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Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom RPG

Mandragora Ashes of Freedom RPG Logo

What are the Mandragora?

Much of this site details my creation, the Mandragora fantasy-setting race, along with a number of ideas that spun off from them. I’ve made a large amount of background material available on the site, and in the Downloads area as well. Created as a nemesis for my PCs in an AD&D game, the draconic beings have since featured in two play-by-mail games too. They were also a recurring race of villains in my Ashes of Freedom D&D campaign setting. Descended from Dragons, Mandragora possess a long life, powerful magical abilities, an arsenal of natural weaponry, and years of training and experience. The Mandragora themselves dwell on the Isle of Lonaraban, far from humanity. However, their plotting and scheming extends to Volkrania and other lands (and worlds).

The Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom RPG

The Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom RPG (M:AoF) was a new RPG (roleplaying game) I’d planned to develop as part of an experiment . I’m blogging about it as I go with a view to providing a guide to those who may want to try self publishing their own RPG. Success is immaterial. I’m trying this out as an experiment really – whether or not it becomes a fantasy heartbreaker remains to be seen. It’s currently on hold while I pursue other projects.

The Background

As detailed, elsewhere the original concept of the Mandragora was that of an ancient race descended from dragons who had forged their own destiny. After centuries of self-imposed isolation,  they are once more venturing forth from their island home, Lonaraban.

The world of the Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom RPG is similar to the early Renaissance. Many of the technological advances taking place are in the form of magical innovation. Gunpowder is being used for the first time, although its use is still in its infancy: magic is still by far the preferred weapon of mass destruction.

The Theme

Technomancy, where the use of magic has replaced technology is the major theme of the RPG. The world of the Mandragora is recovering from  a variety of magical disasters – and the magical field of the planet has altered as a result. The alteration of the natural magic field has created its own aberrations and the natural ecosystems have mutated as a result.

Many of the technological advances take the form of new magical techniques. The Mandragora ships float, using magical fields to propel themselves above the waves; Brass CrystalSingers use vocal harmonies to activate crystal matrices to store information; and arcane weaponry forms much of the Mandragora artillery.

The System

I planned to use FATE as the core rule set for the Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom RPG. FATEs already established itself as a system that works (Spirit of the Century, The Dresden Files RPG). It meant getting to work on the RPG using an already tried-and-tested system. The setting is already in use in some of my D&D games.

Initial Thoughts

Or at least having a bash at it. There comes a point where every GM/DM would like to see their game (or setting) in print. So here’s the thing: I’ve talked before about creating an RPG for the Mandragora setting before so I’m actually going to try and do it. I’ve never published my own RPG, and I guess the two Mandragora Play-By-Mail games I did don’t really count, although the game manuals were very much part of the learning curve for me. The New World Explorers Guide for ORC also helped. I’m going to give it a try, as much of the system itself is already in place although I’ll need to fine-tune things: this isn’t hubris, I’m just curious to see how I get on.

Right. Let’s get this party started!

First, the system. Now I could go for an open gaming license such as FUDGE, FATE or similar, but I’ve decided to use my own system and build upon other game mechanics I’ve used in the past. Why? Although the Mandragora have their basis in (A)D&D, I’m going to try and create the system as an experiment – I’m going to use the Mandragora as the focus for the game. While OGL games are pretty common its quite likely that I could create a decent system and maybe even release it as its own OGL RPG. I’m going to borrow freely from other games as its my personal belief that most RPGs borrow freely from each other – even Shadowrun and Deathwatch have aspects of D&D, although you may need to look hard.

I’ve decided to make the system primarily d6-based, as it doesn’t require any specialised dice – although I’m tempted to create some custom dice for the game later on! I’ll touch on that later –  not in this article though. I’d like to leave D20 out in its entirety.

As you see I’ve not touched upon stuff like commissioning artwork, layout, and editing or cartography yet: I’m literally building the rules and RPG from the ground up! I’m currently calling it the MANDRAGORA RPG, but I’m torn between calling it that or the MANDRAKE system.

Now here’s my first thoughts on PLAYER CHARACTERS (PCs).

Player Characters

Character creation should be quick and painless. Every player should be able to quickly pick up the creation process, and be able to create a full character in under half an hour. Character ARCHETYPES will aid this, and BACKGROUND POINTS will help to create individual characters, without creating too many stereotypes.

The CHARACTER SHEET will be split into sections, one the “public” one, the other listing those abilities that a player doesn’t want other players to see. The idea is to create an A5 style folded sheet for player reference.

As PC groups usually have a mixture of different backgrounds and social status, STATUS POINTS can used to rank a character in social or political situations. A lowly Brass farmer would be less likely to elicit a favourable political reaction than a Gold Senator!

Characters can learn other skills, but they must receive training to do so; although some skills are innate, others can be taught. A character may act as a teacher at any level of ability, but they have more chance the better they are at doing things. TRAINING POINTS can be used to buy new skills and progress.

ARCHETYPES merely act as a starting block – players may call their characters whatever they wish after creation. ARCHETYPES merely provide a framework for a starting character: starting equipment, skills, and a background.

BACKGROUND POINTS can be used to customise a character, adding new abilities, allies, or advantages.

DISADVANTAGES can be used to increase the number of background points available, by handicapping a character in some way.

The STATISTICS should be d6/percentile-based, making them convertible to other systems with any luck.

SKILLS are a part of the archetype, and appear in a form of SKILL ADDS. Each SKILL ADD means the Player has an extra dice to roll when testing STATISTICS for a skill. If a PC has no knowledge of a SKILL the test requires, the test is carried out on half the STATISTIC. This means that there is no such thing as an automatic success or failure. Someone can still swing a sword and get lucky! And even blademasters may make mistakes…

One thing I am keen to avoid is the stereotyped wizards and clerics so prevalent in fantasy games: there should be no generic classes: wizard, warrior, rogue, and priest for example. The basic structure of the game should reflect this and hopefully provide a far richer experience. It should also prevent the “you’re a cleric; what healing spells do you have?” stereotype for example. To illustrate what I mean I’ll use the four classes mentioned above and break down what I feel is wrong with them:

  • The Wizard is usually portrayed as a puny weakling, only able to cast a few spells that can help a group, and being totally useless if involved with melee – at least at the beginning. They also can’t use armour or certain types of weapons in some games. To me this has always seemed ridiculous: while armour has some bearing on the ability of a PC to cast spells, it should not prevent it. The Mandragora magi train extensively in combat and weapons, and have at least a working knowledge of military tactics and their application. They are also taught how to defend themselves so will be able to handle weapons without too many penalties. Also, in fantasy literature no one has ever considered how magical swords are created! A sword may be well-crafted by a weaponsmith, but a wizard would still need to test it for balance and weight before enchanting it.
  • The traditional stereotype of Warrior implies that the character has been a fighter all his life and has no knowledge of magic. In a magic rich society like the Mandragora he would at least have received some form of magical training. Maybe he possesses no skill in the Art, but he can still recognise magic for what it is. He may not be able to cast spells but he would be trained to defend himself and plan an attack accordingly. He may even recognise common spells and their casting. Warriors should also acquire some ability in stealth and concealment, normally the provision of Rogue characters in RPGs. In my opinion soldiers would be adept at concealing their presence and stealthy when they need to be – maybe even more so considering the armour and equipment they carry.
  • The Rogue is always expected to be sneaky and is usually sent to the front of the party to scout and find traps, as well as having some ability to backstab an enemy. They also tend to be the least trusted PC in the party! The scouting role can be fulfilled by anyone with some skills at concealment or perceptive ability. In a number of cases, the difference between Rogue and Warrior is insignificant – but Rogues are expected to be weaker than Warriors. The ability to hide, track, and notice traps can all be acquired by other classes too. The TunnelRunners for example have an extensive scouting knowledge, yet are extremely capable warriors.
  • The Priest class is the stereotypical Cleric who heals wounds and creates spells to lift spirits or influence emotions. They are also staunch foes of the forces of evil. Usually, they are based upon some form of quasi-Christian religion. With the shades-of-grey theme running through the game, the Mandragora would not regard good and evil as separate moralistic standpoints. So the concept of religion in the game has been almost eradicated – the cult of Mandrathea is more of a set of ideals than beliefs. The Sacred Ones are expected to provide a ‘benchmark’ as it were to all Mandragora. Also the abilities to heal wounds or raise the dead should not be common place or easy. Like the Wizard class, Priests are limited in the types of weapon they can use: why? Any Sacred One may have had weapon training before they answered their calling: if a PC is good with a sword, why would they switch to a warhammer?

All in all, these classes may provide a basic framework for other games, but they are redundant in the Mandragora RPG. By allowing PC to pick up other skills and having a basic archetype, it means that a PC will never have the same mix of abilities. It also helps add to the experience of the game; rather than having a thief, fighter, wizard and cleric, you have a much more interesting group.

Also not everyone may be what they appear: a Battlemagi (or HellBinder, or BoneCaller!) may fight as a soldier, only using his spells when he himself is in danger. All the other PCs may know him simply as a soldier.

There are disadvantages to this generic view. It may be that some abilities found in a conventional group are missing, such as no one being able to cast spells or track, but these can be compensated for. A group could always hire a scout or Magi.

So here ends part 1. Coming up next, that old-bugbear-in-plate-armour: Alignment (and how the Mandragora couldn’t give a damn)!

Alignment in the Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom RPG

One of the major problems with this is the concept of evil as embodied in fantasy literature. The forces of evil always wear black and usually have the name Dark or Shadow somewhere in their title. Their magic always deals with corruption or other unpleasant aspects. They also tend to work alone or in secretive bands.

Considering that in many  fantasy RPG pantheons, there are many ‘evil’ gods, yet they must somehow inspire some to follow them, by example or by might. The god, Bane (as used in Against the Odds), is a god of tyranny, but also one of warriors. Yes, he may be unforgiving, cruel and pitiless – but he does have some positive qualities that attract followers to him. It’s a pretty common mistake that many new GMs make: evil for evil’s sake. An evil NPC cleric may not see himself that way – he is a devout and loyal follower of his chosen deity, after all (or he wouldn’t have those powers!). They may have a family or fond of their pet cat (a fluffy white one of course!). Evil, as such, is a perception: the paladin (or padawan!) that wipes out a village of Orcs (sandpeople!) has committed an act of systematic murder, but would likely justify the act as Orcs are ‘evil’.

Alignment is not going to feature in the Ashes of Freedom RPG. In my opinion, it damages gameplay and the Mandragora aren’t bound by human morality anyway! However, ‘evil’ acts such as daemon summoning (or HellBinding as they call it) add to something I’ll call DARKNESS POINTS (at least until something better pitches up in my head), as can some kinds of destructive behaviour such as murder. There is the chance that something takes an interest from another plane when a character commits such acts…

This system also helps to create a shades-of-grey style of play. Every Mandragora knows that the use of HellBinder magic is a heinous use of the Art, and that no sane Mandragora would try it: yet what of the PC who unknowingly researches a HellBinder spell or artefact? Does that make them ‘evil’? No, but it they use it’s power, then they may find themselves enticed to use it more and more, becoming increasingly tainted. DARKNESS POINTS represent the PC going over to the “Dark Side” as it were: eventually they will be completely consumed by it.

A PC may decide to learn Daemon summoning magic in order to defeat another HellBinder, and while the ends justifies the means, the PC will still be tainted by the power they’ve wielded. The ‘black mark’ against the character stays in the form of DARKNESS POINTS. The more they use such powers the stronger the taint becomes…

These can even become the focus of an adventure as characters try to atone for past misdeeds or destroy an item that is corrupting them. For example in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s mission to destroy the One Ring becomes a personal one too, as the Ring continues to drain Frodo of his life force, he realises that he must be rid of it forever. Yet he still uses it, knowing the dangers, on Mount Doom…

Considering the average Mandragora is deceitful and manipulative by nature, the concepts of Law and Chaos don’t really hold true either. After all, a Mandragora may wish to alter the status quo, but only to enrich him in some way and then preserve this new status quo!

Supernatural entities are also distinct from alignment in most cases. Daemons themselves are beyond the concepts of good and evil – they are chaos and destruction incarnate and seek only to feed, kill, and destroy: they may have a sly intelligence, but they are still little more than killing machines. However, the Dukes and Nobility of the Hells will be far smarter; they have been dealing with foolish mortals for aeons. They are highly intelligent, conniving, and extremely skilled in manipulation.

Elementals have only a minimal intelligence and are unlikely to be more than extensions of their summoner’s will. They can be mindlessly destructive but there is no malice on their part, they simply carry out their commands without prejudice on their part.

Undead are strong contenders for the evil tag though, particularly the powerful free-willed varieties. They demonstrate the same traits they had in life, now coupled with a number of malign abilities. They are likely insane in some shape or form, or could be considered such. As free-willed undead are rare, they should be portrayed by the GM as having extreme power and not to be dealt with lightly.

To summarise, the morality ‘polarisation’ (alignment) found in most RPGs will not be used in the Mandragora Series RPG.  A PC can commit any act, but those that are inimical to Mandragora society can earn them DARKNESS POINTS.

The System for the Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom RPG

The release of the D20 license when Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition was created (or spawned depending on your point of view) caused something on renaissance in the gaming world. It allowed companies like Paizo to create their Pathfinder RPG, and other small press publishers to release supplements using an existing system- D&D; at the time, a brand leader.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve mixed feelings about the whole D20 event: on the one hand it revitalised the industry somewhat; on the other, much of the material released was substandard (poor artwork, no editing, and a lot of individuals flooding the market with product). Not to mention the outcry when 3.5 was released. Nonetheless, it encouraged a lot of RPG designers to make their systems “open-source” to use.

I’ve weighed up the pros and cons of creating my own system – experience has taught me that this isn’t the easiest thing to do. For what is essentially a “vanity” project on my part, I don’t think a new system is required. With that in mind I’m considering using an existing system, and one that I don’t have to pay for: and there’s also the fact that these systems have been largely playtested and are more likely to have had some of their rougher edges smoothed down. The downside being that these rules may become out of date when a new version is released, or possible litigation should the OGL be dropped from the system by the creator.

For Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom RPG, I’m thinking that the FATE system (Fantastic Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment) would be ideal to use. FATE is based on the Fudge RPG, a simple, yet effective system, that is free-to-use under terms of an Open Gaming License (OGL). FATE has been used to create rulesets for The Dresden Files RPG and Spirit of the Century among others, and means that I’ve ready-made rules/mechanics that I can plug and bolt together. All I need to do is provide a page dedicated to OGL (see http://www.faterpg.com/ogl/ for more details).

I like the way that Fate works, reducing much of the mechanics to a simple roll and description. It also lends itself well to the design criteria I had in mind: quick and easy rules that allow a fast pickup for new players, without generic (and stereotypical!) characters – each will have their own abilities.

There’s a few other things I need to consider as I begin work on the Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom RPG (M:AoF it’s much easier to type!)

Things to consider: Page count

This can be a bit tricky. The average published novel has 250 words a page, and runs about 100,000 words (i.e. 400 pages). RPGs are different – they are a different size, and the number of pages do matter! 300 -400 pages is average for a big meaty rulebook (with lots of illustrations and background), such as the Dresden Files RPG or Deathwatch, although others may have more or less. The number of pages can also have some bearing on what you can use to print the book as hard copy, from either a commercial printer or via a print-on-demand service like Lulu. If you intend to write an adventure, 64 pages is generally good to go with.

Also, you need to figure out how big your page size if going to be and how you intend to lay it out: the words per page for A5 page size and single column text is very different from, say, US Letter. The standard for RPGs is apparently US Letter (8.5″ x 11″) with a  paper weight is 80gsm (US: 60 lb) – A4 doesn’t size well for the US market (it’s too tall). If you’re planning to use a fancy format, do your homework with the Printing house.

It’s generally accepted (according to the Game Publishers Association and elsewhere) that the minimum (note that I said minimum!) amount of artwork is 1/4 page art for every 4 pages of text – and that’ll still give you a fairly text heavy book.

There comes a point when you or your editor will need to edit it anyway and possibly cut out some sections. I’ve going to set myself a provisional limit of 300 pages for M:AoF, and stick with the US letter size, with two columns of text on each page.

Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom RPG – Noble Houses

I’m still dealing with the concepts involved in the Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom RPG, and it’s taking up a bit of time to do so. I’m currently looking at the concepts for the Noble Houses of the Mandragora, in the Shirr’haim and elsewhere.

The Noble Houses

The Noble (and Imperial) houses are the core government and true power in Mandragora society. In M:AoF, the majority of Mandragora are part of, or affiliated with, a Noble House. These extended families are usually blood relatives or bonded servants – those with noble blood are called Scions. Each house is usually presided over by the eldest females, the Matriarchs. They are the motivating force behind much of a Noble House’s schemes and enterprises.

Building a Noble House

I’d like one of the most important game aspect of the Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom RPG to be the ability to create your own Noble House. It should also help create common bonds between PCs and encourage players to think creatively about how their PCs may know one another. I’m keen to avoid trying to shoe-horn player characters into this sort of thing but it would provide a basic building block for players and GMs to create adventures. I’m planning to create a section on the Renegade Mandragora though (guaranteed that someone will want to play one!).

Scions

Amongst the obvious House characters like the Matriarchs, there should also be a number of roles like House Warmaster, Captain of the House Guard, Archmagi, etc. as well as a “supporting cast” of other Scions. Noble Houses are very large, often with family members spread across Lonaraban on various schemes, including the army. Obviously the players and GM will have to come up with the ideas for these individuals, but I’d like to provide a basic framework for their creation and maybe even a sample Noble House.

In all likelihood the PCs will start off as lowly Scions at best, or affiliated as Bondsmen through their own family oaths that they have taken (if they do not have a noble background, or belong to the Worker caste for example). This will provide a basic “entry point” for all PCs.

Notoriety – mad, bad & dangerous to know

Most PCs and Noble Houses can get away with certain behaviour – so long as it stays within certain bounds. Notoriety points represents a running total of “bad behaviour”. When it reaches a certain level, there will be a certain response: the PC may be called to task for their actions by PeaceForcers, or the House has to account for its actions in the Shirr’haim.

Whether the House or individual is at fault or not, Notoriety points can lead to a PC becoming public enemy #1. Together with Darkness Points (which I’m tempted to call SoulStain), these can be both hindrance and help to both players and GMs. Notoriety can also be gained by doing the right thing as well – whistle-blowing on a political “smear” campaign, for example: while the PC may have done the right thing, those who instigated the campaign will see the PC in a far from favourable light. Notoriety can also give the character some status – fame and infamy go hand in hand!

Nobility, FATE & Fame

As FATE is OGL, I’ll be planning to make public the section on Noble Houses or at least the rules for them. FATE already has a generic way city creation process, so it will hopefully add to that section significantly. Fame and infamy will also be made OGL in a similar fashion, if GMs and players wish to use it.

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