30 July 2013

Kickstarter: Mechanika - Empires of Blood and Steam

After the Kickstarter project Mechanika: Empires of Blood and Steam by Xaos Publishing relaunched, I expressed some interest in the setting and system to the team after they sent me a thank you message for backing. That was their first mistake. What began with that innocuous and polite gratitude, stretched into a long series of e-mails containing a barrage of questions and ended with a phone interview of the author. Thanks to Josh Sutten and M.P. Yorty; scholars and gentlemen, both of you.

The system is like a distant cousin of Fate and there are some similar trappings, but it is not Fate. The basic system is Skill/Attribute + 4dF, with a range of skills and attributes. Destiny Points (also referred to as Fate Points) are the meta-game currency of Mechanika, used for re-rolls, scene editing and character improvement. They are gained through role-playing, particularly the Concept, Higher Self and Lower Self. 

Also included are Perks and Flaws. Among these are the most interesting system elements in Mechanika: the Supernatural Perks. Among you will find things such as Preserved (a homage to Lovecraft's Herbert West - Reanimator), but also access to the Supernatural Traits, including engineering and magic.

Engineering is a steampunk staple and the creation system is key for any game with a claim to the genre. What Mechanika offers seems to be promising by all early indications. These devices, referred to as "machina", belong to one of seven invention Houses, each with a specialty. Alchemy takes cues from Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, and classical alchemy in altering substances - including living things. Clockwork machina are complex and delicate, personal in size and some of the "classic" effects. Electric machina tend towards conventional power to super-science applications that would make Tesla proud (who is featured in the setting), such as intangibility and teleportation. Explosives seems pretty straight forward, but there are some unconventional effects such as a explosion that repairs everything in the radius. Firearms features machina that range from the conventional to bullets that shoot bullets. Resemble ventures into the field of steampunk body modification, using mechanical and biological parts. Steamworks machina are heavy iron with boilers - these are by far the largest machina.

To actually create a machina, you choose the Houses your functions will be selected from and the chassis it will have. The chassis will determine some limitations about the machina (e.g., an exo-skeleton can have more functions than a watch). After that, based on the Houses you have access to other functions can be added. An Engineering roll will determine how powerful any function can be, and you will purchase them with your Flux rating. It all seems very straight-forward and intriguing.

The other major system of interest is magic. There are 12 different schools of magic that can be learned, each with five tiers of effects. What is fun about the system is the spell chaining. You are free to combine any of the effects that you have access to, creating a potentially more powerful (or useful) effect as the end result. An example provided was combining the "minor quakes" effect with the "jets of flame" effect to cause a mild earthquake with bursts of flame from the ground. There are three different types of magic-user: magi are traditional wizards, while warlocks use blood and life force to power their effects and wyrds make pacts with other entities and use talismans.

As interesting as machina and magic are, it is the setting which has caught my attention the most. It isn't uncommon to see a game incorporate H.P. Lovecraft's works, who, despite his many failings, has influenced (colored, if you will) our views of horror. Mechanika takes many of the elements that he introduced and then interprets them in new ways. If nothing else, the seeds that the setting presents are fascinating. To fully explain, a bit of history regarding the setting of Mechanika.

A thousands of years ago, the Old Ones arrived on Earth in their Nautiluses; crashing into the landscape. They quickly spread over the world, claiming it as a new prize and base in their Great War, spread across time and space beyond comprehension. They began shaping the world and its people with their Black Technology, powered by "Flux". Some Old Ones subjugated populaces, while others worked from the shadows. The means didn't matter, because their influence changed and corrupted all that it touched.

It didn't take long for their eternal enemies who pursue them relentlessly, the Fae, to arrive and continue the Great War on Earth. They were hardly the benevolent rescuers that humanity (or what it had become) was hoping for. They seemed like a better alternative to the Old Ones (and possibly were). Their methods were different, perhaps more palatable, though they were no less ruthless in their goals. The Fae showed no remorse about doing whatever they deemed necessary to drive out the Old Ones.

It was the Fae that used and introduced magic to the world - their special abilities powered by the same mysterious source as the Old One's Black Technology: Flux. To the uninitiated, these seem like completely different sets of principles, but in truth they are simply different methodologies for manipulating the same primal energies. Both of these are based on the cosmic horrors of Lovecraft and can often have terrible consequences for those that use them.

After the Fae arrived, they began to drive the Old Ones back. Their victories were never without a cost. Much of what we know as Alaska and western Canada is now known as the Grey Wastes after the Fae used an alien metorite as weapon of mass destruction (a homage to "The Colour Out of Space") on retreating Old Ones. It is now a land of colorless, brittle flora and strange mutations. 

These cosmic entities battled for centuries, but a thousand years ago came an event known as the Great Exodus. After the Old Ones were sufficiently halted, most of both factions left the Earth, presumably to carry on the Great War on some other planet, dimension, time, or corner of a strange universe.

It is through the magic and Black Tech that was left behind by the Fae and Old Ones, not to mention the biological horrors that still reside to fight a war that their masters have abandoned, that humanity has learned to mimic their manipulation of Flux. They do this without any real understanding of the principles, more like children trying to follow in the footsteps of gods. Success in these fields has been remarkable, but horrifying as well in consequences.

Not all the Fae or Old Ones left, and more may remain, sleeping and hidden. (As an aside, there is a sick part of me that views the plight of the Old Ones that remain as a reflection of Left Behind, where they are going through the Tribulation against the hordes of humanity.) These entities may be worshiped as gods, or exert their influence in subtle ways to incomprehensible ends. Regardless, the world they left behind is not one that we would immediately recognize as our own.

The Mediterranean was long ago blocked off and drained by the Black Dam, a massive structure of Black Tech that produces an incredibly amount of energy previously used by its Old One creators. Now it is controlled by the Empire of Atlantica, an Old One-centric nation with a great deal of Black Tech within the new Mediterranean basin.

That is not the only change wrought to the landscape as Egypt is now a lush jungle with a vast inland sea. The US has been divided into three distinct geographic areas by the collapse of the Mississippi River, forming a huge chasm with waterfalls on either side. Within the southeastern United States is the Black Spire, constructed by the Old Ones to reanimate the dead as a workforce and army. Now it a critical part of the nation known as the Sovereignty.

In the northeast can be found the Empire of America, founded when George Washington took the crown and established his reign. Americans are known for the unshakable discipline and strong military heritage. Their borders have since expanded against the other empires in North America with their military machine, constantly seeking new ways to incorporate magic and machina in their relentless advance.

Across Albion and Ireland exists the powerful Celtic Empire. It was founded on the ideals and laws of King Arthur and his round table and maintains its presence through its mystical forces. these include magisters, warlocks and magical items. As well, the fae creatures that reside within its borders and will not hesitate at the opportunity to spill blood.

Within eastern Europe, the Eclipse Empire can be found. It is hidden beneath toxic clouds of ash and smoke, virtually uninhabitable to all but the hideous creations of Dracula's legions. It is now ruled under the iron fist of Vlad Tepes, a Romanian lord that gained control over his homeland and beyond by devouring the Old One, Nyarlathotep. Those few that actually live within this blighted realm do so with respirators, underground homes and a very healthy fear of everything.