Monday, February 27, 2017

Metal Monster Manual Monday - Volume 8

Continuing a weekly series of posts wherein I share several album covers (mostly by death metal bands!) as brainfood for encounters in your tabletop RPG. Expect this every Monday!

IGNOTUM (The Voynich Code)
I think of this little guy as more of a questgiver or informational resource rather than a monster or foe (though he could be that, too).
I imagine his skin having the same texture as parchment.
The drawings, writing, and symbols on the cat's skin are either from or inspired by the Voynich manuscript, as indicated by the band's title. What knowledge do they reveal in YOUR campaign world?
I'm honestly not sure what's going on with the roots or the flame. Perhaps the flame is merely ethereal, or a sort of "burning bush" effect?

Aw yiss. Dem ruins.
The area looks volcanic, or at least geothermally active (geysers, hot springs, etc.). I'm imagining that either the structures were built before the area became volcanic (in which case the volcanism itself depopulated the area and ruined the buildings) or that they were built in an already geothermally active area. I lean toward the latter, since volcanism would usually WRECK buildings like that, whereas they look like they're in pretty good shape.
So, there's a couple possible reasons why such buildings would be erected in an area characterized by hot springs and mineral pools (which looks like what's going on above). From the architecture, it's not a fortified or military structure (except POSSIBLY that tower-like structure in the foreground on the right).
It could be a complex of decadent bathhouses and spas, its nurturing empire now fallen apart and its former patrons reduced to members of distant peasantries.
It could be a religious complex, a place of worship for the deities who created or dwell in the hot colored waters.
It could be a magical or alchemical nexus, making use of the mineral-rich waters or the natural heat to create strange and wonderful enchantments, effects, or compounds.
In any of the above cases, it would be worth exploring for a party of greedy adventurers.
What dangers would they face? Scalding waters, spirits of the inner earth, mutated monsters?

Alright, time for the BOSS BATTLE:

GHOST THIEF (Living Sacrifice)
I love the mood in this one, first off.
Right, so, the towering skeletal figure on the hilltop is obviously the Ghost Thief (see him stealing the ghost of that woman walking toward him?). He has the power to steal souls and thereby add to his power (Dark Souls, anyone?).
I imagine him then burying the lifeless bodies on the hill and placing a cross upon it.
It's telling that at least four individuals seem to be walking resignedly up the hill to have their souls stolen. I imagine the Ghost Thief has formidable powers to enchant and compel, perhaps even from a great distance, luring prey to him to have their souls stolen.
Combat would involve both a mental element (psychic compulsion, followed by the theft of a PC's soul) and a physical element (a JANKING HUGE robed skeleton stomping about and impaling people on crosses).

How would YOU use any/all of these monsters, encounters, and scenes in your game, Reader?
(Let me know how it goes if you do!)

Previous volumes:
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3
Volume 4
Volume 5
Volume 6
Volume 7

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Saint Grenna of Merthis

"Saint Grenna of Merthis (Grenna Fingers, The Bread Sister, The Baker of Merthis)"

"In the days of the Crenel Wars, Evandra made assault upon the city-state of Merthis, bringing press-ganged crossbowmen and slave-mercenaries from Syr-Marad, and blockading the port of Merthis with a flotilla of refitted trade cogs and barges staffed with arbalests and alchemist’s fire. The siege dragged on for weeks and months, food in Merthis quickly running low, as many of its provisions had been sent with allied forces and lost in the disastrous Battle of Ormen’s Mouth."

"Amidst the despair and confusion pervading Merthis, a lowly Sister of the Vestry by the name of Grenna emerged from obscurity with the proclamation that, by the grace of the Father and the Mother, any person (slave, free, or noble) who brought to her a finger of an Evandran would receive a small roll in exchange the next day."

"At first, few payed the Saint any heed, and those who did either mocked in scorn or shook their heads in disgust and fear. Soon, however, it became evident that Saint Grenna’s word was good: a finger earned a coarse black roll, and a hand five, enough to stave off a day’s hunger for an entire family."

"Merthis’ defenders, formerly fearful and slothful in a war most did not believe was even theirs, became zealous in desperation, seeking the fingers and hands of Evandrans with grim vigor, knowing that taking the life of an Evandran preserved their own for at least a week."

"The siege lasted not another month: the Evandrans decamped in fear and wonderment at the sudden valor of the Merthians. At this, all Merthis sought to raise the beneficent Saint Grenna to a position of high nobility and veneration, but she was nowhere to be found. It was as if she had been taken bodily to the stars at the conclusion of her service in the time of need."

"The exact means of Saint Grenna’s Miracle remains a mystery of faith. In Evandra, of course, she is still vilified as a witch or even a chthonist practicing the blackest of arts (and her veneration strictly anathematized), though the obvious beauty and charity of her Miracle renders that opinion ridiculous."

"She is venerated to this day as a patron saint of bakers, Sisters of the Vestry, and all Merthians, and is often invoked in times of hunger and duress as a provider. Her auspices are the coarse black roll with five slits in the crust, and five outspread fingers."

- From the Hagiograph of The Hundred by the Venerable Viebalde

This post is the third in my The Hundred Saints series, updating Fridays! (Well, Saturday, in this case. Sorry for the lateness, but at the same time, I'm not sorry. I spent the time doing important things. The next saint should go up on time next week!)
Previous Saints:
Saint Be'lak the Bard
Saint Cryndwr Firebeard of Wealdvale

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

What's A Class?

RPGs generally follow one of two paradigms for determining the abilities a character possesses: class-based and skill-based.
Examples of class-based games are D&D, Pathfinder, World of Warcraft, etc.
Examples of skill-based games are The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Traveler, Runequest, Burning Wheel, GURPS (as I understand it, haven't played), etc.

Skill-based first, because that's not what this article is about,  but skills are something we need to talk about first:

Skills are tools for problem-solving.
Got a problem in the shape of a hungry monster? You could hit it with a sword (Fighting/Melee Weapons/etc.), shoot it (Archery/Ranged Weapons/Firearms/etc.), use magic on it (Wizardry/Sorcery/etc.), hide from it (Stealth), run away from it (Athletics/Climbing/Running/etc.), persuade it do go away or be nice (Diplomacy/Persuasion/Intimidation/etc.)... you get the point.
Got a problem in the shape of a wall? You could climb it (Athletics/Acrobatics/Climbing/etc.), tunnel through or under it (Mining/Masonry/Artifice), use magic on it (as above)... same paradigm.
Skills are tools.

Classes aren't. Classes are often associated with tools or toolsets (which is why many classes come pre-packaged with skills) but that is not what makes them a class.

Neither are classes backgrounds, or professions. They may SOUND LIKE backgrounds at times (Thief, Wizard, Cleric), but that's not what a class is about. (At least, that's not what a class SHOULD be. Sometimes games get this confused.)

A class is an approach to problems, a method of solving them. It is also a worldview.

A Fighter isn't necessarily someone who was once a soldier or a warrior (although they often are); what makes a Fighter a Fighter is that they see all problems as problems that can be solved by the application of violence; all problems are foes that need to be defeated.
A Rogue isn't necessarily a thief or a scoundrel or a criminal (although they often are); what makes a Rogue a Rogue is that they see all problems as barriers that need to be circumvented, avoided, undermined, exploited.
A Wizard isn't necessarily a trained magician or a learned scholar (although they often are); what makes a Wizard a Wizard is that they see all problems as malformations of the structure of existence itself; only by altering this structure of existence (by means of various forms of esoterica) are problems truly solved.

This is what makes a class a good class: a worldview.
An Alchemist is a good class because they see all problems as lumps of matter that can be refined and rearranged, and all lumps of matter as potential tools and weapons. (Engineers are all Alchemists. Many scientists are not, though; they may deal entirely with lumps of matter, but their tools and goals are all esoteric. They are usually Wizards, actually.)
A Cleric is a good class because they see all problems as consequences of the absence of their god(s), and themselves as vessels and vehicles of that god's presence and power. (A "god" need not be personal, with sapience and will. A god is an ideal. Karl Marx was a Cleric. He would roll over in his grave to hear me say this, though.)
A Knight is a good class because they see all problems as breaches of chivalry, and themselves as questors whose goal is to restore chivalry and honor. (Chivalry is a code of rules or regulations. Any code. Any good judge is a Knight. Note that a code is not necessarily an ideal; an ideal is a unified concept of how things should be - often embodied in the person of a god - while a code is a set of rules that maintain order. A Cleric may follow rules, but only in service of an ideal; a Knight may believe in a god, but only as a giver or guarantor of a code.)
A Warlock is a good class because they see all problems as disadvantageous power relations, and themselves as the nexus of advantageous power relations that they must maintain and leverage. (Any good Secretary of State is a Warlock.)
A Bard is a good class because they see all problems as lexical or symbolic vacuums (things not named, things without meaning), and themselves as users of words and symbols and arts to recast the very meaning of things. (Most good philosophers are Bards. So are most poets.)

A class without a worldview is a bad class.
A monk is a bad class because it is nothing but a background (it's not even a profession, as a "professional" monk wouldn't be adventuring, but rather secluded in contemplation). A monk should be some sort of Fighter or some sort of Wizard or some sort of Cleric (depending on the paradigm the game adopts), as those are the worldviews that are actually at play.
A paladin is a bad class because it is nothing but a profession or a background. A paladin is either a Cleric (if they seek to embody an ideal) or a Knight (if they seek to follow and enforce a code).
A druid is a bad class because it is nothing but a profession or a background. A druid is just a cleric minus the metal (Nature is merely another god).

These lists are not exhaustive.
I am exhausted, so my syntax my be less good than usual. I hope the ideas are good, though. What do you think: are they?
If not, how would you formulate them differently?

Monday, February 20, 2017

Metal Monster Manual Monday - Volume 7

Continuing a weekly series of posts wherein I share several album covers (mostly by death metal bands!) as brainfood for encounters in your tabletop RPG. Expect this every Monday!

Fairly straightforward. This is either a faerie portal, sapient elder tree, or fey conglomeration of deceptive, malignant vegetation. You know what to do.
Beautiful artwork, though.

What would she say to one who approaches her?

Alright, time for the BOSS BATTLE:

This town is obviously controlled by a corrupt and tyrannical government, or a wicked and perverse cult. Whether the PCs want to rescue a specific prisoner or simply stop this gruesome spectacle of terror, there's challenge to be had!
1) Obviously the executioner. Big guy with an axe and mask. Fairly standard; give him a ton of HP and damage, with not too much in the way of brains.
2) Guards. They seem well-armored, and have long polearms ideal for fighting in ranks (or hooking interfering PCs off the execution platform!)
3) That hag or wretch to the left of the executioner, holding a head. Witch? Necromancer? Just a garden-variety creep, haha?
4) Those dogs at the bottom. Obviously have a taste for blood, probably violent, possibly possessed or magical (look at the eyes!).
5) An evil necromancer showing up on the scene would have a heyday. Animate piles of shifting heads? Check. Mutilated horrors reaching from their gibbets toward the living? Check. Shuffling, burning, headless bodies? Check.

As a parting note, I notice that the execution block is a stump. Where did it come from? Was it once a sacred tree? Does it still derive nourishment from the streams of blood that run down its roots? (What eldritch changes would such nourishment bring about in it?)

How would YOU use any/all of these monsters, encounters, and scenes in your game, Reader?
(Let me know how it goes if you do!)

(Sorry that some of this post was somewhat sparse. I've got a lot on my plate and a lot on my mind this week. The stuff should still be useful and perhaps thought-provoking, though.)

Previous volumes:
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3
Volume 4
Volume 5
Volume 6

Friday, February 17, 2017

Saint Be'lak the Bard

"Saint Be’lak the Bard (Be’lak-Or, The Walking Writer, The Bard)"

"Alas, very little is known of the person of Saint Be’lak the Bard; various traditions portray the figure as male or female, Nordic or Surdic, and, curiously, fully human or partially something else (sometimes demi-elven, sometimes even demi-fey!). Such variety results from the fact that no testimony as to The Bard’s person exists - only many artful poetic works and fragments of poetic works, all marked by a sigil which scholars identify as the combination of the proto-Nordic characters for “beh” and “lakh” - thus The Bard’s common name, Be’lak."

St. Be’lak’s works are often short narratives written in an ancient poetic form making use of couplets interspersed with single or repeated lines for emphasis. The content of these narratives deal prominently with natural cycles, mysticism, cataclysm, and apophatic contemplation of the divine (the last of which marks him as a thoughtful and saintly individual, though the wise Saint continues to have doubters and detractors who question his sometimes esoteric insights). His magnum opus, the Vessels cycle (as reconstructed by sagely scholars), continues to be studied as a transcendently inspired work, though doubtlessly the absence of several important fragments (and, likely, entire episodes) render its final meaning obscure."

"Scandalously, readers of The Bard’s writings have often been accused of immoralities such as heresy, treason, black arts, or even atheism, though doubtlessly any opprobrium should fall upon the pernicious and irresponsible mis-interpreters themselves rather than the sagely Saint."

"For instance, it is known that the infamous Order of the Fist were influenced by the writings of St. Be’lak, and it is even supposed that he was one of their dastardly number; such accusations are surely false, however: it is far more likely that the Order mistook The Bard’s emphases on the limited span of human knowledge, the fierce beauty of the natural world, and the brotherhood of all life, and twisted these truths into their own treasonous creeds."

"It is true that St. Be’lak's writings may be misconstrued in those woeful directions, though careful and devout readers will find the Saint’s works to be not only free of moral corruption but furthermore a powerful aid to deep contemplation of the true and necessary nature of our world."

"The veneration of St. Be'lak is a varied and obscure affair, due both to the dearth of knowledge as to his person and to the occasional censure placed upon his name by those who do not consider carefully the merits of his work. For example, the Magi of the Fifth Circle consider him to be the patron of careful thought and the independent mind (represented by the auspice of the looking-lens), while many of the literati of the Inner Six hold him to be the pinnacle of poetic inspiration and of the bardic craft (under the auspices of the quill pen and of the blank mask), celebrating The Bard’s feast day with theater and readings of poetry. In the slave-marts of Syr-Marad, the chattel unfortunates have begun the curious practice of venerating St. Be'lak as the patron of stoic resignation and as an aspect of the blasphemous god Fate, represented by a mighty chain woven of a million silk threads. Finally, there are whispers that the cursed spirit-speakers of the Northern Vales image him as a female of bastardized blood, misusing his inspired texts in loathsome rituals of black magic under the sign of the forked tree, one half leaved and the other bare. Surely such wild tales are false, however; the Most Holy Father would not allow the name or works of such a blessed Saint to be so desecrated."

The background stage screen used during The Red Jesters' theatrical interpretation of The Bard's six-part work, The Frail Tide, in each city of the Inner Six. Only one act was performed per city, so only the very wealthy could afford to see all six acts! The tour itself is still legendary, both for the audacity of its stagecraft and the dark events that surrounded its progress.

"I leave the reader with one of the Saint's more celebrated (and complete) works, which has been commonly named 'In Parting:'"

"After one but before the next,
In a tree where new life writhed and flexed,
Two birds emerged to hold the world
And grow from feeble talons curled."

"But fate would see them part that day
As lightning cut their branch away,
By winds to distant places sent,
Almost as if it all had meant"

"That though their bloodied wounds would fade,
They’d wonder where their brother lay;
For every day from that day on
They’d wait to hear a certain song."

"In vain, for years the one was strong,
And one was not for far too long,
Until his bones and thoughts were old,
And feathers burnt and lost and cold."

"The stronger of the two could see
A distant bird - how weak was he! -
In drawing near but knowing not
Just who he was, or why, or what."

"The stronger talons tore at flesh
And stripped away that feathered mess,
And all without a sound or cry,
Or even ever knowing why."

"Yet as the sun began to sink,
He seemed to sense, he seemed to think
That soon his brother might appear,
From somewhere close, from somewhere near.
Convinced this was his brother’s fate,
Above his corpse, he sat to wait."

- From the Hagiograph of The Hundred by the Venerable Viebalde

This post is the second in my The Hundred Saints series, updating Fridays!
Previous Saints:
Saint Cryndwr Firebeard of Wealdvale

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

An Oracle of Am-Orphis the Seer

Sometimes, to add a bit of flavor to my campaigns, I slip in the lyrics from any of many deserving death metal bands. Below is a song by Amorphis, "Death of a King" - it recently featured as a mysterious scroll found in the former lair of a necromancer and labelled as an oracle.

When the dawn is bright and new
And the day is full of hope
It’s easy to continue your journey
Like a king on his royal way

You will stand there amidst silence
In the void of endless winter
On the ice of an unknown lake
In the heart of loneliness

There you will meet yourself
There you’ll weigh your crown
On the ice of the lake of death
On the shining mirror of time

When the days are getting colder
And the winds clash against each other
When light is getting dimmer
And darkness shrouds the roads

You will drift into strange byways
Lost in foreign lands
Stranded on frigid shores
On a godless desolate plain

There you will meet yourself
There you’ll weigh your crown
On the ice of the lake of death
On the shining mirror of time

It’s there where your endeavor ends
On the face of a forlorn lake
Under weight of a timeless sky
It is there where you shall die

This is a good one, since it actually IS a genuine oracle, and a clue for the campaign. The players are finding the king in question (more on him in another post sometime) to be an important figure in the region's formative history. His crown, mentioned above, rests at the bottom of a lake, also mentioned above - and the players seek to find it. (Will they succeed? I hope to find out!)

Monday, February 13, 2017

Metal Monster Manual Monday - Volume 6

Continuing a weekly series of posts wherein I share several album covers (mostly by death metal bands!) as brainfood for encounters in your tabletop RPG. Expect this every Monday!

SOVEREIGNTY (Resist the Thought)
A lot of cool stuff going on in this one. (I've actually used this in my Metal Monster Manual campaign that I DM'd last spring!)

Obviously the central figure in this artwork is the (de-)horned woman. Some clues to piece together:
1) Her horns have been broken off (but are now being repaired?).
2) Both here hands have been pierced. (As if by crucifixion?)
3) Tattooed or branded on her forehead is a sign (perhaps a crucifix?).
4) Blood is around her mouth and running down her body (coughed up from internal bleeding, or sucked from her hand-wounds?).
5) She may have a chest wound (it is hard to tell, since her hands are in the way from this angle).
6) In her arms (not really clear how they are being held) is a bone and a dagger (or sword - the blade is long compared to the hilt).

Now consider the two figures flanking her:
1) Veiled, but in both cases the veil is stained with blood (either from the eyes, mouth, or nose?).
2) Emaciated (perhaps undead?).
3) Preparing to replace the central figure's broken horns.

Put this together how you will, of course, but here's what I think is going on:

The central figure is (or was) a deity or demi-goddess, defeated: horns (a symbol of power or authority) broken, and crucified. Some say gods cannot die, so it is only natural that a manifestation of her power would remain: broken, bleeding, but oh-so-thirsty for power (she has taken to drinking her own blood from her still-open wounds). Her veiled servants continually try to restore her power (repair her horns), but something more is needed.
Something the players can provide, perhaps?
Should the party speak with this broken deity, they might be asked (or compelled) to aid her, whether by acquiring a source of power to enable her recovery (blood sacrifice? magical McGuffin?) or to take revenge on her enemies (and thus break their symbolic domination of her?).
Should the party not like where this is going, they might have an opportunity to slay a (former) deity! Her horns have already been broken and her body already crucified, so those may not work. Perhaps exploiting the bloody hole in her chest, cutting her hair, or a good old-fashioned beheading would do the trick. (Watch out, though! She's armed with a slender sword and a bone wand, and her servants would die to defend her!)

In my campaign, the players ended up retrieving a baby god (her replacement) and returning it to her, restoring her lost deity. She then resumed her original form - a massive, horned, four-armed monster (note the cross on her forehead has four arms!) and attempted to destroy them. Rude.
(Both the infant god and her original form were also taken from other album artworks, of course - we may get to them with time!)
Edit: I've presented the artwork with her original (and final form) in Volume 10!

EMPIRES OF ASH (Sojourner)
Something a bit less grim and involved this time. What you see is what you get: a religious ruin (yes, religious, those massive windows wouldn't stand up to a siege for two minutes!) in a high-sloped veil. Very beautiful.
Interestingly, this structure looks remarkably two-dimensional, like a facade of stone with no interior (save that one door in the middle of the image). Was there a sanctuary hidden from view behind the building? (I think not - both grass and trees seem to butt right up to the ruins from what we can see - but the angle isn't optimal, so that may be the case).
Perhaps the whole edifice wasn't built to form an aboveground enclosure, but to mark and surmount an underground area! The stairway in that tall tower may continue downward as well as upward. (I find the suggestions of windowslits and masonry in the cliffs edging into the foreground to be suggestive.)
Also, I totally wanna run a fight scene on that precarious bridge or flying buttress on the right.

Alright, time for the BOSS BATTLE:

Ghouls, man. Ghouls.
Obviously these are forward-thinking ghouls, who string up corpses for later enjoyment rather than devouring them immediately. (Defeated players may even be hung upon butchers' hooks for later, rather than being eaten post-haste!)
King Ghoul sits on a wicked-cool throne in the center. (Notice his massive brain cranium. Can a ghoul be psionic? Sure!)
King Ghoul may command his retainers to refrain from attacking a party that blunders into his lair - perhaps he has a task for them, seeks news from other places, or is merely bored. (Take care his interest doesn't wane!)
If it comes to combat, the environment could work for or against the players. The ghouls may use the hanging chains and hooks as traps and weapons - snaring players and winching them helplessly toward the ceiling! (Perhaps our possibly-psionic King Ghoul might even animate the chains and hooks with his mind, creating a grasping maelstrom of metal!)
Perhaps it is worth considering where all the curved and spiked bits of metal in the background came from - some DMs would no doubt posit the remains of a crashed spaceship, but that's not really my style. Perhaps ruins from an older civilization - or perhaps metallic bones of some legendary creature(s). (What if its progeny still lurk in the area, waiting for tasty PCs to wander by?)

How would YOU use any/all of these monsters, encounters, and scenes in your game, Reader?
(Let me know how it goes if you do!)

Previous volumes:
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3
Volume 4
Volume 5

Friday, February 10, 2017

Saint Cryndwr Firebeard of Wealdvale

"Saint Cryndwr Firebeard of Wealdvale (St. Crinder, The Red Goat, Cryndwr o’Broagh)"

"Saint Cryndwr Firebeard began his life as a humble goatherd, tending his flocks in the heathery upper reaches of the Wealdvale. His goats were known in the locality for their tough meat, cantankerous attitude, and full ginger goatees, though their milk was richer than any other and always as fresh as dew on the heather (no doubt due to the blessedness of their master, which will soon be clearly evidenced)."

Basically EXACTLY one of St. Cryndwr's goats.

"It came to pass that, late in the season of Reaping, when St. Cryndwr commonly led his goats to root through the leaves and loam for mushrooms, that his flock began to unaccountably thin, with fewer goats in his fold each morning then there were the evening before. Incensed, the wily St. Cryndwr set aside the skins of strong cider that constituted his customary nightcap and instead remained through the night to watch his flock (as many goatherds are wont to do). Sure enough, in the dark of full night, St. Cryndwr awoke to find goblins emerging from a small tunnel into the enclosure of the fold!"

"He leapt up, and, taking up a mighty stone, heaved it onto the hole’s mouth, crushing one noisome goblin and sealing the rest from entering the fold he guarded!"

"Knowing the persistence of impudent goblins has no bounds, St. Cryndwr resolved to deal with their foul brood for good. Attaching an old axehead to his goatherd’s crook and taking up a broad butchering knife, he waited for morning before removing the boulder from the goblin burrow."

"When the Blessed Sun rose, he entered, fiery red beard lighting his way as he crawled through the cramped tunnel toward the pestilential goblin warren he knew would await him."

"Dispatching any lone vermin he encountered by using his crook to drag his foe down the tight burrows and into the reach of his sharp butcher's knife, St. Cryndwr Firebeard soon reached the noxious heart of the warren, where the tunnels connected with natural caverns in which he could stand high and use his axe-headed crook with both hands to deadly effect: what goblins didn't flee from this wrathful avenger with beard of burning flame perished by mighty arcing swings of his improvised weapon. Most of his foes were too sleepy (it being daytime above) or sick (lying next to half-eaten goat shanks, whining and holding their swollen bellies) to put up much resistance."

"Lo and behold, in addition to the skeletons and carcasses of various goats, St. Cryndwr discovered that the cunning goblins, no doubt finding the meat of his goats stringy and unpalatable, had begun keeping them for their rich milk, kept in skin bags in a nearby niche. Finding the now-fermented beverage to be both bracing and satisfying, the righteous saint headed home aglow with the blessings of the Mother and Father, leading his recaptured goats in tow."

"After he proclaimed his mighty deeds in the village tavern, St. Cryndwr’s compatriots rejoiced that he had slain the marauding goblins, who had sporadically troubled the region’s flocks and infants for several years."

"Suddenly, the ram’s horn of warning sounded from the slopes - the Winter Orcs had come, and earlier in the year than usual!"

"Brave Saint Cryndwr, aflush with the Father's power and with stout ale, roared with a voice that shook the Vale’s slopes: 'by our flocks and women, the foe shall fall as the dying leaves!'"

"An avalanche of boulders and mud tumbled from the Wealdvale onto the advancing horde at this resounding shout, and St. Cryndwr's fellow Valesmen took up claymore, pruning hook, and axe and followed the bold Saint into battle. It is said that as many orcs perished from his roaring voice and potent breath as from his axe-headed goatherd’s crook; soon, the orcish horde had fled in disarray, leaving the flocks and winter stores of the Wealdvale untouched."

"Legendary was the feasting after this heroic victory: ale and cider flowed like water, and Saint Cryndwr was made chieftain of the Wealdvale, as the old chieftain had died in the battle. He led for many years, hardy and vociferous even into old age, when he perished drunk and jovial in an unusual goat-riding incident."

"He is venerated to this day as a patron saint of Valesmen and goatherds, and is often invoked for success and good fortune when collecting milk, adventuring underground, or defending one’s home. His auspices are the goat or a horn of broagh, a hard cider mulled with fermented goat’s milk (which is the traditional drink on St. Cryndwr's feast day, [TBD])."

- From the Hagiograph of The Hundred by the Venerable Viebalde

(This post is the first in my The Hundred Saints series, updating Fridays from here forward. Pop Ars Magisterii in that RSS feed to stay tuned!)

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Hundred Saints

The Church of The Hundred Saints, despite the name, is ostensibly dedicated to the worship of two deities: Solus, The Ineffable Father, The Radiance On High, and Terra, The All-Mother, She Whose Flesh Is Soil and Whose Bones Are Stone. The difficulty with venerating and obeying this god and goddess is that, according to The Doctrines, The Mother exercises no authority and gives no guidance, while The Father's majestic authority and guidance are ineffable: discerning His will is as looking to the Sun - He gives sight to all, but to look directly to Him is to be blinded.

The only way to learn the will of The Father is to look to The Saints, those who have walked between the Sun and the Earth and manifested the blessings of both Father and Mother (blessings such as renown, fertility, wealth, power, and pleasure). The Church of The Hundred Saints venerate these Saints, preserving hagiographies of their blessed lives and holding them up as living examples of the Father's will.

There are far more than a hundred Saints, however. (The Venerable Viebalde, a monk of The Church, preserved the stories of a hundred Saints in his Hagiograph of The Hundred, still a central canonical text of The Church; but, many Saints have been added to the various canons since his time - including Viebalde himself!) In addition to the several hundreds of Saints venerated by most sects of The Church, each locality in Cora-Mar and beyond often venerates dozens of local or otherwise unknown Saints, likely bringing the total well past a thousand - a figure which ever grows. 

There, that's around a hundred saints.

Many Saints begin as kings or heroes, either of recent times or of the legendary past, their words and deeds warped or even fabricated with the passage of time.

Other Saints began as deities in their own right, whether of the distant ancestors of the current denizens of Cora-Mar, of conquered peoples of the past whose gods were absorbed into The Church's Panhagion, or of neighboring cultures whose religions become syncretized in the borderlands between. 

It is common for the Hierarchs of the various principalities in Cora-Mar, and especially the Inner Six, to be canonized after their deaths (or even during!), though inevitable political and doctrinal divisions lead to Hierarchs held in highest esteem by some sects to be deemed anathema as false or apostate pretenders by others. Wars have been waged over the canonization of a divisive Saint, and Saints have gained their fame through the waging of those wars.

We will see examples of Saints of all three origins in the coming weeks. I am planning on writing up a single Saint each week as one of my Wednesday or Friday posts, for several reasons:
1) It's a good way to create specifics and history of the game setting I'm currently attempting to develop.
2) Legends and references to the Saints themselves would add depth to the campaign I'm running right now, as well as future games.
3) It sounds like fun.

Stay tuned!

Monday, February 6, 2017

Metal Monster Manual Monday - Volume 5

Continuing a weekly series of posts wherein I share several album covers (mostly by death metal bands!) as brainfood for encounters in your tabletop RPG. Expect this every Monday!

DANS LA JOIE (Au Champ des Mortis)
Okay, personally, if I see a skull just lying around, I ask myself "what did it come from?" So, here's this giant skull; probably came from a giant, eh?
Then, of course, you ask how this giant('s) skull got here. Like, where is the rest of the body? Is there an entire giant('s) skeleton somewhere nearby? I'd expect so. Giants don't tend to get very far without a head.
But here it is. A lonely skull.
Is there some headless, undead giant roaming about these dank woods, searching for his head? What if he came crashing through the trees AT THIS VERY MOMENT?
The other way to approach dead stuff is in the mindset of a necromancer. What could some wicked necromage do with a massive giant('s) skull? Probably a lot. Probably a lot more if they had the giant('s) skeleton.
What if some necromancer has already gotten to the skull? What if it rose from the earth and made a massive bite attack? Or, what if the necromancer's attempts only succeeded partially, and the skull simply lays there, able to speak in a voice of grinding teeth and bone, but unable to do much else?
What would it say?
(I just wanted to note that this image has a FANTASTIC atmosphere. Great texture, object placement, and use of contrast.)

From the perspective on this image, this thing looks fairly massive. Like, a dude standing on the ground probably couldn't reach its knee.
Anyway, probably the first thing one notices is that this dude (statue?) has no face. Two obvious possibilities why: 1) it was created that way or 2) it was created with a face but now that face is gone.

So, why would 1) come about?
It is perhaps telling that the statue looks up toward a swirling void in the sky. What if this monolithic guardian was created to defend from otherworldly horrors come down from between the stars, incomprehensible in a way that would destroy eyes that look upon them or minds that dwell on them? This statue was created without eyes or mind - just limbs of cold, unyielding stone, the bones of the earth animated to defend against incursions from Beyond.
Perhaps its foes never came. Perhaps it still waits, watching the void between the stars.
What if it was one day needed elsewhere? Who would arouse it and convince it to leave its throne to find its foe in far lands? (Cue a party of intrepid adventurers..,)

Okay, but what about 2)? What if it had a face, but no longer does?
I imagine this statue as able to speak, a deep, grinding voice echoing from its open cranium.
What would it say?
Would it tell of how its face was lost - greedy dwarf vandal-thieves, striding giants, catapults, mages? (What did its tormentors want to accomplish?)
Would it mourn the loss of its face? Would it ask passing adventurers if they had found it? What would it do if its face were returned?
(WHAT IF the skull from the previous album cover was all that were left of its face, torn from its stony skin and left to rot in a swamp?)

Alright, time for the BOSS BATTLE:

So, obviously this chap is a mage of some kind. (The arcane sigil carved into his flesh and the eldritch fire from his eyes are a pretty good clue.)
Also, he doesn't look dead, despite having his entrails draped across the surrounding foliage.
Then, I notice his fingers. They look like they are becoming twigs or tree branches.
What if his entrails CONNECT HIM TO THE FOREST?
Is he a mad wizard who masochistically plugged himself into the trees to steal their power?
What can his burning eyes now see - all that occurs within the woods?
What vengeance would he unleash upon trespassing adventurers - lashing trunks and roots? Burning fire from his eyes?
What if his grisly connections to the forest were severed - would he die like a mere man?

How would YOU use any/all of these monsters, encounters, and scenes in your game, Reader?
(Let me know how it goes if you do!)

Previous volumes:
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3
Volume 4

Friday, February 3, 2017

Voldemort is a Lich

Spoilers ahead if you haven't read J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, or seen the associated movies. (But who hasn't?)

So, in the Potterverse or whatever it's called, the Big Bad (calling himself Lord Voldemort) wanted immortality, and found a dark and secret way to do it. He would kill people, which mangled and shattered his soul each time he did so. He then took these fragments of his broken soul and placed them in various objects; so long as at least one object survived, so would he, even if his body was killed. These "soul jars" were called horcruxes, and he made six of them (well, seven, but the last one was an accident). It's never explained why, but horcruxes are incredibly difficult to destroy simply by virtue of being horcruxes (an echo of the titular One Ring of Tolkien's devising?), in addition to the secret locations and arcane defenses that Voldemort used to protect them. As Voldemort's soul was fractured and eroded by this black magic, his appearance became skeletal, ophidian, inhuman.

So, in Dungeons & Dragons (all the way since OD&D, actually), there's this monster called a lich. Liches are spellcasters who remove their soul by black magic and store it in an object called a phylactery. In the process, they die and are raised as a gaunt undead. The phylactery is then kept in a safe location, likely guarded by powerful arcane magics. Sacrifices of living beings are necessary to maintain a lich's body; the souls of these murder victims are absorbed into the phylactery, where they are consumed and destroyed to sustain the lich's life force. The phylactery itself must be destroyed to permanently a lich, which is a difficult process often requiring unusual or supernatural methods to even damage it.

Sounds familiar?

Voldemort is a lich.

I shouldn't need to point out the many similarities. However, I will take a moment to dwell upon the differences.
1) Though both methods of "immortality" require murder, horcruxes are created through murder while phylacteries are sustained by murder.
2) Only one phylactery can be made by a lich, while horcruxes can be iterated. (Voldemort intended to split his soul into seven parts, considering seven to be a highly magical number. However, it is implied that he was the first wizard to make more than one horcrux.)
3) "Horcrux" is a cooler word than "phylactery" (which is another word for tefillin, small boxes containing bits of the Torah worn by members of certain Jewish sects during prayer - not exactly a related concept?)

So, how do you use these similarities and differences in a tabletop RPG?

Try giving your Big Bad lich more than one phylactery/horcrux. A three- or four-part adventure where several phylacteries and then the lich itself must be destroyed sounds dang cool.
Try calling phylacteries "horcruxes." It's a great point of reference for many of the younger generations (such as I), for whom Harry Potter is often a touchstone.
Try using some imagination as to what a horcrux could be. Phylacteries are often a piece of jewelry (a holdover from tefillin - or the One Ring?), whereas Voldemort's horcruxes included a diary, a ring, a locket, a goblet/cup, a diadem, a snake, and an infant (so, mostly jewelry, but hey).

Also, I like the implication of Voldemort's horcruxes that a piece of Voldemort's soul still remained in his body, necessitating killing him in addition to all his horcruxes. For a traditional lich, however, all that needs to be accomplished is the destruction of the phylactery itself, at which point the lich dies no matter where it is, since its soul is in the phylactery, not its undead body.

Housekeeping Update: I am discontinuing the "d100 Dungeon Master Tips" Critiqued series; despite being easy to write, it doesn't seem very focused or useful for someone reading this blog. (Make an outcry now if you want it to come back, haha.) I will either move my stand-alone article delivery, normally occurring each Wednesday, to Friday, or simply publish a stand-alone article each Wednesday AND Friday! (Or, start a new series for the Friday slot, but I will need to put more thought into what would make the best series.) So, continue tuning in each Monday and Friday, and watch this space on Wednesdays too!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Pool of Prophecy

In a hollow between the gnarled roots of three trees lies a small pool reflecting what dim light filters through the trees’ thick leaves. A trickle from the limestone hills above falls into the pool in a steady cadence, and a similar rivulet runs down toward the river.

The Pool of Prophecy is a location in the wilderness that can be inserted into any game with ease. (I concocted it last week for my weekly game.) My description above assumes several optional details (limestone hills above, a nearby river) which can be tweaked or removed as required.

The Pool shows the first sapient individual to gaze into it strange things.

An example:

A ripple runs across the pool’s surface, though the breezes through the forest branches seem to still. The reflection is not what you expect.

A great tree, knotted and ridged trunk dwarfing those around it, reaches its millions of slender leaves toward the new moon. Suddenly, a blinding un-light of the deepest black smothers the air, and the mighty giant’s leaves fall as ash to the dying earth.

A ripple runs across the pool’s surface. The reflection is new.

A bent figure, clad in hides and crude cloths, steps from the brush into a shaft of pale moonlight. It begins a slow tattoo on an oval drum of stretched hide, which builds menacingly into chilling polyrhythms. The edges of the vision begin to dim even as the figure drops the drum, stretches, contorts, and stands on all fours. It has antlers.

A ripple runs across the pool’s surface. The reflection is new.

At a lake’s bottom, clear but dark, lies a skull. Beside it, half buried in the muck, is a crown of twisted, pointed iron. A dim shadow is seen on the benthos - a figure swimming. Growing larger.

A ripple runs across the pool’s surface. It reflects only quivering leaves and dim stars. 

The repetitions and kennings set a dim and surreal mood, but what potentially has the most impact is the last line. Yes, when the vision(s) are complete, it is always nighttime, and the stars are always visible. Any outside observers besides the party notice no difference in the passage of time, and the party experiences none of the effects of several hours of passed time (hunger, sleepiness, etc.) - they just look up and notice that it was night, though it may have been day when they peered into the Pool. 

The Pool will not function until the sun has risen once more.

Place the Pool in a remote location, one the players will not be able to return to often.

The Pool cannot be affected by touch or artifice: cups and bowls pass through it and emerge dry as if the pool weren't there, and it flows around or pours through dams or other placed obstacles. A player character who attempts to touch or drink from it experiences a faint sensation of cold-warmth, but that is all.

Use the Pool to plant the seeds of plot hooks and important lore in the minds of players. It is best if the visions are unclear at first - but when the players discover what they refer to, the "aha!" moment should be worth any effort. I used three visions since I had several points I needed to prepare the players to discover, but one vision is fine. (My visions also proceed in order of past, present, and future, which is cool but not strictly necessary by any means.)