Medieval Fantasy Gaming, p2

Part 2 of 2, by Ferret Baudoin

God or Gods. First off I radically changed my game world’s religious landscape because I just couldn’t imagine the medieval world as I was discovering it without one of its core pillars – the Church. Previously, my games had almost a shopping mall of temples where you could find any of the hundred gods that were about. There was so many gods that it was hard to give more than a couple of them the TLC they merited. Had I seen the HBO miniseries Rome perhaps I would’ve given polytheism a more concerted go, but at the time I couldn’t see it or really grok it.

But more importantly faith is a matter of belief. If you know there’s a God(s), after-life, and that all clergy can perform miracles – then enter the alien society again. I made a rule in my game to never give any definitive evidence that the divine exists. That’s not to say there can’t be miracles – it’s just that God can’t come down and lecture people directly about the importance of dental hygiene. Not every priest should have an array of spells at his command, instead I modeled it after history. Those rare blessed souls that seemed to have a special connection to God. And their miracles were often subdued, and a skeptic could argue it was entirely bunk or outright lies. I wanted room in the game world for an atheist, and for him not to sound like a chump.

So miracles were incredibly rare, as was magic in general. But it’s all out there. And the PCs were going to see a heck of a lot more of it than almost anybody else – because that’s what heroes do. Explore past the boundaries of the civilized world and experience true adventure.

After all that (and more) I found that the world held together. That you could have noble intrigue living side-by-side with ancient ruins filled with mythological monsters. That farmers could till their fields and on the sly give sacraments of milk to the fae and there would still be room for the rare and powerful mages. It gave the world, from my perspective, an authenticity it was missing before. It was a labor of love and I’ve enjoyed continuing to refine and world-build ever since. I think the players appreciated it more, too, but you’d have to ask them to know that for sure.

If any of this is striking any chords there’s a wealth of information out there. Ars Magica and Vampire: The
Dark Ages
and its related source material give a high level view of the time period in an adventuring context. Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) is also quite knowledgeable about history and has hilarious shows about it like Medieval Lives and The Crusades. Daniel J. Boorstin has written a series of books which talk about the history of man’s knowledge and belief. The Discoverers especially really blew me away because it made me realize what medieval people knew – but also what they didn’t. Imagining a world where people did math with roman numerals, for example, and without the concept of a zero. Mind-blowing to me. Ask around in many forums and I have no doubt you’ll get other excellent leads.

And if suspending your disbelief isn’t a problem, I recommend savoring it. One day you may be a jaded old coot like me where disblief can agitate you like beach sand in your tennis shoe. Ultimately it’s about what’s fun – and for me as a GM I find it a lot more fun if I can close my eyes and the whole world is there and it makes sense. But your mileage may vary. 🙂

Ferret Baudoin is a lead designer at BioWare. He’s worked as a designer at Cyberlore, Black Isle, and Obsidian. His plan is not to take over the world. So don’t pay attention to the silently encroaching mustelid army.


Medieval Fantasy Gaming, p1

Part 1 of 2, by Ferret Baudoin

There is one time period that fascinates me like no other – the Middle Ages. Knights in armor, kings and queens, and Crusades… what’s not to like? When I was a young kid and played my first game – I had no idea what medieval times were like. Honestly, I didn’t care. I got to kick goblin’s teeth in – wee! But as I got older I found that my suspension of disbelief was harder to swallow. So I thought quite a bit and wondered – what the heck was that time period actually like? On a summer vacation I picked up several books of medieval history and read them voraciously. That’s something I still do on occasion. I realized that the sort of Tolkien-esque worlds I’ve played in or had run, although fascinating, really paled to bits of real history. It also made me realize that the best way to smooth over the disbelief issue is to inject a lot of historical realism into things.

So I’ll tell you a little of my gamemastering journey. Hopefully it’ll make you think of a thing or two or be vaguely entertaining or interesting.

First off, I started thinking about the people. What they believed, why they believed it, and what were their lives like on a typical summer day. High magic worlds like I’d been running really would destroy everything the medieval people believed in. You can embrace high magic and it can make a rich setting that’s fascinating – those to me feel almost quasi-steam punk. But I wanted to take the players into a mythical, fantasy version of medieval Europe – so that didn’t work. So I decided to try and make it that the medieval peasant wouldn’t have to change his whole world view in my game. If magic were uncommon enough I think it would actually reinforce some of their views instead of upending their world.

A lot of my thoughts were about how to inject the fantastical to a player’s perspective – yet keeping it plausible that the peasants, nobles, and clergy wouldn’t seem like dimwits. Humanoids really weren’t a problem because they’re very analogous to barbarians, something parts of medieval Europe were entirely too familiar with. But spells really threw me for a loop. I’d always taken for granted that people could be resurrected in fantasy pen-and-paper games – but as I thought through the consequences I was appalled. If resurrection existed to powerful clerical types – those clerics would be enormously powerful politically, kings and high nobles that could afford their services would be guaranteed a natural lifespan to achieve things. I imagine people would start reacting like the denizens of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld Saga – where strategic suicide could be a legitimate tactic. Any element that started making the society seem alien to me had to go – so no resurrection.

Every spell in the book (and I used two systems over the life of the game setting – Rolemaster and Dungeons and Dragons) I went through with some thought. Some spells got nixed or heavily modified for other reasons. A pet peeve of mine are spells that reduce NPCs into tools, not people. If I can command any Tom, Dick, and Harry on the street to do my bidding and tell me anything about everything – it sort of kills role-playing. You could easily go the other way, because mythical mages like Merlin certainly could have that sort of power. But for me, I wanted people to have to interact with the high and low and use their wits, guile, and persuasive abilities to get by.

Ferret Baudoin is a lead designer at BioWare. He’s worked as a designer at Cyberlore, Black Isle, and Obsidian. His plan is not to take over the world. So don’t pay attention to the silently encroaching mustelid army.


Do I Have to Bring Him Along?

Part 1 of 1, by Ferret Baudoin

Something that gets discussed around the office on occasion is when it’s cool and not cool to force a player to travel with someone during the game. It’s obviously cool in some cases. Heck, many games force you to travel with someone the entire game — otherwise you’d have game titles like “Ratchet and Occasionally, Only If You Want To Bring Him Along, Clank”. For RPGs, though, it becomes a bit more contentious.

Sometimes for story reasons, even in RPGs, you just have to travel with someone for a stretch. I know it can ruin the “Iron Man” solo experience, but games are telling a story and sometimes you just have to roll with it. But there’s a real tension of when it’s OK to force someone to tag along.

The more “knowns” you have in a story the tighter the narrative and the more dramatic you can make things. So if I know that Farmer Ted is travelling with you during this one stretch, he can be interwoven in the story. He can really shine. But the problem is some people are going to hate Farmer Ted with the fiery passion of a thousand blazing suns. I like to point out in those cases that, “But even if you’re forced to spend time with Ted, you also get to spend some quality time with Slinky Seductress Sarah – and you have to admit, that bit was awesome.” But that’s really an existential point when you want nothing more than to punch Ted in the face.

I can already tell some people would want to say, “Just make two options – one where Ted is fully immersed in the plot and the other where he isn’t.” But people that say that aren’t living in my world. They’re living in a much happier world where developers have oodles of spare time, and they can just quickly whip up complicated alternate adventures in between their busy schedule of playing ping pong. By the way, if someone can point me to that world, I’d happily pay for the plane ticket. I’ll even write a nice note.

On the other extreme, you can make a game where the companions are completely optional. There’s a lot of merit to that. It’s your choice, your game, and if you don’t like Ted then stab him in the face. But by its very nature it makes it hard to have deep moments with any companion. Because in any given area the developer has to take into account that anybody can be there or no one can. And if the plot plays differently with them along, then headaches ensue.

I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Certainly many RPGs aim for that. But is it so wrong to want companions to interact intimately with the world, even if it means that waste of space Ted* is cluttering your screen for an hour?

* I’d like to take this time to apologize to all the Teds out there. I’m sure you’re all very nice people, and none at all of you deserve to be stabbed in the face. Except for one. You know who you are.

Ferret Baudoin is a lead designer at BioWare. He’s worked as a designer at Cyberlore, Black Isle, and Obsidian. His plan is not to take over the world. So don’t pay attention to the silently encroaching mustelid army. Bwahaha.

Scare Tactics, p2

Part 2 of 2: by Ferret Baudoin

Your verbal presentation as a story-teller matters a lot for horror. I try to play it very level – almost Blair Witch style. I’m a scientist describing the scene to you. I speak softly and I never go for the cheap laugh. I try to get a little frightened myself. Some of the best horror moments come from GM improv, I find, in the moment I’ll think of something and throw it in. But some GMs work better being fully prepared.

But back to the adventure…

So the mood is there and it’s time for the monster or “object of horror” to start making his/her/its presence felt. I prefer to keep the monster under wraps until I absolutely can’t any more. So mess with the players indirectly. Maybe it throws a severed head. Maybe it kills the lights. Maybe it hits somebody with something virulent. Lots of possibilities. It can be all right for the monster to interact directly – but no one should get a clear look. If you have NPCs along with the PCs, maybe mess with them more drastically – disappear one of them. If there are red shirt NPCs with you, then feel free to kill one of them horribly. I highly recommend having at least some NPCs with the PC for horror segments because they can lend human voice to the mood, and allow you to participate.

After building the horror, then you need the release. The big bad monster comes out. It should have a couple of ghastly tricks up its sleeve. Also, in those sorts of segments I feel all right with not playing entirely fair. Creepy monsters should have abilities that aren’t in any book. Sometimes on the fly I’ll nudge it’s abilities to provide more drama. As long as it’s consistent with previously established evidence, it my not be Queensbury Rules – but it’s fair game.

At the end of the day the heroes are triumphant, and perhaps still a little scared. Sometimes it’s all right to throw in another beat. A surprise. It comes back. But that is clichéd. I occasionally go with it, but it works best after establishing a track record of really killing monsters the first time. So that when this time it lunges back out, people are in for a shock.

I like horror in pen and paper, and I find every now and then I throw in some tiny elements of it on the fly. It makes the world feel more uncertain, that scary things could happen if the players drift off the beaten path. That not everything is explained in the Monster Manual. Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t go as planned. After an embarrassing number of years GMing I’d say I get a 50% batting average for actually pulling horror off. But even the failures break up the standard session. If your players are willing to work with you a bit, I bet you’ll find it rewarding regardless.

Oh, and boo.

Ferret Baudoin is a lead designer at BioWare. He’s worked as a designer at Cyberlore, Black Isle, and Obsidian. His plan is not to take over the world. So don’t pay attention to the silently encroaching mustelid army. Bwahaha.

Scare Tactics, p1

Part 1 of 2: by Ferret Baudoin

Horror in pen and paper games is hard. It’s like math. But both are worth mastering. Especially mathematical horror. Some systems are centered firmly on horror, but this meandering blog is more for the gamemaster out there that wants to add some scary spice to his traditional fantasy campaign. The techniques outlined below aren’t the only way, but they are a way and it seems to have worked for me. On with the blog.

The number one key ingredient to running a good horror session is the same ingredient necessary for running any good session in my book: the players. Really good players can have an entertaining evening fighting their way out of a paper bag. But sadly, even a good gaming group may have troubles with horror. Why? Because horror requires mood and patience. Combat-focused players might very well find a well-executed horror segment to be boring. Or players that are more focused on rules. Role-players like horror the best. And even if your play group is up for the challenge a stray Monty Python reference can derail everything.

So all those caveats aside, how do you do it? I’m a great believer in Alfred Hitchcock’s style of horror. A monster is much scarier when you never see it. So if you hear the monster’s ominous heavy breathing, when you see the torn apart remains of a once valiant hero, or when the monster skitters around out of sight (a la Aliens) that’s scary. That philosophy flavors everything below.

So step one for me is setting the stage. It helps me when beginning to visit the dark spooky places in my own head – how I felt at 10 watching Poltergeist late at night, the boogeyman that lived under the stairs, or other stuff that unnerved me. Then I try and think of way to steal those techniques or ways to invoke fear and bring it into a game. Ideally, your own idea is something that you could get a little frightened of, too, when playing – fear is contagious, after all. So an eerie old town. Or trapped in some confined space. I ran a recent session where the PCs were locked inside a dwarvish tunnel – because every dwarven warparty that went in to investigate the mineshaft hadn’t returned, and they didn’t want whatever was in there getting out.

So you have the physical locale, great. The next stage is planning on how you’ll build up tension. It’s best to start small and build. Economy of words in your description can really help, because you’re really judo-ing your players into making them scare themselves. So give enough description to carry the mood and make sure everyone is roughly on the same page and then stop. Briefly describe the bloody trail ending up with a severed hand. Intone the words written with a bloody shaky hand on the wall, “Lord protect me, Lord protect me…” written over and over. Just find creepy things.

Be careful about throwing in enemies to fight at this stage, because a good battle will really change the emotional mood of the session. It’ll feel comfortable and normal. So you’ll have to build up the tension again afterwards. That being said, for a long stretch of horror a good fight or two is critical to give the players an emotional break. For the timing on that it works best to have a fight during or right after a big spooky reveal.

Ferret Baudoin is a lead designer at BioWare. He’s worked as a designer at Cyberlore, Black Isle, and Obsidian. His plan is not to take over the world. So don’t pay attention to the silently encroaching mustelid army. Bwahaha.