Saturday, October 31, 2015

Outsiders: Memes, Prions, and Dreadful Comprehension

Demons are not "outsiders".  How can they be, when they are part and parcel of the natural ecology of our souls?  The whole concept is stupid.  If anything, demons and angels are insiders--they can see us better than we can, in many ways.

Outsiders are things from beyond the universe.  They might occupy matter, but they are not made of matter.  Like light refracting through a prism.

There are many types of outsiders.  This is one of them.

The Unspeakables

They must not be spoken of, nor described in any way.

A picture of an Unspeakable is just as dangerous as one of the Unspeakables themselves.  The same is true of an appropriately accurate description.

This is because they are not creatures of flesh and blood.  They are concepts--lattices of convergent memes.  Although they sometimes occupy a body, they are not that body.  Though they are sentient, they are not alive in any sense of the word.  Even someone who conceives of them--without ever having seen one--is subject to this peril.

Skip This Section If You Already Know About Prions

There are proteins called prions.  Prions are not alive.  They are even less alive than viruses are (which are, at a minimum, just a string of DNA).  Prions are just a single, lumpen molecule.

Prions are misfolded proteins.  In your body, there is a certain type of protein.  This protein floats around, doing protein stuff, and no one has to worry about it.  

But occasionally this protein misfolds.  It gets jammed into the wrong configuration--some hinge is bent backwards, some spiral is spinning the wrong way.  The protein doesn't do the job it was built to do.  Instead, it bumps into other healthy proteins (of the exact same type) and causes them to misfold, too.

It's a little bit like packing a cubic apple in a crate with other apples, so that the neighboring apples come out with flat sides.  Except we need to extend the apple metaphor, so that when you unpack the crate of apples, they're all cubic.  One bad apple has bent the whole bunch.

So this isn't contagion in any sense that we know it.  It's a contagion of form, caused by blunt collision.  

The funny thing is, the misfolded protein is more stable than the original protein, not less.  Good proteins get bent into this hell-pretzel and they don't untwist.  They just float around, tempting other good Catholic proteins into temptation.  

This progresses.

The body notices that it is running out of healthy proteins, and so it makes some more to counter the deficit.  

This progresses more.

Eventually, there are so many of these misfolded proteins that they form crystals.  These crystals are so big that they start punching holes in important cellular machinery.  It makes so many holes in tissue that we call it spongiform.

This all takes place in your brain, by the way.

Or a cow's brain.  This is mad cow disease.

This is also Creutzfeldt-Jakobs, in humans.  (The two diseases are linked.)  Symptoms: memory loss, personality changes, progressive dementia, hallucinations, psychosis.

Pretty good damage for something that's not even alive.

The Unspeakables, Continued

All of this is a roundabout way of explaining that an Unspeakable is simply a mimetic prion.  All Unspeakables cause insanity (usually 1 point each).

The Appearance of an Unspeakable [d6]

All Unspeakables resemble the creature that they once were.  An Unspeakable that degenerated from a human (and most do) will resemble a human from a distance.  They appear in groups of 1d2.

  1. Papery layers of flesh, like a hornet's nest.  Regenerates HP to full each round.
  2. Eyes like inverted needles, impossibly deep.  Piercing.  Gaze attack causes you to see the world from their point of view (no save).  Whenever you make an attack, there is a 25% chance that you instead attack a random target.
  3. Balloon-like stomach spasms and roils, changes size and shape.  Violently and constantly, like hundreds of blobs fighting to escape a rubber balloon.  When killed, splits into two smaller versions with half HD.  When these are killed, splits into two smaller versions with quarter HD.  When those are killed, they split into things that resemble tarry fetuses (these are harmless).  If killed, they continue splitting indefinitely, each time becoming less and less like their original creature.
  4. Head floats through body.  The face's path through the skin leaves a trail of scar tissue like a ship's wake.  Acid blood shoots out whenever they take slashing or piercing damage (1d6 damage per round until you spend a round washing it off, or 1d4 rounds scraping it off.  Stacks.)
  5. Eyes and mouth glow like a furnace.  Smoke billows from wounds.  Shrieks like a tea kettle when injured.  Explodes when killed for half original HP damage.
  6. Unfolds body like origami into layers and layers of asymmetrical wings.  Looks like blackened fruit on the inside.  Can fly.  Teleport 3/day.
The "Mundane" Attacks of the Unspeakable [1d6]
  1. None.  It attacks as an unarmed human, grunting softly.  Whoever kills this creature must face them again the next night, in a dream.  It is a repeat of this combat, except they are alone with their foe (1v1).  If they lose this fight, they gain a permanent insanity.  If they win, the XP is not shared with other players.
  2. Ragged claws (1d6/1d6) and rasping tongue (1d4).
  3. Extensible neck + bite.  Is actually a hydrada.
  4. Invisible sword that hisses like a powerline.  (Counts as a +1 weapon, can be looted.)
  5. Wounds open wherever it gazes.  Save or take 2d6 damage.  Can target 3 creatures at a time.  If it stares at an object (armor, building, door) long enough, it will decay and fall apart.
  6. IOUN morningstar
The Special Attacks of the Unspeakable, Usable Every 1d4 Rounds [1d6]

  1. Vorpal Howl.  Like a cone of cold, except slashing damage.  Has a 5% chance of cutting your fucking head off.
  2. Doom Caller.  Pronounces doom on someone.  That person hears the voice of Fate counting down.  If the Unspeakable is still alive in 3 rounds, that person dies, no save.
  3. Half-Life.  As a free action, all creatures within 10' must save or take X damage, where X = half of their remaining HP.  Save for half.
  4. Death touch.  This one is usable every turn.  If they touch you, one of your teeth wriggles free of your jaw and begins to burrow into your heart.  (Treat it as a rot grub.)
  5. Vomit a swarm of [d3] locusts, crabs, or biting worms.
  6. Fragility.  All creatures in a cone must save or be reduced to 1 HP.  1d4 rounds later, they regain any HP that they lost. 
The Real Danger

But these are just the dangers of the meme-hosts.  The real Unspeakables do not exist except as concepts.  (And as something that can only prey on sentient creatures, they should probably be added to the Book of Tigers.)

The Unspeakable that can be described is not the real Unspeakable.

Anyway, for an Unspeakable, consciousness is their ecosystem.  Comprehension is what shapes them and gives them form.  (So a picture of an Unspeakable, buried in a vault, harms no one.  It is not the falling tree that harms someone, but hearing that tree fall.)

And at the table, there is only one way to know if a character is thinking about an Unspeakable: if the players talk about them.

If the players are talking "Yeah, remember that fucked up guy who unfolded his body into wings and cut off heads with his yells?  That was awesome." they have just referenced the Unspeakable.  The Unspeakable that they were thinking of immediately pops back into existence.  They usually emerge from a closet (that has already been searched), crawl from under a bed, or simply punch through a nearby door.
  1. If the players talk about an Unspeakable, it reforms.
  2. If the players step out of the room and talk about an Unspeakable, it reforms.
  3. If the players talk about it after the game has concluded, and you're all drinking beer and arguing about time travel paradoxes, it doesn't reform (because you aren't playing the game anymore).
  4. If the players allude, very gently, to the Unspeakable ("the time that Jimmy got his head shouted off") it has a 4-in-6 chance of reforming.
  5. If the players talk about events surrounding the Unspeakable ("the time that we went in the moon dungeon") it has a 2-in-6 chance of reforming.
  6. If a wizard reads the players minds, and comprehends the memory of the Unspeakable, it immediately reforms.  (Actually, it's possible that the wizard has seen other Unspeakables, and that this has just reminded him of them.  It's possible that multiple Unspeakables reform.)
When an Unspeakable forms, they aren't necessarily hostile immediately.  But since each Unspeakable concept is a single creature, they will remember what has happened to their other forms, albeit vaguely.

When roleplaying with an Unspeakable, remember that they are all utterly mad.  They babble about poisoned angles and rotten stars.  They whimper as they recollect the heat death of the universe.  They struggle to realize that the PCs exist only as meat.

Only meat?  Where is the rest of you?

Only meat.


  1. It's both wonderful and disturbing how frequently I come away from your blogs shuddering.

    It's either from the genius or the horror. I'll let you know if I figure out which.

  2. "just as dangerous as one of the Unspeakables themselves. The same is true of an appropriately accurate description."
    I was expecting something like a weeping angel when I read this, but then it was even more horrifying. I'd heard of prions before, but wasn't aware that they congealed into crystals *shudders*

  3. "Only meat"? The meat gives form, the meat is sensation, wiithout the meat they are trapped and there is nothing.

    1. False. They experience a vast universe beyond our sight. Vistas of comprehension and immaterial realities. Conceptual realms that are no less real for being conceptual. Meat is just something you pass through, it's not something you are.

  4. So to continue the analogy, if a single instance of the unspeakable' body is a prion, then the prion disease as a whole (either its presence in the body or the way the protein was misfolded) is the true unspeakable? The part that lives beyond the meat of its host?
    If they see us as just meat, is that the way we see viruses and prions? Or is it only how we see things lacking consciousness?
    And, apologies for all the questions, would repeated contact with an unspeakable meme slowly degenerate party members into an unspeakable host?

    1. I actually wanted to write a follow-up post about exactly that (memetic plagues) but never actually did it.

  5. This reminds me of the film Pontypool... I wonder if you can cure yourself of the concept of the unspeakables by purposeful misremembering and miss-association.

    1. That's probably the only way to cure yourself.

  6. I love memetic threats (the SCP Foundation is a good source). Well done on these.

    Incidentally, your first paragraph is why I find D&D demons so boring, and I wish they were more like your outsiders (I am slightly happier with devils being a part of "afterlife ecosystem"). There are so many monsters in D&D that make better demons than the demons - for example, Shadows, Aberrations, Slaad, even some Celestials make better demons.

    1. Agreed. Things are scarier if they're unknown, and demons are too well-known.

  7. Wow...succinctly horrible in the best ways possible!

  8. When reading your text on Unspeakables came to mind the image of the creature called "Flea" which appears in the book Ocean at the end of the Lane (Neil Gaiman).It bears some resemblance?

    1. Never read it, but the Gaiman stuff that I have read is great. I think it's a good concept, which is why I'm not surprised that others have thought up similar stuff.

  9. The funny thing is, to the Unspeakables, the players themselves are outside of their understandable universe. The player characters are only meat, yes, but their strings go beyond an Unspeakable's comprehension.

    Just to be safe, though, if you simply must imagine an Unspeakable that can comprehend its own fictional existence, don't imagine too hard.

    1. Nah, the Unspeakables have no trouble comprehending our meat and shallow minds that only span one dimension.

      Their surprise is more like the surprise of an 18th-century biologist, who realizes that migrating butterflies aren't super-navigators, but just expressions of genes and instincts. "Oh, they're just bugs, despite their seemingly-clever behavior."

    2. I did something similar to the incomprehensible beast angles with Demonic Noise. Basically demons who take accidentally come to this world in the non-form of sound.