Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Festival of the Sybarites

The Festival of the Sybarites is the high holiday of the Ulimite Church in Rastingdrung. It is a festival of excess and social inversion that is notorious throughout Ghinor. In the days leading up to the festival, security in Rastingdrung is even tighter than usual. Unless a visitor is lucky enough to carry a personal invitation from the Chatelaine, he may only enter through the city gates by buying festival tickets at an exorbitant price (50gp). All weapons, armor, religious symbols, and written materials must be checked for the duration of the visit.

The festival begins at dusk of the first day with the Parade of the Blasphemers. This joyful procession includes a rare display of the renowned wooden icons of the Ulimite Saints. The icons depict the saints' gruesome martyrdom for their pioneering research into extreme and unknown pleasures in the days when the Church was still a persecuted sect. They are accompanied by large and cunningly constructed puppets, usually satirical and jesting--mockeries of the Scarlet Censors and the Voluptuaries are especially popular. The center of the parade is traditionally occupied by an enormous float (literally a sailing vessel on wheels) of the Bishop, the giant fish of Lake Wooling who is the subject of many tall tales. Beginning on the steps of the Church, the procession winds its way through the city quarters, spilling out of the gates to finally arrive at the docks as darkness falls. The procession ends with the launching of the Bishop into the waters of Lake Wooling. The revelers are greeted there by fishing and merchant vessels, and specially constructed pleasure barges, all bedecked with colorful lanterns. Skiffs ferry citizens through the oily silver waters out to the celebrations on the lake which last until the small hours of the morning.

Once revelers have shaken off their drunken sleep, the festivities continue on the following day. The doors of the Church are then thrown open, and citizens may cash in their festival counters for free use of Church prostitutes. Throughout the day, children are encouraged to commit pranks on parents and authorities. Each Scarlet Censor must run the gamut once, sprinting a route from the doors of the Church to one of the city's gates at an unannounced time of his choosing. Children lie patiently in wait in upper storied windows with long curved hooks; should they snag the hat of a Censor from above, then they win the right to subject him to humiliating punishments in front of jeering crowds. (It is said that only the desperate preparations for this event keep the Censors from becoming corpulent through their excess.) The second day's festivities culminates with Sprig's Feast. This feast is funded by the Church, and held in the normally forbidden Greensward of the Chatelaine's pleasure grounds. At long tables, citizens and visitors eat heaping plates of hearty fare from continually replenished buffets, and become drunk on honey mead and fermented sugar cane, as troubadours play bawdy songs, and the cheaper sort of Church prostitutes dance for entertainment.

It is said with some reason that there are really two Festivals of the Sybarites. For the Chatelaine arranges special and remarkable amusements for those holding her personal invitation. In the past, her guests have wagered as beautiful slaves, their faces smeared with goose fat, bob for golden apples in piranha filled tanks. This year, rumor has it, she has purchased an unusual number of halfling slaves. These unfortunates have been fitted with elastic suits, and are to be force fed tureens of rich sea-slug and butter sauce. Their flatulence will expand the suit like a ball, enabling her guests to roll them down the bluffs to the Yex river below, where they will be burst like balloons by the starved crocodiles released for this gratifying event.

Frederick Richardson
The Chatelaine's special feast is held away from the commoners in shady bowers. Lit by enchanted lanterns, the diners enjoy a delicate repast. The menu is never the same twice, and the stakes are high for the Chatelaine's new head cook after last year's debacle with sour mermaid sushi. (The old cook still resides in the Silent Halls, a guest of the Scarlet Censors for as long as his constitution holds.) This year, many dishes will be flavored by a savory pink salt distilled from the tears of pixies, as well as hips from the rare ebon rose. Once the meal is finished, the special guests are treated to a private service by the High Voluptuary. After intoning a brief prayer, he feeds them the eucharist of Ulim, a queer alchemical paste glowing with euphoric properties. After partaking, the most beautiful and refined church prostitutes flee through the hidden groves and secret stands of the Chatelaine's pleasure gardens, with the guests following in close pursuit.
A church prostitute in melancholy repose as the Eucharist of Ulim finally fades
(Michael Hutter)
The final day of the Festival of the Sybarites begins in late morning with games and contests. Prizes are handed out for feats of strength and agility, and jongleurs and acrobats abound. The final event is the Trial of the Apprentices. There the Chatelaine's seven apprentices display their diverse talents, summoning bleak entities within a ring of flaming symbols, or spinning worlds of phantasms and colored shadows from the light refracted through a single glistening tear. Their competition has real stakes, for the winner receives the status of First Apprentice with all its perks throughout the upcoming year. Dismal failures are punished by exile. Needless to say, scheming abounds, and many an apprentice has been surprised to find that his carefully laid preparations have been ruined through last minute subterfuge. After the Trial of the Apprentices is over, the High Voluptuary arises and says the blessing of Ulim over the masses. Then, the Festival of the Sybarites has come to an end, and Rastingdrungers return to their dreary and oppressive routine. Until next year.

Michael Hutter

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Three Ways to Breath Underwater in Ruined Ghinor

Blue Algae Tins

These small metal tins are engraved with symbols in the strange language of the Archivists. When the two halves of the tin are twisted open, there is a loud hiss, and a quivering blue jelly is revealed. One smears this substance on a patch of open skin. As soon as a sufficient quantity has been applied, the algae spreads rapidly to cover the body. Within minutes the user's skin acquires a gelid and translucent appearance. At this point he is able to breath water, although to do so he must first expel the air from her lungs. Should he not enter the water, within 15 minutes his skin will begin to painfully dry, erupting in cracked shingles that weep a blue ichor (2d6 damage). A tin contains five doses. Each dose lasts for about an hour and a half. These tins are exceedingly rare, and are only found in the forgotten ruins of the Archivists.

The Discipline of Still Breath

The Black Lotus is a secret monastic order that serves the Invincible Overlord as spies, assassins and agents-provocateur. Through rigorous and esoteric training, agents of the Black Lotus acquire mastery of mind over body. The most talented advance to the arts of the third mystery. Among these potent powers is the discipline of still breath through which the agent is able to suspend his respiration for up to one hour per day. Although taxing, shorter periods are not debilitating. However, the full hour stretches the agent to the breaking point. Afterwards he must fall into a deep coma for six hours, during which time his body replenishes itself.

The Lung Eels of the Sorcerer Lords 
(+Judd Karlman is the original source of this idea)

The most hideous of the methods is without a doubt the cultivation of the parasitic lung eel. Devised by the sorcerer lords, this hideous species enters the user's mouth as a larva no larger than the fingernail of child. A week later it has grown to a length of three feet, nesting curled inside the user's lungs. At this time the user acquires an unnatural vigor (+1 hp per HD) and the ability to breath water for up to two hours a day. Unfortunately, at the start of the third week, the lung eel lays its eggs, which hatch rapidly, killing the user as they feast on the meat of his lungs. To remove the lung eel prior to this date, one must tempt it from the lungs by placing a hunk of rotting pork on a hook at the back of the gullet. The art of breeding lung eels is all but lost, known now only to a handful of wizards, including the Keeper of Corals in Wolsdag.  

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Shattered Isles: Isle of the Dismemberer


The Shattered Isles

This archipelago of tiny islands (Campaign Map Eleven  3101 to 1110) is known as the Shattered Isles. They were once the highpoints of a mighty mountain range along which a great wall ran. This wall was fashioned from cyclopean stones, winding up and down with the curves of the mountains, dizzying steps plummeting and rising along its spine. Atop the wall, towers sat, and great weapons of war, a bulwark of the then mighty kingdom of Ghinor against its wild foes to the North.

The whole northern end of Ghinor was submerged in a cataclysm 600 years ago. Wandering minstrels sing that it was punishment by the gods for the arrogance of the kings of Ghinor. The priests of Menannan, on the contrary, hold that it was a great gift from the Ancient of the Sea, who welcomed back the earth that was stolen from his watery kingdom, and granted a shining new life beneath the waves to its inhabitants. A few Wayfarers and antiquarians know the truth: that this deluge was the work of the strange machines of the Archivists when they first laid siege to Ghinor.

For a long time then the Shattered Isles lay empty, until after the passing of the Archivists, man began to creep across the Earth once again. During these dark ages, the Shattered Isles became home to the Sorceror Lords and their slaves. Beneath a veneer of ostentatious social pleasantries, they engaged in ceaseless rivalries, and bitter subterfuges. The age of the Sorceror Lords is long past, and the Shattered Isles are once again uninhabited. Fisherman and sailors hold them to be cursed and haunted, and avoid them at all costs. There is some truth to the wild tales they tell. For the waters surrounding the Shattered Isles are full of perilous currents, and the secrets of the Sorcerer Lords still slumber there, waiting to be roused.

Isle of the Dismemberer

Illustration by Stillenacht

The Isle of the Dismemberer (1410 circled in red) takes its name from its sole inhabitant. In ages past he was a master architect. He raised for the sorcerer lords mansions to suit their whims, constructed like puzzle boxes, with secret gardens, jeweled libraries, and glittering towers. But in his arrogance, he slighted Sarpedon the Shaper, and so entered his protein bathes and blending chamber. He no longer remembers why he builds, but build he must. So he fashions a cathedral to his long dead master from rude materials, fastened with an ichor secreted from the weeping surface where his face once was. Embedded within the walls are the tanned limbs of his victims. From the walls of the nave, a choir of tortured faces peer, and the entryway is decorated by torsos from which spring a bewildering farrago of limbs. 

Outside his own crude hut, the tanned hides of his latest victims hang, their bones bleaching in the sun. Inside, his few remaining tools are carefully arrayed on a rotting velvet cloth: a compass, a mallet and chisel, and a cleverly fashioned level. Hidden among the dried reeds that serve as his bed, a watertight scrollcase contains the Dismemberer's antique blueprints. If removed most will crumble to dust, but a partial blueprint of the demesne of his former master remains, as well as a topographical map that can be used to find the hidden abode of his master's old rival, Mirvolo the Summoner of Voids.  

The Isle of the Dismember still bears traces of the wall that once ran along its ridge. Cracked stones can be glimpsed beneath beech grasses and sand. At the Western end of the island great, crumbling steps lead from the islands edge directly into the sea. The water here is especially clear, and a seaweed choked stone path can be glimpsed winding down into the depths. At low tide, a quarter mile to the west, a lone onion dome can be glimpsed poking through the waves. It is the roost of seagulls, its once brilliant bronze now stained white from their droppings. This is the bell tower of the Submerged Spire of Sarpedon the Shaper

The Dismemberer HD8 (40) Mv120' AC4 Att: 2 claws 1d8/1d8 + breath weapon and ichor grab SaveF8 Morale11. Special attacks: Once per day he may shake ichor from his head, doing 3d6 to everyone in a 10' cone, save vs. breath weapon for half. When striking with his claws, on a natural 20 the Dismemberer will pull a victim's head into his weeping ichor for 2d6 additional damage.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Reflections on Running Underwater Adventures

My players have been adventuring in and around an underwater dungeon for the last two months. (My plan is to have the whole dungeon available gratis here. The first installments will be coming next week. You can see some of the house rules I've been using here; I keep tinkering with the post as new things come up in play.) The group has gone on four dives thus far, some of which lasted multiple sessions. After all this time, I've come to the conclusion that underwater adventures encourage old school play like nobody's business.

My current face-to-face group doesn't read these blogs. The players aren't on G+. Although one player was playing in the mid-80's, the rest only starting gaming (with 3.5, to make things worse) shortly before our group got going.  We also rotate DMing, which I love, and will one day talk about. So the tone is not always what it would be if I were exclusively DMing, and playing with like-minded OSR fiends. We also drink a lot at the table.

I have found that underwater adventuring is the perfect cure. First off, the prospect made them very wary. When the opportunity opened, "How could that go well?" was the general sentiment. In the end this was overbalanced by the bad-assedness of exploring the ancient redoubt of a Sorcerer Lord lost beneath the waves. I mean, how could you say no? And if you lived, what a story you have! But the players started with the paranoid mentality that is the foundation of old school play. They assumed that someone might die, just like that.

This is what they imagined would happen to them. In fact, it was much, much worse.

I was also able to get my players to take some things much more seriously than I otherwise could have. For example, resource management. Their general reaction to resource management is to snooze. However, when they were told that the potion of water breathing lasts "about an hour and a half", suddenly everyone was watching the clock like a hawk. The ever present threat of drowning is a wonderful thing. Similarly, keeping track of inventory. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. But when I told each player to write down on a sheet of paper exactly what he was taking on the dive, and where he's carrying it, no one batted an eyelash. Of course you have to do that. You are, after all, diving into the fricking ocean.

The wonder of the environment encouraged me to be careful in the best kind of way. For example, I found myself keenly describing to them the extent of the illumination from their light spell. The darkness at the edges was a constant tactical factor in playing. Similarly, the fact that the group could not communicate led to a lot of interesting situations. There was an agonizing battle where half the group didn't even realize it was underway until their fellows were already in a desperation situation. There were also some characters, including a monk, who had chosen to go light, and this led to some fun combat situations, since she could essentially fly around, like a true kung fu warrior.

Another wonderful thing about an underwater adventure is that it opens up three dimensional, out of the box, thinking right off the bat. The players started off looking down at the dungeon. They could have entered it from seven different points, at a variety of heights, all of which were more or less open to view from the beginning. The first time they chose to walk down the stairs inside from the highest point, but they knew the options were open, and they later took them.

I was also able to use the dungeon environment to set up a lot of tactical challenges, which my players were unable to surmount. For example, the dungeon has a dry portion with air at the bottom. How were they to haul the black grimoire and unsettling alchemical materials they found there to the surface unharmed? I didn't have a solution in mind, but the precautions they took were obviously not going to work, so it went badly for them. But that was fun, and it made sense, so they accepted it in good spirits. And they did, in the end, walk away with a pretty sweet haul. Although, since they're currently marooned, it remains to be seen how they can get their hard won gains back to civilization. But that's another story.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Religions of Ghinor II


Ralph McQuarrie
Nephtlys is the goddess of wealth, worshipped (in different congregations) by merchants and thieves alike. She is the spider mother whose endless hunger is so great that she perpetually consumes her ever-birthing children. This hunger is a symbol to her flock of the great striving and endless greed that is the meat of true happiness.

The priests of Nephtlys are the Tempters who lure unwitting prey to feed the hunger of their goddess. In Viridistan they do so literally. There the doors of the great temple are left open and unguarded at night, and splendid treasures beckon from the altar room of the two great webs. But only the desperate and the starving, or the most foolhardy thieves, take the lure. For ever pregnant Nephtlys often manifests physically to sate her appetite when warm flesh approaches her webs. Elsewhere a metaphysical interpretation of the priesthood’s role prevails. There the Tempters spin elaborate webs of schemes and bargains that serve to benefit the temple and ruin its enemies. They take special delight in demonstrating to the high-minded that they too desire to have more and outdo others.

In Wolsdag, a small but lavish temple to Nephtlys is nestled within the inner precincts of the guildhouse. It is staffed by Tempters of the Monopolist faction who provide loans, often at brutal rates. Those who default are offered a choice to pay off their debt: be sold to slavers, or perform services for the Guild. Such services are always of a dangerous, morally dubious, or unpleasant kind.


Illustration by John Blanche
Manannan, the Ancient of the Seas, is popular among sailors and fisherman throughout the Wilderlands. The prophets teach that when the world was created by Manannan, a single great sea covered its surface, and man lived in peace and harmony in shining cities under the waves. But as a result of his transgressions, Mennanan raised the land as a foreign prison for man. That man breaths air, and walks on two feet is an alien condition, a curse that will be lifted on the day of reckoning when the waters once again cover the earth and the faithful are forgiven and welcomed back into the deeps.

The Temple of Menannan in Wolsdag, although small, is remarkable. Its rooms of worship are filled with curios brought by sailors from their many travels across the seas. Rusted anchors, nets, conch shells, whalebones, shark jaws, and stranger flotsam bedecks the walls and shrines. Murals composed of the powdered shells of luminous underwater creatures are kept lighted throughout the year, except during the Festival of the Longtide when the lights are put out, and their uncanny splendor is revealed. The basement of the temple contains underground access to sea caves along the coast. It serves regularly for the passage and temporary storage of smuggled goods, including those moved by the Enterprising Faction. For a fee the priests of Menannan can locate stolen, rare, or illegal goods, as well as pass on a great deal of information, or arrange for an ocean voyage. However, these services are usually available only to those who are vouched for by some known member of the community. 

Mer Shunna

Illustration by Chris Burdett
Mer Shunna is an extreme schism of the Manannuan faith. The Mer Shunna worship (so they believe) Menannan in the guise of Armadad Bog, the judge in the depths. According to their bleak doctrine, Armadad Bog is an unforgiving and merciless god. Mankind is thus forever damned by his transgression, and must wear for eternity the two-footed mark of his shame and condemnation. The religion centers on penitence, self-flagellation, and ritual enactments of the abasement of humanity before the blessed merfolk, beloved of Armadad Bog. Val-Ys is a holy month of penitence that culminates in the Mer-Moon Ritual, where young women are sacrificed in elaborate and haunting rituals in the light of the full moon, their life's blood spilling into the silver sea to feed the strange appetites of the merfolk who in auspicious years rise to the surface in a frenzy.

Owing to these elements of ritual sacrifice and self-mortification, this extreme faith is an outlawed heresy except in Viridistan, where it is the predominant interpretation of Manannuan faith. Wolsdag is home to a secret cult of Mer Shunna whose symbol is a silver forked tail. This cult maintains ties to slavers and commits black deeds.