Monday, September 12, 2011

Worldbuilding - Planet Hopping

Sometime ago I wrote an article about running Planetary Romance adventures with Pathfinder. A great part of that post was dedicated to make Golarion more “user-friendly” to old Science Fiction/Fantasy adventures (in particular to Jack Vance’s Tschai novels).

Time to upgrade that a little.

This article is in response to Sean Holland’s suggestion, from the Sea of Stars (a great Pathfinder blog by the way, check it out!). He said that traveling to other worlds should be one of the options in a Planetary Romance game.

As to the possible choices of destination for a Planet Hopping campaign, I believe that Spelljammer’s approach a good start: crossover with other settings, including not only those of Pathfinder (other planets of Golarion’s solar system) but also of D&D/AD&D and other RPGs (GURPS, Warhammer etc), besides movies and novels. Another option would be an episode-like structure, where each planet is actually an isolated adventure. In fact, I believe you can blend these two styles, depending on your group’s responses.

So, here’s how we have it: genre blending and a picaresque approach. These are (for me) the mandatory rules of a good Planetary Romance campaign. More epic or serious campaigns, with “closed” or very peculiar mythologies/cosmologies (Exalted and Dark Sun come to mind) aren’t good candidates (without massive changes), but anything wrote by Vance or campaign settings like the first D&D worlds – Blackmoor, Greyhawk or Mystara (coincidentally there’s also a “Blackmoor” on these last two) are perfect.

Another trait that I find salutary to these campaigns is a loose approach to canon material – both the Gamemaster and the players must interact with these scenarios with an open-mind. Old known settings shouldn’t be set on stone and even a well-known scenario can be tweaked here and there to suit the campaign’s needs. Let me preach my personal RPG credo yet again: the idea is to have fun, not originality.

Your goal is – at the first – the exploration of weird cultures (with different levels of technology/magic), different places and challenging situations (a sandbox campaign).

Another tip: use planets as Planes of Existence. Actually, I believe they’re better for this than Planes, as its easier for us to accept a desert or ice planet instead of an entire continuum of ice (like a Plane of Ice).

Attaching themes/forces/genres to each planet visited is a quick and easy way to fix it at the player’s mind. My own Chronicles of the Seventh Moon setting, while purely a fantasy scenario (so far), uses Orbs (Planets) instead of Planes. Each Orb has a particular aspect: Himaeris (Celestial Planet), Darana (Order), Elária (Elementals/Genies), Nikaz and Mezin (two Chaos planets, the remains from the sundering of the original Orb), Farnax (Demons) and dark Sheol (the Underworld). At the system's center we have the Twin Suns (Positive Energy) and, beyond, surrounding Creation, the Wall of Starts (a Dysonian sphere made of adamantine and filled with metallic towers – whose lights form the “starts” seen in heaven – managed by conscript Celestials that stand watch against invaders from the Nefarious Court of Azathoth).

Enough babble, time for some tables. The first one (d16) lists methods of transportation; the second (d30) is about planets. Both presuppose randomness and a picaresque, sandbox style of game full of references to well-known fictional planets (albeit I hope they can also give you some ideas). They also start from the premise that Golarion is a Science Fantasy world, not a pure Fantasy setting:

d30 Planets for a Pathfinder Planet Hopping Campaign

1. Another planet from Golarion’s solar system. It’s a good start and there’s (finally!) a book coming out on it.

2. Ice Planet. This is Hoth but with Pathfinder monsters. Mix it with Leigh Brackett's version of the planet (especially the icewalking aliens) and then add some "At the Mountains of Madness" goodness for extra flavor. Another suggestion is to make the entire planet a big living hungry entity, which feeds on magic and positive energy (that would mean lots of undeads once you get underground).

3. Desert Planet. Think Arrakis but with Tatooine aliens (although I would use Dragons Crime Lords instead of Hutts). You can keep the technology, but I would use it legacies from some fallen civilization (a good example would be the Jawas' transport and old droids from Episode IV). I would use Arrakis’ Spice as a psionic-inducing or magic-empowering drug. You can go totally Dark Sun with it by keeping technology rare and mysterious and adding tons of barbarians. 

4. Water Planet. Burrough’s Amtor is a start, but I would mix Savage Worlds’ 50 Fathoms and the awesome Pirates of Dark Water on it just for fun. Don’t forget kraken sorcerer-kings and gargantuan flying aboleths (the only thing from Forgotten Realms 4th that I remember remotely liking).

5. Dark Planet. Z’ha’Dum. This is your sinister and gloom world, inhabited by those races that despise daylight. It’s common for planets like this be also Tomb or Ruin worlds, filled with monuments and legacies of old things. It could be inhabited by Shadows, Mindflayers, Mi-Go and Grimlocks. Of course, it must have something that the players desire – ancient technology or sorcery are always good options. More weird things would be a lost powerful starship, a world-destroying weapon (like this Shadow weapon), a trapped deity, clones, the last Jedi Holocron etc.

6. Weird Planet. This is Cykranosh. Strive for the bizarre. Leaden skies, greenish landscapes, fungoid forests and lakes of mercury. Its inhabitants are weird barbarian humanoids and strange alien demigods like Tsathoggua’s kind (besides a few oddball arcanists from far worlds). If you’re feeling lazy use Vornheim.

7. Tekumel. This is a pulpish world of bizarre culture and social customs. Imagine a hot and hostile planet, almost without metals, peopled by cruel and byzantine human and aliens – the repository of incredible old but advanced technology. In many ways Tekumel is Dark Sun’s equivalent for a Planetary Romance campaign.

8. Barsoom – enough said!... but it doesn’t hurt to add more: Alan Moore's version of Mars and Cubicle 7's great MARS sourcebook are good starting points. And if you want to really surprise your players, use Korriban's Red Sith instead of Barsoom's Red Men.

9. Jungle/Plant planet. This is Sfanomoë (or Venus). A world with living, intelligent and dangerous plant life (actually, here they're the ultimate predators). Burroughs' Amtor is, again, a good suggestion. Add Lovecraft's venusian blind lizardmen. Even though I think the movie sucks, you could also add Avatar's blue giants (maybe with psionics) to this Jungle World.

10. Cthulhu Mythos planet. I was tempted to use Yuggoth or Zoth, but Geoffrey McKinney's CARCOSA setting is a great mix of Sword & Sorcery and Lovecraftian mythos. Imagine a dark world, where barbarian humans are little more than cattle, raised from animal stock by Serpent Men, and attempting to survive alone amid Law-aligned technological Greys and the Chaos-loving horrors of Cthulhu.

11. Science Fantasy Planet. My first suggestion would be Eternia. It’s a perfect example for a world where both magic and technology coexist for long centuries. It gets even better if you use the idea that the Eternia is in synchronous rotation with its star. You can use this and steal a little from Zelazny's Jack of Shadow to make technology more reliable on the dayside and sorcery stronger on the darkside. Thundera is another good source of inspiration for a Medieval/Technological world. Finally, you can’t go wrong with Dragonstar. If you want to go gonzo here, read Planet Algol.

12. Alien Plant. Talislanta. Until now all planets listed have humans as natives. This is your “Humans are Aliens” world. If you doesn't know Talislanta (it’s free, check it out), just create a world where Pathfinder Core Races doesn't exist (or are legendary/mythic).

13. Beast Planet. This is the classical forgotten planet filled with dinosaurs, vast barbarian hordes and gargantuan beasts whose ferocity and power are disproportional to everything your players have met so far. A good Sauric Planet is filled with Serpentmen (and their advanced science) and Lizardmen. Don’t forget beastmen (Gnolls, Orcs, Goblinoids etc), giant nation and offworlders Earthlings (or Golarionlings).

14. Prison Planet. Another classic theme. You can make a magic version of it. Imagine if Tartarus was actually a planet, not a plane. Entire pantheons of defeated deities (or worse) would be trapped on its depths. In my own Chronicles of the Seventh Moon, the 5th Planet – Farnax – is the prison world of demons and fallen celestials. 13 Moons surround Farnax keeping the seals that lock teleport abilities and watching for escape attempts.

15. Earth. This entry is (literally) just for fun. There are plenty of opportunities here: Hyberoen Age, Poseidonis, Averoigne, Castle Falkenstein, Gamma World, Rifts, Zothique or Dying Earth.

16. Counter-Earth. This is another classical idea. Take, for example, Golarion’s races and invert their roles. Orcs are the scions of an old, orderly and good culture. Elves are sadistic decadent dominators from another dimension. Drows are legendary divine beings who live in an underground paradise (Shangri-la?) and occasionally come to the surface to help others. Humans are barbarians that cyclically devour other civilizations. Etc. If again you’re feeling lazy, just steal ideas from the Warlords of the Accordlands setting (their elves and orcs, in particular, are great)

17. Dead Planet. This is a Corpse World. Get macabre! Take Ghorth and kill him. The planet could be either the Great Old One’s body or another deity’s body (or a Draeden’s body!). Don’t forget unsettling organic dungeons and underworlds. Good place for aberrations like beholders and mindflayers (I would make the mindflayers invaders with technology). Also a good excuse for tons and tons of alien undeads.

18. Machine Planet. Cybertron. Ok, this one is a little too radical, but it’s just a matter of description. Think of the classics (Metropolis and The Day The Earth Stood Still) instead of Bay’s horrible movies. Think of Asimov’s robots and Star Wars’ droids. Make it strange and new. For example: a cube-shaped world, ancient (very very ancient!), inhabited by Inevitables bent on resurrecting a dying star (or guarding the gates to a black hole). It doesn’t have to be exactly a planet – could be an orbital, Dyson sphere or any other structure.

19. Fantasy Planet. Mystara (it even has a fallen spaceship on it). The idea here is that the players find another similar world to trade and explore. Besides Mystara, I suggest Oerth (Greyhawk), Wilderlands of High Fantasy (especially in their original version), Warhammer 1st Edition’s Old World, Earthdawn, Yrth (from GURPS Banestorm), among others.

20. Dead Zone Planet. Magic, technology, psionics, divine magic… one type of power just doesn’t work on this world. Maybe an ancient machine dumps the planar energy necessarily to work magic. Or a very territorial tech-fearing deity disturbs all ships that get close. You can mix this idea with other concepts from this table.

21. Krypton. Ok, not necessarily that Krypton, I’m talking more about the concept than the place. Imagine a planet where Pathfinder Core Races gain strange powers or deity-like abilities. This can be something silly as fly at will or immortality, to weird stuff like the ability to grant clerical-abilities to your “followers” or to resurrect natives. And don’t forget about crystals and ice landscapes – this is “our” Krypton, after all.

22. Mecha Planet. A world with mechas! Yes, it’s (another) odd option, but I love mechas. I suggest either Escaflowne (mechas that look like fullplate-armored giants and are powered by dragon hearts, besides being linked to their pilots through blood rituals… what isn’t to like?) or Green Ronin’s Mindshadows. Coincidently, both worlds are very open settings that can be easily adapted. Iron Kingdoms is another option (although it doesn’t have “true” mechas). Exalted’s cosmology isn’t friendly to this type of madness.

23. Spelljammer: Shadow of the Spider Moon’s solar system (from Polyhedron #151). It was a very cool setting

24. Pick a Plane of Existence, any Plane, and change it to a Planet. I recommend Planescape’s Carceris or Mechanus. Mystara’s Nightmare Dimension is also a cool candidate. Magic: The Gathering’s planes are also great sources of ideas (like Mirrodin, Ravnica and Phyrexia). Beyond Countless Doorways also has great places to be “planetized”

25. Its no Moon! This isn’t a planet, but something else. Suggestions are a fleet of ships or a flock of giant space creatures, an asteroid belt, gas cloud (maybe with worlds or islands inside – check Sundered Skies). Roll on Strange methods of Planetary Travel for ideas.

26. Destroyed Planet. This planet was recently destroyed by some force or entity. Roll again to known what type of world it was. Maybe its Doom is coming to the player’s planet. Ignore 25+ results (or use a d24).

27. Wandering Planet. Your world is propelled through space (and time?) either by magic (a deity?), ancient technology or just bad luck. Either way, this world can visit other star systems (maybe be teleporting itself when it reaches a system’s borders). Maybe this planet (or moon, or asteroid) is the only known way of space travel. Imagine if your players have to survive through some months on a Dark or Beast Planet to arrive at their destination? Roll again to get a better idea of this world. Ignore 25+ results (or use a d24).

28. Living Planet. Ok, this world is literally alive. It may treat itself as a deity (maybe even with clerics). Roll again. Ignore 25+ results (or use a d24).

29. Phasing Planet. This world can either phase in and out of the continuum space (perhaps going to another Plane of Existence) or it actually can change itself completely – like the planet from Blackout, that’s is filled with nightmarish beats when night falls, or a world where every single inhabitant is a lycanthrope, or a wasteland world whose dominant civilization lives in the Ethereal Plane and only phases in the Material during certain eclipses or planetary alignments.

30. Multiclass Planet. Roll twice and mix both entries to create a third planet. Ignore this entry when rolling for multiclass planets. Ignore 25+ results (or use a d24).

D16 Strange Methods of Planetary Travel

1. Spacefaring riding beast. Like eating space mead and riding a shantak.

2. Magicships. Witchwyrd voidship (spelljammer), Mercane’s Glasscity (imagine a giant crystal orb with a small city inside of it, full of Mercane traders), a Derro Hivecraft, ship with Ethersails (capable of traveling to other planets through the Ethereal Plane)

3. Technological Spaceship. You can use Greys (read Carcosa) or just Minflayers (which are a perfect fit). Or just an old scoundrel smuggler with a centuries-old piece of junk that he calls a spaceship. While many players may cringe at this type of technology being available, you can always tweak things a little. Two suggestions: 1) Spaceships are legacy from a previous age ruled by technology. They’re passed ahead through family lines like ancient secret traditions (like castle and land in a feudal soctiey); 2) They’re a monopoly of either a reclusive mutant or hidden alien race; 3) They’re intelligent and the passengers must appease these weird “metal creatures” before being granted the right to enter them – maybe all negotiation goes through a caster of “priests”.

4. Gates. They’re either technology (Stargate or New Gods) or eldritch portal (built by Mi-go, Serpentmen, Aboleths, Golarion elves etc) works.

5. Astral travel (John Carter-style). The player characters create new bodies at the new world. If “dead” they could awake back at Golarion. It’s a good idea for a first trip; the players could be “banished” back to Golarion and forced to find another way to return to their new world.

6. Find a Spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. I can’t explain why, but the idea of a true spaceport, with a Western/frontier feel, inside of a Fantasy world, always fascinated me. I suggest Numeria or the Mana Wastes.

7. Ythian body exchange. A classic! Don’t forget that it also deals with Time Travel (and Thindalos Hounds). Send the players to the beginning of the Age of Darkness or the fall of Azlant, or even the far future when Golarion is ruled (again) by Serpentfolk and true humans don’t exist anymore (replaced either by color-coded humans or just hordes of mongrelfolk).

8. Krull’s Black Fortress. It’s so cool. And something this big must be hard to gain, placed tons of bad guys inside of it. If there was need for a cool reason to dominate a megadungeon, it’s this.

9. The Demiplane of Doors. A weird (artificial?) realm of doors and gates that leads to many other planets (or just a steampunk version of Sigil). Instead of a demiplane, you could place this nexus inside an ancient space elevator orbiting over Golarion.

10. Ancient gargantuan ship. A relic from past ages or another galaxy that either it’s intelligent or only works through arcane means. Think of it as big weird moving dungeon.

11. Magic backlash caused by the destruction of an artifact, a major demon/dragon or by the interruption of a ritual.

12. Worlds collide! Instead of going to another planet, the planet goes to Golarion. A new world appears in the skies and its inhabitants start an invasion! A lesser variant is to use an Asteroid to travel between planets.

13. Inside something big and alive. Like a star dragon’s or spaceworm’s gut. The characters are swallowed (maybe voluntarily) by a gargantuan creature (or kaiju?) that travels between worlds. Organic dungeon.

14. Death. After the dead of the entire group they could awaken on some strange world. Is it the afterlife? Could it be Sovyrian?

15. Ethereal Plane. It doesn’t need to be exactly the Ethereal. It could be the Astral, Shadow or any other transitive “boring” plane. If this is common knowledge, there could be “Star Routes” through these planes, leading to strange times, planets, places etc. You can even call the Ethereal your Hyperspace.

16. Magic items. A unique artifact – like a magic carpet – or maybe more “mundane” arcane paraphernalia, like potions. Imagine if Thuvia’s alchemists managed to create a potion that placed the target in a deep sleep and then transported him to a specific world. Of course, these formulas would be a secret as important as the sun orchid elixir.