RPG Blog Carnival – December 2013: Taking Charge

The RPG Blog Carnival is an idea to get groups of bloggers to all writing about a monthly topic, the aim being to build a dialogue across many different blogs, providing different viewpoints and ideas to the viewer. The way it works is that a blog discussing a monthly topic will post the RPG Carnival Logo and will link back to the ‘hosters’ post.
This month the topic is taking charge.
Original post :

“Taking Charge. This could be interpreted in any number of ways, such as (not limited to), outlining ways a group of characters can be more proactive in their affairs, a group of players choosing to improve their existing gaming habits (including the GM), players stepping up to make more effective use of their agency as co-conspirators an contributors to a campaign, and/or getting a good grip on a game that is out of control and going nowhere. It could entail fiction, examples of actual play, discussion of tools like social contracts or statements of purpose, and more. As the year comes to a close and people get retrospective (and wonder why there is so much left-over turkey still in the fridge despite days and days of sandwiches) a topic like ‘taking charge’ might take a tone of cleaning house, evaluating the current state of affairs in your own game, or your chosen niche zone within the hobby, or setting the stage for what will come next at your table, real or virtual. There are many places this topic can take writers and readers during the December Blog Carnival. “

Okay, i’ve arrived fairly late at this months RPG Carnival post, slipping in on the final day of 2013 just as the shutters are being drawn and moments before the ‘closed’ sign is going to be turned on the previous year, however, I think the concept of “taking charge” is a great one to discuss because it is a topic often raised during RPG sessions and campaigns and has a lot in common with recent discussions on GM roles amongst the Youtube RPG brigade (my video response to this topic can be found here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aURyyMSXFqM ).
Campaign Preparation Sessions
One thing I have been looking at recently following my reading of the Odyssey Campaign Management Guide (which is a very useful book and I review it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-350PrvUUA on my Youtube channel) is the idea of having either one or several structured meetings with the players when you first start to plan an RPG campaign to ensure that everyone gets what they want (as much as is possible) out of the game that you are going to run and that you, as a GM, also get a level of enjoyment from the session. I think this is very important because i’ve seen and run a few campaigns where one or two players have gone along with the campaign concept because others liked it and haven’t really invested in the game as a result, this is a sure-fire way to end up with players losing interest and perhaps dropping the game altogether; by the same token i’ve also seen (and been in this situation myself) GMs so bent on ensuring player enjoyment that they forget or sacrifice their own enjoyment in the game, since such a lot of the campaign management (both during and between sessions) rests on the GMs shoulders, although it’s certainly possible to delegate and share some of this work amongst your player group, having a GM who isn’t enjoying themselves rarely leads to a long running campaign and usually in my experience results in a campaign slowly sliding towards inevitable collapse as the GM becomes burnt out and loses all enthusiasm.
So how does this relate to taking charge?
Well, if you just ask your players what sort of game they want, you are taking a scatter-gun approach to the whole thing and will inevitably end up with a whole mess of ideas that do not work together or that you have to wade through in order to get to any useful information; a far better way to manage these initial brainstorming ideas is for the GM to take charge and direct the course of the discussion. Asking specific questions from your players will normally yield better and more targetted results that asking something vague like “what sort of game do you want?”
What sort of questions should I ask?
My Rogue Trader campaign will be coming to an end soon (probably within the next 3-6 games depending on player action) as the players resolve the nefarious actions of the Word Bearers chaos space marines in the Endeavour system and, wanting to plan a little further ahead than I normally do after reading the excellent Odyssey Campaign Management Guide, I gathered the players for my next campaign together recently and sat them down with the intend of discussing what i’d run for the next game.
I came in with no real preconceptions of what sort of game we might end up with, but I did note down a few things about my players:
  • One of the players prefers heroic fantasy.
  • One really enjoys a sense of place and recurring background NPCs that change and can be interacted with.
  • One of the players generally prefers to play a mage or something magical.
  • The other player is pretty flexible and will try most games.

When I sat them down I first of all asked the following questions:
  • What sort of genre would people prefer to play in?
    • My group, having been currently engaged in a dark science fiction setting wanted to try something a little different and after a bit of discussion decided that they wanted to play a fantasy setting, but not the normal faux-medieval fantasy that we were all so familiar with from a number of previous games.
  • What rules system would people like to use?
    • After a bit of a debate the players were quite keen to use the Dungeon World rules, having played a couple of one-offs we all really enjoyed those rules and wanted to keep to a fairly fast-paced, story-based system but, given that the current game is Fate based (and i’m already running an additional Fate game), wanted to try something different and Dungeon World seemed like a good match; it also encourages a group world creation and collaborative story-telling between players and GM, something that we have all been enjoying in recent games.

So armed with the knowledge that my players wanted to play a non-standard fantasy game using the Dungeon World system, the next thing I asked them were what their ‘must-haves’ (their ‘deal breakers’ if you will) were for this game and, after some discussion we eventually whittled it down to the following list:
  • A rougher, grittier, more survival based game.
  • The PCs playing underdog heroes fighting against overwhelming odds.
  • A semi-permanent base of operations/game area with a number of background NPCs.
  • A Robin Hood-esque feel where the PCs are outlaws fighting for the right against an oppressive government.

With these four deal breakers in mind we started discussing whether there were any sort of campaign worlds available that met these criteria and, given that Dungeon World has very much a D&D feel, we started with D&D campaign worlds and eventually chose the Dark Sun world of Athas, with the player characters working outside the law to overthrow the despotic sorceror king of a small city state. A quick question fired off to the Dungeon World G+ community (https://plus.google.com/u/0/b/100662698267895582168/communities/100084733231320276299) and some judicious scouting on the web revealed that some people had already kindly produced some DW material for the Dark Sun setting and also lead me to the official Dark Sun website (http://www.athas.org/).
So how did taking charge help?
In addition to allowing us to more quickly get to the meat of the matter at hand rather than spending hours talking around the subject (and probably getting nowhere) directing the flow of conversation into specific channels resulted in making us all aware of the elements that interest the various players (and myself), this will be great for the health of the game since (as the GM) I will be able to refer back to this list and ensure that I am including elements to draw all of the players in and keep them interested in the game.
The meetup we have done so far is only the first of several that I plan to do in advance of creating the campaign, and in the following meetings I also intend to take charge and target the discussion at specific areas, in the next meetup I intend to discuss some of the particulars of the game area and highlight whether the players actual want to run the game within the Dark Sun setting or whether they just want something similar.

RPG Blog Carnival – November 2013: Invasion of the Pod People

The RPG Blog Carnival is an idea to get groups of bloggers to all writing about a monthly topic, the aim being to build a dialogue across many different blogs, providing different viewpoints and ideas to the viewer. The way it works is that a blog discussing a monthly topic will post the RPG Carnival Logo and will link back to the ‘hosters’ post.
This month the topic is situated around plots and treason! Suggestions of political or military coups or circumstances that maybe through design or the wrong location at the wrong time result in your PCs getting tangled up in matters that are usually hidden by shadows.
As per my original post on this subject (http://wh40krpg.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/rpg-blog-carnival-november-2013.html) I enjoy occasionally subverting the normal stereotypes that are expected in RPGs to create a more interesting scenario. Such is the case in this scenario…
Invasion of the Pod People

Please note: I have tried to keep this scenario fairly generic so that it could be dropped into different games with a minimum of effort, NPCs do not have concrete stats however I have tried to give them keywords to hint at what sort of statistics they should have.
This story is inspired by the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers and a modern day game based loosely on the film recently run by a friend of mine.

Synopsis: The players discover that a number of members of the galactic senate/government are being replaced by a strange race of biological mimics descended from plant growths; what is the goal of the strange plant creatures? How far do their roots extend into the galactic senate and would rule by the pod people be so terrible?
Background: This scenario assumes the presence of a galactic government or senate, the scale of this is left deliberately vague (it could be a single sector or a galaxy spanning Empire, whatever your story requires).
The story also assumes that most NPCs are human, this can be altered in your game to suit as long as the distinction between the pod-people and the ‘normal’ races of your campaign is obvious.
How are the players bought into this story: This story begins with the players discovering that not everyone in the galactic senate is what they appear to be; there are a number of ways that this could happen, some of them are listed below:
  • The assassination of Senator Vree: One of the galactic senators is assassinated in the presence of the players via a suitably gruesome method (high powered rifle, explosion, etc), the players discover that instead of blood, a deep green sap-like substance stains the area around the crime scene.
  • The players witness a group of figures kidnapping a member of the galactic senate, the next day the Senator appears to give a speech and seems fine (denying any suggestion of kidnapping, saying the player characters must have been mistaken); however during the speech Senator Sevan does not push for increased resource mining in the asteroid belts strewn throughout the system, but instead calls for a more careful husbanding of resources.
  • One of the players (or a group of them) is kidnapped, they wake up in a cell with a strange plant or pod attached to them by whispy rootlets, when they break free the pod cracks open, pouring out a dark green slime and revealing a slimey, half-formed doppleganger of themselves.
  • The characters are asteroid miners, the corporation they work for has been granted extensive mining rights by the Galactic Senate, the players weren’t on the initial survey team but since then the digs seem cursed with numerous accidents threatening to shut down production.

The Ashpodel (Pod People)

The Ashpodel are a species of subterranean plant that live within the fissures of the many asteroids strewn throughout the system, although intelligent and possessing a collective intelligence they are generally happy to just lie around soaking up the cosmic radiation that sustains them; this all changed when the Galactic Senate gave approval for increased mining rights to a number of large corporations within the area. Previously operations were limited to a number of small asteroids and the intelligence plants generally ignored the operations, keeping out of the humans way and being mistaken for more mundane varieties of asteroid based plant-life, however the more recent industrial scale operations threaten the larger asteroids and the very existence of the pod people.
If you imagine each of the plants as a cell in a large brain, shedding one or two cells (as was the case with the few plants that died previously during the small scale mining operations) would not harm the whole, however, the new operations threaten to wipe out vastly more of the plants.
Unable to move in their natural form the plants have taken to colonising the miners themselves and the group-intelligence behind them is attempting to use its pawns to have the mining operations in the sector shut down.
It goes about it (assuming it is not interrupted) using the following steps:
  • Takes control of Theo Lerant, the person overseeing the mining operation (this has occurred before the start of the game) and used him to send lots of people to the various asteroids (ostensibly for surveying purposes), these people are themselves then colonised and used as pawns. Once this is done the overseers arranges a series of accidents that slow down/halt the progress of the actual mining.
  • The plants new pawns carry seeds in their bodies back to their homeworlds, each attempting to infect someone of importance.
  • Since the plants absorb the knowledge of the people they infect and take-over it does not take them long to work out that the Galactic Senate controls who has access to the mining rights, their number one priority then becomes infecting someone high up in the council and preventing further mining.

Azoic Mining Corporation

The Azoic Mining Corporation is a multi-system conglomerate who specialises in planting mining rigs on asteroids and space debris and then drilling into them to mine various minerals that they then sell on for a profit; the company is run by Theola Saren daughter of retired business mogul Thanus Saren, and she sees it as something of a family legacy to take a direct hand in running the business.
Previously mining in this system has been restricted due to the fact that surveying showed a profundity of asteroid based plant-life in the area; however Theola has acquired some evidence of a personal ‘indiscretion’ by Senator Sevan and has used this as leverage to persuade the senator to back her call for exclusive mining rights in the system. Faced with the ruination of his career, Senator Sevan has used his popularity and contacts within the senate to push through the mining rights and grant exclusive (and extensive) mining rights to the Azoic Mining Corporation; in return he received a generous kickback and the only copy of the evidence of his indiscretion.
Yuo Lerant is the person overseeing the mining operations and initial asteroid surveying; following an incident on a large asteroid designated KT206 Theo and his team were all infected by the Ashpodel. Following the plants master plan Yuo dispatched survey teams to each of the asteroids housing the plants (this may be a way for canny players to locate the source of the infection if they can get Yuo’s records) where they too were infected. Each of the survey teams then returned and carried spores within their bodies ready to infect more people following the Ashpodel’s plan.

In order to prevent any further mining menacing the Ashpodel and to dispose of the few members of the mining crew who weren’t infected, Yuo and his infected cronies arranged a series of ‘accidents’ where a lot of miners were killed; this has caused mining operations to be shut down whilst an investigation is carried out (by the time this is underway the Ashpodel plan to have worked their way into the Senate).

Annoyed by the lack of progress and accident rate, Theola has arrived in system to head the investigation personally, looking for trustworthy people to help delve into the cause of the problems.
The goals of the corporation are:
  • Find out what has caused the current incidents.
  • Allay the fears/concerns of the Galactic Senate.
  • Get production and mining re-started.
 

RPG Blog Carnival – November 2013: Gunpowder, Treason & Plot – Turning the plot on it's head

The RPG Blog Carnival is an idea to get groups of bloggers to all writing about a monthly topic, the aim being to build a dialogue across many different blogs, providing different viewpoints and ideas to the viewer. The way it works is that a blog discussing a monthly topic will post the RPG Carnival Logo and will link back to the ‘hosters’ post.
This month the topic is situated around plots and treason! Suggestions of political or military coups or circumstances that maybe through design or the wrong location at the wrong time result in your PCs getting tangled up in matters that are usually hidden by shadows.
I thought that instead of producing a ready made plot or conspiracy for people to drop into their game that i’d talk a little bit about how we tend to stereotype this kind of plot and how we can add a little more complexity by either expanding on these tired old tropes of gaming or can flip the stereotype around to provide a little contrast.
What do I mean by stereotyping?

Well in roleplaying games GMs tend to use a certain amount of shorthand when it comes to describing characters and world elements; this is not only understandable to a certain degree but it is entirely necessary, after all the GM has to manage (and possibly create) the entire campaign world, it would not be possible for a single person to detail every last peasant or small village in a D&D/fantasy world nor every backwater colony or space station in a science fiction setting (and this similarly applies to other genres, but you get the idea). Whilst any good GM will do their best to make sure that even disposable NPCs or places have a few quirky little details to make them interested and that can be expanded upon later should the NPC/setting become more important to the overall plot of the game, there are certain standard tropes for each genre that tend to get trotted out.

A few examples are:

  • The brawny barbarian who doesn’t fit in civilised society.
  • The stealthy, black cowled thief.
  • A good natured tavern owner whose family run the tavern.
  • A small village settlement where the locals are superstitious and look at any new people as “strangers.”
  • The totalitarian galactic empire who manages to almost entirely suppress a large area of the galaxy.
…and there are loads more stereotypes that can be used in a game.
Stereotypes like this (when used in moderation) can be a useful shorthand for a GM in a game and they instantly give the players an idea of how to behave or react to whatever is being presented to them; for example, when the players enter the superstitious village they know that throwing magic or strange items around is liable to result in an attempted lynching or worse.
So how does this apply to plots & treason

Well plots, rebellions and treason also have a long-standing history with RPGs, everyone is familiar with the idea of the players helping a local populace to overcome a corrupt noble regime or the aforementioned galactic rebellion; however because this is such a well known trope it can be a little obvious or tiresome if used as the basis of a long-running campaign. There are a few ways to subvert this stereotype and inject some additional interest into such a campaign and i’m going to discuss a couple of them in a little more detail below.
i) Flip the stereotype on it’s head

When use sparingly the idea of reversing or flipping the stereotype can work really well to break from the usual mold and to add a bit of additional interest to a session. For example, instead of having the players arrive and help an oppressed population of peasants overthrow a corrupt nobility, perhaps the noble family who rules the area does generally have the best interest of the populace at heart, but some organisation or group of malcontents is stirring up the peasantry against their rules for some reason or as part of some nefarious scheme, with this idea you then have the additional level of the shadowed groups scheme as well.
If you use this idea too much though then the players may (rightfully) feel a little confused or paranoid whilst playing in your gameworld, if everything is not what it seems then they will start reacting to everything with suspicion having a detrimental effect on your game (unless a constant mood of paranoia is what you’re looking for in your game); but used sparingly this technique of turning the stereotype on its head can make an otherwise very obvious story a little more interesting.

ii) Expand on the Idea

Touched on briefly in the example above, another good way to add additional interest to this type of plot is to expand on the initial idea or add extra layers to the plot; now this may not be feasible if you’re running a one-off game or a very short campaign due to time restraints, however, if you are running a more long-term campaign then adding some extra layers to your plot can result unexpected twists and turns, additional mileage from the plot and a narrative that seems less like a cardboard cutout/stereotyped scenario (I hope to produce some further posts this month containing a few samples that demonstrate this).
In terms of how to expand on the idea, what if the evil baron leading the revolution is not actually doing so because he is invested in it but because someone is holding his daughter hostage and is forcing him to use his contacts and sway with the people to lead the revolution? Instantly this scenario conjures up a number of additional questions, how did the shadowy mastermind get hold of the Baron’s daughter? Was the Baron betrayed from within? Why does the mastermind need the Baron? Who is the mastermind? What benefit do they gain from the revolution?

RPG Blog Carnival – October 2013: Spooky Spots – THE MIST AT THE END OF THE WORLD

The RPG Blog Carnival is an idea to get groups of bloggers to all writing about a monthly topic, the aim being to build a dialogue across many different blogs, providing different viewpoints and ideas to the viewer. The way it works is that a blog discussing a monthly topic will post the RPG Carnival Logo and will link back to the ‘hosters’ post.
This month the topic is Spooky Spots; this actually the third one of these i’ve done – links to the others are given below:

The Mist at the End of the World
This entry is inspired by a facebook post made by Lorraine McKee prompted by the very foggy mornings we are experiencing at present in the United Kingdom and the following photo that accompanied the post (used with permission).
What if one morning you looked out of your window and all you could see was a hazy mass of dull grey vapour hanging in the air? A thick fog, the thickest you’ve seen in a while, veils almost all of the rest of the world from sight, muffling sounds and lending the air a biting chill. Normally the comforting outlines of buildings and larger man-made structures can be seen, providing you with at least some assurance that you are still part of the world that you know, and that out there, behind the shroud of the fog, life continues as normal, as it always has.
However this morning the fog is so thick that not even nearby buildings can be glimpsed and the shapes that can be dimly glimpsed through the haze appear strange and provide little comfort, the noise of pedestrians and passing traffic is completely absent and an eerie silence, like you were the only one alive in the world, hangs over the scene. Occasionally the quiet is broken everso briefly by a strange echo, an odd clicking or strange roar like that of a strong wing, but the sounds are alien and provide only brief respite as the silence washes in after them, becoming all the more noticable for their passing. Normally at about this time the refuse collectors or street cleaners would be busying themselves, chugging up and down the street in their vehicles, their clanking and bustling mixing with the huffing and puffing of the newspaper delivery man on his rounds as the first sounds that wait you from sleep; however, this morning none of these sounds comfort you and your alarm doesn’t seem to have woken you either. Glancing across at your bedside table you grab hold of your alarm, but the LCD display is blank and unexpressive, feeling isolated and alone you shout out just to reassure yourself that you still have a voice and your shout sounds ragged, all too quickly fading away and being engulfed by the silence and the mist.
Running through the house you try first the television and the lights, none of them seem to work, the rational part of your brain tells you that it is no doubt just a power cut, but deep down inside you feels as though another connection between yourself and the outside world has been cut, isolating your once comfortable home and making it a lonely island amidst the sea of swirling grey outside; then, as you peer out of the window, straining to catch a glimpse of another human in the fog, one of the large, strange, cyclopean shapes begins to move.

RPG Blog Carnival – October 2013: Spooky Spots – THE NOISES IN THE PIPES

The RPG Blog Carnival is an idea to get groups of bloggers to all writing about a monthly topic, the aim being to build a dialogue across many different blogs, providing different viewpoints and ideas to the viewer. The way it works is that a blog discussing a monthly topic will post the RPG Carnival Logo and will link back to the ‘hosters’ post.
This month the topic is spooky spots.
I’ve already done a post for this topic entitled “Rose Corner” that you can find here (http://wh40krpg.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/rpg-blog-carnival-october-2013-spooky.html), but I enjoyed writing that so much that I decided to do another; as with my previous entry i’ve attempted to keep the specifics (location names, etc) fairly vague so that people can easily transplant the idea if they like it.
The Noises in the Pipes
The tenement building is old, really old, it originally belonged to a private owner who died, the tenement building was caught up in a land zoning dispute for a number of years, and slowly fell into wrack and ruin, eventually being acquired (after the dispute had been resolved) by a housing agents, who performed the minimal necessary government mandated repairs and used it as a convenient place to put undesirables and those who could not afford more luxurious housing, tucked out of sight in the tenement they could be conveniently forgotten about. In this sort of environment you might expect anger, hatred, suspicion and a whole other gamut of negative emotions to flourish amongst the dereliction of the tenement block, but the level of crime is suspiciously low in the immediate area and an aura of mute acceptance hangs over the place; this is not to say that the tenement block is a happy place, far from it, people shuffle about their daily business with a listful lifelessness bordering on somnabulance, as though they merely sleepwalk through the place, events and incidents in the world outside drawing only the most cursory of interest from them. Local councils and city officials put this malaise down to urban decay and a low standard of living conditions, little do they know that something preys on the people of the block, drawing the life and joy out of them.
Many years ago a man lived in the tenement, a poor man who worked long hours in a factory job to support himself and his daughter, after his wife had died money had been tight and they’d had no choice but to move into the crumbling block; unfortunately, with the man away, his teenage daughter fell prey to the drug dealers and other such predators who stalked the tenement. Becoming more and more addicted to forgetting her situation using chemical means, but worried that her father would notice if she starting stealing money from him to supply her habit (and there would have been precious little money to steal anyway) and, without a job, the girl turned to selling the only thing she had, herself. This worked for a while and she made enough cash to support her habits, but her new vocation bought its own perils and eventually the daughter contracted a serious disease; her father was forced to watch is his daughter (who had always been his pride and joy) slowly wasted away infront of his eyes, and there was nothing that medical services could do for her. With no-one to blame following the death of his daughter, all joy in his life was gone, replaced with a cold numbness, one morning the father went down into the basement of the tenement, knotting a belt around the light fitting and leapt from a chair, gasping out his last breath amongst the hissing and clanking pipes of the basement heating system.
It was three days before the man’s body was found, and local people still say that, if you listen carefully, behind the noise of the pipes hissing you can hear the keening cries of the lost father, crying for his daughter; the heating has never worked properly since those days and something seems to be slowly draining all of the joy and the love out of the tenement. Perhaps it is just urban decay, or perhaps the father’s anguished spirit seeks to draw to it the warmth that was taken in life, who can say?

RPG Blog Carnival – October 2013: Spooky Spots – ROSE CORNER

The RPG Blog Carnival is an idea to get groups of bloggers to all writing about a monthly topic, the aim being to build a dialogue across many different blogs, providing different viewpoints and ideas to the viewer. The way it works is that a blog discussing a monthly topic will post the RPG Carnival Logo and will link back to the ‘hosters’ post.

This month the topic is spooky spots.
Below is my effort:

Rose Corner

Rose corner, as it has been nicknamed by the locals of the city, is nothing remarkable, it looks just like any other street corner and could be in any city, even your own home town; however, 50 years ago a young man was rushing home from work on a dark and stormy Valentine’s night, despite his hurry to return home to the arms of his beloved the man was careful not to squash the bunch of white roses that he carried under one arm whilst balancing his briefcase under the other. The man had never missed an anniversary yet and this was a big one, it had been ten years since his knelt proposal had been accepted, he still remembered the nervousness as he knelt trembling in the italian restaurant, a rose gripped between his teeth and the feeling of jubilation when his beloved had accepted his proposal; every year since then, to mark their anniversary he had delivered her a bunch of white roses.
Opinions and local legends differ on what happened next as the man reached the corner of the street, passing by a large private garden; some say that he was distracted by the smell of the flowers or some sort of insect buzzing from the bushes that lined the side of the street, others say that he was busy talking to the office on a cell phone and some that he was just in a rush to return home to the arms of his beloved. Whatever the truth of the matter is, the man rushed out into the road without looking, failing to see that the lights had changed to green or the onrushing traffic; a few moments later there was a crunch of grinding metal and shattering flesh as the mans body was flung from the road into the large bushes at the side of the road. The man was dead by the time the paramedics arrived, his white flowers stained red with his blood, crushed and scattered across the sidewalk.
As a result of the accident the old woman who owned the house next to rose corner (as it rapidly came to be known) moved away, although she refused to ever sell the house; the paperwork eventually became another casualty of bureaucratic mis-filing and it was never sold, being allowed to slowly fall into decay, the gardens becoming overgrown and tangled. Opinions vary locally to why the old woman moved away, some say that she couldn’t look after the grounds any more due to her advance age, others that she moved to be closer to relatives, however some of the local people tell a different story, that she was scared by the white roses that had sprung up in the hedgerow ajoining the street corner, flowers not planted by herself that seems to wrap themselves around the existing topiary and blossomed only once every decade with the pure white flowers shot through with a red as vivid as freshly spilled blood.
The rose strangled bushes with their occasionally blooming flowers can still be found next to Rose Corner, flowering once every ten years with their beautiful white and red flowers; people say that when they bloom if you listen closely enough you can still hear the echoes of the dead mans footsteps running between the worlds, always running to get home to his love (now long since dead) and deliver his gift and that when the rain beats down heavily and thunder is in the air, even though the roses may not be flowering, you might still catch the scent of the flowers on the breeze or find petals littered the sidewalk.

RPG Blog Carnival – September 2013: Location, Location, Location!

On Wil Hutton’s blog Aggregate Cognizance (http://rivetgeek.blogspot.co.uk/) I recently came across mention of something called the RPG Blog Carnival, intrigued I decided to have a look at it; the idea seems to be to get groups of bloggers to all write about a monthly topic to build a dialogue across many different blods, providing different viewpoints and ideas to the viewer. The way it works is that a blog discussing a monthly topic will post the RPG Carnival Logo and will link back to the ‘hosters’ post.
The topic for September 2013 is “Location, Location, Location!” which focuses on the in-game areas where the action occurs, the main post asks a number of questions regarding locations:
How do you choose a location?
I think that any choice of location has to be guided by three main priciples:
i) Is the location entertaining/desirable for the players?
ii) Does the location fit the internal logic of the game.
iii) Is there a need for the location?
The aim of any RPG ultimately should be to provide entertainment for players and the GM, when a location is being explicitly bought into focus in a game (ie. is the setting for a scene rather than just a brief bit of description) then I think it should be because there is a need for that location in the ongoing plotline of the game or because it will provide an entertaining interlude/encounter for the players. There are cerrtain types of location that players expect to be able to access in various different gaming genres and campaigns and, unless you are deliberately trying to make a contrast or break away from stereotypes then there’s no reason not to include these locations in your game, they provide an instantly recognisable hook for the players and also increase their enjoyment.
The most obvious example of this sort of location is probably the much-maligned tavern in a D&D-esque fantasy world; we all know the score in this location, there will be a gaggle of different fantasy races, most hard-bitten drinkers, gambling and being rowdy whilst being served foaming mugs of ale on strong wooden tables. This is a very easily recognisable scene and as such the players can slip into it without worrying so much about the setting and can just concentrate on portraying their characters reaction to it, however, because it is such a well known scene, any differences that the GM chooses to inject into the location will stand out even more, drawing the players attention to them; for example if the player party walked into a tavern and their were no torches lit and everyone is sat around silently with glum faces, they would be on their guard and know that something has probably occurred.
Any location has to have some sort of logic, now given that we are talking about fantasy worlds and games the definition of logic is stretched a bit, but it still needs to make some sort of sense within the rules you’ve established for your game world; it can be quite jarring when a location seems to have no connection to the landscape or setting around it, without some sort of rationale (that can be seen by the players) or intervening travel description it can make it seems as though the location has just been slapped into a setting without any real thought.
A final question I ask myself when considering putting a location into a game is whether it is really needed; after all if the players are just stopping off briefly at a tavern to feed and water before pressing on to the main part of the adventure then a brief description of their rest stop is all that is required (assuming that no additional plot or information is to be revealed at the tavern).
How do you represent a location?
I’ve never been a particular fan of loads of scenery and miniatures when it comes to laying out a location; although such things can look stunning and very visually impressive (my wife has a collection of Dwarven Forge scenery that is beautifully cast and painted) I find that such things get in the way of the action and the RPG feels more like a game when such props are used, if people enjoy using miniatures that’s fine for their games, but personally I find that focussing too much on the 5′ square gives a more tactical-miniatures game feel to a session rather than a smoothly flowing narrative which is what I strive for in my games.
The way that I tend to represent locations is by using index cards to represent each location, the cards can have facts or aspects of the location written on them, along with the name and a brief description, I then lay these out roughly on the table to show the relative positioning of the locations in the game to each other, drawing lines between them to show how they are linked up (and writing down any impediments to movement on the lines, a simplified example is shown below:
This style of location positioning is one that I adopted after playing the FATE RPG since it conveniently allows you to represent zones (as they are referred to in that system) and also display known information about the locations in an easily visible form, i’m a big fan of this since it allows the players to note aspects of interest in a location and to work them into the unfolding drama, for example, if a player sees that the cavern has an ‘uneven floor’ he may try to use it to trip an opponent and gain a momentary advantage in combat, or perhaps he hunkers low to the floor and uses the uneveness as cover or to hide his activities from prying eyes. Anything that gets the players more involved and invested in a location and the action going on there has to be a good thing for your game and the index card model fills this box for me without getting the players too hung up on exactly how wide the drinking hall is or how many squares long the corridor is; the index card method also allows you to zoom in or out, a single dungeon could have each room or corridor as a card if your game required it, conversely an entire house might only merit one index card depending on it’s narrative importance within the game session.
How do you modify a location?
In terms of modifying a location there are a few main reasons that i’d modify a location:
i) If the location is based on a real world location but requires altering to meet the needs of my game.
ii) If the location changes or is altered in some way in game.
iii) If the plot requires some sort of addition to the location.
If I am using a real world location then I will have taken some care when initially drafting out my session so that if it does require alteration to meet the needs of my game that I have done this before a session, these alterations can take numerous forms, whether the internal layout of the building requires altering or perhaps simply a matter of scale; a couple of times I have used maps of real world locations with many rooms and have then had several of the room collapsed to give it a ruined feeling and also to cut down on the amount of wandering about that the players have to do. I generally find that, if i’m using a map of a real world location that printing it out and then making some notes/alterations on it in pencil works well since you can change these and make additional notes during the session if you require it; since I use the index card mapping method mentioned above I also divide the location up into individual cards/zones (assuming that the location warrants multiple cards or zones) at this stage, drawing rectangles or shapes on the map and numbering/naming the zones.
When a location is altered in some way or the plot requires some sort of addition I generally handle it in game, this can cover everything from natural alterations like a rockfall, player action such as spilling a barrel of oil or setting something on fire or it could just be revealing another aspect of the scene that hadn’t been specified earlier; a player might ask “is there a wheeled trolley of some sort in this library?” and, if there isn’t a compelling reason not to include one, then i’ll probably add it since it encourages players to get involved and interact with the scenery more. Another strength of the index card method is that additional aspects of the scene can simply be noted down on the appropriate index cards as they are revealed; another design maxim that I have picked up recently from reading the excellent Dungeon World RPG is to “leave some blank space”, try not to describe 100% of a scene, focus mainly on a broad overview and then pick out a few interesting or relevant details, this gives you room to maneuvre or make additions/alterations when either the players or the plot demand it.
Improvising a location
This is sometimes necessary when the player party make an unexpected sidetrek or perhaps get caught up in a small throwaway bit of plot that really interests them; if this happens the advice I would give is to run with it, the players are showing you that they are interested in the bit of plot or aspect of your game that they are pursuing, rewarding them with a small scene is a great way to encourage them to get more immersed in the game and also gives them the feeling that they have some input in the game.
By using an index card and bearing in mind to only describe a location in overview with a few flecks of detail, you can easily (using your knowledge of where the player characters are) create a simple location for the players to explore and then feed off their questions and queries to expand it if necessary; if you are not so comfortable with coming up with things off the cuff you can always prepare a few cards containing generic locations in the time between games (perhaps with a small encounter or challenge written on the card) and then tote one of these out (perhaps tweaking it for the current terrain that the players are in) when the players go exploring.
For example: If the player characters are exploring a swamp and I pull out a ‘small village of isolated farmers’ location from my deck of random locations, it is easy enough for me to tweak this and say that the village is actually a reed built hamlet of bullywugs who farm fungus and mould from the damp earth at the edge of the swamp and whom have little contact with anyone outside the swamp; if the stats for the village elder had been noted on the back it is fairly easy to re-skin this and portray it as a bullywug tribal priest or something similar. 
Vehicles as locations
A category I feel that is sometimes overlooked in RPGs is the vehicle as a location; obviously small vehicles such as motorbikes and cars etc act solely as conveyances between different locations and aren’t locations in and of themselves, however what about larger vehicles such as spaceships or longboats (to give two examples) that, whilst useful as modes of travel, are also large enough to warrant being considered locations in their own right?
What I tend to do with these locations is, when the PCs are disembarking, if the vehicle is easily accessible I have this as a single zone/card and anyone entering this zone is considered to be aboard; should a more detailed exploration of the vehicle interior be required then additional zones can be added that branch off from the initial vehicle location (renaming the initial location ‘on deck’, ‘in the docking bay’ or something similar) allowing the PCs to explore in more detail; this is only generally necessary if something dramatic is occurring onboard, such as an attack by space pirates or something similar where the character’s ability to move through the vehicle is relevant to the plot, if not then I tend to just narrate them moving through the interior and accessing whichever chamber they wish without using detailed mapping.