Tuesday, August 01, 2006


by John Jones, Manhunter from Marathon, IL

SPECIAL NOTE: This is an article about fantasy roleplaying; specifically, how to run a sword & sorcery campaign with depth, atmosphere, and realistic detail - something most of them seem to distinctly lack, in my opinion. I originally wrote this several years ago for Steve Jackson, and he originally liked it, accepted it, and promised to pay for it. However, various things intervened, and eventually Steve found it necessary to change his mind, renege on his agreements, and cheerfully toss every scrap of material I ever sent to him. Then he wrote me a letter telling me I was unprofessional. Go figure. But anyway, I hope you enjoy it.

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A high ranking cleric in the local big powerful Temple/Church calls a group of adventurers together. This bishop/arch-priest/high druid/Exalted One gravely informs the PCs that a time of tribulation is at hand, when the forces of chaos and darkness will be loosed on the lands for ten thousand years... unless a big important mystic thingamabob is utilized in time to prevent this. This powerful Chalice/Sword/Sceptre of Light/Good/Order has been inconveniently stashed away in some long-lost city/temple/tomb/ sunken ship/abandoned colony far beyond the reaches of the known Empire/Kingdom/local civilized area, and must be recovered as soon as possible... or else the world as the PCs know it will end, and evil will reign over all.

(thunder rumbles, lightning flashes; ominous organ music swells...)

If this plot doesn't sound familiar to you, I'd like the phone number of your GM... variations on this old wheeze are the staple of every third scenario in every roleplaying campaign in every genre I've ever heard of. Somehow, someway, the Cosmic Balance is about to be/has already been disturbed, and if some important Maguffin isn't found and used pretty darn quick, everything is going to hell on a hockey puck.

My objections to this "It's The End Of The World As We Know It" plotline do not stem from the fact that it's old and has been used a lot. Every possible story sequence/ scenario plot can be boiled down to a "classic" concept or idea. No, my adversity to this particular wheezing relic is the fact that the approach to it is virtually always the same--Heroic High Adventure.

This is the approach whereby a group of massively powerful PCs and NPCs is sent off on a whirlwind tour of every fantastic, amazing, weird and wondrous mystic and/or supernatural locale the GM can contrive. They must defeat god-like sorcerers, legions of undead, demons of every stripe and social order, gigantic stone colossi, hideous creatures out of mythology and legend, and every other limping refugee from a Ray Harryhausen movie or the third edition of the Monster Manual that the GM can seek out, scrape up, or drag in.

Each and every one of these heroic PCs has magic amour, enchanted weapons, thaumaturgical cummerbunds, supernaturally endowed leotards with their initials emblazoned on the chest in big red letters, and a backpack full of more mystic potions, magic wands, wizardly scrolls and emchanted rings than Merlin, Circe or Harry Potter ever dreamed of between the three of them.

And it's all unbelievably boring. Maybe not the first time, but the third, anyway. Had Black Riders seeking powerful mystic artifacts shown up on Frodo's doorstep four or five times a year, I think Frodo would have gotten pretty blase about the whole thing. Sheer repetition lends an aura of unreality... how many times in a week can the world be threatened by dark cosmic forces before you just shrug your shoulders and look for the cable remote?

But more than this, I think that it's the sheer, utter lack of anything remotely resembling normality about these missions that makes them, at least to me, the utter incarnation of ennui.

Let me explain. In the above detailed scenario, there is absolutely no point of commonality between it and anything I recognize as a real, human experience. I have not even the vaguest idea of what or how I would feel were I to actually embark on such a preposterous expedition.

More than this, I also have no empathy with the concept of being one of these monstrously puissant player characters. The gulf between my mere mortal existence and their far-flung adventures as heroic demi-gods is one I am emotionally incapable of spanning. Any involvement I feel in this adventure is going to be pretty much purely intellectual, coupled, occasionally, with the twin visceral sensations of bloodlust and greed, the hack GM's ever faithful sidekicks.

What sort of approach would get me, the Discerning Roleplayer, interested and emotionally involved in such a scenario? Well, here's how I would set up such an adventure, were I doing it in my specific campaign (bear in mind, I'll be using city names, organizations, and specific concepts from my campaign here):

The PCs are told, through their own contacts, that a high ranking cleric in the local Church quarter (an area of the city dominated by the Church of the One True God) is willing to pay very well for mercenaries willing to undertake a dangerous mission.

When they look into the matter, they are taken to an audience with a high ranking Cardinal. The Cardinal is old, feeble, and gives an overwhelming impression of unworldiness, coupled, perhaps, with a touch of senility. He tells the PCs in impassioned tones that the time of the Great Judgement, promised in Holy Scripture, is at hand. The seas will boil, the sky will fall, and the Prince of Hell will

ascend to the Throne of Earth, casting the world into a time of darkness and evil for the next ten thousand years. Only the Ceremony of Final Absolution can cause this terrible event to be postponed, and the Ceremony cannot be worked without the Chalice of St. Nathuna, which disappeared more than 700 years ago when the ship carrying the Chalice from the River Republics to Do'Samaqel was lost in a violent storm.

Now, through fragmentary visions sent down from on high, this somewhat dotty senior cleric has learned that the Chalice is to be found on a distant, uncharted island. In his visions he's seen a tropical shore with a smoking volcano in the background. He's also seen fuzzy images of the Chalice being used in some sort of pagan religious or civic ceremonies by a tribe of painted, savage looking heathens.

The mission, of course, is the recovery of the Chalice. The Cardinal will put up the money for the PCs to hire a ship, engage guides and porters, and lavishly equip the expedition. In addition, each character will receive a generous fee for his participation in the mission. The Cardinal will also provide them with an old map of the trade route that the ship was blown off of, marked up to the best of his ability according to his visions. Finally, the Cardinal himself, a powerful cleric despite his physical decrepitude and lack of worldly acumen, will accompany the PCs on the expedition.

Once your PCs accept the Cardinal's commission, the Cardinal will graciously offer them spacious apartments in the Quarter, which they can use as a headquarters while they are making the arrangements for a ship, provisions, servants, etc.

However, the first night the PCs spend in these rooms, they will be surprised by a visit from another high ranking Church official. This particular Bishop, after swearing the PCs to secrecy, will confide to them that he is a faithful servitor of the old Cardinal. It hurts him, he'll tell them with great sincerity, to see the old cleric so far gone in his dotage. There is absolutely no truth in the Cardinal's ravings of an impending Armageddon. His visions are no more than the regrettable delusions of an overtaxed and ancient mind.

Surely, the PCs can see that the Church would be doing the Cardinal a grave disservice if it allowed him to go chasing off to the ends of the earth in pursuit of phantom relics and absurd hallucinations (and the PCs, if they're sharp, will gather from this that this is why the Cardinal can't simply use a Church ship staffed with Church troops to perform this mission).

The Cardinal is, after all, an old, frail man, and his health is dangerously fragile. No, it would be best all the way around if the PCs simply forgot all about the Cardinal's foolish maunderings and went on their way... with, of course, a generous settlement from the Church, as a token for their time and trouble. Don't worry about the Cardinal, by tomorrow he'll have forgotten the whole business and be off on some other tangent entirely.

Now your PCs are faced with a choice... participate in a long, arduous, and very hazardous mission which they may or may not survive--or take a quick pay-off for doing nothing and go find other work. Basically, they have to decide who to believe - understanding always, of course, that if the Cardinal is actually right, the continued existence of the world hangs in the balance.

Exactly what is going on here is up to the individual GM. Maybe the Cardinal really is a doddering old fool, and his ravings are just that, and the Bishop really is a concerned former protegeā€š trying to look out for the poor old fellow. (That's pretty boring, though.)

On the other hand, perhaps the Cardinal is the only cleric in an obviously over-corrupt, venal, worldly Church who still has enough innocent faith to be able to receive visions from on high... which, of course, the other Church officials dismiss the same way the Pope of our world would probably refuse to listen to any Catholic Priest who claimed to have one-on-one conversations with God. Maybe there is even a secret conspiracy of evil cultists who actively want to see the great tribulation come, because then their particular infernal deities will be in the driver's seat for the next ten thousand years, and they are subtly encouraging the Church to poo-poo the Cardinal's message.

The point is, this is a big End of the World scenario, where the PCs are told that they have to go get the mystic frammistat or the entire time/space continuum as we know it is duh-duh-duh-DOOMED... but it has a credible setting that is populated with realistic characters and rife with possibilities for actual interactive roleplaying, instead of just killing horrible critters and taking their stuff. This scenario has internal politics, religious intrigue, scheming Bishops, evil cultists, and the potential for exotic adventure on the high seas... all things well within not only of our intellectual grasp, but also easily felt emotionally, as well.

Obviously, this sort of thing can be done to transform other hackneyed cliches into rich, detailed scenarios with atmosphere and depth. Of course, it helps if your campaign background is conducive to this technique. If your world is composed of a uman city surrounded by hobbit villages that get raided by evil orcs from over the border, while the elves and the dwarves live 1000 leagues thataway, and your PCs can worship any god they can find in the manual because they all have shrines down on Temple Street, and your local city officials, nobles, priests, guildmasters, merchants, and street beggars only pop into existence long enough to point the party in the direction of this week's monster-guarded treasure before conveniently vanishing back into NPC limbo, well... maybe the time has come for you to think about adding a little more depth and credibility to your scenario design.

On the other hand, if you like what you're running and so do your players, ignore everything I just said. Send 'em off on a grand tour of the 17 Infernal Planes of Endless Stinking Darkness. Just make sure that all of your sessions are stuffed to the gills with powerful evil creatures, treacherous, tricksie traps, and more treasure than your level 26 fighter/priest/magic user/thieves can shake a Class 17 enchanted vorpal mithral spittoon at, and everyone will have a great time.

But I won't be playing.

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John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, no longer dwells in Marathon, IL. He'd type a much longer, wittier bio block than this, but he really has to go to the bathroom right now.


Blogger AaA said...

Awesome! Can't believe I missed this one.

7:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just saw this! Do you want to do puzzles made of Roman numerals? There is a prize!


5:38 AM  

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