Memory Tears

by Chris Willrich

Thanks to Steve Barr, Dave Blewer, David Eber, Troy Duffy, and Douglas P. Wojtowicz for ideas. Dedicated to Jack Donavan, just because.

Memory tears are strange crystal growths that occur in remote corners of the Netherworld. Their sizes can range from those of pebbles to large boulders, and their shapes can vary from rough spheres to rods to tree-like branching filaments. They can appear smoky, or polished, dark, or transparent. (Some of the earliest known examples resembled crystal teardrops, which influenced the name.) What they all share is a dim prismatic luminescence, as if the memory tear were tumbling through daylit air and flashing reflections everywhere, even though the tear itself may sit motionless in a dark room.

An observer looking closely at a memory tear becomes more and more entranced by the flickering prismatic light, and soon has visions. Scenes of earthly life will appear, moving rapidly from place to place and era to era. If the observer continues to stare into the gem, the scene changes will slow and begin to center on the locations and times that are (or _ought_ to be) most familiar to the observer... At this point it usually becomes clear that the visions are not of earth as it is, but earth as it was prior to a critical shift. The viewer may witness her home province of Guangdong in a timeline where the descendants of Kublai Khan still rule, or high-tech Incas dominate the globe, or sentient dinosaurs smoke cigarettes over games of Mah-Jongg.

Memory tears are vanishingly rare, but the sages of the Ice Pagoda have managed to study a few, and offer some tentative conclusions. They suspect that every time a critical shift occurs, a sort of "chi afterimage" of the lost timeline flickers through the substance of the Netherworld.  Mysterious currents within the Netherworld's substance eventually churn the afterimage into a small, compact state, which takes physical form as a memory tear. The tear contains no lost souls, no sentience of its own, but it does hold a weak reflection of a whole timeline of the earth. The centuries closest to the critical shift are reflected most clearly, but very remote eras of the past and future can also be glimpsed. However, the images are very difficult to control. A viewer will tend to see the times and places that are -- or would have been in their own timeline -- most familiar. (A rule of thumb is that viewers may make an open roll on the best of their Mind, Will, Chi, or Magic stats against a Difficulty of 10 to try to focus on a time, place, or element familiar to them. Searches for something unfamiliar might range from a Difficulty of 11 to 15. Viewers who hail from the lost timeline reflected in the memory tear, however, should get a +3 bonus.)

If the sages' theory is true, there should be one memory tear for every critical shift since the secret war began. The Queen of the Ice Pagoda has ordered her agents to follow up on every rumor of such crystals, but quietly, for she believes they may be quite dangerous in the wrong hands. The potential for researching the course of the secret war is powerful enough, but there is a more dramatic possibility. If a memory tear were shattered in the same general place and time period that spawned its associated critical shift, then a powerful wave of change might result. The earth's chi would try to "reset" to the timeline reflected in the memory tear. This result would be most likely if a native of the lost timeline were present when the sphere was shattered, to mentally guide the timeline's "birth." The recreation of the lost timeline would not be perfect, but it would be much more complete than would be possible otherwise.

For most memory tears, this potential is lost, since the necessary junctures are now closed. But for others the threat -- or promise -- is quite real, and one can never be sure when a juncture might reopen. For these reasons the Ice Queen wants as many of the crystals in her hands as possible, particularly the one (as yet unfound) that holds the reflection of the world she and her siblings ruled.

Uses for Memory Tears

Memory tears can become plot hooks in several ways. A memory tear can be the McGuffin of an adventure -- like the Maltese Falcon or the Ark of the Covenant, it's the thing everyone is scrambling to get their hands on. Various factions might want a tear to study it, to research their enemies, or to reverse a defeat. A nasty villain might want to ressurect the earth where he ruled with an iron fist. A tragic villain might merely want to restore the world where her loved ones existed, no matter how many eggs get broken in the process. (For maximum melodrama, make the tragic villain a former ally.)

A memory tear of the current timeline, or any timeline the GM prefers, can be an excuse to revive an old setting after a series of critical shifts warps the game world beyond recognition. You can go home again.

Or can you? The "restored" timeline will have some flaws, maybe slight, maybe severe. Will laterally reincarnated souls regain their old memories, or will they seem like strange distortions of their "original" selves? There are opportunities for much hand-wringing and soap opera. On a larger scale, the new timeline might be especially fragile -- it was, after all, on the verge of a critical shift. Before long, a new and unexpected shift might arise, leading to more complications.

A word of caution. If memory tears become common in the campaign they will tend to overshadow everything else, including the struggle for feng shui sites. These are exactly the sort of thing that groups of player characters go out of their way to find. They should be extremely rare, unless of course you want to change the focus of your game. Alternatively, you could make their use extremely difficult, requiring a classic big, interruptable, ceremony to restore a timeline. Or perhaps their use requires extensive meditation and research; after all, outside the Guiding Hand, secret warriors aren't much known for their patience.

Some permutations

Tear quests. Somewhere in the Netherworld there might be people adept at locating memory tears, or guessing where they will form -- even where a _particular_ timeline's tear will form. A good candidate for such a character is Magellan, located at David Eber's Fortress of Shadow. Others might be Dapper Zhan and the Mysterious Stranger from Back for Seconds (an out-of-print NPC collection from Feng Shui's original publisher, Daedalus.) Such people might even be able to influence the growth of the memory tear; see Imprint, below. (Steve Barr notes that the movie The Bride With White Hair 2 has a similar plot concept involving finding a particular flower.)

Small tears. In addition to memory tears formed by critical shifts, there might be crystals generated by superficial shifts. These might record a world different from ours only in the particulars of a few characters' lives. The crystals would be priceless to a few people, such as the comrades of a fallen secret warrior (like the illustrious Jack Donavan, for example) who hope to somehow restore their lost comrade. But will the reflected character ever be the same? "Small tears" should probably be much more fragile and/or difficult to use than tears based on critical shifts, otherwise the proliferation of these items will be endless, especially since after enough critical shifts a "small tear" will record a world radically different from the current one, and so be indistinguishable from a standard memory tear.

Dream travel. A party gazing deep into a memory tear might dream themselves into the reflected world. Maybe they're looking for clues to a lager puzzle, or maybe they just want to escape. This is a way of playing around with a change of pace setting without opening up a new juncture.

The collector. Suppose some lone Netherworld operator is collecting memory tears -- not to use them, but to admire them. The collector cherishes these frozen timelines as an art collector would. From his perspective the secret war is a _good_ thing, because it puts more crystals in his hands. He would hate to see the war end... and after many years of studying the tears, he may know all the angles, becoming an unseen force that prevents any faction from gaining complete control.

Imprints. What if the Ice Queen -- or the Prof, or Quan Lo -- finds a way to alter the patterns within a memory tear? Instead of restoring an old timeline, the tear might spawn a new one, without all the muss and fuss of changing history the old fashioned way. The PCs might have to oppose sheer megalomania... or ask themselves how far they'll go to impose their own vision on the world.

Endgame. Someone finds the _first_ memory tear -- a reflection of the world before the secret war began. Within it lies the possibility of a world without Netherworld gateways, and an end to the struggle. And everyone, everyone wants it.

Twist 1: After all the fuss, the first tear shatters before it gets used, leaving the player characters with the message that the world, in the end, is in their own hands.

Twist 2: The tear is used, but the results are flawed: the player characters find themselves with no resources but their memories, and they've got a week to prepare for the outbreak of the secret war...)

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