Monday, March 29, 2010

Just what is the "RPG" genre?

Now picture them on my shoulders in the standard angel-devil arrangement.

I've found that the term "roleplaying game" is typically. . .okay, you know what? SCREW the academic writing style. This isn't advanced theory, this is blazingly obvious crap that almost nobody's noticing because the bar for game design & analysis is set so damn low.

There are two big meanings to the phrase 'RPG'. First one's the literal game where you play a role, I went into detail on this a year ago and what I wrote then still works fine as an intro. The second definition is used to describe a whole genre, mostly in the context of video games. People use this label reliably, they just can't give a decent explanation for what it actually means; hence the boatload of whinging over whether Mass Effect 2 is an RPG or not.

Seriously, it's simple. "RPG" games have strategic gameplay that revolves around building a powerful character. The redundancy in that definition's deliberate- a way to emphasize how the terms that make up the "RPG" acronym have little relation to its meaning in this context. We use it as a label because Dungeons and Dragons effectively invented this kind of gameplay. (It didn't invent roleplaying games in the original sense of the word- they've arguably been around thousands of years- but it *did* come up with the best format yet for exploring them.)

"Strategic" gameplay means actions with direct consequences that play out over the long term, whereas the other end of the spectrum is "tactical" actions with immediate short-term results. When you do things to get xp, or go through your loot looking for better equipment, or pick one branch of the talent tree instead of the other- it's all stuff you do because it's how you do a good job of making your character stronger.

Is Mass Effect 2 an RPG? Yep! Doing sidequests for the extra xp, stopping to hack a terminal or probe planets for minerals, and choosing how to spend squad points are all cases of RPG gameplay. So are all the times where you did or didn't do something because you wanted more Paragon or Renegade points. Shooting enemies in the face so that their shields will drop and Samara can Throw them, that's action gameplay.

Now, picking dialog options because that's what you want to say to a character? Taking a renegade interrupt action because you wanted to make that Krogan Clan Speaker shut his arrogant mouth? That's playing a roleplaying game in the original sense of the word.

This actually leads into a matter that I *would* consider an advanced-level game design topic. Mass Effect 2's a great example, but hundreds of other games (such as recent editions of D&D) have faced the same question: How do these three kinds of gameplay (Strategic character optimization, tactical action, and narrative-focused roleplaying) overlap with one another? The answers depends on the game, but it'll usually go one of three ways:
-Segregation: You're either doing A *or* doing B, rather than taking actions that're significant for both aspects of the game.
-Conflict: A and B are blended together in a way that diminishes both experiences. (In Mass Effect 2 certain dialog options are the "right" ones for a player who wants a high Charm or Intimidate score, which undermines the experience of choosing what to say based on how you want the story to play out.)
-Synergy: A and B are blended together in a way that enhances one or both aspects of the experience.

The dilemma a game designer faces is how he can implement the aspects of the game so that they overlap in ways that cooperate rather than conflict. It's a question I've been dwelling on alot for the past year or so, and I'm sure I'll write out some of the answers I've come up with at some point in the future. For now, these are the games I'd identify as having the best synergy- they've taken 2 aspects of the trinity and interwoven them in ways that are more mutually beneficial than any other instance I can name.

Action and RPG: Resident Evil 4
Action and roleplaying: God of War
RPG and roleplaying: Fantasy Craft

I hesitated when adding God of War as an example, because it doesn't give the player choices as to how the narrative proceeds. But then I realized that the point of roleplaying gameplay, as I conceive it, is about participating in the story; the point is to engage you enough that character's actions (the ones that matter to the story) also be your actions. Some games (Deus Ex, Mount and Blade) do this by having an avatar who can act like the player would; God of War does it by prodding the player to act like their avatar would.

Yeesh, and now I've veered into a third topic. I should do these rants more often.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mass Effect RPG: Modular Campaign Options

Looks like them Shephard fellas done got themselves in whole heap of trouble this time.
One of my priorities for this system is that it can support anything from a party of random gangbangers on Omega to an alternate-universe version of Captain Kirk and his crew. Here's some excerpts from a couple of recent discussions I've had as I worked out how I was going to achieve this. . .

[dagda] I'm thinking that there'd be a number of modular campaign aspects (optional things you can add or remove)
[dagda] Basically, take the things Commander Shepherd does, minus the parts that would also be done by a random mercenary team who just takes the cash, spends it on better gear and then finds a new job.
[kirov] Such as?
[dagda] Modular options would probably include spaceships, vehicle 'missions' and leadership.
[kirov] Ah. Like supplemental books.
[dagda] The idea's that. . .well, look at it this way.
[dagda] I decide my players are gonna have a ship, like in Serenity. So I take that 'spaceship' modular option.
[kirov] Same here. Private starcraft are sort of essential for exploring in ME.
[dagda] One of the things this means is that everyone effectively gets "ship crew" points (perhaps literally, I dunno).
[kirov] Economizing everything seems like a bad step, I believe.
[dagda] They can spend these to determine most of their capabilities when it comes to the parts of the gameplay which involve the ship.
[dagda] (The rules for said gameplay are in the same section)
[kirov] The GM would be way better off with just letting the players construct their own craft, and decide on what they can and cannot have.
[kirov] Say, you can have a compliment of Marines, but you can't have a Thanix Cannon too.
[dagda] The GM would probably say "Okay, I want this Spaceship gameplay to be a big focus of this game, so everyone gets Ship Crew points as though they were 5 levels higher than the default option"
[kirov] Keep in mind that space combat is extremely lethal in Mass Effect.
[dagda] GM says ship is class X, that determines whether it's this tiny thing that can barely fit everyone up to a capital ship.
* Kirov imagines a group of gung-ho players in a dreadnaught.
[kirov] Don't ever give the players a dreadnaught.
[dagda] Players then work together to determine the ship's quality- do they have the ship be in mint condition, or give it extra maneuverability in exchange for being an error-prone piece of junk? (We know what Han Solo would choose. . .)
[dagda] 'Ship crew' points would be spent on abilities used during ship-centric gameplay-piloting the ship, operating weapons, conducting emergency repairs and so on.
[dagda] But they'd also be spent on stuff that's between the ends of the spectrum labeled "Ship Quality" and "Crew Ability"
[kirov] For now, I'm not touching ship mechanics with a ten foot telescopic pole. I will eventually start developing it, but not before I have a working prototype of the base gameplay.
(Note: Kirov is working on his own Mass Effect RPG, his being a conversion for Dark Heresy rather than an original system. He can be reached on the suptg IRC chat.)

[dagda] The shared Ship points would be spent on the broader stuff, but player points would buy the smaller, mechanically detailed bits that fall under their area of expertise.
[dagda] Sorry, I'm getting a little too detailed- this is supposed to be an explanation of how all Modular options go.
[dagda] You have the spaceship, which the whole party takes care of together. And then everyone's also got their individual points, which they spend on a given area of expertise (think "role" or "archetype"). Anything ship-based involves soemthign for you to do, no matter the role.
[kirov] Quite, like the team works in ME2.
[dagda] Pretty much. ME2's not gonna convert perfectly to a theoretical game unless you assume the GM was having to deal with a group of like 10 people who could never be counted on to show up, but isolated elements work.
[dagda] So let's use Garrus as an example. For the ME2 campaign, his player initially tells the GM he doesn't have time but quickly changes his mind, so the GM works him in.
[dagda] Since this campaign uses the Modular Ship option, Garrus' player finds himself with a bunch of Ship Crew points to spend. So he focuses on the Gunner options.
[dagda] That means he'll get to make attack rolls each combat round, and provides the ship's weapons with various performance bonuses.
[dagda] Which are basically feats, you know? The equivalent of Quick Draw, Running Shot, etc.
[dagda] Sometimes these feats are due to the PC knowing how to use the tech, sometimes they're the tweaks and minor/specific upgrades which fall under that PC's oversight.
[kirov] Yeah, I understand. But I told you that I haven't put any actual thought into how I will handle ships dealing with others outside the narrative yet. I can't really give you any real feedback here.
[dagda] No worries- again, this is mostly me working towards a general concept for Modular options. I just keep getting drawn into the details because they're interesting to come up with.
[dagda] Anyway, getting the Thanix Cannon, that's the party levelling up and deciding to spend the new ship points on an upgrade from Weaponry III to Weaponry IV.
[dagda] The broad characteristics of the weapon- a sustained "beam" (which has some mechanical ramification) and a narrow fire arc- are also determined at that point.
[dagda] The more specific quirks? Say, extra armor penetration and it "shocks" the ship's internal systems if it scores more than a glancing hit? Those are things Garrus buys with crew points.
[dagda] If no-one in the group spends ship crew points in a given area, then the ship can still be strong in that area but not do anything fancy. Blunt power, basically.
[kirov] Seeing as the Thanix Cannon is firing a constant stream of liquid tungsten at 3.6% of light speed, I'm pretty sure it does more than "shocking" the ship.
[dagda] Shocking as in even if it's not destroyed, it effectively loses a turn.
[dagda] Or something. Sorry, I'm still getting caught up in a tangent.
[kirov] I'm still bloody adamant that a sub-dreadnaught ship getting hit by a weapon like the Thanix will be crippled at best, sheared in two at worst.
[dagda] Metagame, that means the group decided to spend a TON of ship points on the most badass, collector ship-killing weapon they could invent/find in the manual.
[kirov] It also ought to be rather outlawed, as it is a closely guarded secret by the turian military.
[kirov] The Normandy only had access to it due to Garrus and Illusive Man waiving all the laws away with a giant McGuffin.
[dagda] Actually, that aspect of things won't be a focus of the mechanics.
[dagda] More likely, the process would be: Group wants max-power-for-this-ship-class weapon -> Garrus is the weaponry guy -> players and/or GM invents "Thanix Cannon" backstory for weapon

me: Modular options are intended to be in effect for most or all of a campaign, so a gameplay element that's a part of the game for a period ranging from a session to a single adventure (or "mission") could typically be covered by Grand Challenges.
me: (Another mechanic of mine. Kinda like a skill challenge, if you replaced each skill check with a different strategy the players come up with for progressing towards an overarching goal like "take down a crime syndicate". Details at

me: Only other modular options I can think of at the moment are "Screwing around in a kickass vehicle" and "Managing and leading a bunch of npcs that make up your ship crew/unit/gang/growing merc army" The second one's par for the course if you've got a bigger ship, unless the GM opts to just gloss it over.
me: I was going to do a separate category for Interplanetary Fighting Vehicles (Mako, Hammerhead, Gunships), but then I realized that the difference between crewing an IFV and a Frigate are on par with the differences between crewing a Cruiser and a Dreadnought; that I can just call the Modular category Vehicles, and have some of the mechanics be based on your class of ship.
me: Followers are similar. I'd say that the two ends of that spectrum would be Garrus and Aria's setups on Omega; he had a party plus a small number of secondary characters, she's getting to the point where she's the head of a government. This is not to say you work your way up that spectrum as you level up; in my mind the GM declares the class of ship/organization you're managing and it likely stays that way for the whole game.
goldenneckbeard: A small matter, but I'll mention it anyway: I personally would name the modular elements after the type of role a person in the scene-type they represent.
me: Hmm.
goldenneckbeard: EG, instead of having a "Vehicles" class or skill-group, it would be "Crew" or "Crewman."
me: And Followers would be Leadership. Though to be honest, I really want to use the word "crew", since if you allow for both the literal definition and the informal "street" one then it's really the ideal phrase to describe the concept.
me: Anyway, I'm not sure, just because Vehicles would be totally focused on having this kickass vehicle that the party conceived and spent a shared set of points on- a vehicle they work together to maintain and upgrade.
goldenneckbeard: I would go broader and work followers into the social system at large. Perhaps call the mechanical module characters use to interact with said system "Advocate" to keep it as general as possible.
me: Ah, but the question is, what social system? You can have an entire campaign of explorers who deal with ruins and small colonies, so a big set of mechanics for dealing with society would be modular.

me: Basically, I'm now thinking that everything beyond you and your personal gear, all the other resources that some mass effect PCs would have and the "random gangbangers on Omega" campaign probably wouldn't get, could be covered by this same modular system. Not every high-level character has their own spaceship, not every one leads a group/organization. . .
me: I think the reason I feel that way is that the fiction Mass Effect's drawing on all is always 'personal'. Even when the story is about a massive ship or organization, it'll still also be about a handful of people and what they can do.

So that's about where I'm at right now. I'm considering a third modular element to go with Vehicles and Leadership, probably entitled Status. This would be the benefits that come from leveraging a high-ranking position in society- military rank is one option, but the influence Liara wields on Illium is another valid example.

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Converting Fiction to Games: A Defense

I wrote this in a response to a post on the excellent Tankards & Broadswords blog. Badelaire began with a wholly valid point:

I think the Number One Problem is that, just as you cannot easily translate a book into a movie with any degree of success, or a movie into a book, it is much harder than it might seem to successfully turn a book into an RPG campaign setting

By the end, he'd reached this conclusion:
The more I think about it, the WORST thing you can do to your favorite fictional setting is to turn it into an RPG campaign setting. In the harsh light of day (i.e., after "statting it up"), the love of your life...well...she probably ain't so pretty no more.

Which, I would (and did) say, is completely missing a more important point. If I give Cthulhu hit points, X attacks per round, Armor Class, etc. then the problem isn't that I chose to stat Cthulhu out; it's that I used the wrong *kind* of stats. You don't pound in nails using a screwdriver, and you don't quantify a Great Old One using mechanics that were designed to represent entities players could kill with axes and fireballs.

Meanwhile, if I give Cthulhu stats such as "Health: Cannot be harmed except by GM fiat, in which case he reforms in 1 round if 'injured' or 5 rounds if 'destroyed'" and "Attacks: Can devour the nearest 1d4 PCs as a standard action", then I've managed to come up with a set of mechanics whose results will be true to the source material.

Translating fiction into game mechanics is how roleplaying games are made in the first place. It produces terrible results because you did a crappy job on the translation. Trying to turn your favorite piece of fiction into an rpg setting is the BEST thing you can do- specifically, the best thing you can do for your abilities as a GM and RPG designer. Because you'll be better equipped to see all those horrible ways in which your initial attempts fall short, and have some extra motivation to try, try again.

P.S: Naturally, telling the players about something's statistics can still be bad idea. Deciding what kind of metagame information to pass on is a separate matter- and a very interesting one. Ever play in a game where only the GM knew everyone's current hp?

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Backseat Designer: Laying down the ground rules.

For those who don't know my background: Rather than trying to land a career in one of the relevant industries, I just to dedicate my spare time to 'honing my craft' as a game designer, pushing myself to regularly tackle new challenges (with a pragmatic focus on tabletop games). No plan beyond that, I didn't even have any idea whether the skillset this would produce would carry over to video games (turns out it does, as my experiences with the Global Game Jam have verified). Just "become a better game designer."

One of the not-so-surprising results of this approach is that I now automatically analyze any game I see in action, especially when I'm playing it myself. This isn't about critiquing the game (or at least, passing judgment on it)- I'm getting two things out of the process. First, it helps me learn from other designer's work; I'll notice that the experience is (or fails to be) fun/compelling in a way I can't adequately explain, and start working out just how the game pulled that off. The second reason I do this is to give my mental game design muscles a workout- spotting areas of the game that could be improved on (be it from bad to passable or good to great) and then working out precisely how one could carry those improvements out.

Of course, anyone can say "Gosh, it should would be nice if this game was even cooler." Playing the backseat game designer (or as Tom Francis calls it, amateur hour) calls for a higher standard- one that involves several self-imposed rules.

-I will be mindful that my ideas are untested. Game mechanics never work quite like you envision them. Sure, you can get better at anticipating how they'll play out (one recent example for me was the playtests for Court d'Capitate last christmas, which astonishingly revealed that the rules worked almost exactly as I'd planned). But that's still a long ways from knowing what the experience will be like for the player, i.e. whether it will be *fun*.
-My ideas cannot require additional development resources. The only alternative to changes which would cost a pittance (at least as far as I can see) in terms of time and effort is ideas which could have saved resources, assuming the dev team had used them in place of the existing approach. In cases where my ideas are intended for future sequels, I must at least stop short of advocating something the dev team would need to go out of their way to fit into their development process.
-I must be able to clearly explain how my proposal will benefit the game. If I can't explain my reasons to both fellow game designers and laymen in a clear and concise manner, I'm not going to be an effective part of any team game development effort.
-I will not let the benefit of hindsight go to my head. Even if it turns out that I have managed to come up with a better approach than someone who worked on a game full-time, that still doesn't mean I would have done a better job in their situation. (But [companyname] should totally give me an unpaid internship so we can find out.)

Any other pitfalls I'm neglecting to consider?

Image drawn by Tim Kreider. Hope no one minds the profanity.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

If I want to keep people hooked, do I use barbs?

I did some consulting for some student-level game developers last year, basically coming up with the core mechanics for a post-apocalyptic browser-based MMORPG. It was awesome. I mean, I'll be absolutely shocked if the project ever gets off the ground and releases something playable, but it was great for me because it offered a chance to take on new kinds of game design challenges and thus grow as a designer. There's a ton of ways in which designing MMORPG mechanics is identical to making a tabletop RPG, and an equal number of areas where the priorities lead you in the exact opposite direction.

I came up with an awesome combat system (IMAO), worked out some original answers to core gameplay problems that plague pretty much every electronic RPG that's presently on the market, brainstormed a ton of ideas for integrating classic MMO elements like respawns and character 'reincarnation' into a grounded post-apocalyptic framework, and took some serious stabs at designing an MMO which would constantly provide internal rewards (meaning everything you do would be a decent game even if you removed any xp payoffs & so on). Today, I'm not going to talk about any of that. It'd take a while and I have work in the morning.

Instead, I'm going to give an example of how the challenge of designing a successful community-based game (one that'll shrivel up and die if it can't hold onto its player base while capitalizing on it) quickly steers a designer into ethically dodgy territory. I was chatting to my brother this evening about Prop Hunt, and he mentioned that he'd played a few rounds today with someone who could switch his prop mid-round; it was a privilege for having donated to the server. Apparently an early iteration of the game had given this ability to everyone, but they found that it made the game less fun.

"Interesting!" says I, because this presents me with a new sort of optional payment incentive- an ability that's noticeably empowering and would undermine the game if everyone had it, but is tolerable (and perhaps even beneficial) to the game experience when it's in the hands of only a privileged few. For example, Halo multiplayer matches where donating lets you spawn with a pistol and rocket launcher. If you gave it to everyone, there'd be rockets all over the place and it'd undermine the gameplay. But when one or two more guys have rocket launchers, it does little to adversely affect the game experience.

"Oh, wait," I said to my brother. "Then what if everyone donates?"

"Then you've got a lot of money?"

". . .Point." Still, your player base won't do as well if your gameplay's not good enough. Maybe you could have it be that only one or two donators get the privilege at a time, randomly reassigning it or having it transfer on death (to the person who killed you if they're a donator, otherwise to a random person who did donate). This actually still works with the Halo rocket launcher example- you just make it so that the "press Q to pick up ROCKET LAUNCHER" is replaced with something to the effect of "Only paid members can pick up this ROCKET LAUNCHER". Hey, loss aversion's a powerful thing. This setup would give an extra motive to become a paid member if you've been playing in games with few or no donators, because you'd know that you could have that shiny rocket launcher on a near-constant basis. But what about motives to donate once plenty of other players had already done so?

Then he got an idea. An awful idea. Dagda got a wonderful, *awful* idea!

"I know just what to do!" the designer exclaimed. "I'll protect the paid members from those rockets so lame! The damage they deal is divided by two- but if your account's free, then sucks to be you!"

That is to say, you tweak the values so that the element is balanced after all- against other donators. Against non-paid members, it's appropriately crushing. New players would initially play against other new/low-ranked members, then after about a week they'd be included in the normal matchmaking pool- with 4-5 days of paid member privileges at no charge.

Eesh. It's like the dark side, except you just fell into it because you couldn't stop poking around.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mass Effect 2: The (Tabletop) RPG

Oh dear, another case of downtime for this blog. I've spent these last couple of weeks focusing more on matters like the Warlock High playtest, finals, hunting for odd jobs so as to make rent. . .oh, and Mass Effect 2.

As usual, this doesn't mean I've stopped working on games. Take this rough draft for a Mass Effect tabletop rpg's character creation system, which I worked out in the middle of a psych class last week.

Five ability scores. Same basic function as in d20 system, though importance is reduced regarding character's combat performance.
-Brawn: Muscle and toughness.
-Agility: Dexterity, as personified by Thane Krios
-Intellect: Self-explanatory.
-Awareness: Insight and alertness.
-Charisma: Persuasive ability and inner drive.

Several skills for each ability- arrangement again roughly matches d20 system, undecided as to use of ranks. Also covers much of d20 system's "saving throws".
-Coercion (Charisma): Akin to Renegade conversation options.
-Diplomacy (Charisma): Akin to Paragon conversation options.
-Engineering (Intellect): Design, construction, also repairs. Numerous areas of expertise; initially select one, receive additional subjects for free as skill improves.
-Fitness (Brawn): Feats of strength, wrestling.
-Hacking (Intellect): Subversion of computer systems and electronics. Used to bypass security measures, sabotage machines.
-Investigation (Awareness): Research, acquiring and trading information.
-Notice (Awareness): Alertness, capacity to detect minor details.
-Perception (Awareness): Insight, especially regarding other people.
-Reflex (Agility): Reaction time, capacity to quickly take action.
-Resilience (Charisma): Resistance to stress, fear, other forms of mental trauma.
-Rush (Agility): Movement speed when sprinting, navigation through obstacles. If movements are done under fire, helps defense.
-Science (Intellect): General knowledge. Numerous areas of study; like engineering, initially select one.
-Stamina (Brawn): Toughness, capacity to withstand debilitating physical conditions.
-Stealth (Agility): Performance on sneaking missions.

Four expertise scores, categories derived from video game:
-Biotics: Should be obvious.
-Tech: Use of tech-based powers. Examples include Overload, First Aid via medi-gel.
-Proficiency: Benefits of military training, similar experience. Allows use of weapons and vehicles, various advanced combat tactics.
-General: Benefits involving other aspects of character- aforementioned skills and abilities. Broader applications, though most still of some use during combat encounters.

Score values determined in similar fashion as point buy ability scores, without escalating costs- each expertise score could have a base value equal to current level, maximum limit equal to twice that. Point distribution equivalent to choice of character class in Mass Effect, other tabletop RPGs. Exact mechanical benefits twofold.

First, determines limits on powers. All characters select new power each time level is gained- can provide new ability, upgrade existing ability, or provide package of other benefits. Similar to feats in d20 system. All powers have expertise value, reflecting general potency- unique class powers in Mass Effect games provide examples of higher expertise values. Some require other specific powers, standard "feat chain" arrangement. No other prerequisites. Limiting formula fairly straightforward: (total sum of expertise values in given category) cannot exceed ([expertise score]*[number of powers in category]). Amount by which latter value exceeds former value provides limited general-purpose secondary benefit, perhaps reserve of emergency 'action points'.

Second, expertise scores determine base defenses. Concept based around Mass Effect 2: Biotic score provides Barrier, Tech provides Shields, Proficiency grants Armor and General boosts Health.

As for alien species, arrangement simple. Some races have Handicaps of rank I or higher, applying to skills or entire ability scores. Handicaps cause characters to automatically fail most relevant checks unless opponent has equal or greater limitation. Volus might have Handicap (Brawn I), Hanar characters Handicap (Brawn II, Agility I), Elcor characters (Reflex I or II). GM can always declare handicap inapplicable to given situation- Hanar character might only receive small penalty on roll to strangle unsuspecting human. Also, certain General Powers provide limited capacity to reduce given handicap by one step.

Note to self: Mordin Solus's verbal quirk very helpful, cuts down nicely on time required for explanations. Keep in mind for future posts.

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Monday, March 1, 2010

Warlock High: Society

1. An ill-bred mage, esp. one who uses magic in a dishonorable or irresponsible way.
2. (archaic) One of a former group of black arts practitioners that attempted to assassinate the Sutran Kings.
3. (slang) A person who behaves in an aggressive and rebellious manner.

It started with the idea that alot of the faculty members were ex-military.

It completely fit the school, after all. Warlock High's supposed to be a highly dangerous environment, but I also wanted it to be a place with its own culture rather than simply being dysfunctional- to have people tell newcomers "This is Warlock High" as a way of saying Things Work Differently Here. Making the teachers ridiculously hardcore (even if they seem like pushovers at first) is right in line with that.

There could even be a good reason for it. I remembered how John McCain, during the '08 presidential debates, had proposed letting soldiers acquire teacher's licenses without having to pass many of the exams that'd normally be required. If seasoned faculty members at Warlock High became teachers through a program like that, it would imply that the country was involved in military engagements back in the mid-to-late 80s. Say, what if. . .

And just like that, I knew what kind of society the players lived in. Things would generally be the same as if they were living in America, with wizardly trappings mixed in (such as how the school has both a parking lot and a broomstick rack). But from a big-picture, geopolitical standpoint. . .they're living in a post-soviet republic. Except that instead of a communist USSR, the propaganda-happy ruling body was an elitist magocracy.

I don't have a detailed timeline in mind, nor a clear alternate history for this world as a whole. This is not a story that's going to involve any detailed exposition on the subject of geopolitics; after talking it out with the players, we'll likely just have it be so that most of the world's the same and their nation of Unspecifiedavia is located somewhere in/around eastern europe. What does matter about this Cliff's Notes background is that it mean their society isn't exactly the most stable one around.

To the players, things like cable TV and a democratic government are normal. They've been around for as long as our heroes have been alive- but not much longer than that. Older generations have known a time before these western cultural imports; one where the schools and state-controlled media warned the people about the sinister foreign capitalists whose "modern technology" would steal your soul as you labored endlessly in one of Henry Ford's assembly lines. This era ended with an upheaval that lasted for the better part of a decade; there was no open revolution or clash of armies, but the struggles and violence escalated well beyond the point that could be described as simply riots and protests.

Today, social tensions are still evident. One possible example of this that's relevant to our heroes would be the rivalry between Warlock High and the nearby Cowfreckle Academy. (If anyone's still wondering why I'd use a name like Cowfreckle, it's because the school's initial concept is/was a Captain Ersatz of a certain other prestigious magical institution) Even today, anyone who's somebody in this country's high society either went to Cowfreckle or one of several similar schools (you know, like Goatmole or Chickenpimple or okay I'll stop now). Whereas the people at Warlock High, a generation ago, would have been the filthiest of peasants- acting disrespectfully towards a cowfreckle student was unthinkable twice over, once because of social status and once because they'd be lucky to even know basic magic. But now, thanks to public education and a legal system where all citizens are supposed to be equal. . .ye olde paradigm hath shifted.

At least, that's an academic analysis of the social forces at work. If you wanted the outlooks/attitudes of the people involved. . .well, a picture's worth a thousand words.

(6:08:12 PM) Dagda: This would be a perfect example of Warlock vs Cowfreckle personified, I think.
(6:09:20 PM) Othar: >First panel
Okay I get it, casual vs. badass retro-futuristic, cool, I think I get i-
>Second panel
Oh goddamnit hahahaha
(6:09:58 PM) Dagda: Yeah, more panel 2.
(6:10:35 PM) Othar: I figured the second I got to the second panel.
(6:10:51 PM) Othar: Holy hell it's like the Sneetches met the Grinch for the first time.

In the end, the biggest reason for me to base Warlock High's setting on post-soviet republics is simple. "Is it the duty of the people to support their society, or the duty of the society to support its people?" In nations like Ukraine, there now for the first time exists a youngest generation that is more likely to agree with the latter option. The themes of the school fighting genre- as seen in their punk/delinquent/social outcast protagonists- take on a very interesting significance when they're set in a society like this.

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