Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Spiritualist Miscellany - Daring Mediums, Occult Television, Mysterious Oujia, Ghost Photography, Spirit Radio

The Devices and Daring Mediums that Spoke for the Dead
Lisa Hix
Collector's Weekly

"In the earliest days, you would sit down with a medium at a table, and you would start asking questions out to the ether. And these raps would signal 'yes' or 'no' in a simple binary code. In the emerging Spiritualist movement, new mediums started calling out the alphabet, letter by letter, to the rapping ghosts and thereby, spelling out words and sentences from beyond in an excruciatingly slow manner. But ingenious Victorians quickly started looking for ways to get the message faster, coming up with all sorts of means and devices to chat with the dead.

Laypeople experimented with these devices at home, others turned to Spiritualist mediums, a job that eventually gave young women - who were thought to be so receptive to the divine they would come to embody the spirits themselves - power they couldn’t have dreamed of before. For a working-class woman who becomes a medium and ends up hanging out in wealthy people’s living rooms her entire career, it was an opportunity for another kind of life.

It was also an opportunity for women to speak in fora that they usually didn’t have the opportunity to speak in. These mediums were able to flagrantly violate strict Victorian social taboos and speak unpopular or radical opinions. Saying their ideas came from a higher power gave mediums substantial influence over social and political beliefs: They could inject ideas about poverty, women’s suffrage, domestic violence, or the abolition of slavery into the public consciousness."

An Occult History of the Television Set
Geoff Manaugh

"The origin of the television set was heavily shrouded in both spiritualism and the occult. The television was first conceived as a technical device for seeing at a distance: like the telephone (speaking at a distance) and telescope (viewing at a distance), the television was intended as an almost magical box through which we could watch distant events unfold, a kind of technological crystal ball.

TV in a long line of other optical media go back at least as far as weird Renaissance experiments involving technologically-induced illusions, such as concave mirrors, magic lanterns, disorienting walls of smoke, and other ghostly apparitions and phantasmagoric projections created by speciality devices.

These devices included instruments specifically designed for pursuing supernatural research - for visualizing the invisible and showing the subtle forces at work in everyday life. So, while the television itself might not be a supernatural mechanism, it nonetheless descends from a strange and convoluted line of esoteric experimentation, including early attempts at controlling electromagnetic transmissions, radio waves, and even experiencing various forms of so-called remote viewing."

The Strange and Mysterious History of the Ouija Board
Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

The Mysterious Origins of Ouija Boards
Lisa Hix
Collector's Weekly

"The Ouija board came straight out of the American 19th century obsession with spiritualism, the belief that the dead are able to communicate with the living. Spiritualism reached millions of adherents at its peak in the second half of the 19th century. It was compatible with Christian dogma, meaning one could hold a séance on Saturday night and have no qualms about going to church the next day. It was an acceptable, even wholesome activity to contact spirits at séances, through automatic writing, or table turning parties, in which participants would place their hands on a small table and watch it begin shake and rattle, while they all declared that they weren’t moving it.

As spiritualism had grown in American culture, so too did frustration with how long it took to get any meaningful message out of the spirits. Calling out the alphabet and waiting for a knock at the right letter was deeply boring. After all, rapid communication with breathing humans at far distances was a possibility - the telegraph had been around for decades - why shouldn’t spirits be as easy to reach? People were desperate for methods of communication that would be quicker - and while several entrepreneurs realized that, it was the Kennard Novelty Company that really nailed it."

When Cameras Took Pictures of Ghosts
Megan Garber

"For Mumler photo manipulation was also good business. While he was ultimately selling nostalgia and comfort, what was he technically selling were portraits of clients posed alongside the "spirits" of their deceased loved ones. He sold those for between $5 and $10 apiece, a huge fee at the time. He grew wealthy producing spirit photos for grief-stricken clients who had lost relatives in the Civil War.

Which was ingenious and cruel at the same time. Visual memories, even those of loved ones, fade. Images blur. Lines soften. Mumler took advantage of this. If a customer shared enough information with the photographer, and if the selected face was faint and blurry enough, the resulting 'spirit' could convince a person who wanted to be convinced.

The mid-19th century in the U.S. coincided with the rise of Spiritualism, the religious movement that posited, among other things, the possibility that a soul could exist without a body to contain it. Technologies like the telegraph and the camera gave cultural aid to the Spiritualist movement by effectively separating messages from the bodies of their senders. Images were disentangled from their subjects; information was disentangled from its sources. Ghosts were, in their way, everywhere."

Build the Spirit Radio that Creeped Out Tesla Himself
Sean Fallon

Spooky Tesla Spirit Radio

"My first observations positively terrified me as there was present in them something mysterious, not to say supernatural, and I was alone in my laboratory at night.

The sounds I am listening to every night at first appear to be human voices conversing back and forth in a language I cannot understand. I find it difficult to imagine that I am actually hearing real voices from people not of this planet. There must be a more simple explanation that has so far eluded me."

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Session Report - 5e Undermountain - Temple of the Azur Volcano

Life under quarantine continues, and I'm continuing to use D&D as a form of escapism to deal with the stress and isolation of staying home all day, every day, both for my own safety and to help protect the safety of "the herd" (which has got to be one of the least flattering metaphors for human society).

Some players I've run in-person games for asked me to run an online game, and one of them requested that we use D&D 5e, so I'm game-mastering my first ever Fifth Edition game. My plan was just to default to the Undermountain megadungeon from Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, but it turns out that the first dungeon level there is for 5th level characters, so I've been improvising a little to get the party up to 5th level so they can enter the Undermountain.

Their first adventure was in the Temple of the Azur Volcano, which I've adapted with very light re-skinning from "The Candy Island!" adventure from the Azurth Adventure Digest.


Cast of characters:
Raku Chilhuly - dragonborn guild-artificer, 1st level artificer - played by Emily
Willowbald Hornblower - halfling noble, 1st level bard - played by Steve
Nehryx - centaur outlander, 1st level fighter - played by Corey

I started by asking the players to introduce their characters to me. I had helped Emily and Steve a bit with 5e's character generation process, but I let each player come up with their own backstory however they wanted.

Raku Chihuly is a glazier and glassblower who was raised by the Glassblower's Guild. She's spent her left so far making beautiful glass objects, but wants to find rarer materials and learn to make magic items.

Willowbald Hornblower is the black sheep of his family. The Hornblowers are synonymous with their successful pipeweed mercantile house. They grow it, bundle it, dry it, and sell it, making a fortune along the way. Willowbald tried to chart his own course in life, and attempted to become a vintner, but winery failed, and now he lives on a ramshackle estate at the edge of town. He hopes to learn some new techniques for running a vineyard, or find some new merchandise to sell to try to get back in his family's good graces.

Nehryx is from far away, from a plains that's dominated by centaurs and their ancient rivals, the minotaurs. Nehryx wanted to explore up in the mountains where the giants live. He was kidnapped and enslaved by a traveling circus, variously shackled, humiliated, and physically abused, until his will was nearly broken and he was ready to die. Eventually, the circus owners wanted Nehryx to stage gladiatorial combat with an enslaved minotaur. Somehow, this final indignity rekindled some spark of vitality in both of them, they set aside their ancient enmity, slaughtered their oppressors, and escaped, eventually arriving in town with the others.

Based on details the characters provided, I decided that they're starting out in Alpenshire, a halfling town at the foothills of a great mountain range, known locally as the Grosse Bergen. (Remember, the Undermountain's got to be nearby somewhere!) That same mountain range is home to numerous giants, and apparently a deplorable traveling circus, and on the other side is the Taurean Plains, where the centaurs and minotaurs live. Alpenshire is home to one branch of the Hornblower family, who grow vast fields of pipeweed in the shade of the Bergs.

The most exciting thing to happen in the Shire in quite some time was the appearance, overnight, of a black volcano to the southwest of town (the opposite side from the mountain range). Most Alpenshire residents are a bit parochial and uninterested in things happening outside, but Willowbald, Raku, and Nehyrx decided to investigate this mysterious appearance.

After walking for a few hours, the friends arrived at a point where the grass began to give way to shiny green sand. Upon closer inspection, Raku determined that the "sand" was actually minute pebbles of green glass. The group assumed this was an effect of the volcano's arrival, but weren't sure if it had been dredged up to the surface from below, or if the grass itself had somehow been transformed into glass.

Within a couple hundred yards of the volcano, they reached a point where the green sand gave way to black sand, also made of tiny bits of smooth glass. They could see a ziggurat built into the side of the volcano, and a crowd of humanoid figures gathered around outside. The figures seemed to be roughly human-sized, but made entirely of grey stone. (Like Korg, from the Thor movies!) The three adventurers crouched behind what appeared to be either a strange looking boulder or a crystalized bush.

As the three friends watched, they were able to discern that a handful of the figures were carrying stone spears, and that occasionally these guards would drag off someone who'd been standing around. There appeared to be a few more stone figures on top level of the ziggurat, but they kept moving in and out of an entryway, so they were hard to make out. Watching the ground level again, they saw that individuals were drawing stones from a box. Most drew a black stone and went back to milling, but drawing a red stone meant being carried away.

At one point while their backs were turned, a large snake made of glass or rock crystal slithered up behind them, its eyes set on swallowing Willowbald whole. Nehyrx managed to engage the monster with his spear, and prevented it from getting past him, fairly quickly subduing it.

Resuming their vantage point, the group debated what to do. Nehryx thought about his travails with the circus, and worried that the rock people who were being led off were unwilling victims, and wondered what fate might befall them. Willowbald suggested trying to talk to some of the stone creatures, and pointed out that he knew magic that would allow them to communicate, even if they didn't speak the same language.

The group approached the edge of the gathering, trying to find someone who was standing somewhat apart from the others. They tried talking to one, but it didn't appear to recognize their language, or show any interest in them at all. Willowbald tried casting his spell to comprehend languages and asked the creature what was going on. When it spoke back, Raku and Nehryx just heard unintelligible growling, but Willowbald translated for his friends.

Upon questioning, the stone figure revealed that their home had unexpectedly risen to the surface. No one seemed to know why this had happened, but the head priest had a plan to return them home. Unfortunately, this plan would involve sacrifices. The figure wasn't happy about the situation, but understood the sacrifices to be necessary. Likewise, it assumed that while no one wanted to die, the lottery system was fair, and the ones who were sacrificed would be doing their part to save the others.

When Willowbald offered "But what if no one had to die? What if we could help you?" The stone creature perked up. It called over to a group of nearby guards. "They volunteer as tribute! They volunteer to help us by being sacrifices, so none of us has to die!" Willowbald tried to correct the misunderstanding, "No that's not what I meant-" but the guards didn't seem to be listening to anything else he had to say.

A brief combat followed. Raku's fiery dragon breath seemed to fuse two of the guards into lifeless stone. Willowbald distracted another with an illusion of the crystalline snake. Nehryx interposed himself bodily between the living guards and his friends. He was speared once and decided to run for it, helping the two onto his back to gallop away. The stone guardian threw its spear but declined to give chase. Nehryx was felled and had to spend an hour out in the field coming to, but the guards returned to their posts and their people. After Nehryx recovered, he, Willowbald, and Raku returned to town.

125 XP (snake 50 + three guards 25/each)


Raku Chihuly - dragonborn guild-artisan, 1st level artificer - played by Emily
Willibald Hornblower - halfling noble, 1st level bard - played by Steve
Nehryx - centaur outlander, 1st level fighter - played by Corey
Demic - minotaur entertainer, 1st level paladin - played by Ben

After Nehryx healed up from his injury, and the volcano did not disappear back down into the earth, the three friends were joined by Nehryx's old companion, Demic. Demic had been enslaved by the traveling circus even longer than Nerhyx, and had already fought in countless gladiatorial matches by the time the two first met. The two maintained a campsite together, just outside of town. They were both larger than human-sized, while everything in Alpenshire was built for halflings, so they were more comfortable outside and on their own.

The group marched back out to the volcano and circled it warily from a distance, not wanting to get close enough to attract the guards' attention. Raku used of the empty wine bottles from Willowbald's run-down estate to collect samples of the interesting sand, believing that she might be able to melt it down and make glasswork out of it. The group watched the ziggurat for some time, but it seemed significantly less active than before. Not entirely deserted, but with only a handful of stone guards and other stone humanoids around. Miraculously, they weren't disturbed by any more strange wildlife during their scouting trip.

(At this point, I reminded the players that if they weren't interested in the ziggurat, that there was probably some adventure to be had up in the mountains.)

Although worried about the guards' spears, Nehryx and Demic reasoned that there must be someone in town who would pay them to investigate the temple, and thus no reason to risk their lives for free until they found that person. Willowbald and Raku also wondered if anyone in town had ever heard of something like this happening before anywhere else.

Their first stop was to see Willowbald's favorite aunt, Dinah Hornblower. Although he was not on great terms with the rest of the family, Aunt Dinah still had a soft spot in her heart for her wee nephew. The group went to her public house, The Laughing Halfling, where Willowbald was able to determine that nothing like was part of the town's collective memory. He did get a couple leads though. Old Man Bassoon had been complaining about the volcano's effect on his soil, and Black Iris, who spent a lot of time up in the mountain sourcing implausibly-discounted goods, was very worldly and might know rumors from distant lands.

The next day, they traipsed out to the edge of town, to the furthest out farm, which belonged to the constantly complaining Old Man Bassoon. "Just look at these leaves! They're all withered and sickly!" Old Man Bassoon was convinced that the volcano had ruined his soil, and that his pipeweed crop was in trouble. Reluctantly, he was offering up his rainy-day fund of 500 gp to anyone who could send the volcano back underground and rescue his crop.

Later they found Black Iris, named for her dark hair and the flower she tucked behind each ear, enjoying an afternoon drink. She was a very successful businesswoman, known for finding merchandise that fell off the back of a supply caravan through the mountains and reselling it in Alpenshire. She knew that the stone people were called Azurs, that they're mostly simple rock farmers, and that they typically lived underground. She'd heard of one of their communities accidentally surfacing before. "Every Azur community has a diamond as big as your fist," Black Iris told them. "You could use it to send them back. Or you could bring it to me. I'm sure I could find you a buyer. It would be worth a king's ransom."

Satisfied that they knew enough, and had enough financial opportunities, to justify the trip to temple, arriving just before dawn and coming from the north this time, where they could see dozens of small caves dug into the side of the volcano, and a small number of Azurs sleeping individually out in the sand. They decided to wait until one woke up and use Willowbald's magic to speak to it. While they waited, a cloud of glass mosquitoes descended on them, but Raku quickly dispatched the insects with a blast of dragon fire.

As the sun rose, an early-rising Azur awoke and began rubbing its arms for warmth. Willowbald approached it to speak, and learned that Garblegrox was a rock farmer and found the weather up here a bit cold for its liking. Willowbald asked about the sacrifices and learned that they hadn't worked yet, but the high priest was calling for more. Willowbald asked about the guards and learned that there were about a dozen, working in shifts, and none of them had been chosen as sacrifices, which Garblegrox hadn't previously considered suspicious until just that moment. Finally Willowbald asked about the diamond, and learned that the high priest would probably never part with it, that it belonged to the dead king. The priest would never give up the diamond or the body of the king, so the sacrifices would continue. Willowbald thanked Garblegrox and returned to the group. They decided that the Azurs were probably suffering under corrupt leadership.

The four adventurers inspected the ziggurat again. The only visible entrance was on the top level, where a couple guards stood totally motionless. But they remembered that the other day, they hadn't seen anyone climbing the stairs, and so went to look for a hidden chamber. They found a door, and Raku was able to pick the lock. Inside were two more guards standing over a group of sleeping Azur farmers. Nehryx and Demic rushed forward to attack the guards while Raku and Willowbald helped wake the prisoners and return them to freedom.

There was no obvious way out of the room, but Nehryx and Demic both thought there must be a secret door, and soon found one along the far wall. Inside was a giant Azur lying still on a raised platform, holding a large uncut diamond. As the adventurers entered the room, the figure sat up and bellowed its name "GOORRR-GAAARRRRR!" It tosses the diamond into the air where it hovered overhead. The fight that followed was brutal. Demic leapt onto the table to strike at GORGAR from above. Nehryx first had his glaive get stuck in GORGAR's hide like wet cement, and then was trapped by tentacles that sprang from the monster's side. Willowbald tried viciously mocking the king to no effect, then assailed it with shots from his crossbow Raku rushed forward to help free Nehryx, who was able to escape with her help before delivering the killing blow.

GORGAR collapsed into a puddle of wet mud, and the diamond tumbled to the ground. Willowbald rushed forward to catch it. The group briefly debated how to destroy the diamond, including climbing up the side of the volcano to toss it inside. Demic checked the large ceremonial doors and found a room where a curtain of lava flowed behind an altar. Willowbald entered the room and prepared to throw the diamond. For a second, he felt tempted by thoughts that the diamond might be worth much more than Old Man Bassoon could pay, but rejected those thoughts and tossed the diamond into the lava. The whole temple began to rumble and shake and sink into the ground. The altar crumbled, the platform where GORGAR had lain split in half, the stairs rocked from side to side as they ran back up to the surface.

Outside they heard cheering and watched Azurs running from their rudimentary rock farming efforts to jump back onto the sinking volcano. A few remained on the surface, seemingly by choice. One approached the party and spoke to Willowbald. It was Garblegrox! "It's cold up here, but my rocks grow well, and there are friendly neighbors nearby."

Back at the village, Old Man Bassoon was still grumbling and complaining. "Yeah, the volcano's gone, but it hasn't helped my pipeweed has it?" He paid the agreed upon fee with no difficulty, but he wanted them to know that he remained troubled and put upon. Reward in hand, the group retired to the Laughing Halfling.

500 gp reward
525 XP (mosquitoes 25 + two guards 25/each + GORGAR 450)


As I said, I agreed to run this campaign shortly before we got started, and only picked out this adventure because the one I'd planned on was too high-level. That said, I think this worked pretty well. In retrospect, maybe I should have gone with the hook Trey built into the adventure, of the party spotting a meteorite landing, finding the strange people at the crater, and then discovering the people's temple and their new-found meteorite worship. But my slimmed-down version did result in a new, friendly Azur settlement near their starting town, so that's not bad either.

The collaborative world-building with the players seems to be working out too, although there are some tonal differences between their various backstories. Part of me wishes I had my own bespoke campaign setting, ready to go, able to be picked up whenever I'm running a game on short notice like this.

I've seen other GMs complain online that their players just rush into the dungeon without gathering any information first. I came close to having the opposite problem! The group's search for actionable intel resulted in them earning a reward and making three new contacts, to say nothing of the way it benefited their path through the temple.

5e appears to have a lot of interesting support for earning renown within your community, joining factions and attaining favor, and I haven't done anything with those rules so far, although if I feel like I have time I might look into them. So far, I find myself playing catch-up on the combat rules.

A couple of my players are clearly quite experienced with tactical combat in 5e, probably either with miniatures, or with a digital tabletop like Roll20. My main concern is that, whatever the rules seem to say, no, you can't get advantage on every single attack roll just because you said you were flanking, and no, the Tunnel Fighter fighting style and use of a polearm still don't mean that you get an attack of opportunity every single round. I don't think this is really want the 5e designers intended, and more to the point, I don't care, because it's not what I want a game I'm GMing to be like.

Flanking is an optional rule, and furthermore, its an optional rule within the already-optional rules for using miniature figures in combat, which we aren't. So currently, there are five ways to get advantage on an attack roll - spend a point of Inspiration, have an ally spend their point of Inspiration on you, use your action to "Hide", have an ally use their action to "Help" you ... or do something cool that interacts with the environment for a one-time situational advantage.

Interacting with the environment might not be possible in every fight. Maneuvering into position can be done as an action (treat this like "Disengage" basically), or as a movement that might provoke an attack of opportunity (I don't love this, but there should be some cost for doing it faster), or by attempting a relevant skill check. If the check succeeds, you get the advantage without giving your opponent an opportunity, but if the check fails, then you don't gain advantage and your opponent gets the bonus attack. This was how we handled Demic jumping up on the platform, and I thought it worked well.

The 5e DMG also has some advice for "improvising damage" directly from interacting with the environment, (ranging from like 1d10 for making a bookshelf fall on them to like 4d10 for having a ceiling collapse on them) so depending on what you do, you might just damage your opponent directly instead of getting advantage on your attack roll.

As for attacks of opportunity, this isn't a mechanic I like at all, although I admit it's probably just a personal preference. They feel like they both force people (like me) who prefer "theater of the mind" combat to have to care about the fictional positioning of the combatants, while preventing people who do care about tactical miniatures from being able to move around as freely as they might. And its another thing that makes retreating from combat harder. Not impossible, you can "Disengage" after all, but harder.

Nehryx being a Tunnel Fighter means that intelligent enemies aren't going to risk his glaive to try to pass him to get at anyone using ranged weapons, which is really good protection for Willowbald and Raku. Unintelligent enemies, like the crystal snake, might still try it, and face his prowess. Nehryx also doesn't get an opportunity attack against someone approaching him, especially not someone he's already attacked, although he could gain that opportunity by taking the Polearm Master feat when he reaches 4th level. As a 2nd level fighter, he'll already get an extra attack every combat, because fighters are cool like that. But combat should never just be one or two player rolling all the dice while everyone else sits on their hands, even if it is a chance for the more martial characters to show off what they're good at.

All the characters have earned enough XP to go up to 2nd level. And I haven't been paying attention to the rules for Inspiration, but they've all done something to earn a point, so they'll all start the next session with that available.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

When You Come at the King, You Best Not Miss

In D&D it can sometimes seem like your only two options for enemy royalty are the chess king model - where the king is realistically weak and helpless compared to the knights and castles defending him - or what we might call the Into the Badlands baron model - where the reason he has become and remained the king is because he is the single greatest fighter in his own army.

We could probably also call this the "chess queen" model

A third model occurred to me when thinking about character classes like The Extras, The Financier, and The Crew - that is, royal villains and their retinue of loyal bodyguards are represented within the game mechanics as a single enemy creature. So royal monsters get higher HD as their rank goes up, not because they become better fighters, but because they become better protected by a larger staff of intermediaries.

The king is always surrounded by his most loyal bodyguards, and initially, any damage is dealt to the guards. The figure of the king, in this model, represents the last Hit Dice, perhaps even the last hit point - you don't get to touch him until all the guards are down. With apologies to both Omar Little and Ralph Waldo Emerson, when you strike at the king, you won't kill him, at least not until all his guards are out of the way.

The question of whether the king escapes and returns later with a new retinue, gets captured, gets executed, or is simply thrown out of the palace and exiled - this is a question the players can answer outside of combat. And except for possibility of daring escape, these are all questions that can be answered simply by the players coming to a consensus. Once the king is at their mercy, they no longer need to roll any dice to determine what happens to him.

I believe it was also Emerson who asked
"Is you taking notes on a criminal fucking conspiracy?"

I was reminded of this idea during a conversation with Trey of From the Sorcerer's Skull, who suggested "A mechanic wherein Underbosses were like the ablative armor of the Big Boss would be interesting. The heroes don't get a chance to confront them until they've taken down enough "points" of Underbosses."

Mechanically, Trey thought you could borrow rules from the 2nd edition of Robin Laws's HeroQuest rules: "You could encounter a Boss without going through the Underbosses, but at that point the Boss is really high on the challenge curve and you're likely to get beat." 

Richard from Richard's Dystopian Pokeverse thought this was similar to the "onion skin campaign model" that's used in Sandy Peterson's Masks of Nyarlathotep. He adds that Patrick from False Machine is already using a rule like this in one of his current games where Richard's a player: "Having reduced a rival to 0, the attacker has to state they specifically want to kill/capture the king and use their forces against the remaining 1hp point."

And finally, Steve from Kaijuville thought this reminded him of a mechanic that sometimes shows up in Warhammer 40K: "Characters joined units that basically meant the unit became a Wound sink for the character. In hand-to-hand combat, enemies couldn't wound the character until they dealt with all the unit models."

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Down in the Chthonic Depths' Secret Jackalope Present to Me - Cafe Prost

There's a springtime prompt-trading blogathon going on right now called Secret Jackalope, and I'm participating this year! I'll be posting my submission here soon. But in the meantime, I wanted to shine a spotlight on Down in the Chthonic Depths, who answered my prompt.

I asked for "A small coffee-house dungeon, either - daytime (filled with factions) or nighttime (ready to heist), your choice!"

Molly J and Nick S went above and beyond with their submission - Cafe Prost and the Little Red Notebook

Secret police! The resistance! A criminal gang! A little red notebook that everyone wants to get their hands on! Plus 36 more café patrons with agendas of their own, looking for a place to read or a a chance to meet a lover, who you can try to inveigle in your schemes.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Resurrection of Wormwood - Warlock Mentor - Anshall of the Spirits

Your mentor is Anshall, a spirit medium who channels the voices of the dead to provide comfort to the grieving, and taught you to channel a god. Your class is warlock.

Anshall is a foreigner from across the Darkling Sea, a woman with pink skin and white hair whose native garb is decorated with insect motifs. Anshall believes in a spirit world, where the ghosts of the dead lie dreaming, and she claims an affinity with these spirits. Many shun Anshall as a heretic and eccentric, but others pay her to conduct séances, where she speaks with the dead to temporarily reconnect families separated by the plague.

Anshall taught you mediumship and channeling. She showed you a glimpse of the spirit world, where her soul appeared to you as an alien insect. Anshall trained you to contact an otherworldly god, to supplicate and beseech it, to swear a pact to become its avatar in the mortal realm.

If you are the first player to train with Anshall, select a vacant building on the town map and label it as "House of the Spirits".

You are a warlock. You know the spells eldritch blast and hex.

You have leather armor, two daggers, and a scholar's pack. You own a memento portrait of your dead fiancé, who you have never been able to contact during a séance. You also own a mask of your patron god's face, which you wear while channeling their power.

d6 How did your fiancé die, and what otherworldly vista did you glimpse when Anshall showed you the spirit realm?

1 Your fiancé died of plague. You saw the Tombstone Stairwell, where the souls of the dead descend endless engravened stairs down into the spirit world. You know the spells minor illusion and unseen servant.

2 Your fiancé starved to death in a plague house, locked in for quarantine with too little to eat. You wept before the Alabaster Gates, where the doors were locked, where every soul was turned away, the innocent and the unrepentant alike. You know the spells mage hand and protection from good and evil.

3 Your fiancé died while traveling - sleepless, lost, exhausted - when no one would open their door to aid a stranger. You saw the Grey Wastes, where each soul wanders alone through a faded afterimage of the living world, empty and devoid of life. You know the spells friends and witch bolt.

4 Your fiancé was killed by bandits, beaten and abandoned alongside the road. You turned away from the sight of the Inverted City, the place of all demons, where human spirits were helpless before their tormentors, tossed about an tortured like playthings. You know the spells blade ward and hellish rebuke.

5 Your fiancé died of exposure, traveling through the rain on a cold winter's night. You stared into the Frozen Lake, where the loneliest souls are imprisoned in isolation, far from the warmth of others' love. You know the spells frostbite and charm person.

6 Your fiancé died by ingesting false medicine, deceived by poison disguised as panacea. You watched the Transmigration of Souls, where the ancient dead finally escape the spirit world to be reborn as living infants. You know the spells poison spray and comprehend languages.

What was your fiancé's name? What business called them to travel to the distant city so often? As a complication, your game master may rule that an ongoing adventure involves completing your fiancé's unfinished business.

d6 Which otherworldly patron did Anshall teach you to channel?

1 You knelt in fealty at the court of the Umbral Queen, the raven-haired sovereign of the shadowed realms, who wears a crown of knives, who is cloaked in a gown of swords. In time, the Queen will send one of her umbral knights, a tiny raven-winged humanoid, dressed in autumn leaves, wearing a bird's skull as a mask, to serve as your familiar (as imp).

2 You bowed your head in prayer to the celestial Archangel of the Bell Choir, who rings out a song of resistance against the plague and the rule of the Plague Lord. In time, the angel will send you the apocryphal Gospel of Lazarus, a prayer book that teaches the spells guidance, resistance, and thaumaturgy.

3 You raced along footpaths through the trees behind the fey Daughter of the Dreaming Forest, as she lead a wild hunt through thickets of memory and groves of deceit. In time, she will send you Trumvaldbuch, a book of fairy stories illustrated with ambiguous inkblots, that teaches the spells druidcraft, primal savagery, and thorn whip.

4 You wandered lost through crooked streets to find the Architect of All Mazes, a great elder from the Abhorred Cosmos, who looks like a fractured reflection in a shattered mirror. In time, the Architect will send you a crooked cormorant, like black bird viewed through broken glass (as pseudodragon).

5 You descended to the bottom of abyssal waters to reach the Avanc of the Depthless Fathoms, a miles-long serpent lurking in the deep, whose slumber stirs gentle the tides, whose thrashing roils typhoons and floods. In time, the Avanc will send you a manuscript in a bottle, Voyage of the Arathustra an account of a failed expedition to the polar ice that teaches the spells infestation, ray of frost, and shape water.

6 You opened your mind to accept Concept of the Stellar Wind, an immortal entity representing the idea of undying light blowing across the void of the outer dark. In time, your patron will send an allegory of photon, a tiny insect-winged humanoid made of golden light, to serve as your familiar (as sprite).

Select a vacant building on the map and label it as your patron's place of power - the House with Black Walls, the Church of the Bell Choir, the Floral Greenhouse, the Crooked House, the Drowning Well, or the Stargazer's Observatory. As a complication, your game master may rule that an ongoing adventure requires an additional task requested by your otherworldly god.

Designer's Commentary
When Jack Shear published The Liberation of Wormwood, I thought he'd come up with a remarkably flexible framework for combining random character generation with co-creation of the campaign setting with an overarching campaign goal that players could pursue in a variety in ways. It occurred to me at the time that rather than the town of Wormwood being conquered by a Usurper and their army, that the whole region could be oppressed by the personification of plague, who could eventually be overthrown by sufficiently ambitious adventurers.

I didn't do very much with this idea when I first had it, besides jotting down some notes about possible Plague Lords and some potential ideas for character and setting creation. But recent events have gotten me thinking about the idea again.

The idea behind Anshall is to provide a different, hopefully Gothic-seeming, interpretation for warlocks and their powers.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Urzya Powder Keg 2 - Boltinka Nakogard

Boltinka Nakogard is a city in the heart of the Northern Devastation Zone, far from the Capital, beyond the frontier of the Borderlands, a city of perpetual winter huddling alone in Urzya's frozen wastes.

The city is home to two great households, both alike in dignity, both ancestors of the Dragon. The great houses were once vassals to a vampire queen, but the Noble is aged and ailing, and her authority has failed. Now the two houses' enmity flirts with open warfare, and each house dreams of a new era, and a new heir to the Dragon to rule over all.

Boltinka Nakogard is a city of migrants. Miners come to dig for prism-stones. Treasure seekers search for crystals that can imprison the living magic of the wastes. The work is dangerous and the workers desperate, and the wind at night howls in mourning for the dead.

This is a city, too, of missing children. At first few, now many. At first only orphans, now more and more migrant children have disappeared.

Boltinka Nakogard is a city about to explode.

The Forbidden Lovers and the Lost Child

Tension between the two great houses has been high for sometime, but the current state of open vendetta began with the elopement of a pair of young lovers, one from each house. The two youths hid in the slums while their families went to war over the disappearance. Each side blamed the other, alleging abduction, seduction, and worse. When the pair were finally found, each spouse was executed by their own household for their treason, but the war between the houses hasn't dimmed, it's flames fan ever brighter.

Rumor has it that the lovers bore a child who was spirited away by an accomplice right before the pair were captured. Due to complicated legal and genealogical reasoning, most people believe that the child, if found, would be the rightful ruler of both houses. The public assumes each house wants to raise the child so that she will grow up loyal to them and bring their rivals to heel. If this story is true, the lost child was the first of Boltinka Nakogard's child disappearances. (I've intentionally left the timeframe a little vague here. If the child is an infant, she has no real agency of her own; if she's a teenager she becomes more of a full-fledged NPC.)

Imprisoning Spells

The reason for Boltinka Nakogard's existence is the presence of living spells howling amid the winds of the northern wastes. These spells can be imprisoned, and gemstones containing a bound spell at their hearts are a valuable treasure and invaluable tool of war for the vampire Nobles.

In generations past, the czarina and her army ruled the city absolutely. Her dragonborn vassals harvested the perfect prism-stones from the mine; her dragonmarked servants cut these stones into the ideal gem-prisons for trapping living spells. As she's weakened, her grip has loosened, and with the two houses unwilling to cooperate, the industry has all but ceased. The dragonmarked have no reliable source for stones; the dragonborn no especial skill for cutting them.

The price of even a single bound spell is enough to attract migrant workers. They forage for uncut stones along the edges of dragonborn territory, they make the simplest of cuts by copying the dragonmarked's discards. They scour the wastes looking for gems left by previous migrants and pray to find one already imprisoning a spell. But try searching a snowblind field for buried stones! Try distinguishing a prism-stone from a simple rock or shard of ice! Migrants have lost limbs from the frost and their lives to exposure. And the cold is less deadly than the living spells.

Leave an uncut gem with the correct prismatic dimensions to sit in the snow of the northern wastes, and rarely, so very rarely, a living spell will crawl inside to make its lair there. You can increase your chances with a properly cut gem-prison. You can increase your chances more by fighting the spell until it is defeated, until it is at the brink of disappearing. Then it might retreat inside the stone. Or it might slip away on the wind. Teams and pairs used to work the snow fields together, the dragonborn fighting the spells with their magic breath, the dragonmarked using their skill to bind the spells to the stones. The migrants almost always work alone, each seeking their own fortune, few willing to share the ultimate prize with their neighbors.

The railway company brings the migrants in to work. The railway company traps them in Boltinka Nakogard with exit tickets too expensive to afford.

If any one faction in town could assert authority or control over the others, production could resume, and great fortunes could be made. Increasingly, the thought is heard, once whispered, now sometimes spoken or shouted aloud, that if the rivals cannot be quelled then they should simply be killed, and let control go to the survivors. This is a thought that would drown the city in blood.

The Child Disappearances

No one but the criminals themselves knows who is behind the child disappearances. At first it was orphans who vanished. Then migrant children with living parents. Recently, Boltinka natives have gone to their children's rooms in the morning and found them missing. Recently even the children of the great houses and the railway company aren't safe.

Why are the children disappearing? The rumors are many, and seem to conflict. 
Some say the czarina is searching for an heir to take over her throne.
Some say the dragonborn and dragonmarked are looking for the lost child.
Some say a cult within the church is looking for a dragon goddess reborn.
Some say the railway company is simply sending the children away on night trains - but back to safety or onward to greater servitude?
Some say desperate gangs are working the children on the snow fields at night, using them to attract living spells.
Some say ruthless traffickers are serving any or all of the above, kidnapping children to sell to whoever actually wants them.

Any or all of these seem possible. Opinions about the fate of the children are a popular topic of argument. To be partisan in defense of one's chosen rumor has become a way to cope with one's inability to prevent the disappearances.

The Districts

Grand Hotel Vanna - An opulent palace, the crown jewel of an earlier era. The vampire czarina's estate. She hold court in the building and her knights still control the grounds. Her authority outside this district is limited.

Government District - City hall, courthouse, aldermens' house, home to the czarina's disinherited dhampirs. Ostensibly the seat of city government, but largely ignored.

Spa District - Bathhouses, clinics, and resorts, all controlled by the dragonborn house. Bred for warmer climes, they love petroleum spas.

Industrial Quarter - The gem-prison mine, several petroleum wells, abandoned manufacturies. Nominally controlled by the dragonborn but mostly fallow. Migrants sometimes sneak onsite to search for prism-stones.

Financial District - Banks, jewelry stores, the mercantile exchange, home to the dragonmarked house. They're more ambitious than the dragonborn, not content with the Nakogard's current decadent state, and seek allies among the dhampirs and the railway executives.

City Center - Home to most Boltinka natives. Members of the great houses who choose to live here have only tenuous relationship with their family's seat of power.

Slums - Home to most migrants, especially the widows and orphans of slain treasure seekers. Overcrowded, vulnerable to disease, and the site of most child disappearances. The migrants, formerly disorganized, increasingly look to each other for assistance and support.

Propiska Railway Station - Company headquarters the railway. The upstairs of old railway hotel is home to the executives, the downstairs has been converted into barracks to house their security guards. The best organized and most efficient business in Boltinka.

Orthodox Cathedral - The seat of ancestral Dragon worship, segregated internally between the dragonborn and dragonmarked seating areas. Recognized as sanctuary and neutral territory, the elders of the great houses conduct sensitive business here.

Research Hospital - An abandoned university campus, centered around the hospital, fenced off and quarantined from the city. Regarded as poisonous and unclean, home to a small population of mutants and other exiles, each living in near solitude. Recently taken over by the Daughters of Tiamat, a cult determined to resurrect the Dragon Goddess, they could unleash toxic horror by accident. The townfolk have barely begun to notice that something is amiss.

Adventurers in Boltinka Nakogard

My instinct is to say that the role for player characters at the start of the campaign should be to arrive in town as vagabond spell-hunters, then become increasingly entangled in affairs and intrigue. Every native they talk to will want to gossip about the Lost Child, the child disappearances, the faction conflicts, etc. One side or another could try to hire them to commit plausibly-deniable odd jobs. There are plenty of mysteries and perils to get inveigled in.

And as they make their fortune, they'll begin to realize, for individual miners, there's good money to be made selling imprisoned living spells to various faction elders to add to their stockpile of munitions ... but for the city as a whole, there's much better money to be made restarting the mass export of the gem-prisons to the Vampire Nobles in the far off Capital.

If the players want their characters to be natives, they could play more-or-less the same game by creating a mixed-faction coalition of townspeople, representing the Nakogard's middle class, rather than the migrant underclass like the original scenario. Being embedded in the town's factions and conflicts from the very start might give this game a greater sense of urgency. Start the game with the discovery of the Lost Child, and you're off the races from the moment the starting gun fires.

A final option would be for the players to agree to all belong to the same faction, and to mercenarily advance their faction's agenda at the expense of all the others.