Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Dreamlands and I

Sidney Sime
I'm currently running a campaign where the players have discovered a door that leads into the sewers and catacombs of Zyan, a flying city in the dreamlands. My desire to run a game in the dreamlands is longstanding, tracing back all the way to my very first game of D&D. This is the story of the dreamlands and me.

The first roleplaying game I ever played was in 5th grade in 1986. I knew what D&D was, since earlier that year I had traveled to the Compleat Strategist with my mother, who had, bless her heart, looked up that wonderful store in the phone book and taken me there to buy the Mentzer red box. Although it had thoroughly captured my imagination (damn you Bargle!), I hadn't done anything more than draw hexmaps with a friend for an imagined future game.


But that spring, a new kid named Sebastian ran a very strange game for four of us on the playground. He was the child of an itinerant punk scam artist. Although educationally disadvantaged by his sometimes homeless wanderings, he was a wonderful artist, and had an entirely unchained imagination.

The game kicked off this way: each PC was visited in his dreams by a shadowy figure of immense power, the lord of the dreamlands, who offered us each a challenge. We would compete with other champions: whoever defeated him would receive that which he most desired. The rest would be lost to the dream world forever. He ran the game dicelessly and competitively, playing with each of us one on one in serial fashion. I don't remember much except that it was utterly mysterious, with symbolist elements, and was incredibly difficult. The only concrete memory, besides the dark wonder of the whole thing, was of being beaten by one of the other players in solving some puzzle. His PC was, as a reward, granted a wish, which he promptly redeemed for a magical sword with which to fight the lord of dreams in a duel. The rest of us witnessed the battle, fought on a thin bridge high above us. As it turned out, the character had over-reached, challenging the lord of the dreamlands too soon and in too direct a manner. He was slain. The player wept and we tried to console him. It was badass.

Cover by Gervasio Gallardo

I next encountered the dreamlands when, in middle school, I discovered H.P. Lovecraft, the only one of the three great Weird Tales authors (Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith being the others) that I stumbled across in my youth. I devoured all of his works. Contrary to the elevated opinions of the weird intelligentsia, I liked his dreamlands tales the best, and most of all The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath.

I reread the book just last week, and I can happily report that wonder still drips from every page: from Randolph Carter's longing to return to the fabulous city he glimpsed three times contrary to the will of the gods, to the frightening traders who come to Dylath-leen in black galleons, the rowers of which are never seen, and who trade always in rubies. The abundance of Lovecraft's fertile imagination allows him to be a generous dispenser of bits of marvel, for example, the fact, casually mentioned, that only three "fully human" dreamers had ever crossed the perilous gulfs between the dreamland of the earth and those which surrounds Arcturus or Fomalhaut, or that the tree from which the Zoogs make wine grows from a seed thrown down from the moon.

The idea that there are a few travelers who know the hidden ways to the dreamlands, and lead secret lives as explorers of that perilous and fantastical realm, made quite an impression on my teenage mind. I suppose that I originally felt about Lovecraft's dreamlands something like the way Randolph Carter felt about his thrice-glimpsed city. I would defy the will of the gods if it would get me there.

Lucy Johnson

In adulthood, thanks to +Scott Driver, I discovered Lord Dunsany, whose work served as the inspiration for Lovecraft's dream tales. Most relevant here are the superb stories in A Dreamer's Tales, the best of which is "Idle Days on the Yann". This story follows a veteran traveler of the land of dreams on his trip down the Yann River aboard the strange vessel Bird of the River. The sequel to this story, "The Shop in Go-by Street" was a direct influence on the conceit of my dreamlands campaign. Ask the owner of a certain shop in London for an impossible thing he cannot provide, and he will grudgingly conduct you to a back room full of idols, where a glowing cerulean door stands. This door leads to the cottages whose windows look out both on "the fields we know" and "the fields we do not know".

These Dunsanian motifs of secret doorways hidden in plain sight were of special interest to me, because for a period as an adult I actually did manage to lead a kind of second life in my dreams. Starting in college, I suffered from regular insomnia. By the time I was in grad school, it had settled into a macabre rhythm. There was at least one night a week where I fell asleep only at dawn for exactly an hour. But what an hour! During that brief sojourn beyond the veil, I would dream intense lucid dreams. It always started the same way. I would realize I was falling asleep and try to get out of bed, while my body remained in place. When I had separated myself from my corporeal form, I would walk to my bedroom door.

This simple wooden door, painted a plain white, so unremarkable in itself, was in that hour of dawn a portal to an unknown land. What lay beyond the door was always different. Sometimes it would open into the rest of my apartment, located now in a warren of buildings and hallways, with seemingly unending lines of strange painted doors. Other times, I would simply find a flight of stairs leading down, through mysterious tunnels, into the streets, alleys, and courtyards of some unknown city, dark and empty. Or perhaps it would lead to a narrow hallway with a single window, opening upon a world of interconnected rooftops and walkways. These experiences were remarkable and delicious, and some recompense for my perpetually exhausted waking life.

Winsor McCay

These dreams ended in a dramatic way. The figures I met in these lucid dreams were clearly figments of my imagination, without life or will, soulless mannequins I projected onto the dark worlds I was traversing. But on my last trip through the door, I found myself backstage in a theater after a show. I followed a narrow staircase up to a dressing room. Inside was sitting an beautiful actress in a silk kimono. When her eyes met mine, I could tell there was real intelligence and consciousness behind them. I felt myself, for the first time in these lucid dreams, to be in the presence of someone who was not a mere projection. She told me that she was a changeling, which I understood to mean, in the strange understanding characteristic of dreams, that she had played the role of all those shadowy figures I had met in these lucid dreams. She told me gently, with some sadness in her voice, that she was going away for awhile and wouldn't be seeing me anymore. And I have never had a lucid dream since. That was 10 years ago.

So what am I doing running this game in the dreamlands? Am I trying to get back through that door? To create a grown up version of what that crazy 10 year old genius Sebastian subjected us all to? To reproduce my original experience of wonder when I first read Lovecraft's dream tales?

I answer with this. When the protagonist of "Idle Days on the Yann" converses with the sailors of the Bird of the River, he first tells them of his waking life in Ireland. The life he describes seems to them absurdly quotidian, and they mock him, saying, "There are no such places in the land of dreams." However, the protagonist continues, "When they had ceased to mock me, I explained that my fancy mostly dwelt in the desert of Cuppar-Nombo, about a beautiful city called Golthoth the Damned, which was sentineled all around by wolves and their shadows, and had been utterly desolate for years and years, because of a curse which the gods once spoke in anger and could never since recall. And sometimes my dreams took me as far as Pungar Vees, the red walled city where the fountains are, which trades with the Isles and Thul. When I said this they complimented me on the abode of my fancy, saying that, although they had never seen these cities, such places might well be imagined."

Philippe Druillet

If I find myself on a vessel in the land of dreams, and am mocked by seamen for my life grading papers and constructing meticulous arguments in the too solid City of Chicago, I will be able to defend myself thusly. "My fancy dwells mostly with Zyan, the flying pearl of the land of dreams. Its once gleaming towers rise to the heavens, and its opulent sunken courtyards, and narrow streets shield its residents from the bitter winds that blow across the endless Azure Sea that surrounds it. The Zyanese suffer from a great hopelessness, hiding always behind their gilded masks, for owing to a peculiar curse, their monarch is thwarted by a hidden double, as was his father and his father too. My fancy also dwells sometimes in the lush bowers of the inverted jungle that springs from the bottom of Zyan, an immense riot of fungal blooms, teeming with unseemly life. There hangs the ruins of the great Summer Palace of the Incandescent Kings, forgotten and crumbling." Perhaps then the sailors will compliment me on the abode of my fancy, saying that, although they have never been to Zyan, such a place might well be imagined in the land of dreams.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Dreams and Reality



The Temple of PEGANA includes many peculiar faiths: worship of ever blooming Kib the giver of life, adoration of Mung the destroyer of the same, propitiation of Sish eater of hours, and evocation of Yoharneth-Lohai, god of small fancies. But most peculiar of all is the worship of the creator god MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI. In the Temple of Pegana, his priests maintain the ever burning censor, accompanying its soporific incense with soothing chants, a sacred, never-ending lullaby. For it is MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI's dreams that sustain reality.

Among the devotees of MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI, three metaphysical doctrines contend concerning the relation of the dreams of man to the great dream of the slumbering god.


The severe orthodox position is that the waking world is the original dream of MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI. Human dreams are only a reminder, a dim echo, of the great divine dream that sustains reality. It is thus hubris to attribute any creative potency or metaphysical significance to mortal dreams. In support of this doctrine, its adherents point to the incoherent and fragmentary nature of human dreams, with their sudden and absurd transitions and meaningless incongruities. These inconstant illusions come unbidden into our fancy as we sleep, only to slip through again into forgetfulness like water through a sieve. For this doctrine, the existence of Wishery has always proved a sticking point, for it is generally assumed that the dreamlands in some way grow from dreams of the inhabitants of the waking world. The orthodox have been led to either deny that Wishery exists, or, more subtly, to claim that is it merely another dimension, one of many worlds, all existing equally in the original dream of MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI.

A less common view, formerly considered a heresy, is that all dreams produce reality. On this view the so-called waking world is merely a rung on a metaphysical ladder of dreamworlds that begins at MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI and trails into nothingness at the perhaps infinite lower limit. Adherents of this view agree with the orthodox that human dreams are a pale shadow of the original dream. But they charge the orthodox with hubris for conflating the thin material of the so-called "waking world" of our experience with the unimaginably potent originary dream of the Slumbering God. There are two versions of this strange doctrine, rationalistic ascensionism and mystical descentionism.

The First Dreamers

The ascenionists hold that each level of reality contains conscious beings that dream in turn. The dreams of the slumberers at each level coalesce, flowing down to create the reality of the next level below, including its dreamers. The "waking world" is thus itself the dream of higher beings, as Wishery is the creation of the dreamers of our world. The potency of the dreamers becomes weaker and more diluted as the rungs descends away from the original dream of the Slumbering God. Conversely, as one ascends, the dreamers of each higher waking world are more subtle and potent and the worlds they inhabit more tremendous. The dreamers dreamt in MANA YOOD SUSHAI's original dream are alien beings of unimaginable powers; their fancies the creation and destruction of worlds of unfathomable splendor. The ascensionists liken these first dreamers to the gods of the gods of the "waking world".



The descenionists hold that reality travels in the opposite direction. The dream flow ever downwards, each level more concentrated than the dreams of the previous level, acquiring more hidden and condensed meanings and potent symbols as the levels are descended. The stuff of dreams accumulates until it flows into the great original dream of MANA YOOD SUSHAI, a dream of unspeakable and searing reality that contains the potent distillation of all that has come before. Here it is said that a single grain of sand contains within itself heavens that would shatter the human intellect to behold. This version of the creed is attractive to mystics, great dreamers, and persons of strong fancy, who hold that the waking world is a pale shadow of their dreams, and that their fanciful dalliances are holy expeditions, bringing them one step closer to the Godhead.

There are those among each of these strange creeds with the longing for unknown experiences, who hold that the pilgrimage to the original dream is a sacred and inescapable duty. The ascensionists believe that a way must be found to travel backwards through the successive waking worlds toward the waking world of the first dreamers dreamt by MANA YOOD SUSHAI. The descensionists hold that a way must be found to penetrate ever deeper, forward, through the levels of dreams until one arrives at last at the opal gates of the great dream. As both factions admit, such doctrines are perilous, since man was not meant to experience the higher realities, which must in their potency be inimical to the weaker stuff of which we are made. Yet these would-be pilgrims continue to try, the ascensionists cultivating through meditation ever more vigilant hyperconscious waking states, while the descensionists induce through the use of hashish and lotus powder ever more febrile and lurid hallucinations. Thus far, to no effect.

The orthodox frown on all these efforts equally as idle depravity, and perhaps foul heresy. But the spread of the faith and the increasing popularity among new converts of the heterodox positions has stayed the hand of priests who, in any case, are not given over to much action, bent as they always are, on supporting the soothing reverberations of the great drummer Skarl, lest all reality be destroyed in a moment by the awakening of MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI's terrible consciousness.

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. 

Marching Order and 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. The party will declare its marching order at the start of the day; it may be up to two abreast. If the party is not surprised, it can confront opponents in its marching order. If back ranks wish to flank an opponent that the front ranks is engaged with they may do so by going off rope. Flanking characters receive a +1 to hit. [If there are more than 3 enemies, the enemies may flank as well, moving alongside to attack back ranks.] Thieves must also go off rope and furthermore spend a round getting into a good position if they wish to use stealth to backstab. A successful MS check allows them to seize on an opponent's vulnerability and backstab. Failure means they can still attack as normal, with the flanking bonus in the next round. Thieves may only backstab once per combat.

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

Damage and Falling: Any time anyone (PC or monster) 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.