Thursday, January 15, 2009

Maelstrom: Aether

Imagine light flowing out across a two-dimensional plane like fast-flowing mists, rainbow hues that stream outwards from the sun to spiral around the planets; a cross between dry ice and the aurora borealis.

This is the appearance of aether, the gaseous mixture that fills the interspace within the confines of Maelstrom's solar system. It sustains strange and varied forms of life, propels crafts between worlds, and with practice can be used to see across heavens with the naked eye. And that's just the beginning.

All aether emanates from the sun. In the end- usually over the course of half a year or so- most of the aetheric mists are drawn into the one of the four gas giants in the system. Indeed, the gas giants themselves are thought to be composed of aetheric mists accumulated over countless eons. The mists also gather around the upper layers of all the worlds that orbit the gas giants, obscuring their surface to outside viewers with a one-way iridescent veil.

That one-way nature is a product of Aether's interference with the light flow. Our eyes perceive objects by taking in the rays of light that reflect off them. But the aetheric gases gather and bend light; an aetheric current may look like a shimmering stream when viewed from outside, but when inside a current, you can "look upstream" like a periscope; with practice, you can train your mind to sort out the signal from the interference and perceive further and further upstream. Someone who's never gone offworld can still do this by gazing into the sun- after all, the only reason they perceive the sun as coming from the direction it does is that that's the angle from which the aetheric current flows into their world's atmosphere. This is also the reason why inexperienced explorers perceive the skies of other worlds as opaque even at night; their eyes are trained to perceive through the interference characteristic of their homeworld and their homeworld alone.

Learning to look through the aetheric lightflow is a key skill for explorers in Maelstrom. It affects the interspace tactics of men and exotic lifeforms alike, in the same way that a predator in our world avoids approaching their prey from upwind. Of course, there are many other things one must learn to explore the untamed regions of interspace. . .

Art Credits: I'm *fairly* sure "j4m3sb0nd" is the original creator of the above image.

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Monday, January 5, 2009

5 Villianous Pulp/Steampunk Organizations

Just something I drummed up for Balthazarr's Nova Europa setting; his game uses GURPs, but these are fluff concepts that can work in any sufficiently over-the top RPG. In fact, I may adapt several of them to use in my own Maelstrom setting,

Bermudan Sky Pirates
The "Bermudan Triangle" is a much-feared region where hundreds of vessels have disappeared- but not myseriously, for everyone knows the legend of Maxwell Morgan's fearsome band of raiders- how he stole a nest of Pterodactyl eggs from a research vessel bound back to the states, then raised and bred them to give his band of cutthroats a way to take to the skies. The villanous Maxwell is said to have met his end at the hands of a would-be victim who turned out to be an expert marksman, but his son Matthew has proven just as merciless.

Though their violent ways are undeniable, some speculate that the actions Morgan's Marauders are be driven by simple greed. There are men in the region who claim to have come from lost ships, and say that their vessels were lost not to men but to far stranger phenomena. And several pieces of archeological evidence uncovered within the past century have indicated that within the Triangle may lie a long-lost secret: The city known as Atlantis. . .

Servants of Valhalla
It turns out that certain sections of Norse Mythology are highly accurate but oft-misinterpreted descriptions of the cosmos. This is especially true for the sections regarding Valhalla, a realm of eternal festivities where warriors struck down in battle are brought to feast and fight without end. This is true, but what most fail to realize is that valhalla is another world in the sense that it is a different planet- one where the losing side in a war began to recruit and augment warriors from species on other planets. It wasn't enough, and that side lost the war in the 14th century- but the descendants of the victors have rediscovered the recruitment facility on the far side of our moon, and reprogrammed the Valkyrie-type recruitment cyborgs; they couldn't remove the moral code about only recruiting warriors who would otherwise perish, but nothing in the programming said that Valkyries couldn't be the cause of this state. . .

Aztec Blood Gods
While the actions of Spain's Conquistadores were not truly the undoing of the empire, those beyond the shelter of hidden cities such as El Dorado faced conquest and enslavement at best. Wracked by plague and facing wolves at the door, the leaders of these regions turned to ritual techniques society had forbidden in ages past- rather than simply dealing in lifeblood as a merchant deals in coin, they became avatars of the source of their power, and in doing so inherited its hunger for life.

From that time onwards, they have ruled over the central Americas in secret. From that time onward, their hatred for their brethren in the Hidden Cities who abandoned them to their fate has grown ever stronger, fueling a centuries-long secret civil war. From that time onward, they have assured the prosperity of their own people, but at a terrible price.

For from that time onward, they have been the most powerful vampires in the world.

The Tokugawa Shogunate
Their current obsession with cute cartoons and underwear makes it easy to forget that the Japanese used to be one of the fiercest peoples on earth. What if its government had held on to its "Sakoku" policy of isolation, rather than dropping it in the mid-19th century? An island nation ruled with an iron fist, from which none ever enter or leave. . .at least, so they say.

In reality, Japan's leaders are subtly active in the world abroad through a vast and highly secret network of spies. Though many intelligence agencies have heard rumors of the network's existence, few have the slightest idea who they report to. The shogunate's agents are the modern-day incarnation of the shinobi, hiding in plain sight and viewing death as the only honorable penalty for faliure. Those who uncover the truth will never know true security, for anyone and everyone could be an agent of the enemy.

Huntsmen of Herne
Some say that they are the Druidic order reborn- that the ways of the old celtic magicians have been rediscovered, that this secret organization seeks to reestablish the connection between man and the spirits of nature.

Others say that they are a death cult, assassins united by their pursuit of a supernatural means to visit death upon whomever a given member of the group selects.

Both are right. After centuries of absence, the Wild Hunt rides again- baying hounds led by black figures astride wild horses, racing hell-bent over oceans and betweenn skyscrapers in pursuit of the poor soul who until now had proven himself beyond the reach of his enemies.

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The Kinoko Realm

The Kinoko Realm is an alternate plane of existence separate from our own. It is a fantastic world filled with magic and all manner of strange flora and fauna, at times concentrated to the point where one from the mortal realm would see it as surreal. But the weird and wondrous nature of this land belies the fierce struggles of its inhabitants- Sentient creatures of all shapes and sizes who fight alongside their kind for land, resources, and above all else for the thousandfold grievances borne from centuries of conflict.

The realm's most numerous and prolific denizens have always been the Kinoko People themselves- a race of humanoid fungi. Though quick to panic in tense situations, their strong loyalty to the Kingdom makes them it's most important asset. Still, there are numerous other races to consider...

-The reptillian Testudine clans warred amongst themselves in the Badlands for ages. In this last century, however, a great line of warlords has risen to prominence, conquering and uniting the various clans. On the foundations laid by this lineage, an organized, caste-based society has begun to develop.

-In Kinoko lore the Uragiru are said to have once been Kinoko who betrayed their comrades by siding with the forces of darkness during the Time of Strife. For this, the texts say, they were cursed with verminous bodies to match their inner natures and cast out into the badlands. Today most Uragiru are a part of the Testudine empire, their caste occupying one of the lowest ranks. Many more dwell throughout the world in small numbers, and have a reputation as thieves and vagabonds.

-The mammalian warriors of the Ta-Su isle are strong and agile. With strong legs and weak forelims, they race along the ground in a similar manner to flightless birds- in fact, one in a thousand children is born with feathers and will be hailed as a great leader. The Ta-Su warriors have long been friends of the Kinoko and have proven a vital ally to the Kingdom in times of crisis.

-Humans are one of the rarer races. It is they who rule the Kingdom and have guided its people into an era of prosperity. They are also known as the people of the sky, for on occasion a newborn human child falls from above. All humans are descended from those who arrived in this manner; Kinoko lore teaches that the Tsuru spirits must bear newborn humans through the skies and over the edge at the end of the world, in order to bring them to the world which lies underneath on the opposite side.

-Ghosts in the Kinoko realm are a mystery of their own- though spirits of the dead, they do not belong to any of the known peoples, and usually occupy ruined structures made in styles dating back to the Old Age- rumors say that they were once rulers of a now-forgotten empire laid low by dark magic in the Time of Strife.

Known Art Credits: Image is by Rodney Matthews.

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Saturday, January 3, 2009

This may be the most important post on this blog I will ever make.

I think I just nailed it.

I think I just made the breakthrough in RPG philosophy that I've spent years trying to articulate to myself- a process that started with me noticing a strange phenomenon, where the experience of playing a tabletop game would be compelling in this certain, undefinable way. I could wait to post this, write up the 2 or 3 posts I've meaning to write up which bridge the gap between my last post on game design theory and where I've just arrived. But this is too important, it defines the core thing that makes roleplaying games (in their broadest definition) special. It's a concept I bet alot of us have figured out to some degree, though probably without much apprectiation for (or interest in) the implications. Whatever else, I can be excited that I personally am treading new ground here.

Enough rambling. My personal epiphany is this: Game mechanics are a medium for storytelling.

Let's start by getting our definitions straight. When I say "Game mechanics" I'm talking the mechanics in and of themselves- the numeric bonus your Dodge feat provides, the amount by which the pouncing rat reduces your hp total in a computer game, the rules in a LARP for determining which swings of a padded sword represent body hits on an opponent.

Saying that something is a "medium for storytelling" means that it conveys a story the same way that air conveys sound. The standard medium for conveying a story is words, but a silent film or dialogue-free comic can also tell a story, and compared to words the mediums they're using have their own advantages, disadvantages, and most importantly: unique forms of potential. When exposed to a text description of an angry man, our minds get something out of it that differs from what we get out of the sight of an angry man's face.

I owe that concept of mediums to the insightful Robert McKee, whose book on storytelling also talks about how well-done stories express ideas, and then go on to *prove* them. A story is given meaning by how it expresses these concepts of what the world is and how it works, with a plot coming together to make an assertion like "love conquers all" or "crime doesn't pay".

Game mechanics can do this. When they represent abstract ideas, they can express and prove ideas in such a compelling fashion that I'm scared by their potential in the realm of propaganda.

I'll start with a blunt example: Say that I take a typical RPG and add a "Willpower" stat. This stat is added to all rolls you make, directly increasing your character's odds of success. With this action as a game designer, I use game mechanics to convey an idea: "Willpower always helps you succeed". By varying the degree to which willpower improves the odds, I can tweak what the message says regarding its importance- "With willpower, you can do anything!"

Of course, using such an overtly game-changing and poorly balanced variant rule to convey this message would be like having every character in a story stop and say "Willpower is the key to success" once every five minutes- one is the action of a poor writer, the other the action of a poor game designer. What would be a more complex and nuanced expression of an idea?

Let's say that we have a system that tracks a character's Anger. The stat can be both a curse and a blessing- it helps you shrug off negative emotions like fear and grief and lends you strength, but reduces your capacity for insight and self-control. Now, I mentioned before that your mind gets different things out of words that describe an angry man and an image that depicts him. By the same token, you're getting something out of your GM telling you that a man before you has 5 Anger Points. It tells you this guy is ready to snap, would be dangerous for you to fight when he'd normally be a pushover, and could be manipulated into doing something he'll always regret with a lie he'd normally see through in a second. These are all ideas about the nature of anger which the game has expressed to you via its mechanics- and they are ideas which you have unhesitatingly adopted in the process of learning how to play the game.

That last bit is what really scares me. Other mediums show you an idea. But games tap far deeper into our learning processes- we enjoy the experience of figuring out how to beat them and affirming that we've done so. We're actively participating in the story, making choices and facing the consequences, figuring out the wisest course of action- which is whatever the game designer has wanted it to be. Stories communicated through game mechanics immerse us far, far more than ones communicated through words and sensory imagery.

I mentioned before that this was at least significant to me personally, and it's hard for me understate the degree to which this is true. This is it, the crucial step that has taken me over the ridge and given me a view of what lies beyond: a chance to do something new and original on a large scale, to perhaps even someday be an honest-to-god pioneer. I'm poised to explore a medium that's been consistently neglected despite game designers having drawn on it as far back as the 6th century, when Chess's predecessor appeared in India with pieces to represent the 4 divisions of the military.

I also finally have a decent explanation for why I don't like poker, so that's cool.

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Friday, January 2, 2009

Trigger Discipline: 5 Campaign Ideas

As mentioned in the last post, I'm hoping to run an online playtest for Trigger Discipline. Here are the different campaign ideas I'm mulling over; as I intend to see how the system handles attempts to pursue a serious plot, the premises won't be quite as wacky as they could be.

Idea #1: Millenium Hand and Shrimp
Say that two years back you were a cyberpunk spec ops team, like in Deus Ex or Ghost in the Shell- but intended espionage and foreign black ops rather than public security. Facilities that officially don't exist, experimental tech that won't be out for years, so highly classified that you operate autonomously from the main body of the government. It's that last bit which gave you the chance to realize that something bad was going on.

Something was happening to the government, a highly covert and fast-acting operation that seemed to involve mind hacks and duplicate replacement- those were your early theories, but the more evidence you acquired the more things defied rational explanation. Then the smaller limbs of the government that couldn't get taken over started getting taken out. When contact broadcast a live video feed of he and his team getting torn apart by three men who shrugged off bullets as their arms transformed into organic-looking bladed limbs, you decided to get the hell out. Forget civilian cover identities- in the modern day the only way to be off the grid is a full removal from society.

And THAT is why you're all hobos who are secretly cyborg black op agents.

If nothing else, at least there's no hassle when you mutter to each other about government conspiracies all day. Some of your equipment is offline or only has the juice left for a few more uses; the rest you maintain through black-market deals with criminal elements and junkheap scavengers, plus the occasional heist; sometimes you kill terrorists and take their stuff. Other times you give them your number; after all, your main objective is still to take down the Conspiracy, and while you can't trust anyone you'll need all the help you can get just to figure out whether or not you're dealing with something human.

Idea #2: Warlock Highschool
The "school fighting" genre has some interesting hallmarks, such as delinquent protagonists vs. Lawful Jackass authority figures and the involvement of curiously big-league organizations like corporations and yakuza. So what if you took that genre and set it in a wizard's academy- Hogwarts if it was an underfunded public school in a bad part of town?

Martial arts would be replaced with magic, though brawling is hardly out of the question. Pick a fight with a fourth-year, then interrupt his advanced-level bowel-shriveling spell with a flying tackle; it's all good. You can side with a house/gang/faction and battle rivals for supremacy, or try and chart your own road.

Idea #3: Super Kaiju Defense Girls
It starts with a fairly simple premise: when Godzilla and company attack, the military's best hope is a defense force of test-tube children infused with DNA from different monsters. The teenage protagonists, all female (because of science), are seven-foot tall superhumans who can leap twenty stories in the air and punch a monster hard enough to send them crashing into a building and make it collapse. Characters can fight with things like handheld missile batteries, eight-foot swords made from experimental alloys, and their own inborn monster powers.

For those of you who know your anime, a friend describes this concept as a cross between Godzilla, Blood+ and Tokyo Mew Mew. I don't want to give much away as to how the story would develop, but the underlying theme is a blend of elements from the sentai, magic girl, and "our monster who fights the other monsters" concepts.

Idea #4: Colossus Masters
This war-torn fantasy setting used to be a fairly low-key medieval fairytale realm. Then people started to realize that a certain kind of magic- Kinesis, focusing the mind to move objects as extensions of your own body- had potential far beyond just oversized gauntlets. Make a man-shaped objects with a few joints and a hole for the user and the sky's the limit. You have colossi made of metal, living trees that plant themselves between battles, even experimental "elemental" models that can compact into a pond/rockslide/bonfire when not in use (Air Colossi were scrapped after the prototypes kept getting lost).

Players can fight in this war-ravaged land for a cause, a side, or just large amounts of gold. The starting circumstances are fairly open-ended, since the story is a flexible one.

Idea #5: Bugging Out

This one would be straight sci-fi, on the more realistic side of the mecha genre. The setting is a mining colony that's had a few centuries to grow into a profitable settlement. Conditions on the surface are venus-like, too harsh to support life; but underground there are now several cities as well as underground tunnels to connect most larger outposts. Mining and a variety of other tasks are performed with the aid of sealed powered exoskeletons.

The game start with a previously unheard-of phenomenon for the planet: Seismic activity, in the form of a large earthquake. In its wake, players find a host of Starship Troopers-style monsters crawling up out of the depths. The closest thing to a combat mech on this planet is a law enforcement model designed for riot suppression, so the players (largely blue collar mechanic types) will have to modify and outfit their vehicles with weapons improvised from power tools and so on. That, or just get good at smashing bugs to a pulp with their bare hands.

Known Art Credits: Warlock Highschool's attached art is from Paizo Publishing's Pathfinder line, I'm not sure which artist. The colossus (Idea #4) is by Noxypia.

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Trigger Discipline: Beta Rules

Happy new year! And so, the other project is revealed: I've finally given the rules document for Trigger Discipline a complete update. I'll be adding more explanatory examples and optional extra rules, but what's there is enough to run your own tongue-in-cheek anime action game (this version of the rules takes the open approach rather than treating non-Mecha games as a variant).

Also, I'm planning to run an online playtest game of my own. The big question is what sort of premise to use- I've got alot of mecha concepts on the back burner, but I'm also intrigued by the idea of crossing Harry Potter with the School Fighting genre. . .

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