Gaming Steampunk TTRPG

Dev diary – The Aether Courts

As a break from the mechanics of my steampunk ttrpg system, I’ve started to think about the setting and worldbuilding.

Playing cards are a core mechanic of the game, and I have a magic system of sorts in the shape of aether.

When I started to think about how I wanted magic in the game to work, I considered it together with the playing card concept and have started to map out the following conceit as an explanation for the existence of aether in the world of Lady Jessica McAlpin & co.

A history of Aether

Fifty years ago, Emma Forrester, a noted occultist and eccentric, made a startling and groundbreaking discovery. During one of her scrying experiments, Forrester discovered the existence of the Aether Courts, a quartet of noble houses that inhabited the otherworldly liminal space between our world and the domain of the dead.

Through secretive rituals that allowed her to commune with these strange beings, she uncovered the existence of four ‘Courts’, each presided over by a king & queen (although she quickly discovered that the traditional roles of gender she was used to were meaningless in the Aether realm.)

Each Court was aligned to one of the suits from a deck of playing cards, cementing Forrester’s theory that the seemingly innocuous items were in fact magical.

In due course, she met with each of the four Courts, learning a little more about the domains they held sway over.

The Court of Hearts had powers that allowed them to influence the minds, feelings and emotions of mortals. The Court of Diamonds was able to extend its reach through the aether and affect matter in the material realm.

The Court of Clubs was focused on using aether to defend itself against the last house, the Court of Spades, which twisted aether in foul and dangerous ways.

Troublingly, shortly after announcing her discovery to the world, Forrester vanished. Various theories and conspiracies abound as to the cause of her disappearance, but her true fate remains unknown.

Since publishing her findings, Forrester’s work has been debunked by official sources as the ramblings of a deluded mind. In reality, the Department of Shadow was established within the upper echelons of the Empire shortly thereafter, where her discoveries have continued to be examined, and further advances in the understanding of the Aether Court have been made.

Outside these ‘official’ channels, a few souls have found themselves awakening to an unknown power within themselves, and hearing the whispering from strange otherworldly figures who proclaim themselves as members of one or more of the Aether Courts. Though the authorities do their best to decry such occurrences, facts seem to point to an increased amount of activity between the Aether realm and our own.

The reasons why this may be the case are unknown, and theories of the Aether Courts’ true motives range from the altruistic to the apocalyptic.

What does this mean for the system/setting?

So far, so much dramatic license.

What this does do for the system is introduce a few key concepts & conceits:

  • Aether (magic) is rare – only some professions will have access to it from the start; other characters will have to learn / earn its use
  • Aether is divided into four Courts, with different effects (spells) in each. Characters will have to choose which Courts they are ‘sworn to’, and can only swear allegiance to others as part of character progression (and may not be able to swear allegiance to them all)
  • Aether invocations (spells) will be able to be augmented by playing cards from a character’s hand. The suit of the card will be important, and must correspond to the suit of the Court(s) that they are sworn to, and to the invocation they are attempting

And for the setting? This gives a bit of colour and intrigue to the world I’ve only just started to think about building. Early thoughts are:

  • The Courts will be creatures similar to Fae. In my mind at the moment, they are closer to the Endless from the Sandman. In any case, they will be powerful and immortal beings with a range of traits and views of humanity
  • To that end, I anticipate fleshing out at least 12 of them as major NPCs in the setting: the King, Queen and Knave of each Court. I’ll likely also flesh out the ‘Jokers’ as well, as some kind of Loki-style prankster being
  • The Department of Shadow, and the Empire as a whole: characters will likely start in the ‘service’ of the Empire, but may very well discover things are not wholly as they seem …

Now, with that out my head, I can get back to mechanics … and to the science of my ‘weird Victorian’ world…

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