The Two-Sided Coin

Posted in Feature on May 5, 2008

By Garrett Baumgartner

The spectacle of the Great Aurora has passed. The light of the sun has faded from the sky, leaving only the eerie glow of a clouded sky. The verdant meadow-fields dotted throughout an endless wood, once alive with chatter and the snippets of song carried on a drifting breeze, are now moors drowned in shadow and choked with the silence of prey fearful to reveal itself. Hope is gone from every heart, and the light-hearted world we came to know and love as Lorwyn is basically doomed.

Or is it?

Apocalypse Not

Farhaven Elf
"Verdant bloom does exist. It merely hides for its own safety."

Shadowmoor is not Time Spiral. Though we now see a world of darkness, it is not a world facing its end. This is not the first time night has fallen upon Lorwyn. Past generations have lived through this fell dream before only to awaken unwitting into the safe light of dawn—tramping slumbering monsters beneath their feet with no thought to Mosswort Bridge's Mossbridge Troll, and no memory of Shelldock Isle's Isleback Spawn. But Lorwyn as a whole has survived this changing of the hours many times, and though many who go into the night do not come back, Shadowmoor's flirtation with death has in the end ever proven fleeting.

Our job as writers was threefold. We had to convey the darkness of the setting without delving too deeply into "grimdark" and without going emo, because those things are not what Shadowmoor is about. This is not the end, after all, and a smile may still be found where it is not expected. It may be the humor of the gallows, and it may be far sparser in the deep darkness than the easy laughter of a daylit fair, but the ridiculous is still around here and there, if you know where to look. We also had to evolve the flavor of the races who are the setting's raison d'etre, staying true to their new natures while not losing sight of where they had come from. Most of the flavor that makes Shadowmoor so distinct from Lorwyn comes not from the darkened world itself, per se, but from the changes we made to the creatures who inhabit it. And while we did both of those things, we still had to remember the core of what this setting is: something you might find in a storybook.

Through a Glass Darkly

Reflecting Pool
Does it reflect the future that once was or the past that can never be?

Though many things have been turned on their heads, the most fundamental character of the world has not changed. Shadowmoor is a world of fairy tales and Celtic myth, just as Lorwyn was. We have merely turned from the Victorian and sanitized to that which it was built on, the dark and earthy folk tales told not to children but among adults. Even those stories still told to children often carry a darker undercurrent than is commonly recognized. Hansel and Gretel's encounter with the witch and her fantastic house is not just a tale of a clever escape, nor merely an admonition against being overly trusting, but implies a long history of cannibalism and a great many children who did not live happily ever after. It is an adventure right out of Shadowmoor.

We kept this kind of thing in mind while we forged the new way of the world. Many of the places remain roughly the same, and even have similar names to the ones they held in the daylit world—but now they are dark and twisted, offering danger instead of bounty. In every race that walks this world, you will find much that is still the same as you once knew it. We have just sieved out most of the light and filled the empty space with creamy, delicious darkness. Well, except for the elves and the fae; it'd be too predictable if everything got worse.

Cold Fury

Not all coals lie quietly in their beds of cold ash.

Flamekin, though, definitely did find their essential natures taking a turn for the worse. Now called the cinders, they have fallen furthest of all the races of sunny Lorwyn, reduced now to burnt-out husks clawing at frustratingly ephemeral memories of a past happiness now denied to them. Their creativity and artistry has been snuffed out along with the heat of their bodies, leaving only a maddening sense of loss and a deep resentment of those not cursed with ruined bodies and hopeless hearts. In the parlance of the flamekin who lived before the Aurora, these cinders are truly guttered.

It was the cinders I personally found hardest to write for of the eight primary races, because it with the cinders that the writers had to watch most closely to avoid unnecessary emo. One way we avoided it was to emphasize the passion that was signature to the flamekin. Though their bodies may be cold and their hearts withered, a fire still burns fiercely in a cinder's heart. Unlike the passions of Lorwyn's flamekin, though, this is a darker emotion. It is the hatred of those deemed to have somehow betrayed you or taken your birthright, and the spite that claws back through death's door to take the one who destroyed you with you. By focusing on and building on this rage at the unfairness of the world, we were able to give the cinders their own identity without turning them into pathetic mopers waiting passively for the end to claim them. The cinders mean to go out fighting.

Dry Rot

Crabapple Cohort
Seven wives made seven pies from seven apples, each plucked from its branches. Now bare and bitter, it comes to exact its price: one apple, one bone.

Cinders are not without competition for the title of those most abused by the Aurora; the treefolk have a valid claim to the title as well. No longer vibrant with the flush of a forest springtime, their branches are gnarled and leafless, while their dry, cracked bark conceals the corruption of rot and gnawing insects. Some use this corruption as a weapon against their fellow treefolk, but most turn it against the fragile civilizations of the smaller races, grinding towns into dust and sacrificing victims to fertilize the sickly soil with their blood; these blighted treefolk are known as the canker-witches. None have even seen the noble rowans since night came to Lorwyn; in truth they remain, but hide and nurse a deepening anger and fanaticism over the corruption they perceive in their race.

There are not actually very many cards in Shadowmoor that showcase the treefolk—only four of them made the final cut. Where we could, we extended their reach to several more cards by connecting them thematically, as with the angry Raking Canopy grasping for whatever prey might be so foolish as to insult the ground-bound trees by flying overhead. The woods of Shadowmoor are the deep, dark, frightening places seen in old tales, when humanity had not yet proven its mastery over nature and many who went into the untamed wild never came back. They are places of dread, much like the woods encroaching upon Sleepy Hollow and encircling the titular town in The Village. We illustrated the treefolk as the masters of this defiled domain, still as wise and powerful as they were under the sun but now turning that wisdom to selfish purpose, like Old Man Willow haunting the Old Forest of Tolkien's Shire. Their roots are thirsty, and they will drink deep of red waters before the sun rises over Lorwyn again.

Troubled Waters

Merrow Wavebreakers
The merrows' prey have retreated from the shore, so they have learned to follow.

Merrows know much of blood as well, for it is their mead. They retain much of the influence they had before the Aurora, for though their courses may have been altered, Shadowmoor's many rivers still run broad and deep. Though none will treat with them and their ability to leave the murky waters has diminished, merrows' power is felt in the migration of any town with the means to do so far from the water's edge. Those communities which did not learn this lesson early are no more, their roofs now drowned beneath cold waters or their inhabitants long since made the central attractions of merrow feasts.

Shadowmoor's merrows turn from the modern image of the helpful, dolphin-like aquatic friend to the darker and more capricious merfolk of older myth. Mermaids and mermen were once creatures to be feared, especially in the myths of the British Isles on which our setting is most heavily built, for they could call forth storms to sink ships and wash away towns, and were as apt to drown a foundering sailor as to save him. To have anything to do with the merfolk was to court disaster.

The merrows were easy to write for, because they bear a lot of resemblance to their counterparts from Lorwyn. Their quick minds have been dulled, their silver tongues tarnished, their beautiful voices made hoarse, and their baser instincts brought to the fore, but the merrows' cunning is if anything sharper than before. They still hoard secrets as they have always done, but now those secrets are more directly wielded as weapons against others than as tools for the betterment of their own situation. They are creatures of spite, like the cinders. Theirs, however, is driven not by a profound sense of loss but by an augmentation of the superiority complex the merrow always had even in brighter and warmer times. No waterway is safe when the merrows band together in schools to plot their fell deeds.

Suspicious Circumstances

Mystic Gate
The gate of every kithkin doun is a cunning trap, intended to spill visitors into an oubliette from which there is no escape.

Kithkin too still band together in large communities of their own kind. But though their purposes are not so fell as those of the merrow, their treatment of outsiders is little better. Kithkin are still bound together as a people by the psychic tradition of thoughtweft, a power that links the hearts and minds of many as one. Unfortunately, in Shadowmoor the burgeoning power of this group consciousness breeds a conformist hive mind. Those that think differently from the kithkin seem alien to them, and that which is alien is fearful, something to be destroyed lest it bring harm to the community. Kithkin do not exult in evil, nor do they make a philosophy of hatred, but still these things fester deep in every kithkin's heart, erupting all too often in the xenophobia of the angry peasant mob.

To cultivate the new image of the kithkin, we looked at everything that marked their culture in Lorwyn and put a darker spin on it. Their superstitions and preconceptions about other races are no longer harmless yarns, but deadly serious and only occasionally misguided beliefs that feed the fires of their xenophobia. They are still artisans and alchemists, but now their creations often take on a shambling mockery of life the kithkin never intended, and their pharmacology is as devoted to the debilitation of others as to the preservation of their own fleeting lives. Their douns are no longer open and inviting but are forbidding and cheerless places ringed with protective palisades of sharpened wood; no refuge will you find there, only imprisonment or execution for the crime of trespass. Though small, they defend their homes and their own with all the fervor of a wild beast protecting its young.

Fee Fi Fo Fum

Cragganwick Cremator
Each night that his bowl fills, a village mourns.

Giants, by contrast, have no homes to protect. The giants of Shadowmoor are like forces of nature more than anything. Many would prefer to sleep away the night and so ignore the troubles of their lives, but few find their rest undisturbed for long, and their rage at awakening to an unforgiving world is a terrible thing. No giant does anything small, whether she dwells in Lorwyn or Shadowmoor, and how she slakes her thirst for vengeance is no different. When a giant commences an orgy of destruction, the only option is not to be there.

Shadowmoor's giants are just as powerful and capricious as those of Lorwyn, but these traits are no longer tempered by kindness nor wisdom. We wrote them not as loveable oafs nor fearsome sages but as brutes and bullies on a tremendous scale. These are the selfish colossi who dwell above Jack's beanstalk and who were feared in mythologies ranging as far as the biblical nephilim to the Greek titans and the Norse jötun. Even a giant who is not actively malicious is a fearsome thing, as apt as not to simply step on you as he walks by because he does not see you and does not care that anyone might be in his way. And may you never have the misfortune to be near a giant when hunger stirs in his belly...

Hungry Hungry Hellions

Mudbrawler Cohort
Before a raid, the members of Wort's gang egg each other on with tales of their hunger and what they'll do to sate it, each outdoing the last.

If a hungry giant is a calamity in the making, hungry boggarts are a roving plague—and boggarts are always hungry. No matter how much or how many they eat, nothing can sate a boggart's ceaseless, gnawing hunger. A boggart in Shadowmoor is less likely to sneak over the fence and steal a pie from your windowsill than to steal you as you hide quaking beneath the covers of your bed and ferry you away for the stew-pot. Their hedonism is alive and well, but now finds expression not in indulging all the senses but only the senses of scent and taste, with the more carnage the better. Boggarts still have a storytelling tradition, but no longer does it have anything to do with whimsy, and no longer are the deeds of Auntie Grub remembered; now, boggarts boast of their latest conquests and the horrible things done to achieve them, or of the food surely waiting over the next hill to fill the gang's empty bellies.

Goblins are always one of the most entertaining races to write for in any Magic setting. They have a long tradition of simply being funnier than other races, and the boggarts gave us our best and broadest opportunity to inject some much-needed humor to lessen the grimdark quotient of the set. Though they can feel quite different, Shadowmoor's boggarts are not actually all that dissimilar from their Lorwyn counterparts; an unsavory association with swamps and death has merely given way to a different kind of unhealthy fixation, and their humor simply hangs out at the gallows just a little more. The boggarts provide one of two comforting anchors in Shadowmoor for long-time players of the game, because they are actually closer to their traditional portrayal here than they were in Lorwyn.

Points of Light

"An axe may break upon a ribbon if the ribbon's will is the stronger." —Awylla, elvish safewright

Elves, of course, provide the other anchor, snapping back to their more traditionally sympathetic role. This is not to say, though, that they are benevolent—very few things in Shadowmoor can claim to be that. Elves remain beautiful but dangerous, much like the sidhe of Irish tradition. They are still obsessed with beauty, and still seek to gather the most beautiful things in the world to themselves. This, however, is not because they in any way remember the sunlit world they ruled before, nor because they intend to keep the world's wonders as prizes for themselves. Instead, beautiful things are comforting to them, proof that the world is not so dark that it cannot potentially be made a brighter and better place, and so act as an inspiration to help the elves keep the faith in dark times. Who knows? If enough beautiful and wondrous things can be kept safe from the grasping darkness, maybe they will form a critical mass that can push back the night, or maybe someone will come to understand a common thread that ties these things together and so bring forth the beauty surely hiding in the rest of the world's inhabitants. Whether those beautiful objects and creatures actually want to be kept safe in a gilded cage is entirely irrelevant to the elves.

We didn't want to write the elves as stereotypical good guys out to save the day. Not only would that be a little clichéd—not to mention out of flavor with the rest of the setting—it would also be just too much of a jarring paradigm shift from their unique and flavorful interpretation in Lorwyn. What we did was to take the Lorwyn elves' obsession and run with it. The preoccupation of the elves of this world with beauty has been re-flavored, but it's still their central focus. No longer do they judge their fellows by appearance, nor do they hunt the unbeautiful for sport; that would be far too onerous a task in a world so blighted as Shadowmoor. Now elves take the role of the protectors and the shepherds, seeking to keep the spark of what is wonderful alive in the darkness.

We also played with the duality of the plant known in Lorwyn as moonglove and in Shadowmoor as dawnglove. In bright and vibrant Lorwyn, moonglove is a pallid source of death and pain, but in dark and blighted Shadowmoor, dawnglove is a brilliant manifestation of life's endurance. The dawnglow distilled from its sap is one of the most potent healing elixirs known to the multiverse, and when mixed with the blood of an elvish dawnhand who gives his or her life selflessly for the sake of others, its powers are amplified tenfold. Only Oona can say why these plants have ended up on the wrong sides of the Aurora, but it is good for the world of Shadowmoor that they have.

Flower Children

Biting Tether
A chain of lies as strong as steel.

Oona, however, is not likely to talk about the matter, and not even her faerie children are privy to the answer. They continue their short lives in much the same way they ever have, gathering dreams with which to pollinate their floral queen; unfortunately, these dreams are of late as often nightmares as not. Though the fae themselves have not changed, the way they are perceived by and interact with others certainly has. Once the kithkin viewed them as annoyances; now they are dangerous spies, to be warded off or neutralized. Once the boggarts would torment them playfully, and vice versa; now they prove too dangerous for most fae to tease, because a faerie is just the right size for a somewhat filling meal. No race likes them and no race trusts them, but the fae remain too self-absorbed to care.

The way we wrote the fae is almost entirely unchanged in Shadowmoor from how they were approached in Lorwyn. If the plane of Lorwyn and Shadowmoor is a coin with two sides, the fae live on the edge. Glen Elendra remains the same in both worlds—a valley of lush and dangerous beauty, concealed by illusion from above to discourage nosey fliers and guarded by countless fae below who would die for their mother in a heartbeat. We did, however, have to remember that the fae are no more immune to the memory-stripping power of the Aurora than anyone else. No fae is aware that her nightly harvest is more terrifying than it once was, nor thinks anything unusual of the contrast between her home and the rest of the world. It's simply the way things are and the way they have always been, and should Shadowmoor survive long enough to see the dawn yet again, it's unlikely the fae will even notice.

Tales Yet Untold

Splitting Headache
All faeries delve for dreams. But not all wait for their victims to fall asleep.

We surely have not seen the last of the duality this fascinating plane holds in store. So what stories do we have yet to see when Eventide comes upon the land? I couldn't tell you... not that I would spoil the surprise were it in my power to do so! I took that set off, and I'm looking forward to finally being allowed to go to a pre-release again and to discovering the tales writ within it along with all the rest of you.

What I can tell you is that Shadowmoor was a group effort—no one person could do justice to a setting so deep. Many creative minds took part in bringing these tales to you, and they're all worthy of recognition. The head chef helping us to get the flavor of this twisted lammastide banquet just right was, as before, the Doug Beyer you all know and presumably love. The rest of our team included Matt Cavotta, Nik Davidson, Kelly Digges, Christa Knott-Dufresne, Rei Nakazawa, Noah Weil, and myself. And of course, none of us could have done so much without the wonderful setting provided for us to play in by the rest of the in-house Creative team and by the artists named on the bottom of every card. The next time you open a pack of Shadowmoor and see a name or a piece of flavor text you like, feel free to send a little positive thinking our way.

But not too much. Big thoughts are juicy prizes for the fae, after all...

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