The World Of Tiers
OK, this is going to be a look at an entire series, not just a single book, but it’s an eminently gameable series. It surprises me that no one has glommed onto the World of Tiers license yet. Really, someone should just buy “Phillip Jose Farmer” as a license, because he creates settings which are extremely rich in roleplaying potential and which haven’t been utterly and completely done to death in multiple editions yet. Then again, my understanding is that most licensed games don’t sell too well, and Farmer was at the peak of his popularity and productivity in the 1960s and 1970s, making him a bit unknown to today’s younger audience.
Anyway, the World of Tiers… centaurs, Teutonic knights, harpies, American Indians, teleportation, demigods, robots, and more!
Demigods At Play
A Quick Plot Summary
Well, very quick, because there’s a hell of a lot going on in these books, and part of Phillip Jose Farmer’s writing style is that he rarely repeats himself. If you tend to read books a bit quickly, digesting the essence of what’s going on and confident anything really important will be mentioned twenty or thirty times (cough Robert Jordan cough), you may need to slow down a bit when it comes to anything by Farmer. If you blip over a paragraph, you might find yourself utterly lost ten pages later and wondering, “Wait, what? When did THAT happen?”
There are five books in the series (well, there’s a sixth, but it’s sort of weird and odd and doesn’t really fit and I never finished it), and I recently finished rereading the first three, so since they’re reasonably fresh in my mind, let’s just go with them.
The Maker Of Universes
The first in the series. Here we meet an elderly earthman named Robert Wolff, whose inspection of a home he is considering buying is rendered somewhat more interesting than usual by the sudden appearance of a doorway into another universe, where he sees a young man beset by ape-like monsters. Before said portal closes, a horn is tossed through. Naturally, because the book would be rather short otherwise, Mr. Wolff later returns to the house, uses the horn to re-open the portal, and finds himself in a world shaped like a series of concentric discs, each separated by monstrous cliff dozens of miles high. Each tier (hence the name “World of Tiers” for the series, though most of the novels don’t actually take place here, go figure) is continent sized, and inhabited by a variety of lifeforms and cultures, some taken from Earth history, some formed in the biolabs of the Lord of this world…
Lord? Oh, yeah. As it turns out, there’s a race of ridiculously advanced — and petty — beings, who call themselves the Lords, and who have the capacity to make, well, universes. Or at least chunks of them, the largest being around the size of Earth’s solar system. Within these universes, they can control the laws of physics to a considerable degree, as well as creating life. There are some limits to their power, but they’re pretty broad, and with mastery of gravity and teleportation and genetic engineering, they can create almost any world they can imagine, and rule over it as they see fit. The Lord of this world, Jadawin, enjoyed Earth history, and so borrowed some native Americans, some ancient Trojans, some crusading Knights Templar, and many others, and placed them into this world, along with his genetically engineered creations and some victims of his cruelty, such as the harpy Podarge.
The human Wolff saw? That would be Paul Janus Finnegan (check the initials), who ends up ultimately stealing the series. Also known as Kickaha, the Trickster, he is a master of escape, survival, and getting while the getting’s good, though with a hard core of basic morality. The bulk of the novel consists of Wolff and Kickaha making their way to the very top of the world, where the Lord’s palace is located. (Fortunately for the 60-something Wolff, the food and drink of the World of Tiers has a powerful rejuvenating effect.) As for what they find there, well, read the novel. (Note the convenient Amazon links above. Hint, hint.)
The Gates Of Creation
In this book, we return to Wolff (who is, of course, the exiled Lord of the world of Tiers… don’t tell me you didn’t figure that out), and his squabbling, vicious, and utterly repulsive family of backstabbing betrayers, who have been trapped by their father in his world, an endless series of barely-survivable and truly exotic settings, linked together by hidden gates. (Gates are a major part of the setting — a gate can be a simple doorway between places, or a complex trap. Some will only work for a password, some change destination randomly, some are one-way, some will dump you miles above jagged rocks, and so on.) The family must work together (yeah, good luck with that) to survive, reach their father’s palace, and kill him, then manage to get back to their own worlds before they all kill each other. And if a family of eternally treacherous near-demigods sounds familiar, it’s because the Amber series was partially inspired by the World of Tiers, as Zelazny acknowledges.
A Private Cosmos
Alas, poor Wolff! Kicked out of your own series! The third novel focuses on Kickaha, as finds himself caught up in a rather vast conspiracy. The Lords, it seems, once created a race of artificial beings known the Black Bellers. Originally intended as a means of making themselves double-plus immortal, the bells which were designed to hold their consciousness in the event of a lack of body evolved a consciousness of their own, and became body-snatchers, of a sort, taking over the bodies of foolish Lords and orchestrating their schemes. Kickaha engages in a series of captures, escapes, reversals, and discoveries to try to stop the Bellers, and finds himself the semi-unwilling ally of Anana, another of Wolff’s sisters, and somewhat (slightly) less amoral than most.
Gaming With The Gods
Well, demi-gods. Well, OK, self-proclaimed demi-gods who are pretty much just a bunch of whiners once you take away their toys.
The universe of the World of Tiers series is incredibly rich for gaming. Let’s begin with an indeterminate number of Lords, each of whom can create their own private “little” cosmos (and by “little”, I mean, roughly solar system sized), and create within that cosmos an extraordinary variety of life forms and environments and worlds, ranging from transplanting humans from different time periods on Earth (the Lords show no evidence of time travel, but they’re immortal, and have existed throughout all of Earth’s history) to completely fantastic creations. Gravity and celestial mechanics are no bounds on creativity; neither is most of what we think we know of the physical sciences. There are some apparent limits — there’s only so small you can make a brain and still have it be complex enough to think, and if you want Earth-normal gravity and Earth-normal atmosphere there’s only so far genetic engineering can go before you run into problems with creating giants and dragons. (The “Centaurs” of the World of Tiers, for example, had vastly oversize lungs and and internal organ structure radically redesigned to allow them to exist at all, and their “human” torsos were somewhat distorted.) Of course, when Farmer was writing the books (mostly in the 1960s), he didn’t know about
magic nanotechnology, and while even semi-hard-SF will scoff at the comic-book uses of this concept (bad SF in the 1940s: Radiation! bad SF in the 2000s: Nanotech!), you can usually stretch plausibility in an RPG more than you can in a novel, and somewhat extend the Lord’s already physics-breaking powers. Really, though, you don’t have to. A quick read through the novels should give any world-builder more than enough ideas, without needing to turn it up to 12. (Trust me, it’s already turned up to 11.)
So what do you do?
On the simplest level, you can create a very interesting mostly low-powered setting based on some Lord’s idea of “an interesting world”. Something like the World of Tiers, structured nothing like Earth physically but following fairly normal laws of physics otherwise, if you ignore the geocentrism, could be a setting for any kind of culture or cultures one might imagine. Grab some romans and some genetically reconstructed dinosaurs, and let them advance to Renaissance levels of technology, and maybe stick in a few samurai or Aztecs, just for fun. Most of the Lords, paranoid and fearful, did not want any of their pets getting too advanced (by which I mean “gunpowder”) but there’s nothing which says this must be so; you could have a Lord who allowed technology to reach 19th or even early 20th century levels. A Lord might be fascinated by war, and create a world which was perennially locked in battle, at whatever tech level seems interesting (or any mix — biplanes and broadswords, perhaps?). Because the Lords can set themselves up as gods (and usually do), a culture might never investigate particular branches of science, lest the gods smite them… and since the Lords can monitor their worlds closely, such smiting is quite real.
Another level of play is world-hoppers. There are many gates in the universe, and there are technologies which can open arbitrary gates, if you happen to know the right keys or codes. A team of explorers hopping from world to world, or questers seeking some hidden location, forms a fairly solid basis for adventuring. Because the Lords do not like uninvited guests (and they never issue invitations), such explorers would most likely need to be very skilled to survive, as well as capable of dealing with a huge variety of environments, many greatly inimical to human life.
At the final level, you would play Lords themselves. To be any kind of game, though, you’d need to play Lords momentarily cut off from their own worlds and forced to rely on their own abilities and relatively small (but still quite advanced) items of technology. The Lords, for the most part, know nothing of their own science; they can run their machines but not create them, and if left on their own, most would have trouble rubbing two sticks together to make a fire. On the plus side, they are immortals, whose bodies have mostly been adjusted, tuned, and enhanced to superhuman (though not ridiculous) levels of strength and endurance, and with endless millennia of life. they can master a variety of skills — if they bothered to do so.
The most obvious choice, to my mind, for a world of Tiers game would be GURPS. It has everything you need to handle characters at a wide variety of individual power levels and has a gritty, lethal, combat system that matches the books — for all but the most skilled, combat is deadly and brief. It’s easy to create well-rounded characters at low point levels and near-demigods at high point levels.
If you want to play up more of the pulp action/high adventure aspects of the setting, either True 20 or Savage Worlds will do well, though you’d need to do slightly more work than you would with GURPS to create much of the backdrop material. Hero System is another likely choice, though you’d want to “turn on” a number of the optional rules, such as hit location. In general, I’d recommend avoiding strongly level based systems, as there’s not really a lot of “powering up” in the course of the novels. Characters advance in some ways, but rarely gain dramatically in power.These aren’t tales of young novices becoming skilled masters; they are mostly tales of extremely competent people facing truly impressive threats. There is also not a great deal of shirt-tearing angst; the overall moral tone is basically fatalistic. Even the most noble characters tend towards basic practicality and do not spend a lot of time agonizing over their decisions. The Lords are, with one or two exceptions, basically amoral or evil; the few who develop some sense of ethics may regret their prior actions, but they don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on it. Strong passions in this setting are for revenge and survival, not angst and self-examination. When you’re being chased along the edge of a 30,000 foot high mountain by murderous centaurs who want to eat your spleen, you really don’t have time to ponder the decisions which brought you to this point; you just run, duck, grab a convenient branch, trick one of them into flying over you, snag their knife as they do, and leap on the back of the next one to stab him. And pray you don’t roll a 1 in the process.