Paper and Dice

Gaming from an author's point of view, and fiction from a gamer's point of view.

Adventure Seed

Thursday, May 21, 2009 - 9:24 AM

Some additional information for my players, on a person who has been in the background for a long time...

The Nakibs of Jundo Anha serve two primary purposes. They are wise women and men who offer counsel and a sharp eye to the rulers of their people. They are also mystics who study and watch over the swamp-riddled verdant land, and gather threads of power from the earth. Nakibs (or Nakibas) do consider themselves custodians and wardens of the natural world, but there is nothing rustic about them. They are as clinical as they are reverent about increasing their understanding of the world, often cultivating libraries as well as greenhouses, and carefully studying the interlaced balance of animal and plant.

Most Nakibs begin as scholars, members of the aristocracy, and as they advance in understanding and skill, they are usually assigned regions of land to watch over. Most find some individual facet of nature to focus on, and they often share information with one another.
A handful of Nakibs have achieved extraordinary skill in their craft, and gather no little fame. Many of these Nakibs still attend the plutocratic court of Jundo Anha, but a few have wandered far from home to study and understand other parts of the world.

Nakiba Hafsah al'Kabir was one of these. Daughter of a merchant who traded in art, rare flowers and books, Hafsah had access to a high level of education and sophistication. Her family did not have a Nakib, but her father did keep a greenhouse, and she showed an aptitude for horticulture early on. Originally, her father had hoped she would become a Hakima, a truth-sayer and magician, but Hafsah lacked the subtle wit and unrelenting self-awareness for that lofty position. However, her exhaustive knowledge of local plants and animals attracted the attention of another Nakib, who appealed to her father to allow her the Seven Tests of Empathy. Hafsah passed them easily, showing the proper sensitivity, perception and insight to weave the threads of a Nakiba.

After her induction, she rose quickly in skill, and was named Nakiba within a year's time. Her apprenticeship to a Nakib was cut short with the sudden death of her father, who died in a shipwreck while en route to the port of New Ombos. Being eldest in the family, Hafsah had to make decisions about the family business. Wealth is extremely important for status in Jundo Anha, and Hafsah preferred to maintain high standing above and beyond the quiet recognition as Nakiba. She spent a few years acquainting herself fully with all the trade routes her father used, branching out the business and doing some exploration of her own. After securing and refining her family business, Hafsah returned to Jundo Anha and resumed her studies as a Nakiba.
Her social status and considerable talent won her the plot of Andira Laa, a particularly humid pit of old swamp, which Hafsah spent a couple of years overseeing. The richness of life in such a fertile but hostile environment was fascinating to her, and she experimented heavily with alchemy using processes and materials from Andira Laa. Some of her experiments won considerable accord from her Nakib peers, but Hafsah would be known for transplanting flowers from other places.

Specifically, during her travels Hafsah had been exposed to the rare and peculiar flora of the Shemshir basin. Flowers and plants grow there which will not grow anywhere else, due to some elusive quality of the earth or the weird sorcery of the Par'hu who live there. Hafsah became aware of plants there which could revive the recently dead, allow sight into the future, and create other wonders. She experimented with crossbreeding and grafting in the Andira Laa, seeing if these plants could fit into ecosystem there, but only had limited success.

The bizarre and potent drugs from Shemshir also caught Hafsah's attention, and she began to make use of some of them recreationally. But she also found one in particular which increased her sensitivity and awareness to the plants she was working with. She could hear their growth like a form of soft music. This subtle level of perception allowed her to make leaps and bounds of progress in mystical horticulture, and by the time she started to study what little was known about Par'hu garden sorcery, the other Nakibs came to her with concerns about her extensive use of Shemshir drugs. They were grudgingly surprised by what she'd done with the Andira Laa, but also pointed out that she'd broken several rules about transplanting species.

Choosing to withdraw honorably, Hafsah publicly apologized for her failings, gathered up her merchant business, and relocated to Korai, where lack of strictures on imports and exports caused her wealth to increase. She began to heavily invest in the small but potent market for Shemshir plants and products, and quickly became known as a seller for them. Her experimentation continued, and eventually she became fascinated with the ability of certain Shemshir plants to overcome or transform the effects of death, as well as those which behaved more like animals.

Eventually, Hafsah's studies branched further into arcane practices, looking at the patterns of necromancy and the concept of ecology created in conditions where necromantic forces were prominent. Her erudition and magical skill grew, as did her wealth, as did her level of experimentation. Her original affinity for swamps did not fade, and she continued to study the fecundity of an environment that was so full of death. Much of her experimentation at this point was performed on herself, or under tightly controlled conditions. She did not introduce her work to any natural environment at that time, and traveled a fair amount to collect books, materials and information to expand her work.

Hafsah developed a reputation as a remarkable apothecary, a talented necromancer and a skilled herbalist and horticulturist, as well as a clever and influential merchant. In the recent days of her career, she has grown increasingly reclusive, and purchased a large swath of forbidding sub-tropical swamp in the Purayu islands, presumably as a home. Particularly recent findings are a bit troubling, however; indications show that she had been doing extensive work with the frightening Shemshir ochre tilia, a beautifully colored but rather mangy clinging plant whose pollen puts animals into a deep hypnotic state...which the plant uses to slowly consume them.

What is happening on Hafsah's island is still a mystery, but many of the local populations have suddenly ceased contact with neighboring islands.

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Elf Rage 2

Tuesday, May 5, 2009 - 3:58 PM

The drow, or dark elves, are a creature straight from the Dungeons and Dragons universe, and they have a long and colorful history despite their monochromatic appearance. They originally started as one of the most frightening opponents in the RPG, portrayed as ancient, decadent and amoral creatures who have a burning hatred and contempt of other races, especially their elven relations. The original descriptions of what the drow were like pointed at a vicious and depraved culture that was nonetheless highly educated and sophisticated. There were hints of the wonderfully inhuman Melniboneans from the Michael Moorcock Elric saga.

When the Forgotten Realms setting came out, things changed. The popularity of Forgotten Realms brought out a very different kind of drow elf, one which I abhor to this day. The fickle decadence was replaced by an adolescent portrait of cut-throat politics and pretentious power struggles. The alien behavior of the drow was lost, and they became like other elves; pointy-eared humans, who in this case had morality issues and an allergy to sunlight. One of the major reasons this version of the drow became popular was the work of R.A. Salvatore, in his portrayal of the rather melancholy renegade drow Drizzt Do'Urden.

What happened?

The drow all suddenly became cloak and dagger caricatures, smirking and swaggering around in arrogant circles. The fragments that Gygax and his contemporaries produced were swept away under this new hierarchy, and the drow lost their identity. The RPG world was suddenly filled with redemptive anti-hero drow, renegades against the oppressive matriarchy of their society.

This is the seat of my Elf Rage. I loathe this version of the drow, and for several reasons. Cheesy moustache twiddling villains rub me the wrong way, no matter what they are, but losing the elegant inhuman ugliness of the original dark elves was just plain inexcusable. I also find it laughable how some people interpret the drow from a metagame standpoint, in particular the fact that they are depicted with black skin. That's black as in ink, not black as in negroid, though some people seem to have made that mistake on occasion.

As it turns out, a good look at early DnD monsters will reveal some bits and pieces of very old mythology. Svart alfar were the dark elves in Nordic/Germanic myth, and these were the direct basis for the drow themselves. Svart, for those who do not already know, is literally 'black'. It's the root for the word 'swarthy', meaning dark-skinned.

So, why not make them ink-skinned? Take your racial theories elsewhere.

Also, the notion that the matriarchal religion of the drow represented some kind of gamer fear of women is patently ridiculous. I point to the simple fact that, originally, the drow had sexual dimorphism: the dice sets for female stats were better than those for males. The women had better innate magical abilities, and they were even physically bigger than the men. This is in keeping with the arachnid theme of their own deity. Now, perhaps gamer fear of women figured into later depictions, but I refuse to believe it was originally part of the drow aesthetic.

Also, some have complained about the notion of a race that is born evil. Well, why not have a race which is literally born evil? This IS fantasy, after all. It brings up some very interesting questions about morality, of course, but I do not happen to believe that the concept of a race born evil makes everything suddenly black and white, particularly if the evil in question is actually just a very different set of operating parameters. A tiger kills the ox to eat. It is a killing animal, born and created for it. If it were intelligent, would it continue to have this killing instinct? Would it need to exercise that instinct regularly? Would that make it evil in the cosmic sense?

When I designed evil elves for my setting, I wanted to avoid a couple of specific factors involved with the drow. First, the drow society is entirely a construct built by their female demon-goddess Lolth. I try and avoid direct divine intervention as much as possible in world building, saving it for specific circumstances. Second, the drow are basically attacking the surface world because of the usual needs for vengeance, conquest, just plain malice, etc. I wanted something more sophisticated than that, something less human and much less short-term.

This post went on for a bit, so I'll cap it off with a little introduction to the next. It's only fair that, having pig-poled the drow, I should show what my own ideas have been about what an evil elf would be. So, consider this.

The elves were born from the alfar's attempts to understand human symbols and concepts. One among them noticed that humans had some strange ideas about decomposition, decay, and fear. The word corruption as an intangible, moral concept did not exist for the alfar. The alfar noticed that the concept was most often associated with cities, and so the one who chose to study the concept built one. All of those who wanted to study these concepts went to the city, and began the process. Later, that city was sealed off, and their leader told the other alfar that isolation was required for a time.

After a great deal of time the other alfar began to wonder what had happened to their comrades, and they went to the city to alleviate their concerns. What they ended up doing was leveling the city and scorching the surrounding land to nothing but rock.

But what they did not know was that some citizens of Uryashar had long since left the city to walk covertly among the other races. It was not enough for them to study by becoming; they had to continue their study by influencing, manipulating and creating events in the lives of others.

In later days, these once-alfar would be called the Shepherds.

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One for Phoenix

Friday, April 3, 2009 - 3:37 PM

I heartily encourage my players to randomly improvise small cultural details or whatever else doing the course of my DnD game. These things are often swept up and integrated into the whole of the world I've been using, and I occasionally develop them heavily. This is one such case, and I dedicate both this and the next entry to Phoenix, who came up with the golden turban of the Wazir of Woe one particularly rollicking session.

The continent of Antambil is notable for its large number of nomadic cultures, and as a result of this prevalence, certain tales and characters have found their way into every corner of Antambil. One such notorious character is titled the Wazir of Woe.

Sometimes provided with a given name (Ugoru among the Betrani people, Izvira a'Yela to the Tanul), the Wazir is identified in various stories primarily by his title. Unlike many other characters in folklore, the Wazir's characteristics are remarkably consistent from culture to culture. Despite his changing name (or lack of name altogether) the Wazir is always depicted as a small man of considerable presence, wearing exorbitantly expensive and well-tailored clothing. He is usually described as being festooned in large gemstones, and he wears a turban of gold cloth with a jewel upon it. The Wazir is intelligent, eloquent and cruel, and in those stories where he is directly quoted, the tales note his rather poetic and expansive choice of vocabulary. In Betrani and Mugiira cultures, for example, the Wazir always speaks in rhyming couplets, whereas among the Jashapur people all of his sentences are built on metaphors.

A cursory examination shows that the Wazir appears to fill the 'villain behind the throne' archetype. He makes himself an advisor to some beleaguered or naïve ruler, swiftly establishes a stranglehold on politics, and promptly begins to drive the kingdom into the ground with his overindulgent spending, bribes and warmongering. Though he is often depicted as semi-comical in his ambitious malice, the Wazir is cunning and clearly a terrible foe. Sometimes the stories of the Wazir are cautionary tales, ending with the Wazir scorning the ruler he once served, and departing the now-ruined kingdom in an arrogant huff. Other times, the seemingly self-destructive whims of the Wazir are put to an end by one hero or other, who often must confront those they are loyal to in order to drive the Wazir off. In either case, the Wazir never concretely dies; in the Betrani version, a palace collapses on him, but the hero warns everyone that the 'Wazir is never finished'.

There are deeper levels to the Wazir. Though many historians regard the Wazir as merely an allegory for the incompetent advisor or the self-indulgence of nobility, there are a few consistent characteristics in all Wazir tales which set him apart. The Wazir is always described as being isolated or the last of his line in some oblique fashion ('the Wazir, last of his ancient kin'; 'Him who came from the desert alone, alone for his people were gone'; 'Woeful, for he was the orphan of the empty land'). He always claims some ancient lineage, but never gives name to it. Nor does the Wazir ever mention his homeland or where he came from. In fact, the Wazir never arrives with anything or anyone except his incredible amount of personal wealth. Some scholars think that the Wazir is a folkloric echo of some kingdom which no longer exists, perhaps something that collapsed under its own weight.

Further, the Wazir always ends up with servants. In nearly every tale, a point is made that these servants came from somewhere else, and they are silent and 'grim faced'. It is never defined where the Wazir gets these servants, but they are absolutely loyal to him. In most tales, particularly those involving a hero figure going against the Wazir, these servants are an implied threat, but they never get directly involved in the action. In fact, no tale describes the hero having to fight, trick or otherwise confront these mysterious servants. The servants add to their puzzle by vanishing from the story as soon as the Wazir departs, and no explanation is offered for this.

Most people assume that the Wazir is supposed to be some kind of magician, but again, there is no overt aspect of the stories that would confirm this. The Wazir does seem to have a way of making things happen, but this seems to be attributed to a mastery of human nature and a particularly far-reaching cunning rather than sorcerous powers. However, some scholars have noticed a few commonly described aspects of the Wazir which point to some very old magical traditions, again supporting the notion that the Wazir represents a now-vanished kingdom.

First, when the Wazir perceives a secret or otherwise discovers information important to him, it is often stated that 'the Wazir's eye came upon it' (or similar phrasing). When the Wazir scrutinizes something, the word eye is never used in plural, though it often might be for other characters. This ties in with the never described but always named jewel called the Banika's Eye, which hangs from the Wazir's gold turban. Among the now-defunct shamanic traditions of the Mugiira, who once ranged over much of southern Antambil, the jungle cat called the mbanikk was thought to be a sorceror in animal shape, and charms resembling cat's eyes were often placed at doors to scare away spirits or reveal transformed magicians.

Second, a frequent mode by which heroes thwart the Wazir is to access his shoes. The Wazir's shoes are often described as having folded papers hidden in the soles, usually maps of some kind. The hero usually deduces that these maps led the Wazir to the location, and somehow destroying them makes the Wazir depart. In the Purayu version, the heroine lights the maps on fire, and causes the Wazir to flee the kingdom on burning feet, eventually running into the sky on a road of smoke. The exact purpose of these papers is never fully described, but again there are indications of an older tradition here. The custom of scribing maps and placing them within footwear existed in several of Antambil's deep desert cultures. It was a ritual component for tribal magicians who sought greater power or insight, and after creating their magical footwear, they would wander until realization hit. The maps were frequently abstracts or designs leading to places that never existed.

Third, the Wazir is always, without exception, mentioned to be in possession of bracelets that shine like the sun. He wears them on both arms, and though they never play any part in any of the stories, they are mentioned very specifically in every Wazir tale. In the Jashapuran and Rukh-Sadra versions of the Wazir, it is also mentioned that the bracelets cannot be removed, which brings to mind a comparison with shackles. Indeed, the Rukh-Sadra version describes them as shackles specifically. The number of bracelets are never described outside of 'many'.

Only a very few scholars recognize the potential significance of these bracelets. In the ancient days of Antambil, the city of Ombos was ruled over by warlock-priests who called on tremendous primordial powers. Their proficiency with their sorcery was measured in magical bracers which circled their arm, and could not be removed. Thus, again the Wazir represents a vanished magical tradition, but this time one parallel can be specifically discerned.

But the warlock-priests of Ombos were not conquerors, and neither did they intrude upon others as advisors. In fact, the city of Ombos was purposefully constructed in the deepest, most inhospitable part of the Antambil desert. The warlock-priests could not even be said to have had neighbors, and no records or tales exist of them ever having reached out to other cultures in their age. So, who was the Wazir of Woe?

Over the centuries, many have claimed the title, adopting an ostentatious wardrobe and attempting to gather power with a legendary reputation. Unlike the Wazir of the tales, however, these Wazirs frequently end up dead from assassins, heroes or their own disgruntled allies. A few, in egotistical fury, ended their own lives rather than watch their plans be foiled. Though a great deal of superstitious unease still revolves around the Wazir, few educated people believe that the Wazir actually exists, and in modern culture, he is a sinister trickster who elicits laughter as much as despise in the dramas, songs and poems of the day.

The truth of the Wazir is a very obscure one, and only a small handful of Antambil scholars know it.

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The Other Side, 6

Monday, March 30, 2009 - 2:28 PM

Here, we find that the Bad Guys go on quests just like the Good Guys do. Last session of DnD, there were so many bits and pieces foreshadowing the end game it was practically a movie trailer, and the characters are more than ready in their hearts to get the big confrontation done, even if their minds acknowledge their limitations and the need for caution.
Saving even a corner of the world isn't an easy thing.

Meeting in the mossy halls of the Citadel of Tongues, Leoric gathered his lieutenants after Avar had returned from Fidelity's grove. They were alone in the chamber save for Leoric's ever-present servant Merin; even Isabeau had left her spiders behind.

“The work is done,” she announced, seating herself in an ancient wooden chair that made her seem twice as small. “The room is sealed as much as I can make it. Do speak freely, my lord Leoric.”

Leoric nodded slightly in acknowledgment, and then studied his companions. He was aware of the improbable circumstances that had eventually brought them all to this point, and he regarded it not only as a blessing but as a kind of cosmic approval. They were meant to be.
Tancred slouched, Avar sat with shoulders squared and arms folded, Isabeau languished, and Julian leaned heavily on the table. But all of them, even Julian, watched Leoric.

“I know what Hope is doing,” said Leoric in a quiet, inevitable voice, and saw the wary interest in Isabeau and Tancred. Avar didn't even blink, and Julian merely seemed curious. “We are meant as a foil, nothing more.”

“Why,” asked Avar.

“When our attack occurs, all the world will focus on us. Our siege will be a distraction so that Hope may work unimpeded in the south. She truly follows in her master's footsteps; the two-sided threat was always something he enjoyed.”

Tancred sneered. “What of it? Our assault will still be what it is, and we shall overrun the Green Veil, bring the reach of the Grandfather further.”

Shaking his head slightly, Leoric turned his discerning eyes to Tancred. “So it seems, but Hope has lied to us. I'm sure there are other lies. What if we are expected? What if she leaves a trail for others to find us? She's done these things before. If the Leandrites know we are coming, our chances for loss are much greater. Our army is not so mighty as that... not yet.”

Isabeau simply listened, occasionally running a finger up and down her neck, but Avar spoke again. “Then what do you plan?”

“That Hope might betray us is not really a surprise,” Leoric replied reasonably. “The Disciples are not compelled to be our friends. Even in the days when the Grandfather walked among us, they fought with each other. Yet, he bound them all.”
Leoric paused, and looked at Isabeau. “Have the palimpsests awakened?”

Now a spark of curiosity showed in Isabeau's lazy eyes. “Yes, my lord. What do you require?”

He gestured slightly, and Merin cringed forward, stretching out his slender arms to offer Leoric's stone-headed mace, which Leoric took in one hand, resting it on the table. At the touch, the table groaned, and small splinters burst from the area near the twisting metal haft.

“I brought the Arm of Ruin back from the Wound,” Leoric announced. “It was a key to many things, more than a mere weapon. When I went seeking it, I discovered other fragments of history. There are other relics in the Wound, if one can get into the Alyach... and one did, before.” He traced a few of the writhing letters of wormscript on the haft. “His name was Laurent l'Arquen, and he is now the palimpsest who uses the rune 'Sar' as a name.”

“And he will know the proper rites to enter the Alyach, then,” murmured Isabeau. “I will have him give these secrets over to us. But, Leoric, the Alyach is no ally to anyone.”

“That is why we will all go. Combined, we will emerge again, and with the gifts the Grandfather has left for us there, we'll not fail in our work here, no matter what Hope's machinations are. With the relics, even the Disciples will recognize our place. Further, our success will serve the Grandfather, and therefore all Disciples. It will delay our emergence, but I do not think Hope cares. She's waited a long time, and she will wait until the time is perfect. What say you all?”

“Yes,” grinned Tancred. “Yes. To enter the Alyach at last? We may even find the tomb of the Grandfather himself.”

“Pray that we do not,” sighed Julian. “I have seen it in my dreams, and it would be the end of us. Yet, I will follow you, Leoric. I have no choice.”

Avar gave Julian a strange, searching look. It passed swiftly, and he answered Leoric with a short deferential nod. “I will go.”

“Naturally, I shall,” smiled Isabeau. “But I do ask if you have something in mind, and who shall rule in our stead while we are gone?”

Cradling the Arm of Ruin in the crook of one arm, Leoric answered her smile with a thin one of his own. “The Arm of Ruin has sister relics. The Weeping Knife, the Scepter of Rust, and the Maggot Hourglass are still in the Alyach somewhere, and these are only the known creations that the Grandfather made in his breathing days. You know as well as I their potency, if they can be found. And I believe they can. Each of them demands a great price for its use, but we are well-equipped to pay any cost to succeed.
“As to the matter of leadership, that is simple enough. How many palimpsests are active and sane enough to speak? Five. Assign each of them to each of our contingents, and I shall make a statement upon our departure that any disobedience will result in punishment by the palimpsests themselves. If they have no use for the transgressor, I am certain the harpies or Fidelity will.”

“As you say,” said Isabeau.

“When do we depart?” asked Tancred. “I can be ready today.”

“As soon as Isabeau reads the palimpsest and gathers what we need for entry, we shall go.”

“A day, my lord, no less,” put in Isabeau. “Julian must help, however. He will know the Words better than I in some cases.”

Julian nodded affably, but his eyes despaired. Handing the Arm of Ruin back to Merin, who accepted it with great deference, Leoric surveyed his lieutenants for a moment.

“We must be swift,” he said. “There are others working against us, and we do not know what they plan. Go and prepare. We will meet again at Beauty's Rest, the day after tomorrow, and then travel to the deep end of the Wound.”

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The Other Side 2

Monday, February 2, 2009 - 4:14 PM

When Leoric returned, he carried a swollen, battered head with him. It dangled from one hand, lanky hair falling around the grossly distorted face like damp weeds. Behind him was the humbled figure of Merin, Leoric's constant companion, head bowed and feet light. Merin carried Leoric's weeping-face helm, with its mane of woman's hair, and cradled Leoric's terrible weapon, the Arm of Ruin, close to the chest.

Leoric was a very tall man with a thin, dour face. Though his face was wry and keen in expression, his narrow eyes were cold with the sort of hate that has grown lazy and immutable over time, staving off madness and smothering redemption. Some thought his hate had prematurely turned his hair white, but it was merely a hereditary quirk of his family line.

Avar watched Leoric's approach from a distance, seated on a mossy stone that had once been part of a small settlement. He leaned his shoulder against the long haft of his axe, folding his broad hands around it, and glanced over at the hunched, feral shape of the ghoul that slouched nearby. It glanced back at him with bright eyes, lips pulling back uncomfortably from the long, sharp teeth in an attempt to smile.

“Julian comes with him,” said Isabeau's voice, strained through the cage of the ghoul's vocal chords.

Darting his eyes back towards the path, Avar spotted three large shadows dropping down from the sky, drifting through the trees to light near Leoric. It was a harpy harridan, with two of her lesser brethren carrying Julian between them. He watched as the two smaller harpies flapped up again in a small cloud of leaves and feathers, while the harridan walked with Leoric, showing the oddly graceful swaying gait that harpies had on land. Julian was herded along by the crook of one great wing.

Isabeau, in the ghoul's body, loped a few steps forward to peer closer. “Omphale, of Beauty's Rest,” she said.

Avar simply nodded. Omphale was harridan over one of the biggest harpy flocks in the Wound, and that meant a strong alliance. Harridans were opportunists of the highest order, and if Omphale chose to join with Leoric, other harridans might also join, if for no other reason than to force Omphale to divide her spoils. He'd had little doubt that harpies would join Leoric, but they were bitter and surly creatures, and reluctant to make alliances.

Most humans certainly prefer to stay well away from harpies, Avar thought, if for no other reason but the smell. As Leoric and his companions approached, Avar's nose could already pick up the brassy, rancid sweat-and-sulfur odor surrounding the harridan.

“That means a lot of archers,” said Avar to Isabeau. “Is Tancred still at the mines?”

“Yes,” came the reply. “He is still working in the vats, trying to finish the elixir to revive the giant corpse.”

Avar shrugged slightly, keeping his eyes on Leoric, watching the harpy's constant touching of Julian. If Tancred succeeded, it would be wonderful, but Avar really didn't care so long as Tancred was working and not distracting himself by hunting down druids. "There are times when I think Tancred's ambition fogs his vision."

Isabeau nodded her ghoul's head, and then had the ghoul perform the parody of a curtsey as Leoric came closer.

“My lord Leoric,” Isabeau said.

Leoric gave the ghoul a slight, regal nod. “Lady Isabeau. Master Avar, well met again. How are my soldiers?”

“They could be better,” said Avar blandly. “But they will be. What news, my lord?”

“We have time,” announced Leoric, taking another slow step forward and raising the head he was carrying. “Fidelity sends his regard, and promises aid from his children and their followers. He instructs us to be patient; the omens are good. Hope has returned to the Wound, and her work elsewhere proceeds even though her heart is destroyed. She is tending her Tree now, looking for the words to call our master back to us.”

“May our Grandfather come again soon,” purred Omphale, nuzzling at Julian's hair. Like all harridans, she had wings as well as arms, one of which she'd wrapped around Julian's waist. Her human-like torso tapered into a woman's waist and hips, but her thighs sprouted soot-black feathers and her lower legs crooked like those of a bird. Similar plumage blanketed her upper back, where her wings spread, fringed her forearms and swept back from her lovely human face in thin feathers that flowed like stiff hair. Omphale's figure was rather more lush than most harpies, emphasized by her lack of clothing and the natural harpy posture having a tendency to push the chest forward.

Of course, Omphale was a harpy, and therefore utterly filthy. Remnants of past meals caked her chin, filth stained her leg feathers, and her skin was dusky with grime. Typical of harpies, her strong and beautiful features were deliberately scarred, giving her a permanent cruel sneer and scoring her cheeks deeply, lengthening the look of her face. Vulture talons pierced her ears and patterns of burn marks dotted her shapely torso.

“Your flock will be joining us, then?” rasped Isabeau. “What of the others?”

“Mine, and the flock at Gutcrag,” said Omphale, rubbing a hand over Julian's chest possessively.

“Lakhesis waits for Beauty to wake from her last glut, so the flock at the Manticore will not join you yet. But do keep in mind, Hope is not the only disciple in the Wound, Avar. If Beauty says we stay, then we stay. All of us.”

Leoric nodded without concern. “That is understood quite well, Omphale. I am certain, though, that if the End comes, all of Harrow's children will come forth from the Wound.”

“If the End comes,” smiled Omphale, pressing Julian's head against her breast. Julian complied like an indifferent cat. “And we hope it will. But what is this about Hope's heart being killed?”

Avar told Omphale briefly about recent events, the celebration of the Leandrite people, and what was known of who had done it.

Omphale sneered, eyes vicious. “Heroes have come to the Wound before. They came to kill the Grandfather before. They came with their chants and spells and weapons and virtues, and where are they now? Bones at Beauty's Rest. And we are still here.”

“That is true,” said Avar quietly. “And yet, we could not find the heart. They did, and they destroyed it. This means that Hope can die.”

“It will be about time,” laughed Omphale. “Yet, she was the favored one, in the beginning. So, what is to be done with those five now?”

They all looked at Leoric, who smiled slightly, and told them.

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The Other Side

Friday, January 30, 2009 - 11:33 AM

Faint sobbing whispered inside the wide dome in the Citadel of Tongues. It mingled with the thin threads of bitter incense smoke and the gloom huddling around sparse candles. A forest of cobwebs hid the upper part of the dome, hanging like translucent drapes, and tapestries in green and rust covered the walls. Eyes drawn to the tapestry would flee again instinctively from the furtively vile hints of the art.

The tapestries were familiar, and therefore ignored, by the four .

“Leoric is not coming,” said Avar to the others. His voice was even and smooth, falling flat against the tapestries. A sharp ear would note unusually precise control and diction; the only outward sign of Avar's ferocious internal struggle. He had to keep an iron grip on the horror his soul had become, every waking moment. This required sanity of a sort, and Avar endured, knowing that losing his rationality would break his discipline, and that would be his death.

His companions had the luxury of madness. Avar was stained enough with his own atrocities that he could understand Tancred's fanaticism, or the torture of Julian's visions. But Avar still had a small, howling conscience inside him, the little piece holding him together, and thus Lady Isabeau's madness was something he could not understand.

“Why not,” wheezed Tancred, crouching rather than sitting.

“Because he's gone to the Wound,” replied Avar, glancing at the huddle of mouldering leather and mossy cloth that was Tancred. “He left immediately after Julian told him what happened.”

Lady Isabeau touched her sharp teeth with her tongue, thinking, and then leaned back with a sigh from her repast. The soft weeping came from her long, pale coat; her meal had ceased whimpering a while ago. “Hope's heart recovered, and then destroyed,” she said thoughtfully. “All that we have done, and we could not find it. But these others did.”

“Blasphemers,” hissed Tancred. Tangled red hair hid most of his face, but his agitation was apparent. Avar expected a rant coming. Instead, Tancred bit his lip and glanced furtively at Lady Isabeau.

She did not seem to notice, and turned her small dark eyes to Julian, who sat draped over his chair as if he were a cat. “Who were they?”

“Five,” said Julian, and then jerkily scratched at the base of his neck. Avar imagined the worm was particularly bad for Julian at the moment. When Hope's heart had been destroyed, Avar had held Julian down until the screaming had stopped.

“Five,” continued Julian, turning wide eyes up to Isabeau. “The Lady Knight, the Moonstone druid, the gray paladin, the Durzani astrologer, the priest of Law. They took the Heart from a tomb, and destroyed it in a great hall of hypocrisy. The five provinces celebrate even now, and they were given great regard for their act. Leoric goes to Hope's tree, to discover what we must do.”

“The Moonstone is mine,” rumbled Tancred, rubbing his callused hands together.

“What head we might find, we take,” said Avar blandly. “But we haven't heard anything from Hope yet.”

“Indeed not,” mentioned Isabeau as she dabbed at her lips with a napkin. “Julian, where are the five now?”

Julian wrapped himself in his own arms, his pointed face vacant, and Avar reflexively dabbed away a line of drool starting on Julian's lip. They were frequent companions, bound together by common dedication and the cost of an ordeal. Julian had survived the Augury of Maggots, tying him to the nightmare consciousness of the Wound, and his mind was always full of horror and whispers. He found Avar's presence quieting, and Avar had great sympathy and admiration for Julian's willingness to accept such a burden.

A strange friendship had developed, a balance between a man whose body and mind were wracked with prophetic worms, and a warrior whose body and mind were powerful, but whose soul was rapidly being displaced by an abomination.

“Still in Effernar,” murmured Julian, starting slightly as if waking. “The blood is still on their hands, but it will fade. They will not stay, though. They are restless.”

Tancred looked immediately at Isabeau. “Let me handle this, let me gather my monks and we'll put them down, we'll bring them back to the Wound.”

“You will do nothing of the sort,” announced Isabeau thinly. “Leoric is our leader, and we will wait for his command.”

Subsiding, Tancred clicked his long nails together and breathed deeply, taking on the look of some huge, mangy predator who patiently waits for some unsuspecting animal to get within reach.

“We should send Julian to the harpies,” said Avar. “They'll listen to him.”

“Yes,” agreed Isabeau. “Find out what the harridans wish to do, Julian. Do you understand?”

“Beauty's children will know,” responded Julian, shifting uncomfortably. “Beauty may know. I will go.”

Isabeau favored Julian with a slight smile and then aimed herself at Tancred again. “You should get back to work, Tancred. Gather your people and work faster. We need more of the cauldrons and bellows. Increase work at the mine.”

“I will do it,” said Tancred. “When Leoric returns, all will be ready.”

Isabeau and Avar looked at each other.

“The students and teachers here are already organized, but this news lends me to believe I have a number of matters to look into immediately,” said Isabeau, rising as the massive spider she sat on lifted itself from the floor. “Avar...?”

“The army is growing, and it is ready.”

Isabeau nodded, fastened her scarves, and her spider silently pivoted her away and out of the room. Tancred rotted into the shape of a mangy crow, flapping his way up through the cobwebs to exit from the oculus of the dome.

Avar stood, waited a moment for Julian to begin to leave, and then looked at the silvery skin and broken, pure feathers of the angel on Isabeau's dinner table. It had been a meal by stages; the gorgeous creature's torso was nearly empty, and its crystalline bones stripped of flesh on most of the limbs. Isabeau had left the face intact but for the eyes, which she had consumed early on.

That is what I have become, he thought for a moment, and then turned his back, leaving the Citadel to attend to the end of the world.

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From the Z-file: Sindisuentha

Thursday, August 21, 2008 - 6:10 PM

Note: Yes, why not? Another one from Tirilan's entourage. I promise the next post won't be another NPC.

The Aluvasein people sprawl across the lower half of the Talad region, across a wide variety of terrain, and with them are a wide scattering of customs which are long forgotten or much changed by their neighbors or their far more prominent ethnic relatives in Leandr. Half hidden by some broken marshes and treacherous barrow-mound riddled land, the province known as Blackshield spent generations apart, originally a settlement built around a keep for a war that ended ages past. But the people of Blackshield maintained their martial traditions for quite some time afterwards, being the sons and daughters of soldiers, and still having the hot Leandrite blood in them.

In more recent generations, many of the old customs have drifted away, and the once-strong regard for the landed families has grown sour. New, safe roads from the Aluvasein merchant lords opened Blackshield up, bringing with them new ideals and new prejudices against the “antiquated and often vicious” older customs.

Sindisuentha, born Lady Sindisuentha 'shtoyan Kazothmar, grew up in a society that barely recognized her nobility and had grown to regard her family with great suspicion and loathing. In past ages, the Kazothmar family had been the hereditary keeper of the shield for which the province was named, and had the once-vaunted and much dreaded honor to be the commanders of a large force of undead soldiers. These soldiers were originally regarded as the last of the last resorts to defend Blackshield. Over the years, the Army of the Broken Shield was used less as a defense and more to resolve border disputes or blood debts in symbolic combat; two members of the Kazothmar family would split the force, representing the two sides in a conflict, and send the already-dead troops to battle against each other. This ritual warfare also became an annual event, in a battle recreating the glory of past days when Blackshield province was still a place of war. The Kazothmar family became historians and morticians, antiquarians whose duty was to keep the burial grounds safe and occasionally assist in disputes of heredity or heraldry. But within the family, the old Kazothmar obligations were always taken seriously, and heirs of the line all the way to Sindisuentha were taught to be generals and warriors. Those who showed the proper sign, the unusually cold presence that was indicative of power over the dead, would be given the arcane training so that they could raise the Army of the Broken Shield.

Unfortunately, prejudice against any form of necromancy began to strangle the Kazothmar reputation three generations before Sindisuentha. By the time she was a young woman, the house was all but broken. Rumors of foul practices in the family made her a pariah, and though no one would call it anything but an accident, she was certain that the arrow that killed her father had been intended for him. Though she endured the continuing slanders, wearing her bloodline like armor, this only infuriated the people of Blackshield. They called her a proud monster, among other things, and eventually, they brought an ultimatum to her and the remains of her family: be banished and forfeit all lands and wealth, or be burned as a corpse-eater.

Sindisuentha's mother and uncle both died in the ensuing siege on the modest Kazothmar manor. She and her three siblings escaped, running off into the marshes to hide, and it was there that she raised the remainder of the Army of the Broken Shield, bringing it back to wage a guerrilla war against the rest of Blackshield, which was now bolstered by Aluvasein caravaner guards and mercenaries. Acquitting herself very well for her age and experience, particularly in her knowledge of local terrain and use of ambushes, things would not have gone well for her except that Tirilan and some of his allies arrived on a back road into Blackshield. He'd come looking for the lore of the Kazothmar family, and with his assistance, Sindisuentha salvaged what was left of her family inheritance. Sacrificing most of her undead soldiers to make the people of Blackshield content that she was defeated and gone, she and her siblings went with Tirilan, heading southward. She is the head of the Kazothmar family, now, and she intends to eventually return to Blackshield and take back what is hers... eventually.

About Sindisuentha:

Still a young woman, Sindisuentha had to grow up very fast. She's killed, and she will likely kill again; at this point, she regards it as a natural part of being a Kazothmar. Her pride in her family line is considerable, and she adheres to the family codes of honor fastidiously, which is one reason Tirilan is happy to have her as an ally. Likewise, she admires and idolizes Tirilan, and she's been caught up in his vision of the Black Sun. This is particularly true after her discovery of references to the Black Sun as part of her own heraldry (the Kazothmar's very first coat of arms, from nearly a thousand years ago, was a black sun on a purple field, which is why Tirilan originally went to Blackshield).

Sindisuentha has grand ambitions. She has been released from a very dusty corner in her life, and through this liberation has decided that all dreams are possible. She is a voracious learner, highly competitive and firmly believes that the harder she tries, the more she will achieve. Also believing that being in Tirilan's army fulfills the destiny of her family line, she is firmly set in her loyalties. This is combined with her need to behave with honor and aplomb. She strives to always act with restraint, decorum and dignity.

Though a hard-eyed general on the battlefield, Sindisuentha loves indulging her refined tastes. She sees no reason why a woman of her standing should not enjoy creature comforts if not actively on campaign... and sometimes, why not on campaign? Likewise, her undead soldiers are clean, wearing well-polished armor and even have dress uniforms. She very much enjoys Tirilan's penchant for holding courtly events, and makes a great effort to look as good as she possibly can when meeting others.

Sindisuentha's view of the world is through a rather romantic lens, where she is becoming a legend, and subconsciously, she expects things to progress as a story would. Her honor and her family line are matters of foremost importance, and she thinks the age of the Black Sun will bring the Kazothmar heritage into the glory it deserves. Her vision is that the Kazothmar will become rulers of a kingdom as well as protectors, and she believes that Tirilan is lighting the way.

She is not so naïve as to think that this sort of dream can be achieved cleanly.

Despite her shades of gray philosophy, Sindisuentha is troubled by some of Tirilan's other allies. She knows some of them follow Tirilan only for personal power, not for some greater purpose and certainly not through any real loyalty to him. She is confident in Tirilan's judgment, however, and believes implicitly in his decisions.

Of course, that his allies deal with undead doesn't bother her at all. What does bother her is the lack of people who could be close friends.

As written, Sindisuentha represents a very aggressive, eager part of Tirilan's following. Though she is a necromancer of sorts, she is not evil, and offers a very fresh, very alive sort of contrast to some of his others. Her competitive nature and honorable behavior are also a fine foundation for some wonderful interactions with heroes opposing Tirilan. She will, after all, accept an honorable surrender.

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From the Z-File: Tirilan

Tuesday, August 19, 2008 - 3:07 PM

To understand Tirilan, one must first look at his mother, Jolani. A midwife and dragon-line scholar of the Durzani people, Jolani had a husband who was rich and powerful. Though she was a successful midwife, Jolani could not bear children of her own, and her work as a midwife began to dwindle after her marriage. The Durzani are strong believers in sympathetic magic, and a midwife who cannot herself bear children was an ill omen. Further, as time went on, her husband kept her only out of honor and respect for her and her family.

As a result, Jolani was often left alone for long periods of time, and accumulated a huge library of books on various subjects. Reading on metaphysics and magic is a tradition for high-born Durzani women, and she pursued this avidly to help her forget her shame. In her solitude she was discovered by a rather notorious magician who, walking unseen, was struck by her talent and her hunger for a better life. He inducted her into Forsaking, the strange unlife-seeking cult of necromancy, gave her the tools to continue, and then guided her to a new home where he intended her to be another tool of his own.

Unfortunately for him, his enemies discovered his location, and he was forced to flee. Left to her own devices, Jolani became the head of a large Forsaker cult, and her quiet madness was matched by her brilliance. She believed that her teacher had been her husband, off on matters of importance, and was obsessed with producing an heir for him. In Jolani's delusions, she tried many things, her powerful maternal instinct warped by the Forsaker teachings.

Eventually, Tirilan was born, cold and dead, but life was breathed into him.

As a young man, Tirilan was sent north to the Sarcophagus near Urakh, to learn further and seek out information Jolani needed for her own work. He went there with a small group of trusted Forsakers, but when he returned some while later, his mother and nearly all of his 'family' were destroyed (PCs happen). He recovered what he could, performed proper funeral rites for his mother, and left the catacombs he'd played in as a boy. Though his mother had impressed upon him the envy and hatred of the world, finding his home in ruins had made that hatred real. Tirilan realized that in order to carry on his mother's legacy, he must be prepared to meet the animosity of the world head-on.

So, Tirilan began to travel to places his mother had referenced in her work, gathering up knowledge relating to unlife, undeath, mortality and similar topics. Along the way, many were swept up in the wake of his personable, passionate nature and the strength of his purpose, which had grown to be far more than a need to learn.

As a boy, Tirilan had increasingly frequent and vivid dreams about the rise of a black, seething sun that cast shadows in indescribable shades of darkness. These dreams filled him with wonder and exultation, and in later dreams, he saw himself in armor, flying a wide, white banner, while an army marched behind him. The black sun would rise further into the sky the further he and his army marched. While studying in Urakh, he discovered a brief reference in a decrepit document about the 'signs of the Black Sun', and he was astounded and intrigued. From then on, he dedicated himself to martial arts as well as the esoteric, moving research of the Black Sun to the top priority.

Tirilan's study of the Black Sun has long since turned to devotion and conviction. The more he discovers about the Black Sun, the more he believes he is its herald, the one who will return the unlight of the Black Sun to the world and balance out the sun which currently exists. He intends to destroy the shackles of life and death. Though originally he was regarded with a great deal of skepticism, Tirilan has evinced the ability to call miracles from the Black Sun. The more he studies it, the more he uncovers about it and the more people he convinces of its power and importance, the more powerful he gets.

As a result, Tirilan has become the center of a fractured cult, composed of Forsakers, undead, necromancers of all sorts, and those who are merely interested in such things as spiritualism and life beyond the borders of death. His utter faith in the Black Sun along with a tremendous force of personality and years of arcane study have drawn the interest of many, and Tirilan's following continues to increase.

Given that Tirilan's closest followers organize themselves in a militant fashion, there is considerable worry about what the Black Sun might call Tirilan to do next. This worry has spread to some who follow him, also, and there have been a couple of attempts on Tirilan's life.

Notes on Tirilan:

Tirilan's mother was highborn Durzani, and she raised her son to be a gentleman, a warrior and a scholar. He was thoroughly educated in literature, arts, sciences and courtly manners. The importance of honor and courtesy were impressed upon him. He is unfailingly polite, sometimes almost deferential in his manner, and adheres strongly to a chivalrous code of conduct. Those who meet him are often astonished by his open, generous bearing, and his attention to formality and social ritual.

However, Tirilan's philosophies come from a Forsaker background. His mother treated her controlled undead as if they were her children, and after his birth, the undead were his family. When he learned dance, his partners were undead. His playmates as a boy were often undead, as well. Now, the ones that he creates or controls are his friends and sworn protectors, and even the mindless ones are accorded a certain respect. Tirilan has no problem with creating and consorting with the dead, pressing evil spirits into his service or killing those who would impede his quest. If his enemies meet him with courtesy and fairness, he'll fight them accordingly, but the horrors he inflicts on traitors are enough to discomfit some of the necromancers in his following.

Thus, Tirilan is a study of bizarre contrasts between a reserved and genteel noble and a death-obsessed necromantic templar. He holds salons of philosophical and arcane debate, teaches courtly manners and arts to his followers, and pays artisans well for their work. But he also recruits from crypts and graveyards, tortures and then binds the spirits of those who defy him, and fills his court with the walking dead. He treats women and children in particular with generosity and profound respect, even though he knows that many of them will die when the Black Sun rises. He kills those who torture the helpless, but he often recruits from some of the darker corners of necromantic study.

Tirilan himself is efficient, very intelligent and a born leader. He is filled with the certainty of his quest, though he does not yet completely understand the Black Sun's purpose, and he acknowledges that he has much to learn. It is a mistake to think of him as a fanatic; Tirilan approaches his faith with an open mind, and he rarely loses his temper. He is a clever strategist, and very good with people (at least, those who can get past some of his affectations). He has an astonishingly casual attitude towards the macabre, and has absolutely no fear of death except as an inconvenience to his plans. Supremely confident in his duties to the Black Sun, Tirilan may seem arrogant, but he ultimately regards himself as a true knight-protector; a servant, not a master. His friends find him completely trustworthy, and so do his enemies.

As written, Tirilan is focused on raising a great army in order to seize lore that is being hoarded or otherwise kept from him, and to secure a hold for the faith of the Black Sun. To that end, he is actively drawing in as many allies as he can from various ostracized communities, schools of magic, and outcast priesthoods. Though it disgusts him to associate with certain sorts of necromancer, he weeds out those he can and makes use of the rest. He is secretly committed to slaughtering the most wicked of them when his work is done. Tirilan is meant to be the honorable but relentless adversary, someone that the heroes could easily respect as much as they fight against him.

Some of his lackeys, on the other hand, are pretty foul. If the heroes don't kill them, Tirilan will eventually.

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Campaign Twists

Saturday, August 2, 2008 - 9:30 PM

So, next in line for my valiant dnd campaigners is an adaptation of Nicolas Logue's 'Library of Last Resort'. As much as I tend to enjoy Logue's material, this one didn't really touch me at first; it seemed to be a very straightforward (if dramatic) dash across rugged wilderness to slay this monster or that in order to gain access to a boss fight and the big Plot Cookie. Sometimes those adventures have their place, certainly, but the recovery of some piece of ancient lore utterly forgotten by the rest of the world seemed to warrant something a bit deeper.

This is particularly true when you take a look at my playing group. Though they enjoy a terse combat from time to time, they are really there for the character interaction, the plot, the unwinding of the riddles and the strategy. I knew that, as is, I could make the scenario exciting, but I didn't think they'd really appreciate it as much as other groups.

So why not just come up with something different?

First and foremost, I like to give credit where it is due. I modified quite a lot of the 'Prince of Redhand' adventure, but it was still the Prince of Redhand. The two portions of 'Library' that hooked me were as follows: the notion of a library of lore literally encased away from history, and the notion that it was druids that created it, not the usual wizardly scapegoats. These were Logue's ideas, and so the basis of the adventure stays to credit him

The idea of the library outside of time very much intrigued me. I thought about this quite a bit. The Lodge of druids responsible for it, I decided, were caretakers of knowledge of all kinds, and locked away all of the material in the library because it was horribly dangerous to know, or horribly useful. How they figured out a way to lock it up wasn't important to the general plot, but the impact of what happens to the world when the library is opened is... you see, when the Library of Last Resort is accessed, you better absolutely NEED the information you want, because there's no such thing as browsing. ALL of the information in the library is returned to the world at that moment. Facts are reinserted into historical books, books written and vanished reappear as if they'd followed the path they would have if they hadn't been removed from history, and so on. Stories that would have been told over generations are suddenly remembered by people who would have known them.

That's what I call earth-shaking magic, and that sort of decision (do we dare open the library? do we really need what we think we need from here?) is exactly what my players love to deal with.

So, rather than set it up as a series of combats, I decided the set encounters were going to be with druidic sects that had been removed from the world as well, for some reason or other. Perhaps they had teachings which were in danger of being wiped out. Perhaps they were traditions that were frightening and violent, in compared to other druidic groups. Whatever the reasons, the Elders who watch over the Library will send the players out to contend with these groups. A different trial would be warranted for each of them: win the respect of, convince another group, outright battle this group, and so on. This is done so the characters can prove themselves worthy of the library, but also because the Elders want them to see first hand what else they'll be releasing into the world.

Part of telling a good story is telling a story the listeners want to hear, but keeping it twisting enough that it grows into something new for them, something new within them. This particular arc is going to be very significant for the group, being the culmination of over a year and a half of plot buildup, and I certainly want them to feel the weight of that.

Edit: I wrote this a while back, but didn't want to post in order to preserve surprised for my players. I'm now posting this shortly after the first actual session at Tilagos, and the interparty debate over some of the decisions to make was the fiercest I've seen it in a long time. They've also had a lovely time exploring some of the unusual druidic traditions lurking there.

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From the Z-File: Shalis

Friday, August 1, 2008 - 10:19 AM

Shalis is one of several examples of potentially-never-used characters currently sitting in my z-file. Periodically, I'll be posting some more of these people here.

Outlawed in most of the known world, blood magic is condemned for its addictive nature and the deteriorating effects it tends to have on both morals and ability. The swift and terrible power it can offer is a strong lure, however, particularly to those who have little aptitude or patience for arcane arts and sciences.

Temni and Admeia were two apprentices to a Bindsu Curator, one of those who quelled the spontaneously occurring undead in Urakh and watched over the tremendous fossil-and-bone edifice known as the Sarcophagus. Temni, like most apprentices, had been taken from a poverty-stricken home at a young age, whereas Admeia's mother had served the Curators for nearly twenty years before resigning from exhaustion and strain. The Curators have a relentless meritocracy, full of tests both intellectual and moral in order to assess who might stand as a Curator, and competition is quite fierce among the apprentices to prove themselves worth the position.

Temni had the ambition, but magic did not come easy to him. Admeia adored his ambition, having little of her own, and the two fell in love. Admeia's mother had secretly taught her the seeds of blood magic, telling Admeia to use it just enough to get ahead, and then put it aside. But Admeia, during a particularly brutal year, shared these secrets with Temni, and at first, magic seemed very simple.

Unfortunately, the headiness of power overwhelmed them, and their blood magic was discovered. They barely escaped with their lives, and ran off to hide in the deep forests of Urakh. Like most novice blood mages, they had fallen prey to the arcane lassitude of their art, and they never became great magicians.

They did, however, bear a son: Shalis.

From conception, Shalis was subjected to the ebb and flow of blood magic. From birth, his parents realized that he had inherited their arcane addiction, and in a fit of conscience, attempted to create a ritual involving a captive vampire to transfer the 'hunger' to the undead creature. Their lazy innovation worked, but only in part.

Shalis lost the hunger for blood magic, and gained a hunger for vampires.

Shalis, to the disappointment of his increasingly muddled parents, had little talent or interest in magic. He held them in contempt for their addiction, and was content to leave their fog of failed ambition and high expectations when he was fifteen. He found his way to Urakh's slouching capitol city, and learned quickly that the world was as merciless as his parents made it out to be.
He also found that he had talents beyond other young men, the foremost of which was an unusual magnetism that could inexplicably lure people to him or send them shivering in terror.

Enjoying his new sense of power, he started a ragged band of street urchins to pickpocket for him, and began a small network of allies in Urakh's stifling underworld. As he grew older, however, the unusual traits unwittingly given him by his parents became both more apparent and harder to repress. When he slew a vampire's bound servant for coin, he was compelled to glut himself on the man's blood, and instinctively realized the nature of the gnawing that he'd carried within him for years.

Not yet skilled enough to fight a true vampire, he nonetheless killed the man's master later. This event surprised both of them; it was a combination of luck and an unusual resistance to vampiric powers. When Shalis drank the vampire's blood he felt complete in a way he had never known. Unfortunately, the vampire had many allies in Urakh, and Shalis was forced to flee.
Since then, Shalis has grown in skill and talent. He wandered through Urakh's countryside for some while, tracking vampires and killing them, and eventually left Urakh because of restlessness.

Notes on Shalis:

Shalis is sarcastic and daring. He is one of those people who seem like they'd be awesome to be around in a book or movie, but in real life they aggravate everyone. He doesn't care about the opinions of others, and doesn't particularly care about anyone as a rule. Despite this, he is periodically dapper and courteous, and he can be very eloquent when it suits him; Shalis makes friends easily and drops them just as easily.

In general, Shalis trusts people to be self-serving, and that is the only way he trusts them. His own goals are simple enough: make profit in order to purchase or obtain comforts, find vampires or vampire-bound creatures to persuade them to give up their blood, and stay alive. This last has turned into a game for him, and his contempt for most people shows best when he deals with vampires. In general, Shalis prefers to find vampires, cater to their whims, and play on their arrogance. He is very careful and methodical in this process, wheedling his way into their servitude, learning as much as he can and then planning their destruction. He mocks and despises vampires for being what they are, and sneers at their sense of superiority.

Shalis has another motivation that he is not entirely aware of, however. Though his uncaring nature is quite sincere, Shalis would very much like to care about something. His ceaseless wandering is an outward sign of his restless search for someone or something to believe in, something to prove his cynical view of the world wrong at least in some small sense. He knows he's strong, and he knows he could be a hero, but he doesn't believe in anything worth fighting for except himself. Shalis is, essentially, a loner by nature, but he doesn't like it.

In the plot I wrote him for, Shalis has found some purpose in Tirilan, who is nothing like the stilted, dreadful necromancers Shalis grew up knowing in Urakh. Tirilan certainly raises undead and commands them, and he certainly is capable of foul deeds, but he comports himself as an officer and a gentleman. Shalis originally thought Tirilan's sense of courtesy was to catch foes off-guard, but he has come to realize that Tirilan is chivalrous because it is the proper way to behave. Honor is all-important to Tirilan.

Of course, Shalis also enjoys the luxury of being a companion to one who can literally summon vampires and make them do his bidding... but Tirilan's utter devotion to the coming of the Black Sun has intrigued Shalis, and the hollow within is beginning to clamor for purpose.

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Names and Faces

Sunday, July 27, 2008 - 12:34 PM

I am addicted to writing new people. While doing some planning for the next session of my DnD group, I came to fully realize how much of the work I do is character-based. My favorite plots are by far character driven, and one of my favorite aspects of RPGs in general is intercharacter relations. There are very few NPCs in the games I run who do not have some kind of backstory. Even if the players never find it out (or care, for that matter), it's there, waiting.

This, unfortunately, also dredges up tons of stories and plots that never get used. This plethora of inspirational bursts all end up in a couple of extensively huge files which I comb over on those occasions where I'm drawing a blank on the next puzzle piece of whatever story I'm running. Not unlike the vast amount of material in my gaming library, I could probably spend a good ten years without using everything in that file. Sometimes it is a bit aggravating, but it's also a source of fascination to me, sorting through these names and faces and thinking 'Where did this one come from?' It's like rediscovering an old book that you forgot you had.

The added layers of interaction provided by an RPG really brings these characters to life, both for themselves and the players who meet them. In the course of the games I've run, there have been many characters who my players remember very well indeed, and I'm pleased to have been able to provide that experience for them. Some of these random characters started out as mere henchmen or local craftsmen, and as players settled into their own roles, they discovered more about these people and thereby discovered more about the world their own alter-egos were wandering about in.

That sort of perspective is, I think, why a game with well-made characters will shine above others. Immersion is a key to any story, and the fastest way to make someone relate to a situation is to provide them with a sounding board in the form of a character they can find something in common with. In a world where the impossible can happen, it can be hard for the participant from our world to really grasp how the thoughts and feelings of those in the impossible will be shaped. When you provide complete people from that world to interact with, their perspective gets shared in a contained way that the player can take in and use.

Added perspective also lets players flesh their characters out further. Character development is often relegated to 'awful things happen, what do you do' situations, and that's a pity; it can be so much more. For example, in my current campaign, the party encountered a rather horrific woman named Corant, who was capable of some ferociously awful things. Certainly the fight against her was a nasty one, but it wasn't the fight that truly impacted the PCs; it was what they discovered much later about her past as a girl. Corant is laid to rest, but the seed of her history still sits in the players, and over twenty sessions later, the girl who would later become a monster still influences their decisions. On a much gentler note, this same group has had their characters grow from conversations with archmages explaining to them what it really means to save the world, from moral dilemmas and debates thrown from one to another, and even merely from one repentant NPC, seen only one session, who offered a PC his sword as an apology for fighting against them.

The progression of the story and watching my players go through the story, changing it as they go; this is a significant part of why I run games. And now, as I describe Tirilan, Jolani's son, in words and numbers, I wonder to myself what new twists he will offer them.

If they ever meet him, that is.

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Art demands Art

Saturday, July 19, 2008 - 1:53 PM

This was originally posted under a pen-name blog of mine, some while ago. Due to my artist recently creating something based on this work, I'm reposting it here.

I can't emphasize how well she captured Sinclair.
Sinclair by Liz Harper

There were only three ways to survive Between, according to Sinclair. You had the strength to take what you needed, you were smart enough to get what you needed, or you always had what others needed. Sinclair took it one step further; s/he made certain others had needs.

In the Between, Sinclair's fingertips were a number of unconnected hovels, husks that emulated the lost souls who always came back to them, again and again; wreckage, broken architecture, a smashed and featureless facade hiding the gaudy velvet synesthesia of whatever mad dreams and fancies lolled senseless within. Sinclair had many customers, some who served, and some of whom never actually left.

Today, Sinclair was predominantly female, with a lean, arrogant face. Heavy auburn hair hung around it like banyan vines, twisted into braids, and writhing out from them were snake-skeleton tattoos, sunning themselves across bare, pale shoulders, tails hidden at the nape. Full lips were touched with dark gloss, pressed into a regal pout, and a pair of silver rings stitched the bottom lip. The body was slender and efficient, Sinclair's preference, with the sort of impossible proportions that drew the eye of man and woman both. No matter what flesh Sinclair was wearing, the eyes were always the same; blue and cold, like arctic sky, poisonous as mercury.

Those who knew Sinclair understood that it was not inattention that kept those eyes unfocused, always seeming to slide away from things in their view. These eyes were fixed on a lanky man of sinew and bone, wrapped in Betweener rags, who was pleading for clemency. It was accounting day, when Sinclair collected what was due. Unlike the Horse Trader, another of the great merchants Between, Sinclair loved debt, and adored drawing business out over months and years.

To one side stood Emily, Sinclair's accountant, dapper and autistic, a prodigy of numbers that Sinclair had bought from the King of Fools a while back. She murmured the man's accounts over and over in her small, reedy voice, which always made Sinclair think of a very small violin. Two others indebted to Sinclair kept the man penned, two very loyal sheepdogs who craved disobedience from their flock. Neither had the wits or will to break Sinclair's hold on them, but they were happy with their job, and that was as Sinclair preferred. A few others looked on, mostly those also in debt. Walter, a slender fair-haired man with uncommonly long fingers and an excellent kinesthetic sense, occupied space next to Sinclair, carefully holding a couple of kittens, who fussed incessantly.

"You don't have anything more to trade," Sinclair announced softly. "You come here and plead to me."

The man was still reaching forward, as if he were drowning and Sinclair might save him. "I can't dream anymore!"

"That's because your dreams are on lease. I keep them in a very lovely silk and silver Faberge egg near my bedside," Sinclair said. "My books aren't even; you'll have to give something... come forward, and let me see your hand."

The two sheepdogs were very disappointed that the man didn't even hesitate. Sinclair made a mental note to punish them on general principle for not being polite; there was too much brutal eagerness showing. When the man reached out a hand, Sinclair took it, running long fingers over it, cool as snakeskin. To Sinclair's flesh, the flesh of another was a book. Reading deeper than veins and muscle and bone, Sinclair deciphered the riddles and metaphors of blood and nerve, rewriting some of what was found there, rearranging the patterns of body chemistry.

Looking at the man, Sinclair smiled, and offered a hand, palm open.

The man knew what this was, and there was a flicker of reluctance, and fear, but he knew there was no choice.

Sinclair hated leaving people choices. They should just do as they were supposed to. And this one did; he licked the palm. Almost immediately, he seized up, made a startled manikin, and fell to the floor, twitching slightly. Sinclair tilted a glance at Walter.

"Walter, sweetheart, go ahead and let the children play."

Walter, smiling softly at being noticed, walked over to the man, and set the kittens down. The little creatures immediately started clawing and biting, tugging and bounding about the immobile body. Walter patted them fondly and then moved back to his place near Sinclair. Sinclair silently hushed Emily, and then looked at the line of debtors. This happened almost every time, and it was never tiring to watch their faces.

"This man can feel everything that is happening to him," Sinclair told their hungry faces. "He will not die, unless I let him, but he'll be spending the rest of the day under the happy needlepoint attention of kittens. Each hour, I shall have dear Walter add two more kittens, until there are twenty. And they won't tire of him; I made certain of that. Now, this man is short but one day in his dues. Some of you, Emily tells me, are short far more than that this month. Consider that I have a sense of proportion. Consider this, and consider something to offer me when I call you here next. Those who have nothing may leave for now. The worthy may stay, and offer what they will."

And just as always, many of the hollow-eyed clients slithered out, fearful, addled in their need for Sinclair, and what Sinclair had for them. And just as always, Sinclair knew that some would now offer up far more than they would have. They had heard the stories of Sinclair's other methods, the penchant for thieving the body of another even while they were still using it, the horrible intrusion of Sinclair's body into their own.

They crept forward, careful.

Emily began the next page of debts, and Sinclair whispered to her to tally up payments, fixing eyes on the kittens, who gnawed and pricked the paralyzed man's hand raw, content and simple in their cruelty.

Little darlings, thought Sinclair, and smiled.

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The Flavor of Machinery

Saturday, July 12, 2008 - 10:24 AM

While combing through the 4ed Monster Manual the other day, I came to a sudden realization.

I didn't recall seeing a single monster who, outside of basic skills, had any special ability outside of combat applications.

I did a second look-thru, and though a very, very few exceptions exist, the monsters in the book are nothing but blocks of combat stats. Even in the case of the exceptions, there are barely any indications as to how these abilities are used except in combat situations.

Before I continue, I want to be sure people don't consider this observation a complaint on my part. This is the flavor of 4ed; it is a combat game, and emphasizes combat more than 3.5 by quite a bit. So, it is what it is. However, I think that the significance of this mechanical foundation is being overlooked by a good number of people.

When you build a conflict resolution mechanic for a game, it will influence the overall feel of the game. It doesn't matter how well you story-tell around the mechanics of a system; one way or the other, the mechanic will affect the mood and the tone. Further, what gets delineated mechanically and how will certainly affect how people build their characters, and therefore influence how the characters behave during the course of the game.

In Kult, for example, the system makes combat very dangerous. There is no heroic dodging of bullets in this game; if someone pulls a gun, you take cover, because it doesn't matter how tough you are. By the rules of the game, any slob with a gun can kill you with one bullet. This mechanical emphasis on how fragile a character is enhances the claustrophobia and paranoia of the setting overall. Also, for practical reasons, it influences people to keep their characters out of combat.

Another fine example is Riddle of Steel, where things which are important to your character actually enhance your performance in the game system. This provides a mechanical reward to players who pursue their character's passions and agendas, and also allows them to communicate to the GM in no uncertain terms what they want to do in the game... particularly because these same agendas and passions are given specific game statistics and are responsible for generating experience points in that system.

In 4ed, noncombat skills have been boiled down and reduced to a smaller set of categories. Skill challenges are an interesting new tension-filled way to handle use of skills (though really, some GMs have been doing something similar with 3rd for a while now). However, the vast majority of mechanically defined applications and abilities (and I do mean vast) are all to do with combat. There is a nominal smattering of 'utility powers', and certainly the ritual casting opens up a good few options, but again, it's few options. Combine this with the level requisites for various rituals, and you quickly find that outside of a small parcel of trained skills, your average 4ed character is not, mechanically, very versatile.

I'm going to break my usual rule about comparing 3.5 and 4ed at this point, because 3.5 is the nearest best point of contrast for what I'm observing here. In 3.5, everything was delineated, and skills were fairly extensive. Their use was further enhanced even in an out-of-combat capacity by various feats, prestige classes and sometimes magic items. Monsters often had abilities which were certainly out-of-combat oriented, even if they were only spells and the like. Utility spells complemented skill use, and skills such as Performance provided additional options for players in the social context.

In contrast, I note that, as written, neither the Succubus or the Pit Fiend in 4ed can even detect magic. In the case of player characters, utility-style abilities are heavily level dependent, and you only ever get a limited few. Skill checks are the primary way to get anything done mechanically outside of combat, and in 4ed, anybody can make a skill check. Some are better than others at it, certainly, but if you have a hankering to build a skill-focused character, your options are few. The vast majority of abilities as presented are for tactical combat.

Certainly the GM can add or subtract to a game whatever they like. My policy is that you do not let the system run you; you run the system. But looking exclusively at the mechanical support for given types of actions in 3.5 and 4ed, one can see what the feel of the game is going to be. That said, the feel overall of 4ed may change depending on where they take the game from here (and that is a very big question). As it stands, those people who enjoy diversity in a character and social interactions outside of a peripheral view will probably want to stick with 3.5. How you define your character may start in your head, but the numbers let you know what you can and cannot, absolutely, do in the game. In 4ed, those numbers are almost exclusively, and very specifically, about combat.

Is it wrong? No. A different game than 3.5? Absolutely yes. I'll play both, myself, but I can readily tell what players will enjoy which game more. I still maintain 4ed is a very clean system overall, but it is (currently) a very focused system with a strictly limited perspective on how the world works.

One might think they were planning to make a computer game out of it or something.

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Monday, July 7, 2008 - 1:46 PM

My second session of 4ed went sliding by this past weekend, and already I'm finding a definite feel for the system. Judging from other opinions and what I've read, skill challenges seem to be a much larger part of the system than the way I have been using them. This seems to be a sort of compensation for the lack of out-of-combat mechanical options given to the players, at least at lower levels.

Overall, the game went smoothly. There are some design decisions I'm still attempting to figure out (the charging rules seem odd to me, for example, though I understand how they are supposed to work), but in general the rule sets were easy enough to pick up. At this point I need to absorb the quirks of the system and bend it where it needs bending.... there's no system in the world that doesn't need bending somewhere, after all.

I had mixed reviews from players about 4ed. Some really don't like it. Others do. Some are neutral. The major complaints, in general, have been the editing/content of the books (which I agree with), and the lack of sufficient mechanical support for anything not having to do with tactical combat (which I agree with in part).

My own opinion has moved into a reasonably neutral one. There are some ideas here which I like, and which I can translate mechanically into my 3.75 campaign (never trust 3.5 by itself). As a system, 4ed is solidified in my mind as a tactical wargame with RP enhancements tacked on. It is a reasonably quick system with a good, solid balanced system foundation. Character options at the moment are very limited, but that also keeps things streamlined which in and of itself is not a bad thing. However, there are some bits and pieces in the rules text which are just not written very well, and I expect as time goes by more rules arguments are going to crop up about things which the designers probably did so many times they figured nobody needed clarification on them. Lastly, I am certain that the foundation of the game is going to suffer when the publisher dumps a horde of new character options into the next set of rulebooks. I hope my certainty is ill-founded... but I'd say it's a safe bet, judging from what I've seen happen in other games time and again.

On the tweaking 3.5 note, I'm very much enjoying the Pathfinder material that has been coming out these days. The Paizo group has been consistent in their creativity and quality, in my opinion, and I see no reason to cancel my subscription with them, even though I don't game nearly often enough to make use of everything I get from them. Even so, spinning source material through my brain always leaves a trail of seeds that burst into something new, and I enjoy that well enough. Integrating some of their rule changes and adaptations for the standard 3.5 system is something I'm playing with at the moment.

As far as playing is concerned, I'll be posting some information about the 4ed scenario that I was testing out this past weekend... and the continuation of that scenario, as well. In this particular adventure, I am adhering strictly to the guidelines presented in the 4ed books, to see how they play out in practice with the sorts of players I run games for. Also, more Paths fiction is on the way.

Until then...

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Dinner with the Despot

Monday, June 30, 2008 - 10:02 AM

For quite some time now, I've been adapting the plot arc from the Age of Worms adventure path (Dungeon magazine), and my group had finally gotten to the point where they needed information from a decadent prince's advisor. This brought us to Richard Pett's inspiring "Prince of Redhand" adventure, which is more or less entirely revolving around a dinner party.

Being the sort of fellow I am, I'd long since decided to have an in-game dinner party. Due to various difficulties in wrangling NPCs, schedules and other incidents where life kicks one in the shins, this party kept getting delayed. But a weekend ago, pressed for time, I pushed it, and things came together at last.

I didn't get much rest that weekend, but the result was well worth it. The original menu was very bizarre, but I simply didn't have time to do the food fabrication I would have preferred, and instead adhered to a menu with the theme of 'things hidden'. It went for five courses, dinner was all in-character, and people had a fantastic time.

We had four PCs and five NPCs at the table, not including myself. NPCs had 13 points of Favor that they could allocate to anyone else, and they were to keep track of these things. Favor could be given only up to 2 points at a time, but any amount could be taken away at a time. This had little in-game impact, primarily counting for future interactions between the PCs and NPCs, but people were to tell me if they gave someone 6 or more Favor.

Sometimes the Prince didn't care for some of the Favor being thrown around, and it is dangerous to offend him.

On that note, everyone started with points in the Prince's Regard. Everyone also started with three cards, essentially, denoting their ability to resist, influence or otherwise juggle the Prince's Regard. Unfortunately, I was not horribly clear on explaining how to use these cards, so they did not get used as much as I'd hoped... but a few did, and that was quite fine. Each card could only be played once, and of course, the Prince could give or take Regard at his whim. As a result, nobody really knew what their Regard score was by the end of the game... unless it had reached zero, at which point the Prince was not happy with that person, and it was generally fairly obvious.

Even without cards, the politics were fierce at the table, and there was plenty of chicanery going on. I was quite pleased with the result. I'll close this entry off with the rules for Bowling the Devious Heads, which I based off of bocce, and which my players intensely enjoyed (we used a softball for the Dead King, and croquet balls for the Dukes).

Enjoy an ancient Redhand tradition in this simple court game of competition and accuracy, in which individual players divide into Factions in order to win the Throne.

The game is played thus:

One ball is the Dead King.
All other balls are Dukes.
Player order for the first turn is chosen randomly.

I: The host stands at the line and tosses or rolls the Dead King underhanded, to whatever distance desired.

II: The players then take up the Dukes, and each in turn stands at the line, wherever they like, and attempts to land their Duke closest to the Dead King. This continues until all players have made a toss.

III: Players are divided now into Factions. The two closest to the Dead King are one Faction, the two next closest are the second Faction, and so on until all players are in Factions. Factions remain as teams until conclusion of the game.

IV: The player who has landed their Duke closest to the ball is the Regent. He takes up the Dead King and tosses underhanded, just as the host did. If one player is left over after division into Factions, that player tosses the Dead King instead, and is named the Pretender.

V: Players again toss their Dukes in an attempt to be as close to the Dead King as possible, starting with the Regent's Faction partner. Turns follow in Faction order. The Regent throws last of all. If the Pretender lands the Dead King, then he throws second to last, prior to the Regent.

VI: In throwing, it is acceptable to knock the Dead King from his position (this is called Creating an Heir). It is also legal to deliberately knock another Duke away from the Dead King with your Duke (Usurping a Duke), though if the Duke is knocked out of the field, the player gets a new throw.

VII: If a Duke lands or rolls outside of the bounds of the Court, he must be retrieved and thrown again.

VIII Factions accumulate points after the completion of each round. Dukes are scored by the number of Factions which rest entirely outside their distance to the Dead King.
Thus, if a Duke lands closer to the Dead King than 2 other Factions, he scores 2 points. It does not matter whether both Dukes of an opposing Faction are outside, so long as one of them is.
Turns change according to who has the highest points in that round. Thus, a new Regent is appointed. Factions remain the same, and if a Pretender is present, he is always the Pretender.
The game is played until one Faction earns 23 points, though it can be played for longer.

IX In a game with a Pretender, the Pretender cannot win the Throne by himself. His points are calculated normally, but after all other points are calculated, and they are then added to the Faction with the lowest score of THAT round, not the Faction with the lowest score overall. The Pretender can only win with a Faction who scores 23 in the same round they take his point.

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Paths, pt 4

Friday, May 30, 2008 - 3:33 PM

Bound, the magician glared defiantly at Sargon, who looked back at the man impassively.

“You have no power left,” said Sargon, matter-of-factly, and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his powerful knees. “You fought us. But you work magic, and so we are offering you this chance to join us, and become free.”

The magician gave him a mirthless grin. “You are all utterly insane,” the magician said with great certainty.

Sargon dropped his brows a notch and sighed. He was a Lightbringer, and this was something he hated about his duties. Chained to their by-rote incantations and their books, the outlander magicians were always too attached to the tyranny of their arcane science, and never wanted to give it up.

“Be reasonable, as we are,” Sargon offered, but the magician was ignoring him now. Sargon continued anyway, keeping his low voice reasonable and mild. “We respect that you know magic, and can use it. But you must see that these limitations you put on yourself are not only controlling your magic, they are constricting who you are. You are caging yourself.”

“And this is your answer? You send ... that... to attack me in my sleep!”

The magician jerked his head towards Trammel's slender, wiry form. The addict was absently rubbing the magician's formerly enchanted ring against his pale cheek, keeping half a heavy-lidded eye on the prisoner.

“That's just strategy. He could have killed you, but he didn't, did he? He just stole your power so we could more easily talk to you.”

“Very diplomatic of you,” spat the magician in reply. “What did you do to him to make him that way?”

Sargon paused. This was not a question he'd been asked before, but he expected there would be many more, in time. “He was born that way. There are many like him, and they serve the Bethorans just as all Bethorans do.”

“Born? You see, that's what your skybending gets you! You ruin the land around you, and then your own children!”

Sargon frowned a bit. “There's no need to be insulting. There's nothing wrong with Trammel. I've trusted him as a comrade in arms since we were both young men.”

The magicians only reply was a sardonic chuckle, and a shake of the head.

Sargon folded his burly arms and cocked an eyebrow. He did not want to kill the man, but they couldn't very well let him go as he was. Their Skyhammer, Nariste, was working a great divination, and he could not ask her for guidance.

He glanced over at their Heretic, Avara, who was some distance away sorting the piles of loot they'd gathered from the small border fort. Ever attentive, she looked up abruptly, like a wolf scenting prey, and he signaled her closer.

Like Sargon, Avara was a warrior. Both had the swarthy complexions, dark hair and golden eyes typical of the Bethoran pure-blooded, but her long-limbed body was far taller than his, all sinew and muscle. Avara was the same without as she was within, stripped of all but purpose.

“What do we do,” he asked her in Flametongue. “He will not see reason, and I dare not disturb Nariste.”

She turned her thin lips into a frown, and replied in kind. “We have time yet. He may come to understand what we bring to his people. It will be two days yet until we move further north.”
He nodded, and was about to reply when the magician spoke up.

“Trying to decide what to do with me? I warn you, savages, I am a member of the Greenstone Tower! If I am killed, my brethren will seek you out and destroy you, and by the God of Ceria- “

“THERE IS NO GOD BUT MAN!!” howled Avara, and smashed the magician in the face with her gauntleted fist.

Sargon was not fast enough to stop what happened, though he'd tried as soon as the magician invoked a deity. He stood up and gave Avara a bland look.

“...Avara, this is not going to help,” he growled.

“I claim Heretic's right,” said Avara immediately. “He blasphemed against Humanity.”

“But he was a magician, he could have joined us.”

“He WAS a magician. But he swore by a false god. And that makes him a slave.”

A reedy sigh interrupted them, followed by Trammel's soft, mellifluous voice. “And you have made him dead. Problem resolved.”

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Paths, pt 3

Saturday, May 24, 2008 - 8:59 PM

Three of the golem-men marched past Kivv. They did not see him, squeezed in an old ore fissure, and when they were ten paces away, he slipped down the passage in the opposite direction.

Something serious had happened. Kivv and the others had heard the conflict echo through the old mine tunnels, but it had stopped abruptly. Now, the golem-men were all on alert, patrolling with scimitars drawn, and the strange humans with the arrogant eyes and vicious features also moved in groups. Before, many of them seemed idle.

Kivv had been sent to discover more, and he'd seen the bodies being carried back through the tunnels. Someone else had come against the Dollmaker, and they were accounting well for themselves.

Confusion to my enemies, Kivv thought, and again regretted Tinka's order forbidding him to kill on his outing. Kivv hated wasted opportunities, but an order was an order.

He froze, stone-still except for one long ear which cocked itself to track approaching footsteps. His wrapped feet merely whispered as he moved to crouch behind a support beam, and shortly two of the strange humans strode by. To the kobold view, they were sword-faced, with long features and narrow, wicked eyes. Their heads were wrapped in long silk scarves and they wore long draping coats, but Kivv knew they'd both have light armor underneath. Like some of the other servants of the Dollmaker, these seemed to be very pleased at the idea of combat.
Decadents, Kivv thought, watching them go. But no less dangerous for that... just more worthy of contempt.

Like most kobolds, Kivv's personal philosophy revolved around the linchpin of Advantage. But as a slanik, he lived a fairly ascetic lifestyle, and had a vague disdain for those who loved comforts. He felt that indulgence was a trap, something that softened you against hardship.

Gliding through the tunnels, he clambered quietly into an air shaft, wormed his way upward with typical kobold rapidity, and then rolled into the old crevice he'd found earlier. Some movement of the earth years ago had split the stone between the air shaft and an upper mining tunnel, and from there, he quickly made his way to the hidden camp where his compatriots were resting.
Enek the shaman was keeping watch. Kivv took a moment to spot Enek's soot-covered form, inwardly grinning at the shaman's aptitude, and then moved past him into the grotto where Tinka and her son Tanaruk were.

Tinka turned her shrewd and regal eyes to him. “What did you discover?”

“It is true. Someone else is attacking the Dollmaker, and has destroyed many of the guardians in the lower passageways. They're all on alert now, and are searching for the enemy. They think what we've done is the other group's work. There are still many of the chanters and monastics left, and I cannot get further in to the Observatory without being noticed.”

He recited the locations and numbers of the guard stations he'd seen, and Tinka questioned him briefly. She then turned to Tanaruk, who had been sitting somberly with hands folded.

“My son?”

“...The advantage is ours. Have Enek prepare a distraction below-tunnels. They will be on alert for this. But their resources are tightening. The Dollmaker will not directly intervene, she is too dedicated to her work. Divine when the others may assault again, and trigger the distraction about the same time. When this occurs, we stab for the Observatory.”

Tinka sampled this plan, narrowing her eyes in thought, and then slowly nodded. “That is what we will do. Kivv, bring Enek here and stand guard for him.”


Kivv slipped back down the passageway, grinning, for he knew their time had come at last.

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Paths, pt 2

Friday, May 9, 2008 - 8:06 PM

Few recognized Tepektu as a seer. He loomed over most men, with a champion's shoulders and the grace of some unnamed, forgotten hero. Bereft of his hood, his face was broad and regally handsome, an emperor's portrait carved from polished teak wood. He'd used this proud bearing to his advantage for years, building a business as a spice merchant, and later, as a broker for goods one had great difficulty finding. He was often assumed to be the half-noble by-blow of some Betrani prince, and in time, he'd become the rich and powerful merchant lord everyone assumed he was.

Few would recognize the true reasons for his success, also. He kept his arcane skill a secret, for he knew how much power the unknown gave him over others. But Tepektu's ability to read the Influences was profound. His talent in sifting through the facets of causality had kept him moving, kept him reaching for more opportunity.

It had also infected him with a degree of fatalism.

Before him, moving under his huge dark hands, discs named for events and people shifted back and forth in a web, and he scowled at one small collection of them. Tepektu rubbed at his chin, considering the patterns.

This is how he ferreted out secrets. He would map the Influences, watch the names shift back and forth through the web, and he would note where they did not go. He would study the areas that went untouched, and then he would divine where those areas matched. In those blank spaces, secrets hid.

For some while now, the problem was in four parts, each bumping into the areas he intended to explore. There they were, again, and again: the Lady of Mirrors, the Wolf-Queen, the Star-binder, and the Gate Warden. Ever since they'd beaten him to the tomb of Camwhyr, he'd been dedicated to staying three steps ahead of them, and so far he'd done so. But lately, in his map of fate, they were leaping through obstacles like lightning to the earth.

Tepektu noted other groups moving along similar paths, but none so close to his as they. They knew of him, but they'd never seen him except once in a vision. He knew they were doomed to meet eventually. No matter what decision he made, if he remained dedicated to his course, they would meet. This did not trouble him; there had been others, before.

Tepektu was still here. The others were not.

Watching the four progress through his map, however, troubled him. Tracing the Influences that pushed at them, tugging their path into swerving here or there, he saw grand and dreadful things. The eruption at Sinid that destroyed a city, the death of one of the Three from poison, the strange dead-star that fell on the plains of Uryashar, the raising of a massive temple near Pesh, the hollow man epidemic at Yhelm, the hags from Dourmoor; whether or not these four were involved or even close to any of these dreadful events didn't matter.

The pattern mattered. The ripples pushed and pulled at the choices the four had, and steered them ever onward, driven by whatever their own ambitions might be. They were carrying a great momentum, and finally, he saw now the empty space that these events surrounded. There were portents, huge and far-flung, and Tepektu was watching at the right place and right time to understand what they enclosed.

At the moment, he did not know if the four understood. But he believed they did.

Tracing his hand along the threads, he examined the silvery collection of icons close to him. Around the Ring-Maker were the Locksmith, the Riddled Prince, the Fire Twin, the Eclipse Daughter, and now, finally, the White Ribbon. Reading the Influences underneath his outspread fingers, he let his hand shift along with the whorls and pools of event and counter-event.
Tepektu's quick, grasping mind studied the icons on the way, and chained them together with symbols. It was inevitable. The four would cross his path again. Both of them were aimed at the Moonstone, an icon prefacing the large hollow in the center of the pattern.

When he came to a conclusion and finished interpreting the Influences, he sat back in his chair, folded his massive arms, and frowned. It was with deliberation and determination that he selected a new icon, one made of burnt black wood, and set it firmly into the center of this space.

His study was utter stillness for some while before a voice addressed him.

“And what is that marker for? The end of the world?”

“No,” replied Tepektu. “It is a time when the world wishes it could end.”

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008 - 10:04 PM

Last game of DnD, my players encountered an oracle, who discussed with them some of the events going on that they were unaware of. Naturally, it's a bit cryptical, given that the oracle didn't know precisely what the truth was either, but the players got a fair amount out of it. In essence, there were five other 'parties' running parallel to the player group. These parties had their own agendas, but due to circumstance and coincidence, tend to follow along the same courses the players do.

Originally, to give the players something to think about, I was going to post a brief snippet of the views of these other parties, and what's happening with them. And that got me thinking about how many stories go unspoken in my campaign. Very nearly any NPC with a name has a backstory and a history. Half of them just sort of explode out of my poor head, fully created, and less than a fourth ever get their full story revealed. So, as a periodic addition here, I'll be posting some pieces of NPC information that never got (nor is likely to be) revealed. This is not only for the DnD group's benefit...I'll be including NPCs from other games too, and I'd like to think some people NOT in my games (I don't have time to run for everybody these days) will get some inspiration and enjoyment out of it.

So, here we have the Path of Hunger.

For a long time, Naello had been terrified. It had been a quiet thing at first, a vague whisper of unease, but as he grew older, his fear grew in turn. His faith hadn't given him respite against the slow inevitability of age, and as his warrior's body tired and weakened, his desperation had grown.

He knew perfectly well that what he'd done was wrong, but how could he have continued to help the world if he became some doddering old man?

Now, cast out from his home city and despised by all those who were once peers and friends, he scowled out at a tangled, thorn-riddled forest, wishing the bleak iron gray of the sky into the hearts of those four who had made a ruin of everything.

The deaths in the city hadn't been his fault. The horrors that followed would never have happened if the four hadn't interfered, but they had.

Naello still had resources, and he intended to prove to the world that he wasn't finished yet. He refused to be remembered as a monster, and refused to succumb to the underhanded treachery that fate had chosen to deal him.

Word had reached him that the dwarf Adun was slain. Martel the Gorecrow, an old foe, also slain. The four had been responsible for both, and now they were running some errand for Caradoc, the one man who never trusted Naello, even from the beginning.

Turning from the stone maw of his window, Naello looked at the black-wrapped huddles behind him, and felt a chill.

These are loyal, he reminded himself. They are loyal, and they will die to do what is right. And I will tell them what is right.

“Listen well. These are the ones you must kill...”

In the days that passed, some farmers near the edge of the wilderness would look up, feeling unease, but they would see nothing, and return to work. Rumors of shadows in the woods grew, and children weren't allowed to stay out after dark. No one knew exactly why, but their instincts told them with a shudder that something was out there.

Much later, bones would be found in the forest, hidden, and gnawed clean. The occasional lone traveler would be noted missing, but most of the bones would go unnamed.

The five moved unseen. They would listen at windows in the evening, loping silently along back roads and hidden paths, covering great stretches of ground because their hunger made them tireless. Skulking, they collected whispers and rumors, and over time built a path to take them to their quarry. The five moved like the black talons of a single hand, slipping from the dark thickets of the wilderness to the edges of country roads, and then further north and east to lurk in wide fields and scattered forests.

A month since Naello had unleashed them, they circled a township nestled in some verdant hills, and caught a scout near there. They told him what they wanted to know, and they ate him, and took his bones to leave no traces. They were not the first devourers in that area, they knew; they'd found old ghoul tracks.

When they came near the burial mound hidden in the woods, they felt the faint tingle of consecration on the area, and fanned out, pale shadows wrapped in black, flitting between pool of moonlight and streak of midnight, shifting slowly, intent on their task.

Early that morning, Caer Ondal's villagers heard a frightening ululation in the night, and they wondered if the ghoul-worshippers had not yet been wiped out.

The truth was that the neshniya had found the scent they'd been seeking for so long. By sun-up, they were already miles away, hunting for Naello's designated prey.

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Excerpt: The Hand of Bethor

Saturday, April 19, 2008 - 1:07 PM

“Most years, they stay in the wilderness. We see their witchlights and the violet flames in the distance. It is not well to enter that land, because of the work they do... some years, they come out and bring their work against us. They shout of freedom and power, but we have seen what they are. They are all mad.”
Herennya, Matriarch of the Hhanash iron druids

“The Church of Bethor is insidious beyond measure. Somehow, though they are all mad, many choose to join them. Their numbers swell when they skulk in our cities. Soon after, the battle is joined, and the Church of Bethor attempts to enslave all those who do not join their blasphemy. They hold great power, but it is power which destroys their own as well as others.”
From the roster of Blasphemous Cults, in the High Temple of Kesr.

“Bethorans aren't mad in the way most people think. They see the world differently, maybe, but they're very rational. At least, the leaders are. Look past the insane cultists, look past their zealotry, and you'll notice... they're smart. They plan, they plan far ahead, and they're good at improvising when things don't go well for them. It's easy to say they're just madmen, but the Bethorans have been in the world for over five hundred years. Clearly, they know what they're doing... whatever that is.”
From the personal journals of Wallace Rievenfeld

Viewed as insane cultists with an obsession for stealing enchanted items, the Bethorans are actually a sophisticated and ancient society who views magic as an essential form of expression. Though splinters of the organization have secretly lodged in cities far from their homeland, most still consider the Bethorans as backwards-minded fanatics who have little to no order at all.

The Bethorans are actually two connected groups. Bethoran purebloods are those born Bethoran, usually raised in their magic-tainted homeland. Adopted Bethorans are outsiders who have been accepted into Bethoran culture. These groups work in conjunction to further the goals of the Bethoran whole, although many adopted Bethorans are not sane enough to understand the bigger picture, and are used as a barrier to those investigating the truth of the Bethoran movement.

The Vision of Bethor

Skybending was the first magical technique known to humans. In this method, the magician becomes a funnel for raw magical power, and attempts to shape it with his will as it explodes out of him. Though this process is capable of incredible creation, it is also inherently dangerous, and prolonged skybending in a given area can create various forms of magical pollution. As such, skybending in the current age is completely forbidden in nearly all civilizations.

Humans learned the fundaments of modern magic from the High Elves. The elves presented a cleaner, more efficient wizardry, allowing a reliable technique that did not corrupt the surroundings. Most humans jumped at the chance to learn, but there are rare exceptions mentioned in history. One such name was Bethor Chainmaker.

Bethor was a very successful skybender and warrior, chieftain to a large nomadic clan in what are now the wilds of Amboq. Accounts of the day state that he refused the elven teachings, calling them subtle tyrants who were attempting to control and subjugate humanity by restricting their power. He claimed they feared human ascension, though he did say it was a justifiable fear, for he believed humans are mighty.

Bethor's philosophy was that magic is the purest expression of the human will, and therefore, any attempt to codify or constrain or restrict magic is an attempt to restrain and limit human potential. He believed that magic is for all, and should be used in all situations.

In response to the quickly spreading elven influence, Bethor's clan absorbed several other large clans in the territory, and began to teach skybending to anyone with the fortitude to use it, as a prelude to waging open war. Accounts differ wildly on the events of Bethor's war, but it is true that he drove the elves away from his people, using massive magical assaults that claimed the lives of many of his own people as well as the enemy. The arcane fallout from these magical assaults would be the the foundation for the bizarre and erratic magical influences that blanket the Amboq, influences which would increase further from generations of skybending.

It is uncertain what happened to Bethor himself. It is assumed that any further records of Bethor's life are somewhere in the Amboq, if not destroyed. After the war, his people fortified their homeland and presumably retreated to develop the foundations of modern Bethoran culture. Would-be invaders avoided the Amboq, afraid of the seething magic that had racked the land, and the Bethorans did not leave the Amboq for several generations. The true history of the Bethorans remains unknown, and few historians are willing to brave the Amboq for further records..

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Friday, April 4, 2008 - 11:33 AM

It's been a while.

I tend to be ambitious about running my games, and unfortunately, my ambition got away with me this time. Due to impending schedule changes, I have to postpone my Dark Heresy game until further notice. This gripes me a bit; I was looking forward to it, but my other two games are going really very well, so I don't feel I have much room to complain.

Speaking of which, I've been mentioning some peculiarities of pacing in one of those games. Specifically, the game is Kult, which for those not familiar, is in the 'personal horror' genre. I've run a good many Kult games up to this point. The base system is not particularly good, in my opinion, but the way the game handles sanity (itself very subjective in the game) is quite elegant, and there is a strong mechanical impact on facets of the character's personality... or vice versa. I believe that this touch is one of the keys as to why Kult games tend to go through the same stages, regardless of the player base or the story the GM is running.

In Kult, at least, stages of the game are defined by character development, and they come at particular break points. Though the break points might be spaced differently from game to game, they follow the same order, and in my current game I was able to predict them to the very session they occurred. The curious might define these stages as follows:

Exploration: Upon discovering something not in the world view, the PCs start edging out of their normal environment. This brings them closer together as a group, often regardless of differences. Their curiosity pulls them forward.

Attachment: At this point, the PCs have attached their desires and ambitions to events. This is usually where the players themselves have gotten a better feel for their characters, which I believe is a strong contribution to this breakpoint. This is the place where directions are decided upon, which invariably leads to:

Conflict: The world isn't what they thought it was. Now, the PCs are finding that THEY aren't who they thought they were, and neither are their friends. I describe this moment as me putting guns on the table, and the PCs all pointing them at each other. Part of this is certainly a deeper understanding of the characters being played, but it is also a natural reaction to something else that tends to occur by this point in a Kult game... which is, PCs lose control of themselves and their uglier sides tend to show.

Them Against Us: This is where it gets tricky. The isolation gets to the PCs. They don't have anyone to turn to except themselves... better the familiar enemy than the unknown, in the worst case. In a way, the party turns inward to try and deal better with the outside influences. It doesn't tend to be the least bit comfortable.

There are a couple other points, but my Kult players read this, and I don't want to spoil the surprise.

Each Kult game I've run (and been in), these happen, right on schedule. This doesn't come from any attempt to steer the players. They react to story lines and situations, and this pattern just ends up happening. I find it fascinating to consider why, and chatting with my players about this got me to thinking about patterns that happen in other RPGs. In My Life With Master, this sort of irrevocable progress is actually mechanically supported, which is one reason I regard the game as utter genius, but in Kult the process is far more organic. I do believe that those games which provide mechanical support for character personality elements are those which might have a stronger set of patterns (Humanity in Vampire, Mental Balance in Kult, Sanity in Call of Cthulhu, etcetera, though the CoC pattern seems to be 'investigators go mad/die').

I'll be looking at my games closely. You should, too. You might be surprised at what behavioral models you find at the table.

LARP dynamics? That's an entirely different beast. I'm not going there.

Well, not this time.


Level Up! pt 2

Friday, March 14, 2008 - 11:08 AM

In Destined, there are many planes of existence, but all of them overlap in a central bubble, which is the Destiny Plane. All other planes are limited by their nature in potential and change, but the Destiny Plane represents all of their possibilities. Within the Destiny bubble, there are universes upon universes flowing in a constant stream of actions and consequences and events. The strongest of these streams within a stream is the Destiny Prime, which represents the campaign world. Whether or not it is one single world among many, or several universes in itself isn't important for this discussion. What is important here is that destiny flows strongest through the Prime.

Destiny here is not a passive force. It isn't a foreordained doom or prophecy that comes to pass automatically. Destiny in this cosmology is fluid, and uncertain. However, it does obey certain laws. We'll examine these laws in the context of levels.

Levels, in the Destined setting, are interpreted as accumulations of destiny (not that any character has any notion of this). The more levels one has, the more significant one's destiny has become, be it through personal decisions or mere circumstance. When a character goes from level 1 to level 5, they are forcing their will for change upon the cosmos, and though destiny is grudging, it will move once enough momentum is generated.

As the character continues to advance in levels, they face greater difficulties, because destiny naturally seeks equilibrium. This is one reason why higher level encounters, before apparently unnoticed or simply not there, abruptly crop up when characters reach a higher level. Destiny pushes back, when it gets pushed... to the point of suddenly throwing momentum into a local ogre, say, who the characters might remember as being a lowly warlord. This local ogre suddenly finds things happening in his favor, and behold, he becomes a monstrous emperor with a great army. When one carries great destiny, others of similar weight are drawn to you. This works both ways; a standard fantasy trope is that a mighty evil overlord appears, only to be overthrown by an unlikely group of heroes... who level up very quickly, don't they?

Just as destiny can pool against the dam of a high level character, it can also drain from a place when equilibrium is met. Though it is difficult to simulate mechanically, I judge that accumulated destiny fades if the possessor does nothing with it, or has achieved his goals, or otherwise ceased to carry momentum. In a good many legends, great heroes eventually die from some small, minor thing after they've done with being great heroes, and I use that as a proof. Hercules is slain by a poisoned shirt, for example. Sure, it was assumed it was a very nasty poison, but maybe he just didn't have the saving throw he used to.

In my campaign, I restrict this increase/decrease effect to NPCs only. I'm continually toying with a mechanical representation of this, inspired by the excellent Spiritual Attributes mechanic of Riddle of Steel (fantastic game, play it if you get the chance). In sum, the SA mechanic means that your character only 'levels up' when they are pursuing certain aspects of their life which are tremendously important to them, and further, those SA's provide mechanical benefit. A peasant who believes in his cause can be a surprisingly strong adversary to a well-trained knight who doesn't have a cause at all. I see destiny as working in the same way. Sometimes it is thrust upon someone, usually to counterbalance the actions of another. Sometimes it is gathered unconsciously by those who have something to prove to the world.

The notion of the Destiny Prime spawned some other ideas, also. If there is a Prime, then there are alternate realities within the Destiny Plane that have branched off from decisions made in the Prime. These decisions are significant enough to create a different stream, but most of these end up flowing back into the Prime. Some, however, do not, and form bubbles of their own. Perhaps one day, their events, histories and contents will be seamlessly integrated into the Prime if they grow close enough, but until then, they rest apart. Some fundamental decision, somewhere back in the chain of causality, made these bubbles very different sorts of places. The inhabitants of the Prime are utterly unaware of these destiny bubbles, and would probably be disturbed at some of them.

My submission to the Wizards of the Coast setting search competition was one such bubble, a world called Rhoa. In Rhoa, conflict is hard-coded into the flow of destiny; there will never really be peace there. The divergence from the Prime ensures that conflict will continue. This makes it a brutal, visceral sort of place where beauty is precious and fleeting. The setting has gone through several stages of refinement and expansion since its creation for the competition, and I'll be sharing some facets of it in later posts.

Final note for today: My players are all awesome. I'm a happy man.


Level Up! pt 1

11:03 AM

Levels are a common way to designate degrees of power in RPGs. How levels are interpreted, and the size of the power difference from one to the other can vary, but if levels exist, there are some questions lurking in the background.

What is really the difference between level 1 and level 5? How many people of a given level are there? If earning a level is a more or less permanent thing (barring undead exposure or temporary death), then why is it most people never get past level 1? Surely a level 1 commoner racks up experience points enough to become a level... 5 commoner during the course of a full lifetime.

'Leveling up' means more skills, more powers, more hit points, and occasionally more spells. A higher level person is simply harder to kill, and when you use your average in-game scale for damage ratings, anyone beyond level 5 is practically superhuman. A level 10 character fades next to the earth-shaking power of level 15. And before anyone scoffs and points out 'omg, but look at all the level 20-30s', I'd like to remind them that realistically (if you can use such a word here), 95% of the game world's population is going to be level 1.

Perspective, please. Level 10 means, to the average joe, you are unstoppable. You are a mighty hero (or terrifying villain, or just powerfully indifferent). How high levels are depicted in an RPG is a topic for another day, but we'll touch on it briefly here.

I've noticed a fair amount of neglect in showcasing just how significant higher level characters are in the world. Part of it is that most GM s keep to the basic strategy of 'Can the PCs do this?' At high level play, the tagline shouldn't be whether or not they can, but whether or not they Should. This is particularly important in games like White Wolf's Exalted, where the system guarantees that the PLAYERS shape the story, regardless of what the GM might have in mind. A GM who tries to do the usual dungeon-crawl-and-faceoff-versus-powerful-bad-guy tactic may find themselves a little overwhelmed. In DnD the power scale runs a much wider range, with a higher degree of uncertainty in the mechanics. But the significance of a high-level character's actions should definitely be made plain.

Again, the question of 'should', rather than 'can we'?

My brain locked on to the reasons why, precisely, a high level character became so powerful. Why weren't there so many of them? How hard is it, really, to level up? The system of experience points converting to levels is a very abstract concept, and one that has seen a fair amount of parody.

So, I created a cosmology to explain it. This was the spark that eventually generated the default campaign setting that I use, which I simply call Destined (yeah, fine, shoot me, it's what I've got at the moment).



Friday, March 7, 2008 - 10:47 AM

I'll be running a Dark Heresy game sometime soon, something limited session. While considering the plot I had in mind, something short and dreadfully suspenseful, I pondered quite a bit on my own interpretation of the Warhammer 40K setting, which Dark Heresy uses.

Reinterpreting or reinventing the work of other people has been a long-time tradition, even if not necessarily time-honored. The popularity of spinning ideas into new directions is quite plain; one only needs to see the amount of fanfiction out there to understand that. Being the sort of creative zealot I am, I much prefer to generate my own material, but I find it very rewarding and inspiring at times to grow new ideas from someone else's proverbial flowerbed.

Generally, this tends to follow from one of two instances. First, there is something incongruous or illogical or ... just plain odd... which goes unexplained. Second, there is some mechanic in the game system that needs some manner of rationalization to fit into the world, unless you simply intend to gloss over or ignore its presence in-game.

The example I've been sharing recently with a couple friends has to do with the Sisters of Battle. Now, you can come up with all sorts of funny reasons why your standard 40K outfit has tremendous shoulderpads (portable refrigerators for beer) or extraordinarily spiky helmets (pick up pay-per-view three planets away), but what caught my attention was that in almost all illustrations of the Sisters, they are portrayed as beautiful. Stern, maybe, and a few artists toss on a battle scar or two... but beautiful.

Well, we all know how popular hot chicks with guns are for the market.

What do I see? I see women who are taken in as orphans, and raised to a grim, stoic life of faith and militancy. I see women who are indoctrinated to be fanatical warrior-nuns, sworn to burn the heretic and defend the Emperor and the Church. Beauty? Beauty isn't a necessity for soldiers. Why would they all be beautiful?

My brain simmered that in the futuristic dark-ages of the 40K setting, and came up with a conclusion.

I see women who undergo ritual plastic surgery at age 18, so that every single one of them looks like the Founder of their respective order. That means only six possible faces for hundreds of thousands of warrior-nuns. Same hair, same armor, same face, and same faith. It's the capstone to a dehumanizing process to ensure they understand their place. To me, that's the sort of psychological twist that makes the 40K setting evocative. It doesn't always have to be about the out-sized shoulder pads and huge guns.

In terms of mechanics... the level system in Dungeons and Dragons has always warranted a closer look. Just what -are- levels, anyway? How does it translate in the game world, when someone is level 10 and fights someone level 1?

Hit points, at least, you can interpret as skill as well as physical endurance. Rather than saying "The ogre cuts open your leg" on a hit, you might say "You barely manage to parry the ogre's blade, but it shoves you off balance and you feel your arm grow tired". Either way, this is translated as damage. In the case of hit points as skill/fatigue, your character might not even suffer a real wound until you are brought to zero. Everything before that fatal blow would have been exhausting parries, scratches, near-misses and fatigue. Or whatever else.

But what -are- levels? Why precisely is a level 10 person so far above your average level 1 person?

My own interpretation of this mechanic will be the topic of the next post, in which I also explain how it contributed to a cosmology.


The Cult of Mormo, pt 5: ...Mormo

Thursday, February 28, 2008 - 5:22 PM

Mormo is a coward.

An immortal creature that is terrified of dying, Mormo carries a grudge against all those to whom death is natural (mortals), and those who need never fear it (true gods). He is a dreadfully jealous and embittered monster who gluts himself on the suffering of anything weaker than he is. As noted previously, mere death does not satisfy his hatred, and now he feeds on the acts of desecration and defilement. They are a form of sustenance to him.

Whether or not Mormo was always this way is unknown, perhaps even to him.

There are many theories about his origins. Due to his furtive nature and his diligence at keeping himself hidden, Mormo's trail is a vague one at best. Those willing to examine his works in-depth might discover that the earliest traces of worship to Mormo emerge in the bleak land of Tiharanc, historically an area where disillusionment in religion and authority is high. Tiharanc's population has been crushed under the weight of many a tyrant, who often claim right of rulership through the local faith, and wield the church as a tool of authority.

Perhaps Mormo was some form of very powerful, hibernating ghoul that somehow absorbed all the bitterness and contempt from generations of oppression. Perhaps he was drawn there. There are no answers as to what began worship of Mormo, or whether it was him that approached potential followers, or the followers that approached him. Most theologians believe, like other godlings, Mormo was appealed to, and found worshippers to his liking.

He wanders constantly, skulking from hidden den to hidden den, occasionally lurking near his shrines to gather sustenance and amusement from followers or merely unfortunate passers-by. Most of his plots involve ruining the plans of other beings of power, rather than concocting schemes of his own. He just prefers to see others fail. In fact, he avoids any grand schemes that are in any way likely to be noticed, because he prefers not to draw any attention to himself.

However, Mormo is very good at manipulating others to take a fall on his behalf. His preferred prey in this regard are people of particular talent or potential who are ostracized from society for whatever reason. In whispers and omens, he talks to them, swaying them to a course of action that will feed his voracious hunger, and probably ruin their own life in the process. Despite his reputation as a crude, brutal godling, Mormo is capable of tremendous cunning and subtlety, and he prefers to take a cautious approach in whatever he does. This can result in some convoluted plots, where a charismatic bandit leader is influenced by a canny but unstable shaman, who in turn 'divines' advice from a voice in the woods (a ghoul taking orders from Mormo, hiding).

Primarily, Mormo is interested in surviving. Garnering worship feeds him, but more importantly it supplies him with tools to use. He trusts no one, and assumes that, in their true heart, all other creatures are like him, and therefore would prey on him if they could. He knows that he is formidable, and far beyond the skill of most mortals to defeat, but he still takes no chances. He treats a mere farmer the same way he treats a great hero; he prefers to attack them when they are helpless.

Secondary to survival is his hunger. Mormo does not need to eat, but he is a miserable creature, and glutting himself on the agony of others just makes him feel better... at least for a while. The physical embodiment of this appetite is his habit of eating corpses, which is one reason he is affiliated with ghouls. In fact, Mormo himself can easily be mistaken for a normal ghoul of the undead variety (much to the horror of some very, very unfortunate monster hunters), and he often turns his priests into ghouls upon their death.

Mormo has a particular loathing for those who are spiritually minded. Priests and other religious figures are sure targets for him. He despises faith, for he sees it as a pathetic crutch for the weak, but he also hates the surety and harmony that it seems to create in people. These are things he does not have, and he wants to take them away from others. As noted, Mormo prefers to spoil or ruin what others have made, or what they believe in. He certainly regards love and faith as weakness to be preyed on, but the truth is that he is not happy, and he will never rest until the rest of the world is as unhappy and emptied out as he is. Until then, he'll continue creeping about the edges and preying on what he can.

As might be expected, Mormo has no true allies. There are a small number of unpleasant godlings who he works with on occasion, but he is otherwise universally hated by most faiths and organizations, even the evil ones. Mormo wouldn't have it any other way; hate is the only form of sincerity that he understands.

Cult of Mormo part 4
Cult of Mormo part 3
Cult of Mormo part 2
Cult of Mormo part 1

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The Cult of Mormo, pt 4: Insider's Look

1:58 PM

Now that my players are finished smacking around the cult of Mormo, I'll post a lot they don't know, and a little that they do. I don't doubt that there will be some in-game research on the topic (just in case). From a design standpoint, these fellows were pretty much there to give Adun associates as bad as he was.

I'll emphasize that the cult of Mormo isn't the sort of thing that generates save-the-world plots. Though evocative in their own way, the stories they end up being part of are on a much smaller scale. In some respects, this makes them more personal as adversaries. Sometimes it is far easier for a group to get sympathetic about the capture of a single person than to work against the threat of a thousand people dying. Remember too that the cult of Mormo isn't likely to want to randomly off a thousand people. Somebody has to survive to suffer, after all. They prefer their work to be very, very personal. They aren't going to want to take over a town, say, rather than kidnap the mayor's son, do horrible things to him, cut off his nose and then send him home again.

In my campaign, the party discovered a rather large group of Mormo's followers. Later, they understood that this was quite unusual, and wondered just what the meeting was for (some reasons for that are revealed below). Last session, they discovered precisely why... someone else was recruiting, someone who had nothing to do with the cult of Mormo.

As it turns out, these sorts of cultists can make great fire-and-forget allies for the unscrupulous, so long as you keep an eye on them.

The cult of Mormo is a wide-scattered entity, with information about its rites and prayers transmitted to followers by Mormo's priests. These priests generally wander from shrine to shrine, pausing only to recruit new followers or plan some horrible offering. A few are called to watch over a shrine, and act as keepers of lore for the cult. These stationary priests are often the primary teachers of the cult, and they also have the unpleasant task of having to deal with Mormo himself when he happens by... which he might.

Becoming a priest of Mormo requires ruthlessness, an intensity of purpose, and either self-loathing or utter arrogance. Priests are ordained for their cunning, their expressions of hatred, and their capacity to needle secrets out of others. They must be concise in what they want from Mormo. Those without strong will or sense of purpose will forever hover at acolyte status, there to be used and abused by the priesthood.

An important facet of Mormo worship is Mormo's pact with his priests. He invests power in them in exchange for their service, but insists that their behavior is only what they want to do anyway. Mormo does not send specific orders, and he only has a small roster of tenets that he considers important to follow. It is implied that any of his priests may challenge him at any time, and that they may willfully disobey him if it suits their purposes. In fact, he expects it.

The iron fist within this threadbare glove is simple enough. Might makes right, and the priests know Mormo is far stronger than any of them. To challenge or disobey Mormo means one can expect a visit from him, and death would be the preferred outcome of such a visit. Few priests really know what it means to be Mormo's plaything, but none of them ever want to find out.
The basic tenets of Mormo's faith can be described as follows:

  • Love is forbidden in the faith of Mormo. If you love someone, you must hurt them or kill them. If someone loves you, you must use that to inflict great misery upon them, and then perhaps they will turn to Mormo to get revenge against you. In that way, they will become your ally.
  • Devotion is folly. Mormo offers concrete rewards, and asks only that you do what is natural to you. The more you make yourself strong, the more he will gift you with his power. He does not want worship, only food. You do not want to worship Mormo, you want to BE Mormo.
  • You are a monster. There is no right or wrong. Those who try to cling to right and wrong do so because it makes them feel powerful and protected. Nothing in the world can protect you except yourself.
  • Take joy in hurting the weak. It is what they are asking you to do, after all. The world is nothing more than the strong eating the weak. The weak submit and die. There is no reason to be merciful. All are your enemies, and they will do to you what you are doing to them, if they were stronger than you.
  • Some will attempt to convert you and make you redeem yourself or atone for your foul deeds. This is just a lie to bring you under their power. If you follow their rules, you become a pawn. Lie to them, instead, feign repentance and then betray them.
    Some will attempt to capture you to bring you to justice. Justice is another stupidity to make the weak feel better about themselves. Kill them all, for they will certainly kill you if they get the chance.
  • Laugh at torture, when it comes from those not of Mormo. They only prove your faith by doing it to you.
  • If you are not cruel, you will fail.
  • Wreck and destroy what is loved. The strong will leave it behind, and understand the truth. The weak will weep and you will laugh at them. It is your right to torment those who are so stupid as to cling to these useless trappings.
  • Stay hidden. Being secret gives you more power. The more your prey does not know, the easier it is to do your will. Mormo wanders in the shadows, and he knows best. There are those who wish to destroy you, because they fear you. Do not give them the opportunity.
  • If you want greater favors from Mormo, you must pay for them. He gives nothing for free. He is an honest god.

Favor from Mormo and personal power are the only real measurements of hierarchy in the cult of Mormo. As a result, strife between priests is common, and murder within the cult's ranks can happen at any time. Though Mormo does not care, he makes a point of punishing such murderers if he happens to be nearby. On the other hand, promotion sometimes occurs with a particularly clever assassination. Most priests are solitary as a result, preferring only to keep ignorant pawns and properly subjugated acolytes.

However, on occasion, word spreads from shrine to shrine (usually through magical messages via beetles), that a Ghoulfeast will be had, and this means all priests and followers must find their way to one of the greater shrines, those places where Mormo himself might arrive. It is not mandatory to show up, but a Ghoulfeast is called by either the strongest of Mormo's priests or Mormo himself, and that means a chance to win great favor... or sometimes have a chance at that elusive priest you've been trying to kill for a while now. Ghoulfeasts are usually called when offerings of great intricacy are planned, when something affecting the cult as a whole is occurring, or Mormo has chosen to personally ordain a group of would-be priests. Either way, the area in which a Ghoulfeast occurs is sure to be rife with unpleasant crimes for a few weeks, as all the Mormo cultists attempt to gather favor.

Mormo has refined tastes. His worshipers are expected to produce offerings on a weekly basis, but these can be small, petty things, such as stolen holy symbols or temple alms filched from a collection. Such petty offerings need not be physical in nature, either; slanderous gossip to break up harmony, for example, can be offered to Mormo. Followers are expected to start with these, and include sacrifices of things loved or treasured by them. The more pain that is caused with sacrifices, the better Mormo enjoys it.

Greater offerings are much more severe. Priests of Mormo steal holy relics, deface idols, break up marriages, kidnap children, or perform terrible acts while masquerading as members of other religions. Blood sacrifice is quite acceptable, but mere death is not enough to satisfy Mormo's hunger. The death must cause great misery or betrayal to feed him, but those who can provide such meals to Mormo will have his favor.

Next up: Who IS this Mormo guy, anyway?

The Cult of Mormo, part 3
The Cult of Mormo, part 2
The Cult of Mormo, part 1

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The Cult of Mormo, pt 3

Friday, February 22, 2008 - 12:22 PM

This little bit can be used to provide some in-character information, printed as is. It also provides an example of how the cult of Mormo looks from the outside, to those attempting to investigate it. In the game I am running, the party cleric's research will uncover this letter.

A Letter from the Warden Banashur, to the Hierophant Tan-Gilil

To the dawn I send my hopes, and this letter to you, who calls down the secrets of the Sun.
It is true that my home city is plagued with the wretches who worship the Ghoul Mormo, and I am honored that you prevail so upon my wisdom to allow my words into the Archive. Here, I have enclosed all that I have discovered about the First Ghoul and his ways.

Know too that though we have caught and punished many of the First Ghoul's creatures, some yet prey on our people. We believe that a great shrine to this monster rests under the necropolis, defiling the rest of the dead, and soon I shall lead a mighty force to purge the place of it all.
Here then, are my accounts. Though being witness to such as this has blackened my heart, I know that in time and faith the blaze of the Fire Scorpion will purify me and make me whole again. Send what blessings you are permitted, O Renewing Light; I shall send word again as soon as may be.

Of the First Ghoul
Those who are blessed with understanding know that even among the Gods, some stand greater than others, and though the First Ghoul is a cunning and obscure creature, it is believed that he is a Godson, a monster of power beyond that of mortal life who nonetheless lives in the mortal world. Like other such Godsons, this implies that he is immortal, yet can die at the hands of a mighty hero. Such has been known to happen in the past.

It is an assurance, that the First Ghoul is so weak in compared to our own lofty deities, yet it is also a horror that he can walk among us freely if he chooses. And what can the common man do to withstand him? Nothing, or so we believe. He is a potence beyond the strength of even a well-blessed priest or faithkeeper.

The First Ghoul likely fears the judgment of his betters, however, and this is why he himself acts as do the most craven of his followers. He hides his power, and rarely emerges from his secret lairs, which must be horrible beyond belief, yet none of them have ever been found. Though we know little more of him, we know much more of those who besmirch their souls and follow his way.

Of the First Ghoul's Servants
So long as the monster lives, there will be men to follow him. It is a bitter drink for those of us who strive to promote peace, harmony and prosperity, but it is truth. So long as one man is willing to hurt another man, the First Ghoul's whispers might bind him.

It is important to distinguish the degrees of binding. There are many who serve the First Ghoul and do not know it, for his priests are subtle and full of cunning. It is their way to bait a man into sin by his own will, and then to confront him with the fear of justice or guilt, and so lead him further into the influence of their foul master.

As reported last season, we had captured an acolyte of Mormo, who has understood the depths of his villainy, and has chosen to redeem himself. His information comes to us freely now, and we have found it most instructive. In particular, we have received from him ample information on the recruitment and organization of the First Ghoul's servants, and what they are named by the priesthood.

Of the Corpses
The penitent reveals to us that grave-robbing is the term used by the priests to find Corpses, which are the lowest of the First Ghoul's followers. Corpses are pawns, often unaware of who they are being used by, and usually thugs or other low creatures paid to particular purpose. Alas, the vermin of humanity are always for sale, and they receive their just wages: such unfortunates are often left to take credit for the priest's foul plans, and suffer while he escapes.

Corpses are likely named as such for that reason.

Some Corpses are recruited through their own discontent, bitterness or hatred. The priests find them and take time to befriend such a person. They encourage the Corpse into doing what they wish; the penitent states that they will tailor events to spur their target into action. A man, fearing infidelity from his wife, might be incited to injure or even murder her, spurred on by false evidence.

The favorite poison to press innocents into service is blackmail. It is a dreadful thing, for he who works with them gives them more weight to press him down with. It is noted that they prefer to work quickly, fading like shadows afterwards. Those who resist their attempts at corruption for long are often killed.

The hope of the priest is to break their morality or their sanity, and make them into Flies.
For clarification, I note that cult refers to the actual practice of grave-robbing as 'finding dinner'.

Of the Flies
These poor creatures are those who believe they can do nothing else but what the priests of Mormo tell them. They are utterly bound, by blackmail or guilt or occasionally some curse or enchantment. In their fear and desperation, they will do whatever the priests tell them to do, in order to buy a chance at being free. Perhaps they have been given false promises; our penitent tells us that there is nothing the priesthood enjoys more than using what we love against us, to force us into evil in thinking it must be done to protect our own.

Blessings and sanctuary to those who are so afflicted!

Not all Flies are so hapless. Some are those used to indulgence in evil, or perhaps those with powerful hatred of their own sins and feel that it does not matter what they do. Whatever the case, Flies always know that they are being used, though they may not truly know by what, or feel they can do anything about it. Some of them, out of resignation or wickedness, choose to turn their backs on righteousness, and attempt to gain favor from the First Ghoul. These in turn become the acolytes of the cult, who are called Beetles.

Of the Beetles
Here, the cult finally begins to teach the secrets and true tenets of the First Ghoul. Beetles are subject to much scrutiny and abuse, as the First Ghoul hungers for only the most vile, and no doubt punishes the priests if less is offered up to him.

The penitent was one such acolyte, and he tells us that the first training is recruitment. Beetles must go forth and find Corpses and Flies, and must dedicate themselves to debasement, both of themselves and others. They are constantly exhorted to greater acts of humiliation, violence and defilement. Many such take joy in it. Favor from the priests is arbitrary, but often dependent on the achievements of the acolyte.

In the matter of our captive, the penitent was full of hatred for the rulers of our people, and so he found power to express that hatred in joining the cult of Mormo. He has done many horrible things out of hatred, and was willing to blacken himself further to accomplish more, thinking he could strike out at what he believed to be tyrants and oppressors.

May the Sun grant clarity to those whose eyes are shadowed!

He returned to virtue when he refused the command to kill a child, testifying to us that the priest wished him to do so for no other reasons than the child was precious to someone, that he could, and that the child could not stop it.

From what we can tell, this manner of spite pervades the cult of Mormo. It is not enough for them to merely do injury, or rob, or murder. They must ruin what is precious to others, and dedicate themselves to breaking faith in anything but self-indulgence and, apparently, self-loathing.

The penitent does not know what transition promotes beetle to ghoul, or priest. Ordination (or defilement, perhaps) is a secret event, witnessed only by the priesthood of the First Ghoul, and presumably hidden away in one of his shrines. Only the priests know these secrets.

Of the Ghouls
To know an enemy is to know how to destroy him, and we know little of the ghouls. The penitent tells us many things which are useful to know, but even that is little enough. What we may conclude is that these are the most disgusting and wicked of the First Ghoul's followers, and that they have chosen this. The penitent repeatedly testified that Mormo demands a conscious choice. Though his priests may go mad later, they must be in right mind when they swear themselves to service. Ghouls rarely work together, and it is implied that murder among their own is not uncommon.

Praise be to the Scorpion of Golden Virtue that evil turns on itself!

However, the First Ghoul is generous in his gifts to his priests. They are granted magical power, often to hide themselves and to harm others, and they are given power over certain crude forms of hungry dead. Indeed, some of them are ghouls in nature as well as title. The penitent testifies that a dead priest will often rise up again as a ghoul unless the body is burned, and many of the priests eat the flesh of the dead.

Though we do not yet know the truth, the penitent believes that on occasion, many priests will come together to desecrate a holy place in order to call their master to them and petition him for great favor. He believes this is the truth behind the words 'feeding the charnel pit', but he was not given to know these secrets. It was only through rumor.

I mention this because it may well explain why the cult has so persistently plagued this area for so long. Perhaps, in one stroke, we may make ruin of those whose creed is ruin.

O You who Bears the Morning Warmth, make use of this information as you may! I shall write again when next we have word.

-Warden Banashur, Temple of the Builder of Cities

A brief message, arriving a week after the previous, also from the Warden

Blessed are Those who Carry the Fire

Lament, for the penitent is slain. A swarm of black beetles devoured him alive in his cell. May his soul escape the monster he chose to fight against. Say prayers for him, if you will, and say prayers and burn incense for our acolyte, who has been kidnapped.

Cult of Mormo, part 2
Cult of Mormo, part 1

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The Cult of Mormo, pt 2

Saturday, February 16, 2008 - 1:30 PM

This item is intended to be informational, suitable as a handout in-game if someone happens to be investigating records about the cult. Wallace, the fellow giving the account, can certainly be a contact. Make him grizzled, a bit resigned, a little grumpy and very politely suspicious. The man made a living out of hunting down dangerous cults, after all, and he's never quite sure he got ALL of them.

“In all our years of searching, my men and I never found any more than two shrines dedicated to Mormo. One we found by accident, a mere happenstance. Mormo grants some power to his... holy places; it makes them metaphysically furtive, I suppose you could say. Seers overlook them, trails lead away from them. Now, unless you are interested in a trade like mine, I suggest you let them stay hidden, because Mormo's shrines are deceptive and dangerous.

The two we found... one of them was little more than a niche, cramped under the foundations of a temple in the deep city. The other was much larger, built into the burnt-out husk of an old church. Ah, I'll go ahead and talk about that one, as it was revealed to be a major shrine for the cult, and in researching the works of my peers, I discovered it was emblematic of Mormo's cult.
So, we were tracking our quarry, and our fesshound started whining. It was in the deep woods at night, and we were wary of ambush, so we kept on with weapons handy. Turns out it wasn't anything alive that bothered the 'hound.

The first thing we noticed were the thorns. There were creepers everywhere, and it made for slow going, but we pressed on, and saw the shrine. From the outside, it was a sprawling, hunched kind of building. We could hear some faint clattering and buzzing sounds from within, so we all made our prayers and approached. We figured out the place was nested in a ruin, and the Mormo cult was kind enough to let us know what kind of building it had been. See, in front of the low door, there was a little semi-circle of burnt, old skulls. They all had rusty holy symbols tied to their brows, remains of the faithful who used to pray there.

Inside... all right, before I continue, I have to mention the stink. The reek from inside was tremendous and thick, and all of us had watering eyes as we pressed on. From studying the accounts of my peers, I now know this isn't unusual.

Needless to say, we were careful, but we entered, and ... this is what we saw.

Scurrying away from our light were a number of large black beetles, disappearing into the stained and seamed walls. There were six pillars,each with a single iron spike jutting out from it, and hanging from one was the body of a child. The pillars were arranged in a circle, though the shrine was square in shape, and there were a pair of rusted shackles bolted to the floor in the middle. At the far end beyond the entry there was a stone chair with no back. It was empty, mossy and thickly moldy. On either side of this were troughs in the ground, and we could see heaps of something in these. Rot, mostly, leavings, the slime of decomposition, filth.

The walls were pitted with alcoves. Many of them had small items stuffed into them. Mostly these were trinkets or symbols of faith in various states of decrepitude or damage, but we also found a skeletal finger with a ring on it, and in another, the ruin of a child's doll. In the far corners of the place, there were piles of dead leaves, mold and worse, as if someone occasionally swept up the filth fallen from the pillars along with anything the world outside brought in.

A further search turned up a pair of stone bowls full of stagnant water, a few coils of fresh rope behind the stone chair, and a leather wallet, well-oiled, with a set of small, sharp butcher's tools in it.

Well, we took down the body, and we started cleaning the place out. The walls had some occasional writing, mostly slander against the faithful, but on one wall, there was a detailed painting of a pincer-like black moon, crushing a bleeding sun between its points. We knew for certain it was a place for Mormo, then, and we were just finishing up when the ghouls all came out of the pits in the back...”

--Wallace Rievenfeld, teaching at the Yhelm Academy

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The Cult of Mormo, pt 1

Thursday, February 14, 2008 - 12:13 PM

Here we begin a short series of in-character bits regarding the cult of Mormo. Any of these might be used as hand outs during the course of a game, or otherwise integrated into the story. Later, clarifications specifically for the GM will be posted.

“Paladins! You will not disgrace your faith and your position by executing cultists of Mormo immediately. You will bring them to trial like all other criminals. Do they deserve death? Yes. Are they the vilest of criminals? Yes. But due process of Law must be kept. That is your honor and your life. Trust in your God that justice will be done. And in the case of Mormo filth, it will be done.”
--Captain Carys ap Luthier of the Horizon Guard, addressing new recruits.

“Paladins? They're the weakest of the lot. Cattle, all of them, and we love sending them back ruined if we can. Putting your faith in anything other than yourself is pathetic...oh, what am I doing, you ask? I don't have faith in Mormo. I just know that he rewards me for doing what I'd want to do anyway. And you want to do the same to me, I can tell.”
--From the interrogation of a Mormo cultist, name stricken from the records after execution.

The Portraiture of the Demon called Mormo
Mormo's Titles are Thus: The Hungry Moon, the Black Knife, First Ghoul, the Desecration, Heartgrinder, Thornkeeper

Mormo favors the Colors of Dark Green, Grey and Black or Russet, though few but his most devout followers would openly wear them.

Mormo calls the Weasel, the Shrike, the Beetle, and the Ghoul as his creatures.

His Signs are a Black Crescent Moon, crushing a Sun between the Points; a Black and Eyeless Beetle; and a Red Ring of Thorns.

Mormo is the Lord of Desecration. He sucks in Power from the Ruination of hat which people Love, or put Faith in. He is a Bitter and Spiteful creature, who exhorts Befoulment and Malice, and chains his Followers to him with disgusting Deeds. He is the Patron of Grave-Robbers, Bandits, and Iconoclasts, and all Those who Love Hurt. This Demon has never yet been Seen, but his Power is evident, and he is Despised by all.

You will know the Trail of Mormo by the Broken Lives he leaves behind, and the Defilement of Innocents, and the Blasphemies against That which is Holy. His chosen are Furtive, and slip away from the Eyes of Sorcery. His Shrines are known as Hollows, and they too are Hidden by his Accursed Strength.

By Law, both Secular and Sacred, those who Damn themselves to Mormo are Sent Straightaway to the Hell which awaits them. Those who Slay the Innocent deserve no Honor, nor Mercy, nor Forgiveness. It is an Irrevocable Crime.

The Lore of Mormo is Sealed by Church Edict; go therefore to the Abbey of Kyrilaraun to seek it, if you must.
--From the notes of Ermina l'Onlumey, First Scribe to the Church of the White Lady

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Petty Evil

12:00 PM

Recurring villains in a campaign are a great deal of fun. If pacing is maintained, and your players don't get lucky or outwit you, you have a great opportunity for building a complex relationship between heroes and villains. This relationship only adds to the feelings of accomplishment and success when the heroes finally bring their adversary to justice... or just plain kill him, as some might vote to do.

The players in my DnD game have a handful of adversaries who, through distance, cunning or power, have managed to evade defeat. Against some surprising odds, they've pulled down some powerful opponents (as players are wont to do), but from as early as level 3, Adun Lemekvorr has evaded them.

Adun has betrayed his allies, bribed and blackmailed contacts and authorities, murdered, cheated and stolen in order to evade capture. He has even hurled other villains into the spotlight to attract the attention of the dogged heroes on his tail. As you can guess, he's done little to endear himself to our heroes, and they've been avid about running him down. He has managed to stay two steps ahead, however, and they lost him for quite a while.

Recently, they have recovered his trail, and this time he's finding it very hard to keep ahead.
Originally, they knew Adun paid fealty to some god of greed, but with their new sources, they've learned Adun has long since switched allegiances. Now they understand why he's been so difficult to locate. Adun's new patron is notorious for keeping his followers hidden, and as the party has discovered, the patron is notorious for other things, as well.

Sometimes, evil is just a petty, ugly thing. Adun's patron, Mormo, is just such a creature. This is not a cult with overarching plots and plans. It is a small, hateful knot that loves to spoil what other people hold precious. In the next couple of installments, I will reveal more about Adun, his patron, and the cult they are connected to.

  • A few notes about Mormo, from a designer standpoint:
    Mormo is a name from Greek mythology, one of a large number of little-known and seemingly incidental quasi-deities. Apparently Mormo was connected to Hecate in some way, but I've not found any specific references as to who or what specifically Mormo was, outside of some inferences that s/he bit bad children or bad people. The origin of Mormo's use in my campaign is actually from the H.P. Lovecraft story, “The Horror At Red Hook”, which inspired the cult as I use it. I do not claim that my version of Mormo has any real connection whatsoever to actual mythology. If anybody out there has some reliable sources that give more details about the original Mormo, I'd be happy to hear about them.
  • Second, as noted above, sometimes evil is just petty. I wanted a cult that didn't care about conquering the world or spreading evil. The cult of Mormo is designed to be utterly foul, a secretive cult that loves to hurt people for no real reason except that they can. This is the kind of garbage that heroes love to take out, and they should feel accomplished when they do it. But on the other side, the cult of Mormo isn't that alien or bizarre. There are reasons why people join it, after all. The sad fact is that most Mormo cultists aren't even insane (though most of the actual priests sure are). The other part of this kind of evil is that it can live next door. It's personal, in a brutal sort of way, and Mormo's brand of evil starts with simple discontent or jealousy or insecurity. Sometimes, all people need is the right excuse.

Just as a side note, occasionally, people hear about these ideas, and they say something like 'people aren't actually that bad, they really won't do that to each other'. For a blatant retort, I recommend they take a closer look at what's been happening in Africa these days.



Saturday, February 9, 2008 - 9:40 AM

I was filing through the new Warhammer 40K RPG, Dark Heresy. While doing this, I had a sudden realization.

Let me get the obligatory review part out of the way before I move on. Overall, I liked it. It's a tight, well-presented game that doesn't assume you know everything about the rather extensively detailed Warhammer universe. Further, it does a fair job of concisely explaining the moods and themes of that universe without getting too wordy. Sure, there's the usual spin to produce 'cool factor', but despite the usual tremendous-shoulder-pad-and-pervading-skull motif, it comes off well.

I have some wariness about character creation, in that the system appears to allow heavy customization at first glance... but it doesn't, not really. Creation is easy, which is nice, but there was a lot of similarity in the twelve sample characters I drew up. I suspect that if I run this game, I will probably tweak things to allow for more options.

Here's where the thoughts got provoked.

Dark Heresy sold out on preorders alone. Now, anybody involved in gaming at all knows that Warhammer has a huge and loyal following, and I'm sure that has something to do with it. That Black Industries has produced fantastic work with the Warhammer Fantasy RPG is another strong reason (plus, they're fun people; I met them at GAMA this last year). There's no doubt there's an audience for it. What I wonder is how many dedicated RPGers will avoid it just because it has Warhammer attached to the title, perhaps assuming that it will be little more than a glorified miniatures game.

Dungeons and Dragons has this problem, also. Many people assume that DnD is always some kind of door-kicking tactics party, with lots of math and a great deal of rules arguments. Sure, sometimes it is, and it is certainly true that 90% of the game mechanics are to do with combat... which means you can expect a fair amount of it.

DnD doesn't have to be that way. The group I'm running right now is on session #70 of a campaign, and sure, in combat the rogue yelps at the tank for flanking. Sure, the conjuror is always looking for the best place to land her spells. But I have rarely seen such a tightly-knit web of character interaction. They have spent whole sessions meandering through character development, unravelling plotlines and figuring out their future. The progression of their story, from struggling against conspiracies to becoming local heroes and now to understanding what it takes (and means!) to change the world has been wonderful. These characters have grown, in all ways.

There is no reason Dark Heresy can't be the same kind of game. In fact, combat being as nasty as it is, there's a strong implication that you Should try and talk your way through things. Now, I do make fun of what I call the 'Warhammer aesthetic' as much as the next guy, but sans shoulder-pads, the setting is really very evocative. Beyond the dark, science-fantasy grimness of it all, the setting has a lot of depth that is worth taking a closer look at, and I firmly believe that dedicated RPers can find a lot of stories to tell with that in mind.

The next time you have a knee-jerk reaction to a game, be it DnD or Vampire or Dark Heresy, consider that a game can be run however you want it to be. A system is always just a framework. Mechanics will inevitably flavor the feel of the game, but you, be it player or GM, you are the one crafting the stories. Dark Heresy doesn't have to be about huge guns, outrageous armor and ridiculously toothy vehicles. It can be about the survival of the soul against oppression, the seeds of hope in faith, and the power to escape from ignorance.

Of course, making sure your GM/fellow players share a similar vision is important, but that's a story for another time.

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