Category Archives: Adventure Design
RPGs are not, in general, trying to create a pure simulation of reality in the form of entirely consistent and all-encompassing rules (and acting as if they are, or even should, leads to unhappiness, silliness, or both). The rules of the Game part of an RPG can be distinctly different from a description of the objective rules that define a universe. People who want to take things ‘allowed” by RPG rules and dive down to what a world is “really” like if those rules are equally and evenly available to even citizen of the world are not playing the game as intended.
(And if they have fun doing that, that’s fine. But if they don’t, the flaw isn’t necessarily with the game rules.)
For example, it’s perfect acceptable to say “This ability can be selected by any player for their character. There are no limitations or restriction on a player doing so.” and a GM or campaign setting saying (or even being built so it is true without saying it) “This ability represents a very rare ability, and only a very few people in the universe have it.”
One early step in beginning a new RPG campaign or adventure that almost no RPGs ever mention is, everyone involved should be interested in engaging in that activity in a way that causes everyone to have fun. If someone actively doesn’t want to play, or their motivating for playing is to make other people unhappy and sadly yes, this happens), most RPGs are going to collapse under the weight of neutral or bad intentions. (This is, by the way, one reason why formal organized play groups often have some significant additional rules about player and character behavior, or collapse under their own weight. I remain in awe of people able not only to run such organizations, but write for them, build them,\and create environments where clearly most participants are having fun.)
If everyone wants to play the game for mutual fun, the fact the rules are often focused on what player characters can do (rather than what is unavailable to the majority of the population because not everyone is a Caped Knight Wizard of Justice) is rarely an issue.
Some people claim such a focus on PC abilities automatically mans the player characters are somehow “chosen ones” because they have access to options common NPCs don’t. Now, sometimes that’s the case, and that’s fine. I have often run games where player characters were, explicitly, somehow gifted in ways the vast majority of the population was not. Sometimes that’s a built-in rarity explained by the game. (“Only 1 in 10,000 people can learn the Rite of Heroism… and in this rare case, all four of you have that ability despite being from a village of 700.”)
But in other cases, the PCs have no special fate or inherent superior power. They are just the people who, at the start of the game, have ended up somewhere interesting. Maybe they have options other people can’t take due to genetics, but that doesn’t make them “chosen” despite the rarity, any more than having one blue and one green eye does. Or maybe they have just had unusual circumstances since birth—a lot of people feel anyone CAN become a professional artist if they spend the time and have the drive to do so, but not everyone does.
Put another way, if you were reading a piece of fiction about an interesting time and place where 25% of children die at birth, you wouldn’t want to focus on the people who died at birth at point of view characters. There’s nothing that “protected” the other 75% of the people born, they’re just the characters who are still alive to do things, so of course the story follows them instead.
So just because a game says “A character may select ‘Ouch’ as a power, which removes 1% of a foe’s health once per day with no chance of failure” doesn’t automatically mean the world is ruled by roving gangs of 100 11-year-old commoners who all have Ouch and thus can, as a group, kill absolutely anyone they want to. It just means some people have this and, if the campaign setting, GM, or adventure doesn’t call out Ouch Battallions, chances are they don’t exist.
Now it IS useful for an RPG to give a GM and players some idea of what NPCs and common folk in the game are likely to be like. This might be as complex as the kind of distinction between PC and NPC character classes in d20 games—no player character is going to select the strictly-inferior “warrior” if “fighter” is an option, but tons of NPCs do, and at the same time some important NPCs instead tale PC classes which lets you know (generally without explicitly saying so) that those NPCs are more important to the adventure or campaign.
Or it might be much more simple and subtle, like providing lists of NPCs game rules, or even just lists of inspirational media. If an RPG tells you it takes inspiration from the X-Men comics, Gifted television show, and movies Carrier, Firestarter, and Push, and the game gives you options to take extraordinary superhuman powers, it doesn’t also have to explicitly tell you that not every person in the world has those powers. That’s clear, in the types of stories it outlines as inspiration. You can BUILD a campaign world with that paradigm if you want to, but you should already know you are system-hacking.
I love system hacks, as Really Wild West might make clear. But once you go that route, it’s unfair to expect the rules to not force you to make some decisions to make the hack logical.
No RPG can fully, accurately, and deeply represent all the factors that determine who ends up with what abilities in a realistic world setting. We can’t even do that in the real world, even if we just limit ourselves to who will be successful out of a single class of kids. We can make educated guesses, based on experience and statistics, but some kid will buck those trends.
That kid, by the way, is the one many people want as their player character.
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The bell on the front door chimed, causing Gunner to look up, a smile leaping to his face out of habit. It froze midway to his lips, as he saw the figure slowly walking into his store. It was a short, broad woman, her antennae drooping with fatigue and dust covering her long coat and short-brimmed hat. The dust clung to her face as well, the delicate patterns common to a lashunta lost in the swirls of grime caked on her skin. The left side of her coat was dark, from the ribs down, and a ragged hole suggested the stain had a violent origin.
“May… may I help you?”
The visitor was rough, but Gunner sensed no threat from her. Not towards himself, in any case. But he kept one hand under his counter, near his shotgun. Just in case.
The woman moved slowly, but with purpose, crossing the room to his counter with firm steps. When she spoke her voice was as dusty as her clothes, but also filled with iron.
“I need a gun.”
She slapped a single golden credit on his countertop. A century-piece, sure, but not much for the price of a gun.
“Well…,” Gunner tried to think if anyone in town had an old derringer or wrack-piece they might part with for so little. It was often easiest to avoid trouble by seeing to its needs so it moved along on its own.
She nodded once, as if she could read his mind. And, a lashunta? Maybe she could.
“Cannibal Kid and his cult comin’ in on the noon train. I mean to meet them. I’d be obliged if I could do it with iron in my hand.”
Gunner felt all color drain from his face. Sometimes the Cannibals’ cult just got off a train and left town. Sometimes, they got… hungry…
“You… you going to face Cannibal on your own, miss?”
She shook her head. once.
“Got a posse. Good folks. Swedish rune-man. A gambler who hasn’t used all his luck, yet. And some crazy professor. But I can’t back their play as well with a fist as a gun. But I will, if I have to.
Gunner paused. Cannibal Kid’s loons had been a growing problem for years. And no one knew for sure if Cannibal had really been responsible for the destruction of the town of Pecan Prarie… but that was the best guess.
Gunner’d had family in Pecan Prarie.
Many people had gone after the Cannibal Kid, and ended up joining him for dinner. But there was something about this lashunta woman. Even covered in dirt and clearly hurt, her eyes were bright, and Gunner instinctively trusted her skills. With the right weapon, maybe she could end Cannibal, once and for all.
He reached under the counter, ignoring his own shotgun, and brought out a lacquered box. Opening it, he spun it to face the lashunta, revealing the gleaming, 4-barreled heavy pistol within. The name “Lewiston” was engraved on one barrel, and “Custom” on the one below it. Eight .454 rounds were nearly packed beside the pistol, each in their own satin-lined niche.
“Will this do, ma’am?”
The lashunta’s already bright-eyes nearly glowed as she reached out a hand and lifted the pistol from the box. The handle fit her hand even better than her own glove, and the expertise with which she checked the hammer, released the barrel-catch, and loaded all four barrels before snapping it shut left Gunner feeling he’d made a good investment.
“This will do just fine, mister. Just fine.”
Gunner slid the gold credit off the countertop. But if he heard good news about events at the noon train, he doubted he’d ever spend it.
Renown is an alternate equipment economy specifically for use with the Really Weird West setting hack for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game, though it *could* be adapted to other campaign settings. The idea is to alter the way PCs, pricing, and the world work in such a way as to keep an economy that feels more reserved, without seriously altering the ultimate balance of the game. Instead of all equipment being bought and sold exclusively for credits, higher-level gear requires renown, in keeping with the theme of famous gunslingers and frontier heroes of the Really Wild West.
As a recap, we’ve also looked at rules for mounted combat and shotguns, presented Badlands City and the Badlands Citizen theme, and presented a list of adventure seeds and inspirational media. While the really Wild West setting hack isn’t complete, there’s certainly enough material for it for a GM to build a campaign around it, if desired.
When using the Renown system, money by itself is used only to buy 1st and 2nd level equipment, which includes nearly all “mundane” gear such as rope, shovels, lanterns, and the vast majority of the worlds pistols. Even “extraordinary” 1st and 2nd level equipment, like an azimuth heat ray rifle (Really Weird West’s equivalent of a laser) is bought with normal credits. Such items can be sold for 50% of their value in credits.
Wealth per encounter, in credits and 1st and 2nd level items, never exceeds CR 2 values. If you face and kill a CR 7 Prairie Dragon… you get treasure, in credits and 1st and 2nd level gear, equal to a CR 2 encounter.
However, all characters also have Renown, which can be used to acquire items of 3rd level and higher, which are considered legendary items.
Renown is the measure of the character’s mystic legends. Some of that is normal reputation, and some of it is their impact on the Akashic record, the theosophic concept of a complete compendium of all events, thoughts, actions and intent to have ever happened… even if no one is aware of it. The Akashic record is recorded in the weft of the Ethereal Plane, and as characters perform actions, their impact on it grows. As a natural consequence of that impact, the characters end up with legendary gear, items that also have a greater impact on the Akashic record and naturally gravitate toward agents of importance and change who can get the most out of their extremely high quality.
When calculating rewards for an encounter, the difference between the normal wealth per encounter for CR 3 and higher encounters, and the maximum CR 2 rewards given out under the Renown system, is a character’s gain in Renown. Fighting off six Texas Tick Twisters may not earn you any credits or reward, but you gain Renown even if no one knows you did it, as it has an impact on the supernatural fore of the Akashic Record, which pulls legendary items toward you.
Legendary items aren’t common, and no amount of money guarantees you can buy one. These are the objects that have their own stories and rumors, and collectors and master craftsmen can spend lifetimes hunting down just one such item. These are things like a Lewiston Custom Original, one of the 12 original 4-barrel pistols built by hand by master gunsmith Ezrah Lewiston and equipped with tiny screws and pins to allow it to be customized by every user for perfect balance. While the mass-produced Lewsiton 4-barrel is based on the twelve Custom Originals, it lacks the exacting standards and precision of its legendary progenitors.
If you wish to buy a legendary item, you can cover the first 1,000 of its cost in credits, but the rest you must spend in Renown. In general such items are not for sale commonly, but the same power that causes Legendary items to be available only to those with enough Renown tend to put such items in the path of their destined users. A character can choose to buy one Legendary item, with an item level no greater than their character level +2, each time they arrive at a new settlement. The character’s player decides in advance which item they want, and normally it is available if they have the renown to cover it.
When making gear of 3rd level or higher, you must cover the first 1,000 credits of cost in money (high quality raw materials and precision instruments aren’t cheap, after all), but the rest of the item’s cost you may choose to cover in Renown. In this case you are imbuing such items with a bit of your own legend.
Parting with a legendary item restores some of the Renown used to acquire it… but not much. If you give away or sell a legendary item, you regain 10% of its Renown value to add back to your total. For example, if you sell one of the rare Lewiston Custom Original 4-barrel pistols, you regain 550 Renown, 10% of the 5,500 Renown required to acquire such a rare and storied pistol. If you sell a legendary item you can expect to be paid 750 + (1d6 x 100) credits by a collector or a major figure (senators, rail barons, Black Hand dons, bandit generals, high society types, and so on) or their agents. Such things generally then disappear from the world of adventuring, to live in a glass case or on the hip of someone who’s never in any real danger.
Legendary items have prices listed with an “r,” to indicate that all but 1,000 of the price must be paid with Renown.
This system does require a GM to add some flavor to 3rd level and higher gear, to set legendary items apart from 1st and 2nd level gear, but that’s not too difficult (and, honestly, players may be allowed to suggest backstories of the legendary gear they acquire, since it is part of their own Really Weird West legend once they get it). For some examples of how legendary versions of gear might be presented differently than 1st and 2nd level mundane gear, here are some pistols reskinned to fit the Really Weird West.
|Lewiston 4-Barrel||1||260||1d6+2 P||30 ft.||—||4 rounds||L|
|Ajax Revolver||1||260||1d6||30 ft.||—||6 rounds||L||+1 to attack rolls|
|Lewiston Original Custom||7||5,500 r||2d6+4||60 ft.||—||4 rounds||L|
|Statesman Revolver||7||5,500 r||2d6||60 ft.||—||6 rounds||L||+1 to attack rolls|
|Lewiston Trainkiller||10||18,200 r||3d6+6P||60 ft.||—||4 rounds||L|
|Kingmaker Revolver||10||18,200 r||3d6||60 ft.||—||6 rounds||L||+1 to attack rolls|
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Since there’s certainly no full published adventure support for the Really Weird West setting hack for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game, I thought it might be useful to both provide some adventure seeds, and provide a list of inspirational media. That said, a GM interested in running a Really Weird West campaign need not feel like every adventure needs to be custom-crafted from scratch. Most adventures appropriate to the Starfinder Roleplaying Game can be reskinned to run in Really Weird West (with space stations becoming port towns, starships becoming zepplins, hyperspace travel becoming riverboat or airship travel, other planets being other states and/or islands, and so on). Similarly, adapting adventures designed for related fantasy RPGs is easy by changing lost dungeons into lost mines or ancient civilization cities, and adding guns to most foes.
But if you do want to create your own adventures, or add introductions, side-quests, and major revisions to existing adventures, the adventure seeds below and inspirational media lists that follow should provide numerous appropriate jumping-off points.
1. You come across a dead, masked Texas Ranger, with a gunbelt full of silver bullets. He was clearly mauled by a giant wolf. This leads to an adventure tracking down a group of werewolf bandits.
2. A madman named Robur, operating in unincorporated territories, has nearly completed the Death Cloud, an airship with a rebuilt Martian heat ray so powerful it can destroy an entire city in a single shot. He’d see an entire army coming and wipe them out, but a small group might be able to sneak past his defenses and blow up the Death Cloud from within.
3. Someone has been stealing hegesistrati (a “hegesistratus” being a gearjack prosthetic), knocking out veterans of the War of the Worlds and ripping the most advanced gearjack technology from their bodies. At the same time, rumor is a new mad genius will sell you gearjack armor cheap…
4. A dragon is terrorizing the small town of Walnut Grove. It’s smart enough not to appear when the cavalry is around, and no one has found its lair, somewhere in the badlands…
5. The PC with the best pistol attack bonus receives a letter. The infamous killer and quickdraw artist Doc Valentine has heard people claim the PC is better with a pistol than valentine, and is coming to town on the noonday train tomorrow to call the PC out to a shootout.
6. The PCs order new gear from a major town, to arrive by train. The train is hit by bandits, and their gear stolen.
7. An unscrupulous lawyer has stolen the designs for a local ally genius’s rainmaking machine, which will save entire counties of farmers from a serious drought. He has a head start, but the PCs know he’ll be on a moving train for a specific leg of his journey, so if they can just rob the train and get the design back…
8. A young man in strange clothes claims to be a time traveler, and he needs to find his elder friend and repair his time machine before he does major damage to the timeline…
9. There’s a new addictive drug in the territory, premade black cigarettes called Coffin Nails. If the gang pushing it isn’t stopped, they may gain enough power to challenge the US government.
10. One Martian tripod, alone in the desert, is still active.
11. The Mole People are kidnapping singers, for some reason, and some of the singers that have taken are important high society folks that need to be rescued from their underground kingdom.
12. Someone has desecrated a Civil War battlefield, and the dead from both sides are rising up to punish the living until the desecration is made right.
13. There’s something in The Mist.
14. The lost city of El Dorado offers vast treasures… if you can survive the traps, guardian constructs, rival explorers, and Olmec lizardfolk who have taken over.
15. The Hatfields have turned to necromancy. The McCoys have turned to diabolry. Everyone else has turned and run.
(Though in fairness, I have been informed “We McCoys would never turn to diabolry. Unstable alchemical explosives, maybe. Ninjitsu, probably. Mentally unstable deities that are still good-natured even if they cause far more problems than they should, definitely. Gigantic robots that can flatten a town without noticing, oh you bet we will.”)
16. The Illuminati hid a vast treasure in a long-abandoned mine, and a series of obscure clues will allow the PCs to get to it before a cult that wishes to use it to summon an ancient, elder god.
17. It’s snowing in the desert, and only one person has the cold-weather gear everyone needs survive. And he’s selling it at a huge mark-up. And whenever he runs out, white wolves bring him more.
18. A mad military genius has built a rolling fortress, and plans to use it to destroy a group he dislikes, be that a native tribe, a pioneer town, or the PCs’ base of operation.
19. Characters with advanced melee combat skills are being kidnapped and forced to fight in a tournament of Bullfighters, who face off against minotaurs in a labyrinth arena.
20. A villager from a small, unarmed town begs the PCs to come protect them from bandits. The bandits number in the hundreds, and the villagers can only pay in food and a place to stay, but without the PCs help, the village will be driven to the brink of starvation.
Taking a broad view of “Weird West” as a setting to include any strongly-Western setting (even if located somewhere other than the American Old West) that adds elements of the supernatural, or advanced technology (steampunk or not), or visitors (from monsters to aliens to time travelers), there’s a lot of media that can act as inspirations to create your own adventures, characters, and themes. I’ve excluded things that transport Western plots and sensibilities into other settings (so no Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers or Dark Tower or Firefly, all of which might well also spark ideas), not because they are in any way inferior, but because they tend to be better known and I wanted to keep this list manageable.
It’s worth noting that while these are great sources of Weird West inspiration… that doesn’t mean they’re great as forms of entertainment. Many are quite good, but some are truly awful. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth skimming through (or reading summaries of them) if you can’t sit through them the regular way, in order to get inspired to riff new ideas and characters and plots from the bad stories. Myself, I sometimes fin terrible books and movies are actually better sources of inspiration, as when they do something really dumb I find myself thinking “It would have been cooler if they’d done X,” and whatever X is, that’s my new, cool idea.
It’s also worth noting that nearly any western, fantasy, or cyberpunk plot can be easily adapted to a Really Wild West campaign. It’s easy to add some half-orcs to a bandit gang, have long-dead sorcerers wear black cowboy hats, and turn megacorporations into railways and cattle barons. If that doesn’t feel natural to you, try describing the driving force of a plot as generically as possible. The Fellowship of the Ring can simplify to “a local boy is convinced my a mysterious wanderer to take something dangerous to the big city for advice, then decides to throw it into a volcano which requires him and friends to pass through an abandoned mine, all while hunted by the original owner’s forces and elite generals.” One you have it reduced to that level, it’s easy to replace the local boy, mysterious wanderer, something dangerous, big city, and abandoned mine to seem more Weird Western. So if a pioneer has to take a Crimson Spike, which turns any railway into demon-summoning railroad line, to New Holt City where the Elven Preservation Society convinces him that to keep it from senator “Boss” Morghul he must take it through the old Brimstone Double-Y Mine to a volcano hidden in the Rockies… THAT’s Weird West.
Billy the Kid’s Old Timey Oddities, publisher Dark Horse Books
Black Jack Ketchum, publisher Image Comics
Bouncer: The One-Armed Gunslinger, publisher Humanoids, Inc.
East of West, publisher Image Comics
High Moon, publisher Super Genius
Iron West, publisher Image Comics
Jonah Hex, publisher DC Comics
The Justice Riders, publisher DC Comics
Kingaway West, publisher Dark Horse Books
Lazarus Lane (El Diablo), publisher DC Comics
Magic Wind, publisher Epicenter Comics (English language publisher)
Pretty Deadly, publisher Image Comics
The Sixth Gun, publisher Oni Press
Trailblazer, publisher Image Comics
Zagor, publisher Epicenter Comics (English language publisher)
Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel, author Paul Guinan
Boneshaker, author Cherie Priest
The Buntline Special and sequels, author Mike Resnick
Dead In The West, author Joe R Lansdale
Dead Man’s Hand, anthology, ed. by John Joseph Adams
Dead Man’s Hand: Five Tales of the Weird West, author Nancy Collins
The Dead Remember and other “Weird West” stories, author Robert E. Howard
Deadman’s Road, author Joe R Lansdale
Devil’s Tower and Devil’s Engine, author Mark Sumner.
The Encyclopedia Of Weird Westerns, author Paul Green
FRANK READE: Adventures in the Age of Invention, authors Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett
The Golgotha Series, author R.S. Belcher.
The Hexslinger Series, author Gemma Files
Karen Memory, author Elizabeth Bear
Low Moon, anthology, ed. David A. Riley
“Mad Amos” stories, author Alan Dean Foster
A Road Paved In Iron, author Don Corcoran
The Shadow series, author Lila Bowen
Shadow on the Sun, author author Richard Matheson
Stagecoach Mary, author Jess Nevins
Straight Outta Tombstone, anthology, ed. By David Boop
The Sundowners Series, author James Swallow
Tales of the Far West short story collection, authors Gareth Skarka, Matt Forbeck, and others
Vermillion, author Molly Tanzer
Wax and Wayne series, author Brandon Sanderson
Zepplins West, author Joe R Lansdale
Deadlands Classic, published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group
Deadlands Reloaded, published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group
Devil’s Gulch, for BRP, published by Chaosium
Down Dark Trails, for Call of Cthulhu, published by Chaosium
Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, for Red Dead Redemption, published by Rockstar Games
Shadows of Brimstone, published by Flying Frog Games
Sixguns and Sorcery, for Castle Falkenstein, published by R. Talsorian
Werewolf: The Wild West, published by White Wolf Publishing
Back to the Future Part III, directed by Robert Zemeckis
Billy the Kid vs Dracula, directed by William Beaudine
Blood Moon, directed by Jeremy Wooding
Blood Rayne II Deliverance, directed by William Beaudine
Bone Tomahawk, directed by S. Craig Zahler
Bunraku, directed by Guy Moshe
The Burrowers, directed by J.T. Petty
Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau
Curse of the Undead, directed by Edward Dein
Dead Man, directed by Jim Jarmusch
El Charro de las Calaveras, directed by Alfredo Salazar
From Dusk Til Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter, directed by P.J. Pesce
Gallowwalkers, directed by Andrew Goth
Ghost Brigade aka The Killing Box, directed by George Hickenlooper
Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning, directed by Grant Harvey
The Good the Bad the Weird, directed by Kim Jee-woon
High Plains Invaders, directed by K. T. Donaldson
Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, directed by William Beaudine
Jonah Hex, directed by Jimmy Hayward
High Planes Drifter, directed by Clint Eastwood
Ned Kelley, directed by Gregor Jordan
Pale Rider, directed by Clint Eastwood
The Phantom Empire (1935 serial), directed by Otto Brower and Breezy Easton
Purgatory, directed by Uli Edel
Ravenous, directed by Antonia Bird
Red Sun, directed by Terence Young
Sukiyaki Western Django, directed by Takashi Miike
Tremors 4: The Legend Begins, directed by S.S. Wilson
Undead or Alive, directed by Glasgow Phillips
The Valley of Gwangi, directed by James O’Connolly
The Warrior’s Way, directed by Sngmoo Lee
The White Buffalo, directed by J. Lee Thompson
Wild Wild West, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., created by Jeffrey Boam and Carlton Cuse
Kung Fu, created by Herman Miller and Ed Spielman
The Lazarus Man, created by Dick Beebe, Colleen O’Dwyer, and Michael Ogiens
Legend, created by Bill Dial and Michael Piller
Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa, created by Ryan Brown and Bob Carrau
The Wild Wild West, created by Michael Garrison
And, of course, the really Wild West setting is an example of weird west, and it’s made available by the supports of my Patreon! If you’re a fan, please consider offering a few dollars a month for support!
I get annoyed anytime anything puts magic in a modern setting, and people say “That’s ripped off from Shadowrun.” No, Shadowrun blended cyberpunk and fantasy, brilliantly, and is the first thing I am aware of to do so. But if something blends other forms of modern or sci-fi with magic, with no cyberpunk element? That’s NOT original to Shadowrun. Lots of stories did it before that, many of them major releases.
Yes, these are “different.” That’s my whole point. If you are blending modern or futuristic elements with fantasy with neither cyberpunk tech nor thematic ties, there are tons of examples available from prior to Shadowrun’s release in August of 1989.
This is a short, incomplete, trivial list of settings and stories that mixed magic and modern elements before Shadowrun came out. It could be expanded tenfold with any effort. Some if great. Some is terrible. All is arguably influential.
Bureau 13: Stalking the Night Fantastic
Bedknobs and Broomsticks
Billy the Kid vs Dracula (and a LOT of Weird West stuff from the 1960s forward)
Burning Water (by Mercedes Lackey, first printing Feb 1989)
Comics (Seriously, Doctor Strange and Iron Man have been in the same universe since 1963, and they are hardly the earliest example, by decades)
Expecting Someone Taller
Fiends of the Eastern Front
Incarnations of Immortality (And a lot of Anthony)
Jack, the Giant Killer (and lots of Charles de Lint)
The Jewel in the Skull (and, in one form or another, a lot of Moorcock)
The Keep (novel and movie)
War for the Oaks
Warhammer 40k. This predates Shadowrun by a couple of years, and it’s actually much more like Shadowrun (or rather, Shadowrun is a much more like it) as a setting than I find Shadowrun to be with most things people want to claim are inspired by Shadowrun.
The Magic of Support Through Modern Technology!
Is there anything I can’t turn into a segue about how my patrons support this blog through my Patreon campaign, and you can too?
No. No there is not.
One of the things more industrialized settings sometimes do for an rpg campaign is open up new avenues of adventure. While there is nothing at all wrong with tuning an abandoned mall into a dungeon, or a wrecked spaceship into a haunted house, or treating an alien progenator as a dragon in its layer, sometimes it’s fun to play with new possibilities as well.
And if you have a setting with multiple homeworlds drawing together in a confederation with representative officials from different worlds, each with its own method of selecting said officials, that means politics.
While in some games PCs might actually be candidates, and some system of determining who wins an election might be useful as a subsystem, the idea of political action adventures can be introduced without going nearly that far. Much as you don’t need a subsystem on fighting epidemics in order to rush antidotes to a plague-ridden city and don’t need rules on the impact of an alpha predator on an ecology not designed for it to hunt down the bullette destroying a forest, you can do a lot with politics as a motivator without ever getting into voting, caucuses, poll taxes, or even issues.
As with many RPG-related adventure ideas, you can borrow heavily from fiction for inspiration. While these are by no means an exhaustive list of movies with politics-driven action plots, and it’s certainly not a commentary on the quality of any of these movies, they are things that a good GM should be able to easily borrow from to throw some political adventure into a modern or science-fiction campaign. All of these have at least some elements where it’s easy to envision PCs of any level getting involved, either accidentally, as catspaws, or as a politically appropriate measured response. While it might be important in some cases to downgrade the action from centering around a chief executive to simply a minor representative who’ll cast a decisive vote on something, the core ideas are still easily lifted.
And obviously, I leaned towards those movies with cool ideas and set-pieces over those with believable politics.
Air Force One
Bridge of Spies
Enemy of the State
Escape from New York
The Hunger Games tilogy
In the Line of Fire
The Manchurian Candidate
Olympus Has Fallen
The Pelican Brief
The Purge: Election Year
Speaking of Politics
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One of the things I think often causes confusions among fans, and consternation among those entering the industry (or trying to maximize the creative resources within it) it that RPG creation as a whole lacks a consistent and well-accepted set of terms to describe the tasks that occur prior to editing, layout, and marketing. Many game companies use terms like author, writer, developer, and designer, but they mean different things at different companies, and sometimes aren’t well-defined even within the companies using such titles.
Further, even when the terms are fairly well-defined within a specific context, I think they are often way too broad. In the same way the ability to diagnose what’s wrong with an existing car and fix it is different from the ability to design a car from scratch is different from the ability to refuel and change the tires on a car as fast as possible, despite those all being technical fields involving car parts and performance, the writing tasks associated with professional RPG production can be very different despite cursory similarities. Without a good way to describe the various word-related tasks professional RPG creators may be called upon to perform, and note how they are different from one another, it’s hard to talk about who is good at what tasks and how they might improve at others.
This essay is not an effort to present a definitive lexicon of game creating positions. This is the beginning of a conversation, not the end of it. These are my first blush thoughts on the subject, and I presume not only that I would evolve my opinions as the question is debated but that I’ll discover lots of people smarter and more experienced than I will have done a lot of this categorization already. But I want to produce a fixed from of my initial sense of the various roles that word creation can play in a professional RPG setting, and cast about for other versions after that.
I’ll also note that much as the job of writing RPGs is more complex that a single skill set, I am well aware of the differences between various forms of editing, many art and graphic design and layout tasks, financing, shipping, marketing, and so on. I am focusing here on the word creation not out of a claim that it’s the only part that’s important in creating RPGs, but simply because it’s the thing I have done the most over my 20 years or being involved in professional RPGs, so it’s what I know best.
Also, these terms specifically avoid those I run into most often in the industry (such as designer and developer) because different companies that I work for use those terms differently, and no matter how I defined them I could be seen as criticizing the way one or more of my employers use them, which is not my intent. Ultimately we could name these jobs after the planets or all I care, as long as we all knew a Jupiter was the person who wrote background of a campaign setting, and a Saturn could expand on existing rule systems in interesting ways.
Many people I know in the industry fill many of these roles as needed, and some fill all of them with amazing dedication and creativity. These aren’t designed to be in any way excusive, just distinct enough that some people might be good and one and merely serviceable in another.
That said, here’s my first stab at this.
An adventure architect focuses on the overall plot and narrative arc of published adventures. The architect must be familiar enough with the game rules and themes to be able to know what kind of plots and events work well with the RPG and will be generally entertaining for it’s audience, but this is about big picture story arcs, pacing, and climaxes, no the details of how individual encounters work. The person who outlines an adventures (and even more so, a set of linked adventures) is an adventure architect.
An adventure builder can write a complete draft of an adventure from a rough outline. This requires a detailed understanding of the existing rules—how they work, what they do well, and how much of them a GM can be assumed to know vs what you need to explain (or at least give references in rulebooks for)—and be capable of producing text that is concise and interesting to read. But they also need to know how the fictional world the adventure is set in works, so the events and encounters they describe seem consistent with the continuity that has already been established. When an adventure builder is done, it should be possible for a GM and group of players to play the adventure without major problems or confusion.
A game contractor knows how all the moving parts of the rules of a game work—the themes it supports, the math behind it, the tone of its text, the play experience it’s designed to provide and how the rules support that experience—and can use those systems to create new iterations of those rules, and subsystems that work with them. A game contractor should be able to write examples for how any rules is used in play, answer rules questions, check material for game balance, and create new rules options for players or GMs that support the existing play experience of the game or (if it is the intent of a product) show ways to get different play experiences using variants of current rules.
A game inventor can create a new roleplaying game core engine, and the basic systems and subsystems needed to turn the core mechanics into a playable game. A game inventor has to create from scratch (or from a list of design goals) the things the game contractor later builds upon.
Ideally a game inventor needs to be able to outline the creation of a game, assign it to multiple writers, and collaborate with a team to see the final product is complete and comprehensive. Theoretically this might be a different job, but I really envision it as a natural extension of the core game inventor role, and thus include it here.
While I know a lot of people who are both game contractors and game inventors, I have also met a few people capable of one of these roles, but not the other.
A game polisher can take text written by someone else, and make it fit with existing text in terms of tone, balance, continuity, and play experience. This involves having a strong grasp on all of those elements, interacting with rules, continuity, and theme. While most game polishers I know are also (at minimum) good adventure builders, game contractors, or worldbuilders (and some are all three and much more), the core ability of the game polisher job itself is to be able to take the work of numerous different writers who may not have spoken to each other or coordinated their efforts at all, and adjust them as needed so the end product is indistinguishable from one written by a single author who was also well-versed in all other game products in the same RPG line.
A worldbuilder can conceive of and describe imaginary places and their residents, from single buildings to entire galaxies depending on the RPG and it’s scale, in clear and compelling prose. A worldbuilder needs to understand the rules of an RPG well enough to know what it does and doesn’t support well, but even more importantly they need to know the continuity, themes, and scope of the campaign setting supporting the RPG. If an RPG has multiple campaign settings (or none), this may require a broad understanding of each of them as well as the tropes common to the fiction that inspired the RPG (and which of them are stereotypes or motifs that have become clichés). A worldbuilder should be able to create new settings whole cloth, or expand existing ones. (While in theory this might be two different tasks, I’ve never actually met someone who is good at one and not the other, and the roles in companies generally requires both in the same person.)
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Worldbuilding can often get bogged down in big-picture questions and large-scale issues. Yes, there’s use to knowing how rivers flow from mountains to sea level, what kinds of natural barriers are likely to become borders, and how socio-economic statuses can form political lines. But those questions still just outline nations and factions. At the scale that most players are interacting with your world, it doesn’t really matter in play if the border between Heroton and Badlandia is a river, a mountain range, or a big blue dotted line that runs through a flat plain. What DOES matter to players is how those places feel and act differently while you are within them.
And for that, it’s often useful to throw in just a few little details.
If the common drink for a culturally-interlinked area is a tea just known as Steeps, maybe the people in Heroton like it strong and bitter, while the peasants of Badlandia make it weak and sweetened with honeysuckle. Elves prefer red Steeps, while human throw away the red stems as tasteless. The dwarves of Ironbeard make Steeps with weak beer to ensure no diseases remain in the local water, while the gnomes of Rillridge ferment it until foam forms on the surface which is then skimmed off.
None of that *matters*, but those kinds of tiny details, when used in sparing moderation, can help bring regions and cultures alive. Players who don’t care can wave it off, but those who enjoy engaging in fictional cultures have the option of paying attention, and offering the Big Bad of Badlandia honeysuckle-sweetened Steeps at the peace conference. And maybe he smiles, and notes he actually always preferred it strong and bitter, like his parents made it… suddenly given a new context into his background, based on how he takes his tea.
Nearly anything can be made into this kind of cultural detail and, as long as you don’t load ever city with 27 things you expect players to keep track of. Adding just one or two tiny differences can help immerse players, and make regions distinctive.
Nearly anything can be made into this kind of detail, but it helps if it’s something publicly noticeable (how the Halfling war bakers of Gnabysko bless their battle muffins in secret ceremonies isn’t going to impact player perception much, unless someone is playing a Halfling war baker), minor (so players don’t feel they must remember the detail or get into cultural trouble, which can feel like homework), and relatable (details that tie into activities players understand are more easily understood and remembered—the fact there are 17 “proper” foot stances for fighting with an orroc gutting axe is interesting… but for players with no melee combat training experience it doesn’t connect to anything they’ve done).
You can also build off a detail, creating slang and cultural notes that play off the detail. This can help the detail be memorable, but it also invites the players to dream up such phrases and ideas as well.
For example, let’s say you have decided that in the Free City of Campaign, street performers put out a boot for people to toss coins into, rather than a hat or other collection device. That’s easy to work into a campaign as an observed behavior, unlikely to make any player feel they have to memorize it, and replaces a common occurrence in a way players are likely to understand.
Once you’ve done that, it’s easy to see how some local slang might develop around the tradition. “Giving you the boot” could mean firing someone, so they now have to earn money on the street, while “Earning your boot” might indicate you are good enough at some performance to make a living as a busker. Having a “hole in your boot” could indicate someone is stealing from you, and “looking in the toe” could mean you’re scrounging for every last coin (like checking the cushions of your sofa).
If players show interest in a detail, and explore it, you can build on it. Maybe the boot tradition dates back to when soldier came back from a war, and without enough work used their hard military boots to gather coins as beggars, and the tradition grew from there. Maybe there was a tax on all labor performed ‘without boots” that was designed to exclude hard workers, but street performers used this to get around it. You don’t HAVE to do that kind of background work, but if players dig around it shows they have an interest in that element of your world.
Tiny details like this should be sparing, to ensure a world remains familiar enough for players to be comfortable with it. These are seasoning for the main course of your world, rather than the entrée itself. But used properly, that kind of seasoning can elevate the flavor of your creations, and make them much more memorable.
Putting My Boot Out
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This grew from the causal thought “What two ideas have I not seen jammed together before?” with the answer being “Minotaur mafia.”
The Bulls of Mingul
When the enslaved people of Mingul prayed for salvation from the scorpionfolk masters, or at least escape from the vast labyrinthine cave complexes the scorpionfolk build as their temple cities, at first no gods answered. The envenomed deity of the scorpionfolk was too dangerous to other gods, her poison able to slay even deities.
But in time the field mother and the sly trickster decided to risk their existence to help the enslaved peoples. They took cattle, who were under the aegis of the field mother, and turned them into something else using the tricksters bag of secrets. Tall now, and powerful, and unable to be confused to lost by the most complex maze, the “Bulls of Mingul” waged war on the scorpionfolk. The minotaurs, as they came to be known, worked with the enslaved people to free Mingul, drive the scorpionfolk into hiding, and build new cities above the vast cavern-cities the scorpionfolk one ruled.
But when the war ended, and the enslaved people were freed, the minotaurs had no further purpose. They had no history of agriculture as a people, no legends of their own, no traditions to call upon. They knew only pathfinding and war. And so they demanded the people give them food and goods, in return for protections. The people were willing to pay an army, but not to trade one set of masters for another. The minotaurs fragmented into great herds of criminals, one controlling each of the mazes beneath the cities of Mingul.
All crime in Mingul is controlled, one way or another, by a Herd Lord. Law and Order have grown in power, but none but a minotaur can move safely through the ancient scorpionfolk tunnels beneath ever city. Thus the minotaur criminals have a secure stronghold, and ways to move unseen through every city. Some become guards of course, and can lead peacekeepers through the dark depths, but their number are few, and those who track down their own kind too often are often found slain, their bull head severed and replaced with that of a pig. Meanwhile criminals of other races often take the “sign of the bull,” a horn-shaped brand, declaring their loyalty to one or another Herd Lord.
The Herd Lords still protect Mingul from outside threats, and see the good and money they demand as their just due. Most Mingul cities and citizens see it as easier to allow the Herds to control and monitor crime, and accept the occasional theft or beating as the cost of freedom and having a vast force securing the underground zones of their land from attacks by drow or other subterranean threats.
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Adventure idea: A community of unusually short-tailed, round-headed ratfolk (an ethnicity called ‘voles’ by other local races) who live in borrows (boroughs?) outside a major city have begun to be assaulted and driven out of local markets by rougher citizens of the city. The settlers accuse the ratfolk of theft, and desecration of several shrines within the city, saying the ratfolk move through the city’s sewers and drains, and have even been seen trying to get at children asleep in their homes.
The ratfolk proclaim their innocence, and point out they warned the city’s leaders weeks ago that wererats had been spotted in the thick brush of a nearby woods. The ratfolk believe the wererats have infected some city dwellers. The city government thinks the ratfolk are making false claims about wererats to protect some ratfolk hooligans, and thus aren’t taking it seriously.
Thus the ratfolk need help, because the wererats (who do indeed walk among them, including a few wererat ratfolk who only have a modest appearance change in hybrid form) are a demon cult who wish to summon agents of their demonic patron, a scavenger lord who spreads disease and uses vrocks as his agents. The wererats have summoned one vrock already, and want two more so they can do a dance of ruin beneath the city streets! So, the rastfolk want to hire some outsiders (the PCs) to fairly investigate.
The players must separate fact from fiction, deal with hunting down were rats both in the city sewers and hiding in plain site among the ratfllk, and ultimately deal with the apocalyptic whereat demon cult’s plans.
The name of the adventure?
“Vrock and Vole”