It just occurred to me that I haven’t written about my projects in a little while, so I thought I’d pop out and talk about something I’ve been working on: Bleak Rains. I’m excited about this project for a couple of reasons, but mostly because it’s my first foray into designing a Powered by the Apocalypse game, meaning it runs on the same mechanical engine as Vincent Baker’s masterpiece, Apocalypse World.
Initially a project I started to get out of a funk I was in while writing playtests for my other two major tabletop RPG projects, Bleak Rains takes place in a city called Indra. Indra is a massive, ancient city, on an island surrounded by the ocean on all sides. Indra is at a level of technology equivalent to just before the Industrial Revolution: there are some steam engines here and there, but they’re loud, clunky, and expensive. This city is ruled by a group called the High Overseers. From the top of their ivory towers (literally), they not only enforce law and order, but also the cultural norms of this society. Before the High Overseers, things were, well, bad.
The reason they were bad is because of the ocean. In classic, Lovecraftian fashion, the ocean of this world is full of unknowable things. There are monsters, relics from the barbaric civilizations of a bygone era, but on top of all of that, the water itself is just inexplicably weird. It naturally unnerves people, makes them paranoid, and maybe even causes them to hallucinate. The water is never clear, it’s always murky, hiding something. In the distant past, the people of Indra used to worship the things in the water, the High Overseers pulled them away and dragged them towards civilization.
Things are fine for half of the year: the things of the sea stay in the sea and everyone, with the exception of sailors, fishermen, and daredevils, can stay safely on land and avoid all of the unpleasantness. The problem is the weather: for six months out of the year, Indra is in its rainy season. This means that the water which is the source of all of this general unpleasantness literally drenches the city, and sea levels rise, to the point where lower layers of the city flood. All of a sudden, what was normally stuck in the sea is now free to wander the streets.
The actual play of Bleak Rains takes place exclusively in this rainy season. In this period, the streets are full of mysteries and danger, people are paranoid and selfish, and things that lay dormant wake up. The playbooks, offering roles and identities to the player, are people who, for one reason or another, are forced to (or want to) be in the streets during this dark season.
One of my goals for the playbooks was that I wanted the roles to be sort of weird. I have nothing against wizards, clerics, and paladins, but I thought that it would be much more interesting to let players define part of this weird setting through play (that is, after all, the mantra of PbtA). Thus, by providing playbooks close to the weirdest parts of this setting, it puts a spotlight to those weird parts and encourages an exploration of them, even if only to get a better understanding of what your character’s even doing.
Take, for example, The Graveswimmer, one of the playbooks a player can choose for their character. The central premise is that traditional burial doesn’t really work in Indra. On top of there not being a lot of land to bury people, the rain has this pesky tendency to bring the dead back to life. Graveswimmers are an ancient order basically responsible for finding dead bodies and giving them their rites, both putting their souls to rest in a spiritual sense and ensuring their shambling bodies don’t bother anyone in the future.
By having a Graveswimmer in your party, you’re forcing your group, or at least one person, to think about the way death is handled in this society. It brings up this conflict of treating a dead person with respect versus limiting the danger they present to society (a conflict that was very real back in the days of plague), and it makes you think of burial as a sort of functional mechanism of society, rather than just a cultural one. If I do my job right, the Graveswimmer will, as they grow as a character, explore more and more of the psychology and cultural importance of death, something that’s kind of hard to do, but might be easier if placed in such a foreign setting.
Another playbook I’m super excited about is The Anchorlugger. Anchorluggers are basically The Scarlet Letter taken to the nth degree. Since straying from cultural norms in this society leads to, you know, the veneration of sea monsters and the potential destruction of civilized society, major social transgressions are treated very harshly in this world. One of the Anchorlugger’s ancestors committed some sort of grievous sin and, as punishment, their decedents, including the player, have had to carry a physical manifestation of their family’s sin in the form of this big, unwieldy anchor.
Where Graveswimmers deal with the treatment of death, and the balance between burial as a cultural and a function construct, Anchorluggers are built to deal with the conflict between trying to fit into a society that hates you, and embracing your differences, even if it means self-imposed isolation. That’s a conflict that might hit really close to home for some people, but Anchorluggers are dealing with crimes and punishments far outside of the norms of our society, and thus maybe have some more creative freedom to explore what it’s like to integrate into, or distance oneself from, a society that hates you.
The most mechanically interesting part of Bleak Rains, in my opinion, is Weird. Weird is a tangible measurement of one’s distance from societal norms, and is represented in the form of checkboxes. Characters that are closer to the fringes of society have fewer boxes of Weird. That’s because you mark a Weird every time your character does something that’s really pushing the limits of what this society will think of as acceptable. For most characters, marking Weird is good, because you add the number of Weird you have marked to dice rolls when you use your, well, weird abilities. The closer you get to the fringe, the better you are at manipulating it. However, when you mark all of your Weird, society decides that you’ve gone too far from the norm. At that point, you’re either cast into the shadows forever, with society trying its best to completely ignore your existence, or a lynch mob comes after you.
With Bleak Rains, my goals are twofold. First, I want players to be able to explore the concept of what we in a society consider “normal”, as well as what happens when you leave normalcy, without the baggage that a familiar setting might bring with it. Secondly, I want players to be able to explore a setting where they have some control in the fundamental structures of its society, and explore what I consider to be the most interesting part of worldbuilding: figuring out what happens when the weird becomes the new normal.
I hope to share some more Bleak Rains content on this blog in the future. I think I’m pretty close to playtestable right now, but in the meanwhile, I’ll probably talk about the playbooks and the types of player experiences they’re built to encourage. Until then, be sure to stay dry…