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Fantasy Rising: The Power of the Fantasy Genre

What a World, Part II

Matt Snyder
October 2, 2001  

It's anything but a small world. Or, in this case, small worlds.

Last month, I threw down the gauntlet, challenging readers to win me over with their own fantasy worlds, settings, and campaigns. The response was wonderful -- I received about twenty wondrous ideas from you, each a unique take on fantasy and gaming.

So, without further ado, here's the world I found most interesting, most unique and most compelling. (How's that for arbitrary?) All in all, the world I'd most like to explore. Ladies and gents, I give you ... Barsoom. It is a world of warring nations of humanity, dinosaurs, flintlocks, flying ships, rare and mysterious magic and uncertain futures. All of this combines into a campaign of swashbuckling action and political intrigue.

Barsoom is the brainchild of Corey Reid. Corey's Barsoom Web site went a long way toward winning this very visually minded writer over. Here's a look "behind the screen" Corey, and you'll also want to check out his vision of the world online: Barsoom.

Matt Snyder: First of all, tell us about Barsoom. What is this world like?

Corey Reid: Barsoom is a world in the twilight of its years. The seas are shrinking away and the land is drying up. Empires have marched their armies countless times across its landscapes, but nearly all have disappeared without leaving anything more than remote hints at their existence.

The land is populated by immense dinosaurs and other, even more terrible creatures. Humans live, for the most part, bold lives without much concern for danger. Reckless abandon is a way of life in Barsoom. Heck, when your average day at the office might include a face-to-face with a Tyrannosaurus Rex, you need to have a high tolerance for death defying.

And of course there are terrible evils stalking the land. Terrible evils always stalk the land. There is an undead ruler at the head of the world's most powerful nation, secret societies with implausible agendas, awakened horrors from the dim past, and accountants with long memories and unscrupulous friends.

MS: Explain, if you would, what the tagline "Death in Geologic Time" signifies.

CR: Well, at the bottom of every page on the campaign Web site the phrase "Death in Geologic Time" appears. At the top of every page is the phrase, "...one breath". They both have significance, but I don't want to say too much about either, lest my players discover secrets they haven't yet earned.

I drew the phrases from writings I did long ago. To speak of the intellectual notions behind them, "...one breath" is about the idea that tremendous change and upheavals can happen in single, tiny moments. It also suggests the idea of preparing for activity -- drawing in one breath before kicking in the door with both barrels blazing (a mode of conduct of which I highly approve). "Death in Geologic Time" has to do with the notion that we are all caught in stories and forces far beyond what we see around us. You are a continuation of your grandfather's story, should someone ever decide to tell it. And his grandfather, and so on. There are these tremendous stories going on that nobody ever gets to see in their entirety. And death is what keeps us from seeing them as the stories they are.

No, I'm not going to say too much about that, am I? Sorry. But there ARE specific meanings each phrase holds in the context of Barsoom that I won't go into because my players will probably read this.

MS: What makes Barsoom different from other fantasy settings?

CR: Barsoom is a big mystery. There's a million things going on that the players haven't even caught a hint of, and they've already uncovered a ton of mysteries already. I've very deliberately created a world where the players don't really know anything about what's going on. In most settings I've seen, the ground rules and most of the world is pretty clearly laid out for the players, but Barsoom is all about mysteries. I only allowed the players to develop characters from a very limited set of regions, so they don't really know anything about the rest of the world. Half the fun for me is just watching them discover what's out there.

It's also a very political world, and the machinations of the endlessly competing parties guarantees that no situation lasts for very long. I mean, it's REALLY complicated. Events just keep going on around the PCs, and they only hear a fraction of what's really going on.

To speak purely of the setting, the world features very few of the familiar fantasy elements. There's no wizards living in towers on the edge of town, no dragons, no orcs, no elves (no demi-humans of any kind), no clerics and no magic rings. Everybody is human, and they can either be Rogues or Fighters or "civilians". Civilians are represented either by the Expert NPC class or by the Sorcerer class without spells or a familiar. One of the PCs is a historian -- she's not much good in a fight but she knows her way around a library. Which has proven to be very useful on occasion.

There is also very little magic. Actually, when the campaign first started I told the players there was NO magic in Barsoom -- they've since discovered that this is not exactly true, but it is the opinion of most people in the world. What magic there is tends to be up towards the epic end of the scale -- the party has uncovered a nine-foot-long greatsword that none of them can really use properly but did come in handy once when it turned out to be the only thing that could do any harm to an otherwise invulnerable vampire child. I'm very fond of giving players earth-shatteringly powerful magic items that they don't know how to use.

It's great because the fact that the world is so low-magic makes it really exciting when magic does enter the picture. The adventure with the aforementioned vampire child was much more frightening due to the fact that the party didn't believe vampires existed. They know better now.

MS: How did Barsoom come to be? Tell us a little about how it got started.

CR: Barsoom is in some ways the culmination of my DMing experience. I've been running D&D games since 1980 or so and I've processed a lot of lessons and insights into this game. I took my first stab at what I call an "epic" campaign in and around 1984 or so, when a friend of mine and I decided to create a campaign that would be all one story. The very first adventure would lead up to the very last. We were extremely ambitious, and fortunately we worked together very well. The campaign lasted for seven real-life years and the final climax was really worth all the work. We had champagne, even.

So I always wanted to do something like that again, but you know how it is: you move, you work, you get married and years go by. I did a lot of writing, editing and living and finally I couldn't resist the urge to take another stab at it. I knew I wanted to do a sort of heroic, swashbuckling kind of thing, but I had so many disparate ideas I couldn't figure out what to use and what to leave out. So I just threw everything I ever loved about fantasy/adventure stories in.

Literally, I made a list of "Stuff I Like" that included things like "Big honking dinosaurs", "flintlock pistols" and "red guys". It was a long list and didn't really fit together very well, but I just shrugged and threw it all in. I took a map from an old campaign of mine that I'd always liked and dropped the "Stuff I Like" in wherever it would fit. If I couldn't come up with a rationale for something I just put it in anywhere and trusted that I'd come up with an explanation eventually.

I wanted to run a campaign that A) I thought would be totally cool, and B) would be the most complex, realistic campaign I'd ever run. I wanted it to be both thrilling and down-to-earth, with strong characters and grown-up emotions. So for Barsoom, I really raised the bar on myself and worked hard to make something memorable, something that would actually forge an emotional bond with the players.

MS: Can you point to anything that influenced you while creating the world? It shares a name with the planet of Edgar Rice Burrough's John Carter, Warlord of Mars series. Any relation?

CR: Yes, a fair bit. Like Burroughs, Barsoom is perhaps ecologically a little suspicious. A few too many voracious predators for the eco-system to support, one might say. Also there is the theme of a world that is failing, drying up, dying. And the general atmosphere is one of derring-do and leaping into danger with a carefree laugh.

Other big influences on me generally were Steven Brust's excellent Dragaera novels (both the Vlad books and the Phoenix Guard books) and Glenn Cook's outstanding Black Company tales. Both are great examples of combining the fantastical with the down-to-earth, and manage to create wholly unique settings that seem completely real. The reality comes from two things: first, a depth of detail that shows the creator has considered every facet of the world, and more importantly, from relationships that are every bit as messy and tangled as I see in my life. With Barsoom I've really tried to work on those kinds of relationships, be they business or personal or political -- everyone is tied to the world and the people in it. Nobody exists in a vacuum.

Steven Erikson has turned out to be not so much an influence as an echo. I see many of my ideas in his Malazan Empire books.

Not suggesting he stole them from me.

MS: Barsoom has a number of distinct nations. Tell us a little about the various races/ethnicities.

CR: I'm afraid I'm not very creative with my ethnicities and tend to just steal liberally from existing cultures on Earth. I do try to come up with goofy crossbreeds, though. So I have Plains Indians with Aztec names, Spaniards with Mafia-like families, Irish types with a Swiss mercenary tradition, Egyptians with a Roman military organization and so on.

I guess the primary nations on Barsoom would include Saijadan, the Spaniards, who are proud duelist-types with a mercantile bent, and probably the most "modernized" nation. Then there's Kish, the people of which are reddish in hue and live among huge grain fields irrigated from a single, massive river. Their nation once ruled an empire that held most of the world in its grip, but internal strife and rebellion reduced them to fraction of their size in the recent past. Unfortunately for everyone else, they seem to have gotten their act together and are once again expanding. The Yshakans are the aforementioned Plains Indians, regarded by the rest of the world as uncouth savages. Shaer is a nation of kooky Irish mercenaries who fly around in ironclad, steam-powered airships. Nobody knows how THEY work.

MS: You've also incorporated some slightly more advanced levels of technology, notably firearms. Why did you include this, and what effect does it have both in the setting and in game play?

Um, I included guns because they were on my "Stuff I Like" list. There really wasn't any deeper consideration. They're cool. Good enough.

I think it makes the setting more realistic, more believable. It seems closer to our own world, somehow. So many fantasy settings, you look at it and you think -- "Why hasn't anyone figured out gunpowder yet?" And of course I've run campaigns where the PCs decide THEY will figure out gunpowder and that gets messy fast. So I figured I'd give it to them right off the bat, and then make sure the world was full of creatures like dinosaurs -- which can take half-a-dozen bullets and not really notice.

Game play -- low-level characters can get messed up in a big hurry by a couple of thugs with guns. We lost one PC that way. But because my players don't have much access to magic, guns give non-fighting characters the ability to impact a battle. It's worked out really well.

MS: Tell us about actual game play. How has the setting worked out for gaming?

CR: Barsoom has been a real challenge to run. Despite the lack of magic, the world is a high-power one -- at least in terms of average NPC strength. ANYBODY on Barsoom can turn out to be very dangerous indeed. Even peasants have swords and know how to use them. I know, it doesn't really make sense, but oh well. It's part of the Edgar Rice Burroughs influence -- didn't always seem like EVERYONE John Carter met was a master swordsman?

I've also made a point of regularly lying to my players about things like the presence of magic, available character classes and so on. They don't actually know all the rules that are in use, and I kind of like it that way (sorry, guys!). Nobody's born with a list of all the available options in their head -- you have to go out and poke around, see what's out there.

And for things like magic, well, I wanted it to have a sense of mystery and wonder, and I just think that if you give them a Players' Handbook and say, "Pick three first level spells," it's hard for magic to seem like... magic. I want them to figure out how magic works and then learn how to use it themselves.

MS: Do your fellow players have a strong sense of the world? Do they contribute to creation of the realm?

CR: I don't honestly know how strong a sense of the world they have. I hope it's strong. I try to make the gaming experience as rich as possible for them, to give them the sense that this is a real place, but do I succeed? Ask them. They seem to be having fun, anyway.

No, they don't contribute much directly to the creation process, but of course they ARE involved. And I give them a lot of leeway to invent stuff that directly relates to their character. One player decided his family had been ruined by one of the trading syndicates and he came up with some of their members so that he could track them down and extract his horrible revenge. That sort of thing.

Fortunately I have GREAT players who are always thinking about their characters and really pull out a lot of detail for the game. It's so much more fun DMing for players who can take everything to the next level. I'm blessed.

MS: What about rules? Tell us briefly what rules-set you use and why you chose it.

CR: Barsoom actually started out as a homebrew game system -- based on what I could remember of that old Victory Games' product "The James Bond Role-Playing Game". Remember that? I always thought that was the most elegantly conceived system I'd ever come across and had once adapted it for a cyberpunk campaign. So, working from memory (didn't have any of the rules anymore) I put together a pretty slap-dash fantasy game. It worked okay, but as time went on I started to have real problems with things like experience and so on.

It got to the point where I was really going to have to sit down and do some math. And I'm not much for math. The need to tweak and maintain the game system was seriously distracting from my ability to work on the campaign itself. And to tell you the truth, it wasn't really such a great system anyway. Combat took FOREVER.

I got involved in some discussion groups on the OGL before it was released, and acquired a real respect for Ryan Dancey and what he was trying to do with the game industry. I got sufficiently intrigued that I picked up Third Edition, and liked it so much I transferred the campaign over. Haven't looked back. It has that wonderful flexibility that D&D had back in the day. It's a very forgiving system -- you can twist it pretty severely and it still works okay.

As noted earlier, I only allow Rogues and Fighters as character classes. For those who don't fit into either we make do with an NPC class or a magic-less Sorcerer. I've grabbed a bunch of erratic Feats and Prestige Classes from around the Web and stuffed them in (thanks, Killer Shike!). I've also tweaked the armor rules to make armor less attractive an option, especially for those nimble types. A Rogue with an 18 Dex can pretty easily get an AC that outstrips the most heavily armed Fighter, even at low levels. It's that sort of campaign -- heroes don't lumber around in tin cans, they swing on ropes and exchange witty banter.

I've also created my own magic system that has a lot of surprises in it for unwary spellcasters. Once the players are familiar with it, I'll be posting it on my Web site.

There it is, folks. Barsoom as told by its creator. Because I selected Barsoom, I'll be sending Corey a nice new edition of Exalted and the Storyteller's Screen & Storyteller's Guide! Congratulations, Corey, and thanks for sharing your world with Fantasy Rising!

Thanks to everyone who participated in the World Design Contest. It was great fun to read so many cool ideas. I'm convinced, as always, that fantasy is alive and kicking, and people are exploring some very interesting worlds! I'll post some highlights from the other submissions in the forum. See you there.

Have a good one,
Matt TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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All Fantasy Rising columns by Matt Snyder

  • Heroes real and imagined November 16, 2001
  • What a World, Part Two October 2, 2001
  • What a World July 20, 2001
  • Welcome to the Machine June 22, 2001
  • Back to basics March 7, 2001
  • Off to the races April 28, 2000
  • Fantasy is Not Dead March 16, 2000

    Other columns at RPGnet

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