Places: The Sapphire Dome

Image of star sapphire

It glints and sparkles

At some point in their travels, the PCs find a silvery ring with a single hemispherical star sapphire mounted in it. The star seems to dance and shift depending on the angle it’s viewed at. The metal of the ring looks like silver, but it has a higher luster.

Later in the travels, the PCs come upon a domed room with a single statue in the middle. The dome appears to be made of black stone, with very little gloss. It could almost be ancient iron, except that it is perfectly smooth. The statue is of a queen, sitting atop an armored horse, and holding out her hand and pointing at some indistinct part of the dome. A PC who knows their directions (in Blade & Crown terms, a successful skill check against Navigation) will notice that she is pointing exactly at the south pole in the sky.

The PCs might think to look at her pointer finger. It is unadorned, and sculpted in the same dramatic way the rest of the statue was carved. The PCs might also think to put the sapphire ring on her finger. If they put it on in just the right position, the ring will glow slightly and the inner surface of the dome will come alive with a projection of the night sky.


  1. The projected stars do not match those that the PCs know from the night sky. This is because they are from the other hemisphere of the planet, a region none of the PCs, nor anyone they know, has ever traveled to. Taking careful note of the constellations depicted will be of immense use if they ever travel there.
  2. The projection slowly drifts, faster than the stars drift in the sky. As they do, the circular base of the dome lights up with ancient runes that slowly scroll. In a forgotten language, they give historical commentary; the stars are precessing through the centuries, and the commentary is describing important events that happened when the stars were in their various positions.
  3. When the queen is asked nicely in her native language, she will describe the progress of the stars through the sky, explaining stories of how the stars came to be where they are. She will also make editorial comments: “This shows the sky when that ne’er-do-well, Kharus the Elder, tried to usurp the throne from my grandmother.”
  4. As the array progresses, small scrolls appear here and there amongst the stars, each bearing a few words. In an ancient language, they give astrological commentary: “Ill omen”, “Poor time to give birth”, “Only foolish warriors will be victorious”. The commentaries are eerily accurate.
  5. The stars do not resemble any night sky the PCs know of. As the star slowly circle, they appear to be winking out. The PCs may note a pattern as they do so: they represent a growing threat, encroaching upon towns the PCs hold dear. Each star is a castle or village being wiped out.
  6. An astute observer will note that the stars depicted are similar to the ones the PCs know, but shifted. Someone gifted in astronomy and mathematics will be able to tell that the night sky depicted is that of a world nearby, but not their own. And they will then notice that the queen’s mount is very much like a horse, but slightly different; the scales of its armor are actually its skin, and its teeth are sharp.
  7. When the PCs take the ring off the queen’s finger again, a ghostly, glowing series of symbols glow on the inside of the ring. PCs who know their stars will be able to identify them as the astrological symbols of the stars just shown on the dome. Even more astute PCs will determine that, if they can say the names of the objects in the sky so depicted in the queen’s language, the ring will project a display of stars onto any ceiling, dome or not.
  8. The stars shown in the dome precess as if passing through eons of time, because the PCs and everything within the dome actually are passing through time — the dome is a time machine. If the PCs can figure out how to make the projections go backwards, they can return to their own time. If they go back far enough, to the time of the queen herself, she will arise from her stasis (she was never actually a statue) and try to make sure the PCs haven’t damaged anything.
  9. As the stars slowly circle, the statue becomes translucent, then transparent. The longer the projection goes on, the more insubstantial the statue becomes. Surrounding the statue, the PCs can see motes of light that resemble the stars projected on the dome. There is just enough space for two more people to ride the horse with her…
  10. Every rotation the stars make, the statue will ask one question: “Are you loyal children of Soris?” “Do you bear the stigma of Kharus?” etc. It’s pretty clear how the questions are intended to be answered, but only a historian of the queen’s time will be able to say what the questions are really asking about. If someone answers questions as they’re intended, the stars continue to circle; if not, the statue slowly comes alive, and if the questions are answered wrong twelve times in a row, the queen eventually draws her sword and fights all comers. If they are answered correctly twelve times in a row, a small click will be heard from the dome, and a door will open just where her finger points. What could be inside? And how to get to it?
  11. The stars wink out and come into existence, slowly turning and evolving. The PCs slowly understand that the stars show true stars, but they are also linked to people in the world. If carefully studied, the stars projected may be used to predict how bright a person’s life may become, and how when it will be snuffed out. A lifetime of careful study may even allow prediction of people’s lives by looking at the real stars.
  12. As the PCs study the slowly turning projected stars, a royal astrologer bursts in, surrounded by guards, and demands to know what they are doing in this most secret, most holy of places.

Worldbuilding: blog or not?

A lot of gaming folks seem to be using their blogs as places to display and store their campaign worlds. Blogs have a lot of advantages for this kind of worldbuilding. If your purpose is to have audience interaction, then a blog can allow busy people to focus their attentions on whatever you’re developing right now. The biggest advantage of a blog for worldbuilding, I think, is that it allows your audience to see the work in process. Because a blog is organized chronologically, it can give a great window into how things evolve, how the creator develops them and where the creator’s attentions go. It’s very interesting to see the creator making progress on her world. It can also be illuminating to look back at your own process and see how your worldbuilding has developed. In short, blogs are a really good way of showing the meta-history of a worldbuilding project.

But overall, blogs are a less-than-ideal medium in which to present a gaming world. If you’re actually using a game world in a game, it can be a clunky format to access during a gaming session. If you want to find a specific topic, it can be hard to figure out where that topic is. If you’ve carefully tagged every entry with every possible label it might need, then you might be able to find the topic you want; and of course a search may turn it up. But really, chronological organization by when it’s written is not the best for something that needs easy access by topic. It can be difficult to hone searches in just the right way, and even then, what happens if you’ve written about the same topic in multiple posts? What if you’re in the middle of the session before you realize you’ve contradicted yourself? And what if you’re at the gaming hangout and you don’t have an internet connection?

Really, I think most people who put their worldbuilding on their blogs are either a) just giving a small sample of the world, the majority of which is actually in some format other than a blog, or b) mostly presenting the world as an exercise for their blog readers, not as a world to be used in actual play. Trying to actually run everything from a blog seems impractical, to me (though I’d love to hear examples of how it’s worked for you).


So if blogs are a less-than-ideal way to present a gaming world for actual play, what’s a better format? There are the old standbys of paper notebooks and drawings, of course. Lots of game worlds still work that way, and they work admirably. And many people use printed setting material: books, maps, etc. Those work well, too. But how many hours are lost having to search through a thick sourcebook, or even thick sourcebooks, trying to find just the right passage? We all know how rare indexes are in gaming books. And I’ve certainly experienced plenty of instances where the GM is poring through piles of hand-written papers trying to find the marginalia where they answered the question at hand — frequently in a completely different place than would seem logical. That GM has been me, lots of times.

Front page of my campaign wiki

Paper isn’t ideal, and neither are blogs, so what works better? The best solution I’ve found so far is wikis. Wikipedia is the most famous, but there are lots more out there. With a wiki, you can of course search for any topic, but even better, you’ve got a hierarchical organization that can link topics together, drill down where more detail is needed, and keep all the information about a given topic on one page. It’s easy to make corrections and to add or subtract wherever you feel it necessary.

How do you actually use a wiki for gaming? There are lots of possibilities. The great Obsidian Portal website is a wiki system, complete with a wonderful Google Maps-like ability to locate important locations and zoom in using a graphic interface. I’ve only used it a small amount, but I found it okay to use. It’s nice to be able to share information so easily with other players (though if your writing style is verbose, there’s a good chance no one will ever look at it anyway). I personally dislike that it’s all online; what if I’m gaming somewhere that I don’t have an internet connection? Formatting in the Textile markup seems a little less flexible than other wikis, or maybe that’s just because most people don’t bother. I also don’t like having my personal work stored on someone else’s servers.

What about a wiki that you host on your own computer? Again, there are lots of possibilities. TiddlyWiki, for example, is a really simple wiki that can easily be stored as a file, sent as an email or kept on a USB stick for portability. And there are a lot of other notetaking apps and systems out there.

My favorite, though, is MediaWiki. It’s the engine that runs Wikipedia, so it’s robust, extensible and very capable. It’s also completely free, which is a plus. Installing it on my old desktop was a huge headache, to be honest, and then when I had to install it again (to put it on my netbook), it was a whole different headache. But now that I’ve got it all working, it’s a huge help. No, more than that — it’s a necessary campaign tool. I probably couldn’t GM my monthly game without it. (And I’ve occasionally tried — going back to paper notebooks and maps feels like trying to walk across the ocean when you’ve gotten used to flying.)

I’ll post more later about the process of getting MediaWiki running, and about how my current campaign wiki works. For now, go check out a really brilliant world wiki: the Almeopedia. Mark Rosenfelder originally created Almea as his D&D campaign world, but it’s become far more than that. It’s now one of the best sites around for conlangs, as well as just an amazing example of how deep a wiki for worldbuilding can go. To start, check out the article on Verduria, the focal nation in the world. Or begin exploring the ruins of Erruk.

For the record

Over at the Everwayan, John has been doing occasional updates on our Blade & Crown game. He gave a very nice illustration of Eric Stoltz as his character Red. For the record, here’s Meg Ryan as my character, Sirene:

Meg Ryan as Sirene the crusader

Meg Ryan as Sirene the crusader

Add medieval travelers’ clothes and a warhammer and that’s pretty much what she looks like.

Luck point economies: the lesson from money

I like games that use hero/fate/plot/benny/luck points. These points work differently in different games, of course, but they generally tend towards giving the players small amounts of narrative control as a reward for doing cool things. In some game sessions, though, hardly any players get or use luck points (I’ll generically call them luck points from here). Why does that happen?

There’s a very useful parallel with economics here. Luck points act like money in a game where they’re exchanged between players and GM. Money is ideally supposed to accrue to people who do things that society deems beneficial to society as a whole. And, much like luck points, money can distort the system and malfunction in a number of ways.

Photo of coins sitting in and next to a metal cupThere’s currently about US$829 billion in circulation. What if, though, the government reduced the currency supply to 829 single-dollar bills? What would happen? The bills would skyrocket in value — it’d be foolhardy to use one in a vending machine, for example — and people would quickly shift to other currencies for most exchanges. Maybe we’d all be doing our daily commerce using bottlecaps, for example, or barter. And if the money all accumulates in one place (banks, or people’s mattresses, or wherever) and doesn’t flow easily through the economy, then the money isn’t really doing much good. If everyone acts like the money is too precious to actually use, then it’s not doing what it should. So, first point: currency needs to be in large enough supply for it to be of any use.

Second point: the value of the currency needs to map ‘correctly’ to the items it describes. When the government pays its workers 100,000 lupins a year, but a cup of coffee costs 1 million lupins, then the currency isn’t very useful and again people will probably turn to some other means of exchange.

What lessons are there here for luck point economies? First, there have to be enough luck points in circulation. If an entire game session only includes (say) one opportunity to use a luck point, or one opportunity to get a luck point, then players won’t use them. Luck points will have failed in their mission of encouraging certain kinds of behavior, because no one feels encouraged to do anything by a currency that doesn’t get used.

Second, luck points need to map accurately to what they do. If, for example, getting a luck point requires rolling a perfect `100′ in a D100-based game, or requires making everyone at the table fall out of their chairs laughing, but the only benefit it gives you is a +1 on the D100, then no one’s going to bother.

How do we encourage more active exchange and accurate mapping of luck points? I’ll explore that more in a later post.

Worldbuilding ain’t bad

3D rendering of Petit-Terre

A built world.

Every time I’ve been to WisCon, I think, I’ve been to the “Let’s Build a World” panel. In it, the panel and the audience build a very well-functioning and detailed world from first principles, all within an hour. (Those first principles might be “cephalopods are the dominant species”, “cats as money” or “floating islands”.) It’s always very entertaining, seeing where all the different requirements and assumptions lead. My favorite part is when, about 45 minutes in, everyone in the room realizes that we’ve created a pretty dang well-rounded world, complete with internal logic, mysteries, schisms, happy coincidences and bizarre yet believable ways of being. But almost every time, towards the end of the hour, someone will say, “Now we need some characters and a plot.” For me, that almost ruins it.

There’s an attitude that worldbuilding is only a worthwhile goal if it serves plot. I have heard this argument, or variants on it, so many times that I can’t even pin down all the examples. At Convergence 2012, a panelist in the “Maps & Literature” panel said, “Don’t waste brain space on things that you don’t need for the plot”, for example. At Minicon that same year, I was on the “Building a World with History” panel and some of my fellow panelists gave the warning not to descend too far into worldbuilding at the expense of plot, which caused me to give a mini-version of this rant that you’re reading. It’s common to get advice on RPG forums that the only worldbuilding a GM should do is what gets used in the game, and that anything more is pointless. A search for “too much worldbuilding” will turn up dozens of examples, most stating that there is such a thing as too much.

The argument seems to go that the only purpose of worldbuilding must be to serve plot (whether prose fiction, RPG adventures, or whatever). Any part of worldbuilding that doesn’t directly contribute to plot is wasted effort, and we can’t have any wasted effort. Anything that is fun in and of itself, without producing real work, is frivolous.

Now, I’ll admit that there is such a thing as too much worldbuilding. If you have a novel due to the publisher in two days and you’re still working out religious conflicts that occurred 300 years before your novel is set, that’s probably a time when worldbuilding should stop. If you’re in the middle of an RPG combat, you probably shouldn’t be detailing architectural styles for a country the PCs have never been near. There certainly are times and places for worldbuilding, and when you’re on a schedule, it’s something that has to be balanced against the other demands on your time. Like anything, there can be too much of a good thing with worldbuilding.

But too many people take the argument to the extreme, making the argument that a world cannot be enjoyable by itself, if it doesn’t get used in some form of plot (prose fiction, gaming or whatever). Some people in the “Let’s Build a World” panels at WisCon, for example, seemed to indicate that if there’s no plot, all the worldbuilding we’d done was pointless time-wasting. That it’s impossible, or worthy of ridicule, to enjoy worldbuilding on its own. This, in a panel explicitly about worldbuilding, and equally explicitly not requiring any particular plot to come out of it. The panels were supposed to be about the pure pleasure of worldbuilding, with no intention of making something that would even last beyond the panel, yet people still felt the need to assert the primacy of plot. And gamers often argue the same with RPGs, namely, that any time the GM spends on worldbuilding is only useful if the players benefit from it; any time beyond that is wasted effort, or worse, self-indulgent frippery.

In case it’s not obvious, I believe that worldbuilding in itself is worthy. If you enjoy worldbuilding, and there are no requirements that your worldbuilding serve plot any time soon, why not just enjoy it? There are, in fact, plenty of examples of very successful pure worldbuilding out there: Karen Wynn Fonstad’s books, SimCity, the Encyclopedia of Dune, the Dictionary of Imaginary Places and many more. Heck, most RPG setting materials count as pure exposition without plot, and as I will explore in later posts, I find reading setting materials to be fun in itself, even if you’re never going to use those materials directly in play. RPG setting materials sell well in part because people enjoy pure worldbuilding without plot. (The hard part is admitting that we enjoy it, and accepting that that’s okay. Again, that’s a topic for a later post.)

There is also no reason a created world has to be for the consumption of others. It’s perfectly fine to create a world that resides on your computer, or in piles of notebooks, or whatever, and never gets viewed by another person. If it’s fun for you, why not do it? As long as you aren’t sinking so much time and money into it that it’s hurting your life, there’s nothing wrong with it. Heck, if building a world just takes a bunch of notebooks and a library card, it can be one of the cheapest and most stimulating hobbies around!

There are lots of exceptions. If the goal of your worldbuilding is to make money, of course, then that’s different. If you need to come up with a publishable picture book, wiki, RPG manual or whatever, then it needs to be comprehensible and presentable. And if it serves a particular plot (novel, narrative computer game, etc.), then yes, it needs to bend to those needs. And, of course, if you don’t actually enjoy worldbuilding, there’s no reason to do more than the minimum required. And if it’s background to an RPG, then it needs to take a form that your players can get use out of.

How well you present your worldbuilding is naturally an important factor here. Too many GMs subject their players to vast tracts of boring prose; and page after page of exposition, while the protagonist is hanging from a cliff, can ruin any novel. There are good ways of presenting worldbuilding, and there are bad ways, that is certainly true; and good exposition is a skill that can be developed. And, naturally, your audience will come to it with their own prejudices, so it’s important to know what methods of exposition work for the people you’re presenting to.

But the real stumbling block, I think, is exposition for reasons that are wrong in the first place. Too often, GMs force their players to wrestle with paragraph after paragraph of narration that is not only bland, but wholly irrelevant to the PCs. This goes wrong in two ways, as I see it: a) the GM has guilt that, if they don’t jam all the material down the players’ throats, then their development effort has been a dissipatory waste; and b) the GM assuming that the players’ enjoyment of all this material will equal their own. It’s the GM equivalent of “let me show you my character”.

If, instead, GMs understood that a) it’s okay to have setting material that the players never encounter, and that b) it’s okay to enjoy the worldbuilding in and of itself, without having to tell all of it to the players, I think players would get exposed to a lot less unnecessary exposition. And we could all get a lot more guilt-free enjoyment out of worldbuilding.

I’ve published this article elsewhere in slightly different form.

Encounters: The Tea-Seller

In the marketplace, or sometimes in other areas of town, there’s a man of indeterminate age who carries a great wooden box on his back. When someone asks him what he sells, he will take the box down off his shoulders. Through a remarkable series of contortions, the box becomes a portable tea brewing stand. That’s what he sells: fresh, hot tea.

The box contains a small jar of hot coals, a few simple tea cups, a tea pot, a larger pot of cool, clear water, tea tools and a paper packet of tea. With the contents of the box, he makes a tea that tastes clean and light. Anyone who drinks it immediately feels refreshed.

The man sometimes has a few tea cakes. The cakes are also very light in taste; in fact, the taste is hard to describe. Different people will alternately describe it as sour or sweet, like flowers or like honey.

The man doesn’t always have tea cakes, and he sometimes refuses to sell them to particular people. In fact, it sometimes seems that the cakes are for specific people; he will almost forcefully offer one person a given cake, while giving another person no cakes at all.

The man himself has short, thinning hair, a scraggly beard and teeth that are slightly yellowed (no doubt from drinking so much tea). He is wiry and muscled and dresses plainly, or perhaps he is just poor. He usually speaks in short sentences, if at all. His prices are very reasonable. If someone is clearly in need of refreshment, he will charge nothing at all.


  1. The tea has almost magical properties. Anyone who drinks it experiences a rush of old, happy memories, then feels the energy of their youth. (In Blade & Crown terms, let any player whose character drinks the tea describe one of their PC’s happy memories; they may then refresh a Trait related to that memory.)
  2. As one PC drinks some of his tea, the man says something wistful: “Yes, the tea’s almost as good as I could make it.” If the PCs inquire, he’ll mutter something about perfectly pure water that he got in the mountains, and a water spirit who no longer loves him.
  3. Today’s tea is a strangely weak brew. If someone asks, the man just lowers his head and shakes it slowly: “Sorry.” If someone asks further, he’ll explain that his tea won’t work if people are angry. He will not elaborate.
  4. When someone asks for his magical tea, he replies “No, no tea today. You don’t need tea. You only need here, and now.” He then packs up his box and sits in silent contemplation of passerby.
  5. “My tea is good, yes. But no one can match the tea of the Old Mountain Woman…” He then relates the story of a woman who lived above a tea plantation for many years. She came to know every tea plant by name, and would not pluck leaves; instead, once a year, she asked each plant to give her its single best leaf, and because she asked so nicely, they gave it to her. Until an evil man learned of her powers. He took her to each plant and ordered her to collect the best tea, which he sold to buy himself a palace. Next, he forced her to give him the second-best leaves, which he sold and used to buy himself an army. Eventually, he had conquered most of the world, and each plant had only a single leaf left. He ordered her to collect the remaining leaves; as she did so, with each leaf, one of his prized possessions was destroyed. Eventually, as she plucked the last leaf, she died and he was left with nothing more than a bit of moderately good tea. Tea almost exactly like the tea-seller sells, in fact.
  6. After the PCs drink some of his delicious tea, a well-dressed person comes up and accuses the tea-seller of peddling illegal, noxious beverages, and of making the tea wrong, to boot.
  7. The PCs notice that the tea cups nest perfectly within each other, and when you do so, a strange concentric pattern becomes visible. The outlines remind one PC of a shape their mother would sometimes draw in the air when they were little.
  8. After making a last pot of tea, the old man takes out a handful of tea and sprinkles it over himself with a grave look on his face. “For protection,” he says.
  9. The man gives one PC a tea cake, saying “Don’t eat it now. Wait til later.” When the PC later bites into it (it has a light citrus taste), they discover a note baked into the cake.
  10. Only a great prestidigitator can even begin to understand the permutations of his tea box. It always seems to open a different way, even when he’s removing the same objects from it. Perhaps he has a secret compartment or two that contain his stash of really good tea.
  11. He is able to tell fortunes with the tea, but strangely, he says almost nothing when he does so. Instead, the person drinking the tea will suddenly feel the urge to say something; if they say it, it will come true.
  12. The tea seller is usually somewhere in the marketplace, but not always. A mage believes he is slowly tracing a mystic figure across the city. To what purpose?

Gaming on the cheap?

Fairly often, people will complain that RPGs are getting more expensive. That it’s impossible to keep up. That we can no longer afford this hobby.

It’s certainly possible to spend a lot on RPGs. If you buy all the new hardcover books, it’s easy to spend thousands of dollars a month. Even if you only collect a few game lines, it’s easy to spend a bundle. If you consider it a prerequisite to own a sizeable portion of the published material for D&D, GURPS, HârnMaster or whatever else before you consider them useful, that’s going to be a huge expense. And it’s easy to spend huge sums on dice, miniatures, battlemats, laptops, projectors, etc.

But then, there are hobbies that are much more expensive. I’m also into astronomy, and while it’s possible to do a lot with just your naked eyes and free star charts, doing much serious observing quickly requires hundreds of dollars’ expense at a minimum. Want to do really nice astrophotos? Expect to spend probably at least US$10,000, if not US$100,000.

Costs in RPGs don’t ramp up that quickly, and it’s possible to do a lot without spending anything at all. There are some really terrific, completely free games out there, like Risus, Danger Patrol and Old School Hack. Even if you want to stick with D&D, there are lots of retroclones that are free, such as Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardy and Dark Dungeons. Many of these and other free games can easily be run with materials you already have lying around the house: the dice from that Yahtzee game you’ve never used, scratch paper, your computer that you’d already use, three-ring binders you get for free from work, free internet resources, etc. And of course it’s possible to create our own games for nothing, and to create our own adventures for nothing, just the time invested. It’s possible to spend almost nothing and have hundreds of hours of fun.

Most people know all this, right? So where does the complaining come from? I can see several sources:

  • Comparing costs now to costs decades ago, without adjusting for inflation. Yes, in 1980 a boxed set of D&D may have only cost around US$10, but in 1980, the median income in the US was also only around US$20,000. Now, that basic set costs around US$20, and median income is around US$50,000. These days, a can of pop in the FLGS costs at least US$1.00; I remember it costing only US$0.50 when I was a teenager. Though the absolute numbers have gone up significantly, the relative costs of RPG products have generally kept pace with incomes.
  • Print quality has gone up, generally speaking: lots of RPGs are published now with full-color printing, glorious art and glossy pages. As quality has gone up, though, gamers’ expectations have gone up considerably. I think we’re demanding more from our games, these days, and as a result publishers are having to set prices for deluxe versions higher. Some aspects of printing quality have gone down (cracked bindings seem a lot more common now than they did two decades ago, for example), which I think has led people to complain more than they used to about value for money. How many of us would really accept B&W-only games in exchange for never again having a book with a broken spine? I’m guessing the number is rather low.
  • The poor economy has reduced almost everyone’s discretionary spending. It also seems (from purely anecdotal experience) that gamers skew less wealthy than (say)people who are into astrophotography, so as income distribution has gotten worse, we’ve also felt the pinch more.
  • As we’re all getting busier and busier (or at least it seems we are), we have less time for developing our own gaming materials. As a result, I think, gamers are buying more and more pre-packaged setting and adventure materials, and that requires more money.
  • Another effect of people being busier is that, I think, more and more people have no time to actually game. I think a significant portion of the people who buy games do so without much hope or intent of actually playing them; a lot of us seem resigned to never getting a group together again, and we console ourselves with ‘merely’ reading RPG materials. (I’ll discuss why I think reading RPG materials is nothing to be ashamed of in a later post.) And if RPGs can only give you enjoyment when you can buy more of them, that’s going to be a net increase in the cost of RPGs for you.

What other reasons can you think of?

So I guess I’ve convinced myself (and perhaps you) that there are some really good reasons to complain about the price of RPGs. But it’s still equally possible to enjoy them with nearly no expense.

Con of the North event registration open

Con of the North is the Twin Cities’ biggest, best gaming convention. Next year’s CotN will be Presidents’ Day Weekend, Feb. 15-17, 2013.

Event registration has recently gone live. I just sent in mine.

I was surprised by the number of indie RPGs being run, and not just by the House of Indie Games (which I help with). There are some pretty nifty games on offer. If you’re going to be in the area, consider registering; CotN is a huge amount of fun in a 60-hour package. And if you’re going to go, what are you registering for?

In praise of Patrons

Supplement 6: 76 Patrons

Traveller RPG Supplement 6:
76 Patrons

One of my favorite GM aids is from the black book version of the Traveller RPG. It is Supplement 6: 76 Patrons.

It presents 76 different patron encounters, each with a variety of different possible twists. The patrons are organized by number of players — there’s even a section for single-player scenarios — and many assume that the PCs have a starship.

Each patron is essentially an adventure seed, with minimal background or direction given to the GM. Some imply a fair amount of additional work: maps, NPC stats, detailing further webs of relationships, etc. But others could probably be dropped into any appropriate session with no prep by the GM, especially if you’re good at improvising details.

17. Merchant

The players are contacted by Tristam Shabie, a merchant who seeks a group of trustworthy people to act as a bodyguard while he makes a tour of the subsector…

76 Patrons, p. 17

The supplement isn’t without problems. Most seem to assume that the PCs are of the amoral wandering thug type. (In fantasy, this is sometimes termed the “murderhobo”; the equivalent for SF settings, as I’ve heard it, is the “space asshole”.) That’s clearly not suited to every group; if your group isn’t going to be up for random jobs from mysterious strangers in a starport, you’re not going to get much out of this supplement. And too many of the missions are of the “break into X and steal Y” type. There isn’t very much variety there.

Also, the ratio of men patrons to women patrons is annoyingly high. On a quick count, I found only 10 patrons who are women, vs. about 36 that are identified as men (with the rest either being groups or ambiguous). And one man is described as “effete”. I prefer more gender equality in my games.

Each patron is presented with a matrix of possible complications. It’s intended that the GM will roll for complications on 1D6. Most of the time, a result of 1 means that all is as presented: the patron has told the truth, the reward is as promised, the mission goes as planned. Other rolls will give different results: the patron has lied about who they really are, or the opposition is stronger than expected, or the stakes are generally higher than planned, or whatever.

These complications are where the supplement’s real promise shows through, I think. The idea that a single encounter could turn out in such radically different ways was pretty mind-blowing for me when I first read it, in the early 80s. The idea of having a branching tree of semi-planned, interesting complications for each encounter was a big deal. I’ve tended to plan that way ever since: every encounter I present my players with can go different ways, depending on what hooks they bite on and what they leave by the wayside.

A problem for the 76 Patrons complications is that they tend towards two extremes: either everything is as the patron said, and the mission goes by the numbers, or the patron has screwed the PCs over and the mission is far harder than they bargained for. While those two possibilities can be fun occasionally, I tend to think that encounters should each have a wide variety of possible complications, each of which is an interesting twist. And only a few should ever result in bland, by-the-book resolution or impossible odds.

But the overall concept of complications and patrons and encounter seeds is a good one. I love how each kernel of an idea can blossom into so many interesting paths. 76 Patrons is still a great inspiration to me.

With those considerations in mind, I plan to start an occasional series of encounters suitable for different genres, and with a variety of branching possibilities for each. Watch this space.