Friday, February 25, 2011

Son of Light Archetypal Image and The Ma'ar

Casus Aetunius Holvinus -- a Son of Light Commander

Casus is a thin man -- but wiry, not gaunt. He has a sharp nose and wears his dark blonde hair cropped short in a Roman fashion. He is perhaps 50. He wears an 18th-century nobleman’s outfit -- waistcoat, breeches, cravat -- in gold and silver hues. However, on his hip he wears not a watch, not a rapier, but a Roman gladius, and holds a Roman-style plumed helmet under one arm. He stares at the viewer with an intense, commanding look in his green eyes.

Image after the jump:

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Realms - Niontia Unprime 236

We begin with a piece of concept art, for the Dead-Blooded bloodline, and then we will travel to Niontia Unprime 236.

Elexender Gwaiotus - a Dead-Blooded Blightshifter

Elexender is a dour, serious-looking young man in his early 20s. His skin is sallow and unhealthy-looking, his black eyes sunken. Part of his lip has rotted away, leaving his teeth visible. His straight black hair is cut into a style like the wigs of the Revolutionary War. He wears an 18th-century nobleman’s outfit -- waistcoat, breeches, cravat -- in stark, plain black, and it is old and not well-cared-for. He holds a skull in one hand, with the other hand making an arcane gesture at it. The skull appears to be regrowing its flesh. He stares at the skull with an intense look of concentration.
And the image, after the jump:

Friday, February 18, 2011

On Archetypal Images and Realm Geography

As I've worked on this blog and my playtest campaign, I've realized two things: People want images, and I'm not very good at visual thinking. Hence, I decided that if I were to get across exactly what a "Rural" or "Grate-Scratcher" Iooked like, I would need some are. I wanted to get an "archetypal" image of each Bloodline, like those one might see in the Race descriptions in D&D or what have you, and also a bit of the Archetypes (similar to Classes in D&D or what have you). So I asked my fiancee to commission some art for me for Christmas. It turned out to be a Valentine's Day Gift, but whatever... For the next ten posts, we'll supplement the main topic with short discussion on the Bloodline pictures I got from artist Amy Clark (check her stuff out at deviant art). This is the the description I wrote for my fiancee, who sent it on to Amy:

Thewton Wells -- a Rural Explorer
Thewton is short and stocky -- perhaps five-foot-four and 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.

And here's the picture after the break:

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Fate Point economy

Today, I had a rules thought that took up my mind, so we'll address that today and return to Niontia Unprime 236 next week. But today, enjoy Fate Point Economy.

I, like many FATE GMs, have seen a problematic behavior at the game table -- my playtesters tend to hoard their fate points, using them only when absolutely necessary. Why is this problematic? Quite simply, because fate points make the game more interesting. Whether turning a simple and boring success into a one-hit-kill smackdown or throwing spells willy-nilly (remember -- my system uses "fate point commitment" to power its magic), or, even better, using the environment to fundamentally change the conflict dynamic -- these are all preferable for both GM and player than "I hit the monster, I guess."

So how to stop hoarding? I implemented a simple change (well, actually, I returned to the rules as written) recently. According to the rules, a PC gets all their fate points back at the beginning of any game session "or after  a significant break in the action." Because at the time my game sessions were quite short, averaging three to four hours at most (the problem of having to play on weekdays), and games were usually ended on a cliffhanger instead of a rest point, I decided to only return fate points when the characters had a long break -- I was worried about fate point over-use. That rule unfortunately encouraged the players to hoard, and it became completely improper when the new campaign started, with longer sessions once we were able to move to Saturdays, and with characters who tended to take a lot of breaks within each session, moving more slowly and methodically than the previous group. So I returned to the rules as written, hoping for every character to burn through their fate points each session.

It didn't work.

Now, I'll take some blame here. It is the responsibility of every Fate GM to compel their characters' Aspects, replenishing their fate points by moving them into unpleasant situations -- and I too often get distracted by the action and miss opportunities to compel. I have used a spreadsheet I found somewhere on the internet (probably at the FATE Yahoo group -- it's awesome, check it out) to put all of my PCs' Aspects in one place, and that's helped, but this is a problem I just have to deal with.

Another problem I've been having is the question of advancement. I've been using the "Minor" "Significant" and "Major" Milestones as used in The Dresden Files RPG, but it's hard to determine when to hand out each milestone -- and again, I get distracted and forget.

I wasn't even looking for how to fix these problems, but last week I stumbled across it... or at least, part of it: this post by Rob Donoghue (one of the fathers of Fate) combines the two problems into one and gives a solution [a note, credit where credit's due, I came across this other post by Guy Bowring, also inspired by Donoghue's article, first, and thought it was a brilliant idea there]. Donoghue proposes putting a bowl in the middle of the table, and players will throw their fate points in there as they spend -- and the GM will also contribute while compelling aspects, and also just "when he wants to reward general awesomeness." Then at the end of the night, you distribute the fate points out as Experience Points.

Which leads me to my next question: How many fate/experience points should a player have to collect to buy a milestone? Should they build up to a specific amount and "level up" (this is what Bowring suggests, but he is creating a system modeled on old-style D&D, which I am definitely not), or should the players be able to spend them in small increments for milestones -- or the specific options that make up the milestones? What kind of numbers should we look at here?

Anyway, obviously, I've got some thinking to do. If you've got any input, please (please) sound off in the comments.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Niontians

You walk along, the cloud cover above hiding the sun from view. You glance over at your shadow on the wall, then do a double-take, as nothing else has a shadow. You stare in horror as the shadow begins moving on its own, and scream as it raises a ghostly crossbow... You've just met your first Niontian. In a small departure from the plan, we're first going to spend a post exploring the origin of the Niontians, before heading to their Realm next post.

This story begins, as most of mine do, with the name. "Niontian" originated as a nonsense word used in the oft-mentioned short story that started this world (which I should finish one day, methinks). The story went through two drafts (or, at least, the first few pages went through two drafts), and in both "Niontian" showed up as an architectural term. In draft one, I mentioned "a brand-new Niontian residence shoved up next to a millennia-old Pestilence Prime guild hall," and in the other, I used as a setpiece "a Niontian museum that had long since been converted into a makeshift community." The name didn't long stay fallow -- when I decided to turn the story into a campaign world, I made a list of all the names, terms, and words I'd put in as fluff, deciding which ones to turn into something substantial. I liked the name "Niontian" quite a lot -- it sounded dark and creepy to me -- but it was voted down by my playtest group when I ran it by them for which names should develop into Bloodlines.

I was not to be dissuaded. When coming up with ideas for the "Outlander" Bloodline -- that is to say, all the weird creatures that live in other realms who would serve as enemies and player options for those who wanted something exotic (like the D&D player who always wants to play a race from the splatbooks, or even the Monster Manual) -- Niontians came back. I brainstormed a handful of ideas, trying to make them all bizarre and unlike what I had seen in my D&D days. Among those ideas was "living shadows." I thought the name "Niontians" seemed to fit with "living shadows," so I set them together and, without further explanation, called it good.

The next time Niontians came up was when I was creating the second playtest campaign. One of my players had requested a "big bad" race to fight against, something that could be pure evil and that would not overlap with the PC races -- "so we're not always just fighting people," as she put it. I didn't really get it, myself -- I think fighting people is far more interesting than monsters -- but I do like the idea of the "big bad" villains to bind a campaign together into more than unrelated adventures. So I looked through the Outlander ideas for a species that might invade the City, to provide a large-scale threat and so that the heroes would have a definite goal to mark an endpoint to the campaign. Of all my Outlanders, the two I found most interesting were the Niontians and the Fractal Elves, who are designed to be far too strange to understand, much less do something as mundane as invading, so Niontians it was.

Little did I know how complicated that would end up being.

A word of warning: should you ever decide to incorporate living shadows in your own campaigns, think long and hard before doing so. I have had quite a headache figuring out the ramifications of 2-dimensional creatures and how they would interact with a 3-D world -- and my players are not the kind of people to just let this stuff go without explanation.

So, starting with a few ideas I came up with from reading Flatland and concluding (for now) with a long, long conversation with my playtesters in the midst of a play session, we have these facts about Niontians:

  • The original Niontia Prime is a 2-D world where humans can’t survive. 
  • When in a 3-D Realm, the Niontians live on the surface of the ground -- or side of rocks, or structures, etc. 
  • Niontians build their own shadow structures that are barriers for them, but not for humans -- but 3-D barriers hold no problem for the Niontians. 
  • In nature, Niontians can see only along the 2-D place -- when a human’s foot leaves the ground, it vanishes. 
  • Niontian Crafters, especially Shadowshapers and Farsharers, can perceive the 3-D world. 
  • Shadowsteel is one of the only substances that can affect both Niontians and 3-D creatures (or “corporeals”/”corpies.” 
  • Niontians are essentially the first Shadowshapers -- they can create and control shadows, and are vulnerable to either too much light (extinguishing them) or too much darkness (they are lost in it and spread into nothingness). As in Avatar: The Last Airbender, where the first Airbenders learned it from the Flying Bison, the first corporeal Shadowshapers simply learned how to do what the Niontians know how to do instinctively. 
Well, now that we've spent a post on Niontians, let's move on to their nearest colony Realm... next time! See you then as we explore Niontia Unprime 236!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Rural Communities

You stroll into town... or, at least, you think this is the town. A few old and battered store fronts line the single street, with houses dotting the landscape here and there, miles apart. An old Rural man nods at you from a rocking chair on the general store's porch, sod crumbling to the ground from his wrinkling forehead... Welcome to Bavingdon. Or is it Perstoke? Or Tursham? Or Hanwer-on-Wirth? Who can tell? All these small farming communities are basically the same, so they will all come together for this single post on Rural Communities.

Honestly, I really need to organize my ideas better. For months, I've been talking and writing about the three Rural communities that surround the City: Bavingdon, Perstoke, and Mestloath. Then, in preparation for today's post, I took a look at my map of the Realm of Lives, and saw that there was another, one Sathed, down in the southeast of the map, where I had apparently decided it was too large a blank region to be without a town. So. Yeah. What do I do? Do I trust my initial instinct, which was to have three towns -- or the me that put the map together, and add in a fourth one? Damn it, Past Me's, communicate with me better! Anyway, after a bit of cogitation, I decided two things: First, that Mapmaker-me was right, we need a fourth town, or that part of the map will be noticeably and bizarrely empty; and second, that Sathed is a terrible name. Combine that with the continual irritation I've had every time I have to use "Mestloath" [It sounds like meatloaf. What was I thinking?], I headed to my name generator.

For those who are interested, I use a marvelous random name generator for most of my "foreign language" names (as opposed to those that are based on real words, like Dead-Blooded or Sky-Carver). It's called The Everchanging Book of Names, and you can find it here. It randomizes results from lists of real names, deriving new names that "sound right" by using the same structure, letter combinations, and common prefixes/suffixes that occur in that culture. It's awesome, and the free demo version is remarkably powerful (I just registered it myself, so I'll report back in later on how much improved it is). 

The EBoN gave me a mess of names to choose from in creating my two missing villages. Here are some of the better ones (the ones I considered using), derived from the "English Place Names" EBoNEBoN created for me just now: Uckmon, Searilsouth, Wastead-Frirnorth-Chirby, Brabourn, Chrintmere, Tostlam, Edgothfer, Hackbourne, and Cadgimpstone. When I looked at the original output, I noticed one that really appealed to me, except for one little bit: Hanwer-an-Math. Obviously based on the "Blank-on-blank" nomenclature convention that shows up in English place names, but with a different vowel in the middle. I could easily change it back to "on" and have a good name... but "math" is a word, and not one I want associated with the town -- these farmers can hardly count, much less higher mathematics. A while later, I ended up with "Wirth" and thought that would be a nice suffix to replace "math." The other one I almost went with... another "w" name that has vanished from my files, but decided I didn't want two "w" names, so decided Regitursham was cool, but too long and hard to pronounce... so I hacked off the first two syllables. Voila! Hanwer-on-Wirth and Tursham, the other two villages that, along with Bavingdon and Perstoke, will make up the Rurals' centers of "civilization." name library... Well, that's nice. I somehow deleted my castoffs. Okay, well, here are a few names

These four towns have a combined population of perhaps a few thousand people, and serve as small bastions of "civilization" in the rugged areas outside the City. I don't think they need a full ARTTBavingdon -- the most interesting, as it stands definitively within Crasher territory, and close to the border of Dead Tribes territory, so is always getting raided by one group or the other. Hence, it's a bit tougher than the other villages, and also holds the distinction of being the hometown of the only Rural rich enough to buy his way onto the City of Lives' High Council. treatment. However, I've established a little about

House Solfidley
Description: The home of the only Rural rich enough to buy his way into politics.
Threat: Solfidley intends to destroy the Council and its “corruption.”
Aspect: Secret Vendettas, Hated Wealth
FaceArbron Solfidley — Rich Rural Revolutionary Working From Within 

This Arbron Solfidley has become a favorite NPC in the playtest game, where his "Southern Gentleman" persona, seen by the players as a mix between Colonel Sanders and Foghorn Leghorn, has earned him the nickname "Cockburn Fuckhorn." So... yeah.

Tomorrow we go off-Realm, as we begin examining the various universes that connect to the City of Lives. We'll begin with Niontia Unprime 236, one of the colonies of the 2-dimensional living shadows The Niontians. See you here!

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Heliotrope Cliffs

You step out of the carriage, smelling deeply the fresh mountain air. A tiny hamlet surround you -- a trading post to your left, a handful of ramshackle buildings to your right. You look up the winding path that leads to the mine entrance. Hearing a loud chanting behind you, you turn to see a mass of unionist protesters, waving signs and shouting in a variety of tongues... Welcome to The Heliotrope Cliffs. The center for mining for the City, and the Sons of Light's ancestral home, back when they were in full charge of the City.

Okay, so here's the history as it stands: Once upon a time, a group of humans lived by the Heliotrope Cliffs, and some of them migrated to the crux of rivers where the City of Lives now stands -- according to legend, guided by the hand of sun-god The Light. These City-builders and rulers of the government came to be known as the Sons of Light, led by the Monarch of Light. The original settlement at the Heliotrope Cliffs declined, as most of the Sons of Light migrated to the City over the next few centuries.

Then the Elder Trio came. From some Far Realm, these godlike beings removed the Monarch of Light from power [in a war? helping an internal coup? through unimaginably powerful magic? dunno yet], and the last remnants of the Heliotrope Cliffs population ended up in the City [how?], leaving it entirely abandoned.

Now, companies from the City mines iron, gold, the titular heliotrope, and other valuable minerals from the Cliffs, and archaeologists unearth the fascinating remnants of the ancient Son of Light culture.

Archetype: The Heliotrope Cliffs' main archetypal role is as a "collapsed civilization." The most classic examples of this archetype look like this: A grand old culture made the most amazing artifacts in the world/galaxy/universe, then vanished entirely -- Stargate's Ancients, Mass Effect's Protheans, Forgotten Realms' sarrukh, not to mention Atlantis. The Heliotrope Cliffs, however, is closer to the "collapse into barbarism" seen in Foundation, Red Dwarf, and the historical Roman Empire -- the people who once ruled are still around, in the form of the modern Sons of Light, but they are nowhere near as powerful as the old civilization.

Real-Life Inspiration: The inspiration here is every archaeological dig ever. The roads left behind by ancient Romans, the ruins of the Minoan civilization, the pyramids of south America... There are amazing things left behind by these people, art and culture and technologies forgotten until brought back up by the archeologists' careful hands. The old Sons of Light had Lightshaping techniques unknown to modern Crafters, as well as taking Blightshifting to a level now unknown [see the posts on the Blightbound and the Addix], so searching through their ruins always holds the promise of finding the City of Lives version of the Antikythera Mechanism.

Theme: The Heliotrope Cliffs are divided into two distinct areas (conceptually, if not physically): the mines, and the ruins. The mines represent oppression and hard times -- the workers are little more than slaves, and nobody has yet built a mine that's fully safe and easy to work in. On the other hand, the ruins represent lost knowledge, and the hope that it might one day be recovered.

Twist: Pretty easy one here, at least for me: The Sons of Light weren't nearly as amazing as everyone says they were. Personally, I am sick of the "good old days" mentality that goes with the "ancient civilization" trope, and believe that the present is the best we, as humanity, have ever had it. So the Sons of Light weren't so great -- their culture was oppressive and racist, sexist, and most other -ists you can thing of. And they may have created a few marvels that the modern City societies would find amazing, but for the most part, they would be considered amazing "for the time" -- like the Antikythera Mechanism or a third-grader's "A" paper, it's remarkable they made these things with the primitive knowledge they had at the time, but not in today's terms.

Now we leave the Heliotrope Cliffs for our final trip on our Realm of Lives journey, the trio of small farming communities that are the only towns of note outside the City: Bavingdon, Mestloath, and Perstoke. See you next time!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Vulgar Morass

Your footing is unsteady, each step threatening to collapse into murky, stinking water. Vines droop overhead, and you have the uneasy feeling that they're hiding serpents in the trees. As you finally miss a step and begin sinking into the muck, you hear the whooping sound of angry natives... Welcome to The Vulgar Morass.

The Vulgar Morass -- this is probably the oldest name in The City of Lives. Originally, the Vulgar Morass was a geographical feature in a Tolkienesque D&D campaign I created in high school, called The Two Continents. Back then, it was a massive swamp where the goblins lives in a faux-American Indian tribal lifestyle. When I created the Realm of Lives. I saw a massive open space south of the City, and, as I've mentioned before, I want to keep the Realm of Lives small and manageable, so that adventures will explore the City and the other Realms. Hence, I looked through my old notes and plopped the Vulgar Morass down to block egress. So -- besides blocking people, what is the purpose of the Vulgar Morass?

I don't honestly know. I've focused my attentions on other areas -- so let's figure it out together.

Archetype: Well, the classical purpose of a swamp is similar to that of the forest -- wildness and the unknown -- but with a slightly different mood, including a certain "grossness." The swamps that come to my mind are: The Fire Swamp from The Princess Bride, filled with wall-to-wall danger -- and extremely original dangers like R.O.U.S.'s and Lightning Sand (or Snow Sand, depending on whether you're watching the movie or reading the book); the Swamps of Sadness from The Neverending Story, where sorrow is represented as slogging through mud that can swallow you whole if you let it; and, oddly enough, a TV movie adaptation of The Tempest that moves the action from an island to Mississipi, where the swamp represented isolation and nature at its wildest (the home of Caliban, for one).

Real-Life Inspiration: Well, here I'm really out of my depth. I have never once been near a swamp. All of my images of swamps come from the media -- and mostly fiction. I suppose I know ever-so-slightly more about the Everglades than any other famous swamp, having once seen a documentary about the plight of some endangered species or other, so let's call the Vulgar Morass based off of the Everglades... that's about it. Don't know much about the Everglades.

Theme: The Vulgar Morass's theme, methinks, is right there in the name: Vulgar. The swamp is gross. Uncivilized. Chaotic. So -- to really, properly be those things, somebody has to live there. It can't be just animals -- those are too natural and wild to be properly vulgar. So who lives there? Kipmen? No, those animal hybrids hold the Wilderwoods as their domain? Rurals? No the plant-men dominate the Julian Plains. Well -- what if a variation on the Grate-Scratchers live out here? The defining characteristics of the Grate-Scratchers are: 1) they live underground in the sewers -- and swamps are basically the countryside version of sewers; 2) their hygiene is so appalling it becomes an asset -- they can become caked in mud from the swamp as easily as the sewer system; and 3) they are tremendously resourceful, eking out a living from the scraps of the civilization above -- and they can show instead a Robinson Crusoe/Swiss Family Robinson ingenuity out in the wilderness.

In fact, this leads back to some additional:
Archetype: The "noble savage" tribesman archetype can be filled by the unnamed swamp-dwellers. The Noble Savage goes back centuries, and has shown up in such varied characters as Robinson Crusoe's Friday, Brave New World's John the Savage, and Dragonlance's Riverwind and Goldmoon. The noble savage is tribal, has natural knowledge, and has a simpler morality than the city folk. We've examined a partial example in the post on the Rurals' "Seeding Manual, but they hold to agrarian ideals and not pure nature.

Twist: First, we can revisit the idea that the noble savage is not necessarily morally superior or inferior to the city-dweller. Second -- perhaps the Vulgar Morass isn't so vulgar after all... perhaps a hidden civilization deep within the swamp has utilized the Grate-Scratchers' natural resourcefulness to make a sort of utopia. First question: Technological or magical? To differentiate it from the City, perhaps it should be technological (steampunk?). On the other hand, magic is much more efficient than gears and computer chips, according to City of Lives physics -- and technology doesn't work too well in mud and swampwater, anyway. So let's go magic. Second question: is this actually interesting? The hidden utopia is an old, classic concept that dates back literally hundreds if not thousands of years, at least back to the stories of El Dorado -- and the question is whether it's interesting, or has passed into cliche, or has passed back out of cliche into an archetypal concept. For this, I don't have an answer. Sound off in the comments!

Thanks for venturing into the disgusting swamps with me. Next time, we'll take a look at the City's main source of mineral wealth (and slave labor), the Heliotrope Cliffs.