Monthly Archives: August 2012

A Thing for Guilds

[Exorcism post: In which I write about a game I may never run, but would like to explore the idea in some fashion in order to get it out of my system.]

First things first: No, it’s not actually about Guild Wars 2. I actually do like the look of the thing, but this has been Medical Bill Month (plus also the auto insurance renewal), and there’s little room for a new video game expenditure and the time expenditure that’d go towards, you know, a new MMO.

No, this is about RPGs. Specifically, back to the well of fantasy gaming. I have some friends and coworkers who are pretty bored of fantasy by now. I can’t be bored with the stuff, just with particular tropes. You know: Chosen of Prophecy, Save the World, Deconstructing Tolkien, things like that. I especially don’t have any real love for hereditary monarchies in particular, especially if the author or setting is set up to validate them and end with some new blah blah bloodline on the throne. But give me an alternate power structure and yeah, things get interesting.

That’s where guilds come in. I’ve been kind of impressed with the core idea you see in some manga where the world is set up with various “guild”-type organizations that have rivalries and wars and such. In fact, you could argue that a few of the biggest manga at present are based around this idea: the organizations being pirate crews, ninja villages, and mage’s guilds. That’s pretty neat.

The other thing that’s been on my mind of late is the Magic: The Gathering setting of Ravnica. Now, I haven’t played Magic in decades — I do still use a few Magic cards I’ve kept as bookmarks, but actually try to play a game? Buy new cards? Nah. But the core concept of Ravnica is interesting. Guilds as the major powers, as above. And it’s more interesting because the core conceit is that each of these guilds is a hybridization of two of the five element colors of the setting: blue + black = criminal house, white + green = conclave of druids, things like that. It makes it accessible quickly as players start thinking about the interesting combinations of archetypes. It’s something I’d steal. But like I said, I’m not a Magic player, and I’d like to use a combination of tropes my players are more familiar with.

So what if you had a setting like Ravnica, but the combinations were the “power sources” that D&D 4e came up with? I’ve always liked how they roughly mapped to class archetypes. They’re actually even kind of similar to the roles the various Exalted play, in a fashion. So let’s say that for now, you had five sources (which may or may not be acknowledged in-setting), and each guild was a combo of any two. Because I’m the one writing this, I’m going to say those five sources are martial, divine, arcane, primal, and shadow — I pick shadow over psionics because (a) I think shadow’s a better match for the rogue/thief archetype, and (b) my wife is violently allergic to the flavor of psionics. And since that violence would be directed at me, we’ll set it to the side for now.

Right, so how would those matchups work? A first pass might be something like:

Martial + Divine: Templar order. Lawgivers. Paladins.
Martial + Arcane: Alchemists and artificers. Indiana Jones-type adventurer-scholars.
Martial + Primal: Wildwalkers. Rangers, barbarians, wardens.
Martial + Shadow: Duelists, thieves, assassins.
Divine + Arcane: Gnostics. Mage: The Awakening types. Librarians.
Divine + Primal: Druids. Thunderers, maybe; I like the idea of a storm motif.
Divine + Shadow: Gatekeepers. Priests of the night.
Arcane + Primal: Elementalists. Traffickers with genies and other elemental forces.
Arcane + Shadow: Necromancers. The spooky side of scholars.
Primal + Shadow: Nightstalkers. Lunar-aspected folk; lycanthropes, maybe.

There, that’s ten basic ideas that could be codified into more complicated societies just like that. They’re a little unformed right now, but a little more effort could show more distinction. And these might be the ten principal factions. What would the players play: members of existing guilds/houses/coalitions/city-states (whatever form they may take) that come together? Or would they found their own?

Of course, you can further complicate things just by adding power sources. Throw in psionics and you have six more possible combinations. What I’d do, though, is add some antagonism to this setup. We need outlaws and heretics, blasphemers and traffickers in vile forces. Enter power source: Infernalism. So what sort of heretic factions does this create? At a guess:

Infernal + Martial: A bloody warrior order. Maybe twisted knights, like the Order of the Fly or something.
Infernal + Arcane: Cabalists. Summoners. Pacters.
Infernal + Divine: Blasphemous preachers. Antisaints.
Infernal + Primal: Apocalyptic barbarians, seeking to release the Great Beasts under the skin of the world.
Infernal + Shadow: Death cult. Assassins hunting sacrifices.

When you establish all these factions, then something exceptionally awesome happens: plots start writing themselves just by picking two factions and asking yourself what an interesting way they might interact would be. Then account for a couple of more factions. Then throw in a renegade faction trying to undermine them. It works beautifully in the World of Darkness of your choice; I’m honestly not sure why more fantasy gamers don’t try it. But then again, only so much time in the day for all these ideas…

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Posted by on August 28, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Too Many Ideas

Okay, another short thing on technique.

I have way, way, way too many campaign ideas in my head. They pile up. This’ll happen if you read a lot, of course, especially if you read outside a particular genre ghetto; I’ve known some people who have really only one campaign idea, but it just incorporates everything they think is interesting enough to use. Me, I’m more of the Saturday morning/afternoon cartoon school. Science fantasy animal-people! Post-apocalyptic super-science and sorcery! Mystery-solving teenagers! Superheroes! Transforming robots! Fighter pilots whose jets become transforming robots! Science ninjas in bird costumes! Paramilitary organizations! Space cowboys! You could mash all those up in to one thing, but they shine more if they’re kept separate, kept focused.

Most of these things get jotted down. It’s a way of exorcising the ideas just to have them on record somewhere. I know I’ll never find a group to play Soul Amplifier, my idea for a JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure hybridized with Square Enix’s Song Summoner weird-ass transforming hero game. Shoot, I’m not even sure that it would hold up from a narrative standpoint — I like the thought of the quote-as-transformation-phrase (“Exit light, enter night… ENTER SANDMAN!”) and I like the bizarre Stand-like concepts for these song-persona-things (contemplate the cathedral-like angelic majesty of the Pulse known as Paradise City), but… it’s maybe a one-trick pony of a game idea? Nonetheless I write it down. It’s there, and I can add more to it if more comes to me, but I don’t have to try running it.

Right. I cull out all the things that probably would be too much work and too weird/obscure for my players. (At least one of these ideas wound up transmogrifying into Geist: The Sin-Eaters, pretty much because I liked the idea, but wasn’t going to do all that work myself, hence… time to trick freelancers into fleshing it out for me. Trick them with money.) And I still have too much ideas left over. The ones people would play if there’s time. The ones I’m pretty sure I could run from the “group gets together” phase to a satisfying closure. Not enough time in the world for those.

I said something about technique here, didn’t I? Right, this is the trick: I compile all of these into a list and I throw it at my players when there’s time for a new game. Then it moves into what is roughly a two or three-stage process.

Stage One: The players review the list. The list, I should note, is full of one-sentence pitches: “A Werewolf game in haunted Appalachia” or “Arabian fantasy; 1001 Nights + clockworks + sword & sorcery”. They put little tick marks by the ones they’d be most interested in playing, or bold them in the email list, or whatever.

Stage Two: Now we’re narrowed things down a little. I expand this into a couple of sentences per winning entry (generally those with two or more votes), and send a smaller list with more detail around. For example, it might be “Escape from the City of Brass: You are the lowest of the low; slaves, servants and pets of the terrible, decadent efreet nobility. With stealth, guile and planning, your goal is to navigate the underworks of this genie city, finding a way to freedom.” Then I ask people to narrow it down further.

Stage Three: By this point there’s usually about four or five ideas left. Each pitch gets expanded into a full paragraph. Depending on how formal I want to be, I tend to ask players to rank them in the order of their favorites, top to bottom. Each player’s Number One pick gets five points, for instance, while each player’s Number Five pick gets one point. Point total determines the winner.

You may have noticed that Stage Two is kind of optional. You can go right from One to Three if it looks like there’s a strong consensus, or if players don’t pick a whole lot of favorites from the first list.

So why is this technique something I find worthy enough to discuss? Because it has resulted in some of the most remarkable player buy-in of my lifetime running games. Player discussion alters the rankings of the games; everyone gets to play the most popular pick, and I get to run something I wanted to run enough that I put it on the list in the first place. If everything goes south, I can also blame the players, which is handy… but so far, it hasn’t. So far each game I’ve chosen by popular vote has been completely awesome.

By all means, it would be simpler to roll randomly. And… I’ve done that. (It’s no coincidence that one list of campaigns had 30 entries, akin to that d30 I possess.) That, too, wound up leading to one of the best games I’ve ever run. But this process of gradual selection has worked so well for me that I record it here for posterity. Almost too well, really: the players have wanted to keep going for so long that I keep running these games instead of trying something else from the vault. Perhaps we’ll hit closure on one or two of them eventually, and then it’ll be back to the vault. Until then, might as well keep the lists fed.


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Posted by on August 17, 2012 in Uncategorized



So, once again my blood is trying to kill me.

Actually, we caught it in the plotting stage this time. No need for an actual embolism. It was clotting up something fierce in my leg, as discovered when I headed to the doctor’s. They sent me over to the hospital that same day, and kept me there under observation for a couple of days. I was released, again with the Lovenox and again with the Coumadin, to another dreary period of not so much alcohol and having to carefully monitor how much vitamin K I get (which, of course, is problematic if you like to eat nutritious vegetables like spinach and broccoli).

It feels something like a non-event to me. I mean, it’s an event all right — I’ve missed a week plus of work thanks to doctor appointments and not yet being cleared to return. Once you’re the sole salaried employee in the house you get really nervous about not working, though I must say everyone at the office has been super-supportive. I work at a nice place. (Naturally, that makes me all the more nervous about wanting to keep doing so…)

And of course it’s an event where Aileen’s concerned. And most everyone else who’s more worried about these blood clots busting loose than I am. Why am I not worried? I don’t know. I think because I’m too busy being nervous about work and irritated about this stupid medicated diet. It doesn’t help that this time the hospital showed me a video that was kind of… condescending and fearmongery, full of seniors talking about how being on coumadin doesn’t prevent you from enjoying sports like bridge and table tennis. I’m more irritated at being sentenced to a life that’s a little more bland than worried about the possibility of losing said life: but of course, if I let myself worry about all the bad things that could happen, then I don’t sleep at night. This’ll happen if you read some of your dad’s books on survival techniques and oncoming possible global calamities and collapse of unsustainable resources and all that.

But it helps to make posts like these because otherwise I’m bad with names. Livejournal helped me track down the last time this happened; so this time I’m able to put names like Gwinnett Medical Center and Gwinnett Surgical Associates and Dr. Anegundi on the web just in case I can’t find the appropriate papers later on. (It happened last time; sure enough, I can’t recall the name of the blood specialist who tracked down the specific genetic clotting factor in my blood.) This post is blatantly self-serving in that respect.

It’s also… not terribly interesting, I’m afraid. That’s good, in a way. It makes me more dedicated to making the next post genuinely interesting, to writing about something that’s relevant and maybe witty and thought-provoking. Next time I have something to say, I can fire up this site, look at this post and say “I can do better than that.”


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Posted by on August 14, 2012 in Uncategorized