Friday, February 17, 2017

Gods of the Fall - In Praise of Page 32

I'll stop using this art as soon as I get tired of looking at it.

OK, so let's talk about page 32 of Gods of the Fall. I'm going to start by directly addressing Monte Cook Games, author Bruce Cordell, and any other RPG publishers & writers paying attention: Do more of this.

Page 32 is a literal page from the Book of the Dead Gods. It contains a hymn to Avi the Sun, the words of Mudarak's Song, and a passage from Samiel 2:17. Page 32 is look directly into the game setting and directly at a document that a character in the game may be familiar with. More than this however Page 32 is a window into everything that the author cannot write into the text. It implies the content of an entire book in terms of style of writing and style of prose. In a game about fallen gods and new gods it gives us a glimpse at the way that the old gods were worshiped and a glimpse at how the new gods may likewise find themselves revered.

This one page is, in its own way, worth as much as the rest of the setting section. It does something that the remainder of the setting information cannot do, which is provide a sense of immersion. It does this not by telling us about the world, but showing it to us directly.

This is certainly not a new and unique way of presenting setting information. White Wolf made excellent use of such techniques in its Aeon product line back in the 90's and early 2000s by way of presenting massive in world records from the internet (or similar) or newpapers and other print media. This was then backed up by more traditional encyclopedia style world building. There are a few pages in The Strange presented as Estate case files and introductory packets. Games like Shadowrun and Interface Zero have presented their encyclopedic world information layered within the guise of matrix posts by various hackers, complete with snarky comments. I'm sure there are numerous more.

My first time through Gods of the Fall I paid this page little more heed than I did any other. I was intent on devouring the book, and wringing as much out of it as possible in the form of raw information. Page 32 stuck in my mind though and when I was planning my first session I decided to read directly from that page when I ran a scene featuring an Adherent street preacher. The effect was, I think, tremendous, as the passage sounded like something from an actual prayer book to the players.

Could I have done this on my own by writing my own poem, hymn, or such? Perhaps, though I doubt I would not have been half as successful at hitting the style, and less than that at the content. More to the point though I didn't have to. By providing in-setting material I was able to immerse the players with very little effort. 

So, to my fellow players and GMs, go read page 32 again. And maybe a second time, and consider what it tells you about the setting, from inside the setting. And to the RPG writing and publishing folks out there, consider including more of this in future products. These glimpses at the setting from within can do more to immerse your readers than a dozen pages telling us about the setting from the outside.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Nuts & Bolts #107 - RPG Blog Carnival - Exit Stage Left

I wanted to follow up my prior post about planning scenes based on the purpose they serve with another tool I use when planning: determining how the players can exit the scene. As I see it, no matter the circumstances of a scene, there's really only two way out, defined exits and undefined exits.

A defined exit is a fixed & finite way out of the scene. This could be as simple as finding a way to open the door of the jail cell that the players are currently prisoner within. Or it could be as complex as a negotiation scene where the exit is the end of negotiations (regardless of how they end). Defined exits are more commonly associated with adventures that are linear in design (such as a dungeon where each room only has a finite number of entrances and exits). 

An undefined exit is ... undefined. It's an open ended problem that the characters (and thus the players) are free to "solve" however they choose. This could be a scene of sneaking into an enemy stronghold (do they go in via the sewers, by impersonating the guard, climbing the wall?), or even a combat scene (they could win, run away, perish, something else, or even a combination of those).  Undefined exits can be associated with more open or "sandbox" games and allow the players to have a greater degree of creative control over the game.

Don't mistake my words for implying that undefined exits are in some way better than defined exits. Think of it more in terms of your control over the flow of an adventure. If you plan a scene such that it has only one or more defined exits you have better control over how the scene will transition to the next. This will allow you to plan up front and require less improvisation in play. On the other side, a scene with undefined exits encourages player creativity and can allow for the adventure to go into directions that even the writer hadn't planned for. This will require some more improvisation, but can also be more rewarding for the GM running the game, as they will be able to experience the surprise of the players' solution to the scene. 

Another thing to consider is that knowing what kinds of exits one scene has allows you to better plan the entrances for the next scene. If you only have a single defined exit then there should only be a single way into the next scene. Conversely having a number of defined scene exits, or a scene with undefined exits, requires that your next scene (or scenes) be planned accordingly. Again, this can be more work up front, but help ease play at the table. Transition for scenes with undefined exits may also require improvisation, with no real way to plan for every contingency.

Understanding scene exits can help you plan ahead and plan accordingly. It can also help you know how much improvisation you'll need to plan for, and help you determine how your adventure will flow from scene to scene.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Story Seed - Sultan

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I quieted my horse and looked across the glass-smooth waters of the River Inra. The sultan's palace loomed on the other side of the water like a man-made mountain, illuminated from behind by a gibbous moon. I tied the horse up under the arching curve of the bridge. Stealth was now my greatest asset and the darkness my ally.

I checked the straps on my clothing and gear and then slowly entered the waters of the river. The dry-stone in my pocket would keep me from getting wet, which was especially handy as I didn't want to leave dripping footprints for the palace guard to follow.

The air-stone in my mouth allowed me to dive under the surface and stay there for the two thousand paces of river that I needed to cross. Magic was handy stuff when you understood how to make the runes work for you in the simplest way possible. These two single rune stones had cost me barely a dozen crowns, a mere fraction of what a runed up weapon or item would cost. As a bonus the engraver had known from my request that I knew exactly what I wanted; haggling for price had been easy.

I emerged from the river and stowed my air stone away while I stared upward at the walled foundations of the palace. Twenty feet high and patrolled day and night, the wall was formidable. I let out a low twittering whistle and was rewarded a short time later by a length of knotted rope that descended not ten feet from where I was standing. I made my way to it and climbed, wondering if I would pay off the guard or be arrested. Fortune favors the bold, they say, and tonight was a night to be bold.

The guard was alone, and a small sack of coin made him smile and wander off. I took to a skulking trot in the shadowed streets and slowly made my way toward the palace proper. It was walled off from the rest of the island, but I already had a plan. A nearby building, slightly taller than the wall, was an easy way up. A long pole in segments, was a slightly less easy way over. I quickly broke the pole down as I crouched among the crenelations and surveyed the courtyard. The servants entrance was my next goal, one for which I already had a key.

It took time to get down from the wall. There were guards that needed to be avoided and by the time I made a quiet sprint to the servant entrance the moon was noticeably farther along its path. I unlocked the door with my key and crept inside. The smells of the kitchens, even this late at night made my stomach grumble. I ignored it, moving quickly and quietly, following the directions I had memorized.

There was no lock on this door, and while plain, it was a heavier door of finer material than the others in here. I opened it and stepped from the drab realm of servants into the richly appointed realm of the sultan. Plush carpeting and velvet curtains, and gold everywhere. I smiled at it all. Slowly I moved down the wide hall, thankful that in the dead of night there were only a few sconces lit, and those far between.

At last I came to a set of golden double doors, and pushed one of them open. The room beyond was dark and with a sigh of relief I slide inside, closing the doors behind me. A single candle burned in a gold and glass candlestick, but my eyes were well adjusted to the dimness of the light and I was able to cross the sultan's sitting room to the bedroom door with ease.

The bedroom was lit only by the moon's light through the windows, illuminating a massive bed of carved and gilded wood. A single form lay on the bed, it's shape softened by the covers. I stole over to it and looked down into the face of the sultan's wife. "Hello my love," I whispered to her.