Saturday, October 17, 2015

Narrative Distinction 2 - Last chicken joke (I promise)

Again with the word play. Last time, for sure (for now?). It had been a strange series. Maybe I tried to many things at once? I don't know. I hope there's some advice here for those who followed it. Or at least a funny turn of phrase here and there. Anyway, I'm not apologizing here. The original problem was to define how the different aspects of a low fantasy setting interact and how a DM could handle the borders between those aspect. One thing let to another and it kept growing all over the place until it ended here. Morale of the story: we tend to use lots of pictures as a way to transport atmosphere fast, but during the game we mostly use words and there's a lot we can do with just words alone. Also, I should write a bit more about D&D ...

The other posts of this series: Introduction - Part 1 - Intermission

All right, here we go with the examples how I prepare myself for DMing Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (and what I'll try to explain in the written version of the game, at least the gist of it). It's part of the does and don't I contemplate before the game and this sort of selection process helps me providing fitting setting pieces on the fly. It's a bit of an abstract method, but since I mostly improvise in my games, it's a great way to set the mind frame before I "go in".

Nothing new in Fairyland?

So I couldn't tell you anything new about this. The weird is normal here in our little niche of a niche of a hobby. Although people tend to sell creativity and simple pattern change as "weird", which really isn't true, if you think about it. Maybe we should ask what makes weird really strange ...

The only thing strange here is that this picture is from a time where
strange wasn't as hip as it is now ... it's in the public domain.
I've given this some thought and came to the conclusion that the weird has it's place in Lost Songs as a clear contrast to the pseudo-realistic Dark Ages part of the game. It's not omnipresent, it's in "that dark forest over there" or "two steps sideways in time, across a shadow's shadow" or some such thing.  You need to cross a border of sorts to encounter weird like this.

And if you tell other people about it ... well, you better don't tell people about it. People fear the dark corners of the world and when you are associated with those dark corners, they might start acting funny ... It's important that people react to such stories as they would today: with disbelieve.

Anyway, once you cross that border, it's "anything goes" the whole way through. Classic D&D monsters, Red & Pleasant Land, the shadow of a London in the 1890s (try describing that with the restrictions of the vocabulary of someone living way back in 550 AC and you'll have a whole lot of strange going ...), you name it, it's all there and may be quoted, used or ignored as a DM pleases.

Fairies don't really have a handle on time, so they might talk about things that will happen hundreds of years in the future, use items that have yet to be invented and nothing could be taken for granted, as, for example, the lay of the land changes constantly. It's a carte blanche, really, for a DM to go all in when the characters are in certain areas.

So it's Grimm's Fairy Tales mixed with Alice in Wonderland and Doctor Who (I'm aware it's nothing new). A strong distinction between reality and the realm of fairy is the important part here, I think. So those Goblins charged your characters driving a school bus? Well, it certainly seems strange and if you describe it as "a strange black and yellow war machine that roared like a dragon and bled oil ..." it'd definitely work in a fantasy game. The danger when traveling those lands shouldn't be evil but the strange and unknown.

A good example of "The Weird", I think. Also: it's frogs riding snails!
It also makes those magical creatures that manage to escape the Land of Fairy and settle down at the borders so much more scary. Especially if they actually get tainted by evil, too. Ideally a group of adventurers will be happy to get back into reality and to their families, surroundings that are relatively save compared to that wacky stuff that tends to happen when you get lost in a fog ...

The important part is that it's all neither mundane nor evil but everything else. Sure, a Ogre might eat you, but he will be very polite about it, telling you in detail how he has no choice in the matter, it's the nature of things, no hard feelings and would you please keep that apple in your mouth? while he puts some more mustard on you. Again, strong contrasts here will make The Darkness or The Reality so much more effective.

In short I'd look to produce a good distinction between the "real world" and the "Land behind the Fog". Easy stuff, like describing talking animals or a second moon. Then I'd introduce some elements from the future. Fairies talking about strange stuff players could recognize but characters wouldn't (contemporary vocabulary) and using strange items (a bike, a mobile, whatever fits the bill, time periods be damned) but trying to explain them in the words of someone not familiar with them (like with the school bus above). There's no hostility in general, but very strange (sometimes even dangerous) customs and opinions. Start with the opposite, go from there.

The third aspect (the first being "The Dark Ages" and "The Weird") in Lost Songs is "The Darkness", but:

What is "evil" anyway, baby?

Been on a Space Dandy binge lately, so that's where that's coming from because one of the first thoughts I had when I started writing this, was the battleship of those hunting the Space Dandy:

The face of "evil" in Space Dandy [source]
Anyway, a gagged Statue of Liberty is not what's evil in Lost Songs (it just makes me go into my sound-proof cellar for a hearty laugh ...). But the question remains legit: what is evil and how does it manifest in a campaign. Those of you following the blog for some time now might already have a hint or two about my take on this. To some extent it's something I want to be reflected in this game I write and narrative distinction is how it's done.

So if you check the introduction, you'll see that "evil" makes a pair with "The Darkness" and if you check Columns B and C for The Darkness in this post, you'll see in detail where this is going. The short of it is that "evil" is (mostly) separate from the (still very gritty and harsh) reality, but corrupts it's surroundings like an illness from several sources (the "What").

Corruption is the key word here. I won't start a discussion about the evil-that-is-man and I'm very well aware that it doesn't need external sources to make humans do evil deeds. It's rather a method to isolate evil as something extraordinary among the mundane or the weird. For this to work as soon as with a worlds creation it needs to be abstract so that an interpretation of how that corruption could manifest remains possible with every result.

In other words, if a result like "A Darkness coming from tragedy that is corrupting refuge" in a "labyrinthine hill landscape with lots of trees, ponds and streams" and with a "Border territory with a community under the old faith that is friendly but cautious" in the same area  (all possible results with the Basic Random Territory Generator, basically the result of 3d100 ...) a DM has several options how that evil manifests (a smith that sells cursed armor, a tavern that makes guests comfortable and kills them, all for tragic reasons or some betrayed ghosts that haunt the ruins of an old fort, stuff like that), but that source always remains exclusive.

Once a DM has all the pieces he needs for the source of the evil and the form of corruption, he can spread it. Cursed Armor will appear all over the place, the ghosts of that haunted fort will give a whole portion of a forest a bad reputation or people start disappearing because of that inn killing it's resident. And that's just the second layer. With a little work this evil could infect the whole region, getting worse from month to month ...

Evil lurks in the shadows ... by Denman Rooke [source]
The point here is to make those horrors exactly that, something worse than reality, something that sticks out like a broken bone. So instead of crossing a border (like with The Weird), the characters are exposed to some aspect of a corruption (not necessarily the source), again with reality as the contrast. Going with the ideas in the intermission post, I'd mostly use strong/crass vocabulary in those cases. To make this contrast even possible against the harsh living conditions of the Dark Ages, it helps to have a non-human source for what's happening, be it black magic, The Terrors from Outer Space or something undead.

The trick here is to keep in mind that the source for pure evil is otherworldly. Wouldn't mean that a ghost, for instance, is per se evil, but the reason for it's existence is. Dark spirits driving people mad, radiation corrupting nature or tragedy cursing a village to all eternity are all examples how a evil source could corrupt it's surroundings. Solving the problem at the source will always help against the corruption (so there are some strong adventure seeds already in the Basic Random Territory Generator ...).

Mixing it! Ending it!

Structuring all this like I described above (and in the other posts) results in language patterns that allow an easy distinction between the different aspects of Lost Songs: descriptions of an overwhelming wilderness and the harsh reality of living in 550 A.D. with all the poor sanitary standards, colorful deceases, alternative explanations of the world, Latin vocabulary and manifold opportunities to die or get crippled I can come up with for the first aspect; all the alien beauty of the realm of fairies from the contemporary popular culture I'm able to summon and explain through the eyes of a primitive barbarian of the Dark Ages for the second and all the brutal horror themes from H. P. Lovecraft to Stephen King with all the forms of corruption that come along with it for the third aspect.

They might mix and mingle, but the distinctions are clear, build randomly during world creation and in a way that allows using them on the fly during the game (with the Basic Random Territory Generator linked above) ...

And that's how I prepare Lost Songs right now. It's what I try to keep in mind when describing the different areas the characters might explore or preparing them and it's what I'm working towards when I think about all the random tables I might still need for the game and what a final random table based world engine might have to look like.

I'll test it next week in a game ...

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