Saturday, August 29, 2015

On the Mnoren

One of the odder quirks of TFT, given that it is a Fantasy RPG, is that its gameworld of Cidri and related campaigns did not have much in the way of any religious aspects. While a couple pages in ITL discussed religion, and there are a couple of talents, there is nothing like the deities in Dungeons & Dragons, with various human, demi-human, and even thoroughly inhuman gods and godlike beings, nor is there much of anything in the way of rules for handling priests and the like.

As an aside, my suspicion is that Howard Thomas, who is a very staunch atheist, probably had a strong influence on this aspect of TFT. Also, too, the approach taken in D&D with deities and clerics perhaps motivated an "equal and opposite" sort of reaction.

The upshot is that the closest thing we have to gods in TFT is the subject of this post, the Mnoren (and, no, I am not certain how one is supposed to pronounce that…), or, to give their proper taxonomy, Homo Sapiens Mnorenensis. Here is what is said about them in ITL, pg. 4:

"The Mnoren were human - and a little bit more. They had the ability to move unaided between the many alternate worlds that co-exist with Earth in other time-streams. One ability - but it was enough. The first Mnoren used his talent only six times, and then stopped forever in fright and confusion. But those six trips made him a wealthy man. His power bred true. His children read his journals, and wondered, and experimented. They became the secret rulers of their home planet. Their children did not bother with secrets... they merely ruled.
The Mnoren multiplied and prospered. Three hundred years after Jen Mnoren's first jump, his descendants had found, mapped, and conquered three hundred seventy-one alternate Earths. Three had space travel; eleven had magic. All of them honored the Mnoren rulers.
The key to the Mnoren dominance, of course, was knowledge. Knowledge is power, and the knowledge of one world is power unimaginable in another. Jen Mnoren’s six trips yielded two simple devices and one book, and made him rich. His children imported inventions, techniques, and gold... And the Mnoren power grew. A Mnoren was effectively invulnerable, wherever he traveled. A dozen different protective devices, physical and magical... intelligent bodyguards from strange worlds... and, most formidable of all, a very long lifetime of experience. Anything that could extend his life was of interest to a Mnoren; the medical techniques of 371 worlds made old age merely a measure of experience.

In the "Flora and Fauna" section of ITL, on page 57, the Mnoren are described a little bit more:

"Technically, the Mnoren – the builders and one-time rulers of Cidri – are (were?) human, with one slight difference – the power to travel between alternate worlds. This power made them masters wherever they went.
The power and experience of a Mnoren make him effectively immortal. If a Mnoren is attacked, you may be sure that he will have been aware of hostile intentions as soon as they were formed – and he will certainly have magical, physical, and technological defenses…"

So though they are considered gods, and indeed wield great power, they are really just like us when stripped of their gadgets and magic items (and, perhaps, genetic modifications, nanotechnology, etc.). Except for that one detail about being able to traverse alternate realities…

Let's focus on this aspect first. Happily, there is an excellent, almost spot-on, science fiction reference to this sort of ability from the now ended TV series Fringe. This show was a bit like X-Files and followed the cases of a group under Homeland Security that investigates incidents and crimes perpetrated by means of "fringe" science, whether radical bio-tech, devices that can make it possible to alter a solid wall on a molecular level to allow a person to walk through it, and so forth.

Most relevant to this discussion, though, is the lead character Agent Olivia Dunham who, when enhanced with a drug called Cortexiphan, could actually "shift" into a parallel Earth which was similar in many respects, but radically different in others. I'll avoid going into much more detail, since I highly recommend this show to any who have not seen it (and you can get it off Netflix, hint, hint) but I will use some of the aspects of how the shift occurs to illustrate how the Mnoren's singular power might work.

In the series, there are two possible ways to shift to the parallel Earth. One is by using advanced technological devices and the other through enhanced mental ability. It also helped to be at certain locations where the barriers between the two realities were weakest.

The shift, itself, is sort of like teleportation, only you end up in the same location in the alternate Earth. Of course, this could end up being rather dangerous! Suppose the location you "shift" to is in the middle of an Ice Age and you end up buried under a mile of ice! It seems to me, then, that this Mnoren ability has to have some sort of an "emergency shift back" feature built in, or perhaps an ability to "peer ahead" to the intended destination, else I have a feeling very few Mnoren would have survived were they to accidentally shift to an Earth that was dangerously hostile to life (the Sun went nova, atmosphere never developed, alternate Earth hit by large asteroid and rendered lifeless, etc.).

In "Treasure of the Silver Dragon" the following statement is made:

The Mnoren of Cidri, the world of THE FANTASY TRIP game system, have access to many alternate universes. This access is reputedly the source of the strange variety of life inhabiting Cidri's huge expanse. The existence of alternate universes is a product of creation. Each universe represents a different set of physical laws. Some universes are very similar with minor apparent divergences. These universes may be accessed by Mnoren where the difference is not grotesque. Drastically differing universes aren't accessible.

Also, for the most part, you just end up shifting to an Alternate Earth. You cannot "shift" to, say, one of Jupiter's moons… at least not from Earth. Now, if you first shifted to one of the three Alternates that had space flight, in theory you could jump on a ship, fly to one of Jupiter's moons, and then explore "alternate" moons from there.

Another point raised in Fringe is that, while anyone can use a device to travel between alternate universes, only people with the innate ability can do so without suffering severe (and, given enough trips, lethal) side effects.

It is also worth noting that the shift is usually not instantaneous, nor automatic. Agent Dunham at one point required not only the Cortexiphan but also the use of a sensory deprivation tank to shift – and then the shift was only temporary before she passed back to her start reality. (However, some shifts were accomplished with less help.)

It is also likely that, while the ability to do this is at its heart innate, one has to train oneself to some degree, perhaps even significantly. Therefore, the following talent is proposed for any Mnoren who shift between alternate universes:

REALITY SHIFT (3). Prerequisite: To learn this talent you must be of Mnoren descent. In conjunction with the specific gene that permits travel between alternate realities, this talent reflects the intense mental discipline and training that is required to enable shifting between universes. A shift requires a successful 4/IQ roll and costs 5 ST of exhaustion hits. Success allows the Mnoren to peer ahead into the alternate reality, and can opt to either continue the shift or pull back. The figure can shift itself, along with up to double its weight in "cargo" – to include anything worn, carried or held (thus, a Mnoren could shift another individual, assuming they were small enough). A figure can attempt to shift additional multiples of mass, but must roll an additional die vs. IQ and incur 10 ST of exhaustion hits (so if a shifting figure wanted to move up to three times his mass, then he would roll 5/IQ, four times would be 6/IQ, etc., and the cost would be 10 ST and 15 ST, respectively). If the roll is failed the exhaustion hits are accrued but no shift occurs.

With that, one must ponder where the Mnoren came from and how they conquered the 371 worlds that made up their multi-universe empire. This requires a bit of sleuthing.

So where did the Mnoren come from? A clue can be found here, where it is revealed that Jen Mnoren's six trips yielded, "…two simple devices and one book " It stands to reason that if that was the source of his wealth, then he came from either a magical world or a world without developed magic, for if he had originated from a high tech world it is doubtful that a couple of simple gadgets would have been the source of any wealth at all… Going beyond that, one of the speculative explanations for the Mnoren disappearance was that they died out because, "…their eldritch strain [was] weakened by time and the weight of empire." The word "eldritch" means "unearthly, supernatural, eerie" which lends a lot of weight to the conclusion that they came from a "magical" world, without any high technology.

How, then, did they manage to conquer so many worlds? On the surface this seems easy, even trivial, for as stated previously, "Knowledge is power, and the knowledge of one world is power unimaginable in another." Wouldn't that always be true?

It depends. Magic in TFT is really quite limited. There is nothing in the TFT spell list that is remotely comparable to, say, a Tomahawk missile with even a conventional (let alone nuclear) payload. TFT spells are designed around one-on-one combat, and have little or no application on a larger scale, unlike the more battlefield focused magics found in Dungeons & Dragons. Further, it would be easier for a technological society to deal with hostile magic than the other way around.

For example, how effective would an Invisibility spell be in our world? Certainly useful, but not nearly as effective as one might hope. Assuming it only affects visible light, then certainly any figure using the spell would be spotted quite easily on thermal imaging equipment. Seismic sensors are another possible way of detecting an invisible figure, along with millimeter wave scanners, etc. Other methods may certainly be devised.

And how awed would we be by real magic that we saw? Wouldn't many assume it is just some high tech gadget or neat special effect? So there may not be any widespread "shock and awe", as it were.

Thus, it is less likely that technological worlds would be "conquered" in a traditional sense. Rather, it is more likely done through subterfuge and stealth, with the subjects not really realizing that they are ruled by the Mnoren. I could readily see using Invisibility and Unnoticeability spells to spy and gain sensitive information, which would then be used to blackmail people in positions of power or obtain useful technology to help with their schemes (or both). Assassinations could be done with simple Magic Fist spells, which could easily be undetectable and would fuddle any investigators ignorant of magic ("Strange! I've never seen anything like it in my 25 years as a CSI! The Senator's body was found in a secure zone surrounded by metal detectors and surveillance cameras and suffered massive blunt force trauma consistent with being hit by a sledge hammer, all in front of eye witnesses who could not explain how it happened…"). Money, perhaps in the form of gold brought in from other worlds, might be useful (depends on the society); certainly bringing in gadgets, magic, or even raw resources from other Earths might also raise funds to influence politics on a higher tech world, enabling the set-up of a shadow government a la the game "Illuminati" by Steve Jackson Games.

This supposition is supported by the statement in ITL that, "His children read his journals, and wondered, and experimented. They became the secret rulers of their home planet..." After this, Jen Mnoren's grandchildren simply ruled their planet, but one wonders if on higher tech planets (with or without spaceflight) they maintained their rule behind the scenes?

Indeed, this may explain a great deal about our Earth – who knows, perhaps the members of the infamous Council on Foreign Relations and other alleged "secret" societies are really Mnoren – or at least answer to them!

Then again, perhaps the Mnoren truly have left everyone else alone. This is hinted at in the Dragonodon universe of the Treasure of the Silver Dragon and Treasure of the Unicorn Gold, where it is stated that, "The humans of Dragonodonia know that their Earth has been used by the Mnoren in the past. Numerous life forms haven’t evolved on their Earth and they know it by magical perception. As far as they know there is no current Mnoren presence or influence, as with our Earth."

And perhaps there are other worlds with ultra-high tech that defied easy influence, let alone conquest – a star empire, for example, where Earth was simply a used up husk, as presented in the backstory to Joss Whedon's Firefly/Serenity universe, or maybe turned into an uninhabited "nature preserve" for study and research while the rest humanity has the galaxy as their playground. With no real way of connecting with the civilization (since they can only shift readily to the Earth itself, and likely cannot "shift" a starship with them) they might not really be able to "conquer" anything. Also, what of a world where dread Cthulhu has risen from corpse city of R'lyeh and the Earth overrun with various Eldritch horrors?

There is also a loosely related work of fiction by Robert Heinlein entitled "The Number of the Beast" which uses an invention called a "Continua" device to travel both through time and into fictional universes (in the book, the protagonists traveled to the Land of Oz and Barsoom. In addition to the obvious tie in about traveling to alternate realities, a contributor on the TFT Mailing List suggested that one of the reasons the Mnoren vanished was because they started to explore fictional universes, rather than limiting themselves to parallel Earths.[1] For purposes of this article, I will assume that Mnoren reality shifting only works on parallel Earths, but it is good to at least be aware of this other possible interpretation.

So what became of the Mnoren? In the Labyrinth says this:

Where did they go? Ahhhh... another good question! There are many theories. Perhaps they simply died out, their eldritch strain weakened by time and the weight of empire. Perhaps the assassin's game that their wilder types enjoyed (what prey was really worthy of a Mnoren but his deadly relatives?) drove them into hiding on other worlds. Perhaps they built a grander playground somewhere else. Perhaps they're still here, wise and immortal, watching but not taking part. That's what the villagers believe. They threaten bad children with demons, orcs, and Mnoren."

Probably all of the above. I can see the Mnoren gene becoming less prevalent with time, unless they closely intermarry, which creates a whole mess of problems in and of itself (though perhaps such problems can be cured by magical and high tech medical techniques). One can also speculate that perhaps being in charge isn't as much fun as one might imagine, and shifting to a parallel Earth that has no sentient life might be a nice alternative.

Which does bring up an interesting point, namely that while "only" 371 worlds were ruled by the Mnoren, there must have been many more that were either unusable, or perhaps were "virgin" planets, unexploited by other sentient forms. Can you imagine what it would be like to take yourself and perhaps select others, and colonize an Earth just like ours but without all the congestion, busybodies, etc.? Talk about the ultimate "Galt's Gulch," assuming you could get the necessities across worlds!

Finally, how should one use Mnoren in a TFT adventure? Obviously, one can have them as sort of "gods", but I'd like to make another suggestion: how about a group composed of characters of Mnoren heritage who discover their abilities some time long after the Abdication, and start their own explorations? They lack all of the magic items and gadgets of the "established" Mnoren who left long ago, being descendants of elicit affairs, etc. so they lack the temporal power but retain the ability to shift between worlds.

Another possible approach would be to explore Mnoren gates (no doubt set up to assist transfer of people and goods between worlds in a way that shifting could not accommodate) in a fashion similar to Stargate SG1; indeed, one could use the show's premise wholesale by starting your characters as modern Earth soldiers tasked with exploring these gates and the worlds connected to them! While it would probably be a headache for a GM to run, the concept does have a vast range of possibilities… "So, what Earth do we want to visit, today?"

If anyone does try such a campaign, do report back as to how it turns out!

[1] Subject: (TFT)What happend to the Mnoren? at (see Archives at 27 Jul 2007 02:10:15 +0800)