Banestorm for GURPS 4e, by Phil Masters and Jonathan Woodward
How do you milk a fish? A milkfish, that is, the semi-aquatic Yrth mammal that offers meat, oil, and milk to its medieval domesticators. The brief description in GURPS Banestorm suggests a cross between a seal and a manatee. Plausible enough… but how do you get under a walrus-like beast?
I get ahead of myself. Let’s dip into the Banestorm book itself first. (I’ve got the PDF version from e23; sorry, I can’t comment on the build of the hardback book. No pages have come loose in my digital version. : )
Banestorm is the “default” fantasy setting for GURPS, centered on the continent of Ytarria on the world Yrth. The setting is nearly as old as GURPS itself, long available in older books titled GURPS Fantasy. Banestorm, written for GURPS 4e, greatly updates and expands earlier information on Yrth.
I’ve always liked the Yrth setting. Not everyone does, I know from online comments, but what’s not to like? It’s a fantasy world that combines humans, Elves, Dwarves, and other fantasy favorites against the ever-popular mix of medieval lands and mighty magics. You’ve got your scheming empires, marauding dragons, crusading knights, and wandering wizards, all atop the setting’s trademark innovation: a backstory that grounds humanity in our real Earth’s history and religions, yet gives them reason to be hanging with Centaurs and sorcerers, too. (Short story: Yrth doesn’t bring magical elements to our familiar world; it scoops up humanity – along with other worlds’ creatures – and drops them into a magical world, via a dimensional rift called the Banestorm.)
To me, this grounding in historical human societies and faiths is richer than a purely invented re-imagining of humanity, and the inter-dimensional twist adds more fun. The stage is set for classic fantasy mace-and-magic adventure – or, if you prefer, world-jumping, time-traveling, mixed-technology, parallel-reality epics. Yrth will take any and all.
Still packing my bags…
Yet for all this praise, I haven’t played a Yrth game – not exactly, that is.
Some years ago I embarked upon a big-scale world design for a GURPS campaign, combining long-rattling ideas of my own with new inspirations from the Yrth background. I had a corrupt Empire like Yrth’s Megalos (with the Roman flavor turned up a bit), an Yrth-like (and, sadly, Earth-like) oppressive Church, and a Caithess-like frontier land… to which I added a Slavic-flavored enemy Empire of my own invention, a Mongol horde-themed danger waiting on the steppes, some other Earth-tinted nations… All Yrth-like, but different.
The world-building was engrossing, and the resulting game sessions fun, but I had chance to regret the considerable time that world-building took away from story-building. More than once I asked myself, “Why didn’t I just use Yrth? It would have served as well, with a few tweaks…”
So having aired that dispersion on my validity as a reviewer, let’s get back to the book:
A wealth of nations
Banestorm‘s key “characters” are the nations that make up Ytarria. Each has a distinct personality that will flavor adventure within its borders: decadent empire, swashbuckling islands, stern theocracy, and so on. Their paths over centuries hold appropriate twists and turns, without so much real-world convolution as to make Banestorm a setting of history lessons. Each nation offers a wealth of key personages, cities, and plot hooks upon which to hang stories.
So sorry, Sahud
The cast of nations includes my only real disappointment with the book: the pseudo-Asian land of Sahud. Make that the “Hollywood-mish-mash of goofy Asian tropes” land of Sahud. Primarily a pastiche of Japan tropes and Japanese-ish names (with an odd-fitting overlay of other Asian names), Sahud is presented as the “up is down, down is up” topsy-turvy land where nothing will make sense to visitors; it’s “exotic Orient” with an extra zero on the end.
(Sahud? I kind of like the sound, though the name won’t work in Japanese, and I’m suspicious about its viability in Chinese as well. Korean is a possibility. Hmm, I think I’d let “Sahud” be the name given the land by outsiders (i.e., the exonym), and add some more linguistically-fitting name for use by the natives themselves. A multiplicity of overlapping names for lands and peoples on Yrth, just as on Earth, would be realistic, though Banestorm doesn’t venture there.)
Among the Earth-offshoot nations, Sahud seems to benefit the least from research. A case in point is the sample list of “Japanese in character” personal names. Ignoring the out-of-place Kaoshuang, the names in the list do fit the description… sort of. Futsukiman? Sounds like a tasty variant of manjuu bun. Shizuoka? Maybe this fellow could meet his Caithness counterpart, Mr South Carolina. Okishaido? It’s not wrong… it’s just not right, either.
I know, I know, we’re not on Earth anymore. Sahud is a parallel-world development, where Mssrs Futsukiman and Okishaido certainly could be your neighbors. No one can say that any aspect of fictional Sahud is “wrong”. I understand that completely. I only note that, with more research, suggested names could offer all the right flavor without being inadvertently comical in spots. Similarly, more research legwork could provide Sahud with nifty legacy ties to historical Earth cities, clans, sects, and so on – something we see in the “European” nations with their New Jerusalem, Templars, Jesuits, and so on, but which is curiously absent in Sahud.
Writing from my base in Japan, I’m likely to be more critical of the setting than many gamers would. A cast of Asians carrying on about “honor” and “face” is unfortunate Hollywood goofiness to me, but I know that many players will welcome and expect that background. Also, I put no blame on Banestorm’s authors; Sahud has been around in the same form since the 1980s, so the authors are only working with what they were handed.
I think Sahud is a good target for a re-imagining: an alternate-Sahud supplement that projects more realistically how fragments of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and other Asian societies and languages might have imperfectly blended over a thousand years. It’d be lower on the exoticism, higher on the plausibility. (And it’d sell a whole handful of copies, too, I’m sure. : )
A hook to hang your story on
Plot hooks are what we really want from a world book, and Banestorm‘s authors know it. They deliver plenty of local, character-driven storyline hints involving diplomacy and trade, ambitions and grudges, borders and bloodlines. For bigger, darker story arcs, there’s an evil secret at the heart of the largest empire, and a creeping threat within its largest forest. World-spanning issues like the suppression or spread of technology and science, or the re-emergence of the Banestorm itself, can fuel a campaign. In fact, Banestorm offers many more plot ties to Earth than I remember from past Yrth books: possibilities for contact with Earth, for new characters from Earth, and so on. The book firmly establishes Yrth as part of the GURPS Infinite Worlds meta-setting.
(To the book’s credit, there isn’t an Yrth story arc involving the long-foretold reappearance of a once-defeated Dark Lord. The fantasy genre has had enough of that, thank you.)
And to set stories within a rich background, Banestorm does a great job in not overlooking things that get short shrift in RPGs but are actually huge parts of real people’s lives. Domestic animals, not only monsters. Sects and heresies, not just whole-cloth religions. Guilds and orders. Arts and entertainment. Jobs and trade. Lots of goodies to bring the world to life.
I’ve heard some GURPS fans describe Yrth as a bland setting. I disagree; the best I’ll allow is that while Yrth will support high fantasy, it may disappoint those looking for outrageous high fantasy. But the short fictional interludes that open each major section of Banestorm won’t do much to dispel charges of blandness, either; while serviceable, they could use an injection of rampart-blasting magic, screaming Northmen hordes, or tentacled dungeon horrors. Just a little more pep, please. (Likewise, in the hallowed GURPS tradition, the artwork is all right but won’t incite gaming fervor.)
While reading, I noticed no mention of relations among diverse human races, a depressingly contentious matter for real Earth people. Until a short discussion of the Intolerance disadvantage, that is, where the authors put forth the idea that had been forming in my mind: humanity’s inane preoccupation with skin color and hair texture just may fly out the window when the new farmhand is a pointy-eared, magic-wielding non-human. Who’s brought along his merchant friend, a hulking bipedal lizard. Yep, I think that’d knock some welcome perspective into humanity, and quick.
Modern authors often give us fantasy societies that are far more enlightened than our historical ones. I can’t blame them: who wants to spend much time in a backward, hate-filled world, even if fictional? I think Banestorm finds a nice balance on the tricky points of race relations, gender equality, religious tolerance, and the like. Yrth overall is forward-thinking enough that it’s fun to visit, but not so high-minded as to lose all “Dark Ages” flavor (and danger). Realistically, its enlightenment is unevenly distributed: yes, Yrth betters our world in allowing a medieval female Jewish peasant to become a knight, but it doesn’t guarantee that she’ll be welcomed everywhere.
We want more!
Other than Sahud, my only disappointments are really compliments in disguise: wishes for more of the good stuff. I can’t fault the authors; they only had 240 pages to work with, and I’m sure they feel omissions at least as keenly as the readers.
Some things I’d like to see expanded if space had permitted:
Nonhuman personal names (p20) get a cursory once-over. Many, many more would be great (though, to be fair to the authors, I don’t know how many the typical GM would actually put into use).
There’s tantalizing mention made of Chinese, German, African, and other enclaves of humanity, but any detail on these is left to the GM to fill in. Maybe like this.
Related to that, it’d be nice to see Banestorm break a ubiquitous fantasy/sci-fi mold: that of rejoicing in humanity’s wild breadth of cultures, backgrounds, and languages, while stuffing each non-human race into a single-culture, single-language vanilla mono-flavor. Other than offering the minimal Elvish diversity that itself has become a fantasy staple, Banestorm runs out of room for detailed non-human sub-cultures.
Some races get little space even for one culture. Take the Gnomes, one of the “Elder Folk”: there’s not enough description to really picture a Gnomish society or character. In terms of game role, what are Gnomes for? A few quick extras would help. For example, cultural expertise: we all know to look to the Elves for magic, and the Dwarves for fine metalwork. What are areas in which Gnome societies can shine? (I’d suggest masonry, pottery, carpentry, and agriculture, for starters. Not exciting specialties, to be sure, but important ones all the same.)
On the individual level, it’d be good to see the list of racial Quirks further filled out for Gnomes and other beings. (Each should have a full complement of Quirks; they are, after all, inhuman!)
Similarly, while there’s plenty of big-picture information about religion (especially human faiths), there’s not much detail at the operational level. In other words, we know (roughly) what an Elf believes, but what does he do, from his faith’s big celebrations down to its little daily rituals? The question extends beyond religious doctrine itself: what are social practices, whether religious or secular, surrounding births, marriage, death, and other milestones, for various races and cultures? Festivals and remembrances? Superstitions and “folk” beliefs? (It’s a medieval world; superstition should be rampant!)
Moving on to the land itself, Banestorm is light on key physical features smaller than nations or the hugest desert and forests. (Cities get some detail, though even rough city maps go missing.) I’d like to see more place-centered adventure seeds, laying out interesting canyons, waterfalls, mountain passes, and so on. More travel information – How hard is it to cross a certain mountain range? What’s the travel time between major cities? – would be very useful too.
Finally, I’d have loved to see more pictures of Yrth’s unique animals. Which brings me back to milking that milkfish. Clearly, you do the job with the creature on land, but do you have to roll a ton of ‘fish onto its side or back? Or are the working parts conveniently placed on the ‘fish’s sides, letting it stay belly-down during the procedure? If neither of those, I’m thinking that ‘fish farmers must be leading the critters up onto some sort of drydock milking station, letting them get underneath like a car mechanic. What’s your guess?
It’s utterly unimportant, I know. I bring it up only as an example of how small details like an oddball domestic animal can get the imagination flowing, and Banestorm offers a lot of little thought provokers like that. I assume that the milk mystery, and all of the Banestorm omissions above, are things the authors would cheerfully have liked to address if only there had been room. As it is, the authors made great use of available space in covering the important stuff; there’s plenty to opportunity for later expansions and supplements, as well as for GMs and fans, to fill in the minor gaps.
Miscellaneous story ideas
A few story-related thoughts that hit me while reading:
Elf and Dwarf writings go back only a couple thousand years – not even as old as Earth human writings. Hmm, perhaps this is a clue that the races aren’t as “elder” as they claim to be?
The Elder Folk seem to have ceded Yrth awfully easily – and quickly – once the humans arrived. Why? Was there more propelling man’s rapid expansion than simple human aggressiveness? Maybe the Dark Elves surveyed the disastrous results of their spell, and concocted a hasty Plan B: secretly support and steer combative mankind into war against the Orcs – until the Orcs are gone and man is no longer needed…
As noted in the book, there are great stories to be told about the chaotic world following the first Banestorm. I wonder whether some newcomers simply refused to believe that they’d left Earth, no matter how odd the surroundings. It would have been easy to conclude that one had been swept away to an unknown land, and only needed to find the right land or sea route home. The early years’ greatest sages and explorers may have been wanderers driven by the conviction that Rome or Gaul was just a couple mountain ranges away. And a millenium later, maybe a few oddballs still carry on their belief…
Yrth inspires a lot of ideas like those – it’s a rich and complex place. Already I’m thinking of additions I’d like to make. Maybe gather up Banestorm‘s several Greek-flavored monsters and races, and plop them onto remote islands for Odyssey-inspired adventure. And I still want space for my looming Mongol threat, somewhere uncomfortably close to Megalos. Let’s see, where can I stretch the map a bit to make room…
Sounds fun. But this time, I think I’ll first try using Banestorm as it is, before going wild with the world-building!
I’d recommend Banestorm in a heartbeat to anyone looking for a flexible fantasy gameworld with deep roots in real human culture. Buy it and play it (or, as I did, shamelessly borrow from it)!
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the setting.