Narrators make the Karst Archipelago come alive. The players and their characters are central to the plot, but it is the narrator who facilitates it all. If this is the role you are playing, you have greater responsibilities—and a potentially greater reward. This chapter aims to give you a few tips and tricks for handling these responsibilities while having an enjoyable time in the process.
Karst is a game about creating stories. The narrative will grow and evolve based on what the players do, but the foundations are up to you. Some players will want a lot of initial plot to bite into, while others may want less.
For the former, before you play, consider sketching out an adventure with a strong core premise, a few general branches, some interesting characters, and several ideas for scenes or situations. Start the game with a solid introductory hook to lure the players in. You might even tell the players a little bit about the story if you want them to tailor their characters in any specific ways to fit the plot. Once the game has started, don’t be afraid to go in different directions than you had anticipated. Being flexible and responsive to the actions and interests of the players will lead to more enjoyable stories for everyone involved than if you try to force a narrative.
For a more open-ended experience, come up with a handful of adventure seeds, encounters, and interesting characters. Simplify this task by borrowing ideas from different sources—perhaps using random generators and tables (an art and science that is outside the scope of this work). Let the players create the characters they want, or encourage them to discover their characters’ backgrounds as they play. Finally, give them a way to start exploring, such as the beginning of a map or an actual method of transportation, like a boat. Often, an open-ended game will begin to focus on some kind of larger narrative as time goes on. Don’t hesitate to start planning things out a little bit more if this begins to happen.
By combining these two types of gameplay, the beginnings of a large adventure could involve a small plot to acquire a vessel before the broader story begins. The adventure Shipwrecked on Gygalos Island—found within the print edition of Karst—follows this formula.
Plots and Themes
There are two kinds of stories set in the Karst Archipelago: ballads and requiems. Ballads are happy tales: stories of success and adventure in light—or in spite—of a dying world; rollicking songs to be sung around a warm fire. Requiems are more somber affairs: tales of tragedy, regret, and loss—more quiet and per- sonal; perhaps a more natural fit for the setting. And some stories contain elements of each.
The themes of the stories that you tell are up to you, but the setting does lend itself more to certain plots than to others. Tales of adventure and exploration are the most obvious fit, as the archipelago is ripe for discovery. Complex interpersonal tales and those of political intrigue, too, are a good match—especially when set in a busy port of call or another densely populated area.
Nautical themes abound, but they do not completely dominate; the larger islands of the archipelago are home to open plains and snowcapped mountains: places to get lost on land, rather than at sea. Permeating the setting is a faint and resigned sense of unease; there is optimism here, but this place is doomed—even if few recognize it.
Of course, the best kinds of stories are the ones that you and your players enjoy. If you are still wondering what those kinds of stories are, your best option is to ask your players what type of game they would like to play and go from there.
Setting the Mood
Whether ballads, requiems, or something in between, the stories told of the Karst Archipelago have a certain mood: that of soft horror.
Soft horror often means leaving the most terrifying bits unspoken. All seems well, but under the surface something is horribly wrong.
Cracks in the narrative allow doubt and fear to come creeping in. Comic relief can lighten the mood—and consequences can dampen it.
Themes of hope are not out of place; contrast is good. Karst is dying, but the characters should feel alive.
Stories are formed of scenes. Always, scenes are meant to illustrate; often, they are meant to answer or resolve a question. The nature of each question—like the nature of each story—is specific to the scene itself and those involved in it, but some generalizations can be drawn with regard to how a question is answered. As a scene progresses, simply keeping in mind what question a scene seeks to resolve or what you seek to illustrate can help guide you as you guide the scene.
Unless the scene is meant to be driven by external forces, take your cues from the players and their characters; guide them to the answer they seek rather than to a predetermined resolution of your own creation. Remind them of their goals and motivations; provide a foil for their actions, particularly in the form of other characters; and don’t forget to account for their characters’ knacks and abilities—especially when their application may not be obvious to the players themselves.
In some instances, you will need to drive a scene—often through the actions of other characters or the environment itself. The beginning of a story is typically one such time, but there may be other occasions where you seek to move the narrative forward in a specific manner. In these instances, it is imperative that the players still feel a sense of agency, but this agency can be of a more reactive nature: dealing with the hand they are dealt.
When running scenes and (especially) altercations, you will often need to keep things moving. Try not to let the players get too caught up in one thing or another unless the whole group is engaged and it adds to the story.
In a similar manner, it’s up to you to cut to the chase when narrating. Avoid spending excess time drawing out events or playing through what happens between more impactful scenes, but also don’t just handwave it all away or leave everything to the imagination; a short description of background events can make the transition between scenes more natural and fill in important details without interrupting the course of play.
Another way in which you can keep the story flowing is by calling for action rolls infrequently—for the most part, only when a character does not have a relevant knack, ability, or item. This has the benefit of encouraging creative problem solving and empowering the players. When they think in terms of who their characters are, rather than their odds of success, the story comes alive.
Actions and Dice
Though most narrative choices can be handled without the need for dice, action rolls offer the ability to add uncertainty and risk to a situation. In certain scenarios, a roll of the dice may even be essential: when either outcome would move the story forward in an interesting direction, and it is difficult to choose between them.
The role of the narrator is rarely to oppose actions but rather to enable them and determine their outcomes—particularly with an eye towards what new opportunities arise as the result of each action. You are always at liberty to say no to a proposed action, but reserve that for the most obvious cases, and call for an action roll instead.
At its core, the action roll is meant to be simple: on a six-sided die, roll a six (or higher with modifiers) to succeed. The base action roll, a one in six chance, is used any time a character wants to attempt something implausible, but not impossible. These are the situations where action rolls shine the most. For simpler tasks, ones with roughly even odds, a bonus of two is added to the roll. This useful tool is one that is easy to overuse, though. When the narrative is flowing, these rolls should mostly be forgotten in favor of storytelling and creative role playing.
For tasks that are almost guaranteed—often not worth rolling for at all—a bonus of four may be added. This can be useful for situations with small but catastrophic levels of risk. Four is also the highest practical modifier, as no matter what, a roll of one is a failure.
Effects of Knacks, Abilities, and Items
Knacks, abilities, and items can each affect the outcome of an action roll.
Knacks, especially basic and advanced knacks, can grant bonuses to certain action rolls. Basic knacks add a bonus of two to any relevant rolls, and advanced knacks extend the bonus to four. This has the effect of making the implausible plausible—or even an almost sure thing.
Beyond contributing a bonus to certain rolls, a knack represents competence. Outside of tense or time-sensitive situations, avoid calling for action rolls when the character taking action has a relevant knack.
Going further, characters with a specific knack may attempt actions that others cannot: things that are almost impossible. In these attempts, no modifier is granted to the action roll, and those without the knack simply fail.
Abilities are similar to knacks; if a character has an ability, they are able to perform related actions with ease and to attempt things that are otherwise impossible.
Items, too, can affect actions. Some actions cannot be performed without specific items; other actions can simply be aided by them. When used, a relevant item can either enable an otherwise impossible action roll or add a bonus of one to a roll that is already possible.
Altercations can be the most exciting part of a story, or the most tedious—entirely depending upon your approach to them. When a scene becomes an altercation, more rules and procedures come into play. This structure is designed to streamline the action and keep things engaging rather than to slow it down, but it is up to you to keep the altercation moving forward. A practical way of doing this is to foster a sense of urgency during each player’s turn, without being too overbearing about it; similarly, be prompt in describing the actions of others or when summarizing the situation.
Rounds and turn order serve to sequence an altercation. The length of a round is left vague, as this allows rounds to grow and shrink to meet the needs of the narrative. At the beginning or end of each round, it can be helpful to give a quick update on where things stand in order to keep the shared thread of imagination intact.
Violent confrontations may seem like the most natural circumstances for altercations, but altercations are just as useful in other tense situations. Whenever time matters and there are competing interests during a scene, the situation can benefit from the structure of rounds.
Opposed, or contested, actions are a common part of altercations; how you handle them is a matter of taste. A simple method for handling contested actions involves a pair of competing action rolls. If one side is successful and the other is not, the outcome is obvious. If both sides succeed or both fail, the outcome is up to you; mutual success or failure is an option at times, and at other times, the struggle may continue for another round.
When an altercation becomes violent, your considerations must shift. The rules as written are simple and—to be honest—somewhat uninspiring. You must make combat interesting. Keep things moving and exciting by focusing on the action more than on the procedure.
Players should be encouraged to think unconventionally and to rely on their abilities and knacks. When a player decides to have their character attack, ask them to describe what they are doing—the attack roll is meant as a tool to determine whether or not an action succeeds, not as a replacement for narration itself. As encouragement, you can offer a bonus to well-thought-out actions; some actions may be so well planned or creative that a roll isn’t even needed. Once the players realize that they can increase their odds of success with a bit of thought, they’ll put their mind to it.
Damage is not the only way an attack can affect a target; characters may wish to employ less deadly means. Given the right circumstances and approach, an attack may be used to subdue, disarm, or confound an opponent. No matter what, a successful attack should do at least one damage to a target; all other effects are a matter of judgement. Certain knacks may enable special kinds of attacks, but do not feel limited to what is written here.
Just as bonuses can be granted to well-thought-out actions, negative modifiers can be applied to particularly difficult maneuvers and attacks. Environmental factors—distance, lighting, weather—can also increase difficulty. There are no hard and fast rules here, but it can be helpful to develop your own system ahead of time—for fairness and consistency, and so that you have fewer things to think up on the fly.
Health and Death
For actions to matter, there must be consequences. Health is a small measure—a way of tracking a very specific set of consequences: individual life and death. An abstract concept, “health” represents a spectrum from complete well-being to varying levels of discomfort, strain, injury, and incapacitation, all the way down into the grave itself.
Wounds, sickness, starvation, exposure, and mental and psychological strain are all things that can damage a character’s health. Creative methods of causing damage are powerful tools for adding impact, getting players to think about consequences, and creating danger in more ways than through simple violence.
In Karst, like in the real world, characters can—and do—die. Some of the characters you, as the narrator, control will undoubtably perish, often as an important part of the story; the death of a player’s character, however, is always a more momentous occasion. Whether it’s a foolhardy death or a valiant sacrifice, some groups enjoy the consequence of lethality and the impact it has upon a story. Other groups and players may grow attached to their characters, and prefer an experience that is a bit less lethal—for their characters, at least.
Protagonists rarely die in certain kinds of tales, and this may be an expectation for some players or groups. An easy way to reduce the lethality of your games is to change how death rolls are handled, either via a bonus to the roll or by changing what failure represents. A failed death roll could result in some form of serious injury, rather than death; those who succeed at the roll could recover immediately after the altercation, regaining one health—or something to that effect.
If you go this route, it is important that some form of struggle or consequence remain. Even players who couldn’t dream of losing a beloved character still want to feel a sense of challenge—and there are plenty of stakes other than death to offer them.
Friends, allies, the opposition, bystanders, and neutral parties—almost everyone but the players’ characters—are your responsibility. Remember, each of these other characters have their own goals and motivations. It can be difficult to juggle them all in addition to your other tasks, so consider jotting down a few words beforehand about any characters with whom the players may interact. Even a word or two to describe their appearance, personality, or motivation can go a long way towards making a character feel more lifelike and easier to improvise. Any details you come up with while playing are also worth writing down for future reference if you have time to do so in the moment or can remember to after play.
Characters are complex; you can’t be expected to prepare every reaction and response in advance. Folk often act in a surprising manner; take advantage of this fact as you come up with your responses to player actions and questions. The players don’t need to know what you have and haven’t prepared in advance—nor will they usually be able to tell.
When representing the other side in an altercation, it is important to remember that very few beings will fight to the death, nor will they fight fairly. Most characters and creatures will retreat, surrender, or attempt to bargain when the odds turn against them. Likewise, the opposition should often employ creative tactics and strategies—many altercations are a battle of wits more so than brawn.
Many of the peripheral characters that the players encounter will be folk, but there are other creatures, beings, and beasts in the archipelago. Collectively, these characters are known as others. Most others can be described by a handful of words about their appearance and any particular behaviors. If situations involving an other are liable to get contentious, you may also need a few statistics, such as their health and defense, as well as information about their attacks or knacks, if any.
You can find a number of these others within the Others section of the adventure Shipwrecked on Gygalos Island—included within the print edition of Karst—and in subsequent publications from the Karst Archipelago Historical Society. Creatures from other games and systems can also be converted into Karst with a small bit of creative effort.
Time and Travel
Much of the logistics around timekeeping are left up to your tastes, but the suggested method of time tracking is an hourly system. In this system, it is assumed that there are twenty hours in a day and characters can spend about eight of them actively adventuring. Those who wish to push on can adventure for up to twelve hours but will be fatigued the next day, subtracting one from all rolls. If repeated, this fatigue is cumulative.
To keep things simple, it can also be assumed that all activities take at least one hour to perform. Some activities may take multiple hours or even longer; journeys over land or sea can be measured in hours, days, or even weeks, as is appropriate. At a smaller scale, activities can be broken down into ten-minute intervals, which can be useful when characters explore an area. The length of a scene or altercation is left deliberately vague and flexible; rounds, too, can be as short or long as desired.
A similar philosophy of flexibility can be extended to a journey’s details such as supplies, weather, and means of travel. Before creating a framework for any of these things, ask yourself what it is you wish to get out of such a system. As the narrator, you can introduce whatever inclement weather or other complications you see fit—particularly if you think it will add to the story.
Sometimes, however, adding an aspect of chance can provide the feeling of uncertainty to a journey. If this is a feeling you wish to include in your stories, the introduction of random events and occurrences can help to cultivate it. The creation of random tables and other methods of generating events and conditions on the fly are an entire discipline—one that is outside the scope of this work. Thankfully, there are many examples of these kinds of tools that can be found with just a cursory bit of effort and some informed digging.
Travel often involves vessels, carts, and other means of transport. In many instances, the condition, speed, and operation of any vehicle are a simple matter of narration, but there are times when a few rules can help to guide the proceedings.
At sea, vessels can be treated similarly to characters, or perhaps as an extension of one or more characters: In an altercation, for example, a vessel’s order score can be determined by its pilot. Like characters, vessels can be damaged and can potentially damage others. If you suspect that a story may involve vessels to this degree, consider sitting down before playing and drafting a few guidelines. Or, in a pinch, you can come up with the rules when needed, codifying them after the fact.
There are no strict guidelines about when and how to award new levels of experience to the players’ characters. Karst does not have a detailed method of tracking character progression beyond level, so you will have to use your own best judgement.
As the story is the central building block in Karst, it is easiest to tie character advancement to the completion of stories; the conclusion of an adventure, or shortly thereafter, is often the most logical time for such improvements to occur. Other times, it may make sense for characters to advance midway through a larger story—again, often after an important accomplishment, a key plot development, or the end of a chapter. A character’s level of experience is only one part of growth; the way the story develops based on their actions and choices is equally—if not more—important.
Characters in Karst are designed to grow from the first level to the tenth level across the span of their adventuring career. By default, characters begin at the first level of experience. This is based on the assumption that most games will start near the beginning of the characters’ journey, one through which they will grow over time. For shorter tales, or those involving characters who have already experienced the taste of adventure, you can start the players’ characters off at a higher level of experience. The players will have to put a little bit more thought into character creation, and you may want to double-check that their knack choices follow the rules, but beyond that, little adjustment is needed to play.
For particularly long-running sagas, you may find that by the time characters have reached the upper levels of experience, players will want to move on to something new, but if not, there are ways you can keep the game going. Nothing is stopping you from playing beyond the tenth level. If you need more content, there are plenty of games with spells and abilities that can be used in Karst with a little bit of conversion. For higher-level play, you can extend the progression of core and odd-level knacks and introduce master knacks, available only to characters above the tenth level.
Advancement is not the only way that characters can be rewarded. Magical items serve as another meaningful form of reward as well as providing opportunities for storytelling and worldbuilding. They can also be central to adventures, such as quests to recover magical items or missions to prevent their misuse. These powerful pieces of lore and backstory are great incentives, excuses, or rewards with which to entice, cajole, and delight players.
Mechanically, magical items operate in a simple manner and are easy to create on the spot. There are essentially two types of magical items: those that grant modifiers and those that grant powers. Some magical items grant both modifiers and powers or more than one of either, though these are considerably more rare.
Most modifiers range from one to four and complement an item’s function, but there are exceptions. Powers are different; most have effects similar to a specific spell or knack. The power granted by a magical item can be used some finite number of times, a number of times per day, or even at will, as in the case of more powerful items.
Not all magical items are beneficial, though. Some are cursed, and others may offer a dubious mix of boons and complications. The powers and modifiers granted by a magical item may be negative. Cursed items are often deceptive and difficult for characters to get rid of; magic or a strong will may be needed to overcome them.
Many types of treasure abound in Karst. Jewelry, gems, coins, and other precious items are the most common forms of treasure. Their monetary value can be tailored to fit the scope of the story, but many are priceless to the right folk—and perhaps worthless to anyone else. These kinds of treasures, or other unique items, can easily play an important role in an adventure’s plot.
Just as some treasures are precious to other characters in the game, so, too, are some treasures desirable to the players’ characters. If the players express interest in something or have created a reward in their own minds, take the idea and run with it; player motivation is a powerful force. Lastly, if you don’t know how else to start a story, a treasure hunt is a time-honored way to kick things off while leaving room for a plot to develop.
Karst, the game, is but one game amongst many—a small archipelago in a vast sea. These rules and words were crafted and informed by one person’s journey across the metaphorical waves, and much within these pages is owed to inspiration found on distant and nearby shores. Through these connections—the reflections and echoes of other systems and stories—you may begin to see paths by which parts of other games and worlds may be brought into your game of Karst.
Beyond even these waters, there lies the grand idea of the story itself—something that unites us as people. Within everything is a story, and within every story is the inspiration for another; you never know where you will find ideas if you take the time to look.
The rules presented here are just enough to start a story but probably not enough to complete one. You may find some of these procedures and guidelines to be lacking for your needs. In these cases, toss out the rules, extend them, or replace them wholesale with whatever works for you and your group. Much within these pages was left intentionally open-ended, and you should also feel free to modify that which is written.
Parting Words for Narrators
More than anything, the role of the narrator is to help other people have fun. These rules, this advice, the whole Karst setting, and every other role playing game out there are simply tools to assist you in this endeavor. Keep the words and tools that you have found helpful; feel free to discard the rest. Make it yours, share it with others, help them have fun.
Just as importantly, make sure that you are having fun. Your role is to help people have fun, and you’re people too, after all. Beyond that, there’s not much more to say.
I hope to hear of the tales you tell.