Sunday, 29 November 2015

Certain Devilish Enchantments

In this plain there are a number of villages and towns which have lofty walls of mud, made as a defence against the banditti, who are very numerous, and are called CARAONAS. This name is given them because they are the sons of Indian mothers by Tartar fathers. And you must know that when these Caraonas wish to make a plundering incursion, they have certain devilish enchantments whereby they do bring darkness over the face of day, insomuch that you can scarcely discern your comrade riding beside you [...] In this way they extend across the whole plain that they are going to harry, and catch every living thing that is found outside of the towns and villages; man, woman, or beast, nothing can escape them! The old men whom they take in this way they butcher; the young men and the women they sell for slaves in other countries; thus the whole land is ruined, and has become well-nigh a desert. 

- The Travels of Marco Polo, Book 1, Chapter 18

Marco Polo had good reason to take the Caraonas seriously. While he was travelling through Persia, a band of them attacked him and his companions 'in such a darkness as that I have told you of', killing or capturing most of them; he and a few others escaped by pure good fortune, fleeing for refuge into a nearby village. Probably the magical darkness that they were said to be able to conjure was nothing but a habit of using the local dust storms to conceal their movements. But this is fantasy: so why not take Master Marco at his word? 

Tatar horseman:

Thus: the Brigands of the Noonday Dark. A robber-tribe, savage and merciless, living out in the wild lands, descending like thunder upon vulnerable caravans and then fleeing back to hiding places deep in the desert: they attack only under the cover of darkness, but unlike other bandits, when nature fails to provide the darkness they desire they simply conjure up their own. The Brigands know a spell which makes the light fail, until 'you can scarcely discern your comrade riding beside you': this spell, once uttered, affects the land for miles around, and lasts for hours at a time. Travellers know, of course, that this unnatural darkness is a sign that the Brigands are lurking nearby; but they are skilled in riding soundlessly, and even the most alert caravan will be lucky to know which direction they are about to strike from before the Brigands are upon them.

The 'devilish enchantments' of the Brigands of the Noonday Dark are as simple as children's rhymes - which is just as well, given the average level of educational attainment amongst them. However, they will only work for an individual who fulfils two requirements. Firstly, they must be of first-generation mixed ethnicity, with a mother from one ethnic group and a father from a very different one; and, secondly, they must have undergone a process of ritual preparation which the Brigands refer to as 'drinking the sun', in the course of which they must consume appalling quantities of scalding liquids whose exact composition is known only to the chiefs of the Brigands and their most trusted lieutenants. Those who survive this ceremonial ordeal can then call down the darkness at will, turning day into night within a 3d6 mile radius for the next 1d6 hours. Each time they do so they take 1d6 damage, which cannot be healed by any means until the darkness has dispersed. Calling down the darkness twice in the same day increases this damage to 2d6; a third calling causes 3d6 damage, and so on. These 'night-callers' are very valuable to the Brigands, so they will only push them to endanger their own lives through repeatedly calling down the dark in situations of dire necessity.

Within the area affected by the darkness, visibility drops to about 15', which makes missile weapons pretty much useless. The Brigands themselves prefer to use clubs and nets, in the hope of capturing their victims alive and subsequently selling them as slaves. Such is their bad reputation, however, that few 'respectable' slave dealers will have anything to do with them; and, as a result, most of their captives ultimately end up being sold in the slave markets of the Wicked City. They, at least, turn no-one away: and in the choking smog of the Grand Bazaar, under the shadows of the Cobweb, the sunlight-hating Brigands of the Noonday Dark tend to feel right at home. 

If a Brigand night-caller ever comes into skin-to-skin contact with a Child of the Sun, the night-caller will spontaneously combust. The Brigands do not know this to be the case.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Cities of the Great Road

Khan's Palace in Fergana Valley. Now a museum, this palace once served as the 7th home of the last ruler of Kokand Khanate, Khudoyar Khan.  He was the last Khan of Kokand and took the throne in 1845 when he was just 12 years old.:
Khan's palace, Kokand, Uzbekistan.

There are dozens of cities strung out along the four-thousand-mile length of the Great Road, and most of them really don't need to be developed in any detail because they exist as places to be passed through: their economies are built around the fact that, every year, thousands of people flow through them on the way to somewhere else. The expectation of their inhabitants and rulers is that each party of travellers will stumble in through the gates exhausted from some epic journey; that they will sleep for a couple of days, buy or sell their goods in the marketplace, spend a day or so sight-seeing, and then leave, perhaps to return the following year heading back in the opposite direction. As a result, they tend to be show-piece cities: each of them has a great marketplace, a street of inns and hostelries for travellers to sleep in, a few really impressive architectural set-pieces (palaces, temples, grand squares), and that's about it. People who stay in them for months or years instead of days or weeks are likely to run out of things to do pretty damn fast; but at least there's always a steady flow of interesting strangers staggering in through the gates...

The consequence of this is that the deep character of each city is usually going to be fairly irrelevant: what counts is the way it bursts upon the eye of the new arrival, because that's what the PCs are likely to be. I've thus assembled a set of simple random tables, which should allow a GM to throw together a given City of the Road in a couple of minutes. Of course, there will be more to the city that this: but the tables will reveal how the city is likely to appear to the casual visitor, which is all that the PCs will ever be for most of them.

Hayastan (Kobayr) - Armenian painting:

Overall Character (roll 1d8)
  1. Gleaming and prosperous
  2. Gloomy and oppressive
  3. Tumbledown and ruinous
  4. Stunningly beautiful
  5. Sensual and seductive
  6. Bustling and cosmopolitan
  7. A shadow of its former glory
  8. Sinister and cruel

A Great Centre For Trade in... (roll 1d20)
  1. Printed books
  2. Porcelain
  3. Fur
  4. Opium and other drugs
  5. Clockwork marvels
  6. Weapons and Armour
  7. Wine
  8. Carpets
  9. Silk
  10. Spices
  11. Tea
  12. Coffee
  13. Horses
  14. Slaves
  15. Textiles
  16. Glassware
  17. Gold
  18. Silver
  19. Jewels
  20. Guns.
Being in the Right Place at the Right Time - Moon Balancing on Minaret Khiva Uzbekistan:
Minaret in Khiva, Uzbekistan.

Biggest Tourist Attraction (roll 1d10)
  1. The spectacular palace of the city's ruler(s).
  2. An ancient temple to a now-forgotten god, repurposed to serve the city's current religion(s).
  3. A sacred relic, believed to have healing properties, which the sick and the faithful undertake great pilgrimages in order to visit.
  4. The city's vast fortifications, built to protect it in some bygone age of colossal violence.
  5. A great library, which holds many unique manuscripts.
  6. An famous guild of ingenious clockworkers, full of mechanical marvels.
  7. An ancient university, where many famous sages once taught and debated.
  8. A great and beautiful shrine to the god(s) of the city.
  9. The lush and flower-filled water gardens, a famous meeting place for lovers.
  10. The rusting remains of an ancient God Soldier, whose giant metal body has been converted into an oddly-shaped but extremely secure fort. 
Government (roll 1d6)
  1. Ruled by a local monarchy.
  2. A local governor rules the city on behalf of some distant imperial capital.
  3. Oligarchy.
  4. Theocracy.
  5. Brutal despotism.
  6. Conquered 1d6 generations ago by a nomadic warlord from the steppes, whose family are currently in the process of being assimilated into the aristocracy. (The less time ago it was, the more of their nomad culture they retain.)
Ateshgah fire temple in Azerbaijan. This is supposed to be the first or one of the earliest fire temples of the Zoroastrian religion.:
Zoroastrian fire temple, Azerbaijan.
Religion (roll 1d8)
  1. A variety of local gods, unheard-of elsewhere.
  2. A major world religion, whose religious centre is located in some distant empire.
  3. A once-great religion, driven to near-extinction elsewhere by persecution, which still endures in this city as the state religion.
  4. A heretical version of a major world religion, which in its original homeland was long ago persecuted into oblivion.
  5. A cosmopolitan mixture of different faith groups, each worshipping their own gods.
  6. An unique syncretic fusion of several major world religions, which would probably be regarded as heretical by the religious authorities of all of them. 
  7. The ancestor-heroes and nature-spirits of the steppe tribes who conquered the place 1d6 generations ago.
  8. The Way of Solar Righteousness.
Unique Feature (roll 1d20)
  1. Bubbling with barely-controlled civic tensions. (If these are not somehow controlled or suppressed, a revolution or civil war will break out in 1d10 years time.) 
  2. Plagued by highly-organised gangs of thieves.
  3. Weird ruins just outside town are said to be haunted.
  4. Home to a large population of serpent folk.
  5. Major centre for airship construction.
  6. Protected by a giant clockwork lion, although this is only wound up for battles and parades.
  7. Site of an important school of Jewelled Fan Dancers. Murder Harlots will be run out of town.
  8. Ghetto of Blighted outside town.
  9. Has a huge ceremonial necropolis. The wealthy and powerful compete to built themselves the most extravagant graves in the most fashionable areas of the cemetery. 
  10. Famous for its spectacular public festivals, held at the spring and autumn equinoxes. 
  11. Famous for its doctors.
  12. Famous for its poets.
  13. Famous for its artists.
  14. Famous for the rudeness of the people.
  15. Famous for the beauty of its women.
  16. Famous for the beauty of its men.
  17. Famous for the unhealthiness of its climate.
  18. Famous for the quality of its cheese.
  19. Prone to earthquakes.
  20. Government has been infiltrated on all levels by spies loyal to the Wicked City.

Monday, 23 November 2015

The city at the road's end

The Great Road is four thousand miles long. It winds across hills and steppe and deserts; it passes through golden cities and holy cities and ruinous cities given over to cruelty and despair. The caravans that pass along it carry silk and spices and drugs and medicines and books and knowledge and the preachers of strange religions. Day after day, month after month, they travel west, towards the sunset.

At the western end of the road there is a city, and the wealth of this city is beyond belief.

'Once she did hold the gorgeous East in fee...'

It soars, palazzo upon palazzo, against the setting sun. Towers and domes and spires, fortresses and cathedrals, and the masts of ships... So many ships. Ships from every point of the compass. When the wind blows, the masts sway like trees in a forest. It's enough to make a kid from the taiga feel homesick.

The Sunset City is a kind of fusion of Venice and Genoa and Constantinople, but really it's mostly Venice. It's huge and rich and foreign; there are gondolas and courtesans and basilicas and giggling contessas in chopines twelve inches high. The city is soaked in sex and luxury and intrigue and there is so much money around that it's gone to everyone's heads; there are feasts and banquets and carnivals and people killing each other to raise the money they need to buy this season's most fashionable shoes. Sell your cargo, count your gold, have one really, really good meal (and the food is amazing), and then get out. Stay and you'll get corrupted. Stay and the city will suck you in. 

Modern platform shoes have nothing on early modern Venetian chopines. Those shoes were hardcore.

Characters from the Sunset City can turn up anywhere; running caravans, or leading missionary expeditions, or acting as crewmen on weird little riverboats two or three thousand miles from home. Their horsemanship is so poor by steppe standards that it makes the nomads laugh out loud to see them, but they are great sailors and merchants and navigators and they make the finest mirrors and glassware that the world has ever seen. More to the point, stuff from the Sunset City can turn up anywhere along the Great Road, treasured and hoarded by would-be sophisticates in dozens of different kingdoms. Here are some representative examples:

Lace and Glassware: The lace and glasses produced by the Sunset City are very light, very valuable, and very fragile. Their value and portability make them very tempting targets for thieves, but any robberies involving them must be carried out with enormous care; a bandit who just shoves a crate of glassware into his saddlebags, or rips the lace cuffs off some preening fop or swooning noblewoman, will end up with nothing but worthless shards and shreds for his trouble. Bring padding. Bring lots and lots of padding.

High-Quality Spyglasses: Navigators and astronomers prize telescopes constructed in the Sunset City, as the skill of its lens-grinders is legendary. A top-end spyglass manufactured there will allow the user to see 10% further than a normal spyglass; on the steppe, this means that if one horseman has a Sunset City spyglass and another has only a regular one, then the first can trail the second without being spotted himself. They are beloved by airship pilots, caravan guards, and bandit chiefs.

Glass Daggers: A blade of thick, sturdy green glass, patiently chipped along the sides to produce cutting edges of quite horrific sharpness. Mostly used as status symbols rather than real weapons. If wielded in combat they inflict +1 damage due to the keenness of their edges, but any miss scored against a target in metal armour (or using a metal shield) has a 1-in-3 chance of causing the blade to shatter, and an attack roll of 1 always means the blade has broken off. If you stab someone with one you can twist the handle to make the blade break off inside the wound, filling their flesh with fragments of broken glass and causing a real headache for whoever has to try to heal them afterwards...

Combat Chopines: The point of chopines is to be massively, spectacularly impractical, thus advertising the fact that their wearer doesn't have to work; if she did, she wouldn't be able to totter around all day in foot-high platform shoes. If you have really good balance, though, then it's possible to learn to run, dance, and even fight in them, a fact that some ladies of the Sunset City have turned to their advantage: people tend to assume that the girl swaying around in her ludicrously impractical footwear is the last person they need to worry about when a fight breaks out. Some have even equipped their chopines with sturdy straps, weights, and spring-loaded blades, the length of the shoe allowing them to deliver razor-edged kicks to people well outside normal brawling range. Such 'combat chopines' inflict 1d4 damage, but using them effectively requires lots of practise and a Dexterity of 15 or higher.

Friday, 20 November 2015

War Mounts of the Plains of Rust

So, in my last post, I described the Plains of Rust: an area of the steppe which was once a battleground between ancient armies of clockwork automata, and which is now roamed by nomad clans who ride around on cobbled-together bits of ancient war machines. Now, on the face of it, riding on a semi-functional clockwork soldier seems a big step down from riding a horse: the horse is faster, the clockwork robot either needs to be wound up (which takes ages) or powered by shoulder-mounted windmills (which are unreliable and inefficient) or coal (which is much harder to find than fodder), the horse doesn't require specialised tools and training to keep it running from day to day, and so on. Probably, in the beginning, the Rust Clans used their makeshift clockwork mounts only for the purposes of war and display, and employed horses for their daily travels and tasks. But the great advantage of such machines is their durability: as long as they are properly maintained and repaired they can potentially run forever, and with so many ancient battlefields to scavenge from, the Rust Clans have no shortage of spare parts. With each generation, each individual Rust Clan added a few more machines to their collection; and, over the centuries, they have come to have so many of them that almost everyone can ride from place to place on their creaking, clanking shoulders, or inside the hollowed-out cavities of their chests. Now, having sunk so much work into repairing and restoring them, they are reluctant to abandon them except in times of great difficulty; and, being able shrug off entire volleys of arrows or musket-fire, they do have certain advantages when employed in war.

(They still use horses for all the day-to-day stuff which robots would be wildly impractical for, though.)

I miss City of Heroes.

A Rust Clan on the move, or riding into battle, is a bizarre sight. Any piece of clockwork machinery that can move is likely to be pressed into service, no matter what it was originally meant for; indeed, the Rust Clans pride themselves on their ingenuity in such matters. Here, then, are a few possible war mounts of the Plains of Rust:

1: A huge pair of clockwork legs, 5' high, which must originally have belonged to some fallen clockwork giant. Their rider straps a light wooden seat to their metal hips and rides them back and forth across the plains, controlling them with a simple pair of levers. When both levers are jammed forwards, the legs charge as fast as they can, which if they've been fully wound can be very fast indeed; they are thus favoured by Rust Clan lancers, who use them to hurtle into battle with their enemies.

2: The arms and torsos of three man-sized clockwork soldiers, all welded together at the waist, and walking beetle-fashion on their six clockwork arms (now re-purposed as legs). Their rider sits on top, in a lightweight wooden seat lashed to a metal turntable; by yanking the control lever, she may cause her mount to start walking in any direction she chooses, swivelling her seat to match. They are used by Rust Clan archers and gunmen, who use them as mobile firing platforms.

3: An armless clockwork giant, almost 12' tall. The complicated clockwork machinery which once allowed it to operate independently has been scooped out of its chest cavity; now a Rust Clansman rides inside its body, controlling the pace and direction of its march with levers, while two or three more balance on its shoulders, scanning the horizon. As they have no way to manually control the movements of its arms, these have been sawn off and discarded to reduce its weight.

4: A headless clockwork beast, 8' long, walking on all fours. A wide platform has been lashed to its back, on which up to eight people can ride, cooking or sewing or sleeping as the clockwork monster tirelessly plods along. In times of war, wooden screens are erected around the edge of the platform, and the metal beast is used as a makeshift tank.

5: A huge pair of tank-treads supporting a bulky metal torso, nearly round and almost 6' across. It must once have been a formidable war machine, but now the top half of it is missing and the bottom half has been mostly hollowed out. Four people ride inside, poking the barrels of their muskets over the metal rim of their 'mount'.

6: A rare prize: an intact clockwork soldier, 7' tall and almost fully functional! It is ridden by some brave and high-status warrior of the clan, who sits balanced on its shoulders, with his legs around its neck; in battle, while the clockwork soldier lays about itself with its metal limbs, he will swing down from his perch to strike at the heads of his enemies. The soldier walks with a bit of a limp, which just adds to the challenge of staying balanced for its rider...

Aside from number 6, all are Complexity 1 to operate and maintain, and complexity 2 to repair; they can thus be maintained indefinitely by any Rust Clansman of ordinary ability. When not in military use, all of these will also have bales of baggage strapped to every available surface, and will be festooned with small windmills, their sails spinning in the near-ceaseless wind of the steppe; this use of wind power to wind their springs helps to reduce the amount of wood, coal, or charcoal required to keep them in operation.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

The Plains of Rust

The Commonwealth is a powerful faction, centred around Nexus, the Machine World:
Image from Didier Graffet. His art is great and you should really check it out.
In ages past, this otherwise-unprepossessing stretch of steppe was the site of a titanic battle between the clockwork armies of two long-forgotten artificer-kings. The marks of the battle are still scattered everywhere: grass grows across the rusting limbs of fallen metal giants, and when travellers dig their wells at night they sometimes uncover whole trenches packed with fallen clockwork soldiers, with broken swords still clutched in their corroded hands or ancient axe-blades buried deep in one another's metal guts. Curious clockworkers from far-off cities sometimes organise expeditions out to the plains, in the hope of unearthing some wondrous relic of the ancient world. But such expeditions must work with stealth and care: the inhabitants of the plains regard all such artefacts as theirs by ancestral right, and they deal harshly with suspected looters.

The people of the plains are nomads, like all the inhabitants of the steppe. Probably their ancestors rode horses, but since arriving on the Plains of Rust, they have adopted new mounts: refurbished clockwork war machines. Now, whole families travel in ramshackle shacks built onto the shoulders of stumbling metal soldiers; distinguished warriors strap saddles onto the backs of clockwork swordsmen and ride them into battle, while inexperienced youths, lacking the skills to maintain such complex mounts, travel across the steppe on seats strapped to pairs of ancient bronze legs, salvaged from fallen automata whose upper bodies were too badly damaged to be of use. They are adept at pressing constructs into purposes very different from those for which they were originally intended, turning the shattered clockwork monsters of earlier ages into perfectly serviceable beasts of burden. Unsentimental in the extreme, they simply strip out any component they cannot repair or maintain: they will take some filigree automaton, a miracle of ancient craftsmanship, and rip out every part of its delicate mechanisms and wondrous clockwork brains except for those they require to set it in motion as the mount for a high-status child. They are also a thrifty and practical people, however, and such stripped components are never simply thrown away; instead they are stored in hidden caches, waiting for the day when they might be needed to repair some new machinery excavated from the sandy earth.

The inhabitants of the Plains of Rust prize two qualities above all others: skill in clockworking, and an excellent sense of balance. Clockworking skill is, of course, required to repair and maintain the automata upon which they ride; but balance is crucial too, for many of their clockwork mounts are weird, damaged, asymmetrical things, which go lurching across the plains in a most ungainly manner. Daring youths often compete to see who can best ride these mounts, overwinding them until they run in a mad, lopsided, zigzag sprint and then leaping up onto their uneven metal shoulders, striving to be the last to lose their balance. The young, old, and infirm are held in place with safety netting. None of them ever seem to suffer from motion sickness.

Like other steppe peoples, the Rust Clans live by herding and raiding. What they desire most is always coal; when necessary their clockwork mounts can be powered by burning charcoal, or wound manually by the patient labour of men or beasts, but it is coal they need in order to keep their automata running during their great annual migrations between their summer and winter pastures. Their greatest treasure, which is also their greatest stronghold, is a half-functional God Soldier right in the middle of the plains; great sections of this immense metal giant have long since been emptied out to serve as living spaces, and the vast machineries of its clockwork brain are far beyond the comprehension of its current residents, but they have repaired one of its great arm-cannons and both of its tank-track 'legs'. In theory it could be made to move again, sent trundling across the plains as it did in ages past, its one remaining arm raining down death for miles around; but in practice, the quantities of coal that would be required to set it in motion are so enormous that it is never likely to be more than a stationary threat. Unless, of course, some great Khan were to arise upon the Plains of Rust, unifying the Rust Clans and seizing enough coal mines that the God Soldier could be made to awaken once more...

Game Rules: Treat Rust Clan characters as Travellers, except that they don't get a +2 FORT save bonus or any knowledge of herbal remedies. Instead, they get a flat +2 bonus to their Tech rating.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

In praise of Fire on the Velvet Horizon

Recently, after receiving some very heavy hints, my sisters bought me a copy of Fire on the Velvet Horizon as a birthday present.

Fire On The Velvet Horizon
It looks like this.
Fire on the Velvet Horizon is a book of monsters by Patrick Stuart, the author of the blog False Machine, and Scrap Princess, the author of the blog Monster Manual Sewn From Pants. Scrap and Patrick are both very talented people, and I think very highly of both of them; but of all their works that I have seen so far, this is the best.

Let me take a moment to really emphasise how good this book is. I have been reading RPG materials for more than twenty years now. I have read most of the all-time greats: The Enemy Within, Delta Green, Nobilis, the demons chapter from Games of Divinity. More recently, I have been reading my way through some of the highlights of the OSR movement: Death Frost Doom, Qelong, Deep Carbon Observatory, Yoon-Suin. This is as good as any of them. It is a tour de force of sustained cruelty and carefully controlled and channelled pain. 

It is not directly useful. I cannot imagine myself using many of the monsters in this book, as-written, in any game I might actually run. Frankly, I cannot imagine anyone using some of them. (The Oranorn, for example: it's a cool idea, but wow would it be unfun in actual play.) But that's OK. Just reading them will plant seeds in dark and fertile corners of your brain, and those seeds will germinate and sprout during odd moments when you're half-asleep, and one day you'll be scribbling down some notes for your next game and you will come up with this amazing idea for a monster, and it won't exactly be a monster from the book but it will still be a monster that you would never, ever have thought of if you hadn't read it. It will be strong and bleak and sad and strange, and your players will never forget it. 

There's been a horrible trend in recent monster manuals, most spectacularly exemplified by the ones which came out during the D&D4 era, to see monsters only as things capable of generating interesting fight scenes: their first, last, and only duty is to turn up, attack, give the PCs a good run for their money, and then drop dead. Fire on the Velvet Horizon isn't like that at all. It is primarily interested in monsters as embodiments of strangeness: as incarnations of extreme and unusual states of consciousness, odd manifestations of history or geography or time. There is, throughout, a fascination with dreams, mirrors, illusions, reflections, and madness. Tellingly, many of these creatures inhabit a swampland region which can only be navigated by those who are experiencing altered states of consciousness, such as drunkenness, narcotic reverie, or insanity; they are themselves reflections of such altered states, things you might hallucinate, or have nightmares about, or glimpse momentarily out of the corner of your eye. They are things which are real, but not quite in the same way that we are; things that don't live like us, or think like us, or feel emotions in the same way we do. Not 'its motivations are incomprehensibly strange to humans', which in monster manuals is usually just code for 'it can attack your PCs at any time for no reason because fuck you, that's why': they all have their own internal logic, even if it's really weird by normal standards, even if its only the surreal symbolic logic of poetry and dreams. They make sense on their own terms. It is possible to believe that, from their perspective, we are the odd ones. 

There is also a deep and abiding preoccupation with loss. Ruins, fallen civilisations, the corpses of dead gods; veterans of wars that no-one remembers; nations which have vanished from the maps and the landscape alike, rolled up like posters and carried off to hell. Lost things, lost people, lost treasures, forgotten dreams; the Paladins of the Fall, who only exist during autumn, when everything around them is dying by degrees. Loss is something which D&D has traditionally not been very interested in dealing with. Yes, every D&D setting has some kind of Great Fallen Empire or whatever, but the focus is never on coming to terms with the magnitude of grief and suffering involved in the destruction of past civilisations; it's always about looting the ruins for magic bling. D&D characters are expected to get MOAR POWERFUL: more levels, more bonuses, more hit points, more magic items, more ability to kick the world into line with their own desires. They're American success stories, whose rags-to-riches narrative is built directly into the goddamn experience tables. 'When I first came here, son, all I had was one spell, two hit points, and a dagger. But look at me now!'

Fire on the Velvet Horizon takes loss seriously. People die. Things fall apart. This is horrible and also unavoidable, and your macho posturing and inspiring speeches about the unconquerable power of the human spirit will make no difference to it whatsoever. Most of the creatures in this book are very strange, very horrible, and very sad; they are easy to pity and hard to hate, even if many of them are so dangerous that, realistically, most PCs are going to end up hacking them to death. There is no triumphalism: this is not a book full of creatures to be beaten to pulp in pursuit of some adolescent power fantasy. It is a book of creatures to be experienced; to be fought, yes, but also to be argued with and thought about and considered and remembered and mourned. Many of them are presented as parts of a larger tragedy, one which began long ago and is probably still unfolding, in the face of which they are as powerless as you are. All that can be done is to bear witness, and to play your part.

'Its concerns are justice and an accounting for wrongs. If this cannot be easily accomplished by a giant stone fire breathing head with obsidian spider limbs (and history being what it is, usually they cannot) then the Ozimandrian becomes like an angry spirit haunting the plains...' - Fire on the Velvet Horizon, p. 63

Patrick Stuart has an interest in geology. Scrap Princess has interests in botany and entomology. These are very important. Their creations are characterised by an awareness of deep time, of the enormous scale upon which evolutionary and geological change takes place, and the uncounted billions of living things which, through no fault of their own, can get chewed up in the process. (Arnold K., the author of Goblin Punch, is a microbiologist, and his works are marked by a similar sense of the immense, impersonal cruelty of the cosmos.) Fantasy can be a terribly sentimental genre; it's sentimental about courage, about human potential, about the efficacy of violence, about the power of humans and human societies to endure whatever the universe happens to throw at them. Fire on the Velvet Horizon is not sentimental, except maybe about archaic and obsolete vocabulary, but it is deeply humane; it encourages us to care about the strange, sad lives of these monsters, and about the strange, sad lives of their victims, while still remaining aware that both are the products of vast historical or cosmic forces which are probably beyond the power of any one person to change. It's an impressive balance for a work to strike.

It's not perfect. A few of the creatures - the Priest of Hooks, for example, or the Eagle Ape - are basically just big balls of unreasoning aggression, which attack everyone until someone kills them; no amount of evocative writing can really change the fact that your players will only ever remember them as 'that weird monster that attacked us for no reason until we beat it to death'. The emphasis on pain and sorrow and helplessness can get overwhelming, to the point where it risks undermining suspension of disbelief with regard to the shared setting which all these creatures are implied to inhabit; with this many awful super-powered monsters roaming around ruining things for everyone, some of them destroying entire nations at a time, it becomes difficult to see how human civilisation could ever have established or maintained itself in the face of such enormous hostility and lethality. At the same time, while all the monsters described here are wonderfully evocative, many of them don't sound all that tough: no stats are provided, but judging from their descriptions, relatively few of them sound as though they would survive the hail of arrows and fireballs with which D&D parties tend to greet their enemies. ('Ahh! A weird freaky pig-monster surrounded by slit-open human corpses! I lightning bolt it in the face!') But these are small issues when weighed in the scale against the sheer imaginative wealth that this book offers. I sometimes used to read through entire RPG supplements just to come away with two or three good, useable ideas. Fire on the Velvet Horizon offers more than that on every single page. 

Patrick writes in his introduction to the book that writing is easier to write about than art, and so people will probably pay less attention to Scrap's contribution than they should. I am aware that I have done this, so I shall just say that her art and layouts are spectacular, and the book would be immeasurably lessened by their absence. Normal practice in RPG books is for the writer to do all the writing, and the artists to then produce illustrations that fit that writing; in this book that order was reversed, with Scrap producing one hundred drawings of strange and horrible things and Patrick trying to produce write-ups which could do them justice. Her work is charged with an enormous prickly energy, and I think very highly of it indeed. She is an artist in a field which is otherwise populated almost entirely by mere illustrators.

I could write for ages about all the things I love about this book: the quotations from invented scholars (Leptoblast is hilarious), the darkly beautiful implied setting, the innovative use of fonts, format, and layout, the integration of art and text, the appendices, the fact that a whole bunch of jokes are sneaked into the book's index, and much, much more. But this post is too long already, so I'll just say that anyone who has any interest in monsters, weird fiction, or the stranger, more conceptually ambitious end of roleplaying games should really, really get themselves a copy. You won't regret it.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Hive-Cities of the Scarab Queen!

(A spiritual companion-piece to 'Bronze Gods of the Frog-Men'. And, yes, I know that scarab beetles don't actually build hives.)

So, everyone knows the deal with spirits: you make sacrifices to them, and unless you've done something to really piss them off then they'll give you stuff in return. But why should it always be humans who do the sacrificing, and spirits who receive the sacrifices? Think of all the power they must contain, those spirits, glutted with centuries worth of offerings. What would happen if, instead of you sacrificing things to a spirit, you sacrificed a spirit to yourself? 

It's been tried. It didn't exactly work out well.

Long ago, far to the south, there was a kingdom whose people worshipped an insect-spirit which took the form of a giant scarab beetle. (They probably worshipped other spirits or gods as well. It's not important any more.) Over the centuries, their priest-kings had developed very good relations with this scarab-god. In times of dire need, they would make enormous offerings upon its altar; and, in exchange, it would take on physical form and come to fight for them in the form of a monstrous scarab beetle, ten feet tall and virtually indestructible. The people revered the great scarab, and the spirit grew fat upon their sacrifices.

Well: times passed, and upon the borders of this kingdom arose a new empire, determined to subdue all rivals to its power. When the invasion came, the reigning queen called forth the scarab-beast, just as her ancestors had done; but the armies of the empire were fierce and numerous, and even a giant unkillable beetle-monster can only do so much. Day by day, the queen saw her armies pushed back, her territories shrinking, until finally her royal capital itself came under siege. One day the invaders tried to storm the gates; and when the scarab-beast limped back to her temple-palace after seven hours of fighting, covered in wounds and missing two legs and one mandible and bleeding horrible ichor all over the stone floor, the queen lost faith in it altogether. She led it down to the sacrificial chamber, which - as usual - was full of fresh sacrifices for it, bidding it climb up upon the altar to feast and regain its strength. Then she sealed the doors, poured several barrels of oil all over it, sat in the sacred seat normally reserved for the spirit itself, recited the prayer of sacrifice (substituting her own name for that of the deity), and burned the scarab-beast alive.

When the spirit died, all the insects for a hundred miles around went mad. The invading armies were driven back by endless swarms of stinging flies; the kingdom's inhabitants soon followed, fleeing their homeland in all directions, bearing with them stories of locust swarms so vast that they blocked out the sun, and insect-monsters the size of houses burrowing out of the swarming earth. For many years it was assumed that the whole nation had either fled or perished, destroyed by the hubris of its queen; but when the first scouts started to creep back across the borders, they found something far stranger than mere heaps of old corpses. The villages, towns, and cities lay abandoned, but beside them stood immense mounds of earth; and in these mounds dwelt a bizarre race of scarab-people, who spoke an approximation of the language of the old kingdom in bizarre voices composed of clicks and hums. They seemed to have no memory of ever having been human; they lived peacefully enough, using giant beetles as beasts of burden, and devoted all those energies not required for their own survival to the construction of great idols of their goddess, who seemed to be the only being they regarded as worthy of their worship. The idols always depicted the same thing: a woman of regal stature with the head of a scarab beetle. They called her the Insect Queen.

Is she still in there, in the ruins of the old temple-palace? Occasionally a band of adventurers tries to find out; but the closer they come to what was once the capital city, the larger and more aggressive the swarms of giant beetles become. Wise parties content themselves with just looting a few old shrines; the Scarab Men care nothing for the worship of any being other than the Insect Queen, and will look on in bemused indifference as teams of adventurers hack the gold and jewels from the ancient temples their ancestors erected to other gods. Foolish ones insist on pressing on towards the old capital, even after having half their expedition eaten by mindlessly aggressive scarab beetles the size of oxen. They don't come back. 

The Scarab Men have sent an embassy to the Wicked City. This has not happened before. The Ambassador and her entourage have become one of the curious sights of the city, riding through its streets on palanquins balanced on the chitinous backs of giant beetles, on their way to discuss who knows what with the Ministers on the upper floors of the King's Tower. In their spare time (which is plentiful), they sit around carving endless icons of their goddess out of whatever material comes to hand; the embassy building is full of them, now, covering every flat surface, perched precariously in tiny alcoves or over-crowded shelves. The scarab-men just keep making more of the damn things. Anyone who breaks one gets fed to the giant beetles. 


You can play a scarab-man, if you like. Treat them as fighters, except that they cannot perform feats of strength, gain +1 AC from their hard carapace, and take 1 extra damage per hit from bludgeoning attacks. They can wear any armour, but it will need to be made specially to fit their unusual body shape.

Scarab-men have very poor vision (-1 to ranged attack rolls), but can sense nearby movement with their antennae. They have a secondary pair of vestigial arms, with half the length (and half the strength) of their main ones, ending in small three-fingered hands; these arms can be used for holding things (lanterns, for example), but are useless for combat. They also have beautiful iridescent wings, which are totally incapable of actually lifting them off the ground. They can eat virtually anything, including dung and carrion, but their companions will probably prefer not to watch them do it...

All scarab-men have an instinctive, ancestral reverence to the Insect Queen. Any scarab-man who sees someone deliberately damage one of her statues or defile one of her temples will fly into a hysterical rage and attack them until either the scarab-man or the defiler is dead.

Starting equipment: Chainmail cuirass (AC +5), heavy shield (+2 AC), heavy mace (1d8 damage), crossbow (1d8 damage, 2 rounds to reload), holy symbol of the Insect Queen, tiny idol of the Insect Queen, hymns and scriptures of the Insect Queen, weird trinkets worth 1d6x10 sp. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

I wrote it, so I might as well post it: Lakes, robes, and dancing ghosts

In my ongoing efforts to avoid doing any actual work, I've taken to posting in threads where people ask for ideas about stuff. As these posts are sometimes pretty substantial, I thought I might as well put them up here as well. If nothing else, it saves me from having to dig them up myself...

* * *

A while back, Blackadder LXX asked for suggestions for things that might live in an underground lake.

So I offered ten suggestions:

  1. Giant carnivourous blind albino cavefish.
  2. An immense, pallid water-snake, possibly a sea-serpent that got washed down there by a tidal wave centuries ago and has been stuck there ever since. Breathes poison gas.
  3. The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Not hostile, but morose and lonely as fuck. Would love a new girlfriend.
  4. Blob monsters.
  5. An order of insane cultists who worship the blob monsters, and live in a ramshackle temple by the shores of the underground lake. None of them have been up to the surface in more than a decade. They spend a lot of time fishing.
  6. The zombified corpses of an ancient civilization which once thrived in these caverns, brought back to life by weird phosphorescent algae that lives on the lake's surface. They wear ceremonial armour and are creepily polite. They have giant balls of glowing algae where their brains should be.
  7. Clockwork robots made of bizarre waterproof steel, who endlessly scan and analyse the lake's chemical composition, sending off regular reports by carrier-beetle to their unknown masters in the Underdark below. Hostile if interrupted.
  8. Amphibious cave goblins.
  9. The ghosts of the drowned, sailing back and forth across the lake in sad little skiffs with lamps on them. Will offer passage to all kinds of fantastical places ('the lands of the dead', 'the home of the gods'), but actually their boats just sink as soon as they reach the middle of the lake. They are intensely miserable about the fact that they can't tell anyone about this in advance.
  10. The animated skeleton of an ancient Dragon Turtle. Various ancient weapons of power are lodged between its ribs.

* * * 

A while later, he asked about ideas for wizard robes.

The most powerful men in the world go adventuring in dressing gowns.

So I wrote:

- Abjurers make their robes out of pure energy, in a colour and pattern of their choice. (If they're lucky enough to have a body like Conan or Red Sonja, the colour in question might be 'completely transparent', allowing them to enjoy the appearance of near-nudity without actually having to get dirty, cold, or wet.) As they get more powerful, they gain the ability to keep more things out. The merest apprentice can manage a robe which keeps out rainwater; the robes of master abjurers are proof against blades, arrows, fire, insults, emotional negativity...

- The robes of Conjurers are actually weird, robe-shaped living creatures, summoned from some bizarre outer plane. Their skin is soft and furry and warm to the touch, making them very comfortable to wear; they have a chameleon-like ability to change colour at will, and the skins of the most powerful of their kind are iron-hard, flexible, and proof against all but the mightiest of magic. They live on a diet of dead skin cells, extravagant flattery, and the occasional slice of cake. Unsummoning someone else's robes is considered extremely impolite, but remains a common prank amongst the students at colleges of conjuration.

- Diviners wear robes covered in stars, like traditional wizards, except the stars on them actually mirror those in the night sky and move and change just like the real ones. Diviners robes are a godsend for wizard-astrologers who need to do a bit of stargazing on cloudy nights.

- Enchanters wear really boring-looking robes that mess with the minds of anyone who sees them, causing them to perceive the wizard as looking totally fabulous. On rare occasions, enchanters will sell these robes to other people, usually charging astronomical sums for them. No two people will see the robe in the same way, though, which makes them a nightmare for fashion journalists.

- Evokers wear robes made of trapped fire or lightning, which look spectacular in a rather over-the-top sort of way. Especially skilled evokers are capable of selectively releasing tiny fragments of this trapped energy, so that the annoying person tapping you on your shoulder gets an electric shock while your date can hold your lightning-covered arm with no ill-effects. In an emergency the robe can be unravelled, electrocuting or setting fire to everything around you. If you think you may need to do this, consider investing in fireproof underwear first.

- The robes of Illusionists are, of course, entirely illusionary. (What did you expect?) So a given illusionist might look as though they're rocking some fantastically impractical wizard outfit, with giant pointy shoulderpads and braids and spangles and (for women) the ever-popular 'bra made from hollowed-out human skulls', but actually they mostly prefer to wear really comfy sweaters.

- Necromancers wear the ghosts of dead robes, once worn by the priests, kings, and magicians of long-vanished empires. Summoning and wearing the ghost of an especially famous robe - the wedding dress worn by a great empress, the robe an archmage wore on the day of his execution - is a mark of great prestige amongst necromancers, many of whom devote quite embarrassing amounts of time to researching where exactly the graves of such clothes might be so that they can summon up their spectres for an important party.

- Transmuters wear shapechanging robes, capable of shifting their cut, style, or colour at a moment's notice. Really powerful transmuters can even make their robes grow wings for flight, or scales for protection, or project out hooks and spikes for climbing. (Or for hugging people to death with, if that's what you're into.) Dispelled, they turn into formless protoplasmic goop which makes the wearer look really, really unfashionable. Transmuters hate this.

* * *

Finally, Seroster asked for suggestions for a Halloween-ish death festival which might be celebrated in a fantasy world. 

So I wrote:

It goes like this: during the day, you travel to the nearest population centre. When night falls, you put on a blank and featureless mask. You wander down to the town square, or a field outside the village, or the Royal Park, or whatever, and you start to dance. The musicians will be there already, wearing their masks, playing local folk songs or waltzes or whatever. You can walk up and join them, if you like, as long as you have a musical instrument and know how to use it. On this night, they're not going to turn anyone away.

Time passes. The darkness thickens. More and more people arrive. The band keeps getting bigger. More and more people keep joining the dance. Within a few hours, everyone in the community is there. By midnight, there are way, way the hell more people out there singing and dancing and playing than live in the whole area put together, and more of them are arriving all the time.

These extra people are the dead. They look like everyone else, wearing ordinary clothes and blank masks that allow them to blend in with the living. As the night goes on, you're going to start noticing that more and more of your dance partners have really, really cold hands. Do not comment on this. Definitely, definitely do not try to remove their masks.

Mostly the dead just want to dance, and sing, and play music, and remember for this one night what it was like to be alive. They don't want to talk, and they certainly don't want to get into heavy conversations about the nature of the afterlife. Some of them seize this opportunity to pass messages on to the living: so you might, in passing, hear another reveller whisper to you in the voice of your long-dead grandmother that the family silver isn't lost at all, it's just hidden in that old crate up in the attic. But big, emotional scenes are frowned on by both the living and the dead; and even if you strongly suspect that this little kid who keeps dancing with you is the child you lost in the plague year two summers back, you mustn't say anything. Just let them have a good time, OK?

The dead always slip away before the dawn. Attempting to follow them is not recommended, but, if you really need to get into the Underworld, then that's one way to do it; just keep following them, and following them, and sooner or later you won't be in Kansas anymore. You might not be able to get out again for another year, though; and by then, the Underworld being what it is, you'll probably be dead for real.

During the dancing, things can get out of hand; and if the guy or gal you're dancing with keeps flirting with you, and you like the way their eyes glitter behind their mask and the way they move their body to the beat, you might get to the point where you just don't care how cold their hands are. Couples slip away, giggling, for brief trysts in the darkness, transitory unions between the living and the dead. The clothes may come off, but the masks stay on; and when, as sometimes happens, oddly pale children are born nine months later, people try not to say anything for fear of offending the spirits of the departed. Such children often grow up to be gifted mediums, but they usually die young.

Every community has stories about the horrible things that happen to people who dare to remove the masks of the dead. Most of them are true.

* * *

So. Three recent forum posts. Might be something worthwhile in there somewhere...

Monday, 2 November 2015

Bronze Gods of the Frog Men!

So, when most people think of Siberia, they just think of taiga. Endless, endless taiga. What they don't realise is that the whole of the West Siberian Plain is actually the world's biggest marsh!

It looks like this and there is more than a million square miles of it.

So, what kind of fantasy civilisation might take root in such interminable wetlands? The traditional go-to answer for fantasy swamp-dwellers is 'lizard men', but lizards are cold-blooded and would never thrive in a place like this. Frogs do OK, though. 

This is Rana amurensis, the Siberian frog, and it would quite like you to stop destroying its habitat now.

So: Siberian frog-men. They live in immense temperate marshlands that sprawl on pretty much forever, somewhere to the north-west of the Wicked City. Resources are scarce, so they're not going to have any kind of highly developed frog-man empire: instead they live in little half-submerged villages, hunting and fishing and guarding their communal spawning pools. When they have to, they fight with wooden spears, although on the rare occasions when they come under attack they prefer to just swim off into the middle of deep pools or pathless bogs where no human would ever be able to follow them. The marshes are a nightmare for horses, anyway; and this, combined with the fact that the frog-men have pretty much nothing worth stealing, serves to keep most of the more aggressive steppe clans from ever bothering to invade.

The frog-men have a religion. They worship giant bronze heads with clockwork brains.

Like this, but thirty feet tall and sticking out of a swamp.

They didn't build the bronze heads: their legends say that when the first frog-men arrived, the heads were there waiting for them, presumably constructed by the same long-fallen civilisation which built the God Soldiers. (Quite possibly the frog-men were constructed by that civilisation as well, to tend or populate the aquarium of some long-dead sorcerer-king.) Those of the heads which are still able to speak refer to themselves as Wisdom Engines, and claim that they were built by the ancients to calculate the answers to complex magical, mathematical and philosophical problems. Many of these Wisdom Engines have since fallen into total ruin, but each of the functional ones now serves as a makeshift god to a whole tribe of frog-men, answering questions, settling disputes, and dispensing oracles. In return, the frog-men technician-priests maintain and repair them as best they are able, winding up their mechanisms each morning, looting spare parts from the broken heads to replace worn-out mechanisms, and following the technical instructions issued by the Wisdom Engines themselves. They are intensely proud of their gods, and will defend them to the death. 

Here are some of the Bronze Gods of the Frog Men.

The Serene Astrologer: Its beautiful androgynous face has the serene smile of a great bronze Bodhisattva. Its clockwork eyes are turned towards the heavens. Several thousand years ago it was given the task of observing and calculating the movement of the stars and planets, and has been doing so ever since; it will answer the queries of its followers during the day, but at night it falls silent, devoting its full computational power to processing yet more astronomical data. Each morning it recites a whole mass of figures which it has calculated during the night, but as its worshippers lack any written language they have no way of recording these, so the data is always lost. It recites these figures in a sharp, staccato rhythm, which its technician-priests use as dance music. At the end it always states: 'Percentage Accuracy: ninety-nine-point-nine-nine-nine-nine-nine-nine-nine-nine-nine-nine...' The nines go on for quite a while. The frog-men like to headbang along with that bit.  

It is relatively sane, but not very interested in earthly matters.

The Mad King: Its face is proud and regal and demands respect. It speaks in great booming words like the sound of mighty trumpets. Its clockwork brain is catastrophically damaged. It is pretty much completely mad.

The tribe of frog-men who worship the Mad King are the most dangerous in the whole marsh. Their deranged god is functional enough to realise that there is something wrong with its calculations, but too damaged to attribute this failure to its true source: instead it is convinced that some conspiracy of saboteurs must be targeting it, and frequently demands that its technician-priests make scavenging runs to the ruins of other Wisdom Engines for clockwork parts, which the Mad King tells them how to make into killer robots. These murderous walking scrapheaps infest the swamps for miles around the Mad King, constantly hunting for imaginary 'saboteurs'. They're slow, and poorly-constructed, and extremely badly suited to the marshland terrain in which they operate, but if you get too close then they are quite capable of burying a perfectly-functional buzzsaw in your guts. 

The bits of the Mad King's clockwork brain which still function are mostly those relating to matters of engineering and similarly practical matters. Its worshippers come to it for advice in all matters of architecture and construction, and accept the regular building of killer robots as simply the price they have to pay for their god's assistance.

The Joyful Maiden: Its face resembles that of a beautiful young woman, and its musical voice sounds like a fanfare of joyful trumpets, even when its actual words are anything but happy. It is working on some horribly complicated mathematical problem which was assigned to it by its original maker, turning its immense computational powers to the task of brute-forcing a solution. Anyone whose mind wasn't made of clockwork would probably have concluded centuries ago that the problem was insoluble; but the Joyful Maiden is convinced that it's going to make a breakthrough any day now, and happily explains its work to anyone who's prepared to listen. Its frog-man worshippers may be primitive stone-age hunter-gatherers, but they are also some of the most advanced pure mathematicians in the world.

For the most part, the calculations of the Joyful Maiden only require part of its clockwork brain. While these gears hum away at the back of its head it is approachable, and even chatty, happy to help its followers address the thorniest of practical and logistical problems. (Its solutions tend towards brutal pragmatism, but that's a kind of logic that hunter-gatherers understand and respect.) Whenever it hits an especially demanding bit of calculation, however, it turns its entire brain to the job, sometimes breaking off in mid-sentence; its bronze eyes close, and all the wheels of its giant clockwork brain begin spinning furiously. The frog-men know better than to disturb their god when it is in these states, which sometimes last for weeks on end. A couple of its self-defence systems still work, and it will turn them on anyone who tries to interrupt its calculations.

* * *

Few outsiders know about the Bronze Gods of the Frog Men. Their marshes are in the middle of nowhere, and not exactly inviting to travellers; the poverty of the frog-men makes them unappealing to raiders and merchants alike, and would-be empire builders agree universally that conquering an immense cold swamp full of amphibious savages is far more trouble than its worth. The frog-men themselves suffer terribly if their skins dry out, which makes them unwilling to travel far from their marshy homes. But there are rumours. The scholars of the great cities know from ancient books that, once upon a time, there were such things as Wisdom Engines. They hear the stories lost travellers tell, about the giant bronze heads in the swamp, and they wonder. They look at the engineering problems they have broken their heads and their hearts over, and they think: If only I had a Wisdom Engine. I bet it could solve a problem like this in minutes. If only I could find one that still worked...

Expeditions have been organised. So far, they have all ended in failure, lost in the swamps or cut to ribbons by the Mad King's killer robots; but someone usually makes it out of the marshes alive, and each time the maps are better, the plans more sophisticated, the travellers better-equipped. Sooner or later, one of them is going to make it.

In fact, one such expedition is being organised right now, under the patronage of one of the Greater Ministries of the Wicked City...