Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Setting Presentation as Big Mystery Seeding

I had a new insight about one of my favorite topics, worldbuilding for open-world, sandbox games. Think of it as another tool in the toolkit.

I want to focus on the initial presentation of your very own evocative snowflake setting to players. Here's an idea. When we share a "setting" or "background" with our players in an open world sandbox, we should think of ourselves as sharing actionable intelligence. Rather than painting an ornamental backdrop for the real action, we should think of ourselves as placing pieces to be engaged with in yet to be determined ways on a game board. But how can we build and convey a setting through actionable intelligence?

Now, there's a school of thought that one used to hear much more retro-gaming circles, that we should worldbuild "from the bottom up". Don't start with an info dump, or a half-realized fanfic novel; instead start small with a little corner of the world. Give people just what they need to know to get playing--and no more. Build the rest organically from there. Sensible advice for someone who gets overwhelmed by prep, or those whose past experience consisted primarily of scripted adventure paths. Forget all that and plop down a hexmap, with a few jotted notes about a town, select adventure hooks, and one or two little dungeons. Then go wherever the adventure leads!

While this works, there is a cost to doing things this way. One cost is that it's much easier to imagine small scale things if one has a working sense of large scale things. I can improvise more easily if I know what "feels right" or is "plausible" given the general way I've been thinking about things. Without a bigger context, it's hard for me to imagine things on a small scale.

But a more important point is that one of the great pleasures of sandbox play comes from the slow-burning long game. One feature of the long game is that you need to have it in view from early on, ideally before the first session. I'm talking about the tantalizing horizon of possibilities that lies off in the distance, igniting desire and curiosity among the players, drawing them in. If all you know is that the town is called Hofberg and there's a dungeon filled with salt ghouls in a mine nearby, you just can't play this kind of long game.

What this slow-burning long game is like will depend on what kind of a game you're running. It will likely involve the relations and intrigues of various major factions. These are the things in the setting that most directly correspond to game pieces, with which players may choose to interact. But if your game is focused on exploration and discovery, as mine usually are, then the long game should also be, at least in part, about the exploration and discovery of the unknown. Now discoveries come in all sizes. The slow-burning long game is about the really big ones, the mind-blowing mysteries that are tied deeply with the setting and world, the learning of which has the potential to change everything.

To build this in from the start, when presenting your setting, instead of conveying facts, try leading with the unknown. Go with the questions rather than the answers, the big ones, the slow-burning mysteries. Nothing says "this is a sandbox of exploration and discovery" like introducing a setting by emphasizing what facts aren't known. (Aside: it's fun to hold some questions back too, because it's also a slow-burn pleasure to have the players stumble onto a big mystery that's been there all along after a long time playing in the sandbox.) 

This WWII encryption device was literally called an "enigma machine".

I just did this with the intro to my players guide to Jorune: Evolutions. In recasting the setting of Jorune, I found myself replacing the perfectly fine narrative sci-fi info dump in the original (2nd edition) books with conflicting stories and outright mysteries. In essence, instead of saying, "Human colonists came to Jorune on such and such a date for such and such reasons, and here's what happened...Then their ships were destroyed in such and such a war," I replaced this with conflicting oral histories and cycles of myth that essentially said, "Some stories say they came because of this, other stories say this other thing. Nobody knows what the hell happened to their Ship and Earth-Tec!" Given that the discovering Earth-Tec is a major thing in the game, this ties the questions about the past directly to the heart of the action. Similarly, when I introduced my own new trippy psychedelic element, "the dream of the egg", to the setting, what I introduced was a blatant enigma almost literally calling out to be solved.

One thing that's fun about questions is that you don't need to have your mind made up about the answer at the start. Perhaps you'll have some idea about some of the answers, but perhaps others wait on the setting taking more shape in your mind through play. That fits with the sensible "you don't need to have thought this out before sitting down to play" ethos without giving up on the big picture. (But, if you're like me, you'll have answers to some questions in mind from the get-go, because it's the answers that will have made the questions alluring to you in the first place.)

Another thing that's fun about questions is that factions and NPCs may have theories or think they know the answer. Allow theories to proliferate! Maybe everyone has a take. This is especially appropriate for a setting where baseless speculation, psychic visions, wooly tales, and "metaphysical" extrapolation of drugs experiences are bread and butter. But actually, I think it could work for any sandbox game where exploration and discovery are core activities and a lot actionable intelligence is unknown.

So, there's one more tool for your tool kit. When presenting your setting, lead with the mysteries and enigmas. Emphasize the questions without answers. In a game about exploration, knowing what you don't know is actionable intelligence.

Monday, July 27, 2020

The Stories You Share

What follows is the introduction to my players guide to Jorune Evolutions, my psychedelic retro-gaming reimagining of Skyrealms of Jorune that I discussed here. For your delectation I've added in a random table or two to give you the flavor of the background...

The Stories You Share

You share stories around the village campfire, on sweaty lunch breaks in the durlig fields, or over stiff drinks in the dust of the crystal mines. It's what you do to pass the time. When a mendicant storyteller shows up you are quick to share food and drink knowing you're in for a good yarn. You developed this art out of a need to hold onto the past, when humanity’s technologies of collective memory had all been lost. 

In the stories you share, the travelers, your ancestors, sailed the vast sea of stars aboard the Ship, a vessel filled with miraculous Earth-Tec, cornucopia of miracles. Why these sailors of sidereal gulfs came to Jorune; whether to spread the enlightenment of their civilization; or fill a gnawing hunger for resources; or as exiles seeking new beginnings; or to satiate the curiosity of Father Iscin to know and understand all things; on this tales differ.

But tales agree about this: on arrival the travelers suffered twin traumas. First came loss of contact with mother Earth, cutting your ancestors off from the rest of humanity. In most tales it is said that Earth was destroyed in some great war. Second came the Days of Slaughter, an internecine conflict between your ancestors and the shanthas, one of several sapient species of Jorune. The cause of conflict with this strange race is unknown. Some stories say that the travelers overstepped out of fear, violating treaties in desperation after the loss of contact with Earth; others that the shanthas saw their moment to strike and rid the world of these unwelcome visitors in their hour of weakness. 

Whatever the spark, the violence ignited was conflagration. For it is said the shanthas breathe isho like we breathe air, and can fold space and time, and were everywhere and nowhere, and dyshas, the likes of which have never been seen since, unweaving the very being of man, dissolving him, turning him inside out, driving him mad, merciless, a genocide. Some stories have it that humanity rallied, striking blow for blow in great battles with the help of their Earth Tec; others that Iscin unleashed in his grief and rage a terrible hidden power to slay the shanthas; in other the shanthas, their bloody work done, simply vanish to their hidden kingdom. 

But when the fighting was over the Ship and the wondrous Earth-Tec of the travelers were destroyed or somehow lost. The few surviving travelers, bereft, faded into the forest and mountain, and became once again hunters and gatherers. The struggles were many: the pain of isho storms; the poisonous flora and fauna; the alien beasts that overmatched naked humanity; the catastrophic conjunctions of Jorune’s seven moons that bring with them apocalyptic tides, sweeping across the continent; the frequent earthquakes that rend the earth and spew crystal formation to the surface; and strife with other inimical sapient races of Jorune. 

But in time, humanity built a place for itself. Your ancestors learned, once again, to farm and to leech the toxins from native flora and fauna. You learned to work wood and metal with your hands, and to mine with simple tools and ferret out the rare veins of metal ore. You literally reinvented the wheel, and learned once again to build ships with your hands, and to sail the seas. You mastered the many natural resources of your new world. You learned to collect and prepare the abundant limilates (herbs, drugs) that open the gateways of perception, healed, envigorated, and produced countless effects; you learned to harvest and utilize powerful crystals, repositories of strange powers. You domesticated beasts of burden like the loping thombo and the lumbering bochugon. Were your ancestors to see your civilization today, they would say with amusement that it stood at roughly the material level of 15th Century Europe, with glaring exceptions. 

The Rediscovery of Earth-Tec and the Dream of the Egg

In your grandparent’s generation, the city of Ardoth united the realm of Burdoth and led it to victory in the Beam Wars. The dharsage (emperor) of that time was the first to locate and claim a cache of ancient Earth-Tec—a discovery that was to transform the prospects of humanity. Peace has now reigned for more than a generation, in part through fear of the searing beams of Burdoth’s energy weapons, and in part through the shifting diplomacy of the Council of Ardoth that represents various constituencies and surrounding realms, not all human. 

At present, a small number of energy weapons and other wondrous devices are made available to drenn (citizens, neo-feudal landowners) on a basis of patronage and need. This technological patronage and the hunger for precious Earth-Tec has spread the system of drenn throughout Burdoth, tying the elite of the realm to the dharsage. The nature of Earth-Tec is shrouded in secrecy. It is rumored that there are higher mysteries known only to the current Dharsage Khodre Dhardrenn and the Circuit Men, her strangely inhuman red-caped inner guard. Wild speculations about this organization are part of daily life in the hookah bars and limilate dens of the capital and beyond.       

Other changes are afoot of unknown significance. Two years ago, the Dream of the Egg came to humanity. One summery night, while isho storms raged across Burdoth, half of the human population had the same dream, of an iridescent egg, majestic and enigmatic, suspended against a misty lavender background. The egg seemed to turn and yet all were sure that it hung still--perhaps only the perspective on it shifted, revealing different facets of its tessellated surface, complex and endlessly engrossing. The dream had an urgent air to it, as though some unnamed command were being expressed; the dreamers awoke with a feeling that there was something left undone. When the dreamers realized that the Dream of the Egg had been shared, first perplexity, then mass hysteria ensued. Since then, the Dream of the Egg has been shared by the same half of the population 15 times. Theories about the egg abound and egg cults proliferate often under the sway of charismatic charlatans.    

Unhinged Egg Speculations, Heard Around Ardoth (1d6)

  1. The Egg is the beating heart of Sho-Caudl, mother Jorune, calling out to us. She offers rebirth if we will only accept her call! 
  2. Listen, the Circuit Men are behind the dream. The Egg is some kind of Earth-Tec they're using to control people's minds, so they can produce a new consensus reality...where dissent is impossible.
  3. The Egg is a harbinger of the end times. It is said that the Travelers dreamt of the Egg in the days before their great fall. The eyeless demons are coming for us!
  4. The Dream of the Egg is a sign of the purity of humanity. Those who are chosen are by the Egg are blessed. Have you had the dream?
  5. The Dream of the Egg is witchcraft, some kind of muadra curse they're working on us as revenge, because we're always lording it over them. 
  6. I heard the Ramians (a non-human sapient species) are poisoning our water. The Dream of the Egg is literally brain damage from their accumulated toxins. You can get rid of it by drinking only your own urine and rusper for two months. 

Post-Human Evolution

Although ascendant in Burdoth, humanity does not stand alone. It is said in your tales that Iscin raised to sapience some of the animal children of Earth that the travelers brought on their ship. So were born the bronth (bear people), woffen (wolf people), blount (frog people), and the cursed cruagar (cougar people). These Iscin races walk among you, and have spread across Jorune to lands of their own.

Humanity is undergoing rapid changes. Although sensitive enough to isho to suffer from the isho storms, humanity is not as attuned to the isho as native creatures of Jorune. But sometimes children are born to human parents that are small, with a far greater sensitivity to isho. These are the muadra (mwah-dra). Other children are born large, with a greater resistance to isho, making them immune to the isho storms and other native isho threats. These giants are the boccord. Over generations, using spiritual techniques and meditative disciplines in the "kerning bays" (ashrams, dojos), muadra and boccord have learned to harness the isho to produce dyshas (psychic powers), sometimes to the alarm of humans. 
Often shunned, the boccord and muadra have mostly bred with those of their kind, so that over many generations new populations have arisen that can, in the present day, barely interbreed with humans. 

Other of humanity’s offshoot have diverged further, taking to the water, such as the salt-water salu and the fresh-water acubon. The wild tales of wanderers allege other, far stranger, descendants of humanity exist on Jorune, although little is known about them, at least by villagers like you.  

Your Character

Your character is a young adult (~16-20) from one of the innumerable small villages of Burdoth. Whether miners in the foothills that sprawl across the parched plains of the southern Sobayid, or lumberjacks from the forested glades of Glounda, or durlig farmers in the fertile Gauss Valley, village life is limited and unchanging. It follows the rhythms of the seasons, except when interrupted by the catastrophes of drought, pestilence, or raiding. True, village life has its pleasures, loving, dancing, drinking rusper (a savory ale), and storytelling. But above all village life is working: endlessly laboring, eking out collective survival from a land to which humanity is palpably ill-suited. To make matters worse, the villages are squeezed by the yearly cletch (tribute, tax), collected by the village kim, a consortium of drenn (citizen) landowners from the region. Part of the cletch goes to sustain the glittering capital Ardoth, the rest lines the coffers of the drenn who make up the kim. 

It is against this backdrop that generations of young villagers have travelled to the capital Ardoth, seeking a better life as drenn. The easiest way to drennship is through military service, which costs a decade of life (the best years), but wins one a modest pension and citizenship. The Dharsage army is rigorous and authoritarian. About a half die in service, or return wounded and ruined. 

The other route, dangled like a bright fishing lure before the village youth, is to become a tauther (one undertaking tothis, the citizen application process), earning drennship through independent service to the realm. To even apply for tothis, one must pay the fee of 100 gemules, pocket change for many in Ardoth, but a king’s ransom for a villager. Often a youth comes to Ardoth carrying the whole life savings of his family, or even of the village, for sometimes they will pool their resources to send one or two of the most promising village youth for tothis. Many arrive without the fee, hoping somehow to hustle up the money to begin the process—most sink to a life of crime and disease, or return home bitter and hungry with broken dreams.   

You are tauther. You have travelled to Ardoth, paid the fee, and begun your tothis. Along with your cohort, you have received the education in basic weapons training, physical culture, literacy, and civics. With precious little time or money to explore Ardoth, still your mind has been expanded, as you have met villagers like yourself from different walks across Burdoth. Your cohort might even include muadra or boccord, or the animal children of Iscin: bronth or woffen. You have also studied under adult teachers, likely the first drenn to treat you with respect and care. The destination for your service has been chosen, provisions for your caravan have been secured, and your final day in Ardoth approaches. 

It will not be easy. You will rise or fall together as a cohort. You will labor at communal tasks in the village to exchange for their hospitality. You will pay off your enormous toth-debt to the dharsage, who has provided for your expedition, by recovering precious resources, limilates, crystals, rare fauna or big game, ancient artifacts and devices. Throughout this process, you must acquire precious copras (signatures) on your shared chalisk (amulet). These you will win by proving yourself worthy to the drenn you will meet, either members of the village kim, or military commanders in the area, or any others who once were tauther themselves. 

But as tauther you will have some advantages. As agents of the dharsage, you are beyond many of the yords (laws). You will be able to go where others may not, passing freely in and out of the perilous forbidden zones. You will be allowed to use dangerous proscribed dyshas to defend yourselves. You will be permitted to acquire and traffic in limilates without licenses. You will be able to engage with the enemies of humanity. People will not ask too many questions about what you do, provided you respect the village kim, and prove yourself valuable to the community.   

Welcome to Jorune. 

In the next post, I'll talk about how Jorune Evolutions handles stats and the always delicate question of race as a sci-fi post-human classless OD&D hack. You will also learn more about the rich trans-human setting.  

Monday, July 20, 2020

Falling in Love with Jorune

As with so many things I now cherish from the early history of the hobby, I first learned of Skyrealms of Jorune from a post on the blog Grognardia. Skyrealms of Jorune is a sword and planet game first published and sold at GenCon in 1984. Having read someone else's copies of original Dungeons and Dragons and Empire of the Petal Throne, in 1977 a wargaming 7th grader named Andrew Leker saved up to buy his first table top roleplaying game so he too could play in imaginary worlds of his own creation. He picked the then brand new Metamorphosis Alpha, the generation ship scifi rpg by James Ward (the precursor to Gamma World). Leker spent a semester creating his own richly hacked Starship Warden, complete with history, cultures, mutants and aliens, which he submitted as a final project for his middle school English class.

He ran a game on his Starship Warden for years with a group that included a fellow student from that 7th grade English class named Miles Teves. Later, while in college, Leker and Teves decided to detach the game from its roots in Metamorphosis Alpha, and expand it into a whole world of its own, which they called Jorune. Leker wrote up the first edition of the rules and setting while studying math and physics in Berkeley, and Teves illustrated it while in art school in L.A.  (You can read a capsule history in the first issue of the Jorune fanzine Sholari, available here.) The second, and most successful, edition was released in a lavish box set form in 1985.

I have a real weakness for odd-ball labors of love from the early hobby, especially ones that captured intensely imagined, idiosyncratic worlds that were rooted in a time before the hobby had become a glossy, corporate affair. You can imagine that I fell hard for M.A.R, Barker's incomparable Empire of the Petal Throne, and after reading James' post on Grognardia, I expected to fall hard for Jorune as well. When I finally scored a boxed set of the 2nd edition and some (now hard to acquire) additional supplemental material, I found myself a strange mix of completely blown away and disappointed.

There were two things that floored me. The first was Teves' extraordinary art, which I would argue is the best art ever produced for a tabletop roleplaying game. I am a profound lover John Blanche and other Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying art, so that's really saying something. Teves would rise to become a successful concept artist for Hollywood. Just take a look at this.

The rich and evocative art work, and to some extent Leker's prose, depicted a pleasingly alien sword and planet setting. Humanity had arrived as colonists on Jorune thousands of years ago, but quickly lost contact with Earth. Their ship and technology was destroyed in a conflict with the shanthas, a native species on Jorune. At present humanity exists at a medieval level of technology in a strange and truly alien world. Recent discoveries of caches of earth technology have shifted the balance of power. The setting is, as Leker writes, "a strange mix of the old and of the new".

Richly imagined alien settings can set a high bar to player entry. Another thing I liked is the way Jorune solves this using a variant of MAR Barker's barbarians fresh off the boat ploy. The players in Jorune are assumed to be young rubes who know little about the world, setting out on the process tothis, the attempt to prove themselves worthy to become drenn (citizens). Another nice touch is an in game prop included in the box set called The Tauther Guide, a pamphlet meant to be distributed to the players, telling them everything their character will ostensibly need to know about the strange world in which they will be adventuring. The idea of orienting the players to the setting with a government issued (propaganda) pamphlet spoke deeply to me, and Teves pulled out all the stops in illustrating it. I also really enjoyed the social setting where the process of tothis involves adventuring in order to convince drenn to vouch for you by signing your chalisk (actually a fragment of a spaceship's hull worn like an amulet) with a laser torch. It's an excellent, faction and patron-based, social set up for a play different from the GP for XP loop. 

But there were many things in the game that disappointed me on a first reading. Some were superficial problems. At times, the names are goofy in just the way you would expect names dreamt up by a 7th grader for an English class sci-fi project to be. The rules are famously a complicated mess. Instead of magic, the game has dyshas, allegedly strange and wonderful powers that sculpt a bizarre ambient energy of Jorune. But the only flavor I found here was the plastic taste of hadokens and chi-balls, more Dragon Ball Z than the alien logic promised by the setting-description and gorgeously weird art. These were annoying, but what are DIY chops for except to fix problems like this? Like a carpenter facing an old house that with a little love could be a beauty, this struck me as good problems to have.

But less good was that the whole setting was pervaded by an aesthetic that at the time was a turn off for me. There were psychic crystals, drugs (limilates), and auras connected to the astrology of the moons. There were also romanticized, tragic, wise indigenous loin-cloth wearing alien beings who were in harmony with the planet. The whole thing had a vaguely New Age vibe that I found an unpleasant fit with the John Carter of Mars style richly imagined sword and planet setting. Also, the setting was feudal and oppressive, but without a very critical lens (so it seemed to me on a first reading), which was a little annoying given that the set up for adventuring was basically a mix of patriotism and feudal climbing. So with a feeling of real regret, I put the books down and walked away. For a while.

In Teves' stunning cover of the box set a shantha is posed as Socrates at his death.

In the intervening years, I got really into French comics and animation, especially the work of Moebius (Jean Giraud), Jodorowsky, and the animation of Renee Laloux, but also the Laureline and Valerian comics, and most recently Spartakus and the Sun Beneath the Sea, the super weird French Saturday morning kid's cartoon. These works were pervaded by richly imagined alien worlds far outstripping anything available in English language comics or animation, but also surrealist psychedelic sensibilities, and a humanist critique of techno-consumerism, that I found equal parts touching and funny. Crystals, auras, and spiritual quests look different after one has seen the art of Moebius and giggled along with Jodorowsky's self-indulgent mysticism.

I also started reading psychedelic California fiction and nonfiction, like Terence Mckenna's True Hallucinations, or the Shulgan's PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story. I had a low opinion of Phillip K. Dick, until I got around to reading his very weirdest late writings, particularly the Valis trilogy, and Ubik, and especially Exegesis, his collected writings about his supposed real life spiritual breakthrough and transcendental communication that convinced him that he was living a real life version of one of the stories from his novels. This Berkeley cocktail of high weirdness, garageband level philosophy, psychedelics, paranoia, conspiracy theories, and metaphysical uncertainties won me over big time.

Then it dawned on me one day, about six months ago. This was Jorune. Or rather, leaning into what we might call the more Franco-Californian aspects of the setting was one way of making the parts of Jorune that had repulsed me sing. When I turned back to the texts with an open mind, I saw that there was a lot I had missed. Huge elements of the setting that I had taken at face value were social satire and parody. The capital of Ardoth is a fog-drenched, hilly city on a bay. Down the coast, there is a town called Monerey, where wealthy racists  vacation and live in gated enclaves. (All it was missing was the aquarium!) Once I viewed Ardoth as a sword and planet reimagining of the bay area circa the 1970s, colored by the aesthico-spiritual impulses of Moebius, the setting jelled. I also noticed that many of the things I had read as straight forward statements endorsing the absurdly exploitative feudal political setting could be read as (and might even have been intended as) tongue in cheek satires. Even the shanthas, on a closer reading, were far more alien, and had a more interesting relation to the history of genocide and colonialism, than I had grokked the first time around.

While there was still work to be done here to emphasize the fragments of the setting that had come together in this way, and certainly to complicate some of the more difficult terrain into which the original could so awkwardly veer, I felt that inconvenient longing arise that would not be denied. So, during the quarantine, although I am still running two dreamlands games, and working on the zine (which is coming along, it's in layout, I swear!), for some reason I decided to get this old game into shape for my play.

I am almost done with an entire player's guide for Jorune. It's a hacked Original Dungeons & Dragons ruleset, which I call Jorune Evolutions, based on Gus' HMS Apollyon Rules. It's a classless version of OD&D, with a unified 2d6 skill system, and isho instead of magic. The ruleset is integrated with my system of downtime activities, and uses downtime activities and sandbox advancement rather than XP. It's built for sandbox exploration of the mysteries of an alien psychedelic sword and planet world, while doing drugs and listening to people's baseless speculations and conspiracy theories, and undergoing techno-spiritual evolutions.

I'm going to share my Jorune Evolutions player's guide with you in bits and pieces in the coming weeks, along with my version of introduction to the setting. But don't worry, I'll keep working away at the more D&D aspects of the blog too. So you can expect more on downtime activities, updates on the zine, and a few other goodies, like a list of starter spellbooks that works with my rules for magical research, coming down the pipeline. By the way, if you want to check out Jorune for free, take a look at the trove of material here free, made available with the blessing of the creators. Start with the second edition boxed set material, especially the Tauther Guide. But if you might be one of my players, why don't you hold off looking at this material. I'll have my own Tauther Guide for you at a later point, and why muddy the waters?