Saturday, May 14, 2022

I Love The Blacklance Paragon

Hi. I'm back.

It's been a while since I posted anything, frankly because I've just not had the inspiration, and because I've been working on something that is larger, and upcoming. For now, I have two posts for you.

One of them is Simply Vampires. It will come, soon.

The other is this one.

It's about "Blacklance Paragon," which, according to me, is the perfect Magic: the Gathering card.

The knight in question, by Victor Adame Minguez

Okay. I hear you think: Really? I come here, hoping for some enjoyably purple esoteric je ne sais quoi, and now he's gonna talk about Magic the fucking Gathering.

Yes. Bear with me.

Why is Blacklance Paragon the perfect Magic card? Why should you care? Well, because the things that make Blacklance Paragon good are bigger than Magic. They're design principles for the relation between art and game mechanics, and how to make the most of that relationship.

I think that Blacklance Paragon can make you a better game designer. And I will keep saying its full name.

Let's look at the actual card.


There we go. At a value of not even a dollar, you can get a sinister looking black knight bursting through a thorny thicket on horseback. The Paragon has to be paid for with black mana, which is the spooky evil mana that you also use to pay for things like zombies and skeletons and spells fuelled by lots of creatures dying. Remember that last one.

So, at first sight the Paragon probably villainous, because it has this gothic black knight thing going on, but it's also a bit heroic: the pose is determined, we've got the dramatic roses being flung up around it, and it's called paragon, which sounds quite noble. It's also got somewhere to be, which is why it's going fast. Its appearance is sudden, ripping through the scenery to burst into its own portrait. That's the visual identity of this character: what you can tell about it just by looking at it.

Now let's look at the mechanics.

First of all, the Paragon has "Flash". In Magic, that means you can play it at any time, even when you normally can't put new monsters on the field, like during your opponent's turn. It's meant to catch your opponent by surprise. It also only costs two mana, which is a small cost that, if you leave it open for use after your turn, your opponent might reasonably overlook. Black mana isn't known for having lots of sudden counterspell or trick cards either.

Then comes the kicker: when the Paragon comes into play, you can give a Knight type monster you control "Deathtouch" (it destroys any monster that it hits) and "Lifelink" (any damage it deals is restored to your player life total) until the end of the turn. The Paragon is itself a Knight type monster, so you can have it come in and immediately apply this effect to itself.

In other words, the Paragon is here to (a) kill something, and (b) give you some life back, making sure you can survive a little bit longer. It has a short window of time to do this (until the end of turn), but it can come in with the element of surprise, because it has "Flash."

Its power and toughness are 3 and 1. That means it'll deal 3 damage (meaning you get 3 life back), but if it takes so much as one measly point of damage, it'll die.


"Smitten Swordmaster," another Knight from the same set.
Art by Taylor Ingvarsson.

What this means is that when you play Blacklance Paragon, it will probably go like this:

Your opponent has a big horrible monster. It's their turn, and you don't have much in terms of defenders that will be able to stop it - you're on the ropes. They declare the attack. The enormous, terrible beast is coming straight towards you, with more than enough power to end the game if it hits you in the face. Your fate seems inevitable.

And then you flash in Blacklance Paragon. 

It appears out of nowhere, charging into the battlefield to save you. You can use it to block the monster in the nick of time, and kill it to boot because your Paragon has "Deathtouch" for one turn. You regain some life because of the Paragon's "Lifelink," meaning you can hang on for just a little bit longer, and get another chance at victory. In this noble deed, however, the Paragon with its toughness of 1 gives its life stopping the lethal threat.

Its visual and mechanical identity converge. This dastardly-looking, dark-armoured deadly Black-lanced knight, appears suddenly at high speed and with a mission. With no regard for danger it tears through enormous thorns to save you and protect your life, at the cost of its own. Because it's a Paragon.

But it's also a black mana creature. This noble act furthers the cruel goal of the greater power that it serves. When Blacklance Paragon saves you like this, not just a creature of the enemy dies, but one of yours too. That's twice as much death to work with for cards like Syr Konrad the Grim (who makes your opponent lose life when creatures die), or Open the Graves (which creates zombies when your creatures die).

"Syr Konrad the Grim", a legendary death-loving knight from the Paragon's set.
Art by Anna Steinbauer.

What I've just demonstrated is the bottom line of this post. Everything the Blacklance Paragon does in the game is represented perfectly in the art it actually has. The flavour hits exactly the same spot as the dry, mechanical function of the card.

So, what's the strength of Blacklance Paragon?

Its strength is art that tells you not only what a monster is, but also what it's going to do. Blacklance Paragon doesn't require your imagination to think up a story for it, because it has a story that's in both its art and mechanics, and that has nothing to do with whatever's in the superfluous flavour text is underneath it, or god forbid, in the lore.

And I just think that's neat.

My name is Rowan A., and I Love The Blacklance Paragon.


Friday, December 17, 2021

BARD

This post is an homage to the classes of Lovely Dark, like the Fighter and the Paladin, made out of admiration, enjoyment and prosaic jealousy. Please go read those, and if you already have, do it again. 

-

The first symptom of the illness is exhaustion. 

So they say, but you know better. The chirurgeons in their laboratories do not walk among the people like you do. They do not sit at the table of the world like you. They see it through still-lives: corpses. That is their table. Medicine is the worship of paintings. The elegiac science, to which the living body is blank and unwhole, lacking the completing touch that only death may grant it.

Doctors are your enemies.

Illness has no heart that schemes in the body, first letting loose its smallest and only then its most vicious knaves. Illness is singular and emergent. It grows like a moon-pale flower, first a bud, then a stem, then bileous petals. Like with the parts of this flower, the appearance of different symptoms is only an illusion, distracting from the truth that they are all the same plant, and they occur not as a collection, but as transformations of the original smallest form.

Exhaustion is not a symptom. It is the bud. The seed of destruction, dispersed around the world on the wind.

You will see that it never sprouts. Because you are a healer, not an embalmer. You are an agent of the bon-vivance. The ceaseless rancour beats in you. You never sleep. You cannot sleep.

Art by Nguyen Bao Tin

Starting Equipment: A bottle of strong liquor. A book of wild and invigorating tales, poems, songs, which you wrote. A pair of scissors. An unforgettable face. 

Skills: 1) Opera Singer 2) Escape Artist 3) Gambler 4) Rabble-Rouser 5) Chef 6) Ballerina

Templates:

A: Flowerpicker, Cabaret and Cabinet
B: Main Brûlant
C: Amour-Fractur
D: Prince of Cowards

Flowerpicker

Art by Coohdraws

Your master - or more accurately your patron - is the rumbling noise in the human heart. The Clamour, which includes amour not at all by accident. You can feel these tremors in your body, and in those of others. When you listen to their footsteps, you can hear it. When they slug you in the face, you shameless bacchant, you can feel it. In the shaking earth, the seeds of death cannot take hold. The white flowers cannot drink blood and grow tall. You can see those too. The illnesses. You can take your scissors and cut them away. But only as long as you move, dance, tremble.

You don't gain benefits from resting. Instead, you gain benefits from bustling, running amok and capering. To regain yourself, you must spend time in crowded clamour, in the same measure another would have to spend resting. While doing this you can remove colds, coughs, rashes, tiredness and aches from twice as many people as you have templates, or you can cure one serious disease, like leprosy or lockjaw.

Attempts at forcing you to sleep, occult or otherwise, always fail.


Cabaret and Cabinet

Art by Thomas Eakins, 1889

People do not forget you easily, especially your enemies. The white-and-black servants of the elegiac science loom in the shadows with hooks and scalpels drawn when you wander through the streets alone at night. At all times they seek to grab you in their cold, wet hands and snuff you out. They want your bandaged body to sit behind glass in their walnut-wood and marble halls, your organs displayed in a tutor's deathly sculpture. They want your dust in vials, and their canvas daubed in your mummy brown. They want to cut the masterpiece from your flesh.

It's dangerous for you to be alone. When you're unaccompanied for more than a few minutes, one of the following creatures will come from the shadows with the intent to kill you and abduct your body:
  1. Doctor in white clothing, with a scalpel and bone saw.
  2. Living mummy.
  3. Invisible man who leaves black foot- and handprints.
  4. Large vulture.
  5. Three zombies.
  6. Large black greyhound
  7. Person you affronted during your last clamouring
  8. Venomous cobra snake.
Chirurgeons, pharmacists, barbers, painters, morticians and gravediggers do not count as company for this effect.


Main Brûlant

Art by Laura Knight, 1922

Passion is heat. The rancour of the heart is what fuels the human body against the silence of cold, making its muscle shake and praying by friction. You can elevate your tremor: bring the heat of your heart to a burning point and make your body shiver so hard that it blurs in the eye and becomes as hot as a stove. This is the revolutionary's dance. The devil's tango that he taught to the atoms, ending the wholly solid world. The pirouette that lights ballerinas like match sticks. The Main Brûlant.

By preparing through dance, riot or music for an hour, for the next hour physical attacks made against you have a 1-in-4 chance to pass through you without a trace. Additionally, you can touch any target to set it on fire. Paintings, books, and flowers all burn much faster than they normally would. 

While in Main Brûlant, you can cure serious illnesses like leprosy or lockjaw through touch, but it is painful and you leave burn marks.

If you stop moving, fall over, or get hit by a dousing gout of water, this effect ends.


Amour-Fractur

Art by Beneš Knüpfer, 1890

You're always on the run. Despite this, words find their way to you and from you. In the cities any letter or message will find you, even as you carouse through the jubilant festive night with neither home nor name nor address. It might find you at an inopportune time, but it will find you nonetheless. Even when the letter is burnt, torn, or locked away behind steel, its contents will not rest until they've reached your ear.

You can hand a letter, or speak a message, to anyone who is not your outright enemy. It will end up with the person you mean to receive it, as rapidly as normal correspondence would, but yours cannot be intercepted.

In your clothing you keep hundreds of letters, from former lovers, adorers and comrades whom you've left behind in your perpetual flight from the worshippers of Death. A teary mantle of parting gifts. The Amour-Fractur. They're full of details pertaining secret passages, hidden alcoves, sunset rooftops and other When-I-See-You-Agains. Whenever you clamour, you can find one of these phantoms of fleeting love, and discover a corridor between two places known to you that only you, and an old passion, are aware of.


Prince of Cowards


There is joy in you. So much is clear. But more fundamentally there is dread in you. A sneaking fear that both fuels your fight against the elegiacs and weighs on your shoulders. It lights a fire under your arse and bounces you through the night as you run from it from festival to pub to carnival. That's all you ever do. Ever did do. Run. Isn't there a saying...

"It takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place."

Humans do not live forever. Neither do you.

There is a higher sphere in the human body - you know this. Something like the soul but more wild, muscular and hairy. It's inhabited by the spawn of the Red Queen's savage daughters, shaking the bars when they are awake. Faceless apes that eat flesh and beat the drums. This place gives you the power to run away so effortlessly from the black marble doors that are worshipped with corpse paint. 

It can never run empty. It is forever: the inexhaustible perpetuum mobile. The sin against thermodynamics. But you... to keep turning the earth of your body, and to let no flowers root, you always need more boiling ape blood to come through.

When the time comes you'll have to choose: become a thing unceasing, and let the apes take you to that thundering thoughtless dark within, or die. Either way, you'll surrender.

Wounds do not slow you down, and do not reduce your strength or your charm. When the white flowers of pain and sickness sprout from your body, the boiling ape blood in your veins poisons them in turn. They turn red and black and pink and they become tangible like anxious flesh, turning to vicious coiling snakes. For every tenth of your total HP that you've lost, a blood-flower serpent grows from your body that can attack your enemies (as a standard snake creature).

As long as you are not wholly, utterly dead, you are alive.

When you do die, your body ignites like a wick. The final escape.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Simply Liches (and d50 eerie museum exhibits)

A Lich can only walk and stand on bone. Leichenteppich, or tapis des carcasses, is the characteristic covering of skeletal remains found where a Lich has made its home.

Lichdom is older than humans. When the world was more pure and young, and the Ur-Ghast was only a small hateful pool in some subterranean locker, it was already here. Enormous beasts roamed the earth then, far larger than they can now ever be. Pteranodons flocked around fur-bearing many-limbed giants flinging spells at each other that could level mountains. The sea boiled and plants summoned magma demons that crawled out from between tectonic plates to destroy their enemies (slightly taller plants).

Compared to then, what humans do now is baby magic.

We have to go back further still. The Thaumocambrian, in the oceans, when an explosion of experimental metaphysiologies created the first protean magic. This led to the evolution of terrestrimancers: cartilage-scaled wizards left their soft-bodied and poriferous sisters behind to become the land giants' progenitors.

Liches were already among these creatures.

In the earliest dark, minuscule zooplankton critters wielded the bubbling fire from black smokers in translucent mini-wizard combat, setting protoplasmic brutes on each other that they teleported to the battle in flashes of tiny lightning. These wars left clouds of skeleton debris floating in the water of the early Earth, bearing the silica and chalk that would make the sediments of the new world. Each was like a letter in a game of scrabble, where the words were new, dark spells.

The first lich began in this littlest boneyard. It was fleeing from hex worms ridden by rotifer ice-casters, and as it cowered among the skeletons, it touched the intricate configuration of magically charged bones that had formed in the wizard wars' wake. It became connected to a kind of thing that would take a few more millenia to develop from flesh: a brain. A siliceous bone-brain-computer.

Liches must build their Leichenteppich out of bones of their own kind. Same species always works. Adjacent families are more difficult. A different group altogether is impossible.

THIS LICH IS ...
  1. ... a coral. Its Leichenteppich is an underwater three-dimensional matrix of bleached tubes and folds, a web of glass and porous stone.

  2. ... an insect. Its Leichenteppich is made of carapaces of hundreds of arthropod species. Towers made of centipede shells, millions of segmented legs and antennae, husk upon beetle husk.

  3. ... a mollusc. Though limited by the lack of true bones, these liches make their Leichenteppich out of conches and shells, leading them to produce haunting horn-blowing sounds echoing across reef islands and abandoned dockyards.

  4. ... a fish. Endless stretches of herringbones make up its Leichenteppich like spiny cables, connecting pale sea urchin-like patches of fish bones on the sea floor.

  5. ... a dinosaur. Colossal skeletons have been dragged together to build its tyrannical Leichenteppich, covering a whole valley in bones thick as tree trunks.

  6.  ... a bird. Its Leichenteppich, a construction of hollow bones and leathery sails, controls the wind with occult flute sounds. It glides through the air between barren mountains.

  7. ... an elephant. The many tusks give its Leichenteppich a horned appearance. Some elephant tribes revere their liches and give their bones to them when they die. Much dark wizardry was learned from elephants by early hominids.

  8. ... a human. Human liches are not particularly more intelligent than those of other animals, but they do have an easier time manipulating their species, because humanity is full of death cults.
Art by Tuiles

SCENES OF THE COMMON LICH:
  1. A planktonic lich has gotten stuck in the fishing nets. It looks like a glassy filamentous sponge the size of a mango and glints ominously. The fishermen throw it back, as they usually do.

  2. Photographs of an elephant lich are framed on the wall at a rangers' lodge, among trophies and other oddities. It was killed and the Leichenteppich broken apart for ivory long ago. Some of the stools are made of elephant leg bones.

  3. A mouse lich has made its home in a chapel tower, formed from the remains in owl pellets. The friars, alerted by owl carcasses found at the tower's base, trundle up the stairwell in their beekeeping garb with rakes and prayer scrolls to remove it.

  4. A large gray growth disfigured the angling pier. It turned out to be a barnacle lich, and had turned two unsuspecting anglers into crustacean abominations. The pier stays abandoned, misty and ominous, until removers come. Sometimes zombie fish crawl out, scuttling on their ribs.

  5. Factory workers clean developing haddock liches out of the fish waste containers.

  6. A tenant is found dead in his apartment, bewitched by a cockroach lich that had formed in a hollow area between the fridge and the dishwasher, after regular ineffective use of insect poison. A health and safety nightmare for the landlord.

  7. A haunted area of the beach, where terrible wails are said to echo through the night, is plagued by a conch lich that has gotten stuck in the rocks with the tide.

  8. A young woman who enjoys nightly swims actually goes out to learn occult secrets from a starfish lich, which covers the entire inner surface of a seaside cave. Her skin is rough and covered in small spikes now.

Photography by Loren McIntyre

Phylacteries are the segments of the Leichenteppich that store an informational image of the lich. The instructions to recreate the lich's body and mind, in other words. In the case of planktonic liches, these phylacteries can be quite small and therefore, it's easy for the lich to build dozens and dozens of them, giving it nigh infinite regeneration redundancy. 

As you scale up to higher animals, however, the complexity of the body increases exponentially, and so does the size of a single phylactery. This puts liches of higher animals in a bind: they have to spend a lot of the bones they gather on phylactery construction, have less to spare for occult processing power outside of that, have less redundancy if a phylactery is destroyed, and have a bigger target for foes of the lich to hit.

This causes liches of higher animals to be more cunning with their Leichenteppich design. Instead of just honeycombing in all directions, they lay thin strands of femurs and ribs down to hidden phylacteries underground, split the phylactery into co-operating parts that can each be replaced quickly, and so on and so on.

This means that if you're fighting a lich, finding its phylacteries should be a puzzle. Is there a single target? Multiple? Is it split into parts that have to be destroyed simultaneously, as otherwise the remaining parts would recreate the one you've destroyed?

This seemingly impossible task never leaves you without a thread to follow, however: all parts of the Leichenteppich have to be connected via bone, even if it's a cable of single femurs. You'll have to make sure you know what the whole thing looks like before you strike.

Fighting an advanced lich requires espionage.

Art by Zdzisław Beksiński

As they are bound to their Leichenteppich, it is typical for a lich not to work alone. Through messengers, astral projection, appearing in dreams and speaking from corpses, liches organise their minions across vast stretches of land. There are many who would serve a lich willingly, if they are well enough rewarded with power, money, or a satisfying purpose. Besides these cretins, a lich is a master of necromancy and its magical prowess allows it to summon plenty of demons and other horrible abominations from the nightosphere.

SERVANTS OF THE LICH:

Deboned zombies slither over the ground like tiger carpet flatworms. Their bones were taken to enrich their master, and now their flesh blubbers and writhes forward. They move like contortionists, clamber down the drainpipes, and slink away into the sewer grate like an octopus into a pickle jar.

By blowing bonemeal of their original skeleton into the air like fairy dust, liches can make swarms of  Dust Demons, leathery gremlinous homunculi that collect bones and eat flesh. These dust demons, the size of dogs, are a cross between a vulture and a piranha, with lots of stuff like cows, crows and bats mixed in there too. They bolster a Lich's legions and clean the Leichenteppich with their beaks to prevent the ORKUS from taking root on it.

Ghasts are half-corporeal spirits that are attracted from underground by large masses of corpses, bones and death. Their appearance is that of mummy-like emaciated humanoids with tall heads, no eyes, and large teeth. They're scavengers common to battlefields and mass graves, prowling for what they call "Urkie," possibly referring to the ORKUS. They have five stages of metamorphosis, respectively called mummy (as described), maggot, centipede, orb, and angel.

Art by John Ken Mortensen

EXAMPLE LICHES:

Calcinegra is a dark sorcerer from folk legend and children's boogeyman tales who walks on ladders made of bones that stretch across the sky. In his most well-known story, he walks all the way from Paris to Madrid in one the night, on a ladder so high that he has to sate his hunger by eating the birds that he catches as they fly by. The true Calcinegra was the Spanish king's court mage, committing a coup and filling the palace with bones during the ensuing civil war, where he was ultimately defeated by a militant priest leading the remains of the king's army into battle. The ladder stories, though, are completely true.

The Mouse Machine is a mouse lich trapped in a large metal coffer by the wizard Dolt Wiseney, who travels to courts with it, using it as an attraction and fortune telling device. Behind the wondrous sharade, Wiseney is dogged by the lich's whispering and cursing, and the dark beings it sends to haunt and torment him, biting at his sanity as he tries to edure it for the fame and gold his shows bring him.

The Hallowaite Cliffs, stately and pale, have a reputation for being haunted and appear in many a ghost story about disappearing fishing boats, travellers becoming zombies, and terrifying apparitions. In truth, these chalk cliffs are a colossal planktonic lich that lures people to it at night, enchanting them and making them part of its cult. The nearby villagers go out in white robes at night to sacrifice, chant and call prehistoric monsters from the deep sea.

Salobriel of the Evening City lives in a cavern deep in the underdark where the floor is an endless misty sunset sky. In the cavern sits an upside-down city of black spires and cathedrals, built entirely out of giant spider carapace. It is inhabited by polluted elves driven mad by the influence of the dread scarlet sky, by giant bats, and by pale carapaceless undead spiders that jump from tower to tower. Salobriel's web spans the city: she uses it to catch fairies and spin reality-bending fabric from their bodies. Though only an vain ornament to Salobriel, this fabric is priceless among wizards who use it to sail the starlight with disregard for time and space. Many seek to buy or steal it. Few return from the spider lich's Evening City alive or sane, regardless of their intentions.

All tree liches were exterminated early in evolution by all other living things, and the knowledge of their creation erased, on a common threat principle.


BONUS: D50 Eerie Museum Exhibits
  1. Set of bottled embryos. Some pig, some human. Some could be either.
  2. Pigeon's head and digestive tract, set in glass.
  3. Lampreys in tall vials.
  4. Preserved head of the last man executed by guillotine in the country.
  5. Cabinet of waxy hands and fingers.
  6. Assembly of long, hooked embalming tools.
  7. Assembly of longer, even more hooked tools for child birth.
  8. Bottled curse ointments, with ingredient lists.
  9. Old baby practice dolls for midwifery.
  10. Anomalous "vampire" skull with multiple rows of teeth, in all shapes and sizes.
  11. Illuminated manuscript in glass case, open on pages detailing ritual scalping.
  12. Large black stone coffin. Featureless. Inscribed with texts an ancient language.
  13. Sandstone sarcophagus, lid displaying a sculpted pharaotic figure with a gaunt face.
  14. Very large, nigh-comically terrifying saw for bones.
  15. Taxidermied man-ape, ghoul or hominid.
  16. Set of normal human skeletons. Spooky!
  17. Large inside-view wooden model of the human eye.
  18. Wooden anatomy dummy with removable, realistically painted stuffed cloth viscera.
  19. Old, rusted bicycle twisted in the middle, putting the front half upside down.
  20. Three mummies under glass, one's face is unbandaged and stares upwards in a silent, contorted scream.
  21. Dresses from an extremely boring fashion period, worn by skeletal wire mannequins.
  22. Antique grammophone with LP of classical music called "Carmen Decem Noctibus."
  23. Snuff boxes containing cosmetics made from human ash, grease, bonemeal.
  24. "The Long Arm," a preserved human arm with six elbows, over seven feet long.
  25. Collection of cow skulls with enormous, heavy horns.
  26. Room full of fake, ever-blooming but uncanny flowers.
  27. A donkey's jawbone, covered in blood. Its glass case is constantly guarded.
  28. Gargantuan Hieronymus Bosch-esque medieval triptych depicting giant mushroom clouds and bomber plane-shaped demons.
  29. Translation tablet, inscribed in Sumerian and another mysterious language. Contained in anti-radiation glass, surrounded by safety rope fence.
  30. Three large photo prints of a moustached man eating ghost peppers, progressively more flustered, crying, and milk dripping from chin.
  31. Crystal reliquary bottle filled with tears of the first pope.
  32. Collection of human lips, formerly owned by a cannibal serial killer.
  33. Fingernails of three feet long, in a glass display.
  34. Human skeleton coated in goopy marbled mixture of lead and gold, contorted in agony. Labelled: "Philosopher's Stone"
  35. Submarine's periscope, disembodied.
  36. Set of long, heavy plane bombs. One is bisected to reveal a human skeleton hunched inside.
  37. Rusty, dented cannister bearing the word "ORKGAZ", behind thick air-tight glass.
  38. Fighter jet pilot outfit complete with round-goggled helmet and breathing mask. The gear has gothic architecture patterns and the breathing tube goes to a ceremonial censer.
  39. Andy Warhol-like pictures, but all items and humans are turned away from the viewer.
  40. Abnormally long pitchfork. No clarifying label.
  41. Spiked carriage wheels on poles. Text plaque details their use for torture and execution.
  42. Wreckage of a 1980s car, surrounded by plastic replica cockroach people and "WAFFLE HOUSE" sign.
  43. Framed movie poster for "The Tally", displays gangsters and sunset city vista, but the sun is a large eye.
  44. Series of knives used by medieval butchers, accompanied by animal bones.
  45. Brass cubic puzzle box in thick glass case, surrounded by framed newspaper articles of mysterious slaughter.
  46. Large skeletal fossil fish with jagged menacing teeth, hung on the wall.
  47. A set of dried monkey paws, in various states of finger-curling.
  48. An airtight glass cilinder, five feet high and one foot wide, filled entirely with fleshy semiliquid mass. Labelled "Barovia Sample, Date N/A."
  49. A lateral section of a Ghoul, in a glass pane. The intestines and stomachs form near-infinite fractals.
  50. Dark crystalline orb. Paired with warning sign advising against pondering it.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Everybody Hates Lolth

Out of all higher beings, the smartest one is Lolth. Or Leylat, or Lilith, or whatever you want to call her. All the other higher beings are aware of this to some degree. However, this does not mean that she is particularly clever. She's simply, only, intelligent.

Lolth is not conniving or scheming. In fact she is unusually honest as far as higher beings (notorious liars and cheats) go. However, she is extremely meddling. Lolth will not leave anything alone once she knows it exists, because she constantly has ideas about how to improve things and does not see any reason to be "tactful" about making these improvements. Lolth will not make suggestions or teach you anything, she will just Make Your Thing Better, because that's what she likes doing, completely alienating you from it in the process.

Very few of Lolth's improvements actually make sense to anyone. That fact that she never explains what she's doing doesn't help. A lot of her methods vaguely seem correct, but when you look at the result, it just seems wrong and unfamiliar. It's like looking at a cold dead squid. A squid that the universe inexplicably seems to keep rewarding for existing while it callously trods on the things that you're fond of.

This is why everybody hates Lolth.

Art by Jenő Gyárfás, 1881

Cults dedicated to Lolth:
  1. The Mesobarrine Scientivists are the kind of people who think that 'science' has a period to put behind every sentence of life. If you nit-pick and rasterise and shear away nonsense hard enough, they say, there is some kind of perfect existence to be found. An über-life path, completely determined and 'rational' which would immediately substantiate world peace and perfection, if only everyone would follow it.

    So far their methods to achieving this goal are comprised of shrieking at old people in nightly alleys like ghasts, and publishing lengthy 'daring critiques' of century-old religious texts.

  2. The Peregrine Club, an amateur writers' collective, spends its days in a dingy harbour town parlour, members preening themselves as they peer over books from the local store and nitpick like magpies at every piece and phrase. They don't bother to read them through first, or waste time on figuring out where the books actually came from. They just grab their hammers and overturn the box of nails. None of them have finished anything of their own, but it's sure to come soon and when it does it'll be...well it'd have to be perfect, really.

  3. The Circle for Exceptional and Gifted Children is a self-proclaimed "school-adjacent ensemble ensuring children's full use of their intellectual gifts." What they are, actually, is a gaggle of parents whose children aren't quite what they want them to be: too lazy, too slow, too distracted, too opinionated, and the list goes on. After all, they are the parents, so they'll damn well decide what part of their offspring is intelligence (the part that looks like them) and what part is indolence (the part that doesn't look like them).

    Schools regularly hire off-duty factory workers to repel the Circle for Exceptional and Gifted Children from their premises.
Art by René Magritte, 1952

Common Lolthic myth claims that after perfecting the surface, Lolth travelled underground to find more flawed things to correct, and that in her absence the upper regions have slouched back into disarray. However, this myth is often contested by the account that the other higher beings told her something really, really bad was down there that she had to see, to get her out of their hair, and that she has been fruitlessly searching for it in the bowels of the earth ever since.

Curiously both agree that Lolth is situated somewhere deep underground. Whether this is a metaphor for the obscurity of absence, or for death, or whether it is meant more literally is anyone's guess.

There is a theory among worshippers of Lolth that she has created a sanctum of perfection far under the earth, and that the Underdark is an imperfect 'spill' outwards from this legendary "Rose of Lolth": a sequence of imitation and bastardisation of Lolth's work by lesser things. Imagine that you copied the genius kid's homework shoddily, and then someone copied yours, and so on and so on until it became unrecognisable and completely broken. That sequence of horrors would be the Underdark.

Others say that the Underdark is Lolth's work. The thought of this theory being true scares most people, because that means either Lolth has gone off her rocker completely, or the shit that crawls around in there is somehow perfect. Come to think of it, the abominations of the Underdark are all frighteningly long-lived and resistant...

Monday, September 13, 2021

A Monstrous Commedia (Chopwood Opera Bestiary)

It is what it says on the can. A while ago I made the Chopwood Opera (or CHOPOP) combat rules. Now what are combat rules without stuff you can fight? An empty bowl, that's what. So get ready because soup's on, baby.

Art by Stepan Alekseev

GOBLIN

A goblin is a kind of big corpse maggot that likes wearing tracksuits and snorting car exhaust. They have chalice- or bottle-shaped heads and big ears. A goblin's brain is only semisolid. Dried goblin heads are the compostable equivalent of plastic beer cups.

Head (L*), Body (L)
Fight Die 1d4

Armour

Horrible Crawling: 2 in 6, all parts, 2 hits.

Special

  • When multiple goblins roll Fight Dice, the lowest rolls take the value of the second-lowest (if one goblin rolls 3, one 2, and two roll 1, the two rolling one also get 2)
  • Decapitating a Goblin is lethal only half of the time (flip a coin). A living goblin body can attach a new head of any species. If you have a cool head you are usually the boss goblin.
Random table of goblin armour:
  1. Anti-Spill Cap: 2 in 6, head, 3 hits.
  2. Four-Dimensional Hiccup: 1 in 6, all parts, 4 hits.
  3. Wrapped in Bike Chains: 2 in 6, body, 2 hits.
  4. Seafood Restaurant Internship: 1 in 6, body, 1 hit.
  5. Fake Head and Trenchcoat: 5 in 6, head, 1 hit.
  6. Looks Like It'll Blow Up: 3 in 6, head, 1 hit.

LABYRINTH

A labyrinth.

Entrance, Exit (L)
Fight Die 1d10

Armour

Wait, Where Are We?: 3 in 6, entrance, 4 hits.
Dead Ends: 5 in 6, exit, 4 hits.

Special
  • You can only leave combat with a labyrinth when you land a hit on its entrance or its exit.
  • A labyrinth attacks all enemies in combat at once, simultaneously.
Random table of labyrinth armour:
  1. Time Fuckery: 3 in 6, entrance and exit, 3 hits.
  2. Sprawling Size: 1 in 6, entrance and exit, 4 hits.
  3. Fata Morgana: 5 in 6, exit, 1 hit.
  4. Quicksand: 2 in 6, entrance and exit, 2 hits.
  5. Plot-Relevant Mural: 4 in 6, exit, 1 hit.
  6. Another, Smaller Labyrinth: 1 in 6, exit, 1 hit.
Art by Jonas de Ro

ELEPHANT SPIDER DEATH HORNET

It seems kind of ridiculous for this thing to exist. If you are familiar with the parasitic wasp talking point about the existence of god then it should be clear why: the Elephant Spider Death Hornet seems born to rattle theists. It's the size of an elephant but is a horrible spider, has long tusks, spits acid, eats its siblings in the womb, eats its partner during sex, has rabies, and doesn't wash hands. If you run into it, that means Mother Nature wants you whacked.

Limbs, Abdomen, Thorax (L), Head (L)
Fight Die 1d12

Armour

Spikes and Chitin: 3 in 6, all parts, 4 hits.
Oh God What The Fuck?!: 2 in 6, head, 2 hits.
Thrashing Pincers: 3 in 6, head, 2 hits.

Special
  • The Elephant Spider Death Hornet ignores all armour based on fear.
Random table of Elephant Spider Death Hornet armour:
  1. Shifting Camouflage: 4 in 6, all parts, 2 hits.
  2. A Million Eggs: 2 in 6, abdomen and thorax, 4 hits.
  3. Airborne Paralytic Poison: 1 in 6, all parts, 3 hits.
  4. Mane of Porcupine Spikes: 3 in 6, head, 3 hits.
  5. Web-Filled Lair: 2 in 6, all parts, 4 hits.
  6. Hostage: 6 in 6, head and thorax, 1 hit.
Art by Jeff Easley

CAR

Hephaestus' infernal self-driving chariot. Car fossils have been hidden by the church for centuries, as they are proof of motorisation before Christ. With the help of modern science, it has been determined that they evolved when two guys on bicycles joined hands.

Wheels, Body, Engine Hood (L), Driver (L)
Fight Die 1d8

Armour

Metal Hide: 4 in 6, engine hood, driver and body, 4 hits.
Blinding Headlights: 2 in 6, engine hood and driver, 2 hits.

Special
  • When a car dies from any other reason than its driver part being destroyed, the driver has a 1 in 2 chance (flip a coin) to escape the wreck and come after you while being pissed about the car you just totalled.
  • If the car is from the '80s or has a flame decal, it has a d10 fight die instead of d8.
Random table of car armour:
  1. Derby Helmet: 4 in 6, driver, 2 hits.
  2. Distracting Airbrushed Babe: 2 in 6, engine hood, 1 hit.
  3. Snow Tires: 3 in 6, wheels, 4 hits.
  4. Rear View Mirror: 1 in 6, driver, 1 hit.
  5. Dude, That's My Dad's Car: 2 in 6, all parts, 1 hit.
  6. NANI?! KANSEI DORIFTO?!: 5 in 6, all parts, 3 hits.

TELOFORM HYDRA

The revenant of a dead soldier, reclaimed by its bloodthirsty technology to continue War. It floats a foot above the ground. Instead of a head it has a long neck, gradually turning carbon-black and synthetic, ending in an assault rifle. It slowly hovers forward, the yellow dot of of its rifle sight glowing like an eye in the dark. It sees in burnt files, speaks in smoke grenade hisses.

Legs, Arms, Torso (L), Head.
Fight Die 1d6.

Armour

Military Gear: 3 in 6, all parts except head(s), 3 hits.
Necrotic Cyber-Flesh: 2 in 6, all parts, 4 hits.

Special
  • Every time the Teloform Hydra takes a wound, it produces another head, up to three heads.
  • If a Teloform Hydra head is destroyed, either its legs or arms part transforms into another head.
  • A Teloform Hydra adds 2 to the size of its fight die for every head it possesses.
Random table of Teloform Hydra armour:
  1. Depleted Uranium Plating: 5 in 6, torso, 4 hits.
  2. Absolute Terror: 2 in 6, all parts, 4 hits.
  3. Berserk Nanomachines: 3 in 6, all parts, 3 hits.
  4. The Lights Are Flickering: 1 in 6, all parts except head(s), 4 hits.
  5. Red Flashbang: 5 in 6, all parts, 1 hit.
  6. Tumorous Regeneration: 2 in 6, all parts except head(s), 2 hits.

SPHINX

Lady of riddles. Often found perching on library doors or desert pass pillars. In the city, a young sphinx works her IT job where she sits behind a desk with a big coke zero and an oversized Matrix t-shirt on to cover her riddles. An old sphinx, the size of a mountain and supercooled in shadow compounds, feeds on worms that hunt the glimmering spine of God's nation.

Wings, Lion Half (L), Human Half (L), Riddle
Fight Die 1d8

Armour

Conundrum: 4 in 6, riddle, 3 hits.

Special
  • As long as a Sphinx' riddle part is not destroyed, her other parts cannot be wounded.
Random table of Sphinx armour:
  1. Ptolemaean Plate: 4 in 6, human half, 3 hits.
  2. Bait Answers: 3 in 6, riddle, 1 hit.
  3. Being of Mass Encryption: 3 in 6, all parts, 4 hits.
  4. Chaos Mathematics: 5 in 6, riddle, 2 hits.
  5. Too Many Variables: 3 in 6, riddle, 2 hits.
  6. Cute Glasses: 1 in 6, human half, 1 hits.

SKELETONS

These guys know their way around the block. They've been in this business for longer than you have and they do what they do best. Perfect clacking. Ineffable rattling. You know they're here because you saw the bones at the entrance posed just so. It's not just a routine, it's a performance. And they'll do it all again tomorrow.

Pesky Archers, Skeleton Mob.
Fight Die 1d8

Armour

Overwhelming Numbers: 6 in 6, skeleton mob, 4 hits.
Crypt Regalia: 3 in 6, boss skeleton (see below), 3 hits.

Special
  • When a part of the skeletons is destroyed, reduce their fight die size by 2.
  • The first time the skeleton mob part takes a wound, the skeletons gain a new part called "Boss Skeleton (L)" and increase their fight die size by 4. 
Random table of skeletons armour:
  1. Get Back Here!: 3 in 6, pesky archers, 3 hits.
  2. Treacherous Catacombs: 1 in 6, all parts, 4 hits.
  3. They Reassemble: 2 in 6, skeleton mob, 4 hits.
  4. Power Word Fuck You: 5 in 6, boss skeleton, 2 hits.
  5. More Of These Fuckers, 6 in 6, pesky archers, 1 hit.
  6. Lich Hexes: 2 in 6, boss skeleton, 2 hits.

MYSTERY KILLER

The sick son of a bitch keeps escaping you. Who knows when he'll kill again? Maybe he's right under your nose. He probably also killed your wife. Detectives' wives are notoriously killable. To make matters worse, you're on a train with seven other sleuths who could all be the murderer, one of whom is British and extremely condescending.

Crime Scene, Suspects, True Identity (L).
Fight Die 1d6

Armour

It Could Be Anyone: 6 in 6, true identity, 4 hits.

Special
  • In the fight against the Mystery Killer, instead of your normal body parts, your parts are the other key characters in the mystery (which can only suffer one wound before being destroyed) and yourself. You are your lethal part and can suffer 2 wounds. You still die (are dismissed and lost to history) if you suffer more than 3 wounds.
Random table of mystery killer armour:
  1. Planted Evidence: 2 in 6, crime scene, 1 hit.
  2. A Devious Bunch: 1 in 6, suspects, 2 hits.
  3. Frustration: 3 in 6, suspects, 1 hit.
  4. Shadowy Chase: 4 in 6, true identity, 2 hits.
  5. My Own Short-Sightedness!: 1 in 6, all parts, 1 hit.
  6. One Last Trick: 3 in 6, true identity, 1 hit.
Giallo cover of Edgar Wallace's Council of Justice

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Urbs Rex

There were many beings, in the dark, slouching towards our finish line with torches to light the apocalypse. There were the old titans, the Never-Bodies, the hagfish in the spine of men. But first to light the fire was another. By destiny, or chance, by fickle nature of the universe and all the other layers beneath it. Its torch was orange, made of sodium. It cried pigeons and its belly was made of stone gargoyles. It breathed a low tremble of heat across the angles of the world. It was born in the first nest that insects made, and when we saw it there, its cruelty was clouded in a tiny size. When it was ours...theirs...they made it grow. And they sucked us into it. 

With the beacon of the apocalypse lit, the other racers will soon arrive. Their cars will roadkill the world, but for now, the first arrival is manifest alone. Its name is CaiROme, and LondOs ANgeles, and ShangaiabmuM and toKYOto and BdElhIjing DeDeDe Janeiro.

Its moniker:

URBS REX.

Art from the game Let It Die

In the cities of the world, wells have appeared. Whole blocks have begun slowly moving to points wherein they disappear as though sliding behind a mirror. As the cities expand, their hearts are pushed into the wells and vanish. People, companies, structures. The things that disappear go to URBS REX.

URBS REX is algo-rythmic. Deep, and fake. A composite image. Whatever it eats is spliced into the whole as an example of what a city is. What people of a city are. What the layers of a city are. Its archaeological strata are both real and next to real: older layers of URBS REX are intertwined with historical ruins of cities and cultures that never existed.  Did something exist here once? Or did URBS REX put its remains there as part of its grand imitation? There is no answer, only deeper and more duplicitous history to question. The catacombs and subterranean ruins of URBS REX are filled with insane archaeologists and historians skittering and laying their eggs in the dark. They're returning to the first dwellers. The insects.

The people who appear in URBS REX, know they have always lived there. They are also new, in the way that the city is new. Some people make it through the algo-rhythm intact, but this is extremely rare. It is possible to drill holes into the world and arrive in URBS REX. That may spare you the cost of algo-rhythmic processing. But you must enter in a sacrificial bathyscaphe. This is dark magic, and it is dark because you will make others pay your price.

URBS REX PHENOMENA:

Always Election: In URBS REX, the election campaign for the city's mayor is infinite. Nobody ever gets elected, but while political parties have formed and fallen trying to get someone into that unattainable seat. If you were to become the mayor of URBS REX you would probably be the most powerful person in the world. Some people have gotten very close but saw things that destroyed their frame of thinking so badly they quit the race. Others took their place. 

If you're not one of the big candidates, it's just the industry of politics. But when you get into the big leagues, you enter the Game. A hundred femurs in a tuxedo. A dress that wears a human skin, in a black room with nothing but an Art Nouveau table lamp. They kill your allies in their dreams and inhabit their bodies. Your campaign manager is turned to pulp over lunch. These are your enemies now. Only with powerful dark magic can you survive here. Only with inhumanity can you delude yourself into thoughts of triumph when really, this is just a killing floor.

URPOL: like all major cities, URBS REX has a police corps operating on a bizarre, arbitrary matrix of legislation evolutionarily descended from a combine harvester. However, URPOL is fully ritualised. There is no law or crime in this city, only the act, the ritual, of policing. They are ghostly parades of identical floating frozen pseudo-men. Their erratic invasions have to be warded off using charms, phrases and symbols that resemble legislative material and are sold on street markets. It is dangerous to leave home uncharmed.

They form road blockades, made of chainworks of lead cops, smashed together in tangles that cause traffic to constantly rearrange. The powerful will perform unseen rituals of blood and silver to summon them on their enemies. 

They are made in a den deep in the city hidden from most human eyes. They abduct people and take them there, where they are questioned by creatures made of light, kept in dark cubes, and registered. It is referred to as 'The Station.' Survival is unlikely. To have a chance of escape you must deeply know them.

Because they know you.

The Industry Harbour: Where URBS REX connects to the sea that surrounds it, a titanic mass of smog-belching factories, processing plants and container ships has emerged. It's a constantly rolling tectonic layer, new industry rising from the sea and old being pushed inwards to the city to worm its way between everything and fill the deep crevices inside. URBS REX's supply chain is arcane. Not all companies are real or accounted for. They are only partially staffed by humans- just enough to see one once in a while, but few enough that an invisible substance separates them. The substance is like gelatin. It fills jobs that many of URBS REX's crawling humans would kill for. Taken, to be taken. Unavailable, to be unavailable. Inaccessibility is its sheer nature.

The container ships that enter through the corpulent mist around the city are unmanned: they're ghost vessels, piloted by the substance. From their underbelly hang long tubes that are like intestines or a giant's hair. They have great floodlight eyes. When they unload their cargo, they regurgitate

Fog horns give the harbour a cyclopean ambience. The few humans it employs may be nothing more than spectators to its alien rhythm. Its algo-rhythm.


URBS REX WEATHER:
  1. Dirty grey hail-snow-rain
  2. Rainstorm
  3. Replicant drizzle
  4. Flood rain
  5. Bleeding sunset
  6. Miami Vice reruns
  7. Copper
  8. Tokyo Night
  9. Sandblast winds
  10. Deep-fried Kebabosphere
  11. Pavement barbecue
  12. Smog
Art from Knights of Sidonia, by Tsutomu Nihei