Wednesday 17 April 2024

Making the Game Happen

My favourite RPG books do their work in three distinct stages:

GRAB: Get the reader excited to play the game and make it an easy sell to players.

PREP: Give the GM what they need to get ready to play.

PLAY: Make it easy to play the game once you get it to the table.

In short, they help the person who bought the book to make the game happen.

WHAT FAILURE LOOKS LIKE

I've got plenty of books on my shelf that fall down at one of these stages.

GRAB: Books that just don't get me excited. These don't last long. Sometimes a game has neat parts but is a tough sell to players, often lacking an easy hook to use in the pitch.

PREP: The classic is the book that reads fantastically, but you can't quite see how it actually translates to a session, or the amount of work required to prep feels overwhelming.

PLAY: Books you get to the table, with a group of excited players, but there's either something lacking or, more commonly, the rules themselves get in the way of the fun.

I'm not all that interested in the eternal "what is a game?" debate. I'd rather identify the RPGs that seem most effective at making the game happen, enabling actual play instead of sitting on a bookshelf.

WHAT SUCCESS LOOKS LIKE

GRAB: Anything with evocative artwork. I say this as a writer who cannot draw at all. A thousand times I've seen people get excited for a game before they've even read a word. This power shouldn't be underestimated.

Mothership, MÖRK BORG, Ultraviolet Grasslands. Anything that just leaps off the page and demands your attention while laying down a very clear vibe of what to expect from the game. Mothership isn't just an Alien inspired game, but it's useful to have that first hook to draw players in.

PREP: FIST is a great at this. When reading through it the prep just sort of... happens. Of course it has all those random tables, but the advice for how to run the game is so clear that just from skimming it I felt confident I could give it a shot. Cthulhu Dark has a tiny rules section, then goes into detail explaining how to use each of those rules, then how to structure your game, and includes a selection of settings to use.

Out of the three sections I think this is the one that gets overlooked most often. Sometimes it gets offloaded onto supplements assumes you're using an existing adventure module, but I'd always rather see this area covered by the core book right there alongside the rules of play.

PLAY: 24XX hits both halves of this. Firstly the rules are so light that they don't get in the way, but secondly the game gives you a bunch of tables and guidance that can help in those moments of GMing when you need a prompt or a spark. Oh, you thought we handled all that in prep? Prep never complete! Tables to help improvise NPCs and locations are downright essential for the way I run games.

I'll never stop saying FIST is great.

DO ALL GAMES NEED TO DO THIS?

Well, no... but I think these things significantly increase the chance of the game actually being enjoyed at the table.

That's certainly what I look for in a game, whether I'm buying it or designing it myself.

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Wednesday 10 April 2024

April of 5, 10, and 15 years ago

Okay, let's do this again!

15 years ago

I was still deep into working on The Adventurer's Tale, preparing an all-dwarf sandbox campaign. I drew up a cool hex map, did some prep but... it never really got past a one-shot. I feel very lucky that with the last few years working on Mythic Bastionland I've been able to dive so deeply into the world of hexcrawling.

The Adventurer's Tale is a standard fantasy game. Some scraps of ideas that I like, but nothing that I haven't improved on elsewhere. Perhaps I'll do a quick readthrough stream of it some day and see if there's anything to be learned.

A post on monster design shows that I have a little affection for 4e D&D here, focusing very much on monster-as-encounter. I think most of this advice still holds up.

10 years ago

DIE BONEHEAD DIE is something I still think about from time to time. Seems like I keep coming back to ideas for a sci-fi game, but I keep burning them to the ground and starting again. I still love the focus on random tables in (what's left of) DBH, but the document itself is a mess of a half-abandoned, half-repurposed game.

Guess I'll just have to do space properly another time.

5 years ago

Not just one, but two posts about running mechs in Into the Odd (kinda)!

This would lead to Fighting Machines getting officially added in to Electric Bastionland, and this is all waaay before I got hooked into Battletech and wrote MAC Attack, so it's interesting to see a different take.

I feel like I get my mech-fix from miniature gaming more than RPGs, so not sure if this is something I'd plan on revisiting.

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Wednesday 3 April 2024

Paranoia's Iceberg of Secrecy

I've always been aware of Paranoia, but I only played it for the first time at Grogmeet in December.

Its reputation as a silly game of backstabbing and betrayal sounded perfect for a convention one-shot.

This was true! I had a lot of fun playing it, but it stuck with me more than I expected. I've been hoovering up what I can from the new Mongoose edition, the older XP-edition, and any other scraps I can find around, with one eye on running a one-shot when my Traveller campaign wraps up. I'll probably use the core system of the latest edition with bits and pieces pulled from XP. For those in the know, I'm leaning somewhere between straight and classic styles.

Players-conflict is all good fun, but I think it works best when the objectives are carefully designed. It reminds me of Matrix Games, and the importance of setting clear objectives that drive conflict with the rest of the group, but still allow opportunities for cooperation... or at least conspiring.

This is al turned up to eleven with Paranoia because you're likely to start the game with... well, up to six objectives each depending on how you look at it!

Let's see them one-by-one, working our way down the Iceberg of Secrecy. They differ by edition, but here's the configuration I'm working with.


Troubleshooter Job
The only objective that's shared by the whole group. It could be as simple as "deliver a sandwich to this address" or something bigger like "scout out this lost sector and deliver a full report". At first you might think this is the most important objective, but I really see it as a way to shove the group together and kick off the game. There's so much going on beneath the surface that I think this one can be anything that pushes the group into interesting locations.

Mandatory Bonus Duty
Everybody in the team gets a special role, from equipment officer to hygiene officer. The member least qualified for any of them is declared Team Leader instead. The group know each other's MBDs, so it gives some immediate surface-level tension. They're all-responsibility, zero-power, but the Computer will assess your performance during the debrief.

Experimental Gear
R&D are always looking for opportunities to test their creations, so everybody gets one experimental device that they should put through a proper field-test when the opportunity arises. Potentially useful, likely disappointing, often devastating.

Service Group Mandate
The other players know which Service Group (essentially government department) you belong to, but not necessarily the special Mandate you've been handed as their representative. A member of the Power Service might need to recall all batteries from unused devices to recycle their energy, while an Internal Security member might be tipped off to Communist activity in the area you're headed to. These are generally legal, so can be shared with the group, but you never know if one of them is working against you. Maybe it's best to keep it to yourself.

Secret Society Mission
Every character also belongs to a secret society. These are completely illegal, so you definitely don't want the other players to know! In addition to offering the chance to call in favours, you'll be given a secret mission. If you're a member of Haxxors you might need to copy a virus from a rampaging bot you've been advised to avoid, or if you're a Free Enterprise spiv you might have a case of stolen pharmaceuticals to sell-on. Yeah, selling stuff is illegal, so be careful. These missions are especially fun when designed to conflict with each other.

Mutant Power
As if that wasn't enough, you each get a mutant power. Being an unregistered mutant is treasonous in Alpha Complex, but registered mutants often have it even worse, so keep it to yourself. You can just ignore this power and never use it, but I like the powers that tempt you into using them just this once.

Winning the Game
Most RPGs say there's no such thing as "winning the game" but I absolutely plan to count up how many of these objectives each player has achieved and declare a winner.

No reward beyond the victory, but what a victory it could be!

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Wednesday 27 March 2024

March of 5, 10, and 15 years ago

This blog is now old enough that I can look back 15 years. I'll also dip into what was happening 10 and 5 years ago.

Self-indulgent? How dare you! I'll do my best to find something useful in there.

15 years ago, I wrote about a new method for rolling attributes, generally suited to D&D. I'd forgotten all about it until I started a Traveller game earlier this year and gave the players the option to use this method (they boldly opted to just roll down the line individually instead). 

I think it's still a tool to keep in the bag. 

10 years ago, Into the Odd was taking shape. I wrote about starter packages, a focus on mundane disposable items, and the final version of the game's damage system (now with the familiar Save vs Critical Damage when you take STR loss). It's around this time that Into the Odd really resembles the game it is today. 

The example of play in the damage post really shows the power of strength-of-numbers in Into the Odd, something I would temper in Electric and Mythic Bastionland.

5 years ago is interesting to revisit on a personal level, because there aren't any posts for March.

Looking back at my old calendar I can see this was a month when my day-job was swallowing a great deal of time and energy, leaving me with no fuel for writing or games. 

If you've ever supported me on Patreon, bought one of my games, or even just followed this blog, I want to give a heartfelt thank you for helping to change my life in such a huge way since that month of silence. 

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Wednesday 20 March 2024

Fancy Shooting for Electric Bastionland

This is not errata. It’s a little module I’m messing with that might appeal to those who want more combat options for gunplay in Electric Bastionland.

Guns are back! Let's go get'em.
Concealment/Cover/Barrier

  • Concealment partially obscures vision of the target, Impairing the attack unless it is a Blast attack.
  • Cover also offers physical protection against projectiles, granting +1 Armour unless the attack is powerful enough to penetrate straight through it.
  • Barrier completely protects the target from fire. If they peek out to fire then they count as being in Cover or Concealment as appropriate instead until their next turn.

Suppression: Weapons that can provide continuous fire can lay down Suppression, attempting to pin the enemy in place or drive them away. This takes the place of a normal attack or action.

Note the dice that would be rolled for the attack and assign them to the Suppression Pool for the target. If this is a Blast Attack then do this for every target in the blast.

The attack causes no immediate damage, but if the target takes any action that exposes themselves, including moving or attacking, they immediately roll their Suppression Pool and take damage as normal, losing the benefit of their cover/concealment. This occurs before they can perform their action.

If the target withdraws directly away from the source of Suppression then their Suppression Pool is emptied and they do not take any damage.

If the attacker is damaged or takes any action other than continuing the suppressive fire then the Suppression Pool is emptied.

Who needs aiming?

Aimed Shots: Weapons that can fire with some accuracy can attempt to land a single devastating shot in place of normal fire. This involves two actions: Aiming and Striking. Each of these takes the place of a normal attack or action.

Aim: Focus on a visible target, or a piece of terrain that you expect them to emerge from. This cannot be performed on the same turn you moved. Note that you are aiming at the target. Aim is lost if you take Damage, Move, Attack another target, or are otherwise distracted.

Strike: Combatants that are Aiming can interrupt their target’s turn to Strike them. This occurs before the target’s action is resolved.

Roll the attack as normal, ignoring Cover and Concealment.

If this would cause a Wound (STR loss) then they lose an additional d6 points of STR.

If the attack would be evaded (causing only HP loss) then the entire attack is ignored, and no HP is lost.

Indirect Fire: For Mortars and similar the attack is performed as normal if the attacker can see the target, or has communication with a spotter who can.

If the attacker is predicting the location of the target then attack as normal, but dice showing an odd value are discarded.

This all sounds a bit much. Let's stick to the old ways.

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Wednesday 13 March 2024

Mongoose Traveller Mid-Campaign Thoughts

I'm three sessions into my Mongoose Traveller campaign. That's one session of lifepath character creation and two of regular play. So far we've had a lot of fun, and the players have all brought their A-game, but how has it been to run?

Challenging.

I wanted to run this by-the-book as much as possible, hoping to tap into some of the great things I'd heard about Classic Traveller in play. My gut feel was that Mongoose is close enough to Classic to make this work.

Now some of the difficulty might be down to the fact that I normally run my own systems, and when I'm not doing that I gravitate toward the very light side of things. Mongoose Traveller is far from the crunchiest system ever (assuming you aren't using every optional part of the toolbox), so I haven't run into many mechanical issues, but I feel like the system hasn't done a great deal to inspire my prep and improvisation. In some places it even feels like ballast that I have to work against.

I'm using the Spinward Extents sourcebook, which uses 368 pages to cover two whole sectors of space in great detail.

At least, in great detail overall, but I find myself constantly wanting different types of detail to what is being presented.

Of course Traveller is famous for its spartan Universal World Profiles that summarise a planet in 8 numbers and letters, expecting you to translate that into something table-ready. I'm on board with that. 

Each sector has 16 subsectors, each of which has around 24 worlds described via their universal profiles, and 4-5 that get an actual writeup, anywhere from two to ten paragraphs of description. 

Here's the very first world described in the book:


This is actually one of the better entries! You get a broad physical description, and the present-day situation is somewhat interesting, but it's still sorely lacking in hooks. I've ranted about settings with millennia-spanning timelines before, but this book does a lot of "here's an interesting event... that happened 500 years ago". 

Each subsector gets its own description, but it's similar to the above, not all that much to the ground-level (or I guess deck-level) stuff that's happening in my game. Here's the subsector that Barba Amarilla sits within.


Now the opening description of the sector as a whole details some of its history and polities, but the vast majority of that has been too zoomed-out to be much use for my game. What does it tell us about the Duchy of Mapepire, which controls the world and (most of the) subsector we've already looked at?


For context, the most common year for a traveller game is 1105, so even the most recent event (the Duchess taking the throne after the botched coup) happened over 30 years ago. All the cool stuff about a pirate captain carving out his own domain happened over 400 years ago.

There's some juice in the idea that the Duchy is running, or at least enabling, pirate activity. Imagine if the book had described this as a dynamic situation, perhaps detailing a related incident that happened in the last year or so to make the place feel a little more dynamic. 

It describes their fleet organisation, and mentioned their starport presence, but I get no idea of how to actually represent this. What makes their starports feel different to those of the Corellan League? Do their fleets have unusual protocols that would make one of their ships an interesting encounter?

I did enjoy reading through all of this and learning about the sector, but so little of it translated into gameable ideas for me. If you're prepping or improvising, and you're just looking for a nugget of inspiration, it can be very difficult to find any!

Characters are mentioned, but often some long-dead founder of a world, never an interesting character that the players might actually meet. 

Events are detailed, but usually historical, instead of some flashpoint that's ready to explode when the characters arrive. 

There are rumours, a d66 table for each of the two Sectors, but as each page covers an entire sector it's often not relevant to where the players actually are. 

There are rare exceptions to the above, but far too few. 

The Core Rulebook has some tools to help with this, including encounter tables and a method for generating characters, but it feels like a missed opportunity to not have bespoke content for the part of space I'm reading about. 

This isn't a negative review of Mongoose Traveller or of The Spinward Extents, but an insight into some of the difficulties I've had combining these resources with my particular style of GMing. 

And perhaps a warning that running something by the book can be so much more challenging than winging it. 

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Tuesday 5 March 2024

Now THIS is Peg Racing!

Want to go PEG-RACING?

Okay, get yourself some clothes pegs, ideally a few different sizes. 


Break them open and glue them together till they look like something from WipEout (or F-Zero if you're less cool).


Prime them. I also added some little sticky dots before this. 


Paint them and CURSE HOW MUCH IT SUCKS TO PAINT WOOD. 

I'm told it would apply more easily if I gave them a coat of PVA or sealant spray before painting but WE GOTTA GO FAST HERE.


Set up a track with checkpoints. 


Race.


Shoot at each other. 


Keep hitting those checkpoints till somebody wins. 


F-MAC: Formula MAC is a one-sheet grav-racing miniature game based loosely on the MAC ATTACK system.

It's barely tested, and certain builds are probably broken. Go and find out for yourself.



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Wednesday 28 February 2024

There's Always a Deeper Pit

Continuing from last week's delve into Beyond the Pit. I'm examining a handful of creatures from its follow-up, Return to the Pit.

Again, we'll start with the first spread and jump around from there.

ALLIGATOR

So the first two entries don't seem all that inspiring, but this Alligator at least has a fantastic Russ Nicolson piece. 


Let's see if the text has anything beyond what we can already assume of a gator.

We get a mix of the utterly redundant (that they're similar to crocodiles) and some stuff that at least places them within a fantasy world, even if it's nothing too shocking (they live on the banks of rivers and in wetlands). 

It gets better, though! They suffer an attack penalty on land, and if they roll high enough they do a special death roll attack. Even though this is still mundane animal stuff, it gives a bit of food for thought to a GM running an alligator encounter. The death roll is basically an instant-kill, which I guess elevates the Alligator to sit alongside save-or-die royalty like the Basilisk and Beholder. 

Finally, it notes that a metal bar can be wedged into a gator's jaws to effectively incapacitate it. This definitely has the whiff of a gamebook solution: "if you have the iron bar, turn to page 45". 

BEHEMOTH

A big fish. Really big. 


Now, we're on shaky ground comparing these monsters to their real-world mythological influences, but isn't the point of Behemoth that it's the land-based equivalent to the aquatic Leviathan?

Let's go into the rabbit hole. If we check the monster index helpfully contained in this book we see that there's also a Leviathan monster! This one very much the huge sea-creature that you'd expect. It originated in a completely different book to the Behemoth, so maybe the author wanted a Leviathan, but didn't want to use the name of a creature from another book.

However, both books were written by the same author! Now I don't know what to think. 

There's something strangely charming about the cobbled-together nature of this fantasy world. Bringing together creatures and places from disparate books and trying to make it all fit together. An ancient tradition. 

DINOSAURS

Yeah I wrote about them last time, but I guess every one of these books has a dino section.

My eye leaps to the phrase "the second Great Dinosaur Incursion happened half a millennia ago" which is a pretty great sentence to take away with us. 

Again, I'm confident this is in there because forty years ago there was some silly book about fighting dinosaurs, but I love that it sits in here alongside all the elves, demons, and sorcerers. Dinosaurs sometimes feel tacked-on to fantasy settings, but I enjoy that they have their own place in Titan's history.

GHOUL

I always liked these entries that have multiple variants of the same monster. It's another thing that made the world feel expansive. Like you might encounter some orcs but what type of orcs is something that really mattered.

Here we get five types of Ghoul, most of which are from different gamebooks to each other. 


Greater Ghoul, also known as the Huge Ghoul, is pretty big I guess. Where do you go from there?


Fuck yeah! Megaghoul! I love the idea of ghoul-creep, necromancers trapped in an arms race of ghoul creation. 

No Gigaghoul or Ultraghoul as far as I can see, so perhaps this is the pinnacle. 

But what happens when a ghoul dies its second-death?


Shadow ghoul! A pitiful ghost creature that doesn't really do much, but I like the idea of the ghost of an already undead creature. This could be taken further.


The steel ghoul is a ghoul with a bunch of metal strapped to it.


The stench ghoul is an extra-stinky ghoul.

Nothing especially interesting here. Let's get out of ghoul town and head toward the back of the book.

TREMLOW

I'm so easily won over by the artwork in this book. Check this guy out.

The description paints a very clear picture of a singular gamebook encounter. The adventurer sees the Tremlow from behind, judging it as a hideous creature. If they keep looking it turns around, and it's even uglier from the front. The Tremlow shrieks pitifully and flees. 

We also get a section detailing how the creature will occasionally hunt, with a decision for the prey to make when they feel a tingling between their shoulder blades. If they turn to face the creature they must pass a Luck roll or else flee, horrified, and permanently lose 1 Skill as they spend the rest of their life glancing over their shoulder in fear of the creature. 

Look, I'm usually a fan of ugly, pathetic creatures, but this one just feels strange to me, like it hasn't fully made the transition from gamebook-encounter to a monster that truly exists in this world. 

CONCLUSIONS

These books are great fun to read through. I'm heavily biased by nostalgia, but think the art alone makes them worth checking out. 

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Wednesday 21 February 2024

Mining the Pit

Fifteen years ago this month I wrote a post about Out of the Pit, the Fighting Fantasy monster manual and my first ever RPG book. In particular, I wanted to see what lessons I could take from that beloved book. 

I was still finding my feet with that blogpost, and I continue to do so today, so I can't say it's really worth revisiting. 

But what about the monsters of Fighting Fantasy?

A few years ago I saw Beyond the Pit and Return to the Pit on the shelf of my local game shop, both follow-ups to Out of the Pit, compiling a new selection of monsters from the Fighting Fantasy books. 

Any gems in there? Let's pick a few and see what we get. 

Beyond the Pit

So for context all(?) of these monsters have appeared in a Fighting Fantasy book before, compiled here for the first time. While they're all from books set within the world of Titan they're interesting because they've all seen some form of action. 

I'll go through the first few spreads of the book and pick the monster I like most from each.

Angaroc 

The first line of this entry has me hooked.

"[Angarocs] exist only in the dream world - until some sorcerer discovers how to bring them through to the real world!"

It looks like a snake with four spider legs, which is kind of disappointing but also sort of fitting for a native of the dream world.


They have no weapons because their mere presence is poisonous (in both the dream world and reality). It drains life force through a janky, arbitrary mechanic which belies its gamebook roots, so it's kind of a quintessential Fighting Fantasy monster. 

Ape-Dog and Dog-Ape

I haven't even read the description yet and I know I'm choosing this one. 

One is an ape with a dog head, the other is... well, work it out.


They guard the gate to a demi-sorcerer's tower and offer some sort of riddle. Again, the gamebook vibes are strong with this one. It also notes that "the race of Blogs from central Allansia is very similar to the Dog-Ape in particular, though this just may be pure coincidence".

Are "Blogs" detailed in this book?

They are!

Blog

Okay, I'm done laughing at the name. 

They're jungle-dwelling pot-bellied humanoids with dog heads, hated by the local humans who hunt them tirelessly for the sins of head-hunting and eating human flesh.


Alarm bells are going off in my head, but I'll continue. 

The shoot poison darts, which paralyse victims for long enough to take them to their huge cooking pots. 

Blogs first appeared in a 1988 gamebook and if I'm being generous I'd say they feel very much of their time... or maybe of a time before. 

Annoyingly they don't even look that much like the Dog-Ape who sent us here!

Right, onto a random spread. 

Dinosaurs

I was all ready to flick past this page, as I'm met with a bunch of real-world dinosaurs, but I'm glad I stuck around.

It's noted that "there has been speculation of late that they are not originally from this world. For example, they have no recognised deity in the pantheon of the Animal Court."

That's a fantastic little bite of worldbuilding.

It goes on to suggest that dinosaur eggs were brought to this world through portals, prized as beasts of war. Again, that's a lovely touch.

Onwards.

Pool Beast

Wait, isn't this just a Bloodbeast?


No, it's a different "big monster stuck in a gross pond". 

I suppose that's handy for a gamebook. It keeps the monster in one place, ensuring you get to encounter it within its signature lair. 

This one also has a large violet gem in its head, presumably to serve as treasure. 

All very Fighting Fantasy but not all that inspiring for me right now.

One more random flick then I'll go to the final spread.

Toolfish


Wait, no.


Apparently, Merfolk have difficulty making tools underwater, so have bred special fish to serve as tools. Flintstones of the sea, I guess. 

They're small when kept on the rack, but magically grow when taken out for use. It even details some of the special varieties, from axefish to glowfish to the obvious sawfish (the only one that will fight on their own).

You can buy them from a Merfolk, but when used by non-Merfolk they swim away after one use. Classic old school fuck-you to the players.

This is all very dumb but I don't hate it. 

Onto the final spread.

Zoalinth

This is the most "fantasy RPG monster book" monster I've ever seen.

Let's check these off.

  • Two croc heads
  • Bear body
  • Bird legs
  • Stegosaurus tail
  • Eight-fingered claws
  • Acid vomit attack
  • Lives in dungeons
  • Made by a wizard

I can't say there's much interesting to actually do with this. It speaks common and has average intelligence, but is still mostly described like a guard animal. It specifies that it can be trained to recognise a badge or symbol...

Oh wait, that'll be something from the gamebook that it was used in, right? The player will need to find the badge that lets them pass through without fighting this thing.

Right. 

LESSONS?

I'll level with you, I did this just because after finishing up the writing on Mythic Bastionland I wanted to dig into warm, familiar world and look at some silly monsters. There are examples of nice worldbuilding but also lots of stuff that shows its gamebook roots a little too strongly for use in a TTRPG.

Next time I'll dig into Return to the Pit and see if that fares any better. 

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This post was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site the week after its original publication.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon. 

Wednesday 14 February 2024

Dealing with the Council

What happens when a player Knight in Mythic Bastionland actually gets to rule their own Holding?

First you have a bunch of entitled jerks to deal with.

PLAY

Ref: Okay, Tal, now that you’re the rightful ruler of Raider’s Gate you’ll want to assemble a Council. 

Ref outlines the positions of Steward, Marshall, Sheriff, and Envoy.

Tal: Okay, Moss, are you up for being the Marshall? Getting the soldiers into shape?

Moss: Yeah, of course.

Ref: Yeah that works. Now even though you proved the previous ruler, the Chain Knight, as an enemy of the Realm, the Steward that served under him is still here. She’s Medryn, very formal and professional. You can kick her out of her seat or keep her on.

Tal: Let’s keep her on for now, but we’ll keep a close eye on her. I’ll go and talk to her properly a little later.

Ref: Well security is also part of the Sheriff’s job, watching for threats inside and outside your walls. Who are you appointing there?

Tal: Needs to be somebody we trust. 

Moss: I don’t think I trust anybody around here anymore.

Tal: Okay… can we leave the seat vacant just for now while we decide?

Ref: Well we can talk about it some more, but I definitely wouldn't leave you Realm without a Sheriff unless you want to invite trouble!

Tal: Argh, okay. Hey, what about that guy who was guarding the tower we found?

Moss: Yeah, he helped us out.

Tal: Okay, he was over here, right?

Tal points at a landmark a few Hexes away.

Tal: Can I like… send a rider out to summon  him or something?

Ref: Of course, you’re the ruler now!


THOUGHTS

Like so many other parts of the game, ruling a Holding is at its best when the players have enough information to prompt difficult decisions with impactful consequences. 

Assembling the Council is a good opportunity for this. As we see here it’s a chance to introduce new characters or elevate previously encountered people into a more prominent role.

Focusing Holding management on the Council has a few beneficial effects. Firstly it keeps the spotlight on interactions with characters rather than the fine details of economics and infrastructure. You can decide that you want to collect more taxes, or change the armament of your warbands, but doing so requires going through your Steward or Marshall respectively, keeping those relationships at the forefront. 

This is most effective when a ruler’s Council and Court are both populated by a dynamic cast of characters. Here a Referee can create a messy web of ambitions and quarrels for the ruler to attempt to keep in order. A combination of Spark Tables and Luck Rolls can give some useful prompts for this. 

If one of the Knights ends up ruling a Seat of Power, then the rulers of each Holding become an additional layer of relationships to manage on top of this. 

Still, I like to ensure that the ruler still gets a chance to go out and be a Knight, letting their Council manage things in their absence. This can be encouraged by reassuring the player that Knights are expected to delegate rule to their Steward in order to continue fulfilling their Oath. If a Knight gets too bogged down in politicking from their castle then word begins to spread that they’ve grown soft or renounced their Oath to “seek the Myths”. That should give them a nudge toward adventure. 

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Wednesday 7 February 2024

Unwelcome Omens

Mythic Bastionland pre-orders are now open for late backers!

Backers will receive their survey within the next few days, so far I've just sent out a test to a lucky 5%.

Now onto the post. 

What do you do when an Omen doesn't quite fit your current location?

PLAY

The Company are travelling through a barren tundra during winter, facing dire weather at every turn. Ref makes a Wilderness Roll and gets a 1, rolling for a random Myth from elsewhere in the Realm. They roll the Forest, which the Company have already encountered the first five Omens from. This means they’ll encounter the sixth and Omen.

Ref: Okay… hm…

Ref fumbles slightly, as the previous omens had all been encountered in areas with plenty of trees, an easy fit for the Forest.

Ref: A bitter mist rolls over the tundra again, chilling your faces. Through the mist you can see shapes. It looks like a forest.

Moss: I thought this whole area was a sort of frozen wasteland?

Ref: Yeah, it was. 

Tal: Oh, I bet this is something to do with the Forest, right?

Moss: Yeah, shall we go in?

Tal: I think we should! We’re meant to be “seeking the Myths” after all.

Moss: Okay, let’s carefully go in.

Ref: As you enter the mist begins to clear. The air even feels warmer. Looking around, you feel like you’re in the middle of a deep forest, despite having only walked a few paces into the trees. 

Moss: At least it’s warm.

Ref: A towering figure stands boldly between the trees. Their body is thick, writhing wood, knotted and gnarled. Their hands are like great clawed roots. The imposing creature looms over you. What do you do?

THOUGHTS

Remember that Myths operate under their own rules, and they don’t need to follow the usual laws of reality.

This means situations like this one, where a Myth’s Omen feels an odd fit for the current situation, can easily be woven into the ongoing story. 

It helps that, in general, the players want to find Omens and resolve Myths, as this is the main way that they gain Glory. Besides, the nature of Omens is that they’re all going to happen eventually, so being caught off-guard by one isn’t a huge problem.

I like that Ref doesn’t try to contradict their previous description of the area. The wasteland was just as frozen and inhospitable as they had previously described, and now it’s miraculously transformed into a thick forest. 

One of the reasons that Knights tend not to have magical-feeling abilities is that I want the world to feel more magical than the people within it. 

You’ll be exploring a mystical land, and while you’ll sometimes benefit or suffer at the hands of its magic, you’ll never quite understand or control it yourself. 

This is perfect for handling these moments, but should never be done at the cost of the previously established fiction of the game.

When they enter the woods, Ref jumps straight into the encounter with the Fearmonger in their true form. This is fine, but there was also an opportunity to have the players explore this strange place a little before the Fearmonger shows themselves. It would give a little more weight to the fact that the Forest manifested so suddenly, allowing the players to take that in for a moment before thrusting them into a high-stakes situation. 

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If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon. 

Wednesday 31 January 2024

Folklore

Knowledge is power in Mythic Bastionland.

What does the Oddpocrypha have to say about that?

PLAY

The Company are staying in the Holding of a friendly ruler. After dinner they are left to their own devices for a while. They have already encountered one Omen of the Child.

Ref: Okay, what are you both doing?

Tal: The ruler here seems friendly enough, but I’ll see if anybody else looks keen to talk.

Moss: I’ll ask around to see what people know about the Child.

Ref: Okay, Tal, as you’re moving around the hall a Knight strides over. You’ve not met them before, they’re…

Ref rolls on some Spark Tables to get an idea of their appearance.

Ref: He looks sort of soft-bodied for a Knight, a tattered cloak over his patchwork mail. He speaks to in a whispered tone.

Ref rolls a random Myth of the Realm for this Knight to know about, getting the Shadow.

Ref: “Greetings, Knight. Have you come from the north?”

Tal: Erm… (she checks the map) no, we’ve ridden in from to the east.

Ref: “Well, take my word for it, if you’re heading north then don’t look too closely into the shadows. A sorrowful presence lurks there. My brother-in-arms has already been taken by its melancholy.”

Tal: Is this something to do with the Child?

Ref: He doesn’t seem to know anything about the Child. He explains that he’s recently arrived in the Realm. He also describes the location of a monument he passed on the way, the mausoleum of a nameless Knight.

Ref points to the monument’s location on the map, a few Hexes north of the Holding.

Tal: Great, that’s useful.

Moss: Yeah, do I have any luck?

THOUGHTS

Non-player characters can be useful in different ways. They can offer hospitality, equipment, remedies, military aid, new positions in a council, or even a Holding to rule. Whoever they are, most people are also able to offer the resource of knowledge, as detailed in the Folklore section of the rules.

We can see the importance of this here, with Moss actively seeking information and Tal being more passive. I like that Ref gives Tal this useful information even though she didn’t explicitly ask for it. When it comes to Myths I like to ensure they’re worked into the conversations happening all across the Realm, even if the character is a new arrival.

Ref gives some very vague knowledge of the Shadow here. They could have had the Knight outright explain an encounter with the Shadow, or one of its omens, but the key is that they wouldn’t know the inner workings of the Myth. That level of knowledge is restricted to Seers, and is the basis for their powerful position within the society of the Realm.

Ref could have gone further here, and had the Knight who Tal meets actually be the Knight described in the Myth itself. One Omen describes a sorrowful Knight, lashing out at passers-by, and they could have presented this character to the Company, appearing before their miserable fate.

They could go in another direction, changing the Myth so that this new Knight is the one present in the Omen.

Instead, Ref takes the slightly safer option of having the Knight who Tal meets simply having a connection to the Knight that will appear in a later Omen. Still effective, but it’s always good to consider other options.

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Wednesday 24 January 2024

Hospitality

How does hospitality work in Mythic Bastionland?

PLAY

The Company encounter an Omen of the Pack, describing a shepherd having lost his flock. The Knights do their best to help, but the Shepherd is heartbroken.

Moss: Wait, where does this shepherd live? We’re nowhere near a Holding or Dwelling.

Ref: Do you want to ask him?

Moss: Yeah, okay.

Ref: He gestures in the direction of his home, a simple hut hidden away within this Hex. He also has a second hut in the neighbouring Hex, where he sometimes moves his flock. 

Tal: We should rest up here before we start our journey back to the Seat of Power. 

Ref: Yeah, proper hospitality restores your VIG, remember? You’ve both got some wounds that would benefit from it. 

Moss: Okay, I ask the shepherd if he can provide a warm place to sleep for tonight.

Ref: I mean he’s despairing about his flock being torn apart by his own dogs, so I wouldn’t expect too much of a warm welcome. He offers you a place for the night, as is the custom, but you get the sense he’d rather you weren’t there. 

Ref pauses for a moment.

Ref: Actually, one of you can give me a SPI Save to see what his response is like.

Tal rolls an 18, failing the Save.

Ref: Yeah, he takes you in and cooks you some food, rolls out some simple, bedding, but the conversation is clearly focused on when you’re both going to leave tomorrow.

Moss: Rude.

Tal: I mean I guess he’s got bigger problems to deal with right now. Okay, let’s work out what we’re doing the next morning. 

Ref: Sure, and you can both restore VIG. 


THOUGHTS

Knights can expect hospitality from most of the people they encounter on their travels, but this can still create some interesting conflicts. Commonly these are based around how much the Company are willing to upset their host by outstaying their welcome, or whether the host is bold enough to ask for something in return. 

This section of play starts with a good example of how the Realm can be moulded by both the actions of the Knights and the Myths as they unfold. In an area with no mention of inhabitants, a Myth describes a shepherd. This suggests that the shepherd must have a dwelling nearby, even if it was not previously noted on the map, and so it becomes reality. 

I’d encourage Ref to note this down on the map as a new Dwelling. 

Of course, if the Company were in a Hex utterly unsuitable for a shepherd to live in, then the Referee might find a reason for them to be so far from home. Perhaps they’re in the middle of a long journey or pilgrimage.

Ref also indulges in asking for a Spirit Save to gauge the shepherd’s reaction to the Knights’ request for hospitality. This feels like a very low stakes roll, as even with a failure the shepherd allows the knights to stay. 

Normally I look to the mantra of “no risk, no roll” but I still think there’s a place for Saves like this in the quieter moments of play. For example, if Tal had passed the Save then perhaps the shepherd might encourage them to stay even longer, becoming reliant upon the Knights for a feeling of security after their ordeal. 

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This post was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site the week after its original publication.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon. 

Wednesday 17 January 2024

The Quieter Moments

An RPG session probably shouldn't be non-stop action. Those quiet moments can sometimes be overlooked by GM advice sections, so I wanted to touch on them when discussing landmarks in the Oddpocrypha chapter of Mythic Bastionland. 

PLAY

The Company is in a tower, overlooking the surrounding Hexes. Ref gestures to each Hex as they describe the terrain in broad terms.

Ref: The forest continues all across the west. The south looks more marshy, and there are rough hills to the east.

On their copy of the map, Ref notices there’s a Landmark in a neighbouring Hex, a Ruin. They rolled a prompt for this as part of their prep, noting that it relates to the Blade, a Myth not currently active in the Realm. The prompt for the Ruin was “crumbled bridge”.

Ref: You can spot a bridge in the distance out in this direction, but you can’t really see the details from this far away.

The players decide to head toward the bridge, arriving in the next Phase of the day.

Ref: Okay, so the bridge spans a mostly dried up stream and has collapsed, the centre now a heap of rubble.

Ref turns to the Blade myth to look for a hint to place here. They decide to use “Ilglamrent”, one of the names given for the Blade.

Ref: In amongst the rubble you can see a large block, previously part of the bridge. There’s something carved on it, covered in red moss.

Tal: I’ll carefully scrape it off with my dagger, trying to see the carving.

Ref: It’s faint but you can just make out the shape of a sword, the word “Ilglamrent” written down the length of its blade. 

Tal: Huh. 

Moss: I’ll look through the rubble. Maybe there’s a sword down here?

Ref: Yeah you dig through but there doesn’t seem to be anything of note.

Moss: Right. Hm. 

Ref: So where next?

THOUGHTS

Where Myths and Holdings generally act as the major features within the Realm, Landmarks tend to have a more understated place in the game.

Ruins in particular can feel almost out of place, offering a glimpse at a Myth that won’t actually be used in the Realm as it stands. The intent is to hint at a wider and older world, and as we see here it can create moments that border on downright anticlimactic.

I don’t think this is something to be feared. These moments of relative calm can be a welcome change of tempo, especially when used sparingly. I like that Ref allows the moment to play out before giving the players a gentle nudge to move on, asking them where they want to go next.

Ref did just about enough preparation here, rolling the Ruin’s Myth ahead of time and choosing a prompt for its general description. They could have gone further and worked out how the bridge tied in to the Blade, but they were able to improvise this just fine.

If they really found themselves stuck, unable to draw a connection between the Ruin and its Myth, then I’d encourage them to take a more relaxed approach. Maybe for now this bridge is just a bridge, no Myth connection at all. It still acts as a small point of interest in the world, a literal landmark to help with navigation. 

They could also place a person near to the Ruin, giving them knowledge of the related Myth. Perhaps here a wandering pilgrim is seeking the Blade, but so far nobody in this Realm has heard of it. Anything that helps the world feel large or old would work.

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This post was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site the week after its original publication.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon.