Before China Miéville brought the New Weird to a widespread fantasy readership, Planescape was rocking the boat in the RPG world. Controversial when i...moreBefore China Miéville brought the New Weird to a widespread fantasy readership, Planescape was rocking the boat in the RPG world. Controversial when it was published, Planescape has nevertheless demonstrated a lasting impact on fantasy role playing.
The premise of Planescape was to take the somewhat clunky cosmological "multiverse" of Dungeons and Dragons (most notably the "Outer Planes" where the heavens, hells, and other afterlives existed) and attempt to describe life in that surreal venue. The core theme of Planescape is that, in a world of pure thought, belief overtly shapes reality. As a result, the politics of the setting are quite literally philosophical, because strong beliefs manifest as real-world power. These philosophical debates and battles are fought most fiercely in Sigil (rhymes with wiggle), the setting's central metropolis.
Taken superficially, Planescape was an attempt by TSR (the makers of D&D) to respond to the growing market for more "mature" material, best exemplified by Vampire: The Masquerade, published by White Wolf three years earlier. Taking a page from the White Wolf playbook, designer Zeb Cook made the central conflict of the setting a political and ideological free-for-all between fifteen "Factions," each subscribing to a very specific philosophical creed. The "Believers of the Source," for example, are self-improvement-driven reincarnationists. By contrast, the "Harmonium" are unity-driven pseudo-fascist militarists and the "Bleak Cabal" are overt nihilists. Each Faction has its own special advantages and disadvantages, much like a White Wolf game.
What makes Planescape remarkable is that it is essentially the first attempt by modern roleplaying to directly address the role of ideology, faith, and debate in politics. Set in a sort of "high fantasy industrial revolution," Planescape dares to ask questions normally taboo in vanilla RPGs. These questions include such real-world-relevant issues as "is faith in the divine justified?" and "what is the role of protest and revolution in government?" Further, because the setting itself embraces (rather than shies away from) the darker side of the industrial revolution, questions about social responsibility toward the poor and the costs of high-density urban living are implicit to the setting.
It is said that conflict is the engine of narrative, and that our ability to sympathize with that conflict creates the emotional bond necessary to invest in a story. Where traditional D&D fell flat by recycling the same grade-school cliches of knights and monsters, Planescape was boldly inventive and brimming with conflicts that held strong emotional resonance. No matter your political outlook, Planescape laid the groundwork for stories you could invest in.
Without question, Planescape was met with intense skepticism by some gamers. Fantasy literature is famously conservative (in that it has, historically, avoided making central themes out of progressive issues), and Planescape had an in-your-face character that insulted traditional D&D gamers. Planescape went so far as to make "clueless" part of the setting's slang for describing the inhabitants of D&D's other settings. Despite alienating less intellectual gamers (who didn't want a gray area between Good and Evil), Planescape also formed an avid, possibly even rabid fan base. A testament to the durability of Planescape's following is that its fans remains active even today, updating the rules to the latest versions of D&D.
Since Planescape's release, a host of similar forms of dark urban fantasy have become popular. Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (1996), China Miéville's Perdido Street Station (2000), and M. John Harrison's Viriconium (2005) are just a few examples of bringing fantasy both into a more modern context and into a darker urban world-view. In a very real way, Planescape primed me for this new spate of speculative fiction by giving me a much more interesting world to explore than had existed prior.(less)
I've been roleplaying for a long time, and had been for quite a while before I picked up Masks of Nyarlathotep, but I don't think I really understood...moreI've been roleplaying for a long time, and had been for quite a while before I picked up Masks of Nyarlathotep, but I don't think I really understood what roleplaying games could be until then.
Masks of Nyarlathotep is a "campaign" for Call of Cthulhu, a roleplaying system based on the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft and others. The story leads the players deep into a worldwide conspiracy of cultists and monsters, on a quest to save the world.
Traditional pre-written "adventures" in roleplaying are like a recipe: each page is a list of steps to walk the players through, giving them a sense of being in control of the narrative. A given adventure might be worth four to ten hours of session time.
Masks was different. Instead of providing the story, it provided only the clues and the setting, leaving the actual story in the hand of the players. Literally every page could represent hours of play, or not, depending on whether the players followed a particular lead.
I've since seen this style of storytelling described (oddly) as a "power matrix." The notion is to create a situation with various tensions, give a sense of how they might resolve, and then improvise. The story emerges organically from the context.
I've seen "campaigns" written this way (mostly for Cthulhu, including the venerable Horror On The Orient Express) and I've written a few of my own, and they make for some of the most immersive engaging roleplaying I've ever done. Masks is probably imperfect in some ways, but when used properly, it's very unlikely that anyone will notice.(less)
Mechanical Dream is an exceptionally strange and innovative roleplaying sourbook and setting that, sadly, is also incredibly obscure. I discovered it...moreMechanical Dream is an exceptionally strange and innovative roleplaying sourbook and setting that, sadly, is also incredibly obscure. I discovered it entirely by accident and, after a half-hour of trying to make sense of it, decided it was worth the investment. I have been quite satisfied with the results, and encourage others to track down this rare gem.
The setting of Mechanical Dream is extremely strange, invented from the ground up with no prior assumptions. Rather than write at length about the dozens of things that make it strange here, I will instead point you to its Wikipedia article, 99% of which I also wrote. Sufficed to say, it pushes the envelope to the point that it threatens to fall off the table.
The rules are almost as unusual and experimental as the setting. Everything from character creation to combat resolution is odd, and some aspects of the system are brilliant.
In terms of setting, rules, and editing, Mechanical Dream is still far for perfect. Very much a first edition of a roleplaying game, the book itself has mistakes, omissions, and contradictions that will flummox an inexperience roleplayer and annoy a veteran. The setting is very experimental, and like all experiments misses the mark occasionally.
Nevertheless, Mechanical Dream is still a showcase of fresh, weird ideas. I recommend it to anyone looking for something that stands apart from the pack, and recommend it especially strongly to people interested in writing new systems or settings from scratch. In many ways, Mechanical Dream is both an inspiration to budding worldsmiths as well as a warning of how things can wrong if you aren't careful.(less)