Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: This Week

I was going to try and get one more article in before a moving hiatus but I’m watching the Twitter feed roll through with news about the shooting at MIT. Last night was the fire in Texas and earlier this week, the terrorist bombing at the Boston Marathon. I’m sitting here, astounded at what this week has brought this country. Looking to the news for respite yields more violence being experienced in other countries.

Reality is scary. Reality is full of terrible events and cruel people. It contains weapons and chaos and pain.

Reality is reassuring. It contains stories of hopes, new inventions and people trying to make things better. It contains heroes. Like the EMT workers and first responders. Firefighters. Marathon runners who donated blood.

I don’t really know what to say so I will just say, I hope you all stay safe. Keep your eyes open and please, lets look out for one another.

See you in Portland.


Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: A Deity’s Gotta Eat

Peaches, a symbol of longevity and immortality in Chinese culture.
Peaches, a symbol of longevity and immortality in Chinese culture.

Eating. We do it every day. I just ate some ice cream while I did some research and started writing this article. I had a nice salad for lunch while I worked on some RPG stuff. I made a nice lunch of rice, spinach and leftover bulgogi for my daughter to take to school so she could have the energy to run around. Regardless of your relationship with food, food is the fuel we as humans partake of to give us the energy to get things done. Whether that’s sit in front of a computer and type out as many words as you can, as fast as you can, or work in field from sunup to sundown, tending to plants and animals, mowing, picking, planting or something in between those two, doing stuff takes energy and we get that energy from the food we eat.

What if the stuff you did was keep the sun from falling from the sky? Watched over all merchants? Sew seeds of discord among humans? Preside over every childbirth in the land? Know everything, see everything? Reign in all these people and keep them in their domains? It would probably take a hell of a lot more than a bowl of cereal and some coffee in the morning to get that done. Deities perform the kind of tasks only deities do, residing over the natural order, inspiring, protecting, making war, rewarding and punishing on epic scales man can try to approach…but will probably fail at. It’s only natural they partake of some divine sustenance.

Some deities partake of special substances, reserved only for them to maintain their divine power. Ambrosia and nectar are the first that comes to my mind, food of the Greek pantheon. Amrita is the Hindu equivalent, a substance consumed by their deities in order to maintain their immortality. Thetis rubbed ambrosia over her infant son, Achilles’ body in an effort to make him immortal. Psyche was given ambrosia to make her immortal once Aphrodite has put her through the ringer. In China, peaches are a sign of longevity, immortality, their ultimate form being the Peaches of Immortality, a tree that takes thousands of years to flower and fruit.

In addition to the foods deities take and make for themselves, there are also the foods and substances given to them by humans, in the form of dedications, sacrifices and oblations. Cultures across the globe require certain items, certain types of animals or plants to be offered at certain times. Some deities have a taste for cigars or bananas. Some prefer speckled goats and fresh barley. Some want the first fruits of your field. Others prefer the blood of humans. The bigger the request, the bigger the sacrifice. The powers that be can be persuaded or even aided in their endeavors by the offerings of humans. No energy put in and the results can be catastrophic.

If the divine is a part of your game, what do the members of your pantheon feed upon? What type of fuel does it take for them to keep things moving and how do humans participate in this great feeding of the divine? Are they the maitre ds? Or…on the menu?

For GMs

  • Who are the various deities at play in the world? What do they preside over? Does this affect the types of sacrifices they accept and prefer?
  • Is there a food or substance that is consumed only by the deities? Why do they alone eat it? What types of powers does it grant them? What is it like?
  • How often must sacrifices be made to deities? How are these sacrifices sent forth? Offered on altars? Burned? Submerged in water? Do the people offering them get to/have to partake of the items offered?
  • Who makes the sacrifices? Who deems the sacrifices good or not?
  • What types of things make the best sacrifices? What is forbidden to be sacrificed and why?
  • Are the foods of the deities naturally occurring or must they be prepared in a certain way?
  • What would befall any mortal who partakes of food for the divine?

Plot Hooks

  • An ancient manuscript is found by the PCs, containing a recipe which if brewed and offered in a certain location will awaken an older pantheon of deities. While some think the recipe is just nonsense, others think there is more to it. Some believe it’s a sure ticket to a new age, with new rules and a new divine order. Some see it as blasphemy, something which should be forgotten. Others see it as allegory while still others think it’s a code hinting at a real elixir of immortality for humans. The PCs must decide what to do with this recipe. What do they think it is? What deities will it unleash upon the land? Are the ingredients hard to find? Who thinks what about the possibilities it contains? Can the recipe be destroyed? Who hid it in the first place and why?
  • When a plant whose fruit is reserved only for the deities is discovered to have medicinal properties that can save lives in another region, the locals are angered when ambassadors come demanding the fruit for the good of their people; according to the tradition of where the trees are from, if the fruit is eaten by mortals, it will bring destruction to the land. How do the ambassadors enter the land? How was the fruit discovered to have been such beneficial medicine? Who is protecting these trees? What is the nature of the illness the fruit supposedly cures? Which deity is the fruit for specifically?
  • When a group of woodcutters’ family members all fall terribly ill, no reason behind the mysterious illness can be found: until they are questioned by the PCs. Years ago they came upon a strange copse of trees that exuded a sweet, fragrant substance when felled. Finding the sap to be delicious, they ate it and continued their work, leaving the trees to return to later for the sticky sap. However, further events proved the woodcutters impervious to injury or illness, stronger than before and aging slowly. The only thing they have in common is the sap. They urge the PCs to find the copse of trees and acquire some sap for their families before it is too late for their loved ones, unable to go as they fear leaving their sides. What do the PCs find at the copse? What is the sap? Is the copse connected to the illnesses of the woodcutters’ families? Do the PCs partake of the sap themselves?
  • When a powerful individual finds out flower buds have started to form on a tree whose fruit will grant immortality, the PCs are send on the arduous task of retrieving it. The fruit only forms once every 100 generations and lasts for one day, with many supernatural obstacles in their way. The PCs however are indebted in some way where saying no is not an option. What is the fruit? What can they expect to encounter on their journey? Do other people know of the fruit’s forthcoming? Why are they compelled to perform such a task and how can their employer ensure they won’t mess it up and be sure they don’t steal it for themselves?
  • When an invading force takes hold of the region, they forbid certain types of sacrifices, deeming them barbaric. When natural disasters take hold of the land, the indigenous people insist it is because of the lack of sacrifices and the invaders must decide what to do. What are the sacrifices being withheld? How different is the religion of the native people from the invaders? Are the sacrifices being done in secret? Is there a link between the change in sacrifices and the natural disasters? What do the people think will happen if the sacrifices do not resume?

For PCs

  • Are you a religious person? Do you follow a particular deity?
  • What sacrifices do they require and what do they promise in return if they are offered?
  • What is most precious to you? Would you sacrifice it if you thought it would help yourself? Your loved ones? A friend? A stranger?
  • If someone offered you the ‘food of the divine,’ would you eat it?

What say you? Can you whet the appetites of the divine?

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Anniversaries

Hindu Calendar corresponding to Gregorian Year 1871-1872.
Hindu Calendar corresponding to Gregorian Year 1871-1872.

A few weeks ago I was sitting at my computer, wondering to myself, dang, Tristan. I wonder how many ‘Reality Makes the Best Fantasy’ articles you’ve written? How long have you been doing this? Imagine my surprise when I realized I had written 54 articles and it had been a little over a year! WHOA. Reality Makes the Best Fantasy had its one year anniversary and I didn’t even know it! That’s a lot of time flailing at the computer, trying to think of a topic for an article.

‘A year’ is generally the allotment of time we use when we speak of anniversaries. I mean, it’s right there in the freaking word. Sometimes we like to say, oh, it’s the one month anniversary but let’s face it, ‘anniversary’ comes from Latin, derived from ‘annus’ which means ‘year’ and ‘vertere’ meaning ‘to turn’ (the Online Etymology Dictionary and taking Latin for three years is your friend). We celebrate the turning of the year on New Years. We celebrate birthdays, the anniversaries of our births. Many state holidays are anniversaries of momentous occasions such as signings of declarations, treaties, peace accords, laws. Marriage garners wedding anniversaries, full of more flailing and trying to remember. The anniversary of a death could require certain rites to be performed or could be a time of solemn remembrance.

There are many important dates to remember and as the years pass on, the holidays and events can take on new meanings as new generations celebrate and as new events take place, changing the meanings or context of the original occasion. Those involved in the original happening might remember the raw emotion, the energy that it took to accomplish whatever took place that day. The next few years might warrant feelings of triumph, with subsequent years falling to reflection, symbolism or the movement even being co-opted by newer, fresher movements with more energy behind them.

Anniversaries are a time of observance, celebration, contemplation. When the wheel of the year has made a turn, what are the PCs remembering in your campaign? What is worth celebrating 365 days later?

For GMs

  • What types of annual celebrations are observed by the people? State holidays? Personal celebrations?
  • How long is a year? Who keeps track of the passing of the year?
  • Are there certain gifts that are given for a certain number of years passing?
  • What are the rites, rituals and celebrations to properly commemorate the passing of time?
  • Is there a deity of the year, who opens and closes it? A deity of time?
  • How carefully do people record when things happen? Who generally is in charge of record keeping and keeping track of time?

Plot Hooks

  • Ten years ago, the PCs took part in a political movement which had a great impact on their society. However, a new political group has decided to use the anniversary as the leaping point for their own agenda, an agenda the PCs don’t quite fall in line with. The PCs must try and defuse the situation before all their hard work and old dreams are undone. What did the PCs originally fight for? What did they and their friends accomplish? How many of them are still alive? What does this new group advocate and why do the PCs disagree? How do they intend to stop them?
  • After some traveling, the PCs find themselves in a town or village they had been in a year ago. Whatever went down while the PCs were there evidently had an effect as the citizens are gearing up for a huge celebration. Asked to be the guests of honor and stay on, it isn’t made entirely clear what the celebration will entail. Why are the townsfolk celebrating? What did the PCs do? How is it remembered by the people of the town? What are they getting ready to do?
  • On the one year anniversary of the rulers wedding, they and their spouse must make a pilgrimage to a certain temple in order to guarantee the fertility of the couple. The PCs are asked to escort the royal couple there, avoiding things that would delay the pair and things which might bring bad fortune to the marriage bed. How long do they have to arrive at the temple? How does the couple feel about each other? What rites must they perform?
  • When their employer suddenly remembers it is their wedding anniversary, they quickly ask the PCs to obtain an appropriate gift and track down their spouse to give it to them before nightfall. What do the PCs obtain? How do they track down the intended? Did the other spouse remember and give a gift already? What will happen if the missive falls through?
  • On the anniversary of a terrible catastrophe, the city is somber as they remember those who perished and those who were injured. The PCs must organize and facilitate an event sponsored by their church, to comfort those who still mourn and commemorate the dead. When another temple wishes to perform a ritual to ensure it never happens again, the PCs are sent to negotiate and dissuade them, telling them it is too soon. What religious order do the PCs belong to and why are they volunteering? Have they lost loved ones? How do they comfort those who are grieving? What is the ritual to be performed?
  • Local customs holds that after a certain number of years of being dead, an individual’s soul finally leaves for the afterlife. On this anniversary of their gone missing, a group of travelers/a military regiment returns to their homeland. They can’t account for their disappearance and seem startled to hear so much time has passed. The PCs are sent to investigate what happened. Why did the group disappear? Have they aged since they left? What did they originally set out to do and what were the conditions of their return? How have their families adjusted and how do they react to their return?

For PCs

  • Do you celebrate any local holidays that are annual commemorations of things?
  • When is your birthday?
  • Do you tend to try and celebrate anniversaries of events more traditionally, to reflect on the past or do you use any excuse to party?
  • Are there any events that have taken place in your life that you commemorate yearly? Do you share these events with other individuals or are they personal triumphs/tragedies?

What say you? What annual triumphs have you had around the gaming table?

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Moving

Moving Company from SLC, Utah. 1911.
Moving Company from SLC, Utah. 1911.

I’m moving in a few weeks, from Central California back to our family’s hometown of Portland, OR. While I’m really glad to be getting out of the work/living situation we’re in right now and back to my friends and perpetual cloudiness*, there’s a part of my brain that is dreading it. I hate moving. I lived in the same apartment for the first 19 years of my life and I love carving out a little spot for myself and then planting my butt in it. In the last ten years I’ve moved eight times, not including a few times when I crashed at places for a few weeks and two times when we moved down the hall. Every time, I’ve felt probably something akin to a hermit crab. Uprooting my butt and planting it in another shell. Steadily growing into it. Eventually feeling comfortable again. Not wanting to move. Having to. Grumpily doing so, hoping a seagull doesn’t bite me. Wait.

In the grand scheme of moving, I’m very lucky. Thank goodness for the internet, I can actually look at places before I move into them. We can have all our stuff loaded into a giant truck and have someone else drive it, loading essentials, child and kitties into our car and drive up to Portland. This day in age, there’s a bit of certainty we can expect. I know what Portland’s like and if I didn’t, I could find out. I’m not moving on a promise of gold or riches in the hills or being pushed out of my current home because of war, famine or some other hardship. We have a definite time constraint and a budget but we won’t be fleeing in the middle of the night.

Moving requires you to, well…move your stuff. It’s not just the moving of the people, it’s the objects, the things those involved decided would be needed in the new location. Sometimes families move, sometimes businesses. But always, there’s a time of going through your things. Do I need this table? Am I going to read this book again? Should I fold these clothes or just throw them in a box? What can I get in my new location? Most everything is gone over, some things trashed, some things donated while most of it winds up boxed and moved. Some people (like myself) get caught up in looking over their things, remembering where they got them. Often one finds out they have accumulated WAY too much stuff and they can get rid of a lot more than they thought (this happens to me as well, I’m looking at you, eight million papers on my desk).

Things have to be organized, boxed, labeled, loaded, transported. Whether this is a huge truck or a donkey drawn cart, things can happen along the way that can delay the trip, leaving you without your stuff for longer than you anticipated. Sometimes things speed up the trip so your items arrive ahead of you; with no one to receive the goods, the driver puts them in storage, eager to get their other deliveries out on time.

And then there is the unpacking, making sure nothing broke, arranging your things, hoping everything fits and adjusting to your new location. Even if you’re a pro at moving and love a change of scenery, it can still be a stressful time. Your tiny corner of the world is in chaos, erased from the map for the moment and en route to another locale. Even if everything goes right, the change in routine and adjusting to a new little shell is hard for any hermit crab.

Adventurers are generally on the move, but travel is different when you’ve got all your worldly possessions in tow. What kind of mishaps can happen when all of someone’s material goods are in the adventurers’ hands?

For GMs

  • How likely are people to move? What are reasons for people to move? To find better work? Start a family? Strike out on their own? Do people move because they choose or are do they have to be forced out of their homes?
  • Do people tend to make shorter relocations within the towns or are moves usually long treks to greener lands?
  • Who moves? Do the poor stay put while those with more income have the luxury of changing the scenery when they want? Or do the poor move frequently, pushed out, trying to find work and inexpensive homes while the rich settle into large homes, secure in their stability?
  • When people move, what do they pack their stuff in? Fabric? Baskets? How do they transport their goods?
  • Who moves the goods? Do people move their own stuff or do they entrust moves to be handled by professionals?
  • Is there a deity of moving? Rituals for moving house, for cleaning out the new abode, leaving the old one?

Plot Hooks

  • A prestigious family is moving to the new capitol and having their household goods transported by professional movers. The PCs work for the moving company and must be sure to transport the belongings safely. News of the move is well known among the citizens and the PCs have word bandits are going to try and make a killing as many nobles relocate. How do the PCs plan on avoiding trouble? Are they in charge of the operation or working under other movers? Do they have any connections that can help them? What would pulling through this unscathed mean for them? Is the family traveling with the caravan of goods or are they going a different way/at a different time?
  • When they arrive to move a family from one house to another, the PCs find out the reason for the relocation: the head of the household has been demoted for some reason and the whole family must move to a smaller home for financial reasons. When the spouse of the shamed individual locks themselves in the house and refuses to come out, it’s up to the PCs to convince them to exit. What was the reason for the demotion? What is the family moving into? How long do they have to get the person out of the house? Are other members of the household watching and able to help? Or do they hinder the process? Why do they lock themselves in the house? Are they dangerous to themselves? To others?
  • When the PCs arrive at the new headquarters of the dignitary they are escorting, they find out all their goods will not be arriving for quite some time. The PCs are sent out with a budget to acquire interim goods for the official and allowed a much smaller budget for a few things so the PCs aren’t miserable. While out bargaining in the market, the PCs get the impression the locals aren’t too thrilled with them or the new person being there. What do the PCs try to buy? Why is the dignitary there? Why are the goods not there yet? Were the PCs items being transported as well? Why are the locals upset with their presence? Is there another reason why the goods are delayed?
  • Records are starting to show inhabitants of a certain town are moving out at a rate much higher than usual. When asked about it, the families all claim different reasons for packing up house but all seem on edge. The PCs are sent to investigate this strange migration. What do they find when they arrive at the village? What percentage of the population is left? How do the townsfolk react to the arrival of the PCs? Are the remaining villagers aware of the mass exodus? What is causing the people to leave?
  • While unpacking the goods of an eccentric client, the PCs have problems fitting the contents of several boxes into one room. When they suggest certain items be moved to other rooms, the client grows irate and insists it will all fit, claiming they mapped it out themselves. However, the client fails to produce a floorplan proving this. They insist the PCs arrange the furniture so it all fits in the allocated room or they won’t be compensated. The client then leaves for an important meeting. Who is the client? What do the PCs do? Does the client give them a clue as to how it can be done? Can it be done? Why does the person insist on having all the items in the same room? How do the PCs feel about the assignment?
  • The PCs are sent to look at several houses for their employer, as they will be moving their household and business in several months. They are given the specs regarding the type of house and storefront their boss would like and are asked to stay in the new location several days to ascertain what the various neighborhoods are like. The PCs will also be moving to the new location and must tour homes and buildings, bargain and gauge what their potential new locale may be like. What type of business does their boss run and what role do the PCs play in it? How many towns/homes do they check out? Do the people who own the various buildings know why the PCs are there? Does their employer have a reputation that would work for or against them in their bargaining? How do their families feel about the move and do the PCs have any personal connections in any of the locations?

For PCs

  • How many times have you moved in your life? What were the reasons for moving?
  • Do you have a permanent residence to return to? When did you move there?
  • What kind of items do you get rid of before a move? What kind of things do you keep? Which items absolutely HAVE TO move with you?
  • Do you like moving? Hate it?
  • Would you ever pay someone to move your stuff for you or would you rather do it yourself?
  • How do you scout out places to live? Do you check them out yourself? Go on hearsay? Send someone for you?
  • If you were being forced from your home, what items would you grab before you ran?
  • What kind of house would you want to settle down in?

What say you? How can an adventurer’s familiarity with moving around help them help others with their relocations?

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: TAXI!

Taxi Cabs in NYC during rush hour on 5th Avenue. Photo by Joseph Plotz
Taxi Cabs in NYC during rush hour on 5th Avenue. Photo by Joseph Plotz

Did you know that “Taxi cab”’ is a shortened form of “Taximeter cabriolet?” I did not. And I don’t know how I feel about that.

Taxi cabs! A few different kinds come to mind. In New York City we had the yellow cabs which you could catch on the major avenues and busier streets of the city. More common in my neighborhood was the “car service.” These were cars (generally Lincoln Town Cars) which would show up in front of our building after we called the service, letting them know where we were going. Because we could call, we could get quotes on the cost of a trip. As a kid who suffered from chronic ear infections, I took more than a few trips to the Emergency Room with my mom in a car service, my mom frequently asking them to turn down their music to help ease the pain. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, both services took cash only and you just assumed the cabbie knew where the hell they were going. Nowadays taxis take cards and most cars have GPS’s, meaning even the most unseasoned cabbie can get you to 28th and 1st Avenue from Grand and FDR lickety-split and without going in circles.

Taxi cabs offer the convenience of cars, the ability to get from point A to point B without making stops along the way or leaving you, you know, a few blocks from where you really wanted to go, without the hassle of having to own a car in a big city. You don’t have to park it, insure it, or hope it doesn’t get stolen. Unlike a bus or train, you don’t have to worry about strange passengers or unexpected delays beyond a traffic jam. In a busy city where you just have to get someplace as quickly as possible and the bus won’t cut it, a taxi can get the job done.

Of course, like everything, not every taxi is perfect. In cities where they aren’t often used, the service can be less than perfect (I’m looking at you, Portland, OR 2006. WTF, I waited on 28th and Glisan for like an hour, jerks). Sometimes the cabbie picks their nose or has no idea where they’re going, running up the meter unnecessarily. Sometimes the drivers are sketchy as hell. Cabbies can also be targeted by criminals, especially since cabbies are known to have money on them. Cab drivers keep all kinds of strange hours to make sure people get where they need to go all times of day and night. Being on the road means they can be involved in traffic accidents and dealing with a constant stream of customers means they can come across unsavory sorts. Because driving the streets of a busy city is not the most desired or well-paying job on the block, this workforce can be made up of people newly arrived to the city, looking to make ends meet. Taxis are also pricey. When you’ve got $20 in your pocket and the meter’s at $18.50 with a block to go, a person can start sweating.

In a fast-paced urban campaign, taxis and taxi-like transportation can get the PCs where they need to go quick as…well, whatever is doing the moving. Walking is for plebes! Throw them all on a taxi and see where the cabbie and the adventure takes them.

For GMs

  • What is the taxi-like transportation in your campaign? Is it powered by people? Animals? Something else?
  • Are the taxis run by companies? Are there rival companies or does one person have a monopoly on all the transportation services? To whom do the taxi drivers answer?
  • What differentiates a taxi from a regular vehicle? How are they made to stand out on a busy street?
  • How do people summon taxis? Do they wait in certain areas? Hail them? Call them?
  • Who generally uses taxis? Do they use them to get to work or leisure?
  • Where are taxis most used? What streets do they frequent, looking for fares?
  • Who drives the taxis? What esteem is this job held in?
  • Do the cabbies keep logs of their fares? How detailed are these records and where are they stored?
  • Who regulates the taxis? Makes sure the vehicles are well maintained, that the drivers are knowledgeable regarding the city? Can communicate with passengers?
  • What are fares like and what are the alternative forms of transportation they have to compete with?

Plot Hooks

  • When someone starts a litter carrying service in the city, the PCs are hired to carry one such litter to make some cash. Well-off individuals and those who wish to have others think they’re well-off hire this service. Why do they take the job in the first place? What kind of customers do they pick up? Do they make any connections with their fares? How do the PCs get people to move out of their way and get their charges where they need to go as quickly as possible?
  • When the PCs arrive in a foreign city for official matters, the individual in charge of seeing to their stay insists they take a taxi when travelling the streets. Between engagements, they are driven from one place to another, never allowed to walk the streets themselves. Why is this? Are the PCs allowed to look out onto the streets? Do they like being taxied around or would they rather walk about? Is this being done for their safety or some other reason?
  • In an effort to encourage safety a cab company offers a monthly cash bonus to the cabbie with the least amount of accidents. When the same driver wins three months in a row, a few coworkers get suspicious and hire the PCs to investigate. How is the driver able to avoid accidents so well? Are the other drivers jealous? Where do their concerns come from? Is the owner of the cab company concerned or do they just wish their other drivers would follow suit?
  • A string of grisly murders occurs and the victims all have one thing in common: they’re all cab drivers. The PCs must investigate and get to the bottom of the untimely deaths. Is driving cabs the only thing they have in common? How are they killed? Who are the suspects? Who can help them find their last fares and are they connected to the murders?
  • Word on the street is the powerful people are moving important papers or products through the city, using cabs as a cover for the operation. The PCs must find which cabs and which individuals are involved and intercept the information or items. Why are the cab drivers in league with people much more powerful than themselves? What do they have to gain? Who are the PCs working for and why are they interfering?
  • People are forgetting large chunks of their day and by all accounts the last thing they are remembering is getting into a cab. What are they people doing while they are blacked out? What is happening to the people? Are the cabbies involved or is it the vehicles themselves that are causing the strange phenomenon?
  • Someone loses a very important item in a cab and hires the PCs to track it down. Discretion is important and time is of the essence. Do the PCs split up? What is the item? Do they know exactly what it is or just what it looks like? How do they track it down?

For PCs

  • Have you ever driven a taxi? Can you drive? Are you strong enough to carry a litter or at least help carry a litter?
  • Have you ever been in a taxi? What were the circumstances?
  • Are you ever in a hurry? Always in a hurry? Or do you take your time?
  • If you were stuck taking a cab and then found you couldn’t afford to pay the fare, what would you do? Bolt? Try to barter? Something else?
  • Do you tip your cab driver?
  • While in a cab you find something of value. Do you keep it for yourself or give it to the cabbie to turn into the lost and found?
  • Would you share a cab with a stranger, if they said you were going your way? What would make you say yes? What would encourage you to tell them to get the next one? Or would you let them have the cab and wait?

How can you use cab drivers and cabs in your campaign? Can you turn it into a hilarious sitcom with Tony Danza? What say you?

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Ethnic Neighborhoods

A street in Chinatown, NYC
A street in Chinatown, NYC

Loisaida. The Lower East Side. Chinatown. Little Italy. K-town. New York City is full of what are referred to as ‘ethnic enclaves,’ areas where a significant portion of the population shares the same ethnicity. I grew up in on the Lower East Side in the 80s and 90s which had a large Puerto Rican/Nuyorican population. Many people were bilingual and the comforts and foods of home were accessible. There’s something about eating a hot alcapurria when it’s snowing that is a bit comforting. A bit farther south of the bodegas, joyerias, cuchifritos and churches of the largely Latino population were the delis, garment stores and synogogues of the Jewish population. Fixing grocery on Saturdays meant seeing people coming back from synongogue; sometimes I’d run into my friend from school. Farther south on East Broadway the open air fish and produce grocers, storefronts and restaurants of Chinatown surrounded me. In HS my best friend took me to a Indian neighborhood in Queens where we stared at the gorgeous jewelry in the jewelry store windows, drank lassi and looked at movie theater posters for films with amazing dance numbers.

When people immigrate to a new land, they tend to find people they can relate to to help them settle in. Different reasons might drive populations from their country or land of origin in large numbers but once they arrive at their destination, a bit of familiarity makes the move a bit easier. When the location won’t fill in the hole, someone who speaks the language, has the same traditions or is even a distant relative or friend of a friend will make the move less scary. Sometimes people arriving might find while technically they are allowed to be in certain locations, they are not always welcome. In addition, well established and nicer areas might not be financially feasible. Unsettled or undesirable land might be what is available and through hard work and working together, a community can be built.

Once these communities are established, many newcomers gravitate towards these neighborhoods, hoping to gain from the experience of those already settled. The already established want to help their friends and fellow countrymen succeed, offering tips, housing or even employment if they’ve set up their own businesses. People settle down, start families, put their children through school, send home money to loved ones. They build grocery stores, religious communities and recreational centers where they can teach tradition and language. They bring their food, their martial arts, their style of dress, their music, their ceremonies. Sometimes they start organizations, both legitimate or illegal. Sometimes they dream of ‘going back’ but sometimes the conditions in their homeland make it undesirable or even impossible. Some do go back. And others stay, becoming citizens, contributing to the society and culture they have decided to stick with through thick and thin.

Most major cities will have ethnic diversity; in the same vein, if there is diversity, it will probably be concentrated in cities. Despite how New York City is depicted on television, it’s rare to go a few blocks without seeing someone whose family came from a different part of the world than your family. Cities being centers of commerce, business and major ports, they tend to have the most varied populations, the streets rippling with the sounds of different languages, the scent of different foods, the color of different kinds of clothing. Sometimes ethnic differences can stir up trouble but at the end of the day a vast majority of people want to be happy, safe and with their loved ones.

Ethnic neighborhoods in your campaign can expose your PCs to various issues, both political and social and is a good way to prime them for a trip to another country or region where the culture is different. Depending on your character’s background, a trip a few blocks down can be an eye opening experience or a respite from spending most of your time in a culture that doesn’t understand you. What comforts and adventures can ethnic neighborhoods offer in your setting?

For GMs

  • What ethnicities lie within your setting? Where did they relocate from? How long ago? Did they come all in one huge wave? What facilitated or necessitated their move?
  • What kinds of communities have they set up within the larger region? What part of the city do they live in? What are the boundaries of their neighborhood and how were the boundaries set? How have they grown over the years?
  • Why have they settled in the locations they have? Was the land similar to home? What was made available? The first safe place they could find? Empty?
  • What kinds of businesses have they set up? Do they import foods and goods from home or have they adapted to local fare and offerings?
  • How many generations are currently living residing in the country?
  • What issues did the population face in their homeland? What issues do they face in the new country? Security? Lack of food? Illness? Prejudice? Lack of resources?
  • Are there any locations where they make up a majority of the population, despite not being the indigenous one?
  • Does their country of origin have any issues with/affiliations with other countries? When their descendents meet in the cities of the land they’ve immigrated to, what happens?
  • How are they similar to the indigenous culture? How are they different?
  • How easy is it to move out of the neighborhood? What are reasons for wanting to leave? Reasons for staying?
  • When are people with different backgrounds considered citizens? What can they do to gain citizenship? Are their children born here considered citizens?

Plot Hooks

  • All the PCs grew up in the same neighborhood and have the same cultural background but have since moved away. When someone they have in common invites them back for an important function/ceremony, they run into old acquaintances and customs and must maneuver through the ‘old ways.’ What things are asked of them? Who do they meet? Who did they have connections to? How long are they ‘in town’ for?
  • When an ethnic neighborhood starts creeping into another neighborhood, setting up businesses and moving into domiciles, the PCs are hired to sabotage the storefronts and make the place unappealing to the newcomers. What reasons are given as to why these newcomers aren’t welcome? How do the PCs go about keeping them away?
  • While traveling through the countryside, the PCs come across a town populated by people from a different culture altogether. Far removed from the country they originated from, they have set up a small community that appears to be thriving. How did they all arrive there? Do the surrounding towns and villages know they’re there? How have they acclimated to the dominant culture? How do they receive the PCs? Do the local authorities know they’re there?
  • When the country goes to war with another country, the neighborhood that corresponds to the enemy country comes under scrutiny. The PCs are sent to see who goes in and out, monitoring the populace and watching for spies. When people start disappearing, their neighbors and friends are too afraid to give any information. Why are the people disappearing? Has the mood changed in the neighborhood? How are the people treated by others? Do the PC suspect anyone in the neighborhood and how are they regarded by the would-be traitors?
  • The PCs are all parents/guardians of children who attend the local language and tradition school, where the next generation is taught the ceremonies and ways of their people. When the government decides to cut funding which would shut the school down, the PCs are sent to convince the government otherwise. Why is the government pulling its funding? Where does the funding from the school come from? Why do they as parents care and why are they the ones sent? Can they obtain the money for the school elsewhere? What would it mean if the school were to close down? How many schools would be affected?
  • When crime becomes a problem in the neighborhood, the local police force blames it on the tempers and attitudes of the citizens, blaming their background for their violent behaviour. The PCs investigate the reasons for the sudden uptick in crimes. What kinds of crimes are on the rise? Who is committing them? Who is helping to commit these crimes? What are the police threatening to do to curtail the lawlessness?
  • After a few years of trying to establish itself in a new land, the elders of the community decide to try and hold one of the larger festivals publically and invite citizens to join in the revelry. The PCs are selected to help organize the event and spread the word. What is the large festival about and when is it to take place? What must be prepared? Why is this the first year it is being held on this scale? Which elders proposed the event? How does the local government respond?

For PCs

  • Did you grow up in an ethnic neighborhood? Are you part of an immigrant group that came here from another region/country? Born to one of these groups?
  • What have you heard about the different neighborhoods? Are their neighborhoods you go into for certain reasons/items? Ones you avoid? Ones you avoid at certain times?
  • How have you seen the neighborhoods change over your lifetime? Do you think they’ve changed for the better or worse?
  • Do you like places with more diversity or less?
  • What do you do in neighborhoods where the cultural background is different from your own? Do you just eat food? Buy goods? Talk to people? Receive services (clothes washed, armor repaired)?
  • If someone invited you to their home in a neighborhood you heard questionable things about, would you go?

What say you? Where we come from can be a big deal, both geographically and culturally. One doesn’t have to leave the country to necessarily encounter someone very different from us. The differences and similarities can make for a wild ride indeed. Do you have ethnic neighborhoods in your town or city? How can you translate that to your campaign?

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: These Boots Were Made for Adventuring

Combat boots.
Combat boots.

When I was in high school, I had a pair of boots. Not just any boots. Grinders. 10 eye. I got a friend to buy a pair for me in Poland because they were less expensive there. I loved those damn things. I wore them with skirts. I wore them with Dickies. I wore them with fishnets. I loved them. They made me feel like I could kick someone in the ass and break them. I loved how heavy they were on the concrete streets of NYC. I loved how they looked and hugged my feet. They were perfect.

My mother was not as enthusiastic as I was. My mom’s taste in clothing and definition of what is feminine is a bit different from mine and I got a lot of looks and offerings of shoes with heels and flowery dresses from her. Those boots moved with me to the Pacific Northwest and got me through many rainy days till my pregnancy made my feet too big to wear them. I passed them on to a young woman who I’m sure is getting good use out of them but I miss them like whoa and am planning on getting a pair of Corcoran Jump boots when we move back to Portland.

Shoes can be useful. The right shoes can make an arduous trek easier. Wearing basketball sneakers on astroturf to play soccer is really not the best idea. Wearing hiking boots that are a size too small on a long journey is a recipe for discomfort at the very least, physical deformity or injury more likely. Footwear made of porous material can be miserable in wet weather. Too big, too small, too unsteady can make for poor adventuring. Showing up to a ranger’s lodge wearing the daintiest of sandals will raise brows as much as wearing the clunkiest, furriest boots to a formal ball. Ranging in materials from animal hides, plant fibers, wood and more, protecting one’s feet from injury, keeping them out of rough weather and whole, shoes can be an adventurers best friend. Important tools or status symbols, they can get you into or out of lots of trouble.

In some places, barefoot is the way to go. In other locations, it is a sign of being impoverished or even a slave. Some cultures frown upon shoes being worn indoors while others insist upon footwear staying on most of the time. Different religious orders have taboos or rules about feet and footwear while the secular world might call for highly embellished shoes. What your characters chose to wear and where they wear it can mean the difference between fitting in or offending a very important person.

For GMs

  • What is standard footwear for the everyday citizen? Is this for people across class? Gender? Position?
  • Do shoes or any special types of footwear symbolize anything? Are shoes used in ceremonies?
  • What are shoes made of?
  • How do shoes differ from culture to culture? What shoes are appropriate for the different climates?

Plot Hooks

  • When an important individual is murdered in the inn, the only clue left is a strange pair of shoes left by the killer. The PCs must use the shoes as a clue as to who has committed the crime. What do the shoes look like? Where are they from? Do they actually belong to the murderer?
  • The boots of a long dead historical figure go missing from their tomb and it’s up to the PCs to locate the relics. Who has taken the relics? Why did they take the footwear, of all things? Is there something about the shoes themselves that are special or is there something hidden in them? What are they planning on doing with the shoes?
  • Unhappy with the local government’s excess and hedonism, the citizens begin to wear simple but well made shoes to show they are good enough to wear such things. The PCs are sent to confiscate any of these simple shoes they find and close down any store selling them to curb the solidarity and demonstrations of the populace. How did the shoe movement start? Who started it? What do the shoes look like? Who is selling them? Who is making them? What are the people’s reactions to the shoes being taken?
  • In order to infiltrate a fancy dance gala, the PCs must wear very awkward but fancy shoes in order to blend in with the crowd, each design saying something about whoever they are pretending to be. What shoes do they manage to get and what will people assume about them because of their footwear? Why do they need to get into the gala? How long do they have to perfect walking in the shoes?
  • When an enemy invades the town, they learn the spiritual leaders go barefoot to be closer to the earth; they then inflict a strict shoe-wearing policy. All found barefoot on the streets are thrown in prison. The spiritual leaders go into hiding and the PCs must try to maneuver the bizarre rules enforced by the invaders while keeping the spiritual elders safe. What is the result of the religious clergy now being shod? How do people react to the new, strange rule? How is the rule enforced/how do they encourage the people to follow it?

For PCs

  • Do you wear shoes? Why or why not?
  • Do you have a favorite pair of shoes? What are they like? Why do you like them? What do they say about you? Do you take care of them? Are they worn? Broken in? Stylish?
  • If you could have any pair of shoes, what would you have? Why?
  • How do you feel about other kinds of footwear? People who go barefoot?
  • When is it appropriate to wear shoes? When is it appropriate to go barefoot?

What say you? What shoes does your adventurer wear and why?

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Antipopes

Antipope Benedict XIII, also known as El Papa Luna
Antipope Benedict XIII, also known as El Papa Luna

Most of us are probably familiar with the Pope. Head of the Roman Catholic Church, Bishop of Rome, successor of Saint Peter. The word, ‘Pope’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘father,’ symbolizing the position this individual had over its followers. To say the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope have wielded authority over the centuries is like saying Niagara Falls is some falling water. In societies where religious life and secular life were one and the same, the authority of the Church accomplished much all over the world and the holy seat of the Pope has never been something taken lightly. With the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, people are speculating as to which bishop will be elevated to this seat of power and service.

The Roman Catholic Church has in its history Antipopes; Antipopes were individuals who were more than qualified to have been elected Pope themselves but for whatever reason were not elected. This would cause rifts within the church, with kings, cardinals and even kingdoms rejecting the elected pope and recognizing another individual as the leader of the Church and therefore the everyday lives of many individuals. Some of the antipopes reconciled with the Popes. Others were ran out, tortured, murdered or excommunicated. On occasion the antipopes were named by rulers themselves, in obstinance to the elected Popes who held much power in those days. Others named themselves Pope, saying they had a better claim to the seat. Popes and Antipopes disrupted the lives of everyday citizens, disrupted records as people tried to keep track of who was in charge. Some people even believe a period of frequent antipapacies allowed a woman to briefly become Pope, though some say that is Church legend.

In any religious organization, there are always leaders and there will always be those who really wish some other person was in command. When everyone is dead set on an individual being the Chosen One there are those who would have chosen differently. Maybe it’s because they doubt the qualifications of newly elected leader in question. Perhaps they consider another person more compassionate, more ruthless or more charismatic. Perhaps they want the seat for themselves. No matter how high the seat, no matter how big the service required, if power is involved someone else will have their eyes on it. Politics and religion intermingle and the consequences of opposing one of the highest spiritual leaders of the land can be grave indeed.

If religion plays a big part in your campaign, issues of hierarchy and position can affect everyone. How are the PCs involved in the political maneuverings of the the holiest individuals of the land?

For GMs

  • What structure do religious organizations have? What does the hierarchy look like and who is at the top of the pack?
  • How do the leaders divide their influence? Over buildings? Geographical locations? Number of individuals?
  • How are the leaders of the organization chosen? Do they have to perform tests? Are they elected? Who elects them? Do people not officially affiliated with the religious organization influence the decision making?
  • How much clout do the top religious officials have and how are they regarded by secular leaders?
  • What are some of the important doctrines within the religious organization and what are the main schisms within? Who are the leaders of various schools of thought and how are they regarded by other factions, leaders and the follower?

Plot Hooks

  • When the current religious leader dies suddenly, the region is in a clamor trying to decide who the next spiritual leader will be. When rival cities suggest well known locals to the highest seat, fighting breaks out in the streets and its up to the church leaders and local police to keep the peace while the next leader is chosen. The PCs are caught trying to keep the peace while those making the decision lay behind closed doors. Who do the PC side with? How are the people advocating for one person or the other? Does the fighting help or hinder the process and decision making?
  • When the spiritual leader announces their retirement, the PCs are sent to the capitol in order to plant seeds which will hopefully lead to a certain individual being elected as the next head of the order. Who are the PCs trying to get elected? Who must they speak to in order to succeed? Who else is in the running? Why are they rooting for one person or another?
  • When an individual proclaims themselves the head of the holy order, the PCs are sent from the capitol to deal with this would be usurper. Their orders say to command the person to step down and if they refuse to execute them in the name of the church. Is the mission a secret one or a public one? How are they received along the way? Does their target know they are coming or are they surprised? What are they told of this possible usurper and what do they learn of them on their journey?
  • When the spiritual leader of their tribe appoints a rather unimpressive individual to be a spiritual warrior before an approaching battle, many of the members balk at the idea. They clamor for another person, more formidable in form to lead them in battle but the spiritual leader holds fast. The PCs are in the employ of the spiritual leader who bids them to prepare the chosen one for the battle, mentally and physically. All the while the enemy is approaching. What is the nature of this chosen one and what is so atypical of them? Why did the spiritual leader choose them? Do the PCs believe this is indeed the chosen one or do they have their doubts?

For PCs

  • Are you a spiritual person? Are you a religious person?
  • How do you feel about hierarchy in the religious world?
  • How do you view the current religious leaders? Who do you think their successors will be?
  • Do you keep tabs on current schisms within the church? Do you side with any of them?
  • Who do you think is the greatest religious mind of your time? What is their rank within the church? Do you think they could raise up the ranks? What would you do to get them recognized within the church?
  • What do you think the connection between political and religious power is? Do you think they should intertwine? Be separate?

What say you? What happens when the highest spiritual position is challenged within your campaign?

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Aphrodisiacs

'The Merchant's Wife' by Boris Kustodiev. Watermelons are considered an aphrodisiac by some.
‘The Merchant’s Wife’ by Boris Kustodiev. Watermelons are considered an aphrodisiac by some.

Note: This article deals with things of a sexual nature. You have been warned.

*cue Barry White*

Aww yeah. You know what I’m talking about.

Many substances are supposed to help get people ‘in the mood’, and when I say ‘in the mood’ I mean the mood to have sex. The pressures of life with its anxieties, the weariness one feels after a hard days work, the ingesting of a rather delicious but perhaps too large burrito…many of these can be dampeners of the mood we hope to be in while adjacent to people we desire. Sometimes one person is ready to go but the timing is off. It’s just not really what they’re down for at the moment.

Enter aphrodisiacs. Throughout history people have reported certain things can increase libido, by suggesting sexual parts of the body, by perhaps delivering nutrients, hormones or other chemicals that tell your brain ‘ACTIVATE NETHERS.’ Some say arousal and sexual desire is more complicated than just eating a gallon of raw oysters and jumping into bed while others swear by the lusty effects of powdered deer parts, ground chilies, melted chocolate, juicy figs and other things that activate all your senses.

People want to enhance everything we get our hands on and sex is no exception. For many sex is an important part of life and we want it to be the best it can be, for all parties involved. Some want to be the best and if that means snorting a dilution of whale penis up your nose, then by Kord, bring on the whale penis. Many want harmony in the home and a happy and satisfying sex life can contribute to that. Some might think a romp enjoyed by all might increase the chances of having children while might others being amazing in the bedroom might garner favors in public society. If it takes a hack to ensure any of these, many people would be willing to try it at least once.

If there are people in your campaign, chances are some of them are having sex and some of them might want to enhance their drive, the drive of others or the performance itself. Love will drive people to do crazy things but sex? Well, look up a list of aphrodisiacs and you’ll see.

For GMs

  • What are well known aphrodisiacs in the culture? Less well known aphrodisiacs? Are the aphrodisiacs for all sexes or just for one in particular?
  • Who prescribes aphrodisiacs? Doctors? Herbalists? Midwives? Do they also make the concoctions themselves or do they hand their patients a shopping list and make them obtain the ingredients?
  • Are aphrodisiacs and sex drive spoken of openly in the culture or is it something handled behind closed doors?
  • Who is supposed to take the reigns when it comes to making sure all parties involved in the bedroom are satisfied? Who’s in charge of ‘stoking the fire’?
  • What benefits are associated with a healthy libido?
  • Where are these aphrodisiacs obtained? How do the aphrodisiacs supposedly work? Why do they work?
  • Are aphrodisiacs expensive? Who has access to them? What are some of the more hard to obtain substances? The ones people grow in their backyards?

Plot Hooks

  • A clergy member claims the deities have given them a recipe for a sacred aphrodisiac that will bless the beds of all who partake of it. The concoction is available only at the temple. The PCs are sent to investigate the mixture and its effects. Who sends them to investigate? What is the concoction? What are its exact effects? Who is buying it and is it working? Is the potion actually blessed or is something else at play?
  • When couples are found dead in their beds, further investigation points to an aphrodisiac being the cause of death. The PCs are sent to find out where the substance is coming from and prevent further deaths from occurring. What is the substance? Does it kill everyone that uses it or is something else at play?
  • A certain animal is being found mutilated in the woods, left to die after certain parts of it are removed. A poacher reveals the parts are being used for very expensive aphrodisiacs that are sent to another region where the people pay top dollar. The PCs must try to stop the poachers and deal with the demand for the aphrodisiac. What parts of the animal are used? What are the effects? What will happen if the supply suddenly stops? How badly is this substance wanted and how badly do poachers want to cash in?
  • After letting a huge shipment of an aphrodisiac across the border, the PCs get wind of a plan to ‘poison’ the capitol city’s water supply with the substance to distract key portions of the populace so usurpers can sneak in. The PCs must try to intercept the caravan without their superiors knowing they dropped the ball and in time to foil the lustful plans. What is the substance? Who is planning on carrying it out? How likely is the plan to succeed?
  • An important official needs the ingredients for a powerful aphrodisiac in the hopes that it will secure them an heir. The PCs are sent to retrieve the ingredients discretely in order to maintain the dignity and privacy of the household. Why are the PCs chosen? What must they obtain? What is their cover? What do they stand to gain by helping this individual?
  • When a conservative faction bans foods that are suggestive in nature the PCs start smuggling them into the country to meet demand. What kind of foods are banned? What are the penalties for being caught with such foods? What is the faction trying to accomplish by banning these foods? What are the results of these fruits becoming forbidden?

For PCs

  • Do you consider yourself a sexual person?
  • Do you pay attention to your sex drive? The sex drives of others?
  • Do you think that aphrodisiacs work? What do you think imbues them with their properties? Is it divine? Psycological? Natural?
  • Do you think of a lack of libido as something normal to experience or an indication of something being wrong?
  • Would you take a substance said to be an aphrodisiac on someone’s word? Or are you wary around such things?

What say you? How can you spice up your next campaign?

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