Setting: Angels Among the Stars

A little over two weeks ago, I posted an editorial about what I like and don’t like in a setting. I figure it is only fair that I post one of my own that’s been kicking around in my head for a while. I’m not really of the “you can’t talk unless you can do better” camp, but it’s a good excuse to get some down in text instead of just living in my head. This was inspired by an Ad Eva campaign I ran, but didn’t get to finish, but really isn’t dependent on you knowing much about Evangelion.

Elevator Pitch

Just now, a rather selfish and vain teenage girl has seized the power of an ancient eldritch abomination, one that has the power to create more life in its image. She will use this power to set herself up as humanity’s god. Seeking to spread her influence as far as she can, she will birth great beasts that bear people in their bellies and allow mankind to take to the stars and terraform worlds. Among the stars, however, there exist other such ‘gods’, who do not take kindly to what humanity has done to one of their own. Besieged both within by those who still resist the “goddess'” rule, and from without by alien horrors. Will you fight for the sake of your goddess, and the gifts and protection she brings, or will you turn her own biological mechs and ships against her, gaining humanity’s freedom, even if it means losing her aid?

The Situation

Mankind has a god. Not an abstract, unobservable, metaphysical entity like they worshiped in the days of old, but a physical being who can give life to the angels, living creatures of immense size and power. It is through Her Grace’s power that mankind has taken to the stars. Carried inside massive angels that act as living ships we can cross lightyears in hours. Her Grace’s angels can take frozen, boiling, or otherwise inhospitable worlds, and allow men to walk on the surface unprotected within a generation. Her Grace can be a fickle, demanding goddess, but under Her divine guidance mankind has spread and prospered.

But all is not well in Her Grace’s domains. Here in the stars, mankind is not alone, and neither is Her Grace the only god. There are other, different forms of life, created by different gods. They say these gods fear Her Grace. She was once a human like us, but took Her power from one of alien god’s kin. They say that this fear causes them to seek our destruction. The divine power these gods grant their creation cuts right through flesh and metal, and no work of man can reliably pierce their hide. Yet we have no reason to fear them, for Her Grace’s angels are mighty as well. Our living ships glow with armor made of Her divine light, and are armed with Her wrath made manifest. In their bellies our ships bear the Nephilim, highly maneuverable personal craft created in our image, so that we may bring Her Grace’s judgement to Her foes.

Yet, for all She gives us, there are those who would turn their back on Her Grace. There are some that suggest communication and co-existence is possible with Her Grace’s foes, perhaps at the cost of Her Grace answering for her supposed crimes against the gods. There are those who live in the deeper parts of space, far from both the enemy and from our ancestral Earth, who refuse to recognize Her Grace’s authority and claim sovereignty. And worst of all, are the infidels of the Blackwood Faction. These vile terrorists deny Her Grace’s divinity, and use ancient and heretical techniques to bind and lobotomize Her Grace’s angels with machinery, and thereby use them against Her. Some profess faith in the ancient spiritual religions of the past, while others still see no need for a god at all.

Even with enemies on all sides, mankind moves forward as it always has.  There are those who rely on Her Grace’s blessing and seek their fortune out among the stars.  Those who brave the darkness of space to explore unseen worlds and seek out a new life for themselves.  And there are still those, believer and infidel alike, willing to fight and die for what they believe in.

Campaign Ideas

  • Nephilim Squad J-146: In the style of Mobile Suit Gundam (or, knowing my groups, Martian Successor Nadesico), the players take on the role of Nephilim pilots stationed on a Principality Class warship. Present the aliens for a more strange and monstrous threat, while present separatists (with legitimate grievances!) for something a little more relatable and nuanced situation. In mecha shows of this style, it’s the stuff between fights that makes the show, so I’d try to put a focus on interacting with the ship’s crew, and exploring the setting, but do what works for your group.
  • Free Traders: I also think a Traveler/SWN-style game (perhaps even using one of those systems with some slight refluffing), would be pretty neat as well. Give the PCs an angel ship that’s got a few scars and developed a bit of a personality over the years, a debt from the fees to acquire charter to operate the ship (a charter that technically specifies a tithe that goes to the church on their business as well). Then just set them loose in the fringes of human space to make their fortune, with the aliens being more of a looming background threat and thing to run away from then a thing to fight.
  • Colony Development: The PCs are some of the caretakers of a new angelic terraformer, right near the edge of human space.  The PCs have to make decisions about the development of their new home, as well as contend with church officials, rival factions, and external threats to the colony to keep their new home safe.
  • The Blackwood Faction: There’s definitely a core conflict here, you can either start out with the desire to overthrow the so-called ‘goddess’, and have the PCs either supporting or against that, or it can be something in the background of a different type of campaign, ready for the PCs to go once they get a feel for the world and decide to take a stand.

Situation Mining: The Mummy’s Mask

One of the blogs that inspired me to start this one The Githyanki Diaspora does this thing they call Situation Mining.  That is, take something, be it an actual RPG module, a TV show, whatever, and distill the core tensions down to a playable situation, typically for Burning Wheel.  Add in a few pre-burned characters with Belief guidelines to tie the situation together, and, ideally, you’ll end up with an almost ready to go BW game.  I really like the idea, and they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I figured I would give it a shot myself!

I’m starting with the Pathfinder Adventure Path “The Mummy’s Mask”.


Let’s take the description from the link above and trim it down a little bit:

The ancient lands of Osirion are blanketed by the sands of time, and eldritch secrets and vast riches lay just beneath the sun-blistered surface. As modern Osirion opens its vaults and tombs to outsiders for the first time in centuries, many of these lost treasures and secrets are now emerging—some more troublesome than others. [Meanwhile] a cult worshiping [a supposedly risen Pharaoh] as a god-king grows in the heart of Osirion.

That’s the situation right there, outsiders are being allowed into ancient burial sites when they haven’t been for centuries. How are people going to feel about that? What terrible secrets could these tombs hold that might have repercussions in the modern day. More importantly, who knows about those secrets, and what will they do to stop (or ensure) those secrets come to light? The cult is a wildcard factor that can either fade into the background as flavor, or be a major piece of the puzzle depending on the PCs beliefs – do they belong to the cult? Do they wish to see it destroyed? Do they think the cult’s ‘risen Pharaoh ‘ is the real deal (in the AP he is, but what about your game)?

I also really like Wati. ‘The Half-Dead City’ is the setting for the first part of this AP. An ancient plague wiped out so much of the city’s population, that the whole old city was walled off and consecrated as a grand tomb for the dead. Thanks to the resilience of the survivors (and its important economic location at where the Asp joins the Crook to form the River Sphinx), Wati was rebuilt around the old city. Today, the Necropolis still takes up a full quarter of the city, and the city is known for its funerary tools and rites. Not only does this city tickle my fancy in general, but it is the perfect place for this situation. The tombs are a HUGE part of the city’s culture and heritage, and are literally right next door. It is a great place to start the AP, and a great place to set your game. The AP also includes a flying Pyramid. I believe this serves as the final dungeon in the AP. I just think the concept of a huge Pyramid that’s defense against tomb robbers is magically flying in the air is pretty neat. It is a cool bit of fluff, and a delicious complication to put the thing the PCs need in there.

The AP also has the rights to explore the tombs being granted by lottery overseen by the priesthood of the goddess of death so that it is fair. Bo-ring! Keep it in the hands of the priesthood, but cut the lottery part entirely (it is really just a device to get the Players to go to the tombs the AP wants them to when it wants them to).  Make it based on the ‘will of the goddess’ (read: the favor of the priesthood), for all the fun wheeling and dealing that implies.

I actually see two really good potential games coming out of this situation. The first is the more obvious PCs as those who wish to venture into the tombs for their own profit. Where they have to either deal with the interference of the church and the nobility who have conflicting aims on what they want to be found, or work outside they law in their tomb-robbing. The second is casting the PCs AS the nobility and clergy of Wati, trying to use the secrets (and wealth) of the tombs to advance their own position, while stopping rivals who would like to use their family’s own dark past against them. I ended up going with the first idea for my burns, but if you come up with PCs for the second idea I would love to see them!

Every character I burned up for this game is a penniless, 3 LP, novice. Most were done in Charred, a really sweet online character burner, but the Spirit Binder and Cultist were not due to using some Codex stuff, which is why their sheets look different. Each PC’s first belief should be about what they hope to gain by venturing into the tombs of Wati. This can be wealth, but it also can be knowledge about the past, an heirloom they must recover, or secrets they want to bring to light (or ensure remain buried in the sands forever). Each character also has 2 (or 3 in the case of the Dwarf and Cultist due to special traits) additional prompts to fill out the rest of their beliefs.

The Janissary’s Apprentice (Squire)
Write a belief about…

  • Teaching your companions how to ACTUALLY fight before they get you all killed.
  • Your mentor, either about something you want them to teach you or about how you will show you’ve surpassed them.

The Half-Djinn Spirit Binder
Write a belief about…

  • What your dreams have told you about the fate of another PC, include how will you help them achieve (or avoid) this fate.
  • How your Djinn father has felt he has been wronged, either about what you will do to make it right or about getting him out of your life completely.

Mixing mythologies a bit here, but it seemed like a cool application of Fey Blood so she can be Pre-Immanent for her Spirit Binding. Plus the players guide for this AP says there are Genies out in the Osirion deserts, so it fits the world, if not the mythology. Also, if you do not have a MaBu/Codex, here is a traditional sorcery version (albeit done in 4 LPs and using a few codex LPs).

The Cultist
Write a belief about…

  • Convincing another PC of the divinity of the Risen Pharaoh.
  • Your brother, either about reconciling with him, or about taking care of the problem.
  • Zealot: What you must do to earn your rightful place at the Risen Pharaoh’s side!

The Con Artist
Write a belief about…

  • Molding another PC into your new partner in crime
  • Your noble paramour, either about finally settling down or about taking them for everything they’ve got!

The Dwarf Adventurer
Write a belief about…

  • An oath you swore to another PC about assisting them in their goals.
  • How you’ve been treated in Wati, either a kindness you must repay, or a slight you must avenge.
  • Oathsworn: A grand and boastful oath that you swore to your father that you must achieve before you can once again set foot in your homeland!

If you take these characters and/or this situation for a spin, let me know how it goes!

Settings – Less is More

I don’t really care too much about the Forgotten Realms, or Eberron, or Mystara. I think they have some neat ideas but I don’t really care about the settings as a whole. I kind of like Dark Sun, but I don’t really care about who’s the sorcerer-king in charge of Gulg (google tells me her name is Lalali-Puy). I have a favorite clan in Legend of the Five Rings (Dragon), but I really don’t care what happened in year XY of the What’s-his-name dynasty. I enjoy some Shadowrun, but I honestly can’t tell you a single one of the major megacorps off the top of my head, let alone who their CEOs are (although I know one of them is a dragon).  In the Blades in the Dark game we just started, there is this huge list of factions in the book.  When we made our crew, we picked a handful of them that like us and dislike us.  I care about that handful, but it just as easily could have been a number of factions we made up, and the others on that list? I don’t really care about.

Here’s the stuff I DO care about.  Dark Sun is a world that was almost destroyed by a magical disaster, those who survive do so in a barely habitable desert.  Magic drains the land further, metal is rare, and the major cities are ruled by powerful and mysterious sorcerer kings. In L5R, I love the value of face and honor, the role each clan plays in the empire (and the power struggles between them), and the threat of the shadowlands.  Also I just like the Dragon clan in general and think the Kitsuki being the ONLY ones in the empire who go “Hey, maybe we should investigate crimes with forensics, guys!” hilarious.  In Shadowrun, I care that the megacorps EXIST. I care about the meta-humans and the racial tensions between them.  I care about the highly stratified society, the gaps between the haves and the have-nots.  I do care about dragons and that they can run businesses, just not which dragon and which business in particular.

The settings above that I said I didn’t really care about? They have some cool stuff in them.  I think Warforged and the Lightning Rail are super neat. There are a lot of really cool classic modules and adventures in Mystara. I honestly don’t think I would be the gamer I am today without the Baldur’s Gate series, which really benefited from all FR lore that was included in the game. They’re not bad settings, and I would happily sit down and play a game in any of them. They have some cool details and neat locations, but no strong themes or conflicts that gets me super excited about them.

I want to know the big picture of the setting.  I want to know what’s going down (or about to go down if no one stops it)!  I want to know the themes that this setting is trying to express.  I want some details, not the whole 10,000 year history of the setting, but just enough to get me interested.  Tell me the cool stuff that’ll give me an idea of how different this setting is compared to our real life (and the other stuff on the market)!  Tell me why I want to play or run game in your setting!

I don’t need any more information beyond that, if anything, all the extra stuff is just going to get in my way.  If I got the flavor of the setting down, my gears are already working.  I’m already coming up with my own situation, as well as some NPCs and situation to highlight that situation.  Maybe I’ll find a neat location or NPC that I want to include amid the established setting materials, but ultimately all the details of the setting only exist as far as they serve the game.  If the situation requires that the Crane and the Phoenix be next to each other cause shit is about to go down between them, I don’t care what the map in the book says, they are (An aside: I do really like maps, but they need to serve the needs of the game, not the other way around). It’s only once we’ve been gaming for a while in the same world that I start caring about established facts, and even then only what has been declared in our game.

There’s nothing wrong with a setting having lore, facts, and details in it. I know for some other people, that is WHY they like published settings, so they don’t have to come up with that stuff themselves. Heck, I can even find those details fun to read, and I appreciate the care that went into crafting it. It is just that kind of stuff doesn’t excite me to PLAY in the setting. Worse, sometimes it makes me feel like I actually have to memorize and know all this to run the setting ‘properly’. When the setting is painted in the broadest strokes, with just enough for me to grok what this thing is about. Show me just enough to get my imagination going and starting to fill in the rest. Show me just a few details, the things the authors thought was just way too cool to leave out!

Show me this:

Not This:

The bottom chart maybe more useful information, but the picture above is what makes me think it would be cool to go there!

Picture Sources:

Pyramid Picture: Dennis Jarvis, taken from Flickr
Demographics Chart: Screenshot from Wikipedia on 11/16