Monday, November 7, 2011

On the Future (or lack thereof) of Realmcrafting

Okay, folks. As you may have noticed, this blog has become more and more difficult for me to keep up with. This is due to a number of factors, from work/school, home life, other creative projects, and a growing dissatisfaction with my work on it.

You see, the notion behind Realmcrafting was to get some attention and feedback for my City of Lives project: showing people what I was doing behind the scenes as I worked on creating the game, and getting input from an audience of potential players, telling me what they want. I wanted to create an online "presence," to build up a bit of a fanbase before I put the game out there.

The problems are twofold: One, I don't seem to be making any kind of impact. I knew it would be slow going, but I've been writing this blog for about a year now, and I have at most a couple dozen readers (it's hard to interpret the statistics Blogger gives me). And those readers aren't giving anything back. I've read plenty of articles wherein internet writers complain about the evil people in the comments section—but at least that means someone read it. I haven't gotten a comment in months, positive or negative, and never have I gotten anything substantial (aside from a few posts made by my friends, who I can consult IRL). I'm not blaming you, those few folks who are reading me—I too am a lurker, too busy or lazy to comment on virtually anything I read. But the fact is, with low readership and no comments, I'm not really getting anything out of this blog.

The second problem is about why I'm doing this blog for myself: It was intended to help clarify my thoughts on The City of Lives and help me come up with new and interesting material for the game. It was always intended to be of secondary concern: Actually work on CoL, updating the wiki and writing new material, and then blog about it. However, since my creative time and brainpower has become more limited of late, I've gone from working on the blog, game, and playtest campaign to simply blog and playtest campaign... so I'm blogging about a project that's not actually moving anywhere. If CoL is ever to be publishable, I've got to actually work on it, and that's not happening right now.

So: the question is, should I continue Realmcrafting? If there are actually people out there reading and enjoying it, I will continue. If there aren't, then I won't. So if you want this blog to continue, let me know! There's a poll on the website, or you can put your two cents in the comments. Don't be shy, or Realmcrafting will go the way of the dodo.

Let me know.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Realms - The Gap, Part 2

Today, we continue examining The Gap, the empty space between Realms where discarded pieces of broken Realms and the dispossessed former inhabitants drift in empty space.

The Gap's Real-Life Inspirations are the "Hoovervilles," tent cities created by the mass unemployed during the Great Depression. A place for people who have nowhere else to go, like refugee camps but built by the disenfranchised themselves. Admittedly, most of what I know about Hoovervilles comes from The Grapes of Wrath and the Doctor Who episode "Daleks in Manhattan," so "real-life" inspiration is perhaps selling it a bit strongly. However, the notion of people with nothing building themselves a new life is a meaty one, and we would certainly see some interesting and innovative physical and social creations in a world made up of the remains of others.

The Theme of the Gap is surprising self-sufficiency. That is to say, the people who have fallen through the cracks in the worlds have managed to survive despite everything being against them, and so the culture of the Gap will reflect that "something from nothing" attitude. There will be a bit of a Cast Away/Gilligan's Island/Robinson Crusoe sort of thing going on, the inhabitants surviving on their ingenuity and bits and pieces they've managed to pull from the wreckage of their world. I'm reminded of the novel 1632, in which a small modern town is abruptly transported to the titular year in the midst of Germany, and they have to figure out how to survive in this new/old world with whatever bits and pieces of modern technology happen to have been transported with them. Visually, I also see parts of Neverwhere's scrap-built society and an image from the old American McGee's Alice computer game, where bits of Wonderland float in a dark void (in a section of the game I can't find visual evidence of online).

A secondary theme of the Gap is likely one of desperate escape. I'm not sure how anyone would be able to visit the Gap and return to the Realms, but it is certain to be difficult and unreliable, or else the people inside wouldn't be there. Hence, many of the Gap's inhabitants are likely to be desperate to return to their own world—or, at least, a proper Realm designed to support life. Visitors might find themselves in chains, interrogated about how they arrived and how to get out. While the self-sufficiency theme gives the Gap mood, this theme implies plotlines.

That'll take us through the Gap, and next time, we'll take a look at... well, this blog itself. Check in.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Realms - The Gap

Today we will examine what a Realm is, and what lies between them, coming to our new Realm location: The Gap.

So what is a Realm anyway? It is currently ill-defined in many ways, but we have a few pieces:

  • A Realm is a "world" of some kind, defined by its own lifeforms, physical and magical properties, and culture or cultures.
  • You cannot travel from one Realm to another through any traditional transport, whether walking or rocket ships. They are in completely different physical spaces, accessible only through the magic of Realmshifting.
  • There is some form of geography between the Realms, with some being "near" the City of Lives and some being "far." The Far Realms are noted to have radically different physical and magical properties.
From these pieces, we can see that Realms are very similar to the concepts of "planes" in Dungeons & Dragons or Magic: The Gathering, or parallel universes in the vein of Sliders or innumerable sci-fi stories. The question I have yet to answer for myself is how large a Realm is. Is it an entire universe, with planets and galaxies and what have you? If so, why do we only explore one small part of one planet of each Realm that is featured in the game? Is it a tiny, magically-contained area a few hundred or thousand miles in diameter? If so, is that natural or created by some god? What does that mean for the cosmology of The City of Lives?

Functionally, every Realm should serve the purpose of a town in The Fugitive or a planet in Star Trek, a new place to explore every adventure—and as we see from those two examples, they can be of any size and still serve the same story function. So maybe it doesn't matter. Except that someone will want to know, and won't be satisfied without an answer. Perhaps we aren't prepared to answer those questions yet.

In any case, since we know that the various Realms are impassable to ordinary travel, and yet have some form of geography, this would seem to imply that there is something "between" them, some magical barrier or void. So let's run with it. In between the Realms is an emptiness, with absolutely nothing in it, not even the vacuum of outer space.

But that's boring. 


The Gap once was empty, defined by its emptiness. However, the Realms are unstable, occasionally falling to pieces. Because of human conflict, natural disaster, or godly intervention, sometimes Realms split, and pieces of worlds spill into the Gap. Floating islands of reality drift in the darkness, each ruled by its own physics, twisted by the neighboring realities spinning by. A few people inhabit these shattered realms, refugees and foolhardy explorers, doing their best to transform the bits and pieces they have left into a coherent world.

The Archetype of the Gap is that of the "junk city," the makeshift world formed of bits and pieces from everything and everywhere. The best example I can think of is Armada from The Scar, a city created from innumerable sailing ships lashed together. HoL is a (frankly bizarre) RPG that takes place on a landfill planet, and there always seem to be hobo communities thriving in any fictional garbage dump. The Gap is this archetype writ large, with pieces of landmasses fused together haphazardly to create a hodgepodge of realities. I see pieces as small as a city block and as large as a state, sometimes connected, and sometimes simply floating in the void nearby each other, reachable by bridges or ziplines or magical airships.

...and with that imagery, we'll pick up the Gap next time. See you then...

Friday, October 28, 2011

Realms - The Decaying Fields of Forever, Part 2

Welcome back. Last time, we took a look at the bizarre realm of perpetual rot and entropy, The Decaying Fields of Forever. We got our Real-Life Inspiration and Theme worked out, but hadn't yet gotten to the Archetype or the Twist, so let's strap on our thinking caps and work on those.

The Archetype of the Decaying Fields of Forever is pretty much Hell. The notion is a place of perpetual torment, where the inhabitants are always in pain, always dying but never dead. A blasted landscape, post-apocalyptic if the apocalypse were not ongoing. However, the difference—perhaps the horror of the place—is that the suffering are not sinners, have done nothing wrong to deserve their pain.

This begs the question of tormentors. Are there demons in this Hell? Creatures who either are immune to or simply take advantage of the Fields' unique properties, allowing them to lord over the rest of the population? There's not logical reason for them to be there... but there certainly is a thematic reason. On the other hand, I don't want to turn the Fields in a pure Hell-analogue (where's the interest in that?) Perhaps there are some denizens of the Fields who have learned how to work with the properties of decay—they are careful not to injure themselves, they have grown used to food not sustaining them properly, they survive with the simplest of technologies.

And they hurt. So they hurt others.

Twist: I think the question of the twist in the Fields is why would anyone come here? Masochists maybe, the truly guilt-ridden perhaps... but most people would avoid this place at any cost. Which means, of course, that the Fields are the perfect place to hide. You can't do it too long, or whatever it is you're hiding will fall into uselessness, but as a rest stop on the way out of a heist? Who would look for you there? Who would be willing to travel to a world so filled with pain and hopelessness? Not many people, and so you'll be safe... for a given value of safe.

Next time, we'll examine a new Realm, the non-world that is The Gap.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Realms - The Decaying Fields of Forever

Welcome to our second entry in our second foray across the Realms. Last time, we examined the fairly mundane Realm of Taluna. Today we'll examine a place altogether more elemental and alien, tentatively named The Decaying Fields of Forever.

This will be one of those fairly stream-of-thought, making-it-up-as-I-go-along sort of posts, because I know nothing about the Fields but the name. I've always meant for the Realms of The City of Lives to be unusual, fantastical, and elemental in nature. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to over-analyze, and to try to lay everything out in internally consistent, very "science-fictional" worlds. They all seem like real places... but I really want some unreal places as well, places where the laws of physics bend and twist, and narrative causality trumps Newtonian causality.

So, knowing that much, but having no real ideas that hadn't already been done more completely by Planescape , I decided to start with a name, as so often works for me. No names appeared to me, so I went to and used an "outer planes" generator to give me a name in the appropriate style. Most of the results were unsatisfying, but the Decaying Fields of Forever struck me as interesting.

Let's examine it, shall we? After the jump.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Realms - Taluna

For the next few posts, we're going to examine some of the otherworldly Realms that will appear in the new Treasure Hunters for Hire campaign model, exploring the far-off places that were hinted at but never visited in the previous City-focused campaign.

The first new Realm we're going to examine is Taluna, the site of the Treasure Hunters' first adventure. It is a simple place, designed around the problem that the PCs will encounter rather than as a complete world—which should hopefully make it a good starting point!

Archetype: I wanted to start off the treasure hunting with a classic dungeoncrawl, in which the hunters are searching for a specific item. Since I am terrible at map-making, I used a random dungeon-map generator (which I would link to, if I remembered which one I used) to put together a series of branching passageways and rooms. In traditional "dungeon" fashion, these would be ruins of an ancient city, that left behind dangerous traps and monsters to guard their treasure. Not the most original concept, but I wanted to start off simple. To populate this archetypal dungeon, I pulled up Maptool, the virtual tabletop program my group is using, and looked through the monster "tokens" included in the program (not unlike sorting through a random pile of miniatures and grabbing a few interesting examples).

See the rest after the jump

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The City of Lives new campaign premise

As I've mentioned over the last few posts, I'm starting up a new City of Lives playtest campaign. Now, The City of Lives is about politics, espionage, and class warfare, as I've explored in the previous campaigns. However, there are also a multitude of other Realms out there, worlds filled with strange and exciting adventure. This new campaign explores the possibilities of the other Realms, in a model I call "Treasure Hunters For Hire."

Inspired by Warehouse 13, Indiana Jones, Star Trek, and, yes my own Terra Incognita, the premise for "Hunters" is simple. The PCs are an elite team of "retrieval specialists," trained to travel to distant Realms and locate powerful magical items—known as "relics"—and return them to their employers for use, storage, or destruction. The notion is that every adventure will take them to a new Realm, each with its own strange physics and socials structures that they have to negotiate (like Star Trek), while tracking down magic items that are ruining everyone's day (like Warehouse 13). It's an opportunity to explore my universe more thoroughly, and to experiment with different play styles.

My first City of Lives campaign started out with a very traditional D&D setup: the PCs were all called together for a job, and ventured into a dungeon (for lack of a better word) to locate a particular treasure. However, I cocked it up, not understanding how dungeon-crawls are meant to be run, and letting my players fill the party with strong-willed, volatile characters who had no reason to stay together whatsoever. As the campaign went on, we abandoned the dungeon-crawling and monsters, and ended up exploring some of the less interesting parts of the City. It wasn't a complete failure, but it certainly wasn't a great success.

Next was the espionage-themed campaign, focused on tightly-knit characters and social conflicts. The stories centered heavily around the City and its themes, with only one (much loathed by the players) venture out into the Realms. This was great fun, and highlighted the themes of the campaign setting. However, my players grew bored with "only fighting regular people," "having everything be political," and "never leaving the city." And hence, our new campaign model.

The most difficult part of this so far is coming up with something new for each adventure as I start planning things out. Entirely new worlds and magical relics each week... it's a tough mandate. For the earlier CoL campaigns, I relied on stuff I had already worked out about the world, and for Terra Incognita, I based everything on existing myths and legends. I worry that I'm not going to come up with anything terribly interesting, and end up with a series of worlds that all look like British Columbia (as in Stargate SG-1), with relics that come down to various kinds of doomsday devices. I'm going to have to work very hard to keep things fresh.

Next time, we'll start examining some of the Realms I'm going to use for the new campaign, in the same format as our handful of Realm examples from earlier this year. See you there!

Friday, September 30, 2011

The City of Lives new rules continued

As I addressed last time, my new campaign with my playtesters is changing some rules, in an attempt to find the magic point where the rules just work. Last time, we examined some rules designed to make combat quicker and more challenging. Today, we'll look at what I'm doing to make the money and equipment rules more interesting.

By default, FATE has very little in the way of equipment rules. Characters are not meant to have large lists of every little thing they're carrying around, or have to deal with poring through charts of hundreds of items and detailing every fraction of a gold piece they spend. PCs are assumed to have whatever items they need to use their skills effectively—a character with high Burglary should have some lockpicks, a character with the Surgeon stunt probably has a trauma kit. Beyond that, special items are bought with stunts, mostly "Batman's wonderful toys"-type stuff.

During play, a character simply rolls their Resources skill to see if they can afford whatever it is they need to buy. Succeed, they get it, fail, they don't. In Spirit of the Century and Dresden Files RPG, there are no provisions for getting paid or looting corpses—you have the money from your Resources skill, or you don't.

These are all well and good for the pulp and urban fantasy genres. However, there is a fundamental assumption in high fantasy that characters will be focused more on what kind of stuff they're carrying, and what they can carry away from the battlefield. Now, I don't want this game to turn into Dungeons & Dragons, with magical items a fundamental piece of any character and the default assumption that characters become richer as they become more experienced—but there are questions of both balance and theme to address.

The assumption that "PCs have the stuff to support their skills" works just fine with things like thieves' tools and trauma kits... but it falls apart with weapons. In Spirit of the Century, weapons had no rule properties, being purely a matter of style. In City of Lives, on the other hand, larger and more expensive weapons are more powerful. If allowed to have whatever they want, every PC will just choose to equip themselves with plate armor and a two-handed sword, and radically unbalance the game. So the question is, what should they be allowed to have?

First, I assigned my weapons Cost scores: how difficult the Resources check to obtain them would be. They range from Terrible (-2) for a makeshift club (a table leg or what have you), to Mediocre (+0) for a basic dagger, to Great (+4) for a two-handed sword.

Now there are two possible ways to obtain those weapons during character creation: I assume that anyone who's well-experienced with weapons has spent time and resources to get themselves a decent sword. Hence, any character can start with weapons whose Cost equals their rank in the Melee skill. A dabbler might be able to start with a dagger or light sword, while a serious soldier would be able to get a heavy axe. The other option is for those characters who are unskilled with weapons but rich, with low Melee and Ranged skills but high Resources. And for the rules for that, we have to bring in the Wealth stress track.

As you may recall, PCs in City of Lives have two stress tracks: Health (physical) and Composure (mental/social). Now, to emulate the realities of spending money, so that poor characters aren't completely helpless and so that rich characters can't buy themselves out of everything without any consequences, we add a third stress track, Wealth. Wealth stress is a concept that appears in Diaspora and Strands of Fate, and works just like an ordinary stress track, except that it takes damage when making purchases, and the stress doesn't just go away, it must be "healed" by making money or selling objects.

This allows for PCs to go on buying sprees, either during character creation or during the game, but with consequences... and without introducing the nitty-gritty crunch of counting coinage. The Wealth stress track also allows me to give characters money or treasure to sell during the game and have it actually mean something. And since this new campaign is based around the concept of treasure hunting, I think it will definitely help.

Oh, I didn't mention the treasure hunting, did I? Next time, we'll examine the new narrative possibilities I'm introducing with the new campaign model "Treasure Hunters For Hire."

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A (hopefully) Triumphant Return

Okay, folks! Welcome back to Realmcrafting. It's been a long while -- a full month without posts, and sporadic for the month before that. Unfortunately, it's been a rough time, with preparing a house for sale (or rent, as it turned out), packing, moving, and settling in to the new town and apartment (while preparing for school). And, unfortunately, I am not enough of a professional to either work much ahead (if at all) or have a friendly blogger willing to fill in for me. I'm sure I've lost some readers along the way here, and I appreciate those who are still reading and are willing to stick with me.

But enough apologies. Let's get back to the meat of the blog. I've decided that the Terra Incognita project was much larger than I originally anticipated, and I'm unwilling to remove this blog from The City of Lives long enough to finish it all in one go. Expect us to return to Terra Incognita from time to time, but the main focus of the blog will now return to the City.

Moving to a new town, I've started up a new City of Lives campaign, that we will run over the internet, with the majority of my old gaming group from Alaska, but with a couple additions who are old friends of mine. I'll report occasionally on how that's working, using the MapTool program from, a wonderful virtual tabletop, and voice chat over Skype. However, I've taken this opportunity to take The City of Lives in an interesting new narrative direction, and make a few rules tweaks as well. So we'll go over those here.

In the original FATE system, Spirit of the Century, characters started out with 5 stress boxes, and once those stress boxes were filled, they had to take 3 Consequences (broken arms, ruined reputations, etc) before they were Taken Out and lost the combat. This was generally considered by the players to make characters too tough, resulting in endlessly long combats. Later games, in an attempt to make combat quicker and deadlier, changed the Consequences rules to mitigating stress (shifting damage down a certain number of stress boxes, depending on the game) rather than coming after the stress boxes. Most games also reduced the number of stress boxes a character started out with -- I can't be bothered to look it up at the moment, but I believe Diaspora starts characters out with 3, Starblazer Adventures/Legends of Anglerre with 4, and The Dresden Files with only 2.

My point is, I've determined that my characters in the previous City of Lives campaign suffered from being too tough -- I gave them a base of 4 stress boxes, with Consequences removing 2, 4, or 6 stress depending on their severity. Combats took too long, and the PCs never really felt challenged. I'm going to do a couple things differently in the new campaign (and, presumably, the rules for the game in general). I'm going to reduce the base stress boxes to 3, and make it so characters with high Vigor and Conviction (the skills that add more stress boxes to the character) have a cap on how much they can add. I'm going to emphasize weapons more, ensuring the baddies almost always have a bonus to their damage. And finally, I'm going to experiment by changing how Consequences work.

As it stands, Consequences are rated Mild, Moderate, or Severe -- but the only thing that differentiates them is how much stress they mitigate and how long they take to heal. They act as aspects, taggable for bonuses -- but tagging a punctured lung has the same effect as tagging a bloody nose (a +2 or reroll). I'm going to experiment and have each Consequence give a different bonus (for the enemy, that is) -- a Mild consequence will give a +2 bonus, but a Moderate will give a +4, and a Severe a +6.

All of this will make combat significantly deadlier. I'll check back in once it's been playtested, to see if I've gone too far and killed all my PCs.

Okay, that's enough for a first post back. Next time, I'll speak more on the new rule changes, and get into the narrative changes.

See you later in the week!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Real Life again

Okay, folks, sorry so much I've been AWOL for the last week. Unfortunately, it appears it'll continue for a bit. I'm moving next week, and thus very busy, stressed, and non-creative. I expect I won't be able to post for the following two weeks, but hopefully I'll be able to throw something together sometime in there.

Apologies. Stay with me, folks. We'll get back into a schedule soon, I swear.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Terra Incognita -- lettercolumn

I have received two comments regarding the plot of Terra Incognita's first adventure, one e-mail from @anonymous and one Blogger comment from @Kelly (both of whom I know IRL, by the way -- I know there are some lurkers here. Comment! I'd love to hear from you!) The comments are as follows:

@anonymous says: "Of your two drafts of them getting to the island, I like the gypsy version better because it seems more plausible (I realize this is not terribly important in fantasy), and because I like that character. I don't get why the faerie would want to get revenge on Atlantis."

I find, oddly enough, that I agree. I removed the gypsy witch character from the character roster because a Fae princess was more interesting from a dramatic standpoint. The thing is, her presence radically shifts the entire nature of the story, and skews the game balance badly towards supernatural characters -- which, as noted, I am largely against. This leads into our comment from @Kelly: 

"I like the idea that the PCs are specifically being sent to this island to find the Eye of Polyphemus. It might not necessarily be that the Queen knows the Atlanteans are on their way--it could be that the Atlanteans and the Queen's advisers have the same sources, or the Atlanteans have been tipped off that the English are on their way. The nice thing about that is that it gives the PCs good reason to be exceptional, and maybe even (if you're willing to have these sorts of PCs) a bit supernatural. If this is just some random ship, it would really strain credibility if your PCs end up as, say, an expert in ancient languages, a priest with True Faith, a half-fae, and a gypsy hedge wizard. But if this is a mission to Polyphemus's island, that makes perfect sense."

He has several very good points: most notably, he points out that a diverse group of heroic experts like a PC party is much more believable as a group gathered together for an important mission than as a random ship's crew. So if we remove the Fae and reorient the crew as a group of specialists, I think we have some ideas on how to set things up: 

Let's say that Polyphemus has learned how to use his Eye, or possibly some ancient Cyclopean magic, and found a way to protect his island not only from the mundane world, but also from the Atlanteans themselves. However, once every hundred years, or when there is a particular astrological alignment, or whatever, the island is accessible. Both King Azaes of the Atlanteans and Queen Elizabeth's astrologer John Dee predict this event and send a group to Polyphemus's isle to fetch the Eye during the brief window they have. In this group, there will be soldiers, sailors, diplomats, explorers -- and even a few men and women who claim knowledge of the magical arts. That is to say, I've decided, based on my resounding 0 votes either way on my poll, to allow low-level magical characters into Terra Incognita: Only half of a True20 character's levels can be in the magical Adept class, and a FATE character can start with no more than 2 stunts' worth of supernatural abilities (maybe 3).

Excuse me, I have an edit. Since I wrote the previous paragraph yesterday, I have actually gotten a massive sample size of two (2) (II) (dos) votes! Both for... restricting magic entirely to the mythic realm. Hm. Now my life is complicated. I thought I had come to a decision, thought I knew what folks would want, based on my own hunches and past history. And apparently, my hunch was wrong, at least for these two people.

I shall have to ponder more, it appears. Perhaps we can use the same "John Dee sends them" premise, with either him deciphering an ancient forgotten text or getting a visitation from "angels" (he was all about angels), whether said angels are Fae, rogue Atlanteans, or... actual angels. Hell, it is a fantasy campaign where all the myths are real. Who's to say Enochian isn't really the language of angels? Just cut out the PC wizards.

Anyhoo, we're going to be all over the map with this project from now on (as if we weren't before). Next time, we'll start the actual writing of the adventure, examining the behind-the-scenes as we go, and going off on tangents as necessary. Allons-y!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Terra Incognita - Worldbuilding Part 3 (backgrounds)

The question of supernatural 'races' as player characters in Terra Incognita has been addressed, and the consensus of the voices in my head is that, barring an individual GM's proclivities, PCs should be restricted to ordinary humans. However, this doesn't mean that all characters will have the same origin -- rather, questions of nationality, religion, and social status will define the characters, in ways much more profound than they would in our modern multicultural society. In short, there will be Italians instead of Elves, Protestants instead of Dwarves, peasants instead of Half-Orcs (or whatever -- they certainly don't correspond properly that way).

A race traditionally gives PCs a few bonuses in a few specific areas, showing specialties of the species and culture they come from. First off, I'm not going to go into the ethically murky area of providing attribute adjustments according to culture -- physically and mentally, a human is a human. However, each culture can show certain proclivities and specializations in skills and abilities. So, how does one figure out what nation excels at without diving into rampant stereotypes? Well, I think I have an answer to that. Perhaps not the answer, but an answer.

I've looked into the history of the major European, Middle Eastern, and Asian nations active in Europe in the 16th century, and identified a few notable historical personages from each active in the 16th century and throughout the Renaissance. Modeling the nation's cultural baggage after these famous people gives at least some evidence behind my reasoning, and makes it clear that not everyone from these cultures follow the example of their "models." For example, Italy is famed for its intrigue and politics, as epitomized by Lucrezia Borgia and Niccolo Machiavelli, so Italian PCs will gain bonuses to those areas.

How to address these cultural 'races' depends on the system we're looking at. i've pretty much narrowed things down to True20 and Free FATE, so let's examine them in each system. True20 has a concept called 'backgrounds' -- a background can be a race (elf), a culture (Norseman), or an occupation ('military'). Each background gives a PC extra skill points in two specific skills, two feats (for non-d20 players, feats are small advantages that allow bending the rules), and two "favored feats" that are always available to the PC, no matter what their class. For this concept, I would allow a PC to identify with one of the following as their background : a nation, a religion, or a profession, with the other identifiers providing no bonuses. For example, an Italian character would gain two of the following three feats: "Connected," "Contacts," or "Well-Informed," gain bonuses to two of the three skills "Bluff," "Diplomacy" or "Gather Information," and have their "favored feats" as "Fascinate" and "Well-Informed." He could also be Catholic and an Explorer, but would gain no mechanical benefit from that.

In FATE, things are a little murkier. In base FATE, there is no provision for "races," except perhaps as an Aspect to be invoked -- "Elf of Lothlorien," "Survivor of Italian Politics." However, the rules for Bloodlines I have worked out for City of Lives -- essentially, that a PC gains an Aspect related to their Bloodline and a single free stunt (remember, stunts work like feats, minor ways to break the rules) associated with the Bloodline -- will work fine for Terra Incognita backgrounds as well. Essentially, this is the FATE way of doing the same thing True20 does.

One difficulty I face is that I like the idea of defining a character by religion. Religion was a very important part of a person's identity in 16th century Europe, with the difference between Catholics and Protestants causing wars (let alone Christianity vs. Islam), and I really like the idea of defining a character by their religious denomination and how that influences their world view. However, while I have no problem finding ways that a Catholic might gain an important Aspect ("Earn My Paradise Through Good Works") from their faith, I'm having more trouble coming up with feats, skills, and stunts to provide mechanical benefits that are thematically appropriate. What is a Catholic actually better at than a Confucian, and vice versa?

In any case, these backgrounds provide a further sense of differentiation and individuality to Terra Incognita PCs, without bringing supernatural beings into the mix. Join us next time as we answer a few letters/comments and make a few decisions about the first adventure's plot.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Terra Incognita - Worldbuilding Part 2 (Magic)

Magic is a thorny issue. Everyone has their own preferences on how it should work: Vancian or mana points, freeform or structured, low power or high. And people put a lot of thought and stock into the rules of their magic systems, to the point where certain systems, otherwise OGL (Legends of Anglerre comes to mind), still protect their magic under copyright. so where does Terra Incognita fall on these axes, and what is the best way to represent those abilities rules-wise?

Well, the first point of difficulty is the dichotomy of the setting. There are fundamentally two settingsin TI: the civilized, mundane world we learned about in history class, and the savage, lost world of high magic from mythology. In Europe, there should presumably be no functional magic whatsoever, thus restricting starting characters from throwing spells around. According to this model, PCs will not be ble to take any levels in spellcasting classes or gain magical stunts (d20 and FATE, respectively) until after the story begins and thy are able to find a supernatural teacher with the help of Polyphemus's Eye.

On the other hand, people of the time still did believe in at least a small, limited form of magic -- the kind of visions Nostradamus and John Dee had, witches' curses, and demon possession. So perhaps those things were real, and while nobody is going to be casting Fireball or Magic Missile in the middle of London, perhaps the subtler magics were real and simply hidden. In this model, PCs would be able to start out as magic-users, but perhaps with certain restrictions -- no flashy spells, PCs restricted to one or two spellcasting levels/powers before encountering Polyphemus, and absolutely no magic items.

In fact, it was this latter system I used in the first TI campaign -- the d20 Modern characters were all 4th level, which is the level they can start taking Advanced classes (including spellcasters), and we had one 'Mage' (gypsy hedge wizard), who hid his spells as natural occurences while still in civilization, and an Occultist, who had been studying the supernatural for years and was just now finding and deciphering ancient magical scrolls. Additionally, later on they discovered a European character (a player we invited in late) who was rules-wise an 'Acolyte' (Cleric, basically), but pitched the idea as a person who had mysterious abilities he ascribed to God, who kept them quiet in case the Church cast a disapproving eye.

So I did it that way before, but one reason I recast the occultist character as a pure scientist and replaced the gypsy witch with Fae in the TV pilot was to create a greater dichotomy between Europe and the magical world. So I question which way to go...

And then there's the question of magic in the mythical realm. How powerful is it, and how does it work? D&D-style wizards are rare (though not unknown -- see Solomon and Merlin) in mythology -- most non-gods have very specific powers (Cassandra's ability to tell the future, Siegfried's ability to talk to birds) or monstrous features (Medusa's stone gaze, a kitsune's shapeshifting), or relied on magical items, as discussed last post. Other forms of magic common in mythology involve complicated recipes, long rituals, or complex writing/rune structures, all interesting but ill-suited for most PC use (combat being the most obvious example). I think that for the most part, characters and monsters gaining "powers" makes more sense -- both from a mythological and playability standpoint -- than "spell lists." This means that I'm leaning much more towards True20 over d20 Modern, as True20 gives characters broad powers like "supernatural speed" and "wind shaping" over more specific and limited spells like "fireball" and "feather fall" (which d20 Modern, like D&D 3e, uses). On the opposite side, this model is more focused than the magic system in The Dresden Files RPG, and more like the stunt/gadget system of Spirit of the Century or the magic system of Legends of Anglerre. Since I really don't want to design a brand-new full magic system for what is supposed to be a side project (remember City of Lives? I am getting back to that at some point!), I suppose I'll adapt my City of Lives adaptation of Legends of Anglerre's system.

So. Some thoughts, some conclusions, and some... not. Next time, we'll look at cultures and backgrounds. See you then!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Terra Incognita - Worldbuilding Part 2 (Magic Items)

Welcome back to our (hopefully) short series on the worldbuilding and core assumptions behind Terra Incognita. We've looked a little at supernatural creatures ("races" in the terminology of D&D), and now we'll take a look at another component of D&D that is... let's say "different" -- in the world of Terra Incognita: magic items.

Magic items are a staple of D&D, and many other fantasy roleplaying systems (and especially computer RPGs/Diablo clones/MMOs). Who your character is often depends as much on the gear they're carrying around as their race, class, and background -- and that +5 Defender Longsword is likely to come into play a lot more often than the fact that you're an elf or that your father beat you as a child. This is something that I, as a player and especially as a GM, have never really liked. For one, I like giving my characters an iconic look and items that are important to them -- I don't want my hero to look like a patchwork quilt because my matching boots absolutely need to be replaced by "boots of the wind" that only come in the wrong color. One of my favorite D&D characters, an ex-paladin named Arvor, carried with him a +1 Bastard Sword that had a name: Jaeger ("hunter" in German, which in that game represented Dwarvish) -- and I was very worried that one day Arvor would have to replace Jaeger for purely mechanical reasons. As a GM, I hate figuring out what kind of magic items my players "need" to have in order to match the monsters' threat level (I also hate dealing with treasure and PCs buying new stuff, but that's a different story). In short, I don't much care for D&D-style magic items.

Interesting, D&D's style of magic items doesn't actually have much in the way of history. In myth and legend -- hell, in fantasy literature and film -- heroes almost never have some generic magical items, their artifacts are almost always unique and distinct (and often named). King Arthur's Excalibur, Perseus's helm of darkness, Thor's Mjolnir, Bilbo and Frodo's Sting, Captain America's shield, and while Harry Potter doesn't have an iconic magic item himself, he spends the whole last book looking for the "Deathly Hallows." These kind of distinct and unique items exist in D&D, known as "artifacts" -- the Hand of Vecna, the Wand of Orcus, but they are by far the exception and not the rule.

My solution in most games I run has been to minimize the importance and availability of magic items, keeping the PCs fairly mundane (unless they're spellcasters, of course). This will not work for Terra Incognita. There are two primary goals for the heroes, one given to them by Polyphemus, and the other, that sets them out on the initial quest, is to make alliances and gather items of power for the glory of the British Empire. So magical items have to play a fairly large role in TI.

However, the way they do so is likely to be very different from D&D. In TI, most of the magical artifacts are likely to serve primarily as MacGuffins, that is to say objects that drive the plot but are ultimately unimportant to the audience (in this case, the players). In the original TI campaign, the PCs collected such things as Nuada's Silver Arm, Clarent (the Sword in the Stone). and the Sefer Raziel (a book which contains all knowledge), none of which were much use to them except in that they presented them to the Queen. They also quested for Excalibur and Beowulf's armor, creating several adventures despite the fact that they never got either piece. In fact, many legendary items are far too powerful to allow in the hands of ordinary PCs, so a canny Terra Incognita GM will find ways of keeping them away from the PCs or require them to hand them over to a monarch or other NPC straightaway.

Of course, some of the majesty of the hidden magical world might be lost if the heroes don't get a chance to claim and keep a few items of power. Perhaps a powerful warrior might get his hands on Durendal, or a mage the Key of Solomon -- but only once they've truly earned that right. Additionally, there are some mythical materials that would make good opportunities for PCs to "upgrade" if the GM wants to go that way: Orichalcum, Adamant and such, or the PCs might go to legendary smiths like the Norse Sons of Ivaldi or Greece's Hephaestus to forge entirely new magical artifacts just for them.

Whew! Way too many citations for one post! See you next time as we discuss magic and spellcasting in the world of Terra Incognita.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Terra Incognita -- Worldbuilding Part 1

Sorry for the lateness. 'Nuff said.

Okay -- so, the systems. The votes and my own internet research put three systems near the top for my purposes: 1) FATE (Spirit of the Century version), 2) Some d20 system game (D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder voted for, True20 often mentioned online) 3) Savage Worlds. So -- as I'm trying to make this salable, I'm going to stick (for now) with the free systems, which cuts Savage Worlds out. And then d20 -- Pathfinder and D&D 3.5 are just simply too magic-heavy and medieval for my purposes, so I'm going to have to go another way. The question now is d20 Modern, which is perfect for low-magic and has very similar rules to D&D 3.5 but is less well-known (and apparently there is a lot of argument on various forums saying it's unbalanced -- I never noticed that, but I'm no rules lawyer) -- or True20. True20 is arguably more elegant and has an interesting magic and damage system that fits Terra Incognita's themes, but has no free System Reference Document, so while I can publish under its rules system for free, anyone who's not already running True20 would have to purchase the book (as opposed to d20 Modern, which has a free SRD online). Additionally, True20 is quite a bit different from D&D/Pathfinder, potentially causing confusion in the readers/players. And once again, I don't know which one is more popular.

And for the world:
Races/Creatures: This is a campaign where most, if not all, of the PCs should be mundane humans (at least at the beginning of the story). However, for GMs who decide to be contrary, and for PCs entering later (new players, players whose characters died), we may want rules for various supernatural creatures as PC races. And certainly, a few supernatural species are likely to dominate the campaign world, becoming recurring, if not ubiquitous, allies and villains.

The most important supernaturals are, of course, the Atlanteans. Corrupt, arrogant, imperialistic and paranoid, they are unlikely to be suitable as anything but villains. Then again, that's what they said about the Drow before Drizzt Do'Urden, right?

After the Atlanteans, the most powerful species are the Fae. These are not D&D elves here -- I'm taking inspiration from the oldest myths and recent interpretations (Discworld, Changeling: The Lost) that emphasize that the Fae are alien, incapable of understanding humans or their morality. They may often also feature as antagonists -- but they are also capable of being allies, as they don't like how powerful the Atlanteans have become.

Though not powerful politically, the Cyclopes/Kyklopes are nigh-ubiquitous since the Atlanteans enslaved them all. They act as the Atlanteans' grunt troops as well as physical laborers, and those small pockets who've managed to free themselves are likely to show great kindliness to the PCs (once they definitively prove they're not Atlantean).

I feel conflicted about Satyrs, Nymphs, and Centaurs. All are interesting creatures, and it would be intriguing to explore their cultures. However, I don't want to overload the world with all-Greek mythology, as the central conceit is that all myths are true.

A few other creatures worth mentioning, mostly as enemies (most of which I used in the original campaign run):
Grendel's Children: Yes, so what if Grendel and his mother died in Beowulf? What if Grendel had, as well as a mother, a widow? What if Grendelkind have litters? By the 16th century, there could be a small population in the hundreds or thousands, hiding in the depths of Denmark, continuing to quietly massacre villages.
Fir Bolg/Tuatha de Danann: Two sides of the same coin, the Fir Bolg are, according to legend, the original inhabitants of Ireland, a savage race and, according to my take, hideously deformed mutants. The Tuatha de Danann are the interlopers, godlike "perfect humans" who were later worshiped by the Irish. Who's the hero and who's the villain in this piece is up for debate.
Jotuns: The Ice Giants of Scandinavia, the Jotuns (YO-tuns) are the traditional foes of the Norse gods (especially Thor). Unlike the Cyclopes, they are often seen to be civilized and intelligent, if rather too focused on destroying the gods and bringing about the end of the world.
Tritons: Children of Sea God Poseidon (as the Cyclopes also are), Tritons are the archetypal mermen/maids, and rule under the ocean. They are likely to fight the PCs, but could also be reasoned and bartered with...

And a host of other creatures abound in mythology, ready to be plopped in with a minimum of fuss, including: the Ankou (British), Baba Yaga (Russian), Banshee (Irish), Black Dog (English), Catopeblas (Ethiopian), Cerberus (Greek), Charon (Greek), Chimera (Greek), Djinn (Arabic), Dryad (Greek), Ghoul (Arabic), Drude (Germanic), Fachen (Scottish/Irish), Gorgon (Greek), Harpy (Greek)Hobgoblin (English)Hydra (Greek), Ketos the sea monster (Greek), Kraken (Nordic), Leprechaun (Irish), Leviathan (Biblical), Homonculus (Alchemical thought), Manticore (Persian/Greek), Minotaur (Greek), The Nuckelavee (Scottish/Orkney), Red Cap (Scottish/English), Roc (Persian), Scorpion Men (Babylonian/Sumerian), Selkie (Irish), Siren (Greek), Svartalf (Norse), Talos the Automaton (Greek)Tengu (Japanese)Troll (Scandinavian)Umibozu (Japanese), Werepanther (African), and Will o' Wisp (English)

So you see, there are a lot of options. Next time, I'll examine the unusual role of magical artifacts in Terra Incognita

Friday, July 22, 2011

Terra Incognita - The Plot, Part 2

Okay, so where were we last week? Ah yes, I laid out the basic history of Polyphemus the Cyclops and his magical stone Eye, which can pierce illusions and translate languages. The PCs have stumbled across Polyphemus on his mysterious island, and are fighting him.

Here I use a narrative cheat, encouraged by some RPGs and GMs and hated by others: Polyphemus won't just die. When he reaches 0 Hit Points, uses up his Stress and Consequences -- whatever -- he surrenders instead of dying. At this point, of course, he loses his plot-induced immortality, and the players are free to either finish him off or, preferably, let him talk. This is the big plot exposition scene, where the players/PCs learn all of Polyphemus's history and how evil the Atlanteans are. Whether the PCs believe him is, of course, up to them -- my original group took him at his word, while my TV characters were less trusting of a giant who had just tried to kill them, and wanted to trade with the Atlanteans. If the PCs do kill Polyphemus, then I suppose there will be an alternate way for them to get the relevant information -- a room of ancient documents, perhaps, or maybe the Atlanteans will give their take on the story when they arrive...

Did I not mention the Atlanteans arriving? In the original run of this adventure, it ended just after the fight with Polyphemus, as he died of his wounds from the fight. Of course, he gave them his eye (tearing it out of his head) and coerced a promise from them to fight against Atlantean tyranny, before he finally succumbed. It was only much later that the PCs in the original campaign would encounter actual Atlanteans, much less the evil king who leads them. For the TV pilot, however, I wanted to establish the Atlanteans as a real threat right away. Hence, I had them happening to arrive on the island just after the heroes, also after Polyphemus's Eye... and yes, I realize it's a horrible, unbelievable coincidence, that I just never got around to fixing. I suppose I'll have to explain why the Atlanteans arrive just as the PCs do.

Perhaps the timeline is that the Atlanteans were always about to go see Polyphemus, finally taking back what's theirs (the eye, that is) on order of their new King, and the PCs are sent to intercept (either by the Fae NPC or John Dee, Queen Elizabeth's magical adviser, depending on which way I decide to go). This makes sense, and adds narrative thrust to the opening -- but I like the idea that the heroes just stumble across this hidden world while trying to go elsewhere. Actually, now that I think about it, I've done a terrible job deciding between these two ideas in every version of this story: it has always been that the heroes are sent by Queen Elizabeth to "find Atlantis and gain the treasures of hidden lands," and then have no idea how to go about their goal until they happen across Polyphemus's island. That's awkward. For the new version, I should decide between a definite quest by Elizabeth that directs them at the island (its location lifted from a piece of ancient magical literature, Fae information, or somesuch), or have the PCs on an entirely different mission -- a diplomatic mission to Greece or what have you -- before they stumble across the island and have this new world opened up to them. I'm not sure which I like better (hence the awkward balancing before), but I think I need to make a definite decision.

Anyway, the alternate reason for the Atlantean arrival could be that they detect the PCs' arrival and want to know who's messing around with their island. This makes sense, and would work well to be less coincidental -- but it does necessarily lose one piece I want to include: the arrival of the Atlantean King.

You see, according to Plato, Atlantis had ten kings, each of which controlled one-tenth of the island (except Atlas, who was the "high king" and had power over the others). I posit that as Atlantis's power grew, each of these kings added other mythical lands into their holdings, and each became a dynasty. By the time Terra Incognita takes place, King Azaes the 54th is one of the most powerful kings in a constantly contentious, backstabbing royal family. Azaes is the one who made the deal with Polyphemus, and is intended as the Big Bad for the series (or at least, the first one -- like Apophis of Stargate SG-1, he may eventually be eclipsed by a larger threat).

In the original campaign, the PCs never encountered Azaes until they met him at his palace in Atlantis and overthrew him. While the players had plenty of venom for Atlantis, they didn't much care about the central villain, having never met him or heard much about him. In contrast, I ensured the PCs in my current City of Lives campaign encountered the Big Bad in their second session -- and though they never actually spoke to her, just heard her behind a door, seeing her villainous behavior so early helped them care and really want to foil her evil schemes time and again. Hence, I'd like Azaes himself to visit Polyphemus's island and encounter the PCs.

Two potential problems:
-How to keep him alive? In the TV pilot, the heroes wounded him and he got one of his magicians to heal him while the heroes ran. I can't count on the players to run -- they're much less predictable than fictional characters -- so I'll need to make him invulnerable or able to escape somehow. Eh... either one is easy enough to fudge. He'll just have Damage Resistance 30 or something absurd like that, and if the players don't figure out they're not yet powerful enough to defeat him, they deserve to die.
-Can he come across as evil enough in this short encounter to earn the players' everlasting hatred? I suppose I'll have him heartlessly murder Polyphemus, a few of the PCs' crew, and maybe even some of his own men, let him monologue for a bit, etc. Workable.

In any case, Azaes finds the PCs and they fight -- either the PCs attack him, or he derides any attempt to be friendly by saying they have nothing he needs, and he sends his men to kill them. During the escape, Polyphemus hands off his Eye to the PCs, preferably in exchange for a promise to end Atlantis's tyranny, and the PCs escape. Cue credits, and the heroes sail off to their next adventure.

I've realized, by a discussion with one of my IRL friends, that before I run off and write the adventure, I'm going to have to write up some rules hacks and world-building to prepare people, because no system is perfectly designed to handle Terra Incognita. Join me next time to build some foundations!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Hey all!

I am currently on my HONEYMOON. As such, I will not be posting today, and possibly not Friday. In any case, I'll be back soon. In the meantime, vote in my poll or leave a comment with your ideas!

See you later!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Terra Incognita - The Plot, Part 1

Okay, welcome back, folks. I’ve laid out the basic premise of Terra Incognita and taken a look at possible systems to adapt it for. We've had one person vote in the poll so far (other people! Take a few seconds! A sample size of one is terrible!), and so I think now is the time to lay out the basics of what the first Terra Incognita adventure will look like.

It began like this: the premise involves investigating the mysteries of mythical lands. So, the question in my head was: why haven't these lands been found before? This tale is set in the 16th century, when most of the globe had been locked down on maps (the American continent notwithstanding), so it would be hard to justify simply "nobody found them before." So I concluded these lands must have been hidden, cloaked in illusions and something akin to the "Somebody Else's Problem field" to make everyone ignore the fact that they've just taken a roundabout route to avoid something that they're not even aware exists. So -- how can the PCs pierce the illusions? Some form of magic, of course -- but what kind? As this point, somehow I came up with the idea of "Polyphemus's Eye." 

Polyphemus, as you surely all recall from being forced to read The Odyssey in high school, was the Cyclops that Odysseus and his men encountered. According to the tale, Polyphemus ate several of Odysseus's men, Odysseus told him his name was "No Man," and then Odysseus and his men put out the Cyclops' single eye with a sharpened stake. They then escaped by tying themselves to sheep (really! look it up!), so that Polyphemus, dependent on touch, wouldn't realize they were leaving. As Odysseus sailed away, Polyphemus shouted to his brethren "No man has hurt me!" -- and they all said "Okay, so nobody hurt you. So?"

That is the tale of Polyphemus as told in The Odyssey. I wondered what happened next -- and came to the conclusion that he became wise and the chieftain of the Cyclopes, and then the Atlanteans came and gifted him with a magical stone eye to start off trade. And then, because my Atlanteans are pure evil, they stole his entire tribe for slave labor and left him alone for the next thousand years -- and then come the PCs.

Polyphemus's Eye has two properties -- it sees through illusions, and it translates languages, thus justifying the PCs' ability to find these lands and removing the language barrier much in the fashion of Star Trek's Universal Translator. This is kind of a narrative cheat, as it's a little hard to justify why the Atlanteans would give him something that did both of these things -- but the in-universe explanation is that otherwise he would be unable to trade with the Atlanteans, without being able to see them and speak to them. 

So -- the question is, how do the PCs get a hold of the Eye? This is the function of the first adventure -- to get them to the Island of the Cyclopes, have them encounter Polyphemus, and get his Eye. How exactly to manage this has varied in my several versions of the first adventure:
-In the first time I ran this campaign, I had the PCs' ship pursued by pirates, and gave the gypsy hedge wizard a single-use ritual spell called "Safe Harbor" designed to find a safe place to land, no matter what.
-In the first draft of the TV pilot script, I had my own gypsy hedge witch do essentially the same thing.
-In the second draft, I had a Faerie trickster (who was to replace the gypsy as the team's magic-user) divert the ship to the island, with her intention to use the human crew to get the Eye, as her Faerie blood made her allergic to the Eye's magic -- and then she would join the crew with the intention of using them to get revenge on Atlantis.
-I've been considering keeping the Faerie, either as a pregenerated PC or as an NPC, and having her actually come to Queen Elizabeth's court (probably in disguise) and propose the mission to search for Atlantis, guiding the PCs to find the island.

In any case, the PCs are to find the island, preferably in a shipwreck that will strand them there temporarily as the crew fixes the ship... and then the exploration begins. They will examine various parts of the island, discovering evidence of giants living there, and get attacked by gigantic versions of common animals. In the TV pilot, and in the original adventure, there was simply one short scene examining the Cyclopes' village, and another in which they are attacked by a giant boar -- but that adventure was designed to take a single evening to run, so as I'm planning to expand this version of the adventure, I'll have to come up with some more interesting island features for them to encounter.

Finally, the PCs find a temple to Poseidon (Greek god of the sea, and Polyphemus's father), and, bypassing a number of classic dungeoncrawl-style traps, find Polyphemus, who attacks them in a blind fury!

Join me next time as I lay out the plot to the second half of Terra Incognita's "pilot" adventure!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Terra Incognita - which system?

So, we've now looked a little at the mood and premise of Terra Incognita. Today, we'll look at it in terms of role-playing: what systems fit, what difficulties should we expect?

The mood we are trying to establish here is cinematic, swashbuckling, low fantasy. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Dresden Files, The X-Files, or Supernatural, Terra Incognita is about ordinary people discovering a world of magic hiding behind the normal world. This allows the characters to discover this new and bizarre world at the same rate as the players. Thus, most if not all Player Characters should be mundane humans, at least to start with: sailors, diplomats, scientists and soldiers. It is only after the campaign starts and they discover the supernatural world that they should start gaining magical items or abilities.

The campaign is set in the 16th century -- unlike the medieval or far future settings favored by most RPGs -- a time when firearms have rendered armor obsolete, and giant weapons with them. The favored weapons are the rapier and cutlass, the favored fighting styles emphasizing mobility over brute strength or endurance. It is a time when urban centers have just recently become the center of the world, where cosmopolitanism has just become practical and the concept of nations over city-states just taking hold. Magic and religion are losing their power to the burgeoning methodology of science.

First, unsurprisingly, is FATE. It's my favorite system, and it's under OGL (Open Gaming License), so I can publish stuff for it with no legal or financial problems. Then again -- which FATE? Spirit of the Century? It's free, and well-known, but it's got some problems that have been fixed by later system variants. The Dresden Files? Well, it's the latest work by the original FATE designers, Evil Hat, but a) it's actually not under OGL, because it's based on a licensed property, and Evil Hat hasn't worked out which parts should be OGL and which parts shouldn't, yet; and b) its ruleset is pretty married to its setting, which while also being low fantasy like Terra Incognita, is decidedly modern. Starblazer Adventures/Legends of Anglerre? Well, it's a fantasy system, so that's good -- but the magic rules are the one thing in the rulebook that's not OGL. Then there's the new kid on the block, Strands of Fate, which is elegant and versatile, but markedly different from the rest of the FATE variants and kind of hard to understand. Or I could use my own City of Lives variant -- but nobody but the handful of people who RP with me or read this blog are anywhere near familiar with it.

The problem with all the FATE variants is that I don't know which version most people are playing. I want TI to be accessible to the greatest number of people, but I'm not sure what system that means.

Originally, Terra Incognita was run with d20 Modern, a variant on the d20 system used for D&D 3rd Edition, with the d20 Past supplement. This worked remarkably well -- all characters in d20 Modern have to be at least 3rd level in basic classes before they can start gaining levels in classes with supernatural abilities. This allowed me to start off all the PCs as mundanes before exposure to Atlantis showed them the existence of magic, and they started gathering magic items and levels in 'Mage' and 'Acolyte' (basically, Wizard and Cleric). The problem is, d20 Modern was at best a modest hit, and hasn't been supported at all in five years or so -- so I don't know if anyone is still playing the darned thing. Besides that, there's not much of a problem -- the rules are flexible enough to easily accommodate the Elizabethan setting and inclusion of magic.

This brings us to D&D 3rd Edition, and its 3rd-party successor Pathfinder, both of which are OGL. I need to find out whether more people are playing Pathfinder or just running with their old D&D books, but for now we'll discuss these two systems as one, since they're so similar. Well -- D&D is designed for a faux-medieval, high fantasy setting. It is ridiculously difficult creating mundane heroes -- Barbarian, Fighter, Monk, Rogue, and Ranger are the only options, and the Monk is decidedly Eastern in style, Barbarians have little place in 16th century Europe (okay, maybe some African or Native American characters, if you want to characterize them as "barbarians"). And rogue excepted, they're all fighter variants. You can't create a balanced, let alone interesting, party out of just those classes, so players (and me, for pregenerated PCs I plan to include) will have to either a) feel ridiculously restricted, b) make half the party supernatural creatures, which kind of ruins the mood, or c) venture into obscure supplements to find character classes that kind of work.

Still, a workaround might be possible -- a simple restriction that human characters can only take non-spellcasting classes until after the first Terra Incognita adventure (which I envision taking place at 3rd or 4th level) -- and perhaps impose a limit on non-humans to one or two per party. Restrictive, but perhaps workable. After all, the world of Terra Incognita isn't actually low-magic, it's just that the PCs grew up in the non-magical portion of it.

Similar problems occur with D&D 4th Edition (which is not OGL, which causes problems). On the one hand, I like the idea of a "Captain" character, able to lead his sailors and give bonuses in combat -- and the Warlord class is perfect for that, much better than anything in D&D 3e or Pathfinder, but practically every other class is filled with magic, even more so than 3rd edition. And multiclassing is much more difficult in 4e, making my proposed 3e workaround... not work.

Then there are the systems I'm not familiar with. There's another d20 variant, True20, that folks say is much more flexible and capable of running low-magic campaigns -- but I know absolutely nothing about it, nor how many people play it. GURPS, of course, can run anything -- but I'm intimidated by the massive rulebook and have never even looked at it. A new generic system, Savage Worlds, is supposed to be flexible and easy, but I've never looked at it. Burning Wheel is perhaps a good bet, as the little I know about it indicates that it's character-focused in a way that would fit Terra Incognita well, but it's also reputed to be ridiculously complicated.

So -- what do you think? What systems should I translate Terra Incognita into? Is it worth learning a new system to transplant it to, or are the chances anyone would care too slim? Is it practical to adapt it to D&D, or is the high/low fantasy dichotomy too far? What games do you play, that you would want to see it in?

Sound off in the comments, and visit the homepage to vote in my poll!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Terra Incognita - An Introduction

As promised, we now enter a new and hopefully diverting chapter of this blog. There is a campaign I ran several years, ago, one that I adapted into a television pilot script during my stint at film school, that I still think is really cool and worth revisiting. The problem, the reason this blog wasn't about this campaign from the start, is that it's not a complex and dense world filled with mysteries and infinite possibilities -- it's an episodic concept, a series of adventures and explorations with a logical endpoint.

And then I had a thought, not too long ago -- why not publish it that way? As a series of adventures, capable of being run independently but designed to go together in sequence and have a metaplot. So I'm going to give it a shot -- you will watch as I attempt to flesh out the first adventure I ran in this arc into something someone could play without my input. What happens then, I'm not sure -- maybe it stays on this blog, maybe I publish it somewhere else online for free, maybe I try to do some desktop publishing and try to sell it for a couple bucks per pdf. We'll see.

So, to begin, let's introduce you a bit to the basic premise of Terra Incognita.

The year is 1575, in the reign of Elizabeth I. All of Europe is eager to find new lands, new sources of fame and wealth, and belief in myth and legend is still alive. TERRA INCOGNITA will tell the story of Her Majesty's Ship Veritas, Captain Terence Blake, and a crew gathered from the furthest reaches of known geography. Their travels take them to lands that no-one has ever recorded: islands made of living rock; the country of the mythical Amazons; the Cyclopes' caves; and even sailing down the river Styx.

The mood of Terra Incognita is one of high adventure and exploration, a fusion of classical mythology, swashbuckling action, and Star Trek on the high seas. However, along with the explorations come dangers, primarily in conflict with the tyrannical kings of Atlantis, who have ruled over many hidden mythological lands for millennia. The ship itself is not free from conflict, as religions, cultures, and sexes clash onboard at the rise of the modern age. 

Elizabeth I was a monarch of a nation hobbled by political infighting and the sad state of the Royal Treasury. In an age of exploration and expansion, she was able to do little to expand her Empire. And this is where Doctor John Dee and Lord Francis Walsingham enter. Dee was the Queen’s Astrologer and Mystical Advisor; Walsingham, her Spymaster. Together, they conceived of a hidden mission to explore the lands of myth and legend and claim them for the crown—a plan which, if successful, would bring England untold riches, and if a failure, never officially existed. Terra Incognita is about their venture.

Terra Incognita is a series about the truth. Even the name of Captain Blake’s ship, Veritas, is Latin for Truth. Its purpose is to uncover the secrets hidden by the Kings of Atlantis, who are, in essence, the ultimate liars. They are both reminiscent and diametrically opposite to our own parents—where Mom would tell stories about Santa Claus, cloaking ordinary things in the extraordinary, the Atlanteans do the exact opposite. They cloak the extraordinary in the mundane. Like The X-Files, Terra Incognita seeks to find the truth. However, in contrast, Terra Incognita will also deal with the dangers of the truth, the question of whether humanity would be harmed by knowledge of the supernatural creatures in their midst—and whether the supernatural can survive contact with humanity.

Terra Incognita is swashbuckling with a brain, fantasy with a grounding point in reality. Every adventure should keep a sense of fun for the players, a new amazing world to discover, but it is all deadly serious for the crew of the Veritas. This is not to say that there will be no humor, but the tone of Terra Incognita is closer to Battlestar Galactica than Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The visual style is lavish and fantastical, but grounded in the dirty, grime-filled reality that was the real 16th century.

Next time, we'll explore in brief the premise of the first adventure and what kind of game system(s) this is appropriate for.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Factions: Triocheans

You head down the street, paycheque in hand, headed to the market. Knowing you need to cash out your cheque, you look for a moneylender. There's one -- but the rates for changing are ridiculous. Another -- also overcharging. A third... and fourth... Eventually, you realize that you aren't going to find a better price, because the Triocheans control all the lenders. Maybe if you join, too, you can get a fair price... The Triocheans control the City's money, running their world according to the principles of laissez-faire and social Darwinism. And, of course, they want to help the Elder Trio expand the City of Lives' power to become the greatest mercantile power in all the Realms.

Archetype: The merchant is usually a side character in heroic fantasy. For Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and others of the Sword & Sorcery genre, they exist on the periphery, simply for the heroes to sell their loot to. In Tolkienian heroic fantasy, merchants and moneylenders have even less prominence, seldom appearing at all. Even in modern, darker fantasy like A Song of Ice and Fire, those with the money are usually the villains -- more important, but less flattering. The Triocheans are an attempt to reorient the focus -- they may not always be the heroes (nobody is in the City of Lives), but money is important. Those that have it are movers and shakers in the City, as important as the nobility, if not more so. And, more importantly, money does not need to corrupt. It may, but among the Lex Luthors and Mr. Potters, there are also a few Tony Starks and Bruce Waynes (not to imply that one has to be a superhero to make a difference in the City).

Real-Life Inspiration: The people who care about money, obviously. Those who have it, those who want it, those who spend their lives in pursuit of it. Businessmen. Oil Barons. Social Darwinists. Anyone who believes problems can be solved by throwing money at them is a Triochean at heart. And let's be honest: a lot of problems can be solved with money. Triocheans are not inherently selfish people -- in fact, they have great goals for the betterment of their society, from charity through expansion of trade rights.

Theme: "Enlightened self-interest" is the Triochean credo. They believe that every person can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and succeed in this world, by working within or exploiting the system. In fact, they believe that if everyone were always out for themselves and only themselves, but without the desire to one-up their neighbors, everyone would end up rich and happy. Similar to Ayn Rand's objectivism, Triochean philosophy believes in self-determination and laissez-faire.

Twist: The Triocheans follow the almighty solu (the unit of currency in the City, if you've forgotten), but they also follow the Elder Trio, the reclusive, mystical beings who rule the City. Their beliefs are founded on the idea that they are following the Trio's example by not interfering in the lives of citizens and businessmen. What would happen if the Trio reversed their policies and got involved? Would the Triocheans follow their newly-active rulers, or would they believe that the Trio had betrayed their own standards and fight against them? Perhaps a whole other faction would arise, the Triocheans splitting in two like religious sects. An interesting thought...

Well, thank you for following me through this rather extended trip through the various Factions of the City. For the next while, we're going to try a little something different, as I show you another of my projects -- an adventure I'd like to try publishing (for free? for cheap?), and we'll muddle through turning it from scattered notes and notions into something people can follow and play. Join me next time as we begin to examine Terra Incognita!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Factions: Thief-Binders

Returning from work, you choose to cut through a back alley. A bad move, it turns out, as a group of Kipman toughs surround you and demand your purse. Just as you are reluctantly handing it over, a shouted "Stop!" comes from the alley entrance, and you look over to see a squad of Iversdotters, armed with swords and crossbows and wearing a distinctive uniform. The Kipmen try to resist, but a few crossbow shots later, and the muggers, injured but alive, are escorted away in chains. Breathing heavily, you thank the Light that the local noble Houses employ the Thief-Binders as their private watchmen. The Thief-Binders are believers in justice and act as an unofficial and/or private police force for much of the City.

Archetype: The “city watch” or “city guards” have a strong history in fantasy fiction. However, they are usually portrayed as either incompetent, leaving the heroism to the main characters, or actively obstructive, as the heroes need to act outside of the law for the greater good. Additionally, city guardsmen are seldom shown as investigators, trying merely to “keep the peace” rather than actively solving crimes like modern police. The Thief-Binders may be either obstructive or helpful to the Player Characters, depending on their actions, but they are most definitely investigators as well as defenders.

Real-Life Inspiration: Obviously, the Thief-Binders are inspired mostly by cops. They are the “thin blue line” that stands between the citizens of the City and total anarchy (or at least, that’s what they believe). They believe in justice, and the system, and order. However, unlike the cops in our world, the Thief-Binders are a strange mix of private security force and vigilante. Most Thief-Binders are hired by various noble Houses or other Factions to provide security. For their clients, they act pretty much like a city police force, but they both have to bow to the wishes (and variant laws) of their employer, and their jurisdiction is sharply curtailed, perhaps only stretching a few blocks or governing specific individuals. Additionally, questions of jurisdiction and Other Thief-Binders, especially in the low-income sections of the City, operate without any official sanction, purely because they feel that they have a responsibility to their fellow citizens. Unlike in the real world, these vigilantes are seldom stigmatized, as they are often the only police available in those areas of the City.

Theme: The Thief-Binders are all about rules. Their world is ordered and -- every possible action has a proscribed response. Breaking the rules -- any rules -- is anathema to the Thief-Binders. These are not Dirty Harry justice-at-any-cost rogue cops. They have a rules and procedures, their only defense against the chaos of the City. These rules simplify their lives -- but they are stymied when something new and unexpected arises. The Thief-Binders also want to impose their rules on the rest of reality. They live their rule-filled existence, and believe others will appreciate it as well -- by force, if necessary.

Twist: For a community so based on rules, the Thief-Binders have a surprising amount of discord among their ranks. They disagree on the interpretation of their rules, and Thief-Binders working for different Houses may have entirely different sets of laws to enforce. In short, arguments, fights, and even small wars can arise between different groups of Thief-Binders, despite their shared love of law and order.

Next time, we’ll examine our last faction, with the mercantile Triocheans!