Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Clockpunk Undead

Victoriana Clockwork Zombie by ScottPurdy
Image by Scott Purdy.

The fundamental fact about clockwork machinery is that it needs to be wound up before it will do anything. It doesn't have to be wound by hand: you can use wind power, or water power, or steam power to turn the key and wind the spring, and the presence of ubiquitous coal-powered 'autowinders' in ATWC basically exist as an excuse for PCs to surround themselves with clockwork technology without having to spend their whole lives winding the damn things: instead they can just say: 'I take off my clockwork legs, throw some coal in the autowinder, and go to sleep.' But you need to wind them with something. They don't just run by magic.

They can, however, run by zombie.

They might not be the brightest or toughest of the undead, but even the humblest zombie is basically a perpetual motion machine. It never needs to eat. It never needs to sleep. It can crank a handle, or walk a treadmill, for weeks or months or years on end. It can't actually work forever: eventually simple friction will wear its fingers to the bone, or reduce its feet to stumps, and after a few centuries you'll just be left with a dessicated zombie uselessly waving the stub of its arm at the wheel it's supposed to be turning, or a legless corpse helplessly flopping beside a treadmill that it no longer has the power to move. But they can work for a very long time.

Traditional D&D undead are something I've deliberately left out of ATWC so far, partly because they're not a good fit for the mythology - the living dead of Central Asian folklore are ravenous horrors like the Hortlak, not servile drudges - and partly because I'm wary of adding a source of effectively 'free' energy to a clockpunk setting. But there's no reason that a few of them shouldn't exist here and there, created by odd little wizard cults, or by crazy Dahakans, or by the creepy aristocratic Bone Witches of the Wicked City; and when they do, then combining them with clockwork is the next logical step. Or logical by the standards of the kind of people who spend their spare time turning corpses into zombies, at any rate.

So here are some clockpunk undead.

Image by redblackstripe.

Corpse Puppets: These are zombies animated with a combination of necromancy and clockwork technology; the kind of thing you might expect a novice necromancer to create, using clockwork to work around the limitations of their black magic. An animated corpse is fitted with a clockwork exoskeleton which helps to move it around, giving its movements greater force than they might otherwise possess; clockwork machinery may also be used as a substitute for missing body parts, replacing lost limbs or rotted joints. Whenever it's not doing anything else, the corpse puppet winds up its own clockwork, ensuring that it's ready to lurch into action the next time it's called upon. Because the necromancy which animates them is so weak, corpse puppets are usually unable to do much more than flop about helplessly if someone disables their clockwork machinery.

  • Corpse Puppet: AC 13 (leathery flesh and metal bars), 2 HD, AB 0, clumsy smash (1d6+1 damage), FORT 13, REF 16, WILL N/A, morale N/A. Tech difficulty: O0 M1 R2 C2.

Augmented Zombie: Whereas the Corpse Puppet uses clockwork technology to make up for the weakness of the necromancy that animates it, the Augmented takes an already fully-functional zombie and enhances its abilities through the addition of clockwork prostheses. There's no need to worry about the zombie dying during surgery, so the only limit is really the skill and resources of the builder: one might add extra clockwork limbs, replace arms with guns or fingers with blades, graft clockwork wings onto a zombie's shoulder-blades, and so on. Like corpse puppets, the augmented can wind their own clockwork parts during their own downtime, so fuel is a non-issue; they will normally need regular maintenance, however, as their zombified brains are hopelessly inadequate to the task of maintaining anything except the very simplest of clockwork machinery.

  • Basic Augmented Zombie: AC 16 (armour plating), 2 HD, AB +1, gun arm (1d8 damage, 3 rounds to reload) or finger blades (1d6+1 damage), FORT 13, REF 16, WILL N/A, morale N/A. Tech difficulty: O0 M1 R2 C3.
  • Advanced Augmented Zombie: AC 16 (armour plating), 3 HD, AB +2, 2 gun arms (1d8 damage, 3 rounds to reload) or 2 clockwork arms with pop-out claws (1d6+2 damage), FORT 12, REF 14, WILL N/A, morale N/A. Clockwork wings allow it to fly in short 'hops'. Tech difficulty: O2 M3 R3 C4.

Image from some Pathfinder thing or other.

Brainbox Zombies: These are basically what you get if you take the clockwork brain of a Brass Man and connect it to the sinews of an animated corpse rather than the gears of a clockwork body. (The top and back of the zombie's head are usually removed in order to make room for the bulky clockwork brain in its reinforced metal casing: thus the name.) The result is a zombified body controlled by a human-level clockwork intelligence, and thus vastly more capable of independent thought and action than any ordinary undead. Many brainbox zombies are also fitted with additional augmentations, and/or covered in armour plating: building a clockwork brain of this sophistication is neither easy nor cheap, and their creators will usually be keen to safeguard their investments! Unlike regular augmented zombies, brainbox zombies are quite capable of maintaining their own clockwork prostheses.

  • Brainbox Zombie: AC 16 (armour plating), 2 HD, AB +2, gun arm (1d8 damage, 3 rounds to reload) or finger blades (1d6+1 damage), FORT 13, REF 14, WILL 14, morale 7. Tech difficulty (body): O0 M1 R2 C3. Tech difficulty (brain): OM N/A, R5, C5. (NB: The brainbox zombie has a Tech Rating of 2, allowing it to operate, maintain, and repair its own body indefinitely.)

The pinnacle of the clockworking necromancer's art. Take a mech, but instead of a pilot, insert a zombie with its limbs welded directly to the controls: then weld the hatch shut. Replace the boiler with a bunch of zombies on a treadmill, with orders to never stop walking unless the mainspring is fully wound: then seal them inside. The result is, effectively, a fully-automated mech which obeys your orders, never needs fuel, doesn't need to worry about overheating, and cannot be boarded; all you need to do is maintain the machinery in decent working order. Necro-tanks are also completely possible.

  • Necro-Mech: AC 22 (reinforced mech armour), HD 10, AB 0, giant sword (1d12+6 damage, ignores 4 points of physical AC) or swivel gun (2d8 damage, ignores 4 points of physical AC, 4 rounds to reload), FORT 5, REF 12, WILL N/A, morale N/A, immune to missile fire from weapons smaller than a swivel gun. Tech difficulty: O2 M2 R3 C4.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Give me a snake-man and I will explain the monster manual

People who look through D&D monster manuals often say things like 'how would this evolve?' or 'why would something like this even exist?' or 'why are there, like, a hundred slightly different humanoid creatures all competing for the same tiny ecological niche?'

I propose that all of these questions can be answered with one and the same answer, and that answer is a snake-man with an unlimited research budget and a whole lot of time on his hands.

Postulate 1: There was an Ancient Snake-Man Empire. (This is true in most fantasy settings already.)

Postulate 2: The Snake-Men maintained a large population of human slaves. (This is also usually true.)

Postulate 3: The Snake-Men loved freaky bio-magical archanotech alchemy and had very limited ethical oversight when it came to using it on mammals.

Given only these three postulates, I shall now explain D&D!
  • Dwarves: Human slaves genetically modified for mining.
  • Elves: Human slaves genetically modified for use as research assistants.
  • Halflings: Human slaves genetically modified for doing delicate jobs on the inside of giant machines, in much the same way as small children were employed in Victorian factories. 
  • Gnomes, Pixies, Quicklings, Leprechauns, and all those others small annoying fairies: Like halflings, but modified even further in order to carry out tasks deep within the machinery of immense archanotech engines, which required nimble fingers, instinctive magical awareness, and the ability to fit into very small spaces. Quicklings were emergency-repair units, able to climb through a machine to the heart of a malfunction in seconds. Gremlins are fairies who went rogue deep inside the gear forests and began sabotaging machines instead of repairing them.
  • Orcs: Human slaves genetically modified for warfare. (This is why they're perpetual minions; they're always looking for a commanding officer, trying to fill a big snake-man shaped hole in their little orcish hearts. Sometimes they'll go to work for an evil wizard who really loves hissing at people, and they'll feel all happy inside, and they won't even know why.) 
  • Goblins: Defective castoffs of the orc creation project. The Snake-Men tried to exterminate them, but the damn things escaped into the Underdark and multiplied. Their massive genetic defects, the result of their malfunctioning genetic programming, explains their very high rate of mutation and insanity.
  • Hobgoblins: Goblins whose genomes finally stabilised at something approximating the desired target (i.e. an orc) after several dozen generations of chaotic interbreeding. 
  • Bugbears: Weirdly stable strain of goblin mutants blessed / cursed with hereditary gigantism.
  • Gnolls: Uplifted hyenas developed as a response to crippling difficulties in keeping armies supplied in the field; as scavengers, they were able to live on the corpses and carrion generated by their own campaigns. Flind sub-race bred for use as NCO class. 
  • Humans: Uplifted apes genetically modified for use as a general purpose slave-race. An early success of Snake-Man bio-thaumaturgy: hardy, adaptable, and much less intelligent than they think they are. Formed the template for a number of subsequent slave-races developed for more specialised duties.
  • Lizard Men: Uplifted lizards bred as soldiers and bodyguards for more conservative Snake-Men, who never really felt comfortable with having all these mammals running around.
  • Kobolds: Dwarf strain of lizard men bred as household servants and pets.
  • Giants: Human slaves genetically modified for use as shock troopers. Multiple sub-types were created for different environments (cold climate operations, high-altitude operations, etc), thus leading to a proliferation of sub-races.
  • Ogres: Stunted and defective giant sub-breed. Too stupid to be useful as soldiers. Kept around for further experimentation after giving rise to Hags and Ogre Magi.
  • Ogre Magi and Hags: Mutant ogres who lucked out and acquired hereditary magical powers. The Snake-Men weren't sure why this happened, and kept them (and the ogres) around for additional study and experimentation.
  • Dragons: Gigantic bio-engineered terror weapons. Genetically programmed to assert dominance over a region through displays of terrifying force, gather up all useful local resources, and then hand over the materiel thus accumulated to the Snake Man armies when they finally turn up. Their hoarding behaviour is a result of this latter instinct; and now, as dragons sit on their hoards, they are occasionally troubled by the thought that they know they should be turning all this loot and magic over to someone, they just can't quite remember who...
  • Trolls: Experimental creatures designed for minimum-fuss harvesting of tissues and organs. Go ahead, take its kidneys: they'll grow back in a couple of minutes!
  • Demons, Devils, etc: Pure-energy beings created by the Snake-Men in order to explore the fantastically hostile environment of the Lower Planes. They were mostly built out of dreamstuff harvested from human slaves, which means that hell is basically an enormous projection of the collective dream-life of the slaves of the Snake-Men. (This is why it's so horrible.) These days they go around calling themselves things like 'Orcus, Arch-Duke of the Abyss', and don't like to talk about the whole 'being made by snakes' business. 
  • Dryads: Magical tree symbiotes created as a solution to the problem of slaves constantly escaping into the woods in heavily forested areas. The dryad charms any passing slaves and keeps them with her; then the Snake-Man slave recovery squads just have to go from one dryad's tree to the next, gathering them all up for reprocessing. Nixies and lamia served similar functions for wetlands and deserts, respectively.
  • Nymphs: Over-successful spin-off of the dryad creation problem, with supernatural beauty so powerful that it blinded and killed people rather than enthralling them. Kept around for their potential military uses.
  • Minotaurs: Genespliced creatures created as slave-overseers and prison-wardens for populations of human slaves. Their bad tempers and inclinations towards violence were seen as desirable traits. Their ability to instinctively navigate mazes is an ancestral memory of their origins in the endless slave-warrens of the Snake-Men.
  • Mermen and Aquatic Elves: Elf and human slaves genetically modified for service in and around the domed Snake-Man cities on the ocean floor. 
  • Sahuagin: Genetically engineered bioweapon introduced into the seas to hunt down and exterminate escaped populations of aquatic elves and mermen, after traditional methods of containing and recapturing them proved ineffectual in submarine oceanic environments.
  • Chimeras, Manticores, Harpies, and other apparently pointless 'crossbreed' creatures: The Snake-Man equivalents of PhD theses, these creatures were engineered by up-and-coming Snake-Man biomancers as demonstrations of bio-thaumaturgical skill. Like PhD theses, the best ones were preserved for posterity in menageries which functioned as living libraries. After the empire fell they escaped and established breeding populations in the wild.
  • Slimes, oozes, gibbering mouthers, etc: Created by alchemical run-off from Snake-Man laboratories.
  • Ilithids: Created to act as living components of a biological super-computer: their 'always on' telepathy was supposed to enable their minds to be connected into a kind of psychic wi-fi network, able to answer any question provided it was fed enough human brains. Unfortunately for the Snake-Men, the Ilithids soon deduced what was going on, mind-blasted their handlers, and fled into the depths of the Underdark.
  • Beholders: Mobile weapons platforms designed for use against high-threat magic-using targets. Their eye-rays made use of bio-thaumaturgical breakthroughs for which the catoblepas, basilisk, medusa, and cockatrice had served as prototype proofs of concept.
  • Ghouls: A bioweapon intended for use against population centres; each ghoul infects its victims, who rise as more ghouls in turn, until a large chunk of the population have been replaced by low-level undead easily controlled by any competent Chaotic cleric.
  • Vampires: Recipients of a prototype 'immortality treatment' which, while sufficiently developed to have reached the 'human testing' stage, was still exhibiting an unacceptably high number of negative side-effects (blood dependency, light vulnerability, etc) by the time the Snake-Man empire fell. 
  • Yuan-Ti: In the chaos which followed the fall of the Snake-Man empire, a bunch of desperate humans tried splicing themselves with Snake-Man genetic material in the hope that the guardian automata protecting the remaining supply depots would mistake them for genuine Snake-Men. It didn't work, but at least they got funky snake powers.
  • All those giant animals all over the place: Early Snake-Man experiments in magically-engineered gigantism, of the same kind that would later be employed in the creation of giants, dragons, and ultimately the Flesh Moon Project. The Flesh Moon itself was last seen shortly before the final collapse of the Snake-Man empire, propelling itself off into space on its stubby little wings. If it's still alive then it must be the size of a planet by now. 

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Random Encounter Tables: The Steppe

This is the first of a bunch of wilderness encounter tables to complement the ones I wrote last year for the Wicked City itself. I'll do one each for the desert, steppe, and taiga, and then maybe one for the tundra. After that, I'm really not sure there's much of ATWC left to write. Maybe something about hirelings?

The main thing to remember about encounters in the steppe is that it's very, very big and has very, very little cover. You are going to see them coming. They are going to see you coming. Evasion is going to be about speed rather than stealth nine times out of ten. Consider investing in a very high-quality telescope and you might just see them before they see you...

Woman with yak, Mongoilia:

Random Steppe Encounters (Roll 1d12)

  1. A band of evil spirits are camped out on the steppe; they look mostly human apart from their very long noses, but closer examination will reveal both that they have no shadows and that their horses have no tails. They are eating a horrible tarry black sludge of indeterminate origin, which they cook up in a huge pot over a fire, and invite travellers to share it with them. They will interpret outright refusal as an insult, but will accept polite excuses if they can't think of a plausible-sounding reason not to. Actually eating their food will induce vomiting, sickness, and spirit possession, in that order.
  2. A shaman from one of the steppe tribes, riding with her apprentices to make offerings to a powerful spirit of the land. She has a deep knowledge of the personal histories, likes, and dislikes of all the nearby spirits, but will be reluctant to share it with outsiders unless bribed with high-quality drink or tobacco from the city, for both of which she has something of a secret weakness. Anyone who harms her can expect furious retribution from both the local spirits and the local tribes. 
  3. A warband of steppe warriors looking for a chance to do some opportunistic raiding. They're heading in the direction of the Great Road, hoping to shake down a few caravans for 'tribute' and maybe steal some horses from rival clans along the way. Their leader is one of the sons of a minor local khan, and is keen to achieve some deed that will help him to stand out from amongst his many brothers. Wise PCs will want to persuade him that helping them with their mission will be a better route to glory than robbing them of their treasure or besting them in combat. 
  4. A team of wrestlers on their way to a major competition. (They'll take part in the horsemanship and archery events too, which they're also pretty good at, but for them the wrestling contest is the main event.) They are always looking for chances to show off their prowess and will challenge people to wrestling matches on the slightest of pretexts. PCs who demonstrate high levels of skill and sportsmanship will be rapidly befriended and invited to attend the next tournament for a rematch. 
  5. A headless clockwork giant, 14' high, stumbles across the steppe with a distinctive lurching gait: one of its legs is slightly longer than the other. Creaking windmills rise from its shoulders, allowing it to partially power itself with the wind that blows across the steppe. Its pilot, a middle-aged woman from one of the far-off Rust Clans, steers it from her seat within its torso, peering out at the world through the ancient bullet holes which riddle its armour plating; a chain around its waist attaches it to a sturdy cart, in which her two brothers bump along behind it. The three of them have heard of the Cogwheel Sage, and are midway through an epic pilgrimage to find one of her holiest shrines, in which they hope to be initiated into her faith. They regard any non-initiates they encounter along the way as completely fair game for raiding, especially if they happen to be carrying supplies of spare parts or coal.
  6. A band of treasure seekers from a nearby city, accompanied by local guides. Their leader is a scholar who believes that he has discovered the approximate location of the tomb of one of the Wolf Khans, and maybe he has; but his knowledge of their empire comes entirely from books, and he's now riding back and forth across the steppe, eagerly examining every grassy mound in case there's a ruin under it. It is worryingly easy to persuade him that just about any vertical stone of man-size or larger was originally a balbal. He is willing to pay for information about any ruins or monuments the PCs come across in the area. Each month after he is encountered, there is a 10% chance that he finds the tomb he's looking for and promptly gets beaten to death by its guardians.
  7. A clanking caravan of brass men on bronze horses, stomping their way slowly across the steppe. They wouldn't normally come this far from the cities, but a wealthy local khan has commissioned them to make guns for his warriors and clockwork toys for his children and they don't want to pass up the opportunity to earn some of his gold. The greatest artificer among them is an enthusiastic advocate of the benefits of logician implants, and will offer to bolt clockwork computers onto people's skulls at very reasonable rates. (Weirdly, none of the nomads he's met so far have been interested.) He dreams of building a new generation of brass men to serve as his 'children' and apprentices, and hopes that the khan's gold will help him to achieve this.
  8. A group of Blood Man mercenaries wandering across the steppe, looking for a good war to get stuck into. They ride big, angry, poorly-trained stallions, and are constantly getting bitten and kicked by them, which they mostly think is hilarious. In the last town they stopped in, someone tried to steal their enchanted cauldron; as a result of this their chief is extremely paranoid about its safety, and never lets it out of his sight, going so far as to sleep inside it at night. Anyone behaving remotely suspiciously will be assumed to be in league with the thieves.
  9. A murderous band of skull wearers haunt this part of the steppe, preying upon anyone who looks weak enough to ambush, loot, and eat. Their victims are littered all around the area, buried in dozens of shallow graves. They avoid anything resembling a fair fight, and much prefer to attack at night. They are strong, skilled, and ruthless killers; but they all hate each other, and only barely manage to function together as a group. It would only take a very small amount of provocation or frustration to set them at one another's throats.
  10. A large grassy mound with a few stones sticking out of it is all that marks the fact that this was once the site of an ancient city. The local inhabitants are members of a wizard-cult, who believe that the sorceress who once ruled the city will one day return to rebuild it. In the meantime they worship a bejewelled statue of her which they believe to be inhabited by her spirit, but which is actually just haunted by the ghost of a child who starved to death nearby on a cold night two thousand years ago. Their 'goddess' demands constant offerings of food and fire, but in truth she is nothing but the spirit of a scared little girl whom any sympathetic shaman could probably lay to rest if given the chance. 
  11. A nomadic clan is encamped here. Fearing that their enemies may attack them at any time, they have decided to activate their greatest asset, a skull chieftain: so now the spirit of one of their great warrior-ancestors is wandering around the camp, giving the young men archery tips and watching out for raiders, while everyone around him does their very best to avoid reminding him that he's actually been dead for a couple of hundred years. Enemy scouts lurk nearby, and will offer substantial bounties to any outsiders willing to enter the camp and get rid of the skull chieftain in order to clear the way for an attack.
  12. The grave of a recently-deceased heroine of the steppes, complete with newly-erected balbals and a modest shrine in case she returns as an ancestor spirit. Her faithful Kergerden mount refuses to leave the side of its mistress, even in death, until it meets someone else worthy of riding it: until then it simply grazes the land around her tomb. So far everyone who has attempted to mount the beast has been impaled or trampled for their troubles. Anyone riding it would win enormous prestige among the heroine's clansmen, who are much the most powerful clan in this region of the steppe.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Your Demon Lord Doesn't Need That Many Hit Dice

[This post is just me rambling again. Feel free to skip it if you're just here for the actual game stuff.]

People talk a lot about how D&D characters have become 'more powerful' in more recent editions, but power in D&D is relative: if you have twice as many hit points, but all the monsters do twice as much damage, then nothing has really changed except the size of a number on your character sheet. (See also: the entire history of World of Warcraft.) So the real question is: 'more powerful when compared to what?'

'When I was level 1, I could kill the orcs and wolves in the level 1 area in two or three hits. Now I'm level 100, I can kill the super-orcs and mega-wolves in the level 100 area in... two or three hits. So it was totally worth the wait!'

If one compares the abilities of PCs with a range of monsters across the various D&D editions, it swiftly becomes apparent that, as usual, it's been the poor old humanoids who have been the biggest losers. In both Basic and 1st edition AD&D, a single lowly goblin was very nearly the equal of a 1st level fighter in combat; but more modern PCs are expected to be able to scatter goblins, kobolds, skeletons, and similar low-level foes like chaff, even at level 1. The mid-level monsters have remained roughly stable: some, like the various save-or-die monsters or the level-draining undead, have lost their scariest abilities, but the general assumption that a troll or an ogre should be a pretty tough fight for a low-level party has held pretty constant across editions. PCs have been big winners, going from fragile dungeon explorers to badass, tough-as-nails fantasy superheroes, but they haven't been the biggest winners. The biggest winners have been the high-level monsters.

Remember Lolth, spider-goddess of the drow? When Sutherland and Gygax wrote Queen of the Demonweb Pits in 1980, their assumption was that she would be a tough but not impossible boss-fight for a party of level 10-14 characters. How about Tiamat, mother-goddess of all evil dragons? According to the AD&D 1st edition monster manual, she has AC 0 and 128 HP, although 80 of those are 'in' her various heads: doing 48 damage directly to her body will kill her outright. (You don't even need magical weapons to hit her!) Orcus? 120 hit points. Asmodeus and Demogorgon? 199 and 200 HP respectively. Yes, they're crazily powerful, and, yes, they're quite capable of killing your PCs: but they still clearly exist on the same scale as trolls and giants and dinosaurs and high-level player characters. Tellingly, Asmodeus, the overlord of hell, capo di tutti capi of all the other arch-devils and all-around second-baddest dude in the multiverse, is described as being 'physically stronger than any other devil', but we're then immediately told what that actually means: he is 'as strong as a storm giant', i.e. Strength 25. The single strongest devil in existence is stronger than your fighter, but he's not that much stronger. If a party of, say, 18th level PCs really went gunning for Demogorgon, and managed to solve the obvious problems involved in getting to his hell-realm and breaking into his throne room and so on, then they'd probably have a pretty good chance of taking him down. 

He's only got 120 HP! Just kill him and take his wand already!

Now, as much as D&D PCs have been boosted over the years, their top-end foes - dragons, demons, demon lords - have been boosted even more. High age-category dragons, for example, have gone from 'a bit tougher than a giant' to gigantic mega-monsters with completely surreal numbers of hit points. In AD&D 1st edition, the maximum number of hit points for a regular goblin was 7, whereas in D&D 3.5 it had risen to 9: but over the same time, the maximum HP for a red dragon of the largest size had risen from 88 to 880, meaning that the toughness of the dragon had increased roughly eight times as fast as that of the goblin. (It's not a completely fair comparison, because the 1st edition rules for dragons meant that their maximum HP were also their average HP - but even an 'average' maximum-age red dragon has 660 HP in D&D3.5.) The demon lords are now meant to be capable of taking on whole parties of level 25+ PCs, even though those PCs are vastly more powerful than their same-level equivalents would have been 'back in the day'. I think Asmodeus and Demogorgon may have transcended stats entirely. Early D&D presents a universe with a relatively 'flat' power distribution, in which something like a night hag or a fire giant or a 9th level PC is already about halfway up the scale. Modern D&D puts them all way down in the foothills, staring wistfully up at the mountain above, while Orcus sips cold drinks with a great wyrm dragon somewhere near the summit.

'I increased my hit points by 900% by following this one weird tip...'

The thing that got me thinking about all this was reading a list of Pathfinder's demon lords and thinking how much more useful they'd be if only they were a bit, well, smaller. A demonic sadist with the head of a dove, who eats the eyes of his victims, makes minions made from their flayed corpses, and lives in a house in which every room contains some new tableau of the macabre? That's great! Stick him and his horrible skinless minions and his horrible creepy house in a hex somewhere right away! But wait: he's 'challenge rating' 26, meaning that only a party of level 25+ characters would have a decent chance of beating him, and his 'house' is an entire dimension. Boring. How am I supposed to use that? (Yes, you could send the PCs in to rescue someone or something and then get out before he catches them, but once you've done one 'escape from hell' scenario you've done them all.) A demonic princess who looks like an angel who has been dismembered and then stitched back together with copper wire, her eyes and mouth sewn shut, presides over a ruinous city of profaned churches and drives its fallen priests to suicide: awesome. Except she's a god-level enemy and her 'city' is a layer of hell. Boring. A city you can save, or at least save parts of, haunted by a demon you can fight, or at least evade: that's something you can get a decent game out of. An urban hell-realm ruled by a demon goddess is just another abstract bit of spiritual real estate floating around in the Abyss somewhere. Why should your PCs care about something which is so manifestly beyond their power to meaningfully affect?

In the original Conan stories, the hero can't seem to manage a half-hour's walk without tripping over some benighted valley full of crazy demon-worshippers revering a monster-god from before time. These stories almost always end with Conan stabbing the beastie to death and wandering off. That's not because Conan is a super-duper-high-level-mega-ultra-badass fantasy superhero: it's because the demonic god-monsters in his world just aren't all that tough. Early D&D reflected that sensibility, and I think it was the stronger for it, because it makes the resulting monsters - dragons, demons, archdevils, and the rest - so much easier to use in actual play. There is a place in games for enormously, unbeatably powerful monsters, but it's quite a small place, and you're unlikely to need very many of them in any one campaign. The further removed they are from human-scale action, the less likely they are to be useful in stories which are, ultimately, always going to be about human beings. Or almost-human beings, at any rate.

So before you give the super-awesome demon you just came up with a thousand hit points and nine different kinds of get-out-of-death-free cards and seven layers of the abyss as his personal fiefdom, just pause for a moment to reflect whether he wouldn't actually be more useful to you as the seriously scary but far-from-invincible demonic patron of a single horrible city someplace, instead...

Monday, 11 April 2016

Monsters from Central Asian Mythology 9: The Sirtya

Nenets carvings of Sirtya, made from reindeer antler.

This is a companion-piece to my last post, The Island of Cairns. I'm really pushing the definition of 'Central Asia', here, because there's nothing remotely 'central' about Vaygach Island, which is where the stories of the Sirtya come from: it's right on the northern edge of the continent. And yet the Nenets people who live there are of Central Asian origin, and their beliefs and religious practises have clear similarities with those practised in Mongolia; so, as with Azerbaijan, I'm going to include them anyway. Nor am I alone in doing so: I found Nenets religion discussed under the heading 'Central Asian mythology' in one of the encyclopedias of mythology I consulted on the topic. Maybe Central Asian-ness is a state of mind.

So. The Sirtya are a race of magical white dwarves who live on the coasts and islands of the Frozen Sea. They are very small, perhaps half the size of a human, and very beautiful; their skin is snow-white in colour, and they wear strange metal garments hung with bronze trinkets, seemingly unbothered by the extreme cold. They can see perfectly in the dark, and usually only come out after dusk. They are expert bronze-workers, and their underground tunnels are assumed to be full of furnaces and forges - although no-one really knows for sure, because their entrances are extremely well hidden and well guarded, and there's no practical way to fight or sneak into a complex of tunnels which are only 2' wide and 3' high. They are widely reputed to have the ability to become invisible, and to be able to sink into or rise out of the ground at will; but in fact neither legend is true: both are due simply to their extreme stealthiness and their tendency to honeycomb the territories which they inhabit with networks of concealed tunnels. Turn your head for an instant, and they may very well seem to vanish: but it'll be because they've just jumped into a hidden tunnel someplace, rather than because they've actually sunk into the ground.

Other legends about them have a stronger basis in fact. It is quite true that the Sirtya know spells for calling down clouds, upon which they then ride like floating palanquins: unlike the cloud clans of the Deep Taiga, who catch their clouds with lassos and ride them like beasts, the Sirtya simply sing them down from heaven and direct their flight with verses of murmured song. They know another song for singing fish out of the water and up into their hands, which provides them with their primary means of sustenance: these fish are then skinned and boned, and their flesh eaten slimy and cold and raw. As they live on raw fish, can see in the dark, and do not feel the cold, they need neither home-fires nor cook-fires nor torches, and all the fuel they gather goes straight to their hidden furnaces under the earth. No-one knows what they do about all the smoke.

For the most part, the Sirtya manage to live peacefully alongside the humans of the Frozen Sea; they are not warlike and have no love of conflict, preferring to flee from confrontation on their flying clouds. But greedy clansmen sometimes try to catch them in order to rob them of their embroidered bags and their metal garments, both of which are always of the highest quality; and during bad winters, when every net-full of fish becomes a resource to be bitterly hoarded, conflicts over food-thefts or fishing rights can easily explode into violence. When threatened or engaged in battle, the Sirtya sing a third magic song, which clouds the minds of men; if it works, they then attempt to take ruthless advantage of their confused enemies, knowing that the greater size, strength, and numbers of the humans will surely allow them to prevail in anything resembling a fair fight.

  • Sirtya: AC 15 (bronze harness), 1-1 HD, AB 0, spear (1d6 damage), FORT 15, REF 14, WILL 14, morale 7. May sing down clouds to use as mounts; these can float up to 5' off the ground or over the surface of water, and move as fast as a horse at a gentle trot. When in natural terrain with a decent amount of cover, may 'disappear' in moments, hiding so expertly that they will never be found without an exhaustive search. Anyone who hears their battle-song must make a WILL save or suffer confusion for 1d10 minutes, during which they suffer a -1 penalty to morale and are unable to effectively co-ordinate their actions with others. (The effect of multiple battle-songs does not stack.)

Learning the Songs of the Sirtya: Humans who have performed great services for the Sirtya are sometimes offered the chance to learn their magical songs; but even when both teacher and student apply themselves rigorously to the task, few humans ever manage to perform one of them successfully, as Sirtya voices are able to articulate a range of sounds of which very few human throats are capable. A human who is offered the chance to learn such a song has a percentage chance equal to their Charisma score of being able to master it after several months of practice; failure means that they will never be able to master that song, no matter how much teaching they receive. A different roll must be made for each of the three songs that they attempt to learn. Disciples of the Word and Fan Dancers, due to their extensive vocal training, increase their chance of learning these songs successfully by an additional 10% per level. Even if a Sirtya song is learned successfully, performing it places such a strain on the human throat that it can be performed no more than once per hour.

Sirtya as Player Characters: It would be odd, but not quite unheard-of, for one of the Sirtya to wander south into warmer lands, perhaps even ending up in the Wicked City. If you want to play one you must have Dexterity and Wisdom 12 or higher. Game information is as follows:
  • You can use any thrown or melee weapon, and can use light shields. You can use any kind of armour, but due to your small size it will need to be made specially. (Most Sirtya make their own armour.) You are unfamiliar with guns, but can easily learn how to use them after a few weeks of practise. Note that due to your small size, a single-handed weapon for a human will usually be a two-handed weapon for you: only daggers and similar tiny weapons are small enough for you to wield one-handed.
  • You gain a bonus to all your to-hit rolls equal to half your level, rounded down.
  • You gain 1d6 HP per level.
  • Your natural agility grants you a +2 bonus to REF saves.
  • You can see perfectly in the dark.
  • You are small, nimble, and very good at hiding. When in a place with a decent amount of cover, as long as no-one is actually looking straight at you then you may spend one round to 'disappear', hiding so expertly that they will never be found without an exhaustive search. 
  • You can sing clouds down from the sky and ride around on them, steering them with your voice. (On a cloudless day this ability is useless.) If you get off the cloud, or if you are silenced or otherwise unable to sing, the cloud stops moving and breaks up after 1d6 minutes.The capabilities of these clouds depend on your level:
    • At level one your clouds an float up to 5' off the ground or over the surface of water, have the carrying capacity of a small pony, and move as fast as a horse running at a gentle trot.
    • At level 4 your clouds can rise up to 10' off the ground, have the carrying capacity of a light horse, and can move at the speed of a horse running at a canter.
    • At level 7 your clouds can rise up to 20' off the ground, have the carrying capacity of a heavy work horse, and can move at the speed of a galloping horse. 
  • You do not feel the cold, and are immune to cold damage.
  • You can perform a song which clouds the minds of any humans that hear it. (It affects allies just as much as enemies, so your friends might want to invest in earplugs!) Anyone hearing it must make a WILL save or suffer confusion for 1d10 minutes, during which they suffer a -1 penalty to morale and are unable to effectively co-ordinate their actions with others. At level 5 or higher, it also imposes a -2 penalty on their to-hit rolls. The effect of multiple battle-songs does not stack.
  • You are a highly-skilled metalsmith, especially expert in the forging and working of bronze. Given suitable tools and raw materials, you can manufacture any kind of weapon, armour, or decorative metalwork to an extremely high standard. Your insight into smithcraft grants you a flat +2 bonus to your technology rating. You are also really good at embroidery, but that probably won't come up as much during play.
Sirtya Summary Table

Hit Points
To Hit Bonus
Fortitude save (FORT)
Reflex save (REF)
Willpower save (WILL)

Starting equipment: Bronze harness (AC +5), bundle of small spears (1d6 damage, can be thrown), beautifully embroidered clothes and bag, smith's tools, beautiful bronze jewelry worth 3d6x10 sp.