Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Introducing Peter Williams

Today's post is brief and light on content. I asked my brother and co-author, Peter Williams, to chime in just a bit. He's a Latin teacher with  degrees in Classical Studies and Education. He has, over the past year, served as a nearly endless spigot of dusty tomes and strange words, making sure that the synthesis of history and myth is in line with our initial goals.

Here's his guest post:

I love the Greeks. Like my brother, I was always enamored of their myths while growing up, but it took a couple of decades to go beyond that. I started learning Ancient Greek when I was 17 years old, and it changed my life. I do not mean to speak in cliché, but that is the truth. I learned about Plato and Homer, I actually read Greek tragedy, instead of simply skimming summaries to get by in high school English, and I ultimately became a Classics major and then a Latin teacher.

Gaming was always my most beloved hobby, but I mostly avoided touching any sort of roleplaying game set in Greece. I never encountered one that dealt with the issues that the Greeks themselves did in their literature. Many of the games that I saw would have interesting elements, but they always seemed to focus on the wrong things, this one spending the bulk of its mechanical space on getting Herculean strength just right, that one on presenting the right set of monsters, and this other one on presenting exacting historical detail. Many of these were great games, but they were missing something crucial that I was looking for in a game about the Greek world.

When Ian approached me about working on Age of Bronze, I was sold more or less instantly. When he further discussed having a character’s tragic flaws and passions play a central role, I was fully hooked. What we have ended up concocting is a game dealing with heroic deeds and mighty kings, but also with hubris and tragedy.

This was, I hoped, a game that we could make which would speak to those issues with which the Greeks themselves dealt in their literature.

I will try to get another guest entry to Ian soon about how historical and how mythical our setting is, and just what source material we used.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

We Come From A City

Cities in Age of Bronze are a big deal. Well before the city-state era, they were the main political unit of Greek culture. Plus, as mentioned, most of the heroes in the source material are kings of cities, either as founders establishing their own lines or as scions of royal families. So one of the goals of the game is to go found a city, design it, rule it, pass it on to your kids.

But where does your first hero come from? This was a different matter (and not at all like founding and building your own city, which is a different process). We knew we wanted the heroes to be urban from the starting gate, in order to tie in to the civilization vs nature themes which the city founding heroes of the Bronze Age traded in. But at the same time, we didn't want player heroes to be stifled by hailing from, say, Athens, where they'd be perpetual second fiddles to Theseus. It's a completely valid way of playing the game, and people can certainly go with that, but we wanted the default mode to be something a little freer.

We decided to have all the player heroes come from the same city, an existing city. This gave a common origin and reason to stick together. Cities were small, so everyone would have known each other. Loyalty to your local people is a big deal in a dangerous world with miles of wilderness between settled spaces. So eighteen year old heroes would gravitate to one another due to size, loyalty, and the travails of living in a pretty dangerous world.

We still had the problem of freedom. One of my favorite little bits of gaming to come out the past few years has been the clan design rules in Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes. If you're not familiar, everyone in the group gets together and collaboratively creates the clan which their PCs come from. It's in the form of background questions, the answers to which adjust your starting stats and give you a little common history to start with. That's the sort of thing which we wanted to do.

The first thing we did was look up Homer's Catalogue of Ships. This is a passage in the Illiad which lists all of the heroes answering the call to war against Troy. The Catalogue briefly rattles off their names, leaders, and each warband's city of origin. We took the list of cities and meticulously searched for twenty of them which we knew basically nothing about beyond their names.

The idea behind this was to get blank slate cities of origin which were, nonetheless, real places. Beyond the names, though, they really are empty canvases for the player group to play on. We divvied them up broadly by region, so your Thryum is in Epirus the same way a group in Russia's Thryum is in Epirus, but besides that, they're yours. We didn't put dots on the map for each one or write descriptions. We want the players of AoB to have cities which are their own.

Once your group has your city name and rough location, everyone sits down to answer ten questions. The answers can be randomized, picked by round robin, or done collectively. Each is a piece of your city's history as well as giving characters from that city small tweaks to their characteristics. The adjustments aren't too huge, though added up at the end of the process they're not trivial, either. They do provide plenty of flavor and the player heroes should have an interesting, brief history of their homeland when completed.

I'll close with an example from the manuscript.

2) The barbarian tribes where your city was founded were wiped out. The Greek inhabitants which replaced them originally came from:

1-2  The earth, where the founder's tears of joy fell upon the dry soil: +1 Sacred

3-7  The loins of your founder, when he decided to populate the land with his divine children: +1 Generous

8-11 The mountains nearby, when a forgotten clan of Greeks answered the founder's call to populate the new creation: +1 Energetic

12-15 The sea, when ships which had been blown off course landed and disgorged their crews: +1 Valorous

16-20 The cities of Greece; many men flocked to the city at its founding: +1 Honest

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Heroes in Age of Bronze

Age of Bronze is a game about heroes in much the same way that its parent game, King Arthur Pendragon, is about knights. That is, AoB is a genre game rather than a generic game: you play a hero of a specific type in order to better emulate a particular experience.

We bore in mind Greg Stafford's essay on Genre and Generic, one of my favorite essays on gaming ever written. Limitation as liberation, was the watchword.

But to limit things, we had to define them. What are the common threads linking the heroes of the myths? Of those common threads, what's actually fun to play? From there, we established a base on which to build a character. So what, exactly, are players roleplaying in Age of Bronze?

1) A hero has divine blood: This is true for every hero and is true for the players' heroes. Somewhat surprisingly, at least to modern notions of heredity, the distance of the divine relation has no bearing on the power of the hero. In Age of Bronze, whether you're the child, grandchild, nephew, niece, great-great-great grandchild, you have the same power relative to your quasi-divine peers.

Different divine forebears offer different bonuses, however. In most respects, who you're descended from acts just like the various homelands from KAP, though the power level is turned up. A descendant of Ares has, for example, higher Spear and Sword skills but is very Reckless, while a descendant of Apollo has high Archery and Divination with a side of Singing and First Aid.

2) A hero is urban: The semi-mortal heroes of Greece were part of a grand civilization vs nature narrative. As part of this narrative, most (but by no means all) heroes founded or ruled a city. City is relative; these were small county seats, by our standards, not Tokyo or New York. Every city of Mycenaean Greece had its founding myth about a hero (or more rarely an actual god) who tamed the surrounding lands, often symbolized by some terrible beast, and raised a city where previously there were only untamed wilds.

The player heroes are no different. One of the goals is to eventually found a city, make it prosperous, and then pass it on to your kids so they can inevitably mess it up in dramatic fashion. It's a long-term goal; your first PC starts out in relatively humble circumstances, with his or her divine blood just becoming public knowledge. As Glory increases and deeds are done, eventually its time to raise that first temple, call your admirers and carve out a slice of land to launch your own small kingdom.

3) A hero is martial: We decided to primarily model the martial hero for the basic rulebook. For one, most heroes were fighters and warband leaders. Certainly, they're the most iconic, with Herakles, Perseus, and Achilles taking pride of place. Even the less combat oriented heroes, like Orpheus, are placed in hairy situations requiring someone to swing a sword.

This is where our focus is. You can absolutely play a great musician, orator, healer, diviner, or blacksmith but, at least with the first publication, you're playing a warrior, as well. No amount of Glory will match what you get on the battlefield.

4) A hero is hubristic: Hubris has slowly become synonymous with pride but that's only telling part of the story. Its initial meaning was tied up in notions of propriety and obeisance to the universal order. It is, of course, pride but it's prideful because it exalts the self over the laws of the cosmos.

As an example, when Oedipus has relations with his mother, it's not simply a matter of violating a societal norm; Oedipus has violated an immutable law of the universe and his fate is sealed. In this sense, hubris is far broader than just pride. It's also tied up in notions of honor and loyalty. It's important to shed the modern tendency to compartmentalize religion away from society. In Age of Bronze, one doesn't exist without the other; if you violate society's norms, you're actually violating the divine order of the cosmos.

As such, just by the act of doing "normal" things that heroes do, you're being hubristic in a low grade manner. If you sit on a farm all day, you're not being hubristic but you're also not much of a hero. Being a hero inherently means that you're struggling against the divine order; you really can't help it. Toss in your flaws (very well modeled by the KAP Trait system) and you slowly gain Hubris. Yes, capitalized, because we actually track it... but that's for another post.

5) A hero will fall: Without divulging too much, we do have mechanics to model the sort of tragic end that Greek heroes meet. As your personality becomes bigger and more extreme and you build a city, kill a sacred animal, anger a god, or any number of things, you gain points of Hubris. There's no going back; you can't shed points once you get them, because the Olympians have long memories.

Even a peaceful end has some sort of irony to it. Menelaus is reminded of the Trojan War every time he looks at Helen; he dies a miserable old man bereft of love or an heir. Is it as melodramatic as Orestes or Icarus? No, but there's a certain poetry to the sort of end Menelaus reached. It's recognizable and poignant.

We don't dictate how that end is reached, though we do provide mechanics for when it happens and guidelines on how to make it fit into your hero's individual narrative. But your hero will eventually die tragically and become part of a larger story as (just as in KAP) the torch is passed on to an heir.

The Genesis of Age of Bronze

The first real book I remember getting was "D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths". It's still a children's book but it's not a kid's book, if you follow. The second I picked it up, I was hooked on Greek literature. The interest in that specific time morphed into a love of history, more generally. My brother and co-author never let the obsession go, though I can't write of when it started for him; he learned Latin and Greek when he was a teenager, got a Classical Studies degree, and teaches Latin.

When I was about nine and my brother five, we came into possession of a little boxed game called "Heroes of Olympus". We only sort of knew what a role-playing game was (I'd gotten the Monster Manual when I learned to tie my shoes; my folks thought it was just a collection of monster artwork), with my first Red Box experience still a year away. So we opened "Heroes of Olympus" and our minds were immediately blown.

Inside were a series of hex maps with big scenes from Greek myth drawn on them. Most are Jason and the Argonauts, the whole journey; the game was extremely focused on the Argonauts. There's a map for the fight between Herakles and the Nemean Lion and a few more; my memory's hazy. There were tons of cardboard chits representing monsters, heroes, ships, etc. And then there was this little booklet which had rules for playing the Argonauts in it. They were all just stated out, laid out and there for you. So we were freaking out even though the rules were a bit 80s wargame for two doofy kids to process fully.

But there, in the back of the book, there were rules for making your own Greek heroes. Not sidekicks, either. Full on badasses every bit of Jason or Herakles. It was like a lightning bolt had struck. Remember here, I'm obsessed with Greek myths. I played pretend sometimes and I was Sir Ian or King Ian of Athens but it was detached from the pretend world a knight or hero would be in. All of a sudden, this game brought it home: you mean that I can pretend a hero in Greece and Herakles will think I'm an equal? There was something about that validation, coming from a "real" person, which gave the whole thing a certain verisimilitude that just being the sole hero or the hero in a made up world didn't.

I never quite got that feeling from my gaming again until I picked up KAP at about the age 16. It imparted the same sense that my character's achievements weren't diminished if Gawaine was looking on but, rather, were given a realness and point of reference that a non-historical game never could for me. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to play it with me. I was okay with that; I've always thought that KAP was ahead of its time until just recently, when everything else caught up. Besides, this was at the height of TSR's setting boom and White Wolf's first cresting... there was a lot of really, really good stuff to play.

Fast forward to about this time last year. I'd been playing in the Grand Pendragon Campaign, slowly and with group shuffles, for about three years. Greg Stafford had posted on the KAP forums that he and Stewart Wieck were interested in receiving submissions for new games using the KAP system. I'd kind of had an idea in the back of my brain that no system had ever quite captured the feeling Heroes of Olympus had (feeling, here, which is mushy and vague; the rules were quite another matter) other than KAP. I finally figured out some things I would do with a Bronze Age KAP variation and called up Peter, my brother.

I said I was doing this but I needed a partner to bounce rules back and forth with. More importantly, I needed someone with the trained knowledge to make the historical and literary grittiness right the first time and attractive. He said sure and I wrote a proposal to Greg's specifications.

I wasn't actually expecting to hear back but I did. He didn't just like it, he loved it. He turned us loose with a contract and we hammered on it for the next eight months. When he received the final draft, he loved it even more and suggested a few tweaks and additions, which we're doing now.

And that's Age of Bronze.

Edit: If you're new here, coming in from a link or whatnot, forgive the weirdness with text background color. I switched styles and things seem to be a little messed up in ways I can't seem to fully correct.


I've never had a blog, despite being an early adopter of all things internet. My preferred mode tends to be conversational and, while I write a lot, the idea of just having my thoughts and my thoughts alone up someplace has always struck my Puritan New England genes as a terribly unnecessary thing.

Which is, of course, absurd. The whole point of the internet is to spread information and various viewpoints, including my own.

With the coming publication of (tentative title) Age of Bronze, I figured it was high time to make one. For the most part, posts will be design snippets or discussions of the coming book. You can comment here or on my G+ page when I link a post publicly.

So follow away! Hopefully some of this will be of interest to you, as either a pop culture person or a gamer or anything else you might be.