I really can’t stand reading about campaign settings. Truly, I hate the bland, boring style of most campaign world books and gazetteers. Paragraphs and paragraphs about cities and states and gods and magic and huge, unnecessary timelines. That’s not what I’m interested in, when it comes to world building, neither as a player nor a GM. I’ve never been one for Google Earth. I’m more interested in the street view.
I care about stories. I care about poems and people and the songs they sing. I love reading journal entries and legends. I want to hear not about how these two political factions are at war and the one of them is led by master blah-blah-blah. No, what I want to hear is how Curtis of Hightower feels about the war. Is he worried that the Darklings are going to come snatch his children in the night? Or does he feel safe under the reign of King Toughguy? When I play a bard, my goal isn’t to just gather quest markers from barkeeps, but to learn stories and songs from the people around town and trade legends with other bards.
Which brings us to my new series of articles: Straight Out of Subvera. These are my notes about my homebrew campaign world: Subvera. But rather than write them out as long, expository paragraphs that might be typical in a textbook, I’m going to add a little perspective, and a little character.
Every Straight Out of Subvera will be a story or a poem, or a song or legend, or a journal entry, or a conversation. It will be a snapshot from the world itself, and from the people within it. They’re intentionally vague. I will never come right out and say whether something is a fact or a myth, and I will never step back and take a clinical look at these articles. They are told from the perspective of the people who inhabit Subvera, and therefore the information within them is tainted and tinged by their own biases and personal experiences.
Because that’s what life is. Life is tainted by bias. It is shaped by memory and personal experience. By fears and favors. By beauty and blood. And when you inhabit a world, your perspective should be that of someone within that world, not that of a god looking down from on high.
Lord Anton cracked his fingers and gripped the podium. The masses before him whispered and milled about, unsure of how he would proceed. He’d gathered them here. HIM. Anton, son of Antony, a boy raised on a turnip farm. Now he was a lord. Now, he led the Burning Crusade. He touched the dagger strapped to his breast, felt the slight hum of magic within it.
Now, he—Anton—had power.
“Do you fear the gods?” He called out to the crowd. They silenced and a thousand faces turned to stare at his. “Do you fear their Judgment?”
There was no response. Of course there wasn’t. The question was rhetorical, and of course these pathetic masses feared the gods. They knew no better. They had been raised just the same as Anton.
“When I was a boy, I asked my father a simple question,” he began. “I asked him what happens to us when we die? And do you know what he told me? The same story you’ve all been fed since you were babes at your mother’s teat. He told me a story of souls and the River of Spirits. Of Judgment, and his mirror mask. He told me that I would stand before him and tell my story, and then that Judgment would open the gate and let me step into the Beyond. Would I be judged worthy and good, and sent to Elysium? Or would this god judge me as callous and evil, and banish my soul to Tartarus?
“Do you know what I asked him then? I asked him what happens if I refuse? What if I turn away from Judgment and his mirror mask and walk away? He told me, ‘You would be lost, Anton! You would be defying destiny itself!’ Lost, he said. A spirit in the wind, to wander the world for eternity. Just the same as those who go unburied and without the prayer of Guidance. This was how things were to be done. You live, you die, and then you face Judgment and step through his gate into the Beyond. Like a lamb led by a shepherd into a pen. A lamb, to be used for wool and slaughtered for meat.”
He had them now. He saw it in their faces. Some had their mouths agape, like children at church. All stared at his face. All heard his words. Now, he would change their hearts.
“My father was a fool! Brought up in his faith like his father before him. Not questioning, not doubting. He followed the shepherd, gave his wool and his life, and left nothing behind. Nothing but me. What a destiny! To grow turnips and die from a donkey’s kick to the chest! Truly a life worthy of song!
“And do you know what I did, friends? I followed in his footsteps! I farmed turnips! I ploughed the fields with the donkey that killed my father! I followed the shepherd! And within a year, I found myself on the sharp end of a blade! Some ruffian broke into my home to take my livelihood from me! And when I tried to stop him, he drove a dagger into my heart,” Anton reached within his robes and gripped the blade’s hilt, drawing it forth and raising it above his head.
“This dagger!” He shouted, and the crowd gasped! Its blade shone white with inner light, and it burst into flame, the tongues of orange and blue reaching toward the sky. “He drove the blade into my heart and set my home ablaze! I would see no funeral! I would see no burial! I would be lost, just as my father foretold! But something happened that night, good people! As my home burned to ashes around me—as the flames licked my skin and turned me into the scarred man you see before you—“ Anton ran his open hand across his scalp, letting it slide across the ridges, pits and welts left by the fire that night, “—I was shown the light! I was baptized by fire! As the flames dispersed and the coals cooled to black, my spark of life returned! I rose, and withdrew this blade from my own chest! And good people, I was healed! Surely, my skin was left forever scarred by the flames, but I had escaped death! I had escaped Judgment! I was not lost! I was found!
“For I was the one who doubted! I was the one who questioned the gods! And I was rewarded! Judgment is meaningless, my friends, when one is gifted with eternity!”
And just as he had a hundred times before, Anton took the point of that white hot dagger and drove it between his ribs, and felt nothing. No pain, no fear. He felt not the heat of the fire, nor the edge of the blade. The crowd gasped, as he knew they would. He let the blade sit within his torso for a moment more, and made a point to exhale the smoke it birthed within his lungs, before withdrawing it and exposing his chest for all to see. The crowd watched as his flesh stitched itself back together, made him once again whole.
He let the moment settle—let them come to grips with what they had just witnessed.
“DO YOU FEAR THE GODS?” He shouted as he thrust the blade into the air. It shone as a beacon for all of them to look to.
And then, their resounding, inevitable response, “NO!”