Monday, May 5, 2014

New Streets: What the GM Can Do With Collaborative Campaign Creation

Last week I posted our group's use of Microscope for city-building in a new campaign.This coming weekend the players will actually sit down to do character creation and maybe get a scene or two in. Before that I have tweak a few elements of our homebrew, Action Cards (making the skill list fit the premise, organizing stunts, updating wizardry). On Sunday I sat down for a couple of hours to do some additional world building. I limited my time so I wouldn't go overboard. That's useful to keep a GM from spending too much energy on any part of the planning process (and a trick I've used before). 

I wanted to link some concepts from the Microscope session, tie up some loose threads, and expand on several of the ideas. In particular I hoped to give a little more shape to magic, the gods, and the surrounding world. It's always interesting to see how much room collaborative building leaves for the GM. You can still craft new ideas without violating anything the players established. There's joy and challenge in building on their creation.

Below are twenty-three additional ideas about The City (which still needs a name...). 
  1. All magic has a significant cost- it damages those who cast it. Wizards and sorcerers must be cautious or risk permanent damage to their essence. Many who study the arts give up on it quickly because they cannot handle the intense pain caused by casting. Mages who have practiced for years become twisted by these practices: numb to pain, drugged up, channeling rage to overcome the agony, etc. The creation of magic items is one way around this, but even that act of creation taxes and drains those who lay down enchantments. Bottom line: mages do not cast casually. Elder Magicks possess a great secret: techniques for transferring the suffering, essence destruction, and energy cost of casting to others- willingly and unwillingly.
  2. Archon Lodort tried to create a census of the guilds, brotherhoods, and livery companies who controlled affairs within the city. When this proved untenable, he simply set a regulation and spent the next ten years of his authority enforcing it. No more than three guilds covering the same area of influence may exist anywhere within the city. This supposedly includes otherwise underground groups such as the Thieves Guild, the Assassins, and the Smuggler’s Rings. While this did not fully limit the number of these groups, it had a practical effect. Trading or bargaining with a licensed Guild Member means that you have some recourse to the law and authorities. If a Guild Member cheats you, you can go to their Guild for relief or even to the higher courts. Mind you, that may not always get you satisfaction. For a non-Guild agent, you have to take matters into your own hands. Authorities in The City often look the other way when Guilds strike out at successful non-Guild agents. Money carries advantages.
  3. Building styles shift across The City- as different eras resulted in different approaches. Fires and earthquakes, however, allowed for rebuilding in many places. But local superstitions about leaving something behind mean that nothing’s ever completely demolished. You might wander through the arches of a recent marble building crafted by a Thasaidos Imperator and find yourself facing the primitive black-slab wall of a tower from the time of the Yesherite Purge. One consistent feature is that the further one gets away from the Archon’s Shadow, the denser the buildings are on single blocks. On the other hand most main avenues and major streets are weirdly wide. These may still have stalls, carts, and temporary wooden structures set up on them- narrowing their width. This offers a challenge to those who wish to move across the city by rooftops- they need to know where the best rope bridges, leaping points, and makeshift walkways lie. It is also worth noting that the wells and water sources are invariably in the middle of streets and intersections (rather than within the city blocks).  
  4. The City is a massive, sprawling, and changeable mess- with undulating roadways, densely connected neighborhoods traversed by rooftop pathways, and layers of construction. Those who attempt to control the city inevitably attempt to master the architecture of it through city planning schemes, clearances, ambitious monuments, and grand works. More often than not, these schemes are begun but remain unfinished. The Walls are perhaps the best example. Over the centuries, rulers have attempted to build great defensive walls- each with a different logic. These rarely get farther than a block of two before something halts the project. They’re a hodge-podge- in some places creating weird mazes and back alleys. Half-finished buildings litter the blocks, now occupied with makeshift construction and repurposed for the actual lives of the locals.
  5. Cults are numberless, but only three major pantheons can be found everywhere- sometimes vying for control. The first of these are the gods of the Thaisaidos Imperium, also known as The Coiner Array. Each god in this pantheon has a key positive identity, but also a twin representing the antithesis of those traits. These gods are often represented by doubled images and circles (representing duality and cycles). When they war the Thaisadosans bring local gods into their fold by creating a twin for them. They’re more successful when they can take full control of sacred sites. Next are the gods of the Xylac Gatherings, also called the Nomad Gods. Originally they were the gods of the Ancient Elves. They fought and defeated the incursions of other races, but there was a cost. The gods became a hybrid folk- changing their appearance and role. Some of the Ancient Elves became the first of the Orcs. The Nomad Gods represent change, wildness, and transformation. While they typically avoid urban settings, the shifting nature of this city makes them less uncomfortable.  Finally the third pantheon is more scattered and loosely affiliated. This is the Mirosane Pantheon- made up entirely of gods and spirits attached to or affiliated with water- lakes, rivers, storms, oceans, etc. It reaches across the whole of the land and can be potent within its element, such as on the seas or even islands.
  6. Food can raise up or bring down those who control The City. The enchanted cisterns and wells keep it supplied with clean water- making it healthier than more urban centers. But it relies on the food production of the settlements extending for miles and miles along the river delta and upriver. It also imports a vast amount of food from other nations. A bad year for the floods can result in severe shortages. Locals who have any kind of roof space use that for gardens- which often results in roof collapses when a bad piece of unnatural weather strikes.
  7. Gods sometimes grant powers to their followers. People have many reasons for joining a faith: familial ties, professional attachment, philosophical concern, revelation. Most faiths act, at least in part, as a social and support network. Some invest more fully in their faith and in doing so gain a connection and a contact with their deity. Through dedication, they can gain a blessing or two to invoke. This is considered sign of status, especially within smaller cults (especially those dedicated to a god of a particular profession). Some press on to further develop that connection. A church leader may be called a Priest without having access to such gifts. Those who possess them usually have another title (Dedicant, High Priest, Exemplar). They gain these gifts and clerical spells by giving themselves over to their deity- figuratively and literally. Entering into such a connection means giving the deity permission to control your destiny, engineer your fate, and act through you. That can be a double-edged sword. Those who push beyond this can become Avatars of their faith, a living vessel acting out their god’s will.
  8. How did the troubles and turmoil of the Gods' War end? None know. But the many avatars, revolutionary forces, and divine agents who battled across all the lands have not been seen in over a decade. It created many changes, most importantly giving The City a chance to escape the yoke of Thasaidos.
  9. If you travel across The City, you will walk up and down as much as forward, or so the saying goes. Most sections are incredibly uneven. Low rises and drops happen nearly everywhere. There are a few hills; mostly this comes from post-earthquake shifts, the lay of the land, and how much The City has simply built upon itself. The exception comes near the Archons’ Towers, the merchant plazas, and the port areas. The steepest places often have carefully managed stairs and stone slopes. The most experienced know how to get from one place to another with the least uphill running.
  10. Listen and obey the three Archons of The City. Their authority and lineage stretches back through the ages, despite the loss of formal records to attest to it. Who are the three Archons and what are their interests? Archon Ubmar is known for his dedication to the stability and status quo. He was instrumental in the most recent re-founding of this great metropolis. Archon Lodosa Rhul has great ambitions- and hopes to finish the refurbishment of the grand arena within her lifetime. Archon Ninglos the Seven Teared maintains his (?) privacy for his researches. He most often acts and engages through his blue-coated agents.  
  11. Magic not of the gods falls into one of three categories: magic, gutter or hedge magic, or Elder Magick. The present system of magic developed in the centuries after the Ashsky Wars when sorcery shattered, kingdoms sank, and the world nearly ended.  Training usually comes from some version of the Eight Branches of Magic. This include Crystal Thought, Forsaken Wisdoms, Unbending Fires, and so on. How the schools exercise and appear varies from place to place. Gutter or hedge magic represents fragmentary teachers or groups who have taken a cutting from the tree of magic. They have skill with a small set of talents- perhaps have even developed new techniques, but rarely expand very far in their skill set. Some hedge mages work from an empowered focus or may simply be exercising a natural gift. Hedge magic is usually raw and unpatterned in execution. Elder Magick, on the other hand, is usually elaborate and dangerous. It is a fragment of power which has somehow remained from before the Ashsky War- in a book, an object, a place, or an idea. Elder Magick is potent, but also has a will of its own…
  12. Many neighborhoods- large and small- are not mentioned in the city overview. For example: The Barracks: built by various occupiers to house troops, The City’s distrust of a standing army means that it has been broken up and doled out as a kind of warehousing district. Mirrormaze: a weird series of back alley streets created by various abandoned construction projects. The Zoo: An area dedicated to preparation of expeditions. It includes adventuring supply shops (marked up), auctions for servants, “expert” guide services, and vast animal markets.
  13. Nearly all books come in the form of scrolls or folded paper bindings. Preservationists and scribes are in high demand. Papermakers constantly experiment with new types and qualities of paper. Secretive alchemists try to create durable inks. Tomes are regarded with some suspicion, except for the smallest pocket-style bindings. A larger book generally signals dangerous and Elder Magicks not to be trifled with.
  14. Nine years ago saw the most recent restoration and re-founding of The City. Locals managed to oust the garrison from the Thasaidos Imperium. More importantly they quietly dealt with the Imperial officials who’d set themselves up as overseers. The turmoil within the Imperium made this a smart time to strike- before the local authorities could declare independence and attempt to establish a new city dynasty. The new ‘founder’ Lucias Savant and his comrades restored the office of the Archons. He did this in part because of the support given by Archon Ubmar. The Archon paid for a majestic funeral when Savant died two years later.
  15. No one is sure why information magic does not operate in The City. There are other places in the world where certain kinds of magic cease to function. But often those are tied to some obvious natural phenomena (for example the absence of fire magic in the Ice Hind Reaches). The absence- which is proof from scrying, divination, far-sight, post-cognition, prophecy, and even- some say- the gaze of the gods- makes it valuable.
  16. Nobility matters less in The City…but it still matters. Many kind of nobles live here, which means their treatment depends on a complicated system of relationships and contacts. They fall into three categories. First are those of noble blood who are Friends of the Archons. They possess some title- either from a foreign power or from one of the many dynasties and lines of The City itself. More importantly, they’re connected to one of the present three Archons. Alternately they may be tied by blood to one of the couple of “fallen” Archon houses; this grants them an air of legitimacy. These Archon Nobility (aka the Diamond Nobility) have the most social pull. Second are the wealthy with some title or bloodline (earned or bought into). These are called the Gold Nobility and they have a good deal of influence, even if they’re seen as less respectable. Third are the Lead Nobility. These are nobles and noble houses who have fallen on hard times. If they did not have some evidence or splinters of their once brilliant resources, they would probably fall into the ranks of the general populace. They desperately try to raise themselves up. Lead Nobility get little respect, except in courts of law where they often know how to pull rank.
  17. Old reckonings break The City into historical districts, with later additions based on the whim of the rulers. These district lines often subdivide accepted “neighborhoods.” Each district is overseen by an authority, known as a Sharl. These persons supposedly carry responsibility for order and upkeep. More often they dole, trade, and bargain these rights and duties to other agents and groups- sub-contracting some tasks and being ‘gifted’ to give others free rein. It makes for a patchwork mess. However truly repugnant and stupid Sharls run the risk of crossing the Archons who can and will completely clear the decks if someone upsets them.
  18. Once the most potent and far-reaching empire in the world, the Thasaidos Imperium is riven by a civil war. The decline began years ago with Imperator Vazdrak’s increasing erratic decisions and refusal to name a formal successor. Border provinces of the Empire began to realign themselves and, as with The City, to break away from imperial authority. When Vazdrak died a mad scramble for control began. Vazdrak’s son, Kaledrak, controls the heartlands of the Thasaidos. Vazrak’s daughter, self-crowned as Empress Liasandras, holds sway over the vast span of the hundred Mirosel Islands. They are challenged by former general Chaon Grek, a late adoptee into Vazdrak’s household. “Emperor” Chaon commands the loyalty of the provincial forces in the eastern frontiers of the Empire.
  19. People come to The City from across the region, across the seas, and across the Empires. Some come because they’ve heard that it is a free city. That’s true in some ways, but with the added dangers of anarchy, rapmpant conspiracies, and a populace who often resent even the best-intentions of authorities. Many come because they need a place to launch plots from- piracy, revolution, espionage. Still others use the City their starting point for dangerous expeditions into the ruins and dungeons of the blasted lands beyond. The City needs all of these people- because more people die here than are born each year. The machine of the city needs more bodies to keep it going.
  20. Strangely the City lacks any formal schools. This reaches back into history and a strange series of edicts and restrictions on the establishment of any formal centers of learning. Some suspect that it may be a way to avoid organized revolution and prevent the gathering of large groups. What has arisen is a system of tutors, underground libraries, and cult-based training centers. The Archons enforce the rules about this- and anyone teaching more than seven students at a sitting may find themselves in hot water. Hence most guild and even magical teaching happens in small groups.
  21. All races, save the Orcs, have an Ancient line. These folk can be easily marked- taller, older, and with a more forceful presence. Few of these Ancients remain. Most live in smaller enclaves far away from their younger brethren lines. They often have a distinctly different culture and outlook on the world- some of which comes from their much extended lifespan. Many Ancients enclaves’ memories stretch back before the Ashsky War. Fears, conspiracies, and bad blood plague most interactions between groups of Ancients and the Young. The exception are the Gnome of Ringwane, where the Ancient Gnomish Necromancers command all other gnomes.
  22. While the City is a crossroads, it still lies off the beaten path. It acts as a gateway to lands rarely traveled- the deserts and steppes to the fallen empires. Things sometimes float down the river- suggesting that beyond the deserts and mountains lie other realms perhaps. The broken lands themselves hide many fragmented peoples and nations, clinging to the lands. An overland passage leading to the borderlands of the Xylac Gatherings. But that travel is difficult and dangerous, making it an unwelcome route for trade. On the other hand, the city has two close neighbors by sea outside of the major empires. The island state of Ringwane is controlled by a cabal of Gnomish magic users of power. The gnarled Ancient Gnomes command the land, overseeing a new Gnomish overclass and in turn a supply of slaves drawn from many regions. While many call the leaders of Ringwane Necromancers, they prefer the term preservationists. The other nation lies to the north, separated by high mountains and seeping marshes. This is Felgane, land of the Monster Lords. While the Felgani are human, they command old talents allowing them control of many kinds of monsters. They breed, create, and experiment with new beasts for labors and for wars. Some of their techniques are magical, but mostly they’re skilled animal masters.
  23. The Xylac Gatherings lie to the south. Most often they’re simply called Xylac. These tribes and nations of the Xylac draw from many races, though almost no Elves despite the heritage of their gods. The lands of the Xylac are massive and wide-ranging, including nearly all climate types. The people are primarily nomadic- with even the cities built to be broken down and transported as necessary. Rulership of the Xylac shifts and changes.  When they are unified, they can be a potent and dangerous force- travelling, raiding, and conquering across the seas. Often, however, their own need for change and general instability means that they are more scattered and divided.