Friday, December 31, 2010

Fate Universal Conflict System -- Part 1

There is a reason there are dice at the table. Without that element of chance, the sense of risk is missing, and suddenly the conflicts that form the center of role-playing feel hollow. There must be a chance (or, at least, the illusion of a chance) that the characters will suffer a loss -- physical, emotional, or even financial. But there is another central pillar of game conflict -- choice. From macro-scale decisions like what kind of character to play, moderate-level ones like when to fight or run, or micro-scale like when to go for a head-shot, without choice you’re not playing an RPG.

Most games reflect the hobby’s wargaming roots by providing detailed rules for physical combat -- providing both choice and chance -- but less so for situations outside a sword fight or gun battle. Some games -- D&D 4e, for example, have virtually no rules off the battlefield, relying on the players’ cleverness and the DM’s whim to determine results. “But wait!” you say, “there is the Skill Challenge.” And you’re right -- that system provide an element of chance and risk to any endeavor a D&D character can take. However, by reducing a task to a series of dice rolls without context, it removes the choice. On the other end of the spectrum, diceless systems like Amber or Nobilis remove the chance from the equation, allowing any conflict to be modeled, but with only narrative convenience determining which way events will turn -- betraying one of the pillars that most role-players rely on. Can we not have both chance and choice in arenas outside combat?

Evil Hat’s Fate system originally gained press with Spirit of the Century, and its spin-off OGL successors Diaspora, Starblazer Adventures, Legends of Anglerre, and Evil Hat’s own second Fate game The Dresden Files have all garnered great accolades. As well they should -- it’s a brilliantly simple, flexible system that allows for almost unparalleled player-driven, character-driven narrative control. In Spirit of the Century, the system provided comprehensive rules for physical combat, chase scenes, and a tantalizing glimpse at a social conflict system -- providing each character with both physical and social Stress (read: hit point) tracks, and sketchy rules on running social conflicts.

Diaspora took the rules presented in SotC in a number of different directions, but its most notable accomplishment being expanding the basic combat rules into four specialized systems: personal combat, starship combat, platoon combat -- and social combat. The social conflict system in Diaspora is nothing short of amazing, applying a level of tactical choice to arguments and parties just as significant as that of the physical combat. I will summarize: 

Conflict takes place on a map that lays out topics of conversation and metaphorical landscape as a normal RPG map lays out floor space and obstacles. Participants can try to destroy their enemies’ confidence by inflicting social Stress, or change their opinions by moving them from one part of the map to another, mechanically no different from pushing or pulling a goblin around a cave.

The Diaspora social conflict system is brilliant, but it doesn’t go far enough. The soldier has a place to ply his talents, the charmer has a place for hers, but the mechanic or doctor is stuck with a couple of die roles -- no tactical considerations, no choice.

And so I present the Fate Universal Conflict System:

All conflicts are essentially the same. A space -- physical or conceptual -- is divided into a number of zones, loosely defined as the space in which two people can easily interact (engage in conversation, fist-fight, etc). Each zone is labeled with one or more Aspects, short descriptors of the zone that can be tagged to provide a mechanical benefit or penalty to the combatants.

There are six basic types of Conflict:
Access: Any time a character is trying to get into somewhere, such as picking a lock or breaking into a secure computer system.
Physical: Any time a character is engaging in hand-to-hand conflict with another, such as a bar fight or battlefield.
Repair: Any time a character is attempting to fix or destroy an object, such as performing surgery or sabotaging a death ray.
Research: Any time a character is attempting to find something out, such as researching a spell or asking around on the street.
Social: Any time a character is attempting to gain a social or mental advantage over another.
Vehicle: Any time a character is engaging in indirect physical conflict, such as in a car chase or starship battle.

… and next time, we will venture into the rest of the Fate Universal Conflict System!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Religion -- Kivian Taoism

Today is a day unlike any other before: you shall see me create a concept from whole cloth. As covered previously, I created a religion called Kivian Taoism, by throwing together an established religion with a nonsense word. But I never developed it: in my notes, I have this: "A religion common in many other Realms but uncommon in the City, that emphasizes a relaxed view of the world." So we're going to ARTT this baby out, starting from nothing, and in real-time. And because we've got a Real-Life Inspiration but nothing else, it'll actually be RATT today. A coincidence..? Probably.

Real-Life Inspiration: Well, obviously, the main inspiration here is going to be Taoism. Unfortunately, most of my knowledge of Taoism comes from a half-remembered section of history class, supplemented by Taoism as represented in Hollywood and some skimming of Wikipedia articles. On the plus side, the influence of the Kivians means that the religion doesn't have to share much with Taoism beyond a few basic tenets, which I believe I understand. That said, the core concept of Taoism is understanding and following the "tao" -- or "path/way/doctrine/etc." -- that is the "flow of the universe." True adherents try to practice "wu wei" ("without action"), trying to "go with the flow" and keeping their ego out of the way of their lives. I suspect Taoism was a major influence on Star Wars' "Force." With these fundamental tenets in mind, this leads to a common...

Archetype: The wise man who lets life pass by without influencing it or being influenced by it -- often a hermit and/or from a vaguely Asian culture -- is an old fantasy standard. Obi-Wan Kenobi, Lu-Tze of Discworld, Master Oogway of Kung Fu Panda -- these are just a small handful of examples. And then we've also got the characters of the Dude in The Big Lebowski and Dex of The Tao of Steve, modern-day reinterpretations of the "laid-back" nature a true Taoist should have. A Kivian Taoist will certainly fit these molds: unflappable, unconcerned with politics and strife, either incapable of handling the stresses of City life or simply not wanting to. 

In our Theme, perhaps we will find exactly what makes Kivian Taoism distinct. The City's primary religion, The Church of the Blinding Light, makes ambition a virtue and focuses on combining secular and religion power. The Rurals out on the Julian Plains have a simple and straightforward religion focused on the metaphor of farming and the importance of roles. The Iversdotter Revelation focuses around the gang and supporting each other. A commonality in all of these religions is a focus on a community -- even the ambitious Sons of Light are supposed to elevate their entire bloodline instead of merely oneself. So we see a gap, do we not? A religion focused on the individual, on the self, ignoring what others might do, want, or need. So let us say that the Kivians are a species who live in nearly complete isolation, coming together only to breed -- and so they developed a philosophy of self above all. This is, after all, still Taoism, so it will not be ego above all -- the believers still believe that the universe has a flow and following it without effort is the "way" -- but the way has no room for other people in it.

Twist: Well, I see a logical consequence of our theme that twists the basic Taoism conceits a bit: a Kivian Taoist would not hesitate to use force or violence, should something get in the way of their own personal "tao." Some might take up the religion as a way to justify a heartless life, crushing everything in the way of their goals -- but I think that would be a perversion of the proper concept, because it is based on ego, which should be removed from action in proper Kivian Taoism. How exactly a believer decides what is part of their "way" and should be allowed, and what is attempting to pull them from their "way" and should be eliminated, is a question I don't have an answer to, that I'm sure has been a point of contention in Kivian doctrine for centuries...

Next time, we will step away from religion -- and from worldbuilding -- for a bit, and take a look at the Universal Conflict system I'm trying to cobble together, to allow players in The City of Lives to run anything from a dialogue to surgery using the same rules as combat.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Religion - Practical Theosophy

The notion of “practical theosophy” came about, simply, from a need for some religions and playing with words. I needed some minor religions other than the Light, just to add verisimilitude. I started by taking “name of real religion” and adding an adjective to the beginning, trying to imply that these religions were variants or offshoots of the faiths we are familiar with, emphasizing the nature of The City of Lives as a multiversal setting. The two I kept around were Kivian Taoism and Practical Theosophy. When I put together the words “practical” and “theosophy,” they were random -- I didn’t even remember what theosophy was. At the time, just that it was an obscure religion. Then I went back and researched it, in preparation for this article and incorporating it into my playtesting -- and discovered just how appropriate it was. You see, Theosophy was a strange, semi-religious movement back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its stated goal was the synthesis of religion with science, attempting to understand God (“Theo” in the Greek) through knowledge or study (“logos” or “logy”). Their attempts to understand the supernatural world utilized new scientific advances that are either mundane, discredited, or now associated with the New Age movement -- meditation, hypnosis, astral projection. However, due to our own limitations, their “studies” of the religious sphere were inconclusive and not widely accepted. However… what if they were able to prove the existence of gods, and interact with them directly?

Hence, “Practical” theosophy must be like “applied physics”: a methodology for practical research on the nature of divinity and religion. As we have explored the nature of both divinity and their general understanding before, I will not reiterate, except to say that the people of the City may know that gods exist, but they do not know much more about their nature than we do about divinity in the real world.  The practical theosophers wish to change that. They are philosophers, both in the modern sense of the word and in the City’s meaning of “scientist.” But there is an element of faith in all great endeavors, and practical theosophy is no exception.

Archetype: Well, this is a tough one. My first impulse is to say the gnomes of Krynn, Ponder Stibbons of Unseen University, and other pseudo-scientists in fantasy literature. But the thing is -- these are few and far between, and are all directly drawn from real-world scientists (or, at least, satire of such). So what's a more interesting route to take? Well, though their methods are scientific, the goals of the theosophers are fairly hardcore religious in nature: who are the Gods? So let's base their archetype off of the "fanatical cult" model: Theosophers are devoted to finding knowledge above all other concerns, whether ordinary concerns like food and family or ethical concerns like not decimating the Kipman population as unwilling test subjects. The "ends justify the means" mindset that typifies cults is very similar to how scientists are portrayed in much media, after all...

Real-Life Inspiration: The main real-life inspiration here is from experimental scientists -- those on the edge of  a new field, whether electrical engineers a century ago, roboticists today, or -- appropriately -- parapsychologists. The theosophers believe they can find an answer -- the answer -- through careful tests and rigorous experimentation… but they don’t know what they’re doing. Their understanding of the field is so limited, the field itself so vast, that they are almost grasping in the dark.

Theme: The theme here is two-edged -- it is both “noble exploration” and “things man was not meant to know.” The gods are mysterious and need to be understood -- but they are also mysterious, complex, and dangerous. Trying to study miracles -- as infrequent and unexpected as they are in the City -- is nearly impossible to do with any rate of success, let alone repeatability. On the other hand, trying to persuade a god to come into the laboratory for some tests, to submit to questioning -- these are requests likely to one’s ass smote.

Twist: Let's have a good, secret-to-build-a-campaign-around twist here. Let's say that while most of the theosophers are genuinely trying to discover, for good and for true, what's going on with the gods -- but that the entire movement was started by a small-time god who didn't want the world to know that he is a physical being (albeit one from the Far Realms). Imagine if Flynn of Tron hadn't admitted that the Users were imperfect, but had instead started a cargo cult worshiping and dedicated to studying Users... while simultaneously feeding them bad data and constantly leading them down the wrong path. Should this trickster deity be exposed, what will happen? Would practical theosophy shut down completely, or would they regroup, now knowing what missteps to avoid? An interesting question...

Next time, we tread into completely unexplored territory with Kivian Taoism!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Religion -- The Iversdotter Revelation

Welcome back, and welcome to the next religion on our list, the Iversdotter Revelation. The Iversdotters are the City of Lives' resident "Proud Warrior Race," and were, early in my thinking, going to be mostly worshipers of the Light. Then I thought about it, and something struck me as wrong -- this is a race of clones, essentially, and descendants of a woman so enamored of her own form that she made a whole race of herself. Logically, a form of very specific ancestor worship would arise in the Iversdotter community -- honoring the original Iver as a deity, or at least intercessory to the divine. In fact, perhaps that's it -- the Iversdotter Revelation/Iversdotter Heresy is to the Church of the Blinding Light as Christianity is to Judaism: they worship the same God, but see a particular individual as the only true path to that God. There you go, gentle readers -- a genuine idea formed and radical shift in how I look at the Iversdotter religion, that came to me as I wrote those words. Can't get much more into a writer's head, can you?

But I digress. With our new revelation in mind, let's ARTT this out.

Archetype: The model here is the pseudo-religious "warrior's code" seen in countless fantasy and sci-fi worlds -- Star Trek's Klingons, Stargate SG-1's Jaffa, The Lord of the Rings' Rohirrim. Whatever else the Iversdotter Revelation may be, it is the set of guiding principles behind the most disciplined, organized, and warlike people in the City. There will be moral principles governing duels, and how to handle prisoners-of-war, and the duties of a soldier to her commander. Many "warrior's codes" (such as the Klingons) seem to emphasize the individual, but the Iversdotters are all about the clan: others before yourself, acting for the good of the gang, etc. Even -- or perhaps especially -- the leaders, must keep in mind the good of the whole.

Real-Life Inspiration: Well, this is pretty easy. The Iversdotters are very, very Scandinavian (with shades of Sparta and inner-city LA), so their religion should take a page from the old Norse faiths and their modern descendants, heathenism and Asatru. The Norse had a zest for life, even as they struggled through the long, hard winters, and their faith valued both working hard and playing hard. The Norse gods were/are big on sacrifice -- animal and symbolic -- the most glorious death is to die in battle. What would be the most important thing to sacrifice for Iver? Logically, her own flesh -- and the Iversdotters have plenty of that. Ritual scarification will be common in the Iversdotter Revelation, perhaps even grievous wounding (to then be healed by their talented Bloodshifters) -- perhaps Iver herself will take away the souls of those fallen in battle to a Valhalla-like afterlife filled with fighting and boozing. Full human sacrifice isn't something I see them doing -- it fits with the idea of community above individual, but killing one of the Iversdotter flesh would be a waste and killing another bloodline would be unappreciated.

Theme: One of the major themes of the Iversdotter bloodline is community, working together. Another is the perfection of their form -- so a religion supporting those thoughts would have a theme like "Perfection working together builds a perfect community." Supporting that theme, the Iversdotter Revelation holds religious precepts like "hold tight to your family, and hold them above yourself."

Twist: Well, let's see. How are we going to twist this? A warrior's code, Norse influence -- well, the biggest twist I see is a simple factor of life in the City... it's in the City. Iversdotters are, by-and-large, a street gang, and have been since the beginning. It makes sense that their religion would address those issues. There will be no rules about farming or what foods to safely eat, instead laying down how to ethically rule, how to conduct criminal transactions without violating the Iversdotters' ethical laws, how much expansion is necessary to please Iver. And, as a side note -- the "normal" taboos against homosexuality and incest won't exist in Iversdotter society, given that they are all genetically identical women. In fact, perhaps breeding "conventionally" with a male outside the Iversdotters would be frowned upon, if not actually forbidden. Interesting...

Next time, we'll explore the strange synthesis of science and religion that is Practical Theosophy.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Religion -- The Seeding Manual

First, apologies for posting over a day late! Suffice it to say, real-life duties and illness kept me from the keyboard -- but should such a thing happen again, I will do my best to at least keep you abreast. Now, if you will recall, I am posting today on the topic of the Rural religion and their holy book The Seeding Manual.

The origin of the Seeding Manual and the unnamed Rural religion is a long and winding story. A few years ago, while working on a (now-abandoned) urban fantasy project about gods, memory, and identity, inspired (far too closely) by Neil Gaiman's American Gods and Neverwhere, I came up with the term "Rural," simply to designate those demigods who operated outside the city of Seattle. When creating a cast of characters to surround a hapless human protagonist, I decided I wanted some comic relief, and ended up with "The Greensman" (a term I figured was an obscure term for gardener, or else I'd made it up. Nope, turns out it's the guy who takes care of plants on a movie set). The Greensman was a dim-witted farming demigod obsessed with his "garden," who looked like a cross between a moss-covered orangutan and a thick -bodied "Green Man," constantly quoting from a book of aphorisms disguised as gardening advice (or possibly the other way around ) called The Seeding Manual.

When I set that project aside, the Greensman lay fallow until I needed a character to play for a play-by-post D&D campaign. There the Greensman stayed the same in personality, but became a Dwarf covered in growing things, a Druid, and developed a thick Cockney accent and a tendency to call everyone "Morris." Since I had plenty of time to work up his dialogue since it was Play-by-Post instead of tabletop, I liberally peppered his speech and spellcasting with further quotes from the Seeding Manual, ending up with a dozen or two before I had to leave the game. I regretted abandoning the Greensman and vowed to resurrect him one day. When working up the Bloodlines for The City of Lives, I had my chance -- scouring my abandoned material for unused words and concepts, I found "Rural," and decided to create an entire bloodline based on the Greensman: simple-minded, growing plants all over, and following the Seeding Manual. The Manual got a few more verses when I decided to use quotes from it to reflect the Rurals' options of the other Bloodlines (on Prometheans: For man cannot live without the plow, nor the warmth of the hearth-fire, so embrace these things. -Plowings 3:11). And the Manual got a little more thought when my playtesting group encountered the Greensman himself a few weeks back.

Thus far, the Seeding Manual's creation has been very organic and unstructured -- much like many real-life religions' origins, to be sure, but perhaps it's time to apply the creative scalpel and shape it into a proper religion. And maybe on our way, we'll find a name for the religion itself and not just its holy book.

We begin with:

Archetype: This faith shares a lot of conceptual space with the "wisdom of the woods" possessed by the "native guide" archetype that appears everywhere from The Last of the Mohicans to D&D Rangers. It's the notion that animals and those who spend time with them understand the world better than city folk, emphasizing environmentalism and the "circle of life" -- ideas like "animals aren't always nice, but they're never cruel." There will be a lot potential for story and inter-character conflict inherent in the stark contrast between the way the extremely urban City-dwellers look at things and the point-of-view of the farmers out on the Julian Plains.

Real-Life Inspiration: Here we find some inspiration from real-life "nature religions" like Neo-Paganism and the traditional beliefs of many Native American and African tribes. Myself, my knowledge of Native American and African beliefs no further than knowing some Coyote and Anansi stories, so most of my inspiration here will come from Neo-Paganism. Now, much of Neo-Paganism is too New-Agey for the down-to-earth Rurals -- energy work, meditation, ritual broomsticks -- but some of it will work. I can see them putting up small shrines to local deities, plying them with little sacrifices like bits of food or wine, carved figures and painted stones. The joyous ritual "spiral dance" sounds right for the Rurals, as does the notion of sealing off sacred space before beginning a ritual -- after all, there is no small number of nasty spirits and demigods wandering around the Realm of Lives, just waiting for people's guard to be down. Of course, seasonal holidays will be the cornerstone of the Rural belief system -- nobody care more about seasons than farmers. And it's worth noting (or, at least, amusing to note) that the term "pagan" derives from Latin paganus, meaning... rural.

Theme: The theme best expressed by the Rural religion is "simple and straightforward." The Rurals don't have the layers upon layers of deceit, the wheels-within-wheels of machinations the City does. Their beliefs are straightforward, blunt, and black-and-white. This, of course, will have both positive and negative consequences. The Rurals aren't meant to be perfectly pure and untainted. They may be more honest and trusting than the City-dwellers, but they will also be small-minded, xenophobic, and harsh judges, unable or unwilling to look at things with the shades-of-gray morality the City lives with. Since part of the role of the Rural is to be the outsider, as we previously discussed, this fits perfectly.

Twist: A simple twist is all we need here, I think, and it's this: the natural wisdom the Rurals believe in comes from the viewpoint of a farmer, not a hunter-gatherer as in most examples of the archetype. The Seeding Manual espouses things like every animal having its place, and emphasizing servitude -- it is the pig's role in life to provide a pork dinner, the horse's to pull a cart. Their beliefs will emphasize stability and predictability over freedom -- and everything will center around the community over the self, duty over choice.

Though I initially started this series of "religious" posts as a one-off because I was asked by @Kelly to differentiate between the nature of gods and the nature of religion, I've come to really enjoy exploring this corner of my world. If you'd rather I move on to something else -- or stay on religions as long as I possibly can -- post a comment, or vote in the poll! For now, next time we will visit the Iversdotter Revelation.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Religion -- the Light, Part 2

The Theme of the Church of the Blinding Light is, well, something I haven't properly defined yet. What is the role of the Light in The City of Lives? Well, let's start with what it's not:
  • It's not the defining or central part of the world. While religious conflicts could support a City of Lives campaign, the setting is really about politics, class warfare, and high strangeness. The Light is not meant to act as the backdrop for heroic vanquishing of infidels.
  • Similarly, the Light is not meant to be a villainous organization, waging an oppressive inquisition. A powerful, corrupt evil church carries significant narrative weight, but it's not what I need in CoL, where all morality is drawn in shades of gray. There may be believers, corrupt priests, even organizations bent on destroying the worlds -- but they are small parts of the Church, no larger or more powerful than in real-world religions.
  • It's not something  to be laughed at. Many fictional churches are targets of satire, reflecting the author's dissatisfaction with real-world religion. The church worships clearly imaginary gods, or are hypocritical about their beliefs and practices, or is portrayed as blindly obedient. As tempting as it may be, City of Lives is not the place for me to preach via my own "perfect" religion, nor to mock people's beliefs and hide behind the label of fiction. The Church of the Blinding Light should reflect real-world religion, for both good and bad.
So that's what it isn't. What is the Church of the Blinding Light, thematically speaking?
  • It is the dominant religion of the City, binding together some Bloodlines that otherwise have nothing in common. So it can symbolize connection across otherwise disparate cultures.
  • It is a rigid faith, inflexible in the interpretation of its principles. Compared to the wild complexity of the City, and even wilder areas beyond, the Light represents both reassuring stability and stifling orthodoxy.
  • The Church provides an ethical framework for the City. While not everyone follows these ethics, they provide a foundation for their laws and societal constructs. Just as the USA, while not a Christian nation, has laws that reflect the values of its Christian founders, so will the City's laws be based on the beliefs of followers of the Light (areas of the City run by ancestor-worshiping Iversdotter gangs or money-worshiping bankers
So now that we know what the Church is and isn't, how can we look at it with a defining central metaphor? Part of me wants to just abandon it and say "it's just as complex as a real church." However, that's not terribly useful. The real world is far too complex to fit into fiction -- it must be simplified, distilled, and spun into its most dramatic form (heck, even documentaries have thematic statements and character arcs). Okay, so let's look at the defining symbol and theme of the religions that inspired the Light. And keep in mind, folks, I'm a game designer, not a theologian, so please forgive me if I get some stuff wrong.
  • Christianity's defining symbol is the cross, representing its central metaphor of Jesus's sacrifice. Its followers' goal is redemption through surrendering to God's will.
  • Judaism's defining symbol is the Star of David, and its central metaphor is the Covenant with God. Its followers' goal is a good life on earth, achieved by following God's Law.
  • One of Buddhism's defining symbols is the dharma wheel, representing its central conceit of the Eightfold Path to enlightenment. Its followers' goal is freedom from being through abandonment of the physical world and the self.
  • Modern Western civilization's symbol is, I dunno, the dollar(?), representing the fruits of industry. Its followers' goal is physical rewards and renown, achieved through hard work and/or talent.
So, the Light's symbol is probably a stylized sun -- perhaps one that touches a ray of light out to a tiny human form? After all, the Sons of Light are considered to be their deity's Chosen People, meant to rule the City. This is certainly reminiscent of the Judaic Covenant. But the goal of the Sons of Light is not a good and simple life, but secular power. This is the covenant they made, and their goal -- to glorify the Light by ruling well. For other followers of the Light (Leovites, Kipmen, etc.), they must support and glorify the Sons of Light, and thus gain the reward due to dutiful servants.
  • The Church of the Blinding Light's symbol is the sun, which represents their covenant with the Light. Their goal is to gain spiritual and material fulfillment by supporting the Sons of Light and/or ruling the City well.
So the Theme, we have discovered, is spiritual and secular power joining together. And this leads us directly to the new concept of the Twist: a religion (or monster, or district, or whatever) created with the method of (A)rchetype, (R)eal-life inspiration, (T)heme could end up as a virtual copy of an existing religion. In fact, the Church of the Blinding Light has come perilously close to being a copy of Christianity and Judaism. So we "twist" it, changing something fundamental around that makes the concept unique. For the Light, it is this:
  • Ambition is a virtue -- this is a notion borrowed not from any religion, but from modern secular American culture.
and, a few more twists:
  • There is no separation of church and state, but nor is worship of the Light mandatory. Church leaders are encouraged, even expected, to hold important secular positions.
  • Asceticism is seen as a sin. It is denying the wonderful world that the Light has provided -- but avarice is also punishable. The middle path, as in Buddhism, is encouraged.
  • The supernatural is not seen to be related to religion in any way, either positively or negatively.
So there you have it. Some more fundamentals on the Church of the Blinding Light. Of course, I could go in further -- take a look at the specific laws or beliefs the Church is founded on... but I doubt that much more than this will be useful for a prospective GM, nor is it a good use of our time when we have so much yet to cover. So next time, we'll continue on our fictional religion kick, with the beliefs of the Rurals and Religion -- The Seeding Manual.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Religion -- the Light, Part 1

Let's use the ARTT (I added a T, for "twist") method on our predominant religion, The Light.

Archetype: The powerful, monolithic church has a long and storied history in fantasy fiction. This is, of course, because most fantasy fiction is heavily modeled on medieval Europe, where/when the Catholic Church held amazing sway (though, interestingly enough, the ur-example of the modern fantasy genre, The Lord of the Rings has very little religion in it and no organized religion at all). In the various D&D settings, most of the religions have the flavor of medieval Catholicism -- priests as intercessories between God and man, Gothic architecture, Knights Templar-type church soldiers -- despite worshiping a large pantheon rather than the historical monotheism. 

On the other hand, there's an archetype I am definitely avoiding. There is a type of miracle-slinging priest, curing with one hand and banishing zombies with the other, popularized by D&D and appearing -- if not in most actual fantasy literature and media -- in virtually every fantasy tabletop RPG and video game for the last thirty years. This kind of priest has no place in The City of Lives, given the non-interventionist nature of the Light [and my desire to keep the number of different magic systems to one]. Priests may wield magic in the City -- counseling parishioners with Soulsharing, for example -- but it is not directly related to their faith. Magic is seen neither as related to their god nor opposed to it. That said, Lightshaping, due to its association with, well, light, is seen by fervent believers as their deity's power manifest -- but their argument loses weight when one sees the massive numbers of Lightshapers who worship another god, or none at all.

Real-Life Inspiration: Obviously, like the classical fantasy archetype, the main real-life inspiration for the Light is the medieval Catholic Church. However, the Light also has inspiration from Catholicism's own roots -- Judaism.

Catholic influences:
  • The Light is an evangelical religion, dedicated to spreading the Light's message. This is mostly because I want the Light to feel Christian, and there's nothing more Christian than proselytizing. 
  • Priests are seen as intercessories between the Light and Man -- you can't be saved by praying on your own. Again, this is fundamentally Catholic.
  • Non-violence is a big deal. I want there to be a divide between the religious and the violent in the City -- mostly because I've always hated the hypocrisy of "Thou Shalt Not Kill" and "Crusades." So no violence is tolerated by the Light, no matter who it's against or why.
Judaic influences:
  • The priests of the Light, known as Lightspeakers, are expected to take a spouse and continue the Light in a procreative fashion as well as proselytizing -- in the fashion of Judaism, Islam, and most Protestant traditions. This is mostly to make the Light distinct from Catholicism in a very fundamental way -- and it helps that it ties it to the Judaic tradition from which the Leovites are so definitively inspired.
  • Lightspeakers are born, not made -- without special dispensation, any priest of the Light must be related to another. This borrows from the Judaic tradition of kohens and the Levite caste. Pretty much the same reasons as the one before.
  • There is no single divine book, instead there are a number, with commentary from religious leaders -- again. I've never liked the idea of "One Book" (of course, the Bible isn't one book either, it's a whole bunch of them, the makeup of which varies from time to time and denomination to denomination, but that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish), but some fantasy religions seem to have no religious texts, relying entirely on... the Direct Word of God? Maybe? Anyway, I thought it was important to establish a small library of religious texts.
  • Death is a major taboo for the Light. There are no notions of afterlife rewards, only during-life rewards. The religion has no official stance on the afterlife, and death rites are considered unclean and not honoring the Light, so are passed on to secular funerary arrangers. This one just happens to coincide with Judaism. I like the idea that one of the only mysteries left in the City, even with all their magic, is one of our fundamentals -- nobody knows exactly what happens when you die. And the Light, choosing at this point not to be hypocritical (though it will at times, to be sure), doesn't try to.
All right, True Believers! Join me next time for the two Ts in ARTT, as we look more closely as my own additions to what I took from other writers and religions. Remember, as Wilson Mizner said, “When you take stuff from one writer it’s plagiarism, but when you take from many writers it’s called research.”

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Again, a disclaimer: none of this is meant to relate to my own religion beliefs, nor that of anyone else. I'm looking at religion purely from a fiction-writer's standpoint, not intending to reflect on anyone's real beliefs.

A few posts ago, we discussed the nature of divinity in the City of Lives universe. If you'll recall, we determined the gods are physical beings from the bizarre dimensions known as the Far Realms, capable of performing godly miracles because of the interactions between their own laws of physics and those of the Realm of Lives. They are not dependent on worship for life or power, and have as many motivations for helping their parishioners as human politicians do for taking office. However, we haven't determined the nature of religion in the City. All too often in fantasy literature (and especially fantasy gaming), who the gods are, what their abilities and motivations are, and even how to worship them, are all understood perfectly. I have a problem with this -- it doesn't in any way resemble the real world. "But Emlyn," you say, "The City of Lives is pure fantasy, it doesn't have to be realistic!" My response is that I always try to follow a simple rule: the rules of a fantasy world can be bizarre and completely unlike reality -- as long as people act like people. And people have a million different ways of interpreting religion.

Now, there is the argument that since the gods are definitively real in The City of Lives, performing miracles  and communicating with the populace, people would know how to worship them and wouldn't argue. I... think not. Pardon me for a perhaps not-terribly-apt metaphor, but observe the US government (or any government, for you readers across the world). It has the power to make laws (as gods are known to do), send rescue workers to disaster areas and help people in ways the local populace would be incapable of doing (manna from heaven, anyone?), and punish people (in the end, transforming someone into a pillar of salt is just showier than a lethal injection, not any deadlier). And there are a lot of different opinions on how the government should work: how to interpret the Constitution ("holy books"), what laws should be introduced or struck down, and how to enforce the ones we have. Democrats, Republicans, the Green Party, the Tea Party, uncle Marvin and his militia in Idaho...

If we can't agree on how to run our government, then I see no reason that all the believers in a single god should agree on how to worship him/her/it, let alone the worshipers of the various other gods that populate the multiverse of The City of Lives. In fact, religion in the City is just as complex as in our own universe, if not more so.

It doesn't help that the most powerful deity regularly worshiped by the City-dwellers -- The Light -- is notably non-interventionist and seldom communicates directly. This is, of course, a decision I made in my effort to make The Light parallel Christianity -- in this respect, similar to how God was seen in the Renaissance period, where many small pieces of science had been figured out, and it was accepted that God didn't speak to the average priest or parishioner, but sometimes Saints healed people and God smote the wicked. Essentially, I want the Light to be less interventionist than D&D gods (handing out magical power to priests willy-nilly), but more definitively powerful and real than, well, the real world. So, as @kelly suggested, one way to do that would be to have some occasional miracles -- clearly magical manifestations that don't have anything to do with the known magic system. It would be a remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime event to hear the words of the Light or see Its works, but it would happen approximately once in everyone's lifetime.

As to the true nature of deities as physical beings from the Far Realms, I think it would, and should, be up for debate -- if not quite as much as gods on Earth, then at least as much as poorly-understood laws of physics. After all, the Far Realms follow different rules from our world, strange and incomprehensible -- even with Fractal Elves and Scarcity Merchants visiting the City, people's understanding of them is probably somewhere between how well medieval Europeans understood Chinese culture and how well an ant understands humans. And that assumes that the deities even cop to their status. Whether a deliberate deception or simply not correcting a misapprehension (I haven't decided), the Light is viewed by its worshipers as I think the worshipers of the Light see It as eternal, outside reality -- all the things the Christian God is. Finding out it's a physical being would probably break all their heads.

Ultimately, like in our own world, there will be debate on the nature of the gods. Some believe that deities (well, their deity) exists outside the Realms and those who maintain that, definitionally, the Realms encompass everything. After all, nobody really knows how far the Realms go, I'm assuming. Some people might theorize that in infinite Realms, everything anyone believes in, and indeed everything anyone can imagine, exists somewhere. There are probably even some who believe that it's just another form of magic, and can be understood the same way -- that worshiping that phenomenon as a god doesn't ultimately make any more sense than worshiping Shapers, Sharers, and Shifters. And thus, even the City of Lives, where gods are a fact of life, there are atheists... just a different sort.

Join me next time as we delve into religion more completely and examine The Light.

As a side note, thanks to @kelly for brainstorming some of this out with me!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Archetypal Individuals

Hello, all. I was going to make this post about religion in the City, as a follow-up to my post on gods. Unfortunately, real life has intervened, so I will have to postpone that column. However, I'm not going to leave you with nothing. Here are a few physical descriptions of archetypal individuals, examples of the various Bloodlines of the City. Enjoy.

Thewton Wells -- a Rural Explorer
Thewton is short and stocky -- perhaps five-foot-four extremely thick -- but well-muscled. He is perhaps 30. His skin is a deep, deep tan -- though with Anglo-Saxon features -- and his hair, shaggy and mossy (see below), and eyes are both deep brown. His skin is caked in a half-inch of thick loam, with moss and small flowering plants sprouting all over his body -- if there’s a spot where his natural skin is showing, it’s singular and unusual. He wears a ragged pair of coveralls with neither shirt nor shoes, with a large backpack complete with a coil of rope, bedroll, and pickaxe. He has a confident, simple smile.

Phaedra -- a Promethean Explosives Artificer
Phaedra is tall and statuesque, with the high breasts and aquiline nose of a classical Greek statue. She is in her early 20s. Her skin is burnished a dull red, and her veins glow with a dim orange light. Her hair is cut in a “Cleopatra” hairdo, ash-gray, and her eyes look like glowing coals. She wears a flattering Greek tunic with bare legs. She holds a small black-powder grenade (like from Pirates of the Caribbean or old Looney Tunes cartoons), and is lighting the wick with a small breath of fire. She has a pyromaniac’s glee in her eyes.

Efrael lev-Zeron -- a Leovite Priest
This one might be a little tough -- Efrael has leonine feratures, but is *not* an anthro. The look of Vincent from the old Beauty and the Beast TV show is pretty much perfect. He has a flattened nose, cleft lip, and distinct fangs. He is covered with a fine golden-brown fur, and a distinctive shaggy mane. He is in his early 30s. He has thick finger- and toenails, almost claw-like. He is tall (six and half feet tall) and thick-bodied, well-muscled but not overly so. His eyes are a golden yellow. He wears white robes reminiscent of Old Testament Jewish priests (though without the jeweled breast-plate), with a stylized sun on his chest. He has a kindly, welcoming look on his face.

Closk Hotblood -- a Kipman Soldier
Closk is a mongrel. He has features from half-a-dozen different animals. Primarily, he is human -- tall, heavy-set, imposing, a physique reminiscent of a bull or bear. He also features a bear’s muzzle and ram’s horns. His eyes are human, an intense blue. He is in his late 20s. He has patchy fur all over his body, interspersed with tan skin and the occasional patch of reptilian scales. One hand looks like a bear paw, while the other is human. He has the backward-jointed legs and hooves of a sheep.He is dressed in ragged clothes like that of a 19th-century peasant, heavily soiled and patched -- a coarse canvas shirt and ragged pants, with a jerkin of studded leather armor over it. In his human hand, he carries an old, heavily-notched hand axe. His face tells the viewer to die horribly.

Tessiria Aderino -- a Sky-Carver Courtier
Tessiria is thin and tall, looking slender at best, if not emaciated. Her eyes have no irises, instead being a solid light blue, and her long hair, waving in an unseen breeze, is stark white. She is in her mid-40s. Her skin is pale and tinged with a light blue, with white, cloud-shaped markings appearing across her skin. She is dressed in a long, flowing Renaissance dress, perhaps inspired by Lucrezia Borgia’s dress in the attached picture. She should look sexy, supercilious, and terrifyingly cruel.

Marcek Rystyna-per -- a Pariah Information Merchant
Marcek is short and slim. He is in his late 30s. He has dark skin, hair, and eyes, rather Middle-Eastern features. His thin cheeks are permanently stained with tears, which glow with a black light. His head is covered by a skullcap in dark orange and purple stripes. He wears an Elizabethan-era tunic and pants (“slops” or “trunk hose”) in black, gray, and purple, simple and severe. He has a stuffed-full scroll-case on his belt, ink-stained fingers, and a quill pen in one hand. His face says he knows more than you, and wants you to know it.

See you next time!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Monsters Monsters Monsters 3: The Post That Ruins the Franchise

Here is my third and (for now) last post on monsters. Perhaps because I already showed you most of the critters I understood well, as they came to mind first, we now have left a few that I'm not sure how to use in the City of Lives (if at all). Let me explain my difficulties, and you can sound off in the comments!

Notional Construct: Yet another "evocative-name-first-concept-second," one that, if I recall correctly, popped into my head apropos of nothing. However, what it is becomes fairly obvious given thought -- it's an idea (or "notion") given physical form (or "construct"-ed). What kind of potent ideas are likely to be capable of life and form? Justice, perhaps. Hope -- or is that an emotion? The quest for knowledge. Nationalism. Even "I think, therefore I am?" These ideas-made-flesh would be the most elemental of beings, dedicated only to advancing the cause that makes up the constructs themselves. Can one kill an idea? At best, perhaps, it dissipates and reforms again -- unless you can actually change society's mind... An intriguing idea, but perhaps this is too vague, too difficult to actually run, and too frustrating for the players? Thoughts? Yea or Nay?

Sss'ch'kinsa: This is a re-used creature, from an old Alternity game I ran once upon a time. At that point, it was an alien predator/parasite, heavily inspired by Alien and Starcraft's zergling. It is a creature with both insect and lizard features -- powerful back legs like a grasshopper, a lizard-like body, mandibles, and two great spikes coming from its front legs instead of feet or paws. In order to hunt/breed, a sss'ch'kinsa makes a springing leap of up to twenty feet, piercing the prey with its spikes and pinning it to the ground. The sss'ch'kinsa then grasps the prey's skull in its mandibles, and punctures it with a proboscis, filling the skull with eggs. The predator leisurely eats the corpse, leaving its eggs to grow in the skull and feast on the brains.

For the purposes of City of Lives, the sss'ch'kinsa almost certainly comes not from the Realm of Lives but a Near Realm -- it's obviously not the same biology as horses, birds, and fish, but neither does it break physics like those creatures from the Far Realms. It seems like this critter would be best for a horror adventure, PCs trying to survive, and/or a "bug hunt"-type mission with the PCs trying to keep a sss'ch'kinsa infestation from breaking out into the City proper.

However, there's something to consider. The sss'ch'kinsa is clearly derivative, and also more of a sci-fi/horror monster than a high fantasy one. Does it have a place in the City of Lives?

Sewer Snake: This came from the opposite direction than most of my ideas -- I considered a danger for the underground, sewer-dwelling Grate-Scratchers, then looked for a name, resulting in the not-terribly-evocative but nicely alliterative "Sewer Snake." I see it as inspired by the stories of alligators in the sewers -- gigantic serpents that nearly fill the sewer tunnels, feeding off unwary Grate-Scratchers. However, there's not much particularly original about the Sewer Snake, and it begs questions as to what such a ridiculously large creature would realistically live on in a relatively food-poor environment like the sewers. Should it stay or go into the round file, gentle readers?

Thornbearers: Another evocative name derived from a random generator. What are the metaphorical implications of thorns? Pain and hurt, often emotional as well as physical (at least, in Christian symbolism related to the Crown of Thorns), and those who "bear" things carry and put up with them. So Thornbearers might well be tortured creatures, filled with pain and sorrow -- but since thorns pierce, they probably can inflict their pain on others. They sound related to the Blightbound "zombies" or the sorrow-obsessed Pariahs. Now, I already have a few mutant humans and a few zombies/spirits, so either place to put the Thornbearers might feel redundant... what do you think, dear readers?

As a final note before I leave you for another half-week, here are some evocative names with absolutely nothing to do with. Any thoughts?
Gravesons, Hevverbird, Ragman, The Withdrawn Man, Vexful, and White Rooks

Next time, join me for an examination of Religion in the City of Lives.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Monsters Monsters Monsters 2: vs. Dracula!

Okay, I lied. There's no Dracula here. What there is a visit into my fractured psyche, as we try to create some new, exciting, and original monsters and creatures for The City of Lives.

Cedric: While writing the (unfinished) short story that started much of the City of Lives, I tossed in this line, without even thinking about it: "What have you got, a Cedric stationed to keep them in line?" Somehow, the "Cedric" immediately came to mind as a guardian golem, a kind of stone robot policeman. I can't explain that etymology, except that it might have something to do with a running gag in Terry Pratchett's Moving Pictures, in which a gold golem that was obviously modeled on the Academy Awards' Oscar was constantly referred to as reminding people of their "uncle Osric." In any case, the Cedric has just sat there without finding a place in the City. On the other hand, I've recently wondered if adding golems or some other kind of automaton to the City might not make things richer and more interesting. So let's start with the Cedric. I imagine it at about ten feet tall, gray stone with crude features, no face, and a stone shield and sword. Since its purpose is to guard, it's probably not terribly bright, but extremely aware of its environment (video games guards with sixty-degree fields of vision notwithstanding, if you're not aware of what's around you, you probably won't get far as a guard). Maybe a 360-degree field of vision, hearing like a cat, and the nose of a bloodhound -- and vibration sensors. That'll do for a standing or wandering attack-on-sight security system, but a Cedric will need a few more faculties to distinguish friend from foe. Facial and voice recognition, a vocabulary of at least a few dozen words : "stop," "patrol," "show identification," and so on -- and probably at least a couple hundred if it's expected to converse with visitors.

Cobblestone Golem: The diametric opposite of the ordered Cedric, the cobblestone golem is a spontaneous construct that forms from cobbles and building pieces. I wanted to put some kind of golem in the City, and threw a few "materials" nouns together, similar to D&D's method -- which has produced an impressive number of golem types over the years. However, they never used cobblestones, which are a fundamental part of a city like mine, so I thought it'd fit well. Now, why would a golem spontaneously form? Possibly it's a form of Blightbound, a soul that makes its own body rather than returning to its corpse. I like that -- any time multiple pieces of the world can fit together under a single unifying element, it adds elegance and verisimilitude (like how virtually everything supernatural in Dragon Age eventually ties back to "the Fade" and the spirits who live there). But why would this Blightbound create a body like that, especially as we've established that being Bound is a very unpleasant experience for the poor souls. Well, let's go back to the roots of the Golem mythology: the Jewish folk tale of the Golem who protected the Ghetto of Prague from attack. Fits, doesn't it? So -- the Cobblestone Golem forms when a neighborhood is in terrible danger, and a former resident takes it upon themselves to take a body and protect their old neighbors. So, despite being utterly different from the Cedric, it's actually surprisingly similar...

Wesp: Like many of my monsters, this started as a name I liked the sound of. However, it's a pure nonsense word, so there wasn't anything I could do to derive the nature of the creature from the nature of the word. So when the phrase "vengeful fog" popped into my head, I needed a name to attach to it, and Wesp sounds kind of like "waft," so they became attached. As I'm typing this, all I have is this phrase, which has sat in my glossary for a while: "Sapient, vengeful fog that descends on the City every few decades." Well, let's move on from here. My original inspiration is probably The Mist, the Stephen King story and film, in which the titular mist is an alien atmosphere leaking in from an interdimensional rift. I like the story and Frank Darabont's adaptation, but I remember being kind of disappointed that the "mist" itself wasn't actively malicious or even hazardous, only dangerous because it hid the monsters that crawled out of the rift. I thought -- what if the mist were alive? What if it swirled around you and forced itself down your throat, choking you to death? It wouldn't really work in a visual medium, but in tabletop gaming, where everything is verbal and every sense can be invoked, I think it has a chance to be scary. After all, how do you defeat fog? Can't whack it. Can't slice it. Burn it maybe, but if the whole fog bank you're in lights on fire? Bye-bye favorite PC! I'm still not certain how the Wesp can be defeated, or what its motivations are. Perhaps it's a product of experimental Soulsharing, imbuing a natural phenomenon with emotions, which (naturally) got out of hand. Then again, perhaps it is a purely natural phenomenon, or a Far Realms creature. No answer I've found so far has felt quite right...

Still not done! Join me next time for more Monsters Monsters Monsters 3: The Post That Ruins the Franchise.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Monsters Monsters Monsters

Every fantasy world -- especially a game world -- needs some monsters. For this post, "monster" will be defined as "creatures of animal intelligence, who through hunger, natural antagonism, or manipulation by others, may end up trying to kill and eat the PCs." And starting with that definition, let's do some brainstorming with some basic monster ideas I've come up with:

Arterial Marauders: Another evocative name coming before the creature design. Arterial refers to both blood and streets -- so the Marauder must drink blood. It will therefore be some kind of variant on the vampire archetype. However, sexy tormented vamps are overdone these days, so I don't really want them in the City of Lives. So back to the roots -- a feral, tear-your-throat-out kind of vamp, ugly as sin and immune to sunlight (seriously, look it up! Vampires didn't start disintegrating in the sun until the silent film Nosferatu). Then, let's twist it. The only undead in the City of Lives setting are the Blightbound, and the feral Marauders don't seem to fit that archetype, so the Arterial Marauders must be alive. Not sure as to their origin -- maybe Bloodshifted mutants like the Perchers (see below), but that might feel redundant. Then -- they're urban, right? Evolved or designed to live in the city, so what kind of adaptation should they have? Camouflage? Wall-climbing? Living off sewer water and seeing in the dark? Hm....

Cantor Hound: Another degenerate mutant -- but this one a dog instead of man. "Cantor," a fun word I pulled from a random generator, means "singer" in Latin. So perhaps the dog, instead of barking or growling, sings? An otherworldly, mournful dirge that makes its victims too depressed to run. Sounds like an interesting challenge for PCs, stuffing their ears with wax or doing all they can to lift their spirits.

Cullis Perchers: I liked the word "perch," and looked for a synonym for "eaves" that would be more exotic and evocative. Logically, anything that "perches" can probably fly -- and things that perch on cullises can probably be mistaken for gargoyles -- that is to say, a misshapen manlike form. So -- a race of former humans, mutated by Bloodshifting into a distorted form, complete with batlike wings stretching from hand to foot. Simple, animal creatures, they ambush explorers in the Lost District, swooping in from above with fangs and claws bared.

Mold Trolls: This is a term I've had in my "random ideas" file for a very long time. I think initially it was a vaguely pejorative term for some supernatural beings that lived underneath Seattle's bridges, but I honestly forget, because it went nowhere. For the City of Lives, we'll go more literal -- a giant, semi-sentient fungus. It'll be large, 8-10 feet tall, with the proportions and basic shape of a gorilla -- very "troll"-like. Another central tenet of the troll mythology is living in a bridge or cave -- let's not hold our trolls to that, but it implies territoriality. And since molds and fungus are sort of carnivorous, the mold trolls can be dangerous. So -- basically a territorial, carnivorous fungal gorilla. Not tremendously cool, but kinda neat.

Ropewyrm: This name popped up when I was looking for a cause of destruction in a piece of prose -- this line came to me: "Why was there nothing but a rotted foundation in its place? Had some maverick dragon or ropewyrm rampaged through?" For a long while, the name just sat there, evoking a vaguely dragon-y feel. When I decided to revisit it, I thought -- what kind of creature would be renowned for destruction, with a snake/worm-type vibe? Well, I went into the "worm" aspect, and came up with something inspired by the Sand Worms of Dune and Beetlejuice -- the ropewyrm lives underground, but when it rises to the surface, its massive frame shoves any unfortunate people, vehicles, or buildings out of the way. Not an entirely original idea, I'll grant you, but a fun one, nonetheless. Where does its name come from, then? Perhaps it has a segmented body, but one that is spiraled or slanted, looking like the strands of a rope. That'll do. The Ropewyrm probably lives out in the Julian Plains or Wilderwoods, but when they encroach upon the City, all hells break loose.

Thoughtwolf: In case you hadn't noticed, I have a tendency to start with an evocative name and come up with the details second. Such is the case with the Thoughtwolves, a result of brainstorming on "wolf" with various prefixes. What kind of wolf would a "thought" wolf be? Well, why not a psychic one? A mental predator -- a pack that splits up, some attacking physically while others transform into mental constructs and attack the prey's mind. Sounds neat. Now, does this mean they have to be sapient? Maybe, but I prefer "no." But to hunt in such a complex way, they'll have to be smarter than regular wolves. So -- the brains of a money, or perhaps an ape, capable of communicating through mental images and emotion. They would live mostly in the Wilderwoods.

Well, I've got a few more monsters up my sleeve, so meet me next time for Monsters Monsters Monsters 2: vs. Dracula.

Friday, November 19, 2010

City Generation - The Lost District

Okay, folks, we've come to the end of our tour of the City's districts. Last, and least (at least, according to the City denizens), is the Lost District. The basic concept behind the Lost District is an old, abandoned junkyard of a district, almost completely cut off from the rest of the city.

Archetype: The Lost District is my bow to the "dungeon-crawl" that has been a part of fantasy gaming since the age-old days of the 1970s. The "dungeon" is traditionally not an actual dungeon, filled with prisoners and guards, but instead some kind of abandoned tomb, mine, mage's tower, or other forgotten area that has been taken over by animals and monsters. The "dungeon-crawling" party will usually explore the hazardous maze (it's always maze-like -- one inspiration for the dungeon archetype is the minotaur's labyrinth), searching for gold, valuable items, and (sometimes) trying to slay some kind of lord of the dungeon.

Now, none of this stuff is particularly in the mood of CoL -- filled with aristocrats rather than monsters (or both at the same time) -- but there is room for a "dungeon" in the ideological confines of the City. However, it needs a twist. Partly inspired by Planescape's central city Sigil's eternally shifting geography, I decided a kind of junkyard would work as a dungeon -- in a city filled with magic, people can throw away not only food garbage and scrap metal, but entire derelict buildings. Worldbuilders move the earth below the abandoned buildings, moving them across the streets; Realmshifters effortlessly teleport them; Forceshifters and Skyshapers pry them from their foundations and carry the wrecks above the city streets. All these buildings end up in one place, and after century upon century of edifices piling up, a maze of destroyed architecture has formed, filled with monsters, Bloodshifted mutants, and tribal scavenger societies.

Real-Life: I am inspired here by the Seattle Underground. For those that aren't Washingtonians, let me explicate. Back in the early days of Seattle, low tidelands and badly-designed indoor plumbing caused massive flooding -- and to fix it, the city designers decided to raise the street level between 12 and 30 feet. For a while, they lived like this, setting up ladders to go down the tremendous height between street-level and the building entrances. Eventually, they turned their second floors into first floors, paving over the old streets ten feet below and leaving a ghost city beneath their feet. While Seattle block off a relatively small part of their City (mostly part of downtown), and have nothing more exotic down there than rats and a few ghost stories, the City of Lives holds far more dangerous creatures looking for shadows to hide in.

Theme: The theme of the Lost District is abandonment. This is where the unwanted go, where things are forgotten... and Lost. Where else can we go with this -- beyond the monsters, who else will have fled to the enforced solitude of the Lost District? What about the Dead-Blooded? They have little place in the City. That is, of course, the whole point of the bloodline -- being outcast -- but their current status as hiding within the other bloodlines gives them little culture of their own, little distinction or reason to play one. Perhaps if we embrace the outcast nature of the Dead-Blooded, and of the Lost District, we can put them together into a richer whole. So -- a community of dead-blooded, embracing their connection to death and surrounding themselves with Blightbound servants -- and even co-citizens.

A short aside: The Blightbound are the City of Lives' version of the zombie. A soul torn from the afterlife and bound to its corpse, most live in eternal torment, aching to return to the peace of the next world, but completely incapable of ever resting. This zombie model gives a minor twist to the traditional archetype -- I like the idea that they are, by-and-large, evil, not "just because," but owing to the fact they have been forced into a pain-filled existence against their will. Also the same concept allows me to tie ghosts in as well -- a ghost is a Blightbound whose body has been destroyed, but whose soul is still attached to its leftover bits of remains, or who was bound to a place or object instead of a body.

Of course, here I have a problem -- the Blightbound "zombies" are angry, tortured beings, and I'm not sure they can live in peace with the Dead-Blooded. Maybe there's another technique that avoids the pain, or their pain is lessened or eliminated by proximity to their part-human descendants; or maybe it is a dark, angry society hidden there in the Lost District, preparing to inflict vengeance on the uncaring living in the rest of the City.

What else can we get out of this Theme? Well, a common aspect of dungeons is ancient, forgotten magic and/or technology, as most fantasy worlds are like Medieval Europe, fallen from a former height of culture and technology with some analogue of Rome. And "forgotten" is part of the Lost District's theme. the thing is, the City never had a bright, forgotten era -- the present is the best things have ever been. I made this decision to avoid the tired idea of forgotten heights, and to fit the notion of the City of Lives as more like the 18th century, when everyone saw themselves as rising to a glorious future rather an trying to recapture a faded past. On the other hand, there was a time in the City's past that was, if not better, then at least different. Before the Elder Trio came to the City, a Son of Light might have set up his own fortress, and now it is left behind, filled with forgotten Relics, or bits of lost history that might shed light on the nature of the Elder Trio.

So, there we have it. The last of the City's districts, and either the simplest or most complicated district of them all, depending on your viewpoint. Next time, we'll examine some of the denizens of the Lost District -- and elsewhere -- as you follow me brainstorming some Monsters!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Treatise on the Nature of Divinity

First, a note: None of this reflects on my, or anyone else's, religious beliefs. My real-life religion is, frankly, none of your business -- and how a writer models their fictional religion (should) have more to do with what's appropriate to the reality (and the metaphor) of the setting rather than their own beliefs.

Anyhoo -- divinity in The City of Lives. As I began conceiving it, I gravitated to a concept popularized (in part) by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett -- that gods are created by man, and live on humanity's belief. This has long been one of my favorite takes on divinity -- being essentially a humanist, I like the idea that it all comes down to us, and that the gods, whatever their power, depend on humans at the core.

However, this concept is fairly overused in popular fiction these days (American Gods, Small Gods, Dragonlance, Fables... etc. (as well in certain polytheistic religions)), and so there would have to really fit the setting to justify using the tired idea. Additionally, the power of belief is a major piece of the Planescape setting, and I want to ensure that CoL , while superficially similar to Planescape, is fundamentally different.

Next option: The assumption that D&D (and most real-world religions, but we won't really get into that here) use: deities are tremendously powerful on their own, and require no worship. However, they ask for it. Why? Maybe they have massive egos. Maybe they see it as a form of respect, or a type of barter: worship for miracles. Or, a slight variant, seen in HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos and others, gods not require or desire worship, either helping humanity out of a sense of compassion or duty, or ignoring humanity's desires completely.

I like the idea that gods have variety in their reactions to worship: some like prayers to feed their egos, others ignore humanity's desires, and some like an use worship in a mundane context similar to a government -- an army of parishioners can fulfill a god's goals, even if they don't provide "mystical prayer energy."

The next question is: are gods fundamentally the same or different from humans and other physical beings. The Judeo-Christian-Islamic God (or at least, most modern conceptions), is considered to exist outside space and time, eternal, originating and existing outside the physical universe. The Hindu deities are similar, but sometimes take physical form as avatars. The Norse deities are made of flesh and blood, born and able to die, even their immortality dependent on a physical elixir.

In much of fiction, gods are not real gods unless they are separate from the physical universe. In the Stargate TV shows, the advanced aliens -- even those who now nigh-omnipotent energy beings -- are said to not be gods,  not  worthy of worship, because they started out right where we are, as limited physical beings. The Marvel Comics Asgardians are (usually) considered true gods, though they are, similarly, extradimensional aliens with physical form.

For the universe of The City of Lives, we have an option that is kind of in-between "physical" and "separate" -- from the Far Realms. I want the Realms to cover all of existence -- to my mind, there should not be a place apart from the Realms, non-physical in the sense of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God. And if the gods' Realms can be traveled to, they can either be:
  • essentially the same as our own world, just bigger and grader, like Mount Olympus; or
  • mind-bendingly different, following different physics and incapable of being properly understood by humans. "Extra-dimensional beings," physical but following different physics from our own, are a fairly common sight in literature, especially Lovecraftian horror, and a valid place to start.
This second idea seems more "godly" to me, a way to make gods different from humans without making them "separate." And look -- I already have a place that fits that description! The Far Realms, those worlds so far from the Realm of Lives that their rules of reality are different. Perhaps people from the Realm of Lives (or even Earth) could hold similar power in the Far Realms -- after all, what's Near here is Far from there...

So, in conclusion -- gods in the universe (multiverse?) of CoL are no more (and no less) than beings from the Far Realms, obeying different physics than ours, and thus holding great power in realities like our own. They take their power from the interaction between their natural Far Realms abilities and the physics of the Near Realms. And they perform their deeds for a variety of reasons, but are in no way dependent on worshipers, except in the way a government is dependent on its citizens.

Anyone have any thoughts on this conception of gods? Does it work, or does it take away from "godliness" by making them physical beings? Should they be more like Gaiman or Pratchett's gods, or is their independent divinity refreshing? Let me know what you think, and next time we will finish up our walking tour of the City of Lives (and try out the ART method again) in The Lost District.