Category Archives: Campaign Design

T’skrang and Gender Politics (Part the Second)

This post took a bit more time to put together than I expected. This is largely because it sidles up alongside some issues that are, in one way or another, sensitive. There has been quite a bit of discussion about gender issues in the greater gaming community (and I include both tabletop and video games in that).

My intention with these posts is not to push a particular agenda, but instead to discuss a realization that came to me as I was doing some development for the new edition of Earthdawn, and how that can be extended for any kind of world-building. Here’s that realization, as best I can sum it up:

The awareness of issues and experiences outside my own can lead to a richer setting.

This may seem kind of “world building 101.” However, it can be good to look at the basics, because the obvious isn’t always… well… obvious. Part of this also plays into that “controversial” issue of privilege. It can be all too easy for a creator to make the assumption that their own experience is all there is — especially when that experience is the societal “default”.

Awareness of other perspectives, and the difficulties that can be faced by those who fall outside the norm (in one way or another) are valuable for multiple reasons. It allows a creator a more varied creative palette to draw on. It can expand the potential audience for a work by offering characters and perspectives that speak to a greater variety of individuals. It can also avoid the problem of tone-deaf treatment of sensitive issues — especially ones that are widespread among certain segments of the audience.

I want to go into this by way of example, largely driven by the question:

“What if the Shivalahala Syrtis expresses as male after kaissa?”

(Check out the first post for a bit of background if that question doesn’t make sense.)

There are a lot of consequences and knock-on effects of that question. T’skrang society is matriarchal, and has been for as long as anybody is aware. Setting aside the underlying magic of the ancestral memories that get passed down the leadership chain, how would this society react to having this traditionally female leadership position being held by a male?

The other thing is trying to avoid broad-brush ‘everybody reacts the same way’ stereotyping. People (even semi-aquatic saurian people) are varied, and different people will have different reactions.

That said, we are looking at a pretty significant potential change to the fabric of t’skrang society. There are those who will accept it without batting an eye, while others could have visceral reactions against it.


To draw a parallel from present day, one of the most visible cases of gender division is the “blue aisle” versus the “pink aisle” in toy stores. Back in August, Target stores took steps to remove gender-based signage in their toy department. The move brought both acclaim and anger.

Even issues beyond gender equality and representation can be looked at for insight into the way people behave. The political landscape here in the United States has been divisive, antagonistic, and fiercely tribal. Gun control. Gay marriage. Taxes and business regulation.

Understanding those with a different point of view can help enhance a setting. It allows you to create authentic, fleshed-out characters rather than two-dimensional cutouts. There is a place for those, but if that’s all you have your world will be flat.

One other advantage to this awareness and ability to appropriately present different points of view — especially if you’re looking to expand beyond the work you create for your own group — is a setting with multiple points of view allows for varied stories to be told, and doesn’t needlessly exclude people because they don’t see a way for them to fit.

There is one more aspect I want to address, which will wait for final part of this series. Hopefully it doesn’t take as long as this one.

T’skrang and gender politics (part the first)

I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks working on wrapping up the setting chapter for the Gamemaster’s Guide for Earthdawn, summarizing what has (and has not) changed with the time jump. Part of this has involved going back to material published for earlier editions, looking at the situation at that time, and deciding what might have changed on both a large and small scale.

This has actually been pretty fun, in a “What if?” sense.

In the course of this, I realized there was one decision I would need to make that if not handled appropriately could have… troublesome repercussions from a gender politics standpoint (especially with regard to issues around matters of trans identity and exclusion).

For the sake of the uninitiated, I’m going to give you a big ol’ data dump of setting information to set things up here.

The t’skrang are a race of semi-aquatic lizard folk in the Earthdawn setting, they are generally a boisterous and exuberant people, with a culture that revolves around feats of daring, courage, and storytelling (with a healthy dose of tall-tale exaggeration thrown in to enhance the teller’s role in the story).

T’skrang have a matriarchal society, led by a lahala, the eldest female in the clan/extended family. This is more than a ceremonial or political position. Through a magical ritual, the lahala is granted the collective memories and knowledge of all prior lahalas from the line. Of course, this has the potential for complications if the lahala dies before the ritual is performed (not passing on the memories), or is corrupted by a Horror (and therefore passes that taint along with the memories — a factor that will come into play shortly).

As additional bit of necessary detail, t’skrang are born (hatched, actually) without a biological sex. It is not until puberty — which the t’skrang call kaissa, that the child’s biological sex is expressed.

All of this is lead-up to a bit of setting detail in the Earthdawn game. Many t’skrang settlements are part of a larger community called an aropagoi, or “Great House”, led by a shivalahala (“lahala of lahalas”) with the same sort of racial memory tradition. The shivalahala of House Syrtis — one of these aropagoi — is known as “The Prophetess” and provides guidance to those who undergo a pilgrimage to meet with her.

One of the prior holders of the title was affected by a Horror’s curse, and the subsequent shivalahala’s have all been unstable and gradually gone insane. In a radical break from tradition, the most recent t’skrang granted the honor was a seven-year-old child. It appears that the change has stabilized the mental health issues otherwise plaguing the position, as the child has displayed a wisdom and restraint that had been lacking for a while. However, there are those (in setting) who wonder what will happen when if the child expresses as male after kaissa.

For the fourth edition of Earthdawn, I decided to advance the timeline by a few years. As I said earlier, this means I need to look at the way things were, and decide how (or if) they would change. I was working on the aropagoi and realized — after doing some math — that the shivalahala Syrtis would undergo kaissa in the time between the prior edition and the new one.

So a decision needs to be made. Thinking about the matter, it turns out not to be straightforward, if I want to be aware of and sensitive to matters of real-world gender politics and social issues.

Let me be clear, I am not upset by this in the least, or cursing the “evil conspiracy of social justice warriors” for making this a question with interesting implications. As a straight white male, the increased awareness of social justice issues (especially in the RPG industry) has brought to light things that I would likely have been blind to just a few short years ago.

That is a good thing.

This post is already longer than I intended, so I’m going to close it out here for now and do a follow-up to explore some of the issues and implications that have come to mind over the last few days this thing has been bouncing around in my head.

Success and Failure (GenCon After Action Report — Part 3)

So I wrapped up my last entry in this series saying that I was gong to look at success and failure in convention games.

On reflection, I’m finding it hard to get a handle on this topic. To begin with, how do we define success and failure? Is it a success if the characters fail at their assigned task, but the players have a good time? What about the reverse, where the characters achieve their goal but the players ended up with a mediocre experience?

Clearly this is a subject where we need to define our terms and narrow our focus.

I think, first and foremost, the enjoyment of the players needs to be a high priority. This is true with RPGs in general, but I think it is especially true at a convention game. You have a limited time, and it isn’t unusual to be an ambassador for the game you’re running; many people use conventions as an opportunity to play new games. A bad experience at the table can turn somebody off a game for a long time.

With that goal in mind, how do you ensure the players enjoy themselves? This is a murky area, since everybody enjoys different things when it comes to RPGs. At your home table, you generally have the luxury of knowing your players and knowing what scratches their itch (so to speak). At a convention, not so much. Your scenario should, in general, have elements that appeal to a broad spectrum of play styles. There have been thousands of words dedicated to different play styles, and I’m not going to rehash them here, but generally speaking you want to have a mix of combat, role-playing, and exploration scenes. You should also be prepared and flexible enough to expand and improvise scenes based on what the players are responding to.

Personally, I view tabletop RPGs more as interactive fiction, with the player characters as the protagonists and heroes of the story. Given the type of fiction I prefer, I want the PCs to succeed. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, or that there won’t be setbacks, or that they won’t need to pay some price for success. But ultimately I would much rather see the heroes succeed than feel.

No doubt there is some amount of transference going on because success is one of the largest factors that determine my enjoyment when I am playing.

I find, however, that I approach convention games a little bit differently. Failure — overall, actual failure is an option I am willing to have on the table. Two of the three scenarios I ran at GenCon — Pilgrimage and Into the Deeps — end with a climactic fight that could, if things go badly, result in the death of all the player characters. In fact, one of the sessions of Pilgrimage all but one of the PCs did end up dead. The last retreated so that he could let others know what was going on and, perhaps, bring back reinforcements. So… success, but at a pretty high cost, and failure was a real possibility.

But this kind of ending can work and result in an enjoyable experience for the players — as long as it doesn’t feel cheap. In a one-shot there is not the same level of investment in the character as a player avatar. It is a more… singular experience, and much more traditional narrative forms like movies or books can have a kind of catharsis.

So that’s the large scale. What about the smaller scale — success or failure of an individual scene or encounter? I talked about this a little bit in my earlier posts, where each scene should have different ways to resolve the primary conflict. Personally, I hate having an early encounter short circuits a scenario. It isn’t fun for me as a player, and isn’t much fun for me as a gamemaster. Multiple exit routes from an encounter can help keep this from happening. But just as the large scale can have degrees of success, so can the individual encounters.

I think, perhaps, the best way to approach the notion of success or failure is to adopt an idea I have come across in relation to writing more traditional fiction (and improv theatre). Don’t set things up so that failure shuts down your scenario. Instead, failure should introduce complications that make it more difficult to complete the mission, increase the stakes, or make things more complicated in interesting ways. If the characters fail but the players feel that they could have succeeded if things had fallen a bit more in their favor — accumulated failure instead of instant failure — then I think you’ve hit the mark.

Campaign Design: Wonderful players

Preparation continues for my upcoming Earthdawn campaign. Tonight my players came over and we made characters. I’m a GM that likes to have some idea of what characters I am going to have, because then I can tailor particular aspects of the game to suit them. This leads me to a subject near and dear to my twisted gamemaster heart — a player who is willing to give me rope to (potentially) hoist him in the air, twisting in the wind. At my table, this player is Doug. Every game should have a Doug.

As I’ve mentioned in my past entries about this game, I am going to be setting it (at least initially) in the area around Landis, Cara Fahd, and the Twilight Peaks. Doug handed me a gift by making an ork Sky Raider.

I’ll take that intake of breath as a sign you know what that means. Still, for those of you not as familiar with how this character is a gift, Cara Fahd is the newly (re-)formed ork nation in the southwestern corner of Barsaive. Having an ork means that I have an interesting “in” for any kind of stories I may want to pursue relating to politics relating to the ork nation. The nearby Twilight Peaks are home to a large concentration of troll Sky Raiders — who have a tradition of capturing individuals on their raids and having them serve in their clanholds.

What is wonderful is that Doug — like all wonderful players — is willing to write me a blank check, and go along with my ideas. He likes his characters, but doesn’t feel overly protective of them. He likes to have interesting things happen, and he trusts that I am not going to deliberately screw him over to give that to him. Part of this trust is the result of having played games with him for more than a decade — he is actually one of my oldest gaming buddies, and has been a part of almost every tabletop game I have run since I’ve known him.

The game is really starting to take shape at this point. The group has four characters: T’skrang Archer, Obsidiman Wizard, Human Warrior, and Ork Sky Raider. Our first play session is in two weeks, my next objective is to put together the framework for the first adventure, and start thinking about the larger pieces of my game and how I can tie these PCs together.


Canon (n) – a list of writings, esp sacred writings, officially recognized as genuine.

The issue of canon is one that can come up when fans get together (whether in person or online) and talk about their shared passion. It takes an interesting twist when applied to role-playing games. The main reason for this is because a role-playing game is really just a framework on which the group hangs their own stories and adventures — a kind of fan-fiction, if you will. There is nothing wrong with this, because that it the point of a role-playing game.

When you interact with other fans of the game, and players from other groups, having a “canon” for the game can be critical because it forms the starting point for discussion about the game. That canon, generally speaking, is the material released by the publisher — rule books, setting books, adventures, etc. But things can get thorny when you get a game that has multiple editions, sometimes with different publishers — like Earthdawn, or Dungeons & Dragons (which has had some radical changes over the years).

In preparing for my new game, I need to decide on how much of the published material is going to apply. I have an advantage in my situation — I am the most familiar with the setting. My players’ knowledge of the setting is largely drawn from their prior experience with the game, they aren’t the sort who read every book and obsessively pore over the details. It will be a lot easier for me to stray from the official setting canon because they don’t have any expectations or knowledge that I will need to take into account.

The bulk of the information about Landis is in the Cara Fahd sourcebook. There is some information on its history (mostly in relation to Cara Fahd and the conflicts between those nations before the Scourge) and a little bit of current geographic information (including references to several kaers and citadels). Outside of geography, Landis is largely a blank slate — which suits my purposes well enough.

One final thought on canon as it pertains to an individual campaign. How do you incorporate developments from later releases into an existing game? It is hard to know how easy it will be to handle this sort of thing. Here is an example from my own past experience to illustrate.

In one of the earliest Earthdawn games I ran (back in the earliest days of the game), the player characters were based out of a town I created called Riverfork. I plopped Riverfork down at the intersection of the Serpent and Caucavic rivers, and developed it as a major trading hub for the area. At the time I was running the game, this area was undeveloped in official supplements.

Then the Serpent River sourcebook was released, and a conflict appeared. According to the new sourcebook, the Cliff City of House Syrtis was a stone’s throw downriver from where I had placed Riverfork, set in the walls of the Lalai Gorge — a rather significant geographic feature that I had never mentioned in my game (since I wasn’t aware of its existence). I suddenly found the center of a major t’skrang trading house less than a day’s travel from my significant trading port — without having established any kind of significant t’skrang present there. This had the potential to cause a lot of problems.

So I ignored it. I brought some of the information from Serpent River over into that game, but it was more important that I maintain my game’s internal consistency than suddenly overthrow what I had previously established.

This taught me an important lesson when it comes to canon in a role-playing game. Each campaign develops its own canon. Once the dice come out, concerns about “official” become secondary. Recognize that there will inevitably be differences between the published material and your own game, and try not to stress about it.

That said, since my game is going to involve Landis to a fairly heavy degree, I am very curious what the upcoming Lost Dynasty supplement from RedBrick has to say about the area.

Brainstorming and preliminary planning

So I take out the map. At this point, I’m largely just brainstorming — letting my mind wander and see what bubbles up. In this particular case, I’m also mentally reviewing what I’ve done in the past, and trying to find a fresh location or approach. In my opinion, one of the more important things a gamemaster needs to do as he prepares for a new game is find something interesting to him. If he doesn’t, the game will suffer.

I’ve done a lot of stuff in the heart of Barsaive — my first long-term game was very heavily centered on Throal with the characters becoming agents for the crown and becoming involved with some of the major events from the old Prelude to War epic. My second long-term game started on the eastern edge of the province, and I recall that a bunch of the action happened along the Coil River between Urupa and Throal.

With central and eastern Barsaive covered, I look to the west. I’ve dabbled in this region a little bit — an adventure here and there — but nothing really focused or based in the region. I look over the map, thinking about the different areas and what they inspire. Iopos? There are certainly some interesting options there, but mostly as a source of antagonists. I’m not sure how I would approach characters from that area — though the idea of a game where the characters are agents of the Denairastas clan is intriguing, it’s a little bit removed from “traditional” Earthdawn I add that one to my mental list of “dream games” and move on.

Moving south, the next stop is Jerris. The City of Ash has a couple of really interesting features — the Wastes to the west and the Poison Forest to the east. The Wastes offer a lot of opportunity for classic kaer-delving and treasure hunting. The Poison Forest is a little harder to handle — it always struck me as an interesting area but only in limited doses. Great for mood, but a little bit tougher in the long-term… unless you’re running a game focused on finding the source of the Forest’s corruption. Actually a bit of a thematic link to the Wastes, and the Badlands, and other corrupted lands.

Next stop, the Twilight Peaks, Cara Fahd, Landis, and Ustrecht. This interests me quite a bit. My last game had some involvement with the ork migration and the founding of Cara Fahd. My players would probably be interested in following up on that. Also, Cara Fahd and the Twilight Peaks have sourcebooks dedicated to them — this can save me some valuable prep time. It also gives me a couple of areas that don’t have a whole lot of development yet — Landis and Ustrecht. I don’t want a heavily focused Cara Fahd game, because while it would give any ork characters a lot to do, it runs the risk of marginalizing other races.

Landis looks good. Very little in the way of official development has been done there so it gives me a bit of room to develop my own stuff. (I’ll get to concerns about ‘canonicity’ in a later post.) What do I know about Landis? It was a pre-Scourge kingdom, mainly human, that has bits and pieces of game lore associated with it (like the War Helm of Landis). Cara Fahd has been reborn… perhaps I could develop a story arc around the idea of doing the same with Landis?

One other thing comes to mind. I’ve been reading A Song of Ice and Fire (aka A Game of Thrones), and I think having part of the “rebirth” storyline be a bit of political conflict between different factions, each wanting their own candidate to be the first new king of Landis. This could involve attempts at influence from different other nations — Throal, Thera, Iopos, Cara Fahd. The different factions would also allow for different patrons and antagonists, driving adventures. The largely wild and untamed land could provide its own obstacles, and characters could go kaer-diving and treasure hunting to recover different lost treasures to help influence the struggle over the “crown” of Landis.

This is the most promising idea, and one I am really interested in exploring further. But before I can start fleshing out more detail, I need to do a little bit more research. I need to go over the Cara Fahd and Crystal Raider sourcebooks to see what they have to say about Landis (current or past). I also need to take some time to review other books that might have some reference to the area. At this point I’m just looking to absorb and brush up on my knowledge of the region. My primary goal is to give my mind nuggets to chew on — knowing that my subconscious will work on it and start tossing things out for consideration.

Planning a new campaign

One of the things I’m looking at this upcoming year is getting a new tabletop game started. It has been a couple of years (give or take) since my last game, and it was a short D&D 3.5 group that didn’t really get through more than a couple of sessions. A big part of the obstacles was family — I have two young children as do another couple that were part of our regular gaming group. Dealing with that aspect of things really hampered the flow — not to mention trying to work out schedules and so forth.

But time has passed, the kids are a little older (and more able to entertain themselves) so we’re looking to — as the saying goes — “get the band back together”. I think we have all been missing the (semi-) regular get togethers. World of Warcraft is fun, but it isn’t the same thing (despite what some detractors of 4th Edition D&D might say).

With a new game starting to brew, one of the first — and most important — questions is what game to play? This is best sorted out through negotiation and getting a feel for the kind of play experience everybody wants. You also need to figure out who is going to run the game, because they have a lot of prep work to do…

…or your wife can tell you that you’re running the game, and that game is going to be Earthdawn.

I think I prefer this method.

I have a decent library of games, and there are a handful of them I would love to run at some point before the heat death of the universe. However, Earthdawn is (and has been) my go-to game of choice for almost 20 years. It is a system I know very well, and I have run two very successful long-term campaigns. While I will probably need to brush up on the rules a little bit, I can focus more on setting up the story.

Here is where the problems start to appear.

I cheat. I try to recycle/reuse as much as I can.

All but one of the players in this game were in my last long-term Earthdawn game, and one of the players has been in both of my long-term games. With this being the first time back at the table in some time, I don’t want to serve leftovers.

But I also don’t want to overburden myself. I’m an adult with a full-time job, a young family, and other commitments. The days of having a bunch of free time to work on game prep are behind me. So… what to do? I need something to kick-start my brain.

I start by taking out my map.