Religion in Fantasy Settings

Dec 12, 2009

Religion has been a significant factor within world history. Yet, within the campaigns I have run, it has never played a significant role. Speaking with Kevin, his experiences are the same. Perhaps its the unconscious playing to politically correct times. I’m going to call it a failure on my part to not exploit this obvious gaming opportunity..

Religious aspects are prevalent in most fantasy games. D&D provides a whole host of gods for characters to worship. Yet, you never see that worship carried over into supplements discussing religious differences or wars. Human history is mostly religious wars. Extreme, unconscionable acts have been undertaken in the name of religion. Warranted or not, they transformed us into the society we are today.

Religious differences are taboo. Modern society doesn’t want to consider them, let alone actually discuss them. Putting religion into the forefront of a game is going to be difficult. Yet, it has significant playability.

Consider the Crusades. Consider the American West when religions strove to convert the American Indians. Consider the modern missions to convert tribes in 3rd world countries to a specific religion. I find it all every strange but religious fervor can do that.

It is a Taboo topic. No one one wants to discuss it. Yet, people show up on my doorstep every few weeks trying to ply a variation of religion on me. In a fantasy environment, they would show up and mandate I change. Accept the Lord’s (of the realm) religion or be cast out.

Given the host of gods in most settings, religion is treated as accepting them all. I find that unlikely. Every small village will have a focus on a particular goddess. Expounding her over every other god.

Where are the cults, the religious extremists, the missionaries trying to convert people? How are the Clerics and Paladins of those faiths not trying to do what modern day bicycle riding missionaries doing? Where is the backlash when those gods fail?

As Kevin stated, why are there not lynchings of wizards. If a relatively modern society can lynch people for being suspected of wizardry, medieval ones would jump on it. Crops go wrong? Drought? Whatever it is the local mage or someone passing through would get blamed and probably burned.

I find the topic fascinating because I’ve never considered it within a game. Have you played religion at the extremes?

Dare I ask, what do you really want to play?

Dec 9, 2009

Twice annually, a small number of us gather for what we dub Convergence. Convergence is a long weekend where we gather at in a central location and game for as many hours as we can fit into the weekend. The first one was pretty ad-hoc. Other than a plan for when and where, none of us formulated a plan for the actual games to be played.

The second attempt was more organized. Instead of Friday night & Saturday, we arrived on Thursday night to have an additional full day. We had a plan for who was running and what system it was. A little forethought let us skip character generation to maximize on the on-site gaming time. In the end we ended up playing one of the pre-planned games and an ad-hoc short session of another game. The end result was far more enjoyable than the first attempt.

During a phone conversation, Kevin stated it would be far better to ask the players who and what they want to play rather than selecting a system by the GM based upon what he wants to run. It makes complete sense. The number of players outnumber the singular GM. Maximizing enjoyment for the majority should always be a priority. After all, when players have interest in the game, it ends up being a better session/campaign and gives each of them the opportunity to toss in some Rule of Cool.

So we’re going to pose the question to everyone planning to attend in the spring. What do you want to play? It won’t be quite that simple. Instead, I’ll be reaching back into a very introspective era when Kevin and I were actively debating the pros and cons of gaming systems, rules, settings and most importantly role playing.

  1. Considering all the characters you have played over your gaming career, can you identify a specific one who didn’t reach the potential you envisioned? Or has there been a persona you’ve always wanted to play but have never quite had the opportunity?
  2. With that character in mind, what is the ideal scenario, setting, or campaign that would fit the goals and motivations you have envisioned? What did you want to endeavour but didn’t get the chance to undertake? What would fulfil the character concept?

Note the absence of a rule system. Rule systems are just a framework we play by. Someone responding with a rule system didn’t really consider the question. Certainly, rules are useful and necessary in the majority of situations. Rules are also a barrier. A barrier most never recognize. Fewer still can play without rules. Pure enjoyment is achieved when player’s don’t ask how to use a die to achieve something. They act, you interpret, and it just keeps flowing. Dice are nice when you need to add the risk of failure but they are not an absolute necessity.

If everyone would start with an real idea of who the character is rather than what it can do based on rules and stats, gaming sessions would be a lot more fun. Ask to play outside of the box. If you hand a GM a character with a rich background and balanced capabilities, asking for a power outside the norm will not be a stretch..

Instead, everyone starts it with “I have stats of X, Y, Z…and P, D, Q” … uhh, guess I’ll play this template because it fits my rolls. The rules just quashed another great character based on dice. At least it could have been a great character. GMs can make template characters come to life but doing so is the exception, not the rule.

Personally, the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had gaming were when the G in RPG was an afterthought. All the play was dominated by goal driven role play not by fighting a battle with a foe. Defeating an opponent doesn’t always need to take the form of combat.

I have faith there are many other DMs and players like us. I haven’t yet identified the persona I most want to play in the spring But I’m working on it.

Tickle your imagination… Who, where, what and why would you choose?

Meandering Maps: Software & Simple Places

Dec 6, 2009
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I’m prone to rambling.  For mapping, I’ve chosen instead to partake in meandering.   If I have an artistic bone in my body, I have yet to find it.  Colors, textures, and visual layouts are not my forte but I still like to sketch maps on occasion.   Maps have a way of getting the creative juices flowing.   Each one helps me tie a random thought to something slightly more concrete and possibly organized.

Most of my maps are hand sketches, crudely done with pencil and perhaps a ruler.   Sometimes its nice to have a bit of color and have them natively digital.   So just for a change a pace and to get me back in the spirit of fantasy settings, I’ve been sketching maps, pondering places, and just imagining settings.     On a whim, I went to check out Profantasy’s Campaign Cartographer.   To the best of my recollection, the last time I used it was around the turn of the century.   Same general product but several new plugins are available from when I last looked.   Also, it got a lot cheaper at $45 vs. nearly double that I originally recall.  For the non-UK folks, keep in mind the native transaction is in British pounds so you’ll likely be charged an additional fee by your bank or credit card company for the currency conversion. Continue reading »

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Fall Convergence: Wee Hours of the Night

Oct 19, 2009

What do you do when you’ve wrapped up a great weekend of roleplaying only a few hours before everyone is ready to sleep?  A Convergence makes the decision more difficult since it is unlikely you’ll be roleplaying anything for another six months.  We’d just wrapped Kevin’s Basic D&D game a few minutes before around 9 p.m. on Saturday night.  It was too late to start another campaign game but everyone was still  in the mood to play.   My judgement of the room was to either start a session or call it a weekend.   I decided to finish the weekend with a game session.

While I had GangBuster’s prepped and all but one player had a character ready to go, it was too late in the weekend to start a full blown campaign I’d prepped.   Not enough time to get players into the characters or to get them running with an unfamiliar system.  Instead, I went with something familiar to everyone — play yourself.    I’ve done it a number of times for short duration games just to fill time but it had been years.   Basically, its the plot of Red Dawn, the movie set in the current day and time.   I chose the Chinese and the present location, Cheyenne, WY.

Perhaps its a Western U.S. response, but this game requires no game system.   Pure responses turn into pure roleplay.   I always make the players rank each other stat wise for some familiar system.  I shouldn’t bother, it has no impact.   The setting either hooks the players or it doesn’t.   I think older individuals with experience or memories of the Cold War respond better.

The hook caught 2 of 3 players.   Perhaps 3 for a couple of hours but little longer.  Folks from the Western US turn vengeful, and just plain angry when foreigner armies step on their turf.  I always enjoy the ingenuity of characters stepping into the situation with basically nothing and watching them turn into survivalists with the capability of response.

Perhaps it could be taken to a campaign level.   I’ve never tried.   After a few shots at it, I just admire the few hours of fun it creates and the very personal, goal motivated role playing that ensues.

The clock was pushing 4 a.m. when we wrapped up.   I’ll call that success.

Deadly Systems are Doomed

Sep 15, 2009

As my brain meandered the other day, as it is apt to do, I had a thought about game systems.   A common trait between many unpopular systems is that they possessed combat systems which are very deadly.   A mere chance encounter leads to character death far more often than other systems.

All systems can be deadly but the systems that have not achieved popularity do not possess the ability to mitigate risk.   Other than a GM blatantly fudging rolls, a characters in those combat systems are likely to end up dead. Is a deadly combat system a death knell for a system?  Not necessarily.   However, the odds do not to be in the system’s favor.   Popularity, failure, and deadly are all very subjective.    Definitions are required and because it was my thought, I must define each of them.


If a game system is no longer available at a game store in some resemblance of its current state, especially by name, consider it non-popular.   If the original name is intact and still available, no matter the divergence from its roots, consider it popular if and only if it has been commercially available for a decade or more.


Utter failure would be a rule system that reached publication but failed to garner any support by the publisher in the form of a second edition or by having affiliated materials published.  Many systems fall in the middle between failure and popular.     In the end, those systems that showed up but only lasted fewer than 5 years, should be judged as failures.  Harsh but they failed the test of time.


Deadly is far easier to define.  Should a character step into combat, he has about equal odds of dying or surviving.    Mano a Mano will result in someone dying.   It might be the PC, it might be the other guy.  Equally paired, players with even stats, are evenly matched.  Being outmatched is not deadly, it is being stupid or being forced to engage in combat when you should not.

In the End:

No game system I could recall hit all those factors and still remains.  Kevin offered an exception.  D&D.  In the basic edition,  D&D hit all the deadly requirements but is still popular.  It was very deadly but the system has elements which mitigate death:  Armor and encounter strength.   Killing kobolds at level 3 is not deadly.

Is there any game system, set in relatively modern times, that defies my supposition?   By relatively modern, assume from the time the crossbow made plate armor moot through when kevlar was introduced as a staple of modern warfighting? Are all systems such as Boot Hill, Gang Busters, James Bond, Top Secret, etc.  doomed to failure before they start?

Fall Convergence: Prohibition

Aug 20, 2009

My ponderings for the Fall Convergence began a month or two back.   I was ill prepared to GM for the March convergence but ran an Old West game off the top of my head.   It was mostly ad-hoc and as such suffered from the normal stalls inherent to getting players together, moving the action along, etc.   Its hard to ramp up a 1-off session with very little planning even with great players.

So I set about pondering.   Leafing through my library of books, resource materials, and the array of affiliated, odd-ball stuff I’ve collected, I walked away thinking something was awry.   There was plenty of stuff available including things I cannot even recall purchasing…let alone the reasons for procuring them at the time.   Inspiration came a few hours later via the History Channel.

Yes, Kevin, I know, always go back to Inspector Gadget.   Where do you find IG these days? -M

The show was about various people, locations, and events during the Prohibition era.   Gangsters, Cops, and Feds allow a vast array of things for a short lived campaign.   Perfect for a Convergence session or three.   A bit of searching around found a variety of systems set in the period.   All of them probably would work just fine.

I went old school and bought a GangBusters (TSR) rule book and 3 modules for inspriration off EBay for about $15.   None of the other people have played the system before and we’re not going to learn it anyway.   Character generation and about 12 rules will suffice…probably 6 or less is more than enough.   I could probably do it with KORE but I’m lazy and my available time is limited.

Game system.  Check.   Area of the genre?   Law enforcement?   Politicians?   Gangsters?  Media?  GangBusters contains it all and suggest a mixed group of all the above.   That is not a reasonable for a single weekend and probably not cohesive enough for a general campaign overall.   Perhaps that was its downfall or perhaps the genre just wasn’t fantastic enough for most.      Being the law is easy on players, they know right from wrong and can easily apply it to characters.

Too easy!   Criminals it is.   Gangsters they will be in one fashion or another.   Not high-ranking over the top ones,  they’ll have to get bloody and do the dirty work.      When common sense and morality are not on your side, you have to push yourself to figure out who, what, and why you are in the role.   I’m railroading the characters at the start so I’ll never have to do it again over the weekend.

Next up is filling out the campaign premise.  Low to mid level gangsters provide a lot of room for chaos.   So I read the material in the rule book and all three modules.   Two of the three modules got discarded quickly.  There are gems to be exploited but not enough for the baseline.   Strangely enough, the material in the rulebook I bought and the 1st module are near identical.   Not surprisingly, its just two different “versions” of the game that may as well be the same stuff repackaged.  I know, I know, you are “shocked”.  So was I.

Both the module and the rule system, dubbed “3rd Edition”, provide a nice baseline of NPC characters and some starter plot lines even if they are nearly identical.   After reading through them a couple of times, I started  jotting notes on scrap paper.   Personas, organizations, plot ideas, actual encounter thoughts are put to paper.   Even if they are copies of the actual material.     If I write it down, my brain retains it far longer than if I let the whim pass by.

The scratched notes are nice but not much of a plan.  Its in my brain and not on paper and will be lost if no action is taken.     So I grabbed a new notebook and started transferring ideas.   One person per page.   One organization per page.   One encounter per page.  If you’ve never seen the idea of a One Page Dungeon, Google it.  I’ve used it for 20 years but cannot say it was formalized.  Its a fantastic methodology to prepare for the chaos your players will create.

I’m unlikely to use the notebook during the gaming sessions.   Every plan is screwed as soon as it is enacted.   But I can use every page to sit down the next day, scratch out people, make notes on others, update events at a location.   Sometimes I need a reminder about a person or place I had in mind.   The notebook will make that easy enough.

However, on the One Page Per Dungeon thought, you may need to start a fight to keep it flowing.   When you have a couple dozen plausible encounters noted in part, its quick and easy to exploit.  And if this idea translates between a couple of different Convergence Sessions, 6 months or more apart, that notebook will be a godsend.

The last Convergence was a great time.   This one should be even better.

Purity or Density

Mar 31, 2009

There is a famous quote in software engineering or perhaps engineering in general, the gist of it being “the design is complete when nothing can be removed”.    The point is elegance from simplicity and purity.  No diversions from the focus of the effort.  I cannot find the original source tonight but it matters little.

For the record, apparently it is Antoine de Saint Exupéry who is credited as saying, “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. ” -KO

Deviation from the core of a system exposes the writer’s passion.  I feel the wanton need to deviate into topics that are not centric to a rule system.  Yet they are interesting to me and relevant to the genre. Looking through many rule systems, I see that many others have wandered down the same path.

When is it appropriate to sanction these departures?   How far do you allow them to progress?   If the deviation leads to an entry that hooks a novice, is it is truly bad?  Puirty provides elegance and the capability of those capable to expand it into many frontiers.

But… Recall that first system you held in your hands.   Likely, it was rules heavy and relayed something about nearly everything on how to play the game.   Just as likely, you tossed aside nearly everything ephemeral to the core of the system because it was impssible to remember or manage.  Still, fun was had by everyone in that first session.

I love light rule systems these days but I’ve had years to progress to that point.   I can tweak it to fit my needs in a matter of minutes and the experienced group I get a rare chance to play with can do the same.   The running of the system might hook someone but if they pick up the “book” is it enough to hook them?

— Ramblings of Mark –