The Journey’s the thing; part 1

Written By: Stephen Dove - Nov• 30•13

Travel is a significant part of most fantasy novels, yet is often glossed over in films and RPG adventures. This is understandable; after all, it can be hard to interest players in what seems a ‘mundane activity’. And besides, the medieval maxim that ‘the journey is more important than the destination’ is a conceit that sits uncomfortably with the modern mindset, obsessed as we all are with ‘goals’ and ‘outputs’. However, the root of games like Dragon Warriors, Ars Magica and Harn are real or pseudo-medieval literature where travel often plays a central role; look at Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales‘, or modern equivalents set in Medieval times, like Kate Sedley’s ‘Roger the Chapman‘ series of historical novels.

Indeed travel can be the place where you really start to explore your character and their interactions with the other PCs and their environment. In my Jewelspider Chronicles campaign, ‘camp time’ has come to mean that part of the day where the players use the mundane tasks of setting up camp, hunting and lighting fires to further deepen their characters. Laura in our group is particularly good at asking questions that cause the other players to think about how their fictional persona really feels about the world. She’ll say things like ‘Malvol; why did you go off to join the crusades?’ or will ask Jasper ‘who his parents were.’ Admittedly, this kind of interaction can be difficult at first, but then if you never try to encourage it, then your game can quickly devolve into mindless monster slaying, though that can be fun for a while too. I guess some people just want to ‘kill things and take their stuff’ but I’ve had a few players who started out like this and even they enjoyed roleplaying in the end. I suppose I am also helped in GMing travel because I have done a fair bit of rough camping in Mongolia, Slovenia and the UK and so enjoy camp life and can imagine and convey the atmosphere of the journey to my players. With a little research and a bit of reading, you too can convey the same impression.

There is another, far more important reason for including travel as a part of the adventure, rather than the ‘boring bit’ that happens before or after the ‘main event’ and that’s because a road is just another, and potentially far more interesting form of the ‘adventure flowchart’ exemplified by the dungeon. It is a physical entity that goes from one place to another, is easily conceptualised and has obvious choices that players can control in the same way as they can in a dungeon. And unlike the dungeon, it allows the PCs to explore the mundane world, which is an essential counterpoint to the eldritch world in all games. Indeed one technique that can be important to establish the tone of a campaign is to root the first few sessions firmly in the mundane world, and have this aspect of your game to fall back on whenever the Players have finished an adventure. The kind of ‘medieval road adventure’ that I am advocating here fits perfectly with this philosophy. Indeed it could be argued that such a ‘road-sandbox’ is one of the great untapped adventure forms; at least as far as published material is concerned.

So how do you go about setting such a campaign up? Well first you need a framework; a reason why your adventuring group is on the road, and is likely to stay on the road for a while. Here are a few examples of frameworks used in books, films or adventures I have run:

1) The PCs are tax collectors; or perhaps they are involved in compiling a version of the Book of Domesday, that most famous record of every manor and farm in medieval England.

2) The PCs are part of a troupe of travelling players, merchants, or sellers of relics.

3) The PCs are pretending to be players but are actually spies who one lord sets to keeping an eye on the towns and villages of his rivals. Perhaps the PCs are hired to cause ‘mishaps’ or other seeming  acts of ill-fortune in the domain of his enemy.

4) The PCs are thief takers, who travel the roads looking to collect the silver that goes with apprehending the many ‘wolf’s heads’ who prey on travellers.

5) The PCs are con-artists who travel the drovers’ roads of the Kingdom, dicing the ignorant and unwary shepherds out of their hard-won coin. They must avoid thief takers and others who would thwart them.

6) The PCs are on a pilgrimage ‘to every shrine in area X’; perhaps as penance for past misdeeds. I have used this idea as the way to get a party of strangers together in a past campaign; as a group of pilgrims on a shared route forced to band together to survive the rigours of travel and the fact that someone travelling with them was a in fact a murderer!

7) The PCs are involved with the local Coroner; in medieval times a ‘Crowner’ or Coroner was actually the King’s official in England who investigated serious crimes. See Bernard Knight’s excellent ‘Crowner John‘ series of novels for an insight into the life of a medieval Coroner.

Once you have your framework you need a mechanism to keep your players ‘on the straight and narrow’, i.e. the road! The easiest is the risk of getting lost. Just throw away any rules in your game that allow the PCs to navigate with pin point accuracy; the fact is, that if you don’t know the local area then leaving the ‘road’ can be a very bad idea, as a friend and I found out in 2011 when crossing a mountainous area in Mongolia on horseback. Our road was nothing more than a dirty scar running across the hilly steppe and we felt no remorse in leaving it behind. Two days later we still had not found the small town we were trying to get to; one that we should have reached by the end of that first evening, and we had maps and modern GPS equipment.

Early travel maps in fact, were often predicated on the idea that the traveller would be using the roads. In case you have never seen one, these ‘pilgrim maps’ were just long rolls of very narrow parchment or paper, that only showed the inns, stopping places, crossroads and landmarks along one linear route of travel. They literally ignored the countryside and wilderness to either side of the road; for those lonely areas were places of dread to the ordinary pilgrim or merchant. This is the only kind of map that I suggest you make available to your players if you want to run a ‘road-sandbox’; perhaps set up in the wayside inns or hostels. See Matthew Paris’ map below for an example.

Paris1

Matthew Paris’ medieval pilgrims’ map from London to Rome circa 1250 AD

One excellent way to deal with navigation is to roleplay it like you would anything else; an idea championed by Ben Robbins in his famous Westmarch Campaign. I mean, do you lay the maps of your dungeons out and say to your players, ‘where do you want to go?’ Of course not; you describe the twists and turns of the corridors and ask your players to tell you what they do. In his Westmarch Campaign, Ben described what the PCs could see in the distance and asked them where they were going. His players quickly realised that travelling in the wilderness was difficult, dangerous and carried a high chance that they would become lost if they had no guide, map or local knowledge.  Following a road, trail or river quickly became the default in his games; just as was actually the case in medieval times. The point of this is to make going off the road something your players will think very carefully about, before doing. Obviously this can be overdone and you have to strike a balance. The key with this is to make getting lost interesting! Perhaps the PCs strike up a friendship with charcoal burners, wood-cutters or hunters as a result of becoming lost. Or perhaps they stumble upon a ‘ghost village’ and awake the next morning to find the whole place a tumbledown ruin. Tracking food and water can also convince your players to take the wilderness more seriously, as can the weather.

The point of all this is to make the wilderness ‘special’ and ill-omened. You are essentially foreshadowing your future adventure locales by separating them off from the mundane world and into the ‘wilderness’. Your players may know that medieval people feared going to places they did not know, but part of your job GMing a ‘road-sandbox’ is to make your players fear it as well.

Settlements

Now you need to make every settlement along the route ‘special’ in some way. It can be via a shrine, a fayre or anything at all, but all the settlements should have some ‘handle’ that can be used to showcase it’s uniqueness to your players. I mean, if you think ‘this is just another boring village’ then your players will as well. Here are a few ideas;

1) The village or town is in the grip of a fierce feud between the laity and their church over land or the tithe. The settlement is on the verge of a riot.

2) The town is the site of a shrine and the settlement is always full of pilgrims and the sick seeking healing.

3) The settlement is on the main route of the King’s Assizes and all manner of disputes are being brought before the justices, as well as a few public executions.

4) Ancient gold was once found in one of the old barrows close by this village and now the locals have endless trouble with treasure hunters and ne’er do wells hanging around the area, stealing food and looking for buried treasure.

5) The settlement seems quiet but several locals have taken to watching any travellers that come through and then following them and stealing their horses and gear whilst they’re asleep.

6) The Inn is said to be haunted and few travellers care to stay there but since it’s that or the moor, the Inn it is.

7) The settlement is in the grip of bandits who come every moon and demand tribute. The local lord is to old to give challenge to the bandits and now the villagers want to get aid from outsiders.

8) There are lots of ruins outside the village; they could be from a the recent past e.g. a ruined abbey that was destroyed by the King for defying him, or they could be more ancient.

My next post will be part 2 of this article.

On belief in RPGs

Written By: Stephen Dove - Nov• 22•13

In the early incarnations of D&D, the creators emphatically stated that ‘this game does not deal with the beliefs of your characters, nor should these beliefs become a part of play’. I can understand why the designers took this view, because delving into strange fictional belief systems is hazardous when you are still shrugging off accusations of ‘devil-worship’ and fighting the other mass-misconceptions about role-playing games that existed in the 1980s and which still occasionally rear their heads even today. Then there is the problem of offending players if in-game religions co-opt real world theology in order to give the world that visceral feel that is so much a part of games like Dragon Warriors.

Yet something about glossing over beliefs has always struck me as wrong; I mean how can you play a character, especially a religious character, when you have no idea what they actually believe? Indeed, no game like Dragon Warriors can ever feel truly authentic unless the game pays a greater degree of lip service to religion and belief than is found in your average FRPG.

I have already written elsewhere of the value of having a Creation Myth for Legend in terms of world-building and have presented our version for Mundus that could also do double duty in your Dragon Warriors game if you’re so inclined. Another side benefit of such a myth is that, being obviously tied to Kastianism (our version of medieval Christianity) the myth also includes the orthodox world view of the main sect of the Kastian Church, and by extension if you so desire, the True Faith in Legend.

This means that your new shiny religious Knight PC now has a much more fleshed out belief system than he did before. Sorcerors and monsters can now be ‘hated’ with the vitriol of the true believer because the myth furnishes the player with the perfect justification; that they are anathemas. The former are actually draining the One God’s mortal frame of life, weakening him and pushing further away the day when he will remake the world as it should have unfolded. The latter incite mortals into false beliefs that have the same effect when those apparently mundane humans go to sleep; because the myth tells us that unguarded dreams are the means by which unwary humans originally changed the world and continue to distort in to this day. This gives a such a character a reason to adventure beyond the usual desire to ‘fill his haversack with bright silver’ to misquote Bretwald the priest from The King under the Forest.

The myth also explains why it is imperative for humans to pray daily and to observe the rituals of the church; these daily rites renew the Ward of God upon men. This has two effects; the first is to protect their dreams, so that the power of their unconscious begins to bolster the Most High rather than the monsters of the world. The second function of the ward is to protect those who pray from the effects of magic itself. Indeed in LORE, all characters must track their Piety score because this can aid them when they are attacked by many types of sorcery. This balances the game by providing an integral mechanism for how the devout warrior can fling aside the eldritch blandishments of the Fey or the dark magic of demons, without having to imbue these mundane warriors with any form of magical protection. In LORE religious observance protects prince and pauper alike from real evil and this feels right to me, because those of faith were always able to conquer darkness in the stories of old and somehow we all want our own deeds to reflect those ancient tales. It also explains why the Kastians/True Faith seek to convert ‘heathens’ because not to do so distorts the world ever more, creating more monsters and more Gloamings as unguarded minds, lacking the protection of The Ward of God, fall foul of their dreams.

Of course certainty is actually the real anathema to roleplaying; especially to a world like Legend, which is why the canny GM uses the creation myth to hint at but not to confirm any one set of beliefs. Indeed in LORE, Sorcerors commonly believe that God’s mortal frame died in Ehdan long ago and so they claim that humans are now the rightful heirs of God’s power whereas Pagans religions teach a different world view. The Narrator (as the GM in LORE is called) is instructed never to resolve which of these beliefs is true, for all are compatible with the nature of magic. The wise GM uses such contrasts in belief to enliven his stories without ever letting the players know which one is true; so religion and belief became yet another facet of the ever changing interplay between PCs, and their environment and another way for the dedicated player to enrich his experience of play.

One facet of play in LORE that was always hinted at in Dragon Warriors but never fully explored was the concept of the religious year. In real medieval times, the year was a tapestry of Saints’ Days, so we have co-opted these festivals into a calendar with religious but also magical implications. The mundane implications are the feast days, and Fayres that were so much a part of the colour of real medieval life. Yet here again our Creation Myth and the concept of Gloamings allows us to once again get more out of a simple religious calendar than might otherwise have been the case, because the size and exact boundary of many Gloamings are affected by such religious events, particularly those based on originally pagan festivals. Indeed on the festival of Sorth, the boundaries between many Gloamings and the waking world break down completely, allowing all manner of dark things birthed from human imagination to range across wood and field for this one night of the year, till dawn sends them scurrying home; at least in most cases….

Such a calendar can give a rhythm to a game that is often missing but sorely needed, when the PCs have to wait for a certain festival in order to enter a certain Gloaming for one of their nefarious purposes for some spells can only be enacted in a Gloaming and not all Gloamings are the same. The wise GM uses this again to flavour his campaign and to make it unique from the run of the mill dungeon bashes found in D&D, for in a Gloaming, nothing is mundane and danger lies around every corner. Have more fun in the Cobwebbed Forests!

Why your game needs Gloamings

Written By: Stephen Dove - Nov• 17•13

I first coined the term ‘Gloaming’ in 1992; well before WoTC used the same word to describe a rather lame monster in one of their many Monster Manuals. My Gloamings are basically ‘mini-otherworlds’; folds in space and time that create a sort of pocket universe where physical or magical laws can be different to the mundane world. I love them because they can be as small as a single cave or as vast as an entire Kingdom, and they are essentially hidden away from the common world because they can only be entered via invisible doorways or portals, many of which only touch the waking world during the hours of darkness, during a full moon or when certain constellations hold sway. In fact I love them so much that they occur in various forms, in most of the Fantasy worlds that I have created for the last 18 years; and that’s a fair few worlds in fact.

Why are Gloamings a good thing; well they are a world builders dream because my goal in creating fantasy settings has always been to make worlds that ‘feel’ right at the level of the heart and the gut? I want to create worlds that draw on all the half remembered history and mythology that is lurking in my unconscious. Indeed, I would say that for me Fantasy is all about the unconscious mind, not the rational one sitting on top of it. That’s why cross genre Sci-Fi meets magic never really works for me because it’s hard to be truly mythic when there are lasers and guns around. I have played Shadowrun and other similar games, but they’ve never really sat all that well with me. Fun for a one-shot or the occasional session but never for an extended campaign.

The result of always wanting ‘mythic worlds’ and settings for my game is that I constantly face various world-building challenges; the first is how to have magic and monsters and yet not allow them to so change the rules of the setting that we end up with Eberron or Forgotten Realms. I will confess to loathing ‘magitech’ in every one of its various forms, since the moment magic becomes science and technology then we are in the realm of rationality; and to me the rational kills any sense of Fantasy stone dead in a heartbeat.

I can see from this thread on RPG.net, that I am not the only GM to have faced this kind of world-building dilemma. I mean how can we make magic powerful, evocative and pervasive yet not have it break the setting to the point where the instinctive ‘medieval plus magic’ setting actually becomes impossible? Then there is the issue of monsters; many games treat them as just a part of the natural world in some fashion. Goblins are just cave dwelling aboriginals and Dragons just big intelligent lizards. I have always felt this is a mistake. Once they are a part of the natural world, they are mundane and the setting must actually account for them. How does trade happen in a world where rampaging monsters are to be found littering the countryside like some sort of animate confetti? Where every ruin is the haunt of some hideous beast and where powerful magic users could quickly take over the entire world using the simplest of their dweomers?

The common reaction to this is the one found in the D&D 3.5 DM’s Guide (p142). They have this to say:

Some DMs create cities in their campaigns that functions just like medieval historical towns. They are populated by people who aren’t accustomed to (or don’t believe in) magic, who don’t know anything about magical or mythical monsters and who have never seen a magic item.

This sort of creative work is a mistake. It will cause your players serious strain in their belief in the reality of your world for them to see that they wield spells and magic items, and the lands and dungeons surrounding the city are filled with magic and monsters, but yet in the middle of the city everything looks and acts like Europe during the middle ages.

The presence of magic in your setting forces you to deviate from a truly historical setting.

It goes on to suggest that everyone in your world should be aware of magic at some level and have defenses against invisible people or against levitation etc.

Whilst I agree with the statement that magic changes things, I loath the ‘solution’ they suggest. The sort of ‘magical arms race’ accepted as part and parcel of many d20 worlds is simply not acceptable to me and this is why Forgotten Realms and Golarion and all those types of worlds will never really capture my heart. I did enjoy playing in them long ago, but again only in the sort of ‘beer and pretzels’ type game that is great as an occasional interlude between more creative works, but not fun week after week.

My solution to the ‘magic and monsters’ dilemma is different; I hide monsters and adventures sites inside Gloamings. In some of my worlds, magic only works inside these Gloamings, in others, it works outside, but only for low level magic. Monsters can always leave these otherworlds, but often they are much weaker when they do so. In addition, monsters are not just animals; they are supernatural! They do not need to follow the laws of biology; they might not need to eat nor sleep. Gloamings allow me to create mythic dungeons that feel like something out of Pan’s Labyrinth; one’s that don’t have to make rational sense. They follow strict laws all right, just not necessarily the ones that the mundane world outside runs on.

Part of my world-building is thus always focused on explaining how these Gloamings came to be; I have used explanations that have ranged from them being petty gods’ realms, to otherworlds created by ‘Dreamstones’. As long as you have your particular ‘Creation Myth‘ then you can avoid the magical arms race suggested by Monte Cooke et al.

Why am I so intent on preserving a ‘medieval world feel’ you might ask? The answer is simply because it feels right to me. It is no accident that most fantasy fiction falls back on worlds with a very low penetration of magic and monsters into reality; it’s because we can relate to those worlds without a lot of thinking. They just feel right. So I want a world where magic is mystical, feared and misunderstood. I want a world where the idea of monsters is well known and where ordinary people take precautions against Fey (Rowan-wood fires, doors and window frames) but where the threat of these creatures is much more widespread that the reality. I want a world where everything functions the way medieval people believed it did and yet the setting is not so radically changed by magic and monsters, that it becomes something utterly alien. Gloamings allow me to do all that, and that’s why I believe that most FRP worlds that want to avoid the ‘medieval cartoon theme-park vibe’ need to include them.

Having said all this, a game with Gloamings in needs to make various adjustments. Magical classes might at first seem less powerful, but this is not necessarily true, because there are now no checks and counters to magic built into the mundane part of the setting and so invisibility spells are suddenly very powerful, as are simple illusion spells. Indeed a hint of magic is enough to terrify even the bravest in such a world and even a 15th level warrior could not counter the simplest of dweomers because his magic items will only function inside a Gloaming (assuming that magic is largely or completely contained within these otherworlds).

Magic items also command no true value any longer because most are very weak in power outside a Gloaming; the sort of place that only adventurers would ever dare go. So there are no magical item shops.

But the real difference comes in the feel of such games; the very mundanity of the waking world contrasts so strongly with the mythic feeling inside a Gloaming, that both parts of the game benefit from the juxtaposition. You can now have your urban murder mystery without worrying about those pesky divination spells but you can also change gear the next session and have them back, working normally inside a Gloaming; indeed I often have certain spells only work in certain types of Gloaming so if the PCs want to cast a powerful divination spells, then they must travel to a special magical location. And perhaps that location is only open to the waking world at certain times of the year……..

Indeed Gloamings allow vastly different changes of mood and scene without plane hopping all the time. You can, as a GM, ‘shift gears’ into different types of adventure, in the same backdrop without any feeling of dissonance.

Everything in a world full of Gloamings feels so much more like it ‘should’; at least for me. I am sure many of you have also been using them for many years, minus perhaps the name. I hope they inspire you to do something different with your next Fantasy world. Anyway, have more fun gaming!

 

 

Musings on Legend

Written By: Stephen Dove - Nov• 14•13

The world of Legend for me, is one of the most enduring FRP settings of all time, and I know I am not alone in holding that view. On the surface, this is a surprising statement, since as Dave Morris himself confesses, Legend was only ever meant to be a reflection of our own world, albeit seen ‘through a glass darkly’. We can only accept Dave’s word that Legend started out in this modest fashion, but I would suggest that along the way it somehow became suffused with an indefinable, yet distinct flavour; a curious mixture of horror and Fey eeriness that is quite different to even ostensibly similar (and perhaps even derivative) settings, like Ars Magica’s ‘Mythic Europe’.

Yet for all of its charm, Legend also has problems. As an arena to tell a certain kind of story in, it is unparalleled; but the fact remains that there is a lack of ‘sub-structure’ to build these stories upon. Indeed the only guide we have for creating new adventures is to look at the old ones we liked, and try to analyze why they worked. This is like having a legal system where there are no principals of law and everything is decided by the outcomes of past cases; things become messy, incoherent and contradictory very fast.

Indeed it is no accident that many GMs feel inadequate to the task of creating new adventures set in Legend. No less a luminary than Ian Sturrock of Serpent King Games has recently confessed to feeling exactly like this after finishing all the adventures in the books. In his defense, he was at school at the time, and at that stage I can remember feeling exactly the same. It is almost as if the very ‘Legend flavour’ that makes the world so distinct, is also a barrier to creating new stories set within its compass; perhaps because we instinctively understand that many kinds of stories ‘don’t fit’, but we can’t quite explain why and so cannot tweak them until they do feel right. This is because we lack a yardstick or set of landmarks or principals to guide us.

I have my own theory as to why this might be true, and that is simply that Legend lacks any sort of mechanism to explain how the world came to be. That, many would argue, is one of the setting’s strengths; because then ‘anything goes’. Yet as we have already explored above, that isn’t true! Try running an ‘orc bash’ in the middle of a classic Dragon Warriors adventure and you’ll quickly discover how dissonant the resulting tone of such an adventure will be. Having said that, one of Legend’s appeals is certainly that there aren’t great swathes of canon history or lore nailed down and if one can ‘decode’ the key to ‘Legend flavour’ then this lack of canon can indeed free a canny GM to create many different types of adventure.

However, I’ve found that Legend is a particularly difficult setting to run a long series of linked scenarios in; possibly because the lack of an overall ‘internal logic’ means that it’s easy to create adventures that, whilst ticking the ‘Legend flavour’ box are somehow dissonant with each other and so are ultimately unsatisfying. Indeed, I will confess that I find this is even true of some of the canon adventures; that they contain the essence of Legend and yet don’t sit easily with one another.

The ‘internal logic’ problems  of Legend extend to the conceits of the world. What do I mean by ‘conceits’? Well, whilst the ‘history’ of Legend is very loose, the following assumptions are hard-wired into the setting;

1) That the ‘old gods’ (and by this I mean many of the Fey and other ‘monsters’ as well as the Old Gods themselves) seemingly predate the the True Faith and the One God.

2) That these ‘monsters’ are not merely very powerful animals that fit into the ‘normal’ ecosystem of the world, as they do in many FRP settings. In Legend, there is something dream-like, eerie and otherworldly about even the oh so humble goblin. So we are left with the question, where did they come from?

3) That magic exists and further, that only certain people (bloodlines?) can wield this power; i.e. Sorcerors, Elementalists etc. Yet the source of magic is nowhere explained.

4) That many monsters are bound by arbitrary and seemingly convenient ‘covenants’ that prevent them ‘taking over the world’; such as the fact that some creatures seem bound to a certain place or must follow certain rules.

5) That despite coming after the Old Gods, the One God is in fact, the True Creator. And that he and those who worship him have some kind of ‘true power’ that is not magic but which sometimes changes reality via ‘miracles’ and is also manifest in the various ‘holy relics’ that exist.

6) That much of the world of Legend goes on without being much affected by magic or monsters, and often largely resembles medieval Europe around the 10-13th century AD.

These conceits as they are written are both blessings and curses; they are blessings, because they leave the GM free to put his own stamp on the world and to come up with his own answers. This makes the setting flexible and some would say, mystical. They are curses though, because unless the GM bothers to answer these questions for him/herself, then they’re likely to end up telling dissonant stories. Players will unconsciously try and piece together all of the mythology and if it doesn’t fit then it will bother some of them (I am one of those it would REALLY bother) even if they don’t know quite what’s wrong. It will happen like this because most of us unconsciously look for the ‘rules’ of any story we are told, because we have been taught to expect consistency in tone from stories from movies and books. So unless you answer the questions raised by the above conceits, then you may end up giving your players dissonant answers to these questions; much as I feel some of the existing canon adventures do. Of course it won’t kill the game, but it will lessen it’s impact.

It was musings like this, that provoked us to put a clear and up front creation myth behind our own world of Mundus. That one story answers all such questions for our new setting at a stroke and was originally inspired by decades of Gaming in half a dozen home-brew worlds that all resembled Legend in one way or another. With such a creation myth, we have a much clearer idea of what fits and what does not, because we know how the world came to be. This makes the GM’s task much easier when it comes time to fashioning adventures and I would recommend that all GMs using Legend go through the same process of world-building themselves, to make sense of these conceits and give themselves a framework to build upon. It doesn’t matter if you come up with completely different answers to us; sometimes, asking the questions is enough to provoke and inspire some truly epic world-building. Anyway, have fun in the Cobwebbed Forests!

 

Geneology in Dragon Warriors

Written By: Stephen Dove - Nov• 11•13

De Toyne family tree copy

The above handout is something the PCs in my current Legend-based campaign discovered in the archives of Vennforth Abbey. That campaign, dubbed the Jewelspider Chronicles, is about a band of disparate adventurers who are bound by a promise to Ulric the Sorceror. They have been tasked to deliver a ‘gifted’ child to Mrykyn the Necromancer (of ‘The Greatest Prize‘ fame), though one or two of them have already guessed that this is just a pretext; what Ulric really wants is an ‘Elf Horse’ from Mrykyn’s stables that he lost to the Necromancer decades ago in a wager.

What I, as the GM wanted was a medieval ‘road movie’ ala Canterbury Tales or like Karen Maitland’s more recent book ‘Company of Liars‘, and that’s just what I’ve got; I heartily recommend Karen’s book by the way! It’s dripping with the sort of medieval eeriness that I strive for as a DM. The Jewelspider Chronicle actually started life as a Dragon Warriors campaign but now we’ve ported the characters over to LORE RPG, as it seems to model medieval lite gaming better than DW does, especially the magic system.

So what’s special about the above family tree? Well what’s delicious for me as GM is the fact that one of the PCs (Maelee; actually Melais de Toyne) has been in a faerie realm called a Gloaming for thirty years. Meanwhile another (Malvol or Malady de Gard) is a Knight, recently returned from the holy land. So imagine the players’ reaction when they discovered, after nigh on 6 sessions of play, that Maelee is Malvol’s aunt! Malvol was also most surprised to find his Father was still alive (he was thought dead in the same year Malady-Malvol was born) and had remarried into the Montombre Family. You just know this is going to go wrong now don’t you?

It is actually amazing how much mileage I’ve had out of this one simple prop; and that’s not including a suggestion of incest in Malvol’s family that we haven’t ‘discussed’ yet! Ahem!

It tells Melais, for example, that her 90 year old mother is still alive somewhere, and also shows that Tancred de Toyne, who was a life-long friend of both Malvol and another PC; Carroe, was also a blood relative of Maelee. And that said Knight has left a son somewhere who he named after his childhood friend and cousin; Malvol. It’s stuff like that, that can really bind a party together; three of the PCs have now vowed to find and protect the boy! This campaign is almost writing itself.

So I urge you all to get your pencils out and start your next game with a family tree; it really takes the players ‘back to their roots’ and you can spring a surprise or two on them into the bargain.