Thursday, May 15, 2014

At Play in the Untamed Lands

Like most gamers my age, I cut my roleplaying teeth on Dungeons and Dragons.  After several years of Elves and Magic Users and Clerics who cannot use edged weapons, I began looking for something different.  Most of my college gaming was spent running GURPS Autoduel and playing in Spy Games, first Top Secret and later the James Bond RPG.  There were the occasional forays into fantasy gaming, the occasional Tunnels and Trolls game or even the occasional GURPS Fantasy game.  What led me away from the genre was a seeming monotony of the material.  Tolkienesque Fantasy was in abundance in those days, and even some of the more original worlds seemed to take the standard tropes and lay them over a slightly different background.

My first years out of college led me even further astray from fantasy in the TSR mold.  In Louisiana, I discovered Harn, and played in a ripping game of GURPS Conan.  Even so, by the time I returned from my southern sojourn, I had plenty of non-fantasy roleplaying under my belt, and could be occasionally coaxed into a game, either as GM or more rarely as a player.  

In the last couple of years, I have completed a couple of long more-or-less traditional fantasy campaigns, and one very short one (my second TPK thanks to a seemingly endless string of missed combat attacks by the players).  As previous, and future, posts will attest, I think it is safe to say that I have long since put to rest any axe I had to grind with that genre.

After those recent successful forays, I have been actively seeking material that rests firmly in the realm of fantasy, but travels well away from most of the traditional fantasy tropes.  With the advent first of the OGL, which I have mentioned in the past, and the e-publishing industry, there are innumerable fantasy products on the market.  Most of them are variations on the traditional fantasy theme ("Our Dwarves fly in airships!"), but there are some really interesting and different products out there as well.

One of the products that excites me is Totems of the Dead by Gun Metal Games.  Totems, which uses the Savage Worlds rules set,  is squarely in the realm of fantasy while managing to steer clear of most of the usual fantasy tropes.  It achieves this primarily through setting.  Rather than the usual vague Eurocentric setting, this game is set in a fantastic version of the Western Hemisphere.  The result is a world of the Americas developed with the inclusion of working magic systems and a very different set of outside influences.  Cultures range from the Incan-inspired Yaurocan Empire in the south all the way to Arcitic tribesmen that resemble the Inuit.  There are some external influences as well.  The Northeast corner of the map is the domain of the Skadians, Norse analogs who have expanded from unknown lands to the East.  The West Coast likewise has seen preliminary contact with the seafaring Chen and some violent encounters with the warlike mounted raiders the Ruskar.  To round out the picture, the mysterious land of Atlantis lies to the east.  Atlanteans staged an abortive invasion of the Untamed Lands a generation ago, before troubles at home brought the conflict to an abrupt end.

Gunmetal Games does an admirable job of handling the differing cultures that inhabit the Untamed Lands.  The various populations are each given unique starting edges, allowing them to feel very different from one another.  Additionally, the authors culled through all the various native american cultural traditions to put together a fantasy bestiary that feels refreshingly unique.  Thar be no Dragons.  Instead, Wendigo threaten the frozen North while winged serpents and Demon Frogs bedevil the more tropical climes.

The central temple at Chichen Itza.  
One of the more interesting cultures sits right in the middle of the continent, the Maztlani Empire.  Over the years I have made excursions to Tulum,  Chichen Itza, Altan-Ha and other ruins in and around the Yucatan.  Those trips, brief though they may have been, have given me a desire to revisit those cultures in game terms as well. The spread out nature and sheer size of the continent dictate that some cultures would likely never make it into play. As a centrally located trading empire, the Maztlani would be a good location for many of the cultures to interact.

The game I have in mind takes place in this central trading empire so that it allows for characters from any of a number of the surrounding areas.  The Maztlani Empire has traded with its neighbors for quite some time and established itself as the premier power in the central Untamed Lands.  Recently, many a number of outsiders seem to be making their way to the shores of the Yukek peninsula.  A strange new power has arisen in the East and is gradually conquering its way West.  The refugees report that invaders dress stangely and use foul magic rituals never encountered before.  The reports may be true, but some Mazlani scholars recognize the descriptions of the invaders from the legends of the ancient Zipacan civilization.  Brave men and women are needed to find the abandoned ruins of the Zipacan and see if they contain the secret of repelling these foul marauders.

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