Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Pellatarrum: the Haunted Frontier

Beware! This is a two-day "mega-post".

After I wrote my Navigation in Pellatarrum post a while back, I had kind of a friendly argument with Trollsmyth about why, if the wilderness was so dangerous, did people go out into it? And why would adventurers ever leave civilization?

The simple answer is, sane people don't go into the wilderness in Pellatarrum, and adventurers by their very nature are not sane folks. I think I covered the first clause of that statement pretty well in my initial post, but let me briefly meditate on the second before going on to the meat of this article.

Sensible people do not take unnecessary risks. They stay at home and live boring lives where everything is normal and predicable and safe. These people are not heroes, they are normal schmucks like you or me. Then there are the people who, for virtue or greed or glory, put their safety on the line and live extraordinary lives. We as a culture lionize these people, because it takes an extraordinary person to put himself in danger willingly. While most folks run away from a burning building, paramedics and police and firefighters run towards it.

Because this behavior drastically shortens their life expectancies, it is not, strictly speaking, sensible. Neither is scaling Mount Everest, or rowing across an ocean, or otherwise pushing oneself beyond one's physical and mental limits to accomplish something extraordinary. That is why they are heroes, and it is why we sensible types play games about them instead of wageslaves who stay at home and do safe, sensible things. That is why adventurers leave civilization and brave the hardships of what the Puritans called "The Haunted Frontier."

Also called "The Gothic Wilderness," this may sound like an unknown concept but I guarantee you will recognize it in a heartbeat -- it's what made The Blair Witch Project so frightening and The Village so effective (until the mystery is spoiled). It can be summarized as "the Devil lives in the woods" but it's far easier to show than to tell:

It's interesting to trace the logic which went into this reasoning:
  • Indians live in the wilderness. 
  • They are godless because they don't share our religion. 
  • They attack us, and therefore are savages. 
  • Thus, godless savages live in the wilderness. 
  • Because they are both godless and savage, they are of the devil. 
  • Therefore, the devil lives in the wilderness. 
  • Clearly the devil rules the wilderness, because he sends indians to attack us (the faithful). 
  • Anywhere the devil rules is, ipso facto, hell. 
  • Therefore, the wilderness is hell.
  • All good Christians should eschew hell, the devil, and his minions. 
  • Therefore, if you willingly go into the wilderness, your soul is in peril. 
  • Anyone who enjoys imperiling his soul is either insane or in league with the devil. 
  • Insanity is demonic possession, and anyone in league with the devil is a witch or a warlock. (Exorcisms for the former, executions for the latter.)
  • THEREFORE, stay at home where it is safe; pray for your immortal soul; kill anyone who doesn't do likewise because they are evil; and don't go into the woods.
It's pretty easy to see how this turned into "deforestation is God's will:; a kind of crusade against the wilderness that, in a many ways, is still with us today.

Now there are some interesting parallels going on here between real-world history and Pellatarrum:
  • Puritanism and the Church of the Light. Sure, you need to remove the strictures against promiscuity, but the tendency towards religious fervor and inquisition is still there. 
  • Similarly, the Cult of the Dark and the evils which lurk in the night: if it's hidden, it's wicked.
  • The wilderness is just as deadly: monstrous things live out there who only want to kill you. In fact, in Pellatarrum this is more true than in real life, because of the variety of hazards involved: vicious monsters, aberrations from the depths of the earth, magical beasts, and of course the savage orcs (and their degenerate servitor races) are a hand stand-in for indians. 

OK, so that's the general mood and theme I am going for whenever the PCs leave civilization. Time for the next question,  What happens if they don't have a ranger or druid with them? Is it a total party kill? And the answer to that is "no," for the simple reason that I don't like to have PCs die like little bitches unless it's a result of deliberate stupidity. Sure, if a group of NPCs goes into the woods without the proper skills, then they are going to get lost and die horribly. This makes a wonderful generic adventure hook: "Go rescue the group of village children who ventured out too far and got lost," for instance.

But for PCs, I prefer to err on the side of "death by awesome." It is far better to kill them with a devious deathtrap in a lost tomb than have them starve to death in the wilderness: "OK, after being lost for days, you are hungry, thirsty, and fatigued, but you have found a dungeon entrance. Would you rather die of exposure, or explore this dungeon in search of supplies despite being at a penalty?"  This way they still suffer for their foolishness, but if they die they at least die like heroes.

I'm going to conclude this double-wide post with brief descriptions of how the various races of Pellatarrum view the wilderness.

Dragons are one of the few races which aren't at all frightened of the trackless wilderness, because of the twin virtues of being able to fly above the treeline (which renders most hazards ineffective) and being apex predators. They go where they want, eat what they do, and who is to tell them otherwise?

Dwarves rarely leave the great Citadel-Forge of Agnakorem, which has never fallen to enemy assault. (This is a bit of an understatement, as attacking Agnakorem is rather like engaging the Himalayas in hand-to-hand combat. It's just too damn big.) Given their communal nature, a perfect fortress home, and all the raw materials they will ever need delivered right to their door -- being the architects of the universe certainly has its perks -- they simply don't see the need to leave. Any urge to explore and colonize is directed downwards, which brings them into conflict with the aberrations from the Underworld who are making their way upwards to escape the devastation wrought by the destruction of the Nightspire.

Elves are the other race which doesn't fear the wilderness, because they live there, so nearly every elf ends up taking at least one level in ranger and/or druid. Of course, they suffer from other problems, such as rampant xenophobia and fear of cities, and often wage bloody genocidal war against the orcs who seek to overwhelm them, but they aren't afraid of the place. On the other hand, they have a crippling fear of the open water, probably because their ancestors were aquatic and a great schism happened thousands of years ago which forced half of the population out of the water and into the woods. So, same intensity but directed differently.

Gnomes, if you recall, were created by the elves as ambassadors to the dwarves. This gives them a "best of both worlds" mentality, where they do not so much fear the wilderness as have a healthy respect for its dangers (much like how Australians living outside the cities deal with the fact that practically everything over there has poison which will kill you instantly), but they still band together in close-knit communities and retire to safe underground tunnels when night falls.

Halflings have an interesting take on the whole affair: bring your entire family with you when you venture out. If home comes with you, then you are never ever lost, and everything becomes a grand adventure. Of course, it also helps if there are a half-dozen cousins with practical wilderness survival skills in your family tree...

Humans do the typically human thing and try to be everything at once with varying degrees of success. Some live in great fortified cities and never think of entering the woods, ever. Some take after their elven creators and try to live in harmony with nature, though this is more of an individual undertaking than a community-held attitude. The rest end up living a compromise existence of semi-fortified villages in pacified sections of wilderness, surrounded by farms. Sometimes these villages turn into great cities and sometimes the wilderness devours them.

Kobold attitudes depend on if they are in service to a dragon or not. If in service, the area around the dragon's lair is utterly pacified and the kobolds are quite happy to continue living in servitude to their master. If a masterless tribe, they live in abject fear as everything around them is larger and deadlier than they. They act much like the Viet Cong, living in hidden tunnels and laying traps for everything larger than themselves, as that is the best way to score a victory (and dinner) without risk of injury.

Orcs (and other goblinoid races) don't so much live in an area as they do exploit it of all available resources before moving on to fresh pastures. Much like mongol hordes, they will strip an area bare, which has the obvious side-effect of pacifying it utterly. It's not entirely clear if this is done out of fear, a desire to assert dominance over everything, or simply the nature of fire races to consume everything in their path.


  1. I like the take on the racial psychologies and how they see the world.

  2. Have you considered expanding on the first half of this post and selling it as an article for gaming magazines? This is good work, and it nails the uniqueness of the adventurer and the "normalcy" of society right on the head.


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