Friday, March 30, 2012

Another Inevitable Post on Railroading

I talked a little last week about the idea of sandboxes and finales. In reading through some of the excellent comments to the post, I began to wonder about the terms I was using and the values associated with them. For example, I think different people may have a different sense of what’s meant by a sandbox game. Some might see it as completely without form to start- with the players supplying drive and direction and the GM responding entirely to that. On the other hand, a sandbox game might be defined as open choice in a setting- where the players have the freedom to explore the setting outside of a central plot or story.

An interesting parallel experience comes from one of the designers for the PS3 game, Flower, essentially an exploration game. Jenova Chen in an interview on Gamasutra says,

“The game was designed to be an open world at the beginning. Then, people said, "What am I supposed to do after the first 20 minutes of straight awesomeness of enjoying the nature?" And then they all end up saying, "Oh, there's no purpose. I don't know where to go.”… So, we kind of have to figure out a solution there. And we iterated it to more like a semi-open world and semi-linear structure….You have to kind of trigger these flowers in sort of an order, and then we see players just wander off into the distance to the very end of the level, and there's nothing there. They were just all confused. So we actually had to kind of block them before they could move on to the next area. It's almost like we wanted to throw away the traditional game design, but we end up picking up all the pieces we threw away and putting them back because we know those are actually needed to deliver a good guided experience.”

I’d consider most of my games open- I try to supply a setting and incidents for the players to respond to. I set up situations, but how the players decide to deal with those ought to remain open. No suggestion should be discounted outside of the game or setting logic. Keith Baker talks about elements of sandbox games here. The blog Reality Refracted breaks down some of the types of campaigns, and I’d say I fall somewhere usually between Plot and Campaign. I really want my players to have Agency, and I think the Rhetorical Gamer really lays out the concerns of agency in two great posts: here and here. One problem in doing any assessment or analysis of these kinds of gaming techniques is that I can’t really be objective: my sources are anecdotal- based on my experiences running and playing. Given that gamers likely play with the same groups most often, certain patterns or beliefs may arise in there. My group wants to discover the story the GM has planned out, and wants to help get that to the table. But they don’t want to play a module. My gaming groups generally hold to those values, though individuals may have different interpretations.  

Related to that, one of the splits I see is that between Improvisation and Railroading. There’s some suggestion that improv-approach games reduce the problems of rails or offer a better power balance between players & GM. I’ll admit to being a pretty freeform GM- I write up notes and sketch ideas, but I’m also pretty loose about how important that ends up being at the table. I rarely stat encounters or enemies, unless I really want a big scene or I’m pretty sure the players have it in mind to take on the opposition in question. I’m a fan of Play Unsafe and his mentor Impro, but I’m less comfortable with fully improvised sessions. Beedo, at Dreams in the Lich House, considers the levels of improvisation players might be comfortable with, in the context of the excellent Armitage Files. Some people have suggested that in practice we end up with a continuum of practices running from Railroad (Control) to Improvisation (Freedom).

What do I think the far poles are? On the Railroading side, I think it takes two forms: active and passive. Active Railroading has the GM making declarations about what the players can and cannot do. Doors cannot be opened, obstacles cannot be passed, monsters may not be defeated- regardless of rules, character abilities and rolls. The Rhetorical Gamer’s story about the GM berating the group for taking actions undercut the GM’s set-up is a classic example. My favorite incident occurred in an Exalted game, when the GM declared to a player, “The giant tree reaches out and grabs you.” The player naturally said she wanted to dodge. The GM repeated that she’d been grabbed. The player pointed out the various skills and charms she had available to avoid that. Angrily, the GM told her to roll- at which point she obtained 10 successes, an EPIC and ABSURD number. “OK, he grabs you and knocks you out,” replied the GM. At which point I think the rest of the table burst out laughing at him.

Passive Railroading, on the other hand, is more common. It can take many forms. A GM might excise all other possible options, not bothering with any attention or details aside from the plot and story they want to play. Any questions or exploration loop back to that. More sinisterly, the GM may simply ignore player inputs and “voting” in favor of the story they have in mind. They don’t actively negate, but ignore results or shift them in a way antithetical to the intent. We were playing in a game where we weren’t quite sure of the direction or plot- but we’d at least identified some of the bad guys. We ended up meeting a lieutenant of the BBEG, a follower out of family loyalty and nationalism. The group decided that interacting with and convincing this person of the plots afoot would be the best approach. So we spent a good part of the session interacting with the NPC, establishing ties, building up connections. One of the PCs moved to open a potential romantic interest with the NPC. We liked the character and could see how this would move us towards our goals and provide new opportunities. At the end of the session, the GM essentially walked the NPC off-stage, never to return. Our attempts to contact and follow up with the NPC were stymied. Instead, many sessions later at the climax, the character showed up- in the service of the bad guy but now “mind controlled” to explain his siding with them.


Of course one of the problems with defining a rails vs. improv continuum is that these positions can shift depending on what’s happening at the table. A GM might be improvising a scene, but still be driving players in one direction. Or a GM who has their plot worked out down to the beats might freeform a fight.

I have some questions and they arise from interesting discussions like that of Casting Shadows here and the negativity towards some kinds of story presented by Monsters and Manuals here.

At what point does GM input become railroading? At what point is a GM imposing story? Is it in limiting choices? In placing obstacles? In forcing conflicts? In setting up dilemmas and tough choices? In setting up incidents? And do different players see the “imposition” of these details differently?

On the flip side, as suggested in the opening quote- shouldn’t a GM be obligated to provide some structure to the players? How much is too much? What elements of drama and story-telling right fit in-- rising action, act structure, reversals, inner vs. outer conflict, repetition for emphasis, controlling ideas, symbols-- and which deliver “railroaded narrative”?


I’m thinking about these questions because I want to try to find the right balance between control and freedom. I see a value in a heavily improvised approach- with the idea of an emergent story. But I also see value in active story-crafting by the GM. I have stories and ideas I think the players might enjoy playing around with. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be a GM. But those stories aren’t complete. Instead they’re fragments that can get filled in at the table or ignored if the players choose another, better path. But I think story isn’t a dirty word. What bothers me about the “Hickman” model mentioned above is that in its extreme forms of play you end up with one of two static approaches. On the one hand, you get a story where your characters don’t matter- any could be slotted in. The PC natures and backgrounds don’t impact it. On the other, you have stories where the players don’t matter. The characters have been created and fulfill roles, but the actual choices made by them have little or no impact on events (i.e. Dragonlance).

I’ve also played in games without signposts. Some of them have been interesting in the level of freedom allowed the players. But more often, the group’s been lost. Perhaps traditional narrative has served as a crutch for us too long, so that when we find that space we can’t cope. But sometimes it has felt like the GM’s given up or wants to show off a mastery of the form. As in the Flower example, we walked to the end of the level, but still remained confused.

Which means either extreme fails for our group. I believe a great game requires a blending of control and freedom. Despite the dangers, I believe that story offers benefits in play. Story-telling techniques- requiring GM control- offer benefits at the table. But those benefits only arise when tempered with free and meaningful choices for the players. What I really want to figure out, what I try to figure out in every game I run, is how to do that. 

Incidentally, since I mentioned it in my last post, this weekend I got to hear an angry rant by one of our group who loves Mass Effect, but hated the ending. We talked about it for some time and his major complaint was SPOILERS that all of the endings were the same. With the curtain pulled back, he hated the sense of powerlessness that created for him (the player) vs. him (the character). The Hopeless Gamer has an ending idea, though I'm not sure it would exactly solve that problem, but it is worth reading if you're interested in the game.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cities of Steel: Superhero Urban Sourcebooks

In my experience, many superhero campaigns can be defined by the cities they're set in. GM's could have groups jetting across the country or world, but that presents a couple of problems. How do you establish a logical and reasonable means of travel for the PCs, besides teleporters? In the comics they usually cut between panels- and the actual time to get to a place is hand-waved away. But more importantly, how do you establish backstory for the PCs unless they live in an urban location. it may be possible, but choosing a city is easier and more dynamic. Starting in a city also allows the GM to slowly develop and expand the group's circle of influence. Perhaps they begin covering just one district, then move to the city as a whole, and then perhaps national and then international.

So I've put together a list of superhero rpg cities with individually published treatments. I focused on dedicated sourcebooks over cities presented in a corebook or as part of a supplement (in most cases). I started with an easy fifteen. 

1. Hazard IPSP / ISIS Official Map 7 
I may be stretching the definition pretty far, but this was- I believe the first city/setting/location sourcebook for a superhero rpg. Superhero 2044 may have been an unplayable game, but I think it speaks for my enthusiasm that I remember playing it with some joy (until V&V 1e came along). I picked this supplement out when it came out and remember there being a kind of high tech island city of some kind. My memory's fuzzy on that- but it was the only supplement produced for the game so I had to have it and use it. I recall trying to combine that with the urban patrol rules given in the main book.

2. Crescent City  

Brave New World remains one of those superhero rpgs that I keep meaning to pick up but I haven't. I like that it has a distinctly alternate history approach, with a more totalitarian government controlling the world. It reminds me of the most interesting 80's/90's comics experiments (like The New Statesmen) or even the more recent The Boys.

Crescent City takes an interesting tact- rather than being a real world city or a completely new one, it ties the urban location into the setting. A superhero battle in 1975 annihilated Chicago. Crescent City is the new urban center built in its place. That offers many interesting conflicts: rapid development and advanced technology, mixed with fear and wariness about the future and the role of the "Deltas" alongside humanity. We'll see that tactic- the destroyed and rebuilt city of tomorrow- in other books as well.

3. Hudson City: The Urban Abyss
In the early 1990's comics had hit the "Iron Age," or at least the start of it- with grim & gritty (tm) vigilantes and an emphasis tearing down conventional superhero tropes. That would eventually explode into excess, and even with the changing tides elements would continue to permeate modern comics. In 1993, HERO published Dark Champions which aimed to simulate that genre. Our group had been fans of The Dark Knight, Watchmen, The Question, and Miller's run on Daredevil, so the idea of a street-level supplement appealed to us.

Hudson City became the "grim city" for Dark Champions material. While it had some specific material, it was done pretty generally. The biggest problem across the books, at least the early ones, was the wildly ranging tone and power level of the bad guys. You ended up with a lot of supernatural and monstrous foes, elite bad-guys, or crime organizations with access to super-technology. I liked the premise of Hudson City, but not some of the over-the-top execution.

4. Champions New Millennium: Bay City 

Another superhero city built on the ruins of an old one. In this case, the disaster isn't total, but instead is enough to offer the authors room to write up a San Francisco sourcebook without being called to task for not capturing all of the details of the city. That's their words, not mine. It's also fun to see just how 1990's the designs are inside. Its also an artifact of that strange time when they tried to join together the Interlock and Hero systems into something new. The book itself does a decent job of mixing specific locations & story seeds with overviews of the city. I also tend to like to consider how much of the page of count of these kinds of books just presents new bad guys, in this case about 1/3 of the 144 pages. 

5. San Angelo 
Another west coast city sourcebook, this time from a third party publisher. Originally this came out for Champions, but the more recent version includes Action! and Mutants & Masterminds rules. There's a ton of information in the main book- and it comes with positive word of mouth from Kurt Busiek, creator of Astro City. San Angelo also has the advantage of having several supplemental books as well (Enemies of San Angelo, The Dragon's Gate: San Angelo's Chinatown, Denizens of San Angelo). So if you're looking for a West Coast city which can be easily adapted, this is a safe bet.

6. Millennium City 

Hey, they blew up another city! This time Detroit gets the chop from Dr. Destroyer. Of course, they rebuilt it with a gleaming and shining new bastion dedicated to technology and progress. Because, you know, apparently that would work. Now it is a place of vast luxury, plentiful jobs and rich corporate patrons. Incidentally, I think this is the first zone players start out at in the Champions Online MMO. I can see a certain advantage in wiping everything out while claiming the identity of a previous city, but I'm not sure Detroit's the best pick for that. The presentation also seems to avoid some of the more radical implications of those events. Plus, the only superteam to successfully operate out of Detroit was the Justice League IIRC. 

7. Vibora Bay
Sometimes I have trouble taking products seriously based on the cover art. This is one of those times. Really? That's what you're wearing to the battle? Boob window plus bare midriff plus sleeve & pant holes? I suppose for a fictional city set in Florida, you probably want a lighter-weight outfit...but then why the long and heavy gloves?

Vibora Bay does stand out as one of the few urban sourcebooks for this part of the country.
Miami Sourcebook and Miami being the others I can think of. We get a little more supernatural, plus a chunk of history. A good chunk of the books given over to characters, though spread throughout so it is hard to give an actual page count. I'd guess probably half. It offers a section of GM comments and ideas in the back linked up to early pages; that's a decent device. But overall it feels pretty generic with a few details throw in to match the setting, rather than capturing the feel of a Florida city.

8. The Daily Planet Guide to Gotham City 

There have been several Gotham City supplements (Gotham City Sourcebook, Gotham Gazette). I'd say it is the most iconic of the DC Universe cities. My favorite exploration of the city itself comes from the series Gotham Central, about the police department and how everyday cops deal with superpowered crime. Their complicated relationship with Batman also provides drama. Different authors and media have taken vastly different approaches to the city. Consider what it looks like in Batman: Arkham City vs. what it looked like in Batman: Year One or even the No Man's Land event series. Gotham looks vastly different in the two most recent films- from a "comic book come alive" approach in the first, to a starkly real world treatment in the second.

In some ways the actual legend of the city, with its menagerie and details actually make it difficult to run a game in. At least players have a higher barrier to making their own name and legend here.

9. Metropolis Sourcebook 
...actually, thinking about it they probably have a higher barrier if they'd try to set up shop in Metropolis. Who would? Can you imagine telling your group that you want to run a supers game in that city? You could obviously do a "Death of Superman" thing and have them taking his place afterwards, but I'd have to wonder what that would gain you. especially after DC's Rise of the Supermen arc, wouldn't the players be expecting him to return? I do love how iconic Metropolis is and the need to have a sourcebook covering that location. I can't imagine we'd ever see a Central City, Opal City, Keystone City or the like.

10. Deluxe City Campaign Set (Marvel’s New York) 

Ah, I love the flip side, the Marvel Universe where pretty much everyone lives and fights crime in New York. This particular box set covers that city in modest detail, but does include a number of maps which make it useful for any city supers campaign. MSH had a couple of other bokos which focused on the city in general (MHAC6: New York, New York and MHAC7: Concrete Jungle). Of course for the later The Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game there's also Spider-Man's Guide to New York.

  11. Freedom City 
For me, Freedom City is the ultimate and archetypal superhero RPG city. It's a fake city, it is huge, you move from gleaming heights to dingy underbelly, it has everything and a superpowered kitchen sink. It has been built to encompass most kinds of supers games, which also means that it lacks distinct character. It wants to be Astro City- but Astro City has a distinct flavor as a town hugely impacted by the presence of superbeings, a place filled to overflowing with them. Astro City's what New York might actually be if it had the kind of metahuman density of the Marvel comics.

Freedom City also ties pretty solidly into the background and history built in
Mutants & Masterminds 2e. So we have a number of legacy heroes and villains. There's some good material here- but much of it tied into the specifics of the city, making it a little harder to steal for elsewhere. A little over a quarter of the book is NPC villains and character stats, IIRC.

12. Emerald City 

I have to admit that I haven't gotten into the new third edition of M&M. I liked 2e enough that I'm pretty satisfied with the rules as they are. Emerald City is apparently the new default campaign city for M&M, a West Coast version of Freedom City. Rather than publish a core campaign book for it, they apparently discuss it in the main book and then have spread the details out over a series of modules, Emerald City Knights

13. Century Station 
I'm not sure I can do justice to this supplement. I understand that Palladium has a reputation for taking everything to 11+, and their superhero system Heroes Unlimited is no exception to that. Century Station clearly approaches its design with that philosophy firmly in mind. It is jam packed with crazy ideas, wild powers, bizarre incidents, and insane concepts. It is far and away the densest city sourcebook both in terms of material and layout. We have an island-city which a massive high-tech history which has suffered several major incidents at the hands of metahumans. There's a neighborhood & district for every theme and genre here. it's the equivalent of Paragon City from City of Heroes for trying to jam everything possible together.

That isn't to say that it is bad. Author Bill Coffin just keeps throwing ideas at the reader. I would have a hard time actually running a game in this setting- and there's little to distinguish the tone of the place other than extreme- but GM's will find many cool characters, places and ideas to lift for their own campaign. I'd love to see a version with better text design and more emphasis on story ideas. I'd say roughly half of the page count is given over to NPC and equipment write ups.

14. Nocturnals: A Midnight Companion (Pacific City)  

Mutants & Mastermind's switch from first to second edition unfortunately left some products in the dust (Noir and Gimmick's Guide To Gadgets for example). Nocturnals is a sourcebook based on Dan Brereton's supernatural hero series. It is a pretty awesome sourcebook- with tons of amazing art, new game options, character write-ups, and a look at the world of the comic series as a whole. It also includes a lengthy write-up of Pacific City, the strange urban setting for the stories. If you're looking for a lower-powerful supers community, blending weird magic and the strange with street-level noir, then this is the book for you. 

15. Streets Tell Stories (Future Los Angeles)  
Underground's a weird beast, and I'm not sure if it was ahead of its time or just too strange to really find a market. Despite having a set of amazingly presented sourcebooks, I don't recall the game actually catching on at all around our area. Yet when it came out, superheroes and cyberpunk were all the rage among our groups. Of course Underground more than a little steals from Marshall Law and indie comics of the time, creating a weird mish-mash of techno-nihilism, parody, gun-fetishism, and antiheroism. It owes a huge debt also to everything ever published by 2000AD.

And it recognized the importance of cities in the setting, offering three sourcebooks, each covering radically different locations. Streets Tell Stories is a boxed set presenting a dystopian LA, the default setting for the game. But GMs could also go with a more political game set in Washington DC, covered in
Ways and Means. Or for a more dangerous location, the campaign could be set in the former penal colony turned tourist destination on the Moon, Steel Deep: The Luna Sourcebook. If you're looking for dark cyberpunk-supers city sourcebooks, then look no further.

Follow up post: Superhero Metroplexual: We Built this City on 250 Points

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Shadow Elves: RPG Items I Like

Supplement covering a race of secretive, underground Elves in the Mystara setting.


I have to begin with something of a confession…I don’t know the Drow. I’m an old school AD&D player, but honestly I’ve never followed the whole Drow thing. I remember someone in our group in grade school had a copy of Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits, and I remember it had a cool map. So my knowledge of the Drow is pretty much restricted to the following facts:

1. They have a Queen who lives in a sticky and infernal hole.

2. They live underground and have dark skin in a strange response to normal evolutionary development.
3. They’re super evil.
4. There’s a guy named Drizzle who wields a pair of sweet swords and is the only good Drow. And every MMO I’ve ever played is composed of 10% of the population with name variations on his. Which might explain why I don’t know how to spell it.

Now my point in making that confession is that while
GAZ13: The Shadow Elves might look like a Drow knock-off book at first glance...I honestly can’t make a comparison on that score. So I’m going to leave that issue aside. Instead I’m going to focus on the supplement as it is.

A couple of ideas to consider before plunging into this. First, calling them "Shadow Elves" does suggest at least some kind of sinister nature to them. Or perhaps more rightly that they’re seen as evil or dangerous in the outside world. And they’re also at the same time elves, connecting them to that tradition in Mystara. Second, the Shadow Elves have rarely popped up in the previous gazetteers. I can’t recall more than a brief mention or NPC. They represent the fourth major “group” of Elves in the Known World regions, along with
Alfheim, the splinter elves of Minrothad, and the odd “from elsewhere” Belcadiz Elves of Glantri. Third, they might be considered tied to the other two gazetteers covering hostile, expansionist or even evil peoples: GAZ10: The Orcs of Thar and the GAZ12: The Golden Khan of Ethengar. It will be interesting to track how PCs of this race are built. Mystara offers an open alignment system with the focus on Law, Neutrality and Chaos. It has fewer absolutes.


The Shadow Elves contains two booklets plus an enclosed poster map. The 32-page Player’s Booklet and 64-page DM’s Guide follow the excellent and dense page layout of the previous volumes of the series. Two newcomers to the series crafted this volume, although both have extensive rpg credits. Carl Sargent, on the one hand wrote books for TSR, GW, FASA and other rpg companies; Gary Thomas, on the other, wrote for TSR but is probably better known for his Traveller Contributions. The cover of the volume is another Clyde Caldwell illustration, but it is a little misleading. The books describe the Shadow Elves specifically as being more fair skinned than other Elves, and not possessing a greenish or grey cast to their skin. However the cover shows three figures with distinctly grey skin. Stephen Fabian returns for the interior artwork, which is excellent as always. The maps are solid- with a nice urban overview on the inside of the folio cover. The poster map is only one sided this time, but it does offer a nice view of the Shadow Elves' cavern complexes, complete with markers for the relative position of foreign surface cities and locations.

I usually start with the DM’s material, but once again I have to flip the order around because the DM’s Guide presents significant secrets and spoilers about the setting. Those reverse key facts given in the Player’s Booklet.

The booklet begins by establishing several key points, most importantly that almost no one on the surface world knows of the Shadow Elves. Some humanoids know that the Elves dwell in caverns even deeper than their own beneath the Broken Lands. The Elves believed for many generations to have been the sole survivors of the destruction which visited Blackmoor. In their travels and hiding underground, the found the guidance of the Immortal Rafiel who led them to the deeper places of safety. The four clans of the Shadow Elves believed that the world had been devastated by the Rain of Fire. Only in recent years did they discover that others survived and that the fallout from those events had passed. When the Shadow Elves petitioned the Elves of Alfheim to be granted a portion of their surface bounty, Alfheim denied them. Living in caverns stretching vast distances, the Shadow Elves possess arts adapted to their circumstances. They have four major cities, one for each of the clans.

The first ten pages cover all of this player-facing history and culture. One of the more useful sections is the “Day in the Life…” which describes common routines and beliefs in four pages. That’s a solid way to give players entry into such as foreign culture. Other topics are covers over the next several pages: the Shamanic tradition of the Shadow Elves (different than that of Ethengar, more a variant clerical approach), culture, travel, trade and so on.

Most of the booklet, from page 14 on, focuses on playing a Shadow Elf PC. These are basically as Elf-class variant. They lack access to the advanced options offered in Elves of Alfheim, but have new options of their own. These include some advanced fighting techniques. They also have their own experience table. The skills rules return and are pretty heavily described in this section again. By this point, across all of the gazetteers, players and GMs will have many closely related but slightly different versions of the skill system. That’s kind of a problem. It means a chunk of mechanical rules reprinted across many of the books. It also means some items and options don’t synch up. New or Shadow Elf specialty skills ought to be better marked out in the text, to make it easier for gamers to assess the differences. Like Orcs of Thar, this book offers some skills which are “class abilities” to allow the Shadow Elves to emulate those classes (without actually taking them). That remains a can of worms for the GM, especially as those options don’t appear for other race-based classes.

Shadow Elves get their own list of accessible spells. Some are standard from the basic rules, but 26 are variants or entirely new. Descriptions are provided for all of those. Many of them deal with rock and life in the tunnels. Rare Shadow Elves may also take levels as a Shaman, with XP split between their normal progression and this class. Shamans gain a number of special ability and social benefits. They also gain access to more spells. The booklet provides write ups for these 33 spells.


So I’m going to be presenting some SPOILERS in this section, although I’m not going to dwell too much on the specifics. This 64-page booklet begins by emphasizing that much of the history presented earlier is significantly wrong or biased. From there it presents the fourteen “Verses” of the Immortal Rafiel and then a discussion of time and the calendar here. That’s a slightly weird leap, as you'd expect the history next. The material on time in the sunless caverns does start to get at some of the implications for life here. Beyond the “timeless” nature of such an existence, there’s the emphasis the Shadow Elves place on ritual and omens. Days have associations with past events and ritual requirements. It reminds me a little of the calendar rituals and sacred times of the Ancient Romans. But part of the problem is that this discussion gives us fragments and references to the history, before being given a better sense of what that entails.

Next we do get details of the real history, “As the Immortals See It.” The Shadow Elves originated as early colonists from the Backmoor- the earliest Elves to settle the Glantri area. During the cataclysm, they fled underground beneath the Broken Lands, believing the world had been destroyed. Later Elves who followed the, found no evidence of the early colonists. The Shadow Elves eventually made their way back to the surface, but the unearthing of another Blackmoor artifact elsewhere created devastation and convinced them that the surface had been compromised beyond measure, so they descended again. They found a forgotten
Azcan temple and settled there, but eventually lost that to the Orcs before being subsumed by that blood-thirsty tradition. Pressing deeper they found signs of the Immortal Rafiel who led them to the most subterranean caverns and taught them the ways of his “soul-crystals” as used by the Shamans. Much time passed and then the Elves had word of the survivable surface, having caught and tortured some foolhardy adventurers. The Shadow Elves clashed with the humanoids of Thar and then eventually sent representatives to the Elves of Alfheim. They demanded half the lands of the surface Elves and absolute leadership. When Alfheim refused, the Shadow Elves declared war. However they were no able to overcome the surface Elves militarily, so they have invested in a long-term plan of infiltrating and undermining their tree-dwelling cousins.

So that’s kind of dark- not classically evil, but instead more xenophobic, jealous and resentful. The Shadow Elves believe that the surface Elves abandoned them, and that they hold first claim to the region. That makes them unreasonable and adversarial. A darker hidden truth lies in the secrets of the Soul Crystals the Shadow Elf shamans work. They do not, as they tell others, pattern a soul and allow it to be reincarnated. Instead, these are tied to the Radiance, first presented in
GAZ3: The Principalities of Glantri. In short, they use radiation energy from the engine of the crashed alien ship to power their magic. And the creation and manipulation of that energy is to fuel Rafiel’s great work. Eight pages cover these secrets. I like the guidelines here for slowly indoctrinating a Shaman PC- over time revealing the secrets and deception to them. It would be a difficult thing to pull off- and might only work for a full party of Shamans. Of course there’s the added risk of PCs dropping dead from radiation poisoning or having a limb rot off…

Pages 17-27 cover the geography of the region, in a section which tightly covers a ton of material. We get a sense of the basic locations underground, what life is like there, as well as a full and detailed breakdown of the City of Stars, the main city. I particularly like the focusing on how players might encounter elements here. Rather than take a fully abstract and objective approach, the authors focus on elements useful at the table. Six pages follow that pattern, discussing travels and military presence in the region. That’s followed by three pages on flora and fauna, including some beasts unique to the region. The middle four pages of the booklet are a pullout section offer a “What Everyone Knows” handout. This is a nice mix of rumor, hearsay and error- combined with a few correct facts. This might be most fruitfully used by a DM as a script, putting this gossip and speculation into the mouths of NPCs rather than just handing it out on paper.

Nine pages present the NPCs of the region, each given a extensive write-up (including stats and combat notes). These offer some great hooks and possibilities for the DM and nicely flesh out the other material. For the first time I can recall in any of the gazetteers, we actually get descriptions and state block for Immortals. Rafiel has an illustration which makes him look like a scientist in a kimono. Atzanteotl, a Lord of Entropy who tried to convert the Shadow Elves is also presented- though he’s more interested in a struggle for the hearts and minds of the humanoids of Thar. Six pages follow detailing the ambitions of the Shadow Elves at various levels, the nature of their spy network, and in specific how the Shadow Elves have infiltrated and affected each of the surface nations. This is rich material especially for DMs wanting to introduce the Shadow Elves as adversaries.

The book ends with a section on adventures. Two pages offer basic notes on different campaign types with Shadow Elf protagonists (military, sneaky, shamanic, etc). There’s a brief mention of using this as the basis of an enemies campaign, with the PCs fighting against the Shadow Elves. Little mention or advice is given about how to handle the lone Shadow Elf PC within a standard party. Given that you’d expect that to come up, it would have been good to see some ideas on how best to handle the difficulties. Five adventure seeds, plus one slightly developed adventure wrap things up. These are decent, but some fit more with one campaign type than another.

I enjoyed reading through The Shadow Elves. I’ll admit I was worried at first that it would just seem like an “evil underground Elves” treatment, but there’s some complexity to the world given here. Players have some options about their path and personality. History and culture have shaped this people, and their responses and attitudes have a logic to them. The Shadow Elves aren’t omniscient spymasters and manipulators behind the scenes of the surface world, but they do have an agenda and plots in motion. The internal contradictions and secrets within Shadow Elf culture present interesting play opportunities. Some elements of the material draw heavily on the ideas of Blackmoor, radiation magics, and the alien spaceship engines. That’s to some people’s taste and not to others. However it would not be particular hard to modify those and keep the essential spirit of the supplement. Mystaran DMs will find ideas to build from here. Other GMs will find material they can easily adapt to another campaign or setting.

The map of the Shadow Elf lands is taken from the excellent Mystaran map resource at

GAZ 13: The Shadow Elves
GAZ 14: The Atruaghin Clans
Dawn of the Emperors: Thyatis and Alphatia 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Sandboxes & Finales

If I could describe an ideal GMing approach, what I aspire to, I’d probably call it a structured sandbox. A game where I set up situations, draw out roads and decorate the terrain, but then allow the players to move as they wish around that world. I make those roads attractive- with interesting scenery and waypoints. But the players can and should be able to head off into the treeline. If they do so, I can start cutting trails there, building camps for them to make that travel more interesting. And if they stay on that trail then I’ll try to open it up and figure out where that trail might lead. Or I might also post billboards, have roads cut across those paths, show them something of the roads they haven’t traveled. I have stories to tell, interesting stories, and I want to dangle them into front of the players to lure them- rather than forcing choices by laying down tracks. From time to time incidents will lead in a particular direction- a valley that lies ahead. Especially as we get to the end of a campaign, the terrain will get narrower and offer fewer paths, but players can still take a pick axe and clamber up the sides and strike out elsewhere should they decide to.

I want a balance between freedom and guidance. I put in incidents and events for players to react to, and they most often reflect the larger story I have in my head. At the very least they ought to connect to or reflect the themes of the tale I have in my head. The kind of story, more than the literally plotted story. The trick lies in balance- I know when I play, I want some direction. I want some sense of where the story’s going, so that I can react to that. If I know that, I can act to make myself a part of that story or even change it. But absolute freedom, lack of guidance? That’s less fun- I want some conflict, some signposts of play. So my games should point in X direction, but if players go Y or Z or even Green, then I should make that experience equally fun and significant.

Now that’s an ideal, a goal and I suspect I don’t live up to that all of the time or even most of the time. For example, the shorter the campaign, the tighter I plot the storylines. As a modern example, Skyrim would seem to be the an exemplar sandbox game. But in the end, your choices remain fairly limited, your impact on the grand plot remains modest. There’s an A or B state at the end. Ideally I’d like the choices the players make in the course of the story matter to what happens in the climax.

Within limits.

See here’s the dirty secret for me of the sandbox and freedom position in rpg games. At least it is my dirty secret, and I’m going to illogically leap to the assumption that it applies to everyone. I could be wrong, but I suspect it lurks in that back of the minds of many GMs, even those who’ve torn up the railroad tracks and driven the train off the top of a dune. I don’t really want my players to end a campaign with the “Bad” ending.

Of course, “Bad” is a relative term. The ending of the Wild Bunch, where everyone gets mowed down in a hail of gunfire is, in rpg terms, a "Good" ending. Everyone gets to play out their character and they end up with a satisfying TPK that fits within the genre. Seven Samurai’s the same way, with a few players living though having to move on because of their nature. The other PCs have all gotten cool death scenes. The players have made their choices and gotten opportunities to play and everything fits with the tone of the story.

But bad endings, where the players try and fail, where they make horrible mistakes along the way; or where they make terrible decisions along the way- that’s not fun. Or at least it isn’t as much fun. It may fit for some kinds of games obviously: post-apocalyptic, horror, noir. But I’ll argue that the longer the campaign, the less fun a bad ending becomes. That’s why I don’t run long-term Call of Cthulhu campaigns. And even when I run horror games, if they’re longer than a few sessions, then my focus is on how the players can make a difference- how they can actually battle against the darkness. Instead of the real CoC question of when they’re finally going to fail and fall in the battle against a horror which can never truly be stopped.

And I have had a couple of campaigns in which the players did not “Win Big.” I consider end states on a continuum: Win Big (players ride off into the sunset), Win Small (players win, but the cost had been pretty awful and preventable if they’d made other choices), Neutral (a deadlock), Lose Small (loss, but the players have some small victories and could regroup in another campaign), and Lose Big (absolute failure, based on their own choices and actions). I’ve had all of these happen in campaigns, but I’ll admit much less of the latter than the former. In fact, for non-horror short campaigns, I can only think of one: a superhero campaign where the players managed to compromise their own morals and ideals so completely that they became exactly what they opposed. They lost Big.

But most campaigns aren’t about nihilism, they enact a certain heroic or quest ideal. Given that, how does a GM move things that way without railroading? Without cheating? Without shifting the playing field a little? They don’t, I’d argue. The trick is how much the hide that. I still try to force my campaigns to have consequences, dilemmas and often bad choices the players have to make at the end. I want them to feel some kind of cost and struggle to achieve that victory. But I’ll admit every once in a while the players go down a horrible path, bad choices and alienating allies. It doesn’t happen as much as it used to with my groups. They’re by far smarter than I am and tend to see where I’m going to throw horrible obstacles in front of them. They work hard to reduce those problems through planning.

So of course the reason I’m thinking about this SPOILERS is the current buzz SPOILERS about Mass Effect 3 and SPOILERS how some people don’t care for the endings.


Actually, I haven’t played any of the Mass Effect games, primarily because they’re shooters and I’m lame. But in my gaming circle several have. We ended up talking about it a little last session. They’re bothered by the awful choices facing them in the game- in particular "save NPC X or save NPC Y" questions. Used to being able to replay again and again to fix things, places where they have to make those kinds of awful decisions really bother them. Of course that assumes that they like and are invested in both characters. Some NPCs have been with them since the first game, while newly introduced characters might easily get kicked out the airlock. Now know I like tough choices in my games- choices that don’t have an obvious white and black side to them, that have a cost. But as one of my players put it- if they had to choose who would live and who would die between two NPCs they cared for- that they’d campaigned with in my game...well, there’d better be huge payoff for that dramatic choice.

That’s one dimension of the complaints I’m hearing about Mass Effect 3 and the ending. ME 1 & ME2 branched choices out, choices which had a significant effect on the story and the experience. ME3 has even tougher choices to make. However, some people feel that those choices end up thrown out the window when you reach the finale. Essentially the choices you made earlier don’t pay-off or impact the story. Instead those endings are purely a function of the final couple of moments of the game, rendering the work, suffering, and decisions of the earlier games moot.

Mass Effect creates its own problem in promising that the choices made throughout will have an impact. Certainly the early PR has sold the game on that basis. That’s in contrast, honestly, to many of the JRPGs I play and enjoy. Some have multiple endings, but most of those are cosmetic variations. Consider the Final Fantasy series. I enjoy it, but the games really have one of two endings: a) you stop playing or b) you finish and get the ending. Your choices, your contribution affects ease of finishing and possibly the number of achievements you end up with. There’s little expectation about your impact on the actual game world. That’s why I have a love/hate relationship with the two most recent games.


I enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII because it was pretty, it had fun combat and I liked a couple of the characters. But the ending’s a downer, with two characters I liked sacrificing themselves to save everyone. I picked up Final Fantasy XIII-2 and played that to the end. It was pretty, it had fun combat, and I liked one of the characters. I enjoyed some of the new mechanics and the chance to see more locations. But then I reached the end, having played through carefully and uncovering just about everything I could (since some stuff only unlocked post-game). And I won by beating the bad guy and watched everything move towards the good stuff- and then one of the two main characters drops dead. And then the cute mascot collapses and dies. And then the world ends because I failed. Followed by the words “To Be Continued…”

Here’s the thing: that’s the ending. It isn’t like I messed anything up. That’s what you get if you finish the game in the standard way. That seems to me a little dark. And if a GM did that, especially in a railroad-y campaign, I’d probably lose my sh*t right there at the table.

What makes this even more weird and potentially unpleasant is that they have said that they’re not making a sequel. Instead they’d said that they ended the game that way so that they would offer room for DLC. That leaves me two ways of seeing this. On the one hand, this is a blatant money grab. They give you a bad ending for your game such that you have to buy additional content in order to actually get a story that doesn’t punch you in the face. I can buy that from a marketing stand point, but I don’t have to like it. There’s an ironic parallel with the Mass Effect situation, in that people have been demanding a DLC which offers an alternate ending, or at least some kind of more satisfying coda.

There’s another way of reading this: that the FFXIII-2 team thought that was a reasonable ending. Perhaps the game is about the bleakness of existence, about the inability to change one’s destiny. Perhaps the cyclical nature of the game, with its time travel aspects is meant to echo those themes. Maybe, like Neon Genesis Evangelion or Watchmen, it’s a middle finger in the face of their fandom. It could be a commentary on the nature of video games itself. I doubt it, and I’m not sure if that makes me any happier than the corporate greed reading.

Tabletop sandbox games have to offer an ending or they just stop being run. Or at least I'd argue that if they don't offer a coherent ending, they end up weaker. A couple of things make crafting a satisfying ending for a sandbox game more difficult. The first lies in the kinds of conflict they offer. Sandbox games often allow players to avoid conflicts outside their comfort zone. In other words those with real stakes, those with added pressures or those not involving physical combat. A truly sandbox game, without restrictions, allows players to do all of the prep and planning- the equivalent of “leveling up” before heading into a situation. If players develop that approach, they may react badly when the GM tries to offer obstacles or additional complications to the setting. They’d rather have control of the stakes and choices and make those on their own terms. Time pressures, traditionally a useful tool for moving things forward, may be resented by players who fight any time lapse.

But that’s a more extreme case. I think a more common difficulty facing sandbox games concerns story resonance. Novels, films, comic books set up a spine to their story. They have controlling ideas, often supported by symbolism, allusion or mention throughout the story. Often these reflect values of the protagonist and the questioning of those values. Earlier references and details can help reinforce the theme of the story and give it more weight or resonance. That’s tougher with an interactive story. It wouldn’t surprise me if one of the reasons that Mass Effect 3 tightened the chain of choices, rather than expanding them, was to add weight to the story they told: to make everything show have a role and place in underscoring those themes. A tabletop game faces similar challenges if the game is truly open. At the very least it adds complexity to the kind of improvisation a GM needs in order to craft a sandbox game into a coherent story over the course of the campaign.

Of course I’m making a value assessment: that a game with a story is better than one without. It seems obvious to me that it is, but the question lies in what actually serves as a “story” over the course of play…

As I was writing this The Rhetorical Gamer posted an excellent piece on related topics: "Thoughts on Campaign Down Design"

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Using FATE for Scion: Starting Thoughts

Scion’s on my top ten of published rpg settings/premises. I ran a solid campaign with it. Think of an adult and serious version of Percy Jackson or a modern version of Clash of the Titans. There’s a real pleasure for players in being able to take on potent character types in a modern setting, but still have challenges. GM’s can grab on to the chance to put out full mythic elements, as well as the amazing balancing device of Fatebinding. But my gaming has progressed, my desire for complex or involved rules- especially involving combat has dropped. I’ve mentioned that shift before and Scion really shows some of those problems. For our group, it wasn’t so bad in the beginning. Most had played Storyteller before so the very basic elements we knew.

But Scion uses some dramatically different mechanics, including a straight defense/offense calculation and a fancy combat wheel, and it scales up rapidly to high power early on. The latter combats of the campaign ended up weird- taking too long, showcasing slightly broken powers, making certain actions worthless, and reinforcing that speed trumps everything else. Even after filing off the more complicated bits and modifiers from the system, the core engine didn’t work for me. That isn’t to say it is bad, but more that it didn’t mesh with the kind of game I wanted to run.

But I still want to run Scion, and much as I’ve done with adapting Changeling the Lost to our homebrew system, I want to adapt Scion’s basic material to a system I’m more comfortable with. After thinking about it for a while, I’ve decided to use FATE. I have a couple of reasons for that. One, I want to see how well FATE works in adaptation to other distinct material. Two, I want to introduce the system to the group. We’ve been using elements from it, but I want to try it in a fully-fleshed form. Three, it will likely be a short run game so if the reskinning doesn’t work, it won’t be a problem to retool for another game. Four, the aspect system seems to lend itself to the kind of mythic elements present in the setting.

I own several versions of FATE (Diaspora, Agents of SWING, Strands of Fate) and I’m going to borrow from and focus on three of them: Kerberos Club, Legends of Anglerre, and Dresden Files. I’m going to focus on Scion's Hero level for most of these things, as I think that’s where the game shines.  

*Character Basics: Generally I’ll be sticking with the basic structure of FATE. Characters will consist of Aspects, Skills, three Stress Tracks, Stunts (renamed as Knacks), and Powers (renamed as Purviews). As well PCs will have access to Epic Attributes and some additional Birthrights which can include some variable bonuses- I’ll come back to handling that grab bag in a moment.

*Aspects: I’ll probably have some directed choices for starting aspects. At least one, for example, should be either about the character’s divine parent or their relation to that parent. Another ought to be a dramatic flaw (as in Dresden).

*Skills: Most of the FATE systems as well as Scion have a list of about two-dozen skills. I’ll need to go through and figure out a useful and relevant list from those. Ideally I want the skill named in the most obvious way. I probably won't bother will outlining trappings for each skill, beyond a set of words or phrases to define common uses. Stunts won’t be necessarily tied to particular skills.

*Epic Attributes: One of the central mechanics to Scion lies in characters having powerful bonuses to their attributes, like Epic Strength or Epic Charisma. Each attribute in the game had an epic. Access to these initially comes from the specific divine parent, but others can be bought at higher costs. They always give a static bonus to any check involving them. So Epic Strength 2 always adds +2 dice to the pool for wrestling and the like. They can have other bonuses as well such as increasing the Defense Value or increasing Soak. Each Epic also allows access to Knacks related to that Epic Stat.

Since this FATE version won’t have attributes, Epics will exist as their own beast on the character sheet- a kind of power or large scale skill. The Scion division of Epics put a great deal of power and effect into a couple of attributes (notably Dexterity). I’m going to use ten Epics:

  • Epic Perception: Spotting, Seeing, Awareness
  • Epic Accuracy: Hitting, Precision, Trick Shots 
  • Epic Strength: Might, Lift, Physical Damage 
  • Epic Stamina: Damage Taking, Additional Phys. Stress, Resilience 
  • Epic Charm: Rapport, Empathy, Seduction, Additional Social Stress 
  • Epic Presence: Intimidation, Leadership, Willpower, Additional Mental Stress 
  • Epic Movement: Speed, Climbing, Leaping 
  • Epic Reflexes: Reaction Time, Defenses, Sleight of Hand 
  • Epic Knowledge: Stuff You Know 
  • Epic Wits: Coming up with Clever Things, Puzzling Out

For purposes of this version, Epic 1 gives a +1 to all skill checks related to that (-3 to +5), Epic 2 gives a +2 to all skill checks (-2 to +6), and Epic 3 has you replace one of the FATE dice with a d6 (-2 to +9).

The breakdown of the Epics tries to split the weight given to certain attributes in the original game. My intent is to carefully manage the combinations of Epics available to any divine lineage. So there won’t be any that combine Epic Strength & Epic Accuracy or Epic Stamina & Epic Reflexes. Players will still be able to purchase Epics from outside of their parentage, but they will cost double. I’m also considering Epic 3 purchases offering an Aspect based on the ability, but I’m not sure of that.

*Stunts/Knacks: In Scion players chose a knack for each point of an Epic Attribute they took. Additional knacks could be purchased, provided the player had at least a dot in the attribute. I suspect I’m going to do something like that for this system. Knacks will wholly take the place of Stunts (aka Advantages, Merits, etc in other systems). They will be divided under each of the ten Epics mentioned above.

I’ve gone through the Knacks as presented in the Scion Hero, Scion Demigod and the Scion Companion. Some of those I’ve eliminated outright as not really working in this system, some as just goofy and others as overly complicated. To those I plan to harvest stunts from the various FATE books. I want to divide knacks into major and minor, with major costing double. That price change will be the only substantive difference (nothing regarding difficulty or the like). I don’t want to break down the categories any further than that, but there’s definitely a difference in power between something that allows a character to fling something far and something that allows them to shake off bullets. Ideally I can have a nice range of Knacks under each Epic. I might impose a limit- any specific knack can only be taken by up to two players.

*Stress Tracks: Because of the scale of things and the interactions of the Epics with things, I’ll probably significantly increase the base Stress tracks. Dresden has characters starting at two stress for each track, with a max of four. I’ll probably just double that and see how that works. I’ll likely use the basic consequence mechanics as they are.

*Powers/Purviews: These are abilities, not all that functionally different from knacks, but representing different areas of mythic influence (Chaos, Animal, Dark, etc). I’ll have to go through and do a quick rewrite on them to make them fit with the Scion system. I’ll just stick with the level 1-3 of these as given in the basic book. I probably won’t worry about balancing them too much. I do want to make them a little more interesting and useful- if they can add or affect aspects, that’s an easy approach. Right now a couple of the Purviews are pretty weak. In Scion players could buy the level 3 and skip the level one & two. I have to decide if that’s how I want to handle these. FATE points will be the fuel for most of these things.

*Birthrights: Scion originally allows players to purchase advantages in several different areas: Creatures, Followers, Guides and most importantly Relics. The first three I’ll probably handle as aspects if players want to have something like that. For example they could choose a starting aspect to reflect their access to a mentor who can guide them. Relics will be a little more complicated. I suspect I’ll adapt some of the mechanics from Legends of Anglerre to handle that. Most importantly Relics allow characters access to their purviews- in order to use those powers, it must be in their possession.

*Other Stuff: I have to figure out how I want to handle weapons and armor, probably as simply as possible. The Dresden numbers should work. I’ll also want to figure out how to handle the Fatebinding mechanics in an easy way. I imagine that getting a mortal tied up in one’s fate could serve as a temporary sticky aspect, allow some kinds of compels (depending on the character’s personality). I also want to revisit the FATE mechanics for Assessment/Declaration/Maneuver. I want to make that distinction clearer and offer a tangible benefit for taking an action to add aspects (more or better aspects).

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Golden Khan of Ethengar: RPG Items I Like

Sourcebook covering dangerous rider-tribes and their supreme Khan in the classic TSR setting of Mystara.


GAZ12: The Golden Khan of Ethengar
comes late in the lifespan of the Gazetteer series. We only have one more (GAZ13: The Shadow Elves) that maintains the format; the final volume (GAZ14: Atruaghin Clans) switching up styles in a way that seems like a rush job. There's also a boxed set not assigned a GAZ code oddly. The previous two gazetteers have been problematic. GAZ10: The Orcs of Thar has great stuff but feels like designers chose to lighten the tone to allow Orc & Co. PCs. Then there’s the previous volume, GAZ11: The Republic of Darokin. It heads off in a strange direction that makes it the weakest of the series. So I came back to rereading Ethengar with some trepidation.

And I fell in love again. I’d used some of the material from this for a campaign over a dozen years ago. I recalled solid material, and going back I immediately found story and adventure ideas popping up. The authors of Ethengar recognize what works in the series: surface/reality contradictions; easy but interesting character options; campaign discussions; rivalries among groups; and clear cultural elements. Ethengar also offers a distinct society, unlike anything else presented in the series. The borrowings from the Mongol and Central Asian cultures are handled well, with a world that’s both inviting and strange. Ethengar also pays off some of the promises made in earlier volumes, such as the amazing
GAZ3: The Principalities of Glantri, where we first got some insight into the exiled Ethengarian family of Singhabad.


The supplement comes with two booklets: a 32 page Player’s Guide and a 64 page DM’s Guide. The folio cover has a decent Clyde Caldwell illo (though not his best). The folio interior has a map of the relations of Ethengarian tribes- as they’re publicly perceived. There’s also a map of the region divided by tribes as well as a clan camp diagram. The enclosed map is double-sided again thankfully. One side offers two excellent “city” maps for the two different locations of the Golden Khan’s encampments. The other side has a classic hex map for the region, but with new elements distinct to the Ethengarians (poor/good grazing lands, horsefair sites, etc). As well a set of armor illustrations for various humanoid raider peoples (nicely labeled) and diagrams of Ethengarian arrows finish out that side. The booklets once again have Stephen Fabian’s art, with some of my favorite illustrations of the series. Ethengar marks the first entry in the series by the amazing Jim Bambra, known for other TSR products as well as contributions to some of the most amazing Warhammer Fantasy products (Death on the Reik, The Enemy Within). Matt Connell and Pat Whitehead provide additional material, but the book doesn’t feel at all like the product of multiple authors. In fact, it is one of the best written and clearest of the gazetteers.

The strength of this supplement lies in how well it focuses on playable material: what does a DM need to run the setting? What kinds of elements might come up at the table? How might other details (like history) be considered in this culture? Throughout the author manages to focus the discussion and present everything cleanly and clearly. For example, some Gazetteers have spent many pages going over history. This volume offers only two pages, plus a timeline. Yet within that smaller page count, we get a sense of the cycle of history and what it means to present-day society. Likewise the geography section, handled in three pages focuses on the essentials, with clear headings to make referencing the material easy. The section on culture offers a glance at daily life and The Camp, which lies at the heart of the people. The calendar of the land is covered in three pages. In other gazetteers we’ve gotten a run-down of holidays. Ethengar offers some of that, but combines it with the seasonal life-cycle of the tribes. As a nomadic people the seasons signals times of change and movement.

The Khanate itself offers DMs an interesting challenge. More than any other nation, with the possible exception of The Broken Lands, the Ethengarians have a hostile relationship with other nations. Called “The Outsiders” they have historically suffered Ethengar hostilities, with invasions of the Heldann Freeholds and Principalities of Glantri. But the present situation has shifted, with a new Golden Khan who has begun stronger ties and interactions with the Outsiders. Some see this as a good thing, some as a cunning stratagem, and others as a violation of the old ways. That central conflict and the place of the new Khan drives the relations between the eight tribes. The book presents those tribes succinctly, focusing on one or two interesting details which could lead to long term stories.

The Golden Khan and his Golden Court are covered in six pages. That court will be an important fixture for an Ethengar campaign, for travelers or native characters. While the set-up obviously echoes Marco Polo’s experience, having the current Golden Khan be more open-minded and inviting is a smart design move. This is a radical shift, so tensions run high within the kingdom. That means many factions shifting for power and trying to subvert or destroy one another. Since the change has occurred relatively recently, players can take advantage of new opportunities and carve out a niche for themselves.

While keeping a central focus, the DM’s booklet covers many different topics. One of the longest sections of the book presents the NPCs of Ethengar. These characters only get a small stat block, with the focus instead being on their personalities, agendas and potential plot hooks. A four-page pull-out section considers the military forces of the Khanate. This includes War Machine and Battlesystem stats. Two pages covers several humanoid tribes of the Steppes. These Orcs and Goblins offer an interesting contrast to the human Ethengarians. They borrow much from their neighbor’s culture and stubbornly cling to life despite the nomad’s predations. The DM might handle these peoples as infiltrating enemies or as more sympathetic underdogs. An extensive section details the Spirit World of the region, offering a different take on the intersection of the supernatural and daily life.

The last third of the book deals with adventures and campaigns here. It offers several campaign frames, most revolving around the Golden Khan’s future plans. Although Moglai Khan appears enlightened, he carefully lays the groundwork for future invasions and conquests. He recognizes that eventually he will have to turn the energies of his people outward or risk being consumed by them. The book offers other interesting campaign variations including dealing with the humanoids, a “no-war” option, and a future where the Golden Khan dies early. Most importantly the material considers the elements necessary for the two primary campaign types in Ethengar: outsiders passing through versus a group of native PCs. The sections on staging common events and bringing the world to life are especially rich and useful. The book finishes with an excellent and extended adventure framework, a mini-campaign outline and a page of scenario hooks.


The smaller Player’s Guide begins with nine pages of background, broken into easily digestible chunks. In the past I’d had some problems with the gazetteer player sections offering an info dump. I’ve also criticized some first person narrations for feeling gimmicky. Somehow this section, despite providing rich information in the voice of different characters, manages to feel real and useful. Covering the basics of Ethengar life: the nature of the Khans, customs, crime, appearance and faith; it is an excellent primer for players who want to play a native and PCs thinking about traveling through.

The section on creating Ethengarian characters takes an excellent (and new) approach. Previous gazetteers have offered new skill rules and/or a single new class based on the region. The Golden Khan of Ethengar offers several slight variations on the standard classes. Horse Warriors are fighters, gaining a few unique bonues, Brataks are native Thieves, Hakomons are Magic Users, and local Clerics can select from Ethengarian Immortals with new spells. These local variations offer every player something novel. They make a fighter from here distinct from a Karameikan or Darokinian. That’s a great approach and one I can see going back and adding to the previous gazetteers. Rather than reinventing the wheel, designing entirely new classes or just distinguishing with new skills, this gives a simple alternative. The rules do include a new class as well, The Shaman, based on the spirit world mentioned in the DM book. It also includes rules for tribal standing, wealth, new arms & armor and skill mechanics (with some new ones like Terrorize and Make Yurt). Finally it presents a sample name list, plus basic rules for converting the supplement to AD&D.

I really enjoyed The Golden Khan of Ethengar. I’ve used material from it in the past and will do so again in the future. Cleanly written and tightly focused, it offers DMs (and players) what they need to actually play these concepts out. Yet at the same time, there’s plenty of room for everyone to craft their own spin. The author manages to balance concrete details with interesting multiple possibilities. The Ethengarians could be a benevolent force, with a Khan moving it towards modernity or it could be a dangerous and subtle force lying in wait for the right opportunity to strike. Or it could be both. Like the best of the gazetteers the material embraces conflict, complications and contradictions. I recommend this to Mystaran DMs and to any GM looking for resources covering a nomadic, horse tribe or historical Mongol peoples.

The Ethengar map here is taken from the excellent Mystaran map resource at