20 questions for Tartary, my Carcosesque Bollymecha, Wacky Racing and Ancient-tech-tomb-raiding setting
…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. Tartary has some places which are more prosaic and some that are deep in the Weird, kinda like Chris Kutalik’s Hill Cantons and Weirdlands but less formal – the weirder places are where the background psychic radiation is higher. 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. In the weirder places, lost technologies of the distant future-past might still be working. Incursions from Outside are easier (that’s how the Carcosans and Tharks got in), stuff is more like a Cthulhuvian Moebius bad trip.
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 and wood constructs, powered by parts pulled out of the weirdlands and held together by the strange alchemy of grease-monkeying. The pilots of these enormous juggernauts enjoy the status of Bollywood film stars – and must be capable performers for the ever-present, invisible Tartary TV cameras.
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.