Fantastic Food

Emperor Rudolf II as Vertumnus by Giuseppe_Arcimboldo

Everyone’s gotta eat. Well, except the robot and the lich I guess. Most of the time food is not an interesting part of a story – it’s something that is assumed to happen, like sleeping, travelling to the next location, or repetitive practice while learning something new.

It can become interesting though if it is somehow special, or if it is not available.

If food is in short supply, starvation becomes a possibility. If lots of people are starving, there can be all sorts of repercussions – MI5 claim that Britain is only four hot meals from anarchy, and that could easily hold true in fantasy worlds, possibly an even smaller margin if people have less to lose.

If the heroes are short of food, (perhaps trapped in a desert, or a dungeon, or a… um… dreadful diner), what would happen to them? The effects of starvation are slow but potentially deadly- 8 to 12 weeks is normal, but people have survived twice that without any food. Initially fatigue and irritability set in, the the body starts to digest its own fat and muscle reserves. Before long it has to move on to internal organs, and by then even if food is made available the victim may be too weak to even try to eat, and if force fed may suffer permanent organ damage. In a heroic fantasy tale, kidney failure does not make for a good story, so under most circumstances main character will probably manage to find food before organ damage sets in.

But what about when food is available?

Usually “and the heroes eat again” is not very interesting, so much so that in D&D “Create Food and Water” is a very low level spell which solves the problem entirely so long as there’s a cleric in the party.

Sometimes, though, food matters. George R. R. Martin is famous for his descriptions of what the characters are eating, and I seem to recall David Eddings describing a meal of bacon and gruel in rather more detail than was necessary.

A special meal deserves mention, though, whether it be in The Hobbit when the dwarves all show up and eat everything in Bilbo’s larder, or the welcoming feast for the new students at Hogwarts in Harry Potter. These feasts tell us something about the characters and the situations – Bilbo is a creature of comfort who keeps plenty of food in his larder, and Hogwarts is a comfortable and welcoming place (at least on the surface).

Food can, then, tell us things. If a lord throws a banquet and everything is delicate little dishes on fine china that says something quite different to a banquet where the centrepiece is a boar the duke hunted himself, and he tears legs off geese and eats them with his bare hands. But in either case it says that this person is rich, and likes to show it off in the form of entertaining and feeding his guests. In one episode of Batman the Animated Series, the extremely fat villain is seen to always be eating, while not allowing his slaves to do the same because they should be working – unsurprisingly he gets quite satisfyingly beaten up by Batman!

Let me finish on an anecdote: I was playing in an epic level D&D game when we entered a halfling city. I decided my character wanted to buy a cake (he was a by this time recovering psychopath, and wanted to treat the party to something nice), so I went into a nearby cake shop and asked for one. The halfling baker – seeing an opportunity to fleece a rich adventurer – upped the price from about two coppers to two silvers. Not knowing anything about the value of money, I apologised and offered a rare astral diamond instead – that was about a million times more than the cake was worth, but I didn’t wait for change. Being an enterprising halfling, he invested the money in some very special equipment, and from that point on magic potions in the form of cakes have been a running joke in our games! [ED: Ginger cake is an especially good source of fire resistance]

Now, I think it’s time I went and made dinner.

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Music and Sound in Fantasy Games

In character

Music in character is usually either of the PCs making – often on the level of  “bluff bluff bluff the stupid ogre”, or from the GM as part of scene setting. Your players may run the gamut of skills in music or lyrics, so other than saying “if you find a bard with any actual talent, encourage them” I’m going to focus on what you can influence as a GM..

Every book, talk and advice from older GMs on scene setting I have ever come across features the hint “use all the senses” Seeing as I’m the musician of the team. I figured I’d focus on sound.

Think about the ambient sound in any location. Is it busy and cosmopolitan, with many voices in multiple languages?. Is the only sound the rustling of the trees? Is there music, and if so, what? From the 1920s onwards, is there a radio or TV – or hyperview? Tuned to what channel?

For help with what kind of sounds are appropriate (technically, it’s called building a soundscape) imagine loading up one of the old fashioned computer RPGs – Ultima, Baldur’s Gate or Fable. When you walk into the pub, it plays “Jolly Pub Theme” when you walk into the woods, it plays “Spooky Forest Theme” What theme would your location need? Take a look amongst your DVD collection, at the extras. Do any of them have a piece on Sound in This Film – Men in Black 2 had an awesome piece about foley work – getting the right sound of footsteps or bodies falling. Or aliens exploding, but that was less transferable.

Musical styles invoked in description can bring a sense of place, or of pace. Think of walking into a nightclub. Is it a metal bar? Is it full of thumping techno? A jazz lounge? The picture in your head is likely very different in each case. Use that to evoke what kind of emotion your players feel – a biker might be tense in a pool hall that played classical, but much more at home if it played “Hits of the Seventies”

We can use music to colour in civilisations too. Use the pentatonic sound of Japanese music to shade in a place where elves hang out. Perhaps the islanders here play reggae? Deciding on the musical style of a culture can help you – and your players – get a handle on what kind of people these are – by paralleling them to the mundane culture that developed that kind of music.


In games

Over time, every GM acquires a repertoire of what I call ‘effects’. Things you can do to bring the game to life for your players. Music is one of the easiest of these, but I’m going to throw a few others into the mix too.

Voice time

I’m going to assume you can act a bit here. Think about the voices of your NPCs. Not everyone can pull off convincing accents – but if you can, consider making some characters have a Southern drawl, an Irish brogue, a Geordie twang. Even if the NPC has the same accent you do, think about tone. A reedy “when shall we three meet again?” has little in common with “I’m Brian Blessed”. Although you should take care not to annoy the neighbours, you could vary the volume – think Good Morning Vietnam’s “I’m in Artillery!” A character who whispers (or stage whispers) could make what he says seem more important.

Terminator tapping

So the party are investigating a haunted house. The ghost in question is an Iteration X construct – basically, a Terminator. So when the players are busy rolling to investigate the attic, I start to tap on the arm of my chair. Da Da Dum Da-Dum.  Da Da Dum Da-Dum – until one of the players notices. Then stop. Then when they’re arguing about what they’ve found, again. Da Da Dum Da-Dum.  Da Da Dum Da-Dum.. The same player looks at my fingers, tapping. “Guys, I’ve got a gut feeling this isn’t a human thing. Can robots leave ghosts?” Cue the one member of the party with the skill roll a Mage Lore check and leap to the thought that the pool of mercury wasn’t ectoplasm, it was body remains.

This trick only works if the musical theme is instantly recognisable – think the opening from Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Ode to Joy; or Land of Hope and Glory. Movie and TV music are good for this – Cantina Band, the Indiana Jones theme, X-files  Instantly set the mood for cinematic games with the “title sequence” – this was very effectively done in a convention game with the Nerf Herder track for a Buffy the Vampire Slayer game

Give a major NPC a ringtone that indicates something about him. Have a theme song for characters to indicate hidden influence in a scene – even if it never makes it out of your notes, it can help you remember the emotional backdrop – spooky, pensive, tense, lighthearted, comedy.


Phone box mobile

So, another convention game – Shadowrun this time. Contact Bob has two pieces of useful information for the party – one he will reveal for the asking, and one he thinks of later. So what would a good buddy do. Call you back.

A call from a friend became much more real when the GM’s mobile rang with “BOB” on the screen. The GM hands the phone unanswered to the player whose contact is Bob. “it’s for you” Player picks up the phone, answers, and “Bob” – with a similar drawl to the GM’s first personation – rattles off Information Point Two, and finishes up with ‘gotta go, think the cops are coming. See ya’

Achieved by priming a steward pal to slip out to the phone box in the hall, ‘any time after you get the text’. Turned out to be exactly right timing, but by more luck than judgement. Not really something you can pull off every week, but nice for a showpiece.

So, sound in RPGs.-  Music, rhythms, voices, ringtones, Think about the tools you have – computer, phone, hands to click or clap, and use them to develop a soundscape that complements your gameworld.

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Visual Art In Fantasy

Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh


When you say “Art” to most people they think of paintings, and maybe sculpture – Visual art or fine art. Wonderful though that is, it’s not the only thing to which “art” could be referring – last week’s post on nursery rhymes are looking at a more low-brow sort of artistic expression. Later posts will address music and food.

But for now let’s talk about visual art.

More often than not it is relegated to “some paintings” on the walls of the local lord’s manor or describing a palace as “richly decorated”. This tells us something about the individual, but just a little more description can tell us a lot more: Pictures of ancestors that tells us the lineage of this noble is long (ste: or if they are few in number that the lineage is short but with great hopes for the future) – if the decorations are not just rich but beautiful it shows us this person has good taste.

Or to reverse them, maybe the paintings are of someone else’s ancestors, and this person is a recent usurper trying to claim credibility and status they may not deserve, if the decorations are gaudy or clashing it tells us the lord has more money than sense or at the very least no taste. If someone’s fingers are dripping with rings, and they are wearing crowns, brooches, pendants and the like it tells us they like to display their wealth at all times, wherever they are.

If there is next to no art in a manor house it would feel very empty. Maybe the noble is broke due to bad investments, or debts come calling. Or maybe they have no care for art, they concern themselves solely with functionality – the only concession to decoration may be a suit of armour or a pair of crossed axes over the fireplace which are as functional as they are decorative.

A little more description again can tell us yet more. I’ve touched on portraiture and military regalia, but what of other things?

Delicate vases are unlikely to be on pedestals around boorish drunken lords (well not for long), and delicate princesses are unlikely to have gory battle scenes in their bedrooms, so their lack or presence would set expectations. Of course expectations can and should be reversed occasionally – maybe that boorish drunken oaf has a butler always three feet behind him to catch all the delicate vases, which he has on display because he simply loves to have fresh cut flowers around him at all times. Maybe the princess has a tragic back story and it’s the last remaining picture of her true love after the incident… Maybe she’s not really the delicate princess she appears to be, but she can’t express it in public for some reason. Or maybe she’s a psychopath.

Sometimes art is used as treasure – heroes find jewelry, gems and artworks in a dragon’s hoard – it’s more plausible than finding gold bars, I guess, but it tells us basically nothing unless it was a curated collection (in which case it’s akin to the examples above)

But what of making the art the focus of the plot rather than a roundabout way of describing a character or extra-bulky cash? That can work very well. Probably the most famous example is the One Ring from Lord of the Rings – the entire plot circles around that little band of gold. It is not treasured for its artistic value though, but rather for its power as a magical artifact.

In some settings magic and aesthetics can be tied together – a magical sword must be beautifully crafted to hold the spell in place and therefore a beautiful sword is likely magical. If a suit of armour is finely crafted yet non-magical it may even become magical simply by being used by great heroes on their quests…

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The Death of Kalendra – Nursery Rhymes in Fantasy

Remember, remember, the death of Kalendra,
Staked, beheaded then burned.
If Kalendra’s beheading was held at a wedding,
T’would be the birth at which she returned.

If you don’t recognise that rhyme then I’ll be quite surprised, but if you recognise the words I’ll be astonished.

Nursery rhymes have a powerful ability to infect the mind – they’re like ancient earworms – but they can also convey significant amounts of information and emotion about the history of their origin.

To illustrate, let’s first look at what the original rhyme would tell us if we were not of this world:

Remember, remember, the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

Well, the fifth of November is clearly a date, and one on which a major event happened. An event that involved gunpowder (the meaning of which will become clear once we discover that guns are a type of explosive crossbow), and treason.

So we have a little idea of what’s going on, but not a huge amount – it’s not a well-structured rhyme for worldbuilding, but it doesn’t need to be. Still, if we want more information we could look at the rest of the poem (which is, in my opinion, much less well composed):

Guy Fawkes, guy, t’was his intent
To blow up king and parliament.
Three score barrels were laid below
To prove old England’s overthrow.

By god’s mercy he was catch’d
With a darkened lantern and burning match.
So, holler boys, holler boys, Let the bells ring.
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the king.

And what shall we do with him?
Burn him!

Now we know that we’re dealing with a monotheistic monarchy (with some sort of parliament supporting the king), that Guy Fawkes is the traitor in question, and that burning someone is a fitting punishment for treason. All portrayed in a much more fun way than just listing it out.

Now for the breakdown of Kalendra’s tale – For this act I’ll go line by line, for by design it’s densely packed.

Remember, remember, the death of Kalendra,

So we start with the fact that Kalendra is someone important who is now dead. Simple enough, but slightly useful for worldbuilding.

Staked, beheaded then burned.

Okay, so someone really wanted this Kalendra dead – and from the staking we can guess that vampires are a thing in their world.

Now “hung, drawn and quartered” is a thing in our world, so overkill is entirely plausible as a torture method – but beheading wouldn’t come before burning in that case, as you don’t want them to be actually dead until the third act.

If Kalendra’s beheading was held at a wedding,

An odd image. Obviously it wasn’t held at a wedding, but the fact that it’s something that would be suggested says that just as public executions could be celebrations in our world perhaps they could be combined with other celebrations in this world.

T’would be the birth at which she returned.

This line is the most important one – obviously Kalendra came back after being massively overkilled, but significantly she didn’t do so until after the expected gap between a wedding and the first child.

So Kalendra was not a simple vampire, but if she is a Lich or similar then she is not one that can just pop back up an hour later, but one that must regain her strength – more like Voldemort than Vecna.

Slightly less obvious is what this tells us about weddings within this world: Weddings can work in many different ways in different places, but here it is clear that wedding and birth are intimately linked – and not just in the abstract “married people have kids” sense – either the fertility in this world is quite high, and as such it is to be expected that the first pregnancy will occur within a few months of the marriage, or it is commonplace that people get married during the pregnancy.

In Your Games and Stories

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