Designer’s Notes: Al-Phasmaq

The original article that I co-wrote with J. Edward Tremlett for the theme of Hot Spots and Locations (which was split into just “Locations” and “Hot Spots”) was basically a fantasy city with a dark secret. We originally were going to write something for Dungeon Fantasy city-wise, but decided against it (and good we did too because of Caverntown!). Instead, we thought a more typical fantasy city that could be used in Dungeon Fantasy but other places as well was the better way to go. We thought about a couple of ways to approach what we wanted and we ended up splitting the work into “fluff” and “crunch” (as we had before), with me doing edit passes and making sure everything jive (ditto). There was also the idea that we’d do a map as well, but that fell into the dust and was revived by J. right after submission. Overall, I think we knocked this out of the park. Al-Phasmaq is a city of secrets that a buried deep and yet right below the surface.

All in all it took me about 45 hours to write, 45 hours to edit, 10 hours worth of research (mucking around similiar cities from history), and 55 hours of revision. I spent a further 15 hours looking over the preliminary PDF for any issues and revising. (Note: This doesn’t include J’s efforts – I’m not sure he keeps track of them like I do.)

An outtake:

Tedus the Barber
Quick with a shaving blade and even quicker with gossip, Tedus can tend most wounds and makes a capable chirurgeon and bonesetter.

ST 10; DX 12; IQ 12; HT 11.
Damage 1d-2/1d; BL 20 lbs.; HP 10; Will 12; Per 12; FP 11.
Basic Speed 6.00; Basic Move 6; Dodge 9; Parry X (Knife).
SM 0; 5’6”; 140 lbs.

Advantages/Disadvantages: Healer 1; High Manuel Dexterity 2; Odious Personal Habit (Gossips like a schoolgirl); Serendipity 1 (Aspected, Gossip).
Skills: Detect Lies-10; Fast-Talk-12; First Aid-14; Knife-14; Physician-12; Professional Skill (Barber)-16; Surgery-12.

From My Co-Author

When Christopher approached me about writing a Dungeon Fantasy setting for the locations issue, I was totally down. I’m not sure at which point we decided to put it in a Middle East analogue, but given my time in that region I’m always happy to return to it, however removed from reality. And of course there’s a dark secret under the waves… because me.

The theme I went for was a familiar one for me: What You Have Hidden Will Come Back To Get You. Al-Phasmaq is a textbook example of what happens when people who should know better try to suppress the truth so as to stay in charge of a bad situation, rather than having to do the smart thing and just run like hell. It’s kind of like kicking the can down the road, only sometimes the end of the road races to meet you halfway, and usually when you’re not expecting it.

We had some issues this time around because I very stupidly excised a critical piece of the text explaining that, when seen from above, the city looked like a giant crab. I had to shave off a lot of text to get my section to fit under the maximum we’d given for one another, and that wound up on the cutting room floor. In the absence of an actual map, that caused a problem for our intrepid editors, as they were having a hard time deciding what was where and where was what.

Thankfully I had cobbled together a rough map for clarification, and sent that along to try and answer some of Steven’s questions. So if you’re wondering why the map on page 14 looks like it was done in Paint and then made to look like a grainy old map, well… that’s exactly what happened 🙂

Outtake: The Thing Reclaimed

Why crabs? Well, why not. Crabs are our friends.

The city itself does not match up with any real life location, but its aesthetics are based on what you’d see in a coastal city in Morocco: tall, flat-roofed towers, zellige tiling, ornamental fountains, inset doors, and lots of uses for the color blue. This sort of construction is NOT what the original, pre-disaster city looked like, but is instead emblematic of other cities of the region. When the survivors went out into the world, they stayed in such places, and inevitably copied their architectural stylings when they returned.

The tragedy is that the old city was unique in the world — its language, culture, and architecture created from whole cloth. The group of refugees who founded it had succeeded in magically excising their old ways, during their voyage across the far ocean, and inventing something fresh and new along the way.

Of that lost epoch, only the Old Wall and the secret chamber beneath the Grand Staircase remain. All else is only recorded on scrolls that somehow survived the cataclysm, or represented in artifacts scooped up from the Bay of the Crab. And most of these things are locked away by the Priests to keep people from asking questions.

Outtake: Cultural Notes

During the diaspora, the survivors were absorbed by the Free People of the area — a loose confederacy of nomads who constantly move from one area to another, never staying so long as to wear out their welcome. They have their own language and beliefs, which are a delightful (some would say “skillful”) amalgamation of the many other peoples they move among.

The survivors eventually came to dominate a few of these groups, through careful marriage and politicking, and these were the ones who returned to the city to rebuild. By that time they had adopted most of the mores and beliefs of the Free People, along with their language. The subsequent centuries of trade have created a cosmopolitan atmosphere; it’s accurate to say there’s a little bit of everyone in Al-Phasmaq, if you know where to look.

Their language, Tamaz, is an interesting polyglot. For example, it does not recognize masculine or feminine nouns, but instead has three forms of indication: El (the), Al (from), and Ul (of).  Sometimes El can mean “Of the,” and is used to indicate a family’s chosen profession. Al and Ul may appear interchangeable, especially when it comes to personal description or profession, but Al is always used to indicate a place of origin, and Ul is always used to indicate parentage.

(Real world notes: the names are based on those of the Berber people. Looking up Amazigh Names will find a few sites to help in this. The El, Al, Ul is invented, though – feel free to muck it up) 😉

The staple diet consists of fish, fish, and more fish, along with whatever vegetables are grown on garden terraces or brought in from market. Hammour (the local flounder) is cheap and plentiful, and is turned into watery — often spicy – stew with vegetables, or else a thick, mild stew with lentils.

Meals are traditionally served atop spongy, sour flatbread, and sometimes on rice if one is trying to impress one’s guests. All meals are generally eaten with the right hand, using the bread or rice as an aid to scoop the food up; only the very rich and ostentatious use cutlery other than knives. Soups are served cold or lukewarm, and drunk from special bowls.

As with its neighbors, both polygamy and polyandry are practiced – the privilege of the high-ranking and/or wealthy. The general rule is that one can only have as many spouses as can be cared for equally, and with no lessening of circumstances. So a third marriage cannot happen if the two spouses will have to retire to smaller rooms, have fewer amenities, and lose a part of their allowance.

Interestingly enough, if a new spouse has children from a first marriage, they do not have to be recognized as part of the new family. They may instead be disowned, albeit with a substantial sum of money (what the new combined household makes in half a year) to ease their way. This is one way for upper-class parents to rid themselves of disappointing children (other than through an arranged marriage to someone far, far away), and an intriguing background for PCs who need to explain a need to prove themselves.

All gods are revered and welcomed in Al Phasmaq, but only Benoth is actively worshiped by the city’s inhabitants. He is their guardian and protector, and is quite a jealous fellow by all accounts. When maritime disaster strikes, people often assume there was a failure to give the god of the sailors his proper due, and redouble their efforts to be pious.

Outtake: The Missing Eyes

Early in the project, I had the idea that the original inhabitants had an eye color that was quite unique to the region. Those who survived the cataclysm all intermarried with their new tribe, causing that trait to be diluted. Now, all these centuries later, it’s a rare thing to have a child with those old eyes, and when they’re found they suffer from a sad race memory — they are terrified of the open water, and can feel when large things are about in it.

This makes them excellent to have on sea voyages, as they can warn if large, ocean-going monsters (like, for example, the Ul-Ramal) are about. However, captains will have to keep them below decks and out of sight of the water or they’ll freak out and go catatonic. Slavers love finding such strange-eyed children as they know they can fetch a good price for them, and people generally consider them to be bad luck. This idea got excised quickly due to a lack of space. But if you want to adopt it, go for it — having a PC who can feel those things approach, or indeed any large sea creature, would be handy, and having to watch yourself among strangers, slavers, and the superstitious might be a good reason for some disadvantages.

Other Extras

At dark, when the stars are right, the denizens of the Night Market may come out to play. If the constellations appear favorable, their anonymous leader pays a messenger to walk through Al-Phasmaq wearing a distinctive black cap – its make denoting one of several meeting places. All participating members dress in black cloaks, don dark, blank masks, and slink from shadow to shadow until they reach their destination – usually abandoned buildings or dark corners.

Once there they swirl about all who are there, buying and selling using as few words as possible. Anything could be for sale: stolen goods, proscribed things, the rarest of items. The only caveats (other than total anonymity) are that the selling of intelligent creatures is forbidden, and all sales are final.

None suspect that the leader of the Night Market is Tzila El-Benoth, High Priest of Al-Phasmaq. She arranges the whole thing so she can find relics of the old city, as well as any interesting magic items. She also takes note of non-members who go to the market, especially those in search of the same things she’s looking for. Such persons are followed by her inner retinue, and possibly marked for death.

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