Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Okay, folks. Bad news. As you may have noticed, I've been late and having a lot of "filler" posts over the last two weeks. The fact is, I am having a great deal of difficulty in my personal life, and I need to put Realmcrafting on a temporary hiatus -- let's call it two weeks -- so I can take care of my own life before I return to regular posts.

See you in two weeks!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A few notes from the CoL Development Bible

A few notes from the City of Lives "development bible" I'm working on, to help me and potential collaborators get on the same page regarding the setting and game:

Sitting in the center of an infinite span of worlds, the player characters of the City of Lives must forward their family’s plots and avoid losing themselves in the byzantine maze of court politics and class warfare.
The City of Lives is a complete role-playing game. It consists of a campaign world, detailing the titular City of Lives, as well as many of the bizarre Realms that surround it; and it is a complete ruleset, a version of the Fate system adapted to the specific requirements of the City’s magical and political landscape. It is a high fantasy world, but one more suited to political maneuvering and espionage than grand quests and Good vs. Evil. The City of Lives removes itself from the traditional Tolkienian influences and pseudo-Medieval culture, instead basing itself in 18th century Europe and taking inspiration from the work of Neil Gaiman, Monte Cook, and Bill Willingham, among others.

The City of Lives is not a pickup game -- it is best suited to long, complex campaigns exploring every segment and theme of the City.

The City of Lives aims itself at the sophisticated gamer that has tired of the simple dungeoncrawl and Tolkien knock-off worlds exemplified by D&D. They are the opposite of the “old school” gamer experiencing a resurgence -- they want a simple, unified system that values storytelling over realism or artificial challenge. They want to immerse themselves in an original world, and explore themes instead of simple adventures. They are White Wolf’s audience. They are Planescape’s audience. They are indie gamers.

Game Principles
The City of Lives supports a variety of play styles, but always holds a few fundamental principles. First and foremost is the notion of metaphors-made-real: the farmers in the City are not just close to the earth, they grow plants on their skin; a fiery-tempered magician literally bursts into flame when upset; a sneak-thief sinks into the background in more ways than one. The laws of physics in the City take a second place to the laws of metaphor and story.
Second is the idea of shades-of-gray morality. This is a city of intrigue and conflicting attitudes, not a place of Good vs. Evil. Even the bad guys have a point, and the protagonists may well not be heroes.
Third is the principle of class warfare. The class structure is very proscribed in the City, each class different from the others not only in status, but in culture and even physical form. The struggles between (and within) classes for power and recognition drive a City of Lives campaign.
Fourth is a sense of wonder. The Realms are a never-ending variety of worlds, each more amazing than the last. Exploring them should always take the players by surprise. On the other hand, the characters, jaded by lifetimes spent in a world where this kind of travel is no more unusual than traveling from state to state for us. This juggling of wonder and skepticism is key to the mood of a City of Lives campaign.

A City of Lives campaign can be about exploration, or war, or epic quests – but it really lends itself to politics and intrigue. The default campaign assumptions place the PCs as working for one of the noble Houses that run the City, spying, socializing and sabotaging to promote their House’s interests.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Monsters vs. Aliens

A question begs at my consciousness: What is the difference between a sci-fi "alien" and a fantasy "monster"? In creating the various monsters, beasties, and cross-Realm critters for The City of Lives, I have, as I am wont to do, recycled ideas from abandoned projects. And yet I have encountered a problem in doing so: some of my creatures, generally the ones brought over from science-fiction worlds, didn't fit. But why? You may remember my struggles with the Shertasi and Ma'ar -- alien monsters constantly at war, who had wandered from one half-formed universe to another for quite some time before I tried to give them a new home in the City. As I documented, they just don't work right in the City -- and I can't explicate exactly why. One thing I do know is that it's got something to do with the difference between fantasy and science-fiction.

So let's do some research. A Google search gives me mostly links to recent B-movie Monsters vs. Aliens and not much else, but I also found this intriguing article: http://barkingalien.blogspot.com/2011/01/monsters-verses-aliens.html. Aside from misspelling "versus" in his title, Adam Dickstein offers up some interesting ideas. He states the fundamental difference as twofold: a monster is not understood, and foreign to its environment; an alien is understood (or at least understandable), and native to its environment. It's an interesting definition -- he notes that most mythic monsters, foreign and terrifying in their original contexts, have been stripped of their scariness by being understood and killed for treasure in modern D&D and its ilk. I like his ideas, but there's something in it that doesn't work for the purposes of our exploration: he states the possibility of fantasy "aliens" (Faeries are his example) and sci-fi "monsters" (he doesn't provide an example, but I think the titular Alien is an excellent one) -- for my question, there can't be such a thing as a fantasy alien.

So let's take a piece of Mr. Dickstein's analysis that jumped out at me -- "A Monster is a creature of myth and folklore that represents humanity's fears, brings to light a trait in the human character or otherwise illustrates a lesson or failing in our collective experience." -- and jump off from there. I like the idea of the monster as symbolic, representational rather than mundanely real. However, the rest of the definition is needlessly restrictive -- I want to explore fantasy creatures beyond fears, and into hopes and loves and all the rest of the human soul. Let's examine the Fae. The fae (Fair Folk, Faeries, Lords and Ladies, what have you) are, according to this definition, not alien, but definitely monsters. They represent what we cannot have -- they are more beautiful than we are, more graceful, more intelligent, more magical. But they are also more elemental than us -- they are flighty, and capricious, and cruel. They are fundamentally foreign to our experience, but also recognizable as just beyond our understanding.

I think we've found a couple things here. First is the question of understanding -- I think it definitely helps a fantasy creature to be mysterious. But is it necessary? I think we understand the "orc" just about as well as it is possible to understand a fantasy race -- from Tolkien to Blizzard, we've got a full rundown on them. And, Warhammer 40K aside, there isn't anything that screams fantasy more than an orc. So then the symbolism -- that seems fundamental, and we'll hold that in mind. Last is the idea of "elemental." That may be the key. The goal in all science-fiction worldbuilding is verisimilitude -- it must appear to be as complex and realistic as our own reality. But is that necessary -- is it even desirous -- in fantasy?

I will try to answer this question next time, folks!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Filler -- a City of Lives setting description

Sorry folks, real life interferes. To hold you, here's some setting stuff I've written introducing the reader to the City of Lives:

To envision the City, begin by picturing Paris just before the French Revolution – impressive, decadent, with an over-the-top aesthetic. But remember, there is a sense of history that will not be denied, of a city whose roots go back longer than memory. A cosmopolitan populace walks the cobbled streets, people from across the world flocking to the center of culture.

Now, take all that and make it more – the City of Lives’ past predates history; the grandeur includes floating building and architecture impossible according to conventional physics; the visitors to the City come from across a multitude of worlds – a dog-faced man walking beside a tentacled blob and a sapient weather pattern. What we would call magic, they call mundane, the streetlamps are lit by living flame, or captured will-o-the-wasps; mystically linked pieces of parchment send messages across the City instantaneously; roots burst through the ground to demolish buildings, or transport them.

Styles, too, come from across the Realms, and mix in unpredictable ways – corset, bowler hat, and fatigues; neon-pink tunic over crotchless chaps. Fashion does have rules, but they are many, byzantine, and always in flux.

The same can be said for the politics and population – the City is, in name, ruled by the mysterious Elder Trio, but jockeying for power between the various noble houses shifts the political – and often physical – landscape daily. Some districts are ruled by a Promethean house who practices laissez-faire, while others are under the tyrannical thumb of Sky-Carvers with the lowest regard for their subjects. None of this is helped by the fact that the City has no official army or police force – the closest things are a loose alliance of Iversdotter street gangs and the noble houses’ own guards.

The City is ruled by the Elder Trio, a mysterious group of Far-Realm beings who run the City with a loose hand, preferring not to get involved at the daily level. Below the Elder Trio is the High Council, a quorum of twelve councilors selected from the ranks of Parliament. Parliament and the High Council are both legislative bodies: Parliament makes laws, and if they pass a vote within Parliament, they are sent up to the High Council for a final vote – at which point the Elder Trio can veto it should they choose.

Laws and Policing

One of the Elder Trio’s central tenets of governments is laissez-faire – to keep the government as small as possible, and keep power in the hands of the people. To that end, very few taxes are mandated (and even fewer are collected), and few government services are funded. Notably, there is no police force. However, this conflicts with the traditional beliefs of the Leovites and function of the High Council. The result is that the Council passes many laws, but has no way to enforce them. Even the court system is small and underfunded – and remarkably corrupt. And thus rose the Iversdotters gang and the noble Houses’ Justiciars – with the official law as a guideline (though certain laws are ignored in one part of the City, and others are invented in another), the real powers of the City (the Iversdotters and noble Houses, depending on the Districts) do their own policing and dispense their own justice.

The City holds to many religions from all over the Realms, from Kivian Taoism to Practical Theosophy – but the majority of the populace follows the Church of the Blinding Light. The Church follows a monotheistic deity known as the Light, an anthropomorphization of the sun in the Realm of Lives. The Light’s central tenets are proselytizing and ending sin, and it is the ancestral religion of the Leovites and the now-extinct Sons of Light. The Leovite priests, or Lightspeakers, hold tremendous power both religious and temporal, especially through their associated political party the Canonists.

The City is host to several dozen calendars and dating systems, and, in general, it is notable for is blended nature. The official language of the City is known as the Farrago (literally, “a mixture”), a combination of the linguistic roots of the various bloodlines.

The City of Lives is at least two thousand years old, but records of its early history are sketchy at best, so nobody knows for certain when it was founded. What is known is that a group of humans settled at the crux of three rivers (legend says, at the behest of the Light), and founded a community based on trade. The original inhabitants called themselves the Sons of Light, but soon other Bloodlines arose, as the Sons of Light interbred with other species and Outlanders immigrated to the City. The civilization began by the Sons of Light was powerful, but overshadowed by most other nearby Realms. It was ruled by the Monarch of Light, and the Church of the Blinding Light served as the official state religion.

Approximately five hundred years ago (the three dominant calendars place it at 502, 514, or 526 years), the Elder Trio came to the City. They deposed the Monarch of Light and opened the City up to trade and immigration on an unprecedented scale. Quickly, the City became the cultural, magical, and technological height of the region, and it has stayed in that position ever since.

See you next time!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Factions: Enders

You walk along the street, window-shopping at the various carts and shops that litter Merchant Street. A massive explosion rocks the air, and you look down the road to see a small group of black-clad bombers running out of the smoke and flames. Oh, no, you think, the Enders are at it again. Today we will examine the Enders, the faction that believes in entropy -- that chaos and death will eventually overcome the universe, and the ways they interact with the world.

Archetype: I'm not really sure where the Enders fit in classical fantasy archetypes. Perhaps the thieves' guild, stealing in the name of chaos: or the barbarian horde, killing and destroying. Both of those are extremely negative, and it's hard to imagine PCs in most campaigns filling either role. What archetype fits the Enders that is "good," for lack of a better word? I can't think of one that doesn't dilute the Enders' fundamental concept. Hrm.

The biggest Real-Life Inspiration for the Enders are anarchists and nihilists. I'll be honest, I don't know terribly much about either group/movement. The thew things I do know (or think I know):

-Believe that government stifles and oppresses citizens, and people are better off running their own lives
-At least in popular thought, they tend to be terrorists and revolutionaries, trying to overthrow the government

-Believe there is no god
-Believe the universe has no purpose
-hence, either a) everything is hopeless and you should give up and die, or b) you need to find your own purpose and meaning in life.

My brief research on Wikipedia tells me that my basic ideas are basically right, but that there are far more complexities than I have time to worry about at the moment -- but it gives me a couple basic revisions on nihilism. Specifically, I learned that nihilists can go to even greater extremes in their beliefs, espousing the idea that there is no definable reality -- and that they often believe in moral relativism, saying there is no absolute moral law, and thus it is not morally wrong to, for example, kill someone. Of course, I would argue that whether or not there is an absolute moral compass, there is one provided by society, and if you wish to live in that society, you must respect that culture's moral code. Cue the flame wars.

Theme: The theme of the Enders is hopelessness, and how to deal with it. The Enders believe they have discovered the dark secret of the universe: that everything eventually collapses and comes to naught. What is more hopeless than that? So, how do you deal with that information? Some might try to hurry it along: killing, committing crimes, and doing their best to tear down the world. Others might try to work against entropy, at least on the short scale: building new structures, creating art, and bringing people together. But are these people really Enders? And then there is the middle path -- people who just muddle along like most of us do, trying not to spend time hopelessly counteracting entropy, but also not actively working towards destruction. This latter person is probably the most common kind of Ender -- but is this very interesting and worthy of keeping around? I'm not sure. I know I'm having trouble with the Enders, finding their place, but I think this is due more to me finding their philosophy alien than it being unnecessary or ill-fitting the setting.

Twist: One might argue that it is strange for people whose entire belief system is based on chaos would choose to organize themselves into a group. Perhaps -- which implies to me that perhaps Enderism(?) is a cult of personality, all of its believers clustered around a single nihilist prophet. So what might this person be like? Obviously, they do not feel the despair that is stereotypically associated with nihilism, but they might feel the rage associated with anarchism. A revolutionary who wants not only to tear down the government, but the entire world. A prophet espousing chaos and destruction because only those acts mean anything in a world doomed to death, and advocating reveling in the dark and pleasant emotions associated with violence.

Well, we've been having a difficult time figuring out the Enders, specifically in how they can be positive forces appropriate for a heroic campaign. Then again, is that even a meaningful question for the morally vague City of Lives? Perhaps the Enders should just be an option for players wishing to play violent and nihilistic characters. Or perhaps they should be presented as an NPC group, available to players only if they beg the GM sufficiently.

All right. The Enders are confusing, but beginning to come along. Next time, we look at the artistic obsessives that make up The Epicureans.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Factions Part 4

Let's finish up our overview of the Factions, and then take a closer look at the first faction, the Canonists.

The Thief-Binders work for the Thief-Binder Clan, follow the Iversdotter Revelation, and pursue justice. This name is one I haven't been sitting on, but was one that dangled just out of reach for quite some time. "Something to do with handcuffs, and criminals -- the Criminal-Cuffer Clan! The Cuff-Thief Clan!" etc. Finally, I found "thief-binder" in my head, and it fit the concept and the Iversdotter "noun-noun" naming scheme. So this is a simple one, just about the Iversdotters' sense of justice that defines a large part of them as a people. The Iversdotter Revelation is another Church of the Blinding Light splinter group, that follows the Light but also holds the original Iver as a demigod (it's referred to as the Iversdotter Heresy by strict Church-goers).

Last but not least, the Triocheans are associated with the Free Association of Merchants and Businesspeoples, follow the Code of Business, and aim for a laissez-faire utopia. The Free Association, a powerful trade union, has been around since I worked on the City Districts, and the Code of Business is a sort of philosophical system, rather than a true religion, invented by the Pariah bloodline. I'm inspired by, but trying not to imitate, the Ferengi "Rules of Acquisition" in the Code -- the main difference I'm working with is the idea that the Code values family above even profit, which is definitely not something the Ferengi do. The name "Triochean" came from the word "troche," the meaning of which I didn't even remember until I just looked it up ("a small pill or lozenge." huh), and the notion that these people follow the "Trio." I liked the sound of the combination, so there you go. My secrets revealed.

Well, let's move on to ARTTing out one of these factions, eh? I figure we can squeeze a post out of each faction -- which will hold us for the next month and a half or so!

The Canonists

Archetype: The archetype for the Canonists is that of the kindly priests -- Priests of Good abound in fantasy fiction, there to heal or advise the heroes. While not all Canonists are priests, this is their model: peaceful, kindly, and devoted to their deity. On the other hand, the Light does not espouse removing oneself from society as most of these temples and monasteries do; ambition is virtue in the Church, and the priests are intimately intertwined with local politics.

Real-Life Inspiration: The real-life inspiration for the Canonists is pretty obvious -- it's those staunch believers in any religion (mainly Protestant Christianity here in the US, but it varies from country to country) who go into politics to push their beliefs' agenda. That sounds harsh, but I don't necessarily mean it to be --every government has a central philosophy held by the majority of its founders and governors -- and most often, it is a religion. Even if this religion is not officially associated with the government, it is implicit in the nature of the laws and organization of the government. In the US, it is Protestant Christianity. In the City, it is the Church of the Blinding Light. While not all of the government believes in the Light, a sizable potion does, and a significant minority of those are Canonists, holding their religious beliefs as the most important foundation for their politics.

Theme: The theme of the Canonists has to do with the good and bad sides of peace. Canonists believe in complete peace, utter nonviolence and nonconfrontation. On the good side -- well, being at peace is much more pleasant than being at war; avoiding violence leads to more enjoyable and productive lives. On the other hand, confrontation can sometimes be necessary. The classic example is, of course, Britain and much of Europe paying off Nazi Germany prior to World War II -- it's generally accepted that had they not eventually turned to war, Gemany would have taken them over bit by bit -- only through war could they truly pacify the beast. The Canonists are incapable of this kind of confrontation, which leads to their downfall in many situations.

Twist: I need the Canonists, and the Church, to be three-dimensional in their morality: neither fully good nor evil. Hidden secrets are good to vilify churches -- the snake cult of Chrono Trigger, the dragon cult of the mysterious village Haven in Dragon Age: Origins, Richelieu's secret control over France in The Three Musketeers. What kind of secret can we find that makes the Church of the Blinding Light shades-of-gray but not purely evil? One claassic that comes to mind is manipulating politics behind the scenes -- but the Church's political influence is right out in the open in the City. Hmm.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Factions Part 3

Today we continue enumerating the origins of the Factions we looked at last time and the time before:

The Faberists work for House Solfidley, follow the Seeding Manual's Book of Growth, and desire Revolution. This is a concept I've had kicking around for a while -- it came forefront for a time in the playtest campaign, because one of the PCs is a revolutionary who sees Arbron Solfidley, the revolutionary leader I'd created, as not going nearly far enough. This gave me the central conceit of the Faberists, that they haven't overthrown the government because not enough of them can agree on how to do it or what to replace it with. "Faber" comes from the Latin word "faber," meaning "craftsman" or "smith" -- inspired in part by the character "Faber John" from the obscure young adult book A Tale of Time City (which I really should go back and put in the "inspirations" section of this post. Of note is the Seeding Manual (more on it here), which actually covers two different factions -- my justification is that, like the Bible, different parts of it emphasize different things.. and the Book of Growth can be interpreted to advocate revolution.

The Fallows have their own organization, and follow The Seeding Manual's Book of Fallow, emphasizing a return to nature. Here is the other one based on the Seeding Manual. Here the idea is to relax and find harmony with the world, instead of trying to push it to change like the Faberists. Fallows here is a simple pun of "fallow" -- that is, a farming term meaning "to lie dormant or unused" and "fellows" -- that is, people. I like it.

The Free Agents are associated with the Free Agency (maybe), have no religion, and advocate freedom. They are a non-faction, a semi-demi-group of people who share only the fact that they don't like to be organized into groups. This a notion that is largely to give players an option that's not really a faction, for those who would feel too hemmed in by the factions -- but I may eliminate it and just let players associate with no faction at all... thoughts? Sound off in the comments!

The Godless are associated with the Academy of Artful Sciences and follow Practical Theosophy, aiming to learn about the universe and the gods. As I mentioned in the post on Practical Theosophy, the theosophers are determined to make sense of the universe through the experimental method. I love the idea that these guys have claimed a slur against them -- Godless -- and turned it into their name, much like the gay community has with "queer" and the African-American community with "nigger/nigga." Don't have much else to say on these folks at the moment, except that I really like them.

The Publicans work for House Trelius and practice The Unfortunates Revelation, trying to advance the cause of altruism and philanthropy. Here we have a name -- publicans -- which is an old Latin term that came into my mind unbidden and refused to leave. The original publicans were actually tax collectors, but the use of the word "public" as used today implies charitable work to me, so I'm repurposing the name. "Trelius" again comes from the Everchanging Book of Names (Latin setting), and the Unfortunates Revelation is another splinter off the Church of the Blinding Light, this one specifically created for the Publicans -- and I don't know anything about it except that it emphasizes the plight of the downtrodden.

The Sabercrats work for the Hotblood Gang, follow the Iversdotter Revelation (or possibly not), and work towards imperialism and war. Sabercrat is a fun little word I came up with a while back, as the first political party enumerated for the City. Obviously, it's a portmanteau of "saber" and the suffix -crat (meaning “member of a ruling body,” or “advocate of a particular form of rule” according to Dictionary.com), most familiar to us Americans from the "Democrat" political party. The Sabercrats are an odd duck and may need some rejiggering: on the one hand, most warhawk political parties are made up of the rich and powerful, wanting to increase their power by taking over other countries. On the other hand, the most militant bloodlines I've identified in the City are in the lower and middle-classes: the Kipmen and Iversdotters, and I think the Kipmen deserve a voice, as the other lower-classes have the Faberists (Rurals) and the Egoists (Grate-Scratchers) to represent their interests. Hence the fact that, at least for now, the Sabercrats are associated with the Kipman Hotblood street gang, and follow the Iversdotter Revelation which is, obviously, most closely associated with the Iversdotters. There isn't currently another religion which seems to fit the Sabercrats any better, but the Iversdotter Revelation is also associated with the Thief-Binders [next post. Be patient], and I'm trying not to associate one religion with multiple factions. Of note is that the City of Lives is a trading power, not an imperial one -- but the Sabercrats want to change that, to make the City of Lives the dominant power in the Realms from a purely military standpoint (difficult considering the City has no standing army).

Okay, that's enough for today. Next time, we finish up the Faction "origins" and look at the first Faction in depth