Azorius: A Teaser

This is the blurb/teaser to a universe I’ve been developing for use in a series of short stories (and soon to be an RPG):

Long ago, history tells of a great war between all the kingdoms, of magic that tore up the earth and sundered the sky, of demons and gods that walked the land, casting down hundreds where they glanced and calling down lightning from the heavens and fire from hell. These wars raged for decades, consuming all the races of the world. And when the dust parted and the blood cleared away, war was the least of anybody’s problems. The dead had risen. Few weapons could be used efficiently against the undead; mortal blows hardly even slowed them. In months, fully a third of the world’s cities were unlivable.

It was then that a major breakthrough was made: magic could damage, and destroy the undead. But while divine magic could repel the undead, arcane magic attracted them, worse, it could create them! Thus began the Great Purge. Any magic that wasn’t sanctioned by the church was hunted down, quickly and brutally.

Now, years later, the world is at an equilibrium. Maybe a quarter or a fifth of the cities and town from after the war survive, but they do survive. Each town is protected by a few priests; the larger the town, the more priests. And that protection remains under a few conditions: any magic users are turned over to the church, the church’s rituals are kept sacred, and the church can take anybody under the age of 18 into the clergy, at any time. If those rules are broken, the town risks losing its protection. And with these rules, rebuilding has begun, of cities and of roads. Of society.

But rumors linger, of rogue magic users who control hordes of undead, or of guilds of magic who seek to use the undead for their own nefarious research and goals, and worst, of corruption inside the church itself. But not all rumors are bad. Some tell of guilds of magic who seek to end the undead problem, of rogue magic-users who roam the countryside, seeking pockets of survivors or of magical artifacts that ward off the dead, and even of cities that escaped the devastation.

This is the realm of Azorius, and these are the tales of its people.

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Zompocalypses: A New Look

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Zombies are one of the common narratives to arise in the modern era. People say this is for a lot of reasons. I can talk on and on about how zombies represent the mindlessness of the modern era, from driving to work to a day-to-day cubicle life to consumerism to the seeming emptiness of modern day choices, whether it be brands of soda or the similarity of politicians. But ultimately, this is unimportant: zombies have captured hearts and minds in the modern era.

We can trace the start of the zombie movie epidemic to three major sources. First, the idea of mindless human beings can be traced to Haitian Vodou. Second, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead can really be called the ancestor to zombie apocalypses. Finally, at some point, the idea of zombies as an infection of some sort has arisen over time, and while I cannot think of a specific source which serves as its origin, the Resident Evil movies will serve as a good exemplar.

So why am I talking about zombies? Because the first setting I’ll be writing about is a zombie setting. And as I said, a good setting plays to tropes, but denies them in some way. A setting that is nothing but tropes will seem campy. On the other hand, a setting that fully defies tropes isn’t really a continuation of the theme, but a new thing entirely. After all, George Romero never even referred to the shambling cannibals in his movie as ‘zombies’, that terminology came later. He wasn’t bringing new light to Vodun Zombies, he was starting a new genre that happened to end up connected to an old genre.

So first, I’ll have to outline what the tropes of zombie apocalypses are, and then which ones I’ll be breaking, and why. Finally, I’ll discuss the effects this has on the universe.

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Not a Gun Show; Total War: Shogun 2

With Rome 2 looming on the horizon, it’s time to look back at where the last game left us.  Shogun 2 represented a fairly impressive step forward from the previous games (Empire, Medieval 2), offering a slick new heir to the already prestigious line of Total War games.  All of the buzz about Rome 2 suggests that Creative Assembly is ready to do it again.  But how does Shogun 2 really stand up to the previous Total War games?  What should CA look to keep, and what should be revised or removed?

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Game Analysis: Path of Exile

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I like Path of Exile and I hate Path of Exile.  This game is everything I loved about Diablo 2, but it also amps up the parts of Diablo 2 that I was not a fan of.  It is an action-RPG title that experiments with excess, and by doing so has given me all sorts of mixed feelings.

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How to Craft a Good Setting

For me, the most interesting part of a creative body of work is the setting. Many people will talk about the characters, and how interesting they are, or the growth they exhibit. Others will point to the plot. But for me, the setting is the foundation; it sets the grounds for any ‘what if’s that the body of work is asking. Now, there are two general qualities of settings.

The first is the obvious: the familiar. By ‘familiar’, I mean that the setting corresponds to our notions of how it typically is. Familiarity is the reason that elves are tall and willowy and removed from the world, dwarves are short and stocky and miners who love alcohol, and halflings/hobbits are playful but possessed of personal hardiness. Familiarity is why protagonists are young and leave their village with mysterious outsiders, and why young people from small towns are protagonists at all. Familiarity is how we know sons kill fathers and hand-loss will show up in half of sci-fi and fantasy, and everything comes in threes. Familiarity is the stuff on which tropes are built.

In this, a good setting is a lot like a good joke. A good joke is all about establishing expectations, building up a story that we all know and understand, and then, in comes the second element: deviation. I agonized over that word for awhile: ‘deviation’. At first, I thought ‘surprise’. But surprise wasn’t quite the word I was looking for. Surprise indicates that you didn’t really see what was coming; didn’t have an inkling. And while there is room for genuine surprise in stories, for the most part, the spectator — the reader, the watcher, the listener — should see the punchline coming. They might not exactly know what that punchline is, but when it does come it should be followed with ‘of course!’ Whether that ‘of course!’ is followed with an ‘I knew it!’ or a ‘How did I not see that coming?’ is largely irrelevant, although it should fall somewhere on that spectrum. That is to say, the context (the setting) should lead up to the punchline.

In a sense, the conclusion — the end of the book, the punchline, the moral — should feel INEVITABLE, even if it wasn’t predictable. When you hear the ending, it should immediately ring true as the ending, or the setting wasn’t established properly. It certainly isn’t impossible that Frodo could simply take the ring at the end of The Lord of the Rings, but it wouldn’t fit in with the tropes of the book: that hobbits are strong of heart and will, that all ages must come to an age, including the age of The Ring and Sauron (much as the age of the Elves is coming to an end even as the books begin), that the thing that distinguished Gollum from Frodo was his close friendship with even just one remaining entity (whereas Smeagol had killed Deagol). Essentially, the plot should live up to the promises that the setting makes, establishing a strong unifying theme.

Now, I’m playing a little fast and loose with ‘setting’, because I’m starting to include parts of the story. But in this case, I don’t mean the plot. I mean the tropes, the imagery, and so on. Sure, discovering the tree elves of Lothlorien happens as a part of the plot, but it is itself not plot; it is a revelation of setting to the spectator. inverting that story in ways we don’t expect but can still clearly see. Reading about a character losing his hand, or being seen surrounded by ravens, or dying and coming back to life is plot, yes. How it happens is plot. But it is also setting, because it serves to establish what tropes the author finds important, and how he chooses to invert them.

If I can walk you through a few examples, I think this will be made clear, but as always, I must warn you of spoilers. In A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones, on TV), Ned Stark is established as the protagonist quite early on. However, he is killed off before the first book in the series ends. Yes, this is a plot point, but also acts to establish the setting that George R. R. Martin is writing in: in A Song of Ice and Fire, life is short, brutal, and ugly, and you can trust nobody. In a sense, this helps to establish the context of the story. And when the punchline finally comes, that context will be important.

So ultimately, a good setting uses tropes and setting devices to establish the tone of what is expected to happen in the plot.

As such, I’m going to try a new project for my new posts; I’ll be posting a setting I’ve designed, according to these principles, talking about the tropes it exhibits, and how those tropes are inverted, and what those inversions mean!

Player Knowledge and the History of RPGs

First, two quotes to start us off:

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” (paraphrased quote from Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, a man who was actually quite keen on extensive planning and who might be considered the great-grandfather of RPGs)

“The players are the enemy.” (the storyteller’s corollary to the first quote, promoted in old gaming literature and still embraced by some gamers today)

***

I’ve often heard these quoted, seriously or jokingly, by my RPG playing friends.  The first one I agree with: opposition is a chaotic force, and will often ruin your most carefully laid plans.  The second one I only agree with insofar as players are an inherently chaotic force.  They are other people, and will often do the unexpected.  Unfortunately, the second quote is often interpreted literally.  Players are seen as the opposition and their characters are therefore meant to be outwitted, led by the nose, and then set upon while at a disadvantage.

Worryingly enough, I most often hear these quotes spoken seriously by my friends who have not yet run many games.  With a literal interpretation, where the hell do those two quotes lead us?  If the players are the enemy, it stands to reason that everything the storyteller does is in opposition to the players.  More to the point, it sets up a clearly antagonistic relationship between the players and the storyteller in which the two sides have no reason to cooperate with each other.  It’s like they’re not actually playing a game together.

If they are playing a game together, it’s more like a strategy wargame in which all details are included solely to “get” the players.  This is, of course, where the genre originated: the first games that we would recognize as RPGs grew out of wargames, as the logical result of a progression towards smaller and smaller unit sizes.  Eventually, each player had control of only one individual instead of many units, laying the foundation for the RPG genre that we know today.  The influence of modern gaming’s military history is still visible: the habits of secrets and hostile surprises that we have come to see as part and parcel of the RPG experience come from this background of wargaming.

But even as someone who enjoys wargames, I don’t always want to play a wargame when I sit down to play an RPG.  There’s an opportunity here to explore gaming without those holdouts baked in, and some game designers have been pushing in that direction for years.  Yet if we aren’t following in the habits of our wargaming ancestors, what do we do?

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Stats to Who: Roleplaying Doesn’t Care About Numbers Part 2

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As promised I am now going go through the Stats-to-Who process of character creation.  The Stats I will be working with is from Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 because I think most people will be at least passingly familiar with that system (as it is the face of roleplaying).  Below is a quick summary of the Stats:

Race: Human
Class: Fighter
Level: 2
Feats: Exotic Weapon Proficiency(spiked chain), Combat Expertise, Improved Trip, Combat Reflexes

This may not seem like much, and you’re right.  A DnD character also has skills, equipment, attributes, and languages.  But attributes are determined randomly, and the other bits aren’t really required at this point.  For those unfamiliar with the spiked chain Fighter twink, this is the beginning core to a build that has many variations.  The basic idea is that in DnD 3.5 you can trip your opponents from range with the chain, and if they try to get back up you get free attacks on them and can keep them lying prone.  Over time you can add more area control maneuvers, damage, or whatever, but for now I am only going to care about the core.  Now to the steps of character discovery!

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The Rebirth of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Movies and Television

I’m not really a movie guy; I’m much more comfortable sitting at home with a book in one hand and a glass of bourbon in the other while orchestral versions of Final Fantasy (and other video/computer game) music floats in the air. In part, this is because of my social inclinations:

  • I’m highly introverted and need alone time; why would I pay to be surrounded by the noises and smells of other people?
  • I like that I can read a book at my own pace instead of waiting around; the average movie pacing is too slow for me.
  • If I watch a movie in theaters, I can’t re-watch it without paying again.
  • Books are within the domain of my imagination.

But largely, this is actually more generational than anything. When I was growing up, geek movies and tv shows were terrible. Sure, you had Star Wars, but what else was there? You could either go for the inanely slow and confusing (2001: A Space Odyssey), the campy and cheesy (Galaxy Quest, which I love), or the underbudgeted (original series BSG). This is most clearly seen in superhero movies. They were either overly melodramatic and operatic (every Superman movie ever) or ridiculously silly (Jack Nicholson as The Joker; Arnold Schwarznegger as Mr. Freeze; Jim Carrey as The Riddler). Now, I don’t mean to impugn Batman or Batman Forever. Those movies were good in their own right, with Jack Nicholson portraying a much more over-the-top Joker, and Jim Carrey being on of my — guiltily — favorite movie comedians. But there was a certain sense in which science-fiction and super hero movies and fantasy movies were all made very tongue-in-cheek, with a sense of ‘we don’t really take this seriously; isn’t it so silly?’

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Game Analysis: Remembering

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As a rather big fan of ambient music and experimental composition I was delighted by the game Remembering, which delivered both exquisitely.  Unfortunately I feel it suffers from some key design flaws which actually run counter to its advertised goal.  On their main site the creators state,

Remembering is a game that leaves room for the player. By building a world based on sound instead of visuals we’ve created a place that relies on interpretation. It offers the chance to perceive it in a personal way.

This is not what I experienced.  Yes, the game had a great soundscape, but it also relied on visuals and was not open to exploration.

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Even More Crusader-er Kings: Crusader Kings II

There’s another big expansion coming out for Crusader Kings 2 on the 28th of May.  So on Monday I sat down to bring myself back up to speed with the game and polish up my rusty politicking skills; several hours later, I remembered why it was that I had spent 100+ hours playing the game in the first place.  CK2 is a fascinating look into the convoluted hearts of power-hungry medieval rulers, and in order to succeed you must become one yourself.  I love it.

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