Monday, August 19, 2013

Adding a touch of mysticism

Sisters of the Night are well-entrenched in New Narakort.
(The Witcher plot reference)
Roleplaying games by their very nature are quite categorical.  They need to be.  They are a collection of coherent rules systems bristling within a pair of book covers.  These categories and mechanics are great shorthand for Storytellers but they also mean that the world works quite mechanically and that most encounters with a particular entity are like any other encounter.

All demons are allergic to cold iron.  Trolls have this many hit points at the base.  Vampires only take bashing from brawl attacks. Loci regenerate essence at this rate and can be destroyed in this manner.  Ghosts can't be touched unless you have certain powers.  Such things aren't bad to begin with. They actually add richness and depth by contrasting them from the player characters but after awhile they become mundane especially since such information is most often an Occult roll or Know Religion roll away. Fianyarr can be a whole lot more interesting with a bit more thought.

So what to do about it?

First of all, remove the lock + key mentality and add a greater variety of banes that may affect the creature for good or ill. Individualising them is a good idea as well. Also be sure to throw out a few rumors and myths out there if the players rely on a single die roll or do some research. Prewarn them, though, that this is how things are going to be and ensure that you tell it to them in brief stories rather than simply handing out a one line summary. When you hand out the information never say: "Werewolves take aggravated damage from silver." Where is the sense of mysticism in that?

Ideally create a prop or hand out with a short myth or story containing the information they want. This could be a short story or a poem or a faux page from a bestiary but it shouldn't be longer than 250 words - less than that if you are including multiple versions or myths. 50 - 100 words is best. Pass it to the players who succeed so that the player character must use their own words to describe it. Perhaps create two such stories that are similar but different and award one to those who fail, one to those who succeed, and perhaps even one to those who succeed exceptionally well. The failed one should be mostly lies but include at least one truth, no matter how obscure, as myths should always contain a grain of truth. The successful one should include at least one lie as myths are never absolute. If you do one for an exceptional success then it should be entirely accurate. If you do this, your players may well experience a greater sense of curiosity toward the creatures as there is still something new to learn.

Never give away all of the information on an entity. That's why you only need 250 words. Familiarity breeds boredom and boredom is the grand sin of roleplaying games so don't give everything away at once. Seed details through the creatures' lair, eating habits, and how it reacts to the PCs. Don't only mention banes and methods of killing the creature in the mythic pages either. Include a range of information that may be beneficial or at least interesting.

The other benefit of handouts rather than reading it out is that not only does it mean you can avoid making it up on the spot but also the players are forced to interpret it on their own and to describe it in their own words - which always leads to mistakes that don't happen when all the player has to do is gesture to the Storyteller and say: "I say what she said."

Finally, most people love handouts (so long as they're short).

Also remember that the players, in particular, should always be guessing. If they've had access to the bestiaries than change it up on them. Make a werewolf using changeling contracts, make it curable, or make a werewolf that can turn into a form like Garou without being consumed by anger. Make a vampire that can taste food just fine, thank you, and which loves a spot of tea. Perhaps it's more of a revenant but happens to need blood to survive and therefore is a little too devoted to its goals but otherwise isn't a bad chap. Make a vampire that reeks of the charnel pit and is entirely wild and monstrous ... yet who still must bend down and count any seeds thrown down before it. Change the health levels, the attributes and the skills. Change the powers. Make it fresh and exciting. Player minds are quick to categorise even if they try hard not to so it can be a great idea to mix it up a little.

Does this mean that every vampire or werewolf must be different? No, not at all, but the first time a character encounters the creature should feel memorable and important to them and that feeling is hampered if the player knows the creature's stats or is trying to pick which clan a vampire is. Realising that he has no point of reference can make the player a bit more open to being surprised and amazed and that's vital to a fantasy game.

Mysticism is about immersion, after all, and thinking about stats breaks that immersion.

The other trick beyond stats, of course, is a sense of realism. So if you do include a Daeva Ordo Dracul in Fianyarr (which you could), then have a think about what that person would be like, how their curse has affected them, and what it means to be them in the society around them. Most monsters are kind of plonked down in a vacuum with, at best, a bit of a consideration about what they eat. You can often make the whole thing more interesting by questioning your decisions with: "What will that mean?" and "Is that the only option?"

There is a female Daeva Ordo Dracul who is all alone in the larger town because the rest were killed by local hunters. "What will that mean?" She keeps herself hidden and hardly ever ventures out except through her ghouls. "Is that the only option?" Well, I suppose she could be integrated in the town. Perhaps the hunters know what she is but are okay with that so long as she obeys the rules. "What will that mean?" Everyone might know about her in order to keep a closer eye on her. Her feedings might be regulated as well. Everything quite disciplined. She'd also have to have done something pretty spectacular to prove herself to the hunters so they don't want to kill her. "What will that mean?" Maybe she's the daughter of someone important or maybe she actually went out of her way to save the town, perhaps even revealing the bad guys to the hunters, and now she just wants to sit back and do her research. "What will that mean?" People seeking occult knowledge and vampire hunters might well approach her for further information. Some may even try to kill her. She's probably quite proud of her position in the town, used to discipline, fairly upfront about things but naturally works with her vice quite a bit if you can get through the rather brisk exterior.

The players may arrive expecting a decadent or monstrous vampire and end up getting chewed out for trekking mud on the doormat and do they know they're breaking protocol with the Hunters of the Avenging Light by coming in here? If they want to read her books, it's a tithe of blood for her and coin for the Avenging Light and they'd better put the books back and treat them with care as they're aging. Oh, and no funny business. Hmm, you seem like fun ... you could stay back for further lessons. A rousing game of chess, some insightful philosophical debate and some ... well ... best not to kiss and tell.

I think one of the reasons why Terry Pratchett is so fantastic isn't just the comedic appeal but the fact that he not only turns tropes oon their head to surprise the readers but he also takes things to their logical conclusion. He actually thinks about what it would be like to have certain powers or be treated a certain way and how that might affect a person. Often we as Storytellers get so taken up by plots that we forget to truly characterise or think outside the box.

There's enough trite repetition in Fantasy Land. Best to break out and make something fresh and original. Wouldn't you say?

Unless the trite repetition and tropey goodness was the point, of course.

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