on storyspace

The bigger the storyspace the more stories you can tell within that space. This seems pretty obvious, isn’t it? But it doesn’t seem to be—revealed preference shows us that the majority of players (and all GMs, at root, are players) prefer to limit their storyspaces rather than expand them. If this weren’t the case, how is it that that we see the same much-lamented clichés over and over, edition through edition, game across game?

A storyspace is just the range of storytelling options in your game that don’t break plausibility; that is, things and actions that can be portrayed without blowing up your suspension of disbelief. On Krynn, for instance, elves can live in the woods, they can live in glittering cities, then can interbreed with humans. They can’t have obsidian skin, they can’t chomp cigars while driving tanks. On Toril, conversely, they can do all the former things, and they can also have obsidian skin and live in caves, but they still can’t fire the main gun. On Shadowrun’s Earth, they can do all of the above, except birth half-elves. If any of those proscribed things happened on one of those worlds, all involved would pause, blink, and question what game they were playing.

The bigger the storyspace, the more stories you can tell. You could drop a BattleMech into Mordor, but that doesn’t mean that you should. (Hey, if your players are up for it, go ahead.) And so we have a tension: how far can you loosen the rules of your world before it stops being your world anymore? Anyone who’s been around for more than a day has heard the fights between those who don’t mind firearms—primitive ones, at least—in their fantasy, and those for whom they are anathema. But at least it’s a reasonable expansion of setting—Golarion is still recognizably a fantasy setting. But put just one AK-47 into it, and your setting is fantastical, not fantasy.

But you don’t need the creativity of a Patrick Stuart or Zak S. to enlarge a storyspace. In fact, you don’t need to add anything at all—adding elements is often the road to bloat and incomprehensibility. More often the best results can come from removing elements. And by that I mean, take a hard look at what you can’t do in your setting and ask “why?”

If you can’t justify that limitation, try getting rid of it.

Some of the most memorable—whether you care for them or not—characters are those that play against type, that break in the individual instance the rules of how things are supposed to be done in that world. Drizzt is a drow who rejects his evil heritage and does good in the world. Frodo leaves the Shire to go on epic adventure. Lancelot is the most puissant of knights who betrays his king in the most personal way.

Drizzt is interesting in this way.1 Drow came about as an expansion of what it means to be an elf—previously noble, fair, and just creatures. That got boring. So now we have venal, dark, and wicked elves. But they were so popular that they became trite. So, almost closing the circle, we have a noble, virtuous drow. Where that goes next, who knows—but the as the attention span wanes, as we get sick of the overdone, the circle spins.

1 Yeah, I know many of us despise Drizzt because our angsty, dual-wielding, invincible friend is so overdone and hence, boring. But just try and tell me you didn’t think he was badass when you read that first novel.

made wrong

It’s like a lot of things, said the smith. Do the least part of it wrong and ye’d just as well to do it all wrong.

Setting: Not every cursed item started that way. Sometimes something is just made wrong. Sometimes some confluence of ill events turns something wrong. Sometimes things just are what they are. Roll d10.

1: A shard of flint and a steel peg. When struck together they produce a ball of blossoming flame the size of a bonfire.

2: A well-worn leathern rucksack. When items are placed within and carried over distance, something will disappear as though out a hole in the bottom. But there isn’t a hole.

3: A hempen rope. Whenever it is knotted it instantly snarls, snags, and shortens to an almost undisentangleable mass.

4: A cord of pacecount beads of the sort used by scouts to keep record of distance walked. When used the navigator becomes terribly lost, and no others can find her.

5: A torch formed of twisted tow dipped in wax. When lit it becomes unmovable until doused.

6: A fireblackened iron frypan. When food is cooked within, half the food imperceptibly disappears. If it is ever broken,1 all of the food it has ever consumed reappears, fresh and hot.

7: A stoppered goatskin. Any liquid put within becomes seawater.

8: A boiled-leather tube and pair of lenses, assemblable into a spyglass. It sees an hour ago.

9: An iron kettle. Heat freezes the contents; cold heats them.

10: A rude sheepskin poncho. Donning it turns you into an ordinary lamb for a day.

And what happens when you realize that a boon is often just a curse flipped on its head?

1 Have you ever tried to break a cast-iron skillet?

signs of passing, pt. 2

Setting: Sometimes things just go wrong. You sit down to rest, breathless with effort, and soon as not comes again the old foe. Time to move again, comforts forgotten. But haste leaves things behind, telltales of those ahead. Roll d10.

1: A half-reshaped broken saber, a grindstone.

2: A sawn-off gangrenous leg and cut tourniquet.

3: Six silken masks, crumpled.

4: Small crocken pots, each with a verdant sprout.

5: A mannequin of sackcloth and wheatstalks; paintdaub face.

6: A singed set of woodworker’s tools, within a ritual sigil.

7: Pulled-apart skeletons of cooked rats.

8: Pictures of dicks, scrawled in charcoal. Nonhuman.1

9: A broken circle of salt.

10: A swaddling cloth. No baby.

And what if they return?

1 How do you know?

signs of passing

Setting: This world is an old one, and there are few places someone hasn’t already gone. But sometimes someone was just there. How do you know? Roll d10.

1: A puck of hardtack, softening in a clay cup of coffee.

2: A brace of extinguished, but warm, torches.

3: Two unstoppered goatskins, each half-full of water.

4: A misting of finely ground flour blown across the walls.

5: Little open crockery pots of cosmetics, greasy fingersmears.

6: A creased loveletter, discarded.

7: A Writ of the Princess Regent, voided.

8: Rude crusted bandages.

9: Two hardboiled eggs, deshelled.

10: A pair of shat trousers.

And where did they go?

the things that will not pass

The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth
And lean-look’d prophets whisper fearful change

Setting: Scholars—soft-handed scribblers in carrels—hold that revenants are the way we speak of our own grief, those unresolved and lingering emotions that we bear regarding those who have passed on. But those who travel the dark places of the earth know different. Roll d10.

1: A chain of Tofpek tribesmen were offloaded on the beach, captured by orcish slavers and transshipped to the mouth of Toller Creek. They stepped onto the sand and, as one, turned and walked into the ocean. On the clearest of sunny days chanting can be heard over the crashing of the waves.

2: An old cottage sits at a fork in the traderoad. Every morning insubstantial—but vibrantly colored—calla lilies appear on the doorstep. They’re gone by noon. Any real flower turns to ash upon crossing the threshold.

3: She waits at the bank of the stream every evening as the sun sets. Back in the war she was a canoness caring for the wounded on both sides. She fall in love with one young footman, pulling strings in the order to have him healed with clerical grace. Made whole, he shouldered his ruck to return to the front. As he did, he promised to return after the war, to meet her again where she filled the waterbaskets. He fell on some far field, but she still waits.

4: An inseparable pair of lovers died holding hands when the sweating sickness swept through. But in the chaos of those days, the overwrought survivors buried victims whenever and however they could, and the couple was buried separately, on either side of the cartroad. Now unable to meet, in the season of sickness they stand across the road from each other, staring longingly.

5: She fought against the faith community, a young woman of intelligence and drive. She suggested new, more-effective ways of rotating the crops; of better ways of conducting the meetinghouse; and finally, of an equality of men and women in the eyes of the god. After much whispering, consultation, and praying, she was cast out.

But for all her ideas, she longed for her family, for her community, who would never again even recognize her presence. She pined at the front gates, begging for readmittance, until she passed on. She still remains, even if the gates are ruins and the church nigh-forgotten.

6: In the sadder days a family with four daughters lived in the hamlet of another sect. The plague came, and the community’s faith was strong; the rector was graced with the power to heal the sick. But the family’s father hewed to the old teachings, and would not allow the rector to speak over his family. They fled to the hills rather than fall sick.

But fall sick they did nonetheless. The family died in their hovel in the hills to which they alit. The village remains, but on feast days and gatherings sometimes unfamiliar girls appear, rosy-cheeked and playful. Anyone crossed by their shadow falls sick, but by the time of realization the girls can never be found.

7: A certain stretch of the chief’s road—in latter days, a tollroad, due to the bottleneck formed by the cliffsides astride—in former days was haunted by bandits and blackguards. In the wilder days it was avoided for the corpses it created; it was just as easy to rain arrows upon travelers and take their goods as it was to present yourself and make demand.

Now it has been civilized, as it were, and the goods extracted are by the chief’s authority rather than marauders’ whim. But travelers remain unsettled. When the gloaming comes or drizzle makes it hard to see, travelers see themselves, their parties, traveling as they could have been, haggard and grey and bedecked with suppurating wounds.

8: In the lowlands of Wert it is known that when the lights wander the night, someone is going to pass. Flickering flames, as an invisible crowd carrying guttering candles, travel the paths, converging on unlucky homes or lonesome wanderers.

9: Most revenants are forlorn, but a few, vengeful. This spirit was once a child, who knew nothing of the world save scorn and a dark closet and an aching belly. Anyone who opens that closet, or the remains thereof, frees it. But that freedom consists of an oily obsession to harry, harass, and ruin whomever it sees first. The revenant cannot bear the sun, which makes it easy to flee, but can transport itself from any dim, confined space to another—so long as that space is large enough to fit a four-year-old. It does not forgive.

10: Many come to regret the actions of their youth. Lailer Greth was one such. He spent his life a barely controlled savage, hewing and murdering his way through the marches, justifying himself with a consul’s writ. As young men learn, his actions brought reactions, and he hadn’t enough life to spill upon his revenger’s halberd to repent his wreckage of a life.

Now he travels the marches as he did before, using his ghastly appearance to frighten angry men apart, to mislead those on perfidious errands, and strand those of ill intent.

the nights were blinding cold and casket black and the long reach of the morning had a terrible silence to it

Setting: The frozen wastes. The immensity of ice and water and sky. Except when the wind howls and the snow becomes sky and there is no up or down or left or right, just white. Crag and spire and crevasse. Men are too small for this land. Roll d10.

1: Scattered across the snowfield are dozens of perfect soot rings. Within each is an azure imp, a tiny demon the color of glacierbottom. Some dance, some pace, others stare sullenly. None steps from its ring.

2: There’s a subsonic rumble; before the party a crevasse splits the ice like a slit belly. Frozen within the walls are ancient corpses.

3: Under a tilting dirty-white serac is a lean-to made of roughly-stitched reindeer hides with and splintering tusks. Within sits a rioteyed man carving another at the joints. A small cookfire smokes.

Image: Tikgeit

4: Scarlet-blue curtains of auroral light billow across the horizon accompanied by an otherworldly symphony.

5: In the far clarity of distance is a rolling billow of dirty snow rising cloudhigh to the sky, looking to swallow the crystalline sun. The needlewind picks up as the ground becomes sky and pushes all the air out front of it.

6: Crushed in the pack ice is a dhow of archaic design. The masts have been pulled down; remains of small fires surround it.

7: The sky is huge and heavy, titanium white with stars traced by inky webs of blackness. Not looking up becomes almost impossible and looking up impossibly vertiginous.

8: The carcass of a four-tusked woolly gomphothere lies twisted at the bottom of an escarpment. The grainsnow around it is trampled down and hard, and its belly has been slit open, the heap of slick brown guts frozen hard. Huddled within, just as frozen, are a pair of shabby dwarves, tucked inside like obscene offspring.

9: Massed ranks of ice sculptures stand at attention arrayed across the pack ice. Each is flawlessly transparent—without bubble or buffet—and otherwise perfectly lifelike down to the pores.

10: A dogsled slides across the distance. Rather than dogs, it is pulled by thong-shackled goblins in untanned furs; the musher leans insolently against hidewrapped cargo.

a land of antecambrian storm

Setting: The interminable sea of tundra. No trees grow here; even in the endless bog of summer the soil never thaws once you get down far enough. The short summer brings sedges and lichens and bearberry and wildflowers. The winter brings death. And the galloping wind. Always the wind. Roll d10.

1: In the endless dusk the quillhaired mammoths migrate, led by their equally hirsute riders. Heavy feet crunch out the only sound on the frostrimed sedge. A lash-boned howdah tops each, the foremost fur-clad rider handling a long, languidly bobbing lance; the secondary slumping forward, a stout bow in hand even in sleep. They will neither speak nor turn from their course.

2: Spring has thawed the top of the permafrost into a sea of mud, scragglebush, and standing water. The population of striga has exploded, their vermilion nests dotting the bush, golden-beaked bloodsuckers blackening the short days.

3: The indigenous elves—gaunt and footfast and taciturn—have sent one of their own on a vision quest. He squats atop a hillock of shrubs and grass, rolleyed and seeing the things that aren’t yet. He awakens to tell of what he saw in a year: travelers, bedecked with sores and suppurating striga scars, mad with hunger, missing fingers and toes to infection and cold and what-all-else. It’s you.

4: The brief summer thaw turns to refreeze, the turf heaving in expansion, expelling sunken detritus like splinters from a wound. This year has been a hard one. Expelled are corpses, frozen in headdresses and birchbark finery, along with horses and boats. If lifted from the earth they awaken.

5: In the thin spring a riot of wildflowers flows to the horizon. A village-worth of children carefully pick through them, plucking a certain orange blossom which can be chewed to make a dazed, deadeyed stupor. They do so, sneaking them to mouth when the adult overseers aren’t looking.

Вечерний_Дус-Холь

Image: Александр Лещёнок

6: The sedges and bittergrass lead into a landscape of pocks and bowls, each with a pool of boiling water in rings of cerulean and scarlet. At unpredictable intervals a geyser spurts forth, filling the air with a clammy mist. Aqueous beings ineffable cohere in the air, falling back to the pools before being drained away into the realms from which they spring.

7: An elderly orc in a loincloth lives in a rude hovel by the river. An ascetic—one of the tundra fathers—he is continually beset by finger-size imps, sprites, and gremlins. They constantly bedevil him.

8: A reverie of spectral hunters races across the permafrost. A tangle of the fae and diabolic, all grimacers and howl and teeth and claw and lance, led by an antlered figure atop a whitehair mammoth. Black hounds and imps scatter among the riders’ hooves, and an ungodly chatter follows in their wake. Strife is presaged.

9: A sea of reindeer migrating. From the distance they look like a muddy river, so thick they are flowing down the path of least resistance. These are times that make men small in the face of their inability to change the world.

10: The black storm has come. A roiling mess of gale and lightning and black clouds so overladen they can’t possibly stay up in the sky. Each gust carries the wordless wail of an unremembered spirit. Every drop that falls on a cairn opens it, a new phantom shrieking up to the cloud.

The tundra is no place for men.