WHAT WAS WRITTEN MUST BE DESTROYED
Walton Wood heads to Argentina and speaks to games designer Gavriel Quiroga about his new science-fantasy game Warpland...
As the bewildered Demiurge contemplated how His once-proud work crumbled, a solemn silence fell, and then – rising in a crescendo, from beyond the limits of possibility – a boundless, terrible wail was felt by all things living and not, shaking the very pillars of creation; and just before retreating forever to unknown sidereal regions, His cosmic finger signaled the broken realm. Once again, Man was allowed to be.
– The World Chronicles, Chapter II
Now the Land of the Warp is riven by powers beyond mortal ken. Whatever god may once have watched over this doomed world has long since turned away. Science and learning are shunned as agents of a barely remembered, now-incomprehensible cataclysm. A hollow religion’s iron-clad fist forces ignorance on the remnants of humanity as they live, mutate and die beneath a shattered, ever-shifting sky.
Welcome to Gavriel Quiroga’s Warpland.
But this psychedelic, primeval science-fantasy setting wasn’t birthed in the grimy alleys of Citadel, the iron bogs of the Grunge or the demon-haunted rift of Doomgape. It emerged from the dystopian future of Quiroga’s first RPG, Neurocity.
‘I started writing about a simulated reality built by I.S.A.C., the supercomputer,’ Quiroga said. ‘I thought that it would be very cool if that simulated world was some kind of medieval fantasy. Halfway through the conceptual development, I came across the Hard to Be a God film versions, and then the book by the Strugatskys. That is when it all came together.’
Neurocity is a gritty retro-cyberpunk RPG that incorporates strong socio-political overtones and motifs of technocracy and oppression. Technology is poorly understood, and for many, if not most, of the city’s inhabitants, it is more akin to magic than a practical tool. That mass ignorance makes it a powerful weapon in the hands of the elite.
Technology occupies a similar esoteric status in Warpland, but it is far more scarce, and its dangerous nature is universally engrained in the social consciousness. This game turns the technology-as-a-tool-for-oppression theme inside out, focusing instead on the motifs of obscurantism and censorship.
‘In Warpland, oppression comes in the form of religion. People are spatially free as long as they maintain a Tenet which prohibits them to read and write, study the past or build machines,’ Quiroga said. ‘So, humanity is pretty much stagnated in an Iron Age, ignorance and brutality running hand in hand. In a world turned upside down by the practices of an advanced civilization, obscurantism has been established in an effort to prevent further change, with the argument that we must not fall again on the sins which caused the collapse of reality. So, I think it is fair to say that anything that facilitates power and control can be used for oppression, but whatever form it assumes, fear is actually the essence behind it, and that comes back to freedom. In both books, the courage to strive for truth despite overwhelming odds is the great liberator.’
The pursuit of knowledge exists not only in the games’ worlds but in the games themselves as games. RPGs are virtual environments in which players face novel problems and can collectively experiment with solutions without fear of serious repercussions. And although none of us will, hopefully, ever have to confront an angry Iron Lord astride a giant tapir, Warpland’s political dimensions are meant to gesture toward the problems we face in our own lives and to prepare us for addressing them head-on.
‘I wholeheartedly believe games, and in particular RPGs, can be motors for growth and learning,’ Quiroga said. ‘There is, of course, an aspect of entertainment that is undeniable but this does not undermine the fact that they can still offer a chance for understanding our complex reality provided certain conditions are met. Greek theater had a similar educational role in society, but what does our modern society have? We turn on the TV, and all we can gasp is “The horror, the horror!” That’s what interests me both as a creator and as a player, to have fun while experiencing a simulation of reality that by extrapolation helps me get around contemporary concerns.’
“I WHOLEHEARTEDLY BELIEVE GAMES, AND IN PARTICULAR RPGS, CAN BE MOTORS FOR GROWTH AND LEARNING”
In the case of Warpland, the fundamental concerns are strongly influenced by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1964 novel Hard to Be a God. This book, and both its 1989 and 2013 film adaptations, depict a world sitting at the cusp of its Renaissance, only to be dragged screaming backwards into the dark of a vicious Iron Age.
Much like Neurocity – which is a bricolage of dystopian tropes and motifs – Warpland has roots in a variety of sources spanning literature, film and games. The setting, tone and imagery are heavily influenced by the science fantasy and Dying Earth genres, especially works by Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe and Robert Silverberg.
However, unlike dystopian media – the tropes and concepts of which can mesh fairly seamlessly, as Neurocity demonstrates – works in these genres often portray extremely distinct settings. Quiroga’s solution to this disparity was to craft a world perpetually tormented by the fallout of an ancient superweapon that fractured reality itself. But beyond weaving these sources and influences together into a coherent setting, Quiroga also needed to ensure that sense of fragmentation permeated the book.
‘I felt then the wisest approach was to convey the feeling of the setting with lots of visual support. I needed players to see an Iron Lord drinking Yerba-mate mounted on a tapir in the swamps of the Grunge, or how the landscape in Arkanar looks,’ Quiroga said. ‘I had a very clear idea of what I was looking for, and I had the luck of working with a great group of artists, each with their own style and technique, really patient and talented guys. I think we succeeded in achieving a cohesive aesthetic despite the myriad of techniques.'
Warpland’s readers will encounter a slew of typefaces and layouts as well as graphics ranging from woodcuts to Romantic paintings to original illustrations to rubber suitmation stills. Far from disintegrating into incoherence, this variety establishes a self-identity through stark difference.
That character enhances the book’s creative and practical functions. The visual dimension not only orients newcomers to the setting but also serves as a handy reference during games. Players can easily flip through the pages and locate the content they’re looking for based purely on the designs, thereby enhancing usability along with immersion.
The game mechanics likewise foster engagement with the world and narrative rather than emphasizing the function of the formal rules. Warpland’s core is an intuitive, user-friendly conflict resolution mechanic adapted from the one used in Neurocity.
‘A 2d6 roll-under-the-stat resolution system requires minimum cognitive effort and allows for complications in both successes and failures,’ Quiroga said. ‘We added Initiative Tests inspired by The Black Hack and a damage-within-the-attack roll that is a bliss to play. We also switched the Tension mechanic to Willpower in accordance with a proper heroic fantasy setting.’
This modified version is streamlined and elegant without sacrificing flavor; characters can, for example, acquire skills like Technocrat, Merchant, Warlock, or Fool to add creative and mechanical depth to their play experience. As a whole, the system possesses the capacity to handle whatever unique situations the players may encounter without getting bogged down in technicalities.
‘The rules vanish behind the story. Newcomers to the hobby get the hang of the system in less than ten minutes, and nobody needs to do any math for them,’ Quiroga said. ‘I have always felt that if I wanted to propose depth and an emotional compromise in my settings then I needed to balance with a system that was both light and flexible.’
Warpland successfully strikes that balance, offering an accessible but robust experience for fledgling players and veterans alike. Indeed one of Quiroga’s playtest groups now uses the system in their long-running game previously powered by Pathfinder. The experience itself is fundamental to the game’s goal of providing entertainment as well as provoking contemplation of social and political issues.
In this latter aspect, Warpland is not unique. RPGs have made great strides over the past half-century. They have grown from the “Gilded Hole” fantasy to encompass profound considerations of the meaningful issues that we confront individually every day.
RPGs now increasingly represent a medium that facilitates creative conversations and cooperative confrontation with deeply rooted real problems. Games like Warpland, as an interactive medium, can equip players with the tools and strategies needed for decision-making and action. And they can do so effectively by recombining the static forms that have traditionally dominated serious cultural discourse.
“PEOPLE ARE SLOWLY WAKING TO THE FACT THAT LITERATURE, VISUAL ARTS AND THEATRE INTERMINGLE BEAUTIFULLY IN RPGS”
‘I feel this is an incredible time for creative experimentation,’ Quiroga said. ‘We are blessed with a community that is supportive and has refined criteria. It is important we don’t lose this social aspect and we keep nurturing it. Perhaps something similar to what happened to the comics format is happening. People are slowly waking to the fact that literature, visual arts and theatre intermingle beautifully in RPGs.’
This feature originally appeared in Wyrd Science Vol.1 / Issue 2