Grim’s Tales: Dark Fantasy

Dark Fantasy brings elements of horror into the fantasy genre and often blurs the lines between the heroes and the villains. A hero is as likely to be a monster as the villain is, just with something to make them more sympathetic to the reader. Characters are likely to, potentially, include traditional monsters such as vampires or werewolves or characters that are murderers, thieves or other ne’er do wells.

Many stories that wouldn’t otherwise fit the definition of Dark Fantasy do include Dark Fantasy elements. Many have anti-heroes, include sympathetic monsters or are set amongst the criminal element but Dark Fantasy tends to go a little further, presenting a dystopian, even hopeless fantasy world. One where the forces of darkness or imperious control are dominant, where bad things happen to good people, where dark gods are worshipped and appeased.

  • The feel of a Dark Fantasy setting get be invoked in many ways:
  • Open up the character options to include traditional monster races, but don’t soften them.
  • Imagine what Middle Earth would be like if Sauron won. Apply those lessons.
  • Choose a grittier, nastier system to run the game in.
  • Be less compromising and forgiving as a Games Master.
  • Throw out any morality/alignment system and put moral dilemmas of the ‘lesser evil’ variety ito the game.
  • Draw lessons from horror games, especially mythos horror games. Winning is merely a reprieve, not a victory.
  • Intelligent bad guys.

Dark Fantasy

Dark Fantasy brings elements of horror into the fantasy genre and often blurs the lines between the heroes and the villains. A hero is as likely to be a monster as the villain is, just with something to make them more sympathetic to the reader. Characters are likely to, potentially, include traditional monsters such as vampires or werewolves or characters that are murderers, thieves or other ne’er do wells.

Many stories that wouldn’t otherwise fit the definition of Dark Fantasy do include Dark Fantasy elements. Many have anti-heroes, include sympathetic monsters or are set amongst the criminal element but Dark Fantasy tends to go a little further, presenting a dystopian, even hopeless fantasy world. One where the forces of darkness or imperious control are dominant, where bad things happen to good people, where dark gods are worshipped and appeased.

The feel of a Dark Fantasy setting get be invoked in many ways:

  • Open up the character options to include traditional monster races, but don’t soften them.

  • Imagine what Middle Earth would be like if Sauron won. Apply those lessons.

  • Choose a grittier, nastier system to run the game in.

  • Be less compromising and forgiving as a Games Master.

  • Throw out any morality/alignment system and put moral dilemmas of the ‘lesser evil’ variety ito the game.

  • Draw lessons from horror games, especially mythos horror games. Winning is merely a reprieve, not a victory.

  • Intelligent bad guys.

Autopsy 4: Released!

The New-Look Autopsy. Cleaned up and expanded blog articles, support and other material for a variety of games in a more screen/tablet friendly format.

This issue:

  • Shadow World: Cantrip Comprehensive, The Ourobowrong,
  • ’45: Psychobilly Retropocalypse: The Pukes of Dannger
  • 4E: Groin Weasels
  • Blood!: Tips/errata
  • Pathfinder: Flenser Swarm
  • Invaderz!
  • Grim’s Tales
  • ‘Beta Planet’ *Nudge, wink*

Buy it HERE

Grim’s Tales: Romantic Fantasy

Romantic fantasy is a difficult genre to pin down and there seems to be a lot of disagreement about what precisely it is. It’s beyond me to particularly define it without irritating one side or the other so I’ll have to talk in generalities about the tropes and conventions of the genre as I – and others – see them.

Romantic fantasy is much more structured around relationships. In game terms that means between the characters and between the characters and the NPCs. Events happen, kingdoms rise and fall, armies clash but the story will tend to focus on the effect this has on people’s relationships, a much more personal level than the broad and sweeping nature of other forms of fantasy.

Protagonists typically start out young and often follow a rags-to-riches arc (in either direction, or back and forth), they’re more often female – but not always – and they’re usually special in some way. Marked by fate, possessed of some special ability or a secret past.

Magic is typically not the kind of ordered, formula and study style of ceremonial magic as found in many other genres, but rather follows a more folkloric and simple style. Perhaps the ability to talk to or bond with animals (a common one) a form of empathy or telepathy or a making/crafting skill that borders on the magical rather than explicitly being so.

Creating the feel of romantic fantasy in your games is really just a matter of shifting focus away from the typical sort of combat or puzzle heavy encounters to the more complicated and tricky balancing of social concerns and the consequences of more direct actions emotionally and politically.

The best way to encourage this is to weave a background together amongst the player group before play starts and to give them plenty of links to the community around them in the game. Friends, family, a home, people and things to care about. You should also give NPCs and their motivations, thoughts and personalities much more emphasis than you might normally. I find it useful to have a quick little ‘cheat sheet’ for NPCs listing their main quirks, attitudes, mannerisms, accents and past experience with the characters so you can readily swap between them when you’re running the game without getting confused.

Romantic fantasy can provide a much more involved and rewarding gaming experience than other genres but out and out ‘fun’, in a conventional sense, is harder to extract from it. You really need a group that are willing to take the game a little more seriously and to make a decent effort in order to get the best out of it.

Examples of Romantic Fantasy include Mercedes Lackey, Robin Hobb and Tamora Pierce. Gaming examples are few and far between but Blue Rose bears mentioning as the only explicitly Romantic Fantasy oriented game that comes to mind.

Grim’s Tales: Low Fantasy

 

Low Fantasy
While many take ‘Low Fantasy’ to mean a grim and gritty, sword and sorcery or ‘weird fantasy’, typically a setting without a huge amount of magic in it, this isn’t necessarily so. Rather, low fantasy takes place within a recognisable, plausible and internally consistent world that is either our world – with a few differences – or a fantasy world that is recognisable to us from our history and what we know of our politics, wars and societies from the past.

A classic example of a Low Fantasy world would be The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, a young adult fantasy series in which supernatural elements, hidden from the ‘real world’ begin to intrude and make themselves felt.

Low Fantasy can be found a great deal in role-playing games, perhaps influenced by White Wolf’s success in the 90s with Vampire and their other ‘hidden supernatural’ games. Almost any conspiracy or ‘you are the monster’ game can be said – from a certain point of view – to be a low fantasy game. More classical examples of low fantasy worlds in RPGs might include Harn or the more historical version of RuneQuest that was put out by Games Workshop in the 80s.

Low Fantasy doesn’t tend to survive encounters with players particularly well unless their access to the fantastical elements is also limited. If the players get the toys then, generally, without a Deus Ex Machina the fantastical cat is out of the metaphorical bag before you can say ‘fireball’. Players have a disturbing and annoying tendency to blow things up, flash their magic where they shouldn’t and to defy witch hunters, enforcers of secrets and other forces that are supposed to keep the fantastical under wraps, controlled or punished as heresy.

Because of this, low fantasy tends to work better, unless the whole game hinges otherwise, upon low access to the fantastical on the part of the players. Rather the fantastical is something they encounter, get caught up in, get threatened by and take on by force of arms and luck. Leaving out the fantastical altogether leaves you free to indulge in ‘what ifs’ and to craft new societies, tribes and so forth mixing up elements from history and the imagination freely. You often don’t even need magic at all if the world is interesting enough.

Grim’s Tales: Comic Fantasy

Comedy’s bloody difficult when it comes to gaming and in fantasy gaming as much as the other genres what makes for a successful comedy game is generally down to some very simple things.

  • Comedic concepts: Characters with built in schticks failings will tend to supply their own comedy by playing up to it.
  • Incompetence: Failure is much more amusing than success, unless the success is horribly unexpected and counterintuitive.
  • A Formula: THE great comedy RPG is Paranoia, which relies very much on a formulaic approach. This helps build expectations and create recurring jokes. The same is true of some of the most successful fantasy fiction – like Discworld – running jokes become anticipated and can be all the funnier for it.
  • Exaggeration: Whatever characteristics a character or an enemy has they’re more funny – at least can be made so easily – if they’re dialled up to eleven.

Fantasy is probably one of the easier genres to turn into a comedy because it’s so steeped in stereotypes that can be played up to. Dwarves and beards (and gold and Scottish accents). Elves and their androgynous, ambiguous gender, their hippy tendencies and relationship with plants, halflings being fat, orcs being stupid… the whole genre gains much of its success, across media, from the sheer familiarity of these ideas.

Comedy comes from exaggerating or subverting these conventions. Perhaps the dwarf’s beard is so long he trips over it, or he doesn’t have one and is forced to wear false beards, like a sort of inverted Lux Luthor. Perhaps it’s a female dwarf with a long, luxuriant beard who is, nonetheless, very feminine – as feminine as a dwarf can be anyway. Perhaps an elf who overcompensates for his androgyny by being rampantly homophobic and excessively concerned about coming across as masculine. and butch.

Anachronism is another route to comedy and something Terry Pratchett does extremely well. Magic can substitute greatly for technology and do many of the same things – or similar things – but its effect on a fantasy world can be hugely profound and have many comedic side effects. Imagine ubiquitous crystal balls and the ‘television’ that a fantasy world might create, or a thieve’s quarter, dark and dingy, lit up by illusory signs, crossing genres in appearance with cyberpunk. That is another way to get some comedy out of fantasy, subvert the genre, mash it up with others, the beauty of fantasy is that just about anything goes.

Grim’s Tales: Customising Your Games

 
Emett
Why customise your game?
Hardly anyone plays a game as it’s written. Sometimes that’s because the game is poorly written and nobody can work out quite how a rule is supposed to work. Sometimes it’s because the GM hasn’t read the book properly and has to wing it. There are plenty of other reasons why you might want to tinker around with the rules of a game as well.

God of the Gaps

No game system is perfect and no game system can completely cover every possible situation that a character might find themselves in. Looser games can be a bit more adaptable to this while, perhaps, older and more complex systems have a much more rigid structure that’s harder to adapt. If you find your game straying into territory that isn’t covered (at least by the books you have) then you’re going to need to come up with something to fill the gap.
When you’re trying to fill a gap in a game your best bet is to derive the new system from something that already exists in the system. If the game has rules for climbing, but not balancing, you can adapt the climbing rules into something for keeping your footing. If the game doesn’t have rules for attacking a helpless enemy but does have rogue rules for backstab attacks, you can adapt those to allow other characters to use them in special circumstances.

Only if you can’t derive a new rule from the existing rules should you consider coming up with something whole cloth as otherwise you’ll begin to break down the system integrity and come up with all sorts of special exceptions, which gets complicated pretty damn quickly!

The Thrill of the New

Sometimes you just want to add something to the game that it doesn’t have. Perhaps you’ve played a new game with some neato character class, style of magic or other innovation that you want to bring in. Perhaps you want to drag some alien race from a new film into your existing game system. New options, new armour, new weapons, new spells, even new skills. Most of these things can be modelled on existing game elements and systems and they should, generally, be comparable to what already exists in the game in terms of power. In SF games you can march technology and innovation on a bit further, provided technology of all kinds keeps up, fantasy games you might want to rein things in a bit or leave the really big trouble for plot devices – which are allowed to break the rules anyway.

No Sir, I don’t Like it

Sometimes games just have some aspect that you can’t wrap your head around or that you really don’t like. The way initiative works, how much damage it takes to kill someone, how hard it is to hit, how hard it is to aim. These are generally some of the easiest things to fix – you can generally just adjust some values – but the knock-on effects can be hard to predict. Changing hit points or damage in D&D, for example, can throw certain powers and encounter difficulties off-kilter with far reaching effects. It may take a lot of back and forth to work out what works best for you and your group and when you get into a convention or tournament scenario you’re not going to able to play according to how you prefer anyway.Fundamental Changes
Sometimes you want to make fundamental changes to the game, like affecting how the whole rolling system works. The most far reaching of these is in influencing the base dice rolling mechanic of the game. Most games fall into one of three categories:

  • Single Dice – Games that roll a single dice to resolve chance have an equal chance of getting any result. This tends to result in wild swings of fortune and (relatively) disempowers modifiers. D&D, for example, uses a d20  to resolve checks and a great deal is down to chance.
  • Multiple Dice – Games that roll multiple dice to resolve chance tend to cluster around the average result and more extreme success or failure is much less likely. Games that use this are much more influenced by modifiers – such as skill – and chance and luck play a far lessened role. SLA Industries, for example, uses 2d10 and results tend to cluster around ’11’.
  • Dice Pool – Dice pools roll multiple dice against a target and accumulate successes from the number of dice that score over that number. Dice pools tend to fall somewhere between the two, averages results are common but manipulating the difficulties, number of dice etc allow all sorts of modifications, the size of the pool is all, which does tend to emphasise modifiers that increase or decrease that.

Changing from a single to a multiple die system wreaks an enormous change on the feel of a system, multiple dice tend to result in a grittier game while single dice allow for more heroism, betting everything on a good roll and dramatic reversals of fortune. A fairly common change in d20 systems is to replace a single d20 with 2d10 (or even 3d6). In so doing it’s probably best to remove the need to ‘confirm’ critical hits as extreme rolls (2 or 20) are much less likely. Equally, changing things the other way instantly alters a game in the opposite direction, allowing for far wilder results. If you wanted to make SLA much more high-octane and chancy, you could change it to a d20 system from its 2d10 rolls.


Adding Subsystems
Adding subsystems doesn’t tend to influence or interfere with the overall game as you’re making a specific, individual rule for a specific, individual circumstance. You can even make these into little mini-games that bare little or no relation to the main game itself. Good examples of this might be using a board game/war game and an RPG together, deriving stats for one game from the other. You could swap between a Dark Heresy game and a Warhammer 40,000 skirmish game using the same characters – for example. You could play Crimson Skies for aerial combat and switch over to FATE or something on a similar 1-5 scale for story elements. One great example of this that worked fantastically was using the Netrunner card game for netruns in Cyberpunk, leaving the netrunner to play through the corporate systems by themselves while the GM and other players carried on playing the rest of the game, meaning that there was no interruption to play and nobody was left twiddling their thumbs.

Frankenstein’s RPG
Sometimes you want to take something that you think rocks from one system and bring it into another system. Perhaps you want to change the way that damage works or import an initiative system that you like (I’ve done that with the initiative system from Blue Planet many a time). With the various elements you like you can, theoretically, mash together a game that has all the features you love from all the games you’ve ever played. This is extremely difficult as games can be very different and none of these elements will work together particularly well without a lot of modification. All things considered, you’re better taking these things as inspiration and writing your own system whole cloth if you’re going to take things that far.

Balance Can Suck My Balls

A big concern for a lot of games seems to be keeping things fair and balanced between the various classes, powers and circumstances. Boring! Balance doesn’t have to mean homogeneity. Different strengths and weaknesses in different arenas are balanced. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be careful about introducing new elements and rules just keep in mind that it’s always easier to add something to a game than it is to take it away. It’s down to the GM to balance things with encounters and problems and suitable enemies, to give all kinds of characters a chance at the spotlight and at being useful, not so much down to the rules themselves. Otherwise everything can tend to end up bland and samey.

Grim’s Tales: Making your Players Comfortable

(Requested by @sarahdarkmagic on twitter)

Comfort is an important thing at the gaming ‘table’ (a lot of people play online now or without a table, so it’s important to not give the impression that we only talk about sitting around the table). Not just physical comfort, which I’ve covered tangentially elsewhere, but also emotional comfort. That basically means a sort of unofficial ‘social contract’ between the players, the Games Master and – often neglected – the people around you.

Short Term Things

You don’t always have the time to establish a relationship with people that you’re going to be gaming with. Maybe it’s your first day at a gaming club. Maybe you’re at a convention and you just don’t have time to get to know everyone. It’s always better if you can get into a ‘groove’ with your gaming buddies, but you don’t always have the opportunity and event gaming and one-offs can be very intimidating.

  • Be explicit about what the game is about: some people have issues with ‘x’, where ‘x’ can be spiders, blood, cheese or just about anything else you can think of. Ideally you want to minimise elements that upset someone at the table but if you don’t know them, you need to be up front from the get go on the game sign up sheet or in your introduction. Yes it’s spoilery, but it saves causing a problem. You don’t have to remove all these elements but you can skimp on the descriptions, fade to black or reduce their importance as a GM. As a player if you have anything that really upsets you, take a deep breath, remind yourself that it’s only a game but inform your GM before it comes up. Freaking out at the table will insult the GM and make them resentful of you. If you’re not sure how you feel about a game, ask and don’t play if you can’t handle it – but don’t denigrate other people’s fun.
  • Take time out to socialise: Even if you’re never going to see these people again it’s worth taking a quarter-hour or something to chat about games, about the convention, about your favourite characters or games, what was on TV or what cool dice the GM has. If you’re getting food, talk about it and consider sharing between each other – it’s cheaper and it’s a good excuse to talk. Don’t dive straight into the game cold to each other, try and get a basic feel for each other before you dive in.
  • Have a comfortable space: You can’t always manage this but you’re going to be sat down for a few hours at least so make sure your seat is comfortable and that you’re in a place where you can get at least a little bit messy. Sheets, dice, books and pens tend to look messy, even if they’re easy to clean up and sometimes a spouse, mother, housemate or similar will freak out at what they see as an invasion of their space. Speaking of which make sure that whoever else is in the area knows there’s a game on, will give you your space and won’t freak out or get annoyed.
  • Why so Serious?: Let people have a little fun, make bad jokes and pun, even if it’s a serious game. It’s a good way for people to relieve tension and relax.

Long Term Things
If you’re meeting with the same group day in, day out, regularly for games it’s a hell of a lot easier to get to know them and to get into a comfort zone with people where you know what you all like and don’t like. Don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security though, like any relationship your game-group relationship takes work.

Be reliable: If you say you’re going to show up for a game, show up and if you can’t, don’t leave it until the last minute to tell people you can’t. Always double-check that you have your dice, books, game notes, character sheets and so on as, usually, you can’t go back to get them.
Don’t push buttons: If you know what squicks people out within your group, remember those things and avoid them. This needn’t be gross things necessarily, it might be particular hackneyed plots or kinds of villains. Everyone needs to compromise but there’s usually one thing that someone can’t stand. Don’t step on that.
Change things up: You’ve got an established group, relish and use that opportunity. If you normally GM, let someone else do it. If you normally play, try GMing. Play characters and tell stories that you might not normally play, but make sure everyone’s aware of what you’re doing and willing to take the ‘risk’ with you.
Step outside your comfort zone: It’s just a game and with an established, trusted group that’s a great opportunity to examine those things that you can’t normally deal with or cope with. It’s a way to explore, in your imagination, things that you might find difficult. Even things you’re pretty sure you don’t like. Just  make sure people know you’re cool with it and ask when you want it to happen. Sometimes – also – you need to take a hit for the sake of the team who DO like the things you don’t like. It’ll be appreciated and you’ll get concessions in return.

Care and Feeding of your Players

  • Give everyone some time in the spotlight.
  • Appreciate what your players want – make them work for it, but give it to them in the long run.
  • Let everyone have a say in what you play and how you play, even if they’re in the minority, give them their turn OOC as well as IC.
  • Reward players who include and relax the other players, who help bring the game together as a whole.

Care and Feeding of your Games Master

  • Appreciate your GM and the work that’s gone in.
  • Couch your criticisms and disappointments in gentle terms, without the GM you’d not have a game at all.
  • Make sure the GM knows what you like.
  • Feedback, feedback, feedback. Talk about the game.

Care and Feeding of your Host

  • The people who own or look after the space that you’re playing in may not be gamers themselves. You need to appreciate whoever else lives in or maintains the space, you need to respect them. They might be the spouse or partner of someone from the group, they might be parents, if you rent a space people might not be sure about what it is you’re doing in the first place so it’s damn important to make sure they are – or get – ok with what you’re doing and with having you in their space. If someone handing around has their nose out of joint then it can cast a pall over the whole game and make things very, very uncomfortable.
  • A gift doesn’t hurt. Flowers, chocolates, letting them join in when you order food to save everyone money. All good.
  • Give them their space. It’s not your place, make sure you don’t get in their way.
  • Don’t outstay your welcome. When the game ends, don’t hang around too long. Make sure you can get home and reasonably promptly. If you need to decompress, head off to a pub, bar, diner or something rather than stink up the place with your gamer-aura.
  • Clean up after yourselves. It’s a little thing but if you don’t do it, it becomes a big thing.
  • It’s their place, try not to resent their presence. They’ve as much right to be here as anyone. Yeah, having non-gamers hanging around makes things uncomfortable, but at least they’re interested and you have somewhere to play.

Follow these guidelines and things should go a lot easier for everyone involved.
Be open.