Jeremiah McCoy

Geek For Hire

Tag: world design

Setting Idea: the God Thrones

Okay, so I had a crazy idea pop into my head. This actually happens a lot, but I try not to let myself get to taken by them. Sure, I probably could make an excellent dread overlord, but I am unwilling to spend time making the robot army of Pippi Longstockings.  Think of the overhead!

 

Where was I?

 

Oh right! Crazy idea.

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Different Rules for Death.

Why I am I talking about death on a blog dealing mainly with games?

Medieval Drawing of skeletons

Well, games handle death differently.   In many video games, you simply return to prior save point if you die. In Dungeons & Dragons we have spells which can bring you back from the dead. Death does not have the tight hold on a character it does on people in the real world. How easily a caster can gain access to these Resurrection spells says a lot about the setting. If it is just something you pay some gold for at the local temple, then death is less scary. If it is something that only pc’s can learn, then that puts PC’s in a unique position in your world. Suddenly, they go from just being another adventurer to being some of the most important people in the world.  The notion of someone dying and being brought back to life is kind of a central tenant to at least one major real world religion.

The thing is, I am not super satisfied with the treatment of death in most fantasy games. It makes sense with how D&D evolved.  Of course bringing someone back from the dead boils down just casting a spell.  That is how player controlled magic works in D&D. Having your character die can suck. It is not as traumatic as having a real person die, but you can invest a lot in that character. Often you will spend many hours playing, making and thinking about your character. You get invested, so of course you want to have them brought back.  It all makes sense but it also removes something. If death is a guaranteed non permanent thing, if it is a simple fix, then why should you care if someone is under threat of death?

Larps Handle Death A Little Differently….

Boffer or Action Larps often bring an even strong sense of attachment to a character. You are spending whole weekends in costumes you either bought for the character, or made for the character. You inhabit that character in a way you cant at a tabletop session.  You are physically doing many of the things you might describe in a tabletop game. This means the impact of character death is even stronger here, so having an easy(ish) way to bring people back is essential, but, again, how do you put people at risk if they know they can be brought back? A few games I have played have done that differently, but they all boil down to a couple of strategies.

The Drawing

The first tactic is adding the chance you might not come back. Whether you are drawing a card, or a domino, or a specially marked stone, you take a random chance when bringing people back.  The more often they get brought back, the worse their chances become. As you die, the folks running the game would record it in a book. When you died again, they would prepare the pool you are drawing for based on the number of previous deaths. You will likely have no problems coming back for your first few deaths, but as you go along the chances to comeback are reduced. You can add complications to this system.  Perhaps you could make a draw result that is not just alive or dead, but different. You could be brought back with a venerability to silver or mind magics. Some spells may have a greater chance to be brought back different, much like the Reincarnate spell of older editions of D&D.  Add in a few cards that could change you from a Human to an Elf, for instance.

 

This adds threat the longer pc’s are played. They may become more powerful, but their death draw becomes more and more likely to be their last.  It also allows you to add effects that increase the stakes of an encounter. Say you are fighting  bad guy who uses some dark magics. He drops your friend, and you think “well there is a still a good chance that he will come back, lets rush the guy.” Then the bad guy casts a spell that weakens peoples souls, making that draw even more likely to fail.  That bad guy becomes an even more of threat.  Suddenly the PC’s feel more at risk. You could also have spells that there is no coming back. Rather than just killing you, they obliterate you leaving nothing to be brought back.  That sense of threat is put back into dying. Obviously, you want to advertise that and not have a surprise permanent death, but making that known makes an opponent that much more frightening.  It marks the clear difference between early campaign and late campaign content, where the stakes should be higher.

 

The Conditions

Some Larps placed a particularly limit on bringing someone back.  For instance, a couple of larps I played required that you get to the body of the person you want to bring back before the sun sets or rises. No body, no coming back.  This creates a sense of pressure on the heroes.  Not only do you have to get out of the dungeon with your dead friend, but you need to do it quick.

It also presents an interesting set of complications for stopping the bad guy.  That ritual the  bad guy is going to do to give himself nearly godlike powers? Yeah he is doing that at sunset.  Jump too late, he is a god. Jump too soon and your heroes face a real chance of dying permanently.

Other games I played did not have this complication and the body of heroes dissolved and appeared in a magic circle.  This presented a different complication.  All their gear is wherever they died. People familiar with MMO’s will be familiar with  the corpse run.  That is unpleasant, but it is even more unpleasant in a circumstance where you are not a ghost, where all your nice weapons, armor, spell books and the like are in a dungeon that was bad enough it killed you once already. Many an adventure would have a  point where someone would die and resurrect  in the circle and hope their buddies grabbed all their gear on their way out of the evil temple.

 

Role Playing Death

Another big part of this process was the description. You died and it is not a binary proposition bringing you back. Narratively, there is struggle.  There would often be a description of the spirit reentering the body, or the sensation of resistance on resurrection that was not going well. A pc’s ghost might meet other ghosts while dead, or Death herself. The point is it was rarely a simple spell cast and poof you were fine. That isn’t interesting.  There is little chance for story in binary death interactions.

Oi, Mate….How Does This Relate To Tabletop?

That is a good question, and why are you suddenly English. This relates because you can bring a lot of this over to D&D (or Fantasy AGE or insert your game system here).  MAking death a more interesting and role play heavy experience can change how session goes.  A nearly Total Party Kill can have a more interesting aftermath. Here are some options.

The Magic Circles

There are Magic Circles scattered through out the world. The art for making them has been lost, but their power remains.  A person of sufficient power and ability(like a hero) can attune to one. Normal attunement rules apply.  If they do, they can use the circle to bring people back from the dead.  To use it, they must bring at least most of the body back to circle. Once there, they must make an Arcana or Religion check to begin the resurrection. The person being brought back rolls a d20. For the first death, anything above a 1 succeeds.

However, each time they use the circle to come back (or any other method) they also add a d4 to the roll.   If they roll lower on the d20 than what they roll on the d4’s the resurrection fails. If it fails three times, they can never try again. That person is beyond the veil permanently.

Example:  Charley the Bard has died 3 times before. This is his 4th death and his cleric buddy is trying to bring him back in a circle. Charley roles and 11 on his d4’s, to represent the damage his soul has taken in the past. He roles the D20 and gets a 6. He fails his first attempt. He can try to role under 11 on two more tries.  If he succeeds he comes back.  If he fails, the party is going to need a new Bard.

Note: You could replace that with a card pull.  Have 10 hearts cards.  With each death add a spades card. A spade means failure. You could add other suites for more exotic results liek raise changes or developing flaws.

Make a Deal

There is a ritual, which anyone with ritual casting can cast.  It costs 100 gold in certain herbs burnt over the body of a fallen person.  This summons a being. The type of being summoned is decided at the casting.  This can be a spirit of death, a demon, or a fae.  The summoned being will bring the person back from the dead, but all magic of this sort has a cost. To bring your friend back from the dead, you must make a sacrifice something. The first time can be relatively minor, but as someone becomes more powerful, it cost more.  The GM should work out the cost but a good rule of thumb is if the dead person is less than level 5, a material object of some rarity or power(example: minor magic item, the sheets from the kings bed, a work of art) is sufficient.  If they are between 5th and 10th levels, it costs the equivalent of a difficult service or curse. Above that, get creative.  A soul is not out of the question.

Note: This is very much on the GM to come up with something, often on the fly, and with little mechanical guidance. That said, it also adds a lot of story to the process. It is not going to be for everyone, but it can be a fun addition.  

 

We Are The Princes of the Universe

You could also make it so the PC’s by nature of being PC’s are immortal unless killed in a particular way.  This is decided at the beginning of the game and can vary per person. One Fighter can only be killed by decapitation, while the Cleric can only be killed by  a blade of mistletoe wood, or the Bard can only die by being burned to death. Be creative but the way should not be overly specific.  A vulnerability to only spears forged by gods from star metal on a Tuesday is not really a good choice. If they are brought unconscious, they will wake up in 30 minutes no matter how badly damaged, assuming death condition is not met. This does not increase their healing rate, so being beat down to 0 hit points still takes a bit to recover from. To make this work it needs two extra bits. First, there need to be villains also so endowed.  This is a touch of divinity or destiny and the bad guys get that too. Second, there has to be a way for the bad guys to learn what the heroes can die from. Maybe it is a prophesy, or book, but there has a to be a way for the villains to learn it.  Dying to random orcs becomes a lot less likely. It also hammers home that the PC’s are special, but the moment that Cleric notices a bad guy with wooden knives, he begins to sweat.  When that Bard hears that you have to stop a dragon, he will have reason to feel extra concerned.

Note:  This radically changes the nature of a campaign, obviously.  This probably doesn’t fit into every campaign world.  Also, there is a significant chance of having the odd problem prop up due to the seeming immortality of characters.  A character falls into a nearly bottomless ravine with no chance of ever making it out.  Do you count that as dead and make a new character? Eternal toture also becomes an issue.  

 

There are a range of ways to make death more interesting in D&D and other games.  Death is a compelling driver of stories because it is something we all deal with in the real world.  It has a profound effect on those left behind. It should have weight and power in a game, as well. Hopefully these ideas will help do that at your table.

4 Grand Thieves Guilds

Large Scale Thieves guilds

The thieves guilds are an integral part of the standard generic fantasy worlds in which D&D takes place. This is partly due to the inspiring fiction. That said, it is often portrayed as a local phenomenon. There is a local guild or two in the city, or maybe the bandits inhabit a particular forest. I am looking at you Sherwood.

World guilds, which is the term I am going with, are not quite so local. They have a broader reach but still remain secretive and unknown. This could be like La Cosa Nostra, or the Yakuza in the real world. They may have local affiliates, but they also are part of a broader underworld. I prefer the world described by John Wick, with the Continental in every city, but there are other examples.

Here are a few examples I came up with that you could drop into most campaign worlds.

 

The Shado Linar

The Shado Linar translates to the Family of Shadow. This group has existed since ancient times in the shadows throughout the world. It came about during a great war for survival against a dark power. It has persisted as a unifying force in thieves guild across many lands ever since. The Shado Linar claims to have noble guiding principles such as protect the weak from the strong and protect the commoner from the powerful. In practice, this is often just a thin pretext but, for the more traditionalist members, it often defines and constrains their actions.

The Shado Linar has local chapters around the world. There is no single leader to the Shado Linar. Instead, local guilds follow the same traditions, and occasionally form councils in times of need. The individual chapters can often be in conflict, but will follow traditional rules in their conflicts.

The local Guild head is called Aunt or Uncle. The Uncle/Aunt maintains the guilds relationships with other local groups. They are also responsible for finding talented amateurs and encourage their joining the guild. New recruits are called Nieces and Nephews. Long time members are Cousins. Members of another guild are often called distant Cousins.. The Aunt/Uncle also tend to be the keepers of the traditions. They are often responsible for the final test for membership. These tests are usually difficult trap filled houses, or picking the pocket of an important person without getting caught. Tests are also sometimes arranged to resolve disputes to avoid war in the streets.

The Shado Linar has a public facing advocate called Mensata. Mensata are sought out in disputes by members and nonmembers alike. They are generally sought out to resolve difficult matters but that advocacy often comes at a price. That price can be a favor, monetary reward, or something else entirely. The Mensata is sent to speak to all parties and the guild head to seek an accommodation, or a test of skill which will resolve the matter.

Traditions

Each Member of a local Shado Linar guild must leave a marker after a theft. This marker will have the symbol of their guild, and a symbol indicating who the thief is, if you know how to translate it. This is an attempt by the thieves in Shado Linar to show that they are just, in their own fashion.  “Never take the last, or more than someone can afford” is the traditional rule and the marker is part of that.

To say that the guild is always fair and good to the common people would be an exaggeration. Many local Shado Linar guilds will operate protection rackets. Don’t pay up? Well then, you can probably afford to lose more. There are some members who do not leave markers, but not doing so can be grounds for a severe form of discipline.  It has resulted in death of the offending thief, or worse.

If the victim of a robbery finds a marker, they can seek out recompense. Going to a Mensata or an Uncle looking for your stolen property can be a big risk. If it is found you can afford more than you lost, then you may well lose more. That said, once the marker is presented, the guild is obligated to provide a test. They could return the item if they feel it was taken in error but that is rare. If you pass the test you will get your stolen item, or be compensated for it. Don’t pass……well, material things are not really that important, right?

Design notes:

The Shado Linar was the product of the Dust to Dust larp which I helped write with Harbinger of Doom, Stands in the Fire, Kainenchen and others. One of my particular areas of interest was the thieves guilds and writing their traditions. Brandes said he wanted there to be a mechanism for PC’s to be able to try and get their stuff back if they got raided by thieves, which is where the tokens came from. The modern thieves guilds, and their traditions, were descended from the more ancient Shado Linar. A lot the choices made were to create thieves guilds for the rogue type pc’s to interact with. They were shady but not so terrible as to make you be a “bad guy” just to be a member. For what it is worth, I think the token and challenge thing works in a tabletop game context as well. It gives great adventure hook potential.

 

Gravediggers

The dead in a fantasy world really have a bit of a hard time. First, they are dead. That is certainly a bummer, but in the real world that at least means you are no longer have anything to worry about. In a fantasy world, you have hauntings, gods of undeath and a surprising number inconsiderate necromancers. Your troubles do not go away when you die.

Luckily, the Gravediggers are there for the recently deceased.

This guild is a much more informal affair than the Shado Linar. They do not have regimented ranks. There are no tests for membership. While there is an origin to the guild, no one seems to remember it. Throughout the world you can find the Gravediggers toiling away making sure that the dead stay undisturbed.

The Gravediggers do not have a group structure. Individual Gravediggers will take apprentices and train them in the ways. This training is not just in the thieving arts they use to protect tombs, but also how to slay undead. They also teach them Gravescript. That is a collection of marks left on tombs indicating where traps are, what tombs may attract unwanted adventurers and if there is a history of undead in the area.

Traditions

Gravediggers are an unlikely thieves guild. In many ways, they are the opposite of the standard guild as they are intent of preventing a crime, specifically grave robbing. They do not tend to collect in groups of more than a handful. Some take to the road, which is referred to as “Digging a Path.” They travel to points of conflict and war and see to the needs of the fallen. This allows them to learn new burial practices. The more practices a gravedigger knows the greater their prestige. By tradition, the only payment they take for the burials are as laborers. Sometimes, an event will come that attracts many Gravediggers in a region. This is called a Grave Moot. Grave Moots are truly a dread sign. Those who know of them know that it is a sign that the Gravediggers see their services being in high demand soon. A Moot can be called by any Gravedigger but is usually only called by the oldest and most experienced.

Design Notes:  

This is obviously directly tied the Gravedigger archetype I already wrote up. Is this guild for every rogue? Nope. It does give a nice mix of adventure hook potential and possible adversaries depending on your group. Trying to rob a tomb protected by these guys can be rough. Or they might be who turns you toward the necromancer big bad operating in the area.

 

Strands of Fate

The dark cousin of a thieves guild is an assassins guild.  Most thieves guilds pursue criminal endeavors, and may even kill someone if they need to. An assassins guild provides a single service to a discerning and somewhat demanding clientele. They reduce the life expectancy dramatically for coin. The Strands of Fate are the premier assassins guild. They have offices in most large cities. An office does not have a sign hanging out front which says “we kill people.” If you are the sort who occasionally needs to hire such services, you know the offices are disguised as a tailor’s shop.

The order is placed and sent to the Weavers for approval. The Weavers decide which contracts to take. They sometimes inform a noble that he will want to hire them for an assassination. This noble probably had previously not known someone needed to be killed, but who is he to argue with experts. Other times a contract can be declined. Only the Weavers know why. Only the Weavers can give the order. A member of the guild who performs unapproved services often finds they have a much shorter and remarkably unpleasant life.

The cost for an assassination is high, and the individual members of the guild end up quite wealthy. They often can afford the best gear. Once a contract has been accepted, it cannot be rescinded. The assassin will continue to attempt to assassinate the target till the either the target or the assassin is dead. If the Assassin fails another is sent to finish. An accepted contract is permanent and only ends with the death of the target even if the whole guild has to become involved. That said, it rarely involves more than one or possibly two members.

The preferred methods of assassination depend on the assassin.  They are often assigned based on their specialties and the requirements of the job. Sometimes, the job is rather public and clearly an assasination. Other times, well…it is possible the king merely died of old age, right? The merchant who died from a common cold is not unheard of, right?

Traditions

The Strands of Fate carry a knotted thin cord. They add a knot for each person they kill. When orders come to assassinate a target, it is embroidered on a silk handkerchief. The Weavers are not field agents nor have they ever been. This is not known by people outside the guild. They are said to be oracles who see a potential future that each assassination brings closer. Another rumor has that they have the Tapestry of Fate in their possession and can see who should die in every thread. Whatever the case, their decisions are final in the guild and have an uncanny ability to know when someone has not followed orders.

Design Notes:

This is a mystery cult at its heart. Assassination, taking money to kill people, is ultimately an evil profession. There are not a lot of ways around that. The Assassins Creed games address  this by framing assassination as being in service of a mysterious greater good. It allows the player to feel like a good guy while going about killing people. If you don’t have an assassin in your party, you can also use this group as a major plot complication. Why did the weavers take a contract on Lord Gimel? What do you do if they take a contract on your cleric?

 

 

The Shadow Court

Sometimes, theatrics are part of the game.  You need to have style and flash. Sure, there is a place for the unseen and unknown anonymous cutpurse, but that is not for everyone. There are those for whom glory is the call, even in the shadows. The Shadow Court is for those people.

The Shadow Court has chapters in every city. They are not a terribly well-kept secret and anyone with some knowledge of an area has heard of them. They are certainly criminal and dangerous, but they do cultivate a romantic and mysterious charm. Each member has a faux noble title. When in the capacity of a member, they wear a mask to disguise their features. Real names are not to be used and illusions are often used to obscure their true identities.

This showmanship does not make them any less effective. The integration of magic into the guilds mythology is more than just show. The guild has many magicians in their employ and many members are spell thieves themselves. They use magic, skill, misdirection and a flair for the dramatic to take almost anything they choose.

The Shadow Court does try to avoid presenting a bad image so they rarely involve themselves in petty street crime and attacking the poor. Not that they have any moral qualms, just aesthetic ones. They are often approached by nobles to acquire hard to obtain objects from rivals, or ancient tombs. They trade in favors. A deal with the Shadow Court is kept always.

Tradition

The Shadow Court has a separate court for every city. The leader of the guild in a city is called the Prince or Princess. The court for a city has a particular color or theme. The court of one city might be the Purple court. Another might be the court of Thorns. The titles will share this theme. The guilds enforcer for the court of Thorns would be Lady Rose, Dame of Thorns. The quartermaster in the guild might be called the Bishop of Thorns, and so on.

There once was a King of the Shadow Court, hundreds of years ago. But the last one died long ago and no one has had the power and prestige to claim it again.

Becoming a member is sought out. There are some who join as legacy members. Their parents were members so now they are. Some join by proving their skill to the court and earning the place. The Shadow Court is popular among young rebellious nobles who fancy themselves as rogues, and some even survive trying to prove that they belong.

Design Notes:

In my head, these guys are based on comic book super villains. They are flashy, dangerous, and amoral for the most part. Maybe not the Joker, but certainly the Riddler or Captain Cold would be good examples. The game is the point. The showmanship is part of that game. If you have a rogue in your group who wants to be showy, this is their playground. If not, well this would be a good source for recurring adversaries.

 

Designing your own

The larger regional or world guilds give you a few things. First, you ave a consistent underworld you can keep going as your players travel. This invests your rogue type pc’s in each new city. It also allows you some story options that would not really carry over from a small local guild.

If you are going to design a guild, large or small, you want them to be memorable. This is true of any NPC element in your game world. Details and traditions make the world have a sense of reality, a sense of being a “secondary world” as professor Tolkien might put it.

Don’t just call it the “thieves guild.” Names are powerful. The Shadow Court says a lot about the group before you ever meet them. Also, give the group a theme or cultural touchstone to make it easy for you and your players to latch on to them. If you have a semi secretive group of criminals who rule the streets and all have ornate body tattoos, then you have a built in set of expectations and questions.

SciFi 5th edition experiment part 3 fun with Aliens

A few things.  First, you can find my earlier posts on this Science Fiction 5e thread here, and here.

Second, let me know if you like these.  I will keep writing them if people are getting anything out of them.

Third, sorry it took a day or two longer to get this out.  Writing races is not as exciting and writing classes. I also had some other issues going on, but real life is like that some times. I did briefly consider doing my own artwork for these, but remembered I am not a great artist.

 

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Science Fiction Game in 5th edition part 2 The Problems of Setting

So, I started out with the notion of making a 5th edition Scifi game. This was spurred by the idea of exploring what you can do with the 5th edition system framework.  All fun and games, until you realize how much work it can be.  Oh well, we continue the madness.

The problems with setting

The question of game design is one of experience.  What stories are the players going to have here? What experiences do you want them to have?  The original role-playing games, proto-D&D and its ilk, were extensions of war games.  They were changed because the players wanted a different experience from what they were finding in the wargames. The rules grew out of that desire for a new experience.

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defining worlds for the game

Do you ever look at a TV show or a movie, and think to yourself, I could absolutely play in that world?  Plenty of gamers do.  I suppose it is the same sort of inspiration that fan fiction writers get.  There is something about looking at a well formed world, that make you want to play there.

I recently watched the first season of Lost Girl, and I had that reaction.  Now the show itself is not super awesome, but it is entertaining.  It is a bit sex heavy, like a paranormal romance. There is nothing wrong with that, I guess, but it can be off putting if you are made uncomfortable by sex scenes. The cast is generally pretty interesting, and they do a good job of building a world. Lost-Girl

The heroine in the show is a succubus, which is a sort of Fey. Fey are like the fair folk, or Tuatha de Dannan of Irish myth. All the supernatural beings in that world are considered some sort of Fey. This is the first world rule that you can look at for game world design.  This simplifies things as it makes everything fit into a familiar framework.  The succubus, vampires, werewolves, leprechauns, and basilisks are all Fey, and you don’t need to cook up a new backstory, and metaphysical origin, for each.  Having a framework is something that simplifies the world and helps give it parameters.  That is important in fiction and in game design.

Most of the Fey feed on humans in some manner.  This shapes their relationship to humans, and it helps define their differences.  Each of them also has a power, usually related to how they feed, but not always, and weaknesses unique to their breed.  They are not immortal, but ageless for the most part. These points make it easier to define the individual characters.  In designing a game for this setting, you would want to require the pc’s choose what they need, what their power was, and maybe a weakness as well. That weakness can be a difficulty in controlling their urges like the protagonist, or maybe silver as is the case with the werewolf. If I were doing this in Fate system, for instance, the High Concept would be their type, and powers would be acquired, and the weakness would be an aspect.

The Fey fall into two camps, for the most part.  The Light Fey are ostensibly are for the good aspects, and protecting humanity.  This is not always true, though.  A lot of the Light Fey look at humans as pets or annoyances. The Dark Fey are all about the nastier side.  Humans are cattle put there for the Fey’s amusement. They are decidedly not friendly but they are not always kitten eating evil. They all see humans as beneath them. They obey rules and compacts that exist to keep them from going to war again. Many of these compacts were set in place by a peace making Blood King a 1000 or more years earlier.  These societal rules, and history elements, make the world feel more real.  It grants a level of verisimilitude to have factions with definable traits and expected behavior.  You can break those expectations, but it should only be done as something you draw attention to the oddity of it.  The heroine in the series is unaligned, but it is made clear, this is not only unusual, but it brings its own complications.  When defining the game elements, you would want to makes sure those defined behavioral expectations are known, and also the consequences for stepping out of them.  If a Light Fey kills a Dark Fey, or vice versa, a war could result that might kill a large number of humans as well. The consequences are well defined and that will help govern behavior, for PC and NPC alike.

Converting a world from one medium, like a TV show, to a game world is a fun exercise. It can provide you with fun worlds to play in, and it can also help you further refine your own skills at world design. Even as an intellectual exercise, the value is definitely there.  The decisions you make in the process with will help you make better world of your own, whether it is for writing or gaming.

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