Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Weirdcrawl: Four Degrees of Weirdness

So far in my quest to create a Weirdcrawl I have talked about normality and weirdness as a duality. At one end you have the main civilized area which functions as a home base, and then at the other end you have the wonders, marvels, the strange things, isolated deep in the wilderness by an inhospitable and unforgiving landscape. Serving as a bit of a bridge between the two, you have the groups of nomadic people living in the inhospitable zone as a buffer and reason why the weird things haven't been exploited. This is my basic setup.

However, upon further reflection,  in order for the players to venture from the normal into the weird, I think there are four degrees of weirdness. Understanding the differences between them I think is key to making the whole journey one of discovery and exploration where as the players go deeper and deeper into the inhospitable zone, things get more and more strange.

1. Unfamiliar Location 

This is probably the 'lightest' way of creating a sense of weirdness, a city or place the player characters are unfamiliar with.

For my weirdcrawl it's the Port City that the players start off in. It should be a new and unfamiliar location to the players and their characters but is a place where its fairly easily to grasp what life is like there for the common person. It should be loosely based off of real world location and not anything outre, like a city made of purple glass or some such thing.

Being a Port City on the edge of an inhospitable zone, it's not really a capitol or important metropolis but neither is it a lawless place or a frontier town. It's mostly just a regional backwater, mostly known for being the last stop before the inhospitable zone. It has a thriving trade scene with lively markets, as it largely exists because of trade across the inhospitable zone, but is mostly made up of common folk just going through their day to day. The civilization may be different from the current one we live in, but it has the same sense of normalcy about it.

For the quick campaign setting that I through together at the end of my last post, I'd probably base the Port City off of medieval Novgorod. Something like this:

I'm going to take the opportunity to revise the chart I created in my last post. Here is one to create a Port City on the edge of the inhospitable zone along with a table to determine what the major institution is in the city and their relationship with the people in the inhospitable zone:

Geography of Settled Empire

1d6 Terrain Trade Goods
1 Rivers and Fertile Plains cotton, rice, citrus, ivory, silk, sugar
2 Woodlands/light jungle and meadows Furs, livestock, rare woods, silk, coca, coffee,
3 Hills and valleys Metal ores, salt, gems, stone/marble, amber, incense
5 Island archipelago Spices, pearls, tobacco, olives, whale oil, tea

1d4 Main Institution of Port City

1. Civil: a civil authority made up of normal citizens is prominent. This could range from a democratic town council to an oligarchy of the cities most wealthy and prominent families.
  1. The civil authority is at odds with the far off ruling power and wishes to become independent.
  2. The civil authority’s agrarian way of life is at odds with the nomads of the inhospitable zone which they see as uncultured.
  3. Culturally the city see’s itself as descended from the nomads more than the empire it part of and wishes to form it’s own state with the nomads.
  4. There is a new political theory brewing in the city. The underclass wishes the civil authority would become independent and experiment with this new form of governance.
  5. The city see’s itself as culturally part of the other civilization across the inhospitable zone. They wish to join them.
  6. The city wishes to increase it’s cultural prestige in the civilization it is part of.

2. Military: city has a large military authority and presence that is there to project a sense of force. This could range from complete and oppressive martial law to simply the city being in a strategic location on the edge of the inhospitable zone and the first defense against invasion.
  1. There is tension between the military authority and the nomads who live in the inhospitable zone. The military authority is more powerful and see’s themselves as the rightful rulers of the inhospitable zone.
  2. There is tension between the military authority and the nomads who live in the inhospitable zone. The military authority is weaker and the nomads have begun massing on the boarder.
  3. There is tension between the city and another civilization beyond the inhospitable zone. They have likely warred in the past, travelling through the inhospitable zone to get to the edges of each other’s empires.
  4. The city, being on the edge of the empire, tried to rebel, but the military authority was sent to the city and successfully crushed the rebellion.
  5. The city was independent but has been peacefully (although not completely willfully) amalgamated into the empire.
  6. The military authority has been tasked with the mapping the inhospitable zone and building roads, watchtowers, and forts in the inhospitable zone. This is somewhat of a fools errand.

3. Religious: religious life is a large part of the local culture and religious leaders hold political power or have great sway.
  1. The religious leaders see the weird things in the inhospitable zone as signs of the deity they worship, they are eager to collect them.
  2. The religious leaders see the weird things in the inhospitable zone as signs of another deity, they are eager to destroy them.
  3. The religious leaders wish to convert the nomads to their religion.
  4. The religious leaders wish to ensure that the Port City on the edge of the empire is devout in their worship and observance of religious rites.
  5. The religious authority has built a new centre of religious learning in the city and wishes to learn more about the world (which was of course, created by their deity) through exploring the mysteries of the inhospitable zone.
  6. The religion began in the inhospitable zone which is considered a holy land. The religious authority wishes to investigate places of religious lore.

4. Commercial: commercial enterprises, ranging from many fierce competing companies, to one single monopoly or guild, control the city.

  1. They are interested in continuing trade with the nomads and ensuring trade at all costs and seek to create new treaties.
  2. They are interested in trying to replace the nomads monopoly of the trade routes through the inhospitable zone.
  3. They seek some new resource rumoured to be in the inhospitable zone.
  4. The commercial authority seeks some rare resource from the civilization on the other side of the inhospitable zone.
  5. Most inhabitants of the city are very poor and are ruled over by the fewer in number who control the trade.
  6. The city cannot support itself in terms of food or water and relies on trade through the inhospitable zone to supply the bare necessities. 

2. Strange Customs and Beliefs

This is the next step in weirdness. You have a location or people that are grounded in reality, but they have strange customs and beliefs (at least compared to the settled 'civilized' Port City which is more closely modeled on our settled civilizations.

These people have strange customs and beliefs. These may be cultural/religious things like they worship a pillar of flame that they dance around every night, to more subtle things like they carry moth shaped talismans to ward off ghosts, to things which you don't see in the real world like they ride domesticated zebras.

I think this fits well with the peoples who live in the inhospitable zone. They're smaller in numbers, living in tight knit communities and have their own unique customs and beliefs that seem strange or more 'rustic' to the settled 'civilized' people. I've created the following charts to help generate some customs and beliefs for them. I've kept these customs and beliefs fairly abstract so that they can be elaborated upon depending on the specific geography of the inhospitable zone.

Geography of Inhospitable Zone

1d6 Terrain Locomotion
1 Desert Camel
2 Swamp Boat
3 Plateau Yak
4 Dense Vegetation Human
5 Steppe Horse
6 Badlands Mule
1d10 Customs and Beliefs

Superstition and Taboos: things the players can do that will cause alarm.
  1. A certain animal or plant is seen as blessed and harming it a great crime.
  2. Blaspheme or disrespect towards the gods is a crime.
  3. The group worships no idols, only natural things. All idols are zealously destroyed.
  4. The group has holy talismans and sacred objects. Letting them touch the ground is considered blasphemy.
  5. The group has a dietary restriction of some sort (meat, holy animal, fish, etc.).
  6. Those who come into contact with unclean things are shunned.
  7. They carry talismans to ward off possession by numerous different types of evil spirits.
  8. Anyone can lay a curse upon another if the words are spoken in true anger.
  9. A certain animal is seen as lucky and commonly kept as a trained pet.
  10. Outsiders are considered unlucky.
Dress: appearances of the people
  1. Lots of small dangling Bells.
  2. Big brass buttons, circlets, arm bands, etc.
  3. Lots of tattoos.
  4. Elaborate daggers and other weapons.
  5. Lots of colourful feathers and hides used in clothing as items of status.
  6. Ritual scarification of the cheeks or other parts of the body.
  7. Loose flowing robes with thick belts.
  8. Clothes designed to hide the face and general appearance.
  9. Lots of geometric embroidered patterns holding different meanings.
  10. Clothing has elements (high heels, constricting pants) that make menial labour impractical and denote high status.
Architecture: appearances of where they live
  1. Houses are made out of plain materials, sparse and minimal.
  2. Elaborate carved ornamentation.
  3. Flags and streamers abound.
  4. Lots of tapestries and finely woven textiles.
  5. Houses are built in hard to reach locations.
  6. Houses are fully mobile.
  7. Houses are concealed or built into the landscape.
  8. Houses are open to the elements.
  9. Houses are communal.
  10. Houses have many defensive features.
Celebrations and Religious Rituals: events the players observe and can take part in
  1. Elaborate offerings are made to bless new ventures and journeys.
  2. Funerals are mournful weeks long affairs that all must partake in.
  3. Elaborate offerings and sacrifices to ensure good weather.
  4. Holding large celebratory feasts demonstrates social status.
  5. Visions quests, especially among the younger, are common.
  6. Rituals celebrations at night following a lunar calendar.
  7. Ritual celebrations during the day following a solar calendar.
  8. Elaborate rituals imitating mythical stories of the gods.
  9. Rituals to ensure a good hunt or to attract prey.
  10. Death is not seen as final. Funerals are more celebrations of people passing on to a different state.
Organization: how the people are organized and who they look to for leadership
  1. Oracle: an oracle who interprets the will of the gods through divination and is consulted in important decisions.
  2. Democracy: every full status adult receives an equal say in decisions and important matters are decided by mutual consensus.
  3. Militant: athleticism and martial ability is valued. Those who have partaken in successful raids or feats of strength have higher status.
  4. The Hearth and Spear: elderly women settle all the internal or domestic affairs of the village. Elderly men settle all the military and external affairs of the village.
  5. Rite of passage: to be seen as a ‘full’ adult individuals must pass a very dangerous and painful rite of passage that often results in death.
  6. Hunters: those who have great knowledge of the movement of the animal herds and food sources are considered to have high status.
  7. Slavers: the group uses captured slaves extensively for menial tasks. Those who have lots of slaves are considered wealthy and have high status.
  8. Ancestor Worship: the group has ancestor shrines and uses past deeds and actions of the ancestors to guide decisions.
  9. Kahn of Khans: the group has a chief appointed by a charismatic ruler. The ruler has no direct control of the group but important decisions are made when the chiefs are called to come together by the ruler.
  10. Clans: the group is comprised of a bunch of interrelated families. The head of all the families meet to make important decisions.

3. The Impossible with an Explanation

In this next degree of weirdness, unlike the previous two, you have something that is impossible in our real world, but has a plausible explanation of how it works or how it came about and how the players can make 'sense' of it.

This degree of weirdness is what most 'fantasy' elements in rpg stuff falls into. Like the dead being able to rise via magic, it's impossible in our world but in most fantasy games there tends to be a system of magic that normalizes it and makes it understandable. Such as the general idea of spell casting where you have to have say the right words and make the right gestures at midnight in the graveyard to evoke the magical energy to bring back the dead. Or some monstrous beast that was created from magical experimentation or some weird quirk of evolution.

I don't have any particular charts to generate this degree of weirdness as it is largely already covered by the rules of whatever system is being used.

4. The Irrational: 

As mentioned in my introduction, this fourth most weird degree of weirdness deals with things which are inherently irrational. They are irrational not in that they make no sense . They are irrational in that there is no rationale for what is occurring, or what they truly are. They tend to either defy understanding or investigation or both.

They just are like other natural phenomenon just are, except there is something fundamentally subjective, strange, or paradoxical about them. While it may seem like something this strange is very hard to conceptualize and generate in my next entry in this series I will be examining how to do so in further detail.

Until then it is time to use the tables in this post to put everything together!

Putting Everything Together! 

In my last post I rolled a Port City on the edge of a swamp and created the following:

To the east along the Vorba river lay the Free Cities of the White Sea along the northern coast. To the south through forest thick, lay the open plains of the Red Czar. In between lies the Black Basin. Miles and miles of cold swamps and mist shrouded mires where it is said two great armies of ancient cities fought long ago in dread cataclysm. It is where the Peaters dwell, so named for the peat they trade in. Small villages of ramshackle peoples said to be descended from the fallen cities, they travel the labyrinthine waterways in narrow boats bringing trade from east to south, making what life they can amid the dancing lights of the swamp and cold moonless nights when the black water laps at their boats.
Using my new charts I rolled/determined the following:

The Port City of Vorba:

  • Part of a collective of free cities that lie along a heavily forested coast.
  • Sits on the edge of the Black Basin, a swamp.
  • The authority is Religious.
  • The religion began in the inhospitable zone which is considered a holy land. The religious authority wishes to investigate places of religious lore.
With this information I'm going to continue the Russian theme of the area and say the church is loosely based off of the Russian Eastern Orthodox church where they worship the White Widow. A female goddess of the moon and frost who's followers seek her inner guiding light through meditative and mystical experiences. It's a peaceful  church with many orders of monks and a strong sense of tradition. It's not overly oppressive but tends to enforce it's traditional beliefs upon the population.

It views the Black Basin as a bit of a holy land because it's where the patron saint of the church is from. He was a strong unbeliever of the White Widow and traveled from the Black Basin as an assassin to kill her but upon meeting her instantly converted.

The Peatsmen
  • Use boats to navigate. They are like water gypsies.
  • They are ruled over by a charismatic 'Prince of Thieves' who is the leader of their gangs. 
  • They believe that all water is sacred. It's hard to find clean potable water sources in their swamp. It is the source of life to be protected and treasured.  They don't worship a god and instead have a philosophy about adapting to life and living in the moment like water. It flows and is endless, it endlessly adapts.
  • They worship no idols and destroy any idols of the White Widow that they find seeking to free the minds of her worshipers who they see as slaves.
  • They scar their arms for every blood oath they have made. Those with many scars are said to be especially trustworthy.
  • They dress in loose blue colored robes. Thin in the summer, thick and layered in the winter. They were thick belts made out of snakeskin.
  • Their houses are fully mobile. They live in elaborate house boats that they dock together in loose villages.
  • They toss gold rings and other jewelry into the waters of the swamp to bless a new journey or venture as traveling through the swamp is very dangerous and they seek to appease it.

The Red Czar:
  • Lays on the other side of the swamp a far distance away.
  • Not overly concerned with the affairs of the Free Cities.
  • Trades for furs.

Overall the above information is all I'd really use in terms of the geopolitical situation. I'd add to it and make up more as the campaign unfolded. While this is a long post it shows how a few tables can be used to generate the basic geography and geopolitics. More isn't really needed as the focus isn't on the politics, it's on the strange and weird things! 


  1. I really like this typology of "degrees of strangeness" - and I'm really enjoying watching you build up this setting.

    1. Thanks! Will get into the weird wonders next post. Kind of had to leave it out of this post a bit as I was finding it was becoming a pretty big topic in of itself.