Friday 30 November 2018

On My Way to Dragonmeet

I'm banging send and share on this as I go out of the door at about 6 in the morning.

(Edit - missed the train. Writing this on fresh train. This is turning out to be a very bad day.)

On my way to Dragonmeet in London, expect to be there around 10.00am (edit - no, around 11.00) if the trains work out.

I have about 20 copies of A Night at the Golden Duck,

 if anyone wants one.

I will probably be hanging around the tables for All Rolled Up and LotFP. I might also be playing something with Chris McDowall.

If you want something signed I'd be happy to.

If you haven't seen me before I look roughly like this;

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.

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.

Wednesday 28 November 2018

The Gods of 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.

We've already discussed the layout of the city itself and how it is ruled. Now its religions.

What gods the Nasna might currently worship are few, and unknown. The Magi rarely dabble in religion but some of them do revers the Tree of Chaos, (of which, more of the few known details are below), though this may be a form of ancestor worship or simple history, rather than religion.

While Syr Darya, in its prime, was home to as great a cavalcade of temples and shrines as any city in Yoon-Suin, in the present day, most stand ruined, empty or barely surviving on the interest of Pura tourists, traders, visitors and the occasional Nasna.

The three main surviving temples are that of Sanco Hunhos, Lobhi Pas and the vast ruined Vatican of Tato Sampa.

Sanco Hunhos – He Who Restores

The closest thing Syr Darya has to a temple of healing, Hunhos is associated with restoration and regeneration. Whether this is a primary interest of the God or simply a side-effect of more abstruse motivations, only the Gods Priests truly know.

The Priests of Sanco Hunhos are often called ‘Clackers’ because of the small, jointed semi-puppets of Sanco Hunhos they wear around their necks, which clack and clatter as they walk about. You can always hear them coming. Some think this is an attempt to make them less frightening.

The Clackers are necromancers as well as healers, equally interested in life and death. The Clackers can be hired to heal many harms and ailments and can end many curses and sorrows.

It’s a common element of a contract with the Clackers of Hunhos that the means of ‘ending your sorrow’ do not include letting you die and raising you as a revenant.

Payment is requesting in the form of Citrines, and other yellow gems. (Or in frogs and toads). But the Clackers will pay you in turn, to watch you die, or to observe the progression of a disease or curse. They will pay again for the body of the deceased and this is a path taken by some in poverty or despair.

The Clackers are defended by hooded and bandaged figures almost everyone assumes to be revenants of some kind (some suspect that the higher echelons of the priesthood are undead, behind their Mantis masks) and are rumoured to be the primary suppliers of non-living guards, workers and servants to those Magi who desire such things.

Hunhos hates (or perhaps loves?) amphibians due to some obscure divine conflict. The only sacrifice he will accept is that of amphibian life and delivering strange, large or rare amphibians to his temple is a high-status gift. At least 100 Frogs must be sacrificed to Sanco Hunhos every day and all his Priests live in terror of what will happen if supplied run low. The Priests rear Frogs on the grounds. If the situation is dire, arriving with a large load of Frogs or Toads can buy you more goodwill than you might expect.

The temple itself is a huge, sopping, steaming greenhouse/bathouse/hospital/laboratory. Its one of the warmest, and dampest, places in Syr Darya. Yellow light blooms from behind its façade at night from the greenhouses on its roof and in its grounds. The temples glass windows are always fogged. Flies drift out and sometimes frogs escape by hopping out the front door, usually chased by a low-level Clacker.

Before the temple, glowing in the yellow lambency of its lanterns and beaded, quite dramatically, by the evaporating fogs that spew from its door, stands a huge statue of the Great Mantis himself in polished yellow calcite.

A huge statue of a Mantis-God in polished yellow calcite. Foggy glass windows (rare). Clattering priests. The croaking of Frogs. Huge escaped frogs. Greenhouses. Flies. The dying and the undead.

Properly, the Temple of Sanco Hunhos, He Who Restores. Syr Darya has few doctors (the Nasnas are immortal and the Magi rarely sicken) and the closest it gets to a hospital is the Temple of the Mantis.

Lobhi Pas - The Vulture God

Depicted as a Vulture with two heads, Lobhi Pas is actually twin gods; Lobhi (male) and Pas (female), who look backward and forward from any act of violence and who therefore reconcile the nature of violence and destruction to the necessary continuation of life.

Lobi Pas is/was originally a god of one aspect of time, the edge of the present moment that divides the future from the past.

Very few people give a shit about the theology any more because what Lobhi Pas has evolved into is the God of Mercenaries and Paid Violence.

The temple of the God(s) is a tiered fighting-pit, with a court of judgement and cells, rooms and other functions wormed into its sides and nearby buildings.

Before the Temple is a huge blue-stone statue of the twin-headed vulture. The Gods wings are spread and are pinned with bountys, messages, threats, IOU’s and various violent promises and requests.

Before the statue are armed men, women, Nasnas, even Crab-Men. River tribesmen. Hundred-Kingdoms fighters.  A Bird-Man. One with a huge Velvet Worm. Malmukes. Plantation Guards. Ex (and current) slaverhunters. Ex (and current) slaves. Anyone with a weapon.

This is the place to hire, and be hired as, mercenaries and harm-doers (or harm-stoppers) of every kind.

The place is full of shouts, posturing, threats, side-eye, testosterone, sword oil, martial arts, halberds, stamping, drums. Blood. The screams of an animal being sacrificed. (The God(s) technically do not require sacrifice but the idea has caught on and the Priests of Lobhi Pas need to eat like anyone so they have not supressed the practice). Nasnas cleaning away the blood. MEN SHOUTING OATHS. (At the rear is a famous butchers shop.)

Nearby and in the local streets, child Nasnas, child slaves and ex-slaves sell blotch-printed pamphlets and flyers about the Theology of Lobhi Pas (One Silver).

Behind the statue is the stepped open pit that is the Court of Lobhi Pas (the ‘Crab Court’).

The armoured, Bird-Masked priests of Lobi Pas seem, and generally are, Tough Motherfuckers. Even if this were not the case, they often go accompanied by a Crab-Man bodyguard, either white crabs, or those dyed white to fit the role. These Crab Men usually have their sacred duty caved into their shells in the manner of a slave contract and effacing, or forging one is a high crime.

As previously stated, the Temple of Lobi Pas is the least and lowest Court of Syr Darya and tends to settle disputes by cutting things off.

Technically, any worshipper of Lobhi Pas can ask for Trial by Combat but since too many people were doing that and it was slowing down the court you now have to answer some basic questions about the Theology of Lobhi Pas. Since the court tends to police the poor and foreign, few can answer these questions. Better grab a flyer, and also be able to fight.

The fights are scrupulously fair, against handicapped opponents, as the Priests take this stuff seriously. Finding, or handicapping ­exactly the right opponent for an accused can be very difficult. Its important that those facing off are as exactly physically equal as possible so that the God(s) can show their decision clearly. If a prisoner or accused has a distinct build or missing limb, or any other active physical quality, the Priests will do their best to track down someone very similar to match them.

Prisoners can be kept for a long time in the cells of Lobhi Pas, awaiting an exact match. Degredation in their physical and mental state means they have to be continually re-assessed. Helping out the Priests gets you free medical treatment (at the Temple of Sanco Hunhos) and can get you serious cred with them. You do have to really fight though. If you fake it they will know.
 The Priests pay well for service and PCs might be asked to assist.

(This happened to two of my PCs, it got them an invitation to the Dragon Market (of which more later.)

Fights can be to the death for serious crimes. More usually they are to first blood, maiming or surrender (women are often allowed to surrender).

Tato Sampa – The Dead God of Pleasure

In the great days of the Rajas, before the Shikk, the rulers of Syr Darya worshipped Tato Sampa, who proclaimed;

“Joy brought to others is the fruit of the world.”

“We are judged in death by the pleasure that we birthed in life.”

“Measure is the root of wickedness.”

True devotees might argue that Tato Sampa was not exactly a pleasure goddess but a Goddess of Pleasure as a Moral Good.

For thousands of years, the Rajas and their predecessors added to and endowed the gigantic temple to Tato Sampa in the exact centre of the city. The cult grew so powerful that it spread over the whole of Yoon-Suin and, at one point, was the closest thing to a unifying faith in the whole land. Every major town had a temple to the Bringer of Pleasure.

Though never actively (officially) supressed or made illegal, when the Magi took Syr Darya and the City became what it is, she was quickly abandoned by the now-Nasnas. In other Oliarchies, and throughout Yoon-Suin, the upper classes rapidly dropped the Failed Goddess to avoid judgement by the new rulers of Syr Darya and the Shikk (though neither seem to care at all).

Many of the Nasnas loathe her now. Most are simply disinterested.

Still, her Temple remains. Too sacred to pull down or re-purpose, too hated to be restored. The Snake in the Eye itself. The rotting empty spiritual core of Syr Darya. Said to be the largest and oldest (remaining) Temple in Syr Darya, and in Yoon-Suin.

It’s the size of the Vatican City and 99% abandoned. In the central building is an vast inner dome, said to be ten stories high (its more like eight), and within, lit by shattered statues of glorious stained glass, is a statue of the Goddess, a many-coloured snake curling upwards around a pink lily. A little like a caucadus.

Under the statue is a bird-bone boudoir – an ossuary of birds where the Rajas were meant to spen their wedding nights, and an altar.

A handful of priests remain, though most are Pura backpacker types after ancient wisdom. There are usually a handful of artists and tourists, foreign flakes, randos, Slug Men scholars etc hanging around sketching the murals of parties and sculptures of interlaced limbs. Sketching the Temple is a popular part of a young Slug-mans education and many monographs have been written on it. Together they provide just enough cash to stop it totally crumbling into nothing.

The roof of the temple is utterly overgrown, infested by Peacocks and Karaweiks, Tamasic men and roof goats, which are hunted by seasonal Snow Leopards.

The gardens behind the main building, the sub buildings there and the giant labyrinthine interior of the main temple have become inaccessible over time, haunted by Dust Nymphs, Gejigels and more dangerous things. Those who claim to be priests of the Goddess barricade themselves in beneath her statue at night as they fear whatever lurks in the darkness.

Rumoured contents of the building and its environs include The Tumbling Pools, The Floating Lake, The Botanical Gardens, The Zoo, The Great Arena, The Great Baths, The Slug Baths, The Great Salon, The Orphanarium, The School of Medicine, the Carnival Preparation Halls and storage areas, The Halls of Remission, The Porcelain Forest, The Tombs of the Rajas, The Fifty Two Theatres, The Temples of the Jovial Gods, The Schools of Joyous Magic and the Great Libraries.

Very recently, a group of adventurers claims to have penetrated and made safe a central part of the Great Library.

The rest of the temple remains as it has been for a millennia, a huge semi-sacred ruin in the centre of the city.

Various other small faiths of Syr Darya and its hinterland have come to light;

Many of the Ogre Magi claim to be descended from a vast black Chaos Tree, and to be the fruit of this tree. How metaphorical this is intended to be is unknown but many of the more conservative Magi do incorporate the tree into their heraldry.

The underground river of glacial meltwater that feeds Syr Darya is associated with the Cold Naga, a being who may be a personification of the river, or actually real. In Yoon-Suin its hard to tell.

Chandra Khanevala, the Goddess of the Eaten Moon, was worshipped at a small temple at the western borders of Sughud, right on the Ice Line of the Mountains of the Moon. The properties of this strange goddess are largely unknown though she tends to be associated with mystic visions and is opposed to the underworld. Her temple was recently destroyed and the individual who may be her final prophet is currently on a successful book tour in the Oliarchy of Damodar.

Tuesday 27 November 2018

Who Rules 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.

This is the second post about my personal version of that world.


Short answer – it’s the Ogre Magi.

Long answer – it’s complicated;

The Shikk as Monarch

Though the Magi rule in Syr Darya, they do not rule purely through their own power. Over a thousand years ago they made a deal with the Shikk, for the city, and that deal still stands.

Though the Magi never mention the Shikk, there is no-one who does not know about the deal.

This is part of the reason that Syr Darya has never been invaded. If anyone did conquer the city, what would happen? Would the Shikk enter on the side of the Magi, to back up its deal? Would the Shikk apply the same deal to the new rulers? Would the deal be cancelled and the population restored?

No-one knows, and no-one has ever tried to invest the enormous resources and risk to find out. 

(Actually quite a few have made the attempt, including armies of Yak-Men and the occasional bust-up between Oliarchies, but none have succeeded.)

Though the Magi may fight, intrigue, and assassinate amongst themselves, they have never broken out into civil war, and the Shikk, either through fear of its actions, or just the solidarity brought about by shared implacable hatred, is probably the reason why.

The Shikk is sometimes referred to as ‘The Absent King’, though not by the Magi, who never speak of it at all.

In a sense, Syr Darya is a kind of constitutional monarchy, with sovereign power invested in the Shikk.

It might be simpler to ask the question;

Who Will Be Arresting You?

That is a lot simpler to answer. Probably a turquoise or blue-robed priest in an azure Vultures mask, backed up by a pair, or more of either albino (or more likely ritually white-painted) Crab-Men.


The Crab Court

The Court of the Holy Law of Lobhi Pas scrapes up the legal chaff of Syr Darya.

Named the ‘Crab Court’ due to its operatives, even though whole thing has a strong Vulture theme going on. These roving squads of Priests and Crab-Men are the closest thing to a Pura-oriented Police Force in Syr Darya.

There are few Crab-Men this far north and of those in Syr Darya most work for the Vulture-Masked Priests of Lobhi Pas. The fact that almost all Crab-Men in Syr Darya are effectively a form of Police gives that small population slightly (marginally) higher status than they enjoy elsewhere in Yoon-Suin.

Poor or low-level outsiders are policed & sentenced by the Crab Court – an extension or dispensation provided to the temple of Lobhi Pas.

The judgements of the Crab Court are usually, broadly fair, or at least not insanely and visibly corrupt. Guilty verdicts usually involve limb, finger, soft tissue or other body-part loss.

Anyone who receives a guilty judgement can appeal to Lobhi Pas for a Trial by Combat.

So many accused have done so that the Priests of Lobhi Pas now insist that those who appeal must answer a series of complex theological questions about the worship of Lobhi Pas. This is why scrappy copies of his doctrine are sold on street corners around the Temple and often found with low-level criminals.

Once a Trial by Combat is accepted, the priests are extremely obsessive about arranging an exactly-equal match. The opponent must be as close to the exact physical ability and martial skill as the accused (as Lobhi Pas would expect). This can be good or bad depending on circumstance. If the accused is of unusual physicality or ability then it can take a very long time to find a correct match, and persuade them to fight, especially to a potentially lethal end. This can mean a very long prison term, and if the accused degrades due to their imprisonment, then this too must be accounted for.

(There will be more on Lobhi Pas in later posts which consider the Gods of Syr Darya.)

But, if you are important, rich or just clearly full of munificent Topaz Energy, and you don’t want to risk losing a finger or flesh, or fighting someone, what do you do?

The Slug Court

A tribunal presided over by the Ambassador from the Yellow City is, and held in that Embassy, the Slug Court is a relaxed space for white-collar criminals where everything takes a very long time, complex issues of legal structure and fine detail always take precedence, where the lunches are very long indeed, there is always time to adjourn, and where everything can be appealed multiple times.

Judgements always involve massive fines and often complex political manoeuvres. In theory it can sentence imprisonment or death, though this is rare.

Wealthy Pura, Traders, Magicians, Scholars, Ambassadors and anyone else too high status to face the horrors of the Crab Court, and in whom no other court has interest, may appeal to, or be requested to be tried by, the Slug Court.

Some other Courts will ‘trade’ a case to the Slug Court, for a price. If a plaintiff or accused wishes the Slug Court to take their case, they must pay this price, plus 10%, plus whatever unofficial bribes or inducements are required to have the Yellow City ambassador take an interest, plus whatever bribes or inducements are required to have the owning court give up the case.

The wonderful thing about the Slug Court (depending on how rich or legally minded you are) is that its enormously expensive, takes a very long time and rarely kills anyone.

Because it carries the seal of the Ambassador of the Yellow City, a judgement from the Slug Court also has (some) validity in the rest of Yoon-Suin (though more the closer you are to the Yellow City).

Approximately 75% of all Pura lawyers in Syr Darya work for the Slug Court. The backlog is long.

All this works well for Pura-on-Pura crime. Tourists and mercs screwing each other over. What happens if a crime is committed against a Nasna?

The Half-Court

More exactly – the Court of the Rajas. This strange relic of Syr-Daryas pre-Shikk legal system lives on in a degraded form, operating from the old Palace of Judgement in the Snake in the Eye of Syr Darya, though the building is so huge, mouldering and empty that few who pass would realise that it is still in operation.

This law governs intra-Nasna disputes only. There have only been a few cases where Pura, or foreigners, have been brought into its judgements and little is known of its workings, except that it is terrifying.

The ‘Half-Court’ has a terrible reputation amongst the cities Pura, a nightmarish, fairytale place wreathed in rotting finery and strange ritual, from which few foreigners are ever released. Rumours say the Nasnas like to chop up, skin and divide Pura who offend them. Whether this is true is utterly unknown. (It is true.)

Most Pura will do anything to stay out of the clutches of the Half-Court, which starts with not committing crimes against Nasna, and includes doing anything to bribe or scheme their way out of its clutches, and into that of another court, if possible.

But what happens if you do something even more stupid and piss off an Ogre Magi?

The simple answer is that if you are a Pura, who has no political, social or financial power, and no allies who might cause a stink, and who does not serve another Magi, then they can just kill you, and eat you if they like.

Few Pura are fully aware of this when they spend time in Syr Darya. Those who become so, form alliances, the more the better, and make themselves useful to a Magi as quickly as they can.

If, as a Pura, you anger a Magi and if killing you might cause the city trouble, or if you are bound in service to another Magi, or another high-status person, then you might end up in;

The Court of the Magi

The one central law of Syr Darya is that the Ogre Magi rule. Though they to have some technical limits placed upon their reach (they would find it hard, for instance, to arrest the Ambassador from the Yellow City, and they are sworn not to interfere with the judgements of the other courts), in effect, they can do what they like.

Such is their financial, cultural, physical, magical and historical dominance that, legal or illegal, if they want something done they can find a way to get it.

The only thing that can stop an Ogre Magi in Syr Darya is another Ogre Magi, and the only thing that can stop a group of Ogre Magi is a larger group of Ogre Magi. (And the only thing that could stop all the Ogre Magi, is the Shikk, but don’t say that out loud.)

The Court of the Magi exists when two Magi, or two groups or Magi, or the servants of two or more Magi, are in conflict and either neither side thinks they can win or neither side thinks they can win without bringing down punishment from a powerful combine, syndicate or ‘arrangement’ of Magi. Or if they are just law-and-order types who enjoy the legal process, which many do.

The judge, jury and lawyers are all Magi. Magi testimony usually overrules all other testimony. They can summon anyone and anything from the city and no-one would dare to countervail them.

The most common judgement against ‘guilty’ Magi is were-gilt and banishment for a certain term, during which they are expected to make deals and trade contacts to the advantage of the city.

Pura, and others, are sometimes called as witnesses at this Court. They are blindfolded before transport there. Its location seems to shift and rumours breed about its nature. Sometimes it is alleged to be very small and take place in a snails shell, sometimes in an old ruined building in Syr Darya, sometimes in some kind of otherdimensional space.


The vast number of courts and complex overlapping fields of jurisdiction they create are managed by one final court;

The Chrysanthemum Court

Also called the ‘Courtesan Court’, or, more cruelly, the ‘Whores Court’.

This group originally dealt with with crimes against, and between, Courtesans. It also possessed an unusual power since the times of the Raja. Back then Syr Darya was at the centre of an empire and had one singular system. Arguments over jurisdiction were rare and only took place when minor guilds or low noble houses had minor disagreements about specific matters.

On these occasions the Chrysanthemum Court was allowed to decide which court had jurisdiction. This may have been partly intended to be an insult to the warring parties (sort out your business or be judged by whores), or could have been because at the peak of the power of the Rajas, and of the worship of Tato Sampa, the position of Courtesan may have been more respected.

The power of the Chrysanthemum Court to decide jurisdiction has been allowed to persist by the Magi, partly as simple laissez-faire convenience and perhaps for other reasons.

The huge proliferation of courts and legal systems in the city means the meta-legal power of the Chrysanthemum Court has become more and more significant over time. It is rare that they get to decide anything directly, but they often get to decide who decides.

The Chrysanthemum Court meets in a walled garden in one of the corner zones between the Victors Wall and the Oculus. It is said to be extremely and relentlessly vengeful against those who harm women, or who allow women to be harmed, and though it can rarely execute this vengeance directly, it has a very long memory.

Of course there is one more Court in Syr Darya, for those who can claim no law at all.

The Yak Court

Crime in Syr Darya, like most things, is heavily ritualised and dominated by a handful of Nasna clans who have literally been stealing for a thousand years.

The Magi themselves sometimes get involved in things that might be described as crimes, but since everything the Magi do in Syr Darya is legal (because they do it) unless the other Magi try to stop them, then they can hardly be arrested.

Less is known about the Yak Court, (or the ‘Snow Court’) than about any others. Criminals tend to settle their disputes with other methods and any time they do meet must be deeply secret.

Wherever the Yak Court meets, if it does meet, it is almost certainly ‘Within the City, Beyond the Wall’, though rumours claim of meetings in the ancient sewer system, in caves of ice (which must lie outside the city) or in any dangerous and marginal area.

The Judge of the Court, the Great Yak, is meant to be an actual Yak-Man, one of the cities historic enemies, kept captive and frozen and brought out only to pass judgement on arguing criminals (though is probably just someone dressed up as one).

The nature of these judgements is unknown, but probably horrible.

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.

Friday 23 November 2018

The Omega Rule

The Omega Rule

Rules designed to make play better by removing negative play results, should never be followed absolutely. They should be followed 95% of the time.

Even a very good rule, if followed absolutely, puts the players in a kind of invisible trap.

Boredom, session crashing results from single rolls, disasters from bad information, PC's forced into inactivity due to circumstances, player decision paralysis, the world just flat out saying 'no'; all these things are generally bad. But in a game where they can *never* happen has the life and energy drained from it.

Failure and frustration *without any clear idea of what to do next*, provide the essential catalyst for character development (both player and PC).

Actual decision paralysis causes players to work out the groups internal hierarchies, power-exchanges, roles and decision making processes.

And the world itself is like this. It has the bad outcomes described above. Removing them stops people from investigating the imagined world 'as if it were a place that was real'. This investigation, probing and questioning is/are a primary means by which the imagined world is illuminated and sustained.

Also - hopefully still on course for a launch on December the 1st or 2nd;