Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Rules of Three

Three is an interesting number, and it comes up a lot in DARK•HERITAGE.  Not necessarily by design, but by coincidence--and because it's just that kind of number.

The area mapped out more extensively is colloquially called the Land of the Three Empires, referring to the Terrasan Empire, the Qizmiri Caliphate, and the Baal Hamazi Empire.  This is a bit of a misnomer, though--Qizmir isn't really an empire, and Baal Hamazi has been broken up into feuding city-states and squabble over the remnants of once Imperial dreams.  Terrasa is also heading that same direction.  Meanwhile, the Kurushat khaganate is reasonably well detailed, and is an increasingly important political player.  However, I don't see Kurushat as really "central" to the action of the area like I do Qizmir, Terrasa and Baal Hamazi.  Those three are really the main "protagonist" nations, if you will, of the setting.

While not necessarily mapping easily to those three empires, I see DARK•HERITAGE in terms of three main setting styles.  This is in fairly crude terms, and obscures a fair amount of variation, but it still works for my purposes.  By setting, I mean, in many ways, tone and feel of the game.
  1. First, there's the mainland to the north.  This is where the northern reaches of Terrasan territory gives way to wild, "Indian country"--tribesmen who are loosely inspired by the Huns, the Mongols, the Scythians, and yes, the Comanches, Sioux, Apaches, and other plains indians.  The land is rugged, and greatly resembles much of the land that I myself love in the American west--the Red Rock territory of the Colorado plateau, the Sierra Nevada mountains, places I've hiked like Big Bend, and a bit of Great Basin plains country.  Exotic and dangerous wildlife cribbed from the North American Pleistocene wanders the area, making it a land of adventure, much like the Victorians would have seen Africa.  Dotting this feral country are the remnants of Baal Hamazi.  No longer Imperial, there are some rich and civilized city-states, but the wildness in between them is more the defining factor than the severed links that once connected them.  These are islands of relative calm; base-camps for exotic safaris, frontier fortresses besieged by savages.
  2. Secondly, there's the coastline of the Mezzovian Sea itself.  Although envisioned more as the Mediterranean than the Caribbean--in terms of climate and whatnot--the point of this setting is pirates.  Wild strongholds like Sarabasca or Porto Liure are purposefully reminiscent of real-life pirate sanctuaries like Tripoli or Tortuga.  While not as focused on exotic wildlife, this "part" of the setting is focused on dangerous people--a state of almost open warfare can exist between the merchant marines and pirates of various city-states, and the focus here is on swashbuckling action and rousing adventure.  It's not just Spanish Main type piracy, though--especially as once moves eastward, the tenor of the pirates starts more and more to resemble the Pirate Round and the Barbary pirates--more exotic, more middle-eastern; semi-Ottoman in nature, heavily influenced by Qizmir.
  3. The third main setting "type" I see for DARK•HERITAGE is the urban environments.  While I mentioned the urban locales of Baal Hamazi, I see this as more specifically a Terrasan phenomena, and almost a setting within a setting all itself, while other urban environments I see more as stopping places--elements within their setting.  Baal Hamazi, despite the fact that it has cities, I still see as "about" the wilderness which surrounds them, while Terrasan cities are about themselves.  Reminiscent of Medieval/Rennaissance Italian or Spanish city-states like Genoa, Naples, Alghero, etc. they are decadent, dark--wretched hives of scum and villainy, to be sure.  The dangers here are often political--intrigue, espionage, organized crime, dangerous underground cults, and well-hidden supernatural predators.  The feel is both baroque and noir.
There are also three themes prevalent in DARK•HERITAGE--by which, I mean the main thrust and focus of a given campaign or story in broad terms.  As with setting/tone, a campaign or story might have more than one of these, but probably not all three, at least not at the same time; although if interwoven carefully, that could be done as well.
  1. Intrigue.  Spies.  Political fortunes.  Failing empires.  Questions of dynasty.  Kingdoms waiting in the wings to snap up the leftovers of the aging Terrasans.  Zealous patriots of the idea of Baal Hamazi hoping to spark a revolutionary renaissance of her culure and political power.  Assassins.  Shadowy guilds.  Dark sorcerers or vampires who pull the strings from behind the scenes.  This theme is basically the spy-thriller in a dark fantasy setting.  Very different from the theme of a standard high fantasy, or even sword & sorcery story, this takes its cues more from John Le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum or even some of the earlier Clive Cussler.
  2. Crime.  Almost by default, all centers of urban congregation in DARK•HERITAGE become "wretched hives of scum and villainy."  Warring thieves and racketeering guilds make up the majority of the action in a campaign or story based around this theme.  It's The GodfatherThe Usual SuspectsThe Untouchables.  Characters may either be involved with mafioso crime groups, or be dedicated to attempting to bring them to something like justice.  Vigilanteism is also a great way to explore this theme.  Like the Intrigue theme, this one requires a fair investment in the urban areas of the setting, but certainly not exclusively.  Smuggling, and skullduggery on ships or caravans in the wilderness could (and should) play an important role in either of these themes.
  3. Horror.  This is, after all, fantasy.  If all I wanted was intrigue and crime, I could easily have set DARK•HERITAGE up to merely be historical fiction.  The supernatural is a strong element of this theme; in fact, the defining one.  From nihilistic Cthulhu-esque cults, daemonologists and necromancers, ghouls hidden in the sewers, and supernatural predators hidden amongst us like vampires or werewolves, there are all kinds of supernatural threats with which to ravage the lives of the characters.  It should be carefully done, however, to not be a typical D&D style action romp.  Make sure that a DARK•HERITAGE game or story is scary and that the horror elements are more strongly rooted in the horror genre than the fantasy genre--despite the obvious notion that DARK•HERITAGE is a fantasy setting.
It's completely coincidental--yet oddly so--that there are three possible "approved" rulesets for running a DARK•HERITAGE game: house-ruled Pathfinder, house-ruled D&D 3.5, and house-ruled d20 Past.  I imagine plenty of other rulesets--with or without houserules--would work well too, but I'm just not familiar enough with them at this stage to endorse them.  Savage Worlds comes to mind as a likely one.  No doubt a BRP or GURPS variant could do the trick.  But, you're on your own with anything other than those three.

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