Thursday, 4 February 2016

Making a Fantasy Sandbox: Part II

According to Rob's guide, the next steps are as follows:

2. Label important regions
3. Write one page of background giving no more than a handful of sentences to each region
4. Pick an area roughly 200 miles by 150 miles

Before I started labeling regions on my map, I did some research on human migration. I wanted to have a history for my continent that really changed the map over time. You can check out a Wikipedia article on the subject here. For an example of human migration used in fantasy fiction, check out Robert E. Howard's essay The Hyborian Age.
I went through several iterations of my map before reaching the final product. This is a good thing. It gives your map realism. Each time I redrew my map, I moved the regions around, removed some, and added others. As I did this I had a vague narrative in my mind about what was causing these changes, but I didn't flesh out the details until I wrote my one page background based on the maps. Just how far back you want to start your history is up to you. I think around 1,000 years is a solid number. I made about six rough maps over about 1,200 years.

History of Rimeland

The heroes of the Tarusian War journeyed to the northern coast of Rimeland. There they settled, naming their new kingdom Tythia.

After five hundred years of peace, invaders landed on the shores of Tythia: they were the Jorykir, blue-skinned and fair-haired, descended from giants. The Tythians fought. The blood of the Tarusian heroes made them strong, but the Jorykir were too mighty and too numerous to withstand; they overflowed into Tythia, pushing the Tythians south.

Another kingdom, called Erorria, had expanded from the east into the lands south of Tythia. The Tythians, after decades of pushing by the Jorykir, fell into the Erorrians. Erorria, witnessing the fury of the Jorykir, aided the Tythians.

The two kingdoms fought as allies for two centuries and formed the kingdom called Ardiel.

It was in this time that the strain of mixed race began to appear: the result of interbreeding between the Jorykir and their Ardelian captives. This new race lacked the fury of the Jorykir and were kept by them as slaves; but, growing numerous, and imbued with Jorykir strength, they rose up against their masters, forming the kingdom called Vorn.

In Ardiel, some embraced the kingdom of Vorn as ally; others cursed it for its Jorykir blood. Those of the old Tythian bloodlines raided Vorn repeatedly, treating them like Jorykir. Many of the Erorrian bloodlines disagreed with this. Ardiel fell into a period of civil war, ending with the separation and reformation of the kingdom of Erorria.

Erorria sent aid to Vorn against the Jorykir when Ardiel would not. Over three hundred years, Vorn, with the help of Erorria, pushed the Jorykir back into the sea. Years of fighting in that land where the Jorykir had last clung led to the slow establishment of the kingdom called Svedain. Now the strength of Jorykir is reduced to sporadic raiding against Vorn and Svedain. Those kingdoms work to rebuild and recover, striving to establish a permanent bastion against Jorykir. Ardiel and Erorria turn to their own interests, cultural and economic, but the old enmity between them smolders beneath the surface.

Like I said, you don't have to put this amount of detail into your final map. It could just be rough shapes and scribbled notes. I just find that for me the more realistic and polished I make my map look, the more real the world feels. 

Now that I've created my map, labelled my regions, and written a page of background, it's time to choose my campaign area.

That rectangle is my roughly 200 by 150 mile campaign area based on me deciding what I wanted the scale to be and eyeballing it. You don't need exact measurements to decide on a scale for a poetic map like this. Just go with what looks right to you. 

I chose an area on the coast of Svedain because I want to feature longships in my campaign and I want the Jorykir to have a presence.

Next up, I'll draw a hex map of the campaign area in Part III. 
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Sunday, 31 January 2016

Making a Fantasy Sandbox: Part I

This series will show my step-by-step creation of a fantasy world using Rob Conley's How to Make a Fantasy Sandbox. Aside from following the guide for the fun of it, I want to create a detailed world for the purpose of running a little experiment.

Part II 

Step one, from Rob's guide: 
  1. Using one page sketch a world or continent map
I actually started with a concept phase before step one. My main source of inspiration for this campaign setting is Iron Maiden's Seventh Son of a Seventh Son album.

I like the arctic setting and the weird, desolate fantasy the album evokes for me. Based on that, I decided on a northern continent for my map.

Next, I gathered some reference material. I want to create a realistic northern medieval setting, so I chose two history books: The Middle Ages and Viking Age. I also chose some Norse mythology books, and for mapping, Jared Blando's How to Draw Fantasy Art and RPG Maps.

You don't need to go to this level of research, but I find drawing from actual history and myth gives me a ton of ideas that I would never come up with myself. There are all sorts of little details you can steal from history books.

For my continent map, I got a vague sense of where I should place mountains and things from Rob's guide, then just started drawing. All you need for this map is to place in coasts, islands, mountains, hills, forests, rivers, and lakes. I spent a lot more time on it than I needed to, but the more beautiful I can make my campaign map, the more inspired I'll feel about running the campaign.

I think I'll call this icy setting Rimeland.

Next up, Part II: labelling important regions and inventing some history.
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Friday, 29 January 2016

Immersive Roleplay, or The Mystery Box and Your Imagination

I've grown up on D&D and like many, it's been my number one game and has served me well. Even still, after running so many games with various levels of preparedness, from almost fully improvised to thoroughly plotted out, I'd become disenchanted with it. On top of the issues I was having with some group dynamics, I felt the rules were somehow getting in the way of what I was subconsciously trying to achieve. Frustrated, I decided to give up on roleplaying for a while.

It wasn't until a few days later that I found the old spark again, the one that drew me to the hobby in the first place, and this time, it lit a flame.

I was reading The Knight by Gene Wolfe, and that old sense of wonder started to fill me. That feeling that there's a whole other world just behind the pages, filled with fantastic possibility. I caught myself wondering what exactly caused that feeling. The answer I came up with was the Mystery Box.

The Mystery Box is an idea J. J. Abrams presents in his TED Talk. The Mystery Box is a question, one that entices the audience to keep watching because they're so curious about what's in the box. It hit me that it was because I didn't know what else was out there in the world of The Knight that created that sense of wonder. There was such realism in what was presented that my imagination was able to create the sensation that there was a ton of stuff that wasn't presented but which existed. This is the power of allusion and illusion, and this is what creates wonder. Not knowing things is the key to immersion.

I knew right away I wanted to make this happen in an RPG, that it was what I'd been looking for. I started thinking about experiences I'd had in the past that were immersive, that created that sensation of fantastic possibility. Books, of course, are on the list. I thought about the immersive video games I've played and I realized that the best one don't give you a set of rules you need to learn before playing the game. You just go into the world. 

You can't see the rule set in a world. You don't walk around seeing lines of codes like Neo or something. You make choices based on what you perceive to be true about the world with your senses. That got me thinking about MUDs (text-based roleplaying games if you don't know), which really combine the best of both video games and books: the sensation of fantastic possibility, and choice. The rules are hidden from the player in books, immersive video games, and many MUDs. Just like the rules are hidden from us in the real world. Therefore:

The rules are the Mystery Box.

The Experiment

In order to create the Mystery Box, the players can't know the rules. After realizing this, I decided I needed to do away with an abstract rules interface like D&D if I was going to achieve total immersion. Having no rules or playing a narrative or storytelling game wasn't going to work because the realism, the sense that unchanging laws govern the world, would be missing. I decided I'd have to keep the rules behind the screen so the players would be aware that there were a set of laws governing this world, they just couldn't see it.

The system I'm choosing to use is Fudge because of its simplicity, customizable complexity, and simulative nature. Using Fudge, I'll create a custom rule set and keep it hidden from the players, making all rolls for them and me behind the screen. That's the Mystery Box taken care of.

In order to create the sensation of fantastic possibility, I'll need to use a deeply realistic setting. To achieve that, I think it will need to be a sandbox. I'll be following Rob Conley's How to Make a Fantasy Sandbox, which is a rather large 32-step endeavour which Rob claims should take about 24 hours. I'm pretty sure it's going to take me a lot longer than that, but I think it's necessary for the experiment. Besides, I'm a GM: I love worldbuilding. I toyed with the idea of using Hรขrnworld, but I think it's just as much work to learn and internalize someone else's setting as it is to create your own.

Now I'm ready for step one: creating the campaign map.
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Thursday, 28 January 2016

Roleplaying Advice: Moving the Energy

So I've been GMing a lot of 5th edition D&D lately, and I mean a lot. Three games a week has given me a chance to put a plethora of GMing tips and tricks to the test. After burning out on my hobby worse than ever before, despite feeling like my GMing skills are greater than ever before, I've come to two conclusions: 1) The single most important ingredient to a fun gaming group is the players; 2) What I want out of the hobby is immersion.

To the first point: the players and the group dynamic are so important to getting the fun of a game. Make sure you like the people you play with, that they like each other, and that everyone is able to pick up on and react to the subtle creativity that players give off during a session. Everyone at the table should encourage each other creatively and feed energy into each other, just like in a stage play. The exchange of energy is vital to the success of a group and its game.

Roleplaying is a kind of performance art, and like any performance art, doing it well requires skill gained through practice. Most roleplaying advice is aimed at game masters, who take on the brunt of the work, but the players must also develop and hone their craft. This does not mean memorizing rules and presenting the GM with reams of detailed backstory, though player creativity should always be encouraged. What it means is developing sensitivity to the energy being passed around at the table and helping move that energy when and where it needs to go. Roleplaying is a collaborative art.

You may be wondering how exactly to move energy around a table. The techniques are the same as those used by actors in the theatre: focusing on the speaker, and reacting. 

Focusing moves energy, and reacting creates it. When a player is performing, whether speaking in character, describing an action, making a tough decision, taking a combat turn, or rolling the dice, you can move the energy to that player by actively paying attention to him or her. When something happens to a player, you can create energy by physically or vocally reacting. These two techniques are simple, and if everybody at the table uses them, I guarantee the energy will keep moving.

Most important rule for players: Pay attention, and share the stage.
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Friday, 25 January 2013

Xeria: Xerin Occupation Chart

The proud, dark Xerins are a race descended from the ancient rulers of the desert. Their knowledge of magic and the crafting of magical artifacts has been lost to the drifting desert sands, and their people are scattered, wandering the land in nomadic tribes or bandit groups. A gypsy people, the Xerins spend much of their time telling stories over the strum of a guitar, a skin of spiced wine in hand. Their one permanent camp is located in the Red Hills, and it is here that they practice the only remembered skill of the ancient Xerin civilization -- the breeding of horses. These Horses of Kings are sought after by each of the other races, and are highly valued among merchants, warriors and nobles alike.

Xerin Occupation Chart (1d20)

  1. Outlaw (bow, leather armour)
  2. Reader (staff, deck of cards)
  3. Ostler (staff, bridle)
  4. Cook  (cleaver as axe, hot spices)
  5. Drinker (broken bottle as dagger, skin of moonshine)
  6. Herdsman (staff, lasso)
  7. Healer (knife as dagger, bandages)
  8. Horse Breeder/Trader's Apprentice (bow, horse)
  9. Guitar Player (dagger, guitar)
  10. Storyteller's Apprentice (bow, flint and steel)
  11. Outrider (bow, horse)
  12. Camp Guard (long knife as shortsword, bone whistle) 
  13. Weaver (scissors as dagger, canvas, 2 yards)
  14. Bowyer and Fletcher (bow, light wood, 10 lbs.)
  15. Leatherworker (awl as dagger, 3 hides)
  16. Potter (clay knife as dagger, wine jar)
  17. Desert Guide (bow, large waterskin)
  18. Hunter (bow, bag of feathers)
  19. Gypsy (long knife as shortsword, dancing scarves)
  20. Caravan Driver (long knife as shortsword, lamp)
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Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Play Report: Legends of Anglerre

Last night, a friend of mine was back in town for the day and we decided to do a little gaming. I had just picked up the PDF of Legends of Anglerre and opted to try and learn the system in time to run it that evening. LoA uses the FATE (Fantastic Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment) roleplaying system, which is based on the Fudge roleplaying system. Compared to the Original Game, I can say that LoA is quite a different experience. I'll try to briefly sum up the key points of the system before I get into the actual play report so you have at least a vague idea of what I'm talking about.

Dice: Roll 2D6 of different colour. Designate one as the minus die and subtract it from the other.

The Ladder: Pretty much everything in the game, from tasks to equipment to monsters and skills, is described using the Ladder, which is a chart of adjectives and numbers ranging from -3 (Abysmal) up to +8 (Legendary).

Shifts: The margin of success or failure in relation to the difficulty number you are rolling against. eg. If you roll a 5 on a difficulty 3 task, you succeed by 2 shifts.

Aspects: Short phrases or adjectives describing characters (or sometimes scenes). They can be activated by the players to give a bonus or penalty to a roll.

Stress: How much pain your character can take. There are two types of stress: physical and composure. If you drop to 0 in either, you're "taken out."

Character creation started off with a group brainstorm between the players. The setting was an older one of my creation called the Wild Wood. LoA allows players to be created on the fly so you can get right to playing if you wish. That's what we chose to do. Each of the players chose a name, a good aspect and a bad aspect.

The Setup
The players were each in the village of Whitehill for some reason or other, which overlooked a dangerous valley known as the Black Pools. There had been reports of ugly, monstrous men coming up in bands from the Black Pools. Alten the Long, the steward of Whitehill, sent a patrol of soldiers down into the valley three days ago. They had not returned. Alten could spare no more soldiers in case these raiding bands assaulted the village, but he was seeking the help of a group of adventurers who could find out what happened to the patrol.

The Cast
Edgar Wright: a sneaky dandy from Halldale Citadel in the Western Reaches. 
Aspects: Moves with the Sounds of Silence, Pompous Ass.

The Dark One: a shrouded figure in black from the Black Pools.
Aspects: Quick Learner of the Mystical Arts, Inner Ear Problem.

Cornelius Asquach: a grey bearded old man from the north.
Aspects: Conjurer of the Dead, They're All Out to Get You!

Seven Reed Whispering Emerald: an athletic martial artist from Whitehill.
Aspects: Leaping Baboon Striking Cobra, The Voices Made Me Do It.

And that was it! All it took to create characters and get started. Obviously there are more complex details to be added, but you really can begin with just this. LoA has a much more detailed character creation option that is separated into phases with all sorts of great stuff, but it's better for those who know the game or who will be playing a long term campaign.

Play began with the characters deciding how they wanted to proceed, either due north and down into the Pools, or along the eastern wall of the valley, overlooking the Pools from above. After a visit to the captain of the guard, an effeminate man with steely eyes, and obtaining a route map of the patrol from him, they discovered that the patrol was meant to head down into the valley and then west along the foot of the western valley wall. The party descended.

On the valley floor, the grey landscape spread out in a haze of fog before them, dotted with small black pools. Travelling through the Pools without a guide would almost certainly lead to getting lost, so the Dark One decided to spend some of her skill points on Survival at this point. With the "Characters on the Fly" method of play, players are able to spend up to 20 points on skills as they go. She bought Average (+1) Survival. Before the Dark One could make a Survival roll, however, Edgar Wright noticed the tracks and attempted to read them himself (Pompous Ass). He received no bonus to his roll since his Survival skill was Mediocre (0) and failed miserably. He ended up obscuring and confusing the tracks that were there. The party decided to follow them anyway, but they were unable to determine the type of tracks or how large a group they were following.

Because they failed their tracking attempt, I had the band of orcs ahead take them by surprise. They came charging out of the haze wielding crude swords and shouting. Edgar Wright quickly decided he needed some combat skills at this point and bought Average (+1) Melee Weapons and Average (+1) Athletics. The Dark One bought Fair (+2) Ranged Weapons, and Seven Reed Whispering Emerald bought Good (+3) Athletics, Fair (+2) Unarmed and Average (+1) Might.

I decided these were Fair (+2) orcs. I had them in two groups (3 in each) of minion quality. This was something I quite like about LoA. The minion groups are treated as a single monster, but they can have more than one actual creature in them.

Now that everyone had their combat skills, the battle ensued! 
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Saturday, 15 December 2012

Bringing Your Campaign to Life: Leitmotif

In movies and video games, theme music goes hand in hand with individual iconic ideas. Most often a theme will be associated with a culture, a city, or a character. This musical technique is called a leitmotif. It's a way of reminding the listener of a particular character, announcing an entrance, or evoking a mood for a specific location.

As an example, in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, the elven theme music from the Lord of the Rings films starts playing before the elves even appear on screen, but the audience immediately recognizes what that means -- here come the elves! 

In RPGs, MMORPGs in particular, there is often a distinct musical theme for each city that you visit. You begin to associate the imagery of that city with the theme, and that allows you to develop an even greater familiarity with the location.

Try using a leitmotif in your campaign. The easiest thing to do would be to play a specific track each time the players visit a particular settlement. Over time, they'll begin to feel even more familiar with the location you've designed, and it will be easier to consistently reinvoke the mood, atmosphere and imagery you've envisioned for that place.
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