“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” – Steve Jobs
As a compulsive homebrewer/worldbuilder and a compulsive reader, I like to read books and then use their ideas in creating worlds or mechanics or adventures. With Andrea K Höst’s Touchstone series, I hit gold. She’s a successful self-published author, and I don’t know if the Touchstone series is her best work, but it’s definitely one of the ones that resonated best for me.
Synopsis: The Touchstone series is a portal sci-fi story written as a diary where the protagonist is just a regular girl from Australia about to graduate high school, but she unexpectedly steps into another world. Like Narnia or Oz, but sci-fi and aimed at an older audience. (Ahem, in my case *much* older). The first book starts as a survival story. She’s steps into a random wilderness that’s definitely not on Earth and all she has is her school uniform and satchel. She runs into others eventually, and the challenges she faces in adapting to her new circumstances change as the situation does, but generally the first book is focused on her adapting to this other world. The later books expand the scope as she gets caught up in the crises affecting their corner of the universe.
Review: It’s a well-written, but definitely on the cozy side, so probably not the best read for people who require their science fiction to fall somewhere between The Martian and Mote in God’s Eye spectrum or who want their reading to feature literary angst with a side violence and gore. Personally, I found it addictive and have reread it many times.
Ideas to Steal
She had some nice thoughts with the cultures and characters and stuff, but to my mind, the are the best ideas for a GM to steal are the Ena, her handling of psychic talents, and the overarching plot.
In this world, there is the regular universe, but there is also the ena. In fantasy terms, I’d guess you’d call the universe the prime material plane, and the ena is this sort of space between prime material worlds. The physics of it are different – and weird. It’s not continuous. There are an infinite number of spaces in the ena, and spaces and planes and worlds are attached to other spaces or worlds by gates. And sometimes worlds have gates that go directly to other worlds. Many gates are not permanent though – some are temporary tears, some are rotating gates that go through regular cycles, and some are permanent. Not everybody can sense a gate, so every so often, someone strays through a gate by accident. Spaces in the ena near a world will tend to fill with impressions and shadow versions of that world.
She has a lot of scenes set in the ena, with character on foot or in a space ship, traveling, fighting, experimenting or exploring. The cool thing is that it solves three great RPG tropes:
- It explains and describes interplanetary/interplanar travel in a really interesting way that could work equally well for fantasy and futuristic settings.
- It provides a great dungeon crawl set up. Your players go through the gate to a space with whatever you can dream up (it doesn’t even need to make sense!), explore through as many spaces as they can, fight whatever monsters appear, and return when you need to recharge. Oh, and they don’t need to feel guilty about killing the monsters – they’re just shadows of creatures and respawn if necessary.
- The ena is a place where some talents are more powerful but which is not good for long term servival, so if you’re one of those people who hates worlds that have resurrections spells or alchemy or whatever because if adventurers can do it, then it would change EVERYTHING, then you can have your world that is relatively low power and makes sense, but also have a way to have crazy powerful magical adventures.
In the series, almost everyone in this world has some sort of psychic powers, and the author does an awesome job with the little details of what a civilization and culture would be like if psychic powers were somewhat commonplace, but everyone had gifts of different types and strengths. She’s clearly thought about everything from government to pop culture to taboos to education to stereotypes. If you’re looking to create a setting that openly incorporates a lot of psychic powers, especially if it’s in a modern or futuristic setting, this series is rife with little cultural details that will make it feel lived in.
She uses pretty normal categories of psychic talents, so it would be easy to incorporate into most settings with psychics. The only way hers stands out is in her taxonomy of “sight ” related gifts.
- Combat sight makes you aware of dangers. Psychics with combat sight tend to be excellent soldiers and tacticians.
- Place sight allows you to get impressions from people, objects, or places, especially when they touch them. It’s considered taboo to touch someone with place site unless they invite it, and they usually wear gloves so they’re not constantly inundated with information.
- Gate sight lets you see gates into the ena, which makes them into natural scouts if you have ena or something similar.
- And Sight sight is a silly name, but it gives you insights into things or just know things they otherwise couldn’t. In practice, it seems to be a combination of empathy and supernatural insight. People with sight sight have to learn discretion and are prone to nightmares. They also tend to be very sure of their own opinions and have a tendency toward arrogance.
- The rest is a fairly normal assortment of teleportation, levitation, speed, illusion, etc.
Of course, since she has the ena, Höst also dreamed up psychic Ena Manipulators, who can affect gates and use the ena to do some things (I’m a little unclear on this one, although one character used it to get fantastic hairstyles as a side-effect), and…
Ok, so the rest of this article is going to discuss very specific details about the book. Spoiler Alert!
Seriously, it’s spoilers from here on out. Don’t read unless you’re sure you’re okay with that.
Touchstones which are a very rare, convoluted and plot-specific ability. Read the book to really understand, but the gist seems to be that they have a very deep connection to the ena and can create connections between anything in any time and any place. So, a touchstone can spontaneously create whatever they can imagine (like green lantern, sort of) and can see into other times and places. They can also act as amplifiers to other abilities.
Over the course of the series, the main character learns about the world, including the fact that the group that has taken her in, the Setari, are psychic warriors who are fighting a constant battle against mysterious monsters from the ena, the ionath. They don’t know much about them other than that both the tears from the Ena into their world and the numbers of ionath are increasing. So mostly the setari uber-competant and win their battles, but it’s a war of attrition and they’re slowly losing because the ionath seem to infinitely regenerate and every so often the Setari die in their duties.
Eventually they figure out the underlying reason for the increasing tears into reality – their ancient ancestors created devices that hold the ena still so that it becomes easier to cross. But trying to hold the ena still, while convenient for inter-world travel, is also slowly tearing it apart.
In addition, those same ancient ancestors had some evil rulers who wanted to set themselves up as immortal gods, so they essentially sacrificed hoards of their people to gain the power to set up a pocket dimension that would give them even more power. Only their world is slowly running out of power, and they need to harvest more from the original worlds. The original worlds never knew any of this (they only knew some horrible event happened in ancient times that caused them to leave their homeworld). Over time, the characters rediscover the home world, put together the clues, find a way to to shut off the devices and fight off the evil overlords.
It’s a cool set up, because it smoothly goes from the equivalent of really cool dungeon crawling, to exploring lost worlds in search of answers to saving the universe from evil demigods and their minions. It pretty much seems tailor made for an epic campaign that takes you from low-level to high, except you’d have to make sure your players don’t read the same books or they’d miss out on some great surprises along the way.
In any case, I really recommend the series, it’s a lot of fun. Oh, and after the primary trilogy, she wrote a novella entitled “The Gratuitous Epilogue” which I thought was perfectly named. And then another one after that which should have been named “The Even More Gratuitous Epilogue’s Epilogue”, but no one asked me, so it actually got a normal name.