Alright, so this actually goes back to my Troubles in Solar Town post and the discussion that emerged, which really influenced what I did in this game.
So, the background for this game is that I wanted to try out my friend Alessandro Piroddi's Fantasy World, this time on the GM side. After some discussions I had in various spacing regarding the problems of zero-setting PbtA games and actually believing in the world when you're spitballing every element of it, I decided I was going to run it with a prepared setting -- and since the final game is actually going to ship with some, it made sense to me make one myself. Still, I knew I should keep it to a minimum and leave lots of space to be filled. So, I started out with a title, two pictures (one is the one leading the post, the following one is below) and a paragraph.
A World in Ashes
The powerful mages of the past have reduced the world to ashes. Their heirs dominate the present, ruling the remnants of civilization from advanced citadels protected by their arcane weavings.
That's what the players saw when they signed up to particpate, and had some time to dwell on it before we actually got started. When we got together, before anything else, I presented a slightly more detailed picture by reading this list of "setting facts".
- The world was turned to ash by a cataclysm a hundred years ago. This is rumored to be caused by the hubris of the mages of the past.
- The wild is home to terrors and danger, which some people go mad from.
- The dwarves have isolated inside the mountains and haven't been seen for a hundred years
- The elves live in the wild, their magic is tied to nature and don't follow human custom
- Humans live in citadels to protect themselves from the wild magic outside. These are guided by higher classes of mages, priests, or whoever has the power to defend the people inside from the outside.
- Most citadels have a homogenous power structure, but the population is still rather heterogenous. There is some form of travel between citadels.
- Modern mages draw their strength from Vi, the life force of living beings, and consume it to produce magical effects. Through this they can power the magical defences of citadels, by harvesting the Vi-corrupted beasts that roam the outside.
- Religions such as the Church of the Many-Eyed oppose the use of Vi and find mages unholy. They have their own organizations and are somewhat of a secondary power structure in human lands.
- Some people prefer to live in the wilderness, to their own peril.
After that, we followed the by-the-book Fellowship and Protagonists creation. This took us a full 2-3 hours and concluded our first session.
What really took me off guard is that the players interpreted the setting completely differently than what I expected. For me, this type of setting is a way to explore the authoritarian regime of the magelords in the citadels, why it would be like that, and if it would be justified given the circumstances. I would have expected play to get close to these themes and play with them, with maybe one of the characters being a member of the mage class themselves.
To my disappointment, the entire group just looked at the mages and said: "oh, these are the bad guys". And thus, their quest to find the source of the cataclysm and revert it, and thus remove the necessity for mages entirely, was established. I'm going to be entirely honest: I didn't like these characters much as people, although I saw their potential as characters, and I liked the people playing them. In particular, I didn't like their quest much, and thought them to be far too idealistic for a world like this, or at least how I had thought of it.
The characters themselves were actually interesting: Menelmatar, a "dreamcatcher", essentially a bard that can see and influence people's dreams, Brightmane, a lion-man desert sorcerer that, Ahur, a shapeshifter elf mutated by the energy of the cataclysm, and Damian, a knight of the Fiery Eye, an order that forbids deception and opposes unnatural uses of magic.
At the end of the day, though, I like to be surprised and can roll with something like this. If this was a year ago, I probably would've changed my perception of the world to align with the players' and would've set up the mages as villains. Motivated, maybe justified, but antagonists nonetheless. But then I thought of something Ron said when talking about the Solar System: "I will not bother my head one little bit about anyone's Keys, but pick up what I like in the setting, and in that specific location given whatever the characters are up to in it, and play it hard just as I please."
So, I said: fuck it. This is my world, theirs are the characters, and before the following session I set up a scenario presenting exactly what I thought of it:
- The Sad Legion, a group of beast hunters selling their magical prey to a local keep, that uses them as fuel for a kind of a "generator" that sends energy to the Citadel. Mostly self-serving hedonists, doing a dangerous but lucrative job and enjoying it.
- Ratrock Keep's magelord Hai Kail and his mage court, including his teenage assistant Pella. The mage owns a pearl from before the cataclysm that could have information that the protagonists seek
- Ratrock Keep's garrison, of low social class but serving the magelord, they go along with him and benefit from certain privileges like protection from the castle walls
- The local peasantry living around the keep, poor and struggling, barely surviving the beast attacks and magic storms
- The corrupted wilds surrounding the keep, with mutated beasts, storms and weird occurrences.
This scenario highlights the dynamic between the peasants, the garrison oppressing them, the magelord oppressing (or at least being highly demanding) of the garrison, and the beast hunters being the only genuinely free and self-actualized group around here (at least, that's what I think). The mages essentially think themselves as a different breed of person, and the other people as lesser. They don't go out of their way to be cruel, and actually believe their ultimate purpose is to preserve humanity, but have no qualms about people suffering or dying if it serves their goal.
The second session
What happened in the second session is that I actually had an incredible amount of fun!
The players had some time to hang out with the Sad Legion and discover what they're all about. They had a rocky start due to them choosing their hideout as shelter from a storm, but some persuasion and dream-perusing by Menelmacar, the dreamcatcher, allowed them to get on a better standing with Viga, the fox-girl leader of the group. They had quite a long relaxed fireside conversation in the Sad Legion's hideout regarding Ratrock keep, the mages and the local politics, which allowed me to explain what was going on and how each character felt about it. I also had time to explore some side-characters of the Legion and how they thought of their lot in life.
Reached the keep, they presented themselves with the Legion and had a chance to see the state of the peasants, then interact with the local garrison and their captain, and finally enter the richly decorated and high-tech keep, to see the energy-harvesting process at work, performed by the mageling Pella.
There was a pleasant conversation with the teenager, who was completely unthreatened by the strangers, who kept asking her questions on the nature of the mages and magic and how it all works. She was very happy to answer them, and also as Brightmane's character asked if he could be a potential mage, was happy to explain that the mages don't discriminate candidates based on race or gender, and perceive themselves as their own 'stock', above all else. Once made, a mage cannot be unmade.
At the request of an audience with her master she told them he had no time for them. At this point, Menelmacar's player thought he could bring the girl on their side and told her that they were looking for her master's pearl. I knew the girl was perfectly happy and content with her life, and felt no need to betray the magelord: why should she? She didn't react well, and immediately turned a standing guard into ash to draw magic and weave it into a fire cage to entrap the player characters.
There was a prolonged confrontation, that they were able to de-escalate, but they were permanently banned from the keep. The garrison leader approached the characters before kicking them out and told them he considered them responsible for his comrade's death, as if they were themselves the murderer (I loved this part). They had a conversation with him and his second-in-command about the relationship with the mages, and their calls to rebellion and subversion of the status quo fell on silent ears.
I really, really enjoyed this and how the divergence between mine and the players' perception of the world ended up actually allowing me to express my feelings about it much better, and everyone at the table, including me, left the session having learned something new about the others, and the world.