Monday 8 June 2015

Against the Wicked City: an explanation

Against The Wicked City is going to be a repository for the assortment of stuff I've written for the titular game, henceforth referred to as ATWC. As I've mentioned, I'm putting it here mostly for my own benefit; but if anyone else chances across this stuff and thinks it might be useful in their own games, then by all means steal or adapt as much as you like!

ATWC is a fantasy role-playing game about adventurers struggling to free a city from tyranny and corruption. It’s about other things too – there’s a whole world out there, containing everything from underwater cities of green glass to killer robots built by insane toad-men – but the core idea is right there in the title. There’s a great city. This city has fallen into wickedness. It’s up to you to set the people free.

In terms of its thematic underpinnings, ATWC is a game of romantic clockpunk fantasy with a setting inspired by early modern central Asia.

Romantic, insofar as this is fundamentally a game about love and hope and courage and our capacity to triumph over corruption. The Wicked City is a horrible, horrible place, and horrible, horrible things are done there; but ATWC does not assume that the struggle against such horror and evil is necessarily a hopeless one, and my expectation is that any long-running ATWC campaign will end with the liberation of the Wicked City from the bondage of evil which afflicts it.

As written, this is not a cynical game; but it is a game which is enormously sceptical of the redemptive power of violence. (That's why I'm running it with OSR D&D, which ensures that violence is usually a terrible idea!) The evil of the Wicked City cannot simply be stabbed until it falls over and dies; defeating it will require the ability to connect with and unite a whole variety of people and communities, all of them more-or-less damaged and mistrustful, and this in turn will ultimately be possible only through an effort of empathy. (There may also be quite a lot of stabbing along the way, though.) If you think all that sounds like feelgood hippie bullshit, then please feel free to run it as a grimy horrorshow in which evil always triumphs, or as a straightforward tale of national salvation through heroic bloodshed; but the assumption, throughout, has been that this is really a game about love.

Clockpunk, in that it features a world full of fantastical clockwork devices: enormous clockwork war machines, brass men whose clockwork brains allow them to think as clearly as any human, giant bronze heads housing ancient clockwork supercomputers, sky pirates who swoop down on their foes upon clanking clockwork limbs, and so on. It’s kinda like steampunk without the steam, and the aesthetic is more ‘Leonardo’s workshop circa 1500’ than ‘Brunel’s dockyards circa 1850’. If you want to remove it you can probably replace all the fancy clockwork with generic fantasy magic – so the brass men become intelligent golems, and so on – but personally I think it’s kinda neat.

Fantasy, because for all it’s quirkiness, ATWC still takes place in a world which features arcane magic and ancient fallen empires and thirty-two different intelligent species (so far) and swashbuckling adventurers swinging around on ropes and hitting people with swords. The assumed model of play is still ‘four to six oddball misfits and their assorted hangers-on team up to go on an adventure’. There are fantastical landscapes inhabited by fantastical creatures guarding fantastical treasures. If you want to use this stuff to run a traditional fantasy adventure game, you absolutely can.

Early modern, because even if you leave all the impossible clockwork technology out of the equation, the default tech level of ATWC is rather higher than that of the average pseudo-medieval fantasy setting. This is a world with printing presses, black powder weaponry, airships, and laudanum, where people carry muskets rather than longbows when they set off for a hunting expedition in the woods. If you hate that, then you can probably ignore it: just replace all the guns with crossbows, describe books as handmade rather than printed, and so on. Most fantasy settings are so aggressively anachronistic that none of it matters very much, anyway.

Central Asian, because insofar as the places and cultures described in ATWC have real-world analogues, they mostly come from places east of Germany and west of China. This is partly because this is a region which has been mostly neglected by RPG fantasy settings to date, lending it a welcome air of unfamiliarity, and partly because central Asian history is awesome. If, for some reason, ‘fantasy Vikings’ appeal more to you than ‘fantasy Komi’, then it should be fairly straightforward to reskin everything into more standard euro-fantasy drag, though.

So. That's the concept. Rules and whatnot to come...


  1. I've just been pointed over here by +Patrick Stuart - it looks incredibly interesting and right up my street. For a couple of years I've been running a soemtimes grim, sometimes gallows-humourous Central Asian Bollymecha game called Tartary -
    my approach to period/tech levl is a little different from yours: Tartary is post-apocalyptic but nobody knows how long the Great Event was, or if there was more than one. It has buried caches of stuff from various Cold Wars - AK47s in oil barrels, Ottoman cannons, unidentifiable radioactives - but otherwise it's stuck in a kind of Oriental limbo; spears and bows are just as highly prized as unreliable and irreparable ray guns.
    I'm +Richard Grenville on G+

    1. You had me at 'Bollymecha'.

      Seriously, though, I'm delighted (and slightly amazed) to find that someone else out there has an interest in D&D, Central Asia, AND giant stompy robots. I'll read through Tartary the first chance I get.

      Hope you find something useful on the blog!

  2. Hi there, long-time lurker and newbie DM - this looks like a really cool setting, in terms of aesthetic, theme and time/place setting reference.

    My experience with rpgs so far is almost entirely with 5th edition - how easy/wise do you reckon it would be to convert this to 5th? Especially in terms of mechanics supporting the theme of romantic rather than heroic fantasy. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.


    1. I'm not familiar enough with the 5e rule system to judge how straightforward it would be to translate the ATWC classes into 5e rules - if it would be a real pain to have a PC playing a clockwork bear, or a sentient heap of frozen peat, then you might need to keep them to the more traditional class options. You'd also need gun rules, though I bet someone's written some good ones for 5e by now. Beyond that, though, I think it's mostly a matter of tone and theme.

      Two changes I would *strongly* suggest:

      1) Include strict morale rules, to ensure that the normal outcome of a fight is 'some violence happens and then one side surrenders or runs away', rather than 'violence grinds on grimly until one side has been completely exterminated'. Consider having most NPCs require morale checks to *initiate* violence against credible opposition. This should help to get everyone out of the mindset that 'They attack on sight and fight to the death' is the expected norm from every encounter, and encourage negotiation instead.

      2) Decouple XP rewards from violence. Dealing with opposition without bloodshed should be at least as heavily incentivised as just beating people to death.

      Aside from that, I should think you'd be fine. Good luck with the game!

  3. I stumbled on this looking for Central Asian mythological stories and creatures for my own campaign. This. Is. Fantastic. And exactly like to the setting I had in my brain.

    I'm a new-ish GM running Pathfinder, but considering D&D (which would be tough because we're 3 sessions in already). Do you have any recommendations for CA myth resources?

    Also, did you set the expectation of mrdr-hobo not always best option ahead of time or let the players discover?

    1. Re: Central Asian myths - most of the sources I've found are academic works of anthropology, so it's easier if you have access to an academic library. I got some good mileage out of Julian Baldick's 'Animal and Shaman: Ancient Religions of Central Asia', and from Richard Foltz's two books, 'Religions of the Silk Road' and 'Religions of Iran: From Prehistory to the Present'. You can read a translation of the King Gesar epic at, although my browser tells me it's currently infected with malware. Beyond that it's a matter of checking world encyclopaedias of mythology, and looking things up on JSTOR (or, failing that, on Wikipedia). Wikipedia's 'list of Turkic mythological figures' is a pretty good place to start:

      And I'd never try to run a game built on these kinds of assumptions without discussing it with the players first, and making sure that it was the sort of game they were interested in playing. Otherwise, they'll respond to the unproductiveness of violence with yet more violence, until all that's left is a heap of PC and NPC corpses where the campaign used to be. Never try to solve out-of-character problems with in-character solutions!

  4. say, what other systems do you might reccomend for a game set in this setting? as some of my players are interested in playing in this setting, but aren't interested in this system, or in an osr or dnd in particular.

    1. My systems knowledge is badly out of date, but in my view the three key elements of an ATWC game are these:

      1: Characters are human-scale, not superheroic, with no prospect of simply levelling up until they can blast their way to victory.

      2: The game is relatively fast and loose, without people worrying about musket calibres and whatnot.

      3: The system supports non-violent conflict resolution, and doesn't channel people towards combat all the time.

      1 and 3 disbar most modern D&D editions, as they're built around the assumption that the players will ultimately hack their way to victory and triumph through their overwhelming mastery of violence, which from an ATWC perspective is kinda missing the point. I'm sure some kind of Apocalypse World hack could work, though, and I've heard good things about the more modern versions of FATE!