Content warning: This post contains discussion of potentially triggering subjects. It also contains magic, beauty, love, passion, whimsy, and joy. You have been warned.
I love to tell stories; I wrote my first sixty-page novella when I was eight, and I’ve been writing in one form or another ever since. I think, somewhere in the crenulations of my crystalline autistic brain, a well written story has about the same effect on me that a hyperreal painting or sculpture does to others. They feel “too real” to me, as if some part of the world had simply become frozen in time. They have beautiful shape, though I doubt that word makes much sense. I wish I could explain beyond “stories have shape and structure to me,” but am bird now.
Role-playing games have always been part of my life. I bought my first Dungeons and Dragons boxed set when I was six; it came with cheap plastic dice whose numbers I had to color myself. There was no d10; the d20 had zero to nine twice and the instructions said to color the two sets of numbers in different colors to tell them apart. I got a copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness for my eleventh birthday and it was the best gift I’d ever received. I played Shadowrun through high school and World of Darkness in college. When my mother came to visit me, for the first time in fifteen years, she asked me if I still had her old character sheet from our first game. I still do: Myrdryn Emrys, eleventh level chaotic good illusionist.
A little over a year ago, I began running a tabletop role-playing game for some friends and family. I’d been itching to get back into tabletop, and everyone had been lamenting the lack of creativity. However, before I committed to trying to run a campaign, I wanted to see if we could pull together some common desiderata. The further apart folks’ idea of a good time was, the harder it was going to be to get people to settle.
So, I said to some folks, “Well, I think I’ve got what it takes to pull together a tabletop game. What would folks like to play?” And our first encounter was upon us before we’d even started. Shadowrun was popular in some crowds, but I’d just spent seven years in a tabletop game and I needed a break. I didn’t feel up to pulling off a hard sci-fi game, and nobody really seemed interested in a lot of math.
It was almost by accident we fell into Eberron; the six of us were sitting around and nattering about possible settings, and I found the setting guide for D&D3.5 sitting around. “Oh, yeah, this would be cool if it weren’t Dungeons and Dragons,” I said. “Kill monster, level up, get treasure, lather, rinse, repeat. Still, take a look; the art’s really cool.” And while I went looking for a more serious option, I passed over the rules to Mawr, one of my friends.
“Magical robot! You can be a magical robot!” Their eyes were wide, like a child staring at a puppy wagging its tail. “I want to be a magical robot that fixes other robots!”
“Yeah, but that’s third-edition,” I groused quietly. “The rules for that are really chunky. If there were a supplement for Fifth Ed, I might, but—”
“It’s coming out in November,” said Ko.
“And there’s an Unearth Arcana for it up on DMGuild,” added Izzy.
I have to say, if there were any D&D world in which I’d rather play, I can’t think of it. Even Athas for all its madcap zaniness is no match for the raw pulp potential of Eberron. This has everything: ancient civilizations of untold power, a continent of monsters, airships, a magical railroad, an apocalyptic wasteland, a lich queen, magical robots, corporate espionage, political intrigue, and some bubbles of pure madness.
To be sure, the world is not without its problematic elements. The forged are presented in the main rule book as having been created as weapons, and also as having been property until two years prior to the start of the current moment. The city that serves as the default setting was founded by humans who fled an alien fascist takeover on another continent only to show up and start murdering goblins for their land. Yes, you can have your fantasy pulp without colonialism, but not in Eberron.
And yet, I think this really presented us all with an opportunity. With Mawr having already settled on a forged, and their wife Kelsey opting for the same, we all of us realized we needed to treat this subject with the honesty and the seriousness it deserved. We all wanted this to be a story of empowerment, of revolution, and of liberation. The world around us right now is brutal, vicious, and cold. We all of us right now needed a story that spoke to all of us and said how much better things could be, if we were willing to work for them.
I turned to my last three players, Ko, Izzy, and Keet — who all happened to be in my family — and I asked them what they wanted to play.
Ko mentioned that they’d been a huge fan of The Legend of the Five Rings ever since its CCG days, and they wanted to know if I was okay with them bringing in elements of Rokugan. I said I was game to try if they were willing to help me with details.
Izzy flipped casually through the book, landing precisely on the kalashtar and handing it to me. “If there’s a chance I could play a psion of some kind, I would love to, but I know there’s no official ruleset for it yet. Maybe they’ll release one in the official rules.”
“I can handle psionics,” I agreed, “if you can find me some rules.”
“Done.” Then, before Keet could answer, Izzy added, “by the way, you know there’s a My Little Pony D&D5e supplement, don’t you?”
Keet’s eyes went wide. “There is?” They paused. “But— Eberron—”
I just grinned. “I bet I can make it work.”
Mind you, I used to play a lot of writing games back in the day with some folks on IRC. One of my favorites involved drawing random elements out of a hat and trying to form the most coherent story you can while including everything you drew. I’ve also studied some improv theater, and to be honest I was so excited at the prospect of getting to run a game for my family and some of my best friends that I’d probably have said yes to almost anything. If they wanted to play a pony, I would find a way to make it work.
Keet studied me for a moment, then shrugged. “Okay, then. I’ll play a pony.”
It is my intention through this game to create a space in which, if the characters act with honesty and integrity, they will not only survive but triumph, the world will become a better place through their actions, and they themselves will be recognized for the part they played. It is also my intention through this game to tap into our collective hypotexts, the memories of stories that helped shape us and make us who we are, to create a shared story that can empower and ennoble not just the characters, but the players who embody them. This is a game in which I invite my players to invest as much of themselves in their characters as they feel comfortable, in hopes of drawing whatever blessings they can from the story we create together. This is a game meant to give people a chance to explore feelings of power, of positive change in ourselves, and of growth in the world around us. This is a story about accomplishing goals, of recognizing and respecting boundaries, and of triumphing over adversity.
In this space, I’ll be talking not just about the game, but about the process of writing the game. There’s so much background that I just don’t get to share with my players because it never comes up at the table. There’s no reason for it to do so. I’ve gone deep into the cosmogony and metaphysics of Eberron in order to figure out how some interactions between settings and systems work. Where in Eberron are ponies from? Where is Rokugan, and how does it relate to everything else? How do psionics and magic co-exist? Why can’t forged get dragonmarks, and what can be done about that?
These aren’t questions I have to answer, of course. No-one would think less of me if I were to just wipe my talons of it all. But I want to answer them, because that’s what I want out of this. I, personally, am looking forward to the challenge of making these vastly different ideas all work together. I miss being able to exercise these skills, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.
When you were a kid, did you ever get out all of your toys and play with them at the same time? Did you ever make up a story about your action figures getting captured by giant stuffed animals? This is a chance for us to up-end the toybox and make beautiful shapes together, and to talk about them as we do.
I hope you’ll join us on this adventure.