Justin Achilli

Tag: pagan lands

Written Sketches

I recently started using Day One, a journaling app that’s sleek and fun and has a popup feature whereby the app tells you, “Okay, write something.” I’ve been using it mostly for sketching — a paragraph or two at a time just to keep the words flowing without any real thought to where they might fit. They all seem to have some commonality, and from that, I’m getting a sense for what the world they’re describing looks like, which is a sort of neat emergent feature. Well, perhaps not a feature, but more of an intersection of how the app works and what I keep scribbling into it. Here are a few of the excerpts.


“What lands are these? They are the lands we lost, as men, to time, to declivity of the soul, and to outside forces against which we failed to rally. These lands once belonged to our fathers, sustaining us on their bounty, but then we grew proud, and in our pride we grew ignorant, and in our ignorance we debased ourselves and called it culture. Ours is not a legacy of culture, our legacy is a loss of the culture that once united us.”

These words were spoken by Taraq, son of Haroun, before he turned his back on humanity and walked into the wilds, never to return. Some will say his bride bewitched him, but others know the truth: that Taraq did indeed fall in love with his beguiling bride, but that the choice to leave the realm of mankind was wholly his. Taraq has followed his wife into the life of the Good Folk, those who were ancient before even the first true Men could speak words. No more does he practice his huntsman’s craft, for now he dwells in the world instead of merely being its guest.


Looming on the horizon is a castle penumbrated in a timeless twilight. I have watched the lords descend from the castle, thralls to their dead with-lord, to pull women screaming from their beds in the village below. They take them up the icy path, into that dark-shrouded castle and their screams linger in the cold air for an eternal moment and then end. I cannot say how often they do this, these awful lords, for the dread that oppresses me makes me fear and look away.

I hate this weakness in myself. I am powerless to stand against the lords from the shadow-castle, powerless to call out their evil, and too small to even raise my eyes to them. What is the greater crime: their boldness and inhumanity to men, or my selfishness and small misery in complicity?


The folk of the undertown whisper of the rogue’s omen, that when a scandal sets the privileged against one another, low men suffer the most. In such ugly times, though, events occur after which those low men’s fortunes change. Not everyone born in a barn need be a horse, to borrow another commoner’s saying. And not every title need be granted at court.


Beneath the manor, beneath the lime and the chalk and the thousand-plus spiraling stairs that crept into the cavern within the mountain, the thing that gives horror to bloom floats, in its parallel of life, in the brackish, primeval fluid that nourished it before the time when gods claimed to have made the world. There, in that stagnant pool, it floats endlessly, glutting itself on the thought and fear of those who live in the valley below the pass. Through millions of tons of stone, it swells in metonymy with the emotional tides of Men who feel its evil and quake in idle dread.

Those who once dwelled in the manor couldn’t have known the awful, cyclopean sect that stirred beneath them when they built it, looming over the pass. Some horrible, cosmic coincidence must have been at play or else, more likely, the creature reached out with its will and forced the construction of the castle, whether through some hellish minion or some more subtle machination. Although, to what end, none may guess.


Some of this should fit easily into the Pagan Lands material, but other stuff might find a place in some Vampire work (with a little retooling). The general sense here is that whatever world this is must ruly be an awful place, with all its rotten happenings and victimizations of the people who live in it. Or maybe it’s the people themselves who are so awful, and they keep bringing ruin upon themselves. There’s definitely a feeling of loss and fear going on.

Pagan Lands: Where Are We?

"Where on the map is a giant, creepy eye hovering over a ruined fortress? I think we're lost."

One of the things that has enthused me while working on Pagan Lands is that the PCs are literally captives of the environment. They don’t know where they’re going, and they know where they’ve been only if they’ve been keeping a diligent map. It’s an exploration campaign that assumes the characters have been dumped into a strange land with plenty of its own oddities that alter the environment or otherwise ensure they have no adequate way of forecasting where they’re headed until they do the mapping. The semi-aboriginal cultures that exist there don’t do much traveling and when they do, they do so along routes that have an oral or small-scale cartographical tradition.

The upshot of this is that I don’t know if I need to include a map in Pagan Lands. In fact, some part of me believes that the setting would be better off with it intentionally excluded.

It’s a weird kind of thing to consider. I think, from the perspective of Pagan Lands as a “product,” lots of fantasy players —€” especially D&D players —€” expect a map to be included in a setting. GMs usually buy pregenerated materials to save them time, or to steal little bits and pieces from them, including maps. Conceptually, though, what better way to ensure that no two Pagan Lands campaigns are alike than to require part of the creative preparatory work be to build the stage, and only if you need it. It’s perfectly possible, actually, to let gameplay shape the continent. The GM can randomly determine which encounters come after which or can plan a vague sense of a picaresque campaign flow. In this sense, the players and GM would be working collaboratively to not just explore but wholly generate the campaign geography.

"Suuuure, I can get you where you're going. It's over a mountain. Or under a swamp. Or near a— look, do you want to get going or not?"

A map like this doesn’t have to be exactingly detailed. The Pagan Lands are on a peninsula and they’re bordered on the south by the Mark. That’s it. Go! There aren’t any political nations nor do any of the locations require such stringent placement as to necessitate a map. Like the early days of the Hyborean Age or the devil-may-care attitudes of Fafhrd and the Mouser, and definitely the vague destinations of the Dying Earth and Zothique. The idea also allows for making a reliable map be a true treasure. Thematically, the Pagan Lands are a “lost continent,” so the fact that this information simply doesn’t exist anymore is actually a setting detail.

On the other hand, I like maps. I like evocative maps in particular, like this Hârn map or the map downloadable for Vornheim (even though I don’t find the Vornheim map very useful, much as I like the book material itself). And, while there’s something to be said for the gigantic maps for the Wilderlands of High Fantasy and Ptolus, those settings are very different from what the Pagan Lands intends to provide.

Odd Properties

He collects the things you find, even though you found them first.

Vampire doesn’t deal much with “magic items,” so when I use something as a sort of McGuffin in a World of Darkness game, I like it to be something with more affect than just a noun of verbing. This extends often to other games I run, in which magic items are implements with their own histories and reasons for creation, rather then mass-manufactured bonus-givers. I’ve been working on two different items recently, one for a Vampire story and one (well, a set of three, actually) for the Pagan Lands, which really got me to thinking about their narrative properties outside their mechanical properties. before long, I had a fun little list of odd properties that can be attributed to occult objects in any game or story.

1) Draws a cloud of flies

2) Emits a constant unintelligible, agonized whispering

3) Absorbs light, appearing out-of-focus and indistinct

4) Smells cloyingly sweet

5) Becomes hot when hidden from sight

6) Is covered in an unremovable layer of grime; cannot be cleaned

7) Bears a symbol long associated with heresy or unwholesomeness

8) Appears more valuable than it truly is to onlookers

9) Floats or sinks; the opposite of what is expected

10) Causes the owner’s speech to take on a musical lilt

11) Anything written in its vicinity becomes smudged, blurred, or otherwise illegible

12) Possesses a lambent nimbus

13) Kills minor plant life

14) Causes everything the owner eats to taste like ash

15) Rattles as if something was inside

16) Turns the owner’s blood black when it is spilled

17) Excretes a sheen like the oil of saints

18) Draws the attention of animals with a keen sense of smell

19) Cannot be accurately remembered or described

20) Crumbles to dust when held by a poor and pious man

Pagan Lands: Widdecombe’s Laboratory

Widdecombe’s laboratory is a tragic place, where creatures never intended to encounter life have been brought into painful existence. The building where Widdecombe’s experiments took place certainly served some other purpose before the eugenicist established his laboratory there. Indeed, it seems that it may have been a grand manse or even some sort of temple, given the open gallery and pillared hall that make up the front face of the building. Composed of fine marble, the building itself appears august until its horrid purpose becomes evident.

This is actually Tilda Swinton, but the photo says what I want it to say.

Of Widdecombe himself, little trace remains, save for some of his foul notations and some of his devices and instruments. Part demiurge and part eugenicist, Widdecombe appears to have vanished from the world over a millennium ago. The creature Adapa in area 9 can sometimes recall the name of his vile “father,” and Widdecombe recorded his own name in the journals that can be found in area 1 only once. Finding the name among the notes would certainly be a lengthy undertaking. Certainly, Widdecome comes from some world other than this one, as neither his language nor the technology he commanded has a counterpart in the Pagan Lands.

  1. The amoral scientist once made his apartments in this room, at the center of his ghastly bridewell of harrowed beasts. The room contains a daunting array of notes, books, chalkboards and charts on display to interlopers.  Widdecombe appears to have been a very principled and orderly fellow, judging from the precise notes on his papers, in his books, and printed on the chalkboards adorning the walls. The texts themselves are indecipherable, but the sketches make it evident that the writer’s interest lay in combining, transposing, and breeding the qualities of creatures left in his horrific care. If a magic-user can somehow decipher the notes and other details, they can be used to aid magical research and magical item creation for items and spells that summon animals or monsters. The rooms also contains small alchemical devices worth 1200 gp.
  2. Tattered curtains hang from the walls of this room, rent by the claws of the anguished beast that dwells here. The creature resembles a great, awkward ostrich with the torso and head of a humanoid woman and ever-molting, useless wings instead of arms. The creature’s humanoid appearance is misleading, as it is hopelessly stupid, venturing forth only to eat the birds (or whatever else it can find) in area 8. This room was once a salon or something similar, and a damaged bust of a forgotten poet or philosopher lies next to an overturned pedestal in the corner, worth 1200 gp and 225 gp, respectively, to an interested collector.
  3. This pair of laboratories contains the incomprehensible apparatuses and bizarre ingredients used to fabricate artificial life, or provide the “genesis fire” required to spark actual life, however flawed the results may be. These items are surely of inconceivable value, but they are alien and not at all portable, and finding a buyer in the Pagan Lands who might want them is surely a quest in and of its own. The laboratories have been constructed to fit into the rooms that preceded their current purpose, and various tubes, pipes, fittings, and wires emerge and vanish from holes bored into the marble walls.
  4. This room contains six great metal tureens, the lower ends of which depend into funnels that look like a hose might be attached. The contents of the vessels are a protein-rich broth of viscosity varying by the vat in question. The contents of all the vessels has long gone rancid, and whatever life-nourishing properties it once had have become vile and poisonous. If someone consumes it or exposes it to a wound, the victim suffers 8d8 damage (reduced to 8d4 on a saving throw of target number 18). The noxious stuff becomes inert when exposed to air for longer than 15 minutes, and lasts only one turn if applied to a weapon as a poison.
  5. Two great, exposed electrodes descend from the ceiling in this chamber, terminating inside a vast, brushed-steel tough inside which pulses a glistening, gray-pink slab of protean flesh. An inch-deep pool of cloudy fluid stands stagnant in the bottom of the trough. The room is humid and smells of brine. A cabinet of cutting instruments, for work both coarse and fine, occupies one wall of the laboratory. The cutting instruments are comparatively easy to move, and are cumulatively worth 600 gp.
  6. The door to this room is extremely difficult to open, but with a suitable application of strength, it gives, accompanied by a shattering sound from the inside. The interior surface of the door had been layered with a thin sheen of nacre, and the whole room bears a subtle sheen of this pearly substance, which becomes thicker in proximity to the corner of the room, where a great agglomeration of the stuff creates an organic bulge. Sheets and hunks of the nacre may be harvested to a quantity of 72 pounds, worth 200 gp per pound to a gemseller or artisan. The room is humid and unpleasant. If the bulge is attacked or an attempt to harvest it is made, it erupts into a moist gray-pink mass of mottled flesh and defends itself (treat as a gelatinous cube that can’t move from the room, but can attack anyone occupying the room or immediately outside).
  7. This room houses an androgynous, fine-featured individual who sits on the floor, his head in his hands. The creature wears tattered and filthy finery and a bedraggled powdered wig, and its eyes are solid black orbs. If anyone attempts to converse with it, the fellow shrieks and squawks in an attempt at communication that cannot possibly be a language, and tries to push a few broken sticks into a pattern on the floor, using hooked fingers in a way that suggests the creature occupies a body not its own. The room also holds the ruins of once-comfortable furniture as well as 63 scattered gp worth of the “changeling money” described on p. XX.
  8. On the two tables occupying the bulk of this room, two partially complete (or partially disassembled…) brass automatons, a seeming matched pair of male and female constructs, lie in stasis. If a humanoid or demi-human enters the room, the automatons activate, rattling and flailing, attacking everyone present in their clumsy but effective manner. Treat the automatons as flesh golems.
  9. In this secret chamber that passes for Widdecombe’s treasury, 1,648 gp worth of ceramic chit-coins are scattered on the floor and pour out of shattered cubical coffers. A black lance-shaped rod with a cowl at one end hangs from a mount on the wall. Inside the cowl are a handle, which has two studs on it. Pressing one of the studs releases a cloud of pyrotechnics (12 charges remaining)while pressing the other one causes the lance to emit a shrieking sound that functions as power word: stun (two charges remaining) on the creature toward which it’s pointed. Blood, a pulpy crust, and a greasy ash streak the marble walls and floor in this room.
  10. Stone stairs lead into this ruined marble gallery, in which caryatids sculpted into singing poses uphold the ceiling. A blue-green fungus grows up the walls, over the surfaces, and especially in the cracks of the gallery, which is home to over a hundred birds. The birds find nourishment in the fungus, and the gallery is also stained by their droppings. There is a 1-in-6 chance that a pitiable, vaguely canine humanoid creature (treat as a kobold) is in this room at any time, trying to skewer birds with its spear. This creature (and the birds) are easily frightened.
  11. The creation known as Adapa prefers to bask in this area, contemplating exactly why it was concocted. The room itself is a fabulous ruin of quarried marble tarnished by neglect and a thousand-plus years of exposure, with marble columns sculpted into caryatids holding unfurled scrolls. Adapa is a miserable combination of fish and man, of melancholy disposition but not inherently hostile, and he actually enjoys the opportunity to have a conversation with anyone willing to speak with him. Drawing breath is a labor for him, as the complicated lung-and-gill structure that sustains his respiration is far from perfect, and he has no desire to leave his “solarium.” Unfortunately, Adapa has no long-term memory, and cannot remember longer than one day. Once per week, Adapa can cast any single magic-user spell of level seven. Adapa’s treasure is an ivory-handled knife worth 300 gp.
  12. This loggia admits visitors from the thoroughfare into the pillared hall of area 11. The walls are of crenellated marble and similar marble pillars comprise the supports of the loggia. A pair of tarnished silver salvers lie discarded on the floor here (worth 100 gp each), amid broken glass and the debris of untold ages.

Pagan Lands: Self Inventory

What lands are these and what sorts of men call them home?

I cracked open the cobweb-beleaguered project binder for the Pagan Lands yesterday. Pieces of the setting need to be sent through the iteration loop. It’s usually my habit to highlight these, because I can generally tell when something feels a bit off to begin with, but I also like to go back and read over the whole thing to see if something that sounded hella so awesome last time I worked on it instead needs a little more time in the crucible. That sort of circumspection has characterized the whole of my work on the setting. It has its potential perils — optimally, I need to get a draft done before I lose myself in the tinkering — but in some cases, adjusting the assumptions the whole work makes can help push a project toward the finish line. Here’s some of the stuff I tinkered with.

Scale: The Pagan Lands were originally intended to be an England-like island off the coast of a greater continent, where a loosely sketched Imperial power held sway. It’s a good idea in general, because it provides a reason to put the players in the environment and deny them a way back into the “home country,” but the more I put the details together, the less I liked the scope of the island. It’s one of my design precepts that, as the campaign continues, the PCs come to own the Pagan Lands. And for such a goal, there’s eminently such a thing as too big. For example, the Wilderlands of High Fantasy assume a geography of roughly the size of the Mediterranean. That’s a bit too big for my purposes, so I redefined the area of the Pagan Lands as about the size of Wales — about 8,000 square miles. Not that expected the figure to come up often, but just knowing “how big?” lets me think about the spatial relationships of the geographical features to one another. Once I had a more reasonable sketch of the size, another detail refined itself as a result. The Pagan Lands, I reasoned, once belonged to the Empire but had since fallen into barbarism. This fit nicely with my literary influences, gave a reason for the Empire to want the region, and provided a “dark ages” of indeterminate duration during which all of the weird events could take place. How old is the Empire? Who knows? But it’s obviously quite old, which again highlights those literary roots, in that the current civilization has obviously become decadent, soft, and complacent. Such times call for able adventurers to make their way.

Races: Classic D&D is pretty inextricably bound by notions of what the post-Tolkien fantasy races are. On the one hand, I like this. I see an elf, I know its job/ class is “elf” and I know what it’s supposed to do. On the other hand, I’m pretty tired of what that is, and Tolkien’s epic fantasy is less compelling to me than the down-and-dirty realities of Aquilonia, Lankhmar, and Kaiin. To that end, I’ve made a few cosmetic and perspective changes to the races that leave them mechanically alone, but make them thematically more appropriate to the Pagan Lands. My elves become more attached to their Fae roots, my dwarves are more like Howard’s Picts, and my halflings are an artificial slave race long left without its master. Again, purely cosmetic and skirting the vanity of heartbreak, but definitely more in line with the literary feel I want to convey and evident of debasement and the weight of history. Consciously and critically, I want these, but I want them to have a specific flavor. Here’s an excerpt:

The elves are a race trapped in a world foreign to them, which makes them appear wholly Other to its natural residents. A breed of Fae that the realm of Faerie has long since abandoned to the world of Men, the elves linger as outsiders even in their own kingdoms. They speak sometimes of lost homes, such as Tir Na Nog, Avalon, and the rolling hills of their sidhe, none of which have a place in this world. To the perceptions of non-elves, the elves hold the other races of the Pagan Lands in very low esteem, and they can be capricious, cruel, and incomprehensible. To the elves, everything else in this half-realm is incomprehensible, and only the waning memories of their bygone Faerie make any sense, even if this world cannot understand them.

Does Crowscroft Manor make the final cut for Pagan Lands? It remains to be seen after a few more playtest loops.

Intended Result: One of the bits of feedback I took from a tabletop session was that the situation “got all Moorcock.” In the context, it meant that previous sessions had focused on the exploration and challenges, but the session in question focused too much on its own importance. I took that to heart and would probably call a do over on that session. The Pagan Lands aren’t about figuring out the storyline I build, they’re about creating the characters’ own storylines, insofar as they relate to the region sprawled out before them. I pushed an NPC into the limelight and I shouldn’t have, so I need to go back and pare down that encounter, or at least my handling of it. Likewise, I had another encounter that, as I was writing it, I knew that it was uninspired. I wrote it anyway, just to get the words out, but it’s a prime candidate for either cut or heavy retooling. Again, I don’t like to edit during the writing process too much, but when something is wrong and obviously wrong, it’s sometimes best to pull it out like a peach pit so that it doesn’t make for an uneven presence in the work. At the very least, I need to put it out of mind and not write anything else that relates to it.

Post-Morality?

Don't judge the book by its cover. Maybe this guy has something you want or need.

One of the things I enjoy about the swords and sorcery genre and about much vintage weird fiction is that it doesn’t bother itself with good and evil. The rogues and warriors are morally ambiguous, and often wicked or selfish, but both the writing and the character possesses a charm that makes you come back to their travails anyway. Sometimes the struggle is between law and chaos, while at other times it’s a less overt setting device invoked by barbarism, the decadence of society, or some sort of historical lacuna or frailty of man.

The picaresque is a great gameplay-adaptable narrative model here, in which a scoundrel (or pack of them) selfishly ambles through life, occasionally helping people or places through no conscious choice, but without the predatory motive typically associated with evil. Treasure, booze, women, weird cults, momentous forces of society, savages, customs, and weird creatures all fall before the wiles of the protagonists with often nothing more complicated than an exciting tale told. There’s no greater comment necessary. It’s just fun or exciting.

If it's not the focus of the detail, where the skulls come from isn't as important as the presence of skulls.

Moreover, in game terms, this freedom from confinement to a moral role opens up avenues of activity and problem solving. I’ve been rereading the updated Judges Guild classic Caverns of Thracia, and the way into the darkest depths of the dungeon involves four sacrifices. Now, these don’t have to be sacrifices of damsels in distress or unblemished virgins — any four sacrifices will do. Gnolls? Sure. Lizard-man? You bet. Hapless retainer? Okay, if that’s how you want to play it. Sacrifice isn’t going to fly with a paladin (probably), but for a Conan, Cugel, or Mouser type, it’s just a detail before moving on to the next action sequence or moody set-piece. It shows that these are bloody times, and that hard men drive them. Moreover, they don’t linger on the details of the sacrifice with unsavory zeal. They have no good or evil component of their own.

And a lack of moral compass makes for other dramatic elements that have their own weight. For example, what of the adventuring party that puts its torchbearers through the ominous portal first? Hardly “heroic,” but certainly “adventurous.” What about the seemingly doomed last stand against the monstrous hordes that — improbably! — survives and makes its way out of the dungeon only to pass the corpses of two other PCs who fell to squabbling over treasure and knifed each other during their exit? It completely invalidates the sacrifice in a morality tale, but it’s a perfect element of an adventurer’s story that gives a lingering redolence of gallows humor. Dark times for hard men, indeed, but high adventure doesn’t have to invoke shining knights. The Pagan Lands are like this. They don’t care for good or evil, but rather rely on concepts of empire, the melancholy of dying cultures, and the impermanence of the memory of Man. Morality doesn’t often enter the equation.

This is certainly at odds with my work on Vampire, which was almost wholly a morality passion play under my stewardship. My Frostholm proposal, similarly, revolved around turning up the morality in standard adventure gaming. Using this different focus doesn’t take anything away from those other efforts. It’s just a different exploration of game content that results in very different stories being told around the table.

Awake In a Grave

Yaros… Yaros…

The sound of someone plaintively calling your name — distant, no louder than a whisper — interrupts your mortal sleep. A moment of panic strikes you. You know that voice! It is your cousin and betrothed, Aysel, the Lady of Winters and heiress to Castle Marchemoor. Where is she? And why does she sound like she’s in distress?

What is this place? It is a tomb — your tomb! Deep beneath the lonely halls of the Castle of Ash and Shadow, this is your family mausoleum. You come here from time to time to think about your future, to write poems and touch the family crests. The gray marble of the sepulchers and the cold flame of the tallow candles offer you a dolorous peace…

…It’s coming back to you. Dinner with Aysel and Lord Eliphas. Too much hypokras. The three of you kept drinking into the night. A nacreous moon. Eliphas’s eyes became orbs of deepest black and he bared his teeth. Aysel screamed. Your hand went to your rapier, but something came in from the window although the window was closed. From then, you don’t remember.

Eliphas!

The first thing to do is get out of here, to flee your grave.

Pagan Lands: The City of Wintergris

Civilization, As far as the eye can see, civilization. As best as any of the scholars and sages estimate, civilization spans the world. And Wintergris, the One City, is the only civilization. It dominates the region, and to many who live here, it is the world. None can remember ever having heard of another city. Indeed, the word “city” has all but fallen out of use, as “Wintergris” in specific accomplishes anything the speaker wishes to say.

The One City, the City Eternal, is not what it once was, however. At its founding, Wintergris was the colony of a culture that came from beyond the span of the skies. As the aeons passed, that society lost contact with its progenitors. Abandoned in a world forsaken, the civilization turned inward as it grew outward, entering a period of cultural stagnation and sprawling population.

Those times, too, have long gone by now. What stands today of Wintergris is what remains, a thriving city existing in the shell of the greater one that came before it. The city sits at the center of the Pagan Lands, but only a portion of it is truly inhabited — the rest has been abandoned, forgotten, built over, ignored, shunned. The cultures who dwell here now have miscegenated with what remains of that original sky-climbing race, and indeed, the pure-blooded sky-climbers may well be no more.

Stagnant Cultures

Scriveners? Sorcerers? Singers? Senators? Slaves?

Few people travel in the city; most individuals are born into their regional “castes” and remain there for there whole lives, never considering the idea of travel to a different district and possibly even fearing it if the topic arises. Those found in the academies take up scholarly pursuits simply because that’s all people do where they live.

A scant few merchant subcultures and “outcastes” travel the neighborhoods, taking the products from one district and distributing them among others, but the more settled citizens of Wintergris consider these people a necessary evil, transient providers of what they cannot create for themselves.

Even worse than these mendicant salesfolk are those who style themselves adventurers. Those who willingly shirk their inherited birthright duties to plumb the forgotten corners of the city and the districts far abroad? They’re mad.

The Peril of Manners

To that end, though the people of Wintergris share a common citizenship, what that citizenship means is tenuous at best. One’s fellows may have a completely different culture, body of rituals, and collection of customs. Very clear delineations exist among the various hierarchies and subcultures of the One City, not because anyone understands them, but simply because they always have since time out of mind. The Murderer’s Guild exists and exercises a monopoly on the business of contract killing — that’s what’s important. The guild observes a custom and a procedure. Why does it exist? Who brought it into existence and when? How did these customs evolve? These are the sorts of questions that the players’ characters may explore… or perhaps they won’t. Perhaps the existence of the mannered subcultures is enough to give the players the flavor of the world, a functional set dressing for their own exploits.

Magic Alongside Science and Technology

The reason for putting magic alongside science and technology is intended to make science and technology more strange, unknowable, “lost,” and other. In no way is magic safe or even trusted. Magic remains a potent force, inscrutable to common men but intuitable to those who can wield it. The same applies to technology: Most people don’t know how to make key pieces of advanced technology work, and those few who do characterize the idea of technology with the implements they build.

One of the present societies might be a technocracy that knows how to manipulate ancient, abandoned machines.

Technical detail isn’t important for the machines scattered throughout Wintergris. The feel of the device trumps feasibility and sometimes even function. Perhaps, somewhere in Wintergris, something called a “celestial caliper” exists, or perhaps an “iron engine.” Perhaps a solitary machine in a forgotten tower chugs away unfailingly, transforming the sunlight that pours through its chamber’s solitary window into lead. The technology in Wintergris shouldn’t always be universally useful, and indeed, in most cases isn’t. Technological items serve only the singular, idiosyncratic purpose for which their creator built them. Since that creator is probably millennia dead, the device is a legacy to his ambitions.

Science, likewise, is an imprecise field of study. Science in Wintergris is more like lore. It’s a collection of theories, tested principles, and pragmatic observations by the experts in a given field. Astrology, alchemy, and divination are sciences alongside botany, biology, and metallurgy. Indeed, “science” is a bit of a misleading term. These bodies of knowledge are as much art, hearth wisdom, and impression as they are understood codes of natural law.

Again, scientific accuracy isn’t the key to science in Wintergris. A scientist is a wise man and a scholar, and the knowledge he possesses paints a picture of the world that deals with ignorance, with information lost. The enlightened age has come and gone, and what the scientists of Wintergris know is notable in its gaps as much as its still-extant canon. Ancient nurseries still exist, tended by landscapers who no longer remember why they cultivate their flora. Laboratories maintained by acolytes of electricity still function, providing the city with power despite the fact that none of the acolytes can describe the process by which it happens.

The artifacts of these sciences and technologies are themselves unfamiliar and alien. While what might be called “computers” exist, they are not the monitor-and-keyboard arrangements we see in our world. They are, perhaps, an abacus that records its digit columns in water funnels that overflow into the next column when they reach ten, or a repository of knowledge housed in a rectangular bronze cauldron to which the postulant submits a question coded by colors arranged on a wax taper and receives a similarly constructed answer. Likewise, travel technologies that don’t correspond to “automobiles” or “airplanes” exist. Artifacts that manufacture mundane items toil away at their tasks and devices of inscrutable purpose his and thump and clang at their trials.

Cosmopolitan Society

Wintergris has homogenized its denizens, who are rarely surprised to see other races even if they consider those races incomprehensible and alien. Indeed, alien is a good term for them, as not all of the races an individual may encounter are of worldly origin. As with many monsters, several of the races residing in Wintergris today are the descendants of cultures that once visited the city from points unknown, far beyond the world on which Wintergris exists. Which races? Why and when? We leave that question intentionally unanswered, so GMs can create their own unique sense of history and the unknown.

Population clusters at key points in Wintergris, separated by vast swaths of empty cityscape and unbounded districts of anarchy, atavism, tribalism, and blight. One region might contain a pasha’s harem and luxuriant gardens, while the adjacent slum is little more than a cluster of rookeries crippled by plague, the neighbor of which is a district of guilds and universities.

No Evident Ultimate Authority

Law is a concept for those who make it.

While Wintergris has any number of localized barons, burghers, aldermen, mayors, satraps, and senators who seem to wield a measure of the law as their influence, no one seems to know who’s at the top of the hierarchy. Does Wintergris have a king? An emperor? A tyrant at the top or an enlightened despot who has the city-world’s best interest in mind? No one knows. Even those eminent figures who seem penultimate in their region cannot say. Since this is the case, though, to whom do they answer?

Various organizations handle many of the duties traditionally associated with a constabulary or “town guard,” but they are not universal throughout Wintergris. As the cultures of individual neighborhoods vary, so, too do the peacekeeping agencies of those neighborhoods. One locality might have a militia police who share the chainmail byrnies associated with the constables, while another region keeps a secret police, another’s civic authority is an arm of a prominent temple and yet another has nothing more than mob rule when trouble breaks out. In each neighborhood or region, authority belongs to whomever has the power or pluck to claim it — and it has probably been that way for generations upon generations.

No Standing Armies

The concept of an army is foreign to Wintergris. Small household guards, privately funded  military bodies, and even sellsword mercenary companies stand in the stead of a formal army. With few external enemies to defend against and no real territory for Wintergris to “conquer” — even if an individual in a proper chain of command could formally declare war — the city has no need for an army. A large-scale military organization simply doesn’t exist, though martial factions with similar means and methods definitely arise throughout Wintergris.

Ambitious individuals, however, are another story. A fearful noble might retain a security force to protect him from scheming rivals, a prominent priestess might fund an honor guard, and the gangs that form in regions of desperate poverty are as likely to be an armed gang as they are a mob without a cause. In many locales, might equals authority, and many neighborhoods are effectively juntas run by those who can organize and command local labor forces. The crime boss in one of the ethnic neighborhoods is a warlord, ruling his domain by flouting conventional law.

Urban Dungeons

Any number of structures stand all over Wintergris that might fulfill the purpose of the “dungeon,” from abandoned civic buildings to thriving temples to wealthy estates to preserved mausoleums, arcane laboratories, freshwater cistern networks, long-sealed galleries, collapsed arcologies, fetid rookeries, dilapidated docks built for vehicles that no longer exist — and more. If it exists in any city real or imagined, it’s in Wintergris, waiting to be explored.

Pagan Lands, Session Three

Salvador had returned to Fort Lorica during the downtime between sessions, but Beliax and Decimus both found themselves on work detail with the restoration of the stockade. (That is to say, Ned and Ethan were out this time, but Oscar made it back.) Magnus Agrippa and Petellius were present, and led the initiative in the session’s plans: Return to the ruin the Thirteenth Legion had discovered hidden behind the lair of the feuding giants and seek out the rest of its mysteries.

With their humanoid thrall in shackles, the trio delved again into the depths, whereupon they discovered that the creatures’ lair seemed in fact to be the tombs of an odd culture that predated the monstrous occupants. With a commemorative shrines, ritualistic frescoes, and even a mass grave, the dungeon behind the giant’s cavern seemed to be some sort of functional facility, with both cultural elements and infrastructure included. Magnus Agrippa did a fine job of bringing the beyond-death residents of the graves to heel, and gave them a properly consecrated burial in the idiom of the Thirteenth Legion. In the most prestigious (but still humble) grave, Petellius found a weapon of exceeding quality, and almost certain arcane potency.

What good could possibly come of this?

An extremely lengthy stairwell led the party up to a bizarre concourse and docking platform… attached to the apex of the mountain. More frescoes depicted a culture obviously possessed of the capability of moving among the skies, seemingly on gigantic floating islands or pieces of earth torn from the world’s surface. The few survivors of the Thirteenth Legion had discovered a remnant of the empire of the “Sky Climbers.”

On the docking platform, a pair of laborers who looked nothing like anyone else the legionnaires had encountered in the Pagan Lands. I described them as a bit of a visual cross among the Greeks, Egyptians, and Assyrians of antiquity: dark, curly hair, oiled and scented beards, armed with khopesh blades, and of a greater body frame than Imperial stock. They appeared to be preparing a collection of barrels, crates, and cases to load them onto whatever moored at the dock. The characters had the drop on them, but…

  • a) They were tough, and
  • b) The PCs hadn’t fully explored the concourse, and didn’t find their hetman, whose arrival caught the Thirteenth in a pincers maneuver.

    The legionaries held their own, but they were simply outgunned (or outleveled), especially since they had to face the two threats at once. The leader used a few potent control and defense spells and the laborers wielded their weapons well. Magnus Agrippa fell, as did Petellius, and Salvador surrendered before the remnant of the Thirteenth Legion was obliterated.

    Bring it on, Marduk.

    The players determined that these guys weren’t the “Sky Climbers,” but rather interlopers like themselves, using the facility to their own ends. They were certainly some sort of civilized folk – how odd in these savage lands! – because they took the characters prisoner and ultimately let them go with an understood promise to the hetman that they’d leave without further incident.

    To their benefit, the leader had them bound and revived in the map room, a domed room with much of the immediate geography of the Pagan Lands depicted on its ceiling. Also present was some sort of calendar or schedule that these individuals seemed to be using to predict the arrival of one of the floating sky-islands at the dock. Everyone had the wits to compare their current location with something on the dome-map that looked like it might be the signal tower their legion had originally sought. And they found a likely candidate.

    With a rough knowledge of where the signal tower that was the original destination of the Thirteenth Legion was located, the party forged east-northeastward. Before long they encountered a group of pilgrims pulling a reliquary on a two-wheeled cart in the foothills of the mountain range. Magnus Agrippa was worried that these might have been more of the leper-exiles from the first session, but such was not the case.

    This probably won't have a good result, either.

    What was the case, however, wasn’t much better. The reliquary contained a waxed-canvas “tub,” in which were swimming three creatures with fishlike bodies and malformed humanoid heads and faces. Magnus Agrippa recognized the pilgrims for what they were: Dagon-worshippers. The Empire had some familiarity with Dagon, but not to the degree that anyone in the Carcosa openly venerated it. The party traveled with the pilgrims for a brief period of time, but Salvador ultimately found them too abhorrent and the two groups parted ways.

    From their vantage point in the foothills, the Thirteenth could see what they had been looking for, which was the beacon of the signal tower. With this as their destination, they made slow but steady progress toward the coast and the tower. Within about two weeks of travel, they made the landmark.

    Here, they met Eumenesthes, who informed them that they were three hundred years ahead of themselves. As well, the “magic item” that Petellius had in his possession belonged to the “Sky Climbers,” who were not to have made their place in the Pagan Lands for a thousand years hence. After much consultation with Eumenesthes… well, the party didn’t learn much, and that’s by design. At present, I’m using him as a bit of a sage and a repository of information (he’s capable of teaching them the languages of the region, for example), but I want him to be neither backstory text dumper nor patron who solves problems when they’re brought to him. His timelessness is a bit of flavor and nothing more — it’s a way to characterize the weirdness of the world itself and the pieces of it. I don’t mind the players knowing that and I told Oscar as much. here’s not plot to prod or puzzle to solve there. Eumensethes isn’t a character whose tale needs solved. He’s a supporting character for the true story of the campaign, which is of course that of the PCs.

    The session ended on this sedate note, with the implication that the PCs would spend some of their time learning some of the tongues of the Pagan Lands.

     

    Pagan Lands: The Prismatic Tomb

    I’ve been working on a “dungeon” for the Pagan Lands this morning. It’s odd how the creative urge can seize a person. This all evolved from a typo I made yesterday. I don’t even remember what I was typing, but the result was the sinister-looking “ghuim clal” — which ultimately inspired this material. I tried to keep it as weird as the circumstances that spawned it. I worked in all the nifty things that make me loving gaming, such as references to real-world mythology, allusions to the weird literature I love, and acknowledgments of the close quarters kept by fantasy and sci-fi before the former meant “trilogy with maps” and the latter came to be characterized by bug-hunts in space. Lots of Vance in here.

    In going back over this, it’s not wedded to Swords & Wizardry or any specific retroclone or fantasy game, at least conceptually. Hell, this would make a fine Mage session, a weird psychosis episode of Vampire, some Kult freakshow, or whatever. Just tweak some of the details and presentation and you’re good to go.

    There are some references here to other, as yet unpublished Pagan Lands material. It shouldn’t be any big deal to substitute it for something relevant to your own campaign or chronicle, should you choose to use it.


    Inside a cavern lost deep within the Faraway Hills yawns a boundless void, in the vastness of which float seven motes of earth, each of which is the site of a strange individual or encounter. These islands floating in the void are visible — though sometimes barely — from the landing immediately inside the cavern. In the ancient tongue of Khem, this is Ghuim Clal, the Prismatic Tomb.

    The cavern landing is also home to a bizarre machine. It is a mechanical array of lenses set into a tall brass column, with a control panel that displays a row of buttons corresponding to the elemental colors of the rainbow. A single beam of light travels into the cavern from the outside, collected by a clear lens at the top of the brass column. If a PC presses one of the colored buttons, an armature moves a lens of that color into the path of the light, refracting only that color, which it then directs to the floating mote associated with that color. The color-path then becomes semi-solid, and characters may walk along it to the mote to which it connects.

    Once the last PC steps off the path, the refracted light dissipates, and the characters must remain on the floating island until they have resolved its encounter. To this end, each of the islands has a sculpted arch somewhere on its surface, with adornments suggesting those of the brass column. Only when the encounter is resolved suitably does that arch activate, containing a color-field of the same color as that which led to the floating island to begin with. Walking into the arch’s color field teleports the character back to the cavern landing with the brass rainbow device.

    Time does not pass for those who occupy the cavern of Ghuim Clal; its occupants grow no older while they occupy the Prismatic Tomb.

    Characters who overcome all of the trials of Ghuim Clal receive a very literally interpreted wish, which they must speak to the prismatic machine at the cavern landing. Only the first time the character completes the gauntlet does she receive this wish. Subsequent attempts to garner additional wishes instead result in the character being permanently, irreversibly stricken of one sense, which the GM decides or may determine randomly. (Note that it’s not actually possible to complete the gauntlet multiple times, as killing some of the creatures present in the encounter are necessary. Once the character tries to fulfill one of these labors again after receiving the wish, he is stricken of the sense.) Note that at no point are either the award of the wish or the punishment of the sensory deprivation communicated to the character at Ghuim Clal itself. Perhaps they may hear of such things through research, lore, or the wisdom of a great sage.

    Red Island: The Ghost of the Argosy

    As you approach the shipwreck, it punches you.

    Untold years ago, the Argosy made an ill-fated voyage into the bleak space in which the islands now float. Now the ruin of that ship, animated by the terrified emotional resonances of its drowned crew, viciously guards the floating island. It is massive, taking up half of the island’s mass, though it cannot move itself other than to attack. (Use the stats for a wood golem.) In the corpse-hold of the ruined Argosy lies a treasure of 20,000 gp and 30 amphorae of potent wine worth 1,000 per amphora.

    Defeating the shipwreck automaton activates the teleportation arch.

    Orange Island: The Drunkard and the Cursed Coin

    On this tiny mote, a man ravaged by time and alcohol sits at a small table, opposite which sits a single stool. On the table is a jug and a pair of clay cups.

    The man proposes a drinking contest, with the stakes being a single coin. He produces his own strange coin, unlike any other the PCs have ever seen, and waits for one of their number to match the wager. If one accepts, he pours two cups and the contest begins.

    The old drunkard drinks only a single cup, then waits for the PC to finish his. He then refuses to partake of any more. With a contented look on his face, he crosses his hands over his protuberant belly, and dies.

    The coin is cursed, and whomever won it is affected by its curse, whether or not he physically takes the coin. While under the coin’s curse, all of the character’s saving throws fail. The PC may not simply part with the coin. He must convince someone else to take it, whether by clever means or clear. (If the character doesn’t take the coin or somehow loses it, it will mysteriously find its way among his belongings until he passes on the curse.)

    Winning the cursed coin activates the teleportation arch.

    Yellow Island: The Mausoleum at Castle Bardo

    The only structure on this island is a tall granite cenotaph. An ashlar granite staircase descends into the ground in front of the cenotaph, which ends in the teleportation arch for this island (which always glows yellow; no special solution to any encounter is necessary). Upon the arch is chiseled the phrase:

    Although we may not master this world, we may bend it to our will by honing our art.

    This arch does not teleport those who pass through it back to the landing of the cavern. Instead, the arch teleports those who pass through it into the mausoleum at Castle Bardo (cf.).

    Green Island: The Witch

    Visitors to this largest of the floating islands will witness a great swath of verdure  that seams to roll like a wave over the surface of the mote, only to wither and die in the span of moments. The vegetation quickly climbs the various ruins and geographical features of the island, even tumbling over the side in the path of the river that flows from a humble crevice in the the surface of the island and spills into the greater void. Even the arch is occasionally overcome by the tangled vines

    The source of this vegetation is a great witch with skin like birch bark and the stature of a giant. Plant life erupts around her as she wanders the surface of the mote, madly and without rest. In her wake, however, the turbulent plants wither and die as she metaphorically and literally turns her back on the life she spawns.

    The witch is not aggressive, and is indeed so deranged that she probably doesn’t even notice the PCs. If she is attacked, however, she will certainly defend herself and attempt to slay any who have done her harm. Use the stats for a treant to reflect the witch, and describe the lush flora that overwhelms the characters as they fight her. (Each round of combat, a character has a 1 in 6 chance of being immobilized by vines and roots as the vegetation swarms him. He may spend his action breaking free without difficulty, but if he doesn’t, he’s still trapped the next turn.)

    Defeating the witch activates the teleportation arch.

    Blue Island: One Obol’s Fare

    This pocked and pitted island is the refuge of a lesser psychopomp with a fluttering, tattered shroud for a body and the sony skull of an ox for a head, in the pits of whose eyes glimmer two tiny, sickly green fires.

    Only two interactions are possible with the psychopomp. For the price of one obol (one gold piece, though it must take the form of a coin and the value must be exact — the warders of the dead do not make change), the spirit will activate the arch for one character’s passage back to the cavern landing. (He will do this as many times as he is paid his price, by whomever wishes it.) Alternatively, the psychopomp will slay without possibility of resurrection those who cannot or will not pay his price. The psychopomp is in no hurry; a character may tarry there on the island as long as he wishes. And of course, since time does not pass inside Ghuim Clal, this might well be eternity.

    Paying the obol activates the teleportation arch for one character (who need not be the character who paid the price…).

    Indigo Island: The Iron Tower

    A massive iron tower is the sole distinguishing feature of this floating mote. Entry into the tower is possible only through a breach in its exterior where it meets the surface of the island. Inside the tower are three bizarre “levels,” each of which is characterized by blocky furniture, doorways, and stairways that depend from the ceiling rather than the expected floor of the tower. In particular, the upside-down stairways are difficult to climb.

    Scattered throughout the tower (on the floor, instead of the ceiling, strangely) are 3,294 gp worth of the odd ceramic “guilder” coins (cf.) occasionally encountered elsewhere in the Pagan Lands. As well, an odd “crossbow” without a crossbar that fires without any bolts being placed in the absent prod is inside a metal chest bolted to the wall near the ceiling on the second level of the tower.

    On the third level of the tower, a glassy surface displays the face of a demon trapped within it, who makes a number of demands of characters who engage it in conversation.

    The demon’s demands are:

    • Throw a switch labeled in indecipherable runes on the first floor of the tower.
    • Remove the remains of the two warlocks who had bound the demon in service from wherever they are inside the tower. (The GM should decide where these remains are as well as their appearance and condition.)
    • Close all of the doors and press a sigil at the top of the stairs on the second level.
    • Fill an upside-down cauldron on the ceiling of the third floor with a combustible substance. (Any flammable substance will do.)
    • Speak an empyrean word of binding after each of the previous steps is complete, to free the demon from its prison.

    If the characters perform all of these demands, a gout of divinely hot flame will briefly burst from the top of the tower. Thereafter both the flame and the demon’s face on the prism surface will be extinguished. This will activate the arch.

    Violet Island: Graves of the Titan Slaves

    He resents your intrusion.

    This last island in the color spectrum is shaped like a giant humanoid curled inward upon itself in a horrible fetal position. A podium that stands on this island contains an aged book with a written account of the “last days of the titan slaves.” When a character reads the book, it imparts the following information.

    The minions of the vanished “lords” were creatures so infused with the magical energies wielded by their masters that their bodies refuse to decay. The “islands” floating in Ghuim Clal, this entropic void of the underworld, are the corpses of those titan slaves. The pages of the book crumble to dust and hang in the still air as the character reads them.

    Once the fate of the titan slaves has been revealed, the floating island-corpse shudders into hellish motion. It will attempt to crush or cast away any PCs who learn of the Prismatic Tomb’s secrets. The island-corpse attacks as an 8 HD creature, inflicting 4d8 damage on a successful attack. The DM may use whatever ruling he chooses to determine how characters might be hurled physically from the surface of the dead titan slave. The thing itself has no hit points, as it is already dead, and must be overcome by a noncombative resolution. Beneath the podium, a large violet gemstone lies encrusted in the surface of the island, dimly lit from within by a flickering light. Only by shattering this gemstone can the characters “kill” the corpse of the titan slave and activate the teleportation arch.

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