June 27, 2014

Gaming the Pliocene Exile Saga

As I mentioned in the previous post, Julian May's The Pliocene Exile is incredibly ripe for gaming use, so you just have to wonder why there's no licensed RPG based on it yet. Well, we gamers are nothing if not creators by nature, so let's delve into how you can adapt this into a campaign of your own! Let's look at the gameable bits:

The Timegate
New Exiles go to the Pliocene via the Guderian timegate, located outside the city of Lyons in France. A unique geological anomaly makes the time-gate possible, but it also locks the gate to one time period and this one location. All Exiles must check in at Madame Guderian's Auberge du Portail, where they must go through briefings and survival training before they're allowed to go.  Also, women are surgically sterilized so they can't get pregnant in the Pliocene; this is to make sure they don't impact the future, and also to keep them from being taken advantage of. 

Functioning metapsychic operants are forbidden from entering Exile; latents may go, however, and in fact many Exiles are frustrated latents. (Elizabeth, a Grandmaster Redactor, only got to go because an accident had rendered her latent; her powers to her shock reawakened in the translation to the Pliocene.)

Another policy of the timegate admins though has made the Exiles easy victims for the Tanu: the translations always happen at the same time, at dawn, because this was supposed to give the Exiles the advantage of a long day to get started. (Madame would escape the Tanu when she went to Exile herself because she went at midnight.)

Castle Gateway and Slavery
The Tanu, an alien race from another galaxy, control the Pliocene side of the gate. All new Exiles are captured and held at Castle Gateway, which sits just outside the timegate. From here all Exiles are sorted and shipped out to the various Tanu cities. Most humans are enslaved without any torcs at all, and the Tanu do try to keep them happy; life can be good in Tanu hands, but at a price. Those with high mental potential are given silver torcs, and those who need to be controlled are given gray torcs, which only amplify telepathy and render the wearer open to mental coercion by any gold torc wearer -- which means all Tanu, and some adopted humans. All women however are destined for impregnation by the Tanu, and are rationed out to the Tanu cities on an as-needed basis.

The Tanu
The alien masters of Pliocene Europe came from the planet Duat, which they left as defeated rebels because they wanted to keep a forbidden battle religion. The people of Duat are of one species, but divided into two very different races, Tanu and Firvulag. The Tanu are very tall compared to humankind -- seven footers are average, and some are eight or more -- very fair, with blue or aquamarine eyes, and otherwise very human features.

Their society is Arthurian/Narnian in flavor, but with some dark Old Celtic overtones. All Tanu live in cities, served by human and ramapithecine (primitive hominid) slaves. All worship a Mother-Warrior goddess, Tana, in a religion that idealizes chivalry and combat. The Tanu elite are thus the most powerful fighters, mighty in both physical prowess and the aggressive metafunctions such as telekinesis, coercion, and energy manipulation. Tanu and their human silver and gold torc subjects group themselves into Metapsychic Guilds according to their strongest mental powers. Each Guild functions as a fighting unit in the annual Grand Combat against the Firvulag, and has charge of training its members to that end.

The Tanu are ruled by a King, who must be sponsored by the Kingmaker; the qualifications are mental power, fertility, and courage. An aspirant King must first take the position of Battlemaster, the Warlord of the Tanu, by challenging and defeating the current Battlemaster in combat; if he wins, he can then challenge the King. The Presidencies of the Guilds are likewise won by challenging and defeating the current head, either in combat or by a contest of powers.  Cities are governed by appointed Lords (or ladies), but are likely open to challenge also.

The Tanu have enthusiastically adopted many innovations introduced by humankind. All Tanu fighters now ride to battle on mentally controlled, horse-like chalikos, and those with strong psychokinesis often make their mounts fly. The Tanu fight as heavily armored knights, as do most of their human silver and gold torc adopted brethren; they are supported by gray torc human units of infantry, archers, and lighter cavalry. Before the timegate opened, the Tanu used to fight on foot and of course on their own.

The Firvulag
The Firvulag are the Tanu's more barbaric kindred race, who are perpetually at war with them following the tenets of their battle religion. Firvulag have much greater physical variety than the Tanu, some of them being gnomish or dwarfish in stature, while some are hulking ogres; the typical Firvulag is about human size, which is puny to a Tanu.

Firvulag are physically tougher than Tanu, which goes with their somewhat bestial aspect -- they're often described as hairy and with fangs. They reproduce better on Earth, so they greatly outnumber the Tanu, and while Tanu occasionally give birth to Firvulag babies, Firvulag never produce Tanu. Most importantly, all Firvulag are naturally operant, requiring no torcs, and they have a racial affinity for spinning illusions.

Firvulag live in the highlands, preferring cold climates and underground dwellings -- usually modified caves -- in contrast to the Tanu who like hot climates and live in fantastically built-up cities in the lowlands. Stubborn traditionalists, the Firvulag also disdain the human innovations and insist on fighting on foot with the traditional hand weapons -- they don't even use bows and arrows. Firvulag society is also rougher in hierarchy. There is an elected king, with an appointed Battlemaster, and also regional chiefs; they don't have the Tanu guilds.

The Grand Combat
The central event of Tanu and Firvulag life is the Grand Combat, held toward the end of October. This ritual war is always conducted at battleground chosen by the previous winner, and so for the past eighty years has been held at the White Silver Plain outside the Tanu capital of Muriah. In the Pliocene, the Mediterranean is dry and walled off from the Atlantic by the Isthmus of Gibraltar, so Muriah sits below what is now sea level below southern France, near Spain, and the White Silver Plain is a wide salt flat on the Mediterranean seabed.

The Combat is bookended by a month-long Truce before and after, allowing the participants to come to the event unmolested; at all other times of the year Tanu and Firvulag hunt and raid each other for sport. The concept of war for conquest is alien to them as neither race wants the other's preferred ranges, and extermination would invalidate the battle religion. The combat lasts six days; the first two are preliminaries, and more like sports meets, with each race holding their own events, while the third to sixth days are the main event, the battle between the races.

The grand prize in the Combat is the ancient Sword of Sharn, actually a high-tech ritual weapon brought from Duat, plus the right to host the next combat. The Combat is also the time when Tanu and Firvulag leaderships can change, specially with the Tanu, as a victorious Tanu Battlemaster is allowed to challenge the King at the end. Guild presidencies and city lordships may also fall open, either because the incumbents got killed in battle, or aging, weakening heads may be challenged by those who promise a greater chance of leading their guilds to victory.

Gold and silver torc humans may win promotions and accolades by fighting well for the Tanu, but for most grays the Grand Combat is a war they gain nothing from and have no choice but to fight.

The Lowlives
Some untorced Exiles manage to escape Tanu slavery, and outlaw communities exist here and there. The largest concentration is in the Vosges mountains some distance from the northernmost Tanu city of Finiah. The Tanu refer to these escapees as the Lowlives, a label the outlaws have adopted with pride. The Vosges community in Hidden Springs is now headed by Madame Guderian, who has grand plans to end the Tanu dominion over humankind by closing the timegate and stopping torc production at its source. The Hidden Springs Lowlives have a tentative alliance with the Firvulag, and strike Tanu caravans on the Finiah route to steal weapons and gain recruits when they can.

Blood Metal
Both Tanu and Firvulag have lethal reactions to iron, and the mere presence of concentrated iron nearby disturbs them. They call iron the 'blood metal,' and forbid its making and use. Tanu and Firvulag technology is based on glass instead, which human grays supplement with bronze armor and weapons. Depending on whether you want to set your campaign before or after events in the books, mankind may or may not have discovered iron's effect on the aliens yet; new Exiles will no longer be familiar with iron, since Galactic Milieu technology has substituted it by now with a glasslike substance called vitredur.

Pliocene Technology
Pliocene technology is more or less at medieval level, with strong glass taking the place of metals in most tools and weapons, and there is no mechanization. Both Tanu and Firvulag like it that way, though the luxury-loving Tanu get to have it easy because of their human and ramapithecine slaves.

There are some holdovers of advanced alien technology in the cities, though, specially in Muriah, where the torc factory is, and Brede's Room Without Doors is a forcefield generator from her starship that is impervious to both physical and mental assault.  Some modern human technologies have also been recreated; the Tanu economy depends on inflated boats of synthetic material for plying Pliocene France's torrential rivers.

There are also caches of advanced Milieu-era gadgetry, hoarded by Tanu lords in secrecy. Timegate and Tanu policies conspire however to keep tech levels low, as powered devices and modern weaponry are forbidden from being taken into exile, while the Tanu confiscate anything threatening.

The Tanu also have some specialized technology that uses their metafunctions. One of the most important is Skin, an organic membrane that enhances the efforts of a healer. The use of Skin makes the Tanu almost immortal, as Skin can heal any injuries short of decapitation or brain destruction; as long as there's a functional brain left, Skin can heal the rest.

The Tanu torc is a mental amplifier that makes operant any latent metabilities of the wearer. The Tanu would be merely latents without them. Once put on, a torc can never be taken off without massive psychological, often lethal trauma, unless a new torc is put on first. Madame Guderian's rebels will find a way to remove torcs by cutting them off with iron, but this still causes a lot of pain.

There are three kinds, gold, silver and gray. Gold torcs are purely mental amplifiers, and are symbolic of membership in Tanu society. Wearing a gold torc means one is a full citizen of the Tanu kingdom, with all rights -- including the privilege to challenge for Guild leadership, or even the throne if the Kingmaker will sponsor you!

Silver torcs have the mental amplification circuitry of the gold torc, plus a control circuit that allows any Tanu to coerce the wearer. Human latents are given silver torcs by default, with the promise that they can win their way to gold if they behave. The silver torc thus signifies a sort of probationary citizenship.

Gray torcs only amplify telepathy, and have the control circuit; their only purpose is to render the wearer open to communication and command by any gold torc wearer. Not all humans are compatible with the torc, nor is the torc supply infinite, so the Tanu torc only those that they have to; this is usually determined at Castle Gateway. All aggressive or rebellious humans are torced, as are those with vital expertise such as physicians.

The sole torc factory is in Muriah, and is run by the Coercer Guild. Torc technology relies heavily on barium, and the only known barium mine is in Finiah. Madame Guderian's plan to free humanity from the Tanu thus hinges on shutting down the Finiah mine, then the torc factory.

Mental Powers
There are five core metanfunctions: Farsense, Coercion, Psychokinesis, Creativity and Redaction. Farsense includes the powers of telepathy and ESP, with the best farsensors even possessing limited clairvoyance. All operants have basic Farsense, it seems to be the 'foundation' metability. If your mind is 'awakened,' you'll have at least a smidgin of Farsense.

Coercion is the ability to dominate other minds. Psychokinesis is the ability to move things. Creativity is energy manipulation; at its most basic it can spin illusions out of light or sound, but more advanced creators can throw energy bolts or even manipulate matter at molecular levels; one character displayed her mastery in Creation by making edible, delicious food out of thin air. Redaction is the ability to reshape the mind, and  is one of the rarest metabilities;  it can be used to heal both physical and mental hurts, but it can also be used to cause pain or even wipe another's brain clean, turning the victim into a living vegetable.

Most operant humans and Tanu are strong in only one or two metafunctions, with the aid of the torcs. Those who rank strongly several are the elite, and may even aspire to kingship if powerful enough. The Firvulag tend to be strong in Creativity only, and very weak in all the others.

Save for certain ritual trials, Tanu and Firvulag always fight with both physical and mental weapons. Coercers and Redactors directly attack their opponent's minds. Psychokinetics use brute force. Creators use energy for both attack and defense. Farsense seems to have no aggressive use by itself, but can be highly useful in combat for scouting and anticipating the enemy -- I suspect a master Farsensor can parry just about anything from a living opponent. Still, the Farsensor Guild's battalion is the smallest among the Tanu, dwarfed by those of the Coercer, Psychokinetic and Creative Guilds.

June 25, 2014

Review: The Saga of the Pliocene Exile


This series by Julian May ranks among my top favorites right along with Dune, The Lord of the Rings, the Barsoom series of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Howard's Conan. It's also, from a gamer's perspective, an incredibly gameable setting, so I just have to wonder why there's no RPG based on it yet, or why it doesn't seem to have much of a following. Since the books were published way back in the 1980s and had their last reprinting in 1992 or thereabouts, allow me to celebrate one of my favorite authors and introduce you to this saga if you're not familiar with it yet.

The Pliocene Exile begins, after a tantalizing prologue on a dying starship,  on 22nd century Earth shortly after a controversial Intervention by a federation of benevolent alien civilizations.  Mankind has entered a seemingly utopian age, with worldwide peace, a cleaned-up environment, apparently limitless energy, interstellar travel and generous grants of planets to colonize. Even more exciting, large numbers are being born as metapsychic operants -- able to harness mental powers previously disbelieved. In fact it's this operancy that qualifies mankind for membership in the Galactic Milieu, as all the other member species are also operant. But of course there's no such thing as a true utopia, and this age has its misfits.

The Galactic Milieu dealt with such misfits in draconian fashion, with the only options being incarceration, a sort of lobotomy with a docilization implant in the brain, or euthanasia. The story gets its kickoff when a French scientist, Theo Guderian, invents a one-way timegate that goes to France in the Pliocene, six million years in the past. When he dies his widow Angelique is importuned by misfits willing to pay big money for a way out of the Milieu. Within a few years Madame Guderian is really raking it in with a hotel where you check in and never leave -- at least not in the present.

Enter the cast of protagonists, misfits and suicidals all. Here's where some of my friends had problems with the book, as this truly sprawling saga is introduced in apparently disjointed vignettes showcasing the origins and motivations of each main character. For me though, the vignettes showcase Julian May's deft hand at world building and warm, genuine appreciation for human nature; she must be very observant. I hold her up as one of my golden icons of good writing, specially in the character-building department. This is where we truly get a picture of what post-Intervention Earth is like, with fascinating snippets of its technologies and society, all very nicely done through the unique lenses of each character, so we never get a ton of dry exposition encyclopedia-style, but instead 'shots' from individual viewpoints.

We get introduced to these as May rounds up a cast of grand archetypes -- the Warrior Maid Felice, the lovelorn Bryan, the Flying Dutchman Richard, the Raging Viking Stein, the Holy Woman Amerie, the Wise Old Man Claude,  the Athenean Elizabeth, and the fascinating Trickster, Aiken Drum. After their bouts of tragedy, in which they all choose to enter the Pliocene Exile, they all get united at Madame Guderian's inn. Here they get introduced to each other in basic survival training as Group Green; Madame has wisely decided to send time-travellers in small, trained units so they can aid each other.

The story now goes into high gear. The new Exiles find Pliocene Europe has been taken over by an alien race, the Tanu, along with their more barbarous kin the Firvulag, with whom they have an ancient and ritual enmity. Mankind has been enslaved through the use of torcs with mental control circuitry. Metapsychic latents, however, get a liberation in a way because they get silver torcs, which make them operant but still with control circuits; those absolutely loyal to the Tanu may hope to later get controller-less gold.

The shock of time travel gives Elizabeth back her mental powers, lost after an accident, and makes her -- or so she believes -- the only non-torced operant human on Pliocene Earth. As a Grand Master of farsensing and psychic healing, she's destined for grand things at the Tanu capital of Muriah. The psychotic Felice also finds her latent abilities awakening, while Aiken Drum gets collared with a silver torc and rapidly burgeons in power until it's obvious he won't be content with promotion to just gold. The completely 'normal' members of Group Green however are doomed to a more onerous kind of slavery, specially the women -- Tanu have a problem reproducing under the radiation of Earth's sun, so they've been hybridizing with humans. As for the men, hulking Stein is tapped for the Grand Combat, and Richard gets mentally traumatized in an encounter with a Tanu woman.

Group Green gets split in two, with Elizabeth, Aiken, and Bryan who though mentally normal is required at the capital for his profession, while the rest are to be sent to Finiah, the Tanu's northernmost city. The Finiah-bound group includes Felice, Richard, Claude, and Amerie, and they plot escape at the instigation of Felice, whose growing mind-powers may just make it possible. The Finiah group stages a mutiny en route, killing their guards and the Tanu woman who ravaged Richard, Epone; here they discover that the Tanu, previously thought unkillable, can die if struck with iron.

At this point May's scifi take on Celtic mythology really starts to come clear. The Tanu, as she has been hinting all along, are what will later be remembered as the Tuatha de Danann of Celtic myth, and the Firvulag are the Fir Bolg. The faerie impression is carried even further by the adventures of the Muriah-bound group, who are regaled with decadent Tanu luxury as their captors try to integrate them into Tanu society, with mixed results. In other words, the Tanu are the Seelie and the Firvulag the Unseelie.


The books continue through Group Green's parallel adventures, introducing more characters along the way. The Finiah escapees encounter Madame Guderian, who has gone through the gate herself, and is now allied with the Firvulag in a conspiracy to liberate humanity from the Tanu; Elizabeth meets Brede Shipspouse, the alien astrogator who brought the Tanu and Firvulag to Earth, who has grand plans to mature the two races; and Aiken meets Mayvar Kingmaker, a Tanu hag who does exactly as she's named. The plans of these three masterminds intertwine with each others' and the desires of the protagonists through many interesting twists and turns, through the Grand Combat and a tragically failed rebellion, Felice's making the Atlantis legend come true in a titanic feat of mental power, and the aftermath of that. Want to know more? Read the books!

The Pliocene Exile series comes in four volumes: the Many-Colored Land, the Golden Torc, the Nonborn King, and the Adversary. It is accompanied by the Galactic Milieu series, which in turn consists of (in the US editions) The Surveillance, the Intervention, Jack the Bodyless, Diamond Mask, and Magnificat. The two sagas dovetail in the character of Marc Remillard, the Pliocene Exile's Adversary, who goes through a Luciferian fall and then redemption in the books. The whole is very interesting in its use of Father Teilhard de Chardin's controversial philosophies regarding human evolution, with a time loop from the Pliocene making the final maturation possible.

All this is told with warm regard for human nature in all its variety, humor sometimes earthy and sometimes sly, Wagnerian mythic resonances, and great action in just the right amounts. May apparently was also a connoisseur of cultures, and it shows with a multicultural, multiethnic cast of characters. It's a mind-bogglingly damn good read!

It also helped a lot that the original edition came out with some truly evocative Michael Whelan covers; Whelan really works to get the details right. The 1990s reprints came out with new covers that unfortunately made the books seem like generic Euro-fantasy, doomed to be outshined by better-known franchises like The Wheel of Time. Del Rey should reissue these books, this time with the original Whelan covers.

Next post: gaming the Pliocene Exile!

June 3, 2014

Trading Down Damage Dice

I meant to post a long-overdue review of Julian May’s Pliocene Exile, but since I’ve not finished it yet – the books were too dang tempting to re-read in full! – here’s a thought off the top of my head that takes an approach I use in Vivid and adopts it to other game systems.

Hacking the Called Shot
The ‘called shot’ was one of the great house-rules-that-became-official in D&D, but to my mind falls short of its full potential because of the way it’s implemented. Called shots let you do a whole lot of stuff in combat that’s cool, and encourages player input, which to me is always a good thing because it takes combat away from the ‘I roll to hit’ paradigm that drives me nuts.

Thing is, called shots as implemented are too inefficient; if I’m going to take a penalty to hit, it’s unattractive to me at low levels because my chances to hit are already so low, and it’s unattractive to me at high levels because I do so much damage on a normal hit already.

So: what if, instead of a penalty to hit, you ‘trade down’ damage dice for called shots that should do little or no damage, like pushing your opponent or whacking his knuckles to make him drop his weapon? This is combined with a ‘margin of success’ mechanic where you have to roll X higher than you needed to hit as normal.

Say you need a 12 to hit, and let’s standardize the margin required to make the called shot to disarm at +3. Let’s say your damage die is 1d8. If you roll 12-14, you do 1d6 damage instead of 1d8, or maybe the GM ruled 1d4. But if you make your called shot, the effect you asked for happens.

Rather than fixing the damage die you drop to, you could leave this to be negotiated between player and GM on an ad hoc basis, leaving the GM much more flexibility to make rulings based on your stated intent.

‘Trading up’ damage dice may also be allowed, perhaps with a larger margin of success requirement like +5. If you don’t make your margin you do your reduced die of damage, if you make your margin you do your improved die of damage.

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