Monday, January 26, 2015

23 Things About Masks of the Empire (Part One)

Enderra's hosting this month's RPG Blog Carnival, "A New Year, A New World." I love building settings and I've written before about the awesomeness I found in collaborative creation. In particular I've used Microscope several times to craft campaigns and one shots. For example I developed the backdrop for several superhero games I ran at VirtuaCon and built the world for my ongoing 13th Age campaign. Reading through these histories, adding details, connecting events, and figuring out how to bring those settings to table just makes me happy. I've rarely found a more enjoyable GM prep method. Recently I've used it to build a more uncertain world for the players to explore. 

Over the last year I've run my Ocean City Interface game. Long story short, that's a multi-genre campaign with the group switching through different worlds, called Portals. Each player picked a campaign pitch for a portal at the start. We've just moved on to the third of those, called "Masks of the Empire." There the players take on the role of agents of a fantasy empire, sent to reclaim and rediscover a district magically cut off for a hundred years. To build the background we used Microscope some months back. We ended up with a crazy, twisting, loose-thread filled wonder. And that's awesome. That's kind of what I wanted. 

That's because the players have headed into this region with little or no information. I let the players read that history, in part to set up some concepts and in part to make them more uncertain. The timeline contains mysteries to be solved. Then I wrote up another document which gives them real and concrete information for their characters: who they are, what their mission is, the rules of the world, and what they actually know about the severed land from before the closing. The game's about discovering, exploring, and making hard choices about what to do with what they find. Below is the first half of this background document. 

1. You are Masks of the Empire: Also called the Agents of the Hours (Called Masks, but Agents here for ease of difference between the Masks themselves and the persons). You serve the Empire of Hours. Each agent possesses a mask. Once 777 of them existed. Each mask possesses an enchantment protecting it from harm and a mythic geas bending destiny itself. All masks eventually return to the Empire. This magic has several properties. First, if several masks become gathered in the same place, the effect intensifies. So if a current bearer comes near a lost mask, they tend to find it. Enemies must take care in killing and gathering masks. Second, the power of the masks seems tied to the registry of those active—as that number grows smaller, the enchantment’s power increases.

Of course, there have been cases of masks being destroyed, but this requires significant effort and power. In the history of the Empire, twenty-three are known to have been destroyed and another Eleven have been lost for so long that they may as well have been destroyed.

Each mask has a history, recorded in the ledgers of the Empire. Persons who bear a mask learn the stories associated with that mask. Each mask also has a name—descriptive, the name of the first bearer or perhaps even more obscure. The Gods created the masks with the birth of the Empire. As with the other two major orders of the Empire (The Bearers of the Empire and the Fists of the Empire) the will and action of the gods has intimately tied to the operations of the masks. Once a mask replaced by one of the Gods. Each of the seven orders of the Agents of the Hours connects to one of the Seven Gods of the Tempest.

Most Agents of the Hours apply for a place or are chosen from among the most promising. When the time comes, they are permitted to select a mask from those that remain in the possession of the order they’ve gravitated to. Governed by divination, there is a relative parity between the orders. This can unbalanced if an order loses a number of agents—while they will be able to assign new masks faster, they cannot wholesale give them out to make up their numbers. Often in these cases, a mask will be returned, find its way home—sometimes bound to a new owner. This happens rarely, perhaps once every few generations.

Orders of the Masks
There are seven orders among the agents, each originally carrying 111 masks. Each order has a role, and obligations. The gods associated with the orders are:
Verebok the Voice (Diplomacy)
Arinam the Balancer (Judgment and Adjudication)
Gemashol the Hand (Espionage)
Mazonos the Guide (Surveying)
Idomantu the Nail (Building)
Daysar the Steward (Maintenance)
Sentavis the Sweeper (Enforcement)

Illvanial aka Sifters (searchers and finders)-- Mazonos the Guide
Rhocent aka Bloodless (unarmed fighters)-- Sentavis the Sweeper
Cardea aka Undone (those who carry out)-- Daysar the Steward
Prosperal aka Architects (builders and managers)-- Idomantu the Nail
Numitas aka Coils (judges and deciders)-- Arinam the Balancer
Vidicali aka Inheritors (esoterics and mystics)--Verebok the Voice
Advenus aka Quiets (spies and defenders)-- Gemashol the Hand

Properties of the Masks
Masks, once bound and placed on the bearer, become transparent to the owner. There is a slight sensation of the mask upon the face, but little else. Many agents forget they have them on—until they go to sleep or attempt to eat. Agents can also will the Mask to vanish, so that it appears that they are not wearing it—however when an agent enters into the task bound to the mask, it will reappear, regardless of the bearer’s wish. While vanished, those with magical sight can still slightly perceive the mask—there is one exception, the masks of the Advenus cannot be seen or detected when willed into vanishing.

Duties of the Masks
The Masks of the Empire are those who carry out specialized tasks-- those requiring unusual talents, independent decision making, and creativity. The often serve as ambassadors, judges, sheriffs, scouts and problem solvers. In this role, they have earned respect and reputation both within and outside the boundaries of the Empire. They are often among the first to enter into an area to be annexed-- usually to demonstrate the fairness and power of the Empire, but also to pacify troublesome elements. Agents are often requested by Dominions which have had problems-- like strange creatures, lawlessness, or natural disasters. They represent and bring the will of the Empire as well as providing a beacon of hope and honor to the weak. 

2. More Than Eighty Years Ago Magics Cut Off Pelatine from the Empire: When the barrier arose, the Empire itself was in a period of recalibration. It took months before news passed up along the chains and the capitol became aware of the shape of things. At first there was disbelief, but a handful of Masks traveled outward and confirmed the circumference. That meant that the gateway to the West had been sealed. Other paths existed, but they required onerous travel through hostile Dominions- blocked by enemies, untamed natural forces, and unaligned spirits. Pelatine has been lost to us. Agents expended effort over the next decades seeking a solution, but none appeared. In the end, the concealment Scholars deemed the situation a blessing. Beyond the Pelatine Dominion lay several threats, most notably the Hezakhan and their Doombeasts. The sealing away put off conflicts for the future, perhaps forever.

3. Of the World: The gods created the world of sympathies and harmonies. The Empire of the Hours looks to that order and tries to bring that to the world. The gods divided the lands through natural barriers. These are most often mountains, but they gifted us with grand unbridgeable rivers, insanely dense forest stretches, canyons, lava flows, mist-covered marches, glaciers, or other impenetrable wonders. Regions within these divides are called Dominions. They generally have a rough circular shape. Some dominions are significantly larger than others. In some cases this was an original feature- in others it has arisen over time as magic and civilization have reshaped the lands. Barriers have withdrawn- imagine smaller soap bubbles joining and creating a larger bubble. The Grand Dominion of the Empire of Hours is the largest yet known. It extends outward from what is called the Heartlands or sometimes the Dial. At the center is the Capitol, simply called Center. The Imperial palace is called the Spire at Center.

4. What Do We Know About Pelatine Today? Very little. We’ve only received sketchy reports from those who have met with those just through the pass at Kytessa. We have dispatched further scouts, experts who will be travelling out. We hope that they will be able to act as eyes and ears for you, or at least provide some sense of what’s happening. We do know that the population is greatly reduced, that old forms of order such as the Crowns and the Faiths seem to have decayed. We believe that only a handful of major urban settlements remain intact. We know the name of two of these, South Landing and Artoth. Outside of these likely lies masterless lands or areas controlled by castle’d nobility. Or something else. Some spoke of spirits, monsters, and curses. We simply do not know- but you will have to find out.

5. Reshaping the Land: Just as the land and environment can shape magics, the reverse holds true. In the Center, heartland and the core of the Empire of the Hours, the world holds steady. The powers of the Empire maintain stability and changes occur through the actions of those trained in such matters. Sorcerers and priests carry out these adjustments via old rituals and calculations. The further one heads out away from the Spire at Center, the more sensitive the land becomes to magics, changes in the spirits, and other ephemeral forces. This can be controlled, and the Empire of the Hours offers techniques for managing this to the benefit of all. Other peoples outside Imperial control have their own crafts- Landshapers, Faithanchors, Necroplanters- but these pale against the Empire’s. Pelatine has been isolated for over eighty years and clearly subject to great magics. The land will have transformed. Our maps will have no value. Rivers will have shifted, mountains will have moved, forests will have spread. This will not have stopped with the lifting of the barrier and any Imperial agents travelling there will need to take this flux into consideration.

6. The Peoples of Pelatine: While predominantly human, Pelatine had a large population of Dwarves and Gnomes. The Dwarves were divided in rulership, Underkings controlling old mines which had run out some generations before. These were known some of the Firstrivens, among the earliest holdings of the Dwarves. Most of the Khuzdhul folk had left and migrated to other locations, emptying these halls. A few remained and from those had come these cranky and warring small factions. On the other hand, the Gnomes had arrived here during the Basin Blights. They’d settled and made a name for themselves as crafters serving the noble houses, eventually being raised up and given the title of the Argent Gnomes. Also notable are the tribes of the Tangled. These are half-elves but not in the conventional sense. Taller, weirdly twisted and with asymmetrical features, the Tangled claim to have their origin in a magical ceremony to join together a human and an elven tribe. The truth of that remains unknown. They’re a small but potent nomadic force with strong traditions of spirit bindings and magic. A few other pockets of non-humans existed in Pelatine, usually confined to cities or specialty settlements. However we don’t know how any of these have fared. They may have died off or expanded in the eighty years.

7. Pelatine’s Petition: The Sigil of Keldinhark arrived in the night. No one is certain how the messenger arrived unannounced or gained entry into the innermost chambers of the Spire at Center. Servants discovered her body in the Hall of Petitions when they opened the doors. Priests from six different orders came in an attempt to revive her or commune with her spirit. But her soul and being had already been emptied or commended- no one is quite certain. But the Sigil must be answered. Given to the appointed ruler of Pelatine it symbolizes several elements. On the one hand it shows that the Empire of Hours has accepted Pelatine as a protected dominion. The possessor has authority over the Domain in the name of the Empress. On the other it shows the bond and obligation that the Empire has to protect and preserve that domain in times of crisis. Delivering it to the Spire can be read as a call to arms and even a rebuke for failure to act. This has been hotly debated. After thirteen days of discussion, a final acting interpretation has been handed down. The Sigil’s presence confirms the Empire’s rights over Pelatine and asks for the Empire to send administrators to help it return to the fold.

8. What Will be Your Task? You will travel to Pelatine and you will bear the Sigil of Keldinhark. You will demonstrate that the Empire of Hours still exists and has come to offer aid and bring stability to the region. Old agreements will be honored and enforced. You will find an appropriate population center and spread the word of the changes. You will locate and establish a base of operations both for yourselves but also for the agents and forces who will follow. You will gather information on the present situation. You will discover the fate of the Interval Gate. You will offer aid to the deserving. You will buttress the image of the Empire among those who will listen. You will handle those who may not accept the Empire’s return. If there is rebellion, you will find a course for dealing with it. To aid you in this task, you will be given Imperial resources. You will have to prioritize what you wish to take with you: Wealth, Gifts, Supplies, Troops, Scouts, and Experts. You will blaze a trail for the Imperial Magister who will come to administer. The Magister will look to you as their eyes and ears and respect your input and judgment on the situation. GAME NOTE: Additionally, each player will get to come up with a “secret mission” known to their character. This might be given by a superior or might have a more personal dimension. Players will share these stories openly.

9. Imperial Magic: The Empire of the Hours recognizes 144 Schools of magic. While others exist, the Thaumocal voted generations ago to list the official rolls so as to maintain a symmetry. Schools exist on conjunctions with great diagrams and notations on how they interact. Any school which wishes to be recognized must adjust their aims and purposes to fit into the details of a slot occupied by a current school and must prove that the school it is replacing is in fact extinct, divergent, or corrupted. As you can imagine, this had led to conflicts, assassination games, and clashes over the years. The Thaumocal attempts to keep these to a minimum, introducing new regulations each season as loopholes appear.

10. Look to the Towers: It will be of importance to ascertain the state and location of the seven towers of Pelatine. These are potent locations with magical resources and connections. Several of these are ancient: the Tower of Midnights, the Tower of the Beacon, and the Tower of Lament. Others come from pre-Imperial times: the Tower of Registers and the Cairn Tower. These have all had multiple purposes over the generations, sometimes lost, sometimes serving as refuges, and sometimes as centers of power. The final two, Tower of Sunfire and Dialotha’s Tower were created to echo the power and position of those earlier constructs. Sunfire came to be a prison and place of exile, used by the noble houses to contain persons who objected to Imperial authority. Dialotha’s Tower originally served as a palace, but was gifted to Shog Roreron for his Arcanists after the Shadow Sea War.

11. An Empire of Order: The Empire of Hours prides itself on enlightened integration—which brings together all citizens under the rules of the Codex of Moments. Not that all persons within the Empire are citizens—that process and who bears that title varies from place to place. A good rule of thumb is that the closer one is to the heart of the Empire, the higher the percentage of persons who possess that title. Initially when a Dominion joins the Empire, advance agents like the Masks work in the area for some time. They map the area, uncover the dynamics, evaluate resources, and try to chart the family and clan relations. They can also hand out the title of Citizen to persons who work with them, giving them an advantage when the Dominion formally joins. This can be a double-edged sword, especially in places hostile to the Empire. If a person is made a Citizen, then all relatives within one degree may be called citizens as well. Eventually the Dominion will be added, a Dulcet Crystal Interval Gate built, and some form of Imperial oversight put into place. They’d granted licenses to hand out to establish Citizenship—after that there is an evolving process to add more citizens over time. Citizenship has many benefits, not least of which are the right to vote in councils, the right to hold an office, and the right to use the Interval Gates to travel.

23 Things About Masks of the Empire Part Two