Have you ever thought of giving your Players something really cool and challenging? How about giving them a real castle to run, or perhaps even a small kingdom?
At first the idea may seem pretty hardcore — after all, a castle or a kingdom are no trivial matters, which means that the Players would play characters of significant power, right? Well, not necessarily. Of course it depends on the setting, but politically independent or autonomous territories can well be composed of just its seat of power and a few hamlets, located somewhere among fields and forests. The kingdom of Lancre from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is a good example of such a tiny state: away from the civilization, surrounded by mountains, virtually non-existent as far as the rest of the world is concerned. Even more politically organized settings usually have some sort of remote region where such entities may exist, for example Warhammer Fantasy has its Border Princes. Therefore, ruling a state is well within the player characters’ reach: it may be microscopic, inhabited by a thousand people or so and protected by an army whose numbers can be counted on fingers and toes of a war veteran, but hey — it is independent and able to keep its head high!
Of course, a more common entity than a tiny state on its own is a feudal province, normally ruled by a lord of some sort — for example a knight or a bishop. While not exactly independent, such lords are normally fairly autonomous and do not need to concern themselves with their sovereign too often, except when their military assistance is needed. Making your Players vassals to a higher power may well be more realistic in your campaign than giving them a whole country to rule, but is still unlikely to pose many additional restrictions on them. (Explaining feudalism and power relations during Middle Ages is well beyond the scope of this article, so please consult historical sources for details.)
The issue of whether the Players are almighty rulers or “mere” vassals is not overly important here, as both positions often present similar challenges and ways to deal with them. Also of lesser importance is how they found themselves in this position: by inheritance, as a reward for their deeds for the kingdom or by any other method (including decapitation of their predecessor). What is important is that their occupation of throne is more or less settled and at least formally accepted — in and outside of the country. So, what now?
Well, plenty of things! After all we haven’t bestowed power on our beloved Players so they would only enjoy its privileges and pleasantries. We have done it, because it’s an excellent setup for all sorts of intrigues, adventures and other events, where the Players will have to use primarily their brains and various (often non-combat) skills. For once.
Firstly, there is foreign politics. Our little state has to survive, and its enemies are many — especially if the new lords ascended to the throne only recently and in a slightly non-standard way. Even the closest allies usually have their price, for which they may be bought. Therefore, an environment is created to allow natural born party politicians to finally show off their talents: they can plot, conspire, coax, seduce, intimidate and haggle to their hearts’ content, all for the noble goal of expanding, or at least not losing land and influence. It’s not only about thwarting political competitors’ plans (and promoting one’s own), but also about trade agreements, economy policies, forcing one’s own ideology onto neighbouring states, and so on. Our Players’ hands will be full, and either they will stand up to the task, or their subjects will become food for crows and ravens. As a game master, you may also appreciate the fact that their presence at balls and great ceremonies is suddenly justified, and that they will no longer be just people from nowhere: they will be, in a way, among their own, and they will have their own motivations.
Secondly, there are internal issues. At the very beginning, the new rulers need to ensure acceptance by their subjects. If they inherited the throne the traditional way, this shouldn’t be a problem, but whenever it doesn’t apply, we need to take into account that our subordinates, or at least some of them, won’t be too happy with us at the top. While most common folk don’t give a damn about who their lord is, certain influential groups do, and they may often be capable of inciting others against the party. Therefore, appropriate and extensive measures must be taken to identify any sources of opposition before it spreads — and then appease any malcontents. The opposition may naturally be based on various groups and individuals, depending on your setting, but the most typical would be: local church structures (after all they are technically above any earthly power, and they are very influential), merchant guilds (who always compete with feudal lords, and who have an annoying tendency to have bigger military budgets than the state itself — as seen for example during early Renaissance in Italy), and your vassals (who will likely topple any sovereign if they hate them enough to join their forces). There are other power groups too, especially in a high fantasy setting — be it mages (these can be particularly nasty), fantastic racial minorities or even nature spirits (especially in Far Eastern settings).
Ways of dealing with such groups greatly depend on the setting and your own plots, but when looked at from a generalized point of view, there are two basic methods: giving them power or giving them money. Power means basically privileges, rights that would be exclusive to this group, for example bearing arms, collecting taxes, running religious ceremonies or brewing alcohol; whatever it is, it somehow translates to the group’s influence over the entire community. Privileges may come from two sources: another group or the state itself. Both are problematic: if you are giving away your own privilege to your subject, you dilute your power and make yourself even weaker than before, therefore forcing more concessions in the future; and if this privilege used to belong to someone else, you’re sure to piss them off big time. That’s why it’s much better to use money to ensure loyalty, as it generally doesn’t have political repercussions and is much cleaner, but also harder to do: it’s easy to give a privilege, but it’s not easy to have enough money to buy everyone. And this brings us to…
Thirdly, the economy. It is vital to ensure that our subjects do not bum around, but work for the common good! Fields must be tended, mines excavated, people properly taxed and so on, and it won’t just happen by itself. Naturally, this is a very complex problem, depending on your resources, technology, international trade and so on, but for now let’s concentrate on infrastructure: workshops, roads, harbours, all that. Infrastructure is as vital in real (or simulated) life as in strategy games you’ve probably played, since it multiplies your kingdom’s income (and therefore taxes), so it’s a good aspect to focus on during a campaign. The simple act of building a road can become a mini-campaign on its own, consisting of negotiations with the builder’s guild, fighting off bandits, buying the best stone and so on. Building is generally at least as enjoyable as destroying, so if your Players seem to enjoy a bit of a Sim City, let them!
Whatever the situation, one thing is certain: your Players don’t have enough money to do what they want. And this is where fun begins. Money can simply be borrowed from banks, but this puts the state in debt and diminishes its significance by empowering the merchant class, not to mention that the debt must be paid eventually. Therefore, your Players will sadly (for them, not you) have to use their wits. Their first source of income are their friends in high positions, whom they surely met during their earlier adventures and who may give them a hand, since having a king or baron indebted to you is extremely valuable; use them sparingly, but it’s a good way to help the party while also creating more connections between them and the outside world. Money can also be received from foreign powers, in return for some sort of a favour, like joining their cause; this needn’t be harmful to the state, though one must be always cautious to not become too dependent — as the hand that giveth, can easily taketh away. Furthermore, a powerful party may turn to the good old questing to raise money (especially in settings like the Middle-Earth, where killing dragons leads to treasure that can support entire civilizations). And finally, there is one of the most ancient and honoured ways of funding your empire: offensive war. Which brings us to…
Fourthly, there are means of violence. Without them, there is no state: the Players’ power will only extend to the next street corner, and their subjects will be limited to their horses and possibly a butler. An army is needed primarily for maintaining order and protection of borders from external aggression. If the country is small, then its armed forces will be miniature too, but it’s not a problem — what matters is if it can defend you from an aggressive neighbour or not; and armies of a hundred men, although they may seem bizarre today, used to be pretty normal. What matters is that they are loyal, well-fed and adequately armed (including horses and any logistics that would apply), and that they can react reasonably fast to most threats. Since many Players are more interested in war than other duties of a lord, let them have fun hiring people, appointing officers and making grand plans, which at some point will of course be tested by the cold reality — but you already know that, right?
Fifthly and finally, there are other duties that must be taken care of by our heroic lords, because of the simple fact that they are still heroes. Their social promotion has not changed this (we’re still assuming they got their seat of power while adventuring): by fantasy stereotypes, a wizard is still a wizard (or in this case perhaps a Witch-King), a barbarian is a barbarian, a priestess — a priestess, etc. They’re not only the same people as before, they also have the same goals, and ruling over a country is an excellent addition to their means of reaching these goals. Besides, it should be noted that their adventuring past never goes away; they still have the same friends and foes as before, although relations between them may change (for example, enemies may give up their vendetta against people who suddenly rose above their league, or move the conflict from a personal/criminal level to a political level). Whatever the circumstances, it is important to remember that what surrounds the characters is not a completely new reality, even if the Players themselves forget it for a while.
Well, Game Master, do you like this idea? I can assure you most Players like it a lot, since power is obviously a very potent motivation for most RPG characters (at least before they understand how much difficult work it entails). Of course it’s you who knows best what entertains your Players, therefore you should focus on aspects of ruling they are most interested in: some will thoroughly enjoy setting disputes and passing judgement on criminals, others will delve into making money, and others yet will envision an army worthy of Napoleon and show great determination in building and using it, for the glory of their land. Just make sure everyone gets their share and, well, may their reign last forever! Or at least until you find something else for them to do.
It often happens that the most interesting RPG locations are in fact quite ordinary and well-known, even if not commonly used in official adventures for various systems. Because of their absence in such sources, and therefore no imprint on the medium, we game masters tend to overlook them as well. And this is not good, as they often provide fabulous opportunities for plots. One such place is a train — be it a luxury passenger transport or a plain line of coal trucks.
To be frank, train as an adventure location hasn’t been completely forgotten by creators, which is best illustrated by the spectacular Call of Cthulhu campaign Horror in Orient Express. However, horror is hardly the only convention that can make use of trains; they also do very well in action, crime, drama or even erotic sessions. In this article we will look at trains primarily in the 20th century context (like the abovementioned Call of Cthulhu game), but it can also be adapted to many other typical RPG settings, focused on past (steampunk) or future (futuristic subways, transportation of resources on Mars — railroad transport is economical and can withstand harsh conditions) or even pure fantasy (ghost train to the afterlife!). So let’s have a look at this particular environment and determine some ways of using it.
Being non-stationary is the most obvious feature of a train: it is not bound to one place, instead it moves along a fixed, sometimes very long path. This feature was used in the Call of Cthulhu campaign I referred to before, as it made the train its chief form of transportation, which served to move the party not just between locations but also between crucial plot nodes. Even if railroad travel is not that important in our adventure, it cannot be ignored that it sets the landscape behind the window in a constant shift, which allows us to begin lunch on one side of the mountains and finish it on the other. Needless to say, at the very least it enables the game master to try some new descriptions, and possibly even plot points.
Plot-wise, the most important feature of a railroad is impossibility to deviate from the path. This means that hijacking a train will not enable the perpetrators to escape to Sri Lanka; all they will be able to do is maintain speed, and most likely be eventually overcome by the police. On the other hand, such a mindless race can be a source of danger, if the rails are broken or if a bridge collapses… Leaving a train can also be problematic, if it won’t or can’t stop. See paragraph 4 of this article for more on railroad-related dangers.
By structure I mean the actual, physical outline of a train. Although it’s a vehicle, it is in many ways more like a building: it has rooms and other facilities; mostly stores, but bedrooms, kitchens and restaurants can be found there as well. You can walk around it, sit in random places, and like with any other building, even find yourself lost in it (albeit briefly).
What’s more, every carriage and compartment can differ from the others or be made special because of the passengers that travel in it. This is particularly important in high society sessions and in fantastic settings of clashing cultures. This enables the game master to create a small, isolated environment, divided into distinct zones of influence that can be used in many ways. The most trivial use would be to place some sort of opponent in the middle of the train (An old enemy? An evil prince? An SS officer? A monster?) who would be very hard to avoid if the party wants to get past them. Other ideas are a diplomatic scenario with multiple factions (preferably ones that vehemently refuse to talk to each other despite physical vicinity, thus placing the players in the role of mediators), an erotic session where every compartment features a different person/group to interact with, and so on.
When speaking of isolation in regard to a train setting, one is likely to think of the Wild West, where a steel horse runs across limitless prairies, or perhaps of the trans-Siberian railroad. However, if you think about it, even a contemporary Town A — Town B train is quite efficiently cut off from the surrounding world. If a terrorist attack, sudden epidemic or alien invasion happens in a building or any other fixed place, then of course it is still a problem for the locals, but at least some sort of counter-strike can always be organized; try doing the same in against a high-speed train though. Such a vehicle can of course be easily destroyed (by disabling tracks or a number of other means), but if the train or its cargo must be saved, then one’s options are quickly reduced to scratching their head in hope that something extraordinary happens (for example, that a group of player characters on board will solve the problem).
Travelling by train is choke full of elements that guarantee quick and sudden death, such as speed, embankments at least 10 m high and bridges over chasms at least 100 m deep (after J. Wittlin, author of the classical and spectacular Scribbler’s Vademecum, which takes great pleasure ridiculing common tropes in fiction books). Velocity, breakneck jumps, hijackings and breakdowns — these are all quite common in movies, which means that they are thoroughly tested and stimulate imagination well. Why not use them in an RPG session, where they can still pass for a novelty? Action scenarios are bound to pick up the pace if fights happen on the roofs of speeding carriages, and if a valid way of eliminating a foe is to position their head on the path of an incoming concrete pillar. Besides, the element of danger can easily be used as a time limiter: if we don’t stop the train within 30 minutes, we will all die in a precipice!
Whoever controls the engine, controls the entire train. What’s more, the locomotive is normally located at the very front of the entire thing, which makes it easy to defend by any faction which succeeds in securing it. If all you want is to get off, you just need to separate your carriage (and everything behind it) from the train’s front, but if you want to stop the entire train, you must seize control of the engine. This motif was used many times in action films, so there is no need to elaborate on it much.
If you want, you can also make the players ask the question: is there even a driver on board? Emotions guaranteed.
6. Where to steal from
Finally, let me give you a short list of possible inspirations for railroad-related scenarios. I hope they will provide your players with a healthy dose of stress, and yourself — with diabolical satisfaction.
Fantômas Returns (Fantômas se déchaîne)
North by Northwest
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie
Firefly episode: The Train Job
Soldier of Fortune (level with the nuclear warhead)
Star Wars: Jedi Academy (mission on Corellia)
Railroad Tycoon/Transport Tycoon Deluxe and similar (because theory never hurts)
Hello, my name is Michał Solański (mostly known around the web as Solarius Scorch) and this is my second article on Seventh Sanctum. Our benevolent host Steven Savage was kind enough to invite me to open my own article series called “Bag of Tricks”, in which I will suggest a number of plot ideas and, well, tricks for game masters. Each article will cover a different RPG genre by addressing one particular problem or aspect — sometimes central to the genre, sometimes just interesting enough to be discussed. I hope you shall find it useful, or at least entertaining to some extent.
This initial article covers heroic fantasy, though it may be somewhat applicable to other fantasy genres featuring thematic heroes and individual combat.
Shōnen is a very popular manga and anime genre, including such titles as Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, Dragon Ball or Fairy Tail (and if you include its close relative, seinen, also series like Ninja Scroll or Basilisk). Shōnen stories usually feature adventures of absurdly powerful warriors, mixed with typical middle school level shenanigans and significant amounts of fanservice. Therefore the shōnen genre appeals to nearly all male teenagers (which means boys 12 to 65 years old), and the characters themselves also attract hordes of fangirls. Fanservice aside, these titles are watched for one major reason: fighting scenes! Most shōnen series are extremely silly, but that’s not the point at all; what counts is fighting with swords (or kunai, naginatas, bare fists — mark your favourite answer if you like these things). And this is what makes them watchable.
As a genre that specializes in martial action, shōnen developed a number of rather interesting means of heating up scenes to the max. Naturally, some of them are just camera work and other audiovisual methods, but since this column is about role-playing games, let’s have a look at plot-related tropes that make shōnen fights unique. After all, the art of game mastering is largely an art of theft, all in order to enrich your players’ experience during the weekly gorefest.
It should be pretty clear by now that this little article is most useful for heroic fantasy games, where player characters can and will fight, fight, fight the power! Call of Cthulhu is unlikely to apply here, but on the other hand my old eyes have seen things I once considered unimaginable…
Some enemies simply cannot be beaten, period. However, their invincibility doesn’t originate simply from their overwhelming might, or “high enough level”, but from some particular property they have — something that gives them the ability to easily and leisurely negate all attacks launched at them. The most straightforward examples of such abilities are defensive powers, like instant dematerialization (rendering the user able to ignore strikes and go through walls), armour that cannot be punctured in battle conditions, or good old total invisibility. More advanced forms of Impassability may be based on pretty much anything, starting with rapid cloning to commanding air currents to the ability to absorb attacks as raw energy. It doesn’t matter how exactly Impassability works, what matters is that this opponent is absolutely impossible to overcome, unless they do something really stupid — and you know they won’t…
How can we use such an opponent in our adventure? Naturally, its main use is to force the players to come up with a plan to win against them despite each normal attack being mercilessly nullified (otherwise it wouldn’t be an Impassable enemy after all). Ideally, in order to bring down this one foe, the characters would have to use their special abilities creatively, but it’s not really necessary — getting them to come up with an interesting, non-obvious idea is what really counts.
Let’s consider a simple example: the opponent has placed a network of magical portals on the battlefield, between which he can freely travel in a blink of the eye, and each teleportation also provides instantaneous healing; moreover, these portals cannot be destroyed without some advanced magic that the party doesn’t have. Such an opponent cannot realistically be vanquished by normal means, unless with one extremely strong and accurate attack that would be way beyond the party’s hopes.
However, understanding the nature of the Impassability and some creative use of combat terrain can still turn the tides of battle: for example, the heroes might succeed in using the portal network for sending a magical discharge which will temporarily stun the enemy (preferably after some diversion). Or perhaps after an appropriately long (and probably painful) observation they will find some sort of weakness in the enemy technique, eg. for a fraction of a second after teleportation he is defenceless? This challenge may prove to be really difficult to your players, but remember that nothing compares to the wonderful feeling of showing someone who considers themselves invincible that they were wrong after all.
Another variant of this idea, perhaps easier on the players — but equally interesting — is pitching two Impassable warriors against each other (naturally, at least one of them is likely to be a player character). Both combatants realize that they are unable to hurt each other just like that, because, say, one of them is protected by a flawless armour, while the other has insane regeneration rate and also can absorb matter into their own body.
Winning will be a tough nut to crack for both of them; merely looking for an opening will probably take most of the duel, but with some decent narration, this struggle can make the player in question sweat a lot. If it’s the player character who has the armour and their enemy is the one regenerating, a good idea would be to start by separating the opponent from the ground to deny them access to regeneration material — but how to do this? Conversely, their opponent will look for a way to find a way to win that doesn’t involve piercing through the opponent’s armour — maybe they could be buried alive or electrocuted? Each combatant will therefore keep looking for a way to overcome the other’s absolute defence, while trying to predict how their own absolute defence might be rendered ineffective. The one to find and use the method first will be the winner.
Wrong place, wrong enemy
Let’s have a look at another common shōnen plot. Many players have a tendency of getting used to one particular fighting method that they use against absolutely everyone, because for some reason it simply is the most efficient. In its most primitive version it’s just the “I cut them with my sword, because I have it at +5”, but it may also refer to a particular spell, manoeuvre or special ability, depending on the setting and mechanics. Such a trademark move is nothing bad per se, it can even be quite helpful in establishing the character’s image (most protagonists featured in anime for teenagers also have one standard combat technique to use on most foes), but in the long run it may get a little boring. Especially if half of the PCs are using the exact same move. Let’s spice things up from time to time, shall we?
What do I have in mind? It’s simple: let’s put our hero in a situation where using his default power is impossible or inefficient. Do they rely upon their speed and agility in combat? Make them fight on slippery ground where sudden movement is out of the question (if we’re feeling extra mean, let’s give the enemy an ability or equipment to ignore such terrain hazards). Do they solve everything with a fireball? Make them fight underwater. Are they a powerful psionic, able to attack minds directly? Throw mindless robots at them. And so on, et cetera.
As you probably can see, such decisions’ only goal is to knock the player off their everyday routine: denied their trademark move, they will have to fall back to other abilities (perhaps considered of little use before), and most of all to think hard on what to do. But there is also another reason why such a plot idea can be beneficial: although abilities that are written on a character sheet and meticulously improved session to session are very fun (because it’s fulfilling and satisfying to use them), we only really get to know them when we learn of their limitations. A player who loves their fireball spell is unlikely to no longer like it if they can’t use it for once; but if carefully prodded, they may start to like it even more, because it becomes more substantial — a specialist’s trusted tool instead of a simple problem-solving button.
Nevertheless, this trick should be used sensibly — otherwise the player is likely to interpret it not as an interesting plot element, but rather as common pettiness on the game master’s side. It should also be used sparingly, because it’s supposed to be an exceptional situation after all, one removed from everyday experience. Still, watching a fire mage frantically searching through their pockets for that cheap water spell scroll they would never use normally is quality entertainment for the entire party (and certainly for the game master).
A motif with a person
When considering supervillains and many shōnen heroes, it is easy to identify some sort of a motif that is attached to nearly all of them and often determines their basic attributes — looks, equipment and special powers. These powers, or some central aspect of them, is what more often than not appears to be the character’s core: it seems to conceptually determine their other features. For example Kimimarō from Naruto is able to transform his own bones (which allows him to turn his bones into blades protruding from his skin), therefore his body is frail, his complexion pale, and his eyes dead. Similarly, Fairy Tail protagonist Natsu, being an apprentice of a dragon with fire- based powers, has flame-like hair, sharp teeth and explosive temper. Or compare Medusa from Soul Eater, known for her affinity for snakes, has yellow eyes with vertical slits and a very expressive tongue. While not every shōnen character has their motif, even not having one can also be significant in some way, as it may denote someone really special.
How exactly does it relate to role-playing? Such a motif is not very likely to be crucial to battle tactics or contents of a campaign, but certainly is a comfortable and easy method of creating non-player characters that players will remember. Such a move may also have beneficial effects on the conceptual coherence of an adventure, helping introduce some symbolics to it (more or less unsubtly). How directly we should use this idea depends of course on our party’s sophistication, who may or may not be impressed with such motif characters, so let’s not get carried away here. However, I guarantee that even if your players are deadly serious people, who consider something like a snake-man to be utterly pathetic, they are still bound to appreciate the fact that a mysterious knight that turned out to have a snake-like tongue had been seen much earlier with a shield depicting a snake, and not, say, a badger.
Speaking of the rather important issue of potential laughableness: why would anyone walk around in some bizarre outfit, and one related to their powers to boot? Well, such a hero (or villain) should be designed so that such clothes would be beneficial or necessary to their profile, or at least neutral. If for example our subject commands metal, it wouldn’t be weird for them to wear heavy armour all the time and be known to the world as the Iron Count (don’t forget to give them steel-coloured eyes). Similarly, it would be logical for an adept of martial arts taught by Secret Masters of the Sun who Reign the Light to wear a robe embroidered with sun symbols, showing their pride and reverence for this tradition, and perhaps to abuse figures of speech related to sun or daylight. Like I mentioned before, the level of subtlety should be chosen according to our players to avoid excessive campiness, but it’s almost always good to use such ideas for one simple reason: in shōnen series, only common thugs and other small fries wear civilian clothes, important characters hardly ever do.
Eventually, it should be said that motifs have a tendency to pass from a master to a pupil, from an ancestor to a descendant (particularly obvious in Naruto, but fairly prevalent across the genre). Style imitation is not only a matter of practicality (logically, a pupil will know the same techniques as their teacher), but it is also a sign of the pupil’s loyalty and pride. It is particularly important if the master was met with an untimely end, and their student takes upon themselves the responsibility for continuation of their master’s work.
This mechanism in itself can be exploited by game masters in several ways: for example let’s assume that the party needs to find a famous hero, who is known to wear long coat with a red rune of fire and an inquisitorial hat with a feather, which in the given setting is quite an exotic outfit. When they finally succeed in finding this person, it turns out that the guy is not only much younger than expected, but there are also additional issues (examples: the youngster can’t really do much; the youngster can do a lot, but mistakenly blames the party for killing their master; the youngster works for the opposite side of the conflict; etc.). Such plot hooks can easily result in scenes that are either comedic or dramatic, whatever suits you best.
And so we’ve reached the end of this little article. I have briefly described just three of the many dead horse shōnen tropes that with minimal effort can be translated to the language of role playing games and included in your bag of plot tricks. Naturally, this little list is quite far from completion, and many readers are bound to come up with more ideas. Why don’t you share them in the comment section below? Dattebayo!