Monday 30 May 2016

Giving praise where it's (probably not) due: B9 Castle Caldwell

The original D&D Basic adventure series (modules B1-10, released 1978-86) gets quite a lot of well-deserved praise in OSR circles. Keep On the Borderlands (B2) is about as foundational as D&D adventures get; The Lost City (B4) and Night's Dark Terror (B10) are classics of the genre that still hold up extremely well today, and Horror on the Hill (B5) is a very solid adventure which manages to combine a whole lot of classic D&D-isms (haunted graveyard, weird underground labyrinth, a dragon in a cave, etc) into a satisfying and tolerably coherent whole. No-one, however, ever seems to have a kind word to say about module B9, Castle Caldwell. Having recently read it for the first time, though, I found myself... weirdly well-disposed towards it. Even its cover illustration - featuring a captive princess in distinctly un-medieval ankle boots and slit-to-the-waist skirts - wasn't enough to put me off.

By most reasonable standards, Castle Caldwell is a terrible module. It consists of five very short adventures, each suitable for a single night's play. In the first one you go into a castle and get rid of the inhabitants. In the second one you go into the castle's basement and get rid of the inhabitants. In the third one you rescue a princess from the world's most overconfident kidnapper and his band of comically-accented minions. ('Hey, what are you guysss doing here? You are not with usss!') In the fourth one you get captured, trick a single incompetent jailer, and then fight your way out of a small outpost full of soldiers. In the fifth one, a heretical cleric steals a magic bell, and you have to steal it back. The maps are boring and repetitive. (What kind of medieval military outpost assigns a single room to every single soldier?) There are no interesting environments, monsters or treasures. All five adventures simply involve stomping through small dungeons, one room at a time, and the closest thing that any of them have to a twist is... well... I'll let the module speak for itself:

'Elwyn is a woman, but the information above has been written in such a way so the party will assume Elwyn is male. Allow the party to believe this so that they will not realise immediately that he woman's voice they hear when exploring the fortress is actually the voice of Elwyn.'

Oh yeah. Not using gender-specific pronouns in your intro text, in the hope that the PCs will then assume the ambiguously-gendered name of 'Elwyn' must belong to a man rather than a woman, and thus be shocked - shocked! - when it turns out that the woman's voice that's been taunting them throughout the whole adventure belonged to the villain all along. That's right up there with Citizen Kane. 

Despite this, I rather like Castle Caldwell. I like the fact that the villains are all rubbish, that their minions suck, that their plans are stupid, that their security arrangements are laughable, and that their hideouts are so tiny that even the laziest PCs could clear them out over the course of a few hours. Take adventure 3, 'The Abduction of Princess Sylvia'; the titular princess is carried off by a magic-user named Oliver, whom, we are told, 'is very sure of his abilities, and believes that he and his gang can withstand anything short of a full-scale war'. So what does this near-invincible 'gang' consist of? Ten goblins, seven lizard men, and an owlbear, hiding in a cave. The cave doesn't even have a front door: just a twenty-foot wide entrance tunnel perfect for being stormed by superior forces. But wait, it gets better: Oliver doesn't even have competent minions! The goblin on guard duty at the front door is asleep on the job when the PCs turn up. The two goblins in the kitchens are so sick of peeling potatoes that they're willing to sell out their comrades 'after a little persuasion' to the first band of heavily-armed crazies who wander in. These guys are absolute bottom-draw villain material, and we don't get enough of that. Most adventure writers try to talk up how scary and dangerous their bad guys are. It's refreshing to see the reverse instead.

This is taken to an extreme in the first adventure, 'The Clearing of Castle Caldwell', which doesn't even have villains in any meaningful sense. The inhabitants of the castle (discounting its basement, which is protected by an arbitrary plot device and cannot be accessed until adventure two) consist of the following:

  1. Four goblins, 'cautious but not necessarily hostile', whose reactions are determined by a random reaction roll.
  2. Four goblins who will fight only if the PCs try to steal their treasure.
  3. Three 'traders' who have nothing to trade, and who apparently never get out of bed. ('You see a man armed with a shortsword lying on a bed.') They fight only if attacked, and in fact will offer information on the other creatures just in exchange for being allowed to leave in peace.
  4. A first-level chaotic cleric who, very sensibly, is 'anxious to avoid fighting', and considerately 'offers to lead [the PCs] in worship' instead.
  5. Three bandits (who just want to 'escape with their lives and their treasure'), and a mule (which 'fights only in its own defense'). 
  6. Three 'very wary' kobolds (not immediately hostile).
  7. Two starving wolves locked in a courtyard.
  8. A spitting cobra which 'attacks only if its nest is disturbed'.
  9. Three stirges, two fire beetles, a giant spider, and a giant shrew, all of which attack on sight. 

You see what they did there? Normally the PCs are supposed to be the underdogs, fighting their way through a dangerous location against overwhelming odds; but here, the PCs are the most dangerous thing in the castle, and all the NPCs know this and act accordingly. No suicide charges, no bizarre delusions that even though the PCs have successfully hacked their way through ten rooms full of monsters already, they can totally take the party on and win; just a bunch of castle-dwelling weirdos who know that their time is up and would quite like to get out of here with their lives and treasures intact. The only creatures that are automatically hostile are unintelligent monsters, and even they can be dealt with non-violently in some cases; just leave the cobra's nest alone, and give the wolves something to eat. And given the map, a really conflict-averse party could just spike the doors shut on the remaining handful of beasties and wait for them to starve to death.

Unsurprisingly, this sort of thing is very, very rare in D&D modules. PCs are usually put up against very stiff opposition; in old-school modules they're supposed to overcome them through careful planning and negotiation, whereas in new-school modules they're just supposed to kill them all using the zillions of combat abilities written on their character sheets. The fact that most people who bought or played Castle Caldwell were presumably hoping for a satisfying challenge is probably a big part of why it has such a poor reputation; but if you embrace the kinda-rubbish-ness of it all, I think it could be a lot of fun, at least as a change of pace. If your PCs are the kind of players who just kill everything, then it'll be pretty boring; but if they're not then this stuff could be roleplaying gold, tense and sad and funny all at once, and given some weight by the fact that 1st level BD&D characters are so fragile that if they really do force a fight, even a sleepy trader with a shortsword could easily end up taking someone down with him. What do you do with a bunch of bandits (and a mule!) who just want to run away with their (presumably stolen) treasure? With a notionally-evil cleric who actually just wants to lead you in a peaceful round of prayers? Weird, sleep-loving 'traders' who are obviously terrified of you? Goblins who just want to be left alone? A really diplomatic party could probably end up making friends with almost everyone in the castle, turning them into a cast of recurring NPCs or henchmen for adventures still to come.

Did Harry Nuckols, the author of Castle Caldwell, intend any of this? Probably not. Probably he was just trying to write generic D&D adventures and wasn't very good at it. But I find the end product oddly inspiring, and it makes me want to run at least a session or two where, for once, the challenge is not 'how do we survive this overwhelming threat?', but 'how do we get the best outcome from this mildly dangerous, but also mildly comical situation?' What if, just for once, the bandits are stupid kids who've made some bad decisions that they are rapidly coming to regret, instead of being ruthless outlaws? What if, instead of being a budding Evil Overlord, the necromancer is just some loon with delusions of grandeur who stumbled across enough magic to be (slightly) dangerous? What if, when you did the whole classic mid-dungeon negotiations with weapons drawn on both sides, it was the monsters who were desperately hoping to be able to get out of the room without a fight? You'd never want it to be the default setting; but from time to time, I think that having the PCs set out loaded for bear and end up coming face-to-face with a mildly aggressive duck instead could be a lot of fun. If nothing else, it would help to break up the tyranny of each encounter always being a tough-but-fair fight every single time...

Monday 23 May 2016

Monsters from Central Asian Mythology 10: The Abaasy

Image by Matt Gretton.

The Abaasy are the demonic beings which haunt the mythology of the Sakha or Yakuts, the Turkic inhabitants of eastern Siberia. Descriptions of them vary, but they are most famously described as monstrous creatures with one arm, one leg, and one eye. They are the inhabitants of the underworld, and servants of the powers of darkness; in the Sakha epics they are the enemies of the heroes and heroines, while in other Sakha folktales they serve as punishers of those who sin against the world of the spirits. In the epics there are whole tribes of them, living in clans, and riding to war on dragons against the heroes of Yakutia; in other tales they are more like spirits, lurking in dismal and unlucky places, bringing madness and disease and death. So I'm going to treat them as two related monster types: Abaasy proper, and Abaasy ghosts.

So: in ATWC, the Abaasy are the demons of the deep taiga. Some scholars who hear of them speculate that they are purely symbolic, a poetic representation of the idea that a soul given over to evil is only half-human, the positive half of it having withered away; but, sadly, they are all too real, having ridden out of the underworld on their two-headed, eight-legged lizard-beasts uncounted generations ago. Their lives resemble those of humans in many respects, in that they live in clans, herd livestock, fish in rivers, hunt game, and perform shamanic rituals to propitiate the (inevitably evil and vindictive) spirits which watch over them. But on closer examination, the similarities fall away: their interactions with one another are mere brutish hierarchies of dominance rather than actual relationships, and their chief motivations appear to be lust, greed, and rage. Contact between human and Abaasy tribes usually ends up flaring into warfare, with the Abassy launching raids to seize humans for use as slaves or food. Individual Abassy are much stronger than men, and just as intelligent, but cunning humans are often able to play upon their lustful, greedy, and generally foul-tempered dispositions to lure them into actions which lead them to self-destruction.

Abaasy live primitive and squalid existences. They practise only the crudest forms of metalwork, which frustrates them deeply, as they are acutely conscious that they would be much better at hurting people if only they could make metal swords and guns of their own. They fight with clubs and sharp wooden spears, which they throw with horrible accuracy. They almost never bother with armour, trusting to their own hard, iron-grey skin to protect them in combat.

  • Abaasy: AC 14 (tough hide), 2+2 HD, AB +3, spear (1d6+1 damage), FORT 12, REF 12, WILL 14, morale 7. Abaasy can hop along on their single leg as quickly as a man can run, but cannot perform any task which requires two hands, such as using bows or firing guns larger than pistols.

An Abaasy riding a two-headed dragon. Image by Skleggle.

Abaasy get on badly with horses: instead, they breed great two-headed, eight-legged lizard monsters to use as mounts. The secret of breeding and taming these savage beasts is known only to the abaasy, but a skilled human rider might eventually learn to ride one if such a creature could be captured in battle. The beasts ridden by Abaasy chiefs are often high-quality.

  • Abaasy Battle-Dragon: AC 14 (scales), 4 HD, AB +2, 2 bite attacks (1d6 damage), FORT 10, REF 12, WILL 14, morale 7. 

Cruel and dangerous though living Abaasy are, however, the dead ones can be much, much worse. Being creatures of the underworld, they find the passage between the lands of the living and the lands of the dead much easier to navigate than humans do; and the most vindictive of them often come creeping into the world before their births or after their deaths in order to plague the living, unencumbered by their physical forms. These spiteful Abaasy ghosts haunt old, abandoned burial grounds and other unlucky places; treat them as spirits, except that the only offering they ever desire is blood. Anyone who enters the territory of an Abassy ghost without making a suitable blood offering must make a FORT save and a WILL save, with results as follows:

  • Passed FORT and WILL save: No ill effects; your indomitable spirit shields you from the ghost's malice.
  • Failed FORT save, passed WILL save: You become dangerously ill 1d6 hours after entering the area; symptoms include weakness, pains, fevers, and bloody vomiting. The illness persists for as long as you remain in the haunted area, and for 1d6 days thereafter. If you remain in the haunted area for more than 2d6 days, you will die, and your ghost will become the Abassy's slave.
  • Passed FORT save, failed WILL save: The evil influence of the Abaasy ghost taints your mind, making you cruel, irrational, and suspicious. This effect begins within minutes of entering the affected area, and continues for as long as you remain within it, and for 2d6 hours thereafter. If you remain in the haunted area for more than 1d6 days, you will go completely mad.
  • Failed FORT and WILL save: 1d3 hours after entering the area you become feverish, then delirious, then completely incoherent. 1d6 hours after that, you will leap up, full of insane energy, and try to murder your travelling companions, your mount, and finally yourself as blood offerings to the Abaasy ghost. If physically prevented from doing this, you will sicken and die within 2d6 hours unless removed from the affected area. If removed before this point, you recover after 2d6 days of bed rest.

A shaman can bargain with ghost Abaasy just like any other evil spirit. They flee from the presence of genuinely holy individuals.

Thursday 19 May 2016

More Pathfinder Rambling: Mothers, Fathers, and Villains

[Fair warning: this post consists entirely of rambly analysis of gender roles in some Pathfinder adventure modules you've probably never read and don't care about. You should probably skip it unless you really love reading stuff like that.]

[Also: massive, massive spoilers for both Rise of the Runelords and Curse of the Crimson Throne!]

As I've mentioned before, for a while now I've been idly reading my way through a bunch of Pathfinder adventure paths, looking for good ideas to steal. Some are better than others, but one thing I've noticed that a lot of them really seem to struggle with is their final villains. The final boss-fight should be the climax of an entire campaign, but all too often they strike me as... perfunctory, as though the writers are simply going through the motions. You've hacked your way through fifteen levels worth of pirate-themed adventures, so now of course you get to fight the Evil Pirate King. Or you've slogged your way through fifteen levels of Fantasy Egypt, so now of course you get to fight the Evil Mummy Pharaoh in his flying pyramid. (It's not nearly as cool as it sounds.) They may have more super-powers than they know what to do with, but most of these villains are boring: they have no charisma, no menace, no narrative presence, and usually no personality beyond 'generically power-hungry and evil'. They just sit around in their throne rooms poring over their multi-page stat blocks, waiting for the PCs to kick down the doors and beat them to death.

The two big exceptions to this are the first two adventure paths: Rise of the Runelords and Curse of the Crimson Throne. Their respective villains, Runelord Karzoug and Queen Ileosa, are about as iconic as Pathfinder characters get, casting such a long shadow over later volumes that they ultimately got a whole adventure path as a sequel. (Shattered Star, in case you're interested, which you probably shouldn't be.) Both adventure paths are very highly regarded by the Pathfinder fanbase, routinely voted as among the best, if not the best, that Paizo has ever produced, and I think that lot of that is probably due to their villains. In many ways, Karzoug and Ileosa are, respectively, the king and queen of Pathfinder bad guys.

Karzoug was first, so let's start with him. Karzoug, is, basically, The Man. He's older than you. He's stronger than you. He knows more than you. He's richer than you. He's seen more than you. He's suffered more than you. Everywhere you go is a place that once belonged to him, and in his eyes it still does belong to him, and he wants it back. He is the Runelord of Greed, and he wants it all, and he wants it now. 

Runelord Karzoug, from Rise of the Runelords.

I don't think one would have to be any kind of committed Freudian critic to see Karzoug as a kind of demonic father-figure. His children (i.e. the inhabitants of what was once his empire) have grown up and left home, but he refuses to recognise their right to any kind of independent life; instead, he's determined to bring them back under his authority, by any means necessary. The world has moved on without him, in ways that confuse and enrage him, but he's still a formidable adversary: he wields the power of the Old World, its wealth and authority and status, its incredible and time-tested strength. He has the horrible weight of history on his side. For all of these reasons, I think it's really quite important that Karzoug is male: he represents the old order, the Old Guard, the Old Boy's Network, the Way Things Used to Be. (It would be tempting, although not quite accurate, to call it 'the patriarchy'; Karzoug himself is certainly a patriarch par excellence.) His tools are the classic masculine tools of wealth and power and violence. As I say, he's The Man. This would come across rather differently if he was actually a woman.

Interestingly, most of Karzoug's lieutenants are women, and his ability to maintain command over this collection of powerful women is one of the key markers of his masculine authority. In fact, one can go further than this: most of his lieutenants are mothers, and the plot of the first half of Rise of the Runelords could be pretty much summed up as 'a series of monstrous mothers unleash their deformed sons upon their PCs at the behest of a distant father-figure'. The goblins in part 1 are led by Nualia, a woman who has literally sanctified her own womb to 'the mother of monsters'. The assorted monsters in part 2 are led by a 'lamia matriarch'. The ogrekin in part 3 are led by their hideous mother, Mama Grauul, while the leaders of the ogres in the same book include another lamia matriarch and a trio of hags. Karzoug's personal champion is a woman. His high priestess is a 'lamia harridan'. But right at the top of the heap, reigning over all these monstrous mothers, is Karzoug, the Big Daddy, whose patriarchal authority is what ultimately sets all these miniature matriarchies into action. To get to him, the PCs have to fight their way through increasingly exaggerated parodies of masculinity: first goblins (physically and mentally stunted men), then ghouls (physically and mentally deformed men), then ogres (exaggerated men), and finally giants (super-exaggerated men). They also have to keep climbing upwards: from lowlands to hills, from hills to mountains, from mountains to higher mountains. Karzoug waits for them in the highest tower on the highest mountain: so high, in fact, that the game needed to add rules for altitude sickness. He's the man in the top-floor office. He's the man with the penthouse suite. He's so rich that his home base is literally paved with gold. He's the Big Man. He's the Boss.

This is Nualia, from Rise of the Runelords. Note the icon of the Mother of Monsters in the background.

Queen Ileosa of Korvosa, the villain from Curse of the Crimson Throne, forms a striking contrast. All the writers involved with Rise of the Runelords clearly knew roughly what they wanted Karzoug to be, but Ileosa seems to have grown in the telling. Part 1 describes her in very pejorative terms, as a mentally and physically weak woman who just happened to provide a convenient vessel for the (male) spirit which is the true source of her power: she may be 'ambitious' but she's also 'unimaginative', 'a coward' with 'a vain mind' whose 'idle fancies' of regicide would never have come to anything if she hadn't stumbled across an evil relic and been possessed by the spirit within it. But as the books pass, the series (and its writers) seem to become more and more fascinated with Ileosa, giving her more and more credit for the tyranny that unfolds under her increasingly unhinged rule, while the relic shrinks to the status of a mere power-up. By the time her stats are given in book 6, the text's attitude towards her has reversed completely. Explaining why she has such eye-wateringly high ability scores - Charisma 36! - the writer comments that: 'Queen Ileosa was destined from birth to achieve greatness and glory - it is to Korvosa’s great misfortune that her path took her along one of cruelty and arrogance.'

These two villains form a very powerfully gendered pair. Karzoug is associated with all things hard and cold: gold, stone, mountains, iron, ice. Ileosa is associated with all things warm and wet: swamps, fevers, sex, and blood. Just as Karzoug's mountaintop stronghold acts as a kind of mega-phallus with which he menaces the world, so the lairs of Ileosa and her minions read like checklists of symbolic Freudian nightmares about the female body: swamps, diseases, dark passageways, monstrous births, creatures emerging out of pools of blood. But whereas Karzoug was, emphatically, a father-figure, Ileosa is both mother and daughter; she is a queen, and thus a kind of mother-figure for her nation, but her power is built on her youth and beauty just as much as Karzoug's is built on his age and experience. In fact, her grand plan revolves around immersing herself in the Everdawn Pool (a 'floating mass of blood') at the heart of her final lair, the Sunken Queen, and thus becoming immortal, symbolically reborn from her own womb as her own ever-youthful daughter.

Queen Ileosa, murdering a would-be assassin. It'll take more than a crossbow bolt in the throat to kill the walking embodiment of all your anxieties about women!

Karzoug was the Runelord of Greed. Ileosa was supposed to just be a silly girl who opened the wrong treasure chest, but as the series progresses, she gets tied into the Runelord mythology, too: it turns out that her palace is built on top of the stronghold of the slumbering Runelord of Lust, Sorshen, who - with rather tiresome predictability - is a beautiful woman. So is she responsible for all this? Is Ileosa's transformation due to the influence of Sorshen, rather than the evil spirit in her crown? Well, no, actually; Sorshen is very thoroughly asleep, and does not feature in the adventure path. And yet the ancient demons who knew Sorshen comment on how much Ileosa resembles her (and then sign up to work for her), the frog-men who worship a giant statue of Sorshen in the swamps revere Ileosa as its living incarnation (their 'mother-queen'), and Ileosa effortlessly takes command of the various ancient magics that Sorshen left behind her, including the Everdawn Pool itself. As a Runelord, Sorshen should be Karzoug's distaff counterpart, the Destroying Mother to his Destroying Father, with Ileosa a distant daughter-figure at best; but in some uncanny way, it seems that Ileosa is Sorshen, or at least close enough to make no difference. Symbolically, mother and daughter blur together once again.

What is the Curse of the Crimson Throne? The 'official' answer is that it's the evil influence of the relic; but all this symbolism of blood and birth links it to a different crimson 'curse' altogether: menstruation, the marker of female fertility. Ileosa may be fertile, but she's anything but motherly; and by killing her husband, she ensures that she'll never have to bear his children. It's implied early on that her distaste for him might be partly due to her being a lesbian, but this also changes as the series goes on: her lesbian lover Sabina is a tragic figure, who learns too late that her love for Ileosa was never truly returned. Ileosa's status as stand-in Runelord of Lust might be thought to imply promiscuity, but in truth her sexuality seems to be completely narcissistic: her 'children' are simulacra, mere duplicates of herself, created through magical parthenogenesis and exploding into blood when slain. She has the young women of her city mutilated and imprisoned within suits of armour, forced to serve her as her 'Gray Maidens', their platemail acting as a guarantee of their continuing virginity. She surrounds herself with women devoted to the creation of death rather than life: female assassins who worship a preying mantis god (remember, female preying mantises often decapitate their mates), and the high priestess of a disease-spreading plague-cult whose goddess resembles a beautiful woman from the waist up, and a rotting corpse from the waist down. The whole adventure path is filled with a kind of horrified fascination towards female sexuality and sexual reproduction, a fascination which Ileosa herself seems both to embody and to share.

One of Ileosa's Gray Maidens. No, I have no idea how she was able to find enough attractive, athletic, easily-brainwashed young women to make a whole army out of either, but they make symbolic sense.

All this might sound like the lead-up to some kind of attack on the series for being sexist or misogynistic or something, but it's really not. Curse of the Crimson Throne is my favourite Pathfinder Adventure Path by miles, and one of the reasons it's so good is because it's not afraid to get stuck into all this really murky, icky, semi-conscious attraction-repulsion stuff. (Some of the adventures being pretty good also helps.) I suspect that's why Ileosa kept growing in stature as the series went on: as the symbolic locus of all these queasy feelings of horror and desire she could hardly help becoming an increasingly mythic figure, a 'mother-queen' who needs no parents, no partner, and no children, a demon-queen of blood and death and diseases, the fatal beauty who demands that all men (and all women) love her and despair. Just as Karzoug comes to stand in for every king, every boss, every tyrant, so Ileosa comes to stand in for every vamp and femme fatale. (More specifically, she becomes yet another re-imagining of Erzsébet Báthory, the Blood Countess.) The gender politics are a bit iffy - albeit offset by the fact that Curse of the Crimson Throne features plenty of female heroes as well as female villains - but it all makes for some nightmarishly potent symbolism.

Compared to Karzoug and Ileosa / Sorshen (who, as I've suggested, might be best understood as two versions of the same character), I feel that the rest of the Pathfinder villains really just can't compete. A snake-man who wants to build a snake-man empire. A giant who wants to build a giant empire. A half-demon who wants... something or other, for... reasons. (Seriously, what was the plot of Council of Thieves?) A pirate king who wants to carry on being a pirate king. Some loser necromancer who fucked up his own lich-transformation ritual. An angry drow who wants to blow up the world. In Shattered Star the writers try to up the ante by giving the PCs a chance to fight the guy who originally trained the Runelords - grandpa to Karzoug's daddy, if you will - but he's a sad figure, stumbling around in his clockwork reliquary, his palace filled with living memories that let the PCs experience just how thoroughly the Runelords fucked him over the first time around. (Sorshen, unsurprisingly, turns out to have played a leading role in this.) When, in an appendix, the book finally gives information on all seven of the Runelords, the other five are noticeably light on great achievements when compared to Karzoug and Sorshen. All through Shattered Star, the PCs keep exploring the ruins of the great works Sorshen and Karzoug (and occasionally those five other guys) left behind them, all of them built on an enormous scale. They are Mummy and Daddy, and in our deepest dreams they will always tower over us.

I guess where I'm going with this is that a good villain needs to mean something. Not in some clunky 'this villain represents the evils of the international arms trade' sort of way, which is rubbish in fiction and even more rubbish in RPGs, but in the sense that they need to draw imaginative power from something deeper than their own damn stat-block. They need to give the PCs who oppose them a sense that they are wrestling with something more than just flesh and blood. This doesn't mean that you need to try draping them with fully worked-out systems of symbolism - your players will just ignore it anyway - but it does mean that their trappings are probably more important they are often given credit for. Most of the other Pathfinder 'big bads' lack anything like this kind of evocative symbolic apparatus, and they are much the poorer for it.

Evil Dave the Dark Druid isn't memorable because of how many hit points he has; he's memorable because of his iconography of wicker men and stained stone altars, leaning menhirs and stone sacrificial daggers and creepy cults in isolated villages, all of which evoke a whole range of fears about just how horrible the primordial past might really have been. The real menace of Mad Suzie the Science Sorceress comes less from how many fireballs she can throw, but from her ghastly laboratories and vivisection chambers, the moaning things thrashing about inside fluid-filled tanks and the padded cells with bloodstains on the walls, tapping into a whole bunch of anxieties about the awful, irrational places that our seemingly-rational pursuit of knowledge might take us to. These patterns of imagery doesn't even need to be properly thought through; I'm sure they weren't in the case of Curse of the Crimson Throne. Just follow the symbolic logic of the concept, and see where it leads you. A little bit of evocative scene-setting can take you a very long way.

Just ask Queen Ileosa...

Monday 16 May 2016

Random Encounter Tables: the Taiga

Getting back to the wilderness random encounter table series for ATWC. This one deals with the immense reaches of bog and forest that lie north of the steppe and south of the tundra, in a vast band a thousand miles across. The taiga is sparsely inhabited by humans, but the birds, animals, monsters, and spirits are plentiful there. Go deep enough and who knows what you might stumble across, lurking among the swamps and trees? - 1881 Wood Engraving Siberian Indigenous People Costume Bow Arrow Fowl Hunting - Original Wood Engraving - Prints:

Random Taiga Encounters (roll 1d12)

1: This part of the taiga is the territory of a Wise (talking) wolf and his pack. The Wise wolf is hungry for decent conversation; the rest of the pack are just plain hungry. They will stalk the PCs at a distance, growling and howling and looking for opportunities to pick off vulnerable pack animals or similar, while their alpha calls out from between the trees that all he really wants is an opportunity to talk to someone interesting for a change. If a well-read and/or well-travelled PC is willing to sit down in the middle of a circle of hungry wolves and indulge his appetite for long, rambling conversations about art, philosophy, and current affairs, he'll agree to call off the rest of the pack and lead them off to hunt musk deer or something instead. 

2: A group of Children of the Pines, busily engaged in carving fantastical totems for the local spirits. They are superb woodcarvers, but have no other materials to work with, and eagerly offer to barter with the PCs for items of gold, silver, copper, or other precious metals that might be pounded flat and used to ornament their woodwork: in exchange they offer carved goods, the pelts of animals that they have shot, the healing sap from their veins, and knowledge of the nearby spirits. PCs who treat them or their totems with disrespect will be directed into the domain of a particularly psychotic bog spirit, who loves nothing better than drowning groups of stupid travellers in his bottomless swamps.

3: A band of hunters, armed with bows, guns, and traps, looking for any animals whose pelts might fetch a good price in the markets of the south. They are expert woodsmen, but extremely superstitious, living in a state of constant anxiety that they might accidentally anger the spirits of the deepwoods by killing some favoured beast. They are an excellent source of information on the surrounding woodlands, but will not associate with any group who they think are likely to anger the spirits by their words or deeds, knowing full well that such entities are usually firm believers in guilt by association. 

4: An absolutely enormous bear, regarded as sacred by all the nearby inhabitants. They are not mistaken in this: the bear is the favoured pet of a local spirit, which will be very upset if it is killed, although a competent shaman should be able to calm it down with the aid of some suitable offerings. The bear itself isn't especially aggressive, but it doesn't like being bothered and may lash out at people who refuse to leave it alone. Its pelt, if intact, would fetch a considerable price in the markets of the south.

5: A young married couple, emissaries from a taiga clan, on their way to the distant shrine of the Golden Lady: their people are planning a great migration, and they have been sent to beg the Lady for oracles regarding the fates that would await them in the various lands which they are considering moving to. (The young woman is also pregnant, and she secretly hopes that the Golden Lady will bless their unborn child, as well.) They are both skilled travellers, but they have never been so far from home before, and their supplies are starting to run low after navigating their way through the seemingly interminable boglands. If the PCs assist them they will offer to ask questions to the Golden Lady on their behalf, although the PCs will obviously need to go back into the taiga to meet their (now-migrated) clan in order to hear the answers!

6: A grove inhabited by a shurale, which recently stole two adolescent girls from a nearby village, hoping to keep them as the jewels of its collection of precious and beautiful things. One of them tricked it into letting her go within a few hours of being caught, but the other is slightly slow-witted and is still stuck inside its lair; the escaped girl is camping in the woods nearby, trying to work out some way of staging a rescue so that she won't have to make the difficult journey home alone. She will implore the PCs to help her in this, but begs them not to actually kill the shurale, as her community rely upon its knowledge of the spirits to avoid accidentally trespassing against them. The shurale itself is in a foul mood because of the girl's escape, and is determined not to allow itself to be tricked again. 

7: A flock of ironclaw ravens inhabit this part of the taiga, sharing their lair with a filthy and demented outcast whom they regard as a kind of human pet. They know better than to attack armed groups, but will send their outcast out howling and gibbering, to lead them into the most dangerous and treacherous parts of the forest; their hope is that they or their horses will perish there, and the ravens will feast upon the resulting carrion. They try to keep their distance from the PCs, but observant characters may spot huge ravens with glinting beaks and talons high up in the trees, watching them from above...

8: A shaman and her assistants, on a hunting mission; the chief of their clan has fallen gravely ill, and the shaman has discerned that this is due to his soul having passed into the body of a nearby elk, which she is now trying to hunt down for use in a healing ritual. She will gravely insist on the PCs not killing any elk they encounter for fear that they might end up killing the chief by mistake, and would be happier if they accompanied her until the hunt is over so that she can keep an eye on them. The elk in question is weirdly intelligent due to the human soul inhabiting it, and will be extremely challenging to catch. 

9: Outriders from a deep taiga clan, riding through the forests on domesticated trees, which creak alarmingly as they scurry through the woods on their innumerable root-feet. Their riders are odd folk with a not-quite-human air about them; they are searching for another deep taiga clan whose camp they believe to be nearby, and question everyone they meet in exhaustive detail as to whether or not they have seen any sign of it in their travels. They are an excellent source of information on all tree-related matters, but they are utterly uninterested in the outside world. Any PC who performs a truly extraordinary service for them - locating the rival clan and helping them to ambush it, for example - may be rewarded with a domesticated walking sapling of their own.

10: This part of the taiga is haunted by a mad, shape-changing Hortlak, which sneaks from shadow to shadow looking for creatures to devour. It can take the shape of any animal, but its mind is so shattered that it's constantly forgetting to actually behave like the creature it's pretending to be, meaning that the PCs are likely to be in for what will seem to be a series of extremely bizarre encounters with oddly behaving animals (a bear that hisses like a snake, a wildcat awkwardly walking on its hind legs, etc) as it tries to spy upon them 'in disguise'. Sooner or later its hunger will get the better of it and it will attack, preferably while the PCs are separated from one another or asleep.

11: A war party of taiga nomads, heading home with the spoils of a successful raid on a rival clan: furs, weapons, horses, reindeer, and slaves. They are jubilant and drunk and high on their own success, and their captives are eagerly watching out for any possible opportunity to escape and flee into the trees. PCs investigating the feud that led to the raid in the first place will discover it has involved generations of tit-for-tat raiding, with any pretence of moral high ground on either side lost decades ago. If the PCs do anything to distract the warriors then 2d6 captives will immediately make a break for it, with both sides loudly demanding that the PCs assist them: the captives yell wild promises of riches with which the PCs will be rewarded if they can help them escape back to their homes, while the warriors make blood-curdling threats against anyone who helps their slaves get away.

12: The domain of an angry spirit. Her mortal lover recently died in a hunting accident; now, enraged and inconsolable, she takes out her grief and frustration on anything that comes nearby. Terrible weather, falling trees, flooded rivers, runs of incredible bad luck, and forests that seem to rearrange themselves whenever no-one is looking are just some of the ways in which she will afflict anyone who intrudes upon her sorrow. The local inhabitants have learned to avoid the area, but if the PCs can somehow manage to console the spirit - through offerings, distractions, grief counselling, building a really nice tomb for her dead lover, or whatever else they can think of - they will be celebrated as local heroes. Attempts to contact the spirit are best made at her sacred pool, deep in the woods, where she sometimes deigns to appear amongst the reflections in the water's surface.

Wednesday 11 May 2016

The lost colours of D&D

So I looked up ogres in the 1st edition Monster Manual recently, and I came across this text:

The hide of ogres varies from dull blackish-brown to dead yellow. Rare specimens are a sickly violet in color. Their warty bumps are often of different color - or at least darker than their hides. Hair is blackish-blue to dull dark green. Eyes are purple with white pupils. Teeth are black or orange, as are talons. Ogres wear any sort of skins or furs. 
And I thought: ...wait, what?

Ogres come in three colours: blackish-brown, yellow, and violet. They are covered in 'warty bumps' of 'a different color': so presumably you could have a yellow ogre with violet warts, or some even weirder combination. Their hair is either blue or dark green. Their eyes are purple with white pupils. Their teeth and claws are either black or orange. In short, I have been imagining D&D ogres wrong for my entire life.

All your ogres were supposed to look kinda like this.

Imagine, for a moment: a nine-foot tall brute of a monster with violet skin covered in yellow warts, orange teeth and claws, dark green hair, and purple eyes with white pupils. That, apparently, is what D&D ogres are actually supposed to look like. Did anyone ever describe them like that? Did anyone draw them like that? All the illustrations I can find just depict them as great big grey-brown thugs...

A little more reading soon demonstrated that the ogres were not an isolated case. There were yellow bugbears with brick-red fur, green eyes, and red pupils:

The skin of bugbears is light yellow to yellow brown - typically dull yellow. Their hair ranges in color from lusterless tannish brown to brick red. Their eyes are greenish white with red pupils.

There were silver-haired, amber-eyed elves wearing yellow clothes and purple cloaks, and nicknames based on their eye colour:

Grey elves have either silver hair and amber eyes or pale golden hair and violet eyes. The latter sort are generally called faeries. They favor white, yellow, silver, or gold garments. Their cloaks are often deep blue or purple.
There were gnolls with green-grey skins, reddish manes, amber nails, and armour made of horn:

Gnolls have greenish gray skins, darker near the muzzle, with reddish gray to dull yellow mane. Eyes are dull black and nails are amber colored. Their armor is of horn, metal plates, and leather; like their fur capes and vests, it is shabby, and the latter are moth-eaten and dingy, being brown, black or grayish pelts.

Gnomes were the colour of wood:

Most gnomes are wood brown, a few range to gray brown, of skin.

Goblins can be red, yellow, or orange (no green ones yet), with red or 'lemon yellow' eyes:

Goblins range from yellow through dull orange to brick red in skin color. Their eyes are reddish to lemon yellow.

Or maybe their eyes are actual lemons!

Red hobgoblins with orange faces and blue-red noses:

The hairy hides of hobgoblins range from dark reddish-brown to gray black. Their faces are bright red-orange to red. Large males will have blue-red noses. Eyes are either yellowish or dark brown.

The brown skin of orcs has a 'bluish sheen' and their ears and snouts are pink. (This is back when orcs were still pig-men, of course.)

Orcs appear particularly disgusting because their coloration - brown or brownish green with a bluish sheen - highlights their pinkish snouts and ears.

Red, orange, yellow, purple, blue... all those colours bled out of the game as time went on. Modern orcs are green. Goblins are green. Gnolls are brown. Hobgoblins are sometimes orange but usually brown. Ogres are brown. Bugbears are greenish-brown. Gnomes have human skin-tones, rather than being wood-coloured. Even elves have become far less glam-tastic than they used to be.

Now, there are probably a whole lot of reasons for this. One would be the move away from stories inspired by 1930s weird fiction, which drew its colour palette from the Decadent and Surrealist art of the previous generation, and towards those based on 'map fantasy' novels, which made use of a more chastened colour palette derived ultimately from the Pre-Raphaelite art of the 1840s. Another would be the enormous popularity of the goblinoids from Warhammer, which firmly fixed orcs, goblins, and their kin as 'greenskins' in the popular gamer imagination. A third would be changing fashions in fantasy art, away from the space-rock psychedelia of the 1970s towards the much more grounded grey-green-and-brown aesthetics of most modern fantasy illustrations.  (Erol Otus loved using neon-bright colours. We shall not see his like again.) The move towards more naturalistic colouration certainly makes the monsters feel a bit more 'realistic'; a green goblin and a brown ogre feel like variations on real creatures, things that might conceivably evolve in a natural environment full of mud and trees, whereas a yellow goblin and a purple ogre feel like escapees from a children's cartoon.

Still, though.... orange goblins. Blue-green pig-orcs. Yellow bugbears with red fur. There's something to be said for them. Their 'unnaturalness' could be a strength as well as a weakness: these sound like things which broke out of a wizard's lab, or crawled out of a crashed spaceship, or stumbled through a portal from a world very different from our own. They have an obvious out-of-place oddness about them. Why do bugbears have red pupils? What kind of fucked-up world do they see through their green-and-red eyes?

The bugbears walk amongst us!

In my games, I've always described humanoids as grey, or green, or brown; but the next time I run something with more of an old-school, science-fantasy vibe, I think I'm going to mix it up a bit. Bring back the blue orcs and the yellow goblins and the green gnolls and the purple ogres. If nothing else, they should act as big, brightly-coloured signs that we're not in Tolkien any more. 

Monday 9 May 2016

B/X Class: The Half-Troll

It's exam marking season here at the university, and so my mind turns once again to B/X monster classes. I've always liked the idea of troll PCs, but struggled a bit with how to reconcile their signature ability, regeneration, with the B/X resource management paradigm: after all, if you can get all your hit points back after (or during) every fight, then you really have no reason not to keep wading into battle. Half-trolls are my solution, based around the idea that 'true' troll regeneration isn't passed on to their half-human offspring; they can regenerate, alright, but all that extra tissue has to come from somewhere. They can't just grow it out of the air: to fuel their healing, they need to eat. They need to eat a lot.

From a game-balance perspective, this means that the player of a half-troll has to balance two resources against each other: hit points, and encumbrance. How much food can you carry? How much food are your comrades willing to lug into the dungeon for you? How much food can you keep fresh and edible under adventuring conditions? You can hire bearers and pack mules, but they have their own problems: good luck extricating your personal baggage train from the middle of a panicked retreat. And, of course, it means that half-troll PCs will be constantly on the lookout for anything (or anyone) who can be used as an extra source of food. You know you want to eat the dead demon. You know you want to. What's the worst that could happen?

B/X Class: The Half-Troll

To-Hit, Hit Dice, Saves: All as per Fighter.

Weapons and Armour: Half-trolls can use any melee or thrown weapons, but their thick, clumsy fingers are ill-suited to using bows or crossbows. (If you insist on trying, you can use them with a -4 penalty to-hit.) They can wear any armour, but their huge, bulky frames mean that it must be made specially for them at double normal cost: human-sized armour will not fit. 

Experience Per Level: As per Elf.

Low Light Vision: Half-trolls can see perfectly in very dim light such as moonlight or starlight, but cannot see in total darkness.

Regeneration: Your body can repair itself at an incredible rate. When injured, you regain 3 HP every ten minutes. If reduced below 0 HP, you continue to heal at a rate of 3 HP every ten minutes unless reduced to more than twice your level in negative HP. (So a third-level half-troll dies at -7 HP, and so on.) This ability cannot be used to heal damage caused by fire or acid. 

Troll Hunger: You require an enormous amount of food to power your regenerative abilities. Every time you regenerate, you feel as hungry as if you had just gone for a full day without food, and must gorge yourself on a day's worth of rations at the first opportunity. (So a half-troll who has just regenerated 9 HP will feel as though they had gone without food for three full days.) Eating a day's worth of food in this fashion takes 20 minutes - which means that if you're still regenerating while you eat, you may finish your meal hungrier than you were when you started it! Normal limits on how much food you can eat at once, or how quickly your stomach can digest it, do not apply to these regeneration-fuelled binges: a half-troll can easily swallow down ten or twenty meals worth of food in a sitting, their swollen stomachs digesting it almost instantly to 'pay off' the enormous calorific debt incurred by their regeneration. 

Metabolic Limits: Your regeneration cannot function forever without food. If you are suffering from a number of 'days' of starvation greater than your level (either due to regeneration or extended fasting), your regenerative abilities will shut down, and will not work again until you eat at least a day's worth of food. 

(Note that this means that your regeneration will never actually make you starve to death - even a 20th level half-troll can only inflict the equivalent of 21 days of hunger on themselves through regeneration, which isn't enough to be fatal - but it can leave you very, very weak. Assume a penalty of -1 to all rolls for physical activity, including to-hit and damage rolls, for every five 'days' of hunger.)

Om nom nom. Art by Peter Mohrabcher.

Monday 2 May 2016

The Reborn

This is a companion-piece to my last post on clockpunk undead. That was all about installing clockwork components, and clockwork brains, into animated flesh. This post deals with the opposite: grafting living brains into clockwork bodies.

Among the wealthier urban classes in ATWC, the use of clockwork prostheses to replace lost limbs is relatively commonplace. Lose a hand in a duel? Get a clockwork replacement. Both legs blown off in a freak gunnery accident? You'll be running around on shiny bronze feet in no time! Having to wind them up all the time is a pain, of course; but it's much better than the alternative. Given this, it's not that surprising that when they see a loved one dying of stomach cancer, or lung disease, or whatever, their minds immediately turn to clockwork alternatives. Can't we replace those as well, they ask their doctors? Can't we just replace the whole thing?

At this point, their doctors usually start trying to let them down gently. (Golden Ones are very good at this.) Yes, some amazing work is being done with brass lungs and clockwork-powered hearts these days, and, yes, some of the Steel Aspirants have replaced truly shocking amounts of their own torsos with mechanical substitutes; but turning grandpa into a brain-in-a-jar controlling a clockwork body requires a level of expertise in both medicine and clockworking which is out of reach for all but the truly astronomically wealthy.  Then there are the adjustment issues; it can take years to learn how to operate a robotic body via mental manipulation of the clockwork computer connected to your brain, and even then most people never get very good at it. Would grandpa really want you to waste his entire fortune just so that he could spend a few more years in a semi-functional robot body, silently weeping with frustration as he bumps into the wall of his bedroom yet again?

But there are two factors which ensure that the technology to transplant human brains into clockwork bodies is still used from time to time. The first is that the bodies, once built, are reusable; so a family which has already gone to the trouble of buying a clockwork body for grandpa, complete with brain-jar, might well keep it around after his final death, ready to be used by grandma or auntie or whichever elder of the family is the next to fall mortally ill. The second is that psychics, who have a lifetime of experience at manipulating objects with their minds, find the transition to clockwork bodies very much easier than other people: so if grandpa is part of one of the Mindblade orders, or an Adept of the Diamond Mind, then his telekinetic powers may well reduce the adjustment period he needs to learn to use his new body from years to days. A number of the most prosperous Diamond Mind schools even transfer their ailing senior tutors into clockwork bodies as a matter of course, viewing it simply as an efficient means of ensuring that their students are able to benefit from their teaching expertise for as long as possible.

Alchemical golem miniature, made by WizKids.

These, then, are the Reborn: clockwork automata with the brains of mostly-dead humans instead of clockwork computers inside their skulls, controlling their mechanical bodies via complex Logician implants which connect directly to their gearwork. (Some psychic Reborn opt to dispense with the implants and simply control their bodies directly via telekinesis.) Keeping a human brain alive in a vat of nutrients requires the attentions of an expert doctor, such as a Golden One or one of the Serpent Folk, of at least 5th level; this doctor must spend at least 30 minutes per day checking and adjusting the balance of fluids and the level of electrical conductivity in the brain-jar, or risk irreversible brain damage. (For each day in which this 'check-up' is missed, roll 1d6; the Reborn loses this many points of Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma, and if any are reduced to 0 then they die. Going back to their normal medical routines will restore lost points at a rate of 1 per day, but the Reborn must pass a FORT save or lose 1d3 points of each stat permanently.) Their clockwork body and logician implants also need to be maintained and repaired if damaged, which means that they or their attendant must have a Tech Rating of at least 5. (If they're a psychic who didn't bother with the implants, then Tech 4 will suffice.) Their bodies cost no more than any other clockwork body would, but the implants which connect them to their brains are staggeringly expensive. If you have to ask how much they cost, you definitely can't afford it.

Aside from this, Reborn follow all the same rules as Brass Men. Normally it takes them 1d6 years to get used to operating their new bodies, although for psychic characters this is reduced to a mere 1d20 days; psychic Reborn also have the option of winding themselves up using their own telekinetic powers, allowing them to operate indefinitely without any need of fuel. As long as they receive proper medical and mechanical upkeep, they can survive for up to (1d10 + half their Constitution score) years before finally suffering irreversible degradation of their brain tissues and sliding into final senility and death.

Rumours persist of a special alchemical formula which allows the brains of the Reborn to survive indefinitely inside their jars, even without medical upkeep. These same rumours usually also claim that the Wicked King had this procedure used on him when he grew old, and that he now lives on as an immortal evil brain inside a giant bronze murder-robot somewhere near the top of the King's Tower. Hopefully that bit, at least, is completely untrue.