System Informs Setting

June 29, 2016 at 9:19 pm

“A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God.”

― Sidney Sheldon


blankscrollOur readers are looking for a game that is easy-to-run, but we don’t want to throw away good crunch just for simplicity.

So now we start moving from theory into practice. We’ve chosen a game system (Metagaming’s The Fantasy Trip), but what does that tell us about the world? TFT is a very simple system with only three character attributes and only two classes. It grew out of a pocket game of gladiator combat, so it has a fairly detailed combat system, and the magic system is pretty direct.

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Divine Might (or might not)

It was published in 1980 in the very early days of RPGs, and has the quirks and broad spirit of that time. One thing it does not have is any specifics about divine magic. “Priest” is listed as a talent like “spy” or “engineer”, and simply gives a character knowledge of rituals and duties.

This could mean that gods are not active in the setting, or could it just mean that player’s have no reliable means of controlling those actions. All in all, there is very little hierarchy. All the powers and abilities are open to everyone (Heroes can learn spells, and Wizards can fight with swords, for example), and there no set structure to follow as you advance.

All this struck us as very primal. Like a world freshly made, where brave explorers strike out into the unknown and carve a path to greatness. Where the power of the gods is everywhere, and the priests do their best to appease them but have very little power to bend their will. And where magic is part of the firmament, offering great power to those with the guile to grasp it.

Back to basics

This led us to the bronze age. To heroes of rough lands who rise to greatness by their own efforts, and empires that rise and fall by the power of personalities. A land unburdened by long histories, or ancient houses and archaic orders; where things are not controlled by old men in smoky rooms making decisions “the way they’ve always been done.”

We considered creating a fantastical version of our own bronze age, but this has been thoroughly handled in settings like Green Ronin’s Testament,  Mystical Thrones’ Mythos (Savage Worlds as Grecian gods), and Steve Jackson’s own GURPS Greece. There was even an old AD&D sourcebook on playing in ancient Greece.

But we did not want to be held back by history, nor did we want to fall into tropes like Tolien with togas. We wanted the creative freedom to explore a world that evokes this period, but with gods, magic, and monsters of our devising. Like Zingara in Conan’s Hyborian Age, or the Lankhmar of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser,  we want to create a vital, cosmopolitan world of great risk and great reward.

Shake it up

We want civilization to be young, but the world doesn’t have to be. To do that, we can have some kind of cataclysm where a previous civilization has been thrown down and world cast into ruins. Then we can have both a young, vigorous society and the potential for ancient secrets and super-magic yet to be uncovered.

This cataclysm can also serve to break up the lands into smaller power blocks, expanding and just beginning to come into conflict with one another. This provides motivation for adventure, strange and varying peoples, and plenty of wild space to adventure in.

We can also make resources scarce within each region, all but forcing them to reach out to one another. Travel brings trade and knowledge, but also breeds conflict between those with differing worldviews.

If the cataclysm is caused by the gods, it could signal the rise of the mortal races to power. The gods, once numerous and in control of all things, have been lowered to a point of common reference with mortals. And, ambitious mortals may even aspire to rise to their level.

Differences drive decisions

In a more primitive, world, weapons and armor are not as advanced as in your typical high medieval fantasy. Bronze swords and shields are heavy and break easily. Iron weapons may exist, but they are rare and highly prized. Horses are smaller, and cavalry is more of a light skirmish force than the mounted knight of legend.

The major differences are social. Hereditary rulers and highly structured religious and civic orders are rare, and people identify with their city or region. Religion is a very local and ‘personal’ belief. The divine can be seen in every spring and cloud, and ceremonies are meant to celebrate or appease the gods. True power lies in magic, as means to tap into the power of the universe or force semi-divine beings to your will.

The Fantasy Trip includes the typical fantasy races of elf, dwarf, and halfling, as well as a lizard race. We will keep them, but will add our spin to them to fit into our theme.

Our central conflict is a reflection of the concept itself, and that is the struggle of mortals against the environment — to gain control of what the gods themselves broke. It is a very broad idea, and one that will have to be developed. But it is a place to start.

Spoiler Alert: The Big Bang

To paraphrase Julie Andrews, the beginning is a very good place to start. Creation. What makes a good creation myth to you? Does it need to address the major themes of your campaign? Or just set the table for gods, magic, and other fantastic elements? Or maybe you think its just set dressing that only matters to the party cleric? Let us know below.