Author Archives: Yora

Spell-less Magic

Fantasy in recent decades seems to have a big thing for magic systems, and I believe partly becuse of the success of Brandon Sanderson. When I see people talk about magic systems it more often than not seems to revolve around different types of spells and the method of their casting. To the point that it seems to be taken for granted as a basic premise for any kind of magic to appear in fantasy.

This week I was exploring the idea of converting Apocalpyse World to a Sword & Sorcery game. All in all, it’s a system that strikes me as a really good match right out of the box with the one major thing that is missing from it being a set of rules for spellcasting. But it’s not like the game is completely free of magic. One default assumption of the setting of an Apocalypse World game is the existance of a Psychic Maelstrom, which is the source of seemingly supernatural effects and phenomenons, but whose actual nature and trait are deliberately left completely unspecified to organically take shape during play. There is a single ability that allows one of the classes to use magical power in a somewhat direct way, but it is again very vague and open ended and does not really fit the image of casting a spell.

And looking at older fantasy books, this is actually very much like magic used to be portrayed in fiction. The oldest example of a straight up spell slinger I can imagine is Tim the Enchanter, who can summon up fire without flint or tinder. Gandalf, Elric, or Kane, or any of the sorcerers in Conan’s stories don’t say magic words and have stuff shoting from their outstretched hands. Instead their “magic” mostly takes the form of knowing things and being in contact to powerful entities otherwise invisible to the perception of regular people.

The spell in its modern form appears to be primarily a game mechanic. One that was carried over from RPGs to videogames and from there seeped out into the wider field of fantasy in general. While I am a big fan of fantasy games, I’ve always had reservations about the gamification of non-game fiction. Even with games I prefer mechanics to be as invisible as possible and maintain a more organic feel in the in-game fiction. (Which is why I find Apocalypse World quite appealing and always had a problem with D&D magic.)

With the Ancient Lands, I’ve always felt more like making a “game of the book” rather than a “book of the game”, even with the vast majority of my work over the last year being on game stuff with no actual book anywhere near to sight. But these days I feel once again more drawn to writing fiction, with my game development having reached a point where there’s not really much left to do other than playing it. And even with all the worldbuilding advice for writers that adresses magic systems, I find the idea of a spell-less magic to be a lot more interesting.

What’s the point?

I have been dabbling a bit in writing for a few years in addition to working on RPGs and campaigns, and the main problem that kept my stuck with writing something compelling and that’s always been the hardest part about campaigns is to come up with a plot. I am always doing great thinking about worlds and characters, but these aren’t any good if there is nothing interesting happening.

But now I’ve finally come across a great piece of advice. Plot is not really about conflict. Plot really starts with a goal.

Conflict is what follows from the goal not being easily reached and that conflict is what makes up the plot. But the reason why the protagonists are doing anything and how they approach the challenges they encounter result not from the conflict but from the goal.

Instead of trying to come up with a plot by picking a cool and exciting conflict, the process really begins with picking a goal. And then thinking about circumstances that get in the way of the goal, from which you get a conflict. This even holds true when your initial idea starts with a cool villain. The hero does not simply want to oppose the villain just because. He opposes him because he’s an obstacle to reaching his own goal. A villain does not make a conflict. The goal that the villain is blocking creates the conflict and in turn the plot.

Let the Wookiee win

It would have been the perfect name for a site about Star Wars games. But sadly that adress is already taken. Blast them!

So it’s No Disintegrations!

I think most people here are not going to be as huge Star Wars fans as I plan to demonstrate to be in the future and a lot of the stuff I want to write about doesn’t have much to do with RPGs, so I am setting up a new website specifically dedicated to that.

Knights of the Old Republic: The Sith Empire Strikes Back

Knights of the Old Republic

THE SITH EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

Fifty years have passed since the returned Sith Lord Darth Revan has been destroyed for a second time in the Battle of Chandrilla, bringing an end to his seemingly unstoppable invasion of the GALACTIC REPUBLIC. With the death of their master, the surviving Sith forces were driven back to the Outer Rim.

Under the leadership of the mysterious SITH EMPRESS the Empire has been rebuilding its fleets and recovered its strength, slowly conquering many of the small independent systems in the Rim. Many fear the threat of a new great galactic war on the horizon.

Concerned by reports of recent activities in ruins of the Great Sith War, the Jedi Council has dispatched a group of its agents to the burned remains of the Jedi Enclave on the remote planet Dantooine.

  • 5000 BBY (1098 years ago) – Great Hyperspace War: The Sith Empire discovers the Galactic Republic and tries to invade corruscant but is defeated and almost entirely wiped out, but the Dark Lord Naga Sadow escapes with his followers to Yavin 4.
  • 3996 BBY (94 years ago) – Great Sith War: The Dark Jedi Exar Kun and Ulic Qel-Droma declare themselves the new Dark Lords of the Sith and attempt to conquer the Galactic Republic with the help of the Mandalorians.
  • 3976 BBY (74 years ago) – Mandalorian Wars: While the Sith had been defeated, many of the Mandalorians had survived and dispersed throughout the galaxy. Mandalore the Ultimate united them again as the Neo-Crusaders and started another war against the Galactic Republic, causing Revan to gather an army of Jedi against the will of the Jedi council.
  • 3958 BBY (56 years ago) – Jedi Civil War: Revan and Malak declare themselves Dark Lords of the Sith and create a second Sith Empire. Revan is defeated by the Jedi but Malak escapes.
  • 3955 BBY (53 years ago) – The Dark Wars: Darth Malak returns with a new fleet from the Unknown Regions to attack the Galactic Repubic. Revan kills him in the Battle of the Star Forge and then turns on the Republic Fleet, completely destroying it and killing Admiral Dodona and Master Tokare. Shortly after the disappearance of the Republic Fleet in the Unknown Regions a Sith force attacks the Jedi Enclave on Dantooine, wiping out most of the Jedi in the Outer Rim.
  • 3952 BBY (50 years ago): Revan is slain in the Battle of Chandrilla and the remains of his fleet flee to the Outer Rim. The Republic Fleet are in no shape to pursue and both sides decide to focus all their resources on strengthening the defensesof their worlds, for the time being.
  • 3902 BBY: Sith Desciples send by the new Dark Lord start poking around on Dantooine.

I didn’t post much this month so far because I was busy. With work on my Ancient Lands setting being pretty much complete but the launch of a new campaign still being a while off, I once again turned to my other hobbies for fun. Videogames from the early 2000s (being already old enough to prefer stuff from when I was 16-20 to new releases) and Star Wars.

And I always wanted to run a Knights of the Old Republic campaign, but never got around to it. And just having discovered the Apocalypse Engine games and also started replaying the KotOR game, I simply have to do this now! I am actually getting new inspirations for refining the Ancient Lands all the time these days and don’t expect to be able to stay away from it for long. But for the time being, expect a good amount of Star Wars material around here.

I have a dream!

An Apocalypse World hack based on WEG Star Wars d6 1st Edition and running a Knights of the Old Republic campaign.

I’m not really sure why, but Star Wars seems to be really well suited to the way this game is structured and how it is described to be played. In particular, pretty much everything that involves Han Solo seems to perfectly fit the procedure of the player making a move and the GM responding with a move in turn. Han’s encounter with Greedo in the cantina, his attempt to impersonate a stormtrooper in the detention area, and of course the whole scene in the trash compactor. “It could be worse.” *roar* “It’s worse.

Or the whole ordeal with getting the Milennium Falcon to hyperspace in The Empire Strikes Back: Stormtroopers arrive; they start assembling a heavy blaster; hyperdrive doesn’t work; there’s an asteroid field; they send Tie-Bombers to flush them out; there’s mynocks in the cave; it’s not a cave; there’s a bounty hunter hiding in the trash; Darth Vader already arrived just before them. A long, long string of the GM throwing move after move at the hero who keeps failing his rolls.

Deutschland is happy and gay

We did it!

After the German chancelor and leader of the ruling conservative party declared on monday that their members of parliament would be free to vote on matter of marriage equality according to their personal views instead of folliwing the official party line a vote was called in parliament on very short notice within the same week.

The vote passed with support of one third of the conservative party MPs and virtually everyone else, finally putting an end to this violation of basic human right. The new law is expected to come into effect some time this year.

Thoughts about Star Wars Sandboxes

Recently I’ve been thinking about a sandbox campaign set in the Star Wars galaxy and whether these two things could actually work together in a way that gives them both justice. And I’ve come to believe that yes, it can be done. Though with some limitations, however.

The People

Broadly speaking, there are three main categories of heroes in Star Wars. Rebels, Jedi, and Scoundrels. Of these, I think only scoundrels can actually work as a party for a sandbox campaign. Scoundrels are great because they are inherently proactive. Because they are always looking out first for Number One. They are interested in their own benefit, which more often than not means credits. Smugglers and bounty hunters always have a default goal they can pursue in absence of anything else pressing: Make more money! This puts them into immediate conflict with the law and generally involves messing with pretty violent people. A scoundrel campaign is pretty much writing itself, which is what you want in a sandbox.

Playing rebels is more of a problem, though. The goal of rebels is to take down the Empire through military actions and targeted sabotage. But just going around collecting stormtrooper helmets is not going to do that. There is effectively an endless supply of those. To make a real difference, their attacks have to be part of a bigger strategy and need to be coordinated with lots of other people. Which means that all the big decisions are being made by rebel leaders who have a more or less complete overview of the entire military situation. If the players are getting orders from higher up, it’s not really a sandbox, regardless of how much freedom they are given in the execution of their orders. If they play military leaders than you’re playing a wargame. Doing things you like doing and opening new adventures where you spot them does not work when playing rebels. And neither does it work when playing Imperial officers or troops.

Jedi are more flexible compared to military characters, but they are by their very nature completely reactive. Jedi wait in vigilance until the Sith rear their ugly heads somewhere in the galaxy and then go chasing after them until the status quo has been restored again. This doesn’t really work as a sandbox either. It’s always the Sith or oder Dark Jedi who have the full initiative and drive the plot forward. As long as there are no Sith stirring shit up, Jedi don’t have anything to do that would be proper Jedi adventures. As with rebels, you can give Jedi a great amount of freedom in how they go after their enemies, but they need to be given an enemy to chase after. They can not really start things on their own, which is a pretty big deal in a sandbox campaign.

The Places

The galaxy of Star Wars is big. Really big. There are thousands of inhabited planets that are each a full world in their own right. Trying to map all of this in the traditional way is, and in this case literally literally, impossible. But the way characters are interacting with space and distance in Star Wars is completely different from the way you find in Dungeons & Dragons for example.

For one thing, travel between any two places in Star Wars is effectively instantaneous. Various Star Wars RPGs have various charts for distances and spaceship speeds, but if you go by the movies, hyperspace is almost teleportation. In the scene where Luke first trains with his lightsaber on the Milennium Falcon, Han comes from the cockpit apparently just having put the ship on autopilot after making the jump from Tatooine. And the same scene ends with everyone going back to the cockpit because they arrived at Alderaan. And when Anakin is fighting Obi-Wan on lava world, the Emperor has a premonition that he needs saving and gets his shuttle ready. It’s not clear how long it takes the Emperor to fly all the way from the Core World to the Outer Rim and back, but they didn’t bother giving Anakin any medical attention before they are back at Corruscant. Doesn’t look like the whole thing took more than half an hour at most. In addition, aside from Interdictor Cruisers that know exactly where and when to ambush you, nothing can interrupt a hyperspace jump. There are no random encounters in interstellar space. Even if in your game travel between planets takes several days, it’s empty time in which nothing happens. Local planetary travel is also never really adressed. You can get from any one place on a planet to any other place just as fast as you can get to the other side of the galaxy.

A map for a Star Wars sandbox would look completely different than a map for a Dungeons & Dragons sandbox. When you can go to any place in the galaxy almost instantly, distances and relative positions become irrelevant. Instead of going to specific places, you really are going to visit specific people or buildings. On the whole planet of Dagobah, there is really only a single place. Yoda’s home. You could also consider the Dark Side cave as a second place but that’s really it. Corruscant is massive, but as long as you don’t have the specific adress of a specifc person, nothing on that whole planet is of any relevance to the players who have no reason to visit it. Instead of making a map for a Star Wars sandbox, you really need an adress book. People and specific places like cantinas, stores, hideouts, and bases are what makes up your sandbox.

The Other People

However, places are almost always defined by either something that is hidden inside them, but most often by the people who are staying there. There are very few places in Star Wars that are interesting by themselves in the way that great dungeons are in D&D. The stories in Star Wars are always stories of people, not of places. When you prepare a Star Wars sandbox, preparation shouldn’t start by drawing a couple of dungeons that the players can exmplore. The real heart of the sandbox are the NPCs. The villains and the allies. Of course Star Wars has lots of absolutely fantastic and stunning locations, but their purpose is always as a dramatic background for interactions with other characters.

NPCs really are everything in any Star Wars campaign. They are what will make or break the game. And when you make NPCs for Star Wars, always go full out. Hold nothing back. Make them as outragously awesome as you can possibly get. In particular the villains. The villains are what your players come for when playing a Star Wars game and they want, and only deserve, the most awesome ones. Darth Vader and Boba Fett leave pretty big boots to fill, but you should aim that high. If the NPCs are not really that interesting, then it just won’t reach the awesomeness that is Star Wars.

2,000 miles from edge to edge

When creating a “world map” for a fantasy setting, I generally find it rather pointless to actually make a map that shows the entire world. Most fantasy worlds aim to be late medieval to early modern in the kind of world they describe and in these time periods much of the Earth was yet unknown even to the people with the most complete maps that existed. Also, an Earth-sized planet is massive and there is no way you could ever actually visit all those places, no matter how many books you write or games you play. At the very most, what a setting can practically make use of, is a region that covers all the major climate zones and ecological environments.

While the distance from pole to pole is a bit over 20,000 km, the north to south length you need for a map that provides all the environments you could ever wish for is much shorter than that. I took some measurements on world maps and the numbers that showed up again and again were all in the range of 3,000 to 3,500 km. Or in fantasy units, 2,000 miles.

It is the distance that takes you from the northern coast of Africa to the northernmost extend of the Baltic Sea. It’s the distance from Russia across all of Mongolia and China to northern Vietnam. It’s from Hudson Bay in Canada to Cuba and from Alaska to Baja California. The distance from Rio de Janeiro to the Falkland Isles.

If you really want the full range of possible climates from the thickest tropical jungles to the permanently frozen artic tundra it’s more like 3,000 miles, but with 2,000 you are already on the pretty safe side in your ability to cover any landscapes you might want to put into your world.