Just the Battle, Not the War

Even the richest crop feeds on decay

For the last two nights, I ran a bit of an improvised game of Symbaroum for friends, pitting a team of the Queen’s Ranger against a threat upon a Free Colonist fishing village called Noga. When the characters arrived they found the settlement struggling to survive because the waters had turned sour and nothing but pustulous dead fish had been caught in days. While they could hunt, they couldn’t hope to find enough food for the families in Noga. Two weeks earlier an expedition of wizards had passed through and sailed to the island west of the village. Nothing had been heard from them again, but — well, they’re wizards.

In the Introduction section of the Gamemaster’s Guide, one section discusses the business of leaving “evil” unexplained. While this refers specifically to keeping the source of all darkness in the land unqualified and vague, I feel it applies as much to the smaller details. By the end of the adventure, the team had found the source of the taint, but could only limit the impact – not solve it. As a group, they didn’t have the skills to create a cure – though they managed to rustle up a temporary fix.

While I was running rather than playing, I felt a little uncomfortable ending the adventure without ending it. This was one of those can’t-be-resolved situations, not because of failure but due to lack of viable resource and skills. Lacking the lore, the party could stop the immediate problem, but they couldn’t solve the wider issues.

I found it hard to sum it up at the end of the adventure; not quite sure how to communicate it. You win — but you haven’t won. I guess they had won the battle, but not the war.

Motivations

The allies of evil, its servants, those who transform into blight beasts and hunger for life can be described, and sometimes explained, but the source of the darkness is nigh unexplainable.

Victory isn’t always cut and dried. In the world of Symbaroum, the threats simmer beneath the surface (literally in some cases) and the solution won’t come in a day or a week. It might be years; it could be never.

One way you can get this sense of victory with only limited success would be through an emphasis on personal goals and motivations. In this scenario, the source of evil never became clear. The lakeside had become poisoned and that threatened the settlement; the rangers didn’t come here to resolve that issue, but it fell within their remit to at least investigate. When one player asked the purpose of the adventure, I spelled out that last sentence in broad terms. Not all adventures come with a clear-cut imperative.

However, if each character has personal goals, deeper issues, and at least one strong motivation – all the better. At the start of each session, the Gamemaster should take the time to ask the players what motivates their character. After describing the situation, each player might have a different opinion about how it affects them on a personal level or if the issues intertwine with their own purpose or principles.

In a short one-off, it provides a great sense of clarity and purpose for someone picking up a character for the first time. If they know the character’s family died from Bleeder’s Disease, it seems likely they will have some compassion and sympathy for the people of Noga. A wizard amongst the group will have a strong sense of loyalty to his associates and want to find out what happened to them – and, importantly, secure any evidence they might have left behind.

If the outcome of the adventure feels like a hollow victory overshadowed by a failure to resolve the core issue – as here, with Noga left to struggle for food while the characters went off to fetch help – at least the players can come away feeling some sense of achievement.

The questions about goals and motivations shouldn’t cease at the start or midway through the adventure – they should figure in the clear down at the end as the GM hands out experience points. A character might have achieved something significant or the dangers faced might have changed their perspective.

In the midst of other housekeeping, a player should take a moment to keep notes on what impact an adventure has had. It would be great to keep a diary or at least a brief journal entry; lacking something more complete, a quick reminder or sticky note might be enough to ensure that next session the GM and player spend a moment discussing and updating motivations.

Quick Goals

If you want to run a single session game, you might struggle to come up with a satisfying purpose for your character. With so little time to think about it, you hit the ground running without a sense of where the character might be going and to what purpose.

As a player in Symbaroum, the GM should help with this and you shouldn’t think you might be wrong about making your own choices. Playing the adventure over the last couple of nights it became clear to me that an adventure only suffers if you say ‘No’ (or think ‘No’) in the face of a reasonable request or development.

In the same way, the GM should seek to support the creation of reasonable motivations that conform to her vision of the game world. As a player, you’re only privy to a part of that. In a one-off, this might be your own experience. Be creative, but don’t be demanding.

Another useful tool for finding a purpose comes from a more open discussion with the other players in the group. If you can bounce your ideas off one another, you might find you can create some satisfying crossovers or common threads.

1465472348811I have touched on the use of Story Cubes before, but these too can be your friend when you need some spontaneous idea creation. Pick up two or three random dice and see where they take you, interpreting the images as broadly as possible. An image might pick out a specific defining event of your formative life – like an injury to overcome (an arrow), a loss to fill (a pawn) or a hunger for knowledge (an apple).

Failing that, you can always roll the dice!

Life Goal

What drives you onward despite all the challenge and suffering? [roll 1D4, twice]:

1: (1: Fame, 2: Greed, 3: Curiosity, 4: Power)
2: (1: Might, 2: Freedom, 3: Order, 4: Loyalty)
3: (1: Faith, 2: Salvation, 3: Kindness, 4: Help the Helpless)
4: (1: Family, 2: Promise, 3: Duty, 4: Revenge)


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