Thursday, 29 October 2015

Richard Dadd and the Deadman's Head

This is Richard Dadd.

In 1842, Dadd went to Egypt. While he was out there, something happened. Convinced that he was the chosen emissary and son of the ancient Egyptian god Osiris, Dadd returned to England and murdered his father, believing that he was a demon in human form. He then fled to France, where he was arrested after attempting to murder another 'demon'. He spent the rest of his life in lunatic asylums, first in Bedlam and then in Broadmoor, painting pictures like these:

'The Fairy-Feller's Master-stroke', by Richard Dadd.
One of his less well-known paintings is called 'Patriotism'. It looks like this:

It's a map of an imaginary landscape, accompanied by a lengthy description of an imaginary war which was fought over it. (Those markings in the bottom left are miniscule text.) Here is an extract from that text:

The Deadman’s Head was quite empty when it was entered by the Victors. The Devil was very busy in Gales of Wind and from the nature of the defences would have been unconquerable, but he sunk from want of support, having no other than the lunatic asylum, which was not only unfit but was not enough. It required three Generals to conquer it & the less we say about how it was done, the better for some of us. Nobody knows what became of it and it is not usual to ask after such a savage thing as that was. The Devil was on the wrong side or rather the other side of the water.

Here's another extract:

Many brave warriors fell on both sides at Fort Fatal Truth where things were said in presences that are never forgiven any more than the Devil is forgiven. The Cheek exceeds belief. Of the City itself it may be said that it was built to obviate the effects of ignorance and vice, and fell by those causes as all others may be said to have done that have done so. It does not matter now who was right and who was wrong. 

I have no idea what it means. I don't suppose that anyone has ever had any idea what it means. But some of it sounds extremely ominous. 'It does not matter now who was right and who was wrong.' 'The less we say about how it was done, the better for some of us...'

None of this has anything to do with Central Asia. But this is exactly the sort of thing that might turn up scrawled on a wall somewhere in the depths of the Wicked City.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Legend of Aži Dahāka

The binding of Aži Dahāka (aka Zahhak), from the Shahnama of Baysunghur.

One of the inspirations for the Wicked King was the Persian legend of Aži Dahāka, the dragon-tyrant of the ancient world, which has haunted me ever since I first learned it many years ago. I know Persia isn't really part of Central Asia proper; but the legend formed part of the mythic history of Zoroastrianism, which was historically practised in Central Asia, and also fed into more definitively Central Asian religions such as Manicheanism and Yazdanism. Besides, the whole thing is much too good to miss.

The story goes like this: long ago, the world was ruled by a sorcerer-king called Jamshid. Jamshid was originally benevolent, and did all kinds of good for humanity; but as the years passed he became proud and narcissistic, demanding to be worshipped as a god. In so doing he forfeited the favour of heaven, which departed from him in the form of a bird and flew away. The spirit of evil, Ahriman, knew this meant that Jamshid's days were numbered, and began looking for the one who would overthrow him.

The man Ahriman chose for his purposes was the son of a great chieftain. First Ahriman persuaded him to murder his father, inheriting his wealth and lands; then he came to the young man's court disguised as a cook, and made him a delicious banquet, for which the only payment he requested was permission to kiss the new chief between his shoulder-blades. After Ahriman departed the spot he had kissed swelled up and burst open, and out of it rose two huge serpents, twisting and snapping and ravening for human brains. So the young man became Aži Dahāka, the serpent king; and so his reign of terror began.

Aži Dahāka made war on Jamshid, and overthrew him. He took the two sisters of Jamshid as his brides, teaching them his evil sorcery and corrupting them with his evil ways. Jamshid fled his armies and went into hiding; for a hundred years Aži Dahāka hunted him, and in the hundredth year he caught him on the coast of the sea of Chin and had Jamshid torn to pieces. For a thousand years he maintained his cruel tyranny over the world, ordering everything he desired to be carried to him in golden cages, and feeding human brains to the serpents that grew from his spine; he even prayed to the goddess Anahita for power to exterminate humanity, but his wickedness was such that she ignored him no matter how many thousands of sacrifices he offered to her. Finally a humble blacksmith named Kaveh, who had seen seventeen of his eighteen children taken one after another to feed the snake-heads of Aži Dahāka, tied his leather apron to a pole and raised it as a flag of rebellion; he was joined by the hero Faridun, and together they rescued Jamshid's sisters and overthrew the tyrant. Faridun wounded Aži Dahāka three times, but from each wound a great tide of poisonous vermin leaped out to infest the world; so finally, instead of killing him, they bound him to mountainside, and there he remains to this day. According to some versions of the story, his shoulder-snakes have been eating his brains ever since.

(That leather apron banner, by the way? It became the royal banner of the kings of Iran, and was carried by them in all their battles until it was lost during the Arab conquest in the seventh century.)

So: what can we do with all this from a gaming perspective?

  1. Make a race out of them. Call 'em 'Dahakans', maybe, for maximum linguistic mangling: a breed of towering monsters, seven feet tall, with serpents snapping and darting over their shoulders. They have a natural predisposition towards cruelty, tyranny, and black magic, and can usually be found ruling over barbarian tribes out in the deserts, dominating their followers with an iron fist.
  2. Or make it a recognisable condition. Fall too far into villainy and sorcery and your body starts to warp: first a hard, discoloured lump develops between your shoulder-blades, then it swells up to cover half your back, and finally it bursts open and serpents spring out, their fangs dripping with all the venom distilled in your wicked, wicked heart. With a big enough robe you might be able to conceal them for a while, but really at this stage it's time to start thinking about setting up your evil sorcerer lair out in the wilderness.
  3. Or just use it as a one-off horror. PCs break into an ancient ruin on a mountaintop, and find some massive broken chains, plus one that's still connected to the rock; the monster stalks the ruins, mad and hungry, but unable to move more than a few hundred feet from the rock due to the chain still locked around its ankle. It has the whole deal: gigantic size and strength, brain-eating shoulder-snakes, AND horrible black magic, and when injured its wounds vomit forth waves of venomous stinging insects instead of blood, which means that hacking it to death is probably a great way of getting eaten alive by a zillion poisonous bugs. Of course, whatever the PCs came to the ruin for will be well within its wander range...
Dahākans (race): AC 14 (superhuman toughness), 4 HD, AB +4, damage by weapon plus two snake-bites (damage 1d4 + poison: FORT save or take 2d6 extra damage next round), FORT 10, REF 10, WILL 10, morale 9. For each week a person spends in their power (as a follower, a prisoner, etc), they must make a WILL save or start to accept their authority and begin a slide into moral corruption.

Dahākanism (magical affliction): You are so evil that poisonous snakes have started growing out of your back. You get two extra melee attacks each round, at your normal attack bonus: these do only 1 HP of damage, but they inject a poison which grows more potent the more evil you are. Regular old villainy might just do 1d6 extra damage on a failed FORT save; total lunatic evil might inflict 3d6 or more. You look like a hideous mutant freak and everybody hates you. If you cut the snakes off they just grow back.

Aži Dahāka (primordial monster): AC 16 (iron-hard skin), 12 HD, AB +10, huge claws (2d6 damage) plus two snake-bites (damage 2d6), FORT 4, REF 6, WILL 4, morale 8. If injured, everyone within 10' must make a REF roll or be covered in the biting insects which pour from its wound, suffering a -2 penalty to all rolls due to painful stinging, and losing 1 HP per minute due to the cumulative effect of their poisons filling your system; these penalties are cumulative for multiple injuries, and last until you manage to get them off via crushing, drowning, fumigation, etc. Horrible black magic powers at GM's discretion.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Random encounter tables: the Maze

OK - last one, now, at least until I get over-ambitious and decide to do them for the Road, Steppe, Desert, and Taiga as well. (I probably don't need one for the tundra. '1-3: Rocks. 4-5: Ice. 6-7: Icy rocks. 8-9: Rocks with lichen on them. 10: A lonely reindeer.') The Maze is the one area of the Wicked City which is pretty much totally outside the control of its government, so that's where you'll find a lot of the radicals and crazies hiding out. A big enough force of the King's Men could comb through the Rubble block by block if they really had to; but down in the Maze, unless they had some good information to go on, they wouldn't even know where to begin to look...

What's hiding in the darkness? Roll on the table to find out!

Random Encounters: The Maze

  1. A network of recently-excavated tunnels, which seem to loop around at random, serving no clear purpose. Through them clank a work-gang of clockwork automata, diggers built by long-dead cultists to expand this section of the Maze; every time they sense their mainsprings winding down they stomp back to the underground riverside which serves as their base of operations and dip their water-wheels into the current, remaining stationary until the water-power has fully wound them up again ready for another shift of digging. If anyone tries to stop them from continuing their pointless excavations they will lash out with pickaxes and shovels, but otherwise they're harmless so long as they're left alone. If deactivated and reprogrammed they could be turned to all kinds of useful purposes. 
  2. The angry ghosts of unfortunate souls who have died in the Maze, furious at being unable to find their way to the afterlife and willing to take out their rage on anyone who comes too close. They express their fury through poltergeist activity, sudden shocking apparitions, and ghastly screams that come echoing down the tunnels; get too close and your world will become a horrorshow of howling spectres and telekinetic storms. They will follow their victims remorselessly, partly out of spite and partly in the hope that their targets will flee back towards the surface, thus helping them to find their way out. (However, there's a 90% chance that they're so crazy they wouldn't recognise such an exit even if they saw one, unless someone explicitly pointed it out to them.) They were highly religious souls in life, and are easily scared off by displays of holiness and religious devotion; unfortunately, there's a 10% chance that your prayers or rituals will happen to remind them of those used by a rival sub-sect, in which case they'll just get even angrier. The only way to get rid of them permanently is to lead them back onto the surface, at which point they'll vanish off to whatever afterlife they should have gone to in the first place.
  3. A bunch of political dissidents, hiding down in the tunnels. The only reason they have survived this long is by being very, very paranoid; their first assumption will be that anyone they meet is probably an undercover secret policeman sent to kill them all, and they will need an enormous amount of convincing to persuade them otherwise. (Even then, they will never really trust anyone who isn't part of their own group.) They have good maps of the nearby tunnels, but they're running low on food and they're almost out of ammunition. There is a 20% chance that one of them has actually been an undercover agent of the Secret Police all along.
  4. A criminal gang which is using part of the Maze as their base of operations, smuggling contraband through the tunnels in order to avoid having to pay bribes to the King's Men. (They also engage in freelance extortion and theft on the side.) They will fight viciously to keep their lair secret and to protect their loot, but their motivations are basically mercenary and they'll agree to pretty much anything if offered a large enough bribe.
  5. A bunch of Labyrinth cultists, who have laid claim to a section of the Maze where they try to practice their religion in peace, using secret tunnels that only they know about to make occasional supply runs to the surface. Here one can find shrines and ritual chambers actually being used in the ways their builders intended, as the cultists pursue their abstruse religious studies and mystical contemplations in the hope of attaining higher levels of enlightenment. They're not unfriendly, but they do want to be left alone: years spent meditating in darkness and silence has given them a very low tolerance for disruption. Sufficiently quiet and respectful PCs could find them very useful guides through this area of the Maze.
  6. A Secret Police death squad, hunting an enemy of the state who is believed to be hiding down in the Maze. They've been down here for days, now, and most of them are injured, but they have no intention of returning to the surface without their target. Any PCs they get hold of will be subjected to interminable interrogations on the off-chance that they might know where their target can be found.
  7. A huge flooded chamber, inhabited by some kind of gigantic, pallid tentacle monster. (No, not that kind of tentacle monster... unless that's what your group is into, I guess.) It lies in wait at the bottom of the pool until its victims are right in the middle of the water, before trying to grab them in its tentacles and yank them down to a watery death. It's sufficiently huge that killing it is unlikely, but the loss of a few tentacles should be enough to persuade it to back down, at least temporarily.
  8. An extremist Labyrinth cult, who were forced into a corner of the Maze by their rivals in some long-ago sectarian struggle and simply never left; they've been down there for decades, now, living in complete darkness, eating blind fish they catch from their underground rivers and chanting their interminable prayers. A whole generation of them have grown up never knowing any other life, and they react with extreme hostility to outsiders, whom they view as being radically spiritually unclean. With enormous patience it might be possible to befriend them, and possibly even persuade a few of them to return to the surface, but their elders are pretty much completely crazy and will fight such 'ideological contamination' at every step.
  9. A series of corridors which are filled with lethal traps, all of which were designed by long-dead Labyrinth cultists as tests of scriptural knowledge. (You know the kind of thing: go through the door with a scriptural misquotation on it, get a spring-loaded axe in the face.) Navigating them without the aid of someone expert in the Labyrinth doctrines is very, very dangerous. 
  10. A bunch of pig-men, who claim to have just wandered up here from some even deeper network of tunnels and caverns below. Navigating the Maze is far beyond their feeble intellects, so they spend most of their time wandering in circles, usually without even noticing that they're doing so; they couldn't find their way back to the caves they originally came from if they tried. They are dragging a couple of luckless human captives along with them, but could probably be tricked, bribed, or intimidated into releasing them. One of them is a radical enemy of the state who fled into the Maze in order to escape a death squad sent after him by the Secret Police.
  11. An old Labyrinth shrine, inhabited by an ancient hermit who has spent the last thirty years waiting for pilgrims to turn up so that he can test their spiritual purity. (What he has been eating all this time is deeply unclear.) The tests in question are trials by ordeal, and the penalty for failure is supposed to be death, inflicted via a poisoned blade that the hermit has been keeping concealed in his sleeve the whole time; but over the years he has become so mad and senile that any halfway decent attempt at deception will be able to take him in. Kind-hearted PCs may want to try to save him, but his mind is completely gone, and all he'll ever do is mumble fragments from the scriptures. 
  12. A band of weird, bald, pale-skinned, lantern-eyed things, which might once have been human but definitely aren't any more. They have long, sensitive fingers, which they use to feel the air currents, sensing motion from hundreds of feet away; their sense of hearing is acute, and they need only the slightest glimmer of light to see in the dark. (Bright light pains and blinds them, however.) They are decked out in the ritual regalia of some long-lost sub-cult of Labyrinth faithful, much of it extremely valuable and covered with gold and jewels. They don't speak, and respond to threats by fleeing back into the darkness, relying on their stealth and heightened senses to allow them to evade would-be attackers. They know every trap, every monster lair, and every secret passage, and if approached by someone who is able to make the correct ritual signs once used by their sub-cult, they'll willingly guide that person to any part of the Maze they want to visit by the shortest and safest path possible. If approached by someone who makes the wrong gestures, they will instead lead them into the middle of some horrible deathtrap and then leave them alone in the dark. 

'You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all different...'

Monday, 19 October 2015

Monsters from Central Asian Mythology 5: Ironclaw Ravens

Remember the Buryat version of the King Gesar epic? In it, all kinds of evil beasts are sent into the world by the evil spirits born from the corpse of the dead sky-monster, Atai Ulaan. The first ones are rats with brass muzzles. The next ones are ravens with iron beaks and claws:

From the very beginning of the east,
In an ugly land,
In a meagre country,
In a place withered and dried by grief,
By three marshy rivers,
In a place of slippery slopes,
A dwelling place of demons and evil spirits,
A scorching hot land,
A dark and sunless country,
A place dry and devoid of plants,
Two ravens came flying,
Cawing and croaking.
They hovered over the face of Bukhe Beligte,
They planned to blind him by pecking out his eyes.

The baby Bukhe Beligte lay in the cradle gathering his strength,
He quickly grabbed the wings of the two black ravens.
“What kinds of devils are you,
Flying about the wide world,
With beaks and talons made of iron?!”

If one wanted to go full-on science fantasy with this, it would be easy to imagine Atai Ulaan as some kind of immense bio-mechanical construct - a space station, an aerial warbase, whatever - which, after it crashes, continues to churn out cyborg monsters and unleash them onto the surrounding world. (Maybe its malfunctioning programming leads it to grab local lifeforms, like giant rats or ravens, and replace random chunks of their bodies with cybernetic prosthetics.) Given that ATWC doesn't go quite that far, though, I'm going to keep them, like the Brass-Snouts, as weird monsters of uncertain origin, possibly created by some long vanished civilization out on the steppes. They're bigger than normal ravens, with a six-foot wingspan, and they weigh as much as a small child; their beaks and claws are made from black iron, and are as sharp as knives. Like all ravens they are primarily scavengers, but their size and their fearsome natural weaponry makes them much braver than their mundane cousins, and a flock of ironclaw ravens will not willingly yield up their carrion even to a pack of wolves. Their talons can slice flesh to ribbons, and their beaks can stab a man to the heart.

Well: if that were all, they'd just be another hazard of the steppes and the taiga, like the wolves and the tigers and the bears. But the ironclaws are clever: not quite in the same way as humans are clever, or even in the way that the Wise Folk are, but with a weird, cold, avian intelligence all of their own. They communicate with one another across immense distances, and when they spot an opportunity to create a true carrion feast - a drover's bridge that could be sabotaged, for example, sending a whole herd of cattle tumbling to their deaths where the ironclaws can devour them, or a warning sign that can be stolen, leading horses and riders into dangers from which they might never escape - then entire flocks of them will descend in great flapping clouds, slicing through ropes, pulling away markers, and even killing witnesses if necessary. The worst of them make common cause with outcast bands of robbers, outlaws, and scavengers, in which the ravens provide the aerial scouting and the humans provide the opposable thumbs. In such pairings, it is not at all clear who has domesticated who.

Ironclaw meat is rank and foul-tasting, but the ravens are widely hunted: their talons make excellent knives and bladed tools, and their beaks need only be mounted onto handles to become cruelly effective punch-daggers. Many a nomad tribe, with no access to iron ore or forges, relies upon the hunting of ironclaws almost exclusively to provide them with the metal implements they need. The price for such hunting is high, however; the ironclaws mark such tribes out as their enemies, and their members exist in a state of continual low-level hostilities with the vicious birds, never daring to let their children out of their sight for fear some knife-clawed bird will descend upon them and mutilate them out of revenge before flying away.

Ironclaw ravens have an instinctive affection for members of the Unkindness, and will happily become their henchmen if offered the chance.

  • Ironclaw Raven: AC 12 (feathers and agility), 1 HD, AB +1, iron beak and claws (1d6 damage), FORT 14, REF 14, WILL 14, morale 6. 

Ironclaw ravens have an instinctive knack for slicing open arteries and stabbing vital organs. If one rolls a 6 for damage, then it has hit an artery or impaled something vital, inflicting an extra 1d6 damage on the target.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Monsters from Central Asian Mythology 4: Balbals

Just beyond the Burana Tower site are "balbals", or stone monuments to fallen warriors and to ancient gods and goddesses.:

I've mentioned Balbals before: they're the stone statues set to guard the tombs of dead kings and warriors, into which the souls of the foes slain by that person in life, or sacrificed to him in death, are bound in order to ensure the protection of his tomb. In any Central Asian fantasy setting, I think it's pretty safe to assume that they come to life and beat would-be tomb robbers to death with their big stone hands at the drop of a hat.

Here's how it works: first, someone has to die. As they die, their killer openly and publicly declares that they (or the person to whom they are being sacrificed) is taking possession of their soul: in a human sacrifice this might be formal and ritualistic, but in the middle of a pitched battle it's more likely to take the form of a blood-splattered warrior screaming 'I own your soul, dog!' as their just-slain adversary topples to the ground. Then, when you die - and you must be dead, because until then the soul just hangs around waiting for you - a stone statue needs to be built to house the soul of the victim. This statue must be specific: you can't just say, 'Oh, Uncle Aybek said he'd killed six men in various battles, so we'll put up six statues of generic warriors and that'll do the trick.' They don't have to be lifelike, but you do need to have some kind of distinguishing mark that links each statue to one specific soul. (Maybe Uncle Aybek remembers that the man he killed at the Three Hills battlefield was wearing a bearskin, and the man who he killed by the banks of the Red River had a long beard; carving one statue with a big beard and another with a bearskin cloak would be quite sufficient.) Finally, a friendly shaman needs to perform a brief ceremony on each statue, calling that specific soul down into it and binding it in place. That done, you can rest in your grave in peace, secure in the knowledge that the souls of your vanquished enemies are watching over your bones.

Balbals only serve as tomb guardians, and the souls that inhabit them exist in a state of sleep or suspended animation, waking only when there is an intruder to be slain. If anyone looks like they might be about to disturb the grave they're bound to, they come to life and attack until the would-be desecrater is dead or driven off; then they return to their normal, inanimate state. It would be rash to assume, however, that only tomb-robbers have cause to clash with them; clans have been known to 'game the system' by burying lines of dead warriors and their attendant balbals to block off places where, for whatever reason, they don't want anyone to go, knowing that if anyone attempts to pass that way the balbals will believe their tombs to be threatened and rise up to defend them. There is also the fact that, unsurprisingly, the relatives of those whose souls are bound into balbals are seldom thrilled by the idea of their loved ones slumbering through the centuries guarding the tombs of their killers, rather than progressing to the afterlife or to their next incarnation; if they discover that this has happened, they often seek to have the balbal in question destroyed, in order to allow the soul of their relative to go free. Whenever there's been a recent war on the steppe, it's common for newly-unemployed mercenaries to seek work as freelance balbal demolitionists, hiring themselves out to any family who wants the souls of their recently-dead loved ones liberated from their stony servitude. It's dangerous work, though: attacking one of a tomb's balbals will rouse them all. In the case of great kings and conquerors, who may have hundreds or thousands of balbals defending their graves, the best idea is probably to identify the correct target from as far away as possible, destroy it as quickly as possible, and then turn and flee from the resulting stone army that rises up to protect and avenge it, secure in the knowledge that they will never go far from the tomb to which they are bound...

Turkic balbal image, Altai Mongolia:

Most balbals are man-sized, because that's all that a regular soul has the strength to animate. Occasionally giant balbals are built to house the souls of particularly mighty heroes. Would-be demolitionists might want to invest in several barrels of gunpowder before taking one on.
  • Warrior Balbal (man-sized): AC 18 (made of stone), 4 HD, AB +2, stone fists (1d6 damage), FORT 8, REF 15, WILL 12, morale 12. Immune to poison, disease, and anything else that only affects creatures of flesh and blood. Takes half damage from everything except crushing attacks (hammers, maces, cannonballs, etc) and explosions. Bullets do only 1 HP of damage per hit, and piercing weapons (arrows, knives, etc) do no damage at all. Can never travel more than a mile from the tomb it is bound to.
  • Heroic Balbal (10'-12' tall): AC 20 (made of stone), 8 HD, AB +4, giant stone fists (1d12 damage), FORT 4, REF 10, WILL 8, morale 12. Resistances and immunities as above.
It is speculated that the statue network of the Wicked City may have been created through some modified (possibly inverted) balbal creation rite. Most of the balbals in the city's old cemeteries were smashed years ago, and their creation has fallen out of fashion amongst the families of the Cobweb; but a few functional ones might still be found out in the Rubble, or down in the lightless burial chambers of the Maze...

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Random encounter tables: the Rubble

Just this one and the Maze to go, now. Unlike the streets, the Rubble doesn't change much between day and night; whatever malevolent force operates on the streets, making the vermin huge and the ruins stealthy and mobile, doesn't seem to work out there. Maybe it's a side-effect of the absence of the statue network... or maybe all those weird rituals the People of the Rubble keep performing are more effective than anyone suspects.

The Rubble by night. Image by John Avon.

Random Encounters: The Rubble
  1. This area is home to a nest of brightly-coloured snakes, all of which are poisonous. Horribly poisonous. FORT-save-or-die style poisonous. They're not big or aggressive, but they slither around through the rubble in places where you don't expect them and will bite anyone who looks like they might be about to step on them. Tread very carefully here.
  2. A group of 2d6 People of the Rubble, out patrolling their territory while scavenging for food and any other useful items they might find; they gather roots and berries, hunt and trap small animals, root through ruins that might still have usable metal tools in them, and cast their nets into ponds in the hope of bringing up edible fish (or edible frogs, or edible water-snakes - they're not picky). They carry bows and knives, and their blades and arrowheads are coated in lethal snake venom - make a FORT save or die screaming over the next 3d6 hours. (They carry an antidote, but only a skilled chemist or doctor would recognise it.) They're very suspicious of outsiders, but gifts of food and useful objects will do a great deal to help win their trust. 
  3. This area is riddled with traps: concealed pits, deadfall traps, tripwires that drop people into snake pits or flooded basements, punji sticks in shallow leaf-filled trenches, and so on. PCs might assume that all these traps mean that there's something here the People of the Rubble really value, but in fact it's just the home of a rather crazy old trapmaker who builds them as a hobby. He's notionally a member of the nearest Rubble clan, but they only come to see him when they need his expertise, and the rest of the time he's happy to live alone. (The traps rather discourage casual visitors, in any case.) A lifetime of bad experiences have left him extremely suspicious of anyone who is not one of the People of the Rubble.
  4. The burned-out ruin of what was once an alchemist's lab, overgrown with thorny creepers. Something weird has seeped into the waters, here, turning the local vegetation mobile and predatory: now it preys upon anything that gets too close, entangling its victims in its tendrils before sucking the nutrients out of them. Observant PCs may notice a large number of skeletons from rats, snakes, dogs, and other animals who have run afoul of this killer foliage, with creepers wrapped around their limbs and necks and growing through their bones. Unobservant PCs may not realise anything is wrong until thorned tendrils start lashing out and wrapping themselves around people's necks.
  5. A young Blighted couple - a boy in his late teens and a girl in her early twenties - are living here amongst the rubble. Both tried, and failed, to undertake Mindblade training, and now they live out here to avoid endangering anyone else with their uncontrolled psychic powers. They are very strongly attached to one another, and spend a great deal of time and effort calming one another down to avoid dangerous psychic outbursts. The People of the Rubble regard them as unlucky, and avoid them whenever possible. They are perpetually on the brink of starvation, and their friendship can easily be bought with regular gifts of food. Stressing them out is probably a very bad idea.
  6. An area of flooded ruins, which are home to a truly enormous poisonous serpent, almost twenty feet in length. It spends most of its time basking in a sunken pool, emerging to eat the odd dog, rat, or cat. There is a 10% chance that it is hungry, in which case it will lash out at any nearby PCs, trying to bite, crush, or drown them before eating them; otherwise it will only attack if its pool is disturbed. The People of the Rubble are well-aware of this monster, and will try to lure people they don't like into disturbing it, usually with fatal results. 
  7. 1d6 young People of the Rubble out on an initiation rite, led by a clan elder. The initiates have all been dosed up with snake venom and hallucinogenic mushrooms, and they're babbling and hallucinating wildly; the elder's job is to make sure that they complete their ritual tour of this area of the Rubble without too many broken limbs. PCs will be instantly worked into whatever tapestry of fantasy and delusion is currently working its way through their fevered minds, and may find themselves worshipped as spirits, attacked as demons, or anything in-between: make an unmodified reaction roll, but exaggerate the result to slightly surreal levels, and reroll every 1d10 minutes regardless of what is going on. The elder will try to keep things from getting too out of hand, however, as too much excitement tends to cause the initiates to drop dead of snake-venom poisoning. 
  8. A huge clockwork beast, escaped from some Clanker arsenal or Steel Aspirant foundry-temple, which has smashed its way into the rubble and now lies quiescent. It may look inactive, but would-be scavengers are in for a nasty surprise; its mainspring still turns, albeit extremely slowly, letting its tremor-sensors continue to run even while all the rest of its systems remain at rest. If it detects motion nearby it will lash out violently - anything larger than a dog will set it off - and the local animals have learned to avoid it, as have the People of the Rubble. After 1d10 hours of activity (or the same number of months of inactive monitoring) its spring will be completely unwound and it will collapse to the ground, at least until someone winds it up again. It would be worth a small fortune if looted for spare parts, and a rather larger one if repaired and returned to fully operational status.
  9. A nest of brass-snout rats. The People of the Rubble hunt them for their meat and their metal jaws, which has made them very wary of humans. They have burrowed deeply into the rubble here, and their burrows (which are flooded in places) connect at multiple points to the Maze
  10. A stretch of cleared land, on which the People of the Rubble grow crops: rice, vegetables, and lots and lots of huge, vividly-coloured, violently hallucinogenic mushrooms. The farmers who work these fields have a habit of snacking on these as they work to alleviate the boredom of agricultural labour, and live in a state of perpetually stoned low-level delirium. They still remember how to shoot just fine, though, and they carry the same bows and horribly-poisonous arrows as the rest of their clansmen. 
  11. A waterhole, the home of a herd of feral swine which inhabit this area of the rubble, foraging for food amongst the ruins. The People of the Rubble prize them as a delicacy, and carefully manage their numbers, hunting them to provide hog roasts for their most important feasts. PCs who see them as an opportunity for an all-you-can-eat bacon buffet will incur the enmity of the nearby Rubble clans. 
  12. A Rubble priestess on some kind of vision quest: she's wandering around in huge, looping circles, singing constantly, and smoking something foul-smelling and mind-altering in a battered wooden pipe. Live snakes slither all over her: if hassled she'll throw them at people, who will rapidly learn that they're intensely venomous and much less friendly towards people other than her. People willing to tolerate all the singing, smoking, hissing, and general weirdness will find that she's not bad company, however, and anyone who can actually help her in her search for enlightenment will receive a warm welcome from her clan when she finally returns to them. 

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Horrors of the Wicked City 2: The Man With Stones For Eyes

People who try to leave the Wicked City against the wishes of its government find him waiting for them, pale and silent, standing in the middle of the road. He looks ordinary enough from a distance, but a closer look reveals otherwise: his skin is sheened with frost, and instead of eyes he has two grey frozen pebbles, crusted with ice, which rattle loosely in his empty sockets. He shivers constantly, his teeth chattering uncontrollably as he warns them to return to their homes as soon as possible. The wise ones obey.

Anyone who tries to evade him soon learns that he is almost impossible to escape: he can move instantaneously to any location within his line of sight, the very air between his position and his destination seeming to shiver as he ripples through space. The air around him is so cold that anyone who approaches within 5' of him must make a FORT save or be incapacitated by the intense chill; a new save is permitted each round to break the effect. Any kind of physical contact with him – even a mere brush of his fingertips - causes 1 HP of cold damage every round: simply grabbing someone by the hand and holding on for a minute or two is enough to leave them frozen solid, turning their blood to red ice in their veins. These abilities alone are quite sufficient for him to deter most would-be emigrants; but for those who attempt to fight him, or persist in defying his warnings, he has other horrors in store. He will lunge forwards, his jaws distending impossibly, yawning open two, three, or even four feet wide: then his teeth will snap shut, slicing through flesh and bone as easily as a man might bite through soft cheese, leaving the severed flesh flash-frozen in the process. After watching him bite the arms and faces off anyone who tries to push past him, all but the very bravest are likely to flee back to the Wicked City as fast as possible.

The Man With Stones For Eyes has a reputation as being unavoidable, but this isn't actually true: he can only be in one place at once, and the city's government can only set him on people if they know roughly when and where they'll be leaving the city, whether due to Secret Police spying, statue network observation, or ordinary surveillance by their minions, guards, and spies. Once he's onto you, however, defeating him in battle is extremely unlikely: his frozen flesh is as hard as iron, and knits back together almost as fast as it can be damaged. His only weak points are the stones in his eyes, which can be dislodged by any attack that specifically aims for them and succeeds in hitting an AC of 20: one hit is needed to dislodge each pebble. With one knocked out, he can no longer see in three dimensions, preventing him from teleporting until he has picked it up and replaced it; with both knocked out he is completely blind, and can do nothing except scrabble about on the ground for his eyes whilst wailing about the unfairness of his life. Running off with them is not a good idea – they are so cold that anyone carrying one, even in a backpack, takes 1 HP of cold damage per pebble per round – but if thrown far away, it'll be hours before he's able to find them, providing plenty of time for his vanquishers to escape.

The Man With Stones For Eyes does not consider himself to be a monster. Unlike the Men Without Faces, who communicate entirely through violence, he is articulate, even loquacious; and when his victims beg him for mercy, he will express his sincere regret at the fact that his duties leave him with no choice but to carry out his orders. (Then he'll bite their legs off.) If given half a chance he will happily launch into lengthy, self-pitying speeches about how wearisome he finds his role as the city's guardian, and how, in truth, he is the real victim here: he will do this even if his latest victims are currently crawling around on the flash-frozen stumps of what were once their limbs, apparently with no sense of irony whatsoever. He can actually be quite friendly towards anyone who's willing to sit and listen sympathetically to him for long enough, but he still won't let them pass: the one thing that could tempt him to abandon his post would be the chance to feel warm again, but no fire, no matter how large or intense, seems able to dispel the chill that clings to his bones. He believes that the one thing which could truly warm him would be the loving embrace of one of the Children of the Sun, and claims to be patiently waiting for the one who will 'save' him, seemingly without realising that the last thing that most of the Sun's Children would have any desire to do is bring any kind of comfort to a monster of unrighteousness such as himself.

  • The Man With Stones For Eyes: AC 18 (speed and iron-hard skin), 10 HD, AB +6, bite (2d6 damage + mutilation - see below), FORT 4, REF 4, WILL 5, morale 9. Regenerate 3 HP per round until fully healed unless reduced to -10 HP or below.

When the Man With Stones For Eyes bites someone, his jaw extends several feet wide, allowing him to bite off whole limbs at a time. (The severed extremeties simply vanish down his jaw, regardless of how impossible this should be.) Any time he rolls a double on his 2d6 damage roll, he bites off a whole chunk of his victim. Roll 1d6 to find out what is lost: 1 = right arm, 2 = left arm, 3 = right leg, 4 = left leg, 5 = face, 6 = chunk of torso – lose 1 point permanently from each of STR and CON. These wounds are flash-frozen, so at least the victim doesn't need to worry about bleeding to death...

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Horrors of the Wicked City 1: The Men Without Faces

Above and beyond its soldiers and its robots and its secret policemen, the Wicked City has two additional lines of defence: the men without faces, and the man with stones for eyes. The man with stones for eyes guards the edges of the city: he ensures that no-one leaves whom the city's government desires to remain. The men without faces guard the heart of the city: the upper floors of the King's Tower, immediately below Head Office and the throne room of the Wicked King himself. What exactly they are is deeply unclear: they served the Wicked King before his disappearance, and may have been created by him through some horrible magic known to him alone. Possibly they are spirits, or monsters of the ancient world which he recovered from some mercifully-forgotten ruin out in the deserts. The people of the Wicked City speak of them in whispers, and consider any encounter with them to be an omen of extreme bad luck.

Bryan Durushia, mysterious surreal portraits of faceless men -
Photo by Bryan Durushia.

The Men Without Faces

There are six of them – or at least, if there are more of them, no more than six are ever seen in the same place at the same time. They are gaunt and long of limb, and dress in ragged, mismatched clothes scavenged from their victims, usually spattered with the dried blood of their original owners. Their faces are as smooth and featureless as those of mannequins; and yet, despite their lack of ears, eyes, or noses, they seem to see, smell, and hear just fine. Around their waists they wear broad, raw belts of untanned leather, from which hang their iron masks and their cruel knives; and the clattering of these instruments of torture is the only sound which they make as they move across their hunting grounds, loping from place to place like hounds, searching ceaselessly for prey. They can run for a hundred hours and never tire. They do not eat. They do not sleep. They do not breathe.

It is not clear where they get their knives and masks from. Possibly they are supplied by the Secret Police.

They make their home in the highest floors of the King's Tower, roaming continually through a wilderness of winding corridors and abandoned offices, ever-watchful for intruders. At night they roam lower, terrorising the Specials and the Extraordinaries on the floor below, snatching anyone foolish enough to walk the corridors by night. From time to time, frustrated with the lack of prey, they will smash down the barricades behind which some band of terrified Specials hide and haul some of them off to the upper floors, while their comrades scream and panic and flee in all directions. Usually, when this happens, they are satisfied with claiming a couple of victims each. Usually.

When they sight their quarry, they pursue them unerringly; and while it is possible to hide from them, the slightest sound is enough to alert them to the location of their prey. As they close with their victims they leap upon them, dragging them down, and proceed to methodically snap their limbs one after the other until all resistance is quite impossible; then, once all four limbs are broken, they will hoist the unfortunate victim up and drag them off to their lair. There one of two fates await them: either they will be hung on a wall, have a featureless iron mask bolted over their heads, and left to die, or they will be mutilated into Hounds. A lingering and painful death in a state of total sensory deprivation is probably the kinder of the two.

The Hounds are created through a series of grotesque surgical mutilations. The broken limbs of the future Hound are set, but in an awkward, crooked realignment which prevents them from rising from all fours; their eyes are put out, and their vocal chords are modified so that the only sound they can make is a kind of strangled howling. A course of crude brain surgery, which leaves enormous masses of scarring at the temples, somehow massively amplifies the sensitivity of their senses of smell and hearing, while also destroying all capacity for higher thought. When the Men Without Faces go hunting in earnest, each of them drags a pack of Hounds along with them on rope leashes, using them to help track their victims. When unleashed, the Hounds will pursue whoever they are set upon with wild ferocity, tearing them to pieces with their teeth and nails.

The Hounds will drag you down. They can smell you in the dark.

Very occasionally, the Men Without Faces are released from the King's Tower, to pursue some especially stubborn enemy of the state. On such occasions they and their Hounds are dressed in splendid black-and-silver uniforms, and unleashed amidst much fanfare and ceremony by an honour guard of Secret Police; then they rush away into the streets of the city, and the people lock their doors and pray to the Wicked King that they do not come between the hunters and their target. Sometimes they find their man, and sometimes not; but they always grab someone, guilty or otherwise, and no-one in the city feels remotely safe until the Men Without Faces are locked back inside the Tower once more.

For PCs, the Men Without Faces are one of the last obstacles they will have to brave on their ascent towards Head Office and/or the throne room of the Wicked King; PCs keen to make friends amongst the Specials and the Extraordinaries might also be given the task of rescuing friends and colleagues taken by the Men in their hunting expeditions, retrieving them from the walls on which they have been hung before they die of their injuries or perish from thirst. (Of course, if they've been turned into Hounds instead, the most that can be done is to put them out of their misery.) Fighting the Men Without Faces on their home turf is a nightmare: they know every hiding place, and have fresh packs of Hounds locked away in rooms all over the floors they patrol. Grim games of cat-and-mouse are likely to be the order of the day.

  • The Men Without Faces: AC 16 (leathery skin and uncanny agility), 6 HD, AB +8, damage special (see below), FORT 8, REF 8, WILL 8, morale 12. Regenerate 1 HP per hour until fully healed unless reduced to -10 HP or below.
  • The Hounds: AC 12, 1 HD, AB +1, hysterically claw and chew (1d4 damage), FORT 12, REF 12, WILL 15, morale 7.

When one of the Men Without Faces scores a successful hit on a target in melee, it can do one of the following:

  • Stab them with a surgical knife. This inflicts 1d4+2 damage, and also causes bleeding, inflicting an additional 1 HP of damage each round until someone spends a round binding the victim's wound. The bleeding from multiple injuries stacks.
  • Grab one of their limbs (determined at random) and attempt to snap it. This inflicts 1d4 damage, and the victim must make a FORT save to avoid having the limb broken.
  • Attempt to clamp an iron sensory deprivation mask over their head and bolt it shut. The masks they carry are attached to short chains and spring-loaded like bear-traps, designed to snap shut around the head of their victim when swung against their face; a tug on the chain then causes the mask to lock shut and the bolt to snap off inside the mechanism, meaning that the mask can be removed only by breaking the hinges open with a chisel or file. The Secret Police use a modified (unlockable) version to help them in subduing prisoners, but the Men Without Faces are so fast that they can clamp them on in mid-battle: the target may make a REF save to dodge, but if they fail they will be totally blind and very nearly deaf until it is broken open and removed.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Random encounter tables: Streets of the Wicked City

Third in the series. Like the Cobweb, the streets are very, very different depending on whether you're walking through them by day or by night. Two different encounter tables are given, accordingly.

Streets of the Wicked City: Day

  1. A large yaga belonging to a travelling merchant has broken down here, totally blocking the road, while its owner curses and kicks at it. She sent her assistant to find an engineer hours ago, but the boy was swept off his feet by a passing Murder Harlot shortly after reaching the Great Bazaar and is probably never coming back. PCs who can help her get her machine up and running again will receive her gratitude, even if she is reflexively stingy when it comes to actually paying people for things. Her cargo is all contraband goods smuggled out of various nearby towns for sale in the Wicked City.
  2. A Diamond Mind adept, employed by one of the merchant families of the Great Bazaar to spy upon the minds of their families, is out here pacing the deserted streets in a desperate effort to calm himself down: the stresses of his job are really starting to get to him, and he badly needs to relax in order to avoid triggering a psychic explosion in the middle of the next business meeting. He will hurry away from the PCs, concluding that they look like pretty stressful people to deal with, but is prepared to talk if approached, and is potentially a valuable source of information. Anyone stressing him out too much will cause a psychic outburst.
  3. A couple of Air Corps trainees are out here with their gyrocopters, practising take-offs and landings amongst the ruins and rubble. They're young and overconfident, and look kinda cute in their pilot's uniforms; they'll flirt with any attractive women they meet, and try to show off their (honestly not very developed) piloting skills to anyone who shows any interest in them whatsoever. Any PC who actually is or has been a pilot or airship captain will be treated to an embarrassing display of fawning hero-worship, and invited to share all their stories of airbourne adventure over several rounds of drinks at a nearby tavern.
  4. A team of stonemasons on statue repair duty, moving from corner to corner, ensuring that the statue network is intact and operational. Spending their whole working lives under the direct supervision of the Wicked King (or whatever it is that watches from the eyes of the statues) has made them quite desperate to appear above reproach, and they constantly compete to outdo one another in displays of sycophantic loyalty, talking constantly about how much they love their king and how wonderfully the city has prospered under his wise rule. Any accidental damage that they cause to a statue is followed up with profuse apologies, as though the statue was a living thing. They are likely to come across as slightly mad, and avoid contact with anyone who might be ideologically disreputable like the plague.
  5. A group of totally ordinary-seeming market gardeners, who have cleared an area of rubble and turned it into a set of very respectable allotments; they grow food for themselves and their families, and sell the excess in town. They're somewhat suspicious of outsiders, but are swift to warm to anyone from a rural background, and are willing to offer night-time shelter in the street of patched-up homes in which they live to anyone who's happy to either pay or help out in the allotments.
  6. A group of totally ordinary-seeming market gardeners, half of whom are actually members of the Secret Police in deep cover. Even they have no idea why they've been posted out here: in their line of work it doesn't pay to ask too many questions. The other farmers are a friendly bunch, who will chat amiably with the PCs, even offering to share a drink with them in exchange for the latest news. If anyone says anything subversive, they'll be as shocked as anyone when half their workmates suddenly yank death-masks over their faces and attempt to drag the 'dissidents' off for questioning. 
  7. A Child of the Sun, dressed in glorious golden robes which make her stand out like a sore thumb, who has decided to bring word of the Way of Solar Righteousness to the people of the Wicked City even if it costs her life. She fully expects to be martyred pretty much immediately, and is totally OK with that: after all, her soul will just return to the sun at the moment of her death. Sufficiently righteous-seeming PCs may be able to persuade her that this may not be the best way to actually help the people of the city, in which case she can potentially become a useful ally. Otherwise she will walk into the Great Bazaar, start preaching, and be grabbed by the Secret Police about two-and-a-half minutes into her first sermon, after which no-one will ever see her again.
  8. A bunch of terrified would-be emigrants sitting shivering in the street, surrounded by their heaped-up belongings. Tired of the city's cruelty and corruption, last night they tried to sneak out through a gap in the walls and try their luck elsewhere; but on the road they met something that looked like a man whose eyes had been replaced with frozen pebbles, who ordered them back to their homes. They tried to scatter and flee, but somehow it was always in front of all of them, all the time; and when one of they tried to strike it with a sword, its mouth opened impossibly wide and it bit his arm off at the elbow, leaving the stump of his amputated limb flash-frozen by its terrible icy teeth. None of them can bear the thought of facing it again, and they are now resigned to spending the rest of their lives in the city, no matter how bad things get. A few of them are even brokenly constructing makeshift icons of the Wicked King, in the hope that their prayers can persuade him not to punish them any further.
  9. A flock of ragged local children, laughing and playing amongst the ruins. A few of them, bolder than the rest, have begun climbing up the sides of a particularly tall and unstable-looking building, in the hope of looting the birds-nests on its roof for eggs. They're good climbers, but the building is very unsafe, and parts of it look as though it could collapse almost at any moment. Their parents are all off working, and there are no other adults in sight.
  10. A mildly crazy hermit sitting outside his house, the only one on the whole street which hasn't fallen into ruins, singing snatches of old songs to which he can, at best, remember half the words. He lives on the produce of the large garden he maintains out back, where he grows vegetables, maintains fruit trees, and even brews his own cider, on which he's slightly drunk most of the time. He has no valuables, knowing full well that the only way to get the King's Men to leave him alone is to have nothing worth stealing. Years of near-total solitude have made him more than a little odd, but he's not unfriendly, although he does object to sharing his house with other people except under conditions of dire necessity. PCs who hope to use his home as a safe haven will find that he is easily bribed with gifts of sweet and sugary foods.

Don't ask 'where is everyone?' unless you're really sure you want to know the answer.

Streets of the Wicked City: Night

  1. A clockwork tank belonging to the Clankers, complete with its crew, which has become lodged in the rubble that strews the streets; now night has fallen, and the tank crew are frantically working to clear away the rubble which is impeding their vehicle while its gunner watches the streets nervously, ready to turn its guns on any kind of threat which might emerge from the darkened ruins around it. Offers of help will be gratefully accepted, but PCs who approach without identifying themselves are liable to find a jumpy gunner opening fire on them with a cannon. There is a 50% chance that the crew is actually being watched by a criminal gang lurking in a nearby ruin, who are just waiting for a chance to strike, kill them all, and drive off with the most valuable piece of military equipment they're ever going to have a chance to steal.
  2. A swarm of poisonous centipedes, five feet long and as thick as a man's leg, come squirming out of the rubble nearby. They're not aggressive, but they will bite anyone who comes too close, and there are a lot of them: enough that it'll be tricky to get away without disturbing at least a few of them.
  3. A gang of junkies, hopelessly addicted to some horrible concoction they buy from the serpent people, have got their hands on a bad batch of their favoured poison and are now having a horrific mass-freakout. The PCs will hear them long before they see them, as they come shrieking and hollering through the streets, clawing at their own skin with their fingernails and gibbering nonsense at the moon. Trying to avoid their notice entirely is probably the best option, as in their drug-addled state there's no telling what will make them feel challenged or threatened, causing them to lash out in a crazy, homicidal rage. If they do attack, the noxious chemicals in their systems ensure that they keep fighting until pretty much hacked to pieces.
  4. A truly enormous rat, bigger than a horse, comes climbing out of a nearby ruin. It's looking for food, and the PCs look pretty tasty; it'll come barelling towards them, squeaking furiously, trying to chase them down the deserted streets towards a suitable dead-end where they can be cornered and devoured. It's not too bright, though, and it's terrified of open flames.
  5. An area in which the ruins and rubble move even more aggressively than usual. Normally they try to be stealthy, but here they barely even try to hide their animation; any ruined house or mass of tumbled bricks which isn't being watched right now will shift with alarming speed, hemming the PCs into a maze of moving, rumbling stone. Their aim is firstly to trap the PCs, then to separate them, and finally to close in upon them one by one and collapse on top of them, crushing them to death: anyone they kill will find their spirit trapped here, absorbed into the malevolent collective consciousness which animates the streets of the Wicked City by night. They'll be sneaky at first, but once they realise that they've been spotted they'll just surge forwards in a roaring wall of animated rubble, very dangerous but fortunately not all that fast.
  6. The hunting ground of a deranged Skull Wearer serial killer, who roams the streets sharpening his knives and looking for victims. The local buildings are on his side, and will shape themselves to facilitate his hunts, rearranging themselves while no-one is looking to form escape routes for him and dead-ends for his prey. Anyone he catches will be killed, butchered, and eaten. Tragically, he was a pretty decent guy before some long-dead sadist force-fed him a human heart and nailed a skull to his face; and if his mask can be removed without killing him, it just might be possible to drag him back to a semblance of the man that he once was. 
  7. An area which is thick with giant spiderwebs, flung from building to building. Scuttling across them are, naturally enough, a whole nest of giant spiders, each the size of a large dog. They reweave their webs every night, filling the whole area with sticky fibres in which to trap their prey, but mysteriously the webs are always gone by dawn.
  8. An unfortunate mindblade in the middle of a total mental meltdown. The strain of containing her powers has been too much for her; she's collapsed into paranoid psychosis, and now wanders the streets weeping and muttering, hiding from anyone she sees. She'll assume that anyone who approaches her is an assassin send by 'them' to kill her, and her psychic powers make her horribly dangerous; but if she can somehow be calmed down and reasoned with, it might just be possible to nurse her back to a semblance of mental health.
  9. A pack of wild dogs, gone totally feral, hunting and howling through the darkened streets. They mostly eat giant rats, but take a very dim view of humans trespassing on their territory, and will not hesitate to chase transgressors away in a snapping, foaming pack. Several of them are rabid.
  10. A pair of Unkindness scavengers picking through the rubble, accompanied by a great flapping flock of ravens. Whenever they find a likely spot for a bit of looting, they light a corpse-candle, creating a flickering, shadowy zone of illumination within which any kind of shiny object will flash out at once. They aren't keen on fighting, but they've just found a particularly fruitful area of ruins to comb through and they won't abandon it unless forced. If befriended, they would make superb (if creepy) guides through the city after dark. 

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Random encounter tables: The Great Bazaar and surrounding districts

Second in a series of posts with random encounter tables for the Wicked City. This one is for the trade district that sprawls around the Grand Bazaar, at the foot of the Cobweb. As the area has a twenty-four-hour economy, the same table is used regardless of whether it is day or night. What with all the shadows cast by the Cobweb and all the smoke pumped out by the foundries it can often be difficult to tell the difference, in any case...

Random Encounters in the Grand Bazaar District (roll 1d12)

  1. A patrol of the King's Men, 3d6 strong, looking out for opportunities for extortion. PCs who look even vaguely prosperous will be given a thorough shaking-down, accused of violating various imaginary city ordinances and issued with on-the-spot fines, with confiscation of goods as the penalty for non-payment. If met with any kind of determined resistance, they'll settle for a small bribe and be on their way. Actual violence will send them scurrying for back-up. 
  2. A couple of miserable-looking teenage prostitutes plying their trade on a busy street corner, under the watchful gaze of their Murder Harlot overseer. Any attempts to hurt or help 'her' girls will be met with pretty much equal levels of violent, bladed-fan-based discouragement. She is, however, addicted to gambling and games of chance; a sufficiently skilled PC could probably win them off her in fairly short order, but the local Murder Harlots won't be very happy about it...
  3. A chain gang of slaves being marched into one of the foundries, there to begin another exhausting twelve-hour shift. They all look weak and ragged, and most of them have terrible burns from previous industrial accidents. If any wealthy-looking PCs show them any kind of pity, sympathy, or even attention, the slaves will all start clamouring to be bought and set free. Their owner, a thuggish and unimaginative man with a crude logician implant, knows perfectly well that this lot are on their last legs, and will happily liberate them if any PC is willing to pay the market price of a healthy new slave for each wretch they want to free. He'll then head straight back to the market and buy able-bodied replacements, congratulating himself on his good fortune.
  4. Two evangelical Steel Aspirants stand in a marketplace, haranguing the crowd about the glories of the Cogwheel Sage and the spiritual ecstasies of entering into closer communion with Her through radical steamborg surgery. Their main emphasis is on spiritual advancement through the purification of the body and soul, but they also drop lots of heavy hints about how much better their shiny new clockwork limbs are than the flesh and blood they have replaced. Anyone who shows an interest in learning more will be ushered into their foundry-temple and strapped down on the nearest operating table for 'ritual purification' (i.e. surgical mutilation and augmentation with clockwork body parts) before they have a chance to change their minds...
  5. Three foreign men, twitchy and furtive, are prowling around the streets, looking for opportunities to buy some kind of vice which is utterly illegal back home. (Roll 1d6: 1-3 means they're out to score some awful narcotic, 4-6 means they're looking to fulfil some kind of horrible sexual fetish.) They don't really know their way around, but their compulsive vices drive them on regardless; they are very suspicious of strangers, but will follow anyone who promises them what they're after with an almost pathetic eagerness. They each have quite a large sum of money hidden about their persons, and no-one will miss them if they disappear.
  6. A raucous band of off-duty Blood Men from the First Brigade, guzzling food and drinking prodigious quantities of alcohol in the street, to the consternation of nearby shopkeepers and pedestrians. Right now they're just being generally loud and obnoxious, but they've got themselves very nearly drunk enough to move onto the next stage of the night's entertainment, which is 'picking fights with people for no reason and beating them up for fun'. Any PC who looks especially tough (or just especially eye-catching) will be the recipient of a whole series of drunken challenges; but despite their belligerence, the Blood Men have no real interest in fighting to the death, and will not use lethal force unless it is used against them first.
  7. A gang of 2d4 foreign thieves who have come to the Wicked City with their latest score, knowing that no-one here will care that it's obviously stolen. (Roll 1d4 to see what they're trying to sell: 1 = a nobleman's family heirlooms, 2 = a famous work of art, 3 = a magical object, 4 = a valuable piece of prototype technology.) They are very jumpy, worried that they might be out of their depth, and constantly suspect everyone of trying to rip them off. 
  8. A lavish stall set out by a serpent woman druggist, complete with watchful guards and paid announcers drumming up custom from the passers-by. The announcers will make grand claims for her potions, drugs, and elixirs, claiming that she is the most accomplished alchemist of the age, blessed by the Sage of Gold himself, and that her concoctions can cure or accomplish just about anything. The druggist herself deals mostly in medicines, painkillers, and aphrodisiacs, although she also does a thriving trade in poisons and narcotics on the side. She will be only too happy to give out 'free samples' of various horribly addictive drugs to anyone who expresses an interest.
  9. A henchman from a distant city, whose villainous employer has sent him here in order to find people with the 'specialist skills' she needs to murder her way to the top. (Roll 1d4 to find what it is that she's trying to get to the top of: 1 = a government, 2 = a royal succession, 3 = a religious cult, 4= a powerful merchant guild.) The henchman is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, vicious and cunning, and is very much enjoying his stay in the Wicked City, spending (his employer's) money pretty freely as he networks with poisoners, assassins, and other criminal reprobates. He's not being particularly discrete about what he's looking for, and PCs willing to play along for a bit may rapidly find themselves entangled in the murky intrigues of a distant realm...
  10. A whole square has been taken over by the retinues of two wealthy merchants, whose guards are keeping everyone else out. A glance over their shoulders reveals the reason: in the square beyond, two teams of Logician accountants are working frantically to calculate the likely economic impact of recent market fluctuations, chalking rapid calculations all over the pavement and buildings in the process as they check and recheck one another's figures. Their impatient employers lounge nearby, sipping expensive drinks and waiting for a decision of whether or not one of them should buy the other's stock. Their appropriation of the square has caused a pile-up of traffic, and tempers are beginning to fray in the mob around the square's edges...
  11. The personal assistant of one of the Greater Ministers, who is stalking from shop to shop attended by a small flock of servants, an enormous shopping list trailing from his hands. Guards hurry ahead of him, turfing everyone else out of the way to clear his path as he moves from one trader to the next. His employer has decided to hold an impromptu party to celebrate the beheading of a particularly irksome rival, and has given him a list of things to buy for it: the list is incredibly long and incredibly detailed, and people will die if any part of the minister's order goes unfulfilled. 
  12. A couple of bored Murder Harlots are out pretending to be political dissidents, in the hope of tricking people into expressing disloyal views out where the statues can hear them. They will descend upon the PCs, viewing them as likely targets, and spin fantastical tales of secret resistance movements just waiting for a bit of outside help to bring the whole city's government crashing down. As soon as they've baited someone into saying something treasonous they'll make excuses and vanish, before creeping back to watch the PCs from a safe distance while waiting for the inevitable arrival of the Secret Police.