Terra Incognita

This article originally appeared in Pyramid #8

by Derek Pearcy

Recently, a new phenomena has appeared in the United States, growing like kudzu across the continent. While the U-Store-It unit is ubiquitous to American culture, it is not a particularly new idea; rental storage has been around as a concept for as long as humans have had things to store. Its modern uniqueness lies in the legal nature of our culture, the high-security available at these places, the climate control and, of course, the cheap rates. It has become a great industry, occupying tens of thousands of square feet in even the smallest suburbs, packed with who-knows-what strange material -- and there the adventure lies.

Everything from automatic weapon caches to high-powered explosives to dead bodies have been found in self-storage units. With advertising claims of privacy and climate control, people from all walks of life have been taking advantage of the offer, and rental-unit owners all too frequently turn a blind eye. In reality, most of the people who have been caught utilizing storage units to hide evidence of their crimes were snagged not through the diligence of the local police force but because, for one reason or another, someone else was forced to open their unit.


All of the stories that have surfaced concerning strangeness at a U-Store-It have two things in common. One, the unit in question has been leased for years, either in advance or through automatic monthly withdrawals from a savings account. Two, no one has ever come around to check it in all that time. Once these two criteria are met, setting the mysterious scenery in place, all that remains is to find an easy way to introduce the players to the scenario. But first, what's in it?

In the millions of square feet that comprise America's self-storage industry, who knows what could be sitting in a locked garage, in a dark and climate-controlled atmosphere? Could it be anything?

Well, just about anything. The key, even with such potentially endless scenario seeds like this, is in making it seem unique and plausible to the players. You don't want them trotting back over to their local U-Store-It when they're low on ammo, or need a new magic item -- or whatever. Introduce it to the characters in a special fashion, under conditions that hardly seem easy to duplicate, even to the most greedy players.

Luckily, there is always a third element to a self-storage story, one which describes how it was "found out," and it is here that the characters come into play. Suddenly the payments stop, and after months of trying to get ahold of the original owners, the unit is put up on the auction block. Or a character inherits a storage unit from an uncle. Or maybe the PCs have their own storage unit, one that they've stopped payments on in a fit of poverty, and while covertly trying to get their stuff back from an unsympathetic landlord, they accidentally break into the wrong unit . . .

For GMs, there's a lot of potential here.


The garage-like metal face of most storage units is as blank as an unopened box, with the same implied measure of promise. Two genres in particular lend themselves to the darkness of storage.

The Thing Someone Left in Storage is a great horror plot, seen most recently in the Oscar award-winning Silence of the Lambs. Young FBI agent Clarice Starling probed the diabolical Dr. Lector's self-storage unit (at night in the rain, of course) and found a transvestite's head, preserved in a large jar.

As mentioned earlier, people in real-life have also seen self-storage units as ways to hide the evidence of their crimes. One man successfully hid the bodies of his first wife and his son for over a decade until his new wife stopped payment on the unit, thinking it merely held old furniture and knick-knacks.

This is nothing compared to what the average horror GM comes up with on a daily basis. If the villagers burned Frankenstein's lab in modern times, where would he hide his equipment while waiting for everything to blow over?

And you thought U-Store-Its were popular today, visit the dark cyberpunk future. In the most lightly futuristic cyberpunk world there must be miles upon miles in each city, dedicated to the perfect preservation of people's junk . . . and who knows what else? With recent government cutbacks, and their tendency to accept the lowest bid, who do you think's going to get the job when the feds finally close Hanger 18, but don't want to throw away decades of ill-gotten booty?

In a cyber-future, GMs can populate self-storage units with almost anything, including UFO wreckage, classified microfiche (it has to go somewhere!), scrapped bio-engineering projects, radioactive waste -- even the ark of the covenant!

A recent cyberpunk book, Snow Crash, even has its protagonist living out of a storage unit. Nethackers only need a room with AC and a three-prong plug. Just don't set your beer on the ark, you don't know what might happen.

Article publication date: August 1, 1994

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