Archive

Posts Tagged ‘D&D Tourism’

DnD Tourism: the inevitable Neuschwanstein post

June 2, 2014 4 comments

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.

Neuschwanstein_castle

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.

Neuschwanstein-Castle-Floor1

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.

196598_10100929212607423_1743832678_n-1

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.

n6

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:

n74

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:

la chambre de la chatelain  piano de wagner Culture-Vixen-Wintibaugh-Wheatley-Bavarian-Castles-3chevalier du cygne

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.

Throne_Hall3

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.

basilica-73251_640

(Valencia Cathedral, Spain, for comparison)

Bedroom2

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:

Grotto

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.

Neuschwanstein-projet

3739_12307763484504

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:

{2090b01d-eec2-daad-905f-0ab5528b0382}

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.

58428324

And it’s a much, much more interesting story than the overtly political ones, built at the same time, that were supposed to sell the new quality of German-ness to Ludwig’s Bavarian subjects.

…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.

tumblr_lbns1a6V1l1qbm7yoo1_500

That just means Falkenstein’s ready to hold whatever story you want to pour into it.

BTW, if you are in fact planning to go see Ludwig’s castles in Bavaria, you really should also go to the Linderhof, where he actually lived much of the time, and the royal Residenz Palace in Munich.

Our archipelago (Counter-colonial heistcrawl could be the new Sea of Osr)

November 22, 2013 3 comments

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.”

His Centerra setting kinda explores the same colonial themes. I have to mine it for What We Know About the Farangs.

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

* I said I knew some things, right? Here:
a first set of character classes (though we might not use a class system),
Jeff’s 20 questions, from local and interloper perspectives

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.

IMG_4778 IMG_4780 IMG_4632 IMG_4642 IMG_4656 IMG_4684 IMG_4688 IMG_4694 IMG_4700 IMG_4718

Irresponsible in the Rijksmuseum

November 9, 2013 1 comment

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):

IMG_4383 IMG_4384

IMG_4388 IMG_4391

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:

alice-figs1 alice-figs2

boartopus antler_witch

Boartopus ravishing harpy, flying antler witch,

carcosa-painting

Carcosa.

And predictably there’s treasure. Note to self: add more mysterious gold lions to dungeon:

lion2 sneezing-lionlion1

especially sneezing lions that dispense potions. Also stuff you pick up should tell you about upcoming hazards. Like this medieval mi-go victim:

migo-victim

speaking of which: who says brain-cases have to be so damn functional-looking?

st-thekla-1 st-thekla-2

(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:

reliquary-chestbone-ossuary

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:

antler-shield

and speaking of headgear…

helmet

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.

locks lock-open

…ever wondered how a medieval lock works?

OK, time for the big guns: Wampus/Tartary artillery for discerning murderhobos

guns1 pistols musketoongrape-shot

navy-shell shrapnel

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.

muskets

…and one for Jeremy Duncan.

kris2kris3de-ruyters-rapier

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-lantern1magic-lantern-2

Magic lantern slides were the 18th century’s Roll For Initiative gifs.

giant-armour-figurehead

Mecha golem disguised as a figurehead.

by the way… Dubrovnik

September 6, 2013 1 comment

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:

dubrovnik-old-town-from-the-fort-3-pics-658-659-662-crop-sh-s-m-c-ss-m-black-watermark-30

(janettelarobina) The fortifications are intimidatingly huge up close, but overlooked by a cliff, so there’s a catapult challenge.

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.

CruiseDubrovnikMapGroupToursCroatia-67431247677044_800_600-1

The traditional trading circuit takes advantage of currents and also provides a 2-port buffer between the rival principalities. As the old sailor’s saying goes, “Hvar washes away all enmities.”

It dominates an island trading network and maintains an uneasy truce between the Korcula and the Sipangu.

Fort_Lovrijenac,Dubrovnik,Croatia

Why do most of those guns face inland?

It keeps a string of vassal forts along the coast and around the islands that would be perfect troublesome gifts for enterprising adventurers.

Rixos_Libertas_Dubrovnik-1

the amphitheatre and Contesting Pool are useful for public address out of season

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.

DubrovnikPalaceHotel-exterior

archaeologists are divided on whether the landship “irrupted” from the soil like a tooth or was blasted out.

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.

dubrovnik11

Inmates pay for their food and lodging with labour, and even see a little extra money at the end of the year! It is currently estimated that a galleyman could save enough to buy citizenship after 137 years’ service.

Have two interactive maps and two photo guides for further information/inspiration.

Dubrovnik-(Croatia)

of course, there’s a chain to protect the little harbour’s mouth. The stories of underwater caves leading right beneath the fortress are foolish local legends.

(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)

Pseudo-medieval city maps

November 13, 2012 5 comments

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.

brielle

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:

I’ll forgive you this time for not knowing about the fortified island at Concarneau [Google Map] [useful tourist map], a sort of Carcassonne-on-the-sea but less footled about:

but you should really already know about Mont St. Michel

and be ready for when the players decide to knock over that dominating abbey.

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.

Tags: ,

Want some real history? Don’t value your eyesight too much? Have some ship plans

November 9, 2012 1 comment

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

Toward a Tartary one-shot

October 17, 2012 3 comments

These guys:

send you to

to find this guy

but when you get there it’s all

and there’s this guy

who gives you some

which turns everything

and then your ride home is all

unless you can figure out the

to reactivate the

and then

before the

get to the

and achieve

The only trainspotting post I will ever write. Probably.

October 9, 2012 1 comment

Looking at the trailer for the latest film in which Johnny Depp’s makeup upstages the titular character, I realise that what I really want to watch is a movie all about disruptive technologies. Or even just about the disruption caused by the train (sorry Johnny and whoever, I don’t care so much about your horse-on-horse action. That opening voiceover totally sold me that you were men of the past, packing six-shooters in an emergent age of machine guns).

It’s debatable how important the railroad was in “winning the West” (though it did supercharge historical change from the cowboys and indians horse-wars to the steel-driving men and mechanized warfare that ushered in the Interstate Highway system), but it’s really not debatable how important it was in Russia’s parallel annexation of Turkestan – rails rolled right over the Turkomans, Uighurs, Tatars and Kirghiz.

So of course, rival railway plans are big news in Tartary’s Tournament of Shadows (movie link!). And following Old Bloody Eyes‘ dictum that “to astonish is to triumph” (shock and awe, 1880 edition), style is just as important as substance. You want your trains to look strong, sleek, inevitable.*

For instance, the Bullet On Steel Shafts (photographs intercepted en route from Far Nihon) causes a lot more buzz around the Khanates’ walled gardens than the prosaic “high speed transportation link” that the Rumis are pushing (as if they could ever marshall the infrastructure).

Still, the project that’s getting most of the hype – that’s been praised by the Seers of Otrar themselves as “distressingly intimidating,” is the Azeri Koblobr:

Its bluff, flat front and nearly-blind pilot’s gallery suggest heavy armouring, possibly the presence of a ram,

but the feature that’s caused the most consternation is the long, narrow slit that runs right down the front of the machine, which appears to conceal some further purpose. Hints of Overworlder collusion in the train’s design has lead to a riot of speculation.

Not actually a Downfall parody

Needless to say, a dozen Khans and Viziers would pay handsomely for a copy of the plans…

* see, there’s a reason why the USSR put its railway museum in Tashkent, lynchpin and starting point of the Turk-sib railway, which allowed troops to be sent at speed anywhere in Russia’s conquered territories turned “friendly Soviet republics.”

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 3 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.

Tags: