Ranging the Grasslands

Back in May of last year, when I convinced some friends to try role-playing over Slack, the game we started with was Luka Rejec's Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City. I ran our first campaign like a loosely-plotted story, prepping characters and potential plot-twists ahead of each session, tacking toward new possibilities with each curve ball thrown by my players. It worked reasonably well. We had a few sessions bog down for lack of clear direction, and there were times when I only just kept a few over-ambitious set-pieces from derailing the whole thing. It ran overlong, which is, perhaps, a habitual flaw in my approach to GMing. On the whole, though, we were happy with the results.

My sole, lingering regret, perhaps, was that I hadn't given the game freer reign. UVG is an exceptionally distinct setting — a surreal sci-fi, psych-metal Oregon Trail that melds a panoply of influences into a bizarre and diverse world. When my group decided to circle back to it, I decided to take a less active roll in prep and lean more heavily on the book's procedures for throwing weirdness at the players.

Easier said than done. UVG is, by Rejec's own admission, as much an art book as it is a game system. Most (but not all) of the procedures for play are concentrated in the back third. The setting is presented primarily as a kind of guide book covering thirty-two locations, ranging from the Violet City in the west to the Black City on the eastern edge of the world. The descriptions tend to be terse and suggestive, the better to elaborate your own interpretation of the world. Some questions are answered not directly, but with tables of rumors that make your players' perception of the world subject to the roll of a die. What solid information there is in the game is often spread across multiple sections, with no clear references to connect them. The book offers a glossary and an index, but neither is exhaustive.

Take lings, by way of illustration. To help character creation along, I showed each of my players a copy of the “Factions” section so they'd have a sense of the deviations from standard human that were available to them. One player took the bait and cast his character as a quarter-ling. Okay, so what's a quarter-ling? They're descendants of lings, who were, according to the glossary, a “mysterious, missing sentient sub-type” from the long span of fictional history before the players' time. Maybe. Or maybe some quarter-lings only prefer to believe in that lineage. Okay, but what are they if that's not the case? To complicate matters even more, three sessions into the campaign, I've run across a section on quarter-lings under the chapter for a locale we haven't visited and likely won't reach this time around.

So I may have been mistaken in supposing that the book offers a system, a la Perilous Wilds, for generating adventures. That would require a more systematic exposition of the rules, the major elements of the setting, and their interrelation. The travelogue is full of surprises and uncertainty, and the exposition is so dense and noncommittal that it's practically impossible to absorb it all and deploy it at need. Best to treat it, maybe, as an especially fecund set of prompts for elaborating your own scenarios and narrative stems. Which means I'm back to prepping a few ideas and potential narrative directions for our next session.