Wednesday, 12 April 2017

The Crater of Termination

Okay, here's the pitch. It's basically the same as the first one I did, but hopefully with slightly less "back of the paperback" delivery.

Genre-wise, it represents my attempt at that old weird fiction standby, the dying Earth fantasy. At this point, my two main touchstones of inspiration in this regard are Clark Ashton Smith's "Zothique" stories (for that end of the world decadence and Lovecraftian flavour), and, well, Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth (for a more gonzo vibe and some science-fantasy shenanigans). Gameplay-wise, it represents my attempt at that old OSR standby, the megadungeon. Here, inspiration is more nebulous. Old TSR and Judge's Guild modules, certainly, but as far as the current "megadungeon renaissance" goes, I've read a lot of blog articles but I haven't studied any actual examples in-depth. Anomalous Subsurface Environment and Maze of the Blue Medusa seem to encompass two somewhat disparate vibes that I want to bring together somehow, but I won't know until I dive into them. I have homework to do, obviously.

As per genre conventions, the setting is the later days of our own Earth, which has long since reverted to Medieval/feudal societies and technology, and seen the return of magic and monstrosity. The sun is old and red, and most of the old landmasses are underwater: only a handful of small to medium-sized islands remain, which inhabitants refer to collectively as The Chain.

Only one human kingdom remains, the rest having crumbled to marauders, sorcery, civil war, sheer decadence, or some combination thereof. This is Xish, its borders nominally marked by those of one of the larger islands, also named Xish. I say "nominally" because this kingdom too is on its way out. King Antoine is a drug-besotted fool, whose forces can barely keep some semblance of law and order within his own royal capital, let alone in the kingdom at large. Travel outside the immediate vicinity of major population centres, which are few and far between, is a death sentence for all but the most powerful and/or vicious. With farmland under constant threat of banditry and monster attack, and most folks crammed together into cities, famine and plague are frequent occurrences. Xish won't last another decade, maybe not even another year.

Unsurprisingly, apocalyptic death cults have become very popular. The most popular by far is The Cult of Devouring Star, which worships Null, a star which glows with an unnatural green brightness, visible from anywhere in the Chain (depending on who you ask, Null either is this star, or else just lives in the vicinity). The Cult holds that the Earth spawned from Null, and that it and its servants were for untold aeons the planet's sole inhabitants. And while it left our planet, it never relinquished its ownership, and it has now seen fit to invoke the right of  all life to its Earth.

But first, for a brief time it offers the opportunity to voluntarily accept Null's dominion and cede one's life to the oblivion which is immanent and inevitable, and this is where the Crater of Termination comes in.

The Crater is, well, a crater, in the middle of a forest clearing a day's ride from Gilk, Xish's largest city and its sole operative port (such as it is). The hole drops into a massive underground complex, which has evidently been there for a very long time, but the Crater only appeared maybe eight years ago. The Cult of the Devouring Star claims that the complex has been lying dormant since the early days of the earth, built by Null's servants - many of whom, they say, still roam its halls. Null has opened it to the surface to offer all beings of Xish a chance to descend, accepting both their fate and a benevolent gift: a glimpse beyond the thin veil of what they take to be truth, onto the harsh uncaring blackness of ultimate reality.

This was the first Google image search hit
for "harsh uncaring blackness."

Very quickly after its discovery, the Cult bought up the land, built a temple right next to the Crater, and announced that all Cult members had the right to descend into the Crater, alone or in groups, taking whatever resources or precautions they saw fit. There were more takers than you might expect, but membership only really picked up when, about a year later, a small band of world-weary, shell-shocked soldiers who had gone into the Crater to die actually returned, laden with treasure and wondrous artifacts. They also returned with tales of mind-bending horrors and wound up hanging themselves a week later, but Cult membership boomed, as adventurers swore their lives to Null for a chance at that sweet, sweet booty.

Now, it's a regular cycle. Adventurers and fortune-seekers trickle into the Crater, mostly never to return. Occasionally some do, laden with enough gold and jewels to reinvigorate the local economy for awhile, and for a few months there's an upsurge of adventurer expeditions into the crater. As time goes on and few or none of these return, activity dwindles until the next big haul. The Cult doesn't begrudge any of these adventurers insincerely seeking Cult membership for a chance to plunder the Crater, nor even those adventurers that do manage to plunder the Crater, for one simple reason: most don't come back, and the ones that do invariably kill themselves, or go back in.

And no one has ever come out a second time.

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