Sunday, August 29, 2010

Magic: The Rules of the World, Part 2

Welcome back to the magic brainstorm. So far, we've got 16 "disciplines -- broad purviews that guide and limit a wizard (or "crafter")'s abilities. We've divided them into Order and Chaos, but the resulting lists are still rather overwhelming -- for both organization and world flavor. Let's divide them further. First, four of them -- telepathy, empathy, clairvoyance, and illusion -- are obviously mental abilities, so let's set them aside.

Chaos Order
Fire Water
Air Earth
Telekinesis ?
Healing Necromancy
? Teleportation
Animal/Plant Control ?
Shadow Control Light Control
? Magical Item Creation
Mental Mental
Empathy Telepathy
Illusions Clairvoyance

Next: The elements are fundamental forces in a fantasy setting, so let's set them aside. Any other fundamental forces? Well, telekinesis can be seen as manipulating "Force," that mythical fifth element, so let's put that in there. What else? Well, animals and plants could work, as could light and dark... but maybe they belong in a different category. The fundamentals look like they're "Shaping" the world, manipulating it in an unsubtle fashion. This other group -- healing and transformation, animal and plant control, and necromancy are more about changing the natural world, "Shifting" bodies both living and dead. So now we've got got "Shaping" and "Shifting," and the mental disciplines... "Sharing."

Chaos Order
Shaping Shaping
Fire Water
Air Earth
Telekinesis ?
Sharing Sharing
Empathy Telepathy
Illusions Clairvoyance
Shifting Shifting
Healing Necromancy
Animal/Plant Control ?
unclassified unclassified
? Teleportation
Shadow Control Light Control
? Magical Item Creation

We've got a couple awkward leftovers, but I'll bet we can find a place for them: teleportation -- that seems like more of a "shift" and manipulation of bodies, so we'll put that opposite Animal & Plant Control --the static "first here, then there" movement of teleportation opposed by the constant, chaotic movement of the wild. And making magical items -- that's infusing objects with the fundamental energies, so we can place it across from telekinesis. Manipulating shadow and light could go either in shaping (fundamental) or shifting (subtly changing the natural world), but since Shaping is already pretty full, we'll stick 'em in "Shifting." I'm not sure they fit thematically, bu this is a work in progress. Feel free to sound off in the comments!

So the disciplines are laid out. A bit more brainstorming leads to some catchy, fantasy-sounding names, working off Shaping, Sharing, and Shifting as suffixes:

Chaos Order
Shaping Shaping
Flameshaping Waveshaping
Skyshaping Worldshaping
Forceshaping Relicshaping
Sharing Sharing
Soulsharing Mindsharing
Dreamsharing Farsharing
Shifting Shifting
Bloodshifting Blightshifting
Wildshifting Realmshifting
Shadowshifting Lightshifting
Now every type of Crafter will have an individual role and identity: a Blightshifter can raise corpses, talk to spirits, and make an enemy's skin rot off; they tend to be quiet and dour, unwilling to make a close friend of someone they know will soon be dead. A Mindsharer can read thoughts, communicate silently, and force their will upon another; they tend to be great communicators, and obsessed with ordered though. A Skyshaper can summon tornadoes, rainstorms, and fly effortlessly; they tend to be flighty and quick to change both mind and mood. 

So now we have our "cuisines" complete. A quick return to the "ingredients" portion of the magic conversation results in... nothing more certain. Still uncertain if Crafters should mutter incantations or silently summon up energy. Well, perhaps some edification will come as we examine... Magic: The Rules of the Game.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Magic: The Rules of the World, Part 1

Any good fantasy setting has, as one of its defining features, a distinctive magic system. Harry Potter has wands, pseudo-Latin, and magical ingredients; in D&D and its inspiration The Dying Earth, spells vanish from the wizard's mind once cast, and have to be laboriously memorized over and over; The Earthsea Trilogy and The Name of the Wind state that everything in the world can be controlled by their True Names. So, what would my magic be like?

First, I wanted to avoid the D&D tropes as much as possible, because their ideas have always seemed unnatural and unsatisfying. D&D's spells are laid out in a list, with the precise effect and limits laid out and unchangeable, where casting a spell is like picking off a  restaurant menu: when you cast "Magic Missile," it will always have exactly the same ingredients put together in exactly the same way -- the targets, damage, range, and effect are all exactly the same every time the spell is cast, with no leeway in changing it. I wanted my magic to be fluid, flexible, and to reward creativity -- I wanted the PCs to be chefs, cooking from scratch.

However, every chef needs ingredients and a cuisine. For magical ingredients, I was temporarily flummoxed -- I wasn't sure if I wanted the classic "words and gestures," and I was fairly certain I didn't want materials like eye of newt and toe of frog -- but what did I want? Energy from ley lines? Runes? True Names? I set that aside for the time being and moved on to the "cuisines" of magic. I wanted there to be more choice and flavor than "a wizard" able to do anything and everything -- a given magic-user should have a specialty, that informs not only what they are capable of, but who they are.

I started with a central division, between two fundamental concepts of the universe: Order and Chaos. So, every cuisine -- let's call them "disciplines," why not -- will fall under the auspices of Order or Chaos. Sounds like a good start. A good division, provides a central conflict between two types of mages/wizards -- let's call them "Crafters" -- without the moral difficulties of Good vs. Evil. So, what kind of magics should my world include?

We begin with the obvious: Elementalism. Since we're working on a dualistic system, we'll use the traditional Western 4-element system (Fire, Water, Wind, Earth) rather than the Eastern 5-element system (Fire, Water, Earth, Wood, Metal). So which belongs on which side of the dividing line? Fire is obviously Chaos -- and since Water is its opposite, that means Water is Order. Similarly, Earth is obviously Order, which makes Air Chaos.

So for now it looks like this:

Chaos Order
Fire Water
Air Earth

So, another handful of ideas, with a sense of where they go on Order and Chaos: Teleportation/Summoning, Telekinesis, Telepathy, Illusions, Necromancy, and Healing. And it seems like every discipline should have an opposite.

Chaos Order
Fire Water
Air Earth
Telekinesis ?
Healing? Necromancy?
Necromancy? Healing?
? Teleportation
? Telepathy
Illusions ?
Okay, so we've got something here -- though necromancy can be seen as either Chaos (controlling the forces of entropy and corruption) or Order (what's more ordered than dead people?), and since I like the idea of healing also including body modifications and transformation, it can also be seen as either Chaos or Order.

So let's fill this out a little more, with some fairly obvious opposites (or, at least, they're obvious to me...), and a few more disciplines I'm looking for in my game.

Shadow Control
Animal/Plant Control
Light Control
Magical Item Creation
Okay, so we've got a fair start here. But there are a couple places missing opposites, and the question is what goes where -- and there should be more divisions than just Order vs. Chaos -- there's an obvious division between physical and mental, but maybe we can do something else...

Join me next time for Magic: The Rules of the World, Part 2 to determine the answers to these dilemmas.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fate: Free Rules are a Life-Saver

About two years ago, I was looking for a free game system to run an online Play-by-Post campaign. I had grown tired of the rules "crunch" of games like D&D and Rifts, and wanted something simpler and that would give the players more narrative control than in traditional RPGs. I came across a generic game called Fate unassociated with any campaign world, and the first product based on its ruleset: Spirit of the Century, a pulp game in the vein of Indiana Jones or Doc Savage. I immediately adored the system. It was rules-light, gave narrative control, and was very much free. 

As some of you know, D&D 3rd Edition was released under the "Open Gaming License," an innovative form of copyright that released the rules -- but not the setting -- as free, released as text files over the internet. And the cool thing was this: anyone could modify these rules as they saw fit, and publish them -- so long as parent company Wizards of the Coast and the original authors were properly credited. Wizards apparently felt the "OGL" system undercut their profits too much, as they abandoned it in 4th Edition, but the concept and legal license has been snapped up by a number of smaller games -- including Spirit of the Century and Fate. I had a vague notion of eventual publication, so Fate's OGL status sealed it for me in terms of what system to use to run and write my campaigns.

I'll lay out the basics of the system here, so we can follow how I've adapted and modified the rules for my own purposes.

Fudge Dice and the Ladder

All task resolution in Fate is done with Fudge dice (named after the Fudge free universal RPG system). They are six-sided dice with two "+" sides, two "-" sides, and two blank sides. You always roll four of them (4dF), allowing for a result of -4 to +4, with distribution heavily weighted toward a result in the middle (-1, 0, or +1)

Almost everything in the game world can be described with an adjective and a matching number, ranging from Terrible (-2) to Legendary (+8). Roll the dice, compare the result to the ladder, and you can see how well an action succeeded.

Skills, Aspects, and Stunts

Characters in Fate have three important features: Skills, Aspects, and Stunts.

Skills are anything a character is good at, whether learned or inherent. The Skill list varies based on the needs of the setting: The City of Lives includes Athletics, Conviction, Lore, Melee, and Vigor, among others. 

Where Skills tell what a character can do, Aspects tell who they are: personality traits, points of view, quotes, important people and important objects are all types of Aspects. They are a roleplaying guide to the player, a guide to the GM as to what to include in the campaign, and can temporarily improve a character's skills when they're doing something important and in their nature.

Stunts are little ways to end the rules, representing special training or equipment: a +2 bonus to Athletics to run fast (and only to run fast); the ability to spot a liar with Deceit rather than the usual Empathy; a sword enchanted to be harder and sharper; etc.

Fate Points

Last, but not least of the core mechanics: Fate Points. Fate Points represent luck, opportunity, or the hand of fate, depending on how you look at it. They power Aspects, certain Stunts, and...

Magic, next time on Realmcrafting.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bloodlines: Part 2

Welcome back for the second half of the City of Lives' Bloodlines.

Leovites: A nonsense word that popped into my head, I realized that it was a combination of “leo,” meaning “lion” in Latin, and the priest tribe in ancient Hebrew society -- hence, a race of priests and bureaucrats with the blood of lions. They are Stout, akin to Dwarves in D&D (though they quickly moved radically away from that role).

Pariahs: Inspired by European Jews, they live in a ghetto and make it a point not to trust anyone outside their community. They hold a tangible sorrow in their blood. They are Fallen, akin to the Drow in D&D.

Prometheans: Descended from the demigod who brought fire, arts, and science to the people, Prometheans are high-class artists with fire in their blood. They are High Men, akin to Half-Elves or Grey Elves in D&D (depending on the edition).

Rurals: Another refugee from an abandoned project, the Rurals live outside the City and are farmers by profession, vocation, and bloodline -- with natural fertilizer in their blood and plants growing from their flesh. Their simple nature conflicts with the complex politics of the City. They are Cute, akin to Halflings in D&D.

Sky-Carvers: I wanted one bloodline that was naturally magical (a “Fairy” in tvtropes parlance), so I pulled an evocative name out of an old text file where it had been gathering virtual dust, and created a race of devious nobles, as changeable as the air they’re associated with. They’re modeled on every untrusting, scheming noble court I’ve ever read or seen: the royal family from The Chronicles of Amber, The Tudors, etc. Plus, they can fly. They are Fairies, akin to the High Elves or Eladrin in D&D (depending on the edition).

Sons/Daughters of Light: The closest to an “ordinary” or “generic human” race. I decided to keep them distinctive by associating them heavily with the City’s dominant religion (more on that later) and making them nobles with a belief in the divine right of kings. The noble blood in their veins is the most mundane heritage, but arguably the most powerful. They are Mundane, akin to Humans in D&D.

Outlanders: I didn’t want to spend time detailing dozens of races/bloodlines/species, as it would be confusing to players and many races would get short shrift. On the other hand, I wanted to emphasize that anyone and anything can walk into the City -- so the all-encompassing label “Outlander” came into existence, allowing free-form creation of sixteen-limbed spider-lizards, living shadows, or anything else a creative player can come up with (I’ll cover the handful of one-sentence examples I came up with later on).

With these bloodlines laid down, the City of Lives was off to a good start. But I still have an immense number of topics, about both the rules and the universe, to work out. Come back next time for Fate: Free Rules are a Life-Saver.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Bloodlines: Part 1

With a few concepts down, I set out to lay out exactly what this campaign setting would be about. The setting I wanted was obvious: a city connected to a million others, where anything and everything can happen, where everyone eventually ends up. The City of Lives. However, that notion, while a great high concept and place to start, is actually bewilderingly overwhelming. Were I to take that to my players, they would stare at me blank-faced: what kind of anything? Who is the everyone? People like some rules, some structure -- so I set out to create some.

The Neil Gaiman short story "How to Sell the Ponti Bridge" includes an off-hand remark where one character refers to another as "dead-blooded." I was intrigued by that notion. What would it mean to be dead-blooded? Would it mean to have actual dead blood running through your veins? How would that happen? Being brought back to live, but only partially? To be so lazy that part of you actually dies? But no! Obviously, this must be a blood-line, an ethnic group -- and so, therefore, at some point in the past, a dead-blooded person's ancestors had sex with the undead. An unpleasant thought -- and thus, unlikely to be willing. Suddenly a marauding band of pillaging, raping undead barbarians sprang up just outside the City of Lives, and their periodic raids on the City left an entire subculture of rape survivors.


And yet, somehow it seemed perfect. And this notion of bloodlines took a hold of me. I wanted to create some sort of "race" structure as per D&D, but I definitely wanted to avoid the normal "elves and dwarves" types -- and the anthropomorphic animals I'd created previously went too far the other way. So, bloodlines: all the Player Characters (PCs) would be nominally human, but with something unusual -- like the blood of the dead -- in their veins. I liked the metaphor, and the idea of turning metaphor into something solid and real.

I recognized that just throwing together a bunch of random concepts would likely result in messy and repetitious design -- and there a few recognized archetypes for fantasy races that I thought would be useful, given enough of my own spin. Heading over to (careful, it’s addictive), I found the Five Races, and I also recalled an old Dragon Magazine article (to be cited when I can find it) that laid out the race archetypes as used in D&D. Putting them together, I found myself with a list of archetypes I wanted in my game.

Mundane: The ordinary people, usually human, distinctive for, if anything, their flexibility.

Cute: Small tricksters or (sometimes) inventors, with a form of spiritual purity to make up for deficiencies in other areas. Usually less impressive, often less serious, than the other races.

Fallen: Manipulative, backstabbing, and deceitful. Usually evil, but that all depends on your point of view.

Fairy: The inherently magical race. Usually physically weak and somewhat removed from the mundane world.

High Men: Morally, physically, and intellectually superior to ordinary man -- but usually not in a jerk-ass way.

Misfit: Shunned and hated due to their culture or heritage. Often doesn’t have a culture of their own, living within another civilization.

Stout: Short, tough, often gruff and dour. Often overlaps with the...

Proud Warrior Race: Part of a warrior culture, usually obsessed with honor and glory.

Savage: Barbaric, violent, and none too bright. May overlap with the Proud Warrior Race.

I combed through my old half-written stories and unused settings, looking for ideas -- recycling isn't just for aluminum cans! Through a combination of scavenging and original ideas that popped into my head while brainstorming, I ended up with the following:

Dead-Blooded: As I mentioned, the descendants of rape victims. Stigmatized and usually hidden among the other bloodlines, they have necromantic energies coursing through their veins. They are Misfits, akin to the role Half-Elves or Tieflings have in D&D (depending on the edition).

Grate-Scratchers: A name from an abandoned project I always wanted to use, Grate-Scratchers were inspired by the stories of homeless living in the sewers. They can do a lot with a minimum of resources, and literally have sewer water in their blood. They are Misfits, akin to Half-Elves or Tieflings in D&D.

Iversdotters: When looking for a Proud Warrior Race, I wanted to avoid the usual tropes -- so, inspired by a family of female clones from There and Back Again (a sci-fi retelling of The Hobbit), a co-worker’s surname of Iversen, and the desire to have a street gang in the game, the Iversdotters were born. All magical clones of the bloodline’s founder, the Iversdotters value bravery, individuality (ironically), and loyalty to the gang -- which controls a fair bit of the city and acts as an unofficial police force. They are a Proud Warrior Race, akin to Dragonborn in D&D 4e.

Kipmen: An unabashed homage to the AD&D 2nd Edition optional race "Mongrelman," Kipmen are the descendants of human/animal crossbreeding (yes, it's supposed to be gross), likely to have a dog's snout, lizard tail, and feathers instead of hair -- or something equally bizarre. They are violent, stupid, and at the very bottom of the social ladder. They are Savages, akin to Half-Orcs in D&D.

Check in next Monday for the other half of my Bloodlines...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Inspiration

A few months ago, I decided to start up a roleplaying campaign with my girlfriend and some friends of hers. I had been running another game in another city, but the sci-fi system I'd been using was a turn-off to my prospective gamers - and the "urban fantasy" model I'd used another time was also not for them. So - high fantasy it was to be. I replied with one caveat: this was not going to be Dungeons & Dragons. I've played in plenty of D&D games, and, frankly, I've grown tired of it. Too many dour dwarves, too many squishy wizards, too many orcs and goblins and all the old tropes that haven't been interesting or original since Tolkien first laid them down in the forties. I wanted something grander, something stranger, something I could call mine.

So I sat back and thought about old half-finished projects: the crashed spaceship turned fantasy world (abandoned once I learned just how much a cliche that was); the D&D-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off, distinguished only by a variety of anthropomorphic animals that, once again, seemed much more original back when I first conceived it; the RPG treatment of the War in Heaven (still on my list, but with both an atheist and a fervent believer among my prospective players, I decided against that one)... and then I hit upon a half-finished short story that had come tumbling from me a few months previously. It had everything I needed: a world without boundaries; an unusual setting, as close to unique as you can get in this day and age; and only a few details laid out, with immense room to grow.

This story, and the matching campaign setting that began to spill slowly out of my head, has more than a few inspirations. First and foremost are several works by Neil Gaiman (who is as a god to me): The Sandman -- specifically, the arc collected as Worlds' End. The inn known as Worlds' End is a place where people from a variety of times and places and realities can meet and tell stories. The meeting of innumerable worlds represented there -- and, most specifically, the stories "Cluracan's Tale" and "Cerements," made me want to make a city where anyone from anywhere could come and meet. Another work by Gaiman, the obscure short story "How to Sell the Ponti Bridge," was of surprising influence -- it showed another cross-dimensional world, and an off-handed line of dialogue mentions "Dead-Blooded," which proved to be... well, I'll get to that later.

Another significant influence was another worlds-spanning work, the latest volume of House of Mystery for DC Comics, written by Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges. In that work, the titular House of Mystery holds doors to an infinitude of worlds and settings, from pulp sci-fi to sword and sorcery to Lovecraftian horror -- and every character who walks in one of those doors tells a story from their corner of the multiverse. It's worth noting that all of these works I've mentioned so far share two facets: they feature a locale that can be reached from anywhere, and the travelers tell stories of their own strange reality to the others (and thus, by extension, to the reader).

A variety of other works of fiction have conspired in my mind to create this campaign setting, mostly distinguished by the meeting of multiple worlds and/or a large, important city that is as much a character as any individual in the story. And so, drawing on these multitude of sources, I began to create:

The City of Lives

Next time: Bloodlines

Inspirational Bibliography:

* The Chronicles of Amber, Roger Zelazny, 1970-1991 The Great Book of Amber: The Complete Amber Chronicles, 1-10 (Chronicles of Amber)
* The Discworld series, Terry Pratchett, 1983-present (depictions of the city of Ankh-Morkpork) Terry Pratchett Discworld Collection 7 Books Set (Unseen Academicals, the Colour ofMagic, GoingPostal, Making Money, the Light Fantastic, Equal Rites, Mort)
* "How to Sell the Ponti Bridge," Neil Gaiman, found in M is for Magic, 2007 M Is for Magic
* "How To Talk To Girls At Parties," Neil Gaiman, found in Fragile Things, 2006 and M is for Magic, 2007 M Is for Magic
* The MythAdventures series, Robert Asprin (and later Jody Lynn Nye), 1978-present Another Fine Myth/Myth Conceptions 2-in1 (Myth 2-in-1)

* House of Mystery, Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges, 2008-present House of Mystery Vol. 1: Room and Boredom
* Lucifer, Mike Carey, 2000-2006 (particularly the stories featuring Christopher Rudd and the nobility of Hell) Lucifer Vol. 1: Devil in the Gateway
* The Sandman, Neil Gaiman, 1989-1996 (especially stories found in vol. 8, Worlds' End) The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes

* The Dresden Files RPG, Evil Hat Dresden Files Rpg Volume One; Your Story
* Mage: The Ascension, White Wolf Mage: The Ascension (Revised Edition)
* Planescape, TSR Planescape Campaign Setting (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons)
* Spirit of the Century, Evil Hat Spirit of the Century RPG