Movers and Shakers Roundup

My apologies for not getting the roundup done until now. When I signed up to host the RPG Blog Carnival this month I knew two of my peers (in a three-person team at work) were retiring, I didn’t know we would only have replaced one of them so far and that he was going to be on vacation all month. I’ve been too busy to give this time around the proper attention; there were a couple more articles I’d intended to write that I never found time for.

However, we still saw some good articles posted for the roundup.

I had the honor of first post, talking about the Hall of Infamy, which I first saw described by Kevin Crawford of Sine Nomine Publishing. A small amount of planning can save you some embarrassment later by laying groundwork regarding powers of the region.

Next up, Gonz of Codex Anathema wrote about The Magnificent Order of the Nine Hierocracies, who drive things behind the scenes in the Kingdom of Galifar, in Eberron.

Faith of Pitfalls and Pixies wrote about several NPCs who are Movers and Shakers of Faustus Kil. They are generally less powerful than I would expect when I think of ‘movers and shakers’, but that’s totally okay. They are intriguing recurring characters who tamper with the PCs’ world, which fits the theme nicely.

Then Tom Stephens of The Expanding Frontier describes, or rather, greatly expands on, The Streel Mega-corp of the Star Frontiers setting. He details everything from the discovery of the planet the Streel Mega-corp was founded on, through the Great Sathar War some internal struggles amongst the survivors that brought a new hand to the helm, and how they’ve grown since then.

Then Gonz is back to wrap it up in The Cat Among the Pigeons, with a sinister plan by a Ravnican mastermind to bring about the Sliver Apocalypse.

Not a huge turnout, compared to some of the carnivals I’ve hosted, but given how little attention I could spare it, that’s fair. Thanks to all who posted to this carnival, and hopefully I can do better next time.

Movers and Shakers: The Hall of Infamy

Even when they don’t appear immediately, it’s good to know what power centres exist in the campaign. If nothing else, it makes it much easier to lay groundwork so the players aren’t surprised that they exist.

To paraphrase Kevin Crawford from his most excellent An Echo, Resounding, players seem a little skeptical and ask hard questions when presented with a archlich who threatens the entire region and everyone fears… that they never even heard of before hitting level 12.

Kevin then describes a simple process to help avoid that situation, which I will summarize below.

  • First, pick the biggest threat to the region. This should be something totally out of the PCs’ league at the campaign start, but perhaps manageable by the time of the campaign’s end. Guess high rather than low, in case you want to end the campaign early, because it’s easier to downscale a threat than upscale it.
  • Second, pick two more threats that would be suitable for ‘name-level’ (Kevin is an old school gamer; this means ‘around level 9’). These do not need to be related to subordinate to the Big Bad. They’re biggish problems and solving them should be noteworthy, if not as much as defeating the Big Bad.
  • Third, pick about four more threats good for ‘mid-level’ PCs (i.e. ‘around level 5’). These are problems that start bringing the PCs into notice… quite dangerous to normal people, but not overwhelming to heroes with some experience.

Note that these are not intended to be ‘level-appropriate encounters’, but ‘a challenge suitable for a party of that level’, and probably worth an adventure (perhaps a level’s worth of effort) to resolve. It might take even longer, in fact: the relatively minor threat might take a level’s worth of effort to resolve, with a climax encounter a few levels above the PCs’ level, while the Big Bad might take three or four levels of effort to resolve.

Imagine trying to take down that archlich I mentioned earlier, who not only is personally powerful but has several layers of defenses and influence, obvious and inobvious, with the rules of the realms around him. Resolving the situation is not going to be as simple as riding up and soaking him in holy water until he dissolves, and destroying his phylactery. Even if the PCs can pull that off, they could be dealing with the power vacuum and related fallout for ages. Resolving this problem could involve several levels worth of effort dismantling or neutralizing the Big Bad’s infrastructure and allies, and even just finding where the Big Bad is and how to destroy it… at which point it’s probably still several levels above the PCs in power, likely has minions and other supporting combatants, and will still be a tough fight to defeat.

Sounds like a lot of work, but most of it doesn’t matter until it comes up in practice. To start with, it’s enough to know of

  • The Nightlord, a shadowy figure whose influences touches the higher echelons of the realms’ nobility to nefarious purpose.
  • Firefang, a fire dragon of prodigious power that oppresses a Kingdom and eats its virgins, but prevents the Nightlord from gaining a foothold.
  • The Syndicate, a collection of guilds that spans the realms and is ostensibly a force for stability and fairness in trade. (Opposing the Nightlord in a shadow war? Under the influence, if not the control, of the Nightlord? Tentative alliance or non-aggression agreement because they do not at this time have conflicting purpose?)
  • Baron Foxworth, who carved a demesne out of the wilderness and dares anyone to deny his claims… and allows bandits and raiders to use his barony as a haven, for a price.
  • Goblins of the Abandoned Tower, who raid the villages and small towns around a long-abandoned wizard’s tower.
  • The queen of serpents, who lives in a lost temple in the marsh, and whose minions prey on the people of the area around it, kidnapping them for nefarious, or possibly nutritious, purpose.
  • The plain of bone, for ages the site of battle until the dead themselves gained enough power to fight back, and periodically band together to seek vengeance on the kingdoms that left them there to rot and moulder away.

All of these have connections to other entities and are known in their sphere of influence. The first one is pretty nebulous and will be difficult to get a handle on, even apart from being difficult to truly kill. The next might be easy to find (in that discovering common locations isn’t hard) but might be hard to reach and difficult to destroy. The Syndicate, on the other hand, might appear to be generally beneficial from the outside (and thus gain societal protection) and is just big and hard to target. After that, they’re generally easier to identify and get a handle on… more than a regular encounter, it might take a fair bit of work actually, but much more limited in scope.

This completely ignores, of course, the lower-level or disconnected threats. You can still have bands of winter wolves threaten the farmlands in the depth of winter, bandits can be found almost anywhere, and if an immense dragon has been asleep under the mountain for centuries, well… there might be stories the grandfathers tell, but with no activity since their grandfathers’ time, it could be just a phantom to scare children.

In any case, devising even a (large) handful of threats like this, even at the extremely summary level presented here, gives the GM quite a bit of fodder to use when working up an adventure… and things to hint at in ‘unrelated adventures’ that give a campaign an overarching story.

Even if you don’t know what that story is until after it’s played out. It didn’t cost much to create, and you can change direction (create a new Hall of Infamy) without too much pain. From the end, it’ll still look pretty straight.

RPG Blog Carnival: Movers and Shakers

Who’s running this show, anyway?

Some campaigns can work just fine starting with a local town, a local dungeon, and working out from there. Eventually the PCs will learn of non-local stuff and move on. In fact, this can work quite well as long as the PCs are the primary focus of the campaign and works best if the world revolves around the PCs.

There’s another way, though. A campaign can still focus on the story of the PCs, but have them (at least at the start) be only a small part of the setting itself. For this to work, there needs to be other stories, other plots, going on around them for the PCs to interact with.

For that, you need Movers and Shakers: influential entities with plots and plans of their own. Not everything needs to be associated with the Movers and Shakers, and many things won’t be obviously linked to a Mover and Shaker, but this style of campaign works best if these entities exist.

In your campaign, who are the Movers and Shakers? What do they do? What plots do they have in the works? How can they be supported or suppressed? Are they known to the PCs? Are the PCs known to them?

Who’s running this show, anyway?

Patron Banes, Expanded

There are four grades of bane. Each is gained as the vassal achieves greater favor with the patron, and is a consequence of that favor. However, the mechanical effects of a character’s greatest bane are suppressed (mechanical effects don’t apply) if the character has expended favor below the threshold for the matching gift.

Cosmetic banes cause a vassal to take on a distinctive and perceivable sensory element. Unusually-colored hair or eyes, strange birthmarks or tattoos, uncommon vocal tones or mode of speaking, or unexpected odors all could apply.

Cosmetic banes have no mechanical effect on the vassal, but might have social implications when discovered and recognized. Some cosmetic banes are easily hidden but immediately recognizable for what they are (“witches’ marks” are easily covered by clothing). Others can be hidden with specific effort (such as dyeing hair or hiding eyes) and require a skill check to discover (Detection or Insight) or recognize (appropriate Lore). Some are not even always evident, but circumstances can bring them out and make them obvious.

Some sample cosmetic banes:

  • Minor madness.
  • Eyes are an unnatural color.
  • Teeth grow unusually large and pointy.
  • Breath smells of flowers.
  • Tongue is long and forked.
  • Fingernails become a cat’s claws.
  • Hair grows unnaturally fast and needs to be cut daily to avoid notice.
  • Certain Dark and Dangerous Magic results (Heartless and Breathless could probably be easily hidden but recognized when discovered; Devil Eyes are difficult to hide but require a check to notice or recognize; Foul Beard and Mucus could be circumstantial).

Once a relationship is formed with a patron, the vassal gains a cosmetic bane specific to the patron.

Frustrating banes are more consequential, actually having mechanical effect. These effects might be present at all times or triggered by circumstance. These banes are often associated with an amplification of a cosmetic bane, or might add a new one. For instance, a vassal of Nyeesheshtua (the winged serpent) might have a forked tongue as a cosmetic bane, but as he gains favor his body becomes covered in scales or his eyes might become slitted, as a snakes.

Some frustrating banes:

  • Moderate madness.
  • Disadvantage to certain skills or classes of skills (colorblindness can give disadvantage on vision-based checks such as Detection and some Lore checks; a rasping voice might give disadvantage on certain Charisma-based skill checks).
  • Checks need to be made where a normal person would not need to.

A vassal who achieves 2 favor gains a frustrating bane specific to the patron. A vassal who has achieved no more than 5 favor and has expended favor below 2 will find the effects of the frustrating bane suppressed. A vassal that has achieved 6 or more favor will always experience their frustrating bane.

Troublesome banes are more than inconvenient, they start to affect the vassal’s lifestyle. Mechanical effects can include disadvantage on broad groups of checks, certain actions no longer being possible, or compulsion to specific unnatural acts.

Some troublesome banes:

  • Serious madness.
  • Morbid obesity (disadvantage on Constitution checks and certain Dexterity checks).
  • Gnarled or limp hands (disadvantage on certain Dexterity checks and attack rolls).

A vassal who achieves 6 favor gains a troublesome bane specific to the patron. A vassal who has achieved no more than 9 favor and has expended favor below 6 will find the effects of the troublesome bane suppressed. A vassal that has achieved 10 or more favor will always experience their troublesome bane.

Dangerous banes can be almost crippling in their effect. Where a troublesome bane can affect aspects of the vassal’s lifestyle, a dangerous bane can affect almost all of a vassal’s lifestyle.

Some dangerous banes:

  • Pervasive madness.
  • Blindness or other physical infirmity (such as the ‘limp hands’ becoming completely useless).

A vassal who achieves 10 favor gains a dangerous bane specific to the patron. A vassal who has expended favor below 10 will find the effects of the dangerous bane suppressed.

Closing Comments

I’m going to need to go back and revise the patrons. In many cases the banes as currently written are much milder than these ones… and so are some of the boons. I’ll need to touch those up as well.

Just as well I draft things in the blog… they’ll be tightened up and polished for the book.