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Tabletop Game / Summerland

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A role-playing game of desolation and redemption within the Sea of Leaves.

Summerland is a 2009 tabletop role-playing game designed by Greg Saunders, centering on themes of isolation and alienation.

In a time not too distant from our own, a strange cataclysm occurred, called the Event, where a vast primeval forest — the Sea of Leaves — seemingly just sprang into being, destructively overlaying itself over human civilization. While many died as buildings collapsed around them and more were lost to hunger and sickness in the wake of the disaster, the greatest danger was much more unusual. The new forest exerted a kind of psychic Call, urging humans to come under its eaves and lose themselves in its depths, until eventually their memories fade and they become little more than animals. Within a few years of the Event, most of humanity was lost to the Call.

Only two things can drown out the Call. One is community, forcing surviving humans to band together in whatever protected spaces they could find so that the force of their shared lives and bonds can dampen out the Call. However, this protection doesn't go far, and while survivors can wander into the woods by day with little to fear from the Call they must return before night falls and the Call grows much stronger. The other is severe mental disturbances, typically ones induced by trauma, which allow their bearers some measure of individual protections. These people, the drifters, are some of the few able to spend more than a single day outside of a settlement, and are consequently invaluable in helping other survivors communicate, explore and retrieve valuable goods or information, even as their mindsets make them scorned and unable to fit into society themselves.

That's you, by the way.

Even as humanity slowly dwindles, however, the forest's animals become stranger and more cunning, wanderers tell tales of spirits and frightening apparitions, and strange things stir beneath the canopy of the Sea of Leaves...

Not to be confused with the young adult novel of the same name.

This work provides examples of the following tropes:

  • After the End: The game is set after a cataclysm referred to as the Event, where a global forest suddenly came into existence, destructively overlaying itself over everything already in existence. On an immediate scale, the Event destroyed buildings, roads and other structures as giant trees suddenly grew through them, killing many in the collapse, while wild animals and the forest's psychic Call killed off most survivors or drove them insane. By the game's time, a few years after the Event, nothing remains of civilization but overgrown ruins and scattered bands of survivors.
  • Blessed with Suck: Drifters are unique among surviving humans for their resistance to the forest's psychic Call, allowing them to venture past minuscule enclaves and to travel between settlements. However, this resistance ultimately comes from severe psychological trauma or illnesses, and drifters are uniformly deeply unhappy and lonely individuals.
  • Creepy Crows: Sometimes, when travelers are out in the deep woods, the forest suddenly grows deathly quiet and a huge flock of rooks comes down from the sky, covering the trees in a mass of black feathers. They watch the traveler in silence for a while, and then act — and what it is that they actually do varies wildly from occasion to occasion. Then they leave.
  • Disaster Scavengers: As a result of the relative recentness of the Event and the impossibility of large-scale production in its aftermath, survivors tend to rely on scavenging through the ruins of civilization for most of the goods they need, such as canned food, tools, survival gear and weapons.
  • Dysfunction Junction: The game is this by design — drifters, the default player characters, are able to resist the compulsion to head into the Sea of Leaves and degenerate into human animals due to having deep-seated psychological issues, such as profound trauma or mental illness, that drown out the forest's psychic Call. Combined with the fact that even settled survivors have been left deeply affected by the end of civilization, their isolation from other communities and the trials of life after the end of the world, and very few people or groups in the setting can be described as functional in any meaningful sense.
  • Enchanted Forest: This is a central motif — the world has become covered by a supernatural forest called the Sea of Leaves, which exerts a constant psychic call that draws people into its depths and causes them to gradually forget that they were ever human. The Sea is dark and tangled, its floor covered in thick undergrowth, and inhabited by unnaturally intelligent beasts, spirits, and the feral descendants of the people lost to the Call, and human communities are few and far between. The default setting assumes the Sea to look like an archetypal deciduous version of this, dominated by massive, gnarled broadleaf trees and occasional stands of evergreens that cast perpetual gloom over dense tangles of undergrowth, but the book notes that other kinds of forests may be substituted for games set in other parts of the world, as may more alien wildernesses.
  • Intellectual Animal: While the Call ultimately degrades human intellect into an animalistic state, it seems to have the opposite effect on non-human animals, and many of the Sea of Leaves' wildlife is becoming noticeably cunning and aware. Many have developed the ability to use complex tools, plan for the future or even speak, but their motivations and thought processes are usually profoundly alien and difficult to predict or understand.
  • Living Shadow: Some drifters report seeing moving shadows within the Deeps of the forest, which flit from trunk to trunk, moving away from the heartwoods, and occasionally strick to a traveler and seep into their skin.
  • Nice Day, Deadly Night: Daytime isn't especially safe in itself, but the Call becomes relatively muted during daylight hours and it's possible for people to leave their settlements to hunt, forage and explore. During the night, however, the Call becomes much stronger and impossible for non-Drifters to ignore, forcing survivors to retreat into their settlements to endure it; consequently, the maximum distance people can travel from their homes is a half day's worth of travel — just far enough to be able to make it home before sundown. Nighttime is also when the denizens of the Sea of Leaves, such as the Wild and altered animals, become especially active and more likely to attack Drifters and settlements.
  • Our Spirits Are Different: Drifters who travel through the deeper parts of the woods occasionally claim to have seen spirits and apparitions, which can range from living shadows to whispering trees to golden stags leaping through the woods. Not everybody believes these claims, but among those who do there's a great deal of worry about what these signify.
  • Points of Light Setting: In the wake of the Event, human civilization exists as scattered clusters of villages and survivor holdouts in the depths of the global forest. The Call will claim most humans outside of a settlement once night falls, and individual settlements are divided by long stretches of forest and ruins home to feral humans, dangerous beasts and alien spirits. The few people immune to the Call are the only ones capable of making the dangerous treks between towns and into the old world's ruins, and despite serving as the only reliable means of communication and exploration are often viewed with distrust and wariness by the rest of the survivors of civilization.
  • Scavenger World: As the game is set fairly shortly after the Event and mostly around the ruins of towns and cities, most characters rely heavily on scavenging through the ruins for food and useful items — abandoned supermarkets are a major source of food, and the discovery of a cache of weapons or gear in a store or bunker can attract drifter bands and settled interests from miles around.
  • Single-Biome Planet: As far as anyone can tell, the Earth has become completely covered by an immense deciduous forest. A few lakes are present here and there and some drifters claim that bare mountains can be seen in the distance if you climb on the higher trees, but other than that there is no evidence that anything exists on Earth but unbroken primeval forest.
  • Treetop Town: One of the settlements, Treetops, was built as a series of treehouses high in the forest canopy after the Event. The locals use their height as protection against forest beasts.
  • Urban Ruins: The game is largely assumed to take place in or close by the ruins of pre-Event towns, cities and suburbs. Consequently, the ruins of civilization are a major feature within the Sea of Leaves. Most have been severely damaged by burgeoning trees and often heavily covered by plant growth and leaf litter, but the remnants of walls, roads and entire buildings are common sights, the tunnels of former subways and sewers are important travel routes, and several survivor communities exist within the hulks of more intact buildings.