Thursday, 29 November 2018

The Cardinal Directions 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.

I got my continents the wrong way round when setting up the game so Yoon-Suin, which is meant to be an Orientalist fantasia, is actually to the West of the Kingdom of Dreams, where my player characters are from. So my characters are actually people from a rationalist monotheistic *Eastern* culture, travelling to the mysterious *west*.

I have forgotten this multiple times during the game.

Me forgetting directions is one of the problems the imaginary cardinal directions below were mean to solve.

Briefly broken down.

West is Topaz energy. West is the direction of the Yellow City, home of the Slug men and beating cultural heart of Yoon-Suin. It's also the final direction of the God River, which tends to take everything to the Yellow City eventually.

Syr Darya is some distance from the river and one of the major cities furthest from the Yellow City, but its still part of the same meta-culture.

Topaz energy encapsulates everything Yoon-Suinians value and admire. Trade, profit, business, sharp practice, wealth, luxury, munificence, magnificence, being really rich, being a Slug Man, poetry, sacred energy, the more noble (often less "practical") magics, tea, silk, teeteringly vertiginous hats, high status, the power of the better gods, the direction of the God River and of course the rising sun. This energy wells up from the east, in light and warmth and flows back and forth down the God River to and from the Yellow City.

When PC's in my game meet each other they immediately sense each others Topaz Energy, and so know they can immediately trust each other and hang out together.

Silver Yak energy is the complete opposite of that. It comes from the East and encapsulates everything bad. Starting with Yak people, especially feared in Sughud generally and Syr Darya in particular. Yaks, and Yak energy come from the cold, freezingly and inhumanly cold, Mountains of the Moon, and flows down its valleys like a biting wind. To have yak energy is to have a destructive, mutated, ignorant, badly dressed and poor aspect. The truculent slave, greedy foreigner, blemished child, ignorant beggar, slum dweller and those mutated are all considered bearers of Silver Yak Energy.

To have Yak energy is to be extremely unlike a Slug-Man. Degraded, uneducated, with poor taste and a brutal aesthetic, no poetry, no tea, the poorest opium and a complete lack of munificence, intelligence, perception and noble magic. (Yak Energy people are crafty like beasts rather than intelligent, they sniff the air like dogs, smelling out responses to their bad deeds rather than being perceptive, they read cheap novels, have ugly wallpaper and their magics are destructive and low, at least as the popular conception goes.

Only Criminal gangs and the darkest or most rebellious individuals revere Yak energy. In Syr Darya edgy criminals might yet Yak tattoos, but out in the Eastern valleys anyone with a Yak tattoo would be assumed to be an actual Yak agent and quickly killed.

The vague association of Silver with Yak Energy may be part of the reason that most high status trade in Syr Darya take place through gems. Very wealthy people do not like to touch silver and the sooner you can move to a point where you have nothing to do with it the better you will feel.

Paradoxically, temples and other sacred spaces often have entrances to the East, to make sure the Yak energy inside can leave and go back where it is meant to be. Completely closing the western walls would trap negative energy inside; very bad.

For similar reasons, windows and doors placed in the West due to necessity are often very small, to keep all that Topaz Energy inside and stop it flowing away.

The other two directions are slightly less interesting.

North is the direction of the Vermillion Crab. This is associated with classically 'feminine' qualities like nurturing, caring, food, simple clothes, sleep, water, the family, beloved pets and obedient slaves. Hearths and ovens are often in the north of a building.

Why exactly the colour vermillion and the crab have been associated with these qualities is not clearly known. There are many theories and tales (each area and sub-culture has its own variety of 'Cardinal Animal' stories - as you get further West, away from the cold, the Yak-Man figure becomes a comedic villain rather than the absolute terror-figure they are in Sughud. In the Yellow City the Yak is considered and malignant, stupid and harmless bumkin, something that really freaks out visitors from Syr Darya if they ever make it that far), the North is associated with the lands of the Velvet Horizon, beyond the Radula Mountains, but these wild lands are not particularly maternal. The figure of the Crab is associated with the noble and obedient slave and there are many *stories* in which the dutiful but ignorant Crab-Man is a familiar positive figure, happily but stupidly serving its superiors. (Though in fact Crab-Men can be horrifically and insanely violent).

The Vermilion Crab is still a noble and positive direction, but probably the least in status of all the 'good' directions.

South is the direction of the Crystal Dragon. This is a highly munificent, bold, active and positive direction, material and colour. The Crystal Dragon is closely associated with all positive 'male' coded qualities. Scholarship, learning, tools, the more practical (but less noble) magics, warfare, the military, transport, writing "work" (as in work done by free men, rather than that done by women, which is Vermilion Energy, that done by slaves, criminals or outsiders, which is bad silver Yak energy, or the planning and management of trade and political intrigue done by those with Topaz Energy, which is considered to be more an art, (and art itself which is usually Toapz energy, unless it's done by Crab-Men, then we are back with Yak energy)), but you know, all the other work.

Being associated with Crystal Dragon energy is nearly, but not quite as good as, having Topaz Energy. After all, those with intelligence must bow to those with Wisdom, those who work must be directed by those who do not, those who act act only in ways perceived by those who contemplate. To *do* is Crystal, to *understand* is Topaz. Those who comprehend most seem to do least, because they are wise.

The reason for the assignment of Crystal Dragon energy to the South makes relatively simple sense. There are actual crystal dragons, intelligent shape changers, living in the Mountains of Upper Druk Yul, which is technically 'south' of most things (though its more south-west really), and those dragons certainly have all of the qualities mentioned (though they also seem to have a lot of other qualities, and are not especially masculine.

Of course if you were to even meet a Crystal Dragon, you would immediately complement them on their munificent Toapz Energy, because they are more Munificent than you, and can kill you. And certainly they have a spectrum of noble energies, whatever they wish, it is not for you to un-weave that rainbow.


I had known that places like China had cardinal animals and qualities associated with them for a while but the direct inspiration for the Syr Daryan versions came from Valley of the Five Fires by Richard J leBlanc. Inside he has a pseudo-Mongolian yurt diagram, with all the specialised areas of this circular home broken up like the segments of a compass, divided by zodiacal animal. I decided to rip off a simpler version of that and ended up producing an accidental pastiche of the Chinese directions.

The Cardinal colours thing is a point where the requirements of gameplay and the structure of an imagined world merge and combine. In the game world they are expressions of a shared culture, architectural assumptions about meaning so common that the people instituting them don't even really thing about them much. The idea that the doorway to a temple should face East, to make sure the Yak energy flows out, just makes intuitive sense to anyone, regardless of religion.

How it works in running and playing the game is that, in theatre of the mind, almost all spaces end up getting broken down to the four cardinal directions anyway. More subtle interpolations of positioning always require maps or something.

My players popped up in Sughud in a sacred temple. For convenience I made it square and gave it multi levels and these directions. The temple was hollow inside with a big statue going up multiple levels, something I ripped off from Wuxai movies. Assigning a colour and moral and cultural quality to each direction made it easier to remember them and assigning higher status to higher floors made intuitive sense to the players, to me and for the imagined world.

It turns out that architects of sacred spaces and D&D Dungeon Masters both have a deep interest in the utility and navigability of built space. We both want it to be comprehensible when you move around and we want space to *mean things*.

Knowing the directions made it relatively easy for the players to know where they were relative to everyone else, and made it easy for me to both decide on room contents and meaning (kitchens & bedrooms to the North, libraries to the South, sacred spaces West, exits and 'low' rooms East) and to improvise room contents if I didn't have anything worked out (if PCs are going into a Yak direction room on a high floor, then it needs to hold something 'bad', something that has to be controlled or abjured, and it needs to have more of that quality than whatever was on the floor beneath.

Because the sacred logic of buildings is shared in a vague way across the whole culture, the directions knit together my creations and improvisations, they give the players and PCs meaningful information about where to look for what (look for sacred stuff to the West, entries/exits to the East etc, and they make the culture feel like a 'real' shared space because the deliberate and unconscious arrangement of the buildings is shared across a lot of sacred spaces, and generally felt and intuited in the rest of the culture, even when its not to do with temples.

And players get to make cracks about avoiding 'yak energy' and complement NPCs in-character as having 'topaz energy' and it all makes sense.


  1. Wonderful stuff. A simple way to introduce cultural norms into play and to suggest predictable patterns for physical interaction with the city.

    I am sure this will show my ignorance about real-world equivalents, but to what degree are these rules (or cultural associations, or what have you) codified? If they are, does this point to an origin for them by association with a codifying body?

    1. I don't think they are codified at all. In my head its just a vast 'generally known' or 'generally assumed' way of thinking about things.

      I wonder if anyone has done any research on where the Chinese Directions came from? I suspect it would be hard to tell.

    2. That was my thought - but I supposed that there might be something 'genre-defining', for want of a better word.

  2. Came expecting a “big dick energy” reference, stayed because your thoughts on theatre of the mind play have been one of the most consistently useful things I’ve gotten out of the entire tabletop blogosphere

    1. As a player I have been strictly referring to Topaz and Crystal Dragon Energies as T and C.D.E. as often as possible

    2. Yes, as someone who is also spatially challenged, these ways of thinking about and designing space are super interesting and useful

  3. So much better than alignments.