written by Clinton R. Nixon
copyright 2003 Anvilwerks
Once upon a time, there was a world named Near. It was Near, because it was all its people knew. It was composed of one Empire, taking the best of every civilization it contained and integrating it into a cornucopia called Maldor. Whether jungle dweller, plains rider, grubby goblin, wolf-chaser in the snow, or wandering elf, all belonged to Maldor.
Three centuries ago, the Maldor Empire stretched from ocean to mountain, gleaming cities sprouting like flowers in its wake. Their most powerful and successful emperor-general, Absolon, called all of his advisors and most powerful of magicians to him for one singular task to cement the Empire as the greatest the world had ever known: the construction of a language for his varied subjects. He wanted a language to be crafted that was easy for anyone to learn that incorporated all the concepts of every cultural influence under his rule.
The advisors and magicians spent months using their arcane crafts to map the mind of man and examining the nuances of every language spoke within the Empire. They finally discovered their key in the language of the Zaru, the native people of a once tiny-but-prosperous delta kingdom. Their native tongue, which they kept highly secretive, was different than any other known language. It was built not of words, but of things called zu, tiny discrete bits of ideas, each pronounced as one syllable, which were combined in a complex method that could convey any idea depending on the zu used and in what order. Best of all, this language had a unique power: anyone who heard it understood the zu and in prolonged exposure gained knowledge of how to speak the language.
Emperor Absolon commanded his advisors to spread the language of zu throughout his Empire. As soon as the breath that made this command left his mouth, one of the Zaru, a rice-farmer and philosopher named Hanish, burst into Absolon's throne room, the dirt of hundreds of miles of running covering his body. He fell to his knees and begged the Emperor to not unleash zu on the world. He had seen a fiery dot in the sky, bright enough to be seen in mid-day, and swore it was an omen that the language of zu would bring destruction to the world. Absolon, hungry for the unification that zu would bring, ignored Hanish and the omen, and the advisors left with the cryptic syllables of zu on their tongues and Hanish left in chains, thrown into Absolon's dungeons.
The language of zu spread like wildfire throughout the Empire. With it, the Empire blossomed even more with new art blending the ideas of all of man shared among all peoples. The Empire's magicians grew in power, the language of zu being an optimal way to call on the primal forces they commanded.
In his private quarters, though, Absolon worried. He had his astronomers scan the sky and they too saw the fiery dot on the edge of existence. Even worse, this dot seemed to grow larger by day, as if the sky itself was beginning to burn away. Within six months, this dot grew as large as the sun itself, and burned bright by night, causing fear and unrest in Absolon's newly-solidified kingdom. Mothers held their crying children to their breast, trying to block the fell rays of this celestial fire from their babies' eyes; peasants grew fearful as their beasts moaned in confusion at night; priests proclaimed the end of the world was coming.
And all looked to their Emperor, Absolon, for guidance, but Absolon had none. Zu could not be revoked.
Absolon called on Hanish, threatening him with death if this curse was not removed from the world. Hanish lay himself before Absolon's executioners, proclaiming, "Kill me now, or I die in six months' time. The sky's fire cannot be stopped, and my death comes now or then." Moved by Hanish's bravery and defiance, Absolon took him to his side as his highest advisor and they spent many hours talking alone. The people of the Empire grew more and more worried: their Emperor spent all his days privately conversing with the man who would destroy the world and the fire in the sky grew bigger. Within another three months, this Sky Fire filled half the sky, illuminating everything in the burnt red of flame both day and night. The sun could not even be seen.
And three months later, in the midst of open revolt, chaos, madness, prophets proclaiming the death of all life, assassinations, and depravity, Absolon and Hanish emerged from the Emperor's quarters. The Sky Fire had grown no bigger than half the sky, but its heat was now palpable as temperatures soared to intolerable levels, and the entire sky was painted red and purple with no distinction between day and night as the globe burned away the air.
Absolon and Hanish stood on the steps of the Emperor's Palace, hand in hand, and began a chant in zu to the sky, intoning ancient syllables which spread throughout the angry crowds outside, calming them as they joined the chant. This chant lasted for three days, and it is said that by the end of those three days, the entire Empire had taken up the chant. The Fire moved slowly across the sky, though, and at the end of the three days, crossed the western horizon and night fell again. Absolon and Hanish collapsed on the stairs where they chanted, their spirits gone and bodies broken.
Then, the world halted.
In the midst of night, the world shook with such a rumble that buildings fell, cracks opened spewing lava, and mountains formed out of plainsland. Men wept and tore their clothes, animals stampeded, elves suddenly disappeared from the earth, and the elderly died of shock. A red glow came from every horizon, with black clouds like smoke billowing. The clouds grew and grew as the earth continued to shake for days on end, the sun barely visible, and finally even blotted out that orb of life-giving light.
For a year, the earth quivered and the sun rose no more, with only black clouds looking down on humanity. The earth froze. For one year, through the harshest of winters, people died of plague, starvation, and madness. By the end of that year, the population of the known world was a tenth of what it had been, and the ones that were left found they no longer spoke the language of zu, but instead spoke in tongues that were forgotten to them, eradicated by the brain-shaping power of zu. Their knowledge, craft, and art were lost to them, destroyed as surely as the sun.
One year after its disappearance, the sun rose weakly in the sky, barely shining through the breaking clouds. People driven to primitivism stuck their heads out of their caves, hovels, and homes to see the beloved sun as it rose to the middle of the sky and the foul darkness broke around it. When it set, though, living persons everywhere shook with horror.
A moon rose in the sky. Never had a moon been seen in the world. The only object ever seen in the night sky was the dread Sky Fire, which this bore too much a resemblance to. Its pale light threw dark shadows onto the land. Worse, when the sun rose the next day, this moon - three times as large as the sun - eclipsed the sun, a black Shadow Moon rimmed in fire.
Three hundred years have passed. The old civilizations have begun to grow again. Even in the shattered realm of Maldor, people inhabit some of the old cities. Elves, dwarves, and goblins wander the world again, and new strange species have developed. Magicians have regained some of their power, as their ancient tongues are recalled, and priests comfort the survivors of an apocalypse.
And once a month, the sun is eclipsed for one entire week by the Shadow Moon.
Some people quiver in abject fear.
And some heroes fight the Shadow, in the darkest caves, the most decayed of civilizations, and the blackest hearts.
This is a role-playing game (or RPG), which you probably already know if you're reading it. If you don't already know what a role-playing game is, it's a type of entertainment where each player takes on the role of a character they have created using a system that represents the boons and flaws of a fictional protagonist. These players describe what their characters do while one particular player, known usually as the Game Master, describes their surroundings and the other characters (often known as non-player characters or NPCs) that they meet. And that's about it. If you like stories, or acting, or spending time making up fantasies with others, then you'll like it.
The phrase "role-playing game" is totally misleading. The types of games lumped into this phrase differ from each other as much as playing a first-person shooter computer game differs from acting in a play or recreating a historical battle. "Role-playing game" was the phrase coined for Dungeons and Dragons when it was apparent it didn't fit into other known categories, and it's stuck for a whole class of games, although attempts at using "story-telling game" or "adventure game" have happened and failed.
Why is it a misnomer? Here's why: some RPGs provide a framework for telling a story with your friends, others provide a structured system for representing day-to-day occurences in a real or fictional world, and others provide a play environment for competition among the participants. Only one of the above - the last - is what would traditionally be called a game, and none of the above, with the possible exception of the second, fit the definition of role-playing as it's used in psychiatrists' offices or corporate team-building exercises. In those, the point is to gain a closer understanding of others - or yourself - by pretending to be in a different situation.
The Shadow of Yesterday, and many other games besides, do none of that. Sure, you can empathize with characters and their struggles, and you can enjoy crushing the minions of some ruthless tyrant in the game, but it's first and foremost about creating a fictional fantasy with your friends. I've tried to think up new names myself, and came up with "story-creation system," "fantastic framework," and other such unwieldy names.
So, "role-playing game" it is. I just thought you should know it's a mis-nomer.
The Shadow of Yesterday is set in a near-destroyed world, the victim of a huge celestial body striking it and causing a moon to shatter away from the world, fragmenting civilization and providing lots of room for characters to run around and re-create civilization as they might want it.
It's built on a great deal of optimism and hope, with a sharp streak of sadness at the state of the world injected. It's the game I wanted as a teenager learning about RPGs, and jammed with all the ideas I find cool about fantasy. It asks the question, "If you could change the world, what would it be like?"
This game is designed with very specific purposes in mind. It's meant to let you make interesting characters with clear purposes in their existence. It's designed to allow for dramatic reversals in those purposes as well, creating thematically-packed instances in play. It's designed to represent a fusion of fantasy-fiction elements I call "pumpkin fiction." This term comes from the person who introduced me to this type of fantasy, and means a type of fantasy where things don't necessarily make common sense, but are always full of style, a bit creepy, a bit comedic, a bit dark and violent, and definitely romantic. You'll notice there's quite a few rules in here that have to do with love and sex, more than in the average role-playing game. I mentioned earlier that this is the game I'd have wanted as a teenager: as one, and even now, I love love and sex. I'm a romantic, and think good stories revolve around a few things:
Those four things are what The Shadow of Yesterday is about. If you like those things, too, then you'll like this game.
Now, I've sacrificed some of what you'll see in other RPG systems to make this game. You won't see, for example, any sort of character balance. (This refers to a system that tries to make certain no player's character is more "powerful," or able to affect non-player characters, than anyone else's.) I tried it, and realized it wasn't important, and that's that. You won't see a system for improving players' characters that's based off any sort of in-game causality. Instead, you'll see a system that improves characters for their players hitting the four basic important story elements I mentioned above. You also won't see any "realism," whatever that might mean to you, here. Your character will be able to do some amazing feats because he or she's a hero, and your character won't be able to do other things because they're defined, as a story element, as not being able to.
Other bits of designer's notes will be scattered throughout this text, all prefixed with "Designer's Notes." Don't worry, you'll see 'em.
Oh, one last wiggly bit. Lots of role-playing games these days worry about how to use gender-specific and gender-non-specific pronouns. For the rest of this text, I'm just going to try to avoid any situation where I have to worry about this. I'll use lots of examples where you see that Billy's a player, and Ellie is his character, and he's a boy and she's a girl. When I can't avoid it, though, the generic player, and his character, will be male, and the Game Master will be female.
This game came about for one reason, and it wasn't my idea. Ron Edwards wrote an essay called "More Fantasy Heartbreakers" (a sequel to an earlier essay, and easily found at http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/) in which he suggested (crediting Mike Holmes for the suggestion) that everyone should write their own "heartbreaker," or game based off of experiences and problems playing Dungeons and Dragons. I planned for this to be a fun little exercise, and it took hold of my imagination and absolutely refused to let go. It's moved a lot from its original focus - I dropped the D&D influence and started using every influence I could - but it's got some ineffable magic that I can't resist.
This is definitely the game with the most blatant theft I've written. A huge portion of the rules and ideas are cobbled straight from other game texts. While this is the case with most games, I've tried to be rather explicit about it. As far as my influences go, here's a short list, all of which are good games in their own right.
The Riddle of Steel by Jake Norwood (Driftwood Publishing) and Sorcerer by Ron Edwards (Adept Press): These games gave me the idea of advancement based off player-set character wants and desires (Key Secrets). Seeing as these are the big two games I play, they've probably crept elsewhere into the game.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer by C. J. Carella (Eden Studios): The basic dice mechanic, including a variation on Success Levels.
Over the Edge by Jonathan Tweet with Robin Laws (Atlas Games): The bonus and penalty dice mechanic.
Fudge by Steffan O'Sullivan (Grey Ghost): Naming the level of success with descriptive terms.
Rolemaster by Iron Crown Enterprises: Again, too damn much, but mainly the way classes interact with skills. I played the bejeezus out of this game as a kid and certain things - including the Vulfen, a race from one of their dozens of supplements - have stuck around.
D&D 3rd edition by Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook, and Skip Williams (WoTC): Expertise Secrets are directly influenced by the Feat system of this game.
Dying Earth by Robin Laws (Pelgrane Press) and Shadowrun by FASA or somebody else these days: Attributes as resource pools (from both) and refreshment of these pools (Dying Earth).
Schism by Jared Sorensen (Memento-Mori Theatricks): The idea of character "transcendence."
Books and authors
This game is obviously influenced by Tolkien, and even more so, all those cheap-ass Tolkien copiers that most of us read in our youth. Their Dark Lords and magical elves and such permeated and ruined modern fantasy. I'm thoroughly ashamed for the books I read from about 17-20, and especially for the fact that they've influenced much of my writing since then.
In order to rectify myself, I've tried to be equally influenced by Robert E. Howard and his fabulous stories about the Hyborian Age. The different species and brooding darkness are a bit of a slap in his face, owing as much to that fucking hack Robert Jordan than anything else, but the decline of civilizations, great empty walled cities, and black forests are all Howard. ("Red Nails" and "Beyond the Black River" were the two stories that shoved their way into this game in major ways.) An article in the February 2003 Discover magazine, "How Was the Moon Formed?" was also a huge inspiration.