Thursday, May 31, 2018

Dinosaurs Fuck Off

So settings have a prehistory--the stuff that happened way before the common era.  They're usually either:

(a) tediously enumerated with faux-mythology, or
(b) just sort of ignored, and assumed to be the same as Vanilla Earth

Both of them are fine, but there's a lot of fertile ground between those two fence posts.

None of this is canon; I'm just spinning my axles.
Image result for world tree

The Age of Stars

In this Age, the Authority arrived in the sky above Centerra and constructed his throne: the Sun (which was a golden disc, and not yet illuminated).

He decided that he would create Life, and that the purpose of that Life would be to Worship.  That would be what Good was.

The Authority decided to organized the luminous heavens into stars, which would be arranged geometrically in the heavens.  The star-lines would be worshipful in their repetition.  They would be  made to twinkle according to mathematical sequences, forming great cathedrals of logic, the grids from which they would conduct the dignified business of worship.

Eventually, the Authority became tired of his sublime geometries.  They composed beautiful chords of light, but they never produced anything that he didn't teach them.  They had become repetitive.

And so the Authority decided that he would create better servants.  They would have to have an element of randomness to them, so that they could compose better praise.  And they would need to have the ability to self-refine, so that the most successful types of worship would become abundant and successful, while the least successful types of worship would shrivel up and become extinct.

He almost got it right the first time.

The Degenerate Age

This is where the Authority fucked up.  The first organism he created was Sathla, a vast and impossible creature that covered a continent and contained all possible biologies.

She was meant to be iterative: each brood she produced would be judged according to their fitness (the acceptance of their worship).  After receiving their judgement, Sathla would then reabsorb all of her children (which was easy enough when you cover the entire continent).  She would then spawn the next generation based on the most successful individuals, as well as some permanent worshippers.

This is pretty similar to how life works now, except that the continent would eat you when you hit middle-age and force you to mate with all of your friends inside your mother's cavernous fallopian tubes, followed by a debriefing and swift (but not unpleasant) digestion.

Sathla was quite clever with her flesh--there was a great deal of neural sponge cradling her uterine cathedria.  She would learn what worked and adapt.  This would not be a blind process.

In this way, Sathla would eventually produce the most elegant worship of the Authority possible, even accounting for the fickle metagame of the Authority's changing tastes.  (Bacchanals are out.  Sestinas are in.)

This plan got fucked up almost immediately.  Many of Sathla's children escaped reabsorption.  Many abhorrent biologies were produced that were offensive to the Authority.  And with directed intelligence came a sort of manipulation.  Sathla never worked against the Authority (she was incompatible with the very idea, in fact), but she worked hard to ensure that her children met with more approval than the actually deserved by using such tools as guilt, flattery, and loose definitions of identity.

Besides, she loved her children, and preferred to transform them rather than destroy them, and would do so whenever possible.  Additionally, she had her own ideas of what the Authority preferred, which differed from what he said he preferred.

This isn't to say that Sathla didn't find some success: some of the most ancient angels were actually created by this process.

When the Authority closed the door on this misbegotten project (a few million years too late) Sathla was nearly destroyed by his withdrawal.  Without unity, her body tore itself apart again and again, as a million competing cancers struggled for escape and dominance.

She split into competing schools of flesh in a process that was simultaneously mutiny, cancer, and evolution.

A great many animals evolved in the Degenerate Age as creatures tore themselves in half.  The Serpicant, the Black Pudding, and the elder chimeras.  (It is a common misconception that chimeras are formed by lesser creatures that fused together into the greater.  They have it backwards.)

Most were composed of pieces that would seem to be singular animals today.  A living tank that rolled around on tank treads composed of fused elephants.  Enormous bi-directional tortoises whose shells were filled with conjoined snakes that served the same function as a nematocyst on coral.  

Nearly everything had an surfeit of heads.

This is the process that spawned both the Serpicant, the Black Pudding, the Unfinished Leviathans.

One of Sathla's surviving offspring is Elcoroth, one of the founding members of Zala Vacha.

Anyway, the Authority turned the planet inside out and put all of this mess in there, along with a few of the most disappointing stars.

It was a bit like flipping over a piece of paper in order to draw on the other side, except it took 200 million years and nearly everything died.

The Age of Mounds

Having learned from his mistakes, the Authority decided that he would reward Good Deeds with Calories.  What was Good would be rewarded with Calories, so that it would be able to produce more of itself.

Just like the last Genesis, this one would be iterative.

He didn't realize it, but this time the Authority had accidentally invented evolution.

This age favored sacrosynthetic metabolisms, and after a few hundred million years, This caloric distribution scheme eventually produced the Holy Mounds.  They were soil-dwelling networks of flesh that great to incredible sizes simply by thinking holy thoughts and avoiding all violence.

They resembled small hills with a wind tunnel scooped through the middle of them.  Ringed with forests of flagellar villi, these wind tunnels blew air through their midsections.  This allowed them to sing praise to the Authority while simultaneously absorbing carbon and nitrogen from the air.  (Their holyness only gave them calories.  They still needed to pluck carbon from the air.)

Their offspring were flying worms that crossed continents, powered by a similarly powerful inner wind tunnel, until they burrowed into a promising section of unclaimed land.

Some say that the Holy Mounds were the predecessors to the Paladins of the Voice.

Another type of creature was the Suffer-Blob.  They survived by being hyper-sensitive to pain, and thus surviving on the modicum of karmic calories that their suffering provided.  Their lives were so miserable (it hurts to breath, it hurts to blink) that the Authority felt bad allowing such horribly disadvantaged creatures to starve.

There were also Nurses, gangling creatures that survived by taking care of Suffer-Blobs, and thus earning some karmic calories through these good deeds.

The Authority eventually realized that this process was just creating ecosystems that were born to suffer, take care of suffering things, and eventually die noble deaths protecting their young.  It was all so. . . unnecessary, and yet it was the natural consequence of the natural laws that he had designed.

And so the Authority discovered Moral Ecology.

He decided to try making calories transferable, so that creatures could use them as currency in exchange for goods and services.  This quickly led to parasitism and carnivory, which nauseated the Authority.  (Violence existed prior to this, along with teeth and fangs.  But the consumption of other creatures, this was new.)

And so the Authority discovered Regular Ecology.

He decided that this whole mess was rather fucked, and would go back to Worship instead of Good Deeds, this time incentivized by caloric inputs.

The Suffer-Blobs died quickly when the caloric distribution schema was changed, but the Holy Mounds survived for a long time.

The Age of Trees

Calories would be appointed to the creatures that displayed the most worshipful displays.  He would turn the planet into a peacock.

The first creatures that evolved to take advantage of this caloric distribution scheme were things that covered the ground like tarps, covered with colorful mandalas.  But them some of them evolved to stand atop little stems, and to spread their patterns like an umbrella, not unlike a small tree.

This evolutionary arms race continued for millions of years.  The trees eventually became taller, and the patterns bigger.  In order to avoid being blown over by the wind, they split their spreading patterns into smaller leaves.  And they grew in such a way as to show the most of their leaves to the Authority.

Trees didn't maximize their photosynthetic areas in order to absorb photons from the sun, they maximized their sancrosynthetic area in order to show the sun pleasing images.

The colors and patterns were riotous in those days.  The trees were priests, of a sort.  They contemplated holy things (like their predecessors, the Mounds) and preached to all the animals who would listen, which was normally only the creatures that parasitized and/or ate them.

<digression>To this day, aphids still remember fragments of this ancient wisdom, passed down through a billion generations.  The aphids know that they are special, and they may even know the true name of the Authority, who the humans call Dumadiyei (rhymes with 'my ma says hey') when they use his name to work miracles.</digression>

This is also the age when the Authority first lit the sun.  More light would allow him to see what beautiful things his children were showing him.

After 400 million years, he had grown tired of all possible designs, patterns, poetry, hues, fractals, compositions, chromastrobic follies, and synthetic para-colors.  The only thing he still enjoyed was a single color--his favorite one.  From then on, calories would be distributed to whatever organism showed him that color.

You can guess what color it was.

The Age of Disappointment

The Authority began to lose hope that he would ever redeem this mess.  He contemplated destroying the whole thing, but was halted by the prospect of the massive amount of suffering that would entail, as well as the billion years it would take to do the job properly.  He was getting older, after all.

Perhaps there was another unspoiled planet somewhere else?  An egg that he could pull a more beautiful hatchling from?

And so the Authority departed Argosa.  He would not return for a long time.

Bonus Links

Other people have done similar posts about fantastic prehistory, staring with a couple of people that were talking about it before I was thinking about it.

If you want more. . .

False Machine extrapolates ancient life-forms.
Scrap Princess extrapolates nonsense myths into semi-nonsense.
Skerples talks about troll epochs.
Dan makes everything weird and a little funny.
Dunkey tells us of the Second Bird Age, unfortunately.  (I hope that's your most enduring creation.)
Skerples takes several thoughts to their conclusions.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Isles of the Dead: Twine Edition

Remember when I entered the One-Page Dungeon Contest with a dungeon that was meant to be run after a TPK?

A fellow named David Sky has made it into a Twine game.  You can play it 

It's pretty great except you don't get to tease Hans and as far as I can tell, there's no way to get stuck in hell as a crow.  The tower is fun.

Also this reminds me of a thing that Dunkey made once that was also doubleplusgood.  I meant to link to it at some point, but forgot.  Sorry, Dunkey(s).

(This is not a Patreon post, as I did 0% of the work.)

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Dustwind and the Zaris Malgunnun

I started writing Centerra setting info back in 2010.  One of the first things I wrote were these places: the Dustwind and the Zaris Malgannum.  You can tell its from an early source because 'Dustwind' is sort of a stupid name (see also: Underdark).  August 20th, 2010 to be precise.

'Zaris Malgannum' is pretty awesome though.  I love that name.

every name on this map has a writeup somewhere in my computer

The Dustwind

The Dustwind was formed when Eladras fell to Earth.

Eladras was the ancient elven homeland: an enormous tree.  It's roots were in the moon, and the furthest tips of its branches brushed the mountaintops of Centerra.

It survived the Time of Fire and Madness only to later succumb to its own, private apocalypse.

Many of its fragments persisted as free-falling orbital biomes.  The druids somehow salvaged a seed and used it to grow Aglabendis, the Tree of Beasts, destined to destroy all civilization.  Its dead roots form the halls of Rah Shem Bool, the greatest of the lunar cities.

When the pieces fell into the Dustwind, they shattered.  Long limbs crossed valleys, each chambered with elven homes and entomo-gardens.

Even with a disaster of that magnitude, many elves survived.  Their homes were shattered, filled with the unreachable corpses of their families.  Many were killed as more flaming debris fell from the sky over the next night.

But the elves had hope, and they had magic.  They coaxed life back into the dying branches.  They sent down fresh roots and grew new branches.  Lights gleamed from the windows of new-sprung gall-houses for a while.  Taproots uncovered water, deep under the Dustwind.

They would have survived if Zevernus hadn't found them.


Zevernus is the eponymous Dustwind.  He is a Wind, like many other spirits of the air.

Unlike them, he is not of this world.  He is a refugee from the Milk Star, one of nine stars the Church has identified as moral hazards.

Those who observe the Milk Star for too long become determined to travel there.  This desire becomes obsessive and self-destructive, and many of its victims die in the pursuit of this foolish mania.

Sometimes, however, the victims leap skyward on moonless nights, and fly away cackling.  They are never heard from again.

Star-fools who are restrained from flying to their star eventually go howling mad.  After several weeks of this, they eventually die, leaving behind an empty husk and a pool of poisonous 'milk', hence the name of the star.

But I digress.

Zevernus hails from that evil star.  He has never been persuaded, befriended, nor coerced into telling what he knows of that place.  He spends his days and nights arranging the sand into vast geometric patterns.  Whether art or alphabet, no one knows.

He has been described as a "sucking" wind, rather than the regular "blowing" winds that we are all familiar with.  He has strange powers of desiccation and fossilization.  When he discovered the new-sprung elven homes, he destroyed them utterly.

He usually doesn't deign to interact with small groups of travelers, unless they interfere with his work.

The Petrified Forests

These are the last remnants of the elven refugees.  Half-buried ridges of petrified trees.

Beneath most of them are the hollow sections of elven construction.  Some are chambers from the original Eladras, with all of their strange wonder and artifice.  Other rooms are newly constructed, filled with the hopeful collections of desperate elves, and their fossilized bones.

These places are haunted by enormous, translucent ants.  Some say that they are elves who transformed themselves to survive the Dustwind.  Whatever the case, the ants seem to be uncannily familiar with elven technology, and are not accosted by protective enchantments or the surviving elven ashakkas (wood golems).

The Highway

Before the Great Tree fell, and perhaps before the arrival of Zevernus, there existed a system of aquaducts.

Now they exist only as sort of highway across the desert.  In some places, you can walk atop them for miles.  In other places, only the posts remain to guide you across the trackless hills of that place.

Many of the pillars have names and constructed shelters, as the desert does have its share of pilgrims.  Some of the pillars hold shrines.

At least one stylite calls the desert home, and meditates atop one section.  Her name is Vangoda, and she is an excellent source of information about the Dustwind.

And lastly, those who camp on the elevated highway are safe from the Dustwind's most famous danger, the Grinding People.

The Grinding People

They are basically zombies.  They run across the desert in large groups.  Most of them don't have arms.  They are called the Grinding People because they constantly grind their teeth.  It is the only sound that they make.

If you are bitten by one, you will be compelled to seek them out and join them.  Your mind will rot away, your soul will leak away from your flesh, and eventually your arms will fall off.  (The transition to undeath is very gradual, like a ghoul's.)

Their constant presence makes drives most travelers to the Highway.

The anatomy of the grinding people is unusual.  They grow teeth in their stomachs.  If you cut them open, their stomachs will be full of polished teeth, gleaming like pearls.  And their shoulders never seal over into stumps, but instead remains as holes.

When the arms fall off, they all crawl towards the Zaris Malgannum.

Digression Time: Endosymbiosis Theory

Wikipedia does a better job explaining it, but this is basically the idea that the mitochondria in our cells were once their own species.  Here's the quick version.

A long time ago, there was a single-celled organism that ate another, smaller single-celled organism, which persisted inside the first one.  The smaller organism persisted inside the larger one, breeding true.  And what's more, it proved to be really good at oxidative respiration, which was great for the larger cell, because it could get more energy out of its food.

The smaller cell went on to become mitochondria, which are present in all animal cells as an organelle with a fucked-up origin story.  The larger cells went on to become us (among other things).

This is perhaps similar to human gut bacteria, which can perform digestive feats that we cannot.  After we eat food, they eat the same food, making digestion more efficient.  Everyone wins.

With eons, the mitochondria lost a lot of their functionality.  They were no longer complete cells, and could no longer reproduce on their own.  They were just an appendage of the larger cell, entirely dependent on it.  Parts of the mitochondria genome fell away and were incorporated in the human genome.  We took their DNA and made it our own, in order to keep our pets alive.

Current mitochondria are vastly reduced things, a shadow of what they once were.  Mitochondria are so devoted to cellular respiration, that they are incapable of anything else.

Anyway, this is true for human mitochondria as well as for human hands.

Human Hands

Once there was a species of animal.  It was a mammal.  It didn't have hands or anything resembling hands.  It had hooves to help it run, or perhaps hooks to help it climb in the trees.

And there was another animal.  What it looked like wasn't important.  All that's important is that it had hands, and that it was most certainly not a mammal.

At some point, the first animal ate the second animal.  And against all odds, the second animal persisted within the first.  Not bodily, but functionally, it persisted in the germline.

<digression> Skeletons have a similar-but-different arrangement based on the Covenant of Flesh, made between the Flesh God and the Skeleton God long ago. </digression>

In fact, if you were to bring a microscope to Centerra and dissect some early human embryos, you would see that the hands develop independently from the body.  Only in the ninth week do they fully attach and become integrated into its body.

The second animal, the one that first invented hands, did not extinct.  The descendants from that ancient race persist, and can be found in the Zaris Malgannum.

The Zaris Malgannum

It's built like a strip mine.  An inverted ziggurat, ovoid and imperfect.  You can see the white walls from across the Dustwind, where they sheared through the shale strata of fossilized seabed.

The bottom floor of the inverted ziggurat is a vast mirror.  No dust collects there.  Zevernus is careful not to litter its surface, and the smaller winds of the Dustwind follow his example.

There are many entrances into the Zaris Malgannum, which weaves itself around the inverted ziggurat like a negative space bird's nest.

This is where hands breed true, with no human parasitizing their biology.

The ambrago are the final surviving finger on this evolutionary limb.  They are the masters of the Zaris Malgannum.

If you were to look upon one, you would see a tall, broad man in a heavy cloak.  The head is a giant hand, or something very much like a hand.

The rest of the ambrago's biology is concealed beneath the cloak.  They walk like old men, because they are old.  They suffer from a particular type of ossifying carpiculosis that inflames their synovia, and they have a great deal of joints.

Underneath the cloak is something like a man with bifurcated limbs, giving it a total of four limbs and eight hands.  All the limbs end in hands.  Though they walk like men, they run like horses.

At the center of their body is something akin to a face.  A beak-like mouth, ringed with palps and tactile hairs.  Radiating canals of auditory sulci.  Two more manipulating organs, similar to hands, attend to the face.

Ambragos communicate through a series of whistles, created by blowing through their hands.  They copulate through clapping, and spawn through budding.  Their crawling babies are nearly identical to human hands.

There's more to them than just the hand-theme.  They entomb their dead inside colonies of carnivorous plants that resemble coral.  They obtained the obedience of Zevernus by getting him addicted to ambragian music, which they practice religiously.  They sleep underneath furniture that resembles a padded turtle shell.  They eat spiced vegetables, threaded on long strings.

They employ a sort of weaponized feng shui.  Certain rooms become poisonous if the furniture is removed.  Taking certain paths through their labyrinthine dungeon causes brain lesions.  The players will have to learn some of these as they go: e.g. going under two arches of the same color in a row causes paralysis.

and you can use puzzles like this

The players won't care about most of this.  They'll just see the magic staves topped with big hands and the hand-faces and start with the puns.  You've been warned.

The ambrago are more than a little bit disgusted by the hands that humans have growing at the ends of their wrists.  They'll sever any hands that they can, and awaken them back into their rightful sentience.  Awoken human hands don't "grow" into adult ambrago, but they are usually loyal to the ambrago. 

Are there giant hands that serve the ambrago?  Of course.

Is there a severed hand of a titan in there as well?  Only one: Ashrendar's right hand.  (The titan's were primordial fire gods.  Each one was linked to a volcano that shared their name, like a dryad with her tree.)

All hands are their domain. 

They are very reasonable, and they are not evil.  But still, they will not want you to leave with your stolen appendages.  Humans are abominations, chimeras of two species.

Some Hand Themed Spells

  • Bigby's Hand.
  • Applause.  Opponent repeats the last action for 1d6 turns.
  • Finger Wag.  Opponent is banned from repeating its last action for 1d12 turns.
  • Magic Slaps.  Very high damage to unarmored opponents, very minimal damage to armored opponents.
  • Handiwork.  Does 10 hours of unskilled labor instantly.
  • Control Limb.
  • Detach Limb.  You still can't see out of it.  At a higher level, the limb can fly. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Party Sheets

Player characters have a state composed of many variables.  Hit points remaining, inventory, saves, etc.  All of this is reflected in the character sheet.

A player-facing character sheet: it helps with feelings of ownership, allows players to make informed decisions quickly, and potentially teaches some of the game mechanics.

The Party Sheet

Like individual players, parties also have a state composed of many variables: reputation, shared inventory, ongoing plots, etc.

Unlike a character sheet, this information isn't always player facing.  Most DMs inform their players through play, or through updates at the beginning/end of each session.  But the information isn't at the players' fingertips, and this is probably a shame.

Shared resources should be available to the whole party to examine, and liting them on a party sheet does exactly that.  But there's another, less obvious, benefit here: lots of information that was previously in front of one player (or just the DM) is now on a sheet that the players can pass around between themselves.  This helps with transparancy and awareness, which in turn helps with agency.

So let me talk about all of the things that might belong on a party sheet.

Shared Inventory

So the party bought a pony to carry their 200 lbs of calimari rations.  This pony usually exists as a loose piece of paper, attached to a character sheet via paperclip.  This player might be the ponymaster, and do all the imaginary work of feeding the pony and all the actual work of being the pony's accountant.

If the pony's inventory is on the party sheet, the party can just pass it around and shuffle calimari rations as they see fit.  Efficient!

There's another, less obvious advantage here.  If everyone is looking at the pony's inventory, everyone is more aware of what the pony is carrying.  This doesn't necessarily happen if the ponymaster is the only person who is looking at the the pony's inventory.

Honestly, players should probably look at each other's character sheets a little bit more.  It's good for versimilitude ("I didn't know your character was fourteen years old!") as well as for tactical awareness ("Micah, *you* have a mirror!  Throw it to me!")


Make this shit transparent.

Markov, Level 1 fighter, chainmail tunic, spear, 3 javelins.  Loyalty 12.  Cheerful.  Distrusts women.  Loves games of chance.

Sure, maybe fill in the personality traits after Markov has been adventuring with you for a while, or don't fill them in at all.  That's certainly optional.  The point is to give players more information at their fingertips.

I encourage you to list the Loyalty (Morale) of your hirelings.  It makes sense in-game, since you would know which hirelings seem more respectful, and which hirelings seem more bitter.  People talk, after all.

It also makes sense at the table, since players can see the consequences of how they treat their hirelings.  Each time they treat a hireling like a disposable resource, or the hireling's life is endangered, they can see the Loyalty drop.  Each time they treat a hireling like a fellow party member, or grant them some boon, they can see the Loyalty rise.

Wisdom / Passive Perception

I use this sometimes to figure out how much description I should give a player when they are alone.  Low wisdom characters get more minimal descriptions of things.  High wisdom characters get non-obvious descriptions of people's emotions.  ("You can tell that the dwarven rock-rider captain is intensely proud from the way that they stands and speaks.  His words are meant for his men as much as for you.")

When the party is all together, I just tell everyone everything.  That lets them make better-informed decisions.

If you're playing 5th edition, this is also a good place to put down everyone's passive perceptions.

Noise / Perception

I've written before about my Noise/Perception system.  Basically, random encounters are rolled on a d20.  You have a 15% chance of getting a random encounter (a roll of 1-3) and a 15% chance of finding traces of the random monster without encountering it (a roll of 4-6).  These chances correspond to Noise 3 (chance of getting a random encounter) and Perception 3 (chance of finding traces of the random monster without encountering it).

Encumbrance and pack animals increase your Noise.

Rangers increase your Perception.

A party composed of six rangers would have Noise 3 and Perception 9.  They would get a random encounter on a roll of 1-3, and encounter traces of a random encounter on a roll of 4-12.


Reputations are held with factions or with significant individuals.  They represent the party's ability to successfully request special treatment or favors.

They start at 1 (by default) and improve by 2-4 points at a spurt until 10, when they improve by 1-2 points at a time.  I also include a single word describing the nature of the reputation.  For example:

The Goblins of Mount Daggermouth 11 (awe of magic prowess)

King Oswic 9 (for service performed)

So, if the party asks the goblins of Mount Daggermouth to spy on the dragon on their behalf, the goblins have a 55% chance of accepting (11-in-20).  If the PCs back it up with a credible display of magical power (e.g. lightning bolting a tree), I'd probably give them a +4 bonus on this roll.  If they try to flatter the goblins by praising the goblins' power, I wouldn't give the +4 bonus, since it doesn't mesh with the reputation.

If the party asks King Oswic if they can read his dead daughter's diary, they have a 45% chance of success

Don't make reputation rolls if there's already a better way to settle it.  Business negotiations over the cost of a service are usually pretty cut and dry.  For example, just because you are friends with your drug dealer, don't expect cheaper rates, since prices are usually set.  Favoritism manifests in other ways: availability, information, opportunities, access.

Similarly, you don't need to make a roll if the conclusion is obvious.  If the party can credibly threaten the goblins with major destruction ("we can flood your caves with lava") then you don't need a roll to convince the goblins to spy on the dragon for you.  Just don't expect them to be incredibly loyal.

Team Spirits

Team spirits are spirits that respond when party members call on them.

  • Anyone in the party can use a team spirit.  It takes a standard action to invoke one.
  • Most team spirits can only be used a fixed amount of times (usually just once).
  • They are comparable to spells, usually just a minor spell, but sometimes a very powerful one.
  • You find them like treasure.

Team spirits are obtained by helping the local spirits/angels/daemons.  Restoring a head to a decapitated idol, saying prayers over a long-abandoned grave, freeing a luminescent spirit from where it was imprisoned inside a lantern, et cetera.

Once the party has a team spirit, any party member can invoke them.

<digression> A long time ago, I tried to fix the cleric's problem of being the heal monkey (which felt very salient in Pathfinder at the time).  People would need healing, and the cleric would spend all of their turns delivering heals.  My solution was just to give the cleric a divine spirit that followed him around.  Anyone in the party could petition the spirit for a heal, thereby saving the cleric an action.  To put it another way, clerical healing cost the healee an action, rather than the healer.  </digression>

Potential Drama

The party burns down the inn and leave town, never to return.

The party traps the wizard in his time cube, but are unable to kill him.  They leave this area of the map.

The party saves the life of a fairy princeling, who promises that he will repay this favor, someday, somehow.  Then he vanishes into a tulip.

In many games, these things are forgotten.  The party moves on, escaping their punishment or their reward.  And that's a loss, I think. 

One of the greatest things about a tabletop RPG (compared to a computer RPG) is that consequences can be both logical and wide-ranging.

Sometimes the consequences become visible when the party returns to the area.  Or sometimes the compaign is constrained enough that the party is always adjacent to the results of their actions.  But these conditions aren't guaranteed.  Better to have the effects revisit the party, instead of relying on the party to revisit the effects.

Here's my simple system:

On the party sheet, list all the potential drama that may come back to bite the party in the ass someday (for better or worse):  Grateful fairy prince.  Scorned wizard.  Angry, sober villagers.

Each session, roll a d6 for each of the potential aftereffects.  If you roll a 1, the party's history catches up with them:

  • a battalion of cricket lancers shows up and pledges their services until the next blue moon
  • an acid cloud shaped like the wizard's face chases the party for 48 hours
  • or the elephant-riding bounty hunters show up.

If you rolled a 1 one all three of the potential dramas, then all three of them will resurface this session.  (Probably all at the same time.)

Will an ensorcelled acid cloud chase the party through the dungeon?  Absolutely.  The elephant riders are more likely to ambush the party outside the dungeon, which might be potentially disasterous if the cricket lancers didn't already warn the party.

I've attached a chart of possible wizardly reprisals at the bottom of this post, just to get the ball rolling.  Feel free to write more.  (I already have some good ideas for goblin reprisals.)


1d6 Wizardly Reprisals

Because let's be honest, your party has probably pissed off a few wizards already.

1. Harpies show up, attack with tridents and feces (causes blindness until washed with snow, or blessed by a cleric).

2. Giant pink cloud shows up, taunts party, shrinks them all to 2 inches high.  Lasts 24 hours.  Have fun fighting velvet worms, you poor bastards.

3. Giant purple cloud shows up, taunts party, shrinks all of their possessions 100x.  Lasts 24 hours. 

4. Mushrooms start sprouting up around the party, releasing plumes of hallucinatory spores.  Each mushroom resembles the wizard.  At a minimum, the spores make navigation impossible (all directions are effectively randomized, because when you see four suns, how can you navigate?)  All encounters for the rest of the day have their appearance and speech randomized, to the best of your ability.

5. Powerful demon shows up, attacks the party to the best of its ability.  While it attacks, it complains about the wizard, describes the wizard's weaknesses, including how to deprive him of the services of this demon.  When defeated, the demon vanishes with an exasperated sigh.

6. Hired mercenaries, riding a titanosaur, forced into tractability through the use of a fragile obedience helmet.

7. Just a shit-ton of rust monsters, driven onward by a trio of cackling imps.  The rust monsters bleat like scared sheep, and they will very efficiently devour the party's metal.

8. A spirit that looks like a hummingbird with the wizard's head.  It will fly around you, tell people of your misdeeds, warn monsters that you are attempting to ambush, and generally just be a pest.  Incorporeal.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Four-Chambered Mountain

Vaboola spent the first half of her brief career searching for the smallest discrete unit of undeath.

When her labors yielded nothing, she exiled herself, perhaps as a form of repentance, perhaps as a type of new beginning.

For many years, she was forgotten.  When letters finally began to arrive, it was learned that she had settled on the Mondravian plains, to study the hills that grew there.

At its heart, each hill possessed a node of growstone, a type of stone that was known to increase in size over time.  Aside from that property, it was an otherwise unremarkable stone, similar to dolomite.

In her letters, Vaboola theorized that the stones were a meteoric organism.  Growth, after all, was one of the primary indicators of life.  To see growth in a stone was sure evidence that the stone was alive (in a biologic sense), or that the qualities of life were not as unique as scholars had believed.  She had hoped that pursuing such a line of inquiry might grant her some insight into the fundamentals of growth, and therefore life.

Which makes her fate only slightly ironic.


The Four-chambered Mountain is a vast and sepulchral thing.  It sits atop the Hill of the Mountain, a gentle swelling of the ground that results in a broad hill.  Approaching the Mountain by land, you will ascend a grassy incline for several miles before you reach the roots of the mountain.  Uniquely, the grassy incline is completely symmetrical all around the Mountain.

The Four-chambered Mountain has a strange shape: a rough cuboid.  While the mountain sides are steep and goat-infested, the crest of the mountain is broad and dotted with deep pools, full of gawping fish and mosquito larvae.

The stone of the Four-chambered Mountain is inert.  Unlike the growstone, it does not change size.


Vaboola built a house for herself on the plains.  It was made from mortared granite and plaster.  A stream curled around it, like the tail of a cat.

Her house had a simple kitchen and bedroom.  The southwest room was her alchemical lab (primarily composed of reagents stolen during her brief tenure at the Tower of Academy), and this was the largest of the rooms.  Around the room were different samples of growstone, arranged under different conditions (light, water, temperature, immersion in blood).  She was wondering if any of these conditions would affect the growth of the stones in any way.

Very little affected the growth of the stones, which continued to grow as they always did: imperfectly.  The stones would "puff" and "droop" as they grew, like marshmallows swelling inside a microwave.  

Cut stones would not preserve their shape.  In her letters, Vaboola described the stones as "striving" to return to naturalistic organizations.  Just as all elements of earth would seek to return to the earth (causing the phenomenon of gravity), so would stone strive to return to the shapes of its purpose: lumps, ridges, mounds, layers, cobbling.

She even went so far as to speculate that stones felt pain when they were cut into square shapes, or when they were thrown into the air.  Her later letters are full of speculation.


The Four-chambered Mountain is sometimes called the Great Cave, because of the enormous opening on the south side.  It yawns like a cave mouth, five hundred feet tall and roughly square.  At twilight, long caravans of white bats set out into the cloying dusk.

There are four caverns within the Four-chambered Mountain.  They are all linked by similarly large cave openings.  Each is large enough to hide an army (and one does).


The northwest room was where Vaboola kept her scrolls and geology samples.  On a table beside a reading chair, a taxidermied crow bore a candle.  The stuffed crow was capable of speech, but only during rainstorms, and only on subjects that were unpleasant to the listener, and only when the querent was alone.

It contained a minor spirit that Vaboola had trapped during her apprenticeship.  She described the trapped thing as petty, bitter, and cruel.

Vials had shattered unexpectedly in that room, and the window latch had once failed catastrophically during a downpour.  Perhaps most dramatically, a mouse had once died in the center of the room and then rotted into the carpet, all in the space of a single night.  

She was careful never to leave any fragile objects near the crow overnight, or any unattended candles in the room.


If you enter the Four-chambered Mountain from the primary mouth, you'll find yourself in an stone-littered cavern, well-illuminated by the sunlight entering behind you.  The ceiling of the cavern is lost in the haze, but you can sometimes hear the chittering when the bats crescendo.  They call it the Kitchen.

Plants grow in the darkness here, products of an unknown biology.  Slow-growing grasses push up through the guano like wisps of white hair.  Enormous lice shiver among the boulders, and ponderous roaches wander the roads of the cavern, pressing their broad foreheads to the floor.  Gargantuan demodex arrange stones into shapes that will amplify echoes towards their infundibular lairs.

The most remarkable feature of the cavern is the wooden plateau.  The upper surface can only be reached by climbing one of four wooden pillars that supports the upper plateau.  Each pillar is about 700' tall and made from what appears to be wood, but more porous and irregular, like a distorted sponge.

The "wood" is sick and crumbling.  It pulls away under your touch, like a rotten log.  

The cores of the pillars are stronger.  They must be, or else the plateau would fall.

No accurate account of the plateau's surface is known.  It is rumored to hold enormous structures: glass towers, ceramic domes.  


We do not know the exact nature of the disaster that killed Vaboola, or how she discovered such powerful magic.  Many, many academics are interested in these questions.  Vaboola was both well-known and well-liked.

Of all the groups that have explored the remains of her house, they all returned bearing interesting artifacts and bits of information.

The only exception was the first expedition, which made the mistake of eating the meat they found.  They were a group of rangers called the Mountain Guard, affiliated with two border barons that kept them supplied and busy.  They were chosen for their ability to resourcefulness and independence.


The second chamber of the mountain is known as the Bedroom.  It is a swamp of strange fibers and sodden mounds.  There are more giant cave lice here, and entire forests of mold.  Soft caverns filled with dripping cloth

Imagine a linen closet, dumped on the floor, soaked with water, and then magnified a thousand times.

At the back of the cavern, amid a landscape of broken "wood", are the bones.  They are enormous things, shattered in hundreds of places, and with strange tessellations of structure.  In some places they appear to be smaller bones fused together, in others, singular bones stretched out like taffy.

And all around, mountains of rotting meat.  So much, in fact, that it rots very slowly.  Bacteria permeate slowly, and even boring worms will remain near the surface.  The deeper anaerobic environments yield only to sluggest metabolisms.  Dig down into the rotting meat more than ten feet and you'll find sections that appear to be perfectly edible.


Many words have been spoken about the square-cube law and its implications in Vaboola's death.  Did her arteries collapse before her bones shattered?  She presumably died in her bed, supine.  As the blood drew away from her eyes and pooled at the back of her skull, was there a partial loss of consciousness?

And what thoughts went through her head during the process of her monstrous expansion?  For a while, she must have had the largest mind in existence.  Were any new levels of cognition revealed at that grand stage?  Or was it simply a larger container to hold all the pain of her body collapsing under its own maddening weight?

The details are arcane, but it seems to be sufficient to say that magic does not enlarge all objects at the same rate, at the same time, or through the same method.  There may be several different types of similar phenomena at work here.


The third chamber is the Laboratory.  Another "wooden" plateau, another cavern awash in giant insects.

This is where the Mountain Guard live.  They are pale and ragged from their years in the cave.  They regret ever eating any of Vaboola's flesh, because now they can never leave the Four-chambered Mountain.  

One step outside of the mountain, and their begin to dwindle.  Their skulls shrink, their teeth become tightened in their sockets.

Another step and spots swim in front of their eyes.  Their capillaries are beginning to seal up.

Another step and their eyes explode, crushed by their own skull.

Another step and it begins to get truly messy.

Two more steps and they are dead, killed by their own infeasible biology and the implications of magical reduction of size.

The Mountain Guard trade for most of what they need.  They trade in gold nuggets and alchemical reagents, both of which they seem to possess in plenitude.  Of course they do--any alchemist's table will include at least a small flask of gold shavings.

They are led by Captain Sila Oderec.  He is a brooding intellectual, loving nothing except his poetry and the men that he is responsible for.  He is quite different from his soldiers, who are by all accounts a violent and primitive lot.

They are known to execute their prisoners by climbing the scaffolding they've constructed around an enormous test tube and throwing them in.  The may tread the slimy water at the bottom of the test tube for as long as they wish, but they will always drown in the end.  Their killers will watch them through fogged glass.

Rumors abound that the soldiers have been looking to trade alchemical steel for female slaves, in order that they might feed them Vaboola's excavated flesh and thereby imprison them to the Four-chambered Mountain, just as they are.

Other rumors claim that they've already succeeded.

And yet other rumors claim that Mountain Guard are looking for ways to revenge themselves upon their previous employer, who hired them to explore the Four-chambered Mountain without ever giving warning of the places history or alchemical dangers.


There are many that would like to see the Mountain Guard killed and the mountain scoured of its secrets.  Some are the friends of Vaboola, who still live.

Others are rivals, or merely power-hungry wizards.  There are secrets to great power locked away in that mountain: as subtle as unexplored vistas of magic, or as blunt as two hundred pounds of gold inside an enormous glass vial.

Or perhaps those who have been sold to the Mountain Guard can be cured, rescued, and reclaimed.

At least one necromancer, Grixilis, claims that she can raise Vaboola from the dead.  Grixilis is well-versed in speaking with the dead, and has for a long time been tempted by the possibility of contacting what is left of that colossal brain-pan, and the powerful lunges its mind must have taken before it died.

If Vaboola were ever raised from the dead, it is unknown what such a creature would look like, or even if it would be functional at all.  Could something move on bones that were never strong enough to support it?  The bones continued growing, even after they broke; could they be reassembled?  Or would it just be a shuddering landscape of flawed flesh?


There is one last cavern in the Four-chambered Mountain.  It is called the Library.  Even the Mountain Guard do not venture in there often.

The farthest from the light of the entrance, it is the darkest chamber of the mountain.  No insects scuttle across its basements; no light births pale plants on the silt.

There are enormous bookcases, covered with vermiform tracts of mold, predatory without ever moving.

There is a crystal ball, awash in visions of magnified landscapes.

There is an oil lantern, filled with a fortune of oil.  If it were ever lit, it would light up the fourth chamber like a light house.

And there is an empty roost that once held a stuffed crow.  

If you are trusted, the Mountain Guard will tell you about the crow.  It is a colossal thing, all broken wings and flashing eyes.  It cannot fly.  Instead it crawls, or slithers.  The beak was broken off in an earlier skirmish, yet even with its broken jaw, it manages to devour men whole.  

It has uncanny spells as well, but the Mountain Guard will not speak of them.

And if you believe the optimists among us, somewhere in the Library is Vaboola's notebook.  It would contain all the notes of her research, beyond the scraps her letters contained.  

And perhaps somewhere in all of that text is an explanation.  Perhaps enough to cure, or to recreate.