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.

Monday, October 26, 2015

New Class: Divine Concubine

This class was born because (a) I wanted to have a concubine class, and (b) I wanted to have a pacifist class.  So this is basically a fusion.

+Scrap Princess pointed me at a game called Undertale, and one of the cool things about the game is that you can complete the game without killing anyone.  And while this has been possible in other games via stealth (Deus Ex, Metal Gear Solids), Undertale is unique in that you can talk your way through combat.  You eventually convince your opponent to stop attacking you.

So, is my hippy whore class.  There's no sex mechanics, thank god, but even then, this class isn't going to appeal to all parties.

Leading a skeleton back to his crypt after calling him by name is poetic and cool, but how many GMs name their skeletons?  Or have systems in place for figuring out where a skeleton's proper resting place is?  At the very worst, the concubine will be reading names off tombstones like a role call.

Actually, I'm okay with that.

And pacify is a potentially powerful skill, but I'm worried about how well it scales.  It basically attacks a different HP pool, which means that it's wasted on Godzilla (who will die from HP damage first, from the other party members), but it's great for convincing lone goblins to throw down their swords and cry green tears of repentance.  But that's also as it should be.  Pacifists shouldn't have very many tools against Godzilla. . .

. . . except you read the text for pain split, and realize that they actually have a pretty good answer for Godzilla..

Divine Concubines in Centerra

They're basically temple prostitutes.  Except you can't call them prostitutes, because prostitution is illegal in all the places that the Church oversees.  They have a moral monopoly on extramarital sex.

This outrages a lot of people (justifiably), but any attempts to attack the institution of the Church's concubines is met with a lot of resistance, because the concubines are incredibly popular.

So lots of people use them to get off in a guilt-free way.  So that's probably the primary use of them.  But for many people, they're also their psychiatrist, their doctor, and their astrologer.  They are intensely empathetic people, and they genuinely care about the men and women who walk into their boudoirs.

Because for some of those people, their concubine is their only friend.

Concubines also accompany missionaries--they are great proselytizers.

And other concubines are believed to be spies for the Church.  (Or if you believe the rumors: all concubines are.)

Divine Concubine Class

As always, base this off a cleric class and just strip away the spellcasting and turn undead.

In a way, the concubine is sort of an anti-cleric or anti-paladin.  While the cleric terrifies the undead, the concubine soothes them.  While the paladin smites evil in the face, the concubine sits it down to talk about their feelings.

I'm going to use feminine pronouns, but divine concubines can be whatever gender you want.

Class Abilities

1 - Pacify, Beautiful
2 - First Kiss
3 - Life Share, Intimacy
4 - Immaculate
5 - Pain Split
6 - Last Massage
7 - Immunity to Disease

The words of a divine concubine can erode a target's desire to fight, even in the midst of combat.  Creatures have a pool of conviction points that function like hit points, and a morale check that functions like armor class.  If a divine concubine spends their entire turn doing nothing but verbally attempting to dissuade that target from violence, the target must make a morale check.  If they fail, they lose 1d6 conviction points.  Once a creature has no more conviction points left, it becomes unwilling to attack the divine concubine or her allies.  It sheathes its weapon and becomes receptive to talk.

A rational reason for non-combat always works, but you could also try compliments, appeals to honor, begging, etc.  Each time you attempt to pacify a creature, you must provide a different justification.

If the creature is simultaneously being threatened or attacked by the concubine's allies, the pacification damage is halved.

I like to put morale on a 1-to-20 scale, so I can do a roll-under mechanic for it.  Under this, the average bandit has a morale of 10, a cowardly goblin has a morale of 6, and a determined demon has a morale of 14.  But feel free to use the 2d6 morale if that's your thing.

Each odd-numbered level, the conviction damage of this ability increases by 1 die size, up to 1d12 at level 7.

This ability is limited by communication (language, range of hearing, sentience, etc).  You can't talk an ooze out of attacking, for example.

Anyone that damages a divine concubine must make a save at the beginning of their next turn.  If they fail, they are unwilling to attack the divine concubine for one round.  If the concubine or her allies are being aggressive, the target gets a +4 bonus on this save.

First Kiss
Your kisses function as a charm person spell.

Life Share 
While touching a willing ally, you can redistribute HP, curses, diseases, or poisons as you see fit.  You can only redistribute one of these per round. (This is mostly an inter-PC ability.  NPCs will be very wary of using this ability, and charm person is not sufficient to get a person to accept a curse, poison, or disease.)

Mindless undead are not aggressive towards a divine concubine; they will not attack if merely disturbed.  They will still attack if you behave aggressively or disturb something they are charged with protecting.  This protection does not extend to your allies.  And of course, they will attack if their necromancer gives them a direct order.

If you address them by name, they will allow themselves to be led to their proper resting place, but nowhere else.

Sentient undead know and respect divine concubines, and will usually attack them last.  Or at least, give her an opportunity to flee after killing all her companions.

Pain Split 
You touch an unwilling creature.  If they fail a save, both your HP total and your target's HP total are set to the average of both of your totals.  This cannot increase HP beyond your maximum.  (Example: You have 4 HP and touch an ogre with 20 HP.  After the ogre fails its save, you both have 12 HP.)

Last Massage 
If you give someone the final massage, they must make a save vs heart attack 1d6 turns later.  A final massage takes 10 minutes, and cannot be performed on unwilling targets.  This usually takes the form of a foot massage.


Yes, this includes sex, but it actually includes any activity that meets the following criteria:

  • Peaceful.  (Everyone must be non-aggressive and receptive.)
  • Vulnerable.  Everyone must be unarmed and unarmored.  (This includes magical protections.)
  • Willing.  (You cannot coerce someone into intimacy with threats/promises to ulterior motives.)
  • At least one hour of talking. (Though the total activity can take longer).
Intimacy can have one of the following effects.  
  • Target receives the results of a commune spell (once per day).  Requires level 3.
  • Remove 1d3 Insanity Points (once per adventure).  Requires level 5.
  • Target gets a new save against an ongoing curse.  Requires level 7.
  • Plant a suggestion (with a -4 penalty on the save).  Requires level 4.
  • Concubine learns a secret desire of the target.  Requires level 4.
  • Concubine learns a secret weakness of the target.  Requires level 4.
  • Concubine and target form a bond.  Requires level 3.
The concubine can have as many bonds as they have concubine levels.  Bonds confer the following effects, all of which are mutual.
  • charm effect.  (Cannot work against each other's best interests.)
  • can sense direction, distance, mood, and health of the others.
Lastly, target's who have bonded with the concubine and are within 20' of her get +2 save against any negative mind-affecting effect.  If they suffer from a permanent insanity, the effects are also suppressed (but not removed).

Saturday, October 24, 2015


Modrons arise spontaneously when there is an insufficient number of modrons in the universe.  In a way, they are the universe's own attempt to self-regulate the amount of disorder present in its own system.

Just as a body struggles against death, so does the universe vie against entropy.  Nothing catalyzes the inevitable heat death of the universe like the use of magic.

That's what modrons say, anyway.

Modronium is like modrons: a logical extension reaching its own conclusion.

Modronium is a metal.  Modrons can "vanish" part of the metal.  The parts of the modronium that remain are still connected--though no metal remains between them--and will retain their weight, orientation, and rigidity.

If you make a modronium pole and vanish the middle section, you would be left with two short lengths that preserve their distance from each other and their orientation.  The middle section has just been phased into a different dimension without losing any connectivity.

It's all very logical.  Nothing at all to do with eldritch madness.  Don't even suggest such a thing.

Examples of Modronium Objects

A modronium coin attached to a much larger, out-of-phase piece of modronium.  Since the coin is attached to an extradimensional mass, the coin is very heavy.

Modronium shoes with their soles located eight feet above them.  If the soles are placed on the roof of a building, a person can walk around below them, eight feet below the roof (no matter how far down the floor is.)  You don't even need a floor, since you are walking below the roof, while resting your weight on it.

A modronium sword is just a grip and a sword point, that hovers three feet in front of the crossguard/basket.  It still weighs the same, and handles the same, but it cannot be parried (since there is no middle part of the blade).  True, you cannot slash with it, nor use it to parry a blow, but it is much easier to land a stabbing hit.  [Mechanically, modronium weapons get +2 to hit, but no bonus to damage.]

Modronium has also been made into all sorts of deceptive items and tools for deception.

Modronium is not magical.  It relies on a novel principle of the universe that is largely unexplored by non-modrons.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Zulin and the Spirits of the Upper Air

Centerra currently has a monotheism (Church of Hesaya) and it sucks so I'm rewriting all of it, except for the bit where the Church cannibalizes other religions and incorporates them into itself.

The Authority

This is the thing that is omnipotent.  Since it is the king of all divinity, only kings are permitted to pray directly to the Authority.

The Authority is known as such because his actual name is secret.  It is said that anyone who utters it disrespectfully is struck dead.  (DM's note: the secret name of God is widely believed to be Dumadiyei, but it is actually Akatom.  Pronounced dew-MAW-dee-YAY and ACK-aw-TOM.)

The Sun is his chariot, and it glows warmer is response to the virtue that he sees below him.  Too much sin and doubt will cause a second age of ice.

There are those who have approached the Sun.  (It is further than the moon, but not by much.)  They have described it as a vast mechanism, with wheels inside wheels, golden tubes, and enormous trumpets projecting into the firmament.

There are those who have landed on the Sun, attempting to establish a diplomatic relationship, indulge their curiosity, or to assassinate the Authority.  They have never been heard from again.

Heretics say that God has left his heaven, and that the great chariot sits abandoned in the sky.  Why else have the great miracles stopped?  Where is the hand of the Authority felt on the body of his Creation?

Zulin, God of Air

This is the god of air, and the prime deity on Centerra.  He is the Demiurge, and he organized everything.

He lives in a mansion on a mountain top.  You can see it from a nearby peak.  Whenever you look at it, you can hear the bell of St. Dorbaine ringing in your ears.  It stops as soon as you leave.  You can approach the mountain, but unworthy souls are struck with weakness as they approach.  The blessed become stronger as they approach the Holy Mountain.

Very noble people sometimes trek to the shrine in the valley below the peak.

You can see the mansion, and you can see the guests on the balconies.  They are strange and beautiful and some are colossal.  If you attract their attention, they'll send you an invitation.  (Basically, name-level PCs are expected to go and dine with idle, squabbling godlings, titans, and interdimensional weirdos.)

Zulin is not at home.  Zulin is at a tea party in Hell with Angralaa.  Zulin is trapped at the tea party by the conditions of politeness.  If Zulin leaves the tea party or is rude, Angralaa is also free to leave.  If Angralaa leaves or is rude, Zulin is free to leave.  Neither one of them want the other to leave, and so they've been having tea for a very long time.

Angralaa is the prime spirit of anger and violence.  If she left the tea party, the world would see massive increases in both.

Only Priests of the Upper Air are allowed to pray to Zulin, and to receive his miracles.  Priests of the Lower Air must pray to a saint, a prophet, or a slave-god.

Essa, May She Live Again

She is the First Prophet, and as such, is an equal to Zulin.  She is the intermediary between the Authority and. . . everything else, really.

Not only did Essa (May She Live Again) first re-teach the world the teachings of Hesaya after the Time of Fire and Madness erased all history, but she also decided to reincarnate.

Essa (May She Live Again) is currently on her 57th reincarnation.  Her current form is 10 years old, and enjoys spicy noodles, horseback riding, and small dogs.  She is the leader of the entire religion.  She is protected by a Brynthic Hound called St. Smaudius.  ("Smaudy")

Tar Lath Lien

It is widely believed that the dragon-sorcerer Tar Lath Lien is the "serpent of the apocalypse" described in scripture, who will one day destroy the world.  Actually, it's quite clear that he is.

Tar Lath Lien is horribly smug about all this, as you'd expect.

The Patriarch (the Pope)

While Essa (May She Live Again) is in charge of the spiritual needs of the Church, the Patriarch is in charge of the material needs of the Church.  The exact boundary between these two authorities is a little fuzzy, and has been the subject of a great deal of debate (and violence) throughout the entire lifespan of the Church.

The Patriarch rules over Kaladon, on the opposite side of Centerra from Essa (May She Live Again), who resides in the Holy City of Coramont.  Kaladon trains and maintains a whopping 40% of all the paladins in the world.

Spirits of the Upper Air

It is accepted that there is a whole secret ecosystem in the upper atmosphere.  It is a realm of lightness and invisibility.  Invisible wars are fought there, and titanic angel-fauna devour each other with magics that could rend mountains.  The greatest of these sky-leviathans weighs less than a feather.

Wind Paladins

Wind Paladins of Hesaya wear no armor except a pale blue tunic, each thread of which is banded with scripture (in tiny alternating blue and white bands, analogous to Morse code).  They wield long, narrow swords, and when they cut, the wind cuts for them.  (50' melee range with their swords.)


Clerics of Hesaya command air.  They cannot control the weather, but they control small amounts of air nearby.  They can order the air to avoid your lungs, and you will suffocate in X rounds, where X = half of your Constitution (unless you run more than 200' distant).

Symbols of the Temple

The Symbols of the Authority are gold, the sun, and the scepter.

The Symbols of Zulin are blue, the hand, the whip, and the teacup.

The Doctrine of the Four Elements . . .

. . . is a heresy.  There are many atomic elements, and air is a gas, merely one of the three states of matter.  (Fire is really more of a chemical reaction.)  It's just that air happens to be the most enlightened state of matter.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

More Merfolk for Enzo

If you haven't already, read this first.  This is basically just speculation on how a mermaid/human oceanic arms race would evolve, with the final end goal of turning ocean travel into Fury Road.

Thicker Hulls (Human Tech)

These make ships slower, but more resilient to drills.  Mermaid drills are long (a couple feet) to ensure that they can drill through whatever hull they need to.  Most ships either specialize in speed or defense (because you can't have both).

Shell drills only work on smaller vessels.

Urchin Ships (Human Tech)

Used near populated human coasts.  This ship has a smooth hull on the bottom and a spike covered hull on the top (upside down, with a mast rising from it).  When under attack by mermaids, the two hulls are closed and the ship flipped upside down.  Signal smoke is released, and the heavily defensible urchin ship then endures a siege until help arrives.

They have many portholes to strike out from with spears or arrows.

Shark Escorts (Human Tech)

By dumping cow flesh and blood into the ocean, a bunch of sharks can be convinced to follow the boat.  This doesn't inconvenience the crew, but the sharks can be a lot of trouble for mermaids, especially once blood starts spilling into the water.

Ships sometimes attract huge shark escorts.  They are seen as good luck symbols.  (Yes, they eat people.  But they eat mermaids more.)

You can't train sharks.  They're meat engines, nothing more.

Dolphins and Narwhals (Merfolk Tech)

Mermaids counter this with trained dolphins, tattooed with fearsome reds and blacks.  Many of the domesticated dolphins have "horns" affixed to their heads to better stab sharks.  On very rare occasions, you may see a narwhal, but mermaids don't tolerate cold waters well and narwhals rarely venture into warmer waters.

Propellers (Human Tech)

Cover a ship with propellers.  More propellers are better at chopping mermaids into chum.  (They tend to clog easily, though).

Turbo (Human Tech)

Nearly all sea-going ships can be rowed in a pinch.  Often a burst of speed is all you need to outmaneuver your opponents.  Not maneuverability.  Not weaponry.

Tread Ships (Human Tech)

One way to keep mermaids from attaching themselves to your hull is to have a hull that is continuously moving.  Tread ships are basically giant wooden tank treads that float.  The crew gets inside them and then walks forward on the inside of the treads, sort of uphill.  This rotates the paddle-treads which propels the boat.

They are capable of short bursts of speed, but since there is not much space inside one for cargo or beds, they far poorly on long trips or open ocean.

Tread ships are sometimes dropped from larger human juggernauts and used to disperse poisons.  Big ships become manned drone carriers.

Sometimes tread ships are linked together and used to support a combat platform (it is easier to fire down into the water if you have some altitude).  In this case, they may look more like wagon wheels (but are still filled with people turning the paddle-treads like hamster wheels.

Sinking Nets (Human Tech)

Its just a net with lead weights.  Throw it in the ocean and it will sink to the bottom, hopefully carrying a mermaid with it.  (In the open ocean, this is fatal to the merfolk.  Only merfolk priests can survive the deeps, and then only with special preparations.)

Spiral Submarines (Merfolk Tech)

Similar to tread ships, these are giant spiral snail shells (turriform, the pointy kind) that have been converted into ships.  Merfolk use them to defend themselves against other merfolk, but also to ram ships of all sorts.

Basically, the entire shell rotates.  This drives the ship forward.  Merfolk on the inside swim in circles in order to turn the propeller at the back of the spiral shell ship.  They have awful maneuverability (because the rudder rotates as well, just slower than the ship does) and very short range (because they must be actively powered).

They are mostly used by merfolk to defend their cities.  Ships that attack Valdina (the largest merfolk city) are sometimes impaled by these huge things.  They are docked in hidden caves on the sea bed.

Suicide Drillers (Merfolk Tech)

These are also made from giant spiral shells (again, the pointy kind) but they are sized for an individual mermaid, not an entire crew.  They are stored on the sea bed in silos (like missiles) where they are anchored.  They are filled with an air bladder and a mermaid pilot.

When the anchor is cut, the whole vessel begins to rapidly ascend.  The air in the bladder expands, making the drill more buoyant as it rises.  The mermaid inside guides and accelerates it manually (or at least, caudally).  And then the whole thing hopefully connects with the hull of a ship, punching a hole into it.

Honeypots (Human Tech)

These are clay pots filled with poison, bolted to the inside of the hull.  The pot's mouth faces the hull and the whole thing is sealed to prevent leakage.  It contains poison.

If a merfolk drill punctures the hull in that location, it spills the poison into the water, killing the adjacent merfolk and hopefully buying the ship enough time to free itself from the snares.

In some ships, honeypots compete with cargo space.

Some ships are dedicated to this singular purpose.  While these honeypot ships look like a soft target (unarmored, mercantile) they are filled with poison (and cancerous sailors).

Oil Fires and Exploding Bubbles (Merfolk Tech)

Merfolk use oil fires on the surface to cut off avenues of escape and befoul the air.  If they ever need to lay siege to a ship, surface fires will eventually be involved at some point.

Sailing through an oil fire is not too injurious to a ship, but if explosive gases are added to the mix, it can get hellish.  Methane and hydrogen can be generated in whale carcasses alchemically and transported in compressed balloons, or simply released from the whale carcass all at once.

You think you're safe from pillars of fire just because you're on the ocean?  Do you know how much petroleum is down there?

Harpooners (Merfolk Tech)

Merfolk have many, may ways of sticking a harpoon into a boat.  It's really their first resort.  They hunt ships with harpoons the same way that whaling boats hunt whales.  Attach a line, tire them out, and keep them bleeding.

Harpooners hold an elevated position in merfolk society.

Fishing Fleets (Human Tech)

There is no such thing as a warm-water civilian fishing fleet in Centerra.  While there are plenty of fishing boats, these ships are well-used to combating merfolk.  In large numbers, fishing boats can scoop up merfolk with remarkable success.

This requires training and constant readiness.  Warm-water fisherman train like military forces.  Or more likely, they train with the military forces.

Haul-Keelers (Human Tech)

These are ships that are built to pass a net the length of the ship, from prow to stern.  The ship basically keelhauls a net longitudinally, rather than transversely.  The idea is that this net sweeps up all the hull drillers and hauls them onto the deck where they can be clubbed to death by scared sailors.

In practice, the systems are unwieldy and prone to breaking.  They also get cut apart quite quickly--after a couple of passes, they are basically just rags.  Merfolk have learned to be quick with their knives.

Chain nets work better, but have their own drawbacks.

Sea Monsters (Human Tech)

There are sea monsters, and the merfolk enslave them and use them to sink ships.  Everyone knows that.

But what is less known is that many human ships travel with a sea monster locked in the hold, to be dumped overboard when the sound of drilling has driven out all other options.

Sea monsters are difficult to manage when they are locked in a tank, but they are nightmares when they are released into the water, pissed off and hungry.

Sky Nets (Merfolk Tech)

Some kelp uses gas-filled bladders to help it float.  In Centerra, some kelp uses gas-filled bladders to lift it into the air (while still being anchored to a rock below the waves).

Within the Sea of Sargros, these air-kelps form the deep sargassos and sky forests.  (Yes, you can sail through a forest with kelp fronds towering over you.  Yes, there is wildlife.)  Airkelps in the Sea of Sargros are so plentiful that the merfolk use them to make sky nets.

These are simply ship-catching nets anchored to the sea floor.  When they are cut loose, they rise into the air, sometimes as high as a 100'.  They're basically just nets with one side tied to the seafloor and the other side tied to balloons.  Have fun with that.

New Sailoring Professions

Hull Listener.  Traditionally the oldest guy on the ship.  Ideally blind as well.  (But honestly, all sailors sleep with their ears to the hull.)

Keel Sharpener.  Most hulls to bladed to cut through snags and ropes.  Some are sawtoothed, and use the rocking of the waves to their advantage.

Brine Spikers.  A more intense variant of a harpooner.  Jump off the yards with a heavy harpoon wrapped between their legs.  The idea is to stab a mermaid even though he's pretty far down (water kills momentum pretty quickly.  They might even carry a second weapon to stab a few more merfolk.  After a couple of seconds, they are pulled back on the ship, either by a bungee or by other crewmen.

Tarboys. These are the crazy bastards who have to repair holes in the hull while the ship is still sailing.  For large holes, this is impossible to fix from the inside (water pressure), so they must fix the holes from the outside.

How Other People Handle Merfolk

By and large, they don't bother.  Humans are the only ones dumb enough to tangle with them.

Ice Giants no problem with merfolk.  When they sail from pole to pole on their iceberg ships, merfolk avoid the cold water and impenetrable hulls.  When you sail on a giant fucking iceberg covered with hundreds of sails, you don't fear sinking, you fear being boarded.  Or melting.

Elves poison the water with terrifying efficiency.  The fewer things living in the ocean, the more beautiful it is.  (The prettiest ponds are the ones with the least life in it.  Same concept.  They would turn the ocean into a clorinated, indoor pool if they could.)

Darklanders have monsters of their own.  Most of their ships are pulled by some great beast or another (otterworms, bangoos, thruxiderms, etc) and so it invariable devolves into a bloodbath.  Darklanders are also quick to jump into the water and take the fight to the merfolk.  They generally have a harder time dealing with merfolk than honest Centerrans do, but frequently the sharks are the only winners.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Merfolk and False Shipwrecks


Merfolk want metal, because you can't smelt anything underwater.  In most places, it is both illegal and taboo to trade metal to merfolk.  Those that do are sometimes called iron whores.

Merfolk mostly trade with vast quantities of delicious fish and/or weird artifacts from long-drowned civilizations.

Most nations of merfolk claim all the oceans, and forbid humans from sailing on them.  In warmer waters, merfolk usually dominate the seas (by agreement or warfare).  In some places (Abasinia, Basharna), this schism between land and sea is so strong that humans live by the oceans, but almost never eat fish.  Fish is called wet food, and is considered either a delicacy or a traitorous food (depending on whether or not we're at war with the local merfolk).


Contrary to popular belief, most merfolk cities are along the coastline.  (Real world fun fact: coral reefs are just as productive as rainforests, but the open ocean is about as productive as an arctic tundra.)  Some of the most productive pieces of coastline are where rivers empty into the ocean.

This means that humans and merfolk are in direct competition for the same pieces of prime real estate.  They both desire coastal cities.

And just as human coastal cities extend a short distance into the sea (in the form of docks, harbors, and shipyards), so do merfolk cities extend a short distance into the land.

Merfolk do this because there are certain things you can't do underwater.  Metalworking, for example.  Valdina, the largest merfolk city on the continent of Centerra, is often shaded by plumes of smoke from its smelters.

These industries are worked by either human slaves or human citizens.  (Both exist.  It's complicated.)  Usually the buildings will be separated by canals or moats (to make their city more defensible).  Sometimes the buildings will be on artificial islands.

Their cities usually have mazes of deep moats around them, studded with towers (emerging directly from ponds between the moats).  They do not build walls.


Merfolk rule the seaways.  Every single human vs. merfolk naval war has ended with the human's defeat.

Their favorite tactic is just to swim up to a ship, grab hold of some of the barnacles on the bottom, and begin drilling holes in the bottom.  They require metal tools for this.

The most common human defense to this is simply speed.  A ship in full sail is much, much faster than a swimming merman.

The most common counter to this are blockades, nets, and traps.  A line of buoys stretched across the water will catch a ship that blunders into it, slowing it down enough for the mermen at the nearby fort to swim over and scuttle it.

When a ship runs into a ship-catching net, a sailor is quickly dispatched into the water to cut the ship free.

Sometimes the merfolk tie sharks to these nets to discourage people from getting into the water.

The zerino have been fighting the merfolk for so long that they have developed ingenious counters.  They cover their ships with spikes to keep merfolk from drilling holes.  Even when their ship is ensnared and bogged down, and they are surrounded by merfolk, they are safe within their dreadnoughts.  They dump poison into the water to kill the merfolk.

Stormsailing ships usually have a weather-mage on board.  Merfolk know to avoid these ships if there is so much as a single cloud in the sky, because these ships have metal masts that dip down into the keel.  If a weather-mage calls down a lightning bolt through the mainmast, everything in the water dies.

These are strong counters, but the merfolk counter-attack by throwing noxious sea creatures on board, releasing poisonous gases (produced in whale carcasses, which are floating alchemical laboratories), or--most rarely--with ocean mages of their own, who can summon whirlpools and giant waves.  (These get the most attention in sailor's stories.)  Or they simply fill your ship full of harpoons attached to parachute kites, which both slow you down and make your ship more visible to other merfolk in the area.

But the bottom line is this: if they succeed in slowing your ship down, they will eventually overwhelm you.  Once your ship is swamped (surrounded by many hundreds), they will swarm on board (clumsily, and with great difficulty) and hack you to pulp with shark-tooth axes.  They do this so they can capture your ship.

Ship combat versus merfolk needs to feel like Mad Max.  It's a chase, not a fight--because you'll lose if they catch you.  It needs to be full of weird weapons and weird counters to those same weapons.  Sailors need to be strapping on jellyfish gas-masks after the merfolk explode their whale corpse-bomb.


It is a fact that the fastest way to travel through the sea is to travel atop it.  If you want to be fast on the ocean, you need a ship.

The merfolk have long since learned to sail in ships, as the humans do.

Their ships are half-submerged most of the time.  When they want to be stealthy, they'll lower the mast and tow the ship.  When they want to be fast, they'll bail the ship out and sail it above the waves.

Sometimes they seal the ship, anchor it in a shallow place, and pull it down to the seabed so that it looks like a shipwreck.  When they want to give pursuit, they cut the lines and the ship erupts from the seabed.  Sometimes they are even angled so that the buoyancy forces the ship forward as it rises, so that it erupts from the water with forward momentum, at full speed.  (Like holding a bodyboard underwater, angling the nose slightly up, then releasing it.)

Merships tend to be inferior to their human counterparts (inferior wood, collapsible masts are much weaker), but in merfolk-controlled areas, there will be large areas full of ship-catching nets, sandbars engineered to be invisible, and pyramids of rocks stacked just beneath the waves--the perfect height to punch a hole in the bottom of a fleeing ship.

These places are called mazes.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Reincarnator / Reincarnatrix Class

When you start off playing a Reincarnator/Reincarnatrix, you don't have any abilities, except one.

  1. When you die, you return to life.
  2. This only happens once; you only have one extra life.
  3. When you return from the dead, you gain some power based on how you died.
  4. You gain a new extra life whenever you level up, thereby allowing you to collect more powers.
When you die, your remains undergo some strange process and return to life 24 hours later.  If you were dismembered or eaten, you cannot resurrect.  If you resurrect in a sealed coffin or under a pile of rubbled, you will probably die again.

Whenever you resurrect, you accumulate some small detail or affection (in addition to whatever power that death granted you).

I actually thought up three different versions of this class, each flavored a different way.

If you actually want to play this class, just base it on the cleric with all the spells and turning stripped away.

Nine-Lives Come-Backer (Version 1)

Sometimes a woman is pregnant, and sometimes she has a cat she loves very much, and who loves her in return.

Sometimes she dies.

And sometimes--through a process that no one can explain satisfactorily--the cat gives birth to the woman's baby, even after her death.  (If you cut the dead pregnant lady open, you will find nothing inside).

These children grow up normally, except that they have a cat tail.  This is their extra life.  As they level up, they grow more cat tails.

Unique Rule: Each Extra Life allows you to add +4 to a single roll of an ally (if you have lucky white cat tails) or -4 to a single roll of an enemy (if you have unlucky black cat tails).  This is usable 1/day per tail.

Revenant (Version 2)

You are pissed off.  Hatred fuels you; anger gives you voice.  You only feel energized when you are kicking something to death.  And all that's before your first death.

Whenever you die, you die spitting curses at your killer.  And when you come back, you realize that this is what you were meant to do.  You are some horrible twilight of life and death.  You only feel alive when you are dying.  This is what you were meant to do.  Die and return stronger.  Die a thousand times, embrace a thousand triumphs.

You're still pissed off.

Unique Rule: You can use speak with dead on any zombie.  Whenever you return from the dead, you get +2 to all d20 rolls that involve directly killing the specific creature that killed you.  (If you weren't killed by a specific creature (e.g. rocks fell), this has no effect).

Agent of Heaven (Varient 3)

You're an angel who has been tricked into thinking that you are a human.  You've also been tricked into not minding that this has been done to you.  

Basically, whenever you die, the Bureaucracy of Heaven takes 24 hours processing your forms in triplicate (or 777licate), and then returns you to life, in order that you can pursue some obscure destiny that has been lost in one of the infinite codices of Heaven.

Unique Rule: You can use commune 1/day.  Each extra life that you currently have gives you +1 to your Save.  Expect weird heralds to periodically appear before you, demand a progress report, and make inscrutable suggestions.

You can also be a demonic version of this class (Agent of Hell) which sounds way more fun, now that I type it out.  But as a demon, you'd probably be in service to a paladin family, who will probably be way meaner to you (as an unsouled abomination) than any real demonic overlord.

How To Die

So I'm going to give you a table.  It'll tell you the abilities you get if you die in a certain way BUT there is a catch.  Depending on how you die (aggressively, defensively, or other) you get a different ability.  So if you want to insist on dying in fires (players are weird, or maybe your campaign just has a lot of dragons) you'll have more fire stuff to give them.

Aggressive = trying to kill things or steal things (99% of murderhobo activities)

Defensive = trying to not get killed, or trying to save someone/something else

Other = other

Alternatively, just roll a d3.

Death By Acid
Agg = acid arrow 3/day.
Def = Reduce all acid damage by 6.
Other = You have acid blood that can (slowly) melt through small metal items (like locks).  Bleeding yourself costs 1 point of damage per HD.  Creatures who hit you in melee with piercing or slashing attacks take 1d4 acid damage if they fail a Dex check.

Death By Bludgeoning
Agg = Once per day, you can headbutt something, thus duplicating the shatter and knock spells.
Def = By spending a turn concentrating, you can manifest or de-manifest a set of medium armor.
Other = If you wish, you can behave as if you were boneless (allowing you to slip under most doors, for example, but only veeeerrrrry slooowwwwlly and helplessly).

Death By Death
Agg = You are now a vampire, with all the benefits and costs that entails.  Remember that you can only sleep in your own coffin.
Def = You are immune to level drain.
Other = You can cast raise dead to create a loyal zombie.  You can only have one loyal zombie at a time.  Zombies who are not your most recent zombie revert to being corpses.

Death By Devouring
Agg = You can devour things that you are grappling.  Target must not be larger than you, nor must it have more HP than you.  Target gets a save to avoid.  Devoured targets disappear utterly.
Def = If you are ever swallowed, you deal double damage to the creature that swallowed you.
Other = You can hold a bunch of stuff in your stomach, and regurgitate it safely as need it.  You can hold about as much as a large chest.  This doesn't make you any fatter or heavier.

Death By Drowning
Agg = You can turn into a fucking shark (HD = your HD + 1).  This doesn't transform your gear.
Def = You can breathe water.
Other = You can cast summon fish 1/location (this is the version that has a 5% chance to summon something horrible).

Death By Falling
Agg = If you jump down onto a creature as part of an attack and successfully hit them, they take all of your fall damage (instead of splitting it, normally).  You get +2 to hit on these attacks.
Def = Feather fall 1/day.
Other = You know the language of birds.

Death By Fire
Agg = Fire Breath (1d6 for every 2 HD), usable every 1d4 turns.
Def = Reduce all fire damage by 6.
Other = Can set things on fire if you stare at them uninterrupted for 1 minute.  Range 200'.

Death By Ice
Agg = Cut your HP in half to make a simulcrum with 1 HP.  You sleep while the simulcrum is active, but you can control the simulcrum.  It looks like you, except made of ice.  It has none of your class abilities (such as spellcasting).
Def = Reduce all ice damage by 6.
Other = You can step into mirrors and hang out in there.  Space inside mirrors is limited to the mirror's line of sight.  If someone covers the mirror (obstructing its line of sight) you are trapped there until it is removed.

Death By Impaling
Agg = Whenever an arrow misses you, you can catch it.  Usable 1/turn.
Def = You are immune to critical hits.
Other = One of your death wounds never healed.  You bleed whenever there is a concealed weapon nearby (allies' concealed weapons don't count).

Death By Lightning
Agg = All javelins and spears you throw deal and extra +1d6 damage, but this destroys the spear in the process.
Def = Reduce all lightning damage by 6.
Other = You can shock a dead person back to life.  If they make a save, they return to life.  Only works within 1 turn of their death, and leaves them in the worst condition possible in your system (but still alive and stable).

Death By Poison
Agg = You have a lethal poison bite.  Usable 1/day.
Def = You are immune to poison.
Other = You can write a poisonous idea down.  Must be at least 1 full page.  Anyone who reads the whole thing must save or die.  Usable 1/day.

Death By Being Gnawed To Death By Horrible Rats
Agg = You can stealth as well as a rogue of your level.
Def = You are immune to disease.
Other = You can scavenge (whenever you find a pile of junk, make a Save.  If you succeed, you find an item.  95% = mundane, 5% = magical.)

Death By Slashing
Agg = Whenever an opponent misses you with a sword attack, you get a free counter-attack.  Usable 1/turn.
Def = You can turn aside blows with your non-dominant (and empty) hand as if it were a shield.  You can "sunder" your hand, but this breaks it for 2d6 days.
Other = Whenever you bleed, you create a tiny blood homunculus (about 1" tall) for every 3 points of damage you took.  These little guys last 1 minute and have Str 0.1, but they'll obey your every command.

Death By Weird
Agg = You can screech at things within 50'.  If they fail a save, they take 1d12 damage.  If they make their save, you take 1d4 damage.  Only works on things with eardrums.
Def = At will, you can travel through time. Flip a coin.  On a tails, you go back 6 seconds in time.  On a heads, you go 6 seconds forward.
Other = You can give someone a foot massage that results in an amazing orgasm. Alternatively, you can give someone a foot massage that will result in them dying in exactly 3 hours (save negates).

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Secrets of Mundane Animals

There's a invisible schism in our monster manuals.

On one hand, you have all the real-world animals.  Cows and horses and cats.  These animals do not have any magical powers.

On the other hand, you have all the imaginary animals.  Manticores and dragons and catoblepas.  These animals are usually loaded down with a smorgasbord of magical powers.

There isn't really any reason to say that Earthly animals lack powers and imaginary animals have them, except that the audience (us gamers) is already familiar with non-magical cows and non-magical cats.

To put it another way, there's no reason that a fantasy setting share our concept of mundanity and fantasticality except the convenience of familiarity.  To a Centerran, the following things are all equally magical (and equally non-magical): how a child is conceived, how a dragon breathes fire, how a tiny spider bite can kill, how a zombie is raised from the dead.

Yes, it is good to have mundane places and plots in your game.  Yes, it keeps the fantastic feeling fantastic.

Yes, it is good to have familiar pieces of world in your game. The reason we keep circling psuedo-medieval settings is because we (think we) are familiar enough with that setting to just jump right in, start asking for directions to the nearest castle, order some mead, and tip the saucy bar wench for good gossip.

There are other good settings that depart from the familiar milieu (see the excellent Yoon-Suin) but aren't as immediately accessible the way vanilla fantasy is--and don't underestimate the value of that familiarity.  Players depend on that familiarity to make informed choices.  But I'm digressing, aren't I?  This is all your fault.


There are two ways to disrupt this implicit sorting of the bestiary into the non-magical actual and the magical imaginary.

You could have fantastic creatures be, in actuality, mundane.  Dragons are just big lizards.  Unicorns are just hollow-boned horses with a hood ornament and an eating disorder.

This sort of thing could be fun, I think, in very small amounts.  Plans are disrupted when the will-o-the-wisps actually are burning gas clouds after all.  The players go out to slay the chimera, only to discover that it is just three animals sewn together (but no less deadly because of this).

But really, the reason I started writing this post was so that I could talk about making mundane animals less mundane.  That's why

There Are No Mundane Animals in Centerra

Sure, there are settings that do simple replacements.  Instead of horses, everyone rides giant lizards or giant, flatulent ducks or something.  These are cool, I guess, and they help define a setting and/or make it feel more alien, and that's sometimes desirable.  But this isn't really what I'm going for either.

There's the extreme example, where all the mundane animals are extremely magical.  All cats can talk and all cows can breath fire, for example.  But once you go this drastic, you (a) lose that valuable familiarity, which impacts players abilities to make informed choices, which will reveal itself when a PC dies attempting to steal a cow they thought couldn't breath fire, and (b) the in-game implications are drastic, because how can you keep cats as mere pets when they can talk?

I favor a moderate approach when sprucing up mundane animals.  You need to add to them in a way that doesn't disrupt their ecology, but is both interesting and hella gamable.  The perfect example of this is Zak's Snakes Are Books.  The other way is to add to them culturally, like what Scrap always does, and just write about the fucked-up ways that people interact with animals.  That way, any weirdness that Centerran animals have is optional, and no one cares if a DM/player forgets/ignores it.

Anyway, here's my take on it.  No Centerran animal is mundane (and most of them are much smarter than they would be in the real world).

Rats are the quintessential foodstuff.  Fried rat-on-a-stick is the most ubiquitous city-food around, and adventurers often buy whole chains of rat jerky (neatly tied together by their tails).  Alchemical rats are fed alchemical diets, and are usually poisoned as their flesh turns into what is basically a poison.  You can sometimes find a couple of them in wizard laboratories--they're just a common potion analogue.  In the distant north, rats are not seen as delicious foods and are instead considered a pest; bounties on rat tails are common (and rat farming is a common, though illegal, profession).

Dogs form cabals and secret courts.  They ape the organization of human kingdoms.  They are forbidden to allow any human to learn of their secret organizations.  (Many dogs do, because of conflicting loyalties.)  Many dog attacks are simply dogs attempting to cover up their clandestine activities via murder.  Many cities have dog barons and dog dukes, who rule in secret and divide up the street-territories among their loyal vassals.  Their edicts are passed by twilight bark.

Wolves despise dogs, who are simply wolves that swore to protect humanity.  Many wolves worship demons, and different wolf packs will make different offerings to different demon lords.  A wolf that is possessed by a demon is called a worg.  They grow to tremendous sizes, and are capable of speech.

Cats all believe that they are royalty.  There is an entire branch of magic that revolves around cats, for some reason, mostly involving death, curses, and oaths.  There are also catbooks.

Cows have an affinity for the moon.  They always face it when they sleep.  Lunar cows exist on the moon--they have no legs, and instead hover around.  They are otherwise just like normal cows, and you can buy them in the Ba Dwai La marketplace.

Songbirds are the reincarnated spirits of cowards.  Warriors are expected to kill them when they come within arms reach.  The once exception are greywings, which are small birds that eat ghosts and the souls of the damned.  They gather at hospitals, and when there is a death, they will wheel furiously through the air, hunting the spirit; they will catch it if it tarries.

Pigs never stop growing.  Some farms have 10,000 lb pigs, the size of a small barn.  These giant pigs are mostly used for expensive parties, because people like to sit inside the rib cage of the animal, at a table made from its hips, while they eat it.  Giant boars exist, and are unfortunately common in some parts of the woods.

In many places, the farming of these pigs is bound by certain sumptuary laws, and only the nobility may grow a pig above a certain size.

Goats are freshly minted souls who have never reincarnated.  Because of their purity, they make excellent sacrifices.

Tigers always return as ghosts when they are killed.

Panthers speak all languages and are evil, honorable, and utterly merciless.  They sometimes chat their food up before hunting it, or give it a head start.

Horses can carry you into other planes if you get them drunk first.  There is actually a specialized market for horse drugs (cinnamon-covered elephant thyroid, fly agaric and snake jism, etc) designed to get the animal in the exact mental state required for it to carry you into another plane when at a dead gallop.  (This is often fatal to the horse.)

Chickens are powerful tools of divination, if their head is cut off when they are small and then raised to adulthood without a head.  These are called findybirds or witch chickens, and each chicken can find a single item once (as find the path) before dropping dead.  They are considered blasphemous by the church.

Roosters crow at down, but they also get confused during solar eclipses and crow then, too.  This reaction to darkness extends to the metaphysical; when something really terrible happens, the first sign is usually all the roosters going off at once.

Foxes are imaginary creatures that exist only in dreams.  For reasons they can't explain, everyone knows what a fox looks like, but no one can ever remember having seen one.

Snakes are sacred animals to the Church, especially blue snakes.  Priests are usually identified by the blue snakes that they wear.  There are different locations to wear one's snake--in a coil atop your head, around your neck, woven through your beard, intravaginally (part of one's vow of chastity), or in a special phylactery that resembles a pharaonic beard.

Squids are capable of interplanetary travel, but only during certain times of the year, if the rain is heavy and food is not abundant.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Azathoth the Microbiologist

So, the big reason that I haven't been posting is that I've gotten a new job as a wine microbiologist (during the busiest season) and have been moving.  A new location = no regular D&D group = less time spent thinking about D&D = fewer things to blog about = cosmic, ineffable sadness.

So, while I do have many things to blog about (a small backlog exists) I think it's appropriate to start with the one that is closest to microbiology.

this bacterial art by Eshel Ben-Jacob
We grow bacteria in Petri dishes.  We do this to study them, but more often we do it to (a) see if they were present in an original sample, (b) because they produce some chemical that we want more of, or (c) they're transgenic and we want more copies of their edited DNA.

One of the most striking things about the whole process is how inefficient and indirect the whole thing is.  Want to know if there's E. coli in this jar of cat vomit?  You can throw it under a microscope, and yes, E. coli does show up as cute little spheroids. . . but half the shit that you'll see inside cat vomit is going to show up as cute little spheroids, which makes certain identification pretty impossible.

So then you usually take the cat vomit, put it in a selective media that only E. coli can grow in, and then see if any cute little spheroids grow in that.  The problem is that selective media isn't perfectly selective (you'll get some things growing in it that aren't E. coli) and besides, there's lots of variants of E. coli that probably won't grow in it anyway, so you get false positives and false negatives.

You can also melt all the bacteria in acid (or at least, lytic enzymes) and look at the DNA you find in there, but that's getting away from the fun realm of historic microbiology and into the modern fold of molecular biology.

Inefficient and inexact.

It's a little bit like being a park ranger and trying to manage a park from a space station.

Park Manager: "You there!  Telescope monkey!  Are there any beavers in the park that we are managing?"

Park Ranger: [peers in telescope] "Well, I see some brown blobs that are moving around and are approximately beaver-sized.  So, it's possible.  But they could also be coyotes or komodo dragons."

Park Manager: "We need to know for certain, dammit!"

Park Ranger: "Okay.  I'll just use the tractor beam to pick up a cubic kilometer of the park and drop it on an island that I sterilized just this morning.  Then we'll drop anti-canine bombs and gas it with a plague that will kill all lizards.  We'll look at it again in 5 years and if we see more brown spots moving around, then we know for sure that it's beavers."

Senior Park Ranger: "You rookie.  Just pick up a cubic kilometer of the park and centrifuge it.  If there are any beavers in the park, there will be gnawed trees, and gnawed trees sediment in a different layer than un-gnawed trees."

You can probably see where I'm going with this.

What if our world (or a fantasy world) was merely the petri dish of some vast, unsympathetic alien intelligence?  What if humanity has been seeded (or at least cultured) for some ineffable purpose?

For shorthand, I'll refer to this vast, cool, and unsympathetic intelligence as Azathoth.  He's our nine-dimensional alien researcher.

What is Azathoth like?

He is Very Very Big.  He is also Singular, in the opposite way that we are plentiful.  If he has peers, they are outside our scope.  He operates on a different scale.  His experiment might take a billion years.

He can see things we cannot see.  He knows things that we cannot comprehend. He has no way of communicating any of this, and no inclination.

He has very bad vision.  He has a hard time telling us apart from other animals.  Hell, he has a hard time telling us apart from our environment sometimes.  He identifies us indirectly; if he wants to check for our presence, he might use sterilization methods that eliminate all non-human life.  Or he might dye us--black rain that makes all humans begin astral-vomiting up black stuff.

He is immensely powerful.  Killing all life in the universe is the work of a moment.

His twin weaknesses are precision and perception.

He has anticipated our escape attempts.  We have countermeasures against the best that microbes have to offer (durable endospores, dispersive spores) and Azathoth has a similar relationship to us.  We cannot build anything that can resist his sterilizations.  We cannot escape the boundary that he has defined for us.  (In a sci-fi setting, perhaps something prevents us from leaving our planet or galactic cluster.  In a fantasy setting, perhaps something prevents us from leaving our plane or local set of planes.)

He is fallible.  Despite being powerful enough to kill a dozen universes before coffee, he still fucks up.  Laboratory contamination happens all the fucking time due to imperfect technique and shitty equipment.  Bacteria ends up where it isn't supposed to.

His first tool is isolation.  He cuts us off from environments where other humans live.  He keeps us away from environments where we can thrive.

His second tool is sterilization.  When things go to shit, Azathoth sighs, throws the whole thing in the autoclave, and starts growing a new batch of colonies from frozen stock.

Most of his tools are crude, indirect, and inefficient.  Most of them are going to result in a lot of people dying.  He might grow up a billion humans across a thousand years, and then figure out if there was sentient life on the planet by boiling our oceans and measuring the aggregate suffering it causes.

He depends on us to thrive.  He depends on us to die.  If a microbiologist introduces some yeast into a new, rich soup of nutrients where they can grow without interference, I can imagine those yeast being grateful.  I can imagine those yeast worshiping the microbiologist for his benevolence.  Those prayers will turn to curses and lamentations when it's time for flame sterilization, though.

He cannot hear us, and even if he could, he probably wouldn't care.

We slip through the cracks.  If there are dimensions and planets and planes where we are supposed to be, there are also going to be places where we end up, but aren't supposed to be.  These are facultative environments.  These are the bacteria that grow on the lab coat's coffee stain (at least until it goes to the cleaners).  Humans in these places are escapees, who might have a better grasp of what is going on, but they are also probably going to be places that are very hostile to our life.  They might have competing organisms (motherfuckin' displacer beasts and shit) or simply not have much air or something.

We cannot hurt him (unless he fucks up).  But its an interesting idea.  What if human sentience is pathogenic?  What if we're a disease state in the interdimensional milieu?

Everything we do helps him.  Microbiologists depend on yeast acting like yeast.  Pretty much anything humans do is going to be "acting like a human".  But this is more ambiguous. . . unlike yeast, we can self-sterilize.  The only effective act of defiance might be to kill ourselves entirely.  Spit in the eye of god.

We are the center of the universe again (and this is the big difference with the standard Lovecraftian worldview).  Like in the Christian worldview, the universe was literally created for us, except where Jesus loves us and wants us to be happy, Azathoth sees us merely as a tool.  (This doesn't mean Azathoth is evil.  He might just have a higher concept of happiness than we do.  Perhaps his satisfaction is as elevated above our happiness as our happiness is above a yeast cell's metabolic contentment.)

What Does Azathoth Want From Us?

He might just be checking for proof of our existence.  Maybe he created a whole bunch of universes (or planets) and will return later to see which ones support intelligent life.  He'll take some notes and then implode our stars.  Or maybe he'll return after all the suns have gone out, and sift through the ashes of our civilizations, looking for traces.  (Perhaps his return will flash-carbonize everything in the universe, rendering direct observation impossible.  Best to give your colonies time to grow up and leave lots of remains.)

He might be interested in something that we produce.  We've engineered yeast and bacteria to produce all sorts of fun chemicals.  But what would sentient creatures produce?  Thoughts?  Emotions?  Souls?  Perhaps the end result is sentience itself.  Perhaps Azathoth returns after the apocalypse with a crude soul-ladle the size of a galaxy, which he dips through the various afterlifes until he harvests about half of all the souls there, who were looking forward to spending eternity in their afterlife of deposition.  (He only harvests half, because his methods is shitty and inefficient.  Some of the souls spill out into the void between worlds.  Other souls remain stuck to the ladle.)

He might just be cultivating us.  We could be a stock planet.  Culture a sentient life form on a planet for 4.3 billion years (or however long the incubation takes) then return and parcel all of the humans into 100 different microdimensions.  Some of these microdimensions full of humans will be put into storage, some will be sent to colleagues, some will be sacrificed for analysis.

What Environments Can We Explore?

There's going to be a lot of portals.  This is the end of the pipette tip--this is how Azathoth transfers us to a new dimension (where we might thrive, or might die horribly, depending).

Mass Kidnapping Via Portal - These aren't passive portals that sit there waiting for you to go through it.  These are huge things that slurp down oceans, rip up kingdoms.  These are mega-tornadoes that suck a million humans through at once.  They might appear simultaneously over all the major cities.

Lots of people will die, true, but this is to be expected of Azathoth's crude methods.  After all, he only needs a breeding pair of humans to establish a new colony in whatever dimension he deposits us in.

This might actually be a good starting point for a campaign.  Or, the starting point of a setting's calendar.  (Dibs.)

Pleasant Environments - When Azathoth wants us to thrive, he will introduce us into environments guaranteed it.  Expect heaven.  Rivers of milk and honey are not out of the question.

Horrible Environments - These are places where Azathoth is trying to kill things off.  He might be trying to kill all non-humans (sorry elves), or kill all humans.  This selection can be environmental (temperature, nutrition) or biological (organisms that specialize in killing humans).

Expect environments where there is literally nothing to eat that isn't horribly poisonous.  Poison planet?  There might even be a place where all the amino acids are chirally reversed, so although it looks like a normal place with normal food, you'll starve to death stuffing your face with their bread.

Worshippers of Azathoth - He put us in a land of milk and honey after we were sucked through a wormhole by a nine-tentacled super-tornado.  He must be a nice guy.  Let's all count down until the next portal opens.

Cryo Storage - Some cells are stable pretty much indefinitely when you keep them at -200 degrees Celsius.  These could be ice planets (with no nearby sun), flash frozen in the heyday of their civilization.  They could ice planets that froze slowly, apocalyptically, with a few viable humans locked away in their cryovaults.

(It's possible that Azathoth may grow civilizations up simple to ensure that they have some method of surviving his storage methods.  When you store civilizations by freezing them, it helps if your civilization is advanced enough to develop cryo-banks, vaults warmed by nuclear power, or magic-derived stasis.)

Or you can get away from that boring snow and start thinking about the much more interesting concept of temporostasis.  People locked in time like a void monk, who will thaw as soon as a haste spell is cast on them.

Axenic Cultures - Sometimes you want to culture something in isolation, without any other species' interference.  These are places where the only animal life is human.

Just mull that over for a little while.  These are people who have never seen a dog or been bitten by a mosquito.  Their oceans are algae-choked mats.

It could even be a truly axenic culture, where there aren't even any plants or microbes.  These humans probably lick the saccharine dew off the rocks and have never had a cold in their lives.  They wear the skins of the ancestors, with a bundle of knotted face-skins around their neck like a ghoulish scarf.

Megaxenic Cultures - It's also possible that we're in a semi-xenic culture already (maybe Azathoth wanted to isolate us carbon-based life forms from the silicon-based ones).  And once we leave our little petri dish, we are going to start meeting some really weird people.  Like, weirder than xorn.  Like, Kill Six Billion Demons weird.

Slipped Through the Cracks - This is microbial contamination.  Sometimes you think you have a sterile, unused petri dish but then discover furry mold growing on it anyway.  Sometimes humans end up in places they aren't supposed to be.  Sometimes Azathoth has shitty portal technique, and ends up depositing us on his clothing, in his hair, on the door knob, or inside one of his machines.

Remember that you don't need to have a high level of technology to colonize a new land.  Sometimes all you need is a bag of seeds and a shovel. It might even be interesting to have a campaign that included a completely virgin planet.  Just volcanoes and clean dirt.

Death - If you want to play in this sort of campaign, you need to adjust you sense of scope, especially when dealing with mass death.  The death of a billion might be the price you need to open the next portal.