Saturday, July 9, 2011

Weird Greece: A Setting-sketch for Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Here's part two. I'm a little less happy with this one than the Roman setting-- I don't know if it's the nebulous semi-historical setting I chose (The Hellenistic Age might be a better fit for a gritty swords-and-sorcery feel, but I don't think I could improve on Paul Elliott's Warlords of Alexander) or what, but something just feels slightly off. Any comments or suggestions would be appreciated.

Weird Greece:

“A dead weight hung upon us. It hung upon our limbs-- upon the household furniture --upon the goblets from which we drank; and all things were depressed, and borne down thereby -all things save only the flames of the seven lamps which illumined our revel. Uprearing themselves in tall slender lines of light, they thus remained burning all pallid and motionless; and in the mirror which their lustre formed upon the round table of ebony at which we sat, each of us there assembled beheld the pallor of his own countenance, and the unquiet glare in the downcast eyes of his companions. Yet we laughed and were merry in our proper way-which was hysterical; and sang the songs of Anacreon-which are madness; and drank deeply-although the purple wine reminded us of blood.” -- E. A. Poe, "Shadow: a Parable" (1850)

A Mythic Greek setting presents a unique paradox for gaming in a Weird Fantasy idiom. It is supremely suited for the conventions of fantasy roleplaying games-- wandering adventurers, a pantheon of gods, savage monsters to be fought and overcome, perilous quests into the underworld, etc. are a more natural fit to a Greek-inspired setting than a cod-medieval one. The gods, men, and monsters of Greek mythology are iconic and familiar. But this very familiarity and accessibility can be a serious obstacle for a Referee wishing to preserve the feeling of "the Weird" that informs LotFP. Throughout this setting sketch, I'll offer tips on how to exploit the unique flavor of a Greek-inspired setting while never losing sight of "the Weird."

The Setting: The ancient Mediterranean -- the last gasp of the Heroic Age, and the beginning of the degenerate Age of the Men of Iron. History is still fluid and murky, and legends may still be made of the deeds of such heroes as are born in these latter days. The gods still meddle in the affairs of mortals, but not so openly as they once did, and their semi- divine progeny are scarcely to be found upon the dark earth.

The known world is divided into petty kingdoms and city-states, ruled by a collection of kings, queens, ruling councils, and tyrants-- the sort of upstart adventurers the PCs might aspire to, who have seized control by unorthodox means and now crouch on their troubled thrones, claiming descent from some god or hero. The great- walled city of Troy has fallen, and men will never again attempt to build on such a scale again. Even now, the PCs should encounter monumental, eerily-deserted ruins of the age that has just past, which dwarf in size and grandeur the squalid huts of their home villages. The large cities that remain should be grand, imposing, and in a state of gradual decline.

Everywhere, the signs of the gods' displeasure are evident. Women give birth to horrifying monstrosities in secret, which are kept carefully hidden or run free to despoil and ruin as they will. The roads are unsafe to travel, save in large, well-armed bands, being the haunts of brigands, monsters, and men who, living beyond the flickering light of civilization, have become little more than beasts themselves. The seas are treacherous as well, and mariners find themselves prey to reavers, petty wars between island kingdoms, and terrifying creatures of the deep, who multiply unchecked in waters far from the common trade routes.

The Themes:

Competition and Strife bring out excellence: Closely tied to the concept of arete (excellence) is the idea that someone, somewhere, must be the best at a given thing, and that one must constantly strive to be the best and be recognized as such. The Greeks applied this attitude toward all facets of life -- athletics, poetry, song, horsemanship, warfare, etc. In a properly Greek setting, there should be constant pressure between characters (PCs and NPCs-- even on the same side) to outdo each other in feats of daring, ingenuity, martial prowess, etc. The one who comes in second is to be pitied, but the one who does not compete is only worthy of contempt. On the level of clans, communities, and city-states, this often leads to years of protracted warfare, bitter feuds, populations slaughtered and enslaved and cities burnt to the ground.

Man is mortal, glory is eternal: Player characters, particularly in games like this, are rather fragile, especially when starting out. This is to their credit. The immortal gods cannot be valorous, as they can never risk death by their actions. That honor and distinction is left to mortals, like your player characters. The only way for them to achieve immortality is to perform deeds worthy of song. Play up the importance of kleos -- the glory spoken of by others. This should serve as a spur to action, and a few obols here and there to the right bards and minstrels will do wonders for their reputation.

The Age of Heroes is passing away, to be replaced by the Age of Iron: While many continue to publicly uphold the ideals of the past age, they do not hold them in their hearts as they once did. Honor and Glory are sacrificed for expediency. Sons rebel against their fathers, wives murder their husbands, strangers are turned away at the door or betrayed by their hosts. Emphasize the growing sense of lawlessness, danger, and decline. Will the player characters stand out as anachronisms-- boldly embodying the virtues of the Heroic Age? Or will they make the most of this unscrupulous new era?

The Foes:

The Gods The gods are superhuman, but not omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent. Like mortals, they are subject to the Fates. They are by turns benevolent, wrathful, perverse, lustful, petty, and majestic, according to their whims. While the gods may walk the earth from time to time, the PCs (and their players) should never be quite sure whether they have encountered one "in the flesh." Like Nyarlathotep, they assume many guises and masks as they go about their business on earth. Keep the gods offstage for the most part-- if they must speak at all, let it be through the cryptic, ecstatic utterances of Sibyls and Oracles. Since the gods are basically the personification of observable forces-- thunder and lightning, wine and drunkenness, love, lust and obsession, plague and sickness, the sea, etc., let the gods manifest through unusually strong or freak displays of these forces.

As I mentioned before, the iconic status of the monsters of Greek Mythology make tempting antagonists, but their appearances, strengths, and weaknesses are so well known that "The Weird" is compromised through this familiarity. Use monsters like Medusa, the hydra, etc., sparingly if at all. Rather, use them for inspiration to create your own monsters in a similar vein. Many of them were formerly ordinary men and women, cursed by the gods for some real or perceived wrongdoing. When designing a monster in the Greek tradition, first think of a person, and then a transgression for them to commit. Murder? Rape? Incest? Unusual cruelty? Cannibalism? Refusing the advances of a god or goddess? (never mind that the gods themselves are frequent offenders in many of these areas themselves -- the laws of proper behavior are for mortals). Then think about the punishment and how this could manifest in the hideous monstrosity they've now become. A malicious gossip might now literally drip poison into the ears of her victims. A blaspheming poet might be given a voice that drives his listeners into a murderous rage. Each such monster should be singular and local to a particular area.

Outlaws, pirates, and brigands
These haunt trade routes and mountain passes, a symbol of the growing lawlessness of the world. Particularly memorable brigands will have some horrific trick to how they dispatch their victims. In the legend of Theseus, the hero must contend with Prokrustes, who stretches or amputates his "guests" in order to fit his bed, and Sinis, who tied his victims between two bent pine trees and then let them go, splitting them in half.

Beast-men and wild women. Encountered in wild places. These have forsaken civilization entirely and live like beasts, often (as in the case of satyrs) taking on the features of the animals whose behavior they have come to typify. Alternately savage and beguiling.

The Underworld
Wealth buried in the ground is the de facto property of Hades, and adventurers venturing beneath the earth are not only plundering the dead, but stealing the rightful spoils of a god.

The Soundtrack: Basil Poledouris- Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer soundtracks. Other than that, I'm outta suggestions. Any help filling in this section would be appreciated.

Literary and Cinematic Inspirations:
Euripides- Medea, The Bacchae, Hippolytus, H.P. Lovecraft- “The Tree,” E.A. Poe- “Shadow: A Parable,” Ovid- Metamorphoses, Homer- The Iliad and The Odyssey, Mary Renault- The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, Robert Graves- Hercules, My Shipmate and Eric Shanower's Age of Bronze comic book series, Appolonius of Rhodes- Argonautika.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Clash of the Titans (1981), Jim Henson's The Storyteller: The Greek Myths(1990), various Italian sword-and-sandal movies -- Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) is particularly stylish and useful, as director Mario Bava introduces an element of horror and creepiness), Iphygenia (1982) Troy (2004) (for the visuals, anyway)

Historical, Mythological, and Fortean Inspirations: Herodotus- The Histories, Robert Graves-- The Greek Myths (heavily influenced by J.G. Fraser's The Golden Bough, and packed with an odd blend of scholarly erudition and wild-ass theorizing, but the book's eccentricities only make it that much better for gaming inspiration), The Eleusinian Mysteries, the palace complex at Knossos, the citadels of Mycenae, The Oracle at Delphi, the Labyrinth, Pliny's Natural History, The Legend of Theseus, Orpheus and Orphic cults, The Trojan War, Atlantis, Circe, Medea.

Gaming Inspirations: GURPS: Greece, Mazes & Minotaurs and Tomb of the Bull King, Caverns of Thracia (Judges Guild), Mythic Greece for Rolemaster, AGON by John Harper, Age of Heroes (AD&D 2nd ed.), "Stealing the Histories" by Michael Curtis (article on using Herodotus as inspiration for sandbox campaigns-- Knockspell #4), "The Dungeon as a Mythic Underworld" by Philotomy, Jonathan Walton's notes for Argonauts (sadly, all that was released before the project fizzled into vaporware -- Daedalus #1 .

Weird Greece Kickstart Table (d4)

1. A local tyrant clings precariously to his throne. His claim to legitimacy rests on his alleged descent from a semi-divine hero of the Trojan War and founder of the tyrant's city. He will offer an exorbitant sum for the retrieval of the hero's armor, which he plans to display prominently in appearances throughout his capitol. The armor itself is huge-- larger by a half than the tallest man living, and is said to lie beneath a nearby cave, rumored to be one of the many entrances to the Underworld.

2. Women in a nearby village have been giving birth to monsters-- strange, pale, silent things with useless, elongated hands and feet, a set of pointed teeth, and the cold, black eyes of birds. What is the reason for the curse that has settled on the village, and how can it be broken?

3. A city is holding its Games when the PCs arrive. The material rewards (not to mention the fame) to be won are considerable, but the contestants are soon dropping dead from a mysterious sickness. Is this a case of poisoning? Sorcery? Some of course, will blame the PCs themselves...

4. The PCs find themselves shipwrecked on a mysterious island. The island's inhabitants (about 20 people in all) have constructed a tawdry replica of Troy out of driftwood, the hulls of other shipwrecks, and what appear to be human bones. They are all quite insane, and play out an endless drama of their own devising, drawing on elements of mythology and their own obsessions. The PCs, of course, will be cast in parts of their own. Do they attempt to play along, hoping to find a means of escape, or do they take their chances in the surrounding forests?