High-Tech meets High-Fantasy in an alternative for GURPS

GURPS Fantasy from Steve Jackson Games presents the alternative world of Yrth (EE-rth), a fantasy world much like our world might have been in medieval times if there had been elves, dragons and magic for real.

Originally Yrth was inhabited by three races: the Elves, the Dwarves and the Orcs. One sect of Elves, known as the Dark Elves, took it upon themselves to remove the “plague” of the Orcs from the land. They constructed a powerful ritual spell that would bring a Bane upon the Orcs and wipe them from the face of the world.

It failed. Badly.

In perhaps the biggest Critical Spell Failure in the history of Yrth, the Dark Elf enchantment backfired, destroying most of the sect and driving the rest underground. The spell called forth a Bane, all right, but it was a Bane for more than just the Orcs.

The Banestorm brought different peoples from all different parts of the multiverse: reptile men, halflings, goblins and, worse of all, humans. These many races began carving out places for themselves, cutting down the sylvan forests and building cities and empires of their own. The face of Yrth was forever changed and over the centuries became a fantasy world of knights, wizards and magic, medieval Earth legend brought to life.

But what if it didn’t happen that way?

In GURPS Fantasy, the humans and other races brought to Yrth are from worlds with medieval level technology, from 1050 to 1100 on Earth. Although Yrth is at the same year as we are (Christian calendar 1996), their technology is still at roughly the same level as when they arrived. The wizards guilds fiercely suppress any technological developments that might threaten the supremacy of magic, like gunpowder. Yrth remains a place where the knight on horseback is still the ultimate fighting machine.

But say, perhaps, that the people brought to Yrth were not from such a primitive era. What if they were from, say, the Industrial Revolution 1830 to 1890 or so? Infused with the colonial spirit and technological drive of that time, how might these humans have colonized Yrth?

In the earliest stages, there would have been considerable difficulties. The people taken to Yrth were mostly dropped into the wilderness with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, but in some cases entire towns and villages disappeared, which would give those people some support and supplies to start out with. It is also possible that the Banestorm was responsible for some other mysterious disappearances in human history, like the Bermuda Triangle phenomenon. Some of these modern folk might have ended up on Yrth as well.

Despite the early hardships, the humans would begin recreating as much of their technology as possible while at the same time discovering and learning that magic worked on Yrth as well. Within a generation or two, you might have a frontier world not unlike R. Talsorian’s Castle Falkenstein Victorian fantasy, with Earth colonialists mixing with Elves, Dwarves and Dragons.

As things progress, technology on Yrth advances rapidly. The presence of magic actually helps speed technological advance rather than retard it. The wizards-the human ones, anyway-are already part of a technological society, so they take an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude towards science. In fact, mages are probably scientists themselves of a sort, and it would be interesting if some of the magical personalities and traditions of 19th century Earth got imported along with the rest. The New Order of the Golden Dawn, for example, would fit right into a colonialist, expansionist version of Meglos.

Wars on this version of Yrth would be fought with guns, bombs and tanks in addition to spells and steel. A world-war is not impossible as two rival human empires begin encroaching on each other’s territory. Far more of Yrth will be mapped and explored and colonies could push much farther than they have in the conventional fantasy campaign. It’s entirely likely that humans have already moved beyond the continent of Ytarria and explored much of the rest of the world in the past few centuries.

With their technological development, the humans of Yrth might easily outstrip Earth humans. By Yrth-year 1996, they have a civilization that is into the cyber-age. Corporations evolved from 19th century trading houses and firms are massively influential, bionics and cybernetics are all the rage for a population that, perhaps, did not suffer the same disillusionment with Science that Earth did. There is still conflict with some of Yrth’s natives as well as the other races brought in by the Banestorm, but many of them have adopted human customs and live among them. There are gangs of Elf bikers and Dwarf computer technicians. Who knows? Maybe one of the major corporations is even owned by a dragon…

The fantasy world of Yrth enters the cyber-age. It has similarities to Shadowrun, but the main difference (apart from the game system) is that it’s not Earth. It’s like dropping cyberpunks into Middle Earth, or Krynn, or Greyhawk, letting them loose and seeing what happens. Instead of Shadowrun’s idea of a fantasy world coming into a cyberpunk future, we have a cyberpunk future growing out of a fantasy world.

Just playing around with a few hundred years of parallel history could be very interesting. What would a group of Steam Age humans do if they were abducted by the thousands to a primeval fantasy world? What cultures would they be from? How would they re-establish their cultures on Yrth and what kind of changes and concessions would they make? The flavor of the world can be changed greatly by tinkering with the racial and cultural mix of the humans on Yrth and positing which are more successful at carving out empires.

GURPS Fantasy presumes that the major powers on Yrth are neo-feudalistic Roman/Christian kingdoms and Islamic states, with scattered tribes and communities of other backgrounds. What if the inhabitants of CyberYrth came from Industrial Europe, Frontier America, post-Feudal Japan and Darkest Africa? Drop them in various places on the continent, give them a few centuries to get their acts together and see what happens. You could end up with a very cyberpunk world in short order!

In addition to the socio-political evolution of the people of CyberYrth, their technological development presents equally interesting possibilities. Shadowrun’s Awakening is not even 50 years old when the game starts, while magic is the native force on CyberYrth. The Elves and Dwarves have been using it for millennia, and even the Humans will have centuries for their magical technique to evolve in harmony with their technology. What kind of toys would you be able to create if you had centuries of techno-magical research instead of decades? Would magic and technology struggle for dominance or find some way to work in harmony? Would magic be shunned as the tool of the mysterious and the fey or accepted as a science like any other? Would blends of science and sorcery produce technologies that people from Earth would even recognize? All fun questions to play with.

A Brief Tour of CyberYrth

Here are the kingdoms of Yrth as they might be on a Yrth changed by technological development:

Caithness. Frontier-land, near the borders of Orc territory and outside of the sphere of Meglos. Low in magic, but all the more chrome because of it. A freezone where small pockets of civilization struggle against chaos and anarchy.

Meglos. Decadent empire run by corrupt corporations and secretive magical orders. Mega-sprawls blot out the sky and grow across the land. Cosmopolitan cities are filled with human, elves, goblins and more sporting the latest in cyberware, magical amulets and fashions.

Al-Wazif. George Alec Effinger could have written his cyberpunk novels here. The traditions of Islam meet the future of high-tech and high-magic. The casbah is the happening place to be, and glam clubs sit across the street from onion-domed mosques.

Cardiel. A country with a multiple personality. Melting pot of Yrth where the countryside is still somewhat wild and magical and the cities are sprawls where anything goes. The home of Tredroy, the City of Three Laws, divided between Cardiel, Caithness and Al-Wazif and not unlike Denver in Shadowrun or Cold-War Berlin in many ways.

Sahud. Japanamation come to live. A peninsula settled by Japanese colonialists where magic and technology have produced some of the most incredible sights on CyberYrth. Lots of cyberware and the occasional battlesuit alongside ancient oriental magic, ninjas and demons.

Zarak. Kingdom of the Dwarves. An underground kingdom that honeycombs the mountains of central Ytarria and is filled with thousands upon thousands of dwarves working in their foundries and turning out much of the material that the rest of the world is crying out for. They also work their mysterious magic down in the deep caves for purposes unknown.

Just a few speculations in the right direction opens up a whole new world to adventure in. And remember, the Banestorm never really completely ended. Strangers “drop-in” to Yrth every now and again. Perhaps your player characters can be some of them.