Saturday, September 19, 2015

Narrative Distinction and the DM in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs Part 1 (without a chicken)

Here we are with the first part of a series of posts about using the power of suggestion in our games with Lost Songs of the Nibelungs as the main example (since it's something I have on my mind a lot for some reason or another). This series is a strange beast, as I try to pin it down for several weeks now, but instead of getting done with it I keep expanding and changing parts. So this is three times more of what I originally intended to post today. I hope it's worthwhile ...

If you're here for the first time or haven't read the introduction for some other reason, you may want to start here. To read on you might want to go here and the last installment can be found here.

Live is harsh in 550 AD

We're talking the darkest Dark Ages here. I've had my stab at this a few times by now (it's a huge topic), but I'll try and summarize what fascinates me so much about that era. The first thing is what we don't know, which is a lot. It had been the end of a great migration period. The Romans were already history, but still had a great presence in the lands they had occupied before. Their ruins were all over the place, but some of it must still have been in working order.

Latin was the lingua franca (would be for some time, actually) and a sign of education, but the main result of the great migration must have been a huge melting pot of different cultures with all kinds of dialects, religions and customs. This had been a really bloody mess before some started to unify it all and I try to imagine what it had been like for those first settlers or the generation thereafter. Life must have been pretty harsh. They had to build most of it from scratch, form new alliances with their new neighbors (or fight them) and discover their surroundings all over again ...

All of this is mostly undocumented and unknown (hence "The Dark Ages") and that's a great thing for a setting as almost everything is thinkable under such circumstances. You want cannibals? Just put them somewhere. There's a good chance something like this was around. You want a society of female warriors? Happened in Switzerland, so could have happened in other places, too. The options are almost limitless, even if you keep with what's possible in a "realistic" setting.

The second thing is the untamed and old wilderness vs. what was left of civilization. Because here's the thing: they hadn't been many to begin with, but after the great migration they'd been even less. To think about what Europe must have looked like at the time with it's ancient dark forests, with bears and elks, bison, wolves and wild horses.

Gloomy Forest by Larissa Koshkina [source]
Who knows what prehistoric horrors survived under such circumstances or how big and dangerous all those other predators could become? It must have been hard to face natural forces like this and as long as a DM keeps his focus on the harsh, untamed and unknown surroundings of the characters he really doesn't need the fantastic to keep it interesting.

Narrative Distinction is always Reduction first

As a DM you got a couple of clear themes here:
Estranged Germanic settlers of very diverse origins in an untamed and unknown wilderness, rebuilding civilization on the ruins of the Roman empire.
Stick to that and you'll produce a distinctive style at the table. And since it is about the narrative part of the game, this is all about using words to get there.

As I stated in the introduction, if you use a word often enough, people will start thinking about it at some point. The stronger the word, the faster it'll have an effect. "Strong" words are those that either produce some sort of thrill or those that make people uneasy (could be the same, could be very different from person to person ...). But strong words shouldn't (in Lost Songs anyway) carry the atmosphere. They may carry a story within that setting, but nothing more and always in conjunction with other, weaker words that help a DM evoking his setting at the table (incidentally that's another aspect of narrative distinction, so I'll come back to this in a later part of the post).

Let's give some examples to illustrate my line of thinking here. The sentence above is saying it all. Going from there gives a DM a huge list of words he could (and should) use over and over again for as long as the characters are interacting with the "real world" (in contrast to being in the Realms of Fairy or when confronting The Darkness That Is, but more on that later).

So the first part of that sentence is about "groups of people trying to get along" ...

You see what I did there? I described it wrong, because if you describe it that way, people will associate it with sitcoms from the Nineties or some such thing. It sets the wrong mood. This is, admittedly, very basic stuff, but I believe it's essential to get it right from the very beginning. For a DM there is normal banter and setting the mood. People should be aware of that difference.

Okay, I'll try again: So the first part of the sentence is about "the very beginning of medieval society, the founders of the royal bloodlines carved out of Roman ruins by those left behind with a sword and the words of old and young gods" ...

Well, I tried. But at least it shows the right direction. Key is to use as much as possible vocabulary associated with the period. Latin should be strong here. Say Magus instead of sorcerer or Gladius instead of short sword. Use the proper vocabulary whenever possible when you describe things. Make lists of words describing Roman buildings and describe their ruins as part of the scenery. Roman roads, for instance, especially those used by the military, had been solid stone or accompanied by walls (the Limes, for instance) and watch towers.

Sorry about the quality, I made that picture on a hiking tour along parts of the Limes. Still, I think it shows all you need to know about Roman watch towers and what a ruin might look like or how people could re-purpose them ...
You might even use the right declinations if you know your Latin, but I don't think it's that necessary (unless you have someone at the table who is able to do so, but then you should make it a thing to ask that person for the right declination before trying yourself, because it's a good way to keep the topic at the table).

Mix that with Germanic words or Old English and find out how different cultures had been described back then. What was known, what was unknown, how old did people get, what diseases had been common, stuff like that. Use those words and make those distinctions and the game will start to feel like it is set in those times, even if the players don't do it.

Narrative Distinction describes the known world

This one runs long again ... But I already see the finishing line. The known world exists in layers around the characters. The further out the layers, the more obscure the knowledge the characters may have about it. Obscure may indicate either The Darkness or The Weird and nothing of it needs to be true.

As a matter of fact, the characters are the first generation to properly explore their surroundings in Lost Songs. So they may know nothing or only lies and half truths about what's going on. That's the beauty of it and an opportunity. Because it supports that other notion in the sentence above: the unknown and untamed wilderness. That's where you look at when exploring your surroundings, you use landmarks.

That's why I decided to make a clans territory with a random generator. It's not so much important where that clan settles on the European map, it's important that those settlers had no clue where exactly they were and a random map has exactly that effect on the players. Another benefit would be that the DM, in generating that map, has a chance to get real familiar with it (which is very crucial in a sandbox approach like this).

Check out this post describing my first result and you'll see, it's all there: Lots of forests, mountains, lakes and streams (could be somewhere in the Alps). Other clans, friendly or not. A Roman community nearby. Some fairies and some evil at the fringes of the map. Just by exploring that, a group could be busy for several months. You'll also find that Nature is extremely diverse in the results: Swamps, plains, inactive vulcanos and underground rivers. High mountains, dark forests, lots of it unexplored and with natural borders ...

The Sierra Nevada, painted by Albert Bierstadt [source]
A DM, just by thinking about how settlers would use this territory and how the weather works there, will see where old roads might be, where settlements most likely develop (in this case at a lake, across a big Roman city), where trade is possible, where people don't like to travel and when they travel. The example linked above being a mountainous region would mean short summers and days, harsh winters, weather will cling here more often, lots of snow, often foggy, stuff like that. It's all there for a DM to use!

So if you use the weird ...

Use it as opinions and superstitions. Have realistic explanations for most of those superstitions: natural phenomena, rumors, wrong impressions of cultural rituals. Stuff like that. Imagine a world where people try to explain things without having the right vocabulary for most of the things they encounter and how often they need to invent things or rely on knowledge they already got ("Must have been the gods that made the river bleed!" or some such thing). And always ground it in natural phenomena: keep it alive, make it count and make it harsh.

The strange is never something that is, but something someone else has seen or heard about. Always second hand, always unreliable. Let it seep in slowly. Make them believe, destroy their believe. Sure, it has magic and the characters may use it. But they might as well put no real meaning to it, since they know the gods are real and their rituals are supposed to work, of course. That's why they do them in the first place. That'd be like someone telling you your mobile is a magic item. Ridiculous.

And when the characters finally encounter some real magic, well, it will have an impact. It will have meaning and it will be scary and impressive and full of uncertainty. All the things you'd want to achieve in such an encounter and just because you restricted and relativized the vocabulary you used until doing otherwise would have the full impact.

Same goes for The Darkness, just with an evil twist or two. But all that will be discussed in the parts 2 and 3 ...

Closing words

I know, this is demanding a lot from a DM in this case. Some good knowledge about Roman language, culture and relics mixed with some Old English vocabulary and knowledge about Germanic customs, equipment and weaponry of the time and some ideas how weather and the seasons affect a regions flora and fauna ... I know, it is a lot. But I also know from experience that knowing that stuff will make a DM use it, too. And when he uses it (even only bits and pieces of it), the setting will come to live for the players.

Another important aspect in this is the game itself. Not only should a set of rules provide enough vocabulary and sources for a DM to get a good head start, the artwork, character sheets and, yes, even the terminology of a game should support the mood implied for the setting. If play testing is any indication, I can tell you right now that Lost Songs will accommodate those things quite well ("grim" and "unforgiving" had been words that players used (in a good way, I might add) to describe the game ... it'll be gritty, alright).

Next up we'll talk about magic and the weird, with even more examples. But a final question to the readers remains: how many of you go to that kind of length when presenting their game? I know that games like HarnMaster or Pendragon, for instance, heavily rely on concepts like this, but even D&D might benefit from some of it (at least I have seen it done across the blog-o-sphere). So how do you handle it?

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