I am exploring two ideas at the moment. One is a world setting built for the players to use cooperative magic. The other is thinking about how to best express a post-apocalyptic setting in the capricious d100 game engine called Runequest.
The story of the shaping of a second age
After thinking about the pitch feedback, I decided that the two strongest ideas were “shadow magic” and to frame the setting with post-apocalyptic themes. So the flying city is the last flying city, and the key role player characters do is scavenging items from the ruins below. In the fallen age, magic is less powerful, and only by burning old magic items can the flying city sustain itself in the air. This could lead to some interesting decisions for the players, e.g. if they have a bad run below, which of their existing artifacts do they turn over as tribute?
The need to burn old magic as fuel is a driving conflict within the setting, but its possibly not the most important conflict. That could be more around influencing what the world will look like once the last of the old magic is gone, and the last city has fallen from the skies.
I have a Manichean inspired conception for the world, in that the world was created by the simultaneous acts of both a powerful source of “light” and a powerful source of “darkness”. The resulting world of shadows is an imperfect and flawed creation, but with strong links to both the Heavens and Hells. I did a quick set of Fractal Terrain maps, and found one that was both a Pangaea style super-continent and looked a little like a tree, with one long spine of mountains and several branching sub-continental regions. So I decided that the world tree is physically present in the world – you can see both the divine and infernal planes from the surface of the world, and you can climb the world tree in either direction to reach them.
The overview for the world history, is that one tribe of pastoral nomads conquered most of the world, and then proceeded to conquer both Hell and Heaven (for which flying fortress cities were useful). Unity in the empire was encouraged through promises of a second age in which the imperfections of the world (such as disease, death etc) would be eliminated. The infernal and divine magic resources were then used to usher in a golden age. I am imagining a medieval society that gets a Moore’s Law of magic, with the benefits of magic doubling every few years, until the apocalyptic crash occurs.
One way I want to link the shadow magic to player characters, is by turning their shadows into magic familiars. The idea here is that characters are special due to fragments of spirits attaching themselves to their souls as babies, whispering secrets to them in their crib, and teaching them magic as they grow up. Which works fine until puberty, when the fragment tries to free itself by possessing the character’s body. At this point the character either destroys the mirror soul, binds it as a servant, or turns into a monster.
I derived the word Varmic from the word Varmint. I imagine the shadow familiars as small creatures, intangible, but with a shadowy shape based on that of a small creature. Personality wise they are like troublesome, mischievous children.
I want to borrow the lackey rules from the musketeer game All for One, and allow the other players in the group to play the Varmic familiar. This would be encouraged with XP, e.g. successfully exploit your master’s passions to get them into trouble. This also allows the group to split up to fulfill a mission, but to all still be present and taking part in the flow of action. In the Runequest (RQ) rules, Varmic familiars could be handled in a way similar to the Fetch spirits of the Animism school of magic. I would allow them to become tangible for short periods of time, so they could push a lever, shift an object, or similar minor deeds in an emergency.
How to make cooperative magic work?
I want to combine express cooperative magic by using the themes of shadows and of weaving, so when people are spell casting they are visibly weaving together threads of light, darkness, and shadow. There are quite a few interesting myths relating to weaving, which can be easily adapted to help make the setting interesting. Part of my campaign research has been to look up translations for words relating to weaving, carpets, fabrics and tapestries.
In the RQ game system, Sorcery magic is the system that is easiest to adapt to cooperative magic. I think the simplest way to do it would be to:
- change Combine shaping by limiting each player to combining one spell, i.e. to combine two or more spells together you need more than one caster
- allowing multiple players to contribute Action Points (AP) towards the time cost of casting the spell – this would allow sorcery spells to potentially be completed much faster than in the RQ rules-as-written (RAW), giving players a major reason to cooperate (and would also mitigate situations where the party is ambushed without prepared magic defences)
- allowing each player to contribute to the magic point (MP) cost of the spell (potentially important in a setting with low MP regeneration)
- allowing each additional caster to augment the chance of the spell casting succeeding (an augment bonus is 1/5 of the skill%).
Usually in RQ RAW you only get one augment, allowing multiple augments to stack definitely makes a cabal of mages more powerful. You would also quickly reach a point where the chance of spell failure dropped to the minimum (5%) and the chance of a critical success would go up a lot (which mainly effects the MP cost of the spell by reducing it).
Another way to potentially handle this within the RQ rules is as a Task. Usually a Task requires four successful skill checks (with a critical success being worth double, and a fumble reducing the score by one). So as each player spends an AP, they make their skill check and move the spell closer to completion.
This is still a complex way of resolving things, and I think keeping some index cards/notepaper around to write the spell shaping down onto would be a good idea to help track everything.
As players master each circle of magic (reach 95% skill, a long-term campaign goal) they could gain the ability to manipulate more than one thread of magic at a time. So they can start combining their own spells, but it should still be useful to work with the other players for faster/cheaper casting.
What makes a world feel post-apocalyptic?
I have been thinking about how to influence the feel of a post-apocalyptic setting through the game mechanics. Web searches for ideas mostly directed me towards articles for writing novels rather than designing games. They key insights I got from these were that you should establish:
- what the apocalyptic event was
- how much time has passed since the event (if its not actually over then its still the apocalypse, not the post-apocalypse)
- what the world looks like now
- what the threats to survival are
- what are the strong characters trying to do, is there a purpose beyond survival?
Useful, but not quite what I was looking for. It does suggest that there is some dramatic tension in having a flying city surviving, when the background suggests it should fall. So it could be a meta-plot for the campaign, that the city will ultimately fall, and all its treasures be lost, but exactly how this happens is something for the campaign to determine in play. This might also work with my thought to adapt the 13th Age Icon system to have major NPCs with two dramatic poles, and the option mid-campaign to for the NPC to make a choice between one of the two poles. For example a Paladin in rusted armour might have “do the right thing” and “defend the city” as dramatic choices (for player characters, they key would be to have two or more Passions that are in contradiction to each other).
I had some hazy memories of Gamma World (too gonzo) and Twilight 2000 (too bleak), but its hard to ignore Apocalypse World (AW), which I grabbed a copy of through Bundle of Holding a while back. AW is a narrative style game that downplays setting, and focuses on characters, with the GM strictly instructed to not have a pre-planned story. For me, that relegates AW to convention play. While I like sandbox settings, I just prefer game systems that are closer to the old school simulation approach.
Looking through the AW character playbooks I pick out the following themes:
- the world is violent and full of dangerous people, you must fight to survive
- gasoline, bullets, vehicles, and bases are important resources
- government has collapsed, its an age of petty warlords
- things break, even though fragments of beauty remain
- barter economy.
Now looking at the advice for the GM I pick out the following themes:
- barf forth apocalyptica – nothing is too over the top
- look through crosshairs – everything is a target, anything can be destroyed, there is no status quo
- fuckery and intermittent rewards – the apocalypse twists things to bad outcomes, so the player characters do not always get a good reward for their efforts.
There are other themes and principles, but they are more specific to the style of game AW is built for.
Putting the post-apocalyptic theme into RQ mechanics
RQ is a system in which characters are always vulnerable, so little needs to change for a violence filled world. If you wanted to be harsh, you could eliminate Luck Points, or make Luck Points one use resources.
Resource scarcity for RQ characters tends to be expressed through wealth, equipment and MP. Focusing on MP, I think a post-apocalyptic setting should be one with slow recovery of MP. Borrowing from the health recovery rules I am thinking of:
- first regenerate 1-3 MP at the end of the next day
- then regenerate 1-3 MP at the end of the next week
- then regenerate 1-3 MP at the end of each following month, until full MP is restored.
This system means that using a few MP is something that is easy to recover from, but if you have to go deep into your reserves, then it could take months to fully recover. A downside is that its a bit more paperwork to administer. On the plus side, it would reward sharing the MP cost of spells through cooperation. The group as a whole is stronger if everyone contributes 1 MP, than if one character spent 5 MP.
In reconciling government collapse, with the continuing civilisation in the flying city, I think this can be handled through Passions. Start by prohibiting Passions that focus on organisations, and require characters to focus their Passions on individuals. No one is loyal to the memory of the Old Empire, they are loyal to the Immortal Empress or the Unborn Emperor. No one believes in the Old Church, they believe in the promises of a new prophet. On the ground, use a “points of light” framework for outposts of order, and surround them with wastelands.
Things break. When players fumble, break things. This means actually using the rules for weapon damage. Further to this, allow all weapons to apply the Sunder special effect to armour. The purpose of armour is to get you through the next battle. If you want shining armour, you have to work hard for it. Special items should have limited charges. Emphasise fragility by making resupply uncertain, if they don’t buy that item of wonder when they have the chance, then make sure they never see it again.
Barter economy. The Old Empire debased the currency so much that a hoard of 1,000 silver coins is worth 10-25 silver in terms of current units of account. So worthless no one will want to carry the stuff out of the dungeons. Better yet, avoid giving the characters coins. Just give them stuff, which they then have to trade for other stuff. Old items are valuable because they cannot be made any more, and because they can be turned into Rune Dust. Rune Dust is the commodity sought by the flying city, to keep the bound demons and angels alive so the city does not fall. It is also required if the characters want to enchant objects, or to make one use items with Alchemy. So its the gasoline/bullets of the setting.
RQ started the tradition of splatbooks with the complex cultures developed for the races in Glorantha, and this attention to cultures and plausible villains has remained a hallmark of the RQ game. So a post-apocalyptic setting is not necessarily something that plays well to this strength, as the apocalypse by definition is a civilisation ending event. What can be emphasised is cultural change.
The world keeps changing, even if the last flying city is a little bubble of preserved stasis. There will have been invasions and migrations. If a world spanning empire has been destroyed, then in the vacuum that follows new powers will rise. If the old Gods were burned to fuel the Old Empire’s magical economy, then there are new Gods trying to fill the void. It will still be worthwhile developing the pre-apocalyptic cultures, as a touchstone for reference. “Like the old Jennati merchant princes, but with cannibalism!”
I think that is enough for this post. Did I miss anything that you feel should be included in a post-apocalyptic setting?
I’ve seen something like the Varmic familiar in a book series called age of unreason. I thought it was a good explanation for the magic and it looks like a nice fit for your goals. The whole thing with magic coming from something else helps make it more than just sufficiently primitive science.
I like the magic recovery, it also helps encourage spreading the load among a party.
I suspect there is more that can be done with co-operative magic but this is a good foundation and could work without any more twiddly bits.
The flying city provides a nice contrast. a point trying to maintain stasis by exporting its entropy into the rest of the world.
Its sounds pretty good.
The problem I think with basing the system on RQ VI, is that the Sorcery system has a lot of overpowered spells intended more for use by NPCs than PCs. So the final spell range is a little too narrow. I can wait and hope the upcoming Glorantha and Classic Fantasy supplements extend the spell range, but right now there is not enough for the players to choose between.
So I am now thinking I need to do some more thinking about what kind of magical conflicts I want to resolve with this mechanic. And how to represent it visually – I have seen several games use clock dial visuals, so I started thinking about the tic-tac-toe grid, and how each player could take turns adding a rune into the matrix … but the end result would need to be easy to interpret.
The flying city is something I need to start mapping out – I really want something that goes a whole level beyond the flat city on a slab of rock.