Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The HC SVNT DRACONES Rule and the Iridian Fold’s Mystery

(That's "Hic sunt dracones") 

I’m crazy about imaginary worlds. The idea of weird vistas, impossible realms, forgotten kingdoms and mythic vastness… all of those things have an amazing pull with me. I can’t fathom the reason. Maybe Jung was right, or Campbell. Maybe it’s just the idea that there are always new fantastic places to explore and discover. Most important, that these things aren’t set in stone (or reality). That’s why I love fantasy/science fiction, and that’s why I’m a total sucker for new campaign settings and novels. I still can remember the first time I opened a Forgotten Realms’ book, or the Planescape or Birthright box. It’s hard to express this, so allow me to quote from a master:

"The nostalgia of things unknown, of lands forgotten or unfound, is upon me at times. Often I long for the gleam of yellow suns upon terraces of translucent azure marble, mocking the windless waters of lakes unfathomably calm; for lost, legendary palaces of serpentine, silver and ebony, whose columns are green stalactites; for the pillars of fallen temples, standing in the vast purpureal sunset of a land of lost and marvellous romance. I sigh for the dark-green depths of cedar forests, through whose fantastically woven boughs, one sees at intervals an unknown tropic ocean, like gleams of blue diamond; for isles of palm and coral, that fret an amber morning, somewhere beyond Cathay or Taprobane; for the strange and hidden cities of the desert, with burning brazen domes and slender pinnacles of gold and copper, that pierce a heaven of heated lazuli.
 -- CAS, Nostalgia of the Unknown

THAT’s what I’m talking about.

Well, the funny thing is that, although I really do love imaginary worlds, I never created one for my games. Oh, I tried, once or twice (which Gamemaster hasn’t?). However, I always stopped in the middle of the process, looking to my notes and thinking: Why am I doing this? Setting X or Y already does that a lot better. In the end, it was always easier for me take a literary/cinematographic/RPG setting and adapt it to my needs.

As a young Gamemaster I always made a point of diligently memorizing all the important and relevant aspect of any setting I used in games. I was proud of it. Damnit, I can still remember the entire geography and political disposition of the Sword Coast’s nations (…now, ask me if I can remember what I studied last week?). I also loudly proclaimed to my players at the time that everything which we’re playing was 100% official with the material within the books. It was my “seal of approval”, as if by following the canon I instantly made my games better.

I don’t know if it is because I got older, but my GM approach changed a lot… on some aspects at least. (I initially blamed it on “getting older and stuff”, but then I noted that my players and local fellow gamers didn’t change much on this regard. They are still obsessed with canon and have a hard time ignoring it.)

Today, I couldn’t care less about cannon material. In fact, I’m very loose with it and one of the things I enjoy the most these days is taking the cannon and changing it to see what happes. For example: the Star Wars Universe; I totally ignore the prequels. I take what I like from those movies (and assorted EU material) and put together what I feel is my childhood’s Star Wars. When I’m running a Star Wars game that’s the first thing that I warn to my players: Forget the cannon!

I started doing this with my Legend of the Five Rings games, some 6-7 years ago and never stopped. After one or two shocks from my players, they began trusting me and, later, became thrilled with the idea their actions were – I’m mean, they really were! – taking Rokugan into totally new directions (including killing one famous NPC or two).

The curious bit is that getting older didn’t motivate me to finally create a "house setting" for my games. Quite contrary, I never enjoyed more using official material. I feel that now I’m more aware about why each world was built or written in a particular way; that I have a better idea about what to do with them. So, in the end, getting older greatly increased my desire in changing/blending/toying with imaginary worlds.  And I guess I finally figured out why! It’s all about that old medieval expression, found on maps:

Hic Sunt Dracones

Here be dragons. That’s why I still like to buy and read new campaign settings. I like to see what there is at the map’s borders; beyond the next forest, mountain range or exotic nation. This notion that “there’s more out there” is irresistible for me.

However, when I’m running games, I like to approach and maintain this feeling in a different way. I hate settings whose maps’ doesn’t have “dragons”. I get bored with closed worlds, with things that are inflexiblely detailed, unchangeable, without mysteries to uncover and misty frontiers do explore (literally and figuratively).

So, when I’m GMing, I use a special House Rule (actually, I was already using it for quite some time, I’m just now consolidating it): The Hic Sunt Dracones Rule. I always change something on every setting, every time I run a game on it. Don’t trust your book or the f***ing cannon. And I usually won’t say what I changed. (However, I’m also fair with my players, if I altered some vital or common aspect of the world, I’ll always inform them and ask what they feel about it.)

Ok, all this rambling is just to quote the dolorous obvious: all GMs change their campaign settings to suit it to their tastes. In this regard, I’m sorry, but it wasn’t something obvious to me. Anyway, I enjoy seeing the tension and curiosity in my game group when I mention this rule. In a way, it reminds me of my first time as a Gamemaster, when my players didn’t knew every monster in the rulebook nor land in a campaign setting.

And what is the Iridian Fold?

The Iridian Fold is your classical far exotic/weird land, with odd customs. Its part of the Golarion campaign setting and it has – so far – been mentioned in the excellent fiction of the Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path and the City of Strangers sourcebook. In both sources, they never were fully explain where/what is the Iridian Fold. Always, the authors only mention the strange natives of the far legendary realm – which are awesome by the way.

In other words: the Iridian Fold is in my mind Golarion’s way of saying - Hic Sunt Dracones.

Golarion is still a very young campaign setting. I remember reading Burnt Offerings and the Rise of the Runelords Player’s Guide for the first time and preparing myself for yet another entire new fantasy world. As much as I want to see every corner of Golarion detailed, I also want that the authors manage (somehow) to keep its mysterious/fantastic feel.

I know. It’s a complete paradox. What can I say? I like both interesting details and “open-endness".

At least, speaking strictly of Golarion, I have a precise mark to watch – the Iridian Fold. The day they decide to detail it will probably be the day I’m gonna start disregarding Golarion’s borders in my games.

P.S.: This subject here doesn’t have any relation with the post above, but I must mention that I was impressed by the number of hits on my last Little Encounter entry – the Undying Terror. I'm also completely at loss about why does it made such big success! What could it be…

All hail the Demonic Arm!
(ok, technically the picture above is a hand, but you got the idea)

I’ll probably just give up at understanding this and call it the “Army of Darkness Effect”. Anyway, if you had any suggestions and ideas for future Little Encounters, please let me know. Given that I always considered the athach a ridiculous monster, I decided to pick another ridiculous monster for my next entry. Just wait a little.