A Look at a Book: The Vorrh

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I was drawn into The Vorrh by the voices of other artists: Alan Moore, Iain Sinclair, Jeff Vandermeer, and even the elusive Tom Waits all hailed it as wondrous, dark, and engrossing. These were voices I respected, and they drew me into the jungle with their calls. In many ways, a summary of The Vorrh is a perfect storm of what I like in books: convoluted, intersecting stories; a mixture of history and fantasy; poetic form; bizarre settings and grotesque characters; the list goes on. Nonetheless, I was also apprehensive. While artists with similar minds and sensibilities to Catling seemed to devour the book, a cursory look at Amazon and Goodreads made it clear that it was not to everyone’s tastes. This apprehension, and the necessities of higher education, forced the book into a nook on one of my already over-burdened shelves for months. Now, with the pleasant arrival of Spring Break, and the recent publication of the sequel, I decided to start and finish the book to decide if I would want more.

It has only been half an hour since I turned the final page, and already I feel a need to discuss this book. The Vorrh is dense, almost to the point of being bloated, but it is resplendent with its detail. Catling, originally a visual artist, writes like a painter: he builds scenes, layers them, piling language into resplendent images. Characters emerge as portraits, and they move through dizzying landscapes. In all this stylized detail, scenes can become distant, mucked in dark oily textures. Sometimes I found my mind wandering as I read, but I would be lured back in with a delicious line of description, a new bizarre revelation, or a sudden burst of action. Catling isn’t afraid to let the language wander, or for the scenes to stagnate, and his confidence keeps things from falling apart. For all its ruminations and distractions, The Vorrh does have momentum, but that energy spills out in all directions. It flies away, the loops back in on itself. Catling keeps the energy by keeping the chapters short, often divided up into even shorter scenes focusing on various characters, but like a traveler in the eponymous jungle it can be hard to situate oneself. Having finished the book I realize that certain elements that seemed vestigial and confusing may have been more clearly interconnected, but it took hindsight to realize it.

The Vorrh is an interesting book, and one that I enjoyed, but it is also a book that I struggled with, and am struggling to reflect upon. Catling’s writing is beautiful and evocative, sometimes reading more like poetry than prose, but the parade of strange scenes can bleed into forgetful whimsy. Sometimes it seems like the book comes from another era, like some kind of biblical myth. Characters are intriguing, but not much breath is wasted on their inner lives. They move like cogs in a machine that interconnect without their knowledge. The world of Essenwald and the Vorrh is packed with wonders, and very few are explained, and it is refreshing to encounter a book that offers mystery so unabashedly. Sometimes the connections between stories become frayed by the ambiguities, but I suspect that I would have found the book much more tedious and banal had every puzzle been explained. I was able to get lost in The Vorrh where most books would hold my hand: I experienced delight, horror, and genuine confusion, but none of it felt astray from what the book meant to be. This is a work of literary deviancy, but it breaks rules with clear intent. I understand why others would not like this book, and I would not say that my experience was entirely positive, but I did find it worthwhile. The Vorrh knows what it is, and revels in it, so a reader must let themselves get lost within its pages (to a degree some might find disconcerting), or put it down and find their way home again. I, for one, did not regret the former.

-PHH

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On Truth and Facts

While sitting in my dorm reading about Memetics I was struck by an idea that snowballed into a vague philosophical discussion with myself regarding the difference between “Truth” and “facts.” Before I begin I will put a big, fat disclaimer here in that I am not a philosopher, or at least not a very traditional (read: efficient) one. This is less an argument than an idea, or lens. View it creatively, if at all.

That being said I will begin by pointing out that when I say Truth I mean capital-T truth. This is Truth as a Universal principal. I am not referring to things that are true, because that begins to fall into the realm of facts. Truth is guided by philosophical inquiry, and logical methodology; facts, on the other hand, are information derived from Empirical evidence. We can use research to develop facts that tell us what makes people happy from a neurological perspective, but that doesn’t mean we have a fact of what the best method of governance is, or what the role of governance is. What we have are forms of Truth: yes, forms in the plural. Truth, as I am referring to it, is a variety of conclusions based upon certain logical determinations.

What complicates matters even more is that Truth has a tendency to spread itself even when it contradicts Facts. Memetically, Truth can be read as a unit of culture closely tied to belief. Truth is rarely defeated with facts when it is supported by forms of belief because Truth is not necessarily determined by facts but by logical systems (even if the logic can be disputed). Communism is a philosophical and political ideology built upon a logical argument, and it is very difficult to prove that argument actually false because it is a practical Truth that is intended to be applied to the way we live. What can effectively endanger a Truth like communism is experience. If I use the facts of the brutality and shortcomings of the Soviet system, there are other facts to oppose them (it wasn’t entirely ineffective), and some might say that bad execution does not change the Truth itself. But, if someone who follows Communist Truth has a negative experience in Soviet Russia, (or Soviet Czechoslovakia, or Maoist China etc.) they are much more likely to abandon or adjust the Truth which they live by. (This is, of course, not a phenomenon limited to Communism, but Communism encounters this argument quite a lot).

Truth is rarely composed of pure fact or pure fiction. Instead, Truth may be composed of facts, narratives, lies, principles, associations, and assumptions all at once. When facts oppose a Truth, they may be discarded on the principle of Truth itself: “it just doesn’t feel right,” “but how does that affect me?”, “tradition says otherwise,” “maybe in theory, but not in practice.” This can clearly seen with Pollution Thinking: when we see something “unclean” we often assume we should not touch it under any circumstances. If a cockroach gets into a glass of water it is not uncommon for people to avoid drinking the water even if it proved to be clean. We naturally have certain systems and beliefs about what is clean and what is not because our biology is trying to be safe. Sometimes this leaks into cultural beliefs: see the Untouchables of the caste system for example, or the way certain races are portrayed as “unclean” and not to be interacted with. We build assumptions that are, in a sense, built out of biological necessities: I know substance A makes me sick, person B is associated with that substance, person B is assumed to make me sick even without encountering substance A. These ways of thinking are very difficult to break without actual experience that proves the contrary, much like irrational fears being weaned through exposure therapy. This is not easy, however, when a polluted thought is not just an isolated instance but a large group or cultural tradition – a polluted Truth.

All this leads me to a point about the alternative facts phenomenon that has been all the rage in the media as of late. Most forms of media – regardless of what they might say – produce Truth centered material, not just facts. Reliable sources tend to use more facts, but they don’t simply produce a large packet of facts that people can read. When a figure of power who espouses a particular Truth is attacked with empirical facts, it doesn’t need to effect them much if they aren’t encountering experiences to change their opinions, but if that person in power relies on followers it produces a potential problem because the facts being leveled against them also incite behaviors from other people that can form experiences. By branding Truths as “alternative facts” the ideology is separated from Empirical responsibilities, and therefore the proponents of said Truth are also separated from said responsibilities.

This is not to say that these models of Truth are inherently bad and that fact is the only way to consider anything. There are many political, religious, and artistic ideologies that utilize rational logic, narrative, and assumption positively with little interaction with empirical facts. It might even be said, if my assumption that experience is the best way to introduce fact into Truth, that widespread and deeply rooted harmful Truths are best fought with other Truths to produce experiences.

My point here is to notice certain patterns of rhetoric, and the way that this rhetoric complicates matters of discussion and understanding of Truths and facts. We must be careful lest we convince ourselves that they are the same, or that they are completely separate, for either path will bear poisonous fruit.

-PHH

RPG Design Journal #6: Within the City

Previously on this series I started designing a city with a general-to-specific methodology (starting with the big picture and letting that inform the small details). Now I’m going to start moving into some of those details by developing concepts for the specific locations within the city of St. Maluns.

When building specific locations within another location it’s tempting to assign locations specifically based upon social groups and characters. While it is appropriate to consider where characters live in the city, we shouldn’t necessarily build an area around these groups or individuals. People in cities rarely stay in one area. They may live in or associate with one area, but that doesn’t stop them from working in, shopping in, or just walking through other parts of the city. So when we build city locations in conjunction with characters and organizations we should not just find the home locations for these characters, but also build their associations and interactions with other locations.

A good example that’s pretty common is the city guard or other police force. Police are generally¬† expected to keep an eye on the city as a whole, and in a setting where there is limited data and mobility the police forces of a city have to keep a sharp eye on urban affairs in person. The guard will probably be present in every part of the city, the presence wont be even throughout, but they wont be entirely absent. For example, if there’s a network of alleyways full of illegal activity we should consider that the guard may still be involved: perhaps there are “dirty cops” that are bribed to turn a blind eye, or maybe the guard coordinates with criminals there when they have bigger fish to fry. Even in spaces where this group seems inactive, they can still be involved.

Another lens for building locations is the lens of player involvement: what does this city need to let players be involved? What social spaces will interest player characters? Will players need to shop? Will they need to rest? What can they afford? What kind of work will they look for? I am developing Saint Maluns as a general setting that multiple groups can use, so some of these questions must be answered with guesswork and generalizations, but the city can definitely be altered and tailored to specific groups and their needs. Consider the commonplace trope of the Inn. Players will spend a lot of their time in cities at Inns and Taverns, usually drinking, finding quests, having confrontations, and resting. But a city probably doesn’t have just one Inn. In its heyday, the boom-town and pirate haven of Port Royal supposedly had one drinking house for every 10 residences. We probably don’t need to make that many Inns, but the point is that certain spaces that players take for granted can be quite varied and unique. An Inn near the Docks is probably quite different than an Inn in the Merchant’s District and the Players will be able to do very different things at these locations.

So, considering the needs of the PCs and the associations of the NPCs, and taking into account the layout of the city map, I have come up with the following general locations:

  • The Docks: On the Southernmost side of the City is the Docks. The Docks are built around the City walls and almost operates like a separate city. A legal no-man’s-land, the Docks are a place where shady deals take place alongside the legitimate trade that makes St. Maluns the Gem of Curelsed.
    • The Drowsy Fisherman: An Inn located in the docks. Located in a rough part of town and hardly the fanciest place to spend the night, but the owner, Ailera Zann, does what she can to treat her customers well. The prices are low and more than one sailor is willing to lend a hand to protect the place when the local gangs start stirring up trouble.
  • The Warrens: A winding maze of twisting streets that cuts through shoddy housing and smoke-belching factories. The Warrens are the industrial heart of the city, but that doesn’t mean people want to live there.
    • Golden Phoenix Trading Company: The Golden Phoenix is the largest private business in Saint Maluns and trades in everything from gold and silver to inks, dyes, spices, teas, and even alchemical and magickal goods. While the Company technically operates within the law, the Duke Calsius is certain that the Company is operating to undermine Imperial Authority by profiting local aristocrats and merchants.
  • The Southern Gate: The Southern Entrance that connects the Docks to the City proper, located between the Warrens and the Merchant’s Quarters.
    • The Lower Guard: The barracks and offices of the City Guard for the lower city. Many of the guard here are veterans, equipped with the street-smarts and weaponry to deal with trouble in the Warrens. While they technically are expected to patrol the docks, most guards know better than to incite trouble there. The Lower Guard also examine incoming and outgoing passage of goods between the City and the Docks.
  • The Northern Gate: The Northern Entrance to the city and the primary entrance for those traveling by foot.
    • The Ranger’s Office: While the Rangers don’t technically have any legal power within the city itself, the Ranger’s Office seeks to recruit new Rangers in preparation for the next Migration.
    • The Upper Guard: The barracks and offices for the City Guard of the Upper half of Saint Maluns. Here the guard oversee traffic into and out of the city into Curelsed, and coordinate their movements in the Merchant’s Quarters. Newer recruits often work in the Upper Guard since it usually manages the bureaucracy of the city and minor crimes, but veterans can still be found working as detectives, chiefs, or just in unofficial retirement doing desk work.
  • The Merchant’s Quarters: The Downtown of St. Maluns. Artisans, artists, and craftsmen live and sell their wares here.
    • The Blue Dream: The most expensive Inn located in St. Maluns, owned by the elusive Vax Sarrat. The Blue Dream is also the host of a multitude of vices including gambling houses, drug dens, and brothels; the businesses of Waldamar the Pleaser, all hidden behind the veneer of a respected public house.
    • The Academy: A private University founded by the Scientist (Lilith Havadis). The Magickal Society operates unofficially through the Academy, with many of its members serving as professors. Academy studies are focused on the hard sciences and Emperical magickal research.
    • The Red House: A social club, salon, and headquarters of The Cabal. The Red House is a den of drug use, mysticism, and creativity – home of a thousand projects and a thousand interpretations. While the Artist Erik is rarely seen in person due to failing health, he is said to reside in one of the upper rooms.
  • The Keep: The home of the city’s nobility. Closed off from the rest of the city, most of the nobility lives in secluded comfort and safety that the majority of the populace will never know.
    • The Amontil Estate: The Amontil Family used to be one of the most well respected and wealthy noble households in Saint Maluns. In recent years their wealth and prestige has faded from scandal and misuse, their palace in a constant state of decay, empty except for the Amontil’s and their loyal butler. Rumors suggest that the Lady Amontil is not in her right mind, and that the Lord Amontil is scheming to return to power.
    • The Duke’s Palace: A huge, sprawling castle built like the old Imperial palaces of the Homeland. From this Bastion of authority the Duke Calsius watches the City with disdain, longing to unleash the Iron Fist of the Empire on Saint Maluns. In the meantime the Secret Police keep tallies on the petty nobles vying for the Duke’s Favor and report back to the Emperor himself.

This is a rough draft, of course, but each of these locations already has a purpose and further possibilities. We can create specific quest lines, characters, and encounters for each one, and we can find more ways to tie them together using these additions.

In the next segment on worldbuilding I’ll look at adding specific, encounterable NPCs and plot hooks.

Best,

-PH