13th Age Icons – Old Solar System

January 19, 2022

This week I have been reading some Leigh Brackett planetary romance novels and thinking about the Old Solar System, the one writers imagined before the early space probes confirmed there was no life on Mars of Venus. There are some games out there that use this milieu of canals and crumbling ruins on Mars, and lush jungles teeming with dinosaurs on Venus, such as Rocket Age or Cavaliers of Mars, as well as some modern works of fiction, such as S. M. Stirling’s In the Court of the Crimson Kings.

The inspiration I had for a game, was to drop Atlantis into the Old Solar System mix. Let us just start by saying the universe and the laws of physics were different before the fall of Atlantis, and thus handwave away the boring bits of modern science. Then we drop the players and their characters into this world at the height of Atlantean power, as its empire stretches across the known worlds of the Solar System in an era of glory and shadows. We can add the “missing world” between Mars and Jupiter that people thought might have once been the source of the asteroid belt, a Vulcan between Mercury and the Sun, and perhaps a Nemesis counter-Earth on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth. Jupiter can have a solid surface, an area equal to one hundred Earths to swallow the armies of Atlantis in endless steppes and insectoid mound cities. The unknown worlds beyond Saturn can be a frontier of dark enigma and alien menace.

Now we all know how this story ends – Atlantis in its hubris angers the Gods and is destroyed in a deluge – so the standard D&D5E campaign of heroic defence of the status quo is not a good fit for the spine of the campaign. After all, the status quo is an imperial power that exploits its military might to colonise and exploit the other worlds. So it is easy for Atlantis to be presented in ambiguous our even villainous terms, and for the player characters to be a band of exiles, rebels, and outlaws. At any rate, part of the creative tension for the campaign is the how, when, and why Atlantis eventually falls.

As I often do at the start of planning a potential campaign, I use the Icons framework from the 13th Age roleplaying game to help think about the major personalities, factions, and organisations for the campaign. At the start of the campaign the players define their relationship with the icons, whether positive/allied, negative/adversarial, or complicated/ambiguous. Icons that are not of interest to the players then fade into the background unless needed as a B plot filler. So here is a first draft of icons for the Atlantean Solar System, mixing some ideas from Ancient Greece and planetary romance tales.

The High King

The High King is the ruler of Atlantis, his legitimacy derived from divine descent in an unbroken line of Kings back to the founding of Atlantis. As the embodiment of monarchy he is the ultimate source of order, law, and justice, and high priest to the traditional Gods of Atlantis. The current High King married a daughter of the morning star, a love match contrary to the advice of the oracles. All of the High King’s children are daughters, so he has no male heir to succeed him as High King. The High Queen is believed by many to have been cursed by the Gods, but the High King will not divorce her. In desperation, the proud High King has begun a search for immortality. Meanwhile, plots and conspiracies begin to form around potential marriage alliances with his daughters.

The Council

Nine noble houses share blood ties to the High King, and by ancient law must be consulted by the High King before new laws can be passed, or any of their number executed for treason. The Council is the embodiment of aristocracy, born to rule, with wealth based on land ownership, with no room for merchants or commoners in their ranks. While the long debates of the Council encompass diverse opinions, conservative views and traditional virtues dominate. As the High King grows weaker, unity in the Council fades, as each arrogant House plots to gain control of the succession to the throne of Atlantis.

The Helmsman

The leader of the Fallen Star, a crashed space ship from outside the solar system. He has become a key advisor to the High King, as the lore the Helmsman and his Nepharian crew have shared has increased the technology and sorcery of Atlantis to new heights. To the envy of many, the original Nepharian crew are immortal, though their children born in Atlantis are not. Powerful people are also jealous of the influence that the Helmsman has over the High King. The Nepharians seek to repair their ship, so they can escape the doom that pursues them from across the stars.

The Vril Guild

The wealthiest merchants of the Atlantean Empire, are the Vril Guild, which has a monopoly on mining Vril from the planet Aschanda, which lies between Shalbatana (Mars) and Neberu (Jupiter). Vril is they key power source for the wonders of Atlantis, its cruel war machines, and every new feat of invention and engineering that the merchant princes can devise. Unlike most of the factions in Atlantis, the guild is open to women. The wealth from this monopoly funds every imaginable luxury and decadence, as well as the ability to influence policy through corruption. Despised by the Council and the Myrmidons, the guild knows gold can also buy a path to the throne.

The Myrmidons

The generals of Atlantis all share views that justify the expansion of the Atlantean empire. While a few see it as the duty of Atlantis to uplift other peoples and bring them the wonders of Atlantis, most Myrmidons see the endless wars as opportunities for glory, loot, and slaves. While excellent soldiers, the Myrmidons tend to be conservative and superstitious, as only the wrath of the Gods can defeat the armies and fleets of Atlantis. The foremost Myrmidon is the governor of the Atlantean possessions on Neberu. As the empire expands and bleeds on the frontiers, demands for conscripts from Atlantis, slave-soldiers from the prison plant of Vulcan, and levies from its tributary states keep growing.

The Tyrant

The most brilliant, charismatic, and treacherous leader from Atlantis now languishes in exile on distant Kayamanu (Saturn). Loved in many quarters for unexpected victories against great odds, they are also hated for their philandering, corruption, and dueling victories against many nobles. The Tyrant indulges in smuggling drugs from the twilight shrouded fungal forests of Kayamanu, designing new superweapons, and annoying distant rivals with multi-layered conspiracies, while awaiting the inevitable recall from exile to deal with some future crisis that threatens Atlantis.

The Orator

The most brilliant, charismatic, and ambitious leader in Atlantis is a rabble rousing hero of the people, and the best admiral in its fleets. Exploiting the decline in the High King’s authority and the divisions in the Council, the Orator offers a vision of a better Atlantis, one where all male citizens can vote for their rulers and their laws, and share equally in the wealth of the empire. Unpopular in the highest circles of Atlantis, but fearing riots if he were to be assassinated, the Orator has been “promoted” to the office of governor of Shalbatana in the hope that the Warlord or the Red Queen will prove his undoing.

The Priest-King

The leader of the ancient Saurian civilisation on Ninsi’anna (Venus), which once had colonies and outposts throughout the Solar System, before abandoning them and withdrawing home in some long forgotten crisis. A tributary state of Atlantis, the Saurian pyramid cities have many wonders and legacies form their Age of Glory. The Priest-King balances sharing some of this lore with Atlantis, against the desires of his people to keep their traditional way of life intact. The Priest-King is also the foremost alchemist of this age, with many elixirs and potions derived from the fecund flora and fauna of the tall forests of dawn star world.

The Amazon Queen

A leader of a hidden city, where women rule. The Amazons once defeated and invaded Atlantis in an ancient war, earning rights of free travel throughout the Solar System. Individual amazon warriors sometimes fight for Atlantis, and sometimes against Atlantis. The Myrmidons would love to find and plunder the secret fortress city of the Amazons, which they believe lies concealed somewhere on the Tellurian Moon. The Amazon Queen has an unmatched reputation for courage, wisdom, and virtue. Like the High King, she also claims divine descent from the Gods. Of late the Queen’s brow is furrowed by dire portents from her oracle.

The Warlord

The leader of the nomad tribes of Shalbatana, the Warlord is the most honourable foe of Atlantis. Pledged to fight until the Atlantean oppressors are removed from the red soil and canal cities of Shalbatna, the Warlord is a dangerous and wily leader of seasonal raiders, professional bandits, and all the dispossessed refugees who have sought refuge from the harsh laws of Atlantis in the untamed dryland deserts. The Warlord faithfully follows the ancient traditions and customs, even when it poses a risk to his cause. His base is usually a wilderness camp or cave system, changing with every passing season.

The Red Witch

The last free Queen of the city states of Shalbatana, the Red Witch is the most implacable foe of Atlantis, seeking vengeance for a family slaughtered by the Myrmidons. The Red Witch uses terror, black magic, torture, assassins, and revolutionaries alike in pursuit of her feud. Some of her followers will occasionally act as mercenaries for other factions, but the Red Witch is unrelenting in her opposition to the works and men of Atlantis. Among the canal people, she is both feared and loved, in the dryland wastes she is considered without honour, but in Atlantis she is feared and hated. Great would be the reward for the hero who can humble her in chains before the High King.

The Storm Wolf

Leader of the pirate clans of the Great Red Storm of Neberu, the Storm Wolf is a fearless, reckless thief. From the safety of storm hidden bases, unassailable to the Atlantean fleets, he raids convoys and cities alike, with swift attacks and rapid retreats. His followers have links to smuggling networks, and other bands of criminals throughout the solar system. The Star Wolf can offer sanctuary to the enemies of Atlantis, for a price, which includes access to the myriad debaucheries of his free city. The Storm Wolf is also infamous for freeing slaves found aboard the ships he plunders, and recruiting them to join his clan.

The Dreamer

In ancient days, the Titans were overthrown by the Gods, and imprisoned in deep and dark places. In recent years one of the imprisoned Titans has begun calling out to people in their dreams. These dreams convey secrets and ways of accessing powers never meant for mortal minds and hands. A hundred cults have secretly bloomed in Atlantis, and elsewhere in the Solar System. Some cultists are content with a few crumbs of power and pleasure, others have become zealots who search for the hidden prison of the Titans.

Hubris

The unifying theme for all the icons is hubris. Nearly all of the icons display elements of excessive pride, self-confidence, arrogance, conceit, vanity and similar traits. They all believe that they are right in the views of what should happen, and that compromise is a fatal weakness. Thus are the seeds for tragedy sown.


Avoiding the Setting/Mechanics trap

April 14, 2016

“Setting or mechanics first” is a common roleplaying game design question. Its a bit of a trap, because each complements the other, and design is an iterative process. Sure, if you create a compelling new setting, you might do a long brain dump first. Vice versa, if you devise a new way of rolling dice/shuffling cards no one else has thought of before, that likely needs some careful number crunching before you show it off to the world for feedback.

In trying to find some design space to wiggle around in and create something new, I have been much more character focused. I have found my players are pretty much happy with any setting that fits “same, but different” and for the mechanics, the simpler, the better.

My current campaign is a fantasy world with musketeers and awakening great old ones. It uses the Runequest 6/Mythras system, which is a toolkit I wanted for bounded character power, crunch detail, and combat verisimilitude – following the simple and easy Dragon Age system of my previous campaign, which suffered from the classic problem of “bloated Hit Points” means nothing really threatens the characters unless its Save or Die!

Thinking about Jared Sorensen’s Big Three Questions (+bonus from John Wick) …

  • What is your game about?
  • How does your game do this?
  • How does your game encourage / reward this?
  • How do you make this fun?

… I think its clear to me that while my players are having fun with intrigue, duels, seductions, and running away from tentacles, that I did not quite tune the campaign’s themes to the RQ rules adequately.

I had not played RQ with the Passion mechanic before, and I can now see that the game would have been better if I had emphasized musketeer behaviour with the passions. While the characters have been getting into trouble a fair bit, almost all of the hard choices are dealt with by passing a “loyalty to empire” passion check. I should have sat down and thought more about the characters, and less about the setting, and identified the passions needed to make the game more like the classic musketeer novels.

I now think that hacking the Sanity mechanic from Call of Cthulhu into a Virtue stat has not worked out too well. Its just taken a bit too long for interesting consequences to turn up, and while that has now happened for one corrupted character (who is now burnt by sunlight, and can only regenerate magic points through self-inflicted pain) I am now looking at corruption mechanics in other games (e.g. Urban Shadows) as doing the job better.

I also wants a game that plays much faster. I now find the combat too detailed, and the handling time for resolution means that as GM I am not feeling a lot of joy in resolving combat scenes. The social mechanics lack the fine detail of the combat mechanics, and that has been a bit of a problem in trying to figure out just what the heck a die roll in front of me means when an Influence check is done. Reading *World games has brought home to me that you should really not ask for die rolls unless something of consequence will actually happen for both success and failure outcomes. Maybe I want something closer to the ‘duel of wits’ mechanic in Burning Wheel?

I have been reading a lot of game systems lately – I am drowning in content from PDFs delivered from Kickstarters and Bundles of Holding – and one that looks really promising to me is the 2d20 system for Age of Conan. The quickstart rules looked like they would satisfy my real life history/martial arts knowledge with some rules for reach and guard stances (which on first reading were significantly more intelligible than those in RQ6) plus a core mechanic that generates a shared resource for the party (something I have been trying to develop myself).

I would like to have a go at designing and publishing a game, and the main obstacle for me at the moment, is trying to come up with an idea for what the characters are about, that has not been done before. I do not want to sink a few years spare time into a ‘fantasy heartbreaker’. Like doing a PhD, I want to try and push the boundary out a bit and build something original. You want to find the “Aha!” idea that has people go “Wow!” about the game when you explain it to them, not shift their eyes sideways to the clock on the wall above you.

I found a new way of looking at characters – which is to think about what you want them to be capable of doing in the setting (and being more specific than just choosing a setting on somewhere on the zero to hero scale). When I recast my core game ideas into a capability framework I get characters that can:

  1. make a choice about the community they identity with (mixed heritage characters are free to go either way)
  2. cast spells and can always cast spells (no running out of magic points)
  3. change the community they exist in (to paraphrase Marx, “the point is not to understand the setting, the point is to change the setting”)
  4. always cooperate with each other (because magic, and because I think it will make for a better game).

Working backwards from that I end up with a game concept that is “orphan street kid mages in a city of spies”. Which is a bit like Blades in the Dark but at least I didn’t end up with a Dogs in the Vineyard clone again.

Changing tack, I was thinking about how to express in game mechanics something that made character’s different and fun, and hit on the Greek word “hubris”. Rather than having luck, fate, fortune (or to stick with the classical theme, Tyche) points being the character meta-currency to influence the game I thought I could call it Hubris to reflect both the kind of behaviour player characters often indulge in, and the kind of behaviour I thought power-hungry mages should be inclined towards:

  • Irrational pride or confidence.
  • Violent or excessive behaviour.
  • Shame, humiliation and gratification.
  • Sexual crimes, prostitution, theft of public or sacred property.
  • An act that offends the Gods.
  • Presumption towards the Gods.
  • Violating the bounds meant for mortals.
  • Lack of humility, modesty, respect or timidity.
  • Faustian bargains for knowledge and power.

Along with Milton’s “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” quote, I found this quote, that really seemed to gel with the idea of mixed race characters who do not belong to any established community and have a lot of questions to answer about their identity:

If you were born Somewhere, hubris would come easy. But if you are Nowhere’s child, hubris is an import, pride a thing you decide to acquire. —Sarah Vowell, GQ, May 1998

Riffing on *World I can use Hubris and rename Fronts as Nemesis. Nemesis is the inescapable agent of downfall, the retributive justice for wrong-doing and presumption, the balancer of too much good fortune. So any time a player uses Hubris to succeed in a task, a possible complication is the countdown clock on one of the Nemesis fronts advancing. I could also use Hubris in a way similar to Corruption in Urban Shadows, a route to advance your character, but not necessarily one you want to indulge in too often.

…and that I think will give me a neat little mechanic for the setting, which fits the capabilities I want the characters to have.