TableTalk RPG Project 2021

Tesserae Terra / Frankenstein Earth / Void Breach

Nebulous Shadowrun Memories

I'm feeling quite nostalgic about the Shadowrun universe. No, wait, hold on... it turns out I had actually only seen glimpses Shadowrun at some point in my life and somehow imagined the rest, probably blending ideas with the "Mutant" RPG we had here in Sweden. The older Mutant was based on Gamma World and (in my sessions) some of those elements carried over to the Tech/Cyber version which came out later. When I finally looked into Shadowrun in 2021 (newer versions), it was really quite different from how I had imagined it. The Trolls and Orcs look kinda like humans with added teeth. There are some more exotic monster-people but these don't appear much in art. Anyways, I immediately started doodling on my own not-Shadowrun, adding some ideas from Rifts. I'll have to look into Cyberpunk as well. It has some pretty good art.

World Design

The story begins on "Earth" ca. 1920. There's a large scale ongoing experiment using a spooky device to open a portal to magic-space. Obviously this never happened on our Earth so it's clear that there are several parallel Earths. In fact the same experiment took place on many Earths at one time or another, which is why it both worked and failed at the same time. These particular devices had been set to the same frequency, so the experiments both amplified and interfered with each other. Pieces (less than 1000km in diameter, a few km up and down) of the various Earths were pulled into magic-space, forming a sort of Frankenstein Earth there. The pieces, or tesserae, were perhaps placed on a more primitive foundation Earth (Permian/Pangea), so it wasn't like cake slices going down to the core. The different regions are each inhabited by different Earthlings, all roughly at the same tech level and of a similar physical and mental composition.

Lineup

Demons, Goblins, Ogres, Trolls, Dwarfs, Humans, Foxes, Lizards...

Faces

...and ducks. Horned green guy was originally a Troll but I went for a long-nose design instead.

There are no humans from our Earth, though all Earths share some distant past. The humans are relatively closely related and all recognise a historical figure known as the Xenophon the Philosopher King. When Xenophon's teacher was executed by the ecclesiarchy for heresy, Xenophon started a movement which would eventually overthrow the government and usher in a form of governance which would change the world. Their calendars are based on the death of Xenophon at summer solstice.

I don't want to reference cultures in a strictly monolithic way (i.e. I'd avoid Maori, Mayans, or Vikings), but there might be fragmentary similarities due to coincidence. Cultural caricaturing is lazy and it wouldn't make sense considering the point of divergence. A lot can happen in a few thousand years, such as. Another Earth might be very surprised to find a bunch of white and black people in North America, for some reason worshipping a middle eastern man (portrayed as white). And that happened in just a few centuries, because of guy on a boat, potato fungii. Then there's a few hundred men conquering South America (in bad shape after a famine iirc). Anyways, some ideas for human cultures of different Earths:

--- Tularians ---

The new Athenian governance models were transposed to Africa and the middle east. Soon after at 80EX (265BC), the Philosopher King's young empire falls into the hands of a genocidal tyrant, and is then stricken by continual crop failure, pestilence, and various misfortunes. By the end of it Europe's population has fallen from 18 to just 4.5 million, with most of it in isolated regions locked by panicked regressive policies. Meanwhile, the African technocracy had benefited greatly from innovations in sanitation, agriculture, trade networking and education (already having the printing press of sorts, derived from pottery rollers used in central africa). The nation, already stretching from Egypt down to Chad, expands outwards, discovering Europe's untapped natural resources around 240EX. Europe is conquered and settled by 700EX (355AD). Native populations are gradually displaced, suppressed or assimilated. Up in the north they come in contact with, and mix with descendants of Asians which had been proliferating through Russia, Sami territory, then down to Denmark, known here as Tular. The Tularians managed to build the spooky device as early as 1432EX (1087AD). Landwise, their tesserae consists of Denmark, and a piece of Norway, and a nibble of England.

--- Gauls ---

The Philosopher King's influence reached the lowlands beyond the Alps, bringing unity and prosperity. At around 350EX in the Empire of Gaulia, Zahn the Great rose to power, conquering much of the known world (not that much). The empire collapsed when Zahn was assassinated at the age of 33, but his ambitions would last, as would the hatred for the the people who had assassinated him (which was quite broadly everyone not Gaul-looking). His charisma and ruthless pragmatism was captured in The Book of Iron. Though it was written one and a half century after his death, it's unquestionably regarded as canon. The book became so highly fetishized that every other century the Gauls would attempt to recapture their glory days. So they would remain in constant war as technologies evolved and stakes grew higher. In 1750EX East Asia had established mutually prosperous trade (gold and technology) with South America. Asian invaders conquered Europe in 2010EX, but only ever remained in partial control. Europe formally ceased being an Asian colony in 2220EX when the last land was relinquished. In 2323EX the Gauls rose once again, armed with gunpowder and new zeal, conquered Europe and finally eradicated the "scheming Sarmatians" who had long been regarded as the most culpable for Zahn's death. It was not enough, and they turned their guns on the rest of the world. They were in the midst of a final atomic World War with the South American superpower when running the spooky space experiment in 2342EX and getting yanked.

--- Sivarians ---

The Sivarians inhabit the Indus river tract/territory called Sindhu Varsa. The Sivarians generally had a peaceful time. Just sat there building a megacity which never fell to invaders. Other peoples, mostly directly from east and west, would eventually come to gather there too. Once the city and surrounding land got transferred to central Pangea (no coast), the river connected to a new one, backwards, causing additional confusion. They were the most numerous of the three human Earthlings but disasters and antagonists would strike soon after arriving on Pangea...

The various tesserae are not in their proper orientation due to timings with Earth's rotation. Possibly, the same map region can occur twice. The arrival and joining/stitching along the edges caused some calamity, though survivable. There were the initial quakes, wild storms, and water level changes due to mismatched altitudes and drained rivers. Quakes continue in some regions close or on top of tectonic boundaries. The atmosphere of a Permian Earth might have 23% oxygen and 870ppm CO2. Though the sun is different, the average temperature is about the same, about 16 deg.C.

So, we've got variety of humanoids and cultures, but perhaps with some sort of common goal. I think they need to be forced to mix (after some conflict), because a mixed player party should seem natural. Magic-space works a bit like the Imperial Vortex in Flash Gordon, hosting a variety of other mysterious planets, so space travel is easier but maybe also difficult (space dragons/monsters). The player characters could do the same thing as in Shadowrun, with powerful entities (demon, fox, duck gods?) pulling the strings behind the curtains.

It makes sense for the various Earthlings to have different physical biases (stats, abilities)*, but it's a bad idea to make them monocultural. Not only would it be hard to get a party together if everyone's at war, but the antagonists should some harmful thing worth fighting and not "those uppity elves, all the same". I'm thinking initially there were been tensions and suspicions, but at present the world is a bit of a melting pot, except for certain regions, councils.

* I wouldn't differentiate between male/female player characters stats wise (e.g. str/dex/ch). It might be a subtle effect and not one useful or fun for creation and play. The interesting granularity might come in play choosing between Troll and Goblin. How NPCs are stat'd is up to what makes sense in the scenario of course.

Cat

Some Earthlings went extinct, like the Grey and Red Goblins, Ape-humans, Yellow Lizards, Hydras, and Land Octopus.

Cat-people huh? I'd call these type of anthros Incidental Furry, as they are not the primary payload like in Furry RPGs. Wing Commander's Kilrathi are of the incidental type. Another type is Horny Furry (often seen making "that face"), and there are a couple of RPGs out there for that. Generally they include a good variety of species, support social and daily life play better than hack-n-slash games, and they expel elements hostile to the fantasy (kind of how grannypanties don't exist in my worlds). Lastly there's the standard cartoon/slapstick/storytelling furry (Tom&Jerry, Robin Hood).

Actually my furries here slide towards the horny side of the spectrum because of... the Mass Effect... effect, where humanoids can conceivably date each other, as opposed to e.g. Star Frontiers' approach to race design where a Dralasite dating a Vrusk would seem very strange.

Genetically the animal people and monsters are Earthlings, but as evolution might have diverged far in the past for each Earth, they are not offshoots of contemporary animals in our world. The ducks might be postapocalyptic though, having discovered fossils of a self-annihilated human-ish civilization some million years prior, so they know what can go down and are a bit weary.

It'd be best if some time has passed after the transition, allowing the world to become its own thing. Perhaps not many people survived the transition and the following tumults so it took a while for populations to recover. With a 1.05% yearly population growth on average, 250K x a dozen factions turns into 4.5 billion in 150 years. The tech level was maybe 1920s but due to the initial low populations and conflicts reaching the cyberspace era was a slow climb. Then there's the germ situation... might've been disastrous for some. Magic probably took some getting used to for everyone.

Earthlings

The Earthlings were able to build the somewhat advanced experimental device, so they're similar in many ways. It's possible I suppose that some used hive-intelligence to do it, or got lucky with a smart individual, but otherwise they're similar to a human in ability. Some Earths were more closely related... actually, it stands to reason that most Earthlings would be from nearly identical Earths which just diverged, but maybe those universes continually converge and are thus filtered out. *handwave gesture* At any rate, the Earthlings need to be something that a human can play.

I think timelines and lists should have summaries and expanded versions. Timelines which are mostly exposition and events with no explanation or obvious connection are tough to read. I'm not a writer, but I think a good hook is to make the reader wonder and speculate about what's up next, then surprising them a little. An RPG book is more interactive with the reader darting between different sections, like a smorgasbord/buffet, so it can't be done like a linear story. Each section should stir up imagination, make sense independently, but also have leads going elsewhere. It might be nice to scatter in micro-stories, short and easy to read.

Predator

Super-predators.

Then there's the flora and fauna for each region. Some Earths had dangerous predators and bugs, and some of these turned into super-predators, a few of which can even use magic. The Sorcerer Mantis is not only the size of a dinosaur, it's a powerful magician too, able to hypnotise its prey, throw up shields which shrug off cannon fire, and use a plethora of attack spells.

The crocrats, while only about the size of a boot, are all connected to their hivemind, allowing them to act in unison and coordinate behaviour planet-wide, such as avoiding poison (and breed resistance against), find vulnerable prey or safe locations, and just conserve resources in general.

The Magic Vortex & The Collector

The vortex is a region of space somewhere, sometime. It's about 1AU in diameter, and is host to a small yellow star and numerous clusters of planets. These do not orbit the star, but instead hang at fixed positions, merely spinning on their axis. Between the planets is empty space, miscellaneous planetary debris of various size, streaks of mysterious gas, and space monsters. These make space travel very dangerous, though nearby planets can be explored by naked eye, and more remote ones have been studied by telescope, except those stationed behind the sun.

The sun is not well understood. Some call it The Collector, believing the sun to be a living entity which collects planets by locking onto the beacon signals incidentally generated by the experimental spooky devices built by creatures such as the Earthlings. Others believe that planet collecting is a natural magical law of the vortex, or that the rarely seen greater Demons are somehow involved in the process, or that some monster out there is gathering planets up to eat as a snack, spitting out gas and unpalatable bits.

Would there be tidal forces between planets? While they spin, they are also held in locked positions. I suppose it depends on just how they are held... by force, or by nullifying gravity in space. Would radio or laser communication be possible between planets if any others are currently inhabited? I think other worlds should remain mostly mysterious, though city lights would be visible if they have those. Is magic in the vortex of the fantasy type or psychic powers type, or based on some sort of system? I think it should be somewhat limited and rigid.

Permian

Because only certain regions are "sampled" and not that many people survive, diversity will be somewhat limited. However, since the divergence point for the human Earths is quite far back, it wouldn't make sense to try to represent our world. There would likely be minority populations within the modern cities. My Tularians could be quite diverse as they're a blend of a variety of people. Part of their ancestry lies in down in Kush. India could've had some influx from both west (arab world) and east (south asia). The Mirrorverse humans might be more homogeneous.

As for picking the Permian period and Synapsids... it's to differentiate and not do the obvious thing. Triassic/Jurassic Dinosaurs has been sort of done in movies and everywhere already and feels kitch. I suppose the transplants would bring plants (such as grass, flowers and trees) which won't otherwise exist on a Permian Earth. I wonder how Synapsids will react to grassy fields? Modern animals probably hold some significant advantages over Permian ones, like hearing, temperature regulation, digestion, flight, adaptation to predators. I recall there was some issue with dying plants not being broken down by microbes and bugs the same way they are now, but that was perhaps in the Carboniferous period. The Permian period lasted for quite some time and had some extinction events, so it doesn't quite make sense to mix animals from the entire period. I suppose they could've been sampled too though. Some ruins and craters can be added to suggest sapient creatures have been brought to the planet in the past.

Thoughts on Rules

I used the term "TableTalk RPG" at the top of this page. It's a term used in Japan, and for me it better encapsulates the game than "Tabletop" does as my group never played with miniatures. Our sessions* were more about directing the mind's eye ("Theatre of the Mind" might be the term) and less about the physical eye being locked onto stuff on the table surface. The burden of running the simulation fell on the GM and less on squares and systems with constraints. Hidden rolls, improvisation and lack of meta gaming during play, promotes immersion and reduces rule arguments and consultation, I think. With this style of play, it's best to avoid complex maps such as mazes (not fun to play anyways), and good to encourage colourful descriptions and landmarks for each area. Combat could use a zone (range bracket) system.

Detailed rules can become an obstacle. Ultimately the GM arbitrarily decides the fate so moving complexities onto the player doesn't make the game more fair or realistic. To me (and especially nowadays with CRPGs), the strength of the medium lies in the richness of human responses. Yes it's fun play pure hack and slash dungeons and watch numbers go up, but richness and improvisational interest can exist in this type of play too. "TableTalk" doesn't have to mean "in-character" awkward voice acting. It could mean "unusual actions and outcomes that you'll never see in a videogame".

* We called RPGs "Rollspel" in Sweden (spel meaning both play and game) and it worked great until CRPGs intruded on the territory even though they are just games with a bucha more stats than usual and have about as much roleplaying as Super Mario Bros.

However, if the rules are too light and flimsy the game might feel arbitrary. Rolling dice is empowering as fate is seemingly decided by an impartial third party - luck. I do think the rule system should be quite plain and understandable, with modifiers and special rules being improvised by the GM. Too much luck (or "swing") can be frustrating though so perhaps I'd prefer something like table or bell curve system. Desperation Points which can be used for rerolls (or roll mods) also empowers the player whilst being simple to use. Certain things might need to be abstracted to a few rolls, like skills which would normally break up a party (scouting/sneaking ahead, or entering cyberspace). I like the idea of degrees of success/failure, as seen in e.g. Rogue Trader. I like the idea of using stacking (collecting) skills to level them up ("Nerve Strike" doing more damage and perhaps allowing for more complex use. It would be used in conjunction with say throwing, grappling, martial arts skill, creating synergies).

The GM often selects which skills and base stats are relevant for a roll/test. The player just selects which action to take. By including the base stat, one avoids having to rebake it into the skills when it changes. I like the idea of being able to change stats slowly, so I think number ranges need to be a bit larger. I think the system should be able to handle large scale differences so there's no upper or lower cap. Opposing rolls are nice because... say 2D12(player) vs 2D12(gm) produces a bell curve where one can fumble and/or the other crit. For dead obstacles it feels a bit off though, and it might slow down the game. Concievably, a firefight could be resolved using opposing dice plus modifiers such as weapons, cover, then degree of successs determines # bullet hits (which can be translated into fewer precision hits).

When it comes to character creation, I think the meta is kind of interesting as it's a form of solo game you can engage with for fun. If the player is given complete freedom to tailor the character, it might result in min-maxing ideal/solved "builds". If it's completely random then it's not very engaging and a bummer for players rolling poorly. I like the idea of rolling, say 3 races, then pick one. Same for skills, gear. Stats get a reroll and points for tweaking (maybe half of old rerolled stat... do you pick a high or low one?). There might be limits to how many tweak points can go into a single stat. The player who rolls the lowest might get Pity Points. Starting level could be Normal(15), Rookie(10), and Pro(20). I'm wholly against classes as they only create design problems, like who can be what, wear what, multiclassing (trying to not have classes now?), balance issues, etc. Creating synergies from a random hand of cards is more interesting. It's a new landscape each time, and usually not a solved game. Modern boardgames do this well.

As for cyberspace... is it really that interesting nowadays? Maybe it needs to be be abstracted under a few skills which are used at consoles. Rather than making it futuristic, one could latch onto nostalgia and make it mid-'90s web. "It will take 5 turns for the modem to connect. *ccchhheeeioooorp*. You are now ONLINE, with Netspace Navigator 2.0. The YouScape homepage loads. I need you to make a roll to find Meow123's profile and contact link as it's hidden in a custom weird layout they made. Ah! You find the contact info hidden in an animated GIF frame." Programmers can spend time writing and improving custom software (up to programming skill max), which is a thematic downtime activity. Custom software suites can give additional bonuses to hacking rolls. Being successful here could result in improvement points / experience which perhaps can go into the programming skill.

Tech could also be mid-90s, like phone boxes, lack of smart phones. Cybernetics could be partly magic (Magic-Point powered artificial muscles/motors/actuators, or mind controlled at least), solving some of the issues tech can't.

If the rules are pretty light, NPC helpers would be fun. Sort of like mascot characters, and also usable as sacrificial red shirts to save the PCs. A more wild idea is to do what Tunnels and Trolls did. A player plays multiple characters and expect some of them to die. It would require rule simplification beyond what might be fun, but I can see a few advantages with this method: It's fun to make characters. Loot which might not be useful to your main character can be used by another. Death is less of a bummer, and there's a greater sense of danger as the GM can play hardball.

Ransoms and bounties for both enemies and PCs might add some variation to encounters. The GM can save PCs by having them get caught (including a daring escape later), and the PCs get to perhaps make plans for catching crooks alive somehow.

I don't like the big heavy hardcover books with gloss print, so I'd split the main game into stapled (not glued) soft cover booklets (comic book 6.625×10.25" (6×9" safe) ). One for lore ("General Knowledge"?), one for character generation and gear/shops, one for rules, then adventures. Perhaps adventures could start in the shop PCs visits after char gen?


Art by Arne Niklas Jansson

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