Gaming the Savage Land

Sun Keld is a roleplaying game for a group of players (each of whom plays one or two characters and any associated henchmen, except for a single Gamesmaster who is responsible for providing opposition and story opportunities), set in a hostile and uncaring world (see The World). Survival in Sun Keld is a constant struggle, demanding huge sacrifices and difficult choices. Although the Keldians (see The People) have managed to create a civilisation in the form of their Eternal Empire (see The Cities), and carve out a nation in a hostile environment, it is a nation sustained by blood sacrifice, magical imprisonment, and the large scale use of slaves. Without these abuses the Empire would be doomed, but with them it is a civilisation as harsh as the world it is trying to conquer.

Sun Keld is a traditional game with a focus on adventure. The world is advesarial, but the Gamesmaster is not. Although characters may, and probably will, die, there is an underlying assumption that triumph over adversity (whether by noble actions or expedient ones) will be a central theme. It is important to always keep the smaller scale in mind, focussing on individual struggles against a backdrop of major plots and a harsh world. Through the eyes of your characters you will see the small scale struggle of everyday life, the faltering crops, the brackish trickle of water, the poison fruits and burning storms, against the large scale stories of Empires, wars and magical dangers. For this reason the default playstyle is to focus on a small group of player characters and their exploits. A group of 4 to 10 characters is the ideal size (smaller groups of players might play more than one character each, or have a good number of henchmen they leave to the Gamesmaster), since it keeps small scale issues of survival in focus, while providing enough Keldian bodies that the group can continue even if one or two were to die.

This is not to say that every story in Sun Keld is about death, starvation, injury and opression. On the contrary it is the triumph of the Keldians to find good even in a harsh world. Faced with a village in need characters may choose to save it through the application of Magic (magic that almost certainly requires blood sacrifice), or the labour of Slaves, but they might find another way, one of self-sacrifice, co-operation, bravery and risk. The game is set up to reward both approaches to solving problems (see Dice Rolls and Determination). The Empire is Eternal, but individuals die and move on. It is more of a triumph in Sun Keld to die saving your village or your town from hunger or drought, than to amass a fortune in gold and contemplate it till you die of old age.

Using the Mechanics

Most of the rest of this text are rules for runing adventures in Sun Keld. There are rules for Combat, Magic, Social conflicts, exploration and commerce. The most important rule, however, is that all these things are merely guidelines for how to play. If a rule makes no sense for how you want your game to go, ignore it. If the rules don't cover what you need to do, make a judgement, roll some dice, and move on.

The core mechanic for Sun Keld is to take an Attribute, add a Skill and then use one of the three types of Dice Rolls to create a result. You should roll dice whenever you think chance is a major factor in success, or when the skills of the character, rather than the planning of the player, is in question. If in doubt you can always generate a difficulty between 8 (very easy) and 20 (incredibly hard) and use a Resisted Roll to see if the character succeeds.

To learn more, read the Rules.

A large portion of the rules I've already written are there to emphasie which parts of the setting are interesting. Magic is important, so there are rules for magic. So are social conflict, physical conflict, and survival skills, so each of those has it's own section. If you don't feel that a particular aspect of the setting is of interest in your game, you probably won't want to use those rules either.

Adventures in Sun Keld

The world of Sun Keld is inimical to the things that live on it. From the environment to the creatures, everything is out to kill you. No part of the world gives life or resources willingly. Keldian civilization is a triumph of effort over adversity, but it is also a brutal example of the cost involved in doing so. The magic weilded by the Red and Black Orders is necessary for survival. Without the major spells that protect each settlement wells would run dry, cattle starve, crops wither, and houses vanish beneath the dust. Yet to power these spells living Keldians must be sacrificed, souls bound in magical servitude, and precious resources expended. Even the Mages achieve their magical feats only by ravaging their own bodies through the embrace of magical power. The White Order, so hated by the rest of wizards, only magnifies this cost, trading personal power for environmental destruction.

The ideal Sun Keld adventure is one that puts these stark choices in focus. It should place the characters face to face with the constant struggle to survive, and force them to face hard choices. Even when given an apparently innocuous mission, circumstances along the way should conspire to push the characters hard against the survival line, and offer hard choices to get through. It is the job of the Gamesmaster to play the hostile world, placing obstacles and demands for survival in the way of the characters, so that they will be faced with compelling and interesting choices. This can be done in an advesarial manner by using the optional plot system presented below.

The struggle to survive is not provided just by impersonal forces (the weather, the sun, wild beasts), but also by the structures of the Empire itself. The dictates of ruling Magi, the constant struggle for dominance between the cities, the poverty of the Freemen, the brutality of the Gladiator pits, the endless labour of the Slaves. Player characters will find themselves constantly in the middle of these forces, subject to the harsh laws of Nastrim's Code, and at the same time likely enforcing them on others. Even within the great cities, or in the very halls of the Mages that rule over them, there are ample opportunities to view the struggle for survival, and the choices that it demands of the characters.

Adventure Structure

A Sun Keld adventure should be driven by goals. These goals, whether personal to the player characters (found a new village, discover the fate of a lost relative, obtain higher status, escape from slavery, uncover ancient mysteries), or externally proviced by non-player characters (collect taxes, accompany a caravan, wipe out bandits, recover magical treasures, invade and destroy an enemy), provide a reason to go out into the world and endure it's hardships. Goals and objectives put the characters in conflict with the world about them, forcing them to survive or fail. With good strong goals the players will know what they want to do, and why they should put themselves at risk to achieve them. The experience system directly rewards characters for completing goals.

To start an adventure begin with a strong and compelling goal, something which forces the characters to act. Depending on the mood of the game your group wishes to play this initial push could take the form of orders (military characters being sent on a mission, younger Magi being given orders by superiors), temptation (criminals learning of an opportunity too good to refuse, the opportunity to achieve a personal goal), requests (a Freeman begs for the rescue of her son, a village's crops have failed, bandits have stolen a merchant's treasures), or necessity (the characters are starving, they are taken as slaves, their village is invaded, they are lost in a storm). In a one-off game the GM will usually be responsible for picking such a Goal, but in continuing games looking at the Flaws and desires of the player characters, or the obvious demands of your ongoing story, will usually provide obvious Goals.

Once you have Goals that force the characters to face the world you can pile on the pressure. The route to the goal should be fraught with danger and obstacles, which the characters must survive and overcome to reach their goals. Short adventures demand only a few obstacles, longer ones can layer obstacles on top of one another, or string them in series, to tease out the path to the goal. Ideal obstacles present both exciting risks and difficult choices. A wild beast that attacks the characters as they travel is not very interesting compared to one that must be faced down lest it attack a nearby town (or threaten a caravan). A dangerous monster that forces a choice between facing it (at great personal danger) and risk losing the cargo the characters are escorting, or avoiding it, and leaving it free to rampage over the meagre farmland of struggling peasants, is more interesting still.

There are all sorts of exciting threats to choose from: predatory animals; malevolent spirits; soldiers and mages of opposing cities; members of the white order; burning sandstorms; drought and fire; floods from the One River; political machinations; backwards villagers; being lost in the Drylands; and the traps and tombs of the ancients. Hopefully reading through the chapters on the World, the Cities, and the Bestiary will offer many ideas. More specific examples for each sort of area of the world are given below.

The best threats are ones which demand to be faced and survived to achieve your goals. Threats that can be avoided without significant cost or duress are not in fact threats. At least one of the threats should shake things up for the characters and upset what they thought they were going to do to achieve their goal. An unexpected betrayal from a supposed ally, a monster building it's lair in the tomb the characters are entering, a White Order Mage preying on the villages they have been sent to assess, or a counter-invasion crossing the path of their patrol. Where the primary goal shakes the characters out of their world and forces them into conflict, the primary threat turns their plans on their heads and forces them to make difficult (and usually urgent) choices.

So long as the characters survive these threats they will continue (and gain experience for doing so). They may or may not also complete the goals they set out to achieve. From the point of view of the characters completing these goals is surely important, but from the point of view of the story the threats survived and the choices made along the way are generally more interesting than whether the goals suceeded or failed. Both success and failure should offer opportunities for more goals, more choices, and more adventures in the future. Failure should never shut down a story, but rather give it a new direction and let it continue. Indeed failure may be more interesting than success if it spawns new stories and goals in the process.