Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Necromancy of the Light

As an example of what I wrote the last two days about originality in MUDs and other roleplaying games, let's consider necromancy in Lusternia, as it is, and as I might have done it.

The only practitioners of necromancy in Lusternia are the unabashed "bad guys", the city of Magnagora, just as you'd expect. However, this is not as firmly linked in history as it could have been; it's mostly a historical accident. The origins of necromancy are completely unrelated to the origins of all the other things that make Magnagora the bad guys (especially as the game was first developed, though some revisions have strengthened the connection since).

Necromancy was developed in a long-ago time as a means of sustaining more troops in the battle against the Soulless Gods, and it was a controversial technique, but it was being used by the "good guys" of the time -- the Vernal Gods, mortals raised up to godhood for the battle. Long, long after those battles were ended (with the last of the Soulless Gods, Kethuru, imprisoned by a set of Seals formed from the last of the Vernal Gods), necromancy was still used by some of the people of the Holy Celestine Empire, while others found it despicable, but they were all still parts of the same nation who just differed on tactics.

Largely by happenstance, it was some of the people who advocated for the use of undeath who chanced to be the biggest victims of the Taint, the bit of the influence of the Soulless that was released when explorers found a way past the Seals to Kethuru's prison. Those people were twisted by the Taint and embraced it as a means to more power, while everyone else recoiled in revulsion from the way the Taint disfigured both body and spirit. Thus, the Taint is the physical incarnation of, and explanation for, what might normally be called "evil", and the people who lived in the city that happened to fall prey to it... coincidentally including the advocates for the use of necromancy... became its standard-bearers.

There have been some elaborations later that posit necromancy as being related to the same fundamental force (excorperditio) that drives the Soulless, and hints that earlier experiments with necromancy in a still-earlier age (long before the Vernals) set the stage for the later development of undeath, so eventually, Lusternia will probably tie up the association of necromancy with the Soulless very neatly, leaving only the one coincidence that it happened to be Magnagora that was the "victim" of the Taint, as a result of an expedition that wasn't even sponsored by or originating from Magnagora's efforts.

So that's how Lusternia did it. Now, let's consider something about the politics of Lusternia. Out of the gate it had the same three sides that most MUDs start with: good, evil, and nature. Good took the form of New Celest, using faith and courage to seek to expiate their previous mistakes in unleashing Taint by driving it away for good. Evil took the form of Magnagora, embracing the Taint as a means of self-improvement and a pathway to power. Nature took the form of Serenwilde, a forest commune which resisted the Taint as a perversion of nature but which also disliked New Celest since cities are opposed to the natural order (though this was muted since Celest was also defenders of that part of the natural world that was underwater). Magnagora hated Serenwilde correspondingly (plus they just generally hated everyone). So in the triangle of relations, the reasons for Serenwilde and Celest to dislike each other were far weaker than the others, which tended to lead to a lot of alliances with "the lesser evil" and a resulting trivialization of those considerations -- Taint is so visible an antagonist that something as nebulous as "they're savages" or "cities are unnatural" tends to be forgotten and lost in the face of practical exigencies of battle. (Especially since Magnagora came out of the gate far more powerful than the others, due to skill imbalances, a larger playerbase, and a system with too much positive reinforcement.)

This combination of alliances got stale, and often, players flew in the face of it and formed different alliances. But they never lasted because the reasons for the "default" alliances were too strong to resist for too long. Later events made the political balance more complex (after quite a few false starts) and more interesting (and then eventually threw it all away in favor of a few bad ideas, but that's another story).

Putting this together, imagine if instead, undeath had been posited as a force of the Light, a holy ability to transcend and resist death. Instead of raising shambling, brain-eating zombies, suppose you raised light-infused spectres bearing the cold of the grave into battle against the infidels. Instead of becoming a rotting lich with a taste for human flesh, suppose you turned yourself into an undying vessel for an angelic presence which gave you strength to fight against evil, at the price of your humanity. And suppose this was all described in ways that were very clearly opposed to the natural order of life, death, and rebirth, the cycles of the world.

You could readily rebrand all the trappings of necromancy as being in harmony with the themes of New Celest and divorce it from the associations with evil. After all, there is plenty of symbolism in the space of the sacred for defying death, for resurrection, for transubstantiation past the weakness of the flesh. It would not only be a different, and less familiar, take on the ideas of necromancy, it would also serve to give New Celest and Serenwilde a fundamental, ideological difference as great as that between the Light and the Taint, one which could not be so easily brushed aside.

It's wandering too far down paths of unconventionality like that (and of which that is only the smallest of possibilities) which ensures my ideas would never make a MUD (or any other kind of game) as popular as Lusternia.

No comments: