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.

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.

The Theater of the Moon

This is intended to be a setting seed for some future story or game, like The Chapel of Weeping.

There was once a theater on a small island set in the river’s delta. Some of it remains. The city it was part of fell ages ago; after the city was sacked by a victorious army its people fled, were captured, or were put to the sword. The theater escaped the initial destruction, and was protected from the fires that raged through the city by its watery border. As such, it is one of the few places in the ruined city which still bears the clear marks of its builders. Unlike most other places in the destroyed city, none of the theater has been scavenged for building stones.

The theater’s finery was stripped by more organized looters after the sack. No surviving city folk or other locals participated in looting that theater, however, for it was said to be holy. Indeed, the vessel used by the looters sank in a freak storm several days after reaching port.

Rumor has it that the people who took the theater’s riches each suffered exquisitely awful deaths, and each family of theirs which did not dispose of the treasure soon fell to similarly terrible fates: slow wasting disease, all-consuming madness, cruelly ill luck. Whether or not this is true is widely debated, but these stories are favored by those who still live near the fallen city. They’re also popular as ghoulish legends amongst the descendants of those whose forces ruined the city so long ago.

The queendom which sacked the city, and whose people looted the temple, has since fallen into decline.

The theater, when it still stood wholly intact, was said to have a very particular ceiling. Intended to magnify moonlight, it captured the moon’s beams to light the floor of its amphitheater, at its brightest on the most holy nights of the moon’s phases. It is said that the theater could transport its audiences to unknown heights when the sacred plays were performed on the proper nights, but it is not known what those plays were, which nights those were, or whether the “heights” referenced were emotional or literal.

There are no publicly known survivors of the theater’s cult. It is a puzzle which has intrigued many for centuries.

Be Boring: Making fun characters, Quick Thoughts

Last week I said that your characters should be hungry.

This week I’ll add: be boring.

“Be boring” is for your character’s history, it’s for their personality, it’s for their hopes and dreams. Character creation doesn’t have to be a painstaking chore. You don’t have to create a beautiful new being, perfect and unique.

Be boring. Be average. Be a familiar trope. Use things you’ve seen elsewhere.

Be unoriginal.

If you’re really stuck, Continue reading

BE HUNGRY: Building your own Buy-in, Quick Thoughts

So many of the stories we tell, so many of the stories we read, are about reluctant heroes and passive adventurers. But those character tropes are woefully misleading and destructive when it comes to driving collaborative story-telling. Characters like that work in fiction because the creators of that fiction spend a tremendous amount of time finding ways to force the characters into action. That’s time and effort that you don’t see or recognize when you look at the story as a consumer. It’s time and effort that can suck energy out of gaming groups.

This is about defying those tropes, and having fun while doing it.

You don’t sit down at a diner counter and demand that the waitstaff convince you to buy food; you’re there because you’re hungry. You picked that place because 1) you already know they have something you want, or 2) you want to try something they have.

Besides, insisting that waitstaff Continue reading

The Chapel of Weeping

This is intended to be a setting seed for some future story or game, like The Knife Tree or The Tower of Peng the Unprepared.

The Chapel of Weeping is a series of seven spaces, one large central one and six smaller ones surrounding it, connected by paths like spokes. These spaces are set into a cliff face so that the central space is cut into it, forming a massive alcove. Two of the small spaces are thus wholly inside the cliff, two are chambers with windows and doors that open to the outside, and two are outside the cliff and entirely open to the elements.

The central space is mostly filled by a massive statue, a figure paused in a moment of benediction. It towers up, several stories tall, and dwarfs any who set foot in the space. Through some strange miracle, the figure weeps endlessly. Its tears run down the figure’s face and leave the flagstones before the figure slick. There is enough room in the space to walk two abreast all around the statue, and passages have ben cut through stone to reach the four spaces partially or entirely inside the cliff.

The two spaces outside the cliff are simple flagstoned circles, outlined with pieces of unfamiliar rock. People who live nearby have many stories about the purpose of those areas, though few of them agree. Some have called them gathering places for the holy or the faithful, some have said that they are where sacrifices must be made, and others claim that they were only added to give the rest of the chapel a feeling of balance. They are undeniably of the same style and construction as the rest of the chapel, however, and apart from the unfamiliar stone used to outline them the circles are paved in stone carved from the cliff.

The two spaces to either side of the central space and its giant statue, the spaces which are partially open to the outside, hold altars which have been worn by ages of use. Some still pray in these spaces, and the altars may be covered in the wax of votive candles or the dusty ash of burnt incense. These spaces are used by lay folk and travelers, despite the rest of the chapel being largely abandoned. Some have reported receiving miracles in these places, when praying in a spirit of repentance, contrition, or love. There is a great deal of carved ornamentation on the walls of these spaces, though some has clearly been damaged.

The two inner chambers of the chapel complex are not used by anyone who lives nearby: while locals describe the rest of the chapel complex in reverent tones, these chambers are believed to be better left alone. Entirely unlit, they are rumored to be tied to the more dangerous sides of grief, and it’s said that only those in the throes of deepest loss may spend time in them safely. Others claim that they’re safe so long as they are lit by flame. Everyone agrees that foolish people have disappeared in them, and that strange noises can sometimes be heard echoing from them on starry nights. It is well known that the inner chambers were used extensively by the order of clerics that once maintained the chapel, but since the order’s dissolution the inner chambers have been left largely untouched.

Scope, Scale, & Stakes, Longer Thoughts

While Mattias was telling me about a game he’s preparing for, and the layers of growth and reveal that he has planned, he reminded me of terminology I’d first learned in Kenneth Hite’s 3rd ed. GURPS Horror sourcebook (this links to the 4th ed.). Page 71 of the 3rd edition book introduces “scope” and “scale,” two narrative concepts widely applicable to stories beyond horror-gaming. They’re not necessary for good narrative construction or fun gaming, but they’re extremely useful for both analysis and planning. They’re also likely to show up regardless of whether you intend them to or not, and manipulating them is a straightforward way to change tension in a story.

It’s worth noting that scope and scale are related to but separate from stakes. I’ll cover changing scope, scale, and stakes to affect tension later.

First, I’m going to roughly quote Hite’s definitions of scale and scope, and then follow up with a definition of stakes.

In Hite’s usage, scale is “the level at which protagonists are interacting with the world, and the results of their actions upon it.” Characters operating on a prosaic scale are struggling for their lives and hoping to simply get by, while characters operating on an epic scale are larger than life and deciding the fate of countries or worlds. Scale is a measure of the grandiosity of a character’s actions, and it’s possible to operate on multiple scales simultaneously, or to change scale rapidly without detracting from a story. As an example of multiple simultaneous scales, a hero might struggle to survive the onslaught of a demon (prosaic), knowing that if she can withstand it and defeat it she will change the fate of her world (epic).

Meanwhile, Hite defines scope as “what the PCs can see,” meaning the boundaries of their awareness or the perceived importance of their actions. If a story’s characters only know about the spread of a dangerous cult in a small town, or a single person on the run from one person who wants them dead, that’s a fairly narrow scope. The scope is broader if the story’s characters know that this dangerous cult is the latest outgrowth of a wider group bent on finding a potent mystical artifact in the town, or if that person on the run holds a larger power which might ultimately defeat the nation which sent their hunter to murder them. Furthermore, it’s useful to distinguish between a story’s visible scope (what we’d usually just call scope, and what characters are aware of at any given time, like “there’s a cult in this town”) and the story’s actual scope (what the characters might discover, like “this cult is just the tip of the iceberg”).

Stakes, meanwhile, are whatever is in jeopardy, at risk, or to be gained by a course of action. A story’s stakes inform the scale and scope, though it’s possible for them to operate independently. For example, the life of that person on the run is relatively small stakes, and a story about keeping them alive might have a prosaic scale. But as the characters’ visible scope expands (through gaining more information about the world) and the characters recognize their position in a larger story, the stakes increase and the scale at which the characters are operating may take on multiple levels. In that above example, the characters’ struggle to save the person’s life is prosaic, but may ultimately have epic consequences.

Not every story needs scale, scope, or stakes to change. Sometimes we just want something picaresque, episodic, or repetitive. But I think those repetitive stories are less popular than ones in which scale, scope, and stakes change and grow.

And even within those more repetitive stories, there are often changes to the characters’ visible scope: the characters recognize that “X is bigger than we’d thought,” and thus the stakes (and tension) rise. This change in visible scope can happen for characters and audience simultaneously or separately, but it most often happens for characters shortly before the story’s climax. In the denouement following the climax, the visible scope often recedes once again, as various plot threads are tied up and completed. Characters may still know that something greater is going on, or that events are operating at a larger scale, but their access to that broader scope usually diminishes with their part in that larger story.

So, expanding stakes and visible scope are straightforward ways to heighten tension. Focusing on the prosaic scale is also useful for heightening tension, even as it often expands alongside scope and stakes. Remember: expansion of scale is okay, because characters can operate on multiple scales at once… and can feel more relatable by struggling in prosaic conflicts despite possessing epic powers.

Because variation in tension is considered de rigueur in most adventure and dramatic genres, those stories generally thrive on changes in scope and scale. This is especially true of long-running stories that involve character empowerment, or which cover new ground; without that variation in tension, and believable changes in characters’ scale and visible scope, audiences lose interest. Similarly, arbitrarily or too-frequently returning to prosaic scale and stakes will eventually rob that technique of its tension. The eighteenth time Batman fights a dangerous baddie isn’t as tense as the first time.

What does that mean for us as writers or storytellers?

We can plan for expansions of scale, scope, and stakes. And when I say plan, I really mean “have a very general idea of what might change.” If you’re making stories collaboratively, e.g. playing RPGs, it’s best to leave little hints and clues for you to pull on later and tie into something bigger for the players to discover. It’s not necessary to know how those things will work, or what they’ll connect to when you put them there! You could do all that work, but then you run the risk of never having players discover anything you made because they wanted to go elsewhere or follow other clues.

If you leave little hints and tidbits lying around, and have general ideas of what the larger scope, scale, and stakes might look like, it’s easier to put everything together when the time comes and players finally follow those leads. A villain’s ties to a larger organization or their correspondence with an unnamed person are useful here. Likewise, when the PCs learn the specific modus operandi for a particular group and recognize that elsewhere in a new situation, they’ll often connect the dots and identify the relation between the two. It’s all about building up the skills and world-knowledge of your players (or audience), and letting them draw the connection and feel that frisson of understanding (and maybe dread).

This has gone longer than I’d anticipated. I suspect there’s more material here. I may revisit the topic.

Character Connections & Motivations, Longer Thoughts

I recently ran an impromptu game of D&D 5e for some friends. While I was asking the players for their character’s connections to the other players and the world around them, one person said (I paraphrase) “I don’t have any connections. I live alone in the woods and don’t know or care about these people.”

I was a bit short with the player in response, and pushed them to come up with some connections, even if they didn’t feel like close ones. The player did.

Reflecting on that moment…  Continue reading