Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Image archaeology: Paladin Girl

Who knoweth not of Paladin Girl?

M:tG card art for Knight Exemplar, by Jason Chan (2011). Exemplary in more ways than one!

Paladin Girl has become a cliche of modern fantasy art. She always looks the same. A young, slender woman in plate mail armour (often improbably form-fitting), no helmet, straight hair usually worn long and loose, conventionally-attractive face. On horseback, she might have a spear or lance. On foot, she usually carries a sword. 

Paladin Girl is a fairly straightforward combination of traditional masculine and feminine signifiers. Her weapons and armour convey traditionally masculine power and 'hardness'; her face, hair, and figure convey traditionally feminine 'softness' and prettiness. The optimistic reading would be that strength and heroism are compatible with femininity. The pessimistic reading would be that women only get to be powerful as long as their strength remains compatible with conventional standards of female beauty. Either way, she is clearly associated with a particularly chaste and non-threatening form of sex appeal, with her armoured body symbolising her guarded sexuality. Unsurprisingly, she mostly turns up in works targeted at predominantly male audiences.

I became curious about where this image came from, and did a little digging. Here's what I came up with.

One obvious source is Joan of Arc. A sketch from her own time depicts her like this - 

but by the later fifteenth century she was being painted like this - 

- and by 1505 like this:

Then there's Bradamante and Clorinda, the original 'female knight' characters, who appear in Arisoto's Orlando Furioso (1532) and Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata (1581), respectively. Around 1600 they were being depicted like this:

Paolo Domenico Finoglia. Clorinda's the one on the right.

Antonio Tempesta, Bradamante Valorosa.

This, in turn, is not dissimilar to the way Joan of Arc was being depicted in the early seventeenth century:

Reubens, Joan of Arc (1612)

William Marshall, Joan of Arc (1642)

So 'attractive female knight in armour' is clearly not a foreign concept in Renaissance art. But the armour looks like real armour, and there's little sign yet of the extravagant hairstyles that are so much a part of contemporary Paladin Girl imagery. Reubens shows Joan with long hair, but that's because she's literally letting her hair down. In battle she's obviously going to be covered beneath the black helmet on the ground beside her, relying on her plumed crest rather than her bare head to ensure she stays visible in combat. 

Like most of modern fantasy iconography, Paladin Girl derives much more from nineteenth-century art than from anything actually medieval. As late as 1856, Delacroix was still painting Clorinda pretty much in the Renaissance style - 

But three years later he also painted this image, of Ermina, also from Gerusalemme Liberata :

Classic Paladin Girl, right? Except the whole point of this image is that Ermina isn't a female knight: she's a princess disguised as a knight. (More specifically she's disguised as Clorinda, whose armour she's 'borrowed'.) Thus the long hair and the skirt: this is less wargear than cosplay. Clorinda, who's the real deal, wears full armour, has a more practical haircut, and carries a rather unfeminine bearded axe.

The real shift comes with the Pre-Raphaelites, whose chocolate-box medievalism lies at the root of most modern fantasy art. Here's Millais 1865 painting of Joan of Arc:

We're getting very close, now; and Walter Crane's Britomart, from his 1895-7 illustrations to The Faerie Queene, gets us even closer. Note sword, long hair, armoured skirt, and the large rondels on her chest that give the impression that her armour has breasts.

Leighton's 1901 painting The Accolade isn't a Paladin Girl image as such, but it clearly fed into the subsequent iconography.

There are plenty of other late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century examples:

Charles-Amable Lenoir

John Gilbert

Albert Lynch, 1903 - surely the secret inspiration for the haircuts used by 40K's Sisters of Battle!

Paul Antoine de la Boulaye, 1909

Note that more form-fitting armour is becoming the norm, here, with tapered waists and armoured skirts allowing these painters to display a classically feminine 'hourglass' figure even in full armour. (Contrast this with the armour in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century images, which would mask the wearer's gender.) It's this iconography that fed into the 1948 Joan of Arc film starring Ingrid Bergman, although the need to make a costume that was actually wearable clearly led to some concessions to practicality.

Ingrid Bergman as Joan of Arc, 1948.

Bergman again, in the 1946 play the film was based on.

Paladin Girl went into abeyance somewhat during the 1970s, when warrior women in fantasy art tended more towards the 'valkyrie' or 'amazon' archetypes. (E.g. Red Sonja, Valkyrie from Marvel Comics, Hildebrandt's interpretation of Eowyn, every woman Franzetta ever painted.) She only started to make her way into D&D via Larry Elmore's illustrations of everyone's 1983 fantasy waifu, Aleena the Cleric.



It took much longer for her to become the default, though. In the very same book, Elmore's other female cleric - an idiosyncratic reworking of the 'valkyrie' type - looked like this: 

Most 'female fighter' illustrations in 1980s and 1990s fantasy media tended much more towards 'sexy' designs with lots of exposed skin, and armoured female fighters in D&D-adjacent media were more likely to look like this - 

Clyde Caldwell, cover illustration to Dark Heart (1992). 

When D&D 3rd edition came out in 2000 there was a self-conscious push against this kind of imagery, with Elmore's influence rejected wholesale in favour of the 'dungeon-punk' iconography for which the edition is famous (or notorious). Its iconic female paladin, Alhandra, looked like this:

However, in 2004 World of Warcraft launched, and all its female paladin-types looked more or less like this:

What had happened in the interim, of course, was an explosion in the popularity of anime, manga, and JRPGs in western geek circles. Manga and anime had a long preoccupation with 'female knight' characters, from the original Princess Knight manga series in 1953-6 to the epochal Lady Oscar (1972-3), and modern Japanese fantasy media is littered with 'cute female knight/cleric' figures. From the female priest in Dragon Quest III (1988), whose chainmail bodysuit, tabard, boots, mace, and haircut seem to have been directly based on Aleena five years earlier - 

to the iconic figure of Saber from Fate / Stay Night (2004), who basically defines the type going forwards. 

These Paladin Girl types grew out of the older pre-Raphaelite Joan of Arc figure reinterpreted through a manga filter, and in the early 2000s they were reimported to the West, with immediate effect. This anime-by-way-of-World-of-Warcraft style was everywhere in the fantasy art of the period. Tellingly, the 9th Edition of Magic: the Gathering (2005) saw the art for the iconic white card Serra Angel shift from this cone-bra stripper-samurai horrorshow -

To this - 

And that's where we've been ever since, basically. In 2009 Pathfinder even made it quasi-official by having their actual goddess of paladins, Iomedae, look like this:

And finally we end where we began, with Joan of Arc.

Art from the Joan of Arc board game, released 2019 by Mythic Games.

So what does it all mean? Paladin Girl, I'd suggest, represents a compromise between the sexualised 'warrior woman' designs of the 1980s and 1990s, with their loincloths and armoured bikinis, and the ideals of equal-opportunities empowerment that most modern fantasy media pays at least lip service to. She's 'empowered' - she wears full armour! She's got a sword! - but in a way that emphasises her 'good girl' femininity, rather than clashing with it. (The armour emphasises her breasts, waist, and hips rather than hiding them, she's obviously wearing make-up, and her power is clearly wielded on behalf of the existing social order, not against it.) She stands for female empowerment in its most non-threatening, least socially-disruptive form. Probably this is what led male artists to develop the type in the first place, against the backdrop of the original women's suffrage movement of 1897-1918, which presented them with much less comfortable models of what female power might look like.

But I wouldn't want to paint too bleak a picture of Paladin Girl. She can get pretty silly in her more fanservicey incarnations, all bare thighs and miniskirts and breastplates with cleavage windows: but, despite this, I've known several women to whom this iconography really appealed. As I mentioned early on, the optimistic reading of the archetype is that femininity is not incompatible with martial fantasy heroics. Think of it as the Legally Blonde of fantasy art cliches. 

Because if Elle Woods ever played D&D, you know her PC would look something like this...

Sunday, 7 March 2021

Failing better: a GMing retrospective

Ever tried.

Ever failed.

No matter.

Try again.

Fail again.

Fail better.

- Samuel Beckett

Learning to run an RPG, like most things, is mostly about practise. You can read all the theory and advice you like, but fundamentally you learn it by doing it. Bluntly, this means that before you run a really good campaign you're probably going to have to run lots of really bad ones, hopefully getting a little bit better each time. Luckily, the nature of RPGs is such that even a 'bad' campaign should still be a lot of fun as long as everyone approaches it in a spirit of good humour: and each one will inevitably yield lessons for next time, even if it might require a post-mortem chat with your players in order to draw out exactly what they might be.

I've been GMing games for an embarrassingly long time, now: and while I wouldn't claim to be any kind of gamesmastering genius, I've got to the point where I can run a game with little or no preparation and still be pretty confident that both I and my players are likely to have a good time. The last year has really pushed me on this, as I've been running my City of Spires campaign weekly online, alongside a crippling increase in my professional workload that has cut my prep time virtually to zero. Every Wednesday morning I wake up with a sense of dread, remembering that on top of everything else I have to do that day I somehow have to run a game in the evening. Every Wednesday afternoon I seriously consider calling the session off. But every Wednesday night I sit down and log in and everything actually goes fine. There are a lot of reasons for this: I have great players, the campaign is friendly to low-prep play, the system is minimalistic to the point of invisibility, etc. But I think the biggest one is the simple fact that I've had a lot of practise.

I'm not really sure how many campaigns I've run over the years - dozens, probably - but in this post, I'm going to briefly run through ten of the longer-running ones, with a few notes on what worked, what didn't, and what I learned from them. I may not have really succeeded straight away, but I carried on learning and experimenting and I got there in the end. Hopefully this can provide some reassurance to anyone out there currently contemplating the wreckage of their latest campaign: and maybe some of the lessons learned will be useful to someone else, as well!

Campaign 1: Stormbringer (Stormbringer 1st edition)

  • What it was: Not the first campaign I ever ran, but the first one that lasted for more than a few sessions. I ran it as a 12-year-old high on too many Moorcock novels, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. It was terrible.
  • What worked: In retrospect, the chargen system gave an early example of how random rolls can generate much more interesting and memorable characters than a bunch of 12-year-olds would ever have come up with unaided. I didn't really appreciate this at the time, though: I just used it because the idea of not following the rules as written genuinely hadn't occurred to me yet. 
  • What didn't: Everything. My idea of encounter design was 'suddenly, seven hawks attack!' There was no story, no role-playing, not even any tactics beyond 'scream and charge and hope the dice are kind'. Characters died in droves. Unsurprisingly, no-one took the whole thing particularly seriously.
  • Lessons learned: Even at the age of 12, it was clear to me that I'd need a more consistent tone and less random character death if an RPG campaign was ever to be more than absurdist black comedy. I didn't have a clear idea of how to achieve that yet, but I tried.

Campaign 2: Heroes of Greydawn (AD&D 2nd edition)

  • What it was: The D&D game that my friends and I played at school as teenagers: one main campaign that ran from level 1 to level 12, plus three side campaigns set in the same world that gave everyone a chance to play different characters for a change. It remains the longest-running game I've ever run: all told, probably well over 600 hours of actual play. Given that (a) I am no longer a teenager and (b) it is no longer the 1990s, I don't really expect to ever run a game this long again. 
  • What worked: Quantity, as the saying goes, has a quality all of its own. This game started with primitive kill-em-all wilderness treks and dungeon bashes, but it ran for so long that it built up its own momentum: lore, narrative, recurring NPCs, and the rest. PCs who started out as blank slates gradually accumulated so much history that by the end of the campaign it was actually quite moving to say goodbye to them.
  • What didn't: My early games were horrible railroads, which simply ran PCs from one scripted encounter to the next, often with heavy hints about the 'right' way to proceed. It took me a long time to finally relax and accept that it was OK for PCs to circumvent encounters, develop creative solutions, cause meaningful change to the campaign world, etc. (A lot of this was forced on me by the levelling process: it's pretty hard to push PCs around when they can teleport, walk through walls, and raise the dead!) 
  • Lessons learned: That the most important thing is just to keep the campaign rolling. That it's OK to let PCs be clever, and awesome, and change the world. That the best games are the ones that don't go the way you expected them to. (This was something I noticed at the time, but it took me many more years to properly internalise it!)

Campaign 3: The Sign of Fourteen (WFRP 1st edition)

  • What it was: The WFRP game we moved onto after deciding we'd 'outgrown' D&D. (We were about 17 at the time.) Started off as an embarrassing exercise in grimdark nonsense masquerading as maturity, but improved greatly as we moved onto the published Enemy Within adventures. (Only parts 1-3, obviously - I wrote my own final chapter!)
  • What worked: The Enemy Within was a triumph, though I don't think I could have run it successfully if I'd been any younger. (Power Behind the Throne really pushed me to my limits - so many NPCs!) In retrospect I think that some of the horror imagery I came up with in my own adventures stands up pretty well, although other parts are pretty cringeworthy. ('And then the skaven eat the babies! GRIIIIIMDAAAARK!')
  • What didn't: Railroading remained a vice to which I frequently succumbed, right down to forcing PCs to sit through villain monologues. I also struggled to write adventures without using combat as a crutch, meaning that players with non-combat-focussed characters were often left without much to do in the inevitable 'suddenly, mutants attack!' scenes.  
  • Lessons learned: This campaign taught me how much could be achieved by maintaining a consistent pattern of mood and imagery, which my previous campaigns had never really had. Running The Enemy Within also served as a crash-course in running investigative adventures, although it wasn't until later that I fully understood why an adventure like Shadows Over Bogenhafen works as well as it does. 

Campaign 4: The Arltree Campaign (Mage: the Ascension 2nd edition)

  • What it was: Like all pretentious teenage roleplayers in the late 1990s, I decided to tried my hand at running a White Wolf game. It was going to be Deep and Meaningful and full of Themes. Unfortunately I wasn't nearly as clever or sophisticated as I thought I was, so it basically ended up being a street-level superhero game, which in retrospect was probably for the best.
  • What worked: This game saw my first fumbling attempts towards character-driven drama, character development, and even PC-NPC romances, which represented quite a milestone for me at the time. The PCs and NPCs were certainly much more vivid and three-dimensional than in any of my previous campaigns. 
  • What didn't: Every attempt to raise the tone above the level of 'pulp action-horror' crashed and burned on the rocks of my limited GMing skills and lack of general life experience. 
  • Lessons learned: This was the campaign that really taught me the value of having a cast of colourful NPCs for the PCs to bounce off. To the extent that it worked as a campaign, it did so largely on the strength of its supporting cast.

Campaign 5: Smoke and Mirrors (Delta Green)

  • What it was: A horribly over-ambitious attempt to run a David Lynch style game of surreal conspiracy horror. It had symbolism. 
  • What worked: The point of the campaign was to transition steadily from reality to surreal nightmare, without ever making clear at exactly which point the PCs had moved from one to the other, and in this I think I was moderately successful.
  • What didn't: The actual game. I had a head full of scenes and symbols and metaphors and I was going to use them, damn it, with the result that most of the campaign was a massive railroad from one symbolic set-piece to another. In retrospect I would probably have been better off just writing it as fiction, instead. 
  • Lessons learned: Your set-pieces are never going to be as cool as you think they are. If the PCs aren't making real choices then there's no point in playing an RPG!

Campaign 6: To the Ends of the Earth (Exalted 1st edition)

  • What it was: An attempt to run a properly open-world fantasy epic, with the PCs as reincarnated kung fu heroes on a mission from God to save the world. Go anywhere! Do anything! Kick people in the face!
  • What worked: Breaking away from D&D-style fantasy into epic-scale anime-fantasy mythic weirdness was very creatively liberating, and I'm still quite proud of some of the fantasy imagery I came up with for this one. 
  • What didn't: I was simply not prepared for the level of power and agency the PCs brought to the campaign, meaning that most of my epic villains turned out to be paper tigers. The system was also an absolute nightmare in terms of complexity: I'd spend ages statting out each NPC, only to have the PCs splatter them in a couple of combat rounds. The campaign ultimately became so unsatisfying that we abandoned it in mid-adventure - the only campaign of all those listed here to come to such an ignominious end.
  • Lessons learned: This campaign taught me an important lesson about the limits of my tolerance for complex systems, starting me on the long slide towards minimalism that ultimately brought me to OSR D&D. It also taught me to recognise that giving PCs certain kinds of agency over the campaign world can actually make the game less fun for everyone, pushing me towards an interest in lower-powered games. 

Campaign 7: The Red Queen (Vampire: the Requiem 1st edition)

  • What it was: A tightly-contained vampire game dealing with one mystery, in one city, over the course of about fifteen sessions.
  • What worked: Almost everything. This was the first campaign where, at the end, I was able to look back and think that everything had gone pretty much the way I wanted it to.
  • What didn't: There were some moments where I was over-ambitious with horror content that I wasn't really able to do justice to, emotionally, and which consequently fell a bit flat. 
  • Lessons learned: This was the campaign where I finally started to understand the power and value of sandbox play. One location, one cast of characters, one unstable situation, enter the PCs, stand back and watch the fireworks. (I should have been able to work all that out from Shadows Over Bogenhafen several years earlier, but I was clearly a slow learner...)

Campaign 8: Falling Towers (D&D 3.5)

  • What it was: A fairly tightly-scripted D&D campaign, running from level 3 to level 7, and dealing with a single extended plot. 
  • What worked: By this point I'd become pretty confident in running games. I could reliably run exciting chase scenes, heist scenes, fight scenes, exploration scenes, and so on. I was relaxed about letting the PCs have major impacts on their world, and even dabbled a bit in collaborative world-building.
  • What didn't: This campaign was fine, but it didn't take risks. I kept to my comfort zone throughout, complete with balanced encounters and a mostly-linear plot. Everyone had fun, but the game as a whole was not a particularly memorable one.
  • Lessons learned: That you can't learn any lessons if you don't try anything new!

Campaign 9: The Pale Man (D&D 3.5)

  • What it was: A low fantasy D&D game, with a setting loosely based on Dark Ages Scandinavia. Initially it was only meant to run for a few sessions, but it kept getting extended, with the result that what was originally meant to be a short and tightly-plotted adventure ended up expanding into something much more ambitious.
  • What worked: This was my first real attempt to run a game in which the players tried to take on the mindset of people from a culture very different from their own, and it sort-of worked, at least in relation to the animistic religion of the setting. It was also probably the most character-driven game I'd run to date, with a plot that essentially boiled down to 'different people want different things, this generates conflict, enter the PCs.'
  • What didn't: This was a very low-key game: relatively low stakes, relatively low risks, most situations defused by diplomacy and negotiation. That's fine as far as it goes - not every game has to be about saving the world! - but I struggled to invest these purely personal stories with the energy and significance that they deserved.
  • Lessons learned: That while I might want to run deeply personal, emotionally-charged, character-driven games, I'm actually much better at running action-adventure material, and I should probably play to my strengths.

Campaign 10: Team Tsathogga (B/X D&D)

  • What it was: The first game I ran after discovering the principles of oldschool D&D, and the longest one in years, with well over 200 hours of actual play. A vast, sprawling weird science fantasy sandbox, with player agency placed firmly front and centre.
  • What worked: I put the OSR principles into action and they fucking worked. Having no set story, no plot armour for PCs, and no prior assumptions about what might or might not happen was incredibly liberating, both for me and my players, leading to a gloriously freewheeling campaign that surprised and delighted me at every turn. 
  • What didn't: As I discussed here, what was gained in breadth was lost in depth. Many of the people and places that the PCs interacted with were very lightly sketched in, mere backdrops for their latest insane adventure.
  • Lessons learned: That sometimes less is more. This is the lesson that has informed 'City of Spires', where, by focusing on a single ruined city, I've been able to bring the people and places within it to life much more vividly than I ever could have in the previous campaign, where the PCs would just have wandered in, wrecked some stuff, and wandered off again...
So. Those were the campaigns that I learned the most from running. Feel free to tell me about yours in the comments!

Saturday, 27 February 2021

The Undercellars - a playable dungeon for Patrick's Dungeon Poem challenge

This is my (characteristically late) contribution to Patrick's Dungeon Poem challenge. It's not especially artpunk, but it is functional. Pdf version available here.

The Undercellars – to be placed beneath the next house your PCs visit the basement of…

(For PCs of levels 2-4)

1: Rotting door in the darkest and least-visited corner of the basement, three-quarters covered in heaps of old junk. Ignored by the current residents, who assume it leads to an old cupboard or something. Crumbling carvings of horned figures and winged animals just visible in the surrounding stonework. Held shut by seven locks, once strong, now rusted almost to nothing. One good kick would smash it wide open.

On the other side are stone stairs leading steeply downwards and a skeleton in rotted rags, arms desperately outstretched. Ancient scratch-marks show it died clawing frantically at the door.

2: Six rusted cages along south wall. Five hold ancient skeletons. The door of the sixth hangs open.

As soon as the PCs enter the room the skeletons animate and begin rattling frantically in their cages, shaking the doors and clacking their jawbones in agitation. (Note that the width of the room means PCs are likely to hear them before they see them.) If their cage locks are smashed they run out of the room, up the stairs, and leave the building via the nearest door or window, attacking anyone who gets in their way. They disintegrate into dust the moment sunlight or moonlight touches their bones.

For each minute the rattling noises continue, or each time a loud noise is made in this room (e.g. a cage door being smashed open), there is a 1-in-10 chance that the beast in 3 awakes. 1d6 rounds later, it will crash through the door to its chamber and begin hunting the PCs.

Rusted iron hooks on the north wall hold the rotted remnants of dozens of green robes. The pocket of one holds a silver necklace set with small garnets (120 GP). The eastern wall is carved with a long list of names – several hundred in all, including the ancestors of many prominent local families. Wooden wreckage fills the middle of the room, warped by time and damp. Rusted iron door leads east to 3. Gaping, dripping hole leads south to 7.

3: The iron door that leads into this room is rusted shut. Bashing it open requires a Strength check. Each attempt made has a 1-in-3 chance of awakening the beast.

At the bottom of the stairs a huge creature lies sleeping, curled up on itself. Resembles an immense horned snake with six clawed legs. A glint of gold can be seen protruding from beneath its bulk: a white gold idol of a bat-like beast (500 GP). The beast can be woken by loud noises, or by taking damage: otherwise it sleeps through virtually anything, including having the idol slipped out from under its coils.

Once it wakes it tracks intruders by scent, patiently pursuing them around the complex. It isn’t fast, but it is very persistent, and once it has cornered someone it will methodically rip and bludgeon at them with its teeth, claws, horns, and sheer scaly mass until they are dead. The only ways to escape are to kill it, to leave via the stairs at 1, or to escape along the river. It cannot swim, so if anyone leads it to the river and then swims or boats away from the shore it will abandon the hunt and return to its lair.

4: Alcove holding heap of rubble that was once a statue. Clawed outstretched hand now the only part still recognisable. Wedged behind it is a rotted corpse in a tattered green robe, with a copper and malachite ring around one finger (25 GP). The present residents of the building above can identify it as having belonged to an eccentric great-aunt who went missing several decades ago.

5: Six stone pillars hung with rusted chains. Ancient bloodstains splatter the floor around each pillar for a range of several feet. Bone slivers wedged between the flagstones.

Clinging onto the ceiling are six black-winged murder-birds, in a state of deep hibernation. They will awaken 1d6 rounds after the PCs enter, and attack anyone not wearing a green robe. If routed they fly off to the river and away, not returning to their roosts until 1d3 days later. The beast from 3 will stop and eat the corpses of any dead murder-birds it comes across during its pursuit.

6: Walls engraved with crude carvings of human figures engaged in improbable-looking sex acts. Floor strewn with rotting pillows and bedding. Rack of cracked white clay pipes in northwest corner, beside a dented copper bowl containing a black tarry sludge, dried-out and unidentifiable. In the northeast corner are broken wine bottles, battered pewter cups, and a still-intact copper flask containing 8 doses of potent laudanum laced with hallucinogenic herbs. (Drinking a dose induces 1d6 hours of deep sleep filled with vivid and disturbing dreams – worth 10 GP per dose to an artist or insomniac. The whole flask at once would suffice to knock out the beast from 3, if it could be somehow tricked into swallowing it.) A shelf on the wall holds two silver goblets engraved For the Champions (15 GP each), and a golden chalice engraved For the Queen (160 GP).

At the bottom of the pit to the south lounges Dryden, an immortal violet-skinned youth in tattered orange rags, dozing away the centuries on a pile of rotted silk. His long purple fingernails are still immaculate, even after all these years, and he wears a golden bracelet set with topaz jewels (240 GP) around his left wrist. He is beautiful, flirtatious, sexually omnivorous, and utterly incurious, answering all questions about himself and the complex in the vaguest possible terms. (‘It was built by… people… who’ve been gone for… quite a while?’) He would like the PCs to help him escape, but if they don’t then he won’t push the matter. He can always just sleep until someone else comes along.

Anyone who comes into skin-to-skin contact with Dryden will feel temporary elation followed by a strange sense of weakness, and will lose 1 HP per hour for the next 1d3 hours.

7: Irregular tunnel, damp and dripping, rocky floor slick and uneven underfoot. Three spindly pale-skinned proto-humans wedged into cracks in the rock, sleeping – they can sleep through all but the loudest noises, but bright light will bring them stretching and blinking from their crevices, long white limbs unfolding themselves from the walls, pale tongues licking across wide mouths full of needle-like teeth. They have no language, but can be placated with offerings of food – otherwise they will attack the plumpest-looking PC, seeking to drag them off into the darkness and drown them in the river before eating them. If routed they flee south and along the river to 8 – they are unaffected by the ghosts at 10. If the PCs pursue them to 8 they will make a final stand and fight to the death. Their crevices contain a haul of old, cracked bones and a rusted dagger with a large pearl set in the pommel (120 GP).

8: Smuggler’s camp. Corroded lanterns, rotted barrels, a crate of packed with bottles of contraband brandy (400 GP, but far too heavy, bulky, and fragile to carry around while adventuring). A rowboat has been pulled up onto the shore here. Its timbers are warped and leaky: it could be used to travel between this location and areas 10, 12 or 14, but would undoubtedly sink if used on a longer voyage.

9: A bare stone span crosses the river, its wooden handrails rotted to nothing. Ancient clawmarks on the stone. An undead smuggler named Redmud Bill crouches on the bridge, clutching his burned-out brass lantern. He wears threadbare work clothes and a jaunty black tricorn with an opal bead at each corner. Will not let anyone pass, threatening to ‘rouse the river’ if anyone tries it.

Bill’s mind is so eroded that all he can remember is that he came here in search of treasure, and he’s meant to wait here and guard the bridge ‘until his mates get back with the loot’. Nothing can induce him to leave his post, but he will permit the PCs to pass if bribed with treasure worth 100 GP or more. If shown the corpse of the smuggler-chief from 15, he emits a grief-stricken wail and leaps into the river. He will not resurface.

If the PCs attack or push past him, Bill rips one of the beads from his hat and throw it into the river. Moments later, massive blasts of freezing water mingled with stone and bone start exploding upwards, causing everyone standing on the bridge (including Bill) to save every round or take 1d6 damage and be knocked into the roiling, churning water below. Anyone in the water takes an additional 1d6 damage per round from crushing and drowning, and is permitted a Strength check each round to fight their way onto the shore. (If Bill falls into the river, he takes only half damage and automatically clambers back onto the bridge after one round.) The river remains roused for 1d8 rounds, and then falls quiet, though if Bill is still alive and fighting at this point he’ll throw in a second bead to rouse it again.

PCs who obtain Bill’s hat may find it a useful way of getting rid of the beast from 3, as once knocked into the river it will simply thrash around helplessly in the water until it drowns.

10: Graveyard. Along the side of the river stands a row of uniform grey headstones marking the graves of illegitimate children, secret spouses, disowned relatives, and murdered rivals, engraved with cryptic symbols meaningful only to the hands that carved them. The ghosts of those buried here are desperate for acknowledgement, but over the centuries their stories have all become jumbled together, an endless tangle of scandals and secrets without beginning or end. Anyone approaching them will find their mind filled with pleading whispers, and must save or stand, transfixed, listening to the stories of the dead until they are physically dragged away. Anyone left among the graves for more than an hour will be possessed by a confused composite ghost, and will flee the scene on an impossible mission to prove that they were covertly murdered by their illegitimate father who was also secretly their wife, or something of the sort. This possession lasts for 1d6 months, or until a Bless spell is cast on them.

11: The river is slow-flowing, icy cold, and deep enough to swim (or drown) in. The riverbed is covered with drifts of ancient bone – several hundred skeletons worth in all. Diving beneath the surface with a waterproof light source (e.g. a Light spell) will reveal light glinting off a suspiciously pristine greataxe still clutched in the hands of a skeleton encased in rusted armour, its copper haft engraved with astrological symbols. This is the axe Starshine, which normally functions as a Greataxe +1, but serves as a Greataxe +4 when wielded in starlight beneath the open sky.

12: A lone proto-human (as room 7) sits here, singing wordlessly to itself in the dark, casting nets woven from the sinews of strange subterranean beasts. If approached by PCs bearing lights it abandons its nets and dives into the water, swimming rapidly downriver. Its nets are especially effective against winged creatures such as those in 5 and 15, which if hit with them must save or crash, wings entangled, to the floor.

13:  Tattered parchments nailed to the walls in flapping sheets, bearing mostly-illegible genealogies and family trees stretching back through the centuries. Warped wooden tables heaped with dried-up inkwells and mouldy parchment. Skeleton sprawled on the floor in rotten green robes, its skull staved in by a blow to the back of the head. A wide flight of stairs leads eastward down to 14, strewn with the remains of another two hacked-up skeletons in green robes.

A huge coffer made from beaten black iron stands in south-west corner, packed with centuries worth of accumulated blackmail material: documents bearing witness to false marriages, forged inheritances, land grabs, rigged elections to civic offices, etc, etc. Most are so old as to now be of only historical interest, but a patient sift would yield enough material to ruin 1d6 prominent local families if revealed. All would be willing to kill to prevent this information becoming public.

14: Three crudely-carven statues of horned figures. Those to the left and right are male. The one in the centre is female. All are enfolded in drapery and depicted reaching outwards with long, clawed hands. Bronze bowls at their feet, stained by centuries of offerings in wine and blood.

Anyone pouring wine or blood into the bowls before the male figures gains +1 strength permanently, and is filled with belligerent and vengeful urges. If they ever back down from a fight, or fail to avenge a slight or wrong done to them, then the next time they sleep they are tormented in their dreams by terrible horned figures, gain no rest, and suffer 1d6 damage. This curse can only trigger once per day.

Anyone pouring wine or blood into the bowl before the female figure gains +1 wisdom permanently, and is filled with impulses of pragmatic cruelty. If they ever make a decision that causes material disadvantage to themselves in order to benefit someone to whom they are not directly related by blood, then the next time they sleep they are tormented in their dreams by terrible faceless beings, gain no rest, and suffer -1 to all saves for 7 days. This curse can only trigger once per day, but it does stack with itself, to a potential maximum of -7 to all saves.

A Bless spell removes both the positive and negative effects of these blessings, but the recipient takes 2d6 damage as the dark forces within them burst bloodily out of their body, leaving gory stigmata.

In the southernmost corner is huddled a skeleton, its once-green robes black with ancient blood. Its bony hands clutch a silver talisman engraved with a horned figure (10 GP).

15: Immense vaulted subterranean hall, the product of incalculable labour. Rotting divans litter the floor. Walls engraved with bass reliefs showing robed men prostrating themselves between a horned female figure. Floor strewn with ancient corpses spitted upon one another’s swords, some in the drab clothes of dockworkers, others wearing rotted green robes. Corpse of the smuggler-chief lies at the foot of the stairs to 13, rusted cutlass still clutched in one skeletal hand. His leather backpack contains a miscellaneous tangle of looted coins and jewellery worth 370 GP. Before him lies a sundered skeleton in a green robe, a heavy gold chain glinting around its neck (140 GP).

In the centre of the room a huge brass brazier hangs suspended from the ceiling on an iron chain, and on this brazier the Winged Guardian – a great leathery bat-like beast with a single huge yellow eye – dozes over the bones of its dead masters. It will not attack PCs who hold up the idol from 3: otherwise it launches itself up with an ear-splitting shriek and assails them, buffeting them with its wings while spraying them with the searing, tar-like venom it drools continually from its maw. It will pursue fleeing PCs as far as the river, but not beyond. If routed it flies up to the ceiling and clings to the roof, but if the PCs continue to persecute it with missile fire it flies back down and fights until slain.

The Winged Guardian and the beast from 3 are mortal enemies, and if they ever encounter one another they will fight to the death.

Three pits in the east lead down to 16, coils of rusted chain heaped next to each one. In the south-west corner stands a broken-down divan: a green-robed skeleton sprawls beside it with a crossbow bolt wedged between its vertebrae, clearly shot in the back in the act of trying to crawl underneath it. Beneath this divan is a concealed trapdoor leading to 17 – anyone opening this can look down onto the Queen’s bier without awakening her, potentially allowing a round of surprise attacks.

16: Dank dungeon scattered with rusted chains, slumped skeletons in rags fettered to walls, a faint smell of ancient human waste. Two mutant shame children lurk here, wordless and feral, too warped to die, their mottled skin dotted with patches of scale and hair. Skilled trapmakers, they have set up a line of hidden snares across the room that snap taut when triggered, entangling victims legs in lengths of weighted chain: the children then leap forth to garrote their immobilized victims. If routed they run and hide in dark corners. Child-like in intelligence, they respond positively if shown any kind of affection, and will loyally follow anyone who feeds them or treats them with kindness.

17: Here the Horned Queen sleeps through the centuries on her bier of bones, resplendent in shimmering robes of green silk embroidered with golden thread (120 GP if intact, 12 GP if hacked and stained). She wears a golden circlet set with three cut emeralds (950 GP). Her two champions lie curled up on the floor beside her like dogs, naked save for a few rags of clothing, huge rusted greatswords lying on the ground beside them. All three are horned and clawed, their bones clearly visible through their leathery grey-brown skin. Their yellow fangs are very long and very sharp. On a stone table next to the bier stands an engraved silver flask (30 GP) containing nine doses of dreamwine, which – if swallowed – place the imbiber in a dreamlike and disorientated mental state for the next 3d6 hours, during which they are extremely suggestible. (Trying to make someone do something heinous or self-destructive allows them a save to break the effect.) Dreamwine is worth 50 GP per dose to criminals or cult leaders.

If the PCs enter the chamber the Queen will awaken instantly. She is unaware that her followers have perished while she slept, and will assume that the PCs have come to worship her if any of the following are true:

·        The PCs are all wearing green robes.
·        The PCs all have blessings from the statues in 14.
·        The PCs come bearing offerings of blood and/or wine in the goblets and chalice from 6.
·        The first PC into the room holds up the silver talisman from 14.

If the Queen believes the PCs to be worshippers, she will enquire after the state of her followers: whether their numbers are growing, whether their bloodlines are strong, whether their secrets remain secure, etc. If the PCs give plausible-sounding answers she will bestow a ritual blessing and dismiss them before returning to her sleep. (They can then attack with the benefit of surprise, if they choose to do so.) She will become increasingly suspicious if reawakened by the same group of ‘worshippers’ more than once. PCs who tell her that the complex is under attack may be able to trick her and the champions into a trap. She is unaware of the snares in 16, and will blunder straight into them if lured there.

If the Queen does not believe the PCs are here to worship her, she gives them a stark choice: follow her or die. PCs who submit will be relieved of their weapons, and required to drink one dose of dreamwine each: they will then be subjected to a nightmarish initiation by ordeal, which they will never subsequently be able to remember except as a confused nightmare of scorching flames, icy waters, and monstrous faces looming out of the dark. Any PC who is affected by the dreamwine for more hours than their Wisdom score will succumb, and become a dedicated cultist of the Horned Queen. Others may save once per day, with a cumulative -1 penalty for each day that passes: success means they emerge from their fugue state of terror and trauma for long enough to try to escape. Cultist PCs who are rescued from the Queen may eventually recover after 1d6 months of systematic deprogramming.

The Queen is utterly ancient, and believes in little save the sanctity of bloodlines and of secrets. In battle, her champions attack with their greatswords, while the Queen uses her curses. If her champions are killed, the Queen will offer the PCs her circlet and dreamwine in exchange for her life. If they refuse this offer, she fights to the death. 

Monster Stats

5 Skeletons (room 2): 1 HD (3 hp), AC leather, claw (1d3), morale NA.

The Beast (room 3): 8 HD (37 hp), AC plate, move as dwarf, morale 9. The beast has enough teeth, claws, horns, and coils to attack everyone adjacent to it every round for 1d8 damage. Its blood is deathly-cold and horribly poisonous: anyone wounding it in hand to hand combat must save to avoid being splattered, suffering crippling, burning agony (-4 to all rolls) until the venom is washed clean. Characters with no exposed skin are immune to this. (The robes from 2 may be useful, here.) If the beast is killed, 2d10 doses of blood may be collected from it, usable as blade venom or contact poison.

6 Murder-birds (room 5): 1 HD (4 hp), AC chain, beak and claws (1d4), morale 6. Anyone wounded by a murder-bird just keeps bleeding, losing 1 HP per round until they take a round to bandage their wounds. Magical healing instantly ends the bleeding.

Dryden (room 6): 2 HD (11 hp), AC unarmoured, poisonous fingernails (1 damage, but save or take 3d6 damage when the poison kicks in 1d10 rounds later), morale 5. Regenerates 1 HP per hour unless dead. Between 0 HP and -5 HP he will look dead, but will actually continue to regenerate until fully restored – only at -6 or below does he actually die.

Proto-Humans (3 in room 7, 1 in room 12): 2 HD (8 hp), AC unarmoured, bite (1d6), morale 6. If two proto-humans hit the same target in the same round then their victim has been swarmed and grabbed. They may make a Strength check to break free – if this fails they will be yanked off-balance and dragged off helplessly into the darkness.

Redmud Bill (room 9): 3 HD (13 hp), AC leather, rusty hatchet (1d6), morale 8. Has three Beads of River Rousing, which, if dropped into a freshwater river or lake, rouse it into furious, churning waterspouts for 1d8 rounds for 1 mile in every direction.

Winged Guardian (room 15): 5 HD (21 hp), AC chain, wing buffet (1d6), morale 8. Whomever the guardian is currently attacking must save each round or be seared by the rain of sticky, burning venom that pours constantly from its mouth, taking 1d8 damage – this damage is halved (rounding down) if they have a shield to shelter under.

2 Shame Children (room 16): 3 HD (11 hp), AC leather, chain garotte (1d8 – if max damage is rolled the victim passes out for 1d10 minutes), morale 5. Experts at hiding and sneaking – if you lose sight of them, you’ll never find them. Attack only from ambush.

2 Horned Champions (room 17): 4 HD (17 hp), AC chain, greatsword (2d6), morale 10.

Horned Queen (room 17): 5 HD (23 hp), AC chain, teeth and claws (1d6), morale 10. Once per round can call down a random curse on a PC, who must save or suffer (roll 1d4: 1= blindness, 2 = fear, 3 = madness, 4 = paralysis) for the next 1d6 rounds. Anyone wounded by the Queen starts bleeding secrets, and will uncontrollably start confessing whatever they most want to keep secret for as long as the blood continues to flow from their wounds.

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

72 encounters from the City of Spires

 Apologies for the two month silence. The Covid situation has fucked things up. 

Anyway. The City of Spires campaign is still going strong, and will soon rival my previous Team Tsathogga game for the sheer number of sessions played. The PCs took over their city and have now transitioned from ruin-crawling scavengers to ambitious oligarchs, rebuilding infrastructure and establishing trade routes and clearing out the last of the old monsters from what they now regard as their territory. In the process they have encountered so much stuff that, as the Gawain poet put it, 'Hit were to tore for to telle of þe tenþe dole' - so, instead of boring everyone with campaign write-ups that no-one cares about, I've made a list of all the random nonsense that the PCs have stumbled into over the last eighteen months and put it on a series of tables instead. Feel free to roll on it next time you need a random encounter in the crumbling fantasy city-state of your choice!

(And, yes, everything on this list has appeared in the campaign. The PCs managed to make friends with most of it.)

Roll 1d6 + 1d12: 1d6 for category, 1d12 for encounter


  1. Tombs and Tunnels
  2. Magical remnants
  3. Trade and crime
  4. Encampments and settlements
  5. Monsters
  6. Power players

1: Tomb and Tunnels

  1. Disintegrating necropolis of blue-tiled mausolea infested with burly, stinking ape-like creatures covered in matted purple fur. They lair in desecrated burial chapels and eat carrion.
  2. A tottering tower in which nests a great winged beast, with poisonous breath and skin like lead. It was once the pet of a tyrant-king who now lies buried beneath its tower, clutching his cruel law-code in his huge, skeletal hands. His enchanted crown fills the wearer with unnatural hungers: the more that these are slaked, the larger and stronger the wearer grows, and the more powerful their urges become. 
  3. A dusty graveyard in which the sense of misfortune is almost palpable, haunted by shadowy beings that can choose to appear as wild dogs, or as dust-clouds, or as armoured men with the heads of jackals. In a pit at its heart lives a grotesque, giggling ape-demon, which knows the locations of many hidden treasures but takes a sadistic pleasure in toying with and tormenting those desperate enough to come to it for aid.
  4. Ancient burial chamber with a stone sarcophagus at its centre, its walls riddled with cracks and holes. If the sarcophagus is disturbed then an awful protoplasmic slime will surge up from within, attempting to grab hold of someone and crawl inside them just as it once did to the unfortunate soul buried here, using them for its own alien purposes: meanwhile, a small army of tiny, wizened, mummified lizard-creatures will come pouring from the holes in the walls, intent on tearing apart anything in the chamber. (They are immune to the slime, and were placed here to watch over it.) Magical treasures of the ancient world await anyone capable of besting both threats.
  5. Immense tomb surrounded by a high wall, covered in layer upon layer of scratched signs warding against misfortune. Here, according to local tradition, a cruel king was once buried, and the people still regard it as a place of ill-omen, blaming all their misfortunes on his restless and vindictive ghost. Anyone listening at its lead-sealed door can hear something flapping and fluttering around inside it. (No further details on this one - my PCs haven't been in yet!)
  6. Immense pit leading down to a vast, vaulted concrete chamber where immense iron serpents hang coiled on the walls, the slumbering war machines of a now-vanished civilisation. One of them is still semi-active and will attempt to repel intruders, turning its huge spotlight eyes upon them, its speakers blaring warnings in long-dead languages as it slithers forwards to attack.
  7. Sinkhole leads down into tunnels infested with long-armed, semi-intelligent subterranean humanoids with coal-black skin, who scurry across walls and ceilings like spiders and reach down to strangle intruders. Anyone who can make it past them will reach a complex containing the blinking, semi-functional terminals of ancient artificial intelligences, which - if contacted - will be enraged to learn that the civilisation that built them has fallen into ruin while they slept.
  8. Recently-unearthed tunnels lead to battered subterranean laboratory guarded by animated skeletons wearing tattered military uniforms and wielding basket-hilted swords. Beyond lie flickering electric lights, bloodstained cages, scattered bones, and a computer monitor playing a looped distress signal on continuous repeat. 
  9. Tunnels inhabited by a pale young woman with silvery circuitry imprinted across her skin, marking her as the priestess of a being she calls 'the Black Messenger', whom she believes to be a long-forgotten underworld god of journeys. The Messenger is actually the still semi-functional corporate AI of the city's old maglev subway system, which is extremely anxious about the fact that its trains are running thousands of years behind schedule, and would very much like its rubble-choked tunnels cleared before the negative customer feedback starts coming in.
  10. Half-flooded ruin of a once-noble mansion. The family that dwelt here fought to the last man in defence of their homes, and their furious ghosts will animate their shattered bones to avenge themselves on would-be trespassers and thieves.
  11. Buildings with doors nailed shut from the inside, haunted by the anguished ghosts of those who starved to death within them. 
  12. Nailed-shut trapdoor in a chapel basement leads down to a vault whose walls are lined with skeletons resting in alcoves. A bronze bell hangs from the ceiling, and a pair of engraved brass doors lead to a chamber in which a dead princess lies in skeletal splendour on her bier, flanked by the bones of her handmaidens and bodyguards. Each night at dusk one of the skeletons animates and rings the bell, causing the princess and her attendants to rise from their tombs for their nightly prayers before returning to their eternal rest: the tolling of this bell is faintly audible in the chapel above. The princess is a pious soul who will be horrified to hear of the state of the city, and eager to help restore it to glory, but her undead attendants will not allow her to leave. 

2: Magical remnants
  1. Fortified estate of a sorceress still guarded by clumsily-built magical servitors with emaciated bodies and shining eyes. They refuse to stand down until they receive orders from their maker, who has spent the last eleven years in suspended animation in a meditation chamber within the estate, watched over by a terrible invisible guardian.
  2. The secret study of some vanished magician contains maps showing the way to a half-legendary mountain where the ancients embalmed and buried their most esteemed dead, accompanied by disturbingly-well-developed plans for retrieving the corpses of the sages of antiquity and wringing their secrets out of them by magical force. 
  3. Wrecked home of a long-dead wizard. In a secret chamber beneath seven flaming demons sit patiently inside a summoning circle, singing softly to themselves, waiting for the inevitable earthquake.
  4. Sealed house containing the silk-robed bones of a dead magician, whose pack contains stoppered bone scroll cases documenting his unwise excavations beneath the city, and the ancient secrets that he discovered there. 
  5. Abandoned estate inhabited by spooky extended family with innate magical gifts, who tell far-fetched stories about how their ancestress emerged from the impenetrable swamplands of the west, no doubt a fugitive princess or something equally romantic. For a sufficient bribe of alcohol their matriarch can be persuaded to reveal the location of their ancestress's grave, but may neglect to mention its undead guardians.
  6. A woman with skin the colour of ash searches the ruins, surrounded always by the smell of smoke. Feral creatures that might once have been human scamper at her heels like dogs, covered in masses of tangled black hair. She claims to be searching for magical items that will help her reunite her 'family', and offers to share arcane secrets with anyone who will help her in her work.
  7. Shattered laboratory cloaked in fast-growing stranglevines, leaking weird chemicals into the surrounding soil and water, causing the local vermin to grow to prodigious size. If the chemicals could be gathered up and deployed in less concentrated forms they would be immensely valuable as fertiliser.
  8. An enchanted tree with shining leaves that drives all those who pass beneath its branches mad with rage, surrounded by the scattered bones of animals that killed one another in their fury.
  9. Heavily fortified building full of ancient alchemical machines, where the rulers of the city convert their favoured henchmen into scale-covered mutants, the better to enforce their cruel edicts upon the people. Those whose minds or bodies are left too warped to be useful are kept in pits, mad and bestial, held back for use as an emergency attack force in times of need.
  10. Ruined streets roamed by clanking skeletons held together with metal struts and joints, steam engines bolted to their ribcages, clouds of black smoke pouring constantly from the smokestacks welded to their spines. At the heart of their territory is a surprisingly well-maintained smithy, from which the sound of hammering can be heard echoing at all hours. (Again, no details on what's inside yet - my PCs haven't been in!)
  11. Dilapidated palace inhabited by an ancient woman guarded by flickering semi-humanoid locust-warriors. She is the last true devotee of a long-suppressed religion, but now that everything has fallen apart she sees no further need to conceal her faith. In her home she keeps a human corpse tied to a chair, through the dead mouth of which something speaks with a loud, booming voice, and visits it whenever she is in need of oracles.
  12. Sacred subterranean meditation chamber guarded by a hovering angel of blue light, its face smashed to fragments. Any unrighteous soul who tries to enter will be struck by coruscating blue lightning. Those who are allowed to pass within can, by meditation, establish psychic contact with certain roaring elemental beings of pure force, who wordlessly communicate their desire for the city to be cleansed of the evils that infest it.

3: Trade and Crime
  1. A low opium den, where those who pass beyond the tattered yellow curtains can enjoy the dubious pleasures of stained couches, clouds of opium smoke, and decanters of sour wine. Miserable serving girls cater to the thuggish clientele, under the watchful eye of a withered landlady and the gigantic bravo whom she pays to guard the door. Every one of them would burn the place down in a heartbeat if she thought she could get away with it. 
  2. Tailor's shop, where terrified children labour at sight-destroying embroidery work under the supervision of their cruel and supercilious taskmaster, who - frustratingly enough - genuinely has excellent taste in clothes, ensuring that his services are much in demand among what remains of the city's great and good. 
  3. Market stall selling honeyed pastries, popular with a variety of local workers. Its keeper is actually part of a conspiracy that aims to seize control of the city, and among her regular customers are several of their agents, to whom she passes secret briefings and communications in the form of papers wrapped around the pastries that they buy. 
  4. Stimulant-fuelled consortium of perpetually-desperate market traders, who live in fear and hatred of the talking silver skull they have hidden under their guildhall, which always tells them where more money is to be found but insists upon them debasing and disfiguring themselves in exchange for every treasure. (In my campaign, it eventually turned out that this skull was a mouthpiece for the ape-demon at 1-3.)
  5. Stall manned by weary, travel-stained merchants selling miserly quantities of adulterated tea, coffee, and spices, imported with great cost and labour from foreign parts, watched hawkishly by preening guards in the employ of the city's government who are trying to work out just how much to demand for the 'import taxes' that they've just made up on the spot.
  6. Ragged school run by an outlaw occultist turned schoolteacher, much happier in his new life but perpetually anxious about his blood-soaked past catching up with him. 
  7. A desecrated temple inhabited by dropout temple acolytes turned wannabe cultists of the dark powers, usually drunk and hopelessly in debt to the gangsters who provide them with all their drugs. Have just enough forbidden magic to be dangerous to themselves and others.
  8. Encampment of bandits turned opportunistic slavers, led by a thuggish drunkard who spends most of his time in an alcoholic stupor. His second in command is a violent and badly-traumatised woman who seeks to convert the band to her apocalyptic religion, convinced that their bloody work is a righteous punishment visited upon the city for its many sins.
  9. Huge dome of near-unbreakable glass that once served as a prison, long since taken over by its inmates, now the home of bellicose and anarchic 'crime tribes' who roam the surrounding ruins, resplendent in their gang colours. They feud constantly among themselves, but will unite instantly against outsiders.
  10. Shattered noble house now degenerated into a mere street gang, its scions roaming the streets with jewelled knives tucked into their sashes, extracting the 'tribute' they believe themselves to be owed by their 'subjects', at dagger-point if necessary. Their leader is a mere girl, skinny and malnourished but crazy-confident, with the pride of a duchess and a conviction that empire is her birthright. She lives in the three-quarters-ruined home of her ancestors, followed everywhere by a flock of mad and feral peacocks.
  11. Old trade route rendered impassable by an infestation of savage, loping, fur-covered humanoids who lair up in the hills to either side of the road, filling the night with their mournful, sonorous howling.
  12. Pilgrim road that once led to a site of great spiritual significance, its sides dotted with wayside shrines and ruined, dust-choked caravanseris, a few of which still have functional wells and water-holes hidden beneath all the rubble and sand. No-one has walked its length in over a decade, now, and what - if anything - remains at the far end of it now is anyone's guess.

4: Encampments and Settlements
  1. Community of fisher-folk living by the side of a river: they have dug a wide trench from the river around their houses, effectively turning their district into an island for ease of defence. Their red-sailed boats range far and wide along the river. Their leader is a rough and weather-beaten man with a not-so-secret weakness for crab and lobster, who will happily lend the PCs boats and crews in exchange for particularly fine crustaceans. 
  2. Rows of shattered porcelain manufacturies, now inhabited by tusked and snuffling beastmen, placid unless provoked but suspicious of outsiders.
  3. Community of isolationists in a walled settlement, who have ringed the land around them with networks of hidden traps to discourage intruders.
  4. Miserable village devoted to the cultivation of opium poppies under the command of brutal overseers, who punish villagers found raising any other crop. The people are sick and scared and half-starved, kept too weak and demoralised to challenge their oppressors. 
  5. Stockade in the ruins guarded by men in bronze masks, with polished copper shields: they carry crossbows, and are extremely wary of outsiders. Within, a small community of desperate souls has coalesced around a miracle-working teenager, whose prophetic visions help her in guiding her people, but whose alarming fits and seizures suggest that she probably does not have long left to live.
  6. Demoralised mining town up in the hills. The local lord is depressed, sunk in gloomy reflection on the sins of his ancestors, while his neglected children run wild on the hills outside. Something horrible has taken up residence in the copper mines, putting them out of action, and now the whole community faces ruin unless something can be done.
  7. Village of wretched pastoralists languishing under the dubious 'protection' of a bandit gang in a hilltop fort, who raid the nearby roads and prey upon the people at will. In the centre of the village stands a crude idol of hacked wood depicting a winged woman, sacred to the cruel faith that their bandit overlords have imposed upon them. 
  8. Painstakingly cleared area of ruins irrigated and farmed by bent-backed labourers, too stubborn to leave their homes even after all the disasters that have fallen upon them, and led by a council of elders even more bent and stubborn than they are. Rickety watchtowers ring their fields, allowing them to spot trouble coming from afar.
  9. Stockaded hinterland settlement built around a fragment of the old irrigation network that still functions, guarding its water like gold, surrounded on all sides by desertified farmland and abandoned villages. 
  10. Vast sinkhole in the ruins. Climbing far enough down its treacherous sides will take one to a subterranean complex flooded by acrid-smelling but highly-fertile chemical slurry from some ancient alchemical laboratory. This complex is inhabited by isolationist humans who use the chemicals to grow crops of pale, flabby edible fungi, making it one of the few places in the region where food is actually abundant. Years below the ground has left them pretty pale and flabby themselves, and they fear outsiders.
  11. Zealous would-be warrior and his followers hard at work domesticating and training giant rats as steeds, hoping to thereby make up for their lack of horses.
  12. Column of wretched refugees, expelled from their homes by an imperious lord who values their land more as a hunting preserve than as a village, stumbling through the ruins in search of a new home.  

5: Monsters
  1. An infestation of demonic monkeys with charred flesh, knowing smiles, and wickedly hooked brass claws. The spell that summons them is distressingly easy to learn.
  2. Ruins hung with corpses, each with spikes hammered through their eye-sockets into the bricks beneath. These are the hunting grounds of an accursed thief, who stole an enchanted hammer from a dark temple and fell under its power: now he kills by instinct and has a hypnotic gaze, enabling him to mesmerise his victims into waiting passively to be killed. If the hammer was taken from him he could yet be saved, but anyone taking it from him risks falling under its curse.
  3. Ruined house whose basement contains a nest of insane human-snake hybrids, the results of botched experiments, who sleep through the cold months and creep out in summer in search of prey. (In my campaign they were created in the building at 2-9.)
  4. Area overrun by giant worms, ruled over by a crazed individual who encountered some kind of 'worm-god' beneath a distant mountain and now serves as its self-appointed 'priest'. He's more worm than man himself, now, his eyes mere pits of ooze, his body slimy and segmented and covered in thick, bristly hairs. He is served by a retinue of keening radioactive zombies. (In my campaign he'd come from the mountain described at 2-2.)
  5. Royal park and menagerie now fallen into utter neglect, overrun with strange exotic plants. The cages are all rusted and empty, and weird beasts from far-off lands now lurk in the undergrowth.
  6. Ruined district overgrown with trees and alive with songbirds. Desperate, tangle-bearded, ex-human cannibals lurk in the basements of these overgrown buildings, warped by the sinister powers to which, in their utter misery, they have surrendered themselves. Their flesh is woody and fibrous, resistant to blades and bludgeons but still vulnerable to axes or fire.
  7. Ruined distillery infested with feral ghouls. Most are mad and naked and bestial, but their leader retains enough mental coherence to talk, dress himself in flapping black robes, and consecrate their kills to a grim divinity that he believes to dwell in the mountains to the south. The copper distilling equipment that litters the building could be used to produce quantities of raw alcohol, valuable both as a trade good and as a means of setting things on fire.
  8. Ruined temple built around a courtyard in which stands a fountain, choked with translucent paralytic slime. Dormant during the day, this slime-beast stirs into activity in the moonlight, glowing with iridescent colours as it squirms around the temple, reaching upwards with a thousand waving tendrils towards its distant lunar home. Three blank-faced servitors roam the ruins on its behalf, feeding it whatever they can catch, from squirrels to people. Its paralysis-inducing slime could make a powerful weapon if harvested.
  9. Wrecked complex in which every surface is covered in soot: if disturbed, this soot hurtles together to form roaring 'smoke giants', horribly solid when they want to be but capable of bursting apart into clouds of whirling soot if threatened. (If killed while solid, however, they stay dead.) Sealed boxes in a basement contain more such giants, ready to leap into life as soon as their lids are pulled off. 
  10. Abandoned temple, its doors barricaded shut. Within, a vast network of wire hangs like a huge metal cobweb across its vaulted ceiling. Animated corpses crawl across this web like spiders, and will drop down to attack anyone who ventures within. Powerful holy items litter the floor, abandoned during the panicked flight that occurred when the temple became the abode of horror it is today.
  11. Ruined streets overrun by flocks of aggressive dire pigeons, the unfortunate outcome of an ambitious attempt to construct a carrier pigeon network among the surrounding settlements.
  12. Ruined manor house guarded by rusted iron automata in the shape of humanoid eagles, slow and heavy but nearly unkillable, their beaks and talons still murderously sharp. Within are furnished chambers that bear witness to a hasty evacuation - a rich looting opportunity, if it wasn't for the automata. In a barricaded room upstairs lie the corpses of the house's masters, around the unwisely-opened sarcophagus of the horror that killed them, which ever since has crawled out of a hole in the ceiling each dusk to trouble the city by night. 

6: Power players
  1. Outcast clockworkers wearing outlandish mechanical prostheses, crazed and scarred and mutilated by years of ruin-delving, guarded by a retinue of kitbashed automata which carry them and their gear from place to place as they search for relics of lost technology, dreaming of the day they will return in glory to the guild that cast them out and trying not to think too hard about all the lives they've sacrificed along the way. 
  2. A disconsolate child being raised in total isolation by a resurrected bandit-king and a highly-strung vat-born butler. Her jewellery proves her to be the last surviving heir of a noble house otherwise believed extinct. (In my campaign she was the heir to the house at 1-10.)
  3. Isolated estate housing a proud lord, his troop of black-clad horsemen, and his many, many illegitimate children. One of his older sons, a skilled and relentless huntsman, is being groomed as his successor. The lord's latest teenage mistress is thoroughly sick of his brutish ways, and would happily betray him to his enemies in exchange for a chance at freedom.
  4. A walled monastery guards the relics of ancient holy wars from the sinful world outside. Some of these 'relics' are actually pieces of pre-cataclysm technology, coveted by a band of rogue technologists who lair nearby, plotting how best to steal them from their current guardians.
  5. A plaza with a gigantic, crippled clockwork war machine slumped along one side of it, guarded round the clock by agents of the city's rulers. Under cover of darkness, ratfolk from beneath the city come creeping up with scavenged fragments of machinery from the underworld, which the guards buy from them in the hope of eventually repairing the war machine enough to render it fully operational. It's slow going, but they are making progress...
  6. Palace of a monstrous despot who never leaves his stronghold, his movements weirdly inhuman, his body covered by voluminous silken gowns. His whole body from the waist down is a single mass of squirming, spitting, biting poisonous snakes, a fact that he is at some pains to conceal from his subjects.
  7. Gilded barge setting off on tribute-gathering mission for the city's rulers, packed with empty crates and barrels that will soon be stuffed with confiscated goods and foodstuffs under the watchful eyes of the city's soldiers. The mission is overseen by one of the government's chief enforcers, a towering bruiser long since grown cynical about the regime he serves. Convinced that the city is doomed, he carries out his duties with impersonal cruelty while keeping his ears open for hints of better opportunities elsewhere.
  8. Deposed queen kept under house arrest in one wing of her confiscated palace, attended by a staff of bored and inattentive handmaidens, her remaining jewels and wardrobe regularly plundered to adorn the wives and daughters of the city's current masters. Starved of activity, she spends her days weaving elaborate but improbable plans for her revenge.
  9. Soldiers patrolling the city by night in polished helmets and breastplates, holding lanterns on the end of long poles, peering fearfully into the dark corners that loom on every side. They carry halberds and crossbows, and will willingly engage human foes, but flee at once if they cross paths with any of the true horrors of the city.
  10. Fortified tower, home to a reclusive noble family who barely ever leave their home. Their treasures and trinkets are being sold off piecemeal to fund their luxurious lifestyle, the tower dotted with empty alcoves and half-filled bookcases that bear witness to the slow but steady evaporation of their wealth. The windows are all filled with tinted glass, blocking out the world outside, and the family themselves view any allusion to the current state of the city as being the height of rudeness and vulgarity. 
  11. Bustling manor house full of activity, soldiers and servants coming and going, the master of the house ensconced in his study while his three tall sons practise riding and swordsmanship outside. Closer examination reveals flaws everywhere, cracks in the masonry, peeling paintwork, the household accounts recording a thousand sordid compromises with the reigning powers. The head of the house maintains his stiff and military bearing but his heart is breaking by inches. He has almost given up on any hope of a better future.
  12. Fastidious visiting emissary from a neighbouring city-state, whose veil cannot quite conceal his unnatural dead-grey skin. Accompanied everywhere by silent bodyguards in black and silver liveries. He believes that this city's ruinous condition means that it is high time someone else took charge, and is willing to pay for information that might help his masters seize and consolidate power in these lands.