Chew On This: Sacred Hospitality

“In the Seven Kingdoms it is considered a grave breach of hospitality to poison your guests at supper,” spoke Tyrion Lannister in A Dance With Dragons, from George R.R. Martin’s popular A Song of Ice and Fire series. He speaks, of course, of the law of hospitality, an unwritten custom that declares that no guest may be harmed after they partake in food and drink, offered by the host.

So far in this column we’ve discussed why food culture is important and where food comes from, how it’s produced, and where it goes, but today I want to talk about something more particular—the “Sacred Hospitality” trope with food and dining, and how it can be worked into your games. We often start out our games with meals or in taverns, so why not start them out on the right foot?
440px-Bringing_in_the_Boar's_Head

Making the Offering

Before you decide to use some sort of hospitality law or similar in your game, you should try to consider what it surrounds. We’ll mostly be talking about food in this post, but you might also consider including the offering of shelter or a place to sleep in addition to or instead of a meal.

Generally speaking, bread is typically one of the staples that shows up when it comes to hospitality—it’s a common food all around the world, due in part to the simple recipe and lack of required ingredients. There are many different kinds of bread, of course, from big fluffy loaves to unleavened to hard tack and everything in between, so these may vary by region. Consider what ingredients and climate your setting is in, and you’ll have a much easier time figuring out what kind of bread to serve.

Alongside bread, we often see salt paired with it. The phrase and custom of “bread and salt” is widely adopted in the real world, particularly in central and eastern European cultures, as a way of assuring guests that they are welcome. Often a small salt holder is placed on top of the bread itself, or given alongside. While salt is found in most everything we eat these days, it held a high value in ancient cultures and was even used as currency at times.Offering up salt to a guest can easily signify that the host is trusting the guest, if only for a little while, because of its commodity status.

Once you’ve covered your basics—a staple, such as bread, that is an easy offering, as well as something with some value, such as salt, you may also want to consider having a beverage be part of your culture’s hospitality ritual.Wine is typically seen as “the” drink of hospitality, but consider your setting and what might be better suited. In the furthest reaches of a desert climate, an offering of water might be sacred and hard to come by, serving as a better peace offering.

No matter what you choose, the “bread and salt” basics can serve as a pretty easy recipe for a hospitality meal.

Serving It Up

With the menu out of the way, there are plenty of ways to dish out hospitality to the player characters. You can keep it simple, of course—when the players first arrive at their destination, the host can offer them a meal. But what if they don’t?

One idea is to make sure your players know about the hospitality rules, but make them work for it. Make it very clear from the get go that the characters may be in danger if they don’t partake in a meal with their host, but keep the host from offering it outright. Will the players have to convince their host to serve them? Sneak in to a meal? How will they be served?

You also have the option to have it all be a ruse. No matter the culture, it’s generally common knowledge that it would be rude to attack or poison someone after offering them your hospitality, so you could easily set your players up to be fooled. Bring in their characters for a grand feast only to be attacked or captured while they’re unaware. Sure, it might be rude, but a dark surprise might set your players on an interesting adventure!

Don’t forget that you can always flip the tables, too! Sure, we’re used to player characters being invited in to visit with others, but what if the players are the hosts? Consider how your players can be put in the position to invite others in. Will they be the ones refusing hospitality or using it as a trap? Or will they welcome their guests warmly…only to find out that the guests are the ones to be afraid of?

In general, working in a sacred hospitality plot can also help you easily avoid the “Alright, it’s a tavern, we stop for the night” routine and get your players more up close and personal with the townsfolk of the region.

Dealing With the Consequences

Whether your players are coping with being betrayed, a host that won’t offer a meal, or guests of their own, you’ll need to establish what the consequences are for breaking the laws of hospitality. Are those that go against it punished by the law? Is it a real and actual guideline for the region that is enforced with imprisonment or other punishment? Or just a word of mouth thing, resulting in social exile? No matter what, you need to have clear guidelines for what will happen if things don’t go entirely as planned.

It’s also important to keep in mind a goal with working in these aspects of meals and hospitality into your game. Sure, it can just be something to add a little flavor, but why choose it? Is it a way to start off the adventure or to trick the players into false security? Should they have to endure many meals, or just one? In figuring out a goal, you can more easily figure out what the consequences for breaking the rules are.

 

Have you ever used anything like sacred hospitality in your own games? How did it go over? Feel free to let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear your stories!

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Graveyards and Final Remains

Charnel House of Amidadera Temple in Japan. Photo by KMR

Where do you put your dead? The remains of those close to you, that you loved while they were alive and still miss in their absence? Your fallen soldiers, civil servants? Dead enemies? Plague victims? Strangers?

Halloween is just around the corner and cemeteries and the dead are on the minds of many. Last week RMtBF talked about ghosts, but what about the physical remains and where they are kept?

Tombstones. Crypts. Mausoleums. Necropolises. Columbaria. Urns. Charnel houses. Mastaba. These are the physical monuments, markers that hint at what lies within or beneath. Construction, creativity infused into mortality. Places to put what the dead have left behind, places the living can visit. Some of the wonders of the world were or are monuments to the dead. The pyramids in Egypt. The Taj Mahal in India.

What people do with the dead will depend on their beliefs regarding the soul, the physical world and the afterlife. Some cultures and religion forbid cremation. Others encourage it. Some religions that believe in a resurrection of the physical body requires there be a physical body to resurrect. Others beliefs dictate the body be given over to nature; though the spirit moves on, there are still others living here who need the nourishment and energy a physical body can provide.

A cultures views on death will dictate where they put their dead. Those who want to forget about death, push it away or simply not deal with decay in close proximity will distance themselves from the dead, putting cemeteries on the edge of town. Those who are more accepting of death as being a part of life may have a physical place for the dead within the city walls, on their personal property or even in their homes.

Whether death comes naturally, through illness or violently, something happens to the remains. Hygiene dictate the body be handled properly and quickly, since decay sets in quickly and brings with it disease. Dead bodies attract scavengers which can be a nuisance or again, bring illness, not to mention the stigma many of these animals have. Sometimes the dead must be protected, either because something wants to eat them, they’re buried with things others may want or because their remains might be considered valuable for medicine or magic. Some kinds of deaths or the deaths of certain individuals are seen as being evil and so they are disposed of or buried in special areas, meant to be regarded with suspicion. And some aren’t given the courtesy of a proper disposal, the remains left for someone else to discover and wonder if fear, hate or ignorance led to the mistreatment of a person’s remains.

Throw the PCs in a mysterious tomb and see what they learn about the culture that erected it. Walk them through a graveyard and find out what they think about the dead and perhaps have them come across others visiting the graves. Or perhaps your character always carries around the remains of a passed loved one.

Autumn is here, the earth is winding down in the Northern hemisphere and Halloween is approaching. Bring out your dead.

For GMs

  • What are the cultural practices surrounding the dead and what beliefs about the body, soul and/or spirit contribute to this? Are there multiple practices? What is the cause of this?
  • Where are the dead kept? In areas outside the city? In plots or edifices within civilization? On family land? Within the home?
  • Are there laws about where dead bodies can be interred/the handling of dead bodies/what can be done with dead bodies?
  • What is done when someone is believed to be dead but no remains are available?
  • What kinds of receptacles are used for the remains of the dead? How does this differ from region to region? Class to class?
  • Are people encouraged to visit the dead frequently? On certain holidays?
  • Who guards over the remains of the dead? Are people hired to guard? Is it up to families to protect their deceased loved ones? Or is there nothing to guard or no reason to protect what’s there? Are there rules about visiting the dead?
  • What are common motifs surrounding death? Plants or animals associated with death?
  • Famous or common epitaphs? What is the civilization’s equivalent of R.I.P.?
  • What is done with the remains of plague victims? Criminals? Other undesirables?

Plot Hooks

  • After a violent earthquake, a nearby graveyard is disturbed and the remains of several individuals are missing. The PCs are sent to track down and recover the remains. Who is missing? Is there any connection between the individuals? Who was in the graveyard at the time? Who hires the PCs to find the remains and what do they have at stake?
  • Bodies meant for the crematorium are boxed and not supposed to be opened once sealed. However someone has placed something someone else wants on a body being sent to the crematorium and the PCs must recover it. Do the PCs know what the item is? Who put the item on the dead body? Why? What are the consequences for disturbing dead remains? Why does the person who hired the PCs want the item so badly?
  • On an auspicious day for grave robbing and treasure hunting the PCs must guard the dead. Who comes to disturb those passed? What kinds of things are being stolen and for what purposes? How are people sneaking in?
  • While breaking ground for a new building, a massive tomb is found underneath the city. However, the remains found there belong to another culture. As an act of goodwill, the country is offering to transport the remains to their homeland and the PCs are part of the caravan moving the remains. How long do they have for the journey? How do the people know the remains belong to a different people? Are any special rites required before, during or after the trip? How are they received by the populace at large? By the country receiving the remains?
  • When a close friend or relative is executed and given an improper burial, the PCs take it upon themselves to acquire the body and give it the funeral and final resting place it deserves. How do they go about acquiring the body? Who is the individual they are ‘rescuing’? What must be done to set their death aright? What will it mean for the PCs and their friend if they should fail? Why was their friend executed and not given a burial befitting their beliefs?

For PCs

  • What do you want done with your remains after you die?
  • Have you ever been around a dead body? Ever touched one?
  • How do you view various forms of dealing with remains? Do you think any more barbaric/civilised than other methods?
  • Are you creeped out by graveyards? Urns?
  • What do you want your epitaph to be?
  • Where do you think is the proper place for remains to be settled?

What say you? And for some reason I have an idea for a mobile columbarium stuck in my head but cannot get it out. A person who travels around with the ashes of dozens of individuals, but why? Huh. Does that get your wheels turning?

 

Also, do you like to read horror? Dig e-books? Need some stories to inspire your next campaign or just creep you out in time for Halloween? Well on October 23rd, 24th and 25th myself and a few dozen other authors will be offering our horror titles for FREE as part of Halloween Free Horror through Amazon. So fire up your Kindle apps and be sure to pick those up next week. 


The Inquisition: Cross-Purposes

Great shot by Flickr user davidyuweb

I’m going to try something a bit different today: I’m just going to write, stream-of-consciousness, and see how it turns out. I’ll be writing about a question that I ask myself: What is the purpose of role-playing?

On it’s face, obviously, role-playing is a game. It’s a leisure activity in which we engage, not much different than playing a video game, watching a movie, or reading a book. It’s a shared experience as well, collaborative gaming where we sit down with our friends and work through different challenges. The most attractive aspect about role-playing to me, as a game, is it’s open-endedness. Even the most immersive novels, films, and video games are constrained by the boundaries of their medium. A book lasts a finite number of pages, a film a finite number of shots, a video game a finite number of bytes.

But a roleplaying game is, by it’s nature, infinite.

Aside: Not unrestrained, as some of the best games I’ve ever played have featured great restrictions (I’ve heard that great constraint and oppression can fuel great creativity, for as you have a narrower scope within which to work, each variation becomes far more meaningful). The paladin would be unique in a party consisting of a rogue, a druid, and a wizard, but you could make the argument that each paladin would need to be more detailed and richer to stand out against a background of similarity.

I know I’ve talked about this before, but there’s wonder inherent in reading a beloved piece of fiction for the first time; I often find myself counting the remaining pages, not out of some anguish or wondering when this sentence will end, but as a gloomy portent of how little I have left. I want to savor what I have, for I know that feeling of reading or watching something for the first time is fleeting. But along with that feeling of elation comes slight sorrow when you do reach that last scene or last page. You’re done, but you want more. And while this exists in roleplaying as well, because of course no game can continue indefinitely, I’m rarely left with the feeling that I’ve “run out” of material. There is always more gaming to be had, on command.

What’s more is that roleplaying is not a passive activity (at least it really, really should not be – one of my biggest pet peeves is the gamer who doesn’t participate enough), which makes it, at least in my opinion, better than a movie or book could ever be. It sounds trite, but you are the character and you never have to wonder what you would have done in such a situation (unless you’re a back-seat roleplayer, another big no-no in my book). Instead you direct and shape what’s happening in the fictional universe, whether that is isolated to your character or expanded to the rest of the game world.

And finally, of course, there’s the engineer in all of us that likes to tinker with mechanics and moving parts. While this aspect steps to the forefront for some more than others, many of us enjoy the leveling in a game like D&D or Pathfinder. We like working with numbers and pieces, putting them together to discover the puzzle of our characters. I think this aspect of the game that underlies all roleplaying is what turns a lot of people off, and I completely understand that. Ultimately, it sometimes seems like rather meaningless mechanical masturbation. Does the fact that your character has a +12 to hit rather than a +11 to hit really have any meaning in the world? (Besides, of course, him/her being one step better on the arbitrary scale of skill with a certain attack). Gosh, I have no idea.

And that’s where the other large part of role-playing comes into play, the storytelling. The love of stories is part of our evolutionary and cultural history stretching across all cultures and through all periods of human existence. For some, those that tend to disfavor the number-crunchy aspects of the game, story is paramount.

It could be the nature of the stories being told that appeals most to us. There’s a reason that the vast majority of role-playing skews toward fantasy, science fiction, or horror. Maybe that’s because, really, how interesting would it be to play mundane people in a mundane world (though I do enjoy powered-down games where normal humans are the baseline – such as d20 Modern or Hunter)? Or, is that the point, that we play these games in worlds of hovermobiles and hobgoblins as some form of grown-up escapism? Maybe I read too much into the nerd stereotype, the loner kid who is a little different and has trouble making friends. While these kind of games have become far more mainstream in recent years, I definitely grew up in an age when playing DnD was definitely or even video games was a “not cool” activity for the nerdy kids. And what is an ostracized geek like me supposed to do but retreat to fantastic or sci-fi worlds of swords, sorcery, and spaceships?

I don’t think it’s that simple, and maybe what I’ve said is even a little insulting (if it is, I really did not intend it to be). There are all kinds of escapism prevalent in the world today: alternate-reality games, mainstream film or literature (and honestly, even mainstream news coverage) – the Twilight phenomenon (judgement aside) is literally one big escapist fantasy (If you’re an “average” girl, maybe all you want is a guy like Edward to love you unconditionally). It’s the same with Fifty Shades of Grey and other romance novels as well. But, I don’t want to make it seem like escapism is, inherently, bad. I mean, what’s the point of fiction if not to transport your mind, body, and soul to a completely different place? Is not the purpose and the effect of some of the greatest literature ever composed to allow you, or better, to force you to take your mind off your potentially less-than-ideal or less-than-expected life and see through the eyes of someone less fortunate (Oliver Twist?) or someone way more fortunate (Jay Gatsby?) or someone you can’t understand at all (Holden Caulfield?) or someone you understand all too well (again, Holden Caulfield?).

I mean, I never think, when I’m sitting at my gaming table looking down at my character sheet. that I am Ormetius the Evoker or Rincewind MacIntyre the Big Game Hunter. The escapism never makes it that far. But I do, behind my eyes, picture the events happening as I imagine them to happen. I can picture what all my characters look like, what their compatriots looked like (really, they look like my fellow players), what their adversaries looked like (movie stars), what the bards who told their tales looked like (Bill Murray). I can remember during my college years spent in New Hampshire walking through the woods during the lightly falling snow and imagining Frodo Baggins doing the same thing, or driving down a windy country road in Autumn and wondering if this was the same road Henry Armitage followed that fateful night on his way to the Whatley farm. I realize this might sound weird, but I also think when camping of my characters who have slept under the same starless nights wondering, too, what their future held.

And to make the leap that gaming is any kind of reflection upon the station or position that you might be experiencing is not one that I’m willing to make, but it, like any kind of creativity, can be an avenue to explore essential questions that you might have. Let’s not be hyperbolic: you’re not going to unlock the meaning of life while roleplaying, but you might gain a better understanding of what it means to be an outsider in a foreign land, what it is to be a minority in a majority-ruled city, or what it’s like to be living under the boot of an oppressive dictator. It’s all just simulation, but there’s a reason that psychological counselors use roleplaying as a tool for treatment – it puts you in a mindset different than your own. And not only that, roleplaying by necessity gets you outside your comfort zone, playing a character of different gender or class or inclination.

And when that happens, it can either be done deftly or clumsily. We can easily identify when it’s clumsy, because those situations devolve into stereotypes or pantomime. But when it happens deftly we almost don’t notice; it’s so unobtrusive that we see past the player and only see the character. I think that every player begins roleplaying by being themselves, just like most young actors begin acting by playing what they know, responding how they would respond to certain situations. And that requires a lot of self-control and introspection in itself; this is why roleplaying can get emotional, because it can easily and unintentionally strike a nerve. Most players,  in my experience, rarely leave their comfort zone and when you play with them for a while see the same character over and over, just with a different outer layer.

The true masters of roleplaying are kin with the true masters of acting and the true masters of creativity; they can wield their character and their actions within the game like a fine pencil point while the rest of us are just throwing paint at a canvas. I remember a time when I had some NPCs surrender to the players who really could not afford to bring them along. For some, it was an easy decision to just execute them, but for others it was a really agonizing call. I have, myself, been in situations where it has been really difficult for me to decide what mattered more to me: how I think my character would behave, what I think the group would like, and what I think would be fun. I try to hit that sweet spot when all three of those things fall within the same point on the spectrum, but rarely is that the case. I won’t claim that I’m an expert at roleplaying, but I always have fun.

And that’s what matters, ultimately, is that everyone has a good time. That good time comes from either the gaming or the storytelling, or maybe something else entirely. Maybe it comes from the social aspect of the game, the ability for you and your friends to all find a time once a week where we can forget about work and the economy and just drink a beer and roll some dice. Maybe it’s more than just a game for some of us: like the numerous ardent writers out there who have never published, maybe this is just our passion, it’s our hobby or our niche where we feel perfectly comfortable and in command in a way that we never felt in school or on the field or giving a presentation at work. Maybe we love gaming for the exact opposite reasons, because we don’t have to see the other players because we play by post and they’re halfway around the world, but we can still connect without fear of exposing our true selves.

I can’t speak for the motives of others, I can only posit and speculate. But what I can say is that you’re not doing it wrong unless you’re not having fun. And yes, that definition of fun is flexible and should necessarily involve highs and lows. Having your character die is usually not fun but can be an incredibly rewarding experience nonetheless that opens up the avenue for more fun in the future. It doesn’t matter how you have your fun as long as you’re not doing it at the expense of others. If it involves playing yourself over and over, do so. If it involves the most off-the-wall characters you can think of, by all means, do it.

—-

Anyway, this was great. Thanks for listening. I flagged a couple of things I mentioned in my stream of consciousness (okay, it wasn’t exactly true stream of consciousness) for exploration in future columns. If you’ve got anything you want to talk about that I mentioned, or didn’t, please drop it in the comments below or drop me a line. Thanks for listening, and see you next week!

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The Inquisition: The End

How do you know when your game has reached this point?

One of the most profound, formative movies I have seen in my life is Apocalypse Now. It’s certainly visually, and to an extent, existentially stunning, but it remains part of the cultural zeitgeist because of the pop culture references contained therein. There is one in particular of which I am frequently reminded: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1b26BD5KjH0

In the context of role-playing games, it’s difficult to talk about the end of a particular game. Obviously, almost every game that has ever started has come to an end at some point, whether that was a story-appropriate finish, a glacially slow increase in the frequency of sessions, the sudden departure or life-change of one or more players, whatever. I think games always start out very strong, usually fueled by a lightning-like stroke of inspiration and a great, resounding wave of enthusiasm. Those of us who have played in many games know that they rarely end this way.

I think there are two separate paths that need to diverge here. One deals with the end of a game/campaign/story/system, while the other deals with the end of a gaming group. I am going to primarily talk about the former, but the second one is probably way more common. People, especially as adults, have lives and, as we’ve mentioned before, tend to value their gaming at different points in their hierarchical organization of their lives. For some of us, gaming is our lifeblood, and for others it’s just a from-time-to-time hobby like bowling or going to the movies. Gaming groups disintegrate all the time, and it’s usually because everyone’s expectations for the game are different. Perhaps we’ll talk more about this in another post.

For now, let’s stick to ending games but sticking with the same group. This is at the forefront of my mind because my group just finished up a campaign (which I was running) earlier this week, and they opted to retire their characters instead of progressing onwards (and frankly, it was the wise choice, since we were playing Call of Cthulhu and a few of them were on death’s or insanity’s door).

I’ve always had great enthusiasm for beginning games. I love the part of the game where all the characters are introduced, they can show off their quirks and flaws and powers and weaknesses, they interact with each other and develop personalities, they investigate and interact with the world, gain faculty with the rules and laws that govern the game, make acquaintances with NPCs and run afoul of evildoers. And it’s this early period which sets the stage and lends an emotional weight to the campaign’s inevitable end.

We become attached to our characters, come to enjoy the world we’ve collaboratively created. We like that familiarity. We like coming up with new ways for our characters to grow and new goals to achieve, we love the prospect of seeing what new challenges await us in undiscovered corners of the world. I imagine that it’s the same feeling that one gets when they read the last few pages of the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or any series whose characters and story are powerful and addictive – we’re sad to see it go.

But go it must, eventually. And that’s never easy.

The most important part of the campaign, for me, is the climax of whatever story arc the characters find themselved embroiled in. It’s not my favorite, but coming down from the climax in storytelling usually involves some denouement or wrapping-up. This is the moment when a lot of stories go awry. I think it’s that desire to hold onto things that we love, but if the arc is truly over, we should probably just accept it and decide right then: are we continuing with these characters, this (broader) story, and this situation, or is the campaign effectively over?

If you decide the campaign is over, as a GM I would offer some wrap-up. The fate of the characters, the fate of the world, and so on. Maybe have another hour or so for everyone to talk about their characters’ goals for the future now that this particular story arc is over. Then, collectively decide what is going to happen next: someone else is going to try the reins as gamemaster, we’re going to switch to a new system, we’re going to play future or past versions of ourselves or NPC’s we’ve met in the world, and so on.

If you decide you want to continue,then you ask them how they get out of the white dragon’s lair, what is next for the party after slaying the evil lich before he could destroy the nation, how they really just uncovered the tip of the iceberg, and on, and on.

In general, we tend to frown upon railroading, but I would argue that limp, unsatisfying game endings (and often beginnings) come from our desire to have a true sandbox. Since there is no clearly defined beginning or endpoint, and since characters have a greater tendency to die or drift in and out of games, it becomes much harder to wrap up any particular arc. There’s no sense of closure. Now, is the “closure”, which, admittedly, is a nebulous topic to begin with, necessary to roleplaying? Well, I think to an extent that if we look at roleplaying as collaborative storytelling, then there is indeed a story, and that story should have some kind of beginning, middle, and end. Most sandbox games ultimately are not linear, but are episodic instead, which can offer, in itself, a kind of closure.

And I believe that’s the point – too many roleplaying games end without closure, and even when they do offer some closure, it’s very difficult to land upon an ending in which each player is satisfied. As a player we want to feel like we’ve earned what we have, and as a GM we want the challenges to be, well, challenging and also interesting, and it’s hard to have the denouement be challenging and interesting. Not impossible, but difficult.

I’ve had many awesome campaigns just go out on kind of a ‘meh’ note, and I hate that feeling. We are slaves to the recency effect, so we really hate when the last taste in our mouth is sour or just, well, bland. So do what you can to try and make your games end on a great note – as I said, I think this is mostly timing and just not holding on too long. Handwave your denouement if it’s not interesting, end the session after the boss is killed and move on to the next thing. Give your players something to remember right at the end before you move on to whatever entices you next.

Until next time, happy gaming!

PS: Do you have any thoughts regarding what the best way to end a story arc is? Or even how to put a game on hold when you try something differently?

Photo credit: Flickr user bennylin0724. CC BY 2.0

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The Inquisition: Fleshing Out Characters

Help your players by adding some layers. Thanks to flickr user shandchem. CC BY-ND 2.0

This will be a short post, but something that I think is important to every game: making characters deeper. And I’m talking about PC’s here. (Maybe next week I’ll talk about making deeper NPCs)

No matter how hard we try, our back-stories are not going to be perfectly comprehensive. Often, as a GM, we also run into players who have little to no interest in coming up with some depth to their character as well.

One of the best ways I’ve found is to ask questions of your players.

Where did your character grow up?

Does he have any scars?

What did she do for a living before the game started?

What was family life like?

Such questions can unlock a surprising amount of depth, mostly because I think the process that we use to come up with characters is based off a single concept. For example, I recently had the idea that my next DnD character would be a disillusioned war veteran. While this gave me a lot of ideas, most of them were related to his past as a soldier. While some led to tangents that were relevant to his non-soldiering life (How did he come to join the military in the first place?), most were within the same tunnel. Having a second or third party ask questions opens up new avenues of character exploration they didn’t even think to explore. (By the way, I love asking my fellow players questions about their backstories, I think it really helps get into character, cement inter-party relationships, and generally make the world more interesting. Next time you’re a PC, really get into it with the other players.)

Anyway, I wanted to link you a small questionnaire I put together for my most recent game. Steal it if you want, modify it, and use it in your game!

Enjoy!

 

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The Inquisition: Why Modules Rock

This rocks, too! Thanks to flickr user Martin LaBar. CC BY-NC 2.0

This is the second in a two-part series about running published modules. Last week we talked talk about why modules suck. This week, we’ll talk about why they’re great.

Do you have a life?

Do you actually have a life outside your roleplaying game?

Do you have friends? A hudband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend? A pet?

Do you like going to the movies? Do you like watching TV or reading books? Do you enjoy hiking, camping, traveling, sports, or one of a hundred other activities?

Do you have a job?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, I follow it with this: where do you find the time to write your own game?

Yes, I’m being facetious, but to a certain extent, I do have a point. Game-planning is very time consuming. I’ve never planned enough for a game; there are always more details to add, more ways to describe a room, more flesh to add to the bones of the NPC’s. The world continues onward and outward beyond the edges of the scenario: fantasy worlds have nations and histories that reach through thousands of miles and years, NPCs have character backstories that last decades or longer and explain their tortured or blessed existence.

Genesis takes time. Lots of it.

On the other hand, modules take far, far less time. Are they, even the best ones, usually lacking in depth? Yes, of course. There just isn’t enough space in the pages of a module to flesh out an entire world. And, truth be told, you usually don’t need the entire world – that’s what improvisation is for. That’s when you tell your players you’ll get back to them, or break the fourth wall a little bit and tell them they’re barking up the wrong tree for this scenario.

The luxury of running as module is that it saves you two huge investments: time, and creativity.

We just talked about time, so let’s jump to creativity. Creating things from scratch is hard, hard work. You need to make things interesting. You need to make things fun. You need to make sure you’re only being inspired and not just straight-up ripping off your inspirations. (We’ve probably all played in scenarios that were cribbed directly from movies). The best thing about the module is that you don’t need to have a cool idea or even the beginnings of an idea – you just pick it up, read through it, do some preparation so you know it, and then be on your way. You can obviously just use the module as your inspiration as well.

I really like reading modules, not running them. Why? Because they give me ideas. I shamelessly steal some of them, but most of the time I adapt them to my own worlds and the styles of my games. For this purpose, the huge mega-campaigns are usually too much, so I like to choose smaller, maybe 1-8 page modules that just have the seed of an idea. I think map-drawing and scenario design is incredibly time consuming as well, so I definitely use (with modification) encounters designed by others in my games. I love that someone took the time to make sure this combat is a reasonable fight for a fifth-level party so I don’t have to. (Caveat emptor: not everything you read in a module is actually balanced!)

Thus, my advice to you when it comes to modules is this:

Published adventures are a tool. If you use the tool for a task for which it was not intended, it will probably do, at best, a lousy job and at worst will not be able to do it at all. I think most designers build modules that are ready to run out-of-the-box, but I suggest an alternative “right job” for modules: inspiration and adventure skeletons. Read through an adventure, but don’t be married to anything in it. Use the elements you like. Toss out the elements you don’t. Write new elements, skip entire pages and rooms, make it a sprawling campaign or a minute encounter. Don’t try to just pick it up, read it once, and run it; you’ll be disappointed. Modules enhance your game. Don’t make the mistake of having them be your game.

Happy gaming til next week!

The Inquisition: Why Modules Suck

This sucks, too. Thanks to flickr user kirinqueen. CC BY-SA 2.0

This is the first in a two-part (at least) series about running published modules. Next week we’ll talk about why modules are awesome.

Fair warning: this week’s post was consumed by internet hobgoblins, so I’m writing a bit more off the cuff than usual. It’s been a heck of a week for our fearless leader, so cut him some slack and show your appreciation for all the great things he does. We really wouldn’t be here without him.

Anyhow, onto this week’s topic: Modules Suck.

What is a Module? In the olden days of DnD, TSR published pre-scripted and pre-planned adventures which they called modules. The idea was that your DM could pick up the module, read through it in the afternoon, and be ready to run his party through it by the evening. Nowadays they’re called adventures or scenarios, but the concept is the same: it’s a fully mapped-out series of encounters with a plot.

Now, I don’t actually believe modules achieve full, unadulterated, one-hundred percent suckitude, but they are quite often bad. They fill a particular niche, but they usually don’t do it all that well, they lure you in with the promise of a fun game but almost always end up coming up short. I’d like to examine what makes modules suck so badly, when, really, the designers have good intentions and a lot of talent.

Linearity Blows

It’s easy to knock railroading (putting your party on a straight set of train tracks and simply pushing them forward with no option for lateral movement), and indeed, the pulse of the RPG community seems nowadays to be very against this kind of linearity (just look at the growing popularity of non-traditional games like Fiasco which are extremely non-linear). I personally don’t think a little bit of railroading is bad from time to time, as long as it’s more of a car ride (plenty of area to move within the boundaries), but I do generally favor the sandbox mentality of games. What’s the point of playing in a completely made up fantasy world where you can literally do anything if you can’t actually literally do anything because your GM won’t allow it?

That being said, Modules are, by necessity, very linear. Because of the limited space for writing/publishing, every option is not available to the players running through the modules. Since there is an effort to conserve space, the module writer must reduce the number of options available to the player. Maybe an innovative module here or there will have some options embedded, but usually all of those “options” lead to the same conclusions, making the choices feel fairly useless.

We’ve talked before about how taking away player agency is usually a bad thing (railroading can be okay in small doses, though), and obviously modules do that quite a bit.

The World, it’s so.. inorganic

This is very much in the same vein as the above post, but since the overall plot of the module is pretty rigid, the world begins to feel much less organic. NPCs act in scripted ways (if X, then Y; if Z, then A…) and there’s not much recourse for GMs if players veer off the tracks.

One of the most important things for your game and your game world is the suspension of disbelief, which we’ve talked about many times. If your game is cinematic, or gritty, or very fantastical, the players will have a great time if they’re fully immersed into the game. When you stutter a bit because something is not yet written in your campaign, it breaks the narrative flow of the game.

These “stutter moments” unfortunately happen way more frequently when running a module. No matter how much you prep and read, you’re probably not going to be able to remember every detail in the module. (The same is true about your own game, but you’re much more likely to be able to reference it quickly since you created it yourself). Furthermore, sometimes that something just isn’t there – it hasn’t been written at all. While this is still a problem with your home-brewed game, it’s a lot easier to make something up on the fly since it’s your world and you generally have all the details at hand.

However, in a module, I always hesitate to go off script. How will it upset the “careful” homeostasis of the plot? I have definitely have made mistakes by having NPCs reveal what I thought was trivial information that later became a key cog, or behave in a certain way that turned the whole scenario. Every action has consequences, and without a deep understanding of the game, it’s difficult to get the point where you are totally comfortable with the source material.

Which leads me to…

You have to prepare Modules, too

The strongest selling point of the module is that you don’t have to do as much work as you would creating your own game. Maybe not with regard to coming up with the ideas or designing the encounters, but, especially with longer dungeon crawls and multi-session modules, the preparation can be even more intense. Since the games are so linear, you have to be very familiar with the entirety of the scenario.

I was preparing Horror on the Orient Express, a very long, involved module, and I had a very difficult time with it in the beginning. Since the module is well over a hundred pages, and the players meet important NPCs in the first of numerous acts, it’s hard to be confident what information they would definitely reveal, what information they know and don’t know, and at what point they learn a lot of things. I am confident that it’s impossible to get 100% with any given NPC; there is just too much information (though a lot you could puzzle out based on circumstantial information). My players are creative and it would give me fits to try to answer questions that a certain person should know but aren’t accounted for in their write-up (but DO appear later in the game).

You have to understand a lot of the encounters before they start, you have to look up stat blocks, possibly make modifications based on the relative strengths.

I would say that with the average session run out of a module, I have to prepare at least 75% as much, and I think I usually end up preparing far more, since I try to stick to the module’s vision rather than when I run a home-brewed game when I am much more likely to wing it.

Leftovers

I think that modules also tend to usually feature poor writing, poor layout, inconsistent and holey plots, very repetitive and uninteresting encounters (seriously, the last one I ran thought that having 5 encounters in a row featuring 4 Vrocks + some other lesser creatures was the cat’s meow).

Thus, modules suck. They’re inferior to home-designed games in almost every way, and they’re actually pretty bad in terms of their actual purpose (saving you time and coming up with interesting ideas). Play in a well-run custom campaign and play in a well-run module, you’ll see a world of difference.

Next week: Why Modules Are Awesome!

 

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The Inquisition: Picking Nits

This guy is nitpicking, too. Thanks to flickr user Pete Lambert. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Inquisitor is back now after a well-deserved holiday break, and I come bearing gifts: talk about the little nits we pick during our games.

This comes at the heels of last week’s post regarding how we are all free to choose the rules with which we play. I tend to rely on the wisdom of game designers (especially those of large publishers such as WOTC) simply because they’ve probably devoted hours and hours of playtesting and tweaking spread across dozens of players and GMs. I just don’t have that kind of time myself, and I get worried about interrupting the homeostasis of a game system. Furthermore, there are plenty of indie designers who make games that are excellent and well-tested, balanced and thought-out.

However, there are also design blind-spots that folks run into, even with the best of intentions, and from those blind-spots crappy rules are made.

Thus we have today’s post about nitpicking: some rules just don’t seem to add very much to the game. Why are they there?

You know the rules I’m talking about, the ones that at first glance seem quite annoying. Bonuses not stacking, encumbrance, prerequisites and prohibitions, and so on. Why do they exist?

Everything has a reason

I’m a firm believer that everything has a reason. Well, rather, I believe everything should have a reason. If you can’t find a reason for something existing, than that’s the perfect excuse for eliminating a rule completely.

Balance

For most games, and gamist games particularly, annoying rules are there to preserve balance. They prevent the characters from outclassing monsters quickly, and, maybe more importantly, they prevent certain characters from outclassing other characters. These type of rules ensure that the carefully tuned balance of the rules universe remains.

Most of your rules are going to be balance-maintaining. After-all, at some point role-playing is a game, and there needs to be some kind of structure. What that structure is, however, depends on how these balancing rules are implemented. In the most free-form of games, the rule might just be that each character can have three skills, and that those skills are based off single words chosen by the players. Ignoring this rule would allow an unfair advantage to the character who simply put more

Verisimilitude

Since I’ve tried my hand at creating a few games here and there, I often run into the wall of “realism”. I mean, we’re role-playing here, there is some element of fantasy involved (whether that fantasy takes the form of spies, or dragons, or otherworldly demons, or magic, or whatever), so it always seemed kind of funny to care about what is “realistic” and what isn’t. (Remind me about this for next week’s post)

Anyhow, I think the vast majority of “trouble” rules end up promoting some sort of misguided realism. Every game needs a little bit of realism, but all of the worst rules I can think of sacrifice smooth, fun gameplay for the sake of realism.

What about my game?

It goes without saying that different GMs, players, and groups have different styles. My first DnD DM heavily focused on intrigue, diplomacy and roleplaying (maybe it was because we didn’t have a Monster Manual back in those days). My second DM was one of the best 3.5 optimizers ever, so our games were very gamist and all the little nit-picky rules were adhered to for the sake of balance. One of my current GMs throws out rules such as the -4 penalty for shooting into melee and AOO’s against archers, but forces us to constantly worry about rations, food, water, and carrying capacity, something which I just usually dismiss (as long as you can make it to civilization now and again). My players got pissed at me once because they didn’t specifically SAY that they tied up their horses, and they were scared off in the night by some approaching monsters.

We all selectively apply the rules. Sometimes it’s omission: some games have quite a few rules and we don’t even know are there. The commercialization of roleplaying games leads to more splat books and expansions of the rules, more modules and more options, so naturally there are rules we might not be aware of. Furthermore, some designers tend to put rules in, let’s say, less than obvious places.

Now, I’m going to tell you to just throw out the rules you don’t like. Just have an open mind. Try to understand why rules exist, try to grasp what they do for the game, and then adjust accordingly. Take the pulse of your players: if they are chafing under the regime of stringent rules, then perhaps its time for a change.

I have a friend who really enjoys intricacies in games. I like them too, maybe not to the same extent, but we get along because I enjoy the little pieces of bookkeeping that go along with the game. However, this aspect of the game, the keeping track of rations and how much each little thing weighs, the locations of specific pieces of gear, how long it takes to get those gear items out of your pockets in a combat situation, this all can be frustrating to another, or even to the average player. And frustration for the sake of balance, or for the sake of verisimilitude is not worth it.

Pick your nits well, I say, choose those specific annoyances that ADD to the game. The goal of the game is to have fun, isn’t it?

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