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Rats of Tanglethorn Pt.7: The Tree of Woe

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

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

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

Wufcor: “I surrender!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued…

Rats of Tanglethorn Pt.6: Oh My Captain!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: “*ahem* Evil game.”

Isis: “crap”

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

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

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

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

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

Isis: “Awww! Come on!”

Jenn: “Really!? REALLY!?”

Jenn: *sigh*

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

Isis: “KIND of!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued…

RPG War Mastery #7: On Medieval Fantasy Warfare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alchemical Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steam Punkery & Clockwork

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why War?

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

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

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

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

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

War Master

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

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

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

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

What about the Adventurers?

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

 

Rats of Tanglethorn Pt.5: The Ruthless Trio

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

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

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

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

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

Isis: “Sis…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenn: “Umm…”

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

Cris: “So, do you do it or not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued…

 

Rats of Tanglethorn Pt.2: The Green Well

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

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

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

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

He took another long drag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued…

 

How to Write an RPG Actual Play Blog

Here is another Hubpages article from me, Robert A. Neri Jr.A chaotic session of actual play

How to Write an RPG Actual Play Blog

This article explicitly goes through my process for when I write my actual play blog entries. The blog entry that the article refers to for examples is The Dragonslayers Pt. II: The Day the Music Died. The entry is an early one and so the writing quality is a little off but it illustrates my points of construction without them being too obvious. It also shows that the process described in my article is my process and that I have been using it and developed it over time. I consciously think about certain points when I transcribe from my notes.

Sometimes stories and incidents generated during a tabletop RPG session are worth putting out into the world for others to enjoy but how do you transform your session notes into an enjoyable read?

You can read it here: How to Write an RPG Actual Play Blog

Other Hubpages articles by Robert A. Neri Jr.:

Building Tabletop Myths

Game Mastery: Establishing Atmosphere

Game Mastery: War as Set Piece

Handling Game Flow in Tabletop RPGs

The Dark Lord: Building Better Lords of Evil

The regular weekly actual play blog, The Rats of Tanglethorn, will continue next week.

 

Rats of Tanglethorn Pt.1: Street Mercs

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

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

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

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

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

Jenn started to giggle.

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

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

Isis roared with laughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued…

 

Rats of Tanglethorn: Intro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued…

Tabletop Meditations #19: Murder Hoboes Inc.

Your player group has just slaughtered an entire village for the hell of it, they kill every other NPC thatMurder D20 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.

 

Tabletop Meditations #18: Disease

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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