Monday, July 16, 2018

Looking Southward and Backward, Part 17.

"It's time for me to be going, now." Elrusyo comments offhandedly as we reach a rare smooth patch of road leading farther and farther away from the river to our right.

Everyone within earshot, up to and including those among us who seem as though they would genuinely enjoy his absence, turn to look at him with confusion. He quickly takes on another smile like a house cat who's gotten the dove down out of its cage.

"I know, I know. It already feels like we've been journeying together forever. But I promise you all, you will be able to carry on without me. My training has demonstrated that for each of you." He gives us an agonizingly sagely nod and ignores the dense silence that follows, until one of us finally asks what he means by "training".

"Now, now, I don't expect you to heap praise upon me for it. But surely you realized why I came to you."

"To take our drinking money?" Ciudo asks innocently.

"No." Replies Elrusyo, shaking his head.

"To horrify us onto the precipice of a coma?" Sarq grips the edge of his leather instrument case.

"While that was thoroughly enjoyable, no." The hedge-sage says with audible satisfaction.

"To annoy someone new and different after it's become abundantly clear to you that you are a sad, lonely creature with no loved ones, friends, or colleagues other than eccentric..." Hraela begins, fire in her voice, before gradually trailing off into hesitation and finishing that line of thought.

Do I qualify as one of those eccentrics? If so, I am oddly flattered.

"Oh, how I'll miss you the most, my dear Gert. But, no. I came to each of you knowing that I could help tease out a much-needed quality for the journey ahead. You, with your fiery dogmatism, needed an exercise in appreciating a perspective other than your own. Sarq, I already emphasized your role's importance, and you performed better than some field surgeons in a pinch. And Robber, my dear friend, needed a couple of pints of reminding that you are not one of those stodgy professors- that among other things, you must feel the life you're leading, even if it's in a drunken stupor." He pats me on the back.

"... What about me, sir?" Ciudo pipes back up in the resulting silence.

"What?" Elrusyo blinks and looks to our young linguist.

"... Oh! Er. Well, you, ah... Ahem. Well! I only needed to verify it, and sure enough, you are exactly who and what you need to be in order to, uh, thrive among your fellows here." He slaps together affirmations hastily.

"Really? ... Huh. Oh, wow." Ciudo seems to sit up a little more straight in his seat now. We don't say anything.

"Anyway, I will leave you all to it. You've got a lot of ground to cover before the next chapter of your story, I'd say? I have faith that you'll get what you have coming from this. And you might hear from me again, before you get to hide away safe in your dormitories once more. But only when you aren't looking for me." With hardly any movement on his part, he sets a bag down upon the wagon bench, slides over to its edge, and then disembarks.

We offer him several goodbyes of varying intensity as he reaches the edge of the road and continues walking. We watch him for some time, until the progress of the caravan turns out necks to their limits, or the folded canopy at the vehicle's back obscures our view.  The others turn back toward one another and their own matters, discussing him for a short while before it peters off.

But as the wagons turn on a bend, I make an effort to stick my head out and crane my neck to catch sight of Elrusyo again.

It takes me a moment to realize that small shape in the distance is him. He must have been sprinting from the moment we pulled our eyes off of him, and then stopped only moment ago, to have gotten that far away in such a short amount of time!

Sarq pokes at the bag left behind nervously for several moments, before finally daring to open it up. Contained within are apparently many vials or strange or pungent liquids- medicines for Sarq to identify if he wants to be able to use them, evidently.

I look back from the strange gift to where I last spotted Elrusyo, and am forced to adjust my gaze by several more degrees. Somehow he's shot ahead even farther across the gently rising and falling alluvium past the edges of the heath. He stumbles, as if again he's just dropped out of a brisk run.

I shut my eyes, and rub them for a long moment.

When again I open them... the speck of a man has crossed the river's westward bend completely. I can scarcely make out any details about him now, except that he's apparently turned around to face me--me specifically, I can sense--and that he is now raising a rather rude gesture toward me on his fingers.

I turn away completely, and allow my strange friend to continue on, unimpeded by the tethers of observation as he forges on westward.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Crypt Cities: What's in a Mask?

Despite how long it's been, and how far some of us like to think we've come, the way we treat our Awakened varies considerably from place to place. As has been stated earlier, death isn't as great an equalizer as some poets make it out to be. But depending on what you were able to do with your previous life before its end, you might just be one of the lucky ones.

Well, "lucky".

Random Example Homelands & Masks (Roll 1d6)
Mask Appearance
The Plutocracy
A generic, clay worker's mask
The Thalassocracy
Theater mask with sea motifs
The Mystery Sects
Graven, deific imagery
The Holt-Dwellers
Sculpted parasitic plant matter
The Nomads
Bones of totemic animals
The Hunted
Whatever you scavenged up

The Plutocracy

"With death becoming so uncertain lately, we have only taxes left to take comfort in."
-Pilvic, Chair Secretary of Maldus & Kindred Incorporated, Collections Division.

Time, it has been said, is money. And when presented with the potential for infinite time, it didn't take long for some minds to turn toward the prospect of infinite money. So when the dead began to Wake among the interred members of certain guilds and business fraternities, their first and immediate thoughts were not ones dominated by the Need.

In a land where political power is explicitly and by design in the power of the most wealthy individuals, and things ranging from worker collective membership to voting rights must be bought and paid for, those without the keenest of business savvy and the richest of parents tend to accumulate a decent amount of debt over their lifespans. Regrettably, once upon a time these debts had to be transferred to slippery next-of-kin or altogether cancelled by their owners, leaving the food bowls of favorite pets un-festooned and the most purebred of ponies unbought for children's birthdays. But thanks to the advent of Waking, an honest loan-shark is able to collect indefinitely, at least every once in a beautiful blue moon.

You were one such debtor in life, or your relatives didn't want to front the bill for your funeral after you died, and you've become one since. A long stint as a manual laborer probably followed as you quarried stone, dug ditches, and tarred the rooftops of countryside villas.

But once you were, by some miracle, cleared of debt (or once the Need grew so great that they decided to discharge you despite trying to claw the face off of your foreman), you were freed from your dreary work camp and shipped inland toward your caravan.

You'll find many masks like yours out there- nearly featureless, light gray, made from a composite of clay and more resistant materials. But yours is still unique to you in some way, possessing an identifier scratched into its surface somewhere. It also happens to be a sort of canvas for your own personal expression. And though your time as a laborer was maddening toward the end, you worked alongside your Awakened kin--as well as those of living flesh and pumping blood--at close quarters for many a year. You escaped some of the worst indignities inflicted by the living, and the rest can be compartmentalized as "just part of business".

When the situation calls for diplomacy with the living, you are often the first pick by those who know you.

When the Need gnaws at your fellows, You may comfort them with the knowledge that worse pangs can be survived.

The Thalassocracy

"O endless sea. You are a curse, and an accomplice to human disquiet, but also the blood which runs in me. Take me and my batter'd ship, as you accept all that is and can be."
-Berucino, protagonist of the acclaimed melodrama A Death At Sea, and the first Awakened character known to enter the popular consciousness of "high culture".

 Ah, the sea. A bottomless womb of life and bounty which occasionally makes its power known via deadly, coast-obliterating reminders. Likened so often to a tempestuous lover, those who live beside it do so like they remain trapped in that abusive relationship. But every once in a while, a powerful navy, strong dykes, and careful meteorological predictions allow one clan of fish-eaters to claim they've mastered the oceans.

With their lives and deaths so intimately bound up in the whims of the waves, it isn't unusual to find romantics fixated upon them. For centuries, burials at sea were customary- a way of "giving back" to their provider. And this carried on just fine until the dead started to drag their waterlogged selves back up onto the beaches. Burning them and then carrying the ashes far out to sea on barges became routine for several fateful decades of the coast's history, but that practice ended when hundreds of crying whales started to beach themselves in unison and catches of fish started coming up with far too many heads, fins, and teeth.

Now the sheer cliffs and promontories of the coasts are given over to temporary burial chambers. But just because they are temporary, does not mean that they should be simple. Oh, no. You were probably swathed in more silk and gold in death than you had ever seen in your life. For a brief instant you were celebrated as a fellow actor in the same great play. The mask you now bear, similar to those worn in the theaters frequented by the members of elite houses, is a reminder of that. it's up to you to decide whether the motif of "comedy" or "tragedy" was a more appropriate choice for you, of course.

You are, as a result of this treatment, a remarkably well-adjusted Awakened one. Either by hearkening back to your noble blood, or by faking it until you make it, you just might resemble a leader with some amount of dignity among your fellow caravaneers.

And better yet, stripping bits and pieces of excessive grandeur from your mask might allow you to bargain for supplies or advice, if you happen during your journey to come across those who still care for things like gold.

The Mystery Cults

"The secret is in the Black Breath, I know it! We need only collect a few more vials of it..."
-Burisane to his apprentice, over a mortisected petitioner at the altar of Argent Gedes.

 Magic and monolatry go hand-in-hand the world over. Unfettered by distinctions such as divine or arcane, uncounted organizations plumb the depths of mysticism in nearly every culture- the only variable is how public or clandestine they are, or how embarrassing their initiation rituals can get. You would know, wouldn't you?

You would also know how rigorous the training is. How after initiation, one learns before anything else the whims and needs of their assigned teacher. Next, one learns the abilities and weaknesses of one's fellows, just in case the likely day ever comes where competition grows even more stiff. Hours poring over annotated tomes day in and day out might addle the senses to the outside world and a healthy sleeping and eating schedule, but in place of all of that cut-out fat, one is gifted true knowledge. While turning a blind eye to many of their peculiarities, folk across the land often rely upon these scholars for people learned in letters, numbers, and sciences which they master by mere incident of coming to understand their chosen path toward the secrets of the universe.

Unfortunately what you don't know, despite your many years of devotion to your chosen cell, coven, house, church, or tower, is actual magic.

No, no. You were a decade away from even witnessing the rituals which were performed in the outermost sanctum, let alone partaking. Though, somewhat fortunately, that may be the only reason why you were permitted to leave when first you stood back up after dying. Were you a true vessel of your order's secrets, your former associates would never have let you leave seclusion. At best, such great minds have been reduced to talking heads used to educate students in between maddened ramblings. At worst, they could be locked away with only the highest members of their orders privy to their whereabouts or the experiments conducted upon them.

Be grateful for your mediocrity then, but also appreciate how your imperfect knowledge still sets you a cut above your new kin. You have an inkling of the deeper meaning of the world around you, and the likeness of a godhead or sorcerer-saint etched upon your mask affords you much greater respect among the Awakened than you enjoyed in life.  And if you put your learning to practical use, you might even work a cantrip before your long rest.

Or peel back another fraction of an inch of the veil surrounding the Waking.

The Holt-Dwellers

"We don't harvest the limbs of those trees. If you wake up their fertilizer, it won't quiet down for another month."
-Agudai the Planter, senior forester.

The creeping expanse of the crypt-cities over the eons has been almost as much of an ecological disaster as the results of its alternatives. Vast stretches of the continent's interior have been rendered almost uninhabitable to most of the living, and that grey blot on the map seems destined to grow and grow. Yet there are those who still seek to defend the bastions of nature not yet despoiled. Or, more particularly, they seek to defend their last bastions of nature from others who need them just as much as they do. The dwellers in the deepest holts aren't in it for nature's own sake, after all.

These forest and hill peoples have been forced by necessity to adapt themselves to shrinking old growth, becoming experts in forest farming as well as more than a little experience in more esoteric forms of crop husbandry and hybridization. You come from a land of furniture which bears fruit, and bioluminescent crickets the size of small dogs. Everything that can be used in an experiment toward the end of sustainability, is used.

Up to and including the dead.

In ages past, the dead were interred in shallow graves with the seeds or spores of their plants of choice strewn about their bodies, so that they might feed a fresh upshoot of life. But when the dead started waking back up before the seeds could even germinate, initial dismay at a shattered worldview soon gave way to strange new options. They say that the oldest of the Awakened from the deep forests never left, and that their voices can still be heard echoing in the trunks of ancient oak and elm.

You probably don't walk alone. Somewhere on you or in you, a plant or fungus grows with fierce determination. To say nothing of your mask, which is quite alive, and quite literally rooted to your face. And though these plants are a mild drain upon your already strained life force, they offer you a strange new perspective. You know the helpful and harmful plants of the most remote places. You know their names and uses. Your fellows might be put off by your woody visage and knothole eyes, but they heed your herb-lore.

And you remember well the horrible tales of the Knight of Blossoms.

The Nomads

"The tragic part isn't to see a child of the open steppes confined to a tomb forevermore. It is to know that they wish it."
-Olroxes, chieftain of the Tauirisos.

Someone from settled lands likely wouldn't think of the Awakened as a great business opportunity (unless they were a very particular sort of plutocrat). But that is not at all the impression one gets when you travel inward from the soft and verdant periphery. As the wasteland has expanded, so too has the borderland between it and the rest of the world. Here, on hard land packed by hooves and cartwheels, the nomads thrive, if such a word could be used in this day and age.

Long ago, each land and polity dealt with those who Woke individually, and in a self-contained manner. This worked at first, but when your numbers erratically swelled once in a while and those systems of transportation broke down, beleaguered states turned toward the herdsmen at their borders for assistance.

Traveling light and requiring relatively little food for your cargo, your people move from place to place as your animals and the flow of death dictate. You are the ultimate middlemen, and the closest thing to a ferryman across the river of death which many Awakened with a belief in such things will ever see.

But the last migration ended badly for you, and now instead of riding beside the odorous metal cages, you sit in one of them. You aren't there against your will, of course. The doors are rarely locked, and the bars overhead protect you and your new kin from the near-constant attentions of carrion birds circling overhead in the grey sky. You used to hate and desire a delay to the approach to the interior checkpoint where human life grew harder and harder to sustain, and you eventually gave the Waking over to their own abilities and devices. But now you can't stand how slowly the procession moves. You know now the Need that you always felt you could see in the vacant eye-holes of your wards.

Starting off, you are the wisest of all Awakened when it comes to the outer reaches of the wastes. Your knowledge might quickly dissipate the deeper your group penetrates inland, but your knowledge of land and beast might save precious time or limbs.

Your tribe has also furnished you for the journey as almost anyone would. Of particularly macabre beauty is the bone mask given to you and others, fashioned into the likeness of one of the animals hardy enough to survive in and around the wastes. You might not ever have believed the shamans who claimed that each mask granted a measure of affinity with its respective, often savage, totem.

Hopefully there's something to it.

The Hunted

"We'll give our due to the dead, alright... a five minute head start!"
 - More than one leader of a "good old-fashioned Hunt".


You really are unlucky, aren't you?

Well, at least you're still standing on two feet that probably belong to you. You haven't been ashed, and if you aren't currently venting smoke like a lousy baker's chimney, you've found a mask or something almost as good.

You are one of the Hunted, and no matter the goodwill you fostered in life, you are now reviled by everyone and everything that once knew you. Most likely, you once hailed from the regions that skeptics today label "theocracies" despite them having a diversity of shapes and sizes. But what unites those disparate tribes, villages, or city-states is their outright rejection of social norms and customs pertaining to the Awakened as they exist in the wider world. You are monsters to them, to be killed in as just and thorough a manner possible. Worst of all is when your culture has legends of vengeful dead predating the first Awakened. Some people have always burned their dead, while others took to it specifically to combat the possibility of Waking. In either case, they often find that they have ecological crises of their own when so much ash stored in one place starts to make people's noses bleed and the laws of physics scream.

But they might not have chased you with fire. Maybe they came with chains, seeking to detain you in some small, mundane crypt until the Need renders you docile and still. Or they came bearing hooks and spikes, intent on nailing you to one of the aptly named "Groaning Pillars" which dot the prairies. Whatever the form of their cruelty, and whether it was motivated out of sadism or a genuine belief that this is what's right for you and your soul, you escaped them. Avoiding roads and clinging to the edges of badlands, scavenging on the refuse of living lands, you found your way. Working together with one of your rare fellows haunting those lands, you came to understand your new form through practice rather than tutelage. Or perhaps you competed with your kin, fought for resources, and stole the mask off of some crippled unfortunate while filling your decaying lungs with their smoky breath.

Now that you've found yourself a caravan, the foreboding wastes before you might seem almost like a leisurely walk for one so accustomed to a ruthless world.

You'll be proven wrong before the end, but for now you do what needs doing, and your grizzled determination inspires hope (and fear) in your companions.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Esuvee: An Ecology of a Majestic Mechanical Beast.

((Hey, burrowers. Does anyone here remember the year 2005? How about the lawsuit which alleged that Ford Motor Company's marketing misled drivers on how to drive and maintain their Explorer S.U.V.s? I had no idea about any of that controversy, or the tragic and preventable loss of life that spurred it, but my life was impacted by it in some way regardless.

I watched the commercial that they made as part of the year-long, $27 million USD advertising campaign for S.U.V. safety which followed. And to little twelve year-old Furt, it was pretty glorious:

This strange, lumbering beast phonetically named an Esuvee fascinated me, and I honestly wish I could have owned some kind of paraphernalia as a kid, like a plush toy version. Most other people I've spoken to about them seem to think that they're kind of creepy, and I admit their CG has not aged well, but I find the giant esuvee weirdly cute and endearing. And since I have a place in which to make my rambling ideas concrete these days, I thought why not go all the way with them and write a post? Consider this my first attempt at writing homebrew for an Ultraviolet Grasslands game.))

"Whoa, girl. Easy! Easy now! It was only a startled chrome-fox."
 -- Lonzo the Game Warden, to his startled mount, Stampies.

"Don't stand behind them for an hour or two after they've had their headlights on. The smell of their exhaust will make ya either pass out, or vomit somethin' fierce."
 -- Malgoret "Mags" Persidy, senior convoy leader to a group of children.

Far to the west, beyond the battery acid swamps and Rust-Storm Alley, there stretches a vast swath of even more untamed wilderness. Ruined hulks of technology and deposits of rare and jumbled ores break the rolling plains of jagged, saw-toothed grass. Lightning spontaneously crackles and spiderwebs through the sky even on the clearest of days. The earth itself buzzes or throbs with an almost undetectable energy that unnerves but compels human and canine alike. It's a place that no one would have any interest in, were it not located in between every other place of interest to be found in the Teal Wastes.

The grasslands are home to many bizarre animals, but none are so immediately identifiable as the esuvees- also known as lamp-heads, grill-brows, or simply iron beasts. These shaggy creatures, typically between three and four thousand pounds and eight and twelve feet tall at the hump, are the undisputed masters of their environment. Despite this, they are almost total herbivores who roam in great, placid herds known as convoys. They graze through the sharp foliage for the choices knives of grass, and break off mineral deposits with their surprisingly powerful jaws in order to gum them like a cow tonguing a salt-lick.

But they are more than simply adapted to their environment. They reflect its very nature, being an awkward fusion of organic and inorganic.

The most striking feature of an esuvee, besides its size, is its face. Its wide, flat countenance sports a pair of massive pseudo-crystalline bulbs spaced far apart, each one capable of projecting a beam of light stronger than 65 watt lamps and moving with partial independence from the other. Their eyes are connected to an intricate system of specialized nerve endings which incorporate copper particles like filaments, and which run all the way from the head down into the fifth and sixth stomachs. These stomachs are specialized less for digestion and more for fermentation, brewing up an ethanol fuel from the truly nightmarish volume of plant matter which the average esuvee consumes every day. That fuel is in turn compressed into adjacent bladders and burned, powering the esuvee's lights as well as short bursts of extreme energy, such as in fighting off or fleeing the bands of small ambush predators who have to separate an esuvee from its convoy and then harry it for several miles in order to bring it down.

Not as well known to strangers of the plains is the pair of smaller, much less luminous lights which an esuvee sports upon its rear. Studding the back of each hind leg's "knee" (actually a digitigrade ankle) is a dull, reddish bulb which consumes far less energy than those up front. These are useful to members of a convoy traveling at night, in which the bulk of the herd is able to power its night vision down to a soft glow, simply following the lights of the esuvees in front of them who lead the way with lamps at full power. And when the forerunners tire, they can simply slow down to be enveloped by the group as fresher esuvees move ahead to take their places. These rear lights do not seem to be eyes in any way however, leading experts to wonder how an esuvee's body distinguishes wire-filaments from actual optical nerves.

Between the luminous eyes is situated a large, flat space where a nose might be expected. There are in fact nostrils somewhere in there, but they're a bit difficult to find in between the thick rows of wrought metal which form a sort of protective face-plate. These "grills" fuse seamlessly to the skull bones from which they grow, almost like metal mimicry of smaller animals' horns. The grills of male esuvees tend to be larger and more pronounced than those of females, which aids them in their headbutting displays during the highly competitive annual mating period.

This time, colloquially known as "rocking season", is what causes esuvees to get such a negative reputation for aggression and single-mindedness in the wider world. This isn't helped by the fact that seeing a mated pair of esuvees a-rockin' can be quite a... scarring experience for more impressionable eyes.
I'm only partly sorry.

Regardless, the first pioneers into this land were quick to notice how the esuvee thrived, and quicker to stake their own claims in them. They followed the convoys, learning the quickest routes in between potable water sources while also hunting the beasts. Over time they learned to tame them, and a herding industry flourished among the pioneers which survives in their descendants to this day.
Even a juvenile esuvee has enough iron-rich meat on it to last a family several days, though a person with already adequate iron levels has to be careful to thoroughly drain it of blood and hemoglobin before consumption to reduce the risk of iron poisoning. Its bones are dense and heavy, owing to the rich deposits of metals intermingled with the calcium throughout. A skilled smith can purify trace amounts of several metals from every bone, slowly but reliably adding up to workable amounts in a landscape where staying in one place long enough to properly mine an ore outcropping can be dangerous business attracting of much unwanted attention from the other local fauna. The face-plate is a far more accessible piece of metal of course, and grill-metal tools or weapons have been renowned for their durability in the past. Unfortunately this has given rise to the practice of poaching esuvees solely for their grills while leaving the rest of the animal to rust and rot- a truly disgusting waste of life and resources that convoy-keepers have taken great pains to crack down upon in recent years. Their fur, though reputed to be very musky, can be perfectly clean and serviceable for clothing and shelters alike with proper treatment. Because it can be sheered from the esuvee's hide with no harm to the animal, it has become so widely available in many markets that even rabbit's fur has become a rare "luxury" by comparison. Even the animal's eyes, if extracted with their roots undamaged, can be made into lanterns when coupled with a crude electrolytic battery.

An esuvee is just as valuable alive as it is for its parts, however. When trained and cared for properly they are some of the most prolific beasts of burden known to man and several other sapient cultures. Just one harnessed cow can tow two to three thousand pounds for long distances, which has allowed the convoy-keepers to become some of the least light-traveling nomads around.

The average chieftain can carry around a solar tent, three water tanks, and a hot tub.

Less well known, but no less unusual than the esuvee's grill and headlights, are its soles. Each four-toed foot has a treaded texture somewhere in between rubber and old leather, as well as a series of tiny bladders located several inches below the surface, which travel all of the way up into the elbow. Through a hydraulic mechanism that isn't perfectly understood at this time, these bladders can engorge with air to give the lower joints of an esuvee a cushioned, almost balloon-like quality.

Their properties could revolutionize airtight technologies, if only they didn't smell so footy.

This strange adaptation helps the truly massive and heavy esuvee from damaging itself with its own weight while running at high speeds, which can be in excess of forty miles an hour when the beast is well and started up.

Strong harness-belts and a stronger neck are needed to ride at full bounce.

The air-cushioning adaptation also reduces the risk of an esuvee being injured when rolling over onto its side. Esuvees roll over with startling regularity, little-known fact. This is usually to no injury of their own, but often to the detriment of anyone unskilled in riding them. Much effort has been put into educating people beyond the Teal Wastes in the proper use of an esuvee, particularly when it comes to wealthy young men who have one imported as a way of showing off their money and virility. Top-heavy esuvees are often the first (and last) mistake those riders make.

You don't want to know where the rider ended up.

Despite all of these dangers, the esuvee is a reliable and valuable beast, known for its surprising degree of compassion and empathy with humans. It has captured the imaginations of people for generations, as centuries of folklore and oral traditions exemplify. Even as new technologies are developed or old ones rediscovered from the ancient wrecks of the Long Ago time, the convoy-keepers and their faithful esuvees seem like they won't be going anywhere anytime soon, except for everywhere they choose to.

The closest I could find to an old-school monster manual sketch.
ESUVEE by theblitz

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Furt Partakes in RPG Blog Carnival, July 2018: Tabletop Tales.

The Carnival is underway!
Hello, dear Burrowers.

I learned something the other day. Apparently, instead of being a once-a-year event, the RPG Blog Carnival is a monthly topic! Last year, when my blog had been much more nascent, I wrote something on the prompt of how magic works in one's game world. But this time, it's something quite different that they're asking for.

For July's entries, the Carnival is being hosted by Pitfalls and Pixies of the RPG Blog Alliance. From the nebulous topic of "Tabletop Tales" I've decided to pull the idea of telling a story about my first (and so far, only) attempt at playing a tabletop RPG in person with other living, thinking beings.

As you shall see, it was a bit of a bizarre experience. Fair warning: there is as much early aughts teenager angst in this post as there is genuine tabletop encounters.

First, let's turn the clock back to the '09-'10 school year, back when I was in my junior year of high school and I left my house more than once a week without fearing the sounds of chattering teeth. In our podunk mountain valley town's adjoining middle and high school buildings, there wasn't a whole lot to do other than keep your head down and do your own time. There were a few sport teams, and at least a theater and debate club, but there wasn't much that appeared on my radar while I existed in that weird, liminal state of being part of no groups or circles, but being auxiliary to several. One of those groups was the lunch table I sat at, fairly close to the center of the cafeteria.

I ended up mostly sitting with seniors who had such busy extracurricular schedules that my lunch period was pretty much the only time they could eat. They were very welcoming of me though, and it seemed genuinely not to bother them that I was a three-feet-tall lime-green embodiment of anxiety who still thought the band Manowar was cool.

I guess it helped that YouTube music videos rarely showed their album covers.

The lunchfellows I most clearly remember were a big, boistrous member of the aforementioned debate team, a reedy redheaded guy with a laughter-inducing laugh who was trying to get a school Quiddich team going, a libertarian firebrand who always brought this really great jam back home with her from family visits to Switzerland, and a member of the theater group who was so uncompromisingly pleasant and milquetoast that people found her equally endearing and infuriating. This story will be about the debate team member.

In my usual way of quietly complaining about things without wanting to entirely fix the issue, I one day lamented to the table that I couldn't play D&D. As it happened, the debater also had an interest in D&D, as well as a friend who was an experienced DM. After a few more talks and deciding to go with 3E (hating on 4E was in vogue at the time, even in a town where so few people played anything), we decided to form a group. I proceeded to jump the gun (and the shark) by printing out several copies of those really heavy-duty three-page character sheets for 3rd edition and handing them out to anyone else in the hallways I thought might be interested, probably driving a few people away with my uncharacteristic earnestness in the process. But we managed to get a group together in the end, comprised of us, his two younger siblings, and another senior. Because three out of five members lived in the same house, we decided the sessions would happen over there for the most part.

The cold evening of the first game night came around finally, and after a half hour of failing to find the entrance to their house surrounded on all sides by foreboding woods, one of my parents graciously dropped me off. I knocked on the door, was welcomed inside, crushed underneath the family's very friendly and very big dog that I think may have been part yellow retriever, part horse, and then finally made my way down into the basement where the group was meeting.

There, I finally saw a glimpse of our DM.

A small, crimson red flip-phone placed in the center of the old table.

For you see, our DM was native to an even more rural town several miles away from ours, and lacking transportation or internet, the only way he was able to participate was through a phone call set to loud speaker.

Of course I'd been told about this beforehand, but it wasn't until I actually saw it in practice that I realized just how weird this was going to be. The days of Roll20 and other virtual tabletop software hadn't yet come, and for it to be only one member of the group, especially one who needed to be able to illustrate and explain so many details, we wouldn't be able to play very normally. But play we did.

The first night was entirely dedicated to actually making our characters. I wanted to play a follower of the Planescape deity Meriadar, but the DM was too unfamiliar with that material to want to allow it. Most of us ended up picking from the Book of Exalted Deeds as far as deities were concerned, and that was going to be an important part of the campaign.

When all was said and done and the Level Adjustment was balanced for, I had rolled up an orphaned, reformed, and morningstar-wielding bugbear cleric named Muldar Strongpaw.

Somehow, he was still the most mundane member of the entire party.

My friend rolled up a half-celestial fighter/wizard, his younger brother a half-dragon paladin, and his sister a half-drow vampire ranger. The other classmate made a half-elf bard, but vanished within one session because her owner probably realized how botched this was all going to be and decided to politely bow out.

By the end of the first proper gaming night, personalities were developing (and clashing). The gish styled himself as a theatrical gentleman hero, the dragon paladin was highly aggressive and on the verge of breaking his code and falling on several occasions, the ranger was withdrawn and secretive about her condition to the point of appearing flat from a distance, and my cleric was a begrudging grumbler who felt like it was his job to chaperone this class field trip of an adventure.

The world which the game was set in was entirely custom-made by the DM and several friends. It combined elements of high medieval fantasy with shonen anime and the occasional splash of steampunk. One week we were fighting back an orc invasion of a Great Wall protected by lung dragons, and the next we were rescuing civilians from a guerilla warfare-blasted cityscape in the shade of a giant magical tree. It was sprawling, varied, and totally confusing to a beginner who had no primer manual. But we managed to get by, focusing on things one step at a time. An overarching plot of demons coordinating with a dark elf queen eventually formed in broad strokes, but there was no telling how much plot we missed due to our own choices or ineptitude. More than one deus ex machina occurred, either as the plot called for it or when the DM felt he needed to go easier on us. And since our practical knowledge of 3.5E was on the level where Toughness seemed like a decent choice for a feat, I kind of have to admit he was right.

One fond memory I do have is of when our trip through a forest ended in us surrounded by a pack of wolves. They outnumbered us significantly, and we had no means of escaping easily, so we tried to turn to our oft-overlooked skill checks and utility spells for an answer.When the paladin's player jokingly suggested that my cleric try to communicate with the wolves "because he's part bear" and I responded to that idea with in-character derision, the gravelly grumble that I made his voice came across as actual growling on the other end of the phone call, leading our DM to believe that I was trying to communicate with wolves.

He had me roll some kind of Charisma check- might have been Handle Animal, might even have been Diplomacy.

In either case, I rolled a Nat 1.

The alpha male was so unbelievably dumbfounded by whatever the hell came out of my character's mouth that it and several of the other wolves just sort of sat back on their haunches, tilted their heads, and stared at my bugbear in disbelief. Inadvertently, this ended up giving us the edge we needed to fight our way through and out of the forest.

The last hurrah of the game as far as most of us were concerned was the night several months in when the DM actually came to town. He came alongside his other group whom he DM'd in person, and whose player characters had appeared in our campaign a few times as NPCs. Of course they'd mopped the floor with us during a gladiatorial arena bout and taken a considerable amount of our money. They were all nice people though, and the night concluded with me winning back (or at least denying for the other party) the same amount of gold as we'd lost. This was done through a few rounds of a fantasy blackjack game with the other party while I was playing a minor NPC in a tavern- Old Seamus even managed to carry his winnings back home that night without alerting his wife to the fact that he hadn't been asleep on the couch that whole time.

There were less than fond memories made, though. The perpetually poor quality of the phone call meant that we'd sometimes get hung up having to repeat or ask for the same thing over and over again, and on nights when the phone wasn't all-the-way charged we had to play pressed up against a corner outlet in that poorly heated basement in the dead of winter. Having to get driven out there and back every week was also an inconvenience that I knew my parents weren't exactly thrilled of, even if they didn't voice it much. We spiced the location up once or twice by going to the new gaming shop that opened up around the corner from my house, but that place closed up in a matter of weeks after the owner and his father won two million dollars in lottery money, split it, and relocated to a prime spot downtown.

I also began to realize that the other members of the group didn't seem like they were enjoying playing much. I was the only one who was really comfortable with role-playing, and I think that endeared me to a bit of favoritism from the DM which I felt guilty for. Sibling arguments were frequent, occasionally leaving us down one member for that night's session. I got the impression that my friend was the stubborn glue keeping everything together, and that he was oblivious to the problems which we all had, but which we refused to express for whatever unreasonable reasons. For me it was my meekness and not wanting to disappoint anyone. So the game dragged on. My bugbear's monotone sarcasm started to take on more and more of a targeted edge toward the other party members, fueled by my resentment. I once did my best to make a windstorm during an airship ride into a "puke on the half-angel from motion sickness" minigame.

I can't believe an image as apropos as this even exists.

Eventually I tried to get out of the game, but at first I only succeeded at skipping a game now and then while getting lunchtime updates on what I'd missed in the interim. My commitments to other friends online suffered as I tried to pretend that I wasn't dividing my attention between groups, and my weekends started to feel draining all by themselves, even as they were sandwiched between weeks of testing in one of my rockiest semesters. Even when my parents realized that I was a nervous wreck that wasn't having any fun, I couldn't easily articulate that to the guy. And, since he was in the debate club after all, he was damn good at convincing me otherwise. Finally I snapped at him, and he gave up trying to convince me. He left the door open for me, but I didn't take it, and last I heard my cleric-turned-NPC was acting as the castellan of a small fortress the party had reclaimed, while also caring for a silver dragon egg that would eventually have plot significance. The siblings also quit, and eventually the campaign went back to the solo phone game between two friends that it had started off as, and maybe should have stayed limited to.

I gave a great sigh of relief finally, and wondered how I'd let it go on for that long. The desire to play D&D had been burned out in my veins, and it would take until I was in community college several years later to think of getting back into it. When I did though, I made damn sure that it was in the environment of a nice, evenly paced play-by-post game on a forum.

I'm glad that I've managed to stay or get back on good terms with everyone from the group, though it took the passing of our DM a year after I left to finally bring us back together on a common cause.

Now, as far more of a shut-in than I used to be, I wonder if I shouldn't try to make the magic happen again- that relocated gaming store is still in town, bigger and way better than it had ever been in our day. I could use the socialization, as well as the exercise of walking there and back, since real cars still terrify me (and I don't think a more appropriately-sized clown car would be street legal). But it's up to me whether to use this story as motivation, or as a precaution.

If there is any sort of moral in this story, I would say it has to be that clear communication--in all of its different forms and meanings--is key to making any tabletop game, or any kind of storytelling endeavor, enjoyable for all.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Riverine Despotism in the Ersuunian & Early Haraalian Periods.

As we pass farther away from the cesspits downhill from the alehouse, my mind relaxes as chances of some strange tricks on the part of Elrusyo diminish down to the minimum level of risk one always runs when consorting with herb-hermits.

In place of that mental exertion, I'm able to appreciate the river, now broadening and clarifying steadily, for what it is. It, like so many other bodies of running water across the Basin, is a vein of life running through the heartland of so many former states.

And, like real arteries, one need only apply a little pressure to them in order to affect change in the body at large.

The Ersuunians, and the people of Haraal who would eventually subsume or supplant them, are famed in written history as well as modern popular culture for their vast forces of cavalry, able to wash over any opposition like crashing waves. They conquered their enemies and then held onto their winnings through the threat and force of that mounted elite, which would grow increasingly landed and powerful as time went on. They remained the focus of warfare and political might until the appropriation of dry-stone building from Esgodarran architecture eventually met with mortar and resulted in the first fortified and stone-walled cities, which complicated the art of the siege and seriously hampered a cavalry focus.

But an equally important component of control was water access. As mixed and settled Esgodarran-Ersuunian petty-kingdoms formed, pastoralists and montane herders alike became more and more discouraged from true nomadism, and the ability for them together with their entirely agricultural neighbors to move to a new area in the event of drought became practically nonexistent. Recognizing this, chieftain-kings along the Basin's periphery exercised control over the wealthier heartlands by building the most elaborate series of earth dams the world has ever known- excepting the irrigation systems of inland Nambar of course. By limiting or allowing the flow of water into a particular region, the rulers of the northeastern reaches (where the highest percentage of rivers have their source) were able to exert formal or de facto control over groups who were downstream of them and had no way to rectify the issue or displace some other tribe in a better position.

We know this because the descendants of Haraal utilized the exact same methods of control centuries later, as evidenced by one passage offered by our ever-present friend Yashka the Sage, in which "the sons of the conqueror restored to use the old choke points of the rivers."¹ Opposition to this view traditionally argues that the dams must have been an invention of Haraal himself, and the restoration was by many later generations of his descendants whose forebears had let them fall into disrepair. I would argue against that by pointing toward the trend in existing literature of painstakingly and in excruciating detail exulting all of the achievements and creations of Haraal or his known lieutenants. Nowhere within that swollen body of chronicles can be found mention of the river controls. I know- every sophomore-level student at the ITU is expected to have them memorized.²

Today, the majority of the dams and other earthworks are lost along with much of the rest of the architecture present during the height of the Haraalians. Those that remain have been converted from weapons of war to tools of commerce, being used to aid river navigation or at times irrigation. If we are fortunate enough to develop a funded archaeological community in the near future however, I do not doubt that many spectacular artifacts of that bygone age could be found.

It could even shine light on--or put to rest for good--the notion that once upon a time, up until the migrations of the Ersuunians through the eastern highlands, the River Khesh flowed not south into what would become the Deltas region, but east into what we now know to be foreboding wastelands.

What cataclysmic event could have caused that? Had there once been a green east?

¹ Verse 28,441, line 8 of the Histories of All, Yashka the Sage, 1284 BR.

² And while it is officially attributed to Haraal's spontaneous knowledge and intuitive battle-prowess, I would argue that a broad, inherited cultural knowledge of the Ersuunian Basin's waterways from preceding generations played a large role in his conquest of the western reaches. This was one of his last campaigns, which culminated in the battle at the Masib River, south of the Oron'er Mountains. The river's original name is unknown, but today it bears the name of the Masibi people, apparently a distant offshoot of one of the mountain tribes, who believed that the river was the gateway into the afterlife, and as such traditionally set their dead adrift on rafts down its current. Haraal demonstrated that he was no stranger to dramatic irony when he first ordered the flow of the river to be cut to a trickle,  then released it in a flood that swept away the surviving Masibs who hadn't been pinned and cut down upon its banks by his army.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Furt Digs Into The Ultraviolet Grasslands.

The Rusty Arc, by WizardThiefFighter
I like nomads.

If you read my blog even casually, you probably already know that from the amount of attention I've paid to groups like the Fokari, or the ancient Ersuunians.

Despite (but maybe not because of) it being a complete opposite in almost every way to the shut-in, sedentary life that I lead, nomadism and the people who live it have fascinated me since at least the end of my high school years.

Central to nomadism is travel from place to place for resources, and therefore survival. Home is the collapsible shelter you take with you, and your personal life can potentially fit into a saddlebag.

So when a fantasy game comes along that tries to capture the experience of travel beyond rolling on a random monster encounter table, I usually take an interest.

Of course true nomadism is a highly structured, cyclical system of migration following weather, animal patterns, and cultural traditions, while nomads as romanticized wanderers akin to adventurers are what have penetrated the tropes and tales of fiction the most in past years (when they aren't characterized as marauding hordes akin to murderhobos, of course).

Fortunately, the Ultraviolet Grasslands (UVG) by WizardThiefFighter includes both elements.

Supported by fuzzy psychedelic metal themes and the author's own distinctive art style which combines surreal blends of magic and science with an appreciation for desolate beauty, UVG is a game about traveling by caravan into the end of the world- literally.

Beyond the familiar lands of the Rainbowlanders who rule the bulk of the world, all the way at the Left End of the Right Road there is a Violet City- a massive trade hub which is a surreal melange of beings and forces all living together amid bizarre bazaars overseen by stewards who may or may not be the servants of hyper-intelligent house cats.

Beyond the Violet City, are the Ultraviolet Grasslands.

The Grasslands make up a steppe environment of inconceivable vastness stretching out into the west, studded by ruins and pieces of half-functional technology from an enigmatic "Long Ago" time.

And beyond that, long past the point where the laws of reality break down, is the Black City.

But it isn't about what your destination is- it's about the journey.

UVG is a rules-lite game which can be added in parts or as a whole to any existing game, though it works bests most similarly to OSR-type games, since the base rules assume six stats, AC, hit dice, etc.

UVG is also a Pointcrawl, which is a type of game system I only learned the existence of through this same game. For those who don't know, it's a way of organizing points of interest on a campaign map or what have you, but leaving the spaces in between those points vague and undefined. It's economical for DMs who don't have a lot of time or resources to work with, but also highly appropriate for travel across the Grasslands, where I get the sense that time and space are somewhat mutable, and the second trip through an area might not be the same as the first.

The Grasslands are populated by all manner of sub-human, superhuman, energy being, robot, and ghost. Player characters are even weirder, partly because they're actually willing to go on a trip out here. There are a host of reasons offered as to why they want to go into the Grasslands, from being merchants and their guards, to fulfilling destinies or prophecies in the face of the world coming to an end, to simply returning home as one of the Lime Nomads (it's unclear if they are named for the fruit or the color).

To show how vast and empty the Grasslands are, actions are taken according to Weeks, rather than rounds, turns, minutes, etc. In these Weeks, the players can travel, forage for supplies (measured in Sacks), make discoveries, and run into misfortune (one of several reasons not to dump Charisma in this game). Making good use of your Sacks is vital to finishing your job on the Grasslands alive and profitably, while weight allowance on the caravan is enough of a concern that you might prefer to permanently deface beautiful but heavy works of art in order to carry away a few handfuls of precious stones. Gritty realism is assumed for injury and healing, and cannibalism has a slot in the rules right on page 33. I wouldn't be surprised if a rule comes along soon for characters losing sanity from over-stimulation by the constant buzz and glow of the landscape.

I encourage you to give this weird world a shot if any of this has piqued your interest, particularly because the work-in-progress introductory book for the game is offered for free on the creator's Patreon page and through DriveThruRPG. More content pertaining to more locations in depth is available to Patrons, with even more goodies forthcoming.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Crypt-Cities: Waking Up Dead.

So, you Woke up.

It might have been a few hours after you died, or as much as a week. Most civilized places have regulations in place these days to prevent the processing of someone who might Wake, so hopefully you didn't have to claw your way out of a coffin six feet under.

Your eyes have probably sunken back or rolled out, but your vacant hollows are still able to see in ugly shades that are either faded or lurid. You've lost your sense of smell for baked bread, wind through the flower fields, and running water, but when it comes to rancid meat, waste, or your own unique brand of desiccation, you've got the nose of a bloodhound. Taste isn't much better. Hearing is probably the least impaired, though your range seems to have widened beyond the human norm in order to accommodate some unique and very painful decibels. Fortunately, you aren't likely to encounter many dog whistles out on the wastes. You can feel still, but unlike the diversity of sensations that the living can experience, you feel something in the spectrum of pain, or nothing at all.

You're going to want to cleave as close to that last one as possible, if you want to keep your wits about you.

And even if you can't enjoy food, drink, or rest anymore, you're going to want to mimic your living fellows for the foreseeable future anyway. Otherwise the pain will grow day by day until you're a withered little bundle of mindless pain. You've probably heard stories about the Awakened degenerating into savage, feral beasts that attack anything within arm's reach and thirst for blood and/or brains. And while that can happen, that isn't even the worst state you can find yourself in.

Don't fret, though. You're not alone. If misery loves company, you've got a whole battalion. Scores of you have probably popped up in the last month, and will continue to appear for a few more weeks, all across the land- you seem to appear in batches, though all the calculations and theories in the world haven't been able to determine if it's random, responsive, or cyclical. And countless thousands of you have already walked this way for centuries, stretching back into the ashen depths of history.

Take a moment to think about that. Whatever you were in life, no matter how wretched or ostracized you were, you now have a people with whom you share an unbreakable connection. You understand what they're going through, and they you. That's pretty damn impressive, and it's a level of feeling and empathy that most humans never really understand in life. You're all a family, as sickeningly sweet as that may sound. You're all suffering together, like it or not.

So try get out there and suffer well.

That isn't to say that you aren't still going to be ostracized and outcast, of course. Your former people, right down to your old kinfolk, have probably already either turned their backs to you as if you are just a shade of their dead-and-gone loved one, or actively tried to drive you away or destroy you. Remember: just because it's illegal in most places to try and deal lasting damage to your kind, doesn't mean the living don't still try.

At least they probably won't try to burn you.

Unless you're from the moorland east of the four lakes. If that's the case, you want to get really good at outrunning torch-and-pitchfork-wielding mobs really quick, or else you'll find yourself on an express trip toward that "bundle of mindless pain" destination mentioned earlier. Except you won't be much of a bundle. If they spread your ashes around, then every single infinitesimal mote and grain of you is going to be spending the rest of eternity experiencing every nuance of being disintegrated and exposed to the elements, with nothing to do about it except scream with every fiber of your unbeing until the wind itself gives you voice. Granted, that's only a theory. But it does sound convincing, if you've ever heard that keening on the wind, or if you've seen one of your new kin squirming around, even when they've been chopped to bits and pieces. And surely you heard the stories about the City of Ashes. No one, living or dead, has gone there since the fire, and that was a thousand years ago now.

But it's best not to dwell on such horrors. You've got enough on your mind right now.

On the bright side, your new, wretched form has made you tougher. Your nerves and sinews simply shouldn't work, and it's that broken fact of reality that allows them to work even better. You might be surprised to find how easily you can tear a door off its hinges now. That might be part of why the living don't like having you around. Your wounds might not stop aching, but the edge you have over your old, living self is that back then, you couldn't sew an arm back on and have it work almost as good as new. Now, as long as you afford the time to rest and shovel nutrients down your vile rot-chute, you can. You could even get your block knocked clean off your shoulders and walk away from it, if you're lucky. Which you obviously aren't, considering you're in this mess to begin with, but still.

Just don't try to take your mask off. You probably aren't very attached to it, but it's certainly attached to you, and it keeps most of the smoke from leaking out of your face-holes. It's also your ticket to a new identity. Contemplate its motifs and meaning. Embrace its qualities. Or don't, and take a hammer and chisel to it at your next convenience. Just really don't try to pry one of your fellows' masks off. No matter how pretty, gilded, and more ornate it might be than yours, your people tend to frown on such behavior. Yes, the rich Wake too. And yes, their masks and burial goods are every bit as fine as you would envy. No, you're not all equal in death.

What's so special about your mask in particular, you might ask? Well, that comes down to a variety of factors, not least of which is your homeland, the story of your life, and the circumstances of your death. It also probably has your name scratched into its surface, somewhere.

You do remember your name, don't you?