Anyone who has intersected with me or my work probably knows by now that I’m posting chapters from The Cyclops Banner: A Bloody Crown—a second-world fantasy inspired by the First Scots War of Independence. As I’ve posted chapters at Sword’s Edge, I’ve posted game stats for many of the chief characters.
Today, it’s Alec’s turn. Alec Ulvarsson is a lieutenant to the captain-general of the Unicorn Banner, a native of the kingdom of Kellalh, and a veteran mercenary soldier. He is one of the key point of view characters through the novel. He no longer sees himself as a mercenary, since mercenaries fight primarily for money. He says he’s a soldier and that he is now fighting for an ideal—a free Kellalh.
As mentioned earlier, I’m posting chapters from The Cyclops Banner: A Bloody Crown, a novel I wrote. It’s a second-world fantasy inspired by the First Scots War of Independence.
As I post chapters, I’m also going to post game stats for many of the chief characters here, on the Sword’s Edge Publishing website.
Rhona Argusdottir Trevean, after the death of her father, embodies the resistance for the kingdom of Kellalh, under occupation by neighbouring Surraev for going on 15 years. Her father, the Old Baron, was the last holdout in his isolated province of Selcost, and with him gone, she is his heir. Except traditionally in Kellalh, women can’t inherit.
As I post chapters, I’m also going to post game stats for many of the chief characters here, on the Sword’s Edge Publishing website.
One of the first characters you are going to meet is Cristobel vel Lupus, Count Terenquist and Captain-General of the Free Company of the Unicorn Banner. He is a key protagonist whose presence has an outsized impact on events in the story.
About a month ago, I wrote about sharing the spotlight among characters in RPGs, why it’s important players get a chance to have a character in the spotlight, and how you can make sure that happens. But since the spotlight is supposed to be about highlighting how special the characters are, how can you – as the DM/GM/whatever – create spotlight moments that fit the characters?
Of course, in order to fashion spotlights that sing, one needs to know and understand the characters. If one doesn’t know about the characters, one can design events that provide relatively generic spotlight moments – something to do with a good fight, something to do with a good sneak, something that needs magic, something that needs persuasion. These kinds of spotlights can be adapted on the fly to better suit the characters as the GM recognizes them or the players present them. This can be difficult to accomplish along with all the other tasks and responsibilities a GM has in many games, but doing so can really help to make the session memorable.
While how a player presents a character in play is perhaps the best guide to developing spotlights for that character, most systems will have hints for the GM. The games that I have designed all have a mechanic that can be used by players to signal the kind of scenes and spotlights they want for their characters. Pivots in Centurion, Nefertiti Overdrive, and Sword’s Edge all provides rewards in a slightly different manner, but the mechanic has another purpose which is the same across all three games – it signals to the GM the kind of spotlight the player wants. In general, this is by providing an indication of what is important to the character.
Sword’s Edge goes a step further, including a goal, a quirk, and a style to help fashion different kinds of spotlights. All three of these could even be used together to design a scene in which the character truly owns the spotlight. It might relate to the character’s goal, the character might be able to reveal or utilize their quirk, or the scene can require the kind of style which the player has noted. Of course, any one of these alone could inspire a scene in which the character can shine, but together could make it particularly notable.
Most RPGs have mechanics in their character design that can indicate to the GM the kind of spotlight that would interest the player. Of course there are classes or careers, but these can be relatively generic and spotlights built on them tend not to feel personal to a character. However, if a player builds a fighter with a non-traditional skill – perhaps some kind of musical or artistic ability – that should tell the GM that the character needs to have a scene in which they use that skill. D&D 5E has personality information used both for gaining Inspiration but which also should inform the GM in building spotlight moments. Fate has Aspects and Stunts that can reveal much about the kind of cool scenes the player wants for their character. Look at what the player has built and be especially aware of the uncommon and non-traditional.
Spotlights are important for players, and the right spotlight, highlighting how unique the character might be, can really fuel the player’s enjoyment and immersion.
A good friend of mine (hey JJ!) asked about creating characters from a genre like wuxia using Sword’s Edge. Would one do it mechanically or narratively? Would one use SFX? I didn’t really give an answer, but I’d like to now.
For this example, I’m going to use the character of Li Mu Bai from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This should provide a kind of objective target from which to draw Qualities.
Okay, so we have our character, but before I can create Li Mu Bai mechanically, I need to know the setting in which he exists, and this is why I would say the kind of qi powers seen in wire-fu and wuxia stories can be replicated both narratively and mechanically.
If we are playing in a setting similar to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there is no need to mechanically represent Li Mu Bai’s more fantastical abilities, like walking along the top of a bamboo forest, flying, or bouncing off of water. These are all accepted parts of the genre, and so I would expect that I could relate how Li Mu Bai acts using those factors narratively rather than mechanically. If Li Mu Bai were instead to be part of a story in which such powers are not common, then I would need to create a Quality that could explain them.
In creating Li My Bai in a fantastic, wire-fu setting, I’d be looking more to his character than to his powers. To me, the key part of the character is his fight against injustice. He arrives, seeks out the wrong, and attempts to right it. So I would make his Concept “Knight Errant.” That touches on both his martial skills but also his questing nature. I think his training would be his Background, and so I would make that “Warrior Monk.” I’m tempted to make his Faculty “Martial Arts,” but in this setting, most characters would be martial artists, so I’m going to call his Faculty “Sword Mastery” – this reflects the style that we see him use through the movie.
Here’s where I would deviate from the expected. To me, it is neither Li Mu Bai’s physical power nor his intelligence that drives his martial arts, but his force of will and sense of justice. I’m linking his “Sword Mastery” to Charisma. I’m also going to throw in an Element there, which is probably sub-optimal, but I think his “Arcane Medicine” is important, but that needs to be linked to his Cunning – I have a really hard time justifying it as a Charisma Quality, even though mechanically that would make sense.
As for Pivots, I believe his Goal would be “Justice for All,” his Quirk would be “Doomed Romantic,” and his Style would be “Contemplative Tornado of Violence.”
So Li Mu Bai in a fantastical, kung fu setting would be: Concept: Knight Errant +4 Background: Warrior Monk +2 Faculty: Sword Mastery +4 (Charisma) Phy +0; Cha +6; Cun +0
Arcane Medicine (Cun) +2 Pivots
Justice for All; Doomed Romantic; Contemplative Tornado of Violence.
Were Li Mu Bai in a more common setting, like a straight-up fantasy, or semi-historical adventure, I might need to add more mechanics to justify his more “magical” abilities. I think in such a case, his Qualities would be about his abilities while his core character is expressed in his Pivots. I would change his Concept to “Mystical Sword Master,” and his Background to “Warrior Monk.” To really hit this on the nose, I might go with “Supernatural Sword Master” for Concept and “Mystical Martial Arts Monk” for Background. For Faculty, I think I would use “Perfect Balance,” but would still link it to his Charisma for the same reason. I could mark this as an SFX Quality, as something that allows him to do actions outside of the laws of physics. I would also have the Element “Leap of Faith,” as he doesn’t really fly, more jumps really well. This time, I can link it to his Charisma since it is powered by his qi energy.
I think his Pivots all still work really well, but I would replace “Doomed Romantic,” with “Knight Errant.” I think it’s important that the GM understand that this is important to the character – and that’s the role of the Pivot. I would love to work the doomed romance in there, but I think that could be done through the level of narrative control a player has. I could insert it into the story and link it back to his Knight Errant, many of whom – in European lore – were part of tragic love affairs.
So to insert Li Mu Bai into a more conventional fantasy, the character would look like: Concept: Mystical Sword Master +4 Background: Warrior Monk +4 Faculty: Perfect Balance, SFX +2 (Charisma) Phy +0; Cha +6; Cun +0
Leap of Faith, SFX (Cha) +2 Pivots
Justice for All; Knight Errant; Contemplative Tornado of Violence.
So that’s how one could create a wire-fu, qi-powered warrior like Li Mu Bai both for a game that is specifically set in a wuxia environment or in a game that is in a Western-style fantasy. In the end, I prefer the former version, because it is much more about the character than his abilities. I think characters are more evocative when players can reveal their cores through their Qualities, but everyone enjoys something different. The beauty of light systems is they tend to be able to be flexible and hit a variety of targets.
At least, that was the plan with Sword’s Edge.
If this sounds cool, please check out my Patreon, for more adventures and games.
As part of my research into a cultural and historical primer for Nefertiti Overdrive, I’m reading Robert G. Morkot’s The Black Pharaohs. It’s a bit rough going because it’s a very technical book and not a popular history. My readings on Egyptian history have been at the popular history level, and much of the archaeological and historiographic discussions in the book are over my head.
I have hit on a very interesting point. There’s an inscription on a temple in the fortress of Semna in what would become Kush, and it refers to Karimala, whom the inscription calls “King of Upper and Lower Egypt, King’s Great Wife, King’s Daughter.” While she was apparently a great wife to a pharaoh, that inscription seems to suggest she also ruled in her own right. Dr. Morkot’s assumes this is not true, even though he does not indicate a specific reason why it could not be. He does indicate that the hieroglyphs are difficult to decipher, though I do not know enough to be able to make a guess as to why.
I understand that female rulers in Egypt and its surrounding cultures were uncommon, but they were not unknown, and given the accepted – if uncertain – translation, it seems reasonable that someone, quite possibly Karimala herself, considered her the pharaoh. Certainly Hatshepsut ruled as pharaoh, as did Sobekneferu, and possibly Merneith and Ahhotep I, among others. As serendipity would have it, the temple on which the inscription was found was believed to have been built by Thutmose III, with whom Hatshepsut jointly “ruled,” as he was a child of her husband, Thutmose II, and a lesser wife. It was also in the rule of Thutmose III that an attempt was made – possibly by him or his counsellors – to remove Hatshepsut from all monuments and inscriptions: to erase her from history.
The Karimala inscription also relates to a period in which the ruling powers – whomever those might be, let’s say it’s Queen Karimala – turned away from Amun, which created turmoil in the kingdom. The carving shows Karimala giving sacrifices to Isis, so maybe – like Akhenaten – she tried to change the state religion and raise Isis above Amun. Imagine her nation in turmoil as the nobles and warlords turn against her. The inscription seems to indicate that in the end, Amun was returned to his place of pre-eminence, so I guess in our story Karimala would have to lose.
In the end, for me, it’s a great piece of inspiration, a seed that could grow into a really interesting story. I don’t have the knowledge or skills necessary to actually ferret out the truth, but Nefertiti Overdrive is about kick-ass adventures rather than strict historical accuracy, so there’s nothing stopping us from running a game in which Karimala, an acolyte of Isis, challenges the status quo and finds herself embattled by her own subject – though maybe not all of them.
It’s also important not to assume anything. There may be plenty of evidence not presented that Karimala was a wife of the ruler rather than a ruler in her own right, but that’s not included. Unfortunately, it seems very much like an assumption based on expectations, and that is very dangerous.
This is the final in a selection of examples from different genres I’ve run using Sword’s Edge, which is presently in the middle of Kickstarting. Which you have, of course, backed. I mean, you’re reading this, which is about this game, and this game is awesome, so you’ve backed it. It’s only logical . . .
This time, let’s look at the present day.
The second game I am running right now with Sword’s Edge is a modern actioner in which the PCs are member of Canadian Special Operations Force Command who have been called into a central African nation due to the disappearance of a CANPER (Canadian Person) of political value. So far, it’s been mostly investigative, but fireworks have been promised and they will happen.
Hear that guys? Lock and load.
The rebel fighters, the official militia and the government paramilitary are all basically the same, and these are the minions our boys will be crossing as some or all of them attempt to impede the rescue of that CANPER.
Rapid Support Forces
(Basic minion) 8 Concept: Fake Tough, +2
They turned to a local fixer who had connections with most of the dominant cultures of the region, and she’s got them audiences with some bad people who nevertheless might be helpful. You’ll notice she’s not a standard Regular, and I find that sometimes one needs a Regular+ when the character isn’t necessarily expected to be boss (or Hero) level.
Finally, the team has not yet started along the trail that will lead them to the CANPER, but one of the obstacles they will have to overcome is a notorious mercenary, someone who could challenge them when the bullets start to fly but isn’t too dangerous.
One of my ongoing games is a fantasy set in an alternate Korea in which the PCs are villagers in the far north, on the edge of civilization, whose village becomes the target of dark forces. Strange beings attack the village and carry off most of its inhabitants, and the PCs heroically seek to free their neighbours and confront the evil.
Im going to share the evil shaman narrative character and then two challenges the PCs faced. Challenges are built the same as narrative characters, its just that they are not individuals, they are obstacles. In this case, each success changed the narrative somehow. But first, the evil shaman.
Parnai (Good regular) 17 Concept: Sorcerer, +2 Physique -2; Charisma +0; Cunning +2
Command the Dead (Cun) +2; Eye of the Snake (Cun) +2
The sorcerer is a regular in order to leave him somewhat vulnerable he can survive three Stress before being removed from the scene but he is provided with Elements to represent his magic.
And the obstacles. Im going to include all the notes I made for each obstacle as well, to help give a better idea of how these run.
Tracking the Beast (average regular) 12 Concept: Path of the Wolf, +2 Physique+2; Charisma +0; Cunning-2
If not PCs have skills that can track the wolf, just have the players provide a narrative explanation for how they track it.
Success in “Tracking the Beast” reveals 1) What becomes obvious is that it was likely a wolf that took the child, though a wolf larger than any you have ever seen. 2) The wolf ran on four legs, not two, and it looks like it is dragging the child. 3) The wolf weighed around 400kg (880 lb) when it is rare for a wolf to weigh more than 55 kg
Path of Desolation (Poor regular) 5 Concept: Path in Darkness, +2 Physique+2; Charisma +0; Cunning-2
For each Success against the obstacle, the PCs learn one fact: 1) You easily discern the booted feet of soldiers the villagers all wear rope sandals or shoes, even in the winter (feet are bundled against the cold). 2) Although the tracks are not clear given the number of feet, you would guess there were maybe 25 or 30 soldiers and perhaps double that number of villagers. 3) They are moving at speed and the villagers are unlikely to keep this pace for long.
So there you have some examples of narrative characters for a fantasy campaign.
Swords Edge is a generic role-playing game, that is to say it is not tied to any genre or inspirational fiction. Instead, Swords Edge provides mechanics that can be used over a wide range of stories and campaigns. I should note that I am a believer that system does matter, and that I have created very targeted games using Swords Edge that have changed its mechanics those being Sword Noir: A Role-Playing Game of Hardboiled Sword & Sorcery, and Kiss My Axe: Thirteen Warriors and an Angel of Death. However, I have also run a bunch of campaigns in varying genres with the base Swords Edge system. I wanted to share some of those with you and some of the narrative characters and obstacles used in those games. This is a supplement to the Genressection in the book, which details character ideas, opponents, and inspiration for fantasy, swashbuckling, western, modern military, and science fiction genres.
For these examples, each will have the name of the character, then in parentheses their rank and type. The number is the base Target Number which their Concept, Traits, and Elements can modify (if they apply and if the character has them). Minions are the weakest and go down after one success, Regulars are slightly tougher, with Traits and the ability to sustain three Stress, and then Heroes are basically the narrative character version of the PCs, but who lose ranks equal to the Stress sustained until their rank drops below Weak.
Due to length, Im going to break this into separate posts. The first of these is going to be alternate history campaign.
Back in the day, before I updated the system, I ran a very short game set in an alternate Rome centred on Alba Longa this was before the creation of Centurion: Legionaries of Rome. The characters were are exploratores legionary scouts and spies with Legio VI Ferrata (Ironclad), under the Legate (general) Titus Fabius Valens based in a fortress along the Dacian Ister Wall, on the banks of the massive Ister river. The story involved a rising in the barbarian lands to the North and the PCs finding out about this and embedding with the barbarians to protect the Alban Empire from this threat.
A couple of narrative characters from the campaign were Buretaxes, a Roxolani (Sarmatian) champion and Ostios, an Alban spy among the Roxolani. For a Minion example the lowest level of narrative character there is one of the Julong, the fictional barbarian tribe that are an early version of the Mongols.
These examples would work just as well in an actual Roman campaign, especially if you were planning to run a more “cinematic action” style of campaign. Centurion: Legionaries of Rome is designed more for a relatively gritty tone, where the characters are not extraordinary, but it might be fun to run something with high octane action, and Sword’s Edge can totally do that.
This post is one of a series describing the design of a prospective RPG called the Wall. You can find more posts here.
This is a return to test number three. The rumours of Elite food hording has proved false, so the PCs decided it was time to track down the Preacher who spouted these lies. Aelfgifu, the PC spy within the Occupiers, is eminently suited to that.
Our breakdown again is:
Episode: Food riots have begun in the Fifth Quarter, one of the middle class sections near the river. Order is threatened and the Company’s influence among the Elites is at stake.
Scene Goal: Find the Preacher
In test number three, the players decided that Aelfgifu was going to use her contacts among the Dispossessed’s underworld to get information on this Preacher, but then because there was no way to wager Sympathy, realized it was pretty much impossible.
The change to the rules governing Conditions makes it possible for the PCs to spend Sympathy to affect the outcome. The will be 5, but let’s see how this scenario plays out. Part of the plan is to Prevail and thereby lower the Distance, making further interactions with the Dispossessed easier. Unfortunately, that means it needs to be at least Subtle if not Open, which does not play to Aelfgifu’s strengths. A success with Hidden would not shift the Distance, as no one would know that the Occupiers were involved.
So, Aelfgifu is using Eyes, because this is going to involve careful planning and consideration. It’s going to be Subtle – Openly is kind of the antithesis of spying and Hidden wouldn’t help to lower the Distance. She is going to do this in uniform to get the die for Authority, and because she knows how fraught relations with the Dispossessed are, she’s going to be Careful. Finally, she’s wagering Sympathy because she really needs the successes. She wagers 2 Sympathy, 1 to use Spy to shift the Subtle die to d8 (d4 would allow more re-rolls, but d8 has a greater chance of Success), and the other to shift her Elements die also to d8. That leaves her with a d4 and three d8. Her only chance of success is hitting maximum number and getting re-rolls.
Maybe Relationships can also be used for free re-rolls? I think that makes sense. Wagering 2 still leaves Aelfgifu with a Sympathy she can use to get a free re-roll. I don’t think the amount of Relationships are high enough to unbalance resolution, but let’s see.
With her d4, Aelfgifu rolls a 2. This is not looking good. For her shifted Approach d8 she gets a 2. Oh no. For her two other d8s, she gets a 7 and an 8. That allows one more d8, which is a 5. That’s three successes. This would allow a Negotiation. She only has 1 Sympathy held back, so that’s not enough re-rolls to get the job done.
I’ve run this scenario ten times without success. Hitting five Successes when outside one’s niche is going to be very, very rare. What if she were using Hidden? It wouldn’t help in the future, but out of interest I tried it. It’s 2d4 and 2d8, which honestly doesn’t look as good as 1d4 and 3d8. And my hunch was correct, because it didn’t work out.
What about sharing Relationship to allow for more re-rolls and shifts? There’s really no other method of “helping” or “aiding” another PC. The system is really designed for that. Since this is a group, sharing Relationship might be possible. Maybe at a cost of 2 to 1? This might seem like I am trying really hard to make this particular scene work, but it is more a consideration of the 5 Difficulty. It should be possible to Prevail against 5 – since that is what Distance is initially set at – but not easily. Aelfgifu actually did really well with her rolls, so there should be a resource-based method for helping out. Sharing Relationship seems like a good way for that.
The sharing will need to be logically explained – how the character is helping – and that needs to be part of the narrative for the scene.
Unfortunately, nobody has 2 Relationship. Combining everyone’s seems a bridge too far to me – why not just have group Relationships if that is the case? And the point of it is that players can decide how their character approaches the factions – where do they make contacts and connections? So I’m not going to have combined Relationship. Since no one has 2 Sympathy to share, this is left at a Negotiation.
We know there is a way Aelfgifu’s player can make this work, just not with the Dispossessed. So what about Beatris? She was left with only 1 Sympathy after the first Scene, but let’s say she’s coming at this fresh. She had 3 Sympathy, could she pull it off?
Beatris would have the advantage of being able to go Open for the d6 which she could then use her Good Cop Concept to shift to a d8. She’s going to use Heart as well, which fits her character, and shift it to a d8 with another Sympathy. She’s going in uniform for Authority and finally she is using her Persuasion for another d6, which she will use her last Sympathy to shift to a d8. She is now looking at 4d8 and with Aelfgifu’s 2 Sympathy, there’s a re-roll if necessary.
Out of ten attempts, none succeeded. That’s important. That tells me that a Difficulty of 5 is too high. It tells me that even 4 is pretty hard (three times out of ten), but 3 is attainable. Aelfgifu could have Prevailed with three, and Beatris could totally have done so without burning all her resources.
This test taught me that the mechanics work pretty well, that there needs to be a way to assist, that I am comfortable with sharing Relationships as the method this happens, and that Threat should begin no higher than 3.
So at the introduction of a campaign, the Threats need to be set at 3 Distance, 2 Disdain, and 1 Discord. That makes sense to me.
With this, Aelfgifu’s attempt would have succeeded, and the Distance would have lowered to 2 while Harmony would have increased to 6. It cost her, but she succeeded while playing only slightly outside of her niche.