RPG Creations and Musings.

Introducing Ninth Legion

Early in the first century AD, a Roman legion vanished from the records. This legion, the Legio IX Hispana, took part in the invasion of Britain. Later in its history, it suffered a serious defeat when Boudicea revolted against Roman rule, and was reinforced by troops from the German frontier. Its last recorded presence in the historical records was in 108AD in Eboracum (modern day York). It was not present in the complete list of active legions recorded by Marcus Aurelius in 180AD.

In the popular version of history, the legion vanished when it went north to put down an uprising of Picts in Scotland. Many modern day historians believe the legion was simply reposted or disbanded, but for a historical fantasy RPG setting, there are much more fun things we can do!

In the Ninth Legion setting, the entire legion found itself transported to another world, which they called Arcadia. In Arcadia, magic and monsters are real, geography is sometimes fluid, and cursing an enemy is a dangerous thing to do. The Romans were not the first group to cross over- some Celtic tribes had already settled there.

There was no way back, so the Romans also settled, and did their best both to continue their lives and impose their values in this strange place.

A hundred years have passed since the Romans first arrived, and the city of New Rome rules a province of the Empire on another world. The player characters are Agents of the Ninth– imperial intelligence operatives with the duty of dealing with threats to New Rome that the army can’t deal with. Some of these threats are open, some covert, some external, some internal. Agents of the Ninth include people from throughout Arcadia, not just the Roman parts; New Rome and the people of Arcadia share enemies, though relations are often strained or hostile.

The following is an extract from the book’s introduction, detailing the people of Arcadia.

People of Arcadia

There are several human groups who make their home in Arcadia. These groups resemble certain peoples of the old world, but have no memory of it- they have been on Arcadia for centuries longer than the Romans, at least. In any case, the New Romans consider them to be natives of Arcadia, and refer to them as the Arcadian Tribes.

Broadly speaking, these people come in three tribal groups. They consist of the Belgae, the Iverni and the Picts. The Belgae are nomadic warriors with shapechanging powers. The Iverni are the most settled of the Arcadian groups, and many of them are either allied to New Rome or under its rule. Finally there are the Picts, who have both differences and similarities to the Picts of the old world. On Arcadia, they worship and gain power from the Fae.

There are signs of older vanished civilisations on Arcadia. The stone circles and monoliths which dot parts of the land are zones of stability, and as mysterious to the Arcadian tribes as they are to the New Romans. Pyramids as magnificent as those of Egypt are present in the southern plains. Even in New Roman territory, the Library of Athena was not created by them- it was discovered.

The only true natives of Arcadia are the Fae. The Fae are magical beings, and include the nature spirits and genii loci acknowledged by the Romans, even in the old world, great savage beasts who are all the more frightening because of the signs of intelligence they sometimes show, goblins and ogres, and the cruel Fomori who rule over the lesser Fae. As a rule, the Romans fear and hate the Fae, who are capricious creatures and fiercely oppose civilisation. Worse, they hold an entire race of people in inhuman servitude, exacting bloody sacrifices from them.

The Fae see the Romans as invaders and despoilers of Arcadia, who need to be wiped out. After all, the Romans have already forced the Iverni to follow their ways. The human allies of the Fae, chiefly the Picts, feel the same way about the Romans. For its part, the New Roman state needs to impose its virtues, and above all else order and stability, not just on the people of Arcadia, but the very land. Otherwise it will be swept away as the older civilisations were.

For some the price is to high. Even those who see order as desirable will not happily submit to Roman conquest- freedom is more important. Those closest to the Fae do not value order. The Fae themselves hate stability, and only value the temporary order they can impose themselves.

* * * *

Some of the worst threats the Agents of the Ninth can face are powerful hostile Fae who set themselves up as gods, taking human sacrifices from human followers who are as much victims as allies. How can one deal with such a situation when New Roman interests are at stake, and pure brute force is not going to provide a solution?

Historical Fantasy Patreon

As anyone who follows me on social media is probably aware by now, I’ve just started a Patreon to fund me writing historic fantasy RPG settings. The best way to think of it is as a “subscription” service for some of my writing in that field. The first setting will be a fantastic version of Alexandria, early in the Roman Empire.

Later on I intend to post my reflections on the Patreon, but for now I’m a bit shocked. Shocked in a good way- it reached the base goal of $100 per setting in less than 24 hours, and with a bit of luck will reach the $200 goal, where I add in Fate RPG mechanics for the settings.

I don’t know why the Patreon worked, but I’m very happy it has.

Here it is!

Things to come

Gosh, it’s been an age since my last blog entry. It’s time to rectify that with a quick post and a hope for more. I have many coming projects this year I want to write about.

Some of these are:

  • Time of the wolves. Time of the Wolves is a scenario supplement for Age of Arthur, the dark ages fantasy game I wrote with Graham Spearing. It involves the battles with the Angles in the Kingdom of Ebrauc.
  • Ninth Legion. A new campaign setting for Reign that features a lost imperial Roman Legion a hundred years after it vanished into a sprawling, fantastical Otherworld. Generations of their descendants have been born and died in New Rome, the colony that they forged. To the heirs of the Ninth Legion, Arcadia is the only world they know. Coming soon from Arc Dream.
  • Starfall. Starfall is a 1950s alien invasion setting with a hard rather than pulp science fiction gloss. It’s a setting for the Wordplay RPG, coming soon complete with a light version of the rules.
  • Non semper erit aestas. A scenario involving Roman legionaries by the Rhine, and supernatural goings on for the OpenQuest RPG. It is part of OpenQuest Adventures, coming soon from d101 games.
  • Empire of Ys. My standalone world-hopping vaguely old school fantasy game. Writing here is about 90% complete, and I will be saying more soon.

Then there’s work in progress that I’m not yet ready to talk about, but it’s pretty exciting!

So I’ve been writing even if I’ve not been writing here. I intend to change that soon!

In my last entry I commented on four pieces of fantasy literature which still excite me. Time for some more!

  • The Dark Tower Series (Stephen King)

Really, at its heart, the Dark Tower Series is about a questing band of knights. Only with a Wild West ethos on top of that, and guns rather than swords. And with lots of crossovers from our world. Really, I just find this really cool. Sure, it has it’s problems (Stephen King himself as a guest character being the main one, and the impression that the author was bored with it all by the end of the last book being another one) but the wonder, and number of really cool scenes and ideas more than makes up for it. It may soon be time for a reread.

  • Various Fantasy Works of Michael Moorcock

Michael Moorcock was absolutely hugely prolific, and key to my take on fantasy (and many others) with the concepts of Law and Chaos, and the infinite planes of the multiverse. And the books are fast exciting reads. Key reads from my youth- the series based on Elric, Hawkmoon, Corum, and the Dancers at the End of Time- all breezy fast exciting reads, and ones which capture what I want from swords and sorcery. And my goodness, was he prolific- how many novels did he put out in the 70s? I almost don’t want to know. It’s a pity I don’t like his more recent works (from the 1980s onwards really) nearly as much.

  • The Broken Sword (Paul Anderson)

Now this is the business- a gloomy saga involving the hidden war between the elves and trolls amidst dark ages Europe, and a doomed changeling hero. It’s a really good take on a slice of mostly Norse mythology in the form of a novel. One of my favourite books in fact, for all its doomy angst. Okay, I like doomy angst sometimes when it’s done well. This is one of those times.

  • The Warlord Chronicles (Bernard Cornwell)

This is closer to historic fiction than fantasy, but I’d definitely put it in the fantasy camp. It’s Bernard Cornwell doing King Arthur, complete with subtle magic which is not necessarily magic, and as much taken from the Welsh myths as is taken from any historic sources. And it’s a King Arthur in the Dark Ages rather than faux-Medieval romance. Heck, Cornwell’s King Arthur isn’t a king, but a warleader, and a compelling fictional character.

It’s also the main fictional inspiration for the Age of Arthur roleplaying game.

  • The Discworld Novels (Terry Pratchett)

This is the last for now of my great fantasy loves, unless I move onto talking about urban fantasy at a future date (which tempts me). I’ve read all the Discworld books, and at their best, they manage to be both funny and moving, as well as both parodying modern society and saying things about human nature. Not to mention introducing some fine fictional characters. Reading a Discworld book gives me the same sort of warm glow as eating a fine meal accompanied by a couple of glasses of wine, with a cigar at the end of the meal.

 

And that’s me done with this for now. Though at some point in the future I might write about urban fantasy, the Mabinogion, or Homer.

Focus on the Fantastic

Earlier in the year I was I thinking a lot about science fiction roleplaying. Now I find myself thinking a lot about fantasy, an old love I keep returning to. I’m running fantasy, in the form of the 13th Age roleplaying game in the Planescape setting.

I’ve deeply conflicted thoughts about both fantasy literature and fantasy roleplaying. For this post, I’ll focus on the literature. Fantasy literature was one of the earliest sources for my imagination. On another level, I find much fantasy a bit boring these days, and find many invented worlds hard to invest in. Rather than being negative, I thought I’d call out a few things that give me pleasure these days.

  • Middle Earth (J.R.R. Tolkien)

You saw this one coming, right? Over the last couple of years, after a long break, I’ve fallen in love again with J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, the Silmarillion are all great for me in different ways. I’m awed by the depth and detail of the invented history and mythology, of course the languages, even the geography in Lord of the Rings where every hill and wood has a tale.  There’s nothing else like it.

  • Guy Gavriel Kay’s not quite historic novels

I’ve not read much Guy Gavriel Kay yet- he’s a recent find for me, and the novels I’m talking take place somewhere very close to the real historic world, with both a dose of invention and a very very small dose of fantasy- magic is present, but an extremely minor feature of his works. He sometimes deals with big sweeping events, and being fantasy rather than historic fiction frees the books from having to follow history. They evoke a time a place beautifully, as well as being human and genuinely moving stories. Sailing to Sarentium and Lord of Emperors (the two “Byzantium” books) got me hooked, and The Lions of al-Rassan (in  an analogue of Islamic Spain) was just as good.

  • The Saga of the Exiles (Julian May)

This is not so much fantasy as science fiction with lots of fantasy trappings- based around those who volountarily exile themselves from the world of 2110 to prehistoric Earth, six million years ago- and find it under the rule of two warring alien races who are rather close to beings out of Celtic legend- right down to their names being slight variations of the Celtic gods. I won’t go into detail here- or the details of the magical “metapsychic” powers which are the main element of the setting. I can’t really say why I like it so much- maybe because it’s just sheer fun.

  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell (Susannah Clarke)

Just one novel this time, though it’s rather meaty. It involves the return of magic and the Fae to early 19th century England, after a long exile from the world, where at the start magicians exist, but merely study the history and theory of magic, not being capable of actually putting it into practice. There are numerous (often big) footnotes referring to history and the real fairy tales of the world of the novel. It’s slow moving, and sometimes written in the language and spelling of the era. Yet I love it. One reason is that it’s one of the most terrifying depictions of faeries I’ve come across in fiction, even with (and to an extent because of) all of the whimsy.

That’s all for now. It’s not all I want to talk about (there’s Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, Michael Moorcock and Pratchett to name but three), but it will do for a first post on fantasy novels.

13th Age Planescape

The last time I posted about how much I was enjoying a game I was running, things went kerplooey with it. But I’m not a superstitious man, so I think I’ll write about another game I’m enjoying running at the moment. The game is 13th Age, and I’m running it in the Planescape setting.

So what is 13th Age? It’s a variant of D&D. Of any of the D&D editions it feels closest to D&D 4e. The major part of the abilities of the various character classes is what they can do in combat, and combat is unashamedly itself a game. The funny thing about this description is that it really makes it sound like 13th Age is not my thing.

But it works. Combat is quick (I don’t think any fight has lasted longer than 20 or so minutes, and some have been faster yet), and feels dangerous. The funky abilities mean that characters don’t just do the same thing every round. And there’s more to the game than that.

Outside of combat, there’s a light narrative game. A Player Character has One Unique Thing which places them in the world- it’s something about them, big or small, that is true of literally nobody else. The other big deal is Icons- Icons are the movers and shakers of the setting and characters have a connection with them. At the start of a session, players roll dice related to the Icons, to see how they come into play in the scenario, granting advantages and complications.

The other nice thing about the player character abilities, is that they’re in the player’s hands- as one running the game, I don’t need to know them. Monster special abilities are much easier. It’s an easy game to run.

When I read 13th Age I realised I wanted to try it. To make this happen, I ran it. And this led to me dusting off my all-time favourite setting, namely Planescape.

Planescape is world-hopping metaphysical fantasy, revolving around the Outer Planes of the Great Wheel Cosmology of 3e and earlier editions of D&D. These Outer Planes are based around a combination of alignment and metaphysical concepts. It’s not just my favourite D&D setting, it’s my favourite fantasy setting of them all. It’s got the right sort of magic and strangeness and variety for me. It even blends in bits of real world mythology, mangled through a D&D lens.

One thing I needed in the setting was Icons- what are the movers and shakers of the setting? Well, there were two ways to go- big players in the Outer Planes, and the Factions. Factions are groups of people with sharing a philosophy, based in the city of Sigil, a city in the “centre” of the Planes. So I went for a mixture.

For reference, here’s the handout I gave to the players.

Planescape 13th Age: Setting Primer

Concepts

The Planes

A plane is an infinite expanse of space with its own physical laws. There are three real categories of plane.

  • Prime World

A Prime World is an “ordinary” fantasy world, where mortals dwell. Think Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, etc.

  • Elemental Plane

On the elemental planes, one particular element, such as earth, air, fire, water is dominant, as are creatures made of or comfortable in that element.

  • Outer Plane

When people in the Planescape setting talk about the Planes they really mean the Outer Planes. These are the domains of the gods and the dead, featuring geography impossible under Prime World laws. They are the native domain of creatures embodying philosophical concepts such as law (the robotic Modrons), chaos (various), good (the Celestials) and evil (the Fiends). Ordinary mortals also dwell in the Planes, doing their best to get by somewhere they’re not really, one suspects, meant to be.

Some Outer Planes are further seperated into infinitely large layers, each embodying a different philosophy. If the elemental planes are made of particular elements, the Outer Planes are made out of beliefs and philosophies, and layers or even entire planes can shift under their influence.

Power

A Power is another word for god, used by Planars when conveying healthy respect, but not worship. It is possible to visit the domain of a Power in the planes. Once there, the Power is nearly omnipotent. It is not possible to make them do anything, even appear if they don’t want to be seen. Do not mess with the Powers.

Petitioners

The souls of the dead from Prime Worlds make their way to the Outer Planes where they are reformed as Petitioners, gravitating to the domains of the gods they served in life, or the plane which best reflects their belief. Petitioners cannot remember their old lives, and do not age or learn, unless a Power transforms them into something else, such as a Celestial or Fiend.

Portals and Keys

Travel from Plane to Plane (or even layer to layer) is through a Portal– a magical doorway linking different places. Most Portals need to be activated with a Key, otherwise they act as ordinary doorways. A key is usually carrying a particular object, but is sometimes a particular action or phrase. Keys tend to be unusual enough that accidentally activating a Portal is rare (though not unheard of), but not uniquely valuable items.

Sigil

Then there is Sigil, the City of Doors. It’s a vast closed ring (think of the inner surface of a rotating space station), and the only way to enter or leave is through a Portal. Fortunately, Sigil has thousands of Portals, some under control of various groups, some not. Sometimes temporary Portals appear, and sometimes Portals appear and disappear on a cycle.

Sigil has no ruler, but its emblem is the Lady of Pain. Nobody talks to her, but she can flay with a touch, can banish those who threaten the city as a whole, and prevents any Power from exerting direct influence in Sigil, or entering the city.

Icons

Factions of Sigil

The Factions have headquarters both in the city of Sigil and elsewhere in the planes, and the purpose of furthering a particular philosophical belief, as well as a role to play in the “rule” of the city of Sigil.

There are other Factions not described here, but in the game only these Factions will be represented as Icons.

The Athar

The Powers are frauds, not gods. They need mortal worship; mortals don’t need them. Indeed, the Powers and their worshippers are responsible for much wrong. We study religions and the Powers and would-be Powers, combat their lies, and help their victims.

The Dustmen

There is no purpose or structure to the multiverse, just misery and pain. Why? Because there’s no life- not just the petitioners, but all of us, both on the Planes and on the Prime, are dead, and we dwell in the shadow of another existence. The one release from the wheel of suffering and reincarnation, and gateway to actual life is the True Death, but that’s hard. To understand and hope to attain it, we study and respect death in all forms.

The Fated

The multiverse belongs to those who can take and hold it. Those who work for it get what they deserve, and there’s no use blaming others or whining about bad luck. There’s no point in feeling sorry for those who don’t make it- that’s just making excuses for weakness. Respect and compassion have to be earned and deserved, and debts must be repaid.

The Harmonium

Sigil and much of the multiverse is a place of war, chaos and misery. For the good of all, it is our duty to impose law and order. With order comes peace and harmony, the wrongdoer can be punished, and all can live better lives. We’ve taken charge of this process, in Sigil and elsewhere. Someone has to do it.

The Mind’s Eye

Existence for me is a series of challenges, and everything I encounter is part of these tests. I seek to pass these challenges, gaining enlightenment, ascending to a higher state of being, in this life or the next. This quest is unique to me, but others have similar quests, and all beings who want to prove their worth can try. We are there as an organisation to help each-other, and to see what can be done with our enlightened wills.

The Society of Sensation

What is real? What your senses tell you, what you experience- and life is the sum of experiences. To truly live life is to seek out new experiences, both “good” and “bad”, relishing and learning from each one.

Other Icons

The Dark Prince

Graz’zt, the Dark Prince, is the most powerful ruler of the chaotic demons- the Tanar’ri. He rules over three entire layers of the infinite Abyss, but he wants more. He has worshippers, and is close to being a Power, but Graz’zt seeks actual godhood. Graz’zt has several half-mortal children in positions of influence, both in his realm and elsewhere.

The Desderain

Few, even amongst the Celestials, are willing to take the fight to the Fiends. But we, the Desderain, made up of both mortals and Celestials, believe in taking direct action, not just in defending our own territory.

The Luminiferous Aether

The Luminiferous Aether is a group of powerful wizards and sorcerers who share information and resources. Individual members work towards their individual goals. The cost of joining the Aether is extortionate, but the prestige is immense, and members of the Aether willing to work as mercenaries command extraordinarily high fees.

The Nine

The Nine are the rulers of the Nine Hells of Baator, and some are close to being Powers in their own right. All Baatezu- the lawful devils- serve them. The Nine have many goals, but are most dedicated to increasing their personal power in Baator and prosecuting the eternal Blood War against the Tanar’ri- the chaotic demons of the Abyss.

Primus

Primus, the One and the Prime, is the supreme Modron, and embodies order and logic. As well as Modrons, Primus has mortals who follow the philosophy he embodies, the Fraternity of Order. The Fraternity of Order are a Sigil-based Faction who know there are laws of nature as well as society, which hold throughout the multiverse, and those who know these laws have power.

Sung Chiang

Most Powers don’t involve themselves with the affairs of the Outer Planes, having more to do with their believers on various Prime Worlds. The thief god, Sung Chiang, is different. His Teardrop Palace in Gehenna- made up, it is said, from territories stolen from other Powers- is the centre of a multiversal network of thieves, thugs, assassins and informants. He even has allies amongst the Yugoloths.

 

 

 

What have I been doing?

 

Gosh, it’s been ages since I posted a new blog entry. I hadn’t meant to let it go so long. So if I haven’t been writing here, what have I been doing? Well, here’s a quick run-down, at least as far as it relates to RPGs.

Seven Hills

I teamed up with my faithful comrade in arms Graham Spearing to organise a new RPG convention, Seven Hills. It was my first time organising such a thing. Seven Hills 2014 was a fairly small affair with about 40 people attending. The atmosphere was wonderful, and thoroughly relaxed. It was focused with a science fiction theme. I played in three games (a Savage Worlds space opera, a game in the new River of Heaven setting, and a game of Eclipse Phase) and ran two (a game of Wordplay in my own Starfall setting, and a game in the Transhuman Space setting, but powered by Fate Core), and thoroughly enjoyed them all.

It was two months ago now, so it’s probably a bit too late for post convention analysis, but I’m looking forward to us organising 2015, which has the theme of Steel.

Playing Games

Besides games at Seven Hills, I’m playing and running other things now. I’ve recently fallen a bit in love with 13th Age, which I’ve decided is <i>my</i> D&D. I’m using it to run a game of an old love, which I thought I’d never return to, namely the Planescape setting. I might post more about the campaign later on, but for now I’ll say that it’s wonderfully straightforward to run, with enough tools to keep it interesting.

I’ve just started playing in a game of Esoterrorists. It’s smooth and subtle so far (we’re only one session in), with notes of creepiness just starting to build. I do like the Esoterrorists premise, and do like the Gumshoe system. I’m keen to find out what happens next.

Finally I’m involved with a fun play by post game, namely De Profundis. By play by post, I mean it literally- we’re sending hand written letters to each-other. The game is set in 1893, and plays with notes of Lovecraftian horror. This is by it’s nature a slow mover, but now it’s getting really interesting.

Writing

I’ve been doing quite a bit of writing, just not on this blog. Let me give you a list.

  • My OpenQuest setting with Simon Bray, Crucible of the Dragons (formerly known as Here Be Dragons) came out earlier this year.
  • I’ve finished an expanded draft of my Starfall setting. It’s a 1950s alien invasion setting for Wordplay, intended to play more at the hardish SF rather than pulpy end of the scale.
  • I’ve finished significant revisions to Ninth Legion for Reign. This is starting to sing.
  • I’ve added a scenario to a revised version of Blood of the Gods, which is now out there in the wild.
  • I’ve literally just now finished the first draft of a scenario pack for Age of Arthur.

I’ve also written or am writing a couple of other things for publishers who haven’t announced them yet, so I won’t do it here. So there’s been lots keeping me busy.