Paradise at the Titan’s Feet

Twin buttes rise above sparsely forested foothills, close together and nearly parallel. Unlike other buttes, they broaden towards their rough tops, nearly touching. They’re known as the Titan’s Feet—their eerie resemblance of ankles and calves is made worse by the way their foothills only stretch in one direction, sloping down to end in smaller hills known by locals as The Toes. Though the resemblance isn’t perfect, no one denies it exists.

The mining town of Paradise lies nestled in the high saddle between the buttes. Everyone living there is connected with the many mines which dot the buttes, either as a miner themselves or as someone who supports the miners. Ruled by a junta of powerful locals, Paradise is beset on all sides. It has only remained under local control for so long because of the town’s natural fortifications, and through careful manipulation of its neighbors.

The products of the buttes’ mines are wildly precious and widely sought after. Reputed to have magical, mystical, and alchemical properties, the long veins of precious gems and rare metals command attention from all over. Unfortunately, that includes the attention of various warlords and pretenders to the throne. Originally a crown holding, Paradise’s independence has been tested constantly ever since the realm encompassing it fell apart in political crises and succession wars. Many say possession of Paradise is proof of legitimacy; certainly, controlling access to its resources and drawing from its wealth could sway the tides of war.

In better times, both learned folk and occult practitioners devoted their lives to studying the Titan’s Feet and their origins. The Feet rise out of a broad plain, some days’ ride from the nearest large rock formations. They are entirely distinct from the local bedrock. And though some have tried to explain the Feet as a natural phenomenon, most explanations simply cover speculation with a thin sheen of intellectual authority. Many scholars have acknowledged that they are better off collecting local folklore.

Some stories tell of a blessed woman who swore an oath to hold her ground in the face of a god’s wrath, a woman who grew in stature to match her obduracy, yet was petrified by the upset deity for having defied them. Other stories say that the Feet were built by unknown ancients, a beautiful statue of marvelous height now mostly-missing. Yet others claim that the Feet grow taller every year, bit by bit, and that one day they will finish growing the rest of their body.

Some miners who’ve spent too long underground in the Feet swear that they hear a heartbeat. Others tell of how the stone flexes around them at times, nearly like living flesh, or of how the buttes’ stone tries to close itself as flesh would a wound. These stories are shared around Paradise but often derided; few tell them while sober, or admit to believing them even when drunk. Regardless, everyone agrees that the Feet aren’t truly safe. Though they’re fabulously rich in gems and ores rarely found elsewhere (let alone in conjunction), they also contain strange things that scuttle in the darkness or which have made their own small tunnels. Much like the encroaching warlords, reports of these strange things in the mines have grown worse since the fall of the Crown.

Some people think that the problems are related.

The Wreck of the Lucius

Crystalline waves break on the shores of a large cove, water cool and deep green lapping up on white sands beneath the palm trees that mark the land’s edge. This cove once served a bustling merchant fleet; the old wooden docks have rotted and been blown away by vast storms, and only their piers remain. The city that stretched from the hinterland to the cove’s prominent hook lies abandoned, decaying and buried by time and tide. Only a few inhabitants yet remain.

A strange metal sight rises from the heart of the cove, recognizable to any sailor as a ship set prow-first into the cove’s depths. Its hull still gleams, metal untarnished but for bizarre scorched gouges that have opened its sides, and its masts jut proud and perpendicular from the brilliant brass of the deck. The ship dwarfs any galleon which once called this harbor home, its stern rising high above the waves. Letters in indelible white proclaim the ship “Lucius,” written in large script beneath the chromed gunwales.

The water around around the Lucius holds a strange consistency, gradually thickening from liquid to slime to gel as one approaches. The learned scholars of the dead coastal city once proposed that this oddity, brought by the ship’s arrival, was to blame for the sudden waves of plague and deformity which wracked the city’s populace. But rigorous avoidance of the cove’s water did nothing to slow the death which rolled through the city. This, on top of the destruction wrought when the metal ship plummeted from a clear sky into the harbor’s center, sealed the city’s end.

No life has stirred from within the metal ship—none that any nearby can see. Of the adventurous souls who have attempted to board the shining vessel, only two have returned. The first died within weeks of a terrible wasting disease, raving about the oceans between stars, the brave folk who dare to sail them, and the terrible things which stalk those sailors through the darkness. The other adventurer, perhaps more obdurate and dull, merely showed several small golden statues they’d retrieved and noted that the ship was filled with marvels beyond compare. That second adventurer disappeared soon thereafter. Many of those who heard their story died of ague.

The few fisherfolk that still make this cove their home claim that the Lucius sings on some nights, a keening dirge that washes from one end of the harbor to the other. On those nights, they say, lights and figures can be seen moving about aboard the ship, above and below the water. They claim it’s worst on the nights with no moon, and that the Lucius has been changing slowly over the years: that there are new scorch marks, that the “ghosts” struggle harder, and that the ship’s song has grown harsher. The oldest among the fisherfolk says she’s worried for the ship’s crew.

The Arena of Galch

Mad Galch, the wizard-architect of Jous, was commissioned to construct an arena for the Imperial City at the height of the Jousian Empire’s second peak. He did so, after laboring for a year and a day without rest, finishing it with a crack of thunder that shattered the heavens. All who saw the Arena of Galch praised it, once they had recovered their senses.

It was a towering stadium, the deep bowl of its structure revealing a marvelous field at its heart. The field was widely recognized as a triumph in itself; no gladiator who fought upon it could call it anything else, and even the audience marveled at the way it shed blood and stains into gutters around its edges. Every whisper from the dying-ground could be heard anywhere in the stadium, and the structure quickly became a favorite venue for things besides blood sport—much to Mad Galch’s consternation.

By Mad Galch’s sternest warning, no one was permitted to dig below the stadium for any reason. This caused some trouble several years into the next Emperox’s reign, delaying the implementation of a comprehensive sewer system in the neighborhood surrounding the Arena. Mad Galch did not care, and refused to assist or permit any bending of his rules. His threats as to what would happen should anyone dig below were fierce enough to etch themselves in citizen’s minds for centuries after his death.

In accordance with his will, upon Mad Galch’s death he was laid in state in the center of his Arena’s field. The gathered audience of dignitaries, potentates, and commoners watched in shock as the field enveloped him, leaving only his shroud behind. Though many now regarded the Arena with fear, it was still constantly put to use.

After the Jousian Empire’s third decline, the Arena no longer held death matches of any kind. The gutters’ thirst was not slaked, and the Arena began to lose its sheen. Increasingly, attendees felt that the Arena’s doorways held themselves open as a matter of tightly bound restraint, a considerable exercise of will. It was not until the sack of Jous (and the execution of the imperial court on the Arena’s field) that the Arena was restored to its former glory. Those who took the city declared it a holy place, feeding it blood according to their sacred calendar.

These nights, though the sacrifices have not been made regularly for some time, the field illuminates the entire building from within. Its light pulses. The few miserable or crazed enough to still live nearby swear that they have heard whispers in the night air; some of them swear that Mad Galch visits their dreams, promising greatness soon to come.

Wandering thoughts: Rare Earth Elements, Climate Change, and Fantasy Settings

GoldenApples

I had some grim thoughts about the future of our civilization today, and turned them into a fantastical exploration of alternate worlds… because that’s how my brain works, I guess. Join my escapade, and learn a little bit about Rare Earth Elements, modern technology, and climate change while you’re at it.

Rare Earth Elements are fundamental to Continue reading

Good deaths at LARP camp

I’ve been busy teaching children to die well with make-believe swords. More importantly, I’ve been busy showing them that “winning” a sword fight doesn’t make you the most interesting or coolest character in the scene. Relatedly, I died a lot.

Near the end of our adventure game, shortly after I had led the campers in an oath to continue my mission (defending the land from dragons), I died to the big bad. It was a scripted death. It was also, if I may toot my own horn, a good one. I was lucky enough to have not one but several people come and pay their respects afterwards. I think a few of our campers have realized that they can have a good time and make good scenes with each other, improvising a good scene rather than struggling to win.

I’ll be very pleased if that sticks.

South of Ela Cartaz

I’m away Thursday, so here’s a little setting-seed to tide you over:

There is an island on the southern coast of Ela Cartaz, where the winds bluster chill and wet. Under the moss and rot and the hanging vines, beneath the old trees whose roots eat older mortar and clutch at broken foundation-stones like pearls, there is a warm light. This is the light sought by many, the light for which thousands died before the fall of the first Ela Cartaz. It waits in darkness, while around it the remnants of a lost past whir and click and hum.

Building Engagement in RPGs, Quick Thoughts

This pulls lessons from all over, but especially from Apocalypse World.

Roleplaying games are a conversation. Like any conversation, they’re at their best when the people in them are engaged and present, not distracted. Playing an RPG means sharing a collaboratively created world and holding that mutual fiction in your mind; thus, the conversation suffers when people disengage.

So how can we keep each other engaged, and avoid Continue reading

Why Roll Dice? Two Misconceptions

Maybe some of you have seen something like this before:

Player: “I want to see what’s behind this bookshelf. I hit it with my axe. I get a 3 on my attack roll.”
Storyteller: “Well… that doesn’t seem very effective. The bookshelf doesn’t move.”
Player: “Okay, I swing at it again. 5.”
Storyteller: “…”
Player: “Not good enough? I try again. 1.”
Storyteller: *Sigh* “The bookshelf falls on you. You take 6 damage.”

These rolls are boring, and this scene is a clear failure in my eyes. Not on the part of the PC, who can’t get a break with that bookshelf, but on the part of the storyteller and the player. It plays into two misconceptions that crop up in RPGs, either of which can Continue reading

Binary Success and Failure in RPGs, Quick Thoughts

Many popular RPG systems measure success (or failure) as a simple binary. For example, by a strict reading of D&D 5e’s rules, either your character is successfully sneaky or they’re not: there’s no middle ground. There’s no benefit for being exceptionally stealthy, and there’s no real penalty for being exceptionally not-stealthy. Thus, there’re no degrees of success or failure. Every test is pass or fail.

This streamlines resolution of tests, and has the benefit of being fast and simple. But it also misses Continue reading

Killing PCs, a quick reflection

Years ago I wrote a piece called “And Then You Die: A Good (Character) Death.” I’ve been thinking more about it recently, because two of my players’ characters died in the last session of D&D that I ran.

Did I actually follow my own advice? Continue reading