I have been in an odd funk this month gaming wise and it's been directly effecting my ability to post. I sit down with enthusiasm and ideas in my head, then rapidly the ideas become muddled and I get distracted, which makes it nigh impossible to finish. This post should have been completed a week ago for example.
Although I definitely have more thoughts on The Dark Crystal film and series, not to mention adventuring on the world of Thra, I also have a lot of other thoughts on a lot of other subjects as well, and they seem to be getting in the way of a clear and concise treatment of this particular project. If I don't give myself a cut off point, I could just ramble on and on and I don't feel that gives my Dark Crystal ideas, or my other ideas, the thorough consideration they deserve.
With that, let's discuss a The Dark Crystal role-playing game...
The Mystic Prophets Warn of Spoilers
End. Begin. All The Same.
Let's start the way one should, IMHO, start any RPG game endeavor, which is with the questions, 'What is this game about?' and 'What do the Player Characters do in this game?'
Campaigns set on the world of The Dark Crystal would, for the most part, be very similar to those on any Fantasy world.
The peoples of Thra explore ruins, fight monstrous beasts, and save each other from dastardly villains of one sort or another just like the heroes of a thousand other settings. The major difference between a traditional Fantasy RPG and a Dark Crystal RPG would be the themes explored and the PC motivations that propel the game forward.
The Dark Crystal is very much a setting tied to very particular ideas not normally associated with Fantasy adventuring. Concepts like protecting and working with environment and the ecology of the land, spiritualism but not religion, and a sense of family, friendship, and community in the face of outside forces attempting to divide the people are very much aspects of stories set on Thra.
Depending on the era you set your game in, the kind of tales you might tell well differ but overall I'd like to think they would be a bit less shallow then those of a typical Sword & Sorcery or Dungeons & Dragons game. Ruins may be explored, but not with the goal of finding wealth and treasure. Great creatures may be slain but reluctantly, as all creatures large and small are part of the Song of Thra. Dastardly villains must be battled and bested for they are stealing from the world itself to benefit only themselves.
Their Harsh and Twisted Bodies. Their Harsh and Twisted Wills.
The villains of The Dark Crystal, the Skeksis, are more than just murderous monsters, yet they execute evil acts far worse than any mere ogre or wizard. They divided the Gelfling Clans, kept them distrustful of each other, consumed resources and enslaved the less physically powerful in ways that reflect the overindulgence and lack of concern beyond themselves associated with the wealthy aristocracy. The Skeksis embody all the worst traits of classism and colonialism. They are not abstractly evil. They are literally the worst thoughts, feelings, and attitudes given form.
Dark Signs, Strange Storms, Sand Where There Used to Be Sea.
Thra itself is alive and is in a sense an ever present NPC that constantly and continuously impacts the lives of PCs in a Dark Crystal game. The Song of Thra resonates in the world's rocks and trees, it's flowers and animals, and in every one of it's native peoples. The presence of Skeksis and the darkening of the Crystal of Truth - also known as 'The Heart of Thra' - disrupts the Song and puts the entire planet out of sorts with itself. This leads to blights that kill crops, animals going into vicious rages, and a host of other ills that strike the environment of Thra along with its inhabitants.
A considerable portion of any Dark Crystal RPG, regardless of era, should deal with how what is happening in the story effects Thra and vice versa.
Map of the Skarith Region of Thra
Based on the map from the J.M. Lee Young Adult Novels
Modified by Yours Truly.
Regarding Player Characters; I would say that while the role-playing potential of portraying a Skeksis or an urRu is definitely something to consider, there are various reasons why I don't think I'd personally open up these beings for use as PCs. This doesn't mean I don't think you could do it but I will hold off on discussing this approach myself, at least for now.
My default idea would go with Gelflings as Player Characters. The Gelflings are the most common sentient species of Thra and the focus of the original film, the novels, and the Netflix series. In comparison to other Fantasy RPGs, this makes them the 'Humans of Thra', yet they are wonderfully, delightfully not Human.
Gelflings come in a variety of physical and cultural variations, possess a number of special abilities, unique gifts and mystical talents, and reinforce the feeling of the setting being at once exotic and familiar. This paradox makes them the perfect PCs for a Dark Crystal game.
If your story is set after the film you run into the problem of there being only two Gelfling in the entire world. It is one of the elements that has prevented me from creating a Dark Crystal RPG before now. However, with the addition information provided in the novel series and streaming series, a post film campaign becomes more viable.
To begin with, the film does note that the Crystal of Truth - the healed, previously 'dark' Crystal - has the power Jen and Kira (the film's last remaining Gelflings) need to restore or rebirth the world of Thra. This is [in part] why the UrSkeks (the recombined urRu and Skeksis) leave the Crystal in the care of the Gelfling pair. In my mind, listening to and joining in with the revitalized Song of Thra, Jen and Kira are able to cause new Gelfling to be born into the world.
Initially these Gelfling would rise out of the Swamps of Sog, step out dryad-like from cracks in the trees of the Dark Wood, and so forth. They will likely have no knowledge or memories associated with the past and would need to learn about their world like early Humans did. Of course they have the benefit of the teachings of Jen and Kira, as well as a wiser and more careful Aughra, who is in many ways almost as important to Thra as the Crystal of Truth.
This leads to some interesting Character Creation options. Imagine if each of the Seven Clans of Gelfling have their own specific skills and gifts, perhaps three special to their type, along with abilities all Gelfling have such as Dreamfasting and Winged Flight for females. Post film Gelfling may be able to choose a mix of Clan traits, since the idea of Clans has been long forgotten. Personally, I notice that while Kira in the original movie looks a lot like Vapra, she has capabilities that remind me of Deet from the Netflix series, who is a Grottan.
There Is No Filthier Creature In All of Thra
Another Player Character option I would gladly entertain would be a Podling. The Pod People, such as the character of Hup in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, are a simple, rural dwelling, agrarian species living in homes made in the bases of large trees. They are about a head and a half shorter than Gelflings, have a potato like head, and are skilled farmers, gardeners, musicians, cooks, and brewers.
They are a somewhat hedonistic people, living for life's simple pleasures. The love food, drink, celebrating with banquets, and when young they enjoy rolling around in the dirt and mud (which they sometimes eat for reasons unknown). They remind me of naughty hobbits to some extent and for that reason alone I would be happy to see someone play a Podling. My only stipulation is that not too many people play them. They are not generally seen as adventurers and Podlings willing to stand up and fight terrible danger should be rather rare.
Where Once Was Great Knowledge, Like Smoke, It Slips Away
The hardest part of this endeavor to create a Dark Crystal RPG has been choosing a system. There are three games that have caught my eye as possible choices and they are Mouse Guard, Ryuutama, and Tales from The Loop.
Mouse Guard was going to be the basis of the official Dark Crystal tabletop RPG when it was originally announced a few years back. The idea of having a number of dice in 'Nature', as in the character's nature, seems to work really well with the themes in The Dark Crystal. Referencing what I said about Gelfling characters above, think of each Gelfling Clan being defined by three Natures, with an addition two or three defining all Gelfling. In a prequel era campaign each play would pick a Clan and get the appropriate Natures for that group. In a post film campaign, Gelfling PCs could pick two from Column A and one from Column C so to speak.
I also like the basic die mechanic of Successes and Failures (called Cowards in the game, which I find downright hilarious and immersive). The only drawback is that Mouse Guard can be, like its predecessor Burning Wheel, a little over written. There is an awesome, really simple and fast system them that sometimes seems slowed down and made less elegant but very sub-systems and addition rules that I don't find particularly necessary. I would have to trim it down a bit and simplify various aspects of the game to make it work, then add back in the mysticism, Dreamfasting, and other fantastic elements.
Another option I considered is Ryuutama, The Dragon's Egg, a Japanese TRPG translated into English by Kotodama Heavy Industries. It is a fantastic, heartwarming Fantasy game that de-emphasizes combat and focuses on the journey itself. The game has the right feel and some really cool ideas but the dice mechanics are my favorite. I prefer games that utilize dice pools or simple roll-and-beat-a-difficulty using a single die type,
Finally, I have been really enamored with Free League's games lately and have considered the idea that the system found in Tales from The Loop might work well with this concept. Among the nifty mechanics found in Tales from The Loop (a variant on the Year Zero System I am currently enjoying in my ALIEN RPG campaign) is the way you don't take Damage in the traditional sense so much as get stressed out, frightened, and injured. You can decrease stress by being taken care, talking to, or generally being in contact with another character, PC or NPC. This effectively reflects the strength Gelflings get from one another, evidenced in scenes between Brea and her sisters, Rian and Deet, and even Deet and Hup (though Hup is a Podling).
I feel like I may be headed towards some 'Great Conjunction' of these three systems. I am still researching and experimenting. Remember, Garthims we'ren't built in a day. Oh wait...nevermind.
Anyway, this brings me to the end of this post and my final thoughts on The Dark Crystal for the time being. I am so eager to bring this world to the gaming table I can't quite express it. It's a burning, nagging desire. It calls to me as the Crystal calls to it's Shard. I am not positive that I will get to it any time soon however, and they makes me kinda sad.
Still, it gives me more time to develop ideas and hopefully a second season of the Netflix series will bring more of my fellow gamers around to the concept. Until then...
Come again when the last sister kisses the horizon and don’t be late.