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...


  1. Great article. Although, probably shouldn't have read that right before heading to bed...

    1. Did you dream about dark swampy passages full of blood?

      Good to see you blogging again, by the way!

    2. Fortunately not, and I haven't dreamt about it since, so I think I'm in the clear *holds fingers crossed*

      Thank you! We play very infrequently, yet in the downtime I jot down notes of all sorts; they gotta be used somehow, don't they?

  2. post 80s horror is more bodily and ful of birth and deals with women more than just as victims

    i always find pathfinder very much like a video game in imagery and tone - i read another review of the lamia one and it had similar conclusion - he talked about the implied rape and bodily mutilation deformity too - but cant remember who wrote it

    1. Was it on here?

    2. Yeah, that was by me, too. Most of the Pathfinder APs I can just dismiss as, frankly, not very good, but the better ones are in the awkward position of things I like *just enough* to keep mentally worrying away at them, trying to work out why I don't like or dislike them more than I do...

  3. Great piece, thanks for sharing.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. So what is the symbolic trapping of the Wicked King?

    I get a bit of a North Korea police state vibe from the descriptions I've found so far.

    1. *Which* Wicked King, though? There are at least eight of them!

      The Wicked *City* is basically the trappings of a 20th century police state draped over an early modern tyranny, with a bit of Victorian London around the edges. It represents, via a fairly crude series of literalised metaphors, how systems of political and economic exploitation function, and the ways in which they dehumanise those who participate in them. The Wicked King, however, has been deliberately left ambiguous, with his throne room as the black box at the centre of the system. He has a set of external trappings - huge tower, masked secret police, sealed throne-room, statue network, etc - which serve to associate him with both the tyrannies of the ancient and modern world, but what those actually *mean* will depend on who or what he ultimately *is*.

      If you were being pretentious, I suppose you could say that the Wicked King, with his sealed throne room and his multiple contradictory backstories, represents the Problem of Evil itself; but, really, it's mostly just that I'd rather leave it as a suggestive space onto which people can draw their own conclusions. If he ultimately turns out to be an evil god, complete with his own hell-realm, then that's a different kind of story with a different kind of meaning to one in which 'he' turns out to be a confused teenage girl stumbling around in her grandfather's outsized ceremonial robes...

    2. 1d8 possible wicked kings! That's awesome.

      The link to that page and Liquid Brightness and the Shining Ones seem to be broken on your collected information page.

    3. Thanks for the heads-up - should be fixed, now!

  6. I've been reading this blog for almost a month and I want to say 'Thanky you!'. You posts are awesome and open entire vistas of new material for my games (go Fantasy Central Asia!). However, I'm also a fan of Curse of the Crimson Throne... it is the only Adventure Path I ever runned and it is my favorite because it isn't afraid to get personal with the PCs. So, again, thank! ;-)