I don’t have much time these days, so I’m going to keep the analysis short here. Tl:dr – you should go visit Neuschwanstein, even if you don’t run a classically pseudo-medieval game, even if the whole volkish Wagnero-Tolkieny fantasy thing brings you out in hives, and especially if you think you’ve been inoculated against sentimentalism by a surfeit of Disney princesses. Because it’s all those things but it’s also so very good.
All the following photos are stolen off the internet: feel free to send takedown orders.
So you know the basic story already: Mad king Ludwig II of Bavaria decides ruling is too hard/boring and his real passion is building fairytale castles. He’s best mates with Wagner and he does his best to turn those turgid operas into fluffy stone confections until his mysterious death at the bottom of a lake supplies the obvious final tragic chord. 50 years later Walt Disney gets excited about the pointy turrets, digs up the last surviving artists who worked on them, and makes the first feature-length cartoon all about Fairycastleland, eventually leading to Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland, CA, which sears Ludwig’s vision into the imagination of little girls for the rest of the 20th century and probably beyond.
So far so serviceable, if you want to mine the second most obvious source in all of fantasy. But this story spins off in several curious directions and the devil (and his salvation) is in the details. If you want to get conspiratorial, you could ask who murdered Ludwig and why, 16 years after Bavaria’s inclusion in Bismarck’s empire made his throne into a historical footnote. You could also wonder how it was that Ludwig’s brother and obvious successor Otto came to be “unfit for rule” after serving adequately in the Prussian army during the short and decisive Franco-Prussian War (or what he was doing in that army, for that matter). The official tour says Otto suffered from PTSD or something, and notes in passing that Ludwig, too, was mad. Except these days we think he probably wasn’t. Ludwig’s building fetish threatened to bankrupt the family, but when he died there was still enough money for his uncle Luitpold to keep up the residence at neighbouring Hohenschwangau and even to have novelties like a telephone and elevator put in.
Less famous, but cozier and handy for the shops.
Work stopped on the castle the day the king died, so only the 4th floor and above were finished. That was enough to make it into an attraction, however, and it was handed over to the new German state and opened to the public just 6 weeks after Ludwig
drowned was bludgeoned to death following his arrest. Which is pretty quick moving, from a building site riddled with rebellious, gossiping servants to a state museum.
Then there’s the curious relationship between Ludwig’s creations and the 2nd and 3rd Reichs. In 1866, Prussia had expanded (via military threat, trickery and horse-trading) through most of the vaguely German-speaking territories that weren’t already nailed down in the Austrian Empire. When Ludwig acceded in 1868 Bavaria’s days were clearly numbered, as the largest independent state waiting to be seized by Prussia’s new, aggressive Kaiser from the sphere of influence of Austria, the “sick man of Europe.” Whether Bavaria was forced to join Prussia or ingeniously navigated an impossible situation depends on who you ask: legend has it that Ludwig sold his crown in 1870 in return for the royal treasure of Hannover. So Bismarck’s “tide of history” that swept Ludwig himself aside also made his castle-confections possible. As physical expressions of Wagner’s operas (and flotsam from the Second Reich), the castles were later grabbed up into Hitler’s “Mythology of the German Spirit,” but their frothy, light-hearted brand of mordlust didn’t fit squarely into the Chancellor’s drill routines: in 1937 they slipped out again from under the Nazi curse dressed up as Germanic Lore for American Kids, and hooked into the already vibrant American Castle Craze, incidentally helping Disney to fund anti-Nazi propaganda films (while Walt himself… had a more troubled relationship with the politics of oppression).
Right now, though, I’m most tempted to consider Ludwig’s ghost as one of the great secret architects of the 20th century: a progenitor who used film before it was even invented to propagate his memes around the world.
Walking around Neuschwanstein you can play spot the Disney movie and get a sense for just how direct the castle’s influence was on Walt’s greatest hits. And once you do, you start to wonder why Disney never made a Lohengrin or Tristan and Isolde. Take this painting in the Hall of the Singers, for instance:
Looking at his actual home at Hohenschwangau, it’s remarkable how the colour palette, motifs and composition of a bunch of 1840s German painters would inform 1940s American background artists and children’s book illustrators:
It’s even tempting (though facile) to see unmarried fantasist Ludwig as the prototype for all Walt’s lonely girls in a hilltop castle, waiting for their princes to come. But Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were just the first moves in ghost-Ludwig’s grand strategy to build Fairytale America (in Calyferne, no less), which may be the sneakiest bit of Capitalist appropriation ever: demythologizing mythology. Roaring like a mouse from beyond the grave. Convincing people that he’s safely dead, then re-emerging as… well, a patron saint of kayfabe – of theatre-as-life.
Because theatricality is all over Ludwig’s plans. Consider, for instance, his “throne room” (above, finished apart from the throne), which is really much less like a throne room than it is like a chapel, in which Ludwig himself would play the role of saint statue – on a pedestal under Christ Pantocrator and – most of all – in a narrative sequence of kings who were also saints.
(Valencia Cathedral, Spain, for comparison)
Or his tomb-like bed, crowned with wooden copies of a dozen mausoleum towers (modern toilet hidden behind the paneling). Or the bed he actually slept in, in Hohenschwangau, under a painted night sky in which the stars and moon could be lit up, by means of lamps hidden in a crawlspace above. Or if that’s not clear enough, the fact that in order to get from his bedroom to his reading room, he would have had to walk through a stage-set grotto, built for a performance of Parsifal:
Dracula not included.
Neuschwanstein’s primary architect, Christian Jank, was a theatre designer. His painted designs for the castle look like theatrical backdrops – and that’s what the castles themselves were supposed to be: physical intrusions into our reality of the world that Wagner brought to brief (although still bum-numbing), flickering life on the stage.
Which is why they’re so perfectly suited to being realized, all over again, as fantasies. Because like movie music or a well-written novel, they guide you in your reception. There is one classic exterior photo of Neuschwanstein that every tourist takes:
They take it from the Marienburg bridge, because it offers the one vantage point from which you can see the whole castle. Because the bridge was placed just so, as a viewing platform for the masterpiece; the optimal point for reproducing the castle’s image the way Jank wanted you to remember it. In most of the rooms there’s an obvious place you’re supposed to stand, where all the sightlines converge – and it’s not the king’s seat, but the point where the visitor first enters. The point where you would, naturally, have your Kodak moment. The walks up to the castles are through carefully manicured “wild” forests, complete with Alan Lee tangled roots and craggy shettiya-type rocks, which ground the whole thing and also prepare you for entering the self-consciously otherworldly castle precincts. In short, the whole thing is a masterclass in presenting an experience to the visitor. It only looks, superficially, like a castle. In fact it’s a thesis, a story-book, covered in painted illustrations and punctuated by spiral staircases and high lookout windows.
…and in that spirit, it really doesn’t matter that it’s unfinished. Or that its younger brother, Castle Falkenstein, miscarried before it could get a foot onto the earth.
That just means Falkenstein’s ready to hold whatever story you want to pour into it.
Guys, I am astonished and humbled by the response to Counter-colonial Heistcrawl, and it hasn’t even started yet.
I’m running this campaign a bit differently from usual: it’s more of a collaborative creation. I know some parts,* but the players are coming up with others. In particular and right off the bat, they’re creating their home islands, shortly to be contacted and eventually colonized (if the players don’t do anything about it) by Perfidious Dutch and English men. And they are, without exception, exceptional. Like, damn.
First, Patrick Stuart’s Pat-Te-Chack-Ha, the island at the centre of the world.”Remember almost everything in the world is poisonous. The only way to avoid the poisons is to get exactly the right foods and mix them in exactly the right way. If you do this, the poisons cancel each other out. If you go ‘out there’ to the edges of the world and you see anyone mixing foods when they eat, always do exactly the same thing. …You can always cancel out a tabu or a sin with a different tabu or sin. But they have to be exactly right. If you can keep your actions even, you will be ok when you die.”
While James Young’s Kuna Kuna is at the end of the world.
“When your baby is born …you must choose the fate of your child. Carve a secret symbol into the walls of a god’s old chamber, do not tell anyone what you chose. This gives your baby the protection of that god’s children. When you are close to death you may tell your child the secret symbol you carved those years ago. If your child is far away you must tell another, but that person must tell your child as quick as he can or bring calamity on both. This is a spell of oath.”
Jason has sneaked some AmTart under the bamboo fence with his Cooly Islands:”In the end a new leader was appointed. The fairest skinned of our people, Los Blanco. His first act was to take control of the waterways and that was a wise thing. He starved out many traitors and those who clung to the Old Ways. He adopted the ways of a new God and killed those who did not follow.”
All I know about Evan of Gamepieces’ character so far is that he distrusts coins and giant floating stone heads.
“Why would a monarch affix his head to a small metal disc? To spy on his subjects, naturally! And when the disk in question is a precious metal, endowed with that metal’s charms, its medicinal properties, etc. the disk may on these accounts readily find its way into the hands of the innocent. (We must grudgingly acknowledge the awful cleverness of these tactics.)”
Undeniably Arnold of Goblinpunch’s islanders have a thing about whales. But probably only because they have a thing about the Leviathan. Here: “When Toa-Makakang gave birth to the Leviathan, the sky was torn asunder and the stars fell to the earth. The earth spat venom, to kill the Leviathan, and from the cloud-mansions there issued lightning to strike the creature dead. Finally, all of the waters of the earth came and piled atop Balalang, to drown the Leviathan. We all drowned then.
“But the Leviathan devoured the poison, and became venomous. Then it grew its ten-thousand triangular scales that rattle in the light, and the lightning slid off. Finally it swallowed all of the water of the oceans, and grew larger than any other thing.
“Finally, it devoured the gods.”
So much good here. Go read it all.
And reproduced in full, because AFAIK it’s only on G+ so far, Scott knows his NOI:
LONGER BOATS ARE COMING TO WIN US
RAIN IS HAPPENING
Shit, on my island of Perseroanterbatastelekomunikasindonesie Terbuka the language we talk is Bahasa Riau Malay and if I wasn’t making a effort to tone it down it would strike you eight parts of nine dead with the bright and vulgar lightning of it. That’s our fucking magic. Where I come from the ocean is endless and dark and cold and there are islands strung across it like singing brass lanterns. We live at the bottom of that sea. Deal with it.
You guys probably don’t have the words for “nieuw” and “oud” yet, you can barely wrap your sarongs around “alt” and “altar.” Cool. So better not say I’m from the island of “new” rice. Strike you eight-ninths dead. I come from the island of “unfamiliar” rice, “far” rice, for all you know “better” rice. Once you have had this rice, man, you will not go back, fuck no you will not. Even if you might want to.
My island is beyond all your lost horizons. It is here now. We are forty birds on this boat in search of our king. Each and every one of your souls is a bird.
I had a dream of the coming of longer boats bearing a strange gamelan made of string as well as brass. They are harder than the black robes and plumes in Malacca and their gamelan plays too fast even for me. It sounds like this. Once they come the world is guaranteed to be over but the cargo of that voyage, the “transition,” will follow slower behind the lightning like the bright memory behind your eyes, or like thunder. We can tune that thunder into words like flocks of birds you can number in the hundreds.
I will not be here long and will not talk a lot in order to give your fucking sensitive ears a break. We will not be going to my island because it will kill you eleven ninths dead with the sheer light and noise of it. I like to fight and cook the rice.
— Bobby Suharto
Also check out the Counter-colonial Heistcrawl tag for a heads up on other hazards. Kraken not included.
Picture bonus for getting this far: all from the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam. Which, BTW, also has some better photos of its collection online, if you can navigate the site. Their Papua webspecial is just plain amazing but takes some fiddling to figure out.
Also I just found out about the Virtual Collection of Asian Masterpieces. Wow. I mean, I don’t like the masterpiece agenda much, but still, stuff from 55 museums in one place.
One of the things I love about blogging DIY DnD is it gives me an excuse to be completely irresponsible in museums. I spent years as an art student and middle class British lad with educated pretensions stalking earnestly around museums and galleries trying to understand why Jasper Johns was more famous than Eric Ravilious or why Dutch painting should be interesting in the 17th century but not in the 18th or early 19th. Now, letting my DM flag fly, I can tell you that it’s a lot more fun wandering around the Rijksmuseum just looking at the things I like looking at and sniggering roll for initiative when I see some gold lion eating a man holding up a candlestick.
So for instance I can enjoy this intaglio print of a witch riding a demon carcass around without caring much who it’s by (yeah, right. It’s Agostino Veneziano):
and mutter “pendulous dugs” and “fish slapping dance” to myself as I ogle this Mantegna.
So these, apparently, are mourners on (or rather off) some saint’s tomb. But now they’re a bunch of NPCs for your Alice game:
Boartopus ravishing harpy, flying antler witch,
And predictably there’s treasure. Note to self: add more mysterious gold lions to dungeon:
especially sneezing lions that dispense potions. Also stuff you pick up should tell you about upcoming hazards. Like this medieval mi-go victim:
speaking of which: who says brain-cases have to be so damn functional-looking?
(reliquary for St Thekla, allegedly). Reliquaries are some weird-ass treasure too. Some are like tiny wee treasure chests that anyone who’s gamed with Scrap Princess should be too wary to touch:
and look what they contain! A nice surprise. At least this bone ossuary is kinda doing the medium is the message thing.
Magic shield? I bet you’re picturing something metal. Not, for instance, a chunk of elk headgear:
and speaking of headgear…
Even Throne of Blood didn’t prepare me for this bunny/propellor. Quietly scribbling notes about what world you’d need to make those Playboy extensions at all sensible.
…ever wondered how a medieval lock works?
OK, time for the big guns: Wampus/Tartary artillery for discerning murderhobos
Early 19th century shells. And a shrapnel shell cut in half. Note wooden cone-tip and big ball-bearings just sitting in a dynamite goop.
…and one for Jeremy Duncan.
and three for Paolo Greco. The last of which is the red coral hilt of a rapier given to legendary Dutch murderhobo Michiel de Ruyter.
Magic lantern slides were the 18th century’s Roll For Initiative gifs.
Mecha golem disguised as a figurehead.
no posts in a long time, and this one’s quick and lazy…
But Dubrovnik’s about as perfect a coastal fantasy fortress town as you could ask to find. And I for one didn’t know about it. Here, have some images and maps (google sat). Just swipe it wholesale; the Croatian tourist authority will probably thank you:
There’s a straight main street from the harbour to the big gate, suitable for triumphal processions or standoffs between local princes and invading revenants.
It dominates an island trading network and maintains an uneasy truce between the Korcula and the Sipangu.
It keeps a string of vassal forts along the coast and around the islands that would be perfect troublesome gifts for enterprising adventurers.
It holds annual contests against the King of the Sea, watched by anxious crowds from the surrounding lands, who fear the day that the mer-folk throw off their ancient shackles and destroy the shipping they all depend on.
It stands guard against the Machines of the Underearth, whose landship thrust out of the ground 1400 years ago and remains, undecayed and indestructible, as a reminder of the contingent nature of human power. The equally undecayed Invasion Bridge has become an indispensable part of the local economy.
And if the PCs arrive as Southern Barbarians, without a Kuna to their name, it offers the infamous Galley-workers’ Barracks for accommodation.
(BTW: on the map kick, check out the change in datasets between google maps’ coverage of post-Yugoslav, kinda-independent Montenegro and weirdo shut-in Albania. One satellite covers the Montenegrin side of the border (with brightly lit river), another has the other side of the river, and a third, older-looking (who knows, really) image takes over from a few miles into the territory. But if you’re short of unfamiliar gaming ground to hexify, just trolling up and down that coast has a bunch of gems for you)
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
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