World Building 101: Life Long Rivals

Every story has a protagonist or protagonists. They’re the heroes, the viewpoint characters, the ones we root for—in roleplaying games, these are always the player characters. (It’s possible to have protagonists who are not player characters, but if your player characters are not protagonists there’s a good chance something’s going wrong.) A story also requires, to be interesting, that the protagonists have some sort of opposition or struggle—often in the form of antagonists. Antagonists are the villains, the “bad guys”, or at the very least, the characters who get between the protagonists and their goals. These descriptions can be much more complicated, but for the purposes of the discussion, the definitions above will suffice.

While a lot of the opposition player characters face in a D&D game is short term—monsters who last one single fight, or to the end of a given adventure—sometimes a DM will bring out long-term rivals or create a nemesis, a recurring character who time after time foils or escapes the player characters. This is not a bad thing, nor is it unique to roleplaying games. Comic books and serial stories in just about any medium have had these types of characters since well before D&D. Sherlock Holmes faced off against Professor Moriarty many a time, and the Joker from Batman is at least as iconic as Batman himself. In a roleplaying game, you can use a recurring villain or rival to create a sense of continuity as well as to give the players someone they love to hate.

There’s a complication, though. In fiction, we love to hate the recurring villain on behalf of the characters we’re reading about, but in a roleplaying game, a character who constantly foils the heroes and seemingly escapes their every effort to stop him can quickly become frustrating to the players. Constant escapes or a villain who always gets the better of the player characters regardless of their actions can make the players feel as though they are being shut down, or as though they are ineffective. Always be careful to give the players a chance to defeat the villains, and try not to cross the line between running a character they love to hate and running a character they just plain hate.

Don’t leave the characters in a position where they feel unsatisfied with their inability to overcome a recurring rival or nemesis. This doesn’t mean you need to let them kill off your favourite villains prematurely, but consider that there are other forms of defeat. Remember also that in D&D, death is not necessarily the end—a vile and murderous assassin might be slain by the players only to return a few adventures later as an undead creature. The trick to bringing a character who the PCs kill back is to give it time. Don’t have them immediately return as if nothing is wrong. Even in a case where the recurring nemesis successfully escapes the wrath of the players, take an adventure or three where they don’t show up at all before you bring them back around for another go. Using a recurring villain every adventure can feel like you’re rubbing in the players inability to stop them.

When you do give your characters a chance to finish off one of your recurring villains, though, make it grand, and make it memorable. Let the player characters relish and delight in their foes getting their long-awaited comeuppance. Don’t cheapen it by taking away their chance to avenge themselves for the slights they’ve suffered at the hands of the rival. Not every recurring character needs to be killed to be dealt with, either—some rivals who are not directly opposed or evil, but just keep getting in the way or one-upping the heroes could find themselves humiliated or imprisoned, forced to eat humble pie at the hands of the main characters.

Giving the characters someone to love to hate is great, but in the end, the satisfaction of victory over those special villains is what makes them work. A villain who can’t be defeated is one who provides nothing but frustration, and frustration is a good way to kill the enjoyment of a campaign forever. Don’t just hand over the victory, but don’t deny it forever, either. That’s the trick to handling recurring villains.

World Building 101 - War (What is it good for?)

War is a staple of fantasy film and literature. It creates conflict and turmoil and an environment in which heroic figures can thrive and prosper. Roleplaying games came about originally as an offshoot of war games, so it’s no surprise that they show signs of their heritage. However, most RPGs don’t include in-depth systems for adjudicating full-scale wars, since the focus is on a small group of individual heroes, not large armies. This can lead to difficulties in portraying a war in your game, but with certain techniques the task is not impossible, even without a dedicated system.

The Battle of Epping Forest, by feuilllu from Flickr

The most important thing to remember when you decide to run a war is that the player characters are the focus of the campaign, and their involvement and enjoyment of the game is of primary importance. If everyone enjoys working out large-scale battles and logistics of supply train raids and siege tactics, then by all means your campaign should include such things. If the group signed on expecting an action-filled heroic romp and gets a gritty, trench-eye view of the horrors of war as low-ranking grunts, though, the experience may not be as satisfying or rewarding as you might hope, no matter how much work you put into the details.

Keeping the focus on the characters should be the primary concern, then. You might do this by abstracting the majority of a given battle in which the player characters participate, but allowing them to play out a particularly key bit of the battle. Perhaps the keep’s wall is breached and the player characters must repel the invaders for long enough that other defenders can reach the gap and hold the line. Alternately, your players might execute a daring strike on the enemy’s command, hoping to demoralize the enemies and turn the tide of battle. A climactic duel between champions is a common theme in both fantasy and legend—Eowyn’s battle against the Witch-King of Angmar, for example, or Hector versus Achilles, among other examples.

Of course, no battle is won without preparation. Allowing the player characters to play a role in formulating the battle plans and setting up the defenses keeps them at the center of the action throughout. Perhaps they prepare cunning traps or ambushes for the foe, or improve morale with stirring speeches. Maybe—time permitting—they can bring allies from nearby cities or nations through diplomacy, or hire mercenaries. They might conduct raids on the enemy supply lines to deprive them of shipments of ammunition, or stealthily sabotage the siege engines before they can be brought to bear on the city walls. Any and all of these can contribute to victory, and in combination with the above techniques, can be used to do so without needing to worry about mechanical representations of the large scale battle itself.

One method you might consider if you’re going to run a large battle is to think up as many ways for the player characters to contribute along the lines of the above suggestions, and give each option a point value from 1-3, depending on how vital or effective it is in the overall scheme. Then, imagine several outcomes, ranging from worst-case to best-case, that might emerge from the battle, and using the total points available as a guideline determine the number of “victory points” required for each outcome. This way the tide of the battle hinges exclusively on the player characters’ deeds and not on arbitrary dice rolls where they have minimal involvement, or worse, a wargame simulation that not everyone at the table is interested or involved in playing out.

Of course, if everyone present does enjoy wargames and a mechanical system for the large scale battle can be agreed on, then that may be the ideal solution for your group. As with everything else, the important thing to remember is that everyone should have fun, and everything else is just window dressing.

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World Building 101: Om Nom Nom

Food and drink are an oft-abstracted subject in roleplaying games. In many cases the need to eat is represented purely by purchasing trail rations or survival days, and taking in-character breaks for breakfast, second breakfast, elevensies, lunch, tea, afternoon snack, or whatever other meals one wants can bog down the game. Players will also chafe at the bit if the DM spends more than a moment describing a given meal—taking the time to lovingly describe the savory banquet of rich and delicious food laid out by the local lord as he requests the PC’s help may seem like an important part of setting the scene, but you may find players yawning or surreptitiously checking their watches if you take it on too long. Worse, if you do it while the players have empty stomachs, they might call a hold on the game to go eat!

Food and drink can, however, reveal a lot about your setting. Wealthy nobles will certainly set a richer table than common inns, and oppressed villages under the thumb of a cruel lord might have even less to share. In a town with a shortage of food due to poor harvest or heavy taxation, one might encounter poachers or half-starved beggars, or pass by fields, fallow from rotten crops, their farmers sitting idle and hopeless. As a tool for description, the effects of having (or not having) enough food can be more valuable than the description of the food itself.

When applied directly to PCs, it can be used—albeit sparingly—as a way of leading them into new adventure. You can have them stumble into an ancient ruin or bandit camp while hunting to supplement their store of rations, or be arrested for poaching and sent off on some mission in lieu of prison time. In some settings, the search for food may become an adventure in and of itself, though the core assumption of the game seems to be that food is fairly readily available, and you should make sure your players are on the same page as you with regard to changes to that basic assumption.

For the real world-builders among us, thinking about the types of food and drink available can be an interesting exercise as well. What crops and livestock are common to what regions? Are most foods Earth-equivalent, or are there a large number of fantastic crops unlike anything found in reality? What other uses can the crops be put to—dyes, perhaps, or cloths? How common is meat? Is fish the staple food? What kinds of spices are known, and how much money is there in the spice trade? These kinds of questions can help in defining a wide variety of elements beyond the obvious question of “what’s for dinner?”

World Building 101: The Problem with Diseases

Diseases are a fact of life. Everyone gets sick from time to time, but with modern medicine and sanitation, epidemic diseases are thankfully fewer and less devastating than they were in ancient times. Still, disease is such a universal part of existence that its inclusion in a D&D campaign should go without saying, right? Maybe not so much as you might assume. The span of history that most D&D campaigns draw most heavily from may be full of plague and pestilence, but frankly, getting sick just isn’t much fun, and in a world with curative magics, it can be hard to make it stick on a player character.

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World Building 101: The Games We Play

All across the world, games and sports have existed almost as long as humans have been able to conceive of them. Whether as a means of entertainment, of keeping critical physical and mental skills finely honed, or as a pursuit of gamblers and thrill-seekers, all manner of different games have been invented throughout history. It may seem strange to think about what games may be part of your D&D campaign world—after all, your players more than likely want to play D&D, not chess. However, as in the real world, the various peoples of your campaign world will more than likely have various ways to pass the time, and what tavern is complete without a bit of high stakes gambling?

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World Building 101: Best Laid Plans, Part 2

To continue our examination of campaign planning methods and approaches, it’s necessary to understand that flowcharts, while useful, come with a number of inherent weaknesses as planning tools. They are fairly rigid, ill suited to sudden alterations, and require a lot of work in advance. While it never hurts to be prepared, it’s important to remember that no plan survives first contact with the enemy—or in D&D terms, with the players. What other methods can be used to plan, then?

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World Building 101: The Best Laid Plans, Part One

Planning your adventures and your campaign as a whole are two very important tasks that every DM must undertake, and every DM must find a way to do so that feels comfortable to them. In nearly 20 years of playing I have seen all manner of techniques for planning, and I have learned that a tool that works wonders for one DM may not work at all for another. Defining your campaign and the adventures you plan within it can be a major undertaking, and the aspects of the campaign world you choose to emphasize can be affected by what the needs of the game you choose to run within it are.

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World Building 101: The One About Monsters

One of the most fun things about D&D and other roleplaying games is and has always been facing a wide variety of horrible and imaginative creatures. Monsters have been inspired by folklore and legends (such as vampires, dragons or minotaurs,) by works of genre fiction (such as orcs, or all manner of Lovecraftian horrors,) or from the twisted minds of game designers or DMs (Beholders, mind-flayers, and rust-monsters). Regardless of their origins, players love to encounter new and exciting creatures to outwit, outfight, or outmaneuver, and DMs love to pit their friends up against strange and imaginative creatures.

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World Building 101: Another Day at the Races

Several months ago I discussed player character races, largely in terms of choosing which races exist in your setting and how they might differ from the bog-standard versions described in the core books. Today’s article will revisit that topic from a slightly different angle—I’d like to take a closer look at creating your own races specifically for the campaign world your game is set in.

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World Building 101: Getting the Most From Your Players

Previous discussions in this column have explored collaborating with your players on world-building efforts, mostly through character backgrounds and attentiveness to cues in their roleplaying. Not every player wants the same experience out of an RPG, though, which can lead to problems if the player character questionnaire is the only venue by which you obviously invite player collaboration in the world building process. Perhaps one of your players doesn’t really feel all that comfortable in the spotlight, preferring to take a supporting role; the questionnaire as a tool for drawing out that player’s collaboration can fall short, then, especially if it contains mostly questions about the character’s specific background. But what if that player has other areas in which they can assist in world-building?

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