Thursday, January 12, 2012

Skyrim, Rifts and A Few Revelations

This post is really all over the map - at one point, quite literally - so please forgive my somewhat stream-of-consciousness approach. I had a bunch of different things I wanted to mention, and remembered a few more as I was typing them up. I probably should have just broke it down into separate blog posts over the next few days, but I'm far too disorganized to plan something like that. I'll leave that to the Jeff Rients of the world. Now you know why I haven't posted in months...

My friend and fellow gaming stalwart Michael received an XBox ("for the kids," ha ha) and a copy of Skyrim as Christmas presents this year. He gave me the opportunity to give it a spin, and darn skippy if it isn't a hoot. Even my wife got hooked on her first try. We've spent the last few weeks trying to come up with excuses to either go over to the Slussers or procure an XBox 360 for ourselves (sadly, neither have been possible).

My wife is off on a school-related outing to San Jose this weekend, so I have the opportunity to go hang out at Michael's house like a lazy bachelor (totally different from my usual self, the lazy married man) and sponge off of his family's hospitality and entertainment. However, I decided, this was a good opportunity to give a little something back, in the form of some gaming for Michael's sons. Namely, a Skyrim-inspired RPG session. Fortunately, he tells me the boys were quite excited about the idea, which is good because I've been obsessing over the idea ever since I played.

For the setting, instead of trying to recreate Cyrodiil or whatever the empire in The Elder Scrolls is called, I decided to go with something I'd be familiar and comfortable with, and frankly, something I've kinda been wanting to do for a while. I've taken Mystara, turned a lot of the countries into provinces of the Empire of Thyatis, and amped up the Byzantine feel while lowering the tech level a touch. I've always wanted to portray Thyatis as more medieval Greek than Imperial Roman, anyway - I'm not familiar enough with the Known World Gazeteers to know if that was the direction they were originally going or not, but having an ancient Roman-style state alongside medieval cultures always bugged me for some reason. The Byzantines, however, have fascinated me for as long as I've been aware of them.

With this in mind, I've ventured into modifying Mystara with a more liberal hand than I usually apply to personal adaptations. In the past I had an obsession with learning all of the official details about a setting and then tinkering only within those boundaries, building upon what was already there. These I'm not getting paid to do this, so why stick with details or concepts that I don't like?

Allow me to follow this tangential concept for a moment. Michael's boys are demonstrating that they're capable of getting into more complex game systems than those we've played with in the past; they've recently started getting into GURPS 4th Edition. I mentioned to Michael that they might enjoy a game of Rifts, given their love of gonzo character combinations. As a concept, Rifts is easily as suitable a setting as the Infinite Worlds campaign for testing out all the options GURPS could handle. However, I decided early on that I had no desire to attempt direct conversions of statistics. That would be a load of work that I don't have time to take on, not to mention sounding like a dull exercise to me right now. I've never been a gearhead or a rules monkey, I'm afraid. I would just use the already-extant GURPS equivalents from the Ultra-Tech books and just wing it from there. If the Dead Boy armor didn't have all of the same features as those listed in the Rifts core rulebook, I wouldn't care and the boys would never notice. Then it dawned on me: I didn't need to keep any of the cruft that I never liked in the books. They'll never know I'm not using Worldbook 45 or taking into account the Three Galaxies setting or whatever. As they say, the game police wouldn't come over to break up my game, even if it did deface Kevin Siembieda's intellectual property.

I had already laid out a few minor changes when I happened across SirLarkins' Rifts: 2112 campaign design notes; that gave me extra encouragement to make Rifts Earth my very own without a thought to the canon. And I've been having some fun with it, even though the changes I've made have been relatively minor, probably assisted by the fact that I haven't been a Palladium fanboy since junior high and thus have missed out on pretty much everything since Coalition War Campaign (that's Worldbook 11, for those of you who care). I went through my old copies of d20 Gamma World and took some ideas from that to incorporate into my Rifts setting. So far, it's been a very amusing process.

The point of this whole tangent is this: you can be told, time and again, by everyone from Gary Gygax to Ron Edwards that This Is Your Game Now, Do With It As You Will, but it may take some time for that to really sink in. It did for me, anyway. It still feels a little revolutionary to me now, to rewrite major swathes of a published setting for my own games. It's not as though I was ever expecting someone in my gaming group to take exception (especially since we only play about three games for the most part) or someone to send me a cease-and-desist, but there was always a voice in the back of my head that said, "Well, what if someone does know the original setting, and joins your game? What are you going to do then?".

This is probably RPGs 101 for most people, so call me a late bloomer. I'll post something more about my take on the Rifts setting in another post. In case the suspense is killing you, it's not a huge deal - some of the names are changed, a lot of the stuff in the books is outright ignored, and really grokking that since the Cataclysm happened in our future instead of our present made me realize that I was free to make vast urban sprawls (now in ruins) exist where right now in the real world there is only farmland. And big Olympus-style arcologies, no less.

Okay, back to fantasy. Making The Known World into a Cyrodiil clone. I made a map, of course, to help me visualize the boundaries of the Empire of Thyatis, and their (indifferent-to-hostile) neighbors:

I'm almost certainly going to change the name of Alfheim to something more Elven-sounding, and you may note I changed Rockhome to its Dwarven-language translation. The Five Shires are now The Five Tors, since I didn't want my Hin to evoke Tolkien quite so strongly (in fact, I'm largely basing Hin culture on that of the pre-Roman Celts).

Here are some of the main features I've settled on:

Karameikos. The first Imperial province outside of Thyatis, conquered by the Warduke Karameikos and named in his honor (the original honorific I was considering was Megas Doux, which doesn't quite work for me; as much as I like Dux Bellorum, I wanted to stick with Greek-sounding titles). Though deeply loyal to the Empire, Karameikos remains a more rough-and-tumble province with plenty of opportunities for a commoner to obtain a fortune and a name for himself.

The Minrothad Guilds. I haven't read the Gazeteer on this region, but my version is essentially The Spacing Guild from Dune. These guys control all of the trade on behalf of the Empire, to prevent its nobles from becoming corrupt through the pursuit of profit (at least, that was the original intent; things have mutated a bit since then). The culture is similar to that of ancient Crete, with a mystery cult atmosphere of secrecy, blood-oaths of loyalty, secret rites and lots of hooded guys sneaking around. The people are essentially African in appearance.

The Kingdom of Ierendi. Pseudo-Hawaii is right out. The folk of Ierendi are seafarers similar to those of the Somali coasts.

The Broken Lands. Inhabited by Orcs, of course, who are more Orkworld than "Crock". They basically feel like they've been shafted by the world in general, since they may have once ruled a vast empire called Aengmor until the Elves and Dwarves brought them down. That's what they tell people, anyway, but then someone always derails the discussion with accusations of cannibalism...

The Malpheggi Swamp. Inhabited by the Malpheggoi, lizard men who are analogous to the Argonians of The Elder Scrolls. They claim to remember Aengmor, too, and point to their ruins as proof.

The Principalities of Glantri. Keeping the magocracy and the bitterly divided principalities; ditching the weird ethnic mix (the pseudo-Scots live next door to the pseudo-Spaniards? Huh?). These guys are basically medieval Russians whose distrust of each other is the only thing keeping them from sweeping across the Empire.

Darokin. No more Renaissance Italians. These guys were originally Imperials who split Thyatis when the decision came down to restrict trade to the Minrothad Guilds. They have since mellowed and rejoined the Empire thanks to their exclusive rights to trade with the non-Imperial Glantroi and Atruaghinoi. They've also been heavily influenced by the Celtic-style culture of the Hin.

Alfheim [tentative name only]. Home - more or less - to three, count 'em, three Elven subraces: the Queldanoi, who are basically the mana-addicted Blood Elves from World of Warcraft; the Asuryanoi, brown-skinned Wood Elves heavily influenced by those of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay; and the Kaldoroi, the exiled Shadow Elves who are WoW Night Elves with the serial numbers filed off, cursed with poor daylight vision due to their long centuries of subterranean dwelling. None of these guys really like each other very much, but that's okay, because nobody else likes them very much, either. That's why they agreed to chafe under Imperial rule: too many enemies.

Atruaghin Clans. Actually, this is more or less unaltered. Here's another minor tangent for you: I don't know about what other D&D players thought about the Atruaghin, so maybe I'm just a huge bigot, but I once balked at the notion of a Native American-style culture in my medieval fantasy world. Of course, this new version is more Late Roman/Dark Ages than "medieval", but you know what I mean, I hope. Anyway, a single illustration in a gamebook managed to change my mind:

A Kioga tribeswoman, from GURPS Witch World
Illustration by Larry MacDougall

Such was the power of that simple illustration (and the context in which the associated culture was presented, I guess) over me that I've been quite comfortable with the idea ever since. Maybe it's because it leans harder toward "Barbarian" than toward "Old West"? More Northeastern Woodlands tribe than Southwestern? I can't put my finger on it, exactly, but somehow it makes the notion work for me.

I also made sure to include Mystara's native Rakastas as a playable race, so I'd have an equivalent of the Khajiit. At this point they're basically the Romani of the setting, wandering the Empire and dwelling in nomadic encampments, as per their original descriptions.

There's more, but at this point a lot of stuff is kind of embryonic, and most of the other regions are, to my knowledge, relatively unaltered (aside from the greater Imperial presence thing). The first adventure will take place in the Soderfjord Jarldoms, to emulate Skyrim's Nordic setting, but fortunately, it can go anywhere we want after that.

As far as the actual game system I'm using goes, I was originally going to use Warrior, Rogue and Mage. The concept of this simple system matched up perfectly with what I was aiming for: a classless system in which any PC can fight, pick locks, cast spells, whatever. And I'd been hoping to get some use out of it for a long time. However, where it wasn't quite clicking for me was in the area of skills. WR&M is based on exploding d6s, using a roll-over-the-difficulty-rating system. You either have a skill or you don't; if you do, it adds 2 to your roll and may give you extra benefits here and there. That's cool and good and all, but not quite what I wanted for this particular game.

Instead, I decided to go with Basic RolePlaying. I've always liked BRP's method of character improvement, where every adventure in which you successfully use one of your skills, you get a chance to improve it. That fit perfectly with the Elder Scrolls system, as well as allowing anyone to use magic without worrying about character classes. It's slightly more complex than WR&M, but if the boys can handle GURPS 4e and Earthdawn, they can handle this. I've been going back and forth on which iteration of BRP to use: right now RuneQuest (the 1984 Avalon Hill edition) is in first place with Legend and some version of Magic World vying for second.

Okay, off to get lunch. More later.


Michael Slusser said...

Well, I'm excited now. I think most of the changes/mechanics will go over the boys' heads, but they'll love the game.

And once they head off to bed, there's still further Skyrim awaiting for further inspiration...

sirlarkins said...

Lots of cool stuff in this post.

- Glad my Rifts ramblings were of some inspirational help to you. And just so you know, I was totally a setting pedant at one time too. I would see references to people making vast, sweeping changes to published settings and scratch my head in confusion. The whole process seemed completely alien to me. I think what cured me was simply watching as companies took settings in directions I didn't care for, combined with getting older and realizing I'd much rather play in my own sandbox than someone else's.

- Having said that, your take on Mystara rocks! I share your interest in Byzantine and Eastern European medieval-inflected fantasy. It adds a nice alien edge without being either overly familiar or completely unrelateable. This post along with Darva's thoughts on religion in Mystara have got me seriously thinking about running some Classic D&D again.

- But hooray for BRP!

- Out of curiosity, are those character portraits in the post taken from a Mystara-related publication or did you find them elsewhere? They're pretty swank!

Devin Parker said...

SirLarkins: Thanks for the compliments! I happened across Darva's blog as I was looking up details on Mystara, and that religion post is going to be super-helpful in developing the Imperial Thyatic state religion - I thought the whole Immortals thing from BECMI D&D would be an interesting change of pace from my usual AD&D pantheons. There's enough similarity between ascended Immortals and Greek Orthodox saints to feel right to me.

As for the portraits: the Orcs and the Malpheggoi are from WotC's Art & Map Gallery Archive on their website. The "Orcs" are actually two Steve Prescott illustrations of Eberron Shifters that I Photoshopped together. I can't recall the artist on the other one, but in the future I should make a point of noting such things.

The Karameikoi, Minrothoi and Queldanoi portraits are ones I drew. I'd ultimately like to draw "Typical Male and Female" portraits of all the races and cultures for this setting; if I manage to do that, I'll post them here.

I've had the longing to try running a BECMI game again, too. BRP won out this time due to a mixture of nostalgia and just being the right system for what I want to emulate, but I've long been wanting to run something in the D&D family that's simpler than 3.5, which is what I usually end up running when I get the D&D bug. It's fun to run, and I have a ton of material for it, but I always end up regretting the amount of paper-and-prep-work it requires beforehand. Every time I page through my Rules Cyclopedia or glance at the Castles & Crusades books on my shelf, I feel the pangs of that longing.

sirlarkins said...

There's enough similarity between ascended Immortals and Greek Orthodox saints to feel right to me.

Absolutely! I'm picturing Greek icon-style portraits of Immortals set up in little shrines in the corners of taverns and niches of temples.

I'd ultimately like to draw "Typical Male and Female" portraits of all the races and cultures for this setting...

Fantastic work! I've had similar thoughts vis a vis creating visual dictionaries, if you will, of specific setting elements. Visual aides are always so helpful.

Every time I page through my Rules Cyclopedia or glance at the Castles & Crusades books on my shelf, I feel the pangs of that longing.

I just ran a short two session C&C game and I must say I do love that system. For me, it's always preferable to start simple and add on from there. That's why I also like BRP. It's definitely on the crunchy side of things, but the core system is so damn straight-forward. All the rest is just switches to flip on or off at the GM's whim.

Jayson said...

Thyatis was of course originally meant to be Medieval Byzantium according to the module Isle of Dread; I never cared for the default to ancient Rome of later accessories.

And those are really nice little illustrations.

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