RPG Talk: Of Battle Shovels and Other Party Traditions

Category: Battle Shovel
Last article published: 5 February 2015
This is the 14th post under this label
Today, when I put "battle shovel" in a research engine, I get loads of material about video game Kickstarter sensation Shovel Knight. Good on ya, Sir Knight, you figured out what my role-playing group did some 8 or 9 years ago: The shovel is a great fantasy weapon. The year was 2010 (our time). The game was Savage Worlds: Evernight. In an early session of what would become an epic, the rookie characters went into a house's basement to rid the town of a rat infestation. One of these characters was, by all accounts, a dumb cluck from the countryside. Raised on a farm, he had little in the way of equipment, but he clung to the shovel his Pa gave him on the farm. In a pinch, it could be used as a club, or a blade, or a quarterstaff. Heck, you might need to dig a hole.

In that basement, the flat side of the shovel could flatten several rats at a swing, and the player rolled the criticalest of critical hits, which not only made short work of the pests, but also called for a legend to be born in the minds of NPC villagers. That shovel fight became - as per the rules of our game - LEGENDARY. And so the Order of the Shovel was born. The party took its name from the incident, put a shovel on their standard, and never got rid of the farming implement (indeed, they upgraded to a golden shovel after a while). You know you've got something special when you're tempted to include magical shovels in your game as loot.

There's a lesson for both players and GMs in that example. Yes, the story is a little silly, but when we think back to the various games we've played, it's what makes that SW mini-series stand out. More than the cool twist, more than the Peter Jackson-directed final battle... The shovel incident and the TRADITION it spawned are what made it special and memorable. The lesson, then, is that role-playing groups could do a lot worse than create their own traditions. Of course, these should feel organic - you can't always force a tradition into being - but there are three basic ways to make sure it happens, whether you're a player or GM.

In chargen: When you're setting your campaign up, you might have an idea that would distinguish your group from any other playing the same game. Hey, what if we gave all our characters a proficiency in the same sport, and acted as a sports team in and out of combat? What if no character was who they said they were, and kept the truth from all but the GM; how would the game then evolve? What if our heroes left a calling card each time they solved a crime? Do the bards write a song about every adventure? Built into the premise of the game, such quirks make the specific group/campaign memorable, though without the thrill of "discovery".

Organically: Something happens in the early chapters of your game, you jump on it, it becomes a thing. Some would say inside jokes have no place in the game universe even if they're pretty common around the table. I say different. Whether personal to one character, or common to everyone in the group, that odd quirk or recurring motif is something you can lean into. An example from my teenage years: Improvised a gnome merchant once and exaggerated the descriptions of his mighty nose. The players started avoiding it physically whenever I turned my head as if it were enormous. That was such a fun gag, a LOT of merchants and contacts from then on were cast as gnomes, just so they could have fun with the joke again. Your motif can also have a plot function. In my Doctor Who game, the players were given the chance to pick a "Bad Wolf" arc for the season, and tweaking on a background detail about Norse mythology, essentially made me include a Norse reference in every adventure until is culminated in an epic finale (it inspired me to use Fenris). Players and GMs alike can notice what could be a fun or interesting tradition and try to bring it back.

Mechanically:
Many games have a Critical Hit/Miss mechanic; some have dice rolls that blow up; others still some kind of Renown or Fame stat. Any of these can be used to decide what becomes important - a potential tradition - in a game. When the players manage an astounding feat, an exciting thing even around the table (imagine getting bonus dice when you roll doubles and you keep rolling doubles several times until you just went cosmic with your success), it should be noted and celebrated in some way. It's the thing the heroes are known for (whether success or failure), it means something to the population at large, it becomes a reputation that precedes or haunts them. And it will affect the game from then on. The players can use it as branding (the Order of the Shovel), or get hassled by NPCs all the time. It could start a tradition of similar tactics in the future, or imbue the involved object with magical power. It's up to you, but again, you need to identify the potential tradition and go with it.

My original example had a mix of all three techniques. The player thought it would be funny, in chargen, to give his character a "battle shovel" because he came from a farming background. Then, early on, he rolled an insane critical hit on an action that really didn't need it (low-level opponents) that created a legend (as mundane as it was on paper). Then, organically, the players leaned into it, decided it was their brand, drew a special crest, introduced themselves with it. It became a symbol, not just of the party in-game, but for the whole mini-campaign. Every memorable game I played had its traditions; every forgettable one didn't. And so I strive to find those opportunities...

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