07 December 2013

Starting from scratch (pt I)



A turn of phrase that runs through gaming forums is “lazy GMing.” This isn’t meant as a pejorative by its advocates.  They seek an approach that imposes as little work as practical on a GM, and that approach has many facets.

I’m not particularly in their camp.  I’ve done, over the years, a massive amount of work on my sandbox setting, and have details available in insane amounts.  It’s not merely that I have blurbs on over a thousand businesses in the great capital out of which my campaign operates ... it’s that I’ve also got a dozen or two blurbs for every significant village within two days’ ride of that capital, and as many as a hundred for every significant city in the kingdom.  I know who rules every province, something about that person’s family, and the same about every subordinate fiefholder.  I know the order, rough power level and location of every wizard of journeyman level and above in the kingdom.  I know all these things about many of the other major realms around too.

But I’ve also had over three decades now to work on this.  People ask me, at times, how to start a long-term campaign from scratch, and not out of some game company’s shrinkwrap either.  I can’t hand them my own approach – that’d be silly and counterproductive.  If you’re running a campaign (say) set in colonial Massachusetts, why waste time on statting out Philadelphia just on the off-chance the party might go there someday?  They’re in Plymouth now.

I’ll give my answer over a few columns.

Opening Gambit

Design a small town and about thirty miles in every direction, with as much detail as possible, because the players are going to pester you with questions if they’re anything other than hack-n-slashers.  Put the town on the outskirts of a frontier province, well away from the run of national politics and wealth. 

It’s also best to make the country isolated, behind natural barriers, and unlikely to be hip deep in worldspanning politics.  Sorry, I don't need a detailed timeline for the history of the land going back a thousand years, something a lot of even professional game designers waste time and ink putting together. With very few exceptions, no one cares that Empress Lynessia III was the last monarch of Vallia to personally lead troops in war, winning the decisive battle of Fourth Council Rock against the Avanari 174 years ago. It's enough to say that the empires of Vallia and Avanar are traditional enemies and have a turbulent, heavily militarized border, the last full-scale war being seventeen years ago.

I've seen a few too many gazetteers filled with little beyond what any GM with a Random Kingdom Creation Table could crank out. A name-population-principal product-name of leader deal, that’s not of a lot of interest to players, who usually want to know if it’s a large town or a small town, but don’t give a damn that the population is 2517 as opposed to 2403 or whether there are 20 fishing boats or 40. 

Give me, instead, two or three pressing problems or notable conflicts about a town or district. Give me a folk custom or two prevalent in the area; the wearing of the color blue by men is considered bad luck, or that every business takes a fiesta between noon and 1 PM.  Give me things beyond mere demographic nuts-and-bolts.  I like to know, for instance, whether your frontier town has a reputation as a cultural trendsetter, and locally-trained musicians have a cachet for hundreds of miles around, or that it has historical significance far beyond its political or economic weight (a Plymouth, MA, say).

Businesses?  Well, you’ve got my previous article on town building.  Write a paragraph or two on each.  Here’s an example from a small village in my campaign:

  • Sign of the Red and Blue Pot:  With the death of the previous owner, her last surviving relative by marriage, a foreigner, Kesem kin Swallowflame, has taken over this well-stocked general store, which has a good array of housewares, tools, bulk grain and provisions, and textiles.  While he is a decent enough merchant (-13, various scholarly subjects-14/15), he has been trained to a scholarly life and educated at a great university, and somewhat resents having to take a menial job in the countryside.   Postings for foreign philosophers are not plentiful, but Kesem still pours his meager profits – he’s wont to let customers run up a tab – into books brought in from the capital, trying to keep up with new teachings and still hopeful of scholarly preference.

And there you have it.  What, no stat block?  No weapons skills?  No magical items?  Of course not.  The PCs aren’t going to fight this guy, and we don’t care what his Health or Move are, whether he has Climbing skill, or how much damage he can do if he clouts you over the head with that grain flail leaning up against the corner.  What they’re going to want from him is to fill up their packs with smoked sausage and biscuit for their adventure into the forest, and if they find out he’s a wannabe scholar, whether he can read that weird text they found.  What you’re going to need from him is an insight into his personality so that you can play him effectively as a vivid NPC, and we can all see the image that arises: a fellow starting to show grey hairs, somewhat fussy, somewhat distracted, somewhat irritable, possibly dressed grander (if shabbier) than the village standard, always with his nose in a book, and excited only when travelers come through town with books to sell.

And heck ... if he does need to fight, a GM ought to be able to determine, very quickly, the combat stats for an average villager.  Using GURPS, average stats are 10, so if Kesem trains once a month with the village militia, he may well have ST 10, DX 10, HT 10, a Speed of 5.5, a Spear skill of 12, with (say) a leather jerkin for armor (DR 1), a Parry of 9, and does 1d-1 HT of damage with a successful thrust.  Those details, including the time it took me to type them, took me 35 seconds to work out.  So why not establish that as the standard if you need to work up the mook villagers for that large-scale bandit raid?  A strong villager?  ST 12, and that damage is 1d HT instead of 1d-1.  A nimble villager?  DX 12, and that Spear skill becomes -14, her Speed becomes 6, her Parry becomes 10, and suddenly she’s a legitimate threat in a fight.  There.  That’s all you need.

So do twenty of these: the general merchant, the blacksmith, the horse rancher, the local priest, the local squire up at the Big House, the cunning man who gathers Useful Herbs in the woods, the trapper, the sergeant of the village militia, the farmwife Everyone Goes To When Someone Is Sick, the tavern, the schoolteacher, the hedge wizard, a handful of others.

Want to spice the village up a little further?  I've two blog posts (this one and that one) setting forth a couple tables for more local color.  They're intended for cities, and a number of the entries aren't really suitable for a village, but a number are.  It may be interesting to decide that the villagers will haggle fiercely over everything but beer or spirits, or that Gossip Is King and locals scoff at the notion that anyone's business is private.   The "Small Town Horror" blogpost also has a list of local-color items (if creepy), many readily applicable to a small fantasy village.

More to come!

The Starting From Scratch series:
Opening Gambit: Your town and its NPCs
Faith Manages: Designing religions 
Setting The Table: Party composition and equipment
The Appetizer Round: Tips on portraying NPCs
The Main Course: Your First Adventure
The Dessert Round: Random tips and suggestions 

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