Monday, March 8, 2010

Solar System Part Two

Today I completed work on the first Riskail Solar System Schematic/Poster.  I'm mostly pleased with it, though I am debating making a few more very minor changes to the sun before I am through with it.

This is the simplest solar system that I have designed in decades, as I usually wind-up designing binary and trinary systems.  This time it's a single-star with only five major planets, three primary debris fields/asteroid belts, and the Kuiper Belt/Oort Cloud (Outer Wastes).  The Jewels of Zal have swallowed-up a great deal of the materials that would otherwise have left the system far, far more cluttered and dangerous and difficult to sustain life.

The Jewels of Zal are intentionally obvious habitat-structures, all linked by a sequence of canal-gates that mesh together like a series of gears or cogs rotating counter-clockwise in synchronization with each other.  As any two canals within the system line up exactly, their gates synchronize and the water flows from one to the other, moving across the system from spherical structure to spherical structure, forming one vast, canal-labyrinth that circulates more fresh water throughout its closed system than most so-called water-worlds could handle.  It's a big, macro-scale feat of meta-engineering on a solar system scale and it is just a teaser for the Xembor setting, should the players ever get this far and want to learn more about such structures, and the people who build them, the cultures that live within them and what a truly macro-scale project looks like, such as the Domain of Three Suns (Bazra), or the Geomancer's Tower-Palace at Paleg on Xembor and the vast network of interconnected Aquaducts that reach eternally outwards and onwards from that great hub of activity unto worlds without number, without end.  But that is all in the background, buried treasure that awaits its own time in the sun after I finish the task I have set myself with Riskail.

The Jewels of Zal are going to be very important to at least one major magic/sorcery system in use within the Riskail setting.  People make pilgrimages to the Jewels of Zal in order to bathe in the most astrologically optimal waters, or swim through the cataphracts of rushing waters that flow from one canal to the next when two gates align.  There are amphibian and aquatic beings who live in these places, feral elementals that have escaped their creators are known to prowl some of the back-flow channels that feed into the interstitial paddocks and core-wildernesses that have grown up around the central Obelisk Plaza over the centuries that these places have been operating quietly, unobtrusively in the background like some open secret among the Veridical Sages of Polume.  Everyone knows of these places, no one really knows very much about them, except perhaps Mengwa Zal...and he is notoriously difficult to interview.  The name isn't too obvious, is it?

Cyclopean structures, massive obelisks and cryptically silent monoliths, some carved with strange sigils and others scrawled with the organic squiggles of writhing texts that seem more alive than any sane feature of architecture should be...that's fairly weird, at least by established Old School standards.  But let's not just take the easy path to mediocrity, this setting needs to go to 11 or higher on the over-all Truly Weird scale.

Looking back at the Riskail Solar System there is something called the Inner Cinders in-between the inner-most planet Naaj and the fierce sun Taleed itself.  The Inner Cinders are so small, in comparison, that they only really show up as faint greenish wisps of reflected light that plot out their orbital paths.  Each one is a quasi-cylindrical hollow tube-like structure fitted with arrays of self-adjusting mirrors and reflectors that allow each of these structures to collect, focus and convert solar energy into raw power that goes...where?  So far each intrepid adventurer who has tried to find the answer has never been heard from since.  The mystery endures, beckoning the bold and the foolish alike.  Each of the cylindrical structures has a blasted, pitted half-vitreous desert region that is just barely tolerable and liveable surrounding a lush, verdant and rampantly overgrown jungle region that absolutely fills the inside-out sky betwixt and between the deserts below and the deserts above.  Beyond the riotous growth that fills the cylinders' enclosed pseudo-sky, there are regularly spaced rocky, desolate rings of inverted desert-lands surrounding the hot, central shaft that appears to be filled to bursting with the accumulated sunlight streaming into the cylinder...but that could well be a poetic recounting of some non-technically-inclined and mostly illiterate adventurer filtered through the Gods only know how many retellings in whichever taverns they now call home.  Gravity is an issue in these places.  A dangerous issue that needs to be understood, appreciated and accounted for, or else traveling to one of these places is a complete waste of time, unless one has given their pledge to the suicide-nymphs or some other dark, dismal and decadent cult like that.

Weird enough?  Nah.  It's basic science fiction, which can be plenty weird when presented within the context of a dark-fantasy/weird-fantasy setting, but it's not terribly new in and of itself.  I've used stuff like this for decades, and so have other DMs/GMs, so we need to take it up a notch or three.

First off, the Solar Cults jealously guard the gates to the Inner Cinders.  They consider these places to be holy and they have a few hardcore and highly-trained zealots who have dedicated themselves to unlocking the sorcerous secrets of these places and a few have managed to develop some very dramatic spells, rites and attunements that they have passed along to their fanatical followers.  The sheer power available to anyone who could manage to access the secret sorceries of these places could make one unto a God Incarnate.

And that's a problem.  There are others who are dedicated to making damned (literally) sure that there is never another Incarnate God again.  Sacred Assassins skilled in all manner of forbidden arts both sorcerous and materialist, who speak only dead tongues and who preserve the forgotten sciences as well as the forbidden rites of ancient civilizations older than Riskail itself.  These hidden and illicit shadows of things others would prefer to remain unspoken, unnamed, unremembered move deftly and subtely in the background, manipulating things from a distance, interfering in minor affairs and setting destinies into motion along prescribed trajectories to achieve their obscure and esoteric aims through means no one can ever clearly link back to them directly without running into obscuring spells, empty minds, lost memories, unrecoverable corpses, enigmas and paradoxes and confusion that would make a God blanch pale with distaste and the bitter knowledge of fear no mortal can truly appreciate.

The monks of Yarlao make penitential journeys into even such ill-advised locales as the Inner Cinders that they might find and locate those who are missing and return them to their loved ones, either bodily or at the very least to return with the story of what happened to them, that spirits might be put to rest and the grieving be given comfort.  Perhaps tagging along with a small band of the brothers of sorrow in order to see for onesself what the Inner Cinders is really like appeals to a group of young, inexperienced and venturesome types.  There are often long-standing rewards, forfeited bonds, bail-claims, foreclosed mortgages, defaulted loans, outstanding bar-tabs, gear-liens, and other such financial contracts clustered around lost expeditions that one could make a sizable income off of, if they only know whom to talk to, where to sign and what sorts of proof to bring back in order to satisfy such things...and the monks of Yarlao are very well-versed in such things.  Perhaps they will teach an outsider if approached properly...

The Sky-Jungles of the Inner Cinders are notorious for their feral vegetation.  Indeed, one may find just about any sort of plant, herb or rare root within those oppressively hot, humid and incredibly dangerous jungles suspended as they are between horrifically barren and hostile deserts discolored by strange salts that spill out upon the smoldering sands from deposits that seem to well up from below in a bizarre mockery of the action of water.  Many a naturalist, botanist, herbalist or similar scholar or dilettante would pay a great deal for samples of plants brought back from one of these places, if one was clever enough to secure the best quality materials and discrete enough not to attract the attention of the Solar Cults --or others-- in the doing of it.  What primitive societies of plant-based life could one find in those jungles?  Are there tribes of once-civilized survivors from past expeditions struggling valiantly to survive even just another day until help can finally reach them?  Would the carnivorous plant-things that have proven themselves exceedingly dangerous in the past be good stock from which to breed a new style of guard-beast or garden-tending servant?  Are these Oh So Romantic and Overused Cliches giving you ideas?  Are you prepared for what Really awaits within the Sky-Jungles of the Inner cinders?  Can your characters handle the truth?

Vitrom Cufo is a frail-looking old man whose royal braids have been replaced with a poorly fitting wig, but his eyes still burn brightly with the brilliant sunlight reflected in the mirrored orbs that replaced his original eyes long, long ago.  He is an old man, bent and nearly spent, but unbowed and incredibly proud.  His family either murdered or displaced by the socialists who took over the Third Tier of Devukarsha during the days of the Red Demogogue, Vitrom Cufo has spent the last of his ancestral fortunes and all of his considerable sorcerous knowledge on the single-minded pursuit of one goal--the acquisition and possession of one of the Inner Cinders mysterious cylindrical structures.  In all likelihood the old man knows something few others remember or have access to, and he has nothing to lose and everythng to gain, or so he has told numerous old friends and acquaintances.  The rumors surrounding Vitrom Cufo's folly, as some are wont to call it, swirl about him like a blizzard of conjecture that will only ever melt away in the light of truth once it is revealed, if ever it is revealed.  Vitrom Cufo has made enemies of the Solar Cults, and while he has succeeded in playing them off of one another so far, it is a dangerous, delicate game he is engaged in, one of cloaks and daggers, back alley deals and money changing hands six steps removed from the source.  The old man will have his way...but where will it all lead?

According to oral tradition and incipient folklore, no one knows how many of the cylindrical structures there are to be found within the swirling tidal pool of debris orbiting the sun amongst the Inner Cinders like a hot greenish cloud of dust and burnt rock.  No one knows for sure what other things might be found out there, or that might find those curious enough to go exploring in these sorts of regions.

It's a different kind of wilderness, a very different and weird kind of wilderness and I will have to offer up some maps of one of these cylindrical structures one of these days...but not until I get a party of adventurers to go explore one...

So if the prospect of hot-blooded plant-people with a thousand-thousand words to describe poison, the notion of a fleet of abandoned solar-powered weapons-platforms powerul enough to make a Bond villain wet themself falling into the hands of rival cults doesn't do it for you, maybe you'd prefer a conspiracy of winged monkeys that are commonly employed as familiars amongst all the fashionable sorcerers and their connection to one of these Sky-Jungles and a particular very ancient (sentient?) tree that seems to be collecting the most complete repository of spells, spellcraft and spell-design knowledge known to the world, one scroll, on page, one letter at a time as the flying monkeys can gather, record or memorize such things from their respective masters?  Vitreous golems of half-molten olivine stone?  Hyper-intelligent entities dwelling within the corona of the sun who can be communed with by way of ritually-activated shrines located in particularly difficult to reach portions of the cylindrical structures?  A small furry echidna in the middle of nowhere who secretly whispers the code sequence to re-awaken one of the cylinder-platforms, but backwards in an obscure mountain dialect from Pan Quan?  A strange topaz-like rod corruscating with an eery luminescence that is drawn to any point of contact with living things in order to establish telepathic communion with whomever will just reach out and touch it once and for all dammit?  An artificial intelligence whose brains are literally the size of planets, but who is trapped in a pocket dimension and the only point of contact is somewhere out amongst the Inner Cinders?  Shining purple wolfhounds that look like they just flew in from one of James Cameron's favorite Roger Dean painted Yes album covers?  Or do you want more frikkin' elves with carefully manicured nails and oh-so-pointy-pointy ears to come riding in on the backs of domesticated green and mauve tigers while listening to Lady Gaga on their iPods?

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