Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Unfocused Thoughts: Medieval RPG

A few months ago I was thinking about cobbling together a d% system made up from bits and pieces of my favorite rule sets - WFRP 2e, BRP, Mongoose Traveller, etc.  I wanted to make the end result be an rpg, most likely only for personal use, where you play in Southern France c. 1200. 

 I've done quite a bit of research in that region, and quite a bit on some of the more... I guess the word is "supernatural" elements that would go along with that setting: miracle stories, the Devil, and necromancers.  I hadn't turned any of that into game mechanics, but I had turned the stuff on necromancers into two pretty good article-length papers and two FLAILSNAILS characters (Philip the Bloody and Eustace of Sark).

I wanted to make something like Cthulhu Dark Ages meets Warhammer but with way more Satan.  Yesterday Cole showed me this.  Having done a bit of research at theRPGsite, RPGnet,* and at various other places around the internet, I was able to more or less determine that this was basically my dream game.  There is just one problem: it's in Spanish.

I never took Spanish - I had French in high school and Latin and Greek in college - and my wife's is too rusty to be able to do much with the preview pdf.  Barring divine intervention, my best option is probably to follow the advice of Brian Gleichman found here.  Restated for convenience it's "Look at the product you're salivating over, list the things you think are cool about it or imagine it contains, and then make your own version based on your perceptions of the product."  It's a great deal cheaper than buying a $23 pdf that's in a language I can't read.

So here are some of my thoughts on how I'd do such a thing.

  • My first thought is to do a hack of WFRP, which is my favorite system ever published.**  However, I think WFRP characters might start a little lower on the totem pole than I'd like for this.  Something more along the lines of BRP should do it, but I definitely want a % system.
  • Either way I'm using WFRP-style criticals.  I even use those in D&D nowadays.
  • I'll need to make period-specific equipment charts regardless of the system I use.  I'm thinking of going with c. 1200 - 1250 for reasons that will be made clear below, but it seems to me that HarnMaster might provide some armors other than "mail" and "leather" that I might want to include.
  • My dream would be to be able to do full Mongoose Traveller style event tables for character generation, but that's probably not gonna happen.  Those things are hard.
  • Still I want something that represents what your "job" is/was.  Maybe BRP-style professions are the best way to do that.  Maybe WFRP ones are.  It'll depend on the base system.
  • Magic is probably the thing that will need the biggest overhaul, but I kinda suck at doing magic systems.
  • That brings me back to the reason I want to set it in the early 13th century: the nigromanticus.  The first reference to "necromancers" or - more accurately - "black magicians" appear in the early 13th century and I definitely want demon-summoning scholars in this.
  • My preferred type of magic system can be summed up as "crossroads and slaughtered goats," i.e.ritual magic with a decidedly Satanic cast.
  • I'm also big into mixing magic with neoplatonism.  Magic works by tapping into platonic forms, in a Christian context the "thoughts of God," and making reality more readily reflect the divine concept you want it too.  Wanna make something catch on fire?  Tap into the form of fire.  Want to heal someone?  Temporarily grant them the state of pre-fall man - which last until they become aware of sin.
  • You can achieve that multiple ways: have demons do it for you/teach you how to do it, have God do it for you, do it via old pagan stuff, or do it by combining things that already tap into those forms - i.e. alchemy.
  • Now I need mechanics for all that, which kinda sounds like a nightmare.
  • Most "enemies" would probably be people, but there would certainly be isolated pockets with "monsters" in them.
  • The aforementioned "monsters" are likely to be things found in medieval bestiaries such as unicorns (with the heads and bodies of deer and elephant feet of course), cynocephali, dragons, etc.  They will be interpreted in the weirdest and most Satanic way possible whenever appropriate.
  • I'd probably set any campaign I'd run somewhere in France (likely in the Languedoc), but that's just do to familiarity with the place.
That's it for now.  I'll probably have more thoughts on this in the near future, since it's actually something I'd been working on for a while.  The discovery of Aquelarre is what prompted me to do a blog post about it.

*Read the comments to get a fuller sense of the product.  Also: what's up with weird capitalization stuff in RPGs?

**Well... that I can read anyway.


  1. In terms of magic systems:

    How much do you want to be "hard wired" before play? Carcosa's magic being 100% hard-wired, and story game "just take narrative control with the spell!" being 0%?

    1. That's a good question. I mean eventually I'd want it to be close to 100% (assuming I use the system often), but I imagine it'd be closer to 25% the first couple of times I run the game - with players making lots of suggestions.

  2. i like it, i like it alot. i especially like the medieval bestiary idea.

    i have recently been looking at A SMALL BUT VISCOUS DOG over here http://vaultsofnagoh.blogspot.com/2011/04/small-but-vicious-dog.html

    1. I use SBVD's version of criticals in my Nightwick Abbey game. It's not my go-to flavor of WFRP though because I basically have a fetish for percentile dice.

  3. Reading about your ideas for ritual magic and neoplatonism reminded me a bit of how Deadlands dealt with shamanic magic. You'd curry spiritual favor through rituals then use that to power your magical abilities. Spirit animals allowed you to store up favor for use later, usually by keeping true to whatever the spirit cared about. That kind of system of debts and obligations seems like a lot of fun to me, especially when that puts you at risk for immolation.

    1. I don't have any experience with Deadlands, but the idea of "debts and obligations" would definitely be something I'd want to be a part of nigromancy.

  4. I think unless you want to Story-Game it, the magic system is an exciting and difficult goal.

    Basically: in any D&D like system, the list of spells is always going to be the part requiring the most brute force.

    But perhaps there is a gordian solution here....

    Ok, here's one:
    YOu can use any spell from any game system. You have to go and find it yourself. However: different kinds of rituals would have to be performed depending how far the system is from the base system. In kind and intensity.

    So: Rolemaster spells would be like tapping the Platonic, Warhammer ones would require blood sacrifice, etc.

    Higher the spellevel (within the referred to system) the harder it is to resist insanity while casting and the bigger the goat has to be... hmmmmm

  5. addenda: it has the bonus of forcing magic users to do research kinda like i presume you want your wizards to in the game.

    They come back and go "Ok, I got a stormbringer spell that is 70% of the way to the top of the system and requires a Type 3 sacrifice, what do I have to do , DM?"

  6. I'm not overly familiar with it, but the magic system sounds like Ars Magica (hermetic / neo-platonic). Free PDF of 4th edition over at Steve Jackson Games.

    1. I'm not that familiar with it either, but I'll have to check it out. Might be good for ideas at least.

  7. I'm feeling a bit under the weather so wish I could give more serious input right now, but YES YES YES this is something I've been thinking along the lines of, please keep us informed!

  8. The asymptotic platonism of the spell system is pretty easily represented by just having spells increase or decrease already existing values, perhaps with thresholds for certain kinds of effects (like stone burning) that can achieved only by magical augmentation. It's when you move to the combination of forms like setting the man on fire, that you're going to have trouble
    (IIRC, IRL Platonic philosophers mostly reject the concept of the admixture of forms, as opposed to their complex combination).

    1. Maybe it's dependent on placing the item with the desired value on the target by mundane means, then enchanting the item until it encompasses the target along with it?

  9. I don't know if it helps, but as I understand it -- from a Spanish acquaintance -- Aquelarre is more or less a modified BRP.

  10. I remember reading a review of Aqualarre in an old Dragon magazine. Later tonight I'll see if I can dig that up and copy-pasta the text to you. It might give some more clues and details about the nature of the game and/or the mechanics.

  11. As Kelvin said, Aquelarre is based on a version of BRP.

    The magical system and bestiary is based on spanish mythology and old texts from spanish medieval.

    The game is one of the "classic" spanish games and its very will known and respected in the spanish RPG comunity.

    I don't know if it has been transalated to english, this version maybe it hasn't but its possible other versions (i think this is the fourth edition) had. I suggest you to try to contact the editorial and ask them.

    If you need more insight about the book or any details (even some help with transalations), just let me know I have it on the shelve next to me :)

  12. Alright, here's the Dragon magazine (October '92) review of Aquelarre; I copied the whole Review section, because the other two games reviewed are of possible passing interest as well:


  13. A quote from the thread on the rpg.net review:
    "The place, the Iberian penninsula. The time, the second half of the fourteenth century. Five kingdoms, Castile, Aragon, Granada, Navarre, and Portugal, live constantly on the edge of war and intrigue, each trying its best to outwit the other. Two kingdoms, Aragon and Castile, have been at war for decades each one secure in the knowledge that with the grace of God it will become the supreme power in the land. Its the lower Middle Ages, an age of disasters, an age of passing, of strong lords, rebellious peasants, prejudice and enlightenment.
    But the history books lied to us. There is another world, older and by far more savage than the petty cruelties of man. A world of fantasy and legend, of magic and madness, deeply hidden in dark wilderness from the prying eyes of the rational. A world nonetheless capable of invading, by night and by dream, the new cities of Man. We speak not here of simple magics and desires, but of feits that bring endless power, of spells that rend the fabric of one's sanity, of inhuman servants, sexual acts of uncompromising fulfillment. Here we speak of darkness, here we speak of the Devil.
    With Aquelarre you will live adventures precariously balanced between two worlds; in a land forgotten by the scholars and history books alike, but nonetheless illustrated in hundreds of songs and legends. All you need to play is this book, dice, paper and pencil.
    ... And so the vampires ride, freely mingling with the White Company that will sack Castile; the Lobisme howls in Galicia, while ghouls ply the tombstones like dark snakes in the land once called Al-Andalus. Lamias haunt ill used roads, waiting to devour the careless. Pedro the Cruel conspires in lofty castles with the Black Prince of Wales, conspiracies that may just cost him throne and soul alike...

    And the Devil laughs, while his witches prepare the Aquelarre!"

    Sign me up. Geez, a kickstarter for translators, editors and license?

  14. Oh, if you are looking for flavorful magic systems inspired by medieval research, you should look into Fantasy Wargaming. I've heard claims otherwise, but it appears unplayable but fascinating nevertheless.