Creative Permutations: Dead City

—The slow horizon has eaten the living god. The millennial city falls. Gore runs in the archaic streets. Bones break beneath the stud wheels of the conquerors.

—”Reason!” they yell as they sack the towns of the megalopolis. Ash falls like snow and the great organs of war low in exultation.

—The accountant divisions grind their mechanical calculators and the furnaces sing as they recycle the treasures of Ebét to pay the butcher bankers.

Lament, Personality Kernel beta-434c, Ash Layer VI, Greenwater Site 2


This week I published The Memorialists Dead City Memories, Vol. 1.

It’s available for free on ITCH and DTRPG.

You’re getting a 36-page zine that introduces two regions of a great ruined city, a character archetype (the memorialist), some spells, items, locations, art, prose, mechanics, rules. You know, the usual.

I don’t want to talk about the details—it’s, free, go look at it, it speaks for itself. I want to talk about its genesis.

Two colossi gaze at each other across the entrance to Dead City Port.

Genesis

I wrote the first pieces of the Dead City in autumn of 2016. More or less exactly 6 years ago. I had the full, first draft of the text written in early mid 2017.

The 1st volume of the DCM zine covers, very roughly, one fourteenth of that text. Or less. There’s a lot of text.

This was before I had written the UVG, before I knew that I could lay out a whole book, or see a whole project like this through.

Around this time I still didn’t have a good idea of what I wanted to do with patreon or games or art or writing or my life in general. Well, I had a rough direction: transition from working in marketing for forgettable, interchangeable companies, and make a living with art. I also had a rough timetable: it would take me five years to get good enough at drawing that I would be comfortable charging enough for my work to make a living at it.

I’ve been intensely fortunate: things turned out better than I hoped (thanks to patreon and Matt over at Exalted Funeral and kickstarter and the creative golden age we now live in).

But let’s return to the Dead City.

At that time, in 2016 and 2017, although I was very happy to have married my wife, I was also dealing with many difficulties. I had left my previous company in Lausanne due to the local Swiss boss’s bullying and harassment. Afterwards, despite sending out over two hundred job applications, I got no positive responses from any Swiss employers—let’s say that I don’t think it impossible that the guy who’d bullied me (and many others) out of the company was successfully bad-mouthing me whenever a local employer called for a local, proper Swiss reference. The funny thing is—I got positive responses from abroad pretty fast; but uprooting a whole life and moving countries over and over isn’t fun.

To say that my finances and confidence took a big hit at that time, well, it’s an understatement.

With my South Korean wife we discussed moving to the UK, where we could take advantage of our shared English language. Then the UK voted for Brexit and that pretty much torpedoed those plans. In the end, she suggested we try out South Korea for a while, and so we did.

Moving to a new continent while again working as, de facto, a freelancer was beautiful, interesting … and challenging.

Of course, this move also meant the end of my wonderful Lausanne gaming group of several years, the Golden Goats.

This difficult time in my life definitely came out in how I wrote the Dead City at that time.

A Cynical Book

The original Dead City, called Necropolis at the time, was definitely a cynical, angry satire. It painted two evil powers, each grim in its own way, the Ebéteen necromancers and the Iksan techno-army. The setting was the necromancers defeated and the players in the role of the Iksans—victorious conquerors despoiling the holy necropolis of the necromancers immediately after its conquest.

This was definitely satire in the vein of old 40K.

It was also informed by the time: 2017 was the year Donald Trump came to power and let’s say that the there were elements of the US invasion of Iraq, the WW2 Red Army, and the Roman Legions informing the Iksan conquest.

This was not a happy, fun, work—playing a morally grey, brutal rpg for a whole campaign, that’s not really me. But, to be fair, I wasn’t thinking too much about the market for it. It was an outlet—partly to compensate the rpg group I had lost, and partly for my anger and frustrations at what I had suffered in my professional life over the last couple of years.

By the time I finished up the first draft, things were a bit different.

I’d done a lot of hiking on coastal trails, gazing at the East Sea, sitting under pine trees, contemplating, lamenting, raging, shouting, scribbling, drawing.

And, with my wife, we had a new purpose: we founded a media startup and I had intense work again, handling the creative direction and editing of our company.

I’d also started up a new gaming group, and started writing the UVG on the patreon, even as my players travelled and explored the sequel to the adventures of the Golden Goats.

An Aside on Names

One of the core influences when I wrote the Necropolis was, obviously, ancient Egypt. Look at the names, and it’s right there: Ebét is Thebes flipped around. And their nemesis is inspired by the mysterious faction from Dune, the IX (named for a 9th planet). The Iksans were originally called the XI (11)—also as a slight nod to Spinal Tap—and the Xians.

But then, you’ll all recall what happened. Hostilities between the US and China led to a trade war and suddenly the news was full of Trump and Xi.

So, I flipped the name again, and changed it to Iksans to get away from people thinking I was making some kind of book glorifying or attacking or whatever China or the US.

That’s a funny thing: work on a book long enough, and real world stuff begins to destroy your names.

On a very unrelated note: after the UVG was published I found that there is actually a group known as the Cold Lake First Nations. The Cold Lake Culture in the UVG is not based on them—it is based a bit on lake Baikal and a lot on my own imaginative reinterpretations of the local rural Slovenian societies and the pressures they faced under various regimes.

But yeah, names.

2019 Vision

After I finished the UVG, I planned to update that first draft of the Necropolis and fix it up for a second Vastlands book. But, looking at the first draft, I realised I wanted a little bit more than just a Necropolis for the looting.

You know, that whole “I don’t want everything grimdark” thing.

So, I renamed it Red Sky Dead City and wrote up options for all the different factions. The invaders, the auxiliaries, the outsiders, the defeated imperialists, their lackeys, more. I wrote up long lists of equipment, armour, and more.

I wrote up a whole real estate mechanic for the players to use as they repurpose the necropolis and make money from stealing property from the defeated Ebéteen …

… uh, that part got cut … no need to make War Monopoly the roleplaying game.

But the bigger and more elaborate it grew, the less … useful it felt. The original draft, though dark, had a simple clarity to it: “you’re the baddies looting this city you conquered.”

This new, more rambling structure, didn’t gel for me.

2020 Burnout

Then 2020. Burnout. Covid. Death. Not going to repeat the whole story, suffice to say I completely ran out of energy to convert and complete 56,000 word draft of the Necropolis into the RSDC.

The whole of late 2021 was a long, relatively slow recovery and simplification of my work: getting SEACAT: Uranium Butterflies done. I put the whole “working on multiple things at once” on hold, and knuckled down.

It worked, and that 320-page, 400-illustration book is now basically done. Waiting to go git kickstarted and edited and printed.

In 2021 I also decided to run RSDC again, this time trying it out as a kind of slice-of-life game. Running 1–3 session mini-series, with players taking the roles of different characters each time, to experience the totality of the different parts of an invasion and its aftermath.

I think it was an interesting idea, but ultimately impracticable. It introduced a completely separate axis of motivation to what was a literal dead city sandbox.

2022 War and More

Then, this February, Russia invaded Ukraine. I think I was pretty much glued to screens and feeds for about 3 months, horrified beyond measure by what Putin’s thugs got up to.

I honestly did not expect it and, after 4 years of Trump, I was frankly quite disgusted with the US. It was complete whiplash to be so vividly reminded that, “Oh, yeah, you know what … the USA is great compared to both China and Russia.”

This also made me rethink the whole premise of Dead City. After all, disgusted as I was by the behaviour of Russian troops in Ukraine, I now had zero desire to play or run a game where the players get to be the baddies invading a city. The real-world atrocities that accompany invasions, well, I don’t want to play a game where the players … uh … put themselves into those shoes. Correction, I might see it as an interesting one-shot, a game about experiencing some deeply dark and unpleasant aspects of the human condition. But I definitely wouldn’t want a campaign like that.

And that’s kind of key: whenever I write a setting or game, I try to think of the kind of multi-session campaign I might want to run there. What the campaign loop would be, so to speak. This doesn’t need to be an open-ended campaign, it can be a mini-series, but it needs some clear goal and thread. This can be as simple as “steal gold to get rich” or as elaborate as “kill the queen and set up a republic in five acts over five sessions.”

One thing that really stuck with me was the Russian destruction of schools and theatres and churches, the looting of ancient Scythian gold relics from Ukrainian museums. Quite aside from the deaths visited upon innocent Ukrainians, the Russian invader was annihilating the cultural achievements of the land and its people.

Take away its treasures, and it is as though they never existed.

About 4 months after the invasion, in June or so, I decided to ditch the whole premise of the players picking one of the evil sides: the imperial biomancer necromancers or the conquering cybernetic pseudo-rationalist hordes.

I realised that by borrowing from two other sources I loved: the time-traveling Doctor Who and the Indiana Jones warehouse of treasures, I had a perfect solution to the problem of the campaign loop.

The Memorium and its agents.

An extra-dimensional god-like entity that sends its agents through time and space to recover treasures and artefacts in the moments before they are destroyed for ever, be it by natural or human causes.

Style Before Substance

Around the time I got this idea, I also made a template for A5 and trade paperback books and zines in the style of the UVG or Seacat. I looked around furtively and thought to myself … why not try it out and see if I can adapt a couple of sections of the Necropolis to this format.

So I did just that—and since I had the whole thing written up, laying out and editing about 20 pages of the zine took just a few days.

It looked good, but something was missing. I started hunting for the perfect font, and eventually found a reinterpretation of a Polish font named Zelek. New Zelek Pro. I found this new font absolutely inspiring, with its monolithic, angular shapes that echoed the architectural inspirations behind a lot of the locations in the Dead City.

As I was fooling around with laying out headers in New Zelek, I thought about making the delve maps isometric to match the font. I returned to Affinity Designer after a long time, and this time actually learned how to use its isometric tools—including making a weirdly distorted isometric grid to match the distorted looking-glass reality of the Dead City.

There I was, looking at this little zine, at the layout, at the first map, at the memorialist character archetype and I thought to myself …

“Ok, this might have legs.”

Volumes 2 to 7

So am I going to make zines like this for all the remaining regions of the Dead City? Well … I’ll see. I’ll definitely do a few more. After all, I have the second (or third?) draft of the text, and I have the layout style ready.

And, I do quite like the conceit of the Memorium as a link to the UVG. After all, the Spectrum Satraps make a big deal of the Memorium and there is that spell named the Active Astral Voyage of Nilbreg the Technoduke.

If nothing else, I need to write up enough pieces to figure out who Nilbreg the Technoduke is was or will be!


Conclusion

Writing a work of fiction or a game is a process, and the end can be a very different place than the beginning.

Get the PDF. I know it says PWYW, but it’s free. Trust me.
The first roll of the dice is always free.


Thanks,

To the many heroes of the Stratometaship for not giving up on the Dead City, even though it really looked like it would never go anywhere for so many years. Turns out, patience was rewarded. At least a little bit.

^_^


ziggurat icon of the stratometaship
Behold the patreon.

Thank you, heroes,
of the stratometaship
.

for the cookies.

2 replies on “Creative Permutations: Dead City”

Hei Luka,

I have been reading your blog on and off for a few years now and I really enjoy your certain kind of creativity. Recently I have noticed, this is probably due to me changing more than you, that your political stance is starting to bother me.
Don’t get me wrong, I want you to be political and I like that your work is trying to emulate and is influenced by politics, but I think that you have to check your perception more thoroughly, as it seems just like a blind copy paste of western media.
Please do not think I am a conspiracy theorist for saying it, but if you look at the war in Ukraine or at the Red Army in WW2 or thing, please research it. Please do! Because there is always complexity to be found and their is always another point of view. You do not have to like that other viewpoint, but you have to respect it. West good, east bad is no basis for a political position.

I think that a nuanced approach that takes both sides into consideration is exactly what is needed to run a world filling and impactful RPG.

Yours sincerely
Jesse

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