Designer's Notes: Ethereal Player's Guide

or, "Herding Cats"

by Elizabeth McCoy
with additional (better) vignettes by R. Sean Borgstrom

Asked to come up with Designer's Notes, I asked the authors if they had anything to add. This missive was returned to me . . .

It is generally considered a sound practice, when a woman is to be institutionalized (on such grounds as these, wherein she exhibits a persistent and obdurate belief in such figments and fantasies as dragons, unicorns, elves, and the twin illusions of civil liberties and human rights (which, as all civilized folk know, exist only as palliative concepts to calm the fervent rumblings of the masses, unworthy of an enlightened individual -- save, of course, when said individual has been subject to irregularities in upbringing, and has not yet shaken off the caul of ignorance imposed by the travails and traumas that follow inevitably when one is raised by wolves, apes, otters, or the common folk)) --

As I was saying, it is considered sound practice that such a woman be permitted the opportunity to draft a prospectus illustrating on the one hand the scope of the visions that permeate and pervade the world behind her eyelids and on the other hand her ability to communicate her own perspective to the outside world; that is to say, a demonstration of her ability to maintain the lines of communication, despite the feverish insanity that rages within her, with people of consequence; for, as all intelligent and able souls know (and here, I permit a broad interpretation, accepting equally all who hold within them the potential for excellence whether or not they have yet achieved it) --

As all intelligent and able souls know, not even the most delusive vision represents true madness when it permits a free flow of information and an interchange of ideas between the potential madwoman and those around her; not even the fiercest ravings can, in practice, outweigh the simple ability to interact with society around one; and fantasy can, of course, prove psychologically healthy (if not for the poor sufferers, then for those who surround them), when it allows for such intellectual converse as this.

The author of this manuscript has protested repeatedly that it is meant not as the proof that she deserves her freedom nor as the defining communication of her insanity but that rather she had a deadline to meet that outweighed the mundane considerations of the judgment of this board; but such pointless protests are only to be expected when one sets a woman before such trial as this, regardless of her innate soundness, and we cannot, as you must understand, take these claims at all seriously --

(Why, the descriptions she has given of the development process alone! They show a hysteric hyperbole! and the picture she paints of the intended audience, as if one could shake loose the lining of America and discover individuals willing not simply to pretend to be what they are not, but to pretend to be dreams and figments themselves, to imagine being imaginary, and then to roll such concrete objects as dice to quantify the process of it --)

We cannot, in all fairness to those others who have come before us for judgment, take her claims seriously, and so must present for your verdict on the matter the following manuscript, may you judge it wisely, as the best indication available as to whether Ms. Borgstrom's ravings about celestial and ethereal processes merit incarceration until such time as mind-altering medications permit her to lurch once again out into the ranks of society -- or merit immediate release and full freedom, albeit perhaps with some sort of tracking device to ensure that she does not enter any center of government or follow me home.

--submitted by Dr. Akire

This convinced me that I was going to have to actually write this article myself. "Unfortunately," due to a change from 128 pages to 144, during production, none of the material had to be cut! (Surely a first in such matters . . . ) Therefore, I can only offer two vignettes that somehow escaped notice (I'm kicking myself here), some vignettes specially devised for this article, and an overview of the work itself.

* * *

Terrified, the little cat came streaking back to the small group, fast as Speed itself (which, as it happened, it was). Behind, a Hellhound loped, slavering jaws and arrogance. Einstein girded himself for mental battle, but the Big Bad Wolf simply interposed himself between the demon and their feline companion.

With a snarl, the Hellhound lunged for the ethereal, expecting an easy kill -- and found itself swallowed up by jaws of primal Hunger. Somewhere on Earth, a demon woke, cursing and Discordant. In the Far Marches, the Big Bad Wolf simply licked his chops. "Mmmm, spicy."

* * *

The Ethereal Player's Guide was, literally, years in the making. The original outlines were submitted in February of 1999! At it happened, there were two to choose from: R. Sean Borgstrom's and David Edelstein's. If you look at the authors for the book which is shipping now, you can see that neither's outline was as good as the merged one turned out to be.

From Edelstein came structure, hard mechanics, and most of the "crunchies" required to define what a character could and could not do and for how many points. From Borgstrom, imagry, flavor, society, and background -- not just for any one (or even few) pantheons, but for the whole of etherealdom. Two such vastly different approaches to the same material was not easy to mesh, for either the authors or line editor! The transfer between styles was eased by the addition of vignettes at the beginnings of chapters and in occasional "pullquote" format throughout the more mechanics-heavy chapters.

The playtest also caused changes: relatively minor was Chris Anthony's contribution of tables to aid in character creation. Maurice "Moe, Prince of Heresy" Lane's group and the Toys from the Attic playtests determined that the Affinity rolls were a bit too difficult, and the values were re-calibrated. Other matters were discussed. Uriel, Archangel of Purity, had originally been omitted from the text since it was a book about ethereals, not angels. However, the Tsayadim are the boogieman's boogiemen, and so a few of the better-known attunements, as well as some comments on Tsayad tactics, made it in after all.

So, what is the Ethereal Player's Guide?

Simply, it's all the rules you need to create an ethereal character, from a lowly, non-sapient figment that's somehow escaped a dreamscape, all the way up to a minor god (assuming the GM permits).

What it is not is a comprehensive listing of the existing or even classic pantheons. It doesn't provide a set of ready-made gods (though a lesser goddess and Odin are there to illustrate how such creatures are made), nor does it dwell upon the odd special cases of the syncretic semi-Divine religions, such as the Hindus or the Loa.

The Ethereal Player's Guide will tell you how to create pantheons, detailing their Domain, their themes, the strands and affinities that will best represent them . . . But in order to cover such a vast range of possible characters, allowing the greatest freedom to create all the weird and wonderful things in the Far Marches, details of existing pantheons were relegated to The Marches. (Or -- should appropriate texts appear, pleasing to the editor's eye -- within Pyramid itself . . . ) Pantheonic relations and attitudes are listed, though, to provide examples for Game Masters and players to work with when devising their own lesser ethereals or gods.

* * *

"They are beginning to call you Akosmia," Julia said. "They fear you as the lord of chaos come among us."

"I am a dream," I said. "Nothing more."

"What have you brought me this time?" she said.

I held them up: the legs of the Pellegrine Spider, each as long as I was tall. The spine of the giant named Hippolytos. The wings of Pegasus.

"I shall put them in your flesh," she said, "like the other things you have brought me. But I wonder, Martinus, when you shall be content to be as you are."

* * *

Unlike angels and demons, ethereals are malleable in their Image and even sometimes in their cores. They are not facets of the Symphony as angels are, or the shattered-mirror reflections of those facets, as demons are. Instead, the spirits of the Marches are woven of pure dreamstuff, as varied and surreal as every dream ever dreamed. They are more than influenced by human beliefs -- they are defined by them, dependant on them.

Though an ethereal greater god is equivalent to a minor Superior (and has the same lack of actual hit point totals), lesser gods are within reach of player characters, if not at character creation, then after a bit of experience. Such an ambitious spirit can try to establish itself as a god -- or assume the position of an existing one . . .

* * *

"You wish to be Branwen." Her voice was flat. She looked me up and down. "You are somewhat lacking in beauty and grace, but I suppose such things can be remedied. I am less certain that we can do anything about your wit." She hesitated, and then seemed to come to a decision.

"Earn the love of a demon," she said. "Earn the love of an angel. Then return here, and we shall see what will be seen."

"May I use deception," I asked, "or must they know what they love?"

"They must love you for yourself," she said, quietly. "Else you have no business claiming yourself a goddess of love and beauty."

Who's Right, the Ethereals or the Celestials?

The Game Master, actually. Ethereals claim that the monotheistic God was once one of them, who somehow tapped into power sufficient to reweave the history of the Marches. (And, perhaps, some other ethereal could discover the secret?) Celestials claim ethereals are just hopped-up figments of human imagination.

But whether setting a campaign in the past, or simply in an alternate universe where the canonical War between Heaven and Hell doesn't exist, the Ethereal Player's Guide can be used to create a universe of battling gods and spirits, seeking the power of worshippers and intriguing among themselves (and other pantheons). Save for requiring the core rules, this book of spirits can stand alone, if the GM desires. (Though it might require a bit of adaptation, it might fuel a Small Gods-like setting for the Discworld Roleplaying Game. Angels and demons need not enter the picture at all . . .)

* * *

Hermes and Anubus eyed each other, each with a hand on the arm of the startled human soul.

Hermes said, "He's half Greek. He belongs to us."

Anubus bared his teeth and growled.

The Greek psychopomp poked his caduceus in the Egyptian's direction. The snakes hissed. "Let's not get personal, 'Nuby." Another growl, and he added, "Besides, maybe we can make a deal?"

The other god tilted his jackal head and whined curiously.

Hermes the trickster grinned. "Look, I'll let you have this one, but in return, I need you to run a little message to Bast . . .

Why Did It Take So Long To Get This Book?

Quite frankly, the In Nomine curse was in full effect for the Ethereal Player's Guide. (You didn't know the line was so handicapped? Tsk. After co-authoring GURPS In Nomine, I was well aware that supernatural events were conspiring against me . . . ) At various points in its existence, it hid in cracks, told people it had been playtested before it had been, ate approximately three editors (and belched) as well as two or three artists, and expanded its page count by 16 pages somewhere in there. (Probably from all the Essence it got by eating the editors and artists.)

I'm just glad it didn't get enough Essence to make a giant dinosaur vessel and devour Austin. Instead, it's a lovely and useful book, which -- if treated nicely -- will sit and purr contentedly on your shelf.

* * *

The angel knelt -- on several knees, for Kyriotates are multiplicity incarnate -- before its Superior, downcast. "Forgive me, my lord. I tried, but the humans were too persistent, too stubborn. I have failed."

The Archangel of the Sword sighed. "Humans are . . . surprising, at times. That you were able to delay the matter as long as you did is enough. It bought a little more time."

"I could have broken in, stolen the proofs . . . "

Laurence winced. "No, that would have not been the honorable action, and Dominic would have had words with me . . . It would not have been the first raid upon that company. No, we will simply have to hope our preparations were enough, and that the ethereals are not . . . empowered again by this book."

Article publication date: February 28, 2003

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