Sunday, 23 December 2018

Secret Santicorn: The Alchemist's Basement

Tristan Tanner from the Bogeyman's Cave asked for "a table of odd potions found in an alchemist's basement" as his Santicorn present. Hi Tristan! I tried to give the potions some flavour of "real" alchemy. Hope you like them.

1. Vitreous, honey-coloured liquid, smells faintly of burning. Failed attempt at an elixir of life. Pour this potion on any surface and living, immortal cancers will grow there, blooming like mandelbulbs. Stone grows stone cancers, flesh grows flesh, and so on. One flask of the potion is enough to fill a 10' wide corridor with growth. Drinking this potion will turn the imbiber into a calcinated lump of immortal flesh.

2. Hissing, bubbling grey liquid. Failed attempt at universal solvent. When this potion is poured over an object, the object's borders become blurry and diffuse, allowing it to pass through other solid objects. As the effect fades, the object solidifies, leaving it fused with whatever it was stuck inside of. Chimeras can be created in this way. Multiple sentient beings fused together will form a single mind with all of their memories and personalities blended together.

3. Inky black liquid, greasy, with an eerie blue-purple depth to its colour. Failed attempt to promote the alchemical process of nigredo (putrefaction). Applied to living matter, it causes accelerated aging. Applied to dead matter, it causes rapid decomposition, turning corpses into dust within less than a minute. Drinking it causes a violent purge: make a save vs. poison, on a failure age 3d10 years, but either way you will vomit up all diseases and curses that currently afflict you.

4. Translucent white liquid, glows faintly, consistency of melted butter. Failed attempt to promote the alchemical process of albedo (separation into opposites). Pouring this potion over an object divides it into two phantom copies, one of which only exists in light, the other only in darkness. Drinking this potion causes the imbiber to see their animus or anima: a shadowy doppelganger with reversed gender. Nobody else can see the animus. Make a reaction roll to see if the animus is friendly or hostile. If it is charmed or defeated in battle, it will answer one question. It knows everything that is known by any creature of the same species.

5. Yellow liquid, glitters like gold when held up to the light. Failed attempt to promote the alchemical process of xanthosis (transmutation). Pour this liquid over lead and it will turn into an unstable form of gold. 1000gp worth of gold can be created with one potion. The gold reacts to sunlight, decaying into fractal honeycombs and then bursting into flame. Drinking this potion causes the subject to defecate 1000gp worth of unstable gold over the course of seven days.

6. Red liquid, consistency of oobleck. Failed attempt to promote the alchemical process of rubedo (perfection). Pour this liquid over any object and it will turn into the platonic ideal of that object. Such objects are too real for the human brain to be comfortable with them. All rolls are at -2 while in the presence of such an object. If a character drinks this potion it will make their soul perfect. At first there will be little noticeable change, except that they seem highly charismatic, graceful, enlightened and rational. Gradually they will begin to feel disgust at the flawed natures of all other humans. They will feel it is a moral duty to treat others to the same perfection that they have experienced. To this end they will create more of the red potion (which they instinctively know how to make) and administer it to others by any means necessary - persuasion, subterfuge or force. They will not stop until everyone and everything is perfect.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

The Nibelings

Far beneath the earth’s surface dwell the Nibelings: scurrying down narrow and lightless corridors, tending their dreadful forges, making beautiful things that the surface world will never see. They are squat, hairy, pale, greedy and cruel. They do not eat and they do not age. They are neither male nor female; how they procreate is unknown. At the touch of sunlight they turn to stone. When they must go up to the surface world, they carry dark-horns that shroud them in perpetual shadow.

They are hideously ugly, yet they perceive beauty far more keenly than any other creature will ever know. To them, the glitter of a diamond is a symphony of pleasure that can never be expressed in words. Conversely, their own faces are physically painful to look upon, so they abhor mirrors.

They love beauty, but only if they can possess it. If they cannot then the next best thing is to destroy it. Feuding Nibeling clans will sometimes arrange for their rivals’ treasures to be defaced if they cannot be stolen. The beauty of living things confounds and sometimes enrages the Nibelings, because it can neither be controlled nor preserved. Some Nibelings keep beautiful birds frozen in time so they will never die; others coat human women in gold so they will be young forever.

Despite their greed, or rather because of it, Nibelings respect the laws of ownership above all else. Theft is a crime far worse than murder in their estimation. If a Nibeling kills an enemy—whether a rival or an outsider—they will not pillage the body, because they consider the victim’s possessions to belong to the next of kin. Fallen Nibelings’ possessions are normally retrieved by their clan members, but if a human is killed in Under-Land then their corpse may lie unlooted for decades or centuries. If a treasure is very valuable, the Nibelings will concoct complex legal strategies to justify their claim to it: “The necklace belonged to my great-uncle until it was lost in a wager, but that wager was later proved to be unfairly won, thus the ownership in reality remained with him and later passed to my second cousin, who…” Some items may remain in legal limbo for a long time.

The Nibelings are the greatest craftsmen in the world. They know how to grow gemstones under the light of a false moon, to dam rivers of gold and tap wellsprings of silver. They can make treasures so beautiful that any human who looks upon them will be overwhelmed with desire. Some will sacrifice anything to gain possession of the treasure; even those who resist will be haunted by the memory for years, dreaming of the treasure, crying out for it in their sleep.

If a Nibeling gives treasure in exchange for a promise, then the promise becomes magically binding. If it is not fulfilled, a terrible curse will fall upon the oathbreaker. This is how the Nibelings acquire their slaves. They go up to the surface on moonless nights and trade gold for oaths of service. Often they can find humans who are willing to swear over seven generations of their children for a golden bauble or a flawless diamond. Down in Under-Land, the slaves toil in the forges, starved and mistreated, often blind from living their entire lives in pitch darkness; but they still retain possession of the treasures for which they sold themselves into bondage.

Alfred Kubin

Things found in a Nibeling Redoubt:

— Slaves with gold torcs hauling huge bricks of coal
— Seraglio with beautiful youths caught in endless time loop, peepholes in walls
— Immensely desirable goblet encased in unbreakable ice
— Gem garden protected by elegant marble golem
— Workshop with cursed tools for creating fractal filigree
— Banquet table set with eternal food, to be looked at rather than eaten

Nibelings encountered:

— Master craftsman surrounded by adulating yet secretly envious entourage
— Lawkeeper with eidetic memory of legislation and jurisprudence
— Poet trapping beautiful words in amber
— Indentured young artisan toiling at furnace, sooty and spiteful
— Slavemaster exasperated by slaves’ propensity to age and die
— Red-handed outlaw, clanless, desperate, clutching stolen gauntlet

Reasons for humans to visit their realm:

— Ransom a noble son who has been enslaved
— Buy a magic weapon
— Act as mercenaries in Nibeling clan war
— Steal a fabulous treasure
— Gain access to a river of gold
— Retrieve valuables from an unclaimed corpse

Reasons for Nibelings to come above ground:

— Retrieve stolen treasure, possibly from centuries ago
— Seek adjudication on dead human’s line of inheritance
— Capture animals for menageries or laboratories
— Acquire slaves
— Raid and plunder the thrice-damned elves (elves do not have property rights, and thus can be stolen from without repercussion)

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Cloud-Fisher-Kings and their Marionettes

The first sign of the Cloud-Fisher-King's approach is a heavy blue-grey cloud, hanging unusually low in the sky. An ethereal tear opens in the cloud, and a huge face looks out. A big blue nose and protuberant eyes, along with two enormous hands, are squished together into a gap too small for them all to fit.

The Cloud-Fisher-King holds wooden crosses tied to marionettes. He drops them down upon you and sends them, herky-jerky, to attack. You have offended him and he holds a grudge for a long, long time.

Reasons you have offended the Cloud-Fisher-King:
1. Stole the gemstones that decorated his abstract mud sculpture
2. Dug a latrine across a focal point of his 50-foot geoglyph
3. Killed a magic deer he was hunting
4. Slept in the tree-house he built exclusively for owls
5. Killed and ate some of his cattle-herd
6. Overheard very bad first rehearsal of his upcoming marionette play

Cloud-Fisher-Kings live in an ethereal realm hidden inside the clouds. In their world, matter has neither smell, nor taste, nor substance. They are trapped in this space, and feel intense jealousy for the creatures who live in the physical realm. The Cloud-Fisher-Kings can only interact with our world through their clumsy marionettes, which is incredibly frustrating to them. Imagine trying to paint the inside of an eggshell through a tiny hole in its tip: this is how the Cloud-Fisher-Kings feel all the time.

They have artistic ambitions. They want to create delicate things down on the surface world, but they keep fucking it up. They leave behind mangled blocks of stone, whittled tree trunks, gouges in the dirt that were supposed to look like something. They are petulant, miserable, vindictive, impossible to satisfy. If a surface dweller sees their art, they are shameless in their desire for compliments yet hyper-sensitive to any hint of condescension.

The marionettes are made from kidnapped humans. The Cloud-Fisher-Kings catch them with giant fishing rods and haul them up through the portal. In the cloud-realm all things are interpermeable. The humans' bodies are fused with blocks of wood, their tendons stuck to the ends of strings. Then they are thrown back into the physical world as marionettes, under the control of the Cloud-Fisher-King.

The marionettes move clumsily, but with an enormous amount of power. (Imagine yourself painting that eggshell, and how easy it would be to crack the whole thing.) A marionette's flailing arm can send a human flying through the air. They can knock down trees, flip over houses. What they can't do, at least not well, is the fine motor work required for the Cloud-Fisher-King's art.

If the string is cut, all that pent-up energy is released at once in a whirl of wooden limbs. If the marionette survives this, then it will be free. It won't remember much of its life before being transformed. It will always have a deep desire to be told what to do.

The Cloud-Fisher-Kings can also spit lightning-bolts, but they are ashamed to use this power because it is uncontrollable: the ultimate expression of their clumsiness. They will only spit lightning if you make them very angry or if all their marionettes are defeated.

If you can befriend the Cloud-Fisher-Kings (which is not easy) they may grant you access to their vaporous realm, where distance has no meaning and all things can be merged together as one. Beware, though: they are the only ones who can open the portals back to the physical world.

HD: 5
AC: 12
Attack: Lightning bolt 3d6, hits 1d4 random targets in area
Morale: 8
No. encountered: 1
Immune to physical attacks. Half damage from spells. Takes 1d8 damage per round from thick smoke or strong air currents.

HD: 2
AC: 14 (body) 17 (string)
Attack: 2d6 bludgeoning
Morale: -
No. encountered: 2d4
String has 1hp. When string is cut, the marionette flails its limbs. All in melee range (including the marionette itself) take 2d8 damage, save vs. breath weapon for half.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Review: Through Ultan's Door #1

Through Ultan's Door #1 is a short one-level dungeon released in zine format by Ben L. of Mazirian's Garden. It is set primarily in the Dreamlands, a setting that evokes the baroque fantasy of Lord Dunsany and of H. P. Lovecraft's Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Aside from this unusual aesthetic, the dungeon contains many familiar features: a range of monsters, NPC factions to be negotiated with, traps and puzzles to solve. It is written with the assumption that treasure-hunting is the primary concern of the PCs, but also offers some ideas for other motivations. The writing is lush and evocative, yet never purposeless; the whole zine feels like it would be extremely functional at the table.

I'm writing this review after reading the zine, but I haven't yet run it. My perspective is one of someone who has been away from tabletop RPGs, and OSR gaming in particular, for a long time. I would consider myself something of a novice DM, especially when it comes to dungeon crawls.  

Through Ultan's Door #1 looks like an excellent choice as an introduction to old-school play, both for the DM and the players. It appears relatively easy compared to some OSR modules, and has no instant-death situations that might feel unfair to new players. The room descriptions contribute to this feeling of fairness; they are very vivid and detailed, which helps to evoke the Dunsanian aesthetic, but they also give clues to players about what is useful and what is dangerous. For example, a floor littered with melon rinds serves as both a warning that a monster lair is nearby, and a hint that the melon tree in the next room is safe to eat.

It seems to me that clues like these are crucial to the agency-driven play that is so often espoused in the OSR community (and has been so carefully delineated on Courtney Campbell's blog). Without adequate information, the players are just blundering around the dungeon, encountering weal or woe at random. Yet these clues are often absent from published dungeons, or at least not as clearly emphasised as they are here. It's possible that experienced DMs will insert such clues on the fly, or that experienced players will be canny enough to gather information without needing it laid out for them. But as someone who is looking to begin a LotFP campaign with a fresh group of players, I really appreciate the details that Through Ultan's Door #1 provides.

The only real criticism I can make of the zine is that it almost evokes its particular aesthetic too well. If I begin my campaign with this module, and my players love it as much as I do, then I can probably expect most of the campaign to take place in Ben's Dreamlands. Expanding the setting with my own content is a daunting prospect: I fear I wouldn't be able to adequately mimic Ben's style, but if I apply my own style it might be a jarring shift. Possibly my best hope is to wait for Through Ultan's Door #2.

About Me

My name is Will. I'm a writer, student and small business owner. I live in Melbourne, Australia. This is my blog about Dungeons & Dragons and other related roleplaying games. At the moment the games I'm most interested in are Dungeon World and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but who can say if that will change in time.

Back in 2011 and 2012 I used to love playing FLAILSNAILS games on Google+. I had a long break from RPGs, but started playing again last year. More recently I went back to the old online communities (Google+, blogs, etc.) and was thrilled to discover that the old scene was still going, that fresh faces had appeared and old faces had graduated from blogging to publishing professional work. I spent hours catching up on all the blogs that I used to read, many of which had dozens or hundreds of new posts. Hopefully through this blog I can be a small part of that sea of creativity once again.

As well as writing about RPGs, I write fiction. Two of my best short stories can be found online:
Corpus Grace (heresy and inquisition in a pseudo-Central Asian fantasy setting)
Bear Skin, Smoking Mountain (Stone Age animist fantasy of family, duty and broken taboos)

I also had a previous D&D blog called A Wizard's Kiss. Since it's been so long I'm starting afresh rather than reviving it.

Review: Bone Marshes

This is a review based on a read-through, not a playtest. Bone Marshes is a 45-page sandbox setting for Knave. It focuses on a salt-ma...