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Winging It

In With Both Feet

by Ian Sokoliwski
May 26,2005


In With Both Feet

Welcome to the seventh instalment of the column 'Winging It', a column discussing the promises and pitfalls of a more improvisational approach to GM'ing.

In this instalment, I want to discuss probably the single best reason to getting used to the improvisational approach to GM'ing, the 'pickup game'.

This was the situation I recently had. Two players (Sara and Pedro) in my regular gaming group wanted to get together with me to game. However, the other regular player (Victoria) was not able to make it. I did not already have a different game with these two as the only players set up, and had to come up with something.

In about a day. And I really wouldn't have any chance to write up something quickly (I was basically busy all the way through until when the game would start).

All I knew ahead of time was that they wanted to play D&D (as I'm already running two other 1st edition AD&D games, I decided to keep with that particular system). Other than that, it was entirely up to me to come up with the evenings' entertainment.

Now, many other GM's would have just said 'Nope, sorry, can't do it that quickly'. Certainly I've done that enough times in the past, when getting a request for a game session in that short an amount of time (even in a long-running campaign, when I just didn't have any solid ideas for the next session just yet). However, I was really wanting to game as well (and figured this would provide good fodder for another column), so I leapt into it.

Two things helped me out here. First, both of my other D&D campaigns were using the same home-built game world (my Kingdom of Addruran setting), so I could easily drop new characters into it. By putting them into a town that I hadn't fleshed out yet, I was able to benefit from already having a good idea of the basic setting (types of races in the area, potential bad guys, terrain and weather) while not having to worry about them showing up somewhere where other groups of PC's should already be (not wanting to explore the same territory, literally as well as metaphorically, in two different campaigns).

Second, I had been reading a lot of 'White Dwarf' magazines lately (I don't play any Games Workshop games, except for the occassional afternoon of 'Talisman', but I love the art and background to both the Warhammer and Warhammer 40K games), and had recently been reading up on the Ogre Kingdoms setting. In particular, issue #300 had a report written by a map-maker as he travelled into the Kingdoms, detailing some of the towns he passed through. One description, that of a town with the bulk of the Ogre dwellings built up on stilts with the Goblars living below in the mud and ruins of fallen dwellings, really caught my imagination.

No matter how dedicated a GM may be to a particular gaming line, it is important to take a look at other products for inspiration from time to time. I've gotten a lot of ideas in the past for D&D games from fantasy novels (and indeed non-fantasy novels) and game material for systems other than D&D. Indeed, sometimes using this outside look at similar themes and materials (how the Ogres are portrayed in Warhammer, for instance, and their relationship with Halflings, as opposed to the traditional D&D approach, as an example) can easily spark some new story or scene idea.

So, when Pedro and Sara and I all sat down at a local gaming store here in Winnipeg ('Campaign Outfitters', co-owned by Pedro), I knew that I was going to have them create 1st level PC's, start in the border town of Lamorak, and that the adventure would involve crossing the border into the blighted and ruined land to the west, eventually winding up in in Praetor'sPit (an Ogre/Halfing town similar to the one described in the 'White Wolf' article). Beyond that, well, I was more or less going to let the players tell me where the story itself was going to go and follow along with them.

The first surprise they threw at me was asking if they could play evil characters. I'd been playing with good-aligned PC's for so long, I had almost forgotten that, once in a while, players like being bad. Indeed, it has been many years since anybody in my games has even played a thief, let alone any characters that are really evil. Now, since it didn't directly contradict the (very vague) ideas I had going in already, I decided that, sure, why not.

Wanting to create characters quickly, and only really intending them for a one-shot game, they decided on very simple concepts. Pedro took a thief (Ermical), and Sara took a fighter (Greer), both being Neutral Evil and human. Right off the bat, this gave me an easy way to jump into a game - the Thieves Guild.

In many fantasy world settings I've seen in the past, the Thieves Guild of most towns almost functions like another arm of the local government, with almost some real standing in local politics. I had already established, however, that things like this were pushed much further underground in this game setting. Being a Lawful Good-aligned Theocratic Monarchy, the Thieves Guild in most cities would not be very large or overtely influential (and most Guild members would deny the existance of any sort of Assassins Guild, even for the small handful of members who would even know of its' existance). That would also work with my idea of starting the game in the border town of Lamorak (far away from the major centres, where survival was a bit more desperate).

So, I could fall back on the basic idea of the PC's being given a task by a higher-up in the Guild. Ermical would be a new initiate, and Greer, not wanting the life of a local militia member, sought out bodyguard employment and found her way into the Guild as hired muscle.

I know I want to get them from here (Lamorak) to there (Praetor's Pit). Thus, the idea that popped into my head was that their immediate Guild contact (Pietro) would tell them to go to the Pit to pick up an item.

This is a typical McGuffin ploy. The plot seems to be all about the item in question (the McGuffin, in this case a small wooden box with a rune carved on it), when it is actually entirely about the journey.

Pietro tells the PC's that this box is located was last seen in the town of Praetor's Pit, carried by some missionaries (Clerics and pilgrims from the Kingdom of Addruran, who travel the wasted lands to the west regularily to convert the inhabitants). And he does inform the PC's that Praetor's Pit has been overrun by Ogres from one of the warbands in the west.

Of course the players think I'm crazy at this point. They know that Ogres are far too powerful for fledgling 1st level PC's to go up against. I make it clear that, while the Ogres have overrun the town, they did not stay - it was more a case of them running in, grabbing up food and other goods, destroying a lot of stuff, then moving on. They might have a couple watching over some sort of garrison, but it will probably only be beaten locals in the town itself, no challenge at all for these two.

In truth, while I did intend to have more of an Ogre presence actually in the town, I had no intention of them really providing any sort of actual physical threat to the PC's. Since they were supposed to be sneaky types, there task is one more of evasion and stealth rather than confrontation. Pietro also explains that, if there really was a large amount of Ogre presence, and he really wanted the box that badly, he would have put together a small army to take out the enemies first.

To their credit, Ermical and Greer decide to talk to other people in a couple of taverns about Praetor'sPit before leaving, just to confirm Pietros story (not only are the PC's evil, but they recognize that their 'friends' are all evil as well, and won't take anything for granted). Of course, they mostly just discover that having low Charisma scores means that people don't want to talk to them, and actually gets them kicked out of one bar for being pests.

The journey west, only about twenty miles, utilizes a couple of sources that I've been reading lately on the geography of medieval Europe. Previously, I would have just had the PC's riding out for such a short distance without encountering any other towns (just goblin raiders and such). However, a couple of web sources I've been looking at recently (as well as the Vampire: the Dark Ages 'Book of Storyteller Secrets') talk about how the distance between most towns and the next one over (at least, in fairly heavily-populated areas) would usually only be four or five miles, rather than twenty or so as I had usually been playing. Granted, most of these towns would be at best a collection of homes without much in the way of actual stores or services, but it does add a bit more flavour. So, I decided that they would actually pass through three different small towns along the way, great places to stop and get off the depressing muddy road and out from the constant cold, greasy rain. While most of the combat encounters did take place between towns (dirty, filthy goblins running out of the muck to attack our poor heroes), the more interesting encounters (where the PC's again wanted to ask about Praetor'sPit and the depredations of the Ogre warbands) happened in the towns themselves. Usually in the local taverns.

In fact, the encounters in these taverns (as well as the ones back in Lamorak) established how most folks the PC's encountered would bring up how ugly Greer was (a Charisma score of 8 isn't really supposed to be all that bad, but so many players have tried to get theirs so high, that, compared to other PC's, 8 is positively repulsive), usually mistaking her for a man (the broad shoulders and two-handed sword just added to that initial reaction). What was originally an off-hand remark made by me during character creation became something of a running gag.

One consequence to the initial character creation that I had not forseen, however, resulted in the PC's also having to visit the local temple of just about every town they entered. Not having a Cleric in the party (and not encountering a single potion of healing at any point) meant that they had to leave an offering to a variety of gods and pantheons they had never heard of just to keep their hit points up (they may be small, but goblins can really tear you apart)(if you are only first level, anyway).

Eventually, after a couple of days of travel (mud and goblins really slowing their passage), they finally came to Praetor's Pit. And were amused to see the guards at the gate were all Halflings.

I liked the idea, from Warhammer, that there was an odd relationship between Ogres and Halflings, that the Ogres had an odd respect for the little folk. I decided to merge their relationship to Halflings and Goblars (their foodstuffs, cannon fodder, and fellow warriors), and have the town mostly run, at the lower levels anyway, by the Halflings. So, in the absence of any large Ogre military force, the Halflings were in charge.

This is when I got very vivid in my descriptions. About how the town was knee-deep in mud, with hide-covered dwellings of the Halflings (as well as Goblins and other unidentified little folk) all underneath the wooden Ogre and other demi-human buildings. These buildings were up on stilts that were themselves covered in nails and broken glass to prevent people from climbing them to steal what was in the buildings uptop. In fact, it seemed that the original town had quite a few of these dwellings (probably as a result of frequent flooding from the nearby green and yellow foaming river), and the Ogres had adapted them to their own use, creating more and, through the use of platforms connecting each of the buildings, creating a two-level town.

As blasted and muddy as most of the other towns had been (most of them had been the victims of Ogre warband assaults in the past two or three years), nothing was as bad as this particular place.

Wandering through the muck, they spotted the local tavern, guarded by a small (only 7' tall) Ogre and a couple of Half-Orcs. This is when I established that the Ogres all thought Greer was incredibly attractive.

(While running gags like this can be amusing, they should probably be used sparingly. In fact, the gag has pretty much run its' course when the player of the PC in question threatens to stab the GM with a pencil.)

Paying to put their horses in a paddock and enter the tavern (well, only Ermical was charged for either), the PC's soon discovered (mostly in a conversation with an Ogre barmaid) that indeed most of the Ogres who had been through this town were not in fact here any longer. Instead, the town had become something of a haven for various humans and demi-humans that travelled between Orc, Ogre, and human warbands and towns, being a stopover on several caravan routes. Oddly, however, it seemed that there were no Halflings up here in the tavern, nor did it appear that they were allowed up here.

They also discovered that there had indeed been a group of Missionaries from Addruran through recently, and most had been killed (and many eaten) by a lot of those who were currently present in the bar. Including Sigmar, an Ogre and priest who was busy gambling on a game of chance with other ne'er-do-wells at a nearby table (while also watching the greased wrestling match going on beside him).

It also appeared that Sigmar had the box the PC's were looking for. In a small metal cage, on a chain around his neck.

Eventually, Ermical and Greer started up a conversation with the drunken priest (the low Charisma scores of both of the characters didn't seem to bother the Ogres and other drunken revelers), listening to him espouse the virtues of money and greed (I felt my ad-libbed speech here, that of a religious man praising the acquisition of wealth, was rather inspired, if a bit silly). Eventually, he and most of the others in the bar grew so drunk they passed out, allowing Ermical to slip the box off of him, and head on out the back.

It may seem a bit heavy-handed to just let everyone in the place get so drunk that the PC's could do what they wanted. However, much of this game seemed more about the threat of violence, rather than the PC's actually getting involved in violence too much. Thus, if they had tried to do anything beyond simply grabbing the box and going (say, by grabbing up any of the other trinkets that Sigmar had on his arms and neck), or robbing anyone else, it is quite probable that someone would have woken up and started a fight.

However, the players made the smart move and got out of there as fast as possible. In fact, when they got to the ground, and attracted the attention of some Goblins and Halflings in a nearby mud-encrusted hide hut, instead of battling them and making more noise, Ermical threw a handful of silver pieces into the hut, so his attackers went off to find the shiny coins instead.

All went well (with the exception of Greer falling from her horse as she tried to jump the town gate, and a small fight ensuing until both Greer and Ermical could flee), with the PC's safely getting back to Pietro, having never opened the box.

Which is just as well, as I still do not know what exactly is in the box or why Pietro wanted it.

Overall, I was quite pleased with this session. The players had a really good time as so did I. I got to flesh out a little bit more of my game world on the fly. I even got to let the players play evil characters without doing anything 'big E' evil (actually, very little that happened would have been alignment-prohibited for almost any alignment). We all enjoyed it so much that it is quite likely Ermical and Greer will reappear when Victoria again cannot make it for D&D.

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