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
get to the
A comment on G+ reminded me of a little bugbear I have with almost all RPG settings:
they tend to have in-built resistance to change. Whether it’s “points of light” or Battletech’s unending, entropic war or even Traveller’s Star Trek – like trawl through multiple tech levels, actual innovation that changes the world is avoided. In fact I strongly suspect that one of the reasons for the perennial popularity of more-or-less medieval settings is that the “medieval” state is (popularly) perceived to be one of stability and stagnation.
Why do we love that so much?
Maybe there’s an elective affinity here with adventure yarns – a static background helps the hero’s dynamism really stand out. The Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or square-jawed Earthling sportsman on Mongo gets to inject his specialness into the passive fantasy world and get validation from it in playtime. The active protagonist’s works can then be isolated and recognized. Or maybe it’s the value that a dynamic community of players gets out of reliably being in sync – we can play DnD or Firefly without much preparation because we’re all on the same page on all important issues right from the start. It’s pretty clear how that’s an advantage for commercial considerations – splatbooks and the like.
Maybe it’s that a static world requires the least metagame knowledge, of the course on which things might change if they were going to change. Lots of video games use some variant on the invention tree to model technological change through the course of play time (an idea which probably traces its origins back equally to Trav’s tech levels (with their logical progression of this before that) and some kind of evolutionary schema), but these things are lame in a tabletop RPG because they short-circuit tactical infinity. And maybe it’s part of the social contract of participating in a world that doesn’t have cellphones – that the players agree not to use their own knowledge to invent them because they accept that the world won’t accommodate them (but if the world might change, then…).
But. If we take history as our guide, then the eras that offer the greatest opportunities to Conan it up from zero to hero are the ones where old systems are being disrupted, where instead of just bobbing along in the tide of human events you can steer a little. Aren’t those potentially the most rewarding campaigns? Ones where you don’t have to stop at becoming king of a province, but might actually change the whole political process and be responsible for saving the serfs from serfdom (or for plunging them into damnation)? Hollywood superheroes tend to be devoted to rescuing the status quo from change but a game doesn’t have to follow suit, right?
So here’s a little metagame knowledge about Tartary (a dangerous thing, for sure), in response to +Stephan Hillenbrand’s critique of primitive post-apocalism in general, to act perhaps as a spur to players’ ambitions. First the critique:
“LosTech” is something I tend to find a rather boring excuse for a stagnating setting. I don’t think people would be in the dark about how a diesel engine works for more than a few months when they have a running example of one lying in front of them, waiting to be dissected.
Also, at least some of the people who understand how trains work should survive any apocalypse. It’s not rocket science, really.
In Tartary there are several obstacles to reforming the world, none of them insurmountable but all of them significant.
First, people are constantly at war. They don’t share information. The size/population of individual cities is limited, so there are limits to the technological work any one of them can do. So a unifier could abruptly change the situation, and something like early 20th century technology could be widely available in short order.
But there are a few other wrinkles to deal with, which actively mess with the effort to settle on a stable scientific paradigm on which disruptive technologies could be based:
1 the physical rules of the universe seem to be a moving target – sometimes visibly as the Weird blows through. Basic devices work reliably, but the more a technology becomes a “black box” the less reliable it becomes. The corollary to this is,
2 “magic” (that is, ways of manipulating the world that are not susceptible to ready explanation) offers a shortcut but one that’s unpredictable, dangerous and encourages secrecy. In practice nobody can resist it because the potential payoff in the short term is wonderful, but it always screws everything up long term, to the extent that
3 it sometimes seems like there’s somebody “up there” keeping things from developing too far, messing with experimental results, putting their thumb on the scale, adding gremlins to devices that get too successful. The really reliable magitech tends to be found rather than made or adapted. Periodically somebody will observe that technologies that render people passive (eg television receivers) tend to be more reliable than those that allow you to actively shape the world (eg recording cameras), but this contention has been made by so many paranoid, power-grubbing mountebanks (with or without funny accents) that nobody serious pays it any mind.
4 there are powerful vested interests who are known to be actively working against large infrastructure projects. There’s no visible Emperor Ming keeping all the princes at each other’s throats but there are nomad hordes and sorcerers and trade networks who profit from the status quo – essentially the buggy whip manufacturers guild has a very good school of assassins in the back.
Which is all to say that the right enterprising gang of revolutionaries could turn this setting on its head. If they could successfully identify and neutralize the players who are working to keep it… the way up it is now.
Flailsnailing around the multiverse with Skeree the Bonewoman this past week has taught me a whole lot about Carcosa. Which is a good thing, because neither Geoffrey McKinney nor Jeff Rients (whose chargen document she’s made out of) told me much about the culture, society or worldview of your average Carcosan. So Skeree’s been defining all that on the fly, to give her a basis for her actions, attitudes and potential skills and to help her avoid being just a walking axe, trailing around after the other PCs with no motivation of her own.
So I’ve learned she can track and survive in the wilderness and she’s heard about the cats of Ulthar and all sorts of other unexpected stuff.* And a funny thing’s been happening – as she tries stuff out and gets flashes of insight about, say, how medieval Europe is like/unlike her blasted post-cthulhupocaplyptic home, she makes the worlds she passes through a bit more Carcosan, as DMs pick up the cues. Who knew a 15th century Roman cat sorcerer would speak Debased Yuggothic? Well, now we do, and it’s because Skeree cursed his feline army and they understood her.
Skeree – and Roger Burgess’ Zharillia – have also been telling me about what the point of a Carcosa game is. Because I’m convinced that, like CoC and rather less like DnD, it has one, or at least a strong theme – based around the sorcerers and their predations. And I think I’ve found a historical analogue for it, which can fill in the blanks like Dickensian London fills in the blanks of GURPS Goblins.
Carcosa is the West African hinterland – Niger – during the Atlantic slave trade.
The sorcerers, enemies of all mankind, traders with agents utterly inhuman and malign, are slave dealers. They cause despair and suffering for all. And yet people still bring them sacrificial victims, betraying their neighbours for the promise of a little temporary security, despising all but their own little enclave because that makes it easier to sell everyone else out. The different colours of men of course reflect different tribal identities, and they make a nice, solid basis for distrust, so that cutting the Flash Gordonian knot – convincing them all to work together against their common enemy – becomes a fitting challenge for a good, long campaign.**
So. If we pursue that thought – and if we posit some Cthulhuvian uses for Carcosan victims other than as sacrifice fuel – then Carcosa should be plumbed back into the Mythos network and there ought to be (unpronounceable) colonies somewhere out there where our unfortunates wind up. And there ought to be runaway settlements – maroons, not unlike Carcosa itself, which offer some temporary sanctuary, below the radar of the Inhuman Master System, and maybe even underground railroads, if anyone will help a poor half-monsterfied bone brother out.
And suddenly I’m thinking I really should dust off all those books about the Haitian Revolution – which is, after all, the great granddaddy of most of our horror tropes – possibly the very Matter of Horror as we understand it; the spectre of our white colonialism falling down before a black Spartacus revolt, combined with the spectre of the rational project failing before the Chaotic Hydra. Zombies? Madness in the face of disorder? Cannibalism and were-creatures and voodoo and amok possession and the killing jungle and hearts of darkness? It all starts in Haiti.
So if I do run a Carcosan-themed game it’ll be mashed up with Barsoom – if only because ERB’s yellow and blue men are too good to pass up – and it’ll owe as much to De Laurentian Flash and Bollywood as to Lovecraft and McKinney. But most of all it’ll be a Haitian slavery and revolt game – maybe in glittery drag – and it’ll lead to harder questions about trust and despotism and violence than Flash or John Carter ever have to face.
* EG: Carcosa has no money – all transactions are barter, and there are no fixed exchange rates. Precious metals are unknown – there is jewelry, but it’s valued purely on appearance: nobody cares if it’s real gold or not. You test magic and batteries with your tongue. Trophies taken from your enemies are vital for establishing your credentials – and therefore leveling up…
** even without the complexity hinted at above, the optimistic We Are All One Flashian campaign can keep getting revived as new sorcerers – or even texts or artifacts – can bring the old disease of division right back again.
I don’t have anything intelligent to add to this, so I’m just going to quote it:
the “world’s oldest topographical map” was drawn about 1150 BCE… for a quarrying expedition into the Wadi Hammamat (‘Valley of Many Baths’) in the middle of the Eastern [Egyptian] Desert. The map shows a 15-kilometre (9.5-mile) stretch of the wadi and its surrounding hills. This fragment… at the far left of the 280 cm (9’2″) long papyrus — shows the ultimate destination of the journey: the quarry (where they extracted a beautiful grayish-green stone to carve into statues of gods, king, and nobles), a gold mine, a small settlement, and a temple dedicated to the god Amun (the large white area in the middle subdivided by walls).
The story leads to eight man-made caves cut about 20 metres deep into the terrace which had been used as harbour storerooms and workshops — all much as they were left almost 4,000 years ago
…which contain the remains of boats that had come from Punt (Queen of Sheba land, among other things). The boats were disassembled after the voyage. We don’t know why, but I like the idea that they were multi-purpose tools for our ancient travelers: we’re done with these boats: now use them to make biers, litters and shelters. Take two long steering oars and carry the Ark between them.
ETA: Telecanter’s response at the other place convinced me to mirror this over here too:
Bonus Gernsbackian misprint fun: when can I have my flying ear?
Bonus situationist fun: tracing the symptoms of an imaginary plague. The architecture-school-speke is pretty thick here, but it’s making me imagine different kinds of contagions – plagues that are archaeological, epistemic, fetishistic or psychoanalytic… cryptographic. Not sure what to do with that yet, but I feel a table of outre diseases coming on. Something to respond to Joesky’s Lich Itch.
Telecanter proffers an affliction moving through the buildings of a city. I imagine a mundane psuedo-medieval city being slowly enveloped by inter-dimensional buildings, or from a different eras, or cultures. Cool. [that sounds Archigramic to me… ed.]
Also, Cryptographic: a plague on the written/printed word and people must race to try and memorize the books left untouched before they turn into a language no one can speak.
Awesome. I must write up my dimension-hopping-through-architecture setting.
bldgblog is always worth reading, but this latest post is dungeon delving gold:
No one knows how many underground cities lie beneath Cappadocia. Eight have been discovered, and many smaller villages, but there are doubtless more. The biggest, Derinkuyu, wasn’t discovered until 1965, when a resident cleaning the back wall of his cave house broke through a wall and discovered behind it a room that he’d never seen, which led to still another, and another. Eventually, spelunking archeologists found a maze of connecting chambers that descended at least 18 stories and 280 feet beneath the surface, ample enough to hold 30,000 people—and much remains to be excavated. One tunnel, wide enough for three people walking abreast, connects to another underground town six miles away. Other passages suggest that at one time all of Cappadocia, above and below the ground, was linked by a hidden network. Many still use the tunnels of this ancient subway as cellar storerooms.
And that’s just for starters. If you don’t think architecture and city zoning laws are part of your dungeonscape, you might want to reconsider how a little creative accounting can lead to creative space invasion.
Serendipitously, the equally useful History Blog tells us that the Stepped Pyramid at Saqqara is now being held up by airbags. Which raises the possibility of a Tomb of Horrors that could inconveniently deflate.
Finally Jess Nevins has an intriguingly architectural curse/reinforcement ritual to share. Of course you hold back water with souls. Best of all, bridges built on souls. Or subway systems, your choice.
Zenobia is a straight-up archaeology blog, but occasionally it seems to be working the RPG aisle.
no sooner had Alexander Severus — and his mother, Julia Mamaea — been murdered by mutinous soldiers far away in upper Germany… than a freedman named Aurelius Felicissimus began to build an elaborate and ambitious tomb for himself (235-240 CE) in Rome.
The richly decorated tomb consists of three rooms, two of them underground, which were used for burials… the space was intended for use by a select group of religious ‘brothers’, seemingly some kind of alternative cult community. Scholars have never been able to decide on the identity of this group. Were they Gnostics, Pythagorian Gnostics, heretical Christians, or even a pagan syncretic burial club?
This describing a real 3rd century Roman tomb that contains religious symbolism from all over – a pagan buffet that includes Jesus and Orpheus and who knows what else interacting in mysterious pictures on the wall that defy interpretation. And then there’s the obligatory horse-fish devouring a small human figure while a naked man looks on, lying relaxed in a bower, a lamp at his side.
So I see inspirational material for dungeon mapping, weird murals and scenes full of symbols you have to interpret, but can’t unless you figure out what cult they apply to. Campaign seed!
Beachcombing‘s blog, while ostensibly history-based, offers tantalizingly brief thoughts on the origins of the name Atlantis, weaponized bats and crows, and Arabian unicorns. If you can get past the twee presentation.
So I see the Lord of Uraniborg, Tycho Brahe, has been exhumed again, and this time his wife is missing.
And apparently the US secret service has Denmark under close surveillance.*
Which reminds me, I must go and visit Nicolas Flamel’s house (alas, not the one he himself lived in, but one he had built).
In completely unrelated news, I see we finally have an ordnance survey of the moon…
*no, I really do apologise for linking to this source, but with my spotty internet connectivity these days, I couldn’t open the other, more reputable sources I wanted to consult.
Still here? Then you get a real live dungeon moment: the Indian National Library has just been found to house a sealed secret room, 1000 square feet in area? That nobody noticed before? I think it might have migrated from Cologne last year. They’re wondering if there are skeletons or treasures inside. I’m betting it’s filled with mysterious toxic gas, India’s missing national destiny, and staircases leading to the Libraries of Alexandria and Ulthar. Or maybe it’s the geniza of the Anglo-Indian elite, full of abandoned recipes for metheglyn mixed drinks. Or maybe it’s just full of rats.
In general, Bldgblog is on fire for game design goodness right now. Nazi weather-control experiments – or global warming monitoring posts – aside, they’ve also posted the Dungeon Geomorphs guide to Nottingham (this also going straight in the professional file), suitable for everything from Old School D&D to CoC to My Life With Master.
In stupid cognitive dissonance news, even though I know the root concepts are similar and all, I can’t shake the idea that kernwapens would be made out of wheat.