Monday, August 11, 2014

Mythical Wilderness

“Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish...It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.”
Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness

One of the enduring themes of neo-oldish D&D in the past five years has been the notion of dungeon as a “mythic underworld.” Philotomy the originator of the phrase stated it quite succinctly: “a mega dungeon should have a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency, but it is an underworld: a place where the normal laws of reality may not apply, and may be bent, warped, or broken.”

Inexplicably the theme hasn't extended itself as thoroughly to the ancient realm of the mythic: wilderness. Projecting our dreams and ideas into the wilds is a timeless thing that changes with our own times. It is nature as giver, supernatural evil, challenge, peaceful refuge, antidote to civilized decadence or whatever. The theme endures and deserves some gaming love as a motif for adventure sites.

Of course in fantasy gaming almost all wilderness is mythical in the sense that human civilization has a weak hold and things monstrous or magical often live in their bounds. But I'm talking here about the cranked up high version. The kind of wilderness that is truly otherworldly, the enchanted wood, divine mountain, sacred grove or magic garden gone feral.

Mythical Wilderness is a major running theme in the eponymous campaign. Where going into the wilds—crossing into the Weird--is going into a different physical reality. Characters can feel an electric undercurrent as they pass out of the human realm and can expect just about anything.

Not surprisingly as it comes straight out of that broken line of reasoning and play, Mythical Wilderness plays a huge role in the soon-to-be published mini-sandbox Slumbering Ursine Dunes (now in its fifth editing iteration and being run again on Google Plus if you'd like to come out and play).

The Dunes incorporates most of the following laundry list: an internal ecology and weather climate distinct from the surrounding “real world”, impossibly large dunes; magical fields; mythical demi-god guardians, and a random "weird" events system, a chaos index, that dynamically changes the sandbox with player actions.

Common Features
Internal Dynamics Trump Ecology. It may have beasts going through the motions of such things as predation or a climate cycle or the like or it may have nothing at all like that (no mundane animals, nothing consumed/shat etc). The internal logic and dynamics of the place trumps all and it is not beholden to the regular rules of either the mundane natural world or human civilization.

Unhooked from Time and Space. Time is completely relative inside it and may have any number of effects. It may work like the Faerie mounds or realms of Northwestern European folklore with years passing in the outside world for a matter of days inside. Or it may preserve residents of an ancient past or border/open into another plane of existence altogether.

Inimical or Supernatural Terrain. Trees may grow to fantasic heights or widths. Whole forests of giant gnome red cap mushrooms may bloom. Miniature mountain ranges rise, amnesia-producing rivers spring or seas of lava spread. The terrain itself may even be actively hostile to outsiders, twisted trees and vines may trip or attack.

Bends Outside Magic. Spell effects will often be different. Certain spells may be amplified, dulled or neglected in effect. Certain areas may be magically fertile or completely barren. Endless fun for the GM.

Layers of Mystery. Part of the great fun of having this kind of funhouse wilderness is that what
makes it all tick—the why and how of the whole thing-- is often something wholly inexplicable at first. Like a great dungeon or adventure site those layers get peeled away in exploration. Think of the Island in Lost here.

Powerful, Semi-Divine Boss/Force. Invariably the strange, weird, mysterious and fantastical nature of the Mythic Wilderness is due to a force or master. A terribly powerful being-- the Horned Master of the Wild Hunt, Green Man, Faerie Queen, Demonic Tree-Spirit, Batshit Archmage or what have you—that the PCs run from/parlay/barter/fight.

Anything else you think should make this list? War stories of your own creations?


  1. Nothing to add to this - I tend to wallow in the depths of your posts - except to say the unhooking is one of the big things for me, or the suggestion of the unhooking, the thing that really helps bring it together - and to say all's better with the world when you're posting.

    1. My brain and free time seem to run slower (I hesitate to say deeper) these days so the posts are much thinner. I'm always glad to see you pop up in my feed too.

  2. Ditto the porkster! The looming Hippenhammer retrospective will address a few of these themes, maybe give them back to you in new outfits. But this is truly the THING of the summer!

  3. i don't know why but suddenly i am reminded of strugacky brothers novel roadside picnic.

  4. Because I like time, space and weather the way they are, my brain has a hard time thinking these things the way you can think them. It's alarming and delightful at once to read your ideas and especially so with your choice of illos.

    Imagine if all civilization- all there is- exists only above cloud level on the highest mountains. Even descending the mountains to travel to the next island of Men would be like travelling the Underdark.

    And perhaps time flows more slowly, the lower you descend. A trip that would take a week by the crow suddenly happens in a year, by the clocks upon the watch towers.

    I'm not ready to make this kind of place part of my campaign world, but it's evocative.

    1. Love it. I ran something like that idea last year (at least the first part about a mountain isle of humanity):

  5. Yes. This post is going in my bookmarks! Difficult to think of anything to add.

    Oh! One suggestion that springs to mind, drawing on the Hero With A Thousand Faces (the Hero's Journey essentially being the same as a journey into the Mythic Wilderness) is that those who enter the Mythic Wilderness and return, return changed.

    Maybe it's having found an enchanted item, something as simple as an odd wooden flute. Maybe it is just experience or knowledge, a light in their eyes that people can tell means they have seen something that cannot be fully explained in words. Or maybe it is something more; their very soul has changed - perhaps they have become something more, or less, than human.

  6. Thanks for this great post. Have you been able to follow through with something like this in your campaign?

    I have independently stumbled upon a similar trajectory for my campaign and a friend on a forum pointed me here. I'd love to see what you think:

    And here are some links to where I've talked about this on my blog:

    Thanks in advance for any interaction!

    1. Nathan,
      I will definitely check out those links. Yes mythic wilderness has actually become a pretty important running theme in several sections of the campaign. The published version of this can be seen in the Slumbering Ursine Dunes (which intentionally hits all the themes above) but probably more roboustly in the most recent campaign phase in Revoca Canton.

    2. Chris, thanks for the quick and generous reply. So glad to read that it is working in your campaign. Thanks for the links. Your campaign is both detailed and off the rails at the same time - I envy you! Looking forward to doing my best version of something similar with my own little brain.

      Hey, is some of this stuff published? Did y'all have a booth at the NTRPGCon? I could have sworn I remembered seeing some of this stuff in booklet form. Is my memory serving me right here?

      Fight on!