Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Setting Update: The Wheelhouse

It appeared in the aftermath of the Breaking, an enormous tower spanning many miles and stretching so far into the sky its top reaches could not be seen. There were none present to see its inception, though storytellers and bards over the centuries have offered tales and myths to explain its mysterious arrival. Whether it was built or summoned is unknown. The truth is, none actually know for certain where the Wheelhouse came from. The purpose of this god-like tower, however, is clear. The Wheelhouse is the only power holding the broken remains of Mythren together.

The world that was should have been lost with the breaking of the moon. The destruction rendered in the sky was only the beginning of the cataclysm for the surface world as fiery fragments rained down with ruination in its wake. It is said that the Breaking sundered not only this world, but all worlds connected to Mythren—a collision of realities and fey realms and a collapse of time and space. It was in those moments of utter destruction that the Wheelhouse arose, dreamlike, out of the chaos.

It is a place shrouded in myth, and none alive can truly say what the tower is, or who or what resides within its highest reaches. Yet there are some answers, though few, as to what the Wheelhouse holds inside. Within its deepest levels exists the Dreaming Pool. It is a vast body of water, lit from within by tiny spheres of light that float and bob in the still water like jellyfish. The chamber housing the pool is immense, illuminated only by the small pinpoints of light in the water. Stalking the rim is the Fisherman. It is he who captures the light and sends it along its way to the Cradle Sanctuaries of the Twelve Towns where that energy is used to infuse the bandiar with life. A hooded apparition that carries a long, netted pole, the Fisherman’s origins and identity are as mysterious as the tower in which he dwells.

Muses and sooths are also known denizens of the Wheelhouse, though their origins stem from the outside world. The muses, beautiful young gypsy girls touched with the power of prophecy, fill the dark chambers and corridors with their song. It is a type of magic they weave—one of many types the Wheelhouse relies upon to maintain its existence as well as its hold on the surrounding drifts. Sooths are children brought to the tower and educated there in all things relating to the Old World, as well as relevant happenings in the Remains. The ancient tomes and scrolls used in their education are merely a fraction of the artifacts vaulted here, however. The Wheelhouse is the last great bastion of collected knowledge and tales, called the Chronicles, once recorded by the Mystics.

Empowered by one such relic are the branded, those who serve the Wheelhouse as regulators of forbidden magic in the Remains. Upon their face is a rune-marking that grants them the ability to drain arcane power from a given source. They are sent out to the drifts when enchanted items are found by those living in the Remains, or on rare occasions, when magic is irresponsibly wielded by the bandiar. They, like the Wheelhouse itself, are an unforgiving lot willing to make the necessary sacrifices for the needs of the many.

There are others, too, that dwell within the tower, though their natures and identities remain hidden even from others who have spent time within the walls. What is not a mystery is the fact that out of all that has survived the so-called end of the world, the Wheelhouse stands as a seemingly omnipotent lynchpin to a fraying existence. Likely its presence has penetrated all realities, conjoining them in the shattered remnants of what was once the mythical Dreamscape. It is here, among the drifting wreckage of all that ever was, and all that was ever dreamed, that the Wheelhouse draws its power.

Yet its power is slowly fading. The necessary energy required to hold the world together has taken a dire toll upon the tower, and as conflict and rebellion grow in the Out World, the magic of the Wheelhouse decays. Recovered artifacts and reclaimed magic help to fuel the Wheelhouse, but already the strain can be seen as more of the Twelve Towns fall and the Sanctuaries are abandoned. In these locations no more bandiar can be created to bring order to the chaos, and the consequences are apparent not only in the Out-Towns, but in the drift itself. The Twelve Town of Teel, for example, was betrayed and the Sanctuary broken. When this occurred, the entire drift suffered a quake so powerful that the line of energy extending from the Wheelhouse buckled and the drift fell to such a degree that buildings faltered, towns were destroyed, and those living closest to the Upfall rim tumbled off into the abyss. The Twelve Towns are both empowered by the Wheelhouse and in turn provide power back to the tower. The more that fall to corruption, rebellion, or ruin, the weaker the Wheelhouse becomes.

It is a fine line that separates the remaining fragments of the world from true oblivion. The Wheelhouse employs its resources—the bandiar, the sooths, the muses, and the branded—in a grim and unforgiving setting where death is not only a possibility, but often an expectation. Sacrifices must be made if the world is to continue. Whatever entity rules the tower knows this all too well.

The children of the Wheelhouse are but tools of fate and to serve the tower is to serve a faceless master. This master is not one to shed tears for those who die in service to the greater cause.

Though the shadow of the Wheelhouse looms over Mythren, it is in the wan light of the broken moon that a ray of hope still lingers for the future of the world.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Article: The Fade

Any long-term player has seen it. Maybe it starts with showing up late or having to leave early. Later, it evolves into a few missed games. Eventually all that’s left is a vacant seat. Another key player has been lost to the fade.

Life happens, and there are countless reasons behind player attrition. Boyfriends, girlfriends, schedules, jobs, geography, marriage, divorce, new friends, babies—all of these things can lead to the fade. Sometimes it’s a sad loss, and sometimes it’s a necessary one. I have to admit that for me, this is a tough subject. I tend to bond pretty tightly with my gamers, and for some, I feel that I end up giving more time and thought to their character in the game than they actually do! I enjoy the interaction that happens at the gaming table, and each individual brings a unique flavor.  Despite the logical side of my brain knowing that these things happen and it is simply a natural part of life, it’s still hard not to take it personally after you’ve given so much time and attention to this thing you were all a part of. Undoubtedly this is a notion that many Game Masters deal with from time to time.

Over the last few years I’ve watched as a painful number of my closest friends and best gamers disappear due to relationships, busy schedules, relocations, and some due to the personal changes that occurred in MY life. This last bit is a little hard to swallow, but in the end, it’s all the same. You’re still there, dice in hand, but your players are gone.

Regardless of the reasons behind the fade, player loss is a natural and inevitable part of any long-term gaming group. Furthermore, losing a player isn’t always a bad thing. The old cliché that nothing lasts forever is certainly true, and let’s face it, sometimes change is good.

Dealing with the sudden absence of a key player, however, can be something of a challenge for campaign-style games that stretch on for months or even years.

Campaigns that become character-centric can especially suffer from the relatively sudden loss of a player. The best long term games out there often work  because of the collective creativity of the group. Everyone has influence. Everyone leaves footprints behind. Remaining gamers may be left to fill in the gaps of the story, or the Game Master may need to get particularly creative in order to answer the question as to why the character is suddenly M.I.A. Ultimately, the GM is responsible for moving the story along, and the game must go on. And as much of an impact the player may have had, or how close-knit that gamer was with the group, the success or longevity of the overall campaign should never rely solely on a single player.

This isn’t to say that certain adventures or story elements shouldn't be centered on specific characters. Well-developed characters often create ample opportunities for story-telling, and adventures like this can be rewarding for both the individual player as well as the Game Master. But if we’re talking about campaigns that continue for extended periods, the weight of the story should be carried by all of the characters more or less equally, in their own right. The story itself should involve characters without necessarily being about players. It’s an important distinction, and one that will help to reduce the notion of the alpha player at your table. Keeping this in mind can certainly soften the impact of player loss as well. 

Writing characters out of a story can be a difficult and sometimes awkward task—particularly if the player behind the character has made an unexpected exit from the game. Whereas with a temporary absence the GM might be able to just sideline the character for a bit, a permanent absence may require some fancy footwork in order to ensure that the integrity of the story remains intact. One good option, in my opinion, is for the GM to consider taking over the character, thus turning the PC (player character) into an NPC (non-player character). 

Others may disagree, but I firmly believe that in a long-standing campaign, the character actually belongs to the story rather than to any individual. As long as the player is involved, then of course that player is in control of the character’s actions and decisions. But if the player leaves the game, then the character remains behind and ownership shifts to the Game Master. I think the same can be said for any type of story-telling: whether it’s a novel, movie, comic, or RPG, the character is ultimately the property of the story itself. If a player leaves the game for good, then it’s the GM’s responsibility to see to a satisfactory resolution for the character left behind.

Once the character arc has played out and any loose ends pertaining to the remaining players have been tied up, a more suitable and permanent character exit can be devised by the GM. Depending on the type of RPG, the story, tone, and style of the campaign, the Game Master can and should consider everything from character retirement, happily ever-afters, and even death. If the player has a great deal of buy-in with a painstakingly crafted character, jointly coming up with a fitting departure that may allow for future gaming when circumstances allow is obviously preferable. No need to kill off someone’s beloved creation, particularly if there’s still playability left in the character! This article, however, is aimed more at the true abandonment of a character mid-story.

Some characters certainly deserve an epic send-off (even if the players behind them do not), while others can simply fade away into forgettable obscurity as the dice continue to roll for everyone else. The most important thing for the GM to consider is the authenticity of the story and making character-based decisions for the character in question. Handled well, a satisfying ending can be found and the game moves naturally along afterward.

Seeing faces come and go can be difficult and sometimes emotional, but let’s face it, in some cases this can actually turn out for the better. Losing a distracted player may actually lead to a more thoughtful and compelling game. In the absence of the player who always had a plan, someone else will have to fill the void and come up with fresh ideas. Despite how integral the character may seem at the time, everyone involved in the game should bear in mind that characters are merely transient. They serve the story, and just as the fade is likely to claim your players over time, it will certainly come for your darling characters as the story, and the dice, roll on.

Change is inevitable in life and around your gaming table. Embracing this change, however, can lead to some tremendously creative twists and turns in your RPG. I’ve been running Laughing Moon games for over twenty years, and in that time I’ve seen more than thirty “regular” players come and go. Some of those exits were really tough to see and left a gaping hole in the game and in the heart. These players have certainly left their footprints behind in the sand, and while many of them are missed, the story itself has managed to survive. Several of these characters have left legacies behind that are known to my current gamers, although the players themselves are rarely asked about.

And lastly, keep in mind that with every fade out, there is the potential for a fade in. The door swings both ways. Say your goodbyes to the player lost, and welcome the new opportunities, ideas, and good times that may arrive with change.


Saturday, September 9, 2017

Setting Update: The Remains

The Out-World, or the Remains as the broken world is called by those living in it, consists of everything outside of the Wheelhouse and its Twelve Towns. Sundered land masses, called “drifts,” are all that is left behind by the cataclysm. Some of the drifts are enormous, like continents in size, while others are more like fractured pieces of a whole, linked together by elaborate bridges spanning the bottomless chasm known as the Upfall. Each drift consists of different terrain and environments, providing a wide variety of lifestyles for those who dwell upon them. Out here there is no law of the land, no High King or Queen, and no order, save for what the Out-Towns create for themselves. The inhabitants of the Remains are forced to fend for themselves against marauders, outlanders and the monsters—both in creature and human form—that wander the dangerous roads. Time has brought people together, but scarcity of supplies and distrust continually tears them apart.  Loyalty is rare, given begrudgingly at times to good providers, or demanded by local tyrants. But out here, the notion that “nothing lasts” is etched into the collective conscience. Even the most brutal tyrant will see their rule broken, and even the most fortified town will know a raid. It is a world built on the ashes of greatness, after all.

The aftermath left a fragmented world inhabited by disjointed people and occupied by tangible relics that shattered through the thin veil of one reality and into the next. The remains of impossible structures jutted from the ruin of broken earth, standing as a testament to mortal man’s overreach. As the years passed, these things were scavenged or destroyed, but their appearance left an undeniable impression, and many of the towns in the world abroad stand as tributes or reminders to those incredible sites.

Typically the Out-Towns consist of inns, brothels, herbalists, merchants and tradesmen. Some have churches that worship a vague and faceless entity known as the “On-High,” and most have a deeply seeded distrust of all things related to the Wheelhouse. Despite their basic similarities, however, each of these towns are distinct in every aspect from their layout, style, history, and demeanor. Much of this comes from the influences they have seen from colliding realities and fey worlds that resulted from the apocalypse known as the Breaking. 

Inhabitants of the Remains have moved like magpies into the abandoned dwellings and locales of long-lost cities that still stand. New structures incorporate elements of old Mythren: inns built using stone walls or age-old columns, streets cobbled together using the bricks of long lost roads, cracked faces of once-great statues layered into fortified walls. These towns are poor reminders of what once may have been, but the haunted faces of the inhabitants—a mix of ethnicities and mingled races forced to interbreed solely for some hope of survival—show a grim  resignation to this shattered reality. Their existence lies in the shadow of broken dreams from a broken world.

Many of the mapped locales of the Remains are known for housing “frays.” These are shimmering portals that glow with fey magic linking the broken world together. Each of these frays have been contained in stone archways or frames and act as doorways to distant locations that are otherwise inaccessible by normal means of travel.

The Out-Towns housing these magical gateways keep them guarded and will often even charge a toll to anyone choosing to access them.  One could travel from town to town, or even drift to drift, if provided the correct knowledge or key. Each fray leads to an entirely new location, and the greater the distance from the Wheelhouse, the more outlandish the Out-Towns accessed by the frays become. There are adventurers who have returned with knowledge of these locations that suggest that some portals lead not only to a place, but also to a distant time. A when, rather than a where.

Travel through the Remains, be it the roads of the Out-Towns or the shattered   debris-filled sea of the Upfall is an invitation to danger. But despite the promised peril, it is here among the wreckage of all that once was that the truths of the ancient world still linger.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Article: The Heavy Lifting

For me, story is everything when it comes to a tabletop RPG. Putting aside all of the dice, the miniatures, the books, the maps, the apps, and other crutches, what has kept me coming back to the table time and time again for more than twenty years is the story.

The key to a good story, in my opinion, is having invested players. Game Masters can devise sprawling adventures and intriguing mysteries, but without the player commitment there’s little hope of the story having a sense of resonance when the dice have stopped rolling. Naturally, this makes the job of the GM that much more involved. Not only does the Game Master have to concern themselves with compelling plots, challenging encounters, and unique treasure, now attention must be spared to each individual. And with such a variety of player personalities at the table, this can be a tricky task. However, it is within these “spotlight moments” that the players/characters can actually ease the story-telling burden of the GM.

In larger groups, making room for character spotlights may be tough to say the least. To really make sure everyone is fully invested, each and every player character needs to have a fully developed personality and the chance to shine during the course of the adventure. The same should be said for NPCs (non-player characters) as well, that is if the actual PCs ever want to get to know these people. Otherwise, what’s the point? These poor characters get lost in the shuffle. They’re window dressing at best—Instagram food pics, New Year’s resolutions, nipples on the Batman suit. Useless. However, if the GM encourages character interaction, asks thought-provoking questions, and gives a good prodding when necessary, then players themselves can do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to story-telling.

One easy means of doing this is to press the question “why?” during game play. The reason behind certain actions or reactions may not be immediately clear at the table. Likely this is simply because the player hasn't actually considered the motivation behind that particular response. For example, veteran GMs have likely seen their players take an immediate liking or maybe an utter dislike of random characters. That dwarf sitting in the corner of the inn can’t be trusted. The bartender is such a nice guy. The crackpot herbalist is sure to offer help. Sure, the Game Master offers some direction with whatever descriptions they use when introducing NPC characters, but it is the player who has the reaction and then creates an interpretation. Asking they player why they don’t trust dwarves, or what about the eccentric herbalist makes them seem trustworthy, grants an opportunity to the player to do some impromptu story-telling. Suddenly a back story appears adding depth and atmosphere, and not to mention some creative bullet-points for the GM to play off of later. The best part is that it sprung from the players rather than the Game Master.

Naturally, if the GM is going to provide an opportunity to shine, then the GM must know both the players and the characters involved. Knowing the players helps to create expectations and curve balls, and knowing the characters helps to build in Easter eggs. Having the chance to shine doesn’t always mean things will have a positive outcome, by the way. Some of the best character moments in my games were the result of unexpected, catastrophic, and often hilarious failures. The trick to turning such a bombshell into something memorable was allowing the player to own the moment, to dig in and milk the disaster. Ultimately, these are the moments that build character...and characters carry the story.

Years ago, one of our most fearsome warriors utterly failed an agility check while crossing a narrow bridge over a chasm. The player prided himself on the character’s strength, his ability to crush an enemy, and his power of intimidation. The character feared nothing. By all accounts, it should have been an easy roll. A no-brainer. But failure made what would have been a forgettable moment into something meaningful. His near-death experience dangling over a bottomless pit by the tips of his fingers led to a deep fear of heights brought to life by the player and carried through into future games. This willingness to embrace the momentary failure led to some entertaining situations when this 6’6 giant of a man was reduced to child-like tantrums anytime bridges were mentioned.

Recently at a gaming convention, one of my veteran players had the chance to save the rest of the group during an encounter. We had a fun group of players, most of which were new faces dropping in just for the session, and the encounter itself was was one of those moments where everything just went wrong. Playing a gypsy muse character, my player had the chance to turn everything around. This was her moment to shine. To save the day. High-fives and sighs of relief all around. It was one of those organic moments in-game that led to this perfect spotlight moment.

The dice, however, had other intentions.

She rolled the dreaded natural 1—critical miss. What should have been and epic save turned into an even more epic failure, but only in the best of ways. A standing rule at my table is this: when you roll a natural 20, I will do my absolute best to give you a movie-worthy description of your success, however, when you roll a natural 1, you have to explain what went wrong...and offer consequences.  In this moment, the story shifted from me to her, and she didn’t disappoint. Other characters were forced to get truly creative due to the consequences of this disastrous roll, which resulted in a game-altering scenario that forced party members to work together in unexpected ways.

It was this moment the gamers talked and laughed about later. The story was somehow miraculously improved because of the failure and the willingness of the players involved to own it. This success was in no way mine. It was a collaboration of everyone there because the story was a living thing in that moment, being molded by everyone involved.

Game Masters know the burden of running a good game. We’re the entertainers, after all, and it is our job to try and make sure everyone is having a good time. But the best story-tellers know that the true heavy lifting is something best done with a group rather than all alone.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Available Now (For FREE): The Laughing Moon Chronicle

The new setting details of Laughing Moon: Wheelhouse are explored in depth in a new publication I am offering for FREE called The Laughing Moon Chronicle. 

This newsletter style publication offers me a chance to delve into the setting and characters found in the world of Mythren while also showcasing brand new art.

Issue #1: The World After the Breaking
With such wide-sweeping changes to the landscape itself, the first issue takes some time to familiarize readers with the apocalyptic Laughing Moon setting.  This issue serves as an official introduction to the world under the broken moon.

Issue #2: Denizens of Mythren
Here we meet the survivors of the catastrophic breaking of the moon, and see how the once-mighty races have fallen, evolved, or endured. This issue is packed with information and new art.  

Both issues are now available for free download on DriveThruRPG.

Setting Update: Survivors of the Breaking

The world before the Breaking was a place filled with magic and inhabited by numerous races. Gods and titans influenced mortal minds, but it was the denizens of Mythren who truly shaped the world. Cities and empires prospered across the continents for many long ages, thriving even far below the surface of the world in the dark reaches of the Deep. There was war, of course. Famine, plague, and the rise and fall of great kingdoms and greater men. But interwoven through those dark pages of history was magic, culture, aspirations, and a dream of a future yet to come. And then we broke the moon, and all was lost.

The survivors called it the end of the world. Indeed it was, but so much more. The Breaking brought more than merely the sundering of the moon, but the utter destruction of Mythren. Many of the magical races were lost entirely as their innate magic was quenched and their lives withered away in its absence. Those that retained their magic were later hunted for it, reduced to refugees in the wake of the catastrophe. To survive, many races intermingled and the pure elven bloodlines that had existed for thousands of years thinned to a dream-like memory.

But life endured. Over time the surviving races of Mythren began to carve out settlements for themselves. Some chose to dwell within the protected walls of the Twelve Towns, while others preferred to seek a living beyond the watchful eye of the Wheelhouse. Bit by bit, this shattered world was remade and the races that inhabited the lands beneath the broken moon began a new history.