Sunday, January 15, 2023

Living & Adventuring in the Earthen Vaults

The Earthen Vaults

The Children of Earth and Stone live in a dozen or so air-filled, cavernous vaults deep below the surface. These vaults lie on top of fault lines connecting to the Elemental Plane of Earth. How close a vault lies to the plane varies, with deeper vaults having a far more primordial nature than those relatively closer to the surface. Some undiscovered vaults are said to lie on the other side of the rifts, their denizens strange, time-lost, and far more elemental than mortal.

Tribal myths disagree on whether the vaults already existed when the Children were spawned, or if their divine creators sculpted the caves specifically to house them. This question is of little importance in day-to-day life, because the Stonebloods know for a fact that they are integral to the continued existence of their beloved homes.

Each vault contains an ecosystem of plants, animals, fungi, and small numbers of elemental creatures. These ecosystems are delicately balanced with hardly any energy or resources for the cycle of life to spare, so the Stonebloods take sustainability gravely seriously.

The Children do not consider themselves wardens of their vaults, however. Their place in the world is no lower or higher than that of other animals, and they are dearly aware of how sensitive they are to the effects of systemic collapse.

A typical vault is several dozen miles across, and several hundred feet high. It contains anywhere from one to a half- dozen tribes, each varying in size from smallish to only a single extended family. The vault normally has the resources needed to support the existing population.

Many vaults have a ceiling of dimly glowing crystals that provide a level of illumination similar to twilight or moonlight. This light is constant, with no analogous day/night cycle like surface-dwellers are used to having. Time is better told using simple timekeeping devices, or the tide and flow of a vault’s subterranean lakes and rivers.

All known vaults are connected to one another by a network of tunnels known as the Veins. Trade and travel between the Stonebloods, in however small a capacity it exists, is completely dependent upon these tunnels. They are also the most permeable sites to incursion from the World Beyond, making them a vital yet dangerous place in Stoneblood culture.

Shale Moot

The vault of Shale Moot lies at the center of a small web of Veins somewhere beneath southern Earthroot in eastern Faerûn. It is so-named for the prominence that dominates much of the vault’s center, and the tribal assembly building which stands atop it. It is an otherwise typical Stoneblood vault.

Points of interest in Shale Moot include...

Makha’s Hearth. The largest settlement in Shale Moot. It is home to a temple dedicated to Luthic and Grumbar, as well as one of the only metalworking forges in the vault.

Luthic’s Bosom. A small quarry where precious stones and ores are carefully hewn out in accordance with religious law. Most quartz in the vault originates here.

Brightforest. A forest of giant, bioluminescent mushrooms where much of the tribes' food and 'wood' are grown. Dead Stoneblood orcs are ‘given back to the earth’ and buried here as fertilizer.

Hurosh’s Dens. A population of dire bears lives in the caves along one face of the vault. They and the Children mostly leave one another alone, but shamans and rangers are known to take their cubs as animal companions.

The Moot. The eponymous meeting place is an island carved out of the center of an old riverbed. The moot serves as a court for disputes between tribes and constituent clans, as well as a triennial gathering of all tribes from adjacent vaults known as the Cairn. The isle is presided over by an elder shaman and her clanless disciples, who act as a neutral third party in all events.

Mudbubble. Geothermal hot springs make this place a cross between a sacred house of healing and a public bath. Most non-Stonebloods find the water too hot and rich in minerals to enjoy.

Gnashing Teeth. The low, damp ceiling here has created a vast field of staggered stalactites and stalactites resembling rows of long teeth.

The Gyre. A large, circular pit occupying one corner of the vault. It descends an unknown depth into the darkness, and all are forbidden to approach it. Sacrifices of quartz and bear meat are made to quiet the rumbling that rises up out of its depths every few years, just in case.

Woeful Cairn. The site of an old battle between tribes that resulted in a near-total massacre of all combatants, as well as the subsequent establishment of Shale Moot to prevent future tragedies.

Adventure Seeds

Contact with the outside world was, for many generations, considered at once unthinkable and impossible. Yet in recent months that belief was tested and found wanting. The Shining Ones, so named for their debilitating dependence upon torches and other bright lights, have finally plumbed the Underdark deep enough to stumble upon the Stonebloods completely by accident while hunting for an Illithid thrall cell.

These Shining Ones, or “adventurers” as they call themselves, brought flesh to the ancient rumors of an upper world. It threw the tribes into a disarray that they are scarcely recovering from now, and it has thrown open the yawning and uncertain doors of possibility for the Children.

Some are interested in venturing beyond their ancestral vaults in search of the world that had been denied to their kind for so many generations. The possibility of new land is also immensely tempting. While conquest is not high on any Stoneblood’s list of priorities, the idea of taking some of the pressure off of their home vault is highly desirable. The idea of meeting new peoples, new cultures, and truly understanding the world they live at the heart of is an equally seductive thought to many youths.

Other Stonebloods instead choose to recoil from the world at large. They believe that they had been sequestered for a good reason, and that contacting the outside world is in defiance of the gods, as well as their better nature. Their attitude mirrors the clannish hostility of near-surface Luthic worshipers, emphasizing xenophobic defensiveness that appeals to many staunch traditionalists.

Most others are somewhere in the middle, or are entirely apathetic to the discovery or the idea of being discovered: they will endure whatever ephemeral changes have been wrought, just as they always have.

But even in the coziest vaults, among the staunchest homebodies, there have been found sprouts of that most hated and prolific weed: adventure.

20 Adventures in the Vaults

1. A strange new disease is ravaging a vault’s rothé herds. The tribes—and the whole ecosystem—may collapse.
2. The crystals lighting the vault’s ceiling are winking out one by one, plunging it into darkness.
3. A breathless messenger stumbles out of the Veins saying their tribe has been attacked by slavers.
4. Two clans threaten to go to war over the deaths of a pair of youths, each blaming the other and demanding justice.
5. The vault’s river ran dry for several days. Now the water is flowing again, but it is befouled and poisonous.
6. One of the Veins collapsed in a recent earthquake. The neighboring vault is stranded, and monsters now infest the tunnels.
7. A Stoneblood adventurer lost their ancestral quartz amulet in the Underdark, and face shame back home if they don’t find it.
8. A Stoneblood shaman had a vision of an imminent natural disaster and claims the only way to avert it is to appease the spirits of the Elemental Plane of Earth.
9. A group of Shining Ones formerly under a chief’s protection has been imprisoned and accused of corrupting the youth with tales of the World Beyond.
10. The vault’s sacred quartz mine was defaced and ransacked, its keepers murdered.
11. Near-surface orcs have made contact with a vault. The Stonebloods hope diplomacy has a chance.
12. A clandestine Gruumsh-worshiping cult has started to gain influence over a tribe’s warriors.
13. A community of Svirfneblin desperately need a type of ore that can only be found in a nearby vault.
14. Enterprising traders from the Veins wish to acquire rare and exotic surface goods for the vaults.
15. A newborn Stoneblood is rumored to have come out of the womb already covered in thick lithoderms- a startling omen in need of answers.
16. Some curse or sickness has rendered a vault’s venerated cave bears mindlessly aggressive.
17. Travelers have found a vault completely abandoned and empty, with no sign of the local tribes.
18. An ambitious and charismatic young chieftain believes the
Stonebloods must face the world as a people united... under a single ruler.
19. Swarms of starving xorns were pushed out of their habitat, and are tearing the vault apart for food.
20. The tribe moot draws near, and preparations for the proceedings must be made.

Stoneblood Orcs

“BLOOD OF THE MOTHER, BONES OF THE EARTH.” Chanted the wizened old shaman as she lifted her hand up high over the newborn, sprinkling bloody earth over their head and shoulders. She then took a cord of woven rothé hair and draped it around the child’s neck. From it dangled a small crystal of pale, glowing quartz- the same sort of quartz which warriors defended with their lives, and which mates exchanged during marriage vows. At that moment the other orcs assembled before the shaman gave a great shout, echoing her words through the cavernous halls. In this way they welcomed the newest member of their tribe into the deep, dark world.
— Merhoon Hresh, Planar Peculiarities Vol. IX

There are a people who live between a literal rock and a hard place. Down, deep down below the earth, below the warrens of kobolds and the holds of dwarves, below the clamorous warcamps of even the deepest orogs, lies a place of transience. In that long-forgotten corner of the Underdark, the barrier between the Prime Material Plane and the Elemental Plane of Earth has grown thin in some places, and broken down completely in others.

Here, the Children of Blood and Stone dwell. They are orcs, or at least akin to them. But they have been radically altered by a genesis of betrayal and passion, and an existence of seclusion and solitude. Divine accidents, they had been content to hide away for generations. Now, they venture beyond their cavernous homes, steady and cautious in a world that has never known them, and knows not what to do with them.

Blood of the Mother

The Stoneblood are orcs born of exposure to the Plane of Earth. They remain superficially similar to orcs, being broad and muscular with tusked jaws and flat, wide features that more prejudiced humans might regard as primitive or even simian.

The similarities peter out from there. Stoneblood orcs possess tough hides and stony protrusions not unlike a goliath’s lithoderms, but on a more extreme scale. Pieces of crystal are known to grow from their heads and shoulders, and their tusks are angular and faceted like pieces of quartz. Their unique biology is divinely inspired, but maintained through more mundane means. When a Stoneblood is born, they are soft and almost smooth-skinned. As they mature and eat the mineral-rich food available in their earthen vaults, their bodies process the minerals into stone and crystal formations. One effect of sickness or old age is for these structures to grow weak and brittle.

Stonebloods are not as tall as orcs closer to the surface, but no less powerfully built. Skin tones range from dark green, to grey-blue, to a foggy amethyst color. Eye color can be as varied as the gemstones found in their vaulted homes. Hair tends to be dark, black, or silvery. They dress conservatively, in drab and muted tones unlike the lurid colors and garish pelts of near-surface orcs. The only spots of color most wear are a necklace of white or yellow quartz, and the occasional tattoo of blue-black or red pigment etched and dyed into their stony skin.

Bones of the Earth

Stoneblood orcs live in cavernous vaults adjacent to the Plane of Earth. They organize themselves into small tribes linked by blood or constructed lineage. These tribes can be highly regimented, and are generally oriented around a mildly matriarchal council of notables advised by a senior shaman. 

Stonebloods survive by hunting the earthy beasts of their home, and by farming a few hardy plants and fungi imported from the Underdark. They also harvest the abundant mineral wealth of their vaults to make tools, as well as works of art. Their skill in stonework is not as technically impressive or as lavish as dwarf engineering, but it possesses its own subtle sophistication and beauty. Where a natural earth vault ends and where Stoneblood artifice begins can be hard for even trained eyes to see- not that many outsiders have ever seen them.

For long, slow centuries the orcs kept to themselves, only periodically interacting with other tribes to trade, socialize, or settle disputes. Tribes typically cooperate through representatives who are sent to a “great council” hosted on neutral ground, often under the auspices of an elder shaman. Warfare of any scale is startlingly uncommon among the Stoneblood orcs, and it is quickly quashed. When differences get out of hand, warchiefs are selected to lead bands of warriors in small-scale ritual battles, or act as champions for their tribe in one-on-one trials by combat. Stoneblood orcs simply don't have the numbers, reproductive ability, or wild abandon that their upper cousins rely upon to lead them to victory in battle. Stonebloods believe that glory means little when so many are left dead, maimed, or starving.

Spawn of the Great Indiscretion

The divine parents of the Stoneblood orcs are Luthic, orcish goddess of caves and motherhood, and Grumbar, the Primordial of Earth. The gods conceived them by accident during one of their many trysts in the depths of the earth, but decided against destroying the misbegotten, soulless facsimiles on the spot.

Luthic still feared that their existence would alert her mate Gruumsh to her dalliances, so she hid them away underground, and Grumbar gave them a place at the far edge of his realm. Luthic later stole a magic orb of quartz from her mate and gifted it to Grumbar. He shattered the orb in his fist, and the shards rained down upon the Stonebloods, piercing them and imbuing them with souls and wills. Together the deities have protected the Stoneblood orcs ever since, through a combination of misdirection and tactical negligence.

Free of the bloodlust that Gruumsh has instilled in most other orcs, the Stonebloods have developed in a way that is far removed from their kin. They are temperate, thoughtful, and patient on an almost geological scale. Where exactly Gruumsh’s lack of influence ends and Grumbar’s influence begins is a matter of debate, but it is a question of huge import to the future of the orcish peoples.

Despite the absence of significant intervention in their lives, the Children of Blood and Stone still venerate their divine parents through quartz and prayer. For even if they do not directly speak to or intercede on behalf of their children, the presence of Luthic and Grumbar is evident in the land itself, and how it challenges yet provides for their children.

Most unusual about the distant-yet-present faith of the Stoneblood orcs is that it still appears to afford them spiritual power. While many shamans are druids of some kind, enough of them claim to be clerics of Luthic to bring into question just how much attention the Cave Mother really is affording her sheltered children, and by what means.

Isolated and Concealed

The Stoneblood orcs have been separated from most other sapient species for centuries. Any
relationships or grudges they have tend to be directed at each other, rather than at the people of the World Beyond. Nevertheless, they have had enough dealings with outsiders for some trends to develop.

Orcs. The “favored” children of Gruumsh see their sheltered kin as weak and misbegotten. If given the opportunity, their more warlike cousins would either destroy the Stonebloods, or subjugate them in the name of the One-Eyed God.

Genasi. The planetouched are a mixed bag for Stonebloods: they are ambivalent toward fire and water, standoffish and distrusting of the capricious air, and distantly friendly toward their earthy fellows.

Dwarves, Elves, Humans, etc. The Stonebloods have never meant any of these peoples any ill will, but those who have been raided by orcs for ages are reluctant to trust the word of another orc, no matter how crystalline and craggy they may be.

Stoneblood Orc Names

Stoneblood orcs tend to have unisex names drawn from a mixture of orc names and auspicious Terran words. Stoneblood orcs lack family names. They refer to other members of the same tribe by their given name plus the name of their mother with the prefix ken-, i.e., Doaarun the son of Makha would be Doaarun ken-Makha. Tribe names are derived from ancient totems, shared female ancestors (real or legendary), and famous landmarks.

Names: Arong, Bheldez, Guldre, Kulro, Mish’kha, Narhosh, Toron, Uurtch, Wa’marag, Zamaa.
Tribe Names: Beryl Fist, Krenka’s Tor, Rust River, Tsaagat’s Hollow, Xorn-Claw.

Stoneblood Orc Traits

Ability Score Increase. Your Strength score increases by 2, and your Wisdom score increases by 1.

Age. Stoneblood orcs mature and age slower than surface orcs. They reach adulthood at 15 and live up to 80 years.

Alignment. Stoneblood orcs inherited clannish rigidity from their mother, and dispassionate steadiness from their father. They tend toward lawful and neutral alignments. A few are lawful evil, preaching xenophobia against all outsiders, including other orcs.

Size. Stoneblood orcs are stockier than their softer kin, averaging less than 6 feet in height while remaining just as heavy. Your size is Medium.

Speed. Your base walking speed is 30 feet.

Darkvision. 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.

Powerful Build. Your back is broad, and your bones are dense. You count as one size larger when determining your carrying capacity and the weight you can push, drag, or lift.

Blood of Stone. Your dark blood runs like tar, clotting quickly and affording you some limited protection. You have advantage on saving throws against conditions that cause bleeding, and you have resistance to damage related to blood loss.

Skin of Shale. Your body is covered in stony plates and protrusions that can turn away a blow. When you aren't wearing armor, your AC is 13 + your Dexterity modifier. You also have advantage on Dexterity (stealth) checks to hide in rocky terrain.

Cave Born. Your kind are born of the cavernous womb of the earth. You know the Mold Earth cantrip. Wisdom is your spellcasting modifier for it. You also never get lost underground.

Endurant. Expanding and surviving in the vaults of your treacherous and elemental home plane has made your people resourceful. You are proficient in Survival.

Tool Proficiency. You gain proficiency with the artisan’s tool of your choice: mason’s tools, or jeweler’s tools.

Languages. You can speak, read and write Common, Orc, and Primordial (Terran). The Stoneblood orc dialect contains many loanwords from Primordial. It features heavy agglutination and slight vowel harmony, and is said to have the cadence of a stone tumbling down a steep hill.

Children of Blood & Stone: Because I'd rather not use the DMs Guild

About a year-and-a-half ago I started to seriously consider writing my own short supplements for sale on WotC's DMs Guild. The store was still new and shiny (to me at least), and I figured that literally any cut of money from a $1 PDF was better than the zero I was presently enjoying.

So I settled on putting a pretty modest spin on orcs, got to work, and in a couple of weeks I slapped together what felt like a fairly decent D&D 5th edition ancestry. I also came up with some fun world-building inspired by a deep lore pull from a 4th edition transitionary novel that I'm almost certain nobody ever read, including me. I even got some lovely art to furnish the piece with.

Of course, Furtive being furtive, I stalled out toward the end. Anxiety over getting the product reviewed and edited, let alone getting it approved by the store and releasing it for sale, kept me from getting any farther than creating an account for the site. And so the mini-supplement sat on my Google Drive for over a year, collecting dust next to some spreadsheets and the desiccated corpse of an old Goblin Watch episode.

In retrospect, I'm kind of glad for that.

The recent OGL scandal is pretty bad, but it's only one of a number of things I'm not super fond of WotC for. Corporations are not our friends, after all. Also, since I've become increasingly involved in indie projects over the past year or so, it just doesn't feel personally appropriate to do something like I was originally planning.

So instead of doing any amount of business with the DMs Guild or risking a stern email by selling it on or some such, I opted to just scribble out the logo and release the whole thing here for free, both in janky-but-mostly-finished PDF form, and divided up into two blog posts accessible below.

If you like my stuff enough to want to support me, you can always go to my Ko-fi instead.

Also, check out the other stuff made by the artist, Coleen! She's a long-time patron of the blog who made my banner and avatar way back when. I wouldn't have made this without her help.

Children of Blood & Stone:

Friday, January 13, 2023

So I've been working on another book.

For those of my little readership who have wisely hopped off of Twitter in recent weeks, I have an announcement that may not yet have reached you.

I've been working with The Lawful Neutral and David Schirduan over at Technical Grimoire to make a new RPG book titled Bridgetown!

What started as a random jam session with John over weird old medieval architecture last year led to us slowly cobbling together an entire campaign setting for the Troika! RPG, but you can use it for just about anything weird and wacky.

Bridgetown is a pastoral liminal setting, as we've taken to calling it. The whole world is a single massive Bridge suspended in nothingness between the endless Sky and the murky Under. On this infinite Bridge, there are countless weirdos and colorful characters to be found, inspired in part by the denizens of old fairytales, old school British fantasy, and our own bizarre collective sense of humor.

Imagine the Three Billy Goats Gruff as painted by Hieronymus Bosch, and you're basically there.

Bridgetown is a game of travel and exploration, even as the world tries to do everything it can to stop you from doing both: Tyrannical turnpike guilds erect massive gatehouses to divide the Bridge up into fiefs and rule them, creatures made of rarified reality bubble up from the Under like curious but extremely dangerous children, and the Bridge itself is slowly crumbling away into nothingness.

But until then, your bridge punk has plenty to do.

The book sports dozens of locations, NPCs, original spells and character backgrounds, a gigantic and wonderfully weird random "Weather" table, and referee advice on where and how to start in an infinite world like this.

We're nearing completion, and you'll have a way to purchase the finished (and damn beautiful, thanks to David and Charlie) hardcover in the near future.

The best place to go for updates is the official Bridgetown link up above, but you can also keep abreast by following us on any of our various social medias. 

I really need to figure out how to start a tumblr soon...