Carnivals are terrifying, right? Something Wicked This Way Comes, is all about the dark things that carnivals bring to our towns… There are many adventures and sourcebooks for RPGs centered around the dark traveling carnival. Heck, the mighty Inquisitor Eisenhorn even faces one in a story set in the Warhammer 40K universe.
But what if the Carnival wasn’t so scary? Well, that is to say, what if, when you pull back the curtain, instead of being an even more twisted representation – it was something else? What if, when the layers of illusion are stripped away, you find a bunch of seemingly normal folk dealing with all the troubles of being itinerant entertainers in a dangerous world?
Around the year 2000, my girlfriend was going away for the summer. In order to stay in touch, I planned to write her a series of letter-style short stories which would seem to come from a fantasy world based on the city we lived in and its surrounding areas. I only did a few of those – but the planning for that project led directly to the creation of my longest-lasting homebrew world, Irona, which became the setting for my 3rd edition D&D games and later was adapted to work with Warhammer Fantasy RPG, second edition, 4th edition D&D, and even Barbarians of Lemuria as I tried out all of those systems.
Over the last 14 years, Irona has grown and changed quite a bit. I’ve tinkered, jiggered, added in suggestions from players, built histories and delved back into the past. Ultimately, it’s become a big place with a lot of information written about it.
As I started my 5th Edition D&D game, I went back to Irona and my creations there. I decided that I was going to start over – in a way – and begin the game with the same timeline and set up which originally shaped that first 3rd edition campaign. After all, only one of my players had ever played in Irona before – this is an almost entirely new group with no history or connection to this world.
And as that presented a problem of its own, I dug into my DM toolbox and pulled out another old tool I hadn’t used in a long time – the Campaign Newsletter – an information sharing technique I’ve used with several games before and that I find very helpful. I thought I’d take a minute to explore my way of structuring one of these, show an example, and offer my insights about what works and what doesn’t. I’d also love to hear anything any of you are doing in a similar manner.
I used to worry a lot about domains. When doing world building or even just character creation, I often found myself thinking about deities in terms dictated by their portfolios more than their personalities. And by their portfolios, I mean their domains. This is an affliction tied very much to the concept of domains as mechanical effects used in 3rd and 4th edition D&D (and Pathfinder) but I can see its influence in many types of design and even fiction. It’s important to have boxes we can put ideas in. Portfolios for gods serve many purposes in design and discussion.
Creating a very defined portfolio for our fictional deities is useful because it provides clear talking points for the faith. When I explain my storm god to a gamer trying to make a cleric it is pretty easy to say, “well – just imaging Thor and that’s a good place to start.” But as I mentioned in my last post, expectations can be fluid between my image of Thor and my player’s image of Thor. I mean, I might have read a lot of Thor comics and the old Deities and Demigods entry about Thor but my player might actually read Norse mythology… Turns out Thor was associated with a lot more than storms. Hold that thought… I’ll be coming back to it.
In gaming circles — especially as a GM — you hear lots of talk about How to Start a New Game and the all important Endgame. The middle part of games seems consigned to a zone of “stuff’s probably working.” Heck, if you’re talking about any version of D&D there is a pretty consistent belief that the middle levels (say, 4-12) represent the sweet spot. Don’t get me wrong, advice on the beginning and ending of games is important and useful, but I’m not really a fan of beginnings or endings. I’m all about the middle.
There are no happy endings, because nothing ends.
–Schmendrick, The Last Unicorn
Maybe I’m the only one, I often wonder if I’m the crazy one, but I sometimes struggle to start reading a new story, or a new series, or watching a movie, because I’m not really interested in wading through all the set up. And I’m not saying, “cut to the chase.” I don’t want to be dropped into an action scene with no context. It’s just, I think there’s value in starting in the middle of the story. People have history. You’re playing a 19 year old adventurer just running out into the world? Well, you’re 19, you must have some story. Who was your first love? Who was your mentor? Who taught you to play the flute (you have 2 skill points in it on your sheet… someone taught you to play)? Who bought you your first flute (or carved it for you)? John Wick wrote an article I really liked about how he’d often ask players at his table, “Okay, great character sheet, so, what’s his mother’s name?” By the time I was 19 I’d been in love three times, discovered books that changed my life, been a boy scout, part of a church, part of a gaming club, heck – I’d been gaming for 11 years at that point, had three jobs… you get the idea. I had history. And one of those loves I mentioned? She kept coming in out of my life for long, long years after we were 19. But having a backstory is only one part of it. A backstory is just a backstory unless it has teeth.
Guy Gavriel Kay – by far my favorite author – is a master of this technique (and it’s part of what I love about his work). He always gives his characters an immediate story. Something is always “going on” but the characters are shaped by their pasts. Kay creates rich, mature characters whose decisions are informed by who they are and what they’ve been through and his gift as a writer is the way he can make you feel the weight of those past events on his characters without ever devolving into explanation or exposition. A few well-chosen words and a painful decision and you (the reader) understand. It’s a powerful thing when done well.
But this goes hand in hand with somthing else that’s important to making the middle work. I wrote before about organizations in games, and the value I feel they have, but I want to revisit the thought and refine it some. I see value in linking groups and organizations to the past. When you read about the Forgotten Realms, don’t you want to be a Harper? When you play 7th Sea, isn’t it compelling to join the Knights of the Rose & Cross? For me, at least part of the appeal (a big part) is the structure and history that these organizations provide to the world. Yeah, you can be a Jedi for the cool powers, but the sweep of history — thousands of years — surrounding the Jedi is so powerful, so compelling, that it always draws me in. I love their conflicts, their triumphs, their tragedies, and the possibility that I can play a character who is a part of that tradition – that history – is an important piece of what keeps me coming back for more.
This is also often what keeps political games from working as well as they should. If you are an outsider, why do you care what the “insiders” do? If you are beyond the mores and measures of a society, then those things only become a bother — but if you immerse your character in those “nuisances” you become weaker – and stronger. It’s the reason that as much as I dislike FATE style games I am drawn to Blood and Honor. I love the idea that you create your clan before you create your character — and that those choices really matter — not just during character creation but forever. Those choices resonate throughout the game/campaign. Your character is beholden to something greater…
Maybe an aside into something else will help this make sense. I’ve been watching Wimbledon this week — watching Roger Federer chase another title. Yes, there’s money involved, and prestige, but Wimbledon is a tradition, an institution. It means something to the players. And when Federer grows a little older his fine career will come to an end — and Wimbledon will go on. And in ten years we’ll be talking about another player – at Wimbledon – chasing a legacy. And they’ll still wear all white on the courts. Federer may be one of the greatest champions the sport has ever seen — but Tennis goes on.
I see campaigns and characters in the same way. I see them as part of a tapestry of the ages. They are heroes, they’ll struggle in their time and fight and hopefully know triumph — but they’re story is only one story. Heroes came before and heroes will rise after. It’s why I love Kay’s books, it’s why I love the Justice Society more than the Justice League, it’s why I love reading Exalted books. It’s a big part of the reason I’m so drawn to romantic fantasy as a genre. There is magic in the middle of the story — and artfully crafted you can bring that magic to your game table.
The comments on my last post about Organizations in RPGs generated a lot of internal dialogue. I’ve been really thinking about how organizations play in to the game experience for a few weeks now. Groups, cliques, organizations, whatever you want to call them, are a central feature in some romantic fantasy. The main character is often joining or becoming a part of a group of some sort. That group is often important to the world in some way and membership becomes a big part of the stories.
When I was much younger I read the books of Robert Fulghum. He’s the guy who wrote All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. He wrote several other such books, all excellent, and in one of them (It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It) he told a story about the celebration of the Feast of St. John (associated with the Summer Solstice). That is the inspiration for the story I’m going to tell here… and an example of how my imagination was captured by a story I read years ago when I set out to define the myths of my fantasy cultures in the homebrew world I’ve run for many years…
It is a story of Brennan, it is a love story…
I’ve been reading a lot about the new old school game, Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS). It sounds cool. Okay, it sounds awesome. Ten years ago I would have bought it immediately and been devouring it, trying out yet another system for domain building. I’m a sucker for domain rules. I love the idea of players having their own kingdoms, towers, etc. I love the idea (hold that thought) of a game where the players are the primary movers and shakers of the world. I read the introduction/preview available on RPGNow and almost plunked down the 9.99 right there on the spot. I think my fascination with diceless games and romantic fantasy stylings really come down to a desire to have a game that is as much about the council table and the court ball as the battlefield (though don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to shirk the battlefield).
I try not to get too far off topic on this blog. Even though I’ve been so busy that I haven’t really been able to post as regularly as I’d like, I still want to write about gaming and related topics. But every now and then, something gets too far into my head and I can’t seem to shake it – a thought that I just need to further express. A while ago, I wrote a post, “Waiting to hear the Call” that was about applying an idea to gaming that I can’t seem to shake in real life. And it keeps burdening me, keeps turning up. It’s making me crazy.
It’s that same idea, that idea of being summoned – of being called to do something. To do anything…
It’s interesting how things happen sometimes. After talking about creating settings last post, I thought it might be nice to talk about Harseburg a little, and explain how a goofy idea became an awesome place to play. To explain how I turned my hometown into a game setting, let me start by telling you a little story.
Many years ago, a girlfriend (now ex-) of mine went away for a summer and she asked me to write her letters while she was gone, telling her a story. She wanted a fantasy story, so I wrote her letters that followed the travels of a bard who was traveling through a land she would recognize…
…Also, towards the end of that summer, a friend of mine began seriously agitating for me to start a D&D game for him and one other friend, just the three of us. He wanted something fun, simple and different – but still D&D. Well, 3.0 had just come out, we were all learning it together and we wanted to run that. Thus began the adventures of Targus and Valin, the most famous heroes of Harseburg.
Behind the curtain, Harseburg is really Harrisonburg, VA. Harrisonburg is a small city surrounded by farming and poultry counties. Harrisonburg is also a multi-college town, home to James Madison University and Eastern Mennonite University. Another important fact about Harrisonburg – it’s in the Shenandoah Valley, and steeped in Civil War history. It’s also a place with really, really cool names.
And those are my two best pieces of advice. First, learn about the history of where you live – it might surprise you. Second, pay attention to the names – some of them might be pretty interesting to you. With that in mind, let me illustrate how I turned my tiny little city into a mighty and fantastic kingdom.
It’s an old real estate rule, right? But for me, it’s been the type of gamer I’ve always been. I suppose I should say, the type of GM I’ve always been. I’m a worldbuilder – always have been. From as early a time as I can remember, I’ve been a worldbuilder. I love characters and people and the most important parts of my games are the interactions between the PCs and NPCs that make a world come alive.
But behind the screen, where I live, where I have the fun that only GMs get to experience, I’m a worldbuilder and a mapmaker. I. Love. Maps. I have shelves in my house full of atlases of the Ancient World, the Classical World, the Medieval World. I have framed maps, I have huge maps and little maps and… I just love maps. But even more than looking at maps, I love making maps. When I was in High School, I can’t tell you the number of times I got in trouble because I was doodling grasslands full of cat-warriors instead of paying attention to the teacher. But what I’m really wondering is this; how important is setting – and how often do you change settings – as a GM or a player?