This week, Rob and Tim return to talk about elements of storytelling in the games we run.
You can still find Tim’s books on amazon.com.
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Of Mooks and Monsters returns!
This week, Rob and Tim discuss and pontificate on the nature of atmosphere a game master can bring to RPGs.
It’s a good long conversation, and we hope you enjoy it.
Thanks for listening.
All of Tim’s books are available from the sidebar at mentalcellarpublications.com, and you can also get some free samples of his work over at instafreebie.com.
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Hello everyone, Tim here. I’m on vacation right now, so I’ll be ringing in August with my family back east-ish. Anyway, the latest chapter of Invisibles is the last in the first set.
Check out my work on Instafreebie.
Now, on to the story.
Within the circle that protected Kalfar there was one city that commanded true respect and awe, the world over.
Sarsa, the seat of the Lord Executive, ruler of Kalfar. Glorious city, stern line of defense against beings from beyond. This was the richest and proudest of all cities in the near-eastern alliance.
Sarsa, city of countless exiles.
Sarsa should have drawn attention for all kinds of reasons, but there was a side of the city not often discussed on record.
Sarsa, the shadow city, where the desperate and the skillful plied their illegal trades. Darkness under street lamps. Poison in the minds of the high officials. Ice in the veins of the guilty.
That is the Sarsa to be watched.
And that is the Sarsa waiting to be seen.
Alina woke up quickly once the soporifics wore off. She sat up on the couch where she lay and looked around Hajur’s back room meeting place. Smoke and shadows dominated, but she made out the shapes of her fellow thieves on the chairs and couches around her, except for Saint, who would not have fit through the door.
They had all made it out of the score all right.
The room was warm but smelled less of the sweet narcotics she expected, then of… burning paper.
“The letter?” Alina asked.
Hajur grinned and lowered her pipe. In her free hand, she held the burnt edge of a piece of paper. “Disposed of,” she said. “After I read it, of course.”
“You wanted the letter to burn it?” Alina sat up fast, her face hot with temper. “He’ll just write another letter, you know?”
“Calm down, girl,” said Hajur, dropping the remains of the paper to the floor. “This letter was the Rogue Hound’s message to his legitimate leader. As I suspected it was time sensitive. By the time the couriers deliver the second letter, my associates will be long out of danger.”
Alina scowled at Hajur, past Percival, Kelebek, and Martin.
For their part, the other three thieves in the room looked puzzled, but Alina doubted any of them would care once they were paid. But Hajur had made Saint, and Martin who really should care, betray their leader, however nefarious, and that should be worth extra. Alina took a deep breath and explained her opinion to Hajur.
“Correct, indeed, girl.” Hajur took a puff on her pipe. “I will pay them an extra half share each.”
Martin gave a satisfied grunt. “Sounds alright. Now, if I hurry, I should be able to return with the case the letter was in. Get another bonus, maybe.”
“And Saint?” asked Alina.
“I’ll take him his share, and we’ll be on our way together,” Martin said.
Percival and Kelebek glanced at Alina. She nodded. “Alright. Fine.”
Hajur blew smoke from her pipe. “Take your cut, and be grateful, girl. Not everyone gets away so easily.”
She knew what Hajur said was true. As she took her bag of coins while the others took theirs’, she considered saying something else, to clash again with the information thief. Alina thought better of it. She glanced at Percival as they left the dusk diner for the night outside. He pulled his collar up but caught her gaze as he did.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
“Back there, Hajur only wanted us to delay the Rogue Hound’s message. Why? I don’t believe it’s just her agents getting out of trouble.”
“I don’t know,” he said. And he really did not know. However, his hatred of the Rogue Hound meant he had not questioned the job before. “Anything to slow down the war machines.”
Alina shook her head. “You really hate the hounds, Percival.”
He snorted. “When someone enslaves you for their war, you can tell me how to feel.”
Kelebek clapped them both on the shoulder. “Don’t bicker too loud, you two. There are worse things in the night than hounds and golems.” She slipped between them and headed for her home. The money jingled a little in her pocket, telling her there would be enough to help her sister’s children eat for another week. She hoped Martin did something useful with his share. She could have used the extra coin.
Eventually, she reached her shop. Once inside, she locked the door, and then bolted it. She climbed the stairs to get some rest before morning. But sleep took it’s time to arrive.
Percival and Alina walked side by side in silence for a while. He wanted to apologize but could not seem to find the words. She turned to go to the smaller, local Church of Angels in her neighborhood near Nicodod Ring. Percival started to speak, to say sorry, but she brushed off his words.
“It’s late,” she said. “I was angry too.” She did not sound angry at that moment, but Percival let her go with just a nod of assent.
She knelt down before the altar in the little church with its simple tiled floor and single tower over the sanctuary. She prayed a while, asking for forgiveness for her lifestyle, praying fervently. Eventually, she raised her head and went home to sleep, but she did not feel much better by the time she drifted off.
Percival found his way to the fortune teller who worked near his home in a run-down part of Nicodod Ring. The windows of the fortune teller’s antique shop were dark and the doors closed. He kept walking as the last of the dust storm died away. At last, he reached his building and then descended into the basement he rested. Down there it was dark as pitch. He took off his coat and sat in a musty but comfortable chair, under a lamp. He doused the light before long, and eventually, he drifted off to sleep, dreaming not of his friends, or the Rogue Hound, but of what might be the next score. Invisible in the dark, the city slept, waiting for the next dawn.
The Rogue Hound was writing his replacement letter. Hajur’s pipe-smoke gradually dispersed. Martin Leng collapsed onto his cot.
Only golems like Saint remained, watching, listening between the dying of the lights and the rising of the sun.
Thanks for reading! I’ll be back soon with more stories.
This week’s Of Mooks & Monsters is focused on railroading, the distasteful practice of the GM leading the players by the nose through their story, and how we as GMs can avoid it.
Join Actor-GM Rob Ward and Author-GM Tim Niederriter as we delve into a cardinal issue of running roleplaying games.
Share and enjoy!
In the spirit of sharing the awesome, I have a guest post for you readers today.
James Silverstein is the author of Necropolis, now available on amazon.com in print and ebook. He is a veteran game-master, and an articulate writer as well as a skillful storyteller. I can say from experience he’s also a solid friend to have in your corner on a bad day.
Fans of the podcast, Of Mooks & Monsters, should enjoy this post because it’s about world building for roleplaying games.
With that in mind, I’ll get out of the way now. Without undo ado, please welcome James Silverstein to the mental cellar.
World building: Novels v. RPGs
(or: Movie Sets vs. Community Playgrounds)
World building for a novel. In the beginning, we said, “Let there be story!” And… there was still this sheet of blank white paper there. We needed a place for our characters to do their jobs in.
And while those two lines look mostly identical, and while the processes of filling those white spaces are quite similar, there are strong contrasts, in the end, as to what we’re building: Movie sets, or playgrounds.
When building a world for a novel, I get to mold the entire universe around an action, or a set of actions, that the characters in the book will do. While writing the novel ‘Necropolis’, I needed Marcus Sage to find out about an infidelity. Boom, suddenly there was a nice seedy hotel that he could peep into. The blinds were down, of course, so there were only silhouettes, but still, it was there because it needed to be there. Likewise, a steamy brothel, a dirty alleyway, a federal office; everything existed to further the plot as I saw it. In other novels, unlikely-placed planks of wood, or lonely roads, or diners in the middle of nowhere all sprung up, populated by a plethora of characters (even a monkey!), and all became part of the world. Many, if not all of these places and people would be revisited more than once in the course of the writing. Some would even become more central plot points along the road. And while I found myself sometimes writing spaces simply for flavor, even in the end, these places helped inform the action or atmosphere of the story itself. Everything was built, custom-made, for the plot and adventure I was trying to put forth. It was a movie set, with everything in a specific place, and the lighting, the scenery, the props, even the extras; everything was planned and placed exactly where I needed it (largely to be adjusted in the editing process, but this, too, made it like a film set.) Furthermore, I built this world alone. Yes, there were moments I would talk to friends or other authors to smooth out some rough edges, but in the end, everything came together for a story in my head that went onto paper.
* * *
World building for a game. In the beginning, we said, “Let there be game!” And… there was still this sheet of blank white paper there. We needed a place for the players to play in.
World building in a game is another creature entirely. Most GM’s know that if you place your players in a static movie set, they’ll do one of two things. Either they’ll become bored at the possible railroad nature of what’s ahead of them (for those who aren’t familiar with the term ‘railroad’, I suggest checking out this excellent article: http://www.gnomestew.com/game-mastering/gming-advice/how-you-prep-is-how-you-run/ ), or they’ll immediately set themselves to knocking over that piece of scenery over there, or that light stand just next to the camera. Granted, there are those players who are just fine playing in a static world, but I find them to be few and far between.
The world building for an RPG, I feel, is best done dynamically. Much like the building of the world of the novel, things appear as they need to in order to serve the story, but in this case, the story evolves with the participancy of the players. You are no longer building a movie set, but a community playground. Because of this, I find that allowing the players share the heavy lifting can do a world (no pun intended) of good for the construction and the familiarity of the world. The dwarf needs a homeland to come from. If the player suddenly pipes up and mentions that his homeland has a problem importing grain, and he wants to make it a priority for his character to get some sent back? Instant world building detail, and the GM didn’t have to lift a finger.
Now, this particular detail can, of course, go off in many directions. You may, later in the campaign, revisit why the grain problem is as it is. Are there bandits? Is there some curse the dwarves are under? Is it politics? Is there perhaps a monkey involved? Suddenly the dynamic world building has brought you more game and more game-plot. Again, you didn’t have to lift a finger to get it. And if you don’t feel like you want to drive the plot in that direction? The world detail is still there for you to simply know about. It informs the dwarf’s character.
Further, a more dynamic approach allows the players to run amok in a world that they feel they have a greater stake in. When a merchant appears that one of the players mentioned in their backstory, there’s an automatic connection. Whether the characters know the merchant already or not, the players know that they helped create her, and that investment tends to draw players in much more quickly and completely. This is the ‘community’ nature of a community playground; when the entire neighborhood builds the swingsets and the slides, everyone feels they have a stake in both the upkeep and the general use of the place.
When writing for a novel, I almost always outline the action as I see it, and build around that. It is, as I’ve mentioned, a solo act. While writing a game, I have a small exercise I give to my players that involves them in the process; a sort-of forced brainstorming session that goes like this*:
During character creation, I have each player come up with three people their character gets along with, three that they don’t, and three that they just know, without any specific bonhomie or animosity. All they need is a name and a line or two of description. I encourage players to find ways to link their nine NPC’s together, and often I’ll give some small benefit to the players that do so (in the form of a little bonus XP or the like). If possible, I like to do this in a group; it fosters discussion about events, places, and people in the backstory of the characters. It’s more instant world building and investment for the players. Suddenly the elf’s uncle Chuck who was so nice to him is also the sneering noble that the human has crossed swords with, and their duchy is the one that the mutant druid grew up in. A whole corner of the world has sprung into being through the pre-game interaction of the players.
Of course, in the end, there is a certain level of authorship and editor-ship expected from you as the GM. You get key veto power. You can tell the dwarf that no, their clan didn’t invent the nuclear bomb, or that the mutant druid can’t live that far south, or that the mage isn’t betrothed to the princess. In lieu of this, however, I suggest taking the ideas and using them in different ways. Certainly, the dwarves did invent a super-weapon. It recently was stolen and is about to be detonated in the human lands. The PC’s might want to stop that. Certainly, the druid lived that far south. She was exiled from the northern tribes, and there are still bounty hunters looking for her because of it. Certainly, there was an almost-betrothal for the mage, but the princess has asked to extend the courtship for reasons that seem quite arcane and mysterious. In this practice, you as a GM still maintain power over the world, but the PC’s still get the feeling of investment from their work.
In the end, while world building for a novel encompasses a story, world building for a game encompasses many stories; at least as many as you have PC’s, and likely quite a few more. The lifting there is heavier, but you have a lot of extra hands to make the job light. Use them to your best advantage in building the best playground you can make.
Oh, and don’t ever forget to add a monkey. Trust me on this one.
*(Note: I apologize for not properly crediting whomever I lifted this from: I’ve been using it for decades, and I don’t remember whom I first got the idea from.)