Tartary is the RPG campaign I’m currently running. It’s a grab-bag of things I love, to whit: giant robot fighting, Bollywood, sorcerous cities in the desert, Arabian Nights Orientalist adventures,* wars of spies, and Cthulhoid monsters. It started a long time ago when I misheard a friend and thought he’d mentioned “Islamic Car Wars.” That idea got revived recently when Telecanter suggested a city of ancient magic users so corrupted that mages only visit it through constructs and familiars. Constructs battles constructs for glowing relics – which combined neatly with my realization that Carcosa might be a fantastical treatment of inter-tribal wars and captive-trafficking in West Africa during the heyday of the slave-trade.* The result is Mad Max in Central Asia, with arenas for fighting temple-Jeepneys, rampant human trafficking (not necessarily for the reasons given in Carcosa), Roadside Picnic style radioactive dumpster diving for secret weapons, and mysteriously meddling alien overlords.
Tartary has “technomagic” – a lot of stuff in Tartary obeys peculiar physical laws, functions unpredictably, is misunderstood and has some kind of superstitious traditions built around it.
Doing technomagic means building and using equipment or stuff in the environment. Nobody starts with magic on hand, it must be found through play – though scholars may recognise it when they see it and know where to learn more about it. There is most of all no equivalent to DnD’s one-spell-a-day magic user or cleric – there are guilds of scholars and mad archmages with plenty of mystique around them, but they mostly fight over physical resources. Even the great choreomancers, who clearly do honest-to-whizbang magic, work with physical tools.
All new characters are competent non-magic folk. Unless you twist my arm and have a great rationale. Right now Magic is so mysterious that even I don’t know how it all works. Also, by default everyone can fight – but just being a fighter is boring, so folks are mostly distinguished by being able to do other things.
Common belief says there is an “overworld,” but that’s where consensus ends. Tartary has a hard time distinguishing between magic and engineering – it certainly does not draw any clear line between magic and religion. There are various kinds of uncanny and invasive spirits, sprites and parasites, but whether they are undead or evil is a philosophical matter. Anyway nobody can turn them. There are also unpredictable incursions – rumours speak of gates to other realities out in the desert, or night-time overflights by giant machines or Garudas or Farishtas – that leave behind traces and remnants that can be useful and harmful. In general, religion concentrates on trying to control people rather than the environment or the sky – in place of clerics there are Those Who Hold The Law; a fractious congeries of scholars, judges and record-keepers that tries to keep people across the Abode of Men more or less on the same page (and playing one of these is like playing a street preacher – the faithful will respect and fear you as long as you are respectable and fearful. The faithless… might think twice about having a go at you with a spear just in case you turn out to be electric or something).
Tartary has no “home tech level” (like DnD’s home tech level is roughly 14th century but you might run across stuff that’s anachronistic/out of place), it’s the whole history of Turkestan, ancient to post-Soviet, simultaneously – flattened into a brick – plus “magic” and post-apocalyptic bits and Girl Genius and Arabian Nights shout-outs.
But real high-tech is rare: production quality is generally low – stuff is improvised, home-made. Bows are no more common than guns or slings or atlatls, but the guns are what you could cook up in the desert with simple tools: more like unreliable muskets than modern assault rifles. You use what you can. Technologies that have dependencies (like cars that need fuel and spare parts) are rarer and less reliable than those that don’t (like rocks and hide shelters). Real manufactured goods are the stuff of legend – and are to be found in dangerous, anomalous caches left by people of the distant future/past.
Tartary also has no widespread cash economy – individual cities and some confederations exist that have common money, and the Armenian and Chinese trade networks have paper letters of credit that work something like cash (but must be certified), but most trade is barter and exchange rates for metals, rare stones, spices and other common cash equivalents are wildly variable.
Language is a mish-mash of Turkic/Uighur/Persian/Arabic/Pashto forming a pidgin “common” tongue – most people also have their “native” language spoken only by a small population in the local area, so kin/neighbours often have a kind of secret code among themselves. This effect is doubled for incoming flailsnailers, who are definitely gringos/farangs in a foreign land, but can communicate well enough to get by, when everyone wants to be understood.
Colour-coded Carcosans dropped in some years ago and have their own communities out in the wastes, but they’re a minority. If you play a Carcosan then you can speak Carcosan and bad common, you’ll be tolerated by most non-Carcosans, and you may be hunted by sorcerers or paint suppliers, but in recompense you get some natural radiation/magic resistance. Prejudice is so universal and works in so many directions that it’s hardly worth mentioning anti-Orange or -Teal* feeling. The exception, of course, is Bone men, who creep out the superstitious (ie most folks but not everyone) and Purple men, whom everyone else spits on. The Barsoomian Green Men (another recent drop-in) are considered too barbaric by most, but they have powerful sponsors who use them as mercenaries. The Turkmens, though, hate them. Yellow men are the Okar of Barsoom, and are considered rivals by the Mongols.
Tartary is supposed to be a flailsnails setting, but it runs in a homebrew hack and has no levels. Almost equivalent to a level is your Reputation – the record of your fame, reliability and badassery, useful in social combat and when asking for favours, recruiting redshirts etc. Tartary gets (semi-omniscient, mysteriously-sourced) television from across the flailsnailoverse; when bringing a character from elsewhere, let me know about their greatest career highs and lows to date – there’s a fair chance Tartars have seen them on the village’s big screen, based on their fame and their most remarkable coups or pratfalls.
For more and confusing information, follow the Baikonur and Carcosa tags from the posts below. The most important posts to date for understanding the setting are:
* I should note that although it’s supposed to be played fairly straight, Tartary is kinda Flash Gordon with dirt. And although it makes use of familiar names for places and things, it is absolutely not supposed to be taken as commentary on those real places and things and any resemblance is purely coincidental. AND FURTHER although it makes cheerful and willful use of outmoded discourses of colonialism and Orientalism it does so (even though the author really does know better) because those discourses are full of recognizable tropes and gateways to adventure and because they’re worth exploring as literature. So that’s why I write “Turkmen” rather than “Tusken Raiders” and “Tartary” rather than some horrible fantasy portmanteau like “Mongolistan.” Because if you read “Turkmen slavers” and you are reminded of o’Donovans account of The Merv Oasis and his “man-stealing Turcomans” then good. I’m not saying anything about actual living Turkmens and I’m not going to say anything about national character, but here in this fantasyland I’m creating, something like those stereotyped, exoticized horseclan mountebanks of Orientalist imagination do exist, I’m deliberately recalling them, and I think it’s better to do that clearly. Perhaps actual Turkmens will be offended by this: if so, sorry for the offense – but you don’t own the Orientalist discourse I’m quoting and I’m really not talking about you. Unless you also steal thoats and are secretly learning to ride Glassworms, up in the electroluminescent desert.