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Interview with John Curtis (Bladelands), by Tomas Skucas

Tomas Skucas April 20, 2000
 

John Curtis spent several years working as a technical writer for the government (with a degree in English and a minor in Computer Science). Tossing all logic and sense to the wind, he went to work for a game company and found himself as the series editor for his favorite RPG, Rolemaster. For six years, he oversaw the "re-birth" of Rolemaster into the Rolemaster Standard System (later re-titled as Rolemaster Fantasy Role Playing) as well as assisted ICE (the great folks who bring you Rolemaster) in several other successful gaming endeavors (including picking up the wacky game, Fluxx!). Now John works as a technical writer for a manufacturer, but continues to influence the Rolemaster world as the director of the Bladelands line of products for ICE. He is responsible for core books for the Bladelands line and the epic campaigns for the new world. He also heads a team of authors who will be bringing you all the support products you need for this exciting and dark new fantasy world.

What is the feel of Bladelands?

Hmmm...that depends on how you define "feel." I will take my best stab at answering what I believe your intended question was.

The Bladelands is "not" traditional swords and sorcery fantasy or even high-fantasy (by most definitions). There are no lost princesses (stolen by the seventh son of the ancient sorcerer who was defeated by some hero in ages past) or even long lines of kings (well, except for the dwarves).

From the perspectives of the inhabitants of the world (as it exists now), the world is VERY new (the currently accepted calendar is less than 200 years old). Of course, the world is MUCH older than that...but most of the current population doesn't think that way.

For the human population, the world "feels" like a Dark Ages time. There is a great deal of fear, superstition, uncertainty. There is only one "free" city for men (though, when the world is launched a second city has just been founded).

There are obvious enemies among the non-humans (the Gorlu in particular), but even the world is unfriendly (as the Bladestorms show no mercy).

For the non-humans (i.e., longer-lived races), each has their own "take" on the current situation the world is in. Almost the entire Dwarven nations of old have been enslaved by the "goblinoid" race (known as the Gorlu). The one tribe of Elves that is left in the world has sacrificed their immortality to control the fate of magic in the world. There are no other "traditional" non-humans (though there are cultural differences between different groups of the three mentioned above: Dwarf, Elf, and Goblin). No halflings. No half-elves. No gnomes. etc.

So for most of the inhabitants, the world is a dark place. But, in the dark veil that has covered the land for so long...a light. The City of Hope has arisen to show all peoples that great good can arise out of the burnt ashes of old.

What are the differences between Bladelands and other pre-generated campaign worlds?

A bit tougher. Where to begin...

First of all the world is not a pleasant place. It is hostile. Both the dominating cultures and the actual world itself are hostile. The majority of the Middle Lands (which includes the Valley of Tears (the focus of the first few BL products) is part of the Gorlu Empire. The Chuan fight a continuous guerilla war along the northern borders of the empire while the free people try to rebuild something of their past in the far southern end of the Middle Lands (trying to not look like a threat to the vast might of the Gorlu warlords).

It's the brutality of the world that makes the hero more heroic! Yes, failure can (and probably will) happen. But there are mechanisms built within the rules that allow the players to have a great deal of control over the "fate" of their hero.

The rules for the world are (obviously) based upon the Rolemaster Fantasy Role Playing engine, but the engine has been customized to fit the world. And we have been VERY careful about making sure that the "feel" and "flavor" of the world take priority over the rules. Any rule that is included has to pass a check to ensure that it doesn't create a sense of world violation.

Everything is about "choices" that the heroes make. There are basically no absolutes within the world. The players will be making choices as the heroes and the destiny of the world will be revealed!

So why is this different. First of all, the Bladelands world is changing. It is not a static product with tons of stuff "tacked" on to it. It is more like a snowball. We are simply starting the ball rolling down a hill. As time goes on the world will change. New professions will be unveiled as the world moves on. New races will be revealed. New secrets. New legends. New futures! All currently hidden by the veil that masks the world.

The new stuff for the world will come through two very distinct channels. The first are various sourcebooks that will explore a specific element within the Bladelands (i.e., a given region, a given race, etc.). But the new kind of thing will be the epic campaigns. Through the epic campaigns, the "true" nature of the world will be slowly unveiled. More on this concept is shown in the answer to the last question.

One thing that you have mentioned is the "epic stories" that will be featured in Bladelands. How will they work?

The epic campaigns. Let me explain a bit about them. First of all, we recognize that fewer and fewer great RPG campaigns are being run now-a-days. We have attempted to figure out why. The conclusion: set-up time. It is not an easy task to design and prepare for a full-blown campaign. More and more folks are running one-shot adventures (that might last a handful of sessions). What the epic campaigns are designed to do is solve this problem. We will design the campaign and map out the major elements (of course, leaving some latitude for each GM to customize the story a bit). We will do all the hard work, you have to invest (as a GM) no more time than you might spend preparing for a much smaller adventure and you get the results of a full-blown campaign!

Imagine a mini-campaign that a GM could purchase. A campaign that comes with at least 100 hours of session time planned out. Of course, at the center of any good campaign (large or small) are the heroes so this campaign comes with a set of heroes. You can use the pre-generated heroes (to save time) or you can use the guidelines on how to create characters for this story line, as the characters must have certain elements built into them in order for some of the major story elements to interact with the characters (yes, this does mean that the players are not "completely" free to create whatever kind of character they want, but that is really true in any story-based campaign). The GM will always restrict you just a little in order to promote the elements of the story that are important).

This mini-campaign has been crafted to take into account varying play-group styles and is also designed to reveal something interesting and unique about the Bladelands. This first mini-campaign (The Broken Eyes of Cathar) should be the 2nd product released in the Bladelands product line.

Now imagine several of these mini-campaigns. Each can be played independently of each other. However, if each is played in succession, the bigger picture can be unveiled. There are major character developments that can be explored... and grand epiphanies to be revealed (e.g., back in book #1, a certain event happens that is a major plot element for book #4).

The net result is an epic campaign that should take a couple of years of session time to play out! The first epic campaign (The Facets of Darkness) will be played out over 5 books. The first four books have already been designed and playtested (and the fifth is underway right now!). The plan for releasing these books is that a new book in the epic campaign be released every 6-9 months. That way, you (the GM) don't get overwhelmed with products to buy for your campaign (after all, you will want to get the other BL sourcebooks too) and just about the time your previous mini-campaign is drawing to a close, you should be able to buy the next one and move straight into the next book without much (if any) break in the story!

Why is the civilization in the midst of a Dark Age? How did they happen? Do any previous civilizations have any effect on the current one?

Ah yes. Good question (I should have dwelt a little on this before). What is told below is a "generally" accepted version of "the ancient" past. The truths about the past are shrouded in legend and mystery (and may, over time, be uncovered). Just remember that this is from the perspective of a general person within the Bladelands (who happens to be somewhat interested in the past).

Some great distance in the past, there were great civilizations upon the face of the world. Huge cities, enlightened scholars... and huge armies. People built great wonders and committed great atrocities.

But something went wrong. Some cataclysmic event caused the horror that is now known as the Pall. The Pall was the end of the world. The Armageddon to wipe everything from the face of the world. It was the ultimate Bladestorm, the ultimate manifestation of magic. The ultimate end of us all.

But a handful of brave wizards walked into the Pall (while other hid themselves). They walked in with a single goal (though for different reasons): stop the Pall. End the maelstrom that will destroy everything.

Time went on. The Pall rode the lands like a reaver. Destroying all that it touched. The wizards fought the storm. Years passed. Generations of men were born in hiding; hiding from the storm that raged around them.

At last an unmeasured amount of time later the Pall ended. The storm that consumed the land lifted and withdrew a ways. Not gone, but more distant now than it ever had been.

And so we begin again. So we rise from the ashes of what once was...

From a view outside the world most of the population of the world has been in hiding for many generations of men (and even a handful of dwarven or elven generations). While in hiding, technology was basically abandoned (as men struggled just to hunt and grow meager little gardens).

A few cultures maintained a level of technology (specifically the Gorlu and the Dwarves, though the Dwarves are now enslaved by the Gorlu). Some of the new cultures that have arisen want to reclaim what was lost of the past, others want to discover the past in order to do something entirely different. Most simply want to get on with living, living from day-to-day.

You mentioned that the land itself is hostile...how so?

What I was talking about specifically are Bladestorms. Bladestorms are a constant threat in the world. There are three basic ways to summon a Bladestorm (and therefore 3 "threats" to the folk of the world).

The first and most common way a Bladestorm happens is when two days in a row have the same Hue, there is a chance of a Bladestorm occurring on a world-wide scale (though it is more like a traveling hurricane affecting only one area at a time and moving constantly).

The other two ways a Bladestorm is summoned causes a Bladestorm to appear only in a localized area. The damage is basically the same as a world-wide storm, but it only affects one area.

If too much "emotion" is gathered in a one place, a storm can be summoned. This is the reason that large-scale warfare doesn't happen in the Bladelands (as it would certainly summon a storm and kill everyone on the battlefield... as war creates pain, suffering, anger, hatred, etc. all in a very localized area). But if a village is suffering from a plague (for example) and there is great suffering, a storm might just reach down from the sky and cleanse the world of the plague!

The final way a storm might be summoned is if there is a great concentration of magic released in a given locality. This has an interesting effect on a player's choice for spell casting. If he sits in one place for too long and casts too many spells, the chance of summoning a Bladestorm slowly rises. Of course, if he isn't the only one in the area casting spells, which is likely, he will have a "uncertainty" factor about the exact chance of the storm appearing. Moral of the story: don't depend on powerful magics to save you...as they may be your downfall instead!

What will be the level of magic?

Again, this kind of question seems innocent, but is loaded. "Level of magic" is something that people think is defined, but actually isn't. But I think (again) that I understand the nature of the question and will attempt to answer it.

Magic is EVERYWHERE in the Bladelands. People see it in the sky (in the form of hues on the Veil...the Veil being the shroud that covers the sky). The Veil is now the home of the Bladestorms... and the physical manifestation of magic itself! The storms of old are not gone, just more distant.

But there are events that can summon forth the storms again and magic is one of those events!

But people fear magic. Fear it greatly for most wizards or dabblers in magic are insane (as magic does slowly drive one over the edge (rules are in place to effect this)). So while magic is everywhere (i.e., high magic level), people fear it and distrust it (i.e., low magic level). The net result, GMs should be able to customize their own games to the "level" of magic they want.

What will differentiate Bladeland magic from other campaign settings?

In the Bladelands, everything centers around Hue. A person's Hue is a measure of their soul. It is derived from the Hue of the day. Let me explain.

In the Bladelands, there is a shroud in the sky. No person in the Bladelands has ever seen a star. They have not seen the night as we see it on Earth. Instead there is a veil of shifting colors in the sky. The Veil always has a color associated with it. When the sun rises every morning, the color of the day is established and the veil will remain that color until the next sun rise.

On the day you are born, your soul takes on the color of the day. In addition, you soul has a "strength" which is a measure how closely you are "tied" to the veil of Hues (this is represented by a number from 1 to 10). Finally, when the Hue of the day matches your soul (i.e., your Hue), many people will find that they are better than normal. That they can do things others cannot do.

From a rules perspective, a player selects a hue for his character (in the Core Book there are seven hues, when we release the Book of Hues, two more will be introduced). In addition, a player must choose whether to have a high Hue Value (which affects things like magic addiction and fate points) or have many Hue Abilities (which are special things you can only do when the day matches you Hue). Of course, you can always take a little of each.

Now about magic. The basic rules for magic are Rolemaster rules. However, each presented spell list will actually have a Hue associated with it. When your Hue matches your spell lists' Hue, you have a slightly different version of the spell list that you may choose to use (where durations may be longer, ranges better, area of effect better, spells not cost as many PPs to cast, and sometimes new and different spells will be available (it will vary by the spell list)). You get a similar effect when you are casting spells from a list and the day matches the lists' hue (even if your Hue doesn't match the lists' Hue).

There are two other special effects that makes magic in the Bladelands "cool": magical addiction and insanity.

When a caster releases magic through his body, there is a physical reaction (from the body) that can occur. It is possible to become "addicted" to the feeling of magic running through your body. This results in a spell user needed to cast more and more magic.

Magic addiction, by itself has two effects. It makes casting spells harder (until you have met your addiction for the day) and it determines your chance of going insane. The more addiction you have, the more likely you are to gain insanity from spells that fail.

There are a few special rules about addiction (for example one race is naturally resistant to magical addiction and have some special rules). The most important rules, of course, are how to get rid of addiction (and there are a couple of different ways given in the rules).

How long has Bladelands been in development?

At last, an easy one. The Bladelands has been in development for over three years. At first, the world was to be launched as an online game. About a year's worth of design went into the basics of the story-lines and setting.

But as time went on it became clear that going online was taking too long. We shifted the focus back to a paper-product launch. This required some re-design of some issues, but mostly it was just on a faster track now.

Two years ago last December, we started the first in-house playtesting of the setting. The first year was VERY painful for the players as rules for characters were changing almost every month (we were meeting twice a month on average). After the first year, the rules changes were less and less frequent. However, when they happened, they tended to be even more painful.

Finally, as of the end of last summer, most of the final major rules issues were ironed out. All along, the writing was going on. Little bits here and there. Racial descriptions. Histories. Stories. Legends. Rules. Finally, it was all coming together.

So here I am, just a few weeks from final delivery of the final manuscript for the core book. With well over 50% of the next three follow up products ready to go!

Tomas Skucas, skucas@rpg.net

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What do you think?

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