RPG Writing: Inspiration strikes in the weirdest of places

So last night I’m standing at the NMA show, watching some slightly odd (hmmmm, bombastic would probably be a nicer term) Swedish rock band that was the 2nd opening act, when inspiration struck: While suffering through the band for a one-shot, GM-less roleplaying game in which the players tell the story of a rock band in the style of the Behind the Music show from VH-1. Each player is a member of the band, but also serves as a narrator for the show, because the whole “story” is told in retrospect using flashbacks to various important events in the band’s history. I’m not sure if the idea is appealing to a lot of people or not (though with the popularity of console games like Rock Band maybe it has potential), but the idea seems really cool to me. I’m going to see if I can crank out the game sometime in 2009 since I don’t think it’s going to be all that complex or rules heavy, and I’m sure I can get my group to playtest it with me since they like off-the-wall kind of one-shots.

Gods, who needs them?

One of the things I’ve often struggled with in my fantasy games is the role the gods play in the world.  In particular, what I don’t like is the idea of a world with a large pantheon (or even pantheons if each race gets their own) – the notion that there are potentially hundreds of deities, each with their own domain,  roaming various planes is just goofy.  In addition, there are literally dozens of reasons why I find the idea of large pantheons untenable.  Among the most prominent are:

  • Player overload – most players find it really hard to learn all the names of the gods, let alone their domains. As a result the gods turn into nothing more than window dressing – a name tossed out when you visit a temple or invoked when they face the “evil” cleric.  Ask yourself how often you’ve had any of your players besides someone playing a religious character type (e.g., priest, paladin, cleric, etc) actually invoke the name of a god or even mention one in the course of play. In fact, my experience is that even most clerics don’t use their deity or faith in more than a superficial manner.  This is related to the issue of player buy-in, on which Critical Hits has a recent article that discusses other related issues.
  • In most cases it makes little sense for a world’s inhabitant to worship a single god whose domain is so tightly limited:  Why in the world would a farmer only worship the goddess of agriculture when his prosperity depends on a lot more than just whether his plants grow (e.g., weather, fertility of his animals, prices for his goods, etc).  It’s not really feasible to have a dozen or more temples or shrines in a single village.  The solution, of course, is to have similar gods gathered into some sort of unified church but in many ways that’s supporting what I’m about to suggest….
  • Too many evil sects and religions dilute the impact of a religious archenemy – it’s hard to be too impressed with defeating the head priest of Bhaal when you know that he’s just one of a dozen evil gods.

However, for me personally, the most important reason why I don’t like large pantheons is that they don’t lend themselves to the “shades of gray” kind of religious questions that I like – to me it’s much more interesting when a particular religion can be perceived as both good or evil, depending on one’s perspective.  In other words, rather than building the identifies of gods upon the idea of  “good” or “evil,” they are based on philosophies or core beliefs.  As a result, the world’s inhabitants interpret a religion’s motives and intentions based on the power and actions of the clerics, as well as their own beliefs and experiences. This works especially well when dealing with a few monotheistic religions, representing omnipotent deities, competing against one another.  One only has to look as far as our own history (e.g., the Crusades, the Inquisition, modern day Saudi Arabia, etc.) to see how a particular religion can be seen as savior or destroyer, depending on one’s perspective, or even which end of the sword one stands. Thus, a cleric in this type of setting might be revered in one village and feared or even despised in the next town down the road.  Similarly, a cathedral might be run by a completely incompetent bureaucrat or even a priest up to absolutely no good.

Having monotheistic religions (I say religions because competition is good, especially when it comes to creating conflict), particularly one which relies in faith in the divine rather than the god taking an active, hands-on role,  creates a naturally antagonistic relationship ripe with story hooks.  For example, throwing out the idea that a religion has to be pigeon-holed into a particular alignment, you suddenly open up the possibility of intrigue, deception, or outright treachery occurring even in the most sacred and hallowed institutions. A good example of this sort of dichotomy is illustrated in Ken Follett’s novelThe Pillars of the Earth which follows all of the physical, economic, and political maneuvering involved in building a cathedral in 12th century England. One could easily adapt this sort of story for use in any fantasy campaign.  Similarly, it’s possible that a cleric might find that his or her superior is a conniving, narcissistic sociopath who is manipulating his underlings towards his own selfish ends.  That to me is much more interesting since it opens up tons of possibilities in terms of character development, story lines, and plot hooks.

I have used this approach when running The Witchfire Trilogy to good effect, turning one of the chief allies of the PCs in to the mastermind behind the entire plot that drives the adventure: The idea of being double-crossed by a person they respected and looked up to was a far more powerful experience for the players than simply discovering some “bad wizard” was behind the whole thing.

So, the next time you’re developing a setting for a campaign (or even using a published one like Eberron), consider dumping all those gods and instead consolidating the divine powers into a few, well-organized, global faiths. The result can lead to some very interesting and inspiring possibilities.

Another contribution to this month’s Blog Carnival.

Inspiration from The History Channel

The History Channel has some really great programs that you can watch online and mine for inspiration.  Amongst my favorites is Cities of the Underworld which is a program exploring everything from ancient lost cities to decommissioned Cold War era Soviet bunkers.   Aside from the videos of the program itself, you can find an image gallery and a web videocast (Naked Underground) which are simply great for coming up with ideas for adventures, getting a feel for what things looked like, or doing some background research for a historical game.

Steal this idea: Deadwood

This is sort of a companion to my “You’ve got to try this” posts. The purpose of these posts are to present books, TV shows, movies, and ideas that you can borrow from, use for inspiration, or just plain steal from. I’ll also include links to where you can buy the original material to make your life easier.

The key to using these effectively is to think outside the box: Try applying the basic idea, setting, or plot and move it to a new genre or give it a new spin. I’ll try to give you some ideas to get you started, but the best ideas for your own games are obviously going to be the ones you come up with yourself based on your tastes as well as those of your group.

This month I’ll start with some TV shows that you could use for a variety of one-shots or even a longer term campaign. So today let’s start with one of my favorite shows.

Deadwood – This HBO show the fictionalized events of real historical figures. The series is set in the frontier region of South Dakota in the Dakota goldrush days of the late 1870’s. Deadwood is a lawless, rapidly-growing, chaotic town that attracts fortune-seekers, drifters, crime bosses, and adventure-seekers all searching for their fortune, fame, or just a place to die. This series is gritty and will give you an idea of how dirty and nasty a frontier mining town can be. There’s plenty of action, but more importantly, there’s a lot of intrigue and plotting going on behind the scenes which makes for an interesting story.

Ideas: Let’s skip the obvious ones (i.e., a Western RPG), although the series is a must see if you’re planning on running something like Deadlands and want to get a feel for a gritty, bloody, dark setting. Instead, how can we use it in a non-traditional way? How about…

  • A fantasy setting where PCs are residents in the town: The “party” may be a group of fortune-hunters or adventurers operating out of the frontier town or they may all be residents trying to carve out their own niche (this approach would be great for PvP, story-heavy, player-driven game ). Adversaries? Greedy, self-serving townpeople and criminals are obvious choices. So are the creatures of the wild. However, thing outside the box: What about a race that is being pushed out of their natural habitat by the encroachment of “civilization?” Maybe the dwarves mine the gold as part of their religion but are being pushed out by humans and elves intent on gaining riches. Or maybe the elves value the woodlands that the men are cutting down to strip mine for iron. Or maybe the gnolls. Like ratmen/ratkin/wererats? Stick them in there, operating behind the scenes. Or have them fill in the same role as the Chinese immigrants did in the US west (as seen in Deadwood).
  • In a sci-fi setting, picture a lonely outpost on an asteroid built into an ancient ruin. Now add some long dormant aliens, some greedy merchants, and some self-serving government/military types. Or try a space station: Think DS9 on steroids (complete with the ‘roid rage).

Now it’s your turn: Add another idea or spin-off from the series (or just the basic setting idea) in the comments.