Monday, October 30, 2017

Campaigns I Want to Run - Dungeons & Decorators

I have no immediate plans to run it, but I rather like the idea of a campaign where the characters are not particularly out to find ordinary, interchangeable gold, but where, instead, they are aesthetes out to find unique biological specimens and objets d'art to wear to parties, stock cabinets of curiosity, and fill their homes with the rarest and most valuable items they can find.
 
I suppose part of this desire is me wanting to translate the only kind of treasure hunting I actually do - shopping at thrift stores an used book stores - into the goals of a game that is all about treasure hunting, albeit normally of a more mundane and monetary variety.

Part of it is my desire to imagine pretty things, and then imagine finding and collecting those pretty things. And part of it, if I'm being honest, is something like jealousy or wanting to be her when I see news profiles devoted to people who actual lives seem to consist mostly of finding and displaying pretty things to audiences of their friends.

Collectors like Hollister, left, and Porter Hovey, sisters with an appetite for late 19th-century relics like apothecary cabinets and dressmakers’ dummies, are turning their homes into pastiches of the past.
Credit: Michael Weschler for The New York Times

Awhile ago, the Grey Lady had an article about a pair of sisters who collect antiquities.

And of course there was an accompanying slideshow.

The aesthetic here is something I absolutely love, which makes it all the more tempting as a source of inspiration. Some people want their games to feel like a heavy metal album cover; I want mine to feel like a Wes Anderson movie. At some point, I want to run a campaign where the characters wear suits and dresses and "borrowed" military uniforms, where they fight with fencing swords and dueling pistols, and where they gain experience for collecting unique treasures and displaying them to the public. For a campaign like that, you need rumors about treasures to be found, inventories not just for the characters but for their display cases and show houses as well, rules adjudicating the XP attached to monetarily invaluable objects, and additional incentives to show off - NPC rivals seeking to outdo the aesthetes, rules for spellcasting that demand each spell be attuned to a unique object.

Dungeon of Signs has had a couple ideas that work well in this vein. He has a great list of starting equipment for bored aristos gone dungeoneering on a lark, plus a list of possible babysitters retainers for them, upscale carousing results, advice on XP for finding curios and trophies rather than XP for gold, and not one but two examples of this kind of play.

His other really good idea comes from a post about starting magic items for aristocratic heirs. In addition to being a really good list, one that's easy to combine with the other aristocratic starting equipment, there's a great suggestion for these heirs to simply be robbing their own houses, exploring the Ghormanghast-ian depths of their familial estates, and recovering treasures that their own ancestors lost to time and neglect. As someone who has spent a fair bit of time helping her mother clean out her attic, I can't tell you how interesting I think it would be if such an attic were truly enormous, and if the items found there were magic and beautiful and valuable.

From Dungeon of Signs: "Your house has fallen, not once, not even twice, but like a tottering drunk, tumbling endlessly, colliding with fixed obstacles, cowering from imagined enemies and unprepared to face tomorrow. Why do you alone see it? Your elders, the family head, the old retainers, the children, and even your peers are blind, wrapped up in false glories and an imagined past. While they sit in dark worm eaten parlors, clutching the greasy and threadbare arms of their patched tapestried thrones and waiting for the Empire’s return to fortune, you have calmly laid out the need for change. Over meals of what were once decorative carp but are now your rubbery repast carved up on golden plates, you have shouted and raved for action. In the mossy dripping blackness of the overgrown topiary garden you’ve intrigued and schemed."
 
"Your efforts have come to naught, your warnings, your rumor mongering, your pleas and prayers cannot move the fixed inertia of a Millennium's propriety and tradition. Now there is only flight, clutching poorly prepared supplies and rushing for the unknown world beyond the mansions and spires."





The other option, of course, is not to play a campaign where you steal from your own dead family members to pad out your own estate, but where you play a slightly more conventional campaign where you are robbing other dead families to pad out the estates of today's aristocracy - which does not include you, in this campaign, you're not the elite, you're just their interior decorators.

Fernando Sanchez scours a shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for a Venezuelan client’s terra-cotta wall.
Credit: Justin Mott for The New York Times

And of course there's an old New York Times article about that as well.

It has a slideshow too, naturally.

The emphasis here is less on finding one-of-a-kind objects as it is on finding relatively rare building materials in large enough quantities to actually build with them. Tearing up old roads for paving stones for a private driveway, pulling the roofs off old buildings to use as kitchen backsplash tiles, tearing down a millennia-old religious school for the stones to build a garage, extinct animal skins become bathroom wallpaper - these are real examples, and the point is that no "abandoned" building is too sacred, no modern purpose too profane for this kind of treasure hunting. The collectors who hire these kinds of decorators seem to me to take some kind of perverse pleasure in acquiring the most natively important materials and using them in the most trivial ways.

Coins and Scrolls has a couple posts about campaigning in this vein. First he writes about the general prospect of ripping apart a dungeon and carting it off as building material, and then he has a more specific example of disassembling the Castle of Elemental Evil and using the components to build a new fortress.

As is generally true of a game about committing muggings and burglaries - with a side of killing endangered animals and destroying the archaeological record - behavior that I find reprehensible in real life seems like it would make for pretty good campaign fodder. I've already been thinking about how to use rare building materials as a kind of go-to treasure for the architecturally-obsessed Bo-al in my on-again-off-again Island of the Blue Giants campaign.

Reclaimed shutters recline in a Chiang Mai warehouse.
Credit: Justin Mott for The New York Times

A more recent Times article claims to discuss the current fad of tomb-robbing for building materials in China.

As before, the real world details here are just fascinating. Due to China's long history, the country is littered with old tombs. Nearly every estate and plot of land has one, sometimes more than one. Farmers used to consider it a familial duty to guard them, but the destruction of tradition during decades of revolution and re-revolution also destroyed that sense of obligation. Now tombs are a ready supply of dressed stone and other materials. And the high prevalence of art forgery has given rise to a class of wary investors who only want to purchase recently pillaged artifacts to ensure their authenticity and provenance. Meanwhile, the government has stepped up the surveillance of old tombs, the rewards for turning in robbers, and the penalties for robbing.

Again, that's practically a campaign right there.

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