Characters begin to loot the dusty old room after slaying their foe, some monstrous undead thing. They find the typical loot, some coins, a few gems, and a couple of items. Their first impulse is to appraise the monetary value of the loot and calculate what the split will be. Then they find an old sword hanging on the cobweb-tangled rear wall of the room. When they reach it the Gamesmaster does something that they only half expected. The GM gives the item details that distinguish it from the rest of the loot piquing their collective curiosity.
Giving items a level of detail and a backstory much like a non-player character (NPC) increases that item’s role. The storied item will have a higher position as opposed to other items in the gaming narrative. This technique takes items beyond the role of simple spoils of adventure or a material reward. Note that gaming narrative is different from narratives in the traditional sense. The ‘beats’ of the game tend to follow a perpetual Sine-wave type pattern. High points on the wave being action/drama then dropping back to normalcy. Alternately, they can sink to a low point before the next rise.
Adding details and a history to any item meant for a PC to acquire helps keep certain players on track. This is especially true if the GM hints at the right clues and incidents relating to the item regularly. This can add flavor and detail to the game setting and add some complication to fairly straight forward campaigns. These specially designed items are not just treasure they double as tiny bits of the game world custom packaged for the players to explore.
More than a MacGuffin
To be clear, these are not exclusively MacGuffins. These specially designed items better serve to enrich a campaign. Storied items are not meant to serve as the central focus of a campaign. Nor are they to provide motivation for the group to go on a specific quest. However, they are meant to run the length of the campaign alongside their owners hopefully adding a richness of detail. In a way, storied items ornament a long-term campaign and provide the GM with adventure fodder.
Specially detailed items with a backstory can lead to more adventure hooks. These hooks occurring at the low points of the curve leading to the highs. These items possibly leading to an adventure within an adventure. Similarly, they can lead to side-quests galore branching off or intertwining with the primary campaign focus. It is another thread to weave into the fabric of the game-world. For instance, take a quite common but also much-desired item found in any fantasy campaign, a sword.
A Sword, Any Sword
Any sword, after a morbid fashion, can give (or rather carve) somebody a red smile. However, the true value of unique items with compelling histories and as-of-yet unfulfilled destiny is to Gamesmasters. It is a boon. GMs should try to write up specially designed items. These the players can discover, quest for, win, or loot in the normal course of a campaign. It does not have to be magical or have special powers. However, if that is the carrot onto which your players will bite then by all means.
However, the item needs to be immediately visually (meaning descriptively) interesting. At least to one of the players. This serving as the initial hook. It also does not hurt to try and tailor the item to specific characters. However, always remember to try to attract the players’ attention to it. For an example, let us use a Chinese Dao. It has a long tassel at the pommel and broad, heavy machete-like blade.
There is a sword hanging on the far wall all covered in the same dusty sheet of cobwebs. It appears to be a Dao of a particularly high quality. You can make out the glint of gold, silver, and the glitter of gems. As you look closer, there is a strange faint flickering as of flame. Even from underneath the webs and centuries of sedimentary filth you can see its strange light.
A Hook by Any Other Name
There are a few methods to snag the players using these characterized items. They are very much like those used in writing adventure hooks. You must ask yourself two questions. What type of weapon/item is it and what have the characters been looking for? Additionally, is it something they can pick up and use? However, can the characters also explore its uses (immediate bait). A brief example being a weapon with special features. However, those abilities only make it a more formidable weapon when one learns how to use those features. Of course, this last aspect would rest almost entirely on the system within which you are working.
This brings us to the “Bling.” Bling being the visual details that mark the item as one-of-a-kind. The flashy part of the description. The sole purpose of bling is in attracting the attention of the player(s). Basically, the visual details that tempt them. Start with the main details such as what material(s) make it up. Is this material out-of-the-ordinary or exotic in some way? Are there gems and what kinds, and how are they cut? Are there engravings or inlays? Is the engraving a message of some sort? Can the players read it, or do they need an interpreter? What language is it in? Is it magical script or Elvish? What is the handle wrapping made of? Do the materials, design, or make give hints as to its regional/historical origin?
The Dao blade is of silver and the guard and pommel gold with the engraving of patterns resembling flames. There are characters along the blade inlaid with platinum. They appear to be in an archaic northern dialect. Alternating jade gems, rubies, and deep blue sapphires all cut en cabochon along the guard’s edge sparkle. The tassel that extends from the golden pommel is fire silk and there is a large dark red carbuncle at the base of the blade. This glows with its own flickering flame light. The grip is wrapped in the smooth skin of a metallic blue sea serpent.
Details, Details, Details!
Details construct this special item within the minds of your players. As with the initial appearance of an NPC, the initial description of the item’s general shape and condition affects its perception. Its appearance provides fuel for any perceived or applied “personality”. When in doubt use an engraving bearing a name or saying for an easy addition and telling detail.
The details you use can be battle scars, personal/familial heraldry, makers’ marks, or decorations. These can have attached stories and may play to a certain theme. Visible imperfections will mark the item as unique and may contribute to the backstory. These can be from the original artisan’s hand or even a defect in the base material itself.
The important thing to remember is that these details should mark it out from the rest of the swag. It should be unique compared to that the characters may have come upon up to this point of the game. It should remain at least somewhat unique throughout the campaign. After adding details with at least one marking it unique, a brief history or backstory is necessary to finish it. Certain details should be invented exclusively for the item based on its history.
The blade of the sword shows a deep nick. Apparently, an old battle-wound from an especially powerful blow. Additionally, there is a patch of very pale scales among soft deep-blue scales on the grip. The angler you have asked about the skin on the handle mentions off-handedly an old fisherman’s yarn. It is about a vicious sea-serpent nicknamed ‘Old Scar’ due to the patches here and there on its hide earned from the harpoons of defending sailors.
Backstory is Essential
When writing the backstory keep in mind the group resources. You should know what abilities or resources the group possesses to let them probe the backstory of the item. Psychics and spell-casters with certain augury or ESP-effect spells/powers can help by catching tempting glimpses. They can even catch bits of dialogue and other certain clues. Like about who made it, owned it, where it has been, and its unique history. Alternately, if you are trying to hold back certain details these types of abilities may ruin the clue chasing. They may even spill the whole story out all at once. This is when it pays to be subtle. Hone the GM fudging skills using the rules governing these powers to your advantage.
Investigative abilities are certainly suited to engage this type of GM-device. Using science and/or lab skills to gather information in a CSI-like mode is yet another dimension to keep abreast of. In fantasy settings such skills as alchemy would qualify for this mode. However, this is especially so in a modern setting. Do not discount library research either. This allows the GM to create accessories to the item like works that collect lore or document legends. Even antiquarian guides not to mention antiquarian-type characters become more important. These character archetypes are probably the most equipped (besides certain psychics) to delve into such campaign aspects. These types of characters and skills are already, or should be anyway, motivated to participate. They will make it easier for the players to dig into the backstory.
The backstory will consist of a few basic points. Where was it made, who made it, and who was the last owner? Alternately to the latter, who was the most significant character in the item’s history? Pick out the individuals in the backstory that matter the most in-game terms. This can be the craftsman, the original owner, the last owner, or the one who stole it. Only one to two points are necessary to create a rough character outline. Other details can be filled in on the fly. NPCs in the backstory do not require full game stats but need only to communicate impressions to the players. Note that the main characters from the backstory will have names and those names may be recognizable as connected to other legends and stories etc.
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Games-Masters (GM’s) are already like mad scientists modifying their current gaming system often on the fly. This is through either in-play rulings (e.g. building precedence) or directly fabricating rules or guidelines. This is sometimes to patch deficiencies or fill in gaps discovered during play regardless of the potential for unforeseen consequences. Often, GM’s tinker with their current system adding in rules or new additions. However, they are often hesitant to rebuild or mess with the engine of the system.
However, GM’s can achieve some amazing results by doing just such a thing. GM’s can completely rebuild the machinery of a game with only some basic knowledge. Games-Masters can go further than simple modifications stepping into the shoes of a game designer. That is without stepping blindly onto the unsteady ground of game creation from scratch but still achieving something very similar.
Modifying existing systems is the gateway to creating one’s own full-on tabletop rules-system. However, like Frankenstein’s monster, missteps and using the wrong parts can lead to disaster. All GM’s who have ever run a few games know of the vicious cycle of modifying the modifications. All in service of keeping a campaign limping along.
The Frankengame exists in the realm between the patchwork game and game-creation as a sort of gateway. Here, like Doctor Frankenstein in the graveyard, a Games-Master can get closer to being the creator of their own system. They are starting not from scratch but from the constituent parts dug-up and snatched from sundry and various places. They will know the resulting system more intimately allowing them to avoid the vicious cycle mentioned above. In addition, this process sharpens the mechanical skill of GM’s allowing them to be better able to patch any flaws on the fly.
A Frankengame, like its namesake, is created by taking the operative portions of a game-system referred to here as Modules. Then taking these from multiple other games and slamming them together creating a functional homebrew mash-up. This, in an effort to maximize your enjoyment around the table. This is regardless of whether you or your group are more interested in a more Simulationist or Storytelling gaming mode. Alternately, also useful if you and they enjoy a simplified set of rules or rules-heavy systems.
The newly assembled game should function reasonably well enough to be used as its own standalone tabletop RPG system. Metaphorically similar to the human corpses that contributed to Frankenstein’s monster, you stitch a Frankengame together from the working organs of other games. This is given that all tabletop RPG systems have functional organs that allow them to tick. They share a common anatomy.
Basic RPG Anatomy
A roleplaying game system as a unit is a collection of interacting rules that help to determine the in-game actions of characters. This at least according to Wikipedia. It is also a system of interacting modules, a package of rules and details, each module-package being a subsystem. Modules allow for the construction of in-game items and resolution subsystems. Sometimes they even add to a core resolution system modifying it to some extent based on circumstance.
The common Base Modules of any RPG System are the Combat System, Skill System, the Mystical Engine, and the Object Subsystems. The Mystical Engine being the governing mechanic of the magic & psionic systems as well as any similar such ideas. Object subsystems being the component governing such in-game objects as weapons and armor. The Character Creation system/mechanic can also be included in these modules. This is especially so if there are several different methods presented for players to create characters in the materials.
Base modules are subsystems that handle a specific portion of the game but still have a wide enough reach as to be able to have further subsystems within them depending on their complexity. Note that the more complex the longer it takes to make a rule-call or task-determination. As stated before, these Base Modules handle a limited but still broad aspect of the game. This includes such things as Combat. For example, subdividing combat into such aspects as Vehicular, Barehanded, or even Armed combat although generally it still encompasses these. Similarly, expanding combat with smaller sets of rules or increasing complexity by adding a subsystem to handle one of the different and more specific aspects/scales of combat. At the center of all of these modules and subsystems lay the heart of the RPG, the Core Mechanic.
At the heart of the game system from which these modules branch is the Core Mechanic. The Core Mechanic is the principle that all the rest of the system works on. A Core Mechanic is in the simplest terms a formula for conflict resolution. Conflict in this context being an in-game occurrence where an impartial decision is required. Core Mechanics usually rely on a single die roll with certain modifiers added and may even rely on looking up that result on a table or even the number of dice rolled as in a Dice Pool. Most systems wear this on their sleeves so it is easy to get right in there and cut it out so it can share its beat with your homebrewed monstrosity.
Core Mechanic Examples:
- D20 (d20 roll + modifiers vs. a target number)
- Talislanta (d20 roll + Skill or Attribute Rating – Degree of Difficulty; check result to Table)
- World of Darkness (character attributes and skill “pips” together determine the Dice Pool of D10’s vs. a target number)
- Fudge (uses 6-sided plus/minus dice and elevates character attributes rated in an adjective scale (terrible, poor, good, etc.) and lowered or elevated based on the number of pluses and minuses rolled)
A Games-Master/potential Doctor Frankenstein can simply add in or swap certain Base Modules or subsystems with those from another. Although as compared with assembling a completely new system, this counts more as transplantation. However, even mad doctors need some practice. True Frankengames are an actual fusion of at least two other games (hopefully more) and recognizable as apart/different from either of them.
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Non-player characters (NPCs) populate Gamesmasters’ game worlds providing a life source alongside the vitality injected by the player characters (PCs). Unlike PCs, however NPCs do not need to be complete characters. The level of completeness of an NPC is directly related to their level of intended interaction with the players. And to a lesser extent their role in the campaign or in a given scenario.
Those constructed to have some individuality identifiable by the players and even a modicum of believability can make the difference between a bland, artificial environment and a vibrant, exciting, living world. Applying layers of detail is a proven technique in NPC design that can payoff in spades during play.
The Five Layers
A believable NPC can be described as an interesting, engaging, and memorable character. This is in addition to the fact that they are likely to exist in the campaign world in the first place. To create a believable NPC the GM can employ five layers in their construction. These five layers are:
- Physical features
- Gear (clothing & equipment)
- Skillset (skills of note & combat style)
How Much Detail?
The first concern when constructing an NPC is the level of detail needed. This is preliminary and aside from a quick rundown of each of the five layers. Simply inserting a single generic item in each layer can quickly generate mooks (nameless fodder) or a background NPC. However, these will be suited only to limited contact with the PCs. The level of contact an NPC has with the PCs is important. This as you do not want to waste time adding minute detail to a character that shows up once, says next to nothing then has no other significant/repeating contact.
The Interaction Hierarchy
Game masters should have a basic hierarchy for their NPCs besides the main antagonist(s). These would be (in ascending order): background, foreground or limited interactors with limited appearances, those with limited interaction but the potential for multiple appearances, frequent interactors even if their appearances are limited, and those who interact regularly with the PCs.
The higher up you move along the NPC interactor hierarchy the more detail needed. NPCs can move up the hierarchy or become elevated by ongoing interactions even if not designed for long-term existence. These gaining added detail either acquired from play (shear improvisation) or details and minutiae added by the GM. Often this occurs as a response to player inquiries or in an effort to give the NPC extra story weight. After determining the interaction level of an NPC, the very next concern is Archetype.
Archetypes & Stereotypes
Archetypes, stereotypes, and tropes are useful tools in the hands of a talented GM. The latter pair are often considered cheap tricks (especially stereotypes). Stereotypes can if the GM is not careful or sufficiently creative, become cliché. And if the GM is not mindful, offensive. Archetypes carry the connotations of role, skillset, and ability. Stereotypes convey assumptions and preconceptions about behavior, motivating factors, and “genetic traits.”
Common stereotypes found in fantasy tabletop roleplaying include Evil-Murderous-Orcs, Suicide-Attack-Goblins, Bad-Guy-in-Black-Adorned-in-Batwings-and-Skulls, the Common-Thug, etc. These are trenchant and brief descriptions with an attached assumption.
An archetype on the other hand is a sort of blueprint. It is often built into or associated with various settings and works of fiction. It gathers together certain attributes. These presenting a general sketch of a character and possible patterns of behavior packaged together with general appearance. The archetype should be selected with the NPC’s role in mind. Stereotyping, on the other hand, is shallow shorthand communicating specific character traits to players. based on a large social/economic/regional/ethnic group. An especially useful tool when there is limited playtime, while in a pinch, or in a faster-paced part of the game.
Certain classic archetypes found in roleplaying include the Do-Gooder-Paladin, Prefers-the-Wilderness-Ranger, the Might-Makes-Right-Barbarian, and the Sticky-Handed-Backstabbing-Rogue among others.
Tropes, another tool in the box, allow the use of a shorthand statement to easily communicate certain aspects of NPCs. These can be as short as a name for a fantasy race or profession. Perhaps a short description not containing a value judgment or opinion in and of itself but carried by familiarity. GMs can use tropes to influence the players’ in-game actions dependent on their reactions. If the group groans at the mention of specific tropes, the GM probably shouldn’t use it. Unless, of course, trying to raise the ire of their players. This actually holds true for stereotypes as well.
Examples of common fantasy tropes include the Knight and variations on, the Archer, the Spell-Slinger, Half-Dragons, the Scholar, etc.
The second NPC layer, distinguishing physical features and build, begins to grant the archetypal NPC more individuality. Race, in roleplaying terms, is a way of communicating the most general physical features and behavioral patterns to the players simply by attaching a label to the NPC. Race is a combination of stat templates and stereotypes promoting a general idea, right or wrong, about personality and role. Again, a simple mook character does not need much more than that. Maybe some equipment. But a well-rounded NPC would need a few more visual cues to deliver some additional information to the players. This information can include a verbal exchange. This is good to use with a simple encounter as well to drive home the NPC’s intentions.
An NPC’s face is a roadmap of experience particularly if they have had an especially brutal life. Acquiring scars, tattoos (which can carry their own symbolic meaning) or losing teeth, eyes, noses, etc. adds character. Prototypical pigmentation that carries meaning in the game that the players can clue into, is also useful. Even a deep suntan and very visible tan-lines can reveal occupation before the GM names it. Alternately, regional racial features can distinguish an NPC from the racial norm. For example, a lighter shade of green or very tall points on the ears. These hinting at a different origin than the racial norm can communicate some ethnopolitical information expanding the game world. Physical disability can also add layers to the character. This due to birth defects, the mutilation of war wounds, or more specific instances of physical trauma; abuse, ritual mutilation/scarification, accidents, or draconian punishment.
Gear & Clothing
Costume and equipment, the next layer, can be used to express the character forthrightly. Alternately, it can hide their true nature or intentions, heighten the anxiety of players. Or it can feed them hints/clues as to the wider world, the NPC’s fighting ability, skillset. Or reveal otherwise unexpressed aspects of the NPC’s personality as well as connections to other individuals or organizations. Mooks and background NPCs need only the gear to carry out their brief and likely, temporary purpose with perhaps some token details.
NPCs should have an equipment list comparable to their interaction level. As well as a role and an appearance that distinguishes them more as individuals from the lesser interactors. The players should take one look and know that these are more than just nameless minions. Personal items should be on this list, which can give clues to their religious beliefs, sentimentalities, and pastimes. Their costume can also reveal that the face they are presenting to the players may be a façade. Details such as neatness, quality, and the relevance of clothing style or equipment used to hide their true nature.
Here, certain visual tools, particularly heraldry, are very useful. An NPC warrior with a family crest or striking heraldic image across their chest is set apart from the crowd.
Another very important point when building an NPC is what skills they have at their disposal; their skillset, not necessarily their whole skill-list just the ones they are likely to use in-game. This including their combat ability and fighting style. They should have the tools required to make use of these skills and implements cogent to their combat style. Variation in combat style can demonstrate personality during a fight even without any verbal communication.
NPCs can also have customized gear identifying the piece as their personal property. Also, keep in mind the symbolic significance that the weaponry you equip your NPCs with can convey. For example, a spiked club indicating a real brute and probably a powerhouse.
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The vista of human-drama and blood-spectacle of a battle-scene enthrall audiences with fury and fire. War operates as a high point of action and emotion in many a heroic epic and countless works of fiction. Battles and war in general often function as the scissor ending character-threads. These of Player Characters (PCs) and Non-Player Characters (NPCs) alike. Sometimes also putting a cap on or violent ending to certain ongoing conflicts. This is war as Set-Piece.
Large-scale battles and war are beyond the scope of most roleplaying games (RPGs), the small more personally focused heroic adventures. In these adventures, battles occur between small groups of adventurers and villains. The typical scope that most RPGs are designed to handle is intimate duels between heroes and monsters. Anything larger in scope is Mass Combat.
When it comes to roleplaying games, the Game-Master (GM) can employ Mass Combat rules. This as a means to create a Set-Piece, which can add action, drama, and structure to a campaign. Set-piece battles can widen the scope of the campaign, especially as a grand finale. A battle is an action and dramatic high point that should come between two lulls in the action. All the while adding to player immersion especially those with inclinations towards strategy. Such set pieces can lend structure to a portion of the campaign as a battle set-piece has a basic structure.
Mass Combat as a term describes a large-scale battle between military units. Military Units being warriors or soldiers gathered into formations and part of a command structure. Whereas a Set-Piece is essentially a spectacle that is also an escalation in danger which serves as an exclamation point in the timeline of a campaign. In common parlance, a Set-Piece describes a “big” scene in a movie. This big scene meant to incur awe in the audience and to escalate and carry along the narrative.
Time Dilation & Contraction
In tabletop roleplaying games (ttRPGs), however, a Set-Piece Battle does not have to inspire awe so much as emphasize danger and define the stakes to the players. Concerning tabletop RPGs, the mechanics of battle are of high importance. For simplicity, I will use the general terms Melee Round and Time Scale in reference to this. Melee Round refers to a slice of time or gameplay where the players’ turns are taken and actions occur. These are typically limited per character and define a discrete slice of in-game time.
Time Scale is a little more general than that. It refers to the scope of time and its dilation between a Melee Round and a round of Mass Combat or its contraction in the other direction. As the scope of Mass Combat is larger as opposed to an individual character’s turn in a melee round. The amount of time a military unit/hero unit takes in a turn is of greater scope. Note that Hero Units refer to units comprised of the PCs and followers if any.
Of course, PCs and other individuals can act quicker than a full unit that is acting in unison. Therefore, PCs’ turns and actions would move more in individual or human scope within the larger action of the battle. This provides more opportunities for the players and the GM to conduct a more exciting game.
The purpose of this article is not to suss out the cause of war or to philosophize about its nature. I will not expound upon its real-life consequences or the immorality of it all. The purpose is to describe how story-tellers and thus Game-Masters can use a battle-scene to improve their game. This increasing enjoyment for all while playing the game. War in the context of this article is not to be construed to be anything more than what is represented in fantasy fiction and miniature wargames.
A Battle shifts perspectives from the epic scale of the full battle using Mass Combat rules to the PCs. PCs are “hero units” on a personal/human scale where normal melee combat rules take over. This allowing the PCs to act in hero mode. An example of this is where a round of mass combat represents 1-minute in time as opposed to 15 seconds per melee round. It is between these two perspectives that the GM must shift to make the most of a battle set-piece.
Shifting back and forth is simple enough. Start with a Mass Combat Round and then move to a single normal Melee Round. Then just alternate until the larger scope is finished and then go back to the normal heroic type game. This works perfectly when the Mass Combat and Melee Round mechanics you use can essentially fit into one another. Like Russian nesting dolls based on their time measurements.
Player characters can act on the mass-combat scale as a military unit moving with it referred to as Hero Units. The GM can allow the hero unit to move as a combat unit during the Mass Combat phase. After that, during the standard melee round then the GM may allow the PCs their full movements on the field as individual heroes. This depending on the mechanics of the game system being used of course.
The reason for this is that even though at the heroic level time moves quicker they get only 1 melee round in between the larger units of game time. Note also whenever the GM deems it fit they can shift focus. Often choosing to focus on the smaller scale of the player characters.
The Influence of “Heroes”
The GM should have a good idea as to how the PCs can alter or otherwise influence the battle. PCs should be able to influence the outcome. The only questions about the battle that matter becomes how much the PCs will influence the battle and how tied to the PC’s personal victories is the outcome of the battle? The GM should already know the answer to that last one; the players are responsible for the first. More questions that definitely matter to the GM are: What are the consequences of victory, of loss?
A GM should come up either with opposing authorities that will attract the ire of the players. This can be done by creating easily identifiable enemy commanders. Or by inserting recurring villains that the players are already familiar with into the upper ranks of the enemy forces. These act as beacons or rather targets for the PCs. This giving them a direction almost immediately or at least as soon as they suss out the enemy commanders.
The GM needs to already have the personal foes of the PCs in places of power. This is even if it is only an honorary or champion position. But it is where the foe holds a strategic position or their loss will cause a fault in opposing morale. Essentially the NPC commanders and champions (and possibly shock troops) are the true main foils to the PCs. Previously introduced foils are valuable in battle set-pieces. As the PCs have some animosity already built towards them they become prominent targets within the enemy force.
The PCs need to not only be able to change the course of history but should be willing to do so in the course of the battle. Perhaps the course of a wider conflict. War, in the context of this article, refers to a series of battles fought strategically. The outcome of each battle has some sort of political, economic, cultural, or raw power value. Any lesser confrontations within this wider war that lacks any of these things are skirmishes. Or are maneuvering for advantage prior to the actual strategic strike. Note that each can be a set-piece unto itself if large and complex enough.
With a full-on war, the GM needs to have an idea of what the impact will be. Whether on the history of the setting/world or the resultant mythology spun around those events later on. Hopefully, this mythology includes tales of the PCs exploits and conduct on the field of battle as well as victories. Much less the mundane spoils of their ventures, however.
Immersive Action Sequences
Battles are in RPGs as they are in novels and movies. That is a major action sequence that can help to focus the attention of the audience. In this case, players, but they are nothing without some buildup and anticipation on the part of the PCs. The GM needs to build up to such set-piece battles and keep the attention of the players focused. The players should have a clear idea as to where their character stands on the field of battle. Not just regarding loyalties (political, cultural, etc.) but also their personal goals and wherein the command hierarchy they’ll fall.
There should be some “downtime” before the action of the battle. This including some preparation or travel as needed to build some tension using the players’ anticipation to add suspense. They should not be too confident of winning especially when they finally lay eyes on the enemy force. This goes for the reputation, rumors, and personal experiences with the enemy commanders and champions as well.
Using the technique of perspective-shifting as discussed previously the GM can immerse the players in the fight. Especially if they’re responsible for a military unit as commanders. Do not be afraid to throw in an extraneous NPC. This NPC having some backstory and a personality but otherwise the same as the rest of the nameless troop. However, one that the players can interact with and possibly to which assign some emotional value.
The structure of the battle set piece itself allows the battle to rage around the PCs. The melee scope allowing personal level fights on the battlefield. Hopefully against those targets that will make a difference to the outcome using Perspective Dilation. The description given by the GM after a Mass-Combat round is finished should be brief and clear as to the result before going into the Melee Round. This being essentially a PC-eye-level survey of the battlefield around them. Fixing in the mind’s eye the idea that the battle is raging around them as they fight.
The Structure of a Battle
Each battle as a set-piece has a certain simple structure that easily translates to game events in a tabletop campaign. As a result, set-piece battles lend their structure to the portion of the game where they occur. This structure consists of three major parts.
- The Lead-Up – The part leading up to the battle but before the forces are fielded.
- The Action – Starts as the opponents take the field and the battle proper occurring almost entirely on the battlefield. The GM should give a clear description of the battlefield around the PCs when moving from a Mass Combat round into a Melee Round.
- The Aftermath – This occurs after the fighting has stopped or with sieges when the siege ends. Clear winners and losers are not required just a definite end to the current struggle and its action.
The Lead-Up consists of the time when the battle is known to be imminent but has yet to take place. It involves the preparations for the battle, the time used to travel to the battlefield. Also, the time spent trying to track down or corner the enemy. Or even when avoiding them depending on the tactics at play.
This is also the phase where the stakes are made clear if they are not already. To clarify the stakes the GM should ask themselves what will happen if the PCs’ side loses. What will they gain if they win or even does victory or defeat hinge entirely on the PCs’ actions? Is the purpose to win or stall for time or other such goals. The players need to be clued into the answers to these questions.
The Action phase is the battle proper. Conduct this phase as previously described allowing time to dilate and constrict alternatingly for the length of the incident. During this phase, the players have the most influence beside any preparations during the lead-up. All of the major action of and the battle itself occur in this phase. This is the phase that plays most heavily into the mechanics of the system. The end of this phase of a set-piece battle is harder to judge than the end of the lead-up phase though.
The end of the action phase generally happens when the military units are no longer engaged in combat. However, this does not count the lulls in the combat. During lulls in the fighting, GMs may want to revert to the standard Melee Round to better engage the players. Note that a major lull occurs when both sides withdraw to set up camp. Thus allowing them to start up again the next day. This does count as a lull in the action rather than an end of the action phase.
These sorts of actions are counted as extended lulls in the action of the overall set-piece. Not the end of the battle. This even though certain throwbacks to the previous phase can occur here. Especially the pouring over of maps, scouting/spying, and planning for the next day. Though this is all of a smaller scale. It is on the scale of the battlefield. When the action does reach its end the game enters the aftermath stage.
The Aftermath is the result of the battle including all of the dramatic elements. These elements being the loss of friends (remember the extraneous NPC with a backstory?) or companions if a PC should fall. Hardcore roleplaying elements such as questions of morality versus emotion and practicality can arrive into the game narrative. Examples being what to do about the prisoners, what about the wounded both theirs and ours. Are there any refugees to deal with?
How many fighters were routed and from what sides/units? Did they flee into the countryside to become another albeit smaller but more dispersed threat later on? Did the PC’s side win or lose and if either where are the PCs and what actions do they take? Is this just the start of a larger war or the finale of a campaign? What about the families of the dead and wounded? How are the PCs treated after their victory or failure, after a costly victory or an awful slaughter? How terrible was the cost to both or either side and will it lead to diplomatic talks or intricacies as a result?
Whatever the results, both long term and short, the immediate scene should sear itself onto the minds of the players. The scene would be that of the war dead spread across the field and the destruction of the landscape. This vital piece of narrative description can be used as a capper to the action immediately after the fighting. Among this rack and ruin is where the PCs have some breathing room to survey their surroundings. The GM should give players time to react afterward before the storm of questions and logistics fall on their heads.
Some Miscellaneous Fodder
A battle or for that matter, war, tends to expose the politics at work and/or those that have failed. It also allows all sides to display their military pageantry, their colors, and heraldry. How the generals and commanders conduct battle. Even how the armies are structured exposes a lot about the cultures engaged in the fighting. Particularly when compared/contrasted with each other. War can reveal the true cultural values of a people through raw violent action. This action often contrary to what its representatives may tout. Here the GM can tailor each battle to their campaign world and put more of their imagined cultures on display.
Along with the pomp and politics of war as well as its reflection of the true inner workings of a culture engaged in it war can also have far-reaching consequences. Even a small battle will have some far-reaching and long-lasting effects. The most common of these are stray soldiers including mercenaries. Those who have decided to stick around and survive by pillaging the countryside. Perhaps after deserting their respective outfits or fleeing battle.
Another major and the most visible consequence is the displacement of the locals. Especially true of battles fought in or around a settlement, town, or city. The PCs can be caught up in these peoples’ struggles to just survive. While trying to find another place to settle or just picking up the pieces of their former lives.
Most if not all, would also bear the burden of war forced upon them. This by powers that they have no part or parcel in as well. They would also suffer the loss of material wealth regardless of how meager and some severe permanent physical injury. Refugees and survivors would also bear the mental scars of the war that they had suffered through. Perhaps along with some of the combatants.
The trauma of war can cause a permanent mark on the minds of NPCs and PCs. However, it can also allow them to evolve dramatically such as a rethinking of their alignment (if such a thing exists in the system used). Possibly even causing symptoms of mental illness. Again, if included in the rule-set or even used within the play of the group.
War trauma can be used as a catalyst allowing the player to make sudden modifications to their character. These represent their involvement letting the in-game events dramatically shape the character. Note that small or singular battles often should not go this far. Although characters are free to rethink their stances on fighting on larger scales. Also possibly suffering personal trauma such as the loss of a friend in smaller battles.
A set-piece battle in its very structure involves tension, action, and aftermath providing plenty of roleplaying and roll-playing opportunities. It creates an incident with strategic, dramatic, and consequential levels. It is also a great value to immersion dragging the players along by their characters from anticipation to high-action to realizations or character awakenings in the aftermath.
Battles are also incredibly flexible not only acting as a finale to a campaign but also kick-off a wider conflict. This wider conflict composed of many more such set-pieces. Battles and war will have long-lasting results and consequences that can be explored in an ongoing campaign. This is especially true in a Living Campaign.
Making use of a Mass Combat system within a campaign allows GMs to add spectacle, drama, and exhibit a larger conflict that can work out to an epic scale. Essentially create a big and valuable set-piece. However, a single battle can serve as the finale of an adventure-filled campaign in PC Group centric campaigns. Hopefully resolving most if not all active storylines, snipping loose threads, and ending character arcs in one explosive action sequence.
Battles allow the PCs to accrue reputations and trauma letting the players’ actions to actively sculpt and scar their characters. Using battles as set-pieces is a valuable tool for the well-rounded Gamesmaster. It can help to spice up the game for their group engaging their players on multiple levels at once.
Mapping is an integral part of Game-Mastering any roleplaying game. Maps are infinitely useful. They functionally visualize settlements (towns, fortresses), ships, or caves, ruins, and dungeons as well as over-maps of landscapes and countries. I also know it can be tough even to get started much less work through to a completed map.
Over a couple of decades of Game-Mastering, I have worked out a certain routine. A routine to follow when formulating and creating maps. Just to be sure of this, I took notes while I created the map for Manifold Maps #2. This routine can get my mind moving and the creative juices flowing even when caught at a standstill. Occasionally, however, I do still run into roadblocks.
Portions of the map I am not happy with or the inability to get a solid picture of what I am trying to do are common obstacles. I also sometimes just seem to run out of ideas somewhere near the beginning. I have learned to work through these dry spells. However, I never try to force it. Eventually, not counting for a possible time-crunch though, I can get going at it again. Although I can stall out for more than a day or two sometimes. Most map-making does involve some stops and starts.
Writing this piece was a personal exploration into my own creative process once I started to realize that I had a process and was working through steps to achieve a completed piece that I was ultimately satisfied with. I hope that others will in the very least find this interesting if not helpful in their own mapping endeavors. The first step in map-making is to have a symbol key at the ready.
Make the Master Key
It is important to have a clear and legible symbol key. This is in order to populate your maps with objects, features, and scenery not to mention encounters, treasures, and traps. A Map Key also sometimes referred to as a Legend is a listing of symbols with their meanings. It is needed to understand a map that uses its symbols. The key can be on the map itself often quartered off. However, often Games-masters(GMs) might want to use as much of the sheet as possible. So using a Master Key, a universal map key often on a separate sheet of paper, is most useful.
I have a standard master symbol key that I use for most of my maps. I also may use a few alternate symbols required in certain situations. The key that I use includes adopted symbols and has been refined over a period of several years. So, it might take a while to build or collect a master key suited to your purposes. Personally, I am more concerned when using my key with speed and clarity. I wanted to include symbols in my Legend that are easy to recognize and distinguish from each other. They also had to be easy to draw fast and easily especially when sketching. When in doubt, find already existing ones and crib and adapt them to your needs.
To Start With
I often start with the vision or concept of a single chamber. Which for one reason or another is interesting to me as well as clear in detail. It is often a central or entrance chamber that gives the players a visual taste or general atmosphere of the entire place but not always. Frankly, I grasp at whatever I can clearly visualize. This can be a central or entrance chamber, some side passage, or even the outside mouth/entrance to the place.
An alternate method is to just start laying down features then work a single chamber around those features. This to get the starting point from which to work outward. This I do when the first method is not working for me. This technique is a little more hit or miss. However, I usually come out with something if not a handful of possible chambers to begin plotting.
Going back to the visualized chamber; I will sketch this room and try to fumble around with surrounding chambers. How they relate on the map to the central chamber and how they connect. I make a real mess with a pencil on a piece of paper trying to refine the central chamber. Including as I try to find a layout and develop a few chambers that I can string together. This includes creating additional chambers to place on the paper like puzzle pieces, trying the best and most pleasing fit if not the most sadistic or unexpected configurations.
Once a map starts to form, I also try to gain another main idea that may add to the map in a few different ways. These central ideas or main features can include canyons, large pits or fissures, bodies of water, burrows or dugouts that were not a part of the original structure, historical additions or modifications, etc.
The Big Idea
This idea should fill a decent portion of the map, run through it, or help to shape the map and arrangement of chambers. This idea can be a natural or not-so-natural feature, the purpose of the structure that I am mapping or the history of the place that would shape it or its features. With this in hand, I will take a new sheet of paper, sketch the chambers that I designed previously, and use my new idea to arrange the layout.
After I have the layout sketched, I try to add as many details to each chamber (using the SYMBOL KEY) as possible but not so much as to crowd the sketch. I also write notes (sometimes with arrows) around the sketch that I need to draw the refined rough draft or those that need to be included as notes for the map even if they are not present on the map itself. This is also the time that I start writing down ideas for a title.
The title is often times, but not always, based on the central feature or main idea of the map because it is easier to conceive of a name that way. Other things to consider when running through names for your map are its history, current or former uses, what or who may or did reside there, and its reputation (if any). I also like titles that are eye-catching i.e. sound cool and maybe a bit cheesy.
Refining the Rough
Now I have my messy pencil sketch. The next step is to carefully pencil a copy of the map on a piece of graph paper. I try to include any notes or symbols on the original rough version. In addition, I take the time to refine my map, add, change, or subtract chambers or other details. In addition, I decide which notes are convertible into symbols and the need for any new ones.
I prefer working with my hands although most of you might want to use other methods, which is fine. Also, I already have all the art supplies so I should use them. My roughs are done entirely in pencil. This refined rough draft is what I use as my blueprint.
I then trace only the parts of the map I will ink. Those are scanned into Photoshop where I have all my Legend symbols ready to place. I trace the main non-keyed features and walls then clean it up in Photoshop. This is while dropping in the keyed elements and text resulting in the final draft of the map. Essentially, I use Photoshop to create the final polished version of the map. It looks cleaner and the quality is easier to reproduce across several maps if need be.
- Decide on a Master Key/Legend to use
- Try to come up with a single chamber as a starting point
- Refine it and start thinking about other chambers around it and how they fit together with it
- Add a central feature or idea to help shape the entire map
- Start penciling a rough draft from your preliminary sketches
- Trace off, detail, and refine a draft from the former that will be used as the map blueprint
- Draw your map based on that blueprint refining your design were necessary
It is through this process that I draw maps. These include those found in the Zombie Horror book and hopefully future publications. The difficulty really is coming up with the bits and pieces then fitting them together into a coherent, useful, and hopefully aesthetically pleasing map. Start small and work your way out adding in new, bigger ideas as you refine the map. Eventually, you will end up with a complete map. Remember that it does not have to be huge or too complex to be useful. Lastly, the tools to produce should not matter as much as your own personal skill and knowledge with them.
Last month I posted a quick and dirty poll about the feelings role-players have about in-game death when it occurs. The results were interesting although I think I could have been more specific. Perhaps I would add in a few other options should I ever post another similar poll. I published the results here if you have not already seen them in the original post. In addition, I try to clarify my intentions with the poll.
Death Poll Results
Above all, here are the results of the poll that concluded 11/28/2019. The original blog entry and poll results are no longer available, sorry.
My Poll Answer
Subsequently, where I fall in the results would be a combination of the top three options. Although on the poll itself, I would have probably selected the top option. My reason is that I want death to mean something. Therefore, the occasion would be somber, maybe my in-game plans are dashed by the death (this has happened with my evil characters). This would allow my character to express their feelings about the situation in their own way. I find it fun to try to figure it out and then carry it out.
I like trying to construct and figure out my character’s emotional life. It’s fun to build their backgrounds, physical bodies, and spiritual qualities as well as working out their abilities and powers. After that, it is all about building their actual hearts during role-play taking every opportunity to explore them as well as using them to explore the game world.
What I Intended
I intended to try to find out how other Players and GM’s feel about the event of the death of Player Characters at their tables. Consequently, judging by the comments, I was perhaps not clear enough on that front. I was (and am) interested in the emotions directed at the game and its participants that character death provokes. That was what I was pursuing with this poll.
What I Forgot
A few of the comments about the poll did point out that I had forgotten at least two points. These being Death for Drama’s Sake and In-Game Death serves to reinforce the idea of Death as a Looming Force. Death for Drama’s Sake means that a player willingly conspires with Games-Master to have their character die for dramatic or story purposes essentially, death for the sake of the narrative.
This to me seems to be more applicable to more story-oriented games. However, I do utilize NPC’s in a very similar manner. I try to get the NPC familiar with the Players even perhaps becoming a friend. When the Players become attached I try to manipulate that relationship to my ends. This can range anywhere from dramatic death hopefully towards an end not just for drama, to betrayal by an ally. In the latter case, if the character survives I try to have them become a thorn in the Players’ sides maybe even evolving the NPC into a major villain (see Dark Lords: Building Better Lords of Evil).
Death As Looming Force
I also seemed to forget to address Death as a looming force. If there is a potential for PCs to die even on a bad roll or badly misjudging a dangerous situation then death is ever-present. However, this just adds in the risk factor and the attached thrill when the PCs escape or power-through dangerous scenarios. A Player Character death just serves to bring this looming presence to the fore of everyone’s mind, fully integrating it and making it an actual part of the game world. I might have still left this option off the poll though even had I thought of it. The reason is that I am more interested in what emotions the participants are feeling generally directed towards the game precipitated by the actual death rather than about the general presence of it.
There are inevitably angles that I have still missed. However, as in-game death and even the narrowed subject of the general emotions it brings out, death is still a very broad subject with tons of nuance all over the place. Polls are meant to be focused and provide information about opinions that can be used to build generalities about the polled group. Note this poll was very small serving more of an opinion poll of those who bother to read my blog.
How I See In-Game Death
I see in-game death as a natural risk of adventuring, if you are doing it right then you run the risk of dying sometimes horribly. Similarly, death is an ever-present shadow in the back of any adventurer’s mind. However, I do not think it should be an overwhelming aspect of the game. It should be attached to the major risks and challenges found in a good adventure and sudden unpredictable death should be a rare occurrence but something that can definitely happen on a bad roll. A unique aspect of the game based on the dice.
As mentioned before, I do see it as an opportunity for drama and roleplaying. It is a place where characters can express and build character. Previously, I did go into more detail in Tabletop Meditations #10: Death where I expand upon the idea of the Good Death and talk about Perma-Death and TPK’s. The blood spilled in the course of a quest lends the struggle meaning. Particularly if it is the blood of heroes, allies, and friends. Death flavors the sweetness of victory, enhances loss providing a real drive to dive back in, at least for me.
I definitely do not see it as the tool of GM’s judgment. It is more something that is a part of the game world. It is what is likely to happen in the course of high adventure. When it does happen, it should have some sort of impact whether that is a downer session or an opportunity to turn up the roleplaying aspects of the game.
Addressing a Few of the Comments
Lethality in Gaming came up a lot in the comments concerning certain specific gaming systems. I was not particularly interested in game system lethality in this particular poll. Although maybe an option of “I Play in High Attrition Systems, It’s Just How it Goes” would be appropriate to address this. However, I do not think that the previously mentioned addresses the feeling of someone who is playing a character under those circumstances. I would assume that since they are willingly playing a system with a high mortality rate that they already know their character has a high chance of death so that seems like it would fit under the option No Big Deal, Time to Generate Another Character which did fall into 4th place with 11.26%.
Is death a more nuanced subject than the structure of this poll seems to address, well, yes but it is a very simple poll. In short, its purpose was to cull some very specific information on a subject narrowed to produce a specific if an informal range of data. As explained before the purpose was to gauge the feelings tied to in-game PC deaths based on what I have seen discussed across the internet and in my personal gaming experience.
These reactions to death range from viewing it as an opportunity, placing blame, viewing it as a problem to be solved (the 0% popular The Character Build was Wrong for the Campaign option by the way), to indifference. I did miss an option for anger but I have found that those who angry at the table over their character dying very rarely come back to run another character ever again, however, if I run a similar or more finely tuned Death Poll, I would include one or two anger options.
The death poll was an interesting exercise and in-game death is certainly a point of interest for many other hobbyists besides me. Death would be an overarching subject especially in any adventure game where risk is a part of the fun. Death also can stand for a permanent loss such as a loss of limb or complete isolation from a hard-fought opportunity via a heroic choice but this poll focused exclusively on Character Death. After all, what fun is it playing an immortal or a character that cannot lose in a meaningful way?
Please, if you have suggestions or comments feel free to leave them. Especially, if you have a suggestion for a new poll definitely feel free to post that.
P.S.: I will be taking a break from the blog for the holidays and New Year. The blog and the Cabal of Eight II will be back in late January. Later that same month the Armatelorum will be released (finally).
So let’s talk NPC Combat strategy.
Whether small groups or full-on military units Non-Player Characters (NPCs) can benefit from better strategy. This so that they can present better challenges for players. Especially if Player Characters (PCs) tend to just barrel through their enemies with little trouble even when the challenges are supposedly on par. Typically, it seems Game Masters (GMs) just rely on assembling a bad-guy team based on individual role (not a bad strategy), plain raw power, and on the dice to prevent a PC massacre. In addition to this old mixed-results standby, there are four strategies for putting together a better battle. However, to conduct a better battle the Game-Master must first construct its framework.
First, You the GM must have a specific goal that will be met by the use of strategizing NPCs. Second, decide which of the 4 combat strategies to use and in which combo. Third, have an idea of or be able to improvise a twist before it’s over. You need to know which goals a battle will fulfill. The basic strategies that the NPCs will use to conduct the battle, and what twist (if any) that will occur in the course of the battle.
The Four Combat Strategies are Confrontation, Ambush, Herding, and Gauntleting. All four of these are simple and time-tested strategies. Strategy referring to a series of planned actions when carried out to the final action is assumed to achieve a specific result. In other words, strategy is plotting out a path to victory in reference to the field of battle. This brings us to what exactly the word battle is referring to in this article.
Battle refers not necessarily to a large war or even a combat between two large forces. It can be a simple struggle between two groups of characters with opposing goals. Both sides are using strategy to tilt the scales in their favor. This can occur on the field of battle, contest, or through manipulative means. However, this article is sticking to the simple idea of a physical confrontation where the deposition/elimination of the other will lead to the desired results.
At the end of a battle, there should be one last unexpected thing, a call to reinforcements initially held back etc., it does not necessarily have to be clever or even turn the tables. It can be as simple as a sniper trying to take out a valued NPC, commander, or PC in vengeance. It can even be a strategy that has already been implemented but not obvious or was hidden until the very end, revealed when it can be the most devastating. This is the twist. A twist in this context is simply another hurdle or one last blow dealt below the belt to engender drama.
GM Battle Goals
To conduct a better battle you have to decide what purpose the battle or confrontation serves in the game. Is it an action set piece, a challenge that breeds immersion, or a fight meant to force the players from their comfort zones? There must be a purpose. A desired outcome for implementing the battle in the first place so that you can best prepare.
A battle as an action set piece, which is just an action sequence, perhaps an action sequence bigger than those that had come before, could be the climax to a story arc or something that has been building up long before the battle. During gameplay the set piece can be built up through preparation (think preparation montage of an 80’s action flick) or a series of confrontations otherwise creating anticipation.
An example is an NPC villain that has gotten the best of the PCs on multiple situations that they now view as a rival and are chomping at the bit to get a piece of. However, when the battle rolls around they find out he’s an enemy commander, mercenary, or champion. They then realize that their chance will be on the battlefield. The action set piece serving to satisfy player anticipation especially at its climax.
Besides the action set piece, the GM can have other goals such as an important challenge for the PCs, to dislodge the Players from a current rut, but most of all they should have the goal of NOT killing off their players. As a challenge, a battle can bring a real threat to the PCs forcing strategizing and thus immersion for players. This is especially true if they are facing an enemy for which the typical direct confrontation strategy will not work. The players may have previously learned this lesson the hard way.
Challenging combat can also dislodge players from their comfort zones and breaking them from inactivity. This is especially necessary when such inactivity that diverts their energies from the campaign goal and that which has little to no character benefit. The emergence of an enemy that requires extra care and planning can motivate players and thus their characters to head towards a specific goal. However, the enemy should not be so overwhelming as to prematurely end the PCs careers unless they take an obviously stupid course of action.
In addition, remember not to kill off players. A TPK (total party killed) should not occur though a few PCs may be cut down in the course of the battle itself especially if it is a large set piece or the finale to a campaign. In the lead up to the battle they should not die. However, if one should fall, it should be played up to prey on the remaining characters’ thirst for vengeance. What makes tabletop sessions interesting is the evolution and building of characters through experience and trials. That story ends when they fall.
The Four Strategies
The four strategies most effective for NPC’s to carry out in search of victory are the time-tested Head Long Confrontation, the Ambush, Lemming Herding, and of course, Gauntleting. These are simple, easy to understand, and implement, and best of all they can be extremely effective when used properly and with a little luck.
The Headlong Confrontation is the most familiar and common of battle types some would say overused but when one or both sides believe they have the superior power it is the most direct and effective if that assumption is true. A headlong confrontation is an encounter where the NPCs come right at the PCs with little or no set up beforehand or use of simple tactics such as ambush or surprise attacks.
The NPCs can still try to conduct strategy during a straight up fight by either maneuvering their combat lines, attempting flanking, charging the PCs, or using individual combat skills or abilities to the service of their comrades. Typically, these types of confrontations should be among the first the PCs face when dealing with an enemy force that will escalate later in the game. This gives time and opportunity to build up animosity and grudges on both sides naturally.
An Ambush on the other hand is where the enemy takes position ahead of time often concealed in wait for their foes hoping to gain a certain advantage. The advantages of this strategy are gaining a surprise attack on the target, gaining a position of advantage, or the ability to target specific members of the enemy force right when the battle starts. A strike from afar with such things as a hidden war-engine and especially with magic can also be considered a form of ambush sometimes even when the PCs are expecting some form of attack. However, ambushes always run the risk of detection.
The detection of an ambush nullifies the advantage of the enemy group but may not reveal each individual enemy allowing them to still get sneak attacks on individual PCs. Even when the PCs are expecting attack, on guard, they may not expect the kind of attack or the angle it takes in its trajectory at them thus still catching them off guard. Therefore knowing the type of ambush is just as critical as knowing when and where it will happen.
Concerning mass-combat (a large-scale battle) units, ambushes are often perpetrated by smaller more maneuverable units whose purpose it is to disrupt the enemy supply lines or disrupt an advance. The smaller unit will ambush a vulnerable target that may be larger and then will pull back before the tide of battle turns on them. Ambush in the terms of mass-combat is typically a harassment tactic although it is not impossible that an entire army can ambush another. This happened once in recorded history (Hannibal ambushing the Romans at Trasimene) but in a fantasy world, other factors may make this a more frequent occurrence.
The third strategy, Lemming Herding concerns getting the players to wander into a trap or a blind alley. It is tricking or steering the PCs by the NPCs (not the GM) into a position of vulnerability and then striking immediately. This can involve baiting with a weaker force and getting the PCs to pursue, kidnapping a beloved NPC or weakest PC, or stealing a valued object and letting the PCs either chase them or leaving easy to follow clues to the chosen location for them to follow later.
The final strategy and the costliest is Gauntleting. This is having groups of weaker enemies hitting in waves and/or sniping out the player group in order to weaken them and use up their resources before the main brunt of the enemy makes its move. This strategy not only costs the NPCs in lives, albeit low level lives, but requires an in depth knowledge of their adversaries, the Player Characters. They need to know how strong they are, what the limits of their abilities and equipment are. This strategy is often the last in a series of maneuvers having the drained and battered PCs coming out of the other end of the gauntlet only to find themselves exactly where the enemy wants them: in a direct confrontation with a superior, fresh, and eager force.
After the PCs and NPCs have made their initial contact, the NPCs have tried all the strategies at their disposal, and the PCs believe they are at the end of the fight; it is time for the twist. The twist takes three major forms: Choosing the Field, the Betrayal, and Reserve Forces.
Choosing the Field involves the enemy deciding either directly or with some manipulation as to where to face the PCs which of course plays to the enemy’s strengths. This often involves a lot of sabotage, deliberate clues, political manipulation, and essentially implementing the Lemming Herding strategy in varying degrees just to allow the NPCs to select the field of confrontation. Sometimes the enemy can prey on the honor of the PCs by challenging them to show up at prescribed time and location for a duel. At this late point, this can allow the enemy to make use of a land feature or hidden cache unknown to the players allowing for a nasty surprise that stands the chance of turning the tide or stealing victory just when it was so close. It tightens the tension very fast and can turn the campaign path on a dime if successful.
The Betrayal occurs when the PCs discover a character within their inner circle to be a traitor working for the enemy. They can be working in the capacity of a thief, saboteur, spy, manipulator, or an assassin. This betrayer, there can be more than one, is usually an NPC especially a torchbearer or other hireling type. If they were a more trusted NPC such as a frequent ally or a supplier, the results can be more devastating in terms of combat and in emotional stress. At this late point a sudden betrayal can not only turn the battle but also it very likely will cost a PC their life if not creating a new foe to pursue after the initial one is defeated.
The Reserve Forces twist is when the enemy has a hidden reserve of warriors or soldiers hidden or camouflaged somewhere near the battlefield lying in wait for a specific signal to join the fight. This twist is a definite game changer during a battle and can if the PCs figure it out in time become a new goal within the greater battle to try to snuff out or stop the signal. Of course, this strategy can also apply to the PCs and their forces as well with the goal inverted with them trying to implement the signal and maybe the villains trying to stop them. Be careful to implement twists sparingly and believably.
Do not just tack it on. The twist can become cliché very quickly and seem like a case of railroading if it suddenly changes the tide of battle with absolutely no clue that it was coming. Note that a clue can consist of a demonstrably clever enemy commander and/or a strange uncalled for confidence on the battlefield.
GMs can heighten challenge by allowing their NPCs to make strategic decisions, having a clear goal that the battle will meet, and by implementing a twist at the end. To wage a better battle the GM must first have a specific purpose in waging that battle: challenging the PCs, stirring Players out of ruts, adding in an impressive set piece.
After you, the Game-Master has constructed your battle you need to decide on the strategies and methods that the NPCs will use and how the twist at the end will play out. This helps to create a challenge that can get inactive players acting and engage them in a very specific way thus helping immersion. Battles can also be very cool (or tragic) set pieces that put an exclamation point to the end of an adventure or a campaign.
Such battles make great tabletop tales to pass around and retell to receptive audiences.
Your player group has just slaughtered an entire village for the hell of it, they kill every other NPC that has any words with them, and they loot every corpse. In fact, loot is just one excuse they use to participate in the slaughter of unfortunate NPCs. What you have on your hands is every GM’s nightmare, a gaggle of Murder Hoboes.
The problem of murder hoboing is as old as fantasy roleplaying games themselves. A problem best dealt with directly in-game though out-of-game preparation can help to mitigate its appearance. The term itself comes from the commonality that most adventurers are essentially homeless wanderers looking for wealth and power through fighting enemies, participating in expeditions, and general adventuring.
Murder hoboing is a problem because it can derail an adventure by killing off of important NPCs thereby disposing of any important information they were to relay to the PCs, cause utter chaos in game rendering all the prep work a GM has done fruitless, and may squelch the fun of those actually trying to engage the game world. Ultimately it rests with the GM to work with the offender to get things back on pace. However, direct confrontation might not be the best or effective way to go about things instead attempts from within the game should be tried first to gently coerce the Player through their character. Every group has had a player that has done this and often groups do go through these types of phases early in their existence.
However, not all adventurers are Murder Hoboes though the majority seem to be itinerant by their very nature. A Murder Hobo is essentially an adventurer that simply goes around killing everything in their path in order to reap experience points (XP) or to loot the corpses of their victims. They often do not discriminate between villains, allies, monsters, animals, innocents, and criminals. If it exists within the game, worth is broken down into loot or XP.
On the other hand, Murder Hoboing is the behavior manifesting from the previously mentioned outlook by a Player using their Player Character (PC). A player may hold this simplistic view due to boredom, a long lull or inactivity in the game, or lack of immersion leading to said boredom. This can also come from playing a character that has been built solely for combat and nothing more in a game that consists of little or no combat or has long stretches between the actual fighting and the other RPG elements.
There are three major strategies or courses of action that can be used to mitigate murder hoboing that do not directly target the Player. The first called the Session Zero approach strives to construct a set of rules and understanding that will set up the boundaries for Players and the GM. This is a preemptive strategy.
The second strategy is to require a Backstory from each Player for their character in an effort to invest the Player in the fate of their character. Hopefully inspiring them to not misuse them to derail the game. The last approach is to Bait the offender and essentially use the potential fate of their character to send a warning to them that their attempt at having fun stomping all over everybody else’s’ will only end in frustration for them. This is still an indirect approach but is very close to being directed at the player him or herself and if misused that is exactly what it will feel like to them, so use this last approach with caution.
Session Zero is the pregame where the group gathers to generate characters and where the general rules and expectations of the group can be discussed establishing a general code of Player behavior. The GM can give their input in character builds so that players can create characters that can participate in as much of the play as possible thereby avoiding the boredom and over-specialization that can lead to the adoption of the murder hobo mindset. Typically, a Session Zero is a meet up to generate characters and discuss table manners before the next actual play-session. This preliminary session also gives the players a chance to come up with and write backstories for their characters.
Players that have worked on a backstory will have more invested in their characters. Thus, they are less apt to go on uncharacteristic killing sprees or randomly murder NPCs. Granted that their character is not actually a homicidal maniac. A backstory also allows a GM to integrate a character into the game world and even into the main thrust of a campaign by linking elements in their backgrounds with adventure and campaign elements. This also gives the GM ammo when a PC does go berserk and needs to be reined in allowing for in-game story options to do that if only as a distraction.
This brings us to baiting. This strategy involves using a situation or NPC that appeals to the worst nature of the Player(s) in order to lure them into a confrontation. The bait of course is much more than can be seen, they are characters designed to prey on the weaknesses of the offender(s) as well as defend against their strengths. Either this forces the offender’s compatriots to join them or back away during the fight. If they survive that encounter then bait them again to send a warning shot across their bow in order to let them know they may not be able to tell a bait-NPC from the average NPC.
Whereas the previous strategies do not directly target the offending player(s), remember the bait tactic means the player(s) has to take it, there are effective strategies that do. These techniques directly oppose the PCs in game and if over-used may cause players to resent the GM. They may come to believe the GM is laying tracks (as in railroading) or just deliberately beating up on their characters, so try not to over-use these techniques. I suggest that these strategies should be utilized when the characters start exhibiting or carrying out murder-hobo behaviors. These tactics are the Boss Strategy, making use of diegetic Power Structures, and deploying an Avenger.
A one time-tested strategy to handle murder hoboing has been to insert increasingly powerful NPC’s (paladins are common) to act as adjudicators and avengers essentially using the Video-Game Boss Strategy. A boss in this context is an NPC that functions as a roadblock to the endeavors of the players. Sometimes they can also function as a landmark, especially as an indicator of player power level. An example is an NPC showing up early in the PC’s career that beats the hell out of them and gets away.
Eventually the PC’s catch up to this NPC and are able to defeat them in a later confrontation allowing players to demonstrate not only their characters’ increased powers and abilities but also (hopefully) their better teamwork and maybe ability at planning and strategy. Bosses are ideally effective combatants up to the point of defeating the players, that is they are hard to defeat but are not overwhelmingly or impossible to knock down.
The Boss strategy can keep the murder-hobo(es) on their toes focusing their attention. It also has entertainment value so eliminating murder hoboing due to boredom. The Boss should inspire the PCs to track them down where NPCs with information become important to that goal. A murder hobo would lose the ability to get their claws into the Boss by not sparing the “throw-away” NPCs.
A better strategy, one that increases the depth of the setting, is to impose a socio-political hierarchy (feudalism etc.) that is defined and useable in game with the NPCs holding these positions not having to be super-charged or even particularly unique. The structure will ensure that even the players eliminate those in charge there is always a replacement and all the powers above them will see the players as threats to their persons as well. Thereby hiring and sending out the boss-types not only reinforced with the authority to deal with them but with back-up coming from all angles which includes ordinary citizens as informants or even poisoners or entrappers. These people who not only believe in the system which can by themselves be enough but those who also have stakes built into the system or at least those who believe they do are very dangerous.
Overarching structures are more effective being very big and complex such as the Feudalist Hierarchy, which is basic but can be complex very quick as can succession to any of its offices. Smaller self-governing structures such as Guilds are more common but are also attached in some way to the overarching political structure by agreements, contracts, laws, and money. Meaning certain parts of the system will awaken to protect the whole as well as those parts that will see the murder-hoboes as their answer to political expediency and try to use them as such. This method can turn murder-hoboes into true role-players very quickly especially if they care anything about their characters. If the PCs still randomly murder the NPCs then an avenger may be called for.
An Avenger or Nemesis type NPC has the power and resources to hunt down and be a definite threat against the offending PCs. This type of NPC will definitely try to get them alone in a duel-like situation and will have no mercy convinced that they are the good guy and may very well be in this situation. It should be obvious to the Players that this character is too powerful to confront directly and there should be clues dropped in the game to demonstrate this and clue the Players in. There should also be in-game moments when the PCs know a superior enemy is stalking them. This helps to focus the murder-hobo(es) on something other than murder hoboing.
Murder Hoboing can drag a game down into pure boredom with the GM paralyzed due to a vital tool being broken. The ability to put clues and raw information into the mouths of NPCS is extremely important to running a game. It also boils roleplaying games down to simple number crunching as murder hoboing often involves greed for XP but this is not always applicable. However, there a ways to mitigate and fight this lazy approach to RPGs that some players have or may fall into.
The more passive and preventative approaches are running a preliminary session (Session Zero), require character backstories from each player, and do not be afraid to bait troublesome player characters. These should be attempted before the more direct methods are used. The more direct methods to combating murder-hoboes are employ increasingly powerful NPCs as adjudicators, make use of in-game power and political structures, and sending out avenger or nemesis type NPCs directly at the PCs. Note that the GM should never overuse these direct tactics as players may take it as direct attacks on them by the GM, so use sparingly.
Of course, if all else fails maybe it’s time to let go of the troublesome player or try to adjust to the group’s method of play if it is the entire group and a new one is not an option. Maybe such a group is better at being the villains.
The Player Characters (PCs) are traveling through a fetid, sweltering swamp. Halfway through their adventure 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.
In any given fantasy RPG, but by no means all of them, a remnant empire or a landscape littered with the bones of an ancient empire sometimes mysterious oft times still vaguely powerful. Old empires appear throughout fantasy and thus many fantasy tabletop roleplaying games. Using this trope makes it a little easier to begin to build your own setting using this as the basis for a dark age or at least an age where the empire is in a state of decline this loss of power being vital to adventuring.
Ancient empires lend a sense of history, which can still be seen and sometimes experienced to a game world. They can provide explanations for some of gaming’s oldest tropes, especially for the ubiquitous dungeon, and present adventure hooks in the forms of artifacts, lost knowledge, and explorable ruins. The old empire (or empires) that may be present in a given fantasy world also carry their own tropes and various resemblances to those of real-world history. Old empires are useful to the GM in the context of RPG campaigns but also carry certain disadvantages.
When speaking of empires there are certain terms that are inseparable in most incarnations of this fantasy trope. These are Empire, Imperium, and Citizen.
The word empire carries with it some baggage in and of itself due to actual history and it conjures a very specific type of image. In the popular imagination, the word empire often conjures to mind the imperial wonders of the ancient world, marble statues massive multi-columned buildings and/or massive armies that could drink lakes and inland seas dry. Of course, in the modern context however it also brings to mind the subjugation of indigenous peoples, the snatching of land, and constant wars of conquest.
Today the word empire is used to describe an extensive state made up of several ethnic groups but ruled by only one of them. It has, at least since the early 20th century, also carried the suggestion of tyranny and brutality, inherited from the practices of modern European colonial powers. [Grafton, Anthony, ed. 2010. The Classical Tradition. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Mass. Empire. pg.310]
The imperial entity also means the mass rule of law and an enforced order over a given territory. An empire allows for widespread civility allowing the gentler aspects of civilization to take hold as well as providing the structure for the crueler aspects of humankind to prevail (the argument for barbarism as told by R.E. Howard). Education and philosophy blossom as well as giving a chance for cults and even gangs (a criminal underworld) to appear.
Imperium refers, in common use, to the empire and its forces sometimes with exclusion to its people. Here it serves more as a reference to its machinery rather than its people or possessions. More often, it is synonymous to Empire and often it is used for both. However, it is actually a reference to the territorial reach and extent of the empire. “One thing all the various meanings of the word imperium have in common is the association between extended territorial dominion and military rule.” [Grafton. 310] This basic definition is as old as Rome and is less vague than the casual usages. “As early as the 1st century BCE, the Roman historian Sallust had used the phrase Imperium romanum to describe not merely the power but also the geographical extent of the authority of the Roman people.” [Grafton. 310]
When it comes to the term Citizen when speaking of empires this refers to those individuals that the Imperium sees as the core of its existence often making official capacity to accommodate that (or those) group(s) cultural traditions and to those that it has a legal and/or philosophical responsibility. Note also that there will be some legality involved with citizenship handled by an imperial bureaucracy. The reality of citizenship however is always an unpredictable affair and will vary throughout the history of the empire. In game terms, imperial citizens are often snobby and serve as exemplars of over-civilized fops that are incapable of not getting themselves killed not just in the wilds of the world but in the rural farmlands as well.
IMPERIAL CITIZENS are so civilized that they have given up WAR in favour of POLITICS and POISON. The Management considers this effete and will direct you to feel contempt for most of these people, except the Emperor, until you come upon the elderly man who retains the old virtues of the Empire. A former General, he is totally trustworthy and warlike and scorns politics too. He will become a staunch supporter of the Tour and of great help either on the QUEST or in SAVING THE WORLD. [Jones, Diana Wynne. 2006. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Revised and Updated Edition. pg.95]
An empire from the POV of a player in an RPG setting on the other hand is one of a civilizing force that carries with it a corrupting force as well as the violent force of law. It seems a bit libertarian but when it comes to a group of often somewhat individually powerful freewheeling adventurers their world view is one of reaping the benefits by hook or by crook from the landscape, evil forces, monsters, and its people. A functioning empire of course impedes this ravenous impulse of the rapacious adventurer with its far reach, armed authorities, and system of laws not to mention a potentially oppressive and faceless bureaucracy.
Even in its different phases an empire always affects the Players. A dying empire is an impediment to be overcome and its authorities avoided if possible. A long dead one presents opportunity in its corpse where adventurers can pick its bones clean. Of course, this can also happen with a dying empire in its last throes with players aligned with the barbarians at the gate perhaps riding the barbaric tide as it were, or following in its wake, or caught between a desperate authority and a savage horde.
In fantasy worlds, old empires typically have a single seed from which they are grown, a trope that helps to characterize the nature of the empire and what role it is itself to play within the game. The most common tropes are the Ancient Empire, the Lost Empire, the Evil Empire, and the Vestigial Empire.
The Ancient Empire often long gone, if not it is often senile and rapidly disintegrating, is a very common trope. It concerns a long existent imperial power that either has passed or is passing. Most of the world shares a common origin from within this type of old empire and if not from its peoples then from among its knowledge and maybe customs. These types of old empires help to build a historical foundation for a setting laying in a base layer of information in the setting giving the players a sense of history as they experience its artifacts and their characters share in its heritage. Heritage being writing, architecture, and economics, which may live on long after the empire, has died.
As this Ancient Empire was wide reaching and of course would have been involved in large engineering projects, it has left an indelible mark on the landscape not just the people and their cultures.
ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECTS tend to litter the landscape in some parts of the continent. Most of them are quite mysterious, and all of them are made of some substance not known to the present inhabitants, often of a greenish colour, or a matte black, though white is not unknown. They will be gigantic. Most of them will be pillars that touch the clouds, but ROADS and broken BRIDGES are common too. It is unknown what challenge caused earlier peoples to make things that were so very large. Most of them are no use to anyone. [Jones. 4]
Lost Empires on the other hand are often not as far reaching and are widely believed to be extinct. Within the game, they serve as a foundation for mythoi, as hidden enemies or saviors, or holders/discoverers of special knowledge. A lost empire is an empire that has somehow disappeared from history and any information on it lay in vague historical accounts, clues in place names and legends. It seems only to exist within the odd bit or curiosity that can be found by the players within myth and folklore or that they simply happen upon in the course of an adventure.
An important aspect of a Lost Empire found in fantasy RPGs are Remnant (Lost) Cities. These lost cities are tracked down through a string of clues and can exist as still functioning locales though in complete isolation a la Shangri-La or as hidden and mostly intact i.e. not pillaged ruins. A Lost Empire can also serve as a mythic foundation for stories and the explanation for any strange anomalies such as dungeons as well as certain exotic places and anomalous peoples (not always human) of the world.
In addition, a Lost Empire can serve as a nebulous threat or even enemy striking from the shadows from beyond the mists of history. These enemies must be detected, discovered, and ferreted out by the PCs. These hidden people may also serve as secret saviors to be sought, or a secret repository of special knowledge that lays hidden for the PCs to quest for.
This brings us to the unavoidable Evil Empire, which always serves as an active villain sometimes doubling as an end of the world trope. This is most often the active type of empire though the Evil Empire can also be a disintegrating ancient empire though now evil if it has not always been so due to degradation and always a definite threat. This type of ancient empire is an active villain for the players to confront and maybe even try to topple. These sorts of powers often play into the end-of-the-world trope as well sometimes possessing the power of the apocalypse other times seeking it. Usually the McGuffin said world-ending power (often an object or artifact) could instantly put an end to the evil empire instead when the PCs get involved.
Finally, we arrive at the Vestigial Empire, an empire that serves as background and mood than anything else. It is just a contrast to the wilderness and its citizens the opposite of adventurers.
VESTIGIAL EMPIRE. […] This Empire occupies an area usually slightly larger than most other COUNTRIES and you will know you are in it because the ROADS will be well made and patrolled by Imperial GUARDS in HELMETS and SKIRTS. Rest-houses line the way, a day’s march apart. The LANDSCAPE will be full of prosperous farmlands, vineyards, and olive groves, and you may even see a little light INDUSTRY, such as pottery and carpet-making. White villas crown the hills – in fact, most BUILDINGS in the Empire are white. When you reach the imperial CITY, you will find TEMPLES and colonnades as well as streets of decent houses, drains, and public Baths. The aura of civilization extends to daily life too. The Vestigial Empire is the only Country on the Tour to have POLITICS. It has a parliament and a senate and many noble CLANS to jockey for power. This keeps all Imperialists very busy, very noisy, and very likely to POISON one another. They also […] understand MONEY in a truly civilized way. [Jones. 216]
This does not mean that the Vestigial Empire was always as it is it could be the remnant of a once great ancient empire and the relics of its greatness strewn across the land. Essentially a Vestigial Empire is exactly what its name implies it often serves little actual purpose to the setting and is not necessarily any kind of impediment to the PCs, an annoyance perhaps or a place to trade but that is all. Essentially, the Vestigial Empire serves as a rest stop for the PCs and marks the line separating civilization and barbarism (according to imperialist thought).
Now if I may digress a little, there is a seminal fantasy world where old empires as an explicit idea simply do not really exist though an argument can be made for the Elves. In J.R.R. Tolkien it does seems that world lacks an Old Empire. I have always felt this lacuna when confronting the Legendarium. It seems to need at least one Old Empire in order to stitch together some of the cultures in that world.
An example being the Rohirrim, only a single regional kingdom codifies their culture. As a people, they simply descended and gathered from other people through time. Their consistency of culture seems hard to achieve in that manner alone. However, where this cultural glue seems to lack the most is with the Easterlings. Granted they follow Sauron though he seems to function more as a god or object of reverence and worship than an actual king or lord. It seems they would need unification by a powerful overlord. Joined into a single cultural force before being forged into a war machine by a powerful overlord that rules them rather than influences them from afar.
Tolkien’s world is filled with ruins but ruins of the fortresses of petty kings and lords, there is no Alexander, Rome, Ch’ing, or even Attila to serve as a basis for a united regional culture just individual heroes. His Legendarium is more concerned with lineage and personal family histories rather than politics or even major cultural diversity except where it comes to language and race. The Legendarium is more a collection of heroic stories, songs, and tales documenting the plight of certain families and individuals than a world history. So in that respect Old Empires are basically completely absent, the Elves are very similar to the Rohirrim though the ruins of their younger days tend to be more widespread.
Concerning RPGs, Old Empires are useful to Game-Masters especially with the values that can be drawn from the historical. The GM can draw from history to provide not just inspiration but also some basic facts about what an actual empire was capable of not just in temperament but technological innovation and in the development of the arts. Instead of making up value and legal systems from scratch, the GM can obtain them from history already fully laid out and time tested in both practice and enforcement.
Examples of this historical wealth are found with the Roman and Chinese empires. From the Roman the primary points being the military machine, its extreme emphasis on order, running water, a senate or discernible governing body later to be usurped by an emperor. With the Chinese its vast armies and their military organization/logistics, the capability of the mass production of goods especially arms, the development of writing, philosophy, and medicine. These are all various civilized developments, systems and discoveries that can only be advanced or even made within a stable civilization of a certain level of advancement.
The Prime Uses of an Old Empire within an RPG campaign are many. Building an Old Empire into the past of a setting can help to explain common gaming tropes like dungeons, make its heirs desperate to reclaim their “heritage” creating wider conflicts, and provide a foundational layer to the history of the world deepening its history.
Injecting History via an Old Empire provides an easy framework on which a GM can build a setting and giving their new world a sense of historical identity or lineage. This can drop clues for PCs to follow to long lost cities, leave behind valuable artifacts, and leave lost knowledge behind ripe for rediscovery. The places the adventuring PCs visit may have a visible lineage and unique identity linked to the old empire distinguished by architecture, place names, familial lineages, and political organizations.
Imperialism can serve as a motivator to both Players and the NPCs. Either can see the old empire as their heritage and want to reclaim some of that former glory. It can motivate NPC (sometimes Player) villainy through imperialism. “Just as the Roman empire had become the embodiment of the Stoic notion of the koinos nomos, the universal law for all mankind, so its heirs sought to impose their own legal and religious order on all the peoples they overran.” [Grafton. 310] An aging empire that is rapidly disintegrating may try to forge outward under new leadership or try to transform itself into a new power providing a dynamic changing backdrop where the PCs could stand to benefit from the ensuing chaos.
Old Empires can explain away Dungeons, Ruins, Artifacts, and other such RPG commonalities as its relics or ruins. As well as set the mood when traversing the ruins of its lost glory.
RUINS of former days, like ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECTS, litter Fantasyland. Only the large kind are important to the Tour, and even most of these will be just setting the mood. You are not expected to be happy on this Tour. The Ruins make you think of the sad losses of former days. But cheer up. Just occasionally you will find TREASURE in a Ruin. [Jones. 164]
Using old empires as a foundational component of your game world does have a few drawbacks. These disadvantages are Imperialist concepts inherent in an empire can overwhelm a game, the Players may become resentful of being restricted by existent imperial law and power, and old empires tend to be over-used in fantasy fiction.
This idea, old empires, is cliché territory when it comes to fantasy fiction but if the cliché is fun why not use it in an RPG campaign. As long as it doesn’t bore the Players or inhibit their characters to the point of strangling the fun out of the game it’s fine.
Imperialist concepts can begin to take hold of the game and cause certain in game tensions to become uncomfortable in real life. One of these concepts being slavery when based on certain superficial aspects of characters such as race and culture, which might get construed as stereotypes where characters may start expositing certain lines that smack of real world racism just with different names. Another example is the justifications for theft or domination, which may group certain characters together and the previous can happen the same way and may end up in slavery that then can proceed even further into the overlap.
Lastly, the PCs can become hateful of civilization within the game world and run amok if it becomes too oppressive of a force within the game. Players as well can simply become bored or frustrated with an empire that constantly boxes them in and thwarts their plans without fail. There has to be some holes to room to breathe even in a very powerful and extremely oppressive power’s demesne. Players will work hard against the odds if there is at least a glimmer of hope of success.
In conclusion, Old Empires are tropes of fantasy fiction but in terms of tabletop RPGs, they are still useful and hold some fascinating avenues to explore. Old Empires are useful to GM’s when building a history for their world and providing an explanation for the origins of some fantasy RPG tropes such as dungeons and monster haunted ruins. There are disadvantages of course when using old empires in your game. You run the risk of tramping on old clichés, letting imperialist thinking to overwhelm your fantasy, and alienating your players through the over-application of imperial will.
However, the advantages of a successful implementation of an old empire (or empires) in your game can outweigh the negatives. A successful implementation takes some lessons, inspiration, and facts from history, avoids the standard tropes though a twist on or subversion of the idea, and makes sure it enhances the fun at the table!