Gates of Ivory
Even a good ball player strikes out more often than not, and that’s doubly true for writing. What follows is the dog pound of my creativity – a temporary shelter for strays, where they can linger until adopted by a loving home or, more likely, be put to sleep forever. Feel free to browse through. Be sure to catch their sad, glassy brown eyes.
UPDATE: REIGN was an orphan project once, but I felt strongly enough about it that I published it myself. So there are happy endings!
GODLIKE is in print, and with it the first iteration of the One Roll Engine (ORE for short). It’s a good game, fans like it, but… well, I can do better. In fact, I have done better, at least with the mechanics. This is always the way: You develop a set of rules, you test them out as best you can, print them, and in a few years the much larger pool of gamers using them finds their flaws. You fix those with a second edition and, if necessary, a third. If there’s time, you decide the system’s become too encrusted and break it back down to basic principles, and the life-cycle of the game engine begins again. Beautiful, in its way.
Anyhow, REIGN. World War II was never particularly my bag, and though it’s been a swell setting for GODLIKE, I knew that writing tons of support for it would entail tons of research that, while entrancing to many history buffs, would leave me personally glazed and unresponsive. So I turned the ORE to a fantasy setting I’d been contemplating for years (which is, at this stage, nameless). Yeah, every jerk and his nephew has a fantasy setting, but what can I say? Just being able to make stuff up without worrying about some Internet historian calling your bluff (“the Third Reich didn’t have Xerox machines, you cement-head!”) is tremendously freeing.
Besides, in gaming fantasy is by far the biggest pie, so if you’ve got to cut a slice from something, why not? But that really makes me sound mercenary, and like I’m thinking with an unaccustomed degree of business acumen. Really, I went fantasy ‘cause I’m bent that way.
The setting in REIGN is an attempt to do something new (because if it’s got nothing new to contribute, why bother?) and therefore, inevitably, a reaction against a number of trends typical of fantasy game settings.
First off, there’s the whole ‘fantasy race’ thing. Elves in particular get my goat. What’s an elf if not a human being only wiser and prettier and generally better? Tolkien’s great, but The Lord of the Rings seems, from my jaundiced American perspective, to be steeped in British class consciousness. The elves are clearly the upper class – purer, nobler, and dying off. Then there’s the orcs.
Orcs in fantasy games serve a pretty low purpose: They’re there for the characters to beat on without much in the way of repercussion. Most of the time, they aren’t even tough. Because they’re Pure Evil From Birth, there’s no need to get involved in the complexities of talking to them or trying to understand them. Just hew with the broadaxe and go, go, go.
My problem with this is that I don’t believe in Pure Evil From Birth and I think that the complexities of talking are often very interesting indeed. So REIGN has no orcs, no elves, no pointy-eared sprites. Instead of fantasy races, I built racial races. The people with dark skin may think the people with white skin are Pure Evil From Birth, but trust me, whitey don’t see it that way. If you’re going to go to war in REIGN, it’s not because the other guy is trying to destroy the world, but because you’ve got land and he wants it. Or vice versa.
That leads to reaction #2, which is against saving the world. When, in recorded human history, has a small band of misfits ever saved the world? From anything? I can think of one time, and that’s it. But in games (and in a lot of fantasy literature) the heroes wind up saving the world over and over and over again. That’s fine, it’s a good plot but, from my perspective, done to death. Once you save the world, what do you do for an encore? Save it again, only more perilously I guess, but I find that kind of thing has a diminishing return. So I built a world that can take care of itself, where powerful characters would have to find something better (or, at least, different) to do.
In the same spirit, there’s no divine intervention in REIGN. No goddess of purity is going to come down and lay a geas on your character, thereby kicking off the campaign. You get to decide what your character does and why. It’s more work, but it also lets the players decide what’s right and wrong, instead of having the GM (speaking through Good and Evil deities) baldly tell you. I’m a sucker for moral dilemmas, and having embodied moral absolutes – particularly ones that a poor GM can use to smite you when you don’t do what he wants, or that can float in to save your bacon no matter how poor your decisions – it just robs a game of some punch. For the stories in REIGN, no one is more important than the characters.
The question naturally arises: Without gods telling you to save the world, what do characters in this fantasy world do? The answer, built in from day one, is that they gain authority. Typical fantasy game characters have lots of power, mighty spells, puissant battle skills, wealth beyond measure and so forth. But besides a few lackeys and camp followers, they don’t have any authority. Like old west gunfighters, or ronin samurai, they wander around having adventures.
As with the “gods send you to save the world” framework, that’s fine and you can do some really top notch games there. But I don’t think it’s the only idea worth playing on. REIGN is about, well, reigning. Your characters come to be in charge of something – a pirate fleet, a religion, a trade guild, an army or even a nation – and while their individual actions are important (even critical, at some points) the group can take meaningful action above and beyond what the characters do. Instead of saving the world and then riding away, the characters’ duties are to take care of it. Or at least, the little corner they’ve claimed.
You can run REIGN in wandering-badass mode and it works fine for that. But what it’s built to do is take the game up a level from history’s footnotes into its chapter headings.
I ran REIGN for several months, and overall it went well. I’ve got over a hundred thousand words written for it, which makes it particularly galling that there’s no publisher. But hope springs eternal.
Damn, this one was ambitious. The basic concept was “dungeon crawling for souls.” I had a plan for a three game line spanning a hundred year history, with mechanics that were based in equal parts on EVERWAY and the Tarot. Plenty o’ supplements, too. Ah well.
The setting was a realm of dreams at war, and the first book, Gates of Ivory, provided rules for playing Dream characters. Gates of Ivory was set during the Age of Dreams, starting around 1902 – one year after the ruler of the dream realm had a long talk with a mysterious shaman and abdicated his throne.
(Shamans are humans who can travel between dream realms, instead of being limited to the world of their own dreams. This particular shaman was Sigmund Freud, who explained to the king that what Dreams call ‘changing realms’ are simply the ideas of sleeping human beings.)
With the ruler gone, the realm divides between a self-styled Emperor and Empress, who have a fundamental disagreement over the proper role of Dreams (or, as the Empress’ followers are called, Nightmares).
So the characters are loyal to the Emperor of Dreams and they fight surreal battles in the changing realms to keep them from being conquered by the Nightmares. As they see it, the Nightmares are simply wicked, trying to harm or subvert the masters of the changing realms.
Of course, when Gates of Horn came out (that’s the second game) you get the Nightmare perspective. They believe the masters of the changing realms are those who’ve gotten away with some sin or wrongdoing in the waking world, and the last chance for justice is for the Nightmares to drag them off for judgment (thereby condemning their waking self to madness but, hey, the Nightmares don’t know that). They fight the dreams because the Dreams are beautiful, and beloved, and because they help the guilty lie to themselves. This one was set in the 1950s, the Age of Nightmares, and sets the characters up for a third game in which some from each side discover how to escape to the physical, waking world in 2001. That’s where the ruler of dreams has been spending a hundred years, seeing the masters of the changing realms from the other side of their lives. As far as he’s concerned, neither side is right – some people do deserve to be punished in their dreams, others are punishing themselves needlessly, and only by examining their waking lives can dreams decide whether balm or vengeance is appropriate.
Perhaps it’s just as well that this idea never got off the ground, since it’s heavily inspired by an obscure subgenius short story by Waves Forest called ‘Bob’ and the Oxygen Wars. I tried to track down the author, but had no success. (When I say, ‘tried to track down’ I mean, ‘used my weak search skills on the weak precursors of Google and wrote a letter to an address he used back in the 1980s’. I didn’t hire detectives or anything.)
His story had a splendid premise, which I will now proceed to spoil: Cold germs, while unintelligent, are telepathic with one another and act collectively. One thing this vast psychic miasma wants is to wipe out oxygen on Earth. Maybe not all of it but, y’know, enough. Anaerobic microbes, after all, have trouble competing with the more sophisticated nucleated cells, let alone multi-celled critters. Since cold germs are in every human, it’s not hard for the pathogen gestalt to manipulate us – that’s why we do patently short-sighted things like live in smoggy cities where there’s less oxygen, drive cars, neglect alternative fuels… he didn’t mention gas huffing or autoerotic asphyxiation specifically, but it fits the pattern.
I took Mr. Forest’s idea of the pathogen gestalt and put it in the blender with The X-Files and Delta Green and 9/11 and Project Paperclip. Here’s what came out.
In Leviathan the germ mind is not conscious but is still capable of learning and deciding on actions – it has about the brainpower of a particularly vicious and patient chimpanzee. Scientists of the Third Reich discovered it while researching psychic phenomena. Initially, they had no idea it was connected to the common cold – from their perspective, it was more like a space than an entity, and it was vast. They called it ‘Thule’ and started messing with it. Then the Allies clobbered them.
The United States’ Project Paperclip was a covert operation that brought German scientists to America after the war. That’s real history. In the Leviathan history, it includes some of the pathogen researchers. The USA got many of the surviving live scientists. Others fled to South America. The USSR got the bulk of the files, specimens and similar materials. Of the few test subjects who survived, most wound up in Israel: After all, once the Nazis realized they were dealing with a giant germ entity, they decided to make the Jews deal with it.
Israel, the USSR and the USA all continued to experiment with ‘Thule’ (or, as the Americans called it, ‘Leviathan’). An entire international subculture of covert researchers developed, scheming with one another, trying to steal or sabotage their rivals, all operating within the already-shadowy world of biological weapons.
That’s the history. The game starts in the current day, when the characters all get assigned to a special interdepartmental bio-warfare response squad. They’re the elite of the US military, medical and law enforcement establishments. CDC doctors are partnered with Navy SEALS and veteran FBI agents. CIA operatives call in MDs from the Army’s special weapons branch to consult about NSA intercepts describing weaponized pathogens approaching US borders.
There’s loads of gung-ho, war story gaming to be had there already, but as they get deeper into the bioweapon terror and counter-terror underground, they start to run into the really weird stuff. They fight people so loaded with germ organisms that they should be dead ten times over, but who instead show terrifying resilience, as if they’ve developed a symbiosis with their illnesses. They also tangle with operatives who turn out to be hosting almost no malignant germs or viruses – operatives who easily surpass the normal limits of human accomplishment because they aren’t dumbed down and weakened by carrying a billion parasites with them. In time, they find out about similar programs within their own department. In time, they learn about Leviathan.
The question is, what do they do then?
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