Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Inverted Ziggurat

(Follow up on the dungeon hinted at in the Mangrove post. This is meant as a sketch of the broad concept, not a keyed dungeon.)

The crazed ecologists who study the Flowing Forest have long posited that at the center of it must be some great mystery. Its well recorded that the forest will "swim" against prevailing currents and winds, and it takes a proper monsoon to alter its path. Theories gain and loose favor, but a few have remained popular:
  • Its on the back of a truly massive crab, crawling slowly on the shallow ocean floor, maybe hoping to scrape off the forest on an island
  • At the center is a slumbering Spirit of life, restlessly riding its vine-y cradle over the sea, making it wander as its dreams shift
  • Most of the mass of the forest is sub-aqueous and so the important variable is deep ocean current, which are poorly understood
None of these are the right theory of course. If you survive the journey to the center of the forest you will find a great terraced valley, its bottom is a few hundred feet bellow sea level. The terraces are paved with great stones and look more like ancient gardens than jungle, the root-filtered fresh water trickles slowly down to the bottom. At the bottom a great clear pool steams, and the very top of a structure can be seen...

The whole place feels like this, but in a few hundred years when a jungle is growing on it

The Terraces:

These where gardens. Remnants of greenhouses and fountains are every where, and amongst the lush ruins on the top terrace a few final warning/warding shrines from the local Automata tribes rest, invoking their most vile imagery.

Hazards on the terraces include: feral plants, decaying architecture, insta-rot fungi, leeches, half functioning gardener constructs that WILL POT YOU, large still pools of lily pads that probably aren't hiding water snakes in them, terraced edges to descent on vines, balloon plants that accumulate hydrogen and explode easily, and giant sloth breeding grounds.

But you may find: potions of grow plant, half functioning gardener constructs that you can manipulate, exotic and potent plants from all over the world. Indeed the gardens themselves are a treasure trove in themselves to a trained botanist, the diversity and rarity of the flora is enough to bring a life time of rich research.

The Ziggurat

At the bottom of the terraced valley is a large steaming pool of water, no plants grow near its edges but at its center is a large square structure. Through the startlingly clear water you can see that it is a many leveled ziggurat. The water is very hot, but not quite boiling and there is a sharp mineral odor to the mists coming off the pool. Upon investigation the water is not only hot, but caustic and will dissolve organic materials after a few moments of immersion.

Once the party figures a way across the pool (boat that wont dissolve, parachute with hydrogen balloon plants from higher terrace, cooling the water some how, divert the water from flowing into it till it all evaporates) the real dungeon can begin.

Some things you might find in the Zigguart

At its heart is a sun. The party will see glimpses of it occasionally through thick glass windows and deep water, giving eerie illumination. They will find hints of it else where: in rooms dedicated to its maintenance and control with panels of inscribed glyphs that hint at their utility, in the flooded chambers soaked in near boiling and caustic water that will start to make them sick with radiation poisoning after a few hours in the dungeon, in the strange slimes and fungi that seem to grow abundantly around these leaks, and the slow perversion of flesh they will experience through mutation.

Deep at the base of the ziggurat, far below sea level, they will find the Torch. If they are clever they might even figure out that the Torch is siphoning the massive heat generated by the sun to solder shut fissures and faults in the sea bed. Perhaps they will understand that this Sun-Engine is literally keeping the world together. To keep the Torch at a steady distance from the bottom of the sea the entire structure expands and contracts like an accordion. This introduces a crushing hazard as well as a changing dungeon layout that may shift every time the party returns to it.

The central command room is locked, the party will have to find a way to bust in or find the secret to unlocking it. There is heavy machinery all around, perhaps they can use it for demolition? Once inside they will have to solve some sort of puzzle to figure out how to manipulate the Sun-Engine. There will be illusions/holograms of the builders of the Ziggurat There are a few possible outcomes:
  • Meltdown: The Engine has been in slow motion melt down for a few centuries at least, and the party wittingly or unwittingly brings about a run away acceleration to this process. The delicate fields that suspend the sun will start to break down; the improvised fresh water coolant system was already malfunctioning, but now no new water is reaching the core and the containment walls are melting. Run! The world will likely tear itself apart without the Engine to keep it together and perhaps usher in a new Age...or the End of all Ages.
  • Fix It: Through careful experimentation or dumb luck the party may figure out how to fix it. They can find out that the outflow of coolant is leaking badly, that the vegetation surrounding the Ziggurat is gunking up the mechanisms. If they fix it the Sun-Engine will start operating at peak efficiency again, the Torch will actually make headway in keeping the world together instead of fighting a slowly loosing battle to decay, and the Flowing Forest will be shed as the Ziggurat once again rides just above the waves with water intake pipes trailing behind as in the Days of Old.
  • No change: Through caution or awareness of their hubris the party can walk away and allow the Sun-Engine to continue to meltdown slowly. It will eventually fail, but at least the world continue for a few hundred years more...

Thoughts on the Inverted Ziggurat

Its a metaphor for a nuclear reactor. Built by some anonymous precursor civilization and abondened long ago, then rediscovered and haphazardly repaired by a more recent society. The terraced valley and gardens where built by the second comers as a way to keep the Sun-Engine cooled but when they abandoned it the radiation allowed the Flowing Forest to take root on the Garden Terrace edge until that was all that people knew of it.

When considered with the rest of Ánemos setting this is the first demonstration that world is a few Ages past a technologically advanced civilization and implies that its a post apocalyptic world, or at least a world fallen into decay and forgetfulness where the glories of the past are misunderstood and clouded (like the implied setting in the wonderful Ghibli film Castle in the Sky). I like this. It adds a dimension and depth to an otherwise gonzo-Greek-fantasy setting. I love fantasy that is secretly sci-fi. I also love romantic fantasy (the type that +Joseph Manola writes about here, and he makes some great points on ruins here) where the characters have the chance to have a meaningful effect on the world.

In this dungeon they are presented with a machine that literally keeps the world together and the three outcomes all are meaningful. They can play with fire and get burned with the world at stake. They can fix an ancient construct and perhaps start an age of re-disovery and healing. Or they can make the decision to find a way to love a more and more broken and shattered world. 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

What they Sought in the Great Desert

If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture—that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves.
-Edward Abbey, Desert Solitare

...And even when a road hazards its way over the desert, you will see it make a thousand detours to take its pleasure at the oases. Thus, led astray by the divagations of roads, as by other indulgent fictions, having in the course of our travels skirted so many well-watered lands, so many orchards, so many meadows, we have from the beginning of time embellished the picture of our prison. We have elected to believe that our planet was merciful and fruitful. But a cruel light has blazed, and our sight has been sharpened...
Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Mojave Desert, CA, source

1d10 Things You Might Find When Crossing the Great Desert

1: Heaven's Gate
They say that out in the rock and sand, where the sky curves under the great weight of the Heavens, on windy days the hangings that veil mortals eyes from the glory of Heaven brush and dance across the lonely sands. Patient pilgrims wander the high places sometimes meditating on the zenith of a mountain for a weeks at a time, hoping to see the parting of the veil and glimpse Paradise. They sigh with contentment, their souls soothed by the promise of glory, and they pick up and leave the desert better than they entered.

Other, less scrupulous seekers wait below. They wait for the drapery of Heaven to skim across their dunes, after them they gallop on black horses lean from hard years and water scarcity. The legends say that if you ride fast enough even the foulest of sinners can grab a hold and climb their way into the Heavens.

Or perhaps it was simply a passing Sky City built on a lump in the sky...

2: The Book of Dreams

It is well understood that in the Great Desert you can sometimes find the Book of Dreams. You'll see it when you sleep first, sitting on a desk behind your grammar school teacher or in your parent's basement that you have to clean. You might not even notice it those first few nights, but if you happen to be headed to the book in the material realm it will start to take more... noticeable... roles in your nightly ethereal wanderings. You may be crushed by it or fall off of it, you may be chasing it down endless corridors or trying to keep it from sinking in a lake of shell-less snails. You know, anxiety dream stuff.

The Book of Dreams is not trying to sell you stuff like a Dream Merchant, it wants you to find it in real life and read it.

Most stories say that you will find the book in the possession of a noble knight or wise priest, but usually its just a sleepy person. They generally will glad to be rid of it, others will fight you ferociously for a chance to glimpse its pages.

Everyone's experiance reading the Book is different: 1d6
1-3: It reads like someone else's dream journal, mildly interesting but mostly incoherent. Makes you drowsy
4: Get sucked into a nightmare! The Book is gone when you awake
5: Fall into a deep sleep and wake up knowing a new random spell. You can no longer read the Book, its just gibberish. Compelled to check the book often just in case you can read it again
6: Gain the ability to enter the Realm of Dreams, but only when you have the Book in your possesion

3: A Place to Find Yourself

Austere landscapes separate the wheat from the chaff. Long hours in the warm sun and under the bright stars can elevate the spirit and cleanse the body of evils. Sweat can cleanse, and a simple diet and quiet habits can expel disease and other maladies of the body and soul.

Some simply wander, looking for a modest water hole and some shade to heal and grow. For every year spent in the desert only doing quiet and contemplative actions (no adventuring, item creation, spell research, etc) you can get a re-roll on a single failed disease check, or you can use these rules for personal growth.

4: A Place to Loose Yourself

Not everyone finds solace in the hot sun and the cold stars. Life in the desert can bend the back and and break the will. As life becomes more desperate those that were once strong turn to stone licking and cannibalism for survival.

Perhaps they turn to ghouls that walk the dunes at night looking for travelers, and if you don;t keep close watch you may awake with gritty hands strong and desperate in their strangle hold around your sweet warm neck.

Worse yet a spirit of hunger and famine could be born in such despair, a wendigo could hunt in the dunes. This is especially common of the souls upon large failed expeditions where they lingered in starvation for months while they consumed their brothers.

5: Star Children, to Raise Them in the Light of the Lord

There is a high desert plateau, far from any watering hole where the caravans and tribes to not trek, upon which the stars fall. At their cores sleep giants made of molten glass who breath radiation and death. After cooling they begin to crack open their vessels and to behold this new world they have come to with mute horror or confusion.

Are they beings from another place, crashed on our planet out of desperation or long intent? Are they the stars themselves, sick of watching terrestrial affairs from far above? Are they fallen angles, cast out of the Heavens? Are they cast aside experiments from some higher being living on a moon?

Who knows!

All that matters is that the faithful find these dripping behemoths and make sure they are converted. Word of a Star Child fetch a fine fee at any pilgrims church on the outskirts of the desert, a living and walking one will provide you with favors from the Church, perhaps even an audience with a bishop... For what better examples of the ever-forgiving light of the Church than to tour the civilized world to demonstrate that anyone can be forgiven?

6: The Sands of Time

You can see the bent figures scouring the dunes in the heat of the day, mirages dancing about them while they remain sullen dark smudges. With noses bent nearly to the ground their many lenses flashing in the abundant light, they search. With delicate tools they pick up individual grains of sand upon which the focus their lenses. Their hauls hang at their belts in pitifully small sacks.

They are collecting Time.

Wretchedly small amounts of Time, but Time none the less. And when their sacks are full they leave the desert to sell their haul to the wizards who wish to make hourglasses.

Up close the Tardy Sifters, as they call themselves, are a sun burnt, bent over, leathery, squinty eyed, and slow moving bunch. They aren't great conversationalists, but they do have a wizard contact at the nearest oasis they could get you introduced to for some water skins and food. Or, if you are feeling a little more murderous, you could kill them and take their sack of Sand. What kind of Time is it? You'll have to inhale some and find out...

7: Meet the Devil and Know His Temptations
...and perhaps strike a deal.

On cold nights when there are no moons and the scavengers cackle just out side of you camp's dungfire light, the Devil dances across the sand and plays his xalam to the beasts of the night. Should the Devil spy your fire he will approach and with utmost courtesy ask to share in your hospitality and companionship.

If you refuse the Devil you must extinguish your fire and flee into the night, running from his tune until you cannot hear it. As you flee the Devil will haunt you until dawn or your death, inciting the creatures of the desert into a wild hunt. He will call your name and know you have defied him. If you brave the darkness and elude the Devil as dawn breaks he will forget your name and you will have defied him.

If you accept the Devil you must offer him food and drink, then regal him with song, verse or story. If he is pleased we will offer you a boon from his shoulder sack. If he is displeased he will offer you a boon from his hip pouch. Both contain wondrous things, both at the cost of your soul to be collected at your death or in a year and a day's time, respectively. Refusal is incredibly impolite.

8: A Wise Hermit
There are a lot of cooky people that live out in the Great Desert. Prophets and madmen are often driven for well watered lands, they find that their persecutors stop when the dunes and rocks begin. They might be siting atop a column. Or just hanging out. Or maybe they are all wizards?

I dunno, but one of them probably knows something you want to know, best to talk to them all.

9: Bones from Eons Past, Exposed by Wind From Cold Stars
Bones are pretty useful. You can use them to make stocks.  You can use them for fertilizer. You can use them for spooky decorations.

Or, if you have the inclination... and the time... and the finances to fund a multi-month expedition... and the required skills... and an evil intent... and tenacity, you can search the Great Desert for and excavate the bones of long dead terrors to tap their ancient power for your own benefit. If you are lucky, or just rich, you can obtain a complete skeleton to animate.

But that is terrible bad luck.

10: Simply Find an Oasis and Rest
The desert is a hard place to travel. The ground can be soft and make walking and pulling carts hard or be hard and make footing uneven and rough. The wind blows constantly with no vegetation to slow it, sandstorms range from irritating to deadly. The sun bears down intensely causing sunburns and dehydration and exhaustion, and when its not in the sky warmth flees from the desert for bitterly cold nights. Foraging and hunting all day may not yield even a mouthful of edible material and leave you tired and demoralized.

The Great Desert is not a place for the weak.

Oases are.

Star Child, source