Wednesday 9 March 2016

Monsters From Central Asian Mythology 8: The Hortlak

Still getting to grips with Google plus. Sharing posts seems to be a good way to boost their visibility, but I don't want to flood anyone's G+ feed by sharing a heap of old stuff all at once. I'll probably just share a post every day or two until all the ones that people other than me might actually care about are out there...

Anyway. More Central Asian monsters. As was probably obvious from my last post, I've been doing a bit of reading up on Turkic vampires. There are a lot of vampire-type creatures in the folklore of Central Asia, and I don't think it's any kind of accident that the Balkans, the region of Europe most famous for its vampire mythology, is also the region which has historically been most heavily affected by the influx of peoples from the Central Asian steppe: Transylvania itself has the dubious honour of having been conquered by peoples of Central Asian and Turkic origin no less than five times, having been variously overrun by the Huns, the Avars, the Bulgars, the Magyars, and finally the Ottoman Turks. They brought their vampire legends with them; and these, mingling with indigenous local traditions, gave rise to the body of vampire lore upon which Dracula and its imitators would ultimately draw.

Now, of all monsters, I think that the vampire is one of the ones which has suffered most from standardisation. The vampires of Balkan folklore are weird, ambiguous creatures, not properly distinct from witches or werewolves or ghosts, but in modern media they've been defined to death: everyone knows what their rules are, how they work, what they look like, how to kill them, and so on. Faced with the variety of Central Asian vampire folklore, then, I'm inclined to embrace its variousness rather than simply picking one version and running with it. By accepting that every case is different, the resulting beasties can play a whole range of roles in games, from ravening cannon-fodder all the way up to creepy boss monsters.

So: the Hortlak.

People die, but they don't always stay dead; and sometimes, a day or a week or a year after their deaths, they climb back out of their graves. This isn't a joyful resurrection, like when a shaman finally manages to coax a sick person's spirit back into their body; this is something that isn't supposed to happen, and no good can come of it. It usually results from the tampering of malicious spirits, and a properly-conducted funeral carried out by a shaman or holy man is usually enough to stop it from happening, provided the dead person's relatives don't do anything foolish like allowing a cat or dog to jump over the corpse before burying it; but if the individual dabbled with dark forces during life, there's simply no way to be certain that they'll stay in their graves. Best burn them to ashes to be sure.

The Hortlak is a person who has come back wrong. Something is missing inside them, some part of themselves that didn't come back with them out of the grave: some fragment or fraction of their soul that sank down into the underworld and remained there, unable to escape the grip of the Men of Iron and Bone. Because of its absence, they are always hungry. There is a hole inside them that they can never fill.

They can take many forms. Some can pass for human; others look like the corpses they are, or else their bodies are rendered deformed and bestial by the force of the unholy hunger within. Some are shapechangers; some are bodiless spirits, although they must still remain close to their corpses and vanish if they are destroyed. Some retain their previous intelligence, while others are mad or mindless; some feed upon raw flesh like animals, while others suck blood, or else drain life force by their very presence. The only thing that they all have in common is their hunger. It drives them. It dominates them. It will not let them rest.

To create a Hortlak, pick or roll randomly upon each of the following tables:

Physical Form (Roll 1d8)
  1. Shambling corpse, ghastly to look upon.
  2. Bestial and deformed, with grotesque and animalistic features.
  3. Beautiful and seductive; resembles a more beautiful version of the person they were in life.
  4. Ruddy and bloated, with a swollen stomach.
  5. Looks human until you see it feed.
  6. Bodiless spirit; cannot go more than 100' from its body, and burning its corpse destroys it. Can create poltergeist activity within a 50' radius.
  7. Takes the form of an animal, such as a cat or a dog.
  8. Shapechanger: can change its appearance at will, or adopt the form of any animal of horse-sized or smaller.
Intelligence (roll 1d6)
  1. Mindless. Just shambles around, looking for something to eat and howling.
  2. Bestial. Has the intelligence of a predatory animal, and behaves like one.
  3. Crazed. Has human intelligence, but its mind is in tatters, and it constantly says and does bizarre and disturbing things.
  4. Addict. Has human intelligence, but when a source of food is present it can only maintain self-control for a maximum of 1d10 minutes before simply launching itself forwards and attempting to devour it.
  5. Eccentric. Has human intelligence and good levels of self-control, but has a variety of odd mannerisms and phobias which it is unable to repress.
  6. Complete. Has the same level of intelligence that it possessed in life, and is fully capable of laying careful plans for how best to obtain its next meal.
Method of Feeding (roll 1d4)
  1. Eats raw flesh. Will gorge itself upon carrion. Has a disturbing habit of shoving small live animals into its mouth.
  2. Drinks human blood. Tears its victims open with its teeth.
  3. Drain life-force by touch. Anyone it touches loses 1 HP per round of skin-to-skin contact.
  4. Drains life-force by proximity. Anything that remains in its company for more than a few minutes will start to feel weak, tired, and confused, and will suffer from horrible dreams.
Supernatural Abilities (roll 1d6 - roll more than one for particularly powerful Hortlak)
  1. Enormously strong: +3 to-hit and damage in melee.
  2. Iron-hard skin: gains +4 AC.
  3. May turn invisible at will.
  4. Can hurl objects around with telekinesis.
  5. Breathes fire - target takes 2d6 damage, REF save for half.
  6. Can fly through the air in the form of a ball of flame; regains its normal shape when it lands.
Lesser Hortlak: AC 12 (tough skin) or by armour if humanoid, 2 HD, to-hit +2, bite (1d6 damage) or by weapon, FORT 14, REF 14, WILL 14, morale 9, 1 supernatural ability.

Greater Hortlak: AC 14 (very tough skin) or by armour if humanoid, 4 HD, to-hit +4, bite (1d8+1 damage) or by weapon +1, FORT 12, REF 12, WILL 12, morale 10, 1d3 supernatural abilities.

Hortlak Horror: AC 18 (iron-hard skin) or by armour +4 if humanoid, 7 HD, to-hit +10, bite (1d8+4 damage) or by weapon +4, FORT 9, REF 9, WILL 9, morale 10, all supernatural abilities. (Bonuses from 'Enormously strong' and 'Iron-hard skin' already included in statline.)

Finally: everyone should read The Hortlak by Kelly Link. It's 10,000 words long, but it's worth the time it takes to read!


  1. im prefering random kits for monsters like this more and more instead of standard and fully stated varients. I like Rus vampire which probably have similar origins to what you describe. Vampires who drink through long noses or werewolves that come back as vampires are favourites

    1. I know what you mean. Partly my aim here was just to get away from the way that, with corporeal D&D undead, power and intelligence and prettiness all line up:

      Zombies: look like shit. Weak. Mindless. No special powers.

      Ghouls: look like fucked-up humans. Moderately dangerous. Feral. Some special powers.

      Vampires: look like sexy humans. Super-dangerous. Super-smart. More special powers than they know what to do with.

      I mean, should life-draining corpse-monsters be so *predictable*? Why not shake it up a bit?

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  2. The thing I've always found most evocative about vampires is their bans - especially the one about only coming out in darkness. A thing that will jump out and eat you if you... is much scarier than a thing that will just jump out and eat you full stop.

    Are there any examples of this kind of restriction in central Asian vampire law? It feels kind of ripe for another random table.

    1. I've always been a fan of Romanian vampires and their crippling OCD. Throw down a bag of sesame seeds behind you and the pursuing vampire won't be able to pass until it's counted them all.

  3. This whole series of posts has been great for me. I'm developing a campaign set in Casmaron, which is Pathfinder's equivalent to Central Asia which they've sadly barely explored, and particularly dealing with the Kara horse tribes.