Retconning Shadow World. Pt.1

The Difference between Revisiting, Reinterpreting, Retconning, and  Retroactively Ruining Stories - Salt and Iron

So what do we do now? With the tragic passing of Terry, the future of Shadow World is uncertain to some degree. Hopefully we’ll see some posthumous material that is being reviewed: Emer IV and perhaps Wurilis? But even recovered work in progress may take many months or even years to edit, add artwork, design and publish. Is it possible to publish 1,2 or even 5 new products in the next decade? Most of the long-term Rolemaster & SW crowd will be heading or well into their 60’s. The ICE team will be in their 50s, 60s or 70s…

In my mind, there are few realistic options and not a lot of time to re-invigorate or revise Shadow World. That’s upsetting to say and hard to think about given how much effort I’ve put into my own material, and the lifetime of enjoyment I’ve had with RM and SW.

But I want to imagine another option: Shadow World is “re-imagined” and retconned with a comprehensive plan to grow the product line and perhaps it’s user base. There are lots of ideas and opinions floating around about what new products could be produced, how kickstarter or other strategies could finance a new product launch schedule, or how opening up the IP to third parties could drive new product development. No matter what happens, I would argue that a conversation needs to occur about fundamental SW canon that may need to be modified to lay the ground work for future material and to appeal to a new user base. You may see this as retroactively editing, revisiting or reimagining Terry’s work, but let’s just refer to this as retconning.

Over the last 30 years, trends and tastes in game settings have evolved and changed. While SW is a comprehensive setting, with many books and thousands of pages of material, some of the material feels unwieldy, dated or not user-friendly. If it were up to me, I would take a hard look at the following:

  1. The Timeline. It’s been mentioned that the timeline is a bit daunting and perhaps overwhelming for new GMs. I think it’s a great reference, interesting reading and a source of adventure seeds, but it is still problematic. Specifically the time of the Interregnum which spans 100,000 years: that is just a massive length of time. During this period the planet “healed”, races were reintroduced to the world (some by the Lords of Orhan), and 3 major civilizations existed. The Jinteni, Taranians, and Worim civilizations lasted thousands and even tens of thousands of years during the period. Any yet, despite the eon that separates the Third and Fourth Era’s (let’s call those modern times) from this ancient period, much of those past civilizations survives in some form. Artifacts, transport systems, buildings, vehicles etc. And, the Lords of Essance and Althans predate the Interregnum and they are a significant part of the Shadow World setting. The Interregnum needs to be shortened—perhaps to 10,000-20,000 years total. That is still an extraordinarily long time, and puts the end of the Althan era to 30,000 years in the past. Shortening the interregnum solves a lot of problems.
  2. The Great Barriers & Hemisphere. The “East”is the mysterious hemisphere of Kulthea that is given a handful of pages in the Master Atlas. Apparently, the East is ruled by powerful Ka’ta’viir, but little else is given. Why these Lords of Essaence can’t travel into the “Western” half is unknown. They were a spacefaring race and able to utilize instantaneous transportation via technology and Essence. Plus they have had thousands or tens of thousands of years to figure it out and conquer the West. A handwave concerning the “Eyes of Utha” and the Great Barriers kinda works. But not really. My solution: eliminate the barriers and adjust the current hemisphere into the whole world. Just forget and remove the “Eastern hemisphere”. First, it’s never a story that is going to be told, it has no impact on any gameplay (unless the players are travelling in the extreme East or West regions) and it makes SW feel unfinished and awkward. The Eyes can still serve a legitimate purpose of taming and regulating the Essaence flows, and the “barrier effect” can be changed to a disruptive shield in the ionosphere rather than a wall circumnavigating the world. This explains the difficulty in reaching the planet surface and justifies the quarantine of the planet (Spacemaster setting). There is already more lands and continents left to be developed as it is; who needs the “East”?
  3. Anti-Essence. I’m not sure when the anti-essence was introduced in the SW Master Atlas. It wasn’t in the first edition, IIRC. There is no doubt that the anti-essence was meant to explain some aspects of the Unlife, but feels more like a standard duality trope found in most fantasy: Yin/Yang, Positive/Negative, both sides of the “Force”. It feels tidy at first glance, but I think it creates confusion among the roles of “good” and “evil”, Channeling, gods of Charon, Lords of Essence, evil spell lists, undead and a host of other factors. If you do a search of “Unlife” in the Master Atlas PDF you’ll see how confusing it comes across. There is a discussion about this right now on the RMForums. I think introducing the anti-essence was unnecessary and problematic. Get rid of it.
  4. The Bestiary. The original Flora & Fauna book in the Master Atlas was mostly a reprint of Creatures & Treasures and helped establish Shadow World as the default setting for Rolemaster–which was meant to be a ruleset for generic settings. But Shadow World shouldn’t be a generic setting and can’t be if it’s ever going to grow it’s audience. It needs differentiators and Shadow World should lean into as many unique elements as it can. There are enough generic “pseudo-medieval” setting with the the slate of standardized monsters, creatures and humanoids. A revamp of SW fauna will require quite a bit of new material, but it’s needed. And in relation to that….
  5. Lugroki. Let’s revisit “Orcs and Goblin”. Ok, Terry changed the name of Orcs, but they are still what they are. Are they needed? There are plenty of interesting humanoids and reading through Terry’s works, Lugroki aren’t really featured that often. The Master Atlas only has 34 mentions of Lugroki–they are the default “horde” critter, but aren’t that relevant in actual SW gameplay.

That’s a few items I would change if it were up to me. What do you think? Are there things you would like to see modified, deleted or changed?

3 thoughts on “Retconning Shadow World. Pt.1”

  1. About #1 — yes the time frame is vast but is only a third from the out-of-africa Homo Sapiens to Modern Man.
    Also the Jinteni and Taranians come late (30000-20000) in the Interregnum

    About #2 — That makes perfectly sense … i still would like to have the Map in GIS-like software/format.

    About #3 — for me the Dark Essaence is just tained normal Essaence, and the Unlife just does not the exclusive rights to it.

    About #4 — I have always tried to separate Fauna & Flora (Ecology/Setting) from Adversaries & Monsters (Bestiary)

    You have a point that an alien planet should have an alien ecology, but filling ecological nices with alternatives
    and strange names might be a huge (and thankless) undertaking, especially if the gm and players will then easiely
    fall back to descriptions like “it is cow-like”.

    About #5 — SW does not need Orcs, maybe for minions and foot-soldiers if there are no alternatives.

    But that remembers me of the article series “By any other name” in Dragon Mag.

  2. #1 I’m on the opposite side. On Earth we have a 1.5 million year history of the genus homo. The progression from stone tools to agriculture took something close to 45,000 years. And unlike Kulthea we didn’t have a global organization of evil mages and demons actively hunting down and crushing forces of order and civilization.

    #2 Again, I like the barrier and the East. It functions like R’yleh, Leng and Yuggoth in the Cthulhu mythos: it is a place of danger that is too remote to actually go to often, but FROM which danger has come and might come again. It is a place that isn’t aware of you and that you want to keep unaware of you, because that’s the sort of attention that is just too freaking dangerous. In the best traditions of cosmic horror and sword and sorcery pulp, it isn’t actively hostile because you are too insignificant, they’ll squash you by accident not intentionally. and that hubris is your best weapon on the few times you do bump into their servants or allies. That’s also how I resolve the space tech but don’t travel: not that they can’t but they see no reason to. When was the last time a US or European billionaire went to Somalia or Venusuela or North Korea? Could they? Absolutely, but why would they?

    #3 Agreed. I get the position that the evil lists aren’t uniquely the domain of the unlife, but it seems the distinction leads to confusion. If it gets kept, I’d like some better differentiation.

    #4 Agreed. There is a hard road to walk where you need enough familiarity but also some content that is unique. I’ve seen a few interesting ways to tackle it. Avatar doing the thing where everything was a combo of two species (played against the trope with “just a bear” in the second season. That was familiar and exotic at the same time. Kobold press and some of my favorite entries in the older C&T books (viper ants, viper hawks, etc) have used this idea to great effect and my players always get a kick out of it. The other is from a blogger named Goblin punch whose work assumes that every anal has some uniquely magical thing about them that everyone takes for granted the way on Earth we long associated cats and witches. Cows have no legs, they just float at the usual height. Can’t fly and will still get hurt if they fall, they just float. Wolves hate civilization and will eat people. Dogs betrayed wolves and the two are at war and will do horrible things to each other. Pigs never stop growing. Etc. Small, simple, and carrying the essence of the fantastic without losing the familiar. Some similar solution is needed, that makes the bestiary meaningful without being alienating.

    #5 Agreed here too. Lugroki are boring. Every world has something like them. I prefer garks or other hordes that don’t exist in every other fantasy world ever. Even in my D&D and Pathfinder games, I minimize the existence of orcs. In Kulthea, I’ve removed them completely in my own games. My players have read some of the books and asked about why they never ran into them, I answered “I don’t use orcs because I think the other options are more interesting, would you prefer I did use them?” And no one has said “yes I want orcs”.

  3. basically i do consider a static/frozen setting a dead duck in the water.

    yet than again Middle Earth is exactly the same thing. we have history up to the forth age and then nil.

    also warhammer fantasy has been rehashing their empire in flames a forth time until a publisher got enough balls to do an alternative base campaign in a different part of the country.

    maybe it is exactly that — freeze emer and jaiman — and develop another part of the globe for the upcoming RMU.

    but dont get into the frenzy and detail every other outhouse there is.

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