Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Still alive, but hibernating.

Hello, dear Burrowers.

I haven't been treating you very dearly lately, have I? Falling behind on any kind of schedule I set as soon as I can, avoiding transparency, and doing nothing with the money a charitable few of you have given me through ko-fi or Patreon. I'm going to attempt to explain myself, as much for my own sake as for anyone's curiosity.

I don't think I especially enjoy writing.

I like the idea of writing, and the ideas I write about, but the act of writing itself has become as arduous as any of my other remaining pass-times. The shift from fun to work happened right around the time I started the blog, and it grew steadily worse from there. At the time of this writing, I've posted nothing in over a month, and I've dropped out of all of the play-by-post games I was a part of. A couple times I sat here trying to delete my blog and associated pages, but (un)fortunately I've chickened out of that so far.

I've done these things, or come close to doing them, because I hate the things I make. Evidently I've had this problem ever since I was a child and it's a little less normal for people to feel than I previously believed. I feel a deep, sometimes painful need to destroy the things I create, because the fact that I was the one who made them means that they are inadequate and inferior to the creative things that other people have made or will make. This is doubly frustrating when a part of me also wants my things to be seen and enjoyed by others. That's why I started up the Burrow to begin with, after all. Had I been able to satisfy myself with just a folder of stories in my desk or on my desktop, I would have quietly continued to add to them, or burned or deleted them months ago by now.

Another reason why I started the Burrow was because I wanted some money.

Being unemployed all my life and afraid to leave my house on most occasions, let alone find a job or real social life with humans, I felt the need to save my change for years but only recently got into the habit of mindlessly completing surveys for PayPal payments and Visa gift cards. Owning a successful and monetized site was my pipe-dream, and after I rightly destroyed an abortive YouTube gaming channel attempt years ago, I eventually came to wishfully thinking that my writing could accomplish what choppy, low-fi videos could not.

Since my dislike for my own material sort of forbids me from advertising it anywhere for any reason, you can see how my blog has remained obscure outside of the posts which a fan aggressively promoted for my sake. I can't even share posts with my significant other for fear of seeming silly, desperate, improperly distracted, or whorish. And when I saw the new blogs of recent acquaintances reaching 1,000 or 10,000 page views in a fraction of the time it had taken me to hit the same milestones, I began to seriously think "why bother?" With hopelessness about my blog's future mounting on one side and resentment about its content on the other, I finally petered out last month.

I don't particularly want to get back into writing at the moment, though it would be useful to keep the empty hours a little less so. I want something to be done with the ideas that I have, especially since (in my ignorant little bubble where I read virtually nothing that other people are working on) they seem to be unique. But I don't think I'm in the head space to be able to do it comfortably. Maybe I'll come back for the new year, especially if some kind of job finds me and takes the unrealistic financial pressure off of this hobby. And, maybe once Google+ is shut down for good in April, I'll have the incentive to start sharing on places like reddit communities, since there will be literally no other option for me but to try different avenues.

So, consider this a hiatus of sorts, and forgive me if you were looking forward to new updates on Litte's road trip, or explanations of what the hell the aurikhs and Fokari are.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Woeful Errands and Mighty Dooms.

The Esgodarrans of the peripheral hill and highland regions of the Ersuunian Basin are a people who have witnessed their fare share of hardship. I have written with no shortage of attitude on this subject in the past. But there is one facet of Esgodarran culture which I believe needs no opinionated foreign input in order to get the gravity of its meaning and history across. It simply need speak for itself.

I write of the cycle of myths surrounding their dozens, if not hundreds of folk-heroes and legendary ancestors. Each geographic enclave of Esgodarran clans is fairly well separated from the others in this day and age, though their legendary cycles maintain similarities and traditions well into the semi-modern generations. For that reason, the myths are treated as being different variations of a single unifying system of beliefs and epics, rather than being genuinely separate siblings descended from the same parent-culture.

In particular, this cycle is somewhat unique for the way in which these important cultural icons are treated. Generally speaking, heroes embody or come to embody a culture's highest ideals (or flirt with their most decried iniquities), while struggling against some great threat. They then tend to succeed against their greatest foe or monster, and return home to wealth, or with wealth. At the very least, they meet a just and appropriate fate which instills in the audience an appreciation of the virtues of which the hero was lacking. Esgodarran heroes, meanwhile, do not always meet such tidy bookends.

Esgodarran heroes stumble.

Esgodarran heroes die.

Esgodarran heroes lose.

Two concepts are central to the Esgodarran heroic myth; the Woeful Errand, and the Mighty Doom.

The Woeful Errand is the challenge, foe, or catastrophe which has demanded that the hero rise to the occasion. Widespread famine, earthquakes, evil magic, and other invading tribes are common causes of conflict for the people and their hero, but there are many. The hero can come from a diverse set of backgrounds, not all of them particularly well to do, and the lack of spoken grammatical gender or particularly gendered names in many Esgodarran dialects means that self-reflection on, or personalization of, a hero's identity is common among audience members of a traditional oratory performance. When the hero becomes distinguished for some reason or another, they take on the Woeful Errand of saving the land or community from danger. Completion of the errand would be success in the quest, and is what each hero strives for.

The Mighty Doom is what they end up receiving, however. It is their ultimate fate, normally at least one step removed from success, and often involving the death of the hero. The hero, recognizing their looming destruction as well as the futility of their attempts to avert it, proceed to meet as glorious an end as possible. I want to emphasis that point- they recognize the ultimate futility of their deeds. Warriors throw themselves upon an army until their bodies are like pincushions of spears and arrows, chieftains and other leaders commit ritual suicide or endure total disgrace after failing to protect their tribes from treachery, and great hunters are torn to pieces by mythical beasts who will continue to stalk human meals in the absence of their traps.

Supposedly none of it matters in the end. But they continue to act, regardless.

Like the Pem-Pah of the far southwest, these stories tell of a grim world in which loss is to be expected. But unlike the guardians of Anqoh, the loss and failure are not random events in a chaotic world governed by uncaring chance. The dignified tragedies of Esgodarran folk-heroes are treated as inevitable in the extreme, and in some cases even preordained by seers or their gods.

I say that their deeds supposedly do not matter, because that is the exact language typically used in an epic's delivery. However, the fact that they are one and all remembered and venerated despite and because of their failures is emblematic of the great importance of fatalistic struggle in modern Esgodarran narratives. Family lines have even been known to have long-running disputes over whose ancestor was greater in their defeat, based off of the qualified fierceness of the thing which finally killed them. These doomed heroes play an integral role in the way Esgodarrans regard themselves and their place in the world.

A world which they recognize their own setbacks in, but which they will not back down from.

And judging from the number of heroes whose Mighty Doom involves them being crushed beneath the hooves of a thousand horses driven by a giant with golden skin, the historical interactions between Esgodarrans and Ersuunians have not gone without comment or consideration on the part of the highland folk.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Crimson Honey (1/2).

We always know they've come when we hear the laughter.

When the fishermen draw their nets in from the river and the village matrons usher the children indoors. When the mist settles so heavily over us that we can barely see our shaking hands in front of us. When the raft people have long since left, for fear of those cursed evenings.

This is the time when they come to us. This is the time when we go out to meet them again.

We come out from many places. Most of us have no homes anymore. No families. We crawl down out of mangroves, or up out of covered ditches. The way toward the river brings us down the path through the village. Candles are snuffed out. Children cry or question.

Families shut their doors and cover their windows before they even see us. They don't like to look at us. They stopped wanting to look long ago.

We walk in a line down toward the bank. We always move slowly. Most of us can no longer walk straight. We do not help the ones who trip and stumble. They will have to crawl after us, and then we will get first pick.

The laughter comes again, louder and closer. It laughs at nothing, and everything. The boat's hull pushes aside the reeds and strikes the side of the dock. Ropes tighten and creak. Bottles clink and rattle, and our ashy mouths water until our cheeks ache.

The mist slowly peels away to reveal them. They stand as they always do. They tower over us, even sitting down in their little boat. They are always taller when we fall to our knees.

Words form out of the laughter, as the one with a face like an elbow rubbed raw looks to us. He folds back the sleeves of his neat robe and slowly opens one basket. We don't need to look inside to know what it is. The smell wafts over us.

Sickening sweetness coats our throats, and we choke.

He asks us how we have been. If we are all still here. Someone lifts their head to tell him that Sibe has died. He feigns sorrow, and then asks how it happened. How much it hurt. Where the body was now.

No one says anything, and no one looks up to see the smile we all know he has.

The boat rocks, and the other stands up with his stick and his tablet. He is so pale, we all thought he was a ghost at first. Now we know that he is something worse. He taps the stick upon a bottle impatiently, and all our hands fumble.

Coins spill out onto the sagging pier beneath us. Stones and cowries clatter together on strings. A grey ring, still with a finger attached, is lifted up in bloodied palms beside me.

The laughing man collects, offering congratulations at bigger piles, and tutting at the small. He does not stop or look at the ones who bury their faces in the wood, weeping and empty-handed. He stops to look down at me for a long time. If the hairs had not fallen out of my skin a long time ago, they would all stand on end beneath his gaze.

I know not what the thing I hold is.

Only that it is made of metal, and glass, and that it has a weight which makes me hope for its value.

He asks me how I came by it. I spare no detail.

The raft man had separated from his fellows to walk through the trees. I tackled him and came down hard on top of him, grabbing for the knife that they all carried with them at their hips. But it was dull, and the point was broken. Twenty-eight times before he stopped moving, and I could take my hand away from his mouth. I took the thing from around his neck. I lie and tell myself that I don't know why I counted the stabs.

I know why.

The man delights. He takes the thing from me and clasps his hand upon my shoulder. I recoil, but I start breathing again at his passing.

When his hands are filled, he turns and walks back to the boat. He empties them into a chest which weighs the aft end down and thrusts the prow upward. The pale man makes more marks in his tablet and nods or shakes his head. Coins and cowries land upon many more of the same.

We are not their first stop today, and we will not be their last.

One by one we stand up and step into line. It is the longest walk to the end of the dock. Tremors run through us. The one in front of me doubles over and vomits. The tight skin of his back stretches and then tears around a sore next to his backbones. It oozes. I walk through his puddle as the line moves.

Golden-red at the edges of the vessel, darkening to a deep, bloody red at its deepest. Murky, and always swirling. Glowing in the dim light. The cork and one side of the neck sticky and slimy, insects landing upon it and then falling off dead.

Before he lets me have it, the pale man grabs my jaw. I open my mouth and he peers in. He counts my teeth, checks my arms and legs. I turn around once for him, raise my fingers up to my nose. He grunts and then lifts the bottle up with a gloved hand.

When the bottle comes into my hands I have to force myself to stop shaking. I can't drop it. I turn and hold it close to my heart as I hurry back onto the dirt. Others are already sprawled out with their own bottles. Some get it thicker, if they've done well. The ones who brought less get the bottles that are cut with water. The ones who brought nothing at all are still crying on the dock.

The stupid ones pull the corks out and tip them right back, drinking it like they would water.

I squat down and use my fingers to spoon it up a bit at a time. That way it will last longer. Last me until the next time they come.

I suck my fingers clean. Something comes off in my mouth. After swallowing the honey, I spit the thing out. I've lost another fingernail. There is no blood this time. The hole underneath it looks like it should hurt. But the honey is working, and I don't feel anything at all.

I keep scooping.

Old Koge falls down in front of me. He can't drink anymore. It makes him sick, and if he vomits he loses all of the honey in it, even if he tries to scoop it back up. So he uncorks his honey and brings the neck up close to his cheekbone. Old Koge leans back and holds the mouth of the bottle over his eye- the one that doesn't see anymore. I can see his eyelid open through the murk. It takes him a few seconds to cry out in pain, but he holds it until enough of it absorbs, and the pain stops. He brings the bottle back down, honey running down his cheek. I don't know if it is honey or blood in his eye.

He across grins at me.

One voice is louder now. I look up, and everything leaves a trail of color behind my eyes when it moves. A man whose name I do not know is raising his palms toward the laughing man. He is begging. He says that he cannot bring enough anymore, not without his leg. I did not notice the festering wound until now.

The laughing man puts a hand on the top of his head and pats him. He tells him that there is a way. He takes his hand and helps him up. The pale man moves things around on the boat, emptying a space. He brings the man down into the boat and sits him there, but he ties his hands together before he can reach for the honey. He will come with them back to where they come from, and where the honey is made. He says that there will be plenty.

We all know what will happen. We will not see him again.

I keep scooping.

The line is gone now. We are all taking our honey. The laughing man holds his hands on his hips and smiles. He smiles when he is disgusted. He always smiles. The pale man finishes his writing. He puts the tablet away under a sheaf of dried leaves. He takes a new one out. He speaks to the laughing man in their tongue. The laughing man barks something back at him.

They argue.

The laughing man grabs the handle of the bullwhip he wears like a belt. The pale man lifts his coat to show all of his gleaming knives.

They both stop, and start to laugh together.

The boat pushes away from the dock. The crying man is crying harder now.

The laughing man waves his hand and begins to bid us all farewell.

His hand blurs into a smear of fuzzy light, and his voice is like the sound of bullfrogs in the swamp.

My toes tingle, and I start to taste orange.

The color. Not the fruit.

The mist begins to cloak them again.

I keep scooping.

Click here for Part 2.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Crypt Cities Encounters: Forsaken Flesh.

As fleeting and meaningless as it is in the face of an eternity of Need or waking oblivion, many of the Awakened try to resist the draw toward the Crypt Cities for as long as they possibly can. This is easiest for your kind to do when there is something to cling to, and to pour yourselves into entirely. For some it's a craft or art, or revenge, or faith. Vices are difficult to come by when the senses are so deadened, but you'd be surprised at what desperate souls have been able to find.

Surprised, and horrified.

Hedonism is a rare but particularly cruel poison to the Awakened. The absence of physical pleasure should mean that the pursuit of it is pointless, and this is mostly true. But that doesn't dull the ferocity of a few acolytes desperate to indulge in any feeling. Tucked away in the moldering warrens of cities, deep forest glades, and abandoned mountain crags, these secluded groups--hidden for no other reason than the lingering ghost of their own shame--attempt to sate their artificial fixations. To call it sadomasochism would be inaccurate, for that tame little novelty of the living is outstripped by what they do to one another and to themselves.

Still, at least those groups tend to disband within a few years, their members finding that nothing dulls the Need for long, or the unlucky becoming addled and lost.

At least they don't succeed.

Once upon a time, several centuries ago by now, there had been plans to develop a new Crypt City closer to the seas. This distant annex was probably fated to fail anyway, or at best reach overpopulation within a scant few years. But it never got that far along in its construction. The workers began to be attacked or driven off, and more than one masked priest was hacked to pieces and bled of all of their smoke before the site was abandoned. A massive structure still stood there from what work had been completed, lonesome and stark against the wasteland around it. All the interlopers had to do was move in.

Within the failed crypt, the halls were gutted of their sarcophagus alcoves, and the central chamber was enlarged massively. A deep pit was dug in the center, and an amphitheater was built which would house them and everyone drawn to their cause. In the embrace of withered arms, hundreds found love and searing agony. But instead of petering out into another forgotten old distraction, some terrible threshold was breached.

Maybe one among them had been a truly gifted user of the astral or arcane in life. Perhaps some thing beyond our ken had been watching and waiting for an opportunity. It isn't clear exactly how, and perhaps that is best.

What good could come from learning how their flesh separated from their bones in one final, debauched orgy of decay?

Ounce by ounce, their beings sloughed apart, leaving slick skeletons rattling through the corridors or around the edges of the pit, mindlessly repeating the last actions which their former owners had been performing when the Embrace happened. It started as a pool, and then grew hideously in size, piling up on itself, moving, breathing with the life of everyone who had gone into it. Like a shuddering, mewling tumor it grew to fill almost the entire amphitheater.

And there, centuries after it should have rotted away to nothing, that mound of Forsaken Flesh still churns upon itself. It calls out with hundreds of voices, begging for others to come and join their embrace, to feel their piteous love, and to add their human dregs to the mass.

Sometimes its calls are answered, either by those seeking to add their voice to it, or those who would silence it for good.

In either case, they tend not to be heard from again.

Domicile of the Forsaken Flesh

This unfurnished basalt edifice was once meant to be the core of a new Crypt City. From its domed center extend four wings, each one oriented toward the cardinal directions, but slightly skewed to one way or the other. It is entirely windowless in the traditional Crypt style, though the interior may occasionally be lit by a hole in the roof or walls caused by the slow dilapidation of the entire structure. Hallways extend in all directions within, mimicking spiderweb patterns meant to maximize the "living" space of the death priests who would have presided over the City and its occupants. All paths which remain intact lead toward the central chamber.


Stripped of all skin, muscle, and sinew, even hollowed of all their marrow, the bones of the old celebrants still walk the halls of the Domicile. It is unclear if they now serve the Flesh, or if they are still possessed of enough of their old selves to recognize the vile thing they contributed to, and wish not for it to be seen or added to. In either case, they will attack intruders without hesitation, breaking their otherwise mindless routines to attack with whatever is at hand- including the discarded bits of their fellows.

Free the Imprisoned: If a Forsaker succeeds in grabbing a hold of its target, it will proceed to tear at any flesh left on it, dealing unarmed damage. If its target is incapacitated--or more rarely, the target is a genuinely dead corpse--the Forsaker will strip it to the bone in an attempt to free the skeleton within. It is not clear if they are aware that this does not have the desired result of animating the skeleton most of the time. But rarely, a skeleton so flensed will stand back up, and appreciatively join its new kin in rattling vigil. It is seemingly random whether the Forsakers discard any resulting meat, carry it back out of the Domicile to rot at the doorway, or leave it at the edge of the Amphitheater to be absorbed.

Reassemble: The Forsakers do not stay down for very long. As soon as a day after its destruction, a shattered Forsaker will reassemble itself to be more-or-less as functional as it previously was, barring the loss of any bones which it cannot retrieve or replace. The oldest Forsakers are little more than swirling jumbles of fragments and bone meal.

The Amphitheater of Flesh

This massive, vaulted chamber holds up a weathered old dome which overlooks the central pit. Better sheltered from the elements here, trappings of the old coven can still be spotted amid the ruin. Stone carvings, fragments of pottery, and implements of unclear but probably unpleasant purpose abound. The flat stone floor is entirely bare around the edge of the pit, which is about one hundred feet in diameter and twenty feet deep. The floors and walls here are covered in a sheen of grease and flecks like what is leftover on a cutting board after preparing meat. Most of the pit is occupied by the Flesh.

The Covetous Singer, Forsaken Flesh

Massive, pungent, and possessed of both solid and liquid qualities, the Flesh is constantly moving. Sometimes its surface only churns or ripples, while at others it erupts into selfsame geysers which nearly reach the domed ceiling before raining back down upon the area and reuniting with the central mass. Vague suggestions of organs, vacant faces, or throbbing veins occasionally break the surface of its otherwise uniform melange of tissues. It sings with hundreds of different voices, each at an unsettling midpoint between bliss and agony. If attacked, it lashes out with countless ephemeral limbs, smashing and grabbing at anything within its considerable reach. It is not known for certain what could damage or kill it, but fire or exposure to the elements is as good a bet as any.

Seething & Slippery: The area around the Forsaken Flesh is difficult to navigate and maintain one's balance upon, being perpetually slick with all manner of bodily fluids. Yes, all manner.

Acquaint Thyself: A target which is touching the Flesh, or which is struck by one of its many pseudopods, must resist a sudden wave of dreadful nostalgia which comes over them. Failure causes the target to be lulled into inactivity, taking no actions and becoming incapable of moving or defending itself.

Come into the Fold: An acquainted target, if not removed from proximity to the Flesh, will be enveloped and held within its central mass for a full minute. If the target fails to shake off its addling nostalgia or is not removed with outside assistance before that time, it will be assimilated into the Forsaken Flesh. The target's voice joins the chorus, and a very scandalized-looking skeleton climbs up out of the pit and leaves after being unceremoniously spat out.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Raft People of the River Khesh.

"You think you will move all of these baskets upstream faster by land? Sit down, and my rowers will show you the strength of Sayau!"
- Headsman Olu of Handas Islet, to several southern salt traders.

Identifiers are important in many aspects of our societies. Indicators of who we are, what we are, which group we belong to, and how we would like to be recognized. These identifiers can take many forms. The way we carry ourselves when we walk. The affectation we impart our speech with. I know that styles of dress and decoration are among the most highly visible, as someone who once had to (and on occasion still do) trot around in the beige and grey robes of the Ivory Tower University.

But they can be deeper than that. Skin-deep, in a literal sense. Tattoos, piercings, and other superficial modifications to the body can achieve much the same effect, sometimes in an even more impactful manner.

And then there are those which go deeper.

The results of those sometimes lengthy and involved processes can disturb some of us, or inspire a sort of patronizing fascination in others. I will attempt to avoid both while dealing with this group.

I write of the raft-people of the River Khesh, more appropriately known as the Sayaula or Sayauans, but more commonly known by the ethnic epithet "drop-heads". I will limit my use of the term to the statement of its existence here so that I do not sully the rest of this article with it.

The Sayauans hail from the mid-to-southern Khesh River, being the primary occupants of the river and its tributaries and offshoots in between Riven-Bridge and the Deltas. They have been present in the area since the beginning of recorded history in the late Ersuunian era, but it is not known if they are an aboriginal population. For much of their history, the Sayauans have earned their livelihood by fishing or sailing along the river upon long rafts or more rarely wide, flat-bottomed boats. They typically live one nuclear family to a raft, with the entire extended family cooperating as a loose sort of clan. Clan lineage is traced patrilineally, with most families claiming descent from the folk-hero Sayau, from whom the ethnic group takes its name.

Sayauans also practice artificial skull deformation of a type which is unique to this part of the world and time period.

Ersuunian head-binding was once a common practice among the noble lineages of the old herders, in which the skull was bound at a very young age so that it was very high and "steepled", with a flattened forehead. The practice sharply declined after the ascension of Haraal, and is believed to have ceased completely by the second or third generation of his sons. However, we are left with rich accounts of the practice today, as well as more than a few mausoleums or burial mounds filled with such skulls. Sayauan head-binding, meanwhile, still flourishes among the Sayaula, with upwards of nine out of every ten adults having received some degree of binding in their infancy.

What distinguishes the two styles visually is that where Ersuunian binding raises the top, Sayauan binding pulls the skull back. The top of the head as well as both sides are squeezed into a tapered point at the back of the skull by tightly coiling rope around a cone-shaped structure made of reeds or steamed wooden boards. The desired shape results in a low forehead and a side profile which resembles somewhat the shape of a teardrop. This visual similarity is what has contributed to the obnoxious term referenced above.

The logic behind this practice is informed by the mythology of the Sayaula, who believe that Sayau was born with a head shaped perfectly like such a water droplet. Its contours, alongside his supernatural strength and agility, allowed him to swim up and down the river with no water resistance to speak of. It is not obvious whether the practice has a measurable effect on one's ability to swim or not, but the tradition is a central element of their culture regardless.

This ethnic identifier has also made it very easy for outsiders to pick Sayauans out, however, and the unusual appearance of the practice has probably contributed to past persecution of them. More than once, the heirs of Haraal based in the city now known as Riven-Bridge attempted to subjugate the Sayauans in a bid to consolidate control of the River Khesh, but Sayauan knowledge of the waterways generally ensured that they could escape most of their would-be aggressors, and wage a guerrilla war against those who followed anyway. Material support plus the occasional offer of safe harbor from the northernmost Delta dwellers displeased with the idea of Haraalians coming down from the north was also an invaluable, if clandestine asset.

Today, the sporadic warfare of the past has given way to a tense, cooperative peace in which Sayauan barges and merchant groups have flourished, relatively speaking. They primarily deal in the north-south trade which is still supported by the Independent half of Riven-Bridge, while their relationship with the Loyalists is more tepid at best. Contact with the hill-folk further inland is only occasional, but generally peaceable. Interest in the Sayauans from the central cities has increased in recent decades for other reasons, however.

While they are distinct, the two traditions of skull-shaping referenced above, in addition to the extensive history of the Sayauala in the region, has led some researchers from Deneroth and elsewhere to speculate that there is a link between them and the ancient Ersuunians. One theory is that they were once a lower caste of an Ersuunian tribe, or perhaps an entire tribe of non-Ersuunian bond-servants brought with them on their westward migration. What began as a branding or indicator of subservient status then developed into an element of culture owned and used by the Sayaula themselves, after the events which led to their independence. These theories are of course still in their extreme infancy, and it is unlikely that they will see much development until such a time comes that the rare few researchers who do brave the long journey east manage to conduct their research in a more tactful manner.¹

¹ Somewhat understandably, Sayauans are reluctant to offer comment when overdressed foreigners inquire into whether or not their ancestors once owned them.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Furt Digs Into: Prince Vladimir (Кня́зь Влади́мир).

((Let's step away from gaming for a moment, and step back to the school year of 2010-11, or thereabouts at least. It was my Senior year of high school and I was proving to be a big, if not zealous, fan of folk metal. I'm the kind of fan who can't take the genre too seriously, because there's this latent element of delightful goofiness that not everyone notices, but it's still near to my heart. I didn't own any albums, posters, or t-shirts at the time (nor do I now), but the majority of my time spent on YouTube was spent listening to bands like Ensiferum, Finntroll, Heidevolk, Eluveitie, etc. Inevitably, this brought me in contact with a lot of fan music videos of varying quality. And while I could never, ever rediscover one FMV after the fact, it always stuck out in my mind.

I'm fairly certain that it was an Ensiferum track with Petri Lindroos howling in the background, but what struck me was the film being used by the video. Old-fashioned animated scenes of a hunchback transforming into a bear amid swirls of sickly green energy segued quickly to red-garbed vikings ransacking a great hall, and the final moment of the video was a sword cutting through a black screen to make a bloody slash of a scene transition. It was like Game of Thrones as done by Disney.

For years after that I wondered what the movie was, since my Google-Fu skills were sorely lacking. Occasionally I'd get into an obsessive mood where I'd trawl the internet for hours to find it, but that always ended in a dead end.

Until just a few weeks ago this year.

Prince Vladimir is a 2006 Yuriy Kulanov traditionally-animated film which tells the tale of one of the old princes of the Kievan Rus', Vladimir the Great, also known by his folkloric title Vladimir the Fair Sun. He united the Rus' cities, became a crown prince, and was one of the first rulers of the area to try converting more than just the ruling elite to Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

I was thrilled to have finally found this, and was prepared to feel satisfied as I closed that lingering mini-chapter of my life.

Until I got to searching through stills and reading about the plot and production of the movie, of course.

Fictionalized history films are always a weird experience for me. They combine two of my great interests, but not always in the best way. It can make for a very enjoyable and exciting story, but it also makes it easier to sell a narrowed viewpoint of a historical event or events to a large audience that might not actually know the full historical context. And even though I agree with the school of thought that no history can ever be perfect, it's still good to try one's best to avoid propaganda.

Which was why red flags started to wave around behind my eyeballs when I read how the movie was heavily sponsored by the Russian Orthodox Church.

I shouldn't have been surprised, and I'm not especially bothered, but I decided that I should take the opportunity to study up on the period of history, watch the movie, see where they exploded against one another, and then leave my impressions here for you to read. I can't really say what this article is supposed to be, though. It's not a film or animation critique because I'm not qualified to judge either. But it's been a while since my last history nerd session over nomadic body odor, so I figure it's about time I flex that muscle again.))

The film opens with a shot of the wilderness, and a small camp occupied by a nameless volkhv (a priest of the old Slavic religions) and his ambitious apprentice. The apprentice wants power, and kills a nearby bird with the pale green flames that will become characteristic of him. The wiseman explains that the "Law" of the land is a higher power than any prince or ruler, and that only through accordance with the Law can he learn its power. A dichotomy of good and evil is presented in the form of the path of the Pravzha, and the path of the Krivzha- a bit like a right-or-lefthand-path system found in other religions. The apprentice is pretty damn quick to pick the evil road, and in the night he ganks his master's magical staff and impales him with it, becoming Krivzha.

We are then treated to a morning in the snowy city-state of Novgorod, where its Rus' people are going about their daily business. Their prince Vladimir shows his weirdly-bearded face, overseeing the manning of a longboat by several of the men in town. As it turns out, they are Variags (Varangians), and the battle scene which I remember from my high school days is one of Vladimir and his pals besieging and ransacking a castle in the south alongside other pirates, and then slaughtering its occupants, including the women and children huddled amid the castle's store of gold.

Our hero, everyone!

But to be honest, I was almost relieved to see so much morally relative bloodshed done by the protagonists up front. It shows that Vladimir is not being reimagined as a totally squeaky-clean hero, even when some of his historical misdeeds are presented as being the manipulation of a treacherous adviser.

More on that later, because my favorite thing about the whole movie is about to come up.

After an ill-fated fishing trip by a Rus' boy named Aleksha reestablishes us back in the north, Krivzha appears out of a gnarled tree and meets with a wild-haired horseman. He is Kurya Khan of the Pecheneg Khaganate, a nomadic Turkic people who controlled much of the steppe north of the Black and Caspian Seas between the late 9th and 11th centuries. Like any enterprising chieftain, Kurya Khan is leading his people on another raid into neighboring lands- in this case, those of the Rus' principalities.

This is the first of the major diversions from recorded history that I can spot in this movie. The Pechenegs are presented as pretty standard and long-standing enemies of the Rus' people, and even as stereotypical "hordes from the east". But the Pechenegs and the Rus' had a very complicated raid-and-trade relationship which, up until the time period of this film in the very late 900s, was actually dominated by loose alliance. Kurya Khan had in previous decades been an ally of the Byzantine Empire, and of the Kievan prince Svyatoslav I during the former's military expeditions into the Balkans in the 960s. They had driven out the Balkan Bulgars at the behest of the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros Phokas, who wished to reclaim the territory he'd lost to that other collection of Turkic and South Slavic tribes.

Unfortunately for Phokas, Svyatoslav hadn't been too willing to give back the lands he reconquered at the end of the campaign, and the Byzantines had to kick him and his army out. But even after a treaty had been secured, the potential for lasting peace between the Byzantine Empire and the Rus' was doubted by Emperor John I Tzimiskes (who'd assassinated and replaced Phokas like, five minutes earlier because everyone was betraying everyone in this day and age). So, Tzimiskes called upon Kurya to take care of Svyatoslav, and his army crushed the Rus' and slew the prince while they were crossing the Dnieper River in 972 CE. Kurya, very impressed by his former ally, took the top half of his skull as a wine cup in a show of respect that hasn't aged too well since.¹

But the style never fades.
Oh, and did I mention that Svyatoslav had been the father of Prince Vladimir?

You'd think that this might have somewhat soured Vladimir to the Byzantines, but this turns out not to be the case in the movie. While Kurya and Krivzha conspire to kill Vladimir's brothers Oleg and Yaropolk, Vlad entertains a group of Greek traders and dignitaries in Novgorod during the Maslenitsa sun festival. He even instructs them to send his marriage proposal to the sister of the nameless Byzantine Emperor (intended to be Basil II) after hearing of her beauty. That much at least is accurate to history, because Vladimir would eventually marry Anna Porphyrogenita after his conversion to Christianity, and that connection to the ruling dynasty would help later Russian claims to being the "Third Rome".²

However, the Emperor seems entirely on board with allying with Vladimir as an equal from the get-go in this movie, rather than only reluctantly handing his similarly reluctant sister over to the blood-soaked pagan barbarian after a Kievan invasion of Chersonesos, which suggests that the historical Vladimir was perfectly fine with following in his father's Byzantine-sacking footsteps. The (admittedly probably apocryphal) account of Vladimir choosing Christianity after sending envoys out to study Islam and Judaism first is also missing from the film.³

But in any case, Vladimir had to do some brother-murdering and wife-stealing before achieving legal, Byzantine marriage.

The death of Svyatoslav caused a fratricidal war between Yaropolk, Oleg, and their bastard half-brother Vladimir with Oleg dying to Yaropolk fairly early on. Vladimir survived by fleeing to Scandinavian relatives in modern-day Norway and amassing warriors there, an event not noted in the film. After which, he came back and invaded Yaropolk's territory while also suing for alliance with the Norse leaders of the principality of Polotsk. The offer was rejected however, so on the way to Yaropolk's base in Kiev, Vladimir went ahead and murdered prince Rogvolod/Ragnvald and seized his daughter Rogneda/Ragnhild, due to be betrothed to Yaropolk, taking her as his own wife. Foreign army and captives in tow, Vladimir then finally took Kiev in 978 and slew his brother Yaropolk, becoming knyaz or grand prince of all the Rus' states. So says our surviving records, chronicles, and sagas, at least.⁴

In the film however, the three brothers had been ruling their own respective cities in relative peace for years up until Krivzha showed up. Oleg is killed due to the treachery of the corrupted priest of Perun, who also transforms into a bear in order to slay the messenger bringing Yaropolk's desperate request for help from Vladimir. Then he crashes the Maslenitsa festival to start whispering poison and mistrust into Vlad's ear, Grima Wormtongue-style.

They also have remarkably similarly ashen, lumpy not-eyebrows.
The veche general assembly is convened, and a forged document plus a wolf-ear talisman from the khan are enough for Krivzha to convince the prince of Yaropolk's treacherous alliance with Kurya. A bystander in the crowd actually does bring up the fact that Kurya murdered the princes' father, but that is the extent of any references to the Kurya-Tzimiskes plot. Vladimir and his subordinates are led along by Krivzha up until the attack on Kiev, which has them walking straight into Yaropolk's fortress after being welcomed under the assumption that they were there to help. And to avoid having the protagonist commit fratricide, Vladimir is instead having an impassioned argument when a Variag (who may or may not be Olaf freaking Tryggvason) stabs Yaropolk in the back following the supernatural suggestion of Krivzha. Interestingly, Yaropolk laments about sin and clutches a small golden crucifix when he dies, though in history the certainty of his conversion to Christianity or even baptism are somewhat up for debate.⁵

From here, religion becomes a more central motivator to the plot than politicking. A gathering of the tribes meant to strengthen Rus' unity now that Vladimir is the only surviving prince quickly turns into a competition over whose gods are greatest. Krivzha draws the Variags to his side by appealing to them through Perun's role as a warrior god, even when it becomes apparent that his massive idol to Perun is actually carved in his own likeness. Trying to unify the gods of the tribes under Perun was again something which Vladimir did in history, but which Krivzha is blamed for in the movie. Meanwhile, a subplot involving the boy Aleksha (who'd been enslaved by the Pechenegs, bought by a Greek trader, and then briefly schooled in Christianity in Constantinople) progresses to the point that he is revealing a copy of the Bible to an old man named Boyan, who is essentially a foil to Krivzha, and represents the good or Pravzha life which he rejected. He is a friendly hermit and healer who loves all living creatures, and believes that all things should exist in harmony before Rod, the Slavic creator-god.

What I think is occurring here--as well as in a scene where Krivzha's idol is shattered by a bolt of lightning implied to be Perun's--is that the creators of the movie wanted to look back on old paganism as a complex or at least dualistic thing. But it's entirely possible that I'm reading way too much into what they might or might not have thought. So it could be that they or their sponsors wanted to get across the idea that idolatry was used by hateful and self-serving men, but that the Law could also be a positive philosophy and belief system. A positive thing that still turns out to be inferior to the overall better deal offered by Christianity, but which can still be appreciated for its former cultural importance after the fact, once it is safely dead. The eventual "death" of the old faith is foreshadowed by Vladimir (an eventual convert) spearing and then standing in front of an aurochs (the sacred animal of Perun) in order to save the life of Aleksha (who is already a sort of proto-Christian).

However, for the time being the Law is still powerful enough that Boyan can defeat Krivzha in a shaman duel, and have prayer juice leftover to cover his hut in an anti-arrow field projected from a divine tree while Vladimir finally squares off against a shadow-enchanted Kurya Khan and Krivzha explodes into a cloud of green mist.

... Yeah, stuff gets a little bit bonkers toward the end there.

But to my surprise, the moment I was expecting never came. We don't witness Vladimir's baptism, nor any black-and-white moral conflicts between Christian and pagan Slavs. Similarly, there was less nomad-hating than I anticipated: After getting regretfully little screen time the Pechenegs are defeated and retreat, but a mutual respect or at least recognition between Aleksha and the khan's son Giyar might be a very subtle hint at the later return to cooperation between Rus' and Pechenegs, when a chieftain named Metiga became a vassal to Vladimir circa 988, and his successor Kuchug was even baptized by Vladimir in 990.⁶

I speak of the movie as if it's over at this point, because that's pretty much all that there is to the last quarter or so. The actual wedding between Vladimir and Anna is not shown, and judging by the use of recycled footage taken from earlier bits of the film, I suspect that the film's budget was beginning to run out by that point. Assumably, the intended Russian audience could fill in the rest of the blanks in the story of the Rus' on their own. Or maybe the sequel Prince Vladimir- The Feat (Князь Владимир. Подвиг) was supposed to wrap things up nicely. Of course the sequel never materialized, and it's been a full decade since its intended 2008 release.

There was some scrubbing of history to make it marketable to young audiences, without a doubt, but I was surprised at how violent and exciting the movie still managed to be. I dare say I halfway enjoyed the movie, barring the strange pacing, obnoxious comic relief characters, and the use of extremely conspicuous CG amid the old-fashioned animation here and there.

I guess my closing thoughts are that, if you can find this movie and know Russian or have access to subtitles, it's an amusing thing to check out- especially if you are interested in the animation and cinema of other countries. I'm happy with what I was able to write about it, and I appreciate you tuning in to my history bloviation again.

¹ Laufer, Bertold. "Use of Human Skulls and Bones in Tibet", Field Museum of Natural History. Department of Anthropology. Chicago, 1923. p 10-12.
² Morson, Gary Saul. "Russian literature". Encyclopedia Britannica. 
³ Bain, Robert Nisbet. "Vladimir, St". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 28 (11th ed.), 1911. Cambridge University Press. p 168.
Bain, ibid.
Curta, Florin. The Other Europe in the Middle Ages: Avars, Bulgars, Khazars and Cumans. Brill Academic Publishers, Boston. 2008. p 442.
⁶ Curta, ibid.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Zuq-Artlash, and other sedentary Fokari towns.

"Grain-slaves, yes, kha'en, yes, weak people of soft stuff, all of it. But what does that make you for dining with us? I thought so. Now come and pour some fermented milk with me so that we can discuss terms."
- Neshan Mez-parh, pashdehm rug merchant and elected go-between for negotiating trade with nearby tribes.

By and large, the enigmatic Fokari are believed to be a nomadic people. They inhabit the narrow bands of hospitable grazing territory in between the easternmost frontiers, and the wastelands proper. Out there, carefully migrating in cycles to prevent land overuse and tribe overlap, they herd fine-faced and strange-footed goats called yuum. They dwell in tents of felted wool, produce clay and bronze vessels of unexpected but exquisite quality, and they live their lives according to a rich and dualistic belief system.

Not all of them live like this, however. As fearful as they are of He Who Reaps & Sows, some Fokari flirt with the idea of extracting more than just wood, clay, or water from the land around them. Some Fokari live far past the edges of the wastelands, so far deep that none from the outside world are believed to have made contact with them in centuries. Out there, past the point where the ground turns to sand and bizarre rock formations dot the stretches in between mountains and gorges, there are rare few dots of life. Sometime in the forgotten past, Fokari pioneers or exiles stumbled upon the first deep-desert oases. Here, with more water in one place than most would ever see in their lives, they did what feels like anathema to many traditional Fokari: they settled down.

They still reared goats, of course, but they were no longer the vast, communal herds of entire tribes. They were smaller, family-owned flocks which could be watched by one or two people at a time, not far from the homes of mud brick and reed which they erected for themselves. Fewer meat animals were needed--and indeed wanted--when the available grass and foliage was to be focused on and cultivated.

The trees under the care of the oasis Fokari grow taller than any others in or around the wastes. Of course they would still appear quite stunted compared to their western cousins, and all of the above would be equally dwarfed by the giants of Reossos, but they are still impressive specimens for their situation. Some species are selected and grown to possess thick, wide canopies able to offer shade on the oasis outskirts, but the bulk of them are less lateral, and have been bred with harvesting in mind. Dozens of varieties of stone fruit and edible seed-bearing trees crowd the green belts in groves populated by small animals and the odd songbird, grown to supply each oasis town with food. Surplus is either stored in deep pit-houses, or traded and exchanged with the Fokari of nearby oases alongside other goods.

The largest of these oasis towns is known as Zuq-Artlash. While the exact meaning of the name is lost on us because of a very limited understanding of the Fokari languages, the root elements of it suggest wind and heights. This is entirely appropriate, because one face of the oasis is hedged in by a cliff which acts as a windbreaker for the town and groves below. It is also the site of the other curious innovation of the sedentary Fokari.

Overlooking Zuq-Artlash are rows upon rows of twisting wooden things, held in place by squat clay walls and wood which has nearly petrified with age. Harnessing the wind which blows out over the oasis, a veritable farm of vertically oriented windmills spins day and night to power grindstones for the residents down below. Rumor among the traditional nomad tribes who dare trade with the oases holds that the wind is even used to pump water up from the earth, though this is even less substantiated than the rest of the knowledge concerning the towns. The nomads are distrustful and mildly pitying of the town-dwellers however, so tales telling of impressive wonders rather than dolefulness may have a grain of truth.

The adoption of sedentary lifestyles has done a few peculiar things to Fokari social order. Though it is still a far cry from the old caste systems of the ancient Pach-Pah kingdoms or Ersuunian warlords, society in the oases is more stratified than on the wastes. The khiltah and mish'khiltah bodies--council and lesser council respectively--seem to have been merged into one entity which handles large and small matters in a very public manner. Families are no longer so self-regulating, and something as embarrassing and intimate as a dispute between lovers may become known to all of one's neighbors if a case is disruptive enough to merit the attention of the elders. This has a discouraging influence on trouble-making, or at least that is the intent, keeping civic life orderly. The chief or headman holds far more authority than in the pastoralist tribes as well, resembling something of a town mayor merged with elements of a quartermaster.

The positions of Speaker and Seer still exist in this context, supporting the Fokari worldview of dualism and of past and future. But they often occupy or tend to buildings or grounds specifically dedicated to their duties. These shrines or holy houses for lack of a better term are often the site of much larger and more ornate braziers than are to be found in the transient tribes. Depending on local tradition, some might even be tended to so that their sacrificial flame is never allowed to die.

It is unknown where in relation to the other oases Zuq-Artlash is located. Nor is it known where or how many similar towns exist across the deeper wastes. What is known is transmitted through the Rare nomadic Fokar who deals with outsiders, so there is obviously some contact between the two parties, no matter how stiff or pragmatic. But what is not known is if the denizens of the desert waters know who or what exists east of east, beyond the edges of the wastelands.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

GLOG Class Attempt: Orc Haruspex.

((I suppose this is as inevitable as it is unusual. A custom OSR class, suited for something somewhere in between Goblin Punch's GLOG and Coins & Scrolls' Spiked Goblin Punch. The inspiration for the Haruspex comes entirely from Arnold K's material- I just felt the need to put into mechanics what (I think) hasn't been fleshed out by other readers yet.

Huge thanks go to The Lawful Neutral for assistance in designing some of the class abilities--as well as promoting my work way beyond what I would have expected from anyone--but the end result isn't his fault.))

It is said that the gods hate orcs. They hate everyone of course, but they hate orcs in particular.

And orcs hate them back.

Once upon a time, the first orcish void monks tried to respond to this hate with nothing, and they nothing'd themselves right out of existence- out of the reach of the gods.

The rest of orc-kind does not follow this tradition. Not because they disagree with its goals in the slightest, but because most orcs cannot bring themselves to be so... dispassionate. These orcs rail against the laughter of cruel gods, cast down their temples, and howl to the void until it knows that they are coming.

At the head of this wave of blood-soaked, righteous fury is the haruspex.

The gods, for all of their malignant power, are very simple and childlike at times. Lazy. They sleep for long hours of the day, heaviest at high noon, and mutter aloud the dark designs which they dream of. By partaking in the death that the gods revel in so, an orc can catch glimpses of their plans. Haruspices read the future in the blood and entrails of a kill, and the wounds inflicted upon their own bodies whisper it as prophesy.

This is a path rarely taken by orcs. Some clever, wakeful gods watch out for them, delighting in the torment that they can visit upon cowards and fools poking around in the livers of chickens in search of their own preservation. But a haruspex thinks nothing of this. They spit in the face of the gods and use their own prophesies against them, exulting in the ire of those whom they hate almost as much as themselves.

Possible Character Goals
Open your hate up to others. Empty the world's temples. Starve their patrons.
Hate yourself into the mightiest of furies. Try to kill a god.
Get the last, mocking laugh. Leap headlong into oblivion.

Tairaschamane by Pechschwinge

Orc Haruspex

Starting Equipment: Ritual dagger, bag of bones.
Starting Skills: Butcher

A: Haruspicy, Hate
B: Counting Coup, Ritual Wounds
C: Bloodied and Unbowed
D: Rage Against the Cackling Heavens

You gain +1 Hp and +1 to Save vs Pain for each Haruspex template you possess.

Like an insolent child digging at an insect hive with a stick, you prod at the brains of the gods when they sleep. Their whispers fill your body and mind, and the only way to release them is to cut mouths into yourself capable of speaking them. Baleful warnings and hopes of trifling victories pour out to fuel your people with grim determination. They may not be immediately useful, for the thought processes of divinities are convoluted at best, but they will do no harm to heed. As long as the gods aren't listening.

You gain 4 Auspices Dice (AD) which you MUST roll every time you cast Haruspicy. By removing and studying the fresh entrails of a creature you were recently involved in killing, you may divine a future for yourself and your party or clan.

Add the results of your AD rolls together and match the total to a number on the Auspices Table to find the bonus provided by this use of Haruspicy. The auspice provides a specific bonus to you and your party for the remainder of the day, or until expended as noted in the auspice. You may use Haruspicy any number of times per day, replacing the previous auspice with a new one, so long as you are using a fresh kill made since your last divination for each casting of Haruspicy.

When you use the entrails of a creature more than 1 HD below you Level, you are forced to roll an extra AD. This extra die is not added to the total, and is used solely to risk another roll result matching. When you use the entrails of a creature more than 1 HD above you Level, you may ignore one matching AD.

When the values of 2 AD match, you invoke a Mishap. When 3 dice match, you invoke a Doom. When 4 or more dice match, you invoke a unique Disaster, awakening one of the sleeping gods and get their Full Attention.

For each template you gain in Haruspex, you may choose to roll one less AD.

You're not some simple berserker. You don't just whip yourself into a frenzy whenever you feel like it. Your hate is a constant, smoldering affair, carefully nursed and nurtured by pain and anguish until it can achieve deific proportions.

When you are reduced to one half your maximum HP or fewer, gain a bonus to Attack stat and damage equal to [Template-1]. When you are reduced to 0 HP or fewer, this bonus to Attack and damage increases to [Template].

Orcish Bloodpainter by Alan Pollack

Ritual Wounds
Your self-inflicted wounds have become severe and numerous enough that you can shrug off lesser injuries inflicted by the world.

Once per day you can automatically heal [Template] Fatal Wounds, but must roll twice on the Injury table and take the worse effect. You always gain Interesting Scars from this, in addition to your roll result.

Counting Coup
Orcish currency is death, measured in debt. On rare occasions, enough spilled blood can invert this debt. You and your clan keep a tally, and you can be sure the gods are counting too.

Keep tack of everything significant (i.e. no small, harmless animals) that you kill. For every 10 kills banked, you can spend them to modify a single roll by 1 point. You may spend 50 Kills to reroll a die, but you must take the final result. You may spend 100 kills for a Minor Miracle, but must then immediately roll on the Death and Dismemberment Table.

An average deposit to a skullcrusher's debt account.
Conquest by Rebecca Magar

Bloodied and Unbowed
Any inch of your scabrous hide that is not freshly cut in battle or ritual has become a mass of rugged scar tissue able to turn away some blades, and deadened nerves able to ignore the rest.

Reduce all incoming damage by 1 point. You gain a +2 to Save vs Fear.

Rage Against the Cackling Heavens
Your hatred has finally severed you from this false world of the gods' creation. Magic sloughs off of you, and supernatural beings find that they can barely approach you. Your soul frays around the edges. For the briefest moments, even displays of the gods' divine might peel away in the face of your bared fangs.

Once per day for one minute, you may project an aura of anti-magic out to 60' centered on you. Within this aura all magic--beneficial or harmful, divine or otherwise--fails or is suppressed for the ability's duration. Attempting to cast a spell within this aura results in nothing, and has a 1-in-6 chance of causing a Mishap anyway. Spells cast from outside of the anti-magic, but targeting creatures or an area within the field, have a 1-in-6 chance of succeeding. Auspices are not affected by this aura, though you or another Haruspex cannot attempt a Haruspicy while within it.

Creatures who are by their very nature supernatural are shunted out to the edge of the anti-magic field more-or-less harmlessly unless they can pass a Save vs. Wisdom. If such a creature tries to enter the aura, they take 1d4 damage per round as the magic in their bodies decompresses into the vacuum.

Holy symbols within this aura are also damaged in some way; wood rots or appears scorched, iron rusts, and precious metals gain a strange patina.

When you finally die someday, you will cease to exist. Your soul will laugh in the face of the gods who arrive to claim you before bursting into flames. Oblivion will embrace you at long last, and the ashes of your being will slip through your ultimate enemies' fingers like so much sand.

Additionally, other orcs will now recognize your severed status, and may avoid or seek you out as appropriate. A rare, reckless few might even request that you officiate tribal marriage or mating rituals. With the gods so focused on sneering at you, others in your presence might just get away with that most heinous of all orcish taboos: audible "I love you"s, and public displays of affection.

Orc Priestess by Windmaker

Auspices & Mishaps
“Minor” Auspices (1-6)
Your cowardice might pay off. This time. Your next Haruspicy target counts as your Level+1, regardless of HD.
You will stumble into unexpected wealth. Don't stub your toe. At some point in the next day, find a stash of 1d10 GP worth of goods.
The wind will twist and whip. Keep it at your back. +1 Defense against ranged attack rolls.
Their work will be sloppy. Laugh at them for it. +1 to one Opposed Check.
A great crushing weight seeks to squeeze the breath out of you. Shoulder it. +2 Inventory Slots.
You'll want to look back when the time comes to run. Don't. +1 to Movement.
“Average” Auspices (7-18)
You'll regret eating that. But it will be too late. Don't bother purging. +2 to Save vs. Constitution for disease and poison.
The land itself will try to kill you. Overcome it. +2 to rolls to jump, climb, balance, squeeze, or swim.
They are weak to those snarls called “smiles”. Use one. +2 to one Reaction Roll.
Your death will come screaming and soon, but not tomorrow. Rest easy. Get a Good Night's Rest without needing one ration or amenity.
They will fumble and trip. Take advantage of it. +2 to one Combat Maneuver.
Their attacks will hit hard. Don't let them land. +2 to Defense.
You will see your own softness and frailty in them. Punish them for it. +2 to all attack rolls.
They will fall like sheep. Be the hunting wolf. +1 to Initiative Checks.
You will be the hunted. Hide and you might live. +2 to Stealth.
They already angered us more than you did. Be thankful. One random enemy begins combat missing 1d6 HP.
Far worse things than this will happen to you. Count on it. +2 to Save vs. Fear.
It won't be that bad. The pain will mean that it will heal. Probably. Just don't whine. Reduce one Injury (Concussed/Cracked Rib/Disabled) by 1d4 days.
“Major” Auspices (19-24)
You will need to remember that old story. The one right on the tip of your tongue. Obsess over it. 33% chance to automatically solve one difficult puzzle or riddle.
They would close their hearts to your suffering. Do the same to them. +3 to all damage rolls.
Their insides will be unguarded. Harvest them. All attacks have Expanded Critical Range (+1) until a successful crit.
The fickle attentions of Luck will flirt with you. Don't let it get to your head. +5 to untyped Save rolls.
See the glint in their eyes. Know when the knives will come out. 50% chance to avoid one ambush.
We are coming. Beware. Apply the effects of any 2 Auspices.

Divine Backlash from the unconscious god deals 1d6 damage to you.
Strangling Entrails entangle you, stunning you for 1d6 rounds.
Uncontrollable Hatred forces you to make 1 melee attack against closest target, whether friend or foe.
Stirring Divinities causes you to roll 2 additional AD next Haruspicy, counting only for additional Mishaps or Dooms.
False Prophecies deceive you. Roll on auspice table as normal, but invert all bonuses.
Divine Prank gives you random mutation for 1d6 rounds, then make a save. Permanent if you fail.

The gods have begun to notice your constant presence in their dreams. You must always roll 2 additional AD that count only towards Mishaps and Dooms.
Your old wounds begin to fester and bleed anew. For every Interesting Scar you posses, subtract that number from your physical stats.
You have annoyed one god too far. A 10 HD divine herald arrives to forcibly take you away to be the god's plaything. If defeated, a new one shows up each day until you are captured.

Full Attention brings a deity to you, angry at your meddling.
The exact details of this Disaster are up to the DM, but it should be as appropriately awful as having an angry, capricious god show up in the flesh could be.

Orc Witch Doctor by JP Targete

Monday, September 24, 2018

What is that Heinous Idol for?

Mayan Cthulhu Totem by FoxH

The Pem-Pah people of Khaitam-po are positive dystheists who worship against a vast pantheon of malicious spirits which run amok across the world. In addition to offering prayers to confuse and confound the oftentimes nameless evils, they craft idols embodying them and their abstract, harmful concepts. These idols are then damaged and defaced over time to harm and weaken the concept embodied within it. This is believed to weaken the evil's power over the world by extension, offering temporary reprieve from it.

Normally they are located securely within village sanctuaries or pious, well-to-do households, but occasionally misfortune can land an idol in the wild, able to be found and picked up by passersby.

Perhaps they don't even stay in the right world for long.

Very rarely does an evil have an anthropomorphic identity. More commonly, they are identified by what they do or cause in the world. They are almost never named, especially not on their idols, even if such a label would be very useful helping the uninitiated in identifying just what a given mass of deliberately hideous carved wood and stone is supposed to represent.

Because of the nonstandard, highly individual way in which the idols are crafted, identifying a given idol can be relatively straightforward, or exceptionally difficult. Gut feelings, hunches, and intuition can lead to just as accurate an answer as a guess born of lifelong arcane study, so any member of a group of adventurers which might encounter an idol should have an equally unlikely shot at identifying it, regardless of skill training or ability score.

Special rituals appropriate to each evil are used to further debilitate them, either in the face of terrible fortune related to the evil, or in the hopes of improving one's circumstances further. In essence, cowing and tormenting an embodied evil "blesses" certain endeavors by removing a bit more of their eldritch taint from the area. This can translate to a small (+1 or +2) bonus on appropriate rolls for a period of time.

It is imperative that an idol never, ever be the subject of a ritual meant for an evil which is conceptually opposed to it. Nor should it ever be deliberately, completely destroyed. Doing so would empower or even release the evil essence embodied within it, and their mindless gaze rarely travels much farther than those who have released the evil. Such a mistake could result in penalties to relevant rolls as high as -5 or -10, or lead to disastrous events to be determined by the referee.

A set of example Pem-Pah Idols, their areas of affliction, and the rituals meant to deal with them, can be found below:

Pem-Pah Idols
Name of the Embodied Evil
What the Evil does
What You should do


The Lapping of Fire
Causes the start and spread of errant fires, which burn and consume indiscriminately.
Wrap it in scrolls of birch bark or paper. Ignite a fuse of human hair. Douse it in water before it catches fire.


The Bloody Lungs of Saltwater
Capsizes rafts and sailing vessels far from shore, destroying goods and drowning sailors.
Leech the moisture from it by hanging it over a fire. Bind it to a bowl floating in a tub of water.


An Unhealing Wound
Prevents fresh injuries from healing properly, or causes older wounds to open up and fester anew.
Cut a gash across the idol and immediately “cauterize” it with fire. Then pack the cut with gauze or bandage.


It Which Deceives
Fosters resentment among allies and tempts strangers and new faces to betray one another.
Place the idol in front of a small mirror facing its own reflection.


The Creeping and Slithering
Sneaks rare and deadly reptiles or other marshland creatures into places they don't belong.
Place it before a brazier in which a handful of reptile scales are burned.


Grinding Iron and Snapping Steel
Breaks or degrades metal of all types with use, not least of which being weapons and tools.
Ritually sharpen a blade under the idol's gaze, then us it to mar it.


The Thirst of Drought
Stagnates and spoils collected drinking water, causes local crop failure.
Plant it in soil and “water” it with sweat or saliva.


Howling from the Dark
Sends large, predatory animals to hunt far beyond their normal ranges.
Fix a collar around the idol's “neck” and shower it in tooth fragments or fingernail clippings.


Foolish Gibbering
Increases the likelihood that a person will announce themselves with a blunder, or be obliviously talkative.
Adhere a strip of material around the idol's approximation of mouth to gag it.


The Writhing Within
Unbalances one's gut fauna or compromises immune systems until the body is prone to diseases and massive parasites.
Bore a hole through the idol if one does not already exist, then flush it out with milk and animal blood.


Emptiness of the Gyre
Instills constant, gnawing hunger despite any and all food eaten, causing crippling starvation as well as gluttonous bloating.
Burn offerings composed of, or made to resemble, a healthily balanced meal.


Flesh's Fancy
Seeds the subconscious with growing carnal urges which a person would normally be averse to.
Seal the idol in a case full of purported anaphrodisiacs (real or otherwise) and lay it on its head.


The Lying Light
Conjures up deceptive lights and other mirages in far-off places to lead travelers astray.
Blindfold what passes for the idol's eyes using sap as an adhesive.


Luck's Blind Vexations
Influences mundane, day-to-day events to appear highly unlucky when it comes to random chance.
Nail a set of loaded dice or similar crooked game pieces to the face of the idol.

That Which Scrapes at the Dividing Wall
Provokes extreme paranoia and auditory hallucinations, eventually causes insomnia.
Bore a pair of “ear” holes into the idol and fill them with cork.

Lonesome Cries as if from Orphans
Inspires alternating periods of melancholy and gut-wrenching episodes of loss and grief.
Fashion a set of wax figures resembling a family unit and then melt them together to coat the idol.


The Crawling Fingers of Multitudes
Manipulates and harasses loose objects in a wide area, as well as causes pinching, grabbing, or crawling sensations across the skin of everyone therein.
Bind the idol in cord tightly, going counter-clockwise from the front. Then wind a differently colored cord opposite.


The Consuming Cold
Hampers sources of heat, including living bodies, and promotes unseasonable frosts.
Bundle the idol in a fur-trimmed blanket while ladling boiling hot broth over its face.


Wisps of the Tides
Summons up motes of the Killing Tides' suffocating embrace, starving the area of oxygen or fostering respiratory disorders.
Fan the idol vigorously while burning pungent incense around it.


Death-Rattle's Spite
Empowers the destructive, vengeful aspects of a dying wish or curse spoken by the dying.
Bury the idol in a symbolic grave with full honors and an accompanying song of soothing platitudes.