Thursday, 16 February 2017

Sophie the Muscle Wizard and the joys of random character generation

The Team Tsathogga group finished playing through Death Frost Doom this week, and one PC didn't make it out alive. The session ended with the party heading for a nearby magical academy in the hope of selling the wizards some of the creepy magical junk they'd found during the adventure, so the dead PC's player quickly rolled up a replacement character, reasoning that there might be someone at the academy whom the party could recruit to bring them back up to full strength. Rolling 3d6 in order, she got:

Strength 16
Dexterity 13
Constitution 4
Intelligence 10
Wisdom 4
Charisma 7

She considered these stats for a few moments, and then said:

'My new character is called Sophie. She was a student at the magical academy, but she wasn't really clever enough to keep up and kept getting disappointing grades. (Int 10) Thrown into depression by a failed exam, she tried to make herself feel better by pumping iron at the college gymnasium. (Str 16) Unwisely (Wis 4) she devoted herself to extreme workout routines which ended up completely wrecking her health. (Con 4) After trying and failing to justify her powerlifting obsession to her tutors (Cha 7), she was thrown out of the academy, and is now looking for adventure!'

And thus Sophie the Muscle Wizard was unleashed upon the world.

I imagine her as looking kinda like this.

One of her fellow PCs is an equally extreme case. With Strength 5, Dexterity 8, Constitution 9, Intelligence 6, Wisdom 10, and Charisma 18, Jack the Fighter seemed doomed to an early and ignominious death; but sixteen sessions after his player's eyes first widened in horror at the stats he'd just rolled for his new character, he's still going strong. (As strong as one can with Strength 5, anyway.) Weak, clumsy, unfit, and amazingly stupid, Jack is just so damn pretty that he seems to be able to get away with almost anything, and he's more than once provided vital contributions by sweet-talking guards, traders, and other NPCs into doing things that they know they shouldn't, simply because they couldn't resist the power of his innocent, dopey smile. We mostly play him as Derek Zoolander in D&D-land.

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Jack the Fighter descends into yet another dungeon...

These examples are comic, which isn't accidental - incongruity is one of the basic elements of comedy - but I'm confident that you could take the same stats and come up serious, and even bleak, interpretations of the characters they represented. And you would almost never get characters like this using point-buy methods - not because they're impossible to build (although under some systems they might be), but because you'd probably never come up with them in the first place. With a whimsical enough player, and a sufficient lack of emphasis on powergaming, you might get as far as 'bodybuilder wizard' or 'dim-witted prettyboy'; but in each case there are other elements (like Jack's physical weakness or Sophie's catastrophic lack of wisdom) which result purely from the whim of the dice. But the odd combinations of traits that sometimes arise from random character generation create characters who won't fit neatly into their predefined niches, and whose mere existence thus forces the game to unfold in less predictable ways.

Much though I love the sight of people rolling 3d6 in order, I don't think it's inherently superior to other ways of generating characters. If you're keen on power balance, or heroic characters, or just on giving players control over what kind of PCs they end up playing, then completely random character generation is obviously a terrible idea. (This is part of the reason why, in my current group each player has two PCs: it ensures that having one weaker or less serious character isn't such a big deal.) But random chargen does have a charm of its own, a charm which is rooted in the very things which probably led most groups to abandon it in the first place: the danger that the dice might give you a weird, weak, flawed character rather than the awesome Conan or Gandalf knock-off you'd been building up in your imagination, and consequently force you to go off-script.

To put it another way, I already know how Conan will approach being dropped into D&D-land: the kind of adventures he's likely to have, the ways he's likely to deal with problems, and so on. I've been gaming for a long time now, and there's not a lot of mental stimulation left for me in watching another Mighty Warrior do Mighty Warrior Stuff. Sophie the Muscle Wizard, by contrast, represents a combination of traits which I've never seen before, and in consequence I find I have no idea how she's likely to respond to her upcoming adventures. I'm very much looking forward to finding out, though!

Sunday, 12 February 2017

New B/X class: the faerie

One thing I rather liked about Mazes and Minotaurs was the idea of having 'nymph' as one of the core character classes. If you're aiming to evoke Greek mythology, then this makes pretty good sense: nymphs turn up everywhere in those stories, to the point where there might be almost as many nymphs in Greek myths as there are actual human women. (Take a look at the sheer length of the list here, for example.) At the same time, though, as a character concept it comes with a lot of limitations: you have to be female, you have to be beautiful, you're probably going to spend a lot of time swimming around naked, and so on. It made me wonder: what might a less restrictive version of the 'sexy nature spirit' concept look like as a character class? And then I got thinking about how the D&D elf really has very little in common with the elfin knights and fae ladies of medieval literature and folklore, and I came up with this...

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The Faerie

To-hit and hit dice: As per cleric.

Saves: As per elf.

Weapons and armour: Faeries can use any weapons, but are too frail to fight effectively in metal armour.

XP per level: As per elf.

Fae Traits: All faeries bear some physical marks of their inhuman heritage, marks which become more pronouced as they increase in power. Roll 1d20 on the following table at level one, and again at each subsequent level. If you roll the same trait more than once, it becomes much more pronounced (e.g. green-tinted skin becomes leaf green, hip-length hair becomes ankle length, and so on). High level faeries tend to look both freaky and fabulous. 

  1. Inhuman hair colour (e.g. blue, green, violet).
  2. Inhuman skin tone (e.g. tinted green, blue, or purple). 
  3. Flowers grow naturally in your hair in all seasons.
  4. Songbirds and butterflies follow you around whenever possible.
  5. You eyes resemble those of a cat, brilliant green with a vertical slit pupil. 
  6. Your body has a pleasant but distinctive floral aroma, noticeable whenever you walk into a room.
  7. You are extremely androgynous, and could easily pass as male or female unless completely naked.
  8. You have extremely long hair (hip-length or longer) - if cut it grows back at 1d6 inches per day.
  9. Your smile literally lights up the room. (Illumination equivalent to a candle, although it's uncomfortable to maintain it for too long.)
  10. You are very, very tall. 
  11. You are very, very thin.
  12. You appear slightly translucent when seen in moonlight or starlight.
  13. You have extremely long fingernails, which oddly do not interfere with your manual dexterity.
  14. Instead of tears, you weep tiny, transparent crystals, which shatter when they hit the floor.
  15. Your shadow takes the shape of different wild animals, depending on your current mood.
  16. When happy, you start to levitate several inches off the ground.
  17. Your limbs are extraordinarily flexible, as though they had several additional joints.
  18. Your ears are long and sharply pointed.
  19. Your teeth are long and sharply pointed.
  20. Whenever your blood falls upon the earth, stands of beautiful, vivid-red flowers spring up 1d6 minutes later.
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Night Vision: Even the faintest moonlight or starlight allow you to see as well as full sunlight, although complete darkness will still blind you.

Soulless: You cast no reflection in mirrors, and suffer a -1 penalty to all rolls while standing on ground consecrated to a Lawful deity. Beneficial cleric spells (including Cure spells) have only half their normal effect when cast upon you.

Glamour: Glamour is the illusion-magic of the fae. You have a number of Glamour points equal to your level: a Charisma of 13 or higher grants +1, and a Charisma of 16 or higher grants +2. You may spend one point of glamour to entrance someone with your otherworldly charisma, as per a Charm Person spell. Your glamour pool refreshes each day at sunset.
  • At level 2, you may spend 1 Glamour to cast Sleep.
  • At level 3, you may spend 1 Glamour to cast Phantasmal Force.
  • At level 4, you may spend 1 Glamour to cast Obscuring Mists.
  • At level 5, you may spend 2 Glamour to cast Hold Person.
  • At level 6, you may spend 2 Glamour to cast Invisibility.
  • At level 7, you may spend 2 Glamour to cast Mirror Image or Suggestion.
  • At level 8, you may spend 2 Glamour to cast Confusion.
  • At level 9, you may spend 3 Glamour to cast Hallucinatory Terrain.
  • At level 10, you may spend 3 Glamour to cast Invisibility 10' Radius.
  • At level 11, you may spend 3 Glamour to cast Massmorph.
  • At level 12, you may spend 4 Glamour to cast Geas.
  • At level 13, you may spend 4 Glamour to cast Mass Invisibility.
  • At level 14, you may spend 4 Glamour to cast Polymorph Self or Polymorph Other.
  • At level 15, you may spend 5 Glamour to cast Mass Charm or Power Word Blind.

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The Old Speech: You gain the ability to speak to birds at level 2; at level 4 this extends to other animals, at level 6 to insects, and at level 8 to plants. Any creature you can talk to (including giant and magical versions) with hit dice equal to or less than your own also counts as a 'person' for the purposes of your Charm Person and Hold Person abilities. Suitably large charmed animals will usually consent to be used as mounts.

Weave Gossamer: At level 3, you gain the ability to weave flowers, leaves, and spiderwebs into fantastical garments that never tear, never get creased or muddy, and look amazing. Any time you wear gossamer garments instead of armour, you get +1 to reaction rolls from all intelligent creatures. If anyone other than you attempts to wear your gossamer clothes, they will instantly realise that they aren't nearly pretty enough to pull off your look successfully, and must save or be thrown into a deep depression for 1d6 hours. Making a set of gossamer clothes takes 12 hours.

Changeling: At level 5, you gain the ability to change your appearance to match someone else's. Spending 1 Glamour allows you to maintain this disguise for a number of hours equal to your level. Spending 1 additional Glamour also allows you to mimic their voice for the duration.

Makeshift Men: At level 7, you can spend one hour and 1 Glamour sculpting a heap of leaves, sticks, and mud into a roughly-humanoid shape, which then comes to life as an ugly, goblin-like being. Makeshift men have the same statistics as goblins, and maintaining their animation costs 1 Glamour per day. They're not very bright, but will obey you to the best of their ability, because they know that their continued existence depends upon your will. If killed or de-animated, they collapse back into twigs and dirt.

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Thursday, 9 February 2017

Monsters from improbable sources 3: conversations with a two-year-old

The other day, I was washing my two-year-old son in the bath when he suddenly said: 'You not a bahmu!'

'What's a bahmu?' I replied.

'Bahmu is big pet', he explained. 'In woods.'

'What colour is it?'

'Is red. Bahmu has legs. Is scary!'

'So the bahmu is a big, scary red pet with legs that lives in the woods. Is it furry?'

'No, is not. Bahmu have red teeth!'

'Is bahmu friendly?'

'No, is scary!'

'What does bahmu do?'

'Bahmu say RAAARH!'

I appreciated this conversation, because it gives me an excellent opportunity for finding out whether I am, in fact, living in a horror movie. All I need to do is take my son into the nearest forest, say the magic words 'So where does the bahmu live?', and then see whether I am horribly killed within the next five minutes by a giant red monster with teeth. My son, of course, would survive unscathed, because as the only witness it would be his job to tell the bemused detectives how bahmu ate daddy, bahmu is big red pet, bahmu live in woods...

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  • Bahmu: AC 15, 4 HD, +4 to hit, bite (1d12 damage), saves 10, morale 9, special attacks: roar. 

Bahmu are large, loping creatures, like a bald red ape crossed with a hairless wolf, whose almost-human faces are dominated by enormous mouths full of sharp red teeth. They normally move on all fours, although they can balance (slightly unsteadily) on their hind legs if they need to grab or bite at something that would otherwise be out of reach. They are superb burrowers and excellent climbers, their big clawed hands serving to dig through earth and grip onto trees with equal skill. Their preferred habitat is dense forests. 

Bahmu are entirely unnatural, having been magically bred as pets and guard dogs by an ancient and thankfully long-vanished civilisation. Although long-since gone feral, they still cling to the regions once inhabited by their former masters, lurking in the ruins of their overgrown cities as though hoping that, if only they wait long enough, their original owners might finally return. They are long-lived and hardy, and while their highly territorial nature will lead them to eviscerate anyone they see as trespassing into their territory, their ancient genetic imperatives mean that they are mentally conditioned to behave in various pet-like ways that now seem oddly out of keeping with their ferocious nature: they will placidly allow themselves to be played with by cats, dogs, and small children, and are scrupulously cleanly in their habits. If you could catch and domesticate one at a young enough age it would make a brilliant housepet, provided you had a big enough garden and you didn't mind it occasionally eating your neighbours. 

Bahmu prefer to attack from ambush, either dropping down from the treetops or bursting up through the soil from one of their hidden underground burrows. (They see excellently in the dark.) If anything survives their initial assault they will emit a terrifying roar which induces supernatural terror in all non-bahmu who hear it, forcing them to save or flee in panic for 1d6 rounds. 

Bahmu is big pet.

Bahmu is scary.

Bahmu have red teeth.

Bahmu say 'RAAARH!'

Thursday, 2 February 2017

More Devonshire folklore for The Coach of Bones

Last August, I half-seriously suggested writing an adventure for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, set in Devon during the chaotic aftermath of Monmouth's 1685 rebellion and provisionally entitled The Coach of Bones. Since then, my work commitments have kept me from getting very far with it, but I do still keep an eye out for material I might want to use in it from time to time. In November I posted a list of 20 Dartmoor legends for potential incorporation into the module, and since then I've gathered a bunch of other Devonshire folktales and ghost stories which I feel could fit right into a spooky D&D adventure. If you used everything from both lists you'd have enough material to stock an entire hexcrawl set in seventeenth-century Devon - which is pretty much what I may end up writing, if The Coach of Bones ever gets beyond the drafting stage...

If anyone's interested, I mostly got these from Devon Ghosts (1982) by Theo Brown.

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Tavistock Abbey, circa 1784.

The Tunnels of Tavistock Abbey: According to local legend, there is a hidden network of vaults and tunnels beneath the ruins of Tavistock Abbey, stretching out beneath Tavistock itself. A local clergyman once found an entrance to these tunnels, and walked in them for some way before being surprised by the sudden appearance of a pair of monks, who bowed politely to him before disappearing back into the darkness. Spooked by this encounter, and deeply uncertain whether the 'monks' he had just met were ghosts or living men, he left the tunnels, and was never afterwards able to locate their entrance.

Squire Cabell: Wicked Squire Cabell of Brook Manor used to abduct local girls, whom he imprisoned in his house at Hawson, just across the valley; he was also rumoured to have sold his soul to the devil. When he lay dying in 1677, the demonic 'wish hounds' of Dewer the Huntsman gathered around his house, howling horribly; and they have howled for him ever since, calling him to join them in their hunts. The people buried him outside Buckfastleigh church, with a large stone slab over his grave to stop him climbing out of it, and a heavy stone tomb on top of the slab to weigh him down even further. In the side of the tomb is a solid oak door with a large keyhole, a door which is never opened or unlocked. The local children sometimes dare one another to place their fingers inside the keyhole, to see if Cabell will bite them off...

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William De Tracy and his comrades murder St Thomas Becket, 1170.

William De Tracy:
After the murder of St Thomas Becket, one of his killers, Sir William De Tracy, is said to have hidden himself in a cave near Ilfracombe, where he was sustained by the provisions that his daughter lowered down to him in a basket. He later died in the Holy Land; but his ghost is said to have returned to Ilfracombe in death, where on stormy nights he rides furiously back and forth across the Woolacombe Sands.

The Spreyton Haunting: In 1683, the residents of a house in Spreyton were tormented by a malicious spirit which appeared sometimes as a woman, sometimes as a horse, and sometimes as a monstrous, fire-breathing hound. Under its influence windows broke, objects moved, laces crawled across the ground like snakes, and a cravat attempted to strangle its wearer; once a man was even hurled bodily into the air, only to be found later hanging from the branches of a tree in a nearby bog, apparently in a state of trance. Finally, a bird flew in through a window carrying an odd brass object, with which it struck one of the household on the head. The people broke this brass object into pieces, and shortly afterwards the haunting apparently came to an end.

The Sokespitch Barrel: The Sokespitch family of Marsh Barton, who held the same land from the twelfth to the nineteenth century, were at some point granted a magical beer-barrel by the pixies, which was enchanted never to run dry. They kept this barrel for many generations, until one day a curious maidservant opened it up to look inside it. Within she found only masses of cobwebs, and beer never flowed from the barrel again.

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The ruins of Frithelstock Priory.

Our Lady of Frithelstock: In 1351, the monks of Frithelstock Priory were condemned by the Bishop of Exeter for their unauthorised erection of a stone chapel containing a statue of a woman, which had rapidly become an object of veneration among the surrounding population. The monks claimed that the statue was a representation of the Virgin Mary; the bishop, unconvinced, replied that it looked more like 'proud and disobedient Eve or unchaste Diana', and ordered the destruction of both statue and shrine. Odd psychic phenomena have occurred intermittently in the area ever since.

The Hairy Hands: The road across Dartmoor from Princeton to Moretonhampstead is haunted by something which manifests as a pair of huge, hairy hands. The hands grab travellers, throw people from carts and horses, and scrabble at windows after dark: all who see them are filled with instinctive horror, and feel intuitively that they are malevolent to human life. Some locals speculate that the area was once home to a race of hairy men, who inhabited the region before the humans came, and whose spirits still hold a grudge against the people who displaced them.

The Roborough Down Cannibal: A man was once travelling across Dartmoor with his two children in a severe snowstorm when he chanced across an isolated house, inhabited by a single old woman. He and his children sheltered with her for the night, and he then left his children in her care while he proceeded to Plymouth through the snow: but upon his return she claimed they had gone missing during the night. Subsequent investigations revealed that she had killed and eaten them, and that she had in fact been murdering and eating vulnerable travellers for some years. After her death, her house was allowed to fall into ruin, and is now said to be haunted.

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Beetor Cross.

Beetor Cross: Beetor Cross was once the site of a gibbet, posted to deter the highwaymen who used to lie in wait there for travellers. Presumably the ghost of one of them still lingers there, as travellers encounter an unseen presence which seizes hold of them as they pass, sometimes attempting to drag riders from their horses. Then again, the haunting may be much older, as local traditions claim that the area was once the site of a great battle between the Saxons and the Celts...

The Battle of Fenny Meadows: In 1549, the Prayerbook Rebels were massacred by the king's army on the banks of the River Otter, near Fenny Bridges. On moonlit nights the old battlefield can sometimes be seen to fill with phantom horsemen, wading knee-deep in human blood.

The Phantom Cottage: Near Buckfastleigh once stood a cottage inhabited by an elderly couple, who had a very evil reputation with the local people. After they died, the cottage decayed until only its foundations remained; but travellers at twilight sometimes see it still standing on its old site, with the old man and woman still sitting inside it, warming their wicked hands by the fire.

Tantrobobus: A gigantic ghost by this name is said to roam the North Devon coastline.

The Headless Goat: A headless goat wanders Dartmoor in the region of Sherril, blood dripping from its severed neck. Sometimes it leaps out of hedges to surprise passing travellers.

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Longaford Tor.

The Foxes of Longaford Tor: The foxes of Longaford Tor have a taste for human flesh, sometimes attacking lone travellers in the winter, tearing their bodies apart, and dragging their bones down into their holes. They are especially active around midwinter, when the locals are careful to avoid them for fear of being devoured.

The Dark Men of Dartmoor: Small, dark-skinned men dressed in animal skins are occasionally glimpsed on Dartmoor, sometimes in the act of climbing out of or disappearing into hidden holes. Locals disagree on whether these are the ghosts of the land's original inhabitants, or an actual lost race which has remained hidden underground ever since.

The Village of Changelings: In a village near Chudleigh, it was noticed that the villagers tended to be unusually small. The people of the surrounding region attributed this fact to a long-ago pixie raid in which all the children in the village were stolen away and replaced with changelings, whose fey blood and diminutive stature was naturally inherited by their descendants.

Cutty Dyer: This river-giant lives in the River Yeo. During the day, Cutty Dyer sleeps beneath the water, under the shadow of bridges; but at night he sometimes rises up and tries to pull passers-by into the water to drown them, or else grabs them from behind, cuts their throats, and drinks their blood before throwing their corpses into the water. It is said that he was once a miller named Christopher Dyer, although how he came to take on his current monstrous form is unclear. His grim exploits are remembered in a local children's song:

Dawn't'ee go down the riverzide:
Cutty Dyer du abide.
Cutty Dyer ain't no gude:
Cutty Dyer'll drink yer blood!

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Monday, 30 January 2017

The Three Thieves of the Triple Crown

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No-one remembers now who the Triple Crown was first made for. Some tyrant of the ancient world, perhaps: some forgotten king whose ruined cities have long since crumbled into mere grassy mounds beneath the steppe. Perhaps he hoped that the glory of the crown would ensure that his reign would never pass from the memory of men; but now, when people tell its story, the king who wore it is always the least significant part of the tale. There was a king. He died. He's not important any more. 

But his crown... ah, his crown was a wonder! Three crowns in one, a triumph of the goldsmith's and the lapidary's art, mingled with astral magic of a kind now vanished from the earth: circlets of solar gold, lunar silver, and glittering star-like gemstones, combined into a single diadem whose glory and radiance outshone all earthly things. When the king wore the Triple Crown, sunlight and moonlight blazed around his head, and his eyes were filled with stars, and even the mightiest of men and the fiercest of beasts did not dare to approach him. In the height of his pride, the king boasted that even death would be awed by its radiance; but in this he proved quite mistaken. He aged and died like other men, and after his death his children fell to squabbling over which of them would inherit it: and while they bickered and schemed against each other, three cunning thieves stole the Triple Crown from their treasury and vanished quite away. 

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The glory of the Triple Crown could not be hidden. It shone through every covering; and the thieves knew that they could not keep it long. They broke it into its three separate rings, and they each fled in different directions, making a solemn pact that if they escaped detection they would meet together at a secret place after a year and a day. But while the magic of each of the three rings, when combined, had served to counter the most baleful effects of the others, when broken apart their celestial influences burned without restraint. As the thieves fled, the crowns burned through their souls as the parchment is swallowed by the flame.
As the sun burns brightest of all the heavenly bodies, so the Sun Thief was the first to be consumed. Her soul combusted within her; her fingers became ten candles, her hair a bonfire, her tongue a lash of flame. Sunlight poured from her eyes, and those who met her gaze were stricken blind. She fled into the southern deserts, a roaring terror, a living fire which could not die or sleep; and the land around her hiding-place was blasted beyond the endurance of all living things. The second to be consumed was the Moon Thief: his soul collapsed into eclipse, his body warping with the changes of the moon. His flesh flowed like wax or water; he became a living shadow, a thing of silver glints in darkness, roaming the desolate northern coastlines with the ebb and flow of the tides. The last to be consumed was the Star Thief: his soul fragmented million-fold into hard blue starlight, and a thousand shining eyes opened across his body, eyes which saw now the present, and now the past, and now the things to come. Driven quite insane by his visions, he hid himself beneath the earth, muttering cryptic oracles into the dark. 

The stars are nothing if not regular in their progress, and when a year and a day had elapsed the Star Thief travelled by secret ways to the pre-arranged meeting place. But the Sun Thief and the Moon Thief did not come; not that year, nor the next year, nor any of the years that have followed. And so the crowns remain separated; and so the Three Thieves remain lost.

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* * *

The Triple Crown is an ATWC version of the 'set item you need to find all the bits of before you can use it properly', a la the Rod of Seven Parts. More to the point, they're an example of the kind of stuff I like to scatter around sandboxes and hexcrawls: encounters which, in isolation, just look like bits of random colour, but which have the potential to be more than the sum of their parts. Individually, the Three Thieves just provide fodder for weird encounters out in the wilderness; but if PCs go to the trouble of researching what they are, and tracking them all down, and finding ways to circumvent their various abilities, then they can potentially get their hands on a powerful relic of the ancient world, which might come in extremely handy when trying to overthrow the tyranny of the Wicked King. Concealing the fact you own the Triple Crown is pretty much impossible, however, as the Three Thieves found to their cost: so once you've got it, you'd better be ready to defend your claim on it against all comers!

(Alternatively, 'fetch me the Triple Crown' is the kind of apparently impossible task that someone might set as a test of devotion, or just to make people go away, like the Tsar's daughter who asks her suitors to bring her a flying ship in the Russian fairytale. If the person in question is sufficiently rich and powerful, they might ultimately subcontract the task out to the PCs...)

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The Sun Thief is easy to find, if one desires to do so: she roams the southern deserts, a pillar of living flame, blasting the sand around her to glass in the white-hot heat of her combusted soul. Her approach can be felt from miles away as a wave of heat in the air, and the desert tribes have long since learned to flee from her whenever she comes near. The lands in which she most often wanders have been burned to bare black rock and obsidian, so hot that no living thing can survive within them. To look upon her is instant blindness. To touch her is death by fire. 

Unless one can somehow attain complete immunity to heat, fire, and blindness, fighting the Sun Thief is clearly out of the question. But even in her current state, there might be ways to communicate with her: the Children of the Sun could act as messengers, as could the spirits of the desert; and if one knew which way she was likely to come then one could spell out messages for her on the land itself, in arrangements of imperishable stone. But her mind is on fire. What message could be powerful enough to reach her after all those centuries of flame?

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Unlike the Sun Thief, the Moon Thief is not dangerous to approach: the difficulty in his case lies in finding him in the first place. He can take any shape he chooses, or no shape at all: and how does one track down a single shadow on a thousand-mile shoreline, or a single glint of moonlight on the surface of a vast and moonlit sea?

The most obvious way to find the Moon Thief is to consult an oracle, such as the Golden Lady or the spirits of the Island of Cairns; but there is another way. Some echo of the man he once was draws the Moon Thief to scenes of larceny and deceit. The tightly-knit, clannish communities of the northern taiga do not lend themselves to criminality, but thieves and tricksters who do attempt to ply their trade in his remote northern region often speak of finding themselves suddenly attended by an uncanny figure when they had thought themselves alone, a man or a beast of strange silver aspect that melts away into shadows the moment it is approached or addressed. Through the orchestration of such scenes it might be possible to lure the Moon Thief to a specific location, but his weird, metamorphic body is nearly impossible to imprison or to harm. You could talk to him. But what message could reach his lunacy-addled mind?

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The one being who still remembers the Sun Thief and the Moon Thief as something other than the near-mindless monsters which they have become is the Star Thief. Moving as regularly as the stars in the heavens, he traces a vast, circular path across the world, moving sometimes across the surface and sometimes through the hidden underworlds beneath it, but always arriving punctually at their prearranged rendezvous site at intervals of exactly one year and one day. He doesn't walk very quickly, but he never stops: not for food, or sleep, or rest, or darkness, or any kind of weather or rough terrain. On the surface, in open country, a party on horseback could keep pace with him if they knew his route in advance, using each morning to cover the distance he travelled during the night; but in the underworld, even matching his pace for a single day would tax the most accomplished of cavers. He is utterly unremarkable to look at, a bent figure pacing wearily across the landscape, wrapped in layers of rags. A leper, perhaps, or a broken-down old beggar. Sometimes people give him alms, and receive weird, whispered oracles in return.

Beneath his rags (which cover every inch of his skin, including his entire face, although his hood is so deep that this will not be immediately apparent), the body of the Star Thief is composed almost entirely of eyes. If he is harmed or detained, he will wrench the rags from his face and expose a dozen or so of these eyes, all of them full of hard blue starlight; those they gaze upon will be filled with the terrible, inhuman knowledge of the stars, which usually results in several days of catatonia followed by several years of astrophobia. If he is injured, this terrible starlight will pour out of his wounds, engulfing everyone nearby during the minutes that it takes for his flesh to knit back together. Possibly a sufficient quantity of force could kill him outright, but no-one who's ever been exposed to the starlight within him has ever wanted to find out what would happen if all of it were to burst forth at once.

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If approached non-violently, the Star Thief will not behave aggressively unless his journeys are actively impeded. Talking to him is difficult, because his shattered mind is a jumble of star-knowledge, filled with the events of the past, present and future which all learned men agree to be secretly written in the stars; but with a great deal of patience, and the right kind of crossword-puzzle mindset, all kinds of information could potentially be coaxed from him. If you followed him for long enough, through the deserts and the mountains and the monster-haunted underworlds, you might even learn his real name.

You might even learn the real names of the Sun Thief and the Moon Thief.

You might even learn which spot on the Star Thief's 366-day itinerary is the spot at which they were originally supposed to be reunited.

You might even be able to arrange events so that, the next time the Star Thief reached that point, he finally found the Sun Thief and the Moon Thief waiting for him, holding their circlets in their hands, ready to combine the three crowns into one and shed their burdens at last, crumbling into ancient ash and letting the winds of the steppe carry their mingled dust up into the sun, and the moon, and the stars.

And then, as the glorious mingled light of the Triple Crown burns once more across the steppe for the first time in a thousand years, your real problems would begin...

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Monday, 23 January 2017

The long haul: time and distance in D&D

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This post grew out of Bardaree Bryant's recent comment on one of my old posts, in which she asked about ways of communicating enormously long-distance travel in play - aside from 'OK, you ride for a hundred days, so hang on while I make a hundred random encounter checks', which obviously isn't very satisfactory. In my reply to Bardaree, I suggested that you could do it by simply emphasising the sheer amount of time involved in travelling long distances on foot or on horseback. And that got me thinking about the role that long duration might play in D&D, as well...

In many D&D games, neither long distances nor long durations come up very much at all. A lot of D&D scenarios follow the model from Keep on the Borderlands, where the Keep and the Caves of Chaos are only a couple of miles apart; Undermountain in the Forgotten Realms later went even further by having the dungeon directly under the starting tavern, meaning that the journey time between Home Base and Mythic Underworld wasn't hours or days, but minutes. But what if it's further? What if it's much further? What if the journey to 'the dungeon' is more like a band of sixteenth-century Spanish adventurers setting out for El Dorado than a gang of graverobbers deciding to break into a mausoleum in the churchyard down the road? Or consider something like the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-6, which spent eighteen months travelling from St Louis to the Pacific, five months on the Pacific coast waiting out the winter, and six months on the return journey - a round trip of almost two and a half years, even though they had much better equipment and navigational techniques than would have been available in the Middle Ages. What if the journey to the dungeon and back looks like that? 

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'We're almost there, guys! Just another five or six months, tops!'

Many readers of this blog will probably be familiar with the old Pendragon RPG, in which the PCs are knights in Arthurian Britain. One of Pendragon's many innovations was the idea that the PCs aren't off adventuring 24/7: instead, adventuring is seasonal, something you do in the summer when the weather is warm and riding around in the woods all day isn't too much of a pain in the arse. A Pendragon party will ride off to slay a dragon or rescue a maiden or whatever, and then they'll come home, and that'll be their adventure for the year done: it's followed by a 'Winter Phase', where you get to roll a bunch of dice to find out whether you catch the plague and whether your wife dies in childbirth and how many children you have left by springtime, and then summer comes around and you round up your mates and go for another adventure. One adventure + one winter phase = one year, and over the course of a long campaign PCs are thus expected to age from brash young warriors in their late teens to grizzled veterans in their 30s or 40s. Play long enough and you might even end up playing as the children or grandchildren of your original characters.

Now, Pendragon uses this model because its PCs are plugged into a specific social structure, rather than just being the rootless freebooters so common in D&D. They can't adventure all day, every day: they have manors to run, peasants to oppress, lords to serve, lands to guard, and so on. But I think a variant on it could easily be used to model 'long-distance D&D': if there are a thousand miles of wilderness between you and the dungeon, then one expedition per year is probably the most you're going to be able to manage. You set out in spring; you reach your destination and have your adventure in summer; you trek back through the autumn; and winter is spent sheltering from bad weather and gathering plans and supplies for next year's expedition.

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This 'annual adventure' model wouldn't be suitable for all campaigns, and would fit much more easily into a setting where the geography is on a North American or Central Asian scale rather than yet another Merrie Olde Englande knock-off, but I think that it has certain attractions. It gives a more plausible explanation for how the PCs have had time to recover from all their horrible injuries. It makes their increasing power level more believable. (I've never been a fan of the way D&D characters often go from raw beginners to mighty wizards and warriors within just a few months of game time.) It emphasises just how much wealth they've acquired: not just enough to pay their tavern bills for a few weeks, but enough to live off for months at a time and still pay for the supplies of the next expedition. It gives them a reason to build connections with (and invest resources in) their communities, because for much of the year those communities will be their actual homes, rather than just places they drop into briefly to heal and restock before heading back out to the adventure site. And if your group happens to be interested in dealing with Pendragon-esque issues relating to ageing and family and whatnot, then it opens up a space for them, too. PCs who go adventuring once a year can watch their children grow up. PCs who go adventuring once a day are unlikely to live long enough to have any children in the first place.

In practise, this would mean dividing the role traditionally played by 'town' into two. The place that the PCs retreat to at the end of a day's dungeoneering is just 'base camp', which is probably still just a few miles from the dungeon; but the place where they go to resupply, sell loot, hire new followers, and so on is their distant 'home port', so far away that going there and back means adding one year (or more!) to your PC's age on their character sheet. PCs would be aware that their adventuring career was likely to span years or decades rather than weeks or months, simply because of the amount of long-distance travel involved, and would thus have an incentive to engage in the kind of long-term activities which tend to seem pointless in many D&D games: getting married, having or adopting children, investing in businesses or property, training apprentices, founding new religions, starting political movements, and so on. The equivalent of the Winter Phase would be discovering after each adventure how all your long-term projects had developed in your absence, and establishing the direction you wanted then to take next. This would also neatly avoid having the game eaten by the minutiae of running a magical academy / political party / insane conspiracy / whatever: when your PC spends three-quarters of every year on the road, she has to delegate its day-to-day running to her NPC minions, instead.

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Check it out for all your camel photo needs.

By the same token, this structure would mean that the GM was free to make use of long-term situations: not just the 'immediate massive crisis' that is D&D's normal bread and butter, but slowly-simmering issues that might take years and years of game time to finally boil over. That lunatic preaching in the town square might just look like a bit of local colour the first time you see him, but eight years later he and his cult might have taken over half the city. (And, again, all these long absences provide the time needed for major changes to take place. 'When you finally set eyes upon your home city after eighteen months on the road, you can tell at once that it has changed dramatically since your departure...') You could explore plotlines that D&D campaigns usually don't have time for, like the rise and fall of entire governments or religions; you could even take the Pendragon model and start the campaign at the beginning of a new king's reign, allowing the actions of the PCs and the consequences of their adventures to shape whether his era turns out to be one of prosperity or disaster. Most D&D PCs are too anarchic to act as some monarch's Lancelot - but they're pretty well-suited to be their Drake or Magellan, with all the positive and negative consequences that can stem from that.

All this is still just a thought experiment at this stage, and while I do make frequent use of extended time gaps in the D&D games I run, I haven't yet tried building the regular lapse of years into the structure of the game itself. I think the idea might have some potential, though. If nothing else, it lets those enormous blank spaces on the map become meaningful again, if only because of all the things that have the time to happen elsewhere while you slog through them on the way to what you naively believe to be the 'real' adventure...

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Sunday, 15 January 2017

Once more unto the Morlocks: 20 lost civilisations of the underworld

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I have a completely irrational love of weird underground human (or semi-human) civilisations. I'm not quite sure why. I think it's probably because of the vistas of deep time that they imply: of hidden cultures unfolding themselves into the darkness, generation on generation, gradually becoming stranger and stranger as they pass century after century completely isolated from the surface world. Dunkley Halton wrote some absolutely brilliant ones here.

Now, in the real world you'd have to be crazy to take your children and go and live at the bottom of a lightless cave system somewhere, because there's not enough food down there and you'd all end up starving to death. But the weird underground ecosystems and endless, almost entirely non-flooded cavern networks of D&D change everything: and while very few people would voluntarily choose to live in the underworld rather than on the surface in most D&D settings, once they're down there they can survive indefinitely if they have to, which effectively turns the Underdark into everyone's last resort place to retreat to in moments of acute crisis.

In reality, when everything falls apart people usually flee into the forests and the hills; but because there's only so much rough terrain available, they necessarily end up mingling with the descendants of all the other peoples who've fled up there in the past. But the D&D underworld is effectively limitless, and there's no reason why it couldn't absorb any number of waves of refugees, fallen dynasties, persecuted cults, displaced cultures, and so on, each new wave simply driving the others a little deeper down while still retaining its own distinct identity. In D&D-land, no culture ever really needs to become extinct. It just needs to find itself a deep enough cave to hide in.

Here are twenty weird (but human) underground cultures you might find in a D&D underworld, complete with (somewhat flimsy) explanations for why they're living underground in the first place. Makes a change from yet another bunch of deep gnomes, right?

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1: Descendants of two ancient armies locked in stalemated trench warfare; both sides dug endless tunnels and counter-tunnels to undermine one another until they hit the underworld, and then they just kept going, the war by this time being all they knew. Now their mostly-collapsed trench networks reach miles underground, their semi-human descendants still blindly carrying on with their war in the depths of the earth, in the name of nations long since vanished from the surface world. Their culture is built around antiquated military ranks, and they have an instinctual and hysterical loathing of 'the enemy'.

2: A vast and ancient underground laboratory complex hermetically sealed itself after a disastrous accident, and was written off as lost by its parent culture. Most of the people inside were killed by the weird energies that they unleashed, but a handful survived, albeit mentally and physically warped by their experiences; and over the years that followed they created a tiny self-sustaining society within its walls. Thousands of years later, the laboratory's reactors finally failed and its powered doors hissed open at last, releasing their weirdly-mutated, lab-coat-wearing descendants into the underworld beyond...

3: Long ago, for reasons that must have seemed compelling at the times, an expedition was mounted into the depths of the underworld. Soldiers, sages, and explorers descended together far below the earth, where they slew many monsters and unearthed many treasures and discovered many secrets of the world below. But they went too deep: their numbers became depleted, their most powerful heroes perished, and cave-ins and hostile populations lay between them and the way home. Exhausted, they established a temporary base camp far below the earth, planning to restock their supplies and then return to the surface; but as years passed without a suitable opportunity arising, the hope of ever reaching their lost home receded ever-further into the distance. Some made a desperate scramble towards the surface, and perished en route; but others remained, and their old base camp has now grown into a small community, at the heart of which lie the honoured graves of the explorers who led their ancestors down there so many years ago. Their numbers have never been great, but they still possess many objects of power which were either carried down there by the original heroes or found by them in the course of their expedition, and with the aid of these they have been able to consistently hold their own against the creatures of the surrounding caves.

4: In the waning days of some ancient empire, a garrison of soldiers was stationed in the underworld to guard a strategically-important cave network against foes in the Underdark below. They successfully held the line against their enemies: but their parent civilisation was less fortunate, and as the empire fell their supply lines were cut and they lost all contact with the surface world. With no way of knowing what was going on and no route back to the surface, they dug in, fortified their position, and waited for further orders. Hundreds of years later their descendants are still there, furiously protecting their now fantastically-fortified cave network against all comers, and awaiting the now-mythical figure of 'the messenger' who will tell them that their watch is over and lead them back into the light.

5: Many years ago, a persecuted religious sect sought shelter in the underworld, hiding themselves from the surface world.  Down in the caves they have built themselves a sealed community built around strict religious principles, governed by their religious elders, and completely cut off from any 'corrupting' external influences. Their obsession with doctrinal purity weighs heavily upon the less devout members of their community, especially among the young; but living far beneath the surface means that would-be apostates effectively have nowhere to go, especially as they teach their children that the surface world is a nightmarish place full of bloodthirsty inquisitors who would burn them alive as soon as look at them. In fact, their sect has been virtually forgotten in the world above, its followers assumed to have all converted or perished in the great persecutions generations ago.

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6: A century or so back, the ruling dynasty of a local kingdom was driven from the throne by a rival claimant. When the new king began hunting down surviving members of the defeated dynasty to make his claim secure, faithful servants fled with as many members of the family as they could find and hid themselves in the underworld, guarded by the most dedicated warriors from what remained of the royal army. Generations on, the descendants of this fallen dynasty still maintain a weird shadow court deep beneath the earth, insisting that they are the rightful rulers of the lands above. They still have their partisans in the kingdom, who swear their loyalty not to the king in the capital but 'the king beneath the earth'; and while its exact position is a closely-guarded secret, their cavern-court still somehow acts as a magnet to all kinds of exiles, rebels and malcontents who are no longer welcome in the kingdom itself.  

7: A terrible earthquake once tore open the earth, tipping an entire city into the abyss. By sheer fluke, a handful of its inhabitants survived the fall, only to find themselves stranded deep underground. Over the centuries that followed they and their descendants have gradually cleared and repopulated their shattered and jumbled city, making their homes in crashed palaces, inverted temples, and buildings that now stand at crazy diagonals. The language they speak has long since vanished from the surface world, and would be of great interest to scholars.

8: A criminal gang began using a nearby cave system as a hiding place and base of operations, concealing its entrance to protect them from the agents of the law. As their crimes became more brazen, and the hunt for their lair more intense, they began retreating deeper into the earth, surrendering the upper levels of their hiding place in order to conceal themselves ever further down. Now, centuries on, their descendants live far beneath the surface, and come creeping up through a dozen layers of concealed passages to conduct near-ritualised 'crime raids' on nearby communities on nights when the moon is dark. 

9: An ancient culture buried its kings and officials in a vast underground necropolis, with new tomb-complexes excavated to make room for each new arrival. They also believed that men and women of rank should have slaves buried alive with them, to serve them in the next life: a minor court official might just be buried with one, but a king might have a thousand or more. In the early days of the empire such live burial meant a miserable death from starvation in a sealed tomb: but by the time the empire reached its second millennium, the necropolis had become so vast that the slaves buried alive within it could (and often did) survive inside it for decades, living on weird crops grown from grain offerings interred with the high-ranking dead. Thus a bizarre community arose within the necropolis, its numbers bolstered by regular arrivals of new slaves: they called themselves 'the dead', and hid themselves from the living during their infrequent visits to the tombs, the marks of their presence being attributed instead to restless ghosts. Today the empire is waning fast: the tombs of its modern kings are paltry compared to those of their ancestors, and slaves are now too scarce to be wasted on live burial. But the 'dead' remain in their necropolis, living among the ruins of the tombs: they have long since converted the masoleums of the ancient kings into homes and workshops, improvising tools out of the grave goods buried with long-dead officials and courtiers. Their knowledge of the necropolis, and thus of the empire's history, is far greater than that of any living sages in the world outside.  

10: Centuries ago, invading armies drove the indigenous peoples of this region to the brink of extinction. To survive, they fled beneath the earth, modifying their traditional customs as best they could to fit in with their new environment. Today their descendants have thoroughly adapted to their new subterranean homeland, but they have not forgotten the loss of their original lands; they sometimes send scouts creeping up by night to keep track of developments on the surface, and as their numbers gradually grow, so does their confidence that their old territories might one day be retaken. Should the surface nations they once inhabited ever find themselves at a moment of acute crisis, then the secret armies beneath the earth may seize the opportunity to strike. 

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Image by Mattpocalypse.

11: Long ago, a secretive organisation abducted a large number of people apparently at random, and imprisoned them within a large, sealed underground complex. There, they were systematically exposed to various weird substances (bizarre toxins, magical radiation, etc), apparently as part of some vast experiment: many died, but others demonstrated (or developed) surprising resistances, and were retained for further rounds of experimentation. Ultimately the staff who operated the complex were wiped out by some kind of bizarre pathogen, either released accidentally or deliberately unleashed upon them as a form of sabotage. But the experimental subjects survived, safe within their sealed environment: and while most starved over the months that followed, a handful of particularly hardy cannibals managed to hold out for long enough to establish a sustainable food supply within the complex, using weird plants fertilised with corpse-mulch and coaxed into growth by strange radiation. A few centuries on, their feral, mutated descendants - warped by entire generations of exposure to the substances which their kidnapped ancestors were only meant to be exposed to for a few months - have finally managed to tunnel out of their sealed prison, and escape through the plague-ravaged corridors of the outer facility into the underworld beyond...

12: A long-vanished culture with a taboo against capital punishment once punished its criminals by exiling them into the underworld, forcing them to march down a long tunnel that reached deep into the earth and then locking an immense iron door behind them. Their descendants still remain there, sealed beneath the earth, in loose tribal groupings based around the ancient crime syndicates, radical movements, and banned religions from which so many of their ancestors came. The great iron door remains as immoveable as ever, as it was enchanted to fill anyone approaching it from below with feelings of overwhelming terror; but over the years these subterranean 'crime tribes' have successfully mined their way into other parts of the underworld nearby. 

13: A saint of an ancient religion descended far into the underworld to live a life of ascetic contemplation, spending decades meditating in total darkness. After his death his followers established a shrine in the cave he had lived in, tended by an order of blind and silent monks and visited by occasional pilgrims who had been assigned particularly arduous penitential pilgrimages in punishment for their misdeeds. Gradually the keepers of this shrine developed a unique set of doctrinal irregularities, which they claimed to have been dictated to them by voices speaking out of the darkness; the high priests of their faith judged them to be ideologically impure, and the pilgrimages were discontinued. They were assumed to have died out centuries ago, but, in fact, their descendants and successors are still down there: tending to their ancient temple, perfecting their meditative techniques, guarding their crumbling libraries... and listening to the voices in the darkness. 

14: A mining settlement pursued a particularly deep vein of ore so deep into the earth that it became impractical for them to return to the surface each night; instead they carved out homes for themselves underground, passing whole weeks or months in the dark. As the decades passed the mines became deeper and deeper, and their links to the surface more tenuous, until finally the day came when the miners simply decided to cut out the middlemen and start selling their ore directly to the other inhabitants of the underworld, rather that bother with the enormous difficulties involved in shipping it up to the now-distant surface world above. Today they form a major part of the local underworld economy. Their kinsmen on the surface still have no idea why the ore deliveries stopped coming all those years ago.

15: An awful clan of incestuous degenerates was driven from their homes by neighbouring tribes, and forced to flee beneath the earth to survive. Down in the dark they became more freakish and inbred than ever, and several generation on they've devolved into a grotesque and twisted race, deformed and animalistic and insane. They sometimes creep out of their caves in search of food, preying indiscriminately upon humans and animals alike. The local population regard them as monstrous beasts: they set snares for them as they would for wolves or foxes, and would be shocked to learn that their ancestors were once ordinary humans.

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16: Centuries ago, a work-gang of slaves labouring in a silver mine accidentally mined their way into part of the underworld. Reasoning that whatever was down there could hardly be any worse than their current existence, they secretly passed word of their discovery to their fellow miners; and at a prearranged signal, every work-gang in the mine murdered its overseers and fled down into the caves. Soldiers were sent to pursue them, and the escapees fled ever-downwards to evade them, retreating beneath the earth into weird subterranean labyrinths until they could no longer begin to guess the way back to the surface. Their descendants still live there today: they call themselves the Free People, and have used the mining skills taught to them by their slave ancestors to turn their caverns into an intricate and easily-defensible tunnel network, full of ore mines and fungus farms. They are tough and industrious and very good at keeping grudges, and in another few thousand years they may end up turning into dwarves.

17: A clan of hunter-gatherers once took shelter from the elements in a cave network, only to be trapped inside by a catastrophic cave-in. With nowhere else to go, they descended into the caverns, searching for another way out; but instead they simply wandered deeper and deeper into the underworld, until the way back to the surface was utterly lost. Turning their survival skills to their new environment, they became nomads of the underworld, roaming from cavern to cavern in search of fresh supplies of food: fungi to gather, cavefish to catch, and weird burrowing creatures to hunt and trap. Over the generations they became every bit at expert in surviving within their new environment as they once had been in the forests of the surface world; and while their legends still speak of a legendary world of lush green trees and abundant food, the young men and women of the clan increasingly view such tales as nothing more than a myth.

18: In some now-forgotten city of the ancient world, the castes were divided vertically: the aristocracy lived in a fantastical network of towers, never deigning to set foot upon the ground, while the commoners lived at surface level and the untouchables were banished to the tunnels and basements below, where they were expected to ensure that they were seen as little as possible by their social superiors. Years later, in an apocalyptic war with its rivals, the city was obliterated in a single night by a terrible magical bombardment: the only survivors were the untouchables, who cowered in their basements while the great towers crashed to the earth. Buried beneath a whole city's worth of magically-irradiated rubble, and fearful that their enemies would destroy them too if they gave any hint of having survived the fall of their city, the survivors decided that their only hope lay in digging downwards. They are still there, in what is now a great and hidden tunnel-cavern-realm whose highest virtue is secrecy, teaching their children in each generation that they will only survive if the world outside doesn't know that they are there. They possess near-supernatural talents for stealth, the use of which has ensured that no-one has ever found them to tell them that the war they're hiding from ended thousands of years ago.

19: On the shores of an underground sea lives an incongruous community of human fisher-folk, the boats of whose ancestors were washed down into the underworld by a tidal wave generations ago. With no way back to the surface they have established themselves down in the depths as best they can, illuminating their homes with stinking fish-oil lanterns, and living upon the blind albino cavefish and other, weirder creatures which live in the waters of their new home. The bravest of them have even constructed a makeshift whaling vessel from which to harpoon the monsters which swim in the depths of their lightless ocean, although the risks involved are terrible. 

20: Far beneath the surface of the earth, an ancient civilisation constructed a subterranean world for unguessable reasons of their own: a single immense cavern with its own magically-maintained artificial weather and climate, complete with a fake sun, moon, and stars which move across the cavern roof. The cavern is populated with plants and creatures, including humans, presumably descended from specimens taken from the surface world in distant prehistory, among which are some which have long since fallen victim to extinction on the surface world. The stone-age humans who live there simply take for granted that the world is a single cavern roughly a hundred miles across, and had no inkling that anything exists outside it - until, a few years ago, one of them went digging for flints and ended up accidentally mining his way into another tunnel network just outside. This has triggered something of an existential crisis for the people, but a handful of their bravest warriors have begun to conduct scouting missions into the caves beyond...

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