The Sages of Yore…

…or, the Ballad of Ra’ab sar Casim.

I’ve been thinking about sages. It’s weird, I know, but when I’ve been spending time with my old 1E DMG I always find myself staring at the information on sages. I use these guys in my games all the time, in fact, sometimes when the PCs go to a city looking for info they end up finding out there are competing sages arguing over who is the greatest expert in their field. I attribute this last bit to my spending too long in academic circles…

One interesting item related to that from the DMG… sages are supposed to be rare. Which I find fascinating because I love using these guys (or gals) as parts of the living game world. I find that even in later editions of the game, my PCs rarely were the types to go big on “knowledge” skills. I find I often have parties full of “do-ers” not “thinkers.” This does make me happy as a DM because I love proactive players but it also means that I get to trot out the sages whenever the party wants to know something.

But what makes a sage? That’s the thing… I don’t know the answer.

I found it interesting that in the DMG, sages were already described by Gygax as the “computers” of the world long before the powerful innovations in information technology we have in 2012. I had planned on bringing up the whole, “sages are the D&D internet” but hey, Gary beat me to it… I’m not really sure why I’m surprised.

But sages are fonts of information. And sages create a pacing effect with that information. It might take a sage many days to come back to a party with an answer to their questions… and this is a good thing. I got to thinking about it and I realized this is one very useful way to create downtime. The party is waiting for an answer, potentially for a while, so this is time when they can heal, make a few potions, shop for elusive but interesting items, train (if that’s your thing), and otherwise get underfoot in a city setting.

So, Sage as Pacing mechanism. I like it. And I never used it enough.

Sages can also be great adventure creators/facilitators. I’ve often really enjoyed using sage-like figures to facilitate adventures. In the first 3rd edition game I ran, the “sage” was a cleric in the party’s home town who was the only one who could still read the archaic language of the ancient conquered people who once lived there. She translated a book the PCs found and as she’d translate each little bit they’d hare off on whatever adventure they thought it might lead them too. They picked some and ignored some, and went back to some after ignoring them, but it was all part of a larger whole that they picked up on as the book continued to be translated through their early levels.

It was a fun campaign.

Those wacky sages can also be the source of adventures too. The aforementioned Ra’ab sar Casim was the guardian of a very beautiful young woman in one of the many campaigns he has appeared in. She was (almost need an “of course” here) a noble in hiding that the party befriended, and eventually, her story became part of the campaign. No, it didn’t come directly from the sage, but it came from the party returning to Ra’ab over and over again and him always being “too busy” so they had to work with his “apprentice.”

I could go on, but sage as Adventure creator is a great role that goes beyond simply facilitating adventure by answering the party’s questions.

My favorite though might be sage as Liar. This is a delicate topic for some. Some folks don’t think the GM should lie to players. I actually agree, the GM should not lie to players, but NPCs can lie their heads off. And why would a sage lie? Well, maybe he’s in the pay of an enemy? Maybe what the PCs ask about is something he wants for himself so he tells them lies to pave the way for his own attempt on the, whatever… Or, maybe it’s a reputation thing. The sage doesn’t know and can’t find the answer so he sends the PCs on a wild (and dangerous) goose chase that leads them to (he hopes) their demises. Why not? Adventurers blow through town all the time, who is gonna know that he set them up? Adventuring is tough gig. The sage can make a dangerous enemy if the party treats him like, say, a button to be pressed in a game instead of a living, breathing, expert in a complicated world.

I’m a big fan of sages. I think they’ve gotten lost a little in the editional shuffle… I miss ‘em. Give them a try some time, let me know how it goes.

Thanks for reading.

*PS – I realize that I didn’t explain the ballad of Ra’ab sar Casim. Later. It’s a silly story.


7 responses

  1. Like patrons in Traveller… except better!

  2. Very true! Sage advice, as it were~

    In Ubiquity games, the way the Patron and Rank (group membership) Resource traits work really encourages this sort of thing (if one can get one’s players to pick them over seemingly more dynamic options). This is doubly true in All for One with its fencing salons and secret societies.

    Good post!

    1. Heh… I’m a big fan of patrons and group membership… and I know what you mean about getting players to think of these as “sexy” choices…

      It’s a problem I often see though — that in order for “group” to be important it needs to provide some tangible benefits… like giving the PC something they can directly write down on their sheet. Intangible benefits seem less exciting. I submit though, that if played well, they are even more useful and exciting in the long run.

      It’s interesting that in gaming we all want to be loners. In real life I think we all spend a good portion of our time looking to belong!

  3. Sage as a pacing mechanism, I like that. I’ve often seen Sage’s used in the past as a backup plan if the party has trouble figuring out a puzzle or putting together the clues to solve a secret. Essentially docking in-party resources for another hint on what they should do.

    1. Well, it seems to me (and I might be wrong) but a lot of old school games encouraged down time between adventures. Maybe encouraged is the wrong word — assumed might be a better choice.

      I saw the Sage as something that was going on that gave the party a reason to wait in one place while their answer was forthcoming. Then they’d do other stuff like train and research magic items, etc.

  4. Sages and mentors, the old grizzled veterans who no longer adventure but live vicariously through their paying students (if they want to level up, of course), are my way to impart character knowledge to players. My world exists in my head not in a published setting so player knowledge and character knowledge are pretty much the same at my table, as it was in RPG’s golden era. This flows into such DM activities as monster tweaking too..

    Downtime is important for players to visualize, IMHO. It’s part of the party adhesive. In AD&D 1e, there was a formula (and different scales of XP by class) that made a unified leveling up period nigh impossible. Most player characters did not “ding” at the same time. In fact, they did not “ding” at all. They were trained. This training put them into contact with a sagacious mentor who could, through the use of a cut scene, impart some storyline to the student.

    Back in my early days, there was no such thing as a Sense Motive roll. There were only the players sitting around the table, socially in-character, comparing notes on incompatible information from sages saying “something stinks in Rivenmark.”

    We tended to play epic-length story campaigns when I was younger and sages who were known to the PCs from level 1 were valuable assets. I try to do this now with my group, but some video gamers would rather “ding.” I usually take Gary’s sage advice from page 110 in the DMG when that happens.

    1. I agree that downtime is important to a group. I’m not a fan of “ding” leveling and I tend to frustrate my players sometimes when I don’t want that to happen. It’s easy to lose perspective sometimes though… “ding” is really a problem in one subset of games (D&D and it’s ilk) whereas many games have a more ongoing approach to advancement. I have to remind myself of this all the time when I think about gaming.

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