The Heart Garden

The Heart Garden, as it is called in rumors and legend, is said to lie deep within the brambled thickets of a vast wild… possibly within several different wilds if the stories are true. Those stories say that, no matter from whence one arrived, it is always warm there, and it is lit from within by a softly pulsing glow that rises from the black earth itself. This pulse is always a heart beat, a quiet lub-dub that can be felt through the soles of one’s boots. It suffuses the land and the Garden, and the fruit which grow within that dense thicket are said to pulse in time with it. Those fruit, the heart-fruit, hang at the center of the legends told of the place: glistening dark red, dripping with their juice, all beating in time. They’re said to be the size of a large clenched fist, fibrous, dense, and chewy. But their properties, the stories told of what comes to those who can eat an entire fruit still fresh and warm from the vine, drive the otherwise sane and sensible to unconscionable risk in their pursuit.

The heart-fruit are said to offer many different things, if one knows how to choose wisely.

Some gift the eater with a true vision—though whether prophecy, the ability to see through all lies and misdirection, or ancient knowledge is unclear.

Other heart-fruit are said to beat with the land’s pulse within the chest of the one who eats them, sharing the vitality of the earth itself. There are tales of those so gifted who have ventured into the wilderness to find refuge from the depredations of civilization, or who have gathered up their strength to oust those who twist the earth against itself… or even those who’ve gathered others around them to teach them to hear the land’s heartbeat themselves.

Legends speak of the foolish, those who chose their fruit poorly and so grew a new vine in the Garden from their fertile chest. They also speak of the brave—who sought the heart-fruit for others and thereby returned them from the brink of death—and the kind, who planted seeds of their own gifts in the Garden so that others might benefit from them. There is no one story, no one fate of one who eats that fruit.

Nor is the Garden untended, for the Garden’s keepers are spoken of in hushed tones and are known to linger in the brambles and watch those who seek the Garden’s depths. Most claim that the keepers are robed and retiring, reluctant to speak with others or to engage with the world beyond their Garden. They are sworn to tend the place they protect, and to train the vines together until some greater pattern emerges and the heartbeat may be heard loud and clear. These keepers may be approached and questioned, but they are not bound to help any who trespass within their thicket.

Indeed, it’s claimed that some keepers have set the Garden itself against interlopers. Beasts roam the thicket and may pursue for sport or hunger. Strange mushrooms grow amongst the rich loam, with spores that bring sweet sleep and more rich nourishment for the spreading mycelia. The vines constrict and cluster, choke and grasp. Many who seek the Heart Garden are never again seen.

But yet there are stories which tell how to reach the Garden, and while many fail to reach it those few who succeed all hold the same lesson. The Garden is not bound. It is not a place as other places may be. If it is sought, and if the seeker holds the Heart Garden’s path in their own heart, they will pursue the Garden through the depths of the thickest wilds they can find. Only when they are lost within the deepest reaches, when the growth around them blocks out all light, will they find the brambles drawing closer and tighter until they give way to the warm black earth and the crawling sensation up the back of one’s spine. Then it is up to the seeker to find their way into the center of the Heart Garden, following the beat of the earth and the hints of light which lead them on.

That is the only way in. But no matter what route one took in, the journey out is never the same.

Tower of Peng, revisited

A concept thumbnail for The Tower of Peng the Unprepared.

The Tower of Peng is growing.

My friend is making art for it. I’m editing the piece I wrote and making it more accessible, in more contexts, for other storytellers. The Tower of Peng the Unprepared will become something more people can use to inspire their own games.

I am, simultaneously, moving. So while this project is the proof of concept for a much larger set of offerings, it may be slow to be released. I will continue posting about it here, and eventually elsewhere too.

If this is something you’re excited about, please let me know. If you’d like to see other locations I’ve already posted on this site, I’d love to know which intrigue you most. For now, I hope you enjoy the early concept thumbnail my friend made.

World Building: Ancient history of the Fell Met Sea

First off, if you’re playing in my Fell Met Sea game please don’t read this yet. It’s 100% full of spoilers for my current thoughts on setting background that you haven’t learned yet. If you’re not playing Fell Met Sea, I’ve put together some ideas about how the previous civilization(s) that preceded my PCs’ present world fell apart. Check out the consequences of sacrificial blood magic!

Continue reading

Highwoodshire

Highwoodshire sits atop the hills, overlooking the fertile farming and grazing land below to the south and east. The land rises from river valleys to high meadows, edged by gentle slopes or crumbling cliffs. Several small forests grace the hilltops, along with a patchwork of farmsteads and villages scattered about amongst the fields, pastures, and groves. There are several productive mines in the area, with a long history of moderate use, but most notably Highwoodshire is home to an old set of forts, small temples, and watchtowers, fallen into variable disrepair.

The shire was once the seat of a knightly order, home to skilled soldiers and a strong fighting levy, held closely by the knights for many years against encroachment from the north and west by the pale people known as the Hungry Ones. The knightly order was eventually disbanded in disgrace, and their primary seat in the shire was sieged and burned when they refused to surrender to their ostensible liege. But their holdings were well built and many remain to this day. Their northwesternmost watchtower still stands strong, watching over the wide, dry grasslands of the northwest, never taken by any sieging force. It was only lost after the order was disbanded, when the small garrison finally starved to death holding off a mass of Hungry People, never receiving the support they had expected.

After the destruction of the knight’s order and several further waves of conflict, the Hungry People and the folk of Highwoodshire co-mingled and settled in peace on the hills overlooking the river valleys beyond. The temples of the order were mostly either neglected or rebuilt for the new beliefs of the mixed folk, though a few smaller ones still retained followers who held to older ways. Much of the knowledge and wealth accrued by the knights was looted or destroyed in the sacking of their forts after they were disbanded, but it is said by many that there were still more treasures and tomes hidden deep within their forts and temples that were never found. The locals are proud of their stories of the knights, even those who are conspicuously pale, and they relish telling stories of the obstinacy of that order… even as they disavow their more reviled practices.

Those in the know doubt the locals’ claims of religious and cultural propriety. There is some evidence that the practices publicly reviled by the folk of Highwoodshire are in fact maintained in secret. Some even say that the knights never partook of those practices, despite their reputation to the contrary, and that they instead were vilified for the practices of the people under their protection. There are scholarly disagreements among those who maintain the knights’ innocence as to whether the knights were aware of the practices and intentionally sheltered the people in their lands, or whether they were unaware of the habits of those they protected. Of course, most people simply lump the knights in with the rest, and say good riddance to the whole lot—ignoring the rumors of people going missing on the high hills, or the odd habits of those who live there still.

Highwoodshire remains strategically valuable as a geographic strongpoint with many remnant structures, but it has been some time since any group was permitted to maintain fortifications in the area. Instead, it is a fairly quiet place these days. Its quiet is only marred by the rumors of old treasures, secrets, and shames hidden deep in the old ruins, and by the whispers of forbidden rituals and almost-forgotten ways maintained by ancient sects in the wooded hills overlooking the peaceful farmland below.

The Cenote of Tetlekcheh

The Cenote of Tetlekcheh drops from the jungle floor deep into the rock below. Far below the surface, dark water glimmers in the noon sun, patinated by streams of leaf-filtered sunlight. The ruins above have long since been worn away or overgrown, but within the cenote it is different; an entire city remains there, etched and built into the walls of the broad cavern’s mouth.

Though all (or almost all) agree that the original inhabitants left long ago, few agree as to why. What is known for sure is that the cenote still holds great importance to many despite its relative neglect. Some see the cenote as a religious site, and a brave few force themselves through the jungles around the cenote in order to make their pilgrimage and pay homage. Others claim that the cenote is in fact an entrance to far more important and extensive networks of caves and waterways, which were (they claim) the reason that the city within it was built in the first place. Everyone agrees that the remnants of those who once lived there are valuable, even though most of the remaining artifacts lie below the water deep within the pit.

The buildings which line the wall of the pit all open onto a spiraling thoroughfare which runs, like a screw’s thread, up and down the pit’s edge in one long line. Here and there steeper, faster routes up and down exist: ancient stone stairways, carved ladder rungs slick with condensation, even what must be carved eyelets for rope and pulleys to maneuver loads up and down the cenote’s walls. Most who visit do not venture within, instead staying safe as they pay their respects above.

There are those who claim to have traded with dwellers below, and those who have ventured in who say that they have been chased out by the things still there inside. Certainly some have thrown valuable goods into the cenote, usually gold or other precious metals and gems, explaining that they do so to propitiate the things that dwell below. Others have thrown goods into the cenote in apparent expectation that they will receive goods in return, or perhaps have their wishes granted. It is not clear to what extent they have received either goods or fulfilled wishes.

The few who do venture down into the cenote quickly learn that centuries of neglect and the constant dripping of water will make nearly any surface perilously slippery.

The cenote smells of wet stone, dirt, mellow old rot, and moss and other greenery. It echoes with birdcalls from above, croaking frogs from below, and the chirrups of peepers and other small insects. The jungle’s regular storms resound in the confined space, the sound of rainfall drowning out all other noise as it reverberates from the water below like a massive buzzing drum.

Those storms constantly refill the cenote, though its water level varies more than the casual observer might anticipate. Many floors of buildings remain un-flooded, eroded by plants and the constant drip of water, but there are several floors which are only sometimes inundated, and a few more below the usual waterline that sometimes drain. Without any warning, the cenote has been known to fill rapidly on a sunny day, or to drain suddenly during a storm. Those who pay careful attention have their theories, but a few of them are quite able to forecast reliably when the cenote will lose more of its water and reveal some of its usually sodden secrets.

The recovery of those secrets is a remarkably rewarding exercise, even if it is a dangerous one. There are many who would like to have something from within the cenote, but who are not willing to venture in there for themselves—and there are some who would like to have trustworthy company for such a quest. The removal of those secrets, be they artifacts, ancient valuables, or even simply knowledge of those who once dwelled there, is strongly opposed by some others, and it’s possible that there have been murders committed both for and against the recovery of such things.

All who would venture in do so at their own risk. Even during the height of the day, little effective sunlight reaches into the cenote’s depths. Those who would bring their own light are well advised to make sure that it will withstand constant dripping water from above. Those who would bring anything that might soak through, rot, or otherwise be destroyed by moisture are best advised to abandon their attempt, or come to terms with the temporary nature of such things. Furthermore, the constant gentle passage of water (and the occasional violent passage of it) has left much of the cenote’s architecture unstable. The thoroughfare crumbles and collapses in places, and nearly all of it is slick.

There are many rumors told of the things that still live within the cenote. Some claim that they are little more than monsters, others say that they are people, others even claim that they were the original inhabitants of the cenote and have merely been changed. Yet other people claim that all the rumors are no more than that, and should be ignored. But those disbelievers struggle to explain the vociferous choruses which rise from deep within the cenote at odd hours, instead falling back on the tired claim that it is a natural phenomenon. Few agree, and the cenote remains an only half-known piece of the landscape, calling to those with more bravery, curiosity, or greed than sense.

Worldbuilding: The Mad Libs Approach

Building a setting piecemeal is sometimes difficult, but often fun and rewarding. By playing mad libs with your setting, you’re able to cram together a wild group of ideas that fill out your underlying concepts and give the whole thing its own distinct flavor. My favorite example of this was Continue reading

The Twin Falls

The Twin Falls drop in a single stream from a cleft cliff face. One river splits into two mouths at the cliff’s edge, their columns of water remerging into one for the plummet to the impossibly smooth waters below. Some strange trick of the depths beneath the falls sucks the roaring water into a still lake, the surface mirror smooth from the edge of the falling column outwards.

This, perhaps, is the true source of the Twin Falls’ name; standing on the low rise that rings the lake below like an amphitheater’s seats, looking into the lake shows two waterfalls, one dropping from above as the other meets it from below—an unbroken column across the plane of the lake.

The low rise is itself well shaped, as though it might have been intentionally sculpted into place. Here and there one may find tiny nooks carved into the rise, large enough for a picnic blanket were one to hew space from the jungle’s covetous grasp. Each nook offers a view of the falls, every one from a different angle. No large trees grow on the rise, though several tower along the cliff’s edge high above and many more soar in the space beyond the berm.

Where the lake’s water goes, no one knows.

It is said that people once lived around the Twin Falls. Certainly those who know where and how to look will see their traces. Those suspicious enough to pry or imagine will find plentiful fuel for their ideas—whether from those conveniently sized nooks and their alignment through the mouths of the falls with astronomical bodies above, or from the many hillocks that dot the rainforest beyond, or from the shapings still visible in the stone of the cliff face and the land past it. Regardless, none of those people still remain.

Stories are told of why they disappeared. Those with a predilection for the sword speculate that the missing people were invaded and subjugated, though little explanation is given for why no one remained. The more mystically inclined wonder at the deep knowledge needed to build such an astronomical sighting system, and argue that the people obtained enlightenment or found some higher truth of the world. Those whose suspicions run deeper speak in hushed tones of the lake itself, claiming that it must be a cenote deep enough to swallow the river above, with a belled top perfectly shaped by masterful stoneworkers in order to preserve the mirrored surface. These speculators, the especially paranoid and fanciful, whisper of the sun’s path on the longest day, the way it illuminates everything below, how the lake’s reflection twists for just a moment as the sun finally sets, and how there are stories of folk going missing in the jungles there on the longest day. Stories of a city in the lake, painted gold by the setting solstice sun, are easily explained away as sun-blindness.

No matter the reasons, Twin Falls is a place of stunning grandeur. It does not take an overactive imagination to see why some might once have settled in the lands nearby. Nor, from the eager greenery that clings tightly and encroaches day by day, is it difficult to see why one might choose to leave. Molds fester in dark places, and rot takes hold and does not let go. Nor are the jungles around Twin Falls quiet. Hungry things prowl there, and travelers are wise to go armed and ready. The wild beasts of that place are territorial and indiscriminate where they are not simply predatory. Worse still are the dreams some say come to them there as the days lengthen, the call of the lake, the powerful tug of its waters and the songs heard from a city that hangs golden in their dreams just beyond the mirror of the setting sun.

The Churn, Starhome, Ozbek’s Folly

The Churn is a place of ancient cataclysm and ruination, a vast crater many miles across with a still molten caldera at its heart. Called Ozbek’s Folly by some, Starhome by others, the bowl of the Churn is shrouded in endlessly circling winds that carry the dust of millions dead. These winds harry sand over bedrock, stripping down all that cannot find shelter in a safe lee. Where ridge lines of fractured rock rise above the blasted terrain, narrow ribbons of greenery thrive in their wind-shadow. So too do crevasses harbor streams, rivers of life that the knowledgable may follow into the crater’s center where oases ring the caldera in the eye of the Churn’s storm.

The stories told of the Churn say that whatever caused it still lies at its heart, wreathed in the molten rock it wrought so long ago.

There are those who live within the Churn’s ever-windy desolation, people who have grown strange over time. They have changed in their generations of clinging to the green, of braving the scouring winds to find new life or old traces of the time before. They have altered themselves in their generations of imbibing the waters which rise from the rents in the earth near the caldera’s heat. Feared by those who live beyond the Churn’s high and crumbling walls, the crater-folk mostly keep to themselves.

When people from outside the Churn venture in, they all report being watched and tracked. Some outsiders who have visited and survived tell stories of their companions being eaten; some say by crater-folk, or by other hungry things which dwell within the churn—sometimes both at the same time. Others dismiss these claims, or accuse the storytellers of covering their own desperate cannibalism. These others point to the tiny but highly profitable trade with crater-folk as proof that they are not hungry monsters: some few have managed to exchange good tools and supplies for rare herbs and rocks, or for small precious otherworldly things much sought after by the outside world.

Despite its permanent dust storm and the vicious nature of travel within the Churn, people continue to seek its heart.

Those who call it Starhome claim that a fallen star sings from the center of the caldera, its song raising the winds which circle it without cease. They wish to gaze upon its beauty, and to discover its secrets. Some few, no doubt, would take it for themselves if they could. Starhome, to hear them describe it, holds at its center a marvel from beyond this world, something so purely divine that it could make one like unto a god. In their eyes, the caldera’s molten rock is merely the final barrier to the shining glory within, while the waters of the oases around it contain the essence of that star and may share its blessings on those who drink of them.

Those who call it Ozbek’s Folly put more weight in the stories told of the land as it was before the Churn. They say that the crater obliterated the city of Ozbek, a once towering center of might and learning. According to them, the city had such power as to seek the inner mysteries of the universe, and such poor judgment as to succeed. But because of their mistakes, which cost the lives of uncountable people and their city, the remnants of their civilization are now available for any who would venture within the Churn. At the city’s dead heart, now a smoking caldera, the most precious of their artifacts may yet remain.

Those who dwell within the Churn have other stories. But beyond hints which needle at the lies the curious tell themselves, the crater-dwellers keep those stories to themselves.

World Building: The Thousand Year Empire

I’m putting together a game for teens stuck in social distancing mode due to Covid-19, to be played over Discord. I’m using Exemplars & Eidolons, which I mentioned here. This is all being run through the auspices of the LARP camp where I work. I created this setting years ago, and have expanded it through several games since; for the quick and dirty version, think Romance of the Three Kingdoms meets Avatar: TLA, with a soundtrack by Lustmord and Dead Can Dance.

***

The Thousand Year Empress disappeared 20 years ago. No matter what else they disagree on, everyone can agree on that. Some say she was murdered, others that she died of disease or old age, and yet others claim that she ascended into the Celestial Firmament and left the mortal realm to its suffering.

Another thing all agree on: the Empire has suffered ever since.

Without the Empress’ guidance, her vast Empire has descended into chaos. Provinces take up arms against each other, proclaiming themselves Protectors of the Empire or rightful people’s rebellions. Several provinces claim to have the Empress’ true heir to guide them: sometimes one of her children or more distant descendants, sometimes claiming to have the reborn Empress herself.

Drought, flood, and famine scour the lands. Bandit armies rise and maraud. Some provinces fall to plague. There are rumors of disappearances, of demons, and of other worse things. And it is known that in some places the dead themselves rise and set themselves against the living. Some even say that the dead walk at the behest of the Empress, whose talking corpse leads them to retake her domain from beyond the grave.

The Empire as it was is gone.

But it need not be so forever; there are still pockets of stability, and many struggle to protect the land and each other. Many members of the Empress’ ancient knightly orders—both honorable and disgraced—and many of her ministers still strive to prevent bloodshed, to restore peace, and to build upon what they saved from that which came before. Here and there provinces band together in amity, supporting each other against the dangers of the world. It is a dangerous time, but it is a time when a dedicated few may make a difference.

What will YOU do?

Cold War Spies in Blades in the Dark

Last winter I revisited a game idea I’d had: inspired by Saladin Ahmed’s suggestion to tell a spy story about spies from disadvantaged minor nations during the Cold War, I wanted a game that would push the dilemmas experienced by those intelligence agents to the forefront. How do you achieve your goals when you’re tiny pieces playing a much larger game? How do you make sure your nation isn’t simply eaten and discarded? How do you achieve your own goals, and how do you do all that while holding onto your humanity?

I knew that GURPS and a good storyteller *could* do all that, but I wanted something that felt more like Monsterhearts (more on my love for that game here) with mechanics that pushed those experiences to the forefront. I spent a while jotting down notes and trying to puzzle out how it would work. I came up with the idea of people choosing particular trainings for the characters, each relevant level of which would give them another die for a skill roll. I thought of measuring stress as a clock (Apocalypse World style) to denote the growing burden of keeping your cool while everything around you is going to hell.

And then I bought a copy of Blades in the Dark (and here) and realized that what I wanted had already been developed.

Now, admittedly, I don’t yet know of a BitD hack that does everything I am looking for. I also haven’t dug deep into the pile of BitD hacks out there, either in circulation or in development. But I no longer think I need to design all of this from the ground up. I think Blades in the Dark, with some modification, should work extremely well for what I want.

I still must find some way to reward continued player-player interactions, encouraging some collaboration without assuming that everyone is on the same side all the time. I don’t want to sacrifice the experience of questionable loyalties, self doubt, and second guessing your own judgement—but I also don’t want to make those things so grating or dominant in the game that it’s impossible to play without giving yourself ulcers. Similarly, as long as I’m letting player characters not all be on the same side all the time (or even all be part of the same Crew) I’ll need to find some way to either replace the Turf mechanic or modify it, and some way to alter the underlying Crew dynamic.

Suffice to say, there’s still a lot for me to figure out. But this looks fun, and maybe some of you would like to see it?

Please let me know if you’ve seen other Cold War spy BitD games. I’m thinking more Quiller Memorandum or The Witch Who Came In From The Cold, less James Bond.

Here’s a few of the other BitD hack resources I’ve found, though none do quite what I’m looking for:

(https://www.reddit.com/r/bladesinthedark/comments/8l5ysh/has_there_been_a_simply_spy_thriller_hack/)

(https://forums.somethingawful.com/showthread.php?threadid=3713405)

(https://itch.io/t/420201/share-your-projects-forged-in-the-dark)

(https://thysane.itch.io/the-spies-that-death-forgot)

And, of course, the Forged in the Dark forums:

(https://community.bladesinthedark.com/c/forged-in-the-dark)