Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Inspirations for Fall of the Gods

I have had the pleasure of both reading and playing in Fall of the Gods games based on the Cypher System.  One concern I have heard is that people are not sure what sort of material the game seeks to emulate or what sort of inspiration they can turn to.  I want to make some recommendations to get people thinking about material for their games.

The tone of the game is somewhat atypical of fantasy tropes popular today.  The game does not emulate the grounded low-fiction or even the most popular expressions of high fantasy.  What I see reflected most in the game is mythological fantasy.  Rather than a traditional fantasy party, the characters represent a group of emerging gods.  Rather than turning to Tolkien or Forgotten Realms, you should look at mythological sources.

Details of the Mosaic with the Labors of Hercules -- Carole Raddato (flikr)

The most obvious source would be the various versions of the labors of Hercules.  The character development of the game builds labor-like structures into the heart of the game.  You can look at traditional discussions of mythology (Bulfinch, Hamilton, etc.).  Alternatively, you can look at different takes on similar material.  I think the old TV show "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" with Kevin Sorbo would be a useful inspiration for both stories and tone (big action / a little cartoonish).

This is also a great opportunity to read into the mythology of cultures with which you are less familiar.  If you have not read the Epic of Gilgamesh, this would be a great excuse to do do.  Similarly, looking into the mythologies of India would fit the tone well as far as I know (this is homework I need to do).

What is different about a mythological tone (especially as compared to more typical Tolkien-esque fantasy)?  This is a little hard to pin down.  Certainly Tolkien was basing his work on mythology (especially Nordic and pre-British mythology).  But there is a difference.  The mythological tales present clearly super-human tasks.  Note the emphasis on tasks -- not just victories over creatures, armies, or active opposition.  The labors of Hercules involve vanquishing creatures (the Hydra, Nemean Lion, etc.).  But they also include tasks that are not combat-oriented.  Can you imagine a session focused on cleaning a stable?  It was a labor of Hercules.  What made it the stuff of myth was that it was a task that required superhuman efforts and dramatic action.  You can give your players similar tasks -- mundane tasks with a large scale that requires extraordinary actions to complete.

The tone is also a relatively positive one (usually).  Though there are way to seek other tones, the basic setting seems to set up a strongly optimistic campaign.  It is not really a question as to whether the characters will reach full godhood.  It is just a matter of whether they play through the whole story.  The adventures should not really depend on whether they may or may not get killed by a kobold (or its equivalent).  Instead, it is about accomplishing the impossible.  From Tier 2, players should be attempting -- and succeeding -- at impossible tasks.  That is the stuff of legend.

Encourage players to ask themselves whether their strategies are the stuff of legend - or just the stuff of traditional action fantasy.  Encourage them to re-route rivers or lift the impossibly large boulder.  That is much more heroic than punching a goblin -- even punching them really, really hard.

Friday, September 9, 2016

I Have Seen the Future - Surreal It!

"We are faster, faster than pain
We are a nerve ending without a brain
We have evolved, we have no feeling at all
It is a brave new world"
 -- "I Have Seen the Future" by The Bravery

March of Remembrance 2 by Michelle Robinson (flickr)

To illustrate my proposed method for adding surreal elements to your RPG session, I want to present an extended example of the method I proposed earlier.

The first step is to identify a compelling metaphor.  I have selected the lyrics that opened this post from The Bravery (with the video available here).  The metaphor is useful as an illustration in that it can motivate a potential antagonist and is sufficiently coherent as to provide the material we need to develop.

The second step is to turn the metaphorical elements into physical (in the game world) elements.  Here there are many elements that we may want to translate.  Here are some of the elements we may want to translate (we can be selective):

  1. We - a group/collective
  2. speed
  3. pain / nerve endings
  4. lack of a "brain"
  5. evolution
  6. lack of feeling
  7. "Brave New World"
  8. The march-like nature of the song itself
I won't try to tie all of these together within a short blog post - but it would not be too hard.  Instead, I want to focus on the elements of:  a collective nerve system lacking a central control or feeling.

I take these concepts to indicate a widely distributed network of an almost military organization lacking a central command structure -- and acting without regard for feelings, emotion, or (maybe) ethics.  

The key part of this translation process is to make the metaphor physical within the game setting.  The notion of connected nerve endings could be made physical (or manifest) within the RPG session.  These antagonists could be connected by a physical or psychic connection like nerves within a network.  The members of the network could all respond as if they were one entity (taking the "we" seriously) without there being a specific leader or central point (taking "without a brain" seriously").  The physical/psychic connection should be visible to make the metaphor manifest in a way obvious to the players.  The lack of emotion may be clear from how the antagonists communicate with player characters (monotone, efficient, no regard for pleasantries) or their plan/goals (ruthlessness, willingness to sacrifice others or even their own members).

The final step of the method is to look for connections to other potential metaphorical elements.  We could look at evolution as a fruitful source of metaphor.  However, I will focus on the term "brave new world."  Inspired by the book of that title, we could incorporate biochemical self-modification and a sense of hierarchy within the group.  Maybe the group recruits (or somehow adds to its members) through the spread of a drug (Soma) or through genetic manipulation (which could tie in the evolution theme, despite my best efforts).  

With this brief exercise, we have a fairly robust surreal antagonist for a game.  An army is connected through a series of psychic or physical (say, wireless - but visible) connections and acts as a hivemind.  This hivemind lacks a central command but ruthlessly pursues its goals -- which may even be self-replication.  The closer to the metaphor - with actual floating connections between the members of the group - the more surreal this antagonist will be.  

You can use this in just about any game (turning up or down the surrealism by manipulating the literalism of the manifestation of the metaphor) but it could work well in a surreal setting.  

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Problems with Physics in the Strange

The Strange defines itself (and differentiates itself from other RPGs) by the ease with which the game can slide between different settings -- including settings of widely varying theme, tone, genre, etc.  It succeeds in this regard but there are some limitations that one should watch when using published material for the game.

The typical approach to structure the use of material for different creatures, items, etc. is the use of a "physics" qualifier.  This makes a great deal of sense.  A lightsaber would be out of place in a paleolithic adventure.  The entry for a lightsaber would include a qualifier that the item relied on "weird science" to indicate that it would be a poor fit for a recursion based on low technology (like "sub-standard physics") or even contemporary technology.  

This system works fairly well but one needs to be careful in implementing this advice.  

First, the use of underlying physics to define recursions can lead to some confusion.  It may be that a lightsaber is entirely consistent with realistic physics -- we just don't know how to develop that technology yet.  A better term may be technology, then, than physics.  However, with "sub-standard" physics, the assumption seems to be that some technologies like gun powder and electricity actually would not work at all -- even if you brought that technological knowledge with you as you translate.  

Second, the categories can be quite broad.  "Weird science" includes a broad range of categories from far-future transhuman technology to retro-futurist technology to outright science fantasy.  A Rukian graft would be as out of place in some science fantasy settings as it would a "substandard physics" recursion.  The category is quite broad and includes many different genres wherein different rules of appropriateness may apply.

Similarly, "sub-standard" physics could include anything from a world where specific technologies are dominant and others don't work (steampunk) or where technology is pretty much absent (paleolithic).  

So, what are we supposed to do?  First, we should recognize that the physics limiters are good starting points for the development of material for our games.  For creatures in particular, the physics limiters are actually pretty much all you need (though there are some exceptions).  The real problems come in when using items (cyphers and artifacts). 

Second, we have to use our own judgment.  You can use technological level as one indicator.  You can use the basics of magic or other what other supernatural forces (if any) operate within the recursion.  You should feel free to make your own judgments about what would or would not fit within any specific recursion.  

So, "problems" is probably too strong a word.  The Strange is a game that encourages flexibility in adventure design -- but it also calls for direct judgment on the part of the GM about the appropriateness of including specific elements in a recursion.  Don't take physics limitations as a necessary or sufficient indication for the appropriateness of an element for your game -- take it for the soft recommendation that it is.