Suddenly Talesian froze, still kneeling over the dismantled sculpture, his eyes snapped shut in the middle of lifting out the handful of enchanted cloth at the heart of the explosive device hidden within. We all wanted to ask what was the matter, but after three minutes holding our breath, we remained silent by force of habit.
“Sheth...could you...help me up?” Talesian said slowly, softly. I looked at the others. Lorne and Lydia stirred. They were both closer, surely they could help him without setting anything off.
“Only Sheth!” his quiet vehemence drew them up short, his eyes still shut. “Plainsman,” he said to me, “your time has come. The last layer of the weapon is protected by explosive runes; the trap will still kill us all--and everyone upstairs--if anyone reads but a single word.”
I helped him to his feet as the others turned their backs, and he patted me on the shoulder with confidence I did not share. “Describe what you see, and I will guide you. Your illiteracy is our best protection now.”
Most good roleplaying games have elements of mystery, suspense and thriller, after all, as these are plot based and can apply to any setting. But sometimes you want to push things further and create something that combines genres. Even if you’re not a fan of Smash Up, there’s a lot of fun to be had when you mix the tropes of one genre with the setting and elements of another. If your players are pining for Secrets and Spies while playing Dungeons and Dragons, here are some ways to give them the feel for what they want without changing settings.
1) Secret Whispers
The message cantrip can give the feel of modern spy thrillers with agents whispering to each other through hidden earpieces. A social venue the PC’s have crashed allows for lots of whispering back and forth as they distract the mark, case his room, etc. Note that message can work through a scrying sensor, allowing for the “handler” to call shots from a vantage point on the roof, nearby apartment, or getaway vehicle. If the PC’s are too low level to have message work reliably through a scrying sensor (5% chance per level for a scrying spell) perhaps their patron provides the targets of the spell with a some minor magic that “boosts the signal.”
2) Codes and Riddles
Codes and ciphers are perhaps the easiest element of spy thrillers to import into fantasy, at least for the party rogue. To kick it up a notch toward spycraft, emphasize the use of regular code books, rotating keywords, and other trappings of old-school cryptography. If your group is into props, making your own code grille for them to decode messages with is a surefire winner. And speaking of codes, the locking wards on doors and chests in fantasy games and settings doesn’t make most people think of computer passwords, but it could. To make the party rogue feel more like a computer hacker, have them focus on the individuality of the person who made the wards for their own personal use. That evil high priest they are investigating...what’s his favorite scripture?
3) Magical Message Drop
But what if the secret message isn’t written at all? Have PC’s discover that an enemy agent gets instructions via magic mouth spells when they arrive in a particular public place. Suddenly all those ranks in disguise (or equivalent spells or items) have yet another purpose, as they try to impersonate the agent and get the magic mouth to speak to them instead. But what if someone mistakes them for the real bad guy? Having to stay in character during an impersonation gone wrong is a tried and true staple of the spy genre, and a great opportunity to play “double or nothing” with the information they are after.
More than any other genre, spy thrillers are driven by small but powerful items prized by the superpowers on both sides. The fantasy genre tends to use maguffins that are powerful for their own sake--the One Ring, the Sword of Shannara, Hand of Vecna, etc. To make a fantasy adventure feel more like Her Majesty’s Secret Service, consider having the PC’s quest for powerful, portable things that they can’t use themselves, such as command words to a powerful golem; rare ingredient for epic spells; the remains of a powerful artifact that can be re-enchanted. Have rival teams of adventurers hired by the other side, both groups fighting to deliver the goods to those who can actually use it.
5) Gunpowder Plots, Minus The Gunpowder
The rare gunpowder in fantasy settings is probably better suited for firearms than for a weapon of mass destruction. For a bomb threat, consider instead a necklace or wand of fireballs rigged to break, so that all the charges are released at once (if players aren’t sweating, feel free to count out the d6’s you’d roll for a fully charged device). Explosive runes might be activated at a distance using a spyglass or scrying device, and could set off other effects. The shrink item spell can be used to shrink a bonfire and its fuel to a piece of inert cloth 1/16th the original size, making for an interesting “time bomb” as the duration runs out, or the spell can end early by a collision with a solid surface. This spell lends itself to sabotage; even a simple block of wood could do devastating damage expanding to full size in the right space.
6) Set Pieces And Chase Scenes
Finally, good spy thrillers keep a sense of urgency using breakneck chases and treacherous set pieces for the fights. It’s easy enough to import this into a fantasy setting using carriages, carts, and caravels for transportation, but be ready to take it to the extremes. Players are used to fast movement in the middle of combat, with spells and monk abilities to fly around. Don’t let them use these mobility options. Force them to fight bare-knuckled with the baddies in a small space that’s moving swiftly toward oblivion...and then crank up the Mission Impossible theme to eleven.
So there you have it: six ways to cross the genres and mix some spy thriller into your D&D fantasy setting for a change of pace. Who knows? If your players like it, you could build an entire campaign around these kinds of intrigues, with them as agents in a shadow war between secret societies.
Leyshon Campbell has been playing and writing for gaming for over twenty years, from the Kargatane's Book of S series, playtesting D&D 3E in a Ravenloft campaign, to the ill-fated Masque of the Jade Horror. He ran an extended spy thriller campaign in Ravenloft called “Kara’s Daughters.”
Secret societies are one of cornerstones of the Ravenloft Setting, but they tend to fall into background roles of either cannon fodder for the villain, or temporary resources for the heroes. Having played many games with secret societies and made three of my own (Memento Mori, Kara’s Daughters and the soon-to-be-released Ward Zero), here are some tips for getting the most out of them:
1) Information Is The Highest Form Of Currency
Some “underdog” secret societies like the Shadow Insurrection, L’Ordures, and Sons of Gundar make obvious allies for anyone fighting the same foe, but things can get too cozy; these are secret societies, after all. To keep the mystique in a long running alliance, remember that equipment and even spellcasting is cheap, but secrets, once shared, are spent forever. Outsiders should have to submit to lengthy vetting and use excellent diplomacy to pry a single critical secret from groups like the Duskpeace Outcasts. Offering money tends to backfire, because it suggests the one offering does not know how valuable information is, or how dangerous.
2) Splitting The Party
Even if one PC is a member, the rest of the party should not be insiders by default. Some heroic groups (i.e. the Society of Huntsmen, the Lamplighters, the Circle) don’t limit fraternization with outsiders, but a member of the Brotherhood of Broken Blades draws suspicion if their party includes arcane spellcasters. Many others are somewhere in between: a member might lead the party on one adventure on behalf of the society, share a little “need to know” info on the next, and offer nothing of value on another. Variety is the key; a member of the Green Hand or The Woodcutter's Axe need not confront the group’s enemies around every corner.
3) The More, The Merrier
Any of the “underdog” groups might welcome all classes, such that an entire party could join. Likewise, any party might join the Order of the Guardians and just report on any evil artifacts they find. More options become available with restricted character creation: a Carnival-based campaign with a party of Troupers, a “special investigations” team for La Serrure et Clé composed of calibans, or an all-elf strike team for the Children of Wrath are all possibilities. In all these cases, the restriction is on race, so the party might include members of any class. Class restrictions are more difficult; if The Noble Brotherhood of Assassins needs serious muscle for a particular job, or the Knights of the Ashen Bough need a spellcaster to erase Drakov brands, they would probably contract with an outsider ally rather than recruit someone.
Even if a PC doesn’t seek membership, someone might feel they earned it. Groups like the Fraternity of Shadows or Kargatane make offers one can’t refuse based on their own sense of worthiness. The Échansons, Ildi'Thaan, Vilushka, or Witches of Hala might choose someone based on their bloodline. In cases like the Stalkers, Ata Bestaal, or even Keepers of the Black Feather, membership includes lycanthropy, such that a character might be “accidentally recruited” during a fight. In all these cases, the PC is not really an outsider, but their loyalty is in question. Even otherwise good groups may take drastic measures if someone with too much knowledge of their inner working turns them down.
5) Membership Has Its Privileges
Members of most non-evil groups should be glad they joined most of the time. Physical tokens of membership frequently include masterwork items suitable for enchanting, if not minor magical items. Support societies like Société de Legerdemain, L’Académie des Sciences, and the Veiled Palm shouldn’t require more than dues (including discounted prices for supplies), reporting anything of interest, and keeping group secrets. If social obligations aren’t part of your game, this can also apply to “underdog” or “heroic” societies. If assigned to do more, the majority of the work should be within the PC’s comfort zone and rewarded fairly. Plots that pit group loyalty against friends, family or conscience should only come after the PC has built a strong identity as part of the society.
6) That Wasn’t In The Brochure!
Many secret societies have hierarchies, and some evil ones can appear harmless or even heroic to those at the lowest levels. A PC might spend decades in La Confrérie des Rêveurs* before finally discovering who (or what) they’ve been “feeding.” Insurrectionists in Mortigny might revere the long-dead martyr Simon Audaire long before being formally introduced to him in the, er, “flesh.” Many more groups are not stated as having such a layered structure, but could easily develop one, such as the Scions of Purity, Syndicate of Enlightened Citizens, League of Nine, and The Scions of Yakov Dilisnya. Allow PC’s to benefit from such associations as much as possible before learning the Awful Truth. Such “malign paradigm shifts” are among the most devastating horror checks, and are among the penultimate thrills of playing in a horror setting.
7) Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor
Finally, while truly evil cults may only fit as antagonists, you can still get more mileage from the Dark Delvers or Cult of the Straw God by emphasizing their insidious ideology. Long after the party has destroyed Mother Fury, have them discover a Howling Clan revival among the frustrated poor of some distant town. An old ally suffering nightmares of the Dead Man’s Campaign might be groomed for membership in the Lustmorde, or a treasure-seeking rival enthralled by writings about the Seven Scarabs. This could make for a truly epic struggle to destroy not just a dangerous cult, but a dangerous idea. Such challenges have been covered previously for destroying Sinkholes of Evil (RLDMG), and for fighting bogeymen (DTDL).
Whether allies, mentors, rivals or enemies, the people who make up these groups have committed themselves to keep secrets from their fellowmen. It’s a grave choice that players may be faced with, to join them in bearing that burden of secrecy, or to drag the truth into the light of day to kill it. Either option can pose a challenge for PC’s of any level, and raise the kind of complex moral questions that keep players coming back to Ravenloft.
*La Confrérie des Rêveurs was described in an article of the same name in Quoth the Raven issue #6, a Ravenloft netbook hosted by the Fraternity of Shadows.
Matthew Barrett has been playing and writing for Ravenloft for over twenty years, starting with the Kargatane's Book of S series (as Leyshon Campbell). He married his wife on Friday the 13th after proposing to her on Halloween. By tradition, the first story read at birth to each of their three children was The Barker’s Tour, from Ravenloft’s “Carnival” supplement. He is currently working on a Ravenloft-based experiment in crowdsourced fiction using his “Inkubator” system at inkubator.miraheze.org.
Pic Reference: http://www.theendofhistory.net/most_recent/history-terrorism-secret-societies/
A puppeteer captivates his audience in the town square. The heroes, returning from their latest dungeon, spot the growing crowd and approach with interest. The audience is mostly children and a few citizens taking a moment to see what the fuss is about. It’s easy to get a good view. Hanging from one of the strings is a demon, horned and wings licked in crimson. Hanging opposite of the demon is someone holding a sword. The fighter immediately recognizes the puppet. It looks exactly like him. The puppeteer speaks of a great prophecy; of a demon, locked away, approaching escape. Only our hero can stop him.
This is an NPC that one of my DM’s made in a campaign I took part in. It was this puppeteer, who introduced himself as Alvar, that showed me the potential for an NPC in a Pathfinder, or really any, campaign. Beyond just an innkeeper with an eyepatch, or a noble with a stuck up attitude, Alvar was a living breathing character with a purpose. With this article I want to show you 4 ways to make a memorable NPC, all thanks to inspiration I gained from this puppeteer.
1) Connect Them To Your Player Characters
Alvar was connected directly to one of our players, the aforementioned hero that was crucial to keeping the demon locked away. This connection establishes a bond and creates a reason for players to interact with an NPC more. How do they know this? What else do they know? The bond doesn’t need to be as grandiose as providing a backstory to characters or as an omenspeaker, but any sort of connection immediately makes players feel exactly that: connected.
Another approach is to make the players feel responsible for this character. A young squire who finds the heroes to be inspiring hopes to learn from them so he follows them out of town to the cave they are going to explore. The party can’t exactly leave him alone in the cave, he’ll be ripped apart, so they’ll need to keep him safe while they seek out their objective. This can be especially strong if you target a Good character in town with this specific squire, idolizing them and setting up for the moment where the character feels responsible for their safety.
2) Have NPCs Praise Or Condemn Aspects Of Your Characters
Characters make mistakes. There are times when players can make decisions in the moments that skirt the alignment of their character. NPCs that either push them away or pull them towards the other side can be compelling talking points to a character. Alvar would constantly tell our fighter that he believed in him and they he could do better in making this world a good place. The fighter was caught between two alignments and Alvar was there urging our fighter to make the right call, but the fighter was still lost in knowing which was which.
This method can create tension. Tension is good because it inspires dialogue between characters and can make them more involved in the story. Having an NPC show up and point out the divide in players’ morals can provide intriguing role playing potential for a party. Of course, this is by no means an excuse to become vindictive and outright insult a player for their decisions. Instead if someone merely asks the character ‘why?’ it has potential to open up a whole new avenue of character exploration.
3) Find The Drive Behind A Character And Have An NPC Amplify It
The fighter always imagined himself as the hero. Maybe that’s why he was so intrigued by the puppet performance and became interested in Alvar so quickly. There was this idea that he was something more: he sought out some sort of prophecy and Alvar delivered. There was heroic blood in his family’s lineage, and the fighter was the key to reopening what was locked away.
Some players may find that to be a bit too convenient, but Alvar is a particularly specific example of what an NPC can do. Each player gives a purpose to their character, something that drives them to make the decisions they make. A method of taking your game to the next level is incorporating these themes into your story, feeding back into the players what they crave. You can twist it and turn it on their head, but dangling a carrot on a stick, so to speak, will push the characters forward.
Most villains in a campaign will do this to the players, but there is no reason you cannot take advantage and have other NPCs do this. Especially if you can balance the idea of similar traits between your villain, your player, and their NPC. The villain and the hero both crave power, each must stop the other to get it, the NPC wants to see the hero gain this power, but which side will their methods align with? This gets to the final, most poignant point of Alvar’s story.
4) Have Your NPCs Be Wrong
This may sound obvious, but what exactly does it mean to be wrong? An NPC can give wrong directions to a dungeon, but is that something they can be remembered for? A strong NPC will provide an emotional connection to the players, and with the above methods you can achieve the framework to create a memorable bond. However the most important point of an NPC is that they are not omniscient. NPCs should not know the way everything flows and they can be just as guilty as anyone of being wrong.
Alvar was a victim of his own prophecy. He didn’t know the full explanation behind what he was preaching to the party’s fighter. He spoke of the fighter being the key to locking the demon away, when in reality the demon could never be free until the fighter approached the cage. Our fighter broke, realizing that he wasn’t the hero that was meant to save the world: he was the villain destined to free the beast who would end it. Alvar himself also broke from this and met the tragic end of dying knowing that he was wrong.
There is nothing interesting about an NPC that the players can never outsmart. A villain who is always one step ahead is boring so why should someone helping out the players have knowledge they shouldn’t have? Treating an NPC like a mortal who is just as in the dark as the players are, with their own opinions whether they be right or wrong, allows the players to relate to them. It forms a bond or a rivalry, providing players with a push and pull that inspires digging deep into their character.
Alvar’s end may have been hopeless, but our fighter did not follow the same path. He fought against his prophecy and returned to his own path. He would defeat this demon. He let the beast out, so he was going to be the one to kill it. Alvar never saw this, but Alvar was never supposed to see it. Multiple storylines are happening at a time during a campaign: the main story, the player character’s stories, and the NPC’s stories. Alvar’s story was about an old man who dreamt of a golden era of his youth, locked behind memories and prophecy. He always hoped that he would find his hero, unfortunately all he was left with was betrayal-- from no one but himself.
The greatest part of all this is that Alvar wasn’t even involved in my character’s storyline from this campaign, but it’s undeniable the effect that he had on me. My side of the story was full of its own characters, twists, and revelations that I’ll be using as an inspiration for a future article. I hope this has helped plant some seeds to create an NPC that will push your players. They want it.
Have you played or experienced any NPCs that were memorable for you? Who were they? Let me know in the comments or on my twitter!
Justin Cauti is a writer and Twitch streamer. He plays board/roleplaying games on the internet at http://www.playingboardgames.tv. Follow him on Twitter for updates on his boring life and writing projects @LeftSideJustin.
Picture Referece: https://www.bit-tech.net/reviews/gaming/pc/top-10-computer-game-npcs/1/
In the right situation, enemy spellcasters can be extremely dangerous. They have access to powerful spells and abilities that can inflict grievous damage or disruption to the player characters. Some of these are BBEGs, but many are simple "encounter bosses", typically found in the final of that evil cultist shrine, or what have you.
Note that for the purposes of this article I am referring to the traditional spell casting enemies, like wizards, sorcerers, shamans, warlocks, priests, etc. An ancient green dragon, while technically a spellcaster, is not something that I would suggest beefing up due to the fact that they are very tanky and require quite a feat to overpower in combat.
The problem with these fantastic specimens is that they generally have some piss-poor defensive stats. They usually have a low hit point pool, a pretty low armour class, and usually some susceptibility to saving throw failures as well. When coupled with the fact that players see these encounter leaders with the word "BOSS" tattooed on their chest, their defensive statistics don't hold up too well when the party inevitably focuses their fire and throws their resources at taking these down as soon as possible.
Since this, let's call it, "natural selection" of players targeting anything that looks like it can do cool stuff (or dangerous stuff), is a thing, we may as well try to look at ways to utilise these enemies better. The best solution isn't just to stat-pad the wizard with more HP and a higher armour class. He'll start to feel just like a bugbear again and we're back to boring old square one; hence why I use the term "utilise" as opposed to "make them stronger".
So let's have a think about some ways that a spellcaster can utilise their power more effectively in combat.
Wizards (and most other spellcasters) are likely to have high wisdom, intelligence, or both. Yes, this is included in their spell bonuses, but remember that their thought processes would also be influenced by this too - they aren’t idiots! So we need to factor this in when thinking about ways they can utilise themselves more in combat. We need to remember that squishy spellcasters are usually very aware that they are a) squishy and b) a spellcaster. They wouldn't just charge into the fray.
To start, let's look at the biggest downfalls that these spellcasters have. Let's look at some reasons why they aren't as challenging as they perhaps might otherwise be:
1) They get focused on with big spells/nukes and martial heroes’ attacks;
2) They are often the juicy target for any of those "disruptive" spells the PC casters have such as Silence, Blindness, Confusion, Charm, etc.;
3) Their armour class and hit points are usually low, for their challenge rating; and
4) They don't function as effectively when adjacent to the hostile PCs.
I have a few potential solutions to this:
1) Don’t start combat with the caster in danger
Don't start the caster in the room when the fight breaks out. Have him enter part-way through instead. Let's say the PCs kick down the door of the wizard's quarters. What happens? Maybe his well-trained mimic treasure chest attacks! Perhaps the two suits of armour against the wall come alive and attack. Then have the wizard enter from an adjacent room on the following round, or even a few rounds later.
Alternatively, when the party attacks the wizard's guards in the great hall, the wizard hears the commotion (or an alarm spell is triggered) in the main chamber, and he enters with his golems and joins the fight mid-way while the players are already occupied.
The first advantage to this is that the wizard avoids the snowball of death that is the opening round of a D&D combat; where the players use their strongest abilities and try to burst down any immediate threats as quickly as possible. If the wizard walks in on a later round, it throws a spanner in the works by creating a tactical challenge for the players! Also, if the wizard has a round or two before they enter combat, they can cast those juicy defensive spells before they even step into the danger zone. Spells like Mirror Image, Mage Armour, Armour of Agathys, Blur, etc. are great.
2) Cast Invisibility/Blink
Have the wizard in the area, but have them unseen (due to Invisibility) or in another plane (with Blink). Until the wizard attacks, or is revealed, Invisibility will shield them from a lot of unwanted aggression from the PCs. Blink is a good disruptive defensive spell, as it will give the caster some rounds without any danger from the players.
3) Illusion Shenanigans
I've done this a few times and it's worked out pretty well. Just try not to be too mean with it, and don't overuse it.
There are a few ways to use illusion shenanigans. Firstly, to obscure the wizard from view (have a bookcase or some other Line of Sight blocker in between the party and the wizard's.) If the illusion goes, the wizard is revealed! Alternatively, disguise the wizard so that he looks like a commoner, a prisoner, or perhaps a grunt in the combat. Thirdly, you can disguise one of the other enemies to LOOK like the wizard with an illusion spell.
In one of my campaigns, the illusionist wizard was in a large chamber with a bunch of his golems. The paladin of the party, who hated him, ran forward and used misty step to be right next to the wizard, and then attacked. It was then he realised that the wizard's image was only an illusion, cloaking the real enemy - the wizard's champion battle golem! The paladin was alone, right next to it! You could also use illusions as 1hp minions to try and coax out spells from the players. Use this approach in moderation, as it can backfire in nasty ways, i.e. players running amok in revenge.
4) Run two wizards
You can't focus fire two things at once! Another option is to consider running two, slightly weaker wizards as opposed to just one. (Or 3 wizards, or 4, 10, 20, etc.) Sure, one might get focused down and annihilated, but the other will still be up! Or your party might panic and half-kill both of them, leaving them both free to wreak havoc on their next turn!
5) The Old Switcheroo
The party kicks down the door to see an evil warlock in robes completing his ritual. He is surrounded by 4 demonic brutes, and he glares at you and gestures with his finger, pointing for his demons to attack the intruders. The players think "Oh crap, we gotta kill that warlock first so that the encounter is easier." But what they don't know, is that the warlock is just Joe Bloggs from Villagehills down the road, who turned a dark path and read the wrong page from the black tome. He has AC10, no spells, and one hit die. The real threat of this combat are the demonic brutes, but I can bet money that some useful spells might be wasted on this commoner - spells which really would have been more helpful if used on the demons. Again, don't overuse it, but dab it in your world here and there for a bit of fun.
6) Use The Battlefield To Their Advantage
Design encounters that really suit wizards. Throw in a lot of inhibiting terrain that slows movement or forces the players to take a long route to get to the wizard. Having a ravine or crevasse in-between the wizard and the party is an easy way of doing this. You could also accommodate this with a trap (like swinging axes) that stands between the players and the wizard's (But you should think of offering a long way around the trap for players who don't want to tangle with it). Also, of course, remember to station the wizard's allies as a barrier between the wizard and the PCs.
There are two types of DMs in the world. Those who increase difficulty by giving their spellcasters more hit points and a higher armour class, or those who use more strategic or creative measures to increase the challenge. Harder doesn’t necessarily mean more hit points. Use the above to really let those players know how crazy powerful spellcasters can be!
Peter is an avid dungeon master, role-player, and story teller. When he's not running homebrew campaigns, he is creating new worlds, or he is reading and writing fantasy stories, forever immersing himself in the gaping black-hole known as the fantasy genre.
Image Credit: http://vignette3.wikia.nocookie.net/uncle-grandpa/images/2/27/Transparent_Evil_Wizard.png/revision/latest?cb=20140515001325
I know that Lord Mayor Drakeson has invited you to Carinford-Halldon, ostensibly to congratulate you on rooting out and killing the werewolf Edmond Timothy. Have you had occasion to meet Mayor Drakeson's wife? Gwendolyn Drakeson is a perfect hostess, of course, and the two of them are quite in love. It would seem that her grandfather Nathan Timothy found a smart match for her indeed…
The werewolf (here and throughout I use the term werewolf, but each of these points could refer to most all lycanthropes, and some non-lycanthrope shapeshifters as well) is one of the oldest archetypes in horror literature. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King boils all monsters down to three basic molds, one of which is the werewolf: the monster that walks among us. Throughout history, mythology, and fiction, there are several common threads that run through the best werewolf stories. Hopefully, looking at some of these a little more closely may give you some insight (or inspiration) for using werewolves in your own games.
1) The Beast
Truly, from his origins as a pauper in the western core, Frankie Drakeson has overcome a great deal of personal tragedy, from being orphaned before he could walk, to the brutal violence he and his sister suffered at the hands of a Dementlieuse smuggler. Such setbacks would have destroyed a lesser man, but Mayor Drakeson shows no signs of being weighed down by his past.
The werewolf isn’t just a person who turns into a wolf. Not everyone who gets bitten becomes infected. In werewolf stories, the hidden monstrosity of the werewolf represents the savagery that can lurk within anyone. This can vary from a rage-fueled impulse to mindless destruction, all the way up to a predatory need to hunt and kill one’s own kind. In Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld series, the werewolf curse isn’t just a supernatural disease; it represents the very real, deep issues these characters struggle with, including spousal abuse, post traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, and a host of other problems. In the best werewolf stories, the monster isn’t just the random victim of circumstance: the curse echoes some darkness that already exists within them, and the wolf is just an excuse to let it out.
2) The Unnatural
A word of advice if you plan to accept his invitation: Carinford-Halldon is extremely unusual for Mordentish villages in that it has no dogs. The residents seem unsure about the cause, and while some blame the wild boars and others vaguely recall a mysterious canine illness, bringing a hound remains a risky proposition.
The ‘wolf’ in werewolf has very little to do with wolves beyond a passing resemblance. The best werewolves have virtually nothing to do with natural wolves. Most werewolves are shunned by natural beasts. It’s fitting that many werewolf groups operate along the alpha-beta-omega pack structure, since this hierarchy is a fiction of humankind. It appears only in wolves in captivity, so it's apropos that it is used by beings that are of both wolf and man, but wholly neither. In the few cases where monstrous werewolves exert control over real wolves, they control the animals not through a connection of kinship but through supernatural domination, much like a vampire. The werewolf who has a deep connection to nature is a figure of primal spirituality, not a monster, and loses some of its impact in a horror setting.
3) The Hidden
I envy you: Mayor Drakeson is a delightful dinner companion! The servants and commonfolk in his village will no doubt seek to regale you with numerous tales of the monsters he's vanquished and the lengths he's gone to in order to protect his friends and family. There's probably no one in the entire town that doesn't feel like they personally owe their lives to him.
The greatest danger of the werewolf isn’t their teeth or even their curse; it’s that they could be anyone. If the players can readily identify the werewolf suspect, then you might not be getting the most mileage out of the werewolf archetype. The werewolf is at its best when people don’t even realize that’s what they’re dealing with. In a D&D game of course, this is nearly impossible. Fortunately, once someone has been exposed to the werewolf archetype it leaves an indelible fear in the back of their mind; fear of the evil their friends and allies might be concealing. (It is this exact fear that games like Are You a Werewolf? exploit to create humor.) As the adventure continues and tension begins to mount, player suspicion will grow to become paranoia, and the damage that a party can do when it is gripped by fear can be greater than the mayhem caused by the werewolf itself. The most malevolent werewolves, the ones who know (or suspect) their true nature, are adept at exploiting this, diverting attention from themselves so adroitly that their friends and allies will even take up arms against renowned heroes rather than believe their loved one could be hiding such a dark secret.
4) The Puppet
I do hope you come at the right time of year, however. During autumn, when the last desperate traders of the season are hurrying across the lands, both predator and brigand make travel to the town dangerous. Why, the mayor and his family are so busy keeping the roads safe they can scarcely be found at all!
Although transforming beneath the full moon is the most common trigger, almost all werewolves are afflicted by their curse in some kind of scheduled timeframe, both in fiction and mythology. Ancient werewolf stories tell of men who transform every evening when the sun goes down, those who were cursed to walk as a wolf seven days out of the year, those who transformed beneath the new moon, and an assortment of other schedules. In all these cases, the underlying root is the same: the werewolf is affected by unseen forces that do not have such a pull over the rest of us. These forces compel the werewolf to do their evil deeds, in the same way that Dexter’s Dark Passenger compels him to his own butchery. History is rife with serial killers compelled to follow a schedule to their murders, and it is this example that informs the werewolf legend’s need for a timeframe. Altering the schedule for a werewolf antagonist can be a good way to throw the PCs for a loop while still maintaining this core aspect of the werewolf archetype.
Shortly after arranging to marry Nathan Timothy's granddaughter Gwen, Frankie began a family of his own. His six children have grown into fine young men and women, and from captain of the guard to magistrate, they all serve the town as loyally as their parents do.
Human storytellers have known for centuries that abuse and trauma can form a vicious feedback loop. The werewolf legend reflects that in multiple ways. On the one hand, there are the werewolves who were delivered into this curse: regular people, possibly even good people (albeit ones with repressed horrors or well controlled dark urges) who were affected by traumas larger than they could cope with. There are also the hereditary werewolves, whose curse was handed down from parent to child. These werewolves reflect the unfortunate tendency for the unwary (or uncaring) to inflict their own trauma on their children. Such families work hard to maintain a semblance of normalcy, keeping their family as hidden from their community as possible. Some werewolves who become aware of their nature can delight in spreading their disease to others (Voldemort’s flunky Fenrir Greyback is a good example of this) in the same way that some human predators take a perverse glee in bringing others around to their warped point of view.
6) The Corruption
Mayor Drakeson has done a wonderful job getting rid of the boars around Carinford-Halldon: those swine cause so many problems! Why, shortly after he settled there, the native boars caused so much damage with their rooting that they wiped out entire copses of trees. To this day you can't find a cedar tree within miles of the town.
Whether they entered their state willingly, as punishment for their crimes, were infected by another werewolf, or had their curse passed on by their parents, all werewolves share a foulness within them. This inner bestiality is why the werewolf is vulnerable to silver, as silver is a symbol of purity. Other possibilities exist, of course. Ravenloft werewolves are famous for their varied chemical and material ‘allergies.' However, all of these items share something in common: they’re all either symbols of purity or agents of purification. (The film Ginger Snaps explores this idea.) This is an important link for the archetype. Werewolves’ banes aren’t just random weaknesses, they’re a tangible reminder that the afflicted is a monster, and its pain stems from the fact that its wickedness is so strong as to cause a physical reaction when exposed to such purity.
7) The Victim
Since Frankie quit hunting monsters and settled down with his family, he's done his best to stay busy. Notably, he's done a marvelous job sponsoring and training monster hunters. He's shown a particular interest in training those adventurers who would travel through Kartakas or Verbrek, as though he has a specific grudge against the abominations of those lands.
Most werewolves were a person, once. Like Larry Talbot, they might have even been a good person. The most impactful werewolf stories are the ones where the protagonists discover that the werewolf is someone they care about. Almost as meaningful, and a little less expected, is when the werewolf turns out to be someone they don't know terribly well, but they just like. In lighter stories, the quest to find a cure can be the focus of an adventure. However, in horror adventuring, especially the Victorian horror of Ravenloft, the werewolf curse is an echo of the mental darkness it is serves as an allegory for: it cannot be cured. It can be suppressed, for a time, but there is no force that can contain it forever. Eventually, the monster within will break loose and hurt someone. The person the werewolf once was might be horrified by what they've become, but they find themselves unable to end their own existence; the monster is part of their own will to survive, and it is stronger than they are. Such unfortunate souls cannot understand why they continue to allow themselves to commit the atrocities they perform while transformed, and with every passing cycle they become increasingly unsure of whether they began as a good person with a horrific curse, or if the monster was their true self all along and their human life just a convenient disguise.
My, how I ramble on! The truth is, you've done quite a bit of good in the world, and I'm certain Mayor Drakeson's patronage is no small part of that. You deserve his recognition, to be sure. Carinford-Halldon is a lovely place: a tight knit community with an intense amount of loyalty to one another, both commoner and noble alike. Spend a day with the Mayor and his family, and you'll find their hospitality beyond compare. Spend any more time than that with them, and you're bound to have a howling good time...
Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. In addition to writing for the Black Library, he puts pen to paper for High Level Games and Quoth the Raven. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in anthologies like Fitting In or Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter.
Image reference: https://www.blackgate.com/2011/10/21/game-review-innistrad-from-magic-the-gathering/
For as long as there’ve been creative works, there will always be more creative works that are either inspired by or that pay homage to works before them, and the original Final Fantasy video game for the Nintendo Entertainment System is one such example of this.
Many of the game mechanics and creatures used in the original Final Fantasy were borrowed from Dungeons and Dragons, such as magic users only being able to use so many spells of certain levels per day, or even some of the monsters, such as sahuagin and mind flayers.
When Final Fantasy gained popularity in the 1990’s (which persists even to this day!), many people began working together to bring Final Fantasy back to its tabletop roots, with the largest of these endeavors being a long running project known as the Final Fantasy RPG project.
Today, I will show you all an abridged history of fan made Final Fantasy tabletop RPGs.
1) FInal Fantasy Tactics Miniatures Game
This is perhaps the oldest of the games showcased today; it’s a tabletop skirmish game based on the Final Fantasy Tactics video game for the Playstation. Though when I say “based on,” what I really mean is that it’s a direct copy of the rules of the game.
As in, its creator literally just wrote down the mechanics of the video game as the rules for this tabletop game (which, admittedly is no mean feat).
Unfortunately, this very fact also makes the game nearly unplayable, since many of the calculations are so redundant that it’d numb the average human mind after two rounds of combat where something actually happens.
This game also had some creative license taken with the classes available. There are a few additional classes that weren’t originally included in the Final Fantasy Tactics video game. They instead came from the real time strategy game Age of Empires.
It’s not by any means good, or even playable, but the Final Fantasy Tactics Miniatures Games is still noteworthy as an artifact from the Web 1.0 era. This game was made at a time when personal publishing tools were much less robust, and for all its flaws, it somehow managed to survive into this modern era of the internet.
2) Final Fantasy d20
Final Fantasy d20 originally started as a conversion of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 meant to sport character classes and races from the Final Fantasy franchise, but has recently been updated to use the Pathfinder rules.
The fact that it uses Pathfinder makes it seem, at first blush, like one of the more accessible games, but it actually points out what I believe is something of a misconception about games with “d20” affixed at the end of the title: they’re not all the same, and knowing one won’t necessarily make you a master of all the others.
All the races and classes from Pathfinder have been gutted to make room for Final Fantasy’s equally robust selection; so the similarities between Final Fantasy d20 and Pathfinder mostly end at the core mechanics of the game.
Even still, Final Fantasy d20 does a good job bringing Final Fantasy to the d20 ruleset. It has many of the staples of Final Fantasy, such as Limit Breaks (the super powered attacks character can make after taking enough damage), along with familiar ideas from most d20 fantasy games, such as the capacity for multiclassing and prestige classes.
Most importantly though, Final Fantasy d20 has an active community to this day, and is still being updated, with some of the most recent additions as of this writing being a Samurai class (as they’re depicted in Final Fantasy, of course) and the inclusion of an official character sheet!
3) Final Fantasy d6
Final Fantasy d6 is a spin-off of the Second Edition of the Final Fantasy RPG Project. It was created as a splinter project when the 3rd Edition was announced, but showed no signs of being released.
So fans of the fan made game took it upon themselves to make their own version of the game that simplified the rules some.
As the name implies, a bulk of the game’s mechanics are based around the humble six sided dice, but lowering the size of the dice and numbers used (the game this was based off used d100) is as far as the game goes regarding simplification.
Final Fantasy d6 has quite a few detailed subsystems, such as different weapons all having their own idiosyncrasies besides just doing more damage than the others. As an example: wands and staves allow spells to activate faster; spears and whips get critical hits more often.
What I think really makes this game shine is that there’s a great deal of customization available. The game offers detailed item creation rules, but still sports a wide range of gear available à la carte for players who just want to pick items from a list.
It’s not a tremendously simple game as it’s initially described, but it’s otherwise exactly what it says on the tin: a Final Fantasy game that uses d6s.
4) SeeD: A Final Fantasy Inspired Tabletop RPG
Continuing along the path of games based on the products of the Final Fantasy RPG Project, SeeD is a remake of the project’s 3rd edition, which was notorious for being so complex and convoluted that it was practically unplayable without some kind of machine assistance.
SeeD, instead of seeing this as a problem, embraces this idea. It makes use of many double and triple digit numbers, and includes multi-step formulae as a part of actions. Additionally, SeeD is also a modular system, with many distinctly different subsystems to accomplish the same tasks, such as non-combat skills and character classes.
In order to combat the cumbersome nature of having a large and varied rules set, SeeD has its rules distributed as a wiki. Hyperlinks are used to direct the reader to other relevant sections, such as to the skill list section from the various different skill system pages.
Also listed on this wiki is an archive of tools designed specifically for running SeeD.
This game is incredibly detailed, especially for a home-brewed variety, and is a culmination of years of effort from many different people, and even has a second edition which seeks to divorce itself from its Final Fantasy roots.
According to the update logs of the wiki, they both seem to still be maintained and updated!
5) Final Fantasy RPG 4th Edition
The fourth direct product of the Final Fantasy RPG project goes in a different direction from all its predecessors and their spinoffs by being an overall simplification of the game, with considerably less customization.
The forward of the game is also very straightforward with what its creators intended with two particular design choices standing out: that the game should be modular, to accommodate works from others; and that the game should in fact be two games with mostly divided rules, a game about non-combat exploration and another about tactical combat.
These are goals that the FFRPG 4th Edition succeeds in. How a character decides to dispatch enemies has very little bearing on what a character is able to do outside the heat of combat, and in fact, there is an optional set of rules meant to remove (or at least minimize) the role of combat in this game, leaving character class as little more than a narrative detail.
What’s most impressive about the Final Fantasy RPG 4th edition is that everything it builds off from was the collective works of other fans of the Final Fantasy franchise, who built their own tabletop game from scratch as an homage to the video game series.
The legacy of more than 20 years this game was built on gives it a unique set of mechanics, even if the options and selections seem sparse by comparison to it’s older editions.
So there you have it, some of the most outstanding works (for good or ill) of people who sought to bring Final Fantasy back to the tabletop after it adopted its own distinct form. Even if you’re not a fan of Final Fantasy, these are still good things to look into if you’re interested in creating your own sort of tabletop game.
And if you are a fan of Final Fantasy, then much like the video games themselves, you have a wide variety to choose from, each with their own unique aspects to offer.
Aaron der Schaedel is a fan of both tabletop and video game RPGs that set out to research this oddly expansive yet niche topic in honor of Final Fantasy’s 30th anniversary. He also wants you to know that a Google search using the names as they’re presented here will lead you to the rulebooks of the games if you’re curious to read them yourself.
Link to this article's picture page: https://www.gameskinny.com/5a8v1/personal-picks-favorite-and-top-tier-jobs-in-final-fantasy-series
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.