Some years ago I came across Joseph Manola's post on why Central Asia is so good as an inspiration for a fantasy setting. Unsurprisingly I quite liked it, and even commented on it- I can't believe I was entertaining the notion of running a game back then. But then I promptly forgot all about it and the blog.
Fast forward to our calendar year of 48 (goblins are bad at maintaining institutional knowledge, don't ask) and I was Googling around for advice on the exact same subject. I'm a bit of a broken record like that. Fortunately I rediscovered that old post, and by extension the entirety of the Against the Wicked City campaign setting.
The blog bills itself as Romantic clockpunk fantasy gaming in a vaguely Central Asian setting, adding that it might also feature killer robots. That is a factually accurate description, but it only scratches the surface of what it offers, to the point that I think it undersells the whole project a bit.
For one, while the game's influences are ultimately mutable in the hands of anyone who chooses to use them, the word "vaguely" doesn't cut it. Or maybe I'm being a bit of a pedant. To me, being vaguely inspired by a historical era means it is chiefly an aesthetic inspiration, one which can (but doesn't necessarily always) run the risk of being superficial, misleading, or perpetuating harmful stereotypes.
The depth of research into Central Asian histories, cultures, and mythologies is evident here, however. There are several posts on spirits and shamanism (and a shaman class!), all written with a cautious awareness that they are engaging with a still-living continuum of peoples and religious traditions. There is thought given to the vastly different landscapes including steppe, desert, tundra, taiga, etc. and the societies and things one may find in each. There's a list of creatures from Central Asian myths and those of surrounding regions that made me realize how little I know (though I would personally supplement the hortlak with the chotgor that I am more partial to, and swap the shurale out for a playable almas race/class).
I use the awkward conjunction "race/class" because AtWC is designed with B/X D&D or similarly styled OSR games in mind (mixed with one or two 3rd & 4th editionisms like fort/ref/will saves and simple/martial weapon categories), which is the next part I want to talk about.
You all know by now that I turn into a wibbled little ball of stress when it comes to the prospect of character death or bringing the group down with my own personal lack of skill. But AtWC's deliberate merger of B/X systems with the violence-as-a-last-resort hopefulness of capital-r Romantic Fantasy both assuages some of that fear and leaves me feeling strangely compelled. I've touched on Romantic Fantasy here before, after all. It turns what I normally consider to be the engine of countless highly martial dungeon crawls into a vehicle for nonviolent, clever, or even compassionate problem-solving.
It was something I never thought about before, but now that I do it makes fairly plain sense. Why wouldn't you try diplomacy to misdirect or even find some possible common ground with the beleaguered bandits when you know that the narrative has probably supplied them with some names, scars, and humanity, and when you just know that their blunderbusses will evaporate all of your hit points and most of your torso at the onset of combat?
The eponymous Wicked City is an awful place. Founded by a truly evil monarch who may be dead or just abiding in his ominous tower, the city is choked by fear, conspiracy, and the palpable miasma of despair. The land itself is sick and gone Weird in places. Things and buildings move around when they think no one's looking. The city is the near-skeletal husk of a body suffering from the late stages of a metaphysical disease called authoritarianism. Most of its people's hopes were long ago ground down under the endlessly spinning gears of the city's clockwork machinery and the bootheels of the Wicked King's secret police- but only most hopes. The city, or at least the people trapped within it, can still be saved. And you'd be a fool to think its stagnant, systemic violence can be defeated with a liberal application of slightly different, more targeted violence on the part of the heroes. You have to put in the work and fix the broken people, not break them more.
The blog makes a direct reference to studio Ghibli protagonists as the ideal hero for this type of game at times, like Chihiro from Spirited Away. She confronts a strange and hostile new world and rescues her loved ones not by lashing out, but by being crafty, making friends, and practicing humility and compassion. Heroes standing against the Wicked City would ideally be just like that- albeit a bit older, and also equipped with flintlock guns and magical abilities as backups just in case. So maybe they're closer to Princess Mononoke than Spirited Away, but I'm splitting hairs at this point.
That refusal to bend to authority, as well as the refusal to stoop so low as to use authority's tools of force and cruelty, is what really puts the -punk in the clockpunk of this world, which I realize I haven't actually talked about until now.
Yes, there are indeed killer robots. Some of them are small and animal-like, operating on primitive programing not unlike the instincts of flesh-and-blood creatures. Others are more readily identifiable automatons, whether they be intelligent, willed, or servile. Others are truly massive and destructive war-hulks held in reserve like tactical nukes. Still others are brains in jars, or zombies puppeteered by clockwork brains- not even death will prevent the Wicked City from using and abusing its unfortunate denizens to their maximum utility, even if that utility goes toward more senseless misery and waste.
But there's a good deal more tech than that.
There are also gyrocopters, airships, autowinders, repeater crossbows, submarines, calculators, computerized brain implants, and even pocket watches. Primitive steam engines power some of these devices, but not to any extent that the truth of the subgenre tag is threatened.
That all of these outlandish and occasionally very real gadgets exist alongside more-or-less medieval technologies elsewhere in the setting might seem like a case of generic fantasy schizo tech. But against the backdrop of vaguely Early Modern Central Asia, it actually feels like a good bit of historical verisimilitude to me- assuming I'm even using that word correctly.
Central Asia has historically been a crossroads for cultures, which means it has always been an unironic land of contrasts. These contrasts can be social, religious, and political, but they are also material. The Silk Road once spread some of the most state-of-the-art technology throughout the continent and fostered diffusion between the massive states that tried to dominate it. But just a few hundred miles off those trade routes were tribes who lived much like their ancestors did hundreds of years earlier. Russian Cossacks invaded Siberia with muskets and cannons, and Siberia put up stiff resistance with swords and bows; just so, the Wicked King's legions of clockwork mechs must contend with the heroes' grit, pluck, dinky little 1d6 damage weapons, and occasionally a talking bear.
AtWC got some actual play back in the days before the end of Google+, but I haven't found much usage of the setting in the 2020s. Joseph apparently transitioned into working on a similar but distinct sci-fantasy setting called the City of Spires after he realized that, in addition to a number of logistical issues, some of his new gaming group's players had already read all of AtWC and learned secrets they shouldn't have. (Guess I kinda spoiled myself as a player by doing all of this, didn't I?)
I might not ever run a game, but I will probably find AtWC inspiring my own material in the future. It's too good not to let seep in.
There's another reason why I've latched onto the setting like this, if you'll allow me to be a little too real for a moment.
I just really want the setting's optimism to be true.
Central and Inner Asia are in a bad way right now- both the land and the people who live there. The heads of state in Post-Soviet republics fight to maintain or expand their autocratic powers at the expense of their citizens, confident that the only real limit to their behavior is whatever the looming Russian Federation finds inconvenient for its own ambitions. The Aral Sea has shrunk from the fourth-largest lake in the world to a brackish puddle whose main exports are rust and poverty. Deserts are expanding everywhere along the steppe belt. Afghanistan and Iran languish under oppressive regimes inflamed by my own country's equally backwards foreign policy. Lake Baikal, home to the deepest and purest fresh water on Earth, grows increasingly polluted by industry. The ostensibly communist ruling party of the People's Republic of China wields state capitalism like a cudgel to pacify the outside world while it researches new and inventive ways to dominate its own citizens and annihilate the Uyghur people. Mongolia is facing the worst dzuds in decades because of climate change. And most of the international community either doesn't care, or doesn't have a goddamn clue.
I wish some plucky kids would come along and Studio Ghibli things better. We already need a miracle.