The Narrative Power of Emotion and Social Connection

One issue I have encountered with some regularity in my discussions with narrators and game masters is how to keep a group of adventures “on task” during a heavily prewritten session or full campaign. Most of the conversations tend to revolve around the idea that pure force is the least desirable, but often only the effective way to ensure the adherence to a prepared storyline. During my time as a game master, I began to steal a ideas from myth and literature which can be invaluable to solving this dilemma. In the following few paragraphs I will outline these tools, how they have been incorporated into the rules of Faerie Tales & Folklore, and how a narrator can implement them within their own games. Now, I must preface this article by saying that some of these suggestions are designed to cause an emotion reaction, and thus should be used with a measure of respect for your current players, good taste, and a lack of being abusive.

To begin, I am going to talk about a common roleplaying trope known colloquially as the murder hobo and what creates this phenomenon. A murder hobo is a character who only seems to exist to travel around a map, kill anything they encounter, and loot the corpses. This is a concept that works well in certain types of situations, such as procedurally generated sandbox style games. However, this process can quickly grow old for players who seek a more epic, or “living” campaign. In my opinion, one of the primary reasons characters easily fall into the role of murder hobos is many character creation systems, especially old school ones, end with a character being an “island unto themselves”. When a character is played who has no attachments or connections to the community or world around them, they will tend to behave in unrealistic ways. Thus, a murder hobo is often the byproduct. If that was the desire from the beginning, then that character creation system has filled a need with efficiency. But, what if the narrator and players are looking for a more story based method of play? What can be done to guide players away from this simple and sometimes mindless format of hunt, kill, loot? (Continued below)

The best answers to this question begin with the creation of a character. When a character exits a game’s creation system complete with a family, friends, a home and possibly even a business, it is more likely that said character will have something the player might feel is worth protecting. By the same token, if said character exits that system with both virtues and vices, the referee has a simple map by which to exploit the character’s peculiarities in ways that are beneficial to creating an engaging narrative. Examples of how these traits can be exploited are listed below.

If a character has a business running an inn and the narrator is trying to persuade the group to go after a local gang of organized criminals, the narrator should try extortion, or the classic protection racket, by having the guild pursue that character and their inn through violence in search of goods, services, or coin.

If a player has created a chivalrous (virtue) knight and the narrator is having difficulty with getting the group to venture to a neighboring land to face rumors of a dragon, simply have the dragon abduct a local noblewoman.

Maybe a drunken (vice) mercenary warrior would like to do something other then face the band of brigands that is harassing a village for free. Simply have the brigands humiliate the warrior while he is too drunk to effectively defend himself.

Finally, If a referee wishes to start a storyline about local children disappearing, have one or more said children be those of the character’s themselves.

It is important in most of these situations, especially ones with consequences that directly impact the characters, to maintain the possibility of being resolved in a manner that does not permanently impact the character. Otherwise, the players simply end up angry and they may lose interest in the current game. As a narrator, one is often expected to be the villain, but taking this role too seriously is almost never a good idea from the stand point of pure entertainment. Keep in mind, most people do prefer a happy ending and some potential endings to a storyline can completely end a player’s enjoyment of the adventure or campaign itself. This is never a good resolution for the player or the narrator.

Many of the points spoken of above are built into the various character creation systems presented in Faerie Tales & Folklore. Specifically, “The Random Lives of People” (page 79 through 90) contains ways to generate family, friends, rivals, and defining events, along with the more universal systems of profession, virtues and vices. Even the introduction line of a character can be used to pull on a character’s emotions or sense of duty when the referee needs to redirect a group toward a predefined goal.

A samurai can be compelled to follow a foolish noble boy, even when that boy causes undue problems for said samurai. To go against this would most certainly be a death sentence for the samurai in question. This social convention can be used to draw said samurai into all manner of tense, if not downright foolish situations.

A dvergr (low man) enchanter could be compelled to seek an ancient horde guarded by all manner of deathless creatures just to expand their knowledge of enchantments and magical formulae (spells). The desire for such knowledge and the lure the treasures that provide it would pull at the very fiber of the character’s being.

The defining event “Successful Gambler” can be used to compel a character who rolled it to gamble when they know the stakes might be too high, such as in a game with the wrong type of folks. Doing so might get them into all manner of trouble, including situations like losing their business, or perhaps even their freedom. Just because they were successful in the past, does not mean they always will be. Eventually, luck runs dry for everyone.

There are no hard and fast rules to force a player into making their character take a certain course of action, as maintaining a strong sense of player agency is important in roleplaying. It is however beneficial for the character to follow these guidelines. “Story Benefits” (page 75 through 77) offer an incentive for players to have their character’s act in accordance with how they are described. Beyond this, a narrator is free to find creative ways within the storyline to aid in the enforcement of a character’s description. (Continued below)

For example, the samurai from the example above might be expected to commit seppuku for acting dishonorably and ignoring the orders of their lord. If this was not done, they would be forced into becoming a ronin.

The chivalrous knight previously discussed could be stripped of their title and rank if they do not heed a call to battle by their king.

A referee should always allow the possibility for the character to redeem themselves, as a player often creates a character with a destiny in mind for that character. Even when such a redemption would be unlikely in the real world, it is imperative that such a possibility be extended. Otherwise a player will be even less likely to respond to being steered by the narrator and their character’s description in the future. When this happens, the referee is likely to lose a powerful tool in maintaining control of the narrative.

The benefit of the systems presented in Faerie Tales & Folklore is that they do not require the creation and penning of a deep, complex background. Rather they exist as notes with which a player can expand upon during a game. If a character is married, do not have the player write the story of how they met, have them tell it during the game. If they were that “successful gambler”, have them tell the story of their success during a night of drunken blather at the inn. These hooks offer grand narrative possibility not only for the player acting as the narrator, but for the player themselves. As a narrator try to convince your players that leaving these hooks open to explore within the game can be of greater use if explored during the game, then when written out prior to the game’s beginning. In many instances, a large, pre-composed background is just a waste of a large number of great narrative possibilities. (Continued below)

The act of “old school” roleplaying needn’t be a dry and statistical affair, though there is nothing wrong with such an approach. A narrator should never need to simply demand their players take a particular course of action, as there are almost always better ways to guide players down the path the narrator has chosen. With but a few simple tools brought in during character creation, a whole myriad of options becomes available for a clever narrator. With a creative player, those same tools can be used to more organically evolve their character in ways dice rolls and statistics never could.

As a narrator, never underestimate the power of creating an emotional reaction. It is a powerful tool in manipulating the players. Nor should a narrator underestimate social consequence, for it is equally powerful in achieving those same ends. Without the hooks necessary however, neither tool can be used with any efficiency. As a narrator, it is vital to maintain one’s knowledge of the people that populate your world, and this includes the characters who belong to the players. Learn about them and what makes them tick. Find things within who they are and how they are presented that you can use to craft better storylines. Don’t just learn about the characters for the sake of manipulation. Learn about them and the vision their players have for them and use what you have learned to help them attain this vision. Learn about them to help provide the player with the greatest possible experience they could have along the way. In that, the narrator becomes more then a game master, they become a storyteller.

When you sit down at the game table remember, those who are gathered with you are in this together… Enjoy the ride.

I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

A certain desire to “hack” the game seems to exist in almost every player and DM I have ever known. I think it might have to do with one’s imagination being sparked, but others may have their own ideas about the phenomenon. When I began developing Faerie Tales & Folklore, along with its pseudo setting, I had this desire to create the most open of an environment as possible. I hoped to pen a set of rules that allowed players to take the basic building blocks provided and run with the possibilities found within the game. In this blog, I aim to have a little fun by detailing how the game’s many modular bits can be used to create a wide array of unusual, if not amusing settings.

Faerie Tales & Folklore has decidedly literary roots to its implied setting. To accommodate this, I devised a few simple subsystems that aid in maintaining this feel. One of the most useful is the idea of optional “plot points and themes”. With these tiny bits and modular rules, one can quickly modify the game to fit any era from the Stone Age to the early 20th century, while adventuring through settings as diverse as the alien worlds seen in the Alethe Diegemata and the otherworldly realms found in the Poetic Edda or the Divina Commedia. Below is a list of fun and often strange ideas for settings, or whole campaigns, to use in your Faerie Tales & Folklore game. (Continued below)

1. The Mead Hall of Valhöll

So… You want a game with more of a high fantasy feel? Try setting a game within the Odin’s mead hall in Valhöll, or Valhalla. The most important rules to focus on here are those of the lower realms of the Otherworld. In this setting, nothing dies permanently, this allows the players to get very rowdy, if such an experience is desired. Technically, all the players will be considered dead, this can be both true (thus useful in situations of a TPK) or simply the mystery of the current campaign, as in “How did we get here and why are we here?”

The plot point “Unbelievable Stories” (page 604) becomes a lot of fun in this setting as telling tall tales while drinking mead in Odin’s hall just sounds like a bang up idea for one crazed set of misadventures. Other good plot points and themes to use are:

  • “The Greater the Risk” (page 565), this adds an extra incentive for players to get exceedingly brave.
  • “Sporting Events or Games” (page 560), this provides a little non-combative fun to fill in the holes.
  • “The Search for Home” (page 536) and “Wandering the Otherworld” (page 546), are important as they can be used to solve the mystery of how the players arrived in this place (if that is actually a mystery).
  • “The Impossible Task” (page 543), This can offer the players a way to remedy there current situation.

This fusion of ideas offers a lot of “meat and potatoes” style blood and guts gaming. It can also be used to create a lot of mystery and truly heroic experiences. With some basic changes to where in the lower realms the players end up, this setting is very useful if the whole party is killed but the group wishes to continue the original tale. (Continued below)

2. Children Vanishing Into The Otherworld

This setting/game idea is best used in more modern campaigns (from the 16th century on) as it is focused around the difficulty of getting adults into the Otherworld. In this setting, players will be searching for lost members of the community (most specifically children), who have been disappearing at an alarming rate. Concepts such as the mundane versus the otherworldly will play a central role in such narratives. As is common within the settings of Faerie Tales & Folklore, one of the primary issues a group must contend with is how they are to cross the veil (often repeatedly). This type of tale can also be turned on its head and played from the point of view of the children who are either hiding from the reality of their lives in the mundane world, or are being held prisoner by some villain of an otherworldly nature.

The central plot point here is “The Innocence of Youth” (page 580) as well as the rules found under the heading “Intoxication, Near Death, & The Veil” (page 289). In fact, all of the rules pertaining to the crossing of the veil are very important to such games. Other plot points and themes that benefit such narratives are as follows:

  • “The Curse of Geas” (page 536), using such an idea as why the children are disappearing offers a tasty mystery to hook the players into a larger tale.
  • “Changeling & Shapeshifting” (page 543), the use of the classic changeling as the antagonist can by a very effective surprise twist when the group slowly uncovers who is behind the kidnappings.
  • “Waining Wonder” (page 563), this is important for all games set within later eras.
  • “Dust” (page 577), this can offer another way to cross the veil more safely, and procuring some is an adventure in itself.
  • “Bad Form” (page 580), this offers a way to keep a game more child friendly, which is useful for versions of this tale where children are playing the children trying to escape (or possibly not be caught by the adults).
  • “Weird Science” (page 601), this plot point offers yet another possible explanation for how the children are crossing the veil and who might be behind the whole mess.
  • “The Unseen Enemy” (page 603), this is a wonderfully fun plot point to drop into the mystery of why the children are vanishing… Who among the townsfolk is ferrying the children across the veil and why?

This narrative idea works well for an ongoing game as it pulls on most everyone’s basic emotions. Either taken from the viewpoint of children escaping the real world for the wonder of the magical, or adults seeking an otherworldly foe who is kidnapping children within their community, this premise offers all the biggies: fear, wonder, mystery, and all the strange of youthful imagination. (Continued below)

3. The Frozen Earth

This marks a truly alternate setting by using the rules of Faerie Tales & Folklore to simulate life within the era of the last Ice Age. Depending upon how limited, or close to reality you choose to make this alternate setting, it could be teeming with mythic beats and all manner of spirit, or of a highly reduced variety of such threats. The later idea might confine encounters to other men, animals (including great beasts of a more animal nature: dire beasts, etc), and little else. In games of this type, the rules for “Obsidian & Stone Weapons” (page 557) and “Hazards of the World” (pages 277 through 279) become crucial in maintaining the feel of this era. At this point in history, the veil would be at its weakest. The mundane world and the otherworldly are very close during this time and the lack of large concentrations of common men keeps travel to the border realms relatively easy at any time. Other plot points that can prove effective during this setting are:

  • “The Search for Home” (page 536), this provides a good survival style theme for a whole clan of early men in a struggle to find a worthy home.
  • “The Impossible Task” (page 543), this concept can work with “The Search for Home” (above) to create a truly epic feel in bringing one’s people to some form of “promised land”.
  • “Failure” (page 551), is a good tool to balance the search of some aforementioned “promised land”, possibly requiring the group to find a more realistic solution.
  • “Heroic Sacrifice” (page 556), in any survival based game the idea of a heroic sacrifice becomes a staple of good narrative.
  • “Bloodline of Renown” (page 559), seeing that religion was just as primitive as the cultures of early man, ancestor warship was common, making this plot point very poignant.
  • “The Unseen Enemy” (page 603), this plot point is always useful in survival settings, be it a plague or a conflict of leadership, it can add just the right amount of tension.

A campaign set during this period offers great ways to set up the beginnings of the great conflict of Faerie Tales & Folklore, the mundane versus the otherworldly. By playing off both a sense of wonder and fear, it should be relatively easy to set up the roots of the conflict in a natural feeling way. Even the differences in the lineages may be enough to prompt deep suspicion and xenophobia. If a narrator wants to add some horror to the campaign, try adding a “contagion zombi” (page 450) to the scene, be it animal or man. This addition can create a very tense, campaign where trust is a commodity most cannot afford. (Continued below)

4. Death by Dream, or The Sandman Murders

An often told tale that fits well in early modern campaigns is that of a killer capable of murder through one’s dreams. This is primarily accomplished through the use of the spell “dream” (page 107) which remains on the list of allowable spells when using the theme “Magic in the Modern Age” (page 574). As much of the otherworldly narrative will occur in the dreaming realms, all of the available rules for the realm of dreams should be kept close. In this type of narrative, the rules modifications provided in the major literary work “Dracula, 1897 CE” (page 567 through 576) are very useful. The players might be officers of the law and/or spiritualists looking to catch the otherworldly murderer. This narrative can be quite fun, as it blends the possibility of full blown high fantasy tucked away in a very low fantasy world. Horror, crime drama, and mystery may be included depending on the desired tone. Other useful plot points or themes for this bit of storytelling are:

  • “Ally From Enemy” (page 533), this provides an interesting way to introduce players later in the tale by having them undertake the roll of a previous antagonist or by introducing a character is an antagonist in the beginning (such as an skeptical officer of the law).
  • “Revenge” (page 551) perhaps the killers motivation is just this simple.
  • “Waining Wonder” (page 563), is a consideration due to the time frame.
  • “Weird Science” (page 601) offers an additional possibility of how the killer might be entering the dreaming realms.
  • “The Reality of Insanity” (page 602), this plot point can be a result of, or the actual source of the killer in action (or perhaps it is just people losing their minds). In any event, this concept adds to the sense of confusion and distrust of one’s self within this type of campaign.
  • “The Unseen Enemy” (page 603), the use of a modified version of this plot point in this scenario is almost a given.

By switching the setting to a sanitarium and things can get really interesting. Again, through the use of the rules for “The Reality of Insanity” (page 602), the narrative can become truly twisted. With enough patients suffering madness, the sanitarium could become an “Otherworldly Bridge” (page 524). In this variation, a narrator can really bring a sense of high fantasy and horror to a modern environment by utilizing the dream realms in combination with insanity. The characters could even be made patients within the sanitarium, adding the rules of being a “Heroic Outlaw” (page 555) and the reality of not being believed by any “sane” person. In such instances, “The Search for Home” (page 536) could be used to simulate the trip back to sanity (or from the Otherworld back to the mundane) as the mystery of the killer is slowly revealed. (Continued below)

5. Let’s Go Full Metal Wuxia

The Faerie Tales & Folklore system can also be tweaked to accommodate the classic wuxia style narrative. If a tale of this sort is desired, two of the most important rules to become familiar with are “Unarmed Combat” (page 355) and the qinggong practitioner presented in the literary work of “Shui Hu Zhuan, 1110 CE” under the heading of “Magic & Miracles”. From this base, a large number of additional rules become valuable. By mixing various parts of spell casting, spontaneous casting, and hybrid casters, a wide range of martial arts stylings can be achieved. The high man ability of “wirework” (page 33) is particularly useful for wuxia styles (qinggong powered leaps, etc.), as is “impervious” (page 30) for iron shirt type effects, and defining events such as “renowned drunken pugilist” (page 85) can further help realize many of the wuxia tropes. Spells can be used to imitate Taoist talismans and spontaneous magic can fill in most of the remaining gaps (including ideas such as dim mak or dianxue). If you happen to need an animated suit of sentient armor, just have a spirit possess an automaton. There are a few other plot points and themes to consider for a wuxia type narrative:

  • “Ally From Enemy” (page 533), this is a common narrative in many martial arts films and stories.
  • “The Heroic Challenge” (page 533), another common plot point, “find and beat the five masters” as an example.
  • “Unbelievable Stories” (page 604), can offer a sense of braggadocio such characters tend to display and this same rule can be used to play fights out in the minds of potential combatants (a somewhat reoccurring theme in wuxia).

The era in which the tale is being told will obviously change a lot about the setting, though it is important to know that wuxia/martial arts abilities are not affected by “Waining Wonder” (page 563), or any of the other rules that curtail magical effects.

6. The Eternal Champions

This idea was used during the writing of Faerie Tales & Folklore. It is based around the concept that the characters are reincarnating heroes who return every so often to face some great threat to both the mundane and otherworldly realms. During testing, each player choose one of the literary works toward the end of the tome as the setting for the story they were to tell. As the campaign progressed, the players would take turns acting as the referee, thus also switching the very setting and era of the story. Under this model, nearly every aspect of the rules, as well as all the available plot points and themes will be utilized at some point. For the sake of simplicity during the game the following ideas were implemented by all the players involved:

  • When a character, or villain, gained a level, that level applied to all the various settings run by each of the players. This prevents a large amount of unnecessary bookkeeping and aids in speeding up each transition. It later came to be decided that, for the purpose of explanation, that a character’s thread of fate worked both ways through time and space. Thus that which affects the past, also affects the future and vise versa.
  • Each player kept a modified version of their character that took into account the various modifications for each era and setting. Once the initial work was done, this allowed the players to quickly alternate between the settings when a new player took over as the game’s narrator.
  • In this type of campaign, it is a good idea for all the players (and thus the narrators) to be somewhat on the “same page” as to the overall arc of the story. Each player is of course allowed to develop their own plot lines, etc. but the greater story should have some form of unifying thread. Examples of such threads are: an organization of evil that extends through the ages, a rogue defied spirit bent on causing harm to the mundane world, or perhaps an artifact that controls the very flow of time itself being used to nefarious ends.
  • It is a good idea for each character, and villain, created to be, in some plausible way, a member of each setting the game will occur within. While limiting, this creates a sense of believability that is important to the greater storyline. For example, if a player wishes to create a Celt from the British Isles, it is a good idea for such a heredity to exist within the other settings (even if the connections are strained).

A campaign using this concept is the most universal of the ideas presented herein and as such, defining individual plot points and themes is essentially moot. The entirety of the game’s rule structure, including any optional rules are likely to be used at some point in the game’s evolution (hence its use during play testing). This style of game is great for a group who either cannot decide on a single setting, or one that enjoys a wide range of potential experiences under the roof of a single campaign.

I hope this has been an amusing look at the potential breadth of settings available within the Faerie Tales & Folklore system, along with how one may use the rules to achieve a desired setting. As can be seen, the existing rules provide an extensive set of possibilities within the pages of one, albeit large, book. In truth, this article only scratches the surface of what is possible with a creative narrator. It has been my intent here to act merely as a spark for others to build upon, to create a set of rules that simply allowed a game’s narrator to realize the types of stories that inspired them and their players. If you find other interesting settings within which to conduct your own games, please tell me about them in the comments.

Go out to your own game tables and challenge expectation. Keep your players guessing and foster a sense of wonder. Above, all enjoy the full expanse of the imagination, it is possibly our greatest tool.

No True OSR (or How to Make Enemies and Anger Friends)

One topic which comes up repeatedly within certain elements of the roleplaying world is the nature of the OSR. What is it, what defines it, and what does or does not belong under this often difficult to define banner? Over the course of this article, I tread into this quagmire in the hope of shedding some light on this potentially polarizing topic. Within the following paragraphs, I aim to show that the definition of the OSR may not be as difficult to pin down as one might be led to believe. However, this definition is not likely to be as satisfying as some may hope.

Before we begin the analysis of what might place a given game or gaming product within the OSR, let us first look at an informal fallacy commonly known as “No True Scotsman”, and why it is important to this discussion. More appropriately known as “The Appeal to Purity”, the “No True Scotsman” fallacy seeks to protect a generalization from contrary examples by changing the definition to exclude the contrary example. This is often done without any reference to an existing objective rule or accepted idea to support the refutation of the contrary example. The example offered in Wikipedia reads thusly:

Person A: “No true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”

Person B: “My uncle Angus is a Scotsman and he puts sugar on his porridge”

Person A: “But no TRUE Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge”

In the above example, person A, when presented with a contrary example, has “shifted the goal posts” to allow their original statement to remain correct. No evidence, nor rule is provided to support person A’s modified claim, they just simply attempted to protect the original generalization by subjectively altering their interpretation of said generalization. Ok, so how does this relate to the OSR? Well, I am glad I asked. Let’s dive into those murky waters and try to avoid drowning under the swell of this much debated topic. (Continued below)

Many of the professed markers others use to identify the OSR readily fall under this “Appeal to Purity”, and it is this fact that I believe causes much of the confusion in identifying what the OSR actually is. In the effort to untangle this strangely subjective title, I will look at many of these identifiers and discuss why they exist more within the realm of an “Appeal to Purity” rather then being legitimate hallmarks of the OSR.

One of the most commonly promoted concepts I hear as an identifier of the OSR is the phrase “Rulings not Rules”. An interesting, and admittedly old feeling idea no doubt, but is this the core of the OSR? Though the idea certainly exists in older games, I believe some measure of this is vital to the idea of roleplaying itself. Considering that roleplaying is a form of structured, cooperative imagining, it is important to have a certain amount of flexibility in how the myriad of situations can be handled. Conversely, this would mean that any game that promotes a flexible take on its rules has a claim to being a portion of the OSR. The Fate system utilizes this very idea to the extreme, as it promotes vast levels of hacking its system. Fate also promotes an often ambiguous “let the game master decide” type approach to many of the game’s vital aspects (see what I did there?). However, even in the most well intended efforts, Fate seems to fall short in its attempts at feeling “old school” (Fate Freeport comes to mind). Lastly, “Rulings not Rules” reeks of an “Appeal to Purity” as the idea is actually both common and somewhat undefined. As such, it can be applied or withheld at the whim of the user.

In the end, is the idea of “Rulings not Rules” important to the OSR? Yes, but it shares that importance with a great number of non-OSR games. Thus, it cannot really be a defining feature, as it borders on some level of ubiquity within roleplaying world, The prevalence of the crowd favorite “Rule Zero” and its application to gaming in general goes a long way to proving this point.

The next concept I hear regularly as a possible defining feature of the OSR is “Less Plot, More Player Agency”. This one is interesting, though not really because of its merits as a defining feature of the OSR, but rather because it is more of an approach to how any given group chooses to play the game. Similar to the “Ruling not Rules” concept above, the idea of “Less Plot, More Player Agency” is in no way specific to the OSR. Many games take the approach of a strong sense of player agency without feeling remotely part of the OSR (again Fate comes to mind here). However, this is no doubt a facet of what seems to make up basis of the OSR. Though I would argue that this fact is driven as much by the type of player and game master that are common purveyors of the OSR, then the rules themselves. So again, we arrive at the “Appeal to Purity”, as this potential feature is not so much a facet of the rules as it is those who use the rules.

Another idea I hear a good deal about is “Equipment is the Original Skill List”. Now this one, as strange as it may seem, warrants a good examination, but not for the reasons one might first assume. While it is true that many early roleplaying systems did not make use of long skill lists, or even much in the way of skill mechanics, that is not the real reason this concept is so interesting. When a fan of the OSR says “Equipment is the Original Skill List”, they are actually saying something else they might not know they are saying. This idea of equipment defining what a character is capable of doing is based upon a strange but very interesting portion of many truly “old school” roleplaying games. It is built on the assumption that a character knows everything the player knows regardless of what the character would actually know based upon who they are. This is the original meta-gaming, and it is because of this idea that many fans of “old school” games feel as though they are being challenged more directly by the experiences within the game. Thus, the sense of “intellectual accomplishment” is much greater. In such systems one does not simply roll one check to find a trap and another to disarm it, one must actually use their wits and knowledge to find and disarm the trap. It is here that I believe a good deal of what we might consider the OSR comes from, the sense of being personally challenged by the game itself. This is an element commonly overlooked by modern games, and though complex skill mechanics go a long way toward keeping players on a level field, such mechanics reduce the feeling of being directly challenged by the situations encountered during any given narrative.

However, is this the core of the OSR? Is this the heart of the elusive beast? I am again inclined to say no. The reason is again simple, there are games without complex skill sets and mechanics, that rely heavily on player meta-gaming which in no way feel like part of the OSR. Thus, we are again stuck with something being a feature but not a defining one. Again, this allows the “Appeal to Purity” to be invoked at a whim.

So the rules, it would just have to be the rules right? It would seem that a vast majority of the games that fall under the moniker of the OSR are built around an extremely narrow group of very similar rules. Thus, this concept just has to be the core of the OSR, I mean if not this then what, right? Again, as strange as it may seem, I am inclined to say no. While it is true that a very narrow set of rules has become the basis for a large portion of the OSR, it is equally true that the OSR has pushed beyond those borders and into the wholly unrecognizable. Thus, even the very rules themselves fall to the “Appeal for Purity” too easily.

It must be stated however, that out of all the concepts offered thus far, this one does carry the most weight. If someone starts talking about running a game with: 3d6 six times in order for attributes; races like elf, dwarf, human; classes such as fighter, cleric, magic-user, thief; armor class, hit points, and levels of experience it becomes hard not to feel nostalgic. Even if you were not there in the beginning, most will understand the roots of these ideas to some extent. Just like the I-IV-V progression in music, this will feel “old” in a way the other ideas presented cannot claim.

As a side note, It is my belief that the regular use of nested systems in old school games is an often overlooked feature of what makes a game “old school”. I believe that the oversimplification of a game’s mechanics can lead to a sense of mechanical tedium during a session. Most old school titles had a new sub-system for almost everything that could happen within within the game. In my opinion, this is a feature of immeasurable importance. If you are playing a d20 centric game and your game master tells you to roll a d% out of the blue, you have no idea what is going on! That uncertainty adds to the emotional impact of the situation, and can completely change the vibe at the game table. (Continued below)

Back to the matter at hand–

If the rules themselves cannot even be the defining aspect of the OSR, then what is left? How can we put a label on the magic element that provides that warm fuzzy comfort of the much lauded OSR? Well in truth, here is where we come back to the informal fallacy discussed in the beginning of the article. It has become my belief that the whole idea of the OSR is a giant “Appeal to Purity”, a very complex version of “No True Scotsman”. The OSR is, in no uncertain terms, bits of everything spoken of above. Yet, any attempt at a concrete definition is almost guaranteed to be riddled with subjective opinion. Is there a clearly definable set of attributes that is the OSR? No, I do not believe so, but there is an OSR. In my opinion, the OSR is intended to be as mutable as memory. It is a label we can place on a game to indicate it feels a certain way, even if we cannot adequately define what that is. I have come to think of the OSR as another version of “back in the day”. As such, it becomes a euphemism for the way something is remembered as opposed to what it may have truly been.

This look at what the OSR is has not been in vain however, on the contrary, what it has shown is something deeper. What is the OSR? In the most simplistic terms, it is anything that provides a sense of nostalgia and prior understanding for the player. The OSR is, in my opinion, simply an idea or concept that indicates a basic adherence to one or more properties within a game that might appeal to a certain mindset. It is in the fluid nature of one’s relationship with these identifying properties that aids in creating the the “Appeal to Purity” so often seen in the attempts to describe the OSR.

The idea of “old school” is in no way unique to the world of tabletop roleplaying, nor are the endless debates about what constitutes “old school”. In music, the term “old school” is found in hip hop and punk rock (among others) with some regularity, with the title often imparting some quasi-mystical sense of “street cred”. These topics can be both polarizing and alienating, as they often form a sort of elitism behind their application. The connotation that a certain subset of a knowledge base has more validity because more time has passed since its creation or understanding, is actually a bit bizarre but it is none the less a very common ideal within the vastness of human expression. It does serve a purpose however, and that purpose is to offer a “road sign” toward certain portions of the topic at hand. To that end, the idea of the OSR is of near vital importance for those who pay attention to its utterance. It is the weight of expectation behind those initials that speaks to us an a subconscious level. It is here that the true heart of the OSR rests, as it whispers in the ear of those who know, “It’s alright, you will find solace here…”

Enjoy the coming holidays friends! Feast well and remember to avoid unnecessary conflict with family and party members.

A Statement of Inclusion

It has become important for me, in light of many continuing controversies within our hobby, to express my feelings about the topic of equality and inclusion. In the space of these few paragraphs I intend to make my personal thoughts on the matter of misogyny, racism, and other forms of prejudice nice and sparkling clear. If you are the sort who uses the term “social justice warrior” as a derogatory title, you may wish to leave now and not come back. To others who might read this article, I will not be discussing my game Faerie Tales & Folklore to any great length, nor roleplaying games in general. Instead, I aim to focus on the social aspect of our favorite hobby and my disdain for certain subset of those who make up the gaming populace.

Being a member of what is commonly titled “Generation X”, I came to adulthood in the late 80s and early 90s (well mostly the 90s). Furthermore, I was what some at the time labeled a member of the alternative movement. My friends and I stood against the prejudices of social convention, I wore skirts and makeup, surrounded myself with LGBTQ friends who I love dearly, and I did my part to help body modification reach its current level of ubiquity. Those in my close knit but large group of friends faced these challenges within the confines of a strangely conservative small town of Northern California. We were often ridiculed, shunned, and with startling regularity, physically attacked for the simple act of expressing a different view of how we thought the world should be. We had to learn to stand together, we had to learn to fight those who sought to do us harm, and in the end, we helped change minds about what was acceptable.

It was this struggle that came to define me as a human. It shaped every aspect of who I am and even left me with a bit of an unfortunate persecution complex, to which I have only recently been able to move beyond. This struggle was also one of great joy, as we were the witnesses of fear being stripped away from parts of our corner of society. To see friends, once terrified of who they were, walk in broad daylight, proud of their unconventional identities was something truly elevating to behold. We saw a different future for humanity and we sought to hasten its growth. We saw everyone as equal, well except maybe the neo-NAZIs who would plague our lives and attacked us when we were alone. We did not see any as less then others for such things as gender, promiscuity, personal tastes, or the desire to experiment with safe drug use. It was an age of reinvention and of owning one’s own sense of personal identity. It was the continuation of the efforts our parents started in the 60s, and we were the proud standard bearers of a changing culture. (Continued below)

So what exactly does this have to do with gaming you might ask? Well, in recent years I have seen certain elements of our closed minded cultural history fester to the surface in one of the communities I have felt a portion of since I was seven years old, the world of tabletop roleplaying. With the recent controversies coming from White Wolf and the not so subtle issues that permeate the OSR community, I have once again felt the specter of prejudice rise from the darkness of our collective consciousness. I have felt the chill wind of hate blow around the community slowly tainting something I love dearly.

When I set out to write Faerie Tales & Folklore, I wanted to create something that could be true to the history of humanity without embracing the hate of our collective cultural history. I wanted to write a game that embraced multiculturalism, that was not afraid to tackle issues of drug use or atheism, but also felt true to the roots of our history as a species. In short, I tried to simultaneously honor our history while avoiding the potential of insulting others for who they are and what they believe. The game I wrote deals with some dark topics and unfortunate facts about human existence as it was and often still is. I had hoped we could look at some of these issues unflinchingly as reminders of where we have been and how far we have come.

Roleplaying is a social activity and in that space, it has little room for the anti-social ideals of an unfortunate few. As a microcosm of humanity as a whole, roleplaying is best played without prejudice and hate, as these traits steal the very soul of this wonderful hobby, the drawing together of people in the name of collective imagining. Any social activity has the potential to draw people together, but when prejudice and hate are brought to the table, the social nature of roleplaying becomes threatened in a very real way. This bristles the hair on the back of my neck and brings the fight back out of me… That same fight that powered my peers as a youth to challenge the social conventions of the day. It is this sense of purpose that has set me to typing this article you currently read.

As a species, we need to move beyond our petty differences. This is not a passive state, but rather an active pursuit. We cannot be complacent in the face of bigotry and prejudice, nor can we simply ignore it and hope it just goes away. We should all seek to embrace what makes us each unique and in so doing raise our collective selves above our more base natures. The act of roleplaying itself is a remarkable tool for this process and should not be used as a tool of division or social exclusion. We must be better then that. We must be better then the recent controversies of our strange corner of the entertainment industry. As social creatures we are at our best when we are unified… Even when we are at the game table.

Peace friends…

OSR Guide For The Perplexed

In order to “get back in the saddle”, I chose to fill out this little questionnaire going around. It appears as though all the cool grognards are doing it, thus it seemed a reasonable way to get myself back to working on my community after the gut punch of the Google+ issue. To be real however, I look at the idea of the OSR like a lot of old punks look at the idea of old school versus new school punk rock. To paraphrase an old punk friend of mine when he was asked if he was “old or new school”– He simply stated, “Kid, I am out of school.”

I know we as humans tend to enjoy labels, as they offer a sense of comfort through the ability to easily identify what we have encountered. However, a label rarely tells you the truth. A label often hides too much of a things subtly, and it paints in too broad of stokes to be useful to those who truly pay attention. For those who casually encounter a thing, the label just allows one to place the object of inquiry on a shelf of “I sort of know what this is” and leave it there without having to truly understand what sits behind that label. In this, a label fails most everyone.

When I set out to write my own game, I really had little idea of what the OSR even was. I did not set out to make an “old school” game, I simply wanted to make a game that had the feel of some of my favorite elements of roleplaying over the past forty years. It was only after I began to research and test my ideas with others that I encountered the term OSR. In fact, I even spent time arguing that my game was NOT in fact an OSR title. In the end, it seemed that I lost that argument. With that information known, I can imagine many of my answers to the following questions are likely to be quite different then those of other OSR fans and some are likely to seem absolutely daft. That tends to be the nature of expectation and labels, once we look beyond them, things often do not appear as we thought they should have.

So let’s get on with it shall we?

1. One article or blog entry that exemplifies the best of the Old School Renaissance for me: We start off with a really tough one here. Since I am not an avid blog reader, I am not sure I could name a single blog article, let alone one that I felt exemplifies the OSR. However, there was an article (really more of a LONG forum post) on combat in OD&D using the Chainmail rules. It was that article that sent me hurtling through history in the “way back machine” to my earliest days gaming as we tried to figure out the OD&D/Chainmail rules as grade school kids in the late 70s through early 80s. My friends and I had to make due with hand me down books from a friends older brother and those hand me downs were Chainmail and all of the OD&D books. This article cleared up issues we had and acted as a reminder of what was so fantastically cool about my first few sessions of what would become a lifelong obsession for me. When I stumbled on this article, I realized that my ruleset needed to be based around the original rules I used to undertake my first steps into the world of roleplaying. (Edit: The article was on the “odd74.proboards” forum.)

2. My favorite piece of OSR wisdom/advice/snark: If you have time to min/max or character optimize to munchkin land, you are likely not actually playing much.

3. Best OSR module/supplement: Not really a supplement, and possibly not even really a portion of the OSR, but I have to go with all of Beyond the Wall. There is just something about that game and all of its supplemental material that just oozes the wonderment of my favorite fiction from boyhood. The developers and writers of that game truly crafted something magical and I am constantly inspired by the unique approach they took to what is essentially a multi-edition D&D clone.

4. My favorite house rule (by someone else): This one is easy, the game master rolls all the dice during the game and keeps track of all the numbers. The players only know the words behind their characters. No stats, levels, hit points, or anything of that nature are known to the players. This enhances the sense realism of a game (IMHO) by not making such things clear and thus dependable. Though I do not use this idea in Faerie Tales & Folklore, many of my favorite sessions as a player and game master utilized this house rule.

5. How I found out about the OSR: When I began writing my own game, I slowly became aware of the idea of the OSR. At first, I thought it was pure silliness, but later I did come to see some point, albeit small, to making such a distinction.

6. My favorite OSR online resource/toy: In truth, the best online resource for the OSR has been the OSR community on Google+. If it is OSR, it has appeared there at one time or another. The answers to any questions I have had, all the help I have needed, and some of the best people I have encountered online have been found there. Not sure anything else has come close in my experience.

7. Best place to talk to other OSR gamers: I have long found Google+ to be one of the best places to prattle on about the OSR and RPGs in general. Its demise will be difficult for me to move beyond, as I put so much energy into the various communities there.

8. Other places I might be found hanging out talking games: Rarely, my nom de guerre can be found on Reddit, but Mr. Thorne comes out less and less these days.

9. My awesome, pithy OSR take nobody appreciates enough: That ‘Rule Zero’ is an overly lauded idea that really does not maintain the best ideals of a cooperative roleplaying experience. The game master should be respected, but no player at the table should be seen as any more or less valuable then any other.

10. My favorite non-OSR RPG: That is easy, Fate Core/Accelerated. I am a fan of the way the system incorporates narration from both game master and player through interesting yet functional mechanics. In fact, Faerie Tales & Folklore was originally going to be a Fate Core mod with the objective of making Fate play like older versions of D&D. The focus was always to be on the Mythological Earth, the rules supporting it were just going to be vastly different.

11. Why I like OSR stuff: I enjoy OSR material for its nostalgia primarily. Like most things, roleplaying has evolved, sometimes for the better and other times for the worse. There are times when playing within the rules I grew up with just satisfies some inexplicable part of my psyche. I do not necessarily believe OSR titles are in any way superior to non-OSR titles, but they are often more successful at capturing a feeling. In my opinion, one of the best aspects of OSR style games is the widespread use of nested systems to accomplish many of the needs encountered during a game. I also feel that many OSR titles, in their desire for extreme simplicity, avoid this element of older RPGs in favor of reusing systems for a multitude of situations. In my opinion this starts to make the experience seem too much the same. I begin to lose track of whether or not I am fighting or climbing a wall. The old habit of having some unique mechanic for each type of occurrence or situation provides a variation during play which can shake up the “mechanical monotony” more prevalent in modern systems.

12. Two other cool OSR things you should know about that I haven’t named yet: This one is a little odd for me to answer. The first, and possibly most important (in my view), is the lack of extreme action limitation in OSR games. When you played old versions of D&D, we could have your character make their series of actions, the character’s hirelings make their actions, the character’s animal friends could even make their actions, all without braking the rules or consuming each other’s actions. This is paramount “old school” ideology to me. The second, and possibly the most impactful to a game, is the fact that OSR products (maybe I should just state “old school” products) have elements that just are not fair. This to me is actually a good thing. Level drain, monsters potentially popping up far beyond a parties ability to deal, really bad attribute rolls, etc are all example of such “unfair” rules. The fact that such rules exist enhances the sense of believability in my opinion. Life itself is not fair, so why does modern roleplaying seek balance and fairness for all involved? That ideology tends to add to the sterile nature of many modern systems. I get the roleplaying is a game and that players can have a strange need to feel equal to the other players, but that ideology does not lend itself well to a great narrative. Some of the best roleplaying I have ever been part of was the work of the least capable character in the group. I have had “drop in” players take up the role of existing hirelings and add so much to the story as to have become indispensable to the game. Sometimes, a lack of “fair and balanced” can be the spark for great roleplaying as opposed to “roll-playing”.

13. If I could read but one other RPG blog but my own it would be: The only one I read with any regularity is ‘Olde House Rules’, mostly because it also pops up in my Facebook feed. The writer also avoids that element of pretension common in many gaming blogs (including my own).

14. A game thing I made that I like quite a lot is: I believe that would be Faerie Tales & Folklore, though I am not exactly sure if I am proud of it.

15. I’m currently running/playing: Continued play testing for Faerie Tales & Folklore, especially in what I have termed ‘The Great Campaign’. Set within the Mythological Earth, the campaign moves from Roman Britain to the borders of the Han Dynasty and many places in between. It is very loosely based on a series historical occurrences, with a lot of “what if” to stitch things together.

16. I don’t care whether you use ascending or descending AC because: Actually, I almost do care. Armor Class was brought from Chainmail and was originally ascending. Furthermore, armor class in Chainmail had a much more specific meaning then found in later versions of D&D. In Chainmail, armor class was specific to certain combinations of armor and shield. This allowed a more believable interaction between various weapons and armor.

17. The OSRest picture I could post on short notice: Too snarky?

Spontaneity & The Magical Arts

Magic is a strange beast, at once purposefully rooted in the unknown, yet used in fiction as a knowable science or art not to be confused with simple “deus ex mechina”. A great deal of fantasy literature, cinema, and games make use of some form of magic. In truth, even science fiction dabbles in the mystical arts from time to time. The concept of some supernatural force that is used to manipulate the world is likely as old as the imagination of our species. In this blog I shall discuss one of the more uncommon forms of magic that appears in the Mythological Earth. Specifically, I am going to offer some additional detail into the concept of spontaneous magic and how one can use that system to create nearly any magical effect one can dream up. (Continued below)

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The spontaneous magic system presented in Faerie Tales & Folklore is one of the more radical departures from the set of tropes loosely associated with D&D and the OSR. The original intent of this system, as stated on page 136 reads thusly:

“Spontaneous magic is usually reserved for the referee.” and “Rather then predefined spells, a caster constructs their spells on the fly.”

The hope was to create a relatively simple system of magic where the narrator or referee could easily create the sorts of magical effects that any given situation required. As play testing continued, it became clear that the system was enjoyed by the players as well, so I opened the idea up for everyone. But, what is spontaneous magic and how is the system used? What are its limitations and what exactly can be done with it?

Spontaneous magic is a system for creating something similar to spells as they are needed. Seeing that its original intent was to provide a method for narrators and referees to accomplish the types of magical effects they required to fill a variety of purposes, the system was required to be flexible and open. Like many of the subsystems in Faerie Tales & Folklore, spontaneous magic  has some purposefully blurry boundaries. This was an effort to allow the players (referee included) the ability to define its capabilities in a manner that fit their game without presenting limitations that might seem arbitrary and unessential. Spontaneous magic uses a simple template based system to create a magical effect by spending available complexity on the various elements of the effect being created (such as magnitude, range, area of effect, and duration). The actual process reads as such:

1. The magic-user or creature states the desire to invoke a magical effect at the beginning of the round, as well as a rough idea of the effect they seek.

2. The magic-user’s player roles a d20, adding their level and any complexity roll bonus to which they are entitled. Divide the total by 5 to provide the available level of complexity the caster can use to invoke the chosen effect.

3. The magic-user or creature then expends the available complexity on various portions of the spell’s effect, including its magnitude.

4. During the normal spell casting phase, the desired spell effect occurs in full.

Generally, a spontaneous effect is not going to keep pace with the power of a predefined spell, consider it the price of flexibility. However, what can be accomplished through the use of spontaneous magic is much more broad then the capabilities of a predefined spell. For an example of this degradation in over all power, let’s try and rebuild the “slumber” spell via spontaneous magic. First let us look at the basics of the existing spell.

Slumber: Complexity 1, Range 12″, Area/Number Affected 1d6 – 3d6, Effect: to place targets in a magical sleep.

Now let’s see how close we can get by building the spell through spontaneous magic. We should see an increase in the complexity over the predefined spell.

Range: 9″ has a complexity cost of 1 and 18″ has a cost of 2. Making 9″ at a complexity cost of 1 the closest (and we have already equaled the complexity of the spell “slumber”.

Area: a small group would suffice on the low end at a complexity cost of 1.

Duration: Instantaneous at a complexity cost of 0.

Effect: Cause a target to fall asleep (enchantment) at a complexity cost of 1.

Total complexity equals 3.

As predicted, trying to recreate the spell “slumber” through spontaneous magic brings the complexity of the spell to 3! This shows how relatively inefficient spontaneous magic can be when compared to predefined spells. Our slumber spell was 3x as complex as the original! However this inefficiency has the advantage of a highly level of flexibility. It is important to note that a spontaneous magic complexity roll works differently then complexity rolls for predefined spells. The slumber spell needs a roll of 6-12 to be cast next turn, as delayed complexity result requires a number of rounds to cast equal to the spells complexity, or 13+ to be cast immediately. The spontaneous version would require a roll of 15+ to enact the effect in any form. With this example we can see both how the system works, along with its advantages and disadvantages. (Continued below)

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Here are some other fun examples of what can be accomplished through the use of the spontaneous magic system (keeping in mind the final complexity cannot exceed 6):

Pranking Hex: The effect with this one is to cause some minor mishap to a target, such as a chair breaking when sat on or the target to trip. Effect: Cause a troublesome mishap, cost 1; Range of 9″, cost 1; Area of Effect: 1 target, cost 0; Duration: Instantaneous, cost 0; Final cost: 2. This one can just be fun for all the wrong reasons.

Restore Level: The effect is to restore a level that has been drained by a creature or other source. Effect: Restore a lost level, cost 4; Range of touch, cost 0; Area of Effect: 1 target, cost 0; Duration: Instantaneous, cost 0; Final cost: 4. One way to get those levels back.

Weaken the Veil: The effect is to increase the effective number of spirits in an area to make spell casting easier around common men. Effect and Magnitude: Increase the effect of high men, cost 2; Range of self, cost 0; Area of Effect (in this case to determine the new effective number of spirits in an area): 1 up to a full unit, cost is 0 to 2; Duration: 10 minutes to 1 hour, cost 1 or 2; Final cost: 3-6. This spontaneous effect is very handy for any practitioner of the magical arts.

As one can see, spontaneous magic may be used to create a wide range of magical effects with relative ease. These three spontaneous spells are but a tiny fraction of what can be accomplished with the system, a creative player is likely to come up with a great many more.

One of the issues that can be confusing to some players is that spontaneous magic is not limited by the effects listed on pages 141 to 145. The effects listed are intended to be a guideline for what one can accomplish through the use of spontaneous magic, and not a specific and exhaustive list of the exact effects available. I would encourage referees and players to be creative with their spontaneous magical effects, provided they do not step beyond the power levels suggested by the examples.

In many circumstances, a player character who utilizes spontaneous magic is limited to a relatively narrow group of effects, such as: weather based effects, fire based effects, or enchantments of the mind. This was done to provide players and referees the ability to exert some control over the use of the spontaneous magic system. However, most creatures do not possess this limitation in their stat blocks. The reason for this is to ensure that a referee can create the effects they need in a given situation without stepping outside the existing rules. Plus, knowing every trick a creature is capable of can lead to the players meta-gaming the solutions to dealing with a given creature.

One of the final uses of spontaneous magic within Faerie Tales & Folklore is to provide an easy method to create the types effects witnessed in wuxia novels and films. When used in this manner, the system is not actually creating effects that are magical but rather effects based on the vital energy of the user. All manner of effects from “dim mak” to the “five point palm exploding heart technique”, or even the “buddhist palm” can be easily manufactured. In fact, spontaneous spell creation can fill the need for all manner of such “advanced fighting techniques”, even those outside the eastern martial arts (though this is not explicitly stated in the core rules). Such uses of spontaneous magic are not affected by the dwindling magic of later eras. (Continued below)

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Magic is a near constant companion of mythology and fantasy fiction. Establishing a set of systems which aided in creating the variety of magic found across the myriad of source material was of utmost importance in making Faerie Tales & Folklore feel mythic. The spontaneous magic system was instrumental in this effort as it offered the level of flexibility referees need to create a sense of magic that is unknown and surprising to the other players. If allowed, it also provides players the ability to truly customize the magic of their characters. This offers players the option to have their characters perform feats of magic closer to what they imagine then simply using a list of predefined spells.

In creating a number of systems which feature a high level of flexibility and less defined borders, I hoped to keep the system of Faerie Tales & Folklore as malleable and open as possible. It can be a difficult thing to try and quantify the endless universe that is the imagination, but in some ways, that is exactly what the rules of a roleplaying game seek to do. These rules are vital to keeping the collective imaginative effort understandable to all involved without placing too many limits upon that imagination. With this goal in mind, I hope I have been successful.

Enjoy game night friends and remember, be creative with that fancy magic stuff! It keeps them guessing!

A License to be Extraordinary

There is a common trope in roleplaying games which often tries to define a beginning character as a nobody, an insignificant person within a great and wondrous world. This basic concept however is not born out by most of the cinematic or literary inspiration that draws people into the fantastic world of roleplaying. For characters who exist within the Mythological Earth, exceptional is often the point. In this blog, I am going to discuss the idea of exceptionalism from the perspective of a roleplaying setting and why I tend to urge such players to seek such exceptionalism should they choose.

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To begin, we should first look at a few popular protagonists from fiction and determine if they are indeed exceptional from the beginning, or if their “extra something” was found at a later point in the tale. This should provide a backdrop for the remainder of the article, while offering examples of the aforementioned exceptionalism. I will detail three heroes: one from cinema, from which I chose Luke Skywalker; one from literature, that being King Arthur Pendragon; and one from mythology, where Achilles seemed a fine choice.

Let us start with Achilles, the seemingly deathless war machine who nearly felled the lineage of Troy single-handedly. By looking at the beginning of the tale of Achilles, we see that he is no “regular guy”. His mother Thetis was a nereid, a type of oceanic nymph, and his father Peleus was the king of the Myrmidons. Alone, these two facts move Achilles far afield from the “regular guy” label and into the realm of “born this way”. As the tale goes, when Achilles was a small child, Thetis dipped him in the river Styx while holding him by his ankle. The river’s waters made young Achilles invulnerable everywhere save the place his mother held him, his heel. Thus, we can determine that Achilles is a high man with the “invulnerability” option (at least as far as Faerie Tales & Folklore is concerned). To be honest, this is as far as we need to go with this mythological figure. We have shown, by the myth’s own telling, that he was much more in the beginning then a mere ordinary man.

Now we shall look at Arthur Pendragon, King of Britain. This one is just as clear, as the man was born to be a king! He had the lifelong support of Myrddin, one of the most famed wizards in all of the world’s mythic traditions. Arthur carries the legendary sword Caledfwich, or Excalibur, which was alternatively either given to him by Nimue, AKA “The Lady of the Lake” or it was drawn by him from an anvil atop a rock. In the case of Arthur, his lineage and any potential otherworldly nature is a matter of debate, after all, he was taken to the land of Avalon upon his death– Which is not common for those without greater ties to the Otherworld and its inhabitants. It is known that he was born to be a king, and that he was watched over by the greatest of magic’s practitioners. This certainly marks The Once and Future King as something far beyond your “average joe”.

This brings us to Luke Skywalker, the greatest farm boy of recent fictional memory. Here again, Luke was the son of one of the greatest sorcerers of his era, that being Darth Vader. He was the direct descendent of a life brought into existence by magic itself (or the force, or midiclorians depending on your level of fandom) and was born with the possibility of even exceeding his father’s impressive abilities. Care was taken to make Luke’s beginnings seem humble, just as was done with Arthur above, but the truth is simple– Luke was never “just a farm boy” from a lawless desert planet (and no, Han was the only one who shoots). By the end of his arc, Luke could send a projection of himself clear across the universe to save his friends as he faced his failed student. By the rules of Faerie Tales & Folklore this puts the moisture farmer from Tatooine as a high man AND a magic-user, both of which are anything but normal.

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This penchant for fantastic beginnings is not limited to these figures either. Aragorn, as told of by Tolkien, was a member of a dying branch of people known as the Dúnedain who were blessed by the valar. Bilbo and Frodo were born with the ability to be ring bearers. Ulysses, of the Odysseia, was the grandson of Autolycus, son of Hermãhãs (the god). Paul Atreides, of Dune fame, was not only born the heir of a MAJOR noble house, but he was literally the culmination of a massive eugenics project intent on creating a superhuman of nearly godlike ability. Sétanta, or Cú Chulainn, was the son of, or an incarnation of, the god Lugh. Romulus and Remus were twin brothers raised by a she-wolf and born the sons of Mars. Even one of the oldest known tales, that of the hero Bilgamesh, tells the story of a man who possesses impossible strength. These tales merely scratch the surface of exceptionalism within the characters of our favored stories. In fact, a case could be made that a lack of an exceptional nature, in one form or another, is more rare in the fiction of our people then is its presence.

To support this ideology, Faerie Tales & Folklore encourages players to fill roles of epic heroes, otherworldly protagonists, and born kings of men. That is not to say that playing a character who came from nowhere is frowned upon, much to the contrary, it is simply important to recognize that exceptionalism is extremely common in the tales which our hobby draws from. As mentioned above, Achilles is a high man with the invulnerable option and the single class of fighting-man; Luke Skywalker would be a high man with a standard mutliclass of fighting-man and magic-user (same with Paul Atriedes); Arthur is a common or high man who’s class is fighting-man but is most importantly a noble; and Wayland, the smith, is a low man with the ability to enchant. By allowing players the freedom to be exceptional through their characters, they are allowed to tap into those very stories which inspired them.

Faerie Tales & Folklore is not built around the highly formulaic structure prevalent in many modern systems. The enemies players face are not likely to come at the characters in neatly packaged doses preselected specifically for a party’s level of experience. Myth, literature, and the cinema are never that fair, and for good reason. It is that sense of real danger, of real risk versus reward, that gives a good tale meaning. The same is true of roleplaying, without risk, the reward means little. This fact does not mean a player needs to be falsely limited to provide them a challenge. A king can be challenged by his people or his neighbors; a great warrior by evermore powerful creatures or larger armies; a magic-user might be under near constant assail from both supernatural forces and terrestrial prejudice; and a sneak-thief might always be tormented by the law, or their own insatiable greed. Any character will face serious challenges within the Mythological Earth, provided the narrator or referee has created such challenges for their players. For this reason it is important for the players to ensure that the referee has a clear understanding of who their characters are and the extent of their capabilities. This helps ensure that the referee can create an experience that is enjoyable for the whole group.

One way I have come to view the class/level structure of games based around D&D, is to consider it a form of destiny. For such purposes consider the abilities the character will possess at their highest level as the hallmarks of their eventual fate should they survive.

Example: A common man who has the class of fighting-man and took the background of landed noble could be seen as having the destiny of “Chosen by the ancestors to become a great hero, then lead his people in their struggle for independence, and eventually become their king.”

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Everything named in that character’s “destiny” is a perfect explanation of the abilities that character gains as their level increases. Thus, class can easily be seen as a measure of some portion of the character’s destiny. In this way, only the character’s of each player and the actual villains of the narrative have a destiny, as class becomes an easy way to quantify the future. By using class as a form of destiny, the idea of exceptionalism is further reinforced, including a sense of exceptionalism in the villain. The players and their characters can be seen as influential actors in important moments of history, they might still be essentially nobodies, but they are one’s writing the tale as it happens and that makes them something more– That makes them legends.

The Mythological Earth, as presented in Faerie Tales & Folklore, is not a game about the farmer who’s lands were burned by a warlord. It is the game about those who rise up to challenge that warlord. It is a game about those who do not hide from the dark, rather those who seek out what goes bump in that dark. These are not often “regular” people, but heroes, anti-heroes, and simply those who fancy themselves fit for a some grand purpose. This is, after all, what adventures and heroes do, they seek out their destiny and those tenacious enough to see their destiny through to its end become immortalized in myth, story, and tale.

Enjoy your time at the game table friends–

The Art of War, Part II (The Business End)

This is the second part of a two piece article on combat within Faerie Tales & Folklore.

A fight can seem like such a simple thing, find two or more individuals who are feeling a bit antagonistic and place them in close proximity. From this point however, the whole process becomes MUCH more complicated. There are questions of how and with what; of defense and tactics; and the list could go on. It might be this complex nature of combat that fascinates and terrifies us in equal measure. Perhaps it is the voyeuristic nature of roleplaying which feeds this fascination and abates the terror of violence, encouraging us to explore its most severe manifestations with the vim and vigor only fantasy can provide. In this blog, the second in a two part series, I aim to offer additional detail on arms and armor as they are represented in the Mythological Earth. Specifically, I will be shedding some light on a few of the uncommon mechanics used to define arms and armor within the system, along with a bit of detail on the various combat subsystems themselves. (Continued below)

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I will first delve into armor and armor class as they segue well from the discussion on hits and death. Armor, in its various forms, is handled by way of a familiar term “armor class” as well as the value attached to that term. However, armor class in Faerie Tales & Folklore has a more defined meaning then many games that make use the statistic. Each armor class value represents a specific combination of armor type and the presence, or lack, of a shield. These values are as follows:

  1. Clothing only
  2. Leather or gambeson
  3. Clothing and a shield
  4. Leather or gambeson and a shield
  5. Banded or mail
  6. Banded or mail and a shield
  7. Plate
  8. Plate and a shield.

This use of a specific value allows the different armor and shield combinations to have different defensive capabilities against different types of weapons. Any bonus or penalty to armor class (or defense, as such modifiers are often termed) is used to modify the roll and does not change armor class. By keeping armor class a static value that is directly related to the protection worn, the differences in protection from armor type to armor type are easily maintained. This method of handling armor class allows arms and armor to interact in a much more realistic way.

Melee weaponry within Faerie Tales & Folklore makes use of a statistic called “Weapon Class” to distill a wide array of weapon data into a single value. Weapon class might be seen as a measure of size, but it is really much more. A weapon’s class is a specific value that corresponds to a tight array of similar weapons: hand axes, swords, spears, etc. This value encompasses such things as: length, speed, lethal area, and the ability to penetrate various armors. A weapon with a higher class is bigger, more cumbersome, and generally more likely to score a hit against heavier armor. By contrast, a weapon with a lower class is lighter, shorter, and more easily manipulated, but is often not as lethal against heavier armor. The various weapon classes are as follows.

  1. Daggers
  2. Hand axes
  3. Maces
  4. Swords
  5. Battle Axes
  6. Spiked Clubs
  7. Flails
  8. Spears
  9. Pole Arms
  10. Great Swords
  11. Lances
  12. Pikes

These classes, ordered by numeric value, can offer more information then one might first assume. Weapon class serves as the direct counterpoint for armor class and the two provide a level of interaction not commonly found in other d20 based systems, with the possible exception of AD&D (if all of the printed facets of a weapon are used). Each weapon class has a different set of odds to score a hit against each of the armor classes, thus more effectively mirroring the capabilities of real world weapons and armor. The class of a weapon also influences how rapidly the weapon strikes, the effectiveness of a weapon when parrying the attacks of others, as well as who strikes first during any given round (these effects are detailed on pages 339 through 340). With this system, it is a good idea to carry a few different weapons to ensure one’s combat readiness for a multitude of scenarios, as any good warrior of history would have done.

There are two elements which can apply to any melee weapon that are not covered by the weapon’s class, the number of hands required to use the weapon and weather or not it may be thrown. A weapon that requires two-hands to use, or offers the ability to be used two-handed, is especially deadly to unarmored and lightly armored targets. Such weapons score automatic critical hits against any target who has an armor class of 1 or 2. The benefit of a thrown weapon should be relatively self-explanatory, which brings us to the discussion of missile weapons. (Continued below)

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There are a few aspects of missile combat that are handled differently in Faerie Tales & Folklore. One of the most important is the idea of direct and indirect attacks. If a missile weapon makes a direct attack, the projectile follows almost no arc in its flight to the target and arrives with most of its velocity intact. An indirect attack is made with a noticeable arc of travel, enough to pass over intervening objects and people. Such attacks generally arrive with a reduced velocity and thus have less penetration. All missile weapons that utilize force generated by the user automatically make indirect attacks  once they exceed half of their maximum range. This makes most missile weapons perform in a manner more consistent with their use in the real world. Another important difference about missile attacks is that they are resolved during two phases of the combat round, the half-move and just before melee. Thus, one may make both melee and missile strikes in the same round.

The primary combat mechanic in Faerie Tales & Folklore is built around the idea of gaining more chances to make a combat roll instead of adding ever larger bonuses to increase the odds of a single die roll succeeding. It is a good idea to remember that each combat roll does not have to be seen as a separate attack, from a narrative perspective. In fact, it might be better to think of the results of a character’s combat rolls as a measure of offensive output during a given round, rather then a specific number of attacks. Faerie Tales & Folklore does offer a few bonuses that may be added to a combat roll, but it is through the addition of more combat rolls that a character or creature truly becomes a better combatant. This central premise in the game’s mechanics separates it from any of its peers who use variations of the “Alternative Combat System” original found in OD&D. Though it can take some getting used to, the system is not difficult once understood. The fact that a sword always requires a modified roll of 13+ to succeed against a target wearing mail armor (as an example), makes it easier to remember the various values as they do not change.

Faerie Tales & Folklore commonly makes use of two other variations of the combat system. One for large scale engagements or wars, and the other for combating mythic creatures. In both variations, the exact equipment used by the attacker and defender has less meaning then in single combat. In large engagements, combatants fight as their troop type and when engaged in mythic combat, only the mythic value is followed (hero, great hero, wizard, spirits, etc). Any bonus a character or creature adds from magic, attributes, item quality, etc is retained in mythic combat but not during large scale engagements (unless the character is choosing to act independently). However, neither of these two forms of combat focus as closely on the interaction between various armor types and attacks from various weapon types as single combat. In a way, a large scale engagement is a bit like pulling the focus back from the scene a bit to increase the amount caught in the frame. You can see more of the scene, but at the sacrifice of detail.

Mythic combat, like simultaneous hits, marks a major milestone in the evolution of any character. If a character has a magical weapon, as well as the ability to engage in mythic combat, there is little they cannot confront in direct battle. Mythic combat is intended to be more of a measure of skill and heroism then superiority of arms and armor. Though gear has little effect on mythic combat, bonuses from magic, quality of equipment, exceptional attributes, etc are all still utilized. By keeping mythic combat somewhat separate from the other variations of the combat mechanic, the paradigm is allowed to shift between the practical issues of equipment and into the less quantifiable issues of bravery, skill, and possible supernatural ability. Thus, a battle against a mythic creature is not won by way of gear, but rather the truly heroic nature of the character involved.

When learning any new system, I recommend that players and referees not concern themselves with all the details of the rules to start. Learn enough to play a game and bring in more of the rules as they come up. This is especially useful with most combat systems used by roleplaying games, Faerie Tales & Folklore being no exception. Learn how to make a combat roll and when to add more; get an understanding of the combat tables and when to use each; and learn the order of a round. Once the basics have been understood, start exploring the rules for critical hits, called shots, unarmed combat, duels, etc. Explore new rules as the situations they govern arise, thus allowing a more organic discovery process. For many, myself included, this is often an easier way to learn the intricacies of a new system. This method can, and likely should, be extend beyond just learning about combat. To this end, the table of contents for “A Roleplayer’s Guide to the Mythological Earth” uses the asterisks (*) to indicate the rules and sections to read first. Following this suggestion should aid in understanding the rules while preventing them from becoming overwhelming for the new reader. (Continued below)

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The central premise of the systems which govern combat within Faerie Tales & Folklore was to try and find a balance between simulation and abstraction. The goal was to offer what I call “efficient detail”, or a level of detail that does not unduly detract from game play, yet provides enough information to ease the visualization of the battle at hand. An overzealous attention to detail can quickly cause a system to “bog down”, too little detail and combat quickly becomes completely uninteresting. All roleplaying games seek to find a balance to this equation and I can only hope I that my efforts find an audience beyond my own. There is much more to combat in Faerie Tales & Folklore, from terrain and other environmental conditions to movement and formation, there are even subsystems for dueling, jousting, unarmed combat and grappling, but these are topics for another blog. My desire with this article was to detail the interactions between armor and weapon. To that end, I hope I have had some success.

Enjoy your time at the game table friends and remember, an intelligent warrior has a better chance to become an old warrior…

The Art of War, Part I (Pain Hurts)

This is the first of a two part blog detailing the peculiarities of combat within the Mythological Earth.

Combat, as outlined in the rules of Faerie Tales & Folklore, is nasty business and death is always a possibility (if not likely). In truth however, violence REALLY is nasty business and death really is an ever present possibility. The consequences of violence are not confined to death or dismemberment, but also infection, healing, and the difficulties of acting while wounded. In this blog, I am going to examine the deadly nature of combat in the Mythological Earth and how this danger is mitigated in ways that are meaningful to the story. (Continued Below)

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I would like to open with the most basic measure of violence, the hit. Unlike most other OSR titles, Faerie Tales & Folklore uses the “hit” as a measure of what keeps a character, or creature, conscious rather then the more common hit points. “A Roleplayer’s Guide to the Mythological Earth” defines a hit thus:

“In the most simplistic terms, a hit is considered to be a fatal blow in a man-sized creature.”

This paints a clear picture of what a hit actually is, a fatal blow, and frames it within the context of a man-sized creature. Most creatures and characters either have, or begin with a single hit. One hit, by anyone or anything, and they face the throws of a death spiral. Characters gain more hits as they gain levels, and many creatures begin with more, but a hit none-the-less indicates no “mere flesh wound”.

In Faerie Tales & Folklore there are two types of hits, cumulative and simultaneous. Most creatures and characters have cumulative hits, which accumulate without healing in a manner similar to hit points. Simultaneous hits are possessed by higher level characters and creatures of great power. These hits are replenished after each set of turns (a round) and thus require such characters or creatures to by depleted of all their hits in in single round. For characters, hits switch from cumulative to simultaneous after a level specified by their class (4th for fighting-men or 8th for magic-users and sneak-thieves). This jump to simultaneous hits is usually preceded by the ability to engage in mythic combat one level earlier (listed in the level benefits as “hero -1”). This step in character advancement is important, allowing players to engage creatures of much greater power, while acting as a deterrent for lesser characters.

Beyond the separation of cumulative and simultaneous hits, Faerie Tales & Folklore uses a mechanic called the “hit penalty” to simulate the impairment of serious wounds. Each hit a character or creature takes adds another point of hit penalty, and each point of hit penalty applies that penalty to all d20 rolls made by that character or creature. Unlike hits, hit penalty is not removed each round for those with simultaneous hits. Hit penalty can lead to creatures being pummeled into ineffectuality by stalwart adventurers. Even though it is not specifically stated in the rules, a creature or character who has acquired a hit penalty of 20 has most likely been rendered useless, but not dead or unconscious. Hit penalty, once accrued, can only be removed with time and healing.

This brings us to the save or die roll. This mechanic was created to uphold the “single arrow fells the great dragon” trope common in literature and film, while also providing a way to avoid such a fate. The war game used as inspiration for many of Faerie Tales & Folklore’s mechanics contained many ways for even multi-hit characters to be killed with but a single die roll. Though this concept works fine for a war game, it can cause issues in games where the story is central. The save or die roll is simple, you are allowed a number of saves equal to your remaining hits, each failed save results in a lost hit, and a successful save stops the series of the saves.

Example: A character with 4 hits and a constitution of 10 is hit with a critical strike. The character rolls save #1 (of 4) and the result is a 12, thus causing a loss of a hit and forcing the next roll. Roll #2 (of 4) results in a 15, causing the loss of a second hit and forcing the next roll. Role #3 (of 4) results in 9, a success and ending this save or die roll with the loss of 2 hits and 2 points being added to hit penalty.

There are many causes of save or die rolls in the Mythological Earth, though the most common is the ever present 5% chance of a critical hit (as shown in the example above). A critical hit, scored by any combat roll that results in a natural 20, triggers a save or die roll using the constitution attribute for the save. Poison, spells, and using two handed weapons against lightly armored targets are other example sources of save or die rolls. This mechanic is useful in both maintaining the highly dangerous feel of combat, even as the players acquire more hits, and protecting important creatures and characters from some measure of bad luck. (Continued below)

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Healing is problematic within the Mythological Earth, and we wont even get into the chance of infection (rule hidden on page 278). Without any form of aid, the process can be inconsistent at best and even with aid, it is slow. Magical healing, even by way of potion, cannot be used regularly enough to radically alter this issue. Furthermore, hits must be healed before hit penalty, thus extended the effects of that penalty. Players are likely to come to the understanding that being injured is not easily remedied and that major injuries can force a character to be out of action for a while. This alone can be a good reason for a player to bring along hirelings, as they can offer something to do if the their primary character is presently out of commission.

At this point, it should be clear that getting in a dust up while adventuring in within the Mythological Earth can be quite dangerous. In fact, it would be wise for players to keep in mind that any engagement, or hit, can be fatal. This sense of danger is intended to provide more meaningful combat by creating a greater sense uncertainty and tension during any given battle. This uncertainty should (and I stress SHOULD) provide players with cause to seek other solutions to problems then violence, though violence cannot always be avoided. So what possibilities exist to mitigate the deadly nature of combat within the Mythological Earth? Beyond the classics of raise dead, reincarnate, etc there are two, maiming and plot armor. Both of these options can be used to the benefit of the ongoing narrative when a death might otherwise complicate the story.

Maiming is the more grotesque method of avoiding a death, and the option I encourage using when a player is facing death more from poor choices then bad dice rolls. Using this option almost irrevocably changes a character, providing a nagging and constant reminder of the misadventure that led to the injury. Even still, this presents an option to death that can benefit a strong narrative rather then destroy it. Such characters are often forced to rise beyond their handicaps to become even greater then they were before the event. The myths of Tyr and Nuada Airgetlám are examples of such injury.

Plot armor is gained through good roleplaying, the use of virtues and vices, along with one’s introduction line. At the end of a session, players can award other players story benefits for roleplaying their dramatis personae, or character, well. One of the uses of such story benefits is to buy an instance of “plot armor” to avoid a death. I tend to prefer using the plot armor option in situations where the character is facing death by way of chance rather then poor choices. This option leaves a character in a death spiral (so death may yet occur) but alive.

Story benefits and plot armor can be also be used to encourage a player to act more like the character they intended to play. Even when a course of action might not be in the characters best interest. In this situation, it is not the players poor choices that has the character facing death, but who the character actually is– That makes for good storytelling and should be rewarded.

Example: A player has created a fighting-man who has the berserkr ability and the vice “I react violently when taunted or slandered”. This character is insulted at a mead hall, he attacks the man insulting him (not knowing the man is a great hero). In the ensuing fight, the player’s character receives a mortal wound from a save or die roll, which allows no death spiral. However, since the player was fond of playing the character as reckless as he was written, the player had a story benefit available (from the last time he charged a slanderous tongue). Using this benefit to buy plot armor, the character instead entered the throws of a death spiral and slowly recovered after the great hero afforded him a bit of mercy by not finishing him off. Thus, the very thing that kept this character alive was the continued poor choice of attacking people who insult him.

The idea of “plot armor” is intended to keep important characters alive after a run of bad luck (or good roleplaying) in order to prevent the loss of a good storyline. Plot armor can only be gained through story benefits however, so a player needs to earn them before this option may be used. Even then, this use of a story benefit can only be done once per month of game time. This option fills a great many classic narrative tropes, from the classic “Oh no! Our hero is mortally wounded! Tune in next week!” to the death and rebirth cycles found within the hero’s journey. Since recovering from such an injury “in-game” takes time, this option offers a great opportunity to “reinvent” a character to keep them fresh. Change a virtue, or vice; alter their introduction line; etc allowing a character to organically evolve from a serious defeat can sometimes reinvigorate a player’s interest in that character.

The two options presented above offer interesting ways to handle an unexpectedly deadly fight. These options should not end up being a regular rescue from poor choices though, hence their limitations. Both options aid in the mitigation of an extremely deadly combat system in ways that are beneficial to the story. Most importantly, these options do not seriously detract from the danger of violence in the Mythological Earth. Each of the aforementioned facets of how violence is handled in Faerie Tales & Folklore adds to the gritty nature of the game. The looming shadow of death keeps the game tense and the outcome of combat uncertain. It is through these simple game mechanics that I hoped to provide combat with what I viewed as an efficient level of detail.

Narrators should come to understand the deadly nature of the Mythological Earth and have the creatures and characters under their control act accordingly. Most creatures are not going to fight to the death when an escape route is available. Creatures and characters with magical abilities are likely to bring the full weight of those to bear in an attempt to stay alive. Enemies will run, hide, fight dirty and otherwise “do what it takes” to survive, and it is advised that players take a similar approach (unless prohibited by the previously mentioned “good roleplaying”). To be clear, the quick and deadly nature of combat should be mirrored in how the narrator approaches the actions of the creatures and characters they control. Half of the battle against “murder hobos” is not providing the setting where being a murder hobo works. When a party has to deal with enemies who surrender, run, or otherwise break the mold of “fight and die”, that party is likely to face more complex and morally difficult scenarios then the classic “hunt monster, kill monster, collect the monster’s loot, rinse and repeat”.

It has been my intention to offer some insight into why the combat system in Faerie Tales & Folklore works the way it does. I hoped to shed some light on some of the underlying mechanics I needed to create while moving ideas from a war game into a more narrative format. In the end, my desire was to reinforce the savage and unpredictable nature of violent encounters, while providing mechanics that encouraged more realistic behavior from the inhabitants of the Mythological Earth. My success is likely a matter of both opinion and debate but I have found the results enjoyable, I hope others do as well.

Enjoy your time at the game table friends, and remember… Pain hurts.

Cultivating a Narrative

The act of roleplaying is, in its most basic sense, a form of highly structured cooperative narration. As it was first described to me, when I was eight years old, “Roleplaying is like reading a book, except you decide the ending”. I must admit, that was a mind blowing idea to grasp at that age. Suffice it to say, I was hooked from the moment I heard those words. In time however, I found that this wondrous idea came with an often overlooked responsibility, that each player should be an active participant in creating the narrative they hope to experience. In practice, I have seen this simple idea often get left behind in a pile of books, between the cracks of rules, and hidden behind the disillusionment of not having things go as each player might hope. In this blog I will discuss the idea of establishing a narrative and how a group can foster narrative participation, as well as how everybody at the game table has a central role in maintaining their portion of the storytelling experience. I will also be quickly detailing how Faerie Tales & Folklore encourages different narrative view points across many of its fundamental rules. (Continue below)

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To begin this article I will briefly cover an opposing view point. Not all roleplaying must be of a highly narrative nature. In fact, there are many instances where an abundance of storytelling becomes cumbersome to the main objectives of a session. To this end, a large number of roleplaying games include rule systems (such as sandboxing, or massive military engagements) where an ongoing narrative is secondary to other elements, such as strategy or tactics. Faerie Tales & Folklore is no exception to this, as its rules include many systems that have little or no impact upon the act of storytelling. If this is the form of gaming you enjoy, I would still suggest finding ways to add some narrative flavor to your repertoire. Even in small doses, such additions can add a lot of enjoyment to the experience.

Now, let us focus on the idea of narrative responsibility. What is it, and why should I be responsible for such a thing when I am trying to enjoy myself? Narrative responsibility is the understanding that each player has a portion to play in an ongoing narrative outside simply utilizing their characters abilities to accomplish goals. To put this in more plain terms, a player better serves the narrative by saying “I take after my foe with unbridled fury” (yes, voiced in a strange, poorly intoned accent) then “I attack the lead knight”. By the same measure, a narrator would do better to say “As your company of men makes slow progress through the narrow corridors of the ancient catacombs” (to the sound of prerecorded wind and dripping water) then “You continue down the corridor”. This might seem  a “no brainer” when read in private, though the reality of many of gaming tables has more in common with the later of each example then the former. In defense of most narrators, I must say that this issue is much more commonly seen among players. A narrator tends to find themselves at least partially forced to create some interest in a descriptive, or they face the possibility of rapidly disinterested players.

Let us focus on the player for a moment. When assuming the role of a player, as opposed to a narrator, in a tabletop roleplaying game, it can be easy to fall into a reactionary role of almost unconscious call and response. In this situation, a narrator describes what is happening and the player simply blurts out one of many canned responses: “I attack X”, or “I make a skill check against attribute X”, or even the ever droll “I am doing the same thing as (player X)”. These responses add little to the narrative and exist as little more then button pushes on a game pad. It can be common for players to feel at least partially clipped in their ability to narrate their character’s actions as they would imagine them. This is partially due to the emphasis placed upon a game’s rules, especially the scaling of power, and each player should find their own ways to deal with this issue. It is also partially due to the fact that narration is commonly seen as the duty of the narrator, or the DM/GM. In truth however, it is as much a players responsibility to narrate as it is the narrator. The narrator of a game is responsible for everything BUT the characters played by other members of a gaming group. Thus, narrating your character and their actions IS your responsibility, should you choose to undertake it. By this same measure, if a player feels trapped by a game’s rules,  a narrator’s control, or an unsupportive gaming environment, they are more likely to bottle up and offer less of themselves to the ongoing narrative. When that occurs, everyone at the game table loses.

One might ask “What happens when the mechanics of the game or the dice themselves do not uphold the desired narrative?” The answer to this is simple and well documented in literature and other media… Humor, often accompanied by some measure of tragedy. Think of the film version of “The Lord of the Rings”. In a well known scene, Gimli brags about his senses before being completely and utterly surprised by Haldir of Lórien and his wardens. This is a fine example of one’s initial narrative not working out the way it was imagined. The resulting scene was a humorous dispersion of tension that could have otherwise taken the encounter in a decidedly more unfortunate direction. If a player is encouraged to become more active in their character’s narrative portrayal, it is often beneficial to the process of collective storytelling. Being prepared for those moments when the dice, or the games rules, do not support the imagination is just part of the game. Such moments occur more often then we hope in any game or tale, but without failure or risk, any rewards would be meaningless. Yes, characters die, sometimes the bad guys win but it is not the end of the world and there are always more tales to tell.

During the design process of Faerie Tales & Folklore, I did my best to keep the narrative element “always within sight”. It spawned such previously discussed ideas as the introduction line, as well as virtues, vices, and the benefits they can grant. This focus on the narrative can be seen in more subtle places as well. When explaining hits, the game leaves it up to the player or narrator to define how multiple hits manifest within the game. They could simply be a numerical quantification of how tough that character actually is; they could reference a character’s ability to “roll with blows” thus reducing their effectiveness; or they might represent some otherworldly force that binds the characters body together in a manner beyond that of mortal men. Each of these is a plausible explanation of one’s ability to persevere over mortal injury, but each has a very different narrative feel. In the explanation of how to handle multiple combat rolls, the game allows players to decide if multiple combat rolls that hit a single target are indeed separate blows, or if they amount to a single, more significant blow. This may seem almost a pointless distinction, but from a narrative point of view, it is extremely important. What might be a standard turn of “I use all of my combat rolls to attack the boss.” might become, “I pounce upon the enemy commander, raining a furious torrent blows upon him from every direction!”. Or, if told by another character who intends to mount a single massive attack, “With my great spear leveled, I summon the strength of four men and charge the leader of my foes. No shield nor mail shall see me denied!”

This narrative flexibility gives both players and narrators a broad range of tools that can be used to better tell their portion of the tale. As with any tool though, they must be used and used effectively. There are many ways to encourage narrative responsibility among players and there are many rules that encourage the same. However, the best tool for this purpose is the creation of an environment that encourages players to take an active role in the ongoing narrative. If the environment is supportive and open, the players are more likely to begin participating as actors within a tale then bean counters at a board meeting for an insurance company. The narrator should reward active participation of the players by working with them to see their desires realized over time. Players should reward the good storytelling of the narrator by playing along with the tale that is being told. Unlike many types of game, nobody at the table is in direct opposition with anyone else, not even the narrator. Everyone is at the table with the primary purpose of enjoying themselves, the more this is understood by all involved, the more likely the group is to foster such an environment on game night. (Continued below)

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Below is a list of ten suggestions to help foster a positive gaming environment. Each suggestion includes a brief explanation why it is important. These are not intended as commandments nor rules, just ideas that can keep game night fun for everyone.

1. Remember, this is a game and everyone at the table is there to have fun.

This one is simple, though some find it the easiest to forget.

2. Everyone at the table should be treated with respect.

This is not some overly PC suggestion, this is just common courtesy for the benefit of a social game.

3. The player should seek to cooperate with the tale being told by the narrator and as such, the narrator should not break the trust of the players.

The narrator has often worked hard to present a particular story for the group, so go with it. Narrators, if you ask for the trust of your players in going along with your story, do not break that trust by forcing the players to do things they, or more importantly, their characters would not do.

4. Establish and respect an order of turns, but defer to the narrator if they wish to speak.

If a roleplaying session is allowed to devolve into social jockeying, it can cause many players to become less interactive. With a group of highly aggressive players, the idea of a “talking stick” can improve the sense of order.

5. Keep the narrative within the predefined confines of setting and scope. Do not use your personal additions to a narrative as a method to circumvent these confines.

This one might seem obvious, but it does no good to imagine the acts of Superman when the role your playing a peasant.

6. Avoid conflicts with other players, including the narrator. Try to find less confrontational ways to settle any disputes that arise.

Conflict within a narrative is perfectly acceptable and sometimes central to the story being told. However, conflict between the players themselves and/or with the narrator can truly poison the environment of a game table.

7. Listen to the narrative effort put forth by everyone at the table. Try to incorporate the narration of other players, and the narrator, into your own.

This is a powerful method to encourage narrative participation. Listen to the ideas put forth by other players and/or the narrator and do your best to incorporate these into the narrative bits you add. This single idea can really help to pull the shy, or less confident, player into the game in a low pressure way.

8. Respect the narrative being created and attempt to work within that narrative to the best of your abilities.

Though similar to #5, this suggestion is based more around a player or narrators attitude about the narrative being created. Scoffing at the narrative, or using your narrative time to mock the current story is truly disruptive and counter-productive. If you are that unhappy with the games direction, perhaps the current game is not for you.

9. Respect the rules of the game, but do not use those rules as a method to destroy the fun of others.

Though the rules of the game exist for very important reasons, these rules should not be used to stifle the enjoyment of the other players, including the narrator. A player who creates a character that cannot be beaten is no more beneficial to the group then a narrator who is unnecessarily brutal.

10. Be the player you would enjoy playing with or the narrator you always wished you had.

Yes, a modification of a Gandhi quote that non-the-less is poignant at the game table.

Many of these suggestions may seem to be common sense, yet they bear repeating. When the players heed these suggestions, not only is the game likely to go smoothly, but those involved are more likely take an active role.

Of course, there are the war gamers. For you guys, just have it off already! Swear, curse, and otherwise carry on like grumpy grognards having the time of your lives. We know why you’re here… “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women.”

Yes… A good tactical victory over your gaming friend down the street is fiendishly satisfying. I get it, so does Faerie Tales & Folklore… Just set the field of battle and get on with the war gaming!

For those here to tell tales however, it becomes part of everyone’s responsibility to create the environment that encourages good narrative, and thus good gaming. The habits that help to ensure this are not often as clear to some as to others, and players should seek to encourage the success of their follows and their narrator. This brings me full circle, back to that first day roleplaying and to the friend who introduced me to the hobby. He said one other important thing that day, “There are no winners in this game, and no losers.” It was in those words that I came to understand the most important part of why we enjoy this hobby, having a good time with friends.

Within this wordy diatribe, I hope some might find a bit of wisdom and maybe even a few ideas on how to elevate game night into something truly epic. These days, it might seem that everything entails some conflict, and that might be true, but let us not forget that roleplaying is a social activity… One that is often best experienced when the conflict unfolds through the narrative and not between the players.

When you next sit down at your own game table, take a good look at those you have gathered about you and ask yourself what you can do to create an environment that fosters a greater sense narrative interaction. Be that player you would like to play along side, or become the narrator you wished you had. Somewhere in this process, you will be creating a better game and a better experience for everyone. Enjoy game night friends…