Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Weirdcrawl: The Power of Quests



There is a power in Quests. 



Frodo and Sam's journey into darkest Mordor, the only thing sustaining them, their friendship. Tiny amidst the darkness that surrounds them.



Doomed Captain Ahab after his white whale, driven by the madness that is only calm when it contemplates itself.



Indiana Jones chasing a trail of adventure, seeking the rumored relic, stumbling across the dangerous and exotic in equal measure. 




Captain Willard heading down the river in a lonesome boat in the midst of the Vietnam war, heading into the heart of darkness to find the mysterious Colonel Kurtz.



There is a power in quests.

I am using the term quest loosely here. Quests tend to be most associated with the fantasy genre. I tend to define quest focused stories as those that involve an protagonist traveling into unknown physical terrain (although also often psychological) after a singular obsessive goal.

I find stories involving quests compelling. I find they can also be great tools for helping focus a campaign giving it direction and purpose.

So far in my series about creating a Weirdcrawl I have created this basic setup:

You have civilization at one end.

And a strange wonder at the other end.

Before continuing, I'd like to take a step back now because I don't want a weirdcrawl to just be traveling to a wonder. I want it to be a quest. While there is lore and setting information about the wonder, the real story is not the wonder, it's the one that emerges during the journey to it.


Atmosphere in RPGS


Most RPGs don't talk much about atmosphere. I think because most of the time because it feels like something that belongs in the realm of traditional storytelling. Atmosphere in literature is commonly defined as being formed through an authors choice of descriptive language. If applied to RPGs in this manner it tends to lead to a lot of boring read out loud text and a GMing style that tends to restrict player choice or comes across as hamfisted in trying to set a tone.

However, I think it's important to talk about atmosphere in RPGs because a thematic and emotional atmosphere is going to be created at the table no matter what a GM does. I think atmosphere in RPGs can be defined in the following manner:

The emotional sum of player reactions to things they encounter and interact with in the setting. 
If a game is to be interesting, most things the players encounter won't be of neutral emotion. Encountering an ordinary peasant on the way to market isn't a very interesting or engaging encounter. Encountering one who is acting suspiciously and is hiding something horrific, or a very earnest with a family of seven in tow who is begging for your help, is much more engaging.

If your game features a lot of horrific and disturbing things, it's likely to have an atmosphere of horror. If your game is more upbeat and full of fanciful creatures it's more likely to be one of wonder and curiosity.

In this manner I think an atmosphere can be created in RPGs through paying attention to what kind emotions surround the content that players are presented with in the setting. I think trying to cultivate an atmosphere is beneficial as it helps connect sessions together emotionally and thematically. If they are exploring a war ravaged land with lots of poor and starving people, there's likely to be themes of the horrors and futility of war arising. This can add depth and context to each session.

As players explore a setting, I think they shouldn't just learn more and more about it, they should feel more and more strongly about it.


A Variety of Wonders


In the weirdcrawl I am constructing I think the setting should contain a variety of wonders that evoke a variety of atmospheres. Playing a game with the same emotional content and atmosphere gets boring after a while. The first time you venture into an evil swamp full of horrific things might be fun, but the tenth time going somewhere dark and nasty, not so much.

Additionally, by having wonders with a different sense of atmosphere, it also allows for the player to select what kind of game they are comfortable with and enjoy the most. If they don't like horror, they don't have to journey to the Obsidian Statue of the Forgotten Leper King in the swamp. They can decide to journey to the Graveyard of the Porcelain Elephants instead.

In either case the structure of the journey would stay largely the same: the party has a wonder, an end goal that they are traveling too and are going to encounter all kinds of obstacles along the way and have to make decisions about how to best get there and at what cost. But just like how just like how each example movie or book I listed above has a different atmosphere, so too can each wonder.


Creating an Atmosphere in a Weirdcrawl


There are two dichotomies that I think are useful to consider when trying to create an atmosphere for a weird wonder:

Beauty/Revulsion: beauty being the pleasing aesthetic qualities of a thing and revulsion being the unpleasant aesthetic qualities of a thing. A typical example of this would be our appreciation of the finely proportioned human body and our revulsion towards dead or rotting flesh. Beauty and revulsion can be used to create an immediate visceral reaction to something.

Whimsy/Dread: whimsy being a pleasurable curiosity and wonderment to something, while dread being apprehension or anxiety to something. Whimsy and dread can be used to create a more long term emotional reaction to something. A typical example of this would be our interest or longing to try and catch sight of a colorful toucan in the wild, and our dread in knowing that we are being stalked by a tiger.

Together these four different emotions can be mixed to create four different atmospheres defined by a immediate visceral reaction and a long term emotional reaction. I think selecting one of these four atmospheres goes along way when thinking about what kind of obstacles and things you want to have in front of the players on their journey to the wonder.



Atmosphere of The Eire


Beauty-Dread:


These quests contain a strange unearthly wonder and beauty at first. The clockwork ornery that models all the celestial bodies that ever were and will be, in wonderous motion. The village around a looming black tower with no windows were the villagers are helpful. A marble clad lighthouse carved by the gods on a strange isle off the coast whose circling light never falters.

There is a sense of other-worldliness to these quests. Nothing really appears that dangerous, not at first. Things appear fine, maybe even friendly. But there is something off about things. You can't quite put your finger on it, but something is behaving strangely. It all begins to evoke a sense of dread.

Maybe the villagers are a little too helpful. Maybe the midnight lighthouse is inhabited by a living immortal marble statue who sees mortals as but curiosities. Maybe the orrery is now worshiped by an insane madman who uses it to predict all the parties actions.

In these quests the guardians are often like wolves in a sheep's clothing. They may seem friendly and rational at first but at heart are not. The party is subject to their often powerful whims and will have to find some means of either outwitting them or navigating their byzantine logic if they wish to reach the wonder.


Atmosphere of The Odd


Revulsion-Whimsy:


These quests appear gruesome and dangerous, perhaps even sinister at first. Ruined temples in dark shadow, a deep hole with a descending spiral staircase, a graveyard of rotting elephants, but amid it all there is a sense of the mysterious, a sense of curiosity, a sense of even the whimsical at times.

Maybe the ruined temple is full of friendly ghosts. Maybe at the bottom of the deep hole lies a race of strange dwarves who speak in riddles. Maybe the graveyard of rotting elephants contains a highly intelligent undead variety who are misunderstood.

In these quests the guardians often a bit like a sheep in wolfs clothing. They seem dangerous or repulsive at first but contain a hidden life and often humour. They make for an interesting twist and play at the party's expectations. They may aid the party on their quest to the wonder, if you are able to earn their trust and respect.


Atmosphere of The Marvelous


Beauty-Whimsy:


These quests appear fanciful and strange. A great green rolling ocean that lies across a desert where people have lived so long in the sand they think the ocean, that much wondrous water, is but a myth. A staircase that leads to the moon where silver dragons stream across its surface and fight the nightgaunts. A whirlpool in which mermaids swim and which leads to their underwater kingdom.

These quests tend to be full of unabashed whimsy. There is danger yes, but a sense of curiosity of playful risk to the journey. A sense of both youthfulness and wisdom, of dangerous folly and gracious humility.

In these quests the guardians guard the wonder because it is truly a precious and innocent thing. A thing of true wonder that should scare exist in the world. That like a shimmering bubble, it could be extinguished in a heartbeat. So much so that the guardians often worship the wonder or hold it in high regard. They will harm and prevent the party from reaching the wonder if they deem them unworthy or a risk to it.


Atmosphere of The Blighted


Revulsion-Dread:


These quests appear doomed. The cursed swamp that lies over a great battle long ago where the dead now do dwell, the barrow mound that houses the nameless king of iron who harbours endless hate, the nest of the reaping locusts who will one day eat the flesh of all men as death itself awakes.

There are some places one should just not go. Places were a malign evil saturates the very land. These quests tend to be into the heart of darkness itself. Journeys done for great reasons or for great rewards, preferably both. Journey's where the weak will falter, where only the hardened will survive.

In these quests the guardians will oppose the party at every turn and seek only their destruction. For they guard a great prize, the wonder is the source of their evil and malign power. They will be loath to be parted from it. They and the wonder can only be destroyed, never bargained with, and if the party seizes it as their own they may find themselves slowly becoming monsters themselves.


Monday, 28 October 2019

Weirdcrawl: Generating a Weird Wonder

In my previous post I talked a bit about what I thought were some baseline qualities for a weird wonder. These weird wonders would serve as the object of quests in a campaign based around venturing into the wilderness to seek out and explore places of weird wonder. Kind of like Indiana Jones combined with the Dreamlands of H. P. Lovecraft.

Click here for the index.


The Paradoxical Duality of the Weird


There are many ways to think about 'weird' things, what they are, and how to define them. I have done so already in my blog, mostly in service of how to create a creeping or gradual sense of the weird where if you have some weird wonder as the object of a quest, the focus of the campaign and play should not just be the final encounter with the weird thing but the journey itself. A journey that has a sense of rising weirdness and tension as the players venture deeper and deeper into the unknown wilderness and away from normalized civilization. So far I have yet to attempt to really define what makes a weird wonder weird and how to go about creating or generating that. I will attempt to do so now.

At heart, I think weird or unsettling things are paradoxical in nature. They exist and yet everything we know about the world, our knowledge, our past experiences, our primordial instincts, tell us they should not exist. This creates a cognitive confusion, a cognitive dissonance that causes emotional reactions that tend to range from awe, to fear, to anger. (I don't have a background in psychology so am probably lacking in the correct terminology but if anyone has any ideas please leave a comment! It's something I'd love to read up on more but have a hard time finding good sources.)

To this end I think the best way to achieve a sense of the weird is to have some object straddle two different containers in our mind about what is known or real.

For example, ghosts. We know that people live and what living people are like. We know what dead people are like also. In our brain we have formed two containers for these two concepts. A ghost straddles these two containers because it is a person who appears both dead and alive at the same time. Our brain doesn't know what to do about it and so we tend to react in an emotional manner.  In the moment we tend to be terrified and repelled, outside the moment curious and attracted.

The mental overload and cognitive dissonance resulting from a very close straddling of two different containers is also why I think there tends to be a limit of believability to weird things and what separates the weird from other things. Ghosts are believable because they paradoxically combine the categories of life and death, things which seem to form an opposition or duality. When something tends to straddle multiple categories it tends to come across more unbelievable than believable and weird. Like the idea of a ghost, something dead yet living is believable, but the idea of a ghost who is dead which has leathery batwings seems a bit more silly even though it's all equally unreal and impossible.

Furthermore, I think the strangest things tend to be those which combine the paradoxical. A river flowing uphill defying gravity, that is odd. However, I think something that is far more strange and interesting is a river of flowing liquid fire. It flows like water and feels like water, yet glows and wavers like flame and even though it feels cold to the touch things soaked in it too long seem to turn to ash. When you combine things of apposing or opposite qualities, you don't just create something that is behaving in an odd fashion, you create something that our brains think fundamentally shouldn't exist. And yet does.



Weird Wonder Generation


The following is a large table that helps create the basic weird wonder. There are three columns.

Feature: this is the actual physical thing that comprises the wonder, constructed or natural. They are things of a singular nature that would lend themselves to a smaller adventuring site rather than something sprawling.

Duality:  the source of the weird, the duality. It will take some imagination and abstract thought in this column are listed two opposites. The wonder should in some way or another embody these two opposites.

Guardian: the guardian of the wonder presented as a list of archetypes. As mentioned before, I am using the term guardian very loosely. They may be a single individual, group of people, monster, etc. They serve to create player interaction and a probable reason why the wonder has remained isolated and hidden.  Their motivations and intent when interacting with the party may vary.


d100
Feature
Duality
Guardian
1
Pool
water/fire
The Fool
2
Standing stone
Beast/man
The Mother
3
Glade
Darkness/light
The Father
4
Fortification
Depth/surface
The Magician
5
Boat
Death/birth
The Scribe
6
Bridge
Wealth/poverty
The Warrior
7
Mist
Dream/reality
The Specter
8
Garden
Fullness/emptiness
The Priestess
9
Tree
flesh/stone
The Abomination
10
Wall
Solidness/fragility
The Emperor
11
Waterfall
Flat/round
The Land
12
Arch
Fornication/chastity
The Lover
13
Burial grounds
Forever/temporary
The Prophet
14
Door
Fresh/rotting
The Hermit
15
Statue
Horizontal/vertical
The Devil
16
Pillar
Infinitesimal/infinite
The Leper
17
Pyramid
Male/female
The Messenger
18
Fungus
Old/young
The Knight
19
Tower
Mind/body
The Bishop
20
Cliff
Collectivism/ Individualism
The Captain
21
Petroglyph
Trust/betrayal
The Gardner
22
Vault
Problem/solution
The Artist
23
Dam
Love/hate
The Soldier
24
Crystal
Creation/destruction
The Smith
25
Sand Dune
Thought/emotion
The Giant
26
Whirlpool
Child/adult
The Dead
27
Dry Lake
noise/silence
The Forgotten
28
Glacier
Imagination/reality
The Lady
29
Island
Passion/apathy
The Monk
30
Cave
Vision/blindness
The Executioner
31
Plateau
Tradition/spontaneity
The Seer
32
Valley
Freedom/imprisonment
The Conqueror
33
Mountain Summit
gas/solid
The Conquered
34
Tepui
Heavy/light
The Angel
35
Volcano
Material/spiritual
The Peddler
36
Crater
Cold/warm
The Templar
37
Spring
Fear/calm
The Herald
38
Lava lake
Frozen/liquid
The Betrayer
39
Fissure
doubt/faith
The Scapegoat
40
Lighthouse
Shame/delight
The Sacrifice
41
Mausoleum
Remembering/forgetting
The Leviathan
42
Fountain
Surrender/triumph
The Trickster
43
Flame
Tragedy/comedy
The Torturer
44
Labyrinth
Illusionary/reality
The Nymph
45
Causeway
Hunger/satiation
The Wild
46
Grotto
Past/future
The Thief
47
Shell
Fate/chance
The Warlord
48
Well
Pleasure/pain
The Ferryman
49
Urn
Justice/corruption
The Hero
50
Amphitheater
Clarity/obscurity
The Witch
51
Lightning
Loneliness/togetherness
The Dog
52
Library
indestructible/weakness
The Scholar
53
Nest
Pride/abasement
The Killer
54
Hive
Truth/lie
The Healer
55
Colonnade
civilization/savagery
The Collector
56
Road
Affliction/cure
The Siren
57
Cenotaph/Stele
Concentration/scattered
The Starved
58
Stairway
Anarchy/order
The Watcher
59
River source
Grandeur/simplicity
The Awakened
60
Salt flat
Multitude/singular
The Revenant
61
Taproot
Insular/inclusive
The Mentor
62
Meteorite
Ascent/descent
The Omniscient
63
Canyon
Flesh/spirit
The Sisters
64
Observatory
Writing/speaking
The Order
65
Rough statues
veiled/naked
The Master
66
Waystone
Black/white
The cowardly
67
Loadstone
Natural/unnatural
The Betrayer
68
Monument
Abundance/famine
The Betrayed
69
Sewers
Expansion/contraction
The Nurse
70
Canal
Protection/destruction
The Shepherd
71
Palace
fertile/barren
The Automaton
72
Shrine
Crisis/challenge
The Sacrifice
73
Arena
Defiance/submission
The Saccharine
74
Migratory grounds
Mastery/incompetence
The Unborn
75
Cairn
Hospitality/hostility
The Brute
76
Totem
Flying/crawling
The Miser
77
Pyre
Sharp/dull
The Architect
78
Tar pit
Clever/stupid
The Wanderer
79
Lagoon
Melodic/discordant

The Invisible
80
Spire
Fading/coagulating
The Reaper
81
Burial Mound
Fostered/condemned
The Ravenous
82
Leviathan
Programmed/random
The Undertaker
83
Orrery
Adorned/empty
The Enslaved
84
Axis Mundi
Depleted/energized
The Slaver
85
Pit
Guide/mislead
The Fraternity
86
Spawning grounds
Lost/found
The Prisoner
87
Roost
Gentle/rough
The Fallen
88
Beach
Advanced/primitive
The Cursed
89
Obelisk
Distant/close
The Forgetful
90
Ship wreck
Fabricated/biological
The Forgiven
91
Sigil
Learned/innate
The Widow
92
Meadow
Cooked/raw
The Warlock
93
Battlefield
Herded/directionless
The Withered
94
Mine
Neglected/pampered
The Maiden
95
Stone Works
Interlinked/unwoven
The Elder
96
Ziggurat
Wide/narrow
The Tyrant
97
Monastery
Falling/rising
The Child
98
Forge
Human/inhuman
The Traveler
99
Bell Tower
Withered/lush
The Undying
100
Hunting Grounds
Defeat/Victory
Death



Enigmatic History


After rolling on the above chart you should have the basics of a weird wonder. In some way the wonder should be momentous. It is a place where something happened. Something long ago.  It should have a sense of scale or of time, evoke a feeling of awe and mystery. It should have a past that the players will never be able to fully unravel as it's history is lost, but glimpses of that history, of its scale and timelessness, lay all about it.

Roll on the following chart until you get something that makes sense for the weird wonder. You may have to do this several times. Remember, it's the wonder itself that is weird, not it's history, it's history should be simply unknown. 

1d50 Enigmatic History
1 Immense in size
2 Markings in a dead undecipherable language
3 Partially buried in the earth
4 Crumbling and derelict
5 Made of ultra-durable materials
6 Path to it is footsteps worn through stone
7 Choaking dust and debris
8 Rain eroded and wind worn
9 Sealed off and purposely blocked
10 Signs of long ago civilization collapse or disaster
11 Lots of art by unknown culture
12 Disrupted weather patterns due to site
13 Landscape shows signs of massive alteration
14 Everyday remains of ancient visitors fragile to touch
15 Carving and scripts so worn they are unreadable
16 Scale of steps, hallways, pathways, trails, is too large to be for a human.
17 Scale of steps, hallways, pathways, trails, is too small to be for a human.
18 Has reoccurring symbol of unknown or forgotten god
19 Layers and layers of bloodstains from sacrifices
20 Reoccurring name and history that has been defaced and scratched out
21 Ancient refuse pits dot the landscape around it
22 Mass graves with thousands of bones
23 Astrological alignment of site based on how stars were long ago
24 Construction breaks the laws of physics
25 ‘Grown’ from natural materials by the gods instead of built
26 Partially destroyed by some massive creature or god
27 Site seems to be built by advanced technology
28 Art from a proto-civilization or culture that is father to all civilizations
29 Covered in layers and layers of soot and grime
30 In a cold place buried underneath ice and snow
31 Previously looted many times over
32 Fossilized remains
33 Perfectly preserved remains frozen in time
34 Lots of strange jewelry from unknown cultures left as offerings
35 Graffiti in several different languages, some from long ago, some more recently
36 A written warning to all those who explore the site
37 Animals avoid the place
38 Animals of a certain type are attracted to the place
39 Covered in thick vegetation and greenery
40 Covered in moss and lichen
41 Covered in slime and mold
42 Full of broken religious symbols and iconography
43 Made with materials from far away lands
44 Area is expansive and empty, stripped to the bones
45 Nothing grows
46 Area is contained with some toxic material
47 Signs and leavings of visitors of many different times and cultures
48 Contains strange geometric features or motif that hints at advanced mathematics and intelligence
49 A written curse upon all those who explore the site
50 Made over oversized materials impossible for humans or even basic machinery to manipulate


Defining a Weird Wonder


To keep things simple and avoid creating too much lore or backstory weird wonders should seek to concisely answer the following questions. Some of them may not be applicable to all wonders. You also only really need to answer a handful, in creating a sense of the weird and unknown it's better to give out less information than more. Overall the questions help prompt thought and break down information about the wonders into tidbits that can be given the players as they decide to seek it out and investigate it.
  • Who
    • Who knows more about it's existence?
    • Who guards it?
    • Who else seeks it?
    • Who else has been there?
  • What: 
    • What is it physically?
    • What happened to it over the ages?
    • What strange qualities does it posses?
  • When
    • When was it forgotten? 
    • When was it last visited?
    • When is the best time to visit it?
  • Where
    • Where is it located?
    • Where are clues to its location?
  • Why
    • Why was it created?
    • Why was it destroyed?
    • Why was it forgotten?
  • How
    • How do you get to it? 
    • How do you survive the journey to it?
    • How do you interact with it?
    • How can you possibly exploit it?



Putting Everything Together!





















Rolling, on the above charts I got the following:
  • Feature: Pool
  • Duality: Flesh/spirit
  • Guardian: The Forgetful
  • Enigmatic History: Lots of strange jewelry from unknown cultures left as offerings
Using the setting that I have been creating as I go in this blog series, I came up with the following:


The Moon Pool


What is it physically?

Few know about it, but deep within the Black Basin lies a pool of silver water so bright and luminous it looks like a sliver of the moon. In tales told by the drifting gypsies of the swamp, it is said to have been sacred long ago when the moon was young and the swamp a forest.

Who guards it?

Now it is a haunted place, a place where a race of strange creatures called the Forgotten dwell. Watery empty hollow men and women who walk about in strange legion forever seeking to remember who they once were. Strange tales abound about encounters with them.

Who strange qualities does it posses?

The howling of vengeful spirits can be heard all about the pool, heard in the day, in the night, under the soon and amid the stars. They howl for they know the awful bargain of the pool. From spirit to flesh, and flesh to spirit. Into the pool they dive and from it they arise, once again clothed in flesh. But with all memory of their awful grudge struck from them. As one of the Forgotten they are doomed to roam. And so the vengeful spirits swirl about the pool desperately wanting the flesh to wreak their vengeance, but unwilling to forget, until desperation mounting, they enter, hoping that as one of the Forsaken they will encounter something that reminds them of their grudge.

When was it last visited?

The eldest of the Peatsmen matriarchs visited it long ago. With her she brought the body of her disgraced son who died in a duel. When she placed his body into the waters of the Silver Pool his flesh sank away from his bones which turned to shimmering moonlight. From dead flesh to gentle spirit he arose, his burden lifted, his spirit freed to drift with his ancestors among the stars.

When was it forgotten?

Once long ago there were people who dwelt in the forests before the swamp. They worshiped the Moon Pool. Necklaces of gold with images of the bear and auroch they threw into the pool and waters around it in funeral rite as they placed their tormented dead within it's waters. Every so often their strange necklaces turn up, dredged up from the bottom. Every so often one of their crumbling moon markers can be found in the swamp.

When is the best time to visit it?

It is said the Moon Pool can only be found on lights of a full moon and that one can only be lead there by the urging of the tormented dead.