Randall C Ellis is the author of the fantasy RPG Sojourner’s Quest. Geek Native took a look inside the game last year and the post was part of the OSR debate.
Geek Native reached out to Randall for help. As he was creating world after world… could he help GMs (or Journey Masters) with any tips and advice for bringing a fantasy world to life? After all; if you’re running a sci-fi game like Sojourner’s Moon you may have to create dozens of worlds and this is a challenge all JMs face. Thankfully, Randall stepped up to the challenge.
What are the three most important things a JM should do to bring a fantasy world to life?
1. Climate: All worlds have a climate, pick your adventuring area and begin to outline it with interesting facts. Unique weather chart, can exist.
2. Once the climate is done, choose your topography. Try to think behind the hills, mountains, and rocks – what put them there, what purpose do they have, is everything inanimate? Animate!
3. Empires fallen, and kingdoms existing: What ancient demographics can you offer the Players? What current kingdoms and political systems dominate? This is where culture and society begins. If you have chosen your topography well, purpose they are tied to the lands in a certain way.
What are three techniques a JM can use to make fantasy cities feel more real?
1. Personality of cultural garments. What are people wearing and what does this say about them? Are they war-like and they all wear daggers? Items that describe their personality most often is a good idea. Additionally, how do people react to the Characters? Are they friendly, or taciturn? Are they outgoing, or stoic?
2. The absence of something in a culture can say things when pointed out to Characters. Suppose there are no weapons at all in this castle? What protects the people?
3. Advanced mechanics: What if there were unseen ways to perform minor tasks more efficiently? Suppose the drawbridge has an auto-opener on it?
4. How are the streets laid out? Are they broad avenues, or narrow dirt lanes? Are they the kind of roads that one sees in cities, towns, or hamlets?
What are your top three suggestions for JMs looking to make wild and rural spaces more interesting to characters?
1. Wild weeds are not just your average tundra grasses anymore; not only do they tingle with electrical type non-damaging shocks, but they can also be more damaging, wrapping around you when you sleep.
2. Trees move, obviously, everyone knows this, and they obscure trail markings among other things.
3. Swamps: They have all kinds of smelly gases, some explosive, some causing catatonia; the list goes on.
What tips do you have for JMs when it comes to memorable NPCs?
1. Give them a physical ailment, i.e. a limp, a lisp.
2. Personality is a crucial item. Take a moment to infuse them with something like supremely hostile, though always does good; very sweet but always is evil and smiles about it; and what about the baker who is the Assassin?
3. Themes of rescue and betrayal. One NPC could always be a rescuer and aid the sojourners, while another always gains their trust only to betray them – the Fortune is just too good to pass up!
How can JMs bring fantastic creatures and monsters to life?
1. It is not a matter of extremely over doing a creature’s special powers. In all things it is stamina. One power can go a long way, depending on how it is used. What remains important to the characters is how long it takes to slay a creature. How smart it is. Give the creatures a chance to stay in the fight!
2. Sound and visual effects: do the creatures look and sound differently from your other creatures? What about alien undead that actually “wheeze” when they get close to feeding time?
3. The Unexpected: Have the creature do something totally out of character. When was the last time you saw three Rusalks dancing? Suppose they laugh hysterically in battle?
What three things can JMs do to add more cinematic drama to combat without slowing down the game?
1. Descriptors: Describe the result of the Character’s action against the opponent. When creatures retreat, how do they retreat? In an instant? With moaning and groaning?
2. Pictures: If the JM has a picture to show to the Players, then they can better visualize what is happening.
3. A description of the terrain where the combat is taking place: It is a great help to know what your area looks like; that way you can plan defenses, and points of retreat if necessary.
What techniques can a JM use to add mystery, secrets and engimas to a world with magic?
1. Have all magic stop working. Find the reason and restore the magic.
2. Some magics are supposed to be mysteries. Let them search for clues, but do not ever give them a definitive answer. The carrot and string idea. Think of guardians of magic, protecting the secrets, do not let these self-appointed warders come to harm.
3. Learn new ways to create magic. Learn another way of doing some spell differently. Take Commands in Sojourner’s Moon, they are centered by being able to be spoken. The weakness? Stop the verbalization, things can get nasty. What resources can you create to help Characters circumvent some Enchanter Commands?
What five things can Sojourner’s Moon players do to help the JM bring the adventure to life?
1. Be attentive, ask questions: If you are not getting enough descriptions to make good decisions, do not wait for the information.
2. Take the initiative sometimes: It is all nice to be a passive Player. Once in a while take the creative urge and run with it – show your JM what you can do.
3. Respect goes a long way to getting what you want out of a game. If you continually argue about rules with the JM, I imagine a few mysterious Laser Bursts could be coming your way.
4. Be inventive: Sometimes the JM will give you the tools to overcome the obstacle, look for them, perhaps you already carry what you need or can improvise.
5. Let the imagination play: That is what it is there for; to play and be expressed. Let your shyness turn to fascination, get involved with the game, and it can change your afternoon.
In everything let there be creativity: Descriptions, adjectives, colors, sights and sounds. When you make a world, you are creating a world-view, a philosophy of the people, and what they see – the people – is important as that is what your Characters need to see too.
Ask yourself: How much time do I want to invest in this world, game, adventure, or encounter? Make use of playing aids when you can; there are maps, images of creatures, and pre-written backgrounds available to add depth to your world. If you enjoy writing, make stories of your people, create a mythology that makes imaginative sense. Remember, keep it fun. For yourself too!
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