Introductory adventure The Promised Land, from the Core Book, offers an interesting opportunity to deal with the themes and environment that make up Symbaroum’s world. The foul weather and unforgiving environment; the toil and tests in dealing with simple matters like travel and survival in the wild; the competition inherent in limited resources and a pressure to make do with what you have. Mixed in, you have opportunities to dip into the mechanics of the game, with general tests, combat specific activities, the trial and tribulations of magic and corruption, and the simple business of roleplaying in the face of varied non-player characters.
However, at the same time, The Promised Land also throws up some more complex issues not so easy to handle. Whether you’re a gamer coming from another system or someone trying roleplaying for the first time, The Promised Land serves up an interesting question in the midst of the Premade Characters in Chapter 24 – who do you trust?
It’s interesting that the pregenerated characters for The Promised Land include characters that half the team have no reason to trust. As a GM, you should find ways to play with that in a positive way. Potentially, that might mean finding a way to build trust in early with interaction outside of the written word of the adventure itself.
It might well be, that you run a prologue, a Chapter Minus One, that comes before the session and gives some context to the group. If you start with the characters around the fireplace muttering about the foul weather, the impending snows certain to cut off the caravans, and the prospect of fighting for a place if a caravan tries to make it across the Pass – there’s competition there amidst a group who have no reason to work together.
Which would Ansel, Bartolom or Orlan choose to put their lives and livelihoods in the hands of – barbarians, goblins, ogres or changelings? Even if you allow for the fact that some of these individuals will have come across the mountains southward – and now they’re choosing to return – why assume that spending time in Ambria in the past will have made them trust the inhuman?
What’s worse, the like of Fenya come with their own inbuilt mistrust in the form of the Pariah Trait/Burden or the certain potential for deceit presented by a Changeling that started life as a lie and possesses an innate talent for deception?
When an item goes missing in the camp, do the characters spontaneously work together or does the table immediately descend into us-and-them recriminations against those who seem the likeliest mark for thievery?
Vouching for Others
A prologue doesn’t need to be an entire full-blown adventure in its own right. You need trust amongst the characters – and that trust can be founded in specific pairings playing out a brief scene from their past. It would be better for that pairing to be a human-inhuman one, easing the natural social disorder inherent in the game; if you have fewer inhumans than Ambrians, then some of the relationships can be straightforward.
You want a reason for a character to vouch for the trustworthiness and good characters of others. In some ways, you might consider this the personal reference you might seek associated with a job application or request to join a club. The word of another carries weight and means that when trust becomes tested, someone else can speak up for you.
If you start as-is, with all the characters quite separate and distinct, the moment the theft occurs fingers can all too easily point towards the inhuman members of the group. Why question the character of another Ambrian when you can detain and flog a goblin or a barbarian? Who do you trust more – kin or the queer folk of the forest who have twenty plus years of distrust built up for the Ambrian people?
What’s worse, once you’ve struggled with the likely target for a theft, the player characters need to join in a pursuit that puts them all in harms way. In the worst of possible worlds, that pursuit might end with blood and the possibility of a genuine nemesis – but without a good reason to stick together from the outset, why would any given character risk their lives for those around them?
The following examples provide you with questions around a life event and a way to embroil another character. Aim the question at one of the players and have them say their piece; or, you can set the scene and allow one of the players to claim it as their own. Once you’ve identified the protagonist, allow the other players to step forward as the one that came to their aid — and use this opportunity to enrich the colours and vibrancy of the world.
Apply a flourish here and there, noting the way things happen in Symbaroum or some snippet of folk wisdom about the war against the Dark Lords or rumour around the Queen, the Church, or the Iron Pact, for example. Blend the history lesson or cultural lore into the storytelling, never taking the reins of the narrative away from the players other than to sway the scene toward this strange and dark world.
Often when introducing a game and new characters it can create a pressure on one individual to speak – whether that’s in the form of textbook exposition from the GM or a moment of solo improvisation from a player. Asking one of these questions and mixing in another player and the GM, too, means that not only can you build the relationship within the group, but provide them with context about the world that surrounds them.
Your life had a repeating pattern that you could never seem to break, a path that forever turned back upon itself. What series of events seemed forever to haunt you — and who helped you break that vicious spiral?
Getting an in-game example of never-ending cycles worked into a character background can easily mirror the never-ending cycles that permeate the Symbaroum setting. In describing a little of the background of the war between the Dark Lords and Alberetor, then the violence directed north across the Titans against the barbarians – the cycles of history become evident. Cycles of disagreement between families, disruption between guilds, fall-outs amidst branches of a family, disputes between villages, bad luck across generations.
The very first time you left your home and voyaged out into the world yourself, confident in your future and positive of the promise the world offered, something awful happened. What catastrophe befell you on that first trip out, who came to your aid and what was the outcome?
During the war, mercenaries and roving bands of the enemies forces would have been a big issue, while more recently bandits and wild animals have become problematic, keeping the Queen’s forces busy. Allow the players to come up with the ideas and then colour them with elements of the world that take them away from generic fantasy into the rich and dark world of Symbaroum.
The situation seemed grim, the evidence stacked against you, and despite all hope no one appeared to have a single word to say that would support your side of the argument. All appeared lost. What happened to you, who accused you, and who was it who stepped forward to speak on your behalf? What did they say that turned the certainty of your guilt around?
War crimes, accusations of theft, rumours of faith in the Young Gods, suggestions of witchcraft — anything uncovered here can both build a strong link and allow the GM to enhance the depth of understanding around the world before the great drive north and the issues that continue to plague Ambrian society.
When the traveller came to your settlement anyone could see they didn’t belong, but you’re a firm believer in welcoming others and giving everyone a fair chance. However, others did not see it that way and when the stranger erred and made a grave mistake, you felt bound to stand up for them. What honest mistake did the other character make and why did you stand up for them?
There’s a fine line between soup and stew, and seen from certain angles the simplest act might be mistaken for a grave insult. Despite a common history, even the people of Alberetor had sufficient culture variance to foster a pantheon of religious icons, a range of folk belief, varied dialects and differing views upon the war and what followed. As a GM, this sort of connection can mirror the spectrum and varied strength of belief in politics, religion, diplomacy, war and other areas of Ambrian culture.
Other Tales of Davokar
Obviously, if you choose to start your adventures in Symbaroum elsewhere in Ambria and create characters from scratch, the distrust at the heart of The Promise Land could seem a distant trouble. However, the truth of trust remains – there is struggle at the heart of Ambria and so many factions that in the cold light of day have nothing to offer one another. Describing that moment of personal history when another of the characters made a difference can be a powerful opportunity, both in building bonds and in tying the characters into the conflict at the heart of Symbaroum.
Take this opportunity to build trust in your group, because distrust and deceit bed the trails and paths of Ambria, Alberetor and especially Davokar.