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Episode One Breakdown – A Fishing Village

Episode Breakdowns are free resources to accompany each episode of Fractured Systems which deal with the broad topic of each specific episode. Breakdowns may have bold placeholder text, which is meant to be replaced by whomever chooses to use the resource.

All Episode Breakdowns are completely free to use in their entirety.

The Breakdown: Immersive Environments – A Fishing Village and Outlying Lands

In the distance, a shoreline grows sharp against the horizon, the faded, blurry haze of the early morning sun giving way to smooth, water-laden banks of grayish-white sands. As the waves lap in towards the coastline, water rushes into the footprints left across the sands by those venturing out onto the beach. A particularly fresh set of prints leads towards strong, oaken piers, trusses stained dark from the high-tide waterline wearing down upon the lumber over the years.

As the port of the village grows closer, the sound of those waves slapping to shore grows louder, the wet squelching of water collapsing back in upon itself beneath the piers finding a home within the ears of all around. The wind flies crisply past, sharp breaths of the wild lands carrying the scent of fresh fish and damp wood out to sea. Voices pierce the noise upon closer listening, the fishermen calling out to one another in some form of shorthand speech, hawking wares to each other and selling their catch off to the vendors at the base of the docks.  A strong smell of salt washes out over the seas, followed by the faint chill of cold-kept meats, accompanied by the common villagers purchasing their food for the coming days. A trained ear can head the sharp slicing of a kept blade shearing through a fillet, offering up a sample for those nearby to taste for themselves. A true sign of confidence in your wares.

As boots meet the cold wood stepping off of the boat, doors and bells can be heard beyond the gates leading into the village, the morning life of the town bustling to full. Armor clanks quietly as the local militia continue their rounds, small talk keeping them sane on an otherwise mindless task. Canines and felines call out to their masters, crying their pleas and woes to the open air until some fashion of food is laid before them. Shop owners flip signs to indicate their status as open for business, several going so far as to slide a display or two just out of the doors of their shops, advertising some fashion of quality over the other vendors about.

One vendor bows his head respectfully, calling out a pleased greeting towards a small group of men and women heading for the Barracks, ready to relieve the current militia shift of their patrols just as soon as they’ve had a stiff drink and donned their armors.

All the while, pets and pests alike scurry about upon the gravel-laden paths, several skirting off into the two taverns perched opposite each other. <<Tavern Name>>, perched upon the hilltops of the Noble Ward, holds themselves to a higher standard, as seen by one of the barmaids chasing the critters out with a soft straw broom. No need to extinguish a life that is not directly harming, they feel. Whereas down near the docks, <<Tavern Name #2>> simply step outside and dump the carcasses caught in their traps from the previous night into the compost barrels, leaving them for the farmers to use as food or fertilizer where needed.

Stepping out of the main gates of <<Village Name>>, a sharp silence rings out, encompassing all. Strange, it seems, to hear so much as to let none of it be noticed. As ears adjust and vision softens, the quiet rustling of swaying grasses is picked up, the wildlife calling out to one another in the distance as several working shouts radiate from the town behind. It was easy to see why a lone farmer chose to keep his crops away from the village, choosing a quieter destiny than those within the safety of the walls. As the farmer tends to his crops for the morning, the cries of local fauna grow louder, drawing gazes towards the forest in the distance.

Soft grasses slip quietly into the dense underbrush of bushes and wild wheat, the occasional cotton hanging with an extra catch upon the plant, small fibers of canvas. Signs of travelers passing through before.

As the tree line draws ever nearer, the cawing of avian life shrieks into the canopy, the heavy bushes leading into the forest swaying with rabbits and foxes living within, hiding from those who would wish them serve a less lively purpose. A vision takes hold in a dream tucked back in the mind, giving view from above.

Upon the wings of a hawk, the canopy draws closer, leaving the viewer plummeting down towards the dense treetops at a terrifyingly quick speed. At the last moment, those wings flare out and curve back, granting enough dragging forces to slow to a manageable pace, only to tuck in on either side so that the avian can dive down and break through the leaves. Branches sway, the bark and sinewy, young fibrous woods twisting and creaking with a near guttural weight, echoing through the silence below.

The vision fades, giving way to the sight of various animals leaping about the underbrush, fallen leaves and branches acting as homes to some, and hiding spots for others. The soft warmth of the sun radiates down in shafts of light through the canopy, illuminating the forest floor like spotlights tracking a crime. A family of hares duck their heads back into their hovel, a sprinting fox blazing past the entrance before skittering itself gracefully to a stop, spinning around to await it’s next chance for breakfast. The soft, howling yawn of a wolf cub breaks the tension, it’s mother nudging it by the hind quarters gently before turning gaze to the fox, watching warily as if judging its worth as prey.

The splashing of water against flesh breaks that canine concentration, and all eyes slip towards the source. Tucked away down a path barely seen and uneasy to traverse, lies a pool of steaming water, the quiet, methodical sound of heated water melding to the airs above adding a pleasant backdrop to the sounds of the forest around.

Tucked into this secluded grove, stands a figure waist deep within those waters. Hands cup and gather the warm liquid, raising up to let rain come down over themselves. A bath anyone would be proud to start the morning with. Droplets and small rivers of water wash down the flesh of this individual, rinsing away the impurities and imperfections of a past that no longer matters.

With a jolt, attention is wrenched away from the scene ahead, the crisp, jagged, harsh snapping of metal hitting wood breaking through the air. Sprinting towards the source, well away from that hidden grove, a group of loggers continues their work from the previous day, large axes swinging in the slow, heavy rhythm of a company simply working for their pay.

Splinters and chips of wood fly with each impact of those axes into the massive, ancient spruce, shattering away carvings and symbols from another time long ago. The area around the loggers lay barren save for the capped off stumps of trees who have met a similar fate, devoid of the warm bustle of animal life the forest prior held. One final blow lands to the tree, consuming the focus of all around. Visions sync to one single point, fading into the sap-leaking chasm left by the metal blades.

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Immersive Environments

Season One, Episode One

Vocabulary for this Episode:

Undine – A lesser Water Elemental.
Primordial – The highest ranking entity in a given Plane. Their powers are not unlike that of a God.
GM / DM – Game Master / Dungeon Master | The person running the game.

Locations – Part One: Giving Story Some Character

There are a great many things to take into consideration when devising a locale for your players to traverse. Does this area of exploration make sense for the story you are desiring to tell? We all know that if you’re sending wave after wave of Undine at your party, then they very likely are not traversing the Plane of Fire. That said, there are caveats that you can swing into play to allow such a thing, which is why having a story in mind is critical.

Let us say that you wish for your party to traverse your own interpretation of the Plane of Fire, but for some twisted reason the only monster you can think of is your typical, water based Undine. Well, in order for an Undine to be traversing the Plane of Fire, you have to understand a few things. Firstly, that Undine is not going to survive. It is in the exact environment that is designed to kill it. This means that your party is going to have an easier time fighting the creature in this location, and it may not have abilities that work at their full power.

But why is this Undine here in the first place? This is why your location should make sense. Most DMs will simply wash away any malady about the issue by declaring a Planar war between the two conflicting elements, and assert that it is simply a scout sent out to report back to their home plane. While effective, those kinds of wars aren’t very gripping to the party. Sure, you can run the campaign through it, and it would be fine, but you may wish to consider an alternative.

Why would you go somewhere that is specifically designed to kill you? Perhaps you venture out of fear of something from your home. Maybe some fashion of love compels you. Perhaps to fulfill a contract from a previous set of adventurers. Whatever the reason, make sure it is compelling to your party. Let them pursue the idea that perhaps this Undine is running for dear life, trying to escape something terrible. Ensure that if a Planar Knowledge roll is met, you convey the severity of the implication of a rogue Undine traversing this Plane, and how absolutely deadly the journey truly is.

You may find that your party spares this Undine’s life, and decides to help it instead.

Going down that line, let us assume your party does help that Undine. At some point, you are going to have to take hold of the steering wheel and veer off in one direction or another to progress your story. Perhaps you have not thought about your party choosing this outcome. Fortunately, by them doing so, you are presented a beautiful opportunity to add another layer of depth to your story. Maybe you initially wanted the party to fight through the Plane of Fire, confront whatever Deity resides over it, and challenge them to battle. Maybe you simply wanted them to start the campaign already running full tilt, in a hostile environment to let your second session act as a bit of housekeeping. Either way, by the party choosing to save this Undine instead of killing it, you have bought yourself all the time in the world.

A great deal of being a DM is improvisation. If a player throws you a curve ball, you need to be able to spin in place, catch the ball and drag it with you without losing momentum so that you can send it right back to that player. It is a game of catch that if mastered, builds stories for friends to share forever. Our curve ball, in this instance, is the Undine.

So! You keep talking about this Undine being so great, but why is it great?

Funny you should ask, line of text above me that I literally just typed out. I’ll show you.

Your party is moving quickly, ducking, weaving and sauntering their way through the Plane of Fire when they come across the impossible: an Undine soldering forward, unable to make quick adjustments to movement, on a direct course for what anyone with the knowledge would reckon is the Throne. Now, once you’ve let the fact that what you are seeing is absolutely insane from a logistical standpoint sink in, your party goes and does you one better. They start leading the Undine to his destination, because they understand how grave a situation must be for a being of pure, raw, elemental water to sentence itself to death to escape whatever horror it is facing.

Along the way, one of your party members gets the bright idea to look down and realize that they speak Aquan. What a time to be alive. This person inquires as to what the Undine is running from, only to find out that a group of adventurers has set into motion a calamity for the creature’s home plane by killing the Primordial of Water, causing the reality that binds the Plane of Water into existence to begin crumbling. The sky is literally falling around them in their homeland, and any who remain will simply have never existed unless a way is found to stabilize the issue.

Well, you wanted your party to go toe-to-toe with the Primordial of Fire, here is a reason for it. Who knows, maybe your party will choose a diplomatic end to this conflict as well.

Locations – Part two: Trading Spaces and Getting There Fast

Another aspect of being a GM is knowing how to properly describe the “Environmental Fade” of an area. You cannot just go about saying “Alright, we’ve gone from this forest to a nearby field.” All that does is draw a line in the terrain and say “HEY GUESS WHAT, ITS LIKE TWO TOTALLY DIFFERENT PLACES!” While this is not inherently bad practice, as most people simply don’t want to waste time describing things, that’s not why you’re here.

Give character to the land around you. Make sure that you understand that without some INSANE magical forces, you’re not going to have a hard cut line of snow in the desert covering an underwater civilization. Everything has a fade. Everything transitions. This is one of the focuses in this episode’s Breakdown.

If you are transitioning from a desert into a forest, you are going to have to go through a plains of some form. It may only be a kilometer or two worth of it, before the lush greenery of treetops creep up on the horizon, but along with that, you must remember the grass growing into thicker and thicker patches, the bushes growing more vibrant, and the sky changing.

For example: I moved to Anchorage, Alaska a couple of years ago. I can see the difference in the sky here, from Gulfport, Mississippi where I lived before. The air is crisper, cleaner. The sky is a much richer shade of blueish white. There is not a pine needle trying to stab me in the eye. I noticed it as we drove up the US and through Canada. As elevation shifted, and depending on how close to civilization we were, the sky shifted. Some places were grimy. Not so much that you’d be put off, but definitely noticeable when you were climbing through the mountains cursing for not having a camera handy.

All of these details add up over time, and they help draw your players, and yourself, into the world. That is what immersion is about. You should look back after a session and be proud of the places you were. They should still be fresh and vivid in your mind the next day.

With that said, sometimes you simply cannot allocate resources to describing every little cross-fading environment. Sometimes you simply have to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, for the sake of real-world time constraints. That same journey through the desert and to the forest then becomes a time-lapse, and instead of giving intimate details, you need an alternative way to convey the complexity of the world to your players.

Everyone does this differently, and there is no correct way to do so. For example, a friend of mine sets aside thirty seconds to give quick overviews of each location between Point A and Point B, whereas I simply take a bit of time and describe the gradient of color in the environment as night fades to morning, and the hollow, warm yellows and golds break over the horizon. It is not much, but it gives the transition depth, as opposed to saying “Well, you’ve travelled all night and you’ve finally made it. Good job, everyone.”

As previously stated, this is not something set in stone and fact, but you should always consider giving at least a small portion of time to finding a way to make the concept your own. It is a small piece of the puzzle that just as important as having a world itself. Just do not think of it as doing work. Consider it kindly, like pursuing a small achievement in something you are passionate about, or like petting a Chinchilla.

Flora, Fauna and Free Trade – Part One: I Am Four Eels

Nearly as important as explaining out the area your party is trekking through, is adding in the bits of flare that make up the wildlife of the locale. Sure, you can be walking through a forest any day of the week, but does that forest have a tree whose bark has luminescent veins of residual energy from a battle many years ago? Does it have THIS RABBIT? Alright, you got me, it probably has this rabbit. He gets around. But what about that tree? It makes for an interesting plot point, sure, but it also breeds a creature to thrive on it. Maybe this rabbit isn’t that other rabbit. Come to think of it, that other rabbit is named Jeff, and this is definitely Terry. And what does Terry have that Jeff does not? A penchant for subconsciously feeding off of those left-over magical energies, which means… He glows in the dark. That is it, really. He glows. But you know what? I’m sure a merchant in town would pay nicely for a rabbit pelt that glows without needing a chemist to treat it.

Making sure to take a few moments to sort out any kinds of special creatures or plant life in the area can help draw your players in, and have them more involved in pushing the story forward. Sure, anyone can be paid to protect the forest, but your party’s Druid is going to have a hefty bit of leverage against them if there are rare creatures that their calling tasks them with ensuring the survival of. And let us not forget about that tree. What kind of magics were used that caused this level of a burnout? Does your party have a scholarly type person? Perhaps they would like to take a sample and study this further. You may even reward their exploratory nature by devising a play on a previously learned spell, granting them a slight advantage in certain situations, and giving their character one more reason to feel unique to them.

Flora, Fauna and Free Trade – Part Two: Paying the Iron Price

Another aspect to consider when explaining the plants and animals of the region, are to give insights into any native cultures that may be separated from the rest of society. A tribal group nestled deep into the woods, or a civilization of above-average intellect Kobolds who have not only surpassed their species typical technological innovative caps, but have names! Scary thing, a Kobold with a name.

Perhaps when venturing through the underbrush of the forest, the party happens across an encampment. What would they find? Humans? Elves? Jimothy the Kobold?

What would they do with this person? Obviously your party will likely attempt to bring a close to poor Jimothy’s bright existence, but what if they did not? Could they trade with this individual? Would the Elves require a mystical serum that can only be found deep within the forest, where the gods they worship once did battle? You know, rumor has it that if the sun hangs low in the sky, and the canopy parts in turn, the trees near the site of battle glow with the vengeance of memories past. Or a luminescent residual energy that your party’s Scholar happened to collect several phials of. Handy, is it not?

Always be ready to give your players an out of sorts. Sure, it is nice to let your players kick themselves in the foot, but if your party’s Scholar rolls to collect a sample, and he does well, give him two or three samples worth, and tuck away the knowledge that he has them. Maybe a foe down the road is from ancient times, and is still trained to target out the scent of those magics. Maybe that Scholar just became a giant target.

Either way, it is important to throw in a little bit of seasoning into the mix. Everyone can run a game with a forest or a desert. Few people can meet a rabbit named Terry.

Flora, Fauna and Free Trade – Part Three: I Can Ride My Bike With No Handlebars (An Aside)

As a quick note, it is always nice to toss your players the occasional free ball when they perform a spot or search check. Sure, you can look around the forest for hours, but you may not catch the path leading into a small grove behind you. Maybe one of your players crits. Maybe they got insanely lucky. Either way, your players will be more attentive if you have areas tucked away every now and them that can either grant solace, sustenance or surprise. Maybe they come across a low-powered magic items. Perhaps an abandoned camp with stored rations. Or better yet, an old lean-to with enough room for all to catch some sleep.

These areas also make for nice stopping points in a session if you have not come to the goal of the area yet.

Soundscapes – Last Night a DJ Saved My Life

Closing out our episode today, I’d like to give a quick mention to audio effects being utilized in your games. If you have the equipment and time, finding a slew of royalty-free sound bites and music tracks can help set the mood rapidly during your gameplay. Nearly everyone has a cellphone these days, which gives you a brilliant interface to be your session’s own personal DJ, queuing up a nice, peaceful ditty for the fishing village, or a low, heated rumbling breeze whipping through the trees as your players venture deeper into the forest.

Don’t have the time or resources to put all of that together? Just take a moment when you’re describing the setting to give in a few sound effects. Sure, we can say “You’re in a forest at night.”, yet an entirely different mood is brought on if you take it a step farther and say. “As you cautiously make your way through the branches and brush, the sound of bark and sinewy twigs twisting and creaking fill the air. Wind rushes past in gentle breaths of contempt as your boots make gritty contact with the leaf-ridden forest floor.”

One of those tells your party they’re in a forest. The other keeps them on their toes.

That wraps up the first installment of Fractured Systems. If you enjoyed what you

read, be sure to check back every two weeks for more content. As you may have seen up top, the first ‘season’ of these episodes is all about World Building. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be taking a look at everything from creating custom items for your game, to explaining why it is important for the enemy of your party to have a motive that makes sense.

These episodes will be published to the website in a slightly edited form from the original transcripts, as to correct spelling errors and make sure I don’t use the word ▓▒░▒░▓ too much.

If you have comments, questions or wish to toss an idea my way, feel free to leave a comment here on the website, or give me a shout over on Twitter!

Thank you for your time.

Dakota Lewis

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