RPT#109 – Ten Ways To Enrich Your Campaign With Lists Of Rulers: Part II
A Brief Word From Johnn
Monsters Versus Monsters Game
Recently, I had the fortunate opportunity to co-GM a monster versus monster one-shot dungeon crawl. What a blast! The players each played a different kind of creature, and the other GMs and I threw all we could at them.
Though I expected that the players would enjoy having monster abilities, I was surprised at how much they got into character and roleplayed with each other throughout the session. They did an awesome job and I enjoyed watching them roleplaying more than I did tanning their hides with demons, abyssal kobolds, and other nasties (well, almost ;).
I recommend this kind of one-shot game to any GM who might be feeling burnt out, doesn’t have time to plan a regular session, or wants to treat their group to something different for a change. It’s fun and can renew a lot of group energy.
Johnn Four [email protected]
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A Guest Article By Neil Faulkner
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See https://www.roleplayingtips.com/issue108.asp for Part I.
- Status Symbols
Rulers are transient, but the symbols of their status are more enduring. People may refer simply to ‘the crown’ or the ‘the throne’, but they might also talk of the Wyrmshead Crown or the Malachite Throne – such terms of reference achieve a resonance far greater than the name of a mere mortal, and merely mentioning them can generate all sorts of associations reaching far back into the shadows of time.
The Wyrmshead crown may or may not be magical. It may have been fashioned for an ancient ruler (a long-standing friendship with the dwarves, perhaps), or perhaps it was stolen in an early spate of empire building, in which case the original owners might want it back.
Prophesies might be woven about badges of office–should the Wyrmshead Crown be taken from the Malachite Throne, then the kingdom shall fall into ruin. Such prophesies might merely lurk in the campaign’s background, or take centre stage in the campaign (the PCs might be hired to find and return the crown before word gets out that it’s not looming over the throne any longer).
Quests & Adventure Hooks
Rulers who possess magic items might also lose them, in which case they can become the object of quests, or they might simply be found centuries later by PCs who have no idea what they’ve acquired. Enchanted weapons lost by campaigning warrior kings are an obvious example, but there is no real limit to what might be awaiting rediscovery.
- The Cats Of Queen Beruthiel
Henry II of England wondered aloud who would rid him of that ‘turbulent priest’ and created a martyr. Likewise, the words and deeds of fantasy rulers can live on in a campaign world, as aphorisms and figures of speech. Just the sort of thing NPCs can slip into their dialogue with the PCs and lay another scrap of flesh on the bare bones of the campaign world.
If the PCs start saying them back to the NPCs, then you can be sure you’ve hit the right note. Inventing profundities isn’t always easy, so you might care to take some real world quotations and adapt them to the game world, naturally putting them into the mouths of someone appropriate. Perhaps some belligerent king once said that when he heard people talk of art and culture, he reached for his battle axe…
If there is a bard amongst the PCs, then he or she will need something to sing about. The deeds and misdeeds of past monarchs can be a rich source of material for any bard’s repertoire, so when inventing a list of rulers try keeping your mind alert to the possibilities in this regard.
(The Cats of Queen Beruthiel, in case you didn’t know, are fleetingly mentioned by Aragorn in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. No further elaboration is supplied, but the relevance is clear enough within the context of his remark.)
- Movers And Shakers
Assuming you’ve got some idea of the game world’s history, you can insinuate the monarchs of the past into it. Their influence may be overt, or it might be tucked away in the background. This can lay down further threads to be woven into the bigger picture.
Just as history makes kings, so do kings make history, for better or worse, and the history not only of their own realm but that of all the known world. Rulers must respond to world-changing events, and their decisions can reverberate down through to the present.
Suppose the proverbial Legions of Chaos sweep down from the north to engulf the civilised lands. One queen might defy them to the bitter end, and her realm vanishes from the map as a result. Another monarch might side with the chaotic hordes out of self-preservation, to see the kingdom become corrupted and synonymous with evil. A third flees into exile, and that royal household still lives far from home, waiting for an opportunity to return. A fourth turns back the invaders to establish a bastion of order clinging to the western coast. Only centuries later does it emerge that a fifth allowed the invasion to happen in the first place, in return for rewards he never actually got. All of these rulers will go down in history, and the shape of the world as encountered by the PCs will be the result of their actions.
Such a pivotal role in world events need not be of a violent nature. If a ruler is converted from one religion to another, then the realm as a whole is likely to follow suit, and thus the ruler’s conversion plays a crucial part in the expansion of a belief. The religion itself may change as a result.
Take the following scenario: the king of Norland, who subscribes to the Old Faith, is cured of a debilitating disease by a priest of the New Faith, and converts as a result. Two generations later a reformist movement within the New Faith takes particularly strong hold in Norland, and is championed by the King’s granddaughter. This brings her into conflict with the orthodox wing of the Church in Eastria, prompting her to found her own Church of Norland. This provokes a religious war in which the mighty empire of Eastria falls apart, ending its 700 year grip on a whole continent and leaving it open to invasion by the orcs. In the midst of the ensuing turmoil, the PCs wander between the scattered islets of civilisation in a dangerous, war- shattered land. The decision of a dead king from a distant realm suddenly becomes very pertinent to their situation.
- Watch Yourself For Repetition
Fantasy world builders, like any other kind of author, are prone to repeating themselves quite unconsciously, so keep an eye open for any recurring patterns in your lists of rulers that might need correcting.
Are there more kings than queens, even though daughters have an equal chance of succeeding to the throne? Or is there an unduly high proportion of queens?
Are all the ‘good’ monarchs male while all the ‘evil’ ones are female? Or perhaps you’ve done it the other way round?
Do all your child-kings end up smothered with a pillow by a wicked old uncle? Maybe some of them should make it into adulthood.
Memorable monarchs should be unique. It is their uniqueness, after all, that makes them memorable.
- Finally… Don’t Overdo It!
There’s plenty of potential in every monarch, but wringing out every last detail might just be too great a strain on the imagination. With the throne changing hands anywhere from three to ten times every century, a long-established kingdom might have dozens of rulers in its annals. Some will have much written about them, others will be nothing more than names remembered only by erudite sages (or PCs who make their History roll). In between will be scattered fragments of lore, brief mentions of heroic deeds (or infamous misdeeds), an enduring legacy here, a crumbling ruin there.
A list of rulers is ultimately a means rather than an end, the trunk of a tree that can throw out branches when required into the tangled forest of a campaign’s background. And too many branches end up blocking out the sun.
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- Glass Game Table Idea
From: Ralph N.
Our setup is pretty cheap and does the job well. Everyone usually comes to our house to play and we have a 5′ x 1 1/2′ table with a rectangular glass piece in the middle.
I decided to go down to the local art store and bought some white cardboard stuff and drew on a grid to the size of miniatures (1″ squares) with a ruler.
Now all we have to do is slip the cardboard under the glass and let the DM draw the damn map himself with a dry erase marker.
- General GMing Tips
From: Lord Damian
- Learn To Wing It With One-On-One Sessions
Being good at winging it is an invaluable asset to both the players and GMs. Players EXPECT to be thrown curves and twists, but they also try to throw them at the GM, so if your players are starting to anticipate your planned adventure, throw it out the window and make it up as you go along (warning: this takes practice). They start being surprised again and enjoy the game more, and you’re having fun because you’re making them WORK for their rewards.
The best way I can think of to practice this is to run a few one-on-one games, with no real preparation (you always want to know your goals, or at least what direction you want to go in). Make up everything, including the story, room descriptions, character descriptions and dialogue, as you go along. Make sure your player understands your goals, though. Eventually, you’ll get the hang of it.[Comment from Johnn: what a great tip! 1-on-1’s are a super way to hone your improv skills. As a bonus, try linking these games to your regular group’s adventure to help develop your campaign at the same time.
Also, consider starting out with very short 1-on-1’s, say an hour long. Then increase the length as you become better and more confident.]
- Make Up Lots Of Details
The other thing I do is use it to fill in details. A perfect example happened a couple weeks ago in my Exalted game. The PCs were exploring a mystical tomb where their previous incarnations were laid to rest. In one of their tombs, I added banners and decorations that were made of precious metals when all the others were “working” materials such as copper or steel, and a set of candelabra, which were not in any other tomb. They also found one tomb (not a previous PC incarnation) that had been blasted and blackened. These were just flavor details, but the players latched onto them, so I made a few notes and they’ve become easy plot points, to be fleshed out at a later date.
- Get Continual Player Feedback
And, last but not least, ALWAYS ask your players opinions at the end of the game. Don’t get upset about a poor one, and make sure they know you won’t. Ask what they did and didn’t like about it, so you know what you need to improve on, and what you did right. This is easily the most important step to improving your GM skills.
- Learn To Wing It With One-On-One Sessions
- Create Alignments For Your Towns
Many RPGs have 3 basic types of alignments (or morality):
When building your towns, a great trick is to create one area for each alignment:
- Good part of town: very peaceful, gardens, flower beds and children playing in the street.
- Neutral: nice neighborhood, middle class, people are laid- back, and easy-going. Not much happens here and that’s the way they like it.
- Evil: the wrong side of the tracks, high crime rate, dirty, and just hope you don’t get lost and have to ask for directions.
Try doing this in three steps:
- Take a town map divide it into 3 areas: Good, Neutral, Evil.
- Divide each of these three areas again into Good, Neutral, Evil, so that you have nine neighbourhoods in all: GG, GN, GE, NG, NN, NE, EG, EN, and even an Evil-Evil area where the worst scum won’t even go.
- For each of these nine areas, create brief, general descriptions for some of the:
- Special places
For example, in a Good/Evil area there might be a rotten, evil bastard living in a house that was left to him when his uncle mysteriously disappeared. This has cast a pall over the whole neighbourhood, and mothers in surrounding areas use this place to scare their children into behaving.
Another example for Evil/Good: have you ever met a scary looking guy, and after talking to him he’s just a big teddy bear?
Something else to consider during play: the PCs should decide how they are going to present themselves in various neighbourhoods, now that you know what those areas’ general alignment and atmosphere is like. This will determine how NPCs will respond to them.
For example, if the PCs are evil-looking in a good part of town (i.e. they’ve just returned from an adventure and are dirty, bloody, and boisterous) they will be avoided and the local law enforcement will be on them very quickly.
And, if they look Good in an Evil-Evil part of town, in an Evil bar, meeting a band of Evil people, they’ll be lucky to ever _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ — you fill in the blanks.
And, if Good meets Good, then something good should come out of that encounter that will benefit the players.
I hope this helps someone out there.
- Adding A Little Plot To Hack ‘N Slash
From: Andrew K.
I have just started GMing again after a decade-long break from the RPGs. When I left we were still bashing monsters furiously and had little plot, and I felt that this was a dead-end. Now that 3E D&D has lured me back I am running with the emphasis on plot.
What I do is start the session with quick little plot scenes that involve just one of the players in the party, except I do this for each of the players, so that each has a little bit of the plot to call his own. The other players can, and should, listen to the episode, so that they adventure together as a party, but when they arrive back in town (or wherever) the separate elements of the plot are waiting. These episodes encourage the individual players and give them scope for individual character development.
For example: The Dwarvish Cleric is in competition with the town priest (same alignment, different gods) for influence over other characters. The Human Sorcerer is flirting with the local Queen of Thieves (though he doesn’t know her occupation, yet). The Dwarvish Fighter has been enlisted (by the town priest) to ensure the party adheres to the orc treaty. The Human Paladin is being courted by the daughter of the reclusive and mysterious town wizard.
Keeps everybody occupied and me weaving detail into the campaign.
- Pacing Tip: Forecast Your Story Length In Sessions
From: Ted O.
A campaign tip for new GMs: as I worked out the intricate cross-plots and interwoven stories of all the major and minor players in my world, it occurred to me that I’d created a campaign story that could take 10+ years to unfold at the rate of one session every other week.
I finally trimmed it back to what I would’ve originally thought of as one “adventure’s” worth (like a module), and wrote down how I thought it would progress through 15 sessions.
Turns out that my players always get sidetracked, so it’s not hard for me to imagine this is really 20-25 sessions’ worth. If they go too fast, I can add little side- adventures (as I said, they’re easily distracted by every crossroad and deer that hops across the field), if they lag behind, I can drop more hints. Now I have a nice campaign that’ll unfold in probably a year or 18 months, and that’s a fine way for me to start GMing and for my group (new to D&D) to learn the ropes.