Sunday, June 14, 2009

White Mountain, Black River: Thinking About System; Philosophies

OK-- back to the alternating daily schedule. I should mention that Fantasy Magazine is going to be running my series on Gamemastering NPCs. That's nice, so you should go over there and check it out, even if you've already read them on this blog...

So I'm doing prep and development for my next campaign (even as I get the Third Continent campaign just going). This one will be Wushu high-fantasy. While it will be a China-like setting, it will not be fantasy China (although I'll be borrowing terms and names of course). If you've looked at Legend of the Five Rings and have seen how it takes the Samurai setting but creates its own place, then you'll know what I'm imagining. I hope, as I get background material and details developed, I'll be posting those things here. I'll skip on posts purely devoted to the mechanics portions however. Generally when I'm doing campaign prep, I have four major aspects to get in line: system and combat mechanics; character creation; background and setting; and initial plot and larger arc.

Mechanics-wise:

I'll be using old Storyteller as the basis (Exalted 1e being the closest to what I want), but you won't have to pick up any rulebooks. I'll be modifying that basic engine pretty heavily, stripping out the chrome to make room for my basic and flexible system. We'll be using another version of my on-the-fly martial arts system, which has plenty of room for different combinations, narrative influence and stunting. I'll be borrowing a few concepts from Scion, The Weapons of the Gods rpg, and Qin: The Warring States rpg. Bottom line: you won't have to worry about mechanics too much-- it will be a crunchier system than the Action Cards, for example, but still pretty simple and abstract.

Game-wise:

As of right now, I'm imagining that the characters will be some kind of Magistrates within the Empire-- assigned to a particular province. They're caught between the authority of the local Magistrates and the actual full Imperial Magistrates-- trying to keep the peace, battle corruption, uncover the plots of the wicked clans, seek out rebels, and generally show themselves to be heroes of the Wulin world. Now, that concept may shift slightly, but that's my starting place-- a combination of investigation, social building, and high-action conflict.

Generally characters fall into one of three “types” or archetypes:

Warrior: the classic master swordsman and the bare-fisted master

Courtier: ranging from the Diplomat to the Imperial Agent to the Spy

Scholar: masters of learning who have learned to focus their powers to affect themselves and the world-- Exorcists, Taoist Priests, Magicians and the like.

In terms of general sources of inspiration, here's what I've been thinking:

Movies: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; House of Flying Daggers; Hero; The Duel; Dragon Inn; The Swordsman II; Chinese Ghost Story; The Bride with White Hair; The Storm Riders; Iron Monkey; Forbidden City Cop; Have Sword, Will Travel; Legendary Weapons of China

Television: Laughing in the Wind, The Handsome Siblings, Romance of Red Dust, Fox Volant of Snowy Mountain, The Legend and the Hero; The Spirit of the Sword; Patriotic Knights

Books: Weapons of the Gods rpg and comics; Qin, The Warring State rpg; Gurps China; Feng Shui; the old Jademan Comic Books...that's all I've got off the top of my head, though apparently there are a number of Wushu novels from the 1960's that form a whole cultural basis and that a number of the TV series are based on.

*****
Magic

So as I said above, I'm working with three major character archetypes—the Warrior, the Scholar and the Courtier. That's a little bit of a borrow from both Weapons of the Gods and True20 to a certain extent. All characters will have access to what you might call Fu or Wushu powers through the variable martial arts styles. There will also be (possibly) minor Chi powers available for everyone. However, the Scholar will be the main “magic-using” archetype. Again borrowing from other systems, I've broken down those magic areas into five schools, with the assumption that PCs will focus on one predominantly, but will also be able to buy others.

--Fire (Crimson Chi) Speed, Movement, Action
Internal Alchemy (Chi Manipulation)
--Earth (Gold Chi) Presence, Grace, Interaction
Exorcism (Curses and Spirits)
--Metal (White Chi) Genius, Learning, Knowledge
External Alchemy (Potions)
--Water (Silver Chi) Senses, Perception, Awareness
Predictionism (Divination and Influence)
--Wood (Jade Chi) Strength, Might, Toughness
Magics (Elements)

Scholars purchase a rank, from 1-5, in each area representing their ability with that particular form of magic. The rank is used for spell-casting rolls by the Scholar. Each area has a set of talents/spells which may be invoked by the Scholar, around a dozen plus. Each spells has a minimum rank for purchase-- when a PC purchases a new rank in a school, he learns one new spell of that rank for free as well. Other spells may be purchased later, provided they do not exceed the Scholar's rank in that school. If a Scholar chooses a second or third school, it has a maximum rank of one less than their first school. If a Scholar chooses a fourth or fifth school, it has a maximum rank of two less than their first school.

This will allow Scholar characters to take on different roles, and even if they follow the same path or school, they may not overlap that much. The Taoist Priest, the Feng Shui expert, the Exorcist, the Alchemist, the classic Magician, the Wandering Shaman, all of these versions will be available. While the Warrior archetype will have the greatest access to martial arts styles, there will be a set of style specifically built for the other two archetypes as well.

Philosophies

This will be an alternate fantasy version of China-- but not China. So it will have a different history, set of cultural interactions, and peoples. I will likely borrow from the real world mythic concepts, but use them more for flavor. Within this alternate world, there exist several religions and philosophies which govern people's lives--

The vast majority of the populace still follow the old ways-- honoring the gods, from the smallest regional and local forces to the greater pantheon of the Celestial Bureaucracy who keep the world in order and balance. The forces ensure the stability of all things and also grant the Mandate of Heaven to rightful and just rulers. While most people may be aware of the existence of other paths, they do not enter into their lives-- being reserved for the educated, the noble, and the wealthy. The other paths all acknowledge the gods, but have slightly different approaches to how they interact with them-- focusing more of their attention on internal development rather than external worship.

Daoism: Brought to the Kingdoms by the learned Hidaken, the way of the Dao focuses on a certain asceticism and consideration of simplicity as the secret to a good and happy life. The Dao considers the importance of a person's relation to the connected power of the Dao and the host of magical spirits which inhabit the world around them. Daoist priests have learned to harness their learning into various kinds of magic and martial forms. There exist several Daoist sects, including a few corrupt ones-- especially where a sect has gained some power and become more hierarchical and hypocritical. Some rulers have seen the Daoists as a threat and have banned them, but generally they are accepted as yet another part of the Wulin world.

Rujia, the Path of Virtue: This ethical and intellectual tradition focuses on the virtues necessary for a harmonious and righteous life. It believes that true virtue cannot be imposed from outside, by laws and rules, but must instead come from personal acceptance and understanding of those virtues. Loyalty, filial piety, acceptance of a righteous leader, the maintenance of order, and respect for elders all factor heavily in this outlook. Rujia has been seen as a static outlook on life-- avoiding conflict, gaining favor through intellectual success, and maintaining society. Heroes of the Wulin world don't often fit into its approach. Some rulers strongly encourage Rujia both from virtue and from the sense that it maintains their own position.

Legalism: This tradition takes an opposite position from that of Rujia. Legalists believe that humans are inherently bad and must be governed and controlled by strong laws. Only by the imposition and acceptance of these laws can people hope to prosper. A strong state, backed by rigorous and impartial laws, is the only one which can truly have the Mandate of Heaven. Needless to say, Legalism appeals to those in power.

The Corrupt: There exist those groups who follow a path of corruption-- serving demons and devils, twisting existing philosophies to serve their own interests, indulging in blood sacrifices, or horrific rites. While some serve an infernal purpose, many have simply formed from Gurus, Founders or Spiritual Leaders who have a broken outlook. These cults often center around a new practice, such as the Wrathful Venom Sect, who follow the teachings of the Book of Poison. While that manual had been originally intended to show how to combat such awful tricks, over time they've focused instead on the manipulation and dealing of toxins.

Eunuchs and the Eunuch Sorcerers: In the time of the previous dynasty, the last Emperors granted more and more power into the hands of the Eunuchs, castrated for the Imperial Service. Over time despite the prohibitions against it, they gained authority and influence. Some have suggested that they advanced the downfall of the previous dynasty and lost the Mandate of Heaven for the Empire. That is a matter of debate. What is known is that the Eunuchs took responsibility for the Bound during the previous dynasty. The Bound are natural channelers of power who wield potent wild magic without any controlling philosophy. Before the founding of the First Dynasty, these mages ran amok. For generations after the founding, they were hunted down and fought against. Finally, the great Emperor Shan Lau discovered the ways of binding, which chained their energies to the will of the Empire and the Emperor. This served well-- however, of late, the Eunuchs and what have come to be called the Eunuch Sorcerers have made common cause.