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  • Writer's pictureSamantha Cross

Archives in RPGs: Worlds Beyond Number

Author's Note: SPOILERS for The Wizard, the Witch, and the Wild One as well as supplemental materials pertaining to the Patreon Fireside Chats and exclusive episodes. Transcriptions provided by the tireless efforts of the fan community and the pages will be linked where relevant.

I think I've made it well known that I enjoy playing and/or overanalyzing Dungeons & Dragons, right? That's not news to regular readers because if it is then I've done a terrible job of letting you all form the barest of parasocial relationships with me.

That being said, my engagement with the game as it pertains to the many, many, many podcasts and live action actual plays that now exist and utilize the 5th Edition rules and mechanics is limited because, honestly, I don't have that kind of time anymore. For me, it's much easier to get in on the ground floor of a newly minted actual play then it is to stare at a massive backlog from a long-running campaign and wonder where to start just to get mostly caught up.

So consider this my formal pitch for why you should be listening to Worlds Beyond Number (WBN)! Not only is it relatively new with 24 public episodes available, but it's also created by some of the best role players, game masters, and producers in the business: Brennan Lee Mulligan, Aabria Iyengar, Erika Ishii, Lou Wilson, and Taylor Moore. The main campaign entitled The Wizard, the Witch, and the Wild One, is already a brilliant model of collaborative worldbuilding as we follow the adventures of Suvi (Iyengar), a wizard of the Citadel and arch-mage in-training, Ame (Ishii), the apprentice turned inheritor of the position of Witch of the World's Heart, and Eursulon (Wilson), a way-shadowed Spirit on a quest to gain knightly honor. The trio are inhabitants of the world of Umora, a realm inspired and influenced primarily by Studio Ghibli films where humans and the supernatural collide in ways that are both awe-inspiring and devastating. The players are, of course, guided and goaded by Mulligan as the GM with Moore providing the brilliant score and sound design.

From Left to Right: Brennan Lee Mulligan, Lou Wilson, Erika Ishii, and Aabria Iyengar

If you happen to be a member of the WBN Patreon, then you're also privy to the Fireside Chats where the cast answer questions about the most recently aired episodes. These peeks behind the scenes provide more context not just for character choices but also the ideas behind the look, feel, and functions of Umora as more aspects are revealed. And it's through a combination of backstage access and in-game context clues that the archival themes have emerged.

To be clear, a lot of what I'm about to talk about is speculative. With the conclusion of the second arc a traditional archives hasn't been introduced but there is plenty to glean from the worldbuilding that's already taken place. I do plan to update this article as the campaign continues, especially if a formal archival setting - hopefully with an archivist - is introduced. Though, technically, one already exists in the first interlude episode, "Twelve Brooks", but I'll get to that later. The best place to start, however, is with a foundational aspect of Umora and how it allows the wizard class to function.

The wizard class is better suited to accommodate archival themes, locations, and personnel than any of the other classes in D&D, no matter what other campaigns or guidelines might tell you. I’m looking at you, Unearthed Arcana Artificer Subclass Archivist! If becoming a wizard requires accumulating knowledge and applying that knowledge to spellcraft, hence inscribing the spell in the spell book, then the most likely place to acquire said knowledge would be an institution of higher learning. And with institutions of higher learning comes libraries and archives. The map draws itself, though no campaign or world is ever beholden to this formula. Your game is your game and if you want wizards to gain knowledge through osmosis or photosynthesis or some other word that ends in -is, then that’s your prerogative. That’s the beauty of roleplaying games, it’s all fantasy so have fun with it!

However, if one were to form some conclusions about a society that contains wizards, then a wizarding school is most likely to manifest. Who doesn’t love endangering children in a prison of whimsy and anxiety induced panic attacks over grades? If you’re not in at least a little peril by the time you hit puberty, are you really in a school of magic?

The Wizard, the Witch, and the Wild One, however, takes the worldbuilding of Umora a little further where the wizarding class is concerned. In a giant tower of glass surrounded by desert is the Citadel, the preeminent institution designed to train wizards in service of the Kehmsarazan Empire. This is where Suvi has been trained and indoctrinated to act as a representative/soldier of the magical arm of an imperial military. Though she’s never seen combat on the front lines when we first meet her, Suvi’s whole world has been centered around the application of magic as a means of bolstering the imperial agenda. And where there’s an empire, there’s absolutely record-keeping practices because Bureaucracy! You don’t get an empire using hopes and rainbows, my friend! Nope, you need handwritten records that leave a paper trail, literally, of corruption, malfeasance, and all manner of shady shit that comes to light at a dramatically significant moment in the story.

Tying the wizard class to an imperial regime makes sense mechanically and narratively when one considers the fact that, as far as we know, Umora is only occupied by humans and Spirits. There’s absolutely a lot of leeway when it comes to determining what constitutes a Spirit, but just know that even though the cast is playing D&D the likelihood of them coming across an orc or a tiefling is slim. With that dichotomy in place, we see not only the Studio Ghibli inspired themes of industrialization and humanity vs the natural/magical world but also the historical allegory baked into the actions of wizards towards Spirits.

The entire crux of the wizard class, what separates them from other spellcasters is the fact that their magic is a result of study and application. Magic is not an innate quality to wizards, it’s something that is learned, something that requires discipline to assert control over what is essentially a force of nature. To be a wizard in Umora means that you’ve defied nature; conquered it to some extent. So, it’s not hard to see how a superiority complex might develop when wizards encounter spirits or any other beings, such as witches, capable of wielding magic without the aid of a spellbook.

Like any regime dealing with an indigenous population and exploiting their resources to extend their power, the justification is solidly based in ego and jealousy: I had to work harder to create magic. They don’t know or understand the potential of magic because they’ve never struggled to use it. Just because it’s called a “Great Spirit” doesn’t mean I can’t bring it low. These spirits need to be contained/imprisoned to protect the realm and if we happen to siphon off some of their magic to aid our cause, harming them in the process, then the ends justify the means. We see this clearly demonstrated in the Citadel’s Kasov Collection and its curator, Pomeroy.

Official Arc One Art of Suvi, Ame, and Eursulon by Artist Lorena Lammer

To backtrack a little bit, the second arc of The Wizard, the Witch, and the Wild One, episodes 15 to 23, is a mix of character downtime and story progression with our titular trio experiencing life in the Citadel. Yes, there are brilliant displays of magical engineering and wonderment but the underlying menace of a military stronghold that constantly stands at the precipice of war makes itself known early in the arc. It’s easy to forget that the characters are in their early 20s and while each bears a significant amount of responsibility to their respective stations in life, giving them time to be young adults and, quite honestly, the space to breathe, becomes part of the emotional collateral damage experienced by the players and the audience when it all collapses under a plot and character-driven ticking clock.

But before the Parting of Ways occurs, Suvi, Ame, and Eursulon run errands and meet up with some old "friends" of Grandmother Wren - Ame's recently deceased mentor and the witch who sheltered the trio during one formative summer when they were children. See "The Children's Adventure" on Patreon for more on that. The long and short of it is Ame has been removed of a curse that wiped her memory of everything Grandmother Wren taught her leading up to the beginning of the campaign. Those memories now recovered, she tries to reestablish ties with Wren's trusted friends and capricious allies. One of those allies being Pomeroy, a Spirit working, according to the wiki, as curator and administrator of the Kasov Collection.

Interestingly, Pomeroy canonically refers to himself as a docent when he meets the trio. Prior to encountering him, however, Grandmother Wren's instructions to Ame in her recovered memories never mention Pomeroy's occupation, only that he works within one of the Citadel's many libraries. There are definitely contradicting pieces of information. The Kasov Collection isn't a library by any stretch of the imagination and given that Pomeroy seems to be the only employee on the premises, calling himself a docent is only half true, though one can assume the lie of omission is intentional. The disparity between canon and fanon - fan-assigned canon that isn't official - in this case is minimal but it's worth noting how little time it takes for the fan community to supplement information on characters who've had, at most, 30 minutes of "screen time". Whether or not Pomeroy will appear in future episodes remains to be seen, but until Mulligan and company tell me otherwise, Pomeroy is every art gallery's job board wrapped up in one creepy package. Including the archival positions!

The Collection itself is located on Xiao Court in the Gossamer Plaza where the primary magical focus is the School of Conjuration. As described by Mulligan in Episode 19, "Kith and Kin":

...there is an enormous building, that is almost like adobe. It looks like sort of a like, adobe place with like, a flat roof. It's white stucco kind of—it's like white adobe, creamy white adobe walls, but with enormous red murals of paint, in like, these very splashy arcane glyphs and runes that are circular, but made of lines of curving text, on a very square building. So the murals almost don't seem to fit to the specifications of the building, almost like they continue off the building, into space unseen.

When the trio enter, Mulligan goes on to describe the interior:

You walk in and immediately the quality of light changes, from the kind of bright red and white clay, and multicolored, like multicolored strings of flags hanging in the breeze and all the butterflies in the fountain, and you walk into a very cool, deep blue place—it almost has the feeling of walking into an aquarium. It has like a [rippling noise] And there are kind of ripples of underwater light as you walk in—with columns of more neutral, still very soft white light, on single panes of walls. This space is actually quite open, there are not rooms in here, but there are these sections of wall that are only about eight to nine feet wide, and that are freestanding.
So you almost can think of it like an art gallery, where instead of long sections of wall that would create rooms, the entire floor of this massive building just has little panels of wall that come down, just holding single portraits.

The description continues to emphasize how there is a feeling that one could get lost among the paintings. The building is part labyrinth, part rabbit warren, a place not easily navigated if you don't understand the layout or the design behind it. The paintings themselves are on ancient parchment but stylistically resemble medieval and Renaissance portraiture, landscapes, and tapestries. What truly connects the paintings is the subject matter, captured Spirits.

In a special Fireside Chat dedicated solely to worldbuilding, one of the last questions asked of Mulligan concerns the inspiration behind the Kasov Collection. Brennan's response:

The inspiration for the Kasov Collection is the menagerie from The Last Unicorn combined with my discomfort being in galleries.
[Exclamations from the rest of the cast.]
It's not complicated. I am uncomfortable in places that are considered "fine" or "high". Places that are fancy and of refinement make me a little on edge.

I sincerely wish they'd spent more time not only on the inspirations but also unpacking the discomfort expressed by Mulligan out of game that was paralleled by Ame in-game. Based on the description of the Kasov Collection, Brennan appears to be showing discomfort for the modern layout of art galleries in the "white cube" style that developed alongside abstract expressionism and minimalism in the 20th Century. As described by Natasha Ntone, the white cube aesthetic features walls that are "clean, flat white. The room is bright and evenly lit. Wall text—if any—is functional. The white cube provides a neutral environment that puts the spotlight on the art. Instead of congregating numerous artworks close together, each work is isolated and given its proper moment."

It's important when examining art, no matter the medium, to discern meaning from its presentation. Galleries might say that the minimalist aesthetic calls attention to the painting, but the isolated works paired with a stark, almost clinical environment creates a sense of unease. Art galleries are also a business and by referring to art as "fine" or "high" an image of exclusivity is crafted that attracts a certain "type" of patron. They want you to feel uncomfortable because you don't belong. This isn't for you. The artificiality of an art gallery is always on full display.

It's the same with the Kasov Collection. Each painting containing a captured Spirit is displayed in isolation on its own wall. The lighting is meant to evoke the meditative nature of rippling water. The colors are neutral and soft. All of this is a lie to hide the sinister workings of the Collection and its curator. It's meant to mollify any wizards and outsiders who might enter the building, giving them ample space to justify and rationalize the horrific practices hiding in plain sight. And while Brennan compares the building's layout to a labyrinth and a warren, he cleverly leaves out what it more aptly resembles, a spider's web.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It isn't until Pomeroy arrives on the scene that the pieces are put together, though the trio are well on their way to getting there. While the first mention of Pomeroy was in Episode 15, "Hold on Tight," we get our first description of him in "Kith and Kin" as giving the appearance of an old man with a drooping mustache, bright green eyes, a monocle, fine clothing, and some form of albinism. Once again, it's all about the presentation. Pomeroy appears unassuming. An elderly man working in a gallery, how harmful could he be even if there is something off-putting about him?

The first words he says to the trio are:

Many of the pieces require a certain degree of explanation. For reasons of safety, the definitions, descriptions, accreditations, of the various pieces are kept aside from the portraits themselves. However, I would be happy to serve as your guide.

So, upon meeting Pomeroy, the first thing he mentions is that the provenance of the paintings are not displayed but kept secret. As a side note: this is one of the many revelations about the Collection and Pomeroy that made me want to write an article about The Wizard, the Witch, and the Wild One. The other reason was the continuation of Brennan's criticism of institutions through the medium of actual plays. Don't believe me? Check out the Cubby family from Fantasy High and the JJ Jacobs from The Unsleeping City Chapter II.

But back to the point! Provenance is one of the core tenants of the archival profession. It is the means by which archivists establish the history of an object or a collection of materials by way of its creation and record of ownership, which maintains the authenticity of said materials as part of the historical record. And it is very difficult to research.

In the last few years, as the conversation around repatriation of materials obtained by or donated to galleries, libraries, archives, and museums without the consent of the original owners - namely human remains, works stolen by conquering nations, or questionable donations from antiquities dealers - Pomeroy's words reminded me that the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) in New York only recently, in the year of our Spaghetti Monster 2024, hired its first Head of Provenance Research, Lucian Simmons. This was in response to the Manhattan DA's office seizure of dozens of looted artifacts totaling in the tens of millions back in 2022. As a reminder, the Met was established as an entity in 1870 and officially opened in 1872. So that's 154 years without a formal department dedicated to establishing the provenance of art and artifacts.

To be clear, the Met does have provenance researchers dedicated to specific departments, it's just never had an overhead department concerned with provenance as it pertains to the museum's accumulated holdings.

While the Kasov Collection doesn't have a real world equivalent, the intent behind it is reminiscent of institutions like the Met, the British Museum, and the Louvre that have profited off of conquest and colonialism. What's on display is only a fraction of what they house, but the means by which any of their artifacts and artwork were acquired stays behind closed doors. Or, if they're the British Museum, they simply display their spoils and absolve themselves of repatriation via bureaucratic nonsense. The Kasov Collection isn't really the paintings, though, it's the subjects of the paintings, the Spirits bound and captured for purposes that are kept secret even from Suvi who is on track to be the next Archmage of the Citadel. Coincidentally, the current Archmage is named Silence, so if that doesn't raise all the red flags then you haven't been paying attention.

Pomeroy as a character could be interpreted as a stand-in for real-world professionals in the above mentioned institutions. He's a walking stereotype of the image most media has of archivist, presenting himself as an arrogant, elderly, white man, which is really all it takes at this point because nuance is dead. But I'm fascinated by his Spirit form and how it can be interpreted in an archival setting. Absent his glamour, Pomeroy is a spider-like Spirit.

When Eursulon notices his shadow, it looms large, as if it's too big for the human form it follows. When the trio speak with Pomeroy about the nature of his arrangement with the Citadel in episode 20, "Later Than You Think," there is a clear spider-web pattern surrounding him. We also learn that Pomeroy's talents were employed after a wizard freed a number of Spirits two decades prior - one of who was Eursulon's sister, Kalaya. He was specifically placed in charge of the Collection to ensure that the escaped Spirits were recaptured and no such escapes would occur ever again. And he likes it. When Ame asks if he's happy, he responds:

In a thousand years of waiting in the darkest, dankest places of the world of Spirits, I could have never hoped to have caught this many feasts within my web. And though I am not given to feed upon them here, the pride I feel sustains me more than blood ever did. To the humans of this tower will I be forever loyal. I am not BOUND here. I serve here, gladly, of my own free will, and know a pride brighter than the sun.

Now, do I think Brennan Lee Mulligan is equating professionals in archives, museums, etc with monstrous spiders fully on board with imprisoning and devouring their own? No...but he is making a point that empires can easily enter into mutually beneficial arrangements with members of the indigenous community where they willingly act against the interests of their community. There have certainly been people in my profession who've compartmentalized their work as an archivist vs their feelings about materials acquired, used, or conveniently forgotten by the institution. Some might not have thought that deeply about it, to be perfectly honest.

Pomeroy's spidery nature is more about the imagery it evokes of webs and capture and that deep seated fear people have of anything with more than four legs that skitters around and makes you want to burn your whole house down and salt the earth because you smacked the thing, it fell, but you can't find the body. I think Pomeroy is meant to be a reflection of the control and entitlement the Citadel, and the wizards trained therein, feel towards Spirits. Suvi, unlike Ame and Eursulon, doesn't look at the Collection as abhorrent when presented with its truth. She accepts it and finds a way to rationalize its purpose, its usefulness, even if innocent Spirits are caught in the web. Why confront your own culpability in the cruelties enacted on marginalized groups when war is always on the horizon?

On a lighter note, we get our first officially titled archivist in the interlude episode, "Twelve Brooks". It's a lovely pastoral tableau outside of the main campaign that allows the cast to actively participate in Umora's worldbuilding.

The Great Bullfrog by Britt Anderson

Centered around the town of Twelve Brooks, on the day of the Midsummer Revel in honor of the Great Bullfrog, there is an audition held to find a performer to embody the Great Spirit. One of the judges is...Clunice? Cloonice? Clunyse? Sorry, I couldn't find a transcript for this one and all I kept thinking about was George Clooney's niece as a way of explaining the way it was pronounced in the episode. Let's go with Clunice for the sake of my sanity.

Anyway, Clunice (played by Mulligan) is an archivist, an elderly, matronly woman who also has a bit of sass and is quick to end a conversation with efficiency. Prior to her introduction, the creation of Twelve Brooks by the cast took a turn for the scholarly as the bubbling brooks, cascading waterfalls, and general moisture-laden atmosphere contrasted with the town's library and the valiant efforts of the librarians to preserve their most precious, and vulnerable, materials.

At the very least, I'm happy that Brennan addressed the fact that heavy moisture isn't good for parchment and paper. Mold and rot are always one power outage away from wreaking havoc in libraries and archives who don't invest in proper temperature and humidity control. Not many people would've mentioned that, so, good on ya, Brennan!

With this information in mind, I think the implication is that Clunice operates as the Head Archivist out of the library. Twelve Brooks isn't necessarily a university town, but there is some mention that scholars visit regularly enough due to the historical significance of the castle ruins above the town and the revel itself. So there's definitely a need for librarians and archivists. The only mention we get of an archives is near the end of episode as the small-town heroes travel towards its location in the castle, which probably means the archives is a dilapidated room of moldy scrolls. We never get a clear description because the episode ends before the characters reach their destination.

I do have some questions about the combination of archives and libraries in Twelve Brooks. Is the archives in the castle ruins called an archives because Brennan didn't want to use the word library again? Was it meant to evoke ancient knowledge while the library is focused in the present? Is there an archives in the library? Does Clunice serve as Head of the entire library or does she share leadership with a Head Librarian?

Don't get me wrong, I love the episode and I absolutely love that Clunice is a respected and valued member of the community. I'm just curious about word choice and whether it comes from a place of misunderstanding or if I'm probably reading too much into an improvised D&D session, aren't I?

Wouldn't be the first time. Won't be the last. So long as they keep dropping hints at the existence of an archives, count on me to be there to overanalyze it into the ground!

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