Sunday, May 6, 2018

Additional Ideas for Adventuring in the Deep Past

Since the last time I posted about it, the GLOG-o-sphere's collective dive into the deep past has continued.

Journey Into The Weird took a journey into the past, actually posting before my own previous entry, but escaping my attention until now.

"3. Archihylo Epoch, aka the Fae Invasion: Skarazi detect an infection of Fae on Elsai. Measures are taken to quarantine the infection. Glass domes encircle spreading forests to stop ensuing oxygenation. Quarantine is successful, but ecological changes make the planet unsuitable for Skarazi life. A majority leave Elsai behind and abandon SG8 to disappear behind the stars. A small majority dig in in more arid regions of Elsai, or on SG8 itself."

Coins & Scrolls followed up his original, more serious post about the historical past of his campaign world with a humorous look at three-dozen hypothetical past ages. These are all gold, right from the very start.

"39. Plantagenetic Period: Basic principles of royalty discovered. Kings of bacteria, kings of slime, kings of trees, kings of fish and fowl. Metalosynthetic bacteria learn to produce gold crowns, form valuable layers of quick-dying rulers and usurpers. Iconography still visible under a microscope. Most hereditary lines trace their origin to this period. A catastrophic series of succession wars left only the lion (king of beasts) and some insect-based royal lines intact."

"40. The Pseudopredatory Collapse: Mass extinction caused by the discovery that several apex predators were, in fact, cardboard cut-outs and plaster models. Arms race to claim the spots turns several innocuous species into vicious killers. Umber hulks evolve, smash the competition. Treaty of Mud, signed by most creatures (with eels and flatworms abstaining) bans vorpal claws, forces an unease peace. Parasite-spies steal evolutionary advantages and sell them to the highest bidder. Ends due to general exhaustion."

(See what I mean about these being gold? If Skerples were to collect these into a zine with illustrations depicting even a fraction of the entries, I'd pick it up in a heartbeat.)

The Amateur Dungeoneers joined in with a pair of weird pasts.

"1. The Great Funkadelican Era: Colors didn't always work entirely how we think they did. Before the era of humans, the land was dominated by civilizations of insect and crustaceans which could see a myriad colors. However as they grew more advanced as a civilization they saw fit to first categorize all colors and later to impose their own vision of beauty based on their peculiar color theory which only made sense to their alien eyes. Using great magic or science they began the 'great color mixture', combining colors which were never meant to be combine and which our puny minds and eyes cannot even begin to grasp. For a brief time the world was a technicolor funky mess to our primitive and distant ancestors but then the bug-crustaceans mixed colors which should have never been mixed, destroying the vast majority of colors in the process leaving us with those we know and a few survivors beyond our senses such as Jale, Ulfire and Dolm. And man, did that era look funky. Sadly the only ones who remember it are the mantis shrimp who still fly the colors of this bygone world."

Iron & Ink also posted the epochs leading up to the present day of his campaign world.

"4. The Clonocene Epoch: Photosynthetic life achieves stable form and explodes across the planet. Intelligent motile trees eventually prove to be the dominant life form, draining swathes of nutrients from the soil and leaving parched desert in their wake as they slowly drag themselves across the surface. The largest scrape the upper atmosphere and turn their attention to the sun, which they identify as the source of all life. In an effort to increase their uptake of solar energy they devise a plan to move the planet closer to the sun. This has predictably terrible results for all involved."

"Geological Layer: The Osteoradix. A twisting network of gargantuan petrified root systems. Internal parasites and fungi have adapted to their ossuary environment. A preferred hideout of liches. Lost undead creatures trudge through endless tunnels."

"Extinction Event: The Conflagration. Do not move your planet closer to the sun, especially if you are made of wood. Massive firestorms consume virtually all atmospheric oxygen. Life is virtually wiped clean and huge ash clouds lead to an extreme drop in global temperatures."

Most recently (by my count) Profane Ape continued the trend with more fantastical pasts.

"2. Dustball Earth: A slight slowing in the planet’s rotation caused by an approaching planetoid increased average wind speed while debris from said approach burned away most vegetation, leading to runaway erosion that eventually grinds the tops of continents down to mostly featureless dune deserts. The seas rise but become shallower overall as sand from the continents covers the sea floors and the displaced water spreads out over former landmasses. Continental dust storms rack the dusty continents, while ocean currents kick up silt storms in the brown waters. All the producers are kelp or really shitty palm trees that grow in the occasional equally shitty oasis. Competition between remaining animals elevates to heights of ludicrous cruelty. Fucking miserable."

In different ways, these parables remind me of Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics, Stanisław Lem's Cyberiad, Alan Lightman's Mr g.

The structure of any description of a fantastical past era is like a short-story or fable or morality play. We start briefly in an even earlier era, a time that sounds foreign and perhaps immoral. Somehow, our hero, a lowly and forgotten lifeform, is chosen for greatness, picked out as though by a fairy godmother, ascending to dominance as through hard work and determination. As it reaches new plateaus, it also changes, and forgets where it came from. Like a tragic hero from Greek myth, it retains a single flaw from its earliest days, some problem within itself that it never notices or corrects. In its arrogance, in its hubris, it overreaches. At the very height of its success, its flaw destroys it, and brings the entire world crashing down around it. The end of each story is the beginning of another, as another new lowly creature rises like a phoenix from the ashes of the world before.

Since my last post, I've had a few more ideas for incorporating multiple fantastical past eras into a campaign.

(9) Ancient kingdoms. My favorite idea involves using fantasy pasts to populate a hexcrawl. Each ancient epochal kingdom reigns over a small number of hexes, say something in the 2 to 6 range. (Use whatever method you like to generate this map, at whatever level of detail suits you. Use Coins & Scrolls' ideas for medieval mapping, if you like, at the county, barony, or local levels.)

Within its borders, it possesses a suitable biome, and the local ecosystem is whatever the fantasy past decrees, no matter how implausible. These are petty kingdoms, their time is past, almost nothing inside can survive outside the borders, and the local dissidents often have allies with the rulers of one kingdom over. So too are these shabby kingdoms. They are past the height of their power, already in decline, already suffering the beginnings of whatever fate wiped them out in the rest of the world.

This idea came to me thinking of how some of these fantasy pasts reminded me of China Mieville's The Scar, where one character hails from a land ruled by the undead, where humans hold a status somewhere between peasantry and cattle, and where the story's journey takes them all to an island that holds the last remnant of a nightmarish Anopheles Empire, ruled over by a class of super-high-tech mosquito people.

If I were to run this campaign, every kingdom would be a little feudal Ruritania, dressed up in nebulous nineteenth century European attire, full of corrupt politicians, scheming courtiers, venal merchants, and just enough young, pure-hearted souls trying to make better lives for themselves that you feel some tension between the competing desires to rob the place blind, help the people who deserve it, and burn the whole mess to the ground.

(10) Lost worlds. In a modern-ish setting, pieces of the evolutionary past might survive as "lost worlds," in underground caves, mountain valleys, and other isolated and out-of-the-way places, ancient prehistoric life still thrives. The whole genre of "lost world" fiction started with people imagining there might be hidden places where dinosaurs still survived into the present. We can do them one weirder by populating the earth with dozens of "lost worlds," each the remnant of a different fantastical past.

(11) Distant islands (or, The Voyage of The Time Beagle). In whatever kind of boat you choose, you and your adventuring party are sailing the sea, finding islands with weird ancient island ecologies. This idea isn't necessarily so different from "lost worlds," but its less tied to early 20th-century pulp as its genre. You could as easily be Greek Argonauts as you could Darwinian naturalists or tough guys in the tradition of Burroughs and Verne. The act of random exploration of innumerable islands by boat also feels quite different than chartering a private plane to fly directly to one of a dozen or so locations.

In many ways, Earth's actual past is nearly as fantastical as anything the GLOG-bloggers have come up with.

Consider the Oxygen Crisis. For a long time, life on Earth consisted of extremophile organisms who took in energy from their environment in the form of high temperatures, caustic acidity, toxic alkaline, overwhelming salinity. Each organism had a highly specialized metabolism, they "ate" dissolved minerals and the energy that comes from sitting in a steep gradient, the two poles of their unicellular bodies acting like living batteries, cathode connected to anode, and the current running through them, powering all their cellular processes. By virtue of their diets, each organism lived in a small, highly specialized ecology, surrounded by neighbors who each ate "food" the others couldn't stomach, who each thrived under conditions that would kill any nearby species. In tiny, highly adapted communities, life flourished. (Until it didn't of course. If local conditions changed, if local food sources ran out, the species who depended on them would die, unable to pass through any surrounding environment without being killed by it, unable to travel long enough to reach another suitable food source without starving first.)

Then one organism found a new diet, a new way to be an auto-trophe. Instead of being a geo-trophe, it would be a helio-trophe, it would "eat" sunlight. Instead of being trapped in a tiny island of livable habitat, it would have the entirety of the photosphere of the ocean to live in. The only problem was, this new organism, this plant, excreted a toxic waste-product: oxygen. For a long time, this lethal, radical gas set about rusting all the rocks and the soil on the surface of the Earth. It would kill any extremophile who came in contact with it, but for the most part, their habitats were so small, so specialized, so isolated, that they remained safely anoxic. Eventually the rocks rusted all they could, and this toxic oxygen gas began filling up the atmosphere, began dissolving in the ocean water. The plants began to suffocate on their own waste product, literally drowning in their own shit, to say nothing of all the poor geo-trophic archaea who'd survived billions of years of geological upheaval, only to be wiped out by the slowest crisis possible. The archaea who remained were the ones who could tolerate the presence of oxygen, alongside all the other hazards they could endure, or the ones who were more fully sheltered from the omnipresent poison gas.

And then, just before plants wiped themselves out, one plant discovered the way to save the world - cannibalism. It would stop eating sunlight, and start eating its siblings and parents. It would become animal. This new cell, this new life didn't just eat plants, it ate oxygen, and shat out the very carbon dioxide plants needed to breathe in. All plants survived because some plants got eaten, all life survived because some life learned to eat other life. The age of auto-trophes was over, and the age of hetero-trophes had begun. When one animal learned to eat another, when the first carnivore ate the first herbivore, the transition was complete. The Oxygen Crisis was ended, the atmosphere was saved, the very presence of life on Earth was saved, but at a price - what it meant to be alive was changed forever. No longer would "life" only mean that which took in energy from its chemical environment. Now "life" would also include that which took in energy by killing other living things. Life was saved by death. The community of the living was saved by mass murder.


  1. I'm quite happy you mentioned my post especially given how basic and small my blog is.

  2. I feel lucky that Skerples linked to you first, since that's how I found you. I still think of my blog as pretty little too.

  3. That was the most poetic description of the Oxygen Crisis I've ever read.

    Here's another strange episode in Earth history: The Azolla Event

    Around 50 million years ago, the earth was hot. There was much more CO2 in the atmosphere, and so the planet was a greenhouse where tortoises and palm tree thrived on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. The aurora twisted overhead on warm tropical nights.

    But by an accident of geology, the Arctic Ocean became landlocked, with restricted circulation, and a layer of fresh water formed on the surface. A humble fern named Azolla spread like fire across the water, blanketing the ocean in a layer of green and purple. And when the plant died, it sank into the brackish water below and became fossilized.

    There are thick layers of rock which consist of nothing but the remains of Azolla. This plant was so successful and sucked so much CO2 out of the air that it froze the world. For the first time, both poles were covered in ice.

    In this frozen world, large mammals thrived, and eventually mastered fire. Poor Azolla's lush ocean was gone, but it still lives on in the rice paddies of its successors.