Designer's Notes: GURPS Faerie

Once Upon A Time

by Graeme Davis

It was a mild Austin evening in March 1991.

I hadn't been a freelancer for very long. In fact, I was delivering the manuscript of my first freelance effort, GURPS Vikings. My fiancée and I were visiting her brother, who lived in Austin, and I took the opportunity to deliver the manuscript to SJ Games in person.

I met Steve, along with Loyd Blankenship, who was, if memory serves, the Managing Editor at the time. I handed over the first draft of GURPS Vikings, and we went for a meal.

Conversation naturally turned to future projects. We talked a little about the idea that would later become GURPS Middle Ages 1, and I asked if SJ Games had any interest in a folklore-based product. I had been using British and European faerie lore for years as a source for my own roleplaying campaigns, and I had even managed to sneak a few bits and pieces into my work for Games Workshop on Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Why invent something new when you can steal something that has already stood the test of time?

Steve mentioned that he had been considering a companion book to GURPS Fantasy Folk, with the working title of Faerie Folk. They had been talking to Steffan O'Sullivan, then a GURPS regular with Fudge years in the future, but he was not happy with giving faeries that kind of treatment. I said I'd think about it.

We went on to a couple of other places for beers, and that's all I will admit to remembering about that evening. Except that I came home with copies of GURPS Fantasy Folk and several other useful bits of swag.

GURPS Middle Ages came and went, along with a few projects for other folks. Freelancing wasn't working out too well for me financially, and I got a succession of jobs in the computer games industry. I was still doing little bits of freelancing here and there, but nothing major.

Then I ran into Sean Punch at GenCon a couple of years ago. We talked a little, and I got some freelance editing work. This led to second editions of GURPS Vikings and GURPS Middle Ages 1. One day, I was avoiding work by mooching around the SJ Games web site, and found that GURPS Faeries was still there on the wish list. So I put together an outline, and got the contract to write it.

I suppose I really should have known better. Now I'm not saying what caused it, but something got into my computer and messed with all my header formats. I had checked all the files and made sure they were good, but when they printed out at the SJ Games end, the headers were all over the place. Then my email crashed, obliterating my inbox just as I was looking for some emails I'd received about the correct way to credit playtesters and other such vital things. Sean kindly resent the emails, but the next day, there was my inbox, completely untouched. I started leaving small offerings of milk and cookies beside my computer at night. You can't be too careful.

Still, how else could I have taken time out to research faerie beliefs and folklore from around the world? There's something very satisfying about reading books on Inuit and Australian aboriginal traditions, alien abductions, 19th century Irish murders, classical Greek literature, and Scottish witchcraft trials, and calling it work. The people in the library began to whisper and point when they thought I wasn't looking.

Also very satisfying was the mountain of feedback I received from the playtest group. They had ideas and information that hadn't crossed my radar at all, and quite a few of them had insights into their own local traditions that I couldn't have found without going on a fieldtrip the size of Drake's circumnavigation. Thank you all, folks; even if your name didn't make it into the book, you were an immense help. Many thanks, as well, to Gene Seabolt, Bill Stoddard, Phil Masters, and the other veteran GURPS writers who helped me out with faerie-related material from their own projects. There are so many books now, not to mention those in development, and trying to tie together all the faerie-related information in the GURPS canon is a job I could not even have attempted without a lot of help.

As with all GURPS books, there was more material that would fit. One particular campaign outline ran way overlength. I guess I just got so into the idea that I kept on writing and writing. It also came too close to a recent blockbuster movie for comfort, although I maintain that was just the convergence of ideas. Honestly.

Anyway, if you ever wondered what would happen if the faeries were cast as the forces of evil in a dark, future world that was sort of like cyberpunk but without so much emphasis on technology (and let's be honest, who hasn't?), here is one possibility. I call it:

Gaia In Darkness

What if the near future of humanity lay, not with technology, but with magic and the resurgence of the Old Ways? Or perhaps technology actually enabled the return of the Old Ways? After all, who hasn't looked up a horoscope or done an I Ching reading online?

While accepted as a useful tool, technology is not the be-all of human existence and striving. Therefore, while more advanced than it is today, it has not advanced at the same rate, or in the same directions, as it has in a conventional cyberpunk setting. In particular, implants of any kind are seen as a pollution of the human body, rather than an enhancement. The human body may not be perfect, but it was designed by Mother Nature, who is generally thought to be smarter than most human inventors.

Likewise, genetic engineering and other biotech endeavors have become socially unacceptable -- and indeed unnecessary. By working in harmony with nature -- and with the faeries -- crop yields can easily support the world's population, even in spite of (or perhaps because of) a global switch to organic farming practices.

Instead, technology focuses on communication and empathy. While a few humans have been born with telepathy and other psionic gifts, almost all the rest rely on some form of Mechanical Telepathy (p. CI27) which combines the functions of phone and internet. Scientists have begun to predict the formation of a human group mind: an organic internet which in time will fuse with the consciousness of Gaia to create a truly living planet. Some are looking forward to that day, but many fear that it will result in the annihilation of their individuality.

In some parts of the world, experimental communities -- dubbed "ant farms" by their detractors -- have already achieved perfect mind linking on a small scale. In others, madness and even death have been the result as the dark side of an individual's psyche spreads throughout the group.

Stringent mental health checks are now required before participating in such experiments, and despite the sworn goal of egalitarianism, a new hierarchy of society is forming, based upon natural psychic ability vs. psi-technology and mental health vs. mental illness. The Master Race of this new world is already beginning to emerge in the Gifted, an overclass of natural telepaths with "perfect" minds. Some have even begun to speak of the next phase of human evolution.

Where do the faeries fit into all this? They are Gaia's intermediaries and messengers, teaching her mortal children to live in harmony with each other and with the planet. At least, that is what they say -- but they could have several agendas of their own.

One might be the harnessing of human psychic potential to create mana so that the faeries can continue to survive and thrive. Another might be the reshaping of human society in the faeries' image -- or rather, in their self-image. Human history is full of instances where a technologically superior culture has taken it upon itself to "improve" a less technological one and remake it in its own image, and the result has nearly always benefited the colonial power much more than the natives. Perhaps the faeries are doing this to the humans, using a façade of communion with Gaia.

History teaches that colonialism is frequently accompanied by the rape of natural resources and the reduction of the colonized people to the status of second-class citizens. What might mortals have that faeries want? Many folklore sources would point to souls -- either literally, as in the case of the Teind (the tribute of souls traditionally paid by the faeries to Hell in exchange for their independence), or figuratively, as in stories of faerie abductions of mortals to care for (or replace) frail faerie newborns.

Perhaps the faeries are grooming the Gifted -- for a rigid class system is, in its own way, a form of selective breeding program -- to the point where they will be deemed fit to interbreed, revitalizing the faerie race without polluting its blood unduly. Or perhaps the Gifted are unwitting seed-beds for faerie or hybrid genetic material which will be transplanted back into sickly and dying faeries to keep them alive. Meanwhile, the rest of humanity labors to sustain both itself and the Gifted, being slowly reduced to a worker caste.

Of course, not all faeries in this setting are necessarily evil. However, it may well be the case that the more closely they fit the "noble faerie" stereotype, the less they can be trusted. Turning conventional faerie lore on its head, the ugly ones may be the honest ones.

Be that as it may, there will be some faeries who are opposed to this enslavement of mortals, and are fighting to change the situation. In such a seemingly idyllic world, it will be easy for the establishment to paint these dissenters as dangerous anarchists, sworn to drag both faeries and mortals down into the mire. They are frightened, establishment sources will say, of the potential of the next stage of human evolution, and wish to keep faerie power in the hands of faeries, and keep mortals in their place.

The scene is set, then, for a conflict where no one can be quite sure which side is good and which is evil. The oppression wrought by the "noble faeries" is so subtle, and so well-propagandized by emotion control in the developing web of human consciousness, that the vast majority see it as not only right but the fulfillment of human destiny. On the other hand, the work of the opposition in undermining and sabotaging the process is widely regarded as anti-human, faerie-supremacist aggression. Not even many faeries know (or believe) the truth about the Gifted.

Player Characters

The PCs may begin the campaign as humans who somehow become convinced that the faeries do not have their best interests -- or the best interests of the planet -- at heart. Or, they may begin as faeries who have realized what is really going on, and set out to save the mortals from the scheme, and from themselves.

For mortals, a necessary first step in joining the resistance is detaching themselves from the psychic and techno-psychic communication web, so that they cannot be used to monitor resistance activities. This will be a traumatic experience for many -- they will be alone in their heads for the first time in their lives, and the sudden silence will be unnerving. This "deafness," as it has become known, is almost impossible to conceal from the "hearing," so the mortal rebel must drop out of society and disappear. The Deaf Who Will Not Hear are hunted down by the faerie elite and their mortal servants, because their minds are easier to probe, once they are captured, than those of their faerie counterparts.

While faeries have had the ability of psychic communication for millennia, they have mostly learned to compartmentalize their minds, screening some thoughts from general accessibility. They would say that this is similar to a mortal thinking something rather than saying it aloud. Therefore they are better able to conceal their true thoughts, and can operate within the mainstream of society even if their sympathies lie with the resistance. They are able to teach some simple mind-masking techniques to their human protégés, but these are not always effective.

Starting the Campaign

The campaign can start at any point along the story arc, and each stage has its advantages and disadvantages.

The story begins when mortals become aware of the faeries, and begin working with them to solve the world's problems. The setting might be contemporary or near-future -- books on contact with faeries and working with them to save the environment are already on the shelves in our world -- or it might be a dark future-cyberpunk setting, where corporate greed has run its logical course.

In either case, faerie PCs could be ambassadors to the mortals, or they might be troubleshooters sent out to keep the mortals from completely destroying the world. They could also be renegades, ignoring faerie prohibitions on contact with mortals because they see that the only survivable future is one where the two races work together.

Mortal PCs can be any kind of character, since anyone could potentially be caught up in the tide of events. Environmental lobbyists and New Age mystics are logical first points of contact for faerie intermediaries, but corporate employees, construction and refinery workers, and other kinds of mortals have a good chance of being contacted -- or sabotaged -- drawing them into the story. Even private eyes and mercenaries might find that their objectives, and their clients, are not what they appear. Investigators might be hired to find evidence against a corporate executive whom the faeries want to remove, while mercenary groups might be hired to sabotage or destroy industrial installations or drive developers or prospectors away from an area.

Starting at the beginning of the story arc also gives players a world which is familiar, while starting in the middle, with human-faerie co-operation well established and radical changes in society as a result, give the players more work to do in becoming as familiar with the world as they would expect their characters to be.

However, starting in the middle of the story allows players to see the world as it has become, and to experience a world very different from the one they inhabit in real life.

When creating a mortal PC with ties to the resistance, the player and GM must pay particular attention to how the character broke from the communication web, or cover this in the first few sessions of play. The character's backstory -- how he experienced the world before the campaign began, and what events set him outside the mainstream of the world to become a PC rather than an NPC -- is of critical importance.

For example, if he is one of the Gifted who has turned against the faeries, what happened to make him give up his favored life? Was it a developing social conscience, seeing the plight of lesser mortals growing steadily worse? Was it a bad psychic experience at an ant farm? Did he somehow discover that the faeries' goals and motives were not as altruistic as they claim? Another important question is how the hero is masking his rebel activities from the communications web -- has a sympathetic faerie mentor taught him to block his thoughts? Has he developed this ability spontaneously? Or has he not yet learned to do so -- meaning that he is on the run and must stay one step ahead of the faerie "Thought Police?"

Faerie characters are easier to create, but should also have a detailed personal backstory to explain how they came to be PCs rather than NPCs. If they are with the resistance, this needs to cover how and why they broke with the faerie establishment, and what events contributed to their present attitudes and goals. If they are with the establishment, their personal backstory needs to cover their career up until the start of the campaign, explaining how they came to be where they are today, and giving some context for their views and motivations.

Article publication date: September 26, 2003

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