Warning. This is a long post. It covers the following topics:
- It announces Let Us In. A new 16-page horror adventure I wrote recently, coming out just in time for Helloween ’21.
- I introduce the concept of the metasetting versus the setting and the anticanon.
- I analyze the metasetting of the Lastlands through a series of comparisons, lyrics, and fanciful excursions. Purple prose warning.
- How to use a metasetting at the roleplaying table.
If this does not sound like your cup of tea, save some time and enjoy the day outside instead. Five minutes spent in the moment, being alive, will be time better spent.
If it sounds fun, then read on, brave reader.
October is here once more, and with it harvest, and with it ends, and with them ancestors and memories and golden leaves cast like memories upon the cold north winds. Yes, All Saints Day and its eve are coming.
Halloween, if you will.
It seems to have become something of a tradition: come halloween-or-thereabouts I release a game set in the Lastlands. A one-shot or a mini-series game of quiet desperation and gentle horror between the mountains and the sea.
A tribute to homes far away and long ago and never seen again, perhaps.
If you’re reading this post before the zine’s release: I’m publishing it with Exalted Funeral and its being released next week together with a special Halloween bundle including Witchburner and Longwinter. I forget if we’re also printing up the Well-Gourded Village, but that one’s a bit of a pun anyway.
If you’re reading this post after Halloween and I haven’t put up all the links yet, remind me. Thank you!
Metasetting As Concept
Folks’ll readily say they know an rpg setting when they see it. The gazetteer and ð̠e Weltkarte, the list of deities (always the list of deities), a breakdown of factions, races, fights, a chronology called universal, flora et fauna, a certain je sais bên qua of rigid world-building.
I’ve made my … mmm … disturbing lack of faith in the traditional rpg setting rather geklärt with my post on anticanon worlds. The metasetting is a fellow traveller of the anticanon world. It sits behind, beyond, and after the created world. It is not a world of its own, but rather a set of themes, ideas, places, experiences, memories, histories, and events that find purchase in any setting.*
An example of a metasetting would be the world(s) implied by the stories and games of the Cthulhuverse. They share the themes of a secret reality beyond our mundane world, a terrifying cold cosmos, a horror at human irrelevance. They combine these themes with a procedure of investigation and a style of tragedy resolving in madness. Yet, the Cthulhuverse could inhabit any setting. From ancient Egypt to postmodern Endon, from the moons of Jupiter to the sands of Al Qadim.
Another example of a metasetting is … let us call it … Dragondungeonworld. A terrifying multiverse of worlds riddled with nightmarish holes and structures under a surface nominally under the control of literal embodied gods, where morality is a physical constant of the universe and a special class of judge-dredd style antiheroes called paladins goes around ruthlessly upholding one law, one true morality, using the ability to read souls to decide who is to be destroyed and who is to be saved. At the same time, the mortals of this world are locked in ruthless competitions to climb the levels, to reach the top of a meritocratic pyramid of power, and become the most powerful of them all, ascended to demigodhood upon a pile of corpses. A world where killing those deemed “monstrous” literally empowers the slayer, turning a peasant (a member of a lowly 0th level underclass) into a hero of 10th, 20th, or 7,000th level. This same metasetting can be applied to many different actual settings–though most are, for utterly mysterious reasons, a pastiche of 5th to 15th century Anglofrancia.
I’ll pretend it’s clear what a metasetting is now. A mood, more than a fixed mythology. Theme, rhyme, story beat, dreams, goals, structures à la Levi-Strauss, pas un monde complet like Dune (masterful, tasteful, novel) or Greyhawk (other adjectives) or Tékumel (looks interesting, but never got into it) the Other Generic Not-Quite Middle Earth Fantasy Franchise (pick to taste).**
So. What kind of metasetting are the Lastlands?
*An aside: where the Lastlands are a metasetting in the original Greek sense of meta, the Given World of the Vastlands is a metasetting in the modern setting, in that it is explicitly ironic and self-referential. After all, it calls itself an invented, made-up world, and at the depth of its mythogenesis, that is what it is. A made-up world that knows it was made-up. A dream in the mind of its demiurge.
**Let’s be clear. Everyone is allowed to have their own tastes. If, dear reader, my tastes offend … please, feel proud of thyself and thine superior delectations.
Lastlands As Metasetting
Once there were larger lands. Once there were deeper dreams. Once there were greater heroes. Once we expected eternity. Once there were towers triumphant. Once there were ceaseless campaigns. Now the leaves of history curl, turn brown, and soon do fly. The soil is tilled. The day is turned. For another dawn, for a smaller treasure, for a lesser pleasure.The Lastlands page I wrote a while ago.
All cities are the same. In a city, one finds everything and anything, ascends the peaks and plumbs the depths. All cities are the same.
No town is the same. Each is uniquely, hopelessly peripheral and unimportant. Each has one thing it clings to that gives it hope and meaning. Each is parochial. A bystander to history.
When empires rise, the town is emptied out. Its industries flow into the cities. Its men flow into the legions. Its women flow into the factories. Fools and horses remain. Tourists arrive. Rich outlanders build villas and estates.
When empires fall, the town shrinks and retrenches. Poverty and superstition stalk its streets and fields. Cargo cults remember the glorious times when the big roads were built. Small craftsmen patch holes, communal labour plugs walls.
All cities are the same. Metropolitan, bustling, diverse, cheek-by-jowl, steak-by-fish.
Each town is unique. In the last bronze age the Aga of Busak was buried with his chariot and four flashing horses there, under the watchful eye of Rugo’s Brow. The kurgan stands still, and when the new kingdom comes to harvest the young for the new armies of Reason or Truth or whatever they call it today, their mothers will go to the kurgan and give rabbit’s livers to the ghosts of the Aga of Busak to bring their boys home.
In the next town over, in the next valley, past the next forest, they do not do this and that is why they are wrong and foreign.
Each town has an accent, has a poet, has a robber baron that protected it when the empire fell, has a breed of cat or a holy tree.
The people in the city, the nobles, the meritocrators, the administratii do not see. That is also oko. The town does not want them to see. That is how the old ways survive.
All cities thrive on change and dream of growth and future. Propulsive, dynamic, explosive, viral, thrusting, growing, going, going, going, gone.
Each town cringes like a limpet against the tides of time. It is small, vulnerable, endangered. No town should dare stand to high, seem too different. Difference is danger.
Towns are conservative not because they are foolish, backwards, superstitious, uneducated, or stupid. They are conservative because they are old and they know they are weak and they know they are on their own at the last. A god sneezes and a town freezes, an emperor turns and a town burns.
Towns are small and their resources are small and their reserves are small. A bad harvest, an inattentive provincial governor, an unlucky flood, a rapacious brigade commander, an unfortunate earthquake, and death is there, sharpening her divine combine harvester.
The ways of survival evolve through centuries of plagues and famines and wars. The old ways are the lessons of rivers of tears and fields of bones.
That is why the bringers of change are mistrusted. Young fools, heads full of nonsense from the city, how will they deal when the gods throw their bone dice once more?
All cities are the future or they are dying. Like sharks, they swim forward, faster faster hungry smelling a glorious tomorrow. Singularity, ascendance, heaven on earth.
Each town is its own present, suspended between the past and the tug of the city shark. A wise prophet in the days of the Diesel Revolution wrote in his book, the Neuronomicon,* that “the future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed.” So it is with technology.
The future always comes first to the city, then trickles down to the town. Just like the economy. It comes, mixes and remixes. The golem used to turn a barbecue spit at the old pizzeria. The crystal ball hooked up to the theater to let the farmhands rewatch the pre-Purification movies found in the old bunker-villa. The new matador automotor of the mayor’s daughter, a gift from the outlander investor come to build a cannery for the valley’s rare pink peaches. The hand scythes used on the steep slopes where the combines cannot go. The ten-thousand-year-old flint microblades proudly displayed in the town museum, documenting the founders of that settlement.
The Lastlands might be anywhere between 1713 and 1973 and 3113. Fundamentally, they stay the same. A technologically-dependent periphery aware that aught much more than the smallholder techné of the early modern period is more than they will be able to maintain without the city.
Industry always depends on the city, and the wealthy town is always dependent.
*I jest. This is a misattribution of William Gibson’s quote. He wrote the book Neuromancer (1984). Do not pretend the Lastlands are our world, do not pretend they are not.
All cities are flux and chaos. Mob and imperator, elite and untouchable, academic and populist, celebrity and grey mind-shackled labour caste.
Each town is its own unique pattern. United and equal against the outer world. Poor against the city. Divided and riven within. The founding families. The customary landlords. The town-born. The traditional clubs. The newcomer outsiders that moved to town 40 years ago. The generation societies. The stranger with foreign customs that’s been living in the old Franz Yusuf house these last 10 years.
The town suggests unchanging stasis, but it reinvents itself and rewrites its histories to package itself. After all, without a court historian, who will remember exactly whether the Great Iron Cactus was planted 600 or 800 years ago? Will it matter? When 1,000 is the better story and the better tourist draw, that is what it shall be.
And some will know. Of course.
But to outsiders, there will be the brush stroke truth, the suspicion, the envy, and the desire for that gleaming tourist thaler.
All cities are rich.
Every town is poor in its own way. It has less. Less people, buildings, wealth, opportunities, narratives, stories, hopes.
That is why it hoards those it does have so jealously. Why it is so loss averse. Why it is so keen to punish thieves harshly. Why it is so happy to steal from outsiders. Why it is so envious of the city.
And what burns most strongly in the belly of the townsfolk is the knowledge that the city does not care. The town is weak, the city is strong. And all the envy of the town will not matter one whit.
But the town also does not understand Moloch. Moloch is foreign to the town. The town understands concrete things. One man has a dozen houses, that man is a dozen times richer than a man with one house. But the abstract: ideas, inventions, imaginations, financial machinations–these perplex the town.
So it rests, always the poor cousin of the city. Easy to overlook. The mussel on the shore casting envious eyes upon the whale. It sends its children to the whale: they hope to make it big and become plankton for that great filter in the metropole.
All cities know nothing. They understand, permute, change, evolve, shape, sculpt.
Each town knows everything. Every tree and tower and tindrum player is known to everyone. No townsperson gets away un-gossiped or unscathed. The human individual is chewed, digested, known, and becomes another brick in the wall of the town, another step in the long life of the little town.
And when they are dead, their crushed hopes and dreams become the mortar of the walls that keep the townsfolk safe and stuck.
But to the outsider, there is nothing to know. Yokels one and all.
All life is strife. In cities this is clear. The dishwasher kills the cockroach, the landlord yokes the dishwasher, the mayor rides the landlord, the mobster milks the mayor, the emperor whips the mobster.
In towns, things are less clearcut.
Upsides are smaller, downsides are greater, and there is no countless multitude to plug the gaps left by conflict. Though they might hate one another, the brewer and the muezzin must share their town. So conflicts are repressed, compressed, hidden, nurtured. Ready to erupt when kaos comes a callin’.
In the city, horror may pretend to be grand. May attempt at statistics. May numb the mind and blind the soul and pluck out the eyes of the enlightened.
Each town is horrible in its own way.
It is cozy, comfortable, closed, claustrophobic. All at once.
The paper boy pedals his news round, the cock-a-doodle calls in the morning, the paper mill horn blasts the start of another day. And between the dairy and the mess hall and the once-a-week re-run at the old drive inn converted to walk in since the gasolio done dried up, the mundane ratchets and ratchets until suddenly its hatchets in a hotel closed for the winter and “Here’s Johnny” shouts the daemon born in drink and despair.
And then comes spring and comes the silence and the stoic nod and the flowers and the horror is papered over again.
Lullabies, look in your eyes, Run around the same old town. Doesn't mean that much to me To mean that much to you. I've been first and last Look at how the time goes past. But I'm all alone at last. ——Neil Young - "Old Man" - Harvest (1972)
In the city, tragedy is a surprise.
In the town, it is inevitable. It is not foretold in cryptic prophecy, it is engraved in letters ten feet tall in the very stones of existence.
Stand out, get hammered down. Fly to high, burn and die. Beautiful, lucky girl, tempt the demon fate, see how time comes down for you.
Leave, flee, run.
The town comes with you, the knowledge that there is a veil and behind that veil is a void and within that void is an end and that end … that end is tears, my friend.
High above the trees Looking down on me Birds fly by my side People look up hopelessly At dandelion seeds. ——July - "Dandelion Seeds" - Single (1968) (youtube link)
In the city, laughter is suave, sardonic, slick and sharp. Lips curved and full.
Each town laughs from the belly. Deep, full, and greedy in the moment. Snatching humour from the hopeless abyss, gulping down joy like the flowers of May, for each laugh ends with a barking echo, a shadow of winter and harrow and frost.
Each laugh shows teeth. Strong, yellow, teeth like the chompers of a horse. The tusks of a mastodon. The grin of grandpa’s skull on the mantelpiece.
Sometimes the comedy seems harsh and daft and absurd. Like miners waiting for a foreman who never comes. It’s alright. Even the darkest comedy makes the day better.
All these tragedies and terrors, they’ll stay away at least a little longer while there’s roots and companionship and fireplace and belly full. So laugh as you watch the dandelion seeds waft up towards the glittering cities in the sky. Chuckle as you watch the glittering cities wink out one by one. Drink deep of the soma drink as you contemplate the cold winters that will come again as the mushroom bombs drop on the cities once again. Grin defiantly as you dig up the old guns and throw up the old walls again, as the walking dead return.
It’s all a laugh, the old gods say, all for a laugh we made this world again this day.
How To Use A Metasetting?
It’s tempting to think: but is metasetting not just genre?
No, it is not. It overlaps, but it is not.
It’s also helpful to remember that an rpg is an culture-entertainment form a little different from either a game or a novel. The game is rigid within its framework of rules. The novel is rigid within its framework of story. The rpg is more like improv theatre or collaborative play.
In its rigid structure, both a game and a novel can have a fixed and detailed setting. Within those art forms a writer can hope to worldbuild a complete cosmos (though each writer must fail in this endeavour, for such is the tragedy of creation).
The true setting of a roleplaying game emerges in fact at a table. And each table’s setting is necessarily different from every other table’s setting.
This makes an impossibility of every complete setting book. It simply cannot be played as written, it cannot be used as intended. Ah, tragedy. But, again, this is something I tackled with the thoughts on anticanon.
A metasetting is also not something that can be played as written. But this is by design: it is not designed to be played. It is designed to provide a palette of colours and broad strokes and impressions and expressions, which the players can use to create their setting as fact at their own table. A metasetting functions like a box of legos from a given theme—with a box full of jumbled up pirate set lego pieces, a group of players can build a variety of pirate havens, violet pearls, navy jones’ lockers, gang planks, and el dorados. Or what have you.
How The Lastlands Work
The Lastlands are a metasetting that foregrounds the periphery. Whether the heroes are citizens venturing into the backwoods, or the townsfolk navigating their own lives, these stories unfold within the structures imposed by the logic of edges, boundaries, and old ways.
This metasetting is implicit for me, as author, when I work on stories and games I categorize as Lastlands pieces.
This doesn’t mean they can only be used within a Lastlands metasetting–far from it. Like any story, they can be translated–often quite easily. Porting any Lastlands game into a Dying Earth setting or 18th or 19th or 20th or 21st century Europe or Argentina or India or West Virginia is easy. After all, wherever there is a centre, a Bastionland, an Emerald City, there is a place not too far away that feels untouched or left behind. With a nudge of cosmic horror, it works easily with Cthulhu, with more guns and gold hunting and frontiersmanship it works with Space or Wildwest cowboys.
At some point I will write up a more structured Lastlands metasetting guide. Tables like Yoon Suin (but less anchored) to paint the possibilities and limitations of the metasetting.
Afterall, though the Lastlands started as an ode to the beautifully overlooked places of Mitteleuropa, ta Sredozemska Primorska unlike the rugged wild expanse of the Primorsky Krai just north of where I write these lines, I’ve discovered that they awaken a broader sentiment. A suggestion of small places, of settlements like limpets clutching on hard against the battering waves of history, offering a sense of hygge and horror together that, surprisingly, works.
Bien, a long-long post!
Trust it wasn’t a shame.
And the sand-castle virtues are all swept away In the tidal destruction, the moral melee The elastic retreat rings the close of play As the last wave uncovers the newfangled way But your new shoes are worn at the heels And your suntan does rapidly peel And your wise men don't know how it feels To be thick as a brick ——Jethro Tull - "Thick As A Brick Pt. 1" - Thick As A Brick (1972)
Visit the stratometaship.Includes cookies and red apples. Guaranteed barely
It brings the stars.