Somehow over the past 2 weeks I’ve missed a great series of posts by Telecanter about procedural/random trading games. Right at the beginning of that series he asked about lists of trade goods and what might make for a short memorable set of actually fun trade items (the first goal being to make trade an interesting part of the game, D&Trav style, and the second goal being to not have the players go “really? 3 weeks as pirates and all we have to show for it is millet?”). His list is a good length and evokes a fairly specific milieu, which is to say generic-DnD (or as I like to call it, 1630 Amsterdam).
But I thought: what makes trade goods fun? How would you rank and classify trade goods by their fun potential?
…how would you go about stealing them?
Small: requires a 2-man con, typically 5-30 minutes:
gold*; precious stones; ambergris, incense, exotic perfumes, nutmeg; foreign collectible ephemera; incriminating coins; letters; passports/permits for extraordinary behaviour; declarations of war, property, inheritance or price hikes; erotic statuary that embarrasses the local bishop-prince; homunculi or genie lamps; poisons, potions, medicines; keys; crystal balls, magic compasses, hypnotic pets; deep secrets of the universe; insignia of office.
Medium: 5-man con with a handcart or dray:
High-grade cognac, laudanum, rare concoctions; world–economy–changing seedlings; gunpowder; cinnamon; experimental small arms; enriched uranium; invasive species; quarantined pets; silver, amber, furnishings, mirrors, pearl-handled arquebuses, spice-boats, models of revolutionary fortifications/ships/catapults/oubliettes/hydraulics; experts, spies, witnesses; mermaids, circus freaks, incognito princelings; carpets, tapestries, silkworms, finely carved writing desks suspected of containing hidden drawers; clockwork automata, enigma machines; cultural signifiers of authority.
Large: you’ll need a crane:
Cannons; cacao trees; meteorites; rum, wine, champagne; coffee, tea; qat; experimental vehicles, engines, battlesuits; elephants, giraffes, prize bulls; cult statues; shrines containing the Truth of the World; silks; horses, pigs, alpacas, young dragons; devil-summoning pipe organs; durian; glue; masts, spars, anchors, vital ship parts, deck knees; roc eggs; fused-together crew members; Thark lances; disabled fliers, Montgolfier balloons, fighting kites, diving bells, MRI scanners; terracotta golems; sarcophagi.
XL. Just steal the goddamn ship:
Grain, pepper, coriander, sugar or anything else that’s just loaded loose in the hold; quicklime; coal, coke, anthracite, mercury, saltpetre, cinnabar; glazed temple bricks, carved marble capitals from the First Cathedral of Constantinople/Temple Mount/Parthenon, guardian statues; fishtanks, narwhals, hallucinatory groves for transplanting whole into imperial gardens; bitumen, lamp oil, kerosene, nitroglycerine, Greek Fire, Azoth, skrying pools; strategic relief maps; dimensional gates; ships.
* Gold may be “small” in historical settings but it’s probably at least “medium” in vanilla DnD and may be “large” in anime-inspired settings. Tartary, being tied to flailsnails, is much richer in gold than I’d like it to be. If anyone has any suggestions on what to do about that I’d love to hear them.
…deep in the uncharted wilderness the players break through a cruft of goblin nests to discover an enormous, multi-layered gallery filled with tableaux – statues locked in epic combat; miniature cities under attack by squadrons of flying carpets; glittering rooms peopled with uniformed porcelain figures grasping alien devices; cathedral caverns filled with colossal stone elephants and whales. Everything pointing to everything else like some gigantic, ancient explanatorium. Some of the exhibits are made from plain stone or glass, others from huge blocks of malachite or chalcedony, some crafted from gold and gems.
Of course, this buried museum, or art-house, or whatever it is, isn’t uninhabited, it’s just incidentally inhabited with an awful lot of inanimate stuff. And you could prize the gems out and run away and make a fortune. But the real money would be in pulling out whole statues – and that would take manpower, effort, time. And if you did, then the real value would be lost – as some sage will eventually tell you – because it’s only by having all the figures in their original setting that you can read them for their deep, revelatory meanings. So then you should build a town at the entrance to this wonder, and guide sages through it so they can plumb its secrets. And you should replace what you looted, so they can read whatever you unwittingly destroyed.
But it’s only by having all the original parts in place that you can make the ritual work, to bring it all to life and opens a portal to the planes/save the world from boredom/remake the PCs as demigods/lift the curse of endless background.
…so the megadungeon campaign, if the players bite, eventually runs in reverse. First they loot it and sell the bits, then they try to make new bits to replace what they stole, and finally they have to run all over the world tracking down all that stuff they previously hoiked to put it back in its proper place – they become dungeon makers, rather than dungeon despoilers.
And that’s how you get them to go into the Castle of the Mad Archmage, which they otherwise would absolutely never do. To get that last wind-up box.
Bones Don’t Lie has a serious and sensible list of the top 5 (most common?) reasons for disturbing a burial. It comes down to:
1. getting stuff out (grave goods, bits of bodies*, political capital)
2. keeping stuff in (bad luck, spirits, undead**)
3. investigating the past (includes archaeology)
And in another post, 4. honoring the dead (not desecration but reconsecration).
I’ve never seen (4) in a game. Aside from this list the only thing I think games commonly add is:
4(g): necromancy/raising armies
Surely we can do better than this? If you’re running a tombraiding game, what other reasons could there be for cracking open that pyramid?*** Here’s another 5, but consider this a challenge: there’s a world of possibilities out there. What would nobody else ever have thought of?
1. opening/closing a gateway to another realm (tomb as psychopomp, perhaps, or just wardrobe, or physical dungeon entrance, or hallucinatory dream quest).
2. signaling to some otherworldly entity (includes aliens, time-travelers, seraphim, possessors of the dead, E.A.Poe). Or demonstrating that they won’t be answering such a signal because (a) they don’t exist or (b) you’ve overmastered them (a common wartime propaganda move, BTW).
3. accident, natural disaster or hubristic/archaeologically ignorant building programs. This runs from misrecognition – you thought the tomb was a house or other common structure, up to digging railway tunnels through mass madhouse graves and plague pits.
4. you’re getting out. This needn’t be some lame 60’s mind-fuck trick ending – “oh look, you were dead all along – dead and asleep to your true potential!” Maybe you started somewhere else and the smugglers’ tunnels come out in a graveyard. Or maybe you are (un)dead, following your capture by the pixies/cultists, and now the game takes a strange turn.
5. to get rid of something. The classic version of this is return to the stones to the temple and lift the curse, but what if you really just want to put something beyond reach? What if there’s no Mount Doom to go with the One Ring? What are you going to do now? Maybe the Lich God makes a good guard dog after all?
Bonus 6: to make it your new home. Not necessarily because you’re undead; maybe you want to bathe in the energies of the Ancients, or you’re hiding from foes, or you know the ground better.
* she doesn’t mention the Tonton Macoute practice of taking kneecaps from graves as protection against shooting, which seems like it might cut across a few categories here.
** or less metaphorically/metaphysically, poison.
** check out this megadungeon onionskin: imagine these outlines are buildings actually nested inside each other, the levels increasing as you work toward the central nugget. Or turn the whole thing upside down: level 1 is under your point-of-light village; outer levels are more dangerous, and have doors back to the surface on lands or islands or undersea realms farther away from your home base.
A smattering of less famous moments from Gorey’s‡ career, courtesy of the Louvre:
Response to a critic on Project Runway who complained a design was “too literal.”**
He’s my big bear daddy and you can’t have him (a rare moment of autobiographical reflection from the famously reticent artist)
What is the term for artworks that show the protagonist and antagonist of a story as a single figure? I’m guessing the Ancient Greeks were all over this conceit, so there must be a name. I adore this image that reuses the Minotaur’s horns as Theseus’ ship. This Little Red Riding Hood/wolf seems too, um, obvious.*** Both spotted in the Louvre children’s bookshop, where Red offers one of the very few breaks from Greek myth. Not sure if this is a Louvre thing or a basic aspect of childhood in France.****
I’m wondering how I’d do Moby Dick, of course.
Most arresting moment at the Louvre: noticing for the first time how the great god Bes just seems to be in a totally different style/genre from everything else in Ancient Egyptian religious art. Weird. Even if you contend that it’s an import, the Egyptians were great at making things fit into their scheme: this is like a single panel of manga in a Pre-Raphaelite gallery.***
* Mummy of a ram, titled “Osiris, ram of Khnoum,” from a necropolis for rams (possibly) dedicated to the corn god Khnoum, on the island of Elephantine.
** The actual title of this work is “Joan of Arc hearing her voices” (Francois Rude). Despite spending about 5 minutes giggling at this statue, I have to commend the artist’s cartoonist chops in making the figure instantly recognizable.
*** OTOH, Freudian! Thanks Dore. OTOOH, O hai, wants see my behedin’ gardin?
**** Next door, this is the sort of shop I missed all the time I lived in the US.
***** so glad I wasn’t the only one to think this.
‡ Who? Oh good grief. How to make a gorey tale even weirder and more deadpan (not recommended enthusiastically).
Unaccountably, despite having been to Paris several times and lived next to it for the past 5 months, and, y’know, being an artist, I’d never been to the Louvre. Fixed. Though out of deference to my own prior lunacy I still haven’t seen the most famous works.
I note with some uncategorisable emotion that eye-watering myspace pages are still with us!
Also, apparently Dolly still got it: a rejected Pokémon design, based off of the first cloned sheep, …was deemed to be “too controversial.”
OK, I’ma put this out there again to get it out of my head: Harry/Voldemort is so obvious that in the book Voldemort’s always already inside Harry. But if you were to rewrite HP from Voldemort’s perspective, a la Wicked, the story would turn out to be Moby Dick, right down to Voldemort’s business, which involves killing people like Harry as a form of routine work.
So here’s the plot synopsis: Voldemort exploits and rends the world as is his wont until in a surprising and ill-fated moment the world resists, and he nearly dies. Years later he obsessively works to conquer this one wrinkle in his otherwise perfect rapacious record. He seeks intelligence of the enemy, he gathers his forces, girds up his body, and confronts again, but he has not adequately understood his place in the drama. Inexplicably again, from his perspective, he fails and dies, condemning all who are with him to endless perdition. Only latecomer Draco Malfoy, meanest of the crew and tutored in humble observation by the bluster of his father, is left to tell the tale. Which he does, with many side discourses on the refreshing vistas presented to young minds by obsessive destruction, the methods of totalitarianism, the majestic power of the werewolf death eaters, the strange and blurry lines between themselves and other monsters, muggles and muggle-friendly wizards, and the uncanny blank blackness of the dementors.
On the flipside, a young whale, marked twice by albinism and scars, is targeted by a strange reaver of the sea, scourge of all whale-kind. Unable to run, he turns and fights the tarred and bannered enemy and miraculously, bizarrely, survives, ingesting in the process the enemy’s leg, which speaks to him ever after of its owner’s hate. He knows from that moment he is marked, and that defense is unknown to his kind against such a foe. He avoids the society of other whales, since he has over him the revenge-genius of the thwarted man. Years later, and after many rumours of the man’s passage, he faces the revenant Ahab and is injured again, but this time he turns on the ship and destroys it, freeing all whale-kind from the tyranny of Ahab’s iron. Moby-Dick, the whale who lived.
Remembering the onion skin logic* of Sandy Petersen’s essay on Call of Cthulhu campaigns, I’m tempted to make a matrioshka of Shadows of Yog-Sothoth or Masks of Nyarlathotep. In each case the denouement scene is the outermost layer: the final mystery is the small beginning – a meeting with an old family friend IIRC.
* Update: from Wikipedia’s CoC page – Sandy Petersen introduced the concept of the Onion Skin: Interlocking layers of information and nested clues that lead the Player Characters from seemingly minor investigations into a missing person to discovering mind-numbingly awful, global conspiracies to destroy the world. …[In] Shadows of Yog-Sothoth… the characters come upon a secret society’s foul plot to destroy mankind, and pursue it first near to home and then in a series of exotic locations.
Sandy says (more or less) that the investigation should start with small occurrences and that each subsequent clue should reveal a larger and more awful mystery, so that at each point of successful resolution the PCs get a strong sense of also getting in deeper over their heads. So that with success comes dread, regarding the next revelation.