Wasted Lands RPG: What Are Divine Touchstones?
(This blog cross-posted from elflairgames.blogspot.com. Follow us over there as well!)
Peoples and Culture of the Dreaming Age
The core conceit behind Wasted Lands: The Dreaming Age is that you play the origins of the gods of old. You are not actually playing gods - in fact, you're not even playing modern humans. You are playing "proto-humans" who were created by the Great Old Ones experimenting on native creatures. Thus, while every "human" has the same game stats, one might look more avian, one may appear reptilian, another simian, one rodentian, etc.
Similarly, the cultures in the Dreaming Age are sort of proto-versions of later ancient world cultures. The game is set 54 million years ago, between the time of the K/T Extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs (and sent the Old Ones into their eternal slumber), and a second great cataclysm that wipes all the remaining traces of the Old Ones' civilizations from the world. During this time, the species that calls themselves "human" has moved into the cities and facilities they built for the Old Ones, and has built their own civilizations. Some elements of these civilizations will filter down through ancenstral memories to become ancient Minoa, Greece, Rome, Babylon, the Aztec and Mayan empires, various indigenous cultures, and the like.
But that is millions and millions of years away.
The Birth of Gods
Along with these cultures, the exploits of the player characters will filter down to create the stories of the gods of legend. In this game, your character may be named Odin, but he is not the All-Father; rather, he is a wandering warrior who shares some traits with the Odin of mythology. As he interacts with tales similar to those of the myths of a father/war/knowledge/magic deity, he begins to develop supernatural abilities. These occur because the world is rife with magical energies, and are called (in game terms) Divine Touchstones.
It's also worth noting that characters will choose several spheres of influence which we call "Divine Archetypes" as descriptors for their character. As above, for example, Odin might have Father, War, Magic, and Knowledge. The player chooses one of these archetypes to be the primary focus of their journey. The others are secondary or tertiary. They have little game function, but serve as a guideline for the Game Master in developing stories, and for the player in defining who their hero is. They also guide in the types of Divine Touchstones the character gains.
Types of Magic
The two major types of magic are The Bleeding and The Radiance. The Bleeding is the energy of the Deeper Dark, the source of Degeneracy and Corruption. It forms the vast majority of mystical energy but it calls upon maddening forces of darkness from the spaces between spaces that "bleed through" into the world from sites of rot, foul deeds, and the like. Because the world has been so long affected by the Other Gods (Old Ones), the Bleeding is ubiquitous. Likewise, humanity (such as it is), having been created by the Other Gods, is also subject to corruption and spiritual decay, further strengthening The Bleeding.
The Radiance, on the other hand, is the magical energy of the Earth itself. Earth, as a world, is beginning to "wake up" in the Dreaming Age, and discover that it has power. In sites far from where the Old Ones worked their dark experiments, this magical energy thrives. In addition, great acts of heroism can beat back the Bleeding, converting Bleeding sites into sites of Radiance.
Divine Touchstones are by and large (though not always) connected to Radiance, rather than the Bleeding. Spellcasting, on the other hand, is connected to the Bleeding, so sorcerers in particular must work hard to maintain a balance, for when one becomes too corrupted by the bleeding, the Radiance becomes toxic to them.
As stated earlier, Divine Touchstones are gained when the Game Master deems it appropriate, usually at a point where the characters accomplish a great and heroic deed, or when they meaningfully interact with their "mythology." This interaction need not even be with their specific mythology. They might even interact with a similar but divergent mythology. The character playing Thor, for example, may actually engage in a story that mythology attributes to Indra, but since both are storm gods, Thor gains a Divine Touchstone, and helps to spread Indra's myth-cycle in the ancestral memories of humanity.
In this manner, even if your character dies at some point, their stories go on, and someone else can create the legend of Thor (or Indra, or Zeus, or whoever), despite the passing of the original.
Divine Touchstones are, quite simply, special powers, akin to superpowers. The game gives a broad selection of these touchstones separated by the character level at which they are appropriate. Others may be possible and the GM and players are encouraged to cook up their own as befits the heroes.
They are open and customizable - one, for example, allows a character to gain a spell-like ability of the appropriate level. Thus, a fifth-level character may gain a divine touchstone allowing them to cast a third-level spell as a spell-like ability once per day. This spell can be anything appropriate to the character's spheres of influence. The aforementioned Thor or Indra, for example, may gain the ability to call down lightning once per day, while a hero playing Hephaestus might gain a concussive blast of fire, or Seth may gain the ability to create undead.
Note that not all divine touchstones are spells. That's just used as an example here. They take all sorts of forms, from immunity to certain attack forms to ceasing to age, even to the ability to impart special powers to others. And again, the GM is encouraged to work with players to invent entirely new ones as befits their character concept.
As you rise in levels and perform greater deeds, you gain more divine touchstones, which represent your apotheosis, of sorts, as you walk the path of the gods.
Doesn't That Ramp up Power Levels?
Yes, the use of Divine Touchstones does ramp up the power level of the game somewhat, but the speed at which it does, and the level of increase is dependent upon the GM, who determines when Divine Touchstones are handed out.
For old school gamers who eschew power creep, the game can also easily be played without Touchstones, and just run as a standard swords and sorcery game in a lost epoch of Earth like your favorite Robert E. Howard, Fritz Lieber, Clark Ashton Smith, or Michael Moorcock tales. And like Night Shift: VSW it includes options for normal, gritty, and cinematic play so you can tailor the style of game to your desires.
What about Traditional Fantasy?
Traditional fantasy with elves, dwarves, gnomes, goblins, and the like can also be run with Wasted Lands: The Dreaming Age. An appendix to the rules gives you everything you need for nonhuman species and archetypes, and takes a unique approach somewhere between the traditional "race as class" of the basic games, and the "race plus class" approach of the advanced iteration of the game. More on that in our next blog.