Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Corelands, Borderlands, and the Weird

Every campaign has some kind of logic, tone, or theme to it, even if unwitting to its designer. The longer you play the more this dynamic entrenches itself, creating through happy accident some kind of larger coherence behind it all. The various disparate mysteries start to have underlying and connected causes and overtime it's impossible for both players and GM not to build a sense of meaning behind it.

Both the Austin and San Antonio attempts at this campaign were very much a return to the sharply-bounded sandbox that was the height of fashion in old school circles 2-3 years ago. In that first year there really was no overarching plot, no real machinations by NPCs, nothing but pure wilderness and dungeon exploration and what the players brought to it through their own projection and co-creation.

But month after month that interplay built that famous onion-layering of mystery. I have joked (perhaps only halfway come to think of it) about the “cosmic” secrets of the HC before.

At any rate, here is one of the “outer mysteries”, the setting logic that makes for the day in day out arena that players walk around the HC in. That is in a player-driven world it produces the signposts of where exploration (adventure) are most likely to produce something fruitful. It's a campaign logic that hangs on a more literal, deeper-running meaning of the old D&D designation of geographic zones of civilization, borderlands, and wilderness areas.

The Corelands are human civilization. Though wars, political machinations, plagues, and the rest of the human drama play out here, from the perspective of Cantoners these lands are something of a movie facade. There is no whiff of the “Weird” here, magic doesn't function. Monsters and adventure has no real place here. Like a fantasy Oakland there is no there there.

Whole areas exist in the hills were the Veil Between the Worlds has ripped asunder filling the areas with the flotsam and jetsom of many worlds and times. This is the Weird. Here be monsters and golden, onion-domed barges and great cyclopean halls filling mountain-tops. Geography is exaggerated and uncoupled from the expectations of other lands.

The rising tide of such cosmic strangeness produces a startling density of these so-called sites of adventure. It's not uncommon to walk a few hours from one only to uncover another and then another a short jaunt away.

The Borderlands is the contested zone between. Magic functions here, yet civilization exists here too even if sparsely and tentatively. The entirety of human settlement in the Hill Cantons (the political/regional entity not the campaign) is found here and it is rippled like a marble cake with pockets of the Weird. As such adventure can be found here, but it involves neither the big-ticket risks nor the rewards of exploring the otherworldly regions.

Life here for humanity is tainted by the contact with the Weird, indeed literally many who return back to the core from here die quietly and strangely of maladies in the night. Though a rough frontier, fashion is extravagant and quick to change. Doctrines of the mind are extravagant and quick to heated dispute in their over-elaboration. 

While desperate, life here also carries with it the freedom from the dull routine. Heretics, runaway servants, poets, and the sociopaths and picaros calling themselves adventurers flock here as a result.

28 comments:

  1. so what's the height of fashion in old-school circles ca. now?

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    1. Beancounter games. That and science fantasy.

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    2. I had assumed it was glow-sticks. I am very embarrassed now.

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    3. Foppish hats are in too. And paradoxically hair shirts.

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    4. I am similarly confused by "Beancounter games" and I also have a hard time remembering when Science Fantasy wasn't cool in the OSR (remember Thool?).

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    5. Sorry I was so busy being a smart ass, I broke the first rule of journalism: make sure your audience is following you. Beancounter games = the return of so-called "Silver Age realism" (for lack of a better term in my off-the-cuff jibber-jabbering), the need for more and more elaborate systems or settings that work it all out.

      And yes, of course, science fantasy has always been a prominent streak in the OSR which has amplified a small, lost piece of the stew bitd. I am not saying I don't dig it myself--I love it especially when teased out more--but it seems even more pronounced than it did a few years ago.

      But that could just be the company I keep.

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    6. My own Domain Game and Nowhere is very much a beancounter game/setting. Layers and layers of micro-detail with carefully worked out eco-niches, climatology, rational topography etc.

      So again I am also party to this tendency.

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    7. Well I suppose I recently started making Uz and whatnot, but the Dark Country was the bigger departure for me in that it didn't have science fantasy elements.

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    8. Silver Age realism? Elaborate systems that work it all out? The horror!

      But I have always been behind the times.

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  2. Replies
    1. does the Vornheim game contain "Corelands?"

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    2. No. It is all at least a little weird.

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  3. I seem to remember a few other posts on this civilization/borderlands/wilderness split and I was wondering how large you estimated each area to be.

    Whenever I hear about that kind of model I always look at my settings and go "could that work here?" The answer is always no, but that could just be because the Dark Country is one Wilderlands map sized Borderlands.

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    1. It's a complicated question. The Corelands is completely "off-stage". I have an idea that it's roughly as big as the Holy Roman Empire circa 1480 both in population and in land area, but that's about it.

      The Hill Cantons is about half the size of Bohemia of that time, but the relationship to borderland to the weird is "irrational". In some places it's a very convoluted line and has no rhyme or reason to it. There is no natural ecology of the Weird.

      That said internally to the borderlands it is rational, there is enough farm land by acre to support the two small-scale towns (both under 5000) and the scattered other settlements. There are logical trade routes and the like.

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  4. There is no whiff of the “Weird” here, magic doesn't function.

    Does that mean that if a PC magic-user journeys to the Corelands, their spells stop working?

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    1. Yes, but they will likely never travel there. There has never been a reason in campaign context by either me or any of the 40 people who have played in the HC to go there. Not once.

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    2. Also it works the other way too with some kinds of human-based technology. Gunpowder works in the core, is unstable in the Borderlands and is inert in the Weird.

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  5. I like this approach. A literary setting that has a similar (though not as clearly defined) approach is the wolrd in Felix Gilman's The Half-Made World. I reviewed here.

    I think this idea raises suggests a lot of interesting possibilities for the future. Does the core continue to advance leaving the Borderlands and Weird further behind? Can its advancement "pull" the other territories forward in an ontological struggle? Not things for PCs to concern themselves about, perhaps, but very interesting possibilies.

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    1. It's in flux with a greater and greater amount of polarization coming in recent times. So before you had a very long epochal shifts of the boundary between each with a very large Borderlands area and now some quicker shifting and a shrinking of the Borderlands as a result.

      I have always imagined the HC as a place in history right before a Great Shift. So the Corelands are leaving the world of medieval fantasy, they are already in the age of the early Renaissance (though a much more inward-looking one than our Age of Exploration). Deep in there people don't even really believe all the fantasy trappings exist anymore. So it's expanding and erasing parts of the Borderlands.

      But you also have the dark rising. Not as much cosmic evil as in a High Fantasy setting, but more like the Chaos of Moorcock, the edge of the world and reality. Something(s) is driving it to also encroach on the Borderlands. Which is why you have human ruins and roads running through the Weird.

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    2. The idea of slowly shifting areas of magic and mundane reminds me of the Zones of Thought in Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep.

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    3. When you described this "cosmology" (if I can use that term to apply to this), I immediately thought of the world of Warhammer Fantasy, where Kislev and Norsca eventually fade into the Realms of Chaos, where the further north you go, the weirder and weirder the landscape gets, until all rules of logic eventually break down.

      In any case, I really like the idea you've put forward. It sounds like it allows a great deal of freedom to improvise and just throw any old thing in there that might tickle your fancy any given week.

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    4. Whoops, that should have been "The Chaos Wastes," not the Realm of Chaos...

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  6. Quick question: can the Weird intrude into the Corelands? Or does the weight of 'mundane' (for want of a better word) civilisation militate against this?

    Also, LOL at beancounter games.

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    1. As above they both encroach on each other and are shrinking the Borderlands as a result. So back in the Core you have gunpowder, the printing press and all the rest of the revolutionary tech. of the age slowly reducing the belief in fantastical elements and in the Weird more and more "doors" being opened to other places (cue up all the other things I like such as Sigil, Glorantha, Newhon and Tekumel).

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