I can write a hundred thousand words on my Neuith setting. I probably have, already! A lot of it you can find elsewhere on this blog.
I don’t want to repeat myself. I also don’t want to talk story and plot. I’m creating a new game, so I need to discuss and clarify the components of the setting that directly relate to the mechanics of the game.
The driving force of this discussion is that I need to identify all the aspects that separate this from most other games on the market – specifically, from D&D 5e, which I’ve been running for several years in the Neuith setting.
Even under the umbrella of the D&D panoply, I’ve strayed from canon in several ways through homebrew rules and restrictions. Let’s outline some of them here, if nothing else than to start the conversation.
Current Differences from D&D 5e
D&D’s expanded universe includes multiple planes of existence – layers of Hell, elemental planes, various heavens, and so on. In Neuith, I only consider three: material, Hehl (my version of Hell), and Limbo. To do this, I declared that Neuith is isolated and quarantined from the rest of the universe because of the “curse.” This is a bit contradictory because the curse only applies to the material plane. This decision allowed me to rule out a few spells which I consider broken. Technically, it’s a justification for removing spells I don’t like, but it works for my purposes.
The next comparison is my house-ruling wild magic surge. This is a mechanic in D&D 5e that I like but was poorly implemented. I rebuilt the table to make it more palatable for players and designed it to work with magic items. At some point I determined that all magic in Neuith is wild magic. There are no divine or other-world sources for magic. This makes it consistent with the disconnect from the multi-planar universe. The logical following on this was to determine what the source of magic is, which I’ll get into in a bit.
I also created a home-brew class for the Tabaxi race. No players have opted to do this. When I wrote the class rules, I had to go back and retrofit my NPC character, Kabize, to conform. Fortunately, only a few minor adjustments were required. While this is mostly ancillary, it does present a burning question when it comes to designing my own game: classless or class-based? My instinct is to go classless, but the jury is still out.
The final major change from D&D is something that I allowed to appease one of players in one of my groups, though I had already planted the seeds. That’s the concept of a monotheistic-based creator god that was greater than the typical D&D pantheon gods. Neuith’s “backstory” made this a logical progression in that I had stripped the standard gods of their powers via the great curse.
The Source of Magic
Every fantasy world with magic must somehow answer the question: Where does Magic come from? I believe when this question is overlooked the author is doing a great disservice. It’s possible that the question is addressed but the discussion is never published.
For Neuith, I’m going to do it now. This is stuff that will likely never go into a rulebook.
The planet that is Neuith, compared to Earth, is about 20% smaller. To make it comparable to Earth in terms of gravity, rotation, and such, is that it’s core and crust are significantly denser than Earth’s. Neuith consists of a greater concentration of heavy metals like lead, gold, and other naturally occurring metals that appear on lines 6 and 7 of the periodic table. Iron is still common and widely used, which is also necessary in the planetary core to generate a strong magnetic field.
This higher abundance of heavy metals does two things: increases the gravitational pull so that the smaller planet’s gravity is roughly equivalent to Earth’s; and emits a constant level of radiation into the environment.
I’m not going to go the route of Gamma World or Metamorphosis Alpha where radiation is responsible for fantastic and unusual mutations. This is a component of my theoretical approach, but less actuated. The higher level of ambient radiation does cause significantly faster evolutionary progression, but with nature’s desire to stabilize and organize, the chaos of physics is kept under reasonable control. This allows us the inclusion of a variety of humanoid races without having to find other explanations, such as extra-terrestrial migration or some sort of intelligent design.
It’s not that those are ruled out. It’s that I’m not including them as part of the core design.
This ambient radiation is the source of magic on Neuith. Individuals who are genetically attuned have learned how to harness this power and use it to bend reality to their will. For my game system, all magic is wild magic, therefore, all use of magic is subject to surges. The table I’ll create for it will be drastically different than the one I created for D&D 5e, as I want it to make sense based on this discussion.
As a side note, someone from Earth coming to Neuith probably wouldn’t survive very long without some form of a radiation suit. The environment would be toxic. I’m reminded of a couple Star Trek episodes where planetary colonists adapted to local radiation conditions either through alien spores (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/This_Side_of_Paradise_(Star_Trek:_The_Original_Series)) or through adaptation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ensigns_of_Command).
I’ve alluded before that magic is extremely difficult to balance in RPG games. The problem, as I see it, is you’re giving a character fantastic, supernatural powers that other characters don’t have access to. There are several common pathways for balancing magic.
- Nerf the magic user: Give them a low damage threshold, limit their action economy by forcing mechanics like concentration and spell preparation, or give them only weak versions of the spells at lower levels.
- Improve the non-casters: This method awards non-casters with new powers and abilities attempting to make them equal to casters of the same level.
- Screw balance: Don’t try to balance them at all.
In my opinion, these methods don’t work when you apply “my” logic. (I get that my logic may be flawed in your opinion, but you don’t live inside my head, either.) Nerfing the magic user by weakening them in other, non-magical, ways enforces a class structure that I’m trying to avoid. It’s a common trope that most casters in RPG systems are known as glass cannons and can’t take more than one or two hits before getting killed. It’s a wonder any of them survive until maturity in a world defined by bullies. Just to get by, they would have to be identified at an early age and protected. Hence, the all-powerful, enigmatic Wizards’ Guild. But not all casters are graduates or even partial attendees. Improving non-casters by giving them special “powers” relating to their class further enforces a class-based system. Though, to my way of thinking, the idea that a fighter can only swing his sword a certain way “once per day” is ludicrous. Finally, throwing the concept of balance out the window fails the game by disincentivizing non-caster classes completely.
When playing the game, a player wants options. When faced with a combat encounter, be it fighting a band of goblins, a powerful dragon, or anything in between, the game needs to enable a variety of viable, balanced, options. Often, the only thing a fighter can do is “swing” and either hit or miss. Likewise, only one spell in a caster’s arsenal is effective. The rogue is always going to try to maneuver to a position where he can use his special attack. After a handful of combat encounters, an experienced player or Conductor will know what the outcome will be before the battle starts. Why bother?
To make it fun and engaging, each character must be afforded a variety of viable options, regardless their chosen “class.” This is part of why I favor a class-less system, but not the only reason. If I can find a way to prevent there being only one optimal course of action in a given situation, I will go a long way toward achieving my goal.
For a caster, I don’t want them to be limited to back-row artillery or support roles. What’s wrong with a caster getting in the middle of melee and still having a good chance for survival? Can I create a system where characters aren’t single-dimensional? I think so!
But how do I keep magic from being broken? I think the best answer to this is to narrow the focus of magic by keeping the setting in mind from the start. No game subsystem is more integral to the setting than magic. A sword is a sword in any setting. Even in a futuristic, science-fiction space opera, a conventional steel sword is still a sword. For games built around a common architecture, like D&D and Pathfinder, swords mechanics are the same. Magic, however, suffers from the concept that it needs to work in a variety of settings. It needs to be all things to all people. It’s built around a common set of recognizable spells and the foundational mechanics to cast them.
In my D&D 5e campaign, I allow players to swap out their “known spells” when they level up. While this slightly breaks the rules as written, it allows players to redact an unwise decision made at an earlier level. Unfortunately, non-caster classes don’t have this option. A rogue can’t arbitrarily change their chosen archetype at 7th level. The decision made at 3rd level is set in stone. The behavior I’ve observed is that players will “fill” all their known spell slots with everything they think might be useful. During play, one or two of those spells will get used often. Another might get used occasionally, and the remaining spells are never used at all. When they level up, because of my house rule, those third-tier spells are dropped and replaced with spells from the highest level they can cast. This evolutionary process weeds out the mostly-worthless non-combat spells in favor of the combat-oriented, high-damage spells. Some utility spells will survive this process, but they are few. Consequently, when looking at a list of 20 or more “first level” spells, you only need to know three or four. At most. The only factor that enforces variety is the imposition of “class” spells for specific types of casters. This doesn’t change the evolutionary algorithm.
Don’t get me wrong. I want high-level casters to be powerful. I also want high-level non-casters to be powerful. What I don’t want is a situation where the winner of a battle between them is determined by a single roll for initiative. In one of my groups the party battled a very high-level demon. The demon had no chance because it rolled very low on initiative. Only one player didn’t get an action in the first and only round of combat. The demon was killed before it’s initiative number came up. I need to mention that the party planned their strategy, and this was the outcome they were striving for. As dungeon master, I allowed this without “cheating” because I wanted to reward them, not penalizing them, for planning.
How I think my system will fix these issues is in two ways. The first way is that combat magic will use the same resolution table that is used for everything else. The second way is creating a new definition for how magic works.
What I see is a tripartite system where the first piece is based on specialization and the second is based on power generation and channeling, and the third is based on training and skill.
Specialization: Magic is about focusing energy. In my prior attempt at a role-playing system, No-Dice RPG, I defined a variety of energies and built spell lists around them. My plan is to use that as a starting point and building from there. The core concept is that each “spell” within the energy type has utility both within and outside of combat. While this is a decision made at character generation, it’s not so limiting that a character can’t pick up a new specialization energy type during advancement.
Power: Harnessing energy that is part of the environment will not be limited to arbitrary constraints as “once per day” or whatever. This aspect is divided into two parts: where the energy is derived and how much energy is focused into the spell. Where energy is derived comes from a variety of sources that should share a common mechanic – summoning energy has a cost! An obvious example is fatigue or stamina; pulling energy is physically exhausting. The second aspect of how much energy is focused relates directly to how much damage is dealt, or how much force is applied. How this translates is that a caster can cast “low-output” spells more often and easier than a “high-output” spell.
Training and Skill: This pertains to the way the magical energy is channeled. A character with years of training and practice is less likely to screw up than someone who recently and spontaneously started manipulating this mystical force. How this will play out will relate to the resolution codes in the task resolution chart. For an untrained caster, the codes will lead to more chances of wild magic surge, compared to an experienced caster.
Class-based versus Class-less
Normally, character class is a decision made when creating the character. “I want to be a fighter,” or “I want to be a rogue.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with this except that for all the typical classes, including those defined in non-fantasy games, they are all pigeon-holed into common stereotypical tropes. Fighter: big, dumb brute. Rogue: crafty, sneaky, thief. Caster: smart, physically weak… Etc. Why do we do this?
Don’t answer that. I already know the answer. It’s rhetorical.
Should my game do this? Here’s my answer: I won’t stop you if that’s what you want. What if you want a character that spent his youth learning to cook in a kitchen until orcs came and burned down his village, forcing him to live his life on the road. He joined with a group of bandits, but that life didn’t suit him, so he went to a big city and got a job working for the lord. He fell in love with one of the Lady’s handmaidens, and when the Lady was abducted by the big, bad evil guy, the handmaiden was murdered. Now our protagonist wants to join the adventurers hired by the Lord to rescue the Lady. What class is this guy? Chef isn’t in any of the books. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t have skills necessary to go on an adventure. What was Pippen before Gandalf arrived in the Shire and told Frodo he had to go on this great quest to destroy the magic ring? He wasn’t any of the classically defined classes. He was an average guy living an average life.
I don’t rule out the possibility that characters spent a lifetime of training before the adventuring life. But when you think about it, how many hero characters in movies and novels came from this kind of background? Most of them were ordinary people who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances. Some may have had powers they hadn’t yet discovered. Some were reluctant heroes. Here’s my point: ALL of them (at least, all the GOOD ones) went through transformative circumstances, met their challenges and eventually overcame them, and earned the privilege to be known as heroes.
For my game and setting, this is the environment I want to create. This isn’t to say a character didn’t spend their childhood training, but their intent was never to go on a grand adventure. Or perhaps, a humble child from a peasant family grew up farming or whatever else peasants do but has dreams of owning land and freeing her family from the bonds of servitude. I think that character would be fun to play, but typical game mechanics would make her weak, unskilled, and generally useless. How do I, as a game designer, overcome this?
I think the answer is to not create class archetypes. Every character is built using a set foundation, often described as a point-build system. With Physical and Social aspects separated, I want to be sure that when assigning values to the Physical Aspect Facets, there are no bad choices. A character that went through rigorous training will suffer because they will be somewhat one-dimensional (though, not completely.) A character with more common origins will be more rounded across several Facets. They may not be the strongest sword-fighter, the most accurate archer, the most powerful caster, or whatever, but they will compensate with strong survivability facets. Sure, there will always be some give-and-take; there’s no way to avoid it.
The point I’m getting at is in terms of the Neuith setting, most people are common people. Trained casters and fighters exist, but they are extremely rare. I want to encourage players to take on roles that don’t follow the common tropes and archetypes, and I also want to encourage creativity and diversity. I want to do this without sacrificing playability and balance.
I always get a lot of pushback on this topic. It’s my game and I’ll do whatever the heck I want with it. I don’t care if it makes sense to you. If you don’t like it, go design your own friggin’ game!
Okay, that’s out of the way. I always see the question, or some variant of it, “how do I stat firearms?” I answer that question two ways: If you’re in a fantasy world where magic is common enough to solve most of the problems “our” world has solved through technology, then there are no firearms. Otherwise, go find a game that has fire arms and adapt them. Don’t waste your time reinventing the wheel, because it’s been done. Many times.
In Neuith, there ARE NO FIREARMS.
Let me explain. This conversation stems from series of books I read in High School. Lord Darcy was an character created by Randall Garrett (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Randall_Garrett) that lived in an alternate history where the laws of magic were never lost. Though the protagonist wasn’t a caster, his assistant was, and they used magic to solve mysteries. What fascinated me the most about these stories was how the author described the world and how it was different from our own.
When I think about how humankind has progressed technologically, there are four primary drivers of invention and discovery: necessity, convenience, accident, and curiosity. Nearly every invention throughout the ages fits into one or more of these categories.
“That big lion wants to eat me. Maybe if I hit it with a stick instead of my fist, I can hurt it before it bites me.” Invention due to necessity: weapon.
“I want to move all my stuff from this cave to that cave. Carrying it is such a burden. Perhaps if I put it all on this tree branch and drag it.” Invention due to convenience: sled.
“I mixed these common cooking chemicals and packed them into a bamboo tube. It got too hot and exploded. Now if I can just remember what those chemicals were.” Discovery due to accident: black powder.
“I wonder what would happen if I sailed west from Spain. Perhaps I’ll find a sea route to India and China.” Discovery due to curiosity: The New World.
Sure, these things seem rudimentary and obvious. But what happens when you add magic to the formula?
“The big lion is trying to eat me. In anger and fear, I point my finger at it and suddenly, lightening shoots from my hand and kills the lion!”
“I want to move all my stuff. I concentrate and imagine all my stuff disappearing in one spot and instantly appearing in another. And it happens!”
“That guy mixed a bunch of chemicals and made them go boom. Watch this. Boom!”
“(On Neuith) I’ll sail west to see if I can find a passage to the east. After sailing for a year, my crew is about to mutiny, so we teleport back home where it’s safe. Let’s just use teleportation from now on.”
I’m not saying that magic prevents invention. My theory is that magic stunts invention. It replaces necessity and convenience. Accidents still happen, and curiosity will never be quenched, which would account for newer and variations of spells and magical effects.
And for most folks who can’t harness magic, they will still be clever and inventive, just like in our world.
The next factor is the socio-political angle. Those that have power want to keep it and will often prevent those who want power from attaining it. You might call it an aspect of the “Bully Syndrome.” (http://www.psychologyandeducation.net/pae/2016/04/26/adult-bully-syndrome-integrative-conceptualization-based-personality-disorders-framework-chris-piotrowski/) Yes. It’s a thing. Look at our history and you will see how those in power fought against those that bucked the status quo. Remember Darwin, Copernicus, Galileo, and many others? They were visionaries who discovered and invented things but were castigated by the authorities.
Neuith is a fantasy world based on medieval conventions. It’s not a free society where people can freely go about their business and say what they want to say. Freedom may exist in microcosm, but not by and large. Soldiers are taught to love and obey their kings or be expelled. Peasants are taught that to follow the laws of their lords under penalty of death. Slavery, in various forms, exists. There are no modern representative democracies. Communism and socialism haven’t been discovered or invented. There are rudimentary beginnings of these social constructs, but for the most part, countries are ruled by hereditary monarchies that maintain their power through tyrannical and dictatorial policies and procedures. It’s not anarchy, but it isn’t far removed from despotism.
While on Earth, mankind managed to lift itself out of the middle ages, the age of swords and chivalry, in less than five centuries. Because of magic, Neuith’s people have stagnated for three and a half millennia. Therefore: no guns. Black powder exists, but no one knows its potential. It’s nothing more than a side-show curiosity. “Hey, look! This non-magical powder, when ignited, sparkles and bangs, and can even glow in a variety of colors.” But we still use magic to ignite the powder, because it’s easier and more reliable than flint and steel.
Something we see on Neuith, that doesn’t exist on Earth, is the melding of magic and technology. This inventiveness is mostly in the Gnome community in the form of clockworks. Mechanical devices are powered by magic to do the bidding of their masters. Everything from a time-piece that is attached to a leather strap on your wrist to huge engines powered by steam (which is created by a combination of fire and water spells) that can lift enormous weight or do other jobs that magic and might aren’t necessarily suited for. Most people of Neuith, while aware of the Gnomish inventors, are disdainful. They are suspicious of a machine that would replace labor, because they’d lose their livelihoods. Also, magically powered machines are subject to wild magic surges that could cause them to malfunction; sometimes with deadly results.
Furthermore, there are a lot of malicious and cursed magical items proliferated throughout the world. Little is known of their origin, but it is thought that they were either created by an evil enchanter or these were beneficial items that, due to wild magic, have turned evil. Or worse, they’ve been possessed by evil spirits.
Magic also inhibits medical advancements. If someone wounded or sick can go to a local temple and pay for a simple curative spell, what incentive is there to study microorganisms, viruses, bacteria, and the like? Furthermore, the only maladies magic can’t cure aren’t going to be cured through conventional means, either, because they are likely to be magical in origin, like lycanthropy, vampirism, and demonic possession.
This doesn’t stop the development of false cures, like snake oil serum made from mineral oil and camphor. I shouldn’t have to remind you there’s no Food and Drug Administration to regulate development of these so-called cure-alls. If anything, the court wizard will just declare you a blasphemer and throw you in the dungeon.
Alchemy, also known as potion brewing, exists. In Neuith, it’s the result of a combination of repeatable formulae with magic infusion. Mixing most natural ingredients does little other than creating noxious, poisonous, or otherwise useless concoctions. Earth history suggests one origin of alchemy was the attempt to convert lead into gold. Without magic or fusion power, this will never happen. There are no particle accelerators or fusion reactors on Neuith, and if magic could reliably convert matter, gold would have no value because it would be incredibly abundant. Either way, it ain’t happenin’. On the other hand, alchemy does exist, and you’ll likely find a potion shop or two in every major city. Most of the vials on the shelves contain worthless placebos: flavored and thickened water with a few natural ingredients that may or may not have any practical use. You will find an assortment of “love” potions and healing potions at reasonable prices. Perhaps there’s a random assortment of other potions that enhance abilities like strength, memory, aptitude, etc. Overall, you’re probably not going to find any potion that doesn’t do what a magic spell can do, because the activating ingredient is magic. By extension, some taverns and bars might have a “special brew” on their menu that is the result of mixing an alcoholic drink with a potion. The volatility of this combination often results in wild magic surges.
My final topic for this essay is to discuss how religion has shaped and influenced Neuith. Those familiar with the backstory know that up until 3,500 years ago, gods lived among the populace. Their powers were so great they regulated the world to the point that each year is exactly 360 days and the moon’s cycle is exactly 30 days. The first day of every month is the new moon and the fifteenth is always full moon. Solar and lunar eclipses happen at regular, predictable intervals (every 27 years over any given spot, which occurs on the same day of the year in the cycle.) The gods, for at least 6,500 years, maintained peace and order for their followers, provided abundant resources, and handled interaction with other tribes and communities so that wars and battles were few and far between. I’m not saying they were all peaceful, forgiving, and polite with each other. What I am saying is that rarely did their disputes and feuds spill over to the material plane.
These gods created the two alternate planes: Hehl and (what I’m currently referring to as) Limbo. Hehl is where souls go to spend the afterlife. It was partitioned by the gods so that each had their own realm where their followers would spend eternity. Limbo (I need a better name for this) is the plane of everything. Technically, the material plane and the afterlife plane are within this transitive, timeless universe, but for our purposes, we treat it as something separate.
When the cursing wand was created, these gods lost their powers, which were derived from their worshippers. Prior to this point, a god’s power came from the energy created as their followers worshipped them. You’d think this simple formula would generate strife between them that would overflow to mortals, but because of the abundance of available land and resources, as well as all the other gods enforcing a community of fairness and peace, these conflicts didn’t occur.
That is, until some mortals figured out how the gods became gods and began following the same path of apotheosis. That’s when the gods banded together to stop them.
After the creation of the wand, the world went through an extended dark age. Tribal despotism spawned. Small communities, led by local strongmen or warlords, raided the resources of others to survive. No longer did gods ensure perfect weather during the growing seasons, mild winters, and so forth. Plagues, famine, wars, and pestilence ravaged the population. Some of the old gods were still worshipped, but without their godlike powers, they were nothing more than mortals. Perhaps they could still wield magic, but even so, they could be killed. In a pure Darwinian perspective, only the fittest, strongest, and cleverest survived. The people realized they had to rely on themselves and their faith had no bearing on the events of the world. Faith and belief fell to agnosticism and atheism in very few generations. Humanism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humanism), and its corollaries with other sentient species, became the norm.
But, as time went on, order forms out of chaos. Old writings were discovered and interpreted. Through the teachings of the old gods, people learned that even though they no longer had their powers, moral codes and laws still had meaning. Despotism evolved into early monarchies. Adepts relearned how to control magic. The dark ages were ending, and society was emerging into a new renaissance. Temples were built to honor the old gods. The early priests, abbots, and elders, knew the truth about their faith, but, by harnessing magic and by controlling what the masses learned, they could re-instill belief in the gods. Eventually, the elders perished; the following generations forgot the truth. The gods became legends and the object of worship, even though there was no conscious force or personality. Through generations, the personalities of the gods evolved and became archetypes. New stories were written, based on the original texts, which told apocryphal tales of their heroics.
Yet, through all this, the truth was still known to some. The truth that the original gods were nothing more than advanced, powerful mortals, who through harnessing magical and mystical powers, were able to become godlike. This led some to question their origins. Every line has a beginning. What was before the gods of old? Nothing? Inconceivable! There had to be some sort of intelligence that created Neuith, because nothing in the old texts said anything about who created the world or how it was created. The origin of the old races, like humans, elves, dwarves, and dragons, as well as the myriad menagerie of lesser species, were, for the most part, never explained. Some were: the fusion of bulls and men by one of the gods created the minotaur race, for example.
This led, in recent years, to the development of a new religion. A monotheistic belief in a single, ultimate creator who had more power than the cursing wand, greater than any of the old gods, and doesn’t require the fuel of worship to function. Adherents to this new faith believe their lives are better, more tranquil and fulfilling than living without this foundation. They don’t believe they can do anything to influence this god. They believe this knowledge and understanding gives them an inner peace that can’t be achieved otherwise.
Of course, those who cling to the tenets of the old gods don’t accept this new revelation. No wars have been started. Yet.
Five thousand more words worth of background discussion written, and I’m still not ready to design charts and populate them with numbers. What I do have, however, is a better perspective of what I need to do. What are my next steps? I think it is to determine what the character Facets are. I’ll start with a brainstorm list and narrow it down to a manageable set of meaningful descriptors.