The Codex Seraphinianus RPG

Category: Down the Rabbit Hole
Last article published: 5 February 2018
This is the 7th post under this label
Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed I "read" the Codex Seraphinianus at the start of the year, a sort of natural history encyclopedia for a world that never was, filled with surreal images and an invented script designed to give you that special pre-literate feeling when, as a child, you would look at pictures in a book and wonder what it was all about. When I look at a "fake encyclopedia" I get another feeling: That of reading a role-playing game sourcebook. After all, a lot of them come off as encyclopedias for fictional worlds! So the Codex had me thinking about Luigi Serafini's world as an RPG setting. Could it work?

From what I can infer, the Codex presents a world with very different physical laws. It seems to work based on surreal mechanisms rather than logical ones, and manifests in a couple of ways. One of these is that things become other things. There is a fluidity to surreal imagery, and so for example, a plant's leaves might resolve into scissors, a fish's back end may become a broom, and two lovers might turn into a crocodile.
Things springing out of other things is prevalent in the Codex, and it would seem that things both alive and not are created through abiogenesis. For example, the Codex's cover shows a splotch of a liquid from which are born ladybugs. Even people, in the Codex, are born out of other things, and walk around as legs topped by something else (a ball of yarn, an umbrella, a torso from which a leopard leaps out), among fully-formed humans. Are things being born out of humans, or do humans grow out of other things, feet first?
Going down to the micro level, the book shows us that animals, vegetables, minerals and energy are made up of smaller particles, but not the bland, generic atoms of our world. A microscope might instead show you something is made of tiny fish or gooey germs various different kinds of crystals.

In game terms, this opens certain possibilities for "magic", with character types who might manipulate this small particles, or know how to recognize and/or draw what they need out of available materials. And character types and abilities could be derived from what the character grew out of, or the particle that are part of their being. Alternatively or additionally, there might be a World of Darkness-type mechanic that threatens the characters with turning into something else if they give in to their particular nature/particle.

The book isn't just flora and fauna, it has extensive sections on culture, so not only do we see card games and architecture (which might stimulate adventure scenario building), weird rituals, and all manner of contraption, but what appears to be different tribes of humanity, hinting at character "classes" as much as "races". I would probably recommend a cultural basis for character types, as opposed to old-fashioned "professions" like fighter and thief, but even just as an overlay akin to "race", culture should be an important part of the character concept. The book shows us, for example, a man dressed in rat skins and companioned by cats. One dressed in garbage. Another who has affixed a proxy shadow behind him... Who might they be and what could there function in an adventuring party be?
And indeed, one might wonder what kind of adventures the Codex inspires, in a world where seemingly anything can happen, and that is almost too bizarre for players to imagine (which is the main problem I've had with rich, complex RPG settings - the players almost need to read the whole game book to get it). The last chapter has a lot of evocative locations that cement the Codex as a piece of fantasy, with explorable "dungeons" and cultures.
Characters would be built from cultural and "particle" overlays, and could still take on the roles of warriors, adepts of Seraphinian "magic" or "science", priest, thieves, and whatever the book's images might evoke in the gamer.

There are several books I could see converted into a setting or part of a setting, but this is really the only one that is entirely open-ended in terms of interpretation. And that's how you go... down the rabbit hole.


Mike W. said...

Dali and Magritte would've loved this Codex. Those "things on human legs" look like they were lifted wholesale from one of Dali's paintings.


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