Sunday saw a very special session of my regular Ultan's Door campaign. Not only were we taking our first steps into the marvelous and terrible city of Zyan Above, we also had two new players joining us, and everyone else was playing a new character, as the main group will still not arrive in Zyan for some time.
Here is the party roster; Gallows being the only established PC among them; prior to this week all the others were NPCs the party had encountered upon their adventures:
Gallows, sole survivor of the Wheel of Gehenna, Storm Rider, Tolerated of Ulim, Bearer of Joyeuse, Holy Flamberge of the Martyred Libertines, Deliverer of the Living Saints Aelix and Ulina from the Hinterlands
Razor, the Duelling Sabre of Jurra Surashari, Sacred Relic of the Guides, living blade and glorious treasure of the age of the Incandescent Kings.
Espi, Statue Who Dreamed Herself Human, Effigy of the Shattered Maiden, Beloved of Mitra, Wide-Eyed Explorer and Steadfast Friend
Tallamifaromay, Ghost, Gambler, Adventurer in Pale Echo, One-Time Explorer of the Guides of Zyan
Sauri, Prestige Model DK-33 Series Shan Consortium Jungle Operations Bioroid, Queen of the White Jungle, Survivor of the Deadly Alkaline Wastes, Wielder of the Scrap Spear, Mistress of the Most Fearsome DP-33 Series Saurian Support Unit
Krodofel, Cannibal Quasit, Swamp-Dweller, Window-Peerer, Gibberer and Lurker, Licker of Hands, Biter of Legs, Vile Offcast of the Infernal Regions, Crafter of Dubious Magics, Slave to the Scroll of Planar Binding
Hax, Ogre Magus, Third Apprentice to the Yellow Enchanter, Weilder of Large Axes, Caster of Unseen Servant With Moderate Reliability
It was wonderful to see my players' takes on all of these former NPCs - Krodofel's capering and mischeif, Razor's snark and dismay at the state of the city, Espi's sense of wonder and anxiety about her constructed nature, Sauri's pride and aggression, Hax as the easygoing bruiser, Talla getting his bearings after a century on Eidolon Isle. Running for seven players all with brand new characters with weird abilities and mechanics (several monsters, one magic item, and Sauri is a reskin of one of J.V.West's classes from Black Pudding) was a challenge but a lot of fun.
I'd also spent all week preparing a writeup of the city, and there was a lot that still needed to be ad-libbed by the time game day came around. Having spent so long there already made me eager to share it with the players, however.
We began with Gallows and his companions arriving through Ultan's Door to the former Inquisitor's Theatre, in Zyan Between now renamed Bar Saturn and overrun with foreigners, much to the chagrin of the Inquisitors. There they found and recruited Hax and Sauri, who was visiting to drink and share tales of her exploits amid the monochrome foliage of the White Jungle.
They rode her pterosaur and Gallows' storm crow down the vertical tunnel leading to the jungle, emerging from a great inverted mountain beneath the island, before soaring upward and taking in their first clear view of the great, fabulous, and decaying city below.
Putting down at the Stable of the Guides they met with the blind stable-master, who summoned their friend Maneeshaneru, only to have her greetings cut short by a flurry of duel challenges from the other Guides who had come to see what the fuss was about, motivated by ancient grudges, wounded pride, envy and xenophobia.
Gallows sliced this particular Gordian knot by pulling out the Demon Mask of Liishinoru's Rage and casting fear on the challengers.
Over hibiscus tea Maneeshaneru explained the plight of the city to the group. Tallamifaromay and Razor in particular were horrified to see the depths to which Immortal Zyan had sunk. Krodofel, meanwhile, was largely occupied with looking for things to eat.
Once properly masked and attired the party resolved to seek out the Sky Goose Tavern, where they hoped to secure lodgings where their rest would not be disturbed by duel invitations thrice every hour.
They promptly became lost and found themselves wandering alongside the clear, reedy waters of the Glistertwist Canal, when a group of aristocratic youths returning from archery practice took Krodofel for a monkey and decided to take some pot shots. Things escalated until two of the youths were in the canal, four had run off, and one was bleeding to death. Razor suggested that they didn't need the heat from his murder, so Espi healed his wounds while the others in true heroic fashion helped themselves to his wallet.
On their way to the Vertical Market they met a jewel merchant going the same way, and purchased various gemstones of intriguing and possibly even accurate provenance. They made their way down the great steps, purchasing weapons and stealing sausages according to temperament, until they came upon the fabulous Nimbus Barque Starlingheist, with its harnessed starlings and captain Fambilwan.
Espi begged to ride the marvelous vessel and Gallows conceded they should, noting that the captain must be worth his fee as "he is, after all, wearing a fez."
And so they soared across the rooftops and lodged at the Sky Goose on Volish Hill, and dined that night upon three whole roast cats, this extravagant act of culinary justice doing much to endear them to the regular patrons - for the men of Zyan and the cats of Zyan do not, it must be said, get along.
Character death is often held up as a positive feature of OSR games, sometimes associated with a degree of machismo and the idea that without the possibility there's no challenge or interest. I don't believe this - video games manage to have challenge with no real possibility of failure, you try again until you get it right. Stories where you know the hero is going to survive can still be tense and interesting. There are other stakes.
In my game it's technically possible to die by the roll of the dice, but there are a couple of safety nets - magical healing, the Black Hack d6 roll for survival, and if all else fails, coming back as a ghost.
Ben Laurence's Shades of Zyan section in Issue 2 of Ultan's Door provides a wonderful model for this, which doesn't feel like a merely mechanical recourse but rather adds to the mythical atmosphere and lore of the setting itself.
The truly dead dwell in Ushanpoor, the City of Brass Sepulchres:
The living will never know the city of the dead’s geography—endless clustered sepulchres, stacked like empty baskets atop incense filled arcades, rich with pungent cherry blossoms, and black mirrored pools.
I love Ushanpoor. Like everything Laurence comes up with it's heady and evocative. The city of the dead is a specific place, neither a heaven nor a hell but something sombre, exotic and beautiful, and utterly unattainable for the living.
It is perhaps the only place the awesome wishing engine of the Parapraxis cannot take you - or at least, cannot bring you back from. Just as the living can never enter Ushanpoor, the dead can never leave (save perhaps through obscure roads leading to reincarnation or apotheosis).
So the brass gates provide a cut-off point; the dead of Ushanpoor have 'moved on' to the next life. There are no ghosts in the city of brass sepulchres. The domain of restless spirits is rather the Hinterlands...
...that lie between the lands of the living and the gates of Ushanpoor, [...] leafless forests and moors under the terrible light of the Necromantic Moon. [...] The silver violet light of this whispering moon produces a melancholy appetite, a desperate fuse burning ever towards a yawning, aching hunger.
So the newly slain find themselves in a bleak purgatory, drawn by the light of the moon toward the gates of Ushanpoor, their attachment to their old life relentlessly worn away by melancholy longing.
Most will simply depart to the city without lingering, but through "curses, contracts, and tragedies" they may be bound to this life until their issues are resolved.
There's a lot to like about this:
Death is no longer a reliable way to be rid of troublesome people - the more troublesome, the more likely they are to find the will to return.
PCs who die in the midst of a compelling story arc can plausibly return and hang on long enough to complete their business in the realm of the living.
Dramatic farewells can be had without the need to contrive an injury which is deadly enough to kill but not so deadly as to impair the ability to emote.
It's a good source of quests.
It's not generic. It reminds the players they're in a fantastical world with fantastical rules.
Those who see the moon and are subsequently Raised from the dead will be forever haunted - a less tangible consequence than -1 CON, but perhaps a more palpable one.
Conversely, I added the Orpheus-like conceit that a shade who somehow avoids ever seeing the light of the Necromantic Moon, may return to life merely by leaving the Hinterlands and stepping into the lands of the living - death has no hold on them.
I've added a few details - Ushanpoor is the afterlife not only for Wishery but for all the layers of dream, I didn't want to deal with a lot of different destinations, I'm not running Planescape, much as I love that setting.
The Hinterlands overlap with the real world at midnight in places where the veil between life and death is thin; the moon shifts subtly in colour, and it becomes possible to depart into one realm or the other, though with more difficulty for the dead leaving the Hinterlands or the living entering them.
Though no PCs have died yet in my campaign, they've had several memorable encounters with the dead:
Kasparan: Navigator of the Parapraxis, who lingered on to beg the PCs to help correct his terrible error.
Miminasouri: An explorer and ally of Kasparan, whose chirpy demeanor belies her formidable willpower. She waited a century to aid him out of sheer patience and determination.
Amar Amalkus: Detailed in Through Ultan's Door #2, so I won't spoil.
Aximund: Brother and sworn foe of the PC cleric Garviel, along with several other members of their rogue's gallery lurked in the Hinterlands and ambushed them when they Plane Shifted into that gloomy realm. (Some shades have the strength to return and trouble the living, others can merely bide their time amid the bleak moors waiting for their opportunity.) Each time he was defeated he came back younger, revealing a new layer of resentments and anger toward his brother, until Garviel in remorse cast Raise Dead directly onto his shade, leaving us with an Aximund who remembers none of his crimes.
Aelix & Ulina: The daughters of Saint Balix were born in a stone coffin where their mother had been entombed alive; she raised them in a cave beneath the earth of the Hinterlands, and ensured that in all their time there they never saw the light of the Necromantic Moon.
Captain Kellaway: A treacherous pirate who made a deal with the PCs to help her pass through the gates, but reneged on it to become the captain of a ghostly fleet. Pirates seem to have a particular talent for resisting the whispers of the Moon.
You can pick up paper and PDF copies of all of the issues of Through Ultan's Door at the Zinequest Kickstarter this week.
With Bitcoin now using more power than many countries, the pressure is on for cyberpunk settings to come up with cryptocurrencies which can compete in stupidity and unpleasant externalities.
Here are some ideas for currencies that might be used by outlaws trying to stay off the grid and living in blighted urban areas, with the added benefit of helping to keep those areas blighted:
Hydrocoin: Carries out transactions via a network of free-floating nanites suspended in waterways and groundwater. Externality: The nanites are mildly toxic.
Roachcoin: Processes transactions via scent signals between genetically altered roaches. Externality: Roaches.
Givingcoin: Developed by a charitable foundation to help the homeless, this crypto runs transactions on a small device worn by a homeless person. The homeless person gets a cut of each transaction fee. Externality: Gangs started rounding up and 'milking' the homeless people, forcing them to move wherever the gang wanted to extend the network and taking their fees.
Crimecoin: Software that infects numerous municipal devices, street lights etc, and stores its ledger in publicly available records of crime rates. Externality: If there isn't enough crime, it turns a bunch of lights and security alarms off until there is.
The system I'm using for my current game is based on the Black Hack, and perhaps my favourite part of it has been the experience system. In place of XP certain actions count as 'experiences' and are recorded on the character sheet. Players can check off a certain number of them to gain a level (in BH equal to their current level, though I'd suggest equal to the level you're trying to reach.)
BH requires PCs to carouse to gain a level, though in my game any downtime action can be used to level - training, research, crafting, building relationships - and will be a little more effective for it.
By default, the following qualify as experiences:
In my game we use this list:
Both reward the kind of thing D&D characters expect to be doing - going into strange places, fighting monsters, recovering treasure. But you could easily change the whole tone and genre of the campaign by switching these around, with entries like "share a meal with a new friend" or "come to understand an enemy's motives" for a more Ghibli-style game.
One unexpected effect of this system was that after a while, PCs end up with Experience sections that look like this:
In other words, an extensive record of the PC's career. Without context, such a list offers only tantalising glimpses of the campaign it represents, but for any of the players every entry brings a memory vividly to mind. It's a log of the campaign created effortlessly as part of the process of play - players are eager to add to it because every entry is a token of the currency they used to grow in power.
And there's more. Because XP now represents specific moments, effects that add or remove XP become particularly interesting. A character who sacrifices XP in some way loses an experience - and all memory of that experience.
When the PCs encountered a stranded Chronomancer seeking retrograde energy to further her journey into the past, she traded the PCs memories of their past for memories of their future. This allowed them to give up an experience to gain a new one - but the new experience could not be spent on levelling until the vision had either come to pass, or been successfully averted.
And a potion called the Blood of the Corrupted, which provided a significant amount of experience in return for certain downsides, could provide the following experiences:
They work just like ordinary experiences, but the PC seeing that on his sheet is likely to get the message that something is very wrong.
Another trick is to combine the system with Ben Laurence's system for awakening magic items. Instead of the GM having to watch out for a moment in the game which is epic enough to rouse a Splendid item into magical awakening, I put it in the hands of the players - instead of investing an experience to level up, they can invest it in an item.
This is an out-of-character decision - the player decides that it happens, but the character has no control over it, from their perspective it just happens. As DM I retain control over the specs of the resulting item, so very dramatic and emotive pairings of item and event produce the most powerful magic, while pairing an item with "entered the lair of the one-eyed scabid kobold" might produce something less impressive.
For example, one of the players used Returned Aelix and Ulina, daughters of Saint Balix to Rastingdrung, a quest taken on a vow made to a martyred saint, to empower Joyeuse, the Blade of Saint Maurus, a sword made with fragments of the wheel upon which one of the other saints of the same faith had been martyred, to create:
Joyeuse, Magical Flamberge of the Martyred Libertines
So at this point I'm thoroughly sold on the method; as an experience system it's adequate; but the side effects of using it are what, for me, make it shine.
Mermaids are hypersocial carnivores. They feed exclusively on land-dwelling mammals, including humans and demihumans.
AC 6 , HD 6 (27hp), Att 2 x grapple (1d3), bite (1d4/3d6), THACO 14 [+5], MV 360' (120') swimming, 30' (10') crawling, SV D12 W13 P14 B15 S16 (3), ML 5, AL (CG? Chaotic? Neutral? You figure it out), XP 275, NA 0 (2d8), TT 1 in 6 chance of 1d6 pieces of jewelry.
Landfolk and mermaids are mutually delicious; mermaid sushi is a decadent delicacy among the wicked; their skin is fragrant, their kisses are sweet. Land dwellers are every bit as tasty to them. Conversely, they have little interest in eating other sea creatures and never cannibalize one another.
Mermaids have characteristics which in humans would be associated with ADHD: They are restless, playful, easily bored, struggle to focus on tasks that do not interest them, and show hyperfocus on things that do. This leads many landfolk to dismiss them as stupid, but they are highly intelligent, and specialized for their ecological niche.
Their hypersociality is both a means of organizing their community and part of their hunting strategy. Where a human might have a circle of 250 or so friends and associates, a mermaid can easily keep track of thousands. It is reasonable to assume that every mermaid you encounter knows every other mermaid, as well as numerous landfolk and denizens of the sea. All mermaids speak numerous languages, including the common tongue, their own and those of whales and dolphins.
They are extremely friendly, even flirtatious if such advances seem welcome. This is part of their strategy for luring prey into the water, but it is important to note that this is not an act on the part of the mermaid - they are genuinely gregarious and love to make friends, even if these friendships are sometimes all too brief.
A swimmer cavorting with mermaids will find them eager to play and cuddle, kissing with giddy eagerness, perhaps a nibble here, a slight nip, their teeth surprisingly sharp - oops, she's drawn blood, nothing serious, just a little ribbon of red hanging in the water.
As soon as they taste blood in the water, every mermaid nearby will draw back her lips to reveal sharp, sharp teeth, their eyes will dilate, taking on a giddy look, and as one they will fall on their prey and strip it to the bone in minutes.
If they liked the swimmer, they'll feel bad about it afterwards, though the mermaid temperament is not given to dwelling long on such morose things.
If they disliked the swimmer, they will show no remorse. Just as mermaids can easily keep track of their many friends, they never forget their enemies. They nurse grudges and kill those who make enemies of them gleefully and without mercy.
Lacking the elongated jaws of most predators, the mermaid attacks by grappling with both hands, her powerful grip dealing 1d3/1d3 damage. This damage is repeated every round after an attack hits unless the target breaks free, and once both hands are grasping the target she will bite for 3d6 automatic damage per round, her saliva containing enzymes that break down the flesh of land-dwelling organisms - her bite will deal only 2d6 damage to sea creatures.
Mermaids are not brave and have no interest in a fair fight; they rely on surprise, numbers, and viciousness to kill their prey quickly. A mermaid will retreat after losing a quarter of her hit points. As a result they will often seek help in taking on powerful foes they bear a grudge against.
Profitable relationships can be had between mermaids on the basis of common enemies or the regular need to dispose of fresh, tasty corpses. Animal meat will placate them but does not excite the way human flesh does.
One can frolic with mermaids in some semblance of safety by ensuring they are well fed beforehand, checking carefully for open wounds, being firm about not letting them bite, learning to recognize the loopy look of a hungry mermaid, and if all else fails, a firm bop on the nose can disrupt their feeding state. Though this risks annoying the mermaid, they will usually forgive nonlethal self-defense in the same spirit as they expect their friends to forgive the occasional devouring attempt.
Sidebar: (Since someone is going to ask) Can you fuck a mermaid?
There's a big difference between can and should.
Here's the thing: They're probably DTF, but mermaids are not sexual; they engage with the act on an affectionate and sensual level, and the reason it's sensual to her is that you taste nice. If you do this thing she will eat you.
In the event that this is your fetish I only beg that you make sure the rest of your table share your enthusiasm before indulging it.
They are excellent messengers, able to relay messages not only among their own kind but also through the intercession of whales and their long-distance songs; they know useful contacts for PCs both on land and beneath the waves. They are in theory skilled translators but lack the focus to translate long texts.
They are amoral in the sense that they do not spend time contemplating the suffering of the world in the abstract, but they are highly sympathetic and can easily be won over by a sob story.
To the naive landlubber they may seem to be just piscean dream-girls, offering a love uncomplicated by terrene concerns; to the old salt they are evil spirits, cunning, deceitful sirens luring good men to their deaths, and to merely look upon or speak with them is ill-omened.
The truth is that mermaids are sincere, friendly, and kind to a fault. But they are not human. They do not think like humans, and those who traffic with mermaids do well to remember that they are ethically, mentally, and physically alien.
Mermaids live until they are eaten, or until they lose their excitement and love of life, and ennui overtakes them, at which point they sink down to the bottom of the ocean, lay their eggs and die. There the hulking, dour, benthic mer-men bury the mermaid in a cairn of coral with sombre ceremonies, fertilize the eggs externally, and raise the hatchlings.
The males are taught the solemn, serious, and stoical ways of the mer-men, and dwell with them amid ruins on the deep ocean floor, while the females, as soon as they are strong enough to swim, surge upward eager to explore and frolic in the sun and escape the dullness of the mer-men and their lightless world.
Sidebar: But what if I don't want to frolic?
The occasional nonconforming gothy mermaid remains in the deeps, while once in a while an ebullient mer-man swims up with his sisters to dwell with them in the shallows. These variations, rare on account of the extreme sexual dimorphism of the species, are fully accepted by the group they join when they do occur - merfolk gender roles are reproduced by instinct and, as a result, not socially enforced.
Upon reaching the surface they are greeted by other mermaids, who teach them to hunt and make friends and swim and all the other skills a growing mermaid needs. The only familial relationship they know is "sister", and they are all sisters. Anyone who reminds them of a vulnerable young mermaid is likely to be regarded as a sister too (regardless of gender) and they will become very protective. They are patient swimming instructors, even for those without tails.
Other sea creatures respect mermaids, either for their sociability and usefulness as messengers, or (in the case of the Sahaugin) for their hunting prowess and ferocious appetites.
Mermaids are mythological creatures, formed of the tales, desires, and fears of lonely sailors, but it is their practice of mutual solidarity, ability to form strong out-group bonds, and terrifyingly effective (if partly unconscious) hunting strategy that has allowed them to thrive and multiply.
Reclining Mermaid by Kris Guidio