Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Festivus for the rest of us? - Considering festivals in your campaign world

                I have been playing role-playing games for a majority of my life, and there is one common thread I have noticed in almost every game in which I play: there is no real mark of the passage of time. While planning out the length of the year and the name of months can be frustrating and time consuming, it helps add a great deal of realism to the game. Saying, for instance, that an event happened last year is less evocative than saying “It took place in the middle of Ylir during the year of the boar.” One of the main reasons why I feel tracking the passage of time in game is important is the role-playing and story opportunities presented by the coming and going of various religious (and secular) celebrations. These are the sort of opportunities that allow players to invest more in the game world in which they play. If the bard had a particularly good haul performing at last year’s harvest festival in Sӕvighelm, it is likely that the players may be apt to go back the next time. This, of course, gives the game master ample ability to through in recurring characters and build upon the legend of the PCs in the locale.
                Majority of the holidays in your campaign are likely to be religious in nature. The number of holidays/feast days is, of course, going to depend on the dominant religion in the realm. Secular holidays will be more infrequent, but could coincide with the ascension of a new ruler, the celebration of the end of an armed conflict, or the marriage of two powerful families, for instance. So what kind of holidays are important to have in your campaign world in order to generate an air of reality?

“Natural” Festivals

                The easiest way to start planning the festival calendar is to associate feast days with different periods on the solar cycle. Every agricultural society is likely to have both a harvest and a planting festival, which are easily placed during the equinoxes. Likewise, mid-winter and mid-summer festivals are also common in most cultures, and are easily placed during the solstice. These festivals can be as religious or secular as the game master desires, but it is important to remember the culture of the people celebrating when making that decision. In a society that has one
or more gods or goddesses of agriculture, it is practically unthinkable that the harvest and planting festivals will not have at least some religious component. Likewise, and religion with a deity of fertility should have a roll in several festivals. As long as you cater the style of the celebration to the culture of the locale, you really can’t go wrong.

Religious Festivals
            Aside from the “natural” festivals, festivals purely associated with religious observance are wonderful for giving some life to your game. If your world is polytheist, than each god or goddess should have his/her own festival. The nature of these celebrations should consistent with the ideals and purview of the associate god; deities of fertility might be associated with orgies, deities of battle with tournaments, etc.  Not all of these festivals need to be officially sanctioned by the local government. Certainly, the festivals associated with evil deities are likely to entail sinister rights and perhaps human sacrifices, so locals may by terrified of these celebrations when they come around.
Most PCs, I am sure, will be easily roped in to going toe to toe with cultists that prey upon a local village or manor.
                In a monotheistic religion, it is more likely that religious festivals will be celebrated in commemoration of certain events that worshippers take to be significant; their deliverance from adversity through divine intervention, the coming of a deity’s avatar, the founding of an important religious site, or even the codification of the official religious canon are all great options. As with the above, the important thing to remember is that the festivals keep with the spirit of the religion. One final thought: a religious festival should absolutely require sacrifice or tithing.

Feast Days
              I realize this is merely a semantic distinction, but I am going to separate the concept of feast day and festival for the sake of creating an orderly list. Feast days, by the usage hereon, are meant to refer to minor religious holidays. These are not the grand festivals associated with a religions high holidays, but rather celebrations which are dedicated to a particularly pious person, or perhaps a lesser deity. In most polytheist religions, most (if not all) of the geographic features around a settlement will have a patron deity or spirit. While less powerful than the major gods of the pantheon, these supernatural beings are still quite powerful, and making regular sacrifices to them in order to solicit their goodwill should be important to the locals. This is your chance as a game master to give more local flavor to distinguish between towns.
Two hamlets located on the same river, for instance, will likely honor the river’s associated earlier post, because it is likely that your game takes place in a quasi-medieval setting, travel is difficult and cost prohibitive (if not downright illegal in the case of serfs) for the common person, so most people will not have gone much further than twenty miles from their birthplace during the whole course of their lives. This means that there will be limited cultural diffusion between towns, so while there would be common aspects (such as worshiping the same river entity), it makes perfect sense that these celebrations will have a lot of differences as the local population comes up with its own traditions over time.
While it seems at face value that a monotheistic religion would have fewer feast days, this is not necessarily the case. The veneration of saints is an important aspect in the Christianity of Medieval Europe, for instance. Days which honor deceased religious leaders, prophets, evangelists, and martyrs are a way for a religion to model its precepts. Finally, animist communities should probably have feast days in which they honor their forbearers.
Cultural (ethnic) Festivals

            The final type of festival to consider are the ones that lack are not necessarily religious in nature (though they could have a religious element), but rather cultural festivals. In the U.S. we have a number of these: Thanksgiving, Independence Day, May Day, etc. The aforementioned are all a good basis for cultural holidays. A society might also celebrate the marriage of a particular ruler (think Oktoberfest), the ending of a war (Armistice Day), or the just an important day in the country’s history (the birth of a celebrated individual). By peppering these into the calendar for a few of your more common locations, you can craft a very immersive setting.

Strong on his mountain (er…at his desk),

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Vampirella: Crown of Worms - A "Vampire: the Masquerade" super story?

I have long been a big reader of comics, and I imagine my love of the medium started like most fans: superheroes. I started by reading the issues my older brother no longer cared about (Avengers West Coast mostly), until one day my dad took me to my very first comic book store. They had a dollar bin, and I quickly purchased whatever I could find – usually the ones with the coolest covers and anything with the Green Lantern or the Fantastic Four. Moving to a location that was prohibitively far away from the shop, I turned to my neighborhood Kum & Go for my comic fix before finally mail ordering my issues of Mutant X ; I’m a sucker for anything with Havok in it. I have been reading comics one way or another for more than twenty years now, which does not seem like a long time until you realize that I am not yet thirty, but until recently I have always stayed away from what I classified as “T&A” comics.

I am sure you know the ones I mean. In my arrogance and self-importance, I assumed that many of these titles (Witchblade, Vampirella, Red Sonja, etc.) were little more than visual fodder for the more perverted of my nerd community. This belief started to fade when I got into Red Sonja comics (thank you, Gail Simone). I bought Swords of Sorrow as it was coming out on the basis of Red Sonja’s appearance in the comics, but I quickly found out that I really enjoyed another “T&A” superheroine. Enter Vampirella. In my defense when it comes to comics, the age old adage which teaches us not to judge a book by its cover is often wrong in this medium, and I just had little interest in a character whose, it seemed, main assets could be seen from said cover. I love being wrong.

Due to her inclusion in Swords of Sorrow, I decided to check out this character from what seemed a good starting point: Crown of Worms. I was shocked (and delighted) to find that the character was normally attired through most of the story; whatever, the whole “I fight in a bikini” thing just seems so ridiculous to me. As I read through the pages of the story, I found myself completely surprised. This was not at all what I expected, and yet it seemed so familiar. Then it dawned on me: Crown of Worms is one of the best Vampire: The Masquerade (V:tM) storylines that anyone has ever written. It just is not set in the World of Darkness game setting. Warning, this post assumes at least some familiarity with Vampire: The Masquerade; arguably one of the greatest table-top roleplaying games ever made.

The Story:

After the death of her lover, one Adam van Helsing, Vampirella is rounding up and slaughtering the forces of Dracula (yes, the Dracula). She comes to a club which the local vampires use as a cover for their activities and as an easy source of food. Upon entering, Vampirella has a throw down with the vamps, convinced that Dracula is behind the source of the vampiric incursion into Seattle. To her surprise, she finds one of Dracula’s lackeys, Le Fanu, is not only the ring leader, but had been inexplicably altered. She is no longer a normal vampire, but rather has been infested by what Vampirella learns to be an ancient worm-creature. The creature wants to find the correct host (read: key) so that it can break into out dimension and sate its ravenous hunger.

In a fight that takes the building down, Vampirella befriends a human being by the name of Sophia Murray. Sophia aids Vampirella in her recovery from her encounter Le Fanu, and tags along to confront the undead/extra-dimensional menace. This sends the human character on a path of self-discovery in which, after dispatching the Big Bad, she decides to stick around and help Vampirella as her sidekick (for lack of a better term). Overall, a pretty solid story.

Best V:tM story ever written?

Emphatically, I say “yes”. If you have ever run V:tM, you know that the storylines involve intrigue, vampire politics, and the occult in equal or greater measure to combat. Vampire is not a traditional role-playing game in the way Dungeons and Dragons is, because it endeavored to be different; it was more about narrative and the attempts to maintain (or lose) one’s humanity after decades, centuries, or even millennia of undeath. The stories focus on the vampiric community, and the centuries-old plots laid by its more venerable members, usually using the society’s younger members (traditionally PCs) as pawns. This is very similar to the intrigue between Dracula and Le Fanu in Crown of Worms.

Both Le Fanu and Dracula (as well as the worm beast) have their own purposes, and both would love to rope Vampirella into it. The club where Vampirella initially encounters Le Fanu in the story is basically the best depiction of an Elysium I have ever read. We can assume that Vampirella (actually an alien) is mechanically a Caitiff (clanless) vampire, and due to her disapproval of Vampire society either an independent or Anarch. Sophia becomes a vampire hunter in training over the course of this story, and the human/vampire team-up would also make for a riveting game of Vampire. Really, this story-arch has everything you could want from a Vampire: The Masquerade game without any of the proper nouns or copyrighted information; this thing is capaign setting equivalent of V:tM SRD! Not only is the story enjoyable and the artwork pleasant, the opportunities for a storyteller to mine ideas for his/her game are myriad. If you are still playing Vampire (you lucky so-and-so), and are getting tired of the same old story lines and plots, then do yourself a favor and pick up some Vampirella. Oh yes, and never judge a comic by the scantily-clad outfit of its protagonist.

Strong on his mountain (er…at his desk),

Thursday, November 12, 2015

She held aloft Excalibur: concerning magic weapons in sword and sorcery games.

A few posts back I discussed how to make an anthropocentric,low-fantasy campaign. I touched in a very minor way about magic items, but at the time I felt like this is a subject that could be dealt with in greater detail. It is in this spirit that I turn towards the idea of magic items in a low magic, sword and sorcery style setting. While this discussion is not likely to exhaust the matter, it should give the prospective DM a good jumping off point and a way to appease his/her players when they inevitably complain about the lack of magic items.
I am not going to re-plumb information I have already written about, so instead I will attempt to offer up something new for the consideration of the reader. The first thing to remember about magic in this sort of setting is that it should be rare, powerful, and mysterious. When players find a magic item, they will not have a way of really knowing whether or not the item is or is not imbued with eldritch properties, because they will be unlikely to have a spell that can identify the item. This makes it so description by the Dungeon Master and experimentation by the player characters. I will go a little more in depth about the identification process in just a bit. Let’s jump in to some quick guidelines for magic items, shall we?

Make It Wondrous
The first guideline I follow is to make sure that magic items given out (aside from minor, alchemical items) are always wondrous in nature. Too often players find boring, quasi-mundane items (“ooh a +1 sword, how original…”). In a high magic campaign this is legitimate because of the sure multitude of magic items that are floating around in the world; heck you may even be able to straight up buy magic items. In a low magic campaign, by contrast, these items are not readily available and it can be very discouraging to the player characters to go through a taxing ordeal and only walk away with an item that grants a strictly numerical advantage over what they were previously wielding. It is for these reasons that I propose that the Dungeon Master give out Wondrous Items. While most of them will not be weapons or armor (we’ll talk about that later), they are always items of legendary power and great utility. Would the thief like a +2 rapier? Totally. Would a gem which prevents the thief from being detected by magical means be more epic and amazing from a story stand-point? Unequivocally yes! Besides, giving players something which makes their character truly unique in the world and which allows them to role-play creatively is, in my opinion, intrinsically valuable in a game like D&D (or OSRIC, DCC, LL, BoL, etc., etc.).
Eschew Magic Weapons and Armor
This is the guideline I anticipate getting the most blow-back from. People love magic weapons, and, ultimately, what is not to love? They are sleek, cool, and help you kill monsters better; every warrior's dream. But do they really fit in a sword and sorcery setting? While I am sure we can all think of S&S characters with epic magic weapons (Elric much?), I remain unconvinced that they strictly fit into the setting. Generally, the S&S setting is all about a human character overcoming magical or supernatural obstacles with little more than grit, strength, and good, old-fashioned tenacity. Having said that, it is nice to give players a numerical bonus to hit and damage, especially when a majority of their foes will have resistances to non-magic damage starting at around fifth level (in 5e). So allow me to propose giving weapons qualia which give them a +1 - +3 without making them magic. I will break theses into four levels in ascending order: masterwork, heirloom, legendary, and mythical. I will often use the word “weapon” in place of “weapon or armor”, because having armor of these qualities will be so cost prohibitive that it is unlikely a character will be able to afford the commission of one. Finally, weapons of superior quality should be given names. This adds to their flavor and prestige.
Masterwork: A masterwork weapon is non-magical in nature and is the product of a particularly skilled craftsman. The weapon confers a +1 to hit and damage because of the way it has been forged and the superiority of its balance and edge. A weapons of this quality should cost no less than ten times the amount of the normal weapon type. Hrunting, the sword given Beowulf by Unferth, is good example of such a weapon.
Beowulf fighting the dragon.
Heirloom: An heirloom weapon confers a +2 bonus to hit and to damage, but remains non-magical. This is a weapon made by the sort of smith that only comes around once in a generation, and as such should be incredibly hard to come by. Those who possess such a weapon likely hand it down to their heirs, or lose it in battle with a superior force. Should a player seek to commission such a weapon, it should cost no less than one-hundred times the standard cost of the item, and require some searching to find the artisan capable of crafting such an piece. Beowulf’s sword Nӕgling given him by Hrothgar is an example of such a weapon.

Sigurd and Fafnir
Legendary: A weapon of legendary quality is one that is, in fact, quasi-magical in nature. Conferring a +3 bonus to hit and damage, a legendary item is one that comes into being perhaps once in a lifetime. It is likely made out of esoteric or rare material, made by the greatest craftsman of the age, or both. Acquiring such a weapon should always involve a quest of some sort; whether one seeks an extant item, the material to have it forged, or the artisan who can properly forge the item. On the off chance one wants to commission such an item, it should cost no less than one-thousand times the price of the normal item. Sigurd’s sword Gram with which he slew Fafnir in the Völsungsaga is an example of such an item.
Elric by Michael Whelan

Mythical: A mythical weapon is one that is literally magical in nature. The item does not just confer a “plus” to hit and damage, but contains other properties as well. This sort of an item is one that cannot be forged by human hands (without the aid of powerful magics) and must always be received as part of a quest or adventure. A mythical sword should ignore magic resistance (at least to a certain level) and have other abilities. It is likely that such an item will have an intelligence of its own because it was formed by unearthly means. These items can never be bought with normal currency, but boons, souls, and other more esoteric means may be used to acquire them. Again, I stress that these weapons should have qualities beyond a simple “plus”. Elric’s sword Stormbringer is an example of such a weapon.

Strong on his mountain (er... at his desk),