Monday, 29 April 2019

Lost in Dreams of Mu

Somebody asked for an update on Behind Gently Smiling Jaws. I shall oblige, but be forewarned; it's not pretty.

BGSJ is a setting about exploring an ancient crocodile's memory palace. From that humble beginning, it has sprawled. There is a game setting under there somewhere. But presenting it has proved difficult.

The potted history of the setting is that said crocodile has been alive since the Triassic period. During its life it has roamed far and wide across oceans, seas, and freshwater systems, and created a memory palace to store its knowledge of all the things that it has seen. But it has recently gone into a period of quiescence - a long slumber in its old age. During its sleep it slowly sifts through its memories, and dreams about its life, as it slides inexorably but glacially towards death.

Approximately 50,000 years ago the Naacals, the inhabitants of the lost continent of Mu, discovered the sleeping crocodile in a small freshwater lake (in what we now know of as New Guinea). A group of their philosopher-mages discovered a mechanism for entering its memory palace. They used this as a means of escaping an apocalypse which they were predicting, and they moved into the memory palace wholesale. There they constructed a city ("The Unremembered City", because it was the only thing in the memory palace which the crocodile did not actually remember) and used it as a base to explore. They discovered that the crocodile's "palace" is really a world: a huge ocean full of strange lands, beasts and places which the crocodile remembers - and which have slowly become warped and strange over the many millions of years which separate the actual events from the memories themselves.

The apocalypse came and caused the continent of Mu to sink beneath the sea, leaving only remnants of the original Naacal civilization behind (who went on to find civilizations in India, Egypt and Mesoamerica). But the Naacals in the crocodile's memory palace continued their exploration and colonisation of the lands they found there, and created a new civilization of their own within it.

However, since time stands still in the world of memory, these Naacals effectively became trapped in a static environment. As much as they enjoyed exploring the memory world, and constructing things within it, they eventually became bored, listless and decadent, and finally their civilization too collapsed. A few remained sleeping in The Unremembered City; others scattered across the memory world to pursue esoteric goals and lost contact with one another.

Fast forward 40,000 years in the outside world and newcomers came upon the crocodile and entered its memories. In order, they are:

  • Xu Fu - an ancient Chinese magician/courtier/sage who went in search of the Elixir of Life at Mount Penglai 
  • Pape Jan - an Ethiopian king who went to spread the word of God among the heathens of Asia 
  • Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani - a Persian Neo-Platonist who went abroad to spread Truth
  • Anak Wungsu - a Balinese merchant who went searching for new luxuries to trade
  • Jorge de Menezez - A Portuguese conquistador who was wrecked in New Guinea after a life of rapine and slaughter in the Spice Islands
  • Ebu Gogo - a diminutive hominid from one of the Spice Islands whose people were all massacred by conquistadors, who fled and began looking for a new home
  • Sese-Mahuru-Bau - a New Guinean hunter who went into the jungle to search for a dowry to give to the father of his beloved 


Each of these people came to a different region of the memory world and began to transform it inadvertently in their own images, implanting their own needs, desires, hopes and fears within it - so that their individual goals began to transform they stuff of the world itself and warp it into something else entirely. So:

  • Xu Fu came to an area of placid sea dotted by tropical islands and discovered within it Mount Penglai - an impossibly tall mountain inhabited by dragons, a phoenix, and other creatures from Chinese folklore, as well as things and peoples that he saw on his journeys around the Pacific Rim
  • Pape Jan came to an area of bushland featuring the crocodile's memories of early humans, and discovered within it tribes of pagans, each with their own devout belief systems, and each in need of conversion; he also found there Solomonic or Goetic demons
  • Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani came to the crocodile's memories of the aftermath of the meteor strike which killed the dinosaurs, now inhabited by the surviving avian dinosaurs and the ghost and wraiths of those that died, and discovered in the midst of the chaos all of the Neo-Platonic philosophers pursuing theurgy 
  • Anak Wungsu came to a shallow sea where in the distant past the crocodile witnessed ziggurats constructed on the seabed, made by aliens, and introduced the notion of commerce to the remembered alien civilizations there
  • Jorge de Menezez came to the crocodile's memory of an ancient Atlantean city which the crocodile mistakenly believed to have been inhabited by birds, and found it to be a new place to raise an army with which to carry out further conquests and set himself up as ruler of the world
  • Ebu Gogo came to the crocodile's memory of the carboniferous swamps of distant eons, and there began to breed with the amphibian inhabitants to create species of hybrid spawn to be her new people
  • Sese-Mahuru-Bau came to the crocodile's memory of an ice age, and transformed it into a hunting ground dotted with patches of mountainous jungle amidst the glacial ice


And also, inadvertently, these intruders also awakened the Naacals sleeping in The Unremembered City - who have now woken to discover a world very different to the one which they had originally discovered. The PCs are from the younger generations of these Naacals, who have now once again begun to reproduce and spread across the crocodile's much transformed memory palace.

The presentation has changed quite a bit but I now think I have a fairly good structure with which to proceed. The key is avoiding too much infodump; so much so that I am now strongly leaning towards not actually having any of the above background fluff in the book itself. I instead intend to present the world "as is" and let individual DMs and players figure things out for themselves. They can of course stumble across my blog entries on it, but there is a lot more depth to the background than what I have presented here.

In other words, basically it is 7 different "planes" of weird stuff to explore, that is inspired purely by real world history and folklore and my own corruption of those things, and not by any existing fantasy setting of any kind. At the centre is a city with a pseudo-Egyptian/Mayan flavour, from where the PCs derive.

22 comments:

  1. This is awesome! I love the ethereal dreaminess of the mind palace, and the alienness of it being created by an ancient god-like crocodile. I've always loved the idea of Mu and the Naacal, and combining those adds to the weirdness and high-concept, like combining Lovecraft's Dreamland with K'nyan, but also very much its own thing. I also really appreciate how, in keeping with the non-anglocentricness of the whole concept of Mu, the explorers who form the new kingdoms are diverse and have unique origins that are often under-explored in fantasy. I think this has potential to be something really incredible!

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  2. Presented in bullet-form like you just did, that's maybe two pages of exposition, which I think would be pretty helpful for any prospective referee. It's a weird setting with a lot of layers, and the more you diverge from a grounding in familiar material the more I think there's value in laying out what's going on in clear language right at the start. Especially when you have a lot of disparate elements interacting with each other, that high-level view is pretty crucial. A militaristic Venetian bird-city is pretty cool, but it's a lot more interesting if I know the context ("yeah, that probably *is* what a crocodile would view a city like that as"), and having that information is going to both help me improvise at the table and give me hooks for further reading.

    The Book of the Long Sun can get away with being cagey about the reveal because "oh, it's a generation starship! Silk just has no context for what that is" is swimming with the current of genre-savvy readers. Reading a science-fiction/fantasy novel published in English, you've heard of generation ships probably, or at least spaceships generally, and you've heard of Moses, so combining the two is pretty easy. "Oh, it's a Spice Islands hominid interacting with an ancient crocodile's memory of prehistoric swamps!" is a bit more of a leap. But armed with that basic premise, I think people are going to be excited to take that weird journey with your book.

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    1. There's also the "full Gene Wolfe" option of including the exposition, but in the very back of the book.

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    2. I would second this, and call back to the comments around creating "unique" monsters from earlier entries. Something this far from established genres will make a lot less sense without this history.

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    3. You may be right - perhaps having it in the back of the book as an appendix works, so you can refer to it if you want to, but don't have to.

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    4. I fully agree - some people really *need* this sort of overview to tie things together, otherwise they will just reject the whole.

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    5. I'll just throw in one vote for "skip the exposition." The scenario is just so darn convoluted that it's hard to follow. I think the concept of "this campaign setting is the mind of an ancient crocodile" gets you where you need to go.

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    6. You could split the difference - a brief "this campaign setting is inside the mind of an ancient crocodile" up front, and an optional "show your notes" section in the back.

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    7. Tom -- My perspective is probably not worth a lot (never wrote a campaign setting), but that makes sense to me -- I'd just be a bit concerned that DMs would inevitably focus on trying to exposit the "notes" section during play and players would be confused as all get out.

      To take the baton on your Wolfe reference, I'm firmly of the opinion that the New Sun books are superb on their own, but significantly worse with the addition of the explanatory Urth coda. It explains what Wolfe was thinking sure, but it turns out that what he was thinking was goofier and less interesting that all the things the New Sun suggests to readers.

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    8. Yeah, I basically agree with you, Ivan, but we'll see.

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  3. This is great. Will this be like Yoon Suin, with lots of tables to generate and customize aspects of the 7 "planes", and be able to roll up weird, unique monsters and beings from the realms?

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    1. Yes, quite like Yoon-Suin in basic design.

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    2. I almost have to apologize for asking but... is anything Yoon-Suin related in the works at this time?

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    3. Not really. I wrote about 50,000 words of a novel but ran out of steam. I may go back to it though.

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  4. Fascinating idea for a campaign setting. Could the PCs theoretically alter the landscape around them with their own memories and desires like the seven outsiders did, or does that kind of change happen too slowly?

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    1. I have thought about that. Originally that was my intention, but figuring out a way to instrumentalise it is hard.

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  5. Besides the aliens, what other things dwell in the "plane" of the underwater Ziggurats? /Anak Wungsu?

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    1. I have not come to that yet!

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    2. It would cool if the enemies were half remembered memories/nightmares of the crocodile. Monsters of bygone eras mixing with characteristics of early man.

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  6. Hi noisms-

    BGSJ sounds like an amazing setting that takes many of the themes and things I'm fascinated by, puts it in a blender, and comes out as pure awesomeness.

    Do you have a rough estimate for when it'll be released? Also, will "it" be one book, or a separate smaller book for each "plane"? Either way, I'll definitely be getting it!

    Also, I personally enjoyed all of the background info on previous blog entries, so I think including that in an appendix in the back would be useful.

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