Raised by Wolves, Bears, Whatever – Economy of Storytelling.

I finally caught the first two episodes of the HBO Max exclusive series Raised by Wolves. You can watch the first episode legit for free on Youtube here. I recommend you do, because it hooked me very hard. If you’re a fan of Warhammer 40,000 or crazy Sci-Fi with robots and uncomfortable religious cults, I think you’re going to like it.

Anyway, without going into spoilers/plot specific details, a scene in the second episode caught me off guard with how good it was at introducing five new characters in just a handful of lines and nonverbal acting.

Five characters are brought into an unfamiliar setting, and in we get their names, which I’m awful at remembering, but we also get little reactions from each of them about how they’re going to survive this new, incredibly perilous situation they find themselves in.

It caught me off guard because I know now these characters by their beliefs rather than their names, and all it took was a single line or reaction to a line from another character. For example one character immediately gives up her symbol of religious faith recognizing that their captor/liberator frowns upon it. Another character, the youngest, cries helplessly, and one of her fellow captives moves immediately to pacify and calm her. Yet another character scoffs at the situation, and finally a fifth character tells them all to stop arguing, stressing that arguments will get them killed.

These five characters are all children by the way, instantly raising the stakes by this nature alone.

What does this have to do with OSR and RPGs in general? Well not only does the group of children mirror the size of your average party of D&D adventurers, but we don’t have much time for character development, and the writer/director/editor all know we need to grow some attachment or at least meaning to these characters or we’re not going to care about what happens to them – we have to know what’s at risk of being lost so we care more about the threat.

DO THIS IN YOUR GAME. We all lament the lameness/boring aspect of “You all meet in a tavern” and often with good reason, but there’s no reason you can’t emulate the type of scene from Raised by Wolves in your own game, in a tavern, in session 1.

For example, take the “meet in a tavern” thing and inject some fear/danger into it immediately. There’s a couple of easy ways to do this. My first idea that comes to mind is to have the person calling them together – normally someone who needs a job done, right? – have this quest giver poison their food and have a partner of the poisoner somewhere else be the only person with the antidote.

Let each character react in turn to this news. You’ll probably only pull this off once as they will likely suspect someone in the future of trying the same trick, but it’s worth a shot as a way to inject some time and pressure on the players immediately. Character is what happens when obstacles are put in front of someone, and this is a great way for your players to show off their characters and questions them immediately on how their character reacts to personal threats.

There’s lots of other ways to do this – you could have a necromancer curse them at the start of the first session. You could run one-on-one sessions for each character getting poisoned individually and then told to go to the tavern and meet the rest of the team. Although this does take away some of the fun of seeing your player characters interact with each other, it does present an opportunity for your players to get a feel for their characters as they exist “in the wild” or when they have the spotlight on them.

I know in practicality this isn’t new advice – start your campaign with a bang! Right? But focus in on those character reactions. It doesn’t really matter what the threat is as long as it hits them where they live.

The Terror of a Modern Dungeon.

I recently went down a Reddit rabbit hole and ended up rereading a legendary terrifying post on /r/letsnotmeet – The Bridge. I’d suggest reading it if you’re both not squeamish and can handle some pretty graphic material, including pictures.

Now, I don’t know if this post is 100% real, and honestly I don’t care. I don’t read scary stories for a history report, I read them for entertainment, and The Bridge provides entertainment and then some.

I’m a big fan of the horror genre – a bunch of games I love are horror, and it’s generally my favorite type of movie if I’m looking for something fun to watch. I’ve read (and written, honestly) a fair amount about efforts made to run horror RPGs and the difficulties – and rewards – that come along with it.

Dungeons should be terrifying. I agree with the common belief that fantasy and horror are a hard mix. Horror often comes from some sense of powerlessness, and fantasy usually provides the opposite – power we don’t have access to in real life.

But the dark is still scary, even in a suit of armor, kite shield, and greatsword in hand. No one is impervious, invulnerable, and the darkness represents potential. It can hold that thing each person is especially weak to, or that thing we all want and are afraid to actually get. Anything can be in the darkness, and this is what the dungeon represents.

This goes hand in hand with cartography. When players map out the dungeon, they are conquering it, in a way, even without defeating any enemies. Those potentials are made certainties (or close to), and the unknown becomes known. That fear of the dark dissipates as they outline of the dungeon becomes apparent.

But that’s great! That’s a huge part of play that I think gets taken for granted. Having run a medium-sized dungeon with The Black Hack and paying attention to lanterns and sources of light has been a revelation for me as a GM. Just the act of asking “who has a light source?” when a player character opens a new door can be just as exciting as telling players to roll initiative.

If we put ourselves into the shoes of the author of The Bridge story from above, suddenly the sharpness of the fear of the dark should become clear. But why is that story so scary? Two reason jump out to me – 1. As mentioned above, there could be anything in those tunnels, but even a mundane answer is quite terrifying – perhaps even more unsettling than a supposed supernatural explanation, and 2. We (or most of us) have absolutely no training to fight someone or something, and even if we did, the tunnels are so small at points that the other option – running – isn’t readily available.

You’re going down there simply for the sake of curiosity and hoping you don’t find anything worthy of that curiosity! That’s pretty interesting to me, and I want to do some more thinking on that question as well down the road – motivations for PCs to enter such an awful, dangerous place as a dungeon in the first place.

SPLIT THE PARTY – Desert Island Books

Spoilers: I’m probably going to post this book cover multiple times on this blog…

I started a discussion thread this past week over at RPG.net where I posed a question to the community asking which physical books they’d save if their RPG library was on fire and there was only time/capacity to grab five books from their collection. Besides the expected (but honestly pretty tired) jokes about “I’d grab my Kindle!” or other lame workarounds to the premise of my post, I saw some really interesting approaches on various forum member lists.

Some valued physical value/rarity, some valued utility or beauty – looking for toolkits or inspiration, and some valued a well-rounded collection to reflect their various interests in hobby and rules design philosophy. At least one member just picked five of the White Wolf 20th anniversary editions of World of Darkness games (not a bad choice as these books are thicc with a capital CC!).

I didn’t have an answer for my picks when I submitted the question, but I took some time and mulled it over to come up with a list. Looking through my own collection, I was actually surprised by how few books I’ve hung on to and would consider essentials. I dove deeply into OSR books this past year, and while I like them, there are very few I would consider essential.

I ended up going the well-rounded cover my bases approach to my list with at least one nostalgia pick. If you’ve been reading my blog, as short a time it’s been around for, these probably shouldn’t surprise you too much. The following are in no particular order.

The Black Hack, 2nd Edition – With this I could run any OSR product, entire dungeons, and generate all the material I could need or find inspiration/tools to help me generate further material for any D&D-like setting. If I could only pick one book, this would be it. It should come as no surprise since I’ve adopted this rule set as the way for me to write rules up for my original items on OSArmory.

Monster of the Week – I love this game, and I love Powered by the Apocalypse games too – this was the one that won out for me. It covers a very different genre both mechanically and setting-wise than The Black Hack, and between these two books I could run tons and tons of different kinds of adventures and campaigns. So far it looks like tool kits are my favored books.

Age of Rebellion – And now we’ve covered the third major genre I like to play or run – space opera. Honestly I would take any of the three Star Wars FFG core books, but if I’m going to run one of the three types of stories, it’s going to be more military/rebellion focused than the other two. I’ve run several sessions using the official rule set, but if I ever run something Star Wars again, it’ll be from either OSR or PBTA approaches above. Even with that being true, I think Age of Rebellion would help me with planning and executing a great Star Wars game.

Legacy: Life Among the Ruins 2nd Edition – This is another PBTA game, sure, but it does things that others in the family don’t, and I love the zooming-in/zooming-out of character and organizational-level play. This was a close toss up between Legacy and Band of Blades, but ultimately BoB is a little too focused in the story it’s telling (not a bad thing generally, but hard to include in a list like this) whereas Legacy gives me a lot more options.

Dread – This is an odd choice. I don’t need the book whatsoever to run this game, but it was my first RPG and what got me into it all in the first place. I would grab it simply out of nostalgia and not being able to give up owning a copy. It does provide me with great ideas and inspiration for horror games though, so reading through the various chapters focusing on different subgenres of horror would be pretty useful.

There’s my five. I’m really hoping this year to find a book or two that could push out some from this list – always a good thing to be discovering new, exciting games. Dune, for example, would certainly have the potential depending on how well it works in practice versus just reading and looking at all the art. I also just picked up Warhammer Age of Sigmar Soulbound on order from NobleKnight.com, and I’ve only been hearing good things about it, so we’ll see how that works out.

I’d love to read more people’s list of desert island books!

SPLIT THE PARTY – Why include ancient battlefields on your maps.

Recently Reddit user LostGrail put forth the question I copied into the title of the post to the /r/OSR community, and it really fueled my brain to think about answers for it. I don’t intend to do this often, but I thought I would share my thoughts here and potentially expand upon them as well.

GHOST AND GHOULS

One great example in fantasy would be Tolkien’s Dead Marshes in Middle Earth. Ghosts that appear in the water to our terrified master hobbits are spirits of the fallen warriors from a great battle from an age long ago. That’s a pretty memorable part of Frodo and Sam’s journey and could be a really fun sequence of travel in a campaign.

It doesn’t have to be limited to ghosts, of course. Perhaps the land is populated by a horde of ghouls who found a treasure trove of corpses that will feed their families for years. Even ghouls have a family, right?

TREASURE AND BANDITS

There’s also the idea that these battle fields may still have actual treasure, specifically that of armor and arms left behind from dead soldiers. For whatever reason, a lot of samurai fiction I’ve read or seen have featured this idea – that battlefields are full of corpses just waiting to be plundered.

As a result of such rumors of treasure, they can also attract bandits and thieves, and now you have a whole little side adventuring site and faction or factions to introduce to your players. A village is very likely to have sprung up as well from trade of such goods long ago, even if the village itself no longer deals in trading such dishonorable goods as the arms and armor of heroic, but dead, soldiers.

STRATEGIC WORTH THEN – AND NOW

Battlefields are also often sites of strategic value to the armies that fought there as well and could certainly be a site where a coming battle will also come to a head. Perhaps just the renown and legend of the site is worth fighting over as a symbol to one or both sides of a battle. Maybe a group of rangers, remnants of a long lost people, remain behind to safeguard the sites much like, again, the Dunedain of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

FORGOTTEN LEGACY

Perhaps the battle brought many different types of people from across the land together fighting on each side, and there are some survivors who stayed behind and “went native” – why does the local village appear to have so many half-orcs around when the surrounding area is all elves?

Assimilation is a very real thing in history – if you’ve got the right group, you could tell a story that mirrors some real life atrocities like residential schools in Canada or European treatment of aboriginal peoples in Australia – generally speaking just the horrific story of colonialism. But again, only with the right group and buy-in from everyone taking it seriously.

WELL-KNOWN LEGACY

Finally, places like Gettysburg in America where a big pivotal battle took place has lots of interesting cultural quirks and have a lot of tourists, reenactments, etc. Could be interesting to introduce a similar culture in a medieval setting. Plenty of independent tour guides for hire could also be good hirelings to find local dungeons and give good (or bad!) information on what’s out there in the wilds.

INSPIRATION FOR THE SURROUNDING AREA

Well those are just the ideas off the top of my head, but although I don’t have a lot of experience making hex maps, I would assume plopping an ancient battlefield or two on the map would be a fantastic way to expand outward and map out the surrounding areas.

For example the fabled story of the Spartan 300 fighting at Thermoplyae, literally “The Hot Gates” in translation was a battle site specifically because of the surrounding geography – much like I mentioned above that battlefields are often of great strategic importance both then and now still today. It’s a mountainous region with a body of water to one side and a very narrow path leading through it to move an army. It was obviously a great spot for a smaller force to make their attempt to hold off against a larger force.

Asking why this site was a battlefield will start answering a lot of questions and quickly fill up blank spaces on the map – and that’s what always gets us stuck right – a blank canvas? It’s a great approach to give yourself a rocket starting out with a lot to work with quickly.

Header image is from John Steeple Davis from The story of the greatest nations, from the dawn of history to the twentieth century : a comprehensive history, founded upon the leading authorities, including a complete chronology of the world, and a pronouncing vocabulary of each nation.

SPLIT THE PARTY – Where I’m From (Part 2)

Last week’s STP post had me talking about my experience with gaming and what brought me to loving all these nerdy habits in the first place. Long story (post) short? Basically it was Heroquest and the Mage Knight miniature strategy/skirmish game.

Where I left off, intrepid reader, was with my brother and I deep diving into the Call of Cthluhu Card Game from Fantasy Flight Games. No, not the Arkham Horror LCG that continues to be incredibly successful (and in my opinion is the best LCG they’ve got!), but rather their first incarnation that was strictly competitive.

We loved this game, and although I was loving horror movies before playing this, I suddenly began understanding all the references being dropped in episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and my favorite horror franchise of all time – the Evil Dead trilogy.

At the same time, we were playing games like Battlestar Galactica (almost constantly) and Shadows Over Camelot. All these more traditional tabletop experiences were beginning to bring about some really unique emotional experiences, and that leads me to trying, finally for the first time, my first RPG.

Dread.

One word, a stark white cover of a tiny book with a bloody red handprint on it, and of course, THE TOWER.

If you’ve never played Dread, do it. Go do it now. Unfortunately, traditionally, Dread is one of the games that is best served by playing in person with other people, so it’s not the greatest gaming suggestion at the moment, but give it a year and come back to this recommendation.

I’m not going to go into my love or Dread with too much detail. Suffice it to say, it was a time before actual play podcasts and Critical Role showing everyone what an RPG could look like at the table. I was intimidated, but excited, and Dread has left an imprint on me forever – both leaving me with a lifelong love of horror role playing and forever influencing how I run games.

The thing about Dread (RESIST THE TEMPTATION OF FURTHER ELABORATION PAUL) is that it has no numbers. No math is needed. The only prep you REALLY have to do is to put together some character questionnaires, and even then you don’t need many questions to have a fully-formed character for your players.

Because of Dread, I found that I, as the GM, have to enjoy the game as much at minimum as my players. I run games and include ridiculous, stupid stuff (have you seen my 1d6 modern day items found in a dungeon table?) that creates potential for further shenanigans. I love the Lord of the Rings, but I don’t know if I’m capable or gifted with the capacity to run a serious game like that.

Dread forced me to rely on my instincts, on the bizarro collection of tropes stuck in my head, to always pick the option that will make me laugh or make my players smile precisely because there are so few rules to rely on in the rulebook.

In short, Dread is a game of almost pure “rulings, not rules” which should sound familiar if you’ve read much of the OSR blogosphere ever before finding this blog. It relies on you knowing what works in a horror story at each beat, and if you do, the Jenga tower mechanic is simply a way to reflect both physically and mechanically what you’re already doing by moving the story forward.

So it built those skills up in me as a GM, for which I’m eternally grateful, and it’s also, by the same merit, a fantastic tool to teach your players to rely on their wits and skill rather than on any abilities of their characters – another foundational aspect of OSR play.

Again, I’m going to probably write about Dread in the future as I think it’s an incredibly powerful tool to teach OSR philosophy, but that’s not what this post is about.

From Dread, our group played a ton of 4E D&D (which we unanimously ADORED and still want to get back into to this day), I ran a fair amount of Star Wars Saga Edition (the last, and easily best iteration of d20 Star Wars), and have run a ton of more story games like Fiasco, Fate, Monster of the Week, and more. My brother is still a huge Call of Cthluhu fan, and I couldn’t tell you how many adventures I’ve played with him with characters losing countless sanity tests, and me grinning every time.

Today I’m running The Black Hack and playing in a D&D 5E game. Obviously very different experiences, and not just because I’m on either side of the DM screen. We’re wrapping up our TBH run of Necrotic Gnome’s Hole in the Oak, and I’ve got my eyes on running several one-shots in various systems, freaking out most about my desire to play the new DUNE quickstart from Modiphius Games. I’m all over the place, I love gaming now more than ever, and I don’t see it ending any time soon.

Let’s see where we go from here!

I didn’t even MENTION Gencon or the tradition of RPGs in my family with not just my brother but my sister and her husband too! Oh boy I could just talk forever and ever and ever and ever…