Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The Weird, Wyrd, Wilderness...

In the short time that this blog has been in existence I've heavily referenced the Hill Cantons blog and for this I make no apologies: both the quality of the writing and the ideas found at this site are exceptional, and have there's a great deal there which has inspired my current musings on the direction I'd like to take a future campaign.

In his post Tekumel and the Use of the Weird in Campaign Settings Kutalik addresses the negative effect of ubiquitous magic (or, more broadly, the weird and the wonderful) has on a sense of mystery in a fantasy campaign setting.

The divide between the mundane and the magical...
I shan't spend too long summarising the content of the post (I strongly recommend that you have a look for yourself), instead focusing upon how this could be realised in a sandbox setting. Broadly speaking, Kutalik argues that the distaste experienced by some players and DMs for idiosyncratic fantasy worlds such as Tekumel is due to a lack of contrast with the mundane. Kutalik, inspired by an article by Douglas Bachmann in an early edition of Dragon, of dividing the "wyrd", "magical" or "fey" realms from the mundane. The concept creates sufficient contrast to maintain that sense of wonder, as well as encouraging thrill-seekers to explore the sandbox instead of the "human-dominated civilized world ... so dull and stolid".

Indeed, rationalising the contrast between the mundane and the magical justifies some of the tropes most discredited in traditional RPGs. Thus the classic "adventure town" is the last outpost of civilisation at OrdinaryRealm's frontier with the weirder-ness. One can imagine a world in which tales of magic and monsters have slipped into legend or even myth, yet at the periphery of mundane society those legends are still pervasive. Perhaps it is here that the near-mythical demi-humans make occasional contact with their human cousins, or those humans curious about magic come to find rumoured artefacts or specimens for magical research.

 Image: Wikipedia / Tobias Klenze / 
Returning to the idea of the weird wilderness and the outpost idea, an scenario that I've had brewing for some time is that of The Fells. "Fell" is an English term for a high, barren landscape such as moor-covered hills, originating from the Old Norse fjell. Perhaps this bleak, mysterious landscape was once home to the ancestors of the contemporary humans and their mysterious masters, but long ago they migrated to the fertile lowlands of the river valley, leaving the realm of magic behind. This realm is the site of various myths and legends, but is considered of no interest to (most) civilised people, and taboo for more superstitious folks.

Perhaps geography could have a specific magic effect, i.e. it actually explicitly functions as a divide between the magical and non-magical. Tying this in to the preceding legend, perhaps the ancestors of modern humans overcome their masters with the help of magical assistance (from elves or fey or somesuch), and these magical saviours keep the forces of darkness (for want of a less clichéd term) at bay for as long as humans do not dabble in the dark arts.

Without wanting to go into too much "special snowflake" back story, we've set up a scenario whereby pure magic and mystery is confined to the Fells. Moreover, the concept of precursor race and a vague, historical/mythological backdrop means we can stock this area full of ancient ruins, forgotten monuments, magic forests and abandoned caves. All we need now is a base of operations.

Mutshud is the last point in the fertile river valley of the Great River before the land rises dramatically into the mysterious fells, the last outpost of the (relatively) peaceful Valley Kingdom. Here the superstitious locals are fearful of the weird world lurking at the periphery of the settlement, but the adventurers have been drawn by the prospect of pillaging the ruins of a precursor culture that once inhabited the peculiar region of the fells. Rumours abound of great riches and mysterious artefacts to be found in the ruins of an elder race, but that these ruins are also home to a host of foul and horrific creatures.

The adventurers have sailed westward, to this backwards realm, with only rumours of what my lie beyond...

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