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