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Archive for September, 2012

Ridicule kills: scattered notes toward a reputation system for Bollymecha Tartary

September 27, 2012 6 comments

A one-eighth scale test maquette for the Sultan of Mawarannahr’s “Bone-cruncher II”

So first Jason Kielbasa tweaked my nose about the effects of reputation on the princely Bollymecha pilots of Tartary – I’m looking forward to hosting his list of spells reworked for a set-piece singing and dancing + battletech fighting social wrestling game – and that made me think seriously about what’s going to happen when the players finally get into the giant Bollymecha wrestling ring for fame, fortune and the attention of scantily clad royals of whatever orientation. Jason’s idea, which I’m stealing shamelessly, is that reputation is the fundamental coin of political Tartary, and that it can be won or lost as easily on the palace dance floor as on the battlefield or the arena. In fact (of course), the greatest prince must be a triple threat.

Then Erik Jensen blogged about “it gets worse” – his ingenious alternative to the hard reset of PC death, where if the whole party is overcome by ogres, the next step is to wake up in the cook pot, not roll up a successor party.

And then I remembered the GURPS Goblins rules that Chris Hogan swiped for Small But Vicious Dog, and Zzarchov‘s social combat rules and Chris Kutalik’s CHA rules, and it all seems great but just not quite right for me. But I don’t have anything like a complete system, so I thought I’d just share my thinking and see if it sparks anything…

1. There may not be clean water, basic hygiene or reliable cure light wounds but Tartary gets television, piped straight from the Flailsnails multiverse. So your exploits, wherever they may happen, under whatever circumstances, are being watched on primetime across the smoking wastes and teeming souks of my setting. And so when you bring an FPC to Tartary I want to know their greatest high and lowest low to date, and you can be sure that somebody somewhere has seen them both. Especially if they’re above 1st level. How is this achieved? You’ll have to come to Tartary to find out.

2. Your level is basically a quick-and-dirty number for your reputation, but there’s also a separate reputation score, called REP. If you would’ve died but you get saved by It Gets Worse, you immediately take a cut in your REP. If you do something amazing (and I’m thinking here of rescuing princesses and achieving goals, not just rolling massive crits) then your REP goes up.

3. REP directly affects all your rolls for charisma and charisma-based magic. It also affects how people react to you in general, whether they’ll be willing to lend you stuff should you find yourself momentarily without weapons, an entourage, or clothes, or whether they’ll cower in a properly abject manner should you threaten to lose your patience with their cheering or jeering.

4. REP also acts as a cap on your level – you can come in with a higher level than your REP, or you can lose REP and have it be lower than your current level, but then (a) you can’t level up until you increase your REP accordingly, and (b) you wear the mark of a doomed man – you’re seen as “mouthy” – a sin beyond the pale of the wrestling morality of faces and heels; someone who pretends to a better station than they deserve. This means (somehow) you are cursed by a tragic arc (which is probably just a penalty on saving throws or something) UNTIL you can fix your REP, at which point the crowd will love or hate you properly again (and no more curse).

5. Outrageous REP is the only mechanically-encoded method in my rules through which you can break through the hard cap of 8th level. All other methods involve some sort of cheating.

What I totally was not looking for while writing this post: Giant scantily clad dancing robots.

What I’m delighted by but which SO IS NOT Tartary-style Bollymecha: Kabutom Beetle Mech; Suiobashi basher. I’m slowly coming round to the fact that if I want art to show people what these mecha are supposed to be, I’m probably going to have to draw it myself (and I vowed never to go back there). For now, the Authentick Spirit of Bollymechs is somewhere inside this triangle:

and here, have some more Theyyam dancers just because:

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trade goods by theft rating

September 25, 2012 4 comments

Somehow over the past 2 weeks I’ve missed a great series of posts by Telecanter about procedural/random trading games. Right at the beginning of that series he asked about lists of trade goods and what might make for a short memorable set of actually fun trade items (the first goal being to make trade an interesting part of the game, D&Trav style, and the second goal being to not have the players go “really? 3 weeks as pirates and all we have to show for it is millet?”). His list is a good length and evokes a fairly specific milieu, which is to say generic-DnD (or as I like to call it, 1630 Amsterdam).

But I thought: what makes trade goods fun? How would you rank and classify trade goods by their fun potential?

…how would you go about stealing them?

Small: requires a 2-man con, typically 5-30 minutes:
gold*; precious stones; ambergris, incense, exotic perfumes, nutmeg; foreign collectible ephemera; incriminating coins; letters; passports/permits for extraordinary behaviour; declarations of war, property, inheritance or price hikes; erotic statuary that embarrasses the local bishop-prince; homunculi or genie lamps; poisons, potions, medicines; keys; crystal balls, magic compasses, hypnotic pets; deep secrets of the universe; insignia of office.

Medium: 5-man con with a handcart or dray:
High-grade cognac, laudanum, rare concoctions; worldeconomychanging seedlings; gunpowder; cinnamon; experimental small arms; enriched uranium; invasive species; quarantined pets; silver, amber, furnishings, mirrors, pearl-handled arquebuses, spice-boats, models of revolutionary fortifications/ships/catapults/oubliettes/hydraulics; experts, spies, witnesses; mermaids, circus freaks, incognito princelings; carpets, tapestries, silkworms, finely carved writing desks suspected of containing hidden drawers; clockwork automata, enigma machines; cultural signifiers of authority.

Large: you’ll need a crane:
Cannons; cacao trees; meteorites; rum, wine, champagne; coffee, tea; qat; experimental vehicles, engines, battlesuits; elephants, giraffes, prize bulls; cult statues; shrines containing the Truth of the World; silks; horses, pigs, alpacas, young dragons; devil-summoning pipe organs; durian; glue; masts, spars, anchors, vital ship parts, deck knees; roc eggs; fused-together crew members; Thark lances; disabled fliers, Montgolfier balloons, fighting kites, diving bells, MRI scanners; terracotta golems; sarcophagi.

XL. Just steal the goddamn ship:
Grain, pepper, coriander, sugar or anything else that’s just loaded loose in the hold; quicklime; coal, coke, anthracite, mercury, saltpetre, cinnabar; glazed temple bricks, carved marble capitals from the First Cathedral of Constantinople/Temple Mount/Parthenon, guardian statues; fishtanks, narwhals, hallucinatory groves for transplanting whole into imperial gardens; bitumen, lamp oil, kerosene, nitroglycerine, Greek Fire, Azoth, skrying pools; strategic relief maps; dimensional gates; ships.

Note: stases and totems containing gods and monsters may be found at all these scales.

* Gold may be “small” in historical settings but it’s probably at least “medium” in vanilla DnD and may be “large” in anime-inspired settings. Tartary, being tied to flailsnails, is much richer in gold than I’d like it to be. If anyone has any suggestions on what to do about that I’d love to hear them.

Architects of Mars

September 17, 2012 1 comment

If Lord of the Rings is secretly a book about landscape, ERB’s Barsoom stories are secretly about architecture.

I mean a couple of things by that. First there’s the obvious point that most of LoTR involves an extended walk in the woods, an epic journey that’s as much about finding your way through the thickets of Middle Earth, meeting its various people, getting bitten by mosquitoes in its marshes and rained on while crossing its moors as it is about any grand narrative. The battles and ring quest and all that mostly punctuate this core activity of the characters and the storyteller moving through wilderness. But more than that, the wilderness is in many ways the central character: it’s a mythically inhabited landscape – like the theological/philosophical idea^ of God’s country that reveals His face to you through His works, except in this case the faces revealed are those of the Norse-god Valar and Maiar, the elves, Sauron, Saruman – even Shelob who poisons her own little hidey-hole on the border of Mordor: these are personalities that own and shape the land, that alter its nature.

The Barsoom stories, in contrast, mostly play out in palaces, cities and temples** that turn out merely to be obvious markers in a planet-wide built environment, encompassing the network of canals, irrigation and atmosphere machines (sealed up in their own monstrous buildings).

And enormous, secret architectures of the ancients – the impenetrable rings of mountains protecting the Therns and Okar, the artificial underground dome and sea of the First Born; nested domains of hidden masters revealed in strict succession like an enfilade of state rooms.

There’s no hexcrawling Mars – it’s a man-made wilderness – a desert created and sustained by willed, sentient effort, and defined by destinations with emptiness between. The flat sea bottoms are for long mounted chases, exactly like the stern-chases of Horation Hornblower, the dry “seas” as featureless and mathematical as they must be to allow Carter to make his tough decisions about who escapes and who has to hold off the enemy, while the magnificent distances from pole to pole are routinely crossed at maximum speed by fliers, as Carter and his enemies each try to construct their own bright future and tear down the other’s.

More generally, Barsoom is intelligible, theatrical, designed to a purpose – which brings me to the point of this post for roleplaying. The predictable certainty with which Barsoom is laid out helps to keep the action where ERB wants it – fast-paced, sword wielding and cliff (or building) hanging, while Carter gets to be the chaos that disrupts the staid and known world of Barsoomian formal warfare.* Whether you like this or not depends on your feelings about hex/dungeoncrawling vs. plot-chasing as play methods. In any event, it offers some tools for running high-octane sword’n’planet adventure at high speed:

1. it’s all very definite – it helps to establish rules for the world. You know as soon as you encounter the sheer, perfect cliff that it’s impassable except for one trick passageway – and you know that one passage will be there, somewhere. You know when you fly into the city that its complexity needn’t concern unless you make it important – the villain will be squatting in the palace on the central square, under the spire, while your imprisoned friend will be at the bottom of the deepest pit.

2. it helps define the world as a theater built for heists. The palaces are stages on which courts enact their plays, and they all have both a scene and an obscene: there are always service corridors, ancient tunnels, secret passages or spaces behind curtains where you can see the action on stage but cannot be seen. This means not only that you can always collapse the enemy’s certainty and open up the chaos of tactical infinity on his regular schemes of guards, but also that all those people and places the tyrant relies on but chooses not to see are your potential allies. Just like you wouldn’t orienteer across the sea bottoms, so you wouldn’t (necessarily) try to map these endless anthills of power (unless that was the setup for your heist): instead you liberate some local from injustice and they lead you straight to where you ought to be.

3. which means the ubiquitous palace-megadungeons of Barsoom actually aren’t dungeons at all… unless you want them to be, in which case they’re as dungeony as anything you could ever hope to find. Every palace is ancient and has had many architects, so they always have some secrets to be explored and exploited – both by and against the PCs, and if you can read the traces of ancient intention you might unlock secrets even in well-trodden halls that open up a new (old) plot. This is like the good time of Ars Magica covenant design, exploring your wizarding school finding the old headmasters’ secret books and lurking doom right under your feet. Moreover, architecture is a map of the mind and building in the service of tyranny is always irrational; it generally supports containment and concealment, serving the tyrant’s paranoia and power-trips, so its lower layers tend to be psycho-theatrical trawls through vile torture chambers and worse pleasure pits, which inexplicably put the control rooms, from where you can murder the city’s entire populace, and the Well of Punishment, where the tyrant can watch his arch enemies starve to death, right next to each other.***

So do you want this kind of architectural world in your game or not? I’m kinda on the fence, myself. The old dnd mainstay of wilderness-with-points-of-architecture seems to offer the best possibilities of both worlds. But consider for a moment what an all-architectural world offers you – what I think is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness:

architecture has meaning. Purpose. And that meaning can be revealed, understood. In some sense a work of architecture is a puzzle to be unraveled, rather than a blank space where you make your own dwelling and meaning. Which implies that your adventures in an architectural world, like Barsoom, would probably one day reach a natural end, when you know what the whole thing is for. As a Brit, coming from the land of truly interminable soap operas, I can see some value in that.

And the all-architectural world has no real outside, which is pretty much a thematic imperative in the Barsoom books – the Impenetrable Temple of the Sun, dread torture-prison of the god-queen Issus herself, like every bit of Barsoomian building everywhere, has a back door. The Tomb of Horrors, lost in its own wilderness, has a bottom, where its Ultimate Big Bad lurks, at his and its and often the PCs’ end. But in the all-architecture tombworld of horrors, that bottom chamber always leads somewhere else – always, ultimately, everywhere. So to defeat it either you have root it out (not just loot it but maybe rehabilitate it) or you have to break out of tombworld altogether… by which time you’ll probably have a good idea of what you want your sandbox domain endgame to be.

* which is kind of interesting when you consider they were written at the same time as ERB’s Tarzan stories – two naked protagonists, one king of the wild, the other prince of the realm of orderly war.

** the nomadic Tharks that John Carter first encounters (whom I’m convinced are based on Edward o’Donovan’s description of Turcomans) traipse from one ruined city to another, rather than following the more usual nomadic schedule of alternating pastures. They even take their name from one such city.

*** real example! From Warlord of Mars. No it makes no sense at all that JC can escape from the Pit of Plenty and jump straight into the Room With The Deadly Switches… except that this nasty little set of corridors is where the evil and cowardly emperor likes to spend most of his time, reassuring himself that the lever remains unpulled and his enemies remain abject.

^ Check out Heidegger’s “fourfold” of earth, sky, gods and mortals for more on this idea… and then come back and explain it to me.

Bonus for getting this far: imagedump of stuff that I didn’t know I wanted but now I do:

See that? That’s Percy Lowell’s actual “canals” drawing that caused all the fuss. WHY DID NOBODY TELL ME THAT “CANALS” IS A EUPHEMISM FOR GIANT STALKING SPIDERS!!???!?!? (from here)

Alas, a rather prosaic take on the wondrous temple of Issus, drawn by someone who’d recently been to the National Mall and wished it looked more like Chichen Itza. Sounds like me, actually.

I feel nothing but woe can come out of this unholy partnership of Duke Bluebeard and Chixi’lu the Loathsome – and I fear the production rather misses the whole point and power of Bartok’s vision, but there you go. I’ll still have my all-time-favourite works of psychotheatre.

Motherlode of Barsoom art. Not sorted by quality, but feel the width. I’m rather charmed (though not convinced) by this Bond-era speedboat take on the Martian flyers:

there, all my obsessions in one image at last. I guess.

Brendan’s 20 questions for Tartary, plus starting equipment

September 11, 2012 1 comment

So Brendan’s wonderful system list is going around again. Here’s Tartary’s system, such as it is:

Ability scores generation method? 3d6 in order, punk. Now re-reading Ars Magica since I’m thinking of using it just to get away from stupid levels even though I’m shooting myself in the flailsnailing foot.
How are death and dying handled? At 0hp you roll on the complicated dismemberment table. It’s actually surprisingly non-lethal, but can give you lasting headaches. Pious men do not demand markers for their graves, but if you go the whole pyramidal tomb tower route then it’s just possible that through years of strange adventures someone might be able to bring you back from a toenail.
What about raising the dead? There are many stories, most of them unpleasant. You have to ask yourself if you really want to get the Mad Archmages of Ashgabat all up in your business.
How are replacement PCs handled?  bring some friends, sassy kid sidekicks or hired help along on dangerous business. You can keep them as retainers or go the whole Ars Magica troupe route. The alternative is to wait for me to weave your new PC into the story, which might be as a rescued captive or sole survivor of an airship wreck.
Initiative: individual, group, or something else? All combat is simultaneous, when I can be bothered. Otherwise, it’s group.
Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work? 20 or 6 over the to hit number is a crit, 1 or to hit -10 is a fumble. Or Ars Magica equivalent let me check… anyway I’m thinking of adopting something like Zak’s called shot mechanic
Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet? on the dismemberment table, yes.
Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly? If you fumble, you hit your friend.
Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything? Try not to tackle anything head-on. Never assume you have surprise. When you run, run around corners, not in a straight line.
Level-draining monsters: yes or no? Maybe. Also permanent HP draining, stat draining, whatever makes your skin crawl.
Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death? Saves are your second chance, your “but I’m a hero” special pleading, so yes.
How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked? Only when it’s funny or if I get suspicious. If I go waitiaminute can I see everything you’re carrying? then chances are you don’t have all that with you and we have to decide what stayed home. But otherwise, no I won’t make you account for your matches.* But I will make you count your bullets.
What’s required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time? Magic always has to be found in game, and any other new feats need explanations. But mere incremental changes just happen.
What do I get experience for? Surviving (especially only just), style/smarts, acts of renown and, alas, filthy moolah spent.
How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination? They’re usually written right in – seldom randomly – and often thematic. PCs finding them? Description, sometimes perception rolls. Actually if I ask for a perception roll, that’s me giving you a 6th sense heads up.
Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work? Most of Tartary has no cash economy, so extras are encouraged but the details of partnership are up to you. Morale is a contested roll between the PC’s CHA and the demi-PC’s WIS, with modifiers. Number of retainers is not mechanically limited, but they won’t follow you unless there’s something in it for them.
How do I identify magic items? You can try asking sages and mages in the cities if you trust those weirdos, or try to get into a library. The world abounds in strange little boxes with an antenna and a button, and much of the time the quickest, surest answer is to press it. Or get someone else to do so.
Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions? You can buy all kinds of crazy junk. No refunds, no guarantees. Small probability of it doing exactly what you wanted. No, you can’t buy +n weapons, but you can go shopping for explosive bullets etc.
Can I create magic items? When and how? Play a grease monkey, a sage or an alchemist. Sneak into libraries, find ingredient lists, and go hunting. Play it out, negotiate, and take risks. That’s really what the whole game is about.
What about splitting the party? How would I stop you?

* but don’t I have to calculate encumbrance at chargen? Together with starting money and equipment costs and so on? Not if you use this handy starting equipment table (hat tip to Stuart Robinson of Strange Magic). First roll to see how desperate and starving you are – or talk me into agreeing to a specific social stratum via a really great character concept story.

Level of Destitution (d6)

1. naked and alone. You have exactly nothing. Save vs. INT or you’re also suffering from amnesia
2. where’d you get that? roll d6+14 twice on Table A and 1d12 on Table B
3. one good friend. You have the basic tool of your trade** plus 3d8 on Table A and 1d12 on Table B
4. practically minded. You have the basic tool of your trade** plus 4d12 on Table A and 1d6 on Table B
5. expert skip-dipper. You have the basic tool of your trade** plus 4d20 on Table A
6. Favoured urbanite with social contacts: roll 6d20 on table A, 2d12 on table B

** a melee weapon or a grease monkey’s spannerwrench or a grapnel/multitool or a primus stove and glassware or whatever.

Table A
1. crowbar
2. dagger
3. shield
4. food, drink and backpack
5. lamp and flasks of oil (3)
6. melee weapon
7. armour: leather or improvised equivalent
8. bow or crossbow with 10 arrows/bolts
9. handcart – doubles as a small raft
10. mirror
11. rope (50′)
12. grappling hook
13. pouch with 20 silver dirhams
14. musical instrument
15. hammer, chisel, pick + 8 iron spikes
16. writing box and seal
17. jezzail or blunderbuss + 10 shots
18. 10 radium shells for a jezzail/blunderbuss.
19. grease monkey’s spanner-wrench
20. 3 detonator charges, with timers

Table B
1 lucky medallion (re-roll 1 failed saving throw)
2 potion of healing (2d6 hp)
3 lockable iron-bound chest
4 guard animal (dog, calot or similar)
5 riding or pack animal (camel, pony, small thoat)
6 yurt or similar packable shelter
7 armor: chain or exotic
8 book – holy text or instruction manual or blueprints
9 map
10 loyal family retainer (HP:5, AC:6, Dmg d6, +4 Morale) a standard grog with a couple of charming quirks.
11 holy symbol or badge of office
12 radio

Property listings on Tartary

September 10, 2012 1 comment

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.

DnD Tourism: The Caves of Dordogne

September 7, 2012 2 comments

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:

Rocamadour – a tiny little town made exclusively out of hair-raising switchbacks that
happens to contain a huge pilgrimage site – more on that in another post.

…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.

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Best thing I’ve read all year!

September 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Is Rogues and Reavers’ post on fucking tourists, a new class for LL and Krul. Also ideal for Carcosa, The Bleaklands and anywhere else where life is a daily desperate struggle. It’s especially useful for me because I’m just about to post a bunch more about ERB’s Barsoom books, and what it’s like to read them while traveling through arid, rugged countryside where you don’t really speak the language and also alas can’t jump out of trouble.

I still really like Grognardia’s Stranger class, but this is the perfect foil for it.
Also, cf. Cory Doctorow’s short story Nimby and the D Hoppers.