tag
TwitterFacebookGooglePinterestLinkedInEmailRSS

Tabletop Meditations #19: Murder Hoboes Inc.

Your player group has just slaughtered an entire village for the hell of it, they kill every other NPC thatMurder D20 has any words with them, and they loot every corpse. In fact, loot is just one excuse they use to participate in the slaughter of unfortunate NPCs. What you have on your hands is every GM’s nightmare, a gaggle of Murder Hoboes.

The problem of murder hoboing is as old as fantasy roleplaying games themselves. A problem best dealt with directly in-game though out-of-game preparation can help to mitigate its appearance. The term itself comes from the commonality that most adventurers are essentially homeless wanderers looking for wealth and power through fighting enemies, participating in expeditions, and general adventuring.

Murder hoboing is a problem because it can derail an adventure by killing off of important NPCs thereby disposing of any important information they were to relay to the PCs, cause utter chaos in game rendering all the prep work a GM has done fruitless, and may squelch the fun of those actually trying to engage the game world. Ultimately it rests with the GM to work with the offender to get things back on pace. However, direct confrontation might not be the best or effective way to go about things instead attempts from within the game should be tried first to gently coerce the Player through their character. Every group has had a player that has done this and often groups do go through these types of phases early in their existence.

However, not all adventurers are Murder Hoboes though the majority seem to be itinerant by their very nature. A Murder Hobo is essentially an adventurer that simply goes around killing everything in their path in order to reap experience points (XP) or to loot the corpses of their victims. They often do not discriminate between villains, allies, monsters, animals, innocents, and criminals. If it exists within the game, worth is broken down into loot or XP.

On the other hand, Murder Hoboing is the behavior manifesting from the previously mentioned outlook by a Player using their Player Character (PC). A player may hold this simplistic view due to boredom, a long lull or inactivity in the game, or lack of immersion leading to said boredom. This can also come from playing a character that has been built solely for combat and nothing more in a game that consists of little or no combat or has long stretches between the actual fighting and the other RPG elements.

There are three major strategies or courses of action that can be used to mitigate murder hoboing that do not directly target the Player. The first called the Session Zero approach strives to construct a set of rules and understanding that will set up the boundaries for Players and the GM. This is a preemptive strategy.

The second strategy is to require a Backstory from each Player for their character in an effort to invest the Player in the fate of their character. Hopefully inspiring them to not misuse them to derail the game. The last approach is to Bait the offender and essentially use the potential fate of their character to send a warning to them that their attempt at having fun stomping all over everybody else’s’ will only end in frustration for them. This is still an indirect approach but is very close to being directed at the player him or herself and if misused that is exactly what it will feel like to them, so use this last approach with caution.

Session Zero is the pregame where the group gathers to generate characters and where the general rules and expectations of the group can be discussed establishing a general code of Player behavior. The GM can give their input in character builds so that players can create characters that can participate in as much of the play as possible thereby avoiding the boredom and over-specialization that can lead to the adoption of the murder hobo mindset. Typically, a Session Zero is a meet up to generate characters and discuss table manners before the next actual play-session. This preliminary session also gives the players a chance to come up with and write backstories for their characters.

Players that have worked on a backstory will have more invested in their characters. Thus, they are less apt to go on uncharacteristic killing sprees or randomly murder NPCs. Granted that their character is not actually a homicidal maniac. A backstory also allows a GM to integrate a character into the game world and even into the main thrust of a campaign by linking elements in their backgrounds with adventure and campaign elements. This also gives the GM ammo when a PC does go berserk and needs to be reined in allowing for in-game story options to do that if only as a distraction.

This brings us to baiting. This strategy involves using a situation or NPC that appeals to the worst nature of the Player(s) in order to lure them into a confrontation. The bait of course is much more than can be seen, they are characters designed to prey on the weaknesses of the offender(s) as well as defend against their strengths. Either this forces the offender’s compatriots to join them or back away during the fight. If they survive that encounter then bait them again to send a warning shot across their bow in order to let them know they may not be able to tell a bait-NPC from the average NPC.

Whereas the previous strategies do not directly target the offending player(s), remember the bait tactic means the player(s) has to take it, there are effective strategies that do. These techniques directly oppose the PCs in game and if over-used may cause players to resent the GM. They may come to believe the GM is laying tracks (as in railroading) or just deliberately beating up on their characters, so try not to over-use these techniques. I suggest that these strategies should be utilized when the characters start exhibiting or carrying out murder-hobo behaviors. These tactics are the Boss Strategy, making use of diegetic Power Structures, and deploying an Avenger.

A one time-tested strategy to handle murder hoboing has been to insert increasingly powerful NPC’s (paladins are common) to act as adjudicators and avengers essentially using the Video-Game Boss Strategy. A boss in this context is an NPC that functions as a roadblock to the endeavors of the players. Sometimes they can also function as a landmark, especially as an indicator of player power level. An example is an NPC showing up early in the PC’s career that beats the hell out of them and gets away.

Eventually the PC’s catch up to this NPC and are able to defeat them in a later confrontation allowing players to demonstrate not only their characters’ increased powers and abilities but also (hopefully) their better teamwork and maybe ability at planning and strategy. Bosses are ideally effective combatants up to the point of defeating the players, that is they are hard to defeat but are not overwhelmingly or impossible to knock down.

The Boss strategy can keep the murder-hobo(es) on their toes focusing their attention. It also has entertainment value so eliminating murder hoboing due to boredom. The Boss should inspire the PCs to track them down where NPCs with information become important to that goal. A murder hobo would lose the ability to get their claws into the Boss by not sparing the “throw-away” NPCs.

A better strategy, one that increases the depth of the setting, is to impose a socio-political hierarchy (feudalism etc.) that is defined and useable in game with the NPCs holding these positions not having to be super-charged or even particularly unique. The structure will ensure that even the players eliminate those in charge there is always a replacement and all the powers above them will see the players as threats to their persons as well. Thereby hiring and sending out the boss-types not only reinforced with the authority to deal with them but with back-up coming from all angles which includes ordinary citizens as informants or even poisoners or entrappers. These people who not only believe in the system which can by themselves be enough but those who also have stakes built into the system or at least those who believe they do are very dangerous.

Overarching structures are more effective being very big and complex such as the Feudalist Hierarchy, which is basic but can be complex very quick as can succession to any of its offices. Smaller self-governing structures such as Guilds are more common but are also attached in some way to the overarching political structure by agreements, contracts, laws, and money. Meaning certain parts of the system will awaken to protect the whole as well as those parts that will see the murder-hoboes as their answer to political expediency and try to use them as such. This method can turn murder-hoboes into true role-players very quickly especially if they care anything about their characters. If the PCs still randomly murder the NPCs then an avenger may be called for.

An Avenger or Nemesis type NPC has the power and resources to hunt down and be a definite threat against the offending PCs. This type of NPC will definitely try to get them alone in a duel-like situation and will have no mercy convinced that they are the good guy and may very well be in this situation. It should be obvious to the Players that this character is too powerful to confront directly and there should be clues dropped in the game to demonstrate this and clue the Players in. There should also be in-game moments when the PCs know a superior enemy is stalking them. This helps to focus the murder-hobo(es) on something other than murder hoboing.

Murder Hoboing can drag a game down into pure boredom with the GM paralyzed due to a vital tool being broken. The ability to put clues and raw information into the mouths of NPCS is extremely important to running a game. It also boils roleplaying games down to simple number crunching as murder hoboing often involves greed for XP but this is not always applicable. However, there a ways to mitigate and fight this lazy approach to RPGs that some players have or may fall into.

The more passive and preventative approaches are running a preliminary session (Session Zero), require character backstories from each player, and do not be afraid to bait troublesome player characters.  These should be attempted before the more direct methods are used. The more direct methods to combating murder-hoboes are employ increasingly powerful NPCs as adjudicators, make use of in-game power and political structures, and sending out avenger or nemesis type NPCs directly at the PCs. Note that the GM should never overuse these direct tactics as players may take it as direct attacks on them by the GM, so use sparingly.

Of course, if all else fails maybe it’s time to let go of the troublesome player or try to adjust to the group’s method of play if it is the entire group and a new one is not an option. Maybe such a group is better at being the villains.

 

Tabletop Meditations #18: Disease

The Player Characters (PCs) are traveling through a fetid, sweltering swamp. Halfway through their Potions and Medicines to combat diseaseadventure the expedition begins to fall sick with fever. At first, just a few torchbearers were sick and then a few porters. Eventually almost the entire adventuring party is sick even a few PCs are ill. The danger made apparent before the expedition. However, they assumed it couldn’t be that bad. After all, they had healing magic at their disposal. Now stranded at the center of a monster-infested morass they are bogged down with a sick and dying expedition. In addition, the longer they stay, the more likely more will fall ill. An invisible tiny enemy has brought them to their knees.

Disease has stalled even killed some of the toughest, persistent, and well-provisioned adventurers in history. Strange fevers, boils, sores, pox, food poisoning, parasitic worms, STD’s, and animal born infections have plagued adventurers and military campaigns throughout history. With disease being such an important factor concerning exploration and conquest, a clever Game-Master (GM) would be foolish not to make use of that side of nature.

Disease is an underutilized tool in the GM Toolshed and can add to the danger and feeling of a setting. Disease is a world-class force. It can thwart adventurers, jamb the wheels of imperialism, stop the machines of war dead, and even curtail history. However, with all things in the game world, diseases need to be broken down into a few basic ideas.

There are three aspects to diseases in respect to roleplaying games that are important. These are Contagion Rate, the Incubation Period, and the Disease Vector(s) through which the sickness perpetuates. The Contagion Rate refers to how contagious the disease is, percentiles can easily represent this. This represents how easily the disease can transfer to an individual. The percentile rate would mean that the exposed character is potentially infected. After this determination, the GM should refer to the game mechanics for what happens next. If the character succumbs to the infection then the symptoms of the disease are often not immediately noticeable.

Symptoms and the main effects of the disease will appear after the Incubation Period of the specific disease has passed. Incubation Period refers to how long the disease remains dormant in an infected host; it can still be contagious at this stage. After exposure a character can walk around apparently unaffected for however long the Incubation Period lasts which can ranged anywhere from a few hours to days even years! They can remain infectious during this period as well. Often the more infectious a disease is the shorter the incubation time. A highly infectious disease that has a short incubation time is a plague in the waiting although the quicker the incubation then the quicker the outbreak is likely to burn itself out.

Finally, the third idea is the Disease Vector. A vector is the agent that carries the disease to its living host, which can be a living organism or a medium like dust. The infection vectors that can spread a disease are many but the main ones to keep in mind are those that travel through wounds, insect bites, animals (feces & diseased individuals, corpses), and those that are airborne or hide in improperly prepared or stored food. Adventurers need to make sure their food has not spoiled or been contaminated. They should beware of corpses they have not killed themselves. Adventurers also need to care for their wounds even small scratches especially when traversing bodies of water or marsh areas. Of course, they also need to learn how to deal with biting insects especially mosquitoes and flies.

Infection can get into open wounds through direct contact with such vectors as dirty clothes, water, mud, and general filth. The improper cleaning of deep wounds is begging for infection. A good example of the result of an infection through wound contamination with serious consequences is gangrene. Gangrene results in fever and possibly the loss of limbs and death not to mention the stench of rotting flesh. Note that gangrene also results from a lack of circulation but the form we are concerned with is the result of bacterial infection.

Animal and insect bites are another major vector for diseases. The most obvious one is rabies, if the animal is foaming at the mouth its bite is something to avoid. However, certain animals that are carriers are not so easy to avoid. Vampire bats prey upon sleeping warm-blooded victims. Another infamous example is of the Tsetse fly and its transmission of sleeping sickness not to mention the mosquito born malaria and dengue and yellow fevers. Even such hard to avoid insects such as ticks that can carry lime disease.

To finish off the potential vectors of interest to GMs are airborne infections and of course food poisoning. Spoiled food is a major hazard and may transmit mild to severe effects. This usually depends on the type of food, where it came from, and how it was prepared. Also, food contaminated through contact with other vectors such as insects or contaminated water becomes a medium for disease. Another way food can shelter the enemy is by eating infected animals, which may be still within the incubation period.

Airborne vectors come about when inhaling germs in miasmatic environs such as gas spewing swamps or burbling cesspits. This includes sharing space with infected individuals with no contact other than breathing the same air. Here, the disease uses the medium of air launched in aerosol form by a cough or sneeze. Good examples of the types of diseases that can spread via these vectors are influenza and the Hanta virus via the dust from rodent droppings. In certain cases, even the wind can become a vector. Another medium that is worth visiting is that of water.

Waterborne infections can afflict individuals that drink spoiled or stagnant water. Contaminated water can also infect food that comes into contact with it especially during preparation. Examples of the diseases that travel via water are Dysentery, Typhoid fever, and Guinea Worm. Adventurers should always be suspicious of bodies of water they encounter and not just because of leeches and piranha either. However, in fantasy roleplaying games there are a few mitigating factors even in the more primitive of settings.

In RPGs, certain game aspects can mitigate the disease factor. These three disease negating factors are characters that have the ability to heal others aka Healers, potions or elixirs, and magic.

Healers are characters that have the ability to heal other characters of both damage and cure diseases or at least ease their symptoms. They can achieve this mystically or with some version of medicine. If disease is a major feature in a setting, these characters become very valuable party members. However, even when Healers are traveling with an expedition that party may want some backup in the form of potions.

Potions when consumed heal damage and some can even cure disease. These are usually of a magical nature but sometimes the fantasy separates chemistry, alchemy, and magic into separate areas. This separation does not concern us here, as the mere existence of potions is effective in combating disease. The only factors to consider are availability (who makes them and how long does it take) and cost in both time and money. Meaning the majority of people will not be able to afford these life-saving potions. Alternately, if they can it still might be a rare thing. This is especially true if the disease requires a specific cure or type of potion. As the nature of potions often falls into the realm of magic so magic itself must be taken into consideration.

Although healing abilities and potions fall under the purview of magic, they are different strategies due to availability and cost. Unless someone has access to a healer they do not have the luxury of the healer’s abilities and if they cannot find a supply of potions then the same. The same can be said of magic items that may offer protection or even healing abilities to their wielder. These are more accessible to the makers of such items and fall into adventurers’ possession more frequently than others’.

Magic items are more accessible than a Healer’s abilities. This is simply because all one has to do is wield the item instead of becoming a healer. They are also more durable than potion bottles thus granting a more portability. Also they are more than likely good for more than a single use. Frankly, the advantage of a disease fighting magical item is so great that it becomes a necessary piece of kit. This is not to diminish a mage or wizard that has disease curing spells but again access is the issue, there must be such a spell-caster present.

In a world of limited scientific knowledge and where magic is known to exist  how would disease be treated? Just as importantly, how is the welfare of those unfortunate enough to be suffering from infection handled? Historically, disease shaped communities and whole eras of civilization (syphilis, HIV/AIDS, Black Death, leprosy). This includes the formation of colonies and places meant to isolate and imprison diseased individuals. A bustling snake oil industry and quack businesses will spring up. A historical parallel would be the patent medicines of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Disease shapes affected communities especially if there is no cure. How society deals with and treats the so affected is important. The example of lepers is especially notorious. Lepers were made to ring bells warning the healthy members of society that they were coming whenever they were traveling in towns and cities if not barred from entry. Lepers were even forced (occasionally voluntarily) into colonies often on small faraway islands or isolated facilities.

With laws and forced isolation imposed on victims of disease also comes scapegoating. This being applied to not only the infected but also those that were believed to carry the infection. This includes those accused of deliberately planting the sickness by contaminating water wells or poisoning food by means of witchcraft.  These scapegoats may be particular creatures or locations, enemies, social minorities, or newly arrived adventurers or adventurers in general. This also may include a belief that a specific disease is particular to a certain community.

The efforts to prevent infection will range from reliance on certain organizations (religious, mages, alchemy, charlatans, etc.) to enforced cleanliness or misguided efforts thereof. Cities and towns could forbid certain types of individuals from entering due to the belief that they are carriers.

Disease is a world shaping force that stops invasions dead, halts the movement of goods, money, and troops, altering history. The outbreak of plagues can sweep over the entire planet wiping out whole swaths of civilization leaving an indelible mark on the surviving culture. There are Plagues (an extreme version of a specific disease) that can alter the world as it circulates the globe wiping out towns and cities.  International trade can even become a vector such as in the case of the Black Plague and medieval Europe. Small outbreaks can stall wars, halt invasions, wipe out small communities, and kill kings.

However, disease, especially plagues, can not only negatively affect the population but also have severe economic repercussions and even present new opportunities. Patent Medicines (real or snake oil) can come about to fill the need effective or not. Quacks may proliferate. The collapse of trade may occur with the isolation of cities or rural areas needed for trade. The reduction of the work force by extreme measure is not only a tragedy but also thereby giving them more power to demand better treatment and pay.

In June 1381, 35 years after the Black Death had swept England, the Peasant Rebellion occurred led by Wat Tyler from Kent. The peasant army from Kent and Essex marched on London and captured the Tower of London. One motivating factor of this peasant force was that during the plague was they had been granted their freedom and granted paid to work the estates of the aristocracy. The aristocracy did this in order to keep them from leaving during the labor shortage created by the plague. The peasants were afraid that they would lose these newly won privileges. Plagues damage the laborer population, which leads to a downturn in production of materials and crops for at least a decade and increases the economic and political clout of labor and the lower classes. It actually turns the world upside down.

Diseases in RPGs are of value to the GM. Diseases can act as an obstacle to PCs, give certain specialized Healer characters an important role to play, and alter NPCs in dramatic ways. The knowledge of the potential diseases they may face may give the PCs pause and even alter their travel routes. A diseased member of a PC expedition may slow down or stop the group dead especially if more than one of their number is infected. This in and of itself presents its own challenge. That challenge being to find shelter and/or a place to recuperate and recover their bearings.

Introducing these illnesses into your world allows the Healer character to do something seemingly small. However, do not be afraid to demonstrate to the other PCs that disease can take quite a toll even if it only is stalling them for a while. Sickness can also alter infected NPCs in a way that can engage players and give the GM more tools to work with. Examples are lepers, sick and dying kids as a source of empathy/sympathy or an adventure hook, dying beggars, the dying and kind old person but for a cure scenario.

Making use of diseases can help a GM to enhance their game. They have a tool that can halt armies, delay or kill adventurers, alter the functions of an NPC, and put up a barrier to egress in a remote area. It can add to the flavor of a game as well as engendering some mild danger or at least another sum that the Players will have to calculate. Not to mention the fear factor built up via dialogue delivered by the NPCs to the Players.

Microorganisms can stall adventuring parties and armies alike as well as strike down the lowliest peasant as well as the mightiest king. Adding disease to your campaign world can enrich the background as well as alter the roles of NPCs, Healers, and mages. In this same scenario potions and magic items that house healing and disease fighting abilities become more useful and therefore valuable. Certain vectors especially certain insects may become a symbol of terror to PCs who become cognizant of the risk and the need to prepare for an excursion beforehand. Disease as a part of a living campaign world is an invaluable tool for the discerning GM and a valuable source of drama and immersion for Players.

 

Posts Will Resume Weekly Basis

Apologies, there is no regular post again this week.

Regular Weekly Posts

The regular weekly posts will return next week as my current projects are nearing completion. They should be done sometime next week. The Black Teeth adventure module should be finished sometime at the end of this month and ready to be published after that. The weekly posts will alternate between a new campaign blog and more resource PDFs. The campaign finished a few weeks ago where I played a ratling in the Poisonwood city of Tanglethorn. It will be a Playing D&G blog.

New Banner on Catalog Page

We have added a banner space in the Catalog meant to advertise any special deals, discounts, and sales. The banner will try to link to the site but may only display a coupon or discount code.

Until Next week

Hopefully I didn’t lose too many readers on this brief post hiatus. No doubt there will be at least one more this year while I try to get the newest Ranger Games projects either rolling or out to publish. Until next week everybody!

-Sincerely,

Robert A. Neri Jr.

Tabletop Meditations #17: The Lich

Whether it is at the head of an undead horde or a shadowy figure behind the scenes using monsters and people like chess pieces the undead wizard known as the lich is adept on and off the field. These undead wizards appear as mostly skeletal with only the scant, mummified remnants of flesh left hanging from their yellowed bones, and in the deep black pits of their perpetually grinning skulls, red pinpoints of hellish light. The lich is a very common archetype in modern fantasy and one of the most recognizable but how far do the roots of the monster actually go?

The lich is an undead spell-caster that has for the most part deliberately become undead as a bid for immortality able to gather more arcane-knowledge and thus power over time. When they first appeared seemingly out of whole cloth they were undead spell-casters with strange powers, became ideal and grim antagonists, and continue today as antagonists of boss-monster proportions.

“[A] mage or cleric so thirsty for immortality as to try to cheat death, and already powerful at magic.” [Greenwood, Ed. 1988. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Forgotten Realms, The Lords of Darkness. TSR, Inc. 2]

A lich is an undead creature therefore; our concerns lie first with the condition of undeath and the meaning of ‘undead creature’. First off, undead creatures were formerly living and thus have had a “first death” rising from the grave weirder and more powerful.

Undead creatures are dead bodies animated often by an outside force after the soul of the dead being has since flown from the bones. This force, often malicious, oft defined as demonic and occasionally elemental replaces the soul as the animating force and/or mind. This force typically alters the corpse in significant and grotesque ways to adapt the newly formed creature to its new (un)life as a creature of the night. In the case of Liches, this force is magic rather than a demonic spirit though perhaps still elemental.  However, their actual soul has been captured in a special object called a Phylactery. The transformation of the body to the being of a lich is the death of the mage and the rotting of the corpse leaving only that necessary to contain the animating force. The once living visage reduced to the bones with maybe some withered, leather-tough tatters of flesh to hold the joints together.

“The urge for immortality is so strong in some powerful mages and magic-user/clerics that they aspire to lichdom, despite its horrible physical side effects and the usual loss of friends and living companionship. Lichdom must be prepared for in life; no true lich ever is known to have come about “naturally”.” [Greenwood. pg.73]

The term and the creature fused together in the pulp fiction of the early 20th century. For the most part the term was used as an archaism. An archaism is a deliberate imitation of old-fashioned language in order to stress a certain time-frame or to enhance atmosphere. Similar archaisms were revived and sometimes redefined by the popular imagination in that fertile ground known as American Pulp Fiction, namely in the fantasy and horror genres of weird fiction. Masters and innovators of modern archaisms as literary device included such well-known names as H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith.

The etymology of the term Lich, plural Liches, is straightforward. Its roots lie in the Old English word for ‘corpse’, not a monster or evil spirit, just a dead body:  “A corpse (Old English lic).” [Rockwood, Camilla ed. 2009. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable 18th Edition. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. 781] Though archaic its original use lingers in certain usages such as ‘lich gate’ and a few others.

Lich gate or lych gate The covered entrance to churchyards intended to afford shelter to the coffin and mourners while awaiting the clergyman who is to conduct the cortége into church.”

Lich wake or lyke wake The funeral feast or the waking of a corpse, i.e. watching it all night.”

Lychway or lickway A trackway, especially in a remote upland area, along which corpses were borne for burial in a distant churchyard.” [Rockwood. 781]

The modern fantasy trope of the Lich may have indeed started with the term itself.

Pulp Fiction where most modern fantasy archetypes were, if not born, then mantled with their modern guises, the lich is no exception. However, in regards to the lich this lineage begins with the appearance of the term “lich” in weird stories beginning in the 19th century with Ambrose Bierce at the very beginning of the weird genre of fiction.

One of the earliest appearances in fiction of the word occurs in Ambrose Bierce’s story the Death of Halpin Frayser. In fact, the fictional quote that precedes the story is the earliest part to mention our undead subject. “For by death is wrought greater change than hath been shown. Whereas in general the spirit that removed cometh back upon occasion, and is sometimes seen of those in flesh (appearing in the form of the body it bore) yet it hath happened that the veritable body without the spirit hath walked. And it is attested of those encountering who have lived to speak thereon that a lich so raised up hath no natural affection, nor remembrance thereof, but only hate. Also, it is known that some spirits which in life were benign become by death evil altogether.” [Hopkins, Ernest Jerome ed. 1970. The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce. University of Nebraska Press. The Death of Halpin Frayser]

Soon after the term was adopted by one of the three musketeers of weird fiction, Clark Ashton Smith.  His connection to Bierce being that: “At fifteen, [Clark Ashton Smith] became likewise infatuated with [the poetry] of George Sterling. Sterling (1869-1926) had moved from his native New York State to California in 1891 and had become a protégé of Ambrose Bierce – “bitter Bierce,” the misanthropic writer, poet, journalist, and satirist[.]” [De Camp, L.Sprague. 1976. Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy. Arkham House . Sauk City, Wisconsin. 199]

Bierce himself was quite aware of the young writer. “In 1912, Ambrose Bierce wrote to a western magazine, warning that, while Smith was a very promising young poet, this premature publicity and exaggerated praise might be bad for him and lead to an equally exaggerated reaction against him.” [De Camp. 201]

Eventually through his use of the word and his close connections via written correspondence, his contemporaries, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, began to use the word as well. However, Smith used the term more often to describe an animated corpse than an undead wizard. This is around 1926 and the lich is still a little strange.

“But on its heels, ere the sunset faded, there came a second apparition, striding with incredible strides, and halting when it loomed almost upon me in the red twilight – the monstrous mummy of some ancient king, still crowned with untarnished gold, but turning to my gaze a visage that more than time or the worm had wasted. Broken swathings flapped about the skeleton legs, and above the crown that was set with sapphires and balas-rubies, a black something swayed and nodded horribly; but, for an instant, I did not dream what it was. Then, in its middle, two oblique and scarlet eyes opened and glowed like hellish coals, and two ophidian fangs glittered in an ape-like mouth. A squat, furless, shapeless head on a neck of disproportionate extent leaned unspeakably down and whispered in the mummy’s ear. Then, with one stride, the titanic lich took half the distance between us, and from out the folds of the tattered sere-cloth a gaunt arm arose, and fleshless, taloned fingers laden with glowering gems, reached out and fumbled for my throat…” [Connors, Scott ed. 2006. The End of the Story: The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith Volume One. Night Shade Books. San Francisco. The Abominations of Yondo. 7-8]

In his 1932 story The Empire of the Necromancers, the lich has lost the weird belly-monster and taken the basic form of an animated corpse. “After a while, in the grey waste, they found the remnants of another horse and rider, which the jackals had spared and the sun had dried to the leanness of old mummies. They also raised up from death; and Mmatmuor bestrode the withered charger; and the two magicians rode on in state, like errant emperors, with a lich and a skeleton to attend them.” [Connors, Scott ed. 2007. A Vintage from Atlantis: The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith Volume Three. Night Shade Books. San Francisco. The Empire of the Necromancers . 194] And “All that night , and during the blood-dark day that followed, by wavering torches or the light of the failing sun, an endless army of plague-eaten liches, of tattered skeletons, poured in a ghastly torrent through the streets of Yethlyreom and along the palace-hall where Hestaiyon stood guard above the slain necromancers.” [Connors. A Vintage from Atlantis. 199]

Eventually Robert E. Howard resourced the lich for his mystical two-fisted adventure tale Skull-Face in 1929.

“I shuddered. Kathulos laughed wildly again. His fingers began to drum his chair arms and his face gleamed with the unnatural light once more. The red visions had begun to seethe in his skull again.

“Under the green seas they lie, the ancient masters, in their lacquered cases, dead as men reckon death, but only sleeping. Sleeping through the long ages as hours, awaiting the day of awakening! The old masters, the wise men, who foresaw the day when the sea would gulp the land, and who made ready. Made ready that they might rise again in the barbaric days to come. As did I. Sleeping they lie, ancient kings and grim wizards, who died as men die, before Atlantis sank. Who, sleeping, sank with her but who shall arise again!” [Howard, Robert E. 1974. Skull-Face Omnibus. Neville Spearman, London.]

Of course, Lovecraft followed suit in his The Thing on the Doorstep originally published in 1937. “He must be crematedhe who was not Edward Derby when I shot him. I shall go mad if he is not, for I may be the next. But my will is not weak – and I shall not let it be undermined by the terrors I know are seething around it. One life – Ephraim, Asenath, and Edward – who now? I will not be driven out of my body … I will not change souls with that bullet-ridden lich in the madhouse!” [Derleth, August ed. 1963. The Dunwich Horror and Others. Arkham House Publishers, Inc. Sauk City, Wisconsin. The Thing on the Doorstep. 300]

Though Lovecraft used the term lich to mean the body of the possessed he is probably trying to get the idea through to the reader that the original inhabiting personality is gone essentially slain by the thing that now occupies the flesh. Although within the story, it does concern a sorceress who cheats death by taking possession of others’ bodies even able to drive her former corpse around very similar to the current incarnation of the lich.

These three tales forever merged in the minds of pulp readers the image of the skeletal corpse with the idea of a powerful undying sorcerer. From there the word seeped into the lexicon of fantasy writers but the archetype was not yet quite complete.

The basic idea of the lich naturally filtered to the latter day pulp writers, in particular one Gardner Fox and his Conan-Kull pastiche Kothar. In his 1969 novel Kothar: Barbarian Swordsman a lich appears that will serve as the basis for all future undead wizards in the popular mind.

“He turned and stared back into the dark tomb and saw the dead thing standing in the darkness, rotted and ugly in its cerements. […] It was just a corpse, a corpse that walked and spoke and seemed to be alive.

“Who are you?” Kothar growled.

“My name is Afgorkon, long and long ago.”

Kothar scowled. Afgorkon? Surely he had heard Queen Elfa speak of Afgorkon who had been a mighty magician fifty thousand years ago. He tried to think, but could not, being held in thrall by the black, empty eyeholes of the dead thing standing before him, bent and brown and old.

[…]

The lich turned and moved with those strangely thumping footsteps across the tomb. Its rotted hands moved and its withered tongue clacked, and sounds issued from the throat that was little more than bones. The words it spoke reverberated throughout the cairn, they brought down tiny showers of dirt from the root-pierced ceiling, they made the death-slab shake.

Yet they also opened an invisible door and caused a pallid glimmer by which Kothar could see, past the burial garments which still encased Afgorkon, an opening door and a chamber where lay a sword in a scabbard chained to a great leather belt on top of two chests heavy with jewels and golden coins of a kind no man had looked upon for half a million years.” [Fox, Gardner, F. 2016. The First Kothar the Barbarian Megapack. Wildside Press LLC. Kothar: Barbarian Swordsman]

Fox was definitely inspired by Howard’s Conan the Barbarian as Kothar the Barbarian is near identical though apparently less intelligent and with the sexual content of the stories turned up. On a related note The Cat and the Skull, a story written for Weird Tales by Robert E. Howard around 1928 saw print in 1967 in the King Kull lancer paperback.

The face of the man was a bare white skull, in whose eye sockets flamed livid fire!

“Thulsa Doom!”

[…]

“Aye, Thulsa Doom, fools!” the voice echoed cavernously and hollowly.

“The greatest of all wizards and your eternal foe, Kull of Atlantis. […]”

[…]Brule charged with the silent ferocity of a tiger, his curved sword gleaming. And like a gleam of light it flashed into the ribs of Thulsa Doom, piercing him through and through so that the point stood out between his shoulders.

Brule regained his blade[.] Not a drop of blood oozed from the wound which in a living man had been mortal. The skull-faced one laughed.

“Ages ago I died as men die!” he taunted. “Nay, I shall pass to some other sphere when my time comes, not before. I bleed not for my veins are empty and I feel only a slight coldness which shall pass when the wound closes, as it is even now closing. Stand back, fool, your master goes but he shall come again to you and you shall scream and shrivel and die in that coming! Kull, I salute you!”” [Louinet, Patrice ed. 2006. Kull Exile of Atlantis. Ballantine Books, New York. The Cat and the Skull]

Most importantly however, Gardner’s novel was read by Gary Gygax whom used the lich in that story as his template for the monster in his game Dungeons & Dragons.

“While a few of the critters in questions are purely products of my own imagination–carrion crawler, gelatinous cube, roper for instance–there were many sources of inspiration for the majority of the monsters, and I will name a few: […] Lich: Right on in regards to Gardner Fox. Gar and his wife Linda were friends of mine.” [Gygax, Gary. 2007. EnWorld.Org. Forum Post]

We have finally arrived at the Archetypical Lich. The Undead Magic-User or Priest that willingly underwent the lethal mystical transformation into an undead monster has taken its modern form. “Preparation for lichdom occurs while the figure is still alive and must be completed before his first “death”.” [Mohan, Kim ed. 1981. Lenard Lakofka auth. 1979. Best of Dragon Vol.II. Blueprint for a lIch.] After they have successfully undergone this process, the wizard’s soul has been captured within the Phylactery singly the most valuable item in any lich’s amassed treasury no matter how vast.

The word Phylactery is defined in the dictionary as an amulet but also refers to devices of orthodox Jewish prayer. In that respect, phylactery refers to two small leather boxes containing slips of vellum on which are written portions of Mosaic Law. One is worn on the head and the other on the left arm in token of the duty to obey religious law. Strangely, the lich’s phylactery reflects these ideas, as it is a magic amulet containing its living soul, which the lich must protect. If it is destroyed, so is the lich. “The phylactery may take any form – it may be a pendant, gauntlet, scepter, helm, crown, ring, or even a lump of stone. It must be of inorganic material, must be solid and of high-quality workmanship if man-made, and cannot be an item having other spells or magical properties on or in it. It may be decorated or carved in any way desired for distinction.” [Greenwood. pg.74]

The idea of it being a mystical container for the soul of a sorcerer is similar to the character of Koschei the Deathless from Russian mythology. The basic idea found in mythology of a powerful wizard, evil king, troll, or other monster being able to hide its heart or soul somewhere else preventing them from being slain is an old one.

Unlike most undead Liches retain all of their knowledge from life and have an eternity to become masters at anything they choose.  Therefore, the archetypical lich is uber-powerful or in the very least has extremely refined skills often of the arcane variety, the perfect villain to set against a group of rowdy adventure seekers.

With the lich as a villain, there are a couple of things to ask about the fundamentals of their character stemming from a few problems posed by their immortality and especially the type of immortality that they have achieved. The Lich is an undead creature, an animate corpse with magic power, created by imprisoning its soul in a phylactery.  In some circles, the soul is believed to be the seat of intelligence (and indeed, in certain game systems it may very well be). Does this mean that in actuality, the wizard has imprisoned himself in a psychic prison (the Phylactery) and the creature that is the corpse is just a mockery with a black (or grey) soul of pure magical force?

As they are sentient, do they suffer the emotional consequences of being left behind by their world and the familiar? Is that why they occupy themselves sometimes for decades or even centuries perusing their labyrinthine libraries burying their ruined faces in rotting tomes as their world disintegrates around them? Would this render them insane, depressed, delusionally out-of-touch, or erratic in their behavior? Do they desire some connection any connection to other beings even if it is negative, perhaps violence is the only way they can relate to others. I suppose that individual Game-Masters and their Lich characters should answer these questions on a case-by-case basis those questions best left for them.

In summary, the modern archetypical lich as an undead magic-user that has trapped their own soul within a phylactery was born of an archaism utilized by pulp authors in their weird tales. They were then borrowed and honed into their final wretched form by Gary Gygax and continue to appear in very similar if not identical forms across media such as the lich in Adventure Time, World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, and in a slightly altered version in the guise of the Night King in Game of Thrones.

“I know what the dead know.” – Afgorkon [Fox. 22]

As an afterword, I am aware that Frank Belknap Long also used the term lich in his 1924 Weird Tales pulp story The Desert Lich. However, it has very little substance of the Lich in anything else besides its title. “The Desert Lich has an Arabic setting, but is a non-supernatural conte cruel in which a man who had sold an unfaithful wife is forced to lie in a sarcophagus with her corpse.” [Joshi, S.T. 2004. The Evolution of the Weird Tale. Hippocampus Press. New York, New York. 99]

 

Tabletop Meditations #16: Old Empires

In any given fantasy RPG, but by no means all of them, a remnant empire or a landscape littered withRuins of an empire the bones of an ancient empire sometimes mysterious oft times still vaguely powerful. Old empires appear throughout fantasy and thus many fantasy tabletop roleplaying games. Using this trope makes it a little easier to begin to build your own setting using this as the basis for a dark age or at least an age where the empire is in a state of decline this loss of power being vital to adventuring.

Ancient empires lend a sense of history, which can still be seen and sometimes experienced to a game world. They can provide explanations for some of gaming’s oldest tropes, especially for the ubiquitous dungeon, and present adventure hooks in the forms of artifacts, lost knowledge, and explorable ruins. The old empire (or empires) that may be present in a given fantasy world also carry their own tropes and various resemblances to those of real-world history. Old empires are useful to the GM in the context of RPG campaigns but also carry certain disadvantages.

When speaking of empires there are certain terms that are inseparable in most incarnations of this fantasy trope. These are Empire, Imperium, and Citizen.

The word empire carries with it some baggage in and of itself due to actual history and it conjures a very specific type of image. In the popular imagination, the word empire often conjures to mind the imperial wonders of the ancient world, marble statues massive multi-columned buildings and/or massive armies that could drink lakes and inland seas dry. Of course, in the modern context however it also brings to mind the subjugation of indigenous peoples, the snatching of land, and constant wars of conquest.

“Today the word empire is used to describe an extensive state made up of several ethnic groups but ruled by only one of them.  It has, at least since the early 20th century, also carried the suggestion of tyranny and brutality, inherited from the practices of modern European colonial powers.” [Grafton, Anthony, ed. 2010. The Classical Tradition. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Mass. Empire. pg.310]

The imperial entity also means the mass rule of law and an enforced order over a given territory. An empire allows for widespread civility allowing the gentler aspects of civilization to take hold as well as providing the structure for the crueler aspects of humankind to prevail (the argument for barbarism as told by R.E. Howard). Education and philosophy blossom as well as giving a chance for cults and even gangs (a criminal underworld) to appear.

Imperium refers, in common use, to the empire and its forces sometimes with exclusion to its people. Here it serves more as a reference to its machinery rather than its people or possessions. More often, it is synonymous to Empire and often it is used for both. However, it is actually a reference to the territorial reach and extent of the empire. “One thing all the various meanings of the word imperium have in common is the association between extended territorial dominion and military rule.” [Grafton. 310] This basic definition is as old as Rome and is less vague than the casual usages. “As early as the 1st century BCE, the Roman historian Sallust had used the phrase Imperium romanum to describe not merely the power but also the geographical extent of the authority of the Roman people.” [Grafton. 310]

When it comes to the term Citizen when speaking of empires this refers to those individuals that the Imperium sees as the core of its existence often making official capacity to accommodate that (or those) group(s) cultural traditions and to those that it has a legal and/or philosophical responsibility. Note also that there will be some legality involved with citizenship handled by an imperial bureaucracy. The reality of citizenship however is always an unpredictable affair and will vary throughout the history of the empire. In game terms, imperial citizens are often snobby and serve as exemplars of over-civilized fops that are incapable of not getting themselves killed not just in the wilds of the world but in the rural farmlands as well.

“IMPERIAL CITIZENS are so civilized that they have given up WAR in favour of POLITICS and POISON. The Management considers this effete and will direct you to feel contempt for most of these people, except the Emperor, until you come upon the elderly man who retains the old virtues of the Empire. A former General, he is totally trustworthy and warlike and scorns politics too. He will become a staunch supporter of the Tour and of great help either on the QUEST or in SAVING THE WORLD.” [Jones, Diana Wynne. 2006. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Revised and Updated Edition. pg.95]

An empire from the POV of a player in an RPG setting on the other hand is one of a civilizing force that carries with it a corrupting force as well as the violent force of law. It seems a bit libertarian but when it comes to a group of often somewhat individually powerful freewheeling adventurers their world view is one of reaping the benefits by hook or by crook from the landscape, evil forces, monsters, and its people. A functioning empire of course impedes this ravenous impulse of the rapacious adventurer with its far reach, armed authorities, and system of laws not to mention a potentially oppressive and faceless bureaucracy.

Even in its different phases an empire always affects the Players. A dying empire is an impediment to be overcome and its authorities avoided if possible. A long dead one presents opportunity in its corpse where adventurers can pick its bones clean. Of course, this can also happen with a dying empire in its last throes with players aligned with the barbarians at the gate perhaps riding the barbaric tide as it were, or following in its wake, or caught between a desperate authority and a savage horde.

In fantasy worlds, old empires typically have a single seed from which they are grown, a trope that helps to characterize the nature of the empire and what role it is itself to play within the game. The most common tropes are the Ancient Empire, the Lost Empire, the Evil Empire, and the Vestigial Empire.

The Ancient Empire often long gone, if not it is often senile and rapidly disintegrating, is a very common trope. It concerns a long existent imperial power that either has passed or is passing. Most of the world shares a common origin from within this type of old empire and if not from its peoples then from among its knowledge and maybe customs. These types of old empires help to build a historical foundation for a setting laying in a base layer of information in the setting giving the players a sense of history as they experience its artifacts and their characters share in its heritage. Heritage being writing, architecture, and economics, which may live on long after the empire, has died.

As this Ancient Empire was wide reaching and of course would have been involved in large engineering projects, it has left an indelible mark on the landscape not just the people and their cultures. “ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECTS tend to litter the landscape in some parts of the continent. Most of them are quite mysterious, and all of them are made of some substance not known to the present inhabitants, often of a greenish colour, or a matte black, though white is not unknown. They will be gigantic. Most of them will be pillars that touch the clouds, but ROADS and broken BRIDGES are common too. It is unknown what challenge caused earlier peoples to make things that were so very large. Most of them are no use to anyone.” [Jones. 4]

Lost Empires on the other hand are often not as far reaching and are widely believed to be extinct.  Within the game, they serve as a foundation for mythoi, as hidden enemies or saviors, or holders/discoverers of special knowledge.  A lost empire is an empire that has somehow disappeared from history and any information on it lay in vague historical accounts, clues in place names and legends. It seems only to exist within the odd bit or curiosity that can be found by the players within myth and folklore or that they simply happen upon in the course of an adventure.

An important aspect of a Lost Empire found in fantasy RPGs are Remnant (Lost) Cities. These lost cities are tracked down through a string of clues and can exist as still functioning locales though in complete isolation a la Shangri-La or as hidden and mostly intact i.e. not pillaged ruins. A Lost Empire can also serve as a mythic foundation for stories and the explanation for any strange anomalies such as dungeons as well as certain exotic places and anomalous peoples (not always human) of the world.

In addition, a Lost Empire can serve as a nebulous threat or even enemy striking from the shadows from beyond the mists of history. These enemies must be detected, discovered, and ferreted out by the PCs. These hidden people may also serve as secret saviors to be sought, or a secret repository of special knowledge that lays hidden for the PCs to quest for.

This brings us to the unavoidable Evil Empire, which always serves as an active villain sometimes doubling as an end of the world trope. This is most often the active type of empire though the Evil Empire can also be a disintegrating ancient empire though now evil if it has not always been so due to degradation and always a definite threat. This type of ancient empire is an active villain for the players to confront and maybe even try to topple. These sorts of powers often play into the end-of-the-world trope as well sometimes possessing the power of the apocalypse other times seeking it. Usually the McGuffin said world-ending power (often an object or artifact) could instantly put an end to the evil empire instead when the PCs get involved.

Finally, we arrive at the Vestigial Empire, an empire that serves as background and mood than anything else. It is just a contrast to the wilderness and its citizens the opposite of adventurers. “VESTIGIAL EMPIRE. […] This Empire occupies an area usually slightly larger than most other COUNTRIES and you will know you are in it because the ROADS will be well made and patrolled by Imperial GUARDS in HELMETS and SKIRTS. Rest-houses line the way, a day’s march apart. The LANDSCAPE will be full of prosperous farmlands, vineyards, and olive groves, and you may even see a little light INDUSTRY, such as pottery and carpet-making. White villas crown the hills – in fact, most BUILDINGS in the Empire are white. When you reach the imperial CITY, you will find TEMPLES and colonnades as well as streets of decent houses, drains, and public Baths. The aura of civilization extends to daily life too. The Vestigial Empire is the only Country on the Tour to have POLITICS. It has a parliament and a senate and many noble CLANS to jockey for power. This keeps all Imperialists very busy, very noisy, and very likely to POISON one another. They also […] understand MONEY in a truly civilized way.” [Jones. 216]

This does not mean that the Vestigial Empire was always as it is it could be the remnant of a once great ancient empire and the relics of its greatness strewn across the land. Essentially a Vestigial Empire is exactly what its name implies it often serves little actual purpose to the setting and is not necessarily any kind of impediment to the PCs, an annoyance perhaps or a place to trade but that is all. Essentially, the Vestigial Empire serves as a rest stop for the PCs and marks the line separating civilization and barbarism (according to imperialist thought).

Now if I may digress a little, there is a seminal fantasy world where old empires as an explicit idea simply do not really exist though an argument can be made for the Elves. In J.R.R. Tolkien it does seems that world lacks an Old Empire.  I have always felt this lacuna when confronting the Legendarium. It seems to need at least one Old Empire in order to stitch together some of the cultures in that world.

An example being the Rohirrim, only a single regional kingdom codifies their culture. As a people, they simply descended and gathered from other people through time. Their consistency of culture seems hard to achieve in that manner alone. However, where this cultural glue seems to lack the most is with the Easterlings. Granted they follow Sauron though he seems to function more as a god or object of reverence and worship than an actual king or lord. It seems they would need unification by a powerful overlord. Joined into a single cultural force before being forged into a war machine by a powerful overlord that rules them rather than influences them from afar.

Tolkien’s world is filled with ruins but ruins of the fortresses of petty kings and lords, there is no Alexander, Rome, Ch’ing, or even Attila to serve as a basis for a united regional culture just individual heroes. His Legendarium is more concerned with lineage and personal family histories rather than politics or even major cultural diversity except where it comes to language and race. The Legendarium is more a collection of heroic stories, songs, and tales documenting the plight of certain families and individuals than a world history. So in that respect Old Empires are basically completely absent, the Elves are very similar to the Rohirrim though the ruins of their younger days tend to be more widespread.

Concerning RPGs, Old Empires are useful to Game-Masters especially with the values that can be drawn from the historical. The GM can draw from history to provide not just inspiration but also some basic facts about what an actual empire was capable of not just in temperament but technological innovation and in the development of the arts. Instead of making up value and legal systems from scratch, the GM can obtain them from history already fully laid out and time tested in both practice and enforcement.

Examples of this historical wealth are found with the Roman and Chinese empires. From the Roman the primary points being the military machine, its extreme emphasis on order, running water, a senate or discernible governing body later to be usurped by an emperor. With the Chinese its vast armies and their military organization/logistics, the capability of the mass production of goods especially arms, the development of writing, philosophy, and medicine. These are all various civilized developments, systems and discoveries that can only be advanced or even made within a stable civilization of a certain level of advancement.

The Prime Uses of an Old Empire within an RPG campaign are many. Building an Old Empire into the past of a setting can help to explain common gaming tropes like dungeons, make its heirs desperate to reclaim their “heritage” creating wider conflicts, and provide a foundational layer to the history of the world deepening its history.

Injecting History via an Old Empire provides an easy framework on which a GM can build a setting and giving their new world a sense of historical identity or lineage. This can drop clues for PCs to follow to long lost cities, leave behind valuable artifacts, and leave lost knowledge behind ripe for rediscovery. The places the adventuring PCs visit may have a visible lineage and unique identity linked to the old empire distinguished by architecture, place names, familial lineages, and political organizations.

Imperialism can serve as a motivator to both Players and the NPCs. Either can see the old empire as their heritage and want to reclaim some of that former glory. It can motivate NPC (sometimes Player) villainy through imperialism. “Just as the Roman empire had become the embodiment of the Stoic notion of the koinos nomos, the universal law for all mankind, so its heirs sought to impose their own legal and religious order on all the peoples they overran.” [Grafton. 310] An aging empire that is rapidly disintegrating may try to forge outward under new leadership or try to transform itself into a new power providing a dynamic changing backdrop where the PCs could stand to benefit from the ensuing chaos.

Old Empires can explain away Dungeons, Ruins, Artifacts, and other such RPG commonalities as its relics or ruins. As well as set the mood when traversing the ruins of its lost glory. “RUINS of former days, like ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECTS, litter Fantasyland. Only the large kind are important to the Tour, and even most of these will be just setting the mood. You are not expected to be happy on this Tour. The Ruins make you think of the sad losses of former days. But cheer up. Just occasionally you will find TREASURE in a Ruin.” [Jones. 164]

Using old empires as a foundational component of your game world does have a few drawbacks. These disadvantages are Imperialist concepts inherent in an empire can overwhelm a game, the Players may become resentful of being restricted by existent imperial law and power, and old empires tend to be over-used in fantasy fiction.

This idea, old empires, is cliché territory when it comes to fantasy fiction but if the cliché is fun why not use it in an RPG campaign. As long as it doesn’t bore the Players or inhibit their characters to the point of strangling the fun out of the game it’s fine.

Imperialist concepts can begin to take hold of the game and cause certain in game tensions to become uncomfortable in real life. One of these concepts being slavery when based on certain superficial aspects of characters such as race and culture, which might get construed as stereotypes where characters may start expositing certain lines that smack of real world racism just with different names. Another example is the justifications for theft or domination, which may group certain characters together and the previous can happen the same way and may end up in slavery that then can proceed even further into the overlap.

Lastly, the PCs can become hateful of civilization within the game world and run amok if it becomes too oppressive of a force within the game. Players as well can simply become bored or frustrated with an empire that constantly boxes them in and thwarts their plans without fail. There has to be some holes to room to breathe even in a very powerful and extremely oppressive power’s demesne. Players will work hard against the odds if there is at least a glimmer of hope of success.

In conclusion, Old Empires are tropes of fantasy fiction but in terms of tabletop RPGs, they are still useful and hold some fascinating avenues to explore. Old Empires are useful to GM’s when building a history for their world and providing an explanation for the origins of some fantasy RPG tropes such as dungeons and monster haunted ruins. There are disadvantages of course when using old empires in your game. You run the risk of tramping on old clichés, letting imperialist thinking to overwhelm your fantasy, and alienating your players through the over-application of imperial will.

However, the advantages of a successful implementation of an old empire (or empires) in your game can outweigh the negatives. A successful implementation takes some lessons, inspiration, and facts from history, avoids the standard tropes though a twist on or subversion of the idea, and makes sure it enhances the fun at the table!

 

Wondrous Objects #6 – The Wondrous Armory

Here’s another fantastic item to drop into any Dice & Glory campaign. However, it is not strictly speaking an object. Instead it’s a clever use of a combination of spells, a locale, and some mundane but high quality weapons. It has the potential to pull double-duty as a hidden stash and an enemy’s clever gimmick.

A sudden need to flex the magic system inspired it. There are endless variations depending only on character resources and their scope of spell knowledge.

Wondrous Objects are pregenerated fantastic items, mostly magical, for Dice & Glory. At the discretion of the GM wondrous objects can add a reward or additional threat to their game world easily and quickly. Also as pregenerated items Game Masters can drop them into a game session with little prep-work beyond reading the PDF.

Wondrous Objects #6: The Wondrous Armory – 663k

A hidden room of weapons summoned only by its master!

The Cabal of Eight Pt.44: Betrayed at Last!

Nighttime – the four mages stumbled into camp, beat-up and dirty. Gornix (played by Gil) was nursing a gut wound. On their way out from the treasure vault, they had backtracked to a few rooms that they had missed. Gornix had been gored by an animated obsidian rhino statue. Szoosha (played by Isis) and Fauna (played by Jenn) had been trampled but their shield items had saved them from everything but a dirty floor. Excor (played by Cris) emerged relatively unscathed from that encounter.

The porter and Arcan the wanderer were waiting for them with a hot dinner. Behind them, there was the carriage and three other wagons painted with the college arms with draft animals. They had found two more wagons hidden around the area.  In answer to an innocent “how long have we been here” he answered that “tomorrow will be the first of Late Summer”. The four mages also found that the pair hadn’t heard from the others since their departure days ago. Soon after eating, they settled in to sleep and the night passed peacefully.

Come morning the four mages began to patrol the perimeter hoping to get a bead on their lost companions. Fauna used her cabal medallion to try to contact the others but she got nothing. As they rounded the eastern portion of their clockwise run, Gornix tried his medallion. He got a static obscured reply with a faint voice that seemed to sound from a great distance. They continued south and as they came to the southeast corner, Szoo spotted a large red dune and a young swordtail dragon slithering over the crest towards them.

Excor got the drop on the beast and snared it with his Shadow Ribbons spell. From there on the fight was a slaughter until Gornix knocked it out of the ribbons with his Force Ram fortunately in the process killing the dragon. It had even managed to resist about half of the spells they had slung at it but the mages had attained a plateau of power that was beyond the unfortunate creature.

They wandered west then north, Szoo used his medallion and got a stronger signal. The words, “Yeeeargh! We’re comin’ through! WATCH OUT!” blasted into his head. At that moment, Gornix found a half-buried stone door and wanted desperately to get it open. Excor used his medallion to try to contact them. He was able to find out that they were fleeing a cave-in down a long hall that slanted steeply upward towards a stone door. However, they were all out of spells.

They backed off from the door and Gornix smashed the stone doors in with a well-placed Force Ram spell. Suddenly, through the door, their companions ran up and out one after the other. Belrae in dirty purple robes a green frog on his torn breast, Riahm his tattered half-brown half-green cloak flying behind him, Jirek in his shabby robes nursing a broken arm,  and Xanto the Wasp and his apprentice Bumble followed by two large wasps each hauling a large sack of booty.

Out of breath Belrae turned a finger towards the Wasp and shouted “we were almost KILLED because of THAT GUY!”.

The Wasp: “What me? No. I was looking out for all of our welfare, what would this little venture of yours be without the wealth I collected? We are all now very rich, celebrate my friends, we have all survived!”

Just then, a blast of sand, pebbles, and dust engulfed them from the open passageway. Later the four adventurers led their companions back to camp. They later prepared for dinner and were ready to ship out come dawn.

As they ate they talked excitedly amongst themselves with the Wasp being mildly ostracized, his apprentice next to him. She was somewhat reticent to talk to Fauna when the druidess tried to strike up a conversation. Gornix left the group for a quiet rock a ways outside of camp, a place where he could “see the stars”.

He sat lotus style on the pale stone in an area of hardened red waste and gazed at the endless Elysian field above. Studying the stars he used his astrological knowledge trying to divine whether their passage home would be a safe one. He also gathered some mana points and stored them in the crystal that topped his staff, just in case.

Seeming about to make an announcement the Wasp stood up, the two bags of loot just behind him and Bumble.

The Wasp: “Well, my friends though I regret to leave this little party despite the undue treatment, Adieu!” He waived his hand and both bags and Bumble all teleported away.

Cris: “F@#k’in Wasp! I should ‘a grabbed Bumble!”

Excor had tried to beat the Wasp to the punch and made a snatch for his arm. Unfortunately, he had been just a hair too slow. Cris was right though. With his roll, he could have easily grabbed Bumble leaving the Wasp in a precarious position when he arrived back in town sans pupil. Her father would have killed him. However, Excor went right for Xanto and thus missed, not by much, but missed all the same. The mages were disappointed the villain had flown. The missing loot just added insult to injury.

Paradoxically the players actually seemed quite relieved that Xanto the Wasp had finally betrayed them even as they griped about it.

About one week later, the mages arrived back in Ezmer sans Arcan. He had parted company just before they hit the headland. As they pulled the wagons to the city gates, they saw the city bulwarks singed and blackened. In places, they were nearly completely demolished. Dozens possibly more Wher dragons laid in several rows and clumps, most dead some still twitching and being speared by the legion of guardsmen cleaning up the battlefield.

Fauna: “What the hell happened here!?”

Isis: “Yeah, geesh!”

Cris: “Oh yeah, it’s a Dragon Summer. They converge on the Ezmerian Headlands to mate.”

The crowded corner of Silver Circle street and Western Avenue was bustling with wagons, carriages, pedestrians, and horse riders. A group of agile street urchins weaved through them all before disappearing. Szoosha ineffectually watched the scene coursing around the street level of the Red Helm tavern from the window above in the cabal clubroom.

Fauna, Gornix, and Excor were sitting around the table dividing the loot that they had won. Each of the four had received a gold ring and necklace with a bee motif as well as a gold dagger as their share. Fauna claimed the gold skullcap that granted a +4 bonus to I.Q. when worn. Gornix took the bracers that granted +2 STR. Szoo claimed a gold ring that granted the Fearsome Form I spell and a constant +5 bonus to resist poisons. Excor took the ring that granted the Verminous Might (Winged Flight) spell and a necklace that granted the Sting spell 3 times per day (after a roll-off between the players).

Excor pulled the small silver chest from the portable hole and found it empty; it had a felt lining that had an indentation in it that fit the Amber Bee. They left the lotus mirror, an intelligent item, hidden in the cabal room, as none of them wanted it. They hung the lotus maces that they had captured on the walls of the tiny chamber as trophies.

After that had been accomplished, Excor pulled forth the first large chest that Gornix had holed up from the lotus vaults. The chest was oak banded with black iron. In place of a lock, there was a polished gold skull with a large ruby, citrine, and emerald in the eye sockets and nasal cavity. The jaw was jointed. Showing restraint Gornix “clairvoyanced” the lock finding out that the gems were buttons and to unlock it, the correct two must be pressed. However, the wrong combo would unleash a blast of toxic Grey Lotus spore.

Suddenly the mechanism unlocked and the top popped open as Fauna pushed the yellow then green gems without prompting. They admonished her lightly and then turned their attentions to the contents.

Within were a high quality nega-steel bottle with an aquamarine stopper carved into a flower that contained three doses of water charged with anti-magic energy. There was also a phoenix feather cape (Level 7 item, fire proof, Charm Against Evil (constant), Temporal Jump (1 x day), Seal of Health (10 charges)), a copper armlet with a large emerald carved into a lotus (level 8 item, grants a +1 I.Q. to wearer), 10 platinum talons, an alligator hide sack filled with gold bee husks (approximately 10 lbs. of gold), and a Drake hide sack filled with 100 pieces of tiger’s eye.

They each took 2 platinum talons leaving 2 for the cabal coffers. Finding that the locking mechanism could reset itself they closed it intending to leave it in the cabal room. Excor then withdrew the second chest.

It was another large iron-banded oak chest. Its locking mechanism was a solid gold faceplate inscribed with a honeycomb pattern where four of the cells had holes and three were buttons. Each button was inscribed with a black wasp, a gold bee, and a gold lotus. They argued a little back and forth about which two buttons to push after Gornix used his clairvoyance to confirm that was what they had to do.

Isis: “I got this! Um, the people there had a religion centered around gold bees and lotuses so…”

Szoo pushed the gold bee and then the gold lotus buttons. The chest popped open. The naga released a held breath.

Within the chest were a pair of highest quality leather gloves with amber buttons (level 7, +8 to sleight of hand, Quickness (constant), Counterspell: Curse: Affliction by touch 1 x day), a highest quality mirror-polished mithral priestess figurine (level 8, a command word grants a +9 to diplomacy and Owl’s Wisdom (1D4 + 3) 2 x day), and a highest quality stiletto with a clear quartz pommel stone, a blue-dragon-hide grip and decorative runes along the starmetal blade (level 14, +1D6 acid damage, keen weapon (18-20 critical)). There were also 10 talons of ice-steel, a silk sack filled with 100 pieces of obsidian, and a superior quality silk sack filled with 100 emeralds.

From that hoard, each mage got as their share 25 emeralds, 25 pieces of obsidian, 2 ice steel talons, and 25 pieces of tiger’s eye. Szoosha took the phoenix feather cape (after a player roll-off), Excor the armlet (after a roll-off between Cris and Gil), Fauna the gloves (after a roll-off between Jenn and Gil), and Gornix took the stiletto. They left the cabal coffers with 2 ice steel talons and the priestess figurine.

The following day the mages decided to finish off their reading of Vordan’s Tome. They picked up at the fourth section. The section began with a brilliant full-page illuminated gold lotus illustration. The section goes on to discuss the gold lotus giving a location where it could be found describing the location as “southern ruins alongside a billabong overseen by a warlord’s red edifice by a river at the foot of a bloody spire far southeast of the old black temple”.

Cris: “Well, there it is. Guess that’s next?”

They read on. Several gold gilded pages made up the meat of the section. They described the spell of legend Alchemical Gold but it was incomplete. The pages following those were from an old accounting ledger with pictures of various types of gold coins.

The fifth section was composed entirely of more entries from Vordan’s diary. All lamented or cursed something. The most interesting parts were of Vordan lamenting the loss of his ladylove to a lying, handsome, & corrupt official followed by several bad poems, revenge fantasies, and laughable schemata to win her back. There was a potion formula however of Allure and the spell Eatables to Maggots.

The sixth section consisted of several pages of reproductions of familial heraldry, only some of which were recognizable as those still in use. Vordan’s personal arms occupied a page. A black, white, grey, green-eyed Karkadann head on an orange lozenge like a longshield with an open book at helm and crossed green-leaved branches at bottom composed the wizard’s arms. Following were some more accounting pages with an address in the Market District. They also found the Luminescent Sigil and Harmless Beam spells. A large illustration of a key was on the page with the latter.

The seventh section was a beautifully illustrated catalog of mystic lotus types. Its final page was about the gold lotus and mentioning, “The royal jelly of that certain bee is required to grow them”. The section ended abruptly however cutting off the text. A few almost incoherent poems in a loose and sloppy hand occupied the margins. The section also talked about the refinement and use of the mystic lotus in alchemy. When using this section to identify lotus flowers the reader would get a +3 to identify and a +2 skill bonus when using alchemy.

The eighth and final section was simply a fusion of three sections taken from Vordan the Magnificent’s autobiography. The three sections concerned a torrid love story, a wizard’s duel in which Vordan lost, and the laments of an aged shop-keep. There were also three amateurish sketches of an alley shop front, an old man, and a small room with a chair in front of a strange circular window. There they found the spells Alarm, Amulet of Power, and Tele-Location.

They had heard that the twin swans had left on a ship with their brothers in arms in pursuit of a Creschan vessel, something to do with Creschan Fire. They had also heard that their former benefactor Virtra Wefa had poisoned herself along with her grim servant when faced with arrest by the black and white swan knights.

Later that week they tried to track down the Wasp at his house behind the Nezorik family mansion. He wasn’t home. So Szoo and Excor deposited the animated armor in the portable hole in his living room and left.

The mages found that Bumble became scarce at the next few meetings. Also the two ‘leaders’ were becoming ever more secretive as they seemed to get closer to Draega Skullshine the publican. However, Jirek was still chummy with them.

As the Dragon Summer ended, the mages prepared for fall. Fauna readied to make certain necessary political maneuvers involving the Brothers of the Rope. The other three were gearing up their operation for the rat fights, which would go into high swing come winter.

End of the Campaign (played between June 2016 and June 2017).

The Cabal of Eight Pt.43: The Final Room

The sound of stone grinding against stone filled the mages’ ears as the solid black-stone door slid the monster in the final chamberdown into the floor stopping with the finality of a thud. That door would never close again. A large central fire lighted the oblong octagonal chamber before them. The walls were of the same dull black stone as the rest of the place and floors were polished white marble tile. The ceiling was flat and very high.

Directly to the south was an elevated platform with white stone steps leading up to its top where sat a small silver box with wood panels. Supporting the western and eastern walls were a pair of thick but plain black pillars. Against the southerly diagonal walls, one to the east and the other to the west sat large iron-banded oak chests.

Gornix (played by Gil) immediately prepared to run in to one of the large chests and Excor (played by Cris) was eyeballing the small silver box.

The GM (me): *Exasperated Sigh* “Make a spot check.”

Gil: *Roll*Roll* “Nope. I go to the first chest.”

Fauna (played by Jenn) and Szoosha (played by Isis) stopped the Salt-Lotus Wizard from blindly charging into the newly opened chamber. They pointed out the giant lion-like creature lying at the center of the room, the firelight being at the tip of its tail. Its three heads were rousing but still groggy. In a rumbling voice that they felt more than heard, the central head spoke. However, the mages did not speak its language nor did they want to “waste” any spells trying to understand what it had said.

Cris: “It has three heads!? And it can TALK!?”

Fauna immediately charged in casting Lightning Bolt. The bolt struck the beast with no effect. Gornix on the other hand, moved in cautiously to the side and using his Dark Secret wizard ability was able to let the others know that it was immune to electricity. He also gave them a pointer on how to take it out which was mostly an educated guess. Meanwhile, Excor cast Shadow Ribbons and amazingly bound the monster. The creature struggled against the shadows. All three of its heads roaring a horrific bone quaking roar of rage and confusion but the mages were unshaken. Szoo cast Elemental Half-Plate Armor (fire) on himself.

While the players all yelled at Jenn that the monster was immune to electricity, Fauna cast Lightning Bolt on it yet again. Gornix cast Amplify Magic his spell easily penetrating the monster’s resistance. Excor cast Slow on it, his magic also penetrating its resistance easily. The beast spat a fireball from its central head catching Fauna, Excor, and Gornix in the ensuing blast of swirling flames. Fauna stumbled but was saved by her Mage Armor, which was dispersed. Gornix took half damage having forgotten to engage his Shield and Excor’s Mage Armor absorbed the damage but was greatly weakened (not many Hit Points left). He had used an item to don it just before Gornix had opened the vault door. Szoo summoned his flaming naginata and charged in.

Gornix cast Force Ram at the creature crunching in some of its ribs wounding it horribly. Excor cast Paralyze II at it, his magic again easily penetrating its resistance to magic. Szoo put all his strength behind his blow as he rammed his weapon into its battered and bleeding side. However, the flame born weapon couldn’t penetrate its hide.

Gornix slung another Force Ram at the creature dealing it a crushing deathblow. The beast’s massive corpse slowly faded into nothingness. The battle was over. The mages assessed the damage, only Gornix had been wounded in that fight but he dismissed it as “nothing”. They spread out inspecting but not touching the chests and box.

Fauna checked the stairs leading to the top of the platform for traps, seeing none she ascended to the box.

Fauna (eagerly): “Should I open this chest guys?”

In response, Excor stepped out of the room and prepared to duck behind the stone jamb. Fauna took her time inspecting the box and the platform upon which it was resting. She found that the box had already been opened a long time ago and it was definitely trapped. She figured that it sat on a pressurized crevice that if it were removed would unleash poisonous gas from a hidden reservoir. Gornix tried to sense magic on it but was unable to get anything so instead he got a little frustrated.

Consequently, he cast Breath without Air on himself. Fauna backed off to the bottom of the stairs. Szoo left the room and ducked behind the doorjamb opposite Excor. He tried to identify the box but it was just a box. Therefore, he attempted to disarm the trap. Fauna retreated to the others. He failed to disarm it. Suddenly, a large several inches thick blue-steel door started to slide down over the lone entrance. Thinking quick, Excor tossed Gornix the Portable Hole. A second later, the door slammed down sealing the room airtight. A vast amount of gas billowed from the square hole the box had formerly concealed.

Gornix was now at the center of the room with the hole in his hands. He tossed the silver box in as the billowing gas snuffed out the last vestiges of his vision. The gas was sickly green and very thick. It blotted out all light blinding all normal vision. He was in pitch black even though he tried to light his way with his staff.

Cris: “Man! You’re totally blind in there! Be careful!”

Gornix carefully felt his way slowly around the room to the first chest. He holed it up suddenly feeling and hearing a huge torrent of gas blasting into the room causing his ears to pop with the pressure.

Gil: “Aw man, I’m glad I got breath, breathe without air on me!”

He slowly moved across the room to the other chest. Almost tripping at about the center of the room, he was able to maintain his balance. He edged ever closer but had a little bit of a struggle to feel out the second chest. The gas chilled his skin. He could feel it billowing through his hair and between his fingers. Eventually he found the second chest and holed it up as well. Once again, he triggered the trap concealed by the chest and again a huge ice-cold gust of gas hissed into the room. Consequently, Gornix felt the building pressure in his lungs now and the gas was leaving a sticky residue over his skin, in his hair, and on his clothes.

So, he moved quickly towards the metal door keeping his hand on the wall after he felt past the pillars. He made it easily to the now freezing blue-steel and used Ghost Step to exit the gas-filled chamber.

Fauna: “I wonder if there were any concealed doors in there?”

Szoo: “Oh yeah, we never checked!”

Gornix: “Well I don’t think anybody is going to be able to go back in there ever again.”

He “prestidigitized” himself clean. Fortunately, the toxin did not seem to be a contact poison.

Excor (shrugging): “Whatever let’s get outta here! And give me back my hole.”

Jenn and Isis burst out into hysterical fits of maniacal laughter. Gil just clinched his eyes shut and put his hand over his face. Cris flipped the two women the bird.

To Be Concluded…

The Cabal of Eight Pt.42: The Lotus Vaults Pt.2

The shattered remains of the door lay before Gornix (played by Gil) revealing a long hallway to the The Lotus Vaults and all its doorssouth. As the others, Fauna (played by Jenn), Szoosha (played by Isis), and Excor (played by Cris) moved slowly and carefully down the newly opened passage, Gornix peeked back through the eastern archway. He found another passage going southward. He sneered with doubt and followed the rest of the group catching up to take over lead position.

The group approached the dimly lit chamber at the end of the hallway (9 on the map). The small room flickered with firefly light from its southeast corner. Against the northwest corner and occupying all of that 5 ft.-square space was a large piece of semi-transparent yellow-orange amber. Caught within they could see an ancient warrior in scale mail, a horned open helm on his head , his axe raised, his sharpened teeth bared in an eternally frozen bestial rage.

This feature made them wary of the room and Gornix took a little time to search the floor. He found a small, hastily scrawled magic circle. It was still carrying a charge and he was sure that it summoned something when crossed. He just did not know what. Excor heedless, portable-holed the amber encased barbarian.

Excor: “What? It’ll go great in my tower! … When I have it built.”

Gornix was determined to move on and with the barrier of the amber husk gone; he began to lead the group. Of course, he accidentally stepped directly over the magic circle activating it.

Three Lightning Bugs sprang into existence with a magic flash identical to the one that they had faced not long before. The fight was brief. Gornix turned the tide early with a cone of fire that killed two and Szoo and Excor pummeled the last to death with a fire ray and Chrono-Missile. That taken care of they proceeded to the end of the short passage.

There they found a rusty iron door with a magic rune carefully inscribed upon its face to the north (D8). Its key lock mechanism was jammed and badly rusted. Gornix used his knowledge of Magical Script to identify the rune and its purpose. He knew that if the door was attacked in any way that it would summon a giant inferior water elemental.

Cris: “aw man! If we activate that thing we’re all dead! DEAD! Look at where we’re at! A giant water elemental will fill this place up, engulf us, we’ll all drown!”

They stood there puzzled for a little while and very wary of the door. The players even checked their sheets to see who could swim. Only Fauna had the skill.

Gil: “There is definitely something worth it behind that door.”

They searched the old iron door for the depression that would allow the Amber Bee to open it as it had others previously. However, they found that it did not have this. Gornix and Excor decided to do a synergized check for traps. They scoured the surface of the door and its edges for any sign at all.

They found nothing aside from the rune. So Excor tried using the Knock spell from his platinum key. However, the door was firmly jammed shut and simply couldn’t be opened without the use of force. In response, Gornix had the bright idea to just “ghost step through”.

Gil: “Wait, wait, wait! Mini-portal spell to see what’s happening first.”

Through the small portal, they could see nothing but darkness. Therefore, Szoo shoved his flaming naginata through it allowing them to see inside via the flame light. The chamber beyond was another octagonal chamber and very plain with a flat ceiling each of its walls lined with dark and very dusty wooden shelves (10). They could see several jars of what appeared to be seeds and maybe some preserved honey.

Excited by this sudden treasure trove Excor and Gornix ghost stepped into the chamber. Excor cast illuminate. They proceeded to loot the place shoving everything into the portable hole. The group managed to snatch a single jar of grey lotus honey, 2 jars of golden lotus honey, 1 jar of yellow lotus honey, and 1 of purple. They also found 3 jars of lotus seeds with grey, blue, and black respectively. With that they also found 4 jars of pure lotus pollen; purple, red, blue, and yellow. The pair also found an ancient rotting scroll case hidden amongst the shelves and holed that up without opening it. They exited via ghost step.

They backtracked with Gornix in the lead. He slowly moved towards the next chamber at the end of the hall just above the amber warrior room the passage opening to the east. This chamber (11 on the map) was lit by several firefly ambers in the wall niches and seemed very plain save for the white tiled floor. Other than that, the room was completely empty. He was sure that there were no traps in here so he lead them through noticing however that there were weapon nicks everywhere along the walls and even on the floor.

The group moved through into the next connecting chamber through a tall deep archway. There may have been a door ages ago but there was no trace left. The room before them was enormous and very brightly lit as if by the sun itself. All four of the mages were gazing in wonder from the archway.

Within the room had a domed ceiling its apex at 35 ft. tiled with a mosaic of a sparsely clouded blue sky. The floor tiled with polished white marble, the thick black pillars were lotus themed, and gold leafed with chevron patterns. They could see what looked like a miniature sun orbiting around the inside of the dome cascading the room with pure daylight. At the center of the room was a barren planter sunk into the floor. However growing in that was a 20 ft. tall woody lotus flower of a kind unknown to any of them. Its large brown petals were shriveled and leather like, and its woody bole was wart covered and twisted.

In the south wall were a recess and a door cut from the same black stone. Standing in the north where the room opened into a natural cavern was a golden statue of a bee about the half the height of a man. Within that portion of the area, there was a small waterfall to the east pouring down a wall of uncut natural stone into a large curbed basin or cistern. They could smell the strong scent of fresh, clean moisture and the musk of old damp wood.

What concerned them and impeded their progress was the giant brown lotus. They were hesitant to trespass on its territory. Therefore, Fauna used her wilderness lore to surmise that the plant was indeed dead, she thought. Gornix however knew through his monster lore that the Lotus was not dead but dormant and was some sort of mutation caused by the nexus. He guessed that they must have been near the nexus that fueled this place. Gornix cast Breath without Air on himself and made sure his shield item was activated. They stood at the archway looking in. None of them wanted to be the first.

Gornix: “I have Breath without Air and Shield so f@#k it!”

Fauna: “Wait! Let me Commune with Nature first!”

Before the brash Gornix moved in towards the giant lotus, the druidess was able to discern that the plant was indeed an unnatural monster and was very much alive. She also was able to locate the rest of the cabal whom were still alive and close. In addition, the monstrous plant was growing directly on top of the nexus point. Gornix stepped in. With the painful creaking of wood, the monster plant turned and opened its petals like jaws.

Fauna cast Lightning Bolt from the arch dealing little damage. Excor cast Mage Armor on himself. Szoo hurled fire at the creature singing it a little bit. The mouth of the giant lotus turned towards Excor and Gornix unleashing a blast of woody seeds as projectiles. Excor dodged while Gornix attempted but failed losing his Shield.

Fauna lobbed another Lightning Bolt again dealing a little damage. Szoo again hurled fire at the creature barely singing it. Suddenly the soil in the planter erupted and a root like a tentacle whipped at Gornix. The White Lotus Wizard used his battle magic to intercept its attack with Force Ram. His spell smashed into the bole shattering bark and splitting the tentacle.

Excor cast Lightning Bolt at the creature dealing a little damage. Szoo hurled more fire dealing some damage this time but the plant had still not caught fire. Another root-tentacle erupted from the soil and snapped Excor wrapping around his waist and grappling him in a crushing noose. Gornix successfully cast Amplify Magic at it.

Another root exploded from the dark soil narrowly missing Szoo.

Fauna cast another Lightning Bolt this time the magic amplified she shattered bark and split wood nearly killing the creature. Gornix followed up with Force Ram smashing the monster into splinters. After they were sure it was dead, they spread out to explore the gigantic day lit chamber.

Excor wandered over to the gold bee statue. Formed by pressing and welding hundreds maybe thousands of dead gold bee husks together it was impressive. After searching it, he found an old note rolled and stuffed into a small crevice. He read it after casting Comprehend Languages. It read:

I have faith that you have found my note be that only you, my love, would in our little place. I am confident that we will soon be together as you have the bee to guide you. Though I still fear for you as the barbarians near the temple after trampling the capital. But I still pray that my yearning will be ended and we will be together finally at the glorious spire.

The signature had long since disintegrated and just after finishing the note the ancient parchment crumbled to dust in his hands.

Gornix: “Hey, what was that?”

Excor: “Aw nuthin’”

Excor bagged the gold bee statue. Meanwhile Gornix turned his attentions to the dead lotus. Inspecting the stump, he found the control obelisk within as the plant had grown over and around it encapsulating it. After all were satisfied that they couldn’t and probably shouldn’t bag the miniature sun, mostly Excor objected, they turned their collective attentions southward towards the black door.

This recessed door was of the same solid black stone from which most of this place had been chiseled (D9). It was 5 ft. wide and close to 12 ft. tall. Carved on the dull surface a couchant lion with a flame burring over its head. There was a small niche in the shape of the Amber Bee just below that.

Excor unwilling to open the door himself tossed the Amber Bee to Gornix who unhesitatingly opened it.

Gornix: “All right! This is it!”

To Be Continued…

The Cabal of Eight Pt.41: The Lotus Vaults Pt.1

Our four adventurers, Excor (played by Cris), Fauna (played by Jenn), Gornix (played by Gil), and Szoosha (played by Isis), stumbled into camp to the northeast of the ruins. They were dirty and somewhat worn by their foray into the black tombs beneath. Here they found Arcan the wanderer and the last of Bumble’s attendants whom prepared some food for them. Arcan and the driver were a little dismayed at Fauna’s frog mount though. The mages sat and ate for only a half hour and then immediately left again. Szoo and Gornix wanted to check out the hill.

Before they vacated the comforts of their campsite however, Szoosha used his cabal medallion to try to get a hold of the others.

Szoo [gripping the medallion and “concentrating”]: “Where are you?”

“Underground”, was all that he got in response. Disappointed at that the four mages disembarked for the hill. Before that, Fauna made sure to have Arcan care for her “froggy”. Arcan seemed to be able to keep it under control so she left her “steed” with him with no further worries.

Excor [to Gornix]: “Didn’t you fly over that already?”

Gornix: “Yeah. But it was a fly by, so I didn’t get a good look.”

Thanks to Gornix’s magic (Mass Nature’s Ability: Winged Flight) it was not long before they found themselves crowning the strange hill between the broken black pillars. They had guessed that a Leyline Nexus Point was around here somewhere, maybe at or under this hill. Therefore, Szoo used his Geomancy skill to try to suss it out but to no avail. The only thing he could glean was that they were very close to a source of great mystical power and that was all.

They all stood around the low and badly weathered black stone alter at the center of the small plateau. A layer of dirt and tangles of dead grasses covered the ground concealing a floor of solid smooth black stone. Gornix, in his continuing search for hidden compartments and secret doors, noticed a small depression in the top of the altar near its top edge. He turned to Excor but Excor wasn’t there. He had stayed on the ground still at the base of the hill.

Gornix: “Hey! We need the bee! Get up here!”

Excor: “Hell no! I don’t wanna be up there!”

The other two began yelling at Excor to come up and bring the Amber Bee. Eventually he relented and used his Gold Ring of Winged Flight and flew up, handed the bee to Gornix, and backed off hovering a good distance away. A little nervous from Excor’s performance of nervosa Gornix cautiously fitted the Amber Bee into the depression.

They all jumped when the ground began to rumble but were relieved when the round altar began to slide back revealing a hidden spiral stone-stair. It took a little while for Gornix to convince the rest of them to accompany him down yet again into the breach.

Gornix: “C’mon! Let’s adventure for the treasure … and stuff!”

Isis: “You had me at stuff!”

So they elected Gornix to lead them down. The Salt Lotus Wizard lit his oil lamp and tied it to his sash instead of using a spell to light his staff for light. On the way down, he checked every step before he stepped on it by “jabbing” it with his staff.

After several minutes of winding slowly down the spiral step they ultimately set foot into the bottom octagonal chamber (1 on the map). The walls were of dull black stone carved from the living rock. The ceiling was 12 ft. above their heads its dome tiled with a pale blue glaze a golden orb at the apex. Amber fireflies burned eerily in their niches. There were doors to the south and west. The western door was solid gold painted with lotuses of all the known colors wrought in crushed gems (D2). It was apparent that the door was locked. The eastern door was identical to the west (D1).

After some time spent inspecting every nook and cranny as best they could the four mages were at a sort of impasse. Gornix however unilaterally decided to force ram the western door. His magic smashed in the door, the opposite way that it actually opened.

Excor: “Man you knew that door opened in!”

Gornix: “Oh! I forgot about that.”

Excor: “We can’t shut it now!”

Gil: “I got trigger happy. C’mon guys! I couldn’t help it.”

Szoo: “Well, if there’s anything down here they know we’re here now!”

Gornix wanted to inspect the southern door but the others wanted to keep moving due to the racket he caused. He didn’t argue.

Behind the mangled door, they found a short hallway that turned south to steps down with amber fireflies flickering in the niches. Just before the steps, lying across the floor was a corpse. Upon inspection, they found that in life it had been a warrior perhaps centuries ago. Excor judging by the remnants of armor on the body and the sharpened teeth still in the skull guessed that it had been an ancient Westlander warrior.

Excor was an expert on Westlander culture though he was Ivoran nobility. He often tried to adopt the ways of the Westlands but his foppishness and refinement always seemed to surface. Gornix did a necrology check to make sure it wasn’t an undead creature lying in ambush. It wasn’t.

Cris [to Gil with a scowl]: “You have the necrology skill!? I’ll be watching you.”

Gornix led them into the lower chamber past the steps. This chamber was another octagonal cell with black walls and amber fireflies burning in their niches to the west. The ceiling was a gleaming gold tiled dome. On the northeast and southeastern walls were colorful mosaics of priests and priestesses among lotuses with gold bees flying all about them. To the south was a solid gold door painted with powdered gems representing all the known colors of the lotus blossom (D3) with a latch and no lock. To the east was a plain black iron door with no apparent lock (D3A).

Gornix pondered it for a second then decided to open the plain iron door. Excor cast Shield on himself. Behind was only a short dark passageway that ended at yet another plain unlocked iron door. Somewhat disappointed whereas the others were relieved Gornix cast Mini-Portal on the gold door (D3) in order to see what was behind it. He could see the end of a long hallway a firefly lighting the area behind the door (H2) and could also see that the floor was glistening as if it were mirror-polished or maybe greased. Though he wasn’t sure. The floor slanted down to the east. However, despite that he did still want to open that door.

He agonized for ages about maybe using his Ring of Levitation in order to prevent contact with the strange floor. Gil kept flipping through his notes, his spell sheets, and wavering between “I’m doing it” and “Let’s not but I can’t stop being curious”.

Cris: “Well do it or don’t do it!”

Ultimately, Gornix decided to go through the short passage behind the iron door. He led the adventuring party into another octagonal chamber where the amber fireflies burned in niches to the south and the ceiling dome was bare black stone (4). To the north was a solid gold door with a honeycomb and bee motif with an obviously hastily scrawled ward on it (D5). It also appeared locked. To the south was an iron door identical to the one from which they had just emerged. On closer inspection, the door to the south had severe rust damage to the bottom half to the point that the edge was ragged and brittle.

They stared intently for several minutes at the golden door and its sloppy rune. Excor identified the runic marking and told the group that should the door be touched in any way that the rune would summon a Lightning Bug. Gornix pried in closer and saw that there was an indention in the door where the locking mechanism was. He questioned whether using the Amber Bee to open it would set it off. So of course, he stuck the gem in the notch and hoped for the best.

The door opened and in a flash of mystical light, a Lightning Bug appeared to block their way. The Lightning Bug was a wasp-like creature the size of a man. Its body was black and yellow with the yellow stripes having a lightning bolt pattern on its abdomen. The cold metallic green compound eyes reflected their wide-eyed faces back at them.

Szoosha moved in and slashed unsuccessfully at it with his flaming naginata. Excor cast Slow on the monster but to no effect. Gornix cast Chrono-Missile at it. It moved in a flash as it tried to dodge but instead put itself into harm’s way. The missiles hit it hard cracking its flamboyant exoskeleton. Fauna tried to stab at it with her dagger but fumbled the strike.

Szoo slashed at it again but again missed. Excor cast Shadow Ribbons and easily ensnared the monstrous vermin. Gornix unleashed more Chrono-Missiles blasting a hole in its side. It struggled desperately to free itself of the shadow wrappings buzzing madly. Fauna stabbed it with her dagger getting a raw smelling light brown fluid on the blade.

Szoosha stepped into his blow and ran the creature through killing it in a burst of flame that reduced it to blackened ash.

Gornix undaunted by the fresh stench of cremated wasp-monster walked over to the iron door to the south and inspected it for traps. Finding nothing, he opened and peered into the hallway behind it (H2). Against the eastern wall of the hallway was a forest of long iron spikes that still seemed to be razor tipped. Tangled in a slowly disintegrating heap were a score of human bones.

Gornix [shrugging]: “Oh. We’re going north.”

He led them into a short passage lit by fireflies in the niches that turned eastward to a long stone stair down the other end of which was also lit by firefly gems and visible. The passage at that point angled south onto more downward steps and into darkness. They noticed a faintly glowing magic circle scribed into the floor that had been behind the gold door. They couldn’t identify it so they just “stepped around it”. This time they tramped quickly not testing every step.

However, when they were about halfway between the lighted portions of the long step in the middle of the stair the magic circle they had stepped over and another at the other end sparked to life briefly throwing out an intense a red glow. After the light faded a fire as high as a man and with the faint shape of one, stood at the top of the stairs, and at the bottom swarmed three large unnaturally colored bees.

Szoosha being a Fire Elementalist tried to rebuke the fire elemental. He failed. The bees buzzed in and attacked. One struck Gornix’s shield dispersing it. Another aimed its dagger-like stinger at Fauna who parried it with her dagger. The third jabbed at Szoo and struck home as he opened himself up to the blow while trying to avoid it (Natural 1 parry). Luckily, Szoo was immune to the bee’s poison and the bee was now dying but still able to use heretofore unseen other attacks. Gornix activated his Shield. Excor cast Chrono-Missile at the “lead bee” blasting it to bits. Fauna stabbed at a second bee dealing a killing blow. The fire elemental advanced on Szoo getting close enough to singe the naga’s scales.

The bee that had stung Szoo spat what looked like a Sting spell at him but the magic had no effect on the naga. Szoo turned and successfully rebuked the fire elemental forcing it under his control. With the battle won Szoo decided to let the fire elemental lead for a while.

They turned onto the now lit southward stair and then onto the level paved floor of a short passage leading into a large octagonal chamber (H3). On either side of them were firefly niches. They emerged led by the living fire into the large chamber at the end.

This octagonal chamber had a gold-leafed dome ceiling with the apex at 25 ft. There was a thick black stone column in each of the four corners with a lotus blossom motif and gold leaf chevron patterns ringing them. To the west, a stone stair sank into the floor and to the east stood three badly rusted and battle-damaged suits of full plate armor. Each bore weapon, one had great sword, the second a great axe, the last a great mace.

In the south rested a 3 ft. high dais serving as the pedestal of a 15 ft. tall white marble statue of a four-armed goddess with gold insect wings and a pair of golden horns. Two of her arms reached towards the heavens the other two extended palms up. A solid gold beehive vessel rested in her large right palm and in the other an amber scroll case. At her feet were the remains of ancient sacrifices and libations, bits of clay, glass, seeds, old wax, cinders, and bits of bone.

Cris: “Aw man, those armors are going to come alive and kill us!”

Excor rushed to the first suit of armor, the one with the great sword in its hands, and whipped out the portable hole draping it over and safely storing the thing inside. Immediately the suits of armor became animate, their rusty joints squealing like dying boars. Excor hastily rolled the portable hole back up and stuffed it in his robes.

Gornix cast shadow ribbons on one but it was too strong. It tore the ribbons of shadow that shattered like glass and then evaporated into nothing. Szoosha remembered that his ruby-studded copper bracers contained the armor bane spell and so he touched the axe wielding armor damaging it badly but not disintegrating it. The fire elemental touched the same target with its fiery touch but to no effect. The axe wielding armor hacked at Excor dispersing his shield. Fauna cast a lightning bolt at the mace wielder to little effect.

Jenn: “But I thought that metal couldn’t reduce electricity damage.”

Cris: “Yeah, but there’s nobody in there!”

An animated armor smashed its mace into the semi-solid fire elemental causing its flame to weaken and dim.

Gornix cast energy tentacle summoning forth a bolt of magical energy that he could use as an appendage. He tried to grapple the axe wielding armor but it was able to break free. Szoo reached out and grabbed the axe wielder disintegrating it to a pile of reddish flakes and dust. Fauna pulled her dagger and stabbed at the last animated armor to little effect. Excor activated his gold turquoise ring that cast a circle of protection around him. The mace wielding armor smashed the fire elemental with its weapon causing the living fire to poof out of existence.

Gornix maintained his energy tentacle and tried once again to ensnare and entangle the last animated armor but again it easily broke free. Szoo smashed his fist into it smashing it into a cascade of rust. It crumpled into a scattered reddish mess on the floor.

After the fight, Excor used far hand to grab the amber scroll case, as he was wary of traps. Casting comprehend languages on the scroll he found within he found it was simply a prayer scroll to a long forgotten deity in whose statue’s palm it had lain for centuries. Gornix far handed the gold beehive for the same reason. Fauna identified the gold lotus honey that remained within (1 dose). They stowed away their loot and moved on with Gornix in the lead.

He guided them down the stairs that sank into the next lower chamber (6). The room was pitch dark and much colder than the previous as chilly as the black tombs. They passed between two thick columns of black stone and as they passed between two large solid-gold braziers bejeweled with emeralds, the ancient things burst to life as white flames erupted forth and lit the room with a pale flickering firelight but leaving the corners dark and deepening the shadows behind the pillars.

The blue ceramics tiled the floor and at the center of the room, a faded white stain in an odd shape marred the tiles. To the west lay a solid gold door with a honeycomb and bee motif with no lock but a latch (D6).

Gornix eagerly moved into the center of the room to inspect the white stain. He saw that it had an uncanny resemblance to a human in fetal position. He realized what it was.

Gil: “Aw f@#k!”

Szoo caught movement out of the corner of his eye somewhere in the shadows at the edges of the room. The naga pointed out the direction and Excor and Gornix were able to spot a young priestess ducking behind the northernmost pillar.

Isis [at Jenn]: “Hey sis ya gonna talk to her?”

Jenn: “Hell no I know there’s nothing living down here.”

Excor cast illuminate casting the whole room in a bright light. The young priestess suddenly became transparent in the full light and her features withered and shriveled into that of an ancient corpse.

The battle was brief but energetic. The Lotus Wizard had identified the priestess as a wraith and the white spot her likely resting spot her body having disappeared over time. Gornix caused a magic explosion on a fumbled spell that wounded himself, Szoo, and Excor. Fauna slung lightning bolts and ultimately after their victory Gornix was out of spells and down a K.O. point. The creature dropped an agate, gold necklace fashioned after a lotus blossom, and a gold light mace with the head fashioned after a lotus flower.

Gornix carefully inspected the gold door and found that it was trapped and more by luck than skill, he disarmed it and opened the door. They moved into a smaller plain room with lotus motif pillars at each corner and amber fireflies in the niches (7). At the center of the room squatted a superior quality scrying pool, long since dry, of rose marble. They opted to move through the open archway to the south after Excor snatched the scrying pool up in the portable hole.

In the next chamber (8 on the map), amber fireflies burned in the niches their strange little lights glinting off the gold leafed dome ceiling. To the south were a sturdy carven wooden door (D7) and an open archway to the east.

The wooden door fascinated Gornix. Upon it was finely carved a scene of humans gathering honey from honeycombs surrounded by lotus blossoms. A heavy black iron key lock that appeared rusted shut even if they had the key to open it secured the door. Excor tried to use his magic key on it but found that the knock spell just wouldn’t work on it.

Szoo: “Ooh! Ooh! Let me BURN IT!”

Gil: “Naw. I know what tool to use … force ram!”

To Be Continued…