(Editor’s note: responses edited slightly for clarity.)
Check out SIGMATA: This Signal Kills Fascists here.
Unless you’ve literally been living under a rock, you’ll have noticed that politics have been a bit, well, we’ll call it “touchy” this year. And while our hobby can be an escape from the trying times in which we live, it can also be a big release to deal with our anxieties about rising authoritarianism through gaming and roleplaying. I chatted with Chad Walker about his fascist punching (and shooting, stabbing, etc) game, SIGMATA: This Signal Kills Fascists.
1) Let’s start at the beginning. How did fascists take over America in your dystopia?
Without giving too much away, the alternate American history of SIGMATA begins in 1954. Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy would not be censured for his outrageous witch hunt against alleged Soviet sympathizers and supposedly blackmail-prone homosexuals that had infiltrated the State Department and other branches of government. Instead, he would go on to win a primary battle against Richard Nixon, defeat John F. Kennedy in the general election, and become the President of the United States in 1960. He wins by normalizing the concept of the “Interior Threat,” the notion that America’s failures in industry and military adventure were not due to ineffective policy, failed diplomacy, nor a refusal to adapt to evolving markets, but rather, due to an international conspiracy of Soviets, homosexuals, immigrants, ungrateful minorities, and effete globalists committed to destroying the American way of life from the inside. Between 1954 and SIGMATA's 1986, that ideology has had two solid decades to materialize, mechanize, and mobilize.
2) One of the first things that struck me about the world you have created is the diversity of groups which make up the Resistance, especially since some seem antithetical to each other. How did you decide to include the radical left, libertarian militias, Evangelical Christians, and the wealthiest Americans as the opponents of fascism?
If it feels totally wrong, you're my target audience. As part of the game's exploration of how tyrannies defeat people movements, I thought it would be fun and instructive to create an imaginary popular front so disorienting and discomforting to players in real life that their biases would bleed into the gaming fiction. Divide and conquer is Tyranny 101. Even though it's not a secret, we all fall for it. Some folks seriously stopped reading as soon as they read the line about factions, only to race to Twitter and concern troll about it. The militias, evangelicals, and business people would support fascism, they'd insist. Yes, certainly some would. Maybe even a lot of them. Thing is, it's pretty natural to think of these groups as monolithic blocks when it comes to politics... "the" Evangelicals, for example, or "the" radical Left. But these groups are, themselves, extraordinarily diverse. We can quote statistics all day to reinforce our biases (e.g. 80% of [insert group] voted for [insert candidate]). But there's another way of looking at those statistics: *only* 80%? You mean 1 out of every 5 of them is a Resistance sympathizer who is on the inside already, primed to counter-recruit and/or sabotage at the Resistance's behest? Why wouldn't you break bread with these folks? I mean, other than you want to lose. Westerners often look at the very messy struggles happening all over the world, aghast that sectarianism continues to serve the interests of the some of the most brutal and vile regimes in history. Then they go high-five each other while posting memes alienating the very men and women who could very well be their brothers and sisters in arms if push came to shove.
3) This is a very political game, during a very politically divisive time. Have you received any blowback from unsympathetic gamers?
Yes, though none of it was a surprise. I've seen some Nazis and forum trolls hating on the game, but Nazis are gonna Nazi. I've also seen some *intense* hand-wringing from some leftists, mostly concerned by the ahistoricism of a temporary Left/Right popular front against fascism in a game about FM radio-powered cyborg revolutionaries.
I'll let that sink in for a moment.
I've also been accused of promoting fascism, McCarthyism, or generally being to the right of Timothy McVeigh (may he burn in Hell). I'm not complaining... when you do anything explicitly political, you're going to ruffle a few feathers. There's also the challenge of being unable to articulate the rationale of very, very intentional design choices in the marketing blurb, so it's reasonable that folks might hit a snag on some of the hyperbole or strong language. I gotta say, though, that one of the best things about 80s film and television shows is that despite that decade's extraordinary racism, sexism, and jingoism, kicking Nazi ass was an unambiguous, equally-opportunity public good. You didn't have to check in with the gatekeepers of party purity or be told to calm down by pearl-clutchers.
4) What can you tell us about The Signal? Where did the idea of it come from? How much can you tell us of its in-game origins? How closely is it tied to the cybernetics in the game? Are members of the Regime able to make use of it?
I get a lot of questions about the Signal. I'm not gonna go into the specifics of the Signal that are represented in the game's fiction. In part, because it is a surprise, but mostly because the fiction of the Signal is not nearly as interesting as the real life historical event that inspired it. As a security professional, I try to influence the design of resilient, redundant systems that can survive and thrive even in the face of disaster or massive attack. All of us witnessed one of the most gorgeous and cyberpunk-as-fuck examples of this during the Egyptian Arab Spring in 2011. The Muburak regime killed the Internet in an attempt to disrupt the uprising in two ways: 1) make it harder to organize, and 2) make it harder to beacon out to the international community to apply external pressure on a tyrant. To defeat this censor, the Egyptians went low tech. They smuggled in satellite phones, communicated over HAM radio, and even busted out their dial-up modems to hit a prehistoric BBS in Sweden. Anything and everything to keep beaconing out to the world, to keep Repeating the Signal, simultaneously a technical signal while also being an international message of defiance and legitimacy. That incredible lesson in revolutionary organizing using low tech means was something I sort of stowed away for safekeeping. 2016's terrifying resurgence of fascism in the West made me dust it off. There's more lessons of the Arab Spring that aren't as jubilant, like how the Signal can be smothered or distorted by effective counter-insurgent techniques. Assad is still in power because he figured this out (may he also burn in Hell).
Anyways, there you have it. That's the real secret to the Signal. In the game, the Signal is the key to victory. The Receivers' subroutines (superpowers) and blades (cybernetic modules) are absolutely tied to the strength of the Signal, which is, in turn, determined by how well the Resistance is doing in taking over FM radio towers, spinning up pirate radio stations, strategically placing repeaters throughout rural areas, and distributed the Signal in data-form over BBS networks. As to your last question, can the Regime make use of the Signal? I guess I'll answer that with another question: do you think super-powered clashes between nigh-invincible cybernetic commandos would make for some good gaming sessions?
5) All of the stretch goals sound rad. Which was your favorite to write up?
You mean which of my children do I love the best? Seriously, that's a really hard question. I think it's safe to say that tonally, they all hit different spots. I know there are backers out there who are more excited about these alternate settings than they are the core SIGMATA setting. And that's exactly why I reached out to these folks. I'll reserve judgement of my favorite until I see them completed. Me and the various stretch goal authors have only generally agreed on the surface level elements of their setting. I anticipate being surprised and delighted.
6) You’ve mentioned in the risks and challenges section that you are in the risk management field and that you’ve prepared for the worst, even though this is your first Kickstarter. Can you give specific examples of how your day job has helped you through the process?
It's pretty simple. Identify single points of failure and have a backup for each. If person X gets hit by a bus, what is the plan? Who will carry on their work, and what does that mean for the product? Have all the requisite account passwords (KS, bank accounts, email, etc.) been securely distributed to "break the glass" locations? There's also the idea of learning from other Kickstarters that have run into unanticipated problems, and taking actions to avoid the same fate. Yes, I could have opted for an off-set print, outsourced order fulfillment, and crossed my fingers that everything worked out OK. But I've seen that go haywire, too, creating major headaches for backers and the unfortunate, well-meaning creators who have to manage their outrage. I'm not an expert in finances or shipping logistics, so I offloaded these tasks to DriveThruRPG, to ensure it's done right. Does it impact the project's margins? Sure. But people are gonna' get their stuff no matter what, and that's really all that matters.
7) Finally, what are your plans to support SIGMATA in the future?
It's really up to the backer community, the subsequent community who buys it after the KS campaign, and how SIGMATA is received by players. I'd love to spend a few years really developing this game... diving deep into iconic 80s settings like Miami or Detroit, developing "instant adventure" kits for GMs, and extending the idea into different genres (e.g. horror, science-fiction, fantasy). There's a ton of exciting stories buried in this really simple idea.
Check out SIGMATA: This Signal Kills Fascists here.
Phil Pepin is a history-reading, science-loving, head-banging, river-running nerd, who would like nothing more than to cuddle with his pups and wife.
Picture Reference: Artist rendition of the hardcover edition.
Today's RPG product review is Titan Effect The Role-playing Game by Knight Errant Media for The Savage Worlds game system. Unlike my standard reviews, I was given the opportunity to interview Christian Nommay, CEO of Knight Errant Media and a co-writer for Titan Effect. Having read through the Beta Edition of the rules, I (DMDR) had a few questions for Christian (CN).
DMDR: Going through the beta version of the book, and many Influences come right up to the front: X-Men, Ghost in the Shell, and real-life military and intelligence history. What inspired you and your team to bring these elements together?
CN: As a great fan of superheroes and spy fiction, I always had the crazy idea to combine these two genres together. With Titan Effect, I had the perfect project for that. I wanted to tell a spy story with an epic and heroic dimension, or even mythological. The work that probably inspired me the most for Titan Effect was the video game Metal Gear Solid. Besides the richness of the story, I was amazed by the unique mix of grounded espionage, science fiction, and superhero elements, and how these elements managed to remain consistent with each other. I wanted to be able to bring this same consistency for Titan Effect. When Daniel Eymard and Ghislain Bonnotte, my two co-writers, became involved in the project they also brought their own inspirations and references.
DMDR: By drawing from real-life history and topics, how did this affect the lore for Titan Effect? Would the cosmology have had a different feel if placed in an entirely new world?
CN: It was important for me and the team that Titan Effect was grounded in reality as much as possible. The best way for us was to mix Titan Effect’s elements with real-life history. The three of us are history buffs, especially everything related to the history of espionage and war as well as secret societies. This was really the fun part for us. Titan Effect's cosmology probably wouldn't be the same if it was placed in a different universe, or at least it wouldn't have the same impact. For example, World War Two and the Cold War had a lot of influence on how most organizations and characters have evolved in Titan Effect.
DMDR: The history references stop with 2014. Was it your team’s intent for Titan Effect to take place in the present or a near future timeline?
CN: Initially, Titan Effect was to take place much further in the future, in the 2030s (I started writing the project in 2007, but that’s a long story). Since a lot of elements in Titan Effect were linked to the Cold War, it made more sense to bring the action back to the present. Besides, trying to create a futuristic universe is a different kind of beast. At the end, it will be up to the players and the GMs to shape the future of Titan Effect.
DMDR: What excited you most about working on Titan Effect?
CN: The thing that excited me the most during the writing of Titan Effect was the opportunity to create a whole storyworld, with its own rules and characters.
DMDR: What was the most troublesome part of this project?
CN: The biggest challenge during the development of Titan Effect was undoubtedly to ensure the consistency of all the elements and achieve a good balance. It was true for the background as well as adapting Savage Worlds rules.
DMDR: The Titan Effect Kickstarter will be live in October. What potential stretch goals can pledges unlock during the crowdfunding?
CN: I don’t want to reveal too much and keep the surprise. However, I can tell you that among our stretch goals there will be a Plot Point campaign, a player companion, a world atlas, and a lot more.
DMDR: If there was one thing you wanted readers to know about Titan Effect, what would it be?
CN: Titan Effect's creation has been an exciting and emotional journey. With your help, I'd like to share the result of this journey with everyone else.
Review and ScoresComing from the opposite spectrum (Fantasy, non-SW GM/Player), the Titan Effect review took me out of my comfort zone; in a good way! The art is amazing, the text reads like a novel (fun, engaging, nice flow), and the concept perfectly blends together different sources in a way that made me feel at home. I think my biggest complaint about Titan Effect is that I do not have a group using the Savage Worlds game system. I may need to change that.
Cost vs Value
The Cost here is a touch of an issue. Generally speaking, many companies set prices around 10-15 cents per page on soft covers and around 20-25 cents per page for hard covers. There are plenty of examples of main and third party publishers going outside of these ranges. This comes in at around (expected, I cannot guarantee this price) 30-47 cents per page (again expected retail after Kickstarter), which isn’t not too far off of what other Savage Worlds third party publishers are charging for a premium color, hardcover. I will note that you will be getting closer if not under that 30 cents per page if you pledge to the Kickstarter. Once you throw in the fact you get a PDF for most of the pledge tiers, and the prospect of stretch goals, that price per page drops quickly. This is one Kickstarter where there will be huge savings versus retail.
Now that we handled the cost per page, what is the actual value you’ll get? If the core book is similar to the beta rules, you get quite a bit. The beta rules come with everything you need, if you’re a Savage Worlds player. You get a cosmos that seamlessly blends with real-world history, a plethora of psychic spy character options and gadgets, a fully loaded armory, and more than 20 sample NPCs and foes. Want more? The beta rules supplied a really well-thought-out mission generator so a GM can pump out plenty of missions to keep agents busy.
20 points (KS)/ 9 points (expected retail)
I am not really a “digital painting” kind of person. People can make really awesome artwork using a digital painting medium, but I still prefer seeing awesome line-work and traditional mediums. But you know what? I genuinely enjoy the art in Titan Effect. The art is well-placed, not just filler. The images really give a sense of the flavor Knight Errant Media is aiming for. I nearly jumped out of my seat when I saw an operative image with a censor bar over her eyes trying to hide her identity. It was like something out of a spy movie. Perfect. Everything is professionally finished. Definitely order this book in premium color. 10 points
I need to do a lot of reading on my phone: in the lab, at my desk, or a even stopped at a red light. The layout and text worked perfectly on my phone. No need to zoom-in and out or scroll all over the place. The writing is just as perfect. The technical portions provide clear, concise information. Never once did I backtrack and re-read something for clarity. The creative side is not sprinkled on top; it is loud and in your face. As I read the opener, I felt like a secret agent. I reminded myself more than once this was a rule book and not a Tom Clancy novel. 20 points
There really isn’t much to say about the mechanics. But that is quite common in a “campaign setting” book. While there are a few new mechanics in play, most of what you deal with is based on the core book (Savage Worlds in this case). I will mention that Titan Effect uses a supplement that generally can be OP (Super Powers Companion). Titan Effect tones down the power creep with built-in limitations and alterations to the source material. 13 points
Titan Effect almost stands alone. Almost. Like most settings, you need the core rules. If nothing else, this is how I would define a stand-alone setting. Titan Effect calls for partial use of the Savage Worlds Super Powers Companion. While calling for a main-line product typically does not impact the score, this specific rules companion has known power creep with some SW groups outright banning the book as hard as my group did Book of Exalted Deeds from D&D 3.5e (I think that was also the last time anyone ever let me in a PvP session, too). Though Titan Effect will give you extensive use of your Super Powers Companion, not having a copy of this sparingly-used supplement means an extra investment. 12 Points
Titan Effect draws inspiration from almost every source imaginable. We have historical references, real-life military intelligence, and folklore all spliced with biomechanical/genetically-engineered humanoids (or simply evolved) X-men meets Ghost in the Shell flavors. Separate, these ideas are cliché tropes. Together, they create a diverse experience where everyone at the table feels informed with the material and game-style. 19 points
With 94 out of 100 possible points (Kickstarter), Titan Effect is going to infiltrate many Savage Worlds collections. If it doesn’t, it’s because the Kickstarter slipped under your radar (Tentative 83 out of 100 for retail pricing).
If you are interested in picking up a copy (Savage World groups really should), the Titan Effect Kickstarter is live. Keep tabs on all the Titan Effect news by following their twitter and facebook pages.
Donald “The DM Doctor” first discovered the ancient tomes known as AD&D at the age of seven. After twenty years of experience in various RPGs from both sides of the table, Donald took the leap into freelance game design. A Paizo RPG Superstar Season 9 Top 32 contestant and freelance writer, The DM Doctor posts DM tips and free RPG resources on his blog: www.thedmdoctor.com. You can follow The DM Doctor on twitter, facebook, and google+.
Image source: https://www.facebook.com/pg/TitanEffect/photos/
Fantastic Reality created a splash with their 5E compatible campaign setting and adventures, World of Asatania, and Darkness Surges. They recently launched a new product Kickstarter, In Darkness Delve vol 1, a series of adventures that can be used in any campaign setting. Fair disclosure, I wrote one of those adventures, Dealing with Your Demons for this product. Michael Cerny is the main behind the curtain of these really well developed products. I can tell you, he was a great editing resource, really pushing me to make the adventure I wrote reach its full potential. The adventures in this volume are going to be awesome, and I really think you should take a look. Before you do though, I wrote up some of the experiences I had writing this adventure, with advice you can take home when you are writing your own in the future.
Writing this adventure was a positive challenge for several reasons, I’ll list those below.
1) Here’s A Great Idea
When I pitched the core idea of Dealing with Your Demons, I was riffing off the ‘pitch-a-concept’ post that Michael had made. To be honest, demons aren’t really something I’ve ever used much in my fantasy RPGs so I wanted to take that pitch, and twist it toward something I do love. I pitched the concept of a two-act adventure, with the first act having the potential to be used as a flashback instead of running it first. This type of storytelling is something I’ve used with a lot of success in White Wolf games, so I thought it would be interesting to try and pitch something like that with a fantasy game. I was right: it was a great pitch and Fantastic Reality agreed.
Advice: Pitch what you know, because writing a pitch that sounds great but you can’t really grok will drive you insane.
2) Um, Great Idea, How Do I Write It?
One of the problems I ran into is I wasn’t sure where I wanted to even start. The first act was clear in my mind. It was going to be a classic dungeon crawl, but the second act was nebulous. I wanted there to be a red herring. The first act was going to set-up the idea that the party destroyed a fairly powerful demon for 1st – 4th level characters. However, that isn’t quite the case. Instead, the party destroys a being much more precious to a specific group of beings. In this case, Kobolds! By doing so, they put themselves in spiritual and physical jeopardy. That said, I couldn’t quite get the concept out on paper. I ended up running a version of the 1st act at BlerDCon as a way to figure out how the Act would unfold. Usually my Game Mastering is a mix of moderate planning and massive improvisation, so this worked well for helping me construct the sequence I wanted to use.
Advice: Find a way to play out the story if you are stuck during the writing process.
3) Here’s What I Wrote!
My first draft was not terrible, but it really wasn’t quite what I would have been proud to publish. Thankfully the editing on Dealing With Your Demons was full throttle. My sentence structure and grammar weren’t the only things critiqued and adjusted. The themes, specific elements, and outcomes were all noted where they were not clear, or where they weren’t the strongest they could be. This process was fantastic, it really allowed me to look at what I’d created and find a way to make the adventure work. Editing is essential to creating a great adventure.
Advice: Accept all editing help. You don’t have to agree with it all, or even follow all the advice, but you do need to have an editor look through your piece. You’ll thank yourself later.
4) Four More Adventures!
My adventure is awesome, and the other adventures in this compilation are the same high-quality. There is a dark humor adventure, set in a dwarven mine, by Brian Saliba. John Teehan has two adventures in the compilation that utilize the theme of Demons to tell some self-reflective and nuanced stories about power, betrayal, and family. Beyond the adventures, we’ve created new monsters to use, and a collection of compelling items.
Advice: Read other adventures. It will help you know what to avoid and what to use to make yours compelling. Also, create something eye catching that others will appreciate.
I can tell you this, Dealing with your Demons has a twist, one that your players won’t see coming. If you love Kobolds, you should back this product. If you love surprising your players, pushing them to really question their actions, and leave them with a story they will tell tales about for years after, then you should back this project just for that. All of the stories in this product are awesome, and you’ll really get your money’s worth.
Josh is the intrepid Chief Operations Officer of High Level Games. With 19 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. He runs, www.keepontheheathlands.com to support his gaming projects. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook. He’s preparing a Changing Breeds game. He’s a serious advocate for inclusive gaming spaces, a father, and a graduate from the International Peace and Conflict Resolution graduate program at American University in Washington, D.C. You can also find Josh’s other published adventures here and here.
Image Owned by Fantastic Reality and Used as Promotional Material
What happens when you transplant your fantasy adventuring into the a modern setting? You get Modern Adventures of course! We sat down with Ray Machuga from Higher Grounds Gaming to talk about their new Pathfinder supplement entitled, quite appropriately, Modern Adventures to see what they are bringing to the table.
1) What sets Modern Adventures apart from other d20 systems set in the present?
A. The sheer amount of lore that has gone into developing the setting sets us leagues apart. Fluff and lore are some of my favorite things to develop in a game, as I feel that it really is the bread and butter of any given game. The Modern Adventures setting gives a place for magic, monsters and other races in the history of Earth. The classes and races have been properly worked out, as well. Each class and race is thoroughly designed and play-tested. Finally, the levels of technology have increased dramatically since d20 Modern was published. All in all, if you placed the games side-by-side, they would barely resemble each other.
2) Modern Adventures sets up a new spell system for Pathfinder and moves away from the spell-per-day that we all are familiar with. Can you tell us what we can look forward too?
A. Absolutely! Spell casting is something that I am very pleased with. Basically, if you break it down, once your Mage knows a spell, he or she can basically cast it at any time. There is a bit more emphasis placed on learning the spells, as well. As a balance, your character can choose exactly how strong or powerful their spell would be. If your character overpowers a spell, which basically means going over a power level based on your spell casting ability modifier, he or she stands a chance of suffering damage. Typically that damage is nonlethal, but there is a small chance (rolling a 1 on a d20) of it being real, lethal damage. To expand a bit on the magical lore, the world is animistic for the awakened spell casters and they are capable of summoning spirits and binding them to service to empower spells or even your endeavors whether they be stealthing through an occupied building, firing a gun or swinging an axe. All in all, I've tried to make magic a bit more gritty, powerful and dangerous. I wanted to make it feel like magic, again.
3) You’re also adding some new races and classes. What are they like?
A. This is another aspect of life in the modern world that I've had a lot of fun with. Fertility treatments and advancements in genetics being what they are, I've added a race that seems to be very popular with play testers - Half-Gnomes. They are crafty, gnome/human hybrids. There is also a Half-Bloods supplement being released that you can grab in the rewards section of the Kickstarter. Half-Bloods will explore more "half-breeds" such as what happens when an elf and a troll breed, or a dwarf and a halfling, etc. The combinations are endless. Within the core book itself, aside from the half-gnomes, I've added the Acaroi which are a small, insect-like race of humanoids that are fascinated by humanity in a very alien manner, even though civilized races tend to despise and abhor them. The ratkin are another great race I've added, which are small rat-like humanoids that are quick and curious by nature. There are a few more, but I'm keeping them a surprise for the backers of the Kickstarter.
4) What role does religion play in your setting? Has it become more secular like the real world, or does divine magic still exist?
A. Religion plays just as much of a role in the game's setting as it does in the real world - with one exception. The gods are known to be real. Divine magic exists, but not exactly in the same sense as you'd find in Pathfinder. The gods do not typically bestow any special powers, and are basically absentee. I don't want to give away too many spoilers, as this idea will be explored in an adventure path later on, but I will say that the gods are preoccupied with very important matters of their own.The gods do not typically bestow powers to individuals as they do with their Clerics in Pathfinder. Instead, clergy is a profession that opens up mystical knowledge and abilities through ritual and theological practice. Healing spells instead become something that all spell casters are capable of accessing. In the end, as far as religion, my aim has been to recreate what occurs in the real world.
5) What was your inspiration for tying together fantasy and the modern world in the way that you did?
A. It was a long time coming. I've played Dungeons and Dragons since Revised edition, and Pathfinder was a natural follow-up to that. I've also explored games like White Wolf's World of Darkness, Call Of Cthulhu and Shadowrun. Having become familiar with mirror-Earth style games, I wondered why there weren't any urban fantasy games that really stuck to the true fantasy side of things in the modern world. That was really when I started working on Modern Adventures. I wanted to play the game, and I did. Players i ran it for loved it. I started getting ideas for it in my every day [sic] life. Soon, I started working on it professionally until it became what it is today. It was really a natural progression.
Modern Adventures is on Kickstarter now.
Phil Pepin is a history-reading, science-loving, head-banging, river-running nerd, who would like nothing more than to cuddle with his pups and wife.
Picture Reference: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/highergrounds/modern-adventures-tabletop-rpg
At some point in almost every gamer’s career, we get tired of being the good guy. The helpless villagers start to look less like citizens in need of aid and more like easy marks, we realize it’s easier to burn a town down instead of, searching for the bad guys, and the princess in the tower.... Well, let’s not mention that. But most systems aren’t designed with evil in mind, and keeping a group of evil PCs together is akin to herding cats. That’s where Book of Exalted Darkness comes in. Mike Myler was kind enough to sit down and talk about his book, which is aimed at providing a world where evil will thrive, mechanics to help players find the darkness in their hearts, and tools for GMs to keep their parties focused on being the horrible people they actually are.
(Editor’s Note, interview has been edited for length.)
1) The Book of Exalted Darkness introduces Sanctity and Sin attributes into 5E, which reflects on a PC’s holiness or vile intent, but what struck me is how a character loses points, namely being witnessed taking an action of the opposite nature. Why was is the perception of others so important to the loss of Sanctity and Sin, but not to gaining it?
First of all thanks for interviewing me about Book of Exalted Darkness!
Sanctity and Sin are thematic attributes—that is to say they are mechanical expressions of themes inherent to the game. All of my 5E campaign settings use thematic attributes as a way to reinforce how the game is fundamentally different than a regular D&D 5E game. For example, Hypercorps 2099 5e uses Luck and Reputation (to quicken the futuristic cyberpunk game’s pace), Mists of Akuma has Dignity and Haitoku (how honored you’re thought to be and “fall from virtue” that ends with transformation by the mists), and 2099 Wasteland has Irradiated (which is self-explanatory).
In Book of Exalted Darkness there are two new thematic attributes each serving two purposes. Sanctity defines how easy it is for a wicked soul to seem uncorrupted and Sin is a measure of that actual corruption, but both are largely involved with inaequa, wherein your answer lies. Again I have to divert a bit to explain something important: the actual campaign setting itself is not evil, mostly it’s just the adventurers. Everything (and everyone) else is holy decopunk—think Rocketeer or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow—so there are blimps, radios, telephones, trolleys, jetpacks, and what have you. The trick here is that all of that technology is fueled by inaequa, a substance that radiates energy elongating the lives of good creatures. The PCs (and other evil adventurers like them, as well as some mad scientists) are flawed souls that can take this fundamentally unjust technology and trick it to make it work for them or pervert it to overcharge and explode or produce other nasty effects.
Mostly it’s a matter of game intent—the book is built around the idea that a group playing in the world is out to wreck it. Throughout a campaign the PCs work with mad scientists lurking beneath the earths and seas, dismantling the 9 Spheres of Askis (inaequa being one of them) and restoring balance, or much more likely, imbalance in a different direction than before. By encouraging the party to secretly act in evil or good ways, it navigates gameplay towards subterfuge, reinforcing the pulp feel that decopunk brings with it.
2) What drove you to make inequality, which manifests itself as inaequa, the powersource of technology which prolongs the lives of good creatures, into the game?
We actually (we being myself, Savannah Broadway, Luis Loza, and Michael McCarthy) started writing this a year ago and it just didn’t hook. All of the other settings we’ve made all feel super distinct and are conceptually as tight as a drum, but the original pitch for Book of Exalted Darkness—a medieval world where angels had won the day, instilling a world of goodness for evil adventurers to fight against—just wasn’t clicking.
While checking on the status of the Book of Exalted Darkness pitch (which in its original form was not sent to Legendary Games but another publisher) I ran into an article about how the world needs more decopunk—and I emphatically agreed.
They decided to pass on it (which was a good call for everyone!) and since I had control of it again I started figuring out how to merge those two ideas together, then—like all my best and worst ideas—very late one evening I had an errant thought: “what if humans develop a gene that transforms electromagnetic energy in a practical way, like increased synapse firing or…” and off I went for a twenty minutes. The idea got tossed into my subconscious for a while and then a few days later it hit me: that could be the crux for the campaign setting! I ran to the computer and started a flurry of messages to my team and they were like “that’s it, we got it”. After a few more days all that germinated into inaequa and then the gold and blood encrusted grimoire of good and evil that is Book of Exalted Darkness. We actually had some other things planned for the start of the summer and ended up swapping the schedule around after figuring out inaequa because it really is something worth thinking about; it doesn’t do harm, it only unfairly grants gifts, a boon to one’s life, something more valuable than any gem or relic! I know I wouldn’t be cool with inaequa (even if it did work for me; anything that discourages free will is bad in my book) but it’s definitely a worthwhile conundrum and most importantly, it gives the party a reason to unify together and some justification for being truly despicable villains: for JUSTICE!
3) What challenges have you had bringing extra technology into 5th Edition? How have you tweaked character classes traditionally associated with medieval fantasy to integrate them into your decopunk setting?
Oooh, excellent question! Hypercorps 2099 5e is superhero cyberpunk, Mists of Akuma is eastern fantasy noir steampunk, and 2099 Wasteland is apocalyptic sci-fi, so this is going to be my fourth campaign setting where technology plays a significant role. In the past we relied on class archetypes, but starting with the most recent book we decided that technology was playing an important enough role that it needed to get entirely new class options so 2099 Wasteland has doctors, mechanics, and scrappers, all of which are available in that book’s PDF preview. We also created a customized weapon-building system but those rules don’t really have a place in Book of Exalted Darkness—we’ll be pulling the vehicle rules from 2099 Wasteland but otherwise every piece of technology is getting its own entry on how it functions (and in the case of inaequa-powered devices, the rules for how it works for a good/neutral/evil creature).
As far as technological archetypes go in Book of Exalted Darkness however, there are none yet. If backers or playtesters say, “Hey Mike! I want to ________”, I will make a draft of rules for it and toss it around with the design team, then probably include it. This book we’re shooting to make 180 pages but most of the time we end up stretching resources to the brink and producing 50% or more past what the initial budget planned on. But hey! We’re making the best books we can!
I’ve been mentioning mad scientists and those are where I’ve been putting my technological emphasis on, creating the equivalent of a warlock for the scrapper from 2099 Wasteland (which is built mostly like a wizard but with technology). Mad scientists only use their spell slots to cast offensive things through their Scientific Weapon, relying on Scientific Devices (like a warlock’s eldritch invocations) to access other magic. For their archetypes there’s an Evil Engineer (who specializes in surviving within society), Fleshworkers (chirurgeons that perform surgeries that grant a variety of benefits or things like lobotomies), Tricksters (want bombs and explosions?), and Unholy Technologists (if you’re looking to trick and manipulate inaequa, this is the way to go). There’ll be a free Mad Scientist Playtest PDF coming out before the Book of Exalted Darkness Kickstarter ends on June 17th so keep an eye out! :D
4) What’s been the most twisted thing you or your PCs have done so far in playtesting?
Oof, that’s a hard one. There are four things that stand out for me:
5) One of the biggest challenges in running an evil campaign is keeping the party focused on a unified goal. How does Book of Exalted Darkness help GMs and PCs stay unified?
Well the whole world is quite positively arrayed against them and they have a shared enemy (albeit an uncaring global effect as opposed to entity) but those are pretty vague. Part of the Book of Exalted Darkness is going to be devoted to fleshing out as many GM tools as we can provide for keeping a cadre of villains from backstabbing one another but there’s a trinity at the core of them all—fate, thematic mechanics, and circumstance.
Fate is pretty obvious: make the party need one another through plot, tie them to one another by connections in their backgrounds, or have some very vital story reason for the group to work together. Thematic mechanics are a little more vague—these would be things like an in-game pact that has out-of-game consequences on character sheets—but there’s also Sin. Killing one or two companions might not be so bad, but going about murdering too many (unprovoked allies) will rack up your Sin. Then there’s circumstance or tertiary benefits. Having a trusted ally you know is competent means access to a network of contacts you don’t have yourself, it’s easier to survive against a state government when you have allies, different compatriots have their own unique talents (like that mad scientist you all know and are kind of afraid of but have to rely on for technological help anyway), and so on. Near the end game it’ll be very important that at least one party member be able to act as the “face” when their villainy becomes truly infamous or they’ve transformed into vilespawn, otherwise the party will be up to commando-esque raids on the workings of Askis’ most powerful defenders with little ability to manipulate the exploitable bureaucracy surrounding them.
Thanks again for interviewing me about Book of Exalted Darkness! As of this writing we’re still in the first week and 67% funded, so we’re pretty excited about reaching the funding goal and unlocking a few stretch goals (hint: we’re looking to convert outside of 5E!) Check out the project page, download the 2 free PDFs, and consider pledging to my (6th, sure to overdeliver again) Kickstarter! :D
Check out the Book of Exalted Darkness Kickstarter here.
Phil Pepin is a history-reading, science-loving, head-banging nerd, who would like nothing more than to cuddle with his pups and wife.
RiotMinds has been busy for the past year. Following a successful Kickstarter campaign to translate their Nordic myth and folklore inspired Drakar och Demoner Trudvang into English as Trudvang Chronicles, the company has already smashed through their initial goals in a follow up campaign to bring their game of 18th century occult mysteries and secret societies, LexOccultum, to the English speaking world. I had the opportunity to ask Theo Bergquist a few questions about LexOccultum and Trudvang Chronicles, along with what's next for RiotMinds. (Full disclaimer: I backed the Trudvang Chronicles Kickstarter last year.)
1- What makes LexOccultum different from other mystery and intrigue games out there, and what makes it different from Trudvang Chronicles, which is powered by the same engine?
Theo: I guess we focus more on the occult and mystery play and less horror and also the time era. LexOccultum is set in a fictive 18th century whereas many other games take place in the 19th century. One of the main themes in the game is secret societies and conspiracies and less of vampires and werewolves. Trudvang Chronicles is a pure fantasy game and even though the two games share the same engine I’d say that LexOccultum is deadlier and more ”realistic” than Trudvang Chronicles.
2- Both Trudvang Chronicles and LexOccultum feature excellent artwork that seems to help shape the world. Did you have a setting in mind and use the art to shape the world, or did you come across the art first and build the world around the art?
Theo: Thanks, yes we work with truly great artists. Yes, we had a clear view of how and what the look and feel should be already from start. When I fist approached Paul Bonner years back I’d see his great work on Mutant Chronicles but also some great fantasy pieces. When I told him we was looking for a John Bauer look-and-feel he was really happy and I’d say he’s nailed it since then. Alvaro Tapia is very much behind the design of both worlds. I was working with Justin Sweet on some Conan covers and felt he was the perfect man for a more ”mature” and less ”fantasy” look that we decided to have for LexOccultum. So yes, even though we’re the first to acknowledge the great work of the artists, I’d say that we had a clear vision from start.
3- The game was originally called Götterdämmerung in Swedish; what does 18th century occultism have to do with the fall of the Norse/Germanic gods?
Theo: The 18th century was the great century of the enlightenment and as such, for the first time in history, the church was starting to loose it’s grip and power over the people. The ”gods” were losing power. Götterdämmerung means Ragnarok, the fall of the gods, but also Armageddon, it was a perfect name for a game combining the great mysteries, occultism and the enlightenment. Is this a second fall of man? Or is it the fall of the church? It’s a battle between man and god so to say.
4- Religion and myth play a big part in shaping Trudvang’s identity; is this something you specialize in and is there a particular reason for this focus in LexOccultum and Trudvang?
Theo: Good questions. I guess we want our worlds and settings to be believable and to have the depth in both mythology and ”every day life". Without that it’s just another hack-and-slack fantasy game. We’ve spent tons and tons of hours for both games just to do the research of which much was never used. However, it adds to the games and give them that flavor we like. For example the Stormlands (a region in the Trudvang world) is a mix of barbarian/viking culture and Mongolian culture, it’s not just another viking region. That kind of ”cross-over” and mix with our own ideas is what make the worlds different I guess.
5- You’re in the middle of what will be your second successful campaign to bring your games into English. What’s next for LexOccultum, Trudvang Chronicles, and RiotMinds?
Theo: Next up for Trudvang Chronicles is the Stormlands, Mittland and Westmark source books, and the great campaign SnowSaga. We haven’t fully decided in what order of scope they will be launched but focus on finalizing the core rules now. For LexOccultum we have tons of exciting stuff including a book about the secret societies, a monster book, campaigns and source books about the world. This will be a fun ride and for the English audience these are the two games we focus on. I have this crazy idea of expanding the Trudvang world into a more ”arabic” or ”asian” setting, but first things first.We’re so happy about the great support both our games have gained from the international audience and now it’s time for us to deliver.
Check out the LexOccultum Kickstarter here. The campaign ends Friday, March 24.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.