Thursday, July 27, 2023

10 Unpublished Manuscripts for your Failed Novelist (N)PCs

The study reeks of stale air, burnt coffee, and artistic self-loathing as you enter. Your eyes are slowly, inexorably drawn toward a nondescript binder on the desk. You know you shouldn't open it. Yet like the idiot protagonist of a cosmic horror story you are compelled to gaze upon that which is best left forgotten. Your eyes begin to roll back into your skull as you glance over the humbly bragging foreword. By the time you read the trite opening sentences, the maddening mediocrity has already consumed your soul.

You should have listened.

1 When's Okay to Say...?
Some people just shouldn't write children's books.

A nameless child wanders through this watercolor picture book, encountering various relatives, friends, and pets throughout the day. The child obviously suffers from anxiety and may also be neurodivergent, but the disembodied voice of the narrator only ever calls them "selfish" or "rude" for expressing their worries to other people and in turn bumming them out. The narrator goes on to teach the child how to refrain from sharing too much.

At first this works, and everyone's mood immediately improves. Every character, even the goldfish, expresses joy that the child isn't sad all the time now. Even the color palette becomes brighter and more pleasant to look at. But soon the child decides that they don't enjoy being "polite", and resume being honest with the people in their life.

This causes some sort of cancerous growth to appear in the air above the child's head, which grows and pulsates the more they share. By the final pages of the book it has split open to reveal a crimson, Sauronic eye that leers down at the child for trying to do or say anything. The kid eventually faints while hiding under a laundry hamper with their teddy bear- which the book makes sure to point out is only the child's friend because it's completely inanimate and doesn't have a choice.

"Lesson" finally learned, the child completely shuts down emotionally, and the eye shrivels up and disappears in time. The final spread depicts the whole cast joyfully embracing the child, who now has a pained smile fixed upon their face.

O, Mirthsome! O, Girthsome!
A questionably titled crypto-biography of the life, death, and ascension of Groesbeck the Carbunculous, a jovial god of consumption, infestation, and probiotics in an implied urban fantasy setting. Groesbeck begins the story as a lowly, put-upon fast food restaurant health inspector who is as unlucky as he is personally underwhelming. The first few chapters try to hammer this point home by showing all the ways he fails to find love, aspire in hobbies, or earn the respect of his coworkers.

This barely changes after he falls prey to the parasites in an undercooked beefalo patty. He continues to act upbeat and undemanding, perhaps to the point of delusion, even as his body becomes a ravaged hive for the infestation. His body balloons until he is confined to his apartment, and through his own placid observations it is implied that the entire building has been condemned around him as a quarantine zone.

It is at this point the parasites begin speaking to him, singing him praises and adulations for the first time in his life. They thank him for giving them life, but lament that they have so few siblings with which to play. Groesbeck takes to his new "children" quickly and tries to share their affection and positivity with the rest of the world, to less-than-stellar results.

The remainder of the book covers these failed attempts to spread the joy, horrifying and putting to flight countless townsfolk and causing an epidemic in the process. The text attempts to treat his corpulence with a degree of body-positivity, but instead comes across as fetishistic and occasionally outright shaming. Groesbeck's speech takes to a strange poetic metre by this point, and he drops the title during one of his many bombastic soliloquys.

The book ends when Groesbeck is rolled down a hill into a pit and lit on fire, but returns to life two weeks later to continue his great work at the head of an ever-growing wave of upbeat, infested converts. The final page-and-a-half is dedicated to the marching song they sing while washing like a tide over the tristate area.

Tucked into the back of the manuscript is a copy of a C&D order from a litigious game company also known for its jovial and corpulent rot-monsters.

X Gaiden Rinne!
An anthological deconstruction of the isekai genre. It subverts the traditional escapist fantasy and wish-fulfillment tropes of the genre by couching its sequence of worlds and stories firmly within a tightly interconnected dharmic cosmology. Every protagonist is reborn where they are because of the karmic debts their past selves accrued, and their every action is of immense consequence for the incarnation that succeeds them.

Oftentimes the protagonists (who are all sent there as a consequence of death, though none are traffic accidents) are reincarnated as denizens of the worlds their past selves cultivated. Some of these are karmic rewards, but just as many are awful revelations that the person has been reduced to NPC-levels of agency and must now endure the next visitor's whimsy; just as so many others had suffered their own time in the limelight.

Ever-present throughout the anthology is an enigmatic Pure Land buddha who oversees the protagonists' struggles, failures, and lessons. The buddha fully reveals themself in the penultimate chapter to confront the one protagonist who rises to supervillainy in their utter refusal to let go of the power fantasy they feel entitled to. The resulting clash of hubris and wrathful aspect proves cataclysmic, and the closing chapter makes the ambitious attempt at conveying a sense of blissful anatta to the reader.

A historical fiction "romance novel" describing the mostly physical relationship between a pair of 16th century Maldivian cowry shell divers. The story's prose, initially purple and flowery, grows increasingly stilted, jarring, and lurid as the author moves on to more and more bizarre, esoteric, or just plain immature euphemisms for sexual acts and body parts in an attempt to keep things fresh.

This is constantly contrasted, sometimes to the point of tonal whiplash, with a remarkably well-researched and in-depth analysis of the power structures and systems of oppression of the Portuguese-colonized Indian Ocean and the human toll that the cowry industry takes. As the divers' world falls apart around them, they throw themselves at one another with increasing desperation.

At about the midpoint of the story, a vague sense of magic realism rises up from background dormancy. The cowries and their shells gain voices of their own, which they use to snark at one another or make observations on the divers like some kind of molluscan Greek chorus. None of their wisdom or dating advice is heeded however, and the situation continues to deteriorate until the divers have to flee their homes and the authorities.

By the final chapter, the story's language reaches a fever pitch as the couple, their boat, and the entire exploitative cowry industry merge together into a many-limbed pataphorical orgy that then pleasantly sinks into obscurity beneath the waves of the Indian Ocean.

The Lay of the Cantankerous Hrütlander
Despite being called a lay, this story is not a lyrical poem told in octosyllabic couplets. It is in fact a turgid, 400-page long sword & sandals adventure novel about the eponymous Hrütlander, a towering embodiment of hypermasculinity and sullen demeanor in the lands of the Far Nørthe. He journeys down from the mountains of Hrütli-lejr, tasked by the gods to act as kingmaker for two warring clans; the Rittugids led by Chief Rittu and the Chegguderi led by Chief Klegga Cheg (or perhaps Chegga Kleg; the text flipflops on his name constantly).

Apparently "kingmaker" in this world means that the Hrütlander has moral license to betray anyone and switch sides in the conflict at a whim, which he does often and at the slightest perceived insult. The plot and the world as a whole eke out an existence in the margins between long, self-indulgent scenes of Iron Age warfare made all the more bloody by the Hrütlander wielding his highly impractical, ahistorical atgeir topped with nine blades.

The world itself is a fictionalized mythic Scandinavia, written with about as much nuance and understanding of the source material as you might expect from a high school metalhead who plays far too much Skyrim. The land is cold and inhospitable except by the tribes of barbarians who grow huge, muscular and/or buxom on nothing but beef and ale that they seem to have an inexhaustible supply of. The Rittugids and Chegguderi are introduced as being irreconcilably different from one another, but the only differences that come through in the text are their hair color (blonde and brunette in contrast with the Hrütlander's "glowering red"), and which side of the body they start on when sacrificing a living person to their god Wōdyn.

At the climax of the story, the much-anticipated three-way (battle) between Rittu, Chegga/Klegga, and the Hrütlander is unexpectedly cut short by the appearance of a sorceress who reveals herself to be an ale-wench whom the Hrütlander previously tried and failed to bed. She kills the chieftains and hurls the Hrütlander into a tear in the spacetime continuum, sending him back to the early Jurassic Period where he promptly falls into the middle of a savage territorial fight between dinosaurs that had no business being in the same time and place as one another.

The closing text boldly proclaims that the story will be continued in the sequel, Gondwanalandmansaga: The Saga of the Man from Gondwanaland.

Maul Punx
A so-called "dystopian suburb punk toxo-romance" set in the distant year of 199Y, in an alternate reality that split off of our own when the cult classic 1989 teen dark comedy Heathers was directed by Stanley Kubrick as originally intended by the writer. The film stayed as niche as the original, and the world at large remains almost identical to our own. The major difference is that this timeline divergence inspired a subculture of especially disaffected suburban youths.

Not content to passively criticize the world around them, a coalition of Midwestern punks, goths, and a few nerds begins an uprising in which they burn down several McMansions and a car dealership before invading and fortifying a mall to repulse the authorities. This course of action becomes almost immediately the correct choice when an overworked lab assistant at a nearby military base accidentally unleashes a bioweapon that turns the majority of the town into zombies.

What ensues is a mix between awkward romance as two youths (a trad goth with an interest in taxidermy and the bassist for an experimental emo-shoegaze band) take a liking to one another, action-horror as the undead besiege the mall, and a rather unsubtle critique of American consumerism- the zombies all moan "maaall" instead of "braaaiiins", among other hints.

The couple turns out to be an unhealthy fit for one another, with jealousy and codependency quickly taking root between them. Still, they decide to stick it out together through the siege, frequently speaking the cynical adage that they're "better off dead (together)". Ironically, they end up being the few left entirely unscathed when they fall back to the roof of the mall under the unrelenting zombie assault.

Eventually it is revealed that the zombies are weak to loud music, which the youths take advantage of until exploded undead heads have painted the majority of the parking lot. They also get a radio antenna working on the roof, which allows them to discover that uprisings similar to theirs occurred all across the Midwest at around the same time. The mall survivors pass on the secret to countering the outbreak, and the dawn rises on a very odd new world.

The novelization of a screenplay that was dubbed simultaneously too technically difficult, visually boring, and audience-alienating in premise to perform. It follows a pair of advanced, cephalopod aliens bound to their life support shuttles as they float in high orbit above a backwater planet and ruminate on the extinction of their entire species. One, a historian named the Preserver, laments the folly and hubris of their people. The other, a bioengineer named the Caretaker, tries to devise a way to save the species from death and genetic bottlenecking.

The Caretaker eventually hypothesizes that they could insert their DNA into the genome of one of the modified and accelerated subject species on the planet below, essentially hijacking them and creating a new hybrid designed to replace the originals. The Preserver balks at this idea, citing how their systems-spanning empire fell apart precisely because they wouldn't stop meddling in the development of other species. They say that they deserve to die out as a warning to others if they will not stop repeating history like this. The Caretaker counters that they can still learn from their mistakes as long as they're not all dead, and that the loss of all their accumulated wisdom would be a tragedy for the whole galaxy.

What follows is a long, increasingly bitter philosophical debate over free will, ethics, and the burden of knowledge. Eventually the disagreement comes to a head and the two aliens fire their shuttles' weapons at one another. One of the ships is fatally damaged and its life support shuts down after some remorseful parting words; the other stays intact enough to putter down to the planet's surface.

It is left deliberately unclear which of the aliens survived; either the Caretaker violated their oath to protect and cultivate life by killing their fellow and taking advantage of their own charges, or the Preserver was ironically the one who ultimately consigned their species to history before trying to create a lasting warning for other sapient species.

Presented as a found diary with occasional margin notes from the "finder" character, this alternatively uncomfortable and outright goofy book details an anonymous linguist's spiral into mental illness and a paranoid world of conspiracy theories.

The linguist was recently kicked out of their university for a series of violent outbursts, as well as their increasingly vehement belief in a Tower of Babel-esque theory of the origin of human language. To prove this theory correct and unearth the supposed global conspiracy threatening it, the linguist goes on a globetrotting academic tour despite barely having enough money to feed themself with.

According to their theory, the original human language was split into all existing language families by some cataclysmic event in prehistory. Mankind's destiny can only be reclaimed by reconstructing this ur-language. This must be done by purging all of the false words from the world and finding the "true words" hidden in every language; approximately 1 word per lect. As an example, the true word of the modern French language is "peste" in the sense of a bratty child, and absolutely every other part of the language can and should be thrown out, excluding cognates or loanwords now "owned" by other languages. There are as many exceptions as there are rules to this theoretical language, and the linguist often interrupts the flow of the story to explain them at length.

The linguist's pet theories and other eccentricities often put them at odds with the other people in their travels. They constantly alienate themselves from others while making little if any progress in their search, leading to a worsening mental crisis and more than one physical altercation for extremely specific reasons. One dispute escalates into a fistfight with a group of Neo-Nazis for their "crypto-Saxon revanchism" (rather than because they're, you know, Nazis). Another scuffle nearly gets the linguist hit by an irate New York taxi driver for insisting that dumplings be called farts, from French farce for stuffing. Toward the end of their journey, another incident involves the linguist ineffectually slapping people with a karakul cap at the Al-Salam Festival in Australia until they were arrested and escorted off the premises, ranting all the while about the "Idiqutic erasure" they saw in modern definitions of the word Uyghur.

Somehow, the linguist never catches a criminal charge.

The linguist eventually decides that the Seima-Turbino Phenomenon must in some way be the key to proving their theory. They illegally cross several national borders through Eurasia, before finally pausing to rest in a hidden camp in the Altai Mountains on the Sino-Russian border. The linguist believes they are being hunted by one or both governments for the knowledge they possess, and the diary ends as they resolve to seal it in a waterproof container and plunge it into a nearby lake to retrieve later.

The epilogue shifts point of view and describes how the diary and the abandoned remains of the linguist's camp were found by an equally anonymous hiker. The hiker guesses that the camp is decades old by the time they finally find them, and doubts that the linguist got what they were searching for. The hiker proves unusually adept at decoding the diary, which is revealed to have been written entirely in the linguist's own neo-Babelian conlang, which consists of a grab-bag of vocabulary from thousands of languages living and dead, all awkwardly stitched together on top of a grammar that vaguely resembles Esperanto.

The hiker debates destroying the diary, and remarks upon how strangely prescient the linguist was at times, before going home and sitting down for a plate of mutton farts.

Huginn, Where's Your Muninn?
Another children's book, less reprehensible in premise. Huginn & Muninn, the pair of ravens who fly across the world acting as spies for Old Norse mythology's Odin, have become separated. This is bad news for the little birds, because they rely upon one another to be a single functioning unit. Huginn (whose name means "thought") has all the smarts, but it's Muninn ("memory") who remembers everything.

The reader guides a clever but easily disoriented Huginn through several locations in the Scandinavian cosmology, helping them solve challenges that range from riddles and logic puzzles to fully articulated pop-out games. Surprisingly mythically-accurate portrayals of various saga stories can be seen playing out in the background of each page as the reader goes along, though Huginn is comically oblivious to them.

Ultimately, Huginn and Muninn are reunited after they find the latter trapped in a rather easily unlocked birdcage right outside Fensalir. Apparently they were pranked by one of Freyja's bored cats while the Vanr was visiting Frigg for brunch. The ravens embrace, thank the reader for their help, and then take wing together to tell Odin all that they've learned.

The book still hasn't found a publisher, despite its admitted charm. The most commonly cited reason in rejection letters is content deemed inappropriate for children. It probably has something to do with that one background illustration with Loki and the horse.

10 Substition
A "sub-supernatural thriller" detailing one government agent's very bad day.

The story opens with our protagonist, Agent Tomris, sitting at her dinner table on a drunken Thursday night with the muzzle of her pistol tickling at her soft palate. As Tomris mentally prepares to repaint the apartment walls and ceiling in Reptilian Brain 117, her life flashes before her eyes. These memory vignettes form the bulk of the story.

Tomris became obsessed with the supernatural early in life, and chased any avenue by which she could prove it real. This hunt became increasingly more desperate the older she got, as more and more magicians and occult traditions failed to deliver. Eventually she was on the cusp of giving up hope, when she found the Agency.

The Agency of Paranormal Research & Development is a secret department of the United States government, founded shortly after the end of the Second World War when it was discovered that the Germans and Soviets had similar programs. Emphasis 'had'; one was disbanded soon after the war for lack of progress, while the other was lost in a shipwreck on route to Argentina.

The Agency is also a colossal failure by all metrics, barely kept on life support by its shoestring budget and the efforts of overworked agents. It is forgotten and overlooked as much as it is secret. But Tomris joined the Agency's ranks anyway, to get closer to the supernatural.

There, she learned the greatest and most terrible truth of her entire life: the supernatural was extremely real- and also extremely boring. After nearly a century of research conducted across the globe, dozens of examples of paranormal activity were known to and even housed by the Agency. But most specimens are frustratingly unimpressive, and their underlying rules and explanations remained elusive.

For example, one of the first objects new agents are introduced to is the first to be discovered by the Agency: the Orb. The Orb is a seemingly plain sphere of tin 27.8cm in diameter, seated on a table in what has since become someone's office after the department went through another facility downsizing. The Orb is completely ordinary in all parameters, except that it weighs ~12% less than it should. Its composition and physics have been rigorously tested, but no light has been shed on why. It's... just a slightly light ball of metal.

Other impossibilities prove to be equally unimpressive: a stone coin that, when flipped, seems to accurately answer and even predict any Yes/No question related to someone's shoe insoles; a man from Milwaukee who can spontaneously generate over 15 liters of water from nowhere but only by sweating it out during moments of extreme stress, discovered because he was an acapella performer with stage fright; a corgi who cast no shadow so long as no one was looking at him (Mr. The Pippers was more of a beloved office pet than anything, and died of old age decades before Tomris's arrival), etc. Their natures are impenetrable, and their applications are useless, especially to a shadowy board of directors who would rather can the whole project already.

While the work is gratifying at first, the crushing reality of the situation (plus the long hours and lousy pay) start to take their toll on Tomris. She begins to question her entire life. So what if the paranormal is real, if all it is is this? What's the point? Why would the universe suck all the magic out of magic? This depression, combined with a B-plot about her caustic, estranged family, eventually brings Tomris to her dinner table with gun in hand.

The narrative snaps back to the present just as she begins to squeeze the trigger. But the positioning of the gun triggers her gag reflex, causing her to pull the gun out at the last moment. She survives, and the bullet only grazes her upper lip. A moment later, she receives a phone call from the Agency: a recently exposed cult might actually be onto something.

The point of view then abruptly shifts to that of a nameless six year-old girl who is being held captive by the so-called Order of the Grey-Litten Ingress, a millennialist cult dedicated to a being, energy, or concept (or all of the above at once) referred to as "Abiding in Silence". She and another two-dozen people of varying ages and backgrounds were kidnapped by the Order, and are slated to be sacrificed to pave their way into the next world.

The cult leader is interviewing each of the sacrifices before the ritual, and takes a keen interest in the girl's sharp tongue and wit. They engage in verbal sparring, debating the nature of knowledge, the question of salvation, and whether or not the cult's patron even exists. Slowly, the girl gains the upper hand on the cult leader. By the time the Agency is knocking down the doors to the cult's compound (after a lengthy delay spent squabbling with local law enforcement over jurisdiction), he is reduced to a catatonic wreck endlessly lamenting that 'magic is dead'.

In the final chapter the PoV switches back to Agent Tomris. The disorganized cult is subdued, nothing unnatural has a chance to happen, and all hostages are recovered- with the exception of the girl, who takes off into a nearby wetland upon the Agency's arrival. Tomris pursues her and gets lost for what feels like hours. She finally finds and tries to coax the girl back, saying they can reunite her with her family. The girl gives Tomris a smirk, then viscerally merges with a nearby mangrove tree, which proceeds to stand up and crabwalk its way deeper into the swamp.

Tomris finds herself back at the compound with another agent snapping their fingers in her face, saying that she had "zoned out" for a minute there. Disturbed but exhilarated, she contemplates what this encounter might mean as she changes the bandage on her lip.

Sunday, July 9, 2023

RBL Interviews: Hlao of Irrib, Coherent Shambler Disease Patient

[Preface: Hlao is a resident of the greater Irrib area, centered on the Western Branch of the lower River Khesh. He has been afflicted with Coherent Shambler Disease (CSD) for approximately twelve years, and is the longest-living known CSD patient by far. CSD, known by many colorful names, is a little-understood disease that attacks the nervous system of humans and, allegedly, certain ungulates. It is characterized by loss of bodily control from the neck muscles down, and a tendency toward lapsing into extended periods of low energy or borderline-catatonia when not in proximity to other humans unaffected by CSD. When in proximity to uninfected humans, a sufferer of CSD tends to violently lash out with lethal force, albeit not intent. The subject remains in full control of their mental faculties, but cannot exert physical control over their own body except to breathe, speak, blink, etc. The ultimate cause or vector for the spread of CSD is unknown. Theories include parasites, airborne toxins, emotional trauma, and even divine punishment. People with CSD tend to be killed immediately after their illness manifests, either in self-defense by their would-be victims or as a precaution by local authorities. That Hlao has been kept reasonably safe and healthy without any major incidents for more than a decade is very rare.

Hlao lives in a repurposed farmhouse located on a cousin's property. He is in his late thirties. He has short, messy hair beginning to grey at the roots. He is secured at one end of the room in a large, padded chair equipped with about a dozen reinforced leather straps to detain him. The only part of his body that is free is his head, which swivels and bobs slightly from years of slow neurological deterioration. As I enter the room his head snaps upright and his feet begin to kick. His fingernails have been freshly cut and filed, but the deep grooves dug into the armrests beneath his hands indicate that he is not always so well-manicured. His wiry muscles tense and strain hard enough beneath his long tunic that I fear he'll rip a tendon, but his gaze is clear, bright, and peaceful. He offers a cautious smile my way, but quickly averts his gaze and looks into an empty corner. I sit down at a stool placed close to the opposite wall away from him. His handler, apparently a friend, reminds him that they will be right outside, and takes their leave. We hold our conversation in raised voices to account for the distance between.]

RBL: Thank you again for reconsidering my request, doh¹ Hlao.

Hlao: I rebuffed you in haste the first time, doh Litte. I'm sorry for that. I assumed that anyone who wanted an interview with me would be like the last one who did.

RBL: I assure you I am not here for anything outside of your consent and comfort. I take the ethical strictures of my training very seriously. I simply wish to know more about you; not your condition. Besides, I have not paid off any of the town magistrates in order to see you.

Hlao: That last part is the most reassuring. Thank you.

RBL: Out of curiosity, who was this last person to "interview" you? I may have the means to file an official complaint about any misconduct on your behalf, if you so wish.

Hlao: To be honest, I don't remember him very well. I tried not to remember him or the examination for a long time, and eventually it worked. He's sort of a... pale, ghostly blur. I do remember he was from Serminwurth, or at least said he was. His name was M-something. Maren or Murzin or something like that.

RBL: ... Ah.

Hlao: Ah? Ah what? You know him?

[Hlao leans his head forward with sudden interest, his chair gently squeaks as he animates more]

RBL: I know of whom you speak. He is no longer a licensed practitioner of, well, anything.

Hlao: Well, that's good to hear. I hope he landed in a poorhouse.

RBL: He continued to study CSD for some time before he... ran afoul of certain ethical constraints. Last I heard, he floated down the Khesh and disappeared.

Hlao: Good. Drop-heads take him and keep him, I say.²

RBL: Er... quite. Now, may we begin the interview? I just have a few questions I wish to touch on.

Hlao: Sure, sure.

RBL: Please introduce yourself, in as many or as few words as you like.

[Hlao pauses at length, head gently lolling from side to side until he speaks]

Hlao: My name is Hlao. My village doesn't have a name, but it lies close enough to the town of Irrib on the Western Branch, that many of us tell outsiders we are from there. So I am Hlao of Irrib. I come from a family of farmers. They farm riverbed gourds. I used to farm with them too, but stopped when I became sick twelve years ago. I have one brother and four sisters. My siblings' children are learning how to read.

[Hlao straightens up in his seat to say that last part with some proud emphasis. It is the first time he has held eye contact so far]

RBL: That is wonderful to hear. Have they read anything by Tirti Naorut?

[Hlao grins in surprise]

Hlao: She is the littlest one's favorite. She says she wants to go to Nambar to prove the fairytales are real.

RBL: Oh, I remember feeling the same way... Now, could you describe a typical day in your life?

Hlao: I sleep in a special bed that is made to restrain me, so that I cannot hurt anyone or myself. It was made by one of the woodworkers in my village. It is one of a kind. I have a few chairs that I can sit in, too, but they are not as special. They are like this one here; repurposed from surgeons' or torturers' chairs- if there is any difference between the two. They are not as comfortable as the bed.

Anyway... I usually wake at dawn. Even in my sleep, I can hear other people getting up and moving around. I don't go to sleep around other people. My friends and relatives—my handlers—help me move to a chair and feed me breakfast. Sometimes they use a long spoon made from a broom handle to give me food, but that is only if my body is feisty that morning. Most mornings I am behaved, so they can feed me by hand. Everyone who knows about me, associates me with the giant spoon, though.

[Hlao laughs ruefully]

Hlao: Washing and dressing are still difficult. But we are leaving those out here.

RBL: Of course.

Hlao: Later in the morning, if the weather is not too bad, they will take me outside. I can walk with bound arms, and my legs will not cause too much trouble. Not anymore. I like to go for walks. So they tether me with ropes, and someone will walk where I've asked to go, and my body will try to chase them down. It keeps me exercised. And we all enjoy it- as long as the person in front of me is faster.

I spend most of my time at home, though. I don't really go places. I like to listen to stories while I sit. Stories or music. Anything that passes the time. But my handlers have to leave me alone in my room often, to give my body a chance to stop tensing up and fighting my restraints. When they do that, I close my eyes and... imagine things. Cities, languages, worlds. I imagine myself out there, experiencing them. Sometimes I can even wiggle my toes.

[Hlao looks down to indicate his sandal-clad feet, which are still making the same impotent kicking motions toward me as before]

RBL: What sorts of worlds and languages do you imagine?

Hlao: Why do you ask?

RBL: That sounds fascinating to me.

Hlao: Pssh. It does not.

RBL: I would not be out here if I did not value places and peoples, and the words they speak.

Hlao: Mmh... you know how they say that magic is like a sea?

RBL: Yes, that's one theory I'm familiar with. A metaphorical ocean of spiritual essence with the occasional godhead rising out of it like an island.

Hlao: It is like that, but... much more. I am there, standing on the "water", or sometimes swimming in it. I see the land rise up out of nothingness like the bobbing islands from Nambarish sailor tales. I sink my hands into the loamy ether and then rise up with it, into the sky. Into creation. I am there to see the first fires flare up and be quenched. The first to hear the burbling pits that stew with life. I stand like a stone, or drift like a cloud, and watch the world move around me. Sometimes it is like our world- sometimes it is our world, and I can walk it differently.

But other times I fill it with my dreams and nightmares. The words they speak, too. The screams and songs and profanity that they use every day, until one day no more mouths are left to speak them. I wander the emptiness afterward, and dwell on what has ended that never even existed. And then when everything else has crumbled away, the world sinks back down into the sea and only I am left.

RBL: ... You might want to consider having these imaginings written down.

Hlao: Why?

RBL: It would make a good story for people to read. Your niece, perhaps?

[Hlao scoffs initially, then stops to think]

Hlao: ... Hmm. I would need to trust someone with my private thoughts. Or learn how to write more than my signature with my teeth.

RBL: Did you not just trust me a moment ago?

Hlao: But that was... well, you are more... hmm. I will think about it.

[Hlao fidgets more than usual]

RBL: Shall we move on?

Hlao: Please.

RBL: Where do you usually hear stories or music from?

Hlao: My handlers, and other people who visit.

RBL: Tell me a little about these visits.

Hlao: Sometimes people visit me. Most of them are people from Irrib or beyond, who come to watch and study me. I don't like them. But they sometimes bring gifts and food that my friends and I need. They can't look after me for free. So I put on a friendly face and tolerate them. I almost broke loose once. That scared them off. It was funny.

[Hlao smiles impishly]

I like it when my family visits me. I may see them every few months. They tell me how the farm is going, and how the children are growing. I hope that someday my little niece will visit to read me some of her stories. Her mother won't let her, though. She is afraid of me. She... when I first got sick, I almost strangled her husband—my brother—to death, right in front of her in their bed. I don't blame her, though. Maybe in a few more years. My brother forgave me. He visits me the most. 

RBL: Tell me about your brother.

Hlao: He is set to leave and start working his own stretch of riverbank with his branch of the family in a few years. Our parents' farm passed to our eldest sister some years ago, and he has been saving up and doing favors ever since. So many families split their plots up smaller and smaller between siblings over the generations here, until you have barely enough land to feed yourself with and your second and third cousins don't even know you. Then one of the rich city people come around and offer to pay you half of what your land is worth, so you can leave to go and work for them on their tax-farms for even less. But he doesn't want that for us.

RBL: That sounds rather noble of him.

Hlao: I would go and help him if I could.

RBL: That sounds rather noble of you, too.

Hlao: Pfft. I just want out of this chair.

[Hlao and RBL both laugh. Hlao clears his throat and licks his lips]

Hlao: ... Doh Litte. A favor of you?

RBL: Yes?

[Hlao lolls his head in the direction of a nearby pitcher of water sitting on a table]

Hlao: I need a drink.

RBL: ... Oh! Of course.

[RBL pauses his live recording here]

[RBL set his notes down and crossed the room to the table. He found a small wooden cup to fill with water, then approached Hlao. Hlao's hands and feet tensed more than usual, curling violently as the proximity of another living person sent impulses through his body. Hlao just kept his eye on the water. RBL hesitated momentarily, then leaned in and tipped the cup to Hlao's lips. Hlao drank in loud, draining gulps that emptied the vessel in a few seconds. He belched, and nodded appreciatively at RBL]

RBL: Oh, erm...

[RBL produced a handkerchief and gingerly dabbed away the water that dribbled down Hlao's chin.

Hlao: What a gentleman.

[Hlao chuckled]

RBL: You are uh, welcome.

[RBL returned to his seat. Hlao's body relaxed somewhat]

[RBL resumes his live recording here]

RBL: Tell me about your friends? Forgive me, I just sort of took their presence for granted until now.

Hlao: The people who act as my handlers? They were old acquaintances from before I first got sick, but they became real friends after the fact. They renovated this house for me, and take shifts keeping me company. They're decent. They don't fake smiles around me. I appreciate that. One of them is a cousin we never lost touch with. The other three are old drinking buddies. We don't drink together anymore, though- my body fights the beer.

RBL: How so?

Hlao: I don't know. It's like it knows what drink does to it- dulls its reflexes and makes it less able to attack someone. I went sober after the first year when I kept popping loops in my chair to fight off a kurshaz³ of beer.

RBL: Do you miss alcohol?

Hlao: It was bad, the first few months. But it was bad for a lot of other reasons, too. Not so much now. I switched to tea.

RBL: I am sorry to hear that.

Hlao: Which part? The trouble, or the tea?

RBL: ... Yes.

[Hlao snorts]

RBL: What other creature comforts do you enjoy?

Hlao: After the harvest season ends and the river branches reflood, people here do everything they can with their gourds. Make bottles, ferment the greens, dry the flesh for later, whatever works. But I like the seeds, roasted. Go to Irrib during the festival and try some for yourself- but make sure they don't use too much salt and oil. That drowns and ruins all the flavor in them, mmh?

[Hlao inclines his head at RBL with the gravest of expectations. RBL nods solemnly]

RBL: Light on the oil and salt.

[Hlao nods, his head bobbing and drifting hard to one side. He stares off into space for several moments, then drifts back]

Hlao: May we finish soon? I am getting tired.

RBL: Oh, of course! Forgive me, we can stop now if you would prefer.

Hlao: No, no. I can finish.

RBL: Very well... Let me see. Ah, yes. I think this will do. What is something you aspire to? Is there a particular dream of yours that you hope will come true?

[Hlao dwells on this question at length]

Hlao: I have been told that we do not attack other people who are sick. Do you know if that is true?

RBL: Hmm... Yes, I believe so. In all the literature on the disease that I have read, none has ever suggested or shown evidence that infectees react aggressively to one another's presence. That is part of why infections in isolated areas can come as such a sudden surprise.

Hlao: I would like to meet another like me someday, then. And I would like to spend time with them. Even if we just stood still with nothing to talk about... I just want to be in another's presence where we aren't a danger for once. I would like that very much.

RBL: Of course. I... I will make sure your words are heard.⁴

Hlao: Thank you, doh Litte. I thought you were odd when you approached us. And you are- but you are also an enjoyable visit.

RBL: That is my single greatest aspiration in life.

[Hlao laughs again]

RBL: Before we finish this, are there any parting words that you would wish to share?

Hlao: You mean something I want to tell your readers?

RBL: Yes, I suppose I do mean that- all four of them.

[RBL laughs weakly, then clears his throat]

Hlao: Be good to your family, whether it's the one you're from or one you find yourself in. They might be the ones holding your spoon someday.

RBL: Thank you, doh Hlao.

[Live transcription ends here]

¹ An informal honorific commonly used in and around the alluvial plain on the western bank of the lower River Khesh. Comparable to "mister" or "boss".

² I chose not to confront my interviewee on this issue because I am his guest and he has already been a surpassingly gracious host. Additionally, I did not want to jeopardize the project by breaking from the interview to lecture him. But it should still be stated somewhere that the Sayaula do not appreciate any of the epithets derived from their cranial shape, and I believe their use should be discouraged.

³ A vessel and associated colloquial unit of measure roughly equal to half a liter. Literally a "thin one".

⁴ I should not get his hopes up with promises to seek out another patient. I have no idea what sort of hurdles this would require, if it is even possible.

Monday, July 3, 2023

3E OdditE: Urban Druid (Dragon Compendium, 2005)

Click here to return to the OdditE archive.

This series won't have very many class variants in it. There were just so many, and most of them change very little about their base classes. Which is perfectly fine for narrowing down the type of character you want, but it's not so much to write about unless I wanted to compile a list of them. Which I don't.

The Urban Druid is one big exception to that rule.

I only recently looked at this class for the first time precisely because of all the other variants and ACFs floating around out there. For the longest time I automatically assumed that the Urban Druid was just another one of those minor tweaks from Unearthed Arcana like the Whirling Frenzy Barbarian or the Thug Fighter- one or two modified class abilities to fit a slightly different take on things.

But when I stumbled across it while browsing dndtools, I learned that I was very wrong. The Urban Druid by James Jacobs is from Dragon #317 (later reprinted in Dragon Compendium) rather than UA, first of all. Second, instead of being a normal variant it's a complete overhaul of the Druid class that alters just about every single class feature in service of its new theme.

And it does that while still being nifty!

The Urban Druid

I'm surprised that Paizo link still works.

The Urban Druid is divorced from other druids despite sharing a fundamental principle with them. Whereas other druids value natural life, often favoring different manifestations of it like forests or oceans or what have you, urban druids see each city as not only a valid environment alongside all others, but as a single living organism unto itself. Civilization is opposed to nature, sure, but in the same way two neighboring biomes are opposed. A desert can swallow up grassland or a forest can dry up and expand over a bog, but one isn't inherently an enemy to the other.

The idealistic urban druid feels the same way about the city's place in nature. They may be opposed, but they need not be in constant conflict with one another. These manifestations of civilization deserve the same sort of guardianship as a grove of trees might receive, and that is where the urban druid comes in.

The mechanical differences are immediately apparent, starting with the equipment and skill list.

Much like a rogue, urban druids can equip rapiers, saps, crossbows, and short swords alongside druidic mainstays like the club and quarterstaff. They favor discreet weapons that don't draw attention or cause a panic in crowded city streets that may or may not have open carry laws.

They are limited to padded, leather, and studded leather armor, though notably they do not have a religious or supernatural limit on what kinds of material their weapons and armor are made from. Thus an urban druid can wear any suit of armor whose Armor Check penalty can be brought down to -0, even if the text says they should only have armor under  +4 bonus as a possibility (which is the first time I've ever seen gear proficiency gated expressly by number bonuses). Rock that mithral chain shirt, you miracle-hobo.

Urban druids gain a slew of socials skills to add to this faint whiff of rogue, like bluff, gather information, knowledge ( local), perform, and sense motive. They also lose their more nature-oriented skills like animal handling, knowledge (nature), etc. Personally I find the loss of spot and listen greatly lamentable, but the change was intended to make the urban druid more of a face character, and it accomplishes that- especially considering how important Charisma is to the urban druid.

Urban druids us Charisma as their casting stat instead of Wisdom. They get a whole new spell list that heavily features utility, crowd control, a little bit of charm and enchantment, and interacting with objects and constructs in a variety of ways. The list includes a few new spells, like Susurrus of the City, which allows you to ask questions of an empty building like it's a genius loci. That's what the big ol' brick face up at the top of the post represents.

The spell list also gets Repair Damage at every level, which was brand-new at the time of Urban Druid's original publication. Fortunately, they don't replace Cure Wounds spells. Urban Druids can also cast Repair spells spontaneously, replacing the base druid's Summon Nature's Ally ability. It's less powerful by far, but there are only so many places in a city you could pull a rhinoceros out of. Spontaneous Repair spells could be terrific if you and/or the party are Warforged, though.

The other thing thematically separating Urban Druids' magic from their more natural counterparts is where they receive their spells from. Normal druids receive their magic from nature, which bestows it upon them much the same way deities give clerics their spells. Urban Druids, meanwhile, gain their power by tapping into the spirit of a city. This living creature of streets and rooftops is a gestalt of all its citizens' hopes, fears, and dreams; a divinity of mortals' own collaborative creation that might not be conscious, but certainly isn't lacking in purpose.

I want so much more content delving into this concept. It's like an amped-up version of Shivers from Disco Elysium, or if the city of Revachol herself was a distant goddess.

From here, Urban Druid (UD from now on) class abilities can be divided into two categories; tweaks to base druid abilities, and full replacements for them. In the first camp we have City Sense, Disease ImmunityFavored CityUrban Companion, and Urban Shape.

City Sense is a flat +2 bonus to gather information and knowledge (local) checks. I've talked already in this series about how I hate class abilities that barely amount to a single newbie trap feat. It's not very exciting or useful. But it replaces the similarly uninspiring Nature Sense of the base druid, so it is what it is. Moving on.

Disease Immunity replaces Venom Immunity, because you're admittedly far more likely to contract a respiratory or waterborne disease in a populous, vaguely medieval city than you are to get bitten by a snake or huff exotic flower pollen. No notes.

Crowd Walk is the Woodland Stride of the concrete jungle (brick jungle? half-timbered jungle with a fading white plaster infill?). Except instead of not being slowed down by difficult terrain, the UD gets a +4 bonus to whatever check is involved when they're trying to pass through a space occupied by a hostile creature. It's basically the Mobility feat, except it extends to other things like making an overrun or tumble check. Better than City Sense, at least?

Favored City is exactly what it sounds like. It replaces and progresses similar to the druid and ranger's Favored Terrain, granting you a bonus in up to 6 cities of at least Small Town size or larger (according to the DMG). Favored City grants the UD a sacred bonus to bluff, diplomacy, gather information, and intimidate, making them even better at facing. It also gives them a decent +2 to Will saves besides.

Much like favored terrain, favored city can be handy or functionally useless depending on where you go in your campaign. A game that takes place entirely within a major city like Sharn or, gods forbid, Neverwinter, will see favored city activated just about all the time. Games where you're only in a city in between adventures make it more of an insult. I do appreciate that the ability extends across an entire city instead of just areas or neighborhoods, as I've seen with urban class features in other games. Pathfinder 1E, I think?

Oh, and did I mention that the skill bonus from favored city is keyed off of the UD's Wisdom modifier? The ability score they just dropped as the all-important casting stat in favor of Charisma? It wouldn't be 3E without a little bit of Multiple Attribute Dependence, I suppose.

Urban Companion is a modified Animal Companion that advances at the same rate, except the list of available companions is very different. They get the standard dog, pony, and snake options at 1st level, but no wolf, camel, aquatic options, etc. Instead they can pick things like centipedes, spiders, and rats. At higher levels instead of accessing an increasingly insane list of dire animals like dinosaurs and elephants, they get an increasingly insane list of giant vermin, animated objects, and just straight-up robots like hammerers or pulverizers. They can also get an otyugh at 7th level, which opens up potential for the municipal waste disposal druid of your dreams.

Like the change to spontaneous casting, the urban companion list is another flavorful downgrade. The list isn't bad by any means, and you can probably get pretty creative with animated objects. But the base druid wins out thanks to outside support: years of Monster Manuals and other splatbooks added to the list of animal companions and animal forms they can choose from. But as a class variant limited to a single magazine article, the UD gets no such love.

Speaking of animal forms, Urban Shape is quite something. Like urban companion, the animal options provided are extremely limited. You also do not gain plant or elemental forms at higher levels. Instead, to start off you can turn into any animal or vermin from the urban companion list, or any humanoid.

Now humanoids tend not to have the most powerful abilities baked into their species, nor would you be able to use them while urban shaped if they were supernatural or spell-like in nature. But this still allows you to turn into any humanoid you're familiar with. And with a +10 to Disguise checks from this being a modification of the Alternate Form ability, you can even impersonate individual people with this ability. You basically turn into a doppelganger for a few hours a day with urban shape. The synergy between that and an urban campaign with a Charisma-focused kit (not to mention the fact that you're still a full-caster) is spectacular, and I'm curious what kind of cheese you can age with this.

At higher levels, urban shape allows the UD to turn into an ordinary object (in case you've ever wanted to do a stakeout as a fencepost) or an animated object (in case you want to end said stakeout by staking somebody). Or, hell, just become the mimic house from that one internet copy+pasta. Again, the combat power level is diminished compared to base druid, but the flavor is kept to nicely.

And, honestly, it's still 2/3rds of a CoDZilla so the power drop isn't that much to worry about.

As I mentioned, the other group of UD class abilities are entirely new, rather than being modifications of existing stuff. They are Alley Fighting, and Information Network.

Alley Fighting is weird. It would fit way better on an Urban Fighter if such a variant existed. The UD gets a +1 to attack rolls in confined spaces, and ignores cover from attacking around a corner in melee. 

That's it. The bonus doesn't even scale with level.

The ability to ignore cover might be good if you maneuver and do a lot of ambushing, which is something the UD can pull off decently well in a city. It's still such a weird ability, even more niche than the rest of the variant.

Information Network on the other hand, is the culmination of the UD as a surreptitious guardian of the city with eyes and ears everywhere. The UD gains a network of informants who cut gather information checks from a full day down to a mere half-hour. Additionally, just about every event of interest that happens in one of their chosen cities will come to their attention within a matter of hours. This is the kind of kingpin spy network that rogues would have gotten, had 3rd edition kept the convention of every class founding some kind of stronghold at ~10th level. There's so much roleplay potential here, and I love it.

The Urban Druid was a very enjoyable discovery for me. It's a fun, different take on very familiar old mechanics, and it makes the idea of playing a game set entirely in a city slightly less anxiety-inducing to me, which I assure you is high praise.

I would have liked it if it the lore of the class supported them being part of the larger culture of druids, perhaps with a nod toward the idea of living in harmony with nature, but coming from the other direction than what we usually associate druids with. Because as it stands, urban druids feel weirdly divorced from their namesakes, as well as all other nature-themed classes, to the point that maybe it would have made more sense to call them something else and then in the description say in passing that they are "like the druids of the city" or something.

I dunno. I've probably been binge-watching too many urbanism videos on YouTube again. Now I want a base druid and an urban druid working together to create a nice green city with extensive parks, sustainable energy sources, and mixed-use zoning. Throw in a plotting NIMBY cult and you've got yourself an adventure.

Quick aside: I started this post by saying I wouldn't talk a lot about alternate class features, and I'm afraid I was kind of lying.

In researching the urban druid for this post, I came across an ACL from Cityscape, which is an invaluable resource (or maybe a terrible burden of knowledge) when you're trying to trudge through the crunchiness of an urban campaign in 3.5E. This ACL is Voice of the City, available to druids, rangers, and spirit shamans. It drops Wild Empathy in favor of the ability to communicate ideas to creatures whom you don't share a language with, and honestly I wish I could trade City Sense or Alley Fighting out for it. It fits the urban druid so well, even if its speak language skill is redundant with the variant's skill list.