The smoke from the hookah lounge downtown swims through the place, heavy and sweet. At a back lounge sits a bald man with a gold hoop earing who knows just what you need to do to get what you want…if are able to ignore the literal fire flickering in his eyes. In the Industrial District’s meatpacking plant, a grizzled old timer working the graveyard shift wonders how life passed him by, noting with some curiosity how his skin didn’t break on that saw, when he slipped and ponders why all the leftover animal parts always seem to vanish when he takes a nap on the job…and why he just gets hungrier whenever that happens. In the financial district there is a business guru who, despite his age, always seems to be in exceptional vigor and with an improbable knack for turning seemingly useless investments into gold…and nobody seems to know how long he’s been here? It’s like he’s practically immortal. But lots of strange things happen in The City. Once its inhabitants were wide eyed and agape, but now they’ve seen it all…or so they like to think.
When someone says the word ‘adventurer’, the picture of a steady home life is not often one of the images called to mind. The dusty road, the shadows between the megascrapers, the space between the stars, these are most often the places that adventurers spend their time and make their fortune – or lose everything. While being an adventurer, or really any type of player character. almost universally involves going where others won’t either physically or mentally, I think there’s something to be said for breaking the mold and giving them a tavern, a ship, a base, a business, a home. While it might not be the one they were all born to, a party of adventurers with a place of their own can certainly turn it into a place that makes them feel like they belong.
It’s the genre that started it all, and it has set the baseline for what people think of when they hear the term “role-playing game”. It’s a literary genre of astonishing breadth, that still seems to get people thinking about elves and wizards. So why is fantasy role-playing such a different animal than fantasy in general? And what sort of games are hiding in the wings around the 500 pound Gygaxian elephant in the room? Today, the Level One Wonk is going to look around what fantasy role-playing is, how it’s related to fantasy literature, and what that all means when it comes time to sit down and roll dice.
I have previously written about my interest in the Traveller setting, more specifically the Pirates of Drinax as a Beta Campaign, and over the past few months I have actually managed to get it off the ground! I am a more inexperienced GM, and this campaign has marked the first time I have gotten a campaign to two whole sessions! As such, I’ll keep up the tradition of our other CH GM’s and offer a bit of a “Lessons Learned” post-mortem.
The Kingdom of Drinax was once a prosperous Star Kingdom, a rich collection of worlds. Their technology, used to construct the ostentatious marvel known as the Floating Palace, rivaled even the greatest advances of the Human Imperium and the Aslan Hierate with advanced medical care, engineering breakthroughs, and a potent military force for a Star Nation their size. Their ships were a storied blend of art and performance, with their Harrier-class commerce raiders the bane to pirates, smugglers, and blockade runners who would dare ignore the law of their domain.
But with their advancement, their kings grew arrogant. When Aslan traders ventured forward, Drinax levied taxes against them, and proved willing to back that up with force. In response, the Aslan ravaged Drinax, scorching the planet under a planetary bombardment so severe that it was rendered nigh uninhabitable. Its space fleet was crushed, its kingdom dissolved. Yet, for all that, the Aslan spared the Floating Palace, the home of the planet’s aristocracy and the scientists who had built and maintained it. The ambitious generals and brilliant engineers who had raised up Drinax survived, but in a cruel twist of fate, no longer had any resources to rebuild.
That was over a century ago.
Now, King Oleb sits on the throne (one he can barely fit his girth into anymore), and dreams of rebuilding his kingdom. Now he has uncovered a tool to do just that: a newly restored Harrier-class ship, what was once the pride and joy of the Drinaxi navy. With some help from his daughter Princess Rao, he has an idea of how he wants to use it, a way to send emissaries to the old members of his Star Nation, to amass a fighting force capable of holding off invasion, and to force the Imperium and Hierate to the bargaining table: Privateers.
The party was summoned to King Oleb, lured by a variety of promises.
For Newton Zephyr, it was the chance for the former pirate to go legit. After years of seeing friends and fellow pirates meet their end or be forced to run for the rest of their days, Newt was tempted by the offer to become a privateer, a legally sanctioned pirate who had the chance to buy/earn a noble title that would grant his services legitimacy.
For Festus, it was the chance to have full access to technology that amazed and astounded him. Festus had been a craftsman on the planet of Asim, a planet kept in poverty by its rulers. About 20 years ago, Drinax had conquered and colonized Asim in order to have a reliable food supply, and life markedly improved for its residents. With the stars opened up to him, he became a scout, exploring the subsector that had been opened up to him. King Oleb had initially signed him on due to his skills as an artisan (getting the jeweled inlays right is tricky you know), and Princess Rao had recognized the wisdom of having a well seasoned scout to act as navigator.
For Wolf, a wandering Vaugr assassin, it was potentially finding a place. As an oddity amongst most of the stretch of the galaxy, the work offered good pay, and it was the chance to settle in for a while. Having a skilled operative for boarding operations seemed to be a wise idea.
The king managed to make some time in between rounds of courtesans (he was interested in redheads that week), who cheerfully waved to Festus on their way out. King Oleb laid out the basic ground rules. They were charged with disrupting the shipping in the region for both the Aslan and Imperium, and to build a pirate fleet to defend Drinax when the time comes. He would lend his newly refurbished Harrier-class ship to the party (emphasis on “lend”), would make Drinax a haven where they could easily fence stolen goods, and would offer them a secret letter of marque. While this would not do the party a great deal of good if captured by a major power, it would act as a retroactive pardon for all actions. In return Oleb would ask for 10% of their earning off the top…and insist that they follow a certain code of conduct. Oleb wanted to use this venture to rebuild a kingdom. Random atrocities do not convince people to follow his banner. Finally, as one last kicker, if they succeeded, Princess Rao would be the bride of one of them!
That same Princess would enter the chamber a moment later with the next round of courtesans, appearing to be a cross between bemused and furious, but too composed to say anything to her father. She lead the party out of the chamber, leaving her father with his courtesans. Upon leaving, she began serious discussions about the details. She and Festus revealed that Festus had been long part of the operation to restore the ship, and it soon became apparent that Rao was in charge of the gritty details and overall planning of the operation.
The first task she gave the party was to put together the beginning of a long term crew, and take the ship out for stress testing. The group decided to stick with mostly cheaper, less specialized NPCs to help the crew, hiring on a pair a gunners and a contingent of marines. After jumping to Asim, the party deliberated on where to go for their initial test run. They immediately rejected the notion of attacking the closest planet, Khusai, as it was a well known military outpost dedicated to hunting pirates such as themselves. Instead, they planned to travel deeper into Aslan space, setting a course to less well protected stops along the trade route such as the Camoran or Oiwoiieaw. However, to do so, the limit of their jump drive would require them to make a stop in open space.
Upon exiting hyperspace, the group immediately activated the Holographic Hull, hoping that the stealth modifications on their Jump Drive (the standard form of hyperspace transport) would prevent anyone knowing they had arrived. Mostly on a lark, they chose to check their sensors to determine if anyone else was out here. To everyone’s surprise (including the GM’s, due to a lucky roll on a random table) there was a prime target, a heavy freighter, continuing along its course without responding to the party’s arrival. With their stealth systems fully online, the party managed to get within perfect firing range, Newt opened with a pinpoint barrage on the ship’s fuel supply using the Harrier’S particle cannon. Usually the tonnage and firepower advantage of a heavy freighter would be more than enough to deal with a pirate of the Harrier-class’s size, but with a vicious sucker punch it was slow to react. With the element of surprise, and a massive advantage in maneuverability, the pirates took advantage with the gunners opening a massive missile barrage at the freighter’s turret banks. Out of character, the gunners rolled a crit on top of an already favorable roll. This led Festus’ player to excitedly announce “Oh, we are keeping those guys!”
With their target’s defenses crippled, and their chances of escape quickly fading, Newt hailed the Aslan ship, ordering it to cut thrust and surrender. The Captain, a snarling Aslan, angrily refused, howling that he would fight to the last . . . until a clear voice on his end commanded him “Stand down Captain!”
The Captain seemed taken aback, but obeyed the command. A female Aslan of distinguished bearing entered the frame. She identified herself as “Lady Aisha” and reprimanded these “Imperium warmongers” for this unproved attack but said that, as despicable their actions were, she would gladly hand over her entire cargo if it meant sparing her crew. This immediately set off some suspicions. In no way had the party identified itself as part of the Imperium, and the cargo space of the Harrier-class was utterly dwarfed by what a heavy freighter could have carried. It didn’t take long for Festus to read between the lines: Lady Aisha was offering a portion of her cargo, figuring that the loss of a decent chunk would still be less expensive than severe damage to the ship, or the cost of lives for her people even if their numbers could make a truly nasty fight of a hostile boarding attempt. Even more, she was looking for a way to turn the situation to a political advantage by claiming that she was attacked by the Imperium. Impressed, the party agreed to terms and docked with their target.
The transfer of goods was relatively simple. Though Wolf and Festus managed to quickly place a few tracking programs in the ship, they weren’t able to see how successful they were because Lady Aisha greeted them in person, flanked by her guards. The besieged ship handed over enough of their cargo to fill the Harrier-class’s cargo bay, fortunately with basic agricultural supplies that would be easy to offload without requiring a fence, and at a fair price.
Festus slyly offered that if Lady Aisha had any rivals which she would like to see suffer similar treatment, they would be glad to act on it for her. In fact, as a show of good faith, when he reached the nearest neutral port of Asim, he would have a rescue ship sent out to help her. Lady Aisha seemed bemused about the offer, and stated that it was a privilege to deal with “proper professionals”. There seemed to be mutual respect as the party departed, jumping coreward in an indirect route back to Asim, so that it would not be as obvious as to where they were headed.
The return trip was jubilant. The newly minted pirate band had a hull full of cargo and no serious damage. The gunners were joyously celebrated for their good work, and were bestowed the monickers of Mav and Swan. After some deliberation, the group decided on a name for the ship: The Albatross, because there was something in a really old poem about it being bad luck to shoot at one.
It was only upon their return to Asim and their break into atmosphere when an urgent holomessage from Princess Rao was patched through. “What,” she demanded, “did you do?”
My first big lesson of this campaign was preparation. As the saying goes, no plan survives first contact, so I had tried to cover every base possible in a fairly open setting. I wanted to do some stress testing of my own (though in this case, the system mechanics rather than the ship’s) so I wanted to keep myself open, and tried to prepare for any situation. However, because I tried to spread myself out to resolve any path the players took, I was a bit surprised to discover that they took the simplest straight line objective I offered. I had expected something to go off course quickly, and I hadn’t prepared fully for the most obvious thing that would be in a game with space pirates: Space Combat.
In retrospect, it should have been the obvious move. In the end, the GM is almost never prepared for everything (as I have seen) but a lesson learned was to at least prepare for the most obvious. If players do something that truly comes out of left field, I feel a bit better about winging it on something obscure rather than something that should have been a core ruleset to know.
On a more positive note, I want to bring up what I learned about the effect of making Named NPC’s. It’s a little touch that often fleshes out a character more than “Faceless Mook # 3”. The funny thing is that I had nothing, and I mean zero, written in advance for the NPCs who became Mav and Swan (our gunner pair) and Lady Aisha. I wasn’t sure what my players were going to roll for their characters, so I made no assumptions about their skill level at different skill functions, so I didn’t plan a crew. I assumed that I would be able to fill in any positions in need with baseline crewmembers using the rules for the book. Only, when it came for the gunners to fire, they critted on a called shot. Immediately, my players declared that they had to keep these guys around, and agreed to pay them a higher cut for bonuses on their rolls going forward. That is how Mav and Swan were born.
With Lady Aisha, again, I had zero plan with her and she would not have existed were it not for random chance. I was not expecting my players to find anything interesting in open space, so you can imagine my surprise when the roll came up with a Rich Trader, a ship with an especially high value cargo. On top of that, when I rolled at random for a “prey quirk” the dice came up with a noble onboard. I suddenly needed to justify A) what a noble was doing onboard a merchant ship in open space and B) how I could justify the players overrunning a ship when they were dearly outnumbered. A commanding Lady Aisha, functioning as a brilliant, cunning, hands on leader for her house answered both, and gave me an intriguing character for my players to come across to boot. It was entirely an accident, but it is a welcome one.
A broken Padawan whose only remaining comfort is breaking others in turn. A star of the academy, now an agent of the Imperial Security Bureau tasked with rooting out traitors and subversives. A pirate with a blaster to the back of his head, forced to serve at the Emperor’s pleasure. An old soldier who should’ve been put out to pasture, but has clung to service for a sense of belonging. We may have seen the Dawn of Rebellion, but light still shines on the Galactic Empire. This visit to the galaxy far far away is going to use the first FFG Star Wars Era Sourcebook to take us for a walk on the Dark Side!
Welcome to Kickstarter Wonk for July! This month sees game projects a little thin on the ground, as many people are off at the beach, not running Kickstarters. To make it worse, the dastardly Seamus stole a great Kickstarter, Blackwind Project, out from under my nose and reviewed it already! The nerve! (It’s a Halfling-eat-Halfling world out there. Hence the name. – Ed.) Well, I’ve still managed to gather up ten projects, though there are a few honorable mentions in there to bulk it up. Have no fear though, dear reader: there’s a lot of good stuff in here, and that’s doubly true if you like supers, dieselpunk, or eating game pieces.
Back a decade ago, in 2008, I was fascinated by Code Geass, a mecha and fantasy anime series. While looking around I found a forum with people creating their own stories, imagining themselves on different sides of the conflict and imagining their own strategies. I had seen roleplaying threads on other internet forums, but this was something different: an entire board, devoted to making a game to be played. Rules were pretty much non-existent, other than the admins and mods making pointed suggestions, and rewarding players who played out uncomfortable or losing scenarios or roleplayed richly. There were no game mechanics. But I had found my first Play by Post. For me, the roleplaying and storytelling aspect of gaming was the best part and it was often overlooked at my school’s gaming club and the few sessions with friends. This was all about the story, and through that I met two of the people I game with now. As a note, driving out of state to the house of someone you’ve only known online, and not telling people where you are going might not be the safest idea, but it’s how I met a really cool group of people.
After retreating from the crypt, the adventurers went towards the oceanside of the abandoned city and made use of the tools they were able to find. Elliot used an old forge and anvil to rework the broken suits of Enchanted Armor that were fought in the crypt. Out of six suits came one firbolg-sized suit of plate mail, and breastplates for a couple of the others. The treasure from the crypt was buried in the basement, and the adventurers were able to rest under a roof, above ground, and in beds. Before the night fell, Elliot, who had been vexed by the adventurers going in and out of fairy doors, wrote a note in Sylvan and gave it to Hrive. Neither of them knew who or what was causing their compatriots to travel back and forth between the current world and the Feywild, but the two fey in the party were the ones who had the best chance of finding out. Hrive did have the dream of the forest and the thick bushes, but this time the laughing woman gave him a cryptic invitation that sounded like it may have been meant for Elliot. Hrive awoke in a cold sweat, but appeared to have lost little time compared to some of the disappearances of his compatriots.
Worlds and plot hooks come together, tension rises, heroes struggle against their foes, and as the dust settles we see the end of the tale. So go movies, books, shows, and no small number of roleplaying games – but there’s a new one coming onto the market that puts that plot progression front and center, and even makes its creation and development the main mechanic of the game. Blackwind by Elisa Mignemi and Allan Kelley is currently running through its Kickstarter project, and they were kind enough to give us a look at the finished product and answer some questions about the game!
Ah, GURPS. One of the most comprehensive toolkits on the RPG market, GURPS and its plethora of supplements offer the ability to play in almost any genre at almost any complexity level. The tradeoff here is that when you open the GURPS Basic Set for the first time, you are dazzled and overwhelmed by a vast range of options to select, dials to adjust, and levers to pull. Coming from a game like D&D, a GM starting with GURPS isn’t going to know where to, ahem, start. Steve Jackson Games realized that, and recruited two GURPS veterans to write How To Be A GURPS GM. While this slim volume is thin on generalizable GMing advice (with admittedly good reason), it does exactly what it says on the tin, and provides some guidance on how to actually make GURPS do what you want it to do.