Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Foes of the Wicked City 7: The Bog Folk

If most people think of the endless bogs of the north-west at all, it is in relation to the most famous things to be found in them, the bronze gods of the frog men: immense clockwork Wisdom Engines built by a now-vanished civilisation, which are revered as divinities by the amphibious humanoids who now live in the region. But something else inhabits the vast wetlands: and the few travellers who visit the region sometimes speak of weird encounters with bizarre, squelching creatures that seem to be composed entirely of freezing mud. They call them the Bog Folk, or the Mud Men.

Image result for mud man

The Bog Folk were born from the ruins of the same ancient culture which built the Wisdom Engines. Among the wonders that they created was an enchanted fountain, whose waters were capable of healing injuries and curing disease; and while long ages have passed since the fountain fell into ruin, its magical waters still trickle through the rubble which once formed its basin, soaking into the surrounding mud and peat. Its power has dwindled over the centuries, and the waters now possess only minor healing properties; but the slow infusion of their life-giving energies into the earth has gradually charged the surrounding bogland with a kind of dim, instinctive life. Today, the marshes around the ruin in which the fountain once stood are filled with a weird vitality; they move, they quake, they sprout waving limbs, they form crude half-faces which attempt to speak in gurgling voices. And it is from this weird half-alive morass that the Bog Folk are born.

They are a magical accident, arising from the vain attempts of the fountain's magic to 'heal' the surrounding peat bog back into a human form that it never possessed in the first place. They look like roughly humanoid figures made of icy peat; the kind of thing a child might sculpt, with crude pits for their mouths and eyes. They don't so much walk as shamble, and their voices are horrible gurgles which sound as though they're drowning in mud. The frog men fear and avoid them, as do the very occasional human visitors to their lands; but despite their disturbing appearance, the Bog Folk are not a violent race. If anything, they tend towards a phlegmatic stoicism, as though rather bemused by the fact of their own existence. They feel no pain, or cold, or lust, or hunger, so they have nothing much to drive them into action. Most of them just doze their lives away, vaguely contemplating the passage of the seasons across the marsh, mostly mistaken for simple lumps of peat by passers-by.

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Thus they would have remained, little more than a local curiosity, until an expedition arrived in their territory from a far-off land. Its original aim had been to locate the Wisdom Engines, but an encounter with the murder machines built by the Mad King's worshippers forced them into a change of plans; and now all that the demoralised and desperate survivors were looking for was to escape the bogs with something to show for all their suffering. Mud men seemed as good a prize as any; so they scooped a group of them up into the sealed crates in which they had once hoped to bring back components of a Wisdom Engine, before fleeing the marshes with dozens more of the creatures on their heels.

The stolen Bog Folk were traded from hand to hand; first as oddities and then, after the healing properties of their mud were discovered, as a source of medicines and cosmetics. It was for this purpose that they were ultimately sold to a group of alchemists in the Wicked City, who keep them locked in a sealed lab, and regularly harvest their mud for use as a rejuvenating skin cream popular among the city's elite. By then they had gone through so many owners that no-one was really sure where they had originally come from; and while the competitors of the alchemists who owned them would very much have liked to undermine their monopoly, they had no idea where to start looking for mud men of their own.

But the Bog Folk were more persistent. Hiding their faces of frozen peat in filthy rags stolen from the settlements on the edge of the swamp, they stumbled from village to village, town to town, asking after their lost brethren in their horrible, gurgling voices. It took years for them to pick up the trail, but they had no shortage of time. They learned. They travelled. Gradually, they became more skilled in imitating the humans among whom they moved. From the swamps to the taiga they went, and from the taiga to the steppe, and from the steppe to the desert - until finally, after many years and many, many miles, they came to the gates of the Wicked City.

They will find their stolen kin. And they will bring them home.

Image result for swamp thing

There is a Master of Mud: You can play one of the Bog Folk, if you want to, although you'll want to keep your true nature hidden under concealing clothing most of the time, lest you be carried off by profit-crazed alchemists and used to manufacture soothing, rejuvenating face creams for the very rich. Game information is as follows:
  • You are proficient with simple weapons, and with all forms of armour (although you will need to be careful about drying out - see below). You are not proficient with shields. 
  • You gain a bonus to all your to-hit rolls equal to half your level, rounded down.
  • You gain 1d10 HP per level.
  • You don't feel cold, hunger, pain, or exhaustion; you are immune to disease and poison, and you never need to breathe or sleep. Any cold damage you take is halved, rounding any fractions down.
  • You are vulnerable to drying out if you get too hot. Hot, wet conditions (e.g. a tropical monsoon) don't bother you, but hot, dry conditions will require you to constantly replace your lost moisture, at the rate of about a pint per hour. (Extremely hot and dry conditions, such as a shadeless desert under the summer sun, may require two or three times this much.) For every four pints of moisture lost and not replaced you take 1 HP of damage, which cannot be healed by any means until you get good and soggy again. You take double damage from heat and fire.
  • Being saturated with magical healing waters, your mud has soothing, healing properties. Anyone who rubs it onto their injuries will heal an extra 1 HP per day, in addition to any bonuses they may already be receiving from medical care. 
  • Your body is made of flowing, metamorphic mud and sodden peat. You are immune to damage from piercing weapons such as knives, spears, and normal-sized bullets (although a cannon or a blunderbuss will still splatter you). 
  • You can stretch out your arms and legs to double their normal length at the cost of halving their effective strength: so if you normally have strength 10 and a 2' reach, then you could stretch out your arm to reach something 4' away, but would only be able to grasp it with a strength of 5. By stretching out your legs to double their normal length you can massively increase your stride length, allowing you to keep pace with a jogging human - which is convenient, because you can't really run. Lost body parts can be regenerated given enough time and mud, but the magic animating you dissipates if you take enough damage to kill you. 
  • You can squeeze yourself through very small entrances, although doing so may involve leaving some or all of your equipment behind. By narrowing your head and body you can squish yourself through a gap just 3" across, although it will take some time to squeeze your whole body through. This ability means that you cannot be effectively restrained with normal ropes, chains, snares, straitjackets, etc.
Bog Folk Summary Table

Level
Hit Points
To Hit Bonus
Fortitude save (FORT)
Reflex save (REF)
Willpower save (WILL)
1
1d10
+0
14
14
14
2
2d10
+1
13
13
13
3
3d10
+1
12
12
12
4
4d10
+2
11
11
11
5
5d10
+2
10
10
10
6
6d10
+3
9
9
9
7
7d10
+3
8
8
8
8
8d10
+4
7
7
7
9
9d10
+4
6
6
6
10
10d10
+5
5
5
5

Starting equipment: Thick, concealing robes (+1 AC), club (1d6 damage), stolen pistol (1d8 damage, 3 rounds to reload), extremely tolerant riding camel, 1d6x10 sp.

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Tuesday, 13 June 2017

'The Heads of the Headless': Penny Dreadful titles as scenario seeds

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'Penny dreadfuls' - the cheap serial novels which were sold to children and the working poor in early Victorian Britain for one penny per installment - didn't acquire their name by accident. They featured plenty of blood and thunder, devious crimes, nonsensical plot twists, and authors who sometimes lost track of which century their stories were supposed to be set in, but the quality of the writing was... not high. Bombast, melodrama, and aggressive incoherence were pretty much the order of the day.

Their titles, however, were fabulous. 

Here are fifty, all of which I think would make fantastic titles for D&D scenarios. Roll 1d100, halve it, and use that as the title for your next adventure!
  1. Ada the Betrayed, or the Murder at the Old Smithy
  2. Adeline, or the Grave of the Forsaken
  3. Alice Home, or the Revenge of the Blighted One
  4. Alice Leighton, or the Murder at the Druid's Stones
  5. Almira's Curse, or the Black Tower of Bransdorf
  6. Angela the Orphan, or the Bandit Monk of Italy
  7. Anselmo the Accursed, or the Skeleton Hand!
  8. Bellgrove Castle, or the Hour of Retribution
  9. The Black Mantle, or the Murder at the Old Ferry
  10. The Black Monk, or the Secret of the Grey Turret
  11. The Black Pirate, or the Phantom Ship
  12. Captain Hawk, or the Shadow of Death
  13. Captain Kyd, or the Wizard of the Sea
  14. The Castle Fiend, or the Fate of the Loved and the Lost
  15. The Companions of Silence, or the Knights of the Iron Ring
  16. The Death Ship, or the Pirate's Bride and the Maniac of the Deep (This is probably one of the greatest titles in the history of publishing.)
  17. The Death Touch, or the Terrors of the Wilderness
  18. Deeds of Guilt! Or the Desolate House on the Waste
  19. The Demon Dwarf, or the Bond of Blood
  20. The Demon Huntsman; a Romance of Diablerie 
  21. The Destroyer, or the Sorcerers of the Domdaniel
  22. The Dice of Death
  23. The Fate of Gaspar, or the Mystic Caverns
  24. Fate, or the Avenger's Doom
  25. Geraldine, or the Secret Assassins of the Old Stone Cross
  26. Giralda, or the Invisible Husband
  27. The Goldsmith of Paris, or the Invisible Assassin
  28. Guy of Aulstone, or the Secret of the Iron Chamber
  29. The Heads of the Headless
  30. The House of Doom, or Love, Pride, and the Pest.
  31. Julian, or the Dead Man Come to Life Again.
  32. Kabaosa, or the Warriors of the West
  33. The Kinsmen, or the Black Riders of Congaree
  34. The Lady of the Fell House
  35. The Man With the Huge Umbrella
  36. The Mountain Fiend, or the Victim of Tyranny!
  37. The Mysterious Dagger, or the Avengers!
  38. The Mysterious Freebooters, or the Bride of Mystery (The more mystery the better, right?)
  39. The Oath, or the Buried Treasure
  40. One O'Clock, or the Knight and the Wood Demon
  41. The Phantom Voice, or the Doomed One of the Hulk
  42. The Ranger of the Tomb, or the Gypsy's Prophecy
  43. The Red Cross Warrior, or the Spirit of the Night
  44. The Rivals, or the Spectre of the Hall
  45. The Sea-Fiend, or the Abbot of St Mark's
  46. The Skeleton Lover 
  47. The Wild Witch of the Heath, or the Demon of the Glen
  48. The Witch of the Wave
  49. The Wood Devil, or the Vampire Pirate of the Deep Dell 
  50. Two Dead Bodies
(Many more can be found here, which is where I got all these from in the first place!)

Image result for mysteries of london reynolds

Sunday, 11 June 2017

I wrote most of a thing and you can buy it! (Although not from me.)


What's that? Fifth edition? What madness is this?

So, funny story. A while back Benoit de Bernardy, who runs the D&D 5e website Goblinstone, put out an open call for people to submit adventures for him to publish. I'd never played 5e - B/X is more my style - but I'd heard people say it wasn't that different to the older editions; so I wrote a scenario and sent it in, and to my surprise Ben liked it enough to buy it off me. He then sorted out the art and the maps and the layout, and made some changes to the adventure, to make it bigger and more fifth-edition-y: I'd written the whole scenario as essentially one big puzzle for the PCs to solve, and Ben's rewrite added more action and combat and whatnot, as well as all that fifth edition 'roll this skill to get some information' stuff. He then put the resulting project up as a kickstarter, which you can see here.

Anyway. The module is called The Chapel on the Cliffs; it's set in a thinly-disguised version of late medieval south-west England, and it's a Gothic horror adventure about getting chased around a haunted village by a fuckload of angry skeletons. It's a 5e module, but it should be easy to run in B/X D&D instead, especially as B/X was what I wrote it for in the first place. It also features art by the rather talented Raluca Marinescu, who painted both the images featured in this post. Five euro gets you a pdf, and ten euro gets you a print copy. Money goes to Ben, not me, but he deserves it for getting the damn thing into a publishable state...

If anyone runs it, I'd love to hear how it goes!

The Shrine of Saint Sidvela

Thursday, 1 June 2017

The Rosefinch Khatun: an ATWC adventure

As promised back in February, here's a quick adventure set in the ATWC setting, involving spirits and stuff. Reading heaps of text on a blog is awful, so I've tried to use images to do as much of the scene-setting as possible. This adventure should be suitable for a low-level party, is heavy on social interactions, and should take a couple of sessions to play through.

Image result for rosefinch

The Rosefinch Khatun

Setting: An expanse of taiga on the northern edge of the steppe, someplace. 

Possible Hooks: 
  • A leading family within a nearby steppe clan is offering a reward to anyone who can bring home their missing son, Ganbaatar. You like money, right?
  • Or maybe the PCs need to find Ganbaatar for reasons of their own. Maybe he owes them money. Maybe he knows something they want to know.
  • Or maybe the PCs are looking to build an alliance with one of the clan's leading warriors, and he asks them to ride into the taiga and help his daughter, Narangerel, bring back her missing fiancé. What makes her happy makes him happy, right?
  • Or maybe the PCs have some connection with the local inhabitants of the taiga, the Nine Valleys People, and are called upon to help them deal with this bunch of pushy steppe nomads who have showed up demanding to know where this Ganbaatar guy is.
  • Or maybe Galiya (see below) hired them as security for her research trip. (In this case, the PCs replace the gun-toting mercenaries mentioned in her description, below.)

The Adventure:

Meet Ganbaatar.

Buryat Mongol.:

Ganbaatar is a handsome, athletic young warrior from a clan of steppe nomads. He and his friends recently rode into the taiga to do some hunting; but during a chase through dense woods they became separated, and afterwards his friends found no trace of him. They searched for days, but eventually they had to return home without him. This is because he's no longer in the woods at all: he's been carried away by the Rosefinch Khatun (see below), and is now being kept by her in the spirit world, as her lover. He is unaware of how much time has passed in the outside world.

This is Narangerel:


Girl with Bow, Kazakhstan 2013 Photo by Sasha Gusov:

Steppe nomad, expert horsewoman, skilled archer, enthusiastic but ill-disciplined wrestler. She is engaged to be married to Ganbaatar, and is not at all happy about his disappearance. She has rounded up a band of friends and relatives and led them into the taiga, determined not to return until she's found out what has become of him.

These are the Nine Valleys People:


Amazon.com - 1881 Wood Engraving Siberian Indigenous People Costume Bow Arrow Fowl Hunting - Original Wood Engraving - Prints:

Taiga-dwellers, they inhabit the woods where Ganbaatar went missing, and live by hunting, fishing, and reindeer herding. They are led by their impetuous young chief, Toyon Ayhal, and their grizzled old shaman, Kaskil. The horse-breeding steppe clans view themselves as innately superior to the reindeer-breeding forest-dwellers, but the two communities also engage in trade and relations are normally peaceful, if strained. They are currently a lot more strained than usual due to Narangerel and her band roaming from camp to camp, demanding to know what they've done with her fiancé and threatening dire consequences if he is not returned to her.

Kaskil knows where to find the sacred grove of the Rosefinch Khatun (see below), but will not reveal this to outsiders except under exceptional circumstances. 

This is Batbayar:

Mongolian wrestler:

A mountain of a man, and the best wrestler in his clan. He's Ganbaatar's best friend, and was with him on the hunt where he disappeared. He also has a massive crush on Narangerel, which he feels very guilty about - he believes that he has successfully concealed this from everyone, but actually it's pretty obvious to most people, including Narangerel and Ganbaatar themselves.

Batbayar has (truthfully) told Narangerel that he thinks he glimpsed Ganbaatar vanishing into the woods with a strange woman, but Narangerel suspects he's making this up in the hope of getting her to give up on her fiancé: after all, none of the hunters were able to find any tracks, and she knows full well that Ganbaatar isn't that stealthy. (She always had to creep into his yurt. He woke her parents every time he tried to sneak into hers.) Whatever Narangerel's suspicions to the contrary, Batbayar does genuinely want to find his friend, and has accompanied her back into the taiga; he now goes around looming menacingly over every young woman he sees, in the hope that they'll confess to having Ganbaatar concealed in a hidden love-nest somewhere. This intimidating behaviour is doing very little to endear him (or Narangerel) to the Nine Valleys People.

This is Tuyaara:

Stunning Yakutian woman, Yakutistan:

She's a young woman of the Nine Valleys People, and a noted beauty. As such, Batbayar will regard her with intense suspicion, as just the kind of girl who might have turned his friend's head. His suspicions will be deepened by the fact that she makes regular trips into the woods, alone; in fact, these are her visits to her uncle, Elley, an eccentric shaman who lives deep in the taiga and relies upon Tuyaara to keep him supplied with drink. Tuyaara is very popular among her people, and the more that she is harassed by Batbayar, the more hostile the Nine Valleys clan will become to him and his companions.

This is Firebird Woman:


Gennady Pavlyshyn "Amur Tales": I just love Russian illustrations.:

Firebird Woman is a Payna, a woodland spirit who lives in a hollow tree deep in the taiga near the yurt inhabited by Tuyaara's uncle, Elley. She and Elley have a long-term (if intermittently acrimonious) relationship; they're currently on the outs, however, and spend a lot of time yelling at each other and accusing one another of imaginary infidelities. PCs who overhear Elley accusing her of seducing other men may wonder if she is behind Ganbaatar's disappearance, but Firebird Woman is hot-tempered and will react extremely badly to strangers poking around her tree. If anything happens to Tuyaara, Elley will unleash Firebird Woman upon whomever he believes to be responsible. 

Both Elley and Firebird Woman know where to find the sacred grove of the Rosefinch Khatun (see below), but will not share this information without good reason. 

This is Galiya.

Kazakh:

She's a scholar from the Wicked City, far to the south, who has come to the woods in the hope of locating and excavating an ancient tower which she believes to be hidden somewhere within this part of the taiga. This tower was once the residence of a great Khatun (queen) of the steppe peoples, and Galiya is eager to find it, partly out of a disinterested desire for historical knowledge and partly because she's hoping to find ancient jewellery that will sell for a fortune back home. She's currently staying with the Nine Valleys People, accompanied by a group of thuggish, musket-toting mercenary bodyguards; she herself carries a multi-barrelled pepperbox pistol, and knows how to use it. Her hosts know perfectly well where the ruins of the tower are, but they have no desire to see it desecrated and have been fobbing her off with claims of ignorance, much to her increasing frustration. 

All the locals - steppe and taiga-dwellers alike - think Galiya looks terribly foreign and glamorous, and Narangerel will suspect her immediately as soon as they cross paths. (As mentioned above, Batbayar's main suspect will be Tuyaara; but Narangerel thinks that if Ganbaatar has been unfaithful to her, it's much more likely to have been with someone exotic and sophisticated like Galiya, rather than the daughter of some taiga-dwelling reindeer-herder.) She may well try tailing Galiya on her trips into the forest, just to make sure she doesn't have Ganbaatar hidden away somewhere. Unfortunately, Galiya has suspicions of her own; if she becomes aware that the steppe warriors are tailing her she will assume it's because they want to follow her to the ruins and steal her loot, and will react accordingly.

This is Terbish:

Archer with pike and axe, Mongolia circa 1889:

He's another of Ganbaatar's friends, who was with him on the original hunting trip and who has now returned with Narangerel to find him. He's a rather cynical soul, who believes what he sees with his own eyes, and little more. He assumes that Batbayar's story about seeing Ganbaatar with a woman was simply invented in the hope of driving a wedge between him and Narangerel. His own theory is that Ganbaatar was probably murdered by the taiga people for the sake of his horse and hunting gear, and that's what Narangerel should be looking for.

Although still young, Terbish has already fought in two campaigns in the service of his khan, and his soldiering days have left their mark on him. He's not an especially cruel man, but he does tend to believe that most situations can be resolved through sufficient applications of matter-of-fact brutality.

This is Sayiina:


Kyrgyzstan Horsewoman, 1936.:

She's a rather wild young woman who lives on the very edges of the territory held by the Nine Valleys People, with her two younger brothers and her aged grandmother. (Her parents died a few years back.) She found Ganbaatar's horse wandering by a river, and his clothes and weapons scattered on the ground not far away; she assumed that both must belong to some idiot foreigner who'd wandered into the woods and managed to drown himself in the stream, and promptly claimed them for herself. The clothes and weapons are stashed in her yurt, but she rides the horse every chance she gets.

Because of the extremely remote location of Sayiina's yurt, Narangerel's band are unlikely to come across her until they've finished with the main encampments of the Nine Rivers People (and thus with Batbayar and Narangerel's suspicions that Tuyaara and Galiya, respectively, may know what has become of Ganbaatar). If they manage to get this far without antagonising the locals too much, however, it will only be a matter of time before Terbish spots Sayiina riding around on Ganbaatar's horse. If he sees Ganbaatar's clothes, he'll be somewhat surprised by the lack of cuts or bloodstains on them; but he will continue to regard Sayiina as the prime suspect in his friend's disappearance, and will attempt to grab her and beat the truth out of her at the first opportunity he gets. (If he and his friends haven't already totally alienated the Nine Valleys People, then this will probably do the trick!) 

This is The Mourning Khatun:

Mongolia 1920s:

According to legend, she was the khatun of an ancient khan among the steppe peoples, who - after his death in battle - rode into the taiga to live out the rest of her life in mourning and seclusion. The Nine Valleys People tell a different version of her story: according to them, after three years of mourning she fell in love with a handsome young taiga huntsman, and become the ancestress of their people. They revere her to this day as the Rosefinch Khatun, ancestor-spirit and spirit of the taiga, and will not kill a rosefinch anywhere within her woods, because of the love she was said to bear for them.

The steppe clans know that the Nine Valleys People revere some kind of rosefinch-forest-mother-spirit, but are unaware that she and the Mourning Khatun of their own legends are one and the same. If told, they would find the idea that a heroine of the steppes like the Mourning Khatun could lay aside her sorrows for a simple taiga huntsman highly offensive!

This is the Rosefinch Khatun today:

Buyrat Woman:

She has, indeed, become a powerful spirit of the taiga, although she's a bit vague about whether or not she's also the progenitor of the Nine Valleys People. It was she who spirited Ganbaatar away, attracted by his youth, beauty, and athleticism, and his vague resemblance to the khan she loved so long ago. He believes that she is madly in love with him, but the fact is that she's already getting bored with him. If Narangerel (or someone else) could locate her sacred grove and deliver a sufficiently-impassioned plea for his return, he'd probably come stumbling out of the woods a few minutes later, wild-eyed and naked and with no idea how much time had passed in the outside world. Of course, if the person making the plea has already antagonised her by mistreating her worshippers, she's much more likely to keep him with her forever just to spite them. The location of her grove is known only to the spirits and shamans of the Nine Valleys People (Kaskil, Elley, Firebird Woman, and the Shurale), who keep it as a closely-guarded secret.

The idea that the Rosefinch Khatun might be behind Ganbaatar's disappearance will honestly not occur to the Nine Valleys People, despite the fairly clear parallel with their own origin myth, which also involves her being attracted to a handsome young huntsman whom see sees riding in the taiga. They are so used to thinking of her as their spirit that they tend to discount or forget her origins among the steppe peoples, and simply assume that she, like them, will view the steppe nomads as annoying intruders, rather than as countrymen for whose language and culture she might still feel some lingering affection.

This is the Khatun's tower, or what's left of it:

Old forgotten house taken over by a tree! Micoley's picks for #AbandonedProperties www.Micoley.com:

Finding it without a local guide is difficult but not impossible, and if she's not driven out of the taiga first then Galiya will find it eventually. It's overrun by the forest, a haunt of animals and birds - especially rosefinches, which might suggest to alert PCs that the Mourning Khatun of steppe legend and the rosefinch spirit revered by the Nine Valleys People are one and the same. Within it lairs a Siberian tiger of prodigious size, which will defend its territory ferociously.

The upper floors contain some old antiques which would be valuable to the right collector, once all the bird shit was cleaned off them. There are also some old carvings of the Khan and Khatun, from before his death. If either Batbayar or Narangerel sees these, they will comment on the khan's resemblance to Ganbaatar.

Searching the place will reveal an old tomb nearby - this is not the grave of the Khatun herself, but that of her faithless handmaiden, the witch Bolormaa. It does contain some treasures - Bolormaa was buried with her enchanted jewellery - but disturbing the grave in any way will unleash Bolormaa's ghost the following night.

If Galiya finds the tower, she will order her men to shoot the tiger and break open the grave before setting up camp and exploring the ruin more thoroughly. She'll probably become Bolormaa's first victim.

This is Bolormaa:


Diao Si Gui is a Chinese ghost of someone who was hanged to death. Morbid. Yeesh.:

If unleashed, she roams the woods by night, apparently a bewitching maiden with long, dark, silky hair. She will try to lure any men who see her into the forest, where she will lean in as though to kiss them. Then her mouth opens impossibly wide and she'll suck the breath from their lungs in one, huge, ripping gust. She is semi-material, and it is possible (although difficult) to destroy her with mundane weapons alone.

Once it becomes clear that some kind of ghost-woman is roaming the woods, preying upon young men, the Nine Valleys People will strongly suggest to Narangerel that maybe it was this malicious spirit which took Ganbaatar. If she is persuaded of this, Narangerel won't rest until she's hunted Bolormaa down.

This is the Ill-Luck Forest:

Banshee Art Print by Jana Heidersdorf Illustration:

It's a region of bog and taiga inhabited by malicious spirits, and plagued by flocks of ironclaw ravens. At its heart lies an old, desecrated burial ground, haunted by an abaasy ghost. (These graves contain some valuable trinkets if looted, but the only way to search them safely is to placate the ghost with offerings of blood.) Near the burial ground is a thicket inhabited by a Shurale, which will attempt to abduct any woman who comes near its lair, hoping to add her to its collection of pretty things.

The shurale knows the nature of the Rosefinch Khatun, and where to find her sacred grove, but PCs seeking such information from it would have to bribe it with valuable-looking items. Fortunately, it's pretty stupid, so polished glass will do just as well as gems. Alternatively, they could  just kill it and steal its treasure-haul. No-one likes it anyway.

Once Narangerel and her band have made themselves sufficiently unwelcome among the Nine Valleys People, Toyon Ayhal will come up with the idea of telling them that Ganbaatar has been spotted riding into the Ill-Luck Forest, in the hope that a visit to the place will either kill them or convince them to give up. In practise, it will do neither, although enduring multiple ironclaw raven attacks and an embarrassingly unsuccessful abduction attempt by the shurale will make Narangerel very, very angry. Once this has happened, some kind of showdown between her and the Nine Valleys People is probably inevitable unless Ganbaatar can be found very quickly indeed.

This is the Rosefinch Khatun's Sacred Grove:


Man figured Ewvenki totem.:

It's very deep in the taiga, and virtually impossible to locate without the guidance of a local shaman or spirit. Rosefinches nest here in huge numbers, and perch on every bough, watching everyone who enters the grove.

This is where Kaskil comes to leave offerings for the Rosefinch Khatun on behalf of his people. PCs who make it this far can try to strike spirit bargains with her too, if they want to: her preferred gifts are precious objects, as befits her regal status, but she will also accept offerings of food and drink if they are plentiful enough. She has power over birds, forests, and hunting. Anyone digging at the base of her spirit poles will find quantities of (now-corroded) offerings left to her by generations of the Nine Valleys People, some of them quite valuable. Anyone stealing these will suffer continuous and outrageous misfortune - hit by falling branches, attacked by wild animals, falling into rivers, and so on - until they either die, return them, or leave the taiga.

If Bolormaa somehow ends up here, the Rosefinch Khatun will withdraw from the grove in displeasure at such a vile creature being allowed into her presence. All of her spirit poles will immediately explode into rotten splinters, and unless she can somehow be coaxed back with suitable offerings, she will be deaf to all entreaties (including pleas for Ganbaatar's return) for the next 1d6 years.

Spiritually-attuned PCs may glimpse the Rosefinch Khatun here, lurking among the trees, but if they try to interact with her directly she will simply dissolve into a cloud of rosefinches. (Or maybe what they saw was only ever a flock of rosefinches, which they somehow mistook for a woman in the uncertain light?) She will, however, hear every word spoken within her grove, and a sufficiently impassioned plea (or a sufficiently large offering) will persuade her to release Ganbaatar back into the world.

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Probable Events if the PCs do nothing:
  • The three groups (steppe nomads, taiga dwellers, and Galiya's expedition) will continue to mutually antagonise one another for a while, while Batbayar and Narangerel follow up various false leads, becoming increasingly frustrated in the process.
  • Finally tiring of Batbayar's harrassment of Tuyaara, Toyon Ayhal will give Narangerel a false tip about the Ill-Luck Forest, from which she and her companions will barely escape with their lives.
  • A confrontation will ensue between the now-furious Narangerel and Toyon Ayhal, which soon turns violent. Blood is split on both sides and the steppe warriors flee the taiga, promising to return with a warband of their kinsmen.
  • Meanwhile Galiya will find and loot the Khatun's tower, unleashing Bolormaa in the process. Bolormaa will kill Galiya and her guards in the night and proceed to roam the taiga in search of victims.
  • A few weeks later, Narangerel comes back with a small army of steppe horseman and drives the Nine Valleys People from their homes. Bolormaa probably gets hunted down and killed by steppe warriors after preying upon the wrong victim. 
  • A few weeks after that, the Rosefinch Khatun finally gets bored of Ganbaatar and he comes wandering out of the forest, confused and naked, believing he he has only been gone for a few days...

Monday, 29 May 2017

Vampire minus vampires: using VtM as a bestiary for D&D

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Pity the fate of the humble vampire. Once monsters as fearsome as any others, they have been so overwhelmed by pop-culture overexposure that it's become extremely difficult to take them seriously any more. Imagine a scene in which your villain reveals his inhuman nature: in which he tears open his clothes to reveal that he's been dead all along, or that he's made from stitched-together human corpses, or that he's some kind of freakish mutant, or that he's actually just a crude automaton with a preserved human head nailed to its shoulders. Now imagine that scene replaced with the revelation that he's actually... a vampire! You won't get any reactions of shock. You'll just get bad Eastern European accents, jokes about garlic sausages, and PCs asking him if he evah dreenks... vine?

Most readers of this blog will probably be aware of the Vampire: the Masquerade RPG, which came out in 1991 - a simpler time, when vampires hadn't been quite so done to death, and vampire movies still looked like Near Dark rather than Underworld: Blood Wars. Because it was a whole game which was just about vampires, it swiftly came to resemble one of those weird island ecosystems in which variants of a single original species end up occupying a whole range of ecological niches usually filled by very different animals: so you had zombie-vampires, werewolf-vampires, wizard-vampires, snake-vampires, gargoyle-vampires, and so on, as successive writers added more and more variants to the game. Given that the fact they were vampires was often absolutely the least interesting thing about them, and that these days it's is probably an active liability rather than an asset, I'd suggest that in many games these vampire variants would actually be more useful if you just removed the vampire element entirely. Make them into cults, or mutants, or secret societies. Make them into creepy lineages of black magicians. Make them into the remnants of weird abhuman precursor races. Make them into the warped products of deranged scientific experiments. Make them anything except more fucking vampires.

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'I was cool once, right, Claudia? Tell me I used to be cool...'

Once you rid them of vampirism, with all its attendant baggage, you suddenly have a whole range of weird, creepy groups with weird, creepy powers, ready to sprinkle into the dark corners of your campaign world. Here, for example, are twenty clans and bloodlines from Vampire: the Masquerade and Vampire: the Requiem, rewritten simply as almost-human families with some unusual inherited gifts.  Just change the names and the clothes, and your players will probably never even realise the original source...

1: Brujah. Shattered remnants of a family which once gained power over time itself. Their time-magic is lost, now, and all that remains is an instinctive knack for localised time dilation, which makes them appear to be moving in jerky fast-forward when used. They have almost no control over their emotions, and are prone to rages and tantrums, which makes them easy to manipulate (and which is probably the reason their original achievements ended up falling apart.) Prone to bouts of melancholic self-pity about the largely-imaginary glories they once possessed.

2: Gangrel. A tribe of weird, feral wanderers, with night vision and savage teeth and claws like those of wild beasts. Brutal predators who prey upon animals and human alike, and are fearsomely difficult to kill. Nomadic. As they get older their bodies become more and more bestial, developing fur, tails, muzzles, and other marks of their animalistic nature.

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3: Nosferatu. A lineage of deformed creatures who shun the light of day, hiding their hideous faces beneath the earth. Their twisted bodies are enormously strong, and they possess an instinctive knack for stealth, which helps them to remain hidden from a surface world which mostly despises and loathes them. Avid collectors of secrets.

4: Toreador. This family possess enhanced reflexes, heightened senses, and low-level telepathy. They tend to become fixated upon whatever they happen to find beautiful, and are quite irrational in their pursuit of it. They admire art but are incapable of genuine creativity, and mostly have to settle for simply collecting the objects and people with whom they become obsessed. Egotistical and often narcissistic, they pride themselves on being muses and patrons rather than the parasites they really are.

5: Ventrue. This family possess minor but instinctive mind-manipulation powers, which make everyone regard them as impressive and authoritative regardless of what they're actually doing. They are totally convinced that this gift makes them the natural rulers of the world, inherently superior to everyone else. Love to set themselves up as powers behind the throne within established authority structures, and then proceed to engage in interminable bouts of mutual congratulation about how terribly clever they are. Their bodies are strangely resilient and difficult to damage, which means that once they have infested a given organisation they are, like cockroaches, annoyingly difficult to get rid of.

6: Malkavian. Members of this bloodline are afflicted with a variety of hereditary insanities, but are also prone to weird visions and cryptic insights, and linked to one another by some kind of strange telepathic network which they seem to be unable to detach themselves from. Their lunacy is infectious, and anyone meeting their gaze has a chance of being struck down with temporary madness. They are sometimes kept around as seers, usually blindfolded, but their kinsmen always know where to find them and will inevitably mount a rescue attempt sooner or later.

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7: Tremere. This clan possess the gifts of telekinesis and the ability to conjure heat and flame; their favourite combat technique is to use this latter ability on the inside of an enemy's body, cooking them alive from the inside out. They are bound together in a strict hierarchy in which the young are expected to obey their elders without question, with loyalty enforced through creepy rituals and brutal punishment of the disobedient. Fraternisation with outsiders is heavily discouraged.

8: Lasombra. This lineage have animate shadows, which they can control mentally, causing them to grow into great palls of darkness which shut out all light. Once a Lasombra's shadow has swallowed you, tendrils of freezing darkness will reach out of it and begin to rip you apart. The eldest of them are able to merge with their own shadows, becoming monsters of icy, inky liquid blackness, desperately difficult to destroy except with fire. They gather in witchy covens, and delight in spreading terror among nearby populations.

9: Giovanni. A family of necromancers with a dark reputation for cannibalism, necrophilia and incest. Fantastically wealthy due to their involvement in crime and finance. They make extensive use of enslaved ghosts to spy upon their rivals, which grants them a substantial edge in both fields of business.

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10: Tzimisce. A tribe with horrible flesh-sculpting powers, able - with concentration - to warp living flesh and bone as though it was wet clay. They sculpt themselves into bizarre and monstrous forms to intimidate their enemies in battle, and are served by warped humans and animals whom they twist into new forms to better fit the functions desired of them. Their most horrific creations are composite beasts made from many creatures melded together into towering monsters, clumsy but strong, and very difficult to kill for as long as any of their dozens of brains or hearts remain intact.

11: Settites. This clan of snake-worshippers possess hypnotic eyes, scaly skin, and long, forked, razor-sharp tongues, capable of delivering sudden stab wounds and opening arteries from over a foot away. They use the power of their mesmeric gaze to build cults around themselves, revering ancient serpent-deities whom they claim will one day free the world from the hypocritical rule of the gods. In theory, their doctrine of undermining all certainties is supposed to set their followers free; in practise, it mostly leaves their cultists totally adrift and desperately dependent upon their Settite masters. Their cult is banned in all civilised nations.

12: Baali. A tribe of demon-worshippers, capable of inspiring blank terror in their victims, sensing their secret weaknesses, and summoning black flames from the void. Where they dwell the land grows barren, and they are attended by clouds of stinging flies. The presence of genuine holiness fills them with hysterical loathing and dread.

13: Cappadocians. A cursed family marked by their bizarre, corpselike appearance, their grey skin pulled tightly across their over-prominent bones. Believed to be unlucky, and shunned accordingly, they have withdrawn from the world to study the mysteries of life and death in secret. They are masters of divinatory necromancy, specialising in the interrogation of spirits and divination by means of 'casting the bones'.

14: Blood Brothers. Members of this clan have an extremely strong family resemblance, to the point where they are continually mistaken for one another by outsiders. (The fact that their rather masculine-looking womenfolk are constantly having sets of identical twins and triplets doesn't help much.) They are linked together by an instinctive, low-level telepathy, which allows them to sense one another's general position and emotional state, and have a very weak sense of individual identity. Injured Brothers can induce a state of rapid healing by drinking one another's blood, and if one loses a limb or an organ then a replacement taken from another Brother will swiftly engraft itself in place if the swap is made quickly enough.

15: Caporetti. Descended from soldiers buried beneath rock and ice when their mountainside battlefields were swept by avalanches, this weird, burrowing clan has acquired the chill of the icy caves in which they live. Their mere presence turns the air chill, and their touch freezes like death.

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16: Galloi. A family of blood magicians, who gain youth, strength, and a weird androgynous beauty from regular immersions in human blood. Their victims don't need to die, but they do need a lot of blood, and they thus use their power and glamour to place themselves at the heart of spurious blood cults which revere them as divinities. Their cancelled years will rapidly catch up with them if their immersions are suspended.

17: Macellari. A clan of obese cannibal gluttons, who are descended from ancient nobility and use their immense wealth to indulge their horrible habits in secret. They possess an instinctive mastery over animals, which they use to breed horses of incredible strength and size - the only beasts capable of carrying them. They are capable of absorbing instinctive knowledge from the brains of those they consume, and in emergencies they can vomit up great gouts of acidic bile from their distended stomachs.

18: Melissidae. A family which has entered into a bizarre symbiosis with a specially-bred form of bee-like insects, which build their fleshy hives within the interiors of their bloated bodies. The Melissidae possess a mental link with the insect swarms which inhabit them, and are capable of sending them out as scouts, or as breathing them forth in enormous stinging swarms.

19: Baddacelli. This family are born blind, and navigate by means of their hearing, which is superhumanly acute. They are expert mimics, capable of imitating any voice or sound, and in emergencies they can unleash ear-splitting shrieks to stun and deafen their enemies. Most dwell beneath the earth, in darkness, where their lack of need for light is easily turned to their advantage.

20: Mnemosyne. Members of this lineage have the uncanny ability to steal and manipulate memories with a touch. Every memory they take or change from someone else, however, is absorbed into their own minds, recalled as though it had actually happened to them: and as a result, the more they use it, the more confused and fragmented their own minds and identities become. Their family history is an impossible tangle of things that actually happened to them and things that they took the memories of from other people, so hopelessly garbled together by age, time, and madness that none of them can even begin to work out where the real memories end and the stolen ones begin.

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Thursday, 25 May 2017

Public request: internet horror fiction needed for Serious Academic Reasons!

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Hey, all. As I've mentioned before, in Real Life I'm an academic, although the crossover between the stuff I teach and research professionally and the stuff I write about on here is usually pretty limited. However, I've just been asked if I'd be interested in writing a scholarly essay on Gothic digital media, and have - perhaps unwisely - said 'yes', despite not really having a very in-depth knowledge of the subject. So, knowing that internet horror fandom and the OSR blogosphere have a very heavy overlap, I'm turning to you fine folk for recommendations.

What I want to write about isn't just horror fiction on the internet, which is easy to find, but horror fiction which makes use of the internet, so that it would lose something - possibly everything - if you shifted it into another form. Things like Slenderman vlogs, or the Zalgo meme, or _9MOTHER9HORSE9EYES on Reddit, or the old Ted the Caver website, or this webcomic by Emily Carroll: digital Gothic / horror media which actually engages with and makes use of its online format, rather than simply using the internet as a delivery system for something which could just as easily have been a traditional book, comic, or film. (Internet screamers would be another example, albeit a very crude one.) If something on Your Gaming Blog qualifies, then feel free to let me know about it. You might just end up getting mentioned in a work of Real Academic Scholarship!

Suggestions via comments or over G+ would be welcome. Thanks!

Monday, 22 May 2017

Scenario building: from cliche to complexity!

So. Here are eight deeply unoriginal D&D scenario concepts:
  1. The PCs are hired as caravan guards to protect a caravan in case bandits attack. (Spoiler: they do!)
  2. The PCs are hired to drive off a tribe of goblins who are raiding nearby villages.
  3. The PCs have to stop an evil cult before they summon a horrible demon.
  4. The PCs have to recover some kind of magic item from an ancient crypt.
  5. The PCs have to hunt down an evil wizard who is doing evil magic stuff in an old ruin nearby.
  6. The PCs decide to hunt down a wanted outlaw for the bounty on his head.
  7. The PCs have to rescue some guy who's been captured by a band of cave-dwelling monsters.
  8. The PCs have heard of treasure in an ancient ruin and decide to loot it. 
There's no reason why any of these can't be the basis for a perfectly good session - it's all in the execution, after all - but the concept won't be doing much of the work for you. Each of them implies a completely linear structure - save the dude, find the thing, stop the ritual, kill the baddies - with little if any room for complexity or player freedom. But let's start pairing them up, turning them into three-sided scenarios:
  1. The PCs are hired to protect a caravan in case bandits attack. The roads are also being preyed upon by goblins, who are raiding nearby villages. The bandits and the goblins are engaged in a turf war over whose territory this is, and hate each other bitterly. 
  2. The PCs have to stop an evil cult before they summon a horrible demon. A magical item rumoured to be buried in a haunted crypt nearby is said to have the power to counteract their black magic - but the cult also knows about the crypt, and is plotting to seize the magic items hidden within it for themselves. 
  3. The PCs have to hunt down an evil wizard who is doing evil magic stuff in an old ruin nearby. The ruins are said to be riddled with ancient secret tunnels, which could be a major asset in any assault on the wizard's lair; but the only man who knows the way into them is a wanted outlaw who once used the ruins as a hideout, and is now lurking somewhere in the woods on account of the huge bounty placed upon his head.
  4. The PCs have to rescue some guy who's been captured by a band of cave-dwelling monsters. The caverns in which they dwell are also filled with bizarre ruins built by some ancient subterranean race, of which these monsters may, in fact, be the degenerate descendants; the ruins are said to be rich in treasure, but also to be fearsomely dangerous to explorers.
These are a bit better, because they each introduce another element, raising the scenarios above the level of a simple smash-and-grab or search-and-destroy mission. Crucially, they each introduce an extra element of PC choice. 'Do you want to delve into the ruins for treasure or not?' isn't really a choice; if that's tonight's game, then that's what you're all going to do. But 'Do we keep pushing deeper into the ruins, despite the escalating danger, or do we focus on finding the captive and getting him out alive?' at least has the potential to be a real decision. 

Let's keep going:

1: The PCs are hired to protect a caravan in case bandits attack. The roads are also being preyed upon by goblins, who are raiding nearby villages. The bandits and the goblins are engaged in a turf war over whose territory this is, and hate each other bitterly. Unbeknownst to either faction, the caravan is in fact delivering ceremonial supplies to an evil cult which dwells nearby, and which plans to use them to help in their ritual to summon a horrible demon. A magical item rumoured to be buried in a haunted crypt nearby is said to have the power to counteract their black magic - but the cult also knows about the crypt, and is plotting to seize the magic items hidden within it for themselves. The goblins and the bandits are no keener on being eaten by demons than anyone else, and would happily assist the PCs in foiling the ritual if they knew about it, but their hatred of each other is so great that even under these circumstances they will refuse to work with each other.

2: The PCs have to hunt down an evil wizard who is doing evil magic stuff in an old ruin nearby. The ruins are said to be riddled with ancient secret tunnels, which could be a major asset in any assault on the wizard's lair; but the only man who knows the way into them is a wanted outlaw who once used the ruins as a hideout. Until recently he was lurking in the woods on account of the huge bounty placed upon his head, but a rockslide has exposed the entrance to a cavern system full of ruins, inhabited by cave-dwelling monsters - presumably the degenerate descendants of the creatures which built the ruins in the first place. The outlaw went to investigate the caves, lured by rumours of the treasures within, but was captured by their inhabitants and is going to be eaten at an upcoming feast, much to the consternation of the other members of his gang. Many other treasures rest down there in the ruins, some of which the evil wizard is very keen to obtain. 

Now we're getting somewhere. Multiple factions with conflicting agendas, multiple adventure sites, groups who can easily act as either allies or antagonists depending on the choices made by the PCs, real questions about what to do about the various situations - after rescuing the outlaw from the cave-monsters, and working with him to defeat the wizards, are they really going to have the heart to hand him over to the authorities for the price on his head? - and so on. But let's just go one step further, and combine all eight:

  • The PCs are hired to protect a caravan in case bandits attack. The roads are also being preyed upon by goblins, who are raiding nearby villages. The bandits and the goblins are engaged in a turf war over whose territory this is, and hate each other bitterly. 
  • Unbeknownst to either faction, or to the caravan's owners, the caravan is in fact delivering ceremonial supplies to an evil cult which dwells nearby, and which plans to use them to help in their ritual to summon a horrible demon which will devour everything for miles.
  • A magical item rumoured to be buried in a haunted crypt nearby is said to have the power to counteract the cult's black magic - but the cult also knows about the crypt, and is plotting to seize the magic items hidden within it for themselves. 
  • The goblins and the bandits are no keener on being eaten by demons than anyone else, and would happily assist the PCs in foiling the ritual if they knew about it, but their hatred of each other is so great that even under these circumstances they will refuse to work with each other.
  • The man who is sending the supplies on the caravan to the cult is an evil wizard, sympathetic to their crazy agenda, who lives in an old ruin at the other end of the area which the bandits and goblins are fighting over. 
  • The ruins that the wizard lives in are said to be riddled with ancient secret tunnels, which could be a major asset in any assault on his lair; but the only man who knows the way into them is a wanted outlaw who once used the ruins as a hideout, and who is now one of the leading members of the bandit gang. The local authorities have placed a huge bounty on his head.
  • A recent rockslide (actually triggered by the early stages of the cult's ritual) has exposed the entrance to a nearby cavern system full of ruins, inhabited by cave-dwelling monsters - presumably the degenerate descendants of the creatures which built the ruins in the first place. 
  • Local legends describe how these ruins were sealed beneath the earth by a local hero - the same hero who is buried in the haunted crypt which the cultists are looking for. The inhabitants of the ruins worship the same monster-god as the cultists - indeed, the cult was originally founded by a handful of them which were stranded on the surface when their city was first sealed away.
  • The same legends emphasise that the cave-dwellers possessed many marvellous treasures. These legends led the outlaw to investigate the caves when they were first exposed, but he was captured by their inhabitants and is going to be eaten at an upcoming feast, much to the consternation of the other members of his gang. 
  • The evil wizard is also keen to obtain some of the artifacts hidden in the ruins, and is so eager to obtain the ancient forbidden knowledge they contain that he'd even sell out the cult to get hold of it. (He's not a true believer: he just likes the gold they pay him and is aggressively indifferent to whether everyone else in the area gets eaten by demons or not.)
Now that's an adventure that might be worth playing. There are eight factions - the local authorities, the caravan and its owners, the bandits, the goblins, the cultists, the wizard, the cave-monsters, and the undead in the haunted crypt - all with their own conflicting agendas. There are eight different possible objectives to address - deal with the goblins, deal with the bandits, do something about the cave monsters, stop the ritual, deal with the wizard, loot the crypt, loot the ruins, get the bounty on the outlaw's head - all of which are interlinked in such a fashion that the same factors which make it easier to achieve some will make it harder to achieve others. There are six different encounter areas - wizard's ruins, goblin lair, bandit camp, cult base, caverns, crypt - at least some of which are likely to be dealt with socially rather than violently, although exactly which ones will be entirely up to the PCs. There's an interlinked backstory which connects all this stuff together. And there's enough raw stuff to do to keep most groups busy for weeks on end. 

The point of this exercise is to emphasise that even the most basic, cliched adventure material can be built up into something worth playing if you just keep adding it up. None of the ideas here are clever or original, but if you string enough of them together they can become more than the sum of their parts. In fact, I'd much rather play the adventure I've outlined above than an apparently 'original' and 'imaginative' adventure which actually just boils down to 'kill some [monsters] in a [place]'. The trick, as I've emphasised, is to keep building in connections. 'Here is a cave with some orcs, and here is a cave with some goblins' isn't twice as good as just 'here is a cave with some orcs'; in fact, it's likely to be twice as tedious. But 'here is a cave with some orcs, and here is a cave with some goblins whom the orcs are trying to convert to their new religion, with mixed success' - that's got some added value to it.

The best thing about this method is that it's easy. Going from my eight cliches to my one big adventure took me about half an hour. At no point did I have to come up with any genuinely original ideas. And yet I'm confident that the scenario I've outlined above would be pretty fun to play in, simply because it's got so many moving parts to tinker with.

So if all you can come up with is boring ideas for next week's game, don't despair. Just keep coming up with them, and keep joining them together, until you have something worth running!

Friday, 12 May 2017

You say you want a revolution: liberating the Wicked City

The Wicked City exists so that the PCs can make it better. It's not Mordor. You don't need the One Ring. You don't even need the Armies of the Free Peoples. It's one fucking city. Your PCs can manage that, right?

If they can, though, it'll have to be because they've found a better way of doing it than tracking down the guy in charge and stabbing him to death. The Wicked King is not a load-bearing boss, and the cruelty of the Wicked City could easily carry right on without him, with the vast majority of the city's inhabitants not even having any way of knowing he was dead. (In fact, he might well have been dead for years...) It's just about conceivable that a sufficiently diplomatic party could achieve large-scale social reform almost without bloodshed, but it's much more likely that if change is going to come, you're going to have to fight for it.

You're going to need a revolution.

The Storming of the Bastille The fall of the Bastille in Paris on July 14, 1789 helped ignite the French Revolution:
Fall of the Bastille, 1789.

So here are some notes on the city's various factions, and the roles that they might play in one. The Secret Police will definitely fight for the Wicked King, and the Red Brotherhood will definitely fight against him, but absolutely everyone else is up for grabs. If you can establish the right connections with the right people, there's no reason that most or all of the city's armies shouldn't end up fighting against its government rather than for it...

(NB: For ease of comparing the relative power of different factions, each has been assigned a Strength rating, where Strength 1 is roughly equivalent to a hundred well-equipped soldiers with good morale. Given that revolutions tend to be extremely chaotic affairs, however, it is entirely possible that individual factions may end up punching far above or below their weight, based on the specific circumstances involved!)

Faction
Strength
Default loyalty to the regime



The Secret Police
10+
Fanatically loyal
The First Brigade
7
Strongly loyal
The Clankers
8 (16 in battlefield conditions)
Moderately loyal
The Air Corps
3 (10 against massed enemies with no cover)
Moderately loyal
The King’s Men
5 per brigade, to a maximum of 50.
Weakly loyal.
The Clockwork Soldiers
5 per warehouse, to a maximum of 30.
Fanatically loyal unless reprogrammed.
Earthshaker
4 (8 in battlefield conditions)
Fanatically loyal unless reprogrammed.
The Thirteen Ministries
1 per ministry, to a maximum of 13.
Strongly loyal.
The Cobweb Families
1 per six families, to a maximum of 15.
Moderately loyal.
The Merchant Houses
6
Neutral.
The Way of Light
1
Weakly loyal.
The Serpent-Folk
4
Neutral.
The Mindblade Orders
6
Netural.
The Golden Ones
3
Neutral.
The Brass Men
10
Neutral.
The People of the Streets
1 per community, to a maximum of 50.
Weakly rebellious.
The Foundry Slaves
6
Strongly rebellious.
The Canal Slaves
8 (10 with diggers)
Strongly rebellious.
The Mine Slaves
5
Strongly rebellious.
The Farm-Folk
1 per community, to a maximum of 60.
Weakly rebellious.
The People of the Rubble
3 (6 within the Rubble)
Strongly rebellious.
The Red Brotherhood
4
Fanatically rebellious.
The Murder Harlots
3
Neutral.
The Street Gangs
6
Weakly rebellious.
The Steel Aspirants
3
Neutral.
The Blue Necropolis Cults
1
Strongly rebellious.
The Labyrinth Schools
1
Neutral.
The Shining Ones
1
Neutral.
The Hinterland Bandits
2
Neutral.
The Pig-Men
6
Neutral.
The Clockwork Confederacy
1 (4 in tunnels or sieges)
Fanatically rebellious unless reprogrammed.

A Tatar soldier, 16th century:


The Secret Police: The ultimate loyalists of the city's government. They worship the Wicked King as a divinity and will fight to the death in his name. (Besides, if they surrendered, they'd just be lynched by the population.) Numbers unknown, but at least five hundred, well trained and equipped and extremely highly motivated. Strength: at least 10, and possibly much more. (No-one knows how many undercover agents they have, after all...)

The First Brigade: The cream of the city's army, and the ones most likely to actually put up a decent fight in defence of its government. Five hundred strong, and mostly composed of Blood Men. Could potentially be bought off for the right price, and will surrender if obviously outmatched. Strength: 7.

The Clankers: The city's mechanised infantry brigade has access to exceptional military technology - mecha, tanks, steam knights - but much of it is of limited value in urban warfare. If they actually manage to deploy out on a field somewhere then their guns could mow down a whole army before you managed to take them down. Sabotage might be a good idea - one disloyal engineer can sabotage a lot of machines - and given their dependence upon technology, their morale would plummet if they were forced to fight without it. Strength: 8, or 16 if deployed in battlefield conditions.

The Air Corps: Airships and gyrocopters can drop bombs and missiles, but urban warfare means that everyone has access to lots of cover, so their main value would probably be as scouts and transports. If deployed against an army out in the open, they could bomb it to pieces with impunity. Strength: 3, or 10 if deployed against large numbers of enemies with inadequate cover.

The King's Men: The city's main army consists of ten thousand-man brigades, but it's horribly corrupt and most of its members have no interest in risking their lives unless they really have to. Their morale is high in battles that they're obviously going to win, but will simply disintegrate in the face of determined opposition. Two or three brigades will usually be out pacifying the countryside around the Wicked City at any given time. Strength: 5 per brigade, or 50 if the whole army gets involved en masse.

The Clockwork Soldiers: The Ministry of Technology maintains six huge warehouses full of clockwork soldiers, waiting to be wound up in case the city ever comes under attack. A sufficiently sudden uprising could probably achieve its objectives (and/or blow up the warehouses) before most of them could be activated. A sufficiently well-prepared uprising wouldn't even start until rebel engineers had sneaked in and reprogrammed all the clockwork soldiers to fight against the city's government rather than for it. Strength: 5 per warehouse-full, or 30 in total.

Earthshaker: This giant clockwork dragon eats so much coal that the city's government won't even think of activating it unless they believe a threat is really serious, and even with all its coal-powered autowinders spinning at full speed it will take several hours for its mainspring to get wound up enough for it to stumble into action, but when it gets going it's a potential army-killer. Imagine a clockwork Godzilla covered in bronze armour plating and you'll understand why you don't want to end up fighting it. If your infiltrators only reprogram one clockwork robot, make it this one. Strength: 4, or 8 if it's deployed out in the open where it can stomp enemy armies beneath its giant metal feet.

Tomris Katun:

The Rich and Powerful

The Thirteen Ministries: Collectively, the Thirteen Ministers command over a thousand guards, assassins, burly servants with clubs, and general-purpose legbreakers who are personally loyal to them, most of whom are very well equipped. (The Ministers take their personal security extremely seriously.) Most of the Ministers would probably respond to the outbreak of a revolution by barricading themselves inside their offices and waiting for the shooting to stop, but a rebellion which managed to enlist some of them as allies - perhaps by offering them places in the new government - could make use of their soldiers as well. Strength: 1 per ministry.

The Cobweb Families: If the hundred scheming families of the Cobweb could be persuaded to put aside their differences and pool their guards and servants into a single army, its power would be impressive: many families are rich, vain, or paranoid enough to see to it that their guards are excellently equipped, and generations spent isolated in the miniature world of the Cobweb has induced a near-fanatical loyalty in many of their minions. The trick would be in persuading them all to work together. Strength: 1 per six families, to maximum of 15.

The Merchant Houses: Individually insignificant, the merchant houses collectively employ enough bodyguards, caravan guards, and miscellaneous mercenaries to form a considerable fighting force. Unless their assistance has been actively secured in advance, though, their priority is likely to just be protecting their own estates. Strength: 6.

The Way of Light: The priests of the state religion are a cowardly and demoralised bunch, likely to hide themselves inside their temples at the first sign of trouble. If their faith in the Full Moon Sage could be rekindled they might be persuaded to join a revolution, but they are likely to be valuable more because of the gold they can provide than because of the (frankly unimpressive) force they could gather on the battlefield. Strength: 1.

The Serpent-Folk: There are only a few thousand serpent-folk in the Wicked City, and they are not warriors; but their community is tightly knit, and if called upon to fight for (or against) a rebellion they would do so as a disciplined and well-organised force. Their mastery of healing, drugs, and poisoning would make them assets to any force which employed them. Strength: 4.

The Mindblade Orders: If the city's half-dozen Mindblade orders were all to call their members together, they could collectively muster several hundred mentally unstable but battle-trained psychics. Wherever they go, expect lots of poltergeist activity and exploding heads. Strength: 6.

The Golden Ones: Skilled in healing and beloved by the people, the Golden Ones would be an asset to any rebellion as healers and leaders. They don't technically lead the cult of the Sage of Gold - all the highest-ranking priests are serpent folk - but it's the Golden Ones whom the faithful actually listen to, and if they joined a revolt then the followers of the Sage would flock to it, regardless of what the official temple hierarchy had to say. Strength: 3.

The Brass Folk: The thousand-odd Brass Folk who call the Wicked City home are potentially a very powerful force, as there are effectively no noncombatants among them, and their powerful metal bodies mean that they have little need for weapons, and none at all for armour. Their impressive clockworking skills also mean that, if mobilised, they could potentially unleash all kinds of clockwork beasts and traps upon their foes. Strength: 10.


People of Sakhalin island off the far east coast of...:

The Poor and Desperate

The People of the Streets: The ruinous streets of the Wicked City are home to hundreds of thousands of people, divided into dozens of tiny enclaves. The people are beaten-down and dispirited, and only have access to improvised weaponry; but there are a lot of them, and if raised en masse they could shake the city to its foundations. Strength: 1 per community, to a maximum of 50.

The Foundry Slaves: If freed from their chains, the toiling thousands who work in the city's foundries would be very eager to strike back against their hated masters. Many of them are in no condition to fight, but the able-bodied among them would be very highly motivated, and many of them understand the workings of the machines they have been chained to much better than they let on. Strength: 6.

The Farm-Folk: The farm-folk of the Wicked City's hinterlands substantially outnumber the inhabitants of the city itself; but they are scattered, malnourished, and demoralised. Even if they could be rallied, they would be armed only with farming tools, and it would take weeks for all the individual peasant bands to be gathered together into a single force, making them vulnerable to being crushed piecemeal by the city's armies. Strength: 1 per community, to a potential (but unlikely) maximum of 60.

The Canal Slaves: The work gangs of sweating slaves who dig the city's irrigation channels are, on average, healthier than those who work in its furnaces or mines; and if liberated from their chain gangs, they'd be delighted to sharpen the edges of their shovels and start digging holes in their former owners, instead. Strength: 8, or 10 if they also get their hands on the giant clockwork diggers and can turn them to some military purpose.

The Mine Slaves: If the multitudes who labour in the city's coal mines were freed from their bondage, they would eagerly seize any chance to avenge themselves for their years of living burial in the tunnels. Many are in very poor physical condition, but their skill in digging holes in things could be very useful in any kind of siege. Strength: 5. 

The Red Brotherhood: Although relatively small in numbers, the Red Brotherhood have the enormous advantage that they've been planning for this for decades. They have no intention of throwing their lives away in a hopeless revolt, but if they think an unfolding rebellion actually has a decent chance of success then they can transform from a network of seemingly-ordinary people into a formidably-organised revolutionary militia within hours, arming themselves from hidden stashes and rallying together in key locations under the command of long-hidden leaders who have spent years hiding in the tunnels of the Maze, waiting for just such a day to come. Strength: 4.

The People of the Rubble: Expert hunters and street-fighters armed with hilariously deadly poisoned arrows, the People of the Rubble are well-equipped to punch above their weight in any clash that breaks out within the Wicked City. They would be especially dangerous if they were engaged on their home turf, where they would be able to use their networks of traps and knowledge of the Rubble's unstable terrain to their own advantage. Strength: 3 (6 if fighting within the Rubble itself.)

Zeybek / Zeibek / Ziebek warrior from the Izmir region. Some of them engaged in the Ottoman army as irregular soldiers.   Photographer: Pascal Sebah, Istanbul, ca. 1880.:

Oddballs and Outcasts

The Murder Harlots: There may only be a few hundred of them in the city, but they're absolutely fearless in battle, and their athleticism and reckless disregard for their own safety would make them superb commandos. They're not exactly idealistic, but their nihilism is such that they might join a rebellion simply because it offers a chance for some violence and excitement. Strength: 3.

The Street Gangs: If the thousand-odd gangsters and criminals who plague the Wicked City were ever assembled into a single army, then... they'd probably immediately start fighting each other over old gang rivalries and who was wearing the most fashionable turban. But if you could somehow get past all that, you'd be left with an ill-disciplined but enthusiastic force of urban irregulars with considerable knowledge of street fighting and an impressive capacity for violence. Strength: 6.

The Steel Aspirants: The Aspirants are not numerous, but if they could be enticed from their foundry-temples they would make excellent shock troopers. Even the lower-level aspirants, whose bodies are still mostly flesh, have enough metal plating to be natural heavy infantry; their elders, who now resemble monstrous armoured crabs or scorpions more than anything human, could be absolute terrors on the battlefield. Strength: 3.

The Blue Necropolis Cults: Given that they're already strongly committed to changing the city for the better, the various murder-cults of the Blue Necropolis could be valuable revolutionaries if they could only be persuaded that organised political action, rather than blood sacrifice to horrible undead monsters claiming to be their ancestors, was the best path to national salvation. There aren't that many of them, but they are pretty hardened to killing people. Strength: 1.

The Labyrinth Schools: The various remaining followers of the Labyrinth Doctrines who hide in the remote tunnels of the Maze mostly just want to be left alone, to pursue their paths towards what they believe to be spiritual enlightenment. If they could somehow be mobilised they could be potentially useful as guides through the Maze, which they know better than anyone - they built it, after all - but decades of ascetic meditation in total darkness has left them badly unprepared for actual battlefield deployment. (Besides, they'd worry it might retard their spiritual progress.) Strength: 1

The Shining Ones: This bunch of shivering, hyperactive drug addicts don't usually have much of an interest in politics, but their shared visions of the Sage of Gold could potentially be played upon to herd them into rebellion in the name of a sacred struggle. (The assistance of the Golden Ones would make this much easier.) They're too unhealthy to be much use in a straight fight, but their hypercharged metabolisms make them excellent scouts, messengers, and watchmen. Strength: 1.

The Hinterland Bandits: The hinterlands of the Wicked City are infested with bandit gangs, who live by robbery, scavenging, and extortion. They compete with one another over loot, and scatter whenever the city's armies pass through, but a sufficiently plausible revolutionary might be able to unite them all with the promise of rich enough plunder. Strength: 2.

The Pig-Men: Both the tunnels beneath the city and the underground aqueducts outside it are infested with pig-men, who wandered into them from some unknown underworld years ago. They're too stupid to understand the city's politics, and wouldn't care who ruled it even if the situation could be explained to them, but if they could somehow be bribed or tricked into rising up their numbers, strength, and savagery could make them a powerful (if hard to control) military asset. Strength: 6.

The Clockwork Confederacy: This crew of eccentric reprogrammed mining robots have very little understanding of the world outside the abandoned mine tunnels they inhabit, but they are adamant foes of all forms of slavery and would eagerly align themselves with any rebellion which promised both to liberate the city's slaves and to upgrade its automata into consciousness. They'd be of limited value in a straight fight, but very valuable in tunnel-fighting or siege warfare. Strength: 1 (4 in tunnels or sieges).