I’m not at GenCon or play testing D&D next, but…

I know that a lot of the people who read this blog will be doing those things, and if at GenCon won’t really have the time to digest anything huge at the moment blog-wise. The people who aren’t there at the moment though, who may not be too fussed about D&D next themselves (I know I’m not the only one; I tried to get a play test group together out of my local gaming society, and had only two volunteers out of a possible 25 players) might be in the mood for something that has nothing to do with either. Presented for you then is inspiration. Inspiration in the form of an article I came across on the BBC news site a couple of days ago that had my mind going into overdrive, thinking about what I could do with this information. So I present for you here, China’s ghost towns and phantom malls.

I hope that like me, it gives you some inspiration, and if it does, feel free to sound off below and share them with anyone else not lucky enough to be at GenCon.

Cutting corners, not quality

One thing that has become clear in my vast month long experience of RPG blogging, is that every other GM who blogs does about twenty times the work I do in planning and running a game. That’s not to say that my games suck, I have an awful lot of people who would say otherwise. But I manage to do it without the buckets of effort that others put in. This will probably be the first of many blogs where I talk about short cuts and GMing tips that could, if you’re confident enough, take a lot of the hassle out of running your own game. To start with I’m going to talk about populating a small settlement in a way that takes less time but still looks well rounded.

I start with NPCs that players will meet. People in shops, mostly, or someone plot related who introduces themselves. These NPCs are statted in the simplest way possible, and this is a method I use with every system for any NPC that doesn’t deserve its own character sheet. The system I was using last time, so the one I will be drawing examples from, was Unhallowed Metropolis. I love this system and setting and have run games using it that have lasted years.

Before we get into their stats though, lets think about names. I like having fun with this, and do take a bit of  time to prep before each game coming up with a list of name. Last time I compiled a decent list of Lovecraftian names, and whittled out the most recognisable ones to leave me with a few sides of A4 of random men’s and women’s names. Leave a line between each name, and pick out a few at first for the NPCs that you know you’re going to need and quickly jot down a few things that will flesh them out enough to be recognizable to your players, and you, when you need to play them again. Any stat that’s different from the average, just make a quick note of it and the difference, throw in a specialty skill and you’re almost done. Next pick a quirk, either physical or social that means they’ll stand out and make a note of that too. After that, anything else you need to remember just make quick notes of, you don’t want too much to read if you’re playing the character as it slows down the flow of a game.

That leaves a bunch of other names on your list, but don’t worry they’ll get used soon enough. The village will have a bunch of other people in it, farmers, workers, kids and the elderly. 90% of them will never be needed as the players will have no reason to talk to them, so don’t worry about them until the players feel the need to find anything out about them. This works very well with imaginative players who will think of solutions you may not. Do they need someone in town who used to be in the army? You never thought of that, but twenty of the farmers are just one dimensional shadows at the moment. So go to your list, find an appropriate name, give them a stat boost and extra skill that makes sense, a quirk that would be fun to roleplay, and respond to your creative player, “yup, the barman tells you about a good old boy who comes in of an evening telling stories about his time in the Deathwatch”, and away you go.

When it come to stats, UnMet has a pretty basic set and the usual skills. Choose your human average, in this case 2 across the board, and a set of skills most people would have a level in, then one per NPC that they’re trained in and can have at level 2. Then pick a stat or two that differ from the mean, usually one up, one down, but play around with as much as you want; they’re your characters and don’t have to fit the mean if you don’t think they would. This applies to everyone in your little settlement, and takes a matter of second to make the notes next to name you’ve not used yet.

A lot of people use random tables and feel free to go for it if the idea of picking quirks out the hat during a game is a bit daunting. But my best advice would be to prep a list – or steal it from a much better prepared blogger out there – and familiarise yourself with it a little before you run the game. That way you should have in your short term memory a few ideas that you can quickly take down without it looking to our players like you’re doing it all off the roll of a dice and are instead putting a lot of thought into each decision.

I hope some of that was useful, and as soon as I think of some other ways to speed up your GMing prep, I’ll share them with everyone.

Religion in table top RPGs

I find religion in RPGs can often leave me a little disappointed . I suppose that a lot of that has to do with my opinions of religion in real life, and I know that what we’re dealing with is a fantasy world, but it still contains people, just like our own world. Just throwing this out there as I’m not writing this to offend, but I am an atheist and will be writing from that position. If you would like to turn your head away now, please feel free. If you want to post comments based on your own beliefs, I draw your attention to my thoughts about what goes into the comments section of this blog. Now, onward to the good stuff.

It’s easy to assume that most fantasy pantheons have a lot in common with Greek/Roman gods; a whole host of them, each with a domain they watch over whilst competing with other gods for whatever the divine equivalent of prestige is. I do see the appeal of this as both ancient mythologies are still very popular and have plenty of gold left to mine. The only real problem I have is when they are over used, when every other system has a thunder god, a god of love and a god that just loves to get down and party.

Yes, there are variations, but most of them follow a very similar path; a god of magic, of necromancy, a god that exists just  to help out healing  injured adventurers. This is all well and good, but it can lead to a dead-end roleplaying wise. A god will want you to behave in certain ways to get the benefits of following it, and this means a follower of god A, will act that way. Not saying that all of them will, but enough to make them look like an homogeneous lump of personality clones.

When comparing this to real world religion, with more gods and beliefs than you could shake a stick at, we see this does not happen. Almost every religion in the real world has fractured at some point in its history and these schisms have become separate entities with grudges against people who believe in the same god, but choose to show that deference in a different way.

A big reason for this is that when  a lot of real world religions were founded, most of the cultures were isolated or were empires who could push down hard to enforce a ‘one true god’ religious structure. When this happens everyone in the society has to find their place, and people with wildly differing personalities have to interpret the tenets of their faith in a way that allows them to fit in. This has happened in a fantasy game I’ve played in. A D&D 3rd game in a world built for the most part by the GM. The player group were all Dwarven, and all believed in one god, whose name I currently forget. Because this was the way it had been for centuries, at assumed that being born a dwarf meant you would follow this god, no matter what your career or class. this meant no matter what alignment you played, or class, you were one of the faithful. I was the group cleric and played it lawful/evil, but was still accepted because I was such a faithful devotee and acted within the law. This very true of real world religions where the extremists are propped up by the massive amount of more moderate followers.

Early modern English history however teaches that schism can happen within one country for matters as simple of dynastic continuity/wanting to shag someone else and not have the kid be declared a bastard. With this kind of thing happening so little in fantasy games, I was again left scratching my heads as to the why fore. Then a simple thought hit me; gods in a fantasy setting actually exist. They can be seen, communed with, and preform miracles that go beyond the natural.

But do they have to? I have played some great games where magic is explainable within the physics of the setting, changing it from supernatural, to the natural. By this I mean the kind of thing that could be measured under laboratory conditions. Could the same be said of gods and godlike entities within the same settings? If they were real and acted within the confines of the natural world, they would have no reason to be worshiped en masse, instead being seen in the same light as giant ‘magical beast with sentience’, dragons spring immediately to mind. There are those who would still look upon them as otherworldly and choose to venerate them as gods, as there are in the real world. This could lead to just as much re-interpretation and fracturing of the faiths as in our own world, and I just think that this would make playing a believer a hell of a lot more interesting from a roleplaying point of view.