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.)

Monday, January 30, 2017

Metal Monster Manual Monday - Volume 4

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!

Wow, sucks to be that guy.
So, he's obviously infested with some sort of flesh-eating worm or parasite - apparently not deadly enough to kill him outright. (The players should soon after run the risk of becoming infested with the same parasites!)
More worrying are the large centipedes (carrion crawlers?) writhing from the darkness on either side. Are they poisonous? (I recall that in early editions of D&D giant centipede poison was save-or-die, and that carrion crawlers had paralyzing antennae/tentacles.)
Why haven't they devoured the prisoner yet, though? How has he kept them away? (Will he share the secret with the players if freed?)
Why was the prisoner manacled to the wall in the first place? Common criminal? Political agitator? Practitioner of forbidden arts?

There is a small man, looking at the grey night sky, or perhaps the withered tree.
Why does his head glow? In ancient and medieval iconography, a glow about the head meant the subject was a saint. Is this man a saint? (of what god?) Or, is he Enlightened? What arts and talents does he possess?
My imagination places a burrow within the roots of the bending tree. Does the man live in the burrow, like a hermit or sage of old?
What would he say to the players? Would he tell of the plague of the coming age?

Alright, time for the BOSS BATTLE:

So, obviously there is some sort of necromancer, stealing the souls from an ancient battlefield. (Somehow the flesh of the dead has rotted, but not the wood of the spears? It's POSSIBLE, I guess.)
It looks like he is doing something very bad. Are the souls being used to summon or feed some extradimensional horror?
What will he do when the players arrive? Return the souls to their crumbling skeletons, creating an animate army of undead warriors? Send the souls to harm the players directly, as a wailing torrent of chilling malice? Use his arcane magics to toss broken spears and splintered bone in a hail of pointy death? Complete a summoning ritual, and bring forth from the extradimensional void a world-ending menace?
(My eye is drawn to a single sword in the foreground, which has avoided both notching and rust. Is it magical? Is it powerful? What would it accomplish in the hands of a player?)

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