Bill Heron: Gaming in Edinburgh and other RPG stuff
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Ashes of Freedom

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Magic and Technology in RPGs

Magic and technology in RPGs are usually unhappy companions. Allowing players to get their hands on technology can often unbalance the game. Occasionally, technology is little more than a kind of MacGuffin and plot device, like in the D&D adventure, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks or the Legends of Skyfall gamebook, The Black Pyramid. Fiction like the Shadows of the Apt series merge the concept of magic and technology well in a steampunk fashion, but the concept of magic is largely ritualised. The Dresden Files series has wizards unable to use complex electronics or technologies: light-bulbs explode, computers fizzle, and mobile phone reception dies. In Shadowrun, cybernetics interfere with the body’s aura, reducing magical ability.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. – Arthur C Clarke

However, what happens when magic is the technology? Babylon 5‘s Technomages use science to give the appearance of magic, through cybernetic implants created by the Shadows, but that’s not the same thing. Don’t get me started on genetics, and the midichlorians, in the Jedi of the Star Wars prequels. I’m talking about when magic sees everyday use.

Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom will feature characters of varying levels of magical ability. Even those without any magical skills will be accustomed to seeing its use in daily life. As I’ve mentioned before its likely that I’ll use the FATE system (Fantastic Adventures in  Tabletop Entertainment). I’m relieved to hear that in the new version of FATE (which raised funds at a near-astronomical rate on Kickstarter) will feature a new magic system as an extra – it is a bit confusing in the Dresden Files RPG as it currently stands.

Back to the original focus of this blog, and that’s the use of magic as an everyday technology. I’ve broken it down into concepts as to what magic might be used for.

Magic as a tool. A magic-culture is likely to use magic everyday. Water Elementals keep the streets and sewers clean, stone-shaping spells are used to work minerals and strengthen walls. Spirits or demons are bound into compacts or agreements that bind them to a family line for protection or favours. Magical constructs and items are commonly used by artisans or craftsmen.

Magic as a plot device. More for GMs, lost magical devices or knowledge can provide a significant hook for PCs. It certainly appears to be magic anyway – a lost device, cursed item, sword that will save the realm etc.

Magic is outlawed – those who practise magic are persecuted and even actively hunted by society. This may the “wrong” kind of magic, a misguided view of magical purity, or there are very real dangers in casting spells or using powers (like warp entities in WH40K!).

Magic as science – there’s very little difference between a golem and a robot (or Terminator!). Streets are lit by continual light spells. Magical fire is used to forge metals into far stronger alloys, burning far hotter than forge’s fire. Research carries on into making magical spells more effective and theory becomes reality. universities teach magic as part of their syllabus.

Magic for defence – do not mess in the affairs of wizards, particularly when they are organised. A high-level wizard is a nightmare on the battlefield, able to deal with a force many times larger than himself. If your entire nation of wizards and magic users are given military training then it is unlikely weaker nations will pick a fight (no one wants to wake the dragon!).

Magic for decoration – illusionary artwork, magical tattoos, cosmetic appearance – all these can be achieved using magical spells.

Economy of magic – it’s quite possible that magic itself can have an impact on the economy. Wizards that can transmute gold can devalue the coinage. Travel spells render normal land travel obsolete for the shipping of goods or people. Precogs can advise on investments.

Social status – magicians are the nobility or cultural elite, especially in feudal states. This “Pureblood” outlook often creates a cultural elitism that can itself springboard into an adventure.

Magic for travel – as well as mentioned under “Economy of magic” above, states that make heavy use of travel spells like teleport or Elementals will be able to move far faster than normal. They can also move people and objects quicker, including armies.

It is fairly easy to come up with ideas once you have concepts like this in mind!

Plans for 2013

My work life is pretty much leaving me with very little spare time. Working the hours I am right now, I’m pretty tired when I get back. I’m still able run RPGs, and play in them, but some of my other projects are going to have to be shelved for the time being.

The Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom RPG is a casualty of this, unfortunately. I just can’t find the time right now, nor the energy. With the success of the FATE Core Kickstarter, that could be for the best: if I wait for that to come out, then I might not need to come up with the necessary stresses, aspects, etc. I’ll come back to it at a later date.

I’m definitely going to try and write my short story though, in November, featuring Kayle Wynter. It should be an interesting exercise. It’s going to be a sort of espionage whodunit, set in the world of Ashes of Freedom. I’ve not participated in NaNoWriMo before, so it should be an interesting experience.

I’d also planned to return to D&D and to the Ashes of Freedom world, possibly using some of the DNDnext rules. Again this looks unlikely. There just won’t be enough time. However, its quite likely that I will be running some one-off games at ORC – its a good way for folk to get to know other people outside of what can be a small gaming group. They’re quick and easy and fun to run, plus they give everyone  a chance to try some systems that they may not have otherwise tried. My D&D 4e Watch upon the Border mini-campaign (and drop-in game for ORC Edinburgh) will finish shortly.

I’d also thought about running my Necroscope game at Conpulsion , the Edinburgh University RPG convention. I was going to run the New Forest game (the one that had the burning orphanage – yes, that one!). The game is usually is a blast for those players who’ve never experienced that kind of game… Although it is still some way off in April its probably best if I prioritize my time right now.

I’m also still planning on running a number of wh40k-themed games, as part of wh40kforty. Although I may have mentioned this elsewhere, a number of my friends are hitting 40 this year. The idea behind wh40kforty is to run a number of games, both 40k battles and also the RPGs (Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, Death Watch, and Only War – plus Black Crusade!). I have some interesting ideas, as do a number of the other folks involved. The real trick will be forging it into coherent whole.

And finally: I’ve a couple of posts that I need to get underway with: one relates to Shadows over Bogenhafen, the WFRP adventure I recently ran; the other to “magic as technology” that is still sitting as draft from December…

2013 RPGs – Looking forward

I’m going to try and write a bit more about the last year gaming-wise in a separate post (more on this to appear later). I’ve started doing this every year, as a sort of retrospective of things happening in the Edinburgh Games community, ORC and elsewhere. For now, here’s a very short post detailing some of my plans for 2013 RPGs-wise.

  • I’m trying to get the first part of the Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom RPG written, most likely using the FATE rules set.
  • There’s a blog article on “Magic as technology” that I want to try and finish.
  • I’m waiting on publication of my first RPG work for The Secret Fire RPG.
  • DMing an introductory D&D 4e campaign at ORC called A Watch upon the Border.
  • Possibly restarting Ashes of Freedom with DNDnext rules.
  • Running the AD&D adventures Dragon Mountain and Return to the Tomb of Horrors when the AD&D rules are republished in 2013.
  • Running Werewolf: the Apocalypse again – I got rid of my 1st edition stuff years ago, but got in on the 20th anniversary Kickstarter edition. When will you rage?
  • Running a game of the fantastic-looking Shadows of Esteren.
  • And finally… I’m forty in 2013, so I’m planning a wh40kforty event along with a friend (who also turns 40). We’re coming up with a linked campaign using various RPGs and battles in the wh40k universe, set in the Midwinter Expanse, a nebula of our own creation located close to Ultramar.

D&D4e – A Watch Upon the Border

I’ve always been someone who adapts to circumstances as they happen, but hate being an early adopter! Working in IT, I always wait until the first service pack is released before upgrading an Operating System (OS) and I tend to carry that over to gaming rules-sets as well. I’ll freely admit that Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition (4e) hasn’t really fired my imagination as previous editions have done, although Ashes of Freedom was originally a 4e setting.

Looking back now I can see where I went wrong with games like Against the Odds and season 1 of Ashes of Freedom (I run campaigns for a year usually then take a break, similar to the format used by TV). I was trying to shoehorn a rules-set into a campaign setting, not the other way around. 4e is heavily combat-orientated, designed largely with the power-gaming “Munchkin” player in mind or so I’d thought – similar to most computer RPGs. I’ve decided to give 4e a second look. As part of a drive to get more folk participating in ORC Edinburgh‘s activities, I’ve decided to run a short mini-campaign, possibly to get some would-be GMs fired up to run their own games too. It is probably going to focus on a group of low-level PCs stationed on the border between Volkrania and the Eastlands.

It will be called “A Watch Upon the Border”. Most likely it will feature pre-generated characters (from Essentials/PHB), although those first in will have a choice. It will focus on adventures in the east of Volkrania, the Ashes of Freedom setting, but will take place some years before; between the end of the Orcgate War and the Purge of Fire. The PCs will be low level, but there will be plot hooks aplenty that I can work in as the stage is set for future events in AoF. Player-wise, I’d be looking for 4-6 players. It’s only going to be a short campaign but by using pre-gens it means anyone can pop in and play. The forum thread I’ve created at ORC Edinburgh can be found at–Players-Wanted/13411-d-d4e-border-watch.

One of the biggest problems for me in the past has also been the miniatures and terrain – and that’s expensive! However I think I’ll be able to muddle through with the miniatures I have, and an improvised “battlemat”. The miniatures I ordered as part of the Reaper Miniatures Kickstarter (Vampire level) won’t be here until next year. However, I’m also investing in the Legendary Realms Terrain Kickstarter as well – their stuff is very nice. There’s another reason too: Legendary Realms is the Official (TM) 🙂 scenery of The Secret Fire RPG, a game I worked upon last year, both in development and playtesting. Look out for the Demons supplement I wrote coming out soon from Secret Fire Games!

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RPG plans for Summer 2012

I’ve got quite a bit of things planned over the next few months, both on the site and at ORC Edinburgh. And its not just me: there’s a mini-campaign of the Dragon Age RPG kicking off, a Pathfinder game, a GURPS Swashbuckling Superhero game, as well as my own Marvel Super Heroes game.

I’m also thinking of participating in a Blog Carnival about the Undead as part of May of the Dead next month. Although I’ve never been enthused about zombie films or similar, they and other undead have often featured prominently in my games. I’m probably going to focus on what drives them. I may also look at haunted houses too.

I’ve also got vague plans for running a good old-fashioned Dungeon bash – it may even take the form of a tournament, wherein two different parties take on the same dungeon. I’m leaning towards a Liche-created series of traps and a menagerie of monsters, but may also feature some ideas I came up with for a Thieves Guild trial in Ashes of Freedom. Essentially, I improved upon those shown in that sequence in the 1st D&D movie, featuring Richard O’Brien (reprising his role from the Crystal Maze TV show, “Get through the maze and win a prize!”). I’m considering running it under Pathfinder or The Secret Fire RPG rules, both of which lend themselves to this kind of game.

As we get through to the end of summer, I’m looking at the return of my Ashes of Freedom D&D game. I’m hoping to get a number of the original players back for this, although it’ll likely have a few new folk.

Now that I have largely finished a lot of the work that I was doing for TSF I’ve got a bit more free time (despite upping my game at ORC. This means that I may finally get a chance to start work on a couple of stalled projects: an implementation of the FATE RPG called Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom, and the Arunstoun setting/adventure for Call of Cthulhu. Both have had some work done on them but as usual, I’ve not followed up on them due to the time constraints involved.

Any day now I’m hoping to hear more about the global D&D playtest (AKA D&Dnext or 5e) for the next edition, so may also work that into my schedule. I’m not sure how good or bad it will be as there’s a lot of information bouncing around the net, but so far it sounds like it will likely provide some kind of framework to run any edition or implementation. Not sure how that’ll work as each edition tends to have overcompensated for the faults of the previous one. Well, we’ll see.

And finally: I’ve got an idea for NaNoWri month in November (National Novel Writing Month). It’s likely to be a bit of a mystery but played out through the eyes of three different characters in three different times. Should be an interesting experiment!

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