Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.
It’s that Marc Tassin again, tireless organizer of the Writers Symposium at Gen Con and tireless creator of his own fantasy setting. He’s launched a third Kickstarter campaign after two successful antecedents. This time it’s not just an adventure or a story collection—it’s a whole world.
After the success of his Temple of Modren Pathfinder adventure and his Champions of Aetaltis anthology, Marc’s going full Greenwood by presenting an entire fantasy campaign setting for 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons.
Fortunately for his sanity, Marc has a team of talented collaborators in the form of Mechanical Muse. They’re hard at work spreading the word about this new project while simultaneously shepherding the massive project. Marc’s right in the thick of it, so let’s test just how tireless he is by throwing him a few impertinent questions.
I get the feeling this setting harks back to an era of heroic and epic fantasy that I felt was at its height in the 80s. Does that seem right?
On the surface, I can see it appearing that way. With Aetaltis I’ve definitely worked to create a new world that strikes many of the same chords in readers and players that you’d expect from a classic heroic fantasy setting like Faerûn, Oerth, or Krynn. The key, however, is that Aetaltis isn’t an homage or an attempt to copy the legendary settings of that era. Rather, I’m building a completely new world that draws on the same root sources and ideas that inspired the creators of those settings.
The end goal is to create a brand new world that can stand alongside those settings rather than a world that harks back to them. A tall order, I know, but that’s what I’m working to do. I’m just not convinced we’re done exploring worlds like these. There are still stories to tell and wonders to reveal!
What are the challenges in making the players of a game feel like epic heroes?
For me, the “epic” in Epic Fantasy™ really refers to the impact that the character’s actions have on the history and the world. I think of it like this: if someone was writing a history book about the world, would the events surrounding the characters’ adventure warrant its own chapter? If the answer is “yes,” then we’re talking about epic fantasy.
With that as the definition, the specific obstacles the heroes need to overcome become less important. Could there be a giant large-scale set-piece battle with gathered armies facing off in a final fight? Sure! But if the real events on which everything turns are a couple of tiny heroes sneaking up to a volcano to throw a cursed magic item into it, that massive battle is an exciting bit of background, but not fundamental to the epic nature of what the heroes are attempting to achieve.
One thing I don’t agree with is that heroic and epic go hand in hand. What makes an adventure epic is the scale of the consequence of failure. What makes an adventure heroic is why the heroes are undertaking the task in the first place. Aetaltis is more about the why than the what. For me, the tale of a shepherd who takes up arms to defend his village against a small goblin hunting party simply because it’s the right thing to do, is every bit as compelling to me as the knight that rides into hell to destroy the demon that threatens the world.
Of all the iconic locations in the setting, which one would you say is most original to Aetaltis?
The Newardine Cels are definitely something different from what players have seen in the past. The newardin are one of the races unique to Aetaltis. They are a strange, otherworldly people that are cut from a very different cloth than the other races of the world. They originally came to Aetaltis as off-world colonists, members of a group called the Atlan Alliance. In this alliance of different races, which included the humans, the newardins’ role was to operate the magical gates that the Alliance used to travel between worlds. When the gates cataclysmically collapsed just over three hundred years ago, however, the surviving members of the Alliance were trapped on Aetaltis.
The newardin did not adapt well to life on Aetaltis. They congregated in cities where they constructed tightly controlled compounds that reflected the architecture, culture, and ideals of their homeland. Strange spiraling towers, impossibly thin pillars made out of materials unknown to the rest of Aetaltis’ inhabitants, and unfathomable cultural norms make these cels a slice of another world thrust into the otherwise familiar surroundings of Aetaltis’ other environments.
In the background of the Kickstarter video, you can catch a glimpse of one of these structures.
What’s the perfect relationship between fiction and the canonical events of an RPG?
I think you can place equal emphasis on both. Since we have strong support from both gamers and non-gamers alike, there’s no reason we can’t continue to provide more than one path to Aetaltis. And that’s important to me. Our goal isn’t to create games or write books. Our goal is to create an amazing world that people want to be a part of and then deliver tools they can use to interact with it. Games, books, comics, apps: in the end they’re all just different portals through which someone can visit a world.
You’re producing a Player’s Guide, a Game Master’s Guide, and an Adventurer’s Guide—but conspicuously not a book of monsters. Is that because you want to change the paradigm of play? Also, what makes your Game Master’s Guide stand apart from others recently published?
The reason our first monster book is a stretch goal rather than a core book is that what’s important in Aetaltis is the origin of monster, the story behind it, rather than the monster’s stats. This is information we can convey in the three core books without stat blocks. If you understand these origins, you can pull monsters from any of the bestiaries already available fifth edition and fit them easily into the story of Aetaltis.
Don’t get me wrong, we love monsters, especially the wonderfully quirky creatures born out of roleplaying games over the years (owlbears anyone?) And we certainly have plenty of unique creatures we’re excited to share. That’s why the monster book is the next one we want to publish after the core books. It’s just not a requirement to experience the world.
As for the game master’s guide, the key here is that our guide is designed specifically to help game masters run adventures set in Aetaltis. Whether it’s advice on where in the world to base a campaign that captures your groups preferred style of play or guidelines for introducing your favorite non-Aetaltan character race to the game, our game master’s guide is the key to doing that. This is information you can’t get from other guides.
What are ten things that make Aetaltis stand out from other settings.
- Magic, originally a gift from the fallen god Endroren, is as frightening as it is useful.
- Endroren is chained to the core of the world, desperate to break free and return to the surface.
- The dwarves hate the gods for using their home, the Deeplands, as a prison for Endroren and his minions.
- Goblins, trolls, orcs, and many traditional fantasy monsters have only just returned to the world after the wards that trapped them in the Deeplands began to fail.
- Adventuring is a respectable occupation thanks to the edicts of Lord Drakewyn of New Erinor.
- Humans are not originally from Aetaltis but are travelers from another world trapped there when the gates to their homeland catastrophically failed.
- When the gates collapsed, they drew all manner of creatures, landscapes, and beings into the world.
- Essence wells, ley lines, essence crystals, and blood magic mean that there is far more to Aetaltan spellcasting than simple spell memorization.
- The temptation and ease of entreating Endroren for aid means that every hero must struggle to stay on the path of light.
- Not everyone believes that the world gates can’t be reopened…