Friday, December 13, 2013

December 2013 Blog Carnival: Taking Charge

This Month's Blog Carnival is hosted by the Casting Shadows blog and the theme is 'Taking Charge.'

Taking Charge. A wonderful theme for the month. One of the most engaging aspects of table-top role-playing games has to be the way most games facilitate and empower the players to actively take charge of their destinies, to step up and take charge in the greater world around them.

I considered writing about something a lot of us old-timers wheeze and grumble about; the so-called 'End Game,' which back in ye olden times was basically still just part of the game. Building a Stronghold. Claiming lands. Settling a portion of the Wilderness. Building a safe-haven that grows from a crappy little pallisaded fort into a full castle or even walled town. Becoming a force to be reckoned with by the Powers That Be in the surrounding area. That sort of thing was, and remains, really taking charge. Becoming a Lord/Lady and establishing a lineage, founding a dynasty or establishing a legacy is fun stuff, but it comes at a price. Conan's crown rested uneasily on his brow. Those who come up through the world as adventurers and rogues swanning about like pirates aren't always well-suited to the life they've won for themselves. But that's another topic for another day. That sort of gaming experience isn't for everyone. Just the accounting alone gives some players hives. Instead, I thought that I would focus on one of my favorite old modules and how it gave players a chance to really Take Charge.

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Keeping it Simple
My personal favorite module is B2: Keep on the Borderlands. No surprise there. This is one of the most popular adventures of all time. It was designed from the ground up to train new players how to play the game and to take them from being a few rag-tag peasants with pretensions and sharp, pointy objects to becoming powerful adventurers with a very real and very personal investment in the surrounding locale.

The Keep serves as a well-protected refuge from the dangers of the wilderness and all those monsters and such prowling about out there. But it also has its own share of dangers inside the walls, like those evil clerics.

There's just a handful of NPCs, not a cast of thousands. There are only a few shops and they don't carry everything in the handbook--you'll need to make do with what they've got on-hand or go make your own, or loot it from some monster's horde. There are only so many opportunities for the player characters to get anywhere or to make something of themselves. It's a good, basic launching pad into adventure. Sure, it could be expanded in all sorts of ways. That's exactly why it works--it gets both the players and the DM thinking about other ways of doing things, how they might like to change things; how they can take charge of the module and make it their own.

Player characters can focus on clearing the dreaded Caves of Chaos and let the clerics subvert the Keep, or they can face off against the priests and try to foil their malevolent schemes. But in order to have the money, the prestige, the reputation and most importantly the sheer power necessary to do that, they'll need to go bash some of those monsters and loot those Caves. It's a nice balance between plots and options. There's no one 'right' way to handle things. It's open ended and if your group plays their cards right, you could wind up taking over the place. The last time I got to play in a game using this module, our group cleared and then took over most of the Caves and used that as a base of operations that allowed us to build a Keep of our own a bit farther out from the first one.

Keeping it Real
What really worked, for me, with this one module was how well it sucked players in and made them care about the location. At least it did that for our group of impressionable young gamers. Sure, it was entirely possible to just trash the place and move on like locusts with broadswords. Quite a few groups have done that very thing and bragged about it loudly and often. With all due respect, anyone can do that with any module or adventure. Slash and burn with the murderhobos isn't particularly demanding in terms of player cleverness. Without some sort of context, nothing really matters. It's just pointless violence. If that's your thing. Fine. Have fun storming the castle, by all means.

The Keep on the Borderlands offered an opportunity to not just seek adventure down in some muddy, bloody hole in the ground, it provided the skeleton of a setting, a context that added a little bit of meaning and a host of possible consequences and opportunities to explore and develop as things changed in response to the player's actions. It was a fertile seed-bed of potential adventures for players who rose to the challenge and seized the opportunities available. Even if you reject the entire provided set of plots, etc. a group could always join-up with a raiding band of barbarians who are determined to destroy the Keep. Or you could make a deal with the lizard-people who live out in the nearby swamps and foment a war between them and the Masters of the Keep, perhaps stepping-in at an opportune moment to serve both sides as a translator or negotiator, with an eye on your own aims and ambitions, of course. Joining the evil clerics and converting the Keep into a bastion for evil could be just as much fun as preserving it against the encroaching forces of darkness. Save it, wreck it, take it over or just use it until you can find a better place--the Keep on the Borderland was a great starting-out point and it was a good place to get the hang of taking charge of things with your characters.

Keeping it Going
When it first appeared, Module B2 was intended to serve as a jumping off point for kickstarting a brand new campaign. This was back when the term 'kickstart' meant to get a motorcycle going, not send money to strangers making promises. Ahem.

The Keep was meant to be a starting-out place. It was't necessarily a destination in and of itself. Though it could easily be fleshed-out and converted into quite a baroque and even Byzantine locale if one wanted to put in the effort. Once you run through the Caves, face off against the evil priests, and earn something of a reputation for your efforts along the Borderlands, everything opens up before your characters. The campaign need not end at the Keep, not by a long shot. There's a wealth of possible adventures to be had just conducting a hex-crawl through the wilderness around the place. There's no reason another group of clerics wouldn't show up to take the place of the bad ones. The people who built this place intended for it to fulfill a purpose and a mission. There's a road leading back to more civilized lands. Those who distinguish themselves on behalf of their ruler might find themselves in line for a bit of official recognition, possibly a land grant or title or the permission to go forth and build a Keep of their own.

It's a great place to get started. To build upon the foundation provided. To make it your own thing.

Given time, the Keep could expand into the architectural mess of a pseudo-Gormenghast or even a Hodgsonian Redoubt. It could also serve as the nucleus for a new frontier town, one that one day might rival Boot Hill or Deadwood, should the campaign extend itself into such a direction. Perhaps a group of mutants take refuge in the burned-out shell of the Keep and start rebuilding civilization from this venerable bastion of antiquity.

All that's needed are a few player characters to take charge of things...

Everything you might want to know about the RPG Blog Carnival is available all in one place, including How to Participate, How to Sign-Up to Host a Carnival, as well as some handy advice for How to Host a Carnival if your topic gets accepted. You can also browse through the Archives of Past Carnivals and check to see what's coming next.

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  1. This is a great contribution to the Carnival and a stirring reminder of not only an influential module, but the attitudes and actions necessary for deep, long-term play~

    Thanks for participating~

  2. I feel this. It really is about the players taking charge.

    Also, this post is a pretty good source of inspiration for groups who might be playing through the module, or looking to - a guide not so much to the options as the potential options. And a good read with it.


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