Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Vulgar Morass

Your footing is unsteady, each step threatening to collapse into murky, stinking water. Vines droop overhead, and you have the uneasy feeling that they're hiding serpents in the trees. As you finally miss a step and begin sinking into the muck, you hear the whooping sound of angry natives... Welcome to The Vulgar Morass.

The Vulgar Morass -- this is probably the oldest name in The City of Lives. Originally, the Vulgar Morass was a geographical feature in a Tolkienesque D&D campaign I created in high school, called The Two Continents. Back then, it was a massive swamp where the goblins lives in a faux-American Indian tribal lifestyle. When I created the Realm of Lives. I saw a massive open space south of the City, and, as I've mentioned before, I want to keep the Realm of Lives small and manageable, so that adventures will explore the City and the other Realms. Hence, I looked through my old notes and plopped the Vulgar Morass down to block egress. So -- besides blocking people, what is the purpose of the Vulgar Morass?

I don't honestly know. I've focused my attentions on other areas -- so let's figure it out together.

Archetype: Well, the classical purpose of a swamp is similar to that of the forest -- wildness and the unknown -- but with a slightly different mood, including a certain "grossness." The swamps that come to my mind are: The Fire Swamp from The Princess Bride, filled with wall-to-wall danger -- and extremely original dangers like R.O.U.S.'s and Lightning Sand (or Snow Sand, depending on whether you're watching the movie or reading the book); the Swamps of Sadness from The Neverending Story, where sorrow is represented as slogging through mud that can swallow you whole if you let it; and, oddly enough, a TV movie adaptation of The Tempest that moves the action from an island to Mississipi, where the swamp represented isolation and nature at its wildest (the home of Caliban, for one).

Real-Life Inspiration: Well, here I'm really out of my depth. I have never once been near a swamp. All of my images of swamps come from the media -- and mostly fiction. I suppose I know ever-so-slightly more about the Everglades than any other famous swamp, having once seen a documentary about the plight of some endangered species or other, so let's call the Vulgar Morass based off of the Everglades... that's about it. Don't know much about the Everglades.

Theme: The Vulgar Morass's theme, methinks, is right there in the name: Vulgar. The swamp is gross. Uncivilized. Chaotic. So -- to really, properly be those things, somebody has to live there. It can't be just animals -- those are too natural and wild to be properly vulgar. So who lives there? Kipmen? No, those animal hybrids hold the Wilderwoods as their domain? Rurals? No the plant-men dominate the Julian Plains. Well -- what if a variation on the Grate-Scratchers live out here? The defining characteristics of the Grate-Scratchers are: 1) they live underground in the sewers -- and swamps are basically the countryside version of sewers; 2) their hygiene is so appalling it becomes an asset -- they can become caked in mud from the swamp as easily as the sewer system; and 3) they are tremendously resourceful, eking out a living from the scraps of the civilization above -- and they can show instead a Robinson Crusoe/Swiss Family Robinson ingenuity out in the wilderness.

In fact, this leads back to some additional:
Archetype: The "noble savage" tribesman archetype can be filled by the unnamed swamp-dwellers. The Noble Savage goes back centuries, and has shown up in such varied characters as Robinson Crusoe's Friday, Brave New World's John the Savage, and Dragonlance's Riverwind and Goldmoon. The noble savage is tribal, has natural knowledge, and has a simpler morality than the city folk. We've examined a partial example in the post on the Rurals' "Seeding Manual, but they hold to agrarian ideals and not pure nature.

Twist: First, we can revisit the idea that the noble savage is not necessarily morally superior or inferior to the city-dweller. Second -- perhaps the Vulgar Morass isn't so vulgar after all... perhaps a hidden civilization deep within the swamp has utilized the Grate-Scratchers' natural resourcefulness to make a sort of utopia. First question: Technological or magical? To differentiate it from the City, perhaps it should be technological (steampunk?). On the other hand, magic is much more efficient than gears and computer chips, according to City of Lives physics -- and technology doesn't work too well in mud and swampwater, anyway. So let's go magic. Second question: is this actually interesting? The hidden utopia is an old, classic concept that dates back literally hundreds if not thousands of years, at least back to the stories of El Dorado -- and the question is whether it's interesting, or has passed into cliche, or has passed back out of cliche into an archetypal concept. For this, I don't have an answer. Sound off in the comments!

Thanks for venturing into the disgusting swamps with me. Next time, we'll take a look at the City's main source of mineral wealth (and slave labor), the Heliotrope Cliffs.