21 December 2013

Starting from scratch, pt III

Setting the Table



I can’t quite call myself a “zero to hero” partisan.  To a large extent, being a GURPS GM mitigates against that.  In stark contrast to many a game system, beginning GURPS characters can be competent in a number of skills, or very good in one or two.  It takes a pretty high level of tactical idiocy for a beginning party in GURPS to get rolled by a handful of mook spearmen.

But that doesn’t mean a GURPS fantasy campaign can’t start low-key.  A game setting I admire is Columbia’s Harnworld, which is the closest I think the hobby’s ever going to get to an honest, accurate, gritty representation of medieval life.  Harn keeps beginning equipment sparse, coinage scarce, social mobility low and introductory adventures very low key indeed ... a scenario where the payoff is the price of a single new sword is considered pretty decent for newbies in Harn.

And that’s the way to go, I believe.  Start a party dripping with gear, start them off rescuing the Kingdom from certain destruction against the Hordes of Evil, where do you go from there?

So ... in my campaign, I start players off with 500 silver sinvers.  That’ll get you a broadsword, a suit of cuirbolli armor, the equivalent of a riding mule, some camping basics, and that’s about it.

But you could get even more restrictive.  Remember that small town I suggested as a starting point in the first SFS post?  Use that, and that’ll help solve a classic problem with new campaigns: why are all these people adventuring together, and how do they get together in the first place?  The quandary leads to sorry-ass cliches of the You-All-Happen-To-Be-In-A-Tavern type.  They were lame in 1975, and they’re full of dry rot today.

Instead, make the party members townies who’ve known each other all their lives; this cuts short the usual angst over how these disparate people get together and why they’re supposed to trust one another.  The party members reflect the demographic: teenagers eager for Adventure.  You’ll have the children of hunters, skilled in the wild and used to privation; the herbalist’s apprentice, who knows a good bit about healing; the son of the village’s wacky eccentric scholar, who turns out to be a mage; the granddaughter of a retired long-term soldier, who taught her little girl something about battle; the altar boy or girl who serves the village priest, and whose simple and deep belief has caused him or her to be touched with the fingerbrush of divinity ... Enforce the paradigm.  This is the type of character they’re permitted to take, period.  They likely know a great deal about one another, and the gestalt works a lot better if they do.

Indeed, it’s an excuse to cut back on initial equipment further. It’s not a rich village, and the players aren’t going to be outfitted with much: hunting bows, slings, boar spears, leather jerkins and caps for armor (maybe), belt knives, camping gear.  One or two might have Grandmother’s sword off of the mantlepiece.  Horses represent significant material wealth, and it’s far likelier that they’d get away with an ornery pack-donkey at best.  Magic?  Alchemicals?  Hah.  Lily’s been made to help compound in her mother’s shop since she was old enough to work a pestle, so she’s got a few packets of useful herbs.  Clots wounds, reduces fevers, put a pinch of that in a fellow’s mug and he’ll be out cold in a half hour, that sort of thing.  (Never mind that pack of spices ... the trail cooking will actually be tasty for a few weeks!)

It also gives you an excuse to keep skill levels down.  However naturally talented, someone whose healing skills come from holding towels for the village midwife just is not going to be an expert surgeon.  However physically gifted, a teenager whose combat skills come from the retired one-armed soldier putting her through her paces a couple times a week after the farm chores are done is not going to be outdueling warlords any time soon.

And that’s how the table is set for the group’s first adventure.  I’ll get to that next installment.

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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