Wednesday, 10 February 2016

A Shadow on the Table - Cultural Considerations for the Iron Kingdoms RPG

Let me just start this by saying that the Iron Kingdoms RPG is brilliant - I've been planning to do a video on it for a while, I just need enough background images and some appropriate background music.  It's an amazing setting and I love that the basis of it is the fusion of magic and technology (as opposed to them being distinct or even at-odds with each other, like in Arcanum), but because of the nature of the different cultures in the setting as well as the very recent history of it, a player-character's homeland can cause some serious friction among players that can lead to disaster before the campaign's even gotten underway (not exaggerating there; that exact thing is what killed a forum-based game of it I was in a while back).

See; while in most RPG settings you can handwave away most national, cultural or racial disputes unless you’re intentionally playing either a bigoted character or one who’s had bad experiences with certain peoples, that’s not really an option in the Iron Kingdoms since there are relatively few nations and they've all been fighting each other for, at least, the last couple of decades.

For instance; if you play someone from Cygnar who are sort-of the poster boys of Warmachine (one of the wargames of the setting), you’re going to be wary around both Khadorans and Menites (whether the latter are from the Protectorate of Menoth or not).  Cygnar and Khador have been enemies and rivals, fighting over the Thornwood for centuries or longer.  Most recently; just five years before the setting’s present day, Khador invaded Cygnar’s ally, Llael, and committed to a very massive and costly war that Llael (and Cygnar, which had intervened on the Llaelese side of the conflict) ultimately lost.  As for the Protectorate; Cygnar got into a big war with them just a year or so after the Llaelese War that caused some serious damage and devastation to a sizeable portion of Cygnar’s capital city, Caspia (and doing the same to the Protectorate's capital of Sul).  So any ex-military character or a character from Caspia has lived through at least one of those wars (unless they happened to be out of town when it broke out and kept their distance until the dust settled).

True; you could get away with saying your character never actually got posted to the front lines in either one, but look at real-life history.  How long after World War 2 were people in the Allied nations still wary of Germans?  How long after the Cold War were Americans still wary about Russians?  You didn’t have to actually fight in those wars to be uneasy around people from the other side, it’s the same with the nations in the Iron Kingdoms.  Honestly; the only human nation where you could get away with being un-biased about any nation would be if your character is from Ord.  They’re a neutral nation, kinda like Switzerland.  The closest they’ve had to a war was when a Khadoran village near the border with Ord wanted to defect and ended up getting horrifically slaughtered by a certain Khadoran warcaster.  So that was just an all-Khadoran matter that just happened to occur near the border.

Species-wise you’ve got some of the same but in a more limited respect.  There’s tensions between the trollkin kriels and the Cygnaran government after King Leto went back on promises he made to respecting the territory of the kriels.  There’s some distrust of the Nyss among certain groups because most Nyss are blighted, corrupted and controlled by the dragon Everblight.  Not all of them, but enough that that impression filters down among those who have heard of the Legion of Everblight.

Probably the easiest way to play an Iron Kingdoms character when you know nothing about the setting is probably to play an Iosan.  The elves of Ios are a very insular people.  Even the ones who aren’t part of the Retribution of Scyrah don’t like to talk to non-Iosans about their culture and beliefs.  You can get away with knowing bugger-all about Iosan culture because your character would never talk about it to anyone unless they’re talking to another Iosan, who they don’t need to talk to about it because it’s a shared culture - you don’t go talking to someone living in your city to talk about your city’s culture because there’s not really any need.  And an Iosan character can get away with ignorance of the human nations because they probably only know about the nations in the most peripheral sense.  And if you don’t like the idea of playing an elf; don’t worry - Iosans are probably the most un-elfy elves I have ever seen.  An Iosan Knight/Man-at-Arms is probably one of the tankiest characters you can make without resorting to making a trollkin or ogrun - neither of whom have access to the Knight career so probably won’t have the starting assets to begin with full-plate armour.  You can make Gimli as an Iosan; a big guy with a huge sword and a rocking beard and that wouldn’t look out-of-place.  Well a beard that long might look out of place, but - look at this guy.

That’s probably the biggest beard an Iosan can get away with.  I could be wrong on that; for all I know, there’s some hard-drinking Iosan with a huge axe somewhere in Immoren who has a beard so big you could lose wildlife in it.  But Thalen Malvyss here is probably a good upper limit to work with regarding elven beards.

About the only typically-elven stereotypes that Iosans share are an air of mystery among non-elves (just because they’re tight-lipped about themselves), that they try and preserve nature but not in the environmental conservationist angle, more that they don’t see the point of mucking with nature when they can get the same result with a little extra work and that the overall design aesthetic they have for their buildings, weapons, armour and so on all have this smooth, natural flow to them but it has less of an actual ‘fantasy elf’ feel and more alien.  So you can get away with just about any sort of character and not have to feel like you’re playing a full-on elf if that’s not your sort of thing.

The GM, though, needs to consider this stuff and how where the campaign is set can interact with the characters everyone’s intending to play.  For instance; if you’re setting a campaign in Llael where the players are helping the Llaelese Resistance, it’s probably a good idea to ban the overtly-Khadoran careers like the Iron Fang, Man-o-War and the Doom Reaver.  That last one in particular because Doom Reavers are practically an icon of the horrors Khador inflicted in their invasion - violent criminals chained to ancient magical swords that turn them into raging berserkers.  And Khador unleashed hordes of these guys into various cities in Llael, like Riversmet.  Doesn’t matter how in-control a Doom Reaver is; one of those guys walks into a Resistance base he’s going to have every single gun in the whole damn place levelled right at his head while they get every warjack on the base up and running.  They are not going to screw around.  If you’re the GM, have a hand in character creation; make sure the characters they’re making will fit with the campaign.  Whether it’s as simple as keeping someone from making a cavalry character for an urban campaign or as big as trying to prevent cultural issues from coming up as potential PvP, it’s still a part of being a GM.

I can attest to this; as I mentioned back at the start of this post, I was in an Iron Kingdoms campaign on a forum called Myth Weavers and the first meeting of our characters in our new offices consisted almost entirely of the party Doom Reaver staring down the barrels from our two Gun Mages - the Llaelese Gun Mage/Spy and her Gun Mage/Bounty Hunter partner from Ord (who was mainly doing it because she was nearly freaking out).  Now; the Doom Reaver’s player and the GM had apparently discussed a lot about the character privately and the Doom Reaver’s character sheet was also private so I had no idea what, if any, safeguards the GM had worked out for this character and, from how the campaign’s started, I was genuinely worried that the character wouldn’t fit in at all.  We were supposed to be a team of freelance troubleshooters working in Corvis - think a cross between Burn Notice and Leverage.  We’d be doing subtle work and nothing about the Doom Reaver career is subtle.  Needless to say; the campaign imploded.  Not only did the Llaelese Gun Mage shoot the Doom Reaver, but she did so right after our first client and two of our sponsors arrived.  Despite the campaign’s total failure, it served as a good example of why these cultural differences should be considered and how they could easily derail a campaign when not properly taken into account.

For this next section, I'll try and elaborate on the more problematic cultural relations.  Not to say you should avoid these, just to take great care with them and realise that they can very easily cause the campaign to implode unless the players are on the same page and are aware of this.

Khador, Llael & the Protectorate
I covered this one a bit earlier but, well, let's just say that most Llaelese have a rather dim view of Khadorans.  There are of course those who just don't care and even one group who have grown to like being part of Khador (a region known as Umbrey who have taken quite well to their new leader).  Needless to say, there is a resistance to the Khador occupation but they're having to fight a semi-guerrilla war on two fronts - the Khadorans and the Protectorate of Menoth's Northern Crusade, which has resulted in the nation being split into three regions; the part Khador controls, the part the Northern Crusade has taken, and the part that's free of both and led by the Resistance (... and having to deal with both Khador, the Protectorate and are catching the brunt of Cryx's activities in the region... so they're having a fun time).

The Llael-Protectorate relations aren't exactly great, but at least the Protectorate didn't level whole cities with artillery or flood the ones full of civilians with hordes of berserk, rampaging madmen.  Needless to say, there are plenty of people traumatised by the horrors Khador inflicted on the Llaelese.

Iron Kingdoms & Ios
This is probably the one Warmachine veterans are most likely to fall into, particularly if they’ve made a character based on a tabletop unit (such as a Stormblade or a member of the Steelheads).  Despite the Retribution of Scyrah being a full-blown Iosan faction in the wargame, in the actual setting fluff they haven’t had a whole lot of full-scale warfare with any of the human nations apart from Khador.  Oh; I don’t doubt that they’ve had skirmishes with the other nations and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cygnaran Reconnaissance Service has a few files on them.  The fact that Gavyn Kyle, the greatest spymaster in all of Western Immoren, has no idea who the Retribution are beyond “a political faction of Ios” should give you a good idea of just how much your average footslogging soldier would know - somewhere in the region of “bugger” and “all”.

I’m mentioning this one because I recall something from not long after the game’s release where the party ran into a team of Retribution mage hunters and the party’s Stormblade blurted out exactly who they were and what they sought.  Now if Gavyn Kyle - a man so well connected and so good at gathering information he could probably find out the colour of Empress Vanar’s underthings in his sleep - doesn’t know what the smeg the Retribution are after, how the hell would a rank-and-file Stormblade know?  He and the GM were the only ones familiar with that bit of the setting and the Stormblade’s player metagamed and killed all mystery that the encounter (and its subsequent connections to the rest of the campaign) would have added.  I’m sure it was a genuine accident by the Stormblade’s player, assuming that such information was well-known among the Cygnaran army simply due to the Retribution being a full-blown tabletop faction, but it was still metagaming - using knowledge he had but that his character would have no way of knowing.

Iron Kingdoms & Convergence of Cyriss
This is a bit of a finnicky one.  While the Convergence has kept its true capabilities hidden very well for centuries and only very recently engaging in military actions (possibly even several months after the ‘default’ starting date assumed by the RPG’s core book), Cyriss herself and cults dedicated to worshipping her through scientific advancement have been a part of normal society for even longer.  It’s not uncommon to hear even a devout Morrowan mutter a quick prayer to Cyriss while trying to start up a cantankerous ‘jack or some other piece of machinery that they aren’t sure is going to work.  It’s not seen as blasphemy either, no more than a devout Christian invoking the name of a saint - probably a poor analogy, but you get my point; nobody would bat an eye at a Morrowan priest invoking Cyriss’ name.
These opinions could change now that the Convergence is active, but it’s too early to get a real sense.  We’ll probably have to wait a couple more expansions to the wargame to find out.  Either that or someone jumps onto the Privateer Press forums and sends up the Seacat Signal on the matter (Doug Seacat's the head writer and he's reasonably active on the forums).

So those are the more problematic ones I can think of off the top of my head, if I think of any more I'll edit them into here.

Again, this isn't saying you shouldn't use them, only that you keep the risks in mind and make sure the conflicts serve to better the plot, not destroy it.

No comments:

Post a Comment