Sunday, June 19, 2022

Ivory Tower University: A Soft Reboot?

Hey there, Burrowers.

If you've been following my blog since the beginning, well, I am kind of underserving of that crazy dedication. Thanks for that.

But more relevant to this topic, if you've been following me since the beginning, you know one of my earliest long-term projects was world-building through cheeky academic article snippets written in the Ivory Tower University setting (ITUniverse for short).

Typically I'd write from the perspective of Roberick Bertrum Litte, the reluctant bearer of the most snobbish name I ever conjured, as well as my paper-thin author avatar for when I want to mix academic cynicism with humanistic idealism. He'd write up a paper from his supplies office under the staircase, scribble in his own snarky footnotes, and then send it into circulation among a readership that even he wasn't convinced of the existence of. And for a while it was pretty good times- for me, at least.

Of course it's been years since I regularly made posts tied to the ITU, excluding occasional shout-outs in my belabored but ongoing Troika! character background series.

Some of you may have wondered "what gives?" I know I did. And I think I've finally figured out what, in fact, is giving.

I created the world that houses Deneroth and the ITU as a home for my own very, very, very modestly different take on orcs, goblins, and hobgoblins. That was the impetus for starting all of it. My first-ever post about the Fokari was meant to get the ball rolling on that. But of course you don't see any of that in the full scope of my ITU posts. Even the Fokari are just a blip on the radar compared to my lengthy and scattered writeups on life in the safely generic Ersuunian Basin (assuming Iron Age societies with 20th century social sciences still count as generic). Because every time I leaned toward writing about those cultures directly, I felt the need to justify their existence first, by creating the world around them, and then finally, hopefully placing them in the perfectly humanoid-shaped hole that would be leftover.

Basically, I fell into the trap of writing what I felt I needed to write in order to set things up, before I could get around to writing what I had wanted to. A slow accumulation of layers of stuff to get ready for the even slower peeling-back of those layers, so that I could ultimately reveal the thing I had in mind when I started my blog one summer during college.

That's a totally valid strategy for writing fiction and it can lead to a really good payoff, don't get me wrong. But I was just doing mundane, unclever worldbuilding in order to get around to the slightly less mundane and unclever worldbuilding, and at the pace I write stuff it was going nowhere fast.

It was very fatiguing, and it felt pointless sometimes, but the compulsion returned every time I returned to the ITU. Even after I took a long break to do cringy audio logs, or to write more TTRPG-related stuff and accidentally become a member of the artpunk OSR blogosphere.

A visual map of OSR blog links, traffic, and interconnections aggregated through Discord.
Somehow I wound up visible on it. I don't know who the original creator is.

Now that I've identified the issue, it's probably good to work on it. That's what my therapist usually said to do, anyway. And I think there's some old self-help saying about writing a thing down to make yourself more likely to do it?

I've decided to give ITU something in between a soft reboot and a time skip.

RBL will still be my vehicle for most of it, and pretty much everything he's touched on remains canon. But rather than writing about his subjects from a great distance of time or space like the armchair scholars he so despises, he'll be far more mobile, and focused on bringing other voices to the fore. He'll come out the gate doing what I was inching toward with my aborted Looking Southward and Backward travelogue all those years ago.

I don't want him to be like one of those YouTube personalities who give a shallow and sensationalized account of whatever "exotic" historical or geographic topic they're covering- we have enough of those in real life. Hopefully he never actually came across that way to any of you readers. But even if he didn't, this change will help me quell that minor, personal quibble about him that I've had since I started meditating on all this.

The biggest mechanical change will be that the average post reads less like a micro-article and more like an interview transcript. I wouldn't dream of getting rid of the margin notes and fictional citations, so those will reappear in some form too. The posts will also just be longer in general, both as a natural outgrowth of my increased comfort with rambling since the beginning of my blog, and as a way to cut down on the overlapping multipart numbered series that wore me down the first time around.

So, yeah. I hope to start work on ITU posts again soon, and have one out for you to read within the next few [units of time of your choosing]. I hope this little aside made sense, and I hope we both enjoy it again.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

The Falling City

"The Falling City" is just one of several descriptive exonyms used by travelers and scholars. Others include Fallingrock, The Howling City, The Agglomerate, The Boulder, The Pebble, etc. None of them are especially clever, but all are true in part. For what it's worth, the city's denizens (commonly dubbed "fallers") merely call it "home", or "The City" at most.

The aforementioned rock is a collection of natural stone and mortal-made debris several kilomiles in diameter. It is approximately bullet-shaped, with a flattened top and tapering bottom. The "city" portion of the Falling City is located on the flattened top. The whole thing is held together by a small well of artificial gravity constantly maintained by the city's magic-users.

Without that, the City would be torn apart as it falls through the Chasm.

The Chasm is several times wider than the City, and by most accounts infinite in height. Most of the time it resembles an approximately circular rock tunnel, but it is known to deform into more jagged or esoteric shapes and materials at times. Rarely, it will widen out into massive vaults that offer strange and alien vistas before inevitably tapering back inward. Dim, ambient light comparable to an overcast day seems to suffuse the whole Chasm without source- nothing outside of the City casts a shadow.

It is unknown what, if anything created the Chasm, or if it even exists in a conventional sense.

The City perpetually falls through the Chasm at several times the terminal velocity it should be- what limited observations that can be made from the City suggest that its underside glows orange-hot from friction. The same blanket of spells that keeps the rock together also keeps a breathable atmosphere on top of the city, though the bubble is not thick enough to block out the low, constant howling of the wind whipping past the edges of the rock. Toward the middle of the rock it's little more than background static like any city has.

Under ideal conditions the City is stable and centered in the Chasm with no wobble, tilt, or rotation to its fall. As gashes and scrapes along the rock's flanks can attest, ideal conditions are not always met. Course correction requires immediate and immense effort on the part of all able spellcasters lest the City be dashed to pieces.

There is no way in or out of the Chasm—and by extension, the Falling City—except by way of teleportation spells (oftentimes a misfiring one, at that). The fact that it doesn't seem to connect to any other plane in the multiverse supports the argument that it is its own self-contained demiplane. Where on the "map" that is, is a mystery.

How it remained unknown by the larger multiversal community up until fairly recently suggests that the plane was either created recently, or is just very well hidden. This is reinforced by the fact that divine magic tends to fizzle out in the City- not even the gods seem to know where it is. Meanwhile, arcane and primal magic work more-or-less normally.

The citizens of the Falling City maintain that the City has been around for millennia at least, epochs at most.

Every neighborhood seems to have a different origin story for the City and the Chasm, influenced by local culture and history. Some believe that both have existed since before the dawn of time, and will continue to exist after all else has ended. Others maintain a small hero-cult dedicated to the original mages and geotheurges who either created the City and the Chasm or transported the City into the Chasm in order to save it from some impending disaster. Evidence for each is murky enough that many choose to believe whichever they fancy.

A Few Other City/Chasm Theories Include:

  • The Chasm is the intestine of a Cosmic Earthworm that devoured the City's world long ago. The day is eagerly awaited when the Worm excretes the City onto a paradise built on solid ground and/or midnight soil.
  • The Chasm is a very long circular loop that the City flies laps through. Glowing magical beacons are fired into the Chasm walls at intervals in the belief that someday the City will pass them by again and prove the theory true.
  • The City is the leftover pocket domain of a dead and forgotten god. The citizens are fated to reincarnate within it for all eternity until they achieve moksha.
  • The Chasm is actually an illusion projected around the perfectly ordinary City to keep its limits and its denizens imprisoned. Their jailors are an omniscient, vaguely malign conspiracy of NIMBY wizards and disgruntled suburban planners.
  • The Chasm is actually a one-dimensional string in the process of propagating itself into empty space to form a brand new universe, and the City is a proto-particle that will help form new matter there. There's more to the theory than that, but most people mentally check out here.
  • The City isn't falling down through the Chasm, the Chasm is flying up around the City, maaan.
  • The Chasm is not infinite in length at all, and in fact its end is coming up very, very soon.
  • Everyone in the City knows its history and the nature of the Chasm exactly, but refuse to give any details to outsiders because the mystique attracts tourists.
  • Once there were many cities and other islands of life falling through the Chasm. Now only the one City remains, and the council knows why.
  • All of these questions and more could be answered if one were to just ask the secretive natives hiding in the Chasm wall.
  • The City was once a piece of masonry connected to a "Bridge" before it broke off and slipped into the "Under". Whatever that means.

Whatever its origins or nature, the Falling City is surprisingly accommodating despite its eminently hostile locale. It is arranged in a roughly circular plan with a combination of wide-open common spaces and narrow streets with efficiently stacked buildings. Being unable to build outward, the city builds vertically to account for the slow upward crawl of its population, which is no more than a few thousand. High-rise buildings are cheap, but soundproofing them against the constant howl of the Chasm is not.

The city is divided up into a half-dozen districts, each of which has a seat on the council that gives the city its veneer of government. Since most citizens of the Falling City have at least enough magical talent to create matter from thin air and live self-sufficiently, there are few limited resources for a central government to justify itself by consolidating and (mis)managing. The council mainly exists to organize the will of its citizens to prevent or repair damage to the city, treat with visiting outsiders, and pass judgement on criminals.

There are two punishments used in the Falling City; community service, which is used for the vast majority of offenses and ranges greatly in length according to severity, and Unfettering.

Unfettering is quite simple: a group of the city's most talented mages stand in a circle around the condemned in an open space. The mages suppress the city's magical anchoring effect around the individual for several seconds; the individual then proceeds to exit the city limits in a very expedited fashion. A cleanup crew is typically kept on-hand, on the off-chance that anything is left of them afterward.

Unfettering is exceedingly rare, fortunately. It is meted out only by council consensus when an offender has been found guilty of premeditating grievous harm upon their fellow citizens, or threatening the integrity of the entire city- practically speaking, both charges are one and the same. No one has been intentionally ragdolled to bits upon the skyline in decades, and no outsider has ever been judged so, no matter how clueless or rude they can be.

And there have been many outsiders in the Falling City, ever since access was first accidentally gained during the Conjuration Crisis of █████████. Visitors are frequent, though few mortals stay long enough to acclimate to the extra atmospheres of pressure and the complete lack of a day-night cycle. The city tolerates these planar tourists and enjoys their business for the time being, so long as they can pay in magical curiosities not available in the Chasm.

Natives of the City don't much care to leave their home, meanwhile. They may visit other worlds and planes, but to date no fallers have voluntarily moved out of the City. It might be just a hunk of rock screaming through the abyss, but isn't that most people's homes at the end of the day?

Thanks to many tourists, a handy list of interesting places and sites to visit in the Falling City has been compiled. It is always expanding or shrinking according to whim. The current interesting sites include but are not limited to...

Visitor Center: An ornate, almost garishly decorated building quite at odds with its neighbors, located centrally in the City in order to attract even the shortest of adventurer attention spans. It is what the sign says in a dozen-and-a-half languages (the length of which is growing every week); City Visiting Center: Planar Visitors Please Register Within! Within, a large lobby plays host to staff offering local resources to outsiders or educating them on the finer points of city law and culture. A small group of abjuration and conjuration specialists nicknamed the Shunters also stands by to protect citizens and visitors both from any hazards of planar travel. They're the closest thing to cops the Falling City will tolerate having.

City Hall: Unlike the Visitor's Center, most outsiders can't find this place for the life of them without direction, and some citizens are even prone to forgetting its location. Not because it's hidden in any way, but because of how utterly unremarkable the building is. Only the crowd that gathers outside of it in anticipation of important or potentially amusing meetings is any indication that this is the seat of government in the Falling City.

Tiriyab's Twirls: An experimental entertainment house that operates within a warded zone of partially weakened tethering. This allows anyone inside to move around in a low- or even zero-gravity environment. Games, performances, and drinking abound. The different open-air levels of the establishment are serviced by "twirls", rotating rings that function like lifts or conveyor belts. All of this is overseen by the eponymous Tiriyab, who is otherwise known for perfecting (and closely guarding the secret to) an at-will short-range teleportation spell which they use to navigate their business quickly. A recent arrival in the city, a former contortionist and thief-acrobat, seeks to earn permanent residence and work as a performer under Tiriyab (and perhaps also steal the spell).

The Spiral: An access tunnel that winds down into the rock from the surface like a massive corkscrew. It houses a modest undercity that mainly services the ever-rotating staff of magic-users tasked with maintaining the integrity of the rock by channeling power straight into its floors and walls. It's also a pleasant little getaway from the (admittedly already pretty subdued) hustle and bustle of the city's surface. The tunnel supposedly goes all the way down to the "tip" of the rock, but the temperature is so high down there that none but the most skilled magic-users ever visit, and even then it's only to make sure nothing is melting or harboring unexpected trouble.

Beloveds' Embrace: One of the small shrines dedicated to honoring some of the hypothesized founders of the Falling City; in this instance, the magical power couple known as Quy & Hnah. As the legend goes, when the arcanist and the geomancer married, they also wedded their arcane and earth magic together. This formed a potent mix that allowed them to raise and build whole continents in the mythic time before the Chasm, and ultimately led to the founding of the City. The shrine's votaries keep an extensive canon of Quy & Hnah's adventures for the public, mostly told in the form of parables on ethics, magical practice, and healthy partnerships. The shrine gets slightly more traffic than normal these days, after a popular albeit shallow and trend-chasing travelogue author mistakenly identified Quy & Hnah as the gods of the Falling City. Visitors typically leave the quaint little street-side alcove feeling slightly underwhelmed. A visiting cleric—exceptionally rare in the void of divine energy that is the Falling City—has recently arrived on what they claim is a sacred mission to preach about Quy & Hnah abroad. The shrine keepers are... perplexed by this.

"Wobblespike": A tower that has the dubious honor of being the tallest point in the City. Gravity is weaker and the atmosphere is thinner here. Unique within the Falling City's architecture, it is made primarily of metal. This allows the tower to bend slightly with the windy Chasm turbulence it is exposed to, rather than just breaking apart. Hence the somewhat silly nickname. The lower levels see small amounts of mixed use, while the top only ever has a motley assortment of researchers and/or diviners trying to learn more about the Chasm from that vantage point. An air elemental in a copper suit has recently taken up temporary residence on the roof, where they "record" the wind with the aid of a strange metal rod.

The Antiquarium: A shop that began as a modest establishment for hobbyists who collected and traded interesting minor magical items. Since the arrival of the first planar visitors, it has become a growing hub of people seeking grander and less cozy acquisitions. Up to this point all dealings and visitors have been peaceful, but the neighborhood around the Antiquarium grows antsy about the increasing numbers of traditional enemies and opposingly aligned outsiders, not to mention all the magic weapons and dangerous wands. The matter—as well as whether or not to post a few Shunters in the area— is soon to be brought to the City Council.

How Disenchanting: Much like the Antiquarium, this place unexpectedly earned a whole new life as more planar travelers trickled in. What began as a municipal box with a slot on the front for recycling magical junk has evolved into a thriving city-owned business. Adventurers, it turns out, tend to hoard literal tons of stuff in those Bags of Holding and Portable Holes of theirs. Many of them will gladly pay a small processing fee to have their old magic items broken down into raw magical extract, useful for spell components or item creation. The Falling City keeps a percentage too, of course.

The Meander: Vegetation and "wildlife" are present all throughout the Falling City, in private gardens and on more hospitable streets. But to get a taste of true envelopment in nature, most fallers take a stroll through this large park and garden. Named for its winding pathways, this park holds several plant and animal species unknown elsewhere in the multiverse, lit up and sustained by small artificial suns that lazily float through the groves. Since they can't survive in the Chasm, scholars theorize that they were originally taken from another world that has since been destroyed, or perhaps they were bred from wizard experiments like so many other monstrosities. A druid(?) who calls themself the High Orinthologue is squatting studying the local bird genera here.

The Scrape: Once upon a time during a particularly deadlocked and petty disagreement between districts, the City drifted slightly off course and struck an unexpectedly large protuberance from the Chasm wall. It cleaved off a chunk of the City's rim, taking streets and city blocks as well as all their occupants with it. It was the largest disaster ever recorded in the history of the Falling City. The site has since been reinforced to prevent erosion, but much of the visible damage has not been touched since that day. This shell of a neighborhood long-gone has had a memorial statue installed on its outskirts as a reminder of what can happen when the survival of the City is taken for granted.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

GLOG Class: Rambler

The freedom to roam. Everyman's Right. "Trespassing". Whatever they call it, you live by it. Some call you a hopeless romantic. As far as you're concerned, you've worn through enough pairs of shoes to earn that right. You've been to distant lands and seen wonderous things, but you're not some explorer with grand ambitions. Sure, you might fight to keep the world free and sacrosanct. But you also wander just for wandering's sake, content to exist.


Rambler

Starting Equipment: walking stick, weather-beaten coat or cloak and distinctive hat or scarf, pipe (for playing or for smoking), a brick.
Starting Skills: Foreign Parts, Wilderness. Also, roll on adjacent table.

A: Irrepressible Spirit
B: Friends in Far Places
C: Through Bramble, Over Hedge
D: Unfettered Vagabond

You gain +1 Movement and -1 Reaction Rolls against authorities and private land owners for each Rambler template you have.

A: Irrepressible Spirit
Years of traveling light over any terrain in any sort of weather have inured you to the mundane discomforts of life, leaving you implacable and serene even when you have nothing to your name but the experience of being alive. 

You can travel 3 hexes in a day while still benefitting from rest and having lunch. You also have +1 bonus to Save vs Fear and other negative emotions for every empty Inventory Slot you currently have.

B: Friends in Far Places
Wherever you go, you dispel the myths and negative stereotypes ascribed to vagrancy with friendliness and cleverness in equal measure. Most find you peculiar, some find you charming, but few can bear you ill will (or chase you down before you've moved on).

Once per day you can reroll the Reaction of peasants, villagers, or other ordinary folk to you (and your party, if you so choose) and take the better result. No matter where in the world you are, there's a 50% you know a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend in the nearest town or homestead who will let you stay the night.

C: Through Bramble, Over Hedge
Either thanks to years of rambling, or that one time you had a lovely spot of afternoon tea with a hedge witch, the land just doesn't try to inconvenience you very much. Rough terrain never slows you down, nonmagical thorns and briars don't hurt you, and once per day you can magically pass through any fence, hedge, or similar barrier.

D: Unfettered Vagabond
No man can keep you down- certainly not The Man. The land and its peoples should be free, no matter what arbitrary laws or lines on maps say. Once per day you can break any lock, chain, pen, cage, or other restraint that is keeping you or another creature wrongfully imprisoned.*
* Of course, all imprisonment is wrongful to you.


1d6

Rambler Skills

1

Everywhere you go, you take mementos of things you've seen and friends you've made. Gain a sentimental scrapbook and an aching nostalgia for a place you know you'll never return to.

2

You once did a brief stint in an anarcho-syndicalist union. Gain a random set of specialty tools and a pamphlet on wage slavery.

3

Surviving miles of trackless steppe or desert has left you well-preserved against dehydration. You need to drink half as much water.

4

You frequent colder, less pastoral climes than most ramblers. Gain a set of winter clothes and a bivouac sack.

5

That hedge witch really did take a shine to you. Gain a potion of antitoxin (lumpy and foul-tasting) and a dogeared copy of Dear Goody Mooncup.

6

Try as you might to avoid them, your many run-ins with guards and other authorities have left you well-versed in criminal procedure. Gain the "Law" skill and a wanted poster bearing your likeness (poorly drawn).


If you're basically playing Snufkin, you're doing it right.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Detritus

(I recently learned about the concept of "depletion dice" mechanics and decided to graft it onto an older idea I had. You'll probably see a lot of similarities between this quick draft and my Desolate Days post, another single(ish) page RPG, though I think Detritus distinguishes itself enough in tone to have the right to exist. You could also probably use this as the chassis for a Crypt-Cities game, too. Just swap constructs for corpses.)
FF1 Guardian by Yoshitaka Amano

Detritus is a game about loss. Not loss in the sense of just going along, making progress until you inevitably face something too great for you, or luck ceases to go your way- though that may also be the case.

Loss in the sense of constant, incremental decline. You do not level up in Detritus, you level down. Tools break as easily as your body. Wear, tear, and time force painful decisions on you, and the best you can do is cut your losses for the moment. You may get frustrated, or you may enjoy the challenge- both feelings are irrelevant. All is fleeting, soon to be dust.

In Detritus you play as a simulacrum cobbled together from scrap and garbage and endowed/burdened with a semblance of life. You are of approximately humanoid shape, lopsided and misproportioned. Your creators, and the means by which they created and repaired you, are long-lost.

You “live” on borrowed time as stone crumbles, wood splinters, and the gears in your head rust. You are soon to be nothing, and you have nothing except for one last order screaming over and over on a fraying ribbon inside your brain as you wander a dead, ruined world:

F̶̦͛Ḯ̴̦Ṉ̸͑D̵͇͝ ̸̯̐T̶̫͋H̴͙̉E̴͍̐ ̴͔͝A̵̩͘Ǹ̷͖T̵̤̈́I̷̪̍-̴͎̒T̷̯͆Ȍ̶̧Ŵ̶̤E̵̗̚R̷͙̈́

T̴̻̏U̶̫̾R̵̪̉N̷̛͔ ̶̉ͅŤ̷̞H̷̭̔E̵̪͗ ̶̤̒K̵̰̊Ě̷͔Y̴̹̅

Making sense of this agonizing geas, to say nothing of actually achieving it, presents you with an insurmountable task: survive in this world that is fast rejecting your existence. Brave continent-blotting sandstorms, plumb the hollowed-out shell of the planet, climb the shattered heights of the tetrahedral sky, all without your (mal?)functioning kin stripping you down for parts.


Simulacra have the stats Force, Finesse, and Focus.

  • Force holds things together or tears them apart.
  • Finesse navigates fragile things and deadly places.
  • Focus maintains your fraying mind and senses.

Assign d12, d10, and d8 to your stats. Smaller dice are worse. Everything will weaken and crumble.

Only roll dice when you want to do something and there is serious risk and meaningful consequence for failure, or when the world or its denizens have thrown something harmful at you. Roll the most relevant stat's die and test against the risk's Target Number, which can be anything from 2 up to ~14.

Roll sparingly and reluctantly, but remember that you will inevitably fail.

Roll at or above a target number to succeed or avoid harm. Rolling below the target number is a failure, and causes Breakage. Rolling a 1 is a critical failure, and causes double Breakage. Rolling the max number on a die is always a critical success regardless of Target Number, but also causes Breakage.

Breakage is the wear and tear on your body made manifest. When you suffer Breakage, reduce the rolled stat by 1 die size: d12 becomes d10, d10 becomes d8, etc. If you suffer double Breakage from a Natural 1, you reduce the die size by 2 steps. This reduction is permanent. Stats can break all the way down to d2. When a d2 stat is tested and breaks, your simulacrum breaks down into the Wreck it was always destined to be. When all simulacra wreck, the game ends.

You can stave off Breakage by using Tools, and Cannibalizing.

Tools are leftover machines, devices, and aids that can be scavenged from the dead world around you. If you're lucky, they make up for the resources you expend trying to get them. Tools come in d2 and d4 sizes and have an associated stat. You can choose to roll 1 Tool die alongside a stat and add the results together before determining if it succeeds or fails. Rolling the maximum number on a tool die is not an automatic success, but it does still break. Each simulacrum can carry up to 3 Tools each.

There's a rumor/theory/lie that better, less worn-out tools of d6 or even bigger size are somewhere out there, hidden by the Makers.

Cannibalizing is a bit like scavenging for Tools, except the heaps of rubble you rifle through are your fellow mismade simulacra. When another character (whether PC or NPC) is wrecked, you can harvest their body for repairs, spare parts, and the rare upgrade. Cannibalizing allows you to replace 1 or 2 of your stat dice with the dice your target had at the time of death, excluding the broken stat. Replaced dice must share the same stat; you can't replace your d6 Finesse with a d12 taken from a wreck's Force, for example.

You will probably happen upon the wrecks of your previous player characters and their Tools while on subsequent excursions, and should take advantage of any you find. Incremental progress measured in dust and failure.

At the end of every session (or with each major milestone reached), every simulacrum takes 1 step of Breakage in every stat from the inexorable passage of time, unless that would drop a stat below d2- that thread will break when its time comes.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Crypt-Cities: Rot Blossom Beds

(I hadn't given my Crypt-Cities mini-setting much thought for over a year now. But somewhere during the lurid dream-quest that has been my first Elden Ring playthrough, I came across these guys.

Trying not to spoil much, they are undead guardians brought back to life by the miniature trees sticking out of their backs. Some are bare or budding, others are blooming, still others are suffering a fungal infection.

How could I not go back and write something similar up for CCs?)

Rot Blossom Beds

Ahh, here we are. Look upon this mound of rot and despair, all ye wretched Awakened.

This is the fate that awaits anyone who doesn't take the time to check their scabrous hides for sprouts at the end of the day. All that struggle, all that toil, all that Need doesn't amount to anything if you become just another mindless seedbed.

Fortunately for our demonstrational purposes, this poor wretch was taken by a less virulent strain of Rot Blossom. They're still doomed, make no mistake, but it affords us an opportunity to study it closer without fear of any of you lot succumbing- probably.

See here how the biggest growth erupts from between the shoulders- rot blossoms especially favor the spinal column as a pathway through the body when taking root. If this specimen was given the time to, it's likely it would grow into a hideously beautiful tree that would then spread its seeds all across the wastes, catching more Awakened and perpetuating the cycle.

It's almost enough to make you want to burn it, isn't it?

Of course that will only make things worse- for you, for the host, and for countless other Awakened. Instead, your best course of action will be to cut it down to size and then bury everything in pieces somewhere even more inhospitable than the rest of the wastes- a salt flat is ideal. Yes, you're damning your fellow to an eternity as an immobile salt mummy, but you'll be saving everyone else. Easy decisions do not await you in this unlife, Awakened.

See how the roots weave their way all along the body, even worming their way in under its death mask.  This allows it locomotion even after a point where the host's independent motor functions have long since ceased. The body is just another organ now, granting the plant the ability to move and see. The union is rarely perfect, and it can sometimes take seconds for stimuli to travel from one half to the other- that is what gives the rot-bedded their characteristic shamble; the thing so many of the Living characterize all of you having by default. It may be that these poor wretches originated that stereotype, but don't bear them any ill will for it if you can help it.

We may as well get this next part over with and show you lot how to neutralize them.

See how the body twitches and slowly gathers itself up as another creature approaches it. See the clumsy yet deliberate swivel as it tries to locate and react to this new threat.

See how it... waves its hand and clears its throat?

And... politely introduces itself?

What?


Not Just Fertilizer

It is difficult to call you "one of the lucky ones". You are an Awakened, after all. But considering the worse fate you should have suffered given the situation, it's safe to say you skirted another abyss. And look at you now; you've got a friend.

A less parasitic kind of rot blossom has taken root in your body. In fact, its relationship to you verges on symbiotic. You grant it life through your unfathomable biology, and in return it offers up its grim bounty. Perhaps it is a long-lost strain, or a more recent mutation. It may resemble a small flowerbed, a half-dead shrub, a tangle of vines, or even a gnarled sapling. Coloration ranges from matte and bland to eye-wateringly bright and lurid; texture from glassy smoothness to shredding thorns.

You resemble a Holt-Dweller whose mask has gone horribly awry, and among the unlearned you may even pass as one. But any Awakened worth heir smoke knows what you are, and will probably scorn you as such.

The plant will cause irreparable damage to your body if you try to remove it in its entirety, but you can prune it or keep it trimmed. Virtually every blossom bed that manages to keep the company of other Awakened will obsessively dispose of any fruit, seed pods, spore clusters, etc. before they can mature. Of course then you are left with company that is afraid of neither infestation nor immolation- a mad bunch indeed.

As alluded to, you can also use the 'bounty' of this bleak passenger to your own advantage. Branches can be cut and shaped into tools. Leaves can be harvested for their chemical properties. A seed can be used to hold yourself and anyone else in range of you hostage in a high-stakes situation. Your options are limited only by your imagination and recklessness.

You also benefit from something else. Something... disquieting to think about. You don't feel the Need quite as strongly as your fellows. The agonizing geas to throw yourself into a cozy little coffin in a crypt-city somewhere certainly still exists, but it doesn't have quite the same edge that drives others mad. This allows you to willingly travel farther afield of your final destination, opening up more opportunities to find resources and dangers out on the wastes.

But why exactly is the Need weaker in you?

Is it the rot blossom? Does it shield you from it?

Or is it feeding you a conflicting urge so subtle that you can't even perceive it?

And if so, where would it lead you?

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Goats & Gobs

Take a second to forget about all the animals you've seen domesticated (or not-so-domesticated) and ridden by goblins in the past. Forget about wargs. Forget ponies, or bats, or rat-dogs, or squigs, or llamas.

Well, okay, just put a pin in llamas for now- those are worth coming back to later.

But forget all of that, and for a moment consider instead: goats.

MTG Goblin Cavaliers by DiTerlizzi

The combination might not be obvious, but there are some strong reasons why goblins and goats should have a high affinity for one another.

For starters, they can both live off of almost unthinkable diets. While the belief that goats will gladly munch down on cardboard or tin cans is a myth propagated by their curious foraging nature, goats still eat a wide range of plant matter. Some of what they like to eat the most is actually toxic to most other living things- goblins included. 

Goblins, meanwhile, can and will devour that old leather belt or that dead sparrow if they aren't confident that another, better food source will be readily available in the near future. And even if there is, the goblin will probably take the bird or belt along anyway so that it can be pickled or fermented for later. Don't mistake that for simplemindedness or gluttony, however- it's thanks to a digestive tract evolved for a nutrient-scarce environment, coupled with an instinctive sensitivity to the risk of famine. They never did learn to stomach most leaves or grass, though.

Because of these broad diets, goblins and goats can coexist and eat what the other won't eat without having to compete for the same food sources. This efficiency is a double-edged sword in large numbers. While the jury is still out on whether goats are scientifically proven to cause habitat collapse via soil erosion or they actually help revitalize certain ecosystems, the sheer number of empty stomachs that a mass of goblins and goats brings with it is a problem alone.

For that reason, the hybrid herds are hyper-nomadic, moving almost daily within the environments allowed by their particular species of goat rather than settling in an area for weeks or months at a time like normal. To linger on any longer would strip the land bare and leave nothing to return to in their nebulous conception of the far future known as the Next Time. It must be acknowledged that, in emergency circumstances, a group of goblins can probably just eat the goats- assuming the goats' hooves and/or horns don't have anything to say on the matter. But more often than not they stick to their itinerancy, seeing little reason to try and kill their neighbors.

And it is that distinction—that they are neighbors—which defines the rest of the coexistence between these species. The goats are not so much domesticated as they are accustomed to bearing the gangling little green things that help them fend off their predators. The goblins are not so much herding the goats as they are fitting themselves into a larger herd and finding their niche- something they are apt to do everywhere else, so why not here?

Another cause for their uncommon kinship is how the rest of the world views them. Big folk tend to treat goblins and goats as inherently silly and bizarre creatures, and make them the butt of jokes and folklore when they aren't making them out to be the embodiments of pure evil. It's a wonder there aren't a bunch of them leaping across the pages of illuminated medieval manuscripts together, right in between the monopods and the killer snails. Commonality of adversity can go a long way.

Goblins and goats are also just generally fond of one another. They don't mind the other's odd smells or habits. Kids and whelps get along surprisingly well around nannies or aunties. And unlike most other humanoid species, the majority of goblins find the rectangular-pupiled eyes of a goat incredibly comforting and relaxing to gaze into. Goat eyes have taken on an apotropaic quality among some tribes, acting like an inverse of the more well-known Evil Eye. They appear often in decorative motifs and protective amulets, sometimes made using actual preserved eyes from the herd's most respected old goats.

Some of these goat-eye talismans even find their way into outsiders' hands through trade, alongside dung (sold either as fuel or fertilizer), homespun goat wool articles, and the (in)famous cheeses and beverages that goblins make from goat milk. There are more points of contact between the herds and other groups than being shooed off of someone's property, after all. Gob-goat herds will even hire themselves out to big folk as professional lawnmowers and conservation grazers on occasion.

And lest we forget, goat riders can be some of the most deadly annoying riders in the world, considering most defenses against cavalry don't take into account the ability to climb 95° inclines or leap 3 meters across from a standstill.


D&D 5E Character Background: Gob-Goat Herder


You are a child of the gob-goat herds, forever wandering the margins of the world in all their bleating majesty. Your scruffy ways belie a globetrotter's wisdom and a cosmopolitan outlook. You've seen trackless wilderness, distant bazaars, and a dozen terrors that would have devoured you if not for your goat's quick hooves. With naught but a good saddle and better cheese, you are eager to face anything and bring back stories Next Time you're passing through.

Skill Proficiencies: Animal Handling, Survival
Tool Proficiencies: One type of artisan's tools or musical instrument, either particular to your herd or something completely incongruous that you picked up on a whim at a market somewhere
Languages: One of your choice from the myriad of cultures you've encountered 
Equipment: Shepherd's utility crook, your favorite old saddle (goat-sized), a rectangular eye amulet, a set of traveler's clothes, and a belt pouch containing 10 "squeaky stones" (extra-preserved goat cheese curds usable as 10 rations or 10 pieces of sling ammunition)

Features


Herd Role

Most goblins in a gob-goat herd can do most things, but every once in a while someone takes an extra bright shine to one profession or the other. Consider the ways you perform your role different from anyone else, or how you've picked up new tricks during your travels. You may roll on the following table to determine your profession during your time with the herd, or choose one that best fits your character.

d10

Herd Role

1

Cheese-maker

2

Dung-shoveler

3

Scout

4

Wrangler

5

Eyesmith

6

Milkgob

7

Kid-minder

8

Shearer

9

Storyteller

10

Peddler


Hard Living

Your knowledge of ancient goat-lore ensures that you are never without a caprine companion. In the woeful event that you are without a goat, you can spend 1 hour scouring the wilds for a feral goat, even in places where goats are not native. You still have to befriend the goat yourself.

In addition, you can find food and fresh water for yourself and your goat each day, even in places where the land shouldn't be able to provide that much sustenance.

Suggested Characteristics

It's a rough, wild life out on the edges. But you learned more than just wiliness or plucky determination from it. The herd is shaped by the peoples and places it interacts with, and you are no different.

Personality Traits

d6

Personality Trait

1

I normally speak in an idiosyncratic pidgin of a dozen different languages plus goat noises that I've developed over the years.

2

I have a soft spot for herd and draft animals of all sorts, and I usually carry a bag of treats for whenever I come across them.

3

Working hard so you can play hard later is for fools- just do both at the same time!

4

Big folk have done terrible things to goblins and unspeakable things to goats. I am always on guard around them.

5

Even if I don't believe in them, I collect symbols of lots of different gods, spirits, and faiths as good luck charms on my travels.

6

I always try to relate the ways of the world and the behaviors of outsiders to the internal dynamics of a goat herd as a way to understand them.


Ideals

d6

Ideal

1

Coexistence. Let us share the lessons we’ve learned out on the margins, to help build a more accepting future. (Good)

2

Herd Mentality. We stay out of trouble by sticking together and keeping our heads down. (Lawful)

3

Whimsy. I bet this would go great with some fermented nanny’s milk…! (Chaotic)

4

Despoliation. Why shouldn’t we smash and reave and go as we please? Let them try to catch us. (Evil)

5

Survival. I’m hungry, and I don’t know how to eat philosophy- yet. (Neutral)

6

Curiosity. Ooh, I wonder what’s over that hill? (Any)


Bonds

d6

Bond

1

My mount is my best friend and my living, breathing, bleating connection to my herd even when we are far apart.

2

Strangers are just friends I haven’t met yet, and hospitality is sacred to my people.

3

The herd once paced through a special, transformative place that I have held as sacred ever since, and I will return to it someday.

4

Despite probably being younger than all of them, I view the outsiders I travel with as bounding baby goats in need of a nanny to guide them.

5

I carry a precious keepsake I accidentally "borrowed" long ago, and have vowed to give it back Next Time.

6

I draw a goat eye on everything for protection, and to keep my herd's tradition alive.


Flaws

d6

Flaw

1

I get anxious and stir-crazy if I stay in one place for too long. “Too long” can be several days, or it can be several seconds.

2

I balk at concepts like borders or private land ownership- the world is free for all to graze in common! … Landlords and town guards don’t ever seem to agree, though.

3

I spent too much time watching the billies butt heads growing up, and I can come across as rough and aggressive when I don’t mean to be.

4

I often forget that other people didn’t grow up in a herd, and this usually ends in embarrassing situations- for everyone else.

5

I am curious about the places I visit- incessantly, vocally curious, much to the dismay of whomever I choose to ask questions of.

6

I consider bathing to be a silly affectation, and a senseless waste of precious drinking water besides. No one will convince me otherwise.


Friday, January 28, 2022

The Scrap Goblin

Goblin by Eoghan Kerrigan

After the last frantic bustle of Narblesnard and other end-of-year holidays gives way to the slow, cold quiet of winter, goblin whelps are taught to attune their prodigious ears to the sounds of nature. They listen to the lilting wind, the crackling frost, and the dripping water of icicles and tree boughs soaked black. They listen for warning of any squirrels stirring early. But above all, they listen in rapt anticipation for any hint of the Scrap Goblin swooping down on the wind or creeping over the mud.

I won't dress the topic up in layers of mystery this time. The Scrap Goblin delivers gifts to children– specifically the gifts that they cobbled together out of what most people would consider junk. From figurines whittled out of a splintered 2x4, to musical instruments made of tin cans and spare change, to stuffed animals reborn from an old pillowcase, the Scrap Goblin's presents are as varied and clever as they are outwardly "quaint".

The Scrap Goblin is not any single, clear-cut figure in folklore. Rather, they are a nebulous concept with no set age, appearance, gender, or canon of stories. And while they are generally celebrated at around the same time every year, not even their holiday has a set date. We all grow up knowing a different Scrap Goblin. We are all left waiting and wondering at what they'll bring for us this winter, while our parents quietly stitch sackcloth together in the backroom.

But this isn't an anthropological deep-dive into mythology, and I wouldn't get very far by trying to make it one. I'm not going to share everything that the Scrap Goblin can be.

Instead, I'm going to share what they are to me.

My Scrap Goblin was always the sweetly sardonic sort. He was aware of the evil of the world, and tired beyond his years for it. But he shared it in a gentle, nurturing way through jokes and little lessons that helped prepare you for it. He loved to carve wood, and favorite among my gifts from him were a toy sword, and a hobbyhorse that I could barely drag across the floor when I was younger. He was also left-handed, giving me a much-needed role model at a time when I couldn't even operate scissors without hurting myself, and when my only other hero to look to was the blond not-elf on a friend's Nintendo 64.

He had a sad and bare childhood that he didn't want others to experience.

And in retrospect, he had a bit of a horrifying apotheosis. But we'll get to that.

The Scrap Goblin was once a fairly ordinary goblin. He came from a big family in a bigger community where most of what you did, you did with a dozen other people involved or milling around close by. They were poor, but compassionate; hardworking, but not stupid. The stories didn't push some blas̩ narrative about the indomitable spirit of the idyllic poorРthey knew the how and the why behind their position in the world. But that's a struggle for another story.

The Scrap Goblin enjoyed being around others, and often looked after his gaggle of little niblings. But he also liked to go out on his own and scavenge around the edges of the woods and the big folk towns. He liked to tinker and toil, and create new valuables out of old refuse. And over time, he realized that other goblins liked his creations too.

So he started to give them away. At first it was a random and haphazard thing– a child's toy here, a one-of-a-kind tool there. They were appreciated gifts, but nothing special. But as winter set in, hardship found the town. Sickness and hunger came, followed soon after by the specters of more immediate danger.

The Scrap Goblin's gifts became much-needed distractions, and so his mere hobby became a full-time commitment. As parcels left his little workroom weekly, the scrapheaps shrank and shrank.

But while his trinkets offered momentary respite, they did little to fix the real problems his friends and family were facing. He turned to larger and more ambitious projects to alleviate their suffering, clothing and warming them and propping up the sick. He tore down what little he had in the way of a home and turned it into material. All but the rags on his back became scrap.

He gave, and he gave. Still, it wasn't enough.

And though he had so much giving left to do, he ran out of a medium through which to give.

So he did the only thing he could do, and gave of himself.

His hair kept a balding head warm. His nose went to a little girl who'd gotten hers bitten off by a dog. His vocal cords gave new life to the nurse who sang to his patients, albeit a weak and quavering one. His fingers went to the forest foragers who ran afoul of the squirrels. His feet were fine replacements for the frostbitten, and his legbones a fine crutch made. His eyes he gave to an old couple blinded by cataracts, so they could see their youngest child one last time at his funeral. His skin made swaddling for a newborn.

Bit by bit, he gave everything of himself, until there was no self left to give– just a leftover heart, which mourned that it had never been given to anyone as it laid there on the cold, hard ground.

As the cold deepened and the second, true snow of winter fell upon the heart, his ghost rose up in the steam that billowed off of it.

The cold spoke to him, observing that he had given his heart away a long time ago. On this, the Scrap Goblin reflected, and then hesitantly agreed. It still didn't feel like he had done enough.

It never did, the cold replied. It never would. Not in a hundred lifetimes would he feel that gnawing void filled.

The Scrap Goblin asked the cold if it was willing to bet on that.

Coolly, curiously, veiling its amusement, the cold extended him an offer. Very well– it would sweep him up in its icy winds and take him far away. But when it returned next winter, it would bring him back along with it, so he could toil and make gifts anew. But he would only have until the last of the second snow melted before being taken away to wait and to rue again.

The Scrap Goblin agreed.

His steam was whisked away by the wind then, to be buffeted and torn at until the next year when he was reformed in shape, though not in flesh– while he has new fingers to work with, he will always know the absence of the real ones. With those cold little hands he worked again, turning trash into treasure for those who had so little else.

Every year since, every generation since, he has done this.

Today he serves as an inspiration for us– and as a cautionary tale against going quite as far as he did.

I think about the Scrap Goblin a lot, even when he isn't stalking the junkheaps with cardboard and masking tape in hand. I think about what his stories mean to me, and how often I fail to listen to them.

I think about all the people who have flocked to the aesthetic subculture that bears our name. I don't begrudge them one bit for the creativity and community it provides them, but I'm always a little bemused at their raw enthusiasm for it. We don't love junk and rocks and moss because we're innately funky, chaotic, or anti-capitalist– good praxis though that last one may be. We love them because they give many of us a jolt of nostalgia for our childhoods.

For some of us, we love the Scrap Goblin because scraps are all we ever got.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Masked Ones

Deep in the gnarled old forest, amid the glowing toadstools and the creeping slime molds, thrive wonderfully garish and cacophonous little things.

They are lithe and delicate little creatures, hardly a meter tall and two stones heavy. Each has fine, chitinous limbs peeking out of the ubiquitous, voluminous robes that give their kind an almost rotund and childlike appearance from afar. Their three-clawed hands are oddly shaped and jointed, but equally good for playing flutes as they are for scrabbling up the tree trunks into which they bore their hive-like homes. Their footless, sticklike legs seem like they should hardly keep them upright, yet they move with much grace.

The mischievous among them are known to play tricks on passersby, but most content themselves with their families, music, games, and gardens of bioluminescent mushrooms. They breed and raise many species of symbiotic of insects, favorite among them being giant glowing crickets whom they keep as beloved companions and pets.

When trouble finds them they are most likely to try and diffuse the situation. Failing that, they will misdirect the threat and run away into the forest deeps. But when their hollows are threatened they prove themselves capable with traps, slings, and bolas. Their familiarity with the bugs and critters of the deep woods affords them an impressive armamentarium of weapons, alchemical substances, and even armor made from bits of exoskeleton.

They are known by the outside world as the Masked Ones, for the diverse and colorful masks they all wear- at least, we think those are masks. No one has ever seen one without their mask. It is unclear if they are wood, or porcelain, or something else. Rumors persist that their young hatch with masks already affixed to them- a point at which the distinction between "mask" and "face" becomes moot.

They are no less remarkable, though.

Each Masked One has seemingly unlimited control over their mask, able to change its color, shape, and design on a whim to complement or conceal their moods and actions. Some accentuate the change with a dramatic wave and flourish, while others merely change in the blink of an eye without affectation. Despite their fondness for performing arts, theater does not exist among the Masked Ones per se. Acting, with all its subtleties and theatrics, is just a natural extension of being for them.

One's mask and the way they present it is thus an essential part of their self-expression and identity- so much so that if one's mask is damaged beyond repair, they may face discrimination and exclusion from the crueler elements of their communities.

These sh'khar or "broken" Masked Ones lose the ability to alter their masks without intense conscious effort, greatly reducing their ability to emote meaningfully among other Masked Ones. Some are even treated like they are less than the people they used to be. Of course the person behind that cracked visage is as full and feeling as ever, making the scorn and pity they receive all the more tragic.

Some sh'khar try to compensate for this, increasing the bombast of their voices, gestures, and performances. Others go to great lengths to repair their masks, tracking down rare and expensive resins and the legendary mask-menders who can use them. Still others don't seek to modify themselves at all- they live as best they can, to hell with what others say or think of them.

But a minority most commonly encountered by outsiders will eventually leave the forest entirely, to face the world of the maskless Naked Folk beyond- a place where having only one, more-or-less static face is the norm.

Sh'khar Masked One by Monsieur


Playing Masked Ones in a Few Different Systems, Because Why Not?



GLOG

| Race: Masked One | Reroll: CHA | Bonus: Can change your face at will | Weakness: Cannot change your face or emote at all if your mask has taken any damage |


TROIKA!

Possessions

  • A Musical Instrument of your choice.
  • Jar of Insect Resin.
  • Deep & Raggedy Robes (Light Armour).
  • Pet Glow-Cricket.

Advanced Skills

2 Climbing
1 Disguise
2 Etiquette
3 Perform
2 Sneak

Special

You can completely change the shape and appearance (but not the overall size) of your mask-face at will, potentially enhancing the delivery of performances or allowing you to masquerade as a different Masked One in the eyes of outsiders.


D&D 5E

Ability Score Increase. Your Charisma score increases by 2, and your Dexterity score increases by 1.

Age. Masked Ones age relatively quickly after they hatch. They reach adulthood around age 8, and rarely live longer than 40 years.

Alignment. Masked Ones are mostly neutral. Their fairly isolated society places a strong emphasis on kith and clutch, but also individual expression and whimsy.

Size. Masked Ones average just under 3 feet tall and average about 30 pounds. Your size is Small.

Speed. Your base walking speed is 25 feet.

Darkvision. Accustomed to deep forest hollows and the light of bioluminescent fungus, you have superior vision in dark and dim conditions. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.

Masked. You can change the appearance and shape of your mask at will, as well as the way you emote. You gain proficiency in the Deception skill. You also have advantage on Deception checks to disguise yourself as a different Masked One around non-Masked Ones.

Artistically Inclined. You gain proficiency in one of the following: the Performance skill, artisan's tools of your choice, or a musical instrument of your choice.

Sticky Pads. Your extremities have smooth, adhesive pads that you can use to scale sheer surfaces. You have a climbing speed of 10 feet. You also have advantage on checks to resist being disarmed.

Languages. You can speak, read, and write Common and Masked One. The spoken Masked One language includes many pops, hand gestures, and mask expressions.