Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Tanith Lee RIP & 10 GM Echo Authors

Tanith Lee passed away this weekend. She was a great writer- and although I hadn't followed her recent work her earlier stuff (To Kill the Dead, The Birthgrave, Silver Metal Lover, Lycanitha, and especially Tales of the Flat Earth) hugely impacted me. In particular I think everyone should read Death's Master. Her books shaped how I saw the fantastic, what kinds of stories I imagined, and what fiction could be. There's a set of writers that I hope I can echo for atmosphere when I run. I go back and re-read them to think about the kinds of elements and details they use. Tanith Lee has always been high on that mental list.

Also...This is my 991st post. So I'm heading towards 1000. In these last ten posts I hope to do lists and inventories, with some commentary. However posting will be light as I'm prepping for Origins and my Games on Demand sessions as well as awesome guests arriving just before that. I have to pull together possible games for them (so commanded by Sherri). The Post-Apocalyptic lists will return in June! I know I haven't kept up with those, especially with the release of Mad Max: Fury Road. I have the next two in process. Here's a quick list, sans commentary to kick off the race to the millennium.

Also- I'll be running at Games on Demand at Origins in the Friday 2PM and Saturday 9AM slots.  

10 Game Echo Authors
Here are ten fantasy/sci-fi authors who have impacted me and I think affect how I run and the kinds of atmosphere I want to convey. I don't know if I succeed. Maybe it's hubris to even think that. But if I can echo even a fraction of that, I'd be pleased. I'm not talking about story, but about their tone, atmosphere, and imagery. 
  1. Tanith Lee
  2. Jo Clayton
  3. Dave Duncan
  4. Steven Brust
  5. Howard Waldrop
  6. Jessica Amanda Salmonson
  7. Roger Zelazny
  8. Philip K. Dick
  9. Clark Aston Smith
  10. Michael Moorcock


Friday, May 22, 2015

Neo Shinobi Vendetta: One-Shot Backdrop/GoD

Parallel to what I last posted, here's the setting one-sheet for my Neo Shinobi vendetta one-shot. I'm still thinking about how I want to condense the GoA stuff- I'll probably post that next week. This is a little different- this scenario's a great deal more open and freeform, so having this info to reference may be more important. On the other hand, I also want to look closely at the tone for this. 

In Neo-Kyoto, Zaibatsu Corporations battle for domination- served by tech-samurai, yogang yakuza, and deadly ninja. But the secrets of the shinobi long-thought hidden may shift the balance of power. Think Ninja Scroll, Brazil, Wu Xing, Appleseed, Cybergeneration, Akira, Lone Wolf and Cub, and Tenra Bansho Zero.

Five orders of Shinobi exist and they have warred since their inception. History speaks of bloodlines, factions and infighting that lead to this state. The settlement of the five great Zaibatsu, under the auspices of the Shogun, lead the Shinobi Orders to also align themselves. Each order tied itself to one of the Megacorp Zaibatsu. They remain independent but avoid actions against their patrons.

The Shinobi train in many ways: physical challenges, virtual simulations, stimulus implants, and experimental engrams. It was through these programs that you and your secret cadre learned the truth.

By design or accident a corrupt engram filtered through to a handful of clan members. It showed that Shinobi were not meant to be the tools of the Zaibatsu. Instead they had once had their own power, existing at the behest of the Celestial Emperor, the Mikado. But they had been betrayed. Some clan leaders had subverted the meaning of Shinobi. They had conspired to ally themselves with the Zaibatsu-and had rewritten history in the minds of those ninja clans who did not agree.

This is a game about the revenge you’re going to take.

You are expert trained agents of Shinobi. Each of you has been granted gifts through one of the six paths of training: Cyberimplants, handcrafted and passed down; Memetic Overlay, infusing ninja with the spirits and wisdom of their ancestors; Genocolony, pairing recruits with a living weapon which can reshape their body; Chi-Field, manipulating the flows and paths of the world and body; Nanometals, infusing the shinobi with a swarm of intelligent machines; and Psychics, developing the natural gifts of the strange among the bloodlines.

We will carry out our revenge, using the resources of our clan the Igana aka The Shadow Wolves. But we must be cautious. Only a few among our clan have had their revelation- the rest still believe the lies. Were they to learn without the proper preparation, they might reveal it to our allied Zaibatsu, Oyamado.

  • The forces of the five Zaibatsu- Arasaka, Goda, Jinrai, Shiroma, and Oyamado would oppose us.
  • Our rival ninja clans- Yagyu, the First Phantoms; Kogate, the Cortex Devils; Monomi, The Shattering Silence; and Zanagiri, the Syndicate of Wasps- remain our foes.
  • The Grand Shogun Protector and his military may oppose the terror we will bring. We don’t know.
  • Those at the top of this conspiracy are our foes: as we learn their identities, they will pay.

The Neo-Kyoto Metroplex has swallowed dozens of cities and smaller settlements.-It crosses all environmental zones from the icelands of the far north neighborhoods to the heat of the tropical south. In the center lies the space elevator, The Shin-no-Mihashira. From that spin out the uneven masses of districts, prefectures, and neighborhoods divided and sub-divided. Neo-Kyoto is unevenly divided and developed: a primitive craft district might be adjacent to a sparkling high-tech entertainment district. One place might run on steam-pulps and hissing tubes, while their neighbors bask in VR glories. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Guards of Abashan: One Shot Backdrop/GoD

I'll be running a couple of sessions for Games on Demand at Origins (and I hope to play in some). I'll post my schedule when I know it in case anyone's going and wants to say hi. When I've run sessions in the past, I've used a one-page sheet for setting background. You can see the one for "Guards of Abashan" below. In light of my thinking about settings and setting presentation, I've looking at this again to see a) if it's necessary and b) if it is, what can I condense? 

WHAT IS THIS? Welcome to Abashan, a massive sprawling free city at the mouth of a river valley. Abashan is a crossroads- a meeting point of several empires and gateway to the Ruined Kingdoms. For touchstones: think Conan with more magic, Lankhmar’s chaos, or a less grim Thieves’ World. I keep Pavis and the Big Rubble in the back of my mind when I run.

WHO ARE YOU? You like the noise and the colors and the violence of the streets. And afterward, you like sleeping in the lap of luxury. As a city guard born to minor nobility, you shouldn’t have to choose. You’ve been working with this group for a few weeks in a district called the The Dusk Quarter. Most of your immediate predecessors were hung for abuse of office, despite local popularity. 

WHAT’S YOUR JOB? Keep the district safe, maintain order, keep the locals from feeling too abused, and stop bad things from happening. All guard units report to the ill-tempered Sergeant Audara Delastis. You also have access to an appointed judge for the district, Bryzantimus.

WHAT’S THE BEAT? The Dusk Quarter splits into two parts- The Pit and the Pinnacle. Several decades ago illegal excavation created a massive sinkhole as levels of the buried city collapsed. Since then stragglers have rebuilt here, creating a neighborhood called The Pit. Rickety bridges and ramps connect it to the rest of Abashan, including The Pinnacle, a wealthy neighborhood which withstood the collapse.

THE PIT? Over thousands of years the city has built over older versions. Today’s Abashan stands on the bones of a dozen other Abashans which came before. The Pit exposes some of those bones. Despite its unseemly nature, this wound has become a thriving community, attracting refugees...and others. Some come to hide, some to sneak into under-tunnels searching for treasure, some to escape scrutiny, some to work in the wall mines. Many jam together into a dangerous and crowded warren/complex known as The Palace--a mostly intact civic building of ages past.

WHO’S GOING TO MAKE THIS HARD? As guards for the Dusk Quarter, you have to deal with thieves’ guilds, community organizations, and claims of the petty nobility. You have several groups who are both allies and adversaries. The Vigilants are local militia intended to help with fire prevention and The Cloaks are the city military. More importantly two other squads of guards share authority over the Dusk Quarter with you: The Fifth Swords under Archon Rhul and Direlond’s Devils under Archon Ninglos.  

WHO’S REALLY IN CHARGE? You’re under contract to Sharl Naleg who in turn serves Archon Ubmar. The Archons appoint persons, called Sharls, to oversee neighborhoods: keep order, take in payments, prevent crime from getting out of hand, and prevent people from blowing the city up. Sharls then contract from various places to form a guard unit. That’s where you come in.

The Archons command and control Abashan from their towers in the city center. Their numbers have dwindled in recent decades- five of thirteen towers remain, and only three are occupied. Archon Ubmar is known for his dedication to the stability and status quo. Archon Lodosa Rhul has great ambitions- and hopes to finish the refurbishment of the grand arena within her lifetime. Archon Ninglos the Seven Teared maintains his (?) privacy for his researches.

WHAT’S GOING TO MAKE THIS HARDER?  Information magics- scrying, translation, tracing, detections- don’t function in Abashan. This goes for both arcane & divine magics. It remains unclear how the gods watch over here. Despite this, Abashan is a hotbed for cults, icons, avatars, faiths, and pantheons. No one wants to be left out, so they all keep a finger in the pie. All gods are permitted so long as they do not violate the common laws or work against the interests of the city.

WHAT ARE THE PEOPLE LIKE?  This world and this city has multiple peoples- Humans, Elves, Dwarves, etc- but two distinct groups exist for each, an Elder and a Younger. You can pick out elder peoples by their height and off-putting alien gravity. They’re fewer and often dislike Younger folk

WHAT CAN WE DEPEND ON? Despite the desert and steppe outside the wall, Abashan has a massive system of magical wells, fountains, and sewers. You can get fresh water most anywhere. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Conveying Settings: My Process & More Thoughts

It has been cool to see GMs discuss different approaches to conveying setting to players. I added a large comment to Tuesday’s post, but I wanted to pull that out and add a couple more thoughts. This is an important GM question: how to they get a setting across, when & why is that important, what do you gain/lose by doing it one way?

Aside: One commenter suggested I’d left out “"Let the players find out through play." I think that’s what I meant by the “Puzzle Piece” approach, but I could have been clearer about that.

In putting together this list, I tried to be relatively neutral. My approach has shifted over the years. I used to be heavy into writing up backgrounds, timelines, and pantheons. I sunk hours into gazetteers for different campaigns. I changed because I began to minimize my prep. Actually, I shifted more because Sherri pointed out the time I spent on things which didn’t hit the table directly. I didn’t need to fully flesh those things. A lesson I've learned over and over: “Don’t paint what you can’t see.”

Let me snapshot the last five years of running and what I’ve given to the players as the “text” of the game. I’ll leave aside what’s done actually at the table, except to say that if players suggest things I make an effort to integrate those. My players know that if they want to go in a new direction, I’m going to assist them in that.

In the last five or so years, I’ve run twelve campaigns. By that I mean games lasting 10+ sessions. A couple of other campaigns overlap into this period, but the bulk of their sessions fall outside 2010 to now.

Of those, we created seven campaigns by via collaboration. In most cases that meant using Microscope to create the setting. We did single development sessions, usually with I a seed or a starting point (hunts, refugees). For two of those, we built a city rather than a timeline. I then went through what we created, organized it, filled in a few missing gaps and then presented that to the players. In one case, I supplemented that with an additional info document (23 Things About Abashan). I used that document both as my campaign prep and player-aid prep. I tried not to do much more campaign building on my side beyond that. (Also in that case we've used a wiki where players can add items to in exchange for exp).
For the two non-Microscope collaborations, I used other structures. In our Legend of the Five Rings campaign, I wrote up a two-paragraph synopsis of events since the last campaign. The group then worked together to create a new family for one of the clans, which they would then play. I built that mostly on John Wick’s Blood & Honor mechanics. The only other handout was the rules. 

For our Superhero campaign, I asked everyone to pick an existing comics character to do a “Year One” version of. I used those choices to create the world. I wrote up several different teaser one-sheets- a couple on the history of supers and the rest covering known NPCs (heroes, villains, officials). That ended up a little heavier- perhaps 10-12 pages of material. OOH I also used that as my GM prep and didn’t do much campaign prep work beyond that.

I built four other campaigns myself. For three of them- Star Wars, Scion, Changeling the Lost- I did nothing in the way of handouts. Most info I conveyed in character creation verbally or through the CC choices. For Star Wars I simply defined the canon (original trilogy). In one case I overdid it. For my wuxia campaign I wrote up a ton of material and dumped that on the players- over time, but still too much. I like what I wrote, but the game ended early because of scheduling conflicts—so that was work lost. As well, having that material meant that the world itself was more convoluted than it could have been.

The last campaign is my multi-genre OCI game. So far we’ve played through four distinct worlds for about 6-8 sessions each. In one of those we used Microscope as the basis. For three of those settings, I tried to restrict myself to a brief pitch, insight through character creation options, and a document with “23 Things” about the setting. Again, I used those documents as my own GM planning time, so they weren’t just for the players. (City of Ocean, Neo Shinobi Vendetta, Masks of the Empire). I like this approach because I do some brainstorming, keep most of the entries tight, and can seed weird stuff for later. The lists also don’t seem to overwhelm the players.

There I'm creating more player material, but I hope I'm not wasting effort/energy since that's also nearly all my campaign prep for these games (beside system tweaking). I have a goal now: when doing campaign planning, I try not to write for my own use. Beyond the set up I restrict my additional pre-campaign prep to short lists (locations, people, things) and some sketches about possible incidents & events. In a perfect world everything else would be for me and the players and wouldn’t be overwhelming.

Another approach I missed in my list is setting information conveyed through the Character Creation process (thanks to everyone who caught this). Games can use the player’s CC choices to show what exists in the world- different races, distinct classes, nature of powers like magic. Clever designers can work in additional factoids and details. This approach can illustrate setting tone: more social options might describe a more complex world, heavy combat abilities suggest more physical conflict. One commenter pointed out that equipment lists can even give a feeling of the setting. Traveler’s restrained projectile weapons say something about that universe vs. the more out-there lists from Star Wars or Gamma World.

WoD is pretty good for combining setting and character building. The Clans have short, evocative images and descriptions. Vampire the Masquerade’s set up expands and develops the simple pitch of playing modern vampires. Some editions of Legend of the Five Rings do a great job of distilling the background down to the character choices. The combination of colors and restricted choices make it clear who the different clans are in the world-and the tension between them. Many games with complex backgrounds use an “archetype” presentation to explain the essential choices. Playbooks may be the endpoint of that.

Weapons of the Gods' Loresheets offer another device I’d forgotten about until someone mentioned it. Loresheets cover details of the setting: groups, myths, key NPCs, nationalities, philosophies. Players can “buy into” these stories at the start. This connects them to the setting and invests them in it. It’s cool how that monetizes the setting. However, at least in the case of WotG, there’s a ton of text to get through. If players want to make informed choices, they have to plow through a lot of stuff. There’s a similar problem in L5R’s ancestor mechanics.

13th Age's Icons mechanics also fall into this category. The game reduces key factions to a set of key figures. Players then establish their relations to them at the start. The pitch for each can be done quickly and it invests the players in knowing more.

I lumped together homebrew and published settings in my list. But they have distinct differences- a set canon, great amount of material, player access, and so on. But the main useful point is that someone has to be able to grok the setting and then they have to figure out the best way to get others to grok something about it.

Game books have three different audiences. One, players who might play in the setting. Two, GMs thinking about seriously running it. Three, NPRs or "Non-Player Readers" who know they won't actually get this to the table but are reading the books for entertainment and inspiration over play. I think each of those audiences has a distinct set of needs. Some designers consider that- and I’d point to Legend of the Five Rings and early Shadowrun as great examples of that: a wealth of material, condensed player summaries for archetypes, and colorful visual design to grab attention.

On the other hand some settings I love as an “NPR” because I don’t know how to even start to get that across to the players or even get a handle on for myself. Iron Kingdoms falls into that category for me, as does Mindjammer and Weapons of the Gods.

And bottom line: some games exist where the players won’t get the full immersion and experience unless they actually do some reading and exploring. On the sci-fi side Hans Messersmith suggest Eclipse Phase falls into this category. The related Transhuman Space as well. For fantasy, Dark Sun and Houses of the Blooded have many distinct conventions and details. GMs need to recognize that and figure out the most condensed “homework” for their players. And designers need to figure out how to best assist them.

Suggestions? Additions? What Do the Different Approaches Bring to Your Table?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Selling the Setting (or God...Please...No More Backstory...)

So you’ve got a great setting to run: homebrewed or published. You’ve crafted pages of material or pored over every supplement. You know every detail. You can GM the hell out of this world. Now how do you show the players this place?

I’ve tried all kinds of approaches to setting presentation: gazetteers, hyperlinked web sites, key lists, collaborative design. Recently in L5R I used a trick to explicate spycraft and give a player ownership. That got me thinking about those many different ways I’ve gone about doing painting the backdrop. That’s changed over time for me and I've shifted techniques to fit the needs of particular campaigns. Like most GMs I love discovery through play, but know I have to balance that with set up.

I used to spend days and weeks writing & developing campaign background. And when players didn’t engage with the material I got irritated. In some cases they didn’t read the handouts. In others they couldn’t absorb the mass of vomited info. Over time I saw where I wasted effort, producing work which never actually hit the table. I comforted myself with the thought that it added depth or could be repurposed later. But it rarely turned out that way. Eventually I moved to doing less. Yet I suspect even my more minimal approaches look overelaborate to some.

Many published settings overwhlem as well; especially long-running gamelines or one based on other properties. For example, I dig the Iron Kingdoms setting, but it’s massive and sprawling. If you include Hordes material, it becomes even more complex. If I wanted to run that, I’d first have to consider how to condense and explain the peoples, kingdoms, and nature of magic & tech. I dig other settings presenting similar difficulties: Legend of the Five Rings, Kerberos Club, Fading Suns, Exalted. It isn’t true for all published worlds. For example most GUMSHOE settings build on strong and easily pitched concepts: Mutant City Blues (cops with powers controlling supers), Night’s Black Agents (spies vs. vampires), Ashen Stars (mercenary space problem-solvers). Their atmosphere works with a logline and a little backstory.

To figure out gamemaster “Best Practices” for setting presentation I’ve create a list of approaches. Some overlap, some offer small variations, some skip the setting, some skip the GM. I’m certain this isn’t complete. So I’m curious about your techniques. What have I missed? When do you use particular techniques and why? Do you have specific tools that have served you well? Any and all feedback’s appreciated.

Player Booklets: The classic. The GM prepares a lengthy synopsis of the setting. This might include a timeline, history, details of the peoples, etc. In our recent podcast episode show- casing Sam's campaign, he describes creating a substantial player reference book. Several of the D&D Gazetteers provide these as well: a distinct player supplement, usually with history and mechanical options. Part of the trick here is figuring out what the players need to know and avoiding info dump.

Cut to the Core Book: For published settings, the GM may allow/request/require players to read the rulebook and the background presented there. They might limit that to certain chapters or broaden it to assorted secondary materials and splat books. This gets everyone on the same page. Of course, this brings up the perennial question of "meta-information." How much do the players know versus their character? I've had problems with this in the past. I ran a Changeling the Lost campaign with PCs fresh from the Hedge and new to their existence. One player had studied the core book and assumed he knew everything there. He and I clashed a couple of times on that. In retrospect I should have been clearer about the ground rules regarding that info. 

Licensed Source Material: A variation on the above, the GM of a licensed game uses the original books, comics, or films to convey the setting. It’s easier to do this with a narrower setting, for example based on a single book or TV series. It’s more problematic when the material exists in several mediums. If you’re running The One Ring is it enough to have seen the movies? Or do the players need to know the lore and have read the trilogy? The Silmarillion? Or closer to home, what about Star Wars? Which parts are canon? In my campaign I flatly stated only the original trilogy definitely happened.

Sliced Setting: The GM has written material but cuts it down to one narrow segment of the setting. That narrow perspective's used as a starting point to see the world. Chris Handley recently did this for Iron Kingdoms, using an all-Trollkin group to focus presentation. I can imagine an all-Hobbit game for LoTR or an all Cop game for Cyberpunk

Wikis and Online: A player-booklet variation which uses blogs, wikis, and portal sites to increase accessibility. Information can be added to or modified easily. An encyclopedia approach with hyperlinks lets players roam through the material. A couple of times I’ve combined this with a “Weekly Teaser.” Once we’ve established I’m going to run, I’ll post entries and articles in the run-up to the campaign. For my Exalted campaign, this allowed me to make a rich setting without overwhelming players. Alternately, if a game has an existing independent wiki, the GM can direct them to that. However this isn’t a great solution since that info’s often chaotic and potentially filled with spoilers.

One-Sheet Summaries: The GM reduces everything they think the player needs to know to a single page. This could be a single global summary or a set of sheets tailored to each character. This seems like a good idea for conventions, but it does eat up time. Players will always go through these sheets at the table and lose focus on what you’re saying. The alternative is to wait and sit in silence while discovering the different reading speeds of your group.

What My Father Told Me: A specific form of one-sheet created for Glorantha. It focuses on a single culture, clan, or peoples. It’s a great tool because it nicely covers a character's typical upbringing. Their experience may differ, but they at least know the baseline. I’ve used this in a couple of ways. On the one hand, I’ve presented it as a set of choices for players. That does make for a chunk of material for players to skim before play begins. On the other hand in the Last Fleet campaign, players selected their characters' origins and then I had them write up a WMFTM sheet for that. That gave them expertise and control.

Player-Facing Materials: A variation on some of these approaches, in particular player booklets. This provides information fully from the character's point of view: documents, letters, overheard conversations. The WMFTM above takes this approach. City of Lies remains my favorite example of this. It provides a document describing the city of Ryoko Owari for incoming Magistrates. Many characters aren’t named which offers a mystery; some of the information’s noted as outdated; and references come from several sources- including a couple of uncertain reliability. Beyond that the set contains a completely separate journal which serves as a plot-moving discovery.

Player-Facing Materials “Meta”: Another kind of player-facing material combines setting explanation and player control. Plot and story choices merge with description. For example, the Kaiin Player’s Guide for DERPG describes the neighborhoods as well as events happening there. Players, rather than the GM, can choose what to engage with and make the session's story. Cairn does a similar thing, built around the notable NPCs of the setting. I emulated that with my L5R Spymaster write-up. Rumor sheets, as used in Geanavue: The Stones of Peace, also use this. This approach assumes the characters have deeper knowledge than their players. It works to make the feel they have that mastery.

Unimportant to the Play: The setting/backstory’s unimportant to play. A one shot might focus purely on the interaction of the players. You could be simply dungeon-crawling. Or perhaps you operate in a setting with established common details, like a 1920’s Call of Cthulhu game where the players interact with a generic “society.”

Puzzle Piece: A little bit like the above, but there’s a setting and it may have impact on choices. For example a Hex-Crawl where the players discover facts as they move from section to section. This might be pre-defined or rolled randomly by the GM. The actual background and what it means emerges through play. In a sense the setting’s unimportant during character creation, but becomes a factor through exploration.

You Already Know: They players have played in the setting before. They earned their knowledge through previous play. Alternately could apply to games set in a shared real world city.

Aspects: Instead of defining specifics of a place or setting, you define it via catchphrases or short descriptors. Fate leans heavily on this. Cities, peoples, neighborhoods could all be defined in this way. “Wrong Side of the Tracks,” “Sense of Hopelessness,” “Heavily Patrolled” for example set up a tone. For an even more short-hand approach, areas might be defined numerically. Ratings in different aspects provide the players baseline info.

Q&A: Each session, the GM assigns one or more players to choose a topic they want to hear more about. The GM then prepares that information for the next session. This can be used to flesh out plot points, clarify backgrounds, and connect to current or future plot points. The GM can tune the number of responses to their schedule (everyone gets a request, the petitioner varies from session to session).

Collaborative Creation: Players and GM work together to build the setting. Microscope can be used for this, and Questlandia and Fate include this as a key mechanic. Participants shape the world to their interests. It generates new ideas as they bounce concepts around. Importantly all players begin with the same level of knowledge about the setting. Rather than passively reading or being read to, the players actively participate and invest in the setting. It promotes expertise and mastery. This process has a couple of drawbacks. For example, how to handle a collaboratively created campaign where new players join later? It also requires a GM who is willing to build and play with material they didn’t generate.

Collaborative Authority: Rather than or in addition to pre-game development, the GM asks players to define ideas during play. For example, if someone wants to encounter a non-human, the GM asks the player(s) what kind there are in the world. Questlandia uses a variation of this. It has the group collaboratively define the setting. But important locations, issues, and aspects developed are then parceled out to the players. They gain the final say on those points. When a related question comes up, the group turns to that authority.

Structured Collaboration: The setting’s fleshed out collaboratively, but based on an existing structure. For example Kingdom comes with some set frames. These spell out the general picture, but then the group walks through and makes selections from a menu about the details and problems facing them. DramaSystem takes a similar but looser approach where players have a pitch and then work through questions to flesh it out.

Mediated Collaboration: In this version, the setting and information indirectly comes from the player choices. Players create their characters and fill in details. The GM uses this on-the-fly to create the backdrop. This ties elements the players have selected to the game at hand. Spelling out the setting and communicating that to the players still rests in the GM’s hands. Dungeon World, for example, takes this approach.

Again, what’s missing? When do you use a specific technique and how does that serve the game? What devices have you used for this? What's your experience with the relative strengths or weaknesses of these? 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Samurai Spymaster: L5R Plot Hooks

We're been playing our homebrew Legend of the Five Rings game for a couple of years now. It's a collaboratively-built, season action-based campaign. Because of that and how we've played L5R in the past, it veers away from the core setting canon. I suspect my game looks more like a conventional fantasy game with samurai trappings than most. But as they say, "Your Rokugan May Vary." 

A few sessions ago, our spy master (Oniwaban) spent her seasonal action to map out the various dangerous factions. She put all of her persons and resources to that end and had a remarkable series of pulls. I've been trying to figure out how to present that information in a useful and non-info dump way. Recently I picked up a copy of Cairn in a Math Trade. It has a neat device of player-facing plot points associated with the well known NPCs of the setting. I loved that in the Kaiin Player's Guide. So I tried to do something like that with this material. I'm working on another post more broadly looking at pushing setting.  Below is what I gave Kuni Setsu's player. These are open-ended plot points-- static until the player decides to investigate them or bring them into her work. 

The Scorpion Ring
While the Scorpion have a presence here, it is unlikely that what’s visible is all that exists. In fact, that visible part may well be a distraction from other, more dangerous agents and plots. Or not. As you know that the incidents of several years ago left the Scorpion scattered and uncertain. The major Scorpion agent in the area, Bayushi Haruhisa died at the hands of an unknown assailant shortly before the Emperor formalized the Dragon Clan’s control.

The Scorpion Clan trade representative, Sosuro Chiyo, moved up in rank at that time, but did not apparently gain control of the Scorpion network. Who did remains a mystery- but it does not appear to be either of the major Scorpion figures more lately arrived. We have detected connections to several merchants, ties of patronage, and perhaps blackmail. As well, as previously established, one of the major gangs in the capital operates at the behest of Scorpion handlers. Whatever the nature of the Scorpion agents operating here, they seem to be split from the trade interests coming out of Ryoko Owari (mentioned later).

  1. An artisan, long suspected of being a secret dupe of the Scorpion organization, recently fled the capitol under cover of darkness.
  2. There has been tension and in-fighting between the gangs servicing the opium trade. So far the Scorpion network oddly has not intervened.
  3. On a few occasions, figures have been seen working in teams in the northern woods- often spotted with masks. They have vanished before being engaged by our patrols. However, there’s a pattern to their appearances as they’ve shown up near old shrines established by the Kitsu here when the Lion held these lands.
  4. An intercepted communication suggests that the Scorpion have managed to place a servant within Governor Doji Yasumori’s household.
  5. A master of “medicines” associated with the Scorpion Clan died while travelling through the region, apparently of a stomach malady. However his travel satchel and “herbal” supplies went missing and the Scorpions appear to be hunting for it.
The Unicorn Pathfinders
The Unicorn have had extensive trade contacts through this area for some time. However, it has become increasingly clear that several locations serve as major hub point for Unicorn agents moving out into the rest of the Empire. In particular several traveler inns, hostels, and similar locations serve as cover for these operations. That seems to be restrained in the capitol, Maru Katei. Instead their network operates in the hinterlands, especially the northern forests and the mountains of the West and East. Our Master of Scouts, Toritaka Ataru, has found several hidden trails that may be tied to these, rather than the Lion Clan infiltrators.

  1. Scouts have discovered a strange trail in the Eastern mountains. It seems to head off into inaccessible territory.
  2. A crafter under Unicorn patronage recently closed up shop and set out to relocate to the village on the border of the non-human Monkey lands.
  3. Scouts followed a set of trails which might be tied to the Unicorn network. They came across a ronin who managed to give them the slip in the woods. Their description closely matches Itsura, Ogawa’s former sensei.
  4. The Unicorn agents have been agitated and hunt for a Moto who fled here. Given that no word of this has come through official channels, something odd must be involved.
  5. One of the few persons we’ve directly associated with the Unicorn suddenly gave up his position and fled to the Suru Ishi monastery. It is clear the Unicorn will not welcome this defection.
Merchants’ Cabal
Even before the time of the Three Armies, the Lion Clan had dealt loosely with the merchants of the region. They provided necessary services and helped keep the rich farmlands of the area running efficiently. The merchants kept their head down and operated as connections between villages. Practicality mattered more to the Lion samurai than other details- though from time to time they cut down someone breaking tradition as a demonstration of the order of the world.

As the battles became more desperate in the area, several merchant groupings worked to cement stability for themselves. They worked quietly- servicing some black market needs- but more importantly taking advantage of want and lack of authority in villages and towns to gain goods, concessions, and future favors. Control by the Dragon Clan gave them even more space to operate. The morel hands-off policy of the Dragon towards the underclass increased their space to operate. Where other clans with stronger trade connections (Unicorn, Scorpion) might move to occupy or control those spheres, the Shimasu and Dragon have not.

  1. The merchants have one major nemesis among the Dragon Clan, Kitsugi O-Mugi, the Mistress of Taxes. They have quietly offered a bounty to anyone who can provide damming information regarding her.
  2. The Merchants seem to be heavily supporting the Gambaru sumotai school. They have put pressure on the Shotosu school to close.  
  3. An old and respected sake brewery in the West region has apparently defied entreaties from the Merchant Cabal. It is likely they will retaliate.
  4. The Merchants may have a traitor in their midst. At least two recent shipments intended to evade Imperial scrutiny ended up attacked by Sanada and his men.
  5. One of the senior members of the Merchant cabal has secretly been running up large gambling debts. He gambles in many different places to keep this quiet.
The Lion Conspiracy
The Lion have had to rebuild their regional contacts and connections. They clearly believed that any set-backs would be temporary, hence their reliance on infiltrators over more conventional agents. While they engaged in sabotage early on, that has trailed off. Instead we believe that most have returned to the Lion or gone for deep infiltration. The Lion have had to trade off long-running ties of loyalty against not being prepared for this. While you’ve long suspected that “Uncle” Ikoma Daihachi has acts as a spymaster or organizer of the Lion network, it remains difficult to confirm. Particularly over the last year, he’s become even more cautious after his unreported attack.

  1. A murder of a merchant in a simple, distant village comes through the Magistrate’s letters. What striking is the mention of that merchant having come into possession of a scroll case matching those you’ve found in other Lion caches.
  2. One of the younger samurai in the Eastern province has been given permission to marry a local from a ji-samurai family. However, her groom may be tied to the Lion agents through his father.
  3. Several suspected Lion agents, including a Kitsu shugenja were found in the Eastern mountains. Their wounds match your recollection of the weapons of the Tsuno.
  4. Matsu Gorosada recently requested travel papers for a member of his clan. Intercepted information suggests this person is a liaison for Lion agents in our region.
  5. The medicine which recently saved the daimyo of the neighboring Mirumoto family seems to have come through the Lion network.
House of the Ruby Cricket
While small-scale smuggling has always been a problem, it tends to be scattered. Many assume larger smuggling operations have behind-the-scenes control from the Great Clans. In this area, much of that flows through Ryoko Owari. However at least one smuggling operation exists in our lands outside of direct Clan control. While members of various high families seem to be tied into it, The House of the Ruby Cricket exists as an independent operation for the moment.

How long that’s been the case remains uncertain. The group seems to have arisen from the consolidation of several smaller networks. They operate through this region with connections to the Crab, Unicorn, Lion, and Phoenix lands. More notably, they apparently smuggle goods into and out of the Dragon Clan homelands and beyond. As a criminal organization, they might rightly fall under the jurisdiction of the Magistrate. However the House has an extensive network and they clearly put an emphasis on contacts and information gathering.

  1. Rumor has it that some of your Suguremashita Iron has become available via the Ruby Cricket.
  2. A pair of travelers who may be Yobanjin have been spotted in the region. How they’ve made it through the road wardens remains a mystery, but they seem to be pursuing someone from the House of the Ruby Cricket.
  3. The Ruby Cricket have apparently been moving some gaijin items in recent months, to the chagrin of Unicorn smugglers.
  4. A known agent of the Ruby Cricket had an odd reaction when he found himself in the same shop as swordmaster Anbu Utamaru, seeking to escape before being spotted.
  5. A courtesan in the Silver Drop “Tea House” has been bragging that two important agents in the House of the Ruby Cricket have been vying for his affections.
Mikoto’s Breath
The number of ronin has increased steadily in Rokugan over the last several decades. Shifts in power, destruction of minor clans, internal dissension, and the exposure of criminal conspiracies all contributed. Many ronin swept into this area during the Time of the Three Armies. The sudden halt to the conflict left them without patrons or coin. The recent destruction of a ronin force in Crane lands has intensified the problem. Some have quietly called for an organized campaign against them, but such a war would bring little honor. Despite their shared interests, most ronin remain scattered and easily set at one another in pursuit of a pittance.

However we believe a network for some ronin exists in the region. How they’re organized and recruited remains uncertain. They operate outside of the other groups mentioned. We strongly suspect they have at least one settlement in the area and may have support from among the clans. Three factors make this group more dangerous. First, their name has been tied to the death of several skilled swordsmen. If they are assassins, they do not use the typical ronin ambush and overwhelm approach. Second, they may have shugenja among their number, but they work carefully to keep that hidden. We do not believe they use Bloodspeaker magic, but the nature is unclear. Three, we believe they have some knowledge and commerce with the yokai.

  1. A shugenja bearing the marks and appearance of the Phoenix has appeared a couple of times in the last year in the South. Calling himself Isawa Gobenmaru, conversations with the Clan rep in Maru Katei suggest they have either never heard of him or have disowned him.
  2. The recent killing of a retired Dragonfly samurai in the North has raised tensions and signs suggest the involvement of Mikoto’s Breath.
  3. The Soshi are said to be hunting a particular ronin warrior who has joined with Mikoto’s Breath.
  4. Chibaru let slip that he was targeted for recruitment by Mikoto’s Breath but turned them down.
  5. A legendary ronin assassin named Kobukodo is said to be coming to join Mikoto’s Breath to serve as a trainer.
The White Cage
A criminal underground network operating in these northern lands. Usually conventional criminal groups remain restricted to a city or smaller location. Those operating over larger areas usually gain the attention and enmity of clan operatives. How and why the White Cage has survived remains uncertain. They’ve existed long enough to have their own rites and rituals, as well as a strong code of loyalty. They have strong contacts with banditry- not acting as bandits themselves, but instead as intermediaries. Through their network they’ve also been known to hire out to various daimyos as scouts to count forces and assess strengths. Rumor has it that they have some support and connection to some of the more worldly elements of the Brotherhood. It may be that they’ve gathered up some members who have left the order or belong to broken temples. One rumor suggests they have knowledge of the Zokujin and trade with the Nezumi.

  1. Bayushi Kenzo, the Emerald Magistrate, may be interested in The White Cage. He captured someone who may be involved and seems to be readying to move them out of the city quietly.
  2. Another location, said to have markings of the Trolls, was found ransacked. The unlocking of the site suggests Zokuijin involvement.
  3. Agents of the White Cage kidnapped both a Doctor and an Herbalist in the Southern region.
  4. Information from our “special allies” suggests that in several places, the White Cage has been using Zokujin to keep old, abandoned shires and other sites unoccupied.
  5. A senior person of the White Cage crossed Sanada recently. He’s now a persona-non-grata and on the run

Monday, May 4, 2015

Star Wars Roleplaying: Play on Target Ep. 41

Though we didn’t plan it during recording, we managed to have a Star Wars-themed episode for May the Fourth. In it we discuss our experiences with different iterations of Star Wars rpgs. Spoiler: Until the week before, I hadn’t actually played any of published Star Wars rpg. We try to get at what makes a strong Star Wars system & a strong Star Wars campaign. We knock around the question of canon and player knowledge to figure out what works at the table. As a bonus we're releasing a set of extra episodes today. Andrew ran a demo session of Edge of the Empire for us. If you dig Actual Play you can check out the audio here (broken into three parts) and you can see the session video here.

  1. I’m old enough to remember standing in line for Star Wars opening weekend. I also recall not wanting to go at all. I’d seen the previews and the flash of the Tuskan Raider terrified me. I relented of course loved it, even though I covered my face every time Luke got attacked. Every time I watched it. I got the pre-order of the action figures that Christmas: the waiting was a killer. When my dad went to England to teach there, I made him take me to a tiny London cinema to watch double feature of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. I remember how exhausted and exasperated he looked afterwards.
  2. The Star Wars rpg always did well at the game store I worked at. Those sold and sold- certainly more than anything else West End Games put out (Paranoia, TORG, Masterbook). We did hand-written inventory management, so you’d have to check every couple of weeks to see if anything had fallen through the cracks.
  3. Among the many players I gamed with over the almost thirty years of Star Wars rpgs available, I only remember one person who actively collected and ran it. I bought some of the WEG supplements, thinking I might do something with it but I never did. Even the die-hard Star Wars fans in our group never bought or followed the rpgs. I’m not sure why. Sci-fi- outside of cyberpunk- never grabbed players' attention, even stuff as fantastical as SW. 
  4. On the other hand many of those same gamers loved the Star Wars video and PC games. Why didn’t translate into a desire to play that on the tabletop? I know many ripped through Dark Forces, Star Wars Battlefront, Knights of the Old Republic, and even the first Star Wars MMO.
  5. Has "May the Fourth" always been a thing? I honestly didn’t notice it until last year.
  6. As I mentioned in the podcast, I've run Star Wars once, but with a homebrew. I had a great time and intended the short arc to be the first "movie" in a trilogy. However players’ schedules shifted after that and I’m reluctant to run the second part with some missing. You can see how I prepped that and my post-mortem of the play here
  7. I don’t think I’d really play Star Wars: Imperial Assault, but I kind of want to buy it for the figures. They’re really nice. They’d be great for doing a tabletop rpg. But that way lies madness. I might start thinking “well, maybe I need to buy models to simulate the space battles…” and then suddenly I’ve wasted even more money I don’t have on X-Wing or Star Wars: Armada. I need to stick with using vaguely sci-fi'ish HeroClix and my weird partial collection of Starfleet Wars ships from the late 70’s.

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at www.playontarget.com.