Saturday, September 5, 2015

Fiction Inspirations - A Roadside Picnic

    Greetings! This will be the first of hopefully several posts wherein I examine a work of fiction, be it a book, a TV show, a movie, or what have you, and how it can be used to inspire material for a weird RPG.
    Since this is primarily a Numenera blog, I'll be starting with the books in the Numenera corebook bibliography. However, I will limit myself only to those books or series that I have personally read.
    For today's post, I'll be covering one of my favorites:

    Yes, my friends, it's Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. In this book, advanced aliens visited Earth, but only briefly, leaving behind several "Zones," where the laws of physics are in turmoil and the ground is littered with strange alien artifacts. The story follows one Red Schuhart, a stalker, i.e. a person who makes their living sneaking into the UN protected Zones stealing alien artifacts to sell on the black market. As Red's financial, legal, and personal problems mount, he seeks out the artifact known as the Golden Sphere, rumored grants wishes.
    The parallels to Numenera are obvious: advanced aliens, now absent, strange artifacts, physics-defying phenomena, etc. The novel draws its title from the following exchange between two characters, which I find particularly haunting:
A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around... Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind... And of course, the usual mess—apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.
    That is one character's analogy to explain his hypothesis for why the aliens came here and left all of their strange artifacts. The picture it portrays is fairly Lovecraftian, implying the existence of alien beings so vast and incomprehensible that they go about their business without evening noticing humanity. The aliens who made the Zones, just like the progenitors of the previous eight worlds, looked down on us as we look down on birds and insects.

How to Use It in Your Game

    The first and most obvious way to use this book would be as inspiration for a host of new artifacts, cyphers and oddities. This gentleman here was kind enough to compile all of the artifacts and anomalies that are mentioned in the book.
    You could take this concept further, and have your own "Zone" in the Ninth World, perhaps the site of an alien visitation or an interdimensional rift, but either way full of deadly hazards and valuable numenera.
    Another important aspect of Roadside Picnic is how the appearance of the Zones has influenced culture. The protagonist Red is just one of many desperate, hard-boiled men who risk life and limb to make their illicit living. Throughout the novel, Red struggles with despair over the people who have been hurt as a result of his actions.
    This is a pivotal idea in the novel, which is understated in the Ninth World: the idea that the strange artifacts you take out are dangerous and have serious long-term consequences, but so valuable and useful that people hunt for them anyway, contrasted with the general assumption that the numenera described in the game is ubiquitous and fairly safe, if totally enigmatic.
    It also paints the people who search for these artifacts in a very particular light. The only person who would seriously consider trying this would have to be desperate, crazy, stupid, and/or have nothing to lose. I'd say that suits a PC murderhobo to a T.


    You can use these ideas in your game right away, and should be applicable however you decide to dress your "Zone."

Adventure Hooks
  1. The PCs need a particular piece of numenera, but it is only found in an isolated Zone. Not only is the Zone deadly, but it and all of its numenera are claimed by a powerful gang/consortium/government who execute thieves and trespassers.
  2. The PCs need to raise money, fast. Desperate adventurers can always find work prospecting in the Zone. The pay is extravagant, but only because prospectors don't live very long.
  3. A rival gang has been sneaking into the Zone and stealing artifacts. The gang that controls the Zone is desperate to find and punish their rivals, but lack the manpower. If the PCs don't mind a little gang violence, they can be hired as mercenaries, and paid in both shins and numenera.
  4. An esteemed but eccentric Aeon Priest was utterly convinced that he knew the secret behind the Zone, and led an expedition to its heart, laden down with valuable numenera measuring equipment. That was a week ago, and his clave would pay dearly to have him, his companions, and/or their remains brought back, not to mention the rare devices he carried.
Weird Details
  1. Aeon Priests have devised a type of water-driven electrical generator that takes advantage of the gravity differential around graviconcentrates. (This one is particularly dear to my heart, since I actually used this one in-game.)
  2. The gang controlling the Zone executes trespassers by slowly submerging them in a pit of witch's jelly.
  3. A local cult believes that the Zone is a curse from an evil deity, and take pains to buy or steal artifacts and return them to the Zone, fearing that the curse will doom the world.
  4. A showman has rounded up the returned replicas of the unwanted and anonymous deceased and put them in cages. He amuses crowds by using an electrical goad to make them "dance."

Coming Soon...

    I will only ever use books or other media that I have read/consumed personally, and I will prioritize those mentioned in the Numenera bibliography. Once those are exhausted, I have a list at least twice that long, not mentioned in the bibliography. You can expect the next installment of fiction inspirations to be an item from this list:

At the Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft
Dancers at the End of Time, by Michael Moorcock
The Dying Earth, by Jack Vance
The History of the Runestaff, by Michael Moorcock
Pump Six and Other Stories, by Paolo Bacigalupi
Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Viriconium, by M. John Harrison

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