Monday, June 15, 2015

Fallow

Here we stop.  We have reached the top of Argus Tower.  It is a needle pointing at the sky, narrowing as it climbs, built upon an isolated stone summit.  Here we rest, weary and footsore from our morning journey to the base of the mount; from toiling our way to the foot of the Tower; and finally from climbing one thousand marble stairs to reach this place.

Each marble step has been fitted together without mortar, leading around in a spiral outside the tower, never more than three feet wide.  We have climbed slower and slower, further and further from the outer edge where no railing intervenes against the dizzying drop to the rocks a thousand feet below.  Yet here we are, on top, where the Tower's stairs end in a circular platform barely fifteen feet wide.  Here, thankfully, is a two-foot parapet - but here we are exposed to the wind and the sky.

It is late spring.  The sun is high, there isn't the least bit of haze in the sky.  We have a clear, unrestricted view towards every point of the compass.  Here we can see all of Fallow, every part of the country - from the wild ocean in the south to the calm sea in the north; from the mountains in the east to the strait that separates Fallow from distant Dawdling in the west.  Half the land, rising in low hills towards the high escarpment running along the ocean's coast, is covered in forest.  Half the land, following two wide, parallel rivers towards the northern sea, is cultivated and covered with fields.  We are in between everything, in the center of the country.

We have the party in tow and now they rest on this high floor, bags and equipment strewn about their tired forms.  But this is a good place to rest and look.

Why here, of all places?  Why bring the party here to start?  We have because this place has resonance.  Wherever the party goes afterwards, it members will remember this place.  They will turn again and again towards it - for just as we can now see every part of the country, every part of the country can see this tower.  It offers a sense of place in a fantasy world, where everything depends on our imagination.  We must make the best use of that imagination as we can - creating elements that are recognizeable and familiar, that can be found and used as signposts, that can be described easily by parties who lack skill in remembering the names of things.  We tell them it is the Argus Tower, but the party only remembers that it is high and white and scary to climb.

This lets them describe it back to us.

When we add features to the world, by some measures we must get by with mundane, commonly found things - little burgs, hillocks, ordinary streams, roads without direction and so on - but we must see that anything that does not stand out will in every likelihood be forgotten within minutes of its description to the party.  All the description in the world cannot distinguish one field from another adequately to the player's imagination.  There is nothing, however, wrong with forgetting fields; we must use something to fill space between great things impressive and celebrated.

Too, this Tower at the beginning of our campaign offers something more.  It is a fine place to talk.  It is an excellent place from which to gaze about, take notes, debate the wither go and wherewith of the party's initial intentions, whatever they might be.  We might have started them in at the bottom of the tower, but then we could not guarantee their interest in climbing.  We might have started in the wood, when the canopy of trees hid the tower rising above, but they might have gone the other way.  Starting here, at the top, forces the party to face what we wish them to consider.  We will not have this opportunity again, not without railroading the party.  This one time, at the beginning, we should make the best of our single opportunity.

We can always describe the day's journey in retrospect.  We can explain that the party awoke by the roadside, that they walked a mile through the trees along a beaten clay road, the sleep not yet stretched out of their limbs.  The sun had only just risen; though the stars were gone, the full dawn was yet nigh.  A thin light casted the surrounding birch and maple trees in grey.  Their new spring leaves blotted out the sky - below, the undergrowth had withered away with the generations, so there was nothing between the trunks but the carpet of last year's leaves.

Still explaining the party's immediate past, we can tell them how they emerged into the open, seeing a great mount of blasted rock, a mile wide and a quarter mile high.  It was atop this rock that someone built the Argus Tower, an immense edifice carved of white marble.  Counting the hill and the tower together, there were a total of 2,242 stairs exactly.  What meaning we eventually apply to that number - if any - is up to us.

It is upon us to make the party listen to this or any description.  I have chosen these words above because this description is meant to be read.  A description I would speak to a new party would be less erudite, more repetitious.  We must emphasize the Tower's bigness, the fearful drop, the impossibility of its creation and the exposure to the wind and sun, not once but many times.  Parties that hear cannot go over the words like the reader of a book; they cannot consume large, descriptive words or phrases.  They need impact, the brunt reality, the jolt that will register on their imaginations.  They are high.  They are an inch from death.  A sharp wind may spin them into the air if they do not take care.  But the view steals their imagination.  They will never come up here again - and this is an opportunity to understand our setting in it's entirety - so let us not fail them in giving it.

Remember that the land is completely imaginary.  If the party is to gain any comprehension, any wonder at what they see, it is upon us to make it reality for them.  We are establishing a theme for the whole country, a starting feature - this tower - from which every other feature will progress.  Argus Tower is our land's Rabbit Hole; it's Wardrobe; it's Yellow Brick Road.

This is the party's beginning and they want to remember it fondly.  We must provide something that can be remembered fondly.  It need not be a construction.  We can invest their imagination into something common but intimate - a village where they know everyone; a cave mouth in utter isolation; an island where the party revives from a ship wreck.  Anything representive of time, space and possibility.  Whatever we choose, however, we must describe it as skillfully as we are able.  We must invest ourselves into it, else the central theme will fail.  We can do better than to make a world of cheap pasteboard and plaster.  This thing is ours; we want to show it off proudly, to give the players the Grand Tour and to smile happily as they ooh and ahh their way along.

With this in mind I have created Sentinel Mount and covered it with unnatural rock.  The shattered stone suggests that something has happened here.  Atop the mount, a tower, named after the thousand-eyed beast that Hermes slew.  I will say that the tower's location is very nearly in the middle of Fallow and not exactly so, because this offers an odd but acceptable reality, like a photographer's subject depicted off center.  Obviously, serendipity did not place the tower or the mount, I did.  But we do not emphasize this, ever, because to do so would trouble the player's suspension of disbelief.  We never speak of what we have done to create the world, to suggest that the world has come to exist of its own accord.  This lends it credibility.  An imaginary world needs all it can obtain.

I have also made the Tower beautiful.  It could be made of granite or be unpolished - but since marble is cheap for Dungeon Masters, why not marble?  True, it may be pitted by the wind, but it retains the shine and glittering sharpness given to it by a thousand builders.  An attractive object sends a message: the people who built this place, they were no slackers.  They made beautiful things.

At the beginning, we want to send as many messages as possible: the age of the untouched forest, where no axe seems to have dropped a tree in a hundred years; the wearing of the stone steps by hundreds of thousands of feet; small stages set along the tower decorated with shrines, to allow the devout to stop and rest and give thanks to various entities; and finally the very top, where we can suggest evidence in the stained rocks that two combatants have been here, locked in combat, many times.  It is enough to make the heart plunge.

It is not easy starting a campaign.  Putting the party atop Argus Tower, as I have done, implies a contract.  However dangerous this place may be ordinarily, on this singular occasion I will guarantee the party's safety.  This is all part of the show.  When they climb down, the guarantee is rescinded.

Until then, they are allowed to look freely at one small domain in a wide, unseen world: the domain I call Fallow.


If you liked this post, or you remember Fallow from the book How to Run, tweet about it!






2 comments:

connor mckay said...

I enjoyed your exposition at the beginning. It reads easily, and fluidly. It makes me wonder why you feel you will struggle with writing fantasy.

Anyway, this post opened my mind to think of a better way to have something begin. Do you have any advice on endings?

Alexis Smolensk said...

I don't end campaigns; they are left hanging, ready to be picked up again whenever.