Saturday, 26 December 2015

The Tower of Broken Gears: An introductory adventure for ATWC

Sometimes, when I'm reading through someone else's RPG setting, I find myself thinking: 'yeah, OK, fine, but what do you do? What does an adventure set in this place actually look like?' A good sample adventure can really help communicate what a setting might look like in play; a bad sample adventure, on the other hand, can make the most dynamic of settings look utterly dull. I really liked the Eberron setting for D&D3.5, for example, but the sample adventure was absolute garbage: a linear walk through a series of boring fight scenes, which totally failed to demonstrate why anyone might want to play in this setting rather than a hundred others.

So here's my attempt to sketch out a sample adventure for ATWC. It's my first attempt at writing something like this down in a format that other people might use; my session notes usually just consist of a few scribbles on a piece of paper, which would be meaningless to anyone else. It's written for the ATWC setting, but really it should work fine in any fantasy setting as long as you don't mind including some gunpowder and clockpunk technology. The PCs are assumed to be level 1, though it would work for a slightly higher-level party if the opposition was made a bit tougher.

Note: this post is super-long. 

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The Tower of Broken Gears

Hook: The PCs need some reason to go out to the remote tower of a famous artificer. Maybe they've got some kind of clockwork junk that they're hoping she'll repair, or identify, or know how to operate, or (most likely of all) be willing to buy off them for a decent sum of hard currency. If you need a 'one-size-fits-all' motivation, just have them approached by a merchant who has a cargo of machine parts to ship out to her; the caravan he was supposed to be travelling with is being held up for some bullshit reason or other, but he knows that he'll lose his contract with her if the gear isn't delivered on time, so now he's looking for a handful of freelance guards (i.e. the PCs) to help escort his merchandise out through the deserts. He's heard rumours about bandits in the area, but actually the trip to the tower is uneventful. The tower itself... rather less so.

The Tower: The artificer, whose name is Anara, lives in a five-story tower out in the middle of nowhere; she and her clockwork robots built it so that she'd have somewhere to carry out her work in peace and quiet. When the PCs arrive, the doors are shut, and no-one will answer any calls or knocking. It's made of stone, and wouldn't be hard to climb. There are windows on every level, but they're all barred to prevent thieves getting in: still, a stealthy and agile PC could easily climb up it and peek through the windows on each level to get some idea of what's going on inside without alerting the occupants to their presence. The tower is circular, and wider at the bottom than at the top: level 1 is about 30' across, and narrows by 2' per level to 22' across at level 5. Apart from level 1, each level has just one room, connected to the levels above and below by spiral stairs built into the walls. There's a trapdoor on the roof that leads directly to level 5.

The tower's only outbuilding is a stable, which currently houses six horses: two patient workhorses which belonged to Anara, and four wily, shaggy steppe horses which belong to the bandits. A faint trail indicates several more horses were driven away from here recently. A skilled tracker, such as a ranger or traveller, could follow this trail to the bandit's den up in the hills. 

What's Going On: Until recently, Anara and her apprentices lived there peacefully enough, building clockwork marvels and getting blitzed out of their skulls on arak whenever Anara felt like celebrating. Unfortunately, Anara's most long-serving apprentice, Umid, had been growing increasingly discontented with her 'strong drink and hard work now, graduation never' style of instruction: after seven years he was convinced that he deserved to be made a master clockworker, and yet she still refused either to issue him with a certificate of mastery or to share with him the highest secrets of her craft. (It didn't help that she'd also been shooting down his increasingly unsubtle romantic advances.) On a supply run to town, Umid fell in with some bad company, and came up with a hare-brained scheme to help a couple of thieves rob the tower; they'd loot all Anara's jealously-guarded clockwork wonders, he'd finally get his hands on all those precious blueprints she'd been refusing to let him study, and once they sold their haul he'd use his share of the money to set up as a master artificer someplace else. Unfortunately for him, the thieves turned out to be skull-wearer bandits led by a psychopathic cannibal named Farrukh: when he let them into the tower they didn't just rob Anara, they also killed and ate her, before demanding that Umid help them round up the rest of the apprentices for butchery. Horrified, he fled upstairs and locked himself into the top room of the tower, and the bandits settled down to starve him out.

That was three days ago.The tower is now divided between different people occupying different levels: one apprentice hiding in the basements, the bandits roaming across levels 1 and 2, Umid barricaded into levels 3 and 4, and level 5 occupied by Anara's clockwork assistant, who is refusing to let anyone else in until its (dead) mistress explains what's going on. By climbing up the outside of the tower, the PCs can communicate with all these different groups, but the only way to actually reach them is to fight their way up or down, one floor at a time.

Unless the PCs approach the tower in a stealthy fashion (e.g. sneaking up on it under the cover of darkness) the bandits will be aware of their presence, but won't do anything to draw attention to themselves: there are too few of them to risk an open confrontation, so they're hoping the PCs will just go away. The tower's other residents won't be aware of the PCs until they are actively contacted by them. 

Getting In: The only ways into the tower are through the front door or through the trapdoor on the roof - for information on the trapdoor, see Level 5, below. The iron double-doors at the front of the tower have a fantastically complex clockwork lock, which was why the bandits needed Umid's help to break in; but once it was open they had no idea how to relock it, so they've just hung a beam of wood across the inside of the door, resting on a couple of hooks, and called it a day. As a result the doors hang about half an inch open, with only the bar holding them shut: the fact that whoever closed the gates clearly had no idea how to use the lock should be the first hint that something is badly wrong. PCs might get in by sliding a blade between the doors and using it to lift the bar, or even by slipping a narrow saw-blade between them and sawing through it. Once the door is open, mechanically-adept PCs could remove the lock mechanism, which could be sold for 100gp. (Less mechanically-adept PCs who try to lever it off the door will just end up with a heap of broken scrap worth 10gp at best.)

Level 1: Once inside, the PCs will see an entrance hall with stairs going up and down and doors to the left and right. The left-hand door leads to a kitchen and dining area; the right-hand door leads to a living area. Both have been thoroughly and obviously looted.

In the kitchen, there is one piece of valuable technology which the bandits chose not to remove: a steam-and-clockwork coffee-making machine. (They plan to take it when they leave, but until then they're leaving it where it is for fear of breaking it.) If removed and transported with great care, it would be worth 250gp intact, but any rough handling will cause it to break, halving its value. It makes really great coffee.

In the living area, a clockwork woman with copper skin lies on the floor, her casing smashed wide open, gears spilling out of her like blood. This was Anara's clockwork servant, who tried to stop the bandits looting the place. Repairing her would take days of work even for a skilled clockworker with a fully-stocked workshop, but PCs who know something about clockwork will be able to salvage about 50gp worth of intact mechanisms from among all the broken gears.

Basement: At the bottom of the stairs are two doors, both locked. The locks can be picked, or opened with the keys carried by Farrukh (see Level 2). The left-hand door leads to a very boring supply cellar full of grain, flour, firewood, and other uninteresting stuff. The right-hand door leads to the coal cellar, which also contains Anara's supply of gunpowder.

As soon as anyone touches the door to the coal cellar, or tries to pick the lock, they will hear a weak, rasping female voice from the other side saying: 'I'll do it! I swear it! Don't you dare come in!' This voice belongs to Golnar, one of Anara's apprentices: when the bandits attacked she fled into the cellar and hid, and when followed she held them off by threatening to drop a match into the gunpowder and blow them all up. They responded by locking the door and leaving her down there to die of thirst, planning to retrieve the powder at their leisure.

Three days spent in total darkness without food and water, startling at every sound, have left Golnar a total physical and psychological wreck. She's very weak, and very scared, but with some patience the PCs should be able to convince her that they mean her no harm; severe dehydration have left her almost unable to talk, but she'll rasp out a few words to warn them of the bandits upstairs. If the PCs enter the cellar, either with the key or by picking the lock, without first persuading Golnar of their good intentions, then she'll carry out her threat by striking a match and dropping it into a barrel of gunpowder, causing a huge explosion that blows her to bits and causes 4d6 damage to anyone else nearby. Otherwise she'll beg them for water, and happily let them take the gunpowder. She currently has 1 HP, and will need at least a couple of days recovery time before she's in any state to help them in other ways.

Level 2: This was the main workshop area. It's now where the bandits are holed up. They have guns, but they used up almost all their gunpowder blowing up the automaton which Umid unleashed on them yesterday; now they only have enough left for six shots between them, which is why they don't just shoot the PCs from the windows as soon as they arrive. They're waiting for Golnar to die so that they can resupply from the stock in the basement.

The door at the top of the stairs from level 1 is barred, but not locked. If a PC climbs the tower and looks through the window, they'll see an artificer's workshop, with four men and one woman inside it: One of the men is tied to a chair, and looks badly injured; the rest are rough-looking types wearing travelling gear, with swords and guns dangling from their belts. All but one of them wear masks made from human skulls. (In fact these 'masks' are sewed directly onto the skin of their faces.) On a worktable lies what little remains of a butchered human corpse - all that is now left of the unfortunate Anara. The wreckage of some kind of shattered clockwork robot lies at the foot of the stairs going up to the next level.

The people in this room are as follows:

  • Farrukh: AC 15 (chainmail), to-hit +4 (melee) or +2 (ranged), damage 1d8+2 (sword) or 1d8 (pistol - only enough powder left for two shots), 14 HP, FORT 12, REF 14, WILL 17. The leader of the bandits: skull-wearer, cannibal, sadist, and all-round psycho. He underwent the skull-wearer rite willingly; if his skull-mask is ripped off then he'll spend a few days weeping and gibbering with shock, but as soon as he pulls himself together he'll start looking for a new victim from whom to make a new mask. Will try to flee if it looks like he's losing, but will never surrender.
  • Nurzhan: AC 13 (leathers), to-hit +3 (melee) or +1 (ranged), damage 1d8+2 (sword) or 1d8 (pistol - only enough powder left for one shot), 6 HP, FORT 13, REF 15, WILL 18. A luckless traveller whom Farrukh forced to undergo the skull-wearer rite at gunpoint years ago. If his skull-mask is ripped off he'll be totally overwhelmed by the horror of his actions, although after a few years of devoted care he might recover enough to return to his old life. As long as the mask stays on, however, he's a savage brute who will fight to the death.
  • Inkar: Same stats as Nurzhan. The only female member of Farrukh's band, who, like Nurzhan, was forced to perform the skull-wearer rite. She and Farrukh have been locked in a horrible, loveless, mutually-abusive relationship ever since. She hasn't been a skull-wearer for nearly as long as Nurzhan; if her skull-mask is removed she should make an almost-total recovery after a few months, and she'll be extremely grateful to her deliverers. She'll try to flee if Farrukh does, and surrender if he escapes or is killed.
  • Ruslan: AC 13 (leathers), to-hit +0, damage 1d8 (sword) or 1d8 (pistol - only enough powder left for one shot), 3 HP, FORT 16, REF 16, WILL 16. The one non-skull-wearer in the band: a skinny teenager, previously a petty thief, who is hopelessly out of his depth. He is totally horrified by the depravity of his comrades, and knows that Farrukh is itching for a chance to force him to put on a skull-mask of his own, but he's so terrified of them that he doesn't dare run away. If the PCs seem to be winning the fight he will immediately throw down his weapons and beg for mercy. 
  • Talgat: The man tied to the chair is one of Anara's other apprentices. Farrukh caught him in the initial attack, and has been starving and torturing him ever since, trying to force him into becoming a skull-wearer by eating the heart and drinking the blood of his beloved mentor. (For this reason, they're the only parts of her that Farrukh and his band haven't already eaten.) Talgat is half-mad with horror, but he would rather die than become a monster like Farrukh. He has 1 HP left.
If the four bandits see PCs looking in through the windows, they'll try to run over and stab them through the bars, but won't waste gunpowder unless they have to. If the PCs enter the room in an unsubtle fashion (like smashing the door down), the bandits will all open fire on the first person into the room, catching them in a withering crossfire which is likely to be fatal; intelligent PCs will use shields or smoke to protect themselves as they charge in. (If they don't bother, the bandits get +4 to-hit on their opening volley only.) PCs who have already freed Golnar might prefer to blow the door open with gunpowder and charge in while the bandits are stunned and reeling from the blast.

If the bandits are defeated, PCs can find 500gp worth of artificer's equipment and assorted clockwork mechanisms in the workshop, although some of them are so heavy that they'll need a cart to carry them: if they're limited to what they can stuff in their saddlebags, they'll only be able to take 200gp worth. (Of course, all this assumes they know which bits are worth taking: PCs who just grab any random junk will be lucky to get one-tenth of this value. Talgat or Golnar would know, but will be reluctant to assist in the looting of their mentor's property.) Farrukh carries 47gp worth of coins in a belt-pouch, and the keys to the two basement doors; the other bandits have 1d10gp each. The clockwork robot at the foot of the stairs to level 3 is pretty thoroughly wrecked. It was obviously destroyed by a barrage of improvised black powder bombs.

It'll be a while before Talgat is able to do much more than sob, but once he's had a chance to recover he'll be able to tell the PCs the whole story of the bandit attack, Anara's death, Umid's flight upstairs, and Farrukh's subsequent butchery and cannibalism of Anara. He also knows that Golnar is hiding in the basement, and will beg the PCs to rescue her if they haven't already. He holds Umid responsible for everything that has happened, and demands that the PCs go upstairs and 'bring him to justice' (i.e. murder him). In exchange, he promises (truthfully) that he will tell them which of Anara's clockwork devices are most valuable, and let them loot them without complaint.

Farrukh, Nurzhan, and Inkar are all wanted in several nearby cities, and are worth 100gp each alive or dead. No-one cares about Ruslan one way or the other. 

Level 3: The door up to this level is locked with a complex clockwork lock (worth 100 gp if removed intact) that Umid activated when he fled upstairs. The PCs could blow it open with the gunpowder from the basement; alternatively, once they've had a chance to recover, either Talgat or Golnar could open it if given 1d6 hours and access to tools from the workshop on level 2.

This level was the apprentice's sleeping quarters. It's one big room, with one-quarter of it divided off from the rest with drapes. (This was Golnar's corner, to let her dress and undress in privacy.) Three corners of the room contain beds, each with a chest, wardrobe, and table; the fourth contains a big table with four chairs around it. It's also full of clockwork traps.

Umid has spent the last three days feverishly filling this room with everything he can think of that might slow the bandits down once they break down the door and come for him. As the PCs advance across the room, from the stairs down to level 2 towards the stairs up to level 4, they'll have to contend with the following:
  1. A spring-gun aimed at the door. Anyone who runs through the door gets shot by a spring-loaded musket pointed at it, and must pass a REF save or take 1d10 damage. (Only one shot, obviously.) Anyone who doesn't run straight through will probably just see the trip-wire and step carefully over it.
  2. A clockwork soldier armed with an axeblade, which lurches out from behind a wardrobe to attack anyone who makes it past the tripwire. Any PC who responds to its emergence by saying 'I jump back!', or words to that effect, will set off the spring-gun (unless it's already gone off, of course). Smart PCs will just step back over the tripwire and lure the automaton into the spring-gun instead: it automatically fails its save. It has AC 16, +2 to-hit, 9 HP, and does 1d8 damage with its axe.
  3. A clockwork snake hidden under one of the beds, which will attack anyone who gets more than halfway across the room, with a 5-in-6 chance of surprise unless they've already thought to look under the beds. (If they do look under the beds and spot it, they can just shoot it to death at their leisure: it won't move, even if it's being destroyed, until someone gets more than halfway across the room.) It has AC 17, +3 to-hit, 8 HP, and does 1d4 damage with its metal jaws. The first person it bites will also be injected with venom, and must pass a FORT save or lose 1 HP per minute for the next 1d8 minutes. 
Note that the spring-gun (although not the automata) is easily spotted by PCs looking in through the windows, and that the clockwork snake will happily attack the clockwork soldier if it ends up in the far side of the room. PCs looting the room will be able to retrieve 2d10 gp worth of trinkets and jewelry from each of the three chests. There are also three calligraphic scrolls with encouraging messages on them ('Study hard!' 'Don't give up!', etc) hanging from the walls around Golnar's bed, drawn for her by her elder brother, who happens to be a calligraphy teacher; the quality of their penmanship means they'd be worth 20gp each to a collector. Finally, someone who knows about clockwork (Talgat, for example) could salvage 2d10gp worth of components from both the snake and the soldier even after they've been 'killed'.

Level 4: This level was Anara's living quarters; it contains a big bed, several bookcases, a worktable, a wardrobe, and a bath surrounded by carved wooden screens. The door from level 3 to level 4 has a super-complex clockwork lock (worth 120 gp if removed intact), but it's not locked: Umid couldn't work out how to operate it. In it sits Umid, surrounded by empty arak bottles, sodden with drink and remorse. He's currently spending most of his time trying to work out where exactly his life went so badly wrong.

If Umid sees the PCs climbing past the window, he will eagerly rush over and talk to them: he'll tell them that Anara's been murdered by bandits who are encamped below, and will beg them to kill the brigands and save him. (He will neglect to mention his own role in events.) He's obviously been drinking heavily: he stinks, he slurs his words, and he'll break down sobbing under any kind of emotional pressure. If given anything resembling a sympathetic ear, even from a complete stranger hanging to the wall of the tower outside the window, he'll lurch into a long, rambling, self-pitying speech about what a failure he is at everything, quite possibly giving away his responsibility for Anara's murder in the process. If shot at through the window, he'll hide under the bed and attempt (probably ineffectually) to return fire.
  • Umid: AC 12 (dexterity, travelling clothes), to-hit 0, damage 1d4 (knife) or 1d8 (pistol), 6 HP, FORT 16, REF 15, WILL 15. 
If Umid hears the PCs coming for him from below, and has plenty of time to prepare, he'll try to pull himself together, climb into a clockwork exoskeleton he found in the room, and make a slightly farcical attempt to commit 'suicide by adventurer'. The exoskeleton raises his AC to 16, gives him +1 to hit in melee, and allows him to inflict 1d6+1 damage with his metal fists; but after 1d6 rounds of combat its mainspring will wind down and leave him effectively paralysed. Then he'll burst into tears.

(If the PCs get the exoskeleton repaired and maintained by a skilled clockworker - Talgat or Golnar, for example - they could sell it for 250gp, or use it themselves: it grants AC 16 and +3 strength, but requires 10 minutes of winding for each minute of operation, and will only function for 10 minutes maximum. It's not really intended for combat use, and any hit on the wearer has a 10% chance of wrecking the spring, making the exoskeleton seize up and leaving the wearer paralysed until someone helps them out of it.)

PCs may wish to spare Umid, either because they find him too pathetic to kill or because they want to bring him in for a proper trial. Talgat, however, insists that they should kill him on the spot, and indeed will gut Umid himself if he gets half a chance. If the PCs do spare him, he will develop a rather embarassing fixation on the PC with the highest Charisma score, which manifests as either hero-worship (if male) or a hopelessly one-sided crush (if female). 

Anara's room contains fine clothes, jewelry, and books that could be sold for a total of 250 gp. It did contain some exceptionally fine arak, too, but Umid drank it all.

Level 5: This was Anara's private workshop. It's full of ultra-fine tools, ultra-fine clockwork, boxes full of blueprints, and half-finished clockwork machines. It also contains her masterwork: a half-finished but highly intelligent clockwork robot which takes a very dim view of intruders. This robot doesn't have any legs yet, but sits upright on a worktable, and is able to swivel its torso 360 degrees. It will open fire on anyone trying to climb in through the trapdoor from the roof, which is the reason why the bandits weren't able to just descend on Umid from above.
  • Silver clockwork super-robot: AC 18 (steel skin), to-hit +5, 2 attacks, damage 1d8 (gun-arms) or 1d6 (metal fists), 32 HP, FORT 10, REF 11, WILL 12. 
Taking this robot on in a fight would be a very bad idea: it would probably wipe the floor with a first-level party. Emphasize just how advanced and dangerous the thing looks, and how obviously superior it is to the crude clockwork mechanisms on the lower levels. Fortunately, it will only open fire if people actually enter the workshop: for as long as they remain outside (standing just outside the door, leaning down over the trapdoor, hanging onto the wall outside and calling in through the window), it will be perfectly courteous, although the first thing it will say is to politely warn them that if they attempt to enter it will have to shoot them. It will tell them that it hasn't seen its mistress in three days, that one of her apprentices is in her room below, and that he has been making comically crude attempts to guess its override commands for days now. ('No, the override code is not 'override'. Nor is it 'Anara'. Nor is it 'Arana'. What kind of fool does he imagine my mistress to be?') It does not know that Anara is dead, and will not believe it without proof.

Proving to the robot that Anara is dead will will be tricky, given how little Farrukh has left of her, but it's not impossible: the testimony of her apprentices will count for something, as will her bloodied clothes, her keys, her empty arak bottles ('She'd never have drunk that one! She was saving it!'), and so on. Once convinced that its maker is dead the robot will go into a deep depression, convinced that its life is now meaningless without the person it was built to serve. It will no longer make any effort to stop PCs entering the room, and will even allow them to loot the place, but it will violently resist any attempts to carry it away. It will also ask that they bring Anara's remains to it, so that it can be alone with its mistress. Patient and sympathetic PCs could probably eventually persuade it to do something else with its life; if they can get it out of its existential funk (maybe with the help of Golnar's motivational posters from level 3) then it will 'adopt' either Golnar or Talgat as it's new master, and encourage them to pick up Anara's work where she left off. Otherwise it will just sit there in the dark, guarding the corpse of its dead maker, until its mainspring winds down completely. 

Someone who knew what to take, and was able to transport very delicate clockwork machinery safely from place to place, could loot 700gp worth of tools and materials from this room. Someone who was just grabbing stuff at random would be lucky to get 10% of that. If the PCs have already killed Umid, Talgat will be happy to help them identify the good stuff - although he'll insist on keeping the blueprints for himself, so that he can carry on with her works.

If the PCs do nothing: After another day or so, Golnar will succumb to dehydration and pass out. The bandits will then enter the basement, use the gunpowder to blast open the doors to level 3, and kill (and eat) Umid. With Umid and Golnar dead, Talgat will sink into despair and eat Anara's heart, becoming a skull-wearer. The gang will then load up their loot and ride away to their camp (see below) with their new member in tow. PCs returning after this time will find the tower empty apart from the robot on level 5.

If the PCs follow the trail from the stables: About a day's ride up into the hills, the trail will terminate in a circle of tents in a secluded valley. This is the current lair of Farrukh's gang, and in his absence is guarded by a couple of non-skull-wearer bandits (use the same stats as Ruslan, except they have muskets - 1d10 damage - and plenty of powder). If confronted by a force which outnumbers them and doesn't run off after being shot at, they'll grab the loot and the horses (of which there are six) and flee; if pursued and cornered, they will surrender. In Farrukh's tent are a couple of sacks containing the items the gang looted from Anara's tower, mostly luxury items and bits of precious metal worth a total of 120gp, and a locked box which contains 238gp worth of stolen coins and jewellery from their previous victims.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Venger As'Nas Satanis: An Appreciation

Seeing as I appear to be doing a lot of rambling about various OSR writers just now, I might as well do one on one of the OSR's more colourful figures: Venger As'Nas Satanis, the self-styled founder of the Cult of Cthulhu. Now, in my view, the single best writer currently working in the OSR is Patrick Stuart, who on a sentence-by-sentence level can outgun just about anyone. Scrap Princess probably has the edge over him in terms of raw delirious imagination, but it's a close-run thing. Zak S, Kenneth Hite, David McGrogan, James Raggi, Geoffrey McKinney, and Rafael Chandler have all put together some seriously impressive and well-crafted work over the last few years. But none of them make me want to grab half a dozen people and just yell, 'OK, guys, we're playing this right now' in quite the same way that Satanis does.

I've read three of his books, so far: Liberation of the Demon Slayer, Revelry in Torth, and The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence. As he cheerfully acknowledges, they all draw on pretty much the same set of material: Conan-style sword and sorcery, Lovecraftian horror, cheesy old science fantasy movies, and 70s exploitation flicks. In fact, most of his aesthetic could be summed up by quoting a single sentence from The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence:
'A powerful sorcerer, Surek, lives there along with his female slave named Satara; a half-Koshi, half-Human servant named Torg; and a robot from the future called X111.'
Koshi are ape-men; so what we have here is a sorcerer, a slave girl, an ape-man, and a robot from the future, hanging out together in a dungeon, in a kind of living tableau of pulp weird fiction clichés. Why is there a robot? How did it arrive here from 'the future'? What's 'the future' like, anyway? No explanation is given. Time-travelling robots are apparently just one of those things.

As are, um... combat thongs, I guess? This is what happens when you get monster porn artists to draw your cover for you...

As an RPG writer, Satanis certainly has his limitations. His writing is very unsystematic: he'll write at length about some aspect of a scene that interests him, and then neglect to mention such minor details as who these people are or what the hell is going on. He writes in a kind of eternal present-tense, presenting a series of set-pieces with no real sense of before or after: masked revellers rush by carrying a papier-mâché dragon! Crazed cultists prepare a beautiful girl for sacrifice! A gorilla with tentacles for arms wades across an endless desert! The skeletons of radioactive spacemen lurch up to attack! The situations he presents often make very little logical sense, and will fall apart quite rapidly if you have the kind of group who ask questions like 'but where have they been getting food from?' or 'why didn't they do this until now?' As a rollercoaster ride between scenes from space-rock and heavy metal album covers, though, it's hard to beat; and I find something enormously appealing about the sheer enthusiasm with which Satanis throws all this material down onto the page. He doesn't take this whole 'fantasy gaming' thing too seriously; he knows that if the average D&D campaign was a movie, it'd be a low-budget fantasy flick full of terrible actors and continuity errors and a really awful script. He doesn't fight that: he embraces it, inviting his readers to recognise that once you stop worrying about plot coherency and artistic value, Battle For the Planet of the Apes can actually be a pretty fun movie. He approaches his media of choice on its own terms, rather than condemning it for failing to be something else, and I have a lot of sympathy for that.

Satanis's work has been mildly controversial due to its wholehearted embrace of one part of the pulp aesthetic which many modern pulp revivalists have been keen to move away from: its sexism. His works are full of sexy near-naked slave girls, sexy near-naked sorceresses, sexy near-naked women who are about to be sacrificed to evil gods, and so on: the evil ones usually have seduction-based powers, and the good ones are often more-or-less explicitly presented as another kind of 'treasure' for the PCs to carry off. This is certainly true to its source material, but I entirely understand why many people might find it a real turn-off. As and when I run some of his adventures - which I really hope I will at some point - I'll just gender-flip half of them: so for every sexy naked elf-girl hanging around the place, being used as a slave or a sacrifice or whatever, there'll also be a sexy naked elf-boy in a similar situation somewhere to balance things out. That way the atmosphere of pulpy self-indulgent decadence is maintained, but in a more... ah... equal opportunities fashion.

I mean, guys can be sacrificed to demonic blob monsters in weird bondage rituals too! 
Because Satanis doesn't do things which are obviously 'difficult', like come up with super-complex storylines or nuanced characters or brilliantly-written descriptions, it would be easy to come away with the impression that what he does is easy: just a matter of combining a random Conan tale with a random Lovecraft short story and a random episode of Thundarr the Barbarian, and then adding some gratuitous female nudity to the resulting mix. Anyone who follows this formula will, indeed, come up with something that bears a surface similarity to one of Satanis's adventures; but I'd be willing to bet that, most of the time, it wouldn't be nearly as good. It would be a rote exercise: it would lack the energy which supercharges his works, all but demanding to be allowed to spill off the page and onto the gaming table. (Go on: come up with a better 'animal mash-up' monster than a gorilla with tentacle arms that wanders the sands of a sunless desert. See how long it really takes.) As I'm sure he'd be the first to admit, it's not the most sophisticated material in the world. But it's fun and vivid and attractively unpretentious, and above all it's eminently gameable: the work of someone who understands that what makes for great gaming is not necessarily the same thing as makes for great novels, and that while deep and complex characterisation can be good, an elephant-sized sand squid with a tentacle that ends in a scorpion tail is usually going to be even better. Your PCs won't forget meeting that one in a hurry.

So: Venger As'Nas Satanis. Satanist. Cthulhu cultist. Pretty damn good at this whole 'RPG writing' thing. I'd never run any of his adventures without making heaps of changes to them, adding back in all the logic and coherency and internal consistency which he so gleefully ignores; but give me half a chance and I will run them. They just look like being too much fun to pass up.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Reflections on Carcosa

I know it's been out for years, but I've only just got around to reading Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa. I remembered it being somewhat controversial when it came out, so I was braced for something fairly horrible, but as usual I needn't have bothered. Yes, it contains descriptions of evil magic ceremonies in which the horrible ritual requirements are actually spelled out rather than covered up with some kind of vague mumbling about 'unspeakable horrors': conjuring this god requires you to disembowel this many children, binding that one requires you to rape and murder that kind of virgin, and so on. But the language is all factual, and the result is that the rituals form a kind of cook-book of atrocity: do this and this and this and you'll get such-and-such a result. It's not presented salaciously, and the most obvious use for this material is as a crib-sheet to help heroic PCs foil the rituals of crazy sorcerers: 'He's only drowned three kids so far! If we can save the fourth one, then the god will eat him rather than obey him when it arrives!'

That said, yes, the material involved in many of these rituals is sufficiently horrible that I'd be unlikely to use it in any game I actually ran. But speaking as someone who spends quite a lot of time reading and thinking about real and fictional atrocities - I have to, it's my job - I actually appreciate McKinney's specificity. I know that the point of the old 'Unimaginable tortures! Unspeakable cruelties!' routine is to allow each individual reader to imagine whatever they're comfortable with imagining, and nothing more; but it also contributes to a mystification of acts of evil and violence which they really don't deserve. There's nothing mystical about extreme violence, and while it might often be hard to understand why people do such things to one another, it's usually pretty straightforward to understand the acts themselves: human bodies are made out of meat, and there's only so many ways to damage one. A sorcerer who commits unspeakable horrors upon his victims has done something pretty damn impressive; but one who just ties six guys to stakes and disembowels them doesn't get to partake of the same spurious grandeur. He's not a mystic. He's just a butcher.

(Incidentally, this is why one part of Death Frost Doom I didn't really go for was the idea that simply reading the book which describes all the horrible things the cult had done to its victims had the power to dramatically and permanently affect the minds of its readers. I've read plenty of atrocity catalogues myself, and I can attest that they don't drive you mad; they just leave you feeling numb and sad and sick and, in an odd way, slightly bored. Like I say, there's only so many ways that human beings can hurt each other, so one needs to expect a lot of repetition.)

Anyway. In case you don't know already, Carcosa describes itself as 'a weird science-fantasy horror setting'. It's set on a distant planet in the Hyades Cluster, where human tribes scavenge amongst the ruins of fallen, pre-human civilisations, and it does a great job of evoking the mood of its setting; everything is ruined and broken and ancient and probably incomprehensible to human minds. The humans of Carcosa aren't dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants; they're dwarves who have built themselves crude homes inside a dead giant's ribcage, and occasionally wonder how on earth they're supposed to open that hundred-foot-high door over there. Oh, and occasionally a particularly evil and crazy dwarf will murder all the others in an attempt to exert magical control over the dead giant's now-feral housecat. It usually doesn't go very well.

However, despite the doomy nature of its setting, and the fact that most people in Carcosa - PCs very much included - are going to live pretty horrible lives, the setting didn't feel deprotagonising to me. I think this is mostly because the world it describes has been wrecked so very, very thoroughly: all the highly advanced evil races who once kept humans as slaves and test subjects are dead, and the inhuman creatures who remain are largely of the 'mindless blob monster' variety. If a group of PCs ever managed to scrape together a decent-sized army and a sufficient quantity of salvaged Space Alien technology, they'd be a match for anything in the setting - except the Space Aliens themselves, I guess, but if they'd had any interest in conquering Carcosa they'd have done it millennia ago. Even many of the Great Old Ones, judging by the stats provided, are essentially paper tigers, hardly worth all the trouble necessary to summon or bind them: if some fruitcake summons, say, the Fetor of the Depths, then a formation of 100 archers will be able to kill it in a single volley as long as they have the sense to stay out of range of its stink attack. (A mere forty would suffice to kill the Foul Putrescence, which rather makes me wonder why anyone would bother going through all the rigmarole and sacrifices necessary to summon and bind the thing: anyone with that kind of resources would be better off just building themselves an army.) I'd never describe Carcosa as 'hopeful' or 'optimistic', and the default assumption is clearly that PCs will wander around for a bit, witness various strange and horrible things in the course of their travels through their ruined world, and then die at the hands of some robot, monster, or band of savages: if anyone ever used the rules provided - which I really hope they don't, because rolling dice to find out which dice to roll is just madness - then such doom is more-or-less guaranteed, as the extremely high randomness means that sooner or later each PC is likely to get splattered pretty much whatever they do. But while the setting is bleak, it's certainly not hopeless; and if one did want to run a 'from the ashes' style campaign in which the PCs unite the warring tribes of Carcosan humanity and exterminate all the stupid blob-monsters, there's not a whole lot in the setting as written to stop them. And because the cruelty and degradation of the Carcosans is clearly a response to their horrible situation, rather than just because they're all deeply horrible people for no adequately-explained reason (as in, say, some of Rafael Chandler's work), it's possible to believe that, one day, all this squalor and savagery could be left behind. Maybe your PCs will be the ones who help their species to turn the corner...

Realistically, I'm never going to run a game set in McKinney's Carcosa. Even if I did, I don't think that the interminable hex descriptions which make up no less than one hundred pages of the book would be all that much use to me: there are a few gems in there, but there's also a great deal which was clearly assembled via random tables, and it shows. But there are enough evocative fragments strewn through the book for me to feel that it was worth the princely sum of £6.71 which I paid to get the pdf version, and some of this stuff - the mummified sorcerers of the radioactive deserts, for example, or the general set-up of a ruined city inhabited by feral tribes of bizarrely-coloured humans, genetically colour-coded so that their ancient snake-man masters could tell at a glance who would be suitable for sacrifice in which rituals - is definitely going to turn up in one of my games at some point.

Probably not in Against the Wicked City, though.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Super-Basic D&D Classes

For those times when even Lamentations of the Flame Princess just seems like a too much of a faff:

Rules For Everyone

  • Everyone: Gets 1d6 HP per level, and can use any kinds of armour or weapons. They have three saves - Fortitude, Reflexes, and Willpower - all of which have a basic value of (15-level). 
  • Everyone: Generates their stats by rolling 3d6 in order. Strength modifies melee attack and damage rolls; Dexterity modifies AC, ranged attack rolls, and REF saves; Constitution modifies FORT saves and HP per level; Wisdom modifies WILL saves; Charisma modifies reaction rolls and hireling morale.
  • Everyone: Can do generic adventurer stuff like climbing walls and hiding in shadows. If you're not sure whether they should be able to succeed, have them try to roll under their relevant stat on 1d20 to find out. 
  • Everyone: Needs 2000 XP to reach level 2, 4000 to reach level 3, and so on.

Rules For Basic Classes

  • Fighters: Get +1 HP per level, and a bonus to all attack rolls equal to their level. Improve their FORT save by two steps. Get +1 to all weapon damage rolls per three levels, rounded down.
  • Magic-User: Improve their WILL save by two steps. Can cast magic-user spells: one level 1 spell per day at level 1, two per day at level 2, and so on, following the normal B/X progression. Can't cast spells in heavy armour. 
  • Clerics: Improve all their saves by one step. (Someone's watching out for them!) Can cast cleric spells; one level 1 spell per day at level 1, two per day at level 2, and so on, following the same progression as magic-users. (Just as in LotFP, Turn Undead is a spell, not a class ability.)
  • Elf Fighters: Same as regular fighters, except they improve their REF save instead of their FORT save and don't get the bonus HP per level. Can see in the dark. Heightened senses: can hear and spot things humans usually can't, and only a 1-in-6 chance of being surprised.
  • Elf Magic-Users: Same as regular magic-users, except they don't get a bonus to their WILL save. Can see in the dark. Heightened senses: can hear and spot things humans usually can't, and only a 1-in-6 chance of being surprised.
  • Dwarf: Same as regular fighters, except they don't get the damage bonus. They can see in the dark and know loads of stuff about mining and architecture that they can use to spot new constructions, identify unstable areas, bore people to death, etc. They also automatically know the value of any gold or jewels discovered.
  • Halfling: Same as regular fighters, except they improve their REF save instead of their FORT save and don't get the bonus HP per level. They're sneaky little fucks who are freakishly good at hiding, and have a 5-in-6 chance of surprising their enemies if they don't have a bunch of non-halflings around to cramp their style.

Rules For Other Classes

  • Kung Fu Monk: Same as regular fighters, except they improve their REF save instead of their FORT save and can't wear heavy armour. They can do 1d6 damage with their bare hands, and while wearing no armour they get +4 AC and can run along walls, jump huge distances, dance like no-one is watching, etc. 
  • The Creature From the Black Lagoon: Like a fighter, but doesn't get the bonus HP per level. Has claws that do 1d6 damage. Can breathe underwater and see in the dark.
  • Science Guy / Gal: Like a fighter, but they improve their WILL save instead of their FORT save and their attack and damage bonuses only apply when using high-tech weapons, like guns or vibro-axes. (Fortunately, they can make these themselves if given time and materials.) Can do science stuff like identifying chemicals and teaching robots about the true meaning of love. Gains +4 AC when wearing no armour other than a white labcoat.
  • Big Stompy Robot: Like a fighter, but is treated as wearing plate mail at all times. Inflicts 1d8 damage in melee with its big metal fists, and 2d4 damage at range with its built-in death ray. Always fails REF saves. Incapable of surprising anyone.
  • Flying Monkey: Same as halflings, except instead of being sneaky they can fly as long as they're only wearing light armour and not carrying anything heavy. They must pass a WILL save to resist obeying orders from anyone who appears to be a witch.
  • Sexy Green-Skinned Alien: Like a regular Science Guy/Gal, but gains bonus AC from wearing improbably revealing shiny uniforms instead of from wearing lab coats. Gets +1 to all reaction rolls from people attracted to sexy green-skinned aliens. Doesn't get the bonus HP per level. 
  • Mini-Godzilla: Like a Big Stompy Robot, but instead of a built-in death ray, once per day per level it can flame someone in melee combat with its Atomic Breath (3d6 damage). Can only communicate via screaming noises and unconvincing judo chops.
  • The King of the Bird-Men From Flash Gordon: Like a fighter, except he can fly as long as he's not carrying anything too heavy. Cannot wear any armour except his ceremonial bondage harness (no AC bonus), and cannot use any weapon except his club (1d8 damage). Brian Blessed impressions are obligatory.
  • Dr Zeus From Planet of the Apes: Like a regular Science Guy, but gains +1 to all reaction rolls from other simians. Lies compulsively about the past.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

More Central Asian weirdness: the Golden Lady and the Sea of Darkness

This is Yugra.

Painting by Fyodor Vasilyev, who deserves to be better known than he is.
Yugra extends in an enormous arc to the east of the Ural mountains. Almost no-one has heard of it, even though it's roughly the size of Germany and England put together. It is the ancestral home of the Khanty and Mansi peoples: hunters, shamans, keepers of the rites of the Bear and Crow. Almost no-one has ever heard of them, either. Today, they're mostly Eastern Orthodox Christians; but once, long ago, they worshipped a woman made of gold.

She probably looked nothing whatsoever like this.
Now, if you dig for any length of time into the 'history' and legend-lore which surround the Golden Woman of Yugra, you'll rapidly come across some pretty bizarre theories. That it was a Sumerian idol, carried to Yugra by the Mansi people, who were themselves secretly the descendants of the ancient Sumerians; that it was a Roman statue, looted during the fall of Rome and carried all the way off to the other side of the Ural Mountains; that it was an Indian image of a Hindu divinity; even that it was a robot built by aliens from outer space. The fact is that no-one has any idea what the damn thing was, and some scholars question whether it ever existed in the first place. But during the Early Modern period, the cult of the Golden Woman was pretty much the most famous thing about Yugra - that, and its proximity to the legendary Sea of Darkness, a land of eternal night held to exist somewhere in the Siberian wilderness. And if you're writing an RPG, a race of hunters worshipping a golden idol on the edge of a sea of darkness is just too damn good to miss.

So, in ATWC, there is a land far to the north-west of the Wicked City; a land of forests and mountains, home to a hardy race of hunters and trappers. When outsiders refer to them at all, which is seldom, they just call them 'those guys who live in that forest over there', but they call themselves the Children of the Golden Lady. Like all the taiga peoples, they worship the spirits of the land and the forest, the spirits of the fish and the animals, the bears and the crows; but they revere the Golden Lady above all others. She is, after all, a rather more obvious and spectacular presence than the rest of their pantheon.

Posted Image
Khanty people, circa 1900. Photo by U.T. Sirelius.
They keep her in a hidden shrine, high in the most inaccessible region of the mountains. She stands almost ten feet tall, and for the most part she remains as motionless as any other statue; but sometimes she will turn and speak in response to a question, or even step down from her plinth to walk among the faithful. Her movements are accompanied by the clicking of clockwork gears, but what's powering the clockwork is anyone's guess; there's no way to wind it up, no furnace into which fuel could be thrown, and yet she's remained active for longer than anyone can remember and shows no signs of running down. The craftsmanship of her golden body is phenomenal, and if stolen she could be sold for some quite staggering sum: but given that she weighs several tons, is hidden in a secret shrine-complex which is never revealed to outsiders, and is guarded by a whole retinue of devoted worshippers, it's not exactly surprising that no-one's ever managed to carry her off. Besides, she's quite capable of defending herself, and those golden fists are very heavy.

The Golden Lady performs four main services for her worshippers.

  • Firstly, she serves them as an oracle: most questions that they put to her are met with silence (although her attendants are adept at reading rather fanciful meanings into the slightest twitch of her golden fingers), but from time to time she will deliver an answer, in a melodious voice like the chiming of bells. Sometimes her answers are clear and practical; sometimes they are cryptic and obscure. They are sometimes unclear, but they are never simply wrong.
  • Secondly, she blesses their children. When a woman in the early stages of pregnancy comes before her, she sometimes (about 10% of the time) reaches out and places one golden hand upon the woman's stomach; the resulting child is always healthy, always female, and always has a slight golden tint to her skin. These 'golden women' make up about 5% of the local population, and are held in high esteem. Their gift does not seem to be heritable, however, and when they become pregnant in turn they are no more likely than anyone else to receive her blessing.
  • Thirdly, she defends the shrine. (Attacking it is the one certain way to cause her to animate.) The Children of the Golden Lady love and revere their goddess, and would never place her in unnecessary danger; but when raiders or monsters threaten, they are not above luring them into the shrine so that she can beat them to death with her massive golden fists. They always apologise to her afterwards.
  • Fourthly, and most importantly, she holds back the Sea of Darkness.
The Sea of Darkness lies to the north of the land of the Children. It has no clear border; one simply stumbles deeper and deeper into the taiga, with the light fading and failing more and more, until finally one finds oneself surrounded by impenetrable darkness that never lifts. It stretches, at minimum, for several hundred miles. Things live inside it: horrible, shuffling things that no-one has ever seen. People who go in don't usually come out again.

From time to time - once or twice in a decade, perhaps - the darkness rises like a tide, threatening the land of the Children. Days become gloomier; the sun grows dim, and late afternoon becomes as dark as midnight. Horrible shuffling sounds are heard out in the woods at night - nights which are now lightless, black as pitch, for the light of the moon and stars is far too weak to penetrate the darkness of the Sea. At such times, the people beseech the Lady for aid; sometimes they pray for days before she seems to hear them, and sometimes for weeks, but sooner or later she always responds. She walks to the entrance of the shrine, and speaks a series of words in some strange, musical language; and, over the next few days, the Sea of Darkness goes rolling back to its proper boundaries. The Children are convinced that, were it not for the Golden Lady, their lands would have been swallowed by the Sea of Darkness centuries ago. 

In the Cities of the Great Road, scholars who have heard of the Golden Lady usually conclude that she must be some kind of mechanical marvel left over from an earlier age; they speculate that she may, in fact, have been built specifically to hold back the Sea of Darkness, and that the the land now inhabited by the Children may have once been part of the Sea itself, artificially reclaimed by the presence of the Golden Lady much as one might use dykes and levees to reclaim land from the edges of a lake. Others theorise that it is the Sea of Darkness which is truly artificial: that the veil of night which hangs over it is being generated by some ancient magical relic at its heart, and that the Lady may have been constructed as a counter-measure, perhaps by a rival wizard-king. Some Steel Aspirants suspect that she might have been built by the Cogwheel Sage herself; a few of the crazier ones even think that she is the Cogwheel Sage, although to date all their efforts to reclaim 'their' goddess from the Children have ended in ignominious failure. 

PCs could encounter the Golden Lady in several different ways. They could come to her shrine hoping for an oracle, perhaps seeking her advice on how best to combat the Wicked King. They could get mixed up in some loopy Steel Aspirant plan to steal her or study her; they could need her aid to roll back the Sea of Darkness in order to make something inside it accessible to them; or they could chase some enemy of theirs right the way back across the taiga, only to discover that the mountaintop shrine he's holed up in has a very surprising defense mechanism. If they actually destroy her, then the Children will probably be forced to migrate to a new homeland, as theirs will become gradually uninhabitable due to submersion in the Sea of Darkness. Then again, maybe a sufficiently skilled clockworker might be able to put her back together again...

  • The Golden Lady: AC 20 (metal skin), 8 HD, AB +8, 2 giant metal fists (2d6 damage each), FORT 6, REF 7, WILL 6, morale 12. Immune to poison, disease, and anything else that only affects creatures of flesh and blood. Self-repair mechanisms restore 1 HP per hour. May have other abilities at GMs option.

Monday, 14 December 2015

On Horror and 'Darkness' in OSR D&D

Recently, the fine folk over at Bundle of Holding put two OSR-related bundles of material up for sale. This, along with me noticing that Rafael Chandler's stuff on Drivethrurpg is mostly pay-what-you-want, has led to me picking up a large volume of OSR ebooks; and now that the teaching term has ended, I've had time to plough through them. In the last week or so, I've read Stonehell, Terratic Tome, SlaughterGrid, The God That Crawls, Lusus Naturae, Vornheim, and a whole bunch of other stuff. This means that I have been doing a whole lot of reading about people dying horrible, horrible deaths.

It makes you think. Or, at least, it makes me think.

I grew up during the 'video nasty' panic of the 1980s. My parents bought the whole line about how children who watched violent movies would be turned into brutal thugs and/or traumatised wrecks, and went to considerable lengths to ensure I was protected from them - a feat which was a whole lot more manageable back in those innocent, pre-internet days. Hard though it is to believe, I think I might actually not have seen a 15 rated movie until I genuinely was fifteen years old. So, naturally enough, now I study the history of horror fiction for a living. I have seen and read some sick, ugly stuff over the years, and I am not easy to shock.

I never did see 'Driller Killer', though. I should probably get around to that.

As a teenager, I gleefully embraced a 'more is more' approach to horror in RPGs. Everything I ran or wrote was grim and bleak and violent and hopeless and probably infested with cannibal ghouls. I read SLA Industries and had no idea that it was meant to be any kind of parody: a setting crammed full of serial killers and murder robots and giant mutant pigs who lived in the sewers and ate people just struck me as being pretty much par for the course. More than that, I felt that being 'dark' - a word which, at the time, I overused constantly - made things better: cooler, more grown-up, more morally complex, more interesting, more awesome. Why would anyone want to tell a story about an elf fighting an orc when they could be telling a story about a psychotic witch hunter fighting a demon that nailed its victims to the walls with their own severed legs?

Well: time passed, and I grew up, and as I did so I found that such material steadily lost its appeal. It wasn't that I turned against horror fiction, merely that I lost interest in its surface trappings: all the blood and splatter and mangled corpses ceased to be things that I found interesting in and of themselves, and became things which were only as interesting as the story which they were used to tell. Films like Se7en or Oldboy, or TV shows like the recent NBC Hannibal, are great stories which feature horrific acts of violence, but it's not the horrific acts of violence which make them into great stories: the same content, wedded to a weaker narrative, could easily be very boring indeed.

Hannibal. Come for the gore. Stay for the men's fashion.
Now, the kind of OSR material being published these days is, on average, a lot darker than the kind of mainstream material which WotC is putting out. Part of the original impetus behind the OSR was an attempt to get away from the sort of safe, sanitised fantasy material which had come to characterise official D&D: fantasy where the heroes always survive, the good guys always win, no-one really gets hurt or suffers (except the baddies, who don't count), and the curses always wear off after a few rounds. In fact, a lot of OSR material is written as pretty much a direct reaction to that sort of fantasy gaming: thus its heavy use of deathtraps, doomsday scenarios, save-or-die attacks, 'unfair' encounters, unremovable curses, and fates worse than death. No, the ankle-level scythe trap doesn't just do 1d6 damage: it cuts your fucking feet off. Don't like it? Maybe you should have thought of that before you went wandering around in a fucking dungeon! 

To a certain extent, I am totally onboard with this. I know that the 'romantic fantasy' line in my blog header must often seem weirdly out of keeping with the actual content, which is mostly about misery and horror in a dystopian clockpunk city-state, but romance and Gothic have a very long shared history: romantic fiction very, very often revolves around themes of cruelty and corruption, and is romantic rather than Gothic only insofar as it focusses on the ways in which people can help one another to heal, rather than on the ways in which they can drive one another to destruction. An emphasis on violence as violence, as a shocking and horrible act of violation rather than a bloodless and consequence-free fantasy of power, is an essential part of all kinds of romantic narratives: such violence is precisely what the protagonists have to overcome, usually through some effort of empathy, love, and forgiveness, in order to earn their happy endings. But... there's violence and violence. As the ever-brilliant Patrick Stuart pointed out almost two years ago, there are at least twelve kinds of darkness.

Last night, I read Rafael Chandler's Terratic Tome, SlaughterGrid, Lusus Naturae, and Obscene Serpent Religion in a single caffeine-fuelled binge. Chandler's a good writer, and he has a strong imagination; but despite some surface similarities with my beloved Fire on the Velvet Horizon, most of the material I read didn't do very much for me. The monsters looked weird and horrible, and they did weird and horrible things to people, but that was pretty much it: they were just horrorshow monsters-of-the-week, a cavalcade of betentacled beasties who exist only to flay, impale, castrate, crucify, impregnate, possess, and generally fuck with people. Most of them were mindlessly hostile. Almost none of them could be reasoned with. His adventure module, SlaughterGrid, took this even further: everyone, from the elves to the humans to the zombies to the halflings, seemed to be some kind of cannibal torture-fetishist. It made me wonder how anyone in the setting, or in the implied setting of his monster manuals, ever survived long enough to get anything done, let alone how they managed to stay alive for long enough to raise the next generation of murderers. Surely, after a generation or two of such omnidirectional carnage, there would be nothing left except mass graves?

Then again, it does say 'You were warned' and 'a meat grinder for level 2 characters' right there on the cover. One can hardly complain of false advertising.

Now, I totally understand why they're written like this. The horror-monsters who go around flaying people based on some obscure pattern are there to generate investigative scenarios: the PCs have to work out what the connection between the victims is before the killer has a chance to strike again. The splatter-monsters who just rampage around beating people to death with their own spines are there to generate fight scenes: the PCs have to work out how to defeat the monster, neutralising its strengths and exploiting its weaknesses, before it has a chance to eat their faces. But I kept wishing there was some kind of logic behind it all, some reason for it above and beyond 'this monster hates everyone and wants them to die screaming'. Something that the PCs and the monsters, if they somehow wound up drinking at the same bar between adventures or killing sprees, might actually be able to talk about. This was something which I thought Fire on the Velvet Horizon and Deep Carbon Observatory did very well, and it's also one of the strengths of Vornheim and A Red and Pleasant Land by Zak S and Qelong by Kenneth Hite. They're all full of death and horror - some of the stuff in Qelong is worse than anything in SlaughterGrid - but the death and horror is always part of something larger and stranger, rather than just being an end unto itself.

(This is why the single best thing I've seen in Chandler's work so far is the idea that halflings are an evil and merciless race who worship a goddess named Lady Elizabeth Lack-Heart: it implies that all the awfulness that they're responsible for is for something. I mean: Lady Elizabeth Lack-Heart. What's her deal?)

As I've mentioned before, one of the things I like about B/X D&D is that the morale, reaction, and henchmen systems encourage PCs to negotiate rather than fight as much as they possibly can. In a romantic fantasy game like ATWC, those negotiations will often lead to PCs making friends with the monsters, and maybe even persuading them to stop being quite so monstrous; in a more typical B/X game, they might lead to squalid compromises and low treachery on both sides; but, either way, they rely on PCs having someone that they can talk to. Weird, dangerous, alien monsters are fine - in fact, they're highly beneficial - but only if they're the kind of weird, dangerous, alien monsters that can be bribed, threatened, and bargained with, rather than the kind who just have to be beaten to death.

I realise that all this must sound as though I'm really negative about Chandler's work, and the strain of OSR death metal horror-fantasy which it exemplifies. I'm not. He's a very imaginative writer, even if his imagination is a bit heavy on the splatter; the monster books are good monster books, and Obscene Serpent Religion really will generate you a memorably horrible serpent cult with just a few rolls of the dice. He does use the words 'flay' and 'castrate' an awful lot, but that sort of thing really doesn't bother me. It's his use of the words 'Morale 12' and 'always attack on sight' that I take issue with.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Noxious Alchemies of the Serpent Folk 1: Liquid Brightness

They brewed it for their watchmen, first. That was the drug's original purpose: a stimulant rather stronger than coffee, to help keep yawning guardsmen wide-eyed and wakeful as they kept watch over the priceless alchemical laboratories of the serpent folk by night. As word of the stuff spread, new markets opened up: amongst spies, students, entertainers, travellers, and anyone else who might regularly need to stay awake and alert for twenty-four hours at a stretch. The serpent folk maintain that it was some irresponsible student of the natural sciences, slightly out of his mind after a seventy-two-hour study session, who first came up with the idea of triple-distilling the stuff into a stimulant of quite murderous strength, and that they themselves certainly never intended it to be used as a recreational narcotic. But, well... the secret's out, now, and a market of users exist, so someone needs to supply it. Might as well be people who know how to make a good, clean batch, right?

In the Wicked City, and many other places, Liquid Brightness is the second-most profitable drug manufactured by the Serpent Folk. (Morphine is always number one.) In its mild form, it's sold in a powder, which is dissolved in water and swallowed: each dose staves off feelings of tiredness or sleepiness for 1d6 hours, up to a maximum number of hours equal to twice the user's Constitution score. (Taking more after that doesn't make you any less tired, though it will make you feel pretty sick.) People under the effect of Liquid Brightness are unnaturally wide-eyed and twitchy, jumping at every sudden sound or movement; they make very good watchmen, and gain +1 to REF saves and initiative, but their shaky hands inflict a -1 penalty on all their to-hit rolls with missile weapons. When the drug finally wears off, the user feels completely exhausted, and may well pass out where they stand; each additional hour of wakefulness must be 'paid for' with an hour of deep, deep sleep, in addition to the normal rest requirements which the drug has been putting off. (So someone who used it to stay alert for an extra 24 hours, missing a night's sleep in the process, would collapse for 32 hours when the drug wore off.) Regular users steadily build up a tolerance to the drug, and must take bigger and bigger doses to achieve the same effect: some of them end up gulping down whole pints of the stuff, to the alarm and consternation of anyone else nearby.

'Sir, I think that maybe you've had enough...'

In this form, Liquid Brightness is harmless enough, although regular heavy users tend to have heart problems later in life. The really dangerous stuff is the distilled form, which is taken via intravenous injection: this delivers a massive jolt to the system, sending the user into a quivering, wild-eyed high for the next 1d3 hours. Under its effects, they race around on permanent fast-forward, seemingly unable to stay still; they walk too fast, talk too fast, jump and startle at every movement, and notice absolutely everything. (They're also prone to emitting disturbing peals of rippling, high-pitched laughter.) A distilled dose grants +2 to REF saves and initiative, +1 AC due to improved dodge ability, and +10% movement speed, but imposes a -2 penalty on all to-hit rolls due to uncontrollably shaking hands. After it wears off, the user crashes out into a state of complete exhaustion; they must make a Constitution roll or simply pass out on the spot, and even if they pass they will be incapable of any action more strenuous than a slow walk for a length of time equal to the period of the drug's effect. Unless, of course, they take another dose...

In its distilled form, Liquid Brightness is very dangerous indeed. It's habit-forming, and it takes a very heavy toll on the bodies of regular users; addicts are easily recognisable from their skeletal thinness, darting eyes, sweat-sheened skin, too-rapid motions, and perpetually-shaking hands. Very heavy users usually end up dying of massive heart attacks, as their systems collapse under the strain of operating in near-constant fast forward. But a handful of them change, instead; their bodies enter into some kind of uncanny symbiosis with the drug coursing through the veins, and start to manufacture the stuff themselves. The serpent-folk try to capture these weird human drug factories whenever possible, partly to subject them to proper medical study, and partly so that their bodily fluids can be harvested and sold to junkies too desperate for a hit to care where their drug is coming from. But they are very fast, and very alert, and they never really sleep, which means that catching them is often very tricky indeed.

In the Wicked City, these individuals - called 'Shining Ones' by the serpent folk because of their glittering chemical sweat - usually end up living in the Rubble; they are prized by the Rubble Clans, who use them as watchmen, and compete for a chance to lick the sweat from their skin for a quick Liquid Brightness buzz. Their glistening bodies are pale and wasted, yet they move with a weird hummingbird-quickness, flickering from place to place almost too quickly to see; their senses are almost painfully heightened, and they shake, constantly, their presence accompanied by a continuous low clattering sound as their teeth chatter together in their heads. They spend about eight hours out of each day in a kind of light doze or reverie, but they are incapable of real sleep, and any loud noise will wake them at once. Despite their thinness, they consume prodigious quantities of food. They usually die young.

Mmm. Narcotic.

One other fact about the Shining Ones disturbs the serpent folk more than anything else. Very frequently, in their reverie-states, they report strange dream-visions in which they are spoken to by a figure in splendid golden robes: they can never remember exactly what it is he says, but they invariably wake with fragments of alchemical formulae on their lips and a sudden, burning desire to assist in the spiritual purification of the universe. The serpent folk speculate that this figure may be none other than the Sage of Gold, their own legendary creator, trying to communicate some great and needful work of spiritual alchemy which the world must undertake for its own good. But why should he reach out in this way to such lowly and wretched creatures as the Shining Ones?

Game Rules: All Shining Ones originally had at least Constitution 16: otherwise they'd have simply died from drug overdoses long before completing their transformation. In their new state, they gain the following attributes:


  • Their REF save is improved by 4. 
  • Their AC is improved by 2 due to their superior speed and dodging ability.
  • They automatically win initiative, and always act first in every round. 
  • They are hyper-sensitive to sound and motion. Assume that they automatically spot any movement perceptible to the human eye, and hear any sound perceptible to the human ear.
  • Their movement speed increases by 50%. 
  • Licking the sweat from their skin counts as a half-strength version of mild Liquid Brightness.
  • They never really sleep. 6-8 hours per day spent in a light doze is all they require. 
  • Their FORT save is lowered by 4.
  • Their wasted frames mean that they no longer gain bonus hit points due to high Constitution. (This applies retroactively to levels they already have.)
  • The damage of any attacks they make with melee weapons, thrown weapons, or bows is reduced by 2 due to their lack of muscle tissue.
  • They suffer a -2 penalty to all to-hit rolls due to the uncontrollable shaking of their hands. 
  • They need to eat twice as much food as normal.
  • Each year lived as a Shining One counts as 1d6 years for life expectancy purposes. Someone who becomes a Shining One in their early 20s will be lucky to live past 35. 
Just Plain Odd
  • Each day, there is a percentage chance equal to half the Shining One's Wisdom score that they are contacted in their dream-reveries by a being claiming to be the Sage of Gold.

Friday, 4 December 2015

The Throne-Room of the Wicked King

One hundred posts already, eh? Not bad going for the first six months. Probably not a pace I'll be able to maintain, but never mind...

As far as I can tell, there are about twenty or thirty people who regularly read this blog. I know the identities of three of them. Anyone else is free to unmask themselves whenever they like. Or, y'know, not. As long as you're finding some of this stuff useful, that's good enough for me!

So, for the hundredth post, let's turn to the big question: what is at the top of the King's Tower?

* * *

The Wicked City isn't really meant to be anywhere in particular: it's just a representation of what happens when nations fall victim to political corruption and economic exploitation, and of the physical and spiritual alienation which people suffer when they are compelled to live in them. The King's Tower is the moral singularity at the heart of the system, so the question of what lies at the top of it really becomes a question about where evil comes from, and what it is that allows systems of corruption and exploitation to persist through time despite making life so miserable for those who live in them. As there are multiple answers, so there are multiple possibilities for just what is up there, some of them more depressing than others.

Here, then, are eight possibilities for what PCs might discover when they finally make it to the top of the tower and kick in that last door.

What is the true source of all this evil? Roll 1d8 to find out!

1: A Corpse.

Not an animated corpse. Not a lich or a ghost or anything like that. Just a corpse in fancy robes, slumped on an enormous throne. The Wicked King has been dead for decades and no-one has even noticed.

This is the super-depressing answer, because it means that all the cruelties of the Wicked City are actually completely self-sustaining: a despotism without a despot, simply running on autopilot atop a kind of treadmill of violence and fear. In this case, then Head Office is presumably just another sham: a wind-powered clockwork Logician Engine issuing orders at random, maybe, or a bunch of runaway crazies barricaded into an old office, sending regular orders downstairs just to keep up the pretence that Head Office actually still exists and thus dissuade the Secret Police from coming upstairs to find them. There's no final battle, no grand confrontation, no-one who can be stabbed repeatedly in order to save the day. The PCs will have to save the city the hard way.

Still, this means that there's nothing to stop them becoming Head Office, now, if they feel like it...

2: A Helpless, Withered, Cruel Old Man

This is the 'banality of evil' answer. Whatever terrifying black magic or evil superpowers the Wicked King once wielded, he used them up or forgot them or lost them to encroaching senility years ago; all that's left of him now is hundred-year-old man crouched on his ludicrously outsized throne, his every whim catered to by a staff of sycophants so brainwashed by decades of trauma and indoctrination that they still obey his orders out of sheer habit, even though any one of them could easily kill him with their bare hands. His orders are instantly relayed downstairs, where they set enormous machineries of cruelty and oppression in motion: machineries which are now driven not by any grand and dark design, but merely by the whims and delusions of a senile, spiteful, wretched old man who has grown so weak that he can barely lift his own sceptre any more.

The king's sycophants will try their best to defend him against intruders, but realistically any party which has made it past the Men Without Faces is unlikely to find this lot any trouble; the Wicked King himself has one hit point and no attacks, and automatically fails his saves. The PCs can kill him, put him on trial, throw him out of the window... whatever helps them feel better. But the whole thing is likely to feel more sad than anything else.

3: A Terrifyingly Dangerous Old Man

This is the 'traditional fantasy' answer. The Wicked King may be over a hundred years old, but sheer spite has kept him not just alive but vigorous. Slumped on his throne, almost lost within his robes of state, he looks more like a skeleton than a man: but a terrible fire still burns in his black and withered heart, and he is more than capable of defending himself against would-be regicides. He strikes out with words of power which leave their victims crippled with either pain (FORT save resists) or despair (WILL save resists); his sceptre can conjure gouts of green-black fire (+10 to hit, 2d8 damage), and he clings to life with such tenacity that it will take enough punishment to kill a dozen men to finally put him down (60 HP). He will die with a curse on his lips.

This is a much more traditional 'boss fight' set-up, with PCs fighting their way through the Wicked King's servants while he rains destruction down on them from his throne at the far end of the hall. It lends itself to a more comforting narrative in which all the blame for the wretched state of the Wicked City can be offloaded onto the king himself: he has maintained a stranglehold on the city for all these years, but once he's dead, and his bony hand is no longer wrapped around the city's throat, then presumably the process of healing can begin...

Image by Brandon Kirkman.

4: An Immense Cannibal Giant

This is the 'literalised metaphor' answer. The Wicked King fed on the suffering of the people, until, in time, he became so huge that he could no longer fit through his throne room doors. Now, years later, he no longer looks even vaguely human: just a huge, roaring giant, crashing around the throne room in aimless circles, gnashing his fang-filled jaws together and howling for human blood. He ate all the other residents of the upper floors decades ago. He is always hungry.

This is a different sort of 'boss fight' scenario. In physical terms, the giant is virtually invincible, with AC 20 and 150 HP; it automatically passes FORT and WILL saves, automatically fails REF saves (but is immune to any kind of forced movement due to its hugeness), and regenerates 5 HP per round. It attacks with two huge clawed fists (+10 to hit, 3d6 damage); if it hits, the target must pass a REF save or be grabbed, which means that the round after they'll be thrown into its mouth to be devoured (3d6 damage per round until escape or death). Taking it on in a straight fight is pretty much suicidal, but the set-up is such that they really don't have to; after all, the giant can't leave the throne room, so PCs can always retreat and try to come up with a better plan. Blowing it up with an enormous quantity of gunpowder, perhaps, or demolishing one wall, perhaps by crashing an airship into it, and somehow tricking or tripping it into falling through the resulting gap, allowing the thousand-foot drop to finish it off...

5: The Heart of Darkness

This is the 'mostly symbolic' answer. Such was the evil of the Wicked King that his mortal frame simply disintegrated under the weight of it; what remains is a brooding cloud of malevolent telepathic darkness, which strips the flesh from anyone who enters it. Upon entering the throne room, three things happen, all at once: any light source you are carrying goes out, your flesh starts to be eaten away as if by acid (1d8 damage per round, unavoidable by any means), and a chorus of terrible voices start howling and whispering in your mind, filling you with uncontrollable feelings of horror, revulsion, and shame, and meaning that a WILL save is required each round to do anything except weep and gibber while the darkness eats you alive. There's nothing in there to fight, and nothing to find except the bones of various other unfortunates who went to seek the king and were devoured.

The darkness cannot be damaged by any physical or magical means, except one: the touch of sunlight. If the sun shines into the room, the darkness retreats, hissing and steaming, before it: and if the whole throne room were to be flooded with sunlight, all at once, then the darkness would simply boil away, screaming, into nothingness. Of course, the throne room has no windows; but if a way could be found to blast the whole top off the King's Tower, on a sunny day, then the Wicked King (or what remains of him) would be no more...

6: A Dark Shaman

This is the 'brains over brawn' answer. The Wicked King is an evil shaman, whose power derives from the many, many pacts he has made with various spirits over the decades. In a hundred hidden shrines, his minions offer up sacrifices of grain and gold and wine to his patron spirits; and in the blood-splattered cells of the Secret Police, the lives of all those murdered by his tyranny are consecrated to his secret masters just before their deaths. In the throne room itself, the Wicked King personally conducts regular sacrificial rituals, sending out orders for the specific animals, goods, and people whom he needs as offerings. In exchange, the spirits have made him immortal and virtually invincible.

In this scenario, defeating the Wicked King is a matter of disrupting his sacrifice network. Put his hidden shrines out of action, and he gets weaker; free the captives of the Secret Police before they can be executed, and he gets weaker still; disrupt one of his big sacrifices, possibly by intercepting the offerings en route, and he gets vulnerable. If none of his offerings have been interrupted, then the Wicked King is basically invincible, but if all of his offerings can somehow be prevented or interrupted then he's basically just a normal guy, who can be killed with a knife or a gunshot just like anyone else. Probably the PCs will have to settle for something in between.

7: Someone Else Entirely

The Wicked King is long dead; two of his concubines drowned him in his bath decades ago. Ever since then, a whole succession of people have taken on the role of Wicked King: first one of his advisers, then the youngest of his wives, then one of his sons, and most recently his grand-daughter, a rather loopy young woman who has spent her whole life living at the top of the King's Tower and is deeply out of touch with reality. She watches the city that she is supposed to be ruling through the eyes of the statue network, but has never actually set foot in it, and has only the loosest understanding of how normal life actually works; she and her coterie of equally-crazy friends and hangers-on spend most of their time trying to think up what kind of orders they imagine 'grandpa' would send if he was in their situation, even though their picture of him is based entirely on second- and third-hand anecdotes. Her rule is tyrannical, but only because she imagines that's what she's supposed to do and has no idea how else one is meant to rule a city. She wears the robes and crown of her grandfather (which are far too big for her), and takes deep offence if anyone implies that she is not the true and rightful Wicked King.

This is the 'tyranny as black comedy' answer: at the heart of the whole system of oppression is not some dark genius or evil god, just a confused and messed-up kid flailing about without really understanding what they're doing. She has three hit points and a knife, so PCs who want to kill her will have very little difficulty in doing so. Then again, given her insane upbringing, they might be inclined to judge her more leniently; and if she can be won over, it might even be possible to use her authority as 'the Wicked King' to start dismantling the city's awfulness. Of course, if the changes are too rapid, then the Secret Police are likely to head upstairs in force to find out exactly what's going on up there...

8: A God

This is the 'worst case scenario' answer. The cultists of the Wicked King are completely right: he has undergone a dark apotheosis and ascended to godhood. Going through the doors of his throne room doesn't take you into a room at all: instead it leads into his hell-realm, which takes the form of an infinite tower ascending forever into a screaming purple sky. This Hell Tower is populated by a race of mad, masked, gibbering servitor-demons who rush, shrieking, from floor to floor, carrying out acts of perversity, cruelty, and worship seemingly at random. Possibly they are all that is left of the original staff of Head Office and the other inhabitants of the upper floors.

If the Wicked King has become genuinely divine, then killing him is probably off the table: but at least the harm he does can be minimised. If the top levels can be blow off the King's Tower, then the connection between the Hell Tower and the physical world will be lost, which is probably a good thing; if the statue network can be demolished then the Wicked King will lose his eyes and ears in the physical world, and if the cult of the Wicked King (especially amongst the Secret Police) can be stamped out then he should be left more-or-less powerless to intervene in mortal affairs. Of course there's always the danger that he'll appear in a dream to some messianic lunatic a few hundred years later, leading to the formation of a new cult and starting the whole cycle over again; but that's probably beyond the scope of any one campaign!

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

The Maimed

Remember the Cruel Ones? Invisible spirits of the wilderness, delighting in cruelty and mischief and acts of motiveless spite, whose highest joy was to lead travellers deep into the wastes and leave them to perish of exposure, hunger, and thirst? A bunch of them used to live in the deserts south of the Wicked City: but, one day, the Wicked King sent his Renunciates to catch them all and bring them to him. Now, the Cruel Ones are pretty inventive when it comes to thinking up ways of tricking people into humiliating and hurting themselves, but at the end of the day they're just not all that bright; and while they were messing around digging pits and cutting the reins of horses, the Renunciates just rounded them all up, nailed them to the ground with spears, manhandled them into cages, and dragged them off back to the Wicked City. The Wicked King was fascinated by their weird, regenerating bodies, and lost no time in experimenting with their potential uses; he soon discovered that when their limbs were severed, they simply dissolved into nothing, but that if spliced onto the stump of a freshly-severed limb on a human body, they could be 'tricked' into regrafting themselves there, instead. The resulting limbs lost their invisibility and bizarre flowing-sand consistency once human blood began flowing through them, but they retained their strength and regenerative qualities. For a while, before he vanished into his tower, the Wicked King was quite prolific in his creation of such patchwork creatures: and the freakish beings thus created came to be known as the Maimed. 

The original generation of Maimed are almost all dead, now; but they continue to be created, from time to time, by the Secret Police and the cultists of the Wicked King. Their grafted body parts are strong, ugly, and swift to heal, but they are capable only in matters of wickedness; a grafted eye will be perceptive only when it comes to spotting evil or ugliness, a grafted hand will be dexterous only when used to hurt or break, and so on. They live miserable lives, but they have their uses, especially in a place like the Wicked City.

Some popular grafts include the following:  

Cruel Eye: This eye is obviously inhuman, with a red iris and a cat-like pupil. For as long as it is open and uncovered, it will automatically spot all acts of evil, meanness, and cruelty nearby, no matter how hard people try to conceal them. If you attack someone for reasons of pure cruelty or spite, you gain +1 to all to hit rolls. While the eye is open and uncovered, everything looks ugly to you, and it takes a deliberate effort (and a Wisdom roll) to even notice acts of genuine kindness or self-sacrifice, even if they are taking place right in front of you. Unsurprisingly, most individuals with two Cruel eyes soon decide that the world is such a horrible place and they might as well be horrible too. Those who have only one wear an eye-patch whenever they can get away with doing so.

Cruel Ear: This ear is huge, batlike, warty, hairy, and rises to a prominent point. It will automatically overhear any words uttered with wicked or spiteful intent nearby, no matter how hard their speakers try to avoid being overheard; but, conversely, it will simply screen out any words of genuine kindness, even those spoken right in front of you. It horribly magnifies the sound of screams. 

Cruel Arm: This arm is covered in thick, red, warty skin, with weird bone barbs and rip-hooks sticking up out of it every few inches. It may be used to make unarmed attacks, inflicting 1d4 damage. It heals almost instantly: each time you are hit in combat, roll 1d6, and if the result is equal to or less than your total number of cruel limbs then all damage inflicted by that injury is healed back at the rate of 1 HP per round. Attacks made with a cruel arm gain a +1 bonus to hit and damage provided they are motivated by cruelty or spite; the arm also grants +2 Strength, usable only for breaking things, and +2 Dexterity, usable only for setting traps or hurting people. If used for anything else the arm is massively clumsy, imposing a -2 penalty to hit and a -4 penalty to dexterity. (If both your arms are Cruel, all these bonuses and penalties are doubled.) Any attempt to use the arm to do anything genuinely kind, or to create anything beautiful, always ends in spectacular failure: an attempt to paint a beautiful landscape will produce a grotesque and clumsy picture of a slaughterhouse instead, an attempt to hand a toy to a child will somehow end with the child getting punched in the face, and so on.

Demon Arm Concept by Jackalopette
Demonic arm by jackalopette.

Cruel Leg: This leg is covered in thick, red, warty skin, with cruel bone spurs on the knee and heel. It may be used to make unarmed attacks, inflicting 1d4 damage. It heals almost instantly: each time you are hit in combat, roll 1d6, and if the result is equal to or  less than your total number of cruel limbs then all damage inflicted by that injury is healed back at the rate of 1 HP per round. As long as you are doing something motivated by cruelty or spite, the leg is amazingly agile and tireless, allowing you to run twice as far without tiring, granting +2 Dexterity to all relevant feats of agility and a +1 bonus to REF saves. When doing anything else, the leg is enormously clumsy, imposing a -2 penalty to all other dexterity rolls and REF saves involving full-body movement. (If both your legs are Cruel, all these bonuses and penalties are doubled.) If you attempt to do something genuinely kind, or to carry out any kind of aesthetically pleasing movement (e.g. dancing, bowing gracefully, etc), the leg will actively try to trip you up, or - if you have two of them - simply refuse and walk off to find something nastier to do, carrying you with them.

Cruel Skin: A great expanse of your own skin has been flayed off and replaced with the thick, red, warty hide of a Cruel One. This grants +1 AC, and allows you to heal back 1 HP for every six damage you take, as the skin knits together over your wounds. However, all unpleasant and uncomfortable physical sensations are magnified by it, and all pleasant ones are muted; all clothes will feel uncomfortable, it will always feel too hot or too cold, sex becomes an unpleasant ordeal of bruising and chafing, and so on. Whenever you witness a scene of genuine beauty or kindness, your cruel skin will squirm painfully, as though trying to crawl off your body, inflicting -1 to all rolls until you get away.

- Cruel Innards: Some particularly insane individuals have experimented with swapping out the livers, kidneys, etc of their victims with those of the Cruel Ones. Such internal alterations are not obvious to observers, although they are attended with masses of ugly scar tissue. Whenever you engage in any kind of act of spiteful cruelty, wanton destructiveness, or general maliciousness, your cruel innards will go into overdrive, functioning with hugely increased efficiency which grants you +2 FORT for as long as you carry on being awful to people and 1d3 hours thereafter. The rest of the time they function sluggishly, giving you -1 FORT. Whenever you witness a scene of genuine beauty or kindness, your cruel innards will knot painfully, inflicting -1 to all rolls until you get away.
Demonic Arm by Boldo
Image by Boldo.

Healing the Maimed: For the most part, Maiming is permanent; Cruel body parts simply grow back if injured, so the only way to get rid of them is to cut them out along with the chunk of flesh to which they are attached. For Cruel arms or legs, this is drastic but usually survivable, and the missing limb can then be replaced with clockwork; for Cruel eyes, ears, skin, and innards, it is usually fatal. There are, however, two alternatives:

  • The Children of the Sun have had some success at removing them through fire ordeals, in which the affected body part is systematically burnt away with holy flame. The subject takes 1d6 damage, and must make both a FORT save and a WILL save; if they pass both, then the body part is burned to ashes and the corruption is purified. (Obviously, the body part in question is completely destroyed in the process.) If either save is failed, then the Cruel body part will regrow and the rite must be repeated. 
  • Because of their antipathy for love, kindness, and beauty, Cruel limbs can be neutralised through systematic exposure to the things they most revile. If one of the Maimed is completely surrounded by people who genuinely care for them and want to help them, not just briefly but for weeks on end, then they may make a WILL save at the end of each week; if they pass three saves in succession, then the corruption is purged from one Cruel body part, which retains its odd appearance but loses all its special powers. If they witness a single glimmer of pettiness, malice, or spite during this period, however, then the effect is undone and the whole process must begin again from the start.