The fun that is Questlandia

I got Questlandia from a Bundle of Holding a little while back, and I decided to run it for a one-shot adventure for a series while I get my group back into gaming after a long hiatus. Frankly, I’m sorry I didn’t do it earlier.

I described Questlandia to my group as “Annalise as designed by Klaus Teuber of Settlers of Catan,” because Questlandia ends after three rounds, as opposed to Annalise’s glacial progression through discovery of all things vampiric. But play-wise, they’re somewhat similar; both involve an “active player” roleplaying a scene until a conflict that gets resolved with dice, then it’s another player’s turn.

Questlandia also has tighter mechanics, too. Each player has responsibility for a particular part of the game world, so the players don’t get whipsawed by plot twists in a round-robin; if you’re not the player who answers questions about the country’s religion, you can’t suddenly make it a front for a spider demon cult. I found it helpful to have someone be “secretary” for the group; I kept telling that person, after something was said, “write that down, that’s canon.” Everything is generated in a communal style so no one is left at the end having to rectify everyone else’s continuity.

We got through two rounds of three in three hours, with various chit-chat, and it played as follows:

We generated a fantasy nation of wookie-like people obsessed with social control and run by wizards (a “Wizz-ocracy” in game terms) who were also slowly dying out but clung to their power. The country was on an island slowly sinking into the ocean, but that was less troublesome to most players than the oppressive government; most goals were about overthrowing the government, except for one traditionalist who wanted to preserve it, and my player, who was interested in keeping the island from sinking.

As play went on, opposition to the wizz-ocracy grew as events caused the wizards to draw more of the wealth into the upper class. Also there was something about a doomsday machine, a prophesied child, a secret policeman-turned-love interest, and the traditionalist player got her puppet candidate elected mayor of the country’s capital city. Fun was had by all.

Nobilis – Halfway Through Character Creation

So, got halfway through trying to make a Nobilis character recently (if anyone really wants, I have a draft post where I “live blog” the process). The big issue is that the Lifepath isn’t actually tied to the scores, so you generate a really fun mind map that’s sort of relevant to how you gain experience, but then, when you try to tie it to the other numbers in the game, you can really get disappointed.

This disappointment is more than the disappointment where, for example, in Ars Magica I learn that my just-out-of-apprenticeship maga can’t do anything else if she wants to huck fireballs at things, or in Cyberpunk 2020 where you learn your newbie Netrunner actually doesn’t have skills in anything remotely useful outside the ‘net. In Nobilis, you generate all sorts of interesting connections, needs, and wants, but paying for them with the limited points you have for bonds, anchors, etc. is tough.

It almost makes sense to do things the other way, to do the math first, and then the lifepath. I’m going to try that for the next attempt; I’ll make a character that’s generically powerful, and then fill in the lifepath from there.

Ars Magica – German Timeline 1220-1231

I was asked a long time ago, when I mentioned that I include timelines in my Ars Magica adventures, to post some online. Below the fold is cut-n-paste from an adventure set in what Ars Magica calls “the Rhine Tribunal,” a chunk of territory stretching from a little bit to the west of the Rhine River to around Poland in the east.

Caveats: the information below is scraped from Wikipedia and even less trustworthy sources. Because I use a “this is when you hear about it” system for the campaign notes, I’ve lost a lot of the specific dates, so dates are often approximate (or nonexistent) and events late/early in a year may bleed back and forth to the prior/next year as my campaign notes include a one-season delay for information farther than the local area (campaign is set in either Archbishopric of Cologne or Archbishopric of Trier).

In short, don’t use this for your college class. Use it for a roleplaying game with people who aren’t grad students in medieval European history.

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Nobilis – the appendix of character creation

Having read through all of the sections of Nobilis 3e with rules in them and much of the flowery cosmology sections without; I have a basic grasp of the mechanics, which are actually pretty interesting for role-playing godhood.

Basically, if you have enough power, it’s achieved. There’s no initiative or timing rules; in fact, you can try to change the immediate past if a gamemaster-described event is not to your liking.

However, while you won’t flub Gozer’s question to the Ghostbusters like Ray did, like another Bill Murray movie, you’re a god, not the god. Your power is very finite and it’s entirely possible to burn yourself out.

However, I am having a little trouble with the character creation rules. There’s one set of rules with numbers attached, and a totally different set of rules for a “life path” where one draws a complicated idea map that could very easily plug into the numerical rules but it does not say anywhere that it needs to. It’s like the appendix at the end of the small intestine; interesting but seemingly useless.

Were I running Nobilis, I would force the players to use the life path system to determine the type and intensity of their Bonds (intrinsic limitations that can be used offensively), Afflictions (limitations the gamemaster uses to force action and give you extra magic), and Anchors (people and things you have a special connection to so you can use powers through them). Otherwise, it’s a twenty minute waste of time.

Nobilis – Start of a Project

So, a week or so ago, I made an impulse purchase on Bundleofholding.com and ended up with, among other things, Nobilis, 3rd Ed. The concept is fascinating: each player is something between a nature spirit and a demigod, having power and responsibility over a field as encapsulated by a single word or phrase, such as “clocks” or “first love.”

The actual rules of Nobilis, however, are a little dense on first read. Actually, let me revise that. The rules are bound deeply in the fiction, such that you can’t get a straight statement of “Jack fires his smartlinked handgun at Percy. Jack’s REF + Handguns + 1D10 + 3 Smartlink Bonus exceed the 15 target number at medium range, so Percy has been shot.” The fact that Nobilis is diceless doesn’t change that there’s no section where the flavor text has been dialed down so that a reader can just get the rules without having to also read how the Queen of Shredded Wheat is interfering with the affairs of the Herald of Low-Fat Milk. One of my gaming group, who has access to write on this blog so she can speak for herself, has much stronger words on this front.

Another blogger, had this to say about the 2d Ed. while reviewing the 3rd, but I find the statement still basically true for the latest edtion:

It was a really engaging read in a really pretty book that was really hard to wrap your brain around and actually use at the table. I managed a fairly long campaign, but only after getting to play a one-shot of it at a con that finally made it click enough to run. I suspect many others got it, read it, and left it on the shelf.

Another reviewer, who also really liked a lot of the game, said:

…there is no summary rundown of How to Play in Nobilis 3e; Moran really does take the entire 370-page rulebook to explain what the game is.

Or rather, to show how it feels. Or how it felt to her.

This is RPG design as literature, well and truly, but in aid of what? ‘Play?’ I mean: what, mine?

I refuse to be deterred.

This post starts a project where I’ll be, possibly with my gaming group’s help, figuring out how to play this game. I have experience in distilling games; when I need to start a new game quickly, I often generate handouts on the character creation process so players can get started fast without having to pass around a single book or a PDF-displaying device for hours. I’ll be posting two of those after this post goes live so you can see how they look.

No matter what, we’ll all learn together.

Ars Magica – Timekeeping

So, although I don’t run a campaign right now, my favorite roleplaying game for the past decade has been Atlas Games’s Ars Magica. I started playing it when the Fourth Edition was free, and now I’m deep into the weeds in the Fifth Edition.

The setting of Ars Magica, if I (or Project Redcap) haven’t already gushed about it to you, is Europe, starting about the year 1220. World history has occurred basically as written to that point, except that all the myths of medieval Europe are real in one way or another. There are demons and angels and faeries, and sometimes even dragons. But most importantly, there is magic. Players are wizards (“magi”), their companions (in the Doctor Who sense), and the support staff. Magic takes time to learn and prepare, but when undertaken, it can be quite powerful.

However, due to the grounding of the setting, I have to keep track of what’s going to happen. While the player magi may change the world, they’re not going to change all the world, everywhere, and some of it will effect them. Furthermore, Ars Magica lends itself to being embedded in historical continuity.

In order to do this, I generate years, season by season. A “season” is the standard non-adventure time-keeping unit in Ars Magica; magi literally spend years in their labs cooking things up, season after season, but when necessary adventure out (which, unless traveling far afield, usually takes less than a season).

Some of my early season notes looked like this (for a campaign based off the Dalmatian coast):

1221 Spring
March:

  • What’s everyone doing this season?  The manor house labs are ready!
  • Although food sources are paid for, if the covenant wants to buy/rent land and farm it with laborers for cost savings (see Covenants for cost), let them know of this option.
  • If anyone has communication with mundane clergy, they will learn of the canonization of St Benedict of Nursia, founder of the Benedictine order.

 April:

  • A very attractive April.  Not much happens.

 May:

  • Two refugees from Venice arrive at Sister Sophia’s [one of the player magi] lab and living quarters.  They are a father and daughter of a trading family allied with Sister Sophia’s, and they have been bankrupted by poor trading decisions and ostracized for reasons they don’t really want to mention. They lean on Sister Sophia’s Christian charity to allow them to stay at the covenant.

Another version (for a campaign south of Genoa) from about the same time has more detail as to what’s happening with covenant (where the magi live) resources, along with world events from Wikipedia:

Spring 1221 (March, April, May) (Vis generated: 5p Creo – rain, 1p Creo – brothel, 2p Vim)

  • Redcap (Magdalena) arrives for regular business, news. She’s kind of a dreamy, faraway type – probably better suited to exploring for new vis sources.
    • The covenant Al-Hadir has evidently lost most of its agricultural lands to crusaders; not clear how they’re getting food or money.
    • Magdalena turned away a marriage proposal from a magus of the House of Benedetto; not interested in marrying into Merinita. Decent fellow otherwise, though; needs a more faerie-like girl.
    • Heard rumors that the fae known as “wild men” are coming back to the mountains.
    • Tractatus from Tulius, if bought – Q 9 in Herbam.
    • Verdi wants terram vis – will trade at standard rates.
    • Gunter of Brest of Unda Scientia wants 1p Aquam in return for a tractatus on Aquam next year.
  • Nizhny Novgorod City (Russia) is founded.

The year sheets above also had standard trading rates for vis, magical energy in physical form, based on assumed market prices. I found that actually not as helpful as my players tend not to trade large sums of vis or engage in vis arbitrage.

My last campaign, set in the Rhine Tribunal, reached the peak of how I thought this should work.

Spring
Collect vis collectable in spring (unless player action necessary). Magi determine their lab activities for the season
March 1221
News Received From Mundane Sources

  • The brewer in Bitburg has discharged his current apprentice for incompetence (see below for reasons and repercussions).

Visitors

  • None of note.

Events

  • The local brewer has had his latest batch of beer spoil. This means that the inn’s usual beer supply is disrupted. The players may just buy more beer (2 mythic pounds) or they can try to use magical means to fix/get more beer.

April 1221
News Received From Mundane Sources

  • From your contacts in Bitburg: The Duke of Bavaria, the Margrave of Baden-Baden, and the leadership of the Teutonic knights are off to crusade in the Holy Land; they set out for Damietta in Egypt earlier this month.

Visitors

  • None

Events

  • Hartwin is off back to Koblenz for a wedding.  Some among the grogs suggest that, as an honored guest of the covenant, he have a safety escort.

May 1221
News Received From Mundane Sources

  • From the clerk of the Archbishop of Trier – Frederick II has opened a new university at Padua.
  • The carpenters’ guildmaster’s daughter got married last month.  You weren’t invited because you’re not that tight with the folks in Koblenz.  Hartwin was, though, and he thought it was pretty great.

Visitors

  • Messenger from the Archbishop of Cologne – well-dressed guy with a small military retinue.  Costs one mythic pound to feed him and horses and whatnot.Has a message for the players.

Events

  • Englebert (II), the Archbishop of Cologne, thanks the magi for tracking down who was screwing around with the Abbess of Essen. Asks them, if they wouldn’t mind (“hint hint” – also he has like 20 soldiers already on their doorstep) if they could look into the disappearance of another nun to see if it was a wizard. See New Nun Adventure.
  • May 23 – Short partial solar eclipse.
  • Fair at Bitburg. Grogs who are not out helping the investigation will likely want to go.
    • A younger woman with the fair gets one of the grogs drunk and claims to have married him in a clandestine ceremony (this is not actually true, but unless magic is used to prove it, few will know for sure).  This is a problem because the grog is already betrothed to the daughter of a local farmer, and it will be unpleasant for everyone involved if that doesn’t happen.  The grog will look to the player magi and companions to get him out of this.

My perpetually future Ars Magica campaign has year sheets in this mold as well, plus detailed sections for the adventures.