Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Navel Gazing in Scarabae

Over on G+, Jez asked: "What are the major conflicts in Scarabae?" A fair question, especially from a player who might want to get his character involved in some of those major conflicts.

My answer: There are four Courts that are essentially "guilds" that represent major loci of power. Each Court advises the Lord Mayor, and they wage a covert war against each other for influence and power. The Courts are: the Court of Swords (military--both official and licensed mercenary companies), the Court of Coins (mercantile consortium, organized to represent trade guilds), the Court of Wands (the most powerful arcane magicians and crafters of magic items), and the Court of Cups (the combined force of religion--they represent the interests of the Major Arcana).

Also the colonization of the Western Frontier is probably a big issue. The Western Frontier is essentially a gold rush situation, so whoever gets control of a sizable chunk of the territory is going to be a force to be reckoned with.

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"It is courage to choose not what will make us happy, but what is precious."
 — Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria 

Since Jez was asking me about the upper-tier conflicts in my setting, I've started thinking about how much Scarabae is unintentionally a reaction to what's going on in the country I live in, and some shifts in Western politics overall, in the last year-plus. (That was one long election cycle.) 

Scarabae is designed as place where immigrants and refugees are encouraged to make their home. The first bit of lore in the setting doc states, "it is said that Scarabae is unique in that it welcomes the most disreputable and cast-off vagabonds to become its citizenry." It's a city-state that actually wants your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free. 

The reason why the list of races available for player characters stretches to two pages is because I want to see how cosmopolitanism works as a defining setting element. Racial disharmony isn't going to be common in the setting; more or less, different "species" get along, so the focus will be on how the individual fits in and makes their way in the greater polity. 

D&D, as a system, probably resists this a bit with its roots in pulp fantasy that inherited the colonial adventure tradition, but on some level my games always struggle with the game's framework anyway. None of these "themes" were posited by design; I guess they've just been on my mind as I've been working on game stuff. 

Too bad these ideas seem more appropriate in a fantasy setting than they do in reality, you know?

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Thinking about all this led me to add another large scale conflict that didn't occur to me when Jez asked initially. I had been undecided about what demons and devils (and other fiends) were about in Scarabae. 

But I've figured it out: fiends are the inverse of the Major Arcana. Since the Major Arcana cards of the Tarot each have a contrary meaning when inverted, it makes thematic sense that the "gods" of the Major Arcana in my setting also have their antithesis--and it makes sense that their antitheses are demons, devils, and all that ilk. 

Each fiend bears the meaning of a cosmic principle in reverse. Every demon lord or archfiend is simply the opposite of one of the Major Arcana, but they're divided along an extremist axis of law and chaos regarding their ideal state. Devils are those who would bring order in its fascist form--in Scarabae, that means an end to cosmopolitanism and the dawn of nationalism, exclusion, and the notion of "making Scarabae great again." Demons are pure nihilism--everything is tainted, nothing is good enough, and so Scarabae must all effaced, forgotten, as if it had never existed.