The Attitude of the Knife

Posted: 31 August 2016 in Reflections
“Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife – chopping off what’s incomplete and saying: ‘Now it’s complete, because it’s ended here.’” – Frank Herbert, Dune.

I recently had an opportunity to set up a new face to face group, composed partly of old Shadows of Keron players and partly of Nick’s Stars Without Number group; so of course I jumped at it, and is my wont I sought player preferences. After several rounds of debate and voting, they settled on “a high fantasy campaign but we don’t mind what the rules are”. My old players didn’t express a preference, trusting me to produce something they will enjoy; Nick’s players wanted a change of pace from space opera, but rejected the picaresque Conan vibe of Beasts & Barbarians.

High fantasy implies a story arc, a struggle between good and evil, and a group of PCs on the Hero’s Journey who are essentially good guys; most of the players are Chaotic Neutral, though, so I’m not sure how well that will sit with them. The campaign will be characterised by infrequent sessions with an unpredictable player mix, and might close after a few sessions with the story arc incomplete. This is why I generally prefer the picaresque approach, emulating a series of connected short stories rather than a roman-fleuve.

When I started gaming, you played OD&D (because that’s all there was) and you wrote your own setting or used your favourite fantasy novels as the background (because those were the available options). Now, though? Even limiting myself to high fantasy, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of RPGs, many of which have multiple published settings. I might pick the wrong one, leaving the best forever undiscovered; but if I don’t make a decision, we will never play at all, and suboptimal gaming is better than no gaming. I could play half a dozen guest games and pick the best one; but ain’t nobody got time for dat, so let’s crack on.

Rules first. Personally, I think D&D is the best choice for high fantasy, and I do like the look of 5th Edition. However, with over 100 pages in the free basic rules, and nearly 1,000 in the three core books, which would cost over £75, I have to ask myself: Is 5th Edition enough of an improvement over what I play now to make the cost and effort of changing to it worthwhile? Realistically, no, however shiny it looks, so I might as well stay with my go-to RPG, Savage Worlds, which is roughly 1/10 the page count and cost in both free basic and full fat versions. This does have the advantages of being light, portable, and very tolerant of characters with different experience levels in the same party, and I expect some players will attend sessions more often than others. 5E goes on the Bucket List, of which more towards the end of the year.

Setting next. This was a surprisingly difficult choice, but in the end I went for 13th Age. The SF experience that culminated in Collateral Damage has shown me that the less setting information the GM and players have to familiarise themselves with, the better; the icon relationships and uniques in 13th Age will allow me to tailor an emergent setting and story arc to the players’ desires, as telegraphed by their choices in that regard, without requiring any of us to assimilate a ton of setting information first. 13th Age also has the sort of gonzo fantasy elements that will appeal both to the older players (who are somewhat jaded by now) and the younger ones (who were raised on anime and more or less expect things like a cloud city with a clockwork ecology).

Other options considered and rejected, at least for this flight: 50 Fathoms (doesn’t enthuse me enough), Jalizar (not enough of what the group wants to see in the game; I could fit in elves and dwarves, but I draw the line at the earnestly-requested flying castles), Ptolus (too big and too much clockpunk), Spears of the Dawn (too many zombies for one player, diverges too far from Tolkienian tropes for others). Maybe later.

Is there a better option that I haven’t considered? Quite possibly, but how long would it take me to find it? Time’s winged chariot is getting noisy back there, and we’re all better served by picking something and running with it.

Lessons Learned

I care about what the rules and setting are a good deal more than any of the likely players, so next time, I should just pick whatever I think will give the best game and get on with it, rather than putting it to a vote. Dithering has cost us a couple of sessions already.
  1. Brass Jester says:

    Hi Andy
    What about Labyrinth Lord but using the Red Tide setting? Close enough to OD&D, but with the unique take that Kevin Crawford has on anything he touches.
    Also, you can use Scarlet Heroes to fill in if any players miss a session, or even just to develop a favourite NPC to give them a ‘real’ backstory

    • andyslack says:

      Yeah, I did think of LL, but on rereading it I realised would need some serious tweaking to make it work the way I want it to. Red Tide is very well done, but I can’t see myself running it – the way the cultures are squashed up together on a tiny island makes sense in the setting, but it’s not what I want.

  2. Umberto says:

    The one ring?

    • andyslack says:

      I did think about it, but decided that one fight every couple of sessions wouldn’t satisfy the combat-oriented power-gamers. How does that work with your group?

      Also I have several potential players who know the setting much better than I do. Probably have to make one an elven sage or something.

      It’s a very nicely-done game, mind.

      • Umberto Pignatelli says:

        Well, I run it for almost 6 months, we played 3 scenario and went very well. It wasn’t my customary group, we have two-three girls playing and only one experienced player. Combat isn’t very frequent, it is true, but enough to satisfy my group. The game mechanics flow well, even if the players had some problems grasping the “abstract stances” approach of the game, at the beginning. Definetely a game we’ll continue playing.

  3. As I may have mentioned. I did the same last time I ran a campaign for a group of newbies who wanted to ‘try’ fantasy roleplaying. I took a map, Savage Worlds and the Fantasy Companion and a list of ‘alternative 13th Age icons’, made a simple version of the simple 13th Age icon rolls for Savage and away we went.

    I ran the Reality Blurs Old Skool adventures for Savage which feel like D&D but are statted for Savage and we had a blast. I ran just the first 2 before we start riffing off on our own storylines.

    Like most open games the players and I collectively created our game and setting, and I followed your blog advice closely, only prepping what was needed as I went along.

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