Designers' Notes: GURPS Banestorm

Tales of Alternate Yrths

by Phil Masters & Jonathan Woodward

As most readers doubtless know, GURPS Banestorm updates the old GURPS Fantasy world of Yrth, moving the "present day" of the setting forward to 2005, and incorporating GURPS Fourth Edition rules material. However, it does a bit more than that; it also adds some new stuff, changes a few things that we decided could be improved, and fixes a few problems we found in the old material.

Most significantly, though, it's a worldbook. As such, one thing it necessarily has to do is nail things down fairly hard. We can't tell you everything about the continent of Ytarria in just one volume (let alone any other continents which may exist), and we leave a few mysteries and open questions for GMs to play with, but when we do talk about something, we have to be definite about it. We had a lot of options and possibilities in front of us when we started this project; part of our job was deciding what to do about them. Other GURPS books are toolkits, and very fine they are too; here, we're selling a setting, and our readers are entitled to expect firm statements of "fact."

Which is not to say that GMs have to use Ytarria and Yrth exactly as we've written them. RPGs are an interpretive, flexible medium, and if anyone wants to turn "our" Ytarria upside-down and inside-out, that's fine with us. In fact, given some of the discussions we had along the way, we can think of a few places to start.

Personality Issues

To begin, individual NPCs may be rather different people from what the book describes. (This is a very good way for GMs to outsmart players who read the book and abuse that knowledge, without completely changing the world.) Of course, where these individuals have political power, these changes ripple through to influence great events in the setting. Some examples:

Messing Up Bronwyn: In our final draft, Baroness Bronwyn of Durham is a heroine, from most people's viewpoints. Loyal, capable, and honorable, she's also a secret supporter of certain movements which players may favor, and she may become a key actor in the resolution of the Caithness Civil War, and in the future of Yrth.

However, she underwent a number of changes along the way. She's now a widow, but we'd originally kept her unmarried, until some of our playtesters pointed out just how implausible that was for a 34-year-old feudal noblewoman. We looked at a number of fixes for this problem, which could appear in variant Yrth games.

First, Bronwyn could still be married. The trouble is, this would make things emotionally complicated for King Conall, who's secretly in love with her. We even considered the idea of having Bronwyn's husband, Sir Wickham, be a hero of the war, with Conall sending him off on a series of increasingly dangerous missions, only to come back covered in glory each time. Sir Wickham probably doesn't understand the reasons for these missions, and Conall maybe doesn't even acknowledge it to himself. However, this made Conall into much more of a bastard than we wanted. So we killed the husband, with a simple disease -- ah, the joys of amoral godhood.

For another variant, he could have stopped an arrow in the course of the Civil War, generating even more angst. Conall would feel responsible for Bronwyn's tragedy, and would be worried that people might think he'd deliberately put the chap in harm's way. How much soap do you want in your opera?

Alternatively, Bronwyn could be refusing to marry anyone. We even drafted a rather different biographical note for her:

. . . her advisors and family are increasingly concerned by her refusal to seriously consider marriage. She says that, so long as the war continues, she cannot risk the distractions of courtship, let alone childbirth; they fear the consequences of her lack of a clear heir. Romantics among her people call her "the Virgin Knight" or "the Amazon Baroness," and say that she is married to her lands.

Those who know her best fear that the famous incident when she was kidnapped by orcs in her youth has left her traumatised and unwilling to let any other being have any sort of personal power over her. Some think that she would accept a suitor who proved himself strong enough to match her; others think that she would reject anyone who threatened her total self-reliance.

In other words, we could have made Bronwyn into Ytarria's Elizabeth I, or even its Red Sonja. We rejected that plan, as it left our prospective heroine a little too psychologically messed up, and made the Conall-Bronwyn romance plot much too difficult for all concerned. Other options were out; she couldn't be nursing a secret passion for Conall -- that would be too silly -- while having her fancy someone else unattainable would make the romantic entanglements hideously complicated. So, in the end, we created and killed the good Sir Wickham of Durham, and gave Bronwyn a son and heir.

Aspects of Conall: Talking of the King of Caithness -- even in our final version, he's someone who appears very differently depending what angle you choose to look at him. Disastrously weak king or noble ruler growing into his office, hard-working and dutiful or a boring control freak, romantic or just neurotic . . . You can find all of these opinions in Caithness. (One of our playtesters certainly disliked the poor guy.) However, any of these opinions could be completely justified. Conall could be a hopeless wimp, a macho warrior, or a tyrannical schemer. He could also be married -- his bachelor status is one of those points where we privileged plot over probability. Indeed, for those who want a background plot saturated with Arthurian-style chivalrous adultery, both Conall and Bronwyn could be married to other people, but could also be discovering feelings for each other . . .

Questions of the Emperor: One thing that's clear to most people in Ytarria in 2005 is that All Is Not Well with the Emperor of Megalos. The book reveals the terrible truth here, so players may learn it; however, their characters almost certainly won't, at least not for a long time.

Further, there's not much that the average bunch of PCs could do with this knowledge even if it seeped down from the brains of their players. Still, some GMs may be concerned that some groups might abuse the information. Fortunately for them, they're completely free to fix the problem by changing reality.

The Emperor could be exactly what he appears to be. He could even be competent, though that would mean the Empire would have to be better administered in a lot of places. So, perhaps he's just moderately competent, and moderately self-indulgent, but he's also the victim of an insidious and brilliant whispering campaign by a bunch of scheming nobles and churchmen. In that case, the PCs might learn the "truth" as in the book, and act on it -- only to find that they've become disposable pawns in a vicious scheme of usurpation.

Then again, perhaps Jordan Siegebreaker's plot of 1989 worked perfectly, and the Empire is increasingly under the sway of the Templars. In that case, things could become very unpleasant for many of the inhabitants of Ytarria very quickly . . .

The Map

If the history and politics of Ytarria as we describe them aren't sacrosanct, nor is the geography. Messing with the map permits any number of added wars, commercial arrangements, or natural disasters. A substantial land border between Sahud and the Nomad Lands, more fertile land to the northwest (supporting a larger orc population), or less forest between Caithness and al-Haz, could all make for interesting events.

Changes to some political boundaries could simply be the result of a minorchange to the history. Ytarria has seen numerous frontier wars over the centuries; tinkering with the results of any of them could move borders around. Caithness could be reduced to an endangered rump state, or expanded westwards as far as Castle Defiant -- or even the coast! The Nomad Lands could be under Megalan domination. There could be Muslim outposts scattered across southern Araterre. Even Tredroy, fabled City of Three Laws, could be entirely controlled by any one of its three adjacent states. Of course, it would probably still be a diverse and decadent place, with the added fun that many of the citizens would be ripe for subversion by two different neighboring powers.

The Frontier Wars of 1991-1995 ended as a draw; a shrewd strategist among the western Megalan nobility, or an aggressive commander for the Wazifi armies, could have produced a different result. If Megalos had done better, the Legions could be pouring into the south, forcing al-Haz to mobilize, while ensuring political chaos in Megalos itself when the Megalan commanders notice that they are getting little help from the capital. If the Muslim powers had won, Megalos would either be frantically organizing to hold the line, or falling apart as the Emperor ignores the problem. It's also possible that the war could have ended with a treaty, but that one side could have captured some extra cities -- in which case, the victor would be having a hard time absorbing so many resentful new citizens.

Guns, Djinn, and Wood

Other variations could involve the magical forces which make this a genre fantasy setting, possibly even playing with the physics and metaphysics of Yrth's universe. For example, Ytarria doesn't have firearms, although there are several logical reasons why it arguably should. This situation has a social explanation: Guns are legally banned, and suppressed with ruthless efficiency. Some of our playtesters suggested that the reason could in fact be magical. If explosives and the like just don't work in Yrth's universe, there's far less weird social manipulation required. (Someone even suggested that it could just be black powder that doesn't work, leading to some interesting incidents over the last century or so, as other explosives filtered through from Earth to Yrth.) We rejected this idea because messing with the fundamental chemistry of a whole universe struck us as more arbitrary than an efficient conspiracy or three. Still, anyone who dislikes the Ministry of Serendipity and the Underground Engineers may wish to consider this alternative. (One associated idea, that can still be used in conjunction with the conspiracy, is that gunpowder is the equivalent of crack cocaine for fire elementals.)

Then again, fantasy settings don't have to exclude gunpowder and firearms; "muskets and magic" could be a nice change of pace. Perhaps the powers-that-be on Yrth gave up the struggle against this bit of technology. If firearms have been around for a century or so, warfare would resemble that of the Renaissance period on Earth, with cannon, pikemen, and musketeers -- plus battle wizards, and some select men guarding the artillery train against enemy magic and fire elementals. If such military technology has been developing for even longer, it could have progressed to the "Napoleonic" stage or later, with a focus on sheer firepower. At some point on such a development path, battle wizards will point out that they are no more effective at killing at range than any foot-slogger with a gun. At that point, they may say that actual fighting should be left to the untalented masses, and retire to staff positions providing intelligence services and logistical support.

The original GURPS Fantasy also set up the mystery of the Djinn Lands, in far southwestern Ytarria. We decided to resolve it. We're fond of the approach we took (naturally) but others could be equally valid. Perhaps the djinn are human wizards after all, or high-powered psionic adepts from another universe, or renegade demons, or even, simply, djinn. The other Big Mystical Mystery which we resolved was that of the expansion of the Blackwoods; GMs who dislike our approach there can decide that the obvious explanation which most people on Yrth believe ("Blame it on the elves") is in fact correct, or they can juggle with the precise cause, to taste.

Other magically-based variations could include anything from setting events on a more "spiritual" level -- perhaps even using Yrth as the setting for an In Nomine campaign -- to simply working out the logical and complete consequences of every spell in GURPS Magic being freely available. Anyone trying the latter should allow plenty of time and be prepared for a lot of debates . . .

Crisis on Infinite Yrths

Lastly, although Yrth is now, technically, part of the "Infinite Worlds" multiverse, it remains very hard to leave and a little tricky to enter. This is very definitely a deliberate design choice; this is the default GURPS setting for low-tech, magical fantasy adventures, and not just another stop on the crosstime tour. Significant contact with other universes would change things too much, too quickly -- and in plot terms, the Ministry of Serendipity and its counterparts have long existed to control this problem.

But no one has to keep things that way. After all, Yrth's status as a "dimensional Sargasso" might be changed at any time by a breakthrough in N-dimensional parachronics or portalistic thaumatology. Infinity would be pleased to have easier access to the magical lore of a relatively comprehensible "fantasy" world (and the Cabal would be delighted), but very nervous at the possible implications of the changed status of this timeline. If forced to take sides, they'd probably try and stabilize the situation in Caithness and maybe promote independence movements in Araterre, while actually basing most of their operations in relatively benevolent, stable regions such as al-Wazif and Cardiel. (While running everything out of their offices in Tredroy). If Centrum gained any sort of access to Yrth, they might side with Megalos as a unifying force -- or, given its "willfully backward" noble heirarchy, they might instead conclude that they'd be better off promoting meritocracy in Cardiel.

If the parachronic breakthrough wasn't kept secret, and the major factions of the Infinite Worlds cosmology gained extensive access to Yrth, it would soon become a major concern for every Ytarrian. Local wizards are numerous and competent enough to give even the Cabal pause, and would doubtless be eager to associate themselves with other powerful magical adepts. Infinity Unlimited would have a hard job keeping the situation under control; the apparent "RenFaire" style of Yrth would only add to their problems, as various companies sought to initiate tourism on a world which a bit too dangerous for such things. And the Dark Elves, fearing an inundation of even more alien visitors, could turn into a veritable terrorist organization. They'd be willing to move Heaven and Yrth to keep the intruders out -- possibly literally . . . Meanwhile, everyone would have to wonder what Yrth's Jesuits or Templars were up to -- and what contacts they might have beyond their own world.

On the other hand, if some Ytarrian wizards gained magical transdimensional capability (without Infinity noticing), they'd probably try to plunder the multiverse for arcane knowledge and treasure, while avoiding contact with high technology. They might bring a few gadgets home for their own use, but they'd have to be careful not to attract the dread attention of the Ministry of Serendipity. Ytarrian PCs involved in "portalistic venturing" would doubtless find other worlds very strange. Their low-tech skills, and magical firepower would help them somewhat, but they'd need to be clever to avoid disasters.

An alternate "crossworld" game wouldn't even feature the Infinite Worlds cosmology. It could just involve exploration of multiple parallel Yrths, with alternate histories of their own. In some, perhaps, the Banestorm never happened, and the elves and dwarves remain dominant, although harassed by the orcs. Or, perhaps the Dark Elves were more right than they feared, and countless orc tribes lounge triumphantly in the ruins of a shattered Ytarria, mocking their elf and dwarf slaves. In other alternates again, the Banestorm may only have opened gates to Gabrook, and goblins are the dominant race, with a hybrid culture with many borrowed elf and dwarf elements. Or, there may just be a few immigrants from Loren'dil, causing less grief to the elder races. There might also be post-apocalyptic Yrths, Bane-blasted and infested with countless monsters, Yrths where human-imported technology has advanced at higher rates, or Yrths with a lot more high-mana craters . . .

Or even Yrths which look the same, but where some important people have very different personalities. But that's where we came in.

Article publication date: September 2, 2005

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