I picked up the 236 pg PDF of Mystic Empyrean by D. Brad Talton Jr., which was also the result of a successful Kickstarter. The game really hits on all cylinders. Mystic Empyrean in a nutshell? Think the never-ending story meets Everway and Nobilis. The game is a GMFul shared collaborative-world building RPG set against a meta-background that drives the shared world-building as a major thrust of play. It is the most progressive ‘shared collaborative-world building’ RPG that I have come across so far- at least till I’m finished with mine.
So, first there is the meta-background, a in-game metaphysical element that puts the world-building at the center of play. The ‘fiction’ is set in the Empyrean, a once-great world of fantastic Realms, shattered by catastrophe, not merely the world it’s self, but it’s meta-physical heart-the Grand Cornerstone. In the wake of this destruction the mist of Aether spread into the world, unraveling and consuming whole realms, leaving an endless desert of blank, white infinity remaining in its wake. The world remains as a few remaining realms, islands in this endless mist. THis may sound familiar, much like ‘The Nothing’ in the Neverending Story.
The players act as ‘literal’ world-builders, recreating realms in their own image, existing in the setting as Eidolons, Immortal forces of nature, given form and will. Here is the influence of Nobilis, and a bit of Everway. They are creatures of pure Anima, the pure life energy of creations.
Their existence is seated in a ‘heart-stone’ of pure crystalized anima. Making Eidolon’s vastly powerful supernatural beings able to grow in power. They are tied to the Empyrean, and posses the power to rebuild Grand Cornerstone by returning it’s lost shards. Eidolons posses an innate desire to restore the world. (Again, the thrust of the shared collaborative world-building is embedded in the game ‘fiction’. What do the character’s do? They restore the Realms.)
A twist of the game is that beings of pure soul, the Eidolon’s take on the emotions and desires they display, often occurring in a supernaturally powerful way. This embodiment of essential principles becomes manifest in the realms they unlock, by returning the shard to grand cornerstone. (Tied to the idea of the ‘Balance’, a set of ‘elemental’ correspondence governing reality) This embodiment and manifestation of The balance, the discrete elements of animas as they exist in the world, as action by the character’s is the major mechanic of character advancement in the game. Interestingly, not only do character’s possess the correspondences, but they exist as meta-physical reality within the realms, called World Balance’, making actions that correspond that element of the Balance, easier, or harder. Akin to Torg’s axioms, or Multi-verser’s Bias’
The game makes great use of this in how Anima can be manifested and enshrined as elements of the world, particularly as cornerstones. Extant physical crystals of anima, shards of the grand cornerstone which were spread across the world when the cornerstone shattered. These shards can contain 3 things, Realms, in this case the cornerstone holds the energy and imprint of an entire land, which can be returned to the world by an Eidolon unlocking it. The shards captured the realms to protect them from the force of Aether. The second is Paradigms, secrets and wonders, Powers, such as alchemy, as well as ‘technological’ ideas, or ways of doing things or existing. (Again, shades of Torg’s Axioms/Multi-verser Bias’. Making Kewl Power systems is part of the game. They can also add mechanical systems, much like Univeralis’ Gimmicks. Finally there are Conceits, are singular entities and secrets sealed within cornerstones, these could be individual powers, the ability to summon Titans, unique powers, Relics, Artifacts, miracles, that accrue the Eidolon Unlocking them. (This reminds me of some of the ‘Eternal artifacts’ present in Eternal champion series, the Grail, Storm-bringer, the spear of Longinus, the Horn of the End of time, etc.)
MY GOD ITS FULL OF STARS
So, the way the world-building is supported in the game is pretty awesome. Realms, are not only lands, but entire ‘realities’ unto themselves. So they can have their own technology levels, etc, the idea of Axioms/Biases in part. Realms posses a distinct climate, culture, natural life, and features, they also posses indigenous peoples, called the Nascent, a reflection of the realm, as well as the Balance of Anima, which effects the look of the creatures, wildlife, weather, and terrain. A world with a high fire balance, might be hotter, or subject to fire and destruction, the people prone to rages, etc. Each realm is meant to be a world, filled with wonders, places of power and mysteries. (This is akin to my idea of Epic/Panoramic/Mythic elements as a major element of world design. If your gonna design worlds, make them cool!)
There are all kinds of additional cool bits represented in the realms. Each element of the balance is extant as a ‘Great spirit’ as well, somewhere between elemental and god. The great spirits are engaged in a ‘War of the balance, Eternal champion FTW, though it can be more akin to Heat Miser versus Snow Miser, each attempting to increase his influence in the world and its realms. The Great Spirits can choose Eidolons to be it’s champions, much like being a champion of chaos or law, great power with serious fine print. They are imbued with great power for serving the Great Spirit, and can summon Titans, massive creatures able to lay waste to whole realms. (I get twinges of Final Fantasy and Shadow of the Colossus and Kaiju bits from this- though the game does have a kind of JRPG look and feel, def FF influence, also Steampunk, from the sample Realm.)
Aether exists at the edges of realms, as well as wastes between them, it also peopled by Aetherlinegs, alien creatures native to ‘half-real ghost lands’. (Eidolons must venture into the Aether to uncover lost cornerstone shards, of course.)
These a mythic places of the world, that survived the shattering of the grand cornerstone.. They include the Grand Cornerstone Shrines, headquarters of various factions, Moving Castles, lost cities, Arthur’s crypt, what have you.
These are whole realms given life and shape when the aether overtook the realm, corrupting it’s melding with its cornerstone. They can be great Krakota islands, living beasts with Nascent peoples living on it like ants. They can only be destroyed by removing the cornerstone at its heart.
WORLD BUILDING & THE FOCUS OF PLAY
So, as you can see, the game is set against a fantastic meta-background with room for all kinds of creativity by the players in creating their own cool bits of the world. As I stated earlier, World building is a major element of the game. This borne out in its explanation of play. The game is GMFul, with shared, rotating GM duties, one element that is cool is that there is ‘no prep’, rather prep is a major element of play shared by all the players.
One neat element as a play material used by the game, is the “world book’, n binder in which you keep the realm sheets, and other design elements that emerge in play, an atlas of the world you create. I plan to use a similar idea in Oneirokos: Chronicles of the Eternal Cycle. It’s not the GM’s notebook, it’s the groups, or something.
Another neat element is the use of the GM Token, a badge, button, conch shell or the world balance deck that you create, this token is passed around to the current GM, indicating his position. (This is similar to the Role Cards Idea I have, inspired by Universalis.)
Central to this shared collaborative world-building is the discussion of Ownership. from the text, pg 19 of the PDF
The World of Empyrean is like a play set that all of the players share. Each player at the table has his own individual toys, but all play together in the same environment. The player’s may borrow one another’s creations to further their own stories, but when the owner demands that their creations be used in a certain way or left alone by other, those wishes should be respected.
This idea of ownership extends to realms, story arcs, and character’s. The owner is the player responsible for maintaining, defining and roleplaying (where necessary) that particular story element. The buck stops with them. The idea of ownership and shared roles is how one player can act as the ‘Storyteller’ without stepping on another’s toes. (NPH wouldn’t do that!)
One of the best rules statements made, and the most heretical to traditional/Old School play is summed up in this paragraph, also from page 19.
“Being a GM is about resolving the attempted actions of players, not defining the world or the people around them. Never be afraid to defer to the owner of an element for more information. It will make the game experience much smoother if you do.”
This idea of shared authority for creating the fiction is well-stated here. IT is also the radical end of the traditional GM/Player divide, one of the last great frontiers of RPG design. The game lacks of the formalism of Universalis however, defaulting to Role as major authority, thought it does provide an ‘Ownership hierarchy’ as to who can make the final ruling when arguments come up.
I also like the idea of mentioning elements of the ‘fiction’ as toys in a play set. Alt of the fun of shared collaborative play is the toybox element. You want to design a cool faction, or monster, or character, or vehicle, or weapon. Cool, lets add it to the story.
The last major thing I wanted to touch on is the system of Realm Creation used in the game. It is one of the more fleshed out design sequences I’ve seen. It relies on the games ‘Balance’ resolution system. Basically it’s a 9 suite/deck randomizer. It’s use is central to the game, so it bears a bit of discussion.
In short, balance is a set of 9 objects with correspondences, relating to the seven elements of the Mystic Empyrean (Fire, Water, Stone, Air, Light, Darkness, Electricity) plus a universal success element (Pure Anima), and universal failure element (Aether). YOu will need 7 objects for the elements and 3 for Anima and 3 of Aether. (that’s 13 for those counting).
The Author recommends a bag with tokens, though a card deck included in the rules can be printed out as well. Remember how I said it has a bit of Everway in it? So each element has various correspondences and is associated with particular types of actions. It is also associated with one of the great spirits.
Some discussion is given of the WorldBook, how it is used as a central artifact of play, and can be used as solo play as well, by creating worlds to add to the game. (Other than the building of the ‘Seed World’, most realm creation is assumed to be done as solo play to be shared with the other players.) There is also a recommendation that one player take on the Librarian role, keeping track of the individual realm sheets, and other pages, including who or what has been lent out.
Then discussion is made of World-book pages. (The game includes several sheets for use in creating the game world elements, and is included in back of book.) The text recommends dividing your world-book into realms, with each section being a different realm and the background, maps, wonders, dungeons and treasures that exist, a catch-all section can be added to hold characters and other world-spanning elements. (I can see myself wanting to keep a scanned copy, and keeping it on shared cloud storage, go Tech!)
Now, allow to me discuss how ‘revolutionary’ this is. Seriously, these kind of ideas are fit to give a Sandbox-or-it’s-BadWrongFun OSR grognard a coronary. This is in large part, the antithesis of Sandbox play, I’ll call it Toybox play. Everyone shares in the creation, curatorship, and control of the various elements of the game world. Everyone has access to the cool toys, and can create and add more with the assent of the other players.
This is why I mentioned the lack of formalism in the game, One of Universalis’ strengths of it’s story-currency’ and play structures helps handle disagreements. This game is still a bit wishy-washy in regards to player buy in, as it’s assumed some people won’t want to take as active of part. While everyone taking their turn is a central tenet of Universalis. Microscope takes it one farther by it’s No hand-holding/strong-arming rule for player participation. This is a very new area for this play style, and remains to be seen which is best practice. Though I think adopting a strict, or free play style when setting up will bear discussion. The focus of game does not cater to casual players.
The rules provide a starter premise to get everyone into the game and give them time to learn how to play. There are several sheets provided, Character sheets, NPC sheets, Quest/planning sheets, Realm Sheets, Realm History Sheets, and a World Map sheet (hexes). There is lots of designing and creating given the world-building of the game. The stuff that the GM usually has hidden behind a screen. In Shared collaborative world creation RPG’s, everyone is behind the curtain, at one time or another.
So the players choose a basic setup that has them seeking a cornerstone, and that accommodates the character concepts and maps out a basic story arc. I am not going to discuss the character creation here, but it is fairly non-traditional due the nature of Eidolons and the use of the Balance. A very Nobilis, Everway, Sandman, surreal dreamlike feel to it.
There is a chapter on running adventures, pitched to handle the shared authorial power of the game. It reminds me a bit of Rune in it. The game is conducted as series of scenes, or Encounters, for game purposes, typically of 3 types, puzzle, social, and combat. In which the players give each character spot-light time, and provide the opportunity for him ‘advance’ by developing his powers with his action in the game world. (Advancement is pretty unusual in this game.).
So the player who established the encounter sets the scene, via context, then the players take turns asking Establishing questions. Each player asks a question about the current situation to the player on his left, moving left. The questions can be yes/no or simple facts. (This reminds me a bit of Mythic’s GM Emulator, an interesting interactive way to collaboratively setup a scene, that involves all the players.) Establishing questions continue until all players pass on asking questions.
Next is the resolution Phase, The encounter begins with one player taking role of GM, typically one who created encounter, and the player to his left becomes the Active Player. Active player narrates his actions for the turn, deciding what he wants to accomplish, (with the possible assistance of his allies.). He then makes attempt and current GM resolves and establishes what happens in the fiction.
The GM-ship then passes to the right, and the active player to the Left. When the current GM has determined that the counter has been sufficiently resolved, he moves to close phase. The player who designed the encounter then narrates a short epilogue. This player also determines the difficulty and any ‘emergence’ awarded, as part of the games unusual advancement mechanic. (Which I’m not going into, LONG POST IS LONG).
I like the formalization of how the game-play passes between the players. It feels more like a traditional board-game in some ways. The storytelling chapter has additional clarifications and advice, as well as additional story ideas on running the game. I like the ‘personal story’ concept, in which another player helps a player play out a particular ‘character arc’ for that character. The idea of collaborative story-telling and facilitating other’s play is a big theme.
OK, finally now to the realm creation system. Realm Creation is a six step process.
- Name and Concept
- Choosing Realm Traits
- Encounter Tables
- Realm Balance
1.) Name and Concept
This is the name of the Realm, and thumbnail concept for it, a metropolis filled with machines, harsh land of perpetual winter, etc.
2.) Realm Traits
Each realm is defined by seven different traits . Terrain, Technology, Culture, Society, Creed, Government, and Wildlife. Each of these is also associated with one of the 7 Balance elements, which can be used for Random generation. These traits provide broad swaths of definition and focus on creating a number of more fantastic and interesting worlds to explore. It fits the more fantastic nature of the game. However, it touches on several factors, a mix of traveller world gen, aria society generation, and Torg/Multiverser’s Axioms/Bias.
Terrain types include, Desert (Fire), Plains (Light), Mountain (Electricity), Forest (Water), Swamp (Darkness), Caverns (Stone). The terrain type is used to inform the nature of the cultures, as well as animals and resources available in the area.
Technology types include Steam (Fire), Thaumics (light), Neotech (Electricity), Biotechnology (Water), Primitive (Stone), Pandoran Tech (Darkness), Electronics (Air). This represents the major way in which nascent within a Realm understand and manipulate their world.
Government types include Plutocracy (Fire), Kingdom (Stone), Theocracy (Light), Tyranny (Darkness), Technocracy (Electricity), Meritocracy (Water), Aristocracy (Air). This defines how people are organized and how ruling power is arranged.
Wildlife Traits include Dire (Fire), Natural (Light), Aberrant (Electricity), Exotic (Water), Epic (Stone), Unnatural (Darkness), Organized (Air). These traits represent the type of creatures present in a realm, and more specifically, the types of creatures that can evolve in the presence of Anima artifacts, i.e. cool stuff!
Culture traits include Militant (Fire), Honorable (Light), Progressive (Electricity), Artisan (Water), Industrious (Stone), Ascetic (Darkness), Commercial (Air). These traits define the kind of civilizations that exists within an area, and their values.
Society traits include Outposts (Fire), Wondrous (Light), Exploitative (Electricity), Nomadic (Water), Centralized (Stone), Underworld (Darkness), and Mercantile (Air). This trait defines the organizational state and infrastructure of a realm, giving an indication of what life is like.
Creed Traits include God Kings (Fire), Theological (Light), Rational (Electricity), Shamanic (Water), Ritualistic (Stone), Cults (Darkness), and Spiritual (Air). Creed traits determine the spiritual and mystical tradition of a realm, and represent it’s relation with extant divinity and the supernatural and cosmic.
These are major landmarks and ‘iconic’ locations of the realm, it includes Heritage Sites from the old world. Example faction headquarters, and Great Spirit temples/holy places are included. Finally, it is recommended that every realm have at least on ‘Place of Wonder’, either seven wonder’s of the old world style, or mythic and supernatural places. Again, more cool stuff.
Since the game posits, shared GMing and player created worlds, creation of ‘encounter tables’, which contain world elements appropriate to the setting to help in creation of scenes within that realm. For each realm, you create a table with 5 categories of items, with an entry for each of the seven elements. These include, Places, Groups or People, Creatures or Monsters, Items or Trade Goods, and Culture or Events. This is a solid idea, player’s creating ‘tabletop essentials’ for the other players.
This is a clever take on handling the ‘meta-physical’ nature of a realm. As stated, each realm has it’s own balance, representing it’s metaphysical reality. This balance can also be used to determine the attitudes of a realm’s citizen’s and culture, one for each element. This reminds me of some of the cultural determinants used in Aria, and is pretty clever way to flesh out a realm’s people. With an in-game effect as well.
The traits are:
- Pacifism vs Militarism (Fire)
- Superstition vs Education (Light)
- Stagnation vs Innovation (Electricity)
- Exploitation vs Conservation (Water)
- Mobility vs Tradition (Stone)
- Honor vs Corruption (Darkness)
- Introversion vs Multiculturalism (Air)
Realm Creation Summary
So I like the world design sequence put together for Mystic Empyrean. It provides a basis for rich world design, with an emphasis on both Aria style culture/society creation, as well as cool shiz, gosh-wow stuff, with a touch of Diaspora style aspects as well. It doesn’t have any Trav style crunch, but a good system for designing lots of different engaging worlds.
Also, its focus on providing usable detail and game bits for the other players playing in that realm is very smart.
Overall, Mystic Empyrean is brilliant game. It’s take on shared collaborative world-building in RPG’s is solid. It does a LOT of non-traditional things, not just the shared authorial power and rotating GMful play, but also it’s resolution mechanics and character advancement mechanics. It takes a bit of the never ending story, a bit of Nobilis, a bit of Everway, a bit of Universalis, and throws them together into an original, fantastic, imaginative background, with well-developed play procedures, in great looking PDF with wonderful art. Even if you never play it, it’s chock full of great ideas, and its realm generation system is worthwhile on it’s own.