War of Ashes RPG: Extras, Extras! – Part 4: Ancient Wonders

Snow skirmish among Ancient ruins

As I work on the system portions of the War of Ashes RPG I’m writing for Evil Hat Productions, I’ve reached the sections that are not ready just out of the box in the Fate Accelerated system.  In Fate parlance, these are the Extras, used to model some special features of the setting like magic, superpowers, advanced technology, etc. Part 1 of the discussion focused on magic; Part 2 (and a smattering of related posts) on miniatures combat; and Part 3 on gear and equipment.

Today I want to think about the lost knowledge and technology of Ancient Sentians.


In the history of the world of Agaptus and the War of Ashes, many centuries ago the Sentian people reached high levels of knowledge and technology, at least compared to their descendants. The Sentians were ruled by scholar kings and built great capitals, roads, monuments, and temples; but then the Kuld hordes arrived from the north and the Sentians had to create a warrior class. When the Kuld were repelled—for good, they thought, though they were wrong—victorious General Vidaar and the military caste, fearing obsolescence, seized power from the scholars and destroyed every shred of writing, knowledge, or education they could find. Thus the knowledge of the Ancients was obliterated, though not the marvels they had left behind.

Eventually, the military faction was tricked into leaving and became the Vidaar nation; while those left behind to rebuild, painstakingly trying to reconstruct lost knowledge, became the Elvorix. Both factions are descendants of the Ancient Sentians, but neither can equal the feats of architecture and engineering left behind.

What This Looks Like In the Game

The Ancient ruins are to current-day Elvorix and Vidaar what abandoned Roman roads, bridges, temples, and aqueducts would have been to inhabitants of the British Isles circa 900 A.D. They borrow flavours from ancient marvels of architecture from around the world like the ones left by the Mayans, Inca, Zhou Chinese, Ancient Egyptians, Khmer, etc.; and from fiction, like legendary Atlantis, Mu, Shambhala, and so forth.

They are forgotten, made nearly invisible by their ubiquity; everywhere in Sentia one sees ruins, and entire villages and cities are built among these. In addition, the incipient ice age has driven the land’s inhabitants to live underground more and more often; what better place than the catacombs, vaults, and half-buried palaces of the Ancients, with their unmatched masonry?

These marvels are not magic, except in the sense of Arthur C. Clark’s Third Law; they come from advanced but forgotten knowledge. Based on real-world knowledge developed millennia ago but either forgotten or never applied to practical uses, we could pictures advances in:

  • architecture
  • civil engineering
  • mining and metallurgy
  • cartography
  • navigation, including instruments like the compass, backstaff, astrolabe, quadrants, sextant, tide tables
  • astronomy, including instruments like ephemerides, simple telescopes, and armillary spheres
  • medicine and anatomy
  • mathematics
  • textiles and dyes
  • printing
  • paints and lacquers
  • physics and chemistry
  • masonry, stone-cutting, and mosaic
  • glass-blowing, ceramics, glazes
  • ship-building

And probably many more; mysterious, poorly understood knowledge. No magic need be involved; rings of +3 strength, invisibility potions, and talking swords just don’t fit well with the setting.

Gear and Fate Gears

Before we start trying to glue stats onto items, I’d like to step back and think a bit about what gear and equipment mean in Fate and how we decide to give them mechanical bits. Let me throw a definition at you:

Equipment in Fate is a discrete, portable piece of fiction with repeating effects.

When you think of it that way, you only need to stat equipment enough to make sure the fiction will work properly and consistently throughout the story. Mechanics enforce fiction.

How much mechanical support is needed? It’s a factor of:

  • How complex or simple the equipment’s function is.
  • How general the players’ understanding of the gear is, and how much they agree.
  • How versatile the equipment will be in the story.
  • How prominently the gear will feature in the fiction.

For example, “sword” generally gives enough information, the function of the equipment is understood well enough and consistently enough, and the equipment’s role is specific and limited enough that we need very little in terms of rules.  In fact, in Fate‘s basic rules, “sword” is subsumed under that fact that your character has the skill “Fight” (Fate Core) or uses it with an approach consistent with the fiction, such as “Forceful” (Fate Accelerated).

But if the gear is, say, “cyber-eyes,” then we start needing a lot more information to agree on the fiction and for the gamemaster to make a ruling: what function do the cyber-eyes fulfil? Are they simply prosthetics, do they grant vision enhancements, do they have drawbacks?

How about a “ship”? If all we need is a rationale for characters who were at Point A to now find themselves at Point B, then we probably don’t need much in terms of mechanics. But what if there are ship races, or ship-to-ship battles? What if the ship is going to take on a personality and become almost a character in its own right, like the Enterprise in Star Trek, Serenity in Firefly, or the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? Then we’re probably going to need some mechanical bits to make sure we create fiction that is consistent around the ship, and that in turn the ship suggests useful fiction to add to our campaign.

And if we say “mech suit”, we’re pretty much certain that everyone will have a different understanding of what this means, whether they should be picturing Appleseed, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Macross, etc. What size? how tough? powered how? What does it do? How does the wearer or pilot control the mech? We know we’re going to tack rules onto that.

The extra rules we attach to gear are there to make the fiction behave as per specs, while providing excitement and uncertainty to propel the story forward with related fiction.

Ancient Wonders

So back to our Ancient wonders for the world of Agaptus; how crunchy do I want to get? Perhaps a better question is:

Mechanically, what does this stuff do? I picture Ancient wonders primarily as plot drivers, influencing the story: macguffins, deus ex machina, objects of quests, and the chance for sweeping changes in the balance of power if some of those secrets are unlocked.

In other words, a lot of aspects, as discussed in Fate Core (pp.272-273). A few practical devices may provide a stunt, and if durability or damage absorption is an issue, the device may get a stress track.

Here is my vision:

  • Most of the Ancient technology will get very little actual use in play.
  • Most of it is represented by large-scale, non-portable elements (i.e., not really gear): public buildings, bridges, aqueducts, sewers, public baths, roads, lighthouses, ports, monuments, and sometimes temples (temples tend to get damaged more and quicker in the War of Ashes).
  • So much knowledge is missing that the primary purpose of any artifact (i.e., actual gear) discovered is probably unclear; the GM should probably give it a few mystery stats, such as unassigned aspects and/or stunts, even a stress track that gets marked off at unexpected times.
  • In Earthdawn (FASA), it was great fun and felt very heroic to gradually discover the properties of a Named object; this could be used here.
  • Most of the time, the primary purpose should be something practical or logical which you can imagine in the real world, not “boots of flying” and “belts of ogre strength.” But the features which are first discovered may in fact be secondary or by-products, just like you can have a whistle on a key chain or a clock readout and a camera on your telephone.

Because of this, I don’t see universal rules for statting such items, just guidelines; I’ll have to supply several examples.

Credits:  Art © ZombieSmith 2013, used with permission.

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