Monday, May 26, 2014

The Heartbreak of Desolation

Even with the ever greater encroachment of things that are only tangentially related, Gencon is undoubtedly the biggest annual event in American tabletop gaming.  It is THE place where gamer companies shill their products and gamers gather to buy them.  On one level that is a very good thing for both parties, the game companies have a very direct conduit to their target audience while the gamer with money has almost unlimited ways to trade that currency for product.  For the small publisher, however, this situation can often work against them.  Every year there are new, fresh faced designers who come to Gencon to sell the game that they have been working on on in their basement for years/decades.  It is their labor of love and they have brought it to the gaming mecca so that they can share that object of their obsession with the world.

The problem comes when the dealer halls open up and thousands of people come crashing into the room.  These new fledgling games are surrounded by other better established game lines, each with a shiny new project to sell.  The gamer's budget is limited (and for some non-existent).  Once Paizo, Mayfair, and Fantasy Flight have taken their chunk out of that small pie there is often very little left for those small, first time publishers.   

Now, sometimes that is just market forces working their magic.  Some of those labors of love are not really that much different than so many things that have come before.  ("But our fantasy world is so different!  Our elves are blue!")  Others are so far from the mainstream sensibilities that they seem to be more an exorcism of the designer's personal demons than a playable game.  ("But our fantasy world is so different!  Our elves eat their young to power their magic!").  Every year though, there are a handful of new products that have a new or at least fresh take on their genre without being so decidedly odd that they could never gain a following.  Unfortunately, the market is so tough that most of those games fail too.

Exhibit A.

One of the best examples of a game that came to Gencon and fell through the cracks is Desolation by Greymalkin Designs.  The core rulebook is a beautiful hardback with professional production values.  The artwork is evocative, feature some gorgeous color art in the center section, and maps by William McAusland.  The premise, of a near-Utopian fantasy society that has been recently shattered by a huge magic purge, is accessible, yet fresh enough to provide a unique roleplaying experience.  And yet, even as I was paying for the game at the booth, I could tell that the game was probably doomed to membership in the Dead Games Society within a year or two.  The booth was sandwiched among a number of well known properties, and looked more than a bit forlorn.   Also, in its original state, it uses a modified version of the Ubiquity system (originally used in the game Hollow Earth Adventures) which employs a very odd dice mechanic which can be, frankly, off-putting.

The game world, however, has a lot to recommend it.  The setting begins in a fantasy world eighteen months after a magical cataclysm occurred.  Before the catastrophe, the Ascondian Empire stood as a bastion of civilization in the known world.  By harnessing magic the Ascondians were able to make tremendous advances in agriculture, architecture, medicine, and culture.  The Empire became a model which other nations resented and admired in turn.  Even as the Ascondian's reached higher, however, the metaphysical tensions of the magic/technological union began.  Using magic could physically harm the practitioner.  The Burn, a fatigue based damage, afflicted every magic user.  Magicians used a number of means to dampen the effects of the burn, causing the magical backlash to manifest itself in a more dramatic way, the Night of Fire. 

The Dwarven race was almost wiped out as their mountain
holdfasts,  augmented by Ascondian magic, collapsed and
became their graves. 
As the sun set across the world one evening, the magical backlash manifested itself as a world spanning cataclysm.  For lack of a better term, the magic took itself back.  Magical items lost their abilities.  The huge, physics defying edifices created by the Ascondians crumbled in a moment.  The evidence of magic as a force of nature became evident as storms erupted, mountains collapsed, rivers changed course, and great chasms opened in the earth, some swallowing entire villages.  Forests burned, or turned to stone.  Stone melted or became ice.  By the following morning, almost no part of the land remained unaffected.

In the aftermath, the survivors are forced to learn to survive in a world where their previous reliance on magic is shattered.  Magic still works, but without the previous ways to mitigate the Burn, recreating the old traditions is not an option.  In an evening, the world has gone from High to Low Magic.  Those who can still weave spells must also contend with sometimes angry resistance from other survivors who worry that the effects of the casting might bring a recurrence of the Night of Fire.  

The setting offers some interesting twists on the usual fantasy races as well.  Humans come in several different flavors.  The Ascondians are the baseline human race and are analogous to a Romanesque people who expanded from their small city state into an empire using magic and force, but incorporated conquered foes into the fold much as Rome did.  Other human races from the lands outside Ascondian sway exist as well.  The few remaining Dwarves come in two varieties, Mountain Dwarves who seem intent on reclaiming what is left of their mountain holdfasts, and Desert Dwarves who have taken their knowledge to the salt mines of the Saikin Wastes.  The Elves of the world, while they did not necessarily share the technological bent of the Ascondians, were just as sorely pressed when the Night of Fire dramatically reduced their reliance on magic.  Lonarians are the small folk of the world.  Island folk, the Lonarians are a somewhat savage and strange folk who use curse magic to great effect.  Two more original races round out the Desolation role call: Mongrels and Rovers.  Mongrels are a catch all of mixed parentages.  No two mongrels look quite alike, making them the most downtrodden of pre-cataclysm races.  Now that the "great" races have been laid low, some Mongrels see the modern age as a time when they can excel as well.  Rovers can be best described as sea faring gypsies.  The are traders who live in great ship cities, and sometimes come ashore.  Their society is expressed by an intricate series of bodily tattoos that tell their life story to those who know how to read them.  While they resemble humans, they are a distinct species, and some may even possess gills.  Kinda like Kevin Costner in Waterworld, only not nearly so lame.

This is a very open world.  One that allows for both a wide variety of characters and adventures.  On one hand, I could see the characters all being from the same village trying to rebuild before some combination of winter and invaders came.  In this type of game, the characters would have a definite home base and could venture out as need dictates.  On the other hand, a game in which the characters are all travelers of differing backgrounds would be equally possible.  In this setup the players could come from virtually any background, but have decided to travel together for the safety that numbers provides.  For a game set in the world of Desolation, I think I would sit down with the players and let them decide which style of game they would prefer.

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