Over July 4th I started thinking about “The Elf Game” again. For those who came in late, thanks for coming, and “The Elf Game” is basically my take on Classic D&D if elves were the focus and humans just a race class.
I suspect what prompted this outbreak was Godbound, Sine Nomine’s “old school” game of demigods in a broken world. Among other achievements Godbound introduced a classless variant of Classic D&D without an awkward skill system grafted on. Instead it uses “Facts”, freeform text that grants bonuses to attribute rolls for tasks and situations mentioned in a Fact. It’s Fate Aspects, Barbarians of Lemuria Careers, Shadow of the Demon Lord Occupations, Risus Cliches, and PDQ Qualities all rolled into one.
About The Elf Game
Anyway, that and the clean mechanics returned me to one of my “fantasy heartbreakers”, The Elf Game. So far I just created files for the chapters and (too many) appendices, but soon I might take my last attempts, including The Elf System draft I posted here, and start re-editing them for the (slightly) revised chapter structure:
- “Making Your Elf”
- “Basic Rules”
- Apprentice (magic-user with powerful spells)
- Envoy (original F/MU recast as guide to the human world)
- Ovate (sort of cleric with powers not spells)
- Warden (fighter/ranger without spells)
- Yeoman (sort of thief/rogue)
- “Game Mastering?
- “the Human World”3
All standard stuff.
The so far 8 appendices break down into two groups:
- “Making a Faerie”
- Enchanted Beasts (intelligent beasts)
- Fairies (tiny flying Cantrip-casting powerhouses)
- Goblins (random progression)
- “Making a Human” (level-less skill-based)
- “Making a Dwarf” (career-based4)
- “Making a Gnome” (neither elf nor dwarf but a bit of both)
- “Making a Half-Human”
- half-human in the Elf World (elf with human “powers” plus multiclassing with level limits)
- half-human in the Dwarf World (taller, faster, less hardy dwarf with careers)
- half-elf in the Human World (human skills plus elf Cantrips)
- half-dwarf in the Human World (shorter, slower, hardier human with skills)
- “Making a Faerie”
- Sorcery (dark magic that some humans use)
- the Elf World (what elves know but don’t want to think about)
- the Underworld (where Dwarves and monsters live)
If I continue with this I’ll have to discipline myself to finish the main rules before working on the appendices.
Race classes always fascinated me. The idea of compressing all the diversity of an entire species to a single class, while humans get to be clerics, fighters, magic-users, and anything else game designers added. AD&D “fixed” this, but OD&D and BD&D had already burned the concept in my brain. No doubt it was one impetus for this experiment.
The saner part of my mind, knowing my current gaming group wouldn’t play-test this unless I paid them (and maybe not even then)5 thinks I should start with something else. My probably bad ideas so far:
The Dwarves escaped their servitude to the Elves and fled to the Underworld, where they knew their former masters dared not follow. It was and is a mad idead, but necessary. Every Dwarf believes that.
Carving out a life in the Underworld is difficult. Things live here, some almost like people, many more emphatically not. The Dwarves must maintain their vigilance. The iron gates require constant repair, the passages to the Deep need watchmen, the miners need guards lest some newly opened cavern birth horrors.
Peace with the humans meant they could exchange their gold and silver, which was plentiful under the mountains, for food, which was not. Dwarves still tended the farms on the lower slopes just in case, but the time of rationing has ended, and the Dwarves are now prosperous. The inner and outer halls have turned from battlegrounds to work projects and at last to homes and public spaces. The seven hereditary foremen of the seven Great Projects begat seven Kings of seven Kingdoms; their realms include kilometers of tunnels, hundreds of natural caves, and dozens of checkpoints between safe and unsafe paths.
Dwarves honor their ancestors and those whose work built the Allied Dwarf Kingdoms. Yet special honors go to the erforscheren – what humans call “adventurers” – who push further into the Deep, looking for new veins of wealth, new sources of food, and potential new dangers that may one day threaten Dwarfkind …
- “the Dwarf World”
- “Making Your Dwarf”
- “Basic Rules”
- “the Underworld”
- “Running the Game”
Plus an appendix on adding Elf and Human characters. As outlines go it’s a little … short.
Man and Overman
What the Human Farmer Says:
We thought we had won.
After long negotiations we’d made peace with the Elven Council of Clans6 and the Dwarf Kingdoms7. Our own lords had pledged fealty to a single High King8. The soil of the valley was fertile; the harvests fed not only us but the Dwarfs, with plenty to store for the lean times.
Then the Overmen came.
That’s what we called them: humanoids eight feet tall clad head to toe in unearthly armor, wielding sorcery that baffled even the Elves. The first one came through the Evendale Ring, a metal circle three meters across standing amid Ancient ruins. Then more came through other Rings. Then they built a fort of metal walls in what was Evendale, and cleared the land of human and faerie alike for kilometers around.
We tried to parley, but they killed the messengers. The Elves deciphered the language of the ruins and tried again, but the Overmen only laughed. Why negotiate when they could simply take what they wanted? Gold, land, artifacts of the Ancients … we were simply in the way.
So we built walls and fortifications around our towns and our farms. We man (and woman and dwarf and even elf) them night and day, preparing for the next attack. When it comes, they destroy, and we mourn the dead, and then we rebuild stronger. But Dwarves are used to this life; we are not. The Elves have retreated; we cannot, for we have nowhere to go. As long as they come in groups of six or less warriors, plus the servants we call Undermen who do not fight, we should be fine.
We’ll be fine …
What the Overman Adventurer Says:
Report to Valerian9-Prime Harun Elos-son, Imperial Legate:
We have established a foothold in the new world. While the weaklings have increased their resistance, we have broken them time and again. Imagine: only a few raycasters and jerry-rigged god-defier bombs10 have filled them with the fully justified fear of their imminent demise. We encourage the Legate to send a century of warriors and their slaves to pacify this world. The investment would be minimal, but the rewards for the Empire – and, dare I say, the Legate? – would be enormous.
Please respond at your eminence’s earliest convenience.
Karnelian9-Free11 Jherok Mokrok-son, Mercenary for Hire.
As my footnotes suggest, I’m starting to develop the Overmen beyond: “Crush the lesser races! Conquer the [multiverse]! Unimaginable power! Unlimited rice pudding! Et cetera, et cetera!” (ref)
- “the Middle World”
- “Your Character”
- “Social Conflict”12
- “Flora and Fauna”
- “the Overmen”
- “Running the Game”
Appendices/supplements will include:
- Importing characters from Elf Game and Dwarf World
- “on Elves”
- “on Dwarves”
- Exploration of the Overmen
- “Overman Devices”
- “the Overman Empire”
- Other Powers
- “More Flora and Fauna”
- “Ancient Gates”
Or I could turn the 3d6 variant into “Paranormality”, a paranormal game that was meant as the corporeal complement to “Astral”.
Book 1: Core
This was the working outline for the core rules.
- Character Creation
- Task Resolution
- Narrative Time [i.e. non-combat skill checks and downtime]
- Bullet Time [i.e. combat]
- Game Master Responsibilities
- Decide the Theme and PC Involvement
- Sketch a Setting
- Define Player-Facing Elements
- (random advice)
- Challenges [i.e. determining target numbers]
- Sample Bestiary
Obviously there’s some clunky bits I need to fix.
The appendices seem to be full of altenate rules, which indicate how not confident I was at that point. I’ll leave that until later, if ever.
According to my original outline, “Paranormality” can be set anytime in history or any speculatif fiction setting. I’d like to narrow that down to a default of the 1950s through early 1970s. This was the era of heavy parapsychological “research”. (Call of Cthulhu has the Victorian Age and Roaring Twenties covered.) So an appendix or supplement might include:
- Parapsychological Research throughout the ages.
- A Beatnik’s History of the 1950s.
- The Swinging Sixties. [actually late 1960s through early 1970s]
To do this right I’d have to dig into some paranormal research, science fiction with psionics, and paranormal horror.
(So maybe I don’t do it right?)
Which is a far cry from my simple game of astral projectors exploring the astral plane and encountering astral entities. What did I call it?
Book 2: Powers
What was notionally spun off into a systemless companion book would cover the following areas:
- Mentalism, Conjuring, and Cold Reading
- Mind-over-Matter Powers (Telekinesis, Psychic Healing, etc.)
- Ceremonial Magic
- Spiritualism and Mediums
- ESP, Clairvoyance, and Remote Viewing
The latter three get special attention because each adds a number of attributes, talent trees, and special rules. Mind Over Matter, in contrast, has mostly independent talents with attached skills.
Book 3: Entities
An extended bestiary to supplement the Core rules.
- Front Matter
- Creature Types
- Meaning of Fields and Statistics
- Recurring Special Abilities
- Human Archetypes (short list)
- Creatures (longer list, probably needs subdivisions)
Supplement 1+: Conversion Notes
Notes on converting mechanics, particularly Book 2, into other systems:
- d100 (BRP, Call of Cthulhu, Legend, OpenQuest, Mythras, etc.)
- (unofficial) Cypher System
- (unofficial) Shadow of the Demon Lord
So What Does Come Next?
I don’t know. The Elf Game made sense when Old School Rules dominated the non-D&D RPG industry, but now they’re background noise I’m not sure it will have the same impact. Man and Overman and Dwarf World feel a little incomplete as successors to a game that doesn’t exist.
Man and Overman has some interesting elements on its own: humanity becoming someone else’s kobolds, heroes trying to use their influence to organize a defense, attempts to negotiate with an implacable enemy. Yet the Overmen as written might end up being a little too one-note, like the 1970s Cylons as opposed to the 21st century series’ Cylons. Perhaps, like the Daleks, adventures should let the Overmen exit the stage as adventurers do some adventuring. (Questing for something in the Ancient ruins that may turn the tide perhaps.)
And then there’s Paranormality, which might make a decent standalone game about psionics. However it lacks a clear antagonist or plot engine. Characters have these supranormal powers … and? Are government agencies after them? Does something in the Psychic Plane take notice and come after them? Are there ancient astronauts who hold the key to understanding what’s happened to them?
Games like Numenera have a clear focus: scavenge the ruins of prior
worlds for useful one-use items and valuable intact artifacts.
The second edition added the long-term goal of building a community that lives
better than the
murderhobos wanderers that founded it. Even “sandbox”
games push their heroes in a certain direction, if only out of greed.
The days of general rulesets that a GM simply knows what to do with
is long past, assuming it ever really arrived.
Obviously this analysis paralysis isn’t getting me anywhere. Did Greg Stafford have a master plan? Did Gygax and Arneson? Or did they just build something they thought was fun, put it in front of people, and let them play with it and tell them where it needed work? No, really, someone tell me.
Obviously I’ll never be a great game designer. Or even a good one, probably. But these ideas won’t leave me alone, and if only for my own sanity I at least have to try something.
“The Best” really is the enemy of “The Good”.
I.e. low powered magic every elf can use. ↩︎
I.e. high powered magic only Apprentices can use. ↩︎
I.e. where elves adventure, not realizing monsters and mazes aren’t properly part of the human world. ↩︎
I haven’t decided whether these resemble freeform BoL careers or skill-granting Warhammer Fantasy careers. Why not both? ↩︎
I wonder if someone in Kevin Crawford’s life heard him describe Godbound and said, “So you’re rewriting Exalted as a D&D game? That’ll never sell.” ↩︎
Not a mistake; elves have a loose social structure of tribes and clans where the heads of all clans must convene to make any important decisions. ↩︎
Not a mistake; dwarves consolidated their various guilds and houses under the kings of the seven major settlements, who themselves cooperate against the Things that live deeper under the earth. ↩︎
Other lords had called themselves “kings”, but the High King has support from these other kings. It’s more like a federated system or confederacy than a centralized government, hence “High King” not “Emperor”. ↩︎
A tough word to translate. Literally it means “thing that briefly ignores the edicts of the gods”. Apparently these are small one-use devices whose effect could be considered magic, but with a power and effect unlike any known to dwarf, elf, faerie folk, gnome, or human. ↩︎
And now my brain is working out the social castes of the mysterious Overmen. I’m thinking Underman (non-Overman) Slave, Overman Slave (for some possibly hereditary crime), Free Underman, Freeman, Landed Gentry, Knight, Artificer, Noble, and Prime, in order of power and prestige. Primes come from the six(?) ruling families of the Empire; Nobles are of lesser families. Artificers ensure the supremacy of the Empire. Knights are rigorously trained warriors, but all Overmen train in weapons. Only Slaves, Free Undermen, and Artificers come from conquered peoples. Overmen believe strongly in the power of heredity, but they acknowledge the utility of some lesser beings. ↩︎
A big theme of this game is the heroes getting disparate groups to cooperate in their defense against the Overmen. I may introduce a full-blown faction system before I’m done. ↩︎