Friday, December 31, 2010

Fate Universal Conflict System -- Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so I present the Fate Universal Conflict System:

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Religion -- Kivian Taoism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Religion - Practical Theosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Religion -- The Iversdotter Revelation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Religion -- The Seeding Manual

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

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

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

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

We begin with:

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Religion -- the Light, Part 2

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

Friday, December 10, 2010

Religion -- the Light, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 3, 2010

Archetypal Individuals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next time!