Friday, July 10, 2015
The World According To Me
Sometime in the mid-1970s, I don’t know exactly when, a fellow I never liked very much named Bill Pugh came up with the rudimentary beginnings of the most brilliant roleplaying system I would ever either play under or DM a game with. Bill called his system Dream Along With Me, and eventually, after a lot of play testing in a campaign called Umaris, which was GMed by a fine fellow named Gary Lindstrom, the system wound up being handed on to me, when I began running World of Empire in 1985.
Gary Lindstrom is arguably the finest GM of fantasy roleplaying games who has ever drawn breath (his scenario design was detailed and intelligent, his NPCs were three dimensional and utterly believable, and his campaign backdrops just dripped with more atmosphere and intrigue than any ten random AD&D Realm of the Twisted Beer Mug campaigns rolled together) and over the ten years he used the system, he modified it extensively, tossing out stuff that didn’t work well, putting in new stuff to see how that might go. While the system, now just called Umaris, after Gary’s campaign, had started out quite complex and become damn near incomprehensible over the course of a decade, close examination would confirm that everything in it served an essential purpose. Umaris was, itself, the most complex and detailed roleplaying campaign I’d ever played in, it absolutely demanded a realistically detailed and complex game system.
In 1986, I began running my first real fantasy roleplaying campaign, World of Empire. With Gary’s permission, I began using his system, but I modified it extensively right from the start. One of the pettier reasons I’d started my own campaign was that I kept losing arguments with Gary about how much better it would be to streamline certain aspects of roleplaying and make them more realistic (specifically, experience points, which I absolutely hated). Since Gary refused to use my brilliant suggestions in his own campaign, I decided to start my own and implement them there.
It should be noted that for all the various changes and modifications made to the system over the years, the basic brilliance of Bill Pugh’s initial set up remains as an essential skeletal structure underlying all the later evolutions and additions. Bill was, as far as I know, the first person to conceive of dividing gaming characters up into essentially three components – Statistics, Attributes, and Skills – and the facility of such a system is amply demonstrated by how many commercial (and widely popular) systems use basically the same structure today. (Just as one example that immediately occurs, Steve Jackson’s GURPS is amazingly similar to Bill’s basic set up, although it should be noted that the character set up system I use is much, much more complex than GURPS, which prides itself on its simplicity).
Due to the complexity of my roleplaying game, the fact that I started DMing after most of my gaming buddies had left college and gotten jobs and started families, and most importantly, the fact that as a DM I’m a right bastard and most gamers won’t tolerate it, World of Empire never had the success or popularity that Umaris had, and in fact, from 1986 onward, I’ve pretty much constantly struggled to find a minimum of three reliable gamers a week to run for. While there have been brief periods when I’ve actually had a waiting list to get into my game (when I ran for a while from a now defunct gaming shop named… er… something or other, I can’t recall at the moment, I want to say "Time Frame" but I know that’s not it…), for the most part it’s been the other way around, with the pattern usually being that I’ll have two fanatically eager and devoted players who are willing to show up every week, but we can’t manage to find and keep a third for the life of us.
This pattern has continued since I moved from Central New York to Central Florida, with the result being that World of Empire hasn’t been in session for about two years now. Nonetheless, having done a great deal of work on the game over the course of the 14 years between 1986 and 2000, I’ve long thought I should put at least some of it on the Internet… why, I couldn’t tell you. (Okay, yes, it's attention getting behavior of probably the worst sort... unsuccessful attention getting behavior, that is. But since I know that, why I'm bothering remains a mystery. Boredom, probably. And hope. It's amazing how much gets done due to those two motivations.) Maybe some smart, funny, responsible gamers, tired of the usual 2-Dimensional nonsense that normally passes for roleplaying games, who live in or near Tampa, FL, will see this and decide to get in touch. That would be nice. Barring that, though, I don’t know what practical purpose this could serve. Nonetheless, here I am, doing it.
Exactly what I’ll put up here I really have little idea at the moment. I have a scanner, and a lot of mediocre artwork I’ve done for the game over the last 14 years, so I imagine quite a bit of that will find its way onto this site eventually. Other than that, I suppose I’ll just post whatever I happen to have on disc. If you’ve found this site and are wondering what the hell it’s about or what earthly purpose it serves, well, join the club. We’ve had some jackets made.
While I had D.M.ed many superhero RPGs in college and just after with my clique of buddies and housemates from Syracuse University (nearly all of us were comic book and movie geeks; actual sword & sorcery/fantasy wasn’t a big interest of mine back then, I was a hard SF and Marvel Comics geek, thank you very much), World of Empire was to be my first really ‘serious’ campaign, one with a history and a lot of details and internal politics and a great many humanoid non-human races (that last being one of the peculiar idiosyncracies of the fantasy genre that we tend not to think about much, but being a very anal sort of person, I would come up with an explanation for just why there were so many humanoid non-humans on my own particular fantasy world). Since my major inspiration was Gary Lindstrom’s Umaris, I felt a particular need to make this campaign, well, not just good, but actually brilliant, and even then, it probably wouldn’t measure up. But I was painfully aware that my first three players, Gary himself, along with our friends Jim & Marilyn King (all GMs in their own right, and thus, sympathetic to a player who wanted to start up his own world and willing to give him a chance) were pretty much expecting my campaign to suck, and I was determined to prove them wrong.
Apparently I did, as my campaign continued, and much to the annoyance of several of Gary’s players, Gary liked it so much that he started alternating Saturdays with me. Eventually, many of Gary’s regular players tried World of Empire and liked it just fine. There remained a few stubborn hold outs to the end, but, well, they were narrow minded idiots and it was their loss.
My very first campaign in WOE was set in an area I called "the Barbary States", and unfortunately, while I ran there for years (and eventually, the "Barbary States" had a big war with the Empire of Man across the water a ways, and wound up becoming "the Barbary Confederation") and while my recollection is that it was a really fascinating, very detailed, and deeply deranged setting (if you can imagine a campaign backdrop that is basically a cross between Larry Niven’s Protector mythos and the Old Testament, well, you’re just about as nuts as I am, get help quickly), I did it all in the era before I had access to computers, so none of that stuff is on disc, and none of it will go up on this site. (Except some maps I just scanned, and maybe some artwork from that era.) Sorry about that.
I did discover one problem as I DMed the Barbary States/Confederation, though, and it was a rather irritating one… since the area had a reasonably high level of intrinsic social structure, including law & order and various organizations that enforced such, the player characters had a tendency to run screaming to the authorities whenever a scenario became even remotely challenging. This is pretty damned vexing when it happens; if you’ve created this wonderful scenario and spent hours making up all the NPCs and drawing out the maps and the diagrams and defining all the cool little booby traps and special weapons that the various bad guys are carrying, and the player characters peek around the corner, take one look at the Temple of Doom that is hidden in the ancient catacombs beneath the blissfully ignorant teaming metropolis of Lesser Ra Tanis, and then turn and tip toe out and hand a map of the place to the Confederation High Patrol and say "go get ‘em, fellas…" well, as I say: vexing.
So I wound up creating a new campaign area, where this sort of thing wouldn’t happen. Called, at first, simply 'The River', this campaign area borrowed a lot of its details from a great (if obscure) fantasy novel called The Shadow of His Wings by Bruce Fergusson, with a little bit of Dave van Arnam’s brilliant Lord of Blood tossed in for good measure. The River’s primary influence, however, was the ultraviolent anarchic mayhem of what may well be the greatest SF/action film ever made, George Millar’s astonishing The Road Warrior.
On ‘The River’, there were all these ancient, ugly, geometrical cities, made of some strange black stone-like material that didn’t really seem to decay very much, which had been created long ago by this enormous serpentine godlike being known as the Samaquel (see 'Religion on the River, Samaqel worship'. The people who lived in these cities were savage, brutish, and violent to the point of sociopathy. The highest level of social organization that had been achieved on the River in the 3000 years these odd cities had existed was the gang; the most powerful person was a Boss who controlled an individual building, or perhaps, if he or she had been really successful to date, an entire City block.
Since metal weapons on the River were insanely expensive, the whole place was like some demented cross between The Road Warrior and Walter Hill’s The Warriors. There was no law, no order, no civilization, no mercy, no kindler, gentler nothin'. Women were called ‘quivers’ (you don’t want to know why), were invariably the property of whichever Boss had managed to grab them first, and did not travel the streets without a mob of heavily armed and armored protectors. The most common form of punishment for men who ran afoul of a Boss, assuming they didn’t just get killed, was to be chained out in the street to a stone block known as a ‘raping post’. One of the few universal truces observed between rival gangs would be when someone was, in fact, chained to a raping post, at which point, the whole neighborhood would assemble, and… well, you get the point.
About the only known form of entertainment on the River other than the raping posts came from ‘maim dens’ (something I’m pretty sure I borrowed from a book by John Morrissey), where, basically, slaves and those others luckless enough to be at the bottom of the pecking order were tortured to death in imaginative ways for howling, slobbering audiences. The River wasn’t even remotely a pleasant place, and, well, when my small group of rather more civilized player characters stepped through a portal and found themselves their for the first time, they were rightly horrified.
However, those players loved the River, and never wanted to go back to the Barbary States, and no matter how many other campaign areas I’ve set up over the years and given a try to – the Empire of Man, Penkaru Keru, the Seven Kingdoms, the Eastern Isles, Hyapatios, the Winter Shore,, Taran Island, Oceania, the Kingdom of Night – eventually, it’s the River that my players have enjoyed the most, and that I’ve tended to gravitate back to.
The River has changed and evolved somewhat over the years, however. Eventually, I started calling that area of play ‘The Ancient Lands’, since there was a bit more to the place than just the geographically freakish super-River valley system that was the actual ‘River’. I also started creating more back story, and discovered that there were several human races on the River who had been living there (according to them, anyway) long before the Samaqel first showed up with its human herd. One particular group of PCs discovered that the Samaqel had been artificially retarding social evolution on the River by having any charismatic leaders who tried to organize people beyond the level of a block-gang assassinated, using Its own genetically modified group of super-assassins known as the Dancers of the Purple Lotus. And when, some time after that, the Samaqel died, that same group of PCs helped a charismatic NPC mercenary commander establish herself as the first ruling Monarch of the River, the Crimson Queen of Ona-Tengu.
Over the years, I’ve shifted the campaign setting into the future a couple of times, in order to get to a more ‘settled’ time period, one that would be better for adventures. (Shifting political backdrops and vast social upheavals tend to make for lousy adventure settings; players tend to like knowing that the Major NPC Players are going to mostly stay the same, unless they kill the bastards themselves.) The ‘current’ setting in World of Empire features a densely detailed social and political landscape in which civilization, while still new to the River, has been around for around thirty years now.
Ona-Tengu, the kingdom founded by the Crimson Queen, is now ruled by a truly wretched set of royalty named King Kameron and his nominal wife Queen Kristara, and is divided into eastern and western regions, each technically ruled by its own monarch, and therefore known as the Kingslands and the Queenslands.
Ona-Tengu itself is constantly torn by political intrigue, as various factions eternally struggle with each other to expand their own influence and destroy that of their rivals. Here, the Temples constantly struggle with each other, and with various factions in the Court, for favor and influence. The Black Giants continually scheme to regain their once great diplomatic power in Ona-Tengu. The sub community of wizards struggles to survive in the face of the Temples’ increasing oppression, with a faction that prizes their own independence fighting off the monopolistic overtures of the Mages’ Guild. The outlawed Sisterhood continues to subtly campaign for legitimacy, but the local Lords of Ona-Tengu, frightened of the possible consequences of allowing the legalization of an all female society protected by their own highly trained and disciplined female warriors, opposes every move a determined Queen Jessara makes towards that end. The native Durshi, normally among the most placid and peaceful of peoples, have struggled beneath Kameron’s oppressive taxes long enough that they are now covertly organizing into their own rebellious underground… secretly encouraged and aided by various other factions, including, perhaps, an always watchful Empire of Man. The Great Swamp, exactly in the center of the Kingslands, broods over its own ancient secrets, keeping them well, swallowing whole several foolhardy adventuring expeditions into its depths every year. The Knighthood of Ona-Tengu, supposedly sworn to stand above such things, is in the thick of every intrigue, constantly maneuvering to increase its own particular power and influence with the King and his favorites. And, in the Queenslands, Kristara and her vizier, the powerful mage and former Church Cardinal called Maraud, continue to explore the dark, forbidden lore left behind in their capital city of Riva Zand when the Imperial Temple of Death was broken and driven forth by Lyanna Morningstar decades before…
The midland province that was once the richest farmland on the River, under the dominion of the worldly and corrupt Church of the One True God, has fallen beneath a curse of eternal darkness. The one time Cardinals of the Church are now all Undead, ruling their vampiric Bloodlines and scheming to extend the darkness of the Shadowlands to the rest of the Ancient Lands, as well. Yet even they have their faction struggles, as the decadent Lifedrinkers insist that biological life has its uses, even if only as food, while the harsh Denial faction adamantly campaigns for the extending of the curse of Darkness across the entire earth, which will inevitably destroy all life, leaving only the Undead to stride the surface of the world alone…
Once powerful Sottli Ban, home of the ancient and long lost Sottle Kingdom, fights to survive in these difficult times, its formerly rich northern trade routes cut off by the blot of the Shadowlands directly across them.
But Sottles are a crafty race, and while they may have been forced to negotiate, to plot, to scheme and connive to create the web of political and economic alliances that keeps them a viable power on the modern River, there is no race better suited to such tactics and strategies. The so-called Golden People may have little in the way of military power, but any race whose every man, woman and child is born with the godlike talent for magic can never be safely dismissed…
To the south, King Baldwin rules the New Holy Lands, struggling to bring the feral Ulvane tribes under control as his Reformed Church of the One True God attempts to rebuild the ancient cities of Aha’Taquel, shattered decades before in the last throes of the Imperial War. While the Empire of Man was eventually driven out of the Ancient Lands by the combined forces of the River, the fighting was horrible and left lasting scars… nowhere more serious than in the ruined cities now under the dominion of reformed Orishnia. Baldwin’s greatest political liability is doubtless his unwillingness to compromise his high moral and religious beliefs in order to make deals with outsiders he finds almost universally loathsome… but it was compromise and corruption of this sort that led to the downfall of the original Church of the One True God, so who can say he’s wrong?
In the wolf haunted forests and misty grasslands of ancient Aha’Taquel itself, far outside the shattered cities along the banks of the River, the savage Ulvane tribes continue to stubbornly resist any and all attempts at pacification by Baldwin’s Church Hawks. In the past centuries, the Ulvane ‘barbarians’ have resisted the depredations of a long list of enemies… Sothark slavers, Sottle wizards, invading Imperials, even the importunings of the treacherous Wolf Baron, a savage Ulvane himself who went to the city, struck a bargain with the God of Death, and under His protection became one of the first true Kings on the River before his assassination at the hands of a Dancer of the Purple Lotus. Having resisted so many so staunchly for so long, is there any chance they’ll just roll over like good doggies for Baldwin and his crazy Orishnians? Ha!
And in the far South, the frigid, icy wasteland of Sotharka, with its one ancient city of the same name, is ruled by Utgar Bearfang, younger brother of the legendary leader Rugar Bearfang, who once made a bargain with the Church of the One True God that, in exchange for his entire Sothark tribe converting to the worship of Miriam Orishna, brought in an enormous amount of modern weaponry and equipment, with which to wage war on their ancient enemies the Ulvane, as well as Rugar’s rival Sothark tribes. Yet where Rugar was merely pragmatic, Utgar is actually a devout Orishnian, as fanatical a follower of the original Church teachings as King Baldwin, just to his north, is a Reformed Orishnian. While Utgar lacks his brother’s near-godlike charisma, he more than makes up for this with his grim dedication to the re-establishment of the Church of the One True God as an earthly power on the River, and the Sotharks as its primary arbiters of faith. And although the True Believer Utgar and the Reformed Believer Baldwin have an enemy in common in the feral Ulvane, how long can that be expected to keep them from each other’s throats…?
And, watching and waiting, always looking for a new opening, the Empire of Man lurks just beyond the River’s borders. For the Empire views the conquest of the River as its rightful destiny, and the Empire will not be denied…
Over the course of the 21 years I have been running the World of Empire, though I have set up many different campaign areas, the one I’ve spent the most time with, and put the most energy into, is The Ancient Lands. Which is why the vast majority of stuff on this web site will concern itself with that campaign area, although I have a few write ups of alternate campaign area backdrops I’ll probably post at some point, as well.
A lot of what I came up with in World of Empire was, as far as I know, pretty much entirely innovative in the world of RPGs. For example, my systems for generating skill levels in starting characters included the novel concept of 'level zero plus one', a very effective tool that let me devise a lot of very different specific training classes and skill sets for players to take advantage of. My system for making Skill Rolls was, as far as I know, also unique, as was the more realistic Learning procedure that I substituted for the always annoying and otherwise universal Experience Points. And, to add yet another layer of credible, realistic detail, I also implemented Day to Day Living Activities, which I'm pretty proud of.
In addition to devising entirely original and unprecedented (as far as I know, anyway) systems for acquiring skills as a starting character and then increasing those skills, and acquiring new ones while in play, World of Empire contained a lot of other original features, as well. My magic system is completely unlike any other magic system I've ever played under in any other game, although, oddly, it has a lot of similarities to Magic, the Gathering, which didn't show up on the market until about five years after I set up my own system. While my system was skill based, rather than character class driven, I did create a lot of different skills sets (see the end of the Skills page) and even specific character vocations, one good example of which was the ever popular, perpetually short lived Honan warriors, that pretty much everyone loved to run because they were so darned cool, but who always died pretty quickly, because their fighting style didn't allow them to use shields. (But they do have cool uniforms.)
In addition to all that, I'm pretty sure I was the first DM to realize that in fantasy worlds that were redolent with non-human races, this generally meant there was only one 'human' race. As soon as I realized that, I created a vast and ever growing number of human sub-races, adding a well received new level of interesting detail to my RPG that gave my players yet another dimension of believability for their own PCs, and all the NPCs they interacted with. I also created Cultural Codes of Honor, small sets of general beliefs and taboos that tended to slightly restrict, in interesting ways, the behavior of the characters, depending on where they had been born and under what circumstances. (Some cultures on the River, for example, forbid homosexuality, while others don't. Sotharks believe that an oath sworn by their secret, spirit name must always be kept, while Northarks are big believers in the power of their dreams. Sottles disdain all manual labor, which makes it very difficult for someone who rolls up a Sottle to take combat skills, or any pragmatic skill, really. Ulvane consider open insults to be compliments, and flattery to be insulting, because if you insult an Ulvane, you are indicating that you consider him to be worth fighting over it, while if you praise him, you are basically saying you don't want to fight him... which is either cowardly, or condescending. Yeah, Ulvane are nuts, but they're fun.)I also set up my own particular non-human races: a race of cat-like humanoids called Jeopards, similar bird-like, winged, flying humanoids known as Aven, a race of obnoxious four armed dwarfish freaks known as Frodds, and the generally hated and feared Stone Giants.
I also have some great friends. Nate Clark, an excellent GM in his own right,set up a detailed page ful of skill sets for slaves, in case players happened to want to play someone who had run off from durance vile, and was kind enough to let me use it.
In addition to all that, while the River is a very violent campaign area, I always tried to make my scenarios complex, believable, full of mundane detail, and whenever possible, driven by something in the background of one of the player characters. I love political intrigue and lots of atmosphere, and I think one of the things that kept many of my potential players from sticking around was the level of interaction (yammer yammer yammer) that went on between PCs and NPCs, instead of fights and treasure grabbing.
Of course, as a life long geek, I also steal from everything I read, see on TV, or catch in a movie, if I like it and can somehow fit it in. I've already mentioned throughout this thing many of the sources I've incorporated bits and pieces of into WOE. One I haven't mentioned yet that was one of my favorites, and one of the things I miss most about the Barbary States campaign area, was the Assassin's Guild, which I pretty much directly stole from H. Beam Piper's brilliant PARATIME.
A Few Other Notes...
Converting to HTML has really screwed with the pages that had a lot of formatting on them, like the Weapons and Combat chart, to say the least. Sorry. However, unless you're going to play in my campaign, you don't really need those pages, and if you are, you can copy them to your hard drive and straighten out the formatting yourself... or just get Xeroxes of my hard copies next time you come over. In the meantime, be strong.
I've also noticed, on this page a specific Magic the Gathering reference. This may happen on some other pages from time to time, depending on what versions I find on disc and upload. It's because I briefly set up an M:TG RPG a few years back, and changed some of my existing documents (God, I love word processors) to reflect the new reality.
And In The End…
If anyone reading this is a mature, intelligent, creative roleplayer who is sick of the usual two dimensional slop that passes for roleplaying, lives in or around the Louisville, KY, and is both willing and able to get their ass on a reliable and consistent basis to a weekly gaming session that would, necessarily (I have a LOT of notebooks) have to be held in my Highlands home just off Bardstown Road… there’s an email address right below this. Drop me a line, and we’ll see what we can do.
There’s a lot of stuff on the other side of the various links that are peppered through this thing, and there may be more eventually... or there may not. I have no idea what you’re doing here, but I hope you’re enjoying yourself, and feel free to drop me a line and say so, even if you can’t or don’t want to play.
However, if you hate the system, think my world as described just sucks, and are certain I’m the worst DM in the world (and probably the biggest asshole), I won’t argue with you. I also probably won’t finish reading your email telling me so, so don’t waste either of our time, okay?
* * * Addendum (10/23/08) * * *
Using a wonderful program called Magic Set Editor, I've created a set of WORLD OF EMPIRE Magic cards! Check it out here, if you're so inclined.