Quick announcement before we get into this week’s blog post: if you haven’t seen the teases elsewhere yet, the next 1879 Kickstarter campaign launches tomorrow! This campaign will cover The Fort Alice Sourcebook, the second part of our three part adventure, Saurids on the Grosvenor Express, and Ha’Penny Pie Volume #2. You can check out the preview link and get notified when the campaign launches here:
And now, back to your regularly scheduled blog post:
A subject of semi frequent discussion, and one particularly highlighted by last week’s blog post:
What exactly happens when someone goes through the Rabbit Hole?
In short, a lot of WEIRD stuff.
In seriousness though, the exact effects are intentionally kept broad and vague, to serve as a blank check for game masters to write in all sorts of oddness into their games. What sorts of oddness, you ask? Well, today we’ll be taking a look at some of the themes and ideas involved with travel through the portal, and hopefully give some inspiration that you can use in your game.
First to remind everyone of some of the basics about travel in the portal, a couple of excerpts from the 1879 Game Master’s Guide (from chapter 2 starting on page 8 if you want to read the text in full):
Portals actually consist of two openings with a connection between them. The portals allow
passage from normal physical space into the continuum that surrounds and divides the netherworlds,
and hopefully back out again. This is not the same as a gateway into astral space, which is a spiritual
and magical continuum that overlays individual physical worlds. Thus, to pass from one physical
world to another, you have to enter the continuum through one portal, and exit it through another.
The connection between the portals acts as a path, like a faery trod, allowing travelers to find their
way from one portal to the other if they’re fortunate, or if they have stacked the deck…
…The trods aren’t so much pathways as the idea of pathways. As such, they flex, shift, wander,
and meander. The experience of traveling a trod will vary from one person to the next, even within
a party that’s traveling together. Time doesn’t have quite the same meaning within the continuum as
in physical worlds, and so can also be flexible. Expectation plays a large part in the experience of
the trod. In the case of the Rabbit Hole, a great deal of common belief has been invested, as well
as physical anchoring for that belief, which stabilizes the experience to some degree. Odd things
still happen during transit.
There are two important takeaways here. First that the space inside the portal is not actually part of this physical reality, but rather the space between physical realities. This differs from Astral Space, which ties directly into the physical reality it’s part of. Think of this physical reality like the surface of a balloon. To travel between two points, you’d have to walk along the physical surface going from point A to point B, following its curvature. If you were to travel there through astral space, you would make a temporary hole through the surface of the balloon into the interior and travel in a straight line through it; you’re not going through the surface level where the physical boundaries are, but you are still within the confines of the balloon. If you were to take a portal like the Rabbit Hole, you can jump off of the surface of the balloon entirely and then reconnect at another point on the surface (or potentially even the surface of another balloon). This balloon metaphor isn’t perfect of course, but it gives a way of visualizing the rather obscure concepts here.
Second, the space inside the portal is psychosomatic – that is, its shape and essence are influenced directly by thought (astral space does share this property to an extent, but limited due to its direct connection to physical space). In this regard, the iron tunnel going through the portal does quite a bit to solidify the trip and make it safer, not because of its physical properties (which again, mean diddly squat in a space removed from our physical reality), but because of the belief people have in it to make the path safer and direct. This idea is reinforced further every time people make the trek from one side to the other, cementing the general belief in the populace of how travel through the portal works, including those who actually travel through it. Important to note that the experience is subjective depending on the person going through. In theory, if you had someone who was living under a rock the entire time since the portal opened and told them absolutely nothing about the experiences others have had going through, if they went through their mind would have absolutely no reference on what to expect, would fill in the blanks on its own, and that expectation would shape the reality of the experience. Also in theory, if you had someone with sufficient mental discipline to overcome their mind’s internal expectations, they could influence the experience by force of will.
In large part, however, changing some aspects of the experience inside the portal would be exceedingly difficult. Tying into its psychosomatic nature is how the environment inside the portal manifests. Again quoting from the Game Master’s Guide:
The Greenwich Portal lets into a choking cloud of industrial waste because of London. The atmosphere clears at the Gruv end. Get past the halfway point, marked in the Iron Tunnel by a broad red stripe painted on the walls, floor, and ceiling, and the air changes. Going one way, helmets can be removed, but the other way, they have to be put on in order to survive.
Again, in theory, a person of sufficient mental discipline could realize the cause for this and potentially disregard these negative effects, but such force of will is well beyond what can be mustered by the vast majority of humans and Boojums (though not outside the realms of possiblity for natives of the portal).
So, what of the effects of the portal on individuals? In much the same regard as shaping the experience of the portal itself, the psychosomatic nature of the space can also shape a person or object traveling through it. The example of people changing into Boojums is a relatively common one, but far from the only possibility. People could also change physical attributes, from simple ones such as eye or hair color, including ones that are not naturally occurring, to completely changing build or gender (even if they still remain of their current race). As travel through the portal is a subjective experience, when these changes occur, they are largely due to their personal identity. Everyone has an idea of themselves in their mind, some matching their current physical reality quite closely, some varying greatly. These ideas of identity can be conscious or subconscious depending on the individual, and can vary in strength. Of course, these aren’t the only factors in determining whether or not a person traveling through the portal will be changed. Part of it also involves how willing they are to be changed, which given expectations of Victorian society, may not be that easy for a person to accept for certain changes (though again, subconscious desire might outweight conscious desire here). There are also certain elements of their physical makeup that may not allow them to change. After all, looking glass fever did not overtake everyone, and in fact is still mostlly a minority of the population. The dormant gene that causes people to change race has different strengths depending on the individual, and the magic level may not be high enough for everyone yet. The amount of people either becoming or being born as Boojums will increase in conjunction with the gradual increase of the global mana level. Finally, there’s also an unknown element of chance to any changes that can be brought about by the portal. It is in the nature of the space to be random, and while the above elements may increase or decrease the probability of a change, the cosmic dice still have to be rolled to determine the actual outcome.
Applying all of this to a story telling element means that, as a game master, you have almost unlimited possibilities for events influenced or caused by travel through the portal. You’re free to use it without complications as a simple transport between the two worlds, of course, but throwing something weird out there every once in a while can give your players a new challenge or lead your story into an unexpected twist.
For players, it also means you have a way within the context of the game to create some interesting and exotic changes to your character (subject to GM approval, of course). Further, not all of these changes have to be immediate. If you’re going to be playing in a game that involves a lot of back and forth trips through the portal, you could have a character with a certain conscious or subconscious identity for themselves that differs from how they start. Each trip through the portal has the potential to bring that character one step closer to realizing that identity. This would introduce a lot of interesting role play potential for a character having to come to grips with these changes as they occur, and having to make the decision each time they go through the portal if they’re willing to accept the chance of another change (or perhaps looking for excuses to travel through the portal if it’s a welcome shift).
Also bear in mind that people are not the only things that can change going through the portal (though they tend to do so more frequently, as they have more awareness to influence a change). Going down in order of likeliness, animals also have the potential of being changed as they go through the portal. As they are semi-sentient when compared to people, the changes tend to not be based as much on personal identity, but more on their genetics and potentially on circumstances relating to their transfer which could influence the beliefs of people observing them. Most likely of these changes, though not really common yet as the mana level is still increasing, would be mundane animals changing into similar ones of myth. For example, Scotland has an open bounty for any horses that emerge from the portal as unicorns in the interests of protecting their national animal (how many of these bounties have been paid out, if any, and where these animals have been relocated to are retained as national secrets in order to keep them protected).
Plants, being even further removed from sentience, have even less potential for changes to their nature, but still some. If you have a GM with a background interest in musical theater and a character named Seymour, I strongly caution you against transporting flowers through the portal.
Finally, inert materials such as dead organics, mechanics or crafted items, and raw materials have the least potential for things to happen, but again, it’s higher than zero. Most likely, anything crafted going through the portal is just going to either not work while it’s removed from physical space or break entirely, though a story could introduce an exotic effect. These changes could remain permanent after leaving the portal, but it would probably be a much more interesting challenge if the odd effects only occurred inside the portal space, leaving only a limited window for its use. There’s also the chance for more mundane effects to occur, such as a wagon of materials being mysteriously disconnected from one train and attached to another one later (or possibly even earlier).
This brings up another interesting possibility: as the portal space is separate from our physical reality, this also means it’s separate from our time line. For the larger part, odd temporal effects are largely mitigated by people’s belief structure; after all, direct linear cause to effect is how people are conditioned to see the world, so the psychosomatic nature of the portal space generally reinforces that expectation. However, as the portal space isn’t restricted to our time line, it isn’t just people observing the portal at the present moment that influence the space, and if there’s a strong enough belief from people at a different point in time that something should happen out of order (or that something NEEDS to happen out of order), the portal can facilitate that.
As always, when you’re introducing weirdness into your game (particularly time travel), caution is advised. By their nature, these things break with the usual rules of how the world works, speaking both in terms of the real world and the rules of the in-game world. Not as much actual game mechanics rules (though those too), but the universal laws that govern people’s expectations. People expect gravity to work like normal, people expect to have their physical form remain consistent, people expect things to happen in order of cause and effect, so on and so forth. Subverting these expectations can be fun by creating unexpected circumstances that your players must now contend with. However, they must be implemented carefully so that the effect doesn’t feel cheap, unwarranted, or unfair. Don’t overuse the possibilities, don’t use them to introduce something that is unbalanced, and don’t use it as a free card to overcome a difficult challenge or invalidate a victory. Complications are fine, even great if they’re done well, but the players should never feel that they have no agency within the game. Keep these ideas in mind, and you can have a lot of fun with the freedom the portal provides.
Do you have other ideas for story lines that could involve the portal? Have you used some in your games already? Let us know on Discord, and see what other weirdness people have gotten up to. And don’t forget, we’ve got FreedoniaCon coming up on February 18th, 19th, and 20th, so be sure to tune in for some games and live discussions on 1879 as well as our other product lines!