Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Tabernacle Worlds and Schrodinger's Catverse

Further to Mullah Jim's (*kow-tows*) recent ukase on Planes as Planets, and in response to a posted query about atypical game world cosmologies on Rich Burlew's message board, I've been thinking a little about those odd but useful alternate realities. Our hobby, and its parent literature, are richly endowed with veins of lunacy that might be usefully plundered for my own humble, yet nefarious, gaming purposes.

Put another way: I want sci-fi in my grungy tomb robber pulp fantasy ...and cowboys, and tommy guns, and Moorcockian world-hopping and elemental lords, and knights lancing steam trains, and rifts to other worlds, and all the cool stuff from Time Bandits!

Yeah, I'm magpie-ish and greedy like that.

Now, once upon a time - back when I was a little geek with spare time to worldbuild - I'd have demanded of myself a completely internally consistent world. We're talking the sort of game setting that started from dim and distant first causes and somehow managed to hang together in a logical way (logic? In D&D. Hey, I was that young and that dumb). My deep time timelines nested inside each other three or four deep and stretched over several billion years, and my evolutionary trees of the sentient and monstrous races are (shamefully obsessive and excessive) cases in point. Rational dungeon ecologies, carefully filled in and scaled monochrome maps of pseudo-realistic landforms (no "Here be dragons!" warnings welcome, thank you), and finely planned aerial views of fantasy cities were totemic objects for proto-gamer me.

All the above were little, if any, real use for game purposes, but they were part of what I felt was necessary(!) background to a 'proper' gameworld. I was so hopelessly enamoured with obsessive backgrounding that I thought ICE's Middle Earth Role Playing sourcebooks, and the Blessed St Gary's own Epic of Aerth (the crushingly dry, encyclopaedic world book for his "Lejendary Journeys" game) were how-to models, rather than cautionary examples of excess. I'd have probably taken to Hârn like a duck to crack cocaine. Everything had to be cut and dried. The fantastic had to be quantified. Gawd, was I ever a twerp.

As I've grown older this downright anal need to systematise ~everything~ has diminished and I've been happy to take a more relaxed attitude to how it all fits together. Surprisingly it wasn't really the 'rules lite', 'player-led', 'storyteller-ey' games of the 90s that changed my attitude. What helped my shuck the mental straitjacket were the chaotic "all-myths-are-true" world of Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic series, the novels and short stories of Clive Barker (that man loved him some transformative body horror), and especially TSR's fêted and much-loved Planescape setting.

The late-period D&D multiverse presented in Planescape was a real eye-opener for me. Sure, everything fitted together, but it did so in the manner of something repeatedly re-purposed and modified, rather than as a smooth, elegant creation oblivious to pre-existing context. Richness flowered in the unregarded byways and micro-climates of the Planescape universe like they do in the best kind of garden. Wherever you looked there were hints and inferences that there was more to be seen and known. Tiny areas of single layers of single planes in the massive, interlinked cosmology were fertile enough to be expanded into settings for entire campaigns, if that was what the players wanted.

If you wanted to travel though, Planescape didn't offer one or two ways of journeying across the multiverse. Instead there were n+1 ways to get around, where n was "however many you've already though of". The overland travel time between two points of interest: 3d6 days, no exceptions. Power blocs overlapped and fought for dominance in every niche, large or small. Interstices, back doors, exceptions to the rule, odd holdovers and survivals from older regimes abounded in a cosmology that was inconsistent, incomplete-by-design, full of stacked infinities, and all the richer for it.

(parallels with good practise in dungeon building are obvious enough to pass without expansion here)

Planescape's sedimentary, partly-inherited setting came to seem somehow more authentic to me than a perfectly rationalised, 'no element wasted', ex nihilo world. Sure, it was a product of the late-period TSR release machine, but unlike some of the output of that particular content sweatshop, Planescape hadn't had all the strange, extraneous and contradictory bits focus grouped out of it. There was an almost punkish sense that nothing had been circumscribed or lopped off by the editorial equivalent of an officious and philistine town council planning department. The setting had real character.

I like Planescape; it's not strictly old school, but it does speak our lingo. ;)

For the Vaults game I've followed the Gaiman/Planescape/China Mieville (yeah, he's got a bad case of Marxist tubthumpery, but the man can imagine!) lead and ventured out further than usual into the surging seas of ambiguity and oddness. Were someone to ask me whether there's a standard, an odd, or a mythic cosmology to the Vaults world I'd currently have to answer: Yes. Well, no. Kind of. All of the above.

Yep. Something of a non-answer. But right now the world of the Vaults and Wilds of Nagoh is still in a delightfully indeterminate state. I'm only filling in as I go, and enjoying the freedom of being able to throw 'this' idea out in favour of 'that' one so much that I'm thinking of making indeterminacy a fixed, defining feature of the setting (erm, oxymoron much?).

So, to answer the question, the world of Nagoh is a wave and a particle ...and phlogiston, the luminiferous ether and astral space too. The cosmology constantly wobbles between states of being in a phantasmagoric mix of Spelljammer and Ulysses 31, Planescape, Terry Gilliam's Baron Munchausen, Dunsany's Gods of Pegana, Hodgson's Carnacki stories, and maybe a lil bit of Runequest. Heck, the Discworld is hidebound, cut and dried by comparison!

Just a couple of examples (note: no information presented here can be relied upon to stay the same from one day to the next, the world is just like that):

  • The known world is built inside a giant tabernacle and is flat enough that you can sail right off the edge, or pass beyond the misty boundaries of the world and meet the straining giants who hold up the sky. It also has curved horizons, Gygaxian 'slides to China', and a Hollow World (or two) deep within. Oh, and it's also the gathered cloak of a sleeping earth deity who will one day awaken and cast it away.

  • You can travel to the lands behind the winds, except for those times you can't because that would just be silly.

  • The moon is a bizarre desolation where the ground glows with sickly corpselight. What civilisation there is resides deep underground, leaving the surface to uncanny moonbeasts and marauding warbands of Whistling Selenites hungry for the fabled plunder of the mythic overworld. At the same time the moon is also the barque and the iconic weapon of a scholar godling who wards the world against raging star dragons (comets, at least in a certain light) and keeps the hungry, destructive sea goddess in her appointed place. Sometimes the moon's a grey desert sphere, sometimes it's a flat silver disc, other times it's a rocky crescent you can climb atop, and still others it's a twisted moon-faced thing leering and whispering baleful secrets from the night sky.

  • The sun is a giant ball of flaming gas, but it's also the golden palace of the solar divinity, as well as being some blonde dude in a chariot eternally chased by ravening wolves. You can sail the glowing curls of solar flares down to where spectral presences leap and cavort across the ever-burning plains, except when you can't.

  • The Void beyond, wherein lurk the alien intelligences that long to wipe away the fleshy infection of humanity, is Grubbian Wildspace, and a freezing gasping radiation-blasted vacuum, and a collection of isolated prison dimensions, and a colossal air-filled, hole-riddled dome through which starlight, rain and the occasional alchemist leak. Yog-Sothoth could explain, but he doesn't want to. :p

  • The realm of the gods? Over there, at the top of that mountain, or in that desert mirage. But also enthroned in their shining stellar palaces in the heavens (said stars also being distant suns, and leaky holes in the sky, and transfigured culture heroes), and in a subtle spiritual realm beyond the world we know, which happens to look a lot like fluffy cloudscapes. Oh, and the Powers that Be also have a tendency to hang out on distant planets and form looming doom-saying faces in nebulae. Gods are funny like that...
How and when does all this stuff change states? Mu. It doesn't. It's both/all at once/none of the above, as the game requires.

Object lessons I've taken from this:
  1. Whatever is more interesting to play is the right answer.
  2. It all works out so long as you throw a sack over logic's head and leave it tied up in a closet somewhere.
  3. Most players really don't care about internal consistency if inconsistency is more fun.

Pretty big talk for an game setting that's little more than a 25x15 hex map (and those numbers are hexes, not inches), a bunch of funhousey and thematically discordant dungeon levels, a sheaf of random tables, and some half-assed rules for what goes on in town between the looting sprees.

What can I say? Brass necks are really over-engineered 'round our way. ;)


  1. I think you're right--imaginative possibilities are often more fun than concrete actualities. Bissociation (or multi-ssociation) is our friend.

  2. The Great Wheel: the Bigger Dungeon Ever.

  3. (biggest: excuse my non-native english)

  4. Excellent, intriguing post.

    And "Tabernacle Worlds" is a wonderfully evocative phrase.

  5. Hi, I just found your blog. I love crazy campaign worlds. Sadly, the last few campaigns I've made have just been good old-fashioned medevil worlds. This post has really given me a taste for something creative. I love the mix of mythological and "realistic"!

  6. "And "Tabernacle Worlds" is a wonderfully evocative phrase"

    That's in no small part due to the fact that tabernacle is a delicious word, akin to a poem in its own right. Now I have to find an opportunity to use it in my daily speech.

    Fantastic post! Just discovered the blog and am most intrigued.


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