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.