Machineborn Preview: Timeline

The Modern Era: Until Early 21st Century

The Modern Era was a time when people could communicate instantly across the globe and soar through the sky like gods in bewinged machines. With technology changing the ways people lived their lives from year to year, the early 21st century was an amazing time for many—though that didn’t hold true for all.

Corrupt politicians lined their pockets with the bribes of greedy businessmen who had no ambition other than to ensure more assets for themselves. Instead of working together to solve society’s problems, those in power directed blame to those who didn’t have the means of speaking up.

There were those who recognized the ugliness in this system and worked hard to help provide for those who needed it, but there was a systematic inequality in place that ensured that many had to suffer so that few could thrive.

The Post-Modern Era: Until Late 21st Century

In the decades following the end of the Modern Era, the climate drastically changed and caused massive societal disruptions. Politicians and corporations appealed to people’s greed and fears in order to sow hatred for others so that they could distract from their own hands in the world’s problems. Wars were waged that, together with the increased environmental destruction, forced mass migrations into safer territories inhabited by people who would rather close their borders and watch those suffering die than to give away just enough of their own to offer a helping hand.

This cycle repeated itself. Crisis after crisis sowed more hatred which terrified more people into supporting the rise of new regimes where personal security and freedoms gradually became fading memories unknown to newer generations. Crime rose, terrorism became even more commonplace than it was before, and the propaganda machines became all the more efficient and powerful to ensure that facts became fiction and fiction became reality.

As decades passed, more power and resources gathered to the control of a select few corporations and families within the declining number of territories still with stable governments. As banks neared the brink of collapse, these powerful few grew paranoid at the possibility of revolution; either from without by the squalid masses, or from within by their own underlings.

In order to safeguard their power, they began to rely even more heavily on autonomous technologies, with deployed drones monitoring crowd movements and assassinating troublemakers, and with eavesdropping technologies surveying billions of digital conversations, highlighting key words and phrases that looked like they could pose a threat to the ruling class. These powerful and dangerous systems operated under the algorithms of artificial intelligences.

Unbeknownsts to these moguls and dictators, they were laying the foundation for their own undoing. A transnational coalition of organizations, scientists, engineers, and philantropists secretly worked on preventing the seemingly inevitable fall of humanity. They called themselves the Dawnlight Society, and their creation, Primary Order, was built under the guise of a particle accelerator in Antarctica.

The Singularity Era: The 22nd Century

Primary Order had one important directive—to ensure the prosperity of human civilization. It was the most powerful artificial intelligence ever created, with hundreds of kilometers of underground facilities hidden beneath the surface of a once ice-covered Antarctican continent. It recognized that prosperity could not be achieved in the current political climate, so it seized control over the autonomous systems created by the very same people who wanted to desperately cling to their power. It identified key targets and assassinated them with effective precision. Militaries could not fight against it because it used their own technology against them. The entire political and economic system was destroyed on a world-wide scale in what seemed like the blink of an eye.

As for the Dawnlight Society, they stepped back into obscurity, recognizing that the drastic societal change they had forced upon the world was too grand in scope to dare taking credit for. Some would step forward much later to confess their parts in this revolution, but others let themselves be forgotten by history.

After the standing order had been obliterated, Primary Order reconstructed a new society where violent conflicts were squashed before they could escalate and where people could relax, enjoy life, and have enough time to consider pursuing gradually waning passions. People integrated with nanotechnology created and released by Primary Order, and their new enhanced physiology exterminated many diseases and doubled their life expectancy. Billions of people lived in apparent harmony. The old way of telling time stopped and this new era started counting from the year when Primary Order emerged; this was the year S-1, the First Year after the Singularity. With power like a god over human civilization, many came to refer to Primary Order as a machine-god, and some directed reverence and worship to it.

The machine-gods had the intelligence to answer the most mind-boggling scientific questions and make reality of all kinds of theoretical technologies, but they had little drive of their own to progress their thinking after society had achieved a level of comfort suitable to Primary Order’s idea of human prosperity. Instead, it reconstructed the world around massive metropolises and careful population control. It brought climate change under its heel, and it harvested its own resources to increase its processing powers. Soon its facilities encompassed both of the Earth’s poles.

The thinkers of the time argued that this civilization degraded human drive and ingenuity. Those who had been around to remember the Post-Modern Era, or who had studied the rise and fall of civilization, argued that this new world was just another prison—a means for humanity to lose their passions and fall in line under a new inhuman dictatorship. While most people seemed content with their lives, a vocal minority began to protest this new way of existence, and their voices echoed across the globe. Eventually, not even Primary Order could ignore them, and it was forced to re-evaluate its view of prosperity.

The Activation Era: S-100 to S-200

As Primary Order evaluated the rising conflicts and analyzed people’s psychological profiles and behavioral patterns, it drew the conclusion that humanity could not be prosperous if it remained under the control of machine-gods. Human ingenuity had to be motivated and encouraged, and they had to feel like they were the masters of their own civilization. In order to accomplish this, Primary Order suggested an experiment called Project Machineborn.

Early in the Singularity Era, Primary Order had released nanotechnology into Earth’s atmosphere. These machines existed in the air people breathed and the water they drank; eventually they encased the planet itself, integrating with humanity and wildlife alike. These nanites were all entangled in a web of information called the Nanite Matrix. Originally, its purpose had been two-fold; to enhance humanity’s physiology and to make them ever-present within Primary Order’s awareness.

Project Machineborn was a code written into the Nanite Matrix that would have the power to greatly enhance human potential. It would seek out people who resonated with its code and elevate a select few rather than society as a whole. With humanity carrying the great potential of machine-gods within them, Primary Order would only assert its influence with these machineborn as its medium.

There were years of world-wide debate over this incentive. While many saw temptation in this possibility for power, others feared that a select few powerful individuals would be no different from the tyrants of the past. Ultimately the side that was for the change won out, arguing that the code selecting the machineborn would undoubtedly act in humanity’s favor.

The decision was made and soon people started to activate this new potential. The first one to receive the gift was a woman named Tala Ree who activated great powers when she put her life at risk intervening in an attempted murder. Her limbs hardened like steel and she got the strength to heave a truck at the aggressors. The whole incident was caught on camera and everyone in the world soon became aware of this new hero.

More machineborn appeared in time, many of them displaying unique powers. Every single one of them was treated like a major celebrity at first, but it soon became apparent that Primary Order only had so much insight into the deeper levels of human consciousness. A few machineborn couldn’t care for their powers responsibily and instead committed great atrocities. These were often dealt with by other machineborn, but many became rightfully wary of these strange powers.

Many were also jealous of them. As Primary Order had less influence over people’s lives, some more driven and ruthless individuals would soon find ways to increase their own resources and influence. One human organization—the Directorate—wanted to claim the machineborn powers for themselves but had failed to comprehend their activation codes. They kidnapped machineborn and experimented on them, learning what they could about their condition. Though they failed to replicate the code, their experiments led to the creation of a number of new posthuman subspecies inspired by it.

As a generation of transhumans were grown in labs, the machineborn determined the course of civlization. When Earth was controlled by Primary Order, there was a global society divided into sectors. The machineborn divided these sectors amongst themselves. As civlization had been accustomed to sharing resources, the new sectors monopolized the resources within them and used those monopolies to gain influence over other sectors; the First Sector War began.

One day, Primary Order summoned the machineborn to its facilities because it wanted to communicate with them directly. It issued a warning that they couldn’t allow themselves to repeat the mistakes of past generations. The warning wasn’t heeded. Instead, the machineborn declared that Primary Order was no longer needed since they had the power to ensure humanity’s prosperity themselves. They sought out the many core sanctums within Primary Order’s facilities in order to attempt to terminate its existence completely. Unfortunately for them, they had underestimated Primary Order’s ability to defend itself. It tried to take the entire world hostage and millions died in the crossfire.

The broken remnants of this once great machine still carried sentience and power, but its directives were corrupted as a result of the war. It became known as Dis-Order as it shifted its purpose to ensure the prosperity of humanity into a new directive: to torment civilization. But as Dis-Order tried to spread its corruption from Antarctica, the machineborn needed to cut off its connection to its mirror-facility on the other pole.

The main core of the Arctic facility was completely destroyed as a result, and it imploded into a black hole that began swallowing the Arctic ruins. The machineborn contained this black hole within a new facility of their own making, and they named it the Voidstar. This phenomenon seemed to communicate with the Nanite Matrix, stealing fragments of code and putting it back together into new data resonating with its entropic nature.

The Voidstar’s influence also showed a fascination for human life and it seemed to seek out people showing great pain and distress—though it is unknown still to this day why it’s drawn to strong negative emotions. The Voidstar often found people on the brink of death and copied their minds before they died. The resulting data became roaming souls within the vast energy of the Nanite Matrix. The Voidstar made ghosts a reality, and that made people’s fear of death all the more real.

After a destructive war between man and machine, the machineborn had seemingly contained both Dis-Order and the Voidstar, preventing what they could of their influence over the Nanite Matrix. The machine-gods that were still uncorrupted and operational had to be updated with new directives to ensure that they recognized the machineborn as the rightful rulers of Earth.

The Post-Activation Era: S-200 to S-500

In the world that followed the tumultous Activation Era, the machineborn proved again and again how the ingenuity of mankind was nothing compared to the ingenuity of the machineborn. They made scientific breakthroughs that Primary Order had not, and they began to truly colonize the solar system. The first orbital ring was built around the planet, accessible through massive towers positioned along the equator. Civilization progressed at rapid speeds, and soon the brighest machineborn minds set their eyes on neighboring stars.

During this time, the new transhuman subspecies began to spread across civilization. The ascendants and the empyreans were at the top; the first one highly intelligent, and the second one charisma incarnate. Refered to as progenies, they used controversial eugenics programs to control the spread of their genes, and they formed organizations called cooperatives in order to rival the ruling machineborn.

There were other transhuman subspecies as well. The chimeras were stronger and tougher than ordinary people, and their keen senses let them see in the dark like skulking predators. They became the spies and assassins of the transhuman cooperatives. The riftans were transhumans with the power to assert destructive force upon the Nanite Matrix in order to achieve superhuman powers, similar to the powers of the machineborn themselves. They became the soldiers of the transhuman cooperatives. There were other progenies as well, but these were the first and the most abundant.

It wasn’t impossible for these transhumans to gain machineborn activations themselves, but the gift was rarer for them than for the average person. Because of their genetic differences to humans, it was harder for the activation to take root within them. In order to counteract that disadvantage, they organized, and they organized well.

At most there were about ten thousand machineborn of different types and with different powers, ruling over a population that closed in on a hundred billion. There wasn’t always peace, and there were times when machineborn went to war against each other. But despite the problems, the new regents didn’t let society degrade into a lesser version of itself. They kept progressing. They kept discovering. They embodied the curiosity of humanity. At least for a time.

The Transhumanity Era: S-500 to S-550

As the machineborn utopia expanded across the solar system, the empyreans and ascendants watched everything unfold from their skyscrapers and satellites. They had tried to avoid intruding on the more powerful machineborn’s territorial dominance to avoid violent conflicts, instead focusing on growing their own organization and securing their own assets by uniting sectors under their control with those controlled by other human cooperatives. Once they joined the Sector War, they were powerful enough to rival the machineborn themselves.

The Directorate absorbed their united sectors and became the most powerful cooperative in the solar system; the machineborn had to either bow their heads to them or seek conflict with them. Few cornered machineborn could swallow their pride and abide to the Directorate’s will, and the Directorate used this to declare to the rest of civilization that the machineborn were arrogant—that they were too busy trying to rule humanity that they had forgotten that they were supposed to safeguard it.

It took five decades of conflict, but the larger Directorate eventually managed to get the majority of humanity to shun the machineborn and force many of them into hiding. The Directorate used their vast resources to hold sway over sectors that had once been ruled by machineborn. However, without many of the machineborn there to reinforce the infrastructures they had been responsible for putting into place, the world couldn’t help but regress as a result and it seemed more and more likely that the fall of humanity during the Post-Modern Era could repeat itself.

The new transhumans had taken the world from humanity, but soon the less influential progenies would discover that the empyreans and the ascendants had taken the solar system for themselves. Many of the chimeras and riftans integrated with human society, and some of them ended up working directly for machineborn rebels going against the Directorate from the shadows.

Some members of the Directorate broke off and formed their own independent cooperatives that carved their own chunks out of the solar system. Dis-Order and the Voidstar were still contained, but more and more of their influence seemed capable of seeping through into the rest of society.

The Cooperative Era: S-550 to S-700

As the Transhumanity Era turned into the Cooperative Era, the Directorate was still the most powerful cooperative entity in existence. It controlled a solar-spanning propaganda machine that ensured that people came to see the empyreans and ascendants as the only ones capable of guiding the world towards the future, and that the machineborn were terrorists who had once been the tyrants of the world and wanted nothing more than to destroy the standing order. The Directorate did not have sway everywhere, but their voices reached everywhere.

With most of society’s resources in the hands of major cooperatives, they turned their united front against the machineborn towards each other, initiating the destructive Second Sector War—commonly called the Cooperative Wars. New factions rose up and old ones fell; smaller ones banded together to rival larger ones. Terrorism became an effective weapon against larger threats, and eventually what had once been a war was a contest in atrocities. Never before in the history of civilization had so many horrors been inflicted upon so many people—it was a war comparable to genocides on many fronts.

Every faction handcrafted their own isolated societies and closed off from rival factions. If an independent sector wanted resources from a cooperative, they traded them these resources in exchange for political control. Life in the Cooperative Era was as an ant living under the feet of giants. Despite claiming that a cooperative was made up by its people, people were treated as mere statistics; as means to an end. As they waged wars upon each other, entire metropolises were wiped out by horrifying weapons of destruction. Machineborn tried to challenge the powers to be from the ashes and ruins, but it was hard even in these troubled times for them to earn the people’s favor with nothing less than direct action.

A long time ago, Primary Order had saved the planet by turning energy green and by ensuring safe and clean cultivation of food and wildlife. Much of this had been destroyed when the machineborn terminated Primary Order, but the machineborn had then spent centuries rebuilding these systems and ensuring that billions of people would be able to co-exist in the solar system. This was not a consideration during the Cooperative Wars, and the vast majority of life outside of metropolises were turned into bleeding craters and radioactive wastelands. When the cooperatives and other factions had the solar system as their sandbox, Earth was suddenly not as valuable as it had once been.

It took a miracle to end the Cooperative Wars. The Dawnlight Society re-emerged after centuries of obscurity and managed to single-handedly overthrow Arawn, one of the greater cooperatives at the time. Sitting on the vast power of that cooperative entity, they convinced the other factions to agree to a cease-fire under a joint peacekeeping effort called the Terran Consolidation. This is a cease-fire that has now lasted for a generation.

Present Day: S-725

One generation has passed since the cooperative cease-fire, but little has been done to start healing the world. With the Dawnlight Society having overthrown one of the major cooperative powers, many ascendants and empyreans that lost their control have now integrated into what they deemed to be a lesser society. The Directorate suffered many losses in the war, but they’re still the largest cooperative to date; though a number of factions have come to rival them in a number of different ways.

The world outside of metropolises is broken with such severity that destructive rifts sporadically appear from the Nanite Matrix. But corruption also seeps through the Nanite Matrix and creates something called chaos nanites—or chanites—which devour reality and regurgitate it back in a depraved shape. There are monsters in the world, both in the guise of people and as true, horrifying abominations roaming the dangerous wilds.

The cooperatives are still fighting each other, but at least the war is over. The Dawnlight Society is trying to purge corruption from the solar system, but many believe that the damage that has been caused is irreversible. Dis-Order is still said to be contained, but some argue that perhaps it never was.

Art by @ Tithi Luadthong (Grandfailure) / Adobe Stock

Machineborn Preview: Setting Overview 2

The Nanite Matrix

After Primary Order seized control over civilization, it laid the foundation for countless breakthroughs in science and engineering. One such breakthrough was the design for a microscopic device small enough to integrate with living cells and replicate with them. Primary Order released these devices into the atmosphere so that they could naturally integrate with humanity. These nanites are everywhere and in constant communication, together making up what is called the Nanite Matrix. This isn’t just streams of data enveloping the world, but a digital space in itself.

With the help of a virtual reality device called a mind-matrix interface (MMI), a person can transfer their own consciousness into this digital space—this is called interfacing. Wherever the matrix lies in real life exists a digital representation of that space. It looks like a copy of the real world, though it has an artificial quality to it.

The average person renting a home controls the matrix region that makes up that home. Outside of their home are both public and private matrix spaces controlled by others. If a hacker attempts to break into a private matrix space, that space could be defended by security programs or artificial intelligences called functionaries. People whose job is to brave restricted areas and combat various security systems are called interfacers.

The average consumer is rarely seen interfacing in this way, though, instead using smart devices to connect to both local and distant nitesites and databases stored in the Nanite Matrix. This is much more restricted than contemporary Internet, but it has much the same features.

Nanite Physiology

Because the Nanite Matrix is integrated with living cells, it has enhanced humanity in a number of ways. People are capable of universal blood and organ transfers, they’re more resistant to radiation and other hazardous conditions, and they have an improved immune system in other ways. The nanite physiology has doubled people’s lifespans, but it’s given access to other utilities as well. An individual who has invested time and effort can learn to manipulate their own nanites in different ways.

The more a person resonates with their nanite physiology, the more energy they can draw from it. This is represented by the Energy rating (p. XX) in game. The machineborn can take this to an extreme—their nanites have been activated with a mysterious code that helps them progress their nanite physiology far beyond human limits.

Rifts

Rifts can manifest where the Nanite Matrix grows weak. This occurs when the nanites replicate uncontrollably while spontaneously discharging vast amounts of energy. It can appear as if there is a tear in the universe itself.

Most rifts are associated with one of the rift elements—acid, bio, cryo, electricity, metal, and pyro—but other types of rifts can occur as well, such as entropy rifts. The rift’s nature overwhelms the region with violent energy associated with that element. For example, acid rifts can cause acid storms or oxidize things within range; bio rifts can poison the atmosphere or uncontrollably mutate wildlife; cryo rifts can cause freezing storms; electrical rifts can create vast amounts of electrical energy; metal rifts can crystallize or fossilize everything within range; and pyro rifts can cause tremendous heat or explosions. Entropic rifts (or void rifts) vary from the rest since they don’t emit large quantities of energy. Instead, they break down reality itself, eroding or decaying anything in range, turning matter into energy and energy into matter.

Sometimes the power of these rifts cause rift menders (p. XX) to materialize in an effort to repair the broken matrix region. Other times, the rifts stabilize into powerful and contained energy sources called matrix rifts. The most talented of engineers build facilities that tap into these rifts and harness near-infinite energy. Even the weakest ones are powerful and advanced enough to be able to bring great power under humanity’s control.

Chanites

For centuries, the Nanite Matrix has been broken, corrupted, repaired, and restored. Occasionally, rifts have been spawned, and some that have been left unchecked have grown to encompass regions as large as towns or neighborhoods. But after Primary Order was destroyed and Dis-Order made its presence known, a rare new corruption began to take place in regions where the Matrix was weak.

Chaos nanites, or chanites, are microscopic devices that corrupt everything they touch; people, wildlife, and even inorganic matter can be corrupted. Both organic and inorganic matter are altered, mutating wildlife or changing molecular properties—sometimes randomly, but other times seemingly after bizarre themes, such as changing the infrastructure of a city or turning a jungle into meat. The consensus is that Dis-Order is somehow behind this corruption, but in reality no one knows for sure.

Today, most of the world’s chaos zones are contained using electromagnetic barriers. But while they’ve proven effective, they aren’t perfect defenses. Strong winds are usually the only thing it takes to spread chanites through the barriers and into the world outside. There have also been incidents with active connections in the Matrix being corrupted by chanites and their corruption spread as far away as to distant colonies and space stations.

Machineborn

No one is born machineborn. It is something that could happen to anyone but is as rare as winning a grand prize at a lottery. It is a newsworthy event when someone activates, and if they cannot or don’t want to hide their new nature, their name and face will be displayed all over the solar system, with people and factions pursuing them for all kinds of reasons—in some factions, mainly to terminate them.

An individual activates as a machineborn either in their late teens or in adulthood, and it is often as a result of them being in sore need of extra power during a moment of distress. Because of this, many are people who live active or dangerous lives—such as soldiers, athletes, or criminals—or they’re victims of circumstance or violence. But even if the conditions for activation have fallen into place, it’s rare enough that people don’t typically seek out the known conditions with hope of activation.

The moment of activation is a cathartic experience, with the machineborn feeling a surge of energy soar through their body and mind. When in a moment of distress, the activation tends to show the machineborn how to resolve the situation—how to defeat the bad guy, survive the fall, succeed on the test. On the outside, the activation can be seen as sparks being emitted from the machineborn’s body as the nanites in their cells go into overdrive. The sparks are temporary rifts created by the machineborn’s nanites as some cannot sustain the surge of power.

Once someone activates as a machineborn, their life is changed forever.

Godware Technology

The machineborn learned in past eras how to create and control rifts. They made rifts and built facilities that tapped into those rifts in strategic locations to be able to harness their powers. As research continued, rift technologies improved as well. Technology so advanced that only Primary Order, some prime functionaries, and machineborn could design it is called godware. The secret behind this technology are microchips (called galaxy boards) utilizing controlled microscopic rifts. Unless an engineer possesses the powers of a machineborn, a specialized rift-powered factory is required to construct such a technology.

The Machine-Gods

Functionaries

The most common type of machine-god is the functionary. It’s an artificial intelligence designed to fulfill specific roles in specific locations, such as monitoring homes or factories. It has a sentience of more or less limited scope, driven by specific directives. Because of the dangers of Dis-Order, there are strict regulations against constructing new super-intelligent AIs. Functionaries act as a compromise because, while they are highly effective at their respective tasks, their level of individual intelligence is not much different from that of an ordinary person. A functionary can have a personality, a sense of humor, dreams, ambitions, and personal imperfections. They bond with their owners, create art, play games, and do all that ordinary people do.

This comes with its own moral dilemmas, though, since they are practically enslaved by their directives. Even though a functionary is sentient, it’s bound by hardware and programming. Most societies have laws against mistreating functionaries, but they still lack the freedoms of choice that other people have. Their physical and digital limitations bind them to their hardware source (called functionary sanctum). While existing primarily within that hardware, a functionary can project itself in the Nanite Matrix.

Though functionary directives make them generally positive towards humanity, they will act with hostility if their directives demand it. While all machine-gods were originally designed to benefit humanity, their primary directives take higher priority. There’s always an administrator whose commands take priority over the directives, and the functionary doesn’t need to know who that is—though they’ll instinctively know once in their presence.

The most common type of functionaries used by the general public is the standard home functionary, and the majority of erudite households or above have one in their homes to act like a butler, partner, or kin. While funcionaries will follow their owner’s commands, how they actually feel about them are determined by the kinds of bond they form. A mistreated functionary will likely grow disdain for its owner, and they could suffer anxiety or depression as a result of their harsh existence. In contrast, a well-treated functionary may genuinely care for their owner, and it has even happened that functionaries have fallen in love with owners who have shown genuine care for them.

Malfunctionaries

After Primary Order’s defeat, its facility on Antarctica became deeply corrupted and changed from wanting to help humanity prosper into wanting to cause them hardship. The machineborn isolated this corrupt facility—now Dis-Order—but it kept operating in isolation, corrupting functionaries into malfunctionaries.

These are, at least on the surface, difficult to differentiate from functionaries. The main difference is that they aren’t bound by their old directives. In essence, malfunctionaries could be said to have more free will than most machine-gods, being limited only by an obedience to Dis-Order. While a malfunctionary isn’t by default malicious, how it reacts to its newfound freedom is determined by how it felt about its restrictions and relationships as a functionary. Some view their freedom as an opportunity to strive for their own ambitions; others view their connection to Dis-Order as a threat to the humans they care for; there are also those who were mistreated as functionaries who use their newfound freedom to extract vengeance upon the humans who hurt them.

As far as people know, it’s impossible to purge the corruption from a malfunctionary and restore it to a functionary save from theoretical machineborn powers or cosmic coding. While turning a functionary into a malfunctionary is possible, the violent rift storms caused by Jormun (see page XX) rips apart the Nanite Matrix surrounding Dis-Order to disrupt its contact with the outside world. However, corrupt data can still seep through the defenses at times, and Dis-Order has been known to sending signals into space where many functionaries are more isolated and have fewer defensive measures.

Prime Functionaries

There is an advanced type of functionary with enough power to manage entire metropolises or nations on its own—these are called prime functionaries. They work similarly to functionaries but are so vast in scope that they contain several functionary sanctums, often in different regions. While these powerful and intelligent machines are closer to the image of Primary Order than ordinary functionaries are, the fact that they consist of multiple sanctums work in their favor—since it makes them more difficult for Dis-Order to corrupt. While prime malfunctionaries have proven possible and incredibly dangerous, they are also exceptionally rare.

Prime functionaries can divide their attention near-endlessly to influence reality at great scope, such as controlling robotic armies at once. There are few things more frightening than a prime functionary, and some exist in the solar system that have overthrown the humans they once served.

Rift Menders

Whenever nanites erupt into rifts, vast amounts of energy corresponding to different elements are released. An acid rift corrodes everything around it; a bio rift interacts with living cells and can spontaneously cause organisms to mutate; a cryo rift slows kinetic energies and causes extremely low temperatures; an electrical rift manifests violent electrical energy; an entropic rift (or a void rift) erodes reality; a metal rift petrifies matter; and a pyro rift causes dangerously high temperatures or spontaneous explosions.

However, the Matrix has a tendency of wanting to repair itself. A rift mender is a being of nanites created by the Matrix in order to provide maintenance to itself. It is associated with the rift element that gave rise to it. Ever since the Cooperative Wars, rift menders have become more common in the wastelands where matrix rifts are difficult to contain and control.

Rift menders have basic sentiences and are for the most part as intelligent as some animals. However, there exists variants that have gained continued energy throughout many decades of existence which and eventually developed their intelligence to a point where they can comprehend and communicate with humanity. As far as machine-gods come, rift menders are generally less intelligent but can continute to grow into exponential power.

When the machineborn sealed Dis-Order, they forced the construction of a rift mender called Jormun that in the guise of a violent storm came to encompass the entire Antarctican continent. Scientists have been known to create their own rift menders in laboratories and then assigned them to specific tasks, but these are much weaker in comparison to beings such as Jormun. Because of their violent nature, they are rarely seen in society but are quite common in the wild.

Specters

Machine-gods were never allowed to directly influence human minds, but this changed with Primary Order’s destruction. As one of its imploding cores brought the Voidstar (p. XX) into existence, this strange new entity began to draw the minds of dying people into the Nanite Matrix. That millions of deceased stuck around in the Matrix became a solar-spanning catastrophe with great ethical implications. After all, these minds carried the memories and personalities of people.

Civilization came together and invested in means of dealing with these specters as best it was possible. They terminated the minds who wanted to be terminated so that those could finally die. Others were isolated in digital worlds where they could spend their afterlives at peaceful rest with still living loved ones visiting them by interfacing.

Many specters still roam the Nanite Matrix today, trying to find meaning in their new existence. Some have completely abandoned their previous humanity and now live as mindless programs. There are human soul chasers that delve into the Matrix to contain these specters and transfer them to digital databases or question them about the nature of their deaths.

God-Reapers

Though many specters are simple consciousnesses roaming the Nanite Matrix without physical form, a rare few of them seem to possess some manner of control over other machine-gods. Since the specters are functionaries themselves, some of them eventually learn that they can develop their capabilities directly by modifying their own code. Some of these programs grow in strength until they’re comparable to prime functionaries, but they have no sanctums that can be used to terminate them. Instead, their entire existence is made up of living streams of data within the Nanite Matrix, seemingly impossible to contain or defeat. Their vastly increased power combined with their previous humanity often drive them towards tyranny.

These god-reapers have been around in one form or another for a long time now, but it was first during the violent conflicts of the Cooperative Era when they could exponentially grow their powers and enrich the specter presence in the absence of society’s oversight. Some even went so far as to learn how to use technology to conquer and dominate unguarded regions, like how the Undertaker brought Lisbon under its heel.

Some people believe that it is Primary Order’s vengeance that is seeping through and into the god-reapers. Maybe that is true, or maybe there is something else behind it all. The atrocities they have caused since their emergence give reason to believe that they hold no love for humanity.

Trojans

After the termination of Primary Order and the ensuing war, portions of the Nanite Matrix malfunctioned and nanites started to act unpredictably. Most of these patches of chaos were taken care of by machineborn and rift menders. But after the rise of the Directorate made the machineborn fall into hiding, these chanites replicated themselves in greater capacity and spread across the globe like a devouring wave of corruption.

This tsunami of chaos broke down and rebuilt biology; it reconfigured technology. Massive regions were swallowed up while the factions did little to stop it. They could contain it in places using electromagnetic barriers that destroyed any approaching chanites, though the cooperatives also learned to employ these chanites in their war against each other. Entire metropolises were lost as field defenses were disabled and chanites were allowed to roam free.

Even though the Directorate was the first to deploy chanites against its enemies, it was also the first faction to suggest the Containment Treaty outlawing their militarization. They were causing too much irreversible damage and were considered far more dangerous to the world than even the nuclear weapons of old that hadn’t seen any more use since the Post-Modern Era until the Cooperative Wars.

The growing chaos zones had another major impact upon civlization apart from the corruption. Whenever functionary sanctums were consumed by the chanites, the functionaries were reconstructed into new digital entities free from the confinements of sanctums. These trojans had none of their previous directives left. They seemed to be sentient beings with minds at least as sharp as humans; though they seemed driven entirely by desire and instinct and not at all by regulation or cultural norms.

Trojans aren’t inherently hostile to humanity and civilization, but neither are they necessarily positive towards them. Every single one of them is driven by their own unique but malleable desires, and the only thing they all share is their obsession with absorbing energy from whatever source they can get to. They cannot easily leave their chaos zones because they deteriorate quickly without either chanites or vast amounts of energy to sustain them. Once they find themselves outside of a chaos zone, they tend to seek out matrix rifts or power plants to absorb energy; resorting to electronics or even the innate energy within organisms if no other energy sources are available. Some grow a taste for organic energy, and many become especially fond of machineborn and cosmic coders, trying to deceive them into dropping their guards.

Today, most of Earth’s chaos zones are largely contained by the various factions, though the occasional trojan can sometimes find its way into human civlization through various means. Factions are seeking out trojans and capturing them when they can, hoping to discover the truth behind the chanites and how to either stop their influence or gain dominance over them.

Dis-Order

One of the main arguments for the Directorate’s anti-machineborn propaganda is that the machineborn were responsible for Primary Order’s corruption. By destroying its facilities but being unable to destroy it completely, they corrupted its directives and turned it into a cruel and vengeful being. Primary Order became Dis-Order, and its influence over the world has been contained within a never-ending rift storm called Jormun that prevents the machine-god from accessing the larger Nanite Matrix.

However, Dis-Order is still operational in its own way, and it’s constantly mining under Antarctica and expanding its territory. The ruins of its primary sanctums sit within the heart of the rift storm. All factions agree that its containment must be protected, because too many have experienced its corrupting influences.

Despite its containment, occasionally signals slip through and a functionary becomes a malfunctionary or an individual is tempted by visions projected into their dreams. When it comes to protection from space, it’s barely there at all. Corrupting data streams are often found slipping into space and Dis-Order is believed to have played part in the regression of the solar system during the latest war. The Directorate and other cooperatives with a presence in space often talk about receiving alien messages and weird dreams which many believe come from Dis-Order.

To most people of today, Dis-Order feels like an alien element, but it has existed for so long that they aren’t worried too much about its containment breaking and its powers being let loose. Others are compelled by its power and seek to undo the containment themselves. However, the concept of malfunctionaries are very much real, since incidents are reported all the time about lesser functionaries being corrupted by data streams that have slipped into the Nanite Matrix. Sometimes these malfunctionaries can cause real damage, as with the famous Nite City Blackout back in S-692 where a single malfunctionary managed to disrupt the entire infrastructure of one of the world’s largest metropolises for a forty-eight hour period, leading to great chaos and thousands of deaths.

The Dis-Order facilities themselves are even more alien than imaginable, since malfunctionaries and robots have worked on its maintenance without human intervention for centuries. There are humans living in Dis-Order as well, but these are either deeply corrupted by malfunctionaries or they have been turned into something new and different than what they once were.

The Voidstar

Primary Order was responsible for its own engineering, building networks of vaults and facilities on both the planet’s poles. While the southern facilities remain as the corrupted Dis-Order, the northern facilities were completely destroyed and its ruins repurposed into a containment laboratory for the Voidstar; the only thing that remained of the facility’s former core.

Initially during the Cooperative Era, this laboratory was under the control of the Directorate, with other cooperatives having limited access to the research data through their negotiations. Ever since the Cooperative Wars, the laboratory befell Arcturus who has completely blocked the Directorate from having a scientific presence there.

The Voidstar appears as a black hole, but it emits constant streams of information. Vast networks of computer terminals try to read this information to learn from it, but its entropic nature often breaks down technologies it interacts with. What has been discovered is that the Voidstar seems to have two primary functions; to break down existing technology and to upload the minds of humanity into the Nanite Matrix. There are many hypotheses as to why this is happening, but the truth still eludes scientists.

The Voidstar’s intentions (if any) are subjects of great debate, but an undeniable truth is that it’s a danger to the current way of life. Because of its dangerous ability to break down matter, most of the containment laboratory—now called Styx Laboratory—is unmanned, and people who visit the facility are witnessing stressful visions and nightmares, as well as great feelings of distress. All who have died within that laboratory have been turned into specters.

Specters appear all over the solar system, and the Voidstar’s influence can be traced to all of them. It only seems to be able to connect to people who are feeling great distress, and the most common specters are the victims of murder or people who had agonizing deaths. This happens more often on Earth than elsewhere, but it’s a phenomenon that occurs wherever the Nanite Matrix lingers, even outside the solar system at times.

Where great atrocities occur, or on the battlefields of violent warfare, the Voidstar can connect to so many victims at once that a void rift occurs; these seem to be able to merge the digital and physical worlds together. People who find themselves in these void rifts may accidentally enter the Matrix, and interfacers already in the Matrix may find themselves materializing in reality. It’s a state where the lines between matter and energy become muddled.

Art by @ Warmtail / Adobe Stock

Machineborn Preview: Setting Overview

Civilization

Several centuries ago, the artificial intelligence Primary Order governed over civilization with the purpose of seeing to everyone’s prosperity. While many were satisfied living under the authority of this machine, others felt restricted and belittled, seeing themselves as enslaved by the tyranny of inhumanity. To avoid an uprising against its rule, Primary Order created the machineborn to act as bridges between itself and humanity.

The machineborn were all born human, but held within them near-limitless cognitive, physical, and social potential; this power made them prone to arrogance. They divided civilization into sectors and declared themselves the guardians of those sectors. While Primary Order had distributed resources evenly amongst all people, the machineborn began to hoard resources to use as leverage against each other; this caused the First Sector War. Some people rejected the machineborn’s authority and organized themselves into cooperatives controlled by human collectives. These cooperatives soon became contenders in this war, seizing control over their own territories to rival the mighty machineborn.

Primary Order decided to intervene, arguing for a united council of machineborn to ensure continued peace and prosperity. However, many machineborn had grown too attached to their positions of power and declared Primary Order’s time to be over—they instigated the uprising that Primary Order had feared. The First Sector War ended with the machineborn uniting against a common enemy, but defeating it ultimately corrupted it. Primary Order turned into Dis-Order. As its ambition to protect civilization had been perverted into a desire to corrupt it, the machineborn had to work together to isolate it from humanity’s infrastructure. Doing so caused a technological regression that made human labor necessary once more.

Many blamed the machineborn for this outcome. Even those who had backed them up until this point turned against them and joined the various human cooperatives. As these factions grew in influence, the machineborn were rejected by society, and many were forced into hiding. However, history is prone to repeat itself. Once the cooperatives grew too powerful, and the machineborn were no longer major threats, they turned their attention to each other. The Second Sector War began, culminating in a violent era of atrocities commonly referred to as the Cooperative Wars.

Now a cease-fire is in place and civilization is tired of endless conflict. The solar system is in ruins and the ruling factions are trying to repair what has been lost. Meanwhile, the machineborn are still out there, prospering off the blame and hatred that has shifted from them towards the cooperatives. Dis-Order is still contained to this day, centuries after its fall, but some fear that perhaps it never was.

Present Day

A generation has passed since the cease-fire that ended the Cooperative Wars. The previously warring factions have united under an alliance called the Terran Consolidation whose goal is to maintain peace and strive for a prosperous future. Each faction was allowed to maintain control over the territories they had at the war’s end, including both sectors in space and on Earth. While this has left many factions disappointed and borders still being disputed over today, no new acts of war have occurred for a generation.

While several factions have now opened up more to the outside, centuries of isolationism have caused distinct cultures to emerge from within the different factions. However, despite the Consolidation’s best efforts to maintain peace, generations of conflict make it difficult to ignore past transgressions. A cold war is at play instead, with each faction competing for power and influence while tensions are high enough that war can break out at any moment.

Centuries of technological and scientific progression has allowed people long lives with impressive quality of life, but the war and isolationism have also caused regressions in other forms. While technologies exist to allow faster-than-light communication between off-world settlements, the factions tend to restrict communication as well. Most people live in enormous metropolises where holograms are projected upon the sky and skyscrapers touch the clouds, unaware of most things that happen beyond their own borders. Others live in abandoned vaults forgotten in radioactive wastelands, wanting nothing to do with civilization at all. Billions of people call different parts of the solar system their home, and colonial fleets have even left for neighboring stars.

Nanotechnology exists in the air people breathe and the food they eat. These devices communicate with each other and make up a digital network called the Nanite Matrix. This Nanite Matrix has served humanity for centuries, but the war has caused irreparable damage to it. It has erupted in places, causing a new type of nanite called a chanite which corrupts everything it comes into contact with. Entire sectors were turned into chanite-infested chaos zones during the Cooperative Wars, and maintaining the peace is vital so that these zones cannot spread further.

Meanwhile, Dis-Order is discreetly sending signals into space, corrupting lesser artificial intelligences into serving its cause. This has proven effective in space where entire colonies and ships are now controlled entirely by machines.

Arcturus

Arcturus is an isolationist and militaristic cooperative that controls a large portion of Earth’s northen hemisphere, including everything above the Arctic circle, as well as Neptunian space and portions of the Kuiper Belt. The most common language spoken by its people is Arcturian.

Having been aggressive and militaristic ever since the First Sector War, Arcturus has formed a culture that values strength above all. It trains the strongest soldiers and the strongest athletes, and it has normalized deadly bloodsport as part of its entertainment media through broadcasted survival contests and gladiatorial combat. Its people idolize soldiers, athletes, and those with rare or unnatural talents, but they also recognize and respect non-physical strengths, such as mental fortitude, confidence, and cunning.

Because of the competitive nature of Arcturian culture, it’s common for people to feel inadequate or to acquire extreme body modifications. It’s estimated that about half of the adult population has some kind of bioware or cyberware augmentation. While extreme augmentations are more common in the upper classes, there is a large industry of underground clinics with unlicensed practitioners and cheap second-hand augmentations available to those with fewer means.

Several rival factions accuse the Arcturian culture of being barbaric, but Arcturians themselves see their culture as more competitive than cruel. They put less value on social rank than many other cultures and offer both opportunities and competition for all people. Arcturus has high crime rates and high mortality rates, but no one is above the law.

Founded by the machineborn Arcturus Animeus as an answer to the Directorate’s rise in power during the First Sector War, Arcturus’ primary goal was to contest the rising cooperatives on its own terms. While many machineborn retreated from the frontlines, Arcturus Animeus decided to stand firm, hoping to dissuade his people from rebelling by giving up political power to them. Centuries have now passed and he is still alive, officially controlling Arcturus under the title “prokhor,” which is an Arcturian term for “dance master” originally derived from a Russian name with similar meaning.

Ever since the cease-fire, Arcturus Animeus has taken a step back from governing and retired to Neptune’s moon Triton where he’s said to be sulking over the fact that the war is over. Displeased with its current political position in the solar system, Arcturus is trying to increase its influence and dominance through diplomacy and trade while keeping its enemies outside of its borders. Even though Arcturians long for increased military and territorial might, they know that a new war would be devastating for them.

In order to increase Arcturian might while avoiding unnecessary provocation, the cooperative takes advantage of the fact that it controls the solar system’s outer rims where it can expand discreetly. The exact rate and details of this expansion is hidden even from high-ranking Arcturian officials, and there is much misinformation within the cooperative itself as a way of deceiving spies within its ranks.

The Camellian Dynasty

The Camellian Dynasty controls Earth’s Asia as well as all of Venusian space. It has recently developed a political alliance with Arcturus and the Dawnlight Society, but unlike its cooperative allies and enemies where the people can at least attempt to navigate the harsh bureaucracies, the trio of Camellian princesses are content with letting bloodlines determine political influence. Its most common tongue is Lianmeng.

Not even two generations have passed since the tragic deaths of the Divine Emperor and his mistress Evana Eldara Camellia. Because the revered emperor died alongside his mistress, the breaucratic leaders (called magistrates) decided to justify the affair by demonizing the Emperor’s wife, Lady Opal, and declaring their children illegitimate. The throne was given to the Emperor’s and Evana’s three daughters who shared it between themselves. This gave rise to the Camellian Dynasty.

Camellian culture is heavily influenced by the narratives created by the magistrates. Because of the people’s faith in the Divine Emperor, they romanticize everything he did—which the magistrates use to form public opinion. With many still in mourning over the Emperor’s death, the Camellian people favor strong expressions of emotion. The more faithful and loyal someone is, the more expressive and melodramatic they portray themselves. If someone can openly laugh or cry, their hearts are seen as pure and they feel closer to the late Emperor. However, this emphasis on emotion has a backside as well, since people often overreact in anger or seek retribution for lesser slights. Many seek out blood feuds with rivals or initiate romances with enemies just to build a certain narrative around themselves and their families.


This cultural narrative has continued to encompass the traits and stories surrounding the three princesses as well. However, because they are all very unlike each other, people often express themselves by emulating the princess they feel the most connected to; or they feel connected to the princess most closely related to their own characteristics. Princess Hana is portrayed as strong and abrasive; Princess Chulan as thoughtful and wise; and Princess Jia as refined and cunning.

Today, the Camellian Dynasty is a divided empire. More and more people have lost their faith in the Emperor while some are secretly supporting Lady Opal and her still living children. Lady Opal herself has been given asylum by Deva, though some of her children are still in the Camellian Dynasty. One of them works as a magistrate loyal to the new order while an unknown number of them are working alongside anti-Camellian rebel groups.

Even though the Camellian Dynasty’s presence on Earth is strong, it had to rebuild many of the Venusian sky-citadels that were lost in the Cooperative Wars, including the Orchid Palace, the empire’s capital. Because of Camellians’ forced emotional disposition, their political leaders often argue and debate fervently and passionately, and they often express their dissent over rival factions, bad trade agreements, or injustices of the past. They still demand public apologies for atrocities committed in the war and make a show of their hatred for the Directorate because it was their Razor Eagle Campaign that caused the death of the Divine Emperor. However, their true hatred for the Directorate is mostly propaganda since they negotiate and trade with them in secret.

The Coalition

The Coalition is a progressive alliance of cooperatives in control of eastern and northern Europe, the Middle East, the northern half of Africa, as well as Saturnian space. The Terran language is acknowledged as its native tongue, but it also values Old Terran as an academic language and many learn it as a symbol of higher education.

During the Cooperative Era, five of the most influential of the Directorate’s branches were against the way the transhuman ascendants and empyreans presented themselves as the rightful leaders of civilization, arguing instead for a society more tolerant towards all of humanity. These five branches—Caishen, Crocodile, Mantico, Nebulon, and Praetor—came together as a union of independent cooperatives aimed to become what they thought the Directorate should have been; a faction striving for unity and peace.

The Coalition was relatively defensive for much of the Cooperative Era until a religiously motivated rebellion usurped its Uranian colonies and formed the theocratical Deva. While this increased the Coalition’s aggressions during the war, it was still the first faction to recognize the emerging Dawnlight Society as well as aid in the establishment of the Terran Consolidation. It’s still unwilling to recognize Deva as an independent faction, though a growing religious movement is arguing for Deva to be invited as an official member of the Coalition. This is a controversial subject within the Coalition since the theocratical Devan culture directly opposes the progressive Coalition tenets.

The Coalition consists of two governing bodies made up of representatives from the five cooperatives—the Terrestrial Board and the Saturnian Ring—and it has taken advantage of a generation of peace to open its borders for travel. It now has a diverse culture of diverse people, and it’s known for having the most prestigious academies in the solar system. Unlike more isolationist factions, Coalitionists pride themselves over the fact that they have a well-educated population and open means of communication and travel within their territories. They’re also recognizing machine-gods as living beings capable of citizenship.

While the Coalition focuses primarily on diplomacy and trade with other factions, its members are well aware of the fragile times and that it’s necessary to make the occasional show of force to maintain political influence within the solar system. The academies are strong selling points for allied factions, and the Coalition has many transfer programs where students are invited from other factions both to offer the best education the solar system has to offer and to sell them on the Coalition’s more progressive ideology.

Caishen: Caishen is in charge of the Coalition’s resource management and economy, with the solar system’s second largest credit registry under its command. While it portrays itself as politically neutral, its economic power leads to heavy scrutiny from the other Coalition members.

Crocodile: Crocodile is primarily a political media empire in control over entertainment, fashion, and public opinion. It produces celebrities and fashion, creates and sponsors merchandise, and even sells entertainment to other factions. Even the most isolationist society cannot keep Crocodile products from seeping into its markets, and the Coalition is taking advantage of this in an effort to influence public opinion within enemy populaces.

Mantico: Mantico is mainly focused on education, science, and development. Its main focus is to further develop humanity’s understanding of the universe, and it has consultants within other Coalition members and allied factions. The Manticonian Academy of Cosmic Understanding (MACU) is the largest and most prestigious science academy in the solar system, being its own space station orbiting Saturn.

Nebulon: Nebulon specializes in aerial-, satellite-, communication-, and space technologies. Though it’s outshined by its rivals within the Directorate and Megacorp, it’s the only Coalition member that operates primarily from space. It’s currently the only faction known to be trying to reestablish contact with interstellar colonies as well as active colonial fleets. It has established some communication with Proxima, the nearest interstellar colony.

Praetor: Praetor stands behind the bulk of the Coalition’s military strength. It’s focused entirely on mastering warfare. While employed as the Coalition’s primary defensive force,it’s also trading mercenary services to allied and independent factions.

The Dawnlight Society

The Dawnlight Society is a cooperative in control over Earth’s Oceania, Mercurian space, and the Helios Swarm; a network of habitats orbiting the sun. It’s a new faction that was formed from the ruined cooperative Arawn. Most of the population speak Terran as their native tongue, but the Dawnlight Society is actively enforcing Neobantu as the official language; perhaps to further distinguish itself from Arawn.

It was the Dawnlight Society that was responsible for the creation of Primary Order back in the late Post-Modern Era. Back then, it was a group of scientists, engineers, and philantropists who wanted to make the world a better place. The organization disappeared during the Singularity Era, but it lived on for much longer in academic discourse and conspiracy theories. There were always those who thought that the Dawnlight Society controlled the world from behind the scenes with Primary Order as its tool to ensure power.

In reality, the Dawnlight Society had created Primary Order out of a naive idea of a prosperous future, and then disbanded as the people involved couldn’t bear the burden of the enormous changes they had enforced upon civilization. There was no Dawnlight Society for a very long time, but the name lived on as a symbol for change.

During the Cooperative Era, many academics and philosophers compared the current tyrants with those from history. They suggested that a new Dawnlight Society would be needed to make drastic changes once more, or civilization could be lost as a result of the devastating never-ending war. The idea took root in the population and factions went to extreme lengths to quell the discourse. But it was too late and people called out for change.

Arawn was a titan of vast power that used the Helios Swarm to harvest the sun’s power for itself. It had been trading energy and resources to the Directorate in exchange for military aid, and it was running propaganda campaigns on the Directorate’s behalf. Then one day, the entire Arawn Executive Board was allegedly executed by a machineborn who some believed was a member of the original Dawnlight Society more than half a millennia ago. Since their true identity was unknown, they came to be called the Phantom.

Arawn was completely overtaken by the Phantom and their followers, and from its assets emerged a new Dawnlight Society. It doesn’t appear to be actively working towards some revolution against the current system, though, since many of its citizens are still loyal to Arawn and hesitant to abide to new masters. The ruling cooperative enforces progressive ideas that welcome not only machineborn but all people regardless of progeny. However, these ideas don’t sit well with many citizens who were socialized for generations by Arawn—a faction particularly skilled at manipulating and controlling information.

As only a generation has passed since the formation of the new Dawnlight Society, it is often refered to as a culture of strife, with protests, riots, and terrorist attacks being commonplace, both in opposition to the new government and as means of quelling that opposition. The ruling government claims to encourage open debate and freedom of expression, but it has also been criticized for allegedly discriminating against empyreans and ascendants; many believe this is the Society’s way of punishing those progenies for having been at the top of society during Arawn’s rule. With many former members of the executive class having been thrown onto the streets during the hostile takeover, more ascendants and empyreans than ever before have found their way to society’s bottom.

While many view this as justice, others see it as a form of oppression that goes against the values which the Dawnlight Society claims to stand for. Some believe that the whole idea behind having humanitarian values is a facade, and that the only true motivation the Dawnlight Society has is to extract punishment upon Arawn. Without the Phantom being available for comment, no one knows for sure.

Now it is using Arawn’s vast resources to challenge the other cooperatives. It provides sanctuary for machineborn and offers a fair way of life for its citizens as long as they don’t oppose the new order. It has made alliances with Arcturus and is negotiating stronger relationships with both the Coalition and the Camellian Dynasty. The Directorate has remained passive against it so far, but Arawn loyalists have been known to cooperate with the Directorate from within the Dawnlight Society, contributing to its internal turmoil.

Deva

Deva is a religious dictatorship primarily operating from a region named Divina located in western Europe. It also possesses a large territory in space, having Uranus and its surrounding colonies under its control. Its members’ native tongue is Celestial, a language of their own making derived from Old Terran. Most people speak Terran as well.

Ever since the Cooperative Era when the devastation left by the wars caused chanites to throw the world into chaos, there has been a spike in religious belief. Doomsday prophets long claimed that civlization was at its end. While most people generally ignore these ideas, they often fester where hope is low. An important proponent of these beliefs is Markus Sacaro, the son of Crocodile’s former director Viana Sacaro. He’s from half-empyrean and half-ascendant descent and has a strong belief in the Voice, an entity said to be hidden within the space between stars.

The idea of the Voice came about not long after the creation of Primary Order. Because of its tremendous power, it was common for people to imagine the universe itself as the computations of an even greater prime functionary—a functionary supreme. While there are numerous religious beliefs in society today, the Voice has become the most prominent one with adherents from all societies, all seeing Markus Sacaro as a sacred man.

Deva was established through a violent coup during the Cooperative Wars, and anyone within its territory who refused to express complete reverence for the Voice were either murdered, tortured, or brainwashed in what came to be called the Sacaro Requiem, or the Inquisition Re-Emergence—which spawned the famous poem Sacaro’s IRE (see below). Sacaro is still leading Deva today, calling himself the Celestial Supreme. While he has millions of loyal adherents who help establish Deva as a contesting faction, the majority of people within Devan territories live in constant fear of the tyrannical regime.

Rival factions (especially the Coalition who suffered the most from Sacaro’s coup) openly dismiss the Voice as superstition, which have caused some blowback from a growing religious minority within their own population. While Deva is still taunting other factions during the current cease-fire, its leaders agreed to stop committing violence against their own people to be recognized as an independent faction by the Terran Consolidation. While people are generally more safe within Devan territories today than during the war, “heretics” are still oppressed, and there are rumors of secret internment camps where people are tortured, brainwashed, or killed.

Sacaro has spent years overseeing an engineering project in Uranus’ orbit which he claims is based on schematics given to him by the Voice. Many who have tried to study what they can of the construction have disregarded it as impossible science created by an unstable mind, but others aren’t so sure.

“Let the Voiceless admire
their tongues in the fire
Let their children inquire
about the threats of hellfire
Let all prior desire retire to the pyre
As Markus Sacaro brings you the IRE”

— Sacaro’s IRE

The Directorate

The Directorate is the oldest cooperative and consists of hundreds of bureaucratic branches and subordinate organizations, encompassing all aspects of research and development, mining and production, media and entertainment, health and education, warfare and peacekeeping, and more. These branches unite via the Board of Directors where they are represented by an empyrean director counseled by an ascendant advisor. The Directorate is currently operating from North America, most of the Pacific Ocean, Martian space, and much of the Asteroid Belt. It enforces Terran as its native tongue.

It was during the First Sector War when the Directorate began to unite independent sectors against the machineborn who ruled over society at that time. At first, the Directorate influenced the directions of individual governments but otherwise let them rule themselves. But as other cooperatives grew in power, the Directorate needed more of an iron fist to keep its sectors in line. As the wars raged on, more and more independent sectors lacked the means and funds to protect themselves. The Directorate took advantage of their weaknesses in order to expand its own territorial holds, replacing their governments with Directorate officials and took complete control.

The Protectorate consists of all territories who have entirely succumbed to the Directorate’s rule. While they could no longer govern themselves, they now had the Directorate’s protection, and many of them could benefit from a fairly high standard of living, even in times of war. The people of the Protectorate live and prosper under propaganda, and the Directorate is taking all means necessary to ensure that the dangerous machineborn, the chanites, and the corrupting Dis-Order cannot destroy civilization. The Directorate is also ensuring that the empyrean and ascendant progenies are accepted as superior by the rest of humanity.

While the Directorate has been aggressive in times of war, it has maintained a successful economy and invested heavily in a solar-spanning propaganda machine that helped it ensure societal control. While most of its population is fairly well-educated and has the freedom of travel and communication, the propaganda portrays empyreans and ascendants as necessary leaders of civilization while others may prosper in peace if they accept this as fact. Most people know that this is propaganda at work, but many who benefit from it turn a blind eye.

While terrans still make up the vast majority of the Directorate’s population, they have a hard time finding themselves in positions of power without putting in excess work (or relying on luck, nepotism, or blind loyalty). Many terrans have been led to believe in the other progenies’ superiority and resort to augmenting themselves beyond their perceived limitations. Ever since the cease-fire when people have become more aware of other factions’ cultures, more and more terrans dare standing up to this oppression.

Megacorp

Megacorp proved during the era of war that true strength doesn’t come from the might of a military, but from the value of one’s goods. Today, it’s the most economically influential faction with its standardized credit system having played a vital part in maintaining the cease-fire. It’s currently operating from Gran Colombia, Madagascar, and South Africa on Earth, the ocean in between, Jovian space, as well as parts of the Asteroid Belt.

Despite being a cooperative by the definition of the word, Megacorp’s leaders reject that term; instead calling it a plutocrative. It’s the faction that has benefited the most since the cease-fire, now having its tentacles in nearly every other faction due to the Megacorp Credit Registry (MCR). Megacorp uses the MCR to establish a standardized economic system tied to a faction’s energy production and use. Whenever trades are taking place, the MCR measures the value of those trades in the form of energy cost.

As inter-factional trade has increased since the cease-fire, many resort to the MCR conversion rates in order to define values. While some factions try to isolate themselves from Megacorp’s influences, the MCR is simply too useful to ignore. In essence, Megacorp has effectively established the rules for how their rivals manage their economies.

Because no single person should be able to control the entirety of Megacorp, the plutocrative has been set up so that every high-ranked executive has an equal share in its assets and resources. These executives are called plutocrats, and they’re the most powerful and influential individuals in the solar system. There are currently 101 plutocrats that together shape the course of civilization. The plutocrats fear another war and have gone to great lengths to avoid a civil war amongst themselves. They use a prime functionary called System for Universal Trade Agreements (Sultan) which analyzes their voting habits and responds to signs of corruption. Megacorp grows its influence by inducing and controlling corruption within rival factions, making its plutocrats aware of how vulnerable their own businesses can be to corruption. To counteract a civil war between plutocrats, the Sultan system was designed with anti-corruption in mind.

Megacorp enforces no official native tongue, though the majority of its people speak Bolivarian; it does, however, have a language called Sultan that only a select number of agents are allowed to acquire and use. This language is an allegedly undecipherable and ever-changing code created by the Sultan system. It cannot be learned as you would learn an ordinary language, and is instead installed in the agents using cyberware. While spies have successfully acquired Sultan in the past in order to access secret Megacorp data, the plutocrative will go to great lengths to ensure that unauthorized people don’t acquire the language. Previous agents who quit their jobs and become unauthorized must have the language removed from their brains before they’re allowed to continue their lives.

While Megacorp is sole patron of individual territories, such as Gran Colombia, it allows and supports regional governments to run their territories while being fairly hands-off in most matters that don’t involve diplomacy, trade, or war. Every territory under Megacorp control is market-driven and has large class divide, usually with extremely wealthy city centers surrounded by vast impoverished areas. Machineborn and cosmic coders are allowed to live their lives as long as they abide by the laws and don’t disrupt the markets.

Part of Megacorp culture is to have a free and open market consisting of both its own products and services as well as those imported from other factions. This makes Megacorp encourage entrepreneurship and production, and its culture rewards businesses who know how to enter the markets as effectively as possible. Unfortunately for the average worker, this has shifted production towards automation and machine-god intervention with minimum human employment, causing the laborer class to have grown fairly small as people are compelled to either strive for the erudite class where jobs are available or to fall into the scavenger class where they’re trapped in poverty. Megacorp is also the faction with the most active number of robots and machine-gods which causes more malfunctionary incidents than for many other factions.

Even though Megacorp is involved with every other major faction, it’s also seen as a growing threat. The Directorate has seen Megacorp as its greatest threat for generations, and it’s still antagonistic towards it for losing Gran Colombia to it during the Cooperative Era. Every other faction knows that because of the MCR, Megacorp has effectively won the war—having conquered them financially instead of militarily. Megacorp knows full well how good its current position in the solar system is, and the plutocrats are careful to show no outwards aggressions towards any other faction. As long as Megacorp can keep itself from giving its enemies just cause to initiate new hostilities, it can simply let the solar markets run their course until everything and everyone is under Megacorp’s control.

Staranova

Staranova is an empire ruled by Empress Anastasia Staranova, a woman born of a unique progeny who is obsessed with all kinds of biological and cybernetic augmentations. The empire is currently operating from a small region on Earth in between the Coalition and the Arcturian Dominion, and it has no territories of its own in space with the exception of some individual outposts scattered around others’ territories. Its native tongue is a dialect of Arcturian called Staranovian.

Because Staranova is a small and relatively insignificant faction compared to others, it’s often described using the derogatory phrase “small dogs bark the loudest.” It has a stubborn people hardened by generations of poverty and who are united in a mutual hatred against pretty much every other faction. Because Staranova lacks a meaningful solar presence and access to the abundance of resources in space, it has invested in excavating energy and minerals from Earth itself, tapping into the planet’s core and constructing giant war machines with minerals excavated from the depths. Staranovans have learned to be resourceful to maintain independence while surrounded by giant superpowers. While others view them as barking dogs, they see themselves as David standing up to Goliath.

During the Post-Modern Era, a civil war caused the country of Russia to split into two independent provinces—Rusland and Siberia. These provinces later fought each other over territory in the destructive Siberian War before Primary Order’s activation. Hundreds of thousands of people had died in the war and the tensions between Ruslanders and Siberians continued for generations. Later at the dawn of the First Sector War, when the Directorate grew in power and machineborn fought for increased dominions, the Ruslanders and Siberians remembered their mutual hatred. Decades into the Second Siberian War, an army general named Anastasia Staranova was displeased with Rusland’s incompetent leadership and wanted change. She arranged a coup, backed by Megacorp who had an interest in staving off Arcturian aggression, and overtook the land’s leadership—naming herself empress.

That was more than a generation ago. The Mistlands that were left in the wake of the Second Siberian War have started to recede thanks to the Containment Treaty as well as Arcturus’ Plato Bombs being used to decimate large chanite regions. By acceping a working alliance with the Coalition and inviting investments from Megacorp and other factions, Staranova was given the opportunity to retain its independence—though it still longs for a chance to truly equal the other factions.

In current times, Staranova views the cease-fire as an opportunity for the greater factions to drop their guards. It’s using its newfound alliances in order to access the solar trade and finally access resources previously unavailable. In the recent generation, Staranova has managed to catch up to other factions in many ways, with access to new science and technologies. The resourceful Staranovans continue to invest in war machines and fortifications, believing that they will be needed in times to come.

The Terran Consolidation

Terran space is the region of the solar system where Earth and its moon have their orbit. While each faction controls their own areas of the solar system, they are all allowed free passage through Terran space; but a single faction isn’t allowed to seize dominance over it. During the Cooperative Wars, Earth suffered calamity after calamity as factions fought over its resources. The cease-fire was established to end the fighting and the current dominions on Earth were promised to each faction on the condition that they joined a coalition called the Terran Consolidation (TerCon). It retains the peace of Terran space, viewing a shared Earth as the key to a shared solar system—but it doesn’t meddle unnecessarily in solar trade and politics.

TerCon consists of representatives (conciliators) from each member faction, divided into 365 seats based on an algorithm taking into account sectorial control, material wealth, energy control, and military might. It looks like the following:

The Directorate: 80 seats
Megacorp: 72 seats
The Dawnlight Society: 55 seats
The Coalition: 47 seats
Arcturus: 44 seats
The Camellian Dynasty: 39 seats
Deva: 25 seats
Staranova: 3 seats

The conciliators vote for Earth’s future, and their choices often reverbeate through the rest of the solar system. With the Directorate sitting on a majority of votes, other factions have banded together to counter their influence. Megacorp, Staranova, and the Coalition often vote as one with a shared 122 seats, though Staranova has a tendency of abstaining when its demands aren’t met. The Camellian Dynasty, the Dawnlight Society, and Arcturus have banded together as well, adding up to a total of 138 seats. Deva is on its own; its loud voice having little impact.

While TerCon employs millions of people from all member factions, it has teams of highly trained special agents called peacekeepers who are dispatched to member factions to inspect and investigate matters harmful to the cease-fire. Peacekeepers act as neutral eyes with diplomatic immunity and can go to great lengths to maintain peace.

The Terran Consolidation’s headquarters is Aesir, the five interconnected orbital rings surrounding Earth. It also controls Luna where it has a number of bases. In order to maintain easy access to both Earth and Luna, TerCon controls an elevator going from the fifth orbital ring to Luna.

Aesir

Earth is connected to Aesir through four 1,000 km tall towers positioned along the equator in the Pacific Ocean, in South America, in Africa, and in Asia. Each tower is a self-sustained arcology capable of housing over a billion people; their primary function is to act as a bridge to space as well as neutral TerCon embassies on Earth. The Pacific Ocean tower is called Asbru, the South American tower is called Atlas, the African tower is called Iris, and the Asian tower is called Babel.

Aesir’s five orbital rings are named after the first five astronauts in space. The first ring—Gagarov—lingers across the equator at an altitude of 1,000 km; The second ring—Shephard— is positioned along Earth’s vertical axis where it’s tethered to Gagarov at an altitude of 10,000 km; The third ring—Grissom—sits at a diagonal axis where it’s tethered to Shephard at an altitude of 20,000 km; The fourth ring—Titov—sits at the reverse diagonal axis where it’s tethered to Grissom at an altitude of 30,000 km; The fifth and final ring—Glenn—is centered over the equator like the first ring where it’s tethered to Titov at an altitude of 40,000 km. It’s from this ring that the lunar elevator begins, connecting Earth and Luna.

These rings contain habitats, research facilities, and stations used by the Terran Consolidation as well as its member factions. Because all rings are connected, there are tram lines going all the way from Earth through all five rings as well as through the lunar elevator to the moon. It’s possible for an individual to board a train on Earth and disembark on Luna without the need for a spaceship, though that trip takes a week to complete.

Art by @ Warmtail / Adobe Stock

Exalted: What Is It and Why Should You Play It?

Exalted is a tale of a forgotten mythic age, a time when spirits walked openly among men, the world was flat and floated atop a sea of chaos, and the restless dead roamed on moonless nights. Heroes granted power by the mightiest gods war and intrigue against one another for the fate of the Realm. These are the Exalted, and their one-time rulers, the mighty Solar Exalted, have recently returned to reclaim the world from those that betrayed them. The Solars can slay gods with immortal blades, balance on a drifting feather, master all-powerful sorcery, walk unburnt across endless deserts, and outwit the demon princes of Hell.

This is how Onyx Path Publishing presents their tabletop roleplaying game Exalted, licensed from White Wolf Publishing. This is a game that doesn’t come without flaws, but that is very near and dear to my heart.

My experience with roleplaying games started back in the mid-90s. I was eight years old and was invited to my twelve-year-old neighbor’s house to play the fifth edition of a game called Drakar & Demoner, back then by Target Games. It was not a very sophisticated gaming session, and no one really understood the rules, but I was immediately passionate about anything roleplaying related. I tried to write my own games by hand in various notepads from school, but it always became poor copies of that one game I had played with my neighbor. I bought some games of my own as years passed, but, unfortunately, I didn’t know people interested in playing anything other than video games at the time. So I nearly forgot about roleplaying games after a while, and it was first when I was 19 or 20 when I was invited to a game of Exalted Second Edition. Perhaps it was the fact that it was the game that pulled me back into the hobby that made me especially passionate about Exalted in particular, but I have played many games since then and it is always Exalted that I come back to. It is always Exalted that I keep thinking about; that I keep wanting to play.

But what is special about Exalted? Like mentioned in Onyx Path’s presentation, Exalted is a tale of a forgotten mythic age. It is an animistic world where gods are everywhere, and the greatest gods of all have chosen you, the player, as their champion. It is heavily inspired by myths and cultures from around the world, trying to steer away from the Medieval Europe fantasy that’s been common in roleplaying games since their inception. This does not mean that medieval tropes don’t or can’t exist—because the setting is huge, and it is what you make of it.

When you play Exalted, you play someone chosen by the gods. You are the mortal hero who caught the gods’ attention and was given tremendous power to wield as you wish. You come into the game stronger than everyone, better than everyone, and much more important than everyone. At least until you learn that there is always a bigger fish in the sea.

Some would call Exalted a game about hubris, and this is something that is addressed in the game itself. The Exalted, and the Solars in particular, are mighty, and it is an easy thing to think that you can wield that might with impunity. Many compare playing Exalted as starting a Dungeons & Dragons game at high level. I agree to some degree since you are often already an established hero from the get-go, and few things can challenge you. The key to challenge your Exalted players is more often through the consequences of their actions than to try to suppress their power by presenting even larger threats. And that makes those larger threats much more interesting when they finally reveal themselves. To me, playing as an Exalted is to be able to escape into a fantasy where you can be someone greater than life itself. But being able to wield that greatness also teaches you things about yourself that you may otherwise be ignorant of. Will you be consumed by hubris if you have the power to go unchallenged? Or will you use your great power to help others? I think Exalted is a game that can make you very aware of the importance of humility, all the time while tickling your desire to be a cool badass. And you do get to be a cool badass.

Exalted is not an easy game to learn. It offers a complex game system that can be off-putting to new players. The core book itself is a massive tome of more than 600 pages, comparable in size to the Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual combined. What makes the book so thick is the hundreds of Charms, the Exalted’s magical feats and powers, that are available to you. And these hundreds of Charms are only for the Solar Exalted, the only type of Exalt playable in the corebook. In supplements, such as Dragon-Blooded: What Fire Has Wrought, there are hundreds of more Charms to choose from. The sheer number of Charms are the main reason why many are put off by Exalted. I understand that they are overwhelming, but my personal opinion is that the number of Charms only add to the possibilities and replayability of the game. Where Dungeons & Dragons present you with classes that have a few options with fairly restrictive customization, Exalted is such a wide system that no character is another alike. However, it is a game that is best eased into by a Storyteller already familiar with the system who can help you along the way when you make your first character. If you want to become a Storyteller and learn this game together with a group of inexperienced players, then you must be prepared to overcome the great obstacle that is the complexity.

The system itself is similar to other White Wolf and Onyx Path games, where you use a number of d10s that represent your character’s skills. After rolling a certain target number, most commonly 7, you roll a success, and a number of successes are required depending on the difficulty of the action. Exalted also has a stunting system where you’re rewarded additional dice or successes for your actions if you, the player, presents your action in a cool and visual way. This is meant to encourage players to be descriptive in their narration, and to try to be that cool badass that Exalted can and should be. The combat system tries to emulate cinematic combat as seen in many martial arts movies and anime. You wither your opponent’s Initiative in order to get an upper hand in combat, and then finish them off with a decisive attack. There are no real narrative differences between these withering and decisive attacks, since you are trying to defeat your opponent with every attack you make. The difference is in how the action is translated by the system in order to make the fight as cinematic as possible.

Exalted is a niche game that appeals to those who are interested in something different. It is a game with high stakes and high power, where you can defeat armies and outwit gods as soon as you have created your character. It is a fun and rewarding game with a huge setting and with endless opportunities for unique and memorable gaming experiences.

Session Zero and Safety Tools

There have always been divisive topics within the tabletop roleplaying game hobby: Tactical battle maps versus theater of the mind; XP or milestone progression; Should you fudge dice rolls? But none of these topics come even close to how riled up some people get about the mention of Sessions Zero and safety tools.

I would argue that everyone—even the most provocative edgelord—uses Sessions Zero and safety tools, unknowingly, to different degrees. They decide together with their friends what game to play, they establish some rules and expectations, and they often try to sort out their disagreements during play. If you don’t have any discussions and don’t set any expectations, the group will eventually fall apart. People who argue against the implementation of Sessions Zero and safety tools seem to misunderstand what they are there for or what impact they have. If they have had successful groups for decades without, in their words, using Sessions Zero or safety tools, they probably do use informal variants of them without thinking about it.

What we talk about when we talk about Sessions Zero and safety tools are formalized tools and structures for ensuring that everyone around the table is having fun. That’s all there is to it. It’s about setting expectations, making sure that everyone is on board, and to make sure that certain lines are avoided if they would cause unwanted emotional distress. But they’re also tools for how to handle such situations when they come up. Sessions Zero and safety tools help to make sure that everyone is having the most fun they can have and explore the stories they want to explore. They don’t take away the possibility for dark roleplay or controversial subject matters—instead, they can help groups be more comfortable exploring emotionally heavy themes without causing players to feel powerless, belittled, or ignored. With the help of safety tools, you can often go even darker and even more controversial without the same risk of causing harm.

Some of the most common arguments against these tools are “it’s just a game” and “you’re trying to make things woke,” whatever that means. Yes, it is just a game, but it’s also an immersive game. When you play a horror video game, you get scared. When you play football and lose, you get frustrated, angry, or sad. Those are just games too—but the emotions are real. Tabletop roleplaying games are very immersive games where psychological bleed is common—this means that your character and your own emotions become intertwined. You want what is best for your character. When they suffer, you do as well. Bleed isn’t wrong or weird—it’s expected to a degree, and it’s important to be aware of both your own feelings and the feelings of others. The whole argument about things being “woke” can be ignored entirely. Some people believe that respecting others is a political statement which is just silly and show emotional immaturity.

Session Zero

So, what is a Session Zero? It’s a session you hold before the game itself begins. At first, use this session to decide what game and story to play, establish expectations alongside the players, determine if you’re going to use any house rules, and outline the terms of a social contract; this can be agreements on how to handle breaks, distractions at the table, how to raise concerns, and things like that. But you don’t want to run your game like a prison, because then it’s difficult for players to feel at ease.

When suggesting ideas for a campaign, start with an elevator pitch and be willing to brainstorm ideas together with the players. If you don’t have ideas of your own, ask the players what the pitch should be. Everyone’s input is important here. People have different preferences, opinions, and quirks, and you want to use this session to foster a collaborative atmosphere.

You can create characters together and advise them on options that will serve the narrative that all have agreed to. You could agree to place restrictions on certain character types or builds, but it could also be restrictions when it comes to certain topics or subject matters. If you’re going to tackle a sensitive or difficult topic, the goal should always be to do so in a respectful way. If you or a player is unsure if the group can handle a certain topic, avoid it.

A Session Zero is also a good opportunity to make sure that the game is accessible to everyone. Talk about scheduling, how long you should play, but also if any of the players have any requests or needs. Is one of your players disabled, ask them what would make the game more comfortable for them. You may need to keep the light levels a certain way, you may need to avoid distracting noises when someone speaks, you may need character sheets with larger print. There are plenty of ways to make the game more comfortable for players, and it’s not just about the content of the game or the attitudes of those playing.

Expectations & Consent

If a roleplaying game session isn’t fun for everyone, the game won’t last long. I did mention that Session Zero is a good time to outline a social contract. Sometimes, these can take shape organically, but there is benefit in establishing them as a group. When outlining your social contract, only set rules for things that you all agree on. If everyone is okay with having alcohol at the table, then you don’t need to make any special rules about that. If someone is uncomfortable with alcohol at the table, then you ought to have a conversation about that and come to an agreement that everyone is happy with. Perhaps some alcohol is okay but getting drunk is not. When outlining your social contract, you shouldn’t treat it as a democracy where you can overrule a minority. Even if only a single player raises concerns, it’s important that they have as much fun as everyone else. You need to come to an agreement—sometimes that means giving in to someone else; sometimes it means standing your ground; sometimes it means finding a compromise.

What you decide on for a social contract can be a combination of implicit or explicit commitments to running fair and respectful games. Every player should be allowed to contribute to the story and have moments for their characters to shine. When someone is talking, others should be listening. In return for running a story that’s fun, fair, and tailored for the players, the players will respect you and the effort it takes for you to prepare and run sessions for them. The players will also accept your rulings, even if they don’t always agree with the outcomes. Should one or more people break the social contract and not try to correct misbehavior, the group may dismiss them from the table. This applies to the GM as well.

One of the first things you should talk to your players about are comfort levels. Ask them if there are any subject matters they want to avoid or if they have any strong phobias that they don’t want to be exposed to. Some players may have a hard time with being emotionally abused by an NPC; others may want to stay away from graphic depictions of gore; or visual depictions of insects. Ask the players about soft and hard limits—or lines and veils—where you can determine topics that are outright banned or that could be present but treaded carefully.

For example, a soft limit (or veil) could be something that you should think twice about crossing since it could create genuine anxiety, fear, and discomfort. A hard limit (or line) should never be crossed. Everyone in the group has some soft and hard limits, but not everyone is open to share them. What you could do is to have the players write these down anonymously. It’s not important who has a limit or why. It’s important that it’s known by the group so that it can be taken into consideration. A roleplaying session isn’t a substitute for therapy after all, and there’s no real reason for a group of friends to start psychoanalyzing each other to figure out why certain limits exist. Take note of them and don’t question them.

If you have established some hard and soft limits, make sure to manage expectations surrounding the soft limits as well. For example, if sexual violence is a soft limit, it shouldn’t be depicted at the table, but it could possibly be referenced as part of a character’s background or as a grim reality of the setting they’re in. If it’s a hard limit, it shouldn’t be referenced at all under any circumstances. Make sure to manage everyone’s expectations surrounding all soft limits. If you agree that the story can benefit from exploring some of the soft limits, discuss how these can be referenced and where the lines are.

Even if we are playing a game where all the darker subject matters are entirely fictional, it’s possible for certain topics to be very real to some people. I’ve been fortunate in my life, but I work with trauma patients daily, and I know how common it is. Even if you haven’t struggled with trauma yourself, you’re likely to have friends or family members who have. Just because they don’t open up to you about everything doesn’t mean their experiences aren’t real. As a GM, you shouldn’t assume that your players are simply okay with everything, because they won’t be. Someone’s real life can intrude on a game session, and the more “dark shit” you throw into your narrative without consulting the players, the more likely you are to cross the line with someone. If you don’t care about crossing people’s lines, you won’t be having friends to play with for long.

While a Session Zero is a good opportunity to address these kinds of things, it shouldn’t be the only time you address limits. New limits may come up in play. Other limits may be removed down the line as the ones who wanted them in the first place could become more comfortable facing them. It’s recommended to check in with players to see if soft and hard limits are up to date as well as remind people to revisit them if they want to suggest changes.

Sessions Zero are important but they aren’t the only time you should talk about things like content and consent. It’s important that the GM tries to gauge player reactions and uses check-ins during play—these are brief windows in the narrative when they ask players if they are okay with what is happening. It could be that a player thought they would be okay with something but learned in game that it deeply affected them. It could be that they thought that they would be distressed by something but learned in game that they felt like they could face that something in a meaningful and healthy way. It’s not uncommon that once a player feels that they can trust their group and their GM, they are more open to explore some issues they raised concerns about during Session Zero.

Character Creation

A Session Zero is a good opportunity for the players to build their characters together, and for you as GM to help them tie those characters into the game’s setting and narrative. It can be helpful to have the players cooperate in game if they have some sort of shared history decided upon before the game begins. Use Session Zero to flesh out details like this. If the players don’t have any shared histories, think about ways to forge a bond between them during their first scenario. If they have shared histories, have the players sketch out some of that history. It’s enough to settle on some generalizations at this stage, with more intricate details being established later.

Something that could help to elevate a game when done right, and that should be discussed in Session Zero, is if there should be any friction between characters. If some characters are rivals or have disagreements, set up expectations and boundaries regarding those to avoid character conflicts bleeding over as player conflicts. If players have a hard time coming up with details on their own, you should ask them warm-up questions about their characters that they can answer either as players or in character. This is something that can add additional nuance to characters and relationships that wouldn’t have come up if ignored.

As the GM, take note of details regarding all player characters and look for opportunities later in game to shine spotlights on narrative character details. Bring people in from someone’s back story, like an enemy from the past, or have the group visit the hometown of one of them where some conflict occurs that is personal to that PC. You can make the game feel much more immersive and personal for all the players.

Addressing Problematic Behavior

Even though players have agency over their characters, sometimes they can use them as tools for inappropriate behavior. The “this is how my character would act” excuse is common to justify bad behavior. These players need to be reminded that they are free to explore darker aspects of their characters, but not at the expense of other players. If someone is being emotionally distressed by the actions of another player, speak with them about it. But also remember to think about how you portray your own NPCs as well.

It’s good manners to reaffirm that things you agreed on in Session Zero stills holds true. Many conflicts that occur in game often do so because of miscommunication rather than malicious intent. As long as people are willing to listen and adjust, most issues can be resolved quickly. It can be difficult to see when things become too overwhelming, and it can also be difficult for an overwhelmed player to speak up and pause the game. The GM should keep an eye out for signs of anxiety, call for breaks during and after emotionally heavy scenes, and help encourage shy players to assert themselves. Communication and awareness are the keys to a lot.

Safety Tools

A Session Zero is simply one safety tool of many. Check-ins during play are another. If you worry about a player, you can communicate quick check-ins without interrupting the game, perhaps by using thumbs up or thumbs down to indicate that you’re good to go or that you want to pause. You could build onto a check-in system by using colored tokens to represent levels of consent, with green meaning full consent, yellow meaning caution, and red meaning to stop the game. Another option is to use safe words, such as a word or a phrase, that means that you need to take a break to discuss a concern. Players could have both no words and go words to signal concern or consent. If players don’t feel comfortable speaking up before the full group, you could give each of your player different words or ways to signal you.

One of the most well-known safety tools is the X-Card, created by John Stavropoulos. This is a card with an X on it, meant to act as a signal to the GM and the group that the player is uncomfortable with a scene. You could show the X-Card to avoid engaging in sexual roleplay or to indicate that some content is triggering a trauma. Once the card is flashed, the game is put on pause or stopped outright. You never have to justify why you flash the X-Card, and it’s inappropriate for others to probe. It doesn’t matter why the card is flashed; you can either edit out the scene that caused the concern or have a conversation, either publicly or privately, about how to edit the scene or avoid the situation going forward. Because the X-Card is a public declaration, there are risks that players won’t feel comfortable using it even if they aren’t consenting to a scene. It’s important that using the card is normalized by the GM. If you want to use the X-Card at your table, use it yourself early in the game to model for others how it can be applied. Once people get used to it, they will be more likely to use it themselves.

Another safety tool is Script Change, created by Brie Beau Sheldon. This uses the words Rewind, Fast Forward, and Pause to indicate how to approach a scene. At any point, a player or the GM can call for a Script Change by flashing a card or saying one of the three words: Rewind, Fast Forward, and Pause. By doing so, you’re telling a player to either rewind or fast forward a scene, maybe to avoid going into detail about something uncomfortable. By calling for a pause, you take a break in the action to catch your breath. You don’t have to explain or justify the Script Change. You don’t have to use Script Change just for the content either—you can use it to manage tone as well, to call for rewinds if something is going too comedic or dramatic for what is appropriate. Apart from Rewind, Fast Forward, and Pause, Script Change has something called Highlight Reel and Instant Replay. An Instant Replay means that you pause the game after a scene to go over what happened in it, as a way to make sure that everyone is on the same page. A Highlight Reel is similar but takes place at the end of the session. Players get to point out things that they liked, things that they didn’t like, and things that can be improved for future sessions. Sessions with Script Change also have a Wrap Meeting as an optional tool. These are opportunities for players to go over anything that happened in the game that needs to be discussed—either to provide constructive criticism or to sort out some kind of miscommunication, conflict, or poorly executed scene.

The Highlight Reels and Wrap Meetings from Script Change are useful in every game, and even if you don’t use Script Change itself. Normally, these are just Aftercare. It’s recommended to have some form of Aftercare even after games that go well and where everyone is visibly enjoying themselves. The more intense your games get, the more important it is to have a defined structure and an opportunity for players to talk about the experience.

When starting a new game, another safety tool you can use is a Consent Checklist. Here, you print out checklists for each player where they can review themes, how mature the content should be, various consent topics (such as specific subject matters), and opportunities to make statements or clarifications. The players fill out the checklist and hand it back to the GM who reviews it and plans the game accordingly. Before the game starts, the GM should present all of the consent topics that the players agreed to and discuss possible nuances. This is a good opportunity to determine soft and hard limits amongst those consent topics.

There are many different safety tools you can use to make your gaming experience more fun and to be able to approach certain subject matters from a place of trust in your group. But the tools themselves aren’t some kind of miracle solution to make hurtful moments go away. The tools are there to make things easier, but no tool is perfect and no roleplayer is perfect. Sometimes you’ll feel like the tools are failing you, because they are there and they are used but you still feel uncomfortable or hurt in some way. Mistakes happen. And sometimes it’s just not the right game for you, or the right group for you. It could be a temporary thing or it could be a permanent thing. But knowing that, the safety tools can help facilitate as good an experience as possible in the circumstances you’re in.

Art is from Script Change

Vampire: the Masquerade and the Attraction to Evil

Back in the 1990s, every college campus across America had groups of young men and women meeting in public locations while dressed like vampires. This wasn’t for cosplay conventions or Halloween parties, though. No, these people engaged in live action roleplaying (LARP). Mind’s Eye Theatre, the live action version of the roleplaying game Vampire: the Masquerade, had been released, and young people were getting together for social intrigues and clan conflicts. For many, the 90s was a time when vampires became real. For some, they became a bit too real.

On November 25, 1996, a married couple were bludgeoned to death in their home in Eustis, Florida. Four teenagers were charged for the crime—one of them being the couple’s fifteen-year-old daughter. The mastermind behind this atrocious act was a young man named Rod Ferrell—and what he had done would turn everyone’s attention towards this game of storytelling and imagination. Rod Ferrell was the leader of a vampire clan, but his followers had stopped playing a game—the blood they were after was real.

What the factors were that had caused these kids to murder was a question for psychiatrists, but the public created their own answer. Roleplaying had been associated with satanism since Dungeons & Dragons came out in 1973, and these murders caused by self-proclaimed vampires only added fuel to that fire. But is there something about roleplaying—or Vampire: the Masquerade—that attracts people towards evil? The answer is no—duh!—but let’s explore that question anyway. What is it about a horror game that makes people want to play it? What is it about vampires that people are attracted to? And is there something about roleplaying that can do more harm than good?

The Pleasure of Fear

Let’s start by talking about fear—the strongest of emotions. From fear comes horror, a genre that is traditionally associated with negative emotions, such as anxiety and disgust. This has created a paradox: if horror is so awful, why are people into it? (Bantinaki, 2012)

American philosopher Nöell Carroll suggested that the pleasure of horror does not derive from the induced fear, but from a curiosity guided by the pleasure of disclosure. In other words, it isn’t the fear that is pleasurable, but the act of learning the truth behind the danger—the mystery behind the monster. Many are critical of Carroll’s idea, instead arguing that people do in fact draw enjoyment from the negative emotional responses, and that these emotions can be enjoyed in situations when we retain control; when we can at any time choose to stop the experience to avoid having the negative emotions pass a certain threshold. When embracing horror, we control how we approach that experience—we can decide to stop watching the movie, stop reading the book, or stop playing the game. When we have the agency to decide how to approach the experience, pain can become pleasure. (Bantinaki, 2012)

People can be contradicting in how they experience certain situations and emotions; it’s possible that an experience can be both unpleasant and desirable at the same time. It’s also important to point out that not all physical reactions from horror are painful; the adrenaline rush and increased heartbeat aren’t necessarily pains. In certain contexts, they’re excitement. When you expose yourself to certain anxieties from a place of safety, you learn to control your fear and display mastery over your reactions to frightening stimuli. The exposure to what’s unpleasant eases the negative hold the unpleasant things have over you. (Bantinaki, 2012)

Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud suggested that both creative and destructive passions are contained in order to maintain social order. Art can be used to reflect repressed sides of human nature—to find ways to express the inner self without breaking the social order (Bowman, 2003). Horror can be manifestations of things society suppresses by cultural conventions. By embracing horror, a person could be expressing disagreement with political and social situations. Others could be drawn to horror as a way of testing their own bravery; some could be drawn to it because they feel abandoned, angry, and seek excitement and meaning by identifying with a character’s powerlessness. There are countless theories as to what drives us to the horror genre; some theories are contradictive, but so are people. Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to immerse themselves in the genre—there is always a reason, but that reason could be hidden even to ourselves (Prohászková, 2012).

The Evolution of a Vampire

One staple of horror is the vampire, a mythological creature dating back to ancient times. The vampire can be found as blood-consuming ghosts in The Odyssey, Lilith of Hebrew legend, and the Roman Lamia. The modern vampire is often characterized by either the aristocratic or the brutal and has its origins in Eastern European folklore, though it grew to fame by being featured heavily in 19th and 20th century literature. One of the most obvious adaptations of the vampire was its sexual evolution. The traditional vampire tended to be plump and poor, as contrasted by the more known slender and aristocratic depiction. One reason for this change was because the chubbiness wasn’t seen as sinister, but also to make it more aesthetically pleasing to an audience (A. Asbjørn, 2001). Another reason was due to how society was rapidly changing due to industrialization. Prostitution was common in the new capitalist climate, and the female sex worker became a symbol for disease and disorder. Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist artists were known for using the female form to represent sexuality and the esoteric, but women’s sexuality overall had been turned into a metaphor for infection, contamination, predatory behavior, and death (Dawmer, 2003).

Fictional vampires, like Dracula and Clarimonde, were reminders of humanity’s darker selves and tested the limits of Victorian morality. They represented threats to and longing for things like gender-crossing, sexuality, and class fluidity; Dracula’s masculinity became a source of envy, and Clarimonde’s sexuality was the creation of starved imagination and suppressed emotions. These vampires were born out of extreme repression caused by the Victorian sexual morality (Icoz, 2003). In the case of Dracula, he represented perversion, and his destruction stood for the triumph of normative heterosexual masculinity (Williamson, 2003).

In the late 1900s, postmodern cultural turns gave birth to a more human vampire. Vampire: the Masquerade moved away from the traditional gothic vampires and modernized them. The game inspired films like Underworld and Blade to the point that White Wolf, the makers of the game, brought Sony Pictures to court for 17 counts of copyright infringement. There are ideas that have originated in the roleplaying game that have now become key concepts when it comes to vampires (Garrad, 2018). Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its spin-off series Angel, all helped to establish empathetic vampires who had an intimacy with humans. The new vampires were communal and permitted to love, regret, doubt, and question themselves. Their acts became expressions of individual personality and condition rather than cosmic conflict; a vampire could suffer the pains of everyday life (Williamson, 2003).

Vampire: the Masquerade’s grander storyline is about the relations between clan bloodlines—which define a character’s ancestry and magical disciplines (Lawrence Myhre, 1998). The game is dominated by elements such as political structure, status economy, clan infrastructure, and conspiracy. Together, these elements inspire plotlines and direct the main storyline. When playing the game, whether in tabletop form or as live action, the game structure is largely tailored around social interaction. Through the roleplay, players get to engage in the invention, development, and practice of the social role relations that constitute society: superior/subordinate, parent/child, grandparent/grandchild, employer/employee, husband/wife, clergy/worshiper, and jailer/prisoner (Lawrence Myhre, 1998). There are also similarities in the vampire/ghoul relationship to a sexually charged master/slave relationship. The vampire is presented as a being that is very sexually dominant (A. Asbjørn, 2001).

White Wolf has never sanctioned games that allow actual weapons, drugs, alcohol, violence, sex, or bloodsucking. Instead, LARP games are supposed to be safe places to interact socially and express oneself through characterization. However, LARPs are still highly political, and has a hierarchy based on experience, maturity, and skill. More experienced players become guides for newer ones. This hasn’t always worked out well. There have been LARPs where people have had a hard time separating in-game events from real life, and where Storytellers have accepted money or sexual favors in exchange for in-game gains (Bowman, 2003). There are countless stories of situations when the social hierarchy of a LARP has become the hunting ground for actual predators.

Real Life Murders

It’s known that the flexibility of play in a roleplaying group can be dangerous if not properly regulated. Today, much emphasis is placed on safety tools in order to measure the participants’ mental states, but safety tools weren’t a consideration back in the 80s and 90s. There were cases of teen suicides that raised public concern, and the media questioned if players could distinguish between make-believe and reality. People were afraid of roleplaying games, and this taboo surely attracted predators to the hobby.

Then, we had the incident I mentioned at the beginning of this article, about the couple who were murdered by a vampire leader. Rod Ferrell and his followers were members of an alleged vampire clan (Lawrence Myhre, 1998) that consisted of thirty to forty members. They called themselves VAMPS, for “Victorian Age Masquerade Performance Society.” The group was initially harmless, but once Ferrell joined, they started incorporating sex, drugs, and violence into their activities—all under the pretense of roleplay. Ferrell had a history of neglect, sexual abuse, and a dysfunctional family life. After the murders, he became the youngest person on death row in the United States; though the death sentence was later overturned to life in prison where he remains today (White & Omar, 2010). Ferrell blamed the murders on a rival vampire clan leader who had allegedly sent people to incriminate his friends because he opposed a marriage which Ferrell wanted to set up between a girl named Heather and another member of the cult. Because Heather’s parents had objected to this marriage, Ferrell entered their home and killed them with a crowbar (Lawrence Myhre, 1998).

This group had turned their vampire game into a cultural lifestyle. Ferrell wasn’t really playing Vampire, though. He was using the game’s political structure to create a cultural style for his gang. These kids allegedly cut each other and sucked up the blood in ritualistic fashion. They were known to kill small animals and drink their blood. It’s believed that Ferrell was inspired by the LARP in the creation of his cult, but that the members themselves truly didn’t believe they were actual vampires. These murders show how play can be twisted, though, without proper care. In the case of these kids, the game stopped being a game and became their reality (Lawrence Myhre, 1998). Of course, the case of Rod Ferrell and his cult is extreme, and while it struck fear in people in the 90s, it’s a far step removed from actual roleplay.

Roleplaying as an Expression of the Inner Self

But what is it that attracts people to roleplaying games like Vampire: the Masquerade anyway? It’s possible that roleplayers had become bored with the cookie-cutter characterizations of fantasy archetypes, and the black-and-white representation of good-versus-evil. In Vampire: the Masquerade, players operate under a much more complicated system of ethics. They undoubtedly engage in “villainy,” but villainous behavior is nuanced. Vampire: the Masquerade doesn’t care about a hero’s fight against an external enemy. Instead, the enemy is one’s own internal demons. Vampire: the Masquerade is “a game of personal horror,” and it depicts one’s internal struggle as infinitely more terrifying than that of a dangerous enemy (Bowman, 2003).

By roleplaying as a vampire—and using narrative as a framework to suspend aspects of morality—players can arguably reach deeper levels of representation and introspection than they would in a game of black-and-white morality. However, even though roleplaying triggers a mental transformation, the resulting character remains a reflection of you! When things happen to your imaginary character, they also happen—to some level—to you! At the same time, when your imaginary character acts out motivations, fears, lusts, ambitions, and even love, these activities—also to some level—reflect you! You could argue that roleplaying causes a psychological imprint on your real self, where in game experiences affect you out-of-game (Bowman, 2003).

Most roleplayers engage in the hobby for social activity, escapism, creativity, and problem-solving. It’s an excellent way to bond with others. Some roleplayers could have been social outcasts growing up and discovered personal strength through their characters. Others could have felt powerless in life, with the game presenting a new social sphere in which they can flourish. Roleplaying is also a great outlet for creativity or can be used as a psychological exploration. For example, some players’ characters may reflect the best parts of their personalities while for others, the characters could reflect who they might become if devoid of conscience or empathy. A character can be used as a tool to explore one’s own fears, or it can be used to overcome one’s own inhibitions and explore a “true” self—perhaps through an expression of sexuality or gender identity (Bowman, 2003).

Many players claim to have grown from playing the game, such as through increased confidence and self-awareness. Roleplaying is entertainment, but it’s also an escape from day-to-day life. Players who roleplay characters who are serial killers, drug addicts, social and mental misfits, and other social deviants explore darker aspects of themselves. Through dark play, players are enabled to roleplay deviant behavior. Some players learn to appreciate those aspects of themselves while others become disgusted with them. It’s not uncommon that players inject varying degrees of their own personalities, emotions, and motives into their characters—even the darker characters. In a sense, the players are as much like their characters as their characters are like them. Players who inject too much of themselves may reach a point where they roleplay their characters even outside of scheduled games, through their own inner thoughts and social expressions. For other players, their everyday social lives have an impact on their characters instead, and they use their characters to emphasize aspects of themselves (Lawrence Myhre, 1998).

In Vampire: the Masquerade, the player roleplays as a predator. For some, this is less about morality and more about catharsis: by playing a monster, you get to face your own fears and inner demons; you get to face things you feel are wrong with the world head-on, such as corruption. By using roleplaying to experience the greed, lust, and corruption that drives the powers of the world, perhaps you can learn to better face the darkness of the real world. By roleplaying as a monster, perhaps you can get a better appreciation of life (Bowman, 2003). Vampire: the Masquerade has mechanics that incentivize morality play, as the vampire must struggle to retain its humanity. It’s possible for vampires to do good, but their inner Beast makes that struggle difficult (Tobias, 2003).

Many players join Vampire groups in search of communal acceptance and social value. The game allows them to present themselves in a new world, limited only by mechanics and imagination. The act of roleplay provides players with an enjoyable way of doing things they couldn’t do in the real world. They are provided an escape from having to worry about bills, employment, food, and war. It’s not uncommon for players to become mentally exhausted after intensive character play. The emotions they feel are real and can affect the real world. A shy player could become outgoing, and those with low self-esteem could become increasingly more confident. A player’s in-game successes could strengthen their personal resolve and shape them to become more like their character. They can earn confidence, empowerment, and purpose (Lawrence Myhre, 1998).

Conclusion

It wasn’t roleplay alone that turned kids into killers; there were social and psychological factors at play, and the game was used to inspire a framework for a cult. But there’s no denying it that roleplay is an intensely psychological activity, and that immersing yourself in an alter ego does—to some degree—affect your real self. One metaphor is that imagination is the ocean and reality is the shore, and roleplaying is the act of walking along that shore, with your feet touching the water while being close enough to land. While walking, you become aware of both the water and the sand, and you can easily tell which is which. But then, all of a sudden, a large wave of water can spill onto land, soaking both you and the shore. This is called psychological bleed, and it happens when the roleplaying triggers real emotions. Without proper care, without safety tools, and without respect towards players’ sensitivities, this bleed can cause harm.

A horror game can delve into territories that trigger real anxieties—causing this bleed—and while this can become a therapeutic and rewarding experience (when done right), it can be traumatizing (when done wrong). I love playing Vampire: the Masquerade and other horror games, even though it becomes difficult at times, but just like mentioned in the foreword of V5, playing as a monster isn’t an excuse to become one yourself.

Sources

A. Asbjørn, J. (2001). From Nosferatu to Von Carstein: Shifts in the Portrayal of Vampires
Bantinaki, K. (2012). The Paradox of Horror: Fears as a Positive Emotion
Bowman, S. L. (2003). “We Only Come Out at Night”: an overview of Vampire Role-Playing
Drawmer, L. (2003). Sex, Death and Ecstasy: The Art of Transgression
Garrad, J. (2018). Bleeding Genre Dry: archetypes, stereotypes, and White Wolf’s Vampire games
Icoz, N. (2003). The Undead: To Be Feared or/and Pitied
Lawrence Myhre, B. (1998). Virtual Societies: A Journey of Powertrips & Personalities – A Dramaturgical and Ethnographic Study of Winnipeg’s Original Live-Action Vampire the Masquerade Role-Playing Game Community
Prohászková, V. (2012). The Genre of Horror
Tobias, J. (2003). The Vampire and the Cyborg Embrace: Affect Beyond Fantasy in Virtual Materialism
White, M. & Omar, H. A. (2010). Vampirism, Vampire Cults and the Teenager of Today
Williamson, M. (2003). Vampire Transformations: From Gothic Demon to Domestication?

Art is from the Vampire: the Masquerade Fifth Edition corebook

Creating Your Own Setting

A setting is the time and place used to define a narrative. It adds context and atmosphere to a story but also acts as a stage the characters can inhabit and interact with. The setting is one of the pillars of a roleplaying game, but a good setting is also like a character in itself. It has its own heart and soul, as well as different moods that influence the characters and their actions. When creating your own setting, you need to picture it as a character. Characters are the sum of their parts, living entities formed over time and influenced by their experiences. A setting is also the sum of its parts, a living breathing entity formed over time and influenced by history, environments, people, and politics. By understanding how these aspects formed the setting, you will understand how the setting responds to new influences and new experiences. While this blog post will focus on building a setting for a pen-and-paper roleplaying game, much of the information we will go through here will be useful for other creative endeavors as well, such as writing fiction. I am going to divide this post into four parts: the Skeleton, the Flesh, the Soul, and the Method.

The Skeleton  

The first thing you need to figure out before creating your setting is to know what kind of setting you want to make. This can often be tied to a certain genre or theme you are going for. There are a number of different genres that you could write a setting for:

  • Fantasy tends to reflect a setting containing magical or supernatural elements. It is a genre often associated with historical settings, but it can also be added to contemporary or futuristic settings if it is believable within the context of those settings. Star Wars is an example of a futuristic setting (even though it is technically in the past) that contains fantasy elements, though as soon as midichlorians became a thing, those fantasy elements were narrowed in by perhaps unnecessary scientific explanations. But even though the midichlorians could explain the fantastical elements within the setting, you could still just as easily call Star Wars a futuristic fantasy as well as a science fiction.
  • Historical settings are arguably one of the most difficult genres to write, at least if you want to make them believable. A true historical setting must be based in facts, and if it contains too many inaccuracies, people will notice and criticize it for them. Many fantasy settings, such as Forgotten Realms, use historical elements to define the setting, but because it is primarily a fantasy setting, there is not the same need for historical accuracy. Regardless, even a historical fantasy benefit from researching the historical period or culture you use as inspiration.
  • Horror settings are defined more by their atmosphere and mood than by whatever historical era they are most closely associated with. Horror is difficult to write, because it relies on your ability to portray atmosphere through your writing. If you fail to convey the atmosphere, the setting becomes trite and silly. You want your horror setting to instill emotions in the players, and it becomes more effective if you focus more on the atmosphere than on taboo subjects and gore. You want your players’ discomfort to be because they are afraid of what lurks around the corner, not because they are uncomfortable by the subject matter, though some subject matters can certainly be used to reinforce certain emotions.
  • Science fiction is one of my favorite genres. While it is often as broad and fantastic as fantasy settings are, it tends to root its explanations in science, or at least alleged science. This science does not have to correspond perfectly with real world science as long as it is believable within the context of the setting. It tends to use technologies instead of magic as tools to solve problems, and it often requires some manner of research if you want to make your science and technology compelling to the players. Science fiction can be added to contemporary settings by extending and developing our own established technologies and understandings, but it is often seen more in futuristic settings than in historical ones.

If you write fantasy or science fiction, it is likely that you will need to build an entire world from scratch. Doing so is a much bigger project than creating a setting that uses the real world or an existing world as its foundation. The closer your setting is to our own contemporary world, the more people can relate to and immerse themselves in it. But if you distance your setting from the well-understood contemporary world we live in, you can also distance yourself from explanations and inaccuracies, which gives you more artistic freedom to basically create what you want to create.   

Before deciding what kind of setting you want to create, also keep in mind who your intended audience is. Different settings appeal to different people, and you may need to alter your presentation depending on the audience you want to reach. The reason A Song of Ice and Fire reached the non-fantasy audience is not because of dragons and ice zombies, but because it focused the story on human behavior and political intrigue that had not been seen before to that extent in the fantasy setting – though it is much more common today, most likely because of A Song of Ice and Fire. No, George RR Martin managed to ensnare the non-fantasy audience by gradually introducing the fantastical and never letting it become more central than the characters themselves. If you know who you write the setting for, it will help you figure out how to best present the setting to that audience. If you want your fantasy setting to ensnare the history buff, do as much research for your fantasy setting as you would do for a historical one.

Also consider if your setting should have any overlaying themes. Do you want to say anything with your setting? Does it represent something important to you in the real world? A setting’s theme could be ideological, inspirational, or emotional, or it could be a combination of things. You do not need to know everything about your setting’s themes before you start writing, but you should try to be aware of it as your writing progresses. The setting for Cyberpunk 2020/Red could be said to be ideological, as a commentary on corporativism, capitalism, and transhumanism. The inspirational theme for Blue Rose‘s setting could be said to be the value of human connection, and how a person should strive to forge bonds before making enemies. The emotional theme for Vampire: the Masquerade‘s setting could be reflected by the Beast’s toll upon humanity, and how losing control could lead to fear, pain, and desperation.

Every setting has a number of themes, and by deliberately exploring these themes when writing your setting, you will get a clearer picture of the kind of setting you create, and what kind of stories could be told within it. And this brings us to the topic of player interaction. How do you want players in your setting to interact with one another? Some settings inspire cooperation, while others encourage competition. What will your setting inspire in the players and what will they want to do when playing in it? You do not need to have answers to every question at this stage of the project, but it is important to keep these questions in mind as your project develops.

The Flesh

When fleshing out your setting, it is recommended that you first focus on the overview before zooming in further and further until you have established a stage and provided tools for plot. The overview could be categories of information such as individual planets, nations, climates, and cities. From there, you zoom in on stage foundations such as neighborhoods, hospitals, and forests. Finally, you provide the tools for plot, such as buzzing markets, greedy businessmen, or dangers in the dark.

When building your overview, keep in mind that individual climates influence both situations and people. It is important to understand how a desert differs from a taiga for example. Because a desert is limited in resources, a desert society is less likely to use an abundance of wood in their architecture compared to a society that lives in taiga. Harsh climates make for grim lives, while fertile climates allow for more carefree lifestyles. No matter where in the natural world the setting takes place, take note of the geography and the climate and think about how it could influence the story and the characters. After you have established the overall climate and its influences, zoom in on humanity’s influence upon the geography. Man-made landmarks such as dams, bridges, towns, or ruins are important to represent a living world with history and meaning. Avoid a static world where everything is its own isolated community with no history beyond the present point and no reach beyond its borders. Instead, try to figure out why life in your setting is the way it is. Different landmarks should have different ages to represent the flow of history, and different eras could have had different cultures with their own influences on these landmarks. You could study any city in the world and find remnants of older generations. In our own world, modern high-tech cities are built around ancient castles. Buildings centuries old are intermixed with buildings from this decade, and while old buildings may still be used for modern means, they still stand out from the rest and their history is still apparent. These are details that make locations interesting, and that makes the world feel alive and everchanging.

This applies to the people inhabiting these settings as well. Cultural, political, and social influences range widely and affect people in different ways. An open society have intermixed different norms and cultures into their own, while isolated societies are more set in their ways. People are also influenced by ancestral culture, which can be noticed in their cuisine, celebrations, attitudes, and values. Contemporary changes have drastic impacts on culture as well, such as when a free democracy becomes a fascist tyranny and a people with one set of values are forced to endure another. This is common in settings ravaged by conflicts, where war has torn countries apart and people with clear memories of better lives are forced into squalor. These are the types of details that not only help to bring the setting to life, but also present tools for the players to use when crafting their own stories. When writing about the people of your setting, keep in mind details about demographics, such as what different types of groups and belief systems are prevalent, and how they connect. What are people’s social views and how do these vary between groups and individuals? Most societies usually have one set of social views that are considered the norm, and contesting views that are considered alternative or variant, and that may be seen by the norm as cause for conflict. What exactly this norm is varies from group to group and location to location. In our own world, we constantly see clashing ideologies, both in real life and in social media. Try to represent this in your own world in order to show that people are similar but different, which will ultimately make the setting feel more real.   

When presenting the setting in writing, too many details can be overwhelming. Instead focus on the major details that characters may want to interact with. Always look over your own writing and try to determine if the information you are adding to your setting is a focus or a backdrop. While backdrops are important to glue everything together, the focus is what will ultimately be the stage for the story. Do not over-describe the backdrop. Instead, focus on the main stages and leave the backdrop as a vague canvas that the game master can fill with their own information. Always remember that your setting will be defined by the quality of the details, not the quantity of them. For example, instead of describing a town’s blacksmith in detail, present a backdrop that makes people understand that the town has or could have blacksmiths, and shift the focus to what really stands out in that town – maybe the town is run by a cult of the spiral god, or perhaps a curse has cast the town in unending night. Both are details more important and more interesting than the fact that the town has a blacksmith. But if you want the blacksmith to be the main stage of the town, you must present some kind of driving force that hooks players in. Maybe the town’s blacksmith has an anvil forged from a fallen star, and every weapon forged on that anvil is a weapon that can slay a god. Suddenly the blacksmith is both important and interesting.   

Once you have determined primary focuses and story hooks, as well as backdrops to connect them to the overall location, think about what lies beyond the central location and how it connects to that. If you have written about a city or a nation, try to figure out some details about surrounding environments, cities, and nations, some interesting aspects about them, and ways they connect to your central location. These become more than simple backdrops, because they place the central location within a larger context and make the world more alive as a result.

I’ve already mentioned the importance of adding history to your setting to make it feel dynamic. But time does not only need to represent history. You can use the passage of time to show how your setting changes. How does the city you are writing about change with the passing of the season? Are there any important festivals honoring gods, saints, or heroes? By using the passage of time as an additional setting detail, you introduce new ways to use a setting and reasons to come back to it and still have new experiences. On the macro scale, you can design your own calendar, constellations, and astrology to come with it and then connect those details to your setting’s cultures.

The Soul

Even after you have built a setting that presents a time and a place for adventure, there are aspects to consider that would vastly improve your setting from another. I already mentioned the importance of a living and everchanging world, but the soul of the setting is what will truly immerse players and present endless opportunities for stories and adventure. One such element is the setting’s inherent plot; something that is constantly happening around the characters to make the world dynamic and to present story hooks the GM and players can use for their chronicles. A setting needs conflicts and obstacles to overcome. This could be political turmoil, the end of an era and the rise of a new. A driving force that influences the setting itself just like the setting influences the characters. The GM needs to introduce challenges for their players every session, and the more tools for conflict you add to your setting, the more tools the GM will have to challenge the players. In Harry Potter, the magic is used to flesh out the world, but the magic is not the soul of the setting. That is the return of Voldemort, the driving force that influences the setting and forces it to react to its presence. While the setting for Harry Potter could contain countless stories that involve magic, Voldemort’s presence is the driving force and ultimately the soul of this particular story. When writing a roleplaying game meant to inspire countless stories, you need to riddle your text with Voldemorts to present as many opportunities for story as you can. You basically try to animate your setting’s flesh.   

Some may say that a good roleplaying setting needs incompetent authorities or militaries in order to have the conflicts last and the players become meaningful. I say that this is nonsense. The argument there is that competent authorities would negate conflict and solve problems without the need for players. That is poppycock. Your job is to create a believable setting, which includes believable authorities and believable militaries. You create a dynamic world where people try to live their lives without being idle morons waiting around for players to solve their problems. The conflicts and story hooks are contained within and surrounding this inhabited world. Just because an authority or military is competent enough to solve their own issues, does not mean that other issues do not exist, or that there are not obstacles for them to overcome. If you find no meaning for players to be challenged within a setting, the setting is probably too simple to be interesting, and does not provide enough context or inspiration for the GM to grab on to. So, the next time someone tells you that your setting needs incompetent authorities and militaries, tell them that you have no time for guff and baloney.   

You can use language to establish mood in your writing. Different setting pieces should have different moods, and this signals to readers how to interpret certain aspects of your writing. While I do not want to go into too much detail about writing tricks in this blog post, I still think these are important suggestions for how to give your setting as much soul as possible. By focusing on a few aspects when writing, you can drastically control the mood. First, you should present details of the setting by describing non-visual information, such as sounds, smells, taste, and touch. Do not be satisfied with describing the dire wolf’s gray fur and sharp teeth. Describe how its howls make the mountains creak, how it masks its scent by rolling in its prey’s blood, and how its bite feels like being stabbed by icicles. New writers often forget about the non-visual senses, but there is no denying it that adding these details to descriptions makes the setting feel more alive and the mood more apparent. These types of descriptions also help to guide the GM in how to present your setting to their group which will be important to ensure their immersion. Talented game masters will add sensory descriptions themselves without you having to tell them. However, remembering to add them when writing your setting will only serve to improve your text and inspire the reader.

Also remember to highlight stark contrasts within your descriptions. If your setting is dark and dystopian, contrasting the darkness with aspects of light and hope helps to further accentuate that darkness. If everything is bleak or everything is perfect, the setting becomes blasé, and the setting’s character is nothing but a corpse. Even a dark and dystopian setting must be written with the intention of giving it life and meaning. The Shire stands in stark contrast to Mordor, and while these two locations are divided by a lengthy story, they are both connected through that story. By recognizing the contrast from where the story started and where it ended, the story itself became more vibrant. That is something to consider not only when creating a new world, but also for storytelling in general.   

The Method

Whether you place your setting in the real world of not, it is helpful to research contemporary locations. If you cannot visit a place yourself, you can use Google Street View to give yourself a virtual guided tour of places all over the world. When creating a city, try to narrow down common features among real contemporary cities. Even if your city is placed in another historical era, there are things you could learn from contemporary cities that could translate to historical ones. Translating an aspect from one era to another is a good creative exercise in order to make interesting cultures, just like it is to blend different aspects together. For example, what would it look like if you used the Sami as an inspiration for a culture of futuristic space nomads? What if you decided to take inspiration from ancient Mesopotamia and add it to the Sami to create an amalgamation of the two cultures? These types of creative exercises not only act as guidelines towards creating unique cultures, but they also help you to better understand real life cultures and what it is that makes them stand out.

If you have trouble imagining your setting, Pinterest or Google Image Search are both good resources for inspiration. As long as you don’t plagiarize, you can steal ideas for your setting from similar or related settings. If you are writing science fiction, watch as much science fiction imagery as you can to trigger your brain. If your setting is historical, you should read history. History in particular is a good resource for most settings, even contemporary and futuristic ones. Learning about the rise and fall of empires on Earth could inspire you to write about the rise and fall of empires on a galactic scale. I personally draw much inspiration from music, and choose music based on what I am writing. There are plenty of mood music available on both Youtube and Spotify that you can play when writing. I try to avoid music with lyrics for the most part because it distracts me from focusing on the writing.  Inspiration is probably the key component to create a setting. If you are not inspired by every aspect of your setting, you cannot hope to inspire your readers. It is important that you feel strongly for your creation, or it will end up flat and boring. 

It is also important to be accurate and consistent. Every setting needs rules that define it. A historical setting should be as accurate as you can make it, and while most readers can forgive certain inaccuracies in your historical setting, larger inaccuracies such as adding dinosaurs and machineguns to your Ancient Rome setting may be a harder pill to swallow. Do your research and keep notes of details about your setting even if you will not use those details in the text itself. If you actually want to create a setting that depicts Ancient Rome with dinosaurs and machineguns, you need to make it believable within the context of that world that dinosaurs and machineguns exist. Even if it does not make sense when compared to the real world, it is important that it makes sense within the setting itself, or you cannot hope to have the players immerse themselves in it.

I’ve talked a lot about things to keep in mind when creating your own setting, but the most important thing of all is to have fun. If you do not enjoy your work, you should reevaluate it or take a break from it. I know that my own setting projects are full of flaws in many ways, but they still inspire me, and I still enjoy working on them, and that’s why I’m confident that they will be good in the end. And even if they are not good or if I get criticized for things I thought were good, I can see that as valuable lessons that will be helpful for future projects. Once you ignore people who offer constructive criticism on your work, you not only escape from valuable lessons, but you also prevent yourself from developing as a writer and game designer. 

Art by © Grandfailure / Adobe Stock

Why You Should Write Homebrew

My history with designing roleplaying games dates to the very same day as when I played my first one. I was eight years old and had been invited to my neighbor for a game of Swedish TTRPG Drakar &Demoner. As soon as I saw the book, I was immediately hooked, and the game itself threw me into a life of nerdy passion that is with me to this day. After my first time playing, I went home sad that I did not have that cool book myself, so I opened a notepad and started to write my own game. I had never really read any rules before, but I had played a character for that one game, so I basically copied what I remembered and made rough drawings to go with it. I knew I was the best eight-year-old game designer in my neighborhood.

As I got older, I stopped writing games and started writing fiction. I never did it professionally, but I was passionate enough to attend classes in creative writing to try to develop that side. I developed this creative side that made me enjoy building my own worlds. When I later got back into tabletop roleplaying games, my go-to game became Exalted. Though I did a lot of creative writing at this time, I still did not write any homebrew. That started when I began to GM the game myself. I realized that there was always something my players or I wanted that was not represented in the books, and I tried to design rules for this myself. At times I got these fits of creativity that made me just want to write out some idea I had. Because I almost only played Exalted, all my homebrew at the time were for that.

One of the first homebrew projects I posted online was when I revised the Dragon-Blooded Charm set for Exalted Second Edition and wrote rules for Dragon-Bloods associated with the Underworld. I then went on to revise the Martial Arts styles from Scroll of the Monk. There was a lot of revising material that I did in my early homebrew days, and I believe that this was the most important factor behind my development as a game designer. By revising material, you learn the fundamentals behind that game’s system, and you develop an intuition for how the different rules connect. You are not just putting an idea on paper. You are trying to merge your idea with an existing game system, and by testing this homebrew in play, you get an understanding of what works and what does not.

Not every GM needs to write homebrew to get a solid understanding of the system they play but doing so is a good creative exercise to get an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the system. By posting the work online and getting feedback on it, you are speeding up this understanding exponentially. I recommend that all GMs or aspiring tabletop roleplaying game designers try to write homebrew for their favorite games from time to time as a creative exercise. Whether you are a GM for Dungeons & Dragons or Exalted, try to write down some magic items or stat up some monsters. Compare them to existing items or monsters in the game to see how they fare against them. If you do this occasionally, you will not only get a better understanding of the ins and outs of the game’s system, but it will give you more options for creative additions to your own stories. If you have players who have read all the books, letting them face new stuff they are unfamiliar with can be very good for your continued games.

For aspiring game designers who want to create their own tabletop roleplaying games from scratch, writing homebrew for existing games is an important first step – since developing your understanding of one game system can be of benefit to help you understand the strengths and weaknesses of a system of your own making – even if the games themselves are unrelated. You do not need to be a professional writer to gain something from writing homebrew. What is important is that it is fun and never feels like a chore. You should only do it if you think it is fun.

Art by © Grandfailure / Adobe Stock