Thursday, January 29, 2015

History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs (Part Seven: 2000-2002)

These lists enter a new century and leave behind the ‘90s. That decade saw the public- and by extension gamers- facing a new political order. The Fall of the Berlin Wall set off geopolitical changes which made some doomsday scenarios obsolete. At the same time we found new scenarios, many soaked in a religious fervor. The approaching millennium brought with it a kind of dread. But more readily reflected in games, especially in the late 90’s, was the world’s crash potential. By the end of the decade Y2K hung over everything.

What’s the relationship between media and these themes? How fast are fears and panics integrated into the popular culture? Slowly I’d say, glancing through the list of ‘90s releases. Most seem to flail around searching for new post-collapse panics in the wake of the mushroom cloud’s (temporary) exit stage left. IMHO RPGs more often follow popular themes rather than trailblazing. It’s worth looking at what stories came out of this period to see how they shape games of the subsequent decade. Below I’ve put together as comprehensive a list as I can, with a few comments

Movies: The Handmaid’s Tale (1990), Hardware (1990), Mindwarp (1992), Omega Cop (1992), The Rapture (1992) Delicatessen (1992), Cyborg 2 (1993), Body Snatchers (1993), The Last Border (1993), American Cyborg: Steel Warrior (1994), Judge Dredd (1995), Tank Girl (1995), Twelve Monkeys (1995), Waterworld (1995), Screamers (1995), Escape from L.A. (1996), Omega Doom (1996), The Postman (1997), Six-String Samurai (1998), Apocalypse Series (1998), The Matrix (1999)
There’s a significant drop of ultra-low-budget apocalyptic films. We still have some (Cyborg 2), but not nearly as many as the previous decade. We also get more remakes and adaptations. We also see that briefly Kevin Costner could use his clout to make back-to-back post-apocalyptic blockbuster failures.

Books: The City, Not Long After (Murphy, 1990), Wolf and Iron (Dickson, 1990), Moondark Saga (McQuinn, 1990), Yellow Peril (Lixiong, 1991), Fallen Angels (Niven et al, 1991), The Children of Men (James, 1992), Doomsday Book (Willis, 1992), Parable of the Sower (Butler, 1993), This Other Eden (Elton, 1993), Vanishing Point (Roessner, 1994), Mara and Dan novels (Lessing, 1995), Left Behind series (Various, 1995), Outlanders series (Ellis, 1997), Aftermath (Burton, 1997), Shade’s Children (Nix, 1997), The Transall Saga (Paulsen, 1998), Resurrection Day (DuBois, 1999), The Rift (Williams, 1999)
As with movies, we see a drop-off in lower-budget “Men’s Adventure” apocalyptic books and series. Again, we still have some, but they’re outliers.

Television: Not With a Bang (1990), woops! (1992), Cadillacs and Dinosaurs (1993), Knight Rider 2010 (1994), The Stand (1994), The Tribe (1999)
Two sit-coms based on the apocalypse? Next you’ll tell me that someday we’ll have two competing post-Armageddon comedies in the theaters.

Comics: The Last American (1990), Deathlok (1990), Car Warriors (1991), Cadillacs & Dinosaurs (1993), King of the Dead (1994)

Manga/Anime: The Legend of Mother Sarah (1990), Battle Angel Alita (1990), A Wind Named Amnesia (1990), Basara (1991), Casshan: Robot Hunter (1993), Route 20 (1993), Fist of the North Star (1995), After War Gundam X (1996), Agent Aika (1997), Agharta (1997), Hyper-Police (1997), Silent Mobius (1998), Blue Submarine No. 6 (1998), Eden: It’s an Endless World! (1998), Kurogane Communication (1998), Now and Then, Here and There (1999), The Big O (1999), Blue Gender (1999)
Again the Japanese seem much more comfortable with post-apocalyptic backdrops in their fiction. Alternately manga/anime might represent a much larger slice of their entertainment output, distorting comparisons.

Video Games: Mad Max (1990), Armour-Geddon (1991), Outlander (1992), Secret of Mana (1993), Final Fantasy VI (1994), Primal Rage (1994), I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (1995), Mortal Kombat 3 (1995), Dark Earth (1997), Fallout (1997), Xenogears (1998), Vigilante 8 (1998), Abomination: the Nemesis Project (1999)
Oh, Xenogears. The game where they get 2/3rds of the way through and realize that’s taken a month of play, so they jam everything into the last half-hour.

To keep this list easy to read I’ve tightened the years covered. As we get closer to the present the lists expand and contract weirdly. I include mostly core books, but also significant setting material or sourcebooks. I consolidate “spin-off” and miscellaneous supplements into a single entry. For example at the end you'll see round-up entries with post-apocalyptic elements. Given the number of great things published I haven't included everything I want. I try to list revised editions which significantly change a line or present a milestone. Generally I only include published material- print or electronic. I skip freebie or self-published games. I'm sure I've left something off without adequate reason; feel free to add a comment about a line I missed (if published from 2000 to 2002). I've arranged these by year and then alphabetically within that year

A Spanish role-playing game, Anno Domini offers a medieval apocalyptic vision. This is the first game on to fully embrace that setting, though Sweden's Gemini ('98) comes close. We'll also see a "Neo-Medieval" game later on this list. That's striking given how important visions of the Apocalypse are to Western Medieval and Early Modern art, literature, and culture. In Anno Domini, the first millennium brings with it an invasion by the Devil. Two hundred and fifty years later, small pockets of humanity survive in the wilderness. Demons command the cities. Players take the role of one of the faithful (Jewish, Christian, Muslim). The character sheet has a lot going on, comparable to World of Darkness density. Anno Domini seems to have a single supplement, La Marca de los Profetas (trans. The Mark of the Prophets), an adventure module.

2. deadEarth (2000)
It's worth reading the rear copy for deadEarth. The bare, text-only, black cover starts, "If you've just picked up this book you've probably got a few questions." It then lays into a surprisingly generic description of the game: focused on survival, skill-based, simple, flexible, and realistic ("Hundreds of hours of research have gone into the world of deadEarth"). It also mentions free stuff available on their website. But most compellingly, it ends with this pitch: "You can become a permanent part of deadEarth. deadEarth is the only role-playing game which will permanently incorporate your characters into the game once they reach legendary status."

How does that work?

To be fair, having a significant and rich online presence in 2000 probably puts publisher Anarchy Ink ahead of the game. deadEarth offers a post-holocaust game aimed towards "realism." So like maybe The Book of Eli, Fallout, Mad Max?...wait no, it also has extensive radiation mutation tables and other high weirdness. Huh? Reviews for this game are generally, well, bad. Dyson's Dodechahedron has a nice rundown you can see here. His review on RPGNet's pretty damming as well. And if you Google for Gareth Hanrahan's review...well, that's a treat also. In short, the game's apparently a train wreck of ambition, intention, and contrary execution. If you like reading threads about those kinds of games, and seeing some interesting counter-points, consider hunting this down online.

Oh Gamma World, here you go again. You return once more, but with terrible timing. Gamma World 5e has TSR's Alternity System under the hood. It also has the dubious distinction of being the last official Alternity-based product released. It didn't even come out from TSR. Instead WotC released it after their purchase of the humbled RPG giant. This Gamma World actually hit the shelves a month after WotC announced their closure of that system. There's a significant time gap between this edition and the previous one. Gamma World 4e had hit in 1992, revising the mechanics to fit with AD&D 2e. However, within a year TSR cancelled that line, leaving the module series unfinished.

Gamma World 5e though built on Alternity, doesn't require that core book. Instead it offers a complete game. The art shift was the first thing that hit me when I looked through this. The cover has a black duster-clad dude with a distinctly cyberpunk look. Raven Mimura's interior art is grey-scaled and pencil-drawn. There's not that much art and little of it iconic. Overall it feels restrained. We've got some mutant animals and interesting monster designs, but the gonzo is gone. Weirdly for me calling it "Gamma Terra" and describing a real-world blasted Seattle grounds the game too much. At some point in the setting’s evolution the 25th Century backdrop fell away. Instead we have a Cataclysm in the 21st Century driven by alien(?) invaders.

That aside, the game's done well. Clean layout, streamlined design. Mutations and drawbacks can be randomized or point-bought. There's a decent amount of setting material and some adventures in the back. It makes you wonder what WotC might have done had they kept this line going. As a coda, in 2002 Johnathan Tweet wrote "Omega World" for Dungeon 94/Polyhedron 153. In only 40+ pages, Tweet presents what's effectively a d20 version of Gamma World. Tight, fast, gonzo, and randomly mutating, many reviewers sing the praise of it. Yet the following year would see an actual version of d20 Gamma World but not from Tweet and not from WotC.

BTW for a funny and NSFW overview of the various Gamma World editions, check out Head Injury Theater.

4. KidWorld (2000)
We've seen mutants, demons, zombies, and robotic overlords on these lists. But this game creeps me out more than any of those. KidWorld takes place four years after the Plague. Most adults died in that outbreak, and it blinded those who lived. Desperate, unseeing survivors tried to enslave those with sight- children- creating a schism. Many escaped, and humanity is now made up of scattered communities- kid enclaves, adult camps, slaver communities. And the Plague is still present. As the children grow, they know that they too will lose their sight.

Lord of the Flies. Blindness. Battle Royale. "Miri" from Star Trek. You can see those themes elsewhere, but KidWorld puts them together in a new way. Look at the cover with the child pulling the reins on a blinded biker or the hook-handed kid wrestling with two pit bulls. Despite the name, this game is as dark as you think it could be. It's a grim setting, and it opens with a warning about those themes. It reminds me a little of Grimm, Innocents or Monsters and Other Childish Things. But even those, for all their twisted dread, don't come close to the tone of KidWorld.

Over half the book's given over to background, adventures, and some variant approaches. Those include a supernatural version where children's fears come to life, an imaginative power version, and a KidWorld LARP. There's a ton to like about the game and presentation, but...something about it kills me. You have some cool concepts- being able to play as a child, vision-impaired adolescent, or blind adult. I like how the kids have different roles (Builders, Ferals, Scouts, etc). And the game reinforces the tone through characters possessing cognitive deficits or being damned by nostalgia. However, all of that comes baked into a crunchy and detailed system. Character creation and rules take up the first 120 pages. That includes combat maneuver mechanics, attributes & sub-attributes, and a massive skill list. The game wants to be rich, demanding, and realistic. It follows in the footsteps of other thick apocalyptic games like Aftermath and Twilight 2000. And you may dig that. In my case I can see porting the substantial elements of this game over to something else. It would have to be a potentially lethal game or heavily narrative based. I'd be intrigued by an Apocalypse World hack.

Despite those reservations, if the concept sounds at all interesting, I recommend checking KidWorld out. The whole thing's a great, creepy read.
KidWorld on RPGNow

5. Terminus V (2000)
There's a strong military sub-current to many post-apocalyptic rpgs: Morrow Project, Twilight 2000, Sons of the Holocaust (It), Price of Freedom, and even some of Rifts. Terminus V is a massive 400+ page tome intended for use as an rpg and a miniatures game. (Like the more recent Wreck Age, which RPGGeek rejected for inclusion despite there being other hybrid games like this in their database, but that's another story). Terminus V takes place a hundred and twenty years after World War IV ("These go to eleven..."). While the book's intimidating, apparently a good chunk of that's fluff. I've seen the rules described as "simple," but my caveat would be that the speakers seem to be wargamers or miniatures enthusiasts. Most also describe finding it in a bargain bin. If tactical gaming's your focus, this might be worth checking out.

6. After the Bomb (2001)
The 1986 version of After the Bomb remains one of my favorite supplements. Written for use with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rpg, but not married to it, ATB spawned a host of striking, fun, and colorful supplements. Fifteen years later, lacking a connection to TMNT, can a new edition stand up to the original?

Presented as a done-in-one book, this smartly brings back Erick Wujick as lead writer (with, of course, Kevin Siembieda listed for Additional Text and Ideas). Let me begin with the elephant in the room. I love the look of the earlier material, particularly the Eastman and Laird illustrations. I count seven of those reappearing in this book, four as tiny images. That's a disappointment. But some of the new artists do an excellent job and come close- Kent Burles and Wayne Breaux, Jr. in particular. So the art's good, but the original's classic and more awesome.

The new After the Bomb cleans up the text and mechanics. Early rpg products often threw logical organization to the wind. This takes a conventional approach and pulls together the relevant rules to make sections and transitions clear. But there’s a problem. This is a 224-page book. Of that, 164 pages are given over to character creation, mechanics, and equipment. Another 40 pages consist of several sample adventures. That leaves only about twenty pages for world background and setting. Some of that material naturally pops up in other sections, but overall you get a highly stripped down version of the original background. If you're looking for the world building of the old line in a single place, this isn't it. On the other hand, if you like Palladium and are looking for a crunchy system to play out a highly anthropomorphic post-apocalyptic future with a sketchy background you can alter, here you go.
After the Bomb on RPGNow

7. End Time (2001)
Some earlier Call of Cthulhu supplements set up campaign-ending holocausts or preludes to the victory of the Elder Gods. End Time offers the first post-Lovecraftian Armageddon, but it won't be the last. Yet End Time also draws away from confronting that head on. Instead it takes place on Mars in 2147. Survivors there have managed to escape the Great Old Ones' conquest of the Earth.

End Time presents detailed standard and player timelines focusing on parallel threads: the evolution of the colony and the disaster which swallowed their homeworld. Earth actually falls in 2050, meaning the PC's colony has had about 100 years to establish itself and expand. It’s only about 2,100 souls at the suggested campaign start. There's the hint of a return expedition to Earth, but nearly all of the End Time's material focuses on the Martian colony. That includes details of the environment, colony structure, weirdly extensive new insanity rules which feel more generic than setting-specific, societal dynamics, and the Martian Dreamlands. There's also the expected CoC material: a Mythos glossary, new monsters, and new character creation options. The supplement notably leaves out any kind of adventure or details on NPCs. It will take work to get this ready to run. The version I looked at and Chaosium has for sale clocks in at 70+ pages, but I've seen it listed at 100+, so I don't know if that's a later edition. Eric Dodd has a thorough review here.
End Time on RPGNow 

8. Endland (2001)
A German post-apocalyptic rpg with fantasy elements. An event called the Nadir leaves a decaying continent with fire on one end and ice on the other. Apparently tech levels vary widely from one extreme to the other as well. I've had trouble getting a better read on the setting than that. I've seen it described as dark and the art has a Warhammer-y look to it. The fantasy elements include all of the classics, though by different names. At the same time we have nuclear fallout and collapsed technology. Endland didn't get much support or attention, but did spawn a second edition. In 2011, a third edition appeared. That's available for free online (in German).

9. Engel (2001)
A German game, some may also remember White Wolf's release of this in English. Engel (Angel in German), takes place in weird techno-fallen Western Europe six centuries in the future. Various natural and man-made catastrophes have ravaged the world, reducing humanity to a "Neo-Medieval" state. A new High Church dominates and controls the realm. And you play Angels sent to protect this world. I think. There's some cosmological set up there that honestly overwhelms me as I read through. Engel has three pages of tiny-type lexicon listings. I know there's an Adversary called the Dreamseed. Play seems to revolve around battling that force at the behest of the Pontifex. There's political battles as well, within the Church and with breakaway regions clinging to old technology.

The original German edition of Engel used tarot-like cards for resolution. White Wolf's version ditches that in favor of the alternate d20 mechanics. The original has decent support- with a half-dozen+ large splat books and an updated version adding 3.5 mechanics. White Wolf released two Angelic Order splat books and a monster supplement.
Engel (German) on RPGNow
Engel on RPGNow

10. Subabysse (2001)
Another French sub-aquatic post-apocalyptic rpg. Subabysse has, if I'm right, eight editions, some being minor corrections and updates. The most recent (2012) looks amazing; check out this overview video. I’m in awe that the French market managed to support two underwater post-holocaust rpgs through multiple editions (the other being Polaris (1997)). In Subabysse a forgotten cataclysm renders the 10% remaining surface world uninhabitable and pushes society into the oceans. Three centuries have now passed. That time has created social, political, and physical rifts among the population. The rpg takes a more sci-fi bent, considering questions of technology and genetic changes. Players can be humans, mutants, or exotic Atlanteans. I wonder if we'll ever see English translations of either of these games? Or does the limited success of Blue Planet make that a non-starter?

11. Tellus (2001)
A Swedish rpg intended to be used as a learning exercise for Christian training. I had difficulty tracking down any reliable information beyond that it’s set in the 22nd Century, after a devastating world war. From the only resource page I could find I gleaned that it's skill-based…

12. Cendres (2002)
A French RPG, Cendres means "Ashes." It opens with an apocalypse, one it takes pains to avoid describing. You know world's fallen, just move on. It takes place about a hundred years after this obscured event. The world remains caught between survival and restoring the past. Focused on Europe, Cendres is a classic survival game. It doesn't appear to have any of the fantastical trappings of other games- no mutants, psychics, robots. It's more in the vein of The Road than anything else. The background materials suggest secrets and present a rich environment to explore. The character sheet looks particularly crunchy, with main characteristics, sub-attributes, and an extensive skill/talent system. Cendres got modest support over several years: a GM screen, and two region sourcebooks.

13. Darwin's World (2002)
And so it begins…this the first d20 post-apocalypse game. Well technically I guess Engel is, but there's the confusion over the original system vs. d20, so let's go with this. My other histories have made me gunshy about this period. I've seen before a flood of d20 games, some interesting and some painful to read. Will the same hold true with this genre? At least this opens with a solid and clearly crafted rpg which has legs. While this first edition of Darwin's World arrived in 2002, the second hit a year later using d20 Modern. The publisher has released new material for it as recently as 2013.

Darwin's World has a detailed alternate history. The US returns to isolationism following WW2. As a result a coalition of various European and Asian powers invade during the early 2000's. This sets off a series of wars devastating humanity. Now we're an uncertain span of time later. In one place it says decades and in others that no one knows. But clearly several generations have passed, allowing the rise of monstrous mutations caused by wartime fallout. Players can be humans or one of three generations of mutants. That's further modified by choice of community. Darwin's World has five new base classes (Guardians, Raiders, Scavs, Thinkers, and Traders). There's the obligatory dozen prestige classes as well. The rules modify the skill list and offer a not-too-crazy list of new feats. It feels restrained compared to other d20 adaptations. Mutants pick their features rather than randomly generating them. The game classes these as minor, moderate, and major, with access differing between generations. Defects offset these. Darwin's World has nice material on artifacts and equipment, with some pretty sci-fi high-tech. It has a little Gamma World feel, but without quite the gonzo.

Darwin's World is a clean and decently put together set of d20 rules for post-apocalyptic. It leaves out some survival elements, but that might be expanded by the supplements. The background material's pretty thin, about 10% of the total content. GMs will either have to bring the mechanics over to another setting, spin out quite a bit from what's here, or buy the other sourcebooks.
Darwin’s World 1e on RPGNow
Darwin’s World 2: Survivor Handbook on RPGNow 
Darwin’s World 2 True20 on RPGNow
Darwin’s World 2 Savage Worlds on RPGNow

Woot!!! Mutant's back on these lists. This Swedish rpg family gives Gamma World a run for its money on reboots, retoolings, and republications. Google translates that subtitle as "Doom Heir," but I prefer the more poetic "The inheritors of the apocalypse" mentioned on the Geek. Mutant: UA actually goes back to the setting of the original Mutant. You may recall the crazy robed figure, Carebear rainbow attack, and satellite dish from its cover. This brings back the weirdness: players can once again play mutated humans and awesome mutated animals. Like Gamma World, Mutant: UA has a mish-mash of technology levels and a mythology-shrouded history. A couple of places describe it as slightly darker than the original, and the cover design certainly reflects that. It looks like Mutant: UA had at least a dozen supplements, with the last in 2008.

15. Road to Armageddon (2002)
A two-volume, third-party, post-apocalyptic supplement for EABA. The players book is a little over 100 pages and the GM's a little under 200. The cover, at least of the GM book, is odd and clip-arty. Road to Armageddon's premise is that soldiers from the 21st Century fight alongside WW2 troops and 27th Century warriors against some kind of future Armageddon. The material seems to contain a hefty amount of weapon and equipment tables for this detail-rich rpg. It falls very much into the realm of hard military science-fiction. EABA focuses on weapon design and modeling these kinds of elements, so it makes sense.
Road to Armageddon on RPGNow

16. Miscellaneous: Anthologies
Multiverser offers an interesting rpg concept. You play a single character moving through to different dimensions as they die. Multiverser: the Second Book of Worlds (2000) presents an anthology of new world settings, what we'd today see as mini-campaigns or variations (think jim pinto's Protocol Game Series). It includes "New Ice Age," a modern frozen wasteland and "Industrial Complex," a world slipping into technological collapse. As well Ken Hite's awesome Suppressed Transmission (2001) anthologies, “The First Broadcast” and “The Second Broadcast,” include post-apocalyptic material. I'm not going to point to any particular entry, since they're all awesome. GMs should be mining this stuff like diamonds.

17. Miscellaneous: Marginal Cases
A few games slip into the margins. For example, Judge Dredd d20 (2002). I’ve mentioned the earlier Games Workshop edition which skipped the “Cursed Earth” and strong post-apocalyptic elements of the setting. This one does better, with supplements detailing other places in this world. But it still doesn't offer a volume looking at those wastelands. Another reboot, the third edition of Metamorphosis Alpha (2002) shifts the game back in time. This quite different set up has the players dealing with the immediate aftermath of the ship's collapse. Fast Forward's version, still written by James Ward, presents a generational campaign frame based on that concept. The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game (2001) also skirts the definition of post-apocalyptic. Vance’s series stands as the archetype for what I’ve called “Forgotten Earth” games. Wikipedia and other places literally call this sub-genre “Dying Earth,” but I decided to be contrary. I think where DERPG fits in is the general feeling of decay. This is the dog-end of the world; it isn’t going to get better. Finally GURPS Ogre offers a chrome-love military campaign setting. Players can do battle against massive rogue sentient tanks, “a desperate survivor in a world where nuclear exchange is a way of life.”
Judge Dredd d20 on RPGNow
The Dying Earth RPG on RPGNow
The Dying Earth Revivification Folio on RPGNow 

18. Miscellaneous: Apocalypse-Stoppers
Some players just want to see the world not burn, so we have anti-Armageddon games and supplements. Purgatory: Special Edition (2001) has supernaturally-imbued characters choosing sides in the coming battle between Good and Evil. It plays with the divine, Western religious elements we've seen elsewhere. Likewise, The Seventh Seal (2002) is a Biblical game. You plays as righteous Sentinels, trying to hold back the tide of evil and coming end times. Alternately, you could go full pagan with Ragnarok! Tales of the Norse Gods (2001) and Doom of Odin: Tales of the Norse Gods (2002). These include d20 material for playing as Asgardians struggling against the Twilight of the Gods. As an added bonus you get Avalanche Press' trademark impractical cheesecake covers. For more conventional fantasy, WotC's The Apocalypse Stone (2000) has a certain irony. Among the last AD&D products published by the company, it presents a campaign-destroying toolbox. The players can battle against a horde of troubles and perhaps win (unlike TSR). Or if you just want to have the players annihilate the setting, you can go with Charnel Gods (2002), a supplement for Sorcerer. There players seek out Fell Weapons in order to bring the apocalypse. So that’s fun.

If you've gotten this far, consider supporting my Patreon campaign. Or at least reshare this to spread the word. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

23 Things About Masks of the Empire (Part Two)

This is second half of my entry for this month's RPG Blog Carnival, "A New Year, A New World." You can see the first half here. For a new collaboratively built campaign arc, I drafted a "player-facing" set of information. I tried to mix a clear statement of goals, hints at secrets, and suggestions about the nature of the world. 

I used to be one of those dudes who wrote up mammoth gazetteers, crafted extensive histories, and developed lengthy background essays. I'm talking about objective, third person pieces. I've got a ton of that I haven't dropped on the blog, even when I couldn't come up with anything for a post. What shifted my thinking- and I'm sure most of you already had some form of this revelation but it was "bolt from the blue" for me- was my wife's head shaking. We'd just put together a website for my fantasy world. This would be about '98. I'd started to go back and rewrite certain entries and bemoaned the work I had to do to flesh out obscure corners of the wold.

"Don't do that." Sherri said. "You're writing all this stuff that maybe your players will read. But it doesn't hit the table. Write stuff for the table."

I'm consolidating the conversation and leaving out the part where I desperately clutched my print-outs to my chest. But she was right. I'd focused in the wrong area to get the result I wanted. Info dumps didn't make for interesting play in my games. I needed to approach things with the idea that we needed to actually connect with them. There's phrase we started to use, "Don't paint where you can't see." We paint miniatures and I do them to table standard, not display standard. If you pick them up, you can see the rough bits, the undersides where I rushed things, the tricks I've used to conceal. But they look good on the table. 

Mind you, changing my approach in practice took more years than I care to consider. 

12. Travel in the Empire: Perhaps the single most important invention keeping the Empire running on a smooth course is the Dulcet Crystal Interval Gate. Through it, officials, citizens, and merchants can travel over vast distances in a matter of moments. For governors and military officials control and maintenance of these gates represents a central concern.

The gates function by drawing on harmonic ties of the elements. They require elaborate sympathies be established in order to function. In practice, this means that twelve main branches radiate out from the capitol, roughly corresponding to the hours. Any particular gate ties to one of the branches, and to move from one to another requires travel to a junction where the lines move perpendicular to the main branches. While it is possible to move to the central hub and then further from there, the Empire reserves that traffic for the most important figures to reduce risk and overflow.

Any gate can transport someone to another gate on that branch, distance is irrelevant. Weight and size have a greater impact however. A lesser gate can transport perhaps ten men with gear, while a greater gate can move two or three times that. The larger the material transported, the longer the time for the gate to recharge—taxed fully and on a strong sympathetic line, a gate might take a few hours to recharge. For weaker and further out lines, it might take days. Gates require a skilled operator to activate them. At one time, the Empire held the secrets of this process closely, but over time, it has spread out and those with the inclination and resources can learn the procedure.

13. Rulership in Palatine: Before the raising of the barrier, Pelatine possessed several important sources of authority. You may wish to seek out and discover if these remain intact or if they’ve been destroyed. The Empire of Hours recognized and supported the Crown of Sibilance, which designates rulership over the Dominion. At the time of separation, King Mindos of the House of Wisegrain sat upon the throne. His family had held that position for three generation, following the extinguishing of the previous line in the Shadow Sea War. Three other noble houses held significant positions and controlled regions: Allblood, Mightscrye, and Zeckt. They were respected and may offer potential contacts or support. Consider also that the many faiths of the region organized under an Arch-Pontiff, at last record Croet of Bronze. They catalogued, recognized, and officiated divine ceremonies from the Grand Cathedral at Inque. Other groups, such as the Dwarves and the Tangled submit to the authority of the Crown of Sibilance (and therefore the Empire), but also maintain their own rights and laws.

14. Of the Interval Gates: A gate has four major parts: the base, the frame, the pallet and the crystal. The frame is made up of four arching sleeves of metal, aligned to the hours. Connected to the base, they meet at the top, creating a metal sphere. The pallet is a round bottomed metal stand within the gate. Since the gates transport all things within a gate, the pallets have to be of standard size—given that they exchange position with other gates during transport. Over time, the wear of foot traffic and the clipping of the inconstant field effect means that the pallet must be replaced.

The most important portion of the gate is the crystal, which resonates and creates the transport effect. Each one must be carefully synchronized and lined up with the best point of sympathy in an area. This can create grave problems at times. For instance, the gate at Hardaru is nearly two hundred feet off the ground. A great structure, built with special materials so as to not interfere with the signal had to be constructed. Enormous stairs lead down off from that gate. The crystal is placed into the Void at the center of the gate, removing it from human sight and touch. Once placed, any movement of it will destroy the crystal—a dangerous thing to do if the harmonics have built up within it.

Setting up a gate requires specialized survey using devices held closely by the Empire. Forerunners in the furthest lands look for new possible points to set up gates, but must be careful. Aside from the destruction of a gate and the time needed to recharge one, there is no way to seal a gate. Since they generally must be built without too much material surrounding them, an enclosure is impractical.

Generally citizens are permitted to use the gates, but must obtain a statement of permission. The gates are not used for commerce transport—but merchants often arrange to travel by them to make deals in distant lands. After that they fall back to the common system of the Grand Imperial Riverways and the roads.

15. A Minor Request: If the opportunity presents itself, Lady Redgod, High Keeper of Sands, has requested that you check on the current state of Ivorybranch, one of the great fortresses of Pelatine. Her great-grandfather aided in the lifting of a siege there and spoke of the great beauty of its construction, chambered and delicate, akin to a sea shell. Pelatine possesses several important castles and fortifications. We can assume that should they still be standing they will be of strategic importance.

16. Mythical Oceans and Waters: The poet Ithegra traveled through Pelatine to the far west and saw the ocean. His notes upon it spawned generations of pilgrims who tried to follow his path and find those great waters. Most vanished in the travels, lost to bandits, the Hezakhan, and other trials. Some believe his words about the exposed ocean to be a fantasy. Seas exist below ground, with rivers and streams connecting to them. These surface formations are like veins of the lifeblood which runs beneath the surface. They point to the heroism of the aquatic explorers who have made contact with the deep pool peoples and travels via the submerged caverns and tunnels through which rivers run from Dominion to Dominion.

17. Beware Rumors: You will note that we have avoided the question of how the barrier arose around Pelatine. We still do not know what caused this. It is of more concern to us that the Dominion is secured, reassured, and explored. Eventually we will need our agents to turn their attentions to the causes and preventing this from happening again. As a note, you may have heard rumors surrounding the person of Lord Myso, uncle to the Empress and the suggestion that he may have been involved with the raising of the barrier. These rumors should be discouraged. They represent old bad blood between Myso and the House of Kalikos.

18. The Unsleeping: While many focus on the importance of Pelatine as a pathway to the Western lands, others within Imperial authority worry about the Unsleeping. This Dominion possessed a large number of these intelligent magical machines- ranging from human-sized laborers to massive constructions like the Verdant Walkers, travelling gardens which range across the land. As you know the Unsleeping come from The Time Before and as such remain precious. They’re highly resilient, but untended can be lost to the environment and suffer minor breakdowns. The presence of the Argent Gnomes gives us some hope that many of the Unsleeping remain intact. They number among the few peoples with skill in repairing these machines. On the other hand, the Gnomes are known to scavenge and rework the Unsleeping if they have the opportunity. This is contrary to the Empress’ express edicts.

19. Other Orders: Besides the Masks, there are two other orders who also defend the Empire and are marked by devices. The Fists of the Empire represent the military side of the Empire. These are the leaders, strategists and planners for military operations. Each Fist bears a unique gauntlet inscribed with a singular aspect representing the bearer. The exact number of Fists varies from time to time, but estimates suggest there are about 3,000 at any moment. Each gauntlet shares several key powers, including a superb sense of the disposition of forces, as well as talents unique to each. When a gauntlet is destroyed, the bearer dies and vice versa. Usually killing the bearer is significantly easier than destroying the artifact. The destruction of a gauntlet allows the forges in the capitol to make a new one, imbued with some of that essence. Though the exact nature remains unclear, it is said that this pool of energy is the limiting factor in the number of gauntlets existing at any one time.

On the other hand the Torcs of the Empire differ from the Fists and Masks of the Empire in possessing three internal divisions. Like the others, the Torcs possess singular items representing their rank and role, in this case a band around the neck. The design of the torcs among the three divisions is uniform, unlike the variety of designs found elsewhere. The three divisions of the Torcs are the Senate of the Hours, the Accountants of the Minutes, and the Keepers of the Seconds. The Senate and Accountants voluntarily take up their devices and can remove them. Both serve at Center, rather than ranging out. On the other hand, the Keepers are the senior functionaries, operatives and agents tied to the maintenance and management of Imperial affairs outside the capitol. Torcs of the Keepers are closed and cannot be taken off. While somewhat resilient to harm, these torcs can be broken, requiring the Keeper to return to present themselves for assessment.

These torcs possess three properties-- first, they carry a sigil used to mark messages and to denote authority for reports. Second, it allows Keepers to communicate privately at a distance with a Senator (or the Empress) if they are called upon. Lastly, a Keeper can, with a verbal command, create a recording of an interaction. The duration of this recording depends on if it is purely auditory or includes visual information. Keepers can only keep one recording in a torc at a time, but any recordings made are also stored at Center.

20. Consider the Spirits: Remember that as important as the physical bodies are within Pelatine, the Spirits must also be considered. The forces exert a powerful influence. We can arm you withz an index of the writs, names, and roles of the most potent of these, but they will likely avail you little. In the eight decades of isolation those contracts will have fallen away and the spirits themselves will have transformed in the release from those bindings. The locals will undoubtedly have reshaped them through new agreements.

I hesitate to mention this, but another matter concerns us regarding spirits, in particular the souls of the departed. As you know when we die, our spirits sink into the depths of the Spirit Realm. It is a deep sea into which we sink as time passes eventually becoming washed clean and changed before swimming on to the next realm chosen by the gods. In that time of sinking, trained Priests and skilled Wizards can contact the spirit, communing, questioning or even summoning it. While the barrier was up, many attempted to swim through the spirit depths to reach the souls there, but none succeeded. This is a vexing question…where did they go?

21. Sealing the Pass: Warden Tyrtyra holds control of the pass at Kytessa. He has been instructed not to allow any traffic through in either direction without Imperial Sign of Signet. You will be given marks for passage, as well as additional markers you may distribute to important persons or agents of your choosing.

22. Lost Masks: Reports differ, but there may be as many as five Masks present in Pelatine at the time of the sealing. The nature of their work and the privacy of the orders makes it difficult to say. The only known message to have escaped from the barrier came from a Mask known as Andralla Ta. Decades after the closing, she managed to pass on a report. However the Empress sealed away that away after reviewing the substance of it. Rumors exist, but Agents should not be concerned with those. Any surviving bearers might be a great asset. Should you encounter Andralla Ta, for example, it might be best to send word back to Center before engaging with her.

23. A Last Word: Be aware of the importance of this mission. The hands meet across the Clocks of Prophecy. Depending on how you measure the dates, we enter into a period of divine change- a switch between states. To the Far East, the Tenebraeum has been ringing bells and sounding clarions across the Burnings. It calls the last of the Untrue to come forth. In the South, the ice has begun to move and shift. Sections have swallowed dominions at the edges, yet we’ve also heard of what has been revealed- old things of old ages buried away with reason. In the North, some speak of an accord reached between the Hundreds and the Shouting Ones. If that is the case, then we will have to turn our attentions to those bastions. The West must remain secure. The Empire can ill-afford another front. 

23 Things About Masks of the Empire (Part One)

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