Monday, October 28, 2019

New New Crobuzon - A City of Stones and Spirits

A couple days ago Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque posted an old link to Githyanki Diaspor. I suggested calling this the "New New Crobuzon Challenge" and following the rules to make more of them, and a few people have taken me up on it!

Other New New Crobuzons include:
New Twain (from Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque), 
The Last City (from From the Sorcerer's Skull), 
The City of Emination (from The Benign Brown Beast), 
Thaw (from Archons March On), 
- a nameless new new city (from Dead Tree, No Shelter), 
Styx (from Games of the Void Rust Medusa), 
Pandeimos (from Throne of Salt), 
New Jericho (from Green Skeleton Gaming Guild), 
Sinking Shenevar (from Seed of Worlds), 
- and Armjourth (from Mapping the Goblin Caves).

There are two parts to the challenge - first, choose 3 humanoid monsters to be minority citizens in your fantasy city and assign them cultural niches; second, choose 3 horrible monsters and decide how the city accommodates their presence without them destroying everything.

I picked shaitan genies, dhampirs, and wayangs for my minority citizens; and devourers, callers in darkness, and caryatid columns for my monstrosities.

Shaitan Genie from Pathfinder Bestiary
Citizens - Shaitan, foreign disruptors.

The shaitan arrived as foreign merchants, their caravans carting in untold fortunes in gold and jewels. They bought the banks, the warehouses, paid off the city's debts, and earned the right to collect tolls. They charge entry fees at the gates and the ports, they charge beggars and businesses alike for the right to conduct business on their streets and in their bazaar. Yet traders flock from afar for the chance to pay the shaitan's fees.

They are the gaudiest of nouveau riche, building mansions, throwing parties, holding extravagant festivals and parades. Their pashas rival the power of the old families, though they have remained outside city politics, for now. A new class of oread youths, the product of dalliances between the shaitan and humans, are just entering adulthood, buying up so many seats in the university and commissions in the army that the children of the lesser old families are beginning to be blocked out of positions they once considered their birthright.

Dhampir from Pathfinder Advanced Class Guide
Citizens - Dhampirs, untouchable underclass.

Long before the shaitan came, before the Revolution ushered in an elected government and gave power to the so-called "old families", the city was ruled by the vampire oligarchs. For too long, the city starved and suffocated in their iron-strong grip. As the oread are to the pashas, so were the dhampirs to the oligarchs - even their illegitimate children held a higher station than any full human. But when the Revolution drove out the oligarchy and divvied up their estates, the dhampirs were bereft, and remain so to this day.

The most fortunate dhampirs work as skilled healers and caretakers, their hunger met by prescribed medicinal bloodletting. The rest must drink from rats and stray dogs, from the sluiceways at slaughterhouses, from dead bodies awaiting ritual preparation. Rumor claims they are diseased, and they're still blamed for the sins of the oligarchs, generations ago. A few dhampirs take up swords as brigands who steal blood from the healthy, as militants who protect their ghetto from celebratory violence on Revolution Day. These few are the most hated criminals in the city.
Wayang from Pathfinder Advanced Race Guide
Citizen - Wayangs, extraplanar artisans.

Wayangs come into the city from across the veil of shadows. They claim the city has a dark twin just across the veil, identical in architecture but with a population and political structure all its own, although strangely, their history also includes a time of misrule beneath vampire oligarchs. Academics debate the meaning of this coincidence endlessly.

The wayang who come here are refugees, exiled from their home for blasphemy or political critique. Whatever their vocations at home, here they are artists, for they control shadow-stuff as easily and fluently as humans control the sound of their own speech. Their concerts and plays are riots of condemnation against the rulers who exiled them, though no doubt much of the metaphor and allusion are lost on human audiences. Still, at their greatest performances, the shaitan pashas sit beside the old families, and even the caryatids gather to watch.
Devourer from Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition Monster Manual
Monstrosity - Devourers, constructs run amok.
The undead bodies of devourers stand two or three stories high, and are all but indestructible. They are thought to be siege engines, escaped from some foreign holy war. They seem to be drawn to the city by the presence of here of belief, although others have been spotted at a distance wandering the countryside. Fortunately, their numbers are few, and they remain mostly confined in the poorest neighborhoods - those places that are poor and remain so because anyone who can afford to move out does so.

Whenever a prayer is spoken or a miracle cast, a bit of its power escapes, just as some of the power of an engine becomes heat instead of motion. This wasted piety fuels the devourers. The cages of their chests fill with divine magic, which takes shape as a ghostly image of the faithful. Usually by the time a devourer has strength enough to lumber about, this image is a composite of a dozen faces, and the deaths and damage they cause can't be easily blamed on one devout. Though the city has rituals, it is officially godless. Though the caryatids guard temples, those stand empty. Prayers spoken within the city are not answered, they are eaten. But still, the people have never fully stopped praying.

Caller In Darkness from Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition Psionic Handbook
Monstrosity - Callers in Darkness, undead pollution.

Since the reign of the vampire oligarchs, the city has known how to burn fossils as a source of fuel. Properly interred after the appropriate rituals, a well-buried skeleton will blacken within a year, and the poorest families have long used their own ancestors for winter's heat. Recently, industrialists have discovered that layers of the ancient dead lie beneath the streets, pressed hard as stone by the weight of the city overhead, and even recently excavated grave earth can be compacted to a suitable density.

An unfortunate byproduct of this process is the release of callers in darkness, composite ghosts made from dozens of souls, released simultaneously when the fossil stone is burned. They are largely confined to the industrial districts that safely empty out at night, and will harmlessly evaporate in warm, dry weather. Unfortunately, they tend to accumulate in the coldest, wettest months of winter, and sometimes spill over into the factory-workers' housing districts and the dhampir ghettos, where they are blamed for the untimely deaths of infants and the elderly, and at least once, of an entire housing block whose lives were extinguished in a single night.
Caryatid Column from Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition Field Folio
Citizens - Caryatids, guardians of tradition.

The oldest buildings in the city date back to ancient times, and each is home to caryatids, who are made of the same stone as the buildings, who remember every moment of their waking lives since the moment of their creation. The ancient buildings are now the city's most important civic sites - the courthouse, the library, the amphitheater. The caryatids enforce the Ancient Laws inside their buildings. It is impossible for one person to harm another inside without lethal retribution, impossible for anyone to appropriate these sites for anything other than their intended use.

The caryatids never leave their buildings except to pay one another occasional visits, walking along the ancient roadways. They spend much of their time sleeping, motionless, unbreathing. When awake, they seem to enjoy conversing with humans. Their knowledge of history is deep, but constrained to their vantage point, and riddled with gaps from their slumber. They never speak first, but will answer if addressed. They will not speak to everyone, and no one understands their criteria for choosing. They will answer any question if they can, and fortunes have been made, powerful people humbled, by asking the right question of a caryatid.


  1. Great choices on your inhabitants. They really bring it all together.

    1. Thank you! I decided to go with some of my favorites.

  2. An intriguing conceit. World building out from the monster manual seems like one of the best ways to do it

    1. Having started with the monsters for this, I now actually think it might be easier to start with a setting idea and find (or invent) monsters that fit with your concept.

      Creating a world out of a monster list is interesting, but probably harder than the reverse.

  3. That is quite nice. I didn't know wayang had made it to D&D . . . you deploy them really well here in a downright City & the City flourish.

    1. Oh, you're right. The C&C nod was unintentional! (Although Trey's entry reminded me of Christopher Priest's "Inverted World" and apparently that was unintended as well!)

  4. Building the setting by defining its monsters, or a core set of monsters is a classic G+ days idea. I don't know whose blog brought it up originally, or if it was just a thing that percolate without a source.

    I'm fond of the idea, but it feels almost like a parlor trick when done with monster manual monsters, unless there's a lot of reskinning it's just a way of highlighting the value of constraints over the fecund design.

    Something along the lines of "I can build a more coherent and interesting setting with 6 randomly chosen monsters then TSR did with 10 monster manuals!"

    It works to. It's fun exercise even. Ultimately though, to me at least, it suggests again the inferiority of monster manuals to settings. A good setting doesn't need a huge menagerie as much as coherent relationships between its monsters.

    Anyhow, enjoying these posts - Grey's also

    1. I think the only possible real use for Monster Manuals has to be to pick your favorites and make your own setting that way. There are too many to use them all, and there's no reason to spend time on ones you don't like.

      Certainly, you get a much more coherent setting when you have 6 monsters than when you have 600.

      In general, I'm probably more interested in settings than just in lists of monsters, but what I probably like most are "transposable monsters" - ones that I can pick up and drop in where I see fit.

      The alkalion from "Veins of the Earth" for example, seems like it could appear in a number of settings. Other monsters from the same setting seem less easy to move (maybe even less easy to use in a Veins campaign).

      On the other hand, most of the monsters in "Fire on the Velvet Horizon" are SO specific that it feels like you'd have to build your setting like this challenge in order to have a place for them. They almost feel more like illustrated ghost stories than like game monsters.

      The random monsters from "Isle of the Unknown" become very same-y if you encountered very many of them in their native setting, but you could pick up a few of them and drop them into another gameworld where they'd stand out and be interesting.

      My biggest complaint about most monsters in most bestiaries isn't that they don't have a setting, it's that I can't imagine wanting to play the sort of game where that monster would be useful.

      Even if a setting comes with its own bestiary, I'm likely to ignore the entries I don't like and add in other monsters from elsewhere.

    2. I don't really disagree with much their - though I find extremely dense and creative monsters (like those in FVH) unusable, simply because they are another's vision. Often better then mine, but something I don't know how to run. As to drop in monsters, beyond the basics of bears, the living dead and soldiers I have the same problem...

      However, I do think there's a place for monster manuals beyond setting building, especially in complex systems. For OD&D one doesn't need much - the mechanics are simple enough that a goblin statline is good for a molerat man, a murderous possessed orphan or myrid of other things. For 5E or something more complex though I can see the appeal of a manual - just getting the mechanics right. Of course I'd rather see one that was the basic stats with suggested add on abilities. Like I was trying to stat out a giant crow (big - human height with a 20' wingspan) and the book has a few giant birds - but they are lightly touched with specific abilties and flavor. What I want is a few statblocks, say "Raptor: Large, Giant, Colossal" and then some optional tack on abilities scaled for each - a swoop attack, terrifying cry, eye pecking, or even eye lasers. This way I can build my crow and have the proper mechanics at hand.

      A perhaps emblematic aside:

      When I was a kid buying TSR modules I was always excited by the new monsters. It was entirely that childhood desire for mastery and taxonomy that makes Pokemon so appealing - everything needs to fit and thier are natural arrangements and heirarchies. Kobold < Goblin < Hobgoblin < Bugbear < Gnoll < Ogre < Troll < Giant - something of that sort. Chromatic dragons do this very well. As a stoner teen this felt off though - much like Order of Things referencing Borges I despaired about taxonomies I wanted poetic description in my monsters. Animals, subdivided into "having just broken the water pitcher", and "that from far off look like flies". This fails mechanically in TTRPGS, even where it succeeds descriptively.

  5. @Gus L - You say "just a way of highlighting the value of constraints over fecund design" as if that were bad. But given the plethora of monsters manuals out there (I chose took some from 2e Monstrous Compendium appendices and Anne from Pathfinder), I don't really feel that constrained. The idea was to pick monsters and provide the coherency you're talking about.

    1. Yeah I get the idea, heck I like the idea. What I think it shows is that where monsters shine is thier interelationship with setting, not the compilation of huge tomes of them.

      Now I accept that good monster writing can provide seeds and inspiration regarding setting, I just enjoy the same creativity better in the context of setting.

      In your rail city for example I have a strong feeling that you could easily have arrived at the same excellent result without a manual. With the fecundity of mid 90's D&D to chose from the setting concept almost has to precede the monster picking due to choice paralysis.

      I do remember the X monsters for a setting game being usually played with a specific short monster manual (OD&D's or B/X work good) or being randomized. E.G. roll on these huge AD&D monster table and when you get 3 monsters build a setting around them.

  6. Loved this challenge and reading everyone's responses. I even gave it a try myself!

    1. What a delightfully creepy place you wrote!

  7. I gave it a shot. Better late than never I suppose.

    1. Very cool, Bill! Thank you for letting me know!

  8. This is me returning to the source (I got tipped off to this a bit further downstream) - neat idea!

    1. Thanks for joining in! I've added you to the list!