Monday, December 27, 2010

Crimson Blades of Ara Part 1: Introduction

This is part one of a five-part series in which I will briefly describe some of the major features of Crimson Blades of Ara, the FRPG that I co-created with Dave Miller starting in 1989.  Herein I will discuss (and provide a link to) the game's Introduction -- but first, a few general remarks about the system's creation, mechanics, and flavor.

The more I read in the OSR blogosphere about other (non-D&D) FRPG systems, the more I realize that Dave and I were likely re-inventing the wheel to some extent when we wrote CBoA.  To be clear, I personally never laid eyes on RuneQuest, HackMaster, RoleMaster, or any other FRPG except D&D, T&T, and once or twice -- and only very cursorily -- The Palladium RPG (which Dave owned).  So I was not consciously ripping off any other systems.  But Dave and I were both sick of some of the core mechanics of AD&D, so CBoA was mostly a reaction against those aspects of D&D that seemed too arbitrary, limiting, and/or tiresome to us.  To wit:

- AD&D had classes and levels; so CBoA was a skill-based game without classes.  Probably the thing we were most emphatically reacting against here were the specific limitations placed upon certain D&D classes, like Magic-Users being unable to use swords.  The character of Gandalf belied that interpretation, and so we had no truck with swordless wizards and the like.

- AD&D came off as human-o-centric and placed seemingly arbitrary limitations upon how high demi-humans could level up.  In our view, some kinds of demi-humans should in fact be MORE skilled and powerful than humans are (like Tolkien's elves were), so our system placed no such limitations on them. 

- We also strongly felt that our RPG system should not only have a ruleset that reflected our gaming preferences and philosophy, but that it should include a well fleshed-out campaign setting as well.  In fact, we decided that what would set CBoA apart from AD&D is that it would have a clearly delineated default game world (Ara), and that the history and characteristics of that game world would dictate the parameters of the rules mechanics.  This may not seem revelatory to anybody else (or even to me in hindsight), but at the time -- note that we were more or less ignorant of Greyhawk, Blackmoor, and the campaigns out of which D&D actually sprung -- we felt that AD&D was too "generic." We thought that in trying to be kind of a "catch-all fantasy setting emulator" AD&D (as we knew it from the Player's Handbook etc.) missed the chance to include the kind of juicy specificity and unique twists on "typical" fantasy settings that we planned to pack into the Lands of Ara. (Again, we were likely reinventing many more wheels than we needed to with this, but we were young and full of energy then.)

So, with those design goals in mind, we set out to put together a rules system and a campaign world that WE wanted to play in.  And that we did.  We began preliminary design discussions in the summer of 1988, and were actively hashing things out and writing things down in earnest by early 1989.  We then played Crimson Blades of Ara more or less exclusively from 1990-1998.

The first few issues we tackled in writing CBoA were the pre-history of our campaign world, the origins of the various races that inhabit it, and the origins and physics of magic in Ara.

The Introduction to the CBoA rulebook, subtitled "The Legend of Crimson Blades," is a chronicle of a key early event in Ara's history: the arch-sorceress Awra flees from the magic-fearing society of Noffel, and, due to unforeseen circumstances that trap her at sea, uses her power to create the Rodian race.  That Introduction is available in its entirety as a pdf download here and has been previously posted to this blog in two parts:

Voyage of the Tarandis Part 1
Voyage of the Tarandis Part 2

What I like best about this introductory tale is that it simultaneously introduces a couple unique features of the Arandish game world -- seafaring, magic-fearing Noffellians and a "lost" (or at least forgotten) civilization of ratlike humanoids -- and also lays the groundwork for a great set of adventure hooks: the Crimson Blades.  Where did those thirteen enchanted swords end up?  What powers do they have?  What exactly did Awra do to them?  Indeed, it was always our idea to keep the fate of most of those swords opaque so that individual referees could use them as adventure seeds for their own campaigns. 

(Those interested in Arandish history should also consider reading Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of the "Pre-History of Noffel" and also could take a look at a few of the links in the "Player Resources" section of the right sidebar.)

Next up: the "Characters" chapter!


  1. A while back you mentioned that herbalism was a skill in Ara, on a post about my plant magic system based on the Iroquois. I have been coming back to that again, although reshaped through the tropical lens of my current 4e compaign. I have been thinking a lot about plants and magic, and insects and magic, and the relationships between insects, plants and magic.

    It has been coming more and more clear to me lately that all the sentient races share a common (false) conceit that magic comes from their mastery of the arts of sorcery or their pious worship of divine beings.

    Magic is energy is everywhere. Magic is the land is the animals and the plants and the people.

    I look forward to reading more about you guys' creation.

  2. That Herb Lore skill is coming up in the next installment, in the "Characters" chapter. It is pretty limited compared to the kinds of stuff you have created, though!