Friday, 4 December 2015

The Throne-Room of the Wicked King

One hundred posts already, eh? Not bad going for the first six months. Probably not a pace I'll be able to maintain, but never mind...

As far as I can tell, there are about twenty or thirty people who regularly read this blog. I know the identities of three of them. Anyone else is free to unmask themselves whenever they like. Or, y'know, not. As long as you're finding some of this stuff useful, that's good enough for me!

So, for the hundredth post, let's turn to the big question: what is at the top of the King's Tower?

* * *

The Wicked City isn't really meant to be anywhere in particular: it's just a representation of what happens when nations fall victim to political corruption and economic exploitation, and of the physical and spiritual alienation which people suffer when they are compelled to live in them. The King's Tower is the moral singularity at the heart of the system, so the question of what lies at the top of it really becomes a question about where evil comes from, and what it is that allows systems of corruption and exploitation to persist through time despite making life so miserable for those who live in them. As there are multiple answers, so there are multiple possibilities for just what is up there, some of them more depressing than others.

Here, then, are eight possibilities for what PCs might discover when they finally make it to the top of the tower and kick in that last door.

What is the true source of all this evil? Roll 1d8 to find out!

1: A Corpse.

Not an animated corpse. Not a lich or a ghost or anything like that. Just a corpse in fancy robes, slumped on an enormous throne. The Wicked King has been dead for decades and no-one has even noticed.

This is the super-depressing answer, because it means that all the cruelties of the Wicked City are actually completely self-sustaining: a despotism without a despot, simply running on autopilot atop a kind of treadmill of violence and fear. In this case, then Head Office is presumably just another sham: a wind-powered clockwork Logician Engine issuing orders at random, maybe, or a bunch of runaway crazies barricaded into an old office, sending regular orders downstairs just to keep up the pretence that Head Office actually still exists and thus dissuade the Secret Police from coming upstairs to find them. There's no final battle, no grand confrontation, no-one who can be stabbed repeatedly in order to save the day. The PCs will have to save the city the hard way.

Still, this means that there's nothing to stop them becoming Head Office, now, if they feel like it...

2: A Helpless, Withered, Cruel Old Man

This is the 'banality of evil' answer. Whatever terrifying black magic or evil superpowers the Wicked King once wielded, he used them up or forgot them or lost them to encroaching senility years ago; all that's left of him now is hundred-year-old man crouched on his ludicrously outsized throne, his every whim catered to by a staff of sycophants so brainwashed by decades of trauma and indoctrination that they still obey his orders out of sheer habit, even though any one of them could easily kill him with their bare hands. His orders are instantly relayed downstairs, where they set enormous machineries of cruelty and oppression in motion: machineries which are now driven not by any grand and dark design, but merely by the whims and delusions of a senile, spiteful, wretched old man who has grown so weak that he can barely lift his own sceptre any more.

The king's sycophants will try their best to defend him against intruders, but realistically any party which has made it past the Men Without Faces is unlikely to find this lot any trouble; the Wicked King himself has one hit point and no attacks, and automatically fails his saves. The PCs can kill him, put him on trial, throw him out of the window... whatever helps them feel better. But the whole thing is likely to feel more sad than anything else.

3: A Terrifyingly Dangerous Old Man

This is the 'traditional fantasy' answer. The Wicked King may be over a hundred years old, but sheer spite has kept him not just alive but vigorous. Slumped on his throne, almost lost within his robes of state, he looks more like a skeleton than a man: but a terrible fire still burns in his black and withered heart, and he is more than capable of defending himself against would-be regicides. He strikes out with words of power which leave their victims crippled with either pain (FORT save resists) or despair (WILL save resists); his sceptre can conjure gouts of green-black fire (+10 to hit, 2d8 damage), and he clings to life with such tenacity that it will take enough punishment to kill a dozen men to finally put him down (60 HP). He will die with a curse on his lips.

This is a much more traditional 'boss fight' set-up, with PCs fighting their way through the Wicked King's servants while he rains destruction down on them from his throne at the far end of the hall. It lends itself to a more comforting narrative in which all the blame for the wretched state of the Wicked City can be offloaded onto the king himself: he has maintained a stranglehold on the city for all these years, but once he's dead, and his bony hand is no longer wrapped around the city's throat, then presumably the process of healing can begin...

Image by Brandon Kirkman.

4: An Immense Cannibal Giant

This is the 'literalised metaphor' answer. The Wicked King fed on the suffering of the people, until, in time, he became so huge that he could no longer fit through his throne room doors. Now, years later, he no longer looks even vaguely human: just a huge, roaring giant, crashing around the throne room in aimless circles, gnashing his fang-filled jaws together and howling for human blood. He ate all the other residents of the upper floors decades ago. He is always hungry.

This is a different sort of 'boss fight' scenario. In physical terms, the giant is virtually invincible, with AC 20 and 150 HP; it automatically passes FORT and WILL saves, automatically fails REF saves (but is immune to any kind of forced movement due to its hugeness), and regenerates 5 HP per round. It attacks with two huge clawed fists (+10 to hit, 3d6 damage); if it hits, the target must pass a REF save or be grabbed, which means that the round after they'll be thrown into its mouth to be devoured (3d6 damage per round until escape or death). Taking it on in a straight fight is pretty much suicidal, but the set-up is such that they really don't have to; after all, the giant can't leave the throne room, so PCs can always retreat and try to come up with a better plan. Blowing it up with an enormous quantity of gunpowder, perhaps, or demolishing one wall, perhaps by crashing an airship into it, and somehow tricking or tripping it into falling through the resulting gap, allowing the thousand-foot drop to finish it off...

5: The Heart of Darkness

This is the 'mostly symbolic' answer. Such was the evil of the Wicked King that his mortal frame simply disintegrated under the weight of it; what remains is a brooding cloud of malevolent telepathic darkness, which strips the flesh from anyone who enters it. Upon entering the throne room, three things happen, all at once: any light source you are carrying goes out, your flesh starts to be eaten away as if by acid (1d8 damage per round, unavoidable by any means), and a chorus of terrible voices start howling and whispering in your mind, filling you with uncontrollable feelings of horror, revulsion, and shame, and meaning that a WILL save is required each round to do anything except weep and gibber while the darkness eats you alive. There's nothing in there to fight, and nothing to find except the bones of various other unfortunates who went to seek the king and were devoured.

The darkness cannot be damaged by any physical or magical means, except one: the touch of sunlight. If the sun shines into the room, the darkness retreats, hissing and steaming, before it: and if the whole throne room were to be flooded with sunlight, all at once, then the darkness would simply boil away, screaming, into nothingness. Of course, the throne room has no windows; but if a way could be found to blast the whole top off the King's Tower, on a sunny day, then the Wicked King (or what remains of him) would be no more...

6: A Dark Shaman

This is the 'brains over brawn' answer. The Wicked King is an evil shaman, whose power derives from the many, many pacts he has made with various spirits over the decades. In a hundred hidden shrines, his minions offer up sacrifices of grain and gold and wine to his patron spirits; and in the blood-splattered cells of the Secret Police, the lives of all those murdered by his tyranny are consecrated to his secret masters just before their deaths. In the throne room itself, the Wicked King personally conducts regular sacrificial rituals, sending out orders for the specific animals, goods, and people whom he needs as offerings. In exchange, the spirits have made him immortal and virtually invincible.

In this scenario, defeating the Wicked King is a matter of disrupting his sacrifice network. Put his hidden shrines out of action, and he gets weaker; free the captives of the Secret Police before they can be executed, and he gets weaker still; disrupt one of his big sacrifices, possibly by intercepting the offerings en route, and he gets vulnerable. If none of his offerings have been interrupted, then the Wicked King is basically invincible, but if all of his offerings can somehow be prevented or interrupted then he's basically just a normal guy, who can be killed with a knife or a gunshot just like anyone else. Probably the PCs will have to settle for something in between.

7: Someone Else Entirely

The Wicked King is long dead; two of his concubines drowned him in his bath decades ago. Ever since then, a whole succession of people have taken on the role of Wicked King: first one of his advisers, then the youngest of his wives, then one of his sons, and most recently his grand-daughter, a rather loopy young woman who has spent her whole life living at the top of the King's Tower and is deeply out of touch with reality. She watches the city that she is supposed to be ruling through the eyes of the statue network, but has never actually set foot in it, and has only the loosest understanding of how normal life actually works; she and her coterie of equally-crazy friends and hangers-on spend most of their time trying to think up what kind of orders they imagine 'grandpa' would send if he was in their situation, even though their picture of him is based entirely on second- and third-hand anecdotes. Her rule is tyrannical, but only because she imagines that's what she's supposed to do and has no idea how else one is meant to rule a city. She wears the robes and crown of her grandfather (which are far too big for her), and takes deep offence if anyone implies that she is not the true and rightful Wicked King.

This is the 'tyranny as black comedy' answer: at the heart of the whole system of oppression is not some dark genius or evil god, just a confused and messed-up kid flailing about without really understanding what they're doing. She has three hit points and a knife, so PCs who want to kill her will have very little difficulty in doing so. Then again, given her insane upbringing, they might be inclined to judge her more leniently; and if she can be won over, it might even be possible to use her authority as 'the Wicked King' to start dismantling the city's awfulness. Of course, if the changes are too rapid, then the Secret Police are likely to head upstairs in force to find out exactly what's going on up there...

8: A God

This is the 'worst case scenario' answer. The cultists of the Wicked King are completely right: he has undergone a dark apotheosis and ascended to godhood. Going through the doors of his throne room doesn't take you into a room at all: instead it leads into his hell-realm, which takes the form of an infinite tower ascending forever into a screaming purple sky. This Hell Tower is populated by a race of mad, masked, gibbering servitor-demons who rush, shrieking, from floor to floor, carrying out acts of perversity, cruelty, and worship seemingly at random. Possibly they are all that is left of the original staff of Head Office and the other inhabitants of the upper floors.

If the Wicked King has become genuinely divine, then killing him is probably off the table: but at least the harm he does can be minimised. If the top levels can be blow off the King's Tower, then the connection between the Hell Tower and the physical world will be lost, which is probably a good thing; if the statue network can be demolished then the Wicked King will lose his eyes and ears in the physical world, and if the cult of the Wicked King (especially amongst the Secret Police) can be stamped out then he should be left more-or-less powerless to intervene in mortal affairs. Of course there's always the danger that he'll appear in a dream to some messianic lunatic a few hundred years later, leading to the formation of a new cult and starting the whole cycle over again; but that's probably beyond the scope of any one campaign!


  1. Throne rooms are boring places, full of meetings, discussions, and a range of political maneuverings... so why not make it interesting by having his "Court" of Undead politics, councilors, and noblemen bickering about the current ridiculous politics of the kingdom! Once the players walk in, the discussion slowly comes to a delirious close and their is a weird silence. Of course... one of them has a marvelous little quest concerning the remains of their precious Wicked King...

  2. Sorry for the post necromancy but I was re-reading your ATWC stuff and had a thought. What always struck me was how...underwhelming...the options for the status of the Wicked King were. Even godhood seems...flat. It occurred to me that the problem was that each option was ultimately a solvable evil.

    Perhaps it's Lovecraft's influence, but over the years I've developed the opinion that true, meaningful evil isn't something that can be done away with. After all, how horrific is something that can be stabbed (or worse, negotiated with) until its no longer a problem? That in mind (and due thanks to Arnold K), I offer option #9:

    The Wicked King IS the Wicked City: Choose any of the above options, especially 2-6. Once the PCs have dealt with the threat and are leaving triumphantly the hear, in the back of their minds, the Wicked King's laughter. Over time, as they expect things to change and the tyranny to loosen it instead lonly gets worse. More focused, more efficient, less lax. This would be an excellent excuse for the PCs to face multiple incarnations of the Wicked King, starting with #2 for naximum effect. With investigation and shamanic aid they learn the truth - so long as the Wicked City exists, so does the Wicked King. Every building, every inhabitant (victim or villian alike), when in proximity to each other provides contuity to the Wicked King and the potential for his rebirth. Only by annihilating every vestige of the City can the King be eradicated. This is obviously the "evil is eternal" option, unless the GM includes some like a fantastic version of atomic weaponry. At that point it changes to "is destroying evil worth the cost?"

    Just a thought. Thanks for the great material Joseph!

    1. This is romantic fantasy though: it should be soluble. Of course, solution 9 is still soluble: fix the city! Renovate the politics, overturn the tyranny, tear down corrupt institutions and replace them with something fresh and whole.