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Ronin Roundtable: Walking the Royal Road part two: Backstory

Oct 16 2017

Hello and welcome to Walking the Royal Road, an ongoing series on using the Tarot (or Royal Road, in Aldin parlance) in Blue Rose AGE games. See also the first in the series, Part One: Friends & Loved Ones.

The Tarot has been used in roleplaying games for quite a long time, in a variety of contexts, and with good reason. Reading and deciphering the Tarot is less a matter of divination as it is storytelling—each card carries an intrinsic meaning (and sometimes a second meaning when the card appears inverted) that can serve as a building block for a larger narrative. When multiple cards are laid out, with each card position also having a meaning, it is possible to use them to build a small story of some kind, through the language of symbolism and the very human act of pulling disparate elements into a larger narrative.

The Blue Rose AGE core book already suggests a use of the Royal Road: in the establishment of a character’s Calling, Destiny, and Fate. There are also some suggestions for using tarot in Chapter Ten (p. 313, in the section “Walking the Royal Road,” where the title for this series comes from). This series of articles is going to suggest some additional uses for them.

The cards we use in these articles are the Shadowscapes Tarot, with art by the amazing Stephanie Pui-Mun Law, whose art has graced the covers of Blue Rose books throughout the game’s history.

Backstory

Today’s article discusses the use of the Tarot in generating a backstory. Romantic fantasy heroes frequently have backstories filled with twists, turns, tragedies, and confrontations. By the time these characters reach adulthood, many of the heroes of Tamora Price, Mercedes Lackey, Diane Duane, and other such authors have experienced a great deal that has shaped them into the heroes they are today. Of course, in those novels we frequently get to see this happening, but most Blue Rose game begin with fully adult characters. This provides a way to mimic some of those challenges.

The Spread

The spread for this method is not static, but can depend on just how much backstory the player (or Narrator, if creating the backstory of a Narrator character) wants to have had. A good round number for beginning player character is probably three cards: one for adolescence, one for young adulthood, and then a card that represents the struggle that led to the hero’s first level in a player character class. If they’re starting off at higher levels, an additional card for each level or two is probably also appropriate.

Feel free to also draw additional cards for major events. If your character is rhy-bonded, perhaps a card that reflects the events where that rhy-bond awakened in their lives. If they are part of the Sovereign’s Own, perhaps a card that represents them getting noticed or receiving training. If the character is older than a young adult, perhaps a card for every five or ten years since their young adulthood makes sense.

Some options for individual card meanings include:

  • Childhood
  • Adolescence
  • Young Adulthood
  • First player character level (often combined with another card, most likely Young Adulthood)
  • Rhy-bond
  • Entry into an Organization, Institution, or Group
  • Beginning of a defining Relationship
  • End of a defining Relationship
  • Starting a Family
  • Starting a Business
  • Middle Age

As you can see, there are a great many options, with the possibility of many more. Try and keep your focus to five cards or less, as the more detail there is, the harder it gets to weave it all together into a single cohesive whole.

This system is quite simple to use. Lay the cards out, face down, in a line. Then, from left to right, flip over each card, noting what stage or element of backstory this represents. Take the meaning of the card in question (using online resources or the booklets that frequently come with Tarot decks) as a prompt about the events the card represents; additionally, you can let the images on the cards themselves be a guide as well. Take notes; each of these cards is its own small story, but each is also a step in a greater story progression.

 

Example

In the image, we have laid out four cards to represent a new player character named Jaxan. Jaxan is a human adept (Forest Folk background) who is rhy-bound to a rhy-owl named Whisper. I have decided that the first card represents his childhood, the second card is his adolescence, the third card is the establishment of his bond with Whisper, and the fourth card is the achievement of his adulthood and the gaining of his first level of adept.

Childhood: Five of Swords. This card shows a winged swordsman, with a pair of dark-hued geese or maybe swans at his side. The card itself represents discord and conflicts of interest, the feeling that the world is arrayed against you, so you feel justified in focusing only on your own concerns and profit. Jaxan’s childhood was clearly tumultuous, and it looks like he had to take care of himself, having no one else to do so.

Adolescence: Judgment. This card shows a fey-like spirit among the flowers, playing music and surrounded by butterflies. The card represents release and renewal, having to make hard choices, making a judgment that may be harsh and difficult to face, but absolution comes thereby. With his adolescence, however, Jaxan was freed in some way by hard choices he made.

Rhy-Bond: Two of Pentacles. This card shows a harlequin-like figure balancing on one foot atop a pillar, while he huggles a pair of pentacle disks, with a monkey seated at his feet. It represents a balancing act, having to juggle and keep everything in motion, the trait of being flexible and adaptable, able to change directions easily and quickly. A sense of flexibility, of adaptability surrounds his rhy-bond; perhaps he is a good match with Whisper because the rhy-owl lacks that trait in some capacity? (I admit, the notion of a stodgy, grumpy older owl who is a bit hidebound in his thinking pleases me greatly.)

Adulthood: Four of Swords. This card shows a maiden in repose, a blade clutched to her body, her head reclining on three other blades, while she is surrounded by flowers and a dove is perched at her feet. Its meaning suggests a moment of repose, meditation and centering, and finding one’s inner strength. Jaxan’s adulthood–and the full bloom of his adept powers–may have come about not as a result of some kind of sudden trauma or stress, but the alleviation of such. When he finally gets the chance to rest, to turn his attention inward, his arcane talents blossom.

Conclusion

Here is just one example of this method for backstory generation. It’s far from the only one, to say nothing of the variety possible from other card results entirely!

Jaxan: The Woodwise Adept. Jaxan grew up in a small community called Avia, about three days north of Ennevan, in the southern edges of the Pavin Weald. The community was mostly made up of lumberwrights, fur-traders, and woodsfolk of various sorts. Jaxan has vague memories of his mother, but most of his genuine memories are of a neglectful father, who spent most of his time in the woods and when he was home, spent that time in the bottom of a bottle. Jaxan always sort of understood that his Da mourned his mother, but that didn’t change the fact that he basically left the boy on his own much of the time. (The themes of discord and being alone against the world are directly from the Five of Swords.) His closest neighbor, a goosewife with a full and hungry brood of her own, did her best to watch out for the boy, feeding him in return for his occasional help watching her geese, but that was the closest the wild boy had to any kind of supervision. (I really dig the birds in the card’s imagery, so he grew up helping to tend geese.)

As he grew older, though, he couldn’t help but note the sorts of things his Da brought home more and more. Coin, certainly, but also other trading goods, clothing, even the occasional weapon. His Da would make a trip into Ennevan occasionally to sell it, though he was always very protective of his privacy, instilling in Jaxan the need to keep quiet about their affairs to others. But when a pair of envoys came to Avia, looking for members of a band of bandits operating nearby, the fourteen year old Jaxan realized just what it was his father did for a living.

For the next couple of years, Jaxan held his father’s secret, though it ate at the sensitive and clever boy. He knew his own justifications became more and more absurd, but how could he betray his own father, even as neglectful as he was? He was the only family he had. But the next time someone came to Avis, seeking the bandits, it was a traveling noble and his companions, and they brought with them someone badly injured by the bandits. Face to face with the reality of the ill his father did, Jaxan fled to his home.

Sleep eluded him, until he was forced to sit upright in bed. Tomorrow he would find the noble, and do what was right. As he decided that, something battered at the shutters to his room. He fearfully crossed to them, and opened them, to find a great silvery-white owl perched on the sill. You’ve made a hard choice, Jaxan, the rhy-owl’s psychic voice said, sounding old and wise in his head. But you’ll never be alone again, not so long as I live. The rhy-owl introduced himself as Whisper, and the next morning, the two of them found the noble and told him of his father’s crimes.

(Note that I sort of switched up–or combined, really– the Adolescence and Rhy-bond cards to make the story make a better sense. Don’t hesitate to do that. No need to be slavishly beholden to the order of cards as they’re laid out. The goal is a good story.)

Finding out that the boy had no other family, the noble offered Jaxan a place in her retinue if he wanted it. Like most of the young of Avia, he was knowledgeable in woodslore and knew this part of the Weald. He thanked her, but refused. His one brush with helping to enforce the law was painful enough; he wasn’t entirely sure he was cut out to do so as his vocation. Instead, he returned the key to his father’s house to the heads-woman of Avis, gathered a few of his belongings, and he and Whisper disappeared into the woods.

Being perfectly at home in the woods, Jaxan spent some time getting to know Whisper, to mourn the loss of his father, but also to find some peace and clarity for the first time. It was in a forest glade that Whisper taught him to meditate and find his center, and over the next several months the two of them discovered and cultivated his arts in the animism and shaping (particularly plants) disciplines of arcane lore.

Now Jaxan is a young man ready to return to civilization, and the beginning of this Blue Rose campaign!

Expanding Our Support For Hurricane Victims

Oct 16 2017

Coffee Ronin Coffee MugYou probably know about our Green Ronin Online Store, but we have a second online store now. Our new Green Ronin Gift Shop features “swag,” like t-shirts, coffee mugs, poster maps, and more, bearing logos and art from our games. This store is separate from the Green Ronin Online Store for logistical reasons, and its products are printed and fulfilled on demand by the fine folks at Printful.

We are currently raising money in support of the victims of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. For a limited time, Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook and the Fantasy AGE Bestiary are on sale in our Green Ronin Online Store at 10% off, and after the promotion, we will tally up the sales of those two books and donate 20% of proceeds to Hurricane Maria Community Relief and Recovery Fund.

Now we’ve decided to go one step further: Starting now, for the duration of the sale, we will donate all but $1 of the profits of every sale made in our Green Ronin Gift Shop to the same fund. There’s never been a better time to get a framed poster map of Freeport or a Coffee Ronin coffee mug.

Please check out the Green Ronin Gift Shop today, and help us help our fellow Americans in need.

Happy Tal’Dorei Day! Campaign Guide Available Now

Oct 13 2017

All of us at Green Ronin wish a Happy Tal’Dorei Day to all Critters! To help celebrate, we’ve turned on ordering in our Green Ronin Online Store for the Tal’Dorei Campaign Guide.

Freedom City Pre-Order

Oct 11 2017

Freedom City, the iconic original setting for Mutants & Masterminds, is now available for pre-order in our Green Ronin Online Store! What’s more, if you pre-order the hardback through our store or from a participating Pre-Order Plus brick-and-mortar retailer, you can get the PDF for just $5, and download it right away!

With the Mutants & Masterminds RPG you have the power to become a hero. Freedom City gives you the world’s most renowned city of heroes to rescue from the forces of evil! Called “the greatest superhero setting ever,” the award-winning Freedom City is a fully realized and detailed metropolis that can serve as a home base for your heroes or just one of the many places they visit while saving the world of Earth-Prime from disaster. Your heroes can fight the forces of SHADOW, puzzle out the schemes of the Labyrinth, and defeat the alien invaders Syzygy and the Meta-Grue. With dozens of foes and hundreds of locations, Freedom City gives you everything you need to run an exciting Mutants & Masterminds campaign. Use it on its own or in conjunction with Emerald City and the Atlas of Earth-Prime for world-spanning action!

Ronin Roundtable: To Boldly Go…

Oct 9 2017

Hard to resist the appeal of the world’s most famous split infinitive, given the topic of this column and the recent relaunch of a certain science-fiction television series, although this Ronin Roundtable has to do with far more earthly matters.

One question I get a lot on diversity panels and interviews about inclusion and such is: “As a queer creator, do you face a lot of censorship?” To which I’d say, as a cis-gendered white male American creator, not nearly as much as some, but from talking to a lot of my queer colleagues in the game industry, much of the censorship we have faced has been self-censorship, a tendency to second-guess ourselves, to flinch a bit away from including the kinds of things we’d like to read in a product, in the interest of appealing to a broader audience, or “not pushing” or, frankly, whatever bullshit excuse we could come up with to justify not putting ourselves “out there” too much.

In my own experience, RPG publishers have actually been quite supportive of my going out on a limb and it has been much more of a question of just how far out there I was willing to go. I’m sure that’s not necessarily everyone’s experience, but when I wanted to make the protagonist of my Shadowrun novels gay, and talk about his trauma involving the death of his mentor and lover when he was a teenager, or when I wanted to include an openly gay superhero in Freedom City, or to incorporate queer people into the mythology and society of a fantasy setting in Blue Rose, publishers supported me unconditionally. Any places where I didn’t push boundaries or challenge expectations I attribute to my own lack of imagination, courage, or willingness to take a risk.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not beating myself up over who and where I was back then. I did what I was able to do (rather than what I was “allowed” to do) and I had a lot to learn. I’m a strong believer in Maya Angelou’s ideal of “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” At least, I certainly try to do better. All creative work involves risk: You’re putting a part of yourself into your creation and then putting it out there for people to love or hate or criticize or simply ignore with a “meh” and shrug, for fellow professionals to edit, critique, and evaluate. When you’re also going against the current of the mainstream culture, you’re taking an even greater risk but, in my experience, the rewards of a creative work are commensurate with the risks that you take.

That’s what led us to talking at Green Ronin’s recent planning summit (and afterwards) about encouraging bold creation: opening opportunities for new voices, diversifying both our creators and our ideas, exploring paths not taken, and finding ways to support and encourage each other when we feel the urge to back away from a leap of faith that seems too far, too risky. To find ways instead to help each other and the creators who work with us by saying: “Be bold. Jump, and we’ll be there to help catch you.” Bold creativity and inclusivity—telling the stories that truly speak to you—is still a risk, it will always be a risk, but it’s not a risk you necessarily have to take alone. If this idea speaks to you, talk to us.

 

Hurricane Maria Relief: Fantasy AGE RPG Sale

Oct 3 2017

Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook (Pre-Order & PDF)As you probably know, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. This month’s Charitable Giving Initiative sale is in support of Hurricane Maria relief efforts. For a limited time, Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook and Fantasy AGE Bestiary are 10% off, in both print and PDF formats in our online store, and when you partake we’ll donate 20% of the sale proceeds to Hurricane Maria Community Relief & Recovery Fund.

Ronin Roundtable: Summit Time

Oct 2 2017

Once the summer convention season is largely completed but before we lose the momentum that meeting our fans and fellow gamers brings, Green Ronin holds its annual summit in the Seattle area to plan out what we hope to bring to market for the next year. Summit time is important to our company because everyone at Green Ronin works remotely, bringing their individual skills and unique talents to bear from their own home offices around the country.

2017 means it’s been 17 years of our little endeavor that began as a way for GR President Chris Pramas to keep his hand in roleplaying while he worked a day job in the fledgling miniatures division at Wizards of the Coast circa 2000. Considering how we work, with so many of us working in what might seem like isolation, I’m amazed and gratified at how stable the core of our team has been and how we’ve managed to grow ourselves to include so many ridiculously talented and patently wonderful people.

When we first started it was just me and Chris, though our pal Hal Mangold was involved from project #1 and our dedicated webmaster Evan Sass followed up not long after. Hal went on to become our business partner in the reconstituted Green Ronin Publishing LLC and if you’ve listened to my bit on the recent installment of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff you know the high regard in which we hold him. The fact that they were, 16 years ago, the Best Man and Dude of Honor (respectively) at our wedding in 2001 should only be further evidence of our fond ties to these men.

I mention this because I consider “our people” to be not just coworkers and colleagues but also friends, near family. Summit time, in addition to being very much a working retreat where we meet for serious discussion and strategy for 8 or 9 hours each day, is also akin to a family reunion or some other sort of social gathering. We cook together, eat together, play games and watch movies and relax together. It’s bonding time… not “enforced bonding” or corporate ice-breaker game playing, but letting our introverts introvert, letting people who love the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles nerd out together, letting the night owls night owl and the early birds fix breakfast. It’s bonding time, time that reminds us all that our coworkers are humans and not just words in an email or posts to a Slack channel.

This year was kind of a big year for us because we reached a threshold where the number of “newbies” who had been to one (or none) of our summits in the past were nearly equal to the “old timers” who have now been to several (or every) previous summit. This year we welcomed Mutants & Masterminds line developer Crystal Frasier, who had the poor luck to be hired just after last year’s summit and so who had to go a full 11 months working for us without the experience of summitting to bolster her. Similarly, our magnificent Modern AGE line developer, Malcolm Sheppard, also had to wait through many months of work before meeting most of the rest of the team this year. After a full decade of waiting for Green Ronin to be in a place to launch a fiction line, 2017 was the year we were able to put our plans in motion and that meant that our Managing Editor Jaym Gates joined us for the first time this year as well. We also welcomed Veronica Templar, who graduated from volunteer to Event Coordinator when Donna Prior moved on. Veronica had, at least, met most everyone through her volunteer work for us as booth staff for GenCon but it was still her first summit in an official capacity (and she was dealing with an icky virus of some sort to boot). Finally, our Lost Citadel developer, CA Suleiman, joined us for summit business as well, though he did have the advantage of having worked as a Green Ronin freelancer before and knew at least a few of us before we dragged him out into the wilds of Eastern Washington to extract summit work out of him.

If there’s any indication that big things are afoot, looking around and seeing that a full 1/3 of your company summit is made up of new blood is certainly that.

Every year I leave the summit feeling energized and excited to tackle the upcoming year and this year was no different. If anything, I’m more excited than usual because I’ve gotten to see what Malcolm has been cooking up for our Modern AGE release and that in addition to our upcoming Mutants & Masterminds releases we have the wonderful work Crystal has put into the Lazarus setting. The line-up for Nisaba fiction is exciting me beyond words because as I’ve said, I’ve wanted to do this fiction line for a decade and Jaym is the PERFECT person to handle it for us. The Lost Citadel project was my “special project” last year and seeing it come into its own inside the company through CA’s capable guidance makes me nearly as happy as seeing Blue Rose make it out into the world did this year. Veronica blows me away with the things she’s taking on to up our convention presence and reboot the Freebooter volunteer program.

2018 holds much promise for Green Ronin and we have a really dazzling array of things planned. In addition to the new initiatives from our new faces, there are many things planned from our tried and true stalwarts as well. Chris will be along in the future to talk more about the specifics but I’ll just say that at the summit everyone was given a chance to pitch a “special project”…something done out of love or passion or inspiration. These are longer-term plans and ideas that Jack Norris, Joe Carriker, Steve Kenson, and Chris himself will elaborate on in future Ronin Roundtables. The most important part for me was that every idea had an advocate, that there was at least one person truly excited and inspired about every single “special project” to hit the table… and if circumstances keep us from doing them all right now, I definitely don’t want that to hold us back from making time to do them in the future. Nothing sells me quite as much as genuine passion for a project and the summit offered that in spades.

I am utterly convinced I work with the best people in all of gaming. That’s what Summit Time means to me and it’s one of the reasons I’m still in this business after 28 years. I hope you all come to love what we’ve got cooking as much as I do!

Ronin Round Table: Integrating Wizards 5e Adventures with the Tal’dorei Campaign Setting

Sep 25 2017

Bidet, Critters!

Now that you have the Tal’dorei Campaign Setting in your hands, what can you do with it? Play games, of course. But what adventures? Wizards has released a number of adventure books since 5th edition launched, and some of them are easy to integrate into Exandria.

Caution: Spoilers for Out of the Abyss are contained beyond this point. If you wish to play as a player, stop reading here. You have been warned!

One of the Adventure books that Wizards has released for 5th Edition D&D is called Out of the Abyss. It was primarily written by Green Ronin, on behalf of Wizards. The adventure, as written, is set in the Forgotten Realms, but it takes place mostly in the Underdark, and so requires very little massaging to use it in Tal’dorei.

You may wish to change the names of some of the cities of the underdark. I don’t think it will really matter much for most of them, although many of them have been in use in the Forgotten Realms for many years. There is a rough map on page 19 of the adventure that shows approximate locations of the underdark cites in relation to the overland Forgotten Realms map. You probably don’t need to change this, as the facing page has approximate travel times between the various locations. It’s probably best to use that as a rough guide for travel.

The largest change needed in the book is Chapter 8. The first thing to do is replace Bruenor Battlehammer and Gauntlgrym with Gradim Greyspine and Kraghammer. Then, replace the various Forgotten Realms specific factions (The Harpers, The Lords’ Alliance, The Zhentarim, The Emerald Enclave, and The Order of the Gauntlet) with Tal’dorei specific ones. (I’d suggest The Arcana Pansophical, The Ashari, The Council of Tal’dorei, The Chamber of Whitestone, and The Clasp.) Special note: In the adventure, the Zhentarim have a trading outpost in an underdark city. Have one of the factions that you replace the Zhents with (perhaps the Clasp?) have a similar outpost.

Please feel free to make any other changes you might need or want to. Playing with a toolbox is fun, and can help you level up as a DM. Bonus conversion: here is the sword Dawnbringer (found early in the adventure) turned into a vestige:

Dawnbringer

Weapon ( longsword ), legendary ( requires attunement by a non-evil creature )

Dawnbringer appears as a golden longsword hilt. When it’s attuned and held in your hand, you can use a bonus action to activate it, causing a glowing blade to appear. Dawnbringer functions as a longsword with the finesse property. You have a +1 bonus to attack and damage rolls with this weapon. It deals radiant damage instead of slashing damage. When you hit an undead or demonic target with it, it deals an extra 1d6 radiant damage.

Sentience/Personality: See the adventure, page 222.

Awakened:

Increase the bonus to attack and damage rolls to +2.

Increase the extra damage to undead or demonic targets to 2d6

Once per day, you can use your action to cast lesser restoration on a target you are touching. ( Recharges each day at dawn. )

Exalted:

Increase the bonus to attack and damage rolls to +3.

On a critical hit against an undead or demonic target, maximize all damage dice. ( Treat them as if you rolled the maximum number on the die. )

The first time each day that one of your allies within ten feet of you drops to zero hit points, Dawnbringer heals them for 2d8+2 damage. ( Recharges each day at dawn. )

Tune in next time for a more in-depth conversion, Princes of the Apocalypse!

Ronin Roundtable: The Freedom to Change

Sep 20 2017

One of the core features of Earth Prime is that it’s a dynamic setting. Just like your favorite comic books, the world constantly changes as new crises challenge heroes and villains alike, and the steady march of time means new heroes enter the picture as older heroes retire. In the Emerald City Knights adventure arc, we introduced a status quo on the west coast then tore it apart in the space of six months. In Hero High, we introduced the newest iteration of Next Gen (the first team having long since graduated to bigger and better things). In the Cosmic Handbook, we destroyed entire planets, destroyed an empire, and cranked up the danger as the Star-Khan conquers much of the Lor Republic and Blackstar forms his Blackguard to oppose the Star Knights.

The upcoming Freedom City introduces many changes of its own that have gripped the city since its last depiction over a decade ago. Popular Mayor Michael O’Conner has long since moved on, now representing the entire state as Senator O’Connel, with a dedicated familiar face taking his place. Crimelord August Roman is out of the picture, replaced entirely by his endlessly opportunistic daughter. Perhaps some of the most exciting changes are in the Freedom League’s roster. Several long-term members—including Captain Thunder and the Raven—have retired to make way for a new generation. Let’s take a sneak-peak at two of the newest members:

 

 

Thunderbolt is Ray Gardener, Jr, formerly of the teenage superteam Next-Gen. Hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps, he used the electrical powers he inherited to fight crime as the young hero Bolt. A little too eager to prove himself worthy of his father’s legacy and earn a place in the Freedom League, he fell right into the clutches of the fiendish Dr. Stratos, who used the young man as bait to lure Captain Thunder to his doom. The adventure that followed left Captain Thunder drained of his power and Ray Jr. infused with more elemental energy than his young body could handle. Now trapped inside a containment suit to stop his form from dissipating, Ray Jr tries to fill his father’s role on the Freedom League, but instead of youthful zeal he now finds his purpose in service, accepting the burden he struggled so hard to gain in his younger years.

 

 

Lady Liberty, by contrast, is one of the city’s newest heroes, and is still enthusiastically learning the lifestyle and the scope of her powers. Medical student Sonja Gutierrez sacrificed herself to save a stranger and found herself empowered by the Spirit of Liberty. Now inducted as a provisional member of the Freedom league thanks to her legacy status and tutelage under the previous Lady Liberty, Beth Walton-Wright, Sonja still struggles to balance her superheroics with her education and work. Unlike previous Lady Liberty’s, Sonja’s love for her native country is nuanced—she admires the spirit and potential of the United States against the terrible ways it treats immigrants like her parents and trans women like herself. Her frustrations are only amplified by a small by vocal group of conspiracy theorists who insist she somehow stole the mantle of Lady Liberty—including her nemesis, the murderous Madame Guillotine.

 

 

Ronin Roundtable: On the Edge of Ork!

Sep 11 2017

Ork! The Roleplaying Game, Second Edition, is into production, which in orkish means Hal am use machines and science to make book soon! (Me am creative focused; me am have lesser knowledge of Adobe products.)

Ork! Is dear to our throbbing, fat-armored hearts. We didn’t want to phone it in by just cleaning up and re-releasing the old game. Ork! am all new! Ork! am been through playtests!

Ahem.

One of those playtests was at this year’s Gen Con, where the game’s creative Orkmaster, Todd Miller, ran a game with the new rules. Todd designs fantastic, absurd adventures. My friend Wood characterized the vibe of Ork! as “stupid things by clever people.” There are many ways to play orks out there in RPGland, but if you want a game about rampaging orks that references Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, alcoholic poets, Zardoz, and maybe Thundarr the Barbarian by way of The Road Warrior, we’re there for you, in a low-key sort of way. I think Todd’s adventure was based on John Fowles’ The Magus, but man, not the movie. Well it’s Ork!, so maybe the movie. But with more dismemberment—and ad hoc cures for dismemberment.

My main concern (beyond having my character staple back on some errant limbs) was making sure the system worked, and that Cheats did what they were supposed to do. As I mentioned last time I talked about the game, Cheats provide some room for character differentiation, and contribute to the classic rhythm of Ork!, where you’re encouraged to dig yourself a big, violent hole. Cheats let you steal opposed-roll dice from the Orkmaster, but those dice get used against you later. In play, that meant watching dice stack up in front of players until Todd saw fit to drop them on their orks.

Cheats sort of act as the flipside of ork points—the magic bean system we use to reward violent, impulsive, orky behavior—but where ork points are rewards for playing like an ork, Cheats represent a way to think like an ork, sealing your doom with short term gain. Indeed, one of the traditional elements of an Ork! game is dying, appearing before the ork god Krom, and seeing whether he’ll let you feast with heroes, or get reincarnated as a pine cone, or a strangely smelly rock.

But if you live, there’s room to keep playing. This edition of Ork! includes an enormous adventure section that can take orks through an entire campaign, from new gunks (junior, nameless orks) raiding the sickeningly cute squishy men for pies and ordnance (see the adventure! It makes sense!) to hardened bands raiding flying fortresses, and even an honest-to-goodness dungeon.

You Am Design Adventure!

So beyond some orkbragging, let’s get to some advice. If you want to design an Ork! adventure the way Todd does, I don’t know—he’s just too weird, man. But if you want to fake it, here’s what I suggest:

You Am Use Smart Idea: Ork! works as parody in part because you can introduce orks into scenarios that, on the surface, seem too smart for them. While you can run through traditional fantasy dungeons and forests and things, reach beyond this low-hanging fruit and ask yourself how orks would mess up Sense and Sensibility or The Seventh Seal (if the latter was good enough for Bill and Ted, it’s good enough for Ork!). Part of the game’s fun is having the players notice themes and references their less, uh, informed characters would miss.

You Am Beat Idea Until Goal Fall Out: Once you have a scenario that’s too smart for your orks, wring basic conflicts out of it that work on an orkish level: get a thing, kill a thing, wreck a thing, flee a thing, and so on. Sometimes orks wreck the “normal” story; sometimes protagonists recruit them to deal with a problem in the story, making them Rosencrantz and Guildenstern types (or more likely, Macbeth’s hired killers). Sometimes you need to add an extra fantastical element.

Consider My Dinner with Andre as an Ork! scenario. (Really!) As Shawn argues with Gregory about whether his theatre experiences constitute authentic living, this kind of intense discourse may cause ork heads to explode—and indeed, create a reality-breaking aura. Now orks have to break up that conversation to save the world (or their brains) and of course, the taxi and driver, restaurant staff, and strangely animate dishes become foes to be crushed!

You Am Keep It Loose: Orks wander off, kill each other and occasionally explode after an unwise meal, so while you can design adventures around scenes, these should feature plenty of room to go off-script. Every scene or location should be an amusement park filled with things to experience and often, destroy. In other games, designing locations and scenes might benefit from sticking to the overall story arc, Ork! benefits from lots of weird, wonderful and “irrelevant” detail. Include plenty of things for orks to steal, eat or kill that fit the premise of a scene or place, but may have nothing to do with the plot.

You Am Add Warlock: When it doubt, get the warlock to make orks do stuff! The warlock is the GM’s mouthpiece, and since orks are expected to be directionless and unfocused, it’s okay to use the warlock to kick them in the right direction.

That’s the story-brutalizing violence which makes Ork! work, and it’s what we’ve got coming. And green pig faces. Because that’s what orks look like. You know it.

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