Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Let it Reign

The theme of the week seems to be "stuff I'm developing", and today I'll be talking about a game I'm trying to get to the ready-to-pitch stage for my other Monday night online group. (I've christened them The Monday Men, after the bad guys in my weird 1970s game The Strangenauts. It's probably worth mentioning that the look and the name of those bad guys were among the only things that I retained from a Green Ronin game that inspired me, Damnation Decade. A sourcebook for a modern d20 game that had some great ideas but terrible, wrong-headed execution.)

I'm planning three pitches for The Monday Men. I will probably talk about the other two -- Dim Mak and Nocturne -- another day, but today I wanted to talk about the brainstorming I'm doing for pitch #3. I am a huge fan of game designer Greg Stolze, and I particularly love his work on One Roll Engine (ORE) games like Wild Talents and especially the fantasy iteration Reign.

Reign is a gritty fantasy game that deliberately tries to change up one of the most enduring tropes found in fantasy roleplaying games. That is, generally in fantasy RPGs characters tend to be loners operating at the edges of society. Reign makes it an important part of play that characters are part of organizations -- the Company rules in the game can pretty much model anything from a band of pirates to a merchant coster to a noble family struggling for power George R.R. Martin style. Although the core book contains Stolze's own setting, he provides tools that can be used to develop your own. And that's where this game comes in.

I've been wanting to play a Reign game since I got my hot little hands on it. I like the high-stakes nature of the rules -- nobody engages in unnecessary combat in an ORE game, because that gets you dead or crippled in short order -- and I especially like that players are encouraged to connect with society and engage in intrigue. I have very little interest in running a fantasy game that features anything resembling dungeon crawling, and Reign is definitely the anti-dungeon crawl.

Although I expect to do a certain amount of game development with my players, if they choose to go with Reign (the other two games are pretty cool too, so that's far from certain) I need to come to the table with enough awesome that it will draw them in. Part of that is to come up with a context (or perhaps several contexts) for the Company the players will take on, and part of that is to sketch out a world that the players will be engaged by.

To back up the anti-D&D theme, I've been trying to develop ideas for magic systems that do not resemble the traditional uses of magic in most games. "No combat spells (too slow) and no healing magic" is my starting point. Stolze mentions in his book that you need to consider what effect the extant magic would have had on the development of society, so what magic actually does is an important question. Right now, I'm leaning toward stuff like communication (using an order of monk-like magicians called Dreamspeakers who can do something like astral travel and pass messages over long, long distances) and perhaps something with larger implications like shape-changing magic. I'm thinking that this may be a low-level thing that can be done by a lot of people, but that it's usually done to augment existing skills -- allowing casters to adapt to different weather conditions (extreme cold, say) or perhaps breathe underwater for short periods.

Another element I've been trying to find a place for in a game for a long time is what I think of as "New World fantasy". What I mean by that is a game with fantasy elements set in a version of North America in the early days of European settlement, rather than Europe-through-the-looking-glass. So we're talking about a setting with vast, unspoiled wilderness, isolated outposts of civilization (and lawlessness outside them), harsh weather, and very little safety net if the settlers find themselves in trouble. A frontier game, in every sense of the word. Since it's fantasy, it would be set in a time before the development of things like gunpowder when swords and bows and armor are still in wide use, although forged, high quality weaponry would be in much shorter supply in the new world.

The thing I'm debating right now is the idea that this is a New World where there are no indigenous tribes to help out the settlers (or go to war with them). There is evidence that there were developed settlements of natives in the New World, some of them quite sophisticated, but that they all seem to have vanished somehow. There is no evidence of what happened. Like the Roanoke settlers in the legend, they have simply vanished, leaving the settlers alone (and decidedly unsettled) in a haunted land.

Companies in this setting would seem to lean toward either trading companies struggling to get their wares to market or frontier settlements struggling to survive in a harsh wilderness. Either way, I think this game would reward the use of troupe-style play where players take on a number of different characters -- so you could play scenes with daring Voyageurs exploring abandoned villages and hunting strange fauna, as well as the administrators trying to keep things running and families scrabbling to make a home.

So that's where my head is at with Reign. I feel like there are a few more elements that have to fall into place before this game is going to gel and feel ready to pitch.

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