Monday, July 4, 2011

Weird Rome: A setting-sketch for Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Well, I might as well get started with some content.

I originally posted this to this thread on, where MisterGuignol has done an excellent job of breaking down and delineating a slew of mini-settings for James Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG.  Since LotFP is skewed more toward the "weird fiction" of Howard, Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, et al, establishing the proper atmosphere becomes very important-- to really play to the game's strengths, you need to establish a markedly different feel from the more "epic fantasy" tone of D&D 4th ed., for instance, and MisterGuignol's mini-settings provide vivid, easy-to-digest capsules of concentrated weird.  Anyway, someone asked for Greek and Roman settings with a weird slant and MisterGuignol generously gave his consent for me to actually get some use out of my Classics degree.  This will eventually be collected (along with all the other mini-settings from the thread) into a .pdf, but in the meantime, I thought I'd put my contributions up on the blog.

First up is Rome:

Rome: ad limites Imperii

“Inscriptions still visible in the sub-cellar bore such unmistakable letters as “DIV*.*.*. OPS*.*.*. MAGNA. MAT*.*.*. “ sign of the Magna Mater whose dark worship was once vainly forbidden to Roman citizens. Anchester had been the camp of the third Augustan legion, as many remains attest, and it was said that the temple of Cybele was splendid and thronged with worshippers who performed nameless ceremonies at the bidding of a Phrygian priest." -- H.P. Lovecraft, "The Rats in the Walls."

Here, the players are citizens of a powerful, expanding Empire. While it may appear stable and solid from the outside, fissures appear here and there in the fabric of Empire, growing wider and deeper as it grows in influence and dominion. A Roman or Rome-inspired campaign can easily accommodate themes from "The Weird North," "Pilgrims in a Strange Land," and "The Urban Weird," but Imperialism imparts a unique flavor of its own. With some tweaking, the Referee could substitute a later empire for the Roman model presented here-- imagine the film Gunga Din with Roman legionaries instead of British officers, for example, with the Cult of Cybele replacing that of Kali.

The Setting: The mid 2nd-century. Rome is at the height of her power, with her borders stretching from the scorching deserts of Arabia to the freezing, forested wastes of northern Britain. All roads lead to Rome and those roads are crowded with folk of every description. Players will encounter merchants and traders on the make, crafty slaves and uncouth freedmen, soldiers in gleaming array,, inscrutable Latin-mangling foreigners, bringing their strange customs and stranger gods into the Empire's very heart, aristocratic officers and administrators, burning with family pride, aghast at their own waning fortunes and the success of the upstart, lower-class "new men" who have flourished since the demise of the Republic. Here are prostitutes and actors, swaggering gladiators living in pampered servitude.

But this is all in the open. On the fringes and beneath the surface, outside the rigidly proscribed boundaries of fort walls, Roman roads, and social conventions, strangeness breeds and multiplies, and corruption and decadence take root. The plain, no-nonsense agrarian soul of Rome, the mos maiores (customs of the ancestors) that defeated Hanibal and brought the Greek city-states under Roman domination are themselves under constant threat. Women of good family, not content to be obedient daughters and chaste matronaeforsake their duty for luxury, admitting the embraces of slaves and freedmen. They abort their lawful and unlawful offspring, the better to enjoy enjoy unabated those pleasures to which they have accustomed themselves, and concoct poisons to serve their husbands when the latter become too dull or troublesome. They make a study of charms and curses to ensnare potential lovers and punish rivals and unwilling suitors. Young men, in defiance of their manly forbears, give in to softness and effeminacy,preferring poetry and music, silks and perfumes to the soldier's boot and the sober toga of a citizen. Both seek out strange new gods, imported from far-flung regions of the empire, and attend outlandish and unseemly rites in their honor, in their insatiable desire for novelty and stimulation.

The Themes: Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artis intulit agresti Latio --"Conquered Greece took captive her savage conqueror and brought her arts into rustic Latium."- Horace, Book II, epistle i, lines 156-157. Even as the Empire conquers the world without, she is conquered from within. While the Empire's strength is far-reaching and overt, dangerous elements from conquered territories work their way insidiously into the Imperial bloodstream, coursing along the arteries of Rome's roads all the way to the Empire's very heart. This is an inescapable consequence of the Empire's success, as those very qualities that once defined Rome's national character prove vulnerable to the onslaught of foreign influences as she acquires new territories and dominions. While many find Roman ideals desirable (as well as the benefits of citizenship) the attraction goes both ways, as the influx of wealth and novelties (in religion, dress, etc.) prove irresistible to a populace raised on stark, rustic ideals. Play up the "strangeness" and "otherness" of everything "non-Roman" and the constant tension between the rough-and-ready, hard-headed, practical Roman ideal, and the cultured, Greek-speaking, cosmopolitan ideal of the polished urbanite. How much polish can one acquire without a loss of virtue and good sense? Which elements from the cultures of subject peoples can be safely and usefully acquired, and which lead inevitably toward corruption, decadence, and madness?

Others (I can well believe) will hammer out bronze that breathes
with more delicacy than us, draw out living features
from the marble: plead their causes better, trace with instruments
the movement of the skies, and tell the rising of the constellations:
remember, Roman, it is for you to rule the nations with your power,
(that will be your skill) to crown peace with law,
to spare the conquered, and subdue the proud.
- Virgil, Aeneid VI lines 847-853 trans. Kline

While the PCs themselves may be dutiful servants of Empire or (more likely) a gang of violent misfits-- who else goes adventuring for a living?-- the Imperial mandate exists as an ever-present stamp on their daily lives. Unusual eloquence, artistic skill, and more arcane arts are often considered somewhat suspect, at best. Slaves, freedmen, women, and religious and ethnic minorities operate, to some extent, outside the mainstream of Roman public life, and adventurers (by their very nature being unusual and extraordinary) often find themselves the victims of injustice, indifference, and suspicion from a society which stresses assimilation, tradition, and conformity. Emphasize the gulf between the PC's expected roles (gender, social status, ethnicity) with the iconoclastic realities of the adventuring life.

Patrons and Clients-- the ties that bind. While many bemoan the current state of the patron/client relationship, it's still a powerful force in society. Loyalty to one's patron and (to a regrettably lesser extent) responsibility to one's clients and dependents informs everything from political and family life to religion. Roman religion, after all, is merely an extension of this relationship toward the divine-- an arrangement between worshiper and deity in which the former provides honors and sacrifices and the latter provides protection and favor, in turn. When this relationship breaks down in any of these contexts, the forces unleashed are often violent, corrosive, and unpredictable.

Applicable Themes from Other Settings:

Civilization versus the Wild—make the outpost a place that the characters have a vested interest in defending. Make it clear that the outpost is civilization's first and best line of defense against something monstrous that could spell doom for all humanity. Imperil their community; make them scramble to protect the life they know.

Class warfare—the town is home to barely-repressed social resentments. The poor and the rich hate each other instinctively, the old money has a vested interest in keeping the middle and working classes from gaining too large a share of cultural capital, the disenfranchised minority is kept at the menial, abject fringes of society. If your group has the stomach for it, you might even work racial tensions into this heady brew of contention.

Discipline is survival—the only way to persevere against the savagery of the new world is to remain stoic and disciplined in the face of chaos. Rigid adherence to law and order requires that the colonists forge their souls from cold iron to weather the misfortunes of this strange land.The beacon of civilization is surrounded by barbarism—the colony's survival is a fragile thing. Natural dangers, bloodthirsty braves, and supernatural threats encircle the colony and any venture into the forest is a likely suicide mission. While the subjugation of the wilderness will necessarily entail some loss of life, the greatest threat is that the colonists will abandon their civilized ways and fight savagery with savagery.

Many of these themes are already familiar to readers of Weird/Pulp Fiction-- particularly in Howard (the corrupting, softening effects of civilization) and Lovecraft (the threats to civilization from barbaric and/or decadent forces), and these concerns are mirrored in Tacitus' "noble savages" portrayal of the Germans and Juvenal's xenophobic portrait of foreigner-infested Rome in the Satires. Referees and players must decide how much of this reactionary attitude they wish to stress in their games.

The Foes:
Barbarian Hordes from the North - Huge, uncouth, and undisciplined, yet possessed of certain simple virtues that Rome herself has lost. The implacable foe is feared and hated but respected, and the Romanized native accepted to a certain extent, but perhaps viewed with some suspicion and contempt.

Barbarians from the East-- Cowardly, devious, and deadly. In war, they strike with lies and arrows from fleeing horsemen. In peace, they seduce and corrupt with their decadent ways and strange gods.

Sorcerers and Mountebanks- pretty much foreign by definition. At best, they will merely cheat you. At worst, their powers are real and harmful to all involved.

The Ancient Gods of Conquered Peoples, and their Cults-- While Rome has co-opted and conflated many of the gods of the conquered, some are not so easily tamed or assimilated. The ancient Etruscan gods of Rome's deposed kings, worshiped in secret by citizens of certain lineages; The Great Mother Cybele, whose castrated priests are an unnerving sight as they wind their way through the streets in bizarre processions... Certain cultists of Bacchus might fit into this group, as the rites have been at times suppressed in the ostensible interest of public order and decency. What other nameless cults and orders observe their rituals throughout the empire-- inimical to Rome and her allies?

Witches and wicked women-- From withered, disgusting crones collecting the bones of dead children to beautiful adulteresses skilled in poisons, curses, and love-draughts, these represent a total rejection of feminine modesty and decorum, and leave chaos and evil in their wake. Unlike the barbarians, these women are all the more dangerous because their wickedness is masked by an outward show of venerable age or respectability.

The Soundtrack: Peter Gabriel- Passion and Passion Sources, HBO's Rome Soundtrack.

Literary and Cinematic Inspirations:  Apuleius- The Golden Ass (sex, violence, casual cruelty, and witchcraft!) Petronius- The Satyricon (featuring, among other things, depraved cultists, tasteless spectacle, thieving and con-artistry, more sex, violence, casual cruelty and witchcraft, and a story about a werewolf) Catullus- LXIII (a shift in tone and style from his “Lesbia” poems-- this is an exhilarating and terrifying account of the goddess Cybele and her consort Attis, and his ecstatic self-castration), The Book of Acts, the satires of Horace and Juvenal, R.E. Howard- "Men of the Shadows", "Worms of the Earth," "Kings of the Night," misc. novels by John Maddox Roberts, the "Roma sub Rosa" series by Steven Saylor, H.P. Lovecraft- "The Very Old Folk," Richard Tierney- The Drums of Chaos and The Scroll of Thoth: Tales of Simon Magus and the Great Old Ones, Shakespeare- Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus

Fellini's Satyricon, Centurion, The Eagle, HBO's Rome, I, Claudius (both the BBC miniseries and the Robert Graves novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God).

Historical and Fortean Inspirations:*Lead cursing tablets, the vanished 9th Legion, Lucan- Pharsalia 6.588-830 (A Thessalian witch reanimates a dead soldier), Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds by Daniel Ogden, Phlegon of Tralles' Book of Marvels (A 2nd century Charles Fort's account of “prodigies”), Georg Luck's Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds, Mystery Cults (Mithras, Isis, Cybele), Lucian of Samosata-- “Alexander the False Prophet” (a hatchet-job on a 2nd century con-man and founder of the prophetic cult of Glycon-- a human-headed snake worshiped today by Alan Moore), Etruscan tomb-mounds and divination with sheep's livers.

Gaming Inspirations: Cthulhu Invictus for Call of Cthulhu, Jason E. Roberts' FVLMINATA, Paul Elliot's Zenobia, Requiem for Rome for Vampire: The Requiem (set in the Late Empire, but the long intro by Ken Hite is pure gold), Paul Czege's Bacchanal.

Weird Rome: Kickstart Table (d4)

1. The PCs are stationed at a distant outpost of the Empire. The province is officially subdued, but can the supposedly Romanized new auxilleries be trusted? And what of their still-barbarous cousins beyond the fort wall? Will they put aside their squabbling and unite? You can't think about that, now, as the garrison commander has just been found murdered in the settlement's new forum in broad daylight.

2. The PCs must journey to visit an important friend or patron, but the road to his villa lies beyond bandit-infested hills and lonely roadside graveyards. And what of the old Etruscan tomb-mounds that dot the landscape, and the sounds that issue forth at night?

3. The PCs are guests at a lavish party held by a wealthy local freedman. As the night wears on, the entertainments become more bizarre and grotesque, and reality blurs with strange, fevered visions. How to leave, and how to find the way home again through now-unfamiliar streets? What was in that wine?

4. A friend, family member, lover, or important contact of the PCs has disappeared while visiting the provinces. Why are the local authorities so evasive, and what's the meaning of those strange, nightly processions?

Testing... testing...

I'm starting this blog as a spur for creativity and production, and as an attempt to get past my habits of procrastination, chronic laziness, crippling self-doubt and perfectionism to actually produce something and put it out there for people to see.  Time will tell.

It's ostensibly a gaming blog focusing on material for tabletop RPGs, but I'm expecting to veer off into other subjects with some frequency-- movies, comic books, fantasy, horror, science fiction, reviews and essays, and any random things I get interested in or obsessed with.  Possibly some fiction as well, though that'll probably be quarantined in its own section.