Race, Religion and Rolling Dice – Making plans for GENCON 2016

LuigiCastellani_MYTHKELI2While there are 150 days to GENCON, there are only another ten days until the deadline to register events for GENCON, and I will be spending half that time away from the internet. So I only have a few days left to nail down a solid concept to offer as a GENCON game if I want to be sure of getting a table and a blurb in the schedule. The other option is just to trust in Games on Demand, which would also give me a lot of schedule flexibility to go to game design seminars. (The art used here was taken from the Silent Legion artpack)

Race – Halflings

By Halfling, I mean a character with a mixed heritage, with parents from two different “races”, rather than a person of Hobbit-size stature. Tolkien wrote about half-elves and half-orcs in The Lord of The Rings, and in the 1970s this idea entered roleplaying games through Dungeons & Dragons. Race in roleplaying games tends to gloss over real world issues with “race”, a term which is nonsensical in biology (if different “races” can interbreed, then they are not actually different “races”). Race is also a loaded social construct from the worst days of slavery in North America and 20th century totalitarianism, and continues to negatively influence society today.

Instead RPGs tend to focus on cosmetic appearance, access to unique traits or abilities (e.g. the ability to see in darkness), and as a modifier to attributes. Its often a way of distinguishing a character,  can generate some banter around the table, but does not usually drive the fictional narrative while roleplaying in the game.

So I have been thinking about a setting where the premise is that there is a group of humanoid cultures with distinct visual appearances, who can enjoy carnal relations, which can lead to children. These children are referred to as halflings rather than half-men or half-gnomes. Halflings have two core differences from their parents. The first is that they cannot themselves have children (like hybrids in the real world). The second is that they have stronger magical talents – drawing on the inherent gift abilities of two heritages rather than one heritage.

The social consequences of not being able to have children are pretty significant in a world setting with a medieval level of socio-economic development. People are not going to want to see their children marry a halfling, when there will be no natural born grandchildren to pass the family name and lands to. In a world without public health or social welfare systems, children and grandchildren are what you expect to use to help you in your old age. Remember that one of the few grounds for divorce in the middle ages was inability to have children. Dialing up the issue a level, if a culture practices infanticide, then I think that halfling babies would be a common choice for exposure to the elements. In times of hunger, the halfling child is less likely to get food, in times of plague, less likely to get medicine.

I have a couple of reasons for adding some magical talents to halflings. One is that its still useful to have some kind of lever for the player of a halfling character to use in gameplay. The other is that if magic power is real, then like all forms of power it has the potential to corrupt the user, and the potential to be poorly regarded by the community. Nearly every ancient civilisation had laws prohibiting the use of evil magic, such as curses. This would definitely be a setting with gift based magic. You could still have magic gained from study, knowledge and devotion, but gift magic would be a strength of halfling characters. Depending on the local social setting the halfling might be a respected expert, or a despised outsider. Certainly if magic can be a reliable tool, then whatever power structure the society has will seek to control magical resources.

Now lets add an over-the-top fantasy twist. This is inspired by the word Manzer, an old word for bastard, which sounds a bit like monster, and might be related to the Hebrew word “mamzer “(person born from forbidden union, mum=defect, zar=strange/alien). Carnal unions leading to halflings are prohibited because they always result in twins, and one twin always turns into a monster with the onset of puberty. Some might argue that all teenagers turn into monsters, but I digress.

So this twist might lead to societies exerting a lot of control over haflings.  This could take a range from killing suspected halflings, sending them away, keeping them to serve as scapegoats, selling them as slaves, locking them up in prisons, or forcing abandoned orphans to live a life of closely supervised public service. It could serve as a useful marker for all cultures and states in the game setting – how do they typically treat halflings?

The monster twist might be excessive for a setting that seeks to explore concepts of race and prejudice – if the monster halflings are Always Chaotic Evil then the setting racism against halflings becomes reasonable and rationale – unlike the real world where racism is pointless bigotry.

Questions I need to explore on this topic include:

  1. Is racial prejudice (or privilege) a topic that can be fun to explore in a fantasy roleplaying game? I need to do a lot more research on real world topics before I can address this in a roleplaying game.
  2. What are the characters expected to do when confronted with prejudice? Are they trying to change the world to a better place, or just make it a place where they can survive?
  3. How do I make this work in the game mechanics – if its a central part of the game it needs to go way beyond +2 Charisma!

Religion – Build Your Own God

Pitching a roleplaying game where Gods are a central component is not a new idea, both Glorantha and Tekumel addressed this in the early days of roleplaying games. Its also not new to pitch a game as one where the player characters operate at a Godlike level, or can aspire to as part of the “zero-to-hero” progression of the game.

The approach I want to take in a setting is to follow the fiction of William Gladstones Craft Sequence, Glen Cook’s Instrumentalities of Night series, with a touch of Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Tales of the Fallen. These settings invert the traditional sequence of Gods creating sentient life, and instead its sentient life that creates the Gods (which, if you are an atheist, is exactly how it works in the real world). While the Gods are powerful, they remain vulnerable to clever mortals, and can be killed.

Building on from mortal Gods, I want the default mode of play for the setting to be that the player characters are a cabal of magic users, connected to the husk of a dead God. Individual campaigns can answer the question how and why this came about. There are a few things that I think the husk can do for a game that are cool:

  1. The connection to the husk gives the characters a reason to be together. Going a further step, the mystic connection to the husk and other cabal members explains why the players are aware of each other’s actions, even when their characters are in different locations.
  2. As part of the initial setting construction, the players choose the attributes of their husk, and by doing so signal to the game master what they want to see in their campaign. A husk of war and agriculture, should be a different game experience, when compared to a husk of poetry and commerce.
  3. The classic problem of magic using characters exhausting their magical energy is dealt with by allowing the players to choose to draw down energy from the husk. No need to go back to the Inn for a cup of tea and a lie down. This can be a mixed blessing if the character accidentally makes the husk rouse itself from torpor.
  4. Rather than have each character track a sanity, virtue or corruption score, the husk becomes a shared “conflict gauge”. In a way, the party is their own worst enemy, as only through their actions can the husk rouse itself and attempt to possess the body of a cabal member.
  5. As a shared resource, the husk can act like the gang framework in Blades in the Dark. It levels up as the characters level up.
  6. The husk can provide access to traits – unusual attributes and powers – drawn from the divine portfolios the God had mastery over when it was alive and kicking.
  7. As a power source that other people seek to control, the husk can give the characters a set of friends, enemies, and social organisations to interact with.

Questions I need to explore on this topic include:

  1. What is the best way of expressing all the conceptual relationships in game mechanics?
  2. How to best develop all the husk attributes? Is a husk tied to a particular race?
  3. Can the game scale well from low fantasy to high fantasy? What is the intended end game for the cabal?
  4. How to handle the conflict gauge – how common should it be for the husk to rouse and what is the chance of a character being possessed?

 

Pros and Cons of System Choices

I have a few other setting ideas, but I think the Halfling and Husk ideas are my strongest. So here a few ideas on the pros and cons of some different game systems I could use to give expression to these ideas.

Out of scope approaches

I do not think a class/level game system will do the job, unless I just copy something with an open game license (OGL), as trying to balance a class/level system takes a lot of work. Which as a one-person band, I would struggle to do. Same goes for trying to recreate a fully flexible magic engine, as with Ars Magica or Mage the Ascension. I do not think I can build better compared to systems with 20+ years of development. I will need to take a more focused approach to magic.

Old School Approaches

If I were to use an older game system it would be an OGL toolkit system like the D100 system.

Pros: easy for me to build a richly detailed setting to guide player choices, good at visceral combat scenes, lots of existing material to work with, character growth is flexible, potential audience of fans.

Cons: legacy systems influence is hard to shake, mechanic handling time is high in RQ6 (my current D100 system), not so good at handling social conflict, character growth is slow, character skills tend to converge together over time, not a good system for one-off convention games with people unfamiliar with the system.

Powered by the Apocalypse

My experience in playing the *World family of games is limited. Its such a strong break from the traditional physics engine approaches of the game systems I grew up with. But after a lot of reading (Hamish Cameron’s The Sprawl in particular) I have come to appreciate the focus on creating a game experience drawn on a specified fiction. For handling sensitive topics, the players can choose when prejudice is a problem to a large degree. The succeed with consequences approach is also rich for interaction with the husk concept.

A downside is that the players have to be willing to share more of the workload in running the game. I have experimented a little in my current game with throwing choices about what happens next over to the players, and they have looked quite uncomfortable with just choosing an outcome rather than relying on dice or GM fiat. Another little downside for me, is that a system which empowers a group to build its own setting is one where I don’t present a cool setting rich in gritty details for people.

A hybrid fusion?

I do wonder if I can take the fiction focus and other elements (Agenda, Principles, Moves) of the *World family and combine them with some elements of older games. The current game engine drawing my eye is the 2d20 system Mophidius is using for their Conan line. It looks to satisfy one of my personal interests (relatively accurate handling of historic weapons and armour) while also having a mechanic system that could play off the husk idea through the Momentum/Doom pools that empower special player and GM moves within the game.

Pro: dice pool system should work well for the husk, and the traditional mechanics will be easy for a wide range of players to grasp.

Con: probably needs a license or successful product pitch.

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