Friday, February 13, 2009

A World Lit Only By...Evil

At the beginning of my last Castles & Crusades game, the party departed Ye Olde Fantasie Worlde (the generic proto-Tolkien ripoff setting I had whipped up in an afternoon) via the World Portal (aka, Stargate) to go and find the MacGuffin of the week with their Wizardly Patron and his Trusty Sidekick.

Unfortunately for our Intrepid Heroes, the World Portal they were traveling to had been severely damaged some unknown time ago by a pair of wizards dueling it out at the Portal site, and the strain of holding open the gate long enough for the whole party to get through was too much. With a clap of thunder and a blast of stone fragments and magical energy, the World Portal shattered. All the PCs made it through (albeit injured), but all they found of their Patron was a neatly severed arm lying in the smoking rubble.

Welcome, Rosy-Cheeked Heroes, to the World of Thraxx.

There aren't that many published campaign settings, at least that I'm aware of, where the Bad Guys have already won. Your typical D&D campaign world has Good Kingdoms and Bad Kingdoms and Evil Woods and Happy Woods and Skull Mountain and the Happy Hills, blah blah blah. And some of the more "epic" settings like Dragonlance are set during the time of a great struggle between Good and Evil, where the actions of the PCs may tip the balance and let Good Ultimately Triumph.

But what about those worlds, those sad, suffering worlds, where there was no Ragtag Band of Plucky Misfits to save the day? What you might best describe as Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy, where the Epic Battle Between Good and Evil has already been fought and Evil stomped on the throat of Good and took a wizz on it's still-smoldering corpse? Where are the games set on these worlds?

Dark Sun was one of these Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy worlds, and while DS has a strong, dare I say, "Cult Following", it didn't survive the TSR/WotC rollover, and I don't believe it was ever anything more than a niche setting. I've already written one column about this, so I'll just leave the Dark Sun discussion with "how much fun can you have when your big reward is that you didn't die of thirst before the end of the game session?"

And so...Thraxx. A generation ago, a being now known only as the Archon conquered the known world and cracked open a Gate to Hell. Merciless armies of evil humanoids, hordes of aberrant daemonic creatures, bizarre chaos-infested warp-spawn, and legions of the restless dead walk the earth, systematically enslaving or exterminating humankind and the other "good" races (Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes, etc.). Civilization as it is normally conceived of is gone, baby, gone. There are only a handful of free, hidden refuges left - pockets of resistance scattered in the most shadowy corners of the map where the tread of Evil hasn't yet reached in force...but it is only a matter of time.

There is no friendly Magick Shoppe, no benevolent Wizard's Guild. No cheerful rustic blacksmiths willing to put a new edge on your long sword and take the dents out of your plate harness for a handful of gold coins. No warm taverns with a gaggle of stereotypical peasants and a bosomy barmaid walking around with a foaming jack of ale in each hand. All that pleasantly conventional tripe has been ground under the gore-stained boot heels of a thousand thousand minions of Pure Evil.

And the real zinger is, there is no One Ring to toss into the volcano. No unshielded ventilation shaft you can shoot a torpedo down and cause a chain reaction that'll blow the whole thing up. No secret Sword of Power that'll allow the Champion of Good to save the day. The puppy hasn't just been kicked, it's been stomped to death with soccer cleats, doused with kerosene, and set on fire so the bad guys can roast marshmallows.

I'm not sure how long this campaign arc will last. The players will have their victories, but sooner or later, they are going to realize that no matter how many battles they win, the war has already been lost. The question will then become not how do you win, but how do you live with failure? Do the PCs simply try to go down swinging? Do they try to save their own skins and find another way off this world, or do they try to be Heroes still and, if nothing else, find a way for as many refugees as possible to move to another world? Or, do they try to find a way to take down the Archon, seal of the Gate to Hell, and win the no-win scenario (hints of Captain Kirk and the Kobayashi Maru, for you super-nerds out there)?

As a final note: Masakari kindly pointed me to the "Midnight" setting by Fantasy Flight games. I hadn't actually seen this when I laid out for myself the original Thraxx premise, and while there are some similarities, I do want my setting (and especially the gameplay) to go in a different direction - but I am going to read through the wiki and see what can be gleaned from this material.


Chgowiz said...

Although the game has only just begun, that's exactly what my Dark Ages campaign is all about. It's roughly 1 generation after a world shattering set of events, known as the Doom of Man. The reason the adventurers are where they are is because civilization has been reduced to a boring set of feudal lords scrabbling for survival. There's a lot, a whole lot, of darkness and lost cities and fallen kingdoms. Evil has the world surrounded and can pretty much do what it wants.

The interesting thing will be to see how the players discover this evil and deal with it. There is the city of Irecia, two days travel away, which is rumored to be populated with the Damned...

There's not much the players can do until they establish strongholds and try to regain what was lost. I don't have an end point on this arc because it's a West Marches expanding sandbox that will evolve as the players evolve. There's no central BBEG to defeat, just the millions of bestials and beasts who overran a whole lot of the known lands.

It'll be interesting to see how the players react.

MR-X said...

It is not often I read in these blogs someone who is as eloquent as you are. It is a pleasure to read and be reassured that yes, there is intelligent life out there. In so far as after the war is over games- there is one more I would add to the list and that is Aftermath.Its an oldie but a goodie. Hunt it down and play it.
I do note however that your criticism of Dark sun is that ones only reward is that of not dying of thirst. I do not see that you are offering much more hope to your players than precisely that. If you're lucky lads, you won't die. Be thankful and drag your sorry arses off somewhere else where the pickings are better for the good guys.
The scenario does of course offer up some fascinating issues. Like how does the bad guy society work. Do they live in some kind of cooperative collaboration?(not very bad guyish)Surely even bad guys enjoy an ale and a willing wench or two.Do they indulge in trade. Or they the sort of mindless 'things' that need nothing other than their own hatred of everything else, including fellow bad things. If so what keeps em going if all the good guys are gone.Have they reset the bar and murderers and cutthroats are the new good guys and the demonic soul eaters are still bad enough to be considered bad. Are any of these things alive as we think of it are are they all just some sort of magical manifestation.Do they all get along?
If not how much space do they need to stop them from ripping their own throats out?
Do they have some sort of parrallall force of super badies keeping check on everybody incase the good starts sneaking in and rotting their happily nasty way of life from the inside out?
Does the uber bad guy who stared all this ever get old? Does he just find that utter domination isn't what it was cracked up to be and whee is the excitement in life without a decent load of good guys to go out and slaughter. Maybe he keeps a ranch somewhere that he breeds good guys for his own personal hunting with a few fellow bad guy mates?
You see my point?
The war is never lost or won. It's just not designed that way. Without one, there cannot be the other.
As for your charcters. Time to go chameleon if it were me. My necromancer or black cleric assassin/ demonic summoner is gonna loooove this place! Hell is really heaven to the bad guy.
This is such a fun topic I could go on for hours. Ands thats before we really get into the debate on 'What is evil...really?'
You got a really great scenario here. Get into it. Post more. I shall be watching.

Badelaire said...

To Mr. X:

"I do note however that your criticism of Dark sun is that ones only reward is that of not dying of thirst. I do not see that you are offering much more hope to your players than precisely that. If you're lucky lads, you won't die. Be thankful and drag your sorry arses off somewhere else where the pickings are better for the good guys."

Oh believe me, I am a big fan of Dark Sun - I do think the game has a lot of potential, and that the one big thing that put me off was not the setting itself, but how the boxed set was immediately made "officially" obsolete by the five-book series that came after it (not that you have to stick to the published metaplot, but I just in general loathe meta-plot).

My comments about the whole "dying of thirst" issue is that DS is such a harsh mistress of a campaign setting that the usual campaign goals of riches, fame, power, a keep, followers, etc., are anathema to the setting as designed. If the PCs got to powerful or too of the Immortal Sorcerer Kings can just come along and level everything with a thought. Your game had to play on a much leaner, meaner dynamic than "riches and glory" - the usual fodder of most casual RPG campaigns.

As to the inner workings of the Evil Bad guys...well in Thraxx, 99% of the "Bad Guys" aren't human, and many aren't even "humanoid". Heck, a lot of them aren't even alive. The Death Legions are whole armies of slaughtered humans, raised from the dead to fight for the Archon. They don't need ale, or motivations, or an economy...they just do what they are commanded to do. As for the rest...a topic for another day, eh?

Thanks for posting, and stop by again!

Badelaire said...

To Chgowiz:

I've been following your campaign thoughts and ideas for a while now, and yeah - I think we're on similar wavelengths. I almost pointed to your blog in my article, but I was focusing more on published campaign settings (so get cracking there!).

Having a world "where the bad guys won" changes the dynamic of the campaign a LOT. I guess our job as DMs is to make sure the players can still be interested enough in the game that they'll keep playing - because otherwise, who wants to play in a campaign where you know nothing you do matters?

Badelaire said...

Back at Mr. X again...

(Sorry, I cut and pasted in that comment (and responded to it) without actually seeing what you were talking about - my apologies.)

I think this will be a learning exercise. I don't intend Thraxx to be the be-all and end-all to my campaign, but I do think it is where the main thrust of the campaign is headed. Actually, if the PCs can find a way off the world (and I shouldn't reveal this since one of my players reads this blog, but he's a bright guy so I imagine he'd think of this idea anyhow), the PCs might be able to enlist the aid of other worlds in order to combat the Archon. I mean, who knows what the Archon's ultimate goals are - today Thraxx, tomorrow the Universe...?

So perhaps the higher-purpose "feel good" goals are out there, it's just going to take surviving the long night before the PCs can see the new dawn, so to speak.

Chgowiz said...

I'm not sure they can't make a difference because I don't know what they're going to do. They might unite the entire population of the 4 races to take back from the dark. They might get the gods on their side. They might not. They might set up their strongholds, control the area around them and call it a day. Either possibility is open. My idea isn't quite a Carcosa type of hopelessness, but neither is it "heroic, you will save the day". I've never ran a sandbox like this before, so I have no clue. It should be extremely interesting!

Blotz said...

Since it seems that the majority of rpg bloggers are GM's, I'd like to chime in as someone who's primarily a player. I've played in a couple of games set up as you describe, and let me just say its a slippery slope you're on. It's very easy to end up with a completely demoralized and discouraged set of players. Remember, a good roleplayer is gonna identify with his character and it can start to be a real drag to show up each week to roleplay a character who has nothing to look forward too other than another week of getting kicked in the nuts by the setting.
Fighting the no win scenario makes nifty fiction. I'm not so sure it makes for good rpg'ing. (hey I made a new word!)

Badelaire said...


You make a good point. At the end of the day, if the Players aren't enjoying themselves, then all the high-brow gaming concepts in the world will get you exactly nowhere.

My current gaming group is a pretty laid-back and somewhat twisted bunch - I think as long as I can give them some hardcore action and adventure, and not stomp them too flat now and then, things will go all right.

But I'm definitely going to take your advice to heart and make sure to keep an eye on things so the Fun Factor doesn't slide.

taichara said...

(I could have sworn I commented earlier ...)

I have to echo Blotz, based on extremely irritable and irritating personal experience (and one of the few times I haven't wound up being the DM). It's a very slippery slope indeed, as our DM at the time learned to his dismay.

But if your group is the kind who likes to gleefully stomp on twisted things, then I say more power to you ;3 Because you're entirely correct; there's not enough evil out there, setting wise.

Someone has to rebalance things, ei? *grins*

My thoughts on Dark Sun, on the other hand, I'll post over there despite the OP being some time back --

jamused said...

Since my player have not once, but twice, accidentally unleashed apocalyptic evil on a setting and fled, I wouldn't even attempt such a thing. Speaking for me personally, I find a little bit of evil triumphant goes a long way. I think I'm much more likely to enjoy struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic setting where there's nobody in charge than one where evil rules, but there's never going to be anything you can do about it or doing something about it would be years of game-play in the future.

At the moment I'm running two post-post-Apocalyptic settings: places where the Apocalypse happened, but that was a long time ago, and they're in a re-building/re-exploring phase now.

MR-X said...

I have returned and read. My apologies if I have given the idea that I know anything of DS. I have not even seen the game. Nor have I used the D&D system since the old days of advanced D&D. I am firmly a rolemaster player and one of a rare breed if my take on the majority of blogs is correct.
While I can understand your thinking on the armies of dead theories(it sure removes a lot of logistical nightmares). I just can't subscribe to it. The amount of power it would take to keep the bastards moving would be quite simply, rediculous. It also begs the question of the command structure. Is it just the big bad ass or does he have intelligent underlings and if so how many and what are they charged with doing (not much I would suggest as there aren't any good guys left to worry about.)
Lets not forget that zombies aint all that smart and any pc worth his salt shouldn't have too much to worry about when dealing with the mindless thing just sitting there waiting to be directed by the uber lord. I assume you are giving the players free reign to go where they want and not channeling them through narrow corridors into the next encounter. That being so it shouldn't take the players long to figure out the no go zones and when the "great eye" is likely to be turned their direction.
I don't buy into the slippery slope theory. You got the makings of a great campaign here. Just give the players the latitude they need to establish a sense of the place and keep it constant.
It just plain doesn't matter what the setting is as long as your consistent and the players can see you playing by the same rules you've set out for them.
As a gm you can kill them anytime, anyhow, anywhere(or just pound them into the dust if you care) irrespective of the setting(good guys swing swords just like the bad guys do). This is for them. Show them that and they wont want to find a way out. They'll just be having too much fun to wanna leave.
Do I sound preachy?

MR-X said...

A small correction to the previous text. When I said I was a rolemaster player.
I should more correctly state that I am a rolemaster G.M.
I don't get too many shots at being a player and when I do I just generally piss everybody off.
They much prefer me behind the G.M screen.
Next chance I get to play though I intend to play 'Clangor the Buffoon' fool, jongleur and bard. I might try my hand at the speaking circuit aswell. Do they have speakers podiums on Thraxx?