Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Magical Industrial Revolution: Some Thoughts

Not exactly timely, but here is a review (of a kind) of Skerples's Magical Industrial Revolution (hereafter MIR).

This is available in hard copy (US link, UK/EU link) and PDF. I'm working from the PDF.


Other reviews collected here


I'm dividing this into three sections. First, a fairly self-serving look at how MIR might connect or overlap with the The Rest of All Possible Worlds (hereafter TRoAPW), the magical enlightenment setting I'm steadily assembling. Second, a look at the bulk of MIR and how it all fits together. Third, some scattered thoughts.


****

The cover.


So: does MIR conflict with TRoAPW? Do the two match? Is this blogosphere big enough for the two of us?*


Well, the answer to the first of these is no. MIR starts with the premise of a paradigm of magic having been devised. See 'Emergency Backstory', p. 7:


a reclusive foreign wizard named Valentine Sims published Principia Arcana, a new book of theoretical magic. In obtuse but incontrovertible terms, the book explained the nature of spells, wands, scrolls, ghosts, and a dozen other seemingly disconnected phenomena. 

Sims publishes what is imagined could be the results of TRoAPW. Players in TRoAPW are (in an atmosphere of) contributing to the research of magicians, charting ley lines in far-off places, making observations - if they aren't getting into fights, conceiving wild schemes, investing in the South Sea bubble or anything else players usually want to do. Theories flash back and forth; journals contradict one another; schemes are hatched to prove one side over the other.


Do they match, then? Well, I don't intend to take the Paradigm of MIR as the 'canonical ending' of TRoAPW. It's a possible result. MIR claims to be (p.2):


Restoration-Georgian-Regency-Victorian fantasy. It starts with liberalism and social change and ends with the First World War, but it’s more focused on the middle bit than the transitions at either end. 

But to my mind the emphasis is far more on the second two of those four historical modifiers. A Later Stuarts-Early Georgian fantasy with rapid social change fostered by magic probably looks a little different to vanilla MIR. TRoAPW probably only has a bit of proto-liberalilsm floating around - and has already sketched out a continent, rather than one city, for players to come from and visit - for enlightened absolutists to sponsor experiments, for intrigues and golden opportunities.


Enough of this. On to the next section.


**** 

MIR is a set of narratives - I can't call it a set of tools, for the places and people are sufficiently detailed to make them beyond templates - detailing a industrial revolution using magic in a city called Endon. Whatever else Endon may be, it is ahead of the curve: an unstable mass. Skerples calls it a 'pre-apocalyptic setting'; that may be technically correct throughout the game, but it is truest at the higher levels of development. 


Endon is London. That should be obvious. Not the real, historical London but the London of a thousand movies and TV series and novels and half-remembered anecdotes. 

Of course, if your group is familiar with London, Endon becomes Hong Kong. Or New York. A New York with only one river to cross; a Hong Kong with a Parliament and a Royal Palace. It is London unless sufficiently altered, though that's not a bad thing.
Incidentally, for all that Endon is London part of it reminds me of Edinburgh - no Royal Mile or New Town or crag-top Castle, but there is an Auld Grey Cathedral, an Old Endon Cemetery which seems more reminiscent of the Edinburgh Kirkyards (and Burke & Hare) than anything in London and an institution called Grim Balliol (yes, but also...).

Endon is unlike the countless districts and wards of Electric Bastionland, say. You can get a grasp on the entire city and its laws and mores - in order to save it, or exploit it, or simply live in it.


Fine. London-not London. Rules for smog. Vast crowds. What else? 

A map of Endon.

CLASS.

The Poor, the Working Class, the Middle Class and the Upper Class. Encounters, NPCs and districts are divided by Class. Innovations will effect different classes differently. 

This sounds obvious and to be expected - how many tabletop RPGs do you know set in a classless utopia?** - , but MIR is very clear about the presence and requirements of social class. There are ways to enter a given class, and ways to leave it.

INNOVATIONS

There are eight narratives of innovation that take place in Endon, detailing their evolution from Initial Innovation to Terminal Events. These will change the surroundings of the city around you as (say) teleport spells become cheap and safe. 

The changing pace of events is called the Tempo, and must be tracked. The Pre-Session Checklist (p. 151) allows you to do just this. There's a lot of ticking clocks built in, each with its own dire consequences - aside from any hijinks that may ensue as you go. It's the sort of game that makes me long for a team of staff officers to help run it. 

Given that each Innovation is effectively a science fiction story in miniature, this should be no surprise. The premise is generally excellent, building into a bizarre and quite probably horrifying set of consequences. 

MAGICAL INDUSTRY

There are methods for making magical items and creating new spells. Doing this at scale seems to be largely a business of getting capital and a workforce. The methods of mass production are established, as are the norms connected to it.

The lists of Unique Low-Level Spells, Discount Spells, (Minor) Magic Weapons, Minor Magic Items are all inventive and characterful - in regards of humour and practicality. Two examples, then.

A Minor Magic Weapon:

Crass Knuckles. Deals 1d4+1 damage. On a hit, target must Save or spend their next round swearing and unable to cast spells. 

A Minor Magic Item:

Hairpuller. Originally used by tanners. Small metal rod. On hit, all hair on a cow-sized target or smaller flies off painlessly. 3 uses per day. 


I have then presented several attractive images of MIR. This is all very well, but some of you will be asking how well these separate elements come together and all the mechanisms work. I can't claim to have tested MIR at all, so shan't make any very bold statements. 

MIR is largely laid out in two columns per page, quite crisp and clear. The introduction of the Tempo symbol (¤) makes clear those elements of Endon that are being transformed by the innovations. The whole thing is presented, fittingly, in black and white - integrating jokes from Boff! Magazine, even. A mix of illustrations decorate it, some from the public domain, some the work of Messrs Newell, Stahl and Rejec.

The greatest irritation MIR presented me with was the Condensed Random Encounters table on p. 18. This is of three rows and six columns, with headings in bold and entries alternately on a white or grey background. The second two rows are sub-tables for the first two columns of the first row; this was not clear to me at first - there are some discrepancies between the text used in corresponding terse entries.
I suspect that some colour-coding or a few well-placed arrows would have redirected me sooner - but ruined the overall scheme. It makes me wonder if anyone has accomplished digital variants of the tricks of cross-hatching, dotting and so forth seen on old maps (IE, here).

MIR is an interesting balance of ideas and urban mechanics, usefully presented. It is sufficiently modular that any pieces you wish can be removed and repurposed, and there is room for extra stuffing. I would take a look.

****

  • The Eight Deadly Sins (the extra is Hatred) work quite nicely as the basis for a carousing table.
  • I am convinced that Wackit is in fact very simple and terribly exciting; so exciting, in fact, that everyone decides to take tea midway through a match in order to calm down.
  • The fact that the newspaper name generator can turn out the Daily Mail/Express means that re-rolls may be necessary. That said, a paper with a name like the 'Inside Monitor' is quite sinister. 
  • There is magic, but no miracles or divine intervention. No clerics. There is a Church of Endon, but this is 'a feeble and somewhat disreputable institution vaguely associated with charitable works, weekly luncheons, and tutting'.
    Again, this is the London of popular fiction. We leave aside Mission Societies, the birth of the Salvation Army, fledgling Anglo-Catholicism, and all other trappings of the religious life of nineteenth century Britain. Though clearly, you could slot some of these back into Endon.
    Leaving clerical magic out simplifies things immensely - but Endon is intended to slot into other settings, and we are provided with potential motivations for clerics, monks, paladins and druids to visit the city.
  • Further details on Loxdon College have been made available on Coins and Scrolls, and I advise you to take a look at them.
  • An adventure called the Biggest Aspidistra in the World is included, with a giant specimen of the titular plant. 
  • The PDF came with some in-universe pamphlets that allow communication of some of the above. These are an apt touch.
  • There is a Bibliography (p. 147) and a list of Inspirational Media (p. 148) to consult. You won't be surprised by the appearance of Charles Dickens, Osacar Wilde or Conan Doyle, though you may not have encountered the stories of Saki. Nineteenth century non-fiction makes an appearance - including some of the works of Marx. The familiar appearance of Sir John Soane's House was quite welcome.
    Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is cited (though is perhaps a little rural for Endon). Terry Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork was clearly something of a reference for MIR (just look at the list of street-sellers) and sure enough, some of the Discworld's 'Industrial Revolution' stream such as Going Postal appear here. The unlikeable rogues Redmond Barry and Harry Flashman crop up also.
    The 1970 film Cromwell is perhaps there to explain the Bogs and Gumperts; I'm less sure for the reasons behind the 1998 picture Elizabeth. Unless this is something to do with the monarch.
    Gardens of Ynn is suggested among the list of bolt-on RPG adventures.
    Mid-twentieth century BBC Radio comedies such as The Goon Show, Hancock's Half Hour and Round the Horne are suggested to inspire Endonian plots. I would suggest Tales from the Mausoleum Club (and The Fall of the Mausoleum Club) to add onto this; the episode 'Heart of Skegness' remains a wonder. (There have been numerous half-hour BBC Radio 4 historical sitcoms***; the 2000s saw two closely occurring Victorian ones in the shape of Bleak Expectations and The Brothers Faversham).


*Grimacing, the drifter extracted a package from his coat. He struck an electronic match on his electronic bootheel and used it to light an electronic cigarillo. The fingers of one hand stroked the bone grips of his cyber-Colt. From between narrow eyes, he watched the drift of the Vampire-Spam tumbleweed.
When his voice came, it was in a harsh whisper.
"Alright, Mad Dan Skerples....."

**Of course, it doesn't seem to weigh too heavily on the average band of adventurers. 

***Like Acropolis Now [Aristophanes jokes are mainstream, right?], or the weirdly specific Leopard in Autumn.

2 comments:

  1. This town ain't big enough for the two of us. We're gonna need a bigger town. Now you mosey on down to the survey board while I speak with the zonin' commission.

    Hooray thoughts!
    -I'm pleased you spotted a bunch of references (including the bits-of-Endon-as-Edinburgh).
    -Very early drafts of MIR included a section for class-based religion (High/Low/Charismatic/Partially Pagan) Church with a separate section for the Mendicant Militants (with the appropriate Major Barbara references), but in the end it didn't feel necessary for the book's goals. Religion is one of those things that most RPG setting books provide in great detail; if the goal is to drop Endon into an existing setting, providing as little contradictory material as possible felt right.

    Anyway, all good notes!

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    1. Glad to hear I wasn't spinning the Edinburgh connection out of thin air.

      A uniformed, muscular, religious revival might be an apt reaction to the growth of magical industry - but I grant the uses of a readily adaptable Endon.

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