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Fallen London: French Vanilla chef kiss

February 22, 2021 2 comments

I promise this blog will not become a pure Fallen London fandom site, but there’s one more thing (for now) that I think is worth sharing about it – its careful relationship with cliches.

Anne has written about French Vanilla settings – worlds that are adjacent to the well-worn paths of fantasy or science fiction, just different enough that players stay alert for the differences, just familiar enough that players don’t feel lost in a sea of novelty. And Fallen London is a French Vanilla setting par excellence. As I’ve noted before, FL leans heavily on the literature of cities-as-characters in a more-or-less Gothic mode, which is to say a tradition that goes back to Casanova, takes in Dickens, Conan-Doyle, and Stoker along the way, and fetches up around David Mitchell. It’s pretty careful to stick to fictional Londons (with occasional nods to Parises) and not to stray over to America, which already sets it apart from the sparkly era of urban fantasy, but there’s still plenty to get mired in, out in the Victorian pea soup fog: demon barbers, Jack the Ripper, you know the drill. I’m going to share a few examples from the early, mid, and late game, so this is your spoiler warning: ⚠️ Don’t read any more if you’re going to get upset about knowing FL lore.

……still here? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

What really impresses me about how FL uses French Vanilla is the way it deploys cliche to draw the reader into stories that never goes quite where you expect. So its betentacled Rubbery Men look Lovecraftian at first glance, but they skew tragic, rather than horrifying, as you get to know them. Perhaps they operate some sinister underground organ, but that puzzle’s a gateway to the question of who calls the tune? The rooftop urchins, who initially recall Dick Van Dyke’s support dancers, turn out to be tied to cults, the government, and possibly the intelligence operations of a long-dead god. The more you learn, the more fretted their relationship with the roofs becomes.

Regarding Saucy Jack and Sweeney Todd, FL mashes them up – there’s a Jack of Smiles, sure, but anyone could be him. It turns out he’s the knives, which possess the hands and minds of those who hold them. You can become Jack for a while… which means you wake up having let the knife go, and have to reconstruct what happened to you (and everyone you know) over the past month. Charting the history and crafting of the knives takes you to entities that have a complex relationship with London and its Fall, and so you’re off on an onion-skin mystery, of which The Ripper is only the outermost layer.

Obviously the city’s lousy with vampires…. but it’s tastefully eschews common Draculoid or Ricean bloodsuckers. The most heavily telegraphed, cliche-laden vampire fake-out turns out to be the psychic emanation of a predatory real-estate contract – which brings me to my second point: Fallen London has a very strong and consistent viewpoint (which is impressive for something that’s written by many hands). All games offer a theory about the world – their mechanics reflect a set of understandings regarding what’s understandable, acceptable, how cause and consequence works, how people will react to situations, what tactical decisions will make sense in their context. And Fallen London’s viewpoint is generally more complex than it first appears, both interesting and interested in the things it talks about. For instance, you can get involved in publishing a newspaper, which inevitably opens up the question, “what is news?” Well, in FL it comes in 3 flavours: meritorious, outlandish, and scandalous. Which sounds like a straightforward value judgment, until you realise that meritorious copy really means “that which will incite outrage,” with little regard for public education. Some of the most important stories are scandalous. Some of the most urgent – if true – are outlandish. And the business of packaging them all together into a single edition of your rag really drives home the point that it’s a composition, made to sell. It will sell better if it tickles more of its readers’ emotional receptors. The outermost reach of the game (for now) is one of its most acerbic parts – a place called Moulin, which is an extended commentary on the academic publishing mill. It consists of a large back yard, where archaeological artifacts wash up, and an institute where you write monographs to interpret them into histories. Those histories can be ironic (“what fun!” the supporting text notes), tragic (“how boring”), or cautionary, and are attractive to different publishers based on their tone. Exploring that theory of the history mill made me sit back in silence and look over my bookshelves…. and I had to concede, whoever wrote it has a point. Moulin also contains the closest thing I’ve seen to a manifesto statement for the whole enterprise:

That which is, is always constructed on the bones of that which is not. For every line of text, its negative lies just below the page. A skilled hand can trace an idea to its echo.

I read the second part of that as a concession that hermeneutics can only ever be an art, not a science. But the first part – constructed on the bones of that which is not. That chimes strongly with my own experience as a historian. I strive to ask answerable questions, but my motivation for asking them always has something unanswerable underneath it. When I look at the hierarchical arrangement of spaces, my potentially answerable question is “how does this spatial arrangement communicate power relationships?” but what I really want to ask is “how important is architectural design in maintaining power hierarchies?” or even “how do people command power? Why is it given to them? Why do even quite small groups tolerate tyrants?” I have to compare what is with other hypothetical possibilities, and the existence of tyrannies with some idea I hold within me, of non-tyrannical social structures and what those might look like.

Finally, perhaps more usefully for the DM in search of bricolage ingredients, there’s the stratigraphy of Fallen London and what it tells us about the secret history of the world. London is the 5th city to Fall, and it Fell on top of its predecessors (in some undisclosed location underground, but not necessarily under any particular ground) so there are traces and hints of what those previous cities were. To be a Fallen city is to be excised from our own world – the world of the Surface – so there’s an implicit negative geography up there. We know that London Fell with the whole extent of the Thames valley, including e.g. the canal locks of Jericho, but not necessarily the city of Oxford, to which they were formerly attached. And that, due to contractual entanglements, some direct possessions of the Crown Fell with it, so Balmoral is down in the cave. So identifying the other Fallen cities might open up interesting vistas for exploration. And here the French Vanilla approach yields dividends, because those cities seem to be almost, but not quite, the places you’d expect, and therefore they can contain… nearly anything, which can all be highly suggestive of clever connections without tying the writers down.

The 4th city is widely thought to be Karakoram – Qublai Khan’s first administrative capital – but it seems obvious to me, given the Romantic leanings elsewhere, that it’s Xanadu’s stately pleasure dome, not least because caves of ice keep cropping up. Therefore Coleridge, Calvino, Dalrymple. For the 3rd city, they mention the murderous Mayan or Zapotec Ball Game (although they don’t use the names, nor pelota, which is a generic ball game name sometimes used to distinguish it from current games). If the rule is that the city in question must have disappeared from our history then I personally don’t know enough to track it down (there are so many): its red bird cult suggests somewhere Quetzalcoatl or a close cousin holds sway. Artwork for the 2nd city implies ancient Egypt, and there are references to Sphinxstone as a material that imprisons Masters. I’m pretty sure it’s Akhenaten’s lost capital Amarna, which was destroyed on his death, along with his heretical cult of Aten. Regarding the 1st city, inevitably some people have suggested Ubar – and Irem does show up as an over-the-untersea location in the game. All I know for sure about it is it had coins. Among the first coins we know of are the electrum coins of Lydia – which are pretty damn interesting AND a trove of them was famously found under the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. There’s also the early history of Mesopotamian coinage. And so we are free to fill in whichever version of the first city of men we prefer. Regardless, it will have only an oblique relationship with the sunken architecture of the ancient Magistracy and various mystery caves that are unknown to mere Surface-dwellers.