Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Desolate Days: A Super-Basic Feeble Goblin RPG!

(So I've been knocking an idea around for at least three years now. The catalyst for the thought was reading about the RPG setting Midnight, where a very obvious Middle-Earth expy is mostly conquered by the resident Dark Lord and players take the role of people either surviving, fighting the occupation, or ushering in the darkness. The question it raised was "what would it be like if the story began even farther along than this?" What if the forces of evil won entirely? Well, evil likes to turn in on itself in most stories, so I figured that after a brief victory lap, the villain would implode from pyrrhic hollowness or just plain boredom, and leave only ruins behind.

It quickly became a post-apocalyptic setting where I could guiltlessly let my two major biases--mistreated goblins and desolate beauty--play out in full. Of course that was three years ago, and up until now I just idly kicked around a bunch of different systems and rules as I tried to figure out what worked best; d20, TROIKA!, Savage Worlds, USR, Fighting Fantasy, Powered by the Apocalypse, Cypher, Engine Heart, and even one very ill-advised dip into board game mechanics.

Nothing really worked out to my liking, so eventually I decided to do my own thing... by which I mean ripping bits and pieces from other existing ultra-simple RPGs like In Darkest Warrens.

I offer zero promises for this thing's balance or enjoyability now that it has finally sloughed out of my brain, but here is what I have completed so far.

Originally it was meant to be one of those trendy little single-page RPGs, and it can still work like that because I avoided the worst of my habitual rambling (unlike in this intro segment). But I've since begun work on point-crawl exploration mechanics and encounter tables in order to make the game more than just a work generator or GM fiat machine. More will be forthcoming, as are edits.

Also, happy surviving into the New Year, dear Burrowers! Or new years, depending on your calendrical preferences.)

DESOLATE DAYS is a game about sifting through the ruins. You are goblins, newly awoken from your stasis vault after the end of the world. All is a wasteland; everyone from humans and elves, to gods and your former Dark Lord is gone. Set out from the cold comfort of your caves. Explore. Fill the gnawing vacuum. Inherit old legacies, or discard them.

GOBLINS are endearingly wretched little things. They have no history except for the nightmares they have of the Time Before. Tools more advanced than sticks and loincloths are a novelty to them. They are curious, eusocial, and yet to discover concepts like ‘war’ or ‘personal space’.

STATS define your ability to overcome adversity. Stats represent your goblin’s weaknesses; the lower the number, the better. The four Stats are:

Weakness- athletics, breaking stuff, enduring the elements, etc.
Clumsiness- balancing, hiding, delicate touches, aiming, etc.
Naivete- knowledge, problem-solving, learning “magic”, etc.
Timidity- social skills, being brave, resisting actual magic, etc.

Assign 3, 4, 4, and 5 to your Stats. Stats can change over time, but may never be less than 2 or greater than 6.

RISKS are taken when you want to perform an action that can result in failure. To Risk, roll d6 vs a relevant Stat; roll equal to or higher than your Stat to succeed. If you fail a Risk, you may Push Yourself to reroll once by increasing a Stat by 1. Circumstances may modify a roll by ±1 or more.

ENCOUNTERS are situations where goblins have to roll several Risks to succeed, and may suffer Anguish if they fail. They can be combat, exploration, interpersonal conflicts, etc. All participating goblins earn 1 Progress per Encounter, whether it ends well or not. There are usually 3 Encounters in a day.

ANGUISH is the physical and mental trauma a goblin can withstand before breaking under the pressure. A goblin’s Anguish starts at 0. Max Anguish is 6, but can be raised as high as 10. When you take damage or suffer stress, increase Anguish by that amount. When you reach max Anguish, you are Broken.

BROKEN means a goblin cannot act. They are unconscious, catatonic, or both. Broken goblins can be revived with the help of friends during a Rest. Revived goblins are reset to half their max Anguish (rounded up). If all goblins are Broken, the expedition is lost.

SPECIAL THINGS are items a goblin finds in the wild and decides to keep close for their utility or sentimental value. A Special Thing can give +1 to one very specific Risk, like a piece of lucky rope that lets you climb better. A goblin can hold up to 3 Special Things.

MAGIC” is anything the goblins do not understand, which to a band of childlike stone-age agoraphobes is… most things. Starting a fire, drawing complex plans in the dirt, or picking herbs to ease a stomachache are all examples ofMagic” spells. Unlike Special Things, you don’t get any bonuses to Risks from using spells, but the right piece of “Magic” gives you new options. You must first witness a spell in order to learn it.

RESTING lets goblins recuperate, compartmentalize, and give hugs. In a safe place you can Rest to reduce Anguish and/or spend Progress Points. Goblins lose up to 2 Anguish per Rest, (3 if you spend Progress). Resting more than once a day might lead to unexpected Encounters.

PROGRESS is about overcoming your weaknesses. While Resting, you may spend Progress in the following ways:

Lose 3 Anguish instead of 2 = 1 point
Decrease a Stat by 1 (minimum 2) = 1 point
Increase max Anguish by 1 = 2 points
Learn a piece of “Magic” = 3 points
Revive a Broken goblin = 4 points (anyone can contribute, including the goblin in question)

Monday, December 28, 2020

They Skitter

The World-Spider came, and those who heard its approach were the first to go.

It started off as a distant scratching at the door, or the rustling of thick, bristly hairs over cloth. They tried their best to ignore them.

But the sounds came closer, and grew louder, until they proved too difficult to ignore- or to deny.

Soon they entered those ill-fated minds, and took up scratching and bristling against the backs of their brains. The sounds reverberated outward across their nerves like vibrations on strands. Actions ceased to be of their own volition, and thoughts of alien origin became the norm. With time, even the frantic undercurrent wishing for those scratching, skittering sounds to stop was subsumed.

What was leftover was a vessel.

For some time, they managed to look outwardly normal- at least at a glance. Speech became halting and unnatural, and virtually all daily routines were abandoned. But they retained their shape, and general knowledge possessed by the people who once were. And these qualities were used to their advantage. Few could hold themselves together long enough to infiltrate high and mighty places, but a body with only two legs was good enough when seen from a distance. No time could be wasted in their attempts to prepare the way.

Soon they were drawn together by strands of silk that only they could see, led to empty and desolate places where they could unsheathe themselves and work unobstructed. They tapped into the underlying web beneath all things, and sent such a tremor through it that the location of the world was impossible for the World-Spider to miss. They also kept abreast of anyone or anything that has heard the scratching at the door, but has managed to resist- or worse, work against it.

Once all legitimate threats are eliminated, and the World-Spider has been summoned irrevocably, its extensions may finally know the end. When the sky is wreathed in its silky cocoon, and the soft cries of reality itself can be heard, they are the first to be unmade. All becomes twitching legs and needle-like hairs for one moment of awful exultation, but just as suddenly the writhing mass dissolves into liquid potential.

They are spared the sight of fangs piercing the heavens as the world dies, though few of their many eyes would even be functional enough to see.

Of course, even that end would be welcomed, after so long spent under the direction of Mr. Sticks.

A nest of skittering signs and rumors

  1. Dust and cobwebs are accumulating at an alarming rate all over town. They seem to return after every footstep or broom sweep.
  2. Parents are alarmed at a new game which has taken their children by storm of late. It is called "Feeding the Cellar Door".
  3. The sudden surplus of fine silk on the market has caused massive devaluation, economic shakeup, and a growing fashion war between the upper and lower classes.
  4. A curious delicacy has begun appearing in coastal restaurants catering to the fine and exotic. They call it "land crab", and it is said to originate in Other Parts.
  5. Paupers and transients have been vanishing off the streets in increasing numbers for weeks. The authorities are only becoming concerned now that a few members of their secret police have gone missing undercover.
  6. Astrological circles have been in a bit of a tizzy recently. They insist that the stars seem "wrong" somehow. No one is listening to them.
  7. A string of grizzly murders has been committed. Each victim has been drained of bodily fluids through massive puncture wounds. Specialists suspected an unsanctioned vampire at first, but those do not grow barbed hairs like the ones found at each crime scenes.
  8. Something has been eating people's pets of late. Even when they are behind locked doors, several stories above ground.
  9. Services at one of the city's chief temples were interrupted when the high priest tried and failed five times to speak their god's name. On the sixth attempt, they vomited a mass of animate spider legs that then fled into the rafters, catacombs, and dark corners of the temple. Extermination is ongoing.
  10. Increasing numbers of clerics (as well as the odd warlock) are reporting that their patrons are responding less and less to their prayers, and that their voices sound faint and somehow 'peckish'.
  11. Spells tied to conjuration or the manipulation of planar magic are fizzling, being disrupted, or having wholly unintended effects.
  12. A wealthy noble's scion was spotted departing their estate with a strange gait one night during a storm. Their family has quashed all search & rescue efforts.
  13. A geomancer from one of the frontier areas was arrested for disturbing the peace. They insisted that the earth is 'thrumming in fear'.
  14. Nearby farmland is covered in record numbers of cicada exoskeletons, but not a single cicada was seen or heard, and the next brood wasn't expected for several years.
  15. The old, disused trestle bridge seems to be under renovation now. What else are all the ropes and midnight lamps for?
  16. That band of herb-burning itinerants hastily packed their wagons and left the vacant lot the other day. Most of the locals say good riddance to them, but their manner as they departed seemed strangely mournful.
  17. The provost has ordered the urban park to be closed with no warning or explanation. The guard will not release the people trapped behind its gates.
  18. A fire destroyed large sections of the local monster hunter's guild hall. No fatalities were reported, but untold sums in specialized weapons and equipment have been lost.
  19. Some new skin disease has been making the rounds lately. The rashes and peeling are bad, but it's the crawling sensation that is the worst.
  20. The man in the handsome suit is back. He's traded his face for a bowler hat.

Orts of the Lastgod.

The World-Spider came, and only dregs were left amid the riven strands of silk.

The cocoon closed the world off from everything. Nothing--no ghost, god, or spirit--could get in or out. 

Not even the prayers of the desperate fodder could escape it. While the world dissolved, the gods in their heavens starved.

Lean times set in. Having grown used to the sustenance of prayer, the gods found their withdrawal symptoms sudden and agonizing. Even the mightiest deities withered into emaciated husks.

All of them had a breaking point.

Ravenous hunger alike to that of the Enemy gripped them, and in their frenzy they tore down and devoured the essence of their own planes and servants.

When the World-Spider moved on, as it always did and always would, the gods descended on the scraps it left behind. They devoured the emptied lands before them, for matter was naught but spirit-stuff of their own contrivance, once upon a time. They drank of the lakes of liquified thought and potential. They huffed the clouds of dust and dismay that yet clung to the ruins.

And still they hungered.

Their bloodshot eyes turned toward one another before long. The smallest and feeblest among them were the first to go. Land-spirits, tutelary deities, and the odd surviving demi-god were snapped up like morsels. But they did not satisfy. A food chain shrank as rapidly as it came into existence. "Eat or be eaten" soon became "eat and be eaten", which further devolved into the mindless mantra of "e a t".

Roiling, half-digested spirit-stuff spilled from opened bellies until the selfsame feast came to a grizzly conclusion, and the last of the gods were consumed by an encircling sea of chaotic juices.

Only, not all of the gods destroyed one another like that.

Perhaps it had once been a god of sneaking and opportunism. Perhaps it had just adapted very quickly. It couldn't remember, and frankly it didn't matter. What mattered was the work it had put in before all the other gods spilled themselves.

The last god cobbled together all of the wretched castoffs of its kin and the Enemy. With skeletal fingers it sculped an island, and with spit, glue, and hope it held it together. It even managed to scoop up a few overlooked creatures who had been floating adrift since the World-Spider's coming.

It nurtured these half-dead, maddened beings until they could scratch an existence out of the rocks, at which point the last god turned from savior to jailor. Even as it raised new shreds of land from the roiling sea, it jealously guarded and browbeat all within its domain. All formality was abandoned, and the intercession of religion was done away with. The true nature of the relationship between god and mortal was laid plain, bare, and raw: one is the reaper, and the other is its harvest; flesh and prayer are just different mediums for the same outcome.

The mortals slipped down from the jagged, hollow breast of their god. They died. They spread, multiplied, and mourned. They died. They looked out upon the sea of chaos and recoiled with fear. They died. They bowed their heads beneath the lurid, bloodshot gaze of their titanic keeper. They died. They expressed their anguish by acting in the god's image and enslaving the beasts and briars of the earth. They died.

Ages passed. The god's name was forgotten, even by itself. In its place it took the title of the Last God. 

Centuries more dragged by. The title became its name, spoken in anxious, placating tones by every soul with a voice in that realm.

The Lastgod is jealously protective of its scraps, castoffs, and orts. Dismal wealth and mighty doom await.

Rumors on the Orts

  1. Some farmland has started to moan and weep vinegar. The town would like help quieting it.
  2. The Lastgod chipped a tooth on a sacrifice recently, and smote the offending village. Now neighboring communities are warring over the ruins for possession of its rotten molar fragment.
  3. A child born under a skittering cloud has finally come of age, and must be escorted under guard to the ribcage tor where they are to be broken upon the rocks.
  4. Mud puddles forming in the Lastgod's footprints are tinged with nourishing ichor from a recent injury.
  5. A new island has risen from the roil. Settlers are already preparing fresh, noisy skinbarges to row to it.
  6. Sacrifice is fast approaching, and the herders are alarmed that every animal they slaughter seems to start rotting immediately.
  7. An old patch of forest has grown too old. The wood is spongy, rotten, and mildly carnivorous.
  8. An apprentice boneturner needs live and dangerous specimens to continue their experiments in creating bipedal animals.
  9. The Lastgod has not accepted the monthly sacrifice prepared by a nearby village, and seems to be completely ignoring it. The villagers are panicking.
  10. Harvested grains are bursting out of their silos and smothering people. Again.
  11. A plague of rampant gut fauna growth is sweeping through several towns. A dozen people have already ruptured.
  12. Part of an island has sloughed off into the roil. Its exposed face is honeycombed with dozens of deep, spiraling tunnels.
  13. A temper tantrum put the Lastgod's foot through the ground and revealed a hidden vault underneath. There is glowing in the depths.
  14. The smoky night sky opened up briefly over a mountaintop to reveal stars. Horrible, lurid stars.
  15. Clutches of rancid, undulating eggs are being uncovered in cellars and burial pits.
  16. One of the Lastgod's centennial bowel movements has left a smoking crater in a nearby acid river valley. Swarms of parasites are emerging from it.
  17. A raving prophet touched by the Lastgod has been raised from the nearby serfs. No matter how much they gorge themselves on food, they continue to waste away.
  18. Something with Too Many Legs was spotted lurking around the old temple.
  19. An ephemeral godling has congealed out of the roil to reach its pseudopods onto land and threaten nearby villages. The Lastgod must be lured over to stop it.
  20. They say someone has found a shred of spider's silk.

Monday, November 30, 2020

The City on the Steppe

Untitled engraving by Gérard Trignac
for Jorges Luis Borges' "El Inmortal"

There is a City here, out on the steppe.

It is here now, but it wasn't last month.

Nothing was here, except grass, and herds, and blue sky.

But all those are gone now. Now there's only the City.

The City, and the people who are drawn to it.

The City presently covers an area of approximately 100km² upon the inner steppe. Sandwiched between taigas to the north, mountains to the south, deserts to the east, and spiderwebbing river valleys to the west, the steppe has been thought of as a central heartland by many, and as an empty wasteland by many more. This is beginning to change, as news of the City spreads farther.

The City appears to grow at a rate of about 5 meters per day, with the expansion occurring at random intervals between 00:00 and 04:00 every night. This always coincides with particularly heavy cloud cover blocking out the light of the moon and stars, making the event very difficult to observe. The outskirts of the City expand outward when this happens, pushing up mounds of earth and even causing small tremors. It is speculated that 'new' City appears near its center like lava rising up out of a divergent boundary between deep sea plates, but this hypothesis has not been confirmed.

The City is staggering. It is extremely dense, its buildings exceeding the size and scale of those in any other urban center in the world. It is the place where urban planning has come to die, possessing almost no rhyme or reason to its layout and construction. Nor could it be said to have evolved 'naturally' like older cities. It is somehow far older feeling. Buildings shoot up for dozens or even hundreds of stories at random, making the City's skyline a jagged assortment of teeth.

The City is an inturning jumble of structures in disparate, anachronistic architectural styles; a roiling chaos that seems to be frozen in stasis for the moment. Some buildings are immensely tall and fully fleshed out, while others stand half-built, crumbling, and skeletal, like the remains of trees who lost the battle for sunlight in a climax forest. All are built from the same materials: basalt, marble, plaster, and something flammable yet not quite organic which has been conveniently dubbed 'City-wood'.

The City is a place of alienating familiarity, and elegant dysfunction. Vaulted domes sit freestanding and inverted like immense bowls. Bridges span the gaps between doorless and windowless buildings with no access points. Colonnades that lead nowhere stand apart from everything else, perched upon yet more columns like legs or stilts. Buildings can lack doors entirely, or have them placed meters above the street level. Houses can intersect at the edges as if they are superimposed, or fitted together like puzzle pieces.

The City is almost deserted. The herds of horses and sheep, as well as the people minding them on the night of the City's arrival at that site vanished without a trace. Despite rumors of figures spotted on the streets and in windows in unsanctioned areas or during curfew hours, the City does not appear to have any native residents, or any local animal life for that matter. Animals are loathe to come near the outskirts, with the exception of some birds who have begun roosting in high places. Rare gardens boasting exotic plant life have been discovered, but the most vegetation anyone is likely to find are weeds or lichens chipping away at the cracks in streets and foundations.

The City offers sparring hospitality to those who venture deep enough. A flying aqueduct may spill potable water down an alleyway to create a small river. A bazaar might have market stalls stocked with random items and passably fresh food. A sealed room, once broken into, could have a cozy little hearth readied with oil and a stack of dried City-wood.

The City has drawn many people to its outskirts, and a small handful to its interior. A series of camps ring the City, set about half a kilometer out from its creeping limits, where the folds in the earth stop, and horses can tolerate staying. Tensions are already running high across the camps as competing factions arrive to stake claims or assess risks amid a growing sea of settlers, refugees, and curious onlookers.

(The City should have a certain timeless or time-lost quality to it, but the world it has appeared in can be more grounded and defined. Anything from an Iron Age to an Early Modern Period inspired setting could work- too much earlier than that and it becomes unrecognizable for lack of what we consider 'normal' cities, but any later and technological advances can begin to cut into the mystery of it all.

On a whim I plugged Central Asian and late Imperial Russian influences into my host-world for the City, so I'll roll with that for the rest of this post.)

Agents of the Czar and His army are eager to know first if the City is a threat to the Empire, and second if it can be exploited to its benefit.

Clandestine revolutionaries seeking a glorious people's uprising see the City as a new frontier for their cause, if the Empire can be beaten to it first.

Dispossessed nomads and impoverished Sarts struggle to make the best of the bad situation their homeland has fallen into, with agitations for independence quietly starting again.

Natural philosophers and other men and women of knowledge have come from far lesser cities to marvel at the City and all its mysteries.

Fortune-seekers and ne'er-do-wells of all classes and backgrounds have come to plumb the depths of the City for unknown riches, or simply to rob those who already have done so.

People who might be found in the camps around the City include, but should not be limited to:




Imperial Official


Enterprising Merchant


Roving Cossack


People's Revolutionary


Venturesome Boyar


Aspiring Homesteader


Bereaved Herder


Secessionist Sart


Moonstruck Philosopher


Very Drunk Burlak

1) Imperial Official: You serve Crown and Country, and you will not let a little otherworldly apparition get in the way of business as usual. You will analyze the situation in full and send word back to the Ministry, or the Czar's secret police will want to have a word with you.
  • Possessions: badge & seal of office (authentic), warm uniform, pistol, bureaucratic I.O.U. for pistol shot, unfinished report on the City, list of local suspects.
  • Quirk: At the cost of burning what little goodwill the Empire has left in the area, you may requisition a service from a camp at no cost.
2) Enterprising Merchant: The world is changing, and you know it. Titles and oaths are on the wane. Money is power now, and money comes with opportunity. Something that defies all expectation and explanation like the City is a source of potentially infinite opportunities.
  • Possessions: merchant's scales, chest full of paper money, prybar, certificate of merchant guild membership.
  • Quirk: You have already established trade contacts throughout the camps. There is a decent chance you can buy or barter for common items at a small discount.
3) Roving Cossack: Things got a little crazy while you were pacifying that village. You were separated from the rest of your host, and worse yet, from all of the loot. This strange new City seems like a place where you could find a bit of either.
  • Possessions: skittish mare, weathered old papakha, broken shashka, fistful of coins (rubles or tankas).
  • Quirk: You have seen and done things. Committing deeds of ruthless pragmatism are less draining on your psyche than others... for the moment.
4) People's Revolutionary: The flash flood of revolution is already on its way, or so you are convinced. You need only add cracks to the dam of autocratic iniquity, and give it a vessel to surge into. The City could serve both purposes, in the right hands.
  • Possessions: badge & seal of office (counterfeit), contraband pamphlets, your own manifesto (very rough draft), list of local sympathizers.
  • Quirk: You are a bit of a firebrand. Whatever your usual charm and charisma, you can deliver an impassioned speech about your cause that can win common people over to the movement- enough to aid your party, not so much.
5) Venturesome Boyar: Your highborn parents don't exactly approve of you going off on another adventure when you should be at home looking for a spouse to hold onto what little the family has left, but they can't exactly stop you, either. The novelty and adventure of the City call to you.
  • Possessions: legally mandated shaving kit, bird gun & pellets (3 shots), signet ring, beleaguered servant.
  • Quirk: You may send a letter back home asking for help in solving one problem you face at the city. The letter takes a week to deliver, and your parents refuse to help for a month afterward.
6) Aspiring Homesteader: It took such haggling, and you may have sold one of your relatives to do it, but your feudal landlord finally allowed you a temporary reprieve from serfdom. Now you must race against the clock to claim a home- and what cheaper real estate is there than allegedly haunted land?
  • Possessions: shovel, axe, old burlap clothing, contract for free movement from your feudal lord (deadline fast-approaching), sack of buckwheat cereal.
  • Quirk: Food is a luxury for you. Lean years and ruined harvests have shrunken your stomach. You can go longer than others without eating.
7) Bereaved Herder: Your forebears suffered much when the Empire abolished the old khaganate. Your family suffered when its pastures were repossessed. Now, you have suffered the loss of kin and kine to the City. But unlike those past grievances, you have the power to change this one.
  • Possessions: resigned nag, itchy wool deel, prayer box (real wood), tiny (but vicious) sheepdog.
  • Quirk: You are hardy. You've endured wind and winter out on the steppe a number of times. Exposure hurts you less than it does others.
8) Secessionist Sart: Your oasis town was once a grand city- a flower of the wastes. Now it is just a stop for thirsty vagabonds destined for greater places. You know where the fault lies for this. The village elders and you agree that the City can be a catalyst to destabilize the Empire elsewhere.
  • Possessions: sumptuous silk kaftan, ancestral tamgha banner, aqsaqal correspondence, dried peaches, heirloom saber.
  • Quirk: Being from the arid, desert parts of the steppe, you are better at locating water than most. Somehow this applies even within the City limits.
9) Moonstruck Philosopher: While most have come to gawk at the City, you have come to study it. Something about it has enchanted you and lured you to it, and you will be damned if you don't learn why- or perhaps even then.
  • Possessions: voluminous notes (any discipline), stack of books & journals, unnecessarily sharp letter opener.
  • Quirk: Choose one or two of the sciences and/or humanities. If you choose one, you have expert knowledge to offer in situations involving that subject. If you choose two, you have moderate knowledge.
10) Very Drunk Burlak: Where did the river go? Where is the barge, and the artel, and your pulling crew? Were you transplanted here by the same strangeness as the City, or did you simply wander here on another bender? Your head hurts.
  • Possessions: leather yoke, coil of rope (15m), bottle of alcohol (vodka or kumis), a bad case of kyphosis.
  • Quirk: You've seen stranger things while sober. The weirdness of the City doesn't hurt your psyche as much as it does others, so long as you possess alcohol.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

On the Pain-Tasters of Najis.

Najis is the godhead of harm and healing, and the cycle of endurance and suffering that they perpetuate. While not uniformly sadistic in their depictions across the known world, the cast of the deity's clergy and most fervent devotees tends to be somewhat grim. It is the only known cult in which self-flagellation is a competitive sport, and the 'self' part is often omitted.

Even so, the god's focus lends its followers a keen understanding of the bodies of living things, and the myriad problems and ailments that can befall them. While they may approach infirmity with more spiritual glee than more mundane healers, the priests and surgeons instructed in the ways of Najis are often skilled and sought-after doctors all across the Basin. Sought-after, but not necessarily wanted- one of the more infamous pieces of commonly known Najisi stricture is the forbiddance of any and all anesthetics during procedures: pain is life, and so the absence of pain is an abominable miniature death.¹

The most (in)famous of these healers are the Pain-Tasters.

Barber Surgeon (Zweihander RPG)
Dejan Mandic

While their name is a bit too on-the-nose, their expertise is remarkable regardless of whether you have a high or dim opinion of the order as a whole. The Pain-Tasters are alumni of the highly prestigious and highly secretive Sodality of the Blissful Scourging, a medical school and seminary in Serminwurth with another extremely on-the-nose name.

The Sodality is open only to Najisites of demonstrable faith and fervor, and the vast majority of students already have successful medical careers prior to their induction. Students are forbidden to leave the school until they have either dropped out or completed their training, which is a process that can take up to a decade or more. More than one disappearance or suspected murder in the city has been explained by a new entry to the Sodality simply forgetting to alert every relevant party in their life of their aspirations before cloistering.

Most students do not complete their training. The isolation, coupled with rigorous daily schedules and study regimens that blur the material with the arcane, can lead many to burn out within their first year or two. Surprisingly, these dropouts are often allowed to leave and resume their lives in the outside world, though they all share some dismay when they wake up and find that much of the knowledge they acquired at the school has been obliterated by an as-of-yet unknown agent--possibly a potent and specialized drug--employed by the school.²

Because of these measures, very little slips out about what actually goes into training a Pain-Taster, and its members are quite tight-lipped about it. It doubtless involves mastery of any and all bleeding-edge knowledge and technology of medicine, as well as liberal addition to the 'bleeding' side. It is also possible that they undergo a series of inoculations against any diseases they could conceivably encounter during their practice: Pain-Tasters are well known for how fearlessly they throw themselves into highly contagious situations, yet rarely ever seem to grow sick themselves.

The rumor that the government of Serminwurth hands certain condemned criminals over to the Sodality for clandestine vivisections is unsubstantiated, but it would surprise absolutely no one if it came to light as truth. They possess insights into the physiology of humans and many other living things that could only be obtained through intimate familiarity.

Once a Pain-Taster has graduated from the Sodality and donned their ceremonial mantle of knives and needles, they have a wealth of options available to them. Most hospitals in any given area will accept them outright- if not as full-fledged members of their staff, then at least as advisors and specialists kept at a cordial arm's length. They may emphasize their religious training and become members of the formal religious hierarchy. Or, they go wandering in search of new avenues and methods of practice.

Some of the best details on Pain-Tasters outside of Serminwurth have been recorded in Deneroth, where a permanent office for one has been in place ever since the founding of the city by Laizij. Here, a senior Pain-Taster operates out of a small Najisi shrine that has nonetheless been granted the flattering title of "basilica". This taster acts as the personal doctor for the city's Steward, as well as the Directorate of Ivory Tower University.

The voluminous notes taken at the latter location has teased out many details about Pain-Tasters over the centuries, much to the chagrin of the Sodality. But in the interest of maintaining the relationship between the two cities, Serminwurth does not object to these incidental gleanings.

Foremost among the abilities of a Pain-Taster is their skill at diagnosis. This is where their name comes in, and they live up to it every bit. They can reportedly see, smell, feel, or occasionally even taste the onset of an illness hours or days before visible symptoms appear in a patient.

They can identify broken bones or ruptured arteries at a glance, and even make educated guesses at the exact breed of parasite infesting someone based on the 'look' of their eyeballs or the smell of their bodily waste. They operate on the threshold where preventative medicine is no longer possible, and treatment and pain are the only paths forward- precisely as Najis would will it. Their senses seem to have been honed by years of study and memorization of subtle cues coupled with experience, but something about it is downright preternatural.

Just as they are skilled in determining what will happen, they are unerringly accurate with what has happened. Pain-Tasters can act as coroners, able to detect even subtle causes of death some time after the event, at least so long as the cadaver has not undergone considerable putrefaction. The most famous instance of this comes again from Denerothi records, in which the senior Pain-Taster of the basilica determined the cause of death of Laizij.

The rumor that had spread like wildfire upon the discovery of the Eternal Scholar's body was that he had been poisoned, or smote by black magic conjured by everyone's favorite scapegoats, the followers of Dherna. The taster was able to determine quite confidently that he had died of blockage related to a truly prodigious collection of gallstones. The taster reportedly came to suspect this after ingesting a piece of Laizij's raw, jaundiced skin. After the requisite amount of bureaucracy was waded through to receive a permit to perform an invasive examination, the gallstones were found. 

The chronicle then takes an extensive sidetrack relating the legend of how these stones were inscribed with motes of wisdom that were then sought after or scattered with the winds, in good Denerothi fashion. But the procedure itself is corroborated in similar cases elsewhere, adding to the Pain-Tasters' lengthy list of qualifications for everyone else's reluctant respect.

¹ To say nothing of the fact that one common depiction of the afterlife in the inner esoteric circles of Najis-worshipers is a perfect perpetuation of life-affirming, exhilarating pain via stabs and scrapes.

² This memory erasure does not appear to be flawless, however. Mersind, once an aspiring biologist and anatomist of Serminwurth, was expelled after breaking some sort of grave taboo during his second year at the Sodality. Yet descriptions of the pale, enigmatic man suggest that he fled the city with his memories of the school almost fully intact a decade and a half ago. Ever since then, his former colleagues have been keenly interested in returning him for examination, and to put a stop to his more well-known excesses (while also seizing all of his collected data for their own research).

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Carving Mouths with which to Scream.

The forested hills that the Esgodarrans now call home boast considerable farmland, dug into the slopes and concealed by the trees. These terraced gardens favor smaller numbers of nutrient-rich crops quite unlike the vast fields of grains from the plains dominated by modern Ersuunians. Among these staple crops are included a variety of gourd vegetables in diverse colors and shapes. Just as diverse are the customs and cultural traditions surrounding many of them.

Some gourds are grown solely for the purpose of housing medicines or sacred substances for the holy folk of the hill people. Others are used as food, or animal fodder, or their rinds are ground up for several purposes. One type of spotted vine fruit is even known as a source of a potent intoxicant, when fermented properly. All of these uses and more are ingrained in Esgodarran tribal memory by a wealth of stories and songs.

One story in particular is told and retold every harvest season, to explain why so many of the hill tribes hollow out different gourds, carve their sides into elaborate shapes, and then plant them around the tops of specially prepared torches as part of seasonal celebrations.

Once, long ago, the Esgodarrans were fighting a losing war against the encroaching Haraalians. Before the chariots and the saddled archers of the horsemen, they fell like so much scythed wheat. As they retreated into the hills where they eventually built their holdfasts and villages, they brought the bodies of their dead with them.

When the first crops were planted in soil ill-suited for farming, pragmatism led to a creative, albeit somewhat grim, use for those bodies. The dead became fertilizer, so that their families could live to see the coming year. And their sacrifice was not in vain: the legend claims that the hills bloomed with produce, chief among them being swollen gourds of proportions that any farmer then and now would be envious of.

But when the harvest season drew close, the Esgodarrans sensed that something was wrong. The gourds seemed to be disturbed ever so slightly when looked over every morning, and at night strange sounds could be heard coming from the gardens. These happenings continued and intensified over the following weeks until the hills were weighed down upon by a terrible pall- the people were sure that a curse had settled upon them like clinging spider's silk.

Eventually, the source of the omens was discovered. It was the gourds themselves, writhing and moaning upon their vines as if they were alive. When terrified tribespeople dared to stalk closer, they found that they could recognize the pained, muffled sounds as human- even as the voices belonging to their deceased loved ones. Terror gripped one and all as they realized that in growing their food from the corpses of their kin, they had unwittingly trapped their souls.

A wise and skilled woodsman proved to be their salvation, as he stepped forward brandishing his biggest and sharpest knife. One by one, he cut the gourds from their vines and then cut into their sides, carving faces into their hard outer layers and allowing their soft insides to spill forth. Blessed with eyes that could weep and mouths that could scream, the gourds wailed their horrors out. They had been reliving the moments of their deaths over and over again while trapped in the blind silence of the earth, and only through the woodsman's cuts were they able to rid themselves of the accumulated pain.

Days passed as the hillsides screamed and lamented, the sound of which drove even the most stalwart of god-king Haraal's soldiers away from the hills in fear. The Esgodarrans stuffed their ears with tree cotton dipped in beeswax to block out the worst of the wailing, but it grated terribly at even those steady folk before the end.

One by one, the gourds expelled their anguish and gave up their ghosts. The nightmare ended at last when the final gourd's voice quieted to a pulpy sputter, in which it thanked the woodsman and their tribe for the mercy. It bequeathed the banquet of their bodies to the people of the hills, but warned them that never again could anyone be buried beneath a garden. With that, the last trapped Esgodarran soul sloughed out and moved on to the afterlife.

Ever since that day, the use of human fertilizer has been strictly forbidden among all of the Esgodarran tribes. As a reminder of that grave mistake, the people carve more mundane fruits into contorted faces or depictions of other mythological scenes every year, and place them on display for all to see.

A popular trick aimed at children or very wayward lowlanders is to throw one's voice so that it sounds as if a gourd is speaking--or screaming--at the observer.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Another 1d6 Backgrounds for TROIKA!

Here's another couple of backgrounds for TROIKA!, the game I have now written more content for than any other system despite having never played it. As always, the balance is probably nonexistent. Check out my first 1d6 backgrounds here, and be on the lookout for more in the future. Eventually. Like, deep cosmic future...





Blood Wasp Hive


Endling Terminarch


Esuvee Rancher


Heinous Idolater


Koilotheist Murmurer



Blood Wasp Hive

You were lonely, once. But then the swarm came, and burrowed deep into your flesh. Your abdomen bulges like papier-mâché, and your head is barely distinguishable from the honeycombed masses through which they fly and crawl. Now you have friends in multitudes. Now they sing to you- a never-ending, buzzing chorus, urging you forward to new lands and new friend-hives.


A Jar of Crimson Honey.

Tattered rags.

D6 Sheaves of Waxy Paper.

Advanced Skills

1 Acrobatics

3 Disturbing

1 Heal

2 Poison

3 Secrete Honey


You can expel a cloud of agitated blood wasps from your torso once per day. They seek out and aggressively invade the mouth, nostrils, ears, or equivalent orifices of one target of your choosing. This functions as the Drown spell, except that anything that dies from the blood wasp infestation becomes a new (but inanimate) hive.

Endling Terminarch

You are the youngest and spriest of your dying, desiccated kin. Your joints creak, and your mind wanders, but there is time yet for your kind to be remembered in greatness. When you are gone, there will be no more. When you breathe your last rattling breath and the blood in your veins congeals into dust, the universe will sigh at your passing- it is up to you whether that sigh is relieved, or mournful.


A Runed Cane (Damage as Club).

A Reliquary of your kin's ashes and skulls.

D6 Scrolls detailing your people's achievements.

Scrivener's Kit.

Advanced Skills

3 Astrology

1 Club Fighting

1 Etiquette

3 Mathology

2 Mortuary Science


You can recall any piece of mildly useful, parabolic advice relevant to the situation at hand by telling a long and rambling story from your youth, full of tangents and chiding interjections aimed at any party members younger than you. The tale takes 10 x d6 minutes to tell, and the moral of the story is decided on by the GM.

Esuvee Rancher

You were a cityslicker once, but you soon heeded your calling and headed out to the saw-grassed prairies of the Teal Wastes. Now you ride with the esuvees, with musk in your lungs and chrome on your boot spurs. You know the secrets of the majestic, mechanical beasts, how to treat them right, and how to pull the tightest turns on one without so much as a tip. You also know to avoid the herds during mating season, so you decided to take your trusty electro-gelding and explore for a it.


A Box of Chewing Scrig (10 Uses).

Blue Jeans & Leather Boots.

3 Days of Esuvee Feed.

Electro-Whip (Damage as Hammer).

Advanced Skills

1 Acrobatics

1 Awareness

2 Drink Alcohol

2 Herding

3 Riding

1 Strength

1 Tracking


You can tame and ride wild esuvees, or other similar electro-mammals. You never fall off your mount while riding. Any vehicle you are piloting cannot be rolled over or tipped. You also have an acquired tolerance for fox-urine whiskey.

Heinous Idolater

You and your stocky lowland kin worship against a variety of loathsome entities, trapping their selfsame manifestations of disaster and bad luck inside of grotesque idols that you then deface and damage in order to weaken them. There are many evils out there, in need of trapping or keeping trapped. Pray they never escape- or remember you.


Carver's Kit.

A Big Lump of wood, stone, or bone.

Fermented Alpaca's Milk.

An Excessively Wicked-Looking Knife.

Advanced Skills

2 Astrology

2 Evaluate

2 Harvesting

3 Idol Carving

1 Knife Fighting

1 Swim


You can take one day prepare an idol meant to embody an evil out of a huge and unwieldy hunk of wood or similar material. The evil in question must be very specific, such as drowning, deception, or haunting by the ghosts of eyeless children. You can mar a respective idol to grant yourself or another person a +1 to one Advanced Skill roll or Roll Versus that evil. After marring an idol 3 times, it is destroyed. An idol takes up two inventory slots.

Koilotheist Murmurer

You were shunted out of your lumbering stone god-beast, either by its death or by the cruelty of your fellow passengers. Now you wander the spheres, a tatterdemalion savant seeking out new, resonant hums with which to harmonize. Orichalcum nails stud your body, and leather cords drag in your wake. Your eye sockets are empty, but your ears and mind are so full of wonder at the susurration of the spheres.



10 Pounds of Leather & Chains (Light Armour).

Walking Stick (Damage as Staff.)

Seashell Ear Trumpet.

Advanced Skills

3 Astrology

1 Awareness

1 Languages

3 Second Sight

2 Singing


You can hear snatches of thought, psychic background static, and celestial music at all times. This counts as being under the effects of the Thought Vapor spell, except it is auditory in nature, rather than olfactory.

You can also Harmonize with one target within speaking distance. The target must Test their Luck or be entranced by your humming for 1 minute. You are unable to act for as long as you are Harmonizing.


You have seen the darkness that gnaws at light, metal, and flesh with teeth like fractals. You have smelled the sickening odor of unrefined pallite. You've heard the howling screams coming from beyond the light fences. You have felt the sweet, cancer-inducing radiance fill every inch of your body. You've set out to challenge the darkness, before it swallows up another sun.


Fractal Scars.

Battered Pallite Carbine (Damage as Fusil).

4 Pallite Batteries (as Plasmic Cores).

Radiation Skin & LEDuster (Modest Armour).

A Bottle of Vitamin D Supplements.

Advanced Skills

1 in a Fighting Skill of your choice

3 Awareness

1 Firemaking

2 Fusil Fighting

2 Pallite Refinement

1 Run

1 Strength


You can see perfectly in total darkness, but not magical darkness. You are never afraid of the dark. You are not disoriented by sudden bright lights, and are immune to the Flash spell. You also definitely have some form of cancer, but it's a kind of cancer that kills every other kind before it can affect you.