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Uresia: Designer's Notes

Boredom Alert: This page is just design notes. Lots of people find design notes really really boring. Since I've always enjoyed design notes, I've done nothing to make these more interesting than any other design notes.

Uresia is one of the shortest books (in every sense) I've ever done - that's the nature of the beast with BESM - yet it's also one of the most storied, in terms of the long process of making the book happen. I'd bore you to tears if I shared every story here (lost deals, lost editors, confused communication and comedies of errors) so this article will stick mostly to conception and design. For the rest, ask me at a con sometime; I'll have plenty of anecdotes handy!

Part One: Early Concepts

David Pulver and I have a working relationship that goes back to our work on GURPS for Steve Jackson Games, and mutual participation in the fan press. When I dropped him a congratulatory email regarding his work bringing BESM into its excellent second edition, he asked if I wanted to write for the game. “Sure!” He asked if I wanted to write Tenchi in Tokyo. “Nope.” What, then?

David had penciled himself in as the fantasy-worldbook guy, but he gallantly stepped aside to give me that slot with himself as editor. BESM didn't have a fantasy book at that time, so David had a pretty clear but simple charter for me to work with: Whatever I came up with had to be rooted in epic traditional adventure-fantasy, warped through the anime lens ala Lodoss and Slayers.

The “epic” part was going to be the biggest challenge. Like David's own Centauri Knights, my fantasy book would be very small (less than half the material of the worldbooks I'd written for GURPS or the Star Trek RPG, which in turn are smaller canvases than most standalone RPGs), but it still needed a feeling of size and variety. Since (at the time) this was seen as a kind of “fantasy flagship” book showing off BESM in sword-and-sorcery mode, the world had to have variety in both style and tone . . . at the size of a very thick greeting card.

Putting sober professionalism aside, I did what any other GM would do, handed a fantasy book contract for a game he enjoys: I swiped liberally from my own homebrew campaign world I've been gaming with since I was sixteen (it's been anime-influenced for at least a decade, anyway).

Putting sober professionalism back in, I slapped that lump of clay around a bit to give it the kind of focus the book would need. From the beginning, I had four guiding principles:

  • I would need to develop much more material than I'd be able to present, suggesting and implying the broader detail. Really, this is a basic method with any worldbook, but at BESM's smaller scale, the need magnifies.
  • The whirlwind variety of the setting needed a glue to bind it together, a theme that would be reflected differently in every kingdom. That theme had to be strong enough to hold the world in place, but not so bullying that it led to some kind of suffocating “metaplot.” I settled on “Tradition versus Reality” as my keynote theme, the tension (often violent, historically speaking) between the honored past and the needy present, and one with lots of interesting hooks to both American and Japanese culture in my lifetime.
  • Rather than keep the camera at a fixed distance (providing a single, flat level of detail) I would write the book in differently scaled sections: a sky-eye view of the entire setting, a zoomed-in view of a dense urban area, and an intimate view of a single rural village. This would both demonstrate how to "dive in" and explode the scaling of the world, and provide a couple of fleshed-out arenas from my gaming table.
  • I would completely abandon the symmetrical approach of many other worldbooks. Rather than describing the same kinds of details for each kingdom, I would focus on the most telling details. Thus, Yem is described mainly through the tale of Orliss and the material on the Snowmen, the Elu Islands are a grab-bag of events and locations, Koval is a description of that land's struggle for acceptance and healing, etc. This allowed a short amount of material to suggest the important differences between the lands, both in tone and substance (asymmetrical writing has been a signature of my work for some time, but it really came into its own in Uresia).

With all of this in mind, I hashed together a proposal describing the apocalyptic Skyfall and the resulting world. Apocalyptic opening sequences have always felt nice and anime to me (obvious influences like the ripping continents in Lodoss, of course, but it was probably the opening bits of Project A-Ko that convinced me to make the world a big watery crater). I was determined that there would be no pushy Good and Evil gods shoving PCs around like pawns. Stuff like that gives me flashbacks to some of the worst games I suffered through in high school (where the GM told a story and the players got to roll dice at it), so phooey on that. Plus, I had just shown my wife the entire run of Babylon 5, so the idea of humanity standing up and taking responsibility for the state of their world (and kicking out the meddling ancient super-beings that had been using them as tokens in their godly games) appealed to me mightily, and it was, of course, an example of Tradition versus Reality. Since it hearkened back to Tolkien, too, it seemed to bring the whole package full-circle to a place I liked: a measure of anime, a measure of trad-fantasy, and five or six measures of me. Sky go boom.

David liked the proposal, made a few suggestions, laid a few ground rules, and I was ready to begin the real work.

Part Two: Development and Pruning

Friends and correspondents from all over sent me tons of videotapes and references to make sure I hit the right anime bases; I supplemented my old favorites with several new ones. Even a manager at the local game shop (who happened to be a player in my fantasy campaign) donated some tapes she had lying around at the store. I watched a lot of bouncing slimes and streaking spells and rampaging dragons.

I sketched maps, I made notes, I made lists of elements I wanted to include and drew a lot of squiggly lines between them to see how they best related to one another ... Just Game Design 101, really, but a fun part of the process. I kept David apprised of my progress, and things ticked along smoothly. I also began dialogue with Jeff Mackintosh early on, because I wanted the maps to be nice and (if possible) done early to give them lots of development time. Jeff (wisely) said he didn't do maps 'til the book was done, because maps change.

The maps did change, a little. I started out with twice as many kingdoms as the book eventually would feature. Most of the actual lands are still there, unlabeled, waiting to be defined as a new homeland by some enterprising player. I built the early drafts of the Temphis Runes then (because I've always liked hokey fantasy cypherbets), started working out broad strokes of pre-Skyfall cultures and history to make faint allusion to, and nailing down the map scale and climates.

During this stage, I made another decision, a cousin to the No Gods of Good or Evil principle. I decided that there was not, currently, any single Big Badass Dark Lord threatening the world, and that there were, for a brief and fragile point in Uresia's history, no wars on an international scale. Baronies and duchies were still feuding and sporting on the field of battle, of course, and a very big war had just ended, and dozens of powderkegs are sitting near open political flame . . . But, right now, there is relative peace. A calm before a storm of the GM's choosing. Maybe Koval will slip, maybe the secret demonic aristocracy of Winnow will make their move. Maybe somebody will finally break down and invade Dreed for the magic stones; maybe Laöch will get nasty and expand to save itself from economic ruin. Lots of wars-to-be, or not, as the story demands.

No, I don't have a phobia of metaplot . . . But I dislike one-note settings, and there's that whole Independence of Man motif I was (and am) grooving on. I think this setup gives the best of all options for the GM, since it's very easy to back the clock up a few years and set it during the wars with Koval if desired, but otherwise nice to imagine a world where, for a little while at least, the most compelling reason to grab a sword is to go explore an ancient ruin or root out an angry monster in the hills. Uresia is very much an adventurer's world, a place where a “hero” is somebody who drags a sack of loot into town and starts tipping higher than 15%.

Design philosophies, motifs and themes aside, Uresia was a very personal project. It's a book about all the stuff I enjoy most about fantasy gaming, with quite a few pokes at the things others enjoy more, and a number of unusual elements that amount to satires of every subject that means anything to me. When I'm writing, I'm imagining the place from ground (or sky!) level - seeing hillsides and rooftops and Miyazaki-esque villagers with big bushy mustaches. I believe in Uresia. Part of me has been there, to taste Sour Plum Jam and out-drink Trolls and go on panty-raids with caravels full of leering satyrs (a little hentai never hurt anyone).

So, it was a bit of a blow when the first draft was rejected. David enjoyed the world, but what he didn't love was that it had my usual “bare minimum of game stats” approach. I had been told that there were plans for a standalone bestiary in the works, along with a genre-rules sourcebook (what eventually became Dungeon, perhaps), so I had given just enough BESM rules to define things that BESM itself didn't already give rules for. Since BESM is a very complete rules set, my first draft had very few stats of any kind. David likes stats and (rightly) believes in providing service for other gamers who like stats, so he said to put in more. While I was at it, I reorganized the book a little, along lines David suggested, and took out that naughty line about the Adlet licking their own balls (you can find the line that replaced it, I'm sure).

Somewhere around then, David left GOO, and my main reason for working with the company was gone. But I was already in love with Uresia, so I stuck with the project, determined to see it done well. With David's kind permission, I called on my private playtest squads, the Cumberland Fire-Eaters, to give the game some really good playtest beyond what I could do locally. The Fire-Eaters ran games, described characters, turned over session descriptions, and asked lots of pertinent questions that really improved the book. On my end, I ran Uresia games using multiple game-systems to isolate the parts that sparkled most under BESM in particular. The forums at Pyramid magazine also tossed in some opinions based on read-through.

Part Three: The Long Night

Uresia was finished, but destined to drift in the twilight zone. Silver Age Sentinels was beginning to brew at GOO, a project that would eventually suck everyone in and absorb nearly all the company's attention for the next year. Uresia was awarded a release date that never happened, then another, then another. Like all other straight BESM books, it was just going to have to ripen on the shelf for a little while. Mark kindly let me release the Temphis Runes as a Cumberland Games font set, but apart from that Uresia was silent.

Silence makes me panic. I fretted. I worried. I eventually decided to pester Jeff for the privilege of doing the maps myself. I'm no Graphics Guy, but I have a decent eye, and I knew the way I wanted them to look, so I figured a writer working extra-hard to make his fantasy world look good could do maps at least as nice as an exhausted Graphics Guy working to get a book to the printer on a last-minute deadline.

In a universe where GOO wasn't swamped with SAS, they may have refused. But the Guardians of Order are nice guys (and they were busy guys), so they let me take a shot at it. Jeff gave me the file specs, a budget of six maps to play with (I wanted a couple of dozen, but I'm a cartomaniac), and a promise that he'd let me know if there was ever any kind of deadline. At that point, Uresia was deep in the dusty shelving behind SAS. I agreed to do the maps for a token pittance . . . to me, this was all about my new campaign world looking nice. And they liked the maps so much they asked me to do the page borders, and that was pretty much that.

Part Four: Assorted Snippets

Some random anecdotes and notes.

  • Sour Plum Jam: With apologies and waves to my relatives: the sour plum jam competition is all about the things you taught me at church bake-sales when I was a kid. Those demons have now been cast into Uresia where they can bedevil poor slime families.
  • Russian Bits: Folks aware of my medieval-Russia fascination (I wrote both GURPS Russia and Troubled Times, an upcoming Russian fantasy work for Chivalry & Sorcery) might notice a number of tips of the hat throughout the book. The Sindran version of the Wine God is a lot like the “Misery” of Russian folklore, and the whole gods-dead-and-dying motif is common in Russian lore, mostly as a reflection of pagan entities being weakened and eliminated by encroaching Christian traditions. Uresia gave me a chance to play with this motif freely for the first time.
  • Campaign Bits: The Drethan Pools, ton vials (er, “tonne vials”), Jovanos Imps, Fhario (the dragon pirate-king) and many other elements have stories that go a lot deeper than the development-time I spent on Uresia: they're references to many of the fantasy games I've run over the years. I can't recommend ton vials enough as “amusing, disposable items that players get really creative with.”
  • The Map Scales: BESM is entirely metric - no leagues or furlongs or sixteen-tablespoons-to-the-pint (or however many). I'm all for the metric system normally, but there's something anti-fantasy about it to me. I don't want to know that the Dark Icky Ruins of King Zurlax are 15 km away. Miles are fine; leagues are fine; kilometers less so. Maybe it's just me, I dunno. I brought this up to GOO and they were adamant: no miles and yards, please. This led to a “compromise” that I feel is really an improvement: the maps are scaled by universal units of travel time, saving the GM the trouble of flipping through the book and doing math. The caravel times (and rules in the book) were based on some documents I found discussing real-world ships of the same type. The overland times are based on various papers on hiking and equestrian travel. The urban travel times were based on (I'm not making this up) university studies of how quickly students travel by foot on campus (which isn't a bad stand-in for a fantasy city if you think about it), cross-referenced with standard walking-speed estimates used by city planners when designing traffic lights. Research can be goofy.

And that's all the rambling I can manage right now. If you've got questions about any aspect of the setting, though, feel free to post the question to the Uresia Mailing List, and I'll do my best to provide an answer. Note, however, that I'll answer from the perspective of Uresian scholars of the "present day." This means I can provide accurate information on Uresia as it is, but if you ask about ancient history or cosmology (specifics about pre-Skyfall truths, the nature of the gods and magic, and so forth), I will only offer the “current thinking in Sindra,” which is almost certainly at least half-wrong on any matters of real importance! Some things belong very firmly in the hands of your Game Master, and (odds are) that isn't me (and if it is me, don't try to wheedle campaign secrets out of me on a mailing list, you sneaky little player, you)!

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