Sigils and Sorcery
And entirely random campaign setting idea.
In the Age of Achievements, the Empress of the Bhan created the Sigilbhan, a massive, complex rune that granted her and her agents the power to detect and quarantine evil outsiders and undead, so that no matter how powerful they were, they would be locked away rather than return to the outer planes and reform as new horrors.
Sadly one of the Empress’s son, Drau, believed that as a loyal agent of the empress he deserved rewards and power for working to promote good and overcome evil, and asked to be given the power she used the Sigilbhan to lock away. When she refused, telling him that the reward for doing good was a word with more good in it, and his actions did not prove true virtue if he performed them only to receive worldly rewards, Drau secretly swore to take the power by force.
Drau created his own rune, the Feldrau, which could infect the spirit of those it touched, and used it to turn many of the people of the world into drau-versions of themselves.
It is unclear if the people were once all one, but as the feldrau tainted those it touched, the became the drau-elves, drau-dwarves, drau-gnomes, dra-orcs, and drau-folk humans.
Drau lead an army against the Empress, drawing on the power of the Sigilbhan to grant his drau-forces powerful sorcerous abilities, shadowed versions of the true magic of the sigil.
He believed the Empress could not defeat Drau without shattering the Sigilbhan, which held vast planar evil within it which would be unleashed. The Empress tried to leach more power into the minor sigils of her agents, but when that did not stop Drau, she shattered he Sigilbhan, destroying or altering all Bhan and driving Drau and his most powerful agents mad with the sigilshock. Then, before the dark powers within the Siiglbhan could escape, she healed the Sigilbhan with her own soul energy—ceasing to exist in any form. The Sigilbhan now has no mistress, and it’s form is imperfect, leaking fel sorcerous power into the world.
The Bhan Empire fell. Darkness, both supernatural and just that born of fear, greed, hunger, and jealously, tore the empire apart. Lesser evils that had hidden in the edges of wastelands of the Bhan Empire rose and spread, causing wyverns, and giants, and aberrations to overrun much of the world. And brigands, tyrants, and thief kings did much the same.
But the Sigilbhan, sigils, and sorcery continued. Nearly two centuries have passed, and scores of small kingdoms, city-states, and warlords have arisen.
The sigilbearers have inherited minor sigils, those given to agents and nobles who rules under the Empress, though such power is inherited, and while sigls have great power of light, such power *can* be used for evil.
The imperial church worships the person of the Empress in the form of the Sigilbhan–they know her sacrifice destroyed her intellect and consciousness, but believe the remaining sigilbhan, which mostly just fuels the sigls and slowly leaks the dark powers used for sorcery, is a deity and if enough belief and good will is focused into it, it shall be reborn into a true deity.
Sorcerers take the fell planar power leaking from the Sigilbhan and use it to create powerful magics. Though the source of their power is vile, the sigilshock destroyed the most powerful feldrau sorcerers, leaving Imperial agents who had studied drau as the most powerful source of sorcerous study. Most sorcerers claim they *must* convert the power of darkness leaking from the sigilbhan into other magics, or it will turn into native demons and haunts… though the imperial church generally disagrees, and sorcerers are sometimes tainted, and become drau.
Where there were once a single people, the bhan, there are now many groups—though most humanoids acknowledge they are ethnicities of a single people, and can generally interbreed. And of course, some are the drau, who appear no different than their non-drau brethren until they ingest so much fel energy their eyes, hair, or both are bleached to a uniform white. Most towns fear the drau, but it is hard to say who is and isn’t until a drau has vast powers.
When running a Really Wild West game, which takes Starfinder Roleplaying Game concepts and sets them in a weird west version of the real world in 1891, one of the questions that can come up is where the nonhuman species come from. Given how much cultures and nations and lone people can interact, overlap, and move around, any individual character can obviously be from anywhere—in real-world history it’s easy to find Japanese expatriates in Manila and Mexico in the early 1600s, so ethnicity, nationality, and geography aren’t always as linked as typical examples of each might suggest.
But a question remains of where the most common cultures and ethnicities of various nonhuman species are found. It’s a bad idea to replace entire real-world ethnic groups with nonhumans, since that erases the possibilities of real-world options and may tell a player that their actual ancestry isn’t important enough to keep, but if we are presenting a world where dozens (or even hundreds) of species are sharing the planet, it makes sense to consider where our fictional species fit reasonable well with real-world culture, and key those as major cultural and population centers for kasatha and lashutna and others.
This is especially important for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game species. It’s easy to place dwarves, elves, gnomes, haflings, half-elves, and half-orcs in the European areas that inspired them and that lots of fantasy and modern games have drawn from to build fictional cultures for them. You can assume they all overlap with humanity 100%, or make the major population centers line up with the countries you think make interesting matches—perhaps dwarves are German and elves are French. Or perhaps dwarves are French, elves are Germanic, and gnomes Russian or Scandinavian, and orcs Spanish. There’s enough fiction and game material with those races to make it easy to build or match cultures to serve as backgrounds for them.
But there’s not nearly as much material to draw on for androids (especially as Really Wild West envisions them), vesk, or ysoki, and even less for kasatha and lashunta. Since the Really Wild West is set in an alternate version of the real world, if I want to place these new species somewhere I need to either think of places where I can add them to the existing populations, or add new places. I could slap a few new small continents—Atlantis. Lemuria, and Mu come to mind—in the middle of oceans to give me new space for new cultures if I wanted to, but that’d take a lot more effort than I am looking to do just to create some cultural touchstones.
It seems perfectly reasonable in a campaign setting that adds multiple new sapient, sentient species to a fantasy version of the real world to have those species be tied primarily to specific regions or cultures, so that is the approach I took here. That leaves the question of where to place each of these species primary population centers, and for that I looked at each in turn to determine what core feature or concept helps define each and how those can be integrated into existing real-world regions.
I used real-world art references for the art order representing clothing and styles for these new species. That’s not to suggest that all of the Starfinder Roleplaying Game species come from only these regions or look like the characters below, but it’s a baseline to give GM and players something to draw from.
Over the next few posts I’ll give some details where each of these new species is being centered in the world of Really Wild West, and why, beginning with the androids.
Androids in the Really Wild West (far left) are visually and culturally notably different from androids in standard Starfinder Roelplaying Game campaigns. Given the 1890s aesthetic of the RWW, androids are presented as old-school robots, closer to Metropolis than Blade Runner. They could never pass for human. They function with the same rules, but the definition of android in this campaign is closer to “humanlike in form” than “machine that passed for human.”
Complex machines claiming to be automatons and clockworks did exist in the era, perhaps the most famous of which is the chess-playing automaton created in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen of the Hapsburg Empire, who usefully for our purposes also created a speaking machine. While von Kempelen’s chess-playing machine was not a true automaton (it hid a chess player in its integral cabinet), that looks a fine origin for our manlike machines. If the first automatons were created in 1770 in the Hapsburg empire, they can easily have spread to be much farther and wider by 1891. The Austro-Hungarian Empire that formed out of the Austrian Empire that followed the Hapsburg Empire is a European melting pot, and numerous immigrants from that region moved to New York City, Pittsburgh, and Chicago early in the 1800s, and then were part of the century.
We can assume that older androids are from the Austria and Hungary regions, and newer ones likely constructed in the big cities of New York City, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. At some point some form of Turing Test has developed, and androids have won recognition as “people” in the United States, Mexico, and most industrialized nations of the world. But they lack strong family roots, and are often looking for opportunities to make a life for themselves.
We’ll address the kasatha, lashunta, shirren, vesk, and ysoki soon!
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The Really Wild West (a Weird West setting hack for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game) is all about daring heroes who face terrifying odds, survive on sheer grit and gumptions, and fight their way back from apparently impossible situations. Of course the heroes game mechanics of the Starfinder Roleplaying Game take care of a lot of that theme, but some heroes are just better at rising to the challenge when they should normally be on their last legs. To help players who want to build heroes who are the linchpin of avoiding disaster when all hope seems lost, the Really Wild West has Dare Feats.
Dare feats only become active when you run out of Resolve Points, and go back to being inactive when you regain any Resolve Points. Each also has a method for restoring Resolve Points, which also causes the feat to be inactive (until and unless you run out of Resolve again).Dare feats don’t have prerequisites—they can be taken by any character from the plucky young librarian searching for a stolen tome in the rough frontier, to the grizzled veteran of the War of the Worlds who has seen too much horror to be shaken when things go south.
In addition to their listed effects, all characters with Dare feats gain a +1 bonus to saves against fear effects for each Dare feat they possess when they are out of Resolve Points.
Frantically Nimble (Dare)
When the chips are down, you gain a surge of evasiveness.
Benefit: While this dare is active, you gain a +1 bonus to AC. You regain 1 Resolve Point when you are attacked and missed in three consecutive rounds by a significant enemy (the attacks need not come from the same enemy) without being hit in any of those rounds.
Out for Blood (Dare)
You can fight like a cornered rat.
Benefit: While this dare is active, if your attack has a critical hit effect, your attack roll is a natural 19 (a “19” shows on the die), and you meet or exceed your target’s AC, your attack applies its critical hit effect (though it does not do double damage as a critical hit normally does). If you score a normal critical hit against a significant enemy, you regain one Resolve Point.
Run Like Hell (Dare)
When the going gets tough, you can really get going.
Benefit: While this dare is active, your speed increases by 10 feet, you are not flat-footed when taking the run action, and you can take the run action even through difficult terrain or when you can’t see where you are going. You regain 1 Resolve Point if a significant enemy takes an attack of opportunity provoked by you moving out of a threatening space, and the attack misses.
Vigilante Shooter (Dare)
You’ll jump through hell to turn the tides of a bas situation.
Benefit: While this dare is active, you gain the evasion class feature. If you already have this class feature, while this dare is active you roll twice when making any Reflex saving throw and take the higher result. You regain 1 Resolve Point when you succeed at a Reflex saving throw forced by a significant enemy while using this dare.
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Since no one is expected to wear armor in the Really Wild West setting hack for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game, “armor upgrades” aren’t really part of the setting. However, everything that functions as an armor upgrade in the core rules is still available- it just exists in the form of an advanced speculative principles device that builds off stellar alloys, theosophic imbuement techniques, compression gears, heat-ray crystal capacitors, vril, or some other weird science from ancient ruins, Martian wrecks, lost civilizations, or mad scientists.
These are commonly know as “gizmos.”
Gizmos are most common among people who operate on the fringes of society, be they adventurers, bandits, mad scientists, or peacekeepers who have to deal with all those other categories. Gizmos often have a very steampunk aesthetic, with bronze a common material (thanks to its theosophic and anti-corrosion properties), leather straps, buckles, and some nice detail work.
Anyone can use a single gizmo, but it takes skill to use more than one gizmo at a time, or to even have more than one rigged properly to be used simultaneously. You can have ready (and in use at one time) one gizmo, plus one for every kind of armor you are proficient with (the main use of armor proficiency in Really Wild West), plus one additional gizmo per 3 character levels. Armor upgrades that take two armor upgrade slots count as two gizmos for this limit once translated into the RWW. Rigging up a gizmo for use, or putting one way, takes 6 rounds.
Here are the Really Wild West gizmo names and descriptions for Starfinder Roleplaying Game armor upgrades. Each gizmo functions the same way as the armor upgrade it is modeled after (listed in parenthesis), except as noted in each description below.
Aetheric Shields (Force Fields)
Aetheric shields are tiny aetheric generators retooled to work in reverse—rather than taking aetheric currents from the ethereal plane and turning them into electricity, they take electricity and turn them into an aetheric flow that surrounds and (modestly) protects the wearer. The power crystal of an aetheric shield turns the color of the force field it emulates.
Amazing Martian Fighting Shield (titan shield)
This is just one example of the names people use when they take a plate of stellar alloy from a Martian fighting machine, and add straps, and turn it into a shield. It’s big and heavy, so if you use it, you can’t do anything else with that arm.
Babbage Scope (targeting computer)
A Babbage scope takes readings through numerous small lenses, tracks information through a small built-in brass Babbage analytical engine, and predicts where partially concealed targets most likely are.
Crystal Goggles (Infrared Sensors)
The same crystal technology that makes Martian heat rays possible can be turned into red-lenses goggles, that allow you to see heat. Among the most common of gizmos, since you can make several from a smashed Trip’s heat rays.
DaVinci Wings (Jetpacks)
It turns out with energized cavorite (an antigravity metal that can have its gravity- neutralizing properties boosted with an electrical current) and compression gears, some of DaVinci’s designs for powered flight can function.
Dragonhide Duster (thermal capacitor)
While killing true dragons is rarely both practical and moral, drakes and other draconic creatures can be a serious threat in the frontier, and once slain their hides easily take to theosophic infusion to become clothing that stays warm, but never gets hot.
Doctor Cavor’s Resplendent Repellent Field (deflective reinforcement)
Dr. Cavor, the woman who created Cavorite and who has had the most success with Martial technology involving stellar alloys, has built just a few of these prototype devices, that normally take the form of a large metal gauntlet with several crystals and dials. It can push anything away, rather than just alter gravity as most Cavorite devices do.
Float Pack (force pack)
Though it is extremely rare for one of the few Martian flying machines to have one of it’s floater units removed while still functional, when that task is accomplished, a spectacular backpack-style device that allows amazing flight can be crafted from it.
Gas Mask (filtered rebreather)
The threat of Martian Black Smoke forced every nation of the Earth to seek better ways to protect against airborne poisons. Since Really Wild West doesn’t use armor like the core rules do, this gas mask can be considered to work for 5 weeks (though you can break that down into 35 periods of 24 1-hour increments), and then need significant cleaning and refurbishment (costing 10 credits per hour restored). It only applies to inhaled diseases and poisons, though the same cost could be applied to a Diving Helmet and Suit.
Gun Carriage (Automated Loader)
Of use only to wearers of Iron Soldier suits or Tripods (powered armor), a gun carriage is a system of complex clockwork systems that can eject casings and ammo belts, and reload new ones.
Huckster’s Sheath (quick-release sheath)
A spring-loaded sheath designed to be kept up the sleeve, and often considered a sign of low moral character.
Hush Coat (sonic dampener)
This short, leather jacket has gear-shaped metal studs arranged unevenly along its surface, and a dial control at the wrist. It uses a small aetheric generator and retuned Martian heat-ray crystals to creates sounds that perfectly muffle sounds made by the wearer.
Iron Hercules (load lifter)
The Iron Hercules ™ is a compressed air pistol-driven exoframe powered by an aetheric generator to increase your carrying capacity. Also called a “pocket mule” when built and sold by dastards who don’t have the right to the patent.
Jack’s Spring-Heels (jump jets)
Compressed pneumatic pistols running along the calf (and anchored to protective knee braces) drive down, sending you up (or forward). One of the most popular gizmos first designed by Professor “Gentleman Jack” Jersey.
Leyden Gears (backup generator)
These reverse-engineered compression gears are strapped to the arms or legs (or both), and turn your movement into electricity to recharge a battery. It can be connected to a battery belt.
Radium Belt (radiation buffer)
Designed from devices created by Mdm Curie, radium belts protect you from the “poison metals” called radioactive by learned types.
Storm Grommets (electrostatic field)
Storm grommets are small metal rings that can be attached on outwear, with each grommet connected by a high-conductivity wire to a capacitor battery, allowing you to both absorb electrical damage and create an electrical field that shocks anyone that touches you.
Temporal Adjustor (haste circuit)
Only pocket-watches created by famed punctualist Phileas Fogg are capable to being imbued theosophically with the concept of “saving time” that is so powerful, it actually allows the user to temporarily slow all the rest of the universe.
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I haven’t referred to the Really Wild West setting as “steampunk,” because to me it’s a distinct Fantasy Weird West genre, rather than a “true” steampunk setting. Of course, steampunk is as much an aesthetic as a literary genre (certainly true now, regardless of its origins), and part of my issue with calling RWW steampunk is that I am going much more for a western aesthetic than a steampunk one. I’d also want to parse out the distinctions between steampunk, gearpunk, cogpunk, diselpunk, pulp, weird west, fantasy, and a bunch of other things related to speculative fiction settings of the late 1800s before I was comfortable referring to (or marketing) my setting as “steampunk.”
But, there certainly is going to be significant overlap between people who are interested in Really Wild West, weird west, and those who are interested in steampunk. And, ultimately, I suspect the weird west, pulp, and steampunk genres are very much like La Belle Époque, the Gilded Age and the Victorian Era—they aren’t the same, and it’s hard to pin down exactly what is unique to each and what is shared, but there’s certainly a lot of intersection.
Classically, one element of steampunk is that steam-engine level technology is capable of much more advanced devices than in the real world, allowing more modern devices to exist in larger, bulkier, brass-rivet covered steam versions. I’m not depending much on steam as the main technology of Really Wild West, because my setting advances electricity and magic as much as it makes steam more efficient. There are some things common to steampunk stories in RWW, such as Babbages (or “difference engines”) that are gear-driven computers (that can communicate over the Babbage-Bell Grid, creating a kind of primitive internet), and massive airships acting as floating cruisers and battleships, but in most cases those are using an imaginary technology developed from the inclusion of a form of advanced theosophy (magic) in the setting, or reverse-engineered from Martian tech after the War of the Worlds, rather than super-efficient steam. Steam engines exist, but RWW isn’t the steam age anymore. Aetheric engines are more important than steam turbines.
On the other hand, the “punk” elements of steampunk, as a social movement, make sense for my Really Weird West setting. Not all steampunk settings borrow the “punk” part of cyberpunk, but I think it’s worth remembering as a spine of the body that includes so many related and overlapping ideas. Much of the “punk” part of cyberpunk is about wanting to live free of mainstream society’s constraints and refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of social expectations. That certainly borrows from the punk musical and cultural movements of the real world 1970s and 1980s, but in cyberpunk, that rejection is often frames in terms of the collapse of the benefits of society and, with cybernetics and AIs commonplace, asking what it even means to be human.
Some steampunk settings have their own versions of this punk-ness, while others just focus on the dashing heroes of society, whether they are the champions of wealth and aristocracy you’d expect to be promoted by society itself, or plucky underdogs of low station who rise to fame and power… and then generally become not only accepted parts of mainstream society but also proof that anyone of sufficient quality can succeed by bootstrapping, and thus a backhanded claim that the rules of society should be respected because they include opportunity to improve yourself if you are properly deserving. I find this to be especially true of steampunk set in or based on the 1800s US.
However, the imaginary 1891 of Really Wild West is a time of rapid societal change, whether that’s the impact of Reconstruction and the Progressive Era of the United States, the turn toward science and rationality of the Porfiriate of Mexico, or the removal of Otto Von Bismark from power in Germany. On top of those real-world social pressures, the setting of Really Weird West is dealing with the cognitive impact of magic being codified as real by the Theosophic Society over the past generation and proof of alien life (and both its technological superiority and desire to kill us) in the War of the Worlds just a year earlier. While polite society in major urban centers is trying to pretend nothing has changed, in their hearts people know better. Literature, science, music, poetry, and acceptable social behavior have all changed, and many people are actively rejecting its rules which, to be fair, are based on those of the real world at the time and thus include a lot of objectively terrible racism, sexism, classism, and bigotry.
In the frontier lands, that change is even more pronounced. Where lawlessness is more common, society has less power to enforce both its good and its bad dictates. Sure, lawless lands often include a lot of robbery, fraud, assault, and murder, but they also have weaker social codes insisting everyone fall in line with societal expectations. Not no social codes of course—each town, business, cattle barony, and gang can have its own society requirements no less strict and merciless than those of “Back East.” But while that means people can’t automatically be free of bigotry and racism, it also means they don’t have to go as far to get away from it. Given how dangerous it is to live outside of town that might be a short trip into a shallow grave, but the option exists.
That very danger also means that people who refuse to follow the norms of society, but who have a particular set of skills, can find more than one place that will accept them at least as long as there’s a problem they can fix. It’s no coincidence that this sounds like the plot of numerous classic Westerns, but it’s also the plot of numerous cyberpunk stories. In many ways the gunslinger is the original “punk” character concept… and before that the samurai, and local hero highwayman, and some Greek heroes. Punk heroes, as independent experts who thrive outside the system, can exist in the largest numbers in campaign settings where society has a weakened grip. In cyberpunk this is often because corporations have grown to be so powerful that they can challenge the government-controlled legally defined societies, and virtual reality is competing with meatspace, and the gaps between those factors are shadowy realms where expertise is more important than adherence to societal standards. In a Western, Really Wild West included, there’s a similar conflict between the expansive, technocratic societies and the less mechanized and more sparsely-spaced aboriginal societies as well as the rapid expansion of new forms of transformation and communication into areas with vast untamed stretch of exploitable natural resources. RWW, of course, adds magic, an alien invasion, and weird science to the mix to create even more instability, and larger shadows where the punk character concept comfortably fits.
If Really Wild West promotes the idea that exceptional people can rise above their stations and become heroes, it must acknowledge that doing so often means bucking the systemic oppression directed at numerous minorities. Certainly, if a group would rather not deal with such real-world issues, and the players would have more fun playing whatever they want without considering how people from a world based on the heavily-flawed real world of 1891 would react to them, they can do that. But asking a group to all agree not to take the expected real-world biases and bigotry too far may be more than everyone can handle, so there are also explicit notes within the campaign where any character background is explicitly appropriate. Specifically, even in the small amount of material written so far, the Dread Templars and Science Agents are both groups that accept anyone with the skills of a player character, and both are respected and established part of the campaign world. Being a punk who is part of a group may be a tad counter-intuitive, but it’s not really any different than imagining a cyberpunk hacker as part of a real-world collective like Anonymous.
All that said, I’m not likely to begin calling Really Wild West “steampunk,” but I won’t tell anyone else who does that they’re wrong. 😊
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Here’s a picture of my new desk, at the office.
Upon seeing that picture, Alex Augunas noted he wanted to hear the story about the boomerang.
And, weirdly, there is one.
My father was a professor of economics at the University of Oklahoma.
He was sometimes hired to teach short courses elsewhere in the world.
At one point, when I was a child, this included Australia.
When asked if there was anything I would like him to bring back, I said a boomerang.
So he did.
I learned to throw it (not well, and I beaned myself dead between the eyes the first time because I did it wrong, and I haven’t thrown one in more than 25 years).
So I kept it with me. When I was hired by WotC in 2000, I hung that boomerang as a decoration, because I thought it was cool to have a weapon at my desk.
Then I got laid off. And had to move back to Oklahoma.
I promised myself I’d come back to Seattle someday. And that promise got embodied in my boomerang I had kept at WotC.
It sat over my desk, wherever I was, for 14 years.
And now… I’m back. And so it the boomerang.
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