So, I decided recently to get together some people (@Bobo, @Viandante, @iconpaul) to play Fabula Ultima, where I’ll be playing as the GM. This ain’t in Actual Play because we haven’t actually played anything yet, but the prep session we did seemed so functional to me that I wanted to share our process—it only lasted about an hour and half. We’ll see if this actually materializes in good play later down the line.
My interest in Fabula Ultima harkens back to a few conversations I’ve had with Emanuele Galletto before he became nerd-famous. As some of you know, I used to be an avid player of D&D 4th Edition. It was clear to me when reading the game and speaking to Emanuele of the clear influences from 4th Edition.
So, when I sat down with the idea to play Fabula Ultima, my idea was to recover that 4E fun I haven’t had in a while. Tactical combat, skill challenges, team-play, all of it.
To be clear: this isn’t a demonstration or review of the Fabula Ultima world creation mechanics. I was very clear with the players that we would follow what we deemed sensible and I was ready to take an axe to the rules if necessary. Most of all, I emphasized that our objective with this meeting was to establish the minimum information that we needed to play, and nothing more—no front-loading of things we don’t need to know right now.
The game text mandates sort of a shared world-creation process and I know how much that kind of stuff can easily devolve into workshopping and lowest common denominator results. Therefore, I decided to use a few pictures and a paragraph to set a coherent backdrop and color for everyone, exactly like I do in The Pool with the start document. This was it.
Fabula Ultima: Ashworld
The powerful wizards of the past have reduced the world to ashes. The present is dominated by their heirs, who rule the remnants of civilization from advanced citadels protected by their arcane entanglements.
As you can see this placed us firmly in the Techno-Fantasy sub-genre—as described by Fabula Ultima. I explained my influences were Eberron and Final Fantasy VII and that we definitely had some kind of sentient constructs, electrically powered trains, and airships—because that shit’s cool, that’s why. I had already given this type of setting a try with Fantasy World and wanted to give it a second spin.
A player contributed a few more pictures as a moodboard.
Fabula Ultima has a checklist to go through to make sure your world has enough stuff to start with at the beginning (picture below, Italian edition p.149).
I still am a bit skeptical of this process and how front-loaded it is. I also generally believe player buy-in due to shared world creation is mostly a myth—what happens is what you do during play, the prep is not that important.
To avoid transforming this into a writing workshop session, I clarified that I wanted to answer each point only minimally, to have a minimum of definition with a majority to fill in during play, without getting into details or getting too excited about content we haven’t played through. I want to stress very little was said in addition to what I’m writing here—this is not a summary.
Additionally I set a rule for how we were going to handle content, given I came in with a strong idea about the backdrop.
- Either I have already an idea on it because of my picture of the world and we go with that.
- Or each player contributes one thing, but without influencing each other too much—make it up, then proceed.
This is what we came up with.
It’s round, and technology allows to measure its curvature, but it’s not necessarily all been explored by the civilization we are playing in.
We chose this map from the two pre-drawn ones available from the Fabula Ultima campaign sheets. We decided it represents the norther hemisphere of a globe and the North Pole is in the middle.
I explained that how I saw it, the mage upper-class had sort of an anarchist-individualist bent, so they weren’t organized into nation-states with centralized authority. Normal people serve mages, but the mages are only informally organized into social spheres and factions, and those can change rather quickly. However, I said it makes sense if geographically certain regions tended to harbor mages and peoples of certain types.
So we took to the map and each player outlined the rough boundary of a region and named it. Again, no workshopping—each person made a nation in turn, and while there were suggestions, it was accepted that each person had the responsibility and privilege to detail that region as they wished.
- Voxaria: Gorges traversed by magical winds, inhabited by mad wizard adventurers who have built giant unbalanced towers that rise above the clouds
- Artics: Excavations and mines for mining crystals that act as magical batteries, technocrats and builders, cold earth, bear whales
- Hydrasta: Similar to a perhaps rainforest with exotic flora and fauna, primitivist wizards friendly towards nature.
- Jawacandal: Capitalists and merchants, inhabitants exploit animals found on the island on the opposite side of the water, useful for the production of life energy to power electric trains, airplanes, etc. A good harbor for all.
An interesting tidbit here is that the space for Jawacandal was born out of @Viandante’s mistake in drawing Hydrasta’s border. That little unoccupied space, of course it’s a city-state! And of course they’re merchants!
- The great cataclysm: no one really knows what caused this, but it’s the source of magical storms.
- The awakening of Hydrastra: the first invasion of monsters, the order of monster hunters is born, the first event of collaboration among wizards.
- Founding of the first university of magic in Jawacandal.
- Fall of the first Voxarian tower: of recent, winds intensified, and a tower in voxaria falls for the first time.
- Where does magic come from and what was the cataclysm?
- What is the origin of monsters and why are there always new and different ones?
- What happened to the ancient gods?
- Who were the precursors?
- Uncontrollable magical phenomena are getting worse and worse
- Monsters are developing intellects and organizing in societies
- Technological malfunctions are becoming more frequent
- Crystal fever is spreading, from the misuse of ores mined in Arctis
Looking at the threats, a clear picture of a decaying world was evident. What the group was going to do was rather obvious: we’re going to be anomaly investigators, tasked by a sub-faction of mages. This fit pretty well with the seekers archetype from the gamebook. Our objective is to find out what’s happening to the world.
The antagonists are going to be: rival groups of seekers, other mages opposed to investigation (similarly to climate denialists), intelligent monsters, native peoples opposed to mages meddling.
Protagonists are going to be a mix of members and non-members of the mage “social nobility” class.
I generally dislike handholding players through character creation, so I decided that we would only make up the baseline of each character, and what classes they are going to spend their levels in, and that players would finish the details and choose their equipments, stats, and abilities, on their own.
We ended up with:
- A Ranger/Chimerist/Wanderer, a primitivist mage from Hydrasta driven by Duty and seeking to defeat the magical monsters.
- An Entropist/Orator/Sapient, a divinator from a remote island in Voxaria that didn’t pass the mage academy standards, driven by Vengeance, seeking to prove to the mages he’s better than them.
- An Arcanist/Weaponmaster/Arteficer, a magical construct from the Precursors that was fixed by a mage from Arctic. With no memory of its past, he’s driven by Belonging and seeks to find who he is.
And that’s it. Players are going to work on names and character details on their own time, as well as discussing possible synergies between their abilities.
I see a through line coming from early Champions, into Sorcerer, into D&D 4th Edition, regarding the mechanical framework of player options and character abilities. Essentially, the abilities are generic, re-skinnable number-mechanics that you adapt to your particular fictional content for them, rather than the player options providing fictional content for you. This is not meaningless skinning, as the fictional content will interact with the number-mechanics in play and provide novel outcomes. I see Fabula Ultima’s class abilities much in the same vein. ↩︎