Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Rule of Law: A Chinese Rome

One of my beefs with a lot of the fantasy worlds floating around these days is that they're pretty euro-centric. That's not necessarily bad, but it leaves out a lot of concepts and archetypes that I'm interested in exploring.
Could this represent a Druid too?
One of may favorite aspects of Fading Suns is that you can use the setting to tell so many stories. Sure, at heart its a sci-fantasy space opera game, but you can tell stories of zombie plagues, dirt-farmers who barely leave their hometowns, or spaceship odysseys. The setting is so broad that its hard to find a concept that can't fit with a little modification. From intergalactic hobos to alien freedom fighters, its got just about everything.

So that's where I'd like to take the Rule of Law setting that I originally developed with some friends a few years back. The term that I'm using is Chinese Rome. And the idea behind that is things are familiar, but also new. Crucially, grounding things in the familiar is important for me.

I've heard some friends criticize games like Dark Sun for being too alien. The word bear is meaningless when it applies to strange beetle-like psychic monsters. Similarly, some of my friends aren't interested in doing Oriental Adventures or Al-Qadim because the find the "foreignness" of the setting puts them off a bit. Sure, its nice for a one-shot (or tolerable) but for something long-term those cultures just aren't interesting or are too alien.

So I'm working at looking how those "foreign" concepts and archetypes can be incorporated into a more western-feeling setting. Take honor, for example. Oriental Adventures has a huge emphasis on this, but concepts like honor and duty (Dharma in the Hindu sense or similar Confucian ideas) are absolutely not foreign to western fantasy.

Station or class or caste is a little harder, particularly because in the US we'd like to believe we're all middle-class. So how can we translate that into something folks in the US might understand? I'm thinking about doing it with races and overt racism. Racism is something we understand (or should) and there's no reason we can't incorporate that into the game. Its not always pleasant, and I can see where some people might not want a setting that includes overt racism. I'm not condoning it either. But if the game is art and art is social commentary, I see no problem with a setting wherein Goblins or Dwarves are the worker caste, and while Elves and Humans feud over who's really the highest caste.

The druid is another example of Chinese Rome. In western fantasy, the druid has become the nature-priest. But that's hardly class-worthy, except that he gets special class power. D&D has equated the Druid in recent incarnations with wildshape, but that doesn't need to be the case. The original druid had interesting neutrality restrictions, and was associated with living in harmony with nature. There we see the seeds of a nice and distinct class. Rather than worshiping the gods (like Clerics) or natural spirits (like Shamans), Druids are priests of forces. They might rever balance, the life-death-rebirth cycle, or harmony. Day and night, yin and yang. Druids suddenly have more in common with Roman Cynics, or Taoist, Confucian, and Zen priests. Its a reimagining, for sure. But that's what I'm aiming for.

I've actually gone back and forth on the druid a few times, from including it as a class to relegating it to a cleric variant. But it all comes down to tying the rules and the setting. For me, the Shaman has killed the druid as a priest of the gods of nature. These earthly gods are ancestor spirits, spirits of the land, and animal spirits. Shapeshifting is pretty high-magic and might go very well with the sorcerer or a skinwalker cleric sect. But druids are priests of nature itself, and not just physical nature, but eternal nature. That seems intersting. That seems classworthy.

This druid might not work out. Once you try to decide how this druid will interact with the spell system in a unique way, with mechanics that fit the story... Well, sometimes its hard to see how flawed a thing is until its spelled out. Maybe the wildshaper is better.

I'm not sure that I'd ever really write this all up into a document for a game on its own, but its definitely something that would appeal to me. Notions of fantasy are slowly growing, influenced from Anime and Bollywood, etc. So I'm going to keep working with the idea of a Chinese Rome and see where it goes.


  1. One of the things I've been toying with for writing up the Rule of Law Druid is a more incremental wild shape... like perhaps instead of going full on battle bear form, maybe you can just use a version of Wild Shape at a lower level/less cost to have the Eyes of an Eagle for a few rounds.

    Not sure if that would sync with your idea of Druid as balancer, though, but perhaps I'll write it up anywa.y

    1. I'd like to see it. I can imagine a number of plausible ways to do wildshape. Its an intereting archetype. I just don't see why that's a nature priest right now.

      A fey shapechanger could easily be a sorcerer or wizard.

      Things like control of nature, animal companions, or wilsdhape could even be associated with the taoist/zen/confucian priest. So I could also easily change the name of the balance/harmony priest to something else if both ideas work out well.

      I think I've just hit that point where I really need to see things spelled out to try to decide.