So, dear readers and fellow tabletop RPGers, I finally broke and bought a pen display for drawing. More commonly called a drawing tablet, these little things are awesome and I've spent a lot of my time the last couple of weeks devoted to drawing and honing my craft with a pen. I've been working on some dungeon morphs and more recently putting together a redesign for a close friend's large dungeon map. So here is a sneak peek of one of the morphs, and as always feel free to use it in your works.
I have grown up in the mountains of the Appalachians. A mountain chain so old that it is agreed that the remnants of mountains in the UK are the original start of these mountains back when the world was still a Pangaea. They're time worn and rounded off, unlike the Rockies and many of the other mountain ranges around the world. This lends some mystique. There are large swaths of untouched, unclaimed old growth timber that are older than the country - older than man. There are caves that reach into the depths of the earth deeper than any man would ever want to explore for fear that they'd reach some hellpit, or worse something they would never be able to come out and describe.
I've digested the lore, sat and listened as my paternal grandmother told the story of the coal camps and how the mountain lions would sit and scream from the tops of the peaks and their howl would echo down the valley. She swore that it wasn't a mountain lion, but a woman crying. She told me about the days of segregation and the xenophobia of facing down a neighbor of a different color than yourself when you'd never experienced that before - but that in time you would learn they're just as human as you or I. The story that probably stick out the most in my head though is something that I later come to learn is a pretty common piece of folklore and this was their version of it.
When she was young, in little more than rags, looking out of the single window of the single roomed cabin in the coal camp back in the ancient hills they'd see a man with a large white sack walk by. Her stepmother, a hateful woman that she wore was a witch that put a spell on her daddy after her mama died, would spin a dark yarn. She'd say to my grandmother and her multitude of brothers and sisters, "Now y'all better not be out in the yard when the sun starts going down. You see him with the sack? That's the bone man. He comes by and collects what mean little kids that's playing in the yard this late." I saw it in her eyes, being in her late 60's she still feared the bone man. She would describe him. He was gaunt, almost unnaturally skeletal, and dark skinned. He wore rags that hung off him like they'd hang off a hanged man after his body swung and was ate by the crows and buzzards. She said his eyes were milky white and she swore that he was blind, but he walked with no stick and nary any guide. She said he made his rounds daily about the same time every evening and if the kids saw the bone man down the dirt road they'd all rush into the cabin and stare out of the window as he passed.
Now that I am old enough I realize that this is something that ties back into Lovecraft, the weird, and the fear of outsiders. It was generational racism which is honestly scarier than the stories told. My grandmother never traveled much outside of these mountains but she learned quick that those folks with different colored skin were no different than she was. It makes it difficult though, as these things are difficult topics - but the fear of outsiders is a major cornerstone of fiction and culture as a whole. The fear of the unknown, of the unknown actions, of the unknown people have driven people since the dawn of sentience in humans.
If you have ever traveled far in the south you will know that there is a major cultural element that permeates every facet of daily life. That is the fear of God. When you are a child you are sat down the taught about God's love, but as you age and you transition from children's Sunday school into full congregational worship you learn that God is a dichotomy. God is also angry, wrathful, and worst of all vengeful. God and the fear of his wrath is the center point of the fire and brimstone style of the old south preachers. Pentecostals are enraptured by the angry and mirth of God, and claim they are filled vessels of the power of a living God. They claim that they are granted powers of precognition and glossolalia, which another member of the congregation is granted the ability to interpret the tongue in which they speak. The services are frightening and powerfully intense. Equal part haunted house, concert, and spoken word performance. It is a spectacle to be hold, and I have beheld it many times.
There is a not-so-secret among these people though. The biblical literalist within the Pentecost movement - those who would seek out serpents to handle, dance in trance-like steps and chant these tongues. Placing their complete faith in God that they shall not come to harm and that He will neuter the snake of its ability to harm a child of God. Some of these men and women take up glasses of various liquids laced heavily with arsenic and paint thinners and drinking heartily as they shake, dance, and chant in a cultish fervor. They often come to harm by these methods.
There is a surrealist aspect to these rituals and practices once you are one step removed from them. Imagining the wrathful hand of God reaching down into a man's very soul and possessing it and giving them powers for brief glimpses. There is a very cosmic bent to these ritualistic practices, an omnipotent God influencing the subtle interactions of human beings to do his bidding, to worship at his throne, and to dance in cult-like zealotry while drinking toxins and fondling snakes and all manner of venomous creatures.
That Lonesome Valley
Lordsmouth sits in the midst of an analog to the real life Appalachians. Historically the Appalachians are an exploited territory - with the wealthy northerners coming to remove the coal and natural gas from the hills and valleys of my homeland. They exploited the simple clannish people that had not seen outsiders for the majority of their lives. Lordsmouth has a similar backstory.
The Elders came from beyond the valley and built their city in the resting place of an ancient being. They dug the ground and built the factories around the more domestic regions of the city. Digging down into vast tunnels and underground rivers, seeking out the raw materials to power their monstrosities. The Elders of Lordsmouth bred and begot children from the wombs of the native peoples. These offspring became the Masters, driving their kin to more and more twisted forms as they work among the bellowing smog and the grotesque organic machines. These machines produce little anymore but provide food and artefacts to the Masters.
Within the earth was something older than the mechanical Gods of the Elders and the Masters. Only remembered by the oldest and least twisted of the clan-folk. They still pray to the God in the ground and make offerings of flesh and spirit. You'll see the oldest folk missing arms or legs or eyes, and these know what slumbers beneath the city.
The smog from the bellows and stacks erupt as the clanfolks work the mannish-machines, and the forests weep. The woods beyond the city have decayed and the smell of rot fills the air as trees hang dead, wildlife cannibalize their own, and odd humanoid beings skitter through the rotted undergrowth. Tendrils of horrible metal-plague stretch forth from the factories and wrap the trees with grotesque viscera. Hemogolbual laden slime dripping from open sore-like pores as the tender, soft vines hang from the branches overhead. The smog shrouds the higher reaches of the canopy, and faint screaming can be heard from the ruins. Terrible, wet wails of pain.
The mountains bound and fold along all sides of the city. Some of the saner denizens look up to the sky and wish to see the sun again as thick grey and green smog obscure the sky. The rain is hellfire and demands immediate shelter. It shines a garish red-pink hue and smells of sulfur and burnt hair. Worst of all though is what the wind carries. A carrion smell eternally sits upon the city as the factories work and toil burning flesh, bone, and blood.
It isn't all bad however. Some outsiders have made their homes here among the leaning and yawning buildings of yore. They've made peace with the Masters and have an understanding. These outsiders fill a vital role for the area. They're the might, if ever it should come to the use of might. For the protection of the city the Masters allow outsiders to set up shop and farms, living among the former squalor that the clanfolk once claimed. There are loose governmental structures and there is a council that oversees the movement of outsiders. Most outsiders never leave, and the only ones that do leave only do so to kill themselves among the rotten spines of the deadwood in the forests surrounding the city.
Lordsmouth is a wholly unwelcoming place, but it could be a home - or at least a base camp for now.
My biggest issue with Lovecraft (outside of the obvious, of course) is his character work. When you read a Lovecraft piece that protagonist always share a handful of traits and they never falter. First, a Lovecraft is always an academic, either latent or active - and that is how he places himself into these stories. Second, they're always paper thin and develop no character and have no real arc other than existing as a vessel to witness the unspeakable and then to fill with madness or existential dread. I absolutely detest this because it is boring, but at the same time I realize that it isn't about the character. A Lovecraft story is about the atmosphere, the dread, the build up to a cosmic cacophony - and then the crescendo of indifferent doom. A Roleplaying game, however, is completely about character. Even if it isn't the main party the characters will always be the center point of the story. Is it the king that gives you the quest to slay the dragon and collect it's hoard? What about the prince or princess that needs rescuing? And of that ancient elf that carved the monolith that looms over the fortress that is cursed - why did they curse it? A roleplaying game will always come back to a character from which the story is derived. Unfortunately, for the reasons that I listed in the previous paragraph, a Lovecraft protagonist will make a very poor character in a roleplaying game. It will be like a king who wants you to slay a dragon, or a prince or princess that needs rescued for the hundredth or thousandth time. Those kind of stories are boring.
Characters - A Process
Now, you're probably thinking that I have introduced a problem but I have presented no solution. What is the solution to stale characterization? The simple answer is dynamism and flair. You want a character that can be visualized easily and a character that has shifting allegiances. My aim is to populate Lordsmouth with characters that are outlandish, grotesque, sympathetic, and reviled. In Lordsmouth you can never really know who your allies actually are. I have been rolling over some mechanics in my mind, but the one that keeps coming to the forefront is the hexflower. It can give the character a sort of an artificial memory so that they can react to the player appropriately. Take various moods, dispositions, and ideals and combine them into the hexflower that will then lead into a series of tables to decide how they're feeling, what they share, and how they react to the party. The only issue that comes to mind is that this would lead to convolution. Is it worth it to the DM to roll to figure out if the character, after a partially successful mission into the womb of the Furnace Mother, reacts poorly to the party's news of defeat? An inherently imaginative media, the roleplaying game, calls for imaginative descriptions. You can feel out a character by what they look like, their mannerisms, and how the come across. A character should make an impression.
The Class Strata Of Lordsmouth
Lordsmouth being an early industrial city in the heart of the dark Appalachians, I personally imagine the every daycharacters being simple, rural folk mostly. Cultish and clanish in their familiar devotion. Taking your pretty standard inbreeding tropes and turning them up to 11. The smog and the shallow gene pool as twisted them into almost inhuman creatures. They're more of less the Oompa Loompas in a dark, sinister Chocolate factory. Next are the masters - conniving descendants of the outsiders that have put themselves in positions of power by bringing in wealth and technology to the backwoods and building their fortunes upon the backs of those that toil in the bowels and guts of the Machano-Gods. They've grown fat and lazy with hedonistic pleasures and seek only greater experience, more power, and further wealth so that they can extend their reaches further into the bowels of the mountains and the wombs of the forests surrounding the decaying city. Their ancestors brought the plague of industry into mountains and now there is only torment. Any weird city needs a clergy though. The grotesque and twisted priesthood devoted to the buried God. Mostly skeletal figures that can be seen blowing and winding through the warping streets of Lordsmouth, oft chanting a bizarre tongue. Thought to be prayer to the God that sleeps below the city, it is a hymn and a lullaby - prayers asking that they never rise to show the city it's face. The priesthood swells their rank through festival - once a decade they hold a great sacrifice and each denizen must offer their youngest male to the order. Among these are the weirdos and freaks that have drifted into the city and never found their way out. They've built their homes in the metal bones and industrial viscera. They seem to be the few and the sane within the city, serving the function of running small outposts within the walls to forge some semblance of a life. Most are scarred from the past or from the present of being stuck within the city. Most are compelled the stay, be it through magic, madness, or misfortune. They often run small shops or farm the bowels, planting diseased crops between the cracks in the cobble and concrete. Few make their living delving into the outer ring of decay and pulling back artefacts of a more ancient and more evil time. These spelunkers don't last long and more often than not end up missing.
A Wrap Up
Characters are important to a roleplaying game. They give the player a relation point and thus allowing them to give themselves over to the story and become their character. This can help build a sense of dread, by having a player let themselves go wholesale into a character and then pushing that character into the weird, the odd, and the strange you will give the player anxiety about their characters fate. This anxiety is what the weird preys on it. It is the penultimate food of the horror writer and its what needs to be sought out to make a campaign truly frightening and horrendous. If they can't buy into the characters then the threads of the story just float away and now you're playing a game.
The basic ideas for the city of Lordsmouth comes from the basic principles of Lovecraft country. Lovecraft set up a pleasantly sinister country side among the rolling foothills of the New England region of the US. He dotted this landscape with many towns and points of interest that many in the Lovecraft Circle and beyond would expand upon. A couple of the main points though that are recurrent in the most media are Arkham and Innsmouth. The horror of the miscegenation (now a horribly outdated and racist concept, when applied to human culture) of the deep ones that interbred with the simple fishing folk of Innsmouth provide the backdrop for the horror in that particularly salty town. Arkham on the other hand is nestled in the New England foothills and may be the most famous setting in all of Lovecraft. Arkham is home to the epicenter of all things pertaining to the study of the Cosmically weird, including one of the few copies of the Necronomicon that remain.
The idea for Lordsmouth is to be a fairly variable base setting that could prove expandable. You could set it up in any weird way you'd like, but I am going to develop some tables that will take bits and pieces of the weird, grotesque, and phantasmagorical to generate an odd city. There are a few major elements that I think any central hub needs in a roleplaying game. First and foremost is a way to feed story elements or to give the characters a hook into the story - maybe it is an elder, a district captain, or a particularly new and sinister town manager that will only deliver orders via notes under the door of his down town office.
Another is secondary locations, and the idea is that Lordsmouth is an early industrial revolution city that has plagued the area of dark forest and ancient, eldritch mountains with the smog and choking chemicals. This gives rise to a lot of insecurity that I feel can be a great tension builder. The early industrial revolution is an amazing parallel to modern day. There are a ton of new technologies that are developing paranoia among the citizenry, leaving many to wonder what their place in society is. Use this to draw players into the drama of the setting and greatly unease them with the weirder elements. What really accentuates the weird in any thing is the mundane to compare it to, and even better than that is when you can manage to make the mundane weird. Maybe on the outskirts of the city are vast complexes of archaic and collapsing buildings, and if your party is lucky (they're sacred places in which the belching Machano-Gods live and drive the town from their man-crafted tombs) or unlucky (these buildings are crumbling and sinking into the terrafirm, and maybe not even the terrafirma - but the belly of some gnawing, hungry beast with a mouth like a coal furnace and thousands of eyes.) enough to be sent into these buildings to retrieve this or that object. One of my favorite ideas in weird fiction is the idea of shifting, dimensional streets or alleys. Maybe a party passes by a building's facade that they've passed on their way to the Inn every time they've ventured out, but this time there is no facade. Instead in the place of the building that is too tall and too skinny to house any real people there is a street, and at the end of this street is a quaint shop with a light on.
To think about the city is to think about how you want to build your campaign or setting. The city will be the repository of all the treasure, the home base, and a driving force for the campaign. Maybe in Lordsmouth there is plague that is creeping, and every day a new set of the citizenry are infected. The plague is insidious and nondiscriminatory - it is killing anyone that is unlucky enough to contract it. Possibly the citizens are forming up into roving bands that are policing the districts and summarily executing everyone that has the 'Plague-look'. Maybe the adventurers are a group of outsiders that are coming to the town on the eve of a grand festival, but they catch wind that the festival has more sinister roots. They could be called there by some ancient arcane wizard and task with finding a certain, cursed manuscript that upon reading will drive anyone insane. There are so many tropes, hooks, and story ideas that could be included in a setting like Lordsmouth.
This are just a few basic ideas that I am rolling over for Lordsmouth and the associated tables I intend to create.
There are a handful of things that have heavily influenced me in my adult life that seep through into my tabletop play. The biggest of these, however, is my great fondness for Weird fiction. I started on Lovecraft in high school after stumbling across his Wikipedia entry and I soon developed an obsession that would take me through his entire catalog of fiction and into the greater world of the weird.
I've sat back and thought many times about what sort of campaign setting I would like to make, and I've came to the conclusion that it would have to be a weird and surreal place dripping luciously with cosmiscism and unease. I've laid down a basic framework of ideas that I would like to fill out.
A small city containing phantasmagorical elements.
A hex crawl based around a dark Appalachian setting.
Incorporate extensive use of random tables to add many variable elements.
Acid fantasy and weird fiction elements front and center.
Interesting and original creatures.
Weirdos and freaks as NPCs.
This is a very rough and very basic outline of my current ideas. I'm starting to shape some of the random tables and I will be sharing those in a further post. I'm hoping to start mapping out some of the more geographical elements of campaign very soon as well. As work slows and we look at a possible shutdown or self-quarantine period I strongly feel a lot more progress will be made.
Stay posted and check back as I will be updating often with more detailed drafts of each bullet point to further flesh out my ideas.