Designer Interview: Brendan Davis of Bedrock Games on Sertorius

Recently I had an opportunity to check out a massive new fantasy RPG from Bedrock GamesSertorius. And when I say “massive” I don’t mean it lightly. This thing could be used in hand to hand combat and seriously hurt somebody. The draft I read was 600+ pages and chock full of gaming goodness.

Sertorius Logo - Bedrock GamesThe core idea is that the Sertori are spell-casters, each with a spark of a fallen deity. And they too can become more powerful as they gain followers. But woe be to those who misuse or abuse their power. If they don’t govern their abilities wisely, they will eventually turn into Grims – monstrous creatures warped by magic.

So of course I had to chat with Brendan Davis, one of the game’s creators. 🙂

This interview ended up being so long I’ve decided to break it into at least two chunks, so bear with me for a bit…

Q: Where did the name “Sertorius” come from?

Brendan: The setting focuses on spell-casters who carry the spirit of a god inside them. We wanted a new name for them, because they are not standard spell-casters. I did some research into old names for wizards and sorcerers, and one that came up was ‘sortiarius’, as crude Latin for sorcerer. I liked the name and it stuck for a bit, but over time we started mispronouncing it until it became Sertorius. At first I wanted to go back and change it again to sortiarius, but Sertorius is easier to say and it is the name of a Roman proconsul who led a resistance against Sulla in Iberia (The Sertorian War). I thought it would be more interesting if we had the word “Sertori” (which is what spell casters are called in the game) come from the name of the first spell-caster: Sertorius Poro. Maybe because we had just done Servants of Gaius, this felt like a natural name to use. This also gave me the chance to flesh out Sertorius Poro more and make him an important tyrant in the history of the setting.

Q: This thing is huge! How long has it been in development?

Brendan: It has been simmering for years, but we only sat down seriously to complete it in the summer of 2012.

Sertorius - Art- RacesQ: Even just cracking the draft, the list of influences in the introduction is enormous. With so many different inspirations how did you keep a constant set of ideals while designing the world and game rules?

Brendan: I wasn’t too worried about that. My feeling, when it comes to fantasy settings, is the more varied the better. You don’t want one tone. It is hard to sustain a long term campaign if everything has the same shade. So when we worked on the setting we took inspiration from lots of different sources. I think they all had to filter through a core concept of “Ancient fantasy setting with traditional races and a focus on spell-casters”, and that help keep it bound together. The key was anything we introduced to the setting had to make sense and fit with the other parts.

Q: The world includes an amazing array of concepts from a variety of cultures. What’s your favorite culture of Gamandria?

Brendan: I keep changing my mind. Right now, perhaps because I am writing a module set there, my favorite culture is Talyr, a mountain city of dwarves and humans, ruled by a troll who turns into a stone statue during the day. The troll, or King Tauq, is the center of a cult and his priests and warriors for the upper class of the city. It is really hard to choose one culture though. In the book I single out the dwarves of Hema River and the Ogres as my favorites, and I think the ogres are an important core of the setting. Everything hinges on the collapse of their mighty empire and the hubris of their last king.

Q: What is the key to a successful Sertori character?

Brendan: There are two methods for making a Sertori character. One is to randomly determine your spells and the other is to choose them. If you are using the first method, then the key is to make sure you take the right skills to compliment your spell list. For the second method, skills are also an important consideration, but the true key is taking the right spells for the character you are trying to create. They both produce very different results and different styles of campaign.

Sertorius - Art- ServitorQ: I’m a huge fan of the idea of magic having a downside if overused. In your world and system, magic users will turn into “Grims” if they overuse their abilities. How has the introduction of grims affected the world? Any stories of grims created during playtesting that you can share?

Brendan: In a big way. Grims form part of the landscape here. Some casters who grim turn into monsters, but others fuse with the land around them affecting the local environment in spectacular ways. So a forest might grow around a Grim, and reflect the nature of the spellcaster who caused it. For example we have a Grim in the setting called the Red Forest of Ras. Ras was a Sertori who had powers over time. Now time passes at different rates in the forest, and people who eat the fruit of the trees are affected in highly unusual ways as well.

In terms of Grims during playtesting, most of our players have done a good job avoiding that fate. We didn’t want grimming to be a foregone conclusion, so if you’re careful it’s possible to recover before the process is complete (I nearly grimmed myself several times, but I am pretty careless). When grimming did occur, it tended to happen when the party was overwhelmed and had to keep casting to survive. However I do remember one player who kept using powerful magic to protect himself from a Harpy’s song, but he was also getting angry and used it to retaliate more than needed. It snowballed and he ended up with all kinds of physical deformities and projected sadness on those around him. Eventually he turned into a Gorgon I believe. We also had people become living statues and liches through the process. Basically the spells you cast when you overuse your magic, determine the possibilities but they are also shaped by the circumstances.

Q: There are a ton of great spells detailed in the book. What sort of guidelines did you use during spell development and do you have any words of wisdom for players or GMs seeking to create their own?

Brendan: Really we just tried to come up with the most interesting and exciting spells we could think of. For the core book, we went for a certain feel with the spells. We realized that the spell list would set the tone of the game, and we tried to keep their impact on the setting in mind as well. We wanted a good mix of traditional mythic magic and some really unusual and bizarre stuff. One of the things that made the first list easier was knowing that we’d release supplements called the Books of the Archon. These each offer completely new lists for entirely different styles of play, and they are going to be free PDFs. So the idea is, if people want more traditional fantasy, they get the Book of the Archon with traditional spells. If they want something where power is through the roof, then we’ll put out a book for that as well. And since it is all free, people don’t feel like they have to go out and buy it.

We absolutely encourage people to make their own spells. The key really is to make sure the spell and the skill it is associated with connect. You also need to keep things like the four emotions in mind and factor those in. Because each spell has a normal effect and a more powerful effect, that ought to be considered during spell design as well.

Sertorius Cover MockupQ: What kind of art can we expect to see in the finished book? Any art surprised you so far?

Brendan: Jackie Musto is doing the interiors and they look great. Michael Prescott did the cover and it is truly his best work so far.

For the interior art I think folks will be struck by Jackie’s ability to give personality to her characters. What I like about the art I have seen so far is she brings the races and monsters to life. I was worried the orcs, who are supposed to be pretty civilized in some parts of the setting, would look stiff or weird in their roman-style clothing. The two pieces might simply not fit together naturally because orcs are a bit monstrous looking. But she made it work and she managed to make an orc that exuded charm, which to me was very surprising.

Michael’s cover art captures the feel of the setting completely. You have to see it to understand but the colors and the action are just brilliant: kobolds, ogres, a mammoth, and a bunch of Sertori casting spells. I think the Sertori figure in the foreground was absolutely perfect.

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This is just the first part… Next week you get part 2!

A huge thank you goes out to Brendan for willingly subjecting himself to my questions. In December I’ll get a chance to talk to him over Google+ if all goes well with Johnn Four, so we’ll see what kind of design advice we can wring from him at that point!

For more about Bedrock Games and Sertorius, check out…

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