Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Lamplighters: Pallite

"Finish whatever thought you are writing and then proceed this way, class.

This area is the morgue, which the administrators of the mine have been kind enough to allow us access to for this trip. Be grateful, pay close attention, and do not touch anything.

As I am sure you all know, the extraction of pallite is not without its dangers to the human body. What you are about to witness are the remains of a miner who has regrettably died from pallite poisoning in the past week. I am told that his name was Navin. While this is unfortunate for him, his family was selfless and considerate enough to donate his body to science. Take that to heart and show your respect, please- these are the men and women who keep your homes illuminated.

... Now, now. Keep it together, everyone. I warned you about eating lunch before coming here.

I am sure that some of you noticed the smell as soon as you entered. You've been looking particularly green around the gills since you walked in, Alisher. These body bags are made of very heavy-duty material, but even they have trouble suppressing an advanced case like this. Mind you, class, that this is not the scent of decay that you are smelling. This is the smell of raw, unrefined pallite. The smell clings to you long after everything has been scrubbed down with chemical wipes.

If you will step in closer--I said, if you will step in closer, thank you very much--you will see how advanced the tumors grew before Mr. Navin expired. Four of them metastasized, and the fifth here on his abdomen was well on its way.

See also how early signs of squamous-cell skin cancer began to appear on his face, as well as around his hands and lower legs- all of which are normally completely covered in protective clothing.

Yes, Rani, question?

I'm sorry?

Rani, Mr. Navin was not the victim of any "containment breach". There haven't been any breaches at any facility owned and operated by Morning Star Limited in half a decade, or so I am told.

This is the result of constant, low-level exposure to pallite radiation over the course of an average twenty-year career. As far as other Depth-3 miners are concerned, he died of natural causes.

Now please stand back while I attempt to excise one of his corneas.The damage caused by years of direct pallite illumination is quite distinct, and can even manifest as physical scratches on occasion..."

- Dr. Baruch Yohannes, Professor of Pathology at Canopus' Landing Polytechnic

A Brief History

The miracle fuel known as Pallite was discovered sixty-eight years ago.

It wasn't "discovered" so much as "stumbled onto by a half-dozen independent actors simultaneously", of course. Had it been the product of only a single team's experimentation, the human race would have come even closer to extinction at the end of the sun's final hours.

The first pallite deposits to be found were gas jets and liquid reservoirs close to the planet's surface. They were found by the lucky few who managed to bore deep enough into the earth to escape the immensity of the dark above ground. They were horrific sights, like sulfur lakes crossed with volcanic eruptions. But the lurid light each outcropping shed was different from the mundane sources of illumination that the survivors brought with them. It was enough to keep the deeper darkness at bay.

It was enough to draw humanity to it like moths to a flame.

As those filthy, fear-ridden refugee camps grew in size, their occupants dug deeper in order to compensate. It wasn't long before their picks and shovels struck pallite in its solid state. Being somewhat more stable in its crumbly mineral form, this was the first type of pallite which was deliberately harnessed as a light source.

Through painful trial and error, it was eventually adapted as a fuel just as it was needed most. Solar energy died with the sun, rendering the majority of non-emergency power sources useless. Centuries of abuse prior to that ensured that fossil fuel reserves were either depleted, or buried so far beneath the earth that the amount of labor available to humanity made extraction impossible. Not even burning wood was an option before long, thanks to the darkness caking up over the dead forests of the world. Anything that still grew out there was tainted. Geothermal and hydro power are still theoretically possible, and small attempts would be made to take advantage of them in the future.

But in that desperate time, humanity gave itself to pallite.

It embraced them, and in doing so exacted its price.

Properties of Pallite

There is no general consensus on what exactly pallite is. Theories posit that it is a newly discovered element, a group of isotopes of one or several elements, or more complex chemical compounds whose catalysts for creation are completely mysterious to experts at this time. Attempts to observe the atomic qualities of pallite have proven unsuccessful, primarily because of a lack of necessary equipment and professionals trained in its use.

In all states, its density and vapor pressure are slightly higher than that of sulfur. This, coupled with pallite's coloration and distinctive odor, has led some to draw the conclusion that pallite is some form of sulfur. While exposed to open air, pallite naturally evaporates or sublimates into a gaseous state and then dissipates over time according to its MTP-adjusted half-life.

(MTP Adjustment refers to the manner in which pallite "breaks" the normal laws of radioactive decay, if indeed that is even what you can call the change which pallite undergoes. Under normal conditions, any radioactive substance decays at a certain rate which is proportionate to its nuclear mass and unaffected by temperature or pressure. In pallite decay however, decay is theorized to be slowed down exponentially by the presence of other pallite nuclei, but sped up by applied temperature and pressure. To quote a cliche from a bygone era, "further research is needed".)

This release of energy results in pallite's "pallid light" and radioactivity. Applied heat or agitation of pallite in any state causes a higher release of energy. Sufficient disruption results in combustion. Efforts to observe or force the transition of gaseous and liquid pallite back into a solid state have ended... poorly.

It is unknown by what mechanism concentrations of pallite appear on or near the earth's surface. The leading theory is that the topographical phenomena caused by unobserved areas of steeped darkness penetrates deeper into the planet's mantle than first guessed. This deep and sometimes violent disruption allows outcroppings of pallite to rise up to the surface from whatever point of origin they have.

Carcinogenic Qualities

Pallite illumination offers few of the benefits that the sun once did.

It offers no Vitamin D, but very high levels of Vitamin C(ancer), and its strange properties vex many common-sense precautions. For example, an electrical generator should generate the same kind of electricity no matter what fuel it's designed to use. Pallite-generated electrical power, however, carries with it just a hint of its unique radiation, even through miles of wire. It simply shouldn't, but it does. This is doubly troubling due to the fact that over 90% of food is grown or raised under pallite-powered grow-lights. As heavily shielded as those lights may be, they can't block 100% of harmful radiation.

The average uninvolved citizen of a larger town has relatively little to worry about in terms of death by direct pallite poisoning, barring freak accidents such as explosions which could irradiate a building or area. But they do still live with moderately higher risks of illness or congenital conditions than people did before the Long Night began.

This moderate background fear is not the case for people who live in smaller settlements, or who have careers directly involved in the handling of pallite, such as Lamplighters and many trade workers. They face the much more serious risk of complications from handling, maintaining, or fueling pallite machinery, and it is much more common for sickness to manifest in several ways. Pallite miners or extractors rarely grow old enough to retire, and the average life expectancy of human beings in general has been pulled down by anywhere from five to fifteen years compared to a century ago.

Random Pallite Effects

While its effects are not as severe as those of deep darkness, exposure to raw, unrefined pallite can lead to a host of physical and mental health complications over time.

The average manual worker directly involved in the extraction of refinement of raw pallite, whatever its form, will eventually accumulate as many as four or five of the below conditions.

The average Lamplighter worth their salt suffers from at least one symptom of pallite poisoning, either rolled for, picked, or invented and agreed upon between the player and referee.

Pallite Poisoning Symptom, Mutation, or Condition
Adermatoglyphia – Years of handling raw pallite rock, or years of scrubbing away its greasy residue, have left you without fingerprints. You also lack sensation in your palms.
Alopecia Areata – Say goodbye to eyebrows, eyelashes, and other types of hair. It happens at random, and very unevenly.
Anosmia – A lifetime of steeping in the reek of unrefined pallite has deadened your sense of smell, and some of your taste.
Blindness – The lurid yellow has taken most of your sight from you, leaving you with visibly warped and damaged corneas. You can still detect pallite lights, somehow.
Cutaneous Horns – A little splash here and there has left you with several conical projections from the epidermis resembling horn, wood, or even coral. They make clothes and hats ill-fitting.
D-Deficiency – Your vitamin deficiency is even worse than most. You enjoy weaker bones as well as increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, and all the cancers caused by pallite.
Flash Fever – A sudden, high dose of radiation from a mishap has left you vulnerable to episodes of elevated body temperature and delirium.
Haemolumia – Your red blood cells have become luridly bioluminescent. Some areas of your body even glow in the dark. That can’t be good.
Intestinal Distress – At one end or the other, your digestive tract has decided to take a long-term purgative approach to some radiation sickness.
Irradiated Gametes – Pallite has guaranteed the survival of future generations of humans, but it has also left its indelible mark upon them. Expect higher rates of mutation in your progeny.
Miner’s Perfume – The smell of pallite never leaves you. It’s in your skin, hair, and breath. It’s pretty bad. Don’t expect to make many friends.
Nyctophobia – You take greater comfort from the lurid glow than most. Without a light source close at hand, you are stressed and on edge. In a world where everyone fears the dark, you have an extreme fear of it. This may not improve your chances of survival in the long-run.
Pallite Allergy – How did you even survive to adulthood with this?
Pallite Tan – Your skin has been discolored by pallite radiation. Probably does not look like any natural skin tone. Not that you had a natural pallor to begin with.
Polydactyly – Beginnings of extra fingers and toes are appearing on your extremities. Invest in specialty gloves or shoes.
Pulmonary Sequestration – An extra lobe is growing off of one or both of your lungs, courtesy of pallite gas inhalation. The lobes are nonfunctional and take up space.
Siphoner’s Shakes – Your nervous system has started to reject pallite exposure- as well as most of the rest of your body. Constant or episodic tremors are common.
Sunsong – An auditory hallucination which leads you to believe that you can hear pallite resonating or “singing”. Occasionally drowns out all other noises.
Tumors – Handing them out like consolation prizes at an old game show. Whatever that is.
Weakness – Fatigue comes to you quickly, and it doesn’t take much to leave you looking anemic.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

GLOG Class Attempt: TIME THIEF

(In honor of yet another morning of Daylight Saving Time adjustment which has caught me unawares, I decided to make a deliberately weird and annoying joke class in as short a time and with as little food and water as I could. This is the result.)

You know him. You hate him. He's here to make your days drag on, and to make them way too short. Daylight Saving Time is his god, and like it, he is annoying in everything that he does. Though easily forgotten, his specter always looms close.

Know him by the sound of ticking and tocking and beware, for he has many guises.

All of them horrible.


You gain +1 Initiative for every TIME THIEF template you possess.

Starting Equipment: Bag of Sandman Dust, intravenous caffeine kit (5 doses), Too Many Clocks
Starting Skill [d3+1]: 1 = Tolerable Person, 2 = Clockmaker, 3 = Horologist, 4 = Procrastinator

A     Too Many Clocks
B     Early to Bed, Early to Rise
C     Spring Forward, Fall Back

Too Many Clocks

You carry Too Many Clocks with you. Every second is a cacophony of ticking, whirring, ringing, and chiming as dozens of pocket watches, wristwatches, alarm clocks, water clocks, pointlessly mechanized sundials, cuckoo clocks, and at least one grandfather clock sound off. Hundreds of different alarms go off for every timezone in the cosmos.

You and your party have -5 Stealth.

You always know the time. You always know ALL the times, and love to share date and holiday factoids with everyone around you. 

You can swing or throw a clock as a Light melee weapon. Hit or miss, the clock breaks and becomes a useless field of scattered parts.

You carry an arbitrarily high number of clocks in 2 Inventory Slots, but you still have to keep track of how many you use for your class abilities. The debt must be paid to the Time Lord someday.

Early to Bed

You can grind up a special powder that might put creatures to sleep. Throwing 1 dose of Sandman Dust is a ranged attack that gets -10 Attack for every 10' beyond the first. A successful hit has a 50% of blinding the target for 1 round. The round after a successful hit, it has a 25% chance of putting the target to sleep for [TEMPLATE] rounds.

You are not immune to your own dust, if it is windy or you're just really bad at aiming.

1 dose of Sandman Dust takes an hour to prepare. 1 dose is made of some sand, candle wax shavings, and a full night's sleep worth of harvested rheum. The rheum can be yours or someone else's.

Early to Rise

By setting the timer on your intravenous caffeine drip before resting, you only need 1/2 as much sleep as other people to remain functional. This consumes 1 dose of caffeine or other stimulants. By consuming 4 uses you can reduce this to 1/4 the required sleep, and gain a cumulative 5% of having a heart attack.

Everyone else in the party is also awakened by the alarm, but they don't benefit from the caffeine.

Spring Forward

In the Spring and Summer you can cast Haste once per day as per the spell with a duration of 1 minute. You can cast up to 60 cumulative minutes per half-year. Each use consumes 1 of your Too Many Clocks.

Fall Back

In the Autumn and Winter, you can cast Slow once per day as per the spell with a duration of 1 minute. You can cast up to 60 cumulative minutes per half-year. Each use consumes 1 of your Too Many Clocks.


You have mastered the art of annoyance and become a true TIME THIEF. Once per week you can turn back time by up to one hour, reversing everything that has happened in that time.

You and everyone else forget everything that happened in that hour, including the fact that you used this ability.

Each use consumes 10 of your Too Many Clocks and 1 year of your life, whether it is successful or not.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

On the Trail of the Blue Wizards: Flickers in the Darkness.

Click here to see Part 1 of this whole mess.

A Cultural Primer for could-be Heroes

The options for PCs in this campaign are at once limited and diverse.

They are limited in that for the most-part, only Men (humans) are available, or at least they are the most plausible for a variety of geopolitical reasons. For example, hobbits as we know them don't even exist in the Second Age- their ancestors would be mysterious, almost completely unattested holbytlan of Northman legends at this time, lurking around the Vales of Anduin far from the land of Shire.

There is also the matter of who is in the "in-club" of peoples exposed to or subjugated by the Dark Lord. Humans are perhaps the most easily corrupted, but more importantly they live most densely in the regions where Sauron holds sway. That isn't to say that other peoples aren't present, hedged in by evil or forced to accommodate.

For example, there may be an unknown number of elves living far in the East by the remains of the Wild Wood where Cuiviénen once laid. It is also possible that at least four dwarvish clans--Blacklocks, Ironfists, Stiffbeards, and Stonefoots--live in or beyond Rhûn, perhaps in the Orocarni (Red Mountains). These far-flung groups have every right to be present in a story that passes through the area, and might make for a spectacular game all by themselves. But it isn't quite this game.

To get back to my initial statement, PC options are also quite diverse.

There are a good half-dozen human cultural groups available. And of those, all but the Black Númenóreans are hardly written about, or are actually a huge variety of cultures lumped together under convenient narrative exonyms, affording great creative freedom. Two Men of Harad from neighboring tribes could have completely different languages, beliefs, and customs, for example. And let's not even get started on how much of an oversimplifying gloss the term "Easterling" is.

I should probably just get on with it while I still have an inkling of my train of thought.

Black Númenóreans

The King's Counselor by Mohan Turner

Name: The appellation of "black" does not refer to any physical characteristics, though many Black Númenóreans do happen to have very dark hair or eyes. Rather, it refers to their association with Darkness after Sauron corrupted them and their kings into Melkor-worship earlier in the Second Age. Because it is an inherently disparaging term applied by their rivals, it is unlikely that any of them would refer to themselves as Black Númenóreans. Instead, they would probably refer to themselves as the Adûnâim. They also might call themselves the King's Men, High Men, Men of the Sea, or any one of several other terms which they share with their hated Faithful cousins.

History: The Black Númenóreans shared their history with the other inhabitants of Númenor up until very recently. The star-shaped island was gifted by the Valar to the Dúnedain (as well as a small refugee population of Drúedain) in the first decades of the Second Age. From that seat in the Great Sea, the Men of the West developed a flourishing culture blessed with what are regularly considered the highest achievements of humanity to date.

Of course the gifts of man were not always interpreted as gifts, and over time the Númenóreans grew resentful of the long life of the elves, as well as suspicious of the ban on sailing west to the Undying Lands that the Valar had given humans. They grew angry and haughty, and believed that immortality belonged to them if they could only claim it. These flames of resentment were fanned into an inferno by Sauron when he became the adviser of the last Númenórean king, Ar-Pharazôn. Those loyal to his regime essentially declared war on the gods, and initiated a wave of conquests and spiteful actions in the name of Morgoth, who was being propped up as a sort of deity.

The "Faithful" minority on the island which was not swayed by the promise of power was allowed to escape the island before Eru Ilúvatar sank it, while the rest of the population drowned. The Faithful went on to found the kingdoms of the north, perpetually opposed to their corrupt cousins in the south. The Black Númenóreans generally regard them as weak traitors, and the feeling is mostly mutual, though there have been and will be a few instances throughout history of the two peoples making overtures at communication and diplomacy.

But for the time being, the wounds of a lost homeland are too fresh, feelings too raw, and the looming specter of Sauron too strong for the Black Númenóreans to resist. In some ways they (or at least their leaders and ancestors) may be the most villainous of the Men of Darkness, because they count among their numbers the largest number of true believers in Sauron's lies, as well as sorcerers and priests of Morgoth's bloody religion. They knowingly indulge his tyranny, and reap benefits for it at the expense of their people and so many others.

Home: Having lost their true home and their supremacy on the sea to hubris-induced armageddon, the Black Númenóreans now live limited to the colonies they founded along the coast of the south. Umbar is the most prominent of these havens, but it is not the only one. Many were founded throughout the Second Age, and could offer a host of different flavors of King's Men. Some may be closely connected with the City of Corsairs, while others may have fallen out of contact with the rest of their kin. A few might even have lapsed in their devotion to Morgoth, or become more culturally mixed with other peoples of the coast.


Wanderers by merlkir.

Name: Easterling is a simple Westron (Common) term that refers to the people who come from the land of Rhûn, aka all lands to the East of the West-centric part of the world that comprises Middle-Earth. There are no recorded endonyms for the people who came from Rhûn. Not even specific tribal bodies or confederations from recorded history, such as the Wainriders and Balchoth, bear their own names for themselves- Wainrider being another western term to describe the semi-nomadic wagon and chariot people, and Balchoth being an old Westron blanket slur meaning "horrible horde" which was also used for orcs and other enemy peoples.

History: Originally, all Men were Easterlings. They were the second group of the Children of Ilúvatar to awaken in the world, in the far eastern land of Hildórien. Morgoth corrupted some of this original population and sparked war between their peoples, and the humans who fled from these wars would become the Men of the West (and every other cardinal direction).

Some Easterlings of the First Age were friends of the elves, particularly the less psychotic sons of Fëanor. At this point in time the Easterlings received their only physical descriptions in canon, being stocky and swarthy in contrast to the tall and pale elves. The last decidedly heroic Easterlings of this age were all betrayed and slaughtered alongside the elves by their Morgoth-allied kin at the Battle of Unnumbered Tears.

From this point on the only Easterlings in written history were slaves of Morgoth and later Sauron, who fearfully beheld the Dark Lords as kings or gods. Tribal confederations like the Balchoth and Wainriders made war on the kingdoms of the West on-and-off for centuries.

Home: Rhûn is an absolutely massive land that stretches from Rhovanion to the Orocarni, from the Northern Waste all the way down to the Inner Sea, formerly known as the inland Sea of Ringil. There are likely many diverse cultures living in the plains, deserts, forests, and mountains of that land, beyond the chariot-mounted raiders known to western histories.

Depending on how one defines the exact border between Rhovanion and Rhûn, the land of Dorwinion, located right on the western short of the Sea of Rhûn, might fall within the latter. This leads to an interesting situation in which a seemingly civilized Easterling land with an elvish name did trade with Mirkwood and some of the Men of the North.

The Dorwinrim (non-canon term) were the ones who supplied King Thranduil's court with wine strong enough to get an elf blitzed out of their gourd in the Third Age, meaning that they were indirectly vital to the survival and success of Bilbo Baggins Thorin's Company. While that land is very distant from the scope of this story, it has exciting implications and opportunities for exploration.

Or they were just elves or whatever.


Sands of Harad, Fantasy Flight Games

Name: Again, a simple geographic term applied by outsiders. Harad means "South" in Sindarin Elvish. The suffix -rim is taken to mean "people", but it literally means "host", indicating the wartime context in which their northern neighbors generally knew them. Other names for the people of the South include Southerns, Southrons, or Swertings, referring to their "swarthy" skin. Especially disparaging of the darker people from Far Harad is the term "half-troll". What these people--or more likely, peoples--called themselves is unknown.

History: The people of Harad did not have an immediately hostile relationship with the men of Númenor. The Second Age king Tar-Aldarion the Mariner had an almost unhealthy obsession with the sea, and explored vast stretches of the coast of Harad during his travels. This led to the formation of many colonies and ship havens like Umbar, and here cultural exchange began between the seafarers and the locals. The Haradrim reportedly learned some forms of agriculture and metalworking from the Númenóreans.

But this amicable relationship ended after Sauron wormed his way into the court of King Ar-Pharazôn. Númenor waged war on the people of Middle-Earth, and countless innocents of Harad were dragged back to that island fortress to be bloodily sacrificed in the name of Morgoth. The beleaguered peoples of the Southlands were embittered by their unending wars with the men of the sea. That bitterness extends now to the Black Númenóreans who continue to claim dominance over their coasts. It also applies to the Faithful upstarts in Gondor and Arnor, the persecuted history of whom the Haradrim would have no way of knowing.

This anger born of grinding generations of oppression, no matter how justified, has allowed Sauron's darkness to begin to slip into some of their hearts- a second colonization.

Home: Harad is another immense land whose details we can't even begin to describe with certainty. Much of it was jungle, but there was also an immense desert, possibly in the northern area known as Near Harad. (The fuzzy border between Near and Far, as imagined by the men of the northwest, may have been a transitional savanna land similar to the real-world Sahel.) The one unifying quality is that all of it was very warm or hot. The Harad Road penetrated an unknown distance into eastern Near Harad, perhaps fostering trade between north and south during more peaceful times.

The people of Harad are described as living in tribes, but also kingdoms. We can only guess at the size, strength, innovations, or cultures of these states- but we can make educated guesses.

The Haradrim warriors we encounter in the books wear a wealth of material culture on their persons. They dress in brightly dyed clothing, with scarlet being a favorite. They also decorate their bodies in gold, even braiding their long dark hair with it. By the end of the Second Age the Haradrim will have weapons of iron, but by the War of the Ring their scimitars will "glitter like stars", possibly implying that they have begun using steel. (For a similar use of this language by Tolkien to describe metal, see how Ghân-buri-Ghân of the Drúedain refers to the weapons of the Rohirrim as "bright iron".) And, most famously, many Haradrim archers and spearmen went to war in the howdah-like "towers" they mounted on the backs of their tamed Mûmakil.

This all suggests that the cultures of Harad had great skill in textiles, metalwork, carpentry or woodwork, and animal husbandry, and had access to the tools needed to use them effectively. While guidance from Númenóreans and contact with Sauron can account for some of this, they nonetheless maintained a high degree of sophistication in their handicrafts, which suggests the richness and complexity of the cultures who produced them.


Variags of Khand by merlkir again.

Name: For once, we have an indigenous word. "Khand" is a non-Elvish, non-Westron word which is assumed to originate from the land referred to as such. Unfortunately, the meaning of the word and the language it comes from are completely unknown. There is a group within Khand known as the Variags, who appeared in the Third Age as bearded and axe-wielding mercenaries serving in Sauron's army. It is unknown how the Variags related to the rest of the Men of Khand, and if they were distinguished from one another in any way by ethnicity or culture. (Perhaps it merely referred to their military status, as the case was with the real-world Slavic word variag, which referred to the Varangian mercenaries of the Byzantine Empire.)

History: Not much is known about the history of the Khandish, other than that they allied with Mordor in the Third Age, and that their numbers included but appeared not to be synonymous with the Variags. The Khandish may have had occasionally hostile relationships with eastern Haradrim or southern Easterlings, since the region labeled as Khand southeast of Mordor is located in between Haradwaith and Rhûn. If they were foes at any point however, they were still willing to ally with the Wainriders to invade Gondor early in the Third Age.

Home: Again, not much is known about Khand. It is identified on the map as being southeast of Mordor, below the Ephel Dúath. There are no geographic features in Khand in the early Tolkien-era maps, which can suggest either a lack of focus on or knowledge of the region by the fictional cartographers of the universe, or that the area was simply flat and featureless- perhaps a plain or desert.

Perhaps it has settled populations and cities, perhaps a large pastoral population. Perhaps the political landscape is very fractious or tribal in such a way that endemic warfare fosters the development of elite mercenary groups like the Variags may have been.


Spying an Orc Family by SkekLa

Name: Orcs. Goblins. Yrch. Glamhoth. Rakhās. Whatever form the name takes in any language, it expresses the same thing, and in the least flattering way possible: monsters. Even their name in Black Speech, Uruk-hai (not to be confused with the larger "Great Orc" Uruk-hai of the Third Age), is little different, for nothing can be said in that constructed language without it sounding at least a little hateful.

History: It is said that orcs are creations (more accurately, corruptions) of Morgoth, and that "their breeding was the most wicked and lamentable of his works in Arda". The precise origins of orcs are muddy, mostly because our dear sub-creator was endlessly anxious over the theological implications of evil seeming to create life independently. For our purposes, multiple origins can be true without being mutually exclusive.

Some of the oldest "orcs" were Maiar, the powerful spirits of creation that one might compare to angels- and in the case of those who allied with Melkor/Morgoth, fallen angels. Like the Balrogs, some fallen Maiar took physical form to better serve their new Dark Lord. But instead of being made of flame and smoke, their bodies were tangible, made of flesh and bone, albeit unnatural sorts. They were Boldogs, orc-like lieutenants and intermediaries for their lord who commanded his armies in the earliest battles against the Valar and the elves.

But this raises the question of who made up those armies, since they can't all have been vengeful spirits, or at least they couldn't have carried on that way this entire time- otherwise orcs would have been a very finite tool, forever dwindling as corrupted Maiar "died" and lost their bodies and then went to face judgement. There had to be a more organic, self-sustaining, "natural" component to Morgoth's hosts. Yet they sprang up in such huge numbers before or during the awakening of Mankind in the world, suggesting that there was a time when elves were captured and corrupted into a reproductive form of orc.

Next came humans, whose corruption Sauron would perfect in later ages. Human stock is assumed to make up the overwhelming majority of orkish ancestry in the time of this campaign, with a rare elvish strain here and there making their champions live unusually long lives, or Boldog spirits ruling over scattered and forgotten holdings like demonic overlords.

For two ages now, orcs have been a tool of violence and tyranny used by dark lords. These lords have always been contemptuous of their servants, and they hate them in return. Orcs hate their creators as much as they hate each other, and perhaps themselves. There is a human(oid) soul buried deep within each one, after all. A ruined one capable of deep depravity and mockery of beautiful things, but one that still possesses the rational thought to recognize a ghost of what it has been denied.

When their masters have been defeated, as the case is at the moment, orcs are initially stunned and aimless, seeming to possess hardly any independent will or sense. But this passes as they reassert themselves, after existing so long under the direct mental dominance of another power. Armies inevitably scatter into the far corners of the world and take to their own devices.

Home: And orcs are indeed scattered. They have no home but what their tribes and petty-kingdoms have been able to carve out of a world which is hostile to their very existence. Their kind might have been "born" in the pits of Utumno that spawned so many other monsters, but that fortress homeland is long gone. Pockets of orcs exist in other strongholds of Darkness such as Angband and much of Mordor, but they've also wormed their way into many of the the mountain chains of Middle-Earth.

Anywhere Sauron established himself before his recent fall is sure to have orcs in some number. Or, at the very least, orkish streaks might run through any of the groups of people whom he has subjugated- goblin-men with ill-favored looks and all that sort of thing. Wherever populations of humans and orcs have had working relationships, forced or otherwise, half-orcs can exist as uncomfortable reminders that the two peoples aren't so very distant from one another.

Free of the command of a dark lord, orcs lose the drive to conquer to the same degree. They will raid and pillage for their own convenience, and hunt surprisingly far and wide to avenge kin slain by outsiders. But they seem content to squat in their desolate homes rather than building them up into the terrible fortresses their masters have such an obsession with. It seems that while they possess skill in making crude, ugly, and yet very serviceable and practical things, they lack the drive to do so on their own.

They don't seem to lose much of their cruelty, however. They are still perpetually miserable, angry beings who feel temporary respite from enacting their pain upon others.

But given time and exceptional circumstances--such as the clandestine efforts of a blue-robed figure or two--this could change.


This is ultimately going to be your rendition of the world. Throw in any in-between or original creation you think might be appropriate.

Maybe give Nurn its own fleshed-out indigenous human population? Invent a Beorning-esque people designed around a different animal? Do whatever. Just remember our mantra!

No elves.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Goblin Brain: Normalized Trauma

I had a dream last night.

Which is somewhat unusual- I very rarely remember my dreams. I'm sure I have them like most other living things do when they sleep, but memory of it hardly ever reaches me when I wake up.

This was different, though.

I had a dream that I had a friend (so you already know that it's completely insane and fanciful) who was a painter. And they invited me (out of my home) to their art gallery. And so I went.

I have no recollection of the space that the gallery was located in, or even the friend themselves- just that I had a friend, and that I was there looking at their things. And the gallery was peculiar. It was strangely appropriate for me, starting with the fact that everything was more-or-less goblin-sized, and the paintings were hung almost down by the floor for my convenience.

I can't remember much about most of them, but as I was traveling along the right-hand wall, I stopped in my tracks in front of one enormous landscape piece.

It called to me, I suppose?

And what it was, was this alien place. This world that was obviously meant to be something out of science fantasy, but very relatable on some level.

It was some sort of desert. There were satellites--natural satellites, that is--visible in the sky which was tinged a sort of purple color. There may have been some planet with rings around it far in the distance, I'm not sure. The sand and the rocks on the ground were kind of a bluish-grey color with yellowish streaks and highlights across them from the setting sun- one of the setting suns, at least. I remember the rocks had a metallic, almost greasy sheen to them like graphite.

There was a procession of beings walking through the desert. I got the impression that they were very tall, even though there was nothing to compare their scale to. Not outlandishly tall, but relative to humans--and certainly relative to me--they were pretty tall. They were fairly thin, too. They were humanoid, and sort of blue-skinned, I think. But not the same kind of blue as the land around them. They popped out from their surroundings quite visibly, somehow. They didn't have anything resembling hair, or horns, or any other sort of head protrusions. There was actually very little in the way of distinguishing characteristics between them. If they had anything like gender, I wasn't able to differentiate them.

But they all seemed to be walking in groups of three- two of approximately the same height, and one much shorter than the other two. Eventually I realized that they seemed to be family units. Parents and children. And there were dozens--hundreds?--of these units stretching all the way back into the sunset horizon. They were moving toward the foreground, until eventually the line twisted to the side where they entered some sort of large stone building which conveniently had the front of it cut off for the sake of my perspective.

I was able to look inside, where there was a sort of waiting room, and a much smaller chamber next to it. There was a much tighter congregation of people in the second room. There were several tall beings here who didn't appear to be parents, or at least they didn't have their own children with them. But they did have a group of other children with them.

It was at this point that I realized that another defining characteristic of these people was that each of them had a little socket in their forehead. The tall ones only had an empty space that was rectangular or diamond-shaped, with raised edges of thick and scarified flesh around them. Meanwhile the young ones had what looked like jewels- Brilliant little multicolored, multifaceted things poking ever so slightly out of their foreheads.

But when they reached this back room, they took out what I can only describe as a pair of pliers, and held the children down, and... removed them.

And it was obviously not a pleasant or willing procedure- the children had to be held down after all.

There was kicking, and screaming, and bleeding of a very dark, ichorous purple.

And when it was done, the children were bandaged up and moved over to the other side of the chamber, where there was a door leading out of the back of the building. At this point the parents, who had witnessed the removal and were looking far more exhausted than when they had come in, carried their children out. Or at the very least they shouldered their weight as they staggered on limply.

All of them had this expression of regret and sadness, tempered with this feeling of inevitability.

Like they dearly did not want to do this to their own children--to any children--but it was... required?


I don't know how I was able to perceive all of this in a single painting. Either I imagined much of it, or my subconscious is was very, very good at ekphrasis.

(Is that how you say that word? I realize I never vocalized it when I learned about the concept in my class on Greek and Roman mythology.)

In any event, I believe I glanced down at the name of the painting before I left or moved on or the dream ended.

And it was titled "Normalized Trauma".


I just wish I hadn't seen the mound of discarded jewels leaned up against the side of the building. I can't get it out of my head. Some of the jewels were very new and lustrous-looking, save for the encrusted blood. Others were old and faded. The pile was almost as tall as one of the adults.

It was also at the edge of the field. The field was filled with hundreds of mounds just like it.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The Tiamat-Ymir Principle.

Big creatures are vital to mythologies everywhere. They are the movers and shakers of the world, sometimes literally. They can be gods, or guardians, or monsters in need of slaying by a hero going through their standard-issue 17-point plan for greatness. And while their importance might often end with their deaths, their being dead can sometimes be of equal or greater significance to the narrative.

Sometimes the death of a Big Thing leads to the birth of much greater things. Even something as big as a world.

Mythological Context (AKA Feel-Bad Stories)

When the Babylonian goddess Tiamat discovered that her husband Apsu had been murdered by their children, the first generation of gods, she was furious. She took on the shape of a terrible sea serpent (or dragon, in her more pop-culturey depictions) and made a war of vengeance on her treacherous sons and daughters. She conjured the first dragons, and other monsters, as tools of her will. And when her son the storm god Marduk killed her, she was carved up into two halves and then mutilated.

Her eyes, still bitterly weeping even after death, were made into the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Her ribs became the vault of the sky, her lower body the earth. Her tail was flung into the void to form the Milky Way. She was big enough to be made into the world that we live on, and in that way the Mother of Monsters is humanity's mother as well.

When the North Germanic giant Ymir was born from the thawing water that existed between the frozen realm of Niflheim and its fiery opposite Muspelheim, he didn't do much more than sit around sweating and drinking cow's milk straight from the tap. But from his armpit sweat and chafing thighs were born the jotun people, and from the salt lick that the cow Auðumbla tongued placidly was born Búri, ancestor of all the gods.

Eventually Odin and his brothers--all of them distant descendants of Ymir thanks to their jotun mother Bestla--came to slay him. Not because he had done anything in particular against them, though the gods did seem to think the giants were evil, even back then. They killed him because they wanted to become the rulers of earth and sky- things which did not yet exist in the yawning emptiness of Ginnungagap. So they fashioned the earth out of his flesh, mountains from his bones, trees from hair, the seas from his blood, the sky from his skullcap, storm clouds from his brains, and the entirety of the human realm of Midgard from his eyebrows.

Of course there are thousands more beings that die like this. Some of them are more benign and peaceful. I don't know of any existing term for it in proper mythography, but apparently Jungian theory calls it the Cosmic Man.

So What?

When Big Things die, they turn into bigger things. Like normal flesh-and-blood creatures they don't just vanish into the ether. They have bodies with physical pieces and parts, and just as we decay and get reused by nature, these parts can be separated and made into something else.

So what if this Tiamat-Ymir Principle™ applied to other things?

What if every significant beastie in a universe was able to turn into something upon death? And what if this process could be directed and controlled by the smaller creatures that kill them? Not just in the sense of cutting off a dragon's horns for weapons or scales for armor, but shaping an entire fortress or range of hills out of its body.

What if adventurers were less like thieving murder-hobos, and more like landscapers (but also still thieving murder-hobos)?

You get a setting where the classic pass-time of going out and killing big things has immediate, physical consequences in the world that even the least attentive party can see. The landscape can be transformed by accident or by deliberate act, either as a plot twist or as part of a plan made by any players clever enough to kill a titan.

What To Do With This

At this point I'm just throwing out whatever sounds nifty. It's not a unique idea at all obviously, but I never saw it called out and named before. Feel free to appropriate the idea however you see fit.

Landscaping- The world has always been home to colossal things and the little pests that murder them. It's a way of life. Hunt something, kill it, fashion a civilization out of its insides and then eat the rest. Monster Hunter, Salt in Wounds, etc.

But here, every landmark has a bloody, meaty history. That island in a lake was a wyrm that hit the ground so hard it formed a crater. Those mountains are actually a graveyard of stone giants being riddled with tunnels by dwarves like termites in so much rotting wood. This city was built with the fingerbones of a Hekatoncheires.

The world is defined by the monsters that live and die on it, and in attempting to master their environment the mortal species take a more hands-on approach.

The consequences of Big Thing death can be just as destructive as they are creative, of course.

Killing the monster harassing the town might make the road to the town impassable, or snarl the area in marshes, isolating the settlement from trade and travel and killing it more slowly. A wounded or naturally old being might be herded away from populated lands so it doesn't completely throw the region's topography into whack. Sending a titan running amok into enemy lands could inadvertently give them building materials for a new castle.

Maps could be made utterly useless every few years thanks to a brand new chasm or forest that definitely wasn't there before. Travel is never entirely secure. The world is living, breathing, and growing with every death, stacking up high on the literal bones of eons.

Terraforming- Space is a lot of empty, well, space. There aren't a lot of habitable worlds out there for most humanoids. But the void is home to giant things, living or dead. Think of the astral god-isles from Planescape. Most of these petrified deity remains probably occur from gods naturally losing followers and slowly decaying, but some must have been made suddenly, and by violence. Setting deicide aside for a moment, think of all the titanic alien beings that exist out in the gulfs of space, eldritch or otherwise.

If a sufficiently advanced civilization wanted to expand beyond its homeworld, but it could find no suitable planets to claim as their own, why not just make a new one?

Our "heroes" would be science-fantasy terraformers, tasked with tracking down a space Big Thing, killing it, bringing its corpse to a desired location, and then shaping its blood and bones into something that resembles home. If the creature had parasites, gestating young, or just a whole lot of gut fauna, perhaps this new world will offer unexpected competition or neighbors. This could be a process that takes centuries, or sufficiently powerful demigods could take care of it in a campaign or two.

And if the universe doesn't have the right kind of teleportation or flight magic, they're going to have to make a spaceship out of someone first.

Homegrown Gods- Paradise in all its forms has some overarching similarities, but just as many qualities are tailored to the people of a historical time and place. In many fantasy settings the gods either populate ontologically distinct planes after coming into existence, or they helped create them when they splortched this new universe out of cosmic goo.

Why not take this a step farther? In settings where gods are created by the hopes and prayers of mortals, and gods create their own planes, then are mortals not indirectly creating those heavens and hells for themselves? What if they cut out the middleman, so to speak?

Found a religion. It can be about anything, as long as it has a god or godlike being, and that being can be imagined in a body. Gain followers. Feed this blind, mindless godhead the thoughts and souls of thousands of like-minded people until it is a polished mirror reflecting back at them. Nurture your nascent deity, foster its growth and development. Teach it with ritual and scripture. Reward it with sacrifices like treats to a good child. Describe what the afterlife is like in your faith. Make your god strong enough to embody it and protect it.

And then kill it.

Butcher your god. Take its bones and craft a firmament. Shape the new land with its meat. Fill the air with its dying breath. Use its skin to line the boundaries of this new realm.

With your pandeicide complete, you and your followers may now enjoy an eternity or however many eons or kalpas your afterlife is meant to last, all to yourselves. Belief will continue to bleed into the landscape overtime, letting your infant plane grow.

Just don't let it slip to your living followers that god is dead and you killed him. Some philosopher might latch on and make a big deal of it.

Hunted- They're after you. The fiendish little upstarts. They've stopped playing with fire and digging holes in the dirt long enough to decide to kill you. Their champions are on the way, with magic potions and bright iron. Perhaps some of your kin assisted them. But it doesn't matter. All that matters is that they want to inflict that final and absolute shame upon you. They won't just kill you. They will take you apart and desecrate you. You will be devoured by lowly little things that are not even close enough to you for it to count as cannibalism.

There's no true escape. Chaos is vast, even infinite, but the hunter is tireless. They will always be right behind you. You can fight back, but they are great- greater than you, even. Your hubris would kill you before their swords did.

The best you can do is deny them their prize. Fight tooth and nail, and when those teeth and nails fall off, devour them. Allow nothing to fall into the hands of the enemy, for they will grow mightier for it. Live a perpetual fighting retreat. Leave a bloody trail across the length of the abyss.

They want a world. You will give them a battlefield.

Monday, September 30, 2019

A Brief Tourist's Guide to Notable Stops in Porylus Mons.

As our tour of the city continues, Kibra has been quick to point out every sight or structure of interest for our group. She would sound like a compensated tourist trap informant if she wasn't so genuinely enthusiastic about everything her topics have to offer, down to her points of interest which, I hope she'll forgive me for saying, I can't imagine many other people would find interesting.

How riveting is it that a series of mistakenly translated homophones resulted in one of the oldest inns in the city being named after a pet toad?

... Extremely, actually- at least according to Ciudo.

In any event, I have elected to share a report of some of the city's sites when we return home. Below is a portion of what Kibra has to offer us, curated for time.


When Kibra brought us to this site, we at first mistook it for an immense tract of pasture land slapped down right in the center of the city with the hill overlooking it. And to be fair, we were not entirely wrong in thinking that. There were after all several small herds of sheep grazing across the field.

What we did not know is that these sheep are gardeners rather than livestock, and they were being made to graze in that field not to grow fat, but to trim the grass in anticipation of an upcoming game.

The Ewefield is the largest sport field in Porylus, and has a history not so different from that of the oldest game fields in Deneroth- excluding all of the episodic violence and pig cheese, of course.

According to the local legend, the spot was picked out for for the city's founding games for its unique flatness. A great festival was in the works, and competitions on foot or on hoof were inevitable. But for some reason--possibly foul play, a lover's quarrel, or spillover from a heated academic debate about the spontaneous generation of small rodents--the group hired to cut the grass to regulation length was never paid, and so refused to finish the job. This would have delayed or doomed the games, if not for an accidental strike-breaking sheep farmer who drunkenly shepherded his animals onto the field the day before, rendering it perfect for use.

I have not gotten any answers yet as to whether or not the games were hindered by the mountains of dung that the sheep must have left behind.

Because there are no games being played just yet, I cannot attest to how fine the venue is. But as is, it is somewhat relaxing to be able to sit down on a raised bench overlooking such an odd scrap of greenery so deep inside of a town. The sheep are placid and comforting to watch, and the occasional shouts drifting through the cold air as shepherd-gardeners cooperate to tidy up this corner or that is amusing.

This will be the last game before winter truly sets in, and everyone seems to be quite looking forward to it here.

The Shout-House

One might not expect the politics to be so volatile in a small city like Porylus.

One would be deaf to continue to believe that, after walking past the city's municipal center on any active night.

Unlike the government of Deneroth, which was originally intended to be just one regional facet of the larger Haraalian empire but which now exists in perpetual semi-electoral stewardship, Porylus Mons has always had a nonstandard way of doing things. Northern rhetoric would have you believe that Porylus has been infected by that curious brand of anarchic lawlessness so plaguing the P.A.S.C.O.P.P.Y. on-and-off for centuries, but that is not the case- nor does that accurately describe the favored systems of the Pach-Pah, for the record.

Because of Porylus' relatively small size, a representative government is easier to maintain than most. The smallest political unit is the neighborhood, the heads of which are chosen by a variety of traditions, including direct election by their neighbors. Those neighborheads then serve in and advise the central administration of the city, which is a tentative balance between the common citizens and various other power groups in Porylus, such as the trade guilds, old families of wealth and prestige, and the (surprisingly minor) presence of the university.

The goal of congress between these groups and their representatives in city halls such as this is general consensus on how to handle the running of the city-state, overseen by subdued authority of a governor or governess.

The result is a lot of yelling, and a provost with very high blood pressure.

The appropriately named "Shout-House" is the largest of these city halls reserved for the largest of debates, located across the street from the traditional governatorial domicile. They are the perfect intersection between politics and spectator sports, drawing huge crowds on every occasion and providing no small stimulus to the businesses nearest to the area.

We are not in town for one of these debates, but I hope to interview a regular in my time here.

Harhal's Place

Informally named after its deceased previous owner, this nameless and unposted building on a thoroughfare close to the beginning of the hill's spiral would be easy to miss if it wasn't for the steady stream of people coming and going through its doors, held wide open despite the wind and frost.

This establishment is an eatery of sorts, focused on serving hot food to its patrons quickly and efficiently to match busy midday hours. It apparently changes from a hive of activity into a near-abandoned shell within ten talecks of that window, though we did not stay long enough to see the (somewhat welcome) lull.

Much of the food is prepared ahead of time and then reheated as needed. Though this invariably affects the quality of each meal, the price and convenience seem to be worth it to the workers and students in the area. Anything leftover at the end of the day is also given to the urban poor- assuming it is still edible. This tradition has earned the Place a considerable amount of goodwill from the locals over two generations now.

I have my reservations about their fare, however.

Don't mistake me for someone with any amount of culinary acumen or snobbery. The ingredients and taste seemed just fine. I just don't understand why the dishes are named the way they are.

Everything has a slightly off-putting or unnecessarily risque name attached to it, apparently originating from the late Harhal's sense of humor. The tradition has been continued by his son Rhal, the current proprietor.

As such, when Kibra finally convinced us to go in for lunch, I sat down to a plate of "Mother Fried in Her Children", which is to say cutlets of chicken breast fried in an egg-based batter. Kibra meanwhile swore by a bowl of "Bull Taken Hotly to the Wedding Bed", or steak peppered with Nambarish spices and served over a bed of a short, white rice harvested from the northern slopes of the Pashels. Hraela and Sarq both tried and enjoyed the "Crimson Infestations" after a bit of goading from one of the patrons we were seated close to. The mushroom caps were stuffed to overflowing with a variety of ingredients, but the bits of tart or savory red berry sprinkled throughout gave them the name. Ciudo burned his tongue on a serving of fried black bread topped with cheese curds that had been heated up to the point that you can hear the cheese hissing and whining. "Flaxen Screamers" indeed.

Eventually the contrast between the wind at our backs and the enormous braziers and cooking fires in front of us grew tiring, and we moved on. Kibra paid for us, and Rhal insisted she take home a few roasted taproots as a gift to make up for it.

The Benefactory of Eotirus

The maxims of the ITU and the Laiziji faith in general hold the creation and acquisition of knowledge to be vital and defining for the human experience. It is agreeable to me, for sure. But historically, the center of the Eternal Scholar's clergy has had issues with the freedom of access to that knowledge. Stemming from a combination of tradition and a desire for control, education has never been easy to obtain outside of the University's gates. Unless you were born to a founding family or had the new money to buy a temporary adoption into one, you are not going to get in. And unless they're going off to found a new sister-campus, an instructor at the ITU is not going to set foot outside of the place, by choice or by law.

Eotirus was a vanishingly rare exception to this tradition.

He was the third headmaster of the university at Porylus Mons to be elected by a council of his peers. And though he did not have the deep personal connections and/or blackmail to affect change from within, he did have a considerable amount of money to spend to the same effect, thanks to his family's involvement in the construction of much of the city.

When his tenure and his life neared its end, Eotirus decided to cap his fairly average legacy off with a controversial finish. He had the funds secured to build a library located outside of the school's walls, and designed an endowment for its maintenance and assured independence from any powers in the city. He died with a lot of enemies and without a lead coin to his name, but reportedly could not stop smiling at his own funeral.

The library has stood for a little under three hundred years since, its collection expanded to include a wide variety of topics ranging from mathematics, cooking, botany, political histories, and more journals than one could shake a stick at, were one inspired to go shaking sticks for some inexplicable reason.

All of these may be accessed by anyone coming in from the street. There is an entry fee of course, and strict monitoring of every volume, but it is not attached to membership or descent like one would expect. We spent a woefully short period here, but what time I had within the cathedral-esque structure was energizing. I saw an old woman teaching herself to read with the titles on book spines, and a young man snickering at a satirical piece aimed at a prominent governor and his mistress from three generations ago.

I hope this is the future. I could stand to be in one like this.

Old Cairn

Porylus Mons is not the first major human settlement on the hill or the surrounding area. The city was built atop the ruins of a much older hillfort, believed to be Esgodarran in origin. Evidence of this old habitation is normally quite invisible, with the significant exception of the so-called Old Cairn.

This mound-like jumble of stones and the spot of land it rests on have been kept untouched by development thanks to the administration of the school. It acts as something of a centerpiece for the campus park, and is a popular landmark to meet or hold gatherings next to.

It is only called a cairn because of its current shape, fallen into disrepair as it is. Local researchers argue that it likely wasn't any sort of burial site, and boast that it might have been a rather tall lookout tower instead. That would be an impressive feat of engineering indeed, but I am skeptical given the lack of mortar in traditional Esgodarran architecture. I would be more than happy to be proven wrong, of course.

I should ask for a copy of any existing research when we at last meet with the faculty. Their offices loom close now, here by the Cairn. Their perfunctory hymns can just barely reach our ears on the wind.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Goblin Brain: Free Range, Dorito-Fed, Organic Gaming Experiences

As some of you may know from my Crypt Cities posts, I am a mild fan of Dark Souls.

I wasn't always one, though. I used to dislike the concept of them quite a bit.

I still might, actually.

Years ago when it was first released, Demons' Souls sailed right past me without my having a clue. A few years later, I heard or saw the name Dark Souls pop up here and there, mostly in relation to this fanboy flame war that I still can't wrap my head around, eight years later.

(Seriously, the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Dark Souls are such fundamentally different beasts that it seems like the only common ground on which to pit them against one another was that they were both some form of RPG and they both happened to come out in the year 2011. What was the beef?)

Anyway, I grew dimly aware that Dark Souls was some sort of brutally punishing game with a form of progress loss that was by no means as bad as roguelike permadeath, but still unforgiving. It seemed like the antithesis of fun to me at the time, and I gently avoided it.

A couple of conversations with a peer in community college on the eve of Dark Souls II's release in 2014 got my mildly curious as to what the big deal was since the game had done well enough to earn a sequel. I think I also saw a Game Grumps Steam Train series on DS2 at some point that involved a bunch of commenters getting angry at some ironic "MLG Pro" video thumbnails with swag-hats and Mountain Dew...

But again, it didn't go anywhere.

It wasn't until late in 2015 that I took a more active interest in figuring out what this series was, because the YouTube channel Extra Credits had just started up its new LP project called Side Quest, partly to look at animation and game design, and partly to die a whole bunch. I was familiar with and fond of at least one of the Dans of Extra Credits, and that was my means of bridging the gap now, even if it sounded weird not to hear him pitch-shifted- I thought we just had similar voices.

So I tagged along and witnessed the ruined land of Lordran for the first time. As I watched I grew more interested and wanted to find out what would happen next. But I grew impatient in waiting for episodes to release according to schedule, so I began to peer beyond that playthrough. I started to browse the game's wikis and click on the other DS-related videos I saw on my front page. I had no means to play the game and experiencing it first-hand, so I did so vicariously through others.

Eventually I found ways around my usual lack of resources and gave the first game a shot, first playing to keep up with the progress of the videos I watched using a similar character, but soon overtaking them and forging on ahead. Except I wasn't really forging anything. I was stuck in my newly formed habits, still consulting the wikis and going into each new zone or encounter with as much knowledge as I could reasonably obtain beforehand.

This trend continued into Dark Souls 2 when I tried out Scholar of the First Sin, and repeated again in Dark Souls 3 some years later. The number of hours that I played while unaided and in the dark could probably be counted on both hands. I was also entirely offline for all three experiences.

And in doing so, I think many fans of Dark Souls might feel that I ruined the essence of the game for myself.

A core part of the game to many fans, at least according to the impression I've gotten, is blundering through those experiences naturally, by yourself. To fall for the ambushes until you learn to anticipate them, and then falling for the second one in a row once you've felt an instant of hubris. To not find every treasure chest or hidden room until your second or third playthrough of the game. To either carefully piece together the lore, ignore it entirely, or give up and go watch a VaatiVidya playlist so that you can act like a know-it-all to your friends. Phantoms are free to come and go, but you need to experience the game without the middleman of guides or LPers.

But if I did that, I would die. And dying is an embarrassment to be avoided, at least according to the myriad of "git gud" memes out there. My logic was--still is--if I won't be able to do it perfectly the first time, mastering every challenge while still learning it, in order to impress or at least not coax boos out of a (completely imaginary) crowd of expert spectators, then there was no point to really trying at all. The games stopped being proper games for me, and became more like interactive checklists that I needed to satisfy in order to feel like I had done not-wrong.

When I encountered NPC quest lines in particular, I was faced with the same shattering feeling that I'd get when was faced with morality choices with consequences or quests with multiple endings in more traditional RPGs like Dragon Age- If I didn't get the 100% golden ending for everyone at once, I as a player, as a person, was failing them. I grew physically sick when I thought I had missed a Lucatiel or Siegward of Catarina encounter. It became a reflection of my real-life fears that by not doing perfectly, I was actively damaging the life experiences of everyone around me.

I couldn't just "hold that L" when I was already over max equip load with a Havel's suit of armor made out of other Ls.

But I still wanted to do the video game thing because the areas, spells, and gear were interesting and there were still some forms of positive feedback that I could enjoy and want to return to. So my every strategy was based around the idea of trivializing the challenge the game was designed for. I was shielded up with an over-leveled health bar whenever I wasn't spamming sorceries or using outright exploits to get past non-mundane enemies. I shot Manus almost to death with a longbow from outside his boss arena, and juked the Dragon Rider into falling off of his platform.

I dreaded ever boss battle, which I thought of as nothing but a roadblock, and a check on my enjoyment of the 'fun' parts of the game, which I can't even define adequately. Ornstein & Smough, the high point of Dark Souls I for countless fans, was an annoying and tedious mess that I quickly forgot all details and emotions of after I got past them on the 11th or 12th try. Meanwhile the almost universally panned Prowling Magus and his Congregation in DS2 was a-okay in my book because of how brief and inoffensive it was.

I never finished a Dark Souls game, not all the way through at least.

My armored lady-knight in DS1 was eventually abandoned after I had burned out on grinding tens of millions of souls from the Phalanx Hollows in the Painted World- I really wanted to have my Elite Knight set on while doing Dark Wood Grain Ring backflips, and that needed a lot of Endurance.

I technically killed the final boss of vanilla DS2 with my greying old lightning cleric, but that was only after I gave up on the DLC zones, so I never saw Aldia and the like. Also I was feeling guilty for enjoying DS2 because at the time the feeling that it was not as good as DS1 was in full swing on the internet.

In DS3 I got to the isolated walkway where I could literally see the room where the Soul of Cinder shows up, and I even circumvented it to enter the arguably harder Dreg Heap and have a shot at getting the fiery scimitar pyromancy catalyst thing that I wanted for my pyromancer. But it just never happened. I never reached any of the endings.

And yet, when I switched to other games in order to get a breather, the feelings carried over with me.

The Banner Saga, one of the first games I ever wanted to back the development of (but lacked the money to), had to be played with a walkthrough handy. I even tried to no avail for hours to get a glitch to work where you could recruit Ekkil while also saving Egil so that no party members had to die in this grim, icy world where people are expected to die.

Multiplayer games of any sort always gave me performance anxiety, but after seeing the way your shame can be immortalized in Dark Souls invasion fail compilations, I just can't. It's impossible to imagine co-op anything, let alone PvP where the options are to lose or ruin another person's fun.

I've been staring at an installed copy of Ashen on my desktop for a few weeks now, after hearing that it was a somewhat less intensive "Dark Souls for people who don't really like Dark Souls".

Maybe I'll get around to it without reading too far ahead? It's hard to say.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

On the Trail of the Blue Wizards: An Amateur Campaign Idea

(By now, my readers will know that I have a faint grasp of tabletop mechanics at best. But I've had this idea knocking around in my head for at least two or three years now, and I figure I can communicate most of it without worrying about the gameplay part- that will be left for the viewer to fill in with what works best for their hypothetical tabletop group that takes long-term campaign advice from itchy goblins living behind a Burger King.

So, let's lay out everything I can think of to help a DM run a Lord of the Rings point-crawl drowned in gritty fanfiction cruft!)

The attention-grabber before the long plod

The world has been bent.

Numenor drowns, and the spirit of the Dark Lord has flown screaming back to the heights of Barad-dûr. A war is coming that will shake the foundations of an already fractured world.

But it is not coming yet. Armies are still building in Mordor and the West. Desperate alliances and clandestine deals are being struck. The world is taking a deep breath before the plunge.

And rumors are coming in on the desert wind that a man in blue has a job for someone like you.

You. A wretch. A scoundrel. Someone who's been all but chewed up and spat out upon the salt-sprayed stones of Umbar. Someone that no one should care about. Yet you've been called upon by name. Whatever the work, it will probably be better than waiting around to be found out, or knifed in the street, or dragged before one of the black altars of Melkor.

There may be hope for you yet.

In-Depth Premise

The premise of this campaign is to delve into a less touched-upon time and area of JRR Tolkien's Middle-Earth. As much lore can be drawn upon as you want, but you aren't beholden to following a thorough or even existing history.

Specifically, my idea takes place in the Second Age shortly after the Changing of the World, but before the War of the Last Alliance. Events focus on Harad and Rhûn, and the shenanigans that two of Tolkien's least talked-about wizards might have gotten up to therein.

Beyond that, little about this story has to be solid. I just offer a guiding list of suggestions. Want to dump a whole slew of MERP splatbooks into this instead? Go for it. Want to cleave close to the impressions of Christopher and other Tolkienists in realizing something that almost could have been canon? Try your best. Want to give a new home to those OCs of yours from that one Grelvish AIM chat room you hid from your friends since 1998? I won't tell.

Custom map of Middle-Earth by Peter C. Fenlon for Iron Crown Enterprises,
publishers of Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP) from 1984-1999.

The wizards in question--the Blue Wizards--are difficult to pin down as any one thing, because they virtually never enter the narrative of the books, and what little was written about them was rewritten several times. In some versions they failed in their task and died, or were corrupted, or formed secretive cults of exotic and blue-robed magic users that no one did anything with until the makers of Lord of the Rings Online seized upon for Update 6. But for the purposes of this campaign premise, the last revision made before Tolkien's death is considered to be canon. That is to say:

"Their task was to circumvent Sauron: to bring help to the few tribes of Men that had rebelled from Melkor-worship, to stir up rebellion ... and after his first fall to search out his hiding (in which they failed) and to cause [?dissension and disarray] among the dark East ... They must have had very great influence on the history of the Second Age and Third Age in weakening and disarraying the forces of East ... who would both in the Second Age and Third Age otherwise have ... outnumbered the West."
 - JRR Tolkien, "Last Writings" written sometime in 1973, pp 384-85 of The Peoples of Middle-Earth, 1996.
What this actually means is nicely summarized by Tolkien Gateway.
  • The two Blue Wizards were sent to Middle-earth at roughly the same time as Glorfindel in c. S.A. 1600 (and similarly at the behest of the Valar), the Year of Dread, when Sauron forged the One Ring and completed the building of Barad-dûr.
  • The Blue Wizards journeyed into the East of Middle-earth, where they remained; they were not heard or seen of west of Mordor.
  • There they became known as Morinehtar and Rómestámo, Darkness-slayer and East-helper.
  • The Blue Wizards were able to hinder Sauron's operations in the East, aiding the defeat of Sauron in the War of the Last Alliance.
  • During the early Third Age and until the end of the Watchful Peace, they were tasked with finding where Sauron dwelt. They failed.
  • Morinehtar and Rómestámo ensured that the forces of the East did not outnumber the West, thus helping secure victory for the Free peoples in War of the Ring.
Of course it's impossible to think that the wizards did this all on their own and didn't get help along the way- even Gandalf needed aid and took a backseat role in his mission, which might have been the most important quest any of the Istari were even tasked with.

The Heroes

Given how secretive a mission this must have been, traveling beyond enemy lines into the depths of a Dark Lord's realms, the Blue Wizards might have had to be very clandestine. Moving from place to place looking like little more than wanderers, they must have worked through agents and elevated many an unsung hero to fight against the darkness far from the Westlands. Maybe most of them never knew the scope of what they were fighting for.

The story of the Blue Wizards thus becomes a story of ordinary, perhaps even deeply flawed people. Subjects of the Shadow showing their humanity and fighting tyranny even in the most hopeless of places. The thousand little rebellions that make up a single Resistance. In a world whose main protagonists have been criticized as being almost uniformly male, aristocratic, and white, this also gives the opportunity for so many more rich stories to be told.

Naturally, the PCs don't know anything about the wizards when they start to work for them.

All they know, as a motley assortment of exiles, escaped slaves, cutthroats, mercenaries, or any other unfortunates kicking around in the Corsair Haven of Umbar, is that they need a job that will pay, and protection. And this mysterious employer in azure from beyond the desert seems to be offering both.

Instead of coming from the ranks of (almost) always virtuous elves, dwarves, hobbits, and the free Men of the West, player characters come from cultures typically found in villainous roles. They are Near or Far Haradrim, Easterlings from distant lands, Khandish mercenaries, and Black Númenóreans fresh off the sinking shores of their drowned island home. Even people with orkish blood lurking somewhere in their ancestry can find a place in Umbar.

"Redemption" is a strong word with a lot of connotations, but it is appropriate for a story set in Tolkien's universe. It might be a motivation for some characters, or it might just be something for them to stumble into after spending long enough in the company of a being that you'd be forgiven for mistaking for a literal angel.

Or, the characters might never stop being a bit rotten, in which case the campaign takes on the dual nature of the Blue Wizards trying their best to babysit some very dangerous individuals out of turning into full-fledged villains who would add to their headaches.

Some enlightened foreigner from the north could be allowed as a PC, such as a Ranger acting as a suicidally deep spy on the Enemy, but too many characters like this would deviate from the flavor of the campaign.

And no elves!

Starting Location

Umbar isn't actively malevolent toward the rest of the world- at least not yet. Umbar simply wants what it wants and doesn't care care about the rest. Umbar knows only money, power, and lip-service to Sauron, whom the city might still remember as Tar-Mairon, erstwhile adviser and high priest to King Ar-Pharazôn. So long as one can satisfy the appetites of the wretched hive, one can survive.

Survival in those dusty streets is the first order of business before the PCs can even think about tackling the challenges that lie beyond the desolate horizon.

Umbar is located in the south of the Bay of Belfalas. It is the name of the city, as well as the natural harbor of enclosed rock in which it is situated. Near Harad lies to the south, and the Westlands can be accessed by sea to the north, though the fleets of Umbar have little reason to travel north except to raid hated Arnor and Gondor. The eastern land of Khand is also accessible by sailing upstream along the river Harnen and then turning east at the dreaded Ephel Dúath.

The city is rarely at peace, whether with its neighbors or itself.

Since the fall of Numenor and the "death" of Sauron's physical body, the Haradrim tribes have tried to throw off the yoke of Umbar with some success. Tribute is extracted from them mostly by force, and many a Black Númenórean adventurer is drawn to the Sunlands by the prospect of wealth and power in that unstable region. Most meet death at the hands of fiercely independent natives, but enough contenders like Herumor and Fuinur find success for the allure to persist. Open war between Umbar and the northern realms of their "Faithful" kin is unlikely at this moment, as all parties are still recovering from the shattering of their kingdom. But the Dark Lord survives, and conflict is almost inevitable. Already, small raiding expeditions push and prod at borders and defenses.

Within the high old walls of the city itself rages a quiet war between visceral lawlessness and slow, grinding oppression. The city is typically ruled by a pair of lords forming a duumvirate. There is perpetual competition between all members of their decadent court, and a lord doesn't last long in this city without being cunning and ruthless. Still, they and the powerful families of the city keep the peace and protect trade by any means necessary. Silver, salt, and slaves flood into the hazy, aromatic bazaars of Umbar every day, and the altars atop the city's highest ziggurats remain perpetually slick with the blood of sacrifices fruitlessly slain in the name of Morgoth.

But cruelty breeds resentment, and it could boil over into open revolt before long.

When it happens, hopefully it can be steered.

"Umbar" by Turner Mohan

Going Beyond

The bulk of this plot will unfold as I actually figure it out in later posts, but right now I am at least certain of its scope and direction.

If the party succeeds in coming together and surviving the dangers of Umbar, they are to set off across the vast desert of northern Harad, heading southward. After finally meeting with their mysterious employer in person, they trek deep into the south where savanna turns to jungle. The first major chapter of the story is completed when they do something that foils the Enemy's plans. Perhaps they rally several tribes together, or wrest some precious artifact of Elder Days from a hostile group.

After that, as the veil is peeled back from the true story and motivations, the party makes its way northeast. They must brave Khand, which now lies deep beneath the long shadow of Mordor. Finally, they might reach Rhûn for a very unexpected meeting. There, the last two-thirds of the plot will unfold.

The game is intended to be a point-crawl, with defined sites to eventually reach. But the vagueness of the map south and east of known Middle-Earth is to be used to one's advantage. Make up whatever you like to fill the huge, trackless gaps between each.