Oct 202013

So, as part of Harry Connolly’s just-concluded Great Way kickstarter, I offered up a stretch goal[1] on behalf of Rob Donoghue and myself for us to expand the Voidcallers setting/magic system found in the Fate System Toolkit to a fuller[2] RPG suitable for use with the Twenty Palaces[3] universe.

Let’s be clear about it: Voidcallers is the beating heart of a Twenty Palaces Fate Core RPG, when it comes down to it. Rob designed it as such. The serial numbers are not filed off so much as shoved hastily under the bed please don’t notice them. Harry Connolly has previously endorsed us putting Voidcallers out there as a way to support a Twenty Palaces RPG, and was happy we offered this stretch goal, so we’re super in the clear and don’t need to pretend about that the one isn’t the other! With that in mind I’m going to spend at least as much time talking about Twenty Palaces directly as I am about the Voidcallers “over-skin”.

So for today’s post let’s start with some background: we (Evil Hat) originally wanted to do a Twenty Palaces RPG, but Harry talked us out of it.[4] During our early examination of the idea we spent some time looking at the dividing-line in the setting among the folks in the know: those with sanctioned access to magic (the Peers of the Twenty Palaces Society) vs. those affiliated folks still kept in the dark (the Wooden Men used by the Peers, along with the other noncombat Investigators).

This dividing line presents the primary challenge of supporting the setting, at least as far as the construction of playgroups goes. For me, at least, there are a few distinct, separate types of games playable in the setting:

The Wooden Men: PCs are largely Wooden Men working for various of the Peers. Investigators optional, but playable. There’s a sort of constant tension at play here; Wooden Men are seen as expendable. They’re thrown into all sorts of very lethal situations by the Peers, and it’s often the death of them. But the missions themselves are worthy things: they must be completed[5] to keep the Predators involved from literally killing the world.

A Wooden Men game should feature high lethality, potentilaly expendable/quickly-replaced PCs, and a constant navigation between Scylla and Charybdis. Wooden Men would have access to some magic, but only in the form of those spells their Peers have bothered to carve into them (typically as tattoos). Surviving as a Wooden Man ain’t easy, and it’s that challenge that would particularly excite me about this kind of game. Not to mention playing a somewhat moral Wooden Man like Ray Lily would also mean trying to meet mission objectives without triggering horrifying amounts of collateral damage.

The Peers: We don’t know much about the Peers from the novels, but we do know there’s a heck of a hierarchy going on in the Society, and it’s a hard one to climb. All the PCs would know some combination of spells, closely guarded and precious even from each other, getting them in in the lower ranks of the Society. Wooden Men would be deployed as tools, NPCs created primarily as complicated obstacles while the Peers try from the shadows to outmaneuver the opposition and take down the Predators and those who called them here. Within the Society, politicking. Outside the Society, investigations-by-proxy punctuated by high-stakes, deadly, high-collateral-damage arcane throwdowns.

The Mixed Group: This is where the dividing line becomes a cutting edge. The Peers are analagous to walking, talking, thinking artillery. The Wooden Men and their allies are at best infantry. Most Peers see their Wooden Men as expendable and are just as happy to blow them up along with the threat as not. The novels offer us one mostly functional pair of Peer and Wooden Man and make it pretty clear that it’s an exception. But the series ends with an implication that this could start to change, if only the Society would start paying attention to why Ray Lily continues to be the exception, the Wooden Man who actually solves problems on his own instead of simply operating as a stalking horse.

Regardless, even if we stipulate cooperation, the trick will be in finding a way to address steep differences in character power level. There are a few ways to do this[6], and Rob and I will have to think long and hard about it if we’re going to lay a good foundation for the overall game.

So that’s where I’m starting from. Rob, you wanna do a post talking about your own starting-point?

  1. I’ve developed a bit of a feel for stretch goals, particularly in the end hours of a Kickstarter, and with the Great Way sitting at 1000 backers and $40-something-thousand, I set the goal at 1200 backers, hoping that it’d propel the project to $50,000 in the process. The project concluded last night with 1206 backers at $50,056. I am slightly smug about that. 🙂  ↩
  2. It’ll be a while because this is going to be a side project for Rob and I to do for funsies, but: likely free, wholly digital, minimal art beyond us reusing what we’ve already had done for the Fate System Toolkit.  ↩
  3. I’d seriously encourage you to start your exploration of the setting with either Harry’s self-published Twenty Palaces prequel novel (titled, indeed, Twenty Palaces), or with the first book that was published in the series, Child of Fire. But if you don’t mind some spoilers, the Wikipedia article on the series gives a nice quick overview of a lot of the elements.  ↩
  4. Harry shared his sales numbers and made a fairly good business case that the overlap of gamers with his novels added up to a potential market so small we wouldn’t be likely to recoup our investment. So we decided to squeeze our love for his series into the Fate System Toolkit.  ↩
  5. …usually by the Peer doing mop-up after the Wooden Men have drawn the problems out into the open!  ↩
  6. One way to address this, I think, is to let that power differential stand as a bit of intentional unbalance in the system. In this perspective we’d probably end up with something like Ars Magica’s division between spellcasters and grogs. It’d be rare for more than one Peer to appear in a given scene, so maybe at those times the players would all play their “alt” characters, Wooden Men and investigators and such working with the Peer. That’s not the only way to go, of course: another approach would be to examine how, say, the Dresden Files RPG handles the mixture of Wizards and Mortals in the same group.  ↩

  8 Responses to “20 Palaces Initial Thoughts”

  1. The “Mixed group” is the one I prefer, with a single Peer at a time. After all, why have a 20P game without the Peers? But the Peers are pretty opaque as a group and we don’t know enough about their motivations (it could be that Annalise is used as an anti-Predator WMD because she’s too unstable for anything else; other magicians we see seem more restrained), so a Peer-based game would be difficult.

  2. I’m not sure the DFRPG method would work. One of the conceits that makes that balance work is that power brings strings with it. Mortals have the advantage of being more free to choose their destiny, a freedom easily represented with more Fate Dice. In 20P, on the other hand, those with power are also the ones calling the shots. Wooden Men shouldn’t have additional freedom, because that’s rather antithetical to their purpose.

    One option that springs to mind is the recent Doctor Who RPG. There is one Peer in the group, but that Peer is an NPC. The PCs actually all play Wooden Men (or, I suppose, vanilla mortals who are clued in but not empowered in any way). The Peer must stay in the shadows until absolutely necessary. But, at the climax, the group gets to deploy the Peer as the BFG, each player getting to dictate actions in some way.

    Another option is to hobble the Peer with considerations on the larger stage. Peers come with an extra stress track called something like Blowback. Every action by the team (since the team answers to the Peer) may cause stress and, eventually, consequences. Tweaking the dials on what kinds of actions create Blowback changes the dynamics of how the Peer directs the team. (Only failed rolls? Then the Peer will be excessively cautious. Only actions with mortal witnesses? The Peer would get paranoid about being noticed, and the less moral would direct the Wooden Men to leave no survivors in their wake. Actions that pursue B plots or otherwise go off task? The Peer would try to stay hyper-focused on the mission.) These consequences would largely play out between sessions, as they would impact how the Peer moves up the ranks of the Society. Note that if you go this route, you also need a way for the Peer to earn positive consequences (presumably simply completing the mission would be a huge one, but others might serve as carrots to risk the more negative consequences).

    • Well, I’d also pay attention to the fact that the Wooden Men were created for a reason: Peers don’t like to stick their necks out until they have some idea of what they’re getting into, or if there’s flat out no other choice. We saw a Peer show up in one of the novels, not take any help, and end up dead. That’s a real risk. I’m going to be putting some thought into supporting that dynamic through the system.

  3. Seeking the right balance between Peers and wooden men should be a challenge. But, especially in a setting like the 20 Palaces, knowledge is power and going in blindly, trusting to your own power alone is going to get you killed.

  4. […] I discussed earlier, the Twenty Palaces/Voidcallers setting is likely to feature a pretty lethal magic environment. […]

  5. Another possible way to approach the problem could be a variation of the full Ars Magica troupe play, where every player has one Peer character and at least one Wooden Man, playing them under different conditions, or possibly using a different subset of rules.

    I like Samldanach’s suggestions too. 🙂

    • Yup. I think Troupe style is the way to do it, with the actual dynamics of who does Peer and who does the other stuff being fluid group to group.

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