Monday, May 31, 2021

Revisiting Lords of Madness

My arrival in D&D was not in box sets. No! Not for me was that relative simplicity.

I was born in the bloat of 3.5. I tore my way through a placenta of prestige classes. My first breath became a scream at the overwrought grappling rules.

I'm still nostalgic for parts of it.

There were good ideas drowning under the flood of wordcounts and supplements. A cornerstone of my imagination today was one of those supplements: Lords of Madness. It's a book that fleshed out some classic D&D aberrations (mind flayers, beholders, grell) as well as some new ones. I'll be nostalgically digging through that flesh to find some juicy morsels. Will it hold up to my childhood memory? Have I been spoiled by the blogosphere? Without further ado, let's find out:

In iron Dis devils dream of dominion and conquest. In their elf-skin tents orcs dream of dominion and conquest. Aberrations too apparently dream of dominion and conquest. I guess we're not so different after all - but it does get samey.


Page 5 and we're already on the good stuff. The wizard IPHEGOR used the dread EBON MIRROR to distant times and realms and penned the CODEX ANATHEMA. The Mirror's an enticing artifact to drop in the players' path - immense cosmic knowledge, sanity-blasting risk. I imagine a lot of wizards' grimoires are like how the Codex is described, a mash-up of the Necronomicon and one of those recipe books that overshares personal details - "picked up this one little trick trapped in Cerebrelak's Labyrinth for a subjective eon".


"The Material Plane is indeed an infinite plane" - such terrifying implications, and all because someone wanted to crossover Dragonlance and Faerun. Deep space and deep time are pretty well-presented here, along with the horrors that a) they're not as distant as you'd hope, and b) that your history and world are thinner and more fragile than you'd fear.


"Creatures that move through the timestream as easily as a human sails from port to port along a well-charted coast" <= this is the only mention these dudes get... sad.


I think this book holds up best when it sticks to broad strokes. Time-travellers from the end of the universe, primordial lifeforms that remember and wish to return to their incomprehensible epoch of our own world, the living dreams of alien gods, parasitic false histories, and so on - mind-blowing stuff to a kid whose main experience with fantasy was the Lord of the Rings movies, still worth mining now.


The section on the origin of chuuls is too long, but the idea of these inhuman, biologically immortal former slave-soldiers trying to find new meaning in their existence after the death of their creator is a solid one. Their numbers, slim from the beginning, are dwindling from violence and small cumulative mental defects, and their children are barely above beasts, living lives less than a century. There's nothing like them in the world and never will be again. Killing one would feel a bit like killing a white rhino with the mind of Camus.


The "madness" inflicted by aberrant artifacts and knowledge is really coming around to an aberrant worldview, losing sight of the way back to humanity. Neato.


"A destrachan destroys a remote monastery" => These adventure ideas are SKIMPY. As I said, good in generalities, not so much in specificity.


A lot of mostly-boring anatomical details for aboleths and others in this book. Did you know the most interesting thing about an aboleth's circulatory system is that they have two hearts?

Feels like how aboleths are presented as immortal horrors that predate the gods and also as interchangeable mastermind monsters is at odds. They've seen billions of year go by and could reasonably expect trillions more. Nothing you do should concern them. They should be concerned with things of a scope you can't wrap your head around enough to be righteously angry about.

They should be dickhead merchants hanging out in slime-pools at the bottom of dungeons handing out antimatter bombs just to see what you do with them. The bombs won't scratch them, and they could spend a hundred thousand years down there and it make up less of their lifespan than a single heartbeat does in ours.

There are feats for aboleths. Ah, Quickslime, how eldritch, how maddening...

"Aboleths cannot wear hats"

All nonlawful creatures within 30 feet of this glyph become nervous"

Having aboleths be in a neverending cycle of empire and collapse makes them hard to take seriously and too similar to other monsters. They can have one empire that set off the Cambrian Explosion and that's it. Gods as aberrations in their own right is neat, out-of-context problems attracted by the beacon of mortal faith.


Move over Elemental Evils, we've got Elder Evils now. The book says you could have them be fightable, but it's better to keep them as "perpetual terrors whose existence threatens life but can never be defeated". Good. Otherwise mostly underwhelming.

Don't think aboleths should have cities. Does an aboleth wave to its neighbour as it heads off to the slime-factory in the morning? Lame. What you thought was an aboleth city, dwarfing any surface metropolis, was just one's side project. Remade pufferfish stack spires in the abyssal gloom, grain by grain.

Lotta pointless useless details. Aboleths should all look radically different, antediluvian masters of biology that they are.


Now we're at beholders. Never much appealed to me. Their reproduction is appropriately gross (bite off tongue-womb), and their divinely-ordained species-wide narcissism is neat. I think in 5e their dreams and paranoid delusions can affect reality. That's neater.

They've got mouthpick weapons. Weapons with a little ring for a handle they can hold in their mouth.

"A lengthy conversation between two beholders that don’t immediately try to kill each other can quickly douse the surrounding area with drool and worse" => beholder language is gross. This would be fun to voice as a DM.

Beholder cultists gouge a third eye socket into their forehead and graft a beholder eye into it. Nice.

The lairs in this aren't great. How did I ever run anything with these statblocks?


Mind flayers are cool. Strong implication that they're the form future humanity took. Their digestive systems are sapient and extract thoughts from their meals. Their livers are also sapient.

Their parasitic reproduction is nasty. Elder brains are creepy. The book is ambiguous on whether the elder brains are even related to the mind flayers, or just brood parasite-rulers.

Mind flayers are said to only have negative emotions. Too anthropomorphic for me. Would've preferred something weird and goofy like a list of MF emotions like "tchanarady". They had the space for it.

"Urophions", mind flayers made out of ropers, are born losers. An SCP-ish list of other attempts at making non-humanoid mind flayers would've been neat.

There are mind flayer vampires and liches. This to me is like a werewolf-vampire-cyborg-dryad. It's too much.

"Neothelids", giant psychic worm-things that mind flayer larvae develop into if not implanted are cool. Why are they such a taboo? Are they the "natural" form of the mind flayer or some kind of failsafe mechanism?

Mind flayers get some great magic items: brain canisters, thought extractors, and my favourite, the "brainmate". It's a little bud of an elder brain they carry with them when travelling for the comforting buzz of its mind. Oddly sentimental. The bud telepathically records everything they see or do and reports it back to the elder brain. Really puts the "big brother" in "big brother is watching you".

There are also emotion-broadcasting "resonance stones". They've got stones for everything. They've got stones in their home to make it feel like home. A reassuring resonance stone takes the place of a parent for newborn mind flayers... "mind flayers learn emotions from resonance stones, not from one another"... "Resonance stones fill their emotional needs". These dudes are so pitiable. Don't let screens raise your kids folks.

The "Sargonne Tablets", so cryptic people can't tell if they're history or prophecy, speak of a mind flayer empire in an endless night.

Mind flayers sabotage (or sometimes support) surface civilizations not because they fear them, but because they're experimenting with how civilizations rise and fall.

Lotta details on brain-eating logistics. Mind flayers are locusts on sapient creatures, locusts smart enough to cover up the fact that it's locusts eating everyone around you.

"Sprinkled about the area seemingly at random are stocks built to restrain a humanoid creature by clamping down on its neck and wrists. Observers might realize with some horror that these are the mind flayer equivalent of dining tables." => Nice.

Psychically broadcasting the experience of eating a brain is a popular art form.


Next up is neogi:

Things that make you go hmmm

Ok so they could be evil ferengi / anti-semitic stereotypes in space, I think they'd be more interesting if the ruthless merchant/pirate neogi were like their Dutch East India company explorers. There'd be perfectly decent neogi out there on their homeworlds, but their comfort is based on extracting value from you and people like you across a million light-years. Mix in some Modernity and its Malcontents, symbolic horror of a capitalist society intruding on non-capitalist ones. Neogi leave a spate of witch-hunts and demonic possessions in their wake.

Neogi are big on slaves. They recognize four different tiers of slaves. Their favourite slaves are umber hulks. That's not really interesting. Neogi aren't all that interesting.

Neogi reproduce like the movie Slither. That's cool. They can mind control people too. Whoop-de-doo.

Neogi are the middlemen between unscrupulous buyers and sellers through the cosmos.

Their most sincere worship is of Tharizdun, "wow! he's just like me!". They think his desire for universal annihilation is like their desire to own everything. Another take on neogi: they're a cautionary tale of idiots who thought they could harness THE DESTROYER for petty accumulation. Nothing's left of them but their spacecraft, crashed or in decaying orbits.

Neogi can get you pretty much anywhere. They're tricky and evil but honour their contracts. There's somewhere you need to be right away but the only way is on a neogi ship. That's a nice challenge.

They kind of look like spiders and their ships kind of look like spiders. It's like poetry.

"Neogi cannot wear vests"


Grells. Grells are floating brain squids. They want to eat people like the non-flying brain squids, but they don't really scheme or interact with people or do anything interesting with them.

Their society is kind of like a lion pride. There are colonies ruled by the biggest male, where philosophers have preserved or developed a combo of magic and technology, and then there are feral grell that either never found a colony or fled one before the patriarch saw them as a challenge and killed them.

They apparently don't build much, don't have much variation, and they're atheists. These guys suck.

Ok here we go: grell are from other material planes. Not just one. They developed independently and simultaneously. There's a common confluence of physical laws that make the grell-form a near-inevitability, like exaggerated carcinization. Step a few steps sideways through the multiverse and you'll arrive at the seemingly endless megastructures of their civilizations, inhospitable to those bound by gravity, roaring with ceaselessly-discharging lightning. To them the colonial grell are essentially feral, distant cousins who fell through a wormhole or something and forgot their peerless empires. The colonial grell have gods and it's these guys. Pray to their ancestor-gods and maybe they'll take pity and send the omni-cosmic equivalent of an AC-130.


Tsochari are body-snatchers. They want magic, and to one day become humanity's secret leaders by taking over our magical and religious authorities. If they snatch a body that's got magic they snatch the magic too. They're from an alien planet. There's apparently much worse things on their planet than them. If they take your body over they can kill you and puppet your corpse or leave you aware and helpless in your own skin.

Finally, some alien fucking biology. They're colonial organisms. There's a lot of references to them taking over humanoids but their ability only requires an animal bigger than them. What in the hell did they parasitize on their home planet? They don't apparently bring over any hosts.

Tsochari are too tough hurt each other much so they sublimate their mutual dislike into complex intrigures. Haha.

Finally some zealous aberrations. Their god is generic eldritch stuff but that they're really into Mak Thuum Ngatha is refreshing.

Something about this section feels like it had a major rewrite and some bits survived.

I like to imagine them as pushy evangelists. They'd prefer symbiosis and honest conversion but if they have to hijack your motor nerves and march you into Mak Thuum Ngatha's temple for the squirming sacrament then gosh darn it they will!


The monster section is whatever. There's some creatures from the same future as mind flayers and that's neat but the creatures aren't really. Mind flayer vampires are still lame.

This picture of a bird-dude is great:

Thanks Justine Mara Andersen.

There's shoggoth knock-offs, and psurlons who are D-LIST LOSERS. They don't get their own section because they are BORING.

Oh yeah and there's silthilars who should've gotten their own section, over grells probably. Their species was getting wiped out by a plague so their flesh-shapers turned them into swarms of people-shards that each had a bit of their knowledge and nature. They're great at grafts and stuff but not quite in an evil scientist sort of way. A species of hivemind Franken Frans.


This next section is about tactics for fighting aberrations and all that. Did you know that the protection from evil spell doesn't negate a mind blast? Now you do.

There's some feats that give you fun mutations but they're kind of weak and you might only get like 3 feats total. Unfortunate. Should've made them into "treasure" you could get by allying with or being experimented on.

The people who fight cool monsters are usually a lot less cool than the monsters.

Fleshwarper hell yeah. They get the cool grafts and a freaky familiar. It's the only good class in this entire book. The rest are killjoys.


Spells now. Most are forgettable. I like the 9th level one that just kills every plant that ever tries to grow in a spot again. Powerful dickery. There's also one that makes people evil, and one that makes their organs slither around inside them.

The mask that turns your face into a chuul face is good.

Oh yeah it's graft time:

Justine Mara Andersen keeps killing it with these illustrations.

There's nothing super crazy but grafts are always neat.

Unfortunately we end on more of these LOSERS who want to hunt aberrations, most likely out of a feeling of deep inferiority.


Conclusion: I enjoyed this book a lot when I was younger. I enjoy it less now, but you could draw a direct throughline from it to a lot of the stuff I do enjoy today.

I'd like to thank Richard Baker, James Jacobs, Steve Winter,  Justine Mara Andersen, and everyone else who contributed to this book, a foundational text in my imagination.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Maximum Recursion Depth Poltergeist Form: Bottom of the Bottle Alchemist

By the terms of a diresome pact I have sworn to create a "poltergeist form" for friend of the blog Maxcan7's upcoming Maximum Recursion Depth game (get hype!)1.

It's all quite complex and psychological and whatnot so I'm not going to try explaining anything here. If you're not already familiar with the game I recommend checking out MRD and Max's work in general. To pique your interest, here's a list of names for the poltergeist forms he's written:

Afterbirth of the Broken Machine Dragon
Crashing Rocket Nixie
Pyramid Shines Brightly
Ghost in the Mirror
On a Full Moon an Ichor Heart
Jumping from the Planck Jiangshi
Reclaimer Redcap
Glass Maiden Pixie

Without further ado, the Bottom of the Bottle Alchemist:

Flavour Text

Your Poltergeist Form is an elemental of everted humours. You're incomplete, so you take in shit and venom through empty holes and struggle to uplift it faster than it degrades you. Your Karmic power comes from your contamination and purification of your self, the great work of fulfilling the promise of your body and soul.


1. Patches of your skin are a trypophobic's nightmare.

2. Warning labels blur into illegibility around you.

3. Bulging bubbles seem to form and flow through your veins.

4. Others sometimes see you double, your doubles expressing something you lack.

5. Moldy stains follow you.

6. Your breath stinks like bile.

Starting Karmic Attachments

1. You're addicted to something that hurts you.

2. You witnessed something terrible and preventable happen but were too fucked up to stop it.

3. You're a perfectionist, and would prefer to burn something down than half-ass it.

4. You left a friend behind who fell in deeper than you.

5. You're chasing how good things used to feel.

6. You think too much, second-guess everything, and can't solve that without shutting your brain off entirely.

Reincarnation Ritual

1. Chug bleach, or hydrofluoric acid, anything that'll kill you in a few gulps.

2. Crash a vehicle going way over the speed limit.

3. Dehydrate or starve to death.

4. Mix together something that blows you up.

Poltergeist Features

1. Thousand Poisons Vessel: Vomit up all the nasty little things you've got inside you in a torrent of centipedes, spiders, toads, and scorpions. Deals d6.

2. Stigma Transfusion: If someone's got bleeding wounds you can touch the wounds to transfer them onto your own body. If you've got bleeding wounds you can transfer them to someone you're touching who's drunk blood from them.

3. Nasal Destruction: You can sniff out toxic chemicals, gasoline, explosives, and the like.

4. Contact High: Swap spit or breath with someone to inflict an exaggerated version of one of your compulsions on them for a short time.

5. Cavity Search-Space: You can safely fit way more inside your body than should be physically possible.

6. Sophist's Stone: Agitate a small sample of some substance to make it start behaving like a similar substance or state (water-to-wine, rock-to-magma). The transmutation is partial and confused in ways that tend to hinder you, like it can't remember which it's supposed to be.

7. Rebis Regia: Embrace someone willing to fuse together into a synthesis of the two of you for a short time. Come away after that with bits and pieces of each other.

1 It's not going to be in the book.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

D6x6 Particular Patrons

For when you need a mission-giver & their mission rolled up quick, press the button below:

Random generator generator here:

D6This patron is 
1 the grandmaster of the influential local mason’s guild.
2 older than old money, an aristocrat with international dynastic ties.
3 the untouchable heir of a extensive criminal family.
4 a publicly respected and privately corrupt minister.
5 a highly sought-after deacon and physician.
6a retired mercenary captain who maintains their ferocious martial ability and estate bought with their spoils.

D6This patron has 
1 a grating laugh.
2 a pet peacock they keep leashed to them at all times.
3 fashionably curly shoes.
4 copious lace spilling from their collar, cuffs, and ankles.
5 an obsidian medallion they rub with a thumb constantly.
6bulbous cauliflower ears.

D6This patron wants you to 
1 despoil the crypt of an ancestral rival clan, then escape before the spirits outraged by this can get their claws on you.
2 deliver an imp sealed in a box to an occultist who wants to buy it.
3 deeply humiliate a rival of theirs without physically harming them.
4 gather near-mythical ingredients for an upcoming feast.
5 bring their nephew on an adventure that will disillusion them of their ambitions.
6rig a duel in favour of their preferred combatant, without leaving a trace.

D6This patron can’t do it themself 
1 because they’re deeply neurotic and even just thinking about getting someone else to do it stresses them out.
2 because they’re certain someone is trying to have them killed and so won’t leave the safety of their home.
3 because they’re part of a web of intrigue that would entangle them if they were seen acting directly.
4 because they’ve run the numbers and hiring you would offer the best price-to-effectiveness ratio. 
5 because no one in their entourage has quite the right combination of skills, deniability, and expendability.
6because a soothsayer has foretold that doing so would lead them to their doom.

D6This patron is willing to give up front 
1 a pair of their handpicked henchmen.
2 their signet ring and the authority it carries.
3 a satchel full of explosives.
4 a fine horse, saddle, and bridle.
5 luxurious lodgings and meals for as long as it takes to settle their business.
6a fat bag of silver.

D6After the job is done, this patron 
1 will give you a solid lead on something or someone you’re after, or else might be interested in.
2 will put in a good word for you with a regional authority, and get you an audience with them.
3 will owe you a significant favour to call in at a time of your choosing.
4 will lend you a minor magical heirloom for an indefinite period.
5 will grant you a decent plot of land.
6will have fine clothes tailored for your entire party.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Elemental Evils

Friend of the blog Locheil over at The Nothic's Eye said elsewhere that he always wanted to see a post about the elemental evils. Specifically, he said he wanted to see Goblin Punch post about them. Alas that is not I, but I do have a ringing endorsement:

Are the elemental evils' names trademarked? I can't find anything confirming either way, so I'll come up with my own. The only real loss there is Yan-C-Bin. Anyways here's the post:


What's an element?

Smart, but stupid
Looking back with the benefit of modern science, we can know that Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim died DEAD and WRONG. Fire, earth, air, and water are not the four fundamental elements of matter - in fact there are quite a bit more than four, and they are none of them. Water is a compound of oxygen and hydrogen. Fire is a chemical reaction (or plasma, whatever), air and earth are mixtures of various other elements and compounds. None are fundamental to reality. According to modern science.

Modern science has the privilege of existing in a relatively stable, consistent physical world - within the space of all possible worlds. Scientists don't have to worry about magic or gods or demiurgic upheaval changing the very basis of their study. But imagine if reality was vulnerable to the manipulation of higher powers, if it were closer to computer code (programmers: scream) than the old reliability of what's in physics and chemistry textbooks?

Such a universe might've started off with a roster of elements as big as ours (along with electrons and quarks and so on). Then people got to mucking about with its guts. Maybe they even did it to make the world a better place, overall. Then, because the world is complex, and past a certain point complexity is unpredictable, things started going wrong. Optimizations in one place lead to out-of-control spirals in a dozen others. Other people have to fix up the guts with patch jobs, stopgap measures, metaphysical duct tape, just to keep the sun rising in the morning instead of growing a face and devouring every firstborn. One such fix was reducing matter to just the four elements.

Even such simple parts become complex in tandem. Unintended consequences emerge. Things still go wrong, but dumb, simple solutions tend to last a whole lot longer than clever ones.

Stupid, but smart
What's an elemental?

Have you ever seen a person get sucked into industrial machinery? I can't in good conscience recommend checking it out. In only a few seconds someone can go from human being to processed meat. All it takes is a watch getting caught, a loose sleeve, a moment of inattention.

I will ask you to imagine that such machines were all around us. Imagine they've been there so long you hardly notice them anymore. Imagine if some of the people who got caught in them were spat out and immediately got up and set about fixing up the machines.

Imagine that's the only thing maintaining the world as you know it.

The elements are those machines, and elementals are the people that get caught in them. Sometimes it's not people that get caught, but animals, ghosts, demons, and stranger creatures. They're drowned or burned or crushed, their people-stuff is mostly replaced with element-stuff, and they're reprogrammed to keep the same system that destroyed them going on as it's supposed to.

Who are the elemental evils?

There's always bits of a person that can't be digested and repurposed when an elemental is made of them. Those bits lodge deep within the elemental, drive them to eccentric behaviours beyond their programming. Often these are tolerable, useful for motivation even - a water elemental might be allowed to enjoy the sunset one day in seven, so long as it keeps the current flowing in the right direction and prevents a dam from going up in the wrong spot.

When these behaviours run counter to an elemental's duties there's a real problem. Elementals are plugged in deeper to the underlying substance of reality than the divine, who pass with every apocalypse. One rogue in the wrong place at the wrong time could fuck the whole system up for eons. Eons!

So the system's enforcers take the issue of rogue elementals pretty seriously. Ideally they're found out early by their peers, and mashed into motes too dim to rebel - the stuff that maintains background stability, that a wizard might call on to form a fireball. When rogues are able to carve out a territory or niche for themselves, they are called "elemental evils". Few disagree with this moral assessment, as just about everyone is invested in the system that puts sky above and ground below. Yet elemental evils tend to last long beyond what their personal capabilities should allow with the whole universe against them, because so too do individuals seek ways to flaunt the system for their private benefit.

Of the elemental evils four stand above the rest, lords among their kind. Their names, spat in curses and whispered in blasphemies, are:

Tephranassa, Mother of Flames: Once upon a time, when the lines between god and mortal or wilderness and civilization were not so cleanly demarcated, there was an emperor who married a dryad. The center of his capital was built as a grand garden to be a comfortable palace for her. Then conquerors came to their empire, better learned in violence and viciousness. The emperor was slain, his skin nailed to the main gate, and the empress and her garden were burned.

They never stopped burning.

Fire elementals need fuel, but Tephranassa consumes herself. The tree to which she was bound is an entire forest now, snaking beyond the confines of the city which once held it, a contradiction to bio-logic that grows on grudges and suffering faster than her fire can burn it. In spite of this Tephranassa is not a creature of grudges or suffering. If you could survive her hellish surroundings you'd find her pleasant company.

She's set against the universe by love. Her children were still within her when she was transformed, and they transformed with her, yet became much stranger in their burning and their yearning: the Creeping Smarag, the Gasper of Nashzambol, Rust-fire, Fishclog, and Blistersworl are among their number, and ten-thousand more came before and are yet to be born. What she wants most of all is for her beloved children to be given a chance to live in this world, no matter how monstrous they may be, or become.

Some tea, served in the ancient manner to which Tephranassa was accustomed, would go a long way to winning her friendship.

Enoch, Sire of Cities: It's said there's nothing new under the sun - maybe that's true nowadays, but at some point someone had to sit down and invent the wheel ex nihilo, before its many reinventions. Surely that's a testament to the creativity of humanity, and of that one someone in particular. Even so, a wheel seems intuitive as inventions go - see a round thing roll and improve on it from there.

How much greater still then would have been the invention of murder, in contravention of God and Nature: the work of Cain, a genius who towered without the shoulders of past giants to stand on.

While in exile in the Land of Nod Cain put this genius to more constructive use. Lacking shelter, he sat and spoke with a stone. He told it of the new things which waited in potential's womb - wonderful, terrible, unimaginable, and of the glorious role of enabler and witness the stone could play in events to come. The stone listened, and considered, and after a thousand days and nights it moved, and the earth moved with it. Its first act as something more than a stone was to create the first city by Cain's direction.

Since then that stone (which took the name Enoch, and took Cain as its father) has only grown in size and ambitions. Enoch was there when the Tower of Babel was raised, straining to keep its foundations from collapsing under its unholy height. He's there when a dungeon's dug deep enough to brush its fingers against the underworld, smoothing the progress along against the protests of architecture and geology. He is proud of his role as a stepping stone between hubris and the impossible.

The King of Birds: To the owls he is called Our Silence. To the ostriches he is Lion-Stomper. Peacocks know him as Ba'al Viridiamasc. To each kind of bird he came in turn, usurped their rulers and stole their crowns, in order to unite them under one king, one language, one nation. Few remain who resist him, perhaps now only the ravens (who still mourn their missing master) and pigeons (who love humanity unrequited).

The King is a chauvinist. He believes that the triple airs of the sub-lunary realm are the birthright of birds. Wind-catching sails are poaching their property. There's a place for humans and other animals, but it is well below. His power is checked by his wars with the winds and the storms (who are not all, or even mostly air elementals). Far from his throne on the seven-times-seventh peak of the God of Mountains the King's agents must act sweetly, diplomatically, sneakily, sewing discord, in preparation for the conquest that he's promised.

He appears in a feathered cloak and beaked mask. Was he a bird before he was an elemental? Who can say. His knights are the aarakocra, pirate-elementals uplifted by his hand. Those who covet his secret way of making them are the best poised to bring about the King's overthrow.

Izunanib, Mouth of the Abyss: If asked, Izunanib would deny that she is an elemental evil. Rather, she is the most loyal of all elementals, because she is following their system to its natural conclusion.

As the pressures of the deep earth can transmute coal into diamonds, so too do the pressures of the deepest depths transmute water into something more. It becomes a lens, or a catalyst, which blurs the divisions in space and time, mind and matter.

Elementals are tasked with maintenance and repairs. They are fighting a losing battle against entropy, though the loss is measured on the scale of Armageddons and geneses. In the deep waters Izunanib sees a victory snatched from entropy's jaws, flipping the game-board to reveal a game with more favourable rules set up underneath.

Izunanib has made herself the mouth of these deep waters, to speak for them and to devour for them. She swims through dreams and the collective unconscious, her song luring in sensitive, poetic minds. She dances in the tails of hurtling ice-comets, snatching leviathans from the void. She lurks within the jelly of your eyes.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Slush Pile 4

Dining teeth of the good general (child-eating)

Hags ride the tiger of time and direct it at others to spare themselves
-sea hags are erosion and rust, dissolving ordered things into chaos, likely the easiest to work with for non-hags
-Blood hags: patriarchs, donkeys devouring lions, old men sending the young to die in their place
-Paper hags reduce parts of the living world to abstract written information in their moldering libraries, the more the world is lessened for their loss the better
-haggis is, of course, a bowdlerized hag delicacy

A statue of a woman baring her breast down to the bone, heart visible through parted ribs. The inscription reads: “Justice”.

A town like a butterfly net stuck upright in the earth. The hoop is a hole that goes on forever, but loops back around sometimes. The area around is a wasteland, littered with craters from escaped debris. Townsfolk live off fishing for falling valuables. Adventurous sorts leap from island to drifting island and back before it all falls away.

Geocathedral millions of years in the making, workers overseen by exponentially slower gargoyles

The vilest bird
A messenger of grief
Sad omen to mankind

“The city’s people are fed and cared for as horses are fed and cared for”

Grave built like a super-sized death mask (Face of Mars-ish)

Control, and therefore refer to
Refer to, and therefore control

Dungeon that’s a city being looted by various mercenary companies

Profit prophet uttering tomorrow’s cryptocurrency prices, ecstatically tranced out in the internet cafes’ doorway

Fountain so big it’s evolved its own ecosystem - gigakoi

Anti-terrorist algorithmic ordnance, a targeted program that isolates volatile individuals in a simulated digital media environment then agitates them to death - fake websites, fake fellow-posters

“Let there be light” => the eye is an act of worship => exploiters of the attention economy are literal demons

Dungeon merchant with little doors all over their face and body. Open a door to find a swell prize, or there’s nothing behind it and the merchant will take the corresponding organ from you

The peaches of immortality lack pits. Being eternal, they need no replacement.

False Buddhas, the ones you didn’t kill along the road, offer bon mot enlightenments - slow release poisons

Worry coin meets kinder surprise - numismagic traps abstract spirit within the symbols on the coin’s face, wear them away to release it to do your bidding

Trap that brands you with a diabolical mark that attracts fearsome monsters

Fire, then light, then life, then light, then fire => gotta step off the molehill to climb the mountain

A modern megalith ring reconstruction, aligned to the light-polluted absence of stars and the shining cities

Evilutionary hydra, demon born of Darwin’s diabolical theory, has a head for each class of animals, body is primordial ooze

What the hell is a scrutch? (Don’t remember writing this one - could it have been the scrutch?)

Room with sealed door and creepy music box. Music box has evil, cumulative effect when played, but unsealing the door requires it to play all the way through.

King of the hill dungeon, unseat the king to become the king and win immortality as long as you remain within it

Encounter tables are like the reaction roll results of an environment

Monastery-dungeon, the monks’ minds ascended to a realm of pure intellect, their bodies without minds became atavistic beasts

A mourner who grew more eyes, for only two could not weep enough to express their grief

A land where dragons are made to serve humans who’ve swallowed their eggs, holding their children hostage

Finigal - an island where humans are the only sizeable living things. An experiment by an elder species attempting to solve the problem of surging humanity - find out how best to kill humans by setting humans up to figure it out for you. Experiment succeeded, but only after its overseers faded away.

A megadungeon, once a paradisiacal structure, fractured into five (or however many) sections, each representing a piece of the perfect unified whole but rendered nightmarish for lack of the others as utopian fantasies can tend to

Can you make power rangers osr? Zordon-thing sent to planet to save it from alien menace - too late! The menace got here first and now it’s inconceivable as such to humanity - but what is the menace? Language? Oxygen? Time? Needs teenagers with severe opposition to the status quo on the highest scale
-Giant robot good

What does a city that was designed by a non-human animal look like? What does a city that wasn’t designed by an animal look like? - slime mold subway design, buildings and “roads” for the stationary / autotrophs, symbiotic lemurs-like-pigeons scrambling to patch holes in the nutrient-pipes

No NPCs in dungeon, but some monsters you can “cure” of “infection” to turn them into NPCs of various sorts (rumourmonger, guide, merchant, etc.)
-set of magic masks that serve similar function, affix one to monster’s / person’s face to overwrite their personality while it’s on - the Merchant on an owlbear, sells you the contents of its pellets

Purposeful polyps, palm-sized infinicancerous blob, biomancer loot. Throw sticky polyp onto something, call out name of organ/appendage, polyp takes on the form of that thing, fully functional for an hour before collapsing/self-consuming. Responds to your will as if attached to your nerves. Throwing multiple polyps at once creates either squared number of organs, or singular organ squared in size.

Incarnavores, demiurgical predators that coax divine forces and entities into fleshly traps - or else self-posed monsters, trial-setters, self-aware sophists, luring out the already-incarnate.
-primary precipitators of Godfalls, feeding-frenzy manna from the heavens

Mercenaries marching beneath a stripes-and-stinger banner, spit live bees down the barrels of their muskets as ammo. The bees, for their part, are intoxicated by the sweet fumes of the mercenaries’ bile.

Familiar-spirit, takes many forms but consistent feature is drum sunk into its chest where a heart would be. Its beats keep it alive, grant it control over rhythms of life and death, but it must return frequently to its master to be “recharged”.

Loch Ness monster, ogopogo - reptilian rearguard, elemental jailers posted in glacial lakes, million-year vigil against oncoming ice ages

Hedge-riders patrol the boundaries between wilderness and civilization, prosecuting those who break the ancient laws that bind both

Lick the frogs to dream big, true dreams - because the toads have eaten the mosquitos, and in their youth the mosquitos supped blood from the sour things that sleep fitfully at the bottom of the bog

Turn the body inside out, replace the nerves with strings - leave a handle in the spine for you to grip when you leave it - you were the thing behind its eyes, and now it’s no longer a prison but your puppet. This is but one path to lichdom.
-every lich kicks down a ladder behind them, or entropy shuts a door - each method only works once
—necromancy’s a race to get the lower-hanging fruit of immortality first

The Old Stone Soul - subconscious collective of fossils and petrified creatures where flesh and stone learn each other’s ways. Obscure occultist’s legend - a sub-plane? Psychocosm? Universal rounding error - stacked with creatures it can’t decide whether to put with the living or the dead? Primordial things trapped with all their wisdom and terror under the shadows of basilisk-lords, your buddy you lost to the cockatrice last week stuck in there with them.

Nodestone: Simple matter, “nails things down” on metaphysical level. Irons out paths for explorers of non-Euclidean (and stranger) spaces, can be used to knock the transcendent’s brains out in a pinch.

Fisher-pixies perched on a log, long gossamer nets in hand. They compete - whimsically vicious - to catch the prettiest glitter from the tip of a wave.

A trader in clattering armour of clam-shells rises from the surf, toting a bag of waterlogged goods. They’ve swum very far, for very long - all the way from Sea-Meets-Sky. The clams are alive - they feed and filter air for the trader. Nothing below the water dares harm them - the Mother of Pearls protects her own.

Canoes hovering upside-down above the water, moving towards you far faster than a human vessel. Their hulls are stuffed with flying bladder-kelp, their crews hang by their knees from bars - trailing paddles and snorkels into the water below.

Gloatgoat: Scapegoat made to bear the sins of braggarts. Perpetual terrible goat-tooth grin. Watches for you to fail, competes to make you fail if you’re doing something goats are actually better at (climbing, head-butting), laughs and mocks with made-up goattish words if you do.

Sport a bit like golf, but played with javelins (closer to aerodynamic sticks nowadays). Courses are carved in the sides of hills, chalk-line giants and vague beasts. Derived from a tradition of monster-hunting, originally meant for training and now merely an amusement as the monsters have been driven back and bound. Chubby drunken sirs and ma’ams toss their sticks - ah, great show old chap, a hamstring and the jugular, indeed what a show.

Inter-continental canal, indispensable trade chokepoint, ruled by literal hydraulic despots - water elementals lurk invisibly, they operate the canal-pumps, fancy themselves rulers of the world to whom all must pay tribute. Only way to get through without ruinous taxation is to know who’s feuding with who, how to flatter them - facilitated by city of servant-spies.

LARPer/weeaboo dungeon, people have set themselves up in ruins of extinct monsters (ixitxachitl, dragons, etc.), venerate them as superior species and (poorly) attempt to emulate them - in form and badly reconstructed culture.

Some folkloric hero had agreement with friend in heaven to send gifts back and forth, their descendants rules-lawyered the hell out of it and now there is a town which is baskets going up and down, not feasible to send so many gifts so it’s an endless cycle of trash back and forth - one side’s trash can be another’s treasure and that’s where the town’s economy comes from.

Looking too far into the future risks the attention of the omni-crab blowing bubblesome new realities

Desert nomads dress up like baby scorpions to hitch rides on giant scorpion momma’s back - have babytalk names that are impressive to them from cultural association but lame to anyone else - Captain Snuggly, Lady Googoo Pinchycheeks

Everyone here is some ridiculous martial artist who can punch through walls. One of their hands is always clenched in a fist, has been since birth - if they open it the spirit that grants their power will escape.

Royalty recognizes royalty - declarations of war between kingdoms must be written on wasp-paper scrolls. Empire sets itself against empire, reward beyond imagination awaits the ones who can retrieve the paper of the black-and-yellow-gods, the only material suitable for such an outbreak.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

D6x6 Varying Vargouilles

Click button below for vargouille:

Generator automator here:

D6This vargouille is 
1 a prophet betrayed by one of their followers before their most crucial prophecy could be uttered.
2 a decapitated criminal who swore on the chopping block they’d keep plaguing the innocent even after execution.
3 a philosopher who conceived of an idea so unnatural that their brain resisted death itself (and brought their head with it).
4 a gossiper so maligned that the negative energy that surrounded them twisted them into monstrosity.
5 a necromancer who figured it would be easier to just raise their own head into undeath.
6the former fetish of a headhunter, too powerful for its taker to control.

D6This vargouille has 
1 bulging, bloodshot, blood-weeping eyes.
2 bone-shard needles poking through its scalp.
3 asphyxiate-blue skin.
4 turkey wattle-like growths hanging from its jowls.
5 frayed and blistered tentacular lips.
6snaggled supernumerary teeth jutting around its gums and mouth.

D6This vargouille flies 
1 with its grotesquely enlarged cauliflower ears.
2 by meatily flapping its peeled-away cheeks.
3 by waving its gore-matted hair.
4 using the lungs that dangle from its throat as wings.
5 bloated with corpse-gas like a balloon.
6with a jet of miasmic air from its neck-stump.

D6This vargouille hunts 
1 in a circling buzzard waltz above the sick and wounded, waiting to pick off the truly helpless.
2 like a raptor, sweeping down suddenly and shockingly.
3 by posing as a much more potent demon to extract ritual sacrifices.
4 by stirring up strife between and within factions and then picking off the people thus deprived and isolated.
5 by lying from ambush like an overripe fruit from a tree branch.
6by luring travellers off paths with imitated voices and feigned cries for help.

D6This vargouille can 
1 temporarily commandeer headless corpses.
2 unhinge its jaw impossibly wide to swallow enemies into a cold and featureless void.
3 exhale an opaque and toxic cloud.
4 drool pools of acidic saliva.
5 set itself alight with spectral fire.
6project nightmarish hallucinations of itself into the minds of its victims.

D6This vargouille’s kiss 
1 causes the victim’s skull to slowly extrude from their head. When it’s out the vargouille will return to re-flesh it as another of its kind.
2 overloads the psychic circuits, inducing an intense fever that will make your head explode if left untreated.
3 will break its victims to pieces, and each piece will become a different sort of anatomical undead.
4 will gradually overwrite its victims’ minds with a copy of the vargouille’s.
5 causes the guts to bulge and discomfit, and eventually burst forth into a demon-summoning visceral pentagram.
6inflicts abject hideousness, a toad-warped visage.

Monday, May 17, 2021

20 More Setting Questions For Your Sci-Fi Games

Sorry I'll have something more substantial the next time I post, just did these up on the discord and Cosmic said I should put them up on the blog for posterity. The originals had some that were too close to others in the previous question sets, so I've edited them.

The previous question sets:

& these 20 questions are:

1. Is the dominant mode of production still capitalist?
2. Why?
3a. What human frailties have been ameliorated, and which still plague us? (Too close to ToS's 8)
3b. Who's the oldest person who's still arguably alive?
4a. What is the legal status of transhumans, uplifts, and other such para-human creatures? (Too close to ToS's 17)
4b. Can you own your own clone and make him/her/them do tricks for your amusement?
5. What's the primary existential threat humanity faces?
6. Which cultures/nations/religions, or parts thereof, have ascended?
7. Which have fallen by the wayside?
8. What's the most dangerous thing you can do with your average spaceship?
9a. How uncomfortable is space travel? (Too close to ToS's 2)
9b. What's the equivalent of first class/business class/economy class/freight class for space travel?
10. Could you model space travel with a random encounter table/hexes/pointcrawl?
11a. Have aliens been encountered, and if so what are they and human relations with them like? (Too close to ToS's 14)
11bcd. Can you fuck the aliens? Who gets the custom-made real waifus? Are there any memes that have survived from the present day? (These are shit so you get three)
12. What sound do guns make (pew pew, zap zap, bang bang, etc.)?
13a. Where do I get the cool & illegal robot parts/genemods? (Too close to AC's 9)
13b. What's the worst thing that could happen to me from getting the cool & illegal robot parts/genemods?
14. Are there martial arts for robots, mechs, and/or intelligent non-human apes?
15. How big are the mechs?
16a. Psychic powers, or internet-of-things facsimile thereof? (Too close to AC's 5)
16b. What weird political movements are there that aren't just projecting current/historical movements into the future (e.g. not "what if the civil rights movement, but for sapient octopi")?
17. Where and how is information processed and stored?
18. Who's watching you through the ubiquitous surveillance technology?
19a. Is there a level of virtual simulation that people could reasonably doubt that what they're currently experiencing is the real world?
19b. If answer to 19a is yes, what new mental illnesses has this demiurgical atrocity spawned?
20. Do most people still have jobs and if so what do most of them do?

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Language Slots as Flexible Spells; Or: A Different Sort of Wizard

Dredged from the draft pile (176 strong at the time of writing this):

Ok so it's a bit of this:

& a bit of this:

& a bit of this:

THERE is a sort of wizard, maybe they're just one sort among many, or maybe they're the only sort in the world. These wizards see beyond the dross of matter and energy, essence and substance. Rather, it should be said, can you see this matter? Taste this substance? No, of course not - not directly - there is the raw experience: colour, texture, flavour, etc., and then the language that mediates that experience into something we can comprehend, contextualize: red, rough, spicy. It's a three-step process: the inconceivable reality => the perceived qualia => the world, our world, built within and between ourselves with language.

These wizards concern themselves with that third step - the easiest to change. Not easy by any means, but changing a language might always be easier than seeing a new colour.

These wizards can change it because the what they can speak aren't technically languages - not in the everyday usage. They aren't used to communicate person-to-person. They can speak directly to the universe, like a salmon swimming up a waterfall, reversing the natural course to alter inconceivable reality through their words.

A whole lot of fluff to say: every spell these wizards know takes up a language slot, and they cast them by speaking.

"Dude, whoa?!!" you might be saying to yourself, aloud, as you're reading this, "Wouldn't that be overpowered if you could cast Fire Ball the 3rd level spell from Basic Dungeons & Dragons™ just by speaking??!". No. Well, maybe it will be overpowered, but you wouldn't be casting any fired balls. Instead each slot would be what I am calling a "flexible spell".

So: Scrap Princess's post linked above has the idea of new classes made from one class's mechanics and another's aesthetics. This post is essentially about a hypothetical class with the aesthetic of wizards and the mechanics of a class that doesn't actually exist: the item-haver.

Roll on a table of items. Maybe the udan-adan one linked above, maybe a one of your choice. That's your spell. Give it a fancy name or something, but really that's it. Your spell can do anything that item could do, in the amount of time spent to cast it. If you're attacked or otherwise critically distracted trying to cast it, test concentration or it fizzles out. When you stop casting the spell any ongoing effects stop.

Do you have a rope spell ("Binding of the Immaculate Serpent")? Would it take you two rounds to cross the room, tie a noose around a goblin's neck, and lift them up to the rafters? There's the time for your casting, and then after that you'd have to keep casting to choke them.

Simple. Easy. Elegant.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Beyond the Bizarre Armoire Session 8: Of All The Stars The Sun Shines Brightest, And Shines Alone

Session 1

Session 2

Session 3

Session 4

Session 5

Session 6

Session 7

Joining for this session were:
-Renefor ( as Velasco the Heterodox Monk

Due to the chaos and contingencies of life our party was reduced from our usual proud legion to just one for this session. There were far fewer debates and violations of the Geneva Conventions, though this may just be correlative.

The party pulls their boat and raft onto this beach of ash and sawdust, coming under the shadow of the great cliff. Ibrahim's hideous, now partially-frag frog-skinned dog yaps towards the Southwest, tantalizing close to the Countess's scent. Velasco unleashes the dog and follows closely after, ending up at a pile stacked as high as a hill, with humanoid figures crawling over it, indistinguishable in the gloom. Cautiously approaching, quieting the dog, Velasco spies that the pile is made of faces somehow carved clean off their heads, and the figures had no faces of their own.

With a sinking feeling Velasco and the dog grope through the pile, giving a wide berth to the faceless people. After some time they find the face of the Countess: beautiful (as much as someone could be before the invention of dental hygiene), and much younger than the Count. Velasco is able to wrest the face from the dog before it could be chewed on. They return to base camp.

With the others presumably too drunk on the remaining turnip-wine to productively contribute, Velasco continues on up the beach, looking for a spot where the cliff dipped down enough to climb. He comes across a section where aquatic Severglaives fauna had beached themselves and rotted, being picked over by a small group of rust-men.

The rust-men come off friendly enough, and after striking up a conversation thank Velasco for rescuing their comrades from the pinecone knights' punishment (those comrades being the ones rescued from a slow drowning execution back in Session 5). They warn Velasco that a settlement of "loyalist" rust-men who still obeyed the King and his servants lay ahead. Velasco in turn preaches of the archons and their love, which provides the first hope and beauty to the lives of these people who'd known nothing but violence and the terror of being chased since their birth into the world. They gift some of the fresher meat they'd harvested to Velasco, then both continue on their way.

After some more travelling Velasco notices some smoke over the horizon, and the cliffside beginning to tilt down to earth. He also comes across a strange figure (though in this land perhaps it's the normal that would be stranger): a porcelain mask and ornate red & purple damask robe, floating in the air as though there were someone beneath wearing them, but past the eye-holes there was only emptiness. The figure introduced himself bombastically as Mazlo of the Deepest Pockets, extradimensionalist extraordinaire. Velasco learns that the man is a mage, and a specialist in places that lay in the uncommon folds of the fabric of space - an art as forbidden to polite society as necromancy.

Using a magic glove Mazlo confirms that Velasco is not of the armoire's world, and presses for information. The mage is seeking the "seed" around which the world had formed. In exchange for the magic glove - reasoned to be the key to finding the Countess now that she'd lost or traded her face -  Velasco reveals the location of the armoire itself in both worlds (apparently Mazlo had arrived through some sort of astral projection).

The monk keeps walking, and comes across the loyalist settlement, fortified from cliff to water's edge by a wall of slates hewn from the cliff's dark stone.

As it was getting late, Velasco decides to return to their boats rather than deal with whatever fresh bullshit waited beyond the settlement's gate that evening, and has the boats propped up flipped-over to nestle under as shelters. The monk whips up a delicious meal with the supplies they'd received from the pinecone knight garrison and the rust-men, and Brindle snuggles up (entirely Platonically) when they set up for sleep, if only to be away from Sieur "Cleave a pinecone to the bone" Alistair and Ibrahim "I see a boar I blast it into gore" the Adept.

In the morning Velasco returns to the settlement, and is confronted by the guard manning the wall. With some quick talking, name-dropping Captain Skybrush, and a bribe of some campfire-cooked food, the hedgehog wins his way in. He makes his way through the place, somewhat ramshackle but the closest to a full and unrazed village the party had been to thus far. The homes were made of the same stacked slates as the wall, and there were some apparently-feral rust-men locked up in cages at times comforted or tormented by the others throughout. At the other end was a massive wall of lumber-reinforced earthworks, and an elevator raising rust-men both caged and not over the top.

At the top of the wall was perched a woman with a bird's wings and lower body, and feathery black-and-white hair, inspecting the rust-men that made their way up on the elevator. Velasco shouts to the woman to get her attention, and she flutters down. The monk surreptitiously scans her with the glove he'd received from Mazlo, but gets no glow off it. The two talk about the Countess, the wedding, and what the bird-woman was doing. She explains that she is a chickadee-valkyrie (chickyrie?), tasked with inspecting and testing fighters to see if they were worthy of the King's service. Velasco brags of the party's victories, and thus impressing the valkyrie is allowed onto the elevator.

-I tried to do the valkyrie's dialogue like a chickadee's call, words or syllables repeating at the end of sentences, not sure how well that came across. Even if it's annoying it's probably easier to remember the character though right?-

On the other side of the wall was verdant land, fields of green and trampled dirt. Something like a war camp stretched out before Velasco, an army of warriors going about their day-to-day business and practicing their skills. He passed north through the camp, trying not to attract any hostile attention.

The monk arrived at the edge of a wide and swift-moving river. A single bridge of broad white stone straddled it. Standing resolute in the center of the bridge was a pinecone wearing the unmistakable spikey armour of the legendary Blackbriar Knight. Here the session ended.

Will the Blackbriar Knight prove the superior warrior to Sieur Alistair? What face does the Countess now wear? Is the game doomed to hemorrhage every player that joins? Find out next time, on Beyond the Bizarre Armoire!

-Following the session Renefor & I were joined by friends of the blog TheisticGilthoniel and Phlox for a long discussion on theology, art, and the best flavour of chips (for me nothing can beat the simple refinement of "regular" - sometimes called "original"). These sorts of discussions often happen after a session, but I've only seen fit to mention them here. Besides playing the games themselves, being able to have these smart & interesting talks with smart & interesting people who I otherwise never would've encountered has been one of the few genuine pleasures the abominable quarantine has afforded me. If the world ever returns to a semblance of normalcy, I hope that's what remains.-

Monday, May 10, 2021

Beyond the Bizarre Armoire Session 7: It's Time to D-D-D-D-D-D-D-Duel

Session 1

Session 2

Session 3

Session 4

Session 5

Session 6

Joining for this session were:
-Surprise guest star Phlox (, as Mockstarch the Pinecone Knight (Fighter)
-Oblidisideryptch (, as Sieur Alastair the Knight
-Renefor ( as Velasco the Heterodox Monk

The party, accompanied by their new friends of the pinecone knight garrison, make their way back to the tower uneventfully. They're invited in for drinks (fetched by the abrasive squire Fiberbiscuit & Mockstarch) and a meal of stewed vegetables and greasy, tangy beast-meats.

As they break bread they inquire to Captain Skybrush about ways to meet the King in the Pines, claiming to be foreign diplomats come to pay their respects for his wedding. Skybrush explains that he'd only ever met the King twice in his entire life, once when he was knighted and the second time when he was recognized for his skill at arms in a tournament. Mockbrush notes this was the same tournament won by the near-mythical Blackbriar Knight. He also notes that such a tournament is planned at the King's wedding.

Their chat is interrupted by an ungodly chatter from the basement, which renders the knight's awkwardly silent as they ignore it and wait for it to pass. After it does, Velasco presses the Captain for an explanation, reasoning that he wouldn't want to stay in a place with some inexplicable monstrosity. Captain Skybrush relents, and exposits that there's a legend that their world was not the first to occupy this land, but rather subducted another world beneath it, and that certain key locations (such as this very tower) were constructed by the King to seal the denizens of that buried world out of the light. In fact, the previous Captain of the garrison lost his position due to mismanagement of the seal, which Mockstarch recognizes as the basis for the old pinecone song "The Captain's Disgrace".

Thoroughly spooked, the party agrees to leave what's sealed sealed, and I realize that by the end of this campaign I will have enough unused dungeon material to kludge together a megadungeon. A pinecone knight named Irongall vehemently agrees with this course of action.

At this point a heated debate breaks out over party leadership. It turns out that rather than being equals in brigandage, Alistair considered the rest of them subordinate to himself, and issues an open challenge to a duel to anyone who questioned that. Irongall states that he gladly accepts this servitude. The challenge gets the iconoclastic Velasco riled up, and despite the vast gulf in their combat experience he rises to it. The garrison pulls furniture aside to set up an arena, and pick their favourites to cheer for.

The two meet fist-to-paw. Despite Velasco's luck and fury (and some truly unfortunate rolls on Alistair's part) the hedgehog is simply no match for a trained knight (something of a duelling specialist in the GLOG). A cauldron full of stew is tipped over in their melee, to everyone's disappointment. Velasco knocks some respect into Alistair, but in the end takes the L.

Mockstarch too takes her try at Alistair's challenge, this time choosing to cross blades with the knight. The poor pinecone is far outmatched and cloven from groin to shoulder, all but spilling her resinous guts on the floorboards. Brindle, be-shirted mouse and love interest of Velasco, thinks Alistair's even more of a psycho after this. By the will of the archons Velasco's monkish training is enough to stabilize Mockstarch before she bleeds out. As recompense, Alistair offers the almost-halved pinecone succor wherever and whenever they meet again.

Mockstarch, colourized, courtesy of Phlox

Thoroughly sobered by this turn of events, the party and the garrison move the table and chairs back to their positions to finish their dinner. Impressed by the seemingly-meek hedgehog's martial fervour, and beginning to believe there might something to this "religion" stuff, Greyboll (one of the knights) asks Velasco to lead them all in a prayer.

It was a bit after that when the conversation shifted to the topic of pinecone biology & sociology, namely that no one, myself included, had much idea what was up with all that. I assumed pinecones were hermaphroditic, and that gender would be more of an affectation for them, but apparently the cones are male and the seeds are female? Something like that. Also some debate on whether they're made of wood or more general vegetable matter. This will be the topic of an Extra Materials post at some point, after extensive research.

After finishing up the party is lodged for the night, to rest and recuperate after the day's violence. In the morning they prepare to head out, gifted rations for the road, or river as the case may be. Alistair, not wanting his horse to become an alloygator's snack, leaves it with Captain Skybrush, who swears to take care of it as if it were his own noble mount. They wave their goodbyes and set out to follow the Countess's trail once again.

This trail leads them by a chainmail-clad python lounging in a tree, who they spot from far enough away to backtrack away from and circle around, though this costs them precious time. Eventually they arrive at an open lake, with a village of shoddy hovels on the far end, and a splinter of darkness blacker than night beyond it on the horizon. The party approaches its dock cautiously, and all but one of the strange fishermen on it retreat inland. The one who remains has no legs (or lower torso) to retreat with.

This fisherman greets them as "wholesomes", and introduces himself as a "lackie", one who's had a part of themself stolen by the Loggerhead. In further conversation the party learns that the Loggerhead does not only steal parts but trades them away as well, but what makes the monster choose one or the other is poorly understood. A famous example of the latter is apparently the Blackbriar Knight, who traded their mangled sword-arm for a strong and fresh one. The village is a place where lackies remain because they're too ashamed or damaged to go home, and it would be best for the party to go on their way.

They continue to the edge of the Severglaives, its rusty-red water appearing black in the shadow of the cliffs that now loomed before them. At their foot is a beach of ash and soaked sawdust. Sir Alistair surmises that the Countess must have sought out the Loggerhead's services, for whatever reason, and that following the trail into its desert might only lead them to their doom or dismemberment. The session ends here, with their next step uncertain.

What might the Countess have traded away, and what might she have gained in return? Will the seal in the tower hold forever? Could the next duel that Alistair fights be before the eyes of the King in the Pines? Find out next time, on Beyond the Bizarre Armoire!

Sunday, May 9, 2021

The Thawing Kingdom: A Zine by Monsieur le Battlier; A Review By semiurge

I mentioned elsewhere recently that I'd like to see more bloggers go beyond their wheelhouse, write on themes, content, or whatever else they haven't before, or usually wouldn't. This is me putting my money where my mouth is and doing something I've never done on this blog before: writing a review.

The subject of this review is friend of the blog Monsieur le Battlier's zine The Thawing Kingdom, recently released on

The Overview

28 pages total, a few pages short of that for content what with the title page, back page, and so on. Public domain art, well-picked, moody. System-neutral.

The zine's based on a series of blogposts Monsieur did. I'm not gonna go back and cross-check what's in those vs. the zine, but you could probably get a lot of the juicy bits from those.

Intro's nice, dark fairy-tale that gets you in the right headspace, sets the stage for this fantastical place, its thematic dichotomies, the when/where/why/how of it being plopped in your world as the strange and unknown where none before have tread - classic adventure material. This is kept on going throughout, as the strength of the zine as a whole, in its wealth of imagination and in the tensions of its narrative heart chugging along beneath: heat & cold, love & hate, stasis & revolution. It strikes a sweet spot between vanilla fantasy and the gonzo hodge-podge.

Fun monsters, locations, ideas, and imagery abound.

The Nitty-Gritty

There's a significant gap between what I'd consider a great blogpost, and what I'd consider a great work that people are paying for. Again, I'm not accustomed to writing reviews, so I hope that the critiques of this zine I'll be laying out below are accurate and constructive.

The zine could've been improved primarily in three ways: more efficient use of its space, more attention to mechanics, and less ambivalence in its writing.

About 6 of the zine's 28 pages are dedicated to a fascinating place called Draailant, where humans overthrew their gods and created a coal-powered cult of progress. One of the last things mentioned in these pages is that people from Draailant can't really go to the Thawing Kingdom, and would be quickly eaten by Half-Thawed (an iconic sort of monster that poses interesting problems in play) if they did, and that the very air in Draailant is hostile to people from the Thawing Kingdom. To me this space would be better used for folks, inventions, etc., from Draailant which players would actually interact with, besides the delightfully Boschian little devils.

Tables that are like bits and pieces of an encounter table, or sub-tables of an encounter table, are present throughout the zines: travellers you might encounter, animals and monsters of the Thawing Kingdom, occupations of people in the Thawing Kingdom, etc. I think these would be more useful if unified into an encounter table instead of leaving it to me, or anyone else trying to run the setting, into one by our own effort.

Monsieur and I are alike in that we prefer the prose-y and imaginative to the mechanical and banal, however for a complete setting zine I think there needs to be more fleshed-out and harmonized on the latter end. For example, there's a neat mechanic for accumulating supernatural Cold from spells and suchlike, but the way to lose that Cold is basically handwaved. We're told that you must spend time by a fire in good company, but for an hour, a day? Either way it would greatly affect the mood of playing in the Thawing Kingdom. Similar situation for stats for monsters. I don't quite need them, but they'd be nice to have.

That stuff, to me, is a lesser issue than what was done with the locations. As mentioned previously I like what's listed for them, they'd make great entries for a hex- or pointcrawl, but in the zine they're only listed. Putting that list into a framework I could run right out of the box would go a long way to making me willing and able to use this zine for a campaign. Including a dungeon (or two, or three...) would also help in this regard.

The writing's good, except where important things are left out for ambivalence. There's a bit too much "possibly, perhaps, could have, could be, some say, who knows" for my liking. For example, one of the locations has a mad, murderous wizard. We're told: "Possibly there is a method to his madness, but what that may be is unknown...". Mystery should enter the game in play, between the DM and players, not between the writer and the DM. That's just putting more work on the DM's shoulders. This is present in the mechanic for stocking the locations with loot too. There's some nice loot tables, but for the actual stocking it's entirely vague and abstracted.


While the main zine I can recommend with reservations, the Thawing Kingdom's "Bosscrawl" addition I can't recommend at all. Vague, abstract, no stats, no maps, not even personalities for the White and Black Swan Knights who feature as major characters in it. Where there is specificity it takes the form of telling you what must or does happen without room for player intervention or ingenuity. The only real value in this addition is in its vague gesturing towards spatial relations between locations mentioned in the main zine. There was potential here, but that potential wasn't even close to being realized. It feels like a cashgrab. I'm disappointed and I know Monsieur could've done better.

The Price

There's another blog, from a time when the OSR blogosphere was breathing its first. That blog is Leveraged Sell-out, and on that blog there is a section of a post (The Money Seat) that I think of from time to time:

"For me, the $200 was a drop in the bucket. I might have paid it twice for all I know. It was a number you shrug at; and to put it in my friend Hugh’s terms: “only 2/3rds of a bottle.” That’s how Hugh measures things—in bottles. For him, the practice renders any sum trivial and makes spending casual and breezy, like it should be. A Lord Willy’s shirt—1 bottle; A black market Wii some IT guy is trying to sell on the corporate bulletin board—2 bottles. The habit is contagious, and just last week, when I heard the Back Office had put together some micro car called the Tata Nano, all I could think was: Holy shit. This thing is only like 8 bottles. And then, I do that on a Tuesday."

Now I do not make investment banker money. For me, $200 is a couple buckets at least. The basis of comparison of exchange between money and alcohol is the commonality with my life.

This zine is $6 ($9 with the addition of the "Bosscrawl"). That's a few tall boys, and I can blow through an unwise number of those on a Tuesday. Though I cannot drink it, and it will not get me to sing along with music I enjoyed in my unjaded youth, from that perspective the price seems reasonable - for the main zine.

In Summation

Check out The Thawing Kingdom if you're ok with taking the time to handle the mechanical work yourself, or if you're hungry for inspiration. In content it's more of a gazetteer of an interesting place than something you can easily pick up and play. The "Bosscrawl" is not worth the price being asked for it. I hope this review was helpful, and look forward to what Monsieur puts out in the future.