I have been running a game of Amber Diceless RPG/Lords of Gossamer and Shadow for our local group, using an alternate setting. Instead of Shadow and Pattern, or the Gossamer Stair, this universe is connected by a mysterious forest called the Marches. This series of columns will describe the Marches as a new player character would experience them, as a nested series of secrets, which the GM would reveal in play. Along the way, I'll provide some design notes, anecdotes, and generally explain the setting as a whole.
You're a (Demi)God
Player characters may start they game completely ignorant of the world of the Marches. They may have been lost or abandoned in a realm, and be completely unaware that others exists. Like Corwin at the start of the Amber Chronicles, they have to discover the nature of the universe as they go. This is a great way to introduce new players to the setting, through experimentation and discovery.
Their first discovery then, will be about themselves. The PCs start out as Pargon-ranked in all their attributes (unless they sell them down). That means that they are already psychic, super-strong, super-tough, and insanely athletic and deadly. If they've been alive for very long, they also know that they are effectively immortal. If they've spent any points on powers, then they know that magic exists, too.
As in Amber, or in LoGaS, player characters may or may not know their parents. One of these parents (at least) was probably a Marcher Lord. If their Marcher Lord Daddy (or Mommy or Both) is present as they grow up, the parent probably vanishes from time to time. They are almost certainly caught doing (or being) more than human or having more than one power. Alternatively, the Marcher Lord parent may be long gone, a figure of mystery. Either way, the child probably has questions.
Other Worlds Exist
Either in play, or before play begins, the player character will learn that other worlds exist. The equivalent of an Amber Shadow or a Gossamer Domain is a Realm. A Realm is a self-contained universe. It may appear infinite from inside (as ours does) or it may be as small as kingdom or even a broom-closet. Some Realms have weird geometry; if you walk far enough you may end up back at the same point or maybe you can see distant lands hanging in the sky. The player character will likely rule their Realm, by virtue of their superhuman powers, or be raised by its ruler.
All Realms contain at least one Waystone. Waystones appear rounded, slightly pock-marked bone-colored stone, usually ranging in size from a pebble to a car tire. The bigger the realm, the larger the stone will likely appear. Some Waystones are marked with mysterious runes (usually just one) or show signs of breakage or even scorch marks. They may change slowly in size, appearance, or location over time. Waystones have a number of different nicknames -- such as Wichstones, Milestones, Geomantic points. The most common nickname, however, is "the bones of Ymr."
Player characters with Sorcery can sense that these are magical objects, filled with energy. Player characters with Aspect can tell that the stones are nexus points of essence, that they are somehow more "real" than the surrounding Realm. Player characters with Wayfinding, of course, can sense the presence of the Marches beyond the stone, and have an innate sense of how to open a Way.
Some Realms are inhabited by creatures with Minor Wayfinding. In these Realms traffic to and from the Marches may be common. In other Realms, they player characters will need to discover how the stones work for themselves, experimenting until they manage to open a Way. (At which point, they must buy the power with points.)
Concentrating on a Waystone, and pouring a little energy into it, causes a Way to open. A character with Minor Wayfinding or better need only stand near the stone and concentrate for a few minutes. Opening a Way is slower than Sorcery,using an Icon. A disc-shaped hole appears in the air, revealing the Marches behind. A character with Wayfinding proper soon finds that they need not make an opening at the stone itself, although its presence makes the process faster and easier. They will also eventually find that they can make the Way larger or smaller or differently-shaped or colored or opaque, noisy or silent, glowing or subdued.
At this point, the player character will probably step through, into the Marches. (And specifically, into the Middle Marches where most viable Realms are located.) They will see a forest. Depending on conditions, it may be a sparse forest, with scrubby undergrowth, or a lush forest with a canopy that blocks out the skies, or a pine taiga covered in drifting snows. There may be clearings or burned areas, or boulders or whatever. In some really odd places, the Marches may appear as desert or ocean or even empty space. But for the most part the Marches are forest.
The player character will probably notice a Waystone, more or less matching the one on the others side, near the Way they just vacated. Unless they concentrate on holding it open, or on snapping it shut, the Way will close about a minute after they exit. Their home waystone is probably on a path, one that stretches off into the distance. If they came from a large Realm, there may be a clearing or even some broken ruins.
The first-time traveler will feel cold, regardless of whether the sun is shining or the temperature of the air. The attuned will realize that this is not true cold -- it is a lack of magical energy, of the essence of reality. In their home Realm it was thick; here it is thin. It is stronger on the path than off it.
The Marches slowly change. The same tree may not be in the same place if you look away. The type of vegetation may shift. The sun and moon may move back and forth in the sky, or vanish suddenly. The Marches are perilous. Even if character do not travel far, the exposure to low Essence will begin to take a toll on them. First they will shiver, then they will weaken, eventually they may begin to experience numbness in the extremities. They can counteract this to some degree by staying on the paths or near Waystones. If they leave the path, reality becomes unstable. There may be areas of non-Euclidean geometry, where distances fold back in on themselves, or where a single stand of trees recedes forever. The traveler may encounter strange beasts out of legend, or (perhaps more dangerous) other wanderers.
However, if the character follows the path they will eventually come upon another Waystone. Should they concentrate, a Way will open, leading them to a new Realm. The new Realm is a new universe, perhaps quite different than the one the player left. Most Realms are wilderness, or inhabited by low-magic fantasy or Renaissance humans, but there are high-tech Realms or high-fantasy Realms too.
In my current game, players had the option of beginning clueless or clued-in. Clueless characters had no Wayfinding, and knew only their Realm. Some of them were Sorcerers and shapeshifters, quite powerful, but confined to the Realm of their birth. A few of the characters already had Wayfinding, and knew enough to wander around the Marches. None of the characters (except one) had ever met their father, but some of them had magical mothers. As the game opened, all the characters began to feel a call that drew them towards the nearest Waystone, and thus into the Marches. This compulsion, whatever it was, also enabled the characters to open a Way, provided they experimented enough...
Next up: Aspects and Marcher Lords