Myth Conceptions

August 9, 2016 at 7:58 pm

“Ray, when someone asks you if you’re a God, you say yes!”

— Winston Zeddemore, Ghostbusters

 

ZeusIf you are running a fantasy RPG, its only a matter of time before before someone call out for divine assistance. Even in games without specific rules for divine magic, there still might be devout characters or villains in service to dark entities from beyond the veil. The question is then, who are these gods and what is their relationship to those who worship them?

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What RPG gods are not — Mystical reality

It is very tempting — and many well-known game settings have done this — to model your in-game gods after historical myths. While this can help players gain an immediate understanding of who a god is and what it stands for, it is not without its problems.

Like adopting any canon, historical or fictional, this comes with a lot of detail that you may or may not want in your game world. You may decide to add the thunder god Thor to setting, only to be told by a player that the god’s history of deception of the dwarves makes him their enemy. This is just a small example, but one of many unintended consequences of adding outside material to a game world.

Also, gods serve a much different role in history than they do in a game. Religion in the ‘real’ world served to give people a sense of identity, a shared vision, and in many cases a moral role model on living their lives. Priesthoods were there to reveal the god’s wishes and seek their favor. This was often vague, open to widely different interpretations, and led to more conflicts than resolutions.

In a setting where the gods are detached and uninvolved, this can be fine. But in the case where the gods take an active involvement, granting divine spells, offering visions, or even intervening in the affairs of mortals, this can be quite different. The god’s will might be quite plain, heretical priests will be cut off (if not struck down),  and differences between faiths might be played out on a much bigger stage.

What RPG gods are — transactional fantasy

In this kind of setting, gods are more like super-powerful patrons that share their power with those that are loyal to them, and execute their goals. Not to steal the mystery from it, but the devout are like the field representatives of a large organization, with the god (or gods) as executive management. There may be layers of management, and the goals and codes of conduct may vary widely,  but the premise is similar.

Say you have a god of might and justice, a true paragon of virtue. Its goals are undoubtedly clear and concrete, and its followers would probably be given fairly strict guidelines for behavior. Deviations from these guidelines might be severely punished. The religion of this god might have several orders of adherence, each with their own goals and restrictions. A militant wing might be empowered to root out evil and destroy it wherever its found, and a judicial wing to maintain order among the people and defend the common good. Meanwhile, the rank and file would simply be encouraged to live justly and obey the clergy. This religion could have a lot of competition and internal conflict, but the faith would be codified. There may even be ‘senior management’ that steps in when the field agents cannot see eye-to-eye.

A goddess of the hunt might take a different approach. Its rules may be looser — keep the natural order, preserve the wilderness — and it organization may be based more in a pack than corporation. But it will still have some level of hierarchy and rewards and punishments for its followers.

If you have a player who is interested in playing a religious character, it is often best to enlist them in this process. Just having a brief discussion about how they see a god’s viewpoint, organization, and objectives can be very helpful to both of view once play begins.

Depending on your setting, the gods might have drastically different involvement in the players’ lives. Some gods might revel in supporting their devout followers with boons,  or tweak their rivals by undermining their heroes. Others might be more detached, reserving their intervention for important moments, or merely giving their followers the tools to achieve greatness on their own. This kind of thing can really change how a game is played, and can make players feel like their actions are less important, so it should be applied very carefully.

Our experiment: Divinity under construction

In the world we are building, the gods once had complete power over the mortal races, but the recent cataclysm has force them into a much lower status. They are more like powerful super-heroes and villains, struggling against each other and using the mortal races as proxies in these fights. Many of these gods have relationships with certain regions from before the cataclysm, but do not have nearly the power to control their followers like they used to. All of the spirits that used to inhabit the divine realm have now had to replenish three power in the world of Kneu, so that while individual divine power is diminished, there are aspects of it in many more things. It is almost as if every spring, forest, or hilltop carries a spark of divine power.

In game terms according to the Fantasy Trip, the gods have no ability to impart their power to their worshipers. Magic is achieved by harnessing the immortal power of the universe, but the gods themselves have ability to give it to mortals as a reward for service. The gods are extremely powerful magical beings, but there cannot be granted to others.

To keep with a bronze age feel, our small civilizations with have their own civic gods, that may or may not be connected to a larger group. The gods should reflect the personality and goals of their communities, but may take only a limited role in guiding their worshipers. At least morally— it is definitely in the spirit of the age to have gods intervene with mortal’s lives for their own ends.

The civic deity of Mesus (our starting community) should reflect the expansive outward-looking viewpoint of its people.  Since they are seafarers, lets make her a goddess of winds and tides. For that matter, lets make her bird-aspected with wings for arms and extend avian features.

In the spirit of smaller gods, she would not in control of the seas, but rather one of many wives of the elder sea god. Her dominion would be over coastal tides and winds. Like these elements, she will be capricious and fickle, abandoning mariners as often as she saves them.

She favors the brave, and rewards those who are willing to risk the most. Religious festivals would revolve around the seasons and weather, and worshipers would seeks her blessings before undertaking any journey or commercial venture.

Lets call her Diomae.

Would you be a priest of Diomae? If so, what would your religious organization be like? And what would be your code of conduct, or greatest transgressions. If you have ideas or suggestions, let us know below:

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Five-point Foundation

August 2, 2016 at 3:45 pm

 

“We need the tonic of wildness…at the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things.”

— Henry David Thoreau

pentagram

Probably following the arc of expanding power in many zero-to-hero role-playing systems, most GMs have said the scope of their adventuring world grows as a campaign continues. This is commonly called ‘bottom-up’ design, where you start small and build up as the players explore further and expand their knowledge.

This is probably the most time-effective way to go about it. There’s only limited value in detailing the lands and cultures of the reptilian swamp satraps when the players’ immediately set off for the mountains. This also lets you react to your player’s individual interests and gives them input into the shape and color of the world.

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Misan-tropes

We discussed a number of aspects of a starting village in the previous post, but I wanted to add a warning to avoid two cliches. The first is the pastoral village that has been protected from the wider world. From Hobbiton to nearly every computer RPG, heroes start in a safe environment and need to travel to improve themselves. While it is expedient, it won’t encourage your players  to build any attachments or relationships. They’ll look at it more like a spawning place, or a safe location to hide their treasure.

The other overplayed option is the opposite end of the scale— imminent destruction. It works in movies or games because it get the hero moving, and forces them into the plot. But by the same token, its cheap. In the same way a GM cringes when he hears that every PC is an orphan with a tragic past, don’t build them a home and then come in like the big bad wolf and blow it all down.

World building can be fun, and digging into the detail of a single location can be obsessive. You can diligently draw out every alley, and note the shadowy characters that lurk in each corner. And if you have the time, go as deep as makes you happy. I know I have notes on the family of the rope merchant in a small fishing village in mayhem campaign somewhere. But if you don’t have that much time, let me offer a quick construct to help you build a community that is both reasonable and intriguing to your players — the five Rs.

 

1.  Reason to be

It might seem obvious, but so many locations in fantasy games and fiction are placed where there is no reason for people to be there. In ht3 middle of trackless deserts or frozen wastes, on treacherous, lonely shores, or (for that matter) iso;ate planets on the far rim of galaxy. Give your village a reason to be. Perhaps this is one of consistent wells in the desert, or the place on the lonely shore that the valuable Anu-fish return to spawn. Not only does it add a touch of reality, it can inform so many other things about the community.

 

2.  Rulers

Once the determine the reason for your community’s existence, its often a simple matter to determine who is in charge. If its bulwark on the edge of an orc-infested wasteland, chances are the military is calling the shots. A crossroads of a valuable spice trade? Perhaps a car of merchants holed all the real power. The extent of the rulers’ power, and how far that power extends into the populace, can have profound effects on the populace and the players.

 

3.  Region

In the same way you want a community with a reason, you also want it to have a context. That stalwart border keep is defending something from an orcish incursion, right? And someone needs to buy the catch of Anu-fish that the brave fisherman haul out of the cruel sea. These questions build on each other and give you a basis to build conflicts and stories.

 

4.  Rivals

Speaking of conflict, who is working against out communities interest? It can be as obvious as an enemy army across the plain, or as obtuse as a competing world-view competing for adherents against a monastic center of worship. These enemies may not necessarily be in violent conflict, but merely another choice competing for the community’s reason-to-be.

 

5.  Risk

This last element may arise from the previous aspects, or could be a completely underground element. It might not even be immediately noticed, but just a feeling of growing danger to the heart of the community. Perhaps a cabal of wizards are collaborating with the orcs to tunnel under the keep. Or, the spice can be used in demonic rituals to attune people to the fiendish realms, and the dark powers are beginning to be felt in the oasis.

Our experiment in progress

The starting community of our bronze age TFT setting is called Mesus. It is near the shore of the great central sea and built along the banks of an ancient canal that once connected the sea to the vast lake that is now the polluted Bitter Sea. It stands on the ruins of a pre-cataclysmic civilization that once controlled this canal, and is now a trading center between the inland communities and wider world of sea trade. It is far enough (up two now non-functioning locks) form the shore to be safe from raiders and close enough to support a bustling trade center.

The official rulers of Mesus are an oligarchy of the oldest families, many claiming descendance from the city’s founder Syron. These Syronides have their fingers in all of the city’s mercantile activities. It is a loose confederation of competing interests, and central control is loose at best. Recently, the Syronides has embraced the sea and have expanded their trade contacts throughout the nearby shores.

Mesus is one of many city-states in a region known as Ikara, bordered on wide side by trackless forested wilderness and on the other by the massive towering cliffs of the Veil of Mitera that lead to heat-blasted lands ruled by war-like god-kings.

The southern borders run along lands controlled by Mesus’ long-time rival Lykanae. The proud warriors of the wolf god Lyka have long dominated the region surrounding the Bitter Sea and led Ikaran politics. The recent expansion of trade by the Meseans has broadened their influence and brought new energy to the city-state. The Lykanae are determined to maintain their leadership position in the area.

But there are other forces at work here besides trade. New arrivals bring new ideas, and occasionally very old ones. Many believe that the great canal was a gathering place for the gods before the cataclysm, and that great power can be plumbed from their depths. Mysterious wizards and shadowy cults have descended on the small city-state and who knows what terrors they might exhume from the deep trench that bisects the community.

This is merely a skeleton, and has lots of holes that need to be filled in, but it does show answering five quick questions can give you a solid basis from which to grow a campaign environment.

Would you venture out from Mesus, or dare to explore the depths of its ancient canal? Or is there something missing? Or maybe you have an idea of what could make our starting village more complete? Let us know below:

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Village Idiom

July 21, 2016 at 10:58 pm

“Civilization is a race between disaster and education.”

— H.G. Wells

villageFollowing the conversations across Facebook and the web, it seems that those who don’t carve out complete continents and ages of history before they unleash players into their creations like to keep it small. So let’s do that.

The idea here is to create a ‘starting point’.  Like a player who comes to a first session with a fully fleshed out backstory featuring years of adventures, great deeds, and tragic mishaps; you don’t want to create a starting village that is already at the end of its story. You want just enough to fire the players’ curiosity and encourage them to explore further.

[su_expand link_color=”#8c2723″]Its like the description of a dish on a menu rather than a recipe — giving you an idea of what it might be like and making you eager to taste it for yourself.

There are certain parameters you should always have. What kind of community will it be? A bustling caravan crossroad, a keep on the borderlands,  or a remote fishing village will all have very different flavors. How large is this community? What are its major activities? Why is it located in this particular place? The answers to these basic questions can lay the groundwork for more detail added later on.

 

Size matters

The population of your starting community is often a balancing act. You want it to be large enough to accommodate a broad range of player types (a lizardman shaman, a bookish hedge-mage, and a fast-talking noble walk into a bar…) but not so large that you don’t have an image of the whole thing. Fantasy literature and gaming supplements offer huge metropolises (metropoli?) with mythic architecture, legendary characters, and deep mysteries, but it would be very easy for players to get lost against this kind of background. Even if you were to base your campaign in such a place, I would suggest focusing on a small area within the city to start — rather than plopping your characters down in King’s Landing, you could bring them together in Flea Bottom over a bowl of brown.

This is one of the times when it is helpful to have pre-game conversations with your players about what kind of characters they are considering. A powdered dandy might have difficulty living in a frontier military base, and a devout priest will probably need at least the basic infrastructure of their religion. You want your starting point to have what they need to get started, but not enough to keep them there.

 

No place like home

While many fantasy campaigns are done as road shows, with the characters ever on the move, I like to try and give them connections to their starting place. A lot of RPGs have systems for creating character backstories, and there are several generators online. If that’s what players like, that’s fine. But I like to be a little more organic about. Was a player born here? If not, why did they come here? Are there people they count on here? Or, people who would like to see them fail? Just a few quick questions can go a long way to grounding a PC in their new environment.

And give them value for that connection. If a merchant took them under their wing when the PC was a homeless orphan, then allow them a discount when shopping for supplies. Or, if they made a fool of a guard captain in a prank, have the local ruffians treat them like a hero. Even letting them know where the ale is sour, or a short cut through alleys to reach the swamp gate can help them feel more connected to a place.

 

All under one roof

It is also important to have the themes that you want to explore included in the starting locale. If you are looking to play an intrigue-filled back-stabbing courtly campaign, you probably don’t want to start it in a forthright farm community. Or, if your concept is set against the invasion of an army of orcs, you might want to start players near a border. Even if you don’t know where a campaign might be going, you want to give yourself the the tools to build on when you need them. If your setting has gods, make sure at lest a few have a foothold in your community. Wizard schools or warrior gyms, don’t leave them out. Even if the PCs do not stay in this community, you want it to feel like a sensible part of the wider world, and a meaningful introduction to it.

That said, it can be fun to start a campaign in a place that contrasts with your themes. Going back to the orc invasion, it could be dramatic to start in a small village surrounding a pacifist monastery. Sometimes its the opposition that highlights the idea.

 

Dark streets

As much as you want to create a starting locale feel like ‘home’ to your players, you definitely want to build in secrets and mysteries. There is no drama without conflict, and those things can be found in abundance in most homes. The wise old man that treats you neighbors with home remedies— did you ever wander what happens to those poor victims he fails? Or why has the lord been raising new taxes lately? Is he planning a war?

These don’t have to be major secrets (the potion merchant doesn’t need to be a transformed gold dragon), just rumors to be investigated, or risks to be navigated. These might even be just diversions between larger adventures, and provide more connection to a community.

When is a home not a home

Another aspect that is fun to explore to making the community not a rooted location at all. It could be a military order that the characters belong to, or the pirate ship they crew. It could be an organization that they belong to, or even a race or tribe within the wider populace. The goal is to simply give them a place to start from, and provide some kind identity or haven to return to.

So where is our bronze age “village”, and who are it inhabitants? And what secrets does it hide? Let us know below.

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Land ho!

July 14, 2016 at 5:02 pm

“Maps codify the miracle of existence.”

― Nicholas Crane

compassAlright world-builders, lets get to work. We’re looking to put together a fantasy setting with a bronze age feel built from the shell of a titanic primal turtle’s shell. And we’re gonna need a map.

How do we go about it? Old school gamers have a real fondness the paper and pencil approach, but there are a number of online generators who can create randomized maps based on your input. There also many repositories of maps online for you to use and customized to your needs. Regardless of your artistic abilities or technical aptitude, your fantasy world map is not far away.

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Is nature necessary?

You might believe that in your world rivers flow toward the sea, mountains create dry rain shadows, and the extreme north and south regions are frozen year-round. And these things are helpful in grounding players, making a world seem believable. But are they necessary?

This is a fantasy, after all. Your world could be the hollow inside of a shell, or a monstrous pillar rising out of primordial soup. Or a series of cloud islands with the ground so far below as to be merely legendary. Or even the rooms of a seemingly infinite castle. You want it to be reasonable, where players can react to the world and predict basic results, but you shouldn’t be restricted to realistic. Our forefather E. Gary Gygax called it “verisimilitude”, or the appearance that it could be real. That’s good enough for me.

The world we are building here is made from the shell of a primal sea turtle. It has definite edges in the form of impassable mountains along the entire rim, and floats in a “sea” that separates the world of the living from the world of the dead. The cataclysm that brought the gods low (see previous post here), has caused breaks in the shell of Kneu and has allowed violent forces and the corruption of the dead into the world.

That said— fire is still hot, and when you let go of a hot pot it falls to the ground.

Devil in the details

It very tempting to draw out a full planet, outline continents, and start filling in all the spaces. But you may very quickly lose sight what the player characters can make use of, and spend a lot of time on details that may never get used in game. This is the real danger of the top-down approach. You can have kingdoms, and noble orders detailed from half the world away, but when they go to buy rope in their village you have no idea who sells it.

The closer the players are to something, the more detail it has. But this is really metaphorical distance. If your campaign is about evil roach-men from deep in the bowels of the earth, that will be closer in plot then the village 20 miles down the road, even if it is much harder to get to.

Like the cantina in Star Wars, the scene was filled with provocative elements, but only a select few had details ever shown to the audience. Your world can be filled with wonders, but you only need to have stats for the ones they will interact with.

Think globally, act locally

So with just a couple big picture items on hand (our creation myth, and the vague outlines of a world map), we can start building a setting for the player characters to inhabit. One of the central conflicts of our setting is the weakening of the gods and the cracking of the world, so we would want our starting point to be near these elements.

There should be some kind of civilization they can call home. It should be large enough to accommodate the specialized nature of PCs, and offer the equipment they need. But you want to keep it small enough to be accessible. A smaller village that is part of a larger whole. Or, in our setting, a city-state that is a member of a league. If you are going to have organizations feature strongly in your setting (guilds, churches, witch covens. etc.), make sure there are represented.

This is a good time to talk with your players about what kind of characters they might play. If one wants to be a knight, make sure there is a military support in the area. Everyone wants to be a wizard, create a school (or schools!) for training spell casters and collecting knowledge. It is also helpful to find out if their ideas are at odds with yours before either of you spend a lot of effort on background.

Spoiler alert! Next time web are going to look at our starting village. We were thinking that it lies on an ancient canal between a tainted lake of steam and monsters and the sea, on the edge of the frontier. How large is the town? Who lives there? What is their government like? What do you think?

Let us know below:

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Sparking a Big Bang

July 8, 2016 at 10:00 am

“Since the dawn of man” is really not that long,
As every galaxy was formed in less time than it takes to sing this song.

— ‘Big Bang Theory’ theme

Why do it at all?

81148f0fea9fe357242f9af3081a4c3fStarting with a creation myth is by no stretch the only (or even the best) way to start word-building. It is the toppiest of top-down design design approaches. However, I think it has some advantages.

First, I think its a good way to set the tone and major themes of a campaign. If your major conflicts are between good and evil, you can set them up from the very beginning. If you want a more nuanced political situation, you can bake it in to the universe.

Second, it helps justify the choices you’ve made in world-building. If magic works a certain way, it can be reflected in the very makeup of the universe. Want dwarves to hate elves? Have the gods give the surface to the elves and depths below to the dwarves and let conflict ensue. Also, its a great backdrop element to drop in plot clues and campaign goals. What if the garden of Eden was real, and the tree of life still bore fruit? Wouldn’t intrepid adventurers want to take a bite?

So call it cleverness or conceit, but that is where I am starting.

To recap, we are building a fantasy campaign for The Fantasy Trip rules. It is a roughly bronze/iron age environment with no connection to our historical Earth. Our civilizations are relatively young, as the world has recently faced some kind of cataclysm destroying all the previous societies and structures (but leaving behind tantalizing treasures and profound mysteries).

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New, Used, or Recycled

Every society that has ever lived on Earth has a creation story, as does nearly every fantasy novel/movie/game. It would be easy to grab one of the shelf and go. Or take the effort to ‘file off the serial numbers’ and make something different enough call your own. Or we could dig in and make something truly new.

The danger here is striking the balance between “original” and “random”. A brief survey of actual creation myths shows some truly crazy conceptions of chopped-up giant bodies, broken eggs, and spinning pillars of fire. But you slip off the edge of silly just to be unique.

 

A proposal

Our story needs two parts. First, the original creation and, second, the cataclysm. We can be pretty broad on the first half as this world has largely been broken, and we need to leave enough room in the second half for individual campaigns to have space to grow. Its like the first part is a comic superhero’s origin story, and the second is the reboot.

Working with a more primitive theme, lets make the world a formerly living thing. A gigantic turtle swimming in the vast void of pre-creation. A being that radiated creative force and left it in its wake. This force coalesced into powerful beings, who hunted down the creature and used its shell to create the world. Its emptied shell floats in the void between the universe above and below, and its bowl is the world of mortals.

This gives us a world with set boundaries and functioning structures, with creatures (gods) who built it with plan and and intelligence. Each of these gods would have to use the creative power of the turtle (lets call it Knue) to make lands, seas, plants, and creatures after their own desires. Then we can have a wide array of regions, landscapes, and fantastical creatures; as they were made by these elder gods.

This would have gone on for a extended time, as these original gods played in their sandbox and basked in the adulation of those that they had created. But good things can’t last forever.

At the center of this world, close to the Kneu’s heart,  there was a spring of beauty and purity. From it came a goddess, the first since the slaying of the great turtle. All the gods desired her, but all assumed she would go to the sky god Aelis, who had delivered the killing blow to Kneu.

But Erra, the god of primal fire, would not give up his desires. He contrived a way for man to wield the power of Kneu (a force we know call magic) and slay the sky god. Then he would claim the goddess Sae’en for himself.

This plan worked in part. Aelis was indeed slain, and man and the other created creatures now had control of the magic of creation. This shattered the balance of the power and wreaked destruction across the creation of Kneu. The gods were brought low, and the faith of those they created was broken by a force called free will. The lands were twisted and warped by the uncontrolled power, and the great works and temples the elder gods were shattered. Even the gods themselves were brought low, and forced to live on the same lands of their former worshipers.

The gods decreed that Erra must be punished for this. They joined forces and captured the rogue, and banished him to circle forever then land of the living and void below. Each day his burning torment can be seen as his fiery prison passes over Kneu in the sky.

Even though she was but newly born at the time, Sae’en was deeply scarred by these events. She fled the land of Kneu, and hides from the sight of Erra. She can only be seen at night, with her pale bleu presence waxing and waning in the sky.

In the generations since, the mortal of Kneu have tried to rebuild lives in a world now tainted by wild magics unleashed. Gods that once mastered great kingdoms — while still powerful — are within reach of man and occasionally walk among them.

But their power is now everywhere. Springs and mountains may have gods of their own, and their offspring spread across the land bringing wisdom and destruction in equal measure. More fearful yet, the man and his ilk can now attempt to master to power of Kneu and wield the power of creation for their own hands.

It is not a time for the meek.

What we’ve done here is put together the shell (literally!) of a world. We have introduced four divine powers, and the largely kicked them off the stage. It leaves us room to create any kind of civilization we like, and populate with gods, men, and monsters of ur choosing. Let’s not hold back.

 

Spoiler alert: Land ho!

Every fantasy land needs a map, and ours is no different. What do you use to make maps? What kind of scale do you like to start with? How much detail? Let us know below:

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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.

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Getting to the Nuts and Bolts

June 24, 2016 at 11:08 pm

“The medium is the message”

— Marshal MacLuhan

28528-nav_backstaffOur polling samples show that most of us like to build from scratch, so lets do that. There is a world of inspirations, so why be limited to a specific backdrop borrowed from somewhere else.

One other major determination that needs to be made before you sit down to create an RPG world is the system you will be using.  Some systems nearly require a set world, while others claim to be universal — allowing you to play in an any and all environments with the same rules.

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But beyond mechanical structures like spaceship construction or necromantic rituals, different rules systems offer a different game feel as well as highlighting different aspects of a world. No other choice has more bearing on how an RPG game world ‘works’ in practice.

Genre

The most obvious decision is probably genre. You probably wouldn’t choose Shadowrun for a gritty modern game or D&D for a WWI setting. Not that its impossible, and there might be something truly memorable by playing rules widely disconnected from genre, but tights’ a topic for another time. Let’s assume you will choose a rule-set that is compatible with the overall genre of the world you want to create.

Mechanics

There are a number of popular systems (FATE, GURPS, Savage Worlds, etc.) that offer a single set of mechanics for a wide variety of settings. This can be helpful for people (like me) who aren’t very good at memorizing rules, but can come off feeling generic. They lack the detail and color of more specific systems and leave a lot more responsibility in the hands of a world builder. This can be offset by world-books or setting guides for different game worlds, but this leads back to wealth of detail in more specific rules system (like Pathfinder or World of Darkness).

These systems offer so many setting-specific options and rules that some world-building decisions are difficult to enforce. You may want to have all divine magic bound to the elemental princes, but your player has  $50 rule book that says they can worship shadow. The complexity and density of the mechanics may also be an issue, depending on your gaming group.

Flavor

Every set of rules, beyond its die-rolls and other mechanics, has its own flavor. While both might be strafarers, a Traveller character is very different form an Eclipse Phase character. And just as different from a Star Wars character. Each reflects its world in a different way, and encourages players to resolve conflicts in different  methods.

Do you want your players to travel an epic arc from stable-boy to earth-shattering archmage? Or come out of the gate like a young Conan, swinging axes and stealing treasures like an expert? Different systems have their own power curve and levels of realism. And different games offer very different methods of advancement, from occupational ’silos’ to wide-open skill systems, to loosely defined aspects. These decisions all have ramifications to how players will interact with the world you create.

In the end its a balancing act, and a matter of taste. Finding a ruleset that give you the structure to play the game you want, without hampering your creativity, can be difficult. But the right fit can empower your ideas and fuel role-playing in ways you may never have imagined.

And this is just a brief discussion of rules as written. The internet is filled with variations, mash-up, home-rules, and options to tweak any game to your taste. If mechanics is your things, give it a go. But not all optional rules well-balanced, or even tested by those who’ve written them.

Spoiler alert

As stated in the first post in this series, this is not merely a theoretical exercise. We plan (with your input) to build a world and put it to the test in play. To that end, we have decided to use Metagaming’s The Fantasy Trip as our ruleset. TFT is a very rules-light game written by Steve Jackson in 1980. Born out of the pocket games Melee and Wizard, it is basically a combat and magic system with a simple skill and advantage mechanic bolted on.

Steve Jackson would lose the rights of the game when Metagaming went under, and he would go on to write GURPS. You can definitely see the legacy of TFT in GURPS. But we like the simplicity of the game, and it has enough old school idiosyncrasies to be interesting.

There are OSR clones called “Heroes & Other Worlds” and “Legends of the Ancient World”, and more can be learned about the original in a tribute site here: http://inthelabyrinth.org/.

[su_box title=”Rules Toolbox” radius=”0″ width=”300px” align=”right”]Here are some online resources for this out-of-print ruleset. The Fantasy Trip was born from the these three books:
Advanced Melee
Advanced Wizard
In the Labyrinth

Here are two modern rewrites:
Heroes & Other Worlds
Legends of the Ancient World

This tribute site offers organized lists and tools that are much better organized than the originals:
Inthelabyrinth.org

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Preparing for Launch

June 21, 2016 at 3:56 pm

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

― Abraham Lincoln

booksIts been widely reported that a world can be created in less than a week, but my experience has always been that it takes much longer. I might even go as far as to say that it doesn’t end until the last player leaves the table, and the last Cheet-oh is swept off the floor.

As the “world” includes everything that is not a player character, its a hefty load to bear. Luckily for us, at any moment all a PC needs to know what is in their immediate vicinity. The rest can be filled in when needed.

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Setting Scope

The urge to build a world from whole cloth is very strong. To put yourself in the place of George R.R. Martin or Gene Roddenberry and pull the strings on an epic scale is exciting. Its also a truly horrifying amount of work. I have always found that the pressures of juggling a real life along with a ‘game’ life is too much to pull off a top-down approach like that, especially when players are ready to run off the edge of your map at any opportunity.

Game designers (or at least game bloggers) call that a top-down approach, where the designer tries to cover every base before a player experiences the world. Usually they propose a bottom-up approach where the designer creates a small environment, and builds out in concentric circles as players explore the world. This provides smaller, bite-size chunks of development, and lets a designer create and texture a world based on the players actions.

This can make the process a lot more manageable, but I always felt that it was incomplete. The Shire is not Middle Earth, and Tattoine is not the Galactic Empire. I have always felt the need to have a rough estimate of the whole world before delving into the details of a local environment.

 

Core Concept

You don’t need an outline, and you definitely do not need a plot. But you should have a concept, or a central theme in mind before you start. Whether its dragons, space pirates, or railroad barons; its a good idea to have something to hang your thoughts on. Think of it as a trunk, which supports all the other branches. It helps connect and balance out ideas, and maintain a certain logic throughout your world.

If you don’t already have a ‘big idea’, don’t worry. Look around you for inspiration. Ever seen a movie or a tv show and thought, “I’d like to go there?” Or seen an image on DeviantArt and suddenly started creating a back-story and environment for the characters in it? Run with it. Even better, talk to you players and share ideas. My current long-running Pathfinder campaign is based on one offhand comment by a player. He probably doesn’t even know he said it.

To steal a concept from sympathetic magic, “as above so below”. If your vision of the world is of an evil god looking to topple the reign of a noble deity, then perhaps the local vicar might be a little out of touch with the feeling of his community. Or a charismatic young bard might be in town exciting the youth with irreverent verse. Even if you don’t know where the players will take your campaign, a little foreshadowing of possible themes builds groundwork for things to come.

With a concept in mind, you can give players a glimpse of things to come from the very start. Especially if your concept gets rejected out of hand, its better to learn that upfront.

 

Picking A Fight

Beyond the concept (i.e., cowboy Cthulhu), you should have some type of conflict in place. This may not be the end game, or even a major accomplishment. Just something to get a group moving. Even the best sandbox needs some toys in it to get the kids playing. Drama is born of conflict, so give players something to react to. Whether its goblins on the edge of town, or seedy tavern known to be frequented by werewolves, ensure that there will be something for the players to do once they are in your world.

The last thing you’ll need is commitment. As rewarding as it is, world-building takes a lot of time and effort. You have to want to do it, or you’ll run out of steam long before you can show it to a table full of players.

We will discuss tools and techniques that will be helpful in designing and organizing an RPG in the future, but there is no substitute for commitment. You need to believe in the process and have faith that the finished work will be something you will be proud of, and your players will enjoy exploring.

Before we get going, what are the most important things to you in world-building? Are there tricks you’ve found? Mistakes that can derail the whole process? Let us know.

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In the Beginning

May 19, 2016 at 8:11 pm

“If we don’t play God, who will?”

— James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA

planet182I suppose it only makes sense to start this out with a statement of purpose: I intend (with the help of collaborators and blog readers) to explore the process of RPG world creation and development in an effort to share inspiration and collectively gain a better understanding of how it works. And hopefully end up with a game work that can be used and across the digital void.

But why would anyone want to do that?

A quick internet search will reveal a huge number of fully fleshed out settings for a wide array of genres and systems. Why not choose one of those, and get the advantage of the work of team of developers, or respected novelists, or squads of movie and TV writers? That’s a darn good question, but who wants to read about how I bought the ‘Forgotten Realms’ box set and sat down to play.

[su_expand]Or, you could set down with your potential players and collectively create a world on shared objectives. A number of modern games follow this approach, and it has real value. Shared world-building generates commitment and buy-in from all the parties involved, and off-loads some of the responsibilities of the process.

But I don’t have a group in mind for this, and I want to see where the process takes me. Ever since that first basement dungeon crawl in my early teens, where none of the rules made sense but my imagination was exploding with the potential, I’ve wanted to build worlds.

Sharing the sandbox

Note that I said build worlds, not stories. If your world image includes a titanic struggle between good and evil where the hero must sacrifice himself for the future at the right moment, you’re writing fiction NOT a game setting. The magic and horror building a game world is that you unleash players in it to add color, texture, and depth — all while systematically destroying your plans and vision.

Its what they do. Every gamer comes to the table (real or virtual) for their own reasons, and is at least as much responsible for how a story moves than the creator. It is the creator’s job to create interesting options and angles for players to take the story and interesting (and often completely unexpected) direction.

Again, I guess it begs the question why would anybody do that? Why go through the effort of building a world filled with people, cultures, terrible monsters and fabulous treasures just to have a bunch of players crash thorough it like proverbial bulls.

Building blocks

I’m sure ego has something to do with it. You do get to play god, and pull back the curtain on how a world is put together. You get to build things you’ve always wanted to see in a game, and create conflicts that are truly interesting to you.

You get to explore concepts you’ve never seen before. What if earth was invaded by space-faring gnolls? Find out! Or if necromancers were civil servants, creating a ready labor force so that living citizens can live a life of leisure. Its your world.

Its also a great way to experiment with rules. Long-lived game systems proliferate expansion books and rules options to the point where no single campaign could really use them all. Just picked up Pathfinder ‘Occult Adventures’? Create a world where wizards and clerics are secondary, and psychic magic is the cornerstone. Or grab any two GURPS sourcebooks from a box (my collection is a little frightening) and create a mash-up.

Or pick an environment to dig into. An entire campaign populated by runaway slaves in a dark elf mine? Why not. Or a desert island with no idea what lies beyond the horizon.

It is also a great way to be surprised. You rarely know what an idea is until you see it filtered through someone else’s eyes. You quickly find that your subterranean slaves have cornered the moss market, and working to overthrow the dark elf economy. Or have split into rival encampments and have trained the island natives to make war on each other.

World-building is like playing Lego with toddlers (with all respect to both players and toddlers). You can pick out knights and horses and all the castle parts, but you will never be sure what will be built out of it.

And that, for me, is the true joy of it.

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