Tuesday 28 February 2017

Oasis kingdoms of the Great Road

Three Khivans drinking tea in the courtyard of their home. - Photographed by A. S. Murenko in 1858.:

Most of the land through which the Great Road passes is extremely barren, and as such its route is determined by a continuous compromise between two absolutes: distance and water supply. No-one setting out on the arduous months-long journey from east to west, or vice versa, wants to make it any longer than it has to be: and for such travellers, the ideal route for the Road to take would be as close to a straight line as the intervening terrain permits. In practise, however, that hypothetical straight line would take you through some of the most arid regions in the world, so dry that horses and men alike would perish of dehydration if they attempted to follow it; and so the Road is forced to twist and turn, threading the oases together like beads on a string. Each oasis forms a natural choke point through which all merchants and travellers must pass, generating opportunities for toll-taking and extortion: and the larger and more isolated an oasis, the greater the potential wealth that can be extracted from the traders and caravans passing through. If he can take and hold such a location for just a few years at a stretch, even the pettiest of bandit chieftains can draw off so much gold that he will swiftly swell into a king.

These, then, are the Oasis Kingdoms: small states whose economies are based on serving and taxing the east-west traffic that passes through them. In theory, these tiny kingdoms have the power to hold mighty empires to ransom by choking off their trade; but in practise their rulers generally recognise that their prosperity depends upon the Great Road remaining a reliable artery of commerce, and limit their tolls to the merely extortionate rather than the outright prohibitive. Cut off from the outside world by hundreds of miles of desert, they are mostly left to their own devices by the distant empires whose caravans they tax, their direct conquest usually regarded as being more trouble than it's worth. (It's been tried. They usually regain their independence, de facto if not de jure, within a century at most.) But their small size and limited agricultural base means that their kings must depend upon hired mercenaries for protection, and even the strongest of them could not possibly stand up to a serious punitive expedition from one of the great empires of the east, south, or west - a fact which generally keeps the petty tyrants who rule them from getting too greedy, at least when high-status travellers and the scions of great merchant houses are concerned.

Esfahan, Iran:

Given that a group of PCs could easily pass through a dozen or more oasis kingdoms in the course of a long enough journey down the Great Road, there's little point in trying to enumerate them all separately. Instead, the outline of a given kingdom can be generated using the following tables.

How big is the oasis? (roll 1d6)
  1. Tiny. This 'kingdom' would be little more than a village if it wasn't for its strategic position.
  2. Small. The kingdom consists of a single small city surrounded by a meagre amount of agricultural land. Much of its food is imported.  
  3. Moderate. The kingdom consists of a single city surrounded by relatively fertile land. It is (just) self-sufficient in terms of food and basic goods, but for wealth and luxury goods it is entirely dependent upon the Great Road. 
  4. Large. The kingdom consists of a large city and a few smaller towns, set in a substantial quantity of carefully irrigated farmland. Even without the Great Road, it could probably function as a petty kingdom in its own right.
  5. Very large. The kingdom has multiple cities, and is a centre for trade and manufactures. Caravans would probably visit it to buy and sell in its markets even if they weren't forced to by the local geography.
  6. Huge. The kingdom is actually a substantial polity with many towns and cities, containing a hundred miles or more of the Great Road within its borders. 
(NB: the traits of these cities, as opposed to the kingdom as a whole, can be generated using the tables here, replacing the 'government' section with the more detailed information below.)

How much of a chokepoint is it? (Roll 1d4)
  1. There are other oases that trade could pass through; this one's just the most convenient. The kingdom's rulers are forced to keep their tolls moderate, knowing that traders will simply adopt an alternative route if the taxes get too high.
  2. There's another oasis that trade could conceivably pass through, but it's either much further away or cut off by very rough terrain. The kingdom's rulers keep their tolls high, knowing that only the very desperate (or the very poor) would undertake the much harder journey involved in circumventing it.
  3. There's another oasis not too far away, but it's currently inaccessible to trade due to some external factor (war, pestilence, monsters, bandit infestations, etc). The kingdom knows that this situation can't last forever, and has jacked up its tolls to well above normal levels to try to cash in on it while it lasts. The merchant houses are very interesting in resolving this problem by any means necessary, and the local government is just as interested in ensuring that their efforts to do so come to nothing. 
  4. This is the only oasis for miles and miles and miles. The kingdom imposes eye-watering tolls on traders, its greed restrained only by the knowledge that if it pushes its luck too far, one day it'll find an army rather than a caravan waiting outside its gates...
Kurdish Warrior, 1877.:

Who enforces the law? (roll 1d8)
  1. Steppe warriors hired from a distant khanate. Devastating horse archers. Fiercely proud of their traditions. They and the local population regard one another with mutual contempt.
  2. An order of warrior monks based in a nearby monastery, run by the dominant local religion. Willing to serve the local ruler for as long as his laws favour and enrich their faith.
  3. Desert bandits gone legit, bought off by the local ruler in exchange for a cut of his profits. Old habits die hard, and they still engage in occasional bouts of looting and extortion when they think they can get away with it.
  4. Slave soldiers purchased in distant markets and marched off to fight for their new owners. Discipline is enforced through ruthless punishments and the promise of freedom and promotion for those who distinguish themselves. 
  5. A rabble of sell-swords from a dozen nations, with nothing in common except their willingness to fight for anyone who pays them. Discipline is poor, and brawls between regiments of different ethnicities are commonplace. 
  6. A highly professional company of foreign mercenaries, who know that their ability to command top rates from their employers depends upon their reputation for ruthless discipline. They live in their own barracks complex and keep themselves aloof from the local population.
  7. A detachment of soldiers from a far-off empire, sent to 'assist' the local government in protecting the flow of trade. They have mostly 'gone native' and married local women, and would probably side with the locals against the empire if it came right down to it.
  8. A detachment of soldiers from a far-off empire, sent to 'assist' the local government in protecting the flow of trade. Their true loyalty is still to the empire, and they would overthrow the local government overnight if their distant emperor ordered them to do so.

How easy is it to dodge the tolls? (roll 1d6)
  1. Easy. The government is lax and their tax-gathering system is corrupt and inefficient. Any plan that isn't totally stupid will probably work.
  2. Moderately easy. The tax-gatherers are diligent, but have no real loyalty to the government and will wave through just about anything for a big enough bribe.
  3. Variable. The tax-gatherers are loyal and efficient, but they're almost all recruited from one specific religious or ethnic group and are willing to look the other way for the 'right' kind of people.
  4. Variable. The tax-gatherers are loyal and efficient, but they've been heavily infiltrated by some other organisation (roll 1d3: 1 = criminal mafia, 2 = religious cult, 3 = political conspiracy), who will see to it that you don't need to pay tolls provided you can do a little favour for them in exchange...
  5. Hard. The tax-gatherers are well-organised and highly-motivated. Unless you have friends in high places, you'll need to pay a small fortune in bribes to get them to look the other way.
  6. Very hard. The ruler's secret police keep the local tax-gatherers in a state of perpetual paranoid terror, making them very difficult to persuade or bribe. Hide your most valuable goods inside your least valuable goods and hope for the best...
Sultanhani Caravanserai, built in 1229, along the Konya-Aksaray highway in Turkey.:

Who rules it? (Roll 1d12)
  1. A bandit chief made good, trying his best to come across as more than the common brigand that he until recently was and failing pretty miserably. His children are getting expensive educations and view him as a total embarrassment. This kingdom would be a great place to sell something very expensive and very, very tasteless.
  2. A dynastic king, who is only moderately cruel or greedy by the (admittedly low) standards of the oasis kingdoms.
  3. A dynastic king, who is actually a wise and enlightened man, beloved by the people for his willingness to spend his tax revenue on great public works rather than pointless self-indulgence. 
  4. A dynastic king with a well-earned reputation for insane paranoia and arbitrary acts of tyranny. Everyone hates him, but his mercenary soldiers will continue to enforce his edicts as long as they keep getting paid. Perhaps if someone could make them a better offer...?
  5. An elderly dynastic king with many wives and many, many children, who constantly plot and scheme against each other as to who will take the throne when the old man finally dies. A skilled spy or assassin could make a quick fortune here. 
  6. In theory, a dynastic king. In practise, a merchant consortium to whom he is so deeply in debt that he is little more than a puppet in their hands. (The fact that they pay the wages of his mercenaries doesn't help.) Their traders get very favourable treatment from the local courts and tax collectors, much to the fury of their rivals.
  7. In theory, a dynastic king. In practise, the religious organisation of which he is a desperately devout adherent. These days his palace looks more like a temple, and he never makes a major decision without consulting his 'spiritual advisers' first. The kingdom's other religious communities are getting increasingly nervous about the situation, and fear that it's only a matter of time before they're forced to choose between conversion and exile. 
  8. In theory, a dynastic king. In practise, his vizier, who makes all the real decisions while the king wastes his days cavorting with concubines and going on hunting expeditions. Fortunately for the kingdom, the vizier is a harsh but fair man who has the kingdom's best interests at heart.
  9. In theory, a dynastic king. In practise, his vizier, who makes all the real decisions while the king wastes his days cavorting with concubines and going on hunting expeditions. Unfortunately for the kingdom, the vizier is a greedy and selfish man who cares only for his own enrichment.
  10. A governor appointed by the distant empire which notionally rules this place, whose assignment here was essentially a punishment disguised as a promotion. He cannot stand being stuck out in the middle of the desert and is absolutely desperate to find a way back into the good graces of the far-off imperial court. A shocking proportion of his budget is wasted on importing luxury goods from his far-off homeland.
  11. A governor appointed by the distant empire which notionally rules this place, who has woken up to the fact that he's far too distant from the centres of power for his superiors to exercise any meaningful control over his actions, and mostly acts like the petty tyrant that he effectively is. Vaguely planning to declare independence and found a new dynasty as soon as the time is right.
  12. A khan from the great steppe, whose horsemen conquered the place years back. He's still very uncomfortable in his palace, and yearns for his yurt and the open steppe. The people still haven't come to terms with being conquered by people they consider barbarians, but if his rule endures for another few decades then his descendants will probably become a local dynasty much like any other. 

The Great Silk Road.:

Friday 24 February 2017

Religions of the Great Road

The Scholar . Samarkand:

As I've mentioned before, one of the things that interests me about Central Asia is the diversity of its religious traditions. Judiasm and Christianity came into the region from the west, Zoroastrianism and Islam from the south, and Buddhism from the east, and all five of these religions interacted in various different ways with the Tengriist and shamanic practises indigenous to the area, giving rise to regional variants such as Tibetan Bon, Khazar Judiasm, and Nestorian Christianity. The extremely mobile nature of missionary groups and nomad communities mean that you end up with situations like nomad communities in south-west Russia professing spiritual allegiance to the Tibetan Dalai Lama (Kalmyk Buddhism), or Zoroastrian sects which were persecuted into near-oblivion in their native Iran going on to become the state religion of distant empires in the far-off Tarim Basin (Uyghur Manicheanism).

I think that trying to represent any of these directly in a non-historical D&D game would be a terrible idea; but the basic concept that this is a region where faiths from far-off empires compete and intermingle and develop into forms which would probably seem very strange to their distant (or extinct) religious authorities is one that I think has a lot of potential. Here, then, are a handy set of tables for determining the religious beliefs of any random traveller or community your PCs might happen to encounter along the length of the Great Road:

Korean Shaman (1930s):

What is the religion called? (roll 1d20 on each table)

  1. The Path...
  2. The Way...
  3. The Church...
  4. The Temple...
  5. The Fellowship...
  6. The Adherents...
  7. The Doctrine...
  8. The People...
  9. The Children...
  10. The Disciples...
  11. The Followers...
  12. The Students...
  13. The Order...
  14. The Brotherhood...
  15. The Acolytes...
  16. The Apostles...
  17. The Seekers...
  18. The Upholders...
  19. The Defenders...
  20. The Soldiers...

  1. ...of Holy Righteousness.
  2. ...of the Seven Sages.
  3. ...of the Great Revelation.
  4. ...of the Divine Law.
  5. ...of Heavenly Light.
  6. ...of the Word of God.
  7. ...of the Ultimate Truth.
  8. ...of the Eightfold Glories.
  9. ...of the Supreme Prophet.
  10. ...of the Universal King / Queen.
  11. ...of the Sun and Moon.
  12. ...of the Fourteen Stars.
  13. ...of Enlightenment.
  14. ...of Eternity.
  15. ...of the Transcendent Lord / Lady.
  16. ...of the Infinite Emperor / Empress.
  17. ...of the Master / Mistress of Heaven.
  18. ...of the Secret Treasures of Holiness.
  19. ...of the Sacred Masters.
  20. ...of the Ancient Code. 
(NB: faiths whose name share the same 'of'' component are probably offshoots of the same religion, albeit possibly very distantly related ones. You have no idea how much the Children of Holy Righteousness and the Disciples of Holy Righteousness hate each other...)

Where did this religion come from originally? (roll 1d3)
  1. The distant east.
  2. The distant west.
  3. The distant south. 
How is this religion regarded in its far-off homeland? (roll 1d6)
  1. It's the state religion, and you occasionally get encouraging letters from your distant religious authorities, praising you for keeping the true faith alive in foreign lands.
  2. It's a heretical variant of the state religion, and you occasionally get visited by disapproving missionaries telling you that your doctrines are riddled with errors and you should really adopt the official theological line.
  3. It's a variant of the state religion which, while not strictly heretical, would seem deeply odd and unfamiliar to the official religious authorities. You occasionally get visited by missionaries who try to convert you to a religion that you already believe in, which is embarrassing for everyone involved. 
  4. It's a minority sect, marginal and grudgingly tolerated. The trade networks that communities like yours have established along the Great Road play an important part in keeping the religion alive.
  5. It's been outlawed, and only lives on in hiding. Religious refugees sometimes arrive in your community seeking shelter, bringing with them horrific tales of persecution. 
  6. It was persecuted into oblivion and is now extinct in its homeland, living on only in communities like yours. 
Minaret and Archaeological Remains of Jam, Afghanistan - a UNESCO World Heritage site.:

What does this religion worship? (roll 1d8)

  1. One god or goddess (equal chance of each). All other 'gods' are false.
  2. One god or goddess (equal chance of each). Other gods are probably real too, we just don't worship them.
  3. One god or goddess (equal chance of each) served by a whole host of lesser divinities, who may or may not actually just be the personified aspects of the godhead. (It's complicated.)
  4. A dualistic religion with two divinities, both of which are revered equally as king or queen of one half of reality.
  5. A dualistic religion with two divinities, of whom one is revered and worshipped, and the other is reviled and (when necessary) placated.
  6. A full-blown polytheism which recognises dozens or hundreds of divinities.
  7. A remote and abstract godhead who is best contacted through prayers directed to the deified saints and prophets of the past. 
  8. In theory, it doesn't really 'worship' anything: it just conveys the moral, mystical, and philosophical teachings of its founders. In practise, most of its followers worship its founders as though they were divinities.

What are this religion's core beliefs? (roll 1d20 1d4 times)
  1. That all the world's problems are due to the failure of the people to follow the Divine Law.
  2. That this world is a place in which we are spiritually and morally tested, to determine our fitness for heaven.
  3. That if only the Reign of the Faithful could be instituted everywhere, then everything would be perfect!
  4. That we are being justly punished for the sins of our ancestors.
  5. That we just have to keep the faith until the prophecies are fulfilled. 
  6. That the material world is an illusion, and we must learn to transcend it.
  7. That we will be rewarded with wealth and power and empire if we obey the will of heaven,
  8. That this world is ruled by the powers of evil, and we must keep ourselves as pure and separate from its wickedness as possible.
  9. That worldly pleasures are sinful and asceticism is the path to holiness.
  10. That we must be kind to the unfortunate.
  11. That we must punish the sinful.
  12. That only those who follow our specific creed can possibly be saved.
  13. That all sin really comes from ignorance.
  14. That sin weighs down the soul, keeping it trapped within material reality.
  15. That we must destroy the enemies of our faith by any means necessary.
  16. That the correct performance of the sacred rituals and liturgies is of the utmost importance.
  17. That we must behave with scrupulous fairness and justice in all matters.
  18. That we must respect the social order, which represents the will of heaven.
  19. That we should treat all people as equals, regardless of social divisions.
  20. That the End of Days is upon us, and we must prepare ourselves for the final battle of good and evil! 
Dervishes of Central Asia. 1871-1872:

What are this religion's social institutions? (roll 1d20 1d4 times)

  1. Every faithful household maintains a small family shrine within its dwelling-place.
  2. The faith's most devout members are encouraged to become monks or nuns, who lead lives of celibate asceticism.
  3. The faith maintains a complex ritual calendar, which the faithful are expected to observe exactly.
  4. The faith is built around the teachings contained in its holy book, and the faithful are expected to memorise as much of it as possible.
  5. Due to the syncretic fusion of its teachings with the shamanic traditions of the area, the faith is actually mostly concerned with the management of troublesome spirits.
  6. Devout followers of the faith are encouraged to undertake pilgrimages to sacred sites in its distant homeland whenever possible.
  7. The faith prizes education, and its members often become doctors, lawyers, or scholars.
  8. The faith prizes military achievements, and its members are famous warriors.
  9. The faith practises ancestor worship, and requires its members to show proper reverence to the spirits and graves of their ancestors.
  10. The faith places a strong emphasis on the practise of silent meditation. Its holiest ceremonies are very quiet and very serious.
  11. The faith places a strong emphasis on the practise of ecstatic prayer. Its holiest ceremonies are loud and exuberant affairs, full of people singing, dancing, falling into trances, and speaking in tongues.
  12. The faith has exacting ritual purity requirements, which its followers are expected to observe scrupulously (although many of them don't). 
  13. The religious life of the faith is built around a handful of large temple-monasteries, where all religious and ceremonial activities are concentrated.
  14. The faith is radically decentralised, with small community congregations gathered in local shrines serving as the main centres of religious life.
  15. The faith places a strong emphasis on the importance of public charity, and its wealthier members are expected to make ostentatious displays of generosity.
  16. The faith features a strong cult of the saints, with prayers believed to be much more efficacious if they are uttered within shrines in which holy men and women are buried.
  17. The faith strongly encourages its followers to fatalistically resign themselves to the will of heaven. 
  18. The faith strongly encourages its followers to actively strive to make the world a better and holier place.
  19. The faith includes strong elements of folk magic, with the faithful encouraged to wear charms and talismans for good luck and to utter hymns and incantations to protect themselves from evil.
  20. The faith includes a strong esoteric element; its teachings are revealed to the faithful step by step as they rise through the levels of initiation, and are never supposed to be shared with outsiders at all. 
(NB: If a religion is regarded as heretical in its distant homeland, it's usually because it has the same social institutions but differs in one or more core beliefs. If it's regarded as orthodox but odd, it's usually because it has the same core beliefs but differs in one or more social institutions!)


Tuesday 21 February 2017

Returning to the Wicked City

Bardaree Bryant's drawing of the Wicked City. Used with permission. Good luck with the game, Bardaree!

Man, did this blog ever wander off-topic. In the last six months I've only made five posts related to the ATWC setting itself: three new monsters, one post on the Siberian fur trade, and one post on the Three Thieves of the Triple Crown. Somewhere along the line it's very much become a space for general-purpose D&D rambling rather than what the blog header says it should be about, which is romantic clockpunk fantasy in a setting based on early modern Central Asia. I should probably get around to correcting that.

There's no mystery about why the switch happened. I wrote the ATWC setting to give me an outlet for RPG-related writing at a time when my work and childcare responsibilities were preventing me from actually gaming; once I had a regular group again, my focus shifted to actual play and the kind of issues and questions that were generated by my ongoing campaign. I'd also reached a point where the ATWC setting was, if not finished, then at least sufficiently complete to be useable, making it less obvious what form any future expansion should take. I'm wary of cluttering it up with information for information's sake: I've seen too many published settings which just bloat themselves out in order to fill the page count, often losing what was most interesting and distinctive about themselves in the process. So now that I've covered what I see as the important stuff, I wouldn't want to write much more without a fairly clear idea of what, exactly, the setting would gain from me doing so.

That said, I do have a few ideas, and I'm going to list them here, in the hope that doing so might shame me into actually writing them:

  • More specific places in the ATWC setting, drawing on different bits of Central Asian history and geography, in order to make the world outside the Wicked City a bit more concrete. This is a bit of a balancing act, because I do want to preserve the sense of the sheer scale of the Great Road and the steppe and the taiga, and nothing will kill that quicker than carving them up into a set of clearly defined polities. But I think they're probably a bit too vague at present.
  • In a similar vein, some tables to create random steppe khanates and oasis kingdoms, to fill in whatever blank bits of the map the PCs might happen to wander into. (I already have these for cities of the Great Road.) 
  • Some random religion generation tables, to reflect the sheer diversity of faiths, traditions, and heresies which proliferate along the Great Road. 
  • A short adventure: something like The Tower of Broken Gears, but actually set within the Wicked City itself, illustrating how it might be used in play. 
  • Another short adventure set out in the wilderness, illustrating how the ATWC spirit world might actually be used in a game. 
So that - along with making some actual progress on 'The Coach of Bones' and maybe rewriting some more Pathfinder adventure paths - is my blog objective for the next six months or so. Whether I actually manage to get there, of course, is an entirely separate matter. But at least I have a destination...

Photo: Courtesy Land Art Mongolia:

Thursday 16 February 2017

Sophie the Muscle Wizard and the joys of random character generation

The Team Tsathogga group finished playing through Death Frost Doom this week, and one PC didn't make it out alive. The session ended with the party heading for a nearby magical academy in the hope of selling the wizards some of the creepy magical junk they'd found during the adventure, so the dead PC's player quickly rolled up a replacement character, reasoning that there might be someone at the academy whom the party could recruit to bring them back up to full strength. Rolling 3d6 in order, she got:

Strength 16
Dexterity 13
Constitution 4
Intelligence 10
Wisdom 4
Charisma 7

She considered these stats for a few moments, and then said:

'My new character is called Sophie. She was a student at the magical academy, but she wasn't really clever enough to keep up and kept getting disappointing grades. (Int 10) Thrown into depression by a failed exam, she tried to make herself feel better by pumping iron at the college gymnasium. (Str 16) Unwisely (Wis 4) she devoted herself to extreme workout routines which ended up completely wrecking her health. (Con 4) After trying and failing to justify her powerlifting obsession to her tutors (Cha 7), she was thrown out of the academy, and is now looking for adventure!'

And thus Sophie the Muscle Wizard was unleashed upon the world.

I imagine her as looking kinda like this.

One of her fellow PCs is an equally extreme case. With Strength 5, Dexterity 8, Constitution 9, Intelligence 6, Wisdom 10, and Charisma 18, Jack the Fighter seemed doomed to an early and ignominious death; but sixteen sessions after his player's eyes first widened in horror at the stats he'd just rolled for his new character, he's still going strong. (As strong as one can with Strength 5, anyway.) Weak, clumsy, unfit, and amazingly stupid, Jack is just so damn pretty that he seems to be able to get away with almost anything, and he's more than once provided vital contributions by sweet-talking guards, traders, and other NPCs into doing things that they know they shouldn't, simply because they couldn't resist the power of his innocent, dopey smile. We mostly play him as Derek Zoolander in D&D-land.

Image result for zoolander miner
Jack the Fighter descends into yet another dungeon...

These examples are comic, which isn't accidental - incongruity is one of the basic elements of comedy - but I'm confident that you could take the same stats and come up serious, and even bleak, interpretations of the characters they represented. And you would almost never get characters like this using point-buy methods - not because they're impossible to build (although under some systems they might be), but because you'd probably never come up with them in the first place. With a whimsical enough player, and a sufficient lack of emphasis on powergaming, you might get as far as 'bodybuilder wizard' or 'dim-witted prettyboy'; but in each case there are other elements (like Jack's physical weakness or Sophie's catastrophic lack of wisdom) which result purely from the whim of the dice. But the odd combinations of traits that sometimes arise from random character generation create characters who won't fit neatly into their predefined niches, and whose mere existence thus forces the game to unfold in less predictable ways.

Much though I love the sight of people rolling 3d6 in order, I don't think it's inherently superior to other ways of generating characters. If you're keen on power balance, or heroic characters, or just on giving players control over what kind of PCs they end up playing, then completely random character generation is obviously a terrible idea. (This is part of the reason why, in my current group each player has two PCs: it ensures that having one weaker or less serious character isn't such a big deal.) But random chargen does have a charm of its own, a charm which is rooted in the very things which probably led most groups to abandon it in the first place: the danger that the dice might give you a weird, weak, flawed character rather than the awesome Conan or Gandalf knock-off you'd been building up in your imagination, and consequently force you to go off-script.

To put it another way, I already know how Conan will approach being dropped into D&D-land: the kind of adventures he's likely to have, the ways he's likely to deal with problems, and so on. I've been gaming for a long time now, and there's not a lot of mental stimulation left for me in watching another Mighty Warrior do Mighty Warrior Stuff. Sophie the Muscle Wizard, by contrast, represents a combination of traits which I've never seen before, and in consequence I find I have no idea how she's likely to respond to her upcoming adventures. I'm very much looking forward to finding out, though!

Sunday 12 February 2017

New B/X class: the faerie

One thing I rather liked about Mazes and Minotaurs was the idea of having 'nymph' as one of the core character classes. If you're aiming to evoke Greek mythology, then this makes pretty good sense: nymphs turn up everywhere in those stories, to the point where there might be almost as many nymphs in Greek myths as there are actual human women. (Take a look at the sheer length of the list here, for example.) At the same time, though, as a character concept it comes with a lot of limitations: you have to be female, you have to be beautiful, you're probably going to spend a lot of time swimming around naked, and so on. It made me wonder: what might a less restrictive version of the 'sexy nature spirit' concept look like as a character class? And then I got thinking about how the D&D elf really has very little in common with the elfin knights and fae ladies of medieval literature and folklore, and I came up with this...

Image result for la belle dame sans merci

The Faerie

To-hit and hit dice: As per cleric.

Saves: As per elf.

Weapons and armour: Faeries can use any weapons, but are too frail to fight effectively in metal armour.

XP per level: As per elf.

Fae Traits: All faeries bear some physical marks of their inhuman heritage, marks which become more pronouced as they increase in power. Roll 1d20 on the following table at level one, and again at each subsequent level. If you roll the same trait more than once, it becomes much more pronounced (e.g. green-tinted skin becomes leaf green, hip-length hair becomes ankle length, and so on). High level faeries tend to look both freaky and fabulous. 

  1. Inhuman hair colour (e.g. blue, green, violet).
  2. Inhuman skin tone (e.g. tinted green, blue, or purple). 
  3. Flowers grow naturally in your hair in all seasons.
  4. Songbirds and butterflies follow you around whenever possible.
  5. You eyes resemble those of a cat, brilliant green with a vertical slit pupil. 
  6. Your body has a pleasant but distinctive floral aroma, noticeable whenever you walk into a room.
  7. You are extremely androgynous, and could easily pass as male or female unless completely naked.
  8. You have extremely long hair (hip-length or longer) - if cut it grows back at 1d6 inches per day.
  9. Your smile literally lights up the room. (Illumination equivalent to a candle, although it's uncomfortable to maintain it for too long.)
  10. You are very, very tall. 
  11. You are very, very thin.
  12. You appear slightly translucent when seen in moonlight or starlight.
  13. You have extremely long fingernails, which oddly do not interfere with your manual dexterity.
  14. Instead of tears, you weep tiny, transparent crystals, which shatter when they hit the floor.
  15. Your shadow takes the shape of different wild animals, depending on your current mood.
  16. When happy, you start to levitate several inches off the ground.
  17. Your limbs are extraordinarily flexible, as though they had several additional joints.
  18. Your ears are long and sharply pointed.
  19. Your teeth are long and sharply pointed.
  20. Whenever your blood falls upon the earth, stands of beautiful, vivid-red flowers spring up 1d6 minutes later.
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Night Vision: Even the faintest moonlight or starlight allow you to see as well as full sunlight, although complete darkness will still blind you.

Soulless: You cast no reflection in mirrors, and suffer a -1 penalty to all rolls while standing on ground consecrated to a Lawful deity. Beneficial cleric spells (including Cure spells) have only half their normal effect when cast upon you.

Glamour: Glamour is the illusion-magic of the fae. You have a number of Glamour points equal to your level: a Charisma of 13 or higher grants +1, and a Charisma of 16 or higher grants +2. You may spend one point of glamour to entrance someone with your otherworldly charisma, as per a Charm Person spell. Your glamour pool refreshes each day at sunset.
  • At level 2, you may spend 1 Glamour to cast Sleep.
  • At level 3, you may spend 1 Glamour to cast Phantasmal Force.
  • At level 4, you may spend 1 Glamour to cast Obscuring Mists.
  • At level 5, you may spend 2 Glamour to cast Hold Person.
  • At level 6, you may spend 2 Glamour to cast Invisibility.
  • At level 7, you may spend 2 Glamour to cast Mirror Image or Suggestion.
  • At level 8, you may spend 2 Glamour to cast Confusion.
  • At level 9, you may spend 3 Glamour to cast Hallucinatory Terrain.
  • At level 10, you may spend 3 Glamour to cast Invisibility 10' Radius.
  • At level 11, you may spend 3 Glamour to cast Massmorph.
  • At level 12, you may spend 4 Glamour to cast Geas.
  • At level 13, you may spend 4 Glamour to cast Mass Invisibility.
  • At level 14, you may spend 4 Glamour to cast Polymorph Self or Polymorph Other.
  • At level 15, you may spend 5 Glamour to cast Mass Charm or Power Word Blind.

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The Old Speech: You gain the ability to speak to birds at level 2; at level 4 this extends to other animals, at level 6 to insects, and at level 8 to plants. Any creature you can talk to (including giant and magical versions) with hit dice equal to or less than your own also counts as a 'person' for the purposes of your Charm Person and Hold Person abilities. Suitably large charmed animals will usually consent to be used as mounts.

Weave Gossamer: At level 3, you gain the ability to weave flowers, leaves, and spiderwebs into fantastical garments that never tear, never get creased or muddy, and look amazing. Any time you wear gossamer garments instead of armour, you get +1 to reaction rolls from all intelligent creatures. If anyone other than you attempts to wear your gossamer clothes, they will instantly realise that they aren't nearly pretty enough to pull off your look successfully, and must save or be thrown into a deep depression for 1d6 hours. Making a set of gossamer clothes takes 12 hours.

Changeling: At level 5, you gain the ability to change your appearance to match someone else's. Spending 1 Glamour allows you to maintain this disguise for a number of hours equal to your level. Spending 1 additional Glamour also allows you to mimic their voice for the duration.

Makeshift Men: At level 7, you can spend one hour and 1 Glamour sculpting a heap of leaves, sticks, and mud into a roughly-humanoid shape, which then comes to life as an ugly, goblin-like being. Makeshift men have the same statistics as goblins, and maintaining their animation costs 1 Glamour per day. They're not very bright, but will obey you to the best of their ability, because they know that their continued existence depends upon your will. If killed or de-animated, they collapse back into twigs and dirt.

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Thursday 9 February 2017

Monsters from improbable sources 3: conversations with a two-year-old

The other day, I was washing my two-year-old son in the bath when he suddenly said: 'You not a bahmu!'

'What's a bahmu?' I replied.

'Bahmu is big pet', he explained. 'In woods.'

'What colour is it?'

'Is red. Bahmu has legs. Is scary!'

'So the bahmu is a big, scary red pet with legs that lives in the woods. Is it furry?'

'No, is not. Bahmu have red teeth!'

'Is bahmu friendly?'

'No, is scary!'

'What does bahmu do?'

'Bahmu say RAAARH!'

I appreciated this conversation, because it gives me an excellent opportunity for finding out whether I am, in fact, living in a horror movie. All I need to do is take my son into the nearest forest, say the magic words 'So where does the bahmu live?', and then see whether I am horribly killed within the next five minutes by a giant red monster with teeth. My son, of course, would survive unscathed, because as the only witness it would be his job to tell the bemused detectives how bahmu ate daddy, bahmu is big red pet, bahmu live in woods...

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  • Bahmu: AC 15, 4 HD, +4 to hit, bite (1d12 damage), saves 10, morale 9, special attacks: roar. 

Bahmu are large, loping creatures, like a bald red ape crossed with a hairless wolf, whose almost-human faces are dominated by enormous mouths full of sharp red teeth. They normally move on all fours, although they can balance (slightly unsteadily) on their hind legs if they need to grab or bite at something that would otherwise be out of reach. They are superb burrowers and excellent climbers, their big clawed hands serving to dig through earth and grip onto trees with equal skill. Their preferred habitat is dense forests. 

Bahmu are entirely unnatural, having been magically bred as pets and guard dogs by an ancient and thankfully long-vanished civilisation. Although long-since gone feral, they still cling to the regions once inhabited by their former masters, lurking in the ruins of their overgrown cities as though hoping that, if only they wait long enough, their original owners might finally return. They are long-lived and hardy, and while their highly territorial nature will lead them to eviscerate anyone they see as trespassing into their territory, their ancient genetic imperatives mean that they are mentally conditioned to behave in various pet-like ways that now seem oddly out of keeping with their ferocious nature: they will placidly allow themselves to be played with by cats, dogs, and small children, and are scrupulously cleanly in their habits. If you could catch and domesticate one at a young enough age it would make a brilliant housepet, provided you had a big enough garden and you didn't mind it occasionally eating your neighbours. 

Bahmu prefer to attack from ambush, either dropping down from the treetops or bursting up through the soil from one of their hidden underground burrows. (They see excellently in the dark.) If anything survives their initial assault they will emit a terrifying roar which induces supernatural terror in all non-bahmu who hear it, forcing them to save or flee in panic for 1d6 rounds. 

Bahmu is big pet.

Bahmu is scary.

Bahmu have red teeth.

Bahmu say 'RAAARH!'

Thursday 2 February 2017

More Devonshire folklore for The Coach of Bones

Last August, I half-seriously suggested writing an adventure for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, set in Devon during the chaotic aftermath of Monmouth's 1685 rebellion and provisionally entitled The Coach of Bones. Since then, my work commitments have kept me from getting very far with it, but I do still keep an eye out for material I might want to use in it from time to time. In November I posted a list of 20 Dartmoor legends for potential incorporation into the module, and since then I've gathered a bunch of other Devonshire folktales and ghost stories which I feel could fit right into a spooky D&D adventure. If you used everything from both lists you'd have enough material to stock an entire hexcrawl set in seventeenth-century Devon - which is pretty much what I may end up writing, if The Coach of Bones ever gets beyond the drafting stage...

If anyone's interested, I mostly got these from Devon Ghosts (1982) by Theo Brown.

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Tavistock Abbey, circa 1784.

The Tunnels of Tavistock Abbey: According to local legend, there is a hidden network of vaults and tunnels beneath the ruins of Tavistock Abbey, stretching out beneath Tavistock itself. A local clergyman once found an entrance to these tunnels, and walked in them for some way before being surprised by the sudden appearance of a pair of monks, who bowed politely to him before disappearing back into the darkness. Spooked by this encounter, and deeply uncertain whether the 'monks' he had just met were ghosts or living men, he left the tunnels, and was never afterwards able to locate their entrance.

Squire Cabell: Wicked Squire Cabell of Brook Manor used to abduct local girls, whom he imprisoned in his house at Hawson, just across the valley; he was also rumoured to have sold his soul to the devil. When he lay dying in 1677, the demonic 'wish hounds' of Dewer the Huntsman gathered around his house, howling horribly; and they have howled for him ever since, calling him to join them in their hunts. The people buried him outside Buckfastleigh church, with a large stone slab over his grave to stop him climbing out of it, and a heavy stone tomb on top of the slab to weigh him down even further. In the side of the tomb is a solid oak door with a large keyhole, a door which is never opened or unlocked. The local children sometimes dare one another to place their fingers inside the keyhole, to see if Cabell will bite them off...

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William De Tracy and his comrades murder St Thomas Becket, 1170.

William De Tracy:
After the murder of St Thomas Becket, one of his killers, Sir William De Tracy, is said to have hidden himself in a cave near Ilfracombe, where he was sustained by the provisions that his daughter lowered down to him in a basket. He later died in the Holy Land; but his ghost is said to have returned to Ilfracombe in death, where on stormy nights he rides furiously back and forth across the Woolacombe Sands.

The Spreyton Haunting: In 1683, the residents of a house in Spreyton were tormented by a malicious spirit which appeared sometimes as a woman, sometimes as a horse, and sometimes as a monstrous, fire-breathing hound. Under its influence windows broke, objects moved, laces crawled across the ground like snakes, and a cravat attempted to strangle its wearer; once a man was even hurled bodily into the air, only to be found later hanging from the branches of a tree in a nearby bog, apparently in a state of trance. Finally, a bird flew in through a window carrying an odd brass object, with which it struck one of the household on the head. The people broke this brass object into pieces, and shortly afterwards the haunting apparently came to an end.

The Sokespitch Barrel: The Sokespitch family of Marsh Barton, who held the same land from the twelfth to the nineteenth century, were at some point granted a magical beer-barrel by the pixies, which was enchanted never to run dry. They kept this barrel for many generations, until one day a curious maidservant opened it up to look inside it. Within she found only masses of cobwebs, and beer never flowed from the barrel again.

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The ruins of Frithelstock Priory.

Our Lady of Frithelstock: In 1351, the monks of Frithelstock Priory were condemned by the Bishop of Exeter for their unauthorised erection of a stone chapel containing a statue of a woman, which had rapidly become an object of veneration among the surrounding population. The monks claimed that the statue was a representation of the Virgin Mary; the bishop, unconvinced, replied that it looked more like 'proud and disobedient Eve or unchaste Diana', and ordered the destruction of both statue and shrine. Odd psychic phenomena have occurred intermittently in the area ever since.

The Hairy Hands: The road across Dartmoor from Princeton to Moretonhampstead is haunted by something which manifests as a pair of huge, hairy hands. The hands grab travellers, throw people from carts and horses, and scrabble at windows after dark: all who see them are filled with instinctive horror, and feel intuitively that they are malevolent to human life. Some locals speculate that the area was once home to a race of hairy men, who inhabited the region before the humans came, and whose spirits still hold a grudge against the people who displaced them.

The Roborough Down Cannibal: A man was once travelling across Dartmoor with his two children in a severe snowstorm when he chanced across an isolated house, inhabited by a single old woman. He and his children sheltered with her for the night, and he then left his children in her care while he proceeded to Plymouth through the snow: but upon his return she claimed they had gone missing during the night. Subsequent investigations revealed that she had killed and eaten them, and that she had in fact been murdering and eating vulnerable travellers for some years. After her death, her house was allowed to fall into ruin, and is now said to be haunted.

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Beetor Cross.

Beetor Cross: Beetor Cross was once the site of a gibbet, posted to deter the highwaymen who used to lie in wait there for travellers. Presumably the ghost of one of them still lingers there, as travellers encounter an unseen presence which seizes hold of them as they pass, sometimes attempting to drag riders from their horses. Then again, the haunting may be much older, as local traditions claim that the area was once the site of a great battle between the Saxons and the Celts...

The Battle of Fenny Meadows: In 1549, the Prayerbook Rebels were massacred by the king's army on the banks of the River Otter, near Fenny Bridges. On moonlit nights the old battlefield can sometimes be seen to fill with phantom horsemen, wading knee-deep in human blood.

The Phantom Cottage: Near Buckfastleigh once stood a cottage inhabited by an elderly couple, who had a very evil reputation with the local people. After they died, the cottage decayed until only its foundations remained; but travellers at twilight sometimes see it still standing on its old site, with the old man and woman still sitting inside it, warming their wicked hands by the fire.

Tantrobobus: A gigantic ghost by this name is said to roam the North Devon coastline.

The Headless Goat: A headless goat wanders Dartmoor in the region of Sherril, blood dripping from its severed neck. Sometimes it leaps out of hedges to surprise passing travellers.

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Longaford Tor.

The Foxes of Longaford Tor: The foxes of Longaford Tor have a taste for human flesh, sometimes attacking lone travellers in the winter, tearing their bodies apart, and dragging their bones down into their holes. They are especially active around midwinter, when the locals are careful to avoid them for fear of being devoured.

The Dark Men of Dartmoor: Small, dark-skinned men dressed in animal skins are occasionally glimpsed on Dartmoor, sometimes in the act of climbing out of or disappearing into hidden holes. Locals disagree on whether these are the ghosts of the land's original inhabitants, or an actual lost race which has remained hidden underground ever since.

The Village of Changelings: In a village near Chudleigh, it was noticed that the villagers tended to be unusually small. The people of the surrounding region attributed this fact to a long-ago pixie raid in which all the children in the village were stolen away and replaced with changelings, whose fey blood and diminutive stature was naturally inherited by their descendants.

Cutty Dyer: This river-giant lives in the River Yeo. During the day, Cutty Dyer sleeps beneath the water, under the shadow of bridges; but at night he sometimes rises up and tries to pull passers-by into the water to drown them, or else grabs them from behind, cuts their throats, and drinks their blood before throwing their corpses into the water. It is said that he was once a miller named Christopher Dyer, although how he came to take on his current monstrous form is unclear. His grim exploits are remembered in a local children's song:

Dawn't'ee go down the riverzide:
Cutty Dyer du abide.
Cutty Dyer ain't no gude:
Cutty Dyer'll drink yer blood!

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