook all their evening meals.

* Put together a few holidays.  Don’t worry so much about the genuine religious significance of them – holidays seem overwhelmingly to be about the folk customs.   Think about the Catholic example: for every twenty of you -- even those who aren't Catholic -- who recognize that waving palm fronds and painting hardboiled eggs are well-known elements of that time of year, there might be one of you who knows off the top what religious meaning those elements have.

There are all manner of folklore books that include examples of holiday folk customs: certain foods that are ceremonially prepared, fairs held around the key dates, rents and hiring done on traditional dates, ritual observances.  There’s nothing like a party coming through a small village just as a fair is in session, or seeing the youngsters out dancing on the cliffside in feathered costumes to celebrate a special day.

Now here’s your secret weapon in all of this: Wikipedia.  Wikipedia is, in my entirely biased opinion, heaven’s gift to GMs seeking exotic setting detail.  Want to have a regional cuisine (say) that isn’t bastardized Ren Faire fodder?  Terrific.  Type in “Indonesian cuisine” – for example – and you’ll get all manner of exotic stuff.  (The custom of a “rice table” – a banquet featuring many dishes, all with rice as a base – being one.)

And you can do the same thing here.  Go to the Shinto article -- for example -- and you’ll see all manner of fodder.  Ritual purifications?  The offerings to make?  How you properly enter a shrine?  Sacred dances?  Protective amulets?  Just file off the serial numbers and put them right in.

It’s a bit of work, yes.  But it’s also one of the foundations of your setting, and a gold mine of rich roleplaying opportunities.  Why not get it right from Day One?

The Starting From Scratch series:
Opening Gambit: Your town and its NPCs
Faith Manages: Designing religions 
Setting The Table: Party composition and equipment
The Appetizer Round: Tips on portraying NPCs
The Main Course: Your First Adventure
The Dessert Round: Random tips and suggestions 

07 December 2013

Starting from scratch (pt I)



A turn of phrase that runs through gaming forums is “lazy GMing.” This isn’t meant as a pejorative by its advocates.  They seek an approach that imposes as little work as practical on a GM, and that approach has many facets.

I’m not particularly in their camp.  I’ve done, over the years, a massive amount of work on my sandbox setting, and have details available in insane amounts.  It’s not merely that I have blurbs on over a thousand businesses in the great capital out of which my campaign operates ... it’s that I’ve also got a dozen or two blurbs for every significant village within two days’ ride of that capital, and as many as a hundred for every significant city in the kingdom.  I know who rules every province, something about that person’s family, and the same about every subordinate fiefholder.  I know the order, rough power level and location of every wizard of journeyman level and above in the kingdom.  I know all these things about many of the other major realms around too.

But I’ve also had over three decades now to work on this.  People ask me, at times, how to start a long-term campaign from scratch, and not out of some game company’s shrinkwrap either.  I can’t hand them my own approach – that’d be silly and counterproductive.  If you’re running a campaign (say) set in colonial Massachusetts, why waste time on statting out Philadelphia just on the off-chance the party might go there someday?  They’re in Plymouth now.

I’ll give my answer over a few columns.

Opening Gambit

Design a small town and about thirty miles in every direction, with as much detail as possible, because the players are going to pester you with questions if they’re anything other than hack-n-slashers.  Put the town on the outskirts of a frontier province, well away from the run of national politics and wealth. 

It’s also best to make the country isolated, behind natural barriers, and unlikely to be hip deep in worldspanning politics.  Sorry, I don't need a detailed timeline for the history of the land going back a thousand years, something a lot of even professional game designers waste time and ink putting together. With very few exceptions, no one cares that Empress Lynessia III was the last monarch of Vallia to personally lead troops in war, winning the decisive battle of Fourth Council Rock against the Avanari 174 years ago. It's enough to say that the empires of Vallia and Avanar are traditional enemies and have a turbulent, heavily militarized border, the last full-scale war being seventeen years ago.

I've seen a few too many gazetteers filled with little beyond what any GM with a Random Kingdom Creation Table could crank out. A name-population-principal product-name of leader deal, that’s not of a lot of interest to players, who usually want to know if it’s a large town or a small town, but don’t give a damn that the population is 2517 as opposed to 2403 or whether there are 20 fishing boats or 40. 

Give me, instead, two or three pressing problems or notable conflicts about a town or district. Give me a folk custom or two prevalent in the area; the wearing of the color blue by men is considered bad luck, or that every business takes a fiesta between noon and 1 PM.  Give me things beyond mere demographic nuts-and-bolts.  I like to know, for instance, whether your frontier town has a reputation as a cultural trendsetter, and locally-trained musicians have a cachet for hundreds of miles around, or that it has historical significance far beyond its political or economic weight (a Plymouth, MA, say).

Businesses?  Well, you’ve got my previous article on town building.  Write a paragraph or two on each.  Here’s an example from a small village in my campaign:

  • Sign of the Red and Blue Pot:  With the death of the previous owner, her last surviving relative by marriage, a foreigner, Kesem kin Swallowflame, has taken over this well-stocked general store, which has a good array of housewares, tools, bulk grain and provisions, and textiles.  While he is a decent enough merchant (-13, various scholarly subjects-14/15), he has been trained to a scholarly life and educated at a great university, and somewhat resents having to take a menial job in the countryside.   Postings for foreign philosophers are not plentiful, but Kesem still pours his meager profits – he’s wont to let customers run up a tab – into books brought in from the capital, trying to keep up with new teachings and still hopeful of scholarly preference.

And there you have it.  What, no stat block?  No weapons skills?  No magical items?  Of course not.  The PCs aren’t going to fight this guy, and we don’t care what his Health or Move are, whether he has Climbing skill, or how much damage he can do if he clouts you over the head with that grain flail leaning up against the corner.  What they’re going to want from him is to fill up their packs with smoked sausage and biscuit for their adventure into the forest, and if they find out he’s a wannabe scholar, whether he can read that weird text they found.  What you’re going to need from him is an insight into his personality so that you can play him effectively as a vivid NPC, and we can all see the image that arises: a fellow starting to show grey hairs, somewhat fussy, somewhat distracted, somewhat irritable, possibly dressed grander (if shabbier) than the village standard, always with his nose in a book, and excited only when travelers come through town with books to sell.

And heck ... if he does need to fight, a GM ought to be able to determine, very quickly, the combat stats for an average villager.  Using GURPS, average stats are 10, so if Kesem trains once a month with the village militia, he may well have ST 10, DX 10, HT 10, a Speed of 5.5, a Spear skill of 12, with (say) a leather jerkin for armor (DR 1), a Parry of 9, and does 1d-1 HT of damage with a successful thrust.  Those details, including the time it took me to type them, took me 35 seconds to work out.  So why not establish that as the standard if you need to work up the mook villagers for that large-scale bandit raid?  A strong villager?  ST 12, and that damage is 1d HT instead of 1d-1.  A nimble villager?  DX 12, and that Spear skill becomes -14, her Speed becomes 6, her Parry becomes 10, and suddenly she’s a legitimate threat in a fight.  There.  That’s all you need.

So do twenty of these: the general merchant, the blacksmith, the horse rancher, the local priest, the local squire up at the Big House, the cunning man who gathers Useful Herbs in the woods, the trapper, the sergeant of the village militia, the farmwife Everyone Goes To When Someone Is Sick, the tavern, the schoolteacher, the hedge wizard, a handful of others.

Want to spice the village up a little further?  I've two blog posts (this one and that one) setting forth a couple tables for more local color.  They're intended for cities, and a number of the entries aren't really suitable for a village, but a number are.  It may be interesting to decide that the villagers will haggle fiercely over everything but beer or spirits, or that Gossip Is King and locals scoff at the notion that anyone's business is private.   The "Small Town Horror" blogpost also has a list of local-color items (if creepy), many readily applicable to a small fantasy village.

More to come!

The Starting From Scratch series:
Opening Gambit: Your town and its NPCs
Faith Manages: Designing religions 
Setting The Table: Party composition and equipment
The Appetizer Round: Tips on portraying NPCs
The Main Course: Your First Adventure
The Dessert Round: Random tips and suggestions