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Rats of Tanglethorn Pt.7: The Tree of Woe

Afheesh shot after Wufcor who was free of his shackles, fleeing, and armed with a stolen dagger. The Tree of Punishmentquickling guard tripped the fleeing canny-jack with his tail. Wufcor flopped onto his back hard with a blast of dust and dry leaves. Afheesh held the tip of his dagger to his former companion’s throat.

Afheesh (kicking dirt on the prone ratling): “Drop the dagger gutter trash!”

As a result, Wufcor let loose his white knuckled grip on the dagger letting it drop to the ground.

Wufcor: “I surrender!”

Pabst tried to move in and grapple the traitorous ratling but missed by a mile.

Jennifer (to me): “You traitor! I won’t forget this!”

Isis (shrugging): “Look Sis I figure he could’ve killed me at any time, so I hope he has a plan.”

Pabst reluctantly surrendered under the remaining guard’s spear points and Sergeant Neek’s sword. The prisoners were shackled once again and after another hour were finally led to the Tree of Judgment.

A large twisted trunk was before them that sported large thorns here and there over its pale striated bark. Deep scars crisscrossed the bole where prisoners had been lashed to it and left to die in the Poisonwood. The lower limbs, as thick and twisted as the rest, also exhibited deep hanging scars most still with some rusted bit of chain or rotted rope still dangling wafting or tinkling in the slight breeze. There were a few skulls and fragments of bone scattered among the surfaced roots and woody knees. Due to their diminished numbers, the guards were in a rush and so lashed the pair of prisoners to the bole before hastily retreating aboard the wagon.

The pair watched Afheesh ride away as the sergeant congratulated him, his attitude towards the ratling totally changed. The officer was counting himself fortunate that the guard had discovered such a skilled new recruit. The criminal pair was mumbling curses under their breaths. All too soon, the wagon was out of view and then the rolling crunch of its wheels faded into the general ambience of the dreaded Poisonwood.

There they were, Wufcor the ratling canny-jack and Pabst the female human duelist all alone and lashed to the bole of the execution tree. Intermittently tiny vermin of all kinds swarmed and crawled over their bare skin, fleas, wood lice, beetles, the occasional spider or centipede. Never had the pair felt more vulnerable, every crunch or slight movement of serrated leaf or thorny twig caused them to cringe. They nearly panicked when a large shadow swooped far above the autumnal umbrage momentarily blotting out the scant rays of sun that penetrated the reeking tree cover.

The poisonous musk of noxious weeds and nettles stung their nostrils and the rough, dry bark chafed and scratched at their skin. The thorns drew some blood. Adrenaline sharpened their ears and to them it seemed that the whole wood had come alive. It had come alive with things that were crawling and slithering through the dense underbrush. They writhed with discomfort.

Meanwhile, Afheesh was sitting with Sergeant Neek in a random saloon who was slinging back drink after drink. The ratling had tried to make use of the officer’s improved attitude towards him by getting assigned to the moneychanger at the front gate. However, that had gone nowhere. It was very near sundown when a still sober Afheesh took his leave and rushed to rent a wagon.

In the now dark Poisonwood, a very upset Pabst kicked a large black scorpion from her foot. Wufcor finally worked himself free of the ropes and soon freed his companion as well. The duelist secured an old branch that she could as a club. All the while, they swore to each other that they could see large black shadows skulking in the darkness behind a tangle of thorn trees and a dense thicket. Indeed, something was approaching them. They prepared to defend themselves determined to throw stones, bite, claw, and kick, whatever it took to survive.

On the trail to the Tree of Judgment to which his partners had been tied, Afheesh whipped the horses to speed. He was racing the setting sun as the golden disk sank into a blood-sky behind the black horizon. Already the purple moon with its golden ring was strong, dominating the eastern horizon. Although he could barely see it through the still dense but sickly foliage of the autumnal Poisonwood. He kept madly snapping the reins hoping to keep going just a little faster than before.

The wheels smashed into a small ridge of stone jutting from the rough path, the wagon jumped suddenly up onto the air for a split second. When it smashed back down onto the road, the ratling found himself airborne as the pungent winds of the wood roared into his face. Soon enough he flopped hard back onto the hard wooden driver’s seat with a guttural “oof”. It seemed an eternity until he had reached his goal. The wagon stopped in an explosion of dust, pebbles, and dry leaves.

Wufcor was guarding a paralyzed Pabst. Several giant spiders had attacked them not long before Afheesh’s arrival. Fortunately, they had been able to fight the monsters off killing virtually all of them. Unfortunately, Pabst had been bitten.

Afheesh (from the driver’s seat of the hay wagon): “Good you’re free! Get in HURRY! They close the gates at first gloaming!”

Seconds later the wagon was speeding back the way it came hitting the same bump again and nearly throwing Pabst were it not for Wufcor who was just able to grab onto her before she flew free of the wagon. For a short stretch just before the great thorn ring became visible, they could all hear something quite large chasing after the wagon. Whatever it was, it had halted as soon as the thorn-wall of the city came into view. The outer gates were just starting to be closed. Without stopping Afheesh raced the wagon in through as he kept shouting, “Don’t shoot, Guard! Guard! I’m a GUARD!”

Sometime later, the pair of ratlings, Afheesh and Wufcor, were dragging the limp, unconscious body of Pabst. They were nearing a deserted warehouse where they had planned to pass the night and wait for the effects of the spider venom to wear off of the duelist. Suddenly from around a corner they heard, “Well, well, well. What do we have here eh boys?”

A group of Bronzeboy gang members stepped out of an alley from around the corner confronting the ratlings. There were three well-armed humans, a single Mantck ratling (a medium sized ratling), and a Darkthorn Arborean (a purplish-gray tree-man covered in thorns).

Exhaling a mighty sigh pregnant with frustration, Afheesh dropped the paralytic duelist and pulled his paired weapons as he walked towards the gangsters. Wufcor followed pulling the dagger Afheesh had given him earlier “just in case”.

To Be Continued…

Rats of Tanglethorn Pt.6: Oh My Captain!

Come sun up, Afheesh (played by me) was feeling good still from the strange green glowing liquor from Tanglethorn - City of mothslast night. For that reason he strutted down the wide street on his way to meet his two compatriots in front of the Yellow Lotus Inn where Pabst (played by Jenn) had room. He rounded the southwest corner of Mezcor’s black-stone keep when he spotted a full regiment of guards hauling away a pair of prisoners down the wide boulevard eastward.

Afheesh was in the middle of smirking to himself, “amateu…” until he realized the two prisoners were Pabst and Wufcor (played by Isis). An experienced city captain was leading the group of 16 guards, his lieutenant was to his right holding up and inspecting a glittering medallion. Afheesh recognized the polished gold medallion as that previously worn by Phenox, an acolyte of the Brotherhood of the Green Well, who they collectively murdered and decapitated for a bounty.

The ratling quickling was just about to turn around and consider recruiting new companions. However, at the last minute turned on his heel and began stealthily to follow. His aim was the captain; he easily prowled into the crowd even under the noses of his companions and crept up behind his target. Suddenly, the captain glanced to his side and asked, “hey little ratling what business is this of yours?”

Afheesh (sputtering in surprise for a second): “Um, What’s going on here? With them.”

The Captain (with increasing levels of braggadocio): “Well, looks as if we caught ourselves a couple a’ killers. They murdered a popular apprentice of the Green Well. Robbed ‘im and cut off his head. Taking ‘em to the Green Well to see what they wanna charge ‘em with.”

The greying, scarred old captain adjusted his belt. Afheesh was at a loss but was curious how this was going to play out.

Isis (at me): “HEY! You can try to RESCUE US!”

Me: “*ahem* Evil game.”

Isis: “crap”

Jenn: “I don’t think I like games where we play evil.”

Afheesh thought a little about the situation. He gazed back at his colleagues.

Afheesh (to the Captain): “Soo, what are the benefits of being a guard anyway?”

The Captain: “Ha, ha, you wanna join the guard little ratling? Well, just follow us! After we pick up the charges and return the medallion, we’re headin’ back to the Main Gate. That scum there will face my judgment then. Heh, don’t worry I’m a fair man, I always let the guilty have their say before I execute ’em!”

Afheesh puffed out his chest and proudly marched alongside the captain and the guard as they completed their circuit.

Isis: “Awww! Come on!”

Jenn: “Really!? REALLY!?”

Jenn: *sigh*

Jenn: “I guess this is kind of my fault.”

Isis: “KIND of!”

Cris (the GM): “Well you put that thing on…they tracked it to your room *sputter* and you WEARING it when they busted in! *shrug*”

When the company reached the main city gate just southeast of the Green Well, Afheesh was sent for outfitting while the prisoners were tried in the training yard. The ratling met with one Sergeant Neek whom issued him his kit. He was given a beaten-up wood buckler, a dull bronze skullcap, a short spear fit for his size, and a dirty brown cape fit for his size bearing the thorn ring symbol in black. Pay was 100 bronze thorns (bt) at the end of each 7-day but actually 85 in coin since 5 are for Mezcor and 10 are for taxes.

Sergeant Neek: “And you have to serve at least the greater part of each day that week to get paid! Your first mission is to report to the gate and help me escort the new prisoners to the Tree of Judgment.”

Afheesh: “Wait. How do you already know they’re getting sent to the tree?”

In response, the sergeant just puffed derisively and motioned for him to hurry. In Tanglethorn, the execution of criminals often involves tying them to a tree far outside city thorn-barrier. Typically, something comes along in the Poisonwood that eats and/or kills them soon after abandonment.

About an hour later, Afheesh, in his full guardsman outfit, followed the group of guards as they transported the two prisoners along a barely visible road through the Poisonwood. The two criminals had been stripped naked and were stumbling barefooted through the spiny, spiked, and thorny autumnal waste. They were being dragged behind a strong-wagon by chains and manacles, consequently their feet bloodied and covered in pale thistle burrs and bull thorns.

The wagon was plated in thick bronze plates iron-riveted to the heavy wood frame. Razor-sharp spikes lined its bottom edges and covered its roof; the driver enclosed by chainmail netting. Afheesh kept an eagle eye on Wufcor as the company reached an area of thick dull green overgrowth.

Wufcor (suddenly shouting): “Watch out! Plant monster!”

Afheesh (jamming the butt of his spear into Wufcor’s stomach): “Shut up you pig!”

Suddenly, a large green seedpod emerged from over the bushes and a long purplish spike shot from it lodging in the neck of an unfortunate human rookie guard. Hence, he was sucked dry in almost an instant. So, Afheesh immediately launched himself at the creature slashing it to death with his paired hook-guard daggers. Another previously unseen plant monster emerged and swung a seedpod fist at the ratling but missed. A hard wooden seed shot into the ground narrowly missing Wufcor from yet another plant monster as it emerged from cover. Another creature emerged and stabbed at Pabst with its purple tongue but it missed. Another tongue from yet another creature darted at Afheesh but he easily avoided.

The guards were in full combat against a fair number of these plant monsters, three monsters and five guards were killed in the first minute of fighting. Another tongue stabbed at Afheesh as he dropped a second plant creature. As the fighting began to die down he could see that only seven guards remained and but two monsters still stood. He immediately leapt at and dropped another monster.

Four nameless guards managed to take down the last creature. Afheesh facetiously congratulated the lot of them on killing a single creature together as compared to his three by himself. They sneered at him. Another guard suddenly shouted, “The prisoners, they’re escaping!”

To Be Continued…

RPG War Mastery #7: On Medieval Fantasy Warfare

Both armies are at a standoff across the field of battle, bright banners flap in the slight breeze, the noon sun glints from the gleaming razor tips of spears and the blades of swords and axes. The dread war-engines vibrate the ground as they’re wheeled into position. Catapults, ballistae, and scorpions are readied. The shouts of the sergeants echo up and down the opposing lines and the frontlines begin advancing towards each other.

Suddenly, choruses of hideous roars tear the skies as a group of dragon-riders surge from the horizon swooping over one side and laying waste to the other. Soldiers desperately try to protect themselves with their tower shields and spears in small bristling testudoes. The earth begins to shake beneath the soldiers’ feet frightening the flanks on both sides loosening their formations. The opposing side, victims of the dragon-riders, opens its middle and a tight cluster of stone golems thunder towards the armored heart of their foe.

As the golems crush their way into the enemy’s ranks, the dragons peel off and strafe the stone monsters with fire barely slowing them down. The warriors of each army crash together in a wave of blood and iron their champions leading. A small squad from the dragon-riders’ side engages the golems with a barrage of acid grenades forged by a mercenary alchemist. Both charging sides meet and the momentum breaks like a wave of blood with the deafening clash of steel and shrieks of dying men. From this blood tide, the champions emerge finally meeting in the middle of the chaos and duel to the death for their respective side and causes.

Fireballs and lightning called down from the heavens by war-wizards at the rear ranks of both armies add to the deafening cacophony. Just then, another smaller cadre of dragons darts into the fray above to engage the enemy dragons. The new comers are less in number but with them comes an enormous blue-black dragon complete with a small crew of riders on his back armed with crossbows, lances, alchemical grenades, and other nasty droppers. The sky darkens with smoke, fire blasts, arrows, and large projectiles as the battlefield spreads from horizon to horizon.

It is total chaos, this battle will be devastating and lay waste the battlefield and most of the surrounding territory which may lay fallow for at least a century after. It’s also cool looking and really gives the Player Characters (PCs) and the Game-Master (GM) multiple opportunities to shine.

The Fantasy Battlefield is a spectacle to behold and its aftermath a tragedy to mourn. It provides the opportunity for the full exercise of strategic thinking, high drama, and innovation. As well as providing potentially spectacular set pieces for the GM. In a fantasy setting, when war occurs it is probable a scene very much like that described above will play out with only the scale varying.

That is because if one side is able to obtain a special and powerful weapon the other side, if it has a competent intelligence network, will find out about it before the fighting. Thus, they will rush to enact countermeasures and try to get their hands on either the same type of weapon or anything else of a similar power level. Of course, this will cause an arms race if the other side is equal in espionage. In addition, if actual world history is any evidence when a weapon or strategic advantage becomes available, it will be used even if just once. In the very least, all the contemporary powers will seek it out vigorously.

There are many reasons to implement large battles and carry out war in a fantasy roleplaying game despite the complications to the Game-Master and the possibility of loss on the Player-Characters’ side of things.

War in game terms is a storyline drawn from a series of confrontations including from the political and not just the combat side involving at least two opposing powers. Within this blob of mass confrontations and tangle of story lines is Mass Combat. Mass Combat is more a technical term to describe mechanics that come into play during instances of combat between at least two large masses of characters. During Mass Combat military units (groups of individuals, typically faceless mook type NPCs) engage in combat where the PCs act as champions or sometimes as complete units unto themselves.

Note that Mass Combat mechanics may not be included in some game systems and those that do will vary greatly in how they function. Therefore, any direct or specific mechanical references will be avoided and more general terms and ideas will be favored in this article.

With the basic mechanical ideas of Mass Combat and Combat Units GMs can begin to construct the spectacle of fantasy warfare. As stated before a battlefield, especially if the battle is a big one, is a remarkable sight when gleaming armies face off not to mention when the fantasy elements come into play adding even more spectacle to the fray. These elements are the true fireworks that really make the set piece unique often involving any one of the Big Four by themselves or in combination.

The Big Four

The Big Four refers to the four major weapons on the field of fantasy warfare: dragons/dragon-riders, golems/constructs, wizards/magic-users, and the undead. Dragons/Dragon-Riders are the super weapon on the field whether they themselves are conscripts, generals, or mounts with a rider or crew. They are a game changer on the field and prompt all sorts of countermeasures and strategies. Golems/Constructs are another super-weapon but one that is most useful against enemy ranks and walls. They are very difficult to obtain and may actually be harder than dragons to get. Golems are more equipment or war-machine than soldier and used thus.

On the other hand, Spell-casters on the field can implement any number of weird and highly powerful strategies using a wide array of magical abilities. These are the easiest of the four to obtain typically serving a mercenary or allied role though they may have their own reasons for joining an army on the march. Spell slinging against the opposite side and summoning forth new and terrible foes for the enemy is their primary battlefield strategy. They can also double as espionage and information gathering agents through their magical abilities. Secondary roles depend on the spell caster’s repertoire such as any healing abilities allowing the mage to run battlefield triage.

The last of the big four are the undead. These often being a part of certain forces popularly considered evil or the full ranks of certain villain types like dark lords, liches, and powerful necromancers. Undead forces typically consist of reanimated corpses or skeletons that can function on the battlefield as warriors and with the ability to take at least simple commands. However, they are often of a weaker type of undead and thus are somewhat weaker than the average soldier is.

The primary strategy of such units is always to overwhelm with numbers and rely on the relentlessness of the undead as they never fatigue or tire. The average leader of one of these units is usually a stronger type of undead though often not of an exceptional level. However, Priests or Paladins (holy warriors) that have certain powers that directly counter undead creatures are a common element that opposes these types of units. They are usually also a part of worlds where these types of creatures run common as a form of universal balance.

Logistics for an undead force are somewhat simplified as they do not get fatigued, they will not starve or die of thirst, and inclement weather has to be severe in order to stall or endanger them. However, in a snowstorm they can freeze solid if they have flesh. Under a hot sun or in dank humid weather, their flesh can rot from their bones. These concerns can make certain types of undead such as zombies less of a threat under specific weather conditions.

Local resistance may be easily directed against a force of undead moving through specific areas. This includes certain religious forces that may have no real interest in the ongoing struggle other than to vanquish the walking blasphemy of the undead. Disease is also a concern when dealing with a diverse army that consists of living and dead forces, as is the predation of the dead upon the living. In addition, those unfortunate enough to be in the way of that force’s path whether allied or not might suffer or die without necessarily being a direct target.

The Big Four are by no means the only exceptional things on the fantasy battlefield.  There are also the humanoid powerhouses, which seem on the surface to be more appropriate as powerful soldiery or heavy infantry. This would include such creatures as orcs, trolls, ogres, giants, among others. These may be easier to recruit and maybe to maintain than the Big Four but they would primarily be soldiers and may have certain restrictions imposed on them depending on the setting. Aside from the usual Dark Lord, they may be completely unavailable due to the darkness of their monstrous hearts and even blacker souls (again depending on the setting).

These are not included in the Big Four as they are definitely a remarkable sight but they function much as standard soldiery with perhaps ballistic capability like a hybrid field piece (i.e. giants). Along with the powerhouse-humanoids on the fields of fantasy combat are the unconventional technology and strategies inspired by actual history and that produced by alchemy.

Alchemical Fire

Alchemy is the formulation and creation of certain meta-magical substances through a means that is a mix between modern chemistry and ancient mysticism, a lesser form of magic. The products that alchemy can produce aside from its historical focus on converting lead to gold can be useful on the battlefield though they would be expensive and in short supply. Alchemical substances such as napalm, phosphorous, fumes (gases), acids, naphtha, and black powder are especially of note. If an army is using even one of these as ammunition, they would require the alchemist(s) to tag along and replace spent ammo and to consult on countermeasures against enemy alchemical warfare. Note that alchemical ammunition could be jars, pots, or glass bulbs filled with chemicals launched from catapults even small clay-vessel grenades.

Alchemy only requires an alchemist and raw materials to produce the items and substances required by the commander. The alchemists themselves may or may not be mages depending on the system although typically mages will also have the ability to create these substances as well. These alchemists cannot only create gases, acids, napalm, and alchemical grenades but may also produce chemicals and drugs that could conceivably create alchemical super-soldiers by enhancing the common soldiery. However, this sort of strategy always comes with inherent risk and severe costs.

These costs inherent to alchemically enhanced soldiers being such things as drastically shortened lives, the risk of berserk units going on uncontrollable rampages, and even weirder effects such as soldiers just spontaneously combusting. Magical mutation and random transformations are also a possible side effect. Alchemists may also produce drugs that have very similar effects to those found in the real world and whose side effects only become noticeable in the long term sometimes long after the combat is over (for example: the German Military in WWII). This brings us to black powder.

Black powder in a medieval context would most likely be in the forms of low yield bombs or grenades. Explosives would be the domain of sappers and those seeking to undermine enemy fortifications. More advanced approaches to gunpowder would be the use of primitive match-lit guns (probably hand-cannons and fire-lances) and cannons but these would be impossible to aim and run the risk of explosion. Not to mention they would be very expensive even if there were a skilled enough engineer/armorer that could forge an effective and safe artillery piece. However, monster-sized cannonry could be a shocking set piece for an epic siege; a historical example being the Dardanelles Gun.

After massive bombards, rockets seem to be the next phase in technical superiority but again in a medieval setting if they exist then they will be expensive to produce and impossible to aim once fired. The main task would be to find the metalworker skilled enough to make the tube. These would be a fine counter to enemy dragons but the risk of explosion at ignition might balance that advantage to a certain extent. The forms of these rockets would range from fire arrows to the top technical achievement of iron-cased rockets. Given the ability to carry an alchemical payload, they could be more effective than those found in actual ancient history.

Heavy reliance on alchemical munitions and/or potions adds an alchemist and his entourage plus mobile equipment and laboratory to the logistics. Their wagon and any additional supply vehicles would become targets and the expense to maintain the alchemist’s mobile lab and supplies would be significant. However, do not discount the inventiveness of ancient unconventional warfare. Poisoned arrows, scorpions & poisonous snakes in large clay vessels or diseased corpses launched by catapult, warbeasts like elephants, and psychological attacks (severed heads of prisoners catapulted over city walls) increase battlefield options and are inspired by history. Just note that these tactics are a supplement to conventional warfare and tactics, not replacements.

Steam Punkery & Clockwork

With alchemists featuring on the field of fantasy warfare, clockwork and steam power warrant some discussion. Clockwork technology requires a power source (springs are possible for smaller clockwork), which could be magical but would also require advanced math for the engineering, tools, and skills to construct the parts. Similarly, steam technology would require a heat source and the storage capacity of the water required and the steam as well as well as the plumbing and knowledge of the pressures involved. Again, expensive, accidental explosions are possible, and an advanced knowledge of engineering is required for large enough engines, jets, etc. to be viable engines of war.

These limits do make it a rarity in medieval settings and more fit for Victorian era or even renaissance set campaigns but this type of technology can be possible with magic-users just not on an industrial level. The power source is probably magic or draconic in nature so still magic or at least relying on a magical power source to produce steam or electricity in order to make the machinery parts function. Making steam and larger clockwork weapons and vehicles the purview of hybrid spell casters, those that somehow have a solid knowledge of certain sciences like physics, math, and engineering as well as arcane ability. This fact alone probably makes them a rarity in any world where science and magic do not exist together in equal portion.

Steam-tech and clockwork make lower tech versions of modern weapons and vehicles possible such as tanks, cannons, and rockets – maybe even robot-like constructs but below the level of the Golem Army; steam powered war chariots, steam cannons, steam jets or even certain aircraft such as blimps or hot air balloons. All even in limited or singular quantity would be invaluable to a battlefield commander. Note that hot air balloons may be more in reach than the other examples.

This type of magical technology is not only out of place in a medieval battlefield but would be a massive surge forward in technology even if the source may be magical/alchemical. The apparatus and machinery operating on the steam from the source requires expert engineering and a high level of metalworking and forging. Essentially, the friendly neighborhood blacksmith and even armorer will not have the skill, knowledge, nor tools available to craft the highly engineered parts required not to mention the skills to design them. Powers acquiring such war-tech will make those with the skills and ability to create such things of extremely high value both as targets and as assets even if they are unwilling.

Once this type of technology rolls out onto the battlefield the culture itself would go into violent convulsions and types of confrontations not possible before may become commonplace such as rebellions among the peasantry and merchant classes, religious organizations that may hold vast wealth obtaining such technology, nobility being supplanted by technocracy, etc. What is sure is that if the technology is not “lost” in some fashion it will propagate and irreversibly alter your world in a few decades.

The other drawback is that a lone engineer, wizard, or alchemist probably will not have the skills, power, and resources to create more than a single clockwork or steam-powered type weapon which even though very valuable as a secret weapon or weapon of terror is very little use as a true weapon of war. This would also make them extremely expensive as well as requiring the development of certain resources to occur before they are even a possibility.

Why War?

The reasons to include war in your worlds and campaigns is manifold, the few mentioned previously in other parts of this series are the main benefits that apply to the GM and the PCs. There are diegetic reasons however; these are the reasons war might spring up organically due to conditions and elements in the fantasy world itself. The first is Good vs. Evil (GvE) of course true battles between to the two forces means that the campaign world exists in a Manichean universe. However, this GvE struggle does not have to be actual just the participants have to believe that they are the good guys and their opponents the bad.

Another prime motive for war is piratical. War solely for the purpose of the plunder and glory it will yield regardless of the price. Unscrupulous warriors, commanders, and politicians may want to participate just for the shear thrill and fun. This reason for war is reliant mostly on the greed of the participants but includes other more emotional motives not laser focused on one goal but harnessed in order to fuel the war effort.

War for profit and land is similar to the piratical reasons though with intentions to settle, occupy, or otherwise take ownership of them against the indigenous peoples’ will transforms piratical aims into Conquest. Another goal in this vein may be to secure a stream of revenue or eliminate a penalty (i.e. tax/tariff) on your goods exported to the targeted lands this being known as Imperialism. These last two, Conquest and Imperialism, can get a little dicey when roleplaying through them especially when sorting through the justifications for such but the role-play drama potential is also very high.

In addition, in medieval settings war for the securing of power and/or eliminating the competition may erupt frequently. Similarly, civil wars or wars of ascension may occur in large scale within or between certain countries. Smaller wars could breakout between nobility as well for any of the previously stated reasons including wars of pure ego and even ritualistic war. Religiously motivated war is also a factor especially where there is an entrenched religious power.

Religion can add an ugly side to any war regardless of the reasons and motivations behind it but certain religious powers may also ignite wars for purely religious reasons. These may be to convert nonbelievers or eliminate them or to combat a rival religious power. This is especially true when it comes to Crusades. All of these, if not initially, tend to feature or evolve to include strong profit motives very similar to piratical warfare but this cause can rapidly evolve into something even more insidious when philosophy becomes ideology in order to justify it.

War Master

Aside from the opportunity for strategy and high drama, there are other values to the GM of Fantasy Warfare in their campaigns. Set piece battles can give the events a sense of increasing scale and put the PCs through a trial by fire. They can also allow the PCs to be innovative and allow them to think strategically.

To bring in a sense of scale a GM should begin with standard medieval style battles and gradually move towards the high fantasy by gradually adding the fantasy elements as they increase in scope. This elevates a standard battle scene making each new fight a bigger spectacle especially if there have been previous battle scenes, it gives the GM a place to go that still elevates the action. It also grounds the action before it starts to become fantastical. To do this a GM needs to start gritty and small making the ruin of the post-battle field evident early on. Then escalate with increasing numbers and ever more present and inventive war engines and have known and beloved NPCs die in the fighting to heighten drama and the sense of risk.

Bring in the surprise elements of high fantasy (the Big Four) as the twist in the bigger battles and build the suspense of what will appear on the field for the next. By this time, the risk to valued NPCs should be evident, the stakes should be high to match the massive spectacle, and the Players by now should be able to fill in the devastation built on the vivid pictures of the comparatively smaller tragedies.

The larger battles including the final one can as set pieces widen the scope of the game world. They can deepen the souls of its characters through trial by fire with those burnt suffering the deepest test of their characters. This intensity should come in the later/last battles. However, all battles should inspire some sort of innovation on the part of the PCs. They could use their skills and character knowledge/powers to invent new modes of war or defense. The PCs should at least try to strategize and think about their resources. They may need to seek out new resources or gather their existent monies to finance invention maybe built on plans that they have cultivated.

What about the Adventurers?

Speaking of Players and their characters, why wouldn’t a warring faction have need of them? Are not reputed adventurers themselves a sort of weapon, though often unpredictable, on the battlefield that can swing the fortunes of war on a whim? PCs should be assumed to be heading an army or allied much like individual magic-users. They may be a part of the army because they have similar interests or other secret motives. A small unit of famous adventurers is probably more valuable as a scouting unit, recruiters, espionage unit, and/or flank guards for important command units in the rear or middle ranks.

Adventurers that are not valued or are being mishandled can find themselves in the front ranks as skirmishers. Nevertheless, if the PCs are not in any command positions then wide scale battle simply turns into a nerve-racking bore with a mindless hackfest to follow. Granted the group can maneuver on the field to hit what they see as relevant targets in the course of the battle possibly bringing some attention to themselves. This proving themselves on the field may warrant a promotion to better positions later.

Conclusion

When implementing fantasy warfare in your games keep in mind the implications of fantastical munitions, weapons, warbeasts, and the arms race it can spark. Do not forget historical ancient unconventional warfare either. Also, learn the major strategies and logistics involved in the Big Four or any special units that will be involved and give the PCs plenty of opportunity to be affected by and to affect the outcome including when they are on the losing side. Though the in-game political climate and economic reasons may contribute to the cause of war, the primary motivations for powers to engage in it are often limited to fighting “evil”, for plunder, or conquest/imperialism.

The fantasy tropes of the battlefield (the Big Four) have their strengths and weaknesses though their advantages may outweigh their burdens vastly. It seems the best countermeasure against an enemy with even one of these heavy hitters at their disposal is to get one of your own. Essentially if one side has a good enough intelligence network or if they suffer a single defeat at the feet of one to these super-weapons then they will desperately seek to not only sabotage and undermine their enemy’s efforts but begin their own to match force for force. This can be interesting in that it will set off a magic medieval arms race; a very interesting prospect indeed.

The GM can use war to enhance their fantasy campaign by using it in escalating portions, induce player innovation, and as a set piece in the campaign to put exclamation marks at the desired points. According to my brief and shallow research on the subject, just about half of campaigns incorporate Mass Combat and warfare at least some of the time. Maybe it is time for more GMs and their groups to explore the gaming potential of fantasy warfare.

 

Rats of Tanglethorn Pt.5: The Ruthless Trio

Afheesh (played by me) yanked his bloodied weapon from the throat of the Bronze Boy at his feet. The ruthless trio had just made quick work of a small group of Bronze Boy gang members. Consequently they had looted some 40 bronze thorns (bt’s), 4 dirks, and 4 saps. Pabst (played by Jenn) collected their bronze badges, their gang colors. Wufcor (played by Isis) suggested they all take the badges to the Troll Boys’ hangout, the Bloody Tankard, to see if they could score some free drinks.

It was not long after the three found themselves before a rundown saloon front. It was of pale cracked wood built onto the ground level of one of the old orange stone buildings. A hot yellow light poured through the entryway as did a pungent stream of smoke. Hanging from the placard hitch was a broken tankard, brown stained or rusted they could not tell which. There was a large group of Troll Boys out front guarding the door. A few appeared to have troll blood oozing in their veins but most were human. Pabst was the first to approach.

Pabst (tossing the Bronze Boy badges to the dirt): “How many drinks are these worth?”

The Ugliest Troll Boy (spits on the badges): “Maybe a half jack! We do our own fightin’, we don’t pay others to fight fer us!”

Pabst (undeterred): “Well then, do you Troll Boys have any GOOD fighters among you?”

Isis: “Sis…”

The Ugliest Troll Boy laughed at her and poked his head into the bar from over the saloon doors. Consequently he shouted a name none of the trio could make out, it could have been in trollish for all they knew. However, to their relief a human stepped to the door. He walked slowly out to the creaking plank porch with an air of supreme arrogance about him. He had a scale-mail vest and gleaming bronze bracers on his forearms. Circling Pabst for a few seconds and smirking said, “You’re too wounded to fight me tonight. Come back when you’ve healed and meet your death at the edge of my blade”. With that he turned heel and walked nonchalantly back inside.

Jenn (checking her character sheet): “Crap! I am still wounded, BAD!”

The trio parted ways shortly thereafter. Pabst and Wufcor headed off to find a White Star Guild house of healing and then back to the Yellow Lotus Inn to rest. Afheesh headed to the livery for food and some simple companionship for the night.

Several hours and 1,500 bt’s later at dawn Afheesh arrived refreshed and impatient in front of the Bloody Tankard. The place was shuttered until noon. The other two arrived sometime after with Pabst appearing fully healed. When they had seen the place was shut tight for another few hours they decided to go to the nearest armorer. There Pabst purchased a high quality bronze medium shield for 1,400 bt’s.

On the way back to the Bloody Tankard the ruthless trio was assailed from an alley by three giant earwigs. They made quick work of the monsters with Afheesh slaughtering two of them and Wufcor and Pabst slaying the last.

It was not long after the three were again in front of the Troll Boys’ clubhouse. The fighter that Pabst had challenged the previous evening was sitting leisurely on a chair leaned against the doorframe, his booted feet up on a stool. At his side was a rapier-like weapon with a razor-sharp polished blade, a full brass knuckle-guard, and a pommel spike. He was a professional swordsman, a Quick Blade.

The Quick Blade (taking his pipe from his lips): “So, what is it that we are dueling for?”

The trio proposed that the prize be a shot from the green bottle at the Green Bottle Tavern. The Quick Blade agreed and then terms of the fighter were worked out, drawing first blood would make the winner. That last stipulation was Pabst’s idea by the way.

As the gathering crowd of Troll Boys and curious passerby marked out the ring, Afheesh slipped into the Bloody Tankard unseen. He found two locked doors of interest in the empty bar when he heard the crowd lament then the Quick Blade and the Troll Boys laughing in victory. He darted back outside.

The Quick Blade had drawn first blood on the very first strike of the fight.

Jenn: “Awww! But I’m a GREAT duelist!”

Cris (the GM): “Well, his back is turned to you and the Troll Boys are congratulating him.”

Jenn: “Umm…”

Isis: “Sis! We might be over our heads here!”

Cris: “So, do you do it or not?”

Jenn: *sigh* “No, I put my sword away.”

Later, that evening the trio, the Quick Blade and five Troll Boys sat at the bar in the Green Bottle. Afheesh had already put down the money for the shot from the titular green bottle. The Quick Blade held up the small glass with green swirling liquor in it.

The Quick Blade: “Whosoever would duel over this shot may have it as their prize!”

Hence, a Troll Boy stepped forward. Afheesh sighed in disgust and stepped forward drawing his paired weapons.

Afheesh (looking back at his companions and shrugging): “I paid for it, it’s mine.”

Suddenly, the troll-blood lunged and struck with his dirk missing the agile ratling. As a result Afheesh jabbed with both blades striking deep, wounding the troll-blood badly. In desperation, the Troll Boy slashed narrowly missing his target (by 1 pt.). So Afheesh retorted killing the Troll Boy instantly.

The Quick Blade (sliding the shot glass over to the ratling): “I guess this is yours.”

Without thinking, the ratling slung it down and when it hit the bottom, he began to feel dizzy. However, he did fight off the dizziness and as a slight drowsiness faded, he felt strangely invigorated. Meanwhile, the Troll Boys grumbled as the swordsman led them out of the tavern. Finally, Wufcor approached Afheesh and gave him a small sack of coins.

Wufcor: “I made a little side bet. Here’s your share.”

The purse contained 150 bt’s so feeling very refreshed by the strange green booze, Afheesh decided to take his leave and go back to his favorite place, the livery. A jaunt in his step he whistled as left the place.

To Be Continued…

 

Tabletop Meditations #20: Organized Flow Theory

There are several theories on how RPG’s function and what that may mean. The intention behind my RPG rpg theoryludology and having a personal critical theory is practicality. It is handy for writing and during play, and as a framework in the designing of games. This is how I understand roleplaying games as a whole and this helps me not only to run games but also in writing them. This theory seems correct based on personal practice, experience, and observation. In addition, the basis of this hypothesis is the cursory analysis of actual play at the table during contiguous collections of sessions.

At the core of all RPG sessions is a hierarchy, though more of a stack of information, starting with the most basic component called a Play Unit from which the other higher ordered components arise from accumulation. However, these elements are artificial cross-sectional slices cut from the whole as a means to simplify the study and illustration of it. The entirety of this hierarchy flows and melts together during play. This flow is evident especially when games stall or fizzle out. It is this flow of information that has been interrupted when that happens.

It is this flow of information and the processing and acting upon it thus contributing to it is what not only keeps players immersed in the game but also is the game itself. This two-way flux of information is what is required to deposit the details that create the in-game world in which the Players’ personal blobs of info exist as characters.

One of the easiest ways to explain RPGs is comparing its structures to similar structures in fiction. This aided by the fact that the borrowing of elements between RPGs and fiction is simply uncontroversial. Roleplaying games especially those modeled after genre fiction can be seen as the gamification of fiction. Collective story telling is present in the element of information exchange that lies at the core of all RPGs. Rules structure these elements and introduce gamification into the whole.

Rules set limits; essentially the game mechanics set the diegetic frame and thus may affect multiple aspects of the experience at a very basic level. It is within this perimeter of the rules that the game world both exists and reacts to Player Character (PC) actions. It is also within this framework that the Game-Master (GM) must function in both writing and refereeing.

This flow underlying all RPGs requires the use of more precise but still flexible and understandable terminology. These terms being Diegetic or In-Game and Metagaming or out-of-game which reveals a flow of information between reality and the imaginary world of the game. This flow is filtered and limited by the mechanics of the game where the story-telling elements operate on the structure of a game within the arena of the game-world.

Diegetic (in game) occurs within the context of the game world. Commonly used in terms of cinema, this refers to what exists within the context of the film apart from reality. Its common definition is a form of storytelling/fiction whose narrative presents from an interior point-of-view.

Metagaming/OOG (out-of-game) is comparative to the plot-hole in fiction or even the breaking of the fourth wall. This also comprises of the rule set used in play as well as any structure, elements, or decisions provided by the GM that exceed the limits of the rules. Essentially anything Meta in this context is an element that comes from outside of the diegetic elements of the game, influence from outside of the game universe.

My RPG Session Structure Theory

As tabletop RPG play is built upon the accumulation of information, the exchange and back-and-forth flow of said information is key to how RPGs function. The exchange of information is essential to all RPGs. This includes World Building, Character Actions, and Processing actions and choice through the chosen ruleset. All tabletop RPG game systems require a high level of information exchange. This exchange is dynamic where improvisation occurs naturally within the flow introducing and sometimes spontaneously producing new information or otherwise transforming existing info.

The game begins when the Game-Master (GM) presents some information to the players and allows them to act upon that info from whence the flow of information springs. These exchanges can be the actions and responses of the PCs, Player questions, and/or the responses and text presented by the GM. Each bit of that flow of information, each Play-Unit, is essential in that an accumulation of exchanges is what builds the fantasy world and what institutes player engagement. The players must find some bit of information in these exchanges to latch onto, that is their attention or interest must be piqued by something either contained within or inferred by the Play-Unit thereby engaging them. This is what keeps them participating in the exchange and thus not only going with the flow but producing it.

Therefore, the flow of information is how roleplaying games work but to understand this fully requires us to analyze the exchanged information by looking at it in strictly defined pieces arranged into a hierarchy based on the self-contained complexity.

Play Unit

A Play Unit is the smallest component of RPGs, which is an exchange of information between the GM and a Player or group of Players. Note that Play Units may occur out of sequence as real-world table chatter and meta-gaming discussions counts as Play Units as well possibly obscuring a direct contiguous flow of information. The closest analogy in fiction to a Play Unit is a Story-Beat.

A Story-Beat (from Story by Robert McKee, p.37) is an emotive change in a character or exchange between characters (as in action/reaction) replaced in RPG Narratology with the social exchange between the participants these being the Game-Master (GM) and the Players. Characters that exist within the game are reliant on at least two sources or groups of authors. These are the Player Characters (PCs) controlled by the players and the Non-Player Characters (NPCs) run by the GM. It is between these entities where the story-beats lie. RPG story-beats are smeared across realities. That is, they are present inside of the game world (diegetic) and without among the participants (Meta) in the real world.

In addition, there is not always an emotive change marked in specific characters determined by a single author. These emotional changes in tabletop RPGs is dependent on the exchange of information on what the characters are feeling and doing and how the players themselves are reacting to what is going on within the game (both diegetic and metagaming). Since the emotional change so to speak is distributed over multiple people and existent partially in a shared fiction, it is the exchange of information between these participants and frames of experience (a la Frame Analysis) that is of importance here with each single exchange between participants being a Play Unit.

The way in which the participants understand and give meaning to their experiences is to frame this experience in a finite province of meaning akin to a theater stage contained within the imagination. [Fine, Gary Alan. 2002. Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds. University of Chicago Press. p.181] Play Units not only comprises the flow of information between participants but also accrue to create the stage upon the existent framework of the rules. This stage is the diegetic part of the game and it is linked to the real world via the social interaction of the participants, which exists in the meta-game often blurring the distinction at some junctions but without affecting the participants’ perception of what is real and imaginary.

A Play Unit is produced when there is a single exchange of information between participants that effects or has consequences within the game world. Interaction with only the rules or raw mechanics of the game system does not. The rules are a filter for the raw information working on that information packaging it into a form communicated to the GM and then which the GM works on within the context of those same set of rules and then replies with a similarly packaged bit of information. Thus, the rules or mechanics of a game are a third necessary part of this vital exchange. The rules act as a filter and/or algorithm acting to alter info. This transformation of raw information gives rise to system specific lingo and in-game quirks as side effects unique to a specific rule system.

  • Three Vital Parts of a Play Unit are the GM, Players, and Rules/Mechanics

Not all exchanges in a game session are important and are of different levels of importance and immediacy however. Most important exchanges will contain a nugget of info that the GM can play on later, apply directly to the current action in-game, and those that may hint or directly spell-out character traits and especially player interest and reaction. Therefore, it takes multiple limited exchanges transformed by the game mechanics to conglomerate together to create a larger more cohesive unit. These key exchanges are what construct the game world in the minds of all the participants. These key exchanges involve multiple Play Units that build a single fictive scene known as an Episode.

Episode

An Episode is an incomplete part of an adventure where a group of things happen (a large accumulation of Play Units) which seem to be leading to the next episode or a conclusion. Essentially a single incident or short series of incidents occur in some relation to each other. In the world of fiction writing, these are roughly analogous to scenes.

In fiction, a Scene (from Three Genres by Stephen Minot, pg.376) is a unit of action within a story marked by a change of time or place (change of scene) which contains an event that moves the story forward. Note that the entrance of other characters can also demarcate scenes. The same is true of tabletop RPGs save that the demarcation of a scene is more reliant on the change of challenge to the Players such as the presentation of a question, puzzle, or problem by the GM without the scene changing in time or place. Characters may also die in between these exchanges as well as certain characters simply vanishing or becoming suddenly scarce altering the scene, meaning scenes are less structured in RPGs than fiction. Thusly, within the context of RPG Narratology it is probably more befitting to call these units Episodes instead of scenes.

An episode in the context of TRPG narratology is a related grouping of Play Units where the setting/background does not have to be fixed. An example of this is a conversation between two PCs while walking through a magic portal beginning before they walked through and continuing through and on the other side, the backdrop changes radically but the episode is composed of the exchanges between the PCs.

This somewhat transient notion in TRPGs can be difficult when trying to translate between traditional narrative and TRPG narrative especially in such instances as trying to blog a personal (or a character’s) tabletop experiences. Those that blog their experiences around the table may try to demarcate portions of the campaign by Session instead of by traditional narrative units or even those of TRPGs being discussed here. A Session being a limited time spent actually playing the game with others and often a series of Sessions will compose an adventure and/or campaign.

When writing or setting up for episodes a GM need only rely on the key exchanges that end on or lead to a desirable result for them. Basically, the GM will want the PCs to end up after this series of exchanges in a place or situation that either leads directly to another planned episode or that which they believe that they can work with, giving them fodder for more episodes further down the line.

Keeping Play Units and Episodes in mind a GM can structure their thoughts and ideas while running the game and writing for their campaign. A game-master can learn to keep tidbits of info in mind and group them together later when it comes time to act on them in-game helping to form the plot threads that run through campaigns which the GM’s writing and narration helps to bind together into adventures.

Multiple related Episodes will accumulate to build an Adventure, which may or may not be consecutive or broken up amongst episodes that take the Campaign in different directions or digressions that will matter later connecting to other non-contiguous episodes or future episodes. In fiction, this is Plot/plot lines. Plot (McKee, pg.43) is a sequence of events divided into Scenes with each single scene often presenting a single event all driving to a conclusion. For the purposes of this essay there is no distinction between Plots and Subplots.

A minimum of three scenes construct the traditional plot in fiction with a beginning, middle, and end type of striation within the text. Likewise, in a TRPG, plot consists of three vital exchanges or episodes, which are Presentation, Complication, and Twist. The building blocks of a TRPG plot are a series of Episodes, which are bundles of Play Units guided by the GM and a ruleset with a path blazed by the Players. TRPG plots are the result of the informational interaction of these three entities.

In addition, as episodic structure is spread across real-life and the imaginary stage of the game world, Plots in this context are very mercurial and apt to change direction and nature suddenly and unpredictably. For this reason, it is most useful to refer to TRPG Plot as an Adventure. An Adventure is a single plotline that can be followed through a campaign referring only to the game and meta-game elements necessary to communicate said plot.

Scenario

Another very similar but slightly different informational structure to Episodes within RPGs are Scenarios. A Scenario is virtually identical to an Episode but has a definite self-contained beginning, middle, and ending structure. An example being a short combat or random monster encounter, this does not mean the enemy is dead at the end but the battle definitively ends. Other scenarios or episodes can lead into these and a scenario can either terminate a story thread or lead to the next episode/scenario. In other words, a Scenario is a self-contained Episode but is not equivalent to a One-Shot Adventure.

Adventure

An Adventure is an extended section of a campaign, which has a beginning, middle, and an ending. Adventure would relate to a story arc or group of chapters in fiction writing. Standalone adventures or One-Shots would be similar to a short story in this context. An adventure module is essentially gamified fiction and so a completed adventure always has a recognizable beginning and a definitive ending. This ending may or may not lead into another adventure however.

The beginning and ending are somewhat inflexible giving the GM a definite starting point and a definite ending point but the body of the adventure is and should be very flexible. The middle may be adjusted as the PCs play through it allowing them freedom of movement and exploration while the GM invisibly guides them to the end. This structure of linked episodes and/or scenarios allows the GM to improvise more effectively in response to the indigence of the PCs and in response to the creativity of Player decisions.

The Beginning of an adventure starts with a vital episode called a Presentation. Presentation refers to an exchange initiated by the GM that presents something to be solved or acted upon by the Players in such a way as to lead them into another scene or episode. Although whether or not the players follow this to the next episodic component of the current adventure is unpredictable and may require the GM to put a hold on the current adventure to go on a player-fueled tangent. The beginning of an adventure can be composed of a single episode or scenario whereas the body can conceivably be made of a single episode it is more likely (and fun) to be a chain of episodes leading to a climax or certain ending conditions.

The middle or main body of the adventure will be a series of linked scenarios and/or episodes. These Episodes and/or Scenarios involving locations and incidents which are all connected in some way, preferably each leading into another rather than just a series of events happening one after the other. It is in this part of the adventure a vital episode called the Complication should occur. This plot component throws in an unexpected obstacle at the Players which they must overcome to proceed to the end.

The ending is a definitive endpoint where there is a requirement that when fulfilled the PCs have completed the adventure bringing it to its end. Of course, just as in fiction the GM may continue as an epilogue to the adventure in order to finish off any stray plot lines or character subplots otherwise eliminating loose ends that do not lead to another adventure. The end is also where an episode called the Twist can occur. This is an unexpected turn in events that complicates the situation for the Players and serves as the final obstacle or a final surprise. Adventures propel the characters and thus their players through this shared world, which they not only can alter through the actions of their characters but also help to construct episodically. These shared adventures can themselves link together into a campaign.

Campaign

The Campaign is the largest component of a tabletop RPG composed of a series of related Adventures. An RPG campaign is analogous to the novel in fiction with story at the heart of both forms.

This brings us to the overarching super-structure underlying both fiction and TRPGs. In fiction, this structure, composed from the bottom up of Story-Beats, Scenes, and Plot, is Story. A Story is the text resulting from the totality of the aforementioned structures with the addition of characters, details, and the background (that may or may not involve world building) in which the events of the story take place. The fictive element most analogous to a Campaign is Story.

Briefly, story in terms of this essay is a piece of fiction structured to elicit a certain reaction or reactions in the reader. Stories are structured by careful choice of material and the arrangement of constituent parts into a narrative. [Beacon Lights of Literature 1, pg.5 – Poe’s Theory of Short Story] The most basic elements of story that also correspond to RPGs are character, plot, and setting. Of course, these underlying structures that authors of fiction use to construct their stories vary so much from those of TRPGs at this point it is probably more efficient to call Story in terms of tabletop RPGs a Campaign.

A Campaign is the totality of all of the game and meta-game exchanges, participant characters (both PCs and NPCs), any material that the GM used regardless of original source or authorship, and the diegetic game world where the campaign has taken place. It is from this accumulation of detail and narration from which the participants can extract their personal narratives from the point of view as either their character(s), as a player, or a combination of the two. It is also in this higher tier structure where the world-building occurs as world-building is done through the accumulation of information gleaned from the gaming material and from the information drawn or resulting from certain exchanges and demonstrated in certain episodes. These details are often noted down by the GM so that the PCs may revel in or return to these certain facts about their imagined communal world.

A Campaign is a long-term ongoing RPG game that has at least one arc that takes it from the beginning to the end. Note that a campaign will often have several arcs and plot threads. Each game session builds on the next not just in terms of character experience but also in the accumulation and generation of story threads where at least some of which helps to lead to the conclusion of the campaign.

This long-form allows the GM to gradually build the in-game world as well as allowing the players to evolve their characters and make a mark on the game world possibly even influencing its course as well as the course of the campaign itself. Thus the game world is always seemingly in flux built around and accumulating certain facts about itself which serve to anchor believably (and replayability) in the diegetic frame. In RPG terms, Story is not the product of any single author but a group with a certain share of that group with their hands and feet within the fictional world of that story.

The Structure of an RPG in Ascending Order is:

Play Unit – A bidirectional exchange of information between participants analogous to the Story-Beats in fiction.

Episode/Scenario – A collection of play-units that paints a situation that leads somewhere analogous to a fictive Scene.

Adventure – A linked collection of episodes and/or scenarios with a definitive beginning, middle, ending structure analogous to Plot or a Short Story or Book Chapter.

Campaign – A collection of shared adventures analogous to a fictive Story or Novel.

World-building occurs in tabletop RPGs by the sedimentation of details and information born of the bidirectional flow of Play Units structured and augmented by the rule set. That building the more complex structures that constitute roleplaying games and their worlds as the game is played. This organized flow underlies everything about tabletop role-playing games.

Summation

This theory of the organized flow of information is meant to be not only a ludology device but also a practical tool for those involved in the writing, creation, and playing of roleplaying games. In my experience and in my research including the reading of various other RPG theories this one rings the most personally true and has been of practical use in my own writing for RPGs.

Related Blogs and Articles

All of these cited works are authored by me unless otherwise noted. Each holds bits and pieces of the Organized Flow Theory as well as some narrow applications. The last is a purely mechanical dissection but I think illustrates a general knowledge on how the mechanics side operates.

Handling Game Flow in RPGs (Hubpages)

Building Tabletop Myths (Hubpages)

Tabletop Meditations #7: RPG Narrative

Tabletop Meditations #9: Campaign Structure

The Finer Points of the Frankengame (Gnomestew)

 

 

Rats of Tanglethorn Pt.2: The Green Well

Afheesh the ratling quickling (played by me), Pabst the human duelist (played by Jenn), and Wufcor the ratling Brotherhood of the Green Wellcanny-jack (played by Isis) had been escorted by a contingent of city guard to an office near the White Rose Perfumery. The office was small, crowded with stacks of yellowed parchment sheets. Also scattered everywhere were small wooden ink stamps bearing various official seals from past regimes.

Meanwhile sitting at the desk, which the crew found themselves facing, was a large Westlander in full plate armor. The seal of the city guard, the ring of thorns, emblazoned on his breast. Within it was a black oak leaf under a yellow crescent moon. His plumed helm with spiked facemask sat on the well-worn desktop and his heavy bearded axe leaned against the wall behind him.

The guard that had pushed them into the office had introduced the man at the desk as Captain Fenom. The street crew had to wait while he packed his long stem bone pipe with a fresh load and lit it.

Captain Fenom (exhaling a massive fog of pungent peppery smoke): “Those gangs have been a hassle of late, the uh, Bronze Boys and um, Troll Boys …”

He took another long drag.

Captian Fenom (again exhaling): “I like that; you’re good fighters, real good. Here.”

He reached under the desk and then tossed a leather sack filled with 8,000 bronze thorns onto it. The thud of the bag and the jingle of the coins were music to the trio’s ears.

Captain Fenom: “Take it, it’s yours. You work for me now. There’s another 8,000 thorns for you three if you bring me the head of Feenox, an apprentice of the Green Well. “

He put his feet up on the desk and dismissed the scrappy trio who made themselves gone very quickly. Pabst had snatched up the coin sack.

The trio beat it to a burned out building. The place had been a cult temple but the city lord has been hunting down and chasing out the smaller cults that have sprung up around the city. The rumor was the last holdout of this temple, a black guard, had met her fate within the charcoaled not too long ago. It was boarded up. However, Afheesh parkoured up through a window in the second story and kicked out the boards over the door on the ground letting his partners in crime in.

Wufcor dove into a pile of trash to sleep. Pabst pulled out her sleeping roll in a corner free of debris and Afheesh found a large crack in the wall and a small crevice beyond that. That was where he decided to sleep. It was where he felt most to secure to be able to sleep. However, before he drifted off he made sure to count his share of the gang bounty, 2,666 bronze pieces. Pabst had taken up the left over coin.

The robust yet still small thorn-runner lay curled up and perfectly hidden for most of the night and for most of the night he had slept rather peacefully until suddenly awakened. He heard someone arguing. He poked his head out very carefully and saw that a pair of Mantck ratlings (medium sized ratlings) and a pair of humans one carrying a sack were harassing Pabst. She had her weapon out.

Slowly the quickling crept out of his hiding place and quietly drew his weapons. As he neared striking distance, the sack bearer screamed in pain. Wufcor had stabbed him in the back.

The first Mantck struck at Pabstcan, she parried his dirk. The second rushed Wufcor wounding him badly. Afheesh charged and struck out with both of his weapons at the second Mantck whom managed to dodge the first blow but caught the second full on. It nearly killed him. The human that had been carrying the sack dropped it and taking a defensive position drew his shabby scimitar. Pabst swung wildly with her scimitar at the first Mantck but her clumsy strike did not get anywhere near him. The second human, apparently the leader due to his wearing a scale mail vest, attacked Pabst with his scimitar. She parried then immediately countered but the leaders’ sword stopped it dead. The ring of steel echoed from the blackened walls.

The second human shrieked and dropped to the dirt dead. Wufcor’s dirk had been unerring. The first Mantck lashed out at Pabst narrowly missing. Afheesh slaughtered the second Mantck with his paired swords. Pabst hacked into the leader’s side, blood gushed. He retorted wounding Pabst badly, his scimitar easily piercing her brigandine.

Wufcor moved around the fight flanking the leader and striking injuring him further. The last Mantck struck at Pabst, she barely deflected his blade. Afheesh struck at the Mantck with his first weapon and then at the leader with his second. The first landed horribly wounding the medium-sized ratling. The leader easily deflected the second. Pabst in turn chopped him down.

Wufcor jabbed his blade into the Mantck. Horribly wounded and soaked in his own blood but he was still standing. Afheesh got in close and all but eviscerated him with a double sword strike. The fight was over.

The trio immediately dumped out the sack. Out tumbled two bottles of wine, an ivory box with mother of pearl inlay, 3 silver candelabras, a poor quality carved aquamarine jar, 20 high quality arrows, a highest quality set of wrenches, and a poor quality hand mirror. Inside of the ivory box were 3 gold rings, 1 silver ring with ruby, and 5 copper rings. Their foes had been burglars. Come morning the trio decided to find a fence for the goods.

The next day under the leadership of Wufcor the crew was able to sell off all of their ill-gotten loot with Afheesh receiving a 2,311 bt (bronze thorn) cut for a total of 4,977. He left Pabst to her shopping for a great sword and Wufcor’s quest to find a leatherworker to craft a coin purse from what he cut from the Troll Boy leader. The quickling had decided to take up residence, for the night anyway, in one of the brothels operated by the Livery of Pleasures. There he would get a skilled companion for the night, a hot meal, and a lot of good wine.

The following day, and 1,500 bts poorer, Afheesh caught back up with his other two companions at the Drunken Lotus Tavern. The trio sat for a round, courtesy of Pabst, while they decided if they should pursue the head of one Feenox apprentice of the Green Well. A difficult decision especially since the Green Well was the province of the most powerful guild in the city, the Brotherhood of the Green Well. They could not resist the pay however. It was not long after that they asked around. Shortly after that they headed off to another tavern, the Green Bottle where their quarry was said to spend his lunchtime.

The trio wandered past an old tree, and from the overcrowded, and noisy plaza into the Green Bottle. It was spelled “Bottel” on the signage but all three were illiterate. The rear half of the place was elevated reached by a wide wooden stair. The bar was at the front to the immediate right of the saloon doors. The heavy counter stretched from wall to wall. Behind it at the far end were the doors to the kitchen.

Not an apparent fighter, the bartender was a broad-shouldered human, a wet leather apron over his front. Behind him were shelves lined with bottles of all shapes and sizes filled with various liquors and juices as well as a giant hogshead of ale coming halfway out of the wall. However, in a place of reverence among the shelves was a large green carved glass bottle that contained a glowing green liquid. At the bar were a very drunk barfly druid slurping ale from his leather jack and two young men, humans, in green hooded robes, a pair of apprentices of the green well.

Pabst: “Well, this seems to be the right place.”

Wufcor: “Heh, heh, yeah. Which one do I stab first?”

To Be Continued…

 

Rats of Tanglethorn Pt.1: Street Mercs

The two small groups of gang members were facing off in the middle of the wide paved boulevard just outside of the Caskroom Tavern (#15 on the Map). It was a chill evening and the cobblestones pale and moist with fresh filth. Rag pickers, the occasional wagon, and the odds and ends of Tanglewood society were still trafficking the street in unhealthy droves that parted their unstoppable course to make room for the hooligans.

The whole scene partially lit by a few candle lanterns outside of the rough establishment was bathed in warm yellow half-light. On one side were the Bronze Boys, a gang of 20 humans each with a torque of bronzed thorn vine. Opposing them were the Troll Boys, a gang of 10 humans with a white troll facemask baring its fangs painted on their worn tunics. Their leader was big and appeared to have troll blood in his veins.

Without warning, the street thugs fell upon each other using their fists, feet, and daggers. Meanwhile from the shadows the two ratling, Afheesh (played by me) and Wufcor (played by Isis), and the human duelist, Pabstcan (played by Jenn), watched the fight. It was Afheesh’s plan to wait a little bit and then approach the leader of the losing side offering to assist for a price but both sides seemed evenly matched. Four Bronze Boys had fallen and only a single Troll Boy lay in the dirty street.
Impatient, Pabst stepped from the shelter of the shadows and shouted a challenge to the trollish leader of the Troll Boys.

Pabst (played by Jenn)(brandishing her scimitar): “Come and meet your doom by my blade!”

He ignored her as he smashed in an opponent’s face with the pommel of his short sword. Afheesh took it upon himself to dash into the fray approaching the Troll Boy leader. The big brute accepted the ratlings offer but would pay after the fight was won. Afheesh dashed back to the befuddled and slightly miffed Pabst and the agitated Wufcor. As soon as he delivered the message, the other two lunged into the fight against the Bronze Boys.

Jenn started to giggle.

Cris (the GM)(with furrowed brow): “Why you laughing!?”

Jenn: “Because I picture them as a bunch of blonde and tanned surfer boys without shirts.”

Isis roared with laughter.

By the time the thuggish trio joined the fight there were 11 Bronze Boys and 6 Troll Boys still standing. Afheesh charged the Bronze Boy leader slashing savagely at him with a paired weapon blow. He tried to parry with his dirk but fumbled badly stepping into the blows. The gang leader dropped dead into a puddle of his own blood. Wufcor moved around behind a gangster occupied with staving off an attack from a larger Troll Boy and stabbed him in the back horribly wounding him. Pabstcan hacked at a “random @$$#ole” but was easily parried.

The skirmish continued for about another 15 seconds until all of the Bronze Boys were dead and only two Troll Boys and their Leader stood in the middle of the carnage. The adventurer trio all gave the last gangsters toothy grins expecting a monetary reward. The three gang-members turned and began to walk away.

Troll Boy Leader (casually waving his left hand in a gesture of dismissal): “Get your pay from the corpses.”

The trio exchanged glances and charged while the three gang-members had their backs turned. The leader suddenly spun around and nailed Pabst in the chest with his sword. Afheesh struck one of the other two who dodged one blade but hit by the other wounding him badly. Wufcor tried to stab the same target but missed. He retorted with his dagger but missed. The third Troll Boy also struck at Wufcor with his dagger but missed by a mile.

Afheesh struck at the untouched Troll Boy dropping him with a nasty double blade strike. The leader swung again at Pabst but missed. The other thug fumbled and dropped his dagger while trying to slash at Afheesh. The ratling Quickling sank his twin blades to the hilt into the second to last gangster standing.

Pabst yelled out that she “declares a duel” against the last Troll Boy. The gang leader parried Pabst’s scimitar. Afheesh readied his blades should Pabst’s self-declared duel go badly. Unheeding of Pabst Wufcor flanked the Troll Boy leader and sank his dirk into the man’s side nearly killing him in a single blow.

Afheesh hung back from the fight and Wufcor sank back into the shadows. Pabst engaged her foe one-to-one once again dropping him with a critical chop through the ribs. The butchered corpse flopped onto the cobblestone street. The ruthless group immediately fell upon the corpses and collected the loot. They gathered up 17 dirks, 90 bronze thorns, 10 suits of soft leather armor, 17 pair of bronze bracers, 8 saps, 4 short swords, and 7 pair of greaves.

That was when the trio was aware that they were receiving applause. A group of mercenaries in black was clapping. They had greatly enjoyed the show and invite d the three to drinks in the tavern. Embroidered on their chests was a red rose pierced diagonally by a curved sword with a drop of blood coming from its blade tip. The trio of sweaty and blood spattered adventurers gladly accepted. Especially after some guardsmen who had also been watching prevented Wufcor from violating the Troll Boy leader’s corpse.

The group had just barely begun to wallow in their victory and had only waded through the first round of frothy ale before a group of guards burst through the saloon doors. One of the guards pointed right at the trio and shouted, “Arrest them!” The mercenaries around the adventurers, members of the Bleeding Rose, melted away to other tables.

Jenn (looking at Cris): “Aw man! Already!?”

To Be Continued…

 

Rats of Tanglethorn: Intro

Since Game-Master Cris’ game turned out to be so lethal Isis, Jenn, and I had to generate new Where the ratling dwells.characters. I decided on a ratling male. We were still playing in an “evil” campaign in the Poisonwood city of Tanglethorn. I dubbed my new character the ratling Fourthborn Afheeshh the Nervous.

He is a thorn runner ratling native to the Thorn Ring, a dense wall of thorn-vines that bounds the city. His hair is light brown, matching the thorns, has light blue eyes and what skin is exposed is fair. He is a chaotic evil scrupulous character with Quickling as his class. His weapons are custom versions of Psi’s. They have a thin but sharp blade allowing for a slashing weapon that can stab and hook. Afheeshh’s disposition is hotheaded, quick tempered, emotional but basically nice. His flaws are Shy and Jumpy.

Isis decided on a ratling male Canny-Jack named Wufcor and Jenn a human female Duelist named Pabstcan (exasperated sigh). Both were natives of the wretched city of thorns. The city of Tanglethorn has been under the thumb of one Lord Ebikom for the last two and half years. Rumors that the city lieutenants are planning a coup were circulating. There was tension in the air and the filthy streets were a network of raw nerves, no one wanted yet another violent political upheaval. The two ratlings and the duelist were sitting at a badly stained and damp table in a crowded smoke filled saloon called the Caskroom.

The dregs of the city packed the place along with small groups of the two local beggar-gangs, the Twisted Horns and the Broken Dirks. In addition to them, there were two other local street gangs, the Bronze Boys and the Troll Boys, facing off over an undeclared drinking contest. Wufcor was picking at the table with his dirk in anticipation of a brawl. Pabst was “hanging tough” by the table downing her jack of frothy ale, it had cost her the last coin in her purse. Afeesh (how those round the table pronounced it and it is easier to spell) was watching the two cliques as they grew increasingly hostile to each other.

It took about an hour before both parties stood and walked outside to “handle it”.

Afeesh (played by me): “That’s our queue.”

Wufcor (played by Isis): “Yeah! I wanna stab someone!”

Pabst (played by Jenn): “I’m gonna duel the big guy!”

The three pulled their weapons as they passed between the still swinging saloon-doors following the angry gang members outside into the street.

To Be Continued…

Tabletop Meditations #18: Disease

The Player Characters (PCs) are traveling through a fetid, sweltering swamp. Halfway through their Potions and Medicines to combat diseaseadventure the expedition begins to fall sick with fever. At first, just a few torchbearers were sick and then a few porters. Eventually almost the entire adventuring party is sick even a few PCs are ill. The danger made apparent before the expedition. However, they assumed it couldn’t be that bad. After all, they had healing magic at their disposal. Now stranded at the center of a monster-infested morass they are bogged down with a sick and dying expedition. In addition, the longer they stay, the more likely more will fall ill. An invisible tiny enemy has brought them to their knees.

Disease has stalled even killed some of the toughest, persistent, and well-provisioned adventurers in history. Strange fevers, boils, sores, pox, food poisoning, parasitic worms, STD’s, and animal born infections have plagued adventurers and military campaigns throughout history. With disease being such an important factor concerning exploration and conquest, a clever Game-Master (GM) would be foolish not to make use of that side of nature.

Disease is an underutilized tool in the GM Toolshed and can add to the danger and feeling of a setting. Disease is a world-class force. It can thwart adventurers, jamb the wheels of imperialism, stop the machines of war dead, and even curtail history. However, with all things in the game world, diseases need to be broken down into a few basic ideas.

There are three aspects to diseases in respect to roleplaying games that are important. These are Contagion Rate, the Incubation Period, and the Disease Vector(s) through which the sickness perpetuates. The Contagion Rate refers to how contagious the disease is, percentiles can easily represent this. This represents how easily the disease can transfer to an individual. The percentile rate would mean that the exposed character is potentially infected. After this determination, the GM should refer to the game mechanics for what happens next. If the character succumbs to the infection then the symptoms of the disease are often not immediately noticeable.

Symptoms and the main effects of the disease will appear after the Incubation Period of the specific disease has passed. Incubation Period refers to how long the disease remains dormant in an infected host; it can still be contagious at this stage. After exposure a character can walk around apparently unaffected for however long the Incubation Period lasts which can ranged anywhere from a few hours to days even years! They can remain infectious during this period as well. Often the more infectious a disease is the shorter the incubation time. A highly infectious disease that has a short incubation time is a plague in the waiting although the quicker the incubation then the quicker the outbreak is likely to burn itself out.

Finally, the third idea is the Disease Vector. A vector is the agent that carries the disease to its living host, which can be a living organism or a medium like dust. The infection vectors that can spread a disease are many but the main ones to keep in mind are those that travel through wounds, insect bites, animals (feces & diseased individuals, corpses), and those that are airborne or hide in improperly prepared or stored food. Adventurers need to make sure their food has not spoiled or been contaminated. They should beware of corpses they have not killed themselves. Adventurers also need to care for their wounds even small scratches especially when traversing bodies of water or marsh areas. Of course, they also need to learn how to deal with biting insects especially mosquitoes and flies.

Infection can get into open wounds through direct contact with such vectors as dirty clothes, water, mud, and general filth. The improper cleaning of deep wounds is begging for infection. A good example of the result of an infection through wound contamination with serious consequences is gangrene. Gangrene results in fever and possibly the loss of limbs and death not to mention the stench of rotting flesh. Note that gangrene also results from a lack of circulation but the form we are concerned with is the result of bacterial infection.

Animal and insect bites are another major vector for diseases. The most obvious one is rabies, if the animal is foaming at the mouth its bite is something to avoid. However, certain animals that are carriers are not so easy to avoid. Vampire bats prey upon sleeping warm-blooded victims. Another infamous example is of the Tsetse fly and its transmission of sleeping sickness not to mention the mosquito born malaria and dengue and yellow fevers. Even such hard to avoid insects such as ticks that can carry lime disease.

To finish off the potential vectors of interest to GMs are airborne infections and of course food poisoning. Spoiled food is a major hazard and may transmit mild to severe effects. This usually depends on the type of food, where it came from, and how it was prepared. Also, food contaminated through contact with other vectors such as insects or contaminated water becomes a medium for disease. Another way food can shelter the enemy is by eating infected animals, which may be still within the incubation period.

Airborne vectors come about when inhaling germs in miasmatic environs such as gas spewing swamps or burbling cesspits. This includes sharing space with infected individuals with no contact other than breathing the same air. Here, the disease uses the medium of air launched in aerosol form by a cough or sneeze. Good examples of the types of diseases that can spread via these vectors are influenza and the Hanta virus via the dust from rodent droppings. In certain cases, even the wind can become a vector. Another medium that is worth visiting is that of water.

Waterborne infections can afflict individuals that drink spoiled or stagnant water. Contaminated water can also infect food that comes into contact with it especially during preparation. Examples of the diseases that travel via water are Dysentery, Typhoid fever, and Guinea Worm. Adventurers should always be suspicious of bodies of water they encounter and not just because of leeches and piranha either. However, in fantasy roleplaying games there are a few mitigating factors even in the more primitive of settings.

In RPGs, certain game aspects can mitigate the disease factor. These three disease negating factors are characters that have the ability to heal others aka Healers, potions or elixirs, and magic.

Healers are characters that have the ability to heal other characters of both damage and cure diseases or at least ease their symptoms. They can achieve this mystically or with some version of medicine. If disease is a major feature in a setting, these characters become very valuable party members. However, even when Healers are traveling with an expedition that party may want some backup in the form of potions.

Potions when consumed heal damage and some can even cure disease. These are usually of a magical nature but sometimes the fantasy separates chemistry, alchemy, and magic into separate areas. This separation does not concern us here, as the mere existence of potions is effective in combating disease. The only factors to consider are availability (who makes them and how long does it take) and cost in both time and money. Meaning the majority of people will not be able to afford these life-saving potions. Alternately, if they can it still might be a rare thing. This is especially true if the disease requires a specific cure or type of potion. As the nature of potions often falls into the realm of magic so magic itself must be taken into consideration.

Although healing abilities and potions fall under the purview of magic, they are different strategies due to availability and cost. Unless someone has access to a healer they do not have the luxury of the healer’s abilities and if they cannot find a supply of potions then the same. The same can be said of magic items that may offer protection or even healing abilities to their wielder. These are more accessible to the makers of such items and fall into adventurers’ possession more frequently than others’.

Magic items are more accessible than a Healer’s abilities. This is simply because all one has to do is wield the item instead of becoming a healer. They are also more durable than potion bottles thus granting a more portability. Also they are more than likely good for more than a single use. Frankly, the advantage of a disease fighting magical item is so great that it becomes a necessary piece of kit. This is not to diminish a mage or wizard that has disease curing spells but again access is the issue, there must be such a spell-caster present.

In a world of limited scientific knowledge and where magic is known to exist  how would disease be treated? Just as importantly, how is the welfare of those unfortunate enough to be suffering from infection handled? Historically, disease shaped communities and whole eras of civilization (syphilis, HIV/AIDS, Black Death, leprosy). This includes the formation of colonies and places meant to isolate and imprison diseased individuals. A bustling snake oil industry and quack businesses will spring up. A historical parallel would be the patent medicines of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Disease shapes affected communities especially if there is no cure. How society deals with and treats the so affected is important. The example of lepers is especially notorious. Lepers were made to ring bells warning the healthy members of society that they were coming whenever they were traveling in towns and cities if not barred from entry. Lepers were even forced (occasionally voluntarily) into colonies often on small faraway islands or isolated facilities.

With laws and forced isolation imposed on victims of disease also comes scapegoating. This being applied to not only the infected but also those that were believed to carry the infection. This includes those accused of deliberately planting the sickness by contaminating water wells or poisoning food by means of witchcraft.  These scapegoats may be particular creatures or locations, enemies, social minorities, or newly arrived adventurers or adventurers in general. This also may include a belief that a specific disease is particular to a certain community.

The efforts to prevent infection will range from reliance on certain organizations (religious, mages, alchemy, charlatans, etc.) to enforced cleanliness or misguided efforts thereof. Cities and towns could forbid certain types of individuals from entering due to the belief that they are carriers.

Disease is a world shaping force that stops invasions dead, halts the movement of goods, money, and troops, altering history. The outbreak of plagues can sweep over the entire planet wiping out whole swaths of civilization leaving an indelible mark on the surviving culture. There are Plagues (an extreme version of a specific disease) that can alter the world as it circulates the globe wiping out towns and cities.  International trade can even become a vector such as in the case of the Black Plague and medieval Europe. Small outbreaks can stall wars, halt invasions, wipe out small communities, and kill kings.

However, disease, especially plagues, can not only negatively affect the population but also have severe economic repercussions and even present new opportunities. Patent Medicines (real or snake oil) can come about to fill the need effective or not. Quacks may proliferate. The collapse of trade may occur with the isolation of cities or rural areas needed for trade. The reduction of the work force by extreme measure is not only a tragedy but also thereby giving them more power to demand better treatment and pay.

In June 1381, 35 years after the Black Death had swept England, the Peasant Rebellion occurred led by Wat Tyler from Kent. The peasant army from Kent and Essex marched on London and captured the Tower of London. One motivating factor of this peasant force was that during the plague they had been granted their freedom and paid to work the estates of the aristocracy. The aristocracy did this in order to keep them from leaving during the labor shortage created by the plague. The peasants were afraid that they would lose these newly won privileges. Plagues damage the laborer population, which leads to a downturn in production of materials and crops for at least a decade and increases the economic and political clout of labor and the lower classes. It actually turns the world upside down.

Diseases in RPGs are of value to the GM. Diseases can act as an obstacle to PCs, give certain specialized Healer characters an important role to play, and alter NPCs in dramatic ways. The knowledge of the potential diseases they may face may give the PCs pause and even alter their travel routes. A diseased member of a PC expedition may slow down or stop the group dead especially if more than one of their number is infected. This in and of itself presents its own challenge. That challenge being to find shelter and/or a place to recuperate and recover their bearings.

Introducing these illnesses into your world allows the Healer character to do something seemingly small. However, do not be afraid to demonstrate to the other PCs that disease can take quite a toll even if it only is stalling them for a while. Sickness can also alter infected NPCs in a way that can engage players and give the GM more tools to work with. Examples are lepers, sick and dying kids as a source of empathy/sympathy or an adventure hook, dying beggars, the dying and kind old person but for a cure scenario.

Making use of diseases can help a GM to enhance their game. They have a tool that can halt armies, delay or kill adventurers, alter the functions of an NPC, and put up a barrier to egress in a remote area. It can add to the flavor of a game as well as engendering some mild danger or at least another sum that the Players will have to calculate. Not to mention the fear factor built up via dialogue delivered by the NPCs to the Players.

Microorganisms can stall adventuring parties and armies alike as well as strike down the lowliest peasant as well as the mightiest king. Adding disease to your campaign world can enrich the background as well as alter the roles of NPCs, Healers, and mages. In this same scenario potions and magic items that house healing and disease fighting abilities become more useful and therefore valuable. Certain vectors especially certain insects may become a symbol of terror to PCs who become cognizant of the risk and the need to prepare for an excursion beforehand. Disease as a part of a living campaign world is an invaluable tool for the discerning GM and a valuable source of drama and immersion for Players.

 

The Cabal of Eight Pt.44: Betrayed at Last!

Nighttime – the four mages stumbled into camp, beat-up and dirty. Gornix (played by Gil) was nursing a gut wound. On their way out from the treasure vault, they had backtracked to a few rooms that they had missed. Gornix had been gored by an animated obsidian rhino statue. Szoosha (played by Isis) and Fauna (played by Jenn) had been trampled but their shield items had saved them from everything but a dirty floor. Excor (played by Cris) emerged relatively unscathed from that encounter.

The porter and Arcan the wanderer were waiting for them with a hot dinner. Behind them, there was the carriage and three other wagons painted with the college arms with draft animals. They had found two more wagons hidden around the area.  In answer to an innocent “how long have we been here” he answered that “tomorrow will be the first of Late Summer”. The four mages also found that the pair hadn’t heard from the others since their departure days ago. Soon after eating, they settled in to sleep and the night passed peacefully.

Come morning the four mages began to patrol the perimeter hoping to get a bead on their lost companions. Fauna used her cabal medallion to try to contact the others but she got nothing. As they rounded the eastern portion of their clockwise run, Gornix tried his medallion. He got a static obscured reply with a faint voice that seemed to sound from a great distance. They continued south and as they came to the southeast corner, Szoo spotted a large red dune and a young swordtail dragon slithering over the crest towards them.

Excor got the drop on the beast and snared it with his Shadow Ribbons spell. From there on the fight was a slaughter until Gornix knocked it out of the ribbons with his Force Ram fortunately in the process killing the dragon. It had even managed to resist about half of the spells they had slung at it but the mages had attained a plateau of power that was beyond the unfortunate creature.

They wandered west then north, Szoo used his medallion and got a stronger signal. The words, “Yeeeargh! We’re comin’ through! WATCH OUT!” blasted into his head. At that moment, Gornix found a half-buried stone door and wanted desperately to get it open. Excor used his medallion to try to contact them. He was able to find out that they were fleeing a cave-in down a long hall that slanted steeply upward towards a stone door. However, they were all out of spells.

They backed off from the door and Gornix smashed the stone doors in with a well-placed Force Ram spell. Suddenly, through the door, their companions ran up and out one after the other. Belrae in dirty purple robes a green frog on his torn breast, Riahm his tattered half-brown half-green cloak flying behind him, Jirek in his shabby robes nursing a broken arm,  and Xanto the Wasp and his apprentice Bumble followed by two large wasps each hauling a large sack of booty.

Out of breath Belrae turned a finger towards the Wasp and shouted “we were almost KILLED because of THAT GUY!”.

The Wasp: “What me? No. I was looking out for all of our welfare, what would this little venture of yours be without the wealth I collected? We are all now very rich, celebrate my friends, we have all survived!”

Just then, a blast of sand, pebbles, and dust engulfed them from the open passageway. Later the four adventurers led their companions back to camp. They later prepared for dinner and were ready to ship out come dawn.

As they ate they talked excitedly amongst themselves with the Wasp being mildly ostracized, his apprentice next to him. She was somewhat reticent to talk to Fauna when the druidess tried to strike up a conversation. Gornix left the group for a quiet rock a ways outside of camp, a place where he could “see the stars”.

He sat lotus style on the pale stone in an area of hardened red waste and gazed at the endless Elysian field above. Studying the stars he used his astrological knowledge trying to divine whether their passage home would be a safe one. He also gathered some mana points and stored them in the crystal that topped his staff, just in case.

Seeming about to make an announcement the Wasp stood up, the two bags of loot just behind him and Bumble.

The Wasp: “Well, my friends though I regret to leave this little party despite the undue treatment, Adieu!” He waived his hand and both bags and Bumble all teleported away.

Cris: “F@#k’in Wasp! I should ‘a grabbed Bumble!”

Excor had tried to beat the Wasp to the punch and made a snatch for his arm. Unfortunately, he had been just a hair too slow. Cris was right though. With his roll, he could have easily grabbed Bumble leaving the Wasp in a precarious position when he arrived back in town sans pupil. Her father would have killed him. However, Excor went right for Xanto and thus missed, not by much, but missed all the same. The mages were disappointed the villain had flown. The missing loot just added insult to injury.

Paradoxically the players actually seemed quite relieved that Xanto the Wasp had finally betrayed them even as they griped about it.

About one week later, the mages arrived back in Ezmer sans Arcan. He had parted company just before they hit the headland. As they pulled the wagons to the city gates, they saw the city bulwarks singed and blackened. In places, they were nearly completely demolished. Dozens possibly more Wher dragons laid in several rows and clumps, most dead some still twitching and being speared by the legion of guardsmen cleaning up the battlefield.

Fauna: “What the hell happened here!?”

Isis: “Yeah, geesh!”

Cris: “Oh yeah, it’s a Dragon Summer. They converge on the Ezmerian Headlands to mate.”

The crowded corner of Silver Circle street and Western Avenue was bustling with wagons, carriages, pedestrians, and horse riders. A group of agile street urchins weaved through them all before disappearing. Szoosha ineffectually watched the scene coursing around the street level of the Red Helm tavern from the window above in the cabal clubroom.

Fauna, Gornix, and Excor were sitting around the table dividing the loot that they had won. Each of the four had received a gold ring and necklace with a bee motif as well as a gold dagger as their share. Fauna claimed the gold skullcap that granted a +4 bonus to I.Q. when worn. Gornix took the bracers that granted +2 STR. Szoo claimed a gold ring that granted the Fearsome Form I spell and a constant +5 bonus to resist poisons. Excor took the ring that granted the Verminous Might (Winged Flight) spell and a necklace that granted the Sting spell 3 times per day (after a roll-off between the players).

Excor pulled the small silver chest from the portable hole and found it empty; it had a felt lining that had an indentation in it that fit the Amber Bee. They left the lotus mirror, an intelligent item, hidden in the cabal room, as none of them wanted it. They hung the lotus maces that they had captured on the walls of the tiny chamber as trophies.

After that had been accomplished, Excor pulled forth the first large chest that Gornix had holed up from the lotus vaults. The chest was oak banded with black iron. In place of a lock, there was a polished gold skull with a large ruby, citrine, and emerald in the eye sockets and nasal cavity. The jaw was jointed. Showing restraint Gornix “clairvoyanced” the lock finding out that the gems were buttons and to unlock it, the correct two must be pressed. However, the wrong combo would unleash a blast of toxic Grey Lotus spore.

Suddenly the mechanism unlocked and the top popped open as Fauna pushed the yellow then green gems without prompting. They admonished her lightly and then turned their attentions to the contents.

Within were a high quality nega-steel bottle with an aquamarine stopper carved into a flower that contained three doses of water charged with anti-magic energy. There was also a phoenix feather cape (Level 7 item, fire proof, Charm Against Evil (constant), Temporal Jump (1 x day), Seal of Health (10 charges)), a copper armlet with a large emerald carved into a lotus (level 8 item, grants a +1 I.Q. to wearer), 10 platinum talons, an alligator hide sack filled with gold bee husks (approximately 10 lbs. of gold), and a Drake hide sack filled with 100 pieces of tiger’s eye.

They each took 2 platinum talons leaving 2 for the cabal coffers. Finding that the locking mechanism could reset itself they closed it intending to leave it in the cabal room. Excor then withdrew the second chest.

It was another large iron-banded oak chest. Its locking mechanism was a solid gold faceplate inscribed with a honeycomb pattern where four of the cells had holes and three were buttons. Each button was inscribed with a black wasp, a gold bee, and a gold lotus. They argued a little back and forth about which two buttons to push after Gornix used his clairvoyance to confirm that was what they had to do.

Isis: “I got this! Um, the people there had a religion centered around gold bees and lotuses so…”

Szoo pushed the gold bee and then the gold lotus buttons. The chest popped open. The naga released a held breath.

Within the chest were a pair of highest quality leather gloves with amber buttons (level 7, +8 to sleight of hand, Quickness (constant), Counterspell: Curse: Affliction by touch 1 x day), a highest quality mirror-polished mithral priestess figurine (level 8, a command word grants a +9 to diplomacy and Owl’s Wisdom (1D4 + 3) 2 x day), and a highest quality stiletto with a clear quartz pommel stone, a blue-dragon-hide grip and decorative runes along the starmetal blade (level 14, +1D6 acid damage, keen weapon (18-20 critical)). There were also 10 talons of ice-steel, a silk sack filled with 100 pieces of obsidian, and a superior quality silk sack filled with 100 emeralds.

From that hoard, each mage got as their share 25 emeralds, 25 pieces of obsidian, 2 ice steel talons, and 25 pieces of tiger’s eye. Szoosha took the phoenix feather cape (after a player roll-off), Excor the armlet (after a roll-off between Cris and Gil), Fauna the gloves (after a roll-off between Jenn and Gil), and Gornix took the stiletto. They left the cabal coffers with 2 ice steel talons and the priestess figurine.

The following day the mages decided to finish off their reading of Vordan’s Tome. They picked up at the fourth section. The section began with a brilliant full-page illuminated gold lotus illustration. The section goes on to discuss the gold lotus giving a location where it could be found describing the location as “southern ruins alongside a billabong overseen by a warlord’s red edifice by a river at the foot of a bloody spire far southeast of the old black temple”.

Cris: “Well, there it is. Guess that’s next?”

They read on. Several gold gilded pages made up the meat of the section. They described the spell of legend Alchemical Gold but it was incomplete. The pages following those were from an old accounting ledger with pictures of various types of gold coins.

The fifth section was composed entirely of more entries from Vordan’s diary. All lamented or cursed something. The most interesting parts were of Vordan lamenting the loss of his ladylove to a lying, handsome, & corrupt official followed by several bad poems, revenge fantasies, and laughable schemata to win her back. There was a potion formula however of Allure and the spell Eatables to Maggots.

The sixth section consisted of several pages of reproductions of familial heraldry, only some of which were recognizable as those still in use. Vordan’s personal arms occupied a page. A black, white, grey, green-eyed Karkadann head on an orange lozenge like a longshield with an open book at helm and crossed green-leaved branches at bottom composed the wizard’s arms. Following were some more accounting pages with an address in the Market District. They also found the Luminescent Sigil and Harmless Beam spells. A large illustration of a key was on the page with the latter.

The seventh section was a beautifully illustrated catalog of mystic lotus types. Its final page was about the gold lotus and mentioning, “The royal jelly of that certain bee is required to grow them”. The section ended abruptly however cutting off the text. A few almost incoherent poems in a loose and sloppy hand occupied the margins. The section also talked about the refinement and use of the mystic lotus in alchemy. When using this section to identify lotus flowers the reader would get a +3 to identify and a +2 skill bonus when using alchemy.

The eighth and final section was simply a fusion of three sections taken from Vordan the Magnificent’s autobiography. The three sections concerned a torrid love story, a wizard’s duel in which Vordan lost, and the laments of an aged shop-keep. There were also three amateurish sketches of an alley shop front, an old man, and a small room with a chair in front of a strange circular window. There they found the spells Alarm, Amulet of Power, and Tele-Location.

They had heard that the twin swans had left on a ship with their brothers in arms in pursuit of a Creschan vessel, something to do with Creschan Fire. They had also heard that their former benefactor Virtra Wefa had poisoned herself along with her grim servant when faced with arrest by the black and white swan knights.

Later that week they tried to track down the Wasp at his house behind the Nezorik family mansion. He wasn’t home. So Szoo and Excor deposited the animated armor in the portable hole in his living room and left.

The mages found that Bumble became scarce at the next few meetings. Also the two ‘leaders’ were becoming ever more secretive as they seemed to get closer to Draega Skullshine the publican. However, Jirek was still chummy with them.

As the Dragon Summer ended, the mages prepared for fall. Fauna readied to make certain necessary political maneuvers involving the Brothers of the Rope. The other three were gearing up their operation for the rat fights, which would go into high swing come winter.

End of the Campaign (played between June 2016 and June 2017).