Over on the Kobold Press blog, they recently published an article, Steely Gaze and Lethal Blows, about injecting pulp-style combat into Pathfinder and DnD. While an interesting concept, what really struck me was a quote from the old 1980’s Conan movie:
“In time, his victories could not easily be counted… he was taken to the east, a great prize, where the war masters would teach him the deepest secrets.”
One of the continuous themes I read about with old school games is how they push exploration and discovery in the milieu. And while modern games don’t prohibit this, most kneecap it by front-loading all the rules and capabilities for the players’ eyes. Pretty much every system that offers a scheme of advantages/disadvantages, or exception-based rules, does this. If I create a character in one of these systems, I know everything my character will ever be capable of. I know how to qualify for the highest ranking Feats, what a master of my fighting style is capable of,
Nothing is held back. It’s all there in menu format for the players to pick and choose from, to plan out their characters’ fortune. And the only hurdle in their way is a list of prerequisites or requirements.
Hooray for player empowerment!
But its entirely at the cost of discovery and mystery. Boo for GM world building!
What if every character capability wasn’t available for you to examine from the start? What if the Feats, Advantages, Edges, Talents, even Skills and Specializations available to your character at any given time were entirely dependent on where your character is in the campaign world?
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thought about Fighting Traditions in Witch Hunter, so let’s look through that lense. In 1689/90, the city of Frankfurt hosted three swordsman guilds: The Brotherhood of St. Mark (Marxbruder), Federfetcher, and the Brotherhood of St. Luke (which was not a formally recognized guild and is described as a society of hooligans). Now, lets say Marxbruder and Federfetcher both cover the same Fighting Tradition, but each offer a different assortment of fighting styles (talents) a member might choose to advance in. Want to know what those are? Join the guild! They’ll be happy to tell you…then.
Oh, you want them to divulge their secrets before you sign on the dotted line? Sorry, Charlie.
Bottomline: There should be benefits and rewards to exploring the game world.
But what if I make the wrong choice? There’s a wrong choice? How would you know? Why would you know?
But what if I want a style the guild doesn’t offer? Easy. Either resign your membership and join another guild…and face the consequences of doing so. Or leave town and seek out another guild, or better yet a master in the tradition, who can teach you this technique.
Where can I find this guy? Ask around. Follow leads. Travel. Talk. Explore the world around you!
In one of the first continuous campaigns I played in, magic fluctuated on a geographic basis. So when the party mage got himself killed, the rest of us traveled half way across the continent to have him raised. Was it convenient? No. Was travel hand waved? Hell no! Was it fun and rewarding? Hell yes!
We’ve been doing this with magic in our games forEVER. The mage finds a cool tome in the library of Alexandria and now has the chance to learn a couple of new spells, some the player knows about and some that are completely new. Why should talents, feats, edges, fighting styles, and even skills be any different?
So how can I implement this in my own game? Well, for one thing, when that shiny new supplement rolls out on the treadmill, don’t allow it. Oh, the players can read it all they want, but none of it is available to them. No, carefully go through all the new abilities and make them available on a case-by-case basis. A retired adventurer in the village of Hommlet can teach you an assortment of Knacks, or a Feat.
Wait? Training?! GROAN!!! There’s no reason training in any game system needs to mirror the old AD&D training system. That system was put in place to siphon off the vast treasure characters were amassing and assumed that players had multiple characters active in the game world at any given time (time keeping). In a game like Witch Hunter, the orders would have access to masters and trainers, so gaining access is more a matter of geography than finances. And time? If the game assumes combing through a library looking for some odd detail on an obscure line of supernatural beastie, then why would we then assume it takes more than a week (downtime) to master a fighting style or Talent?
A week of downtime? GROAN!!! Ok, you need more incentive. How about this, while training costs time and/or money, what if it also lowered SP costs? Say – to pull a number out of the air – by 0.6. This reduces the cost of a basic Talent in Witch Hunter to 30 SP, the cost of a skill specialization. A Greater Talent would cost 45 SP, and a Heroic 60 (that’s a 30 point discount!). Now before you think I’ve lost my mind, not all Talents would be available for this sort of treatment. Maybe 2 or 3 in any particular location. And the ones that are available don’t need to be advertised. There’s no bulletin in the town square that reads, “looking for a good deal on Talents?” Think of them more like easter eggs embedded in the game world.
And what are the rest of the players suppose to do while my character is learning the finer aspects of Incredible Reflexes? What else? Find nasty evil stuff that’s going on around them to eliminate. What? You guys aren’t good enough to find a witch in all of Copenhagen?