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?

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