Thursday, July 12, 2018

Crypt Cities: What's in a Mask?

Despite how long it's been, and how far some of us like to think we've come, the way we treat our Awakened varies considerably from place to place. As has been stated earlier, death isn't as great an equalizer as some poets make it out to be. But depending on what you were able to do with your previous life before its end, you might just be one of the lucky ones.

Well, "lucky".

Random Example Homelands & Masks (Roll 1d6)
Mask Appearance
The Plutocracy
A generic, clay worker's mask
The Thalassocracy
Theater mask with sea motifs
The Mystery Sects
Graven, deific imagery
The Holt-Dwellers
Sculpted parasitic plant matter
The Nomads
Bones of totemic animals
The Hunted
Whatever you scavenged up

The Plutocracy

"With death becoming so uncertain lately, we have only taxes left to take comfort in."
-Pilvic, Chair Secretary of Maldus & Kindred Incorporated, Collections Division.

Time, it has been said, is money. And when presented with the potential for infinite time, it didn't take long for some minds to turn toward the prospect of infinite money. So when the dead began to Wake among the interred members of certain guilds and business fraternities, their first and immediate thoughts were not ones dominated by the Need.

In a land where political power is explicitly and by design in the power of the most wealthy individuals, and things ranging from worker collective membership to voting rights must be bought and paid for, those without the keenest of business savvy and the richest of parents tend to accumulate a decent amount of debt over their lifespans. Regrettably, once upon a time these debts had to be transferred to slippery next-of-kin or altogether cancelled by their owners, leaving the food bowls of favorite pets un-festooned and the most purebred of ponies unbought for children's birthdays. But thanks to the advent of Waking, an honest loan-shark is able to collect indefinitely, at least every once in a beautiful blue moon.

You were one such debtor in life, or your relatives didn't want to front the bill for your funeral after you died, and you've become one since. A long stint as a manual laborer probably followed as you quarried stone, dug ditches, and tarred the rooftops of countryside villas.

But once you were, by some miracle, cleared of debt (or once the Need grew so great that they decided to discharge you despite trying to claw the face off of your foreman), you were freed from your dreary work camp and shipped inland toward your caravan.

You'll find many masks like yours out there- nearly featureless, light gray, made from a composite of clay and more resistant materials. But yours is still unique to you in some way, possessing an identifier scratched into its surface somewhere. It also happens to be a sort of canvas for your own personal expression. And though your time as a laborer was maddening toward the end, you worked alongside your Awakened kin--as well as those of living flesh and pumping blood--at close quarters for many a year. You escaped some of the worst indignities inflicted by the living, and the rest can be compartmentalized as "just part of business".

When the situation calls for diplomacy with the living, you are often the first pick by those who know you.

When the Need gnaws at your fellows, You may comfort them with the knowledge that worse pangs can be survived.

The Thalassocracy

"O endless sea. You are a curse, and an accomplice to human disquiet, but also the blood which runs in me. Take me and my batter'd ship, as you accept all that is and can be."
-Berucino, protagonist of the acclaimed melodrama A Death At Sea, and the first Awakened character known to enter the popular consciousness of "high culture".

 Ah, the sea. A bottomless womb of life and bounty which occasionally makes its power known via deadly, coast-obliterating reminders. Likened so often to a tempestuous lover, those who live beside it do so like they remain trapped in that abusive relationship. But every once in a while, a powerful navy, strong dykes, and careful meteorological predictions allow one clan of fish-eaters to claim they've mastered the oceans.

With their lives and deaths so intimately bound up in the whims of the waves, it isn't unusual to find romantics fixated upon them. For centuries, burials at sea were customary- a way of "giving back" to their provider. And this carried on just fine until the dead started to drag their waterlogged selves back up onto the beaches. Burning them and then carrying the ashes far out to sea on barges became routine for several fateful decades of the coast's history, but that practice ended when hundreds of crying whales started to beach themselves in unison and catches of fish started coming up with far too many heads, fins, and teeth.

Now the sheer cliffs and promontories of the coasts are given over to temporary burial chambers. But just because they are temporary, does not mean that they should be simple. Oh, no. You were probably swathed in more silk and gold in death than you had ever seen in your life. For a brief instant you were celebrated as a fellow actor in the same great play. The mask you now bear, similar to those worn in the theaters frequented by the members of elite houses, is a reminder of that. it's up to you to decide whether the motif of "comedy" or "tragedy" was a more appropriate choice for you, of course.

You are, as a result of this treatment, a remarkably well-adjusted Awakened one. Either by hearkening back to your noble blood, or by faking it until you make it, you just might resemble a leader with some amount of dignity among your fellow caravaneers.

And better yet, stripping bits and pieces of excessive grandeur from your mask might allow you to bargain for supplies or advice, if you happen during your journey to come across those who still care for things like gold.

The Mystery Cults

"The secret is in the Black Breath, I know it! We need only collect a few more vials of it..."
-Burisane to his apprentice, over a mortisected petitioner at the altar of Argent Gedes.

 Magic and monolatry go hand-in-hand the world over. Unfettered by distinctions such as divine or arcane, uncounted organizations plumb the depths of mysticism in nearly every culture- the only variable is how public or clandestine they are, or how embarrassing their initiation rituals can get. You would know, wouldn't you?

You would also know how rigorous the training is. How after initiation, one learns before anything else the whims and needs of their assigned teacher. Next, one learns the abilities and weaknesses of one's fellows, just in case the likely day ever comes where competition grows even more stiff. Hours poring over annotated tomes day in and day out might addle the senses to the outside world and a healthy sleeping and eating schedule, but in place of all of that cut-out fat, one is gifted true knowledge. While turning a blind eye to many of their peculiarities, folk across the land often rely upon these scholars for people learned in letters, numbers, and sciences which they master by mere incident of coming to understand their chosen path toward the secrets of the universe.

Unfortunately what you don't know, despite your many years of devotion to your chosen cell, coven, house, church, or tower, is actual magic.

No, no. You were a decade away from even witnessing the rituals which were performed in the outermost sanctum, let alone partaking. Though, somewhat fortunately, that may be the only reason why you were permitted to leave when first you stood back up after dying. Were you a true vessel of your order's secrets, your former associates would never have let you leave seclusion. At best, such great minds have been reduced to talking heads used to educate students in between maddened ramblings. At worst, they could be locked away with only the highest members of their orders privy to their whereabouts or the experiments conducted upon them.

Be grateful for your mediocrity then, but also appreciate how your imperfect knowledge still sets you a cut above your new kin. You have an inkling of the deeper meaning of the world around you, and the likeness of a godhead or sorcerer-saint etched upon your mask affords you much greater respect among the Awakened than you enjoyed in life.  And if you put your learning to practical use, you might even work a cantrip before your long rest.

Or peel back another fraction of an inch of the veil surrounding the Waking.

The Holt-Dwellers

"We don't harvest the limbs of those trees. If you wake up their fertilizer, it won't quiet down for another month."
-Agudai the Planter, senior forester.

The creeping expanse of the crypt-cities over the eons has been almost as much of an ecological disaster as the results of its alternatives. Vast stretches of the continent's interior have been rendered almost uninhabitable to most of the living, and that grey blot on the map seems destined to grow and grow. Yet there are those who still seek to defend the bastions of nature not yet despoiled. Or, more particularly, they seek to defend their last bastions of nature from others who need them just as much as they do. The dwellers in the deepest holts aren't in it for nature's own sake, after all.

These forest and hill peoples have been forced by necessity to adapt themselves to shrinking old growth, becoming experts in forest farming as well as more than a little experience in more esoteric forms of crop husbandry and hybridization. You come from a land of furniture which bears fruit, and bioluminescent crickets the size of small dogs. Everything that can be used in an experiment toward the end of sustainability, is used.

Up to and including the dead.

In ages past, the dead were interred in shallow graves with the seeds or spores of their plants of choice strewn about their bodies, so that they might feed a fresh upshoot of life. But when the dead started waking back up before the seeds could even germinate, initial dismay at a shattered worldview soon gave way to strange new options. They say that the oldest of the Awakened from the deep forests never left, and that their voices can still be heard echoing in the trunks of ancient oak and elm.

You probably don't walk alone. Somewhere on you or in you, a plant or fungus grows with fierce determination. To say nothing of your mask, which is quite alive, and quite literally rooted to your face. And though these plants are a mild drain upon your already strained life force, they offer you a strange new perspective. You know the helpful and harmful plants of the most remote places. You know their names and uses. Your fellows might be put off by your woody visage and knothole eyes, but they heed your herb-lore.

And you remember well the horrible tales of the Knight of Blossoms.

The Nomads

"The tragic part isn't to see a child of the open steppes confined to a tomb forevermore. It is to know that they wish it."
-Olroxes, chieftain of the Tauirisos.

Someone from settled lands likely wouldn't think of the Awakened as a great business opportunity (unless they were a very particular sort of plutocrat). But that is not at all the impression one gets when you travel inward from the soft and verdant periphery. As the wasteland has expanded, so too has the borderland between it and the rest of the world. Here, on hard land packed by hooves and cartwheels, the nomads thrive, if such a word could be used in this day and age.

Long ago, each land and polity dealt with those who woke individually, and in a self-contained manner. This worked at first, but when your numbers erratically swelled once in a while and those systems of transportation broke down, beleaguered states turned toward the herdsmen at their borders for assistance.

Traveling light and requiring relatively little food for your cargo, your people move from place to place as your animals and the flow of death dictate. You are the ultimate middlemen, and the closest thing to a ferryman across the river of death which many Awakened with a belief in such things will ever see.

But the last migration ended badly for you, and now instead of riding beside the odorous metal cages, you sit in one of them. You aren't there against your will, of course. The doors are rarely locked, and the bars overhead protect you and your new kin from the near-constant attentions of carrion birds circling overhead in the grey sky. You used to hate and desire a delay to the approach to the interior checkpoint where human life grew harder and harder to sustain, and you eventually gave the Waking over to their own abilities and devices. But now you can't stand how slowly the procession moves. You know now the Need that you always felt you could see in the vacant eye-holes of your wards.

Starting off, you are the wisest of all Awakened when it comes to the outer reaches of the wastes. Your knowledge might quickly dissipate the deeper your group penetrates inland, but your knowledge of land and beast might save precious time or limbs.

Your tribe has also furnished you for the journey as almost anyone would. Of particularly macabre beauty is the bone mask given to you and others, fashioned into the likeness of one of the animals hardy enough to survive in and around the wastes. You might not ever have believed the shamans who claimed that each mask granted a measure of affinity with its respective, often savage, totem.

Hopefully there's something to it.

The Hunted

"We'll give our due to the dead, alright... a five minute head start!"
 - More than one leader of a "good old-fashioned Hunt".


You really are unlucky, aren't you?

Well, at least you're still standing on two feet that probably belong to you. You haven't been ashed, and if you aren't currently venting smoke like a lousy baker's chimney, you've found a mask or something almost as good.

You are one of the Hunted, and no matter the goodwill you fostered in life, you are now reviled by everyone and everything that once knew you. Most likely, you once hailed from the regions that skeptics today label "theocracies" despite them having a diversity of shapes and sizes. But what unites those disparate tribes, villages, or city-states is their outright rejection of social norms and customs pertaining to the Awakened as they exist in the wider world. You are monsters to them, to be killed in as just and thorough a manner possible. Worst of all is when your culture has legends of vengeful dead predating the first Awakened. Some people have always burned their dead, while others took to it specifically to combat the possibility of Waking. In either case, they often find that they have ecological crises of their own when so much ash stored in one place starts to make people's noses bleed and the laws of physics scream.

But they might not have chased you with fire. Maybe they came with chains, seeking to detain you in some small, mundane crypt until the Need renders you docile and still. Or they came bearing hooks and spikes, intent on nailing you to one of the aptly named "Groaning Pillars" which dot the prairies. Whatever the form of their cruelty, and whether it was motivated out of sadism or a genuine belief that this is what's right for you and your soul, you escaped them. Avoiding roads and clinging to the edges of badlands, scavenging on the refuse of living lands, you found your way. Working together with one of your rare fellows haunting those lands, you came to understand your new form through practice rather than tutelage. Or perhaps you competed with your kin, fought for resources, and stole the mask off of some crippled unfortunate while filling your decaying lungs with their smoky breath.

Now that you've found yourself a caravan, the foreboding wastes before you might seem almost like a leisurely walk for one so accustomed to a ruthless world.

You'll be proven wrong before the end, but for now you do what needs doing, and your grizzled determination inspires hope (and fear) in your companions.

No comments:

Post a Comment