Last week, I wrapped up my five-part Babur series, but I still wanted to present a little coda to the Babur story: a tale of hidden treasure found by his son and successor, Humayun. Because this post is about half the length of what I usually shoot for, I also found the time to (finally) review Luka Rejec’s absolutely exceptional RPG The Ultraviolet Grasslands.
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In 1535, early in his reign, the Mughal Emperor Humayun went to war with the Gujarat Sultanate, a kingdom in northwest India. The war went well for the Mughals, and the Gujarati sultan, Bahadur Shah, was forced from place to place. Wherever he went, Humayun followed to besiege it. Each time, Bahadur Shah made it out of the city, fortress, or camp just before it fell to the Mughals. Our story concerns one of these flights, from the fort of either Champaner or Mandu (Humayun’s chronicler is ambiguous). When Humayun’s soldiers breached the fort, they found Bahadur Shah was already gone. They searched the splendid complex for the treasure he must surely have left behind, but they found none.
One of Bahadur’s officers, a man named Alam Khan, approached Emperor Humayun in the fort and made the proper obeisance. Because Alam Khan was so respectful – and came to Humayun on his own rather than having to be dragged before him – Humayun treated him with respect in kind. The two men sat and talked. Humayun pressed him about the treasure: where might Bahadur Shah have hidden it? Alam Khan declined to answer those questions. Several of Humayun’s officers suggested they torture the answer out of the man, but Humayun refused. They’d try carrot before they tried stick.
The officers prepared a party and invited Alam Khan. They plied him with wine. When he was tipsy and companionable, they asked him again: where is Bahadur Shah’s treasure? This time, Alam Khan was willing to open up. “If the sovereign wants treasure, have him drain the pool beside where he sits.” Humayun set his soldiers to emptying the large pool with cups and pitchers. “No, no,” said Alam Khan, “Dig along the side of the pool; there’s a drain.” And lo, when they dug they found a drain. All the water ran out and Bahadur Shah’s treasure was revealed. Humayun had it distributed among his soldiers. Alam Khan also revealed the location of a well that had been filled with molten gold and silver, but Humayun left that one alone.
It’s not a long story, but it was too fun for me to omit. And it’s an amazing gaming hook! Long ago, this palace (or fortress or governor’s mansion or whatever) was taken by the power who rules there now, yet no treasure was ever found – despite multiple eyewitness confirming there was treasure there before the palace changed hands. The Lost Treasure of Such-and-Such Palace is just one of those mysteries no one has an answer to; your fictional setting’s version of the Amber Room or the Czechoslovak Legion’s lost boxcar of gold. But the PCs have heard of this one old woman in this one podunk town. She’s a nobody today, but she used to be somebody important at the palace before it changed hands. It’s not a stretch to think she might know where the treasure was hidden – but how do you get her to talk? Humayun shows us one solution, but this is a straightforward obstacle that the players can handle with any sort of roleplay they choose.
Armed with the knowledge that the treasure is at the bottom of a deep pool of cloudy (but picturesque) water, you now have an interesting and memorable heist! I’ve written before about heisting something important from a castle – heck, I’ve got an entire category of heists in the back catalog! But this has an interesting twist. You’re stealing something that no one else knows exists. You’ve still got to find a way into the palace, a way to get the treasure out of the pool, and a way to get the treasure out of the palace. And you’ve still got to do it without anyone noticing, since the current owner of the palace feels the missing treasure is his. But the treasure isn’t specifically guarded, since no one knows it’s there. And that makes it fun and different!
A couple years ago, I ran a campaign of Luka Rejec’s phenomenal RPG The Ultraviolet Grasslands. I’d like to review that work (better late than never), especially focusing on how the book eschews the normal RPG conundrum of needing to write the book both for instruction and reference. Luka wrote almost purely for reference. The choice took some courage, and it really paid off. It’s also an interesting object lesson for the rest of us!
The Ultraviolet Grasslands is a psychedelic road trip across a bizarre fantasy steppe. The players start at the eastern end of the grasslands where things are weirder than your normal D&D schlock, but not hugely so. As they proceed west, things quickly reach a level of strangeness that I’d consider the outside edge of what’s acceptable in traditional fantasy. By the time they reach the Black City at the western end of the steppe, things are so bizarre, so utterly run on dream-logic that it may be hard to recognize your starting point. The rate at which things grow stranger is delightfully well-calibrated. It’s fast enough that your players will definitely notice, but not so fast that they’ll ever feel unmoored. Odd events, people, and locations are folded in piecemeal such that you have a chance to digest each one and internalize the changing universe before the next is introduced.
The setting is a pointcrawl. There are 32 points of interest in the Ultraviolet Grasslands. Each point of interest connects to 2-4 others, sprawling from the Violet City (#1, your starting point) to the Black City (#32, your ostensible destination). Each point is fleshed out by a vivid, intriguing description; a table to roll on for interesting events that might befall you while traveling near the point; and a variety of side trips near that point but off the main trade routes. The description, encounters, and side trips are not interrelated per se, but they are thematically linked. A session spent near the Way Stone Graveyard will feel very different from one spent near the Ribs of the Father.
An Ultraviolet Grasslands campaign is all about travel. PCs don’t have to start at one end of the steppe and journey to the other side, but I’m not sure why you’d run it any other way. The best PCs will be those with a reason to want to get to the other side: merchants, diplomats, pilgrims, archaeologists, and the like. The game supports (even encourages) backtracking and side journeys. Maybe you stumbled onto an old fordite kraal that contains a stone that will teach you useful lies, and you remember you met someone a few weeks back who might find it useful: an oracle with the lower half of a centipede the length of a bus wearing a gazebo on his back like a snail’s shell. So you backtrack to trade the crystal to him in exchange for information about how to bypass the patrols of the living light beings who wear brightly-colored astronaut suits that you expect to encounter in a few weeks’ time.
Ultraviolet Grasslands is heavy on inspiration and light on detail. That suits me fine. This isn’t an intricate setting where everything interrelates. This is a setting where everything is a little disconnected from everything else, and where it’s perfectly valid for a random encounter to give you no more information than “Herd of singing beasts (level 3, sessile) melting into an organic soup as a self-sacrifice to the Biosphere Avatar.” The Biosphere Avatar will be mentioned nowhere else in the book – or if it is, it won’t be in a way where the stuff you improvised will be contradicted. If your players really dig the Biosphere Avatar, cool, next time they do a side trip from one of the points of interest, add on to the single paragraph about the side trip some cool stuff about the Biosphere Avatar. You’re the GM. It’s your game. Heck, the setting’s mysterious backstory is simply a set of tables in the back of the book that you roll on when you need an answer.
This book’s single major flaw is also wondrously intentional. It’s hard to get into. You open the book and there’s no five-page overview of the setting and what it might be helpful to tell your players. This is not a book built for teaching, it’s a book built for reference.
Roleplaying game books have the unenviable need to be useful for both reference and instruction. Someone who’s never played Dungeons and Dragons needs to be able to start on page 1 of the Player’s Handbook and read through it until they understand how to play the game. Yet someone with decades of experience also needs to be able to open the book to a relevant page mid-combat to check the finer points of how death saves work. These two goals are difficult to reconcile. You could present the book alphabetically (death saves will be under ‘D’) which would be super easy for reference, but impossible to learn with. You could present it purely for instruction, but good luck remembering where in the book a fine detail was presented if it’s been a few years since you read it cover-to-cover. Instead, most roleplaying books try for an awkward compromise, which usually only sometimes works. Veteran players get pretty good at reading a new book by jumping forwards and backwards between chapters.
Ultraviolet Grasslands eschews this. It is a book built for reference. At the start of the book you will find Point of Interest #1. After that comes Point of Interest #2, and so forth. At the back of the book you’ll find appendices: tables for biomagical corruption and bizarre trade goods, rules for starvation, rumors about some of the grasslands’ more prominent denizens, and so forth. That can make learning about the Grasslands a chore starting out. Really, you want to read the first few points of interest, skim the appendices, and figure out which appendices you want to read in detail.
But when it comes time to actually run the game, all the information you need is right there at your fingertips. When one of my players asked me a question, I never had a moment of “well where would I find that?” I always knew exactly where to flip to, in ways I wouldn’t for a book presented differently. It was really stunning; I’ve never had quite that good an experience with reference mid-play.
Is there a way to make a book good for reference and for instruction? Certainly you can include a several-page introduction, but you must be careful that all information contained within it is also found in a relevant section elsewhere in the book for easy look-up. Some board games include two copies of the rules: one formatted for teaching, the other for reference. That’s fine for Asmodee, but I’d argue it’s an unreasonable standard for a one-man shop like Luka’s. In the end, Luka’s bold, uncompromising stand in how he wanted to present his game really made me think about how I present my games. It reflects a level of intentionality that makes me want to be as intentional as he was. I’ll make different choices than he did, but the choices will be more carefully considered than they would have been if I’d never run Ultraviolet Grasslands.
Ultraviolet Grasslands is a phenomenal RPG. My players had enormous fun with it, and I had enormous fun running it. Five out of five stars.
Source: Jawhar Aftabachi, Tadhkitratu’waqi’at, in Three Memoirs of Humayun, trans. Wheeler M. Thackston (2009), 1: 76.