[Exorcism post: In which I write about a game I may never run, but would like to explore the idea in some fashion in order to get it out of my system.]
First things first: No, it’s not actually about Guild Wars 2. I actually do like the look of the thing, but this has been Medical Bill Month (plus also the auto insurance renewal), and there’s little room for a new video game expenditure and the time expenditure that’d go towards, you know, a new MMO.
No, this is about RPGs. Specifically, back to the well of fantasy gaming. I have some friends and coworkers who are pretty bored of fantasy by now. I can’t be bored with the stuff, just with particular tropes. You know: Chosen of Prophecy, Save the World, Deconstructing Tolkien, things like that. I especially don’t have any real love for hereditary monarchies in particular, especially if the author or setting is set up to validate them and end with some new blah blah bloodline on the throne. But give me an alternate power structure and yeah, things get interesting.
That’s where guilds come in. I’ve been kind of impressed with the core idea you see in some manga where the world is set up with various “guild”-type organizations that have rivalries and wars and such. In fact, you could argue that a few of the biggest manga at present are based around this idea: the organizations being pirate crews, ninja villages, and mage’s guilds. That’s pretty neat.
The other thing that’s been on my mind of late is the Magic: The Gathering setting of Ravnica. Now, I haven’t played Magic in decades — I do still use a few Magic cards I’ve kept as bookmarks, but actually try to play a game? Buy new cards? Nah. But the core concept of Ravnica is interesting. Guilds as the major powers, as above. And it’s more interesting because the core conceit is that each of these guilds is a hybridization of two of the five element colors of the setting: blue + black = criminal house, white + green = conclave of druids, things like that. It makes it accessible quickly as players start thinking about the interesting combinations of archetypes. It’s something I’d steal. But like I said, I’m not a Magic player, and I’d like to use a combination of tropes my players are more familiar with.
So what if you had a setting like Ravnica, but the combinations were the “power sources” that D&D 4e came up with? I’ve always liked how they roughly mapped to class archetypes. They’re actually even kind of similar to the roles the various Exalted play, in a fashion. So let’s say that for now, you had five sources (which may or may not be acknowledged in-setting), and each guild was a combo of any two. Because I’m the one writing this, I’m going to say those five sources are martial, divine, arcane, primal, and shadow — I pick shadow over psionics because (a) I think shadow’s a better match for the rogue/thief archetype, and (b) my wife is violently allergic to the flavor of psionics. And since that violence would be directed at me, we’ll set it to the side for now.
Right, so how would those matchups work? A first pass might be something like:
Martial + Divine: Templar order. Lawgivers. Paladins.
Martial + Arcane: Alchemists and artificers. Indiana Jones-type adventurer-scholars.
Martial + Primal: Wildwalkers. Rangers, barbarians, wardens.
Martial + Shadow: Duelists, thieves, assassins.
Divine + Arcane: Gnostics. Mage: The Awakening types. Librarians.
Divine + Primal: Druids. Thunderers, maybe; I like the idea of a storm motif.
Divine + Shadow: Gatekeepers. Priests of the night.
Arcane + Primal: Elementalists. Traffickers with genies and other elemental forces.
Arcane + Shadow: Necromancers. The spooky side of scholars.
Primal + Shadow: Nightstalkers. Lunar-aspected folk; lycanthropes, maybe.
There, that’s ten basic ideas that could be codified into more complicated societies just like that. They’re a little unformed right now, but a little more effort could show more distinction. And these might be the ten principal factions. What would the players play: members of existing guilds/houses/coalitions/city-states (whatever form they may take) that come together? Or would they found their own?
Of course, you can further complicate things just by adding power sources. Throw in psionics and you have six more possible combinations. What I’d do, though, is add some antagonism to this setup. We need outlaws and heretics, blasphemers and traffickers in vile forces. Enter power source: Infernalism. So what sort of heretic factions does this create? At a guess:
Infernal + Martial: A bloody warrior order. Maybe twisted knights, like the Order of the Fly or something.
Infernal + Arcane: Cabalists. Summoners. Pacters.
Infernal + Divine: Blasphemous preachers. Antisaints.
Infernal + Primal: Apocalyptic barbarians, seeking to release the Great Beasts under the skin of the world.
Infernal + Shadow: Death cult. Assassins hunting sacrifices.
When you establish all these factions, then something exceptionally awesome happens: plots start writing themselves just by picking two factions and asking yourself what an interesting way they might interact would be. Then account for a couple of more factions. Then throw in a renegade faction trying to undermine them. It works beautifully in the World of Darkness of your choice; I’m honestly not sure why more fantasy gamers don’t try it. But then again, only so much time in the day for all these ideas…