Class Consciousness: The Warrior

December 6, 2017 at 8:11 pm

Every class, as a class, is almost sure to have more defects than qualities. As soon as you put men together, they somehow sink, corporatively, below the level of the worst of the individuals composing it.

― Aleister Crowley, Magick Without Tears


One of the core precepts of role-playing games is that characters have ‘classes’ that define their abilities and track their improvement over time. From the very beginnings of Dungeons & Dragons to the newly released GURPS-inspired Dungeon Fantasy, classes have been an easy way for players to define their creations and guide their choices.

On the other hand (and the RPG spectrum has a truly Kali-esque number of hands), games like The Fantasy Trip, Savage Worlds, and our own Heroic Expeditions have no classes, or a very simplified class structure. HEX divides characters between Explorers and Adepts, depending on whether they focus on magic or worldly talents.

I have always felt that class structures were too restrictive, and force players into trenches that make making a PC unique more difficult, but that is simply taste. Classes provide real values, especially to new players. Classes not only give characters a foundation, but also built-in goals and motivations to increase their power.

Classes (or Professions, Careers, etc.) can also ground a character in the world they are playing in. A Knight character is probably part of a feudal system and will have obligations and restrictions based on that, whereas a Red Wizard of Thay will have a very different community and codes of conduct.

These benefits can gained in a skill-based system without adding all the mechanical restrictions of classes. For HEX, we’ll call them Packages and Paths. Let’s take a look at a few, starting with warriors.


The Way of the Warrior


[su_column size=”1/3″ su_column align=”right”][su_box title=”Warrior Package and Path” box_color=”#7d0c23″ radius=”0″]Warrior Package:
+4ST, +4DX, +0DX. Base Aspects: Melee Weapon, Shield, Ranged Weapon or Thrown Weapon.

Warrior Path:
1. +1ST (ST13)
2. +1DX (DX)
3. +1DX (DX14)
4. +1IQ (IQ9)
5. +1ST (ST14)
6. +2 Expertise (Weapon Training)
7. +1IQ (IQ10)
8. +2 Expertise (Warrior)
9. +2 Expertise (Horsemanship, Running)
10. +1D+X (DX15)
11. +2 Expertise (Range Weapon Training)
12. +2 Stamina (SA16)
13. +2 Expertise (Weapon Mastery)
14. +1ST (ST15)
15. +1ST (ST16)
16. +2 Expertise (Veteran)
17. +1IQ (IQ11, Tactics)
18. +2 Expertise (Expert Horseman)
19. +2 SA (SA20)
20. +2 Expertise (Leadership) [/su_box] [/su_column]

The warrior (all the way back to the Gygaxian fighting man) has always been a character class that relied on strength and power, and focused its efforts on weapons and armor. One might be tempted to load a Warrior Explorer in HEX with a high ST and cut loose— especially considering the ST requirements of some of the heavier weapons.

A high ST warrior can do a lot of damage with a large weapon, but without DX they will not be able to hit often, and even less if they wear heavy armor. These will need to be balanced. Only a basic intelligence is required for most weapon skills, and can be improved with experience.

Given that, our basic Warrior package would start out putting 4 points in ST and 4 in DX, and none in IQ. This will give a human a ST of 13, and the capability of using all but the heaviest weapons. An 12 DX would hit around 75% the time unarmored, and would hit roughly 37% in leather armor and carrying a large shield.

Base Package Aspects would include Sword (or Axe if preferred), Shield, Bow or Crossbow, or Pole Weapon and Thrown Weapons. This would leave a point or two to customize your base warrior, giving them Literacy, Horsemanship, Seamanship, or even Sex Appeal to set them apart.

The Warrior Path would improve ST by 1 quickly, to allow them to trade top to even heavier weapons. DX improvements would be equally important to offset armor choices. Stamina increases are helpful to withstand prolonged combats as well. Once you’ve reached ST14 and as much as DX15, a warrior will want to improve their IQ to gain new Aspects.

Important Warrior Aspects include Weapon Training and Warrior, as well as physical Aspects like Running, Swimming, and Alertness. A warrior may want to learn a specialty weapon like Cestus or Naginata.

A Warrior’s advanced Path (40 Att points or more) should still include moderate increases to ST and DX, but will probably focus more on Aspects. Improving IQ will allow them to gain Fencing or Weapon Mastery, Tactics, and Two-weapon fighting. Depending on their role in the campaign, they may want to have Expert Horseman, Courtly Graces, or even Strategist.

This path shows that even a straightforward Warrior PC can be advanced through 50 Attribute points with little difficulty and without becoming overpowered.


Alternate Packages: Warrior

Almost as soon as Warrior classes appeared, variations on the concept followed. The holy paladin, the wise ranger, and the thrill-seeking Swashbuckler are as much a part of fantasy gaming history as the fighting man himself. And, they are just as easy to create in a skill-based game like HEX.

Rangers rely on Aspects more than a standard Warrior, and will need a higher IQ. Their base package would be 3 points in ST and DX, and 2 points in IQ. Base skills would include Sword (or similar weapon), Bow, Animal Handler, and Naturalist, leaving points for Alertness or additional physical skills like Swimming, Running, or Climbing. Rangers typically use lighter armor and weapons, and will rely less on ST and more on DX.

As they increase in experience, their Path will include increasing DX to 15 or so, and IQ up to 12. Additional Aspects would include Woodsman, Silent Movement, Veterinarian and Weapon Training in their favorite weapon. As they become mighty heroes they will acquire Aspects like Expert Naturalist, Stealth, and Fencing. They might even learn a few spells like Trailtwister or Control Animal.

Paladins are the martial arm of a church, and are held to a high moral standard. They are usual strong warriors, but they have divine gifts that might be seen as magic. If you want to use paladins in your campaigns, you might allow them to bypass the restrictions against iron and magic. Their base Package would be 4 points to ST, 3 to DX and one to IQ, but they will need to improve IQ faster if they wish to use magic.

Their initial Aspects would include a Weapon, Shield, Charisma, and perhaps Priest. You might want to consider a One-point Aspect like ‘Ordained Warrior’ to reflect their place in church hierarchy. Their Path may take them down the martial route of Weapon Training and Warrior, or a more social route of Diplomacy, Courtly Graces and Theology. As they gain experience, they will want gain spells like Detect Enemies, Vigor, Refresh and Healing.

Launching the Expedition

November 30, 2017 at 6:40 pm

I’ve also regarded a sense of humor as one of the most important things on a big expedition. When you’re in a difficult or dangerous situation, or when you’re depressed about the chances of success, someone who can make you laugh eases the tension.

—Edmund Hillary


What were we thinking?

This seems like a pretty valid question. In a world with hundreds of RPGs of different genres and complexities, why create another one? I guess the answer is personal taste. We loved the simplicity and action-focus of old school RPGs like The Fantasy Trip, but wanted to take advantage of nearly 40 years advancement in how these game are actually played. To capture the original spirit of those first generation games, but add in better organization, streamlined systems, greater consistency, and easy to use mechanics.

Those RPG pioneers loved seriously complex tables and intricate subsystems a lot more than they liked continuity or proof-reading. We wanted to play, and tried not to let the game get in the way.

A sort of an apology

November 16, 2017 at 6:52 pm

“Well, I’m back”

— Samwise Gamgee


It has been several months since there has been any activity on this blog, and for that we are sorry, But there was a reason for it.

When we began this project, it started a group-enabled world-building exercise.  Were chose to create a role-playing setting based on a more primitive bronze-age, rather than the hodge-podge medieval Europe so many games fall into. And to keep that visceral feel and unrestricted flexibility, we wanted an old-school rule-light system that wasn’t already borne down by its own canon. And we tried to use the long out-of-print system from Metagaming called The Fantasy Trip: In The Labyrinth.

Designed by Steve Jackson, the man who would go on to create GURPS, TFT is a compact, flexible and exciting RPG. It is also nearly 40 years old, poorly packaged, inconsistently edited, and so poorly organized that they published a separate index for players to find the rules spread across the several books.

We loved the style of play and open nature of character creation, but the rulebooks themselves became a major hindrance to world-building and role-playing. So we did what any obsessive nerds would do in this situation— we wrote our own rulebook.

We tried to capture the spirit of old school games like TFT with its deceptively nuanced, but quick, combat system, as well as its unrestricted character building structures to create an easy-to-learn, fast-paced, and entertaining RPG for our fantasy world and beyond.

Enter ‘Heroic Expeditions’, a retro-inspired role-playing game for fantastic trips into labyrinths and beyond.

A play-testing version of the rules are posted here, and we welcome you to download, play, critique, and enjoy what we’ve done. We are still in the process of testing and editing the game, so your input is always welcome.

And watch this space for rules expansions, design discussions, and new ways to make HEX an exciting addition to your gaming table.

Let the Heroic Expeditions commence!

The Season for Giving…XP

January 6, 2017 at 8:43 pm

“Just as a puppy can be more of a challenge than a gift, so too can the holidays.”

— John Clayton
krampusx1Like many game masters, we at the Aerie have been thinking about the holidays. Not only the real-world holidays that lead to cancelled games, but in-game holidays that your players’ characters share with family and friends.  Whether they are simply analogues to real-world celebrations (like a mid-winter Yuletide) or something specific to your game-world (Happy St. Cuthbert’s Day!), holidays can add detail to your setting and help connect player’s to their environment.

There are many ways of going about creating holidays for your game worlds (like here, here, and here), and an equal number of ways that they can be celebrated. You want to make each one unique, with their own foods, music, modes of dress, and activities. But beyond adding fluff for PCs to wander through on there way to killing things and taking their stuff, what can you do with a holiday backdrop to add excitement to an RPG scenario.

As our gift to you, here’s a few ideas:

[su_expand link_color=”#8c2723″]


Many modern holidays have grown out of mystical if not downright magical predecessors. But in a world where magic works, and is a functional part of everyday life, these rituals might be even more important. Perhaps a parade of perfect youths to a holy shrine in a mist-filled cave really does keep a fey menace from creeping out to claim the beauties for itself. Or laying new garlands on the statue of the Earth Mother truly does protect the new seedlings and preserves hope for a bountiful harvest.

PCs can get involved in securing proper sacrifices for these rituals, or even be the ‘sacrifices’ themselves. Many ancient rituals turned participants into vessels for the gods’ to interact with mortals, which would be quite an honor for a devout character. Or, they may be part of a complex ritual, where their challenges are merely a part of a complex whole.

Or, in a more secular manner, they might simply may be tasked with hunting the roast beast for the annual Whovian Song Feast. Maybe, they are required to represent their country (or order, guild, faction, or race) in a state ritual rife with intrigue and politicking. Tye may have to eat tensions, prop up a drunken minister, or even uncover something more nefarious. Which leads us to the next adventure seed.


For everyone committed to making a holiday joyous, or solemn, or whatever the proper emotion should be, there might be opposing forces just as committed to undermining it. Perhaps a tribe of satyrs has grown tired off their wild mistress being cowed by a childish parade — they want him to seize all she can. Or a rival baron wishes to weaken the realm by subjecting them to famine by foiling the spring commitments.

Sabotage can take many forms, and players could become involved in many ways. Perhaps they were retained to protect  the rituals from interference, or perhaps they were merely caught in the middle when the saboteurs showed themselves. Even as strangers, they might overhear plotting or see something that indicates things are awry. This may put them in the awkward situation of having to decide whether to warn the ritual planners, or support their enemies.

In a more political setting, this may be more of a war of words. If a brash nobleman seeks to disrupt the annual festival of secured peace, it may be more about diffusing the situation than bloodshed. But if his plans have extended to murder, things could become violent quite quickly.


Like that classic holiday movie “Die Hard’, things might not always be as they appear. Major public holidays are often a drain on security resources, and every guardsman patrolling a parade route is one not watching over the jewelers’ market. And large crowds can be great distractions. If the great theater holding the poetry contest catches fire, there might not be much notice taken to a few highly placed individuals caught in the blaze.

This works best in when the player’s (and their characters) are familiar with the tropes of the holiday. That way the GM can play against expectations.  If they merely enter a town where everyone is carrying a candle up to a hilltop, they will more aware of strange behaviors and on guard for details. But if they know it is the ritual to call down of Lamassu of Light, they will be as surprised as everyone else when a mesmerizing light show dazzles the fateful and the offering vanishes into the darkness.


More of a diversion that a true adventure seed, holiday competitions can be great fun for players. From Perseus’ bull-dancing to hotdog-eating contests, feats of prowess have been a central part of holiday celebrations. These can be simply ways for PCs to show off their powers, or can be ways to introduce or file other conflicts.

If the party’s barbarian believes he is the strongest man in three realms, what happens when a rival from another tribe is leading in an arm-wrestling tournament? Or if a wizard connected to an evil cult is mystifying audiences with feats of legerdemain? This can be a way to raise the PCs standing in their community ask well, even become local heroes for actions of than bashing orc heads in.


One of the largest parts of current holidays is reuniting with family and friends, many of whom have traveled far for the occasion. In a fantasy game, this could increased exponentially. If the typical ‘manifestation’ of the Lamassu of Light is meteor shower, what if and actual Lamassu should appear? Or if the rival lord brought a legion of his most experienced guardsmen to feast ‘the secured peace’?

To look smaller, you could delve into your PCs backstories? If an adventurer was inspired on his path by a brother who sailed off ‘the edge of the map’, have him return for Yuletide. Or at least send a gift of a strange octopoid statue he found on a southern island.

These are just a few suggestions on how you use holidays to connect the players to your setting, and leverage them for stories. Because why should they be simply backdrops when they can be plot-drivers. Happy Holidays!

Have you used holidays to drive storylines in your games? Did you use any of the ideas we offered above, or something so clever we didn’t even think of it. Let us know in the comments below.


Cities Slicker series: Fantasticism

December 22, 2016 at 7:26 pm

“As a kid, I lived in a fantasy world. I used to believe ants could talk. Not once did they say thank you.”

—Willard Wigan

gettyimages-98345265I think many of us create and play fantasy role-playing games as an escape from reality and way to explore ideas that aren’t bound by strictures of our societies, or even our natural laws. So it seems slightly odd how much effort we put into plausible structures and believable rationale for our fantasies as we strive for the vague Gygaxian “verisimilitude”.

And sometimes these efforts undermine the magic of our creation. Our desire to create a logical hierarchy to the Church of Grognar Brighthelm might just throw shade on his holy radiance, or building a food chain where dragons have a steady food source might starve the joy from your questing knights. Sometimes its enough that Grognar shines, or that a dragon’s diet consists entirely of princesses.

Its a game, so don’t sweat the small stuff (like gnomes).

[su_expand link_color=”#8c2723″]If you have read any of the previous world building posts, you will know that I am a fan of using the real world to help structure your fantasy game worlds. But lets step back from this a bit, and look at how the same factors we used to talk about realism in an urban setting to inform a more fantastic setting.



In our world, cities often grow up around crossroads, river fords, and sheltered ports. These are good starting places, but there could be so many more. Perhaps a rare magical resource can only be mined from the lava fields around volcanoes? Or a particular tree is sacred to a god, and her worshipers have migrated to be near it. If its a magical tree, it may even be large enough to house the entire environment.

In fantasy, cities don’t even have to be in the same place. Brigadoon shows up for one day every 100 years, and then vanishes. Cities could be on cloud islands, or the backs of gigantic creatures, or shaped from living coral at the bottom of the sea.

Magic can be a great equalizer for what could be very difficult environments. In our world, people can easily die from lack of oxygen in underground systems, but you won’t see that problem in Moria. Or the problems of extreme temperature or access to fresh water and food. It can be interesting to solve these problems in your worlds (large condenser sheets collecting moisture from around the cloud castle, for example), but you don’t always have to. Sometimes its just magic.



This can simply be a reflection of its environment, or it could something all on its own. The residents of the WorldTree might live in vast complex carved out of its massive trunk, or they might collect items from the surrounding area and build colorful nest homes, or they might have a symbiotic relationship with a spider races that weaves gigantic slings, and airy silken structures for them. Just stretch your imagination and see what comes.

Structure can go beyond materials as well. Perhaps the entire city layout is a ritual pattern that keeps a demon imprisoned, and the people unwittingly repeat a ritual going about their daily lives. Or competitive wizards build ever taller and more slender towers to show their power and wealth, to where a person would have to shimmy up a shaft to reach the top?

Natural features can make fantasy cities unique as well. There may be an artifact of an ancient civilization like the Colossus of Rhodes in the harbor, or a massive well that is said to transcend worlds. The city may have even adapted to the fantastic feature and integrated it into itself. There is a city in Osirion in the Pathfinder world with a massive beetle shell in the middle of it, and many blocks of buildings built inside.

Different races would have a big impact on the structure of a city. A large population of dwarves might create a city that seems like a small village from above, but has many soaring galleries and busy workshops below. A city of woodland fey might not be seen at all, and is so cunningly built into the forest as to be invisible.



This is an area where both magic and fantasy races can truly alter the city’s landscape. When one group can literal cast lightning down on rivals, it causes a shift in power. And if there is magic working for multiple factions it can get complex very quickly. Not to mention the political power that can be gained by divination or charm spells.

Religion is also quite different in worlds where a gods power is tangible and reliable in the hands of their worshipers. Or what if the ruler of a region was an actual god? On the flip side, the ruler may have made a bargain with dark forces to gain this position, and is now bound to their agenda.

But even without that sort of heavyweight political manipulation, think of how completely different races might govern. Or how their worldviews will react when pressed against each other in a city. A tribe of warlike minotaurs might create a stable, moderately repressive tribal government in the mines of their homeland, but what happens when they set up permanent encampments to trade in the heavily gnomish hillsides.

Races may choose their leader through combat, or by lot, or by who the sacred pigeon of Plo’tzz chooses to grace with its blessing. And this may be engrained into their culture and not easy to change.



As varied as human culture and creative endeavor can be, the culture of a urban fantasy would be even more so. Magic could change our arts in many ways. Just think back on the background design of a Harry Potter for a moment. And those were largely just visual arts.

Other races might have have different senses, or at least a different focus on the senses we share. How would dark vision effect painting? Or what would theater be like for a race that can read surface thoughts. And what happens when drastically different styles collide in a crowded city. Are heavy stone statues found surrounded by living tableaus of plants? Is one group concept of harmony physically jarring to another. These are just a few of the cultural touchstones you can use to make your cities unique.



These ideas can rapidly get out of hand, and turn your lovingly crafted world into a freak show of breathing towers and skittle-pooping elephants feeding the populace. But even one or two elements can make a city more intriguing to your players, and a better backdrop for their stories.

Fantastic elements can also be used to reinforce the themes of your campaign. A city of cruel, manipulative schemers could be filled with winding alleys and shadowy markets, or a warlord’s stronghold could be built from jagged rocks constantly lashed by wind and storms off the sea. Or even serve as a counterpoint, where your players discover the rulers that serve as the heart of the WorldTree have been corrupted, and its seeds will bear no fruit.

Plausibility and structure are important is you want a world to make ‘sense’ and want your players to feel like they understand how your world works. But its just as important to break those rules, and inject some wonder into your world.

Do you have tricks you use to make your cities wondrous and unique? Or do you think these ideas are for theme parks and Saturday morning cartoons, and prefer your worlds realistic— caked with grit and grime? Let us know in the comments below.


City Slicker Series: Realism

November 21, 2016 at 10:14 pm

“Ours is a culture and a time immensely rich in trash as it is in treasures.”

― Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

farmCreating cities for fantasy games is a complex process that requires you balance several different aspects. You want them to seem believable, and at the same time fantastic. You want them to vibrant, open, and intriguing — but they still need to serve the overall plot thread of the game. Much more than dungeon or a wilderness encounter, urban environments require a lot more juggling on the GM’s part. For this installment, lets just talk about the realistic elements that can help make your cities relatable to players.

[su_expand link_color=”#8c2723″]


It has been discussed previously that a city in your game world needs a reason to exist, whether its trade, religion, government, or defense. These reasons will have a pretty large effect on where the city will be. Most cities in our world are built near sources of fresh water and other resources. Its also common for cities grow up at crossroads or where trade routes converge. Other reasons include strategic locations like mountain passes or narrow straights, river fords or natural harbors.

These aspects will have major impact on how a city would grow. Military outposts will cluster around defensive structures, while a crossroads trading post might spread out along the roads. Regional geography will also impact your city as well. A city in a northern forest will be much different than one in a desert or on a tropical coast. These should be kept in mind when you are trying to get a feel for cities you create.


Geography and purpose affect how a city is built as much as where. Take a look at our own world and you can immediately see the differences, from the materials used to overall layout. Cities built around finite resources, like harbors or mountain passes, tend to be crowded more vertical. Warmer locations feature more open spaces and outdoor gatherings.

Local materials would also change how an individual city would be built. Is there a source for stone? Or heavy timbers to build with? Perhaps the structures are made form bricks or adobe. The roofs could be thatch, baked tiles, or flat stonework in dryer climes.

What is used for decoration? Stones like marble or granite can sheath important buildings. Decorative details could be touched with precious metals or gems. What about glass? Are windows commonly glass, and do they use stained or painted glass for decorative effect?

Was the city built from a plan, or did it grow organically over time? This would have a big impact on the layout of the city, from the size of the streets to the location of important locations. Government or religious centers would have more monumental architecture and ritual plazas. Market towns might have a large open central trading area, or several specialized markets scattered throughout.

How are the population’s needs met? Is there fresh water from wells, or from some public system. Is there plumbing? How do people handle their waste. Is there a sewer system, or do they simply toss chamber pots in the gutter? How do people heat their homes, and what is used for light? These details may seem trivial, but they can add flavor to the different places where your players travel.


As important as the physical layout, the political landscape can shape your city. Is there a single ruler, with a large palace or castle to impress and intimidate the populace? Or a council of wealthy and powerful traders, each with their own opulent mansion and manicured grounds. A military outpost would be centered on some kind of defensive structure, and may have internal walls and garrisons throughout the community.

Religion puts its own stamp on a settlement as well. Is there one dominant faith with a central place of worship, or a multitude of beliefs who may have their temples in nearby locations, or in different districts segregated by religion.

Economics is another political force that would have physical impact on a city. While the wealthy might make the rules, but every segment of society plays its part. Merchants and traders push their agenda and drive the engine of the economy. Farmers and workers might be marginalized, but their numbers make them dangerous to overlook.

The interplay of the various power groups can drastically change the outlook of a city, from a untied force against a common enemy to bitter rival factions on the verge of civil war.


This can mean can mean many different things in your city, and can be reflected in all the other elements of your environment. A city drawn together by clans of horsemen could be reflected in wide grassy spaces, decentralized government, and a overall feeling of rugged independence. Their arts might be more practical, and definitely more portable, than an agrarian society.

Or, a community based on international trade might be a very open and accepting place. The constant flow of new ideas might lead to very intellectual cultural life, or perhaps just fashion-driven and ostentatious shows of wealth.

The cultural aspects of fantastic societies are often under-represented in games. Even bards wander endless fantasy landscapes with the same lutes on their back singing the same romantic lays. Picture a bard busting out a little Chinese opera in your next tavern encounter.


The last aspect  to consider in building a ‘realistic’ urban setting for your fantasy game is the narrative. The city must be whatever it needs to be to further your players’ story. The Enterprise doesn’t need bathrooms, until and ensign needs a place to hide and remove a disguise. Medieval cities were overflowing with disease and filth, but it it doesn’t effect the overall story, its not necessary to describe every pox and sore.

Its a fine line between color and clutter, and urban adventures offer enough distractions to paralyze players with too many choices. Pick a few key elements that make a city unique, and ground them in the reality of your world, and you will create a memorable backdrop for your players’ adventures.

Do you have any tricks to make your cities more realistic, or do you think the whole idea is wrongheaded thinking? Let us know in the comments below.


Making Cities Slicker

October 24, 2016 at 7:57 pm

“What strange phenomena we find in a great city, all we need do is stroll about
with our eyes open. Life swarms with innocent monsters.”

― Charles Baudelaire


Basic RGBPerhaps not as much as haunted ruins or mysterious towers, but cities have long been a staple of fantastic literature. Lankhmar is as much a character as Fafhrd or the Grey Mouser, and the mental image of the circles of Minas Tirith has stuck with me since i first read them in middle school.

Fantasy cities provide characters with the opportunity to spend their hard-earned gains, seek out wise counsel, or simply stir up trouble. But they can be some of the hardest locations to design and manage for the game master. Everything that makes them enticing — the freedom, the choices, the opportunities and risks — make them difficult for a GM rot handle and players to make the most of.

Unlike dungeons or wilderness areas, most urban areas are too large to be fully detailed (unless you have far more time than I do), and the ‘goals’ may be harder stay on top of. Further, urban areas make it far easier for player groups to separate and force the GM to juggle multiple stories at once.

[su_expand link_color=”#8c2723″]Another mechanical concern is that cities are far more likely to have inhabitants of widely varying power levels. A wily character might try to pad his pockets by cutting purses in a crowded market, but may quickly end up on the wrong side of the local Duke or visiting archmage. Depending on the player, thus might encourage or paralyze them. The same amount of choice that frustrates the planning of the game master might overwhelm the players, who might choose to sit tight in a tavern, and wait for a mysterious stranger to drop a quest in their laps.


Group itinerary

Like any adventure location, you should have an overall goal of what can be accomplished in the city. This can vary widely by group, and gauging their interest in various elements of the game is critical. If they are heavy on role-pay and politics, simply gaining admission to court and plotting with the various factions might be the goal. Or, if they are mission-focused they may simply want to report to their superiors, get rest and equipment, and be off. They may just be here to perform a task like stealing a family heirloom or return the lost princess. Knowing your group’s interest and setting a concise goal can be very helpful in creating a successful urban adventure.


Map quest

So what can we do to design cities that inspire adventure and intrigue players without killing ourselves with preparation? Start with a map. Not a diagram of street and buildings (although those can be pretty helpful), but a story map of what you think might happen, with which characters, and what resolutions might come out of it. Cities are filled with choices, but some choices are predictable. Does the party need to replace our upgrade their equipment? Will the wizard want to visit a library or sage to help decipher the runes carved on the staff pulled from the ghoul-queen’s tomb? Does one character need to slip off to repay a loan that got from an underworld boss?

GMs have their own goals as well. Perhaps you want to introduce a secret cult as new villain. Or tell them of rumors of a new ghoul outbreak in the northern fens. Perhaps the ghoul queen isn’t as vanquished as they thought? Creating a chart of these elements can keep you on track when things bog down, and may reveal ways to combine locations in interesting ways.  Perhaps the warrior cannot get the plate armor she was hoping for because the last shipment steel disappeared somewhere in the northern fens?

Build on possible resolutions, and link story blocks together not unlike a dungeon encounter. They might take different hallways, and react differently to encounters, but have it work toward some kind of conclusion. Unlike a dungeon crawl, there can be a lot more unresolved plot points and (hopefully) a lot fewer corpses left behind. Store these away and pick them back up when our heroes return.

Unless you are running a completely urban, highly social campaign (a very specific animal), the players are undoubtedly going to leave the urban area and he’d back out to the dangerous wilderness. Try to make it as eventful and intriguing visit as you can. Allow them the freedom to off after their own goals or turn down dark alleys, but keep the story map in mind and lead them out the other side.


Season, sparingly

Fantasy cities can be as unique and fanciful as the rest of your world, embrace that. Buildings can carved out of the trunk of a great tree, or mantis-shaped automatons may patrol the marketplace. Give your cities individual flavor, but be careful of overdoing it. Many players have been ‘trained’ by dungeon-crawling to pay special attention to details you call out, and assume they are critical to their success. If you mention highly-guarded teleportation circles that the nobility use to travel between courtly functions, they might decide they need to sneak in and use them themselves. And find themselves on the wrong side of the Kingsmens’ halberds.

This can be pretty subjective, and it is difficult to guess which details your player’s will fixate on. Just be aware of the dangers implicit in your descriptions of urban wonder. The same is true for NPCs. Cities are great places to encourage role-playing, and the temptation is to give every bartender and dry good merchant their own voice, back-story, and motivations.

But if you have already split the group into smaller groups, this will extend the time between each and may frustrate those who are not part of the scene. It may also lead them into thinking one NPC is more important than you imagined them to be.  This can be problematic if some random-seeming NPCs are critical to your goals. If one merchant is named ‘Bob’ and his prices are straight from the book, and his competitor is Ichriss the Irrefutable, a seven-foot man who only opens after sunset and haggles over everything, the might get the idea which one is hiding a secret.


Exit strategy

Its pretty easy to tell when the dungeon adventure is over — the map is filled in and the BBEG is bleeding out over his dark altar. This is often not the case in an urban setting. The group might finish its required tasks, gain the information they sought, and healed their wounds, and yet will still linger in town. It is the nature of the open-ended cityscape. With so many choices, its impossible to tell when they are done.

When this occurs, you might need take action and encourage them to get back on the bus. That might be literally, in the case of a merchant caravan leaving for the fens at first light. Or, a representative from the thieves’ guild suggesting that if they are going stay, membership dues might need to be paid. Or that mysterious stranger might even dump a quest in their laps.

The key to a successful visit is making sure you don’t overstay your welcome.

Do you have any secret weapons you use to make your urban adventures memorable? Or do just want to tell us where we went wrong. We’re ready to hear you out in the comments below:


Organization, man

September 13, 2016 at 2:37 pm

“The triumph of anything is a matter of organization. If there are such things as angels, I hope that they are organized along the lines of the Mafia.”

― Kurt Vonnegut

illuminati-512Fantastic literature is filled with powerful organizations both noble and sinister, from the Jedi to the Illuminati. But this can often be difficult to replicate in gaming situations. Organizations become either over-generalized and amorphous, or single-issue zealots without nuance.

And while many game systems offer mechanical systems for gauging an organizations influence, resources, and prominence, we are more interested in creating organizations that make sense within your game-worlds. Organizations that can drive storylines and provide reasons fro your players to interact with them.

[su_expand link_color=”#8c2723″]

What makes an organization

As soon as some group separated itself (as “us”) from others (as “them”) society was born. And that at its root is the most basic definition of an organization.  All societal groups, from the Clan of the Cave Bear to the Log Cabin Republicans, start from a belief or concept that separates it from all others. We’ll call this Outlook. A second requirement is the overall structure of the group; how to become a member and the overall hierarchy. We’ll call this Order. A final aspect, which is more a reflection of the organization form the outside, is Esteem. This is how society at large views the organization and its members.

These three poles all play on the group as a whole, and each individual member may be more closely aligned with one or another. For example, the Knights of the Round Table were united in the search for the Holy Grail, but Sire Galahad was driven more by Outlook, and King Arthur himself was pressured by Order. It could be said that Sir Lancelot was swayed by Esteem and betrayed his Order by falling in love with Gwuinevere.

1. Outlook

As the base, this is probably the easiest aspect to grasp. Deatheaters believed in the preeminence of pure magical families. Jedi follow the Light side of the Force. The Fellowship of the Ring vowed to defeat Sauron.

Because it is so basic, it is also the broadest. Geography, bloodlines, nationality, and religion are all examples of Outlook that could encompass large groups of people. Others are far more specific. Pathfinder’s Twilight Talons are a secret group from one country dedicated to fighting slavery.

Knowing the boundaries (and limits) of Outlook is important in defining a group’s identity. The Bothers of the Leaf are committed to elven identity and protecting their homeland, but are half-elves or females allowed to join?

For good or ill, there is no ‘us’ without a ‘them’. And where this has caused so many problems in our world, conflict in the game world creates drama. And that is good for games.

Its also interesting to note that characters may be born into multiple groups, and these may cause internal conflict. Characters may be pulled between family, country, and philosophy; with multiple groups trying to affect their actions. Not all players embrace this sort of conflict, but it can create compelling interactions.

Outlook will also be reflected in the rules of conduct in an organization. These may be as simple as wearing a blue headband, and as complex as providing sacrifices to feed a dark entity. Outlook can provide a huge gamut of customs and behaviors.

2. Order

Once a group coalesces around an Outlook, they quickly start developing an Order. Sith are organized around a strict Master-Apprentice relationship. Mercenary groups co-opt military organizations. Religions may follow supernaturally-powerful leaders, but their followers can follow many different forms.

Outlook often impacts Order. Secretive groups closely guard their power, and may have strict initiations. Pirate crews were often participatory democracies, with the Captain only able to issue orders in combat.

Power within the organization might be an indication of status within the Order. Do only mages of the sixth circle have access to certain spells? Or at what rank do the Knights of Solamnia get to wield a dragonlance?

Power within an organization is not always reflected in game-term “power”. The commander of a medieval force was probably a noble, not necessarily the most capable warrior. Or, the Lord Mayor may have been elected because of back-room deals, and not because he is best suited to lead. And, any organization that offers power may attract those who merely want power, and are not driven by the organization’s Outlook.

3. Esteem

This aspect is one that organizations may have the least control over— how they are perceived by larger society. Organizations whose Outlook is good and noble usually are well-respected, and those of evil bent are often feared, but this is not always the case.

Some organizations may be secret, and the general populace may not even be aware of them. Their existence may only be in tales to frighten children, or to provide hope to those who have abandoned all else. These organizations may be undermined if their existence became common knowledge, and work to contain any leaks.

Members of this kind of organization will hold secrecy above all else, and have to give their lives to protect the whole.

Others may simply want to protect or enhance public perception of the groups. Chivalric knights (moreso in literature than realty) went to great lengths to defend chivalry. Rival groups might seek to undermine the reputation of a particular organization, and conflicts over perception could bring even good-natured groups to blows.


All of these aspects exercise control over an organization. The priests of Brastagoth may be strictly pacifist, but their leaders could be pressured into supporting a war against the Sea People. Or, the scion of a noble family may have to reject his birthright to defend his oaths. These competing interests can serve to provide color and interest to organizations beyond their core beliefs, and inspire storylines to get your player’s to more deeply interact with your game-world.

Do these constructs give you enough to build intriguing and realistic organizations in your games? Did we overlook an aspect that is crucial to success? Let us know in the comments below:

Spoiler alert:  Inside Mesus

We will take a look at how we can apply these ideas to our own bronze age setting, and make public and secret organizations for players to interact with.


Inside Mesus: Rulership

September 7, 2016 at 10:54 pm

“Towns are like people. Old ones often have character,
the new ones are interchangeable.”

— Wallace Stegner


Our recent discussion on fantasy world governments made us want to dig a little deeper into our bronze age starting point— Mesus. Our city-state is roughly 10,000 people, with 7500 of them crowded around either side of an ancient canal that connected an inland lake (now a polluted, monster-haunted cauldron) to the ocean.

[su_expand link_color=”#8c2723″]

Why here?

The canal and many of monumental building of the town pre-date the cataclysm, and the devastation it wrought nearly destroyed the town. But its modern era founder Syron — a child of early gods — pulled up the roots of the mountains through the canal and stopped the poisonous waters from flooding its streets.

These “Seven Sentinels” that stop the flow of the Bitter Sea, now form the western edge of the city-state. Only a trickle of water runs along the bottom of Mesus’ massive canal, and most of that vanishes into sewers before the third lock that holds back the ocean. Most of the commercial activity of the town is built on the ancient stonework anchorage and on jetties reaching into the ocean. Gathering the goods of this small fertile stretch and trading it with the wider world is the center of Mesus’ existence.

The Mesean worldview reflects their geography; danger and death lie in the past and interior, and the future is held by the sea.  They have turned their back on the land of their forebears, and turned toward the sea. They welcome traders of all stripes and races, and work to build alliances rather than subjugate other cities.

The Power Elite

Mesus is ruled by the Soma, a council of leading citizens, chosen from a score or so leading families. They number 18, and rarely does any one family have more than one member. When great questions lie before the council, they will convene an Omada of 180 members that represents a much broader cross-section of society

But Mesus’ true power lies in the Syronides — descendants of the great Syron. Their leader (chosen by the families in private) carries the maul of the master and guides policy fro the entire city-state. The Syronides control much of the land on the anchorage, and are heavily invested in sea trade. It is said that a large part of why the Meseans are so committed to trade is that it lines the Syronides coffers.

The current leader of the Syronides (often called the Syronide) is Aktion. As a boy he was the image of his semi-divine ancestry. Tall, broad, and athletic with a quick smile and great love for his friends and community. He traveled widely in his youth and swept into power over his family when he retired from the sea. In recent years he has been afflicted with a strange recurring illness, leaving him bed-ridden for weeks at a time and turning his hair and short beard a premature white. These attacks breed chaos among the family, as members try to take advantage of his absence.

Factions to Factor

Other families are also involved in the sea trade, including the Marteis who control most of the shipbuilding and their allies the Otoros who manage the bulk of the lumbering and milling of great timbers from the northern hinterlands. Still others mine tin and copper from the hills, or produce finished goods for trade.

The power of these old families is not unchallenged, however. Foreign trade has brought new faces and new ideas to the bustling port. Guild masters are rising in influence, and wealthy captains and their investors rarely seek approval of the Soma for their actions. In particular, the master of glassblowers guild, Ertis Zhemaastis, has amassed quite a bit of wealth and power as the work of his craftsmen has become prized the world over.

Mesus is very open regarding religion. Her patron goddess Diomae has a fairly loose priesthood, with most being chosen from the wealthy class and serving only part-time in this capacity. Syron has no priesthood at all, and only the Syronides are allowed beneath his greta open temple. Other religions and cults have dedicated priesthoods and more extreme agendas, but as long as their beliefs do not impinge on each other they are allowed to practice.

Another power lies in the shadows that cut through the heart of Mesus. The great canal hold ancient secrets, and sewers and other forgotten passages connect it to many parts of the city. It is said the mysterious magics are practiced in the depths of the canals, and the noxious fluids that seep between the sentinels can be channeled into evil power.  It is a capital crime to be found within the depths, but the city’s thieves — and perhaps others — risk the punishment for greater rewards.


While many reside in Mesus, only those who can claim three generations, or who own their own land are truly citizens. Citizenship can also be granted by the Soma. Roughly one-third of the populace can claim full citizenship. They pay an annual fee and may be called upon for greater donations at need. The rest of population are taxed 1 in 50 of the earnings four times a year, or 8% of their income. All trade within the city-state is also taxed at a rate of one in ten.

These funds go to maintain the Soma, the public spaces and festivals, and to keep a permanent force to maintain law, protect the borders, and enforce the peace. In times of war, additional levies may be called for, and citizen are required to serve their country. This service may be paid ‘in-kind’, but it largely expected that the young and healthy of both sexes will represent themselves in these times.

Note that Mesus only offers citizenship to humans. Elves from the wilder woods, or visiting dwarves or even reptile-men from beyond the Veil of Mitera are welcome in the city, but will never be considered as part of it.

The military is drawn largely from the lower classes, who gain citizenship for 10 years service. They are housed in the upper city, near the villas of the finer families. There are also townholds in individual neighborhoods with 10 guardsmen under a watch captain living an patrolling the area. In surrounding villages and strategic locations, there are also holds to keep the peace and collect taxes. These are often fortified and built to house more than just the basic garrison. In times of war, the leadership is drawn from the Soma and Omada, and is often a political appointment. Field command is often held by career officers, who rarely attempt to upstage their noble commanders.

Power is held by both sexes by law, but it is usually the female who retains financial and domestic control, while the male focuses on commercial and political aspirations. This often leads to perception that women are subservient to men, but anyone who has negotiated with a shrewd Mesean matron knows better.

Do we know what we need to build a character in Mesus? Is there some aspect of civic society we overlooked? Or something just plain wrong?? let us know in the comments below:


Who’s in charge around here?

August 26, 2016 at 5:44 pm

“To rule is easy, to govern difficult.”

— Goethe

Nebukadnessar-II-coinRegardless of how involved the gods are in your game world, your players’ characters will undoubtedly interact with powerful forces of a more earthly sort. I’m talking about ‘the man’.

Governments and other power blocs are an important part of most campaign worlds. Unless your heroes are exploring an unknown land of glaciers, or are deep in uninhabited space, they are bound to come across someone (or something) that claims to have authority. But who are they?

[su_expand link_color=”#8c2723″]

These authorities usually land on a band that goes from abject tyranny to reckless anarchy. From centralized power in one person’s hands to diffused power held equally by all. This does not necessarily mean that widely held power allows more freedom or liberty— a benevolent king could support these freedoms as easily as a democracy could demonize outliers from the norm. But generally, as power flows into more hands the opportunity for wider viewpoints increases.

Plurality of Power

There are many lists of different forms of government online, and Wikipedia  has a pretty thorough breakdown here. Its interesting reading, and a good resource for anyone who wants to compare various aspects of rulership.

Its also important to note that any civilization is likely to have more than more form of authority in parallel (and perhaps competition) with each other. While a king may hold temporal power in a land, a powerful priesthood may have equal authority over the spiritual life of the populace. For that matter, a council of guild masters may also be vying for power by controlling the reins of the economy.

The Fantasy Factor

And if your RPG world has fantastic elements, there may be entirely new kinds of government. Wizards may form a meritocracy of mages where only those with power arcane can be full citizens. A dragon can be a power bloc all on its own— whether exacting tribute from a populace or actively demanding that subjects do it bidding.

Or, what if citizenship did not end at death? How would ghouls or vampires participate in a government of the living? Let alone secret forces who lead by mind-control or possession of those who hold power. Fantasy and magic add new wrinkles to the process.

What government can do for you

Besides serving the desires of those in power, most governments are expected to do things for their citizens. This might range from magically keeping the land fertile to only sacrificing one-third of the children to feed the beast-god. But governments that neglect their duties can find themselves on the smoking end of a torch-wielding mob. These activities can be broken down into a few key categories.

Law. The prime activity of most authorities is enacting and enforcing laws. These may be for the common good, or completely capricious, but they are the law. The first and most basic laws usually involved property, and who controls it.  And for that, there quickly followed a force tasked to making sure these laws are followed.

In our world at least, was protecting individuals were secondary and enforced in a less forceful manner. These were often enforced by the community, with the ruling authority presiding over the dispensation of justice if courts existed.

Trade. Coming out of laws protecting property, government usually exercised control over trade with other authorities. Whether by creating and maintaining a consistent currency, granting trade rights, or enforcing tariffs on foreign goods, a government can exert control over trade. This is often a point of contention between the authorities and those actually doing the trading, and entire sub-economies have been built to subvert these controls.

Defense. Benevolent authorities should work to defend their subjects from attack by outsiders, and even the most corrupt rulers need protection — if only from their own citizens. In even the most basic specialized societies, a class of soldiers whose main task is armed response existed.

This may be as simple as a citizen levy in time of danger, or as complex as Roman legions, but raising and leading forces in defense is widely seen as a government’s duty. This often extends into aggressive forces that threaten their neighbors, in order to gain important resources or merely to raise the status of the authority and its leaders.

Community. This last is more psychological than physical. Government is often what holds disparate groups of people together. Even the normally insular dwarves will rise when the High King of Gandermarch calls for his banners! Leaders are seen as the heads of a national family, and their glory is shared by all of its people.

This can be shown in pageantry and shows of power, and by providing means for the people to come together as a whole. It could be a feast for the engagement of the crown prince, or bloody gladiator matches where war prisoners are savaged by terrible beasts — it all serves to unite the people.

What you can do for your government

Taxation is as old as authority, and the former would probably not exist without it. Especially in game terms, where players periodically find themselves in the possession of large amounts of treasure. This can be as simple as an annual tithing, or as complex your IRS returns. The powers that be will not overlook as source of income like this for long.

Citizens may also be required to offer more than money to their rulers. Requirements for service, in wartime or otherwise, are very common in our history. Wealthy or powerful people could often pay to be relieved of these duties, but a truly egalitarian government might not approve of such actions.

Those with special skills or powers (such as players) may also be solicited to act on behalf of the government. Healers may be needed to fight a plague,  or a doughy hero might be needed to rescue a princess from a giant barrel-tossing primate. The more an individual receives from authorities, the more responsibilities will demanded of them.

Remember that when someone wants to make you a knight.

Spoiler alert: Next time, we’ll take a closer look at who is running Mesus, out bronze age city-state.

Do your governments fall into this format in your campaigns? Are we missing the secret ingredient to making game work governments great? Let us know in the comments below: