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The genre problem undermining BioShock: Infinite

I beat BioShock: Infinite. I liked it more than disliked it. It’s got an ending that my nerd heart truly enjoys. And I think I’ve got a bit of a theory going on why the parts that don’t work failed in the way that they did.

Beating the game’s not really a crazily impressive achievement, except that I’m extremely flighty about videogames, and actually finishing them. This is especially true of typical AAA titles; little morsels like Braid or Fez have me slavering for more and more until I’ve gobbled everything up (Fez got me but good; it’s the first game I’ve taken to true 100% completion in ages). By comparison, I let the final acts of games like Mass Effect 3 or Red Dead Redemption linger on and on until I’m busy with something else. I’ve solved this problem, sort of: being cash-strapped, I’ve chosen to rent via Redbox instead. The pressure of a fee accruing day-by-day is a nice one to actually see things through to the end.

Anyway, it’s a big part of why I finished BioShock: Infinite despite having issues with it, whereas I’ve only mucked about in the original BioShock that I actually own and hold in higher esteem (though I know the plot well-enough via spoilers). The first BioShock toyed with the ideals of Ayn Rand and Objectivism as the Prime Movers that shaped the world of Rapture for the player to explore. It played some clever tricks, too, with the idea of the player’s (in)ability to choose, and that of their in-game persona, which won it just as much attention as its absolutely lovely “ruined underwater Art Deco fever-dream” aesthetic.

Similarly, BioShock: Infinite, only weeks old, has inspired lots & lots of writing already, and I don’t want to pile on too much where others have written posts covering the territory extremely well. If you poke through some of those critiques, though, it’s easy to see a few camps emerge: those who look at it as a game, those who look at its collection of ideas, those who pick apart the experience of working through the story, as well as many others harder to define. Each group has its own host of issues that stand out as “The Problem”, and I’ve got criticisms of the game that pop up in each category, so I agree with what a lot of those posts say—but I feel like I’ve puzzled out one thing about Infinite’s successes & failures I haven’t seen anywhere else.

Spoilers, yo.

Infinite swaps Ayn Rand & Objectivism out as references and installs Revivalism & American Exceptionalism in their place. Rewinding the clock from the 1950’s heyday of Rapture in the first BioShock, Infinite’s floating city of Columbia sets out to embody all the best & worst traits of America in the 1910’s. Factoring largely in the “worst” part of that scheme: the racism of the American South, resurgent after the Civil War. Emancipation Proclamation or no, the people of Columbia think they know better. (The white ones do, anyway.) It’s all moot, anyhow, as the philosophies supposedly in play are mostly a dodge, and quantum mechanics is the real matter of discussion. Which is just fine, except for those ideas your game raised, and then dropped…

Back to the first BioShock: Ayn Rand never got anywhere with Objectivism, really. Atlas Shrugged never came to pass, no matter what neo-conservatives & Tea-Party libertarians might think. There isn’t a generation of longsuffering John Galts out there, fettered and ground down by the ethics & morals of lesser men. Using those ideas as a backdrop in a game without giving them their due: a missed opportunity, but certainly passable.

This cannot be said for the issues of class, and especially race, that Infinite raises in its construction of Columbia but totally fails to resolve with any satisfaction. Racism was and is a real force that fucked over millions, and shows no sign of stopping. Using it as window-dressing only, without a solid connection to the plot or themes, is like setting a 1940’s BioShock game in some space-Nazi metropolis, complete with cosmic Auschwitz, only to have the game really be about String Theory. Why drag Holocaust tropes into the game at all? “Because it existed in history” isn’t much of an excuse.

What’s worse, extending the analogy makes the flawed logic more clear. Say in this imagined game, a faction of Jewish rebels plotting to overthrow the Nazis did seize power of their space prison camp—and they turn out to be a bloodthirsty mob, slaughtering every German they can find regardless of ideology. And now the hero of the game says in passing that you know what, maybe these Jews and Nazis deserve each other after all.

Woah. What?

But that’s embarrassingly close to what happens in Infinite. Usually the rules of internet debate would say that by invoking Nazis, I lose, except BioShock: Infinite pretty much went there for me. Just with a coalition of largely-Black freedom fighters instead of Jews.

So why make this choice? There’s evidence of the years of thought & planning that went into Columbia everywhere in this game, even though shooters tend to bore me (including pretty ones like Infinite). Why choose your dramatic tools so poorly? Well. I think the secret lies in the game’s genre, as a top-tier FPS title.

Over and over again, through the middle & end of the game, I felt myself bemoaning that so much work went into creating such a fascinating, intriguingly-flawed place as Columbia… which I can only shoot at. It’s almost literally true: I can walk around in Columbia, I can look at stuff, I can raid a hundred trash cans for hotdogs & cash… and I can shoot people. I can get a little better at shooting people, and sometimes shoot them with magic, so I can get to the next part of the city, with more people to shoot… etc., etc.

This game had to inherit the gameplay style of its forebears, for better or worse, and as a sci-fi lover (and avid Fringe fan) I think the conceits of parallel dimensions, time travel and so on to explain away the similarities are admirably done. But the setting of high-tension survival-horror and claustrophobia of Rapture was a good fit for the gameplay, where wide-open, sunny Columbia is not. In Columbia, you are the fly in the ointment, upsetting their elitist eden and bringing terror to the streets; if not for you, things might be peaceful. In Rapture, you fight with the desperation of a man with no other options: kill and progress, or die. Everyone there lost their minds years ago anyway; what’s the harm in killing a homicidal mutant before he or she kills you? Only, the game waits until the end to rub your nose in the “choice” to move forward and live, and it’s revealed you are being manipulated through key phrases that implant the suggestions of Rapture’s NPCs in your mind as total commands. In the city where Man was meant to live unrestrained, you have been enslaved from the start. It’s nothing earth-shattering about Rand’s philosophy, but as a historically-influenced veneer, it’s neat.

Not so for Infinite. The Vox Populi, those freedom fighters of Columbia, are an interesting idea when they first pop up, but it doesn’t stay that way for long. (They were supposedly inspired at least in part by the Occupy movement, which is a complete botched job as well.) Led by Daisy Fitzroy, a Black former housemaid, they have legitimate complaint with the excesses and racial oppression of Columbia’s ruling Founders. Yet, when the time of their revolution comes, they are shown to be mercilessly violent to all in their path, totally beyond reason. Fitzroy herself morphs into an off-the-rack villain in about two lines of dialogue, going so far as to execute unarmed enemies and threaten a Founder’s kid with the same over the course of a couple hours in-game. Suddenly, instead of the oppressive Columbian Police Authority, the people you’re killing on every street corner are the Vox rebels themselves. Waves and waves of the heavily-armed, minority underclass. It’s almost incomprehensible.

So what if it’s all because of a jump into a new, parallel universe in the game’s fiction: the game-makers are choosing to show this universe to us over other options, and it’s a shitty choice. Why? I think it’s because that of nagging issue of mine from before: in Columbia, all I can do is shoot.

The makers of Infinite wanted to include a nod to historical race issues in their game, and they want their players to interact with that game, so my only method to interact with Infinite’s race issues is to shoot at them.

Whatever convolutions of plot were needed to make it possible, they made them happen. It’s even more obvious than it might otherwise seem, since of all possible universes, these are the ones we see—they could have easily been different. In sticking so close the the style of play from their earlier games in Rapture, they painted themselves into a corner for Columbia. It’s possible that the team could have been just as tone-deaf working within the confines of another game genre, but I think it’s a hell of a lot less likely.

There are times when a post of words is insufficient...

Such as now.

The playlist I cooked up for myself this past November is perhaps just too potent. I can’t listen to it without being whisked away to an alternate world of my own creation… full of the Bull Moose party platform, cthonic beasts, Tesla inventions and welcome respite from the trenches of WWI… I thought I’d share it with you, tonight, when the stars (and wine, and whisky) are right, and impairing my perhaps better judgment.


M4 Pt II, by Faunts (Mass Effect: Original Soundtrack)

Epic. Driving. Remorseless.

Fingers Never Bleed, by Yeasayer (Fragrant World)

Full of second-thoughts, disregarded. Facing only the problems at hand, to the eternal discomfit of everyone involved. To quote:

I know you think you could do this without me,
But I know I could do without you,
Failed ambitions held up on a trident,

Hope predictions of future come true…

Black Wave/Bad Vibrations, by the Arcade Fire [esp. starting at 1:33 secs] (Neon Bible)

Portentious. Ominous. Ignored. To quote the art:

Don’t stop now, before it’s too late,
eatin’ in the ghetto on a hundred-dollar plate,
nothin’ lasts forever, that’s the way it’s gotta be,
there’s a great black wave in the middle of the sea…
for me…
for you…
for me…

it’s always for you…

Split Needles, by The Shins (Wincing the Night Away)

Storm Coming, by Gnarls Barkley (St. Elsewhere)

Intervention, by Arcade Fire (Neon Bible)

I can taste the fear.
Lift me up and take me out of here,
Don’t want to fight, don’t want to die,
Just want to hear you cry.
Who’s going to throw the very first stone?
Oh! Who’s gonna reset the bone?
Walking with your head in a sling
Want to hear the soldier sing.
Working for the Church
While my family dies,
Your little baby sister’s
Going to lose her mind,
Every spark of friendship and love
Will die without a home…
Hear the soldier groan, “We’ll go at it alone”
I can taste your fear,
It’s going to lift you up and take you out of here,
And the bone shall never heal, 
I care not if you kneel.
We can’t find you now,
But they’re going to get their money back somehow,
And when you finally disappear

We’ll just say you were never here.

Open Book, by Gnarls Barkley (The Odd Couple)

So you mortals must keep this in mind
This is the way I’m designed
And I am no power so I’ll only die one time…
Come on!
Kill me!
You heard!
Kill me!

I am an open book, an open book…

My Body Is A Cage, by Arcade Fire (Neon Bible)

I’m living in an age
That calls darkness light
Though my language is dead
Still the shapes fill my head
I’m living in an age
Whose name I don’t know
Though the fear keeps me moving
Still my heart beats so slow
My body is a cage
That keeps me from dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key
Standing next to me
My mind holds the key
My body is a—
My body is a cage
We take what we’re given
Just because you’ve forgotten,
doesn’t mean you’re forgiven
I’m living in an age
Still turning in the night
But when I get to the doorway

There’s no one in sight…

Sycamore Trees sung by Jimmy Scott, written by David Lynch (Twin Peaks)

As regards that last track, I find it best interpreted via an apocalyptic, cthonic avenue… beyond that, my impression are vague & unsatisfying at best.

Writing as momentum

We went dark there for a while! It wasn’t a planned intermission, but it turned handy there in the month of November.

I set my sights on winning in National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo), you see! And I made the decision with less than half of my 30 days remaining. I had a small head start, but 50,000 words is an awful lot, no matter how you slice it. But, hey — I did it!

I’ve made token efforts at participating in NaNoWriMo before, but always got waylaid by my perfectionist tendencies. I couldn’t just be happy writing “a story”, it had to my best idea executed flawlessly. That doesn’t mesh well with keeping up a daily word count.

My battle from behind taught me some interesting things about how to keep things moving when you need to hit a certain target in a writing session, and what sort of tricks you can use when you run into trouble. A lot of these are NaNoWriMo-centric, and focused on word count, but a lot of it is good advice when you just need to produce.

Create a short-hand code for “fix this later”. In my story, every now and then a word or phrase would get under my skin, and I’d feel I could leave it just sitting there. But if it’s not an easy tweak, that’s a good way to get off track. Instead, I started just sticking an asterisk next to the word so I could find it later with CTRL+F, when I had some for fine-tuning. Real-world facts I wanted to use, but didn’t know (the length between two places, say) became XXX*, so I could just keep moving to the important writing. Fact-checking is counter productive on a first draft.

If you change your mind, don’t despair: keep moving. After a long chunk of my tale, I realized a part wasn’t working. More drama was necessary. In fact, in the last chapter, things should have gone totally differently. Someone should have died. Did I go back to fix it so I could keep going? No. Reworking a big chunk of text can set you back big-time without adding to your word count. Note the change (in a separate place, or perhaps in the story itself, like “XXX HE ACTUALLY DIES HERE XXX”) and pretend it’s all fixed already. Imagine the way it should be, build on that premise, and keep on rolling.

Find a place where all you do is wage battle with words. My progress slowed to a crawl when I was writing from my PC at home. I finished much, much more when I wrote in one late-night coffee shop or another. Keep your eye out for the places with a good ambience, plenty of space, late hours, and free wi-fi (if you use Google Drive like I did). All kinds of things and concepts live in your house, and your brain is trained those are the things you do there. A new place has no preconceptions; you can assign it the associations you need.

A sub-optimal writing device can be just about perfect. My laptop’s battery is useless, so it’s not very mobile at all. Worse, knock out the cable and it does. So it is that I relied almost entirely on these tools: a Nexus 7 tablet, a wireless Bluetooth keyboard from Motorola, and the Google Drive application. The Nexus 7 is handy already, and can perform most of the tasks a laptop could — just only one at a time. With a separate keyboard, I could type just as fast as usual. And the device’s multitasking limitations, compared to a laptop or desktop, actually help keep the focus on the main goal: getting those words written.

As it turns out, 50,000 words isn’t as much as it sounds. If I’d started on the 1st of November instead of halfway through, it’d have been easy. And it’s not so much another way, too: I’m only about halfway to the actual end of the story I’m writing. There’s lots of events still to come. 50,000 words is really just a novella, like Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, which is about 60,000.

I’m glad I made it to my goal by the end of the month, and I’m interested to see where the second half takes me. Even that won’t be the end, but revisions and edits have to wait for that first draft. I’m thrilled that this year, I’m already halfway there.

Inspiration at the brink of empire: Northern Wilds

My newest campaign, tentatively titled “Northern Wilds” in my head, didn’t start out as a 13th Age game. Instead, it was the idea that came to me while I was reviewing the monsters on offer in the Bestiary of the latest D&D Next playtest PDFs. Right now, that playtest only extends to 5th level, so the list has a narrowness that reflects how early along D&D Next is in its design process. With the “Caves of Chaos” adventure as a touchstone for this playtest process, it’s no surprise that the enemies are certainly familiar.

With my options limited, I wanted to maximize the content I’d been given — which looked like it was all the usual suspects for low-level PCs. Goblin, kobolds, orcs, dire animals of various stripes, and a smattering of gnolls & other familiar monstrous races filled the bulk of the rogues gallery. What to do with such a prosaic assortment of baddies? Try a variation on a back-to-basics approach! Something with bit of sword & sorcery, old-school D&D flavor.

The best & longest-lasting D&D campaign I’ve run so far was a very cobbled-together affair. (On the plus side, I made it a sweet logo.) From the outset, I had next to no idea what the story arc of the game would be. Fourth Edition was brand spanking new, and I’d been out of the RPG swing for a while. I ran whatever pre-made adventures I could find and filled in the gaps wherever I could, just so it hung together well enough to keep playing. When the players got fixated on a particular villainous NPC (almost obsessively so) that got away, the story started taking its own turns. After a little while, I took a few DM flourishes the players enjoyed and pretty much made them the crux of the whole affair: an insane-but-not-crazy lich and his evil plan to save the world. Insert some of these: (?) after about every word in that sentence, too.

I think what made that campaign & setting work is that it was the right size for every moment of the story. When the players were low level, all that they & I knew alike was the modest town of Fallcrest. Likewise, when the players started to get their footing, they looked to the horizons and made out for the dwarven city of Hammerfast, ancient and sprawling. Not long after they made their first jaunt to another plane, exploring the towering fortress on the Shadowfell known as Grin-That-Hides-The-Dagger, as they neared the “paragon” tier. At each point, the world was growing along with the characters, and I was shaping it to fit the players themselves. I love creating settings and fluff, but it’s easy to get carried away. And when that happens, the less-engaged players are likely going to get overwhelmed and have a lot less campaign buy-in as a consequence.

So my goal for this new campaign from the outset was to start small. When I was still planning on using D&D Next for the game, I read up on the classic “Keep on the Borderlands” adventure & its suggested setting, and was immediately drawn to the archetype in the title: an outpost at the edge between civilization and wilderness. That’s a great place to start a story. Already we know a large civilization exists, but is far away. This puts the PCs on better ground to be movers & shakers. We also know the wilderness is quite close — just a across a river, through the woods, or over the mountains. Lots of opportunities for exploration and trouble!

I wanted a framework for this little burg, though, and one with a more original idea than just re-hashing a classic D&D module. Settling on 13th Age as a rules system only reinforced that idea. I wanted a source that could feed me ideas, but that dressed up in D&D fantasy tropes would seem almost wholly new. Thankfully, I had the perfect inspiration sitting on my DVD shelf: HBO’s excellent TV series, Deadwood.

Deadwood is superlative TV. It has great dialogue and a cast of characters that all keep your interest, even when — especially when — they’re black-hearted bastards. The real-life town of Deadwood was filled with grey characters, as opposed to the usual black-and-white morality of the Old West. A perfect fit for my style of play! And the city’s history offers a ton of hooks that could find D&D counterparts:

  • The town was only semi-legal, having been built by prospectors & miners on land promised to Sioux Indians by US treaty
  • For understandable reasons, the Sioux staged frequent raids on travelers to and from the town, with the US Cavalry also operating in the area
  • Given its shaky legal standing as a town, shady enterprises and characters of all kinds made an easy home there
  • Massive mineral wealth was close at hand and being pulled up ‘round the clock, making poor men into rich ones overnight
  • A large need for physical laborers brought in immigrants of all kinds, as well as established citizens hoping to start anew or strike it big
  • The US government refused to either recognize or condemn the town, instead undertaking a long process that would eventually see it annexed into an existing US territory.

From where I sit, that’s a rich combination of factors to put through a D&D filter. Our town will be a shady semi-legal outpost, sitting on rich mines at the brink of an empire, with a thorny local history. Right away, I have an image in mind: a second-rate mountain pass overtaken by ne’er-do-wells, with an official imperial crossing within a week’s hard march. Because I can’t resist, I also started drawing up a map in Hexographer:

My next step was to think about the themes & conflicts of Deadwood in light of the icons in 13th Age. Right away, I decided that the Emperor and his Dragon Empire should fill the role the US government did, which was to be the far-off bastion of strength with a mixed view of the illegal town at their border. Since this town will be our starting area, the players have a solid role-playing choice to make right off the bat: Are you an imperial loyalist, or individualist local?

The next step would be to decide what “native” group will be the Dragon Empire’s opposition in the region, drawing on the situation faced by American Indians in the Black Hills area. The first & easiest opposition force/icon would be orcs & the Orc Lord, but I’ve never been too fond of orcs. Plus, one of the major problems the Sioux had with Deadwood & similar mining towns was their placement in the Black Hills that the Sioux held sacred. Gruumsh aside, the tropes around orcs don’t strike me as making them the choice to use for a culture up-in-arms about spiritual offense.

Instead, I’m going to indulge a personal D&D favorite and make hobgoblins be the regional natives. Goblinoids of all kinds, actually, but as the hobgoblins are the get-things-done sort, they can take the credit. Hobgoblins in D&D have always had a strong theme of order and military strength, so they seem the sort to have had an empire of their own that could pose a legitimate threat to the Dragon Empire. Plus, they’ve always struck me as a good fit to follow a martial code of honor, akin to the philosophy of Klingons on Star Trek (particularly Deep Space Nine). Just to lay my own D&D tropes out in the open: the orcs that I dreamt up* for this game are pretty different than anything Tolkien imagined, so I figure you can negotiate and pose a treaty with a hobgoblin a lot more readily than an orc. (This probably owes a lot to the version of hobgoblins in Eberron.) In any case, my soft spot for hobgoblins will help me keep them as compelling adversaries with relatable motivations, instead of the one-note “savage native” motif that orcs are habitually used as.

So right off, I’m also changing the Orc Lord icon into a Goblin King. I’m also using one of the suggestions for an alternate Orc Lord in the 13th Age core book: my Goblin King icon once fought under the banner of the Emperor, helping to put down the legions of the Lich King’s undead army and stop them from laying waste to the Dragon Empire. (The complex web of alliances between colonial powers and native tribes in the French and Indian War is a good real-world history inspiration on this point.) For their honorable efforts, they were granted the lands they had traditionally inhabited as an official territory of their own control by the Emperor himself.

In more recent decades, though, the Dragon Empire is expanding once more. The lands ceded in treaty were re-annexed and the hobgoblins pushed out of the territory, up into the northern wilds — just beyond the range of mountains in which our second-rate pass sits. It’s in this new vacuum of law & order that the pass gets settled by the people of our village, who themselves kick out a hobgoblin tribe living there. To the villagers, that’s ancient history by now. The mines and the meddling Empire are their day-to-day concerns. But that doesn’t mean the Goblin King or his people are resting so easy, in the pine-forested wilderness not so far away…

And there you have it! By taking a rich example from another medium and passing it through the D&D lens, coming up with a compelling setting is much less daunting of a task. Like I hoped for, it’s a setting that starts small, but has suggestions of places to travel and conflicts to arise later on. And if the PCs fall in love with the town, it’ll be replete with plots and schemes all its own, tied to NPCs that can draw from Deadwood’s deep ensemble of compelling characters.

Pulling from TV for inspirations is favorite trick of mine. Unlike a lot fantasy books that might seem like a closer genre fit, a TV series typically has a wider cast of characters kept in the mix and must limit its storytelling time into smaller chunks. Both of those elements make TV shows a good analog for RPG campaigns. And in the times when I have used books or movies for inspiration, it’s usually just as a jumping-off point: use the movie to help forge an element of the setting’s background, but create the story moving forward out of whole cloth. Aiming for an episodic feel that mirrors the longform narrative of a quality cable series like The Wire or Breaking Bad suits most games much better than simply aping epic fantasy in the vein of Tolkien, et. al… Then again, my love of using television pacing for RPGs is probably deserving of a blog post all its own.

[*Regarding orcs: in brief, in this campaign orcs can only be found in places where great atrocities were committed years ago, as the magical nature of the world is such that the psychic stain eventually manifests into a corporeal form. A ruined tower where once dozens of soldiers were betrayed & slayed in the dead of night: a decade later, orcs may rise from the earth there. Still very much “other”, as orcs typically are, but with enough distance from real-world groups to make them more palatable to see in play.]

Easy hacks: re-flavoring chromatic dragons with the MTG color pie

Dragons are pretty great. I mean, who doesn’t like dragons? Tattoos, RPGs, bitching murals air-brushed on vans; it’s a flavor that goes pretty well with everything awesome. So why does the D&D take on dragons bum me out a little?

Simply put: they’re all too damn similar. Of the kinds most likely to end up in a monster manual, the metallic dragons are the worst offenders (explain the differences to me between a brass, copper, and bronze dragon; I dare you to keep me awake). The chromatics, while better, still leave some room for improvement. For my just-started 13th Age campaign, a few players chose The Three as a setting icon to include on their character sheet. The default 13th Age setting includes a Dragon Empire, which I’m keeping around both in name and function, and its Emperor is another of the icons that popped up on my players’ character sheets. Dragons are definitely going to be A Thing in this game!

The Three, as detailed in 13th Age, are the remainder of an original five archetypal dragons. The White was killed by another icon (the Lich King, back when he was just the Wizard King), and the Green is missing — possibly ransomed, possibly dead as well. The Red, Blue, and Black are still up and about, plotting their schemes and generally causing trouble. Of that trio, there’s some good separation. Perhaps wisely, authors Rob Heinsoo & Jonathan Tweet killed off the two chromatics that have been given short shrift in D&D.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lesser white and green dragons in the world. It simply means that those two iconic archetypes are now lost. And for the whole gang to fit together, there needs to be a cleaner philosophy explaining what makes a green dragon, or a white dragon, who it is. Plus, chromatic dragons as more-or-less irredeemable villains is boring. Yes, the metallics could be brought in, but as I said before, they’re in an even sorrier state. Working out my problem, I realized a possible answer lay in that other hobby that eats up all my time & money — Magic: the Gathering.

One of the many things Magic has done exceptionally well in its almost 20-year history is define what separates its colors of mana. It’s smart game design and good business sense, too. There are mechanical, philosophical, and lore separations that make each of the five unique, so that each color has a recognizable style. And rather conveniently, its five colors are the same five colors of the most common chromatic dragons in D&D — I want that! So, let’s see how importing that system into the lore of chromatic dragons works out.

For starters, in MTG, dragons as an actual creature type are tied pretty tightly to red; we won’t be including that, of course. Even so, we can use some artistic license to expand the category of “dragon” into something more broad and give each color dragon its own spin. Who says they only come in “St. George versus the Dragon” flavor? Broadening our idea of what a dragon can be can create some interest and unique setting elements to play around with in a campaign.

Magic includes one twist on the dragon concept right off the bat: the terrifyingly huge creatures for green mana aren’t traditional dragons, but “wurms” — burrowing monsters much like the sandworms from Dune. “Wurm” or “wyrm” has been a stand-in for dragons since medieval times, and the green type speak to some key dragon qualities: hunger, brute strength, titanic size. Green mana has associations of growth and nature, so let green dragons be heralded as bringers of these as well. And for the mechanical inner-workings, just borrow mechanics from D&D’s classic purple worm, stick some of them on a dragon, and now you have a working, land-bound dragon! Trying to satisfy expectations without being trapped by them opens up other dragons to shine, too. In this case, the other four colors shine a little brighter by virtue of their being able to fly, whereas the green can’t.

The other dearly departed dragon in 13th Age is the White. White mana, in Magic, is close to your typical good-guy archetype of the paladin variety: order, law, and selflessness. Mechanically, white cards in Magic often include life gain, bind other cards from acting, and support many smaller creatures working together. This “nice streak” sets our white dragon apart from his selfish, avaricious brethren in my eyes, so I want the eyes of player characters to see the difference too. I still want to keep traditional dragons on the scene, so we’ll leave The Three alone as far as looks. So what of the White?

A perfect opportunity to introduce a more Asiatic influence on dragonkind, I’d say. I love the look of the character Haku from the film Spirited Away, when he reveals his dragon form. Where are the wings, you ask? Is this kind flightless too? Not at all! When Haku flies, it just looks like this. There’s a poetry to that, and it just feels right for a white dragon. How would it work from a flavor perspective? Glad you asked!

Time to pull in some ideas from another favorite universe of mine to polish a few rough edges — Avatar: The Last Airbender. (I hope I don’t have to defend loving a kid’s show, because it’s one of the best animated shows around!) What I have a mind to steal is the idea that manipulating the element of “air” can allow someone to fly. I can see this working wonderfully for dragons. Call it something else in the setting, but if dragons can “bend” their given element, we also have a nice fit for our green dragons being land-bound — they’re tied to the earth element, of course.

Extending that idea, blue dragons get water and reds gets fire. Simple, and somewhat in line with the original Magic color wheel idea, too. Both can still fly, and look much as the 3.5 D&D Monster Manual depicts. As suggested by the setting details of 13th Age, the Blue dragon icon is a sorceress and her brood are masters of magic. The Red, I think, should be the one to stick closest to the medieval/Tolkien-esque dragon archetype: lusting for treasures, quick to anger, and woefully terrible in strength.

Where does this leave black? I have a couple ideas, and this is the one I’m running with in my home game: there’s a fifth element, as is often the case with “classic elements” outside of Greece. You see it in JRPGs all the time: “void”, “soul”, “spirit”; something like that. I think it can work great for black dragons with the right lore context. Combining the concepts of void and soul sounds a lot like the death bailiwick that black mana and black dragons are often connected to. Recast them as the bleak, baleful gate-keepers of the underworld, secluding themselves in places that fit their sullen temperament (like the swamps mentioned D&D’s monster manuals, and forgotten graveyards, too). Now they, too, have a place in the world that isn’t pure evil.

If you’ve gotten this far, but you’re not familiar with the MTG color wheel, here are some key concepts in each color:

  • White: Order, civilization, law, light, healing, stubbornness
  • Blue: Knowledge, intellect, time, ice, water, illusion, wizardry
  • Black: Selfishness, death, decay, isolation, darkness, stealth
  • Red: Passion, chaos, fire, quickness, recklessness, greed
  • Green: Nature, growth, slowness, brute force, earth, life

Put that list to good use! This is just the sketch of an idea, understand. There are things I haven’t worked out yet (what is a black dragon’s breath weapon like? Was killing the White iconic dragon, with its healing association, a key to unlocking lichdom for the Wizard King? How does 13th Age’s metallic-seeming Great Gold Wyrm icon fit into all this?), but rather  than me puzzle those things out and present this concept fully-realized, grab your own inspiration! From Magic: the Gathering or elsewhere, fill in those gaps in a way that makes sense. One facet of 13th Age that I really like it that it presents the bones of a setting, and invites player groups to flesh them out (this is one area where I think I sense the influence Eberron-creator Keith Baker, who’s thanked in the credits). As I continue to refine my world, I’ll share more places where I’ve molded outside inspiration into something that’s my own.

One last side note: my MTG concept has also led me to realize the remaining dragons in The Three make up a Grixis-shard trio… Just the thought of what that could mean for my players fills my heart with sadistic glee.