Sometimes, I write. Sometimes, I think up little universes where different adventures take place. The following story is from an urban fantasy setting my girlfriend and I are creating, called Cassiopeia Lane. We’re still exploring the world ourselves, and this piece of fiction has been “doodled” in an evening. You won’t find out why its called that in this story, but you will discover that you should not just go out and buy a jade statue from a nice old man. Have fun reading!
I feel like a digital nomad. Travelling from game to game, I try to find that one chosen title that can harbor me for more than a dozen hours. There are so many fascinating places to go, but nowhere have I put up my tent for longer than just a little while. I see the sights, mingle with the locals and eventually even join one of their clubs, but before long, I’m packing my belongings, step on my imaginary motorcycle and ride down the digital highway. Where to? I don’t know, probably just the exit to the next promising game.
I mean, it’s not like I never had this digital home, a virtual world where I could put on a pixelated skin that felt like my own. Those six years I’ve spent in World of Warcraft will always be a part of my gaming resumé. No matter how much the game has changed, I will remember the days I called Azeroth my home away from home. I will never forget the adventures I experienced in the role of my Troll Shaman Akinya, and I will never stop feeling nostalgic about my first raid or epic loot. Sure, even during my peak time with WoW I had my moments of “struggle”. I was like a teenager who got fed up of his hometown, so occasionally, I packed my stuff and visited another place: Paragon City, New Eden, Tyria…you name ’em. But sooner or later, I got homesick and returned to Orgrimmar.
Today, this homesickness has long been replaced by an unrivaled wanderlust. I’m like a lonely gypsy, blazing my trail through the woods that connect a myriad of mystical worlds. One week, I’ll be killing zombies in The Secret World, while the next week, I’ll be back in RIFT defending Telara against the dimensional forces. The only constant in all of this is the fact that, sooner or later, I’ll leave again, driven by this urge to explore, while trying to find a new home.
Will I ever find it? I don’t know, but if I stop looking, I will never answer that question. So I wander, homesick for a place to call home. If you see me stopping by in your game, just give me some helpful advice and a few buffs. I’ll be gone in a few days anyway…
Alright kids, sit down for an RPG history lesson. Don’t start complaining now, you will thank me when something about this topic comes up while you’re at the final question of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. I’ll mail you my bank details once you pocket that cash.
Anyway, RPG history. I don’t want to talk about the history of computer RPG’s, but the one of tabletop RPG’s. Of course, both these histories are intertwined, but for today’s lesson, we’ll focus on the ones you play with dice and paper character sheets. Back in the days, before I was even born and when RPG’s were quite new, most games were all about plundering dungeons and slaying monsters. While the players gave their characters names and Gamemasters filled their worlds with details and daring plots, the primary focus of the game was gathering loot, gaining experience points and repeating that every session. Everything was clear and simple, and for a time, everything was fine and alright in RPG country. But everything changed when the method actors attacked!
Okay, sorry for the ATLA reference, but the day that games like Amber and Vampire: the Masquerade introduced complex stories and characters into the mix, was the day we could clearly see a divide in the community. I’m not claiming to be an expert on the matter, but if I had to pick one moment in time where the divide between “old-school” and “new-school” RPG’s was born, it would be the 90’s. It was then when story-focused games with less rules started to become popular, while rules-heavy games like AD&D had a hard time to compete with their revolutionary cousins.
Of course, D&D would get back into the fray once Wizards bought the license in the early 2000’s. However, the term “old-school gaming” will always refer to the time in which RPG’s where about lethal saving throws, weird level progressions and room-by-room exploration in dungeons littered with traps. The so-called Old School Renaissance (short “OSR”) gave birth to many retroclones trying to emulate the old days of simple dungeon-crawling action. Some of them try to add something new, but in my opinion, most OSR titles are pretty much alike. Then again, I’m not an expert when it comes to old-school RPG’s, so my opinion might not be so relevant.
In the meantime, many modern RPG’s focus on characters and their relationships. Succesful publications like the RPG’s for Smallville, Leverage and Dresden Files use character-driven rule systems that put the emphasis on telling a story, rather than on surviving some ancient ruins filled with goblins. Players work together to create a thrilling tale, in a world they have designed together. It’s all about cooperative storytelling instead of cooperative monster-hunting.
Both kinds of games can exist next to each other, but like with many things that rub shoulders often, it’s only a matter of time before someone tries to cross-breed them, creating something daring, something experimental. In a certain way, Flatland Games has done this with Beyond the Wall, and has succeeded!
Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures is a game inspired by writers like Ursula K. LeGuin and Lloyd Alexander, meant to tell stories of young, special people who go out on their first adventure. The ruleset is a true OSR product: you’ll be making saving throws for things like Breath Weapons and Polymorph, while using your Base Attack Bonus to smack monsters. What is entirely non-OSR is the character creation process. Inspired by games like Apocalypse World, Dungeon World and MonsterHearts, BtW gives every playable class a Playbook. During character creation, you’ll be rolling on tables in that Playbook, which will determine your character’s stats and background. Also, you will be adding NPC’s and locations to the home village of your fellow characters and you, creating a diverse and interesting base of operations.
While this is just a small addition to the further completely old-school system, BtW integrates it perfectly and without forcing it. Sitting together to not just create characters, but to also think about the people and places in your home village forges an immediate bond between the player characters. Also, it gives you a truckload of plot hooks to start with: why does a retired dragonslayer live in this tiny town? Maybe the player of the Would-Be Knight who added the NPC can say something about that, which could be the start of an adventure. It allows out-of-the-box, sandbox gameplay, where everyone at the table adds something to the always changing world.
Now, of course, if you’re just not into the OSR-kind of rules, BtW will annoy you with its old-school feel. However, if you want to see what a nice mix between retro elements and modern narrative systems could look like, head over to Flatland Games and check it out.
A few days ago, the lovely Kojitmal commented on one of my posts about Fixing Elves, saying the following thing:
I know this is all done and said a gazillion times now, but I really do think it`s time we step away from the teen vampires, sparkly or not. Can we make vampires scary again, please?
Well, I believe we can! Thanks to this interesting question, I will devote a whole post to the blood-sucking fiend who introduced me to proper role-playing games and what made them way scarier than those angsty, sparkling posers of recent years.
Before I continue, I need to clarify myself a bit. In this post, I will talk about what I find scary about vampires. That’s the whole problem with making something scary: what gets others screaming like a little girl, causes nothing but a “meh” and a smile in others. Just like my friends and I are divided about the creepiness of Paranormal Activity (I almost soiled myself when I saw it), so are horror fans about the scariness of vampires.
With that being said, let me tell you about a boy who’s first impression of vampires came from Anne Rice and her books. Needless to say, the whiny, artsy and somewhat melodramatic vampires starring in Queen of the Damned, Interview with a Vampire and The Vampire Lestat weren’t really doing it for me. I enjoyed them, but Anne Rice made me feel like all the vampires of modern fiction had to be pale, sobbing weaklings talking about their emotions. Well, enter Vampire: the Masquerade.
Vampire: the Masquerade was my first serious role-playing experience. In the world created by the guys from White Wolf, vampires are many things: bloodsuckers, nocturnal politicians, power brokers and rulers of the night. But no matter which facade they choose, every “Kindred” in Vampire: the Masquerade is a monster, controlled by the destructive and primal urges of a concept known as “the Beast”. Most vampires are good at hiding their monstrous side, but sooner or later, the leach slips and out comes the side that is meant to eat and kill.
This is to me the first ingredient to making vampires scary: no matter their cover, they need to be animals. When you’re around one of them, you should feel like being a deer in front of a wolf. Their gaze should be unsettling, their presence dominating, and every word from their mouth a dagger in your stomach. When they restrain their thirst for your blood, you should still live with the fear that, at any moment, this person could leap on top of you, pierce your jugular vein with his teeth and suck the life out of you. Some vampires might wear silk and haute couture, but underneath it, they are all predators. Predators who want nothing but your red, sweet blood.
However, to amplify the feeling of fear and dread, we have to make sure that vampires remain human enough so we can relate to them. In Vampire: the Masquerade, every Kindred was once a human with hopes and dreams. Now, as an undead creature of the night, these hopes and dreams are shattered, and all the fledgling vampire has to hold on to are his last shreds of humanity holding back the Beast. Once those are gone, his darkest desires will be amplified by the power his vampiric form bestows upon him, and no concept of mercy or righteousness will hold them back. Essentially, a vampire needs to be an avatar of the evil inside of us, empowered by the curse of undeath. Only when we realize that humans have a Beast of their own, will we fear the evil done by a vampire even more.
Finally, vampires need to have power, but at a price. No matter if they use the power of their mind to force others to do their bidding, or kill their victims with claws of bone, we need to be aware that a vampire has power and will use it whenever he can. However, this comes at the price of never seeing the sun again, consuming the blood of the living and fighting back an incarnation of your darkest side. There’s nothing threatening about a supernatural creature that can be potentially powerful, but doesn’t use its power, or that has all these cool gifts but has no price to pay. True, intimidating vampires should be dark demigods, who are forced to live in the darkness of their own soul and to prey upon that which they once were.
Now, just remove the glitter and stupid female lead character, and I think we got ourselves some intimidating and dark vampires again. You can thank me (or disagree with me) in the comments below. I’ll be over here preparing my torches and holy symbols, in case I meet one of the badboys I described above!
Well folks, Christmas in July is over. Today, the Steam Summer Sale concluded, meaning that our purses are safe until coming winter and that we now have the time to play the games we grabbed during Flash Sales and other time-limited offers. Of course, being ahead of the curve as I am, I’ve already played a few of my catches, and I want to use this post to talk about the three best games I got during the Sale, while also giving you the chance of winning one of two copies of Awesomenauts!
Last time on The Chindividual, we’ve seen Nazi Elves taking over the world and ruling it with an iron fist. This was not done to celebrate the “coolness” of totalitarian states or just to put Elves into leather coats and military boots (though I will reward you with a cookie if you can provide me with art of that), but to show how one can fix the elven race. And by fixing, I mean how one can make them deviate from the standard, goldilocks-and-frolicking-in-woods stereotype. Today, I present you with another way to make your Elves more flavorful, more interesting and more…rebellious
In my previous post, we brainstormed about the idea of turning Elves into the dominant species on the planet. It’s quite logical: with their natural talent for magic and their long lifespans, Elves have two great advantages compared to other fantasy races. If they utilize these powers right, combined with war machines and tactics that redefine the term “Blitzkrieg”, there’s nothing but their own pride and arrogance stopping them. Within weeks, the pointy-eared conquerors will dominate all of the world. In this scenario, their special traits have enabled them to rule. However, in some cases, being special turns you into the one being ruled, and the Rebel Elves can tell you all about it.
The Rebel Elves are identical to the Nazi Elves: they are practically immortal and cast spells as easily as they make a sandwich. However, the world they live in does not tolerate their presence. In fact, the world is afraid of it. All the other races of the world have recognized the danger such old and powerful creatures pose, and have joined forces to disown them of any kind of power. Elves are not allowed to live outside special internment camps, are not allowed to breed with non-Elves, and have no rights to speak of. Murdering an Elf is not a felony in this world: it’s what upstart human nobles do for fun, when they find a renegade Elf in the woods and chase it down. It’s a sport like hunting, and the ears of an Elf are just a trophy like a fox’s fur.
In this world, a certain rage is boiling among the interned Elves. By what right do these mortal races judge them? Why has no one stepped up to show them their place? Why are all these Elves so obedient, uncomplaining about their servitude? It is time that someone rises up against the mortal masters and shows them which race is truly meant to rule. Enter the Rebel Elves.
The Rebel Elves see themselves as freedom fighters, while the oppressing government will portray them as terrorists. In fact, their acts are not better than the heinous deeds done by a real-life terrorist. Rebel Elves will bomb public buildings with magic, or take hostages to hold them for ransom. They will start riots in the streets and will kill officers of the law if they have to. In the eyes of the public, they are monsters, but they are the monsters created by the cruel world they live in.
The key to portraying the Rebel Elves is the environment that shaped them. You must never forget that the only reason they turn to acts of terrorism is because the world has left them with no other option. They have been driven into a corner, and the only way out is to push forward with relentless force. Yes, their deeds might be heinous, but their motivation is pure: all they want is freedom, equality and a chance to show the world what they are worth. And here lies the drama of the Rebel Elves: do your vile deeds corrupt your just motivation? Will you not equal your oppressors in their monstrosity if you allow yourself to be monstrous? Ethical questions each Rebel Elf will ask himself, and something an entire story can be based on.
So there you have it: two spins on a fantasy stereotype. Interestingly enough, every stereotype we know since Tolkien can be given a new spin. Months ago, I gave Dwarves a kung-fu twist, and I’m sure the same can be done with other tropes. Guerilla gnomes living in a jungle country, where they use the tall trees and dark forests in their battle tactics against colonists from overseas? Goblin tinkerers who are only ostracized because of their looks? Fairies who aren’t that nice? Oh wait, that has been done already!
Anyway, why don’t you tell me how you would change the classics of fantasy? Which race or stereotype do you think needs a new spin? I’m looking forward to hear it!
Quite some time ago, I wrote a piece about why I’m not so fond of Elves in fantasy fiction. While I’m still anything but a fan of our pointy-eared perfectionists, I think that hating something without offering any suggestions for improvement is just…lame. Everyone can be a hater, but it takes constructive criticism and feedback to actually improve something. That’s why today, I want to take a look at how I would approach the old fantasy trope with the long hair and even longer lifespans. I’ll tell you which traits I would keep, but how I would put those into two new and different settings. Leave your lembas at home, it would just feel out-of-place where we’re going!