Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Weirdcrawl: Geographical Considerations

In my previous post I talked about how making players outsiders, strangers in a strange land, can do much for evoking a sense of the weird. Having the player character not be local to the region servers as a strong logical reason why they find it so weird.

In this post I would like to examine the geography of the region they find themselves in to see how it can be convey a sense of the Weird. The two main guidelines from my introductory post that I will keep in mind are: The Players should venture from the normal into the weird and The Weird should evoke a sense of awe

The first I think is easy to convey. The players should have to go from more civilized area's full of 'normality' to area's that are are full of wilderness where they encounter weird things.

The second is a bit more complicated. If the Weird elements exist in a civilized area, or an area that was easy to settle, then they would probably have been investigated, experimented upon, commercialized, exploited, and in general not evoke much of a sense of awe. For example, if there existed a weird place where gravity was reversed and water flowed up a cliff in a reverse waterfall, even if it couldn't somehow be commercialized directly, such as by putting a watermill there and trying to create some kind of perpetual motion water mill loop, the tourist industry that would invariably spring into being would probably greatly reduce all sense of awe. To this end one for the Weird elements to remain awe evoking they needs to be isolated. Otherwise they become normalized or 'civilized'.

Isolating The Weird

Isolating The Weird is a tricky thing. Having the players randomly explore a remote wilderness map and randomly stumble across weird things is generally not the best way to run a table top RPG. Things tend to work a bit better when the players have various leads (rumours, clue's, suggestions) to follow up on. It helps them decide what is relevant to their character and keeps the game interesting as the players can pursue what seems most interesting to them.

While having undiscovered, unexplored wilderness, like remote Siberia, may work well for explaining why the weird elements are isolated  I don't think it creates the most enjoyable hexcrawl. Additionally if the land were truly unexplored and undeveloped it really limits the weird stuff to more natural things.

So in order for the players to receive leads about the Weird things isolated in the wilderness, there needs to have been someone who experienced them and came back to tell the tale. The easiest way to do this is to have knowledge about the Weird encountered as general myth and rumour. Someone, probably not recently, encountered something weird and brought back a strange, probably not wholly accurate story of it that has become embellished over time or they are of questionable bias.

In this manner the Weird element is isolated not purely in a geographical sense (although that helps), but is isolated because it is really dangerous to travel too. Despite its distance to civilization, few manage to reach it without dying and it hasn't been exploited by humankind.

Journey to the Weird!

Getting to the Weird shouldn't just be a matter of travel, like spending four weeks or four months in the wilderness bushwhacking your way to where it is. It should be a journey! A physically dangerous, psychological testing journey! One that breaks the spirit of lesser men! Getting to it should be a quest in a classic sense.

Where the bulk of the adventure is what happens on the way and there is no guarantee it will be reached or when reached, will be what the party thinks it is, and getting there requires an almost obsessional desire to see things through no matter the cost.

Starting City

So far we have determined that the geography of the region, or some part of it, needs to be civilized in order for people to find out about the existence of the Weird elements. This place is also logically a good place to start off our adventuring party in. Where they are strangers to the area and have come to this bastion of civilization in order to venture out into the wilderness to seek out and explore something Weird they heard a rumour or tale about.  It should also be somewhat pedestrian in nature so that the emphasis is not on exploring it but seeking to explore the wilderness.

While a good idea for this type of locale may be a frontier town, and it is a common trope in RPGs. I think it doesn't work well in creating a Weirdcrawl. If it's a frontier city, it means there's a frontier that's slowly being expanded into by the civilization and settled. This tends to create a sense that the land beyond can be 'normalized' and isn't inherently inhospitable and isolating. This runs counter to needing the geography to provide logical reasons why the Weird elements haven't been explored or exploited.

To this end I think the city should be more of a 'port' city or gateway city. Kind of like the last city of the civilization or empire before some form of inhospitable terrain where the geography changes.

Natural Barriers and Inhospitable Zones

If you examine the geography of earth and its history one interesting thing that arises with landscapes with natural barriers and inhospitable terrain is the emergence of trading cultures and great trade routes. This is more fully detailed in A Magical Society: Silk Road but which I will summarize.

You begin with a geographical barrier like a mountain range. However, instead of simply having the terrain on either side of the geographic barrier be good or passable terrain you make it inhospitable. Like a desert or steppe or swamp or thick jungle or tundra etc. Whatever it is, the inhospitable terrain makes it so geographic barrier won't simply serve as a natural border between two agrarian civilizations but will create a large buffer zone. This buffer zone may have nothing on the other side, but more interestingly, could have another such civilization on the other side. Because the civilization on the one side likely wants trade goods they don't have from the other and vice versa, naturally you get trade routes forming through the inhospitable terrain. 

This creates an interesting situation where you have people traveling from a civilized place through an inhospitable and somewhat hostile area, probably not staying to long or exploring to much, but perhaps encountering something weird and bringing stories of it back to civilization. Furthermore, because the two civilized area's on either side of the barrier may have expanded outward into the inhospitable terrain beyond trying to claim and control it as their own (as Empires are won't to do) before retreating or collapsing back, the inhospitable zone may be littered with the remnants and ruins of these previous attempts or even previous empires or civilizations.

Common natural barriers and inhospitable zones can be summarized in a random chart:

1d6 Barrier Inhospitable Zone
1 Rocky coastline Dense forest/jungle
2 Mountains Desert
3 River Swamp
4 Mountains Plateau
5 Mountains Steppe
6 Canyons/Hills Badlands

The Cultures of Inhospitable Zones

While the name 'inhospitable' may seem to suggest that no groups of people can survive in an inhospitable zone, there are very, very few places on earth that are truly inhospitable for human life or habitation. However, the cultures of the people that tend to live in these zones which are inhospitable to an agrarian civilization tend to share some common traits. These are detailed more in A Magical Society: Silk Road and once again I will summarize here:

  1. Life is hard: it is generally harder than living in the agrarian zones on the other side of the barriers. Populations are smaller and people tend to live around or close by sources of water/food etc or migrate between them. They tend to be very sensitive to geographic changes such as a river drying up or an oasis being filled.
  2. Adaptation through mobility: cultures in inhospitable zones tend to be mobile. They may live totally nomadic lifestyles, constantly moving with their horses and animals, or more semi-nomadic lifestyles where they move several times a year depending on the season or are ready to pack up and adapt to changing circumstances. Additionally their mobility may be motivated by things like displacement from internecine fighting.
  3. Culture Exchange: while it may seem strange that the peoples in an isolating landscape are used to outsiders and cultural exchange, very often due to their mobility and interaction, forced or otherwise, with the peoples of the agrarian cultures on the sides of them, they are often used to exchanging goods and ideas from these peoples.
  4. Trading: to try and improve their lives the cultures of inhospitable zones tend to turn to trade as a means of gaining goods they could not otherwise. They tend to specializing in trading and highly skilled at it and serve as great disseminators and often create demand for exotic goods from the surrounding agrarian cultures. 

Putting Things Together

Using the above I've created the following regional map. It's not complete enough yet to be a hexcrawl but gives a good idea of the region. I rolled a 3 and got River/Swamp. I've decided to base it off of Vasyugan Swamp in Russia as I like the idea of a Slavic themed cold climate swampland in the middle of the continent rather than near a coast.

The Black Basin

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.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Weirdcrawl: Outsiders

In my previous post about making a Weirdcrawl I posted guidelines I had derived from H.P Lovecrafts notes on writing weird fiction about creating or evoking a sense of the weird. One of them was The players should venture from the weird into the normal.

One such way I think this could manifest, and help convey the tone of a setting, is through having the Player Characters be outsiders to the societies they find themselves in. Partially because if they weren't outsiders, they'd probably be content just remaining in normal society and never venturing into the weird. Their outsider status serves as motivation for them to adventure and adventuring marks them as an outsider as they have less and less to relate to in normal society. While they are not exceptional ability compared to your average person, they are a bit exceptional in motivation being Outsiders.

I think there are two ways they can be Outsiders.

The first is in an external manner such as being from a foreign place where through their appearance, customs, and lack of social connections, they don't belong to the society they find themselves in. This is a fairly common trope in a lot of TTRPGs, especially those that focus on exploration. By having the players come from a far away, generally more civilized place, it makes it easier to explain why they know so little of the new lands around them and why everything is strange and full of wilderness when they explore.

The second way I think player characters can be Outsiders is internally. This is something that is seen in fiction a lot where the character feels alienated to their own nature and feels driven by some part of themselves that they don't completely understand. Internal motivation is typically represented in TTRPGs as some kind of drive.

Furthermore, these two things, external and internal alienation could feed into each other. Where the characters could come from societies that tend to engender people who feel alienated from the time/place they are living in or societies that are undergoing massive change and some form of collapse where everything feels like it's falling apart socially and spiritually.

At first I was thinking of making the setting a bit more generic fantasy but then thought that the whole idea of a campaign centered around exploring the weird, combined with the PCs as outsiders got me thinking of H.P Lovecrafts Dreamland stories where people come from the real world. But instead of coming from 1920's America, come from different historical times, from socities as described above. Where the characters feel trapped, where the external and internal alienation feed into each other and the person seeks to escape, and so does into a Dreamlands like setting that is full of exploration and weird things.

In any case, in accordance with general OSR philosophy I believe that the simpler these two things, internal and external alienation, can determined the better and that a random generation chart can be used for each during character creation.

What society are you from?

Roll 1d4

  1. Japan: The Floating World (Ukiyo) (1615-1868): For a long time there was peace. So long that the noble Samurai trained less and less for war, taking up more artistic or meditative pursuits in their leisure. More and more ceremonial they idealized a warrior past they could never participate in. As the cities grew larger, as the streets filled with people, the lowly merchants grew rich and yet, eyes downcast, only ever selling the goods of others, could never hope to attain the honor the listless Samurai has. All the while the whores and entertainers watch from the doorways and windows like silent beggars. Beads upon a string, each exists in a stratified society that claims all those no matter their position. Yet when the night is dark and the moon full, in the entertainment districts they can all be found, all coming together: the angst-ridden Samurai, the lowly merchants, the artisans, entertainers, and prostitutes. All of them mingling freely where they can like nowhere else, all feeling their lives meaningless and unchanging underneath the light of the moon; all partaking in earthly pleasures while waiting to pass onto the next. It is Ukiyo, The Floating World. 
  2. Rome: The Fall of Rome (375 - 476) From the fog of antiquity arose the City of Seven Hills, the seat of an Empire that stretches the known world from Africa in the south to Britain in the north to Spain in the west and Armenia in the east. From the four corners of the earth come all peoples and all the riches to fill its markets like flocks of birds their calls echo in the squares.  It lies in ruins now, sacked by the very barbarians who once served in its army. Wealthy patricians fleeing to the countryside protecting their grand estates filled with slaves and soldiers. Roman civic virtue slowly strangulated by the entangling Christian vine. Corruption reigns as the skies darken and black storm looms. Egomaniac emperors haunt hallowed halls as the slide to ruin begins, as the golden eagle of Rome lies tarnished. The center cannot hold, the giant falters, soon an age of ignorance and darkness begins. 
  3. Europe: End of the Century (Fin de si├Ęcle) (1880-1890): Streets lined with electric lights instead of gas lamps, noiseless carriages in a multitude of fashionable forms, the telegraph bringing the world closer together; poised on the edge of a new century, Europe sits decadent, eyes-wide. The bourgeois, filled with ever more pathological self-absorption, are delighted only by the perverse, hedonistic pleasure hidden behind a refined air. While, lost amid incoherent mysticism, unable to tell imbecility from genius, artists and thinkers pursue beauty for beauty's sake as they drown in their own reflection. Disillusioned by the truth offered by natural world, rational thought, and ordinary society, the working class who are neither aristocrats nor bored bourgeoisie toil in factories. They are the urban poor living in decrepit neighborhoods far from the rich. The world explored, all frontiers extinguished, the slow march of regression begins, society slowly destroying all its prior achievements, sinking into degenerate crisis finding pleasure only in it's apathy, it's self disgust, its wanton self-destruction. 
  4. Mayan: Collapse of the Classic Mayan Civilization (800-900): for years the altars of the gods have run red with the blood of sacrifices but now they remain dry. The rains refuse to come and the land lies locked in drought. Long have the lands been hacked and burnt to grow beans and maize, wood used to boil the lime plaster from which the pyramids grow high. From the jungle arose many mighty cities with tall step-pyramids, elaborately carved stela telling their history. Soon they shall be empty for the astronomer priests have no answers and the stone gods remain silent. Abandoned to the jungle which slowly swallows them the roar of the jaguar is heard. To it soon all will return. 

What is your drive?

Reckless: they feel they have no limits, always pushing, impulsively getting into dangerous situations. They enjoy the adrenaline rush, momentary feeling of being truly alive. To bad it is gone in a flash.
Refined: above the toils of the world and its oh so common folk they see themselves. Not of this world, of refined tastes, seeking only beauty in the outre they long to live a decadent life, entombing themselves in bejeweled sarcophagus.
Curious: upon the advances of the past we unfurl the future. Knowledge, always comes with a price, a price they are always willing to pay for it is the only true eternal.
Addicted: be it hashish, opium, or alcohol, or some far stranger drug they are addicted. They had a life, long ago, remembered now only through the haze. Their sober hours have become the dream and their hallucinations the truer reality.
Arrogant: feels special or important, feels they are predestined for greater glory. They have always known it, others don't understand what they have seen. Others always miss what they see.
Misanthropic: has an intense disinterest in people, the world is filled with only the very worst. They are a well, water still but running deep. The only beauty to be found is in nature, in solitude.
Unyielding: all their life they have fought them, time and time again. Every one of them seeking to just enforce another set of rules, brave only while they have the authority. The universe is full of either masters or slaves and they are determined to be the true master of themselves.
Weary: they have had a long life and are tired beyond measure. Going through the motions, they live out each day as it all winds down. They feel their best years are behind them but subconsciously seek to give it one last hurrah, to go out in a blaze!
 Romantic: all their life they have wished to be swept away, to be carried off by the unreal, the fantastic. By the things they dream in the dead of night and longer days. The real world is but a dull purgatory, but a shadow of the real world they yearn to slip into. 
Faithless: they have always followed some religion or mysticism. It gave their life community and ritual. But it became broken, rod snapped in two. Now they don't know what to do with their life, drifting aimlessly, they seek to find something greater.
Suspicious: for as long as humanity has lived, the truth has been hidden from them. Layers upon layers, there is always a deeper truth, a deeper understanding, a deeper revelation, as mask to pull, a face to reveal.
Spurned: be it attempts at love or entrance into high society, they have been repeatedly spurned and rejected. Now they hold an inner bitterness that never fades. One day they shall prove them all wrong!
Mournful: someone very close to them has died, a friend, a lover. It cast a black pall over their life. All love has left the world. Unable to take their own life, they know not why they continue to live. To honor the memory of the deceased? To bring them back? To die in some unknown way?
Reaver: there exist real monsters, they know, for they are one. Never had a problem with casual violence. Preying upon weakness, they have always drifted from one place to another, taking what they wanted with a smirk, leaving when things get too hot.
Survivor: they were the lone survivor. It haunts them still. They feel guilty, can't sleep, can't return to normal life. They view themselves as responsible. They will right some wrong or...perhaps...die trying.
Guilty: in injustice after injustice, in insult after insult, it grew within them. The grudge. Slowly but surely, they planned it out, they took their time, they thought they could commit the perfect crime. They were clever, so clever they got away with it. They don't think it eats away at them, day by day, but it does.
Dishonored: they have brought down great shame upon their family be it because of love, money, or failed ambition. Cast out, no home, no kin, no company, no friend, they are but a ghost, no worst than a ghost, for they still live.
Sensitive: they have always had an artists sensitivity. In the dead of night as the moon hangs high, in the middle of day as the sun dapples the sand, on the windy ocean and in forest glen. To the most beautiful, to the most faraway, they find themselves called. 
Obsessive: it began as a hobby but over the years soon became something else. They obsessively collect the great things of the past. No one understands their interest, no one understands their need.  
Nostalgic:days filled with endless imaginings of life long ago, of a society and culture that is dead and all but vanished but calls to them stronger than their own. They long for the glory of an ancient past that they can never join.