Tuesday 27 October 2015

The Legend of Aži Dahāka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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