Saturday, April 15, 2017

Umbra Britanniae (Shadows of Britain) Savage Worlds, Weird Wars Rome

This product is copyrighted to Pinnacle Entertainment Group 

I have been looking to run an Eldritch Horror style game for quite some time. I knew I wanted to merge the Mythos entity Yig with some concepts from R.E. Howard’s Kull, some kind of serpent men and actual historical events. Originally, I thought to use the excellent Solomon Kane RPG from Pinnacle since the Howard connection already exists, instead I decided to go with Weird Wars since there are sourcebooks that cover several time periods rife with conflict and drama. I could, with some research come up with the basics of these settings, but I decided to work with some pre-existing source material so I can focus on writing the story and not the “fiddly bits”™ of coming up with Hindrances, Edges and backgrounds for myself.

I am a big fan of the Atomic Robo comic book series by Brian Clevinger & Scott Wegener (All their comics are available online for free here and also check out the fantastic Atomic Robo RPG by Mike Olson over at Evil Hat). In “The Shadow Beyond Time” series, Robo finds a being much like the betentacled horrors found in H.P. Lovecraft’s work. What impressed me was the idea that this creature existed outside of time. That is to say that it existed in all points in time at once and the linear nature of the fourth dimension did not affect it. So as Robo perceived it, he was fighting this thing on several instances in his life. To the creature it was all part of a single interaction outside of linear time. Neat idea! (Stolen)

The concept of the game centered on the idea that interacting with the Outer Gods, binds the character’s “fate” to the struggle against the cosmic being. Time is irrelevant to these eternal beings and their goals are unfathomable to us mortals. The basic idea here is that there is part of us that is eternal and exists outside of time. Usually, when we die that drop goes back to an infinite ocean to flow back at some point. When this energy or spirit is touched by one of these entities, it acts as a marker that changes its direction of flow towards the hoary maw of the unfathomable black. Caught in an eddy of

To the Great Old Ones, these spirit essences are but flecks of flotsam in a vast ocean of eternity and rarely give them any notice. Unless some of them acting in consort catch the beings attention. Once the eye of the Outer Void is upon you, you will be forever tied to its fate and thus are trapped in a karmic circle that cannot be broken since it exists in all points in time simultaneously.

The characters fall into a situation where they foil some plot or dispatch a creature/minion of one of these beings and therefore become marked by it. They are then tied to the beings plots throughout time. Sort of like an immortal tick on Azathoth’s back. This basically opens up a massive amount of options for storytelling within a framework. Although the characters start in Imperial Rome controlled Britain circa 105 A.D., they can move on to their experiences during WWI, Biblical times, the Hyborian Age or even on the dusty plains of half terraformed Mars. After a nice long campaign, the characters then piece together the larger plot through the generations and maybe even discover a way to end the cycle.

I started with Weird Wars Rome. Tim, one of our players is a Roman history enthusiast and historical miniatures wargame player. My other two players, Mike and Paul share the same hobbies and also love the era, so that was an easy choice for a springboard point. Once I decided on the setting, I had to work on the specific location and the time period.

Because of the mysterious nature of the game and it involving strange and ancient lore, I chose Britain as my location. The Romans in general considered the isle to be a mysterious place filled with strange beasts and Druidic magic. This is great for dark and creepy stories, much like “Worms of the Earth” by R.E. Howard featuring Bran Mak Morn, King of the Picts. If you are interested in reading this great story, you can find it for free on the Project Gutenberg Australia site. I think it’s some of Howard’s best work ever.

During this period, Rome held southern England and Wales, but have not penetrated too far to the north. It takes place seven years before the completion of Hadrian's Wall. This wall to separate the empire from the barbarians is a little mysterious in and of itself.

“Although Hadrian's biographer wrote "(Hadrian) was the first to build a wall 80 miles long to separate the Romans from the barbarians", reasons for the construction of the wall vary, and no recording of an exact explanation survives.”
-Wikipedia (Some random un-vetted person online)

Although we can infer quite a bit as to why the wall was built, we do not have any record to tell us anything specific. Hadrian was well known for his policies focusing on defense and retaining Roman territory versus the expansionism embraced by his predecessor Trajan and the wall did much for managing trade by giving the Romans a sure way to properly tax goods travelling to and from the north and south. Yet, that little bit of uncertainty can open up a lot of narrative possibilities while still retaining a touch of realism that can make a setting more relatable and real.

Another interesting fact about this particular period is that the identity of the Governor of Britannia from 103-115 A.D. is unknown. Since no record of this person(s) exists, that opens up more opportunities to create whatever I want in his place. Being the most powerful representative of Rome in the country, I can do a lot with whomever I put there. His motivations and actions are completely up to me without breaking the historical feel of the game.

The final reason for this choice was variety in player character options. The Roman Empire was in one of its zenith points as far as raw territory and cultures. The options for PC’s are amazing for several reasons, including:

  • Trajan messing around in the east, gobbling up Dacia or at least, trying to..
  • Egypt having been annexed by Rome.
  • The silk road being active to the far-east.
  • Several large groups of Gallic and German Auxilia being brought in to bring down the almost unending uprisings going on in Britain at the time.
  • The domination of Judea and the Middle East.
  • Control over most of if not all of North Africa.

The players can choose to play just about anything in that time period. All roads lead to Rome!

Before I get a little TLDR on you (too late it’s Plus 10 too long), you may ask, “Hey Jim, why put so much effort into making and researching all these choices? I mean, can’t you just make this up and put it in some nebulous Roman time wherever? Does it really make a difference?” Good question. Let’s go into that.

When all is said and done, this is a horror game. I find that the more you ground the world in a real and palpable way, the more visceral the payoff when the supernatural poop hits the ceiling fan. When players become sufficiently immersed in a setting, narrative and character the intensity of the emotional reaction is greatly increased. This is the real importance of immersion.

One of the main components of horror fiction is to take something that can be considered not only mundane and safe, but somewhat harmless and innocent and put a sinister undertone to it. For example evil dolls. (Before I continue, f**k clowns and evil dolls. Thank you.)

Take something that is as sweet and innocent as a child playing with a doll. Turn that on its ear, film it in black and white, add mood lighting with tons of contrast and play some music in a minor key. Poof! scared off my poo pump. It’s a way of using people’s preconceptions against them by shifting expectations from a safe place to a place of fear and uncertainty.

Same thing holds true here. I create a world that is realistic and grounded in historical fact. I am writing for players have already created a mental picture of how that world works. My players who are the nerdiest history fanboys to geek a dork in spazville have legions of games, books, miniatures and videos about the Roman Empire. It is really easy to play with these preconceptions and use them to solicit an attachment to the game which goes deeper than a work of absolute fiction. This consensus creates a baseline that the players can cling to and I can play with.  I am not trying to say that historical settings are superior to fictional ones. Not at all. I am just saying that it is easier to create these base line realities than conjuring them up from thin air. Collaborative world building is also great fun, but I prefer it when players get some input vs. the GM doing all the world building. That is simply a preference thing.

I really don’t do a lot of mechanical game prep. That is to say I don’t stat out every NPC nor do I use tools to “balance” a combat scenario nor do I ever have anything more than a list of names and skeletal framework for player goals (note: not a plotline, but player character goals. Your characters will never follow a simple plot line). What I do prep is my setting. I make it as complete as I can so that I can make informed and organic choices when reacting to the player’s choices. When you have created a convincing enough reality, you will find that you can live in it and shape it better with simple causality and common sense. This lends an amazing amount of flexibility for you as a storyteller while maintaining the appearance that you are in control.

This ended up being much longer than intended. My apologies. But next time I will go over the player characters and what happened in the prelude scenario.