#RPGaDay 2014: Day Seven – The Forest of Trees

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Day Seven of #RPGaDay is ‘Most “intellectual” RPG owned’ and I’ve seen many interpretations of what “intellectual” means (I took it to mean something that was kind of self-consciously clever and knew it, probably with a dash of hipsterness as well). For me, the game I own that has intimidated me the most with its evident smartness is Hillfolk. One reason is that the Drama System requires a fairly in-depth understanding of narrative concepts like dramatic poles and themes, but the other reason is the sample settings included with the book. Hillfolk itself is ‘A game of Iron Age drama’, which requires a greater knowledge of human history than a stock fantasy setting (and also research!). Also, the second half of the book is a series of short treatments for settings and campaigns, some of which are recognisable from other games or media (Malice Tarn is Watership Down by way of Bunnies and Burrows) but others are settings that are so rooted in high-concept, meta or real-world history that there isn’t much similar stuff out there. The corruption of Golden Age Hollywood, the paranoia of cold war Moscow, fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War, “Breaking Bad meets The Wrestler” and escaped African slaves seeking revenge all feature, among many other more fantastical settings. The majority of them deal with problematic aspects of genres or history and challenge the players and GM to roleplay the points of high drama in settings that deliberately address subjects very far from the good vs. bad morality of many other roleplaying games. I chose Hillfolk today because the settings in it are a challenge to think more deeply about the worlds we create and the problematic aspects of humanity that make us uncomfortable.

For my actual article, I wanted to lead into talking about what makes a good setting guide. While I like to be challenged, I also enjoy light-hearted or heroic settings where answers may not be easy, but they won’t leave your soul rent in twain at the end of every session. I talked yesterday about my difficulties with Lux Aeternum and today I’d like to give some examples of really good setting guides, because I think it’s an underestimated skill. I’ll be focusing on setting guides that create a concrete place rather than a tone or a framework for building your own places, just because otherwise this would take all night. Some of these have already appeared elsewhere on the blog, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much.

P.S. The title of this post comes from a game one of my friends ran which was an utterly generic fantasy game with names like “the Dark Tower of Doom” and “the Forest of Trees”.

Swashbuckling Adventures

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Théah from 7th Sea and Swashbuckling Adventures

I talked about this a little yesterday when discussing Luex Aeternum, as a point of comparison. Swashbuckling Adventures is an adaptation of the setting for the game 7th Sea into the 3rd Edition D20 rules, but it has its own line and can be read entirely independently of 7th Sea (and indeed, I haven’t read much of 7th Sea).

As a setting, Théah is massively detailed between the two lines of books. I sort of feel that it is the quintessential ‘alternative Earth’ swashbuckling setting. The countries are thinly-veiled composites of elements from countries in the real world, but taking the most swashbuckling era of each of them. They each have their own very distinctive personality and style, and nationality is such a big aspect of character that it is the first decision you make at character creation. This makes sense: Swashbuckling Adventures incorporates all of the swashbuckling archetypes that exists and some fantasy ones too, but the swashbuckling genre has been represented very differently in different cultures. The kind of swashbuckler you play is rooted in your character’s nationality, so choose the one most in line with the style you want to play with. Then, each nation also has its own prestige classes, fighting styles, secret societies and even different kinds of magic. The standard D&D classes are re-flavoured for suitability, some don’t exist at all and new ones are introduced. The richness of Théah as a setting practically oozes from the pages of Swashbuckling Adventures, which benefits from an entire line of books in the 7th Sea game all compressed down into one of the most evocative books I’ve read.

This is a setting guide that knows its genre and plays it to the hilt (if you’ll pardon the expression), and I don’t feel it’s ever been equalled as a setting for a game of derring do and swashing buckles.

Sharn: City of Towers

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Woof, look at the level of detail in Sharn…

Sharn: City of Towers is one of the (almost uniformly good) sourcebooks for the 3rd Edition D&D magi-punk setting Eberron. Sharn is the capital city of Breland, which is the default country in Eberron. Apart from being the book that really, really needed an index, it is a near perfect, obsessively detailed setting guide for a fantasy city. Sharn is divided into districts, and in every single one City of Towers provides details of shops and inns, landmarks and neighbourhoods, key NPCs and plot hooks. You could run a campaign for years in Sharn. The best thing about it is that it is endlessly creative – reading it cover to cover will get a bit repetitive, but dip in here and there and you will find evocative details and fascinating stories on every page. This is microcosmic setting planning done brilliantly.

More importantly, this book draws you into the setting further rather than alienating you. It is filled with possibilities of places to explore and adventures to find, and even the pictures add to the wonder of Eberron. For city-building done right, this is the place to look.

Plus it came with a fantastic CD of music to set the tone for Eberron. If you get a chance to listen to it, it really is genuinely cool.

Unhallowed Metropolis

OK, I have covered this before as well. In fact, in my second pick for the month. However, that was about a specific campaign. While the other two setting guides I’ve mentioned are remarkable for their evocation of a genre and their inspiring detail, Unhallowed Metropolis creates a setting with a history, a tone and an implied destiny. The default setting is London, because it is the most populated city since the zombie plague, and while there isn’t much detail about the places in London themselves (though it does give a rough breakdown of the districts), the core rulebook gave such an atmosphere of forboding and decay that it was impossible not to understand the nature of the city all of this took place in. Unlike my other picks for favourite setting guides, it’s unrelenting nihilistic and even the presence of Undertakers and Mourners (the monster hunters of the setting) and the ridiculous lists of equipment just serve to show that if an outbreak happens, no amount of mad scientist weaponry will save them.

unhallowed met london

London in 2105 will be your cradle and your grave. Also, don’t go swimming in the Thames. Really.

There are some amazingly grim details and the setting reinforces the themes and tone of the game throughout. The section on the anatomy and science of zombies is gruesome and brilliant, as it describes the detailed dissection (obviously vivisection is, by definition, not appropriate) of a zombie in a doctor’s note. There is a sense of London as a place that is only a few mistakes off spiralling as quickly as the characters themselves do. I also found it very compelling that while the zombie plague is, obviously, the main threat in the world, now that London has been reclaimed and fortified, most people have got caught up in their petty rivalries and street wars. Even vampires are rich people’s trouble. The city is steeped in plotlines and history that emphasise the moral and physical corruption that the protagonists and their setting share. It is this that makes me want to play and run games in Unhallowed Metropolis and I hope that I get a chance to again, because this setting deserves to be shared.

Conclusion

So, three examples of good setting guides: a world where the setting and genre work beautifully in tandem, a city full of enough detail to run a thousand games within its walls and a London that is as doomed as the characters who live within it, filled with tone and atmosphere. I’m curious to hear which setting guides other people would highlight as really good. By ‘setting guide’, it clearly doesn’t have to be a dedicated book on the setting, as two of these are core rulebooks, but it should have something that sets the environs of the game apart from your standard game.

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4 thoughts on “#RPGaDay 2014: Day Seven – The Forest of Trees

  1. So, I only know the first of those settings from 7th Sea, but man I have always hated it as a setting for a swashbuckling game.

    First and foremost, I suspect, is that despite being a historical melange, it claims a date on the cover of the core book (1783 or something in that area) and then fails to be remotely historical. The cover and blurb offered something set in a golden era of buckling swashes, which turned out to be less historically accurate than The Pirates of the Caribbean.

    Second and more substantially, the magic system. More specifically, the fact that there is one. Call me old fashioned, but I’ve always seen it as fundamental to the swashbuckling genre that action is decisive. The Musketeers are important because the fate of nations depends on the application of physical force, and more importantly on the method and motives of that application. The Cardinal schemes, and in some ways the fighting men are but pawns in that larger game, but in the end matters come down to one sword against another; victory is determined by skill, and the audience stake is largely determined by which sword is wielded for honour and which for profit.

    Magic takes the agency away from the hand on the swordhilt, and while on a real-world philosophical level I am absolutely okay with who stabs who not being the ultimate arbiter of national destiny, that to me is what the genre is all about. Coming back to Pirates of the Caribbean, those films – which I very much enjoyed, for the most part, although the first was far superior to the sequels – failed for me as swashbucklers because they took agency away from the fighters by making the adversaries impervious to steel. Likewise, as soon as a swashbuckler becomes substantially about magic, it isn’t to me a swashbuckler anymore.

    I know a lot of people love 7th Sea, so there may be a lot in it that I didn’t catch on my read through, but from what I read and what I’ve heard, while it may be a great game, it doesn’t feel swashbuckly to me.

    • I definitely used to feel that magic detracted from swashbuckling, but I think it comes down to how it is used. In the same way, technology also comes down to how it’s used – I feel that too much clockpunk/steampunk technology can massively detract from the characteristic action of swashbuckling, as in the 2011 3 Musketeers film. Fun film, too many airships. So, I don’t want to rule it out, but it needs to be used carefully.

      I have to say that Swashbuckling Adventures gives absolutely no impression of trying to be historical, so I’m surprised that 7th Sea does. Yet another reason I feel Swashbuckling Adventures is a big improvement.

      While there’s a strong vein of fighting as the way of settling things, social and mental conflicts are also strongly represented – I think that you can use magic to represent specific aspects of the setting without taking power away from the action-related conflicts. I think particularly magic that is focused on crafting (like weapon crafting) could be cool and I like the concept of alchemy in the game – the musketeers were not beyond using gunpowder to solve their problems, so why not magic smokebombs? Plus glamours, luck and trickster-related things could all be appropriate, as well as weather magic and hedge magic. Plus there’s the unfortunately problematic area of ‘native magic’ that give the opportunity for animistic and sympathetic powers. Even things like the pirates immune to swords in Pirates of the Caribbean doesn’t bother me much because ultimately it still led to cool swordplay – it was just that they had to remove the mitigating factor of the curse first. I would structure it differently in a game to make it fun, but I wouldn’t necessarily remove it.

      • I’m not necessarily saying that any of these things are *bad*, just that they constitute for me a shift of genre. I suspect that 7th Sea may be grand at what it actually is, but it felt to me that it was claiming to be something different (and not in a clever twist sort of way, so much as in a way that constituted false advertising).

        I think that magicians as active PCs was what tipped 7th Sea over the edge for me. I guess it was seen as something a system had to have, but as you say, support magic seems much more in keeping.

  2. That’s fair, I do think they did it out of a sense of obligation rather than for the sake of the genre. It is a definite shift away from historical romance towards its own genre.

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