Seclusium of Orphone and making omelets

Jim Raggi published a bunch of new books last week, most of which I hadn't seen even a peek of in pre-production. Exciting times! One of these was particularly intriguing, an adventure of sorts by Vincent Baker. Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions is the name. It's not actually an adventure module, despite some gestulation in that direction, but rather more of a procedure for creating adventure locations with random tables.

imageNow, my opinion on the matter is totally premature, and not at all critique-grade - I just read the book yesterday, and got the idea I'm going to present below today. That being said, here's what I thought of the Seclusium: it's basically a waste of money for anybody looking for a D&D adventure, and not very good as an array of random tables. When considering it as an adventure, I find that it fails horribly by not doing the actual legwork of D&D adventure creation; a thing without determined maps, monsters or treasure is just a bunch of ideas, not an adventure. The greatest failing of all is how lax the problem-solving set-up in the ready-made adventure locations is, they mostly seem to offer very little in the way of danger or reward. When considered as a procedural random generation tool the book fares a little better, but frankly Matt Finch's Tome of Adventure Design is much superior in this regard, just to pick an example of what the baseline in the genre is like. The writing is of the fine quality we've come to expect of Vincent, but the organization of the book (and the weird notions Vincent offers about what things are important to randomize about an adventure location) makes using it unnecessarily burdensome. All in all I simply find that apparently either I don't grog what's to like here, or Vincent doesn't write a very useful OSR book.

All that being said, Seclusium is not entirely devoid of virtue: I find the central conceit to be interesting. The core idea of the book (aside from the ample Vancian aesthetics) is basically that a wizard's living space in D&D could and should be interpreted more as a manor house than the traditional "wizard's tower": give your wizard an entire island or other secluded place, and treat the grounds of it as a smallest-scale wilderness crawl. Spread the wizard's habitation over a couple hectares of gardens, perhaps, and scatter interesting locations like small sanctums, servant quarters, zoos, specialized laboratories, flawed experiments and whatever else around the place. This is different from the traditional dungeon-based structure, as a manor-house arrangement presents the players with a much, much greater degree of initial freedom in choosing which minor locations around the grounds they'll explore. It's a fine set-up for a scattering of strange special encounters, perhaps some random encounters while the party wastes time, and even small dungeon-like locations within larger buildings or expanding under the ground.

I suspect that I'd have a more positive initial opinion of the book if the random tables were presented up front, and the sad sample scenarios were left out entirely. I suspect that the actual random tables are not bad enough to not be used, even if I don't feel any major creative need to delve into making up seclusia right now. Were I making a book about this sort of topic, though, I'd leave out the random tables for the type of stucco the wizard used in his walls and instead focus on providing e.g. map geomorphs, random treasure tables and various sorts of hazards that are appropriate for seclusia of the Vancian tradition.

(I think it's obvious to Jim and Vincent that I bear no malice in laying out my opinion here. I say this because the random reader might not know of our prior relationship, and might read the above in some sort of angry or spiteful tone. Win some, lose some, all projects can't be winners - and besides, it's well possible that my initial impression is not the word of Truth that I like to pretend it to be. And anyway, the point of this posting wasn't the above, that's just background for my Idea.)


  • The Idea I had today

    Mulling over Seclusium (and complaining about it to Jim), I came to compare it to what had heretofore been the nadir of the LotFP publishing history, the Isle of the Unknown by Geoffrey McKinney.

    imageFor those who aren't familiar with the product, the Isle is basically an elaborate hexcrawl island teeming in arbitrarily fantastical beasts yet without overarching themes, adventures, interesting local color or even random encounter tables; it's just a map with some settlements and a humongous list of special encounters, one per hex, the vast majority of them not actually interesting. I can't imagine that I'm the only one who's been trying to figure out what to do with this thing: it's sort of usable if you for some reason need somebody else to put down some not-particularly-interesting geography, and the encounters it provides work as a backdrop if you only had something to have them be a backdrop for.

    Now, the biggest (and practically only) thing the Isle has going for it in the creative department is that it has a sort of classical mediterranean feel to it - many people find that it reminds vaguely of Homeric epics, especially Odyssey. That, and the magicians: the Isle is home to a bunch (like, a score) of pretty high-level magicians with eldritch powers in the classical vein. Think Circe, that sort of thing. The book specifies where these live and what their themes are (there are shepherd magicians, water magicians, etc. there), but nothing about their motivations or possible roles in adventures or such. Much speculation of how the Isle might be used in practical D&D center on whether one might craft some sort of magical plottery soap opera game of thrones sort of thingy with these wizardly types. They even have pretty portraits in the book (as Jim likes to do, the Isle is a very pretty book, full-color and all), so they just need characterization and motives and some actual adventure locations to fight over.

    OK, I think you can see where this is going: enter Seclusium, a book that can sort of be used as inspiration in creating wizardly seclusia with Vancian color (which, as we know, is 30% Victorian pettifoggery, 30% classical epic stylings, 30% pulp fantasy and 10% Colonel's secret sauce). Seclusium might be ass when you look at it from a boots-on-the-ground, have-to-have-an-adventure-for-todays-session perspective, but how about if one were to use it as the central backbone for an Isle of the Unknown campaign? Think about it:
    • Vincent's book doesn't provide much in the way of tactical detail for creating an adventure location, but it does have pretty plentiful ideas for naming and motivating powerful wizards with esoteric interests. The seclusia created with this book have political and social features, and the wizards involved have complex magical motivations. All this means that if we scatter a bunch of seclusia around the Isle of the Unknown, it'll make perfect sense: the Island already has a bunch of pretty high-level wizards, so if we presume that Vincent's 7-step typology of wizardly headquarters holds true, then of course some of these wizard seclusia are in the "fifth stage", ready to be invaded by adventurers.
    • The book can obviously be used to give names, titles and natures for the pre-existing magicians of the Isle, too, although I also like the idea of giving them a slightly more classical tone in comparison with the seclusia material. Perhaps the Isle magicians are the "young turks" of the Isle's magical society, while the Seclusium material represents the detached, otherworldly concerns of the old guard. Whatever the exact details, it seems to me that these two books fit stylistically like hand and glove: the Isle is full of magical statuery and weird chimeric beasts, which are both very obvious elements of the sort of fantasy Seclusium proffers.
    • Adding half a dozen big, important seclusia on the Isle of the Unknown solves about half of the problems in running the Isle as a campaign, by providing strategic arcs: now all the magicians on the Isle can have motivations relating to looting or protecting old seclusia, which makes them natural patrons or enemies of an adventuring party. Relationship maps defining who was the old apprentice or lover to whom is definitely in order, and the referee might also develop some seclusium-like material about the living, awake wizards - the Isle book doesn't dwell on the details of their lifestyle that much, so some of them well might have seclusia of their own.
    • Admittedly Seclusium does nothing to provide the ground-level detail of wilderness encounters, economic detail, rumours and more ordinary adventure hooks and locations that you also need for a sandbox adventure, but perhaps those might be stolen from somewhere else. I'd say that if Seclusium manages to answer the strategic, long-term campaign arc part of the equation, then that's already a giant step closer to making the Isle usable, compared to where I was before.
    Brilliant, isn't it? Take two of the least useful Raggi publications, combine them, and I'd say you're pretty close to something as awesome as Carcosa or Vornheim.
  • This is a good idea.

    My main problem with Isle of the Unknown is as you pointed out: the wizards have zero personality. They are extremely powerful, have combat stats and amazing portraits, but there is absolutely nothing in terms of motivation, characterization, plot hooks, reasons to interact with them, behaviours--nothing. I hadn't thought about it, but using Seclusium to give them that character sounds like a pretty natural conclusion, now that you state it.

    Incidentally, for the last bunch of D&D adventures I ran, I combined the maps from Carcosa and Isle of the Unknown into one, and used that as the backdrop to a set of dungeons the PCs were exploring. They didn't end up visiting a large number of hexes, but creating my own map out of the combination of the two books and a few features I needed to connect it to the previous adventures ended up giving me lots of ideas to work with.
  • edited August 2013
    I guess Carcosa and the Isle would work together in certain technical ways, being from the same author. The color, the aesthetic details, are the big stumbling block for me; if I'm going to just reinterpret the Isle completely, so that I can't use the monster descriptions and the statue descriptions and the portraits of the magicians, there's not really that much left to utilize there. Of course some people apparently use Carcosa as a framework for Gygaxian fantasy games, replacing the space aliens and whatnot with orcs, so apparently some find that sort of thing useful.

    Hmm. I could see using Carcosa and the Isle as a lurid dual-worlds setting, in the vein of Dark Seed or Talisman or Merchant Princes: the Isle is this pleasant and richly coloured fantasy world of princesses and knights, but the campaign revolves around a shadowy cabal with the means to create portals to Carcosa of all places. (This could be an array of special spells and magic-items, mechanically: e.g. Portal to Carcosa, a 3rd level magic-user spell that opens a human-usable portal for a Turn.) The cabal would seek to rule the Isle with this power: Carcosan technology, and the ability to "teleport" anywhere by crossing the distance in the other world. A central conceit here would be a hex-by-hex correspondence between the two hex maps: characters could divine what is in the "other world" in a given spot by magical means, and any travel between the two worlds would lead to the corresponding hex, whether land or sea. Presumably adventurers would sooner or later discover the Carcosan situation and perhaps become heroes of two worlds!
  • My game was set on a plateau just north of a major port city, so I used the city on the Isle as reference, changed which direction was north, and synched everything up that way. Mostly, I just looked at the hex entries, combined them all, and interpreted them to fit what was already part of my campaign world. So, as one example, of the Carcosan coloured men, only normal skin colours were skin colours. Red men were instead people loyal to the Church of Law, orange and yellow people were jaundiced northerners, purple men were cultists of the Purple Worm God, but black and brown men were dark-skinned Southern mercenaries running rampant (like condotierri in Italy). I was going to replace sci-fi tech with like magical construct arcanotech, but it never actually came up.

    I like the idea of parallel overlapping universes, though. Like people getting lost in Elfland or something.

  • My main problem with Isle of the Unknown is as you pointed out: the wizards have zero personality. They are extremely powerful, have combat stats and amazing portraits, but there is absolutely nothing in terms of motivation, characterization, plot hooks, reasons to interact with them, behaviours--nothing.
    As the wizards represent the 12 zodiac signs, you could just give them the stereotypical traits associated with their star sign ?
  • Yeah, could do. Hadn't thought of that one.
  • Interesting thread. I'm personally quite fond of this kind of mash-up: take two otherwise incomplete sources and then combine them to fill the gaps the other leaves. So long as it's realistically feasible (not much point if it takes as much work as it would to just develop something from scratch!), it's a fruitful territory to explore.

    I'll be reading along!

    As for Zodiac signs, that's an idea. I suppose you could also draw on, say, the Chinese horoscope if you can find correspondences between the various signs.

    Is that more interesting or less work than using the Seclusium rules? (I haven't read them myself.)
  • The main issue is that the zodiac gives just a small slice of the answer, ultimately. It is ultimately not very important what D&D NPCs are like as personalities, which is mostly what the zodiac may give you. What the NPC wants concretely is more important, as that determines such important things as whether they might be an antagonist or patron for the adventurers. Essentially: if everything we know about a NPC is that they're a Taurus, and therefore faithful and determined, that's just not that useful. I'd rather know that they're working on awakening a nearby volcano for nefarious purposes, or that they're a member of the Harpers, or whatever.

    As a counter-example, consider that level of Darkness Beneath where there's a giant underground cave with its own underdark ecosystem, and then there are the two necromancers in there. The necromancers hate each other, for one used to be the other's apprentice in the past, before betraying his master. That's useful, because when one of these necromancers comes up in a random encounter, they can e.g. hire the adventuring party to steal something from the other necromancer. The NPC has something to offer to the game, in other words.
  • edited August 2013
    Exactly right, Eero. Vague personality traits (such as found in astrology, especially) can be next-to-useless for NPC play. What we need to know is what these people want and how they're able to go about getting it. Their motives and their resources. I'd much rather know that the King wants to divorce his Queen and have her beheaded, but the head of the Church opposes, than to learn a laundry list of "personality traits" for him, which, while useful perhaps for in-character portrayal, don't give us anything to actually drive play.

    Does Seclusium give us that kind of thing? (Being Vincent's work, I'd expect it to do that well... but who knows.)
  • Actually, I think anything that gives your imagination a springboard is good. I mean, you can grab characterization from pretty much anywhere, the zodiac signs are just one. I can decide this wizard is like Taurus, look it up and say, okay, he's a hedonist, he collects precious shiny things from all over, likes good food, good wine, and hot sex. And he's willing to reward adventurers lavishly if they bring him specific items that he craves which have been lost to civilization (because, hey, he has so many of these golden coins but they all look the same). Bam, done. That took approximately one minute. I dunno how much game play I can get out of it, but at least it lets me use (some of) the material in Isle of the Unknown now.

    My criticism of the book is that anything like this isn't in it, so I can't just do the imagining while I'm reading it. Instead, I have to go away and look stuff up and make plans. Combining books is kind of similar. It puts stuff I thought I couldn't use into a different context, making unusable material usable. It also magnifies the complexity of the setting and then the pattern-recognition parts of my brain go to work and it's not long before I have a setting that feels full and rich and complicated. Or more so than any one book on its own provides.
  • My criticism of the book is that anything like this isn't in it, so I can't just do the imagining while I'm reading it. Instead, I have to go away and look stuff up and make plans.
    This puts my initial reaction into words better than I have been able to so far.

    I haven't actually run through the process of making a Seclusium, so that may change my opinion. But I keep contrasting my experience reading this with my read of Torchbearer. Torchbearer also has a lot of random tables. But the average table in Torchbearer sparked a lot more ideas, mostly because they were more likely to have fictional and mechanical consequences.

    It grabs the imagination to enter a town, roll a couple of times, and discover that a building has burned down or the town is under siege. On the other hand, discovering that a Seclusium is built out of brightly polished jumbled stone adds to the atmosphere but it's less dense. Doesn't grab me by the throat. Each individual item is less meaningful and more generic, which is an odd thing to say about something so Vancian.

    Maybe part of this is the layout. A bunch of the random tables have short little entries that combine together. In the book this is laid out in long lists, but if there is enough space on a page I think it'd have been better suited to putting them in an actual table, so you can quickly scan it and get a feel for the results. The people-and-creature charts in particular would read better this way.

    The odd juxtaposition created by combining several random elements does help with the Jack Vance feel. And some of the tables are really evocative. But for every brilliant "5. Have been reft of individual identity. Instead they all answer to a single name, 'Armonter,' in unity of action and experience..." there's a "14. Wrinkled face."

    There's a lot of "Or another of your own creation" notes. While it's nice that hackability is explicit, the overall feel is tentative, like it's not comfortable in its own skin. Some of the charts seem to peter out of ideas.

    I can't really recommend it as an example of random generation. Part of this is my personal weaknesses as a GM. The problem I always struggle with in making a dungeon-ish location is to come up with a good unifying idea behind the thing. Seclusium has one really grand idea, the Seclusium itself, but I'm not sure yet if it'll be able--on its own--to give me the ideas for a bunch of differentiated Seclusiums. (My other problem is placing enough treasure in Dungeon World.)

    Contrast with something like the Blackmoore sparker for Dungeon World; where the table of rumors has a large mechanical and frictional effect in a small space and includes an a mechanic for escalating the results. Very dense, very specific, and has a system incorporated in it that gives each subsequent result even more meaning. Or, heck, the Oracles from In A Wicked Age, which evoke immediate throat-grabbing imagery, and set a specific but unique stage.

    I'm probably going to use Seclusium the next time I need a wizard's abode around; I like Jack Vance and random tables enough that I can mine it for useful ideas. I think the suggestion to combine it with something else is a useful one; that'll shore up the overlap in weaknesses between my GM skills and the book's gaps. It, and this discussion, have started me musing on what aspects a random-generation content system needs.
  • That's my criticism of Isle of the Unknown. Dunno if I feel the same way about Seclusium, although I think combining it with something else is probably required, because it's a single, fantastic location, which needs context for the world around it.
  • That's my criticism of Isle of the Unknown. Dunno if I feel the same way about Seclusium, although I think combining it with something else is probably required, because it's a single, fantastic location, which needs context for the world around it.
    Ah. I misread that as a criticism of both. I have to say that my reaction to Seclusium as I was reading it did consist of me pausing to figure out where things fit. Combining two separate things like this strikes me as an effective way to give context to things that otherwise lack it. In fact, context may be the glue I'm missing for Seclusium; I don't currently have a game running where one would fit. Once I have one I'll have to revisit it and see if my opinion changes.
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