More Articles and a Special Plea
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The Search for Prester John
Global quest for a mythic king
Prester John was a mythic figure in the Christian folklore of the middle ages. He was believed to be the ruler of a Christian kingdom somewhere in central Asia, full of wonders and riches.
The lands of Prester John were seen as rich and exotic. Prester John himself was so wealthy that his furniture was made entirely of precious stones, and his armies numbered one and a half million men. Chief among his possessions was said to be a mirror, into which the good king could gaze and watch events as they unfolded anywhere in the world. In Prester John's kingdom were hills of gold, a sea of gravel and sand, a region where no light ever touches, and the entrance to the Garden of Eden itself. Dwelling in this kingdom were not only exotic animals like camels, tigers, gryphons, and the phoenix, but also horned men, satyrs, pygmies, giants, and cyclopses. The head of the church of this kingdom did not follow in the tradition of the apostle Peter, as do the popes in Rome, but rather in the tradition of the apostle Thomas.
The tales of Prester John may have been based on actual Christian communities. Ethiopia, for example, has been Christian since the fourth century. Parts of southern India have had sizable Christian populations since the ministry of Doubting Thomas in the first century. Both were largely cut off from the rest of Christendom, and their religious traditions developed quite independently of those of the Europeans.
The search for the kingdom of Prester John was of some importance in the middle ages, and his lands or people were reported to have been discovered numerous times. At one point, it was believed that a large army from Prester John's kingdom was marching on the Muslim world from the east. In truth, such an army existed. But it was composed not of Christians, but of tens of thousands of Mongol horsemen under the command of Ghenghis Khan! A hundred years later, Marco Polo reported that Prester John ruled from a city in the steppes of Asia. And In later centuries, it became popular to place Prester John in Ethiopia, which certainly had the advantage of being a real place inhabited by real Christians. This sometimes caused confusion for Ethiopian dignitaries visiting Europe, who did not understand why Europeans insisted upon referring to their emperor by a title he did not use. The search for Prester John continued into the 15th century, as the king of Portugal funded expeditions to India and Ethiopia to search for the mythical lord.
Using the Search for Prester John in Your Games:
If the PCs are explorers, a legend based on Prester John could be a great way to motivate them to keep going over the next hill. If you take this route, it's up to you to decide just how real Prester John is. If you decide he's only a legend, though, it might be a good idea to base the legend around a kernel of in-game truth, like how in the real world, there really were other Christian communities beyond Europe. You'll also need to decide in what way Prester John's people are like the PCs. They may share a religion, or be of the same race, or be descended from a splinter group of the people who founded the PCs' nation.
On the other hand, maybe the PCs are not searching for Prester John, but are responding to those explorers. A new alien race (or monstrous race, or foreign culture) may land on the PCs' homeworld, asking for directions to the planet of an alien Prester John. Such aliens may not take kindly to being told no such planet exists; the PCs may have to fight them off or simply spin a plausible lie. The introduction of these aliens may make the plot go off in a new direction, or just serve as a pleasant side quest.
Burning caves under an abandoned town
Centralia was a town in rural Pennsylvania. Its residents were driven off in the 1980s by a fire raging in the coal mines underneath it. Today, it's a creepy grid of empty streets and smoking vents.
The town sits atop a rich coal bed, and the earth below it is honeycombed with tunnels. As mining technology shifted to strip mining, the entrances to the tunnels filled in. The city turned one of the old mines into a garbage dump, and one year, during the annual burning of the garbage in the dump, the fire spread down a side tunnel and into the broader warren. Attempts to put out the fire failed, but the heated ground meant you could grow tomatoes even in winter, and some folks didn't have to shovel their driveways. But eventually, sinkholes and the unbreathable air forced major action. The government relocated everyone they could, and demolished the town. Some families refused to leave, though, and a handful still live in Centralia.
If you drive down the cracked and patched road to Centralia today, you'll find it an eerie place. The town itself is mostly demolished, except for the homes of the few who remain. Centralia is mostly a grid of empty streets, bordered by vacant lots and driveways to nowhere. Dead trees, bleached white, mark vents billowing smoke laden with carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and fouler stuff yet. Sometimes, there are cave-ins. As the coal burns, it creates caverns of ash, which are unable to support the weight of the earth above them. Sooner or later, the ground collapses with a roar and a burst white smoke. Fresh oxygen rushes into the void, and in the pit, the smoldering coal bursts into flame!
A few old folks still live in Centralia. Mostly, they just liked the town too much to leave, even when it stopped being a town. They're stubborn men and women; when the postal service revoked Centralia's zip code, one old man painted the discontinued code on the unused park benches. They try to maintain a semblance of life in the town, including holding city elections, but it is fitting that one of the best-kept parts of Centralia is the cemetery. Some old-timers cling to a conspiracy theory that the reason the government relocated everyone was to get access to the coal deposits beneath the town. That the coal deposits are currently on fire does not seem to dissuade the theorists.
The fire is actually spreading down the layers of unmined coal around the town, traveling at about 75 feet per year. This is a cause for concern in the nearby towns, though it is hoped the fire will hit groundwater or bedrock before it reaches them. There's no way to tell how long the fire will last; a hill in Australia has been burning for some six thousand years.
Using Centralia in your Game:
While we associate coal with the industrial revolution, it's been a fuel source for thousands of years. A coal mine could be plausibly found in almost any campaign setting, so don't balk at using Centralia in fantasy. Centralia's current residents are an obvious adventure hook; when living in an abandoned town too dangerous for visitors, one could get up to a lot of mischief. There might also be something hidden in the remains of the old town. Be careful about letting PCs go into the mines; any fresh air introduced into the tunnels will make the smoldering coal burst into flame, to say nothing of the unimaginable radiant heat.
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