Friday, 26 May 2017
An Introduction to the Ancient City on the Water
[This is the introductory section to a volume of Behind Gently Smiling Jaws.]
In the crocodile's youth, before it moved upriver and ensconsed itself in the lake in which it now dwells, it travelled the oceans - and saw a city on the coast, a kind of ancient Venice from the time before Venice was even a muddy village of barbarians who might one day become the Veneti. A place of rose-coloured stone, quaysides, domed towers and canals, which is nowadays not even the dust of a ruin or the merest rumour of human construction. That ancient coastal city still looms large in the crocodile’s imagination: a nest of bipedal creatures which have become attenuated by time and incomprehension to be something in its memory now like birds - their colourful clothes, which the crocodile did not understand, it interpreted as akin to feathers; the shouts and calls of the sailors blended in its mind with the cries of the gulls; their fishermen reminded it of seabirds stealing fish from beneath the waves. That is how those ancient human inhabitants are now constructed in its mind.
The buildings were a mystery to it and what it comprehends of architecture, it thinks of as a sort of endless jumble of hive-like mounds endlessly repeating, a fractal structure that a human would recognise as a never-ending repetition of canals, domes, quaysides, towers, minarets, walkways, apartments...a city with no end, but a city with no rhyme or reason. A chaotic mess crawling with half-birds burrowing in and out of its labyrinthine and meaningless doorways, windows, hallways and alleys. A bewildering pseudo-settlement, an Escherian nightmare, which looks as though it has all the things a city has and has none of them... yet also oddly and almost hideously beautiful, because if a crocodile is capable of feeling awe, it felt it studying that ancient city from afar.
The Coming of the Naacals
The Naacals who were attracted to the Ancient City on the Water came there for that hideous beauty. The impossibility of it – the sheer, galling size and scale of the incomprehensible catastrophe of architecture before them – enlivened their senses and intellects like nothing else. Some came to study its illogical forms as a new category of logic. Others came to attempt to catalogue its contents. More came because living in it elevated their creative, mathematical or metaphysical capacities to new levels of nihilistic ecstasy. Many came simply to bathe in the delicious confusion of its construction. Finally, some came to dance and fight and make music in architectural surroundings which they had not only never thought possible, but never had the capacity to imagine.
These groups inhabit the city still, in places. Over time they have become stranger – more and more focused on the task which they came to achieve (as though the only way to preserve their sanity in their unusual surroundings was to sacrifice all extraneous interests until that became an insanity in itself); or, alternatively, so well adapted to the confusion around them that their minds have become so akin to the city itself that the structures and architecture of their thoughts are no longer remotely human.
The Coming of Jorge de Menezez
Jorge de Menezez is a Portingale conquistador who sailed to the Spice Islands and brought fire, steel and blood with him. When he had finished his theft and murder in the Moluccas he sailed to Paradijs Kolonie in search of more. He was struck by the savage beauty of this new land and together with his brigandish crew struck out into the interior; his comrades each died one by one, and in de Menezez’s solitary jungle wanderings he became half-starved and more than half-mad. Leafing through his Bible brought him to the book of Daniel; he now believes himself to be the potentate of the Fifth Empire, fated to unify the entire world under one spiritual whole to usher in the second coming of Christ.
In his wanderings in the jungles of Paradijs de Menezez eventually came to the Lady of the Lake and she granted him passage to the crocodile’s mind after he insisted that no gate or harbour could ever refuse him entry. Discovering the Remembered Ocean he sailed across it in search of a new home in which to gather about himself an army to lead back to Europe in order to make Christendom his own.
Jorge de Menezez now makes his home in a great citadel where the Ancient City on the Water meets the Remembered Ocean. The half-birds living in his fortress prepare endlessly for the coming Reconquista of the real world - forging weapons and training in conflict; constructing newer and higher walls, battlements and quays; and building boats to sail the canals and shallow seas around the citadel. They wield cannons, black powder firearms, and other such creations of his memory, and work with a military zeal to further his ends.
But as with all of the Seven, Jorge’s manic puissant energy distorts the memory-stuff of the crocodile’s mind, warping what already existed there and creating new mythago-things from its substance. His crew – all eight-dozen-and-one of them – now inhabit the Ancient City on the Water too, with rival citadels of their own - like 97 shattered fragments of a mirror reflecting Jorge de Menezez’s megalomania back at him. Before he can return to Christendom at the head of his vast horde of half-birds, de Menezez must defeat all of his enemies in the Ancient City and bring it entirely beneath his sway, so that no possibility remains of his being undermined while his task is not yet complete. Throughout the labyrinth of canals the drums of war are beating, and the sky here and there is already darkened with the aftermath of cannonade…
DMing in The Ancient City on the Water
The Ancient City on the Water has at least three modes of adventure. As wandering vagabonds, the PCs might simply risk their lives in search of Naacal treasures to sell back in Paradijs Kolonie – probably using de Menezez’s citadel as a base. This will typically lead them to entanglements with the strange remnant Naacal populations of the city. Braver or more foolhardy, they might become involved somehow in de Menezez’s efforts to conquer the Ancient City – whether in support of it or otherwise. Finally, they may decide that they wish to take on the challenge of burgling the citadels of some of his 97 crew, or indeed the mighty citadel of de Menezez himself, for the treasures which surely lie therein.
In this chapter, you will find everything you need to construct material for gaming sessions set in the Ancient City on the Water – adventure locations, encounters, treasures and more.