So there is a thread going around Twitter right now, in which an RPG designer looks at maps of New Orleans and lists all the things that he would find fault with if this were a map handed in by a freelance cartographer for a worldbook he was editing. All of these things, of course, have sensible explanations, which mostly boil down to “it’s the least terrible place to put a port near the mouth of a river that drains 1/3 of an entire continent, and the land has changed a lot due to us no longer letting the river wander back and forth across its delta”.
My opinion of this hot take on my home city? Don’t say that the place is too weird, too dense with complicated history to fit into your idea of a fantasyland formed by third-hand imitations of the maps in the endpapers of The Lord Of The Rings. Embrace the weirdness. Look at the reasons the city is and land is like it is; transform them into something magical, and use this as the basis of a far weirder city than you would have otherwise.
And then I decided to have a go at this myself.
Ages ago, the gods all died. This much we know. They fought amongst each other and laid much of the world to waste in their wake. We have only the faintest rumors of who they were and why they fought, spun from the shredded memories of generations busy scraping out a living in the lands that escaped the worst of their wrath.
Six centuries ago, the Elvish explorer Lemoy-ville followed the many rivers of the fertile North to the place where they join into one mighty torrent and drain into the Gulf of Monsters. Legend says the Gulf was formed by the three overlapping imprints of the Foot of the Thunderer, as she crushed the Worm of the Stars before surrendering to its venom; all we really can say for sure is that the Gulf of Monsters is full to bursting with strange bones and stranger objects, many of which have found surprising uses in modern hands.(1)
Lemoy-ville planted a golden flag at the closest to the Gulf she dared set up a semi-permanent camp. But by the time prospectors followed in her wake, drawn by her tales of the ink-black beauty of the Gulf, the rich bounty of strange beasts, and the handful of iridescent crystals oozing more puissance machicx than any found in the North, the miasma that drifted in off the Gulf every winter had tarnished it to a sort of greenish-purplish iridescence. And thus was the seed that grew into the city of No-lah(2).
Over the decades, No-lah grew. From a tiny camp of thrillseekers and fortunehunters, to a small town of inns and shops for those, to a place sprawling past the borders of the benevolent influence of the clear waters of the mighty River ‘Tchafallayall(4), to a bustling city of the descendants of fortune-seekers both failed and successful, refugees from the wars of the North, and outcasts. Its architecture came to incorporate strange hints of the buildings of the vanished gods, drawn from treasures found further and further out in the muck of the Gulf of Monsters, built in part with the puissance machicx cracked from the bones of the Serpent Gods who perished in the god wars.
Despite the regular intrusions of strange gibbering beasts that crawled out of the Gulf, No-Lah became a successful, lazy city.
And then, three hundred years after Lemoy-ville stuck a flag into a benighted hump of land near the Gulf of Monsters, the man who would be known as the Weather Witch-Lord came into possession of the Heart of the Star-Worm. Pulled from the middle of the Gulf, somewhere along a four hundred mile long coiling underwater rise, it drew the dark syrupy liquid of the Gulf up the ‘Tchafallayall with it. Rendered into powder and sprinkled along the banks of the ‘Tchafallayall, it stopped the river’s wandering far better than any previous efforts. And most notably, after much effort and pain, after cracking it open and learning the secrets of its center, it… it summoned something, a nameless, seemingly-mindless shape that rose up from the river and mirrored its Gulf-tainted curves, its head high in the sky above No-lah, its tail fading out somewhere over the Gulf it came from.
We called it Katrice. Or, more precisely, Nashro’ber, the Weather Witch-Lord of No-lah called it Katrice, and everyone who wished to remain on his good side did the same. Other city-states making tentative footholds around other parts of the Gulf of Monsters called it other things: the Devistaciour(5), the Skrt’t’xa(6), and, well, within a decade pretty much everyone within three week’s ride around the Gulf was calling it Katrice, and regularly paying tribute to the Imperial City of No-lah, because that was better than what happened when Nashro’ber decided you were insufficiently respectful. Mine towers sprung up in the Gulf, digging for more of the Heart of the Star-Worm, and whatever other miracles they could find along the way. The banks of the ‘Tchafallayall between No-lah and the Gulf became armored walls, sprinkled every year with freshly-powdered Wormheart mixed with the blood of some of that tribute. Every year, Katrice grew thicker and darker in the sky; every year, the city celebrated with a party that grew along with the ghost of a god that moved to the city’s bidding.
After two hundred and eighty-seven years of this, Nashro’ber, the Weather Witch-Lord of the Fourth Golden Empire(7), died. The official record of his last words is lost; the rumor around the city is that they were, simply, “Run”.
Four and a half weeks after that, Katrice had laid waste to fully two-thirds of No-lah. Half of the Weather Witch Corps perished before one desperate Witch tore the Heart of the Star-Worm from its resting place in the half-embalmed skull of Nashro’ber, stole a skiff, and vanished into the Gulf. Katrice scattered into a thousand thousand wisps of heartbreak-colored cloud, and has not been seen since. Nor has that heroic, unnamed Witch.
Surprisingly, none of the former client states of the Fourth Golden Empire came in to finish what Katrice started. They didn’t lift a finger to help rebuild, either. Not without demanding a heavy price first, at least. Not without laying claim to whatever prizes they desired from amongst the city’s richer refugees.
It is twelve years later. The city’s population is, at best, half of what it was. Some of it is changing, made strange by the backlash of the power beneath the Gulf. Some of it is still in ruins.
But Lemoy-ville’s flag still glistens purple, green, and gold in the center of the Elvish Quarter(8). And we still throw one hell of a party every year, even though the riverwalls are mere rubble along the course the ‘Tchafallayall took before Katrice changed everything.
Welcome to No-lah, o adventurer. What wonders will you find?
1: As well as the fairly unsurprising use of fighting the numerous monsters that give the Gulf its modern name.
2: Literally, “Tranquil Rest”. Lemoy-ville and her Company participated in a long explorer’s tradition of giving the least hospitable places of the world inviting names with this one; unlike their name for the Gulf(3), this one stuck.
3: Sigs-bee, lit. “Mirror-to-the-sky”.
4: corrupted from the language of the local wood-fey, our best guess is “Don’t drink that you idiot, can’t you see the god-rot not ten feet up the bank from here”; sadly, little of their oral tradition survived the Storm of the Horse and the subsequent “land reclamation” push that saw No-Lah triple in size.
5: Orkish, lit. “Rain of Filth”
6: Spinnerish, lit. “Opener of the Myriad Carapaces”
7: Much ink, blood, and ichor has been spilled on the tenuous connection, or lack thereof, of the Fourth Golden Empire to the previous three. For now, let it suffice to say that even the most ardent supporter of this claim would gleefully proclaim it to be “pretty complicated” before attempting to simplify the argument with the aid of such conceptual aids as a board with strategically-placed nails, or a godsrot-tarnished rapier.
8: Which is largely high-arched Draconate work, built after the Storm of the Melody razed the city for the first time.