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Casualty of War

HE was a hacker with the Syrian Electronic Army. SHE was a pro-Russian radical from Donetsk. Together, they were going to teach America a lesson—by taking out the FedEx-Kinkos at 135th and Metcalf in Overland Park, Kansas.

Their target had been skillfully selected to throw intelligence services off the trail. They plotted carefully for entire minutes on their scheme to obtain automatic weapons by attending the gun show at the Overland Park trade center (where, for two days a month, your second amendment rights are unencumbered by background checks or common sense). Their timing was painstakingly planned, after studiously poring through Travelocity for the best airfare from Kiev to Kansas City. The plan was foolproof.

But they hadn’t counted on me. I was at the Overland Park FedEx-Kinkos, checking out paper stocks for a print job related to The Strange Fan Kit. My light infantry instincts, coiled like a spring that had been unused for almost 20 years—because they had been unused for almost 20 years—struck like a 20-year-old viper. The Syrian caught a ream of 32-pound laser paper in the face. He went down, clutching his nose as he squeezed off a random volley of 7.62 (R) rounds.

The Russian shouted something about oligarchs (my Russian is, frankly, a bit rusty) and vaulted the self-serve copier brandishing an AKM that looked suspiciously like it had been recently supplied by the Russian army (despite the fact that it had been purchased at the Overland Park Gun Show Trader event). I ducked behind the Supply Center™, whipping a barrage of unfolded flat-rate boxes, in a variety of convenient sizes, boomerang-like toward my assailant. The paper cuts were too much for her, and down she went.

I got to my feet, ready to inform the FBI and Kinko’s management. But I had underestimated the Syrian’s commitment to the cause of sectarian totalitarianism—and I paid for my hubris with a bullet to first molar (upper right side).

You’ve seen the rest on cable TV, of course, assuming you’re one of the 36% of Americans who actually follow the news. The plot was foiled, America learned no lessons, and the only casualty was my tooth.

At least, that’s what I told Monte when I took time off from work to get a crown put on a broken tooth. I hope he’s not one of the 36%.

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

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If you follow gaming news, you probably saw the Origins Awards nominations late last week. I’m very pleased that Monte Cook Games’s own Numenera is in the running for Best RPG. (And let me be clear: Credit for this lies in no way with me. The game was almost completely finished before I joined the company.) Congratulations to Monte, Shanna, and Kieran for the recognition of their incredible work.

How do ya like that logo, by the way? Yeah, I designed it.

How do ya like that logo, by the way? Yeah, I designed it. Back in the day.

(Also, congrats to the awesome Jeff Tidball, who’s Eternal Lies, which he ran for us as a campaign lasting more than a year (and about which I wrote in my last post), was also nominated.)

I ran the Origins Awards for five years. (I was the Chairman of the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts & Design from 1995-2000.) The process is somewhat different than it was when I was at the helm, but here’s something I often said then and which holds true today: It really is an honor just to be nominated.

In fact, it’s really a bigger honor, and here’s why: The nomination process culls roughly five titles from each category from among the dozens or hundreds of potential candidates. Although not always perfect, this process usually does a pretty good job of identifying the best releases of the category. And these titles are usually the standouts in the field–the games and products that really do stand head-and-shoulders above the crowd.

Beyond that, though, it’s kind of a crap shoot. Among those five releases, there’s rarely a single title that blows the others out of the water. The decision of which is “best” becomes pretty subjective, and easily affected by which has the largest or most vocal following, has better distribution and visibility, or gets an uplift from association with a popular brand. This is not to say these factors overwhelm the issue of quality–just that, when the qualitative differences are slim, other factors become more influential.

And that’s the key: The qualitative differences between the nominees are usually pretty slim, whereas all of the nominees usually stand out in comparison with the rest of the field. Nomination is what really marks a product as superlative. It really is an honor to be nominated.

So congrats to the folk behind Numenera, and Eternal Lies, and 13th Age and Love Letter and FATE and all of the other nominees. It’s an honor to be counted among you!

Over the weekend we brought our long-running Trail of Cthulhu campaign to an end after a year or so of play. (It was the excellent Eternal Lies, in case you’d like to check it out—which I can highly recommend.)

Trail cover

In a Cthulhu game (of any system), there’s a temptation to tally the score and measure its success according to the number of player characters killed or driven irrevocably insane. By that count, the game was an abysmal failure: Through a year of play, only one death (voluntary, in a world-saving moment), one insanity, and a couple of significant maimings. Despite that, though, this wasn’t just one of the best RPG campaigns I’ve played through—it was, perhaps, the campaign most true to the mindbending horrors of the Cthulhu mythos that I’ve ever experienced.

How can that be? Particularly when you consider that the GM, it turns out, had made a conscious decision not to kill characters? Isn’t it a widely-held maxim of tabletop gaming that without the real fear of character death, players don’t have enough incentive to care—to worry about the consequences of their actions—to fear? And, heck, the mythos all about fear.

I’ve never believed that the fear of death is critical to the RPG experience. When we watch a movie or read a novel, the main character’s survival is rarely in question. What creates tension is the question of how the character will survive a given life-or-death struggle. Of what the consequences will be. And whether the character will overcome whatever grand conflict the plot has put before her.

It’s no different at the gaming table. Our characters might have died—even though the GM wasn’t gunning for us, the possibility certainly existed, and we dodged a couple of serious bullets along the way. But the truth is we were not motivated primarily by keeping our characters alive, particularly once we were out of the first act. We were motivated by a dire, existential threat to humanity, and the knowledge that we were pretty much the only ones who could defeat it. We were motivated by the need to succeed. And that was always in question.

(The fact that the one casualty gave her life, voluntarily, to assure the success of the mission further proves my point.)

So only one death. But along the way three characters lost limbs. One of those ultimately went insane, but not until after the close of the campaign’s events. A couple of us fell into the grip of addiction and alcoholism.  This was a party that survived, but as seriously damaged goods. And that felt more true to the Cthulhu mythos than a dozen deaths.

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

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It’s 1938, and you find yourself employed alongside this person:

  • PJ is short but athletic, with dark hair cut into a bob. She almost always wears trousers rather than a dress.
  • Her accent gives her away as English–as does her fascination with the details of American culture.
  • She doesn’t take shit from anyone–especially anyone who says or suggests that a woman shouldn’t fly planes.
  • She doesn’t have any visible means of support, but never seems to be short of cash.
  • She frequently mentions a sister whom she adores, but who seems regrettably trapped in the bonds of high society.

Now, that isn’t high literature, but I bet you’ve put together a pretty decent mental picture of this character.

I’ve written before about using “five things everyone knows” to quickly implant an understanding of campaign details in your players’ imaginations. And about using bullet points to give life to your descriptive text. And I’ve talked about the First Session rule for letting players adjust their characters after their “pilot” episode. This time I’m bringing it all together for some advice on introducing player characters–to your game, and to each other.

If you’ve read those other posts, there’s really nothing new here. Basically, it amounts to this:

  • Instead of writing up lengthy, detailed read-aloud prose that will glaze your players’ eyes over, compose your descriptive text as a series of bullet points. Then instead of reading your text at them, you’ll engagingly describe your content to them.
  • Rather than composing lengthy prose treatises on campaign topics, distill them into sets of “five things everyone knows” (in bullet points) that are easily communicated and digested.
  • Treat your first session (or even the first full adventure) of your new campaign like a TV pilot. Let your players make changes to their characters without consequence, and just ignore any continuity issues that arise.

Putting that all together gets you to a technique I use whenever I launch a new campaign: “Five things everyone knows about my character.” This is what I tell my players:

  • List five things everyone who has hung around with your character a bit would know. If you spent a few evenings around a campfire with this person, or a few lunchtimes in the break room, these are the sorts of things you’d come away with.
  • Some of these things should be physical (hair color, general build, etc.).
  • Some should speak to the character’s interests and attitudes.
  • And some should touch on his or her background.

I ask the players to come up with this info during character generation, and I find it’s a low-pressure technique for building well-rounded characters.

But maybe I should have said “ten things,” because I actually make them do this twice. The first time is, as I said, during character generation. At that point, I let the players keep the info to themselves if they want to (or to share as much or as little as they like).

Then, a few sessions into the campaign–usually a couple of sessions after I’ve implemented the First Session rule, I ask the players to do it again. At this point, they might have made tangible changes to their character. And their internal conceptions of their characters might have evolved. Or both, or neither–so it’s OK if the second five things is identical to the first, or completely different. But this second set they share with the group.

This is a great way to convey the basics: “Short but athletic, with dark hair cut in a bob” does a much better job of communicating appearance than the “Height: 5′ 3″–Weight: 125lb–Hair: Brown” that’s typically at the top of the character sheet. And it gives the players a way to express a bit about their characters’ inner workings that might not become obvious in play until the other players have already formulated (possibly very different) impressions of the character.

Even better, it helps the players to, well, not so much flesh out their character concepts as articulate them. Give them a bit of focus. Which makes those characters a bit more fun and a bit easier to play.

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

  • Receive an email notification of every update to this site by subscribing (see the link to the right)
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Game mechanics are the operating system of your campaign. And like computer operating systems, they are built from thousands of lines of code that interact with one another in complex ways. Kit-bashing your system can be a lot of fun, but also a lot of work. And it can lead to unpredictable results or the need to improvise rules issues on the fly.

But not all rules are as closely tied to the overall system as others. In fact, sometimes even a signature rule or subsystem isn’t really wired tightly to the core mechanics at all. Call of Cthulhu’s sanity system can pretty much be lifted, lock, stock, and barrel, and used in just about any other game. Pathfinder with sanity? D&D? Hero system? Just plug it in. You don’t really need to bring anything else over from CoC, and you don’t need to add anything new to the core of the recipient’s rules.

I’m a big fan of taking great ideas from any source I can get them to improve my campaigns and GMing technique. So here are three rules sets that can make your game better today, with little or no kitbashing required.

GUMSHOE’s clue system: I’m playing a Trail of Cthulhu campaign now, and it’s pretty damn cool. One of the signature innovations of GUMSHOE, the game system under Trail of Cthulhu, is the idea that in an investigative campaign, finding clues should never be in question–it’s what you do with them that matters. If you go to a scene, and someone is so much as slightly trained in the relevant skill, and you look for the clue, then you get it.

This isn’t even a mechanic, per se. It’s really more of a philosophy, a GMing style, which makes it particularly easy to steal for your own campaign. That said, in GUMSHOE there are mechanics for finding extra, or more detailed, clues. So to make the most of this you’ll want to think about how you implement clues in your game.

If a Gather Information check at the seedy bar would have been the means for finding the pirates’ secret lair, that info is now “free” to the characters if they go into the bar looking for it. The successful Gather Information check (perhaps with a more challenging DC) also tells the heroes how many pirates to expect there, or their next target, or the secret entrance to the lair, or whatever. You’ll want to rethink your adventure design, so that the key clues necessary for moving the story forward are always destined to be found–but the information that makes things easier, or more interesting, or that unlocks cool subplots, still lurks behind the game’s mechanics and the players’ use of them.

D&D 4th Edition’s bloodied status: I was first introduced to the idea of a “bloodied” creature two years before the launch of 4th edition, when Rob Heinsoo and James Wyatt pitched the first concept draft of 4th’s (then code-named “Orcus”) core mechanics to the rest of R&D and the Brand team. I’ve used it in every game I’ve run since.

At its core, “bloodied” just means “has lost half its hit points” (or whatever measure of vitality your game uses). As such, if nothing else it makes a nice shorthand for that “it looks like it’s starting to get pretty badly hurt” line that every GM says on occasion. Adopting the concept will improve your game just with that use.

But you can also easily hang specific effects off the “bloodied” descriptor. Cowardly creatures (perhaps the word “sensible” is more realistic) might flee when bloodied. Ferocious ones might gain a +1 bonus on attacks. Bloodthirsty ones might focus all their attacks on bloodied characters. Creatures with limited-use resources (a drama point, or a single-use weapon) might be most likely to use them when they become bloodied. Groups might change tactics when their leader becomes bloodied. Et cetera.

And if you feel like kit-bashing, the “bloodied” state is a great trigger for specific bonuses, penalties, or powers. It’s pretty easy to implement without getting too tangled up in your game’s existing mechanics. Give that creature some unexpected ability–or weakness–that only shows up when bloodied.

Numenera’s XP: In Numenera, you gain an XP point if you make an interesting discovery, meet a goal of the adventure, or accept a GM intrusion (an unexpected complicating factor the GM tosses in to throw you off balance). You can spend these points to improve rolls or advance your character. The GM intrusion concept is a pretty cool twist, but the rest of it isn’t new–the Deadlands experience system worked almost identically 20 years ago, and I’m pretty sure its ideas spun out of TORG and a couple of other games around at that time.

There are two components to this one: A system for advancing characters, and a system for granting bennies for clever or challenging play. The first is a bit tricky–you need an algorithm for advancing characters with XP points instead of your game’s native system. But you can skip that if you like.

You’ll get a lot of mileage out of just rewarding your players for accepting your plot twists, coming up with exceptional ideas, or even (as we often did back in my Deadlands days) just making the group laugh. Giving people the odd re-roll is a small price to pay for this improvement to your game. For best results, use some sort of physical token (Numenera uses cards; Deadlands used poker chips) to represent the points; it will make them feel like a sort of currency.

These are three subsystems I’ve ripped out of other games to use in virtually every campaign I run, in virtually any system. I’m sure there are plenty of others that could be lifted just as easily. What are your suggestions?

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

  • Receive an email notification of every update to this site by subscribing (see the link to the right)
  • Follow me on Twitter at @charlesmryan, where I post lots of game, writing, and geek news and can often be dragged into conversation
  • Follow my writing diary on Facebook at Charles M Ryan, where I post frequent short bits on the writing process and state of my current projects
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The Strangest Week of All

If you follow this blog, you’re probably at least vaguely aware that I’m involved with a Kickstarter campaign for a forthcoming tabletop roleplaying game called The Strange.

Concepts2

You may also know, if you’re into tabletop games at all, that Monte Cook and Bruce Cordell are two of the most imaginative and admired designers of RPGs in the business. And perhaps you are aware that they’re the creators of this game. (You might even know that the two are childhood friends who reached the heights of their careers without ever working on a major project like this together.)

And you might know that Monte Cook Games, the company I helm and which is producing The Strange, recently released the critically acclaimed Numenera roleplaying game. Numenera was also funded via a Kickstarter campaign, which, a year ago, blew away all previous crowdfunding records for an RPG.

But here’s something you might not know: While several other RPGs have crowdfunded at levels approaching Numenera’s (and a few have even beaten that record), not one of them—not a single one—was a new property. Every other major RPG Kickstarter has been for an established brand that had a built-in audience eager for new product. Cthulhu. World of Darkness. Exalted. Shadowrun. All venerable names with decades of brand-building behind them. Until now.

Recursions-Ardeyn

Every Kickstarter is different, and we’re four days away from closing this campaign. The last days often see a huge spike, but I’m not willing to prognosticate. One thing is already clear, though: We’ve done it again. Even if we don’t raise another penny, The Strange will still stand next to Numenera, head-and-shoulders above any other new crowdfunded RPG.

If you haven’t checked it out, you really should. In addition to being the masterwork of two of the greatest RPG designers of all time, it’s a hell of a deal: It’s one of those Kickstarters where the stretch goals have snowballed, growing a great set of rewards into an incredible deal. And we’re hitting new ones every day.

If there’s one comment we’ve heard over and over again about Numenera, it’s “I missed the Kickstarter campaign, and I really regret it.” Don’t let that happen to you!

And don’t dawdle: The campaign ends Friday!

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

  • Receive an email notification of every update to this site by subscribing (see the link to the right)
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Getting all Maleficenty

In Sleeping Beauty (the Disney versions, at least), a princess is caught up in a conflict between two fey forces: 1. Good fairies, who lavish blessings on the newborn princess, and then raise her in protective secrecy from 2. The bad fairy queen, who is bent on her destruction. (I became quite conversant in this tale six or seven years ago, when my daughter was a preschooler and Disney princess tales were a staple of the bedtime story.)

Little motive is given to either of these fairy forces. The good ones are Good. The bad one is Bad. That’s apparently enough, as far as preschool concerns go.

But beyond the good-bad issue, there’s a broader question of motive: Why the hell do any of these fey folk care one whit about this earthly princess? Why are they involved in the kingdom’s affairs at all? What’s their angle?

Maybe Disney’s new movie will shed some light onto these questions:

I think that would be pretty cool, because if ever there was a fairy tale that implies something much bigger (and perhaps more sinister) going on in the backstory than occurs in the plotline itself, Sleeping Beauty is that tale. In fact, ever since those bedside storytimes (those many, many bedside storytimes—preschoolers have a high tolerance for repeat listening), I’ve often imagined running a game set against that backstory. What’s going on in the fey underworld that makes this kingdom—this royal family—this particular person—so important? What other storylines might play out against this conflict?

Too busy with other games (or other things in general) to chase this idea, it’s lain fallow. But that trailer has me thinking again. And mulling over what system would be just right for this. Hmm . . . I’m not married to Disney’s vision, but maybe there’s something to their vaguely-late-enlightenment-period setting. Castle Falkenstein, perhaps? What do you think?

Comment below, but first a word from our sponsor:

If you read my blog and haven’t checked out The Strange, run—don’t walk—to our Kickstarter and give it a look. It’s an awesome game from the fertile minds of Bruce Cordell and Monte Cook, and the stretch goals have turned the Kickstarter rewards into an absolutely amazing deal. Just click that sweet little logo:

Strange-Logo-Small-2013-10-15

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

  • Receive an email notification of every update to this site by subscribing (see the link to the right)
  • Follow me on Twitter at @charlesmryan, where I post lots of game, writing, and geek news and can often be dragged into conversation
  • Follow my writing diary on Facebook at Charles M Ryan, where I post frequent short bits on the writing process and state of my current projects
  • Encircle me (is that right?) on Google+, where, like most people, I have no idea what I’m doing

A few months back, for my birthday, I received an iCade, a bluetooth controller/stand for the iPad that makes if feasible to play 80s arcade games. There are a lot of these games available for iOS–ports of the actual, original games, not modern remakes–but they are very hard to effectively control via the touchscreen. Anyway, last week I replaced my decrepit, severely challenged first-generation iPad with a new iPad air, so I was finally able to take these games out for a real spin.

Rowan tries his hand at the iCade.

Rowan tries his hand at the iCade.

So one of my favorite games from that golden era of the arcade was Xevious–and that’s the first I sunk my teeth into over the weekend. I have awesome memories of that game, which had astounding graphics, incredible gameplay, and an amazing atmosphere. Or maybe my rearward-looking glasses are heavily rose-tinted?

Nope. That game still rocks. Here’s why.

The graphics may be chunky, but they’re still something to write home about. The designers managed some incredible effects–shimmering, morphing metallic forms out of black, white, and four shades of gray. And amazing glows out of red, black, and an intermediary brown. They used these, along with an interesting array of motions, in really imaginative ways, to create a set of evocative opponents that would make any 21st-century game designer proud.

Check out that gun turret, in particular. Black, white, and four shades of gray. Throw in some motion and some glow effect in the dark areas, and then cast your mind back to 1982. Genius!

In the same way that Numenera’s sweeping vistas are a key to unlocking that game’s profoundly imaginative setting, the importance of Xevious’s graphics can’t be understated. But there are a lot of nuances to gameplay that make this game stand out among others of its era–and hold lessons for designers today.

For example, many (most?) games have respawn points–if you make it past a given point in the game and then die, you start again at that given point. But in Xevious, if you make it more than 70% of the way to that respawn point and then die, you start at the respawn point–you actually jump ahead in the game. This bit of brilliance means that you may still be discovering game content, even at the early stages of the game, many plays into it.

While many games of that era had different opponent types, Xevious had a lot and was somewhat random in the mix of bad guys it threw at you (at least the aerial ones–the ground targets are fixed). They seem to have different rarities, too, so you could play many, many times and still run into things you hadn’t seen before. Or had only seen once or twice, and so had an incomplete understanding of what it could do. The game was (and still is, now that I’m playing again!) constantly giving you something new.

Xevious was the first top-down scroller that played against a meaningful background (as opposed to a starfield or whatever that had no effect on gameplay). In an effort (I imagine) to deal with memory limitations, the background is one giant square of terrain–you scroll all the way up it, and the start again from the bottom, but offset just a bit. (This is seamless within the game.) Each pass overlaps the others, so you get new terrain but with recognizable elements from previous passes. The designers turned this into an advantage, by designing terrain elements larger than the screen width. This gives an incredible sense that the game is larger than the playspace. Flying over a partial Nazca bird figure instills the game setting–which in other games of the era was entirely without context–with real sweep and mystery.

Technology changes (especially in the world of electronic games). Game design itself evolves. But Xevious, now 30 years old, reminds us that truly good game design does not go obsolete.

Now excuse me–I have a game to play!

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

  • Receive an email notification of every update to this site by subscribing (see the link to the right)
  • Follow me on Twitter at @charlesmryan, where I post lots of game, writing, and geek news and can often be dragged into conversation
  • Follow my writing diary on Facebook at Charles M Ryan, where I post frequent short bits on the writing process and state of my current projects
  • Encircle me (is that right?) on Google+, where, like most people, I have no idea what I’m doing

This is a series of articles in which I talk about how living in the UK really informed my gaming life. Particularly by giving me first-hand experience with a lot of the sort of stuff that pops up in games all the time. You know what I’m talking about: Castles, medieval towns, inns, and cathedrals. But not just the medieval stuff—also Roman forts and steam-age/Victorian stuff and sailing ships and lots of other peeks into the sort of places and lives that are part of the fictional worlds we inhabit.

OK, to start with, a disclaimer or two. By “live in” I mean “spend some time in.” But more than just a five-day visit—enough time to really see and experience a lot of what I’m going to talk about. Oh, and by “England,” I really mean Great Britain—England is not the same thing as Wales, Scotland, or even Northern Ireland, but they’re all part of the UK. Confused? See this post on the topic.

This isn’t a travel guide, per se—though a gamer visiting the UK could do worse than treating it as one. I’m skipping a lot of common tourist destinations and focusing on specific topics of gamer relevance. But almost every square inch of the UK has something cool to offer the gamer’s imagination.

Oh, one more thing before I (finally!) get to the point: I’m only going to cover places I’ve actually been. Indeed, unless otherwise noted, every photo you see in this series was taken onsite in a Ryan family visit. You get the benefit of my personal experience, but, sadly, it does mean there are great places I just didn’t get to in my four years there (like the entirety of Scotland).

In This Episode: Getting a Peek into Medieval Life. By Way of Southampton.

When I lived in England, I got to go to a lot of really cool places. (You can see a bunch of them by clicking on the Ten Reasons to Live in England tab near the top of this page.) We were members of both English Heritage and the National Trust, the two organizations that operate 98% of interesting historical sites in England, and we took advantage of those memberships on an almost weekly basis. We visited huge places like Dover castle, famous ones like Stonehenge, and grand ones like Winchester cathedral. But perhaps my favorite site of all is neither huge nor famous nor grand. It’s this place:

The medieval merchant’s house in Southampton. It’s all of five rooms huge, and open maybe 20 days a year. Ironically, although I found it one of the most fascinating sites in the UK, I managed to never take a photo there, so this and my others are ripped off of the intarwebs.

You can visit lots of cool sites around England and be awed by how they look. But they don’t often give you a sense of what it was like to live there. What people did and how they spent their days and interacted with one another and all that. And yet, once your characters emerge from their old-school dungeon and stand blinking in the pallid sunlight of your grand campaign world, that’s really what our games are all about. We build fantasy worlds based on the medieval lifestyle.

But then we fill them with characters and places that are essentially just modern equivalents with a veneer of ye oldeness. I’ve already talked about how our inns and taverns tend to be based on modern bars. Need a sword or a wand of magic missile? No problemo; just hop on down to the sword or magic shop. OK, it doesn’t look like a Wal Mart, but it probably looks like the shops in your local strip mall, with a little extra thatch on the roof for color. Our characters order off the menu at the tavern, our buildings and towns are well lit at night.

But thatch and firelight are not the only differences between the then and the now. The people of earlier years were not like The Flintstones, living just like modern people but with everything made out of rock and animals. Medieval folk—and the Romans and Victorian folk and those living in the Iron Age and the times of the Celts and the Saxons—actually lived differently. They interacted differently with the world around them and the civilization they built. If you want your game to feel a bit more authentic than an episode of Gilligan’s Island, a little insight into how these folks lived their lives is really helpful.

What Is It?

The Southampton medieval merchant’s house is, well, a house that belonged to a merchant. A wine merchant, in this particular case, as you might gather from the signage. It was also a shop, because that’s how they rolled in those days: A merchant or tradesman worked out of his (or sometimes her) home, with a room in front for business and perhaps some storage space for extra stock if that stock tended to use up much space. Although it’s hard to see in the photo above, there’s a large window underneath that overhang; a big shutter closed the shop up after hours, but opened horizontally to create a counter onto the street during business hours. Behind that is a smallish room that served as the shop itself. The rest of the building is the house (expect the cellar, which was mainly used to store wine).

It dates to the late 1200s, and it’s pretty typical of city homes throughout Europe for a period of six or seven hundred years if not longer. It’s the original building, although it saw many uses over the centuries and had to be restored back to its current (medieval) condition.

Incidentally, the merchant’s house isn’t the only authentic peek into medieval life in England. The clues are all over the place, if you know where to look for them. The roads of virtually every town and city follow the same plan they did in the Middle Ages. Heck, take the A3 into London, and marvel not just at the twists and turns as you approach the city center, but also at how the road shifts from four lanes to two and then back to some ill-defined three-and-a-half lanes, and so on. That’s quality medieval urban planning, right there.

But another good place to visit is Dover castle. (There are a million great reasons to recommend Dover; this is just one of them.) When I first moved to the UK the keep was a big mostly-empty building like the majority of castles across the UK, but while we were there they completely redid the interior as it was in the era of Henry II (earlyish Middle Ages; the period of the Crusades and Robin Hood). It’s a bit more opulent than the merchant’s house, but the kitchen and chapel and other workaday areas are also done up in this manner.

What’s Cool About It?

The merchant’s house isn’t a dazzler of a site. It’s not big and it’s not grand and it doesn’t draw a huge crowd of tourists, and that probably explains why English Heritage only bother to open and staff it about 20 days out of the year. But it is fully restored and fully furnished, and, unlike the echoing, empty chambers of most castles—or the treasure-filled galleries of stately homes—it gives you a genuine sense of what daily life was like in an era that’s almost unimaginably different than our own.

For starters, the layout isn’t what you’d come up with if you sat down with your graph paper to lay this place out for your game. Like a castle, the principal space is a great hall—a big room that serves as living, dining, and lounge space. In this case, the hall sits in the middle of the building, a two-story space that extends to the open rafters above. A staircase leads to a gallery, which connects to the front chamber (above the shop) and the rear chamber (above the kitchen, which sits at the back of the ground floor).

Some larger, and probably more modern, shops in Canterbury. By "more modern," I mean they're only 600 years old, not 800.

Some larger, and probably more modern, shops in Canterbury. By “more modern,” I mean they’re only 500 years old, not 800.

Something You Didn’t Know

The thing that struck my most about the medieval merchant’s house is the utter lack of climate control. The windows don’t close; they’re open spaces barred with wooden slats for security. Where the rafters meet the walls there’s a six-inch gap between the top of the wall and the roof, all the way around the building. The place would have been drafty and cold whenever the weather outside was. I noticed the same thing in many of the castles I visited. The truth is, a medieval building was more like a permanent tent than a modern home. It kept the rain off your head and warded the worst of the wind, but that was about it.

(You know those big old-fashioned beds with curtains all around, like the curtains Scrooge shivered behind as he attempted to hide from Christmas ghosts? That wasn’t just the style at the time–it’s how people kept from freezing to death. A fire couldn’t be left blazing unattended while people slept–even if you could afford the firewood, that was just asking for a catastrophic fire that might take out the entire city (which happened every couple of decades as it was). So the medieval house was cold at night.)

Cozy! Note the daylight where the roof meets the wall.

Cozy! Note the daylight where the roof meets the wall.

The medieval house also didn’t have much in the way of security. And by much, I mean anything. Most houses had no locks. But that really didn’t matter, because the house was probably not left unattended very often. The business was in the house, families were large, and anyone in the middle class or higher probably had a servant or three. The unglazed windows were barred, and the doors could be bolted from the inside for security at night. Things of particular value were kept in a large, heavy chest in the kitchen, and that might have a lock. But most of the time security was provided by the simple fact that someone was always home.

This is where I'd keep my game collection. That silverware can sit out and tarnish.

This is where I’d keep my game collection. That silverware can sit out and tarnish.

What’s This Mean to the Gamer?

Appreciate that the medieval world doesn’t just feature different buildings. (In fact, it doesn’t necessarily feature different buildings at all: Go back to that first picture from Canterbury—see the word “coffee” on the building to the right? That’s a Starbucks. Seriously.) So if you want to bring it to life–if you want it to feel real– it’s not enough to stock your world with timber framing and thatched roofs. It needs to feel like the different–even foreign–place it really is.

A stable isn’t a garage; it’s a place where animals are fed and cared for, where their medical needs are seen to, where they poop and have babies and where they sometimes die.

An inn isn’t a restaurant or a roadside motel. There’s no menu–you eat what they’re making that day and you sleep where they have room.

Even houses aren’t much like what we think of them.

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

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My first brush with game licensing was way back in–well, I’m not sure I remember exactly. 1994? 93? Something like that. Chameleon Eclectic pitched an RPG based on Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed manga. It was a beautiful pitch–well written, liberally illustrated, bound up, and with a color cover. (Color! in 1993!) We never heard a single word back from them.

Man, this would have been an awesome RPG. Anyone out there want to take it on?

Man, this would have been an awesome RPG. Anyone out there want to take it on?

Since then my career has been interwoven with licensing. Chameleon Eclectic published the first Babylon 5 RPG. Then I went to work at Last Unicorn Games, where Star Trek was our bread and Dune our creamy, delectable, sweet-salty butter. My first task at WotC was writing the bulk of The Wheel of Time RPG. I then went on to work on Call of Cthulhu d20 and Star Wars before I contributed to my first D&D book. When I was in Brand, I oversaw a number of licenses–the d20 Licesnse and OGL, the various computer games, and even the second D&D movie. Well, sort of–we didn’t have any approval rights on that. But Silver Pictures wanted to work with us on it, and among other things I once traveled down to LA to meet Joel Silver in his office.

That was pretty cool, but it’s a story for another time.

Today’s story is more closely connected to my time at Last Unicorn. We produced so much content for Star Trek that we actually paid the salary of a guy who sat at a desk in Paramount’s offices approving our stuff.

The history of RPGs is replete with licensed games that were disasters–books released months or years late; supplements taking forever or simply never getting made; promising licenses starting out strong and then fizzling for no apparent reason (and no lack of fan enthusiasm), taking their small or mid-sized publishers with them. Anyone who’s ever been in the kids’ clothing department at Wal*Mart knows that licenses in other product realms are quite the thing–so why are they so problematic with games?

Here’s why: To approve a T-shirt, a guy at the studio looks at a picture of the T-shirt on his computer screen, and says, “Yeah, that looks good.” Or, “Make the logo a little bigger.” Or, “Do you have to use green? I hate green.” And then he’s off for his daily half-caf double decaf with a twist of lemon.

That same guy approved your license for the MegaBrand RPG. You had a couple of conference calls, and signed the contracts and sent in the check for the guarantee. And then, a few months later, you send him the manuscript for the 320-page corebook. And he says, “Wah? What the f**k is this? I thought it was supposed to be some kind of game or something?”

He’d blocked out an hour or two in his schedule to review your licensed product. And you sent him an RPG corebook. He’s never heard of an RPG before. Congrats: You’re looking at a 4-month delay while he figures out what the hell he’s going to do with this thing. And he hasn’t even considered the idea that you’re going to send him a new book every six weeks!

Remember that guy at Paramount, spending his days poring through Star Trek manuscripts on our dime? That’s why LUG rarely ran afoul of approvals delays with Star Trek; we had actually insisted on him. Totally worth it. (Dune was another story–also a story for another time.)

(Fortunately, nowadays the bigger geek-oriented brands are a bit more savvy about RPG approval requirements (and are more likely to have folk on their brand staffs who are familiar with RPGs in general), so this issue isn’t quite as common as it used to be.)

A week or so ago Monte Cook Games released our Limited License for Numenera, allowing small-press publishers to put out Numenera-compatible products within certain, fairly confining, limits. As the internet (especially the internet of gamers) is wont to do, people began at once speculating about our motives. Why this limit or that? Why a fee? Are we trying to grow the community? Kill small publishers? Encourage licensed products? Discourage them?

The answers are complex, and many of them have been brought up in the online discussions, but here’s one that’s been widely overlooked: Approvals. As so many game publishers have been astonished to find out, approving RPG materials takes time. A lot of time.

And now I’m on the receiving end of that. Guess who has two thumbs and wants to give up hours of his copious free time approving third-party PDFs that might net us, like, fifty bucks in royalties? This guy! Not.

So the next time you’re wondering why MegaBrand’s latest release is late–again!–you now have a likely culprit.

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

  • Receive an email notification of every update to this site by subscribing (see the link to the right)
  • Follow me on Twitter at @charlesmryan, where I post lots of game, writing, and geek news and can often be dragged into conversation
  • Follow my writing diary on Facebook at Charles M Ryan, where I post frequent short bits on the writing process and state of my current projects
  • Encircle me (is that right?) on Google+, where, like most people, I have no idea what I’m doing
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