Insider 8-15-2011

Certain recurring questions about our setting crop up on the forums or when talking to players in person. I’m not surprised when people ask about the juicy mysteries that we have intentionally obscured, although I can’t answer those. What surprises me more is how many people want to know the little details of ordinary life in the Iron Kingdoms.

I enjoy that people get attached to the setting and want to know what it would be like to step into the world, walk its streets, and smell the coffee (“does coffee even exist?”). They are curious what sorts of shoes people are wearing (“buckles or shoelaces?”), whether there is sanitation and plumbing for when you’ve had too much ale (“ale exists, right?”). Others ponder the GNP of Cygnar, Khador, Ord, and Llael or ask about the average family household income in Corvis and Khardov. Some wonder if the Korsk city watch has to regulate the flow of foot traffic from Morrowan cathedrals and Menite temples to avoid impromptu religious riots. “Do city guardsmen at remote towns earn hazard pay or get insured against troll attacks?” People worry about whether local bakers and cobblers are making enough to support their families, and also want to know if there are parks, and if so what sorts of birds and rodents are lurking in the hedges.*

Back when we were planning the Monsternomicon 2 for the old RPG we considered including an appendix on ordinary animals. This was one of the most frequently requested questions from our roleplaying community. People were eager to know if there were animals like horses, badgers, deer, and other critters common in our world. They wanted in-game rules and stats for setting-specific variants, like the ulk ridden by the Nyss and the bison employed by the kriels of southern Khador. Matt Wilson even obliged us (after much pestering) by drawing an ulk and a bison in all their natural majesty. We convinced him by insisting these drawings would be useful for imminent HORDES cavalry concepts. Sadly, we couldn’t come up with a good excuse to convince him to draw an Iron Kingdoms squirrel.

Ultimately we abandoned the appendix—it seemed a poor use of artists’ time to draw badgers, goats, and weasels, however fearsome. We decided the pages were better filled with other things, and I was grateful to use them to expand the chapter on eastern Immoren and the Skorne Empire instead. This was the right decision, but it left some GMs disappointed that we failed to provide stats for the Blackeared Midlunder Goat or the Hellspass Spotted Cougar.

I understand the appeal of the ordinary, particularly for a roleplaying game. A player is more likely to confront the plumbing (or lack thereof) in Five Fingers or a stampeding herd of bison than he needs to know that an earthquake in 3500 BR nearly leveled Malphas, the first city of the skorne. At the same time, it’s easier for people to use their own imaginations for day-to-day minutia.

We are constantly making decisions about what we should spend time describing or illustrating. When it comes to Iron Kingdoms fiction, we endeavor to include as many nitty-gritty details as will fit. I look at every narrative as a chance to expand the world in the minds of our readers. But we have not had the luxury to shine a light into every nook and cranny of ordinary life. We are more likely to discuss the conditions in the muddy trenches along a hotly contested border than we are to follow Corvis’ preeminent baker as he prepares his morning pastries. Our nations are mixed up in a massive ongoing war, so it’s only natural that battle and strife take center stage.
We concentrate our energy on those aspects of the setting that make it stand out. The Iron Kingdoms occupies a world not entirely different from our own and which relies on the familiar. Western Immoren is not precisely Europe, but it has many similarities, with a dash of temperate North America as well as a few other oddities. If you or I were dropped into the heart of Caspia we would have a good idea which building was a tavern and which was a factory, and the local birds and squirrels would seem familiar (well, most of them). It would be easy to overlook most of these things as we gawked at the 12-foot tall smoke-belching steamjacks and burly ogrun or trollkin laborers hauling crates off the nearest paddle-wheeled riverboat.

Chris Walton indulged me in drawing a Cryxian squirrel. Now I owe him lunch. No, you don’t want to try to take that nut from him.

One of the more memorable illustrations in the Iron Kingdoms Character Guide showed a farmer behind an old laborjack hitched to haul a plow through his field. Some practical-minded RPG players wondered if this made good fiscal sense. Would a farmer buy an expensive laborjack to plow his field, and would this be cost effective with the price of coal? For many farms, probably not. Most of the farms in Cygnar are likely being ploughed with oxen in the old fashioned boring way. At the same time, sometimes a farmer will get his hands on an old used laborjack for cheap, and coal really isn’t that expensive if you’re farming something lucrative, like hooaga for cigars.
The more important thing is, you can see oxen pulling ploughs anywhere; seeing a steamjack doing this familiar task makes you stop and think, and it’s an image that sticks with you. There’s a similar illustration in the Monsternomicon showing a gobber wagon pulled by a ’jack instead of a horse. Practical? Maybe not... But certainly evocative to convey what makes the Iron Kingdoms so special. It is when we see the familiar transformed into something extraordinary that we realize we’re not in Kansas anymore.

I felt the same way seeing the wonderful new cover illustration for the upcoming new edition of the Iron Kingdoms RPG that Chris Walton revealed in a previous Insider. That illustration perfectly captures the unusual yet familiar atmosphere of this setting that I have spent the last ten years inhabiting in my mind and describing. Here we see ships, but not the same ships you would see in the real world. Here are tall and looming buildings with distinct character, similar to ones in Five Fingers, but more pristine and better built. I immediately knew where I was: Ceryl, northwestern seaport and second largest city in Cygnar, a place drawing on the same Thurian history as Five Fingers, but with a clean facade hiding a dark underbelly of alleys rife with conspiracies and cabals. Adventure possibilities ooze from the piece, and right away I knew I wanted to go there and do a little exploring.

*Answers to random fake questions:

1) Coffee exists in our setting as an import from Zu. It is exotic and expensive and not widespread, but those who can afford the habit enjoy it.

2) Buckles are more common than laces, but boots are more common than either, and armored steel-tipped boots are the best kind.

3) Levels of sanitation and plumbing vary greatly, but most major cities are outfitted with an impressive and confusing sprawl of sewers and pipes, with similarly varied degrees of maintenance. One place with notably abysmal sanitation and a dearth of plumbing is Five Fingers.

4) Ale is thankfully plentiful in the Iron Kingdoms, brewed in nearly every nation (even Cryx!) and by several races. Borka Kegslayer will attest to the quality of trollkin ales.

5) Bakers and cobblers are doing fine. Who doesn’t enjoy a good pastry or fresh baked bread after a long day guarding the wall from Cryxian horrors? As noted in #2, the footwear in our setting tends to be rugged and sturdy, favoring the practical, even among nobility. Merywyn in Llael was once the cultural center of both fancy footwear and tasty desserts, but the Khadoran occupation has put a damper on both. Military boots are all the rage, and bread comes in two varieties: fresh and stale.

6-7) I do not have GNP or family income numbers handy. Our in-house fantasy economist and his census bureau will have to get back to you.

8) In most Khadoran communities the Menite and Morrowan communities segregate themselves. While it is true these religions have coexisted better in Khador than in Cygnar, this is a relative thing, and these faiths are not particularly friendly. I expect the watch has to deal with occasional religious-inspired brawls, but outright riots are rare.

9) There is no such thing as “hazard pay” or “insurance” in the Iron Kingdoms. Unless you happen to be a mercenary with an extremely well negotiated contract. (See Drake MacBain.)

10) Parks exist in the larger cities, sometimes as parts of cemeteries or memorials, as do squirrels and the sorts of birds you might expect. Stay away from the Cryxian ones.