Posted on November 1, 2005 by Flames
When I was running my Mage: The Ascension games back in “the day,” I used to describe Reality as a living, breathing organism. It was as alive and as vital as each and every player character and NPC in the chronicle. Reality was, in many cases, the biggest and baddest NPC there was. The tapestry of the world around our characters, the worlds we create for our players, is incredibly important to every single aspect of our game; mood and feeling are painted in words that we use to describe the world around our players’ characters. Simply put, the stage is as every bit as important as the actors, and it should be treated as such.
The overwhelming majority of my tenure within the World of Darkness has been spent among werewolves. Players and Storytellers of Werewolf: The Apocalypse and its predecessor, Werewolf: The Forsaken are pretty much expecting of a world where the ground walked upon is sacred and every object is, in some manner or other, alive to some degree. Places and things are as alive and as aware as people in a lot of Werewolf games… but why should that device be limited to a single line? Why should the “Living Reality” be relegated only to the philosophy of witches and warlocks? It shouldn’t. I say this with confidence not just because I’ve always believed it personally as a Storyteller, but because of a book like World of Darkness: Mysterious Places.
Written by Kraig Blackwelder, Rick Chillot, Geoff Grabowski, James Kiley, Matt McFarland, Brett Rebischke-Smith and Chuck Wendig with interior artwork provided by Sam Araya, Greg Boychuk, Vince Locke, Chris Martinez, Mark Nelson, Jim Pavelek, Durwin Talon, Jaime Tolagson, Andrew Trabbold, and Cathy Wilkins, World of Darkness: Mysterious Places serves as both supernatural atlas as well as a solid storytelling resource for STs wanting to flesh out the locales of their own, private World of Darkness within their own chronicles. If you’re a reader of science or dark-themed fiction, then there is no doubt that, at some point or other, you have experienced the hairs on the back of your neck rise with the creepily detailed description of a place or a thing that serves as a backdrop or, sometimes, as a focal point to a story. Lovecraft, Bradbury, Blackwood, Gaiman, Ellison, Kiernan… all of them have the uncanny ability to close the walls around us and corral us through the fences and across the beaten-dirt paths into THAT place. The wrong place. The place where things don’t conform to the rules that the rest of the world around us are subject to. Sometimes these places are malicious. Sometimes these places are wonderous and terrible at the same time. Sometimes we don’t belong anywhere near these places. Sometimes these places lie in wait for us to discover them, knowing that all it takes is a mere mortal (or a part of them) to set them free.
I mentioned a slew of authors in the above paragraph who have been able to paint weird and fantastic landscapes with their words and through their works over the years. The opening fiction of World of Darkness: Mysterious Places, a story entitled Residents, is one of the more interesting pieces of strange science-fiction that I’ve had the pleasure to read this year. A story of a man out of place in a place that is not quite in time with the rest of the world, Residents gets the book started off right and in the right mood. And don’t ever believe anyone who tells you that good science-fiction and good horror are mutually exclusive. The opening fiction for World of Darkness: Mysterious Places blows that opinion right out of the lake.
What follows Residents is a collection of locales that could exist in varying degrees within anyone’s interpretation of the World of Darkness:
The Swimming Hole represents the flooded remains of a limestone quarry somewhere in the world that has become a bit of a local legend. Some say that the unnatural pond is bottomless, like Dr. Suess’ McElligot’s Pool, and that if you wish on the water, your wish will come true. Legends are always based in some modicum of fact, even in the shadows of the World of Darkness, and wishes can indeed come true… for a price. Some of the people in the town near the pond have made wishes of their own, and have paid dire prices for them. The truth, as always, is to be known only to the Storyteller. Twisting the wishing well into a darker shadow and taking a cue from King’s Needful Things or even Arabian Nights the swimming hole is a great concept that can fuel a ton of stories and, if you will, become the focal point for any group of supernatural beings in the World of Darkness. Perhaps the swimming hole’s waters turn to blood under the full moon of a specific month with the incantations of a learned vampire? Maybe the pond is a scab pulled clean – an open sore – between the world of the physical and the spirit world? Perhaps if you dive deep enough into the hole’s waters, you can swim clear to the shores of Stygia…?
The University is one of the most useful setting devices in the book. With a little thought and some imagination, any campus of any college anywhere in the world can be transformed into a cloistered hub of supernatural and weird activity. Echoes of Herbert West, Re-Animator and Frankenstein moan through this one, and the possibilities for its use are absolutely endless. There are some really great story seeds here, but if you’re like me, about half-way through reading this section and your mind will run riot with ideas from secret societies to hidden libraries to mad scientists to government conspiracies. You want Miskatonic University in your World of Darkness? Here it is. Go ‘Pods.
Swamp Indian Hollow takes a couple of pages of inspiration from the likes of film media such as Pumpkinhead, Tourist Trap, The Puppetmaster, Princess Mononoke, and some good ‘ol southern voodoo folklore to offer up a place within the World of Darkness where the rules of death are malleable at best. This one is a real hoot, as not only does it present the phenomenon of the weird in the geography, but it also introduces a pretty interesting antagonist for use in play for a one-night game or, if you choose to use one or a couple of the variations provided, an entire chronicle.
The Village Secret is really a two-for-one setting. On the one hand, you have “the caverns” that lie just beyond the village that promise healing of any ailment, extended life span, and perhaps even the defeat of death itself. On the other, you have the inhabitants of the village that protects the caverns by any means necessary, as their entire way of life, everything that they believe and all that they hold dear is contained within the magic of the caverns. While the author suggests inspiration found in literature such as Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth, I would add Tom Piccirilli’s novel November Mourns.
The Statue of Weeping Alice is a great twist on the whole “Mary in the toast” sort of thing we hear every now and again. An intricate mysterious place that has a whole lot of open-ended potential, the basic premise is that when someone commits suicide near the statue of a town martyr, the dying town begins to revive itself bit by bit and the statue of Alice begins to weep uncontrollably. Not long afterwards, a sort of cult develops among the townspeople regarding gifts and sacrifices made to the statue that borders on the religious. There are a whole lot of directions that this one can go, and in many ways, what works in The Village Secret as far as closed soceities, etc., also works in this one.
Hillcrest Center for Elder Living provides a great resource for the Storyteller in that it is packed full of potential Allies and Contacts for your players’ characters. Some good, even more bad, all of them in the Winter of their lives looking for any number of things, including but not limited to redemption, revenge, power, answers, or even a second chance. While not a supernatural place in and of itself, The Hillcrest Center’s residents – a good many of them – have been exposed to or have some knowledge of the supernatural and can, at a glance, offer a wealth of use to an ST’s cast of NPCs.
The Whispering Wood is both the literal “haunted forest” as well as the spiritual and philosophical “dark wood” that everyone finds themselves lost in from time to time. Given flesh and thorn, the Whispering Wood is both real and unreal simultaneously, ergo, a supernatural pocket of badness that really does strike me as one hell of a place for you to trap a few PCs in dire need of finding themselves. I’m not too sure that the whole morality play would work all that great on supernaturals, but for mortal PCs, its great. This one takes inspiration from Dante’s Divine Comedy, so expect to wear your mindfreak hat if you’re going to employ this one or a variation on it.
The Junkyard is a massive, haunted junkyard in the World of Darkness complete with questionable superintendents, rats, cursed cars, and angry ghosts of the dead whose bodies have been hidden here. Go.
The Empty Room is, by the very nature of its Spartan simplicity, the creepiest of the Mysterious Places detailed in this book as well as, perhaps, the easiest to customize for yourself and pull off. It can exist anywhere in any locale at any time. It can pop up in any story with any type of character for any reason. It can even be used – probably to blistering effectiveness – in dream sequences that occur within a story or, if you will, within a character’s personal development over the course of a chronicle.
Collected, the mysterious places that have been presented in this book are solid game stuff, thick with ST resource material. Even if you’re a competent Storyteller that feels that the world of your imagination is the scariest thing that your players will ever encounter, World of Darkness: Mysterious Places affords a wealth of ideas that can be twisted, kneaded and sculpted by that imagination into something wonderful for your chronicles. A grandchild of books like Caerns: Places of Power, Freeholds & Hidden Glens, and Haunts that not only lives up to their legacy, but surpasses it and sets a new standard for a living, breathing World of Darkness.
Review by Shannon Hennesy