Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Hanging Merchants

By Michael Raston

As one approaches the falls on the great sewer river of Zyan, the currents quicken and the waters rise as many tributaries pour into the tunnel. Soon, lit lanterns begin to line the walls and a large harbor appears on the left side in a chamber of carved stone set behind breakers. The guards who are stationed there will lead visitors down a lit walkway that follows the river as the roar of the water becomes louder until it is deafening. Here it spills in an endless flow downwards into the White Jungle below.

From here a set of steep and narrow stairs carved directly into the rock face winds down in the darkness to a set of hanging wooden bridges. Overhead, lantern light reveals a loamy soil in which are sunk massive and conjoined root balls that twist and wind together, reaching their enormous roots deep into the rock of Zyan above. From this anchoring root system spring down the cyclopean trunks that disappear into the darkness below. They branch out into interconnected brambly thickets 100' below.

Lit pathways hang over this chasm, leading between the massive trunks towards a network of hanging pagodas. Once the legendary merchants hawked their wares to a steady stream of visitors. Having stepped off their pleasure boats, they dallied in the great hanging bazaar. An adventuresome few, led by hired guides and seasoned veterans, were on their way to safaris and expeditions into the jungle, while a smattering of aristocrats and their invited guests prepared to embark in caravans to their ingenious hanging manses to feast on rich jungle fare and while away the hours in opulent leisure. Most, however, had paid the ferry merely to see the great falls and win the right to say that they too had visited the inverted jungle, even if only in the darkness of the very highest level.

But the jungle has now been abandoned by Zyan above. The visitors no longer come. All but four of the hanging pagodas stand empty and derelict. Each of these is occupied by one of the four remaining hanging merchants of Zyan.


The Pagoda of Malichar




The pagoda of Malichar is large and lit by lanterns of colored glass that twinkle invitingly in the darkness. Hanging from the rafters, and displayed on tables and shelves, are wares of a bewildering variety. One one table a gorgeous pair of cuved and gilded blades are displayed atop the impossible long and lustrous white fur of a leopard python. Over another, a queer system of ropes and harnesses for traversing the jungle depths dangle next to baskets of exotic jungle fruit. No sooner than a patron has laid eyes on this improbably cornucopia, bustling servants offer up platters of fine jungle fair and elegant wine. Malichar wears a silver mask in the shape of the moon. Damask robes decorated in stars cover his large belly. He has a deep booming voice and a bombastic tone. He belongs to the august clan of the arbitrageurs.


The Pagoda of Nekalimon 




The Pagoda of Nekalimon is large and lit by fires burning in carved lanterns. They project massive phantasmagorical shadows that flicker on the white trunks of surrounding trees. Within his pagoda, the opulent embroidered fashions of Zyan hang on racks next to glass cases displaying the skins of scintillating jungle snakes, and head-dresses made from the dazzling feathers of jungle birds. Several suits of lavishly decorated armor are displayed on mannequins next to the twisting spine of some jungle monstrosity. No sooner has a patron set foot in his establishment then a maiden wearing a porcelain mask strikes up an enchanting tune on a glistening string instrument. Nekalimon wears a golden winged mask. Black robes printed with small yellow flowers cover his lank frame. He has a thin and reedy voice. He belongs to the esteemed clan of evaluators.


The Pagoda of Bulras



The pagoda of Bulras is humble in proportions and decorations. The smell of animals, and the screeches of birds can be heard as one approaches. From the rafters hang cages housing strange and wonderful fauna from the jungle below. Within one cage a mother bird feeds her young, opening her gullet to reveal the delicate petals of a fleshy flower from the stamens of which her chicks suckle.




In another, a pair of serpents, one white and one black, with the heads of glistening beetles, coil endlessly in a hypnotic pattern. These wonders are juxtaposed with tables bearing ordinary items such as cooking pots, caskets of mead, and sparkling but valueless costume jewelry. Bulras wears a black mask that clings to his face, and unremarkable robes. His manner is direct and unpretentious. He is a member of the clan of gutter-cleaners.


The Pagoda of Ulram



The pagoda of Ulram is small and undecorated. A pungent and pleasing aroma of drying herbs that hang everywhere from teh rafter fills one's nostrils as one steps through the door. On a trellis, vines curl bearing flowers with trembling petals like the jeweled wings of insects. In a terrarium, a plant with hard white protrusions snaps shut its jaws on tiny scampering lizards.




On display as well are may tools for cutting, clipping and sawing, strange hooked polearms, alembecs, and baroque instruments of unknown purpose. Ulram serves pungent and invigorating jungle tea in wooden mugs to customers. He speaks little and has a grim wit. He is a member of the reviled clan of cat-catchers.


Rumors/Hooks (1d6)

  1. Passage down the great sewer rive has been impeded recently by the Lurid Toads, bloated white amphibious parasites. They have erected a slime dam in a large natural cavern upstream, and are demanding an ever-increasing fee of (very) fresh meat for passage. This is not a small inconvenience for the merchants who regularly ferry their wares to and from Zyan above. In an unusual act of cooperation, they have pooled their resources to offer a bounty for the dam's permanent removal.
  2. There was until recently a fifth pagoda occupied by an estimable merchant named Ulaptaloom, a member of the clan of money changers. In a most horrible turn of events, the occupants of his entire pagoda were seized a month ago by the Children of the Spore. Although the Children have a kind of immortality through splitting and dividing, they raid because they msut, from time to time, replenish the humanoid stock that serves as their base. It is said to be a hideous fate to be taken by the Children of the Spore, perhaps worse than death. Ulaptaloom wore impressive jewelry around his person, including a ring that is a rare family heirloom. To reach the lair of the Children, take the footpath to the southwest from the pagodas, then head south a mile or more. You will find their tower there, at the top of the brambles.
  3. Not far from the hanging pagodas, there stands an ancient funerary shrine Lady Shirishany, concubine to the last of the Incandescent Kings. When she died, the King's grief was all consuming. He would have erected a fitting cenotaph to her graceful personage in the sunny gardens of the Summer Palace, but the Queen would not hear of it. In her jealousy, she forced him to build it in the rank and lightless precincts of the highest level. Shirishanu's corpse is not be found there; as befits a noblewoman of her time, it plummeted through the endless Azure Sea to its resting place in the heavens below. But the King is said to have filled the shrine with lavish tomb decorations and the Lady's remarkable possessions. The shrine is carved into the far side of the mountain that descends into the white jungle about a mile to the west of the great falls. 
  4. The good witch Zalvorex is always seeking apprentices and champions in his endless struggle with Bazekop, the demon of the West Wind. Such service is very lucrative, but also dangerous. Zalvorex's traveling manse drinks regularly at the emerald pools that are said to flow in the densest part o the jungle below, two miles southwest of the pagodas.
  5. The benevolent spirit of the air known as Bazekop is in need of able personages to help him in his ceaseless contest with the foul demonologist and necromancer Zalvorex. Bazekop can be sought in his invisible tower, which floats near the aerie of the giant crows in the lowest level of the jungle, on the far west side of the island.
  6. The legendary Summer Palace, if indeed it still exists, is located deep within the lower levels of the jungle. If you wish to find its location, you would be wise to seek the Chittering Masons who are said to have constructed it for the Incandescent Kings. They are disconcerting conversationalists, but their memory is long and they love everything they have crafted with their long and slender hands. They are said to maintain a village somewhere in the densest part of the jungle below.  


Equipment for Sale

The hanging merchants have any item on the standard equipment lists at 2x the cost. They have aesthetically gorgeous versions of any weapon and armor of chain or lighter at 3x the cost. In addition they have the following remarkable items for sale.

Weighted Boomerang 50 GP
On a hit this does 1d damage, but unlike other missile weapons, it immediately induces a fall check. If it misses roll 4d6 under DEX to catch it on the return.



Miasma Censor 75 GP
These censors hang around one's neck. When lit they burn an incense to keep at bay the miasma that plagues the highest level of the jungle. It grants a +5 saving throw to the wearer should the miasma roll in.

Harness System 200 GP per PC
This system allows individuals to clip on and off a shared rope. It allows one to repel as well. It has the mechanical effect that users have the status of being strongly secured for the purpose of falling checks (+2), but move as thought they were lightly secured (3 hexes per day).

Hanging Hammocks  100 GP
Allows one to sleep in comfort in the jungle without making a CON check. Takes two equipment slots.

Cage, Small  25 GP
A small birdcage.

Cage, Medium 50 GP
A cage large enough for a cat or large bird.

Cage, Large 75 GP
A wicker cage worn as a backpack large enough for a monkey. It precludes wearing a backpack, and counts as one item in addition for encumbrance, given its bulkiness.

Extendable Grabber/Slicer 50 GP
Allows the grabbing and slicing of things at a distance of 10'

Extendable Net 25GP
A fishing pole with a net on the end

Collapsible Spyglass 900 GP

Cat's Eye Fungus 125 GP per dose (5 doses available)
Squeeze these sticky mushroom caps and they exude a purple jelly. When this is rubbed into the eye, it grants the wearer infravision for an hour.

Stench Rose 200 GP each (4 available)
A small tin sphere with holes in it contains the red petals of the stench rose. The surface of this jungle flower is covered in oil that is flammable and produces a choking stench when ignited. In the wild, the petals of this plant respond to being jostled by heating up; the plant is immune to fire and the oil burns off. To use the sphere, one ignites the wick and tosses it. In one round it produces a 20' radius stench cloud no visibility and save vs. poison or retch for 1d4 rounds.

Purple Paralytic 400 GP (one tube with 6 doses available)
This is a rough purple paste in a tube, the consistency of gritty toothpaste. It is the crushed of a paralytic coral that grows in glades in the lowest level of the jungle. When it comes into contact with the skin of a victim he must save vs. poison or go into uncontrollable muscle spasms for 1d6 rounds. Can be applied to missile weapons. (1 dose covers 4 arrows or one blade)

Blackseed Poison 150 GP per dose (10 doses available)
These small black granules smell and taste of anise, providing an alluring seasoning for dishes savory or sweet. They are the seeds of a deadly plant that grows in the densest thickets of the jungle. Within 12 hours of consuming the poison, the seeds lodge themselves in the intestines. They bud rapidly, growing into thorny, writhing black stems. The victim must save vs. poison. If he succeeds, over an excruciating six hours he passes a mass of writhing shoots in his bloody stool (-4 to all rolls during this time). If he fails, the plants thrive within, providing an agonizing death as they burst through his abdomen.

Pod Stimulant 75 GP (6 doses available)
These red pods are parasite that infect vines deep within the jungle. When chewed like tobacco they induce an invigorating sensation. The user may ignore a penalty form poor sleep or pushing it for up to 4 hours. When it wears off, the original penalty plus any accumulated further penalties apply.



Three Perfumes 1250 GP
Each of the three tiny vials contained in this elegant vessel holds 3 doses of an enchanted perfume. The first attracts insects in a 100' radius. The second repels insects in a 100' radius. The third renders the wearer invisible to insects for an hour. Each vial contains 3 doses.

Hunting Vole  250 GP
This writhing, eyeless beast scrambles at its cage bars with its many clawed-legs. When provided with a sample of a scent it will relentlessly track that scent through the jungle, scrambling over boughs and trunks, provided the bearer of the scent has passed by within 24 hours. It comes with a long leash. Because it must be caged and fed, it takes 2 equipment slots.

Messenger Wasp 175 GP
This 8 inch long insect is covered in thick white fur that barely conceals a row of fluted apertures (mouths) along each side. The Messenger Wasp will mimic any sound it hears through its murmuring mouths, up to four sentences in length. A properly trained wasp can transport messages back to the last spot it was fed a certain food when you wave the food under its trembling antennae. (It can remember up to 6 different foods at a time.) Its small cage takes up 1 equipment slot.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Inverted Jungle as 3-D Hex Crawl



The White Jungle is an immense riot of fungal blooms that springs downward from the bottom of Zyan. At the highest level, the huge trunks of white "trees" spring from massive interconnected root balls that cling the island above. In the blackness of the highest level they branch out, flowing together into a lattice of interconnected brambly thickets, punctuated by sudden drops into the darkness below. In the next level a dim light penetrates upwards from below. Here the jungle is densest, sprouting into a series of stable interconnected branches, bearing white trembling fronds, and milky vines. One level further down, the jungle becomes bright and airy, but here the growth thins, and movement becomes more perilous. In the lowest level, some islands of growth descend even lower into the endless azure sea. Here, even the most careful travelers risk plummeting into the heavens below.

The white jungle is a 3-D hexcrawl with the constant possibility of falling. What follows is the current set of rules I am using for running. I have playtested once so far, and they seem to work well. My goal was to keep it somewhat abstract, so that we didn't get bogged down into details about how people were tying off to one another, and what the method of movement the party employs across different micro terrains. (Such quotidian details are not appropriate for the exploration of an inverted jungle in the dreamlands!)

I want the system to be one where the players know the risks and rewards, where this induces some choices about resource management, and where the rules are potentially deadly, but not too complicated. What I came up with is somewhat fiddly, although not much more fiddly than encumbrance rules. If you're going to be running a hexcrawl in an inverted jungle, it seems worth having some subsystems to dramatize the risks and tradeoffs players face, even at the expense of a little crunch.

Movement 


PCs can move in three dimensions in the White Jungle. They may travel up, down, or any of the eight normal hex directions. Moving any normal direction costs 1 hex of movement. Moving up a hex costs 2 hexes of movement. Moving down a hex costs 1 point of movement. There are also some areas where travel in some directions is hampered by natural obstacles. In this case, it takes 2 hexes of movement to travel in the hampered direction. (Hexes are 1/2 mile wide, and I'm using stacked hexmaps each representing a jungle level.)

There are three levels of security that PCs can employ that affect their movement rate: unsecured, lightly secured, and heavily secured. 

Unsecured: When unsecured, the PCs are traveling without some system of ropes. They can travel more quickly this way, moving 5 hexes worth of movement a day. However, this is dangerous, so they must each make a falling check for each hex they move through as per the rules below. 

Lightly Secured: PCs are traveling with some system of ropes, but are keeping it loose. They may travel 3 hexes a day. They do not have to make a falling check when moving through a hex and receive a +1 to their checks for falling when a situation that warrants a check does arise.

Heavily Secured: PCs are traveling with a system of ropes, and are playing it safe. They may travel 2 hexes a day. They do not have to make a falling check when moving through a hex, and receive a +2 to their checks for falling when a situation that warrants a check does arise. 

The party may opt to move an additional hex above their allotted movement without resting for the night. The first hex requires everyone to roll 4d6 under Con. Those failing take -1 on all rolls, including falling checks, until they sleep. The second hex pushed, and every hex thereafter, requires 5d6 under con. A second failure means the person suffers -2 on all rolls. If a person fails three times, she cannot go further and simply must rest.

Sleeping in the White Jungle is awkward. Without either finding an unusually secure spot, or having proper gear, one must sleep precariously and uncomfortably perched among the branches of trees. Those sleeping under those circumstances must make a 3d6 under CON check to get a good night's rest. Failure means taking a -1 on checks, including fall checks, the next day. Spellcasters who fail cannot memorize new spells.


Getting Lost


This is a dense alien jungle. When moving through unexplored hexes without landmarks to navigate by, there is a 1 in 4 chance per day that the party will become lost. (If the party contains a ranger, the chance drops to 1 in 10.) The DM will dice randomly to see in what hex they became lost om and move them from that point on in a random direction. On the following day a new check is made. Provided the party does not fail, they will then realize that they are lost, although will not know in what direction they have moved or how far. (They may then try to backtrack.) If they stumble upon an explored hex, they will also realize their error as well as their current location.


Encounter Checks and Combat


There is a 1 in 6 encounter check for each hex the party moves through. There is also a 1 in 6 chance of a nighttime encounter when the party rests in a hex. Unless either party is surprised, something encountered will start 2d6x10 feet from the party. I will roll a 1d6 for elevation: 1-2 it is on a lower elevation, 3-4 the same elevation, 5-6 higher elevation. 


Moving in Combat: Given the treacherous terrain, you can move 1/6 your normal move and also attack during a combat round. A full move is at 1/3 movement rate. If you wish to attempt to flank an enemy, or go higher to attack from above or below, or if you are thief and you want to sneak attack, then you must spend a full round positioning yourself. If you are heavily secured, you must also detach yourself from the rope losing any bonus for being secured.

Higher Ground: An attacker with the higher ground receives +1 to hit. 

Damage and Falling: Any time your character takes damage in melee combat, he must immediate make a falling check. (Some specially designed missile weapons also induce falling checks.)


Falling Checks


A falling check is incurred if something happens that would be likely to make someone fall, for example, being pounced on by a tiger, or buffeted by sudden winds, or hit by a fireball. TAKING DAMAGE IN MELEE ALWAYS INCURS A FALLING CHECK. Falling checks are also incurred for each hex players travel unsecured. Falling checks are made with climb skill rolls rolled on 1d6. Regular PCs have a base skill of 1. Thieves may have considerably higher base. If a PC's total modified climb skill is 6 or higher, than he moves up the dice chain. A climb skill of 6 rolls a d8 and fails on an 8. A skill of 7 rolls a d10 and fails on a 10. And so on. (Note: these rules employ LOTFP style Thief skills and encumbrance system.)

Climb Skill Modifiers


Unencumbered                        +1
Lightly Encumbered                +0
Heavily Encumbered               -1
Seriously Encumbered            -2
Unsecured                                +0
Lightly Secured                       +1
Heavily Secured                      +2
High Dex (15+)                       +1
Low Dex (6-)                           -1
Jungle Level 1                         +1
Jungle Level 2                         +2
Jungle Level 3                         +0
Jungle Level 4                         -1           

Results of Falling Checks

There are 2 possible results of a climb check: success and falling.

Success: If someone rolls equal to or below her modified climb skill, then they simply succeed in staying right where they are.

Falling: If someone fail a climb check, then they will begin falling.  Someone falling will fall the entire distance they fall in one round. She must make a series of checks. For the first check she fails, she will fall 50’ and must make a saving throw vs. paralysis to avoid taking 1d6. She then gets a second climb check to stop their fall without any previously possessed bonuses for being lightly or heavily secured, since these are now irrelevant. If she fails this, she falls 100’ further and must save vs. paralysis or take 2d6 damage. For the third failure and every failure thereafter, she will fall 150’ and save vs. paralysis or take 3d6 damage. Note that a character may, under unusual circumstances, fall into a lower hex. In summary:

Summary of Falling Rules


First falling check failed

Fall 50’, Save vs. Paralysis or take 1d6 damage, and make a second falling check with no modified for being secured.

Second falling check failed       

Fall 100’ and save vs. paralysis or take 2d6 damage, and make a third falling check with no modified for being secured.


All further checks failed            

Fall 150’ and save vs. paralysis or take 3d6 damage, and make an additional falling check with no modified for being secured. 

Example

Celwin the Conquerer (F2) is traveling in Level 1 of the white jungle. His strength is 16 and his Dex is 10. He is wearing chain armor, and carries 6 items. Normally this would make him lightly encumbered, but given his strength bonus he just squeaks by with being unencumbered. He is playing it safe and so is heavily secured with ropes. Given that he is a fighter, his base climb skill is 1. His total modifiers are: Normal Dex +0, Level 1 +1, unencumbered +1, heavily secured +2. So to make a climb check he must roll 5 or under.

Celwin passes through two hexes without incident (no checks necessary), but in the third hex he is attacked by a green tiger. After striking some good blows, in the third round he takes damage, the tiger batting him around like a rag doll. He must now roll a falling check. Bad luck! He rolls a 6. He has now fallen 50' and must save vs. paralysis. He makes the save, managing not to take major damage on his plummet down. He now makes a second climb check without the bonus for being heavily secured. He still receives the bonus for being on Level 1 of the jungle and for being unencumbered. So he must now roll a 3 or under. His bad luck again, missing with a 4! Now he falls 100' meet and fails his save vs. paralysis this time, taking 2d6 damage (7 points of his 10 remaining hit points!).


He now makes a third falling check. This time he just passes with a 3! So, although his head is bloodied from a terrible blow against a tree, he is now clinging to a branch at 150' lower than he was originally. The tiger roars above him in frustration looking for a route down as Celwin shakily pulls himself to his feet, wiping blood from his eyes...

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Guilds of Zyan

In Zyan, each clan practices a characteristic trade, and wears a distinctive mask. The lowliest are the gutter cleaners and the catchers of the diseased and mischievous felines that swarm the narrow streets of Zyan. The highest clans are the great trading and political families that fill out the ranks of the merchant princes and viziers to the Visible King. Each clan is associated with one of the five great guilds of Zyan. In exchange for a tithe and the most talented of their youth, the clans receive the protection and services of the guild. It is through their guild that they participate in the lavish festivals honoring the Unrelenting Archons, the alien entities whose bloody worship is the sole faith known to Zyan. What follows is a description of the five great guilds of Zyan.

The Fleischguild


Victoria Reynolds
Within the porcelain abattoirs of the Fleischguild, the carvers perform the sacrifices that feed the endless hunger of the Unrelenting Archons. Beneath serene copper masks, they butcher the sacred beasts (the most sacred being man) to the beating of drums. Their burnt offerings of choice thigh meat, and thrice folded fat send out a mouthwatering aroma that fills the streets of Zyan on holy days. In exchange, the guild claims the unused portions of their sacrifices, extracting the many products of life for diverse uses. They are master tanners, and their sausages and cured meats are legendary.

The Fleischguild worships Vulgatis, the Archon of unseemly and fecund growth, under the aspect of Malprion, the Lord of Organism. Anatomy is the guild's sacred text, flesh it's holy scripture, to be puzzled over in its hermetic complexity as much as the most inscrutable parable. This guild is headed by the Butcher Priests.

The Inquisitors


Sha Sha Higby
The Inquisitors are the hand of justice in Zyan. From beneath their beaked masks, they hold the fragile peace of Zyan through the ruthless application of a code of byzantine complexity. They delight in dispensing elaborate punishments, reserving the use of their dreaded puppets for the most heinous offenses. Justice, they say, must be seen as well as done, and the Inquisitors think of justice as a great and splendid show.

The Inquisitors worship the Archon Azmarane, spinner of the skeins of fate, under the aspect of Afatis, the many-headed queen of puppets. Their theology is concerned with the intricate interpretation of the law, and the weighing of excuses and justifications. They are ruled by the Dramaturges.

The Horoscops


Druillet
The Horoscops are the keepers of the calendar of Zyan. They hold the public festivals that mourn the passing of each season. They are also astrologers, interpreting the movements of the heavens above and below. (The cyclical travels of the flying city of Zyan over the surface of the dreamlands provides them with a second sky, as they conceive it, the heavenly bodies of which reveal themselves with the first light of dawn, just as the those above are disappearing.) Their often paradoxical council is sought by all those facing difficult choices or embarking on weighty ventures. The astrolabes they employ for these purposes are of immense complexity.

The Horoscops worship Thovis, the Archon of distance and measure, under the aspect of Vo, he who is neither here nor now. They seek to uncover the inexorable hand of a cyclical fate that lies beneath the illusions of unidirectional time. Nominally they are ruled by the Temporal Maenads who have freed their minds from the shackles of space and time. However, given the holy madness of the Maenads, they are, in reality, governed by the Cyclical Princeps, chief astrologer to the Visible King.

The Benefactors



The Benefactors provide many hospitable and charitable services to those who are in need. They feed the hungry and bathe the sick, house the mad and treat the lepers. When the corpse of an executed murderer is left to boil and fester in the sun, they alone provide a fitting funeral. Withouth these services it is said that Zyan would crumble. But they do not do all of this out of kindness. They are the hand that gives until the giver starves. They induce dependence in others so that they may injure themselves for holy purposes. They will never give a gift that costs them nothing.

The Benefactors worship Nulfex, the Archon of absence and negation, under the aspect of Ilmara the Giver. Their theology is concerned with extreme abnegation, asceticism, and extirpation of the longings of the self. Their Guild is arranged in a monastic fashion, focusing on the development of bizarre and extreme forms of penitence and self-mastery. They are ruled by the Mendicant's Council.

The Guides


Robert Gould
The Guides are the poets and explorers of Zyan. For them the unexplored and uncreated is an indignity and affront to man. Revelation of all secrets through daring invention and discovery is the true nourishment of the soul. In former days they served as the poet knights, and great travelers of Zyan whose exploits are sung in the epic cycles. But with the decline of Zyan, their poetry has become self-referential and joyless. Those that would have been great warriors in halcyon days have fallen into complicated intra-guild blood feuds lasting generations. It is said that the hand of the Hidden King falls especially heavy here, for it is from the Guides that the valorous opposition to the poisonous intrigues of the shadow monarch has always emerged.

The Guides worship the Archon Foravion, Devourer of Reality, under the guise of Vatria the Sibilant Maiden. They are not great theologians, although what hymns and liturgy they possess has an aching beauty. Much of their worship comes through membership in a network of secretive hero cults dedicated to the mystical veneration and emulation of Zyan's great heroes. Their guild is nominally ruled by the Sage Paragon.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Immortal Zyan

Immortal Zyan is the great floating city of Wishery. From the surface of the dreamlands it is a mote lost in the endless azure sea of sky. The city is perched atop a cyclopean craggy rock, roughly 30 square miles in size. The city streets follows this uneven surface with precipitous flights of rickety stairs, unexpected hollows, and arcades carved through living rock. Beetling towers at the island's edge form a sort of broken city wall. 



In many places streets end with a sudden drop past the sheer wind scoured cliffs into the endless depths of air. These spots are framed perhaps by a decorated arch, or a few steps that lead down to single precarious tree bearing silver melons, its branches twisted into grotesque shapes by fierce gusts. The winds of Zyan are everywhere, whistling through cramped and ancient alleys, sunken arcades, and carven courtyards. Each wind has its own name, and is greeted by the residents like an old enemy. They hide from the winds behind gilded masks, which they remove only in the embrace of lovers, or in their steaming guild bathhouses. Beneath their coverings, the Zyanese are tall and lithe, with long pale faces, cruel cheekbones, and lustrous white hair. 



Zyan above is ruled by the Visible King, currently one Umpalior, Weeper of Indigo Tears. He is attended by a council representing the city's five great guilds. The symbol of his rule is the metaphysical crown, fashioned from shining gold and fulsome pearls. It was given to him by his father who received it from his father in turn. The crown passes ever from a king (or queen) to his eldest direct heir. Should he produce no offspring, on his death the metaphysical crown is melted down and a new crown fashioned for the coronation of a fresh line of monarchs, selected by the council in conjunction with the priests of the six temples. 




The day of coronation is one of great rejoicing and terrible grief in Zyan. For whenever a new metaphysical crown is forged, somewhere in the city another crown appears. This other crown is one of dull lead and thorns, and turns up in the oddest of places: a child's chest of toys, or in a laundry cupboard, or atop a filthy pigeon's nest outside someone's bedroom window. This crown is the shadow of the metaphysical crown. Whoever dons it is invested with terrible powers and becomes the Hidden King. The sole purpose of the Hidden King and his secret court is to oppose, thwart, and undermine the efforts of the Visible King, sowing everywhere the subtle seeds of his failure. 



The other crown cannot be destroyed as long as the metaphysical crown exists, but it can be sealed in secret places, and guarded by great wards and cunning traps. The first act of the newly coronated Visible King is usually a desperate search for the other crown in hopes that it can be recovered before the Hidden King consolidates his power. When a monarch prevails in this hunt, then his line may reign unopposed, and a great age of prosperity comes to Zyan. But the two crowns have not been united for two centuries. All of the plans and dreams of the successive monarchs have come to ruin. The Zyanese have lost all hope, sinking ever deeper into their bloody superstitions, antique rivalries, and the endless subtle scheming of the competing guilds. The population dwindles, whole sections of the city abandoned and crumbling. Those who remain are stricken by an ennui which saps the joy from life. 



Betwixt Zyan above and Zyan below, the undercity winds its cramped and twisted way through the center of the floating island. The undercity is a dangerous and forlorn place. It consists of a network of basements, catacombs, and hidden shrines of the great guild houses and temples. Some are fiercely guarded, others abandoned and crumbling, repurposed by strange life that hides in the interstices of the island. These holdings are connected by the sewers that channel the waste waters and effluvia of Zyan above into the great sewage river that streams ever downwards to Zyan below. Many vile entities swell engorged on the rich castings of the Zyan above. In places the underground halls of the undercity open too onto vast natural caverns where dwell the strange dream-creatures of alien worlds. 


At the bottom of the undercity, the offal sinks and great sewer river spill into Zyan below. Here a fecund and ever blooming white jungle grows like a palid reflection of the gilded towers above, glimpsed in the fetid waters of a still pond. It springs from the base of the floating island downwards, a dense riot of immense fungal blooms, and thick snaking vines covered in flowers that look like the jeweled wings of insects. At midday it is dark with shadows, but at sunrise and sunset, the sparse lower levels are brilliantly lit by slanting ruddy glow of sunset. 




In better times, Zyan above ruled Zyan below. The lush white bowers inclosed ingenious hanging manses and shrines to the strange deities of Zyan. It said that the Incandescent Kings, through forgotten and improbable arts, fashioned there a hanging summer palace, with fluted parapets and razor thin walkways. Within its walled garden, carefully tended groves grew heavy with luscious fruits and flowers so vivid that their image would be seared forever with a glance into the eyes of waking mortals. In the summer palace, the guests of the Incandescent Kings soaked in bathes of lapis-lazuli and emerald tiles, and reclined on velvet cushions while feasting from topaz tables heaped with succulent jungle fare.  



The summer palace was also said to contain the greatest library of Wishery, in which could be found many fabulous and terrible works that have been lost to the waking worlds. It is said that here one might peruse the Grammary of the Void, describing four languages that were spoken before the creation of the world. Or, if one dared, one might learn the rituals contained in the Evocation of the Doomed City, through which one can enter different regions of that cursed city whose name may not be uttered, where sublime and perilous secrets may be gleaned. 

However, those splendid days are now long past. The residents of Zyan above, having lost their daring and hunger for exploration along with all their hope, now rarely venture below. Only the hanging merchants and their slaves hawk their wares to the jungle denizens from their suspended pagodas, which dangle near the great sewage falls. In the lush white bowers of this strange tilted world, man is no longer king; in his place a gibbering, unseemly life rules through violence, fed at its roots by the offal of Zyan.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Chatelaine's Apprentices


The Chatelaine of Storms is the powerful and fickle enchantress who rules Rastingdrung. Naturally she attracts to her court all manners of hangers-on, including individuals who would pry from her the secrets of her formidable art. Covetous of her station, she is stingy with such knowledge.  However, it is useful to her to have a number of such talented individuals at her beck and call, and she delights at the opportunity for intrigue and competition it provides. At any given time she thus maintains seven apprentices. They are arranged in a hierarchical order, each station above the next. Moving up the ladder comes with perquisites of the Chatelaine's time and knowledge, as well as the material benefits of comparatively luxury, esteem, and command. Needless to say, the apprentices are constantly scheming and backbiting. The ranking is nominally established by the high stakes public performance each apprentice gives at the annual Festival of Sybarites. But the order is subject to frequent alteration at the Chatelaine's whims. These are the Chatelaine's current apprentices, working upwards from the lowest station.


Mordrovo Master of Colored Vapors
Seventh Apprentice

Mordrovo is a thin and greying sorcerer who dresses in shabby clothes. His powers are feeble, limited mainly to spells involving his signature colored fogs. He affects a charming combination of deluded grandeur and abject self-pity. He resides in apartments above the stables. Mordrovo is the longest serving of the Chatelaine's apprentices.


Adriana the Eery Child Witch
Sixth Apprentice

Adriana appears to be no older than seven, and wears dresses with bows and ribbons. Her voice is that of a crone. She is served by her apprentice Valtropos, a pale and acerbic man who is also said to be her lover. She is an intelligent and capable practitioner who was the 2nd Apprentice until recently when she called into question the intelligence of the Chatelaine's doltish paramour. Now she resides nears the maids quarters over the palace kitchens. She hatches schemes to resume her lost position.


Spaldiv 
Fifth Apprentice

Spaldiv is thin and spindly, all angles and points, with a pasty face. He is served by his spectral familiar Athanasius, an ancestral spirit bound to him through rituals performed in his family tombs. He would have risen higher at the court, but he smells of the grave, and is attended by apparitions and ghostly events.


Bathsheba
Fourth Apprentice

Bathsheba is a village witch. She claims to be possessed by the great Ghinorian sorceress Zashtassa, Queen of the Six Circles. No one would believe her except for the fact that on occasion and to her own surprise, she casts enchantments of a power vastly outstripping her meager education.



Almurek
Third Apprentice

With the typical square draw and handsome profile of Tarantian nobility, Almurek is a strapping and muscled youth. He spends his days traveling in the wilds. He is said to speak the language of all beasts, and to know how to call the lesser winds. His familiar is a great white lion, which he rides into court to the delighted squeals of admiring maidens.


Mercurio
Second Apprentice

Mercurio has devoted his life to mastering the fickle and mysterious phantasmal force. None know his true true face, as his appearance is constantly changing. Seeming wonders travel constantly in his wake. Those at court have quickly learned that in his presence reality always lies behind a series of veils. He resides along with many curiosities in lush apartments near the Chatelaine's closest advisors, concealed by intricate illusions.


Albinus Valoris 
First Apprentice

Albinus is the Chatelaine's advisor and confident. He is a powerful and corrupt magus in his own right. He is said to delight in the summoning and enslavement of faeries, from whom he draws his power, and extracts many secrets. By his own choice, he inhabits carefully designed apartments near the palace dungeons, where he keeps his slaves close to hand in their dolorous prisons.

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Strange Rhythm of Playing Over G+ and Early D&D

I just finished DMing my third ever session of google+ (or any internet) d&d. I was rolling both encounter checks, and percentile chances that various creatures (people) would be in their lairs, and happened not to get very many encounters. This resulted in a large number of unoccupied rooms. I feel like in a face to face game, although this might be a little slow, you could sort of handle the rhythm of it in such a way that it wouldn't be a problem. But in Google+, somehow it doesn't really work. I noticed it even in my last game, where the players went through (only) four rooms without encounters, before moving into some pretty gonzo high action stuff and already it was like I felt like the thing was dragging before the action kicked in. 

Here's a theory. Here are some features of the game I was running, and also those I have played in on G+ (1) They are episodic in nature, in that there is no presumption that the same group will be present each time, even if there is a hoped for continuity. (2) Everything begins and ends outside the dungeon, for the same reason. (3) XP for gold. I like all these features a lot. They're perfect for playing D&D on google+. They also (self-consciously) mirror early D&D practices, e.g. in Gary's Greyhawk Campaign. 

I think these features partly explain some of the facts about rhythm. Take the episodic nature of the game. If I play in a session where some goal is worked towards without being achieved, that's disappointing because I might not play in the session where the payoff comes. Another part of it is, I think, the treasure for xp rule, again a classic. Like, if everything is being measured (goal-wise) in terms of the treasure haul, then there's huge pressure to have at least a whiff of a lot of treasure every time. 0 gold in a session = total failure. 

The weird thing is early D&D had all of these features,but also had lots of empty rooms and low key time. I think this might explain (in conjunction with the huge groups in early d&d, not so much replicated on G+) the otherwise baffling use of the "caller" who leads the group by saying what everyone does discussed in the DMG. I have trouble imagining that being fun if stuck to closely, but it would help handle the flow of the game, moving it much more quickly over multiple spaces where no action occurs so that more "success" could be had in each session. 

However, since I'm not interested in having a caller, I think this really will affect how I design dungeons. I'll aim for almost 0 dead space, and more planned encounters that are automatically triggered by moving into an area. This isn't exactly unfortunate, but it is unexpected. It also makes it hard to imagine designing living breathing dungeons with multiple factions cohabiting. So much for Red Nails.   

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Temple of Ulim and the Houri



The worship of Ulim is a strange, local cult, unique to Rastingdrung. It began a little more than a century ago. Religious practice at the time in Rastingdrung encompassed the usual polyglot stew of absolutely conflicting religious creeds, each backed by seeming miracles, deep coffers, and jealously guarded secrets. The strongest by far was the wholesome if tiresome faith of Mitra, the protectress, whose priestesses dispensed (mostly) justice from the white halls of their alabaster temple at the heart of Rastingdrung.

The Ulimite faith began, as they always do, with a prophet,one Albachus. A noble, he was sent in his youth to visit the City State of the Invincible Overlord to acquire culture and connections with other leading families of the Wilderlands. Previously a mild believer in Mitrian orthodoxy, over three nights he received The Ecstatic Visitations of the Shrouded Concubine, the strange herald of Ulim which speaks with a multitude of voices, the jagged harmony of which brings an agony of ecstasy, revealing visions of unknown appetites and hidden pleasures. Albachus was commanded to cast off his privilege and devote himself to Ulim, the one god and one true friend of humanity. He was to undergo a series of spiritual tests, plumbing the depths of desire. During his time in the city he traversed a series of perversities each more profound than the last, lying in gutters with child prostitutes, making an opium den of fresh tombs, and starving himself so that he might enjoy the succulent taste of human flesh.

When he returned to Rastingdrung he preached that all that was real was the satisfaction of mutable desire, the eternal moment of pleasure and joy. The human being, he taught, is a storehouse of slumbering appetites that wait only to be discovered and nurtured. Indeed, this is the true and never-ending work of humanity that has barely begun. All that stands in the way is the sense of disgust, and the unholy taboos, and restrictive laws propounded by the haters of humanity and their false gods. Armed with strange miracles and orgiastic rituals, he quickly developed a following, at first among beggars and lost souls, but soon among dissolute nobles and bored commoners.

This was too much, even for Rasingdrung. As the sect spread with alarming speed, Albachus and the early apostles were martyred by the authorities: Albachus was lowered feet first into acid; Saint Maurus was broken on the wheel and flayed; Saint Clebbard was covered in honey and consumed living by ants; Saint Balix was entombed alive, and gave birth to her twin daughters in a stone coffin beneath the earth, and so on. Such persecution served only to fan the flames of religious fervor and bestow a gory legitimacy on the Ulimites.



When the Chatelaine, then sorceress to the idiotic king of Rastingdrung, usurped the throne, she was naturally opposed by the ruling noble families and the religious authorities of Rastingdrung. She responded by elevating the Ulimite faith to the official state religion, handing over to the former temple of Mitra to them, and burning the rest of the temples. With the help of her newfound religious allies, she subjected her noble opponents to a series of show-trials for heresy.

Now the Temple of Ulim stands at the center of life in Rastingdrung. It is the one recognized and permitted faith of the city-state. Its priests, the Voluptuaries, dispense the many sacraments of Ulim to the population. It is said with only slight exaggeration that every pleasure is catered to at the Temple of Ulim for a price. Beneath the pleasure chambers where the ordinary sorts of prostitutes and drugged oblivion can be purchased, the so-called gaming rooms lie, where more adventuresome and costly experiences can be had. Beneath them further still lie the White Halls, the silent, padded dungeons presided over by the Scarlet Censors, the dreaded secret police of the Temple who watch with vigilance over the orthodoxy of the citizens. Although the Voluptuaries bristle under the yoke of the Chatelaine, and endlessly scheme, they continue to serve as her puppets, her eyes and ears in the city she has ruled for more than a century.


The Houri

Min Wis 9 Dex 12 Cha 12

The Voluptuaries purchase foreign girls and boys to serve as temple prostitutes from the constant stream of slavers who travel to hawk their human wares in Rastingdrung. They are raised to walk with grace the many paths of human desire, including the darker and less travelled byways. Many are trained in music and dance, and some are deeply studied in history, philosophy, and poetry so that they may serve as companions to scholars and aristocrats. Beyond their more obvious services, they serve as the eyes and the ears of the Voluptuaries, who in their maneuvering and constant surveillance crave a steady stream of information about the private lives of Rastingdrungers. Although they are slaves, and so officially outside of the hierarchy of the Church of Ulim, some win considerable power and independence through the influence of their patrons. Furthermore, all temple prostitutes are holy to Ulim, for whom the cultivation and uninhibited satisfaction of powerful appetite is a sacred duty. He shows his favor by touching a few, bestowing on them some of the miraculous powers of the Voluptuaries. These blessed few are also learned in the arts of subterfuge usual among the temple prostitute.

Note: (1) This class uses Chris Kutalik's nice B/X thief variant for its basis. See here for the details. (If you use the traditional thief than the Houri has the skills of a thief two levels lower.) It also takes inspiration from the Houri class in White Dwarf #13 and ESPECIALLY Jeff Talanian's and Colin Chapman's awesome Purloiner class for Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea, detailed in the AFS #4 (zine) available here.


Level

Experience

HD
Bonus Thief
Skill Levels

Cleric Spells

1
0
1d4
0
Backstab, Entrance
2
2,200
2d4
1
Beguile
3
4, 400
3d4
1
1 - - - - - - -
4
8,900
4d4
1
2 - - - - - - -
5
17,800
5d4
1
2 1 - - - - - -
6
35,000
6d4
1
3 2 - - - - - -
7
70,000
7d4
1
3 2 1 - - - - -
8
135,000
8d4
1
3 3 2 - - - - -
9
255,000
9d4
1
3 3 2 1 - - - -
10
355,000
+2 hp
1
3 3 2 2 - - - -


Starting Thief Skills
Out of 1d6

Climb Walls
        4
Pick Pockets
1
Find/Remove Traps
1
Hear Noise
2
Stealth
1
Read Languages
0

The Houri may wear only studded leather or lighter. He may use any weapons.

Class Skills 

The Houri is unable to turn undead.

The Houri may use cleric scrolls, and magic items suited to thieves or clerics.

At first level the Houri may backstab as a thief.

At first level the Houri may employ his mystical abilities to entrance any subject that could conceivably be open to his charms with his beauty. This is a magical effect, and is not the result of a good come-on line. Affected subjects save vs. spells. If they fail, they are entranced and cannot act for 1d4 rounds. The effect is negated if they damaged.

At second level the Houri may employ his mystical abilities to beguile any subject that might ordinarily be open to his charms. This is a magical effect overcoming all other obstacles. Affected subjects save vs. spells. If they fail, they are hopelessly smitten and will act as though under a charm spell.

At ninth level the Houri may establish a salon. He will attract 1d6 Houri of 1st level, and a following of 1d6 1st level characters of diverse classes. They will love him, many quite literally, and treat him as their leader and comrade in mischief. There are, of course, limits to the honor of wantons.