Thursday, February 24, 2011

Stream #2: the Anti-D&Disms

Shortly after my old Faerytale GeoCities homebrew sites went live, I started experimenting with some other campaign design ideas. At some point in 2002, I came up with Bloodlines, and put that out there on a separate GeoCities account (or maybe it was a separate folder in the same account. I don't remember anymore.) Maybe at the very latest it was in very early 2003. I don't remember very well, but I'm trying to triangulate backwards, thinking of the house we were living in at the time I came up with the idea, the release date of Attack of the Clones to DVD (one scene of which was pivotal to getting me started on this stream) and d20 Modern, which I initially targetted as the system of choice to run this game.

Regardless, some of the core ideas were slightly older than the actual crystalization of the setting. Initially intrigued by the concept of the "planetouched" races (remember that I had missed 2e entirely; so I'd never heard of tieflings, aasimar or genasi until around this time) I wondered what a setting might be like that had only humans and "planetouched" humans, and no other races at all available to it. Couple that with the Battle of Geonosis scene from Attack of the Clones, which looks like it could be taking place on Mars, including a rusty tannish sky, and I had a concept--a desert world where the only non-humans were planetouched. Heck, the fire genasi even reminded me somewhat of the red men of Barsoom, so I started digging deeper into the well of swashbuckling Edgar Rice Burroughs like stories. My first thought with that setting was to "borrow" the geography of pluvial Lake Bonneville, and that led naturally to a Pleistocene megafauna. Red warriors out in the deserts, hunting saber-tooths, Columbian mammoths, short-faced bears, vast herds of bison, etc. I also took some steps to modify d20 Modern into something that could play in a fantasy setting (this was still quite some time before the release of d20 Past), whipped up some low magic houserules that mimicked some of the dangerous psychic feedback you could get on botched rolls from Warhammer 40,000 (up to and including your spellcaster getting attacked by a demon for attempting to reach into the realm of magic and harness its power), and I imported the recently released flintlock firearms rules from Freeport into the game (technically, I took the ones from the"Firearms of Freeport" article in Dragon Magazine Annual--the d20 Special edition.)

Although this was really conceived in late 2002, and fleshed out significantly in very early 2003, astute readers may notice a very strong resemblance to DARK•HERITAGE as it exists today, including the idea of a big inland sea or lake, prehistoric wildlife, vast stretches of terrain that are strongly reminiscent of the American southwest, and heck; although I've evolved them somewhat, the hamazin and jann are really conceptually little different from tieflings and fire genasi respectively. The Bloodlines setting also had my earliest iteration of a d20 Modern based ruleset; a ruleset that was a bit facilitated later by the release of d20 Past; although frankly, I think I already made almost all the obvious changes on my own, and I could live without the add-ons that d20 Past otherwise brought to the table.

I never played Bloodlines, and now, of course, it doesn't exist--along with all the other pages hosted on GeoCities. But my next setting design project built heavily on Bloodlines--the first setting to bear the DARK•HERITAGE name. And this setting was run, twice. Albeit briefly. And in drastically different format. In a wishy-washy fashion, I struggled to decide whether or not I liked d20 Modern or D&D itself as a rules "base" from which I would vary. Because by 2003 I was sporting a variety of alternate classes and magic systems from a variety of books (mostly third party at this point; it wasn't until the revised class splatbooks of 3.5 that Wizards of the Coast got serious about delving into that arena). I was also getting excited about some other influences; compared to Bloodlines, early DARK•HERITAGE focused more on the desert environment itself which was more strictly brought in line with a barely habitable version of Mars, on an almost science fictional background for the races (which instead of being planetouched were now "breeds"; a race of prehistoric slavers have bred humanity into several different breeds specialized for different functions), and some strong steampunk aesthetics. I briefly ran this version of the setting (using d20 Modern rules) as an ill-fated play-by-post game with two players. It didn't get very far before it kinda drifted apart. But I did get it up and running (the D&D version this time) for my home group, and had a more successful run there.

By the time I started that, though, I'd already spliced it with an even earlier setting design idea that I'd briefly toyed with years before that featured floating islands rather than a solid world. I actually became disenchanted with this idea again fairly quickly, but because I'd started running an actual game with it, it was "frozen" in place for some time before I could officially yank it from my setting design ideas. (I think I might have even submitted a variation on that idea to Wizards of the Coast when they did the famous Setting Search that led to the publication of Eberron. I submitted two 1-page concepts, but I can't remember what either of them are anymore.) I also had completely ditched the Pleistocene megafauna at this point, for a more science fictional idea; that if this was another world, then why wouldn't it have completely alien lifeforms, except for people and whatever they may have had with them when they arrived. I even came up with a kind of quasi-magical Noah's Ark concept, probably borrowed from Raymond Feist's secret history of Kelewan and Midkemia, with people fleeing their homeworlds across the multiverse to set up new homelands in exile.

Despite the fact that two versions of early DARK•HERITAGE were actually run as games, the setting itself was still mostly undefined. Both games also played up the horror elements; the D&D variant even used the Call of Cthulhu sanity system and magic as is, and hints of a nasty secret history of the world were dropped all over the place. About this time I also started to become more familiar with Corey's version of Barsoom that I talked about earlier; I borrowed at least one idea from his still fledgeling story hour at that point; the idea of a giant sword that could kill undead. My version of it was not pleasant to use; not only did the sword actually bite the user and suck his blood with the nasty demon faces on its hilt, but it also whispered maddening blasphemies directly into his mind (each round it was used, it caused CON damage and forced Sanity checks until the poor user was a gibbering and possibly dying mess on the ground. It was definitely a weapon of last resort.)

It was the third iteration of DARK•HERITAGE that got the most development, ironically after the game had ended and I wasn't running anymore. One of the guys in my already "barely big enough to be viable" group moved out of state, and our local gaming ground to a halt. Another player in my group, who had another group that he gamed with which had also shrunk to non-viability proposed a merger of the two groups and he'd run the Dungeon Magazine campaign arc Age of Worms for us, so we did that, and it kept us busy for--literally--years. Meanwhile, I grabbed a new geography for DARK•HERITAGE based loosely on the Tarim Basin leg of the old Silk Road, and got really busy developing. This setting was the version of the setting that I tinkered with for a long time before finally making a major change to it. I never ran any games there, but I did write somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 in an abortive attempt to craft a novel in that setting.

While the final version of DARK•HERITAGE owes much of its content to another stream altogether, a lot of content also comes from this stream too; enough so that I kept the name even. Ironically, in many ways, the most developed parts of it, and the parts that were actually used in real games are perhaps a bit more lightly borrowed from than the old Bloodlines version of the setting; it's first real iteration. The steampunk elements have been dramatically reduced, and a lot of the ideas I had for big conspiracies and secret history have been shown the door (not the concept, just the specific ideas I had at this point.) My conceit of making it more of a Weird Tale than a fantasy setting, with overt science fictional (or at least planetary romance) borrowings also was thrown out. However, a lot of the detail, including most of the specific placenames, kingdoms, cities, empires, etc. were created for early DARK•HERITAGE settings, and got later re-used. A lot of these micro-elements come from this stream and were simply lifted up as is and placed into their new homes in the current version of DARK•HERITAGE.

And of course, I also further refined my ideas of tone, of theme and of rules in this crucible; all of these also reached their final versions in this stream before migrating into the one that I'm still working with. Both my d20 Past and my D&D variations of "acceptable" rulesets to use for DARK•HERITAGE were developed in this stream, and I still remain wishy-washy about which I like better. And of course, the many anti-D&Disms that DARK•HERITAGE still retains; the races the classes, the magic, the paradigm about what adventurers do, etc. all started here and were imported as is.

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