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.

Friday, November 12, 2010

How to Build a District: The ART method - Corhurst

Okay, so the trifecta of Archetype/Real-Life Inspiration/Theme (Hey, that can be abbreviated at ART! Should it be the ART method/system, or is that too pretentious-sounding?) worked well for creating our Bloodlines. Let’s try the same technique for creating districts.

Where we’re at now is Corhurst, the main middle-class residential district. We begin with the--

Fantasy Archetype: Well, this is tough. I already wasn’t sure if the “archetype” model would translate well from Bloodline to District -- from culture to geography -- and it’s mad that much harder for Corhurst, because the middle class has relatively little presence in most heroic fantasy, so we don’t have much to go on. But... the idea of a safe haven is part of fantasy fiction. The default D&D setting assumptions focus on a town or small city surrounded by wilderness -- it provides the PCs with a place to rest before heading out to explore the hazards outside.

Now, in the City, these dangers are less likely to be rampaging orcs than backstabbing politicos -- but the premise remains the same. A place without double-dealing, where you can trust people, is a luxury in the City of Lives, and should be treasured.

Real Life: I see Corhurst as a bit like suburbia. While it’s inside the City, and thus won’t have the full “lawns and picket fences” vibe, it’s the home of the middle class -- those unprepossessing managers, merchants, and scribes to similar to office workers and retailers on Earth. Let’s take that suburbia concept and use it. Suburbia is associated with greenery -- not wild greenery, but well-manicured vegetation. So -- how ‘bout the City’s biggest park is in Corhurst? A few moments on a random name generator site, and now we’ve got Thywylde Park, a massive expanse of forests and paths, a cross between NYC’s Central Park, London’s Hyde Park, and a park that I lived near during middle school. We’ll go further into Thywylde Park in the Landmark section later.

Theme: An island of peace in a sea of chaos. Most of the City is filled with conflict -- between Houses, between gangs, between Bloodlines. In Corhurst, however, the nature of the middle class Bloodlines’ cultures -- the Leovites’ notion of service, the Iversdotters’ clannish honor, and the Pariahs’ quiet isolation -- tell me the district is unlikely to see a lot of fighting. And that’s not a problem -- on the one hand, Corhurst is likely to be less exciting, filled with fewer adventure seeds, than most other districts. On the other hand, it can be a safe haven, a resting place for PCs between their exciting adventures.

Let’s add in another foundation for the creation of districts -- a Landmark. Some place that helps define the nature of the district, that works with the central metaphor to flesh out the meaning and purposed of the locale. Now, the theme is order in a sea of chaos -- but chaos must occasionally burst through -- for realism, and more importantly, for drama. So how do we represent that in a landmark? Thywylde Park, introduced earlier. The park is manmade, cared-for nature -- order triumphant. But chaos comes in, danger intrudes. Perhaps a hidden wood deep in the park, filled with beasts and monsters... but that doesn’t match the metaphor, that’s more like danger hidden by false order (like The Stepford Wives) or danger contained by order (like a prison).

How can chaos come from outside the park when what’s just outside the park is the sleepy suburbia of Corhurst? From other Realms, of course. So there’s a Shiftgate (or Road, if we end up running with @pryllin’s City of Crossroads ideas) in the park. Now, an ordinary Shiftgate implies no danger -- but what about one that doesn’t work properly? An unstable ‘gate, a sort of tear in reality, that connects to various, random, Realms at random times, spilling out creatures from all across the Realms, both mundane and apocalyptically dangerous. This concept borrows from fiction like Torchwood, Primeval, Discworld’s Sourcery -- the idea that alien danger can show up abruptly at any time.

Well, we've got a nice little district here. Let's also look at a couple pieces of description:

Government: Corhurst is almost completely run by the Iversdotter gangs. Though they are always jockeying for position and territory, their shared cultural heritage (and the nature of that culture as honor-bound and clan-focused) means there is little conflict compared to SylvennisCouncil Heights, and Clovenmouthe. The Clouded Ghetto governs itself, according to ancestral Pariah principles, but the Leovites and those Pariahs who reside outside the Ghetto live under Iversdotter rule.

Religion: Corhurst is filled with small neighborhood churches. Its priests are, in general, more liberal and less picky about rules than Templedowns’ Lightspeakers. Their churches end up being more like community centers than hard-line places of worship.

What do you think of the ART method (and the name?) What do you think of Corhurst? Next time, let's take a look with a A Treatise on the Nature of Divinity.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Letter Column the 1st -- part two

Welcome back to Letter Column the 1st, Part Two... in which we shall finish up pryllin's letter, examine a comment by @kelly, and an e-mail from @anonymous.

@pryllin asks "If the city government is so weak... what does it actually do and why is it still there?" This is, indeed, a dilemma for me. I like the idea of the noble Houses and gangs controlling most of the City -- it's a central conceit of the world. But I also like the idea of a virtually powerless government hopelessly fighting the good fight. And then there's the lassez-faire Elder Trio -- inspired by Discworld's Lord Vetinari and Planescape's Lady of Pain, I'm not sure what their role is anymore, or how their influence is felt, if at all.

So -- perhaps the powerlessness of the City government might actually be emphasized if they have a little more authority. Perhaps a small police force, alternately valiant but outmanned and ridiculously corrupt. The courts do exist and are funded, but are massively overcrowded and backed up. The government manages public works, transportation and foreign policy. That's a start, but maybe there should be more... @pryllin suggests a representative government confounded by too many varied opinions, or a puppet government controlled secretly by the aristocracy, or that the official government is the deciding vote in some kind of aristocratic parliament. I can't say any of these ideas strike me as quite right, but neither are quite wrong. Pondering shall commence.

@kelly points out that Belltown is a district in Seattle. Apparently he hasn't gotten to the post where I discover that and decide to change the name. On the other hand, @anonymous says I shouldn't let the fact that Belltown exists keep me from using it for the setting. Opinions? Use the poll to the right!

@kelly also asks: "What do people in this city eat? Is there some vast extraplanar hinterland that feeds them?" While I think the phrase "vast extraplanar hinterland" is really neat, the City's food source is, by and large, less exotic than that. In the main, their food comes from farms and ranches out on the Julian Plains, just as Chicago gets most of its food from farms across the Midwest. However, as Chicago also gets some food from all across the globe, the City also trades for food and goods all across the Realms, for such delicacies as Blasphemer Pie, Ma'aran Livemeats, and Tuneflesh.

@arrowhen on sensibleerection.com (interesting, but generally NSFW social bookmarking site) says : "I found the few entries I looked at kind of disappointing. I was hoping for insight - more of a "here's the reason behind including Cool Location X" rather that just "Hey, look what I made!"" while @anonymous says "include (especially at the beginning of every blog post, as a kind of introduction) stuff about HOW you are going about constructing this city... this is the kind of stuff I find really interesting. How did you think up these names, where you get your ideas from, etc... you ought to make it more applicable and helpful to the reader who is interested in creating his own RPG--more of a how to." @arrowhen, @anonymous, your points are well-taken. The purpose of this blog has always been two-fold: to share my results, and to share my techniques. Recently, it has drifted too far into sharing my results, with not enough of sharing my techniques. @arrowhen, @anonymous, I shall endeavor to give more informational, design-based posts.

And on that note, let's examine the beginnings of the next stop on our continuing tour of the City of Lives -- Corhurst, the middle-class residential district. Let's see -- what do we know about Corhurst?
  • It is primarily residential, and most of its residents will be IversdottersLeovites, and Pariahs (essentially, the middle class).
Well, that's about it. What logical conclusions can we come to?
  • The Iversdotter gangs are presumably mostly based out of here -- or at least, their leadership probably lives here.
  • The Pariahs have their own ancestral neighborhood, The Clouded Ghetto, so that must be here in Corhurst.
  • Presumably, as the seat of the Iversdotters' power, and with the other two main bloodlines unlikely to cause trouble, Corhurst is very stable politically, financially, and has little crime.
And let's stop here. The Clouded Ghetto comes from a basic conceit of my Bloodline design -- that being, I tried to base each one off of three foundations:
  • Fantasy game archetypes (which I discussed here) -- something recognizable to the fantasy genre, and a good starting point for game balance and player variety of choice.
  • A real-life culture -- basing a culture only on other fictional pieces is not going to result in realistic fiction, much as making a copy of a copy ends up in smudged text.
  • A central metaphor -- all of fantasy fiction (and most fiction in general, IMHO), is based on metaphor. Want to write about terrorism and war, without the inherent political backlash that will come from exploring real-life events in Iraq and Afghanistan? Place your story among the Twelve Colonies and make your terrorist mechanical Cylons, and we've got the amazing Battlestar Galactica. And so should it be not only for your setting, but for each primary element of your setting.
So let's re-examine the Pariahs, in light of that:
  • Archetype: Fallen -- Manipulative, backstabbing, and deceitful. Usually evil, but that all depends on your point of view.
  • Real-life culture: Eastern European Jews (circa the Middle Ages/Renaissance) -- insular, untrusting and untrusted, commonly merchants and moneylenders. Outcasts.
  • Central metaphor: Sorrow They Cannot Let Go
use the other bloodlines. Now, the first instinct in basing them off of European Jews and their stereotypes/archetypes is to make them merchants supreme -- like the Ferengi and Toydarians. But what bout their metaphor and archetype? That implies to me more of an interest in knowledge. In secrets. What better way to avoid being betrayed is to hold everyone's secrets? Thus, the Pariahs are focused on being information merchants -- they know everything and will sell it for a price... except for information on their own, closed-off culture.

Applying this to district-building is easy. A culture so insular must have a neighborhood all their own. Being based on the Jews, I can't resist calling it a Ghetto. Let's name it from the metaphor. Weeping Ghetto? A little too on the nose. Ghetto of Secrets? Doesn't really roll off the tongue. Ah -- a name that implies both sadness and an inability to look in: The Clouded Ghetto. And where is the Clouded Ghetto? Presumably, in the district that houses most of the Pariahs -- Corhurst.

Join me next time as I continue to examine Corhurst and its origins, with How to Build a District: The ART system -- Corhurst

Friday, November 5, 2010

Letter Column the 1st -- part one

Hey, folks, change of plans. Instead of heading to Corhurst, this will instead by my first "letters" column -- or, more accurately, "letter" column, as I'm only going to be responding to a single letter today. So, thanks to @pryllin, who wrote me a critique/fan letter. Thanks from my ego for the praise, and thanks from my brain for the advice. Let's cover a few of the suggestions @pryllin gave me.

He dislikes the name "City of Lives," and recommends I find some piece of my cosmology to name the City after. I both agree and disagree: I like the name "City of Lives" -- it's evocative, and poetic. However, it doesn't necessarily evoke images associated with my city. @Pryllin made some suggestions associated with my setting. Let's look at them:
  • The City of Crafts: Appropriate, but not very poetic or evocative. I vote no.
  • The City of Doors: Unfortunately, already taken as the main "nickname" for Sigil, the central city in the Planescape setting for D&D. I may have Planescape as one of the main inspirations for the setting, but I'm not going to go so far as to steal from them (unless I could go back in team and use the name first).
  • The City of Light: Well, this one has merit: it fits with the fact that "the Light" is the dominant religion. On the other hand, the City is defined more by its multiculturalism than its religious nature -- and, unfortunately, the name "City of Light" is also already taken... by Paris. Hard to compete with a real-life city...
  • The City of Lines: I see the symbolism here -- lines on a map, all roads lead here, kind of thing. But I don't think I live it -- it implies a geometric rationality the City does not possess.
  • The City of Borders: This one has some potential. Thanks to the shiftgates, the City has borders with everywhere. It also implies that the inhabitants of the City belong nowhere, in between all worlds and belonging to none -- which I like. I like the name, though it doesn't have quite the poetry of "Lives." I shall consider...
  • The City of Verges: Similar to "Borders," with more poetry but less grammatical sense. Also worth pondering.
  • The City of Crossroads: The City certainly is a metaphorical crossroads, a meeting place of many worlds. It is also a literal crossroads for the small Rural communities in the Realm of Lives. So it fits -- but it also implies maps and roads, which don't actually exist in Realmshifting... except, wait, maybe they do. There's no reason the portal-like shiftgates couldn't become roads leading into other worlds -- how cool is it to think of a road stretching off into the distance, then turning and seeing that from the side it vanishes in mid-air? And one also has crossroads in life, decisions to make -- which thematically fits the City. I guess The City of Crossroads is the most promising suggestion @pryllin made, and should I decide to change the name of the City and campaign, I shall definitely consider it.
@Pryllin also pointed out the unrealisticness of "spoked" city districts, unless the city was planned from the beginning. Now, in my initial concept, back before I started this blog, the City was planned: the Elder Trio sat down in the Central Spire and magically laid out the City in spokes around them. However, I've since changed the origin, saying simply that the proto-Sons of Light and proto-Prometheans simply settled by the confluence of rivers and the City grew from there in the regular way. But I didn't really know what the "regular" way was, and could (be bothered to) find the time to research it properly. Enter @pryllin, my savior. He informs me that cities tend to start in the following way (obvious once it's said, but I couldn't have said it): "Start with the oldest part of the city and why it was built. Things will expand very quickly from there." -- and he goes on from there, but I won't take up time or violate his privacy any more right now. Suffice it to say, my city map is going to change before it finds its way to the blog. Woof! Urban planning is tough...

Another of @pryllin's concerns was the dichotomy between my current players and the target audience for The City of Lives. As loyal readers will recall, I twisted around the usual Fate phase rules and a few other things to please my players, and introduced more monsters and dungeon crawling than would be my wont.

However, there has been a change that has gone unrecorded here at realmcrafting. My last group of players kind of imploded, with people leaving the state or becoming unreliable, and I was forced to end the campaign quickly but dramatically, skipping them to the end of my year-long plan (they stopped a marauding crossrealm demon/god from coming to the City and eating the sun... and I ruined a perfectly good miniature when dramatically demonstrating how said demon/god devoured its head priest when the players turned his summoning back on him). When I reformed the campaign with a somewhat rejiggered group of players and a brand new group of characters, I stuck to my guns a little more. I started the "one stunt = 2 degrees of magical power" rules hack, and ended up with two completely mundane characters, and the rest more focused and specialized around their Crafting (including a "badass mind wizard"), giving everyone clearer roles. We came up for a reason

Most importantly, despite protests, I insisted every player take their character through all five phases, including the two guest-star pairings. The players initially complained, but by the end of the character creation session, everyone had had a good time, and every PC had a past, one that linked them to at least two other characters -- and it has made a world of difference. Two PCs are ex-lovers still secretly hung up on each other, giving me Aspects to compel constantly, and which actually turned an entire plot arc around as their attempts to make each other jealous transformed negotiations into a brawl. A third PC is unhealthily obsessed with a fourth, they all have horrible, crippling, motivating emotional problems... and each character has a tangible, long-term goal. One is on a search for her real mother; another want to take control of her noble House; a third wants to take down the entire aristocracy from the inside (partly through random and wanton murder... it's a dark group of characters).

But I digress. My point, @pryllin, is twofold:
  • My current, rejiggered group is much more in the proper vein of City of Lives than my first.
  • I fully intend to write this setting for my kind of player -- interested in politics, class warfare, and epically mundane magic. The ways I need to change CoL for my players are not the ways I will lay it out for my readers/customers/whatever.
Wow. I've got a few more of @pryllin's thoughts to respond to, but I'm out of space. I guess we'll pick this up next time in Letter Column the 1st, part two -- Column Harder.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

City Generation - The Factorium

Welcome back to our continuing series on creating city districts for the fantasy campaign The City of Lives. Today we examine The Factorium, manufacturing center for the City.

So, what do we know from our brief mention of the Factorium back in the "districts" post?

  • It's the center of manufacturing
  • It's the center for tradesmen and traditional crafts
  • Mostly lower-classes live there.
Okay, so what logical conclusions can we come to from there?
  • Kipmen, Grate-Scratchers, and Rurals will dominate the population, as tradesmen and, especially, workers in the factories. There will be some Dead-Blooded and some Iversdotters, but this, by and large, isn't their most comfortable area.
  • In management positions will be Iversdotters and Pariahs, well-used to running things in their cultures.
  • The factories will mostly be owned by the upper-class Sky-Carvers, Sons of Light, and Prometheans, but some will be owned by entrepreneurial Iversdotters and Pariahs.
  • The atmosphere won't be filled with conventional smog, since they won't be using conventional manufacturing methods (more on that below) -- but the air/water/earth may be affected by the intense magic use.
  • Do people have physical or mental reactions to a magical atmosphere? Allergies? Psychosis? Illness? Positive effects -- increases strength or intelligence? Do they gain mutations? Strange abilities? None of these questions are ready to be answered, but they're interesting to ask.
  • There are few residents in the Factorium. It's mostly a commuters' district.
Religion: Due to the prevalence of lower-class workers, the Factorium's religion is much like Clovenmouthe's -- simple but devout belief in the Light.

Government: The Factorium is essentially an extension of the noble Houses' territories in Sylvennis and Council Heights. Each factory is owned by a noble House (or occasionally an Iversdotter gang or Pariah family), and they control the surrounding are with their own rules and enforcement (see Sylvennis). 

Culture: The Factorium is extremely stratified. There are the owners, the managers, and the workers -- and the independent craftsmen, who are completely removed from the industrial manufacturing system. None of these pieces interact much with each other -- managers deal a reasonable amount with both workers and owners, but the others are very isolated.

Though the City of Lives is at a fairly low technology level (approximately similar to 18th century Europe), their near-ubiquitous magic allows for industrialization, just in a different manner.

Hmm. I'm running out of material. Well, let's start brainstorming. Now, this district is inspired by the mood of factory districts in 19th and early 20th century London -- think The Jungle. However, the conditions and mood will obviously change to reflect the magical nature of the City's industrialization. There is no steam or coal power, or complex gearwork machinery. All of the power and "mechanization" will come from magical energy and techniques. So, let's take a look at some examples of other fiction that have examined fantasy industrialization.

Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura: A fairly obscure computer game, with a terrible, buggy gameplay, it is nonetheless an incredible, well-thought-out portrayal of a classic Tolkienian fantasy world going through an industrial revolution. However, it's not terribly useful for our purposes, because it paints a dichotomy between magic and science (one will not work in the presence of the other) that does not exist in City of Lives. Also, the industry in Arcanum is not magically based, but identical to that in our world -- steam trains, revolvers, coal power -- with the exception of fantasy details like the oppression of orcish factory workers instead of African-Americans or Irish. So let's look somewhere else.

Eberron: Word has it that the D&D setting Eberron features this idea, with advanced magic turning the city of Stormreach, among others, into an industrial-era city achieved without the actual use of science. However, I'm not really familiar with Eberron -- any readers want to let me know more about it?

Jade Empire: This video game features an Eastern take on the basic concept -- steam technology combines with magic a fair amount. However, besides golems, the actual social and industrial ramifications aren't explored in the game. Hmm. Golems -- fantasy robots, essentially, working tirelessly and helping the industrial revolution along -- I shall consider the possible place for golems in the City.

Perdido Street Station/The Scar/Iron Council: One of the initial inspirations for the City of Lives, the city of New Crobuzon and the world of Bas-Lag are aggressively non-Tolkienian and strange. Specifically for this topic, there are considered to be three main branches of science: physics, biology, and thaumaturgy (or magic). Seen as no different from other types of science, New Crobuzon melds steam technology with magic without seeing a difference between the two. Aside from the fact that Bas-Lag's pure technological level is higher than the one I want for The City of Lives, it's a pretty perfect model. However, I can't think of any specific inspirations to take from it for the moment.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: An extremely high-quality animated series about elemental magic, kung-fu, and reincarnation, this is probably going to be the single most useful source of inspiration for the City's industrialization. Avatar shows no high technology, and yet parts of the Earth Kingdom and almost all of the Fire Kingdom look very similar to Industrial Revolution-era Earth in certain ways. In the city of Omashu, Earthbenders capable of controlling dirt and stone created massive tracks, similar to those for a train or tram, and then magically move stone platforms along. In the Fire Kingdom, it goes even further -- ships apparently coal-fired and automated are, in fact, run by Firebenders creating flame magically instead of shoveling coal. This is a fair model of what the City of Lives will look like. The specifics are different, but...

I see an assembly line where the items move along by a Forceshifter levitating them through the air instead of using a conveyor belt; where Wildshifters carve wooden objects from tree trunks without a single seam; and where Relicshifters attach metal pieces with mystic energy instead of bolts or welds. Instead of moving crates with forklifts, Bloodshifters become inhumanly strong and simply carry them. To put a box on a shelf, Wildshifters command plants to wrap it in vines and carry it upwards; or Worldshapers lift the ground itself to reach; or Skyshapers lift the box in a miniature tornado; or Forceshifters levitate it, or Realmshifters teleport it.

Transporting goods or people across the City is a matter for horseless carriages with Relicshifted force moving the wheels; or drawn by horses modified by Bloodshifting to require only two hours of sleep and a handful of feed to work tirelessly 22 hours a day; boats travel the rivers propelled by Waveshapers acting as mystic gondoliers; Skyshapers and Forceshifters fly the rich through the air over the City; and the very rich can even be teleported across the City or even the Realm by Realmshifters.

Well, I seem to have gotten a wee bit off topic... and also gone over my word limit. For now, I shall leave you with these images of a city run on magic and yet eerily like our own history, and we shall come together again next time as I examine the middle-class residential area of Corhurst!