Tips for GMs and Writers
What’s Your Fantasy?
Copyright © 2001Christine Morgan
War in the MageLore World
War is something that’s been much on my mind of late, in both the writing and gaming aspects of my life. Conveniently, at the moment, these two aspects are both taking place in the same world.
Running a game in the same world in which I base my fantasy novels is a wonderful experience because through the actions and decisions of the player characters I am made to look at parts of the world I might not have before, and develop different areas of it. What gets tricky is having the game set years after the current books-in-progress; what I haven’t written yet is already history as far as the PCs are concerned.
As a GM and as an author, I have always found combats to be the hardest part of the gig. Combats just between a party of adventurers and a handful of baddies is hard enough, but the thought of trying to handle a full-blown war makes me go all clammy and anxiety-stricken. I know (and care) hardly anything about troop movements, armies, strategy.
Also, and more important, war doesn’t capture my interest. Others might speak in admiring, glowing terms of this battle or that, about honor and glory and high ideals - what it means to fight and die for king and country. Me, personally, I find that all but incomprehensible. I’ve mused on that in previous columns (Sabledrake, November 2000).
Fight to defend myself, protect my family? Sure, I can understand that. Fight for revenge? Okay, sure, I’m vengeful at heart and I can see resorting to violence in that situation (if other methods fail). But to fight because some other group has a different religious or political view? To fight because someone in power says I must? Huh-uh, no way. That just doesn’t work for me. Because I don’t think in terms of an army, a unit. I think of the individual as a person, and the choices that person must make.
I don’t want to run a game about a war. I don’t want to write a book about a war.
What interests me most is the effects and after-effects a war will have. On society, and on those involved.
In my series of novels, the MageLore trilogy (third book to be released in June; reserve your signed copy now!) will end with events set in motion that will embroil the Northlands in war. But I realized that I had no interest in looking at that war in-depth. I wouldn’t write it well, I wouldn’t enjoy it, which meant that nobody would want to read it.
So what’s an author to do in this case? Well, I jumped ahead 20-some years. That is where the ElfLore trilogy will begin. The war is over … but it’s only the fighting that is over. The effects linger on, the world has been changed, and nothing will ever be the same again. An entire land has been devastated, thousands of people of various races have died, a kingdom is left without a king … now what?
With the war having already happened, I have the luxury of being able to refer back to it without needing to slog through each and every battle. How the societies, and the people, react and deal with the events of the past couple of decades, that is what fascinates me.
This is something I can get away with in my books. Not so easy in a game. If I was running an adventure in a world rushing toward war, and said to the players, “Okay, gang, now we’re gonna skip ahead twenty years, war’s over,” I would probably be met with howls of protest. Because they’d want to be involved, they’d want to play it out, they’d want to change things and affect things and make a difference and seize glory - that’s what PCs do. They wouldn’t stand for it.
Luckily as far as I’m concerned, my current game is set post-war. It happened, it’s over, and now we’re going to deal with it. But it’s still a part of their history, and so I have to know at least the basics of what happened. Especially because one of the PCs was a soldier, and for him the war is, in a way at least, still going on. Through this character’s flashbacks (he’s got a case of the post-traumatic wobblies like you wouldn’t believe, not helped by memory tampering and other elven mind-magics), I get to look back at the war without having to bother with all the other stuff. The hard part.
Because basically, while I can’t exactly call myself lazy (I can do two books a year when I don’t get sidetracked by too many other projects, no small feat for a working mom!), I can easily call myself self-indulgent. What I want to write, and what I want to GM, is what interests me.
Even so, even for me when I can jump ahead and avoid the actual now-time business of war, there are still several things that I have to take into consideration. Most fantasy worlds are generally set in a pseudo-medieval frame, and history provides countless examples of how warfare was carried out back then. But then come the fantasy elements, like magic, different technology, and the gods. These things mess with standard sensible strategies like nobody’s business.
In my case, this means the elves. The Emerinians, specifically. While their army does rely on standard weapons (swords, bows, and light lances), they also have plenty of warmages. We’re not talking one or two wizards, we’re talking hundreds of them whose area of specialty is in combat magics.
Because I use GURPS both in my gaming and as a reference for my writing, this makes for a lot of variety. If archers can disrupt an advancing line, think what a volley of lightning bolts can do (and against metal armor, those bolts are so nicely effective!). Fireballs, explosive fireballs, walls of flame. Earthquakes. Flying archers. Invisible swordsmen. Enhanced armor, enhanced weapons. The ability to turn, deflect, or reverse missiles. Horses that are under direct magical control and cannot be spooked (or, alternately, enemy horses that can be controlled). Commanders able to know where their troops are at all times and give orders clearly despite the din of battle.
And the benefits extend to many other things besides actual combat. The options for spying alone are almost endless. Supplies become less of a problem when the mess cooks have spells that will let them turn anything into edible food, or even create it out of nothing. Water can be purified to avoid disease, and the physicians have spells of healing in addition to surgical and medical techniques a step above the human tech level. Communications can range from magically-encrypted messages to telepathy.
It is widely acknowledged that dwarves are the master craftsmen. Their weapons and armor are second to none. So, too, are their devices of war. In my world, the forces of Underearth have never fully been unleashed. Those few dwarves who go above are careful not to take any of the secrets of their advances with them, and so the rest of the world doesn’t know just of what they are capable.
Yet. In this war (and as I write this, I have just finished the final draft of MageLore III and am revising ElfLore I to submit to a publisher, so I am straddling the before-and-after of the war), when Underearth goes up against the Emerin, they are pulling out all the stops.
The worst threat to the dwarves is the elven magic. They’re naturally resistant to spells that affect them directly, but that doesn’t help when there’s an explosive fireball headed their way, or when one of their catapult shots is flipped back at them courtesy of some clown with Reverse Missiles.
To improve their chances against magic, the dwarves have manathricite. This blue-black metal, which the elves call gilthanat, absorbs magical energy. Any mage in contact with it cannot cast spells, and manathricite is able to go through magic or enchantments as if they weren’t there. So a crossbow bolt tipped with it will ignore shielding spells and defense bonuses to armor, and once embedded in elf-flesh, the target becomes hampered (not to mention unable to be magically healed until the thing is surgically removed).
The dwarves have other secrets as well, such as an entire guild of Explosivists, whose function is to mine, refine, and develop weapons from various minerals, metals, and elements found in their subterranean thanedoms. They have coal-burning and steam-powered machines. Grenades and bombs. Chemical warfare. Medical technology in advance of the humans.
With both the elves and the dwarves so much more capable (being Elder Races, they’ve had more time to work on their gifts), what have the humans got going for them? Aside from sheer numbers and breedability, about the only advantage the humans have over the other races is the power granted their priests by the gods.
In my world, the dwarves honor Karzok Whitebeard but the only actual power they gain from this is the ability of the thanes to tap into the ancestral memories of their forebears. The elves have four gods but are generally lapsed in any sort of active faith (though the Morvalan, worshipping the fifth god, have actual priests with actual powers). Little is known about the shamanistic rites of Teruzan, the orc-god, or the dead minotaur god Dezra.
The humans, however, have several active faiths, and the gods grant abilities to their followers, including in many cases the gift of healing along with particular effects specific to each god (the sunlight-summoning of the Helianites, or the necromantic capabilities of the Haarkonites). God-granted healing is far stronger than anything the elves can do with their magic, but is hampered by the relationship of the individual being healed to the particular god involved.
Priests of Galatine, the god of order, function close to paladins and have a variety of powers that can be of use on the battlefield, instilling all within earshot with might and bravery. Thus, they are far more frequently found involved in wars than would be, say, the faithful of Talopea (Goddess of a Thousand Pleasures).
The god Steel, once a human general who ascended after slaying Dezra, is a special case. Steel is still a new god and the only observable ability ever seen is the way that a priest can in a time of great need call upon the god to transform the holy symbol - a miniature sword - into a full-sized, unbreakable weapon. Beyond that, it is faith that emboldens the hearts and spirits of the Steelites, and as a GM I translate that into bonuses in combat.
In Greek mythology most famously of all, the gods take a personal direct hand in battles. The Trojan war is the most well-known example of this, and it is something that a fantasy author or GM needs to keep in mind if that sort of thing is a possibility in that particular world. Whose side are the gods on, and what does that entail? In mine, things don’t go that far, which is something of a relief.
So that’s where I am … I’ve had a war in my world that has gone on for twenty years, and during the course of it many things happened. But because of the way my mind is set up, I care more about the people and the society than about the events (reading “Lord of the Rings,” I was wishing they’d hurry and get through all the battle scenes so I could see how it worked out with Eowyn’s crush on Aragorn).
By relegating the war itself to the already-happened file, I am free to concentrate on what happens next. I’ve got an entire duchy of the Northlands reduced to slag - the dwarves and the elves each started from their homelands and met smack in the middle, which happened to be the human land of Keyda.
Now Keyda is littered with the husks of dwarven war machines. The aether (mana level, for the GURPSish of mind) has been tweaked all to heck and back from magic-meeting-manathricite. The earth is churned up, scoured bare, strewn with corpses. Thousands of lives lost, acres and acres of fertile crop and grazing land destroyed … and how do those involved deal with it?
In the Emerin, the elves are the world’s experts at sticking their heads in the sand and avoiding facing anything unpleasant. They would just as soon forget this whole ugly business ever happened, which means putting it out of sight and out of mind as quickly as possible. Their veterans are expected to pick up the threads of their old lives without complaint (and those who were physically maimed are expected to be considerate of everyone else and generally be reclusive so as not to remind anybody of the horrors of war). The dead are given what honors they’re due and then the matter is let go, widows and orphans cared for but in a manner that tries not to bring attention to just how the man of the house was lost.
The dwarves of Underearth, following the war, returned to their caves and resumed their isolative, secretive lifestyle. Their veterans are treated with high esteem and considerable monetary reward, and the utmost respect is awarded the families of those brave warriors who gave their lives in battle. Their attitude is one of pride and sureness - they did what they felt they had to do, and if others want to whine about it, that’s their right as weak and fragile beings. Their main concern is how best to retrieve their damaged and lost war machines, and how to guard their secrets now that all the world knows they can blow things up and produce such engines of death.
The humans, who were initially distracted by a war of their own in the western lands of Hachland and Casteban, were drawn helplessly into the elven-dwarven conflict while trying vainly to serve as mediators and peacemakers. They got in the middle and were just rolled over by both sides, and their diplomacies turned into a desperate attempt to get themselves and the poor unsuspecting people of Keyda out of the line of fire. In the aftermath, the humans found that neither the elves nor the dwarves cared much about their problems, and were left resentful.
The other races couldn’t stay out of it either - Keyda being just south of Dezran, the minotaurs didn’t even try to resist. They stampeded down and attacked anyone and everyone without compunction. The gnomes, not warlike but very genial and adaptable by nature, tried to help the humans settle things, but there weren’t enough of them to have much effect. The orcs, for the most part, did the occasional raid or strike-and-run attack, again not particularly caring which side they were fighting.
Having determined how the various societies would react, I was ready to get down to the best part - the plight of the individual. This was where my latest game came into being. Set in the years following the ElfLore trilogy (an especially tricky proposition, because the second two aren’t even written yet so what is history in the game is the future in my writing, a strange place to be, weirdly beneficial but daunting at the same time), the main characters included:
Karandis - an elven soldier for whom the war might never be over; see last issue’s short story “A Soldier’s Secret” for an excerpt from his adventures. His mind having been manipulated by wizards, he remains unsure who he is and which of his memories are real or false.
Tavelorn - a physician whose uncle was lauded as a hero during the war and exposed as a traitor afterward, which brought down the family’s reputation and ruined Tavelorn’s chances at marriage into a noble house; disgruntled by the Emerin, he seeks to learn more of his ancestors’ Morvalan heritage.
Fiona - a Lenaisian huntress with lofty aspirations of knighthood, she set out from her homeland to take part in the war but, being a typical what’s-the-rush elf, didn’t arrive in the Emerin until ten years after it was all over.
Their adventures will become the SwordLore trilogy, though I have the feeling that some events will bear very little resemblance to what actually happened in the game. It’s the inspiration that counts.
Next issue, in August, we'll be looking once more at villains. Always my favorite, which is perhaps why I so enjoy being the GM. But in a lighter-hearted spirit of things, I'll be attempting to revamp a project from a previous Avalon Mists, and bring you the Random Villain Generator.
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