Roger of Roles, Rules and Rolls has reminded me to share some cities suitable for medievalish gaming.
See, I love Vornheim but I can never get comfortable generating cities procedurally on the fly the way Zak does because I feel like I need to have a real overview of the whole city in order to be able to run anything in it, because I want to know how far the players will have to run and around how many corners to reach the gate or the sanctuary of the temple when the angry mob comes after them.
And although Merv, Constantinople and Ankh-Morpork are all steaming cities of millions, I also like my in-game cities to be recognizably finite because then you don’t get the condition of anonymity and easy invisibility that adventurers tend to take for granted.
And I love drawing maps but I hardly ever actually do it because (a) time, (b) my maps don’t have that all-important element of the unexpected and irrational – they are designed for my current purpose, while actual places are always designed for a million conflicting purposes and so that’s why people routinely do stuff nobody would ever do like putting the prison and mental hospital next to the armoury.
So instead I use real places. Every time I travel I bring back a map. And there’s a surprising number of immediately usable real places right on Google Maps, which still have the outlines of “medieval” or “early modern” cities. So here’s a few. Be warned, the links below are mostly to HUGE images.
Let’s start with the most obvious candidate:
Venice was a bustling metropolis in its 15th century heyday, big and tangly enough to hide legendary assassins, secret police forces, multinational trading houses, a fearsome navy and a shadowy ruling cabal. And it still has a pretty similar street plan today – good enough for gaming needs, anyhow. Need to know the main sights? Go check out some tourism site, but basically the seat of government and sea trade tax office is right on the main wharf on the south side, by the mouth of the grand canal, and the navy yards are on the east end, and the bit that looks industrial on the west end was added in the 19th century, so lop it off if you don’t like that in your burlap medieval mudhellscape. Google map. Note that square Isola San Michele is the necropolis and that the church on the end of Dorsoduro, Santa Maria Della Salute (south side of the southern entrance of the grand canal) is an architectural charm to ward off the plague, which was still a recurring problem in the 18th century. If you can’t make RPG hay with that I don’t even.
Brielle in south Holland changed from the 16th century to the 17th and then gave up.
It still nestles in its cozy girdle of cannon forts waiting for the French, while next-door Rotterdam (which rather dominates this google map) metastasized out of its enceinte, got bombed to rubble, and re-emerged as a thoroughly 20th century industrial hub. The big white building’s the church (more obvious on this bird’s eye view), the rest was at one point almshouses, linen-processing yards, boatbuilding, stabling, and orchard gardens for the richer folks against the threat of siege. Note that it has exactly one main street where all the reputable taverns are located (that’s Hogsmeade right there), and before cars came along you could close the gatehouses on the moat at night, like at (delicious Victorian confection) Carcassonne, which I include even though it should already be in your library:
but you should really already know about Mont St. Michel
Although the “medieval” towns of Tuscany are as mucked about by Mussolini as Carcassonne was by Viollet le Duc, as far as gaming goes that really just makes them better. Thus stereotypically hilltop Siena -
(Florence’s competitor, arrested after the 15th century by the plague, for our much later benefit) in 2 maps that are confusingly shown rotated one from the other but together get the idea across, gives you enough courtyards and palaces and back alleys for all your flashing blades skullduggery, plus the ludicrously dangerous horse race around the central “square,” Il Palio, beloved of James Bond location scouts and Travel Channel specials.
Smaller but no less reconstructed San Gimignano has a baffling profusion of towers suitable for spying on the population, hurling heretics off, storing grain or calling the multicretic faithful to prayer in an appalling religious cacophony 16 times a day.
This map doesn’t show you the towers, alas, but oddly google maps steps up with an oblique bird’s eye, with captions. The size of San Gim is a useful reminder that these tiny little villages really were important urban centers 400 years ago. Wee Siena supposedly (unless Mussolini made it up which would be just like him) had/has 17 semi-autonomous districts that competed with each other in business, crime, church decoration and lunatic horse-racing. Which should give you a sense for what “locally famous” might mean. It’s also really easy to get lost in these small spaces: trust me, when everything’s whitewashed, even little Mykonos town can turn you around and around for hours.
Amsterdam was also a pretty small (but globally important) town up to about 1900 and, usefully for us, after that it expanded outward rather than effacing its old street plan in the center, so many of the buildings in the center date from the 1600s.
In 1649 (pictured in the map above) it was in the middle of its golden age: it was Europe’s biggest center for shipbuilding, a major hub for banking, international finance, the gold, silver and diamond trades, and (largely, maybe) controlled Europe’s access to the 4 noble spices, needed for holding the plague at bay and for entertaining in high society. It was also (perhaps) the most tolerant, multi-culti melting pot in Europe, home to deposed nobles and Jews from Spain and Portugal, middle-European economic migrants and refugees from the 30 years war, and a whole mess of troublesome Protestants and other heretics. This fascinating 5 minute video gives you a sense of the slow fits and starts with which it expanded, but to really get the size of the Jewel of the North Sea, I’ll tell you that it’s a 10 minute walk down the long 16th century axis from the harbour mouth to the south end of the Singel (enclosing canal/inner edge of those multiple rings of canals) and that’s adjusting for traffic and walking through the red light district. Note both in the map above and the last link, south is confusingly more or less at the top of the map.
Heading east to my favoured territory alas the Russians did a pretty good job of effacing backward and anti-modern Turkestan and replacing it with post-Soviet and anti-modern Central Asia.
There are hollowed-out museum cities (Khiva here has a weirdly lacey, patchwork quality after the monuments were “cleaned up” by having the houses around them removed) but you have to use your imagination and there’s certainly no obvious easily-stealable urban fabric. Following that last map link though you can see the extent of the old walled city (ie the elite expensive bit) pretty clearly. Mythopoeic Ramblings has already posted this lovely necropolis, which is useful too.
Supposedly the Islamic City is defined by a knotty tangle of semi-private courtyards and alleyways and underporches that makes it hard to map in a top-down way (although mostly when people say “the Islamic City” they mean “Fes“), so Zak’s methods seem tailor-made for this kind of confusion. But Chinese-influenced cities tend to have a brutal (but often subverted) regularity to them. Thus the capital of China’s legendarily cruel and paranoid First Emperor, Chang-an (shown in that link in its 19th century refiguring but there you are), and northern Thai (Lanna) stronghold, Chiangmai:
[google map to compare] which is about as square as Thailand’s “first capital,” Sukhothai:
give you a sense of life and love in the time of autocratic government.
Less geometric and considerably more fun, Ayutthaya in the 17 and 18th centuries had quarters for visiting Arab, Chinese and European tribute-traders, intrigue galore, a Greek con-man grand vizier, massive flammable palaces for state cremations, and Samurai bodyguards for the king. It’s also a demonstration case for the problems of generating maps from textual sources. Amusingly/irritatingly, the most useful map is not this complete image (nor google’s tidy map) but this dodgy partial pic out of a book:
Now it’s a “historic park” with the emphasis on “park” – crumbling temples separated by golf lawn grass, its solid stone Manhattan skyline still gives you some sense of the weirdness of arriving in a place with different gods:
but if you were to sail there in the 17th century in your trading ship, after navigating a hundred miles of jungle river you might start to lose faith in the supremacy of your cannons. You might be unnerved to be greeted by inspectors dressed as monkey demons, and bewildered to arrive finally in a City of Giants or Animate Statues, chillin’ right now, but ready to take offense at your barbarous ways.
model of a 1938 liner cabin for all your death on the Nile needs. Click on the picture for pretty much the same size image here on the Dystopian Pokeverse or click on the text link right there in the previous sentence to go to the original database. Then you can click on the picture on the db page to get (sigh) the same size image again. BUT THEN you click “groter” under that image to get (sometimes, somewhat) higher res. I would do all that for you and publish the results, hexed up and cleaned up and high contrast, but I’m busy until at least February, sorry.
Here’s a section through a late 18th century warship of 64 guns for all your American revolution/French and Indian War type stowaway needs. And below, a nice, clear section, deck plan and cabin plan of an 1806 frigate for all your Napoleonic Dutch Aubrey/Maturan-manque needs.
And the same multi-view treatment for a French 24 gun corvette of 1832 for all your Belgian revolt/alt-history “rescue Marx from the time-travelers” needs.
All courtesy of the Rotterdam Maritime Museum, via their amazing treasure trove database of all things maritime, maritiemdigitaal. Which is totally searchable and useful if you play with it for a couple of weeks and also happen to speak Dutch. You might find it more searchable by doing a google image search on it though, using a search term like “ship model” and restricting your search to site:maritiemdigitaal.nl
send you to
to find this guy
but when you get there it’s all
and there’s this guy
who gives you some
which turns everything
and then your ride home is all
unless you can figure out the
to reactivate the
get to the
Looking at the trailer for the latest film in which Johnny Depp’s makeup upstages the titular character, I realise that what I really want to watch is a movie all about disruptive technologies. Or even just about the disruption caused by the train (sorry Johnny and whoever, I don’t care so much about your horse-on-horse action. That opening voiceover totally sold me that you were men of the past, packing six-shooters in an emergent age of machine guns).
It’s debatable how important the railroad was in “winning the West” (though it did supercharge historical change from the cowboys and indians horse-wars to the steel-driving men and mechanized warfare that ushered in the Interstate Highway system), but it’s really not debatable how important it was in Russia’s parallel annexation of Turkestan - rails rolled right over the Turkomans, Uighurs, Tatars and Kirghiz.
So of course, rival railway plans are big news in Tartary’s Tournament of Shadows (movie link!). And following Old Bloody Eyes‘ dictum that “to astonish is to triumph” (shock and awe, 1880 edition), style is just as important as substance. You want your trains to look strong, sleek, inevitable.*
For instance, the Bullet On Steel Shafts (photographs intercepted en route from Far Nihon) causes a lot more buzz around the Khanates’ walled gardens than the prosaic “high speed transportation link” that the Rumis are pushing (as if they could ever marshall the infrastructure).
Still, the project that’s getting most of the hype – that’s been praised by the Seers of Otrar themselves as “distressingly intimidating,” is the Azeri Koblobr:
Its bluff, flat front and nearly-blind pilot’s gallery suggest heavy armouring, possibly the presence of a ram,
but the feature that’s caused the most consternation is the long, narrow slit that runs right down the front of the machine, which appears to conceal some further purpose. Hints of Overworlder collusion in the train’s design has lead to a riot of speculation.
Needless to say, a dozen Khans and Viziers would pay handsomely for a copy of the plans…
* see, there’s a reason why the USSR put its railway museum in Tashkent, lynchpin and starting point of the Turk-sib railway, which allowed troops to be sent at speed anywhere in Russia’s conquered territories turned “friendly Soviet republics.”
In response to Jason Kielbasa’s Constantcon Property Guide…
Offered by the Honourable and Trustworthy Al-Misri Brothers:
The Qaghan of Tashkurgan seeks a clean, responsible steward of good character to tend His caravanserai on the Kashgar road.
The buildings are in need of some repair (following the activities of Mongols) but the walls are basically sound and there is space sufficient to a small garrison, so that the site may serve also for an order of border monks or as a winter store for Cathay merchants. The steward must provide shelter and water for all respectable wayfarers, but may charge modestly for other services. Apply to the under-vizier, Hajji Usa ibn-Fars.
Room for one partner in a “tandoor-style” alchemist’s lab, underground, central Otrar. Lab contains flask-shaped kiln (ideal for glass or high-temperature metal experimentation), some living accommodation. Unbeatable location – smoke from kiln is concealed in chimney-forest of the Ilkhan’s palace.
Successful applicant will assist his partner in locating equipment/materials, keep lab tidy, and never use explosives or alcohol on property. Goodwill stipend of 4gp/month required. Apply by poste restante, c/o al-Misri Trading House and Emporium, Almaty.
Following the apprehension of the 26 Thieves of Kokand, their hide-out is now vacant and in need of reliable persons to prevent it from once again becoming a nest of vipers and a plague upon the people and commerce that fall under the hand of the Iron Council. Property consists of a complex of 4 caves situated in a box canyon beside the Andijan-Khujand Trunk Road: secret entrance responds to vocal command.
Any booty discovered within is the property of the Iron Council. 200 dinars of gold, half refundable after one year, when the new occupants have proved their metal.
One third interest sought in brassworks and scrapyard, Bayram Ali i Marw, following death of previous partner.
Scrap collected and repurposed from across the Turkmenabad basin: many unique items, opportunities for artificers working at any scale. Partner must be willing to contribute labor and materiel to annual shipbreaking and decontamination expedition.
Unfinished tomb in need of some restoration, necropolis of Bokhara. Excellent city views, cool breeze from north. Original crystal casket still available on demand. Offers from 90 dinars of gold. Apply to Koschqai Of The Citadel.
Well-appointed trading palace in Kashgar available for rent. In need of extensive maintenance due to long absence of proprietors, who left 22 years ago on an exploratory mission to Rum. 14 rooms, courtyard for showing wares and half-below-grade warehousing for at least 800 camel loads available. Usufruct of orchard included. Housekeeper and gardener speak Persian, Rumi and Greek. 70gp/month, payable to the Municipal Trust and Fortress of Kashgar. Some obligations expected.
Watchtower requires guardian, Urumchi-Ulaanbator corridor.
Would suit independent type, capable of dealing with mountain folk, repairing battlements after recent unrest. Ideal applicant will speak Mongol and Uighur.
Warehouse units in Shymkent: from one to one thousand camel-loads! No alcohol, qat or explosives, please. 5cp per camel, minimum charge: 1sp/month.
Underground monastery, recently abandoned in the Ihlara valley.
Total extent unknown. Some representational frescoes in upper galleries. Close to watercourses, game: hidden gardens provide pears, cherries, ducks. To be auctioned on the first of the new year, in 40 lots or to a single buyer, depending on interest. Apply to Housers-Royal of the Sultan of Malatya.
I don’t like talking about fantasy Europe here – I figure you guys have explored that problem space pretty thoroughly. On the other hand, since fantasy is nearly always cod-European, nowhere else looks quite as stereotypically fantastical? And since I’ve been exploring some pretty fantastic places here in France, it seems selfish not to share.*
So I’ll be writing an occasional series of recommendations of places to visit, should you get half a chance, and thoughts about how they might fit in your game, hopefully not quite in the usual obvious ways. And I’m starting with real DnD country: the Dordogne and Lot valleys:
- riddled with caves, encrusted with hilltop castles, and spiced with local legends. And the fact that it’s one of the world’s great wine regions doesn’t hurt neither. [Edited to add: thanks, Trey, for reminding me of Ze-Bulette's explorations of the Dordogne for DMing gold.]
If you go, you’ll need a car. A small rental car with full coverage insurance, because parking is a problem in the towns. Why? because they tend to look like this:
…and you’ll probably want to go canoeing down the (quite fast-flowing) river, which is an unbeatable way to scope out small towns to visit later. And then there are the caves and caveman homes with paintings dating back 20,000 years and Josephine Baker‘s little castle and hedge mazes… so I recommend at least a week, which might even let you detour to the medievalist’s proto-Disneyland, Carcassonne:
…on which I will write another post. But first, caves. The Dordogne’s lousy with them, since the whole region is limestoney ex-sea-bottom crisscrossed with fault lines. A bunch have underground rivers – the most famous access point to one right now is the Gouffre de Padirac:
which extends from the bottom of a sink hole that locals used to consider the mouth of hell. No really: temperature differences between above and below mean that there’s frequently smoky mist pouring out of it:
…does that metal staircase throw you off your fantasy groove?
When I saw the weird collection of moss-covered, WW2-reminiscent buildings in the bottom of this shaft, Lost came forcefully to mind. And it seems like the place’s promoters are alive to its pulp mystery vibe:
When I visited I got the surprise treat of a sculpture show in the caves, which accounts for the ghostly white figure in that sinkhole photo above, and the charming fact that, as I walked the wildly veering galleries I would occasionally stumble across exploring parties of miniatures:
It’s hard to show in photos what’s special about being down there, or how it made me reconsider caves in general, so I’m forced to fall back on words. Which I guess is always true in roleplaying anyway…
So you’re in a narrow fissure between two walls that go up and up a couple of hundred feet or so above you, and they zigzag randomly in all directions – there could be a ledge right above your head with someone on it and you’d never know. You’re walking – or paddling – in a great big tear in the land; an erosion gully and an unreliable subterranean river and great clusters of stalactites and stalagmites fit to cheer the heart of anyone who struggled through the DSG. And there’s no way you’re going to be sneaking up on anyone who lives there: visual cover abounds but noise carries far and navigation is tricky – as an unfamiliar invader you’re going to be the one who’s surprised. And then the river disappears into a natural pipe leaving you to scramble over rocks, only to reappear off and on thereafter, in limpid pools or rushing torrents, depending on whether its being dammed by stalagmite travertines** or dropped through deep, narrow channels. And sometimes it gets in your way – either slickening your path with just enough slippery marble-water to make you go on hands-and-feet or waterfalling right down the cleft you’ll have to get up, in order to get into the Gallery of Oracular Heads.
OK, fine: as a tourist site they have it set up better than that – but you can see exactly what it would’ve been like before they put the walkways in. And it’s hard to keep a sense of the scale of what you’re looking at in the fractal world of stalactites and stalagmites, which makes it easy to imagine this splatter formation as the world’s coolest cliffside city -
or some unholy collection of vengeful shellfish. And just in case you do go for squamous entities in your underworld fantasies, there’s a surprising amount of places they could hide right out in the open:
That last one’s the grotto of Proumeyssac, which is a single enormous flask-shaped hole, like a cathedral or a genie’s bottle, with just enough little secret squeezeways around the edges to conceal a battalion of archers. Again, there’s no way you’re surprising the inhabitants as you enter this shooting gallery, so you might as well do it in style – dropping in by rope-lowered gondola. Although try to avoid dropping right into the watery pools at the bottom, if you’re not familiar with their properties.
The things that struck me most about these caves were:
- their unknowability (60′ falloff for torchlight? Hah – these were artificially lit and I nearly brained myself several times because black bits of rock abruptly loomed out of the black background),
- the fact that I had no idea what was coming (you round a corner and see… a limitless lake, the ceiling soaring away for miles, and an island covered in multi-storied balconies of silently flitting figures – it’s Lovecraftian but quite believable when you’re down there)
- and the potential for the environment itself to be treasure. In Proumeyssac there are tables full of ceramic tchochkes that the owners are covering in mineral-loaded stalactite water for the simple reason that it makes them a bit sparkly and unusual – what if that water had other properties, and a few years of being dripped on could imbue items with some special power? That’s more of an Ars Magica type thought that typical DnD, but if you’re thinking lightning raids and looting, there’s a much smaller cave at Laugerie Basse that might serve. It’s almost completely filled by skins of stalactites and stalagmites so it looks like a dry(ish) underground coral reef – the ideal place to find miniature landscape backgrounds for your Flash Gordon movie:
or to get mugged by norkers as you’re wriggling along on your belly after than enticingly gleaming bit of crystal that’s just at the edge of your lamplight. And this tiny calcite wax museum has had bits of alabaster that look like the Winged Victory of Samothrace or the True Cross or the Sword of St. Michael looted from it and sold to collectors for years. Barsoom has its cliffs made out of gold and gemstones – a less overheated fantasy economy might have a place for philosophers’ rocks from the Caves of Revelation or “natural” formations that show the gods’ hands at work in shaping the world or that suggest the presence of a kami or some stony memory of antediluvian events and powers. Or imagine the potential for rock-formations-as-treasure once you add magic to the land – stalactite elementals take millions of years to form, so they concentrate time in their infinitesimal nacreous layers to a purity never found up on the constantly-churning surface. Those serried galleries of the miniature cliffside city contain all the ghosts of every water drop that splashed to its doom from the cathedral ceiling far above – water that drops from the mouth of the aeons-old sleeping dragon (curled around the cave, its egg) having first filtered for centuries through the carious layers of that dragon’s rotten, mouth-clasped pearl of wisdom.
So the next cave system I put in a game will have moments of majesty (and opportunities for missile fire), tiny little squeeze-spaces, and both troglodytes and sneaky, surprising stone creatures. Because I just can’t resist the idea that you might secretly be in the middle of a Fantastic Voyage and not even know it.
* Over the past 2 years (!) of living in France I’ve amassed quite a few DnD Tourism posts, which I never seem to get around to writing up. I’m not sure why this is – I’ve been resisting writing this post because my head is full of Barsoom (since I just re-read the first 3 books)… I believe in general it’s harder to interpret – and write about – the real world than fiction. So this might just be a first pass on presenting the caves and castles of the Dordogne for roleplaying ends.
** dammit, that’s the shot I was looking for when the Carcosa Wacky Racers went down the cliff of travertines. In China, apparently – sorry, my shot of them in France didn’t come out so well.
20 questions for Tartary, my Carcosesque Bollymecha, Wacky Racing and Ancient-tech-tomb-raiding setting
Following some inspiring posts about weird post-apocalyptic and sciency-fantasy settings, I figured I should try to explain my Toxic Tartary setting (again!), this time using Jeff’s famous 20 questions.
…I would do it with pictures, like Robert Parker’s brilliant post (first link) but my poor google-fu on coming up with illustrations for the setting has almost convinced me that I need to start making pictures myself again. >grimace<
Here’s the thing: there’s plenty of gonzo to go around in the setting, but I like the overall feel to be fairly down-to-earth and down-at-heel. So while you may journey to the ghostlands and be chased through fields of porcelain masks by this:
much of the time you’re going to be dealing with places like this:
In fact if I had to sum up the landscape of the setting in one photo it would probably be:
So. Toxic Tartary (TT) consists of two realities folded over one another, kinda like Chris Kutalik’s Hill Cantons and Weirdlands. The more mundane or “stable” lands are an amalgam of all the historical periods of Central Asia pancaked flat into one present time. This Tartary is a place of isolated, warring city-states separated by wide deserts and steppes.
[This map is awesome and scaleable, but maybe not very legible if you don't already have a good grasp of Central Asia. See, now I have to draw my own damn map]
Empires flare and sputter across this landscape as one city gains a fleeting advantage over the others. When the cities aren’t fighting with armies, they engage in contests for prestige, the most famous of which are the gladiatorial fights between gigantic metal, wood and magic constructs, the pilots of which enjoy the status of Bollywood film stars. These constructs are built from stuff pulled out of the other reality; the weird.
The physics between the two realities is not exactly compatible – the weirdlands could almost be considered regio within Tartary, but they’re (more or less) reliably reachable from the stable lands, and there’s imperfect translation of artifacts between the weird and the stable. Weirds can appear and disappear in the middle of the stable regions, they can follow powerful artifacts, or be called into existence by mighty acts of juju. There are many explanations for what the weird might be – a thinning of some veil between worlds, or cancerous tumors in reality, or knots tied up in space-time by irresponsible jerks mucking around with powers they don’t understand. The important thing is, sometimes stuff you find in the weird can be brought back into the stable. Sometimes weird powerful artifacts can be reproduced in the stable zones, leading to sparks of industrial magical revolution. And fortunes can be made and gunpowder empires can spread… and then one day it stops working, or the batteries run out, or you can’t get the necessary molybdenum any more. So the whole of Toxic Tartary is in a technological, magical, political and treasure-hunting ferment. The constructs are all one-off trial-and-error inventions, only partly understood by their architects and mostly resistant to mass-reproduction. And the whole society is flailsnails-ready: no matter how strange your PC is, the locals will treat them with wary respect or fear – but they’ll be willing to treat with them, because who knows, you might represent the new normal for the next 5 years.
These answers to +Jeff Rients ”Twenty Campaign Questions” apply principally to the “stable” lands: the weirds are too diverse to be addressed this way. They’re also influenced by +kirin robinson‘s recent 20 answers for his incredible ukiyo-e by way of Larry Niven setting, which are extremely awesome and can be found right here (thanks kirin!).
What is the deal with my cleric’s religion? You can worship any old thing, and it might give you powers or not, but the closest TT has to a cleric class is the Carcosesque sorcerer/cult leader, and that leader will probably have to explain their whole deal to any followers because religion is totally balkanized. Islam, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Manichaeism and Christianity, and a host of other religions, all exist in the setting, but in so many heterodox forms that it’s up to you, the player, to own your own version and tell people your own restrictions. Any PC can invest 1hp in a faith, and if they do there’s a small chance each day of them getting a spell power, for some time period.
Where can we go to buy standard equipment? There are money economies in the major cities – eg Bokhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Kashgar, Herat. Between those, smaller towns and settlements that cluster around the weirdzones might have caravanserais with traders that take cash. Elsewhere, it’s a barter, gift and social obligation economy. So make friends, be generous, distribute your treasure locally, and build up social networks, and you’ll be able to get equipment as needed. Or join the Muslims or Magians and cultivate a reputation for upright behavior and wisdom, and then co-religionists will probably help you out.
Where can we go to get platemail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended? one of the cities that has trade with the weird – Otrar, Khiva, Ashgabat – or one of the grease monkey settlements deep in the weird, say around Dashoguz or Ulaanbator, but then it’s likely to come with extras you may or may not want.
Who is the mightiest wizard in the land? there’s half a dozen wizard wars running right now to resolve that. The Mad Archmage of Ashgabat gets a wide berth from the others. Of course the wizards of old must’ve been unbelievable, judging by the damage they caused, and there might be remnants of them still kicking around. But you know, the Mongols have been too quiet for too long, and when they get moving…
Who is the greatest warrior in the land? That easy! Prince Khairun, Sword of the Prophet, Lord of Amritsar. He’s also the most handsome, and has the most dashing moustache. His Golden Dome has crushed all competitors in the arenas – even the Titanium Elephant of the Sultan of Aceh, terror of the Sea Kingdoms. His exploits are told far and wide by the traveling theaters.
Who is the richest person in the land? They say the Armenians of New Julfa can buy and sell kingdoms, and the Hongs of Amoy could buy the Armenians. But none of them can buy loyalty, like the Mongols have for their Khans, or the Mamluks for their Black Banner leaders.
Where can we go to get some magical healing? Magic doesn’t heal, it exchanges one misfortune for another. Still, if you’re under a curse there are wise women and fakirs and cunning men all over the place. In Bokhara they have a market full of them.
Where can we get cures for the following: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath? Most of this sounds like magical healing. Look, if you’re really desperate, ask around at the Magian fire temple, the seers guild, or the Armenian trade-house, but if you get told to try the burned lands to the north, you should ask elsewhere: I’m afraid you’re more likely to come back with those things than to get them healed there.
Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells? Every city has them, but they tend to be close-knit and cultish, and they’ll certainly want you to work for your knowledge. The surest path to magic power is through the guilds that work for the city sultans and princes (and quite a few cities are ruled by great wizards), but there are always rumors of deeper magics out in the wilderness and if folk wisdom is true and magic really comes from demons and djinn, then no doubt there are bunches of magicians hanging around the gas craters and ice caves where the demons gather. If you’re an MU without a guild or a demon then you probably got your powers through some alarming encounter in the weirdlands, in which case I can understand your previous two questions.
Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC? The cities are dripping with them. The trick is to separate the witch-doctors and charlatans from the real men-of-wisdom. All the famous ones are in the employ of the sultans and big merchants, of course. But there are plenty of not-so-famous ones, keen to make an impression or ready to trade knowledge for ingredients/tools. And then there are the guys out in the high towers in the desert, but they’re usually way out there because they’re up to something the sultans wouldn’t tolerate in town…
Where can I hire mercenaries? How much trouble do you want? Gangs of ruffians can be found outside most cities’ walls. For warbands, people go to the Mongols in the plains or the Pashto in the mountains around Herat and Kashgar, or if they’re desperate, the Green Men of the burned lands. If you can negotiate terms with a whole army, there are the Mamluk states, the Karpans of Amritsar and the Janissaries of he Great Turk – they all keep large bodies of professional warriors who need regular exercise to stop them getting ideas against their crowns.
Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law? Every city has its own laws, but they don’t extend very far beyond the walls.
Which way to the nearest tavern? One in every caravanserai and several in each town, or at least every town near something dangerous. Or if the town is dry, then there will be Qat chewing galleries or bath-houses or pleasure palaces. Or if the town is dry and run by a mad archmage who hates dancing and sensual pleasures, then you’ll either have to pick up rumors about underground speakeasies at the market, or hang out at the mosque and conduct your business in the arcades there.
What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I’ll become famous? There’s all sorts of stuff in the weirdlands, but if you bring it back to town you might not get the kind of fame you’re looking for. There have been outbreaks of snake-kings in the temple quarter of Bokhara, and the Great Caravanserai outside Tashkent has been unusable for years because of an infestation, so if you could clear that up you’d get lionized, for sure. If you’re after a quick raid, Green man and Turcoman heads are always worth a good bounty in the cities.
Are there any wars brewing I could go fight? Always. The Turcomans wage seasonal war on the cities in the west, the Mongols in the east. The Qaghan of Kashgar has delivered a mortal insult to the Prince of Amritsar, so there will be trouble there, probably in the neighborhood of Herat, where they’re fighting the goblinmen of Mustagh. Every city is constantly developing its own doomsday weapon against its neighbors, and the countryside is littered with princeling heirs to the thrones of Amir Timur and the Great Mongol, who have no more than a horse and a sword today, but dream of world conquest tomorrow. Even the leaders of peace cults rely on high walls and sharp spears to keep the murderers out. War is the dominant mode of life.
How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes? Now you’re asking! They’re everywhere, at every level of society, from the insect- and cock-fights of the street kids, to the riding fights of the Turcoman horseclans, to the armored untouchables’ pit-fights that the town shopkeepers gamble on, to the colosseum races organized by the guilds and bandit princes, hoping to break into the big time. And at the top of the heap, fighting for kings’ ransoms, the great, glittering, walking temples and titanium elephants and stone-shelled razorwyrms of the Fighting Princes.
Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight? Well YEAH, name something & it’s in. Mafias, cults and deposed princes’ cabals or royal pretenders are par for the course, and every vizier plots against his prince or spies on his rivals, so there are shadowy organizations and men in black aplenty. But there are also rumors of sects devoted to expanding or eliminating the weirds, One Church hashishim, agents from Cathay gathering intelligence for a general invasion, icewitches of the north and Secret Masters, who run the history of Tartary and manipulate its brushfire wars for their own mysterious ends.
What is there to eat around here? Delicate banquets of spiced quail and golden bags of fragrant tender lamb with iced sherbets, or foul-smelling foull in raw clay bowls, depending on what end of the social spectrum you’re on, or how far you are into the Kukeldash mountains. There’s also glass fungus and lotus powders from the weirdlands, if you’re feeling like living dangerously or bored with your current number of limbs.
Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for? supposedly the world used to be a garden filled with nature spirits, but they all got trapped in stones or ivory spheres or something. The city of Irem sank below the sands – allegedly they had an unrivaled menagerie of constructs, which might yet work if you dug them out. Or there’s whatever flattened Merv – the stories about that are pretty wild, nobody can agree on exactly what it was, but if you could find it and it worked then you could do some serious damage to the political status quo. Or if you like to dream big, there’s the farishtas of the overworld. They must have some really cool stuff. But that would be like taking on the gods.
Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure? You want giant monsters, it’s the weirdlands for you. Whether they’ll have treasure is another matter. You want a sure path to treasure, knock over a guild or a merchant caravan – but be warned, the enmity of the guild will likely be worse even than the giant monsters they probably have for protection.
I’m as fond of a post-apocalyptic Ministry of Love 10′ corridor as the next man, but sometimes you gotta spelunk it up a bit. So (maybe for Carcosa Delves 2.0) I’ll be indulging in a little preparation/inspiration in August:
Punting the underworld at Padirac.
Clearing out your ledge-cave in the “Goldilocks Zone” at Saint Christophe: high enough to keep you safe from the long-necked carno-grazer-saurs, but not so high that you get into the pelgrane roosts.
I will not be visiting those Carcosans-on-ice, the Adele Penguins. Those guys are jerks.
Would you guys be interested in photos afterwards?
…but this one just might be my all-time favourite. A replica air loom. What’s an air loom?
…a human Influencing Machine. Borne of the same paranoia and psychosis that characterises contemporary reports of mind control… [its designer/whistleblower] believed it ran on magnetic fluids. Operated by skilled pneumatic chemists who controlled the warp of the fluids that travelled out of the machine toward the intended victim. The primary targets were MPs and the patients of mad houses (including Matthews himself). Targeted in coffee houses by the Assasins who worked the machine, their victims were surreptiously primed with vapours, ready for the dreadful event-workings of the machine. Matthews writes of the formidable arsenal of tortures that the Air Loom could deliver. They include: Kiteing, Bomb bursting, Lobster cracking, Thigh Talking, Fluid Locking and Lengthening the brain.
The root chakra dungeon level is the level which abuts the PCs’ prime material plane. The third eye and crown chakra dungeon levels abut the astral plane.
My aim is not to make a new-agey D&D but merely to imagine how the pieces of the PHB Appendix IV fit together without ending up with Star Trek.Sounds like an example of Ars Magica’s regio to me, or maybe the hermetic idea of shaking off the influences of the planets to rise to your proper god-nature, but he mentions specifically the old new agey changing frequency idea – getting a new vibe – as a means for etherastral travel, and it set me thinking first about the air loom and second about what I actually want from the ethereal/astral/altered states/ghost/spirit world/umbra in fiction or games. I always find the ones people come up with unsatisfying, maybe because when you talk about what this Other World of the Imagination is, you’re really asking “what is fantasy?” in the widest, most far-reaching and personal sense. And… I still want to be surprised. Any time you nail it down – any time I have to decide myself what it is – it can only disappoint.
Update: from the same G+ thread, Heikki Hallemaa mentions the Temples of Humanity, dug out of the mountains near Turin! How did I not know about this when I actually passed through Turin earlier this year, dammit! Must go back.
On the topic of fooling with things man was not meant to fool with, check it out, they’re digging out some Easter Island Moai! Unhinging of the continents in 10, 9…
On the topic of things that should be hoaxes but might not be, here’s a series of lectures by Borges! I know what I’ll be doing for the next few evenings.
Finally, there has been much discussion of DnD’s endgame – should you set about running a kingdom, or get lost in clearing brush and charming the locals, or fight gods to claim your place in the sky, or eventually kill the source of all the trouble in the gameworld (the DM?) and retire to the Western Isles? Well, if the campaign’s been a Tolkien manque with all your standard fantasy creatures and whatnot, then this is my answer right here:
That‘s planar travel I can get behind.
real lost continents are the best lost continents: Carcosa wacky races and asylum notes for the Sea of O’sr
FIRST, the reason I’ve been silent for a while is I’ve been noodling about writing a little Carcosa/Toxic Tartary Wacky Races game for (among other things) Flailsnails on Google+. The bare outline:
- you can bring whatever lunacy you’ve invented because flailsnails, but at minimum the home setting will have Carcosan dinosaur riders, Mad Max desert buggies, Tharks on Thoats and carnival floats. Racers have to balance the competing demands of zooming across an electroradiant hellscape (thanks Jeff!) with sabotaging each other and roping the local mongrelmen into their diabolical dirty tricks – and the more they divide their attention, the more likely it is all to go horribly wrong;
- the race will be over in 6-8 turns and the prize will be Grand Yet Mystifying;
- your character may die, mutate, get incorporated in the landscape and or reified/deified along the way. Think you can survive a John Boorman bad trip?
I hope to get it up and running in 2 weeks. We’ll see.
Toxic Tartary is Carcosa through a post-Soviet Central Asian radioactive Arabian Nights filter. For a fantasy filter placed over that, see HF Calder’s handy guide to Sky Piracy Around The Dune Sea – of course all of this is happening somewhere in Toxic Tartary, but with the time-spine ripped out of the historical narrative so that everything is always happening at once – pyramids rising, pirates despised/resurgent, gods rising/falling, nobody really knowing what’s going on. Just like real life.
SECOND: “Siberia shmiberia,” you say, “show me the really cold and unfriendly places!” Blood of Prokopius’ Alaskan nightmare looks to me like equal parts militantly anticolonial Cthulhiana (paging jason kielbasa!) and His Dark Materials arctic horror-mining, and that sounds pretty neat, but I want to go south for my Sea of O’sr adventure path…
Lost taught me everything I need to know about the value to be found in a single 5 mile hex and the special kind of claustrophobia you can get from knowing the world is out there but it’s beyond reach. So you’ve found a chart that shows a lost continent of wonders down in the deep south ocean and you’ve braved the Appalling Sea Gyres and hundred foot waves to get there – what do you find?
First of all, that most of your lost continent is under water:
Zealandia, larger than Greenland or India, and almost half the size of Australia… is unusually slender.*
Kerguelen Plateau is an underwater volcanic large igneous province (LIP)** in the southern Indian Ocean. It lies about 3,000 km to the southwest of Australia and is nearly three times the size of Japan. I note, not quite in passing: It is thought that Thule and Cook**** may have been a larger single island in the past, and there is evidence for a submerged crater between the two… Volcanic heat keeps the crater on Thule Island free from ice. Just like Arthur Gordon Pym told us...
I am never resorting to Mu or Lemuria again, these are much cooler – and could be seaweed jungle exotica if they somehow breached into view. Look at this handy Antarctic azymuthal: if we add Rlyeh we get 3 points of… well, actually not a pentagram but a square. Which in some sense is much creepier and more suggestive: Wells gave his Martians tripods because nothing in Earth biology (that he knew of) has 3 legs, and it’s since become a cliche that odd numbers mean alien. But the square, or quincunx (drawing Antarctica’s Mountains of Madness*** into the loop) implicates human involvement about as clearly as it’s possible to do. Giving us a fourth (or fifth) point over the South Sandwich islands near South Georgia.
And suddenly the Falklands War snaps into focus – Argentina, favourite hidey-hole of Hitler-breeding programs, vs. Britain, Evil Emperor of the previous century, fighting over those desolate bits of rock where the colour out of space touches down or, more likely, where it threatens to erupt into the sky. Because check out Gough Island, where you wash up while escaping the Cyclopean basalt towers shooting up on Montagu island, and trying to get back to St. Helena. Sure, when you first crawl ashore it looks a disappointing shade of grey-brown. Until The Colour descends.***** Full set. Stars. This is a campaign frame of seabed-churning horror. The navels of the world – the anchor points of reality – the IKEA allen-key holes into the hollow earth – are found on four islands around the south pole. Tampering with any one of them threatens to break the globe right open and spill the worms out. Alas, I’m not up on my Antarctic Space Nazis, and perhaps all of this is old news to princeofcairo, but given the mindshare New Zealand has claimed since the LoTR movies, I’m starting to think Lawsian thoughts about the effervescent power of collective representations. In my Cthulhu-reversed game, where the PCs were a bunch of monsters ditched in the Bermuda Triangle with a faulty saucer and an Antarctic projection map, all the real action happened underwater. But in this game the point might be not to raise the lost continent but to submerge the ones still left stranded above the protecting waves (fighting against the ancient Atlantean defenses, such as spring-loaded urban floodproofing! Your players will hate it when the Sorcerers of Continent Evil pop their megacity up out of the sea like a turkey thermometer) – to deactivate the transmitter that calls the Mi-go miners back or to keep the crazy nationalist powers of the world from accidentally raising R’lyeh in their ever-more desperate searches for rare earths and fossil fuels.
Perhaps you’re worried that sinking four lost continents won’t be enough of a climax? Here, have 10 vile vortices (because who’s supposed to make do with just one Bermuda triangle?). Does looking at that map make you think that if you kept adding regularly-spaced triangles you could turn the earth into something like a D20? Well actually it’d be a D17… the number of Pokemon types.
* wtf? Unusually slender?
** srsly, wtf? I love the use of the word “province” here. Far from the even larger igneous metropole (ELIM), perhaps. Metamorphic provinces are of course the diasporogenic engines of the World System.
*** not the Cliffs of Insanity, with which my son is currently obsessed. Oh you knew it would happen.
**** is that why they ate him and took his thighbones up on the mountain? Because he’d namesaked them to this toxic-god-unforsaken necklace of rocks? What did they see, from faraway Big Island?
+ OK, a rough square. Which makes me wonder (although not enough to waste time on it), if one can’t draw a lovely Fibonacci spiral linking together all those place – Ponape, Easter Island, Hy-Brazil, Oak Island etc etc, that stubbornly refuse to conform to great circle ley lines, so that they show up on neatly spaced lines like eclipse paths. And take advantage of the fact that the alignments are never quite right.
*****Via bldgblog, again. Also the wonderfully-named Friends of the Pleistocene (nothing to do with Julian May, I think).