Monday, 26 November 2018

A Personal Syr Darya

For about six months I've been running a group through the City of Syr Darya from  David McGrogan's book Yoon Suin.

This is the cursed capital of a Himalayan kingdom, powered by slave-grown opium and tea. Its people were cursed a thousand years ago after some Ogre Magi, who had been hired to defend the place, made a deal with The Shikk, a Demon of enormous power, to rule the city themselves.

The Shikk delivered, making the Magi the rulers of the city, and stole one half of every living person in it, leaving them immortal horrors, divided down the exact centre.

Ever since I read about it I wanted to know more about it, so I set a game there to encourage me to come up with more details. What follows, now and over the next few days is some of the stuff I developed for a personal Syr Darya.


"Four squares within a circle in a square within a square within a square, itself surrounded by a circle, and the final wall itself a square.

But the wall is not Syr Darya, for the city is a circle, and there are circles of trust within."

Its blue, half-empty, beautiful, cold and semi-ruined.

The big main gates through the walls are at the cardinal directions. Anyone can use those, though they might be recorded and the inner gates could theoretically be shut). There are many 'sally ports' stairways, secret paths, lifts and other ways through the walls bit almost all of these are under the control of different factions, individuals and groups and if they don't know you, you aren't getting through.

There are several hundred needle-straight towers dotted all over the city, from its monumental centre to its outer reaches. Some are actually on the walls. These are the towers of the Ogre Magi

Somethings geographical importance is not its actual political importance. The old structures of power are dead or quiescent. The Ogre magi rule, so real power is distributed amongst them.

There is no 'tourist' or Pura section of town. Instead there is a network of 'open' or 'foreign friendly' resources and organisations dotted around the city. Pura are not kept out of the rest of the city, they are simply never invited in. Most of the cities life, or half-life, goes on beneath their notice.

This is the map we have been slowly filling in as the PC's see more of the city

The layout of Syr Darya is a combination of the old, ritual and historic pattern of the Rajas and the ‘fresh’ colonisation by the Magi, combined with adaptations by its Nasna population.

Ruination, decay and breakdown are common on many of the old buildings.

Many of the old spatial rules are still in effect, but they are ignored by the Ogre Magi at-will, or used by them for particular aims, ignored by Foreigners by mistake or re-interpreted by various factions.

The simplest concept is of an ancient and historic core, re-built in monumental style as the centre of the Empire of Sughud, surrounded by layers of expansion and re-fortification as the city grew.

8. The Snake in the Eye

The Snake in the Eye is the Temple of Tato Sampa, at the absolute centre of the city. Across from it is the Palace of the Rajas. Both of these buildings, and most of the monumental core, are almost completely empty.

7. The Oculus

The Oculus is the broken-up area within the first curtain wall. This is where ambassadors, major noble houses and various powerful factions build, intrigued and warred for supremacy of Sughud. Here are many beautiful buildings, some still active, like the temple of Sanco Hunhos.

6. The Victors Wall.

Built by the first ruler to unify Sughud in ages past. A very ancient wall. Long burrowed through, built over and incorporated back into the city. The last time it was used was in a vain defence against the Ogre Magi themselves.

Who the ‘Victor’ was is no longer known. The Priests of Lobhi Pas claim it was a worshipper of their god.

The corners between the Oculus and the Victors Wall are an early echo of the marginal areas of outer Syr Darya. Important, semi-legal non-state functions existed here. Magical, sexual or questionable. The Chrysanthemum Court is here.

5. The Wall of the Magi.

A fresh, monumental, sheer-sided bright-blue stone wall. Repaired by the Ogre Magi in a single night with use of their magic, when they still served the Raja as mercenaries. This wall defeated a Yak-Man army long enough for an army of River-Tribe mercenaries to arrive, and for the wintery magics of the Yak-Men to be countered.

At the time the appearance of the Magi was considered miraculous and the Raja was congratulated on a major coup in recruiting them.

4. The Rajas Wall.

Built in historical time (i.e. not lost to time like the Victors wall or ‘modern’ like the Wall of the Magi). This was built by the first Raja to rule Syr Darya, (at the time, little more than a milk-drinking chariot-riding barbarian) meant to encompass the cities widest reaches and bind it for all time.

3. The City Limits

A simple stone fortification. Its origin not recorded but presumably created by the Raja’s to make some attempt to protect and/or control the growing population.

The second circle was always a working class, mercantile or functional area. There were many workshops, markets and residences. Though there are few very high status buildings there are also few slums.

Though it was never important previously, now, the Magi prefer it as it allows their towers to rise above the local buildings, there is space to expand and secure their compounds and the logistics of bringing goods in and out of the city are preferable to the old centre.

It is also anonymous, with little to draw the eye to any particular entry or exit, and hard for strangers to the city to navigate, with high-walled streets, looming buildings, unmarked junctions and no clear view of nearby landmarks.

This is also the legal limit of most of the courts of Syr Darya. Legally, once you pass out through its gates you are no longer subject to its laws.

2. Beyond the City – Within the Wall.

The final wall of Syr Darya was built not by its authorities, but its people, in a desperate attempt to protect themselves from Yak Men in the final years of the Rajas.

When someone refers to ‘The Wall’ in Syr Darya, without title or addition, this is what they are talking about.

Each part of The Wall is different as it was built and paid for by local groups and authorities. It staggers, rises and lowers. It is in poor repair. (The residents do not fear invasion.)

It should be noted that the corner areas that are ‘Beyond the City but Within the Wall’ are technically lawless. Outside the city the law of the oligarchies technically rules, and within the City Limits there are agreed legal systems. But here, at least formally, there is no law.

There are still Ogre Magi Towers though, built here for their own purposes. And a wide range of strange and unique buildings. This is one of the only places that foreigners are allowed to, or would wish to, build new structures in the City.

The Embassy of the Yellow City is here (I ended up moving it), as are several other outposts. There are many private markets. The place is alive most of the time.

1. Beyond the City – Beyond the Wall

Finally, whatever buildings or shanty towns or tents that exist beyond The Wall, are truly, formally and absolutely beyond the (technical) law of the Ogre Magi. Officially, the laws of the Oligarchies rule here, changing as the oligarchs do.

Currently, to the North, the Oligarchy of Damodar rules, and to the South, the Oligarchy of Silash Vo has authority.

Encounters in Syr Darya

(These are things the PCs might run into as they walk around.)
  1. Great Nasna funeral parade. Walk in pairs. Beautiful half-widow. Crab-Men painted dark purple pulling carriage. Saltwater censers (valuable sea-water) Rows of paintings – some recent, some terrifying, some truly ancient. They are not meant to die. Now, the power structures will change.
  2. Nasna with ebony cane makes strange complex wrapping on oblique door, door rapidly opens and they disappear.
  3. A small blue man, hooded, with a long nose, walks directly down the middle of the street – rewarded with respect by all – Oovarmon the Demon-Hunter.
  4. Worm festival – ancient child Nasna dance awkwardly with the great worm costumes, grown mad and strange over the centuries.
  5. Lonely servant drinks tea over small portable lamp and huddles in corner wrapped in purple wool  trying to read poetry. Large gilded carriage waits nearby, pulled by fuming stamping horses. Waiting for Nasna master to return.
  6. Nasna child calmly rides roof-goats across street.
  7. Patrol – the Priest of Lobhi Pas – vulture masks and Crab-Man enforcers.
  8. Pura Opium fiend beset by figments, turning blue in cold.
  9. Lost Frog merchant on way to Temple of Sanco Hunhos, frogs escaping & drying out.
  10. A pair of swallows meet before a doorway, turn into a female Magi and enter.
  11. Rag-Person dropping stream of poisoned coins.
  12. Kite-Riding monkey thieves attack – kites flown by Criminal Nasna.
  13. Hail emerges from empty sky. Nasna slams open upper floor window on one side and speaks Word of Power, hail flies away from that house, and into the PCs.
  14. Heavy winds, roof goat falls, sparrowhawk turns into Magi & walks briskly all wrapped up.
  15. Lost Yak-Wool merchant looking for the Pura market – never been to the city before.
  16. Tea-drinkers watching huge black Tortoise lumbering somewhere, arguing quietly as to whether it is a Magi.
  17. Nasna beetle-taxi kicks out opium-high & vomiting Pura tourists.
  18. Rare Nasna argument, two seem about to break into violence, crowdstands in shock. Language descends into barks -  a half bell chimes, the argument slows and becomes rhythmic, becomes ritual, the crowd nods along, everything slows and becomes still, the two bow and break away. A bell chimes and child says “it is done”, the crowd leaves.
  19. A mantis loose in the street. Strung with octagonal chimes. Escaped? Or some weird ritual?
  20. Urthanatak – the Nasna hot-dog and tea seller. Yak meat Hot Dogs are perfect. Tea is perfect. Has achieved true inner peace. Doesn’t even hate Pura.

A Night at the Golden Duck is back in print and I will take a few to Dragonmeet if anyone wants one.


  1. I've always been a fan of the cardinal saint beasts in various East Asian mythologies. My understanding is that in Tibet and certain Turkic-Mongolian cultures they have the vermilion bird, azure dragon, and black turtle, but replace the white tiger common to some versions with a yak. Or I could be misremembering the particulars, but it's something like that. Anyway, the topaz/crystal dragon and the vermilion crab are super intriguing. I still have not read Yoon-Suin, is that part of the setting or something you made for this?

    1. I made it up, or at least adapted it from other fake asian game supplements. Players were in a temple and I came up with the idea of cardinal directions to make it easier to do theatre of the mind stuff then ended up applying it to a lot of places as it made thinking about directions & culture a lot easier.

    2. Ah, that's cool. Well for what it's worth, I'd be interested to learn more about the mythology behind your Yoon-Suin cardinal saint beasts!

  2. I think your link to the Golden Duck is wrong. It just takes me to the bigcartel login page.