Ideas For Involving Fantasy Phenomena
From Strider Starslayer
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #215
(Comment from Johnn: Strider has told me that this article was inspired by Kiriath Machin Ni’s excellent Reader Tip in Issue 205, “Ideas For Involving Space Phenomena”.)
In my opinion, the fantasy genre, more than any other, has more room for GM imagination in the things that the party encounters. Once you add the element of magic, even if it’s well understood scientific magic, then virtually anything is possible.
Magic is very similar to technology in the sense that it can be ‘built upon itself’ to make even better and more impressive magics. However, unlike technology, magic is often practiced by individuals who have no desire to share their discoveries. So, there can be small pockets where a powerful wizard has accomplished things that literally will not be reproduced by magic or technology for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In addition, the technology of magic is also prone to spectacular failures that might simply be impossible to reproduce.
With this in mind here are some Fantasy Phenomena:
Pocket Of Altered Reality
Whether created by some natural effect, the remnants of a mage war thousands of years ago, or a spectacular spell failure (or perhaps a spell success by a particularly deranged wizard), this area no longer follows ‘normal’ rules.
Perhaps water no longer quenches thirst but sand does. Perhaps your intelligence stat replaces your strength stat (as what you think you can do replaces the limits of your physical body). Maybe the relative strengths of creatures are reversed inside (with dragons barely able to keep their massive frame from collapsing inward, and the lowly ant able to tear a castle to crumbs). This area would prove entertaining, curious, and dangerous to any party to enter.
- An extended altered reality stretch that ‘fails’ intermittently. For example, crossing a dessert of altered reality where sand changes properties with water, then randomly changes back, could require careful planning and resting cycles lest the current contents of the PCs’ stomachs become rather inedible.
- A place where gravity is relative to your footing (like in a Fermnat painting).
- A mobile pocket of altered reality that is about to roll over a town. How do you prepare, can you protect the denizens inside?
- A trap. A pocket of altered reality can be a trap to stop a certain technology–or magic–from working within, perhaps to hinder travel or to capture travelers. For instance, an anti-magic bubble on a known magical airship route is a sure-fire way to gather interesting items and people.
An important note to GMs: avoid having a pocket of altered reality alter who the characters are. For example, don’t change their personalities or memories, as many players resent this level of GM meddling in their characters.
Tried and true, this is a graveyard or place where the dead are kept that is far removed from the source community. Usually, this is because the founding community is no more. Other times, it’s because the community feared the dead or undead (perhaps rightly so!). These crypts are often full of interesting items, especially if the customs of the time dictate that the dead should be buried with their possessions.
- An important quest item is said to have been buried with the body of an ancient hero. You know where the grave of that hero is, now all you need is to go in and get the item.
- The party has been hired to _prevent_ grave robbing, and is responsible for setting up the traps that will prevent the grave from being desecrated for centuries to come.
- The party has entered a crypt and been found by the authorities upon exiting. Now they are sentenced to repair the traps they broke, and as part of their punishment, set things up so that ‘heroes’ like them can’t get in again!
- The ‘crypt’ is actually the home of a necromancer who likes to ‘live with his work’.
- The ‘crypt’ is actually a city of undead who use it as a home where they will not be bothered by the living or parasitic undead, such as ghasts, wraiths or liches.
- The ‘crypt’ is actually a large corpse-eating beast disguising itself as a crypt.
Another tried and true staple of fantasy gaming, the wizard’s tower often overlooks a small, unassuming city, or situates itself somewhere obscure, stretching out like a giant finger poking fun at the gods who think they can accomplish more than a wizard.
Like the Crypt, wizard towers often contain much in the way of riches, but since they serve as the experimentation grounds for the wizard who built them, they are often more insidious in their deadliness. Wizards also often prefer not to be disturbed, so there may be traps outside the tower and on the first few levels (but unlikely to be later on, lest the trap interfere with experiments).
- Any wizard building such a tower probably has several interesting magical creations on hand, such as chimeras, animated objects, or golems. Alternatively, there might be long-standing magical effects that the mage is studying, such as reversed gravity, negative light sources, wild magic zones, or slowed/hasted areas. These things can both challenge and reward players. A tame chimera would provide an excellent mount for any warrior or wizard who can earn its trust, which might require defeating it in combat. Negative light sources could be potent siege or stealth weapons.
- The wizard who built the tower might still be there, and probably won’t appreciate some adventurers wandering through his domain.
- The founding wizard might still be there and might enjoy the coming of adventurers and be very nice to them. These encounters can be even more dangerous than hostile ones. Items the wizard gives away freely might still be ‘untested’ in field conditions, and while they behave perfectly in a lab setting, they might not do so outside of one. (Of course, the same is true of anything removed from a wizard’s tower, but the party would be more cautious for problems with items they stole, and less so with items that were explained, demonstrated, and given to them by a friendly wizard.)
- The wizard present has spent too much time in his tower and might no longer be in full control of his faculties.
- The inside of a wizard’s tower is a great place to encounter pockets of altered reality!
- I’ve had excellent success using a wizard’s tower, complete with a friendly wizard as a base of operations for the party. When things get slow for me thinking things up, I throw together a quick adventure using something inside the tower.
- Silly things can be encountered in a wizard’s tower if you want to break the tension after a long quest. Aquatic martial arts hamsters, giant dragons kept as pets in cages eating nothing but bird food, etc.
Bizarre Magical Item
Often a potent item created by a forgotten mage in a time long past, or a relic crafted by a deity for some unknown reason, the bizarre magical item is a wonderful fantasy campaign phenomena.
- A fairy realm item
- An intelligent device
- A deadly killing machine made entirely from magical might
- The artefact is ‘alive’ in a magical sense and might not want to be ‘owned’ by a party of adventurers.
- The artefact is intelligent and has a rich history it can share (a good prize for historians).
- The artefact is a weapon of terrible power that was kept hidden away for a reason.
- The creator of the artefact still lives and might want it back!
- An bizarre artefact encountered by my own players (GURPS item) is a silver candelabra:
- imparted with magical intelligence
- granted the shape metal spell
- has a special, constantly on version of the repair spell
- has several levels of pursuance (ability to penetrate armour), damage, and defence
- A magic stopwatch that was told to restore life to a princess.
- A ‘self-replicating’ magical item (it makes copies of itself). That may be _all_ it does too, which would make for an interesting puzzle for the players as they attempt to discern its ‘true purpose’ when all it really does is, for example, cut exact replica spoons out of silver, which cut more exact replica spoons, and so on.
The beast might not necessarily be evil or bad for the party. A good encounter with a fantasy beast can really restore the party’s realization that they are in a strange and fantastic world.
- A chimera
- Giant skeletal scorpion/T-rex hybrids
- Pumpkin-headed scarecrows
Be sure to stress the majesty, wonder, or strangeness of the creature. Detail how impressive it looks and be sure to not make it a ‘human in a dragon suit’. Give it abstract motivations as well.
- My personal favourite beast encounter is the ‘friendly’ beast. A dragon that’s not out to kill you can be almost as devastating to the party as one who is trying. For example, its massive, booming voice might cause glass potion vials to shatter and deafen all within hearing. Its landing and take- off shake the earth enough to cause a landslide. And the idle sliding of its tail provides a constant danger of decapitation for those it’s speaking with.
- Small things in large numbers can be just as effective as a single large thing. For example, swarms of insects with a common purpose, hoards of rodents with a strange hunger, schools of fish in great agitation.
- The ‘beast’ could actually be an extra-terrestrial or extra-planar entity.
- Beasts can have alien motivations and values. For example, cunning PCs might be able to trade nothing more then a few dozen slain deer for whatever magical items that are currently stuck in the dragon’s teeth from the last few knights who were foolish enough to challenge it.
- A large, non-sentient beast (maybe a worm) is approaching a city. It’s very, very big, and while the party could possibly kill it, it hasn’t done anything wrong in and of itself and will only crush the city by nature of the city being in its chosen path. The PCs could try to change the creature’s path or they could attack it. Killing the creature might have unwanted results though, such as having a _large_ rotting carcass around, which might attract bad things.
- A beast’s appearance could be the precursor to a natural disaster. For example, a rain of fish might indicate a massive storm.
Note that beasts are often confused with ‘monsters’, and by the nature of what many players’ expectations are, they might focus more on coming up with interesting ways to kill the beast rather than interacting with it.
The volcano explodes, the tsunami hits, the asteroid strikes. Regardless of the form, something bad happens and it’s not magical (though it may have been started by magic).
- Scale can vary. Is it on the ‘wipe out all life on planet’ scale, or ‘slow up a pair of travelers’ scale, or something in between?
- You might want to categorize its origin:
- Extraterrestrial: lunar shifts cause higher tides, asteroid impact, comet passes
- Terrestrial: volcanic eruption, avalanche, tornado
- Aquatic: tidal waves, underwater volcanoes, hurricanes
- Put the party in a non-standard natural setting. For example, sometimes a sea can be a far more effective barrier then a wall. Perhaps the settings is inside a volcano (ala 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and the like). It can be very interesting to see how a party deals with environmental conditions that they cannot survive normally.
- A heavy rainstorm has turned all dirt paths into mud, making travel difficult, messy, and dangerous.
- A well-used path has a massive tree stuck in the middle of it.
- A comet is passing overhead causing widespread panic about the end of the world (the comet poses no danger and is only visible at night).
- The planet is entering a dense cloud of meteorites, normally making for a very pretty sky show during the night; however, a few of those meteorites are large enough to touch down, carrying with them more force than any wizard’s fireball!
- A rain of fish in a coastal town that was running out of food makes locals believe that a god is saving them. However, it’s really tidings for a massive hurricane about to hit!
- A battlefield heavily scarred by fire and ice magic manages to create the necessary components for a tornado. In addition to armies having to contend with each other, torrential winds threaten to destroy both sides if the magical assault continues. If one side stops though, then the other gains an advantage!
Deities interfering with the world make for a rather ‘charged’ atmosphere that stresses the party is not the ‘be all end all’ of the universe. Or does it?
- Omnipotent deities. These often have little place in a fantasy world. If gods exist that can do anything, there serves no purpose but to get on this god’s good side and have them give you everything you want.
- Astral gods. These gods exist more as thoughts or ideas than as entities. Though their very real powers can be beheld, there is no way to ‘assault’ the god personally– except perhaps by attacking its worshiper base.
- Corporeal gods. These ‘gods’ are real, physical beings, and while extremely potent they share many of the same weaknesses of their mortal counterparts.
- Mortal gods. While effectively un-aging, if killed, these gods will stay dead. Gods of this sort will be loathe to challenge anyone to personal combat, preferring to rely on weaker, replaceable, minions.
- A god of chaos has decided that the party will be its new avatars. This brings both power and danger to the PCs since, by the god’s dynamic nature, it can grant this power to anyone and take it away just as capriciously (allowing for a few interesting quests before disposing the PCs’ powers later if they annoy you or are too unbalancing).
- The party encounters a lone old man on the road who warns them of great danger. The old man is actually a mortal god, and there is definitely danger: namely the now wounded <insert large beast here> he lost to in a fight where he barely escaped with his life.
- The party, after viciously slaughtering their way out of a situation that really should have been handled diplomatically, encounters a god of justice who is dead set on seeing the party stand trial for its crimes. He wants to demonstrate that not all situations can be resolved with ‘might makes right’.
- After diplomatically manoeuvring their way out of a situation that should have been a massive slaughter, the party encounters a god of destruction or war. He is dead set on seeing the party slaughter their way out of a situation in a display of ‘might makes right’ rather then have the PCs work with deceptions, diplomacy, or other non-violent tactics!
While introducing gods to a campaign can be fun, be sure to they don’t outshine the party. A good way to do this is with mortal gods because this gives the PCs a way to strike back if one makes their lives too difficult (though it would be no small undertaking). Take note of the party’s urge to kill your god as an indication that it might be time to stop using such a heavy hand with it.
Another note on mortal gods: don’t put it past the party to kill a god. They might do it when you don’t expect them to. They might even assault the power base of an astral god, leading to much slaughter just to reduce that god’s influence (this can be because of opposing alignments or because the god is perceived as ‘evil’, which may even be true).
Mithril, radioactive isotopes, metals that stop magic, crystals that radiate it–whatever the form this material takes, it will often be in an exceedingly small or an excessively large quantity. Valuable elements should not be acquired en-mass, and anything that you want to be rather useless as a packaged travel good will require high concentrations to be effective.
- Feel free to put the element into any of the four phases of matter: solid, liquid, gas, plasma. A room temperature plasma could be an adventure of itself!
- Certain high-tech compounds would make excellent fantasy exotic elements. In fact, mithril’s properties (excluding its reputed usefulness in magic) sound a lot like our own titanium: lighter, stronger, and more brittle than steel. So too, it might be neat to introduce modern materials as exotic elements.
- The party finds a cave full of dark steel. It is exceptionally strong and has the unique property of being completely ‘non-conductive’ to magic. Of course, being exceptionally strong, it’s not easy to extract any of this ore and even more difficult to melt it down, especially without any magic to assist the effort. As well, these blades can never exceed a good magical blade in pure combat ability, but they might give a wizard a start when you stab right through his force field!
- A certain tree’s sap, when properly processed, can be made into a thick syrup. This syrup, when poured into a mould, will harden into a solid form as strong as steel but is only half steel’s weight!
- Mages use a certain rare element for virtually all spell casting to reduce the size of regent they must use to something that can be made man-portable. However, the local mine where this element was harvested has run dry. Prices are skyrocketing and, if another source is not found soon, the party’s mages might find it increasingly expensive and difficult to keep themselves in fine casting form.
- A strange, heavy ore is found. It’s easy to work, warm to the touch, and much stronger then steel. However, everyone who works with it soon becomes violently ill. The ore’s cursed status is blamed, but further research would find that the ore actually emits some form of energy that is harmful to most life (radiation, or perhaps something more exotic!).
A Brief Word From Johnn
Game Of Thrones Is A Great Game
I had the good fortune to finally play the Game of Thrones (GoT) board game. I had asked for reviews awhile back and they were mixed, so I held-off purchasing the game blind. Luckily, I got in on a game Saturday and it’s now on my buy list! I found it a well put together combo of existing games, such as Diplomacy, Shogun, and Settlers of Catan–a mechanic or two borrowed from each game and put together in a great way.
Playing this made me yearn again for a good board game to help manage my new game world. I can’t help but think there’s a sweet spot between board game and GM tool for campaign design and maintenance.
For example, in GoT, players bid for ownership of three game controls: Iron Throne (turn order), Valyrian Steel Blade (battle bonus), and the Messenger Raven (wild card). As ownership switches during the game from various bidding opportunities, I could see that translating into RPG campaign terms of political upheaval, military manoeuvres, and spy games, which would in turn trickle down into background events, encounter flavouring, and plot hooks.
I guess I’m envisioning my campaign world laid out in the same appealing and visual way as a Risk, Axis & Allies, or GoT board so I could clearly see borders, alliances, military strengths, diplomatic strengths, PC movement, and more to get a high-level view and make world control easier.
Feasible? I dunno. It’s fun to ponder though. ?
Hellboy Is Great
I saw Hellboy this weekend and loved it. Pure, fun fantasy action. Good monster guts and great monster scenes.
Have a great week.
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Actions Have Their Consequences
From Sean Futch
Hello Johnn, thought some readers might find this interesting:
Playing with your PCs, or, “Actions have their consequences…”
I’ve been reading some of your reader tidbits and decided to add one of my own for messing with your players. Last year I ran a Hackmaster campaign and pulled a trick on the group of PCs.
While they were back in town recuperating from the dungeon (which still hadn’t been explored all the way), a group of NPC adventurers were in the dungeon attempting to clear it in the same way. After the PCs had healed, they went back into the dungeon, and wouldn’t you know it, ran right into the NPC group.
I described the party to my players, who immediately assumed they were bad guys, and they attacked. Everything was going their way until one of the NPCs died. The NPC group doubled its ferocity except for one, who screamed out “murderers, how can you do such an vile act?”
As most of the party were good aligned, this gave my PCs pause. They finally started asking questions and were mortified to find they had killed an innocent man who had a family. The consequences didn’t end there. After the NPC group left the dungeon, carting off their friend to be buried, they went to the sheriff of the town and swore out warrants for the PCs’ arrest. In the end, the party had to give half the gold they found to the relatives of the man they killed and learned not to automatically kill everything that moves, breathes, or squeaks in a dungeon.
Time Travel Tips
From Manuel Ebert
Although time-travelling is rarely common in roleplaying campaigns, many GMs fear the question: “What if they accidentally kill their grandfathers?”
Before we tackle that tricky conundrum, let’s first ask why a campaign might involve time travel.
- As a game master, you can dramatise your plot enormously with time travel. For example, let the characters witness the Apocalypse and travel backwards through time to make it un-happen.
- In criminological game play, the characters might travel through time to gather information.
- Why not play a campaign with a main focus on time- travelling as seen several times on TV (just think of “Seven Days”, “Back to the future”, and so on)?
Of course, time travelling inflicts several problems (besides the fact that our languages don’t have enough tenses to express certain things…)
- What if I kill my grandfather before I will have been born?
- What if I meet my younger self?
- Especially for scenarios with a strictly given background or present-time RPGs: What if I completely change the history?
I thought about it and offer several solutions:
- Use fate. Certain things simply can’t be changed. A character cannot kill his ancestors because it is his fate to be born.
- You can only travel through your lifetime, and the character himself doesn’t travel, just the knowledge he has gained. From the perspective of the character before the actual time-travel: “You suddenly know that you will travel through time and what will happen until this moment.”
- Characters only imagine they are travelling. It is as if history is stored in an interactive game. You start playing at any moment in the past you like, but when you’ve finished your travel, you exit the game, and actually nothing has happened, you just gained knowledge about the past (as John Lennon sang: “Nothing is real.”)
- If a character is about to create a paradox (something that is contradictory to itself) he instantly fulminates and disappears into the abyss of time. ?
I hope you have found some inspiration for your next session. If another solution for time-travelling related problems crosses your mind, please let me know ([email protected]).
Single Player Campaign Tips
From Simon Woodside
It’s been awhile since the single player campaigns tips, but I just read them and I have a suggestion. I’ve been running a single player campaign for awhile now and I really enjoy it. At first, the biggest problem was sudden player death. I’ve got two tricks for fixing that, though. As a result I don’t have to scale back the encounters or fudge dice.
First: supply the character with a powerful animal companion. I used the paladin’s warhorse as a guide. The warhorse is a constant help to a paladin, considerably aiding the PC’s strength. A lone PC can use that kind of help. So, I supplied my player’s character with a war-dog with good combat traits that keeps him constant company. It also bears half the brunt of any attacks. It actually saved the character’s life in his first combat.
It was supposed to be an easy encounter against a wild cat, but I rolled a few lucky critical hits and the character went down. Luckily the war-dog drove off the wild cat before it could finish off the character, and he stabilized just on the edge of death.
That scenario convinced me he needed more help. After all, I’m running D&D 3E, and the standard party complement is four characters. I’m not up to four yet but I added another: a sidekick. The sidekick is not a hired hand, but more like a movie sidekick–a less-motivated NPC who’s tired of his old life and along for the excitement of being with a “hero”. I chose the sidekick’s class to complement my player character’s class–the PC is a rogue, so the sidekick is a monk. He’s got more combat strength, but he can keep up when it comes to creeping in shadows and moving silently as well.
I think it’s important that the sidekick never makes any decisions. Full decision-making power is left in the hands of the player. The sidekick has a personality and a life of his own though. You might say he’s along for the ride. A few things he’s not: he’s not a guide, he’s not particularly powerful, and he doesn’t know a lot of people. So when it comes to plot, he’s fairly neutral. When my player is short of ideas though, he’s smart enough to offer suggestions and he’s an extra pair of hands.
So, now I’ve turned my single-player party into effectively a three-member party. It makes it much easier to run combat encounters. The other two members share the brunt of the damage, but they also soak up some of the experience points too. ? On the other hand, I can use more deadly encounters so the experience points balance out. And since the sidekick is a fairly simple person, I think it actually makes it easier for me to roleplay, since when I roleplay him I can play dumb and take a mental break from the action.