Mage: The What Are We Doing Here

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Game design is telling people how to play. You might hear other explanations, but they all boil down to that. And everything you put in an RPG product is part of that telling. Today I want to provide an example of where game design failed.

The prime indicator of a game not working right is when playing groups sit down and wonder: What are we supposed to play here? Or rather often the GM wondering what they should run. A game where this happens surprisingly often is Mage: The Ascension. Many groups don’t get much further than the characters meeting. If your group is different, congratulations, you made it work. So what’s the problem?

The epic conflict fought by other people.

The central conflict presented in the game is about reality. In the game it is inherently democratic. What the majority believes is true. There might be local differences in belief and thus reality. And so different groups are fighting about the hearts and minds of mankind to make their reality true.

Sounds good? Sorry, but that has nothing to do with you. There are no rules or guidelines on how to win those hearts and minds. Your character might mind magic people, but it’s unclear if and how that affects the big picture.

Why war in Disneyland?

Apart from the “real” world, there are other worlds besides that are more fluid. Mages like to make homes and palaces there, which is certainly nice. And the major factions are actually warring there. So you can fight space ships on your flying carpet. Cool.

But it’s unclear why they are doing that. Or why an entrepreneuring group of PCs would want to go to one fairy madhouse or other. In fact the source book of Worlds, explains that there are at least three versions of Mars helt by different factions at the same time. So if there is basically infinite real estate out there, why fight about it?

It’s Mage Hobo please

So if the Ascension war is out and the the other worlds are kinda pointless, we could do some interpersonal stuff maybe. There are even different factions our characters belong to.

Nice try. Apart from some very bad stereotyping, there isn’t very much about how those factions work. So you can maybe talk about your worldview of being an animist while they bind angels to their will, but that might be good for about half a session. Worse, you likely don’t know anyone. You can by mentors and allies at chargen, but that competes having magic items and better magic in general. So it is very much possible that characters come out of chargen, knowing no one. (How are they part of a Tradition then?) They might also not have any goals. Because the game doesn’t tell you what a mage might want or does all day.

When there’s something strange…

Now, since we have no real base for politics or the big conflict, we could try some paranormal investigation. That might a natural idea, when the game is about Mages living among us.

The problem is that if your characters can do one thing, it’s uncovering mysteries. When they find a murder victim they can look back in time and see who did it. Mages will cut through typical mystery and horror plots like a hot knife through butter.

Still this is probably your best bet of getting the game working. The PCs are multi faction group of trouble shooters that are consulted by local mages when they can’t handle their backyard anymore.

Of course nothing in the game tells you to do that. In fact it runs counter to certain character options like owning a big library or magic holy place.

Traits of RPGs

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Describing RPGs is hard. Often we fall into fuzzy metaphors. Generally, it is better to classify things by what they have than what they are. I’ll try here to make a list of binary attributes of RPGs. So they are either on or off. That should be easy to verify.

Those attributes should not itself contain RPG lingo in their definitions. For example when I say a game has Character Classes, what does that mean? I’d say Vampire has character classes, namely the clans, but others disagree. So I’ll try to limit such points of contention. The very first criterium says “GM” though, which certainly is RPG specific lingo. So doh.

The list will certainly be incomplete. If you have additions, feel free to comment. If you want to know about a game that sets a particular switch to yes or no, feel free to ask.

I tried to capture some of those fuzzy descriptions with criteria. I have not found anything that makes a game “narrative” by itself. Probably because that label has been applied to anything that isn’t D&D3.5/Pathfinder. I also feel unablte to differentiate this way between the differing experiences provided by playing PbtA or Fate. I kinda know what it is, but I feel unable to say it this way.

Role

This about general “jobs” at table. Answering yes to these, makes a traditional core kinda.

  • Role1/GM: There is one and only one GM.
  • Role1a/GMFrame: The GM is responsible for framing scenes, describing who and what is there.
  • Role1b/GMDiff: The GM is free to set challenges, difficulties or the number and power of opponents.
  • Role1c/GMReward: The GM is free to offer mechanical rewards to players.
  • Role2/PCs: Every other player plays one character, henceforth called a PC.
  • Role2a/Party: The PCs work together as a team.

Rand(omizers)

Again, “traditional” RPGs answer yes to all of these.

  • Rand1/Fortune: There are randomizers in the game
  • Rand2/dx: The game uses exclusively d4, d6, d8, d10, d12 and/or d20.
  • Rand3/NoFace: Everyone at the table uses these randomizers.

Char(acters)

“Traditional” is everything but Traits.

  1. Char1/Stats: Protagonists feature several numeric stats describing their capabilities.
  2. Char2/Formulas: Some stats are derived from other stats by applying tables or formulas.
  3. Char3/Chargen: There is a codified process to make protagonists.
  4. Char4/Trees: During chargen some choices lead to further choices, forming a decision tree (skill trees, class powers, playbook moves, sub splats)
  5. Char5/Traits: Chargen requires freely naming certain mechanical elements for the character.

Advancement

The first two are very common. Capstone is built into D&D as the level progression ends, but not usually games that rely on point-buy. Gurps of course has no Tiers. You can in theory take anything at any point.

  • Adv1/Experience: Protagonists get better throughout play.
  • Adv2/Tiers: At least once throughout the advancement process protagonists can choose options that were not available at an earlier point.
  • Adv3/Capstone: The built-in advancement process ends at a certain point.
  • Adv4/Retirement: There are rules according to which a protagonist is supposed to retire.

Tact(ical)

Tact2/Targets might be surprising. Games like With Great Power have rounds, but as a player you always attack the GM in abstract, not indivdual opponents.

  • Tact1/Combat: The game has a round- or turn-based combat system.
  • Tact2/Targets: Players can choose a specific target to attack.
  • Tact4/Resistances: The game has rules that make certain approaches more effiective against certain opponents.
  • Tact5/Minis: The game uses formal positioning, either trough a grid, graph or measurement with a ruler.
  • Tact6/DeathSpiral: The capability of combattants decreases as they get injured.
  • Tact7/Ticks: A character’s choice of action influences when their action or next action will happen.
  • Tact8/Teamwork: Allied characters influence each other’s actions through posititiong, state or previous actions.
  • Tact9/Environment: Properties of the fictional environment formally influence combat actions.

Magic

This category is especially about a magic subsystem. If every action in the game is magic, like for the divine characters in Nobilis, this category does not apply. D&D 4th edition might have this category for the rituals. The Wizard’s class Powers are just like any other class’ Powers in the game and thus do not constitute magic rules for these purposes.

  • Mag1/Magic: There are specialized rules for supernatural powers for the protagonists to use that differ from the general rules of the game or expand them.
  • Mag2/NoMajs: Only some kinds of protagonists do use these magic rules.
  • Mag3/Affinites: Magic protagonists differ in what kinds of magic they can access or have an easier time with some.
  • Mag4/Spells: What can be achieved with these rules is described in a finite list of effects.
  • Mag5/Reserves: A character is limited in how much magic they can use by some resource that is regularly refilled or reset.

Set(ting)

Setting is one of those vague terms in describing RPGs and related to those even vaguer terms of “universal” rpgs. People talking about “universal” games probably assume a kind of cut-off point in this category’s list. This category is about “official” information only. For things you make up as a group, see the next section.

  • Set1/CoreStory: There is a core story, an idea of who the protagonists are, what they usually do and their role in the world.
  • Set2/Start: The game includes a starting location / region / adventure that can be used for introducing the game.
  • Set3/Regions: The game details several distinct regions/countries/worlds with individual features, flavors or plot hooks.
  • Set4/Icons: The game details powers or organisations who work in the setting at large.
  • Set5/Metaplot: The game has an ongoing history that is revealed in further publications.

Troupe

I had some trouble naming this category. It’s mainly taken to capture those games where preparation of play not only involves building characters but also building their shared background. I have taken the name from Ars Magica.

  • Troup1/GroupGen: Completing a protagonist requires input from other players creating protagonists.
  • Troup2/Home: The game includes a process to collectively create the protagonists’ hometown / base / faction / starship…
  • Troup3/Companies: Factions in the world can interact with other such factions through specialized rules.

Struct(ure)

This is about structuring time and narrative in the game. There is a surprising variety in how games do this and it is rarely discussed. “Traditional” games may feature any, except for codified Acts and an explicit End.

  • Struct1/FictSI: The game refers to real time units like minutes or days that passed in the fiction.
  • Struct2/Tabletime: The game refers to table sessions or real time passed at the table.
  • Struct3/Scenes: The game explicitely refers to scenes or encounters.
  • Struct4/Adventures: The game explicitely refers to adventures / missions / episodes / …
  • Struct4/Acts: The game has an explicit narrative structure within those episodes.
  • Struct5/Downtime: The game includes rules for skipping periods of fictional time.
  • Struct6/End: The game has an inevitable endgame after which play stops.

Subsystems

This category describes various subjects that received specialized rules in various games. Specialized means they are more specific than whatever the game uses to handle non-specialized actions. Many of these could be expanded like Tactical and Magic. I do not number them for this reason.

  • Sub/Hazards: The game has specialized rules for enivronmental hazards like temperature, falling, drowning.
  • Sub/Overland: The game has specialized rules for overland travel.
  • Sub/Chases: The game has specialized rules chasing other characters on foot or other means.
  • Sub/Ships: The game has specialized rules for maritime or space vessels.
  • Sub/Psych: The game has specialized rules for depicting characters’ mental state.
  • Sub/Relations: The game has specialized rules for personal or professional relationships.

Rebellion: Planes plainly

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Taking a clue from D&D many fantasy worlds exhibit different planes of existence. What for?

In D&D, it’s places for the angels, demons and other critters to come from. But that is not very relevant in play. We do not usually study the lifecycle of Barbed Devil, we smite it. Of course, we can use it as locations for play, much like distinctive regions on a map. Doing so, we can use it to color our plot in ways, which might resonably be more exotic than normal places. But really, if we want a place with weird physics we could also put on the map and have a place with weird physics just right there. It’s fantasy after all. And it might arguably more interesting, too, as the neighbors then have to deal with sitting next to a weird physics place.

In urban fantasy other planes are often used differently from the D&D model. The other world is often somehow reflective of the real one. That has several functions. Firstly it can grant insight into what’s going on, which is useful in mystery plots. A place’s character and history can be shown in its reflection. Secondly it can allow for reaching places that are barred in the real world allowing the supernaturals to move in secretive ways. Urban fantasy also often has pocket places servicing the supernatural community so they can do their business apart from people.

A fourth kind of extradimensional space is travel space. You enter travel space to cross vast distances. This is done in scifi with hyperjumps or the like, in fantasy it is often depicted as a labyrinth or pathways that can be traversed. The fifth kind regularly used in fiction is more like a reflection of the inner thoughts of the people going there. They are often used to have the characters contend with their inner demons.

tl;dr

  1. Oddly flavored adventuring areas
  2. Backsides of reality, often showing a distorted and revealing image
  3. Diagon Alleys for “special” people to meet
  4. Tavel dimensions
  5. Spaces that make the traveler’s subconscious explicit

For my Rebellion setting, I do not want a great variety of other worlds. The gods left enough strongholds abandoned to have all kinds of places on the map, so no need for D&D style planes. A way to get around quickly is useful though. Let’s have travel space.

To make one I have to figure out:

  • How to get in?
  • How to navigate it? / How to get out?
  • How does it look?
  • How did it come to be?

As for the history, that can solve another problem in the same shot. The gods, at least in the central region of the world, left. Where did they go? Some like the Forest Boy or the Earth Mother discorporated in a way. Some were killed by the rebels and turned into magic items. Some left to the far reaches of the earth. But those are all rather unattractive options. Meaning the gods who were really into these courses of action, likely already did so on their own intiative. (Except the dying perhaps.) It would be nice if the rebels could offer something to the gods.

Hey, Mr. Winter. You like the world frozen over, yes? How about you take those people who want to follow you and go to when that has totally happened already?

The travel space was created when several sympathetic gods discorparted to create it. It not only leads to other places but also into the deep past. The world is several billion years old and human civilisation has been around for 10k years at most. There is a lot real estate back there. The scheme relies on not positing groups too close to now, since that might mess up history. I’m totally ripping of that one Star Trek episode here.

But since those gods and their followers already went and nothing bad had had come of that… the plan totally worked, right? Right? Tune in next time.

Anyway, the main problem with teleportation in RPGs is that you do not want characters to appear anywhere (unless you do). So exiting the travel space is only possible at preinstalled gates, which also allow entring. Those gates are often close to the abandoned divine strongholds as they used them to leave. That is useful because you can totally come out next to those interesting adventuring locations. Gates may be closed but can be opened by anyone who is not soulscraped by mentally pushing it open. They might not be obvious in closed state, though.

Entering might also be possible anywhere with portable items, which can be handed out as quest goals.

There are also the Feuerbälger (fire brats), small red-skinned fire-resistant humanoids with horns, who have the ability to open a gate at any sufficiently big fire. The leading constructor of the tavels space was the god now known as the Lord of Ashes. The Feuerbälger are his servants still and can also navigate the tunnels reasonable well. These abilities are not public knowledge. The Feuerbälger are known to reside on Red And Cursed Isle of the coast and guard the tomb of the Rebellion’s mortal leader.

The traveling space consists of tunnels that are warm, close to 40°C. Walls and ground are covered in ash or soot. You want to bring food and especially water. There are way signs posted from time to time at intersections left by previous travelers. But mostly travelers have to work with trial and error which severely limits the usage of the system. There is no widespread use among the baseline population, though that might change if viable routes between interesting places can be found.

Many tunnels are broken and blocked. And I suppose tunnels into deep time have been demolished. Otherwise that would introduce those D&D planes through the backdoor.

Rebellion: The Mother’s Lands – Sanderson’s “secret” recipe

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Brandon Sanderson is known as the Magic System Guy and rightly so. But what exactly makes a magic system Sandersonian? The three laws certainly, but those are rather abstract and and are more guidelines for good writing and exposition in general. In my classification of magic users, I have already defined Sanderson’s typical approach as class-based powers: there are different types of users and each type has one or two magic gifts and doesn’t get more. But again, that fits Avatar: The Last Airbender just as well. So what makes that special something in Mistborn, Warbreaker (free to read), Elantris, Sixth of Dusk or Stormlight Archives etc.?

I will now uncover the not so secret recipe.

  1. Pick one or more materials or prequisites used in performing magic, like metals, glowing crystals, craft, sickness, birds. These can be very common everyday things.
  2. Optionally pick a requirement to become a magic user, like swearing oaths to a spirit, or receiving other people’s souls willingly given. These are usually somewhat metaphysical. Magic bloodlines work too.
  3. Optionally split magic users into different subtypes either by their specific material or method or by the specifics of their gaining magic. That is, mistings use only a certain metal, while Surgebinders swear specific oaths, but use all the same glowing crystals.
  4. Assign magic powers that are not usually associated with the materials or methods used. This is very important and leads to the magic appearing new and interesting. Like draining colors allows for animating non-living materials. Or eating tin sharpens your senses. Or swearing to remember the dead allows for skating. You don’t even have to employ especially unusual powers, as long as there is no obvious connection between the ingredient and the effect. This is the secret. Connect an ingredient and effect with no obvious connection.
  5. Optionally create another magic system, somehow mirroring the first. Like Ferruchemy uses the same metals as Allomancy in Mistborn, but in a different way. Or the Voidlight offers similarly themed powers to Surgebinding through allegiance to Odium in the Stormlight Archives.

Let’s do this. My first idea was to have some blue skinned mystics. Which for some reason is common in fantasy worlds.

Of course it’s not problem to have people with blue skin in the Rebellion setting. A god did it. But let’s perform the list. What might be an ordinary thing our mystics might use? I chose flower blossoms. They might not only be blue. You get blue, when you use blue blossoms. We can use all the colors. So these people rub flower blossoms on their skin and take up the color that way. They likely shave too, to have more surface area.

Step 2. We need some mythical thing to make them able to do the flower rub. I have already talked about the Earth Mother in an earlier post, so let’s make that here people. They eat a very rare kind of fruit and it makes them Flower Mystics.

Step 3. Let’s split them. That’s easy. Flowers come in many colors. So our Mystics can have an affinity for certain colors. It can be a soft split. Any Painted Mystic can in theory use any color but they have some colors they process better. This allows for mono-colored mystics, who likely perform duties in a monastery, or more blotchy ones, who lead a more itinerant life, so they need to be flexible.

Step 4. One power per color.

  • Blue: Soothes pain and inflamations. I’m pretty sure I want to make healing magic rare in the setting, so this is a very good thing already and can give the Mystics a lot of soft power.
  • Red: Causes pain. I assume that in order to deliver their power our Mystics must make contact with the target. So if they want to weaponize their powers they likely train unarmed martial arts.
  • Yellow: Makes peope awake and ready. A small touch and you’ve had a good nights sleep. Don’t overdo it though.
  • Purple: Puts people under, gives them visions. Those visions can of course serve as way to convey plot points.
  • White: So all the powers work on people. There is no use for white blossoms. That’s what initiates are told. They are even invited to try white on one another to prove it’s useless. That’s the official line. You can use it raise corpses, though, and have them do your bidding.

Using the power slowly drains the color until they need another rub. If you have good affinity, it takes longer till you need a refill.

Step 5. So we have those Mystics. They have a number of monasteries where they plant the flowers they process as well as the magical pear bushes that allow them to initiate more Mystics. What about the people outside the monasteries? Let’s give them some magic too. We can mirror the colors somewhat to do that.

So let’s say you can tie a colored thread around an object and speak a prayer to the Mother and voila, magic. No mythical initation needed. This is democratic magic. Split is the same as for the Mystics.

  • Blue: Tieing blue thread takes away attention. Hunters wrap their spears in blue to stalk their prey. People tie their valubles in blue, so thieves will not find them.
  • Red: Makes an object easier to light on fire. People are very careful about using red thread and certainly don’t use it in their everyday clothing. It is vastly useful in absence of modern matches though.
  • Purple: Grab attention. Speaker platforms and stages are wrapped in purple. Speactators will report the message being clearer and the play more vivid.
  • Yellow: Make perishable goods more lasting. People in the Mother’s Lands can enjoy fresh fruit longer.
  • White: Keeps ghosts and bad magic away. There must be a reason to ask about white flowers after all.

Again the the thread disclolors when it is used. The more attention a blue thread has to avert the faster it will be used up.

For the Rebellion setting we need something else though. Some background about the Mother and reason Threaded prayers aren’t used everywhere. The Mother was among the first gods who gave up on a coporeal body. Long before the Rebellion forced most of the remaining gods away. She invested herself into the ground where her favorite people lived, giving the mystical pear bushes and the promise to look after them when they kept her prayers.

Balancing

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Balancing in tabletop RPGs is a complex term to say the least. There seem to be several different takes on it. Like:

  • Alrik’s blow gun does so much more damage than my jojo. Completely unbalanced.
  • Vaarsuvius scanned the whole fortress with their crystal ball. Why am I super sneaky?

There are also groups that do not seem to have any problems with balancing, which complicates the assessment.

Niches

To tackle the latter problem first, it is important to understand how written rules work in RPGs. That is, they are only ever suggestions. Even if we supposedly play rules as written, interpretations will vary and every group will have their own dynamics too. That doesn’t mean agreed upon rules don’t matter. Because they can help to structure our communication.

To show this let’s look at the problem of scouting out the castle, where crystal ball bet thievery. This complex is often referred to as niche protection. A niche then is a type of problem, like scouting enemy strongholds. And the idea is that we call on some specific character when a certain niche arises. Character classes then can help structuring that particioning by prepackaging certain niches.

Note that “magic” is not a niche for these purposes. That is because of how the method works: A certain problem comes up in the fiction and then we look to Alrik to solve it. Alrik might solve the problem with magic. The problem is the niche, while magic is a possible solution for the problem. Handling enemy curses could be a niche, though. Again the solution might be counterspells or being immune to curses. A niche needn’t say how to solve it.

We must also recognize that we cannot rely on the written rules alone. For a very stupid example, let’s assume that the Navigator class is very good at getting our starship to its destination. And now five players choose Navigator. That likely won’t happen because the rules structure our communication thus. But we have to recognize that communicating niches cannot stop at class choice, if classes are more complex than a single ability. Also niches must be relevant to the campaign. Navigating the starship doesn’t help in a planet-bound campaign.

On the other hand, rather small things can become a fulfilling niche in the right campaign. For example this happened, when we were playing D&D3.5 back then, we decided to do a campaign heavy with undead.

Cleric Player: *thinkin aloud* I should probably prepare something against negative energy.
Me: Do not bother dear friend, I will have these matters well in hand.
Cleric Player: *confused* Aren’t you a sorcerer or something?
Me: Or something, yes.
Cleric Player: Cool.

Thus a niche of dealing with negative energy was established. And our Cleric Player went on preparing those self-buffs 3.5 were infamous for. And everyone died in a TPK three sessions later.

Combat systems

So, with that understanding of how to negotiate proper niches, let’s look at combat. With an extensive combat system we have slightly different situation. Usually all players want to do something then. We can wait for the navigator to plot the course, but if the combat starts and will last for several minutes real time, people get bored, if they have nothing to do. So if there is a very detailed combat system, combat is not a niche where one person does the thing. Sorry Fighter.

There are a few things we can do. We might have different types of opponents and have different characters shine against them, while the others play supporting roles. We might have different jobs like attack, defense. These jobs are sometimes called combat roles.

The damned Tamarian language

So the guys from that one episode of TNG:

In short: Great episode.

In not so short: Crew cannot talk to aliens. Aliens abduct Picard to planet surface where they fight monster and learn to communicate. Meanwhile the crew makes various attempt at figuring out what’s going on. Just for Picard to arrive in the end and do a Captaion’s soliloquy, in Tamarian.

I mostly hear people comparing the Tamarian language to emojis. Listen up kids, emojis are not a language. You can certainly communicate a lot with them. You can also communicate a lot by saying Pi-ka-chu over and over with emphasis.

But human languages, whether they are spoken, signed or written, not only have signs but ways of combining them. And while some ways are rather conventional, you can say some innovative things like: “How much for this red EPS conduit, chaDIch?” Not so with Tamarian. Darmok is never there when walls fell. Tembo is. Kira’s eyes are not red. Sokath’s are. If these were elements of a language they’d be all over the place instead.

There is also the thing about the universal translator. It can translate some of the things the Children of Tama say. Espicially locational phrases like “Kira at Bashi”, possessive phrases like “Tembo, his arms wide”. It also understands words like arms and wide. This surprising. The words Kira and Bashi are not translated, because they are proper names. But how does the translator know that? The phrase means “tell a story”, because apparently that’s what the Kira person did. So if the translator tried for a translation shouldn’t it say “tell”? Because when you use a metaphor all the time, it’s just a word. You wouldn’t be surprised that I’m currently using keyboard and mouse while writing this blog post- which are metaphors. Because neither am I working a piano, nor was a member of family Murinae hurt in making this.

Well, the writers offered some explanation. There is a scene where Riker and Trois try to research the names the Tamarians said, specifically the epidosde’s eponymous “Darmok”. He is, the computer tells them, a mythical hunter from Shantil III. So the answer is: The Tamarians aren’t speaking Tamarian. They utter words in another language, maybe one from Shantil III or from some people who have visited there. Apparently the universal translator got that and translated Shantilian or whatever it is. The question is why they didn’t pull the system logs and find out what the algorithm came up with. People have suggested Enterprise should get a linguist. I suggest they get a system administrator.

This also explains why we find this emoji structure instead of a proper language. The Tamarians utter Shantillian phrases concurrently to speaking their original language. Maybe it’s some form of telepathy that is incompatible with Betazoids. Maybe it’s ultraviolet flashes on their faces or anything else the UT doesn’t pick up. In any case the original Tamarian language is not spoken words.

What we are seeing is an interspecies creole, a language that arose when two language communities met and persisted as its own thing. That means, at some point the Tamarians were visitied by the Shantilians or people who knew the Shantilians. I’ll calll them the S regardless. Fits nicely with the Ts. So the S and the T tried to talk. The S were your typical talking humanoids. The T, while capable of making spech like sounds, didn’t use them as their main channel for communication. They figured something out regardless to communicate with one another. Maybe the S showed the old Tamarians picture stories. About Darmok and Jalad. About Tembo and Kira and Sokath and Miral.

The T picked up on the sounds the S made. They could repeat them. They didn’t really learn Shantillian, but saying those S phrases accompanying the picture stories, while using their own T channel for the main infnormation, that became all the rage. So when the Tamarian captain explained his plan he likely gave detailed instruction on that original Tamarian channel: “Beam that guy over there and me down to the planet’s surface, Number 1. Close to where one of those monsters live”, while underlining that by uttering “Darmok and Jalad”.😎

SciFi Bullshit: Stargate Addresses

Hi. I just wanted to leave that here. I need it from time to time, when someone wants to reminisce and talks about Stargeate. In case you watched Stargate back then, you might remember that scene where Daniel explains addresses.

“To find a destination within any three-dimensional space, you need six points.”

No. Sorry. You don’t. You need minimum 1 point, if it’s the one you want already. Otherwise things get complicated. So Daniel draws three straight lines, each of which is defined by two of those six points. Of course, you can draw a line through any two points. The problem is that arbitrary lines in space do not intersect at all. While in a plane two lines are either parallels or intersect, in 3D they can also be skewed. Just pick up two pencils and imagine them being infinite straight lines. You can hold them touching one another making an intersect, you can hold them exactly parallel, or you can hold them any other way passing by one another. That’s skew. And adding a third line doesn’t make it better. In fact you might now get two intersections or even a triangle. It’s a wondrous thing that the air force officers in the scene do not figure that out.

Furthermore, the 7th symbol as point of origin is idiotic. If the gate didn’t know where it currently is, how does it work in the first place?

So let’s think again. We have some dials that fit constellations. First we need to figure out what that means. A constellation is not a point but an extended area in the night sky, creating an infinte 3D slice out into space. We could say that we are talking about the brightest star in the depicted constellation as seen from earth. That means every Stargate needs custom labels for the planet where it’s located, referring to the sky there. At its latest that becomes problematic, when they start driving around gates via starships in the series, but for the movie at least it’s workable. Let’s stick to the movie.

So we have 38 symbols referring to stars from which we choose up to 8 (a stargate has 9 chevrons, it’s just that two are are not usually visible because of the runway). How could we make a somewhat sensible addressing system? So first of all, we might mean one of our 38 star systems itself, call it A. What would be sensible address for A itself? A+ENTER. Dial that very symbol, then “origin” to end your sequence. So we would want sequences ranging in length from 1 to 8 signs. The ORIGIN terminates the sequence, but is otherwise meaningless.

How do longer sequences work? We want the point that has the shortest total distance to all the symbols we reference; the “center” of our chosen reference points. Using this approach there is no reason to prohibit repitition of symbols. We could do A+A+B+ORIGIN, demarcating the point that is on the line from A to B, but twice as close to A as it is to B.

We could even allow up to 9 target glyphs. Since ORIGIN is just an ENTER, the sequence must stop when all 9 places are used up. The reason they have to dial ORIGIN in the movie is that they have only a 6 symbol address.

Finally, we could make a difference between A+B+ENTER and B+A+ENTER, by giving the first point a little more weight, making its pull on the “center point” a little bit stronger. How many addresses does that give us? We have 38 addresses with a single glyph, 38 squared for two glyphs and so on up to the power of 9. But we must substract the options that all places are the same each time. A+A+…+A+ENTER ist just A+Enter.

38 + 38^2-38 + 38^3-38 +...+ 38^9-38 
= 38 + 38^2 + 38^3 +...+ 38^9 - 38*8
= 169,681,401,296,978 - 304 
= 169,681,401,296,674

Note the number for Daniel’s method is smaller than you might expect, even if it worked. Since it uses three pairs to define three straight lines, certain addresses are eqivalent like

(A,B) + (C,D) + (E,F)
= (B,A) + (D,C) + (F,E) || switching the fix points within pairs
= (E,F) + (A,B) + (C,D) || moving pairs around
= ... || any combination thereof

Rebellion: Alien procreation

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A typical question is: How to make alien aliens? That is, how to make them more alien than giving them rubber foreheads. My suggestion is: Start with procreation. Just a few changes can lead to major deviations from human culture. Some things about us:

  • We have males and females, mostly. We do not regularly produce hermaphrodites, switch our sex, or do other things real animals do.
  • Sex is determined by chromosomes, not by environmental conditions like in crocodiles.
  • We have little differences between sexes. We do not regularly produce infertile individuals.
  • We can do it all year round, no mating seasons.
  • We can do it before we’re fully grown (that’s rare).
  • We bare life young. So we usually know who the biological mother is, less so with the father.
  • Our kids are helpless for a long time. Mother and father often cooperate in child rearing.

If you want some more ideas, Crash Course had an episode recently.

So let’s put some aliens into Rebellion.

The dense forests of the south-eastern peninsula are beset by “spider monsters”. It unknown which god made them, but until shortly before the Rebellion no humans ever lived there. The spider are actually no such things. They have an internal sceleton, active lungs and only four legs. They are hairy, venomous and grow to size of a lion.

Their life cycle is rather different from humans. They spend most of their life “male” and become “female” only later in their life span. They grow bigger and less agile, when they transition to female state. Bearing children ultimately kills the mother, who bury out of her abdomen. The children are then usually adopted by other females, who nuture and train them. Ultimately most females let themselves be impregnated by their adoptees / students / husbands. (Those categories are pretty much the same for them.)

The spiders initially didnt’t have much culture as we understand it. They have no hands and are thus no tool users. But when Mistress Weavers’s divine domain within the Empire collapsed, some of her followers fled down the coast. They finally in the spider djungle. It turned out their divine connection considered those creatures “weaver enough” and provided them with a telepathic connection. When more refugees fled south during the rebellion, the spider talkers took them in. They have since formed a hybrid culture known as the Spider Tribes; spider talking appears to be meta-genetically rather dominant. They have developed a script both species can write and a drum language that is of great use in the dense forests.

The neighboring Realm of the Royal Couple has so far been incapable of pacifying the tribes and has resigned themselved to secure the frontier with a line of fortresses.

Rebellion: Subvert the Witch

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Fantasy and related genres have a lot of tropes to offer. When we write new stuff, we have a number of options to deal with that.

  1. We can use them straight. Elves live in natural settings, are bit high-headed, live longer than most people, are generally better at everything, and have long ears.
  2. We can allude to them. That is we don’t say the name, but use some of the aesthetics. That’s the standard in Space Opera, where you have a “elves”, but they are called Vulcans or Minbari.
  3. We can subvert them. We use the name, we use most of the salient bits, but change the context. Like the eusocial hive elves in Gemini RPG.
  4. We can use them as a red herring. We use the name, but pretty much nothing else. See the Dragon in Wheel of Time. Do this sparingly.
  5. We can also just ignore it. No elves.
  6. Finally, the text might make an effort to explain why a certain trope is not present. Somtimes called averting a trope.

Today I want to subvert the Witch. What do we know about witches:

  • They live in forests.
  • They eat children.
  • They ride broom sticks.

Magic group right? This is Rebellion, so let’s start with a god.

It is said the Forest Boy was the son of earth and the sky, thus he grew the trees with roots in the ground and the leaves up high. He was a joyful child, always soaring the skies. He was nice child too, never soaring above where the people had their houses and fields.

When it became clear that the gods walking about would rip the world, the boy grew sad. Because he loved both the people and divines. So as the rebels and the gods clashed, he withdrew and soared no more.

When finally a representative from the rebels came, the center of the forest was so dense, they had to brandish the Allschnitt to break a path, some people say. They found the boy sitting on a lake. Its water was salty, because it came from the boys tears.

What happened next, depends on who you ask. The rebels would say the boy consented to give them information and end his live. The loyalists say he was forced. In any case, the local guides who had come with the rebels cut the boy apart with knives of bronze and sowed his flesh bones all over the forests. And thus the trees of the forest became magic and the witches of the land wield power over root and sky.

Not the full story actually. The Boy (or sometimes a Girl) regularly arises anew in the forests and the Witches cut him to pieces over and over, partake of his flesh and sow the earth with it. The partaking is very important, because witches eat children. Except this child is not actually a child and wants to be eaten. And that’s how one becomes a witch.

Effects:

  • Witch Wood that is magic wood from the Witchlands floats in the air. The altitude varies somewhat with the weather, air pressure to be specific, as with the kind of wood. The average is between 30cm and 1.5m.
    • Witch Wood has very interesting applications in construction. You can add material and make your construction lighter!
    • Witch Wood is the major export of the Witchlands.
  • Witches can, with concentration and singsang, affect plant growth, especially woody plants. This is not immediate, but the plants will grow two to three times faster than usual and in the shape the witch desires.
    • The Witchlands have the best orchards.
  • Witches can create gusts of wind. This is the most straining of their abilities, but a trained witch can keep up a stiff breeze for most of the day, or major gust from time to time.

So, broom rinding. Modern witches have figured out that just grabbing a bunch of Witch Wood and propelling oneself with wind, is not very efficient. Get bit of canvas though and put it into a contraption of witch wood, and you have an effective glider.

Society: The Witchlands lie in the south west of the Great Peninsula, on a the seaward side of a mountain range parallel to the coast. The climate is tropical. The central area of the Devastation is more than a subcontinent away, so the region came along mostly unscathed, although they lost their protector. The lands are are ruled by several independent lords and have been mostly peaceful. The Witches act as an independent class within society and tightly regulate who to induct into their ranks. Spying on their rituals, they punish harshly.

In the recent years there has been an uptick in foreign trade, as more and more ships land on the coast. Many owned by the big hairy people, who call themselves “of the forests”, as well. But more regular folk as well. While many locals welcomed the influx of goods the traders brought, the forests can only produce so much Witchwood. And the foreign coin exacerbated the rivalries between the lordships.

Rebellion: Magic and those Blank Spots

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In the last part, I explained how the world’s Central Adventuring Area, which should totally be a term. What already is a term discussed in RPG circles is “blank spots”. Like when someone explain they want a world with blank spots where they can fill in their own content. Or explicitly in Dungeon World, when it says: Draw maps and leave blanks.

Now, when you make your own campaign world, “leaving blanks” is just a caveat not to over plan beforehand. The PCs after all are only in one place at a time, so you likely won’t need it. When you make a campaign world for other people to use, I actually doubt that leaving blanks is good enough. Because those people took to your world because it offers some content and themes they enjoy. And therefore they will likely want to add content in a way that fits existing material. So when you publish your own game world, you might want to provide an explicit formula that people may use to slot in their ideas.

I will develop such a formula for making magic in the Rebellion setting, then use it. Because as I explained in the first post, magic here is per community. A typical community the PCs might visit has some magic going on. So we need to insert more communities. Of course, some communities might lack magic completely or have lost it. That’s a statement as well. So this is it:

  1. The magic a person wields only ever does specific things. Magic as whole might do pretty much anything, but no single person or group can. So what does this magic do?
  2. All magic originated with the gods. A manifest god warps reality just by being there, but the gods are gone. So for the magic that remains, decide what god originated it from.
  3. How did people get this magic? Of course, the god might have handed it out willingly back in the day. Or maybe it was unintentional. Maybe it’s the result of some weird interaction. (Some examples of that below.)
  4. How does an individual use this magic? What actions do they need to perform? In general there these approaches can serve as a baseline. Several can apply at the same time.
    • The magic is inborn. Only people with right genetics can do it.
    • The magic is acquired. You need personally do something to get it first.
    • The magic must be regularly harvested in some manner from a location touched by the divine.
    • You must perform some action whenever you use it. Usually either some prayer to the god, even if they are not around anymore, or something physical.
  5. How does the community use this magic? What customs have evolved from it?
  6. How do they interact with other community? Do they trade their magic? Keep it secret? Weaponize it to conquer their neighbors?

These questions need not be answered in order. For the magics I did, I often worked backwards. So let’s do it. Remember the big storm that arose from the battlefield where several gods died, as well as how Father Sky really wanted to save his supplicants?

Storm Callers

Stormcaller is the name for people who stand in the way of the flesh-rending storm and shout out their devotion to Father Sky. It is said that if their heart is pure they will receive the power of healing themselves from injuries. Cynic people suggest that people looking like the majority population of the fallen empire have a better chance at survival.

Effects: Stormcallers have super regeneration. They heal from cuts, stabs and burns. Limbs do not regrow but can be reattached. They do not get sick from normal diseases and have an increased life expactancy. Decapitation and starving will kill them. Those who have called upon the Storm are infertile and cannot bear children.

Society: Calling at the Storm is generally considered a desparate act. Some groups in the Devastation have a tradition of sending people into the storm. They are mostly dressed in white, the color of mourning. They are usually males, because femals are considered too important. Of course, there are always foolhardy outsiders of any kind who think standing in front of a storm is their best bet in life.

Rain Smiths

One group in the Devastation travels after the storm. Coming into their compounds, you will see displays silvery figures that move in artistic ways. It is the same material they use as struts in their tents when traveling, or their collapsible weapons. Rain Metal.

To make this fabulous substance you need three things:

  1. Water from the Great Storm
  2. Jars to collect the water made from special earths.
  3. A Rain Smith to sing at it daily for one full month.

The Rain Smiths form a Line, a hereditary group with certain powers. Or to be more precise, two competing Lines, who each have settled one of the locations where the jars can be made. The third known spot is in a particularly nasty area within the Devastation.

The largely unknown origin of the Rain Smiths is a group of messengers in the empire who carried official pronouncements to the often capricious gods. The clay for jars was used in imperial seals. The divine essence in the rain basically still reacts to the messengers carrying a seal.

Effects: Freshly made Rain Metal is a silvery liquid. It has several effects.

  • It reacts to emotions with whirls and wobbles and when you put in a hand, it becomes a rather effective lie detector. At least against people who do have not trained against it.
  • Food placed in jar of liquid rain metal doesn’t go bad. Although the taste may change somewhat.
  • A Rain Smith can sing the liquid into certain specific forms making the repeating displays of art or weapons that can be collapsed and extended even by people who are not of the Line.
  • Swallowing rain metal is one of the less painful ways of soul scraping, at least if you have Rain Smith on hand to get it back out. Soul scraped cannot use any kind of magic and seem less empathetic, but become invisible to augury and spirits and cannot be effected by most magic that works on living things. Giving someone rain metal to drink and keeping it in, is a particularly nasty form of torture, though.

Society: The two families of Rain Smiths are influential factions within theDdevastation. They have become rich from trade and each have a number of mercenaries at their compounds. Especially collapsible weapons have become a status symbol in the south and are traded at a high markup.

So this is it for now. Two examples of how to magic might look in this world. I will surely post some more. See you next time, where I’ll talk a bit about ways of using tropes.