Thursday, September 30, 2010

City Generation - Sylvennis

Welcome to Sylvennis, the first district we're going to flesh out and make playable. Let's list off what we know about Sylvennis so far:

  • It's the main residential district for the upper classes.
  • It's filled with Noble Houses vying for control. that it? Whew, we've got our work cut out for us. Let's see what logical conclusions we can come to. Since it is the domain of the nobility, it is logically rich. From there, we can assume it has a large population of servants as well as noblemen. From the fact that the Noble Houses are constantly in conflict, we can assume that the City government has little influence in Sylvennis, being corrupt or absent. In addition to ordinary servants, the Noble Houses must also hire spies, assassins, mudrakers and spin doctors to increase their own political cachet and decrease that of their enemies. Ethical conduct is probably not highly valued, instead decorum and courtesy are held in high regard. 

There's a start. Next, let's go back -- what is the history of Sylvennis? How do rich and noble districts start in the real world? I have no idea. To the internet! Hmm. Nothing relevant. Internet, you have failed me! If any readers want to enlighten me on how cities really come together, how a particular neighborhood becomes associated with a specific social class or interest, I'd be glad to hear. Comment or e-mail me at realmcrafting (at)

Until then, let's cover some other topics.

Religion: Religion would be pretty big in Sylvennis, given that a large proportion of its populace are Sons of Light, considered chosen by the City's primary deity -- and many of Sylvennis's servants are Leovites, the City's priest caste. However, given that the nobility are, by and large, a deceitful and manipulative bunch, they would probably give the church lip service and go about their daily lives without considering its ethical precepts.

Government: Well, we've determined that the formal City government has little influence in Sylvennis. It is then a question of how is it governed? Given that the aristocracy is constantly vying for control in the City, and given they have little oversight, there is only one logical result: a mess of small neighborhoods, constantly varying in size and power as the Noble Houses push back and forth much like street gangs or tiny kingdoms. In each neighborhood, the laws, customs, and priorities will vary, perhaps radically. Conflict will be a way of life, whether social game-playing at parties or physical conflicts on the streets (between the nobles' servants, of course).

Culture: The defining adjective describing Sylvennis is "scheming." Nothing is simple in the aristocracy, whether in London or the City of Lives, and constant games of oneupmanship are daily concerns. Social status, fashion, and etiquette are life-and-death problems. Aside from that, culture changes from House to House, depending on Bloodline and the patriarch or matriarch's personal taste.

And let's round off this post with a few interesting Locations in Sylvennis:

House Idoletta
Description: Seat of the Sky-Carver Idoletta family's power
Threat: Failing house will do anything to restore their power
Aspect: Beware of Cornered Nobility
Face: Suliana Idoletta - Desperate Sky-Carver Matriarch Will Do Anything to Restore Her Status

House Daceas
Description: Seat of the Promethean Daceas family's power
Theme: The single biggest supporter of the arts, but they don't protect themselves well enough from political machinations.
Aspect: An Artist's Eye Can't See Behind Her
Face: Oritryta Daceas - The Perfect Patron of the Arts

House Gwaioth
Description: House of the powerful Son of Light Gwaioth family
Theme: The Gwaioth family hides an shameful secret - they're Dead-Bloods
Aspect: A Powerful Family Protects Their Dark Secret
Face: Aliavera Gwaioth - Blood-Denying Avant-Garde Matriarch

Join me next time for another district with City Generation - Templedowns.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

City Generation - Locations

Last time, we drew up the districts for the City of Lives. But that is only the vaguest sketch of the City. We do not think of Los Angeles only as Hollywood, Ventura, and Studio City -- we know the Warner Bros. backlot and water tower, Graumann’s Chinese Theater, and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. These locations -- landmarks, important businesses, sites for potential adventure -- are vital to creating a city suitable for roleplaying. Thankfully, The Dresden Files RPG recognizes this fact, and provides a handy system for laying out important locations and defining its essential characteristics.

The characteristics DFRPG identifies are:
  • Name: Obviously, the name of the location
  • Description: A brief description of the location
  • Theme or Threat: Whether the location is mundane or malevolent.
  • The Idea: Detailing the important theme (or threat) to keep in mind when telling stories about this location.
  • Aspect: Just like a character Aspect, this is the most defining characteristic of the location.
  • Face: The person most strongly associated with the location, that the PCs will mostly interact with -- the barkeep, household head, guildmaster, etc.

So, with these in mind, let’s see what we can brainstorm. I want to create locations that really reflect the important themes of the City -- so let’s start with a center of class warfare. Perhaps the border of the territories controlled by one of the noble houses and one of the Iversdotter street gangs. Okay. Let’s assume that the division is defined by a cross street -- Thousand-Eye Lane? Hoplite Road? Valkyr Street? Spirit Walk? We want something evocative -- and, specifically, evocative of its border status -- so how about Verge Street?

So Verge Street is the border between the territory of House Jocasti, a Promethean power, and the Grim-Grin clan of Iversdotters. Each has their own ideas of how to treat their “subjects” (official City rights having no place here), and each wants to expand their power. Verge Street could be the front line, a no-man’s-land, or a small, Casablanca-esque neutral zone. I like the front line idea, with the constant fight making the residents’ lives difficult. Sounds like a “Threat” to me -- with the Idea being “the front line of a war the civilians want no part of.” Let’s distill that into an Aspect that can be invoked and compelled -- how about “Unsafe Streets” -- no, something more evocative: “Gang Warfare Spills onto the Streets.” Maybe a bit better, but it sounds like a newspaper headline. Let’s take a step back. The Aspect is what is going to affect the PCs, should they ever venture here -- they will likely not be associated with either side of the conflict, but perhaps they will be forced to be: “Pick a Side, or Face Two Armies.” That’s a little better. It gives a sense of what’s going to be the focal point of any adventure taking place in Verge Street -- being pulled in two directions, and the difficulty of staying out of these particular local politics.

Now we need a Face -- a person associated with this place. Actually, I think since there are two sides here, we need two Faces, one for House Jocasti and one for the Grim-Grin clan. The Jocasti presence here is unlikely to be anyone of particular importance to the House -- the nobles are unlikely to want to get their hands dirty. So perhaps a charismatic street general they’ve hired -- probably a Leovite, as they tend to be servants for the Noble Houses. I run to my name generators again, looking for a Biblical-sounding name, as I do for the Leovites: Jothary, that’ll do. Jothary needs a Character Concept Aspect: “Charismatic Leovite General Who Leads By Example.” Perhaps that can be cut down, but it’ll do for now. On the Iversdotter side, it’s more likely that one of the Grim-Grin leaders is on the front lines, so let’s create Milvia Grim-Grin, who is willing to do anything to forward her clan’s needs. Character Concept: “Grim-Grin Leader with Dirty Hands” -- again, we might come back to that, but it’ll do for now.

Okay, let’s look at this in proper layout:

  • Name: Verge Street
  • Description: The violent border between House Jocasti’s holdings and the Grim-Grin clan.
  • Threat
  • The Idea: The front line of a gang war with no middle ground
  • Aspect: “Pick a Side, or Face Two Armies”
  • Faces:            Jothary - Charismatic Leovite General Who Leads By Example
  •                      Milvia Grim-Grin - Grim-Grin Leader with Dirty Hands

Looks pretty good. I can think of a couple of adventure hooks already: the PCs are contacted by a civilian shopkeep who wants to stop being harassed by both sides, and they have to defend him or help him pick a side; the PCs are trying to cross the City, and have to pass through Verge Street -- one of them is injured, and they have to find a way to get their compatriot back, either choosing a side or (with difficulty) avoiding the conflict; already working for House Jocasti or the Grim-Grins, the PCs are tasked with taking over for the current general (against their strong objections) and pushing the front forward past Verge Street.

All right. So that’s how Locations work, and we’ve created the City’s first. Many more are necessary, of course, but it’s a fine start. Join me next time as I flesh out the first of my districts in City Generation - Sylvennis District.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

City Generation - Districts

As you will recall if you tuned in on Monday, I originally planned on writing this post on character power level and advancement to round out the posts on character generation. However, as I was writing it, I found I didn't really have much to say about the topic, and I didn't want to waste your precious time reading something dull. So I will summarize quickly, and move on to a more interesting topic -- city building!
  • How powerful and experienced characters should be and how realistic the setting should be depends on the GM and players, but it's best to have a default choice to give people a place to start from.
  • I find the City of Lives should live in a basically realistic universe, but wherein the player characters are extraordinary people and can act at the peak of human endeavor: like The Bourne Identity, Supernatural, or The Dark Tower series.
  • Similarly, PCs should, by default, be experienced but not true veterans, having been professionals for approximately 3-5 years.
  • Character advancement in CoL will work according to the rules laid out in the Dresden Files RPG, because it is simpler and more elegant than anything I could work out on my own.

All right. Let's move on. It's time to build ourselves a city [cracks knuckles]. We have the player characters all generated, now they need a world to inhabit, a place filled with adventure and possibilities. The City of Lives is vaguely is vaguely sketched out: the centerpiece of the multiverse, travelers from thousands of worlds visit daily; noble houses vie for power as the lassez-faire government stays out of it; tensions between bloodlines constantly erupt into class warfare. But where and how do people live? What are the important landmarks and who are the important people in the City?

First: Districts. Every city has its neighborhoods and districts -- shopping, financial, residential, entertainment. Myself, I like the idea that the City was designed with a careful, precise layout -- that has almost completely fallen apart. Originally, the City was precisely divided into 12 (10? 14?) districts, split like spokes on a wheel or slices of pie -- but over the centuries, they've wandered over their proscribed boundaries like disobedient children.

Let's brainstorm. What districts are necessary in a city?
  • harbor
  • market
  • upper-class residential
  • middle-class residential
  • lower-class residential/slums
  • financial/banking
  • government
  • bureaucracy/administration
  • entertainment
  • industrial
  • storage/warehouse
  • religious
  • university
  • guilds
  • law and courts
  • tourism -- particular to the City of Lives, a cross-Realm travel and tourism district.
  • and since this is a roleplaying setting, let's also add in a forgotten, sealed-off area full of dangers and treasures -- a "Lost District" perfect for dungeoncrawling.
Hmm. We've got seventeen districts here. That seems excessive and complicated. Maybe we can consolidate a few of these.
  • The warehouse district? Let's collapse that into the harbor district.
  • bureaucracy -- that can collapse into the financial district, the guilds district, or the government district. Let's split the difference, and say that there is city administration in both the guilds and financial districts.
  • and law? I like the idea that the City maintains its lassez-faire doctrine so far that it barely has any courts, and no government-run police force whatsoever. So let's pull that out entirely.
This leaves us with fourteen. That seems reasonable. Time for some names. Now, I can't brainstorm a full bevy of names all on my own -- only a couple come to mind off-hand. So I will travel across the interwebs to some random name generators: this onethis one, and this one. Some time winnowing down the possibilities and playing with the results, and we end up with: 
  • Council Heights -- government
  • Sylvennis – residential, nobility
  • Templedowns (or Soulhearst) – churches, religion
  • The Factorium – tradesmen, industry
  • The Lost District – walled-off dumping ground
  • Penelope’s Wharf – harbor, warehouses
  • The Crux – inter-Realm travel, tourism
  • Orhall – guilds, administration
  • Corhurst – residential, middle-class
  • Sagelights – academics, crafting training
  • Tradespoint – market
  • Clovenmouthe – residential, slum
  • Belltown – entertainment, theatre, prostitution
  • Solura – finance, supporting administration & bureaucracy
Okay, looks good for a start. Next time, we'll find some specific interesting locales in City Generation - Landmarks.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Character Generation: Skills

One of the foundations of any Fate-based game is the Skill List -- but it varies from game to game. A designer or GM is expected to determine what Skills are likely to be useful in their particular setting. The first official Skill List was published in  Spirit of the Century, and for the most part, it is a generic enough list to cover most campaigns: from Athletics to Rapport, from Survival to Academics. However, some are particularly "pulp," either simply in name: Fists for unarmed combat; or in concept: Mysteries is the knowledge of hypnotism, far Eastern herbalism, etc. Adaptations to this list exist in each published Fate product: far-future Diaspora adds things like MicroG (for moving and fighting in places without gravity) and Navigation (space) (for navigating starships). The Dresden Files RPG splits the mental Skill Resolve into two pieces, Discipline and Conviction, to better represent the mental world of the wizard, and reorients Mysteries into Lore, representing a more academic knowledge of the supernatural to supplement the characters' actual magical abilities.

For my own purposes, I knew I had to make some changes: some different in mechanics, some different in scope, some different simply in terminology, all to reflect the difference between the genres of pulp and high fantasy -- and, more specifically, the world of City of Lives.

Here's the  Spirit of the Century Skill List, and afterwards, I'll lay out which Skills I changed for use in CoL, and why.
  • Academics
  • Alertness
  • Art
  • Athletics
  • Burglary
  • Contacting
  • Deceit
  • Drive
  • Empathy
  • Endurance
  • Engineering
  • Fists
  • Gambling
  • Guns
  • Intimidation
  • Investigation
  • Leadership
  • Might
  • Mysteries
  • Pilot
  • Rapport
  • Resolve
  • Science
  • Sleight of Hand
  • Stealth
  • Survival
  • Weapons
  • Academics: Covering scholarship and knowledge outside the sciences, Academics will work just fine in CoL -- but I'll rename it Lore to help emphasize the fact that, unlike modern life, most knowledge in the City is passed on unofficially and without proper schooling.
  • Additionally, because multiculturalism and travelers from across the worlds are a central part of CoL, we will strip out one part of Academics into a fully-fledged Skill on its own -- Cultures. Cultures represents a character's knowledge of a foreign or sub-culture's customs, beliefs, language, etc., and is distinct enough from Academics to be worth creating a new Skill.
  • Art: In order to create a sixth Crafting Skill (see my previous post on magic), I renamed and slightly reimagined Art as Creativity, as an internal character trait rather than representing knowledge and formal training.
  • Drive: In a pre-industrial world, there aren't any automobiles. But rename it Ride and apply it to horses, and 90% of the mechanics translate. Done!
  • Endurance/Might: There is a piece of advice (whose provenance has, unfortunately, escaped me) about Fate -- every Skill in a Fate-based game should be worth building a character around. It must be something a player wants to be: the duelist (Melee), the rich guy (Resources), the con artist (Deceit). To me, that implies that every Skill must be in some way active, be something a character can use to affect their environment. There are two Skills in Spirit of the Century that do not fit this rule: Endurance and Resolve -- both passive, defensive Skills.
  • By splitting up Resolve into Conviction and Discipline and making them both Crafting Skills integral to magic use, I've solved that problem. For Endurance, I go the other route -- nobody wants to be "the tough guy," unless it is coupled with commensurate strength. Combine the passive Endurance with the active (but not very versatile) Might to make the composite Skill Vigor, and we've got a solution!
  • Engineering: In a medieval fantasy setting, I might cut out this Skill -- invention and mechanics -- entirely, but CoL has a culture and technology akin to our 18th century, so a limited version of Engineering  -- Artificing siege engines and clockwork contraptions -- is appropriate.
  • Fists/Weapons: The high fantasy genre has little place for unarmed combat -- it is more about swords and axes and -- at worst -- chairs and broken bottles. Hence, I fold unarmed combat (for those few who want to use it) into Weapons, and rename it Melee (combat) to reflect its expanded purview.
  • Gambling: While high-stakes poker on riverboat casinos are a staple of pulp fiction, they have a much smaller place in high fantasy. Any necessary gambling can be modeled through the use of Deceit or Sleight of Hand.
  • Guns: The City of Lives has no firearms, so this Skill has no use as written. However, like Drive, I need only rename it to Ranged (weapons) and reclassify it for bows, slings, and thrown weapons, and 90% of the Guns mechanics work without further modification.
  • Mysteries: In Spirit of the Century, Mysteries were exactly that, the unknown and supernatural. In City of Lives, magic is mundane and part of everyday life -- and the populace's knowledge of magic is intimately connected to their understanding of the natural world. So Mysteries is an inappropriate Skill for CoL, but bits of it can be folded into Philosophy (see below).
  • Pilot: There are no airplanes in the City of Lives, and any flying mounts can be controlled with the Ride skill. Hence, we'll strike this Skill completely.
  • Resolve: Like The Dresden Files RPGResolve into the twin skills of Conviction and Discipline to better model different kinds of magic user. See my previous post on magic for more.
  • Science: The natural philosophers and alchemists who predated scientists in our own world looked at the natural world in a different, more holistic fashion, and the same is true of those who learn Philosophy in CoL. Part of Philosophy is what we would call hard science, but it also includes the knowledge of the social sciences, mathematics, religion, magic, medicine, and, of course, philosophy. The experts in Philosophy have a wider range of knowledge than modern experts in Science, but they know less about each subject -- and even less is actually correct (the what revolves around the what now?)
It seems to me that at this point, the City of Lives Skill List is perfectly functional and seems to cover all the necessary bases. Next time, Character Generation - Power Level and Advancement.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Character Generation: Phases - in Practice

As you will recall, last time I laid out the "phases" used in Fate character creation, and some of my players' issues with it. This time, we'll go over what I did to attempt to pacify my players, and how well it worked out.

I created a haphazard, jury-rigged solution, inspired by the two DFRPG Aspects that are unassociated with phases -- High Concept, which is a capsule description of your character, like "Spell-Slinging Anti-Hero" or "Grizzled Soldier of Fortune," and Trouble, which describes an internal conflict or external problem plaguing the character, like "I Know Who I Stand With, What Do I Stand For?" or "On the Run From Jabba the Hutt." The Aspects I laid out for my players were as follows:

  • Bloodline: This Aspect describes the character's Bloodline, as well as their relationship to it. My players had ones like "Grudgingly Power-Hungry Sky-Carver" or "Pariah Pariah"
  • Character Concept: This Aspect is identical to the High Concept from DFRPG, but with a name I liked better. My players had ones like "Mad Philosopher Trying to Improve Humanity" and "Assassin Detective."
  • Dilemma: Again, the same as DFRPG, but with a more evocative name for the mundane Trouble. My players had ones like "Can't Reconcile Myself to My Race" and "Future Good vs. Present Necessities."
  • Youth: Essentially, I simply distilled Phase 1 into a single Aspect, requiring nothing more than a single thought about the character's origins. This was difficult for many of my players, but (eventually) I got ones like "Sons of Light Killed My Mother" and "Old Soul, Young Perspective."
  • First Adventure: Again, I distilled Phase 3 into a single Aspect, asking that each player consider how their character got into the business of "adventuring." Several players bristled at this, considering it my job to come up with the exciting bits, not theirs, but eventually I got Aspects like "New Views of the World" and "My Mother's Resurrection Went Wrong."
  • Aspect 6 and Aspect 7 were free-form, available to be filled however the player liked. However, as mentioned briefly in my first Magic: Rules of the Game post, each Craft a character learned required an associated Aspect to reflect how living that magic changes a person, and since every PC had at least one Craft, most of these free-form Aspects became Crafting Aspects, like "Getting Around the Obstacles" for a Realmshifter and "Revealing the Hidden and Hiding the Visible" for a Lightshifter.
Most of my players ended up taking a long time to fill out these seven Aspects, having difficulty defining their character (and in coming up with pithy names, which several were far too obsessed with). Arguably, because they skipped the Phases step of character creation, they found their characters too loosely defined to easily figure out.

But that was the minor problem. The major difficulty was in the lack of party cohesion. None of the PCs (save two) had any link to one another before the game began, so I had to introduce an artificial force to bring them all together (as I had no intention of using the old "you meet in a tavern, and decide to explore the old ruins together" cliche). This artificial force was a woman offering them a job -- but since the vision for the campaign was epic and open, I knew the job wouldn't last past the first story arc.

As I predicted, they eventually decided their employer was untrustworthy, and chose not to finish her job... and immediately they began to break apart. The party stayed together far more out of metagame necessity rather than in-story reason -- one character in particular, a rather deceitful mad scientist with his own set of priorities, had no plausible excuse for sticking with the rest of the characters -- and all of them hated him, so they had no reason to let him stay. Another character was motivated primarily by a love for explosions, so when I introduced the epic quest that was to become the main focus of the campaign, she had no interest and no reason to embark on this dangerous journey.

Not all of these problems would have been solved through the use of Phases -- certain problems of motivation and intra-party conflicts arise in all campaigns... but I do think a sense of camaraderie and trust would have gone far in keeping the party together and on track.

In short, phases are a useful tool, and one I plan on incorporating into the final City of Lives product -- but perhaps with an optional alternate system in place for players like my current playtesters. Next time, join me as I examine the range of Skills useful in The City of Lives...

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Character Generation: Phases - the Theory

Phases are an innovative and integral part of Fate character creation -- and yet, oddly enough, one that many players despise, and which can be easily ignored.

In short, phases are a method for laying out a character's past in a clear and mechanically useful fashion. For each phase, a player writes a few sentences about their character's history, covering a particular period in their life. In every Fate game so far, there are five phases as a default. Their names and precise function vary from game to game, but essentially look like this:
Phase 1: Background and Youth
Detail where the character came from, what their childhood was like, what inborn talents and deeply-ingrained beliefs they have.
Phase 2: Becoming an Adult
Detail how the character started "coming into their own," how they began the occupation detailed in their Archetype, what lessons they learned in late adolescence and early adulthood.
Phase 3: The First Adventure
The first truly exciting moment for the character, what thrust them into the adventurous lifestyle they will play during the game proper. The player is encouraged to write the events of this phase in the style of the game: Spirit of the Century as the blurb on the back of a pulp novel, Starblazer Adventures as a comic book synopsis, my old time-travel game as a military-style mission report.
Phase 4: First Guest Star
The character takes part in another PC's First Adventure phase, establishing a history between the two characters.
Phase 5: Second Guest Star
Same as Phase 4, but in a second PC's First Adventure.
[note that this means that two other PCs will guest star int his character's First Adventure].

The phases serve three purposes:

  1. To lay out a character's history, to make sure every player knows their PC and where they came from.
  2. To establish a shared background between PCs, so that during play they will have both interesting interactions and reason to stay together.
  3. To help establish Aspects...
As you will recall, Aspects are physical or mental characteristics of a character that help define who they are. Logically, anything that defines a person must have arisen at some point in their life -- at birth, if biological; in childhood or adolescence, if a personality trait; in adulthood, if a trauma or deeply-held belief. Thus, phases are a tool for helping a player determine their Aspects.

In Spirit of the Century, Diaspora, Starblazer Adventures, and Legends of Anglerre (the newest Fate-based product, a generic-fantasy game with the same ruleset as Starblazer Adventures), each phase has two associated Aspects, for a total of ten; in The Dresden Files RPG, each phase gives only one Aspect, while two Aspects are unassociated with phases.

So as you see, phases are a fundamental piece of Fate, and ensures PCs knew each other before the adventure begins. However, some players find phases repellent. They don't like looking into the background of their character, seeing where they came from. Perhaps they don't yet know their character well enough to find their past; or perhaps they like their PC to have a bit of mystery (who wasn't a bit disappointed at Wolverine's origin, whether in comics or on film? Alternately, they may not like the idea of associating Aspects with time of life -- who can say when or how someone acquires "A Sense of Justice," or figured out "My Favorite Color is Blood?"

Additionally, many players don't like creating characters with previous ties to one another. "I don't know their character," reasons the player, "it will ring false to pretend my character does, instead of just getting to know them naturally." So, for two of three Fate-based games I've run, I've modified or abandoned the phase system. For one, I cut the phases down to three, allowing the players to work out who their characters were, but removing the links between their respective characters' pasts. Luckily, the campaign structure allowed me to keep them together, as they were a mission team within a military command.

The most recent group, who have been playtesting The City of Lives, has perhaps not been so lucky. They disliked both parts of the phase system, and requested I cut it out entirely. Next time I will go over my solutions, and what happened, in Character Generation: Phases - in Practice.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Character Generation: Archetypes

In the last few posts, I've occasionally mentioned "archetypes." As bloodlines tell where a character comes from, an archetype tells what they do. The first thing to note, in contrast to D&D, is that archetypes are purely optional. In D&D, your class is who you are. In Fate, things are more flexible -- you can make a character who specializes in anything, or in nothing at all, with a random assortment of skills and stunts. However, some guidance can be helpful, and certain types of character are traditional in the high fantasy genre. Hence: archetypes.

Each archetype is a profession or vocation, with recommended skills and stunts for the character to choose in order to be most effective. Each archetype has two or three sub-types, or "builds," reflecting different ways that type of character could go.

The archetypes are:

  • An extremely rare character type (unless paired with magic as per the D&D Bard), the performer or painter isn't terribly useful in many RPGs -- but as two bloodlines in the City hold art in the highest regard, the Artist is far more useful in the City than they might be out dungeoncrawling.
  • Builds: Artiste, Avant Garde, Artistic Crafter
  • An unconventional character type, I nonetheless feel the runner (inspired by Mirror's Edge) and acrobat have serious potential in a primarily urban setting.
  • Builds: Equestrian, Runner, Acrobat
  • This character type is loosely analogous to the "spellsword" or "magic knight"-type character, capable of swinging sword in one hand and slinging spells with the other.
  • Builds: Elementalist, Battle-Form Shifter
  • A classic character role, capable of sneaking, opening locks, and disarming traps. Simple, basic, but useful.
  • Builds: Assassin, Cutpurse, Second-Story Man
  • This character role -- a leader of men, focused on assisting their compatriots both in and out of combat -- was uncommon until recently, but more RPGs (notably, D&D 4th edition) include it now.
  • Builds: Bureaucrat, Crime Lord, Platoon Leader
Court Crafter
  • A Crafter working for the noble houses, skilled in social skills as well as magic. Court magicians and soothsayers have a long history in fiction but not in roleplaying, and I sought to change that.
  • Builds: Counselor, Relicsmith
  • Another character type usually represented only in modern or future RPGs and abandoned in fantasy, the courtier knows everyone and puts people together -- particularly appropriate for a campaign filled with court politics and class warfare.
  • Builds: Attendant, Information Merchant
  • One of the few archetypes designed for the world outside the City, the Explorer is an expert in the wilderness and foreign cultures.
  • Builds: Ranger, Realmshifter
  • A character type often lumped in with the Burglar, the mountebank is a con artist, an expert in deceit -- again, forgotten in fantasy where the PCs only interact with quest-givers and monsters, but appropriate to an urban setting.
  • Builds: Master of Disguise, Swindler
  • The scientist and medic -- often neglected in fantasy games, I feel it is vital in a world with the approximate technology level of the 18th century.
  • Builds: Artificer, Physician, Sage
  • Priests in many RPGs are magic-users, calling down the gods' wrath or healing word, the City has no interventionist deities. Therefore, these priests fulfill a social role more like their historical models, wielding political influence and soothing wounded souls.
  • Builds: Cultist, Lightspeaker
  • The basic "fighter" type, whether a professional or amateur. A core and simple character type.
  • Builds: Archer, Duelist, Thug
Street Crafter
  • In a magic-rich society, it only makes sense that the street magicians and traveling fortune-tellers  have genuine magical abilities. That's what this archetype is.
  • Builds: Fortune-Teller, Performer
  • A specialist in money and goods. Arguably the least exciting and adventurous archetype in the game, but I think it has potential.
  • Builds: Caravaner, Junk Merchant
There are obviously other types of character to create: Dragonriders, magical archers, ninja, but my archetypes cover most of the kinds of characters likely to appear in The City of Lives. With these archetypes in place, players have guidance but also freedom. Join me next time as we continue Character Generation for Phases.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Magic: The Rules of the Game, Part 2

Last time, I found the Dresden Files RPG magic system and began changing it to suit my purposes. Since then, I've had an opportunity to playtest some of these changes in an actual tabletop environment. First -- surprise. I had put this system (and character generation as a whole) together to allow for a variety of character types. Like the D&D classes, but more flexible (more on this in a later post), my "Archetypes" laid out character options: soldier, philosopher, courtier, athlete -- and Crafter. Among 14 archetypes, only 3 included Crafting as part of their default package. I expected most of my PCs to be fairly mundane, with perhaps a minor Craft ability thrown in here or there, and one or two full Crafter.

I miscalculated. By granting full magical power for the cost of one stunt, I had opened the floodgates. The soldier was also a fully capable Flameshaper and Blightshifter; the demolitionist decided to do half her tricks via Relicshaping. The diplomat happened to be a Realmshifter nonpareil. I was faced with a conundrum -- is this good? Evidence that my magic system is exciting and attractive, and should I just assume that every person in the City of Lives wield magical power -- like the populace of Xanth, or the Tales of Alvin Maker? Or did I make a mistake? Was this abundance of magic diluting the players' original character concepts? Had it become a matter of peer pressure -- "well, their characters can sling spells, so should mine"? Were they relying on the magic too much, and showing a lack of needed diversity in the party? 

The answer to these questions is none too clear, but my gut tells me magic is too easy. The soldier and athlete hardly ever show the skills they had designed their characters around. The philosopher and demolitionist both seem to have taken magical skills out of peer pressure -- neither are comfortable with the rules behind them, and the magic has diluted their character concepts: the philosopher was meant to be a skeptic, and the demolitionist to rely on her ability to "MacGyver" a way out of any dilemma. And yet, when danger rears its head, they all reach for their spell lists.

So, to my mind, there is a problem. And I think I've found a solution. It might turn out that I'm wrong, that a fully magic-rich universe is exactly what this setting needs to be, a version of Mage: the Awakening or a fantasy Champions, or my solutions may not solve the problem, instead just forming new ones. But it's worth a try.

Let's analyze the problem: the characters are overpowered (more on this earlier), and the character concepts are becoming diluted by magic. These two problems can actually be solved at once, by making Crafting more expensive. Instead of costing one stunt to gain full access to a Craft, maybe it should cost a character two or three, but then I still don't really like the idea of stunts that cost multiple slots. So, what to do? Thankfully, one of my players has the answer: associate stunts with summoning power. Instead of determining how much power a Crafter can summon by Conviction  (as in DFRPG) or one of the various Control Skills (as established last time), one stunt allows a Crafter to summon two degrees of power, or Fair (+2) on the ladder. 

Suddenly, there is a definitive difference between a dabbler and a serious Crafter. A soldier who wants to fling a little flame can spend a single stunt on Fair Flameshaping, giving them the ability to summon Fair (+2) power -- and a full-time elementalist is going to buy Fair Flameshaping, then Great Flameshaping, and then Fantastic Flameshaping, allowing them to summon Fantastic (+6) power, or six degrees. We can also model the idea that magic is mundane in the City without being overwhelming, by giving every character the option of gaining a free Fair Crafting stunt as part of their bloodline.

At this point, we have a new, revised system to test. In some future post, I will reveal the effect of these new rules. Until then, join me next time for the first part of Character Generation: Archetypes.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Magic: The Rules of the Game, Part 1

Over the past week, we've gone through my thoughts creating a conceptual, in-world framework for a magic system. However, these philosophical ideas are useless without a rules system to support them in play. Since Spirit of the Century had no magic system, I was forced to range farther afield. I was uncomfortable and overwhelmed with the idea of creating a magic system from scratch, so I ran to the Internet to find a system to modify. At the time I first tackled this problem, there were two professional products based on the Fate system released after Spirit of the CenturyDiaspora and Starblazer Adventures. Both are space-faring sci-fi, so there was no magic to be found there. On the other hand, there is a chapter on mutations and alien abilities in Starblazer that could easily be transformed into magic rules -- but I hate them. The system proposes adding a host of new Skills to Fate, one for every potential special ability -- for my purposes, a "Blightshifting" Skill, a "Flameshaping" Skill, etc. I dislike both a) the addition of sixteen skills to an already-full Skill list, and b) Skills that are only useful for one thing rub me the wrong way. Additionally, Starblazer makes their aliens (and my Crafters) spend Fate points to use their abilities. Since my characters will have quite a bit fewer Fate points than in Starblazer (for reasons we will get into in a future post), this makes me uncomfortable and means the Crafters will be incredibly limited, unbalancing them vs. the other characters.

So, published materials set aside, I searched for unofficial material on fan-sites and message boards. I found a whole host of ideas, but few that seemed appropriate: one fellow posted a system to that proposes an extremely simple magic system allowing the mage to place Aspects on a scene -- simple and elegant, but much too limited for the spell-flinging Crafters I envision; another, in Fate of the Rings from the Fate Yahoo group, models spells in the same way as the "Universal Gadget" and "Weird/Mad Science" rules from Spirit of the Century -- simple and easy to convert, but complex to use in play and stylistically wrong for high fantasy. The most promising appeared in similar form in two places: Spirit of Steam & Sorcery from the Yahoo group (an adaptation of the old Castle Falkenstein RPG), and Mike Olson's blog Spirit of the [blank], where he proposed a very flexible and modular magic system (ironically enough, in an attempt to mimic the D&D system I was trying to avoid). These systems, particularly Mike Olson's take on it, had two ideas I loved: First, instead of adding Skills, characters would use their existing Skills for both mundane and mystical uses: "Artificing" govern both conventional engineering and crafting magical items, "Lore" would cover both mundane scholarship and rune work, etc. Second, Olson's magic is made up of little pieces that can be combined to make a spell more effective, but also more difficult: a spell can simply hurt someone, and it's easy -- or it can hurt them and set them on fire, and now it's quite a bit more difficult, but if the mage needs to cast an easy version of the spell, they can just drop the fire aspect without having to "re-memorize" it or any such bollocks. This system, however, ended up being unwieldy -- working out a half-dozen different variables on the fly can be both daunting and slow down the game.

I was stymied. What system to use? None seemed simple enough to fit the rules-light nature of Fate. Then, suddenly: salvation! Evil Hat Productions, the originators of the Fate system and publishers of Spirit of the Century, finally finished their monster project, the Dresden Files RPG. Based on Jim Butcher's popular urban fantasy Dresden Files series, centering on the only wizard listed in the Chicago Yellow Pages, the DFRPG had a complete, flexible, and simple magic system.

When casting a spell, a wizard in DFRPG chooses how much power to summon up, chooses one of a couple simple mechanical effects (Attack, Block, Counterspell, or Maneuver - which places a temporary Aspect on the target), the element it's associated with, and rolls their Discipline to see if they successfully control the amount of power they summon.

For more complex spell,s what DFRPG calls Thaumaturgy, the wizard has to take their time, invoking Aspects, adding ingredients, taking Consequences (a type of purely negative Aspect usually suffered in combat), or actually sitting out of play while they cast the incantation. A bit more complicated for the players, but still manageable.

Now that I found a system I liked, I needed to modify it to suit my purposes. The DFRPG system was good, but a few pieces were inappropriate for The City of Lives. First was the element system. In DFRPG, a wizard can gain command over all four elements with fairly little difficulty. In CoL, a Crafter is defined by their Craft -- gaining a second or third Craft should be difficult -- controlling all 16, impossible. To accommodate this, I made two changes: to Skills, and Stunts.


The DFRPG magic is based around two Skills: Conviction, representing force of will, which determines how much power a wizard can summon up as well as resisting mental stress; and Discipline, representing, well discipline, which determines how much power a wizard can control, as well as controlling emotion, resisting interrogation, etc. For CoL, I felt Discipline didn't fit every type of Craft: Flamecrafting should be ruled by Creativity; Bloodshifting is logically related to Vigor; Mindsharing

Chaos Order
Shaping Shaping
Creativity Discipline
Flameshaping Waveshaping
Skyshaping Worldshaping
Forceshaping Relicshaping
Sharing Sharing
Empathy Rapport
Soulsharing Mindsharing
Dreamsharing Farsharing
Shifting Shifting
Vigor Conviction
Bloodshifting Blightshifting
Wildshifting Realmshifting
Shadowshifting Lightshifting

You'll notice I assigned Conviction as a control Skill rather than for summoning energy. That's all right, we'll just let one Skill function for both summoning and control -- its unbalancing effect should be counterbalanced by its more limited nature in controlling only a single Craft instead of four elements.


The Dresden Files RPG is designed to be low fantasy: living in a hidden world beneath our own, wizards of major power are not only rare, but almost unique. This is reflected in its rule system: for each stunt a DFRPG character takes, their maximum Fate Point total goes down by one, with a maximum of 9 stunts, leaving only one Fate Point left to influence the world. A DFRPG wizard has to spend seven stunts on their magic, reflecting that it takes up most of their life, and that they will never be able to throw around magic like a D&D spellcaster. In the world of CoL, magic is mundane -- a large portion of the population has at least some skill at Crafting, and becoming a Crafter is no different from being an artist or engineer in our own world -- and the most powerful can shift the world like molding clay. Additionally, I didn't like the mechanics of stunts costing multiple slots, as the wizarding abilities in DFRPG do -- so, I radically reduced the cost of things. Instead of a 4-stunt power of Thaumaturgy and 3-stunt Sorcery, I simplified it down to one stunt per Craft, with the additional cost of an Aspect related to how that mystical energy changes how the Crafter sees the world.

As a starting point, this looks good. However, everything needs playtesting and editing -- meet me next time for Magic: The Rules of the Game, Part 2, as we take a look at what works and doesn't around the gaming table.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

My Philosophy of Setting and Game Design

Before we move further on, we need to have a discussion on game philosophy. I previously wrote on my players’ desires and preferences, but I have waited until now to edify you regarding my own.


I had certain goals for this setting, informed by my philosophy and likes. As discussed in the post on inspiration, I wanted a wide, free setting rich with possibilities. This sort of setting is not necessarily my favorite for fiction -- I like everything in a fiction setting to tie together, in accordance with the Law of Conservation of Detail. For example, I prefer Fringe to The X-Files, because everything revolves around mad science -- and, ultimately, the parallel universe.

I like an RPG setting to be broader in scope, to allow for all sorts of adventure. However, a focal point is necessary, to avoid complete chaos and confusion. D&D has too little focus in my opinion, requiring an immense number of decisions from a prospective GM to refine it into a workable campaign. My previous campaigns have also kept to this “wide, but with focus” notion: a campaign with psychics and interdimensional aliens focused on the PCs as teenage runaways as part of a sort of ad-hoc psychic defense force; another ranged all across mythology to populate a hidden world behind the 16th Century Age of Exploration -- but my rule was that everything in the world had to derive from a piece of mythology or literature written before 1575; a time-travel campaign ranging across time, space, and alternate history focused on the teams of spies and commandos intent on changing the timeline to their own.

So: my breadth for The City of Lives is across innumerable worlds, with magic beyond imagining; and my focus is the titular City.

From the base inspiration of the Dead-Blooded, I found a central idea of the City: That metaphors become reality. The hot-blooded Prometheans will literally burn you; The City of the Lives is the center of the universe in a very real way; a politician who promises to “change the world” can use powerful magics to do exactly that.

Two central themes of The City of Lives are that the City can be anything its citizens can desire, and that it will never, ever, be exactly what anyone wants. This is, of course, nothing new -- you can say the same about any metropolis -- but it seems a particularly apt metaphor for the City of Lives. And since metaphors turn real in the city, that gives rise to some very interesting implications: The City is perfectly capable of literally changing to fit the desires of a visitor -- and being at the center of the multiverse, a man could literally search forever for the missing piece of his life.

I want a campaign setting to feel real. Counter-intuitively, this does not necessarily mean answering every question about every possible topic. A setting where some mysteries are unsolved, where some horizons are unexplored, will actually feel more real to the players -- just like the real world, not everything can be wrapped up in a neat bow.

On a related note, I love intrigue, politics, and complex relationships, and I wanted to reflect that in this setting. I have always been attracted to the notion of class warfare, the relationship between upper and lower classes -- especially in an unequal, repressive society -- and that became an integral piece of The City of Lives.

These thoughts on what I want out of the setting naturally lead me to what I wound out of the…


To me, roleplaying is about telling a story. Unlike literature, TV, film, plays, or (most) video games, the story a tabletop RPG campaign tells is collaborative. The players’ choices, the results of their die rolls, how the GM responds in the moment to unexpected decisions and dice results -- all these inform how the story will eventually turn out.

In traditional “old school” game design, the GM is completely in charge of the story, with players subject to the whim of the dice or GM’s capriciousness and having little recourse in pushing the story in their preferred direction. To me, this is unsatisfying -- it’s not so much collaborative as the GM playing puppeteer. Hence, the Fate system -- through the use of Aspects, players point the GM in the direction they want the campaign to go, the sort of things important to their character; through the use of fate points, players can guide their characters’ destinies -- avoiding failure when a task is important to the PC or one that they are particularly good at. Even death is story-dependent. When a character falls in combat, they are “Taken Out,” which could mean anything from death to capture to disgrace -- whichever has richer story possibilities.

I believe characters have a stronger bond and more interesting relations if they have an established past together. My current players disagree, and so only two characters have links -- but for the finished game, I will be using a version of the default Fate character creation system, which ensures each PC has met at least two others (I will go over this in detail in a later post, but for the inquisitive, the Spirit of the Century version is here).

I feel that overly complex, “reality-simulator” rulesets only serve to diminish the storytelling possibilities, bogging players down in charts, tables, and endless die rolls. However, in some respects Fate is too rules-light -- many players like a tactical combat system, or can’t properly envision the action without a map and miniatures. To this end, I adapted it into a more logical and coherent tactical conflict resolution system -- one that can model any kind of conflict, from combat to conversation to computer hacking (this system, and its antecedents in Fate proper and Diaspora, will be detailed in a later post).

Hopefully, my philosophy of campaign and rule design is a little clearer, to both you and to myself, as it will inform all my decisions in creating the world of The City of Lives. Join me next time as I return to Magic: The Rules of the Game.