Monday, April 6, 2009

The City’s Shadows Alphabet: A-E

Back in November of last year, I posted a little piece called the Dungeon Alphabet on this blog. I had originally written that piece for two reasons. One was to allow me to take a week off from regular posting and the second was that I was looking for a way to organize the classic dungeon themes and clichés for easy reference while I was working on my megadungeon. I was bewildered, albeit gratefully, when I started getting a lot of positive feedback on the piece. The Dungeon Alphabet was singlehandedly the piece that brought The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope out of obscurity and turned it into the somewhat bright light that it has become.

Despite the success of that piece, I’ve been hesitant to try and recapture the magic again by doing another alphabetical style series of postings. I’m equally aware that it might have been a fluke the first time around, as well as being wary of going back to the well yet again. As everyone knows, sequels tend to suck. But I found myself needing to do another alphabet to help me organize my thoughts on adventures outside of the dungeon. I waffled about posting it but finally decided to let the chips fall where they may. If I’m lucky, somebody will get some use out of it and that’ll be worth the risk.

Now that I’ve got the first three levels of my megadungeon all fleshed out and ready for its grand opening, the LBBs tell me it time to start looking at life outside the dungeon and to prep the sunlit lands for adventure. I’ve got a pretty good mental picture of the local settlement, just needing to scratch out a rough map and a few general notes to populate it. While I was thinking about life in the sticks, however, I started looking ahead at the nearby “big city.” While I’m not doing any work on that area yet, I figured it be a good idea to at least organize my thought for the day when I have to start thinking seriously about fantasy city life. And thus the City’s Shadows Alphabet was born.

Frequent readers of this blog might have gathered that, when it comes to my favorite flavor of fantasy role-playing, I’m deeply entrenched in the “Low Fantasy” camp. I’ve been in my fair share of “Rescue the Princess and Save the World” campaigns over the years and, while I had a great time playing them, the excitement for those style games has waned considerably. I credit the works of Fritz Leiber for establishing what I consider my default D&D type games: dirty and down-to-earth. Leiber remains the biggest influence on me when it comes to fantasy role-playing for many reasons but the grungy world of Lankhmar is the primary draw for me.

In my own mind, adventurers occupy the same societal niches as thieves, whores, actors, and madmen. By choosing to pursue a rather suspect career path, the professional adventurer is regulated to the shadowy lower class world when they venture into the big city. They might work themselves up the social ladder if given enough time and success, but they’d better get used to flea-ridden inns, watered down ale, and the constant threat of knives in the back until they prove their worth. Because of this assumption, I turned my attentions to writing an alphabetical list that organized the less seemly side of life in the big city. While the themes and clichés within are suitable for a “Thieves Campaign,” they were written with a broader picture in mind. This is the world of low level adventurers of all classes upon entering the city for the first time, even if they’re honest and law abiding (ah yeah, right…) at heart.

I’ll be posting the entire alphabet over the course of the week with a new post each weekday. While I can’t promise with complete certainty that this will be the last alphabet to ever appear here, I certainly have no intention of making it a regular feature. Hopefully you’ll find this sequel at least somewhat equal to its predecessor.

The City’s Shadows Alphabet

A is for Alleyways

Like the strands of a spider’s web, the alleyways of the city radiate out from the urban heart to ensnare the unwary. Stinking, trash-strewn, and labyrinthine, alleyways serve as the highways for the denizens of the city’s shadows and the homes for the truly downtrodden and lost. It is within these narrow channels that thieves, whores, madmen, and the wretched reside, far away from the opulent chambers and homes of the rich and powerful.

To step into the alleys is to leave the brightly lit world of the honest man behind, even if you can still glimpse those clean, bright streets at the alley’s filthy mouth. The world of the alleyways have rules of their own and those who do not take the effort to learn the rules of that world soon find themselves devoured by it. The alleys are gateways into places never seen by the honest and righteous, who shun such places with good reason. Adventurers, however, often must tread these paths as part of their sojourns into the city. The cramped shops and hovels off of the alleyways are the domiciles and places of business for Hedge Wizards, sages, the Thieves Guild, and other quasi-legal operations. Many alleyways contain the rusted, offal-choked grates that lead into the city’s Sewers, making them the only place to enter that subterranean world unobserved. The alleyways are also the last resort for desperate men when the Watch is hard upon their heels and they need a place to vanish from the law.

B is for Brothels

From dingy, dirty hovels to decadent pleasure Palaces, the brothels of the city are just as vital to its livelihood as the marketplace, the granaries, and the Docks. Within these houses of ill-repute, temporary bliss is sought to relieve the burdens of both power and poverty alike. With clienteles as varied as the neighborhoods of the city itself, the brothels provide entertainment no matter how bizarre one’s tastes may run, the contents of one’s purse being the only barrier standing in between.

In addition to the carnal pleasures the brothels provide, they serve other purposes as well. Literal hot beds of intrigue and spying, more than one powerful official has been brought to his knees because of the secrets he let spill is a post-coital haze. Adventurers gather to deplete their stores of gold and jewels won from the dungeon’s depths, finding it then necessary to recruit new members in the brothel’s common room to help replace those riches. The brothel is also, sadly, sometimes the last resort for young women and men whose dreams of city life have been crushed under the realities of urban existence. Many become lost souls within the flesh trade but some actually survive and thrive in that world, building powerbases that rival those of the most influential city officials.

C is for Cults

It is said that sometime even the gods themselves cannot see into the shadows of the city, resulting in a million pleas and prayers going unanswered in the dirty homes therein. In response to such unheard prayers, many are forced to turn to lesser known and darker powers for even the briefest respite from the horrors of daily life. The priests of these cults know this truth and often start their congregations in the abandoned warehouses, filthy Sewers, and other forgotten corners of the city.

The members of these cults, despite their shadowy places of worship, consist of a broad sample of the city’s citizens. A lovelorn seamstress, hands clenched in adoration and dreaming of a man she cannot have, kneels beside a powerful Guild leader who seeks the pleasures of avarice and to crush a hated business rival. The gods and powers invokes by these cults are equally as diverse. Some cults are little more than the scheme of the charismatic con man who seeks to line his pockets, while others worship a very real and very power patron whose existence might be better forgotten. Because the tenets of these cults are often dark and bloody, those who interact with the shadow world of the city must constantly be on watch. They can never know if the smiling barmaid who brings them their ale is secretly serving a malignant power who craves them as a sacrifice.

D is for the Docks

Trade is the lifeblood of any city, with goods arriving from across the nation or across the world to flow through the city’s markets. While many of these goods pass through the gates of the city, even more arrive at the weather beaten wharfs that line the waterfront. Unlike the goods that arrive under the careful scrutiny of the City Watch at the gate, however, the arrivals on the waterfront are often of a less seemly nature.

Whether the docks abut the deep blue ocean or a muddy, languid river, the wharfs are vibrant with activity of both legal and illegal business. Scar-faced smugglers haggle in waterfront bars, press gangs roam the docks looking to fill the quotas, dead bodies bob in the water amongst the flotsam and jetsam, and rats scurry amongst the crates of illicit goods piled high in ramshackle warehouses. These nightly dances are Obscured from the sight of honest folk by the thick fogs and dense mists that blow off the water. The smell of fish and exotic spices vie with the clang of ships’ bells and groans of pain to fill the evening air. Spend enough time in the city and sooner or later you’ll find you have business to attend to down at the docks. Keep your Knives and wits keen and you might just see the dawn rise…

E is for Excitement

The old adage is that “city never sleeps.” While attributed to modern urban centers, this adage is no less true when applied to pseudo-medieval cities as well. The first time visitor to the city, acclimated to the sleepy village where he’s led most of his days, is overwhelmed by the hustle-and-bustle that fill the city’s thoroughfares, marketplaces, and taprooms. Even the dark of night is not enough to quiet the city, with brawls spilling into the muddy streets, the temple bells chiming to mark the hours, and the laughter and screams of citizens sounding in the shadows.
The pace of live should never slow down for adventurers in the city. Festivals fill the streets with revelers and pilgrims alike, Quarrels streak through night as a thief leaps across the Rooftops, and pleasure and danger meet the adventurers head on in equal measures. While it is possible to find a quiet corner in which to escape the crowds, such places are few and far between and generally come at the cost of lost opportunities if taken solace in. Each visit to the big city may be the adventurer’s last; it is best if they didn’t waste the opportunity to seize the day (or night) and take full advantage of all the city has to offer.



Will Douglas said...

Oh, happy day!

You're off to a really good start here. I can see this being a great companion piece to The Dungeon Alphabet.

Will you be doing Wilderness, also? (Just thinking here of Joe Fisher's classic three part series in The Strategic Review/The Dragon).

Michael Curtis said...

Will you be doing Wilderness, also?

I have no plans to do one, but then again I haven't started thinking about Wilderness adventuring yet so one never knows. I also don't want to become the "alphabet guy" and ensure my one trick pony status. ;-)

E.G.Palmer said...

I am squeeing like a japanese fangirl! A grouchy, greybearded japanese fangirl, in a plaid shirt, with dirty work boots.

I'm also pleased to find out you are a Lieber-brother! I too am a citizen of Lankhmar, city of sevenscore thousand smokes.

Kevin Mac said...

I too am Lieber-brother!

>Rescue the Princess and Save the World” campaigns<

Supermario and Link shed a tear at your heartless words...

Don't forget when you hit "T" to do "thieves market." Always a fun place to go in my city (with a nice 100 item (roll d100!)list of weird people, events, and items to encounter)

jdebetolaza said...

This sounds great. Last year I finished a campaign set entirely in Calimport (Forgotten Realms) for a party of evil and neutral PCs. It was a blast! I hope this series turns out as great as the Dungeon Alphabet!

Michael Curtis said...

Don't forget when you hit "T" to do "thieves market."

I've got something else in place for "T" but I've got the black market covered somewhere else.