This is a World of Darkness article, for the White Wolf game Wraith.
What do the Shadowlands look like? How about Stygia? What would you see if you looked into a window in the lands of the dead?
This is something no one has ever really been able to answer for me. I’ve seen it debated endlessly on mailing lists, and usually the discussion boils down to, “huh, damned if I know.”
As a Storyteller, it’s your job to convey the feel of a place to your players. This can be difficult when one of them says, “I look in the window. What do I see?” and your answer is, “huh, damned if I know.”
So before you start your Wraith game, ask yourself a lot of questions and make sure you come up with the answers. Here’s a place to start from.
What do the Shadowlands look like? We know they’re dark and decaying, dying. We know wraiths can sort of see into the Skinlands, but through a pall of nastiness. Take that a little further. Go into the details. Think about what the buildings look like in your campaign. Rotting wood with nails falling out? Cracked concrete? Buckled metal? Broken glass? Each one gives a different air to a place. Is the ground a cracked sidewalk? Dead grass? Do dessicated vines adorn the entrance to the Legion hall?
What does Stygia look like? Some of this has been spelled out for us — different types of architecture from all eras, grafted onto each other. Again, think about the type of feel you want your campaign to have. Should you concentrate on high arches and columns, or dark eaves and attics with small windows? If you want a particular feel, then by all means have most of the campaign take place in neighborhoods of Stygia that conform to that feel. If you want to make your party feel disjointed and out of place, then stick different architectures–different feels — onto one another in disturbing ways. Have someone open the door to a modern glass-and-steel office building and find themselves in someone’s dusty old farmhouse.
What would you see if you looked in a window in Stygia? Or, the real question, what do ghosts do all day? Again, what feel do you want? Do you see a wraith huddling inside hiding from the Legions, or the Spectres? This is the story of loneliness and fear. Do you see a ghostly family, trying to go about a “normal” life? This is the story of loss, of those who just can’t adjust to being dead. Do you see a Guild-member furtively going about his business? This is a story of betrayal, or of revolution.
The point of a setting is to support the story. Don’t worry about canon or “realism” or what the lands of the dead are supposed to look like. Worry about what the story calls for instead.