Friday, 30 November 2018

Down and Out in 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.

Syr Darya is, in some senses a 'closed' city. You can walk right in through the Yak Gate to the East and its rare for people to be denied entry, but once you are inside there are almost no places open to the random tourist and no-one will tell you anything useful about where to go or what to do.

Shops don't have signs or displays in their windows, they are as anonymous as homes. There are almost no written signs on doors of buildings. Many buildings have complex arrangements of abstract teak or ebony panelling on their dark-painted doors, these look a little like black-on-black Mondrian’s. Some of these arrangements  symbolise family or house names, some are for types of shop or building. The arrangement most Pura work out first are those for 'Tea House' and 'Opium House' as these both have distinctive sensory signatures (Tea-Houses have the sounds of speech and community within, rare for Syr Darya, Opium houses stink of opium).

(There is almost no alcohol in the city. The space for causal social drugs is taken up by strong stimulant teas and the milder forms of Opium. Opium and Tea Houses sometimes form convenient 'pairs' and social groups spending time together will pendulum between them, imbibing the strong caffeine and tannins of the Tea-House before evening out with the mild downers of weak opium, then repeating the journey, sometimes for hours.)

The main streets of the city are rarely signposted in written language. Though they tend to be relatively large and straight, its not unusual for merchants and traders visiting to get lost and the occasional wagon of specialist goods to end up wandering the cities deserted streets until dark, looking for its delivery location.

Beyond the primary streets the smaller residential, or specialist streets, and the alleyways, are often gated and private. Even when not specifically blocked its common for an alleyway taken at random to open up into a square surrounded by boarded up houses, to dive into a one-way street or to curl back in an unexpected direction.

Half the buildings are ruined, or seem ruined, or just worn-down, but none of them are abandoned. Even places that seem wrecked can have Nasna groups living in strained dignity in the central core. You rarely see Nasna at the windows, you rarely seem them in the street. They generally do not start conversations with Pura. The windows of a decaying mansion, boarded, curtained or dusty, might hold single eyes in half faces, invisibly staring back, or might be utterly empty. It's almost impossible to tell.

The Nasna are all a thousand years old. They know everything there is to know about the city. This knowledge is their primary means of securing its control. They are no real interest in, unprovoked, sharing it with you. The Magi live securely in their towers and compounds, they fly through the air at night, transform themselves to hawks or other things and swoop from place to place, move as shadows in the wind, become flurries of snow or ripples of moonlight. They take on Nasna and Pura forms easily and go from place to place. Almost anyone or anything might be a Magi in disguise and it is from this (and from the staggering number of shape-changing and body-possessing spirits and monsters in Sughud) that the high-status practice of ritually boring guests for an hour or so before meeting them has arisen, and spread to much of the rest of Sughud and Yoon-Suin.

Even when not being specifically and physically barred from entering, the spaces are not friendly. The Nasna do not love Pura (as a general rule) and everyone else has somewhere to go and something to do. No-one has general business in Syr Darya, they are on their way from one specific place to another specific place. 

A handful of places are both open to pretty much everyone and relatively easy to find.


Syr Darya largest, most open, but also most auspicious hotel. This was formerly a palace built by one of the Rajahs for his favourite Courtesan. The Rajah, or the Courtesan, or both, had something of a fetish, so the facade of the building and the ceiling of its entry hall has frescoes of snails slugs and other indistinct slimy invertebrates twisting together in the act of love. As a whole it is said to be quite hypnotic.

The basement levels of the Blue Snail are cheap and unpleasant enough that they act as kind of hostel for poorer travellers, but the larger rooms are well-appointed and the penthouses are auspicious enough to please even the most munificent Magi or Slug-Man.

The Bar at the Blue Snail is one of the few places in Syr Darya that you can buy beer and the lobby is often a mishmash of travellers of the strangest sort, expatriates, scholars, merchants, political exiles, artists, drug dealers, courtesans and almost any other figure imaginable.

Its rare for any Pura in Syr Darya to not know of the Blue Snail. Its usually the first place they go.


Locally called the ‘Nasako Samaja’. Formerly, and technically still, home of the Cartographers Guild, a front for the ‘Foreign Office’ and intelligence service of the regime of the Rajas. This was, and still is, one of the few places in Syr Darya actually interested in the outside world. It has fallen a long way since then but is still a meaningful information exchange and known stopping-point for visitors and ‘adventurers’. 

Its most meaningful service is that members can examine its maps for free, meaning anyone planning any kind of expedition in the rest of Yoon-Suin, or beyond, and using Syr Darya as a base, will come here. 

Unlike the Blue Snail the Geographical Society has the air of a gentleman’s club. Those with financial, trade, military or political interests beyond the city can be found here, meeting, planning and intriguing against each other.

The ‘free rooms’ on the first floor are essentially an bar (the only other public alcohol-based bar in the city), full of ex-pats, Mercs, lonely Merchants, courtesans, spies, poets, thieves, fixers and dilettante slug-men.

Accessing the upper or 'map rooms' requires membership, a name or an invitation, tough members can bring the maps down for colleagues and non-members to examine on one of the societies huge map tables.

There is a list on the Societies wall of 'Expeditions - self financing' (meaning you will not be paid directly for going on them but they are expected to be profitable in the long run. Plus you get exposure. Sometimes thermal exposure.

This list is a primary node for anyone lacking funds and trying to get the hell out of Syr Darya. At the time of the game it reads;

To the psionic desert beyond far Generica (rumoured timelost kingdom).
To Investigate the Cults of the Purple City.
To Find Ruins of the Aurulent Empire.
To the Swordfish Isles.
Paper to be written on the Stone Tribes of the Upper Kaldr river.
To The Apocalypse Wall.
To Llogres – assumed near Generica.
Beyond the Land of Lamentations
Over the Mountains of the Moon to the Kingdom of Dreams.
Updated political map of the Hundred Kingdoms.

Every few days a fresh copy of the 'Topaz Dragon' a block printed (but each block individually engraved, in a treaty with the engravers guild) public (but actually subscription) news-scroll from the Yellow City arrives in the Geographical Society.

This scroll carries the quickest public and general news from the Yellow City. (Magic can get news faster but that means dealing with a wizard). It includes market shifts, lost ships, economic and political news and a breakdown of social events in the Yellow City.

It takes about a month for the scroll to get to Syr Darya, travelling from courier to courier faster than almost any individual could. Despite the news being at least a month old, men who like News, and who have Interests, all gather at the Society, sometimes sleeping in its leather chairs overnight, awaiting its delivery.

From here, the information is taken to the various Markets of Syr Darya and is used to adjust trade prices. The information in the scroll is the legally 'true' and accepted version of whatever has been going on in the markets of the Yellow City, until the Topaz Dragon arrives then everything is rumour.

(Of Syr Daryas markets little can be said. Magi contract directly with traders and deliveries come to their compounds. The Crab market, a warren of stalls and shops, bustling and active much of the time, is open to all and where almost all of the food and everyday goods of Syr Darya are traded. The Crystal Dragon market only allows membership to those with confirmed Crystal Dragon Energy - its centre is a kind of market, nest of boutiques and vast delivery centre and stock exchange, its a little like Switzerland in a building, specialised high-status shops and services are spread out around Syr Darya, identified by a Crystal Dragon symbol which is visible only to those who bear a Crystal Dragon ring confirming their membership. This Market is managed by the Silver Pigs, unusual, robed and cadaverous individuals in silver pig masks.

Of the Topaz Market, even less is known. Here oligarchs, ambassadors, high level mages, reality tourists, and possibly actual dragons hang out and do whatever the weird shit hyper-powerful people do for fun is. If you need to ask how you get in, you can't get in.

And of the mythical Yak Market, even less is known. A secret place, or vector, for the trading of souls and dark deeds where evil spirits, bhoot, cannibals, the darker slave traders, demons, Yak-Men and unspeakable beings gather to do whatever dark business such creatures engage in. The Yak market is probably a myth and childs tale.)

There can be from four to even ten scrolls in-transit at any one time and they do sometimes cross each other and arrive out of sequence. Attempts to tamper with the scroll are deeply frowned upon and utterly illegal, and extremely profitable in certain circumstances, so long as you can somehow get away with it.

There are some small offices in the Nasako Samaja which keep an eye on municipal events within Syr Darya itself, tracking things like water, waste collection, building and the slowly deepening and expanding Nightmare Infestation.


Qsmari is a Magi of one of the more liberal and less xenophobic factions. Few are invited to his tower but his Tea-House, not far from the Blue Snail, is popular with artists, poets, boardgamers, bird tamers, shadow puppeteers and people with tattoos.

Quasmiri himself has a fetish for polymorphing into famous entertainers, artists and storytellers and for acting out complex and 'amusing' dramas either in his Tea-House, or elsewhere. His 'given' form is an avuncular, eight feet high sky blue pot-bellied ogre with sharks teeth, white hair, a yak-wool suit, pepper-red jacket, mustard trousers, green silk slippers and a big jewelled cravat (the symbol of the burning gem, Quasmiris faction amongst the Magi, in his case flanked by snow leopard and crystal dragon).

(By Ian Reilly)

Despite Quasmiri being the originator of the PCs quest (he sent the original letter to the Kingdom of Dreams asking for help), they have shown remarkably little interest in him, preferring to set their own objectives.


  1. Patrick so much of your stuff has a poetic complexity and such - I'm ever-curious: how do you and your players play at the table? Do you tell them all this stuff or leave it as background to be discovered ? Do they discover it? How?

    A player says they want to go to a certain kind of shop - do you tell them about the lack of signage and say they can't find one? Do they physically have to describe taking directions to a front door and then trying it?

    The giant temple you described in the other post with the dew-covered statue - how do you describe that space ? How do you navigate it?

    I'm in love with your work but I have no idea how to use it without beating my players over the head with it

    1. Well, Syr Darya was meant ot be a place that the PCs got better at navigating and exploiting the more they found out about it.

      Finding the Blue Snail was relatively easy. They asked the Concierge there about some things and got into trouble with people at the bar.

      They found the Crab market readily enough but soon got frustrated with their inability to buy much decent stuff. Luckily they arrived at the temple of Lobhi pas and two of the nerdier PCs were exactly the right size and frame for a fight they were having. After fighting some dudes there they had a contact in the Temple who got them an invite to the Silver Dragon market.

      To get into the Market they had to go to this fancy ball as a kind of social test. They burnt huge amounts on clothes (which acted as a kind of social armour) and aced the party, giving them access to another network.

      The big temple of Tato Sampa I described it as a whole. Entering the huge central dome is relatively easy, there are tours. They bribed the tour guide to take them deeper in. They chose which wing to explore and I used a very general map and theatre of the mind to describe the larger corridors. When they found somewhere they wanted to explore in detail I pulled up a specific map and treated it as a dungeon crawl.

      So its a combination of talking to NPC's, investigating on their own, running into things and sometimes I just drop micro-fragments of knowledge on them. When they first arrived in the city it may as well have been a cold desert to them but the more people they interacted with & stuff they have done, a network of contacts and known places has built up over time.