Ronin Roundtable: Fantasy AGE Companion Preview

Hey folks, Jack here. It’s already a busy year here and part of it is putting the final touches on our upcoming Fantasy AGE Companion. The book is written, edited, and currently in its final layout and art stages, so I thought it would be cool to present people with a preview of the book.

Moreover, I find the best previews are generally ones that themselves either show the look and feel of product off or can be used as a sort of stand-alone bonus for people. In this case, we went with both. This preview presents one of our new race options for player characters, Beastfolk.

Beastfolk are animal like humanoids who mix humanoid forms with the natural abilities of various animals. Using this option you can play a cat-person or monkey-person or any number of similarly themed characters.

FA_Comp_preview_01_spreads

 

Beastfolk are only one of many new elements in the upcoming Fantasy AGE Companion, including more fantasy races, new arcana, new specializations and talents, rules for both gritty and cinematic play, mass combat, and more!  Some of these editions are adapted from other AGE games for Fantasy AGE but much of it is brand new.

The Fantasy AGE Companion is coming in  March in print and pdf.

Ronin Roundtable: Why Your Big Bad Gets Clowned

I’m excited. Hal’s been showing me art from the Modern AGE Basic Rulebook (that’s the core game, with all the rules you need to play) as the book goes through the production process (yes, it’s been written, playtested, edited and is now going through Adobe sorcery. Meanwhile, I have a team of authors working on the Modern AGE Companion, a book of optional systems for the game.
In case you missed previous posts, Modern AGE is the AGE system game designed for contemporary adventures, covering a period from the dawn of the industrial era to the present day, with options for different genres, psychic powers, and magic. Since the art is coming in, I want to use it as an inspiration to talk a bit about adversaries, not just in this game, but most traditional roleplaying games.

Art by Victor Moreno ~ “They’ve waited a long time to meet her, and you don’t want her keeling over in the first round.”

 

Enter the Devil’s Advocate

I’ll be nerd-biographical: Back in the 80s, I was playing in a house ruled AD&D game (who wasn’t, if they were playing back then at all?) where we slashed and burned our way past the “sweet spot” levels, where, at least by the standards of AD&D, the game remains balanced and easy to run. People often identify this range as levels 4 to 8. We’d hit 15th. Our DM Rick was obviously struggling, since he had to choose between foes with raw, big numbers, which turned combat into a grind, and enemies so complex that he needed to do significant planning ahead of time. We came, we saw, we conquered.

Then one day, things were a little different. Rick told Talid, one of the players, to sit right beside him. We got into the game. A wizard teleported behind us—and behind cover—nuked us with a bunch of fireballs courtesy of an item . . . and teleported out again. Talid chuckled. He was playing that damn wizard. Rick had offloaded the job of running a complex adversary to him. We eventually called him the “Devil’s Advocate,” not for the villain he was playing, but for the position. Just like old-school games had “mappers” and “callers,” we had a titled job for the person who played our enemies, distinct from the GM.

The Players’ Cognitive Advantage

Many, many groups have done this, of course, but I don’t mention this for its novelty, but because it taught me a game design principle which I’ve kept in my pocket ever since. Given the same character and familiarity with the system, a player will almost always use that character more effectively (at least in interacting with rules and challenges) than the GM.
I’ve noticed this in virtually every game I’ve witnessed, played in or run, and the reason is easy to tease out of the story, above. A player usually has just one character to deal with. They can become extremely familiar with that character, develop strategies, and devote their full attention to effective play. The GM doesn’t have that luxury; they’ve got other NPCs to run, an adventure to manage, and a campaign to track—and GMing is, for many people, more tiring simply because of the type of social interaction, where you speak to a group and must keep it focused.
And this power imbalance is often frustrating, especially to math-centric GMs, who can see their NPC should be balanced against the PCs, on paper, but ends up being a pushover. It’s not the math. The players are smarter than you—at least in this instance. They have a cognitive advantage.

Diabolical Advocacy and Streamlining

You can solve this in one of two basic ways. First, you can have a player act as Devil’s Advocate, running villains for you. It’s fun, but in many cases the pendulum swings the other way, and the enemy becomes too powerful to handle.

The other approach is to simplify the procedures for running your enemy. The crudest way to do this is to create adversaries who can only perform one task competently, like beat you up and absorb damage. The disadvantage here is that one-trick enemies can get boring. The variation we use in Modern AGE is to give many adversaries distinct abilities that serve as shorthand for what would otherwise be convoluted sets of abilities, or add flavor that a foe’s basic abilities don’t impart. For example, the Criminal Mastermind adversary has several abilities to stay dangerous without needing to shoot anybody, such as:

  • All According to Plan Stunt: For 3 SP, the mastermind can declare that another NPC present in the scene was working for them all along. That NPC betrays the heroes or produces some information or equipment the mastermind needs right then, and counts as their ally from then on.

(The Criminal Mastermind has other abilities, but you’ll have to grab Modern AGE for the full rundown. I’m not trying to tease, but this post is pretty long. Sorry.)

  • Scot-Free: Whenever the characters would capture, kill, or otherwise defeat the mastermind, the GM may offer the player of the character who bested them 5 SP to use at any point in the future on a relevant test, even if the winning test didn’t roll doubles, in exchange for the mastermind escaping to oppose the heroes another day. (If you’re using the optional Conviction rules, the player gains 1 Conviction instead.)

Both the Devil’s Advocate and streamlining are fine tactics for dealing with PC/NPC imbalance, and which one you use will depend on a bunch of other considerations, such as whether anybody wants to play Devil’s Advocate. Remember that this problem won’t come up if you know the rules better, or can marshal other advantages that compensate for your more diluted attention—and remember that sometimes, the PCs should win. Never snatch victory away when it’s truly deserved.

Ronin Roundtable: Green Ronin in 2018, Part 1

It seems like just yesterday I was wondering if this Y2K bug would indeed wreak global havoc (spoiler alert: it didn’t) while working on plans to start a new game company. Now here we are 18 years later and Green Ronin is still going strong. Although last year was challenging in many ways, we are starting 2018 in a great position. We have a bunch of projects nearing completion, fantastic new games in the works, and great prospects for the future. Today I’m going to talk about our plans for the next six months. I’ll then do another one of these in June to discuss the second half of the year.

The Expanse

Our biggest project this year is The Expanse RPG. We announced that we’d licensed James S.A. Corey’s terrific series of scifi novels last year and since then Steve Kenson has

been leading the team designing the core rulebook. In a few months we will be Kickstarting The Expanse RPG and the rules will actually be done before we even start the crowdfunding campaign. The game uses our popular Adventure Game Engine, as previously seen in our Dragon Age, Fantasy AGE, and Blue Rose RPGs. We’re excited to take AGE into the future! The Expanse RPG will release in August, debuting at GenCon.

Modern AGE and Lazarus

Want a new AGE game before the summertime? We’ve got you covered! Modern AGE launches in the Spring thanks to the hard work of Malcolm Sheppard and his team. The game lets you run games anywhere from the Industrial Revolution to the near future, with or without supernatural powers as you prefer. Concurrent with that we’ll be releasing the World of Lazarus, a campaign setting based on the amazing Lazarus comic by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark. Its compelling setting provides some timely commentary on current political trends and is a great place to tell stories.

Fantasy AGE, Dragon Age, and Blue Rose

Fantasy AGE and Dragon Age fans will be delighted to hear that two long awaited books are nearing release. Jack Norris and his team have finished the Fantasy AGE Companion and Faces of Thedas and both are now in layout. The Fantasy AGE Companion is the first big rules expansion for FAGE, offering up many ways to expand your game. Faces of Thedas brings a plethora of Dragon Age characters from the video games, novels, and comics to life, and adds some great new rules for relationships and romance. Speaking of romance and fantasy, Joe Carriker and his team have been working on the next book for our Blue Rose RPG. Aldis: City of the Blue Rose is a comprehensive sourcebook about the capital of the Kingdom of Aldis.

Mutants & Masterminds

We are kicking off 2018 with a bang with the release of the new edition of Freedom City, the signature setting of M&M since the game’s first edition. It releases to stores this week so now is the time to check out the city that started it all. Later in the Spring we’ll be releasing Rogues Gallery, a new collection of villains for your campaign. Crystal Frasier skillfully shepherded both of the books to completion, though they were begun by her predecessor. The first book she led from start to finish was actually the World of Lazarus but you’ll be seeing more of her vision of Mutants & Masterminds later in the year with the Basic Hero’s Handbook and Superteam Handbook.

Nisaba Press

Last year we hired Jaym Gates to start a fiction line for us, and this year her diligent work will pay off as Nisaba Press takes off. We will be releasing short fiction from our various settings monthly, and releasing two novels a year. The first will be Shadowtide, a Blue Rose novel by Joe Carriker. We’ll be following that up later in the year with our first Mutants & Masterminds novel.

Freeport and Ork

At the start of this article I mentioned the beginnings of Green Ronin back in 2000. The company’s very first releases were Ork! The Roleplaying Game and Death in Freeport, a modest adventure that launched our longest running property. The new edition of Ork is finished and entering layout. It’s great beer and pretzels fun. Return to Freeport is a six-part Pathfinder adventure coming later in the Spring in which Owen K.C. Stephens and his team really captured the feel of the City of Adventure.

SIFRP and Chronicle System

All good things must come to an end and such is the case with our beloved Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying. Our license expired in 2017 so there will be no new material forthcoming. We can continue to sell the books we’ve already released, however, so those will remain available to those who want to adventure in Westeros. Our series of compatible Chronicle System PDFs will also continue, first with Desert Threats, a new collection of creatures. Some of the rules material from our last planned SIFRP book, the Westeros Player’s Companion, will be released under the Chronicle System brand with the Westeros specific content removed.

To the Future!

As you can see, we’ve got an action packed six months ahead of us. Later in the year we’ve got excitement like the Sentinels of Earth-Prime card game and the Lost Citadel campaign setting for D&D 5E. Thanks for your continued support! We really do appreciate it. Here’s to some great gaming in 2018!

Ronin Roundtable: Learning to Boss

One of the biggest challenges in transitioning from a freelancer or an employee to a business owner and boss over the last nearly 18 years of Green Ronin’s life has been, for me at least, figuring out what an effective “boss” looks like. In some ways, it’s been similar to figuring out how to be a reasonable parent, which I felt I was getting a handle on just about the time my girl left for college. My initial goals were bare bones: don’t make the mistakes your worst bosses made, don’t take people for granted, uphold your end of the bargain, have your people’s backs and set them up for success even in trying situations. Goals, yes, the basest of goals, but the strategies to achieve those goals were harder to come by, especially having had a distinct lack of such leadership in my own working life. I’d worked for bosses who made employees with pneumonia come to work under threat of losing their job if they didn’t, bosses who were greedy and racist and crass and expected me to shut my mouth and even lie to protect them or lose my minimum wage position, bosses who were verbally abusive, who bent and broke labor laws, who ruled through threats and intimidation, who failed to support their underlings and readily offered them up as scapegoats when things inevitably went wrong. Knowing you don’t want to do those things isn’t the same as knowing how to effectively do things differently.

When Green Ronin was just a fledgling project, we had a small number of people and projects to consider. We worked with people we already knew well on a handful of projects and the whole endeavor was relatively forgiving of our inexperience and our missteps. Even as the company’s reputation grew, we remained a small and tight-knit group of “regulars” and what we lacked in the way of a central office and corporate buzzwords, we made up for in flexibility and a sense of camaraderie, that we were all “in it together.” Our guiding principle became to hire people who were good at what they did and let them do it… which is, fundamentally, still something I believe in but which also failed to provide guidance in some important ways. We’ve worked with a few folks in the past who “didn’t fit” with this freewheeling management style and it took more self-reflection than it should have to realize that was a failure of management as much as any issues of personality conflict or “poor fit” on behalf of the person doing the work.

 

In recent years, Green Ronin has enjoyed some spectacular (and satisfying) successes and we have been able to grow as a company and expand on our offerings in ways we’d never really come close to before. For the first time in company history, I have personally been divesting myself of responsibilities instead of taking on more. We have brought in new blood, people we haven’t known for years in advance of working with them, people with years of experiences unlike our own who have brought wonderful, fresh attitudes and perspectives. We have been made so much better and stronger from their contributions. We have also entered yet another phase of growth and responsibility, now that we’re not just a core of 4 (or 6 or 8…) people who know each other well and have deep and affectionate personal bonds in addition to our professional associations.

 

Many of us who make up the core of Green Ronin are hardcore introverts, shy sometimes, conflict averse sometimes, of a practical “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude towards things…especially because many of us feel passionately that there ARE “broke” things out there that need attention. Like the cobbler’s children going without shoes, I suppose. We never had a policy on how we handle having to take significant time off on a project for family emergencies (such as prolonged illness) because, well, it had never come up…even while we supported the existence of those policies and protections in the wider world. We didn’t have extensive policies around convention volunteers because we’d only attracted close friends and well-known-to-us volunteers for very small efforts until we hired someone to oversee those and purposely grow those programs recently. We didn’t have a “training policy” because, well, we’d only ever hired people who were already experts and aside from asking them to be familiar with a new rules set, there wasn’t much to “train” them on.

 

In retrospect, I know there are many businesses that would have and did have such policies and procedures in place in formal ways before they were ever needed. Perhaps due to my upbringing, my feelings had always been that it was not only unnecessary but possibly wasteful and definitely presumptuous to address things that did not need addressing. That someone like me anticipating having a big enough business to justify “training policies” was putting on airs, getting above my station, or bragging (as a child might claim they were going to be a famous author when they grew up and have someone to serve them tea, just you wait). Human as those feelings may be, they don’t represent the actions of a good boss… at least not the kind of boss I feel a responsibility to be.

 

Learning to be a better boss has not been something that comes easily or naturally to me. It very much goes hand in hand with my observations last year that this industry lacks mentorship, at least in any structured fashion. While I have, I hope, been a reasonably good and supportive employer on a one-to-one level with the people who have come to work with Green Ronin over the years, I’m still learning to be better, more effective, more efficient and to provide both a protective and predictable working environment. I have many things I want to accomplish with this company and with the wonderful and patient people who have joined us on our projects thus far. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” Learning to boss better is my goal for 2018.

Ronin Roundtable: Welcome to Freedom City!

Whether visiting for the history and nightlife, or moving to Freedom City for its thriving tech or construction industries, you’ve made the right decision to embrace the city of heroes! And now Freedom City is easier to visit with the print edition of Freedom City 3rd Edition making its way to retailers.

Take a peek at the Visitors’ Guide to Freedom City to get a glimpse of how Freedonians see themselves… Or at least how Mayor Summers’ assistant, Ed, sees the city…

Ronin Roundtable: Charting the Expanse

As you may well have heard by now, Green Ronin Publishing has licensed The Expanse science fiction novels by James S.A. Corey to produce The Expanse Roleplaying Game, an AGE System game set in the world of the popular series (the seventh novel, Persepolis Rising, was released on December 5th, in fact). The Expanse is one of a number of different AGE System products we’re working on, including Modern AGE, the modern action-adventure equivalent of our Fantasy AGE rulebook, and Lazarus, based on the comic book series created by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark (soon to become a television series as well). Just how are we handling The Expanse in relation to what has come before with the AGE System and what is currently in the works?

Green Ronin to Produce The Expanse RPG

First and foremost, The Expanse is a stand-alone game. It will share a common system with other games, making it easy for AGE System veterans to pick it up. The core book will be self-contained and all that you need to get started playing your Expanse series, much the same way Blue Rose is a stand-alone game, even while it shares systems in common with Fantasy AGE.

Second, while The Expanse uses most of the common elements of the AGE System, our design philosophy has always been to tailor the system to suit the setting and story rather than the other way around, so the game will feature elements particular to The Expanse novels, setting, and style, such as replacing the Health score with a Fortune score, measuring more of a character’s luck in terms of staying alive in a fight or other dangerous situation. A twist on Fortune is you can spend it on things other than damage, but you run the risk of not having as much of it when you’re attacked or encounter other hazards. Likewise, the spending of Fortune affects “the Churn,” an in-game measure of how perilous and complicated things are: Eventually, the Churn can boil over and—as fans of The Expanse novels know—things can get really complicated really fast.

Third and final for this preview, The Expanse core book starts out with a setting in the nearly year-and-a-half between the events of the first novel, Leviathan Wakes, and the second, Caliban’s War. It is after a significant shake-up in the solar system, when major events are beginning to portend even larger changes in the future. It provides us—and your Expanse game—with a convenient starting point without the need to detail every event in the entire series. Plus it allows you (and us) to follow along with the series as major events continue to unfold. You can play in parallel to the events of the novels (it’s a big universe, after all, with a lot going on) or put your own characters into the roles of the crew of the Rocinante in some of the later stories of the series.

We’re still in the early stages of development, working with initial drafts of the text for The Expanse core book, so we’ll have more previews and news for you as things develop. For now, our goal is to ensure your own stories in The Expanse are exciting, fast-paced, and character-driven, with plenty of complications and a universe where even the sky isn’t a limit for very long.

Ronin Roundtable: Modern Ork!

No, that’s not coming out. But wouldn’t it be a hoot?

I’m contracted to act as “Developer at Large,” for Green Ronin, because is suits my role working on whatever needs to be done. Ork! The Roleplaying Game (Second Edition!) and Modern AGE are on my mind, as varied elements of my job, with one thing in common: They’re both in production. Ork! got there in September, and Modern AGE entered that stage earlier this month.

I developed both games, but their respective processes were very different. With Ork!, I followed in the steps of Jon Leitheusser, who did initial development, which in turn was based on the original game by Chris Pramas and Todd Miller. As Todd Miller is basically the ork god Krom, and all iterations of Ork! are intended to follow his mayhem-soaked vision, it was my job to make sure the project was properly . . . soaked. Spattered? Maybe that didn’t come out right.

 

Modern AGE put me in a more traditional role, developing the book from start to finish. Chris Pramas had ideas for how to make a classless, contemporary Adventure Game Engine RPG. I carried those into an outline, selected writers, sent nagging emails to writers (they didn’t need them, I’m just insecure) developed multiple drafts, directed playtesting, and adjusted everything. It’s hard to find landmarks for a game designed for wide open, multi-genre play, so in the end I went with the systems and ideas I wanted to see combined, in a single package.

What does “in production” mean? That the final drafts have been written, edited and put through a pre-layout proof. Using techniques I’ll call “sorcery,” (Note: I do not do layout) the layout person (often Hal) turns these drafts, which are .rtf files with markup Adobe software recognizes, into book-like PDF files. Meanwhile, artists submit sketches based on my art notes, and along with other folks, I approve them or request changes, until they end up as finished pieces.

My art notes could be better, as they’re the aspect of the job I have the least experience with, but they’re coming along, and sketches are coming in. For Ork!, that means reviewing Dan Houser’s humorously brutal illustrations, like one of an prideful ork getting crushed by Krom! (This is basically how the game’s mechanics work, by the way.) For Modern AGE, I’m helping artists get the looks of iconic characters just right. Modern AGE uses a common set of characters, players and an “iconic GM” in illustrations and examples, so it’s important to me that consistent visuals follow.

Once the finished art is added to the prototype layout we go over everything again, and check the files for technical issues too. At that point, as someone who is on the creative side of things, I assume the finished files float into the stars as wisps of fragrant mist (I also imagine the wisps are purple—maybe Blue Rose wisps are blue though) and by divine providence, materialize as books in warehouses. There are Ronin who apparently do work related to this; their tasks are a mystery to me. I must ask them what color the wisps are and also, why are they always annoyed with me for asking stupid questions?

The upshot of this is that both games are on track for an early 2018 release. This is how they got there—at least, as far as my part of it goes. Now, onward. Forward. There are new projects in line. Modern Ork! is, sadly, not one of them, though who knows? The idea is starting to grow on me.

Ronin Roundtable: Convention Season

When I first got into the game industry in early 90s, there was a convention season that generally lasted from late May to early September. There were some shows in other parts of the year but the focus was on the summertime when students were out of school and families planned vacations. Companies scheduled their biggest releases of the year for convention season, typically debuting them at GenCon. And for the most part that’s how things were into the early 2000s.

In the last 15 years or so things slowly changed. Convention season was still a phrase we used in the industry but it seemed to get a little longer each year. Some old cons faded away but far more new ones were born. Some of this has to do with the infiltration of geek culture into the mainstream. More and more, gamers wanted conventions in their local area, and where they didn’t exist people made them. At the same time traveling to other cities and even countries to attend conventions became more common. When I flew from New York City to Milwaukee for my first GenCon in 1989, that was a fairly unusual thing to do. People routinely travel much farther to attend conventions today.

On the publishing side of things, we used to have the better part of nine months to concentrate on designing and producing games, then three months with a lot of travel that cut into design time. To show you how things have changed, here are the conventions and trade shows I’ve been to this year.

OrcaCon in Everett, Washington in January.

JoCo Cruise to Mexico in February.

GAMA Trade Show in Las Vegas, Nevada in March.

Salute in London, England in April.

ACD Games Day in Madison, Wisconsin in May.

Enfilade in Olympia, Washington in May.

Origins in Columbus, Ohio in June.

GenCon in Indianapolis, Indiana in August.

PAX Dev and PAX Prime in Seattle, Washington in September.

Alliance Open House in Fort Wayne, Indiana in September.

Next week Green Ronin will be at the inaugural show of PAX Unplugged in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

That will be my final convention of 2017. As you can see, that’s quite a bit of travel and I could easily do so much more. At this point I could probably attend a convention somewhere most weekends of the year, with the exception of Xmas season. Or to put that another way, convention season now lasts 11 months! Now obviously we can’t attend every show. There are certain staples, like GenCon and GAMA Trade Show that we always attend. Others change year to year. In 2018 we are the spotlight publisher at

Norwescon here in Seattle in March, and we’ll also be featured at Chupacabracon in Austin, Texas in May. Then in June we should be attending our first UK Games Expo in Birmingham, England. Will we make it back to Essen Spiel in Germany or finally go down under for PAX Australia? Maybe! When it comes to conventions these days, we are spoiled for choice. And while all that travel can be exhausting, it is worth it to be able to talk to so many gamers and game retailers face to face. To find out what shows we’ll be at, you can check out our events calendar and keep an eye on our various social media pages. See you on the convention trail!

Ronin Roundtable: Nisaba Press!

Hi, I’m Jaym Gates, Line Manager for Green Ronin’s Nisaba Press. We’ll be publishing fiction tied in to the Green Ronin properties, both short fiction and novels. I was given three missions: make a great fiction line, make sure it was a great diverse fiction line, and find some great new voices for both fiction and RPGs. That’s pretty much the most exciting mission plan you could give me, for anything. Why? I got into editing because I discovered how amazing it was to find those incredible new voices that no one else has found yet. There is also something intensely rewarding about taking a good piece of fiction and refining it to its best form.

As we’re releasing our first batch of regular stories, I wanted to talk a little bit about tie-in fiction, and why Nisaba.

First off, one of the best things about tie-in fiction to me is that it gives fans new stories and elaborates on beloved settings. Flavor text in RPG books is great, but sometimes you really want to go on an adventure with characters. See the sights of Emerald City, smell the sweet reek of Freeport, maybe feel the wind on your face as Rezeans gallop across the plains. While we can’t LITERALLY give you all of that, fiction gives windows to the new and existing characters in our settings. Maybe they’ll inspire new adventures, show up in your existing adventures, or just be a brief excursion with a fictional friend, but any way it goes, we love giving fans the chance to interact at more length with our settings.

It’s also a great way to get your RPG fix if you don’t have time to game, are playing another game, or can’t get a good group. It’s like talking to an old friend you don’t get to see often enough.

Secondly, tie-in fiction is a great way for new fans to get involved. There are a lot of settings, a lot of rules, and a lot of history. It can be scary for someone to just jump in at the deep end with no idea what’s going on. A short story or novel takes away that overwhelming feeling of “SO MUCH STUFF” and gives the reader a gentle introduction to a new place.

And last but not least: because the world is made of stories, and stories allow the creators to develop things that might never come up in the RPGs, or that might just not have been thought of. Narrative is a unique thing that forces you to think of so many angles that you might not otherwise see. The scents and sounds of a world, the interplay between character and their religion, questions of morality and honor. A story fleshes out what the RPG has built to a level that flashes and flavor text can’t approach.

So that is “Why tie-in fiction.” I’m really thrilled with the stories I’ve already been working on. We have Anthony Pryor’s My Night in Freeport, Lindsay Adam’s tale of an Aldean agent and a Jarzoni priest-adept, Eytan Bernstein’s story of Kid Robot’s first day of school, and so much more. All of these are original fiction set canonically in the settings you know and love. My hope is that they bring another aspect of engagement and joy in the setting.

And keep an eye out, we’re planning to host an open submission period in a few months, so if you’re wanting to write fiction for Blue Rose, Freeport, or Mutants & Masterminds, get plotting now!

Ronin Roundtable: Walking the Royal Road part two: Backstory

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!