Thursday, December 24, 2015

Into the Badlands as Inspiration for Numenera

I just finished watching the recent AMC show Into the Badlands.  There is a lot in the show that could be inspirational for Numenera campaign design.  In particular, the show provides a useful view of the sort of social models that emerge in a fractured and depopulated world.  I will avoid spoilers of any of the plot twists in the series.

Ad Banner -- Into the Badlands (AMC)
It is fair to wonder whether something like Into the Badlands can really inspire much for Numenera.  It is a rather traditional post-apocalyptic setting in many ways.  You have some memories of our history, for example.  The technology is similar to our own with cars -- but no guns and limited communication technologies.

Where Into the Badlands is most useful as inspiration for a Numenera game is in the social organization of the setting.

Into the Badlands takes place within a relatively small area of land dominated by five "barons."  Each baron seems to have a near monopoly on some particularly important product.  The barons most central to the narrative in season one run poppy and oil production.  There is a separate baron who controls gold mines.  I recall a mention of tobacco but I am not sure whether that referred to a fourth baron or not.

Each baron controls these resources and creates a hierarchical system to support their extraction and processing of these resources.  For the poppy baron, the people who work the fields are called "cogs" -- I get the sense this is a rather general term in the setting and not limited to this barony.  Above the cogs are his "colts" -- young men training to become his assassins and enforcers.  These enforcers are called the "clippers."  The only other barony we learn much about has a similar set up with some additional concern for equality (so the plight of the cogs is not as much the focus) and an all female cadre of enforcers.

There is also a local town that is outside the direct control of the barons but heavily influenced by their power.

This is a wildly unrealistic social system -- even giving broad deference to selective coverage of story.  How does the city exist outside the control of the barons?  Where do the many refined goods (refined metals, car parts, etc.) come from such an archaic social system and economy?  My recommendation is to just ignore these complexity.   What is useful for us is that these are exactly the sorts of elements we can and should (usually) ignore in our RPGs.

Unless you really want to, mapping out the whole economy is overkill.  Into the Badlands focuses only on the aspects of the society that are relevant to the story.  You have a specific set of key actors (the barons), some specific rivalries within them, and resources associated with each.  Each, that we see, has a peculiarly large security force (who would have more security than workers?) that works well for the conventions of an RPG.  In the show, this is to set up crazy marital arts action.  For us, it sets up combat encounters.

Each of the enforcer groups we see has a distinctive characteristic.  The first we see is all male.  The second is all female.  The third is mixed gender but uses pick axes as weapons (even as ranged weapons -- and if that does not feel like the unreality of RPGs, I don't know what does).  The result is a flavorful setting within which one can tell stories.  You usually don't need to know how one gets refined medicines in such a setting -- just that they are available but may be rare.

Another distinctive element of the setting in Into the Badlands is how small it is.  One can walk from one barony to another in a day.  One can travel to the far outreaches of the setting -- far beyond where most people in the setting will ever travel in their lives -- within a day's car ride.  Life is completely local and information from beyond a days travel is simply rumor and myth.

It is the constrained geography of the setting that makes it useful inspiration for Numenera.  No, there is not nano-tech and mysterious advanced weaponry (at least not yet).  However, Numenera is built around a similar social arrangement of local villages.  It is easy to imagine a village surrounded by warring or soon-to-be warring barons who each control a vital resources.  The control of the resource gives each baron both social prestige and the resources needed to build a sizable workforce.  Whether you want to adopt the allusions to plantation economies in the antebellum southern US is completely up to you.  It would be fun to have each barony take on a slightly different flavor (as seems to be the case in Into the Badlands but we learn little about any beyond the main two).

Given the geography, players can move from area to area easily.  There can be juicy rumors about what exists beyond the boundaries of the domain (down the river, across the wastelands, etc.) but there is plenty of potential for stories in your own little area.  Most importantly for GMs, the separation of each local geography means that you only need to develop one little area and not worry about complete national histories, etc.  A useful maxim for campaign development is to only design what you have to.

I encourage Numenera GMs to give Into the Badlands a look.  It does not have the technology of Numenera but it is an inspiring resource for designing villages, gangs/baronys, and just general social systems in a post-apocalyptic setting.  Of course, Immortan Joe's domain from Fury Road is also an option -- albeit a more extreme vision.

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