30 November, 2014

Worldbuilding 101 - Part 23: The Monster Mash

A good setting allows the potential for many different stories, otherwise we’d just be writing a single scenario, a railroaded campaign, or even a novel. In a live game, we often need many different interconnected stories occurring at the same time, and when the players are able to direct the stories for their characters that often leads to a divergence of story types. Some stories may revolve around politics or trade, others might lead to travel, exploration, or confronting the potential horrors of the setting.

An easy way to set up such tales would be to introduce another culture who everyone fights against. This can be seen in many novels, game systems, and epic-landmark-comic-crossover arcs, commonly in the form of some monstrous race that exists only as NPCs and antagonists. Since we’ve already got the conflicting cultures from a few different directions, an extra NPC culture might be a needless complication at the start of play, and what would it really add to the story. I’m not ruling out the idea entirely, it might be feasible to have another cult lingering in the shadows, but how would they be different to the existing cult, would they worship gods more scary and dangerous than those currently worshipped by the pirates? Are they’re evil for the sake of being evil, how does that really help the story? Are they an ultimate force for order and good, who even consider the empire and church to be flawed and in need of punishment? What would this say about the world? Both are valid choices, and both apply a twist to the setting, but a TV series typically wouldn’t start with this sort of group in play, these are things that manifest during end-of-season cliffhangers, to change the dynamics for a new season and new storyline.

I’m actually thinking of something more visceral and easy. A conflict that characters can face without needing to face each other, or worry about existential shenanigans. I’m thinking of monsters. I don’t want to just use a kitchen sink compendium of creatures, I want monsters that reflect the themes of the setting, and link in with existing elements in play. 

What sorts of monsters would exist in the setting we’ve described?

Let’s start with a basic list of setting elements (and why those elements are implied).

Possible Sources
Undead (since we’ve got dhampyrs who are basically half undead, it makes sense that there would be full undead in the setting)
Lycanthropes (since we’ve got wyldkin who are basically half lycanthropes, it makes sense that there would be full lycanthropes in the setting)
Faeries (since we’ve got faeblood who are basically half fey, it makes sense that there would be full faeries in the setting)
Elementals (the pirates worship vastly powerful elemental deities, and they’d probably have servitors in the world, such things might be somehow related to the avatars or incarnates)
Angels (the church has a belief in angels, archangels and a powerful Celestine, they might manifest in the world, thesemight also be related n some way to the avatars or incarnates)
Awakened Beasts (the native have spirit-taking shamans and many share a bond to totems which are traditionally associated with animals)
Golems (the vaguely Judaeo-Christian vibe of the church, the discovery and exploration of electricity, and the tropes of steampunk all point toward constructed servitor beings empowered by something not fully understood)

Possible Locations
Underground (There are mines under the main island’s volcano, and scattered ruins across the island. There are quite a few other islands and implied ruins across them.)
Urban (The majority of people live in a few urban areas, with dark alleys filled with sinister shadows.re are)
Jungle (Roughly half of the main island is covered in jungle, and many of the other islands would be just as overgrown, if not more.)
Aquatic (The high seas are dangerous, even to the pirates.)
Mystic Locations (There are definitely sites where the veil between worlds is thin. Monsters and otherworldly entities would be more likely to cross into the world of the characters in such locations.)

Protection (There is something or someone that the creature defends)
Vengeance (The creature intends to right some kind of wrong, by whatever means necessary)
Violence (The creature exists to cause carnage)
Isolation (The creature just wants to be left alone)
Infection (The creature wants to spread it lineage as far as possible)
Observation (The creature watches, and reports its findings to someone)
Dedication (The creature is a force of nature, it performs a single role in an ecosystem)

That’s plenty for us to get started, and if we were playing FUBAR or Walkabout, these would be pretty much everything needed to create every possible monster in the setting (by combining the three aspects, and adding a couple of unique features). 

Worldbuilding 101 - Part 22: New Directions

What I’ve defined so far would be more than adequate worldbuilding if the setting was being used to tell stores of intrigue and the relationships of people in a land on the brink of revolution, but it doesn’t really describe the potential eldritch horror, mythic exploration, and arcane mystery that I also saw inherent in the narrative. What else do we need? Let’s break it down.

Horror – I’ve never seen a set of rules that really functions to add a sense of horror in the minds of the players. Palladium Books toyed with the idea of “Horror Factor” as a mechanism to determine whether characters are scared in a given situation, but for players it’s simply a case of 1) Roll a die 2) If higher than Horror Factor, character is fine; if lower, character is stunned and can’t act. It’s more of a mechanisms to see if the players get frustrated by an encounter more than anything else. There’s a game called “Dread” which uses a Jenga Tower, this is probably the closest I’ve seen to a true sense of fear and horror manifest through a game mechanism, it induces tension in a game…not really horror, but a certain palpable tension that something is going to go wrong soon…if not now, soon. I’ve also never seen good horror happen in a communal GM environment, I’m not saying it can’t happen and I’d love to engage in a game where everyone is trying to out-psyche each other, I’m saying that I’ve never seen it. Even one of my all-time favourite games, Chill (2nd Ed by Mayfair Games) doesn’t do well in the mechanisms to convey horror, but it has an awesome GM Guide explaining the nuances of different forms of horror and what make them tick. I’ve always seen horror as something that is driven by the narrative of the GM, picked up on by the players. If there is going to be horror in this game, I foresee it as the existential horror of the Cthulhu mythos combined with an internalised body horror. There are monstrous entities lingering in the background of the setting, and every time a player opens up a new avenue of exploration they might end up walking into something so horrific that they are either obliterated or return to the civilised world changed in some dark way…players lose their characters, regardless of how much they have invested, they see their hard work used against them. The characters themselves become the most confronting monsters of the setting.

Exploration – I really haven’t touched on game mechanisms at all, but the notion of exploration seems to beg the idea of random encounter tables. Things may seem decadent and dangerous in the city, but there are certain rules and orders that keep things generally running smoothly (preventing them from devolving into anarchy and violent revolution). Once you get away from the structure and routine of the civilised world, things get less predictable…well that’s not entirely true. Once you get away from the civilised world, there are less buffers, less checks and measures. In small towns there are a few people to help you out when things go awry, and when you go into the wilderness there is no-one at all to help keep the dangers at bay. Random encounter tables aren’t something you’d normally use in a LARP, but in a tabletop setting (and running small groups of players) they’d be a bit more appropriate. Since we’re already using cards to determine random personality traits where a character deviates from their cultural stereotypes, we could use cards to randomly determine events during exploration. You could also use whatever random tables already exist in a favoured game system, but for the moment bear with me.

I like cards because they can be read a few different ways, quickly and conveniently without needing to reference too many tables. You can also do some fun tricks with them like counting doubles, triples, straights, matching suits, etc.

The basic system I’m thinking of has the GM drawing a minimum of two cards (in safer areas you’d draw extra cards and discard the higher results, in more dangerous areas you’d draw extra cards and discard the lower results), the highest card drawn determines whether an incident occurs. The next highest card determines the type of incident, severity of the incident. Each type of location has its own chart (El Puerto de Isabella, Trader’s Port (or large town), Kāinga Kākāriki (or native town), Outpost (or small village), Ruins, Farmlands, Forest, Swampland, Beach, Underground-Mines, Underground-Caves, etc.) Exploring these tables would be a post on its own.

Mystery – Mystery is another of those things that I’ve seen done very poorly in many games. It’s certainly something to explore from a game mechanisms perspective and not from a world-building perspective. We’ve generally got mystery covered when we look at the way short term goals feed into medium term goals and medium term goals feed into long term goals. The whole story is never known by all of the players, especially during the course of play. Only once the story has been concluded should certain ideas be revealed, this is basically a tenet of Australian Freeform play. 

28 November, 2014

Worldbuilding 101 - Part 21: It's the End of the World as We Know it.

The End Game is something that all campaigns need. I’ve seen more games fizzle out because there just wasn’t enough drive to keep them going, but there were a few core players who just wouldn’t let them die.

Every character in a setting has their own story, but the setting itself also has a story. A great example of this is the ballsy thing that White Wolf did in around 2002-2004, where they said that since the World of Darkness was the story of a decaying world in the final death spasms before apocalypse, they’d just write a series of books to conclude the game line. I didn’t like it at the time, because some of my favourite games were seeing a conclusion, but I respect the decision to end things on a high. It’s a bit like the re-iteration of D&D versions. A new set of rules comes out and the existing settings either get a reboot or disappear completely (maybe returning when a new version appears a few years down the track).

Know your end point. Know when your setting is about to jump the shark, and stop before you take off. Unless you want your story to go in that direction, in which case go ahead… but you’re on your own from there. 

Worldbuilding 101 - Part 20: What is, and what should never be

Let’s use a grammatical analogy…

If scenes are words, short term goals are commas, medium term goals and full-stops (or periods for our American audience), and long term goals are paragraph breaks.

I like to inject short term goals into a story to alter the flow and pacing of things, while medium term goals signify a new pattern of thought complicating and transforming the narrative, and long term goals are conclusions.

I also like to make sure at least half of my goals are generated from the players. In a small game, I might have more control over the destiny of things, in a large game I let the players do most of the work because otherwise I’d burn myself out. Player-inspired short term goals are derived from individual character backgrounds, they play out after a set timeframe or once at least a quarter of the players have a vested interest (one way or the other) in the outcome.

Player-inspired medium term goals manifest through the interaction of characters with the game world, these tend to have an introduction and an end game. They switch to “end game” mode once a half of the players in the game are aware of it. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, in my experience when you’re dealing with other people, nothing can ever follow a specific set of rules and consistently remain fun. If the story needs a push, you switch gears.

The important thing to remember with each of these goals, is that every one of them needs to have an impact on the world. Such a change may be as little as making an adjustment to dramatic as a complete attitude change (or even elimination) of one of the races or cultures. Try to think in advance what might happen to the world if such changes were to occur.

A change in a relationship – Who ends up better off? How does this affect their life?
Loss of a character – Who would suffer as a result of this loss? Who would benefit? How does this alter local power structures?
Introduction of a character – How powerful is this character? Who would be upset by this introduction? Who might try to start a working relationship with this character? Are they related to anyone already in play? Where would they be likely to settle?
Loss of Cultural/Racial status – Why was the status lost? Who is unhappy about this loss? What are they going to do about it? Who is going to benefit from this loss (if we assume a zero sum environment, then every loss of status will be matched by a gain somewhere else)?    
Gain of Cultural/Racial status – Why was the status gained? Who is unhappy about this gain? What are they going to do about it?
Loss of a location – Who frequented this location? What do they think of the loss? Where will they go now?
Gain of a location – What kinds of people would be attracted to this location? Why would they come?
A change in the economy (change in rarity of a commodity, a new resource, etc.) – Who might be affected by this change? How will they respond?

Stasis is one of the things I have issue with in just about every published setting I’ve encountered. I understand that every setting is basically a snapshot of a specific place at a specific time, but it would be nice to have an understanding of how things might change at the local level once changes do start to occur. A few settings have two or three released sourcebooks, offering general changes to the environment, but such things could never take into consideration all the possible actions that might occur due to actions undertaken by different sets of player characters in different games around the world.

The first game I ever saw that handled this sort of thing well was L5R, which based the changes of it’s setting on the official tournament results collated from events round the world (where some character cards gained more experienced versions, certain new cards were added to the set to reflect specific plays made by wining players, etc.). Other games might have done it before, but I’m not familiar with them.

A couple of other games have done things that seem similar, in the form of a sequence of books that explain the changes to an area over the course of a military campaign (or some other wide sweeping event). But like a GM railroading the plt of their players, such games don’t consider the specific actions of players they just rely on deus ex machina   

When it comes to long term goals, I have a few ideas in mind, roughly thought out. The whole shape of the island is inspired by impact craters, implying something crash landed here in the forgotten past. Also, the island has a volcano (south side, central west) with a few mines heading into it, this land feature probably arose from an impact that plunged through the planet’s crust. Something is buried in the ground, the resources that sustain the island’s mines are actually stripping away the components of the unknown thing that crashed. I’m seeing ancient nanotechnology or mutagens infecting the miners, or releasing monstrous defenders once the mines pierce the protective shells of the “things that crashed”. Such things would be gradually hinted at in the medium term goals, and ramped up if things get quiet in other areas of the game.

On a more grounded level, I’m seeing some kind of open war rage between at least two of the cultures. Perhaps revolution where the settlers (possibly aided by the pirates) try to overthrow the empire, or a guerrilla war between the natives (possibly aided by the cult) and the combined force of settlers and empire, maybe a three-way battle between natives, settlers and empire. Such a war would be fought physically, economically and mystically, to draw everyone into it.

There is long term potential to introduce new cultures and races, perhaps another of the kingdoms from the old world becomes so tempted  by the riches in the area, that they send ships of their own to negotiate with the colonists, privateers, and natives (the pirates down like any regimented force in the area). Would this force compete with the empire, or join other cultures in a war against the empire, then simply replace it? If mutagens infect the miners, and turn them into “something else”, what will this new race look like?

I don’t get bogged down with details, I just leave them as possible directions for the story to go. Adding a bit more detail to one of the long term goals if the story seems to be heading in that direction. When a bit of detail is added, a few hints are dropped into the narrative for players to uncover. If they like it they investigate further and that goal becomes more likely. If they don’t care about it, then we switch focus to another long term goal. Eventually something will stick.

27 November, 2014

Worldbuilding 101 - Part 19: Welcome to the Jungle

I think we’ve got a pretty good grasp on the way the world looks, the cultures that make it up and the kinds of specific people who belong to those cultures. To use a theatrical analogy, we’ve set the stage, we’ve established the supporting cast and even some of the secondary characters, costuming and make-up are taken care of. We don’t have a plot (of course arguably, the whole point of a roleplaying game is about developing the plot and narrative), but we do have a few motivations for our characters.

Some recent roleplaying games would state that this is more than enough world-building to get the story happening. There are relationship maps for the players to interact with if they choose to indulge in a “character-driven” narrative, but for players who want a “plot-driven” narrative or an old-school game, there is probably a bit more work to do.

Personally, I like my settings to generally be sandboxes with some pieces already in place. I like to have my players able to choose the destiny of their characters, not forcing choices of any type, but pushing a tendency to certain story paths. There will always be a few possible stories within a setting, and plenty of hooks leading into those stories. If a player chooses to latch onto one of the story hooks, they get drawn into one of the stories (but may choose for themselves whether to join or oppose the flow of the story). Players can also choose to ignore the hooks that are offered to them, but there needs to be some kind of ramification for this as well (the players become aware of what happened because they didn’t get involved, perhas even feel a pang of regret for not making a difference when the opportunity presented itself). I don’t like making static worlds that simply wait for the characters to make their impact, I prefer a dynamic system of cycles, a general tension pulling the world in a certain direction, or perhaps even a downward spiral.

So far there have been hints toward the world’s direction in various parts of the design process. There is a change in the air, the Pirates speak of democracy and a social order beyond the aristocracy of the empire (the privateers have a tendency toward this too), the settlers murmur of revolution, the cult subverts the established hierarchy of church and state perhaps to bring in a new age or maybe restore a lost age of the past. But these concepts are fairly vague and nebulous, there needs to be some kind of path from the immediate world of the characters through to these grand background concepts.

Here is where we move from Worldbuilding to campaign initiation.

I start this process by defining two or three short term events that I’d like to see occur in the setting, then a couple of medium term events that might cause pivotal decision points that will change the way the setting works, and a few possible long term goals.

I expect a short term event to manifest in play as the climax of a session, the first one after a game or two, then every two or three games thereafter.

Every time a short term event comes into play, or passes the time when it is relevant, I write a new short term event that might point toward one of the medium term events. Once more than half of the players have shown an interest in various short term events leading to a certain medium term event, I bring that event into play. If a mdedium term event no longer seems relevant because players aren’t interested or because the timeframe for the event has expired, I’ll write a new medium term event to replace it. I specifically don’t write more than that, I like my stories driven by players.

In a LARP, there are typically more people involved, so it might be more appropriate to think of a short term event coming into play every session, but only a third to a half of the total players get caught up in it (we try to make sure different players get involved in the climax event each time…it’s not always possible and often the same players appear time and again, but we try to spread the fun around as much as possible).

To start this campaign off, I’d look at something violent, something political, and something mystical. This should generally cover the various types of characters that players would bring into the game (If I was running a smaller scale game for a tabletop group, I’d tailor these short term goals more specifically to the characters after holding a group character development session). For “something violent” we’ve got a natural setting, the arena, we’ve got a few characters who come from cultures that like a brawl, and we’ve got some characters who might be willing to bet on the outcome of such a fight. I specifically don’t force an agenda on the characters who might become involved in this climax scene, I just create a series of hooks that might lure characters toward it. It might start with an advertisement in the local news sheet, perhaps one of the characters has an ally who has a reason to get caught up in the fight (if the character doesn’t get involved they risk losing this ally), and another plot hook might say that a local pirate captain is looking for crew who can hold their own in a brawl (and thus anyone who is willing to make a good show in this brawl might find lucrative employment). Some story hooks use the carrot approach (a character possibly gains a bonus if they get involved), other story hooks use the stick (a character possibly suffers a penalty if they don’t get involved), those characters who are already caught up in the events underway might find both carrot and stick outcomes possible.

We can tie in the following characters;
Federico Rodriguez y Carillo (who may be aware something is about to go down and is looking for ways to stop it)
Mary Jones (who knows her healing concoctions are about to be in high demand and therefore she needs new ingredients)
Half-pint Henry (who knows that there will be a few captains looking to recruit from the brawl, but wants to make sure his captain gets the best brawlers on offer)
Nell Smith (who thinks this is a terrible way to recruit new sailors to her ship, and is trying to end the brawl before it begins)
Josephine the Cat (who thinks this looks like all sorts of fun, and maybe she can find some crew for her own captain in the process)
Moana (who has been hired by a secretive individual wanting to learn about the fights and maybe place a wager on the outcome)
Xavier “Lobo” Perez (Who is one of the pirate captains behind this crazy plan to discover the best brawlers in El Puerto de Isabella)
One storyline, seven background characters with a vested interest in it. Once you’ve got the basic structure in place, things just start fitting together.

For something political, we’d could look at something in the royal courts (at the keep), while this might prevent some players from accessing it, that’s not entirely a bad thing. The kinds of players who’d be likely to get involved in the fight climax aren’t the kinds of players we’d want involved in the political story. I’m thinking that we might look at something involving trade routes across the island between El Puerto de Isabella and Trader’s Port.

Characters interested in this story might be: Jacinta Moreno y Silva, Orlando Cortez, Erihapeti, Lisandro De La Rosa y Cortez, and Mary Flynn.

For something mystical, we might look at a mad scientist or sorcerer experimenting with something that they don’t fully understand (in a hidden lab somewhere in the Borderslums). Some characters might be pulled in to stop the experimentation before it goes awry, other characters might want to help it work, then there would be those who would be interested in profiting from the outcome.

Characters for this story might be: Half-pint Henry, Mary Jones, Marina DuBois, Father Taurino, Adalita Batista, Harriet Black, and Anahera.

If I find that there are any characters who have slipped through the cracks on all three of these stories, I’ll go out of my way to make sure one of the next short term goals is alluring to these characters. There are some players who engage in games like this because they like to dress up and follow along with the stories of other characters, so it’s important not to force them into stories that they don’t want, but I like to make sure the option is there. It’s often through bringing characters like these out of their player’s shells that cause worlds to really take on a life of their own.

26 November, 2014

Worldbuilding 101 - Part 18: Racial Appearances

(Quick one today because I'm running late...)

One of the things I’ve learnt from years (actually decades) of LARPing is that people who get involved in this sort of thing love to dress up. Costuming is a part of it (and we looked at the various cultural costumes in this world in the last post), but so is make-up and quite often prosthetics and latex masks. In order to know what type of make-up would be used to portray our characters, we need to get a few racial trait descriptions. It probably makes best sense to connect these to the genetic traits linked with each race. Since we’re playing the game in a live context with regular humans portraying the roles, it also makes sense for the baseline racial appearance to be simply human.

(No special abilities) Therefore they look like regular humans.

(Nightvision/Light sensitivity) Black Eyes
(Unnatural Strength/Hunger) Prominent Fangs
(Unliving) Skin starts to degrade, either becoming pale, desiccated or in some cases rotten.

(Empathy/Emotional sensitivity) Has oversized eyes or ears.
(Intuition/Fatebound) Unnatural pigmentation somewhere: either hair, skin or eyes.
(Dreamer) Has the appearance of a humanoid mythical being (elf, dwarf, dryad, etc.)

(Animal Ken/Bestial Urges) Some subtle animalistic characteristic: slitted eyes, pointed ears, horn stubs, excess hair/fur, or fangs.  
(Fear/Savage) The characters eyes glow when they are emotional
(Lesser Lycathrope) Subtle animalistic traits become more pronounced, looks like a hybrid between animal and human.

(Healing/Dependency) The character looks older and weaker when alone, but younger and more vital when in the presence of crowds.  
(Aura/Faithbound) There is something otherworldly about the character that people can’t put their finger on.
(Demigod) St Elmo’s Fire crackles around the character when they are emotionally charged.

(Sense Magic/Magic susceptible) Glows in the presence of magic
(Superstitions) Skin has an elemental appearance to it (faintly metallic, rocky, wet/slippery, burnt, leafy, etc.)
(Totem) There is something distinctly inhuman about the character (wings, a tail, a tail instead of legs, extra arms, etc.) this inhuman feature has no beneficial function unless bought separately as a skill. Not animalistic in the way of Wyldkin, these features are distinctly unnatural.

Purebloods look no different from Nullans, they look like any other human, in all the range of skin, hair and eye colors that might entail.

Combining the racial traits and cultural traits gives us the general appearance of each character in our world. Specific characters will deviate slightly from these norms especially with regard to skin/hair/eye colours, and I’ve made sure not to stereotype any of the groups according to body mass or height, and certainly not by gender. This way, anyone could theoretically play anything. 

25 November, 2014

Worldbuilding 101 - Part 17: Cultural Appearances

Regarding yesterday’s post. It appears that there might be some kind of disconnect between the setting and the system, and that’s something that can prove detrimental to good storytelling. This worldbuilding exercise is a follow on from my last series on designing a “Boffer LARP system”, but boffer LARPs are all about hitting one another with padded weapons, and I’ve just mentioned the presence of firearms (which are a distincty non-boffer trait). It’s actually not as much of a disconnect as it seems at first. For one thing, this is a steampunk/pirate Boffer LARP, there will be cutlasses and rapiers and swashbuckling, but there will also be muskets, flintlocks, and single shot rifles. The idea of the game was inspired by the notion of a boffer LARP with “Nerf” guns. But I guess that needs us to clarify the technology level a bit more.

I stated late Napoleonic, but maybe that’s not a good timeframe for what I’m imagining. When I think of the setting, I get imagery from a variety of movies (and TV series and Graphic Novels)…

The Three Musketeers (in it’s various incarnations)
Da Vinci’s Demons
Brotherhood of the Wolf
Plunkett and Maclean
Solomon Kane
Pirates of the Carribean

I specifically don’t think of “high steampunk” like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Van Helsing…those are too modern for what I’m after. The healthy dose of Warhammer Fantasy pulls things back into line, with a grittier, darker fantasy world (but still with strange quirky machines, and firearms that are often unpredictable).  

I know my inspiration sources are all over the place, and cover a wide range of history. But somewhere between them all sits the setting I have in mind. I’m also aware that none of these visual inspiration sources is particularly Spanish (except maybe the fourth “Pirates” movie which is playing a strong role in the formation of the church and cult groups). Perhaps if we consider the “old world” of our fantasy setting to be a fractured mass of nation states, like Europe before Napoleon forced everyone to get their military affairs in order.

With this in mind, it might be better to sit the core technology level closer to the late 1700s rather than the early 1800s, perhaps just before the US War of Independence happened in our world. This pulls us away from the steampunk gunslinger trope, and back to a world of exploration and adventure…it also drags us closer to the age of high piracy.

Now we’ve got some specific ideas for technology level, we can start deciding what the actual aesthetics of the world are. What does it look like?

+Joseph Browning made the comment…

“I think the one thing that we, as modern gamers, have difficulty understanding at a very visceral level is the amount of wealth that would be consumed in frivolous display or ornamentation by the many cultures of our fantasy worlds. We (generally) consider such overt displays of wealth vulgar, but cultures before ours often didn’t, viewing them as desirable.

How many of us are willing to spend 100gp to decorate the pommel of their non-magical sword? Or spend 2,000 gp for combat-worthless parade armour?

Just something to think about when next you roleplay…”

I think that’s awesome, and it really ties into the concepts of what the races (and the world in general) looks like, and storyline elements that can be brought into play.

With the structures we’ve already got in place, we can start to really define the look and the attitudes that various cultures in the setting have toward overt wealth.

El Imperio del Sol (The Empire of the Sun)
(Aristocracy) Vices – Pride and Envy, Valued Possession: Family Coat of Arms, Type of Clothing Worn: Elaborate and Brightly Coloured, or Military Uniforms

The empire is decadent, it has a sense of lost nobility that is struggling to maintain meaning in the face of a changing world. So far it has maintained its strength through shows of military power and opulence above the peasant classes that support it. To keep showing that power, influential members of the empire spend vast wealth on impressive buildings, decorative armour, and jewellery (with pride in their own possessions and envy regarding the possessions of others). Some see the crumbling illusory edifice, they seek discipline and a return to the values that once made the empire great (combining their pride with a nostalgia for their family’s coat of arms), these are the members of the empire who tend to take the harsh military aesthetic, but even they know that decoration drives much of the empire, and that style comes before substance among the courtiers whose support they need.      

La Santo Orden del Profeta (The Holy Order of the Prophet)
(Theocracy) Vices – Lust and Sloth, Valued Possession: Holy Symbol or Holy Text, Type of Clothing Worn: Plain Robes

The Holy Order has developed over centuries from the teachings of a lone prophet in the desert, to a vast institution with wealth rivalling the empire itself. Members of the order dress in accordance with their status, lower ranked acolytes in plain robes, higher ranked priests adorning themselves with holy symbols that are often made from valuable metals and gems (for the glory of the Celestine), bishops and the highest ranking members of the order are closest to the divine and the order states that they need to look the part. The vast majority of the Order’s wealth is invested in buildings of worship, enclosures for sacred relics and texts. It is not uncommon to see a member of the order dressed in simple rags but carrying a book of the finest vellum leaves, encased in a silver and gold covering.

Los Corsarios (The Privateers)
(Military) Vices – Greed and Pride, Valued Possession: Letter of Marque, Type of Clothing Worn: Functional Leathers or Military Uniform

The privateers spend much of their time on the sea, they often live in cramped communal quarters and don’t have a lot of room for personal possessions. Despite this, their propensity for greed and pride often drives them to have a few possessions that are incredibly valuable: perhaps a pouch of the finest gems and jewellery, an incredibly ornate weapon, or some mysterious trinket acquired on their travels. Such items are rarely frivolous, they often have some kind of use that makes them even more valuable on the high seas. Much of a privateer’s wealth is spent on the maintenance of their ship, and many privateer vessels are equipped with the most powerful cannons and elaborate naval technologies in the known world.

Los Lobos del Mar (The Wolves of the Sea)
(Democracy) Vices – Wrath and Gluttony, Valued Possession: Weapon (often a cutlass), Type of Clothing Worn: Functional or Flamboyant Leathers

Like Privateers, the Pirates typically live in cramped quarters on a ship that is their pride and joy. Unlike privateers, most pirates dress in a more flamboyant manner, but closer appearances typically show that the wealth and flamboyance of pirate attire is often second-hand, or looted, commonly ill-fitting, and more for show than actual wealth or taste (sometime a pirate’s clothes will show the effects of too many bar fights or nights of drunken revelry). The most functional and often most valuable item a pirate will typically possess will be their favoured weapon, often adorned with gems, or marks to indicate the adventures they’ve been on and the foes they’ve vanquished. Many pirates mark their bodies with tattoos telling these same stories. Pirates tend to be a bit more personal with their wealth, but in a life on the high seas they need to find secure places to store their gains, virtually every pirate has a map to their own stash, and many have maps to stashes from those they have slain.
La Colonia (The Colony)
(Meritocracy) Vices – Sloth and Envy, Valued Possession: Family Heirloom, Type of Clothing Worn: Functional Cloth and Linen

The colony supports the empire, in much the same way the farmers and peasantry have done back in the Old World for centuries. It is not in a settler’s best interests to show wealth or flamboyance around the nobility, because the pride of the nobles would see settler’s cut down for their insolence and envy would see anything beautiful taken away to the palaces and estates. Settlers keep a low profile, they get their work done in functional (but exceptionally well made) clothes, their most valued possessions are typically kept under lock and key hidden in storage boxes in their attics, cellars or larders. Some are envious of the nobles, and seek to emulate them but have neither the resources nor the free leisure time to engage in such decadence, other settlers hold on to the weapons and basic armour assigned to them as members of local militias (perhaps with the intention of one day bringing revolution to the land).

Los Salvajes de la Isla (The Island Savages)
(Tribal Aristocracy) Vices – Wrath and Lust, Valued Possession: Greenstone Charm, Type of Clothing Worn: Dyed Skins and loosely woven fabric

The natives have lived in accordance with the cycles of the land for as long as anyone can remember, the idea of building walls to separate oneself from the natural world is anathema to them. This is reflected in their clothing and their structures, but this doesn’t mean they lack pride in what they do have. Clothes are well made, often adorned with patterns from dye and elaborate weaving. Buildings are open and airy, but are built on strong foundations of ancient stone carved in arcane patterns from a time now forgotten. During times of ceremony, natives wear jewellery passed down through their families, each piece has a unique heritage and is worn at certain times to show the wearers connection to their people and to their land. Such pieces are never bought or sold, only given as gifts for great deeds.

La Orden de la Luna (The Order of the Moon)
(Meritocracy) Vices – Pride and Envy Valued Possession: Jewellery depicting a Crescent Moon, Type of Clothing Worn: Dark leather armour, typically masked

While they live hidden among other cultures, members of the Cult are indistinguishable from those among whom they are concealed. When performing duties for the cult, they are reputed to wear functional leather armour, with ornate masks reminiscent of those worn during festivals in the old world. Few have seen the rituals of the cult, but reports state that during these events, the members of the cult either choose to wear their armour, or loose flowing robes like those seen depicted on the ancient marble statues and antique pottery pieces of the old world.   

24 November, 2014

Worldbuilding 101 - Part 16: She blinded me with science

(I'm really tempted to go back through this whole series and rename every post after a song title)

Before we get into what the characters actually look like, let’s consider technology.

At this stage, we could apply a wide range of technology levels to the setting. It seems pretty obvious that we’d be looking at 16th to 18th century levels, post renaissance – pre industrialisation; after all, there are pirates and privateers, concepts such as democracy, and we’ve mentioned steampunk as well. But the developmental concepts used so far could just as easily be applied to an ancient world setting, modern era, sci-fi…we could even apply one of these technology levels to the current game, and just maintain the “aesthetic of steampunk” like so many other games on the market.

But in this particular case, the aesthetic was not an afterthought, it was a specific choice based on the idea that I wanted to create a LARP where nerf weapons could be used as analogues for flintlock pistols and rifles, along with boffer blades for duelling. Any kind of higher technology in the setting could be mimicked through real world analogues, if they can be described in terms of suitably steampunk technology in the setting. So we’re probably looking closer to the Napoleonic era with effective black powder weapons and some mechanisation, some innovations in things like standardised screw threads, reliable clockworks, that sort of thing. We don’t need historical accuracy regarding a specific year, this is a fantasy setting, but a quick look at a book or website where invention dates are recorded might be a good starting point to determine what might be viable in the setting.

If we look at late Napoleonic times (circa 1815) and allow 20 years either side for technical innovations, and maybe up to 50 years ahead to account for magical enhancement of technologies, that gives us plenty of interesting things to add into the setting while maintaining the right feel. Armour isn’t really used except for ceremonial purposes because firearms are generally too reliable and too powerful for it. There are some basic vaccines, experimentation with electricity (which gives us the potential for “Frankenstein”-style characters), newspapers, steam ships…the old world might have trains, but they just aren’t feasible here yet (not enough population or movement of resources to justify the expense of building a rail line, and possibly too much spirit/monster activity to clear a safe path between towns anyway). Pushing forward with magic, we might get analogues of the Babbage engine, possibly even rapid communication within town through encoded messages transmitted by wire and dot code cyphers (an analogue for Morse code). If we want to push things, we could use magic to refine the designs of daVinci, thus allowing gliding wings, crude wheeled tanks, and submarines, such things would be quite rare though and probably the focus of stories in their own right. In this way, the Warhammer Fantasy world might be a good analogue for the technological style we’re going for (especially since it’s been referenced a few times already), maybe a bit more advanced generally, but not by a whole lot. Another approximation of the technology level might be Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld”.

Generally, I find that a technology level doesn’t do a lot to change the types of stories that can be told in a world, in most cases the various technologies just change the names of the macguffins that the characters will be chasing, the actual story still comes from the interactions of people with each other and with their world. Still, technology can set the mood for the game, and can get people onto the right page by providing them with tools to latch onto within the narrative, those elements are pretty important for the health of a story. A consistent and coherent level of technology also helps to keep immersion during the course of play and eases the imaginary world’s suspension of disbelief.  

As a side note, Spain went metric in the 1850s, which means I can use metric measurements on my map without being too anachronistic (it easily fits into the “50 years ahead” boundary for magical innovations). Having a religious group that focuses on knowledge (and a cult that does similar), reinforces the idea that a streamlined measuring system might be used. You might debate that since this is a fantasy world that is unrelated to Earth, why would they se a measuring system that is based on the radius of the earth (if I remember correctly, the metre is based on a distance of 1/10,000,000th the average distance from pole to equator). The rebuttal is simple, if we assume that gravity in this fantasy world is roughly equivalent to gravity on earth (give or take up to 5%), then we can assume that the fantasy planet’s size is roughly equivalent to that of the earth. If it’s smaller, the distance is less, but it’s still a regular fraction of that planetary circumference. I don’t think you need to worry about the maths. We also haven’t specified the height and weight of our planetary citizens with regard to “our metres”, nor have I indicated any connection between this fantasy world and our own. And since I’m not planning to base any kind of story around these concepts, basically this is all just getting picky for no real reason. Better to just stick with a recognised measuring system and move on.

23 November, 2014

Worldbuilding 101 - Map Update 2

Here's a new update on the island map.

I'm not sure if I'll go further with this, I don't want it to end up looking too busy. But if I do add more detail it will include naming the towns on the main island map, and maybe adding the names for a few more points of interest (and adjusting the colouring).

Next a wider map of the archipelago, once we've decided to expand the scope of the setting a bit further.

Worldbuilding 101 - Part 15: Immigrant Song

I saw a post on another blog about the concepts of race as a trope in RPGs
So that’s lead me back to races in this setting.

Races don’t need to be a part of fantasy worldbuilding. Take Game of Thrones, where everyone is basically human (except for those giants north of the wall, and a few other notable exceptions). I even neutralised the notion in the setting of my Goblin Tarot deck by making every race in the labyrinth a variant of a highly mutagenic core goblin race. 

I’ve deliberately avoided details for races so far because it can be a controversial subject. I’ve seen raging debates about the morality of “murderhoboes” killing orcs and taking their stuff, the reflection of tribal goblin races as a substitute for natives in colonial history…all sorts of arguments that have degenerated into mudslinging matches, where terms like “cultural appropriation” and even “racism” have been flung around between the obscenities.

What most worldbuilding systems use races for, I tend to use cultures for. A culture is a system of beliefs, values and relationship connections, it tends to value certain traits and skills and therefore those who associate with such a culture have a tendency to acquire those traits and skills. A woodland culture would have a different set of values and its members would tend to develop a different skill set, as compared to an urban culture. A labouring culture among the lower castes of a society would value a different skill set to a caste of courtiers. There’s nothing stopping elves, dwarves, halflings, or orcs belonging to the lower caste culture, and nothing stopping them from belonging to the higher caste culture. There might be a tendency for some races to join some cultures, but this need not always be the case (Blacktooth has a tendency to join the family trade, but she could rebel against the family wishes).

Actual differences in races are an anthropological throwback, something that RPGs have inherited from pulp tales of adventure, predominately written for a young white male audience who didn’t know better. Like everything in this tutorial series, I’m not say “DON’T INCLUDE RACES IN YOUR SETTING”, I’m saying that you need to consider what types of stories are being told through the racial elements included. Once you do include races, you are effectively saying that there are different types of people who, by virtue of their genetic make-up, are better in some way and worse in some other way. Or, maybe a certain race doesn’t have a bonus (or doesn’t have a penalty), what does this say about your world? If your races don’t have specific advantages or penalties to make them different, why are they included at all? Why not just include a different culture?

I have the Stargate RPG from roughly the year 2000, the one that’s based on the Spycraft RPG, which in turn is based vaguely on 3rd Ed D&D. In this game, the basic conceit states that most of the operatives are humans, from various military forces. The emphasis of these military forces gives linked characters a bonus to certain stats. So the characters aren’t different races, they’re just humans trained in different ways. Sure there’s alternate races thrown in for players that really want them, but personally I found those races a bit off compared to the TV show that the game is based on. The game operates pretty well as an all human game, but using a twist on the “race” mechanisms from D&D.

In this setting, I do want races. I want there to be differences between people. I want this to be a multi-cultural multi-racial society. Forget skin tones, no actually include them, but don’t make the races defined by them. Races are physiological differences, but more than just defined by skin, or pointiness of ears, or eye shape. I want pale skinned courtiers mingling with dark skinned courtiers, while in another part of the city pale skinned merchants haggle with dark skinned merchants, round eyed scholars debating the finer points of mysticism with almond eyed scholars, but these are all humans.

The races in this setting are inspired by concepts woven through the classic World of Darkness, where every race has a mortal halfbreed. The Vampires have ghouls (or more specifically vampire-blood infused revenants), the Werewolves have kinfolk, and the Fey have Kinain. Each of these halfbreed races has successfully infiltrated vast regions of population, subtly acting as go-betweens operating in the shadows between the unknowing regular mortals for their supernatural blood relatives. These races operate across all cultures, though specific groups may occur when a certain race intersects with a certain culture.

For the purposes of stories where individuals find their allegiances in a state of flux, having races and cultures as independent qualities makes things more interesting. Certain story elements might flow along cultural lines, while other story elements might flow along racial lines, when matching parts line up or fit together in some way, custom stories develop.

With races defined as half-bloods of supernatural beings, we instantly circumvent the issue of half-races…half-human/half-elf, half-human/half-dwarf, half-dwarf/half-elf. Either someone has the blood of a single supernatural race in their veins or they don’t. If someone has the blood of two supernatural races in their veins, both types of blood cancel out and they end up as a regular human.

I’m thinking that the setting will offer players a few racially linked traits that can be bought with starting XP. These represent genetic advantages, and a character either has them or they don’t. If the player doesn’t buy these at character generation, they can’t pick them up later. While each race gains access to these genetic advantages, they need to spend XP to gain them, and may gain a penalty linked to the advantage in some way. Let’s expand our earlier descriptions. Most races have three abilities, Nullans have none, and purebloods have 4. In each case, the last ability (underlined) only becomes available if all the other abilities have already been purchased.

Nullans are found in every culture. They gain no bonuses or penalties wherever they may be found. (No special abilities)
Dhampyrs are fond of ritual and like positions of power, thus they’d be more likely to be found among the Empire or the Church, and less likely to be found among the Settlers or Natives. (Abilities: Nightvision/Light sensitivity, Unnatural Strength/Hunger, Unliving)
Faeblood are dreamers and travellers, but typically work alone, thus they’d be more likely to be found among the Settlers or the Cult, and less likely to be found among the Empire or Pirates. (Abilities: Empathy/Emotional sensitivity, Intuition/Fatebound, Dreamer)
Wyldkin border on the bestial, sometimes violent and usually pack oriented, they’d be more likely to be found among the Pirates and Natives, and less likely to be found among the Church or Cult. (Abilities: Animal Ken/Bestial Urges, Fear/Savage, Lesser Lycathrope)
Avatars often claim descent from angels and saints and are more likely to be found among the Church or the Cult, they’re less likely to be found among the Natives or Settlers.  (Abilities: Healing/Dependency, Aura/Faithbound, Demigod)
Incarnates are more natural in their spiritual origins, they’re more likely to be found among the Natives or Settlers, and less likely to be found among the Empire or Church. (Abilities:  Sense Magic/Magic susceptible, Superstitions, Totem)
Purebloods are nomads who like to blend into a mixed crowd, they’re likely to be found among the Pirates and the Privateers, and less likely to be found among the Empire or Natives. (Abilities: Negate Magic, Unnoticed, Purify, Eternal)

As another side effect, we could consider the way different races might tend to view each other. This way we could build up quite complex relationship patterns when two people interact, by combining their cultural views of one another and their racial views of one another. But if racial groups don’t impart specific knowledge, only passing on their genetic heritage, then this might be work that never gets used in play.

Bear with me for a moment, let’s call a specific combination of race and culture a “family”. If you were really enthusiastic, it might be possible to cross reference every family and define each family’s typical response to every other family…
7 races x 7 cultures = 49 “families”
49 “families” x 48 others that need opinions = 2352 combinations.
…but that’s probably getting a bit too specific and pedantic

A decent halfway point might be to use the common crossovers of race and culture (like we did when defining the signature NPCs for the setting). This makes sense because there are enough people in this “family” for group collective opinions to develop, but that’s still 19 families…with (19x18 = ) 342 opinions to define.

Nullan – Empire
Nullan – Settler
Nullan – Privateer
Nullan – Pirate
Nullan – Church
Nullan – Native
Nullan – Cult
Dhampyr – Empire
Dhampyr – Church
Faeblood – Settlers
Faeblood – Cult
Wyldkin – Pirate
Wyldkin – Native
Avatar – Church
Avatar – Cult
Incarnate – Native
Incarnate – Settler
Pureblood – Pirate
Pureblood – Privateer
(We’ll call these the major families…at a later date we might even give them names, but I’m just filling in ideas at the moment. The beauty of modular design like this is that you build up a framework of play and only really need to fill in the details later when they become relevant.)

Let’s narrow it down further, and only define relationships between families who share a race or a culture. I’ll write the name of each major family, and abbreviate the families that would need to be mentioned in a relational context.

Nullan – Empire 7 opinions (N-Se, N-Pr, N-Pi, N-Ch, N-Na, N-Cu, D-Em)
Nullan – Settler 8 opinions (N-Em, N-Pr, N-Pi, N-Ch, N-Na, N-Cu, F-Se, I-Se)
Nullan – Privateer 7 opinions (N-Em, N-Se, N-Pi, N-Ch, N-Na, N-Cu, P-Pr)
Nullan – Pirate 8 opinions (N-Em, N-Se, N-Pr, N-Ch, N-Na, N-Cu, W-Pi, P-Pi)
Nullan – Church 8 opinions (N-Em, N-Se, N-Pr, N-Pi, N-Na, N-Cu, D-Ch, A-Ch)
Nullan – Native 8 opinions (N-Em, N-Se, N-Pr, N-Pi, N-Ch, N-Cu, W-Na, I-Na)
Nullan – Cult 8 opinions (N-Em, N-Se, N-Pr, N-Pi, N-Ch, N-Na, F-Cu, A-Cu)
Dhampyr – Empire 2 opinions (N-Em, D-Ch)
Dhampyr – Church 3 opinions (N-Ch, D-Em, A-Ch)
Faeblood – Settler 3 opinions (N-Se, F-Cu, In-Se)
Faeblood – Cult 3 opinions (N-Cu, G-Se, A-Cu)
Wyldkin – Pirate 3 opinions (N-Pi, W-Na, P-Pi)
Wyldkin – Native 3 opinions (N-Na, W-Pi, I-Na)
Avatar – Church 3 opinions (N-Ch, D-Ch, A-Cu)
Avatar – Cult 3 opinions (N-Cu, F-Cu, A-Ch)
Incarnate – Native 3 opinions (N-Na, W-Na, I-Se)
Incarnate – Settler 3 opinions (N-Se, F-Se, I-Na)
Pureblood – Pirate 3 opinions (N-Pi, W-Pi, P-Pr)
Pureblood – Privateer 2 opinions (N-Pr, P-Pi)

That gives us 88 opinions to define. Still a lot, but these are the ones most likely to come into play. You’ll also notice that a lot of the more insular families have fewer relationships to deal with as a result of their focus, their privacy, and generally their lack of numbers.

We’ll leave it here for the moment, move on to other things, then maybe return later.

22 November, 2014

Worldbuilding 101 - Part 14: Social Strata

The final parts of the cultural details are the various power structures used by each group.

Overall, the power structure of a setting is typically defined by the power structure of the dominant group, in this case it’s the aristocracy of the Empire of the Sun. In order to avoid a major conflict with this dominant group, other cultures pay lip service to the Empire’s aristocracy (at worst), and in some cases follow it fanatically (at best); but most people just let the empire deal with their own matters while living their lives according to their own cultural values. As long as the empire doesn’t demand too much of them and provides protection, the colonial folks and privateers are happy to pay their taxes, those who don’t like it move away to Trader’s Port, go native, or quietly plot rebellion in the shadows.

El Imperio del Sol (The Empire of the Sun)

King and Queen in the Old World
Inner Council
Courtiers and Nobles
Typical Citizens
Outsiders and Children

La Santo Orden del Profeta (The Holy Order of the Prophet)

The Celestine
The Prophet (on par with the archangels)
Other Prophets and Popes (on par with the angels)
Other Clergy
Followers of the Holy Order (including child followers)
Heathens and Pagans

Los Corsarios (The Privateers)

The Captain (and his documentation of service to a patron nation)
First Mate
Senior Crew
Junior Crew
Other Seafarers

Los Lobos del Mar (The Wolves of the Sea)

The Captain
First Mate
Senior Crew
Junior Crew
Other Seafarers

La Colonia (The Colony)

Town Elder
Town Council
Children and Outsiders

Los Salvajes de la Isla (The Island Savages)
(Tribal Aristocracy)

Island King
Village Chief
Village Noble Warriors, Scholars and Crafters
Other Warriors, Scholars and Crafters
Unproven Adults and Children

La Orden de la Luna (The Order of the Moon)

Cult Heirophant
Cult Cell Leader

How do we tie these hierarchies into story? That’s pretty easy, especially in a LARP where you have dozens of players, often with three or more in virtually every power structure. This is a setting where stories of intrigue play a role, where rebellion stirs in the lower ranks of society while the higher ranks try to hold power with a steel fist in a velvet glove, where revolutionaries struggle to gain power while remaining relevant to the “common person on the street”. When someone respects a power structure, they anchor a part of their persona to it, if they want to gain power within that structure, they need to respect the structure, and in turn that means they need to respect the people who already have power within it. If they choose to engage channels outside the structure, they show a lack of respect for the structure and will find it easier to be kicked out and harder to ascend the ranks. It’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Thus builds the frustration, and the need to work in the shadows. Assassinations make openings in the hierarchy, blackmail lubricates a slide between social strata (hopefully down for your enemies and up for you), wealth and prestige turn the tables. It might also be possible for characters to hold different ranks according to different social power systems, in the marketplace ruled by the social structure of the colonists, Ian may be higher in prestige than Jacinta (he is on the town council, she is a regular citizen), but behind closed doors according to the ways of the cult (where he is simply a cultist and she is a cult cell leader) she outranks him. People will go out of their way to choose meeting places where they have the social edge. In our previously illustrated relationship maps for each location, we’ve defined the most prestigious person in the web, but if you wanted to be more specific, you could rank everyone according to their positions in each power structure to see who has the upper hand in each relationship.

Honestly, that’s too much work for me to get into for most games, but if we find that there are players who have an aptitude for that sort of thing, we can always assign the task to them.