War of Ashes RPG: The Land of Agaptus

As promised in a recent post, I’ve been working on setting material for the War of Ashes RPG I have been commissioned to write for Evil Hat Productions.

Of the four factions used in the miniatures game in Shieldwall, three are “player character” factions: the civilized but hidebound Elvorix, the savage and impulsive Vidaar, and the disciplined but severely outnumbered Jaarl.  They vye for control of the last few productive lands in Agaptus. Looming over all of them are three great themes: first, the marvels left behind by the Ancients, comparable to the wonder of the Egyptian, Roman and Mayan Empires of Antiquity, or even Atlantis; second, the meddling of the Gods, powerful but inept and dangerous; and third, an incipient ice age, which may make the eventual winning of the wars a moot point.

Today, let me give you an overview of the factions (all of this is drawn from War of Ashes: Shieldwall, published by ZombieSmith).  In a subsequent post, I’ll tell you about what I have done with this so far.


Elvorix warrior with two-handed sword
Elvorix warrior

The greater area called Agaptus includes the three main islands of Sentia, Iradon, and Matriga, plus lots of smaller islands.  Outside of those, dozens and probably hundreds of other islands are known to exist, but Agaptus is the focal point of the game.  A few thousand years ago, a people built a prosperous and advanced civilization there, born on the island of Sentia and expanding to neighboring lands.  Alas, three things precipitated chaos: the Kuld invasions, internal strife, and the whims of the Gods.

Kuld Augurst

The Kuld are a species of blubberous, voracious creatures able to eat and digest almost anything but rocks.  They originally seemed harmless, but they were driven to the lands of Agaptus by droughts and famines, and discovered their own power of destruction.  War raged for years until the Sentians were able to repel the Kuld—and the victors, General Vidaarus and his warriors, promptly seized power over all of Agaptus.  Mistrustful of the scholars who had ruled until then, he immediately destroyed all the archives that could be rounded up, beginning a reign of brute force and ignorance that would last hundreds of years under his dynasty.

At last, a wily scheme cooked up by the scholar Elvora Bibulus convinced King Vidaarus the Thirty-First to seek the fabled island of Garigla and its untold riches; most of his warrior caste—by then rather decadent—left with him.  As soon as they were gone, Elvora Bibulus re-established the ruling council and scholar-kings of old, and founded the Elvorix Kingdom.  The Elvorix started restoring as much as they could of the knowledge of old, but much was lost forever.

Vidaar Dowodik

Those who had left with Vidaarus the Thirty-First wandered the oceans for hundreds of years, now a nation of sea warriors and pillagers.  At long last, they landed back on the island of Iradon and recognized it—and knew they had been fooled.   They seized a beachhead and started settling their own kingdom, calling themselves the Vidaar people.  War between the Vidaar and the Elvorix raged for about a century, until…

All through the Sentians’ history, the Gods had been a problem.  The simple truth is, the Gods are just not very good at what they do.  But they wield considerable power and must be contended with, so much of Agaptan religion consists of appeasing the goods just enough that they won’t pay too much attention.  Unfortunately, a spectacularly botched ceremony about 86 years ago attracted unprecedented divine anger.  This was called the Great Catastrophe, and marked the beginning of an ice age.

Jaarl Valani

Soon after, the Kuld reappeared from the lands in the north, driven by hunger as the climate cooled off; then another people, the Jaarl, reached the coasts of Iradon and Sentia with clear intention to conquer.  Their own homeland had been destroyed by a gigantic volcanic eruption at about the time of the Great Catastrophe, and the survivors were in search of a new home.  For a while, Elvorix and Vidaar made a pact to fight off the Jaarl together and it looked like they were winning, but three years ago, a combination of Jaarl ruse and Elvorix and Vidaar stupidity led to the dissolution of this alliance.

Now the war rages on more desperately than ever for the lands that are still temperate enough to produce food, but even those grow colder every day.

Map of Agaptus with boundaries

Credits: Art ©ZombieSmith 2012-2013, used with permission.

War of Ashes RPG: Seeding the Plots

Vidaar with morningstarContinuing the brainstorming sessions as I work on the War of Ashes RPG, to be powered by Fate Accelerated: I want to look at how to present setting material.

The detailed outline for the book has been approved by ZombieSmith and Evil Hat Productions earlier this week, so I’ve transitioned to generating setting material. I’m using the Golden Rule of Fate—”Decide what you’re trying to accomplish first, then consult the rules to help you do it.”  That means that for now, all rules considerations will take a back seat; I jot down ideas as I go, but I won’t refine them until we have solid agreement on the team about the world these rules extras will support.

One of the purposes of the book is to be of use as a source of setting information for players of all the War of Ashes games, including the existing miniatures combat game War of Ashes: Shieldwall, the upcoming skirmish game War of Ashes: Shieldbash (expected May 2014), or the upcoming electronic app.  So obviously I don’t want to double up on what can be found in these games, except just enough to provide context; for example, Shieldwall contains a fairly detailed timeline of the world of Agaptus, so we should only give a thumbnail here.  People don’t want to be buying two-thirds of the same book over and over again!

At the same time, this has to be a standalone roleplaying game.  It should provide everything you need in order to run a fun campaign and you should only have to go to the other books because you want extra goodies, just like players of Shieldwall don’t need this new sourcebook to play the miniatures game.  And in RPGs, it’s nice to have the setting info delivered in bite size and not treatises.  Here is my manifesto:

The purpose of game fiction is to provide the reader with the desire and building blocks to create her or his own fiction at the game table.

I picture relatively short sections on specific setting aspects, loaded lots of contact points with the fiction you‘ll create ate the table, a.k.a. plot hooks or plot seeds.  Hopefully, these seeds can also be used by miniatures gamers.  I’d like to float a sample here and get feedback from readers: is this useful to you as gamers?  Does it ask the right questions?  Does it generate ideas?  What else would you like to see in such an entry?

Here goes; note that this is sample material not yet approved by anyone except my cats, just provided for discussion.

Vidaar Shyldhal

Vidaar Shyldhal

The Vidaar are no great architects and builders, so when they settle somewhere they reserve their best for the important buildings.  No, not the kogg brewery—well, yes, that, but also the Shyldhal where the spear-bearing Fyrdee warriors will be garrisoned.  It’s got all a warrior needs: armoury, watch tower, nice quarters for their captain, the Styrsik; a forge nearby to take care of the weapons, armour and shields, and yeah, a kogg brewery just around the corner.

The whole building thing is tedious, though, and all the best spots seem to be occupied.  A smart Styrsik founding a nice new Vidaar settlement will go for efficiency, using any not-too-ruined Elvorix stone buildings left after conquering a village that’s in the right spot, maybe even using some conscripted Elvorix labour.  The add-ons are typically built of wood, mud and thatch, because rocks are heavy and so annoyingly hard to nail or stick together.  A good paint job will spruce it all up, though.

What you can find there:

  • Vidaar warriors training, sleeping, resting, playing games of chance, and arguing.  The Shyldhal might be garrisoned with 10-20 Bondee (ordinary infantry), 10-20 Fyrdee (spear fighters), 6-10 Lunghshyld, 2-6 Ceordee (ornery scouts).
  • The administrative quarters for the Styrsik’s ill-used war staff: a Totember (standard-bearer), a Tromik (piper), and a Bondee or two as the Styrsik’s personal assistants.
  • The Udvlag (shaman) may be reporting, but probably has separate quarters in a ramshackle temple nearby.
  • The Styrsik’s quarters, tended by a Bondee as punishment for dereliction of duty or maybe by Elvorix prisoners.
  • Armoury supplied with axes, spears, swords, shields, armour, etc.
  • Bondees doing laundry as punishment detail.
  • On-going repairs for leaky thatched roofs and damaged walls.

Things that can happen:

  • It’s a Trap!  The bulk of the garrison is out, meeting an attack by the enemy, but now a second army is in sight!  The useless cowards who were left behind must defend the settlement or answer to the Starsyk…
  • Put Your Money Where Your Big Fat Mouth Is.  A group of ill-disciplined warriors get into a stupid bet about whose unit is the best, and must now sneak out to settle their differences properly.
  • Revenge!  The conquered Elvorix, who seemed so thoroughly broken, infiltrate the Shyldhal in an effort to seize the armoury and recapture the town.
  • Basement Treasure.  Unbeknownst to the Vidaar conquerors, the Elvorix had built a nice cache under the building.  Maybe it contains precious books filled with ancient lore preserved at great risk; food supplies for emergencies which a clever Bondee might trade bit by bit on the black market; or a half-finished invention of the local quirky genius, which Elvorix authorities would have disapproved of as way too likely to attract divine attention.
  • Don’t Trouble Yourself on My Account.  A Dowodik (general) moving his six banners to go open new frontier areas decides to stop by and temporarily take over the Shyldhal.  He runs everyone ragged with demands, commandeers the Styrsik’s quarters, garrison his best troops here, and billet other units with Elvorix peasants—ruining the comfy routine which the locals had settled in.  Will the visiting troops notice how friendly the garrison has become with the Elvorix villagers?
  • Stinky War Games.  The garrison must train with live ammunitions when the Udvlag talks the Styrsik into conducting cheese artillery training.

Credits: Art © ZombieSmith 2012-2013, used with permission.

War of Ashes: Grokking the Setting

Elvorix Ylark unit

This is where I start jotting down ideas as I work on the War of Ashes RPG which will be powered by Fate Accelerated.  I must warn readers in advance that these posts may be more disjointed than usual; I will not be making my normal efforts to provide the whole context to understand the posts as standalone essays.  This is not because I want to be sloppy, but because I’d rather put the effort in writing the game itself.  Comments and suggestions are welcomed nonetheless!

Whenever I start a new research, investigation, art or writing project, I start by gathering background material and inspirations. In this case, these sources will have to do with the Agaptus setting and the Fate mechanics.

So first things first, let’s think about the flavour of ZombieSmith’s War of Ashes miniatures game and its setting, the world of Agaptus.1  This is the #1 criterion: if we fail to convey what’s cool, special and fun about it in translating it to a role-playing game, the project is a failure — possibly a golden failure, but a failure all the same.

The ZombieSmith folks coined the expression “grimsical” to describe the flavour of War of Ashes: grim + whimsical.  Think of the whimsy of Jim Henson’s television shows like Fraggle Rock and The Muppet Show, married to dark, gritty military fantasy like Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, Saxon Tales and Grail Quest series, or Glenn Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company.  In my experience, a lot of gamers resonate with a campaign that unfolds with humour and silliness, but also with actual drama and dire consequences.

The creatures are funny-looking, muppet-style, and have amusing or offbeat abilities — but at the same time, we’re reminded of the British Isles in the Early Middle Ages after the Romans have left, leaving marvels of architecture the locals cannot replicate.  There are also hints of the folly of societies who keep right on doing what has led to their near extinction (think of the French, English or Russian Courts at the time of their respective nations’ revolutions, or the original inhabitants of Easter Island.)

So here are the inspirations that came to mind as I was reading War of Ashes: Shieldwall.  (Fellow team members, please feel free to add or dispute.)

  • illustrations and books by Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Andy Hopp;
  • movies like Monsters Inc. (Pete Docter, Pixar), Mononoke-hime (Miyazaki Hayao, Studio Ghibli), Antz (Eric Darnell, DreamWorks), The Dark Crystal (Jim Henson Studios), and The Nightmare Before Christmas (Tim Burton, Touchstone Studios);
  • games like the original WH40K: Rogue Trader, Bloodbowl (both from Games Workshop), Low Life (Pinnacle Entertainment), etc.;
  • any soundtracks by Danny Elfman, Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnaval des animaux, Edvard Gieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, Johann Sibelius’ Finlandia and The Tempest, etc.

However, my primary source of inspiration is the stunning art created by ZombieSmith‘s Josh Qualtieri, Jonathan Hoffman, Noah Bradley, Jennifer Bach, and the rest of their team.  I envision creating a lot of my text sections by building around images I find particularly inspiring as a gamer.  We’re in an unusually enviable position here: there are already tons of art available, and ZombieSmith folks produce more every day.  Unlike most RPGs during design, I know exactly how the illos will look in the book!

Elvorix Village

The second part of gathering my sources is assembling the tools I have for tinkering with Evil Hat Productions’ Fate Accelerated.  Fortunately for me, several high-quality resources are at hand, both among official publications and fan-written essays:

1Agaptus is both the name of the planet [question: or “continent”?] which encompasses the isles of Sentia, Matriga, and Iradon; and the name of the supreme deity of the Elvorix people, first to settle on the isle of Sentia. Return
Credits: Art ©ZombieSmith 2012-2013, used with permission.