Sunday, October 29, 2017


"Forest in Autumn" by Gustav Courbet

This post goes best with Over the Garden Wall and Chromatic Soup: Issue 2.


Ho-ho! Ha-ha! ‘Tis harvest time
When all the hill’s russet and gold!
Bring in the feast! Bring on the dance!
Be bold, make a risk, steal a kiss, take a chance!
Tap us some cider! Lay out the cakes!
Pile pies on the table until the thing breaks!
It’s a night fit for chaos, in that we believe
For this here tonight’s the great Goblinwatch Eve!


The Festival

You remember...

All the farmers with their oxen, their wagons overflowing for the last market of the year. Cousins you hadn't seen since the year before last, now that the Grub Port bridge has been rebuilt. Banners and flags and every color under the sun as the countryside seemed aflame with its joy. Church bells and mourning doves.

There were jugglers, acrobats, jesters, fire-eaters, stilt-walkers, troubadours, fiddle duels, medicine shows, buskers, hobos, hurdy-gurdy men, blue-ribbon goats, performing dogs, hedge-mages, a traveling show with kings and swords and red streamers for blood. Children running underfoot looking for the Third Pig. Corn-hole, ring-toss, quilt circles, the husking bee, the dunk-a-monk tank. Grinning lantern-jacks everywhere you turn (you and your friends ran through the hills with butterfly nets each evening for the last week to get proper will-o-wisps for yours).

You remember your grandpa and the other old men in their navy coats, their flat-topped caps and their shiny brass buttons, sitting on the general store porch and playing St. Anne's Fingerbones while passing around a stoneware jug of grobbo.

(A note: grobbo, or goblin-cider, tastes like getting kicked in the face by an apple-flavored Clydesdale.) 

You remember the Knights of Autumn returning home in all their russet finery, with stories of the world beyond and all their adventures in the wild places where the Folk lived. Some years one or two of the older children would be taken on as an apprentice to a journeyman knight. Your parents shot down your request instantly, on account of your main motivation being your terrible, obvious crush on Abigail Haaghenholt, who had taken her vows three years earlier.

You remember the Witches' Court, where the wise women young and old gathered in numbers you'd never see elsewhere (save the funeral of Goodwife Jemyan the winter before last). Anyone with a problem in their life, no matter the size, could bring it before the Court and have it solved right there and then, though there's never any guarantee they'd like the solution. Sometimes it was best to bury the hatchet before going to the Court.

There was the barn dance, where they crowned the Harvest Queen and Skeleton King and everyone danced and sang and drank and ate until the sun was dipping low and the lantern-jacks were lit.

And the food! Candied apples, roasted pine nuts, pop-corn, troll-ears with cinnamon sugar, saltwater taffy, succotash, four-score types of cheese, coalwater crabs from upstream on the ridge, cider from the orchard on  harvest-moon cakes, pumpkin bread, corn and squash on the grill, roast turkey and pheasant, apple flapjacks, maple wine, more pies than even the gods could comprehend.

There was always a seat left open at the head of the table, right by the King and Queen. Death is an honored guest at Goblinwatch, to remind everyone that they were alive that night.

This was the finale, the bombast before the long decline into winter.

The Watch

The first drumbeat falls at the moment when the sun has sunk completely below the horizon and the moon has risen fully above. In the hills one can see the distant fires, and hear the hoots and hollers and the beating of  hide drums and the playing of reed pipes and bladder horns.

The goblins sing and dance around their Ugly Tree, gathering their forces of mischief, and when their song is done they descend upon the town in a wave.

Actually describing what comes next is difficult due to both the inherent magic in Goblinwatch Eve and the sheer amount of tomfoolery and vandalism going on.

A good Goblinwatch Eve will include but is not limited to: theft of livestock, raiding of liquor cabinets, raiding of underwear drawers, damage to public property, arson, jaywalking, cross dressing, cases of mistaken identities, cruelty to cheeses, biting political satire, incomprehensible accents, public drunkenness, graffiti, dirty limericks, silly walks, and excessive Monty Pythoning.

Goblins will be accompanied by other creatures, their "auxiliaries in the cause of mischief." These are typically unique, region-specific beings who are generally only seen on Goblinwatch Eve, unless the Eve is set up to be a real humdinger, in which case they might be glimpsed as early as but never prior to the feast of St. Percival Tuckett, thirteen nights earlier. These companion beasts include:
  • The Bugaboo - A tall, ape-like creature with shaggy black fur and luminous eyes like dinner plates.
  • The Great Askutasquash - A knobbly green-and-yellow striped vegetable with legs like an elephant. Squashes things, delivers presents to gullible children.
  • The Tagalong of Tougkepsin - A river monster, like a salamander mixed with an otter and twice as big as a man. Sings like a lovely woman, shouts like an angry priest, talks like a city slicker.
  • Big Barn Owl Face - A body like a big lumberjack, axe in hand and shirt of plaid, with a barn owl's head on top. Constantly bobbing and swiveling around.
  • Hopkins Gobrol - It looks like a goblin, but is not actually a goblin. Bright orange skin, unblinking eyes, laughs  before the punchline is delivered but doesn't put any heart into it.

The Witching Hour

The reign of chaos lasts until one in the morning, at which point the Witches' Court will disperse and its members will begin to round up the goblin horde. By means of the mighty Disapproving Look, the Crossing of the Arms, and the Tapping of the Foot (as well as clever counter-pranking and tactical witchery), the township's witches will wrangle to goblins into righting their wrongs, returning their loot, and fixing up the town to just as it was.

Having had their fun, the goblins will sing a final song of farewell (which has the added effect of putting the townsfolk into a restful sleep) and depart for their warren.

Witches have no obligation to stay further, and many of them return to their homes at this time.

All-Folk's Day

There is one more celebration before all is complete and winter may begin. In the quiet of the misty morning, a procession will set out to the hills, singing old songs of Folk-friendship and the Humble Art. It is not a boisterous celebration, but instead one of a different kind of life - of stillness and silence and the dew upon leaves.

The procession will meet the Folk in the appointed place - sacred grove, standing stones, enchanted spring, whatever it may be. There will be a shared meal, a recounting of histories from both peoples, an exchange of gifts. The old agreements between Folk and man will be re-affirmed. The Folk will depart, and the people will return to their homes in silence.

Thus comes the end of the harvest season and of Goblinwatch, until the next year arrives.

If dreams can’t come true, then why not pretend?
How the gentle wind beckons through the leaves, as autumn colors fall
then sink in a swirl of golden memories
the loveliest lies of all

Monday, October 23, 2017

Womb of Annihilation

I doubt anyone reading this will care about spoilers for Tomb of Annihilation, but I'll declare them anyway.


Tomb of Annihilation  is a pretty good adventure. There are a good deal of weird WotC-isms in it (have you ever wondered about your NPC guide's exact height and weight? Tomb of Annihilation has you covered.) but on the whole it's a solid adventure with solid wilderness support and solid dungeons. You could run it without a whole lot of elbow grease.

But that's no fun.

Basic Premise

Acererak is trapping the souls of the dead in a giant machine and feeding them to an Atropal, which is currently located  at the bottom of an ancient dungeon in an abandoned city in the middle of an uncharted rainforest in a distant land. The lead-in is that resurrection spells have stopped working, those who have been resurrected previously are beginning to decay, and you've been sent to investigate it.

Elbow Grease Note 1:  Twice as many immortal oligarchs as you thought you wanted.


Tomb of Annihilation comes with the setting presumption that resurrection is common enough in-setting that people are noticing something going wrong. At first, I wasn't fond of this conceit and was considering dropping it entirely (an easy enough task), as I'm not super fond of the idea of resurrection as a commodity, but then I reconsidered.

Resurrection is expensive. It requires a 13th level wizard to cast, and if we're using +Skerples medieval price list, which is nice and abstracted, the component cost is the equivalent of 100,000 US dollars.

(For extra math fun, calculating the value of 1gp with the current per-ounce market value of gold, times 16 ounces per pound and divided by 50 coins per pound, we end up at $205,760 for a resurrection spell if a GP is only 50% gold.)

This is on top of the fees for hiring a 13th level necromancer, which could easily be ten times or more the cost of the components.

In short, it's bloody expensive. The only people who would even have a chance to access to it would be the rich and powerful, who would be able to become more rich and powerful by installing a revolving door to the afterlife.

The people who are sending you on this mission will reap all the benefit, despite doing none of the work (the book itself says that they've already sent people to Chult and failed. The only actual payment you receive from your patrons are 50gp up front, and a single magical item upon completion. Starting at level 1 just emphasizes that you're disposable lackeys. )

The book already uses the Red Wizards of Thay as an enemy faction that is out to twist everything to their own advantage. This works as-is. One set of immortal oligarchs are already taken care of.

Your patron is a woman named Syndra, who is supposed to be a member of the Harpers. I haven't got a clue what in Sam Hill the Harpers are supposed to be, so they have now been turned into the Harper East Seres Company (Or +Jacob Hurst 's Martel Company) Your friendly neighborhood expansionist venture-capitalists that have formed their own little government,who are now also immortal.

Both the Red Wizards and the Harper Company want the resurrection problem solved. Wizards want the Soulmonger for themselves, the Company doesn't yet know that it exists. The two groups loathe each other.

Elbow Grease Point 2: All about the politics


The module mentions factions, but few of them are actually important to the goings on in Chult. With rival groups of immortal oligarchs meddling in local affairs on top of local factions, that is a huge oversight.

The Harper Company
"It's just jungle now, but with some forward-thinking it transforms into something beautiful. Think about it. Rubber, cocoa, cotton, tea; plantations from horizon to horizon. Mines producing more oil and gold than we can imagine. And diamonds!"

  • Wants: The end of the death curse, a return to the status quo, economic control of Chult
  • Does not want: The Red Wizards gaining anything, the Merchant Princes getting too uppity and thinking they run the place.
  • Is currently: Throwing poor people at the problem until it gets solved.

The Red Wizards of Thay
"The Chultans' aspirations mean nothing; They do not play with the long view in mind. No one ever does. They just think they'll live forever all on their own." 

  • Wants: The Soulmonger, monopoly over resurrections and all other necromancy
  • Does not want: The Harper Company gaining a foothold in Chult, Chult becoming anything more than a backwater, control of Chult for themselves, the Soulmonger destroyed.
  • Is currently: Sending veteran problem-solvers to solve the problem.

The Merchant Princes
"In my grandfather's time Port Nyanzaru was a few huts and a palisade, and now we'll be selling tej in Lankhmar and Corpathium by year's end. No more "dark continent", no more superstition, just the Princes' stamps on crates of fine Chultan goods."

  • Wants: To become a major player in the global market, to drag Chult kicking and screaming into the Century of the Fruitbat, to play with and then become one of the Big Boys, to get access to resurrection for the Princes.
  • Does not want: Monarchist movement to gain power, news of the undead plague or death curse to spread and make them look bad.
  • Is currently: Distracting the populace with dinosaur races and tej, trying to get a leg up on the Harper Company via corporate espionage.

Liara Portyr and the Flaming Fist (A mercenary subsidiary of the Harper Company)
"Fucking spear-chuckers need to learn who really runs the world."
  • Wants: To "pacify" and "civilize" Chult. To get filthy rich by looting the jungle and oppressing the locals.
  • Does not want: Interruptions of their making money, Chultans thinking that they should be in charge of their own country and lives.
  • Is currently: Putting pressure on the Princes via pirate-permissive patrol practices

"When I'm queen, no one's going to tell me what to do. I don't need to be babied, I don't need protected - I will be queen and I will show everyone how things are supposed to be!"
  • Wants: To claim her rightful position as queen of Chult, to toss out the merchant Princes and the foreigners, to return Chult to an overly-idealized former glory.
  • Does not want: To remain hidden for much longer, to actually have to deal with the reality of governance.
  • Is currently: Biding her time in Kir Sabal with her brother, chomping at the bit.

The common folk
"Welcome to Chult: Home of the world's friendliest mosquitoes."
  • Wants: Food on the table, money in the bank, hot water, soft toilet paper, a new mosquito net, a good night's sleep, a brighter future.
  • Does not want: The curse to continue, to end up with someone's boot on their neck, to completely abandon who they are in exchange for the benefits of modernity.
  • Is currently: Feeding an undercurrent of worry beneath the new prosperity.

The Yuan-ti
"The apes learning to talk was entertaining at first, and quickly became less so."
  • Wants: To awaken the Night Serpent, to keep humans out of their jungle.
  • Does not want: Acererak to stay any longer, to be betrayed by Acerak, to admit that they know that Acererak is definitely going to betray them.
  • Is currently: Protecting the lost city of Omu, preparing for the return of the Night Serpent, preparing for a sudden but inevitable betrayal.

  • Wants: To feed souls to the Atropal, to cause widespread misery and suffering for his own amusement.
  • Does not want: The game to end, to have his wants challenged by anyone or anything.
  • Is currently: Overseeing the Soulmonger, planning future schemes, figuring out how to betray the Yuan-ti.


Elbow Grease Point 3: Expanding the curse 


In the module proper the Soulmonger captures all the souls of the dead, blocking resurrection or phylacterization. I can only presume that captured souls are stuck in a whirling torment of pain and misery as the Atropal devours them, but we can make it more horrible. This part was originally intended as a replacement for the death curse, but it works better as an addition to it.

What if the Soulmonger wasn't just a trap for the souls of the dead, but one for the not-yet-living?

[Aside] There was a fantasy full conversion mod for Civilization 4 called Fall From Heaven II. It was and still is fantastic. In it, the primary evil religion had a shrine they could build called "Stigmata on the Unborn". While the effect in that game was powering up your units depending according to how high the Apocalypse Counter is, I always imagined it as a method of attacking rival civ's population growth. So there's the inspiration for this.[/Aside]

This effect of the death curse is still in nascent stages - we have not reached Children of Men stages yet, but the important thing is that the potential is there. The effects will spread, and gradually grow worse.

Right now, people are worried. The last few months have been filled with deformities, defects, and miscarriages most common of all. The people know this; midwives talk, after all. The Merchant Princes and their representatives deny that anything is going on; this is not a conspiracy on their part, but the simple belief that curses are just local superstition, waiting to be driven out by their modern mercantile rationality. (Of course, being filthy rich means you can blunt many of the worst side effects of the curse, for the time being.)

The reveal of this aspect of the curse should be a good OH SHIT moment for players. Not only because of the potential consequences, but for providing a moral quandary: destroying the Soulmonger ends the curse on the unborn (definitely a good thing), but further entrenches folk like the Red Wizards and the Harper Company in their power (not a good thing), thus permitting them to further meddle in the affairs of Chult to their own ends (definitely not a good thing). Beating the bad guy will not solve all your problems.

Elbow Grease Point 4: The cosmic abortion in the room

This guy reminds me of something. I just can't put my finger on it...



It's on the tip of my tongue, I swear...

Nope, can't think of it. It's probably nothing.


You can't just put a cosmic abortion in the room and not deal with the fact that there's a cosmic abortion in the room, Wizards of the Coast!

Elbow Grease Point 4: Dealing with the cosmic abortion in the room 


Res minimus: Levels 5 and 6 of the Tomb should be a horrible nightmare fleshscape, as is befitting the title of this post. The giant undead fetus is right there, stone corridors aren't going to cut it any more.

Res maximus: Acererak is the Atropal's father.

Maybe he's the actual father, maybe he's only acting in loco parentis. Perhaps it was a divine miscarriage instead of a cosmic abortion. It doesn't matter: whatever you might come up with is better than "he found it on the Negative Energy Plane" and I don't want to ruin the image with explanations no one wants or needs.

[Aside] The crazy thing is that this is practically in the book as-is: they just don't give it any focus. The height and weight of your guide are super important, I guess. [/Aside]

The horrible beating heart in the middle of this campaign is that relationship. Acererak cares for the Atropal (by feeding it souls), but demonstrates a simultaneous and paradoxical apathy to it (he only appears after it has been killed, and certainly doesn't care about its state of torment). I doubt I need to spend much more time explaining how the psychopathic undead troll-DM is a really, really bad parent.

Elbow Grease Point 5: Back to the beginning

But the cool thing about that horrible beating heart (Finally! The end!) is that it calls back to Point 1:

The only applicable difference between Acererak and the Red Wizards or Harper Company is time.

Acererak has reached the point where wealth and power have fundamentally lost meaning to him because he will never run out of either - he can just build a new overly-elaborate death trap when the current project is winding down. The Red Wizards and the Harper Company aren't at that point yet, but are already stretching their abuse and exploitation muscles. The Merchant Princes aren't on the playing field just yet, but they will be if they have their way.

There will be more Acereraks in time, and Chult is set to become an Atropal of its own. The older established generation exploiting the younger so that it decays before it has grown.

Settings with commoditized resurrections aren't fun, kids. This is where you end up.

Elbow Grease Point 6: A few ifs

If the Soulmonger falls into the hands of the Red Wizards
The curse will be lifted, but they will swiftly enforce a monopoly on resurrections and undeath. The Harper Company will be cannibalized and disbanded. The Merchant Princes will be prevented from ever getting their hands on resurrection services. Chult's dawning golden age stalls out.

If the Harpers remain a major power in Chult
The Merchant Princes will be bought out - never officially, but lopsided trade agreements and crooked distribution rights (in exchange for resurrecting the leadership) will see the Princes become yet another (fantastically wealthy) subsidiary of the Harpers. The Burning Fist will become the boot stomping down on the Chultan neck. Chult will be exploited to the last acre, and by the time the people realize that they've been had, an independence movement will become much more difficult.

If Mwaxinare reclaims her throne
She will find herself surrounded by enemies on all sides and with next to no allies, vastly outmatched in resources, guile, and governing ability. An agreement might be made with the Merchant Princes or another faction, but she has no power of her own beyond lingering cultural significance. She courts disaster.

If the Soulmonger is used by the party
Difficult, but possible with a powerful enough necromancer. The scope of the curse can be modified with the device - for example, the curse on the unborn might be lifted, while the ban against resurrection might remain. Souls passing to the afterlife might be trapped en masse, individually, or set free.

You can, of course, utterly destroy both the Harper Company and the Red Wizards. Not fast enough that they won't retaliate, mind. You'll also need the cooperation of the Yuan-Ti, or their removal from the premises.

The the Soulmonger is allowed to continue its business unchanged
The curse on the unborn will spread outwards from Chult. Within a few months there will be more deaths than live births. In a year's time, there will be no live births at all.Within five years, the entire hemisphere will be effected.

If the above, and the Atropal is dead
After nine years, when the curse has spread across the entire world, the Soulmonger will finally contain enough souls to summon the Night Serpent. It will rush out like a black river from the gulfs between the stars, devour the offering, and usher in a second age of the serpent.

If the above, and the Atropal lives
If the Soulmonger is still active, the Atropal will be born into divinity in 280 days. A maelstrom of pain and hate and fear will burst forth from the deepest jungles of Chult, obliterating the Soulmonger, the Tomb, and the lost city of Omu. Most of the country's population goes mad instanteously from the initial wave of psychic torment. Everything that dies, down to bacteria, will be raised as undead. The jungle will become a landscape of perpetual rot.

If something else happens
You're clever folk, I'm sure you'll think of something

Friday, October 20, 2017

1d100 Biblical Events and Aesthetics

"Abraham and Isaac" by Harold Copping
  1. Descendants of cursed wasteland wanderer learn the secret of metallurgy.
  2. A vast, rotting ship stuck on top of a mountain, filled with the carcasses of each known species of animal and many more unknown.
  3. 90 year old woman gives birth.
  4. Holy order banned from eating grapes, cutting hair, or being within presence of the dead, in exchange for super-strength.
  5. A divine wager is made on how much suffering a single man can undergo.
  6. Infant bastard-prince dies after a week of incredible pain.
  7. The king calls for a census; tens of thousands struck down by plague in divine retaliation. Census was divinely ordered in the first place.
  8. Talking donkey gives good advice to bad people.
  9. Towns annihilated. Women and boys put to the sword. Girls raped. God does nothing.
  10. Bald man summons bears to attack local punks.
  11. Writer upgrades local lake to impressive sea; pilgrims disappointed.
  12. Rival priesthoods constantly attempting to undermine each other while writing down oral history.
  13. Man curses tree for not producing fruit out of season.
  14. Tongues of flame granting Comprehend Languages.
  15. Morbidly obese king forgets that some people are left-handed; dies due to oversight.
  16. Manipulative queen thrown out of upper story window; stray dogs rejoice.
  17. Intensely claustrophobic cosmology; world is technically underwater and there is no surface.
  18. Three friends thrown in furnace over dispute; chocolate rabbit possibly involved.
  19. Scribe painstakingly calculates symbolic numerology; effort is lost upon the general readership.
  20. Shepherds tending flocks by night terrified and confused by angelic flash-mob.
  21. King goes mad, acts like feral animal, eats grass like a cow.
  22. Man watches entire family die. Later replaced by new, living family as consolation prize.
  23. Misprint commands adultery.
  24. Iron chariots prove remarkable resistant to divine interference, reasons unknown.
  25. Man offers daughters to be raped by mob; is later raped by both daughters. Union begets unpleasant rival tribes.
  26. Woman achieves MAXIMUM SALTINESS.
  27. Woman instructs son on the importance of having enough alcohol at a party.
  28. Smear campaign against agriculturalists.
  29. Confused whale press-ganged into transporting equally-confused prophet.
  30. Man brought back from the dead; Narrative elision prevents anyone from knowing details.
  31. Boy sold into slavery by brothers due to being a smartass. Wins freedom and becomes king of foreign land, due to being a smartass.
  32. Man instructed to kill son. Is way too enthusiastic about the whole thing, has to be told it was a joke.
  33. Divine compact sealed by barbecue.
  34. Once there was a secret chord, that David played and it pleased the Lord – but you don’t really care for music, do you?
  35. Giant wheels of with gigantic fiery eyebrows inspire bestselling novel series.
  36. Divine consort gaslit out of canon.
  37. Legions of quails descend upon the people, shit on everything.
  38. People unquestioningly believe talking snake.
  39. Tribesfolk gets lost in desert, try to make it seem a lot more impressive than it actually was.
  40. Local woman blamed for everything bad ever.
  41. Group of brothers lead revolt against imperial colonizers.
  42. Moneylenders chased out of temple by wandering, whip-wielding preacher.
  43. Teenage mother finds uninvited foreign kings on doorstep.
  44. Mighty warrior collects foreskins of dead foes as trophies.
  45. Lion carcass used as apiary.
  46. Short man climbs tree, gets stuck.
  47. Plagiarist Pauls plague people’s perceptions.
  48. Gigantic tower sits in a distant land, half-constructed. Contains traces of the universal language.
  49. Man sells inheritance for bowl of stew.
  50. Immortal priest king shows up, never explains himself.
  51. Man struck dead for pulling out while having sex with his dead brother’s wife.
  52. Man sees his father naked and drunk, all his descendants are cursed. No one can figure out what happened.
  53. Snake epidemic leads to temporary adoption of serpent cult.
  54. New census techniques disrupt local economy by making everyone move back to their ancestral home.
  55. Scribes can’t figure out a single backstory; everyone involved has been dead for centuries, narrative reigns.
  56. Oppressive emperor named only by numeric cipher.
  57. Removal of sins through the eating of coals.
  58. A prophet’s head served to a princess on a platter.
  59. Theophagy emerges, becomes very popular distressingly fast.
  60. Oracle declared against chief prince of a distant northern nation, stating that they will be incited to war by God, and then struck down by God for being warlike; no one can figure out who the oracle is talking about but he really hates those guys.
  61. All things are vanity: What has been, that will be, what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun.
  62. Reproduction considered disqualification for resurrection.
  63. Widow and her maid play as false double agents for invading army, become confidants of enemy general, and cut off his head in the middle of the night.
  64. Editor dead: suicide claimed, murder suspected.
  65. Compiler working 200 years after the events described throws in single line complaining about something unrelated, confusing people even further.
  66. Cattle-rustling brothers overthrow prevailing chronology by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
  67. Colonial overseers get excessively tired of all this shit, amp up the oppression.
  68. Temple priesthood, now-extinct, is remembered primarily by a pun on their name that only works in a language developed centuries later and thousands of miles away.
  69. Minor differences in neighboring culture groups lead to centuries of bloodshed despite sharing nearly everything else.
  70. Competing wizards try to out-do each other by sending bigger plagues on the populace; king unfazed by the catastrophic mass death of his subjects.
  71. Intentional mistranslations of holy book made to placate literalists desiring consistent canon.
  72. Account of ancient events switches to a different author writing at a different time to a different end in a different genre midway through a paragraph.
  73. Virgin mother-to-be with morning sickness realizes that she’s got six more months to go and didn’t even get to have sex first.
  74. Demons commit suicide upon possessing pigs, out of presumed hatred for all pork products.
  75. Book about a guy hanging out with metal-as-hell angels declared apocryphal for being too radical.
  76. Incredibly boring family chronicle of ancient tribes weaponized by unruly theology students.
  77. Nationalist origin-narrative is way too positive about the eradication of the people who were actually living there.
  78. Anti-authoritarian political narrative couched in esoteric symbolism; author forgets to add footnotes.
  79. King refuses to completely genocide vanquished foe and settles for only mostly-genociding them and keeping some of the livestock. Stripped of crown and throne in divine retaliation.
  80. General and pervasive hatred of women.
  81. Shellfish, mixed fabrics, homosexuality banned: local gay bars sell killer oysters and really nice wool-linen blends.
  82. Sun just stops and hangs there at noon for a while for military convenience.
  83. Military band brings the house down in all literal senses of the phrase.
  84. King introduces wheeled bull idol that runs on human sacrifice; confused as to why people think he’s crazy.
  85. Prophet challenges rival prophets to prophet-off; loser is set on fire.
  86. Spies return with figs the size of small cows.
  87. Court necro-witch raises spirit of prophet to provide advice; ghost is not having any of that shit.
  88. Heavily armored giant learns not to underestimate shepherds who understand ballistics.
  89. Vizier’s niece marries king, prevents pogrom.
  90. Man discovers that he was a cat person all along.
  91. Man wrestles with angel, doesn’t realize kayfabe was in effect.
  92. Philosopher king binds demon, realizes that having that many wives is a problem.
  93. Rogue prince stuck hanging from a tree by his hair.
  94. Giving birth to a girl is twice as unclean as a boy.
  95. Daily cereal offering dictated: priests unsure as to whether God prefers Frosted Flakes or Lucky Charms.
  96. Seven-year-old is made king, wants to rebuild temple; does a decent job at it.
  97. Holy city sacked, people taken into exile.
  98. Wildman brought food by ravens and angels.
  99. Angel kills 185,000 soldiers overnight. General goes home, is murdered by his sons.
  100. Goats get unfair rap, sheep given undeserved praise.

"The Presentation in the Temple" by Jorge Sanchez Fernandez

Thursday, October 19, 2017

1d20 Hordes of Monstrous Humanoids

From Blood Bowl 2

  1. The last homo diluvii striking out in desperate, futile raids against the dominance of homo sapiens. They cannot fully comprehend what is happening to them.
  2. Creatures born of battlefield mud under a full moon, wearing tattered armor and wielding rusted blades. Marching songs like dirges on the riverbanks.
  3. Wild pigs that gained a taste for man’s flesh, and with it, a taste of man’s power. They have learned cruelty for its own sake.
  4. Eugenic eunuchs, educated by the finest imperial tutors and refined by years of courtly training. Their legions keep impeccable records of the dead and tallies of the maimed, to be discussed over immaculate tea ceremonies.
  5. An ancient army of men reduced to pallid corpse-eaters. They were cursed to wage their war forever by the wizard they cast down from his keep.
  6. Fleshy-faced hirsutes from the deep jungles. They do not wish to shed blood, but they know they must; if they did not, their gods would lack the vital essence required to fight off the serpents from beyond the stars that seek to devour all the world.
  7. Television heads, filled with static and shriveled and seizing black worms.
  8. Humans with a variant strain of toxoplasmosis guiding their sword-hands. They worship cats, and sacrifice their fellow man in exchange for feline favor. The cats know this, and approve of it.
  9. Men changed utterly under the open sky of the tundra. They have carved out chunks of their own frontal lobes; Only by returning to apes, they believe, may we save the world from the decadence of civilization.
  10. Red chitin armor, jaws that split into a dozen toothy fingers, black eyes the size of fists, weapons that shoot streams of fire. Anachronistic and illogical, the result of someone in the future changing the past.
  11. Skin like a raw bruise, great vents spitting steam, misshapen limbs out of alignment. Born psychically from anger and hate.
  12. Demons like harlequins, or the other way around. Herds cavort across the savanna alongside their elephantine brood-mothers.
  13. Obsidian bodies, bladelike and ever-fracturing. Mute beyond a distant thrum. They just want to give you a hug and tell you everything is going to be okay. They will not be dissuaded.
  14. Disenfranchised youth, radicalized salarymen, sportsball hooligans.
  15. Iron-masked men descending from floating castles. Can only seem to communicate through grunts and screams. Wear fine gold and blue silks and wield silver swords.
  16. Wasteland mutants, radioactive oozes leaking from deformed bodies. They are willing to trade for resources, but they won’t take no to an answer. Survival trumps diplomacy.
  17. Yellow-green skin pulled too tight over their bones, moving in reverse time: running backwards at you at full speed, coming from a destination they must reach with all haste.
  18. Biological war machine, the castaway of an interstellar war. Builders long dead, keeps building soldiers, can’t turn itself off.
  19. Giant, tusked hermaphrodites with pangolin shells. March under white flags. Will not fight, will just stamp in and take what they want.
  20. Bull-footed, eagle-winged, lion-maned, man-faced. Fire-wreathed soldiers sent to cull the sinful. Gods are confused, no one asked for this.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Dungeon Hobo Slang

From the Hobo Museum of Britt, Iowa

Anderson – A paladin

Angel – A soft bed, a warm meal, or a hot bath

Beaky – A doctor

Chrit – A crippling injury

Devil gold – Bad money or a bad deal; treasure not worth the cost of getting it

Dice, the – Fate, luck, odds of success

Dinnercan – A suit of armor or a kettle made of such; a knight (derogatory)

Dungeon Pie – Pancakes consisting of acorn or corn flour, filled with meat (usually monster) and whatever spices can be gathered

Faffer and Connie – Nicknames for people from afar; barbarians, people from outside of civilization.

Freshwater – A new hobo

Funhouse – A wizard’s abode; a high-chaos, high-magic dungeon

Gary / Dave – Old, successful hobo. Wise, respected by his peers. A made man. (Alt: Gale / Dani)

Gob – A gag, a pun, a joke; an ugly or foolish person (affectionate)

Golden Rosie – The kind of prostitute you boil up for (alt: Golden Roy)

Gone to see Gary – To retire in wealth; to die, euphemistically 

Gran-Gran – A witch or headwoman

Grog – Old, experienced hobo. A grumbler, a traditionalist, often hidebound. Often used in jest.

Hack – The solution to a problem; sharing or crafting equipment

Handyman – A cleric

Hatjob – A wizard; a task involving or requiring magic

Hidenbite – A mimic

Ick – An ooze or slime

Lankh, the – A city, civilization (alt: the Ankh)

Lily-White Boys – Elves (Singular: Green-ears)

Lions and Hearts – A deck of cards or other game set (usually chess)

Meatbox – A notoriously deadly dungeon.

Meshi / Meshy – The communal mulligan pot. Monster stew. (alt: mess, mesh)

Molefool – A greedy hobo who delved too deep

Mousehole – A crawlspace

Mouser – A thief

Old Goose – A dragon

Post, the – A listing of services a hobo can offer. Usually symbol-based. Often painted on shields, printed in promotional pamphlets, or sewn into clothing. 

Razortip – A hobo gone bad; a murderer, thief, cheat, rapist, etc.

Red Hat / White Hat – The two classical dungeon hobo trades. Red Hats are more combat-oriented, while White Hats offer more specialized, non-combat skillsets. Well-off hobos will often carry their tools in a wooden box of the appropriate color, as further advertisement.

Red Stamp – A sign indicating that the hobo is permitted by local authority to certain jobs that will kill men.

Roughers – Cannibals, mutants, etc.

Scarlinik – Serpentman

Scrap Trick – An unorthodox solution to a problem; a moment of genius or madness

SkinnerbookA lawyer, someone who follows someone else’s rules

Spook – A minor undead, of the sort often commanded by Spooky Sam

Spooky Sam – A necromancer, lich, or other powerful monster

Stickerpig – A trap.

Strong Paul – A dwarf

Tatertop – A halfling

Tenner – A ten foot pole

Won the fiddle – Made out with a fortune, usually against a crooked patron, by cunning and guile

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

50 Dungeon Hobo Signs

Click for full size
I threw in some real hobo signs to go along with the dungeon-specific ones, since the basic needs of an itinerant worker are pretty stable across the board.

In-game, I'd say that any previously-delved dungeon will have some of these carved or drawn on the walls. Some might be misleading, some might be no longer accurate, but they should be true enough that they can be an aid to players' navigation and help them in making choices. Compare "there are passages to the north and west" to "north passage is marked 'ooze territory / safe campsite'. west is marked 'disabled trap / monsters can be reasoned with / don't look behind you'".

They're pretty helpful on the DM side too if you need quick ideas for rooms.

Monday, October 9, 2017

It's October 9th

Someone had to.
  1. Tag-team axe-juggling
  2. Speed sideburn-braiding
  3. Horniest helmet competition
  4. Miss Chainmail shieldmaiden pageant
  5. Rocket ski-jumping
  6. The mead flows
  7. Catch-the-greased-and-angry-wild-boar
  8. 300-meter boat-carry
  9. Troll-kissing booth
  10. Flyting tournament
  11. Whale-wrestling
  12. Oh shit, it’s Grendel
Who Killed Whose Brother, Again?
  1. Skorri the Big killed Skeggi Half-Hand over a pretty girl.
  2. Gizurr Ice-Breaker killed Hrafn Horse-Lord while deep in his cups.
  3. Gunnlaug Fire-Braid killed Flosi Nose-Picker by accident.
  4. Thengirr the Bear killed Vulbrandr the Puke over an insult.
  5. Blue Vigfuss killed Ari Arm-Breaker over a stolen goat.
  6. Hallthora Never-Kissed killed Jolly Thorgils over a theological dispute regarding the relation between the Old Gods and the New.
How Much Mead has Everyone Drunk?
  1. Lots of mead
  2. Copious quantities of mead
  3. Gods, that's a lot of mead
Is Loki Screwing Around?
  1. Yes
  2. Absolutely
How is Loki Screwing Around?
  1. Turned into a goat, farts loudly during important conversations.
  2. Stole all the lutefisk from the shrine of the Lutefisk God.
  3. Released the ice giants. Again.
  4. Annoying everyone with offers of timeshares in "Green Land".
  5. Slipped the ravens a speedball
  6. Cheating at hnefatafl.
  7. Potentially angered a volcano.
  8. Peeking in the women's hot spring.
  9. Decided to hold the Rainbow Bridge Pride Parade on the exact same day despite everyone agreeing eight months ago that it was going to be the next weekend.
  10. Now there are two of him.
from Vinland Saga

Friday, October 6, 2017

The HAUL Reviews: Hubris

Mike Evan’s Hubris is a book about horrible people living in a horrible world. It’s bloody, grody, dark, deadly, brimming with grimy effluvia, patently absurd, and a terrific piece of RPG writing.

(I recommend queuing up the LISA: The Painful / Joyful soundtrack at this point. I think it fits quite nicely.)

First, the setting: It’s a blast. A crashing chaos that manages to form a coherence of its own terms by finding an image / voice / theme, knotting everything up, and running with it. A strong current of black humor (wet and American, rather than dry and British) maintains a thematic throughline throughout the book. Things are horrible in Hubris, and the land is filled with horrible people, but it revels in its horribleness rather than trying to persuade the reader that it is Incredibly Serious Stuff.

There’s a giant robotic dog with a city on its back. Every single location sounds like the name of a high concept metal album (ex: Slavering Maw of the Heathen Below, Metallic Fortress of End Times, etc.) The most pleasant god to deal with is literally called the Stillborn Unwanted Child. The magical item table can come up with things like “Dehydrated Bugle of the Lamentable Baboon”. There’s a spell that turns people into furniture. On and on it goes: there’s nothing boring in this book, nothing wasted. I know exactly as much about Hubris as I need to know, and everything I learn is something I can use.

I’d like to propose a sibling to “keep it simple, stupid”, and that is “make it usable, dingus”. Hubris embodies both with flying colors. Everyone else (read: people outside the DIY-sphere) should take note: I have spent FAR too much money on RPGs that buried all their good ideas beneath a godawful puzzlebox of wonky mechanics and overwrought lore.

This segues into the second part of the review, which is the design beneath the setting: the book is useful. It’s possibly even too useful. It works as a single work, but twice as brilliant is the ability to open to a random page and instantly find some way to use what you find there. Pull out a spell, a god, a location, a monster., a class, a background, a race, whatever. The random tables are potent and fast and have the same punch as the rest of the book.

My favorite piece of all is the addition of “Lay of the Land” tables. A simple enough concept (“here is what is in that hex, as an alternative to a direct encounter”), but beautiful in its simplicity and effectiveness. Anything the characters run into on the Lay of the Land table could be turned into an encounter, a quest hook, or even just a memorable image-moment. It’s all about what you see, rather than what you have to stab, and so wading through hex after hex of intractable swamp doesn’t have to be boring. You can just admire the scenery as the disease-carrying mosquitoes eat you alive.

It’s a hell of a ride, and for my part I say that the Ennie was well deserved.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Magical Sewers

The Crossness pumping station
O Cloacina, Goddess of this place,
Look on thy suppliants with a smiling face
Soft, yet cohesive let their offerings flow
Not rashly swift nor insolently slow.

People out in the countryside have a privy out back, with last year’s almanac nailed to the wall. A distant king might be proud of the hot water running through the lead pipes of his palace. Bears shit in the woods.

They are barbarians and fools, the lot of them. Civilization – real, honest-to-gods civilization – is built upon the porcelain back of the Merde Grande.

The Building of a Merde Grande

The creation of a modern magical sewer is a work-intensive process, but the methods of Dr. P. T. Krappier have remained generally unchanged since their introduction over a century ago.

First, a live donjon must be acquired. Most cities of healthy size (and many of unhealthy size) have at least one spare keep going unused. If the city donjon has died, it is possible (though often prohibitively expensive) to transplant one from the wilderness, though those structures have an even higher chance of being long dead or having gone to rot.

Second, the donjon is refurbished (for they are often ruined even if still alive) and consecrated to Cloacina. This change of metaphysical nature will shift the donjon’s root system into something viable for the movement and processing of waste. This was, and in many ways still is, a revolutionary technique; wizards that are willing to dabble in the affairs and powers of the gods of man are few in number, and gods that are willing to put up with wizards are just as rare.

Third, surveyors and excavators will disperse throughout the city, planting markers that will attract the donjon’s roots. Once the major points have been set up, citizens can purchase minor markers for their own dwellings for relatively low cost.

Fourth, the combined workforce of priests and wizards will populate the sewer-donjon with the necessary enchantments, constructs, and beings for it to function: animated water, enchanted pumps, domesticated oozes, wards against gas buildup and clogging, waste-eating beasts, bacteria cultures. After the floodgates are opened their duties will be overseeing and maintaining the Grande.

The end of all this is threefold:
  • A complex maze of layered, tangled additions and recursive expansions exists beneath the feet of thousands of people who ignore the fact that it’s there.
  • An incredibly important, powerful, and wealthy faction that can potentially bring a city to its knees is always sitting there behind the scenes.
  • Easy access to hot running water and toilet paper.
Hellboy on the left, Pokemon Sage on the right

Cloacina, the Cleanser

Cloacina is the doer of dirty deeds (not always dirt cheap). Her image and variants thereof, in icon and idol, are common throughout the world. In places where her sewers have not reached, she tends towards her classic patronage of cleanliness, aqueducts and the sexual act in marriage.

She is immensely popular. An approachable, down-to-earth personality does a great deal, but more important is that Cloacina doesn’t take anyone’s shit. She doesn’t put up with shit. Cloacina deals with shit. Cloacina gets shit done.

Most importantly, Cloacina has the skill, know-how, and immaculate, infinite patience to deal with your shit.

Yes, even that.

When the toilet is clogged, you don’t call on thunder gods. When there’s intestinal distress, you don’t go asking for the god of war. When you hit up the wrong curry stand and have lived to regret it, it is Cloacina that you seek.

She’s a practical goddess, for practical problems.

Nightsoil Priests and Shitwizards

The clergy of Cloacina are difficult to distinguish from academic wizards, and the opposite remains true. The two factions have been forced to work together for so long that they have more or less merged to the point of interchangeability.

They are integral to society, and they know it. Unlike the overwhelming majority of wizards, they demonstrate little desire to lord it over other people – they’re important by default, there’s nothing to prove. Everyone knows it already.

Plus, it’s difficult to be full of shit when you’re dealing with everyone else’s.

Nightsoil priests and shitwizards are easily discernible by their garb, as follows.
  • White jumpsuit marked with sigils of protection against poison and disease.
  • Images or samples of Outhouse Mrytle, a plant sacred to Cloacina
  • Heavy rubberized gloves and boots, the latter of which are often part of overalls or hip waders.
  • A hood (in the case of priests) or a pointed hat with brim (in the case of wizards), with attached mask and goggles in the case of poisonous fumes.

They also instinctively know how to navigate the sewers without getting lost, no matter the city.

The actual Cloaca Maxima

Random Encounters in the Sewers

Sewers, like all donjon-derived environments, tend to develop their own niche ecosystems. Each city’s sewer will be different, but certain creatures can be found nearly everywhere.

  1. Rat-faced Bastards A non-indicative name, as they are actually rats with the face of men. They are disgusting creatures, can grow up to the size of a dog, and breed excessively. It’s a common prank for drunkards to give one of their friends a sword and send him down collecting rat tails.
  2. Alkahest Ooze The strongest of the varieties of janitorial slimes employed in the sewers. They are called in to clean out clogs, undo blockages, and have a tendency to dissolve almost anything in their path. Hedge alchemists will pay a shipload for samples, as the creation of alkahest is guild property.
  3. Methane-Eater Little gasbag creatures that glow with a faint phosphorescence. They are harmless, but a good indicator that the air in a region might be dangerous to breathe.
  4. Cloagator There are, in fact, alligators that live in the sewers, feeding on blind fish and wayward adventurers. Scraggle-feathered birds with hooked beaks pick shitshrimp out of their teeth. The lack of decent food has made them astoundingly patient, and terribly emaciated.
  5. Merde-morloc – It’s very easy to get lost in the Grande, and these unfortunates have made the best of it. Sure, it’s best not to ask what they eat or how they entertain themselves, but just because they’re pallid inbreds doesn’t mean that they’re evil. Often cannibalistic, but then again, who isn’t sometimes?
  6. Cleaner Crabs Colonies of these hardened crustaceans feed on the slime molds and bacterial mats that coat the walls of older sections of the Grande.
  7. Maintenance Zombies Nothing much to see here, just the boys from the 509 Local. Sometimes accompanied by a priest or wizard on their rounds.
  8. Digesticative MawIt has to go somewhere, doesn't it? Processed waste is excreted on the surface.
  9. Fatberg An ambulatory mass of hair, grease, feces, used condoms, and the occasional corpse. Tend to weigh dozens to hundreds of tons. Always hungry for more.
  10. Sewer-stalker Stiltlike legs and claws like carving knives, eyes bugging out of their sockets as if ready to bursting and a crook-hooked beak. Runs too fast, for something that never seems able to take a steady step. A distant figure at the end of the tunnel, a moment in the light, then it runs.
  11. Someone who isn’t supposed to be thereThe sewers are a good place for bad people.
  12. THE BULLWORM It fills the entire tunnel with its bulk. Coming out of nowhere, going into nothing, an ouroboros with no destination but the endless crawl through the dark.

Traveling in the Merde Grande

When using the Grande as a means of transit between surface locations, treat it as a wilderness environment instead of a dungeon. Random encounters happen, people can get lost, but you don’t need the room-by room breakdown.

If the players do get lost, there is a 1-in-6 chance of discovering an exit. This will, of course, be in a completely different district of the city, but it will be an exit.

It is entirely possible for the roots of the Merde Grande to go too deep. Feel free to break out the Veins of the Earth here.

A pool at Hearst Castle

Shitwizard Spells

Honey Pot
R: 30’ T: Area D: Indefinite
Cleans the area of blood, feces, ooze, slime, grime, gristle, gunk, rust, dust, detritus and effluvia, storing it in an enchanted jar or other sealed container. This container can store [dice] uses of this spell before it can be used no further. The jar can be thrown as a grenade, doing [dice]d6 damage and spraying its contents everywhere.

Cleaning House
R: Sight T: [dice] persons D: Instant
The target is cured of disease, but must succeed on a CON or Poison save. On failure they will be cured by violent expulsion and take a -2 penalty to all checks until the next morning.

Unblock the Path
R: Touch T: Material D: 1 hour ÷ [sum]
A material obstruction is removed from a path, passage, or doorway. This takes 1 hour ÷ [sum] and dispersing the matter makes significant noise.

R: 10’ square T: Plants within AOE D: Indefinite
Plants within the effected area grow at an unnatural rate. Crops mature in minutes, trees grow gigantic, plant-based creatures gain [dice] HD.

R: Touch T: Piece of cloth D: [dice] hours
When held over the mouth, the affected material provides immunity to airborne toxins.

Rites of Cleansing
R: Touch T: Person D: [dice] charges
Target gains advantage on saves against poison, possession, and disease.

Drain Snake
R: N/A T: Rope D: [dice] x5 minutes
Conjures an animated rope of [sum] x10 feet. 50% chance of being a tapeworm.

R: ½ mile T: Self D: 1 hour
Target can find a lost item within the sewers with [dice]-in-6 odds. Requires another item owned by the same person to work.

(The poem up top is traditionally credited to Lord Byron, though there's no hard evidence for that.)