Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The City's Shadows Alphabet: U-Z

U is for Ugly

Stated simply: the streets of the shadows are not pretty. Whether it be the piles of refuse and waste that accumulate like rancid snowdrifts in the Alleyways, the stink of fish and rotting wood down at the Docks, or the oozing substances that sluice through grates down into the Sewers, examples of the ugliness of shadow life is not difficult to find.

This ugliness is not limited to the streets themselves. The residents of the shadows share a common lack of comeliness. Broken and bent noses adorn the faces of tavern brawlers, gap-toothed smiles grace the faces of merchants and Yokels alike, and even the painted trollops of the Brothels often conduct their business is dimly-lit rooms and mask their disfigurements with paint and with perfume. When beauty does appear in the slums of the city it is often short-lived, as in the radiant innocence of children who are soon to be brought low by their surroundings, or it masks dangers that prey upon the inhabitants, who use glamours and enchantments to lure their victims close enough to take sustenance from them amidst the shadows.

V is for Vendettas

While Quarrels are loud, explosive releases of anger and hatred, other quieter conflicts rage down in the shadows: Vendettas. These plots of revenge and the settling of accounts are conducted with blackened Knives and hidden conjurations rather than in the relatively broad daylight of the streets. Cloaked figures stalk their transgressors from the shadows, eager for revenge.

Vendettas are often times slower and more precise than their loud cousin. A slight that occurred months or even years ago, is harbored in the breast of the mistreated, where it is nurtured by a steady diet of hate. Outside observers never gain the smallest glimpse that this desire for settling the score exists within the heart of the slighted, who is all smiles and “My dear, old friend” to his enemy. That is until the time to strike and to gloat has arrived.

W is for the Watch

The tramp of their march and the sound of a whistle often heralds the arrival of the Watch down in the city’s stews – that is, if well-placed and paid observers don’t detect their approach first. When the Watch brings its hammer down on the narrow shadow streets, the residents here scatter like the vermin they share their hovels with. The dwellers of the shadows know that when the Watch comes marching, Judgment is seldom far behind.

The Watch is composed of just as broad of a spectrum as the streets it patrols. Green recruits, hardened veterans, corrupt schemers, and devout believers in the laws of the city all are found within the ranks of the Watch. The residents of the streets are quick to identify who’s who amongst the Watch and make adjustments their own actions accordingly. A hardened soldier who knows that life is seldom what the bards claim it to be is treated with a grudging respect, while a corrupt watchman is quickly paid off and kept close – but not too close – in case his avarice is needed for future endeavors.

X is for Xenophilia

The city is a cosmopolitan setting and its shadows are no less so. Down here, it is common to encounter men and even stranger creatures from distant lands that have chosen to make the city their home. While amongst the upper classes, such foreigners are often looked down upon (unless they have the wealth to buy their place in society), outsiders have an easier time gaining acceptance for poverty is a great equalizer.

In the world of the shadows, the foreign and the alien are often seen as exciting or romantic – a temporary diversion from the misery and desperation of life on the street. A dusky-skinned merchant with fez perched atop his head or an ivory pale elf with tresses of liquid silver provide a welcome relief from the dirt and rags so commonly found here. Such individuals often profit from their allure. That coin is two-sided, however, for when a scapegoat is needed it is often easiest to blame those who don’t quite fit in with the rest of the shadow’s inhabitants.

Y is for Yokels

Like some deep-sea fish what uses a glowing lure to draw its prey close enough to strike, the opulence and grandeur of the city leads a steady stream of the naïve into its maw. For many of these yokels, a trip to the big city may be a once-in-a-lifetime visit, as their experiences within the city walls often quickly strips them of their illusions about the wonderment of city life. Despite these sometimes fatal disappointments, there is no end to the supply of wide-eyed farm boys and maidens who enter through the gates.

Even professional adventurers, who may consider themselves worldly folk based on their sojourns underground, are commonly ensnared and taken advantage off once they step into the city’s shadows. The dangers here are better hidden and more insidious than even the fiercest ogre’s lair and an adventurer’s cocky nature make him a tempting target for more than a thousand schemes and cons. Goodly-hearted adventurers are more-vulnerable still to such risks and the city regularly proves to be the crucible that tempers or breaks those who adhere to the straight-and-narrow path.

Z is for Zoological Enclosures

Although the Watch and the Guilds do their level best to protect the livelihoods and possessions of the residents of the city, some prefer to ensure their wealth remains unmolested with guardians of the four-legged – in not more – variety. Behind the walls that protect the city’s Palaces, strange creatures prowl. Some of these animals are of mundane origin: packs of hungry wolf-hounds or sleek furred lions that pad the green verges of a villa’s grounds. Others are obscure or bizarre, and it would not be unheard of for house breakers to encounter manticores with clipped wings or gleaming-eyed gorgons defending their master’s property.

But not all zoological enclosures are private. On rare occasions such places are erected for the enjoyment of the common denizens of the city as well. Ranging from the benign zoological menageries sometimes found in city parks, to the violent bear pits and dog arenas of dingy, waterfront taverns, animals of large stature are not as uncommon as might be believed. Even some Cults husband and care for large and fierce animals within their sacred holdings, and more than one thief has returned from a heist with tales of titanic serpents and rodents of a most unusual size that protect certain dark sancta sanctorum beneath the shadowy streets of the city.



Will Douglas said...


A worthy companion to The Dungeon Alphabet. I hope you'll submit this to a magazine, either Knockspell or Fight On!

Anonymous said...

Like its Dungeon predecessor, the City's Shadows Alphabet is a great piece -- clever, inspiring, and loads of fun. Now I want to run a city adventure...

I loved Ken Hite's Alphabet pieces for Pyramid back in the day, and I'd say that yours are just as good if not better. Thanks for sharing, keep up the good work!

Kevin Mac said...

Those poor city watchmen. They have come across some pretty fucked up shit in the back alleys of my main city. Sometimes they don't walk out alive.