Monday, January 2, 2012

The Base Setting

A setting can help an RPG sink or swim. If it is too complicated, like Tekumel, it can be intimidating and doomed to obscurity (sorry Petal Throne lovers, but I'll give some nods to you in another post).  Also, there has to be a place for humans. In a world without humans, the exotic becomes banal and paradoxically alien at the same time.

Enough preamble. Here is the basic setting for Kill It With Fire.

KIWF takes place in a post-civilization, largely agrarian society. Hunter-gatherers still eek out a living, but without sufficient defenses, puny humanoids inevitably fall prey to the dangers of the world, and so primitive social groups are vanishingly rare.  Many humanoids huddle together in small bergs and city states built from the ruins of the last great empires, of which little is known. Knowledge and the arts are also, understandably, rare pursuits. In a world where the majority of people eek out a living, such things as studying the magic or technologies of the old world are more in the purview of the aristocracy, which is a small group more concerned with maintaining its power rather than esoteric pursuits.

Of course there are exceptions. Adventurers, they are called. Individuals who have goals that put them on a different life path. The rich fancy the artifacts that adventurers bring, as well as the stimulation to the economy their treasure brings. The rich also appreciate that adventurers, who would all too often be trouble makers otherwise, often meet their dooms in some dungeon and so trouble society no more. The poor depend on adventurers to save them from the threats that the city guards and village elders are ill-equipped to handle. While some adventurers are altruistic, the majority of them are in it to fulfill their own goals: getting loot, getting status, getting atonement, killing things. For their own safety, most adventures are drawn to the protective association of each other. If there is one thing this dark age has taught us, it is that by cooperation we survive.

The world has many threats. Many of these take the form of monsters. In some cases they are mutants, created by the strange energies of The Last War or machines of the ancients. In other cases, they are supernatural beings, born from the darkness of the underworld or the psychic energies and spirits of our banal races. Some threats come from other worlds. Rarest of all are the monsters of technology, which despite its mighty power in its heyday, has barely endured to the current age.

There exist even more supreme threats to the world. The old gods, who are capricious and demanding. The demons, who seek only chaos. The devils, who want revenge via humanity's willingness to betray. The outer gods, who bide their time and wait to bring insanity. The primordials and giants, who were struck down but will inevitably return. The war machines, who wait to unleash genocide again.

This is a world where the technology available to the average human is medieval in nature, but whether that is expressed in Aurthirian cliches or kung-fu trappings is really up to the referee. The adventures I write will assume humans are the ancestors of an enlightened, cosmopolitan society. Though it is forgotten, the culture of previous generations has become distilled. As survival is the main goal, issues of race and gender discrimination rarely come to play; everyone is valued as long as they have something to contribute to society, and humanity's tendency to care for the downtrodden takes care of the rest.

Magic, be it arcane, psychic, divine, etc. is a rare skill, but recognized. It is tolerated as long as it seems useful, but common people are a superstitious lot likely to turn on the local wizard or temple if they blame these things for their bad luck. Therefore, practitioners of supernatural arts are very cautious about who they share their increasingly rare and valuable knowledge with.

Demihumans (humanoids that are capable of higher thoughts and aspirations) are common enough, but their numbers when taken as a species are small. The origins of demihumans and their place in this human-dominated world is a subject on contention and wild conjecture for all involved. Elves and dwarves will be mentioned in the core rules, because someone will want to play one and I think that is cool, but I don't know how important they will be in supplements and adventures. Gnomes may be out of luck altogether though because when I hear gnome I think camp. Humor should come from player banter, not the setting.

There is nothing really radical mentioned in the above description. On the one hand, I want a world where the gonzo sci-fi fantasy mash-up that happened in the sixties and seventies will feel at home, but I don't want the trappings of such eras or to take it to the silly conclusions that I saw in the 80s. On the other, I like a world where knights can exist in some areas, while samurai can exist in others. I dislike taking such things unchanged, however, because it ruins the verisimilitude of what the brain is trying to accept. These things have to be able to meet without clashing, and so neither said knight nor samurai will be exactly like their real world counterparts; pastiches will be the ideal. I also don't like the eurocentric, white-race dominated look of 99% of games for the same reason. KIWF takes place on a fantasy world, not some analogue for Europe. There will be no Arabian setting or East Asia sub-setting in this game.

Of course, the vast majority of role playing settings are post-apocalyptic, and it works well for this sort of game. Even the first role-playing campaign, Blackmoor seems to be such a setting, with its last functioning musical organ and so on. You will also see a bit of Arduin in the game, but hopefully with a bit more veracity that it.

D&D's cosmology throughout the ages has a lot of influence on how I am viewing the planes of existence being domains you can travel to, but 4th editions got me to really examine things from a more mythological view. The titanomachy, gotterdammerhung, and gigantomachy ideas have been talked of in many cultures, so I feel need for that in my setting too. While you will see things reminiscent of the outsiders of D&D, they won't follow the artificial nature of the alignment system from said game. There are heroes and scoundrels on both sides of the cosmic struggle for puny mortal souls and lands.

Then there are the outer gods, who are inspired chiefly by Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft's collaborations (I know Howard should be in there, but I'm not too familiar with his work, shockingly enough--don't worry, I will throw in some Pigeons from Hell influence to appease nerds). The outer gods are those that are more inimical to humanity, and they may have come from the pools of gods, titans, or something far more ancient and alien. They may enjoy the worship of the odd cult, but the gods of the status quo try to quash their ever-insidious influence for a reason. What are the gods themselves? What role did they have to play in the empires of the last age? I'd like to find the answer to that organically as I discover it.

Other influences will include the usual rouges gallery of weird fiction: Ambrose Bierce, Suffi tales, Arabian Nights, A. E. Merrit, Machen, Dunsay, etc. You know the drill. I will make something familiar and at times even cliched to the average RPG veteran, but hopefully it will also have the clarity of vision to avoid cheese.