Thursday, February 8, 2024

Let's Dig Into: A Semi-Random Assortment of Issues of The Warlock Returns (Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2E)

 I've gone on record as saying I like Fighting Fantasy, and I do. Its world is goofy in ways I wish Warhammer still was, and the system itself is pretty simple to get with. It kept me company as an anxious child, while its descendent helps make me money as an anxious adult. But I haven't really engaged with the 2nd edition of the game much since its release back in 2011. Sure, I fiddled with the character creation rules here once, but that just doesn't feel like enough.

So, I've resolved to satisfy that empty space with a semi-random and out-of-order assortment of magazine issues!

The Warlock Returns is the official zine for AFF2E, first published by Arion Games in 2020. It's a throwback to the tabletop gaming publications of old that combines fan content creations with letters and updates from the publisher, plus regular installments in a slightly cringe-worthy comic serial and the occasional charity drive. At the time of writing there are 11 issues, with the latest released this January.

I only know the zine exists because I was trawling the Fighting Fantasy wiki a few weeks ago. Naturally I was looking to see if shamans exist anywhere in any of the gamebooks' mechanics, and to my surprise I learned that there is a dedicated school of shamanist magic in issue #4. So I whinged and wibbled with myself for a bit before grabbing the PDF on sale.

#4 begins like most TWR issues with a "Denizens of the Pit" segment detailing some new monsters to throw at your players. Unlike others however, this one provides a whole generator for creating bizarre animals that have adapted and mutated in isolated island environments. We're talking stuff like psychic terror flamingos here.

TWR seems to have a slight predisposition toward tropical island exploration; nearly every issue has a rather on-the-nose "JUNGLE MANIA" section towards the front. It serves to flesh out a biome of the Fighting Fantasy world of Titan that is mostly neglected elsewhere. And although the name sounds a lot worse than it is, it is still a very pulpy collection of savage jungle tropes at heart, with all the societal baggage that carries.

Also one of the diseases you can contract is literally named Jungle Fever. I feel like the editors had to have noticed that during their pass, yeah?

Regardless, herein lies the shaman, so I made a beeline for it.

The first thing I feel I should say is that "shaman" doesn't feel like the right name for this option. This is not only because of the sometimes problematic practice of ascribing the label of shaman to widely disparate practices in real life (which I am crazy guilty of and currently trying to get better about); it's also because from the spell list to the ritual items to the artwork, this shaman is clearly modeled on practitioners of Hollywood Voodoo, and to a lesser extent other pastiches of Sub-Saharan African religions.

... Then again, including a literal witch doctor class in a segment titled JUNGLE MANIA would've been even worse, so maybe forget that whole quibble.

Shamanism is a school of spellcasting similar to minor magic, wizardry, or sorcery from the core book- it's very similar to sorcery in fact, because they both rely on casting from Stamina like in Troika! and because of their not-insignificant amount of spell list overlap. The shaman has automatic access to 24 spells, 7 of which are reprints of sorcerer spells from the core book. The remaining 17 spells include such classics as curing diseases or curses, stabbing dolls with needles to damage or debuff targets, raising zombies, and scaring away demons and spirits with a terrifying mask. There are also a few unexpected utility spells like improving the crop yield of a plot of farmland, or preventing forest fires.

It's a decent mix of effects, but 1/4th of the list being reprints feels underwhelming- especially since the spread of sorcery reference cards that comes with this issue doesn't include the new shaman spells.

Did I mention the reference cards? They remind me a lot of the little power cards they made to keep track of all our stuff in D&D 4E.

Perfect for helping Salticid become one with the earth

I wasn't keen on checking out the rest of the zine after satisfying my curiosity for the shaman, but I scrolled through anyway. There was a gnome inventor's shop which can also function as a dungeon if your party is full of jerks, a review of Troika! by somebody other than the AFF2E creator who's not all that interested in it (which I find kinda funny), some material for the sci-fi counterpart to AFF called Stellar Adventures, and of course the aforementioned cringey comic strip about the adventures of the goofy narcissist Gareus, who also writes the zine's Dear Abby-esque column, "Agony Aunt".

It has more eels and bare, hairy butt than you might expect.

Eventually I perused my way down to the section on new player races. I was curious because one of the new options offered isn't actually that new. Rhino-people have existed in Fighting Fantasy for a while, to the point that they were one of the two examples shown in the "how to build a new race" section of the AFF2E rules, right next to goblins. So I pulled the book out for comparison, and found that TWR rhinos are weaker than those in the core rules, perhaps because the balancing was a little screwy the first time around. They keep their natural armor and horn weapon, but get lower luck and a slew of restrictions like needing to eat twice as much food every day or being clumsy.

There's a species of amphibious frog people called the Slykk too and they're cool and all, but I hardly gave them a second glance before my eyes drifted up to the banner at the top of the page displaying the other species appearing in the zine's other issues.

Well shoot. I gotta check out the half-orcs, right?

Of course I do. So I scoured the issue list until I found that half-orcs appeared in #3, which I quickly backtracked to nab because it was still on sale.

Orcs in the Fighting Fantasy world of Titan are an odd mix. Sometimes they're the cartoonishly-proportioned football hooligans of Warhammer, but other times they're gangling and more humanly nasty thugs like your classic Shagrats and Gorbags. They've also taken the hat normally reserved for humans in fantasy and become the species that seems genetically compatible with just about everything else on the planet. Sometimes these half-orcs are relatively well-adjusted individuals who find friendship and community, such as the Svinn tribe from the Shamutanti Hills. Other times they're the patricidal children of sexual violence like the TWR half-orc.

Here, half-orcs have it rough. They're unwanted, both cultures despise and mock them, they're prone to being attacked or even enslaved, and the best work they can find for themselves tends to be violent. Some despise their own existence so much that they make it their life's mission to kill all orcs, starting with their orcish parent (who is invariably typed as the father). To account for this miserable societal condition, half-orcs suffer a whopping -3 to any Etiquette test, kneecapping their ability to be social and diplomatic.

A face that, canonically, not even a mother could love. Rough.

They aren't completely forsaken, though. Half-orcs get some of the versatility of humans in the form of several Advanced Skills and a free Talent choice. They get a few positives from their orcish side as well, like dark seeing and 1 higher starting Skill compared to humans, plus free ranks in Brawling and Strength. They also get a second stomach.

Oh, right. That probably bears explaining.

In this world, orcs have multiple stomachs. They rely on these to digest virtually anything that they can find in their nutrient-deficient caves and wastelands. Wood, dirt, bone, even some metals; it's all orc food if they're hungry enough. Half-orcs inherit this "orc tripe", allowing them to eat almost anything without getting sick as well as the option to eat 1 more health-recovering meal per day than normal, but without the requirement that rhino-people suffer.

To me the TWR half-orc is an interesting and fun option despite its emphasis on a horrid conception and childhood that many other properties (even AD&D back in the day) either keep vague or leave out entirely.

This is in contrast to another option that I like because of its grimdark background. That is the Black Elves visible in the out-of-order banner above, which are found in TWR issue #6. An issue which I didn't pick up while the sale was on late last year, so I sat on this post idea for a couple of months until I decided to start writing it so that I'd have a justifiable reason to buy the PDF for myself.

Thank you for enabling me, dear Burrowers!

Jokes aside, I was meaning to get #6. And I did! So let's get into it.

Fast forward to #6 and TWR is much the same as it's always been. Jungle Mania is still plugging away, new dungeons, rumors, and story beats for AFF and SA are at a steady flow, Gareus continues to be a hairy schmuck, etc. There's also been a drip feed of updates for project AFF Online, a proprietary website for playing AFF over the internet. It's still dragging its feet through the testing phase, but the team and community seem committed to providing a platform that's more integrated with their game than one of the larger and more general apps like Roll20.

And then there are the black elves. To really understand them, we have to have an elvish history lesson. Forgive me for what I'm about to put you through.

Way back in the history of Titan, there was a great battle between Good and Evil that ended with a status quo stalemate and the gods packing up and moving back into the heavens, leaving mortals to their own devices. Elves took the Third Age Elrondy kind of approach and took a backseat to the events of the world, cultivating knowledge and wisdom and advising the forces of Good without doing a whole lot themselves. Over time some elves took serious issue with this, because they believed their people could and should lead the forces of Good to a final triumph over Evil instead of just standing by while bad things happened in the world. But the elven council, a kind of federal monarchy in charge, said no to that; it was a real U.N. Moment in the eyes of the agitators.

But an energetic young elf-prince with a keen interest in humans named Viridel Kerithrion decided nuts to that, and gathered a large faction of elvish dissenters to lead a coup with. They would wrest power from the complacent and lead the world into a new golden age of goodness and freedom; with the elves and their interests conveniently located at the very top of this new world order, of course. Unfortunately for wannabe elf NATO, the wife of the high king happened to have the gift of foresight and realized something was up, so the most prominent royals of the council didn't even show up on the day of the coup, and Viridel and his coconspirators just killed a bunch of middling nobles before holing up in the council palace in a vain attempt to weather the severe counterattack that came.

Eventually the siege drove the rebels into underground escape tunnels, which they followed back to Viridel's homeland, where he tried to declare an independent state, only for them to get crushed a second time by the united elf army that they'd just finished evading. They retreated a second time into an ancient abandoned underground dwarf city and locked the door behind them, intending to make their final stand now that they'd pointlessly cornered themselves.

But instead of mopping up, the other elves decided to give up and went back home. From here, Viridel lead an exodus deep into the bowels of the earth in search of a new home and purpose. Why this supposedly great warrior made so many tactical blunders in a row is not known, and why his people continued to follow him after this point is a mystery to me. But it probably has something to do with this next part.

See, Viridel's interest in humans led to him becoming an acolyte of a human god in order to fully understand the mindset of those brash, short-lived youngsters. Unfortunately the god he picked was Slangg, god of malice, whom Viridel saw as the embodiment of the human spirit; malicious, petty, vengeful, and violent.

He's, uh... not completely wrong.

Slangg corrupted him into a sorcerous, Evil-aligned tyrant a la Malekith from Warhammer, and his followers soon after. They became the very Lolthite variety of subterranean dark elves, black-skinned as an old-timey and yikes shorthand for their inner evil, dabbling in demon worship, slavery, living sacrifice, and all manner of aristocratic decadence in their underground cities as they spread their influence from the shadows.

But those are the dark elves. The black elves were on board with Viridel's plan for direct action right up until they got their asses handed to them twice in a row and folks started getting sacrificed to names like Demon Prince Myurr. At that point, a handful of elf clans had an 'are we the baddies?' moment and realized that maybe they were getting a raw deal here. So they disavowed their brethren and booked it back up to the surface world. From there, they separated into wandering merchant caravans that now brave the desolate places of Titan, living a nomadic existence supplemented by trade between far-flung cities and protected by mounted archers.

Despite the name 'black', black elves are actually the most visually diverse elves on Titan. They range from grey to black in pigmentation, and they often decorate their bodies in elaborate programs of magical tattoos and "exotic" clothing and hairstyles. My guess as to why they got saddled with the name 'black' elves is because 'dark elves' was already claimed by a more popular and well-known fantasy archetype, meanwhile the near-synonymous Old Norse term Svartálfar was just kind of sitting right there collecting dust.

The black elves are hated by their dark elf former kin, and their relationship to surface elves and other species isn't much better. They are perpetual exiles who sometimes dip into tropes ascribed to the Romani people and other itinerants, but not too overtly? They actually remind me a bit of the dunmer Ashlanders from The Elder Scrolls, without the Mahdist prophesy. They are complex, downcast but resilient people who are oftentimes the mysterious Other. But as this player option attests, sometimes they're at the center of things.

As for the actual options, I suppose I've put those off too long. Black elves are mechanically almost identical to system standard wood elves, -2 Stamina. They replace forest lore with underground lore, plus one other environmental lore to reflect their ethnogenesis and more recent history. They get some of their 1 rank Advanced Skills decided for them by automatically gaining con, evaluation, and secret signs: tattoos to play up their sometimes roguish caravaneering. They also get the Survivor talent to represent their living off the land in between cities.

They also get immunity to the "all elves are conventionally beautiful" stereotype.

Way more mechanically interesting are the bird people who immediately follow the black elves in this issue. They possess a natural attack, rules for flight and having a cumbersome wingspan, and even a reverse vertigo effect that they suffer from. But I should leave something for you to check out on your own, if this overlong post has piqued your interest in The Warlock Returns. It's got a smattering of good bits.


Tangentially related, did you know Elden Ring was partly inspired by Fighting Fantasy creatures like Red Eyes and those crystal people with the goofy haircuts? I did not.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

10 More Unpublished Manuscripts for Your Failed Novelists

Another cluttered, dusty study calls out to you like a banshee heralding the death of your free time and good taste. Tucked away in the dark corners of the world on shelves and in hard drives, monsters of middling quality lie in wait. Won't you give them a read? Won't you let them sink their prose into your tender grey matter? Worse yet, might you dare to seek out the ailing mind that conjured them, or even take one home to finish for yourself?


(Content Notice: references to body horror (albeit a positive depiction), extremist ideologies, suicide, and some bad stuff happening to a "kid".)


1 Rigatoni, Rig My Tony

Biopunk greaser street racing in a neo-retro-rockabilly world.

"Somewhere just off the Jersey Turnpike" exists a barely secret world of illegal street racing, vintage American cultural revival, and irradiated pasta. It is a tight-knit community that hearkens back to the old days of American working class disillusionment and youthful anarchy, drenched in pomade and blasting early rock n' roll in the background. But it's not hotrods this group is driving.

These neo-greasers possess the secret to cooking nuclear material into their food in such a way that it produces spontaneous, superhuman, yet temporary mutations in the imbiber. This food often (though not exclusively) takes the form of a pasta dish from back home, hence any mutant meal gets colloquially glossed as 'rigatoni'. One who is a career rigatoni-eater is similarly known as a 'Tony'.

Rigatoni gives the eater the ability to rearrange their body's molecular structure, allowing them to rapidly shapeshift into new and oftentimes frightening-looking configurations of flesh, bone, and sinew on the fly. While transformed into these mutable musclebeasts, these racers voluntarily carry a rider on their back (or some other area of their new anatomy) who acts as a sort of coach and orienteer, keeping the Tony on track and reducing any risks of "cognition meltdown". In turn the Tony protects the rider from being reduced to so much human detritus by the speed and violence of an average street race, with disqualification resulting if either party suffers harm. Like a jockey and mount in equal partnership together, they race other duos down lonely stretches of highway, through obstacle courses, and even across densely populated suburban areas on occasion.

The newest Tony to join the community is Toni, a recent high school expellee. Disowned by her family and suffering severe dysphoria besides, it is her despondent wandering by some old train tracks that puts her face-to-face with a near-skeletal serpentine creature the length of a 16-wheeler and a vaguely simian flesh geyser competing in a 1,000 meter dash. When they both transform back into unassuming mechanics with unscathed riders each, Toni is immediately captivated.

Toni joins the racers, and in the process of clumsily finding community with them she undergoes the training and conditioning needed to handle rigatoni safely. It is a physically and psychologically demanding process, but she throws herself at it with enthusiasm, and soon makes progress under the tutelage of a junkyard worker and guru known as the Rat Lord. Her first mutation into a thing of 'smoke, oil, and ferro-nails' is an experience of utterly transcendental joy and oneness with her infinite new selves.

Toni proves to have an aptitude for racing and shifting shape on the fly, and soon rises up the informal score board to become a mid-tier racer. Ironically her biggest point of friction in the community is not racing, but finding the right rider; despite the professionality and strict platonism that most duos conduct themselves with, Toni's interactions with several riders over the course of the novel take on a flavor of almost comedically awkward high school dating.

The story relies upon several Italian-American stereotypes throughout its plot, but also takes time to depict with some nuance the community and solidarity between Italian, Black, Puerto Rican, and other ethnic minorities who all contributed to the Greaser subculture once upon a time in the real world. This common humanity exists in harmony rather than tension with the common superhumanity of the Tonies, and much of the back half of the novel explores this spectrum through the point of view of Toni.

In the final race of the story, things go climactically awry. An old, disused bridge over the chosen track collapses under the weight of a Tony's sloughing climb over it, trapping Toni and her newest rider under the rubble. Worse yet, the jarring experience knocks Toni back into her base form, weakening her greatly. When it seems like injuries or depleting oxygen might claim the pair first, the other racers come together to rescue them.

The writer displays an awareness of—as well as an utter contempt for—the cowardice of subtle writing by having Toni's new found family both figuratively and literally come through for her in ways that her old family never did. They dissolve their bodies into streams and particles thin enough to work their way through the rubble, so that they can reconstitute inside the collapse to protect and free them from within.

As she limps back home with the other racers, Toni's first thoughts are of immense gratitude, followed quickly by a desire to get back out on the track as soon as possible.


2 The Sweetest of Things

An ultraviolent splatterpunk action novel revolving around a very stupid conspiracy theory.

Our protagonist is one Edouard Gagné, an angry young man living in the suburbs of Laval, Quebec. The story begins with Edouard debating what to buy at a convenience store, and having much difficulty with it. The only thing he seems certain of is that he, for whatever reason, despises with every fiber of his being the "godless cads and slatterns" who work at McCain frozen foods. He's in the process of being yelled at by the manager for stomping a bag of mashed potato Smiles when the store comes under attack by a squad of armed and masked men who kill several bystanders and abduct the rest, Edouard included. One of the assailants injects him with something, and he falls unconscious.

When Edouard awakens, he finds himself in a vast industrial facility somewhere in the wilderness. He handily escapes the meat hook he's tied to and overcomes his captors using hand-to-hand techniques that he allegedly learned from former spec-ops. He leaves the other captives, still unconscious, to explore the facility. He quickly learns from conveniently placed infographic posters that he's in a maple syrup factory, as well as the dark secret behind it.

In this universe, maple syrup is processed out of the remains of slaughtered Quebecois people on an industrial scale, with the fanciest Grade A syrup coming from people whose ancestry traces back to the earliest pure laine families of New France. As if to make the deeply uncomfortable parallels to the old myth of blood libel even more explicit, the syrup made from children is sweeter still. As the largest importer of Canadian maple products, the United States is revealed as the mastermind behind this silent and sticky genocide. Maple trees aren't even real; they were invented by the government in the 1950s. 

Edouard bears witness to the process of maple syrup making first-hand as the other captives are brought out on an automated disassembly line that ends in a massive, crimson-gold boiling vat. Edouard reasons that he must be partially resistant to the harvesters' anti-Quebecois sedative because he had a grandfather from Guelph, Ontario (which was always a point of personal shame for him).

Edouard proceeds to break out of the factory in a bloody rampage. Hounded by heavily armed frozen food trucks, he's eventually chased into the urban heart of Montreal. There, his discovery sparks a violent uprising among the populace that throws the province and much of the rest of eastern Canada into chaos. The people had been waiting for an opportunity to rebel, evidently, and this proves to be the perfect spark. Judging by a mushroom cloud that is briefly glimpsed toward the end, Toronto may even get nuked.

The book closes with a lengthy afterword about Quebec separatism, with a reading list and several organizations to donate to the cause through. This suggests that despite the over-the-top absurdity of the book and its plot, the author is being entirely, deathly serious about its underlying message.

Why it is written in American English rather than Canadian French is left unexplained.


3 Gondwanalandmansaga: The Saga of the Man From Gondwanaland

Sweaty, naked, Lost World-esque survival in a prehistoric jungle.

Somewhat inexplicably, this sequel to the as-of-yet unpublished The Lay of the Cantankerous Hrütlander is already well underway. It picks up immediately after the book last ends, with our eponymous sullen "hero" transported millions of years back in time by a Norse völva for his transgressions (and general awfulness).

From the moment he arrives in the past, the Hrütlander is forced to battle against the uniformly savage fauna (and occasionally flora) of the vaguely Jurassic Period land in which he finds himself. Though well-armed upon arrival, the Hrütlander quickly loses his armor and weapons from a combination of battle damage, and just plain being so badass that his possessions crumble around him without a hope of keeping up. Even his prized atgeir doesn't survive his trip through the digestive tract of an unusually large razanandrongobe.

Thus reduced to galivanting about the steaming jungles in nothing but a loincloth and a perpetual sheen of sweat, the Hrütlander goes 'native' as the book describes, despite the fact that there are no natives to emulate in the middle Mesozoic Era. The text makes a point of contrasting the Hrütlander's past glories with his present (even more past) low points, including juxtaposing the memories of an orgiastic mead hall feast with a truly hideous bout of dysentery.

The Hrütlander's luck turns around when he decides to raise an egg that he finds in an abandoned nest rather than eating it. The egg soon hatches into an easily domesticated Chilesaurus diegosuarezi, which somehow manages to serve as the Hrütlander's trusty steed for the remainder of the book. The Hrütlander names it Feytrdrekki, or "fat dragon", rendered in the author's typical style of barely grasping and then creatively misspelling Old Norse words. Chilesaurus was an herbivore, but the Hrütlander raises Feytrdrekki on the same exclusively-meat diet as himself. They form a bond, and the Hrütlander almost comes to regard his mount with something resembling respect and affection; an understated landslide of character development, all told.

The Hrütlander and Feytrdrekki carry on for some time, hunting and carving a path of destruction through the jungles until they happen upon something peculiar; a set of tracks belonging to no creature they've yet seen or eaten. Somehow the Hrütlander instantly deduces that they must belong to a biped of similar size and build to a human being. He further surmises that they must belong either to an intelligent species, or to another person shot backward through time. The novel ends as they follow the tracks into the heart of the jungle, where a misty chain of mountains rises ominously in the distance.

Again, the final line declares that the story shall continue in the next installment, The Cantankerous Hrütlander and the Fortress-City of the Reptilians. There is so far no inkling that this has been written or even plotted out yet. Hopefully it stays that way.


Po Beg's Säbig's Yurt Cart

A contemplative historical fiction drama about the last khatun of the Second Turkic Khaganate.

The novel follows Qutluğ Säbig Qatun as she leads the remnants of the royal Ashide clan into exile. The story is told from the perspective of her yurt cart, which groans under the weight of memory and empathetic anguish as it bears the khatun south into Tang dynasty China. The cart "feels" the thoughts and motivations of anyone in direct contact with it, creating a sort of wandering third person limited omniscient point of view through which the story is told.

Through the cart, we learn how Säbig lost her husband and two sons to the chaos of mid-8th century Turkic nomadic politics. She married her husband the Bilge Khagan while he was still a prince, but soon after found herself queen regent for her two sons after he was poisoned. The long-standing rivalry between the Khaganate and the Tang Dynasty had recently reached yet another boiling point with the Tang ascendant, and it is not hard for many at the khagan's court to believe he was poisoned by traitors in league with the emperor.

The resulting atmosphere of paranoia tears the aristocracy apart. The khaganate becomes effectively divided between its western and eastern governors, who pay only lip service to the little khagans, Yollıg and Tengri. Säbig, for her part, ruthlessly defends her children from would-be assassins and usurpers while also maneuvering to assassinate the governors and rake back centralized control of the empire. It ends in ruin, with one son and then other other murdered or dead under mysterious circumstances. One governor revolts, and his rebellion proves to be the match that lights the whole powder keg on fire. Säbig and her entourage barely escape the dissolution of the long-ailing empire into a free-for-all battle between Karluks, Basmyls, Uyghurs, and competing clans of Göktürks.

The exodus south is a long, grueling, downcast affair. For the first time in years, Säbig is forced to interact with the commoners and bondservants among her subjects who do much of the work migrating hundreds of people and thousands of herd animals across the bitter Inner Asian steppe. She makes overtures to win the people over, but much like her efforts to cut the rot out of the festering political situation back home, it proves to be too little too late.

At one point a resourceful herder stands before the cart briefly to receive Säbig's commendation, and in that moment the cart feels all of the anger and resentment, mixed with sorrow and distant pity, that the people feel for their rulers. Feelings that some praise and the occasional gift of a brocade deel can hardly dampen, Säbig knows. She releases a young handmaid from her service so that they may marry, and the brief moment of utter relief and elation to be free of that cart is something the likes of which never felt before or again by anyone in the narrative.

The yurt cart grows old and rickety meanwhile, breaking down several times and falling into disarray during the journey. Its internal narrative grows increasingly bitter, absorbing all the anger of its riders and attendants until the wood can almost be heard writhing and groaning while at rest. It is ambiguous whether or not Säbig realizes this.

But things barely hold together until, finally, Säbig's wagon train limps its way into the only refuge that will take them. Ironically, this is the palace of the Xuanzong Emperor, located in the capital of Chang'an.

The emperor plays the part of a magnanimous host, throwing a banquet for Säbig and welcoming her clan as honored guests. But his every kind deed twists the knife in the wound: he extends his protection after observing that they have no proper khagan to lead them; he offers them land at the margins of the empire, knowing full well that this will render them a buffer state; he even has the audacity to name Säbig princess and appoint her as the leader of her own people.

Säbig's rage nearly boils over at this, and the cart silently screams for her to act. It begs her to tear a spar out of its body and run the smugly smiling emperor through with it. It yearns for one last defiance in fire and blood, even if it would be reduced to kindling for it.

Säbig ultimately decides not to, and accepts the emperor's gifts even as her tongue and palms bleed from the force of her restraint. The emperor sends her and her people away with one last parting insult; a stipend of flour to last them until harvest season, for the nomads and horsemen are to be reduced to farmers. The yurt cart's suffering finally ends when it is hacked to pieces for spare lumber needed to build the former khatun's new residence.

It ends up being the house she dies in.

The manuscript itself was written using a physical typewriter, which while charming and old-fashioned, seems to have left the writer in a despondent state. Next to the book rests a copy of an academic journal on Asian languages, turned to a page that reveals that the traditional spelling of the khatun's name, Po Beg, is based on a very old transcription error made by some medieval scribe.

The writer has endeavored to hand-correct every single instance of the name in the entire book to Säbig in pen; a process that they seem to have gotten almost halfway through, before giving up.


Guañacguyon

A bird's-eye view alternate history that chronicles the exodus of a large proportion of the Guanche peoples from their homes in the Canary Islands sometime in the 1st millennium BCE.

The exact reasons are left vague, but some sort of disaster is alluded to regularly, as well as a few hints that events take place right around when maritime imperialism is ramping up for the first time in the Mediterranean Sea. These voyagers rename themselves the Guañacguyon, meaning "people of the boats" in the very rough reconstruction of the Guanche language that the author seemingly developed by themself.

The people of the boats briefly tarry in floating communities across the Atlantic coast of North Africa, where they interact with their distant Amazigh relations for the first time in centuries. But before long local conditions push the Guañacguyon out to sea again, and within a generation they colonize the majority of Macaronesia- with the notable exception of what would become the islands of Flores and Corvo in the Azores. There, the voyagers encounter heavenly phenomena that they interpret to mean that Achamán, the sky-god, has forbidden them to go any farther west. The islands and westward expansion in general become forbidden in Guañacguyon culture, and the taboo is observed from that point forward.

A nearby textbook on the diffusionist model of cultural development (savagely annotated) and a folder full of memes mocking Thord Heyerdahl might be an indication as to why the author chose to sidestep the possibility of the voyagers crossing the Atlantic.

With the west forbidden and the north and east too dangerous for them, the Guañacguyon and their descendants instead spread southward.

With generations of growing mastery of the sea combined with some luck, they sail the Atlantic Gyres deep into the South Atlantic. What would one day become Ascension Island, Saint Helena, and Tristan da Cunha are settled one by one in the intervening centuries, kept united by a web of religiopolitical relationships. The Guañacguyon become one of the southernmost populations of humans in the premodern era with their final wave of settlements in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

From here, the far-flung Guañacguyon communities grow isolated from one another and separate culturally as well as linguistically. The list of taboos they observe grows until it begins to hinder rather than protect the observers. The once precarious but dependable lines of trade and interconnectedness between islands break down, leading to... something?

At this point the text breaks down into several unfinished possibilities as to where this goes from here; a multiple-choice question of how to end the story. Societal collapse is guaranteed in all scenarios, but the exact speed and nature changes between each. In one, an increasingly stratified society leads to a theocratic priest caste in Saint Helena declaring war on all other humans. In another, a rogue faction splits off and sails east, where they unwittingly disturb something vaguely eldritch in the Kerguelen islands. In another, it's just good old-fashioned climate change that does the isolated and subpolar societies in. In every ending, no trace of the civilization is left by the time the colonial powers of the early modern period reach their deserted islands.

The writer has apparently consulted friends to beta-read the draft to help them get past this impasse. Much of the collected commentary is mildly positive and votes in one direction or the other, but one response underlined several times in red is somewhat more scathing.

The last reader questions why this work of alternate history exists to begin with. By ensuring that the story remains entirely self-contained and isolated from the rest of the march of history, it does nothing to encourage the reader to contemplate and reconsider the real history of the world, which they extol as one of the great strengths of the alternate history genre. They compare it to a bottle episode in a TV series, but with no characters or interpersonal plot to anchor it. In their biting final words the reader calls Guañacguyon unfortunately nihilistic; not in its tone, but in its ultimate meaninglessness and self-devaluation.


Lo-Fics

A collection of short stories about indie music creators stumbling through their art. Each story is written by a different author, and despite the near-completeness of the project it seems that the group has been trying and failing due to incompatible scheduling to coordinate one last meeting before pitching it to publishers.

"Nindalf". Bleak Conjurer is an aspiring dungeon synth creator who is struggling to overcome his preoccupation with style over substance. He spends the majority of his creative energy renaming his persona, searching for the perfect VST plugins, finding artists to commission for the covers of the albums he hasn't recorded yet, and borderline-stalking people on Bandcamp. Meanwhile his hand-me-down keyboard collects dust in the corner. Chief of all concerns is that he can't find a Tolkienian name to use for an album title that no one else in the scene has used yet, because that's what every good artist (and many absolutely trash ones) eventually does, right? His feelings of inertia make him irritable and combative, and his IRC channels devolve into squabbling with friends and peers on more than one occasion. Eventually he is snapped out of it by the somber realization that he is going to need to create some good and meaningful tracks if he wants to compensate for the title he's chosen. Because at last, he finds the one name from LotR that no one has ever tried using, for somewhat obvious reasons: Wetwang.

"inb4 Shuto Express". kat/anna and Yng_Bld are two members of the nascent lofi hip hop scene who rightly believe they are bearing witness to the unfolding of a new chapter in music history. They also believe they are being visited and guided by the ghost of Nujabes, which is somewhat problematic because it's 2004 and Seba Jun isn't actually dead; Modal Soul hasn't even been released yet. But a little ontology won't get in their way, and the duo sets about creating a... something. Despite their enthusiasm to do something for the genre, they aren't entirely sure what they want to create- and having to make rent for their tiny room above the falafel place every month keeps getting in the way. They know they want to combine the format of music radio with the community insights of a talk show, plus the increasingly unparalleled accessibility of the internet. Without ever knowing the name for it, they end up cobbling together a sort of cult following proto-podcast that helps spotlight some of the earliest up-and-coming chillhop artists. In time even the old falafel guy gets in on the project, debuting the career of MC Such-n-Such and his short-lived but highly experimental "Nilestep" genre.

"(S)CREED". This mix of civil courtroom drama and epistolary tale gives the reader a glimpse into a drawn-out civil court battle between two underground Oregon-based metal bands. Hate's Creed (blackened death metal) and Hate Screed (melodic black-death metal) each claim that they were founded first, and that the similarities between the bands' names, sound, and imagery have caused consumer confusion, loss of revenue, and even damage to reputation for which the other party is liable. The fact that the bands' logos are almost identically jagged and inscrutable doesn't help matters. As the bands go back and forth making their case before an increasingly disaffected judge, the personal lives and struggles of the individual band members begin to bleed through the collection of emails, texts, courtroom minutes, and occasional sticky notes.

"Hate Death". The second half to "(S)CREED" covering the conclusion and aftermath of the drama. Despite how bitter and borderline-violent the dispute becomes between parties, the case is eventually dropped when the majority of both bands' members realize that they are all in the same clandestine yet mostly inept fascist movement. The two members who had somehow remained entirely out of the loop—a keyboardist and a supporting vocalist—quit their respective bands in disgust, only to meetcute a few months later while in the hospital for foot injuries sustained from kicking their former bandmates in the face outside of Portland. They embark on a new, more positive musical project (as well as a tentative relationship) together, naming the group Death of Hate.

"Idoll". In the midst of profound grief at the death of her beloved grandmother, a woman falls into the warm embrace of nostalgia. She moves into her grandmother's old cottage, fixes it up, and begins to live a deliberately kitschy, Thomas Kinkade-esque existence as a way of keeping her spirit close, fixating often on her grandmother's prized porcelain and cloth doll collection. While browsing the web on her struggling old iMac one lonely holiday evening, the woman stumbles upon comfy synth and falls woefully in love with the genre. She takes her grandmother's name, Irma, as her screenname and quickly establishes herself in the scene with the release of a series of especially bittersweet singles. Irma becomes a divisive figure in the community when she and her fandom begin to critique the aesthetics and sound of other creators for not being the "right" kind of nostalgia that matches her own idealized memories of life spent with grandma. Things escalate, and soon Irma is actively policing the comfy synth scene, fracturing the already tiny microgenre and spinning off a toxic "trad cozy" offshoot. Ultimately Irma is violently shunted back into reality when in the middle of bullying someone with a mushroom person avatar, the iMac's ancient power supply explodes and ignites her grandmother's doll collection.

"A Bus to the Sea". The travelogue of a solo instrumental alt-rock artist named Susurrus. Susurrus is a skeletally thin, soft-spoken bassist with arachnodactyl fingers and a retrofitted VW bus who drives around the country (somewhere vaguely in North America) listening for samples to record for their ambient music. They are most interested in the sounds of industry, urban landscapes, and water, so they follow a winding route through the rainiest and densest cities on their way to their ultimate destination, the sea. Along the way they have many quirky encounters with other travelers and oddballs at gas stations, campgrounds, and parking lots at 3:00 AM. (Various permutations of 3-0-0 appear throughout the story; seemingly of personal significance to the author that is not elaborated upon.) Through these encounters and foulweather friendships, we get a peek into Susurrus' vanlife and their personal bent on the philosophy of minimalist living. At every opportunity, the heavily distorted deep drone of their bass guitar is contrasted with the softness and meekness of their speaking voice, which struggles to get a word in edgewise during their mostly one-sided conversations with larger-than-life personalities. Susurrus lives in the margins of their own story until they come to the realization before the crashing waves of a grey, stormy beach that in all their recording, they have been looking for their own voice.


Come Heck or No Water

This hefty graphic novel illustrates the endearingly pathetic trials and tribulations of the demon lord Heckadeath.

Heckadeath is a rotund, diminutive little creature, potbellied and goat-legged like the most stereotypical depictions of a demon one could find in a PG-rated movie. He has a large ambition, however; he wants to become Marquis of Hell.

In the backstory of the novel, the State of Deseret seceded from the United States to become a presidential theocracy in the mid-1800s. But after living in Utah for nearly a hundred years, the Mormons decided to find someplace nicer to settle. So they began invading Hell. By the time Heckadeath comes into the picture, Hell has been reduced to a rump state and every title higher than Marquis has been abolished or abdicated. No one has heard from Lucifer in decades, and he is presumed dead.

The process of being elevated to office is surprisingly meritocratic, with every 1 evil deed performed on Earth translating to 1 vote cast in one's name. Good deeds, however rare they are, erase 1 vote with no cap in either direction. The 'elections' are held once every 100 years and 1 day. Normally the top demons trade titles such as Marquis back and forth between themselves, but recent deaths among the frontrunners have thrown the process into chaos and given slim hope to such underdogs as Heckadeath.

The story picks up as Heckadeath narrowly escapes a squad of LDS commandos by opening up a portal to the languishing city of San Bernardino, California in the late 1980s. There, he sets about performing wicked acts and establishing a cult of fanatical worshipers. Or at least that's the plan. In reality his grand schemes are so incompetent or milquetoast that they end up being harmless or beneficial to their victims more often than not, and the only 'cultists' whom Heckadeath attracts are a group of Goths and Wiccans who adopt him after they realize 'Heckie' can't keep himself out of trouble.

Over the course of the novel Heckie and his handlers tangle with crust punks, carnies, US Marshals, NIMBYs, Mormon wetwork squads, and a multi-billion dollar scheme to privatize all drinking water on the West Coast. When the elections in Hell roll around, Heckie is devastated to learn that he received thousands of votes- in the negative. He becomes the laughingstock of Hell. But his incompetence also gets his name taken off of most assassination lists, while his unwitting good works get him written into the ballot for the coincidentally concurrent election for Mayor of San Bernardino. He wins handily, defeating both the incumbent and the main opposition by a landslide.

The story ends as Heckadeath bemusedly walks into his new office in an ill-fitting suit and tie, his witchy cabinet already hard at work setting up his new administration.


Didacts on the Knowing of Hlaax, Vol. DCCCXIV

Framed as the newest volume in a long-running encyclopedia, this tome describes the fantastical lands and their occupants which have recently been conquered by the ascendant Hlaax Empire.

The Hlaax, like any empire, maintains its position through the monopolization of violence. But somewhat uniquely the Hlaax's monopoly is not martial or economic in nature; the empire is noted for having only a token military force. Rather, its violence is metaphysical and epistemological.

The Hlaax Empire possesses the power to manipulate the knowledge and perceptions of other peoples from afar. By some unknown means its ruling caste can weave enchantments that spread outward from the empire's capital city like a web or net. They can gradually ingratiate a group to the Hlaax, or make them forget their native language and customs. With the aid of an immense, hyper-detailed world map they can even draw borders that then have real, material impacts on that area and how the people there conceive of the land around them.

Once a region has been more-or-less bloodlessly conquered, the empire moves in to begin the process of Knowing.

"Knowing" is a bit of a misnomer. It is not an acquisition of knowledge of the conquered region, but rather an imposition of knowledge upon it. The empire fits the land, its peoples, places, even flora and fauna into a single overarching worldview of imperfect radial diffusion; that everything is a pale corruption of the perfect, Platonic ideals that can be found within the Hlaaxi imperial core. This degeneration of ideals worsens the farther out from the heartland one goes, creating a system in which every conquered region has an immediate superior, and is also incentivized to accelerate the conquest of their immediate inferior. Hlaax, naturally, is at the center of this hierarchy.

Place names are altered, old cultural traditions are eliminated or "corrected", and perceived mental illnesses like speaking a language other than the standardized Hlaaxi tongue are cured with severe medicine. And while the conquered never, ever achieve parity within the empire, many still fall into line and become another rung in the ladder. And then it is as if they had always been imperfect Hlaaxi, working toward the ultimate goal of Mirroring.

Almost nothing is written about Hlaaxi religion, because such a thing is considered blasphemous in a society where the written word can and regularly does warp reality. But what can be gleaned is the idea that through obedience and correct Knowing, the occupants of outer circles may be reborn farther within, as their soul progressively sheds more and more layers of degeneration. Eventually, it is promised, the soul enters into union with and Mirrors the ideal from which it fell so long ago.

Another way to describe this is that not even death will free you from the empire.

Not everything succumbs to this bending of reality, however. The process of Knowing is imperfect. Scribbled in invisible ink in the margins, spelled out in random bolding and obvious spelling errors, secret messages can be found throughout the text. The author of this volume is a member of a diffuse and disorganized mental resistance, or perhaps they hope that through the act of writing they can will such a thing into existence.

In a final act of rebellion the author reveals that their name, not the name forced into them but their name fought and wept over is Shai-qib, of a place once named Bamla.


Muscleman Curry

A rather saccharine children's novel about food, archaeology, and the ethics of tourism.

The exceptionally WASPy Preston Forthright and his seven year-old daughter Addison arrive in the city of Krung Thep, Thailand, which the story consciously favors over the more common English name of Bangkok. Preston is an archaeologist specialized in Southeast Asia, and he wishes to extol in his daughter a fondness for the field and an appreciation of its morals and values- simplified for a child, of course.

Preston organizes a busy schedule touring museums and archaeological sites across Krung Thep and the larger Chao Phraya River Delta. The schedule is packed to the point that them going to every location in just one week strains credulity somewhat, especially considering that Thailand is at the height of its tourism season. But before setting out on their first day, they stop to get a bite to eat at one of Taling Chan district's famous floating markets.

Here, Preston and Addison meet Nuu, the aging operator of a curry stall at the edge of the market. He is fluent in English—or more fluent than Preston is in Thai or Malay anyway—and the three become friends almost immediately. Nuu is delighted to no end when he serves them each a bowl of Massaman curry on the house, and Addison inexpertly renders it as "muscleman curry". Nuu soon decides to close up shop and accompany them as a combination of interpreter, guide, and occasional student.

What follows are 9 chapters themed around the 9 principles of ethics in American archaeology, from responsible stewardship and accountability to cultural outreach and safe workplace environments. More ink is spilled here on the significance of naga-headed ponds at ancient Hindu temples than possibly anywhere else in a children's book, though perhaps that was for good reason; the middle of the book begins to drag on.

The novel tries but struggles to discuss the issues of tourism and how to address them. For as much care and effort that Preston puts into raising Addison to be an ethical person, the actual lesson being taught eventually boils down to "do all the normal things a tourist does, but politely and while handing out giant tips". They go to all the same places, see all the same sites, even visit a famed tourist trap that causes them to meet Nuu to begin with, etc.

There is also something to be said of the way Preston teaches Nuu about the history of his own culture. Nuu is not a completely passive actor in this; he frequently interjects with bits and pieces of what he remembers from his own schooling as a child. But the fact that Preston knows more about Thailand on average and educates Nuu about it falls into more than one "White Savior" trope.

Shorter interlude segments pass the narrative torch over to Nuu, who introduces the Forthrights to more lived examples of Thai culture. He also invites them back to his home in Krung Thep, where an extensive cross-section of Thai family life is wrapped up with the revelation that 'Nuu' is his public-facing nickname rather than his given name. Addison is entertained to learn that nuu means mouse, and starts pestering Preston for her own nickname on-and-off for the remainder of their visit.

At the conclusion of their vacation, the Forthrights return to Nuu's food stall for one last meal before catching their flight home. There, they find that he has completely rebranded his stall in honor of his new friends. A painted façade of a circus strongman now stands above the counter, proudly holding aloft a steaming bowl of food while frozen mid-flex. "Muscleman Curry" is open for business.


10 Second Shots

A psychological thriller about a time traveler who wanted a fresh start.

The nameless first-person narrator introduces themself as your typical hopeless, self-loathing older millennial who wouldn't be missed and wouldn't want to be missed besides. They receive an anonymous text one night asking them if they want to reset their life, and they find themself deep enough in ennui and beer ramen to say "to hell with it" and agree.

After a trip to a seemingly abandoned warehouse with a surprisingly professional-looking lobby and medical facility inside of it, the narrator gets strapped into a pod-shaped device that will, allegedly, send them back in time to their early childhood with most of their memories intact. The idea is that with perfect hindsight, they can correct their many regrets and 'what if?'s throughout life. The pod fills with warm fluid, and the narrator falls asleep.

The narrator wakes up still submerged in fluid, but of a very different sort. Unable to move or breathe, they drift helplessly as something slowly pulls them through an increasingly, agonizingly narrow space that threatens to crush their skull and break their shoulders. It isn't until after a blinding flash of light and an agonizing breath that they realize they were just conscious for their own birth. Amazed and horrified, the narrator faints.

What follows is a rough few months as the narrator slowly gains motor function of their new infant body, feeling trapped like a near-vegetable all the while. Slowly, bit by bit, they ambitiously begin to wiggle, crawl, and eventually walk. To their parents, they are developing at an amazingly fast pace, but no one is tipped off to the truth of the matter.

A renaissance of sorts begins as the narrator indulges in joys, freedoms, and love that they hadn't known for decades, all while building up a reputation as a preternaturally excellent child. Now and then they feel the temptation to exploit their combination of knowledge and youth, mostly to get one over on obnoxious adults. But for the most part the narrator just bides their time, waiting for the opportunity to retake the biggest first steps of their life.

This changes at the age of 6, when the narrator tries to coax their family away from an ill-advised camping trip that got their childhood dog sick. Attempting to speak upon the matter causes the narrator severe disorientation and nausea, culminating in a seizure that lands them in the hospital overnight. Over the next few weeks they cautiously try to push the envelop with other decisions, all ending the same way. The narrator realizes in mounting horror that going against the 'canon' of their previous life is almost impossible to effect, as if this new timeline was somehow enforcing its will upon them.

Through trial and error (and deeply worried parents) they come to figure out how far they can change things. The broad arc of their childhood continues unchanged, but minor details can be tweaked and altered. Depression and hopelessness return as they realize they can do nothing to stop the tragedies of their own time from happening.

The bulk of the book sees the narrator in this state of tension, as early childhood gives way to adolescence and then the tween years. School is effortless, most of the time at least; elementary school math still kicks their ass, much to their chagrin. But they remain aloof from kids 'their age', unable to relate to them and unable to divulge the truth to anyone at all.

This internal agony culminates when an old crush of the narrator asks them to a dance, and in a moment of surprised delight, they agree. Soon after, the narrator begins to dwell in increasing revulsion upon the fact that while they are physically the same age, the narrator is mentally several decades older than their once-again crush. Realizing what this makes them—at least from a certain point of view—the narrator promptly jumps in front of a bus.

Once again they wake up confused and disoriented, this time in a clean medical room. For a moment they are relieved to find they must never have left the warehouse, only to look down at their tiny, broken body and realize that they did not wake up from a nightmare, that they are in fact still in the past, and they survived the collision.

A childhood psychologist visits the narrator in their hospital room to try and suss out the details of why they attempted suicide. The entire book is revealed to be the narrator's relaying of events up to this point to the psychologist, through gritted teeth and multiple seizures. The narrator even manages to get in a few words edgewise about events yet to occur before a coma hits. Finally, mercifully, the narrator dies.

An epilogue framed as personal notes by the psychologist expresses their feelings on the whole tragedy.

The psychologist hold their breath as disasters, inventions, and elections all pan out just as the narrator revealed. They reflect upon the feeling of helplessness to change what is still yet to come, combined with all of the other existential dread that the case of the unchild prompted. But they do not feel quite so helpless as the narrator did, and eventually resolve to track down and intercept an operation at a warehouse not terribly far from here.

If the time traveling project still exists in the divergent timeline created by the narrator's death, changes need to be made.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Narblesnard Reveler, & Other TROIKA! Backgrounds I Completely Forgot About for Like Two Years

In classic Furtive fashion, I fretted over a post for several days in a row and got it around 80% finished before completely forgetting about it for years. Earlier today when I found out that it's not only December but late December, I started to scramble for something seasonal to write. Failing in that, next by chance I searched through my unfinished drafts for anything containing the word "Narblesnard", and lo did I find this neglected installment in that series of shamelessly self-referential Troika! backgrounds that I was working on for a while in the hopes of eventually publishing a d66 table (which will still happen Eventually).

The other backgrounds don't really have a common thread between them, certainly nothing holiday-themed, so think of this post as more of an ugly, re-gifted sweater than a proper present. But hey, that's more than I usually manage to do on short notice.

Blessed Narblesnard and stay safe, dear Burrowers. May your Scrap Goblin find you ragged yet whole this coming year. I promise I have less mechanical stuff coming down the pipe after this.


Beaten Chieftain

Your tribe of techno-barbarians follows a simple code of governance: leaders and representatives are elected on an ad hoc basis, and all eligible voters do so with their fists. The candidate who receives (and endures) the most punches from their fellow tribesfolk is appointed to temporary office. Unfortunately your platform proved to be a little too popular with your fellows, and you passed out under the hail of approval. Now you nurse your bruises and hope to toughen up before the next caucus.

Possessions

  • A Mild Concussion.
  • Muscles, Scar Tissue, Callouses & Microfractures (Lightly Armoured).
  • No Shirt, ever.
  • A Data-Sphere filled with your ancestors' wisdom and also workout tips.

Advanced Skills

4 Pain Tolerance
3 Athletics
3 Tribal Law
2 Unarmed Fighting

Special

Whenever you strike a Mighty Blow with an Unarmed attack, you deal triple damage instead of double.
Additionally, people who have punched you in the face find it easier to like you.


Delta Dead-Keeper

You are called "necromancer" by some, and on the surface that may appear true. You speak to the dead, and under great duress might beseech their help. But you love the spirits in your care, and strive to see the wheel spin on, uninterrupted. The humid river deltas still echo with your jovial songs to the dead, even in your absence.

Possessions

  • Weathered Old Staff
  • Talisman-Bedecked Robes
  • Coffin containing a Deceased Loved One

Advanced Skills

3 Etiquette
3 Religion (Ancestors Cult)
2 Second Sight
2 Spell - Banish Spirit
1 Singing

Special

You can see all ghosts and undead by the aura around them. It's impossible not to see them, they're so glaring and bright. You can also speak to all undead and corpses, even if they are normally mindless. Getting fruitful conversation out of them is another matter, though.


Graft-Elf Beautician

Once feared, reviled, and propagandized against for tinkering with flesh, outsiders now seek your kind out for the potential that you can draw out of the physical form. With enough time, patience, sinew, and bone, you can induct anyone into the Fair Folk. But the creativity of a yearning heart knows no bounds, and you must search far and wide for just the right donors.

Possessions

  • Far Too Many Knives
  • 3 doses of Anesthesia
  • Dreadful Beauty
  • 1 Random Roll on a Mutation/Augment/Prosthetic table of your choice.

Advanced Skills

3 Surgery
2 Healing
2 Inspire Awe
1 Knife Fighting

Special

You may Test Your Luck to perform a special surgery upon a creature to add or replace an appendage or other body part. This process requires a day of uninterrupted preparation and work, the spare parts in question, and enough anesthesia to knock out your patient (unless you are operating upon yourself). Failing the roll or interrupting the process reduces the target to 1 Stamina.


Narblesnard Reveler

You are one of the little hole-dwellers living next to the perilous woodland realm of the squirrels. You celebrate the winter solstice as a time of quiet and safety, when the narbling horde has finally laid itself down for hibernation. Yet you know in your heart that their malice always lurks close by, no matter where in the spheres you've burrowed yourself to.

Possessions

  • An Anxiety Disorder of your choosing.
  • Letter Opener (Damage as Knife).
  • Running Moccasins with Decade-Old Socks.
  • Sack of d66 Acorns.
  • Jar of Emergency Peanut Butter.

Advanced Skills

3 Run Away
2 Foraging
2 Sneak
2 Woodland Lore
1 Evoke Pity

Special

You instinctively know the exact location, health, and aggression level of all squirrels, chipmunks, marmots, or other sciurids within a 1 kilomile radius.


Sea Nomad Mariner

Your people are born of the sea, and the sea of stars and spheres is just another ocean for you to explore and conquer. Or so you thought. Your flotilla is scattered, and you are marooned on curious shores. But you hold true to the teachings of the Eternal Blue Above & Below and keep floating on.

Possessions

  • An Old War-Dinghy painted in totemic images and tamghas.
  • Brocaded Sailcloth Sarong.
  • Fishing Net, sporting a few holes.
  • Waterproof Composite Bow (Damage as Bow) and 20 Arrows.

Advanced Skills

4 Sailing
3 Archery
3 Climb
2 Use Rope
1 Manatee Herding

Special

While piloting an outrigger canoe, catamaran, war-dinghy, or other small water vessel, you may Test Your Luck to perform extraordinary tricks with it. This includes but is not limited to jumps, banks, rolls, sailing against the wind, and the time-honored tradition of oar jousting.


Uncrowned Monarch

That petulant, shrouded upstart. He did this to you. After he stole your crown, it all went downhill. He broke the natural order of things- surely the people would not have otherwise risen up and deposed their liege and lord? No. 𝒰𝓃𝓉𝒽𝒾𝓃𝓀𝒶𝒷𝓁𝑒. The blame lies squarely with him, and with your vengeance you will reclaim your kingdom. You will claim many. You will slay the Double King.

Possessions

  • Compulsively Well-Maintained Royal Seal.
  • Tattered Royal Robes.
  • Mostly Ceremonial Weapon of your choice.
  • A Sad little Replacement Crown.

Advanced Skills

4 Self-Aggrandizement
2 Fencing
2 Oration
2 Ride
1 Etiquette

Special

Your obsession with "good breeding" allows you to identify the genealogy of anyone you come in contact with, and determine whether or not they are a royal. "Royalty" is a culturally subjective term you have no control over.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

GLOG Class: Goblin Auntie

A typical auntie, silently judging you.
The loud judging comes later.

Not every goblin is lucky enough to have a mom. But whether they like it or not, they've all got an Auntie. Part parent, supervisor, and tribal elder, Aunties know it's pointless to try and enforce a semblance of orderliness upon their niblings. Instead, they help guide and redirect them, like one might the flow of a mighty river. A green, gibbering river full of teeth and shiny rocks and- hey, was that a goat?

Note that you don't need to be an actual goblin or auntie in order to be a Goblin Auntie. It's all about having the right state of mind.

Goblin Auntie

Starting Equipment: stained apron, sewing kit, dagger, bag of acorns
Starting Skills: Childrearing. Also, roll on adjacent table.

A: Adopt Niblings, Auntie Knows Best
B: Just The Thing, Slap Some Sense Into
C: Family That Stays Together
D: An Auntie's Love

You gain +1 to Save vs mind-altering effects for each Goblin Auntie template you possess.

A: Adopt Niblings

Being a Goblin Auntie means you know true family is found. Found, nicknamed, badgered, and possibly wiped 'clean' with a spitty handkerchief when you want to make sure they're extra handsome. You may designate a number of nearby friendly creatures equal to 1/2 your Wisdom score (rounded down) as your adoptive niblings. Several of your class abilities affect your current niblings.


A: Auntie Knows Best

When one of your niblings rolls under a stat or tries to use a skill you may offer unsolicited advice and admonishments to help them out, even (and especially) if you have no experience with what they're doing. Roll to Save; if you succeed the nibling gains +1 to their roll, but if you fail they suffer -1. You can do this once per round.


B: Just The Thing

Extra snacks, bits of thread, herbs for that one asthmatic kid; your career has prepared you to always have just the thing you need for a random situation. You've gotten so good at it in fact, that the depths of your backpack have become a zone of Schrödingerian potentiality.

You can designate 1 Inventory Slot (other than a Quick-Draw Slot) as a Just The Thing slot that is always filled. You can spend 2 rounds rummaging around in that slot to produce any item that is worth 1 gp or less, even if you never put one in your inventory to begin with. You may do this once per day, after which your compulsive saving and pocketing naturally refill the slot.


B: Slap Some Sense Into

When 1 or more of your niblings are affected by fear or another mind-altering effect, you can attempt to slap some sense into one of them to set them all straight. You deal 1 damage to the target nibling, and they and every other nibling within 30' are allowed to reroll their Save against that chosen effect. You may do this once per day per point of Strength bonus (minimum 1) before your slapping hand gets tired.


C: Family That Slays Together

Even if they never asked for an Auntie, your protective clannishness has begun to rub off on your adoptees. When 2 or more of your niblings are next to each other in combat, they unwittingly start to fight together as a swarming, gobliny unit. Each gains their choice of +1 to Initiative, Defense, or Attack. This effect ends if they split up.


D: An Auntie's Love

You always knew what you were signing up for. What this job is really about. If ever one of your niblings is in imminent mortal danger—about to take lethal damage in combat, suffer a fall, trip a trap, etc.—you may intercede on their behalf through some dramatic contrivance and suffer all harm in their stead. You may do this once per day, assuming you survive.


1d6

Goblin Auntie Skills

They have a habit of getting sick, don't they? Gain the "Medicine" skill and 3 doses of your homemade decongestant (extra chunky).

You are a 1st generation gentle Auntie. In your case, "gentle" means you reserve the rod for your enemies. Gain a proper nasty switch (light weapon).

Insomnia is part of the job, but you've elevated it to an artform. Gain the "Stay Awake" skill and a trashy, dogeared novel.

A well-fed nibling is a less troublesome nibling. Gain the "Baking" skill and 2d6 muffins (about to go stale).

Why, it looks like you've already attracted a few hangers-on without even trying! Gain 2 random camp followers, each with an embarrassing nickname.

These fricking kids. Gain a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of spirits.


Monday, November 27, 2023

TROIKA! Background: Homo Algus

They are frightened of you, the little dry ones. They fear your long face and your long limbs. They mistake your little lights for cruel will-o-wisps. They mistake your attempts to deliver food and medicine for attacks, and drive you off with torches and peat knives. You would have spurned the dry ones long ago, were it not for the fact that you seem to know them. You remember them from a time long, long ago, before you were born from the mud, and they were even littler.

If they would just stop running away, perhaps you could ask them what they mean when they call you a "bog body".

Possessions

  • Lots of Algae
  • Even More Algae.
  • Excessive Amounts of Algae!
  • Favorite Pebble (perfectly round)

Advanced Skills

3 Swim
2 Herblore
2 Sneak (4 in Wetlands)
1 Acrobatics
1 Climb
1 Spell - Light
1 Strength

Special

You may enter a state of suspended animation known as the "Swamp Hunch". During a Hunch you sit perfectly, deathly still for up to a week at a time. During that time you do not need to eat provisions, and others must Test their Luck to recognize you as anything other than a very misplaced sculpture. It takes 1 hour to enter or leave a Hunch, as your joints pop and your metabolism adjusts.

More photos of the original exhibit by Sophie Prestigiacomo.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

TROIKA! Background: Moondog

 Moondog, the Viking of 6th Street

Whether you're rubbing shoulders with Yardbird and the King of Swing, praying at your altar to Thor at home, or accidentally scaring the hell out of New York City couriers in darkened entryways, you do everything with a groove and a sense of vision that not even a dynamite cap to the face can cramp.

Go forth under the howl-honored moon, and remember the beat that Chief Yellow Calf taught you.

Possessions

  • Spear, mostly for show.
  • Horned helmet, jauntily tilted.
  • A Trimba, Oo, or other idiosyncratic homemade instrument.
  • Beard like a homeless wizard (which you are).

Advanced Skills

4 Acute Hearing
3 Classical Avant-Garde Jazz
3 Music Theory
2 Couplet Poetry
1 Religion (Old Norse)

Special

Once per day during combat or another situation that uses the Initiative Stack, you may activate Snaketime. This strange, slithery rhythm dislocates you from time and space, allowing you to briefly move through it as you please. You may remove as many tokens from the Initiative Stack or add as many previously drawn tokens back into it as you like, with the exceptions that you can't remove the End of the Round token or add the tokens of dead characters back in. This special ability lasts for 1 round, then time and Initiative return to normal.

Additionally, if you are ever reduced to 0 Stamina and the End of Round token is drawn (meaning you die), you may activate Snaketime regardless of whether or not you've already used it that day. Afterward, death rules apply normally.

Humanity might die in 4/4 time, but you won't.

Sunday, November 5, 2023

The One Where Furt Tries to Overcome His Crippling Fear of Reading With the Help of a C-Tier Dragonlance Novel and Then Just Ends up Summarizing the Whole Thing

Longtime readers might know that I'm a bundle of anxieties masquerading as a sapient being. Somewhat counterproductively, these anxieties dominate a major facet of my chosen hobby and (if I'm being extremely generous to myself) career path:

I get so upset and agitated sitting and reading long-form text that I would almost call it a phobia.

The feelings that gradually run through me when I try to read something longer than a Wikipedia article in one sitting are a pretty weird mix of issues, most of them probably unrelated in origin, but I can't say that confidently.

The oldest feeling I've always had, ever since I was little, is an excruciating awareness that I am reading something. Within a few minutes of sitting down and trying to focus, I begin to grow restless. My arms get tired from holding up their own weight (and the added weight of the book), or my neck aches from looking down at my desk or lap. My eyes jump and reread the same lines over and over, but even so, my reading comprehension plummets and I find myself forgetting what I read just a few pages or paragraphs ago. This, coupled with the fact that I read as fast or slightly slower than my speaking voice, means I slow to a crawl.

Next I begin to hear the creaking of my joints, and feel the churning of my organs. My breathing is never automatic while I'm awake; I don't know if it's some kind of daytime apnea or what. But here it's soon joined by the sensation that I need to remind myself to blink or swallow, or an awareness of the feeling of my tongue in my mouth and the smell of the inside of my own nose.

Next, as the minutes tick past, comes the guilt. Despite my lack of social media presence I am one of those "terminally online" people. I have far more important personal connections over the internet than face-to-face, and I want to be clear that that part is okay. That's a reality that a lot of people live with this weird, disconnected society that we have in this technologically fortunate corner of the globe that me and statistically most of my audience occupy.

But where it turns into a problem is the way I respond to that reality. By divorcing myself from a screen for so long, or even just looking at a different screen in the case of using an e-reader, I feel as though I'm selfishly disconnecting and shutting myself off from other people who might want or need me- and considering how agitated I get trying to read, I begin to ask myself "for what possible benefit?"

Finally, way back somewhere in my reptile brain, there's always that tickle of existential pain.

Language is two or more unique meat-computers cobbling together a facsimile of mutual understanding through the use of noises that carry with them multiple layers of abstracted meaning. The speaker's brain thinks a thing, then tries to break those thoughts down into constituent parts, then tries to match those parts to words that they then speak to the listener's brain. The listener's brain then receives those words and—shared vocabulary willing—tries to reconstruct the first brain's meaning using its own separate set of building-block connotations between those same noises and the meaning attached to each, which are created through that second brain's fundamentally different lived experience from the first.

If two people are talking about a tree, then there are actually three entirely different trees present: the tree in the speaker's imagination, the tree as it is capable of being rendered in human speech, and the tree in the listener's imagination. And that's the way it has to be. Barring the invention of technology that allows people to accurately and directly beam their thoughts to one another, no one will ever know exactly what another person means. The same goes for art, music, and every other form of expression that tries to communicate the concept of a tree, or infinitely more complex ideas like emotions.

Most people who learn about this concept will make peace with the fact that it's weird, but it is what it is. Or maybe they'll exult in the miracle of language and the amazing humanoid achievements suggested by the fact that we are able to cooperate and communicate at all like this. I was first introduced to the idea by Innuendo Studio's examination of Davey Wreden's The Beginner's Guide, which takes it in stride while diving into semiotics, death of the author, and other stuff like that.

I do not take it in stride. I find the idea painful to deal with. I hate knowing that my interpretation of a story is 'wrong'. It reminds me of how flimsy and subjective our ideas of meaning are, and from there I typically spiral into obsessing over how by extension we are as unreal and invalid as the contents of a book. Then I usually settle into desperately willing the universe to conjure up a bubble of false vacuum decay and please just end it all already.

Keep in mind, this is all happening while I'm trying to read through a breakfast scene in a fricking Redwall book.

So yeah. I have some hang-ups about reading books, and my resulting avoidance of the medium has shaped my life enormously, in ways that I know and probably don't know. As a kid I always felt like I was nerding "wrong" by not being the bookworm or comic book geek. As I've grown older I've started to lament the hypothetical worthwhile experiences I could have had but never did. I'd say the last time I read an entire book purely for my own enjoyment separate from schoolwork was sometime during senior year in high school.

Visual media like shows and video games played a far bigger role in my development, and online gaming had a direct hand in making the creature that I am today. I opt for adaptations of books because even when they flop or grossly conflict with how most people interpret the text, they at least give me someone else's interpretation of the world to replace my own with, and that feels somehow more legitimate and permissible than my own. More official.

This doesn't sit well with me. I know I'm missing out, and it diminishes my enjoyment of other media by proxy. But usually I just avoid the issue entirely. Very rarely, I'll make a half-measure like listening to audiobooks. Sometimes I'll even finish them, but more often than not the extra voices become too distracting for someone who basically lives inside of a Skype call.

Every few years I do take a crack at "real" reading, but it usually only lasts a few pages before I fall off again. I never found a way to incentivize myself to finish a book.

Until now.

Because now, I've had an idea. If I can make myself accountable to an external party, such as you fine Burrowers (and the bots that inflate my site traffic), then I am that much more likely to follow through with the task. Because otherwise, I don't even have a finished story to relay here, and the post will remain an unfinished draft mocking me from my dashboard each and every day.

I realize that trying to outweigh the pressure of reading by using the pressure of not reading and therefore squandering a blog post I've already started writing is maybe not the healthiest technique. But it's the best plan I've had in a while, so I'm going to give it a shot.

Of course the plan isn't perfect. I can't just start reading anything under artificial duress. I still need it to be something that I have an interest in. Preferably, it's something that I also already have some familiarity with, so that I have an experiential base for my imagination to draw upon. Finally, it should be something bland, low-stakes, and utterly inconsequential to the real world and humanity's place within it.

I know just the thing!

I tease, I tease.

While I've gone on record as saying that Dragonlance is kind of past its prime as an IP (and especially as a moneymaker for its owners), I don't actually dislike it all that much. Like many kids, the original Dragonlance trilogy was one of my first experiences reading through a huge, high fantasy setting- I didn't get around to the LotR books until after high school, and when I did they were in the form of the admittedly wonderful audiobooks by Phil Dragash.

The series' central themes of faith and the balance between good and evil feel increasingly stupid to me the older I get, but the world of Krynn still holds a quaint charm for me, the way you might like certain parts of a mostly cringey '80s cartoon. The huge history always meant that there was something of passing interest to me somewhere, somewhen. It was also the closest thing to a culturally diverse fantasy series that I experienced for a long time, what with its prominent protagonists of vaguely Native American and Black inspiration- although you wouldn't know that from looking at the cover art that makes most of them white.

I really should read Earthsea someday.

Also for some reason I still think it's so cool that Krynn's major continent is in its southern hemisphere, with all the changes to geography and climate that entails? I'm sure fiction writers have been using that trope for a hundred years or more, but these books were what opened my tiny whelpling mind to the fact that you could do something like that and I just think that's neat.

Anyway, yes. I have chosen to read a Dragonlance novel for this little project of mine.

Next, I have to choose which one. Which you might think would be the bigger challenge, given that there are over 200 books in the series, spread across dozens of trilogies, anthologies, sagas, etc., all written by different authors with different abilities and areas of focus. And it's not like my past reading narrows the list down much- I read the original trilogy, the finale/reboot Dragons of Summer Flame, and one book in the Ergoth series. I've never even read the Twins series that is, as I've learned during research for this post, one half of the "Holy Six" that everyone recommends starting their Dragonlance journey with.

But this is one area where my brand of one-trick-ponyism comes in mighty handy.

I'm not even sure which of the 200+ Dragonlance novels this entry is, because every publication list I looked at online gave different numbers depending on which modules or anthologies they included or excluded from the lineup. The Rebellion could be the 140th in the series, or the 152nd, or the 182nd. Suffice it to say it's pretty high up there.

The Stonetellers series is a trilogy set during the latest era of the Dragonlance timeline, the Age of Mortals that started in the wake of the gods' war against their dad (or maybe uncle?) Chaos. Chaos was trapped inside a rock for eons and then decided to erase the gods and their entire world as payback. Obviously he failed, but the whole ordeal combined with the goddess Takhisis' unceasing machinations led to a pretty serious shakeup of the status quo. I talked more about the magical consequences of this in my recent 3E OdditE post about Ambient Tempests.

In hindsight this move was pretty clearly meant by TSR to set Dragonlance up for a new series of books with new protagonists and new challenges (as well as to market the new spin-off RPG using the SAGA system) that ended up not performing so well. The huge changes to the setting split the fanbase, and after a few years the entire story arc was revealed to have been a deception by Takhisis, with the world returning to something closer to what it was beforehand. I see it as a hasty rewrite from corporate to try and course-correct, but I have no evidence for that.

In the aftermath of all that mess, a plethora of Age of Mortals books has released that explore the less well-known parts of the world, far and away from the entrenched protagonist families that became central in the Summer Flame era. You can probably make a comparison here to how liberating or refreshing it is to read a Star Wars Expanded Universe novel that isn't about a Skywalker or a Solo, but of course I've never read any of those either.

The first installment in the Stonetellers series is, as the image above suggests, The Rebellion. In it, a group of goblin slaves find an opportunity to cast off their chains and seize some measure of justice and self-determination after their people have been unrelentingly shat upon for the better part of thousands of years. That is the extent of my knowledge of the book so far, but it's enough to entice me.

Goblins occupy an interesting position in Dragonlance, if you'll allow me to use 'interesting' as a synonym for 'pathetic' for a moment. They typically exist as another species of mooks to be bossed around by bigger and meaner villains, and hobgoblins essentially replace orcs, who are not native to the planet Krynn. But draconians do much of the same- and corrupted dragon people raised from eggs to be Spartanesque soldiers and perfect minions of evil are a touch more compelling and visually exciting than "D&D goblins, again". So goblins have almost always been backup minion fodder on Krynn when the Dragonlords and evil clerics don't have better folks under their employ- a pretty ignominious position to be in.

There are exceptions here and there, like the peaceful and "civilized" Ergothian goblin province of Sikk'et Hul, or the weirdly Blackadder-esque story dedicated to the grotesque but comically lucky little hobgoblin despot, Lord Toede. But those instances are rare and often unserious, so I was surprised to find that someone wrote an entire and sincere trilogy about them. Or at least I'm assuming it's serious- I haven't started reading yet.

Jean Rabe, the author, has a somewhat soured reputation among at least one vocal part of the Dragonlance fanbase. Her Dragons of the New Age trilogy was the one that carried the Age of Mortals forward with all its radical alterations, and some of the onus of things being too different and bad is placed upon her writing, or even her personally. In her defense I will say that the changes technically began with Summer Flame, even if it was originally intended by Weis and Hickman to be the Dragonlance finale. Other than that I don't know a thing about her, but she's the first Dragonlance author I've seen write about goblins this way, so I'm going to give her the benefit of a doubt.

It occurs to me that I've been infodumping a lot here to put off actually reading. That stops now.

I am going to make use of my first-ever jump break to mark my first-ever intrapostal time skip for whatever this nightmare is turning into, because I know it will be longwinded. What follows will be my "live" commentary as I work through the book in chunks.