Thursday, October 8, 2009

RPG Supplements I Like: The Kaiin Players Guide

RPG Items I Like: The Kaiin Players Guide

The Kaiin Players' Guide is a city sourcebook for The Dying Earth rpg (which I talked about yesterday. It is also a strange beast...and one which merits some digression on the idea of cities in games-- some of which I've hit before, but I like the ideas here...

All Places are Equal
There's no real narrative difference between the moment when a character goes up the mountain to visit the wise mentor, across the oceans to find the legendary wizard or goes down the street to buy a loaf of bread. Looking at it from a narrative point of view you begin in a [PLACE] then [TRAVEL] and then arrive at another [PLACE]. And depending on the GM, the sense of the travel time will vary-- perhaps scenes will occur along the road or perhaps we'll get a fast wipe to the end point or an obstacle before it. The key point is that space is defined by the game, by the needs of the narrative. So in terms of this except for scale there's no structural difference between a building, a neighborhood, a city, a nation or a continent.

Mind you there are detail differences that arise from these, and those certainly affect the story. But I've had players who had a hard time visualizing that a fantasy game could be told in one place, like a city. They assumed these places would be worn out-- that they could only create a handful of scenes and that travel was central to the game and required distance.

Part of it is the desire to see different things-- different places. That sight-seeing is often a key experience for players of fantasy rpgs. But the good GM can create those distinctions and differences within the scale or a city or even a castle-- showing off new things and eventually creating a sense of spatial connection. That can be challenging-- the eco-system and interactions of a smaller scale have tighter relations than a larger one. For example, if in a game set in a castle I suddenly have a potent wizard pop up after a number of sessions, the question obviously is: where was he before? How does he interact with the people and parts of the castle the characters have seen before? On the other hand, in a game on the scale of a nation, if I have that character pop up, the players might simply assume they hadn't heard of him before. That's a functional difference between the scales-- that distance creates more room for the GM and less messy threads.

But for the experience of the player the distinction is minimal-- with one exception. In a smaller scale setting, the player has to deal with the consequences of their actions. People they talk to will talk to other people, they'll be more likely to return to old haunts, awful actions not concealed will be revealed and color their future interactions. I've had players who clearly hated this but couldn't (or wouldn't articulate that problem). For them, the spatial limitations spelled out behavioral limitations which impinged on their autonomy. Or more accurately, their ability to dump on whomever they wanted to.

Continuity of Experience
From my point of view as a GM the "institutional memory" of a location provides a benefit. The ability to return easily to a location makes players remember something about that place. It becomes a kind of resource of them. Of course that "return easily" is kind of an illusion. The GM can make the transition between any two places as easily or as difficult as they want to.

Which is part of my fascination with city settings for rpgs. Done right, they have their own feel and their own rhythm. They require digging deeper into the background elements of a place. Since there's no budget for rpgs if players travel from isolated location to isolated location, I can present grand spectacle and high weirdness where ever they go. Like them I'm particular isolated from the implications of my actions. I have less burden to explain the why of the location. Certain genres in gaming have grown up with this as standard convention: space games, post-apocalypse, and classic high fantasy. Interestingly modern fantastic games usually have a more static setting (Werewolf, Vampire, Changeling, and so on) while modern conspiracy games (like Delta Green or Conspiracy X) usually have travel and location switching. Perhaps there's the sense in the latter that a static location would require dealing with the implications of all of the weirdness happening on one place (ala Sunnydale).

Consider how to spell out that institutional memory for players. If the players are outsiders, that's relatively easy as they and their characters learn at the same rate. But what happens over time with players in a location? How to we had expertise over to the players without creating the parrot effect? One of my favorite city books is L-1: City of Lies for the L5R setting. The game assumes players will be investigators or magistrates of some sort (though it can be worked in other ways). They're given a separate player's book about the city with information provided in the voices of several primary sources. That's a good solution, and helps provide clues to certain mysteries in the setting but it does require some translation.

Finally, The Review
The Kaiin Players Guide takes this concept and moves it one step further. It presents a players guide completely for the player. There is no GM guide. Instead the book presents itself as a reference which assumes the players know the city. They know the neighborhoods, they know the people, they know some of the darker details of life, they have a hold of secrets, interactions, and details that in another game would be the sole province of the gamemaster.

This structure has a number of purposes. Obviously it allows the player, with reference, to simulate a knowledgeable inhabitant of the city. But it also encourages the players to craft their options and directions for themselves. If they seek out someone who might be able to tell them about the lost art of "Thurla Grub-Juggling" instead of asking the GM who they should talk to, they can say "I head down to Odkin Prospect to consult with the majesty Dung-Borne Ruby who knows just about everything concerning Thurla Grubs."

Just as GMs often use sourcebook material to riff from for games, this book does the same for players. It gives them a measure of control and allows them to improvise plots and scenes and then ask the GM to join in. There's a reversal of power there that's pretty exciting and in keeping with the narrative flexibility intended in The Dying Earth rpg. In some ways, given how subject the players of that rpg suffer at the hands of fate, this can act as a leveler-- or at least allowing them to have a greater voice in their own downfall.

The book itself is 192 pages. I purchased the pdf version which is really easy to read-- copy and paste are disabled which means you can't easily make up player briefings or the like from parts of it. The layout's excellent, with great maps and decent illustrations (although a chunk of those are Dover clip art).

It begins with a nine page section laying out the concept behind the book and explaining how each chapter will be presented. It gives a couple of examples of how a player might use these things in play. There's little in the way of mechanics here (which continues throughout the book) but some systems on how to handle Contacts and Rumors. The second chapter gives a summary overview of the city with particular attention to the personages in charge, religion and philosophies and (most importantly for this game) how the legal system works.

The nine chapters following average about seventeen pages apiece. Each chapter covers a neighborhood of the city. The material there covers: a first glance, an overview, inhabitants (both contacts and personages), places of interest (commercial and curious), rumors, taglines, and tweaks. I especially like these last three things. The rumors are written to allow the player to grab on and get dragged into the middle of them, for example:

If the PCs have fallen on hard times, Bocchimile is willing to employ them as dogsbodies, carting illicit shrimps and oysters from Canal Town to various eating establishments. The PC's predecessors in this endeavor were recently caught by a wealthy matron who blames a severe gout inflammation on contaminated shellfish. However, Bocchimile himself escaped the attention of authorities, so he is sure no untoward attention will fall on the PCs.

The taglines presented here, one of my favorite parts of The Dying Earth rpg have a nice mix of the fairly generic and those referencing this part of the city. Tweaks are special improvements players can learn in relation to ability from familiarity with a particular neighborhood. The last chapter of the volume contains a set of nice reference lists-- for example a complete list of the commercial establishments presented. It also has two-pages of randomly generated Vancian names.

Overall I really like this book, but I'll admit it fills me with jealous fury. I really love the idea of giving the players a resource that falls between the two poles of First-Person Narratives and Mechanical Sourcebooks (usually with charts, ideas for classes, stats for the various races and so on). The volume has a high utility, and it makes me want to write up the same thing for any city game I do. However emulating this would be require hours of labor-- though the payoff would be great. I did some of that for my Crux Exalted campaign, but only generated perhaps a quarter of the material Robin Laws has crafted here. If you're running a Dying Earth campaign, I'd consider this a must buy. If you run a urban games, I'd say consider picking this up as a model for how information and freedom might be given to your players.

As a sourcebook for interesting ideas, people and situations for a fantasy city, this is an invaluable resource. However using it that way ironically goes against the original intent of the book. I think it would be difficult to use as originally intended- as a purely players guide- outside the context of the Dying Earth setting. However as a book of things for GMs to steal from it is pretty fabulous. I'd love to see more of this kind of product from other game companies, for other settings and other genres.

Sidenote: There's something to be said for the brilliance of this as an rpg product. Often with city-books you have a GM's guide, which means usually one player out of a group has a need to buy it. This is a generally rules-free supplement (avoiding power escalation or added complexity) which every one in a group could have a reason to buy.


  1. I think some PCs imagine cities as a dungeon, to be explored once and left. Or worse, the first room of a dungeon adventure, like the shoe rental at a bowling alley.

    An example of this is "The Keep on the Borderlands", the first D&D adventure many of us played. The town was set up as a set of encounters, to be run through once. Like a lamer version of the cave adventure in the same module.

    Most successful RPG towns follow the Yojimbo model: competing powerful groups who keep each other off balance. The PCs aren't powerful enough to take any of them down alone, but can be the deciding factor in battles between groups. At least, that's my theory.

  2. And I think there's a difference between the pass-through towns and the towns which set up to be the backdrops to adventures. I actually think there's a slight modifier to that Yojimbo idea. Most of the towns I've had usually have a clear central authority (the Lunars in Pavis, the First Traitor in Eyvern, the Shosuro Governor in Ryoko Owari, Azeries in Crux) and then you have the various factions also battling it out. The Central Authority makes sure that nothing ge6ts too far out of hand in the city, while poking and manipulating the battles.