Friday, 24 February 2017

Religions of the Great Road

The Scholar . Samarkand:

As I've mentioned before, one of the things that interests me about Central Asia is the diversity of its religious traditions. Judiasm and Christianity came into the region from the west, Zoroastrianism and Islam from the south, and Buddhism from the east, and all five of these religions interacted in various different ways with the Tengriist and shamanic practises indigenous to the area, giving rise to regional variants such as Tibetan Bon, Khazar Judiasm, and Nestorian Christianity. The extremely mobile nature of missionary groups and nomad communities mean that you end up with situations like nomad communities in south-west Russia professing spiritual allegiance to the Tibetan Dalai Lama (Kalmyk Buddhism), or Zoroastrian sects which were persecuted into near-oblivion in their native Iran going on to become the state religion of distant empires in the far-off Tarim Basin (Uyghur Manicheanism).

I think that trying to represent any of these directly in a non-historical D&D game would be a terrible idea; but the basic concept that this is a region where faiths from far-off empires compete and intermingle and develop into forms which would probably seem very strange to their distant (or extinct) religious authorities is one that I think has a lot of potential. Here, then, are a handy set of tables for determining the religious beliefs of any random traveller or community your PCs might happen to encounter along the length of the Great Road:

Korean Shaman (1930s):

What is the religion called? (roll 1d20 on each table)

  1. The Path...
  2. The Way...
  3. The Church...
  4. The Temple...
  5. The Fellowship...
  6. The Adherents...
  7. The Doctrine...
  8. The People...
  9. The Children...
  10. The Disciples...
  11. The Followers...
  12. The Students...
  13. The Order...
  14. The Brotherhood...
  15. The Acolytes...
  16. The Apostles...
  17. The Seekers...
  18. The Upholders...
  19. The Defenders...
  20. The Soldiers...

  1. ...of Holy Righteousness.
  2. ...of the Seven Sages.
  3. ...of the Great Revelation.
  4. ...of the Divine Law.
  5. ...of Heavenly Light.
  6. ...of the Word of God.
  7. ...of the Ultimate Truth.
  8. ...of the Eightfold Glories.
  9. ...of the Supreme Prophet.
  10. ...of the Universal King / Queen.
  11. ...of the Sun and Moon.
  12. ...of the Fourteen Stars.
  13. ...of Enlightenment.
  14. ...of Eternity.
  15. ...of the Transcendent Lord / Lady.
  16. ...of the Infinite Emperor / Empress.
  17. ...of the Master / Mistress of Heaven.
  18. ...of the Secret Treasures of Holiness.
  19. ...of the Sacred Masters.
  20. ...of the Ancient Code. 
(NB: faiths whose name share the same 'of'' component are probably offshoots of the same religion, albeit possibly very distantly related ones. You have no idea how much the Children of Holy Righteousness and the Disciples of Holy Righteousness hate each other...)

Where did this religion come from originally? (roll 1d3)
  1. The distant east.
  2. The distant west.
  3. The distant south. 
How is this religion regarded in its far-off homeland? (roll 1d6)
  1. It's the state religion, and you occasionally get encouraging letters from your distant religious authorities, praising you for keeping the true faith alive in foreign lands.
  2. It's a heretical variant of the state religion, and you occasionally get visited by disapproving missionaries telling you that your doctrines are riddled with errors and you should really adopt the official theological line.
  3. It's a variant of the state religion which, while not strictly heretical, would seem deeply odd and unfamiliar to the official religious authorities. You occasionally get visited by missionaries who try to convert you to a religion that you already believe in, which is embarrassing for everyone involved. 
  4. It's a minority sect, marginal and grudgingly tolerated. The trade networks that communities like yours have established along the Great Road play an important part in keeping the religion alive.
  5. It's been outlawed, and only lives on in hiding. Religious refugees sometimes arrive in your community seeking shelter, bringing with them horrific tales of persecution. 
  6. It was persecuted into oblivion and is now extinct in its homeland, living on only in communities like yours. 
Minaret and Archaeological Remains of Jam, Afghanistan - a UNESCO World Heritage site.:

What does this religion worship? (roll 1d8)

  1. One god or goddess (equal chance of each). All other 'gods' are false.
  2. One god or goddess (equal chance of each). Other gods are probably real too, we just don't worship them.
  3. One god or goddess (equal chance of each) served by a whole host of lesser divinities, who may or may not actually just be the personified aspects of the godhead. (It's complicated.)
  4. A dualistic religion with two divinities, both of which are revered equally as king or queen of one half of reality.
  5. A dualistic religion with two divinities, of whom one is revered and worshipped, and the other is reviled and (when necessary) placated.
  6. A full-blown polytheism which recognises dozens or hundreds of divinities.
  7. A remote and abstract godhead who is best contacted through prayers directed to the deified saints and prophets of the past. 
  8. In theory, it doesn't really 'worship' anything: it just conveys the moral, mystical, and philosophical teachings of its founders. In practise, most of its followers worship its founders as though they were divinities.

What are this religion's core beliefs? (roll 1d20 1d4 times)
  1. That all the world's problems are due to the failure of the people to follow the Divine Law.
  2. That this world is a place in which we are spiritually and morally tested, to determine our fitness for heaven.
  3. That if only the Reign of the Faithful could be instituted everywhere, then everything would be perfect!
  4. That we are being justly punished for the sins of our ancestors.
  5. That we just have to keep the faith until the prophecies are fulfilled. 
  6. That the material world is an illusion, and we must learn to transcend it.
  7. That we will be rewarded with wealth and power and empire if we obey the will of heaven,
  8. That this world is ruled by the powers of evil, and we must keep ourselves as pure and separate from its wickedness as possible.
  9. That worldly pleasures are sinful and asceticism is the path to holiness.
  10. That we must be kind to the unfortunate.
  11. That we must punish the sinful.
  12. That only those who follow our specific creed can possibly be saved.
  13. That all sin really comes from ignorance.
  14. That sin weighs down the soul, keeping it trapped within material reality.
  15. That we must destroy the enemies of our faith by any means necessary.
  16. That the correct performance of the sacred rituals and liturgies is of the utmost importance.
  17. That we must behave with scrupulous fairness and justice in all matters.
  18. That we must respect the social order, which represents the will of heaven.
  19. That we should treat all people as equals, regardless of social divisions.
  20. That the End of Days is upon us, and we must prepare ourselves for the final battle of good and evil! 
Dervishes of Central Asia. 1871-1872:

What are this religion's social institutions? (roll 1d20 1d4 times)

  1. Every faithful household maintains a small family shrine within its dwelling-place.
  2. The faith's most devout members are encouraged to become monks or nuns, who lead lives of celibate asceticism.
  3. The faith maintains a complex ritual calendar, which the faithful are expected to observe exactly.
  4. The faith is built around the teachings contained in its holy book, and the faithful are expected to memorise as much of it as possible.
  5. Due to the syncretic fusion of its teachings with the shamanic traditions of the area, the faith is actually mostly concerned with the management of troublesome spirits.
  6. Devout followers of the faith are encouraged to undertake pilgrimages to sacred sites in its distant homeland whenever possible.
  7. The faith prizes education, and its members often become doctors, lawyers, or scholars.
  8. The faith prizes military achievements, and its members are famous warriors.
  9. The faith practises ancestor worship, and requires its members to show proper reverence to the spirits and graves of their ancestors.
  10. The faith places a strong emphasis on the practise of silent meditation. Its holiest ceremonies are very quiet and very serious.
  11. The faith places a strong emphasis on the practise of ecstatic prayer. Its holiest ceremonies are loud and exuberant affairs, full of people singing, dancing, falling into trances, and speaking in tongues.
  12. The faith has exacting ritual purity requirements, which its followers are expected to observe scrupulously (although many of them don't). 
  13. The religious life of the faith is built around a handful of large temple-monasteries, where all religious and ceremonial activities are concentrated.
  14. The faith is radically decentralised, with small community congregations gathered in local shrines serving as the main centres of religious life.
  15. The faith places a strong emphasis on the importance of public charity, and its wealthier members are expected to make ostentatious displays of generosity.
  16. The faith features a strong cult of the saints, with prayers believed to be much more efficacious if they are uttered within shrines in which holy men and women are buried.
  17. The faith strongly encourages its followers to fatalistically resign themselves to the will of heaven. 
  18. The faith strongly encourages its followers to actively strive to make the world a better and holier place.
  19. The faith includes strong elements of folk magic, with the faithful encouraged to wear charms and talismans for good luck and to utter hymns and incantations to protect themselves from evil.
  20. The faith includes a strong esoteric element; its teachings are revealed to the faithful step by step as they rise through the levels of initiation, and are never supposed to be shared with outsiders at all. 
(NB: If a religion is regarded as heretical in its distant homeland, it's usually because it has the same social institutions but differs in one or more core beliefs. If it's regarded as orthodox but odd, it's usually because it has the same core beliefs but differs in one or more social institutions!)


Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Returning to the Wicked City

Bardaree Bryant's drawing of the Wicked City. Used with permission. Good luck with the game, Bardaree!

Man, did this blog ever wander off-topic. In the last six months I've only made five posts related to the ATWC setting itself: three new monsters, one post on the Siberian fur trade, and one post on the Three Thieves of the Triple Crown. Somewhere along the line it's very much become a space for general-purpose D&D rambling rather than what the blog header says it should be about, which is romantic clockpunk fantasy in a setting based on early modern Central Asia. I should probably get around to correcting that.

There's no mystery about why the switch happened. I wrote the ATWC setting to give me an outlet for RPG-related writing at a time when my work and childcare responsibilities were preventing me from actually gaming; once I had a regular group again, my focus shifted to actual play and the kind of issues and questions that were generated by my ongoing campaign. I'd also reached a point where the ATWC setting was, if not finished, then at least sufficiently complete to be useable, making it less obvious what form any future expansion should take. I'm wary of cluttering it up with information for information's sake: I've seen too many published settings which just bloat themselves out in order to fill the page count, often losing what was most interesting and distinctive about themselves in the process. So now that I've covered what I see as the important stuff, I wouldn't want to write much more without a fairly clear idea of what, exactly, the setting would gain from me doing so.

That said, I do have a few ideas, and I'm going to list them here, in the hope that doing so might shame me into actually writing them:

  • More specific places in the ATWC setting, drawing on different bits of Central Asian history and geography, in order to make the world outside the Wicked City a bit more concrete. This is a bit of a balancing act, because I do want to preserve the sense of the sheer scale of the Great Road and the steppe and the taiga, and nothing will kill that quicker than carving them up into a set of clearly defined polities. But I think they're probably a bit too vague at present.
  • In a similar vein, some tables to create random steppe khanates and oasis kingdoms, to fill in whatever blank bits of the map the PCs might happen to wander into. (I already have these for cities of the Great Road.) 
  • Some random religion generation tables, to reflect the sheer diversity of faiths, traditions, and heresies which proliferate along the Great Road. 
  • A short adventure: something like The Tower of Broken Gears, but actually set within the Wicked City itself, illustrating how it might be used in play. 
  • Another short adventure set out in the wilderness, illustrating how the ATWC spirit world might actually be used in a game. 
So that - along with making some actual progress on 'The Coach of Bones' and maybe rewriting some more Pathfinder adventure paths - is my blog objective for the next six months or so. Whether I actually manage to get there, of course, is an entirely separate matter. But at least I have a destination...

Photo: Courtesy Land Art Mongolia:

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Sophie the Muscle Wizard and the joys of random character generation

The Team Tsathogga group finished playing through Death Frost Doom this week, and one PC didn't make it out alive. The session ended with the party heading for a nearby magical academy in the hope of selling the wizards some of the creepy magical junk they'd found during the adventure, so the dead PC's player quickly rolled up a replacement character, reasoning that there might be someone at the academy whom the party could recruit to bring them back up to full strength. Rolling 3d6 in order, she got:

Strength 16
Dexterity 13
Constitution 4
Intelligence 10
Wisdom 4
Charisma 7

She considered these stats for a few moments, and then said:

'My new character is called Sophie. She was a student at the magical academy, but she wasn't really clever enough to keep up and kept getting disappointing grades. (Int 10) Thrown into depression by a failed exam, she tried to make herself feel better by pumping iron at the college gymnasium. (Str 16) Unwisely (Wis 4) she devoted herself to extreme workout routines which ended up completely wrecking her health. (Con 4) After trying and failing to justify her powerlifting obsession to her tutors (Cha 7), she was thrown out of the academy, and is now looking for adventure!'

And thus Sophie the Muscle Wizard was unleashed upon the world.

I imagine her as looking kinda like this.

One of her fellow PCs is an equally extreme case. With Strength 5, Dexterity 8, Constitution 9, Intelligence 6, Wisdom 10, and Charisma 18, Jack the Fighter seemed doomed to an early and ignominious death; but sixteen sessions after his player's eyes first widened in horror at the stats he'd just rolled for his new character, he's still going strong. (As strong as one can with Strength 5, anyway.) Weak, clumsy, unfit, and amazingly stupid, Jack is just so damn pretty that he seems to be able to get away with almost anything, and he's more than once provided vital contributions by sweet-talking guards, traders, and other NPCs into doing things that they know they shouldn't, simply because they couldn't resist the power of his innocent, dopey smile. We mostly play him as Derek Zoolander in D&D-land.

Image result for zoolander miner
Jack the Fighter descends into yet another dungeon...

These examples are comic, which isn't accidental - incongruity is one of the basic elements of comedy - but I'm confident that you could take the same stats and come up serious, and even bleak, interpretations of the characters they represented. And you would almost never get characters like this using point-buy methods - not because they're impossible to build (although under some systems they might be), but because you'd probably never come up with them in the first place. With a whimsical enough player, and a sufficient lack of emphasis on powergaming, you might get as far as 'bodybuilder wizard' or 'dim-witted prettyboy'; but in each case there are other elements (like Jack's physical weakness or Sophie's catastrophic lack of wisdom) which result purely from the whim of the dice. But the odd combinations of traits that sometimes arise from random character generation create characters who won't fit neatly into their predefined niches, and whose mere existence thus forces the game to unfold in less predictable ways.

Much though I love the sight of people rolling 3d6 in order, I don't think it's inherently superior to other ways of generating characters. If you're keen on power balance, or heroic characters, or just on giving players control over what kind of PCs they end up playing, then completely random character generation is obviously a terrible idea. (This is part of the reason why, in my current group each player has two PCs: it ensures that having one weaker or less serious character isn't such a big deal.) But random chargen does have a charm of its own, a charm which is rooted in the very things which probably led most groups to abandon it in the first place: the danger that the dice might give you a weird, weak, flawed character rather than the awesome Conan or Gandalf knock-off you'd been building up in your imagination, and consequently force you to go off-script.

To put it another way, I already know how Conan will approach being dropped into D&D-land: the kind of adventures he's likely to have, the ways he's likely to deal with problems, and so on. I've been gaming for a long time now, and there's not a lot of mental stimulation left for me in watching another Mighty Warrior do Mighty Warrior Stuff. Sophie the Muscle Wizard, by contrast, represents a combination of traits which I've never seen before, and in consequence I find I have no idea how she's likely to respond to her upcoming adventures. I'm very much looking forward to finding out, though!

Sunday, 12 February 2017

New B/X class: the faerie

One thing I rather liked about Mazes and Minotaurs was the idea of having 'nymph' as one of the core character classes. If you're aiming to evoke Greek mythology, then this makes pretty good sense: nymphs turn up everywhere in those stories, to the point where there might be almost as many nymphs in Greek myths as there are actual human women. (Take a look at the sheer length of the list here, for example.) At the same time, though, as a character concept it comes with a lot of limitations: you have to be female, you have to be beautiful, you're probably going to spend a lot of time swimming around naked, and so on. It made me wonder: what might a less restrictive version of the 'sexy nature spirit' concept look like as a character class? And then I got thinking about how the D&D elf really has very little in common with the elfin knights and fae ladies of medieval literature and folklore, and I came up with this...

Image result for la belle dame sans merci

The Faerie

To-hit and hit dice: As per cleric.

Saves: As per elf.

Weapons and armour: Faeries can use any weapons, but are too frail to fight effectively in metal armour.

XP per level: As per elf.

Fae Traits: All faeries bear some physical marks of their inhuman heritage, marks which become more pronouced as they increase in power. Roll 1d20 on the following table at level one, and again at each subsequent level. If you roll the same trait more than once, it becomes much more pronounced (e.g. green-tinted skin becomes leaf green, hip-length hair becomes ankle length, and so on). High level faeries tend to look both freaky and fabulous. 

  1. Inhuman hair colour (e.g. blue, green, violet).
  2. Inhuman skin tone (e.g. tinted green, blue, or purple). 
  3. Flowers grow naturally in your hair in all seasons.
  4. Songbirds and butterflies follow you around whenever possible.
  5. You eyes resemble those of a cat, brilliant green with a vertical slit pupil. 
  6. Your body has a pleasant but distinctive floral aroma, noticeable whenever you walk into a room.
  7. You are extremely androgynous, and could easily pass as male or female unless completely naked.
  8. You have extremely long hair (hip-length or longer) - if cut it grows back at 1d6 inches per day.
  9. Your smile literally lights up the room. (Illumination equivalent to a candle, although it's uncomfortable to maintain it for too long.)
  10. You are very, very tall. 
  11. You are very, very thin.
  12. You appear slightly translucent when seen in moonlight or starlight.
  13. You have extremely long fingernails, which oddly do not interfere with your manual dexterity.
  14. Instead of tears, you weep tiny, transparent crystals, which shatter when they hit the floor.
  15. Your shadow takes the shape of different wild animals, depending on your current mood.
  16. When happy, you start to levitate several inches off the ground.
  17. Your limbs are extraordinarily flexible, as though they had several additional joints.
  18. Your ears are long and sharply pointed.
  19. Your teeth are long and sharply pointed.
  20. Whenever your blood falls upon the earth, stands of beautiful, vivid-red flowers spring up 1d6 minutes later.
Image result for jareth the goblin king

Night Vision: Even the faintest moonlight or starlight allow you to see as well as full sunlight, although complete darkness will still blind you.

Soulless: You cast no reflection in mirrors, and suffer a -1 penalty to all rolls while standing on ground consecrated to a Lawful deity. Beneficial cleric spells (including Cure spells) have only half their normal effect when cast upon you.

Glamour: Glamour is the illusion-magic of the fae. You have a number of Glamour points equal to your level: a Charisma of 13 or higher grants +1, and a Charisma of 16 or higher grants +2. You may spend one point of glamour to entrance someone with your otherworldly charisma, as per a Charm Person spell. Your glamour pool refreshes each day at sunset.
  • At level 2, you may spend 1 Glamour to cast Sleep.
  • At level 3, you may spend 1 Glamour to cast Phantasmal Force.
  • At level 4, you may spend 1 Glamour to cast Obscuring Mists.
  • At level 5, you may spend 2 Glamour to cast Hold Person.
  • At level 6, you may spend 2 Glamour to cast Invisibility.
  • At level 7, you may spend 2 Glamour to cast Mirror Image or Suggestion.
  • At level 8, you may spend 2 Glamour to cast Confusion.
  • At level 9, you may spend 3 Glamour to cast Hallucinatory Terrain.
  • At level 10, you may spend 3 Glamour to cast Invisibility 10' Radius.
  • At level 11, you may spend 3 Glamour to cast Massmorph.
  • At level 12, you may spend 4 Glamour to cast Geas.
  • At level 13, you may spend 4 Glamour to cast Mass Invisibility.
  • At level 14, you may spend 4 Glamour to cast Polymorph Self or Polymorph Other.
  • At level 15, you may spend 5 Glamour to cast Mass Charm or Power Word Blind.

Image result for tilda swinton only lovers

The Old Speech: You gain the ability to speak to birds at level 2; at level 4 this extends to other animals, at level 6 to insects, and at level 8 to plants. Any creature you can talk to (including giant and magical versions) with hit dice equal to or less than your own also counts as a 'person' for the purposes of your Charm Person and Hold Person abilities. Suitably large charmed animals will usually consent to be used as mounts.

Weave Gossamer: At level 3, you gain the ability to weave flowers, leaves, and spiderwebs into fantastical garments that never tear, never get creased or muddy, and look amazing. Any time you wear gossamer garments instead of armour, you get +1 to reaction rolls from all intelligent creatures. If anyone other than you attempts to wear your gossamer clothes, they will instantly realise that they aren't nearly pretty enough to pull off your look successfully, and must save or be thrown into a deep depression for 1d6 hours. Making a set of gossamer clothes takes 12 hours.

Changeling: At level 5, you gain the ability to change your appearance to match someone else's. Spending 1 Glamour allows you to maintain this disguise for a number of hours equal to your level. Spending 1 additional Glamour also allows you to mimic their voice for the duration.

Makeshift Men: At level 7, you can spend one hour and 1 Glamour sculpting a heap of leaves, sticks, and mud into a roughly-humanoid shape, which then comes to life as an ugly, goblin-like being. Makeshift men have the same statistics as goblins, and maintaining their animation costs 1 Glamour per day. They're not very bright, but will obey you to the best of their ability, because they know that their continued existence depends upon your will. If killed or de-animated, they collapse back into twigs and dirt.

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Thursday, 9 February 2017

Monsters from improbable sources 3: conversations with a two-year-old

The other day, I was washing my two-year-old son in the bath when he suddenly said: 'You not a bahmu!'

'What's a bahmu?' I replied.

'Bahmu is big pet', he explained. 'In woods.'

'What colour is it?'

'Is red. Bahmu has legs. Is scary!'

'So the bahmu is a big, scary red pet with legs that lives in the woods. Is it furry?'

'No, is not. Bahmu have red teeth!'

'Is bahmu friendly?'

'No, is scary!'

'What does bahmu do?'

'Bahmu say RAAARH!'

I appreciated this conversation, because it gives me an excellent opportunity for finding out whether I am, in fact, living in a horror movie. All I need to do is take my son into the nearest forest, say the magic words 'So where does the bahmu live?', and then see whether I am horribly killed within the next five minutes by a giant red monster with teeth. My son, of course, would survive unscathed, because as the only witness it would be his job to tell the bemused detectives how bahmu ate daddy, bahmu is big red pet, bahmu live in woods...

Image result for red monster with teeth

  • Bahmu: AC 15, 4 HD, +4 to hit, bite (1d12 damage), saves 10, morale 9, special attacks: roar. 

Bahmu are large, loping creatures, like a bald red ape crossed with a hairless wolf, whose almost-human faces are dominated by enormous mouths full of sharp red teeth. They normally move on all fours, although they can balance (slightly unsteadily) on their hind legs if they need to grab or bite at something that would otherwise be out of reach. They are superb burrowers and excellent climbers, their big clawed hands serving to dig through earth and grip onto trees with equal skill. Their preferred habitat is dense forests. 

Bahmu are entirely unnatural, having been magically bred as pets and guard dogs by an ancient and thankfully long-vanished civilisation. Although long-since gone feral, they still cling to the regions once inhabited by their former masters, lurking in the ruins of their overgrown cities as though hoping that, if only they wait long enough, their original owners might finally return. They are long-lived and hardy, and while their highly territorial nature will lead them to eviscerate anyone they see as trespassing into their territory, their ancient genetic imperatives mean that they are mentally conditioned to behave in various pet-like ways that now seem oddly out of keeping with their ferocious nature: they will placidly allow themselves to be played with by cats, dogs, and small children, and are scrupulously cleanly in their habits. If you could catch and domesticate one at a young enough age it would make a brilliant housepet, provided you had a big enough garden and you didn't mind it occasionally eating your neighbours. 

Bahmu prefer to attack from ambush, either dropping down from the treetops or bursting up through the soil from one of their hidden underground burrows. (They see excellently in the dark.) If anything survives their initial assault they will emit a terrifying roar which induces supernatural terror in all non-bahmu who hear it, forcing them to save or flee in panic for 1d6 rounds. 

Bahmu is big pet.

Bahmu is scary.

Bahmu have red teeth.

Bahmu say 'RAAARH!'

Thursday, 2 February 2017

More Devonshire folklore for The Coach of Bones

Last August, I half-seriously suggested writing an adventure for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, set in Devon during the chaotic aftermath of Monmouth's 1685 rebellion and provisionally entitled The Coach of Bones. Since then, my work commitments have kept me from getting very far with it, but I do still keep an eye out for material I might want to use in it from time to time. In November I posted a list of 20 Dartmoor legends for potential incorporation into the module, and since then I've gathered a bunch of other Devonshire folktales and ghost stories which I feel could fit right into a spooky D&D adventure. If you used everything from both lists you'd have enough material to stock an entire hexcrawl set in seventeenth-century Devon - which is pretty much what I may end up writing, if The Coach of Bones ever gets beyond the drafting stage...

If anyone's interested, I mostly got these from Devon Ghosts (1982) by Theo Brown.

Image result for tavistock abbey
Tavistock Abbey, circa 1784.

The Tunnels of Tavistock Abbey: According to local legend, there is a hidden network of vaults and tunnels beneath the ruins of Tavistock Abbey, stretching out beneath Tavistock itself. A local clergyman once found an entrance to these tunnels, and walked in them for some way before being surprised by the sudden appearance of a pair of monks, who bowed politely to him before disappearing back into the darkness. Spooked by this encounter, and deeply uncertain whether the 'monks' he had just met were ghosts or living men, he left the tunnels, and was never afterwards able to locate their entrance.

Squire Cabell: Wicked Squire Cabell of Brook Manor used to abduct local girls, whom he imprisoned in his house at Hawson, just across the valley; he was also rumoured to have sold his soul to the devil. When he lay dying in 1677, the demonic 'wish hounds' of Dewer the Huntsman gathered around his house, howling horribly; and they have howled for him ever since, calling him to join them in their hunts. The people buried him outside Buckfastleigh church, with a large stone slab over his grave to stop him climbing out of it, and a heavy stone tomb on top of the slab to weigh him down even further. In the side of the tomb is a solid oak door with a large keyhole, a door which is never opened or unlocked. The local children sometimes dare one another to place their fingers inside the keyhole, to see if Cabell will bite them off...

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William De Tracy and his comrades murder St Thomas Becket, 1170.

William De Tracy:
After the murder of St Thomas Becket, one of his killers, Sir William De Tracy, is said to have hidden himself in a cave near Ilfracombe, where he was sustained by the provisions that his daughter lowered down to him in a basket. He later died in the Holy Land; but his ghost is said to have returned to Ilfracombe in death, where on stormy nights he rides furiously back and forth across the Woolacombe Sands.

The Spreyton Haunting: In 1683, the residents of a house in Spreyton were tormented by a malicious spirit which appeared sometimes as a woman, sometimes as a horse, and sometimes as a monstrous, fire-breathing hound. Under its influence windows broke, objects moved, laces crawled across the ground like snakes, and a cravat attempted to strangle its wearer; once a man was even hurled bodily into the air, only to be found later hanging from the branches of a tree in a nearby bog, apparently in a state of trance. Finally, a bird flew in through a window carrying an odd brass object, with which it struck one of the household on the head. The people broke this brass object into pieces, and shortly afterwards the haunting apparently came to an end.

The Sokespitch Barrel: The Sokespitch family of Marsh Barton, who held the same land from the twelfth to the nineteenth century, were at some point granted a magical beer-barrel by the pixies, which was enchanted never to run dry. They kept this barrel for many generations, until one day a curious maidservant opened it up to look inside it. Within she found only masses of cobwebs, and beer never flowed from the barrel again.

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The ruins of Frithelstock Priory.

Our Lady of Frithelstock: In 1351, the monks of Frithelstock Priory were condemned by the Bishop of Exeter for their unauthorised erection of a stone chapel containing a statue of a woman, which had rapidly become an object of veneration among the surrounding population. The monks claimed that the statue was a representation of the Virgin Mary; the bishop, unconvinced, replied that it looked more like 'proud and disobedient Eve or unchaste Diana', and ordered the destruction of both statue and shrine. Odd psychic phenomena have occurred intermittently in the area ever since.

The Hairy Hands: The road across Dartmoor from Princeton to Moretonhampstead is haunted by something which manifests as a pair of huge, hairy hands. The hands grab travellers, throw people from carts and horses, and scrabble at windows after dark: all who see them are filled with instinctive horror, and feel intuitively that they are malevolent to human life. Some locals speculate that the area was once home to a race of hairy men, who inhabited the region before the humans came, and whose spirits still hold a grudge against the people who displaced them.

The Roborough Down Cannibal: A man was once travelling across Dartmoor with his two children in a severe snowstorm when he chanced across an isolated house, inhabited by a single old woman. He and his children sheltered with her for the night, and he then left his children in her care while he proceeded to Plymouth through the snow: but upon his return she claimed they had gone missing during the night. Subsequent investigations revealed that she had killed and eaten them, and that she had in fact been murdering and eating vulnerable travellers for some years. After her death, her house was allowed to fall into ruin, and is now said to be haunted.

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Beetor Cross.

Beetor Cross: Beetor Cross was once the site of a gibbet, posted to deter the highwaymen who used to lie in wait there for travellers. Presumably the ghost of one of them still lingers there, as travellers encounter an unseen presence which seizes hold of them as they pass, sometimes attempting to drag riders from their horses. Then again, the haunting may be much older, as local traditions claim that the area was once the site of a great battle between the Saxons and the Celts...

The Battle of Fenny Meadows: In 1549, the Prayerbook Rebels were massacred by the king's army on the banks of the River Otter, near Fenny Bridges. On moonlit nights the old battlefield can sometimes be seen to fill with phantom horsemen, wading knee-deep in human blood.

The Phantom Cottage: Near Buckfastleigh once stood a cottage inhabited by an elderly couple, who had a very evil reputation with the local people. After they died, the cottage decayed until only its foundations remained; but travellers at twilight sometimes see it still standing on its old site, with the old man and woman still sitting inside it, warming their wicked hands by the fire.

Tantrobobus: A gigantic ghost by this name is said to roam the North Devon coastline.

The Headless Goat: A headless goat wanders Dartmoor in the region of Sherril, blood dripping from its severed neck. Sometimes it leaps out of hedges to surprise passing travellers.

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Longaford Tor.

The Foxes of Longaford Tor: The foxes of Longaford Tor have a taste for human flesh, sometimes attacking lone travellers in the winter, tearing their bodies apart, and dragging their bones down into their holes. They are especially active around midwinter, when the locals are careful to avoid them for fear of being devoured.

The Dark Men of Dartmoor: Small, dark-skinned men dressed in animal skins are occasionally glimpsed on Dartmoor, sometimes in the act of climbing out of or disappearing into hidden holes. Locals disagree on whether these are the ghosts of the land's original inhabitants, or an actual lost race which has remained hidden underground ever since.

The Village of Changelings: In a village near Chudleigh, it was noticed that the villagers tended to be unusually small. The people of the surrounding region attributed this fact to a long-ago pixie raid in which all the children in the village were stolen away and replaced with changelings, whose fey blood and diminutive stature was naturally inherited by their descendants.

Cutty Dyer: This river-giant lives in the River Yeo. During the day, Cutty Dyer sleeps beneath the water, under the shadow of bridges; but at night he sometimes rises up and tries to pull passers-by into the water to drown them, or else grabs them from behind, cuts their throats, and drinks their blood before throwing their corpses into the water. It is said that he was once a miller named Christopher Dyer, although how he came to take on his current monstrous form is unclear. His grim exploits are remembered in a local children's song:

Dawn't'ee go down the riverzide:
Cutty Dyer du abide.
Cutty Dyer ain't no gude:
Cutty Dyer'll drink yer blood!

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Monday, 30 January 2017

The Three Thieves of the Triple Crown

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No-one remembers now who the Triple Crown was first made for. Some tyrant of the ancient world, perhaps: some forgotten king whose ruined cities have long since crumbled into mere grassy mounds beneath the steppe. Perhaps he hoped that the glory of the crown would ensure that his reign would never pass from the memory of men; but now, when people tell its story, the king who wore it is always the least significant part of the tale. There was a king. He died. He's not important any more. 

But his crown... ah, his crown was a wonder! Three crowns in one, a triumph of the goldsmith's and the lapidary's art, mingled with astral magic of a kind now vanished from the earth: circlets of solar gold, lunar silver, and glittering star-like gemstones, combined into a single diadem whose glory and radiance outshone all earthly things. When the king wore the Triple Crown, sunlight and moonlight blazed around his head, and his eyes were filled with stars, and even the mightiest of men and the fiercest of beasts did not dare to approach him. In the height of his pride, the king boasted that even death would be awed by its radiance; but in this he proved quite mistaken. He aged and died like other men, and after his death his children fell to squabbling over which of them would inherit it: and while they bickered and schemed against each other, three cunning thieves stole the Triple Crown from their treasury and vanished quite away. 

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The glory of the Triple Crown could not be hidden. It shone through every covering; and the thieves knew that they could not keep it long. They broke it into its three separate rings, and they each fled in different directions, making a solemn pact that if they escaped detection they would meet together at a secret place after a year and a day. But while the magic of each of the three rings, when combined, had served to counter the most baleful effects of the others, when broken apart their celestial influences burned without restraint. As the thieves fled, the crowns burned through their souls as the parchment is swallowed by the flame.
As the sun burns brightest of all the heavenly bodies, so the Sun Thief was the first to be consumed. Her soul combusted within her; her fingers became ten candles, her hair a bonfire, her tongue a lash of flame. Sunlight poured from her eyes, and those who met her gaze were stricken blind. She fled into the southern deserts, a roaring terror, a living fire which could not die or sleep; and the land around her hiding-place was blasted beyond the endurance of all living things. The second to be consumed was the Moon Thief: his soul collapsed into eclipse, his body warping with the changes of the moon. His flesh flowed like wax or water; he became a living shadow, a thing of silver glints in darkness, roaming the desolate northern coastlines with the ebb and flow of the tides. The last to be consumed was the Star Thief: his soul fragmented million-fold into hard blue starlight, and a thousand shining eyes opened across his body, eyes which saw now the present, and now the past, and now the things to come. Driven quite insane by his visions, he hid himself beneath the earth, muttering cryptic oracles into the dark. 

The stars are nothing if not regular in their progress, and when a year and a day had elapsed the Star Thief travelled by secret ways to the pre-arranged meeting place. But the Sun Thief and the Moon Thief did not come; not that year, nor the next year, nor any of the years that have followed. And so the crowns remain separated; and so the Three Thieves remain lost.

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* * *

The Triple Crown is an ATWC version of the 'set item you need to find all the bits of before you can use it properly', a la the Rod of Seven Parts. More to the point, they're an example of the kind of stuff I like to scatter around sandboxes and hexcrawls: encounters which, in isolation, just look like bits of random colour, but which have the potential to be more than the sum of their parts. Individually, the Three Thieves just provide fodder for weird encounters out in the wilderness; but if PCs go to the trouble of researching what they are, and tracking them all down, and finding ways to circumvent their various abilities, then they can potentially get their hands on a powerful relic of the ancient world, which might come in extremely handy when trying to overthrow the tyranny of the Wicked King. Concealing the fact you own the Triple Crown is pretty much impossible, however, as the Three Thieves found to their cost: so once you've got it, you'd better be ready to defend your claim on it against all comers!

(Alternatively, 'fetch me the Triple Crown' is the kind of apparently impossible task that someone might set as a test of devotion, or just to make people go away, like the Tsar's daughter who asks her suitors to bring her a flying ship in the Russian fairytale. If the person in question is sufficiently rich and powerful, they might ultimately subcontract the task out to the PCs...)

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The Sun Thief is easy to find, if one desires to do so: she roams the southern deserts, a pillar of living flame, blasting the sand around her to glass in the white-hot heat of her combusted soul. Her approach can be felt from miles away as a wave of heat in the air, and the desert tribes have long since learned to flee from her whenever she comes near. The lands in which she most often wanders have been burned to bare black rock and obsidian, so hot that no living thing can survive within them. To look upon her is instant blindness. To touch her is death by fire. 

Unless one can somehow attain complete immunity to heat, fire, and blindness, fighting the Sun Thief is clearly out of the question. But even in her current state, there might be ways to communicate with her: the Children of the Sun could act as messengers, as could the spirits of the desert; and if one knew which way she was likely to come then one could spell out messages for her on the land itself, in arrangements of imperishable stone. But her mind is on fire. What message could be powerful enough to reach her after all those centuries of flame?

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Unlike the Sun Thief, the Moon Thief is not dangerous to approach: the difficulty in his case lies in finding him in the first place. He can take any shape he chooses, or no shape at all: and how does one track down a single shadow on a thousand-mile shoreline, or a single glint of moonlight on the surface of a vast and moonlit sea?

The most obvious way to find the Moon Thief is to consult an oracle, such as the Golden Lady or the spirits of the Island of Cairns; but there is another way. Some echo of the man he once was draws the Moon Thief to scenes of larceny and deceit. The tightly-knit, clannish communities of the northern taiga do not lend themselves to criminality, but thieves and tricksters who do attempt to ply their trade in his remote northern region often speak of finding themselves suddenly attended by an uncanny figure when they had thought themselves alone, a man or a beast of strange silver aspect that melts away into shadows the moment it is approached or addressed. Through the orchestration of such scenes it might be possible to lure the Moon Thief to a specific location, but his weird, metamorphic body is nearly impossible to imprison or to harm. You could talk to him. But what message could reach his lunacy-addled mind?

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The one being who still remembers the Sun Thief and the Moon Thief as something other than the near-mindless monsters which they have become is the Star Thief. Moving as regularly as the stars in the heavens, he traces a vast, circular path across the world, moving sometimes across the surface and sometimes through the hidden underworlds beneath it, but always arriving punctually at their prearranged rendezvous site at intervals of exactly one year and one day. He doesn't walk very quickly, but he never stops: not for food, or sleep, or rest, or darkness, or any kind of weather or rough terrain. On the surface, in open country, a party on horseback could keep pace with him if they knew his route in advance, using each morning to cover the distance he travelled during the night; but in the underworld, even matching his pace for a single day would tax the most accomplished of cavers. He is utterly unremarkable to look at, a bent figure pacing wearily across the landscape, wrapped in layers of rags. A leper, perhaps, or a broken-down old beggar. Sometimes people give him alms, and receive weird, whispered oracles in return.

Beneath his rags (which cover every inch of his skin, including his entire face, although his hood is so deep that this will not be immediately apparent), the body of the Star Thief is composed almost entirely of eyes. If he is harmed or detained, he will wrench the rags from his face and expose a dozen or so of these eyes, all of them full of hard blue starlight; those they gaze upon will be filled with the terrible, inhuman knowledge of the stars, which usually results in several days of catatonia followed by several years of astrophobia. If he is injured, this terrible starlight will pour out of his wounds, engulfing everyone nearby during the minutes that it takes for his flesh to knit back together. Possibly a sufficient quantity of force could kill him outright, but no-one who's ever been exposed to the starlight within him has ever wanted to find out what would happen if all of it were to burst forth at once.

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If approached non-violently, the Star Thief will not behave aggressively unless his journeys are actively impeded. Talking to him is difficult, because his shattered mind is a jumble of star-knowledge, filled with the events of the past, present and future which all learned men agree to be secretly written in the stars; but with a great deal of patience, and the right kind of crossword-puzzle mindset, all kinds of information could potentially be coaxed from him. If you followed him for long enough, through the deserts and the mountains and the monster-haunted underworlds, you might even learn his real name.

You might even learn the real names of the Sun Thief and the Moon Thief.

You might even learn which spot on the Star Thief's 366-day itinerary is the spot at which they were originally supposed to be reunited.

You might even be able to arrange events so that, the next time the Star Thief reached that point, he finally found the Sun Thief and the Moon Thief waiting for him, holding their circlets in their hands, ready to combine the three crowns into one and shed their burdens at last, crumbling into ancient ash and letting the winds of the steppe carry their mingled dust up into the sun, and the moon, and the stars.

And then, as the glorious mingled light of the Triple Crown burns once more across the steppe for the first time in a thousand years, your real problems would begin...

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