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.