The Dead Games Pile Part 1 – Intro + Heroic Fantasy

I’ve spoken in several different places about my various RPG design efforts, and I’ve got something like two decades of experiences facilitating RPGs, including demos at GenCon and a smidge of published writing for games. I wanted to gather together the slush pile of games I have sitting on a shelf somewhere in a single space so I don’t end up revisiting this every time a discord adds a ‘tabletop’ channel.

My RPG Background

I started playing That Fantasy Game 2nd Edition with family friends right before the 3rd released, then played, ran, and hacked various games, largely those based around Icosahedrons, on and off, for about 15 years. I took a detour into Live-Action games somewhere in there, and put in about five years in local troupe play and had extremely unsatisfying experience in connected games after that.

Sometime around 2012 is when I started to branch out much more into the “Indy” RPG space. I would say Nobilis and Penny for your Thoughts were early brushes with this idea, and I was resistant at first but came to love Swords without Master as well. but I fell rather hard for Spirit of the Century and really FATE core in general, so a lot of my design space for making games “from the ground” after I discarded the twenty-sided systems build from there.

While part of me feels like the “Technology” of games has moved past FATE (See: Apocalypse World, Blades in the Dark) I have not really wrapped my head around the design side of those technologies to where I feel comfortable freewheeling in it. I have also not had the impetus to rebuild the games I designed during that FATE heavy period with newer tools, even though I do think they’re pretty good fits for these ideas.

Long-form Heroic Fantasy Campaigns

I have two high fantasy campaign concepts which I can’t shake off my attachment to. I have not really found a place to put them – They were conceived of and run in That Fantasy Game and Pathfinder, and while those were adequate toolkits, the things those games focus on always felt like a distraction from the stories I wanted those worlds to be about, and the choices I wanted to spend time on. But at the same time, the limitations and crunch of those games informed many of the decisions I made.

Both games shamelessly stole my friend’s concept for a supplemental system called Destinies – The GM created a pile of characters, about two per player, who each had a background hooked into the world, a series of secret-but-rarely-antagonistic goals that would grant new and unique capabilities, and usually some kind of central choice, with benefits for leaning one way or the other when asked to make decisions.

Both games also leaned heavily on different survival challenges, and followed a ratcheting difficulty – Players found new tools and created new procedures to survive either ever colder climes or more arid, hostile wastes as they journeyed across the world seeking out a mysterious antagonistic force. In both cases, once the party’s procedures got good enough, their competence was assumed and the challenge handwaved until conditions changed.

Dreams of Ice and Madness

As part of a team of heroes gathered from across worlds, my friend outlined the tale of a barbarian who escaped from a world trapped in an ice age by confronting the supernatural power which sought to freeze the world. However, the freezing power lurked as a memetic hazard, and was rebuilt when the hero left to travel to other worlds.

The party were adventurers who lived in the last unfrozen lands near the world’s pole, who grew up during the “thaw” created by the hero’s victory, and as they come of age, and ice sets in once more, set off to follow in his footsteps and see the task completed.

The cold is the enemy here of course, but along the way each character gets chances to shine and get pulled between their two poles –

  • A barbarian caught between tribal traditions of animist worship and disciplined martial arts,
  • A sorcerer deciding whether to study the elements or follow the dominating footsteps of the Fae
  • A druid who worships a fiend of ice for survival but dreams of freeing nature from its grasp

Forsaken Sands

Heroic Fantasy worlds seem to exist on a continuum of abundance. You can see that some of them are full of great magic and others struggle to subsist, so Forsaken Sands asks what happens when those with powerful magic start to make the same observations, and find their own world wanting. This world is arid and life struggles, so a cabal of mages, who have seen other worlds with vast resources facing terrible threats, decide to join that fight – And seek to gather the resources of their ‘Dying’ world together, abandoning it to take the fight elsewhere.

Except they didn’t think much about everyone else. The player characters are the champions of those the mages seek to leave behind. They were away saving their city when the cabal came and harvested everything, and have to follow, learn about, and somehow deal with the cabal, all while deciding whether their harsh world is worth saving or not.

Heat, but more specifically, access to water, is the limiting survival challenge in this world. There is also a bigger emphasis on traversal and travel, and having to deal with extreme terrain as an ongoing challenge rather than just an endless slog through frost. Similar to Dreams, characters are faced with tough choices pulling them apart;

  • A priest tasked with performing last rites for dying gods, but tempted to collect their power instead
  • A deserter trying to learn the wisdom of the waste’s cultures, even if it undermines their own code.
  • A ranger may take strength from the land with them, but knows those left behind will suffer for it

Moving Forward

For now, these games are mostly just reflections – I look back and think about how I structured them and how far they got towards their conclusions and some of the choices I made along the way, and wonder what form they’ll return in.

I’m starting to think I might’ve found the perfect game for them to return in however…