Wildbow’s Secret Ingredients

I wrote a discussion about Sanderson’s (not so) secret recipe, which was well received, so I decided to look at how other authors approach superhuman abilities in their stories, as well. Today it’s J.C. McCray known to the Intarwebz as Wibblybob Wildbow, the author of superhuman stories Worm and Ward, modern occultism stories Pact and Pale (and Poke) and the biopunk story Twig.

My findings in this regard are less a complete recipe as with Sanderson, but more a list of typical patterns and strengths. Following links are to respective wiki articles and might be spoilerific.

Outrageous, Absolute, Specialized Abilities

The things characters can have tremendous impact, when they apply, but only do very specific things. You cannot see in Grue‘s darkness. Period. You cannot consciously harm August Prince. Period. You might be able work around those abilities, but you cannot beat them outright. This is most pronounced in Wormverse, but can be found in the other stories as well. Wildbow is not afraid to mess with the local environment, the protagonists’ minds or the world at large.

Powers defying classification

In Wormverse this shown by the classification of Capes into

Mover, Shaker, Brute and Breaker,
Master, Tinker, Blaster, Thinker,
Striker, Changer, Trump and Stranger.

While these some of these classifications appear resemble typical superhero tropes – most Brutes are rather tough -, some categories lump things to together in unusual ways. For example Masters include both people who sujugate the will of others or create drones under their control. That’s because they were made by the policing force for supers, as part of their field manual. It’s not what about what the super can do, but what you should do against them. With masters of either flavor, you want to circumvent the minions and take out the master. I learned there that it is very important to think about who made some classifcation and what for.

In Pactverse this is driven home by the constant reminder that classifying the Others does not always work or yield useful information. While goblins and fae are rather well established there, many other Others do not fit in established boxes neatly.

Not their “real” thing

Many character’s abilities are more encompassing than they show or even know about themselves or outright different from what is publicly known about them. This is so well known about the fandom, that there was talk for years what Parian’s “real” power might be. This worked because one of the most powerful capes, Rachel use their power in suboptimal ways throughout the series due to lack of understanding or resources. (In Rachel’s case, she is better with wolves and shakals than with domesticated dogs.) And characters like Panacea lied about what their powers could do for the longest time, for personal reasons.

Iconic mental and perception powers

Wildbow is very good in describing perceptions and varying the description when the point of view changes. Victoria just has an eye for fashion for example. This extends to supernatural senses as well, as all practioners in Pactverse have and what is called Thinker powers in Worm. The following is a short excerpt from Crystal Clear’s interlude (chapter link) in Ward.

Crystalclear’s vision didn’t give him color that wasn’t the blurring around the white outlines that defined everything.  Red jacket meant nothing to him.  But he could see the crowd, seeing everyone at once, and he could check the shoes.  It took some focus to narrow things down, to look for the pointed shoes, to observe for another few moments to see who was grouped up.

Three people, all about the same age, all men.  Their heads radiated with distortions.  Their focus- not on anything in particular.  He saw what they were dwelling on as a series of fractures, distorted angles, and breaks that surrounded them.  These things suggested things about what was going on in their heads that were more limited to the moment, covering stresses in every sense of the word.

You wouldn’t want those powers

This is a rather constant trope. Most Capes in Wormverse get their power when struck by a traumatic incident. That’s why you do not ask about how someone got their powers. The kids in Twig are the result of experiments and require constant upkeep from the scientists. Blake in Pact is drawn into the magic world against his volition. And the rules of magic are pretty bleak and unrelenting. Only the trio in Pale actually choose to take the job, and they are tweens from difficult homes. So there.

Rebellion: Fast Fantasy History for the Realm of the Royal Couple

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When worldbuilding a fantasy world one of the thing that might come up are histories. There are two major problems that often come up. They are too long and sparse – things happening thousand of years in the past and not much else -, or they are filled with useless details.

When making a history for an RPG, I usually have some idea about the final for now end state for the game to take place. I can usually find some steps that must have taken place before the current state may arise. But how much time should there been between those?

When we look at history, we have some units and unit-like words we use to structure it, like decade or generation. The latter may be anything between 15 and 25 years. So I think that the significant steps, I devised should happen within that timeframe. Somewhere between 10 and 25 years. Not 100s or 1000s as is typical with fantasy worlds. And since I’m a gamer, why not roll some dice?

d8+d6+d4+7 = [10,25]

This gives spacings I like for the important events, but it’s still rather dry. So I use this mechanism to get some events. To do this and to get some variety, I call the d6 the hard history die. Hard as in what historiography was about much of our history: wars, politics, so-called great men. The d8 is the soft history die. Cuture, philosophy, maybe science.

If the d6 is odd, count back from the event step you rolled for, and put a hard event there that let to the main event. If it is even, count forward and invent hard event that followed from the main event.

The d8 works much the same way for soft events, except the other way round. Count back for even and forward odd.

  • d6 odd: prerequisite hard event
  • d6 even: follow-up hard event
  • d8 even: prerequisite soft event
  • d8 odd: followup hard event

Let me demonstrate. In the Rebellion setting, I have hinted about the Realm of Royal Couple. That couple being brother and sister who the rebels with help of their allies turned into magical weapons. After the empire fell, those two and some followers traveled south, overthrew the ruling dynasty there and founded the Realm. The main events may be like:

  • Death of Father Sky, Fall of the Empire
  • Creation of the Ashen Ways, Leaving of the Hearth Lord who was venerated mostly south of the Empire across the mountains.
  • The Couple and followers cross the mountains and become allies with local lords
  • Fall of the ruling dynasty, founding of the Realm
  • Conquering of the Eastern Motherlands
  • The couple rarely appears in public anymore

I roll d4+d6+d8+7

Year 0: Death of Father Sky, Fall of the Empire

Year 17: Creation of the Ashen Ways, Leaving of the Hearth Lord (1, 1(hard pre), 8(soft pre), 7)

Year 30: Arrival of the Couple in the Realm’s northern region (1, 1(hard pre), 4(soft pre), 7)

Year 45: Founding of the Realm (4, 1(hard pre), 3(soft follow), 7)

Year 65: Conquering of the Eastern Motherlands (4, 6(hard follow), 3(soft follow), 7)

Year 93: Couple rarely seen in public (4, 5(hard pre), 2(soft pre), 7)

Now, intersperse some the secondary events.

History of the Realm of the Royal Couple

Year 0: Death of Father Sky. Over the following years, many divine domains fall to the rebels.

Year 9 (soft): Rumors about a seafaring people from across the sea come up for the first time. The Hylimoi will be seen across the coasts of the continent in ever greater numbers over the following decades.

Year 16 (hard): A compromise is reached. The remaining loyalist gods are allowed to leave to “Lands empty of human footprints” with the help of the gods who have sided with the rebels and will thus discorporate.

Year 17: Creation of the Ashen Ways (1, 1(hard pre), 8(soft pre), 7)

Year 26 (soft): Exodus of an increasing number of minor gods and their followers through the Ways. Decay of more divine domains.

Year 29 (hard): Death of the Lord Red, leader of the Rebellion.

Year 30: Arrival of the Couple and followers in today’s Realm’s northern region (1, 1(hard pre), 4(soft pre), 7)

Year 44 (hard): Covenant of the Lines: The local nobility and the newcomers will bring down the dynasty in the south and rule as a constitutional monarchy, lead by the Couple, who are ageless.

Year 45: Founding of the Realm (4, 1(hard pre), 3(soft follow), 7)

Year 48 (soft): Arrival of the Cultists of the Great Serpent from the west. They are welcomed in the Realm under explicit protection of the Royal Couple. The cult’s practices have a lasting influence on the forming culture of the Realm.

Year 65: Conquering of the Eastern Mother’s Lands (4, 6(hard follow), 3(soft follow), 7)

Year 68 (soft): The Lady’s City, another successor state founded by the Rebels, Lord Red’s daughter specifically, collapses. In the following years, refugees from the Lady’s loyalists will find their way into the Realm. Using a legal trick, they are labeled as the “Eastern Serpent Cult” and thus enjoy protection.

Year 71 (hard): The Couple’s first chancellor dies, who held the office for 26 years, since the founding of the Realm. Severe infighting the Council of the Line follows.

Year 88 (hard): The new Chancellor is murdered when inspecting the troops at the border to Spider Tribers’ lands. Two of the Lines are found guilty of high treason and removed from Council. The third chancellor is appointed quickly and starts reforms to curb the Lines’ influence among military and magistrates.

Year 91 (soft): Creation of flash towers manned by triples of mages have made it possible to communicate from one end to the Realm to the other in a single night, and for the first time been made available for private citizens at affordable costs.

Year 93: Couple rarely seen in public (4, 5(hard pre), 2(soft pre), 7).

Fictional Object Indexes List (FOIL)

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I have been complaining about the sorry state of RPG theory on and off on this blog. It usually goes like this: Someone makes some classification or dichotomy about some part of the hobby, say Gamism/Narrativism/Simulationism, Fluff/Crunch, Railroading/Sandbox (although that one’s even worse), Character-driven/Plot-driven Campaigns and so on, which categories than get repeated until puking. And when someone tries to find some criterion to actually distinguish those categories, it is quickly found that those criteria do not actually distinguish the right things. At that point some very clever people might suggest that we are actually looking at a continuum, which is makes the problem even worse as for a continuum we would need some way to extract a single real number (as opposed to a list of criteria) from a particular object of interest.

In total, the whole process is wrong. If you want to learn something about your object of study, you need your criteria and methods of measurement first and only then take a look whether interesting patterns emerge that you can tag with a label. Otherwise you are just juggling your preconceived notions. If you are really scientific you would also hit the dataset with some statistics to find which if any variables are connected.

So let’s try this. One common problem is describing different campaigns or GMing styles. What can we even measure there?

I will now offer a method. If you find something else that is easy to check, feel free to comment or contact me in other ways.

We can count certain types of fictional objects that came up in play. Of course, that only works for past play, but if you never run a campaign, you likely have no developed GMing style whatsoever yet. We might count things like this:

  • Number of named NPCs
  • Number of kinds of monsters
  • Number of instances where NPC made a request on or offered a job to the PCs. (Quests Given)
  • Number of factions active in the setting
  • Number of distinct locations visited (town size or bigger)

We could count things like fights, but that is harder. For once it is not totally dependent on GMing style. Players might decide to talk instead. And once you have a lull in the action, you have to decide if that was one protracted fight or two.

How does that look for my current campaign (6 sessions in):

  • Named NPCs: 25
  • Kinds of Monsters: 1
  • Quest Given: 2
  • Factions Active: 4
  • Distinct Locations: 2

For comparison we might want to factor in the length of the campaign run. Just dividing by sessions is likely not meaningful, as campaigns tend to be front-loaded. So maybe square root of sessions is better? That would be 2.449 in my case.

  • Named NPCs: 10.208
  • Kinds of Monsters: 0.408
  • Quests Given: 0.817
  • Factions Active: 1.633
  • Distinct Locations: 0.817

I will leave the interpretation of this measurement to you. If you want to comment some numbers of your own, I’m interested.

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