Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Substitutes

Empress Dowager Cixi, regent for the Tongzhi Emperor
Empress Dowager Cixi, regent for the Tongzhi Emperor

(There is an ANNOUNCEMENT at the end so read through, homie.)

My daughter is in kindergarten and has had a substitute teacher for most of the year. The teacher she was supposed to have is out of commission for health reasons and so the kind woman she met the first day of school was replaced a few weeks later by a substitute. That teacher had to leave after the holidays for personal reason so the children are on their third teacher until the teacher they were supposed to have is well enough to teach them all about their letters, numbers, science, social studies and more.

My daughter has taken it in stride. Her first few days of school with teacher number one she called ‘boring.’ First days with teacher number two resulted in complaints that I don’t currently recall because it was soon overshadowed with admiration for her. The third teacher, my daughter gave the most ridiculous complaint. ‘She sings too much. She sings at the end of the day and I just want to get on with it already.’ Now my daughter runs around the house, singing the songs, leaving me to complain about them.

People have to have stand-ins for various reasons. Sometimes business takes us away from work and someone has to step in and pick up the slack while we’re gone. People get sick. People go on vacation. Things happen with families that call us away from our work-related duties and well, those work-related things can’t just not get done.

In the case of rulers, they sometimes fall prey to the same terrible illnesses afflicting the ruled, sucummbing to viruses and mental illnesses which require someone to rule in their stead. War or international affairs dictate the ruler be present to oversee, command or represent their country; just because they’re gone doesn’t mean the country should fall into anarchy. Someone has to hold the reins. Occasionally rulers come to power too young so a regent is appointed; this could be someone related to the future ruler, usually the mother of the child and one of the few ways a woman could get to rule in male dominated monarchies. Sometimes councils are left in charge, ministers and politicians left to rule while the head of state is away. When the ruler is away or still growing into the throne the power left in the hands of the regent is supposed to be limited but it sometimes provides the opportunity for more ambitious individuals to carve out places for themselves in history.

Substitutes don’t have to step into key positions of political power to shake things up. A different mail carrier or bartender could throw us off of our games, wondering where the people we’re accustomed to could be. Seeing an unfamiliar face behind the espresso machine could have us order a drip coffee instead of our usual latte. Who are these strangers? Do they know what they’re doing? Are they going to mess things up? Are they going to be better than the person who is usually here, leaving us pining for them once they’ve left us forever?

In games where PCs pass through the same haunts frequently, a change of command or new faces can be a shock. While we know people are less permanent than landmarks and have a tendency to move around, it can still be jarring to not see the same people in the places they usually are. Will the PCs even notice? Take it in stride? Or lament the absence of their favorite leatherworker?

For GMs

  • Who are the regular NPCs in the game and what are their jobs? How often do they interact with the PCs?
  • What are reasons these NPCs might not report to work? Illness? Family business? Other obligations? How open are the NPCs with their personal lives?
  • Where do their substitutes/stand-ins come from? Are they part of a profession that has a guild which might try to fill the need? Family members who might step in? Colleagues? Is there a temp agency set up?
  • Are the substitutes chosen by the NPCs themselves or is there another governing force dictating who must step up? Or does the alternate slip in while the regular is away?
  • What character traits does this new person have? How are they similar to the predecessor? How are they different?


Plot Hooks

  • The PCs are used to being the adventuring party of choice in a region. But when a mission calls them away for a long period of time, they return to find another group has taken up where they’ve left off, solving problems for locals, vanquishing things that need vanquishing, etc. How do the PCs take to being replaced? Who are the people who have replaced them? Is there enough adventuring for both parties or is someone going to have to move over for the other?
  • When an important professional within the community is called away for personal business, they send their good friends, the PCs, to the city to find a suitable replacement. They are given a list of candidates, all fresh out of school and must choose the the person who will best serve their community. Who are the candidates? How long must they work for? How do they all feel about the temporary gig? Is there a chance the job could last longer? What qualities are they looking for in the individual?
  • A bartender well known for confiscating the weapons of anyone who causes trouble in their establishment goes missing, a new bartender in their stead. Somewhere is a large cache of weapons this person may or may not know about, and quite a few people are aware of this fact. What kinds of weapons have been confiscated? Are any of the PCs weapons in the stash? What would it mean if the wrong person found these weapons? How did the original bartender get them from the troublemakers? Does the new tender seem up to the task?
  • The PCs are all the substitute guards when the regular crew is called away for training. What kinds of crazy things do they encounter as they stand in? Who tries to pull one over on them, the unseasoned? Who tries to take advantage of them? What do they learn about the guards they maybe didn’t know know before?
  • When the ruler dies, the spouse is left as the regent while the heir comes of age. A small group of advisors, seemingly loyal to the now deceased former ruler has also been appointed to oversee affairs of the country, trying to mandate matters regarding the heir’s schooling and training to the spouse regent, pushing them out of political matters. The PCs are all servants in the royal household and are asked by the spouse to help them gain more power, as they do not trust the council to run the country and feel they are better suited to the task. What is in the best interest of the PCs? What must they do in order to help the royal family? What are they promised for good services? Does the spouse regent have good intentions? What is their reputation? What would be the consequences of working against them? For them?

For PCs

  • How do you feel about unfamiliar people in familiar spaces?
  • Do you have any people you rely upon for things like getting your gear fixed, acquiring gear, to make your favourite food or drink just the way you like it? If you went to see them and someone else was there, how would you react?
  • What would you let a stranger do for you? What things would you rather have your ‘regular’ person deal with?
  • Who do you think could replace you? Your fellow PCs?

What say you? How can you use out of place NPCs in your campaign?

Have you ever read Reality Makes the Best Fantasy and had your own ideas for articles? Would you like to write for Troll in the Corner? Well, Reality Makes the Best Fantasy is now open to guest submissions! If you’ve got an idea for an article and can stick to the same format, (write-up, For GMs, Plot Hooks, For PCs), drop me a line at trisj at backthatelfup dot com with your pitch and few plot hooks. Your article will be posted on a Friday, just like any other RMtBF article only it’ll be YOUR article with your name and your bio attached. Oh snap! Guest spots will be open once a month with a few extras probably popping up in late April/May, since myself and my crew will be moving at that time. Can’t wait to hear from you!

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: The Flu

Recreated 1918 flu virions.
Recreated 1918 flu virions.

Have you caught the flu this winter season? I’ve caught it twice so far. Each time it was different. The first one was typical of what I normally experience. Chills, headache, lethargy, fever, loss of appetite. I laid on the couch a lot and watched all of John Adams. All of it. Except for one part with the guy from Dark City because I drank Theraflu and passed out. The second time I caught it, different animal. Headache and tiredness, throat issues, which is terrible for me since I already have larger than normal tonsils.  It’s downgraded into a pretty gnarly head cold that is still with me as I type this.

The flu is one of those things which seems kind of…mundane. While we hate being plowed under by it, it’s a part of life. ‘Flu season.’ We expect it. Flu vaccines are made, you’re told to get one especially if you’re a kid or have a compromised immune system. Yet when you’re hit by it, all you can think is “Why, why me? Who gave this to me? If I decapitate them, Highlander-style, will the sickness leave my body? I’m too sick to pick up a butter knife, let alone a sword. Where’s my kilt? Is that the bad guy from A Knight’s Tale wearing a fancy wig and talking to George Washington?”

However, the influenza virus mutates quickly and spreads rapidly. In 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic hit the world. During the tail end of The Great War/World War I, troop movements and increased travel in general helped to spread this horrific strain of the virus which killed not the very young, old and infirm like most types of flu but the able-bodied, people who had been healthy just a few days before. It killed soldiers in the trenches and in military hospitals, inundating sick wards already filled with injured soldiers. The infection rate and mortality rate were catastrophic. The symptoms were atypical, causing the infected to be misdiagnosed and drowning people in their own fluids. The numbers are frightening. It’s said to have killed more people than the Black Plague. And mutations of this bug are still floating around, waiting on toilet seat handles, desks, doors, dressing room mirrors, in petri dishes being sequenced and observed by scientists. We’ve probably all had a mutation of this ‘bug.’ This bug was far from mundane. Genetically related to what we’ve all been passing around all these years, it’s a reminder of the power that lies within this tiny organism, undetectable to the naked eye.

It doesn’t matter if your STR is 18: if you have the flu, you will probably be in bed, or on the floor if you don’t make it to the bed. And even if you escape its chill-giving, headache-inducing, fever-addled grasp, a town ravaged by the flu will probably be hesitant to open its gates to you. If they do, you’re likely to find empty shelves and maybe a few days knocked out for yourself, if you’re lucky. As common as the flu is, it can put people out of commission, in some cases…permanently. Seasonal or not, the flu forces those affected to take it seriously.

For DMs

  • What kinds of seasonal illnesses sweep through the region? What are the symptoms?
  • When does it usually start showing up? Does it have a nickname?
  • Who usually catches the sickness? Does it usually start with a certain age group? Certain profession?
  • What are people told to do in order to prevent the spread of the illness? What is most effective?
  • What can alleviate the symptoms/speed the healing process? How long are people sick for?
  • When are people most contagious?
  • Where do people go to get healed? Do they stay home and administer home remedies? Go to temples and pray for sound bodies? Visit healers for the newest medicines?
  • What types of things would help an illness to spread quickly? A change in the weather? Improvements to transportation? Transient populations? Introduction of new animals/plants/substances? Holidays? Combat? What would prevent its spreading and how can this be effectively implemented?
  • How do people know when the illness has started to manifest? How is information about the virus transmitted from person to person?

Plot Hooks

  • The PCs are sent to ascertain symptoms of villagers; if the illness is deemed to be something serious and worth quarantining, the PCS are ordered to quarantine the locale to prevent further infection. What tools are at their disposal to enforce the quarantine? What criteria is given to judge the severity of the illness? Do they try to track down people who may have left the village within a certain time span? Who do the PCs work for? How do the villagers react when they hear they are being quarantined?
  • The PCs work border patrol for their country, their people staying neutral during a conflict between other national powers. Refugees are pushing at the borders, trying to escape the armies and severity of the conflict. However, the hardship of travel, crowded quarters and bad weather has caused the refugees to grow ill. People are demanding to be allowed to cross the border to escape the illness or to get help for their sick friends and family members. The PCs must guard the borders and keep the refugees from freaking out and pushing past the boundaries. Is the sickness limited to the refugees or are people from the PCs’ nation also sucumbing to it? How is the border guarded? Do they have orders to keep people back or are they allowed to evaluate cases and make exceptions? Who do the PCs answer to?
  • When a village has mysteriously avoided getting ill during the last epidemic, the PCs are sent to investigate how they were able to elude an illness that has greatly affected the rest of the nation. Where is the village located? How do they receive the PCs? How do they say they were able to stave off the illness? Are there any other contributing factors they may or may not know about?
  • When the countryside is overrun with a particularly virulent strain of a virus, a group of people try to leave to a more secluded area before they can be affected. The PCs are hired to guide them there safely. Who is in this group of people trying to escape the illness? Where do they wish to go? Why have they hired the PCs in particular? How are they sure to avoid infection during their travels? What other problems has the illness caused that they must deal with on the road?

For PCs

  • Do you get sick easily?
  • What is the sickest you have ever been?
  • What do you do in order to avoid catching ill? Are these family traditions, things you picked up through observation or did you read/hear about them somewhere?
  • How do you feel about sick people? Do you avoid them? Would you help someone if they were visibly ill? What if you knew they weren’t contagious? What if you knew for a fact they were?
  • How do you think disease is spread?
  • Do you avoid certain things to prevent getting sick?
  • What is the worst part about being sick?

Weird fact: The ‘Spanish Flu’ got its name because Spain was one of the only countries not involved during World War 1 and didn’t have as much censorship happening in its media. This led to reports of the flu’s presence in Spain being more widely known, giving the illusion it originated there. There are theories as to the virus’ origin but no one is really sure where the virus mutated into the strain that wreaked so much havoc across the globe.

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Perfume

This is part of my perfume collection, before I recently bought more perfume. Perfume is collectible.
This is part of my perfume collection, before I recently bought more perfume. Perfume is collectible.

Scent is a powerful thing.

Have you ever approached your domicile and smelled the tantilizing aroma of your favourite food cooking? Inhaled the spicy, sweet fragrance of a rose? Buried your nose in the neck of a loved one? Opened something to discover the putrefied odor of something long dead? Walked outside just as summer rain hits hot pavement? Poured apple cider vinegar into a smoking hot pan?

I’m sure many of you were able to evoke some kind of memory. The tongue can pick up 5 different tastes. There are 4 kinds of light receptors in your eye. The human nose has ‘about 40 million olfactory receptors that detect up to 10,000 different odors’ (taken from Wikipedia). The olfactory bulb is located super close to the hippocampus, a part of our brain that deals with memory so again, I say, smell is a powerful thing.

We don’t think about smell TOO much, these day. Smell is thought of as one of our baser senses and as humanity has marched through time and built more and discovered more we’ve relied on our other senses to bring us there. Still, there are our noses, sticking out of our faces. Sensing particles in the air, helping us taste things, keeping us out of bad situations and getting plugged with boogers when we’re sick. People can smell things beyond just coffee in the morning or onions frying. Studies have shown people can detect compatible DNA in other human beings to find mates, detect their own children or even smell illnesses.

Smell affecting us as it does, it seems only logical people tries to acquire the smells of the captivating smelling plants and animals they came across. Masking ones odors, trying to put oneself in a certain mindset or trying to smell more appealing to those around you has driven the science behind extracting scents from the natural world or replicating them synthetically. The person considered the world’s first chemist was a perfumer by the name of Tapputi, who used the oldest referenced still to make perfumes from flowers, cypress, myrrh, balsam and more. With many of the most sought out and intriguing materials for perfumery native to or easily accessible in the Middle East, the methods used to extract the aromatic compounds were developed there. Distilled oils were useful for medicine as well as for cosmetic and religious reasons, used in salves, purification rituals and other topical treatments, with two Arabian chemists Jabir ibn Hayyan and Al-Kindi establishing the perfume industry. Resins, woods, flowers, seeds, barks, stems, roots, all subject to water and fire to give up their aromatic components and applied to the skin. Perfumery, chemistry and alchemy overlapped. From the Middle East, like many things, the science and existence of perfumery travelled to Europe where it was first established in Hungary before spreading to the rest of the continent.

Fragrance Wheel displaying different classifications of fragrances.
Fragrance Wheel displaying different classifications of fragrances.

Different kinds of scents have been popular or used over the march of time and their components have been sought out. Resins like myrrh, copal and frankencinse come from trees that grow in warm climates. The most coveted sandalwood comes from India, with Australia and a few other other locations. Oakmoss is gathered from trees, flowers grown in gardens. Ambergris and civet are taken from animals. Extracting their aromatic components is no simple task and yet people do it. They travel to far lands or obtain access to them, hunt the animals that produce the substances, carefully cultivate and pick the buds, leaves and flowers desired and then carefully blend top notes, middle notes and base notes to create harmonious, intriguing smells, carefully guarding their methods and formulas. Royalty and even divinity has demanded pleasing fragrances be made for them and even today, perfume’s ethereal and aromatic qualities can stop us in our tracks.

Why not engage all the senses of your PCs and bring the nose into the game?

For GMs

  • What is the role of perfume in the culture? Who uses it? For what purpose?
  • What carrier is used for the perfume? Oil? Alcohol? Is it rubbed onto the whole body or only certain areas?
  • What kinds of scents are popular? Why are they popular and who are they popular with?
  • What perfumery components are indigenous to the area? What must be brought from elsewhere?
  • What does the perfumer’s house look like? Who do they work for? Who is allowed inside?
  • How did the study of perfumery come about? What other disciplines are related to perfumery? Chemistry? Alchemy? Astronomy? Theology?
  • What is perfumed? The body? Clothing? Personal items?

Plot Hooks

  • The PCs must forge a letter from an important individual in order to get certain things in motion. However, the person the letter is supposed to be from is known to have a certain scent all their correspondences also carry. The PCs must acquire enough of the individual’s signature perfume in order to make the forgery believable. How will they go about getting the scent? What does the scent smell like? Is it the stationary itself that is scented or does the paper just pick up the scent from the person writing the letter?
  • A chemist claims to have found the secret to turning lead into gold. However, the day they are supposed to perform their demonstration for the court, they have gone missing. Their entire lab has been cleaned out, the only thing left a single vial of unlabeled perfume. The PCs are sent to find the chemist, their only clue the vial of aromatic oil. What is the scent? Can anyone recognize it? Is it a clue to their whereabouts? Or something unimagined?
  • The Head Perfumer keeps an extensive garden within the palace grounds. When all of a certain type of plant dies and it’s scent is needed for a very important blend, the Head Perfumer hires the PCs to bring back a usable sample of the plant as well as cuttings so they can resupply their garden. What died and how? Where do the PCs have to go? What is the perfume in question needed for and are the PCs on a time limit?
  • Someone is selling a less expensive version of a perfume popular and coveted among the elite in society, turning a once captivating scent into a noxious fume, overtaking the city. The PCs must find who is making and selling the knock off and stop them. Who is making the perfume and how are they making it so cheaply? Why are people insisting upon wearing it even when it is overpowering all other scents in the city?
  • The Court of the Celestial Hunter is allowed to wear the Sacred Scent of the deity of the hunt on the first full moon of winter but first they must hunt down the components for the holy ointment. One of the ingredients is from a beast that resides deep within the woods and the PCs must obtain it without killing the animal to complete the right and be honored among their people. What does it mean for their standing in the community if they pull it off? What kind of animal must they approach? How do they get the substance?

For PCs

  • What do you smell like?
  • Do you wear any scented cosmetics? For what purpose?
  • What kinds of scents do you like? Do you hate? Florals? Resins? Herbal scents? Earthy smells? Aquatics? Foodie smells? What do they remind you of? A relative? A situation? A place?
  • If you were  given the opportunity to be paid in a custom made perfume, would they take it? What substances and scents would you choose?
  • What smells are comforting to you? What smells make you want to throw up?

What say you? Does scent play a role in your game? What’s your favourite smell?

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: THE END OF THE WORLD

The Woman and the Dragon by Martinus, 11c.
The Woman and the Dragon by Martinus, 11c.

Now that the whole misreading of the Mayan Calendar for the making of memes and annoying tweets is over and done with, yes, this is what you all get. HAPPY NEW YEAR!

When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I came across The Book of Revelation. I was wondering what the last book in the Bible was and egads. I was not expecting that. I don’t really know what my young brain was expecting but it was not that. A tale of strife, famine, death, war, blood, deception, miraculous and terrifying beasts, political upheavals, abandonment, revenge and finally, victory, then a WTF moment, then more victory and then…the rest of eternity, apparently. WHOA. Imagine my young mind then being told that yes, this was going to happen. I had people I trusted and respected tell me that the barcodes on the things we bought were related to the ‘Mark of the Beast.’

When I was older I came across religious comic books that further expounded upon the Apocalypse my religion believed in. It even went so far as to identify some of the various ‘characters’ in the narrative, citing history and geography and illnesses that could cause some of the things mentioned, with the caveat that well, it’s a prophecy so who knows but STILL, IT COULD BE THIS. One of the church leaders showed us the old classic, ‘A Thief in the Night,’ a movie members of my family were also familiar with. People would talk about the ‘trumpet being at the angels’ lips,’ signifying that the time for the end was very near and therefore, everyone should be ready, always.

I was young. I was kind of freaked out. I would occasionally have nightmares. I worried about being ‘left behind.’ I woke up from one of these nightmares to find myself alone in my home. I ran around the house, turning on the tv and radio to hear if any crazy people-disappearing-related-disasters were occurring. Turns out people had just gone to run errands and didn’t wake me up.


Here’s what I’m trying to get at. Everyone has their world. It includes various aspects. Social, economic, dietary, biological, spiritual, religious, astronomical, agricultural, military aspects and more. These are all in different proportions and play different roles in our lives. And well, things happen. People are well aware that things lurk outside of our worlds that could come crashing in and disrupt and destroy. Many cultures have their stories, speculations and prophecies as to how to world will end. Fire, flooding, storms, fighting, disease. The speculations of robots, zombies, nuclear war, pandemics. The end of the world apparently does not fare well for people in anyone’s imagination. Forces bigger than ourselves crash against each other, winding down, grinding us beneath their wheels, to…fertilize for the next world.

Stories about the end of the world, like most stories shared with people are meant to evoke emotion and action from people. Inspire people to live good lives. Be watchful. Share their beliefs to spare people. They can drive people to good deeds. They can terrify people into inaction or rash action. They can bring people together or isolate them, make them fear innovation, new ideas, new individuals, new societies. How will The Beast manifest? I focus mainly on the Christian end-of-the-world scenario but other prophecies in other cultures across time have sent people congregating and pointing fingers, wondering if this politician was foretold of, or this drought a sign of the end times. We have it in our media in movies like The Terminator, The Matrix and a plethora of zombie movies.

If there is a beginning of the world your PCs live in, the end looms in the distance. Something might lie beyond that end, but the book must be closed before the new one can be started, with all the force and energy it requires. The passing of a world evokes more dread than personal death for some and the death throes of existence as it is known it can be violent indeed. A backdrop of a world waiting to end can be fitful indeed.

For DMs

  • What is the end of the world supposed to look like? What is the story of the end of the world? How is it tied to the beginning of the world? What other beliefs are tied to this?
  • Do other beliefs exist about the end of the world? Different people groups with different ideas? Individuals who take stories/prophecies more literally?
  • What are supposed to be the signs the world is coming to an end? Who is watching for these signs? How involved is the public in knowing when these signs appear?
  • What starts the world down the path of destruction? Political turmoil? War? A ravaged economy? Illness? Cultural change? Technological advancement?
  • Can the end of the world be avoided or is everyone just pretty much on a one way trip to doomtown once the ball gets rolling?
  • How is the story of the end of the world told? How does it factor into the everyday lives of people?

Plot Hooks

  • A prophecy foretells the joining of various objects will herald the beginning of the end. The PCs must protect one of the objects from people set on bringing the prophecy to fruiting, individuals trying to gather the objects and set civilization on a chain of cataclysmic events. What are the PCs guarding? What is the prophecy exactly? Who has charged them with this task and why are they on board with it? Who is trying to thwart them and what are their real intentions?
  • The PCs return from wartime maneuvers to find the population in a state of ecstatic debauchery, believing the endtimes to be upon them. The PCs must get home safely and try to find their loved ones, not sure what to expect and what is happening. Why do the people believe the world is ending? What form does this debauchery take place? How are the PCs received by these end-time revelers? And what has happened to their families and loved ones?
  • When a new piece of technology is invented and being promoted by the government, individuals speak out and say it is a harbinger of the end times. The PCs must deliver the technology to various locations so it can be implemented, having to deal with those fearful of what the new equipment will mean for their people. What is the new technology and what does it do? Who in the government supported the project? How does it work? How does it tie into the end-time stories? Who is speaking out the most loudly against it and do they have any clout or bearing?

For PCs

  • How do you believe the world will end? Why?
  • Do you think the end of the world is something that will happen in your lifetime or something way out in the future?
  • Do you take prophecies literally or do you think they are more symbols, open to interpretation?
  • What event/thing would convince you that the end of the world was in fact upon you?
  • How do you fit into the end of the world? Do you see yourself as one of the chosen, to be spared? Or do you see yourself at the mercy of whatever is to go down?
  • Do you think you can stop the end of the world? Do you think it should be avoided? Can be avoided? Or do you think once certain events fall into place, all you can do is wait?

What say you? The end of the world would make a rather dramatic ending for a campaign, wouldn’t it?

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day!

Note: Because of the winter holidays, Reality Makes the Best Fantasy will be taking a break for the rest of 2012. We will return with even more reality for your fantasy January 4th, 2013. Hope you all have a great end to 2012!

In addition, if you read Reality Makes the Best Fantasy and have any suggestions, favorite moments or want to see something covered, let me know in the comments or shoot me an email at trisj at backthatelfup dot com. Here’s to 2013 having more fun, more gaming and more fantasy!

Fireworks at Taipei 101 in 2008. Image by SElefant
Fireworks at Taipei 101 in 2008. Image by SElefant

THE NEW YEAR. Are any of you ready to kick 2012 in the face and embrace 2013 for an awkwardly long time, rocking back and forth, relief washing over your body as 2013 tenses within your desperate hold? That’s what I’m gonna be doing. Hugging it. To my body. Soft music playing. Like Bauhaus, or something.

Out with the old, in with the new. The end of the year is a momentous occasion for many people, the end of a cycle and the start of a new one. It’s a chance to begin again, to put the past behind you and forge ahead with new hopes and expectations.

Many traditions center around destroying or putting away the old and welcoming the new to ensure abundance and prosperity is yours in the New Year. Many people clean their homes, getting rid of old, worn out items, disposing of them in the proper ways. Feasts are prepared, usually items representing prosperity and richness such as pork, pots of beans (the multitude of beans are supposed to represent money), greens and pastries. Special clothing items are worn to ensure good luck; one of my favourites I read about was red underwear. People stay awake and set things on fire and blow up fireworks! In the winter! HOW AWESOME IS THAT?

New Year’s Day is more of the same. More food, wishing good luck in the new year, more visiting with friends and family. In some communities, people exchange gifts to ensure good fortune and again, prosperity in the new year. Many people make resolutions, using the turn of the year as an opportunity to do something new, to change their behaviour. People visit shrines and temples to pray for the new year, make food together (like mochi!), give more gifts and wish each other well.

The end of the year is a time for people to look back and reflect, to see how much they did (or didn’t) accomplish and plan for future projects and undertakings. Unlike some other holidays that can bring frustration, depression or anger, New Year’s Eve and New Years Day tend to be met with a little less ire. Regardless of any number of your affiliations, the turn of the year is a time for everyone to anticipate the best. Reflection yields experience which makes people feel better equipped to deal with whatever the new year can throw at them.

At least one can hope.

What kind of hope can a New Year’s Celebration bring to your campaign?

For GMs

  • When is New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day? What determines the end of the year?
  • What year is it? Are there any projections being made about the coming year (astrologically, economically, agriculturally)?
  • What has the last year been like? What will it take in the new year to make it better than the one about to slip away?
  • What foods are traditionally eaten on the New Year?
  • How is the passing of the New Year shared? Bells? Gongs? Fireworks? Trumpets?
  • What are important ‘firsts’ of the new year? First person you see? First joke? First animal seen?
  • What traditions are done to ensure the new year will be good? Cleaning, both physical and ritual? New clothes obtained? Offerings? Gift giving?
  • How do traditions vary from country to country?
  • What represents the New Year? A baby? A seedling? Something else?
  • Are there EXPLOSIONS?

Plot Hooks

  • The PCs are hired to help clean a large home for the New Years celebrations, getting things in order for a huge party to take place later that evening. When they discover a secret corridor that leads to an unknown part of the house, they must decide whether they should investigate or continue with their cleaning. Where does the tunnel seem to lead? What do they think is down there? How does the tunnel relate to their employer?
  • The PCs visit the local shrine and make public resolutions as is the custom. They can now spend the rest of the campaign keeping themselves in check regarding their resolutions. What do the PCs resolve to do? What will it mean if they break their resolutions?
  • While the PCs are wandering in a strange land, they are drawn to a village holding a large celebration. As one of them is the first stranger to enter the village in the New Year, they are charged with being in charge of the village for a set amount of time, as is the tradition. Which of the PCs wandered in first? What will the villagers do if they try to leave? What kind of duties does the job entail?
  • The personification of the New Year, a religious clergy member dressed as the ‘old year’ must be ‘hunted down’ in a parade and laid to rest so the ‘new year’ can be born. In the midst of the parade, the person goes missing, leaving the crowd nervous and wondering if it’s a bad omen for the new year. The PCs must find the ‘old year’ before the new year is here so the theatrical ritual can be carried out. What happened to the ‘old year’? Who has told the PCs to find it? Does the onlooking population know the ‘old year’ is missing or have they been led to believe it is a new part of the ritual? Is the identity of the new person playing the ‘old year’ known? Where is the ‘new year’?

For PCs

  • How has this last year treated you?
  • How do you break up time, regarding goals?
  • What were your goals for the last year? Did you meet them?
  • What are your goals for the new year? Do you tell anyone about them or keep them to yourself?
  • What traditions must be observed in order to promote success in the new year?

What say you? How can you be sure to have a Happy New Year in-game?


Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: St. Nick AND Krampus

Krampus: Don’t worry, St. Nick, I’ve got this. Kid: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!

You know what the holiday season needs? More spankings.


Meant to complement Saint Nicholas in his liturgical robes and bearing gifts for good children, Krampus appears as a wild man. Covered in hair, sporting horns and equipped with a barrel, chains and whips, he and other figures like Knecht Ruprecht and Belsnickel dole out punishments for poorly behaved children.  His long tongue is meant to be terrifying and instead of offering sweets and gifts for children, he punishes bad children by whipping them, putting them in his barrel and taking them away. Many traditions have a counterpart to St Nick, meant to keep children in check during the holidays, ensuring their good behaviour in exchange for gifts. The threat of coal or bundles of sticks sometimes isn’t enough to make sure Little Sophia eats all her vegetables and doesn’t punch the cat.

If you’re going to inject morality into the holidays, you can’t have light without dark. An end of the year reckoning means your actions and the actions of those around you will be taken into consideration and dealt with before the new year begins. Of course, not only children have to be sorted.  The good will be rewarded and the bad…

For GMs

  • Who is the good entity of the holiday and what do they exemplify? What do they look like? What types of clothes do they wear? What are they based on?
  • Who is the evil entity of the holiday and what do they exemplify? What do they look like? What are they based on?
  • Do the moral entities focus on children or adults? What kind of actions are they trying to encourage? How do they go about encouraging this?
  • How have the two figures changed over the generations? Is one favoured over the other? Are their holds stronger in different locations?
  • What items are associated with each figure? How are they portrayed in media?

Plot Hooks

  • The local diocese has clergy members dress as the traditional bringers of gifts and bringers of punishment for the seasonal holiday, travelling from town to town. The custom is all the local children put on a performance with singing and dancing, with participation and a good show resulting in gifts and shirking and crappy performances resulting in less desirable presents. The PCs are charged with organizing and directing the play so the children are rewarded and not punished. How are the PCs chosen for the task? Is there a theme for the play? How many children must they organize? Do the parents get involved?
  • The PCs are meant to dress up as the local Krampus-like figure, offering coins and treats in exchange for confessions of wrongdoing. When a child admits something hinting at another individuals unknown crimes, the PCs must decide if they will simply continue with their role in the parade, or try to see if they can get the criminal to do a little confessing of their own. What do the PCs represent in the holiday? What is the nature of the crime committed? How will they go about rectifying the situation? Who is in the wrong and what will it mean if they get away with it?
  • The tradition of the  evil spirit who  punishes the bad has been watered down over the years, resulting in a silly, mischievous creature no one can really fear. When a group of terrifying individuals claiming to be the original evil spirit and their helpers show up in  the local square, they begin terrorizing the town in the hopes to restore balance to the holiday. The PCs must try to stop these evil-thwarting vigilantes. What form do the evil spirits take? How are they antagonizing the populace? How do the people feel about the reappearance of the entities? Is everyone against them or are some happy they’ve returned? Are they actually evil spirits or something else?

For PCs

  • Do you amend your behaviour around this time of year to avoid consequences?
  • Do you believe in these entities or do you chalk them up as children’s stories?
  • Even if you do not believe, do you still play along if children are involved? Or do you expose these moral entities for what they are?
  • What do you think these entities represent?
  • Do you believe in these individuals the way the majority of the culture does or do you have your own beliefs/traditions?

What say you? Krampus is WAY scarier than the threat of coal, wouldn’t you say?

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Winter Holidays


Everyone needs a pick me up in the winter. Regardless of whether your winter weather is terribly cold or just a bit chilly, there comes a day when the sun shines for the least amount of time, plunging us diurnal creatures into dark for most of the day. Meteorological differences aside, astronomically, we’re left in the dark. And sometimes that makes people sad.

Enter Winter Holidays! Before those days grow bitterly cold or wet, many holidays, festivals and observances exist to draw people together, celebrate and get the blood pumping. Feasts are prepared, lights are lit, sacrifices and merriment are made. For many countries and cultures, Winter Solstice is followed by the New Year, signaling that yes, everyone is ready to start over, can we be done with the lack of light already?

Winter Holidays revolve around a variety of stories and traditions. Many deities are said to have been born around the Winter Solstice, among them Mithras, Sol Invictus, Jesus, and Dionysus. Stories of miracles give people hope, such as the Hanukkah miracle of the oil lasting eight days instead of only one. Other holidays focus on being with family members, gathering together or at least letting them know you’re alive and well through mail or sent tokens. For many it is the turn of the tide of a great battle, between the light and the dark, life and death, the Holly and the Oak, the old and the new. Japanese and Chinese New Year, Saturnalia, Kwanzaa, Yalda, and even more winter traditionsbrighten people’s days with their festivities, fun and food.

While people might try to conserve energy by staying indoors during the cold months, holidays bring people out and together. What do the PCs come across as they travel through the darkest part of the year?

For GMs

  • What is the weather like around the shortest days of the year?
  • What light related motifs do people use around this time of year? Candles? Lanterns? Lamps? Bonfires?
  • What is the focus of the winter holidays? Are they centered around mythological/religious figures? Family? Activity? Agriculture?
  • What are symbols of winter? Holly? Evergreens? Migrating animals?
  • What deities are associated with the winter? How are they honored?
  • What relationships are honored/turned upside down/recognized during the winter holidays? Are all people equals during the winter or do hierarchies still exist?
  • What foods are traditionally prepared and eaten?
  • Do the winter holidays exist as separate observances or are they all tied together in some way to make a long, crazy, holiday season?

Plot Hooks

  • The holiday tradition of sending small tokens (such as carved buttons or small wooden figurines) to loved ones so friends and family know you’re alive in the New Year is an important job. The PCs sign up to sort and deliver these items to spread the holiday spirit. How many items must they deliver? What are they delivering? What mode of transportation are they given? How long do they have to get the goods where they need to go? Why do they sign up to help in the first place?
  • As members of the local religion, the PCs are asked to organize a Solstice Festival for a town which has gone through many hardships this year in the hopes it will lift their spirits and bring good luck to the town. What traditions are crucial to observe? Are their any local traditions the PCs must find out about? How do the townspeople receive them? What resources are made available by the church? What do the people offer the PCs?
  • The PCs are sent to investigate the roots of the holiday tradition, travelling far to some of the oldest towns and villages in the region. Who has sent them on this fact finding mission? Why are they interested? How do the traditions of these villages differ from more urban/newer settlements and locales? What is the cause for the differences?
  • When the winter holiday centers around the birth of the ‘slayer of darkness, bringer of light,’ the town is troubled to find that flames are faltering, a light hard to hold during the darkest days. The PCs must investigate why all the flames are going out and try to get them lit. Why are the lights going out? Is there anything the PCs can do about it? What will happen to the townspeople if the lights don’t stay lit?
  • The PCs are in a foreign land on their New Year and must find the traditional foods and items eaten in their homeland in order to ensure a prosperous year in the future. What is their business in the foreign land and why are they there on the New Year? What foods and items must be procured? How strongly do they believe in the ceremonies and foods they are carrying out themselves and eating? What do they risk by not partaking in their traditions? How do other people react when they hear of their quest? Do they invite outsiders to observe their festivities?
  • Also, check out this awesome campaign idea by The Angry DM, entitled Oh Christmas Treant. When a druid gets sick of secularized and gaudy observances of Yule, nature lashes out. There is even a poem, which is quite awesome and an illustration which is also lovely. Definitely check it out.

For PCs

  • How does winter make you feel? What is your favorite thing to do on a winter day?
  • What winter holidays do you observe? How do you celebrate? Does the rest of the population celebrate the same holidays? Or are yours particular to your beliefs/upbringing?
  • Do you try to make it home for the holidays if that is the tradition? Do you celebrate with family or friends?
  • If you hear someone is to be alone on a winter holiday, would you leave them be or try to coax them from their home to join in the revelry?
  • Are you knowledgeable of other traditions’ winter celebrations? Or do you just stick to your own and what you know?

If nothing else, the holidays do make the time fly by. We’re almost to December! What say you? What does your game do when it’s put in the cold and dark?

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Gifts

A special envelope for presenting a monetary gift or a tip, used in Japan.

To the clothes and toys given to children to the flowers and food left for the deceased, life is peppered with events where the giving or exchanging of gifts is customary. Every culture has a tradition of giving, ranging from the customary extra donut from the baker to the ultimate sacrifices of martyrs for others’ benefit.

Gift giving is complicated. Depending on who is giving, who is receiving and the occasion, a myriad of rules and customs apply. Bequeathing an inappropriate gift could be more disastrous than not giving any gift at all, and a gift given in the wrong manner can cause the giver to lose face and insult whoever is receiving. Because of the encroaching holidays, many of us have gifts for loved ones, liked ones, acquaintances, and perhaps co-workers in mind, trying to find a good deal on the perfect gift, finding the right box, wrapping it, and taking it to the post office. If you’re like me, you order as many gifts as you can online to avoid having to be around people, I mean, wait in line around the holidays. A gift for the jerk in the cubicle across from you will probably look vastly different from what you get for your boss. And you wouldn’t dream of giving that same present to your grandma, I wouldn’t think.

There are many kinds of giving to be done. There is the giving of gifts at a time of joyous celebration, to help individuals on their next stage of life. There are gifts given to help those in need, such as those who have just suffered a great tragedy or loss. Tributes are a kind of gift, given to honor leaders, to show allegiance, and to provide goods and wealth to fund endeavors to (hopefully) benefit both the giver and receiver. Potlatches and other customs dictated that the wealthy show off their wealth by giving gifts to their guests, often at large parties with spiritual and social ceremonies.

A gift freely given and graciously accepted is a common theme in many stories, the mark of the hero or the sign of a good ruler. Greed, ungratefulness, and stinginess are often signs of a villain, someone to be avoided. Personal slights can follow people across the land and sea and not paying your tribute can mean trouble for your tribe and loved ones.

It’s more than just something acquired and handed over. What is given and how it is given says a lot about the person doing the given. And what the receiver expects and how they react reflects on them as well. What are your PCs giving and taking in your games?

For GMs

  • What occasions dictate the giving or exchanging of gifts? What are the typical types of gifts given on these occasions and who is exchanging?
  • What customs surround the giving the gifts? Are there elaborate rituals regarding the gifts? Do they have to be wrapped a certain way? Given on certain days? Certain gifts not given for certain occasions (such as not giving a potted plant to an ill person, lest the illness become ‘rooted’)? Things that are never given as gifts?
  • What are gifts wrapped in? How are they presented? Are they handed over from person to person or left in a specified location with some kind of indicator as to the giver?
  • Is there a system of ‘tribute’? How is this structured and what projects are the goods and money put towards? What is considered worthy to offer as tribute? Who may present the tribute?
  • How are anonymous gifts viewed? With suspicion? With curiosity? With admiration?
  • Who makes the finest gifts in the land? Offers the best goods? Grows the best specimens?
  • What is the proper attitude one should have when giving or receiving gifts? Humility? Pride?
  • What stories and myths are centered around giving?

Plot Hooks

  • The PCs are part of a retinue escorting tribute to an important individual, and the gift must be presented in a certain manner. When the person who is supposed to carry out the elaborate ceremony is hurt so that they cannot perform the ritual, the PCs all must train in the rite; the best of them will be allowed to carry out the presentation, knowing the fate of their company and their people rest on them pulling it off. What is the ceremony? To whom are they giving the tribute? What are the risks of not showing up? Of giving the tribute late? Of messing up the ceremony?
  • After accompanying an important official on a mission to a foreign city, the official gives the PCs a bonus for a job well done to buy something for their loved ones back home. The PCs are allowed to roam the city in plain clothes and look around, trying to find the perfect gift for those who are waiting for them to return. How much money have they been given? What kinds of items do they have here that the PCs don’t have at home? What do they purchase?
  • The PCs help a group of people with a local problem. In thanks, the locals give the PCs goods that are special to that region. Later, when the PCs return, the locals snub the PCs, treating them coldly despite their earlier help. Upon investigation, the PCs find it is local custom that when one receives a gift, the receiver gives something small in return. How do the PCs correct the slight?
  • When an important individual receives a lavish but anonymous gift, they ask the PCs to investigate so the receiver might reciprocate and not lose face among their fellow elite citizens. What is the gift? How was it given? Who is the receiver and what is their relationship to the PCs? Who is the giver of the gift and why did they give the gift anonymously?
  • A local church practices ‘sowing’ back into the community, taking surplus money left at the end of the year and distributing it within the community. When the money box containing this money goes missing, the PCs must find it before the ceremony is scheduled to take place. Who has taken the money? Why? What would it mean if the money isn’t distributed back into the community?

For PCs

  • What is the best gift you’ve ever given? Ever received? What was so great about it?
  • Are there people you always bring presents for?
  • What is your most treasured possession and what would it take for you to give it to someone else?
  • How do you feel about personal sacrifice?
  • If someone gives you a gift, do you feel you need to reciprocate or do you simply graciously accept it? Do you think expecting something in return is in good taste or tacky?
  • Do you prefer to give presents or receive them?
  • How do you show your appreciation for gifts?

What say you? Are your PCs ready to give and take?


Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Tisquantum aka Squanto

Tisquantum, aka Squanto

In America, we’re told the Pilgrims were aided by an English speaking “Indian” named Squanto, who taught them how to best use the land and grow crops.

How the heck did Squanto know English?

Well, some accounts have a group of Native Americans kidnapped by a Captain Weymouth for his employer, a Sir Ferdinando Gorges. A Patuxet man named Tisquantum is recorded as being among those captured, and it is suggested that Gorges taught English to those captured so he could ask about the land and people of New England to aid him in colonizing America. Later, Tisquantum was taken back to America, only to be taken prisoner by Thomas Hunt, a man who was supposed to be loading up fish and pelts to sell back in Europe. Instead, Hunt captured several local natives and brought them to Malaga, Spain to sell them as slaves. These were definitely not the orders his boss, John Smith, left him with. Franciscan monks saw Hunt trying to sell them and took custody of them to instruct them in the Christian faith.

Tisquantum made his way to England in the company of a shipbuilder, John Slaney, where he learned more English and after one unfruitful attempt finally made his way back home to New England. However, when he arrived, Tisquantum found the Patuxet were all gone, killed by a mysterious plague which had wiped out them and several other tribes in the area. The Pilgrims later settled in the now-empty land and Tisquantum got to work surveying the area, eventually settling in with the Pokanoket, the tribe which helped the Pilgrims during their harsh beginnings in New England and held the “first Thanksgiving.” He worked with the English and the Wampanoag, translating for both parties, drawing praise, awe, and suspicion from all sides. He later died of a mysterious illness, characterized by bleeding from the nose.

Reports vary as to Tisquantum’s role in the colonization of America. Was he a hero, aiding the Pilgrims in surviving their first harsh winters in New England? Was he a villain, betraying the native tribes and nations already ravaged by plague, taking advantage of their fears of European illnesses and weapons? Was he a tool, taken advantage of by colonizers who saw him as little more than a beast, sent by their god to aid them in their quest of achieving religious freedom? Was he a survivor, simply trying to make the best of a terrible situation, dealing with being sold into slavery, taken from home, the death of his people, and an imminent cultural shift looming on the horizon of New England?

Groups of people shift, overtake, collide, clash, and merge. Where they meet, individuals meet, talk, argue, love, and make decisions that can dictate how things mix, or if they don’t. When many cultures try to co-exist, the good intentions or deceptions of single individuals can make or break loyalties and change the face of a region for many generations to come. What drove Tisquantum to do the things he did? Was he simply trying to survive? Was he so distraught over the loss of his people that he would rather see it peopled by anyone, including Pilgrims? Did he simply take pity on the Pilgrims? Or did he see an opportunity, having already been to Europe and wanting to side with who he thought would come out on top?

For GMs

  • What cultures exist in the region and what are their relationships like? Symbiotic? Autonomous? Parasitic? Synergistic? Antagonistic? Opportunistic? Business only?
  • What new groups of people have shown up and how recently? How have they affected the region socially, culturally, agriculturally, etc.?
  • Who are the leaders of these groups? How do they prefer to deal with problems that arise within their population? With others? Who has the upper hand?
  • What kind of people/skills could bridge any gaps between the groups? A knowledge of language? Understanding of culture? Willingness to share information? Trade of goods? Integration of families?
  • What do the groups fear from one another? How can these fears be assuaged? Preyed upon?

Plot Hooks

  • After the population decided not to help strange individuals who settled close by, the PCs see several people sneaking off in the direction of the mystery settlement, carrying baskets of what appears to be goods. What are the people carrying? Are they in fact carrying it to the mystery settlement? If they are, why have they decided to help them? How do the PCs feel about the decision of their people as a whole and the people sneaking off in the night?
  • Dropped off on the coast of a strange land with a map and provisions, the PCs set off for previously surveyed land to deal with the locals and hopefully set up trade. However, their notes lead them to a desolate village surrounded by strange markings. The ship that will return them home won’t be back for some set amount of time. Is the area completely desolate? What other clues are in the village? What were they expecting to find in the village exactly? How does the lack of people affect their mission?
  • When the ship of a people known to prey upon the population, taking them for slaves, shows up on the horizon, the PCs are sent to destroy the ship and kill those aboard. However, when one of their people is spotted on the ship, waving a symbol of truce and asking to speak with their leader, the PCs must decide if they should carry out their orders or let the people land. Do they decide to let them land? Are the PCs alone? Who exactly is asking for an audience? What would killing this person mean if they just carried out their orders? What do they risk by letting the people on this ship get on shore?
  • The PCs are commissioned to explore a new territory and are provided with a native of the territory to act as their guide. The native is fluent in the language of the PCs and the regions they will be traveling through. What is the exact mission of the PCs? How is their relationship with the native guide? How did the guide get to their country? How did their country acquire the new territory? Does the guide know anyone from the territory they will be exploring?
  • The PCs are sent to guide strangers to another region to have an audience with another ruler among their people. Along the way, some or all of the PCs have been instructed to watch the strangers and make sure their intentions are good/what they say they are. What do the PCs find as they guide and interact with the strangers? Do the PCs all agree the strangers’ intentions are true? What have they been instructed to do if they find the strangers to be malicious? Are they suspicious going into the mission?

For PCs

  • Are you suspicious of strangers or accepting? Curious?
  • Do you tend to think of your own survival or the bigger picture? How far out can you see the effects of your actions? Whose survival and well-being do you care about the most, besides yourself?
  • Are you a good judge of character? Naive? Hopeful?
  • If you were kidnapped from your home, what would you do to try and get back? Would you try and get back?
  • Which of your skills or abilities can span the gaps of cultures?
  • If you had no family or people, who would fall back upon for support?

What say you?

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