Sunday, July 30, 2023

King of Kings Session 15 After Action Report

Been too long since my last post, and even longer since the last session report! Had the first King of Kings session in a full year like a month ago, but kept on putting off writing the after action report until now. Gonna get back to posting more regularly soon hopefully!

A bit of a shorter expedition this time, while we were getting back into the swing of things; trying to get back into running a game after a year's absence is kinda hard!

Dramatis Personae
Coro the Esoterian, level one magic-user
Ishthyromeda the Small, level one amazon
Manchugo Coldeswain, level one cleric dedicated to Damir, foreign god of the trade routes
and Parsani, scrawny son of a rural matriarch
...and quite a few hirelings! 9 in total, 6 of which were thugs from the streets of Tabur, one of which was a light-bearer boy, another a girl from the dye works of Tabur, and another which was the most pious street beggar Manchugo could find

Yeah, the party decided to shell out for hirelings for the first time! This made the decision making calculus a bit different, though I think the full impact won't be seen until later sessions.

So after spending probably too long figuring out hirelings and resupply (I'll need to figure out some way to streamline that), the party went off to the abandoned farmstead beneath which they found, at the last session, a massive subterranean structure spiraling down into the earth. In addition to the new hirelings, they brought with them three pounds of salt, in preparation to confront the giant slug that blocked their path one week previous.

(Unfortunately not very long after getting to the depths, Ish's player had a bad headache and had to leave, so it was decided that Ishthyromeda and Parsani would stay guard at the group's wagon aboveground while the rest delved.)

First, they kept an eye out for the aforementioned giant slug, in roughly thirty minutes coming upon the very spot where the mollusk lay across the slick algal-coated stone causeway. There was no slug in sight, however, only a wide swash of faintly yellow slime on the wall that goes up the wall and then turns around; presumably the slug descended down from where it was previously. 


About another half hour later, slowly shuffling as a mass down the slimy walkway, the group heard an arthropoid chittering up ahead. Inching forward, the light of their torches revealed a pile of 13 trilobites! None of them had ever seen such strange bugs before, eyeless and mostly flat, tendrils flailing in the air. The things at first showed no interest in the group, but were attracted to the warmth of their torches as they approached. Coro lit a candle and threw it to the ground to distract them, while gesturing to the mercenaries and city youths to crawl around the arthropods single file, careful not to disturb them. It takes some time, but they ultimately are able to get around them.

Another twenty or thirty minutes later, having lost a few torches sputtering in the dark and forced to light new ones, they came across a square open tunnel in the wall of the structure. Before going in, Manchugo dropped an iron spike down the open side of the slimy walkway, to try and estimate how far down the bottom of the structure was. He only heard a distant wet splash after a full 45 seconds.

They then ventured into the square tunnel, flanked on either side by ancient metal doors with strange looking locks on them. The tunnel eventually made a hard turn to the right, right next to a door rusted off its hinges and with an insectile chittering behind it. Our adventurers decided to not deal with whatever was behind that door and ventured on, inspecting some of the metallic doors and finding little inside them but small dusty cells. Right before another right turn in the tunnel, they came across another door, this time with a wet burbling noise crawling out from within. As they approach the burbling room, they see a pitch black ooze clinging to the walls and filling up the floor in the little chamber, pushing the door out at its hinges, which immediately made them want to leave, despite the glittering emeralds revealed by the flickering torchlight that the slime recedes from. They were only able to force the door shut with the help of several of their hired thugs. 

The very sketchy map of this tunnel I drew since there was some confusion while describing it. The starred cell is the one with the insectile chirping, the crescent moon cell is the one with the burbling slime.
And that's where the session ended! Like I said, not a whole lot (which makes it doubly bad that it took me this long to finish writing this augh), but I'm just glad to have gotten back to King of Kings! The next session will open up in media res in the dungeon, picking up where we left off right after the second right turn in this tunnel.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Goin' Through the Fiend Folio Part 13 (Penanggalan to Qullan)

Been way too long on this! But, before we begin, I have to recognize a person very important to me, to Old School D&D, and to the Fiend Folio: Russ Nicholson.

Russ Nicholson, whose illustrations populate much of the Fiend Folio, passed away on May 10, 2023. His grotty, incredibly detailed art style is one of the most defining aesthetics in my mind for old school D&D, along with other great artists like Erol Otus, and more specifically an evocation of the messier, darker, more cynical, British approach to fantasy (he contributed art to Warhammer too!). Nicholson was active in making art for roleplaying games just about up to his passing, including Dungeon Crawl Classics, Old School Essentials, and Through Ultan's Door. The Fiend Folio was, I believe, my first exposure to Russ Nicholson's art, and the Fiend Folio was one of the first AD&D books I ever had; Nicholson's art was one of the major reasons I got so into old school D&D, a visual aesthetic that spoke to me and grabbed me. I think Nicholson has to be given credit for getting a lot of people into old school D&D, or at least contributing to the image and aesthetic of going on an adventure into a decrepit dungeon with strange monsters. Rest In Peace to Russ Nicholson, we've lost a truly great artist and contributor to D&D and other roleplaying games.

A great example of art by Russ Nicholson!

The penanggalan is a longtime personal favorite monster of mine, ever since I first found out about it from a now ancient article on! The image of a pale woman's head flying through the sky, entrails hanging down below, sucking blood and killing children through the thatched roofs of houses is just the best, and the idea of it being a normal woman during the day and leaving her body behind at night provides a fantastic narrative and seed for adventure. Malay vampires (and really Malay folklore monsters in general) are really cool, I might make some posts statting some more up. But uh... does this need a full page and a half of description??? This is, unfortunately, probably the most unwieldy and long monster description for any AD&D monster. A PAGE AND A HALF!! I do not think that the specifics of whether the penanggalan was a cleric when she was alive, or what a know alignment spell will do when cast on it, or the feeblemind effect of seeing the transformation from human woman to flying undead head, or the slow and steady effect of the penanggalan's feeding, its hypnosis, etc etc etc, none of that is necessary in this amount of detail. The penanggalan as written is an adventure in and of itself, a specific narrative arc that progresses from it selecting a victim to the victim's death and aftermath, and there's barely any deviation from that path other than "the party figures out its a penanggalan and fights and kills it OR finds the body and kills it." I can't believe the Fiend Folio, otherwise a great monster book, completely ruined one of the world's greatest folkloric creatures by making it a damn railroad. This is a 5/5 monster brought down to 2/5 by how awful the implementation is. Just cleave close to the folklore and keep it simple!!! That's all I ask!!

More Russ!

Now THIS is a great and well implemented monster! A large, grasshopper like insect that dwells in deserts, prized for its water divining antennae but dangerous because of its deathgrip pincers. Sweet, simple, and effective. I think giving an animalistic monster some body part that is prized or valuable, whether monetarily or for a directly applicable use, is one of the best ways to make an otherwise mundane animal relevant to the players, and the pernicon's water divining antennae are a great example of the latter. Its antennae vibrate and give off a low hum when within 120 feet of water; very useful in a desert, especially if you're actually going to make water matter to the player characters! The pincers are also delightfully terrible, only dealing 3 points of damage but also taking a point of constitution from "drain[ing] the water and other body fluids from the victim,"; AND this repeats every round! The pernicon's pincers don't just let up, even after the victim dies it will continue to grip, and forcibly removing it will only deal an additional 1d4 damage. That might not sound like much, but these guys are encountered in numbers of 4 to 40! Nasty, but reasonably so! Also, interestingly enough, they are listed as semi intelligent, and the delightfully rendered Russ Nicholson illustration has its hand raised as if it were giving a speech; the description doesn't really describe them as intelligent, but that could be an interesting angle to take.

Phantom Stalker
Not really that interesting. Basically just a weird summonable fire elemental that serves the summoner and, when the summoner is killed, disappears only to reappear "intent on vengeance" 1d4 hours later. They can shapeshift, are immune to fire and weak to cold, deal fire damage, yadda yadda. Nothing super notable. I like how the illustration makes them look like a kind of weird B movie monster, though. Very rubber suit esque. The description only calls their typical form a "reddish, 8' tall humanoid with huge fiery eyes," so I'm glad the illustrator went in this more alien direction.

Very basic, but very effective. Yet another type of ghost (it's almost comical how AD&D statted up every synonym for "ghost" as a completely separate monster—ghost, specter, apparition, etc etc etc), but in this case it feels more earned since a poltergeist is such a specific image: an invisible ghost that can only act on the physical environment, throwing objects around. That the Folio poltergeist can't even deal damage with its thrown objects is kinda funny; all a successful hit does is cause a fear effect that makes the target flee, with a chance of dropping objects they are holding. I like fear effects and effects that force the PC to flee, they're fun. Otherwise, just another incorporeal undead; but does it need to be much more? A poltergeist can just be an immaterial force that throws stuff around! I think I might not stat it up though, treat it more like a room hazard; giving it HP feels kind of wrong.

Protein Polymorph
What a name!!! This hearkens back, to me at least, to some of the more sci-fi inspirations to early D&D; a "protein polymorph" feels like something that could have appeared in an episode of Star Trek or something. But what actually is it? Well, its a colonial organism made up of intelligent single cells that can take on the appearance of anything, including inanimate objects, living beings, even Groups of living beings (its described as joining these independent bodies together by a near invisible cord or film of protoplasm which is just so cool). So, it's a weirder doppelgänger with a wider range of transformative abilities. Not the most distinct niche for a monster, given the whole slew of other imitation creatures that already exist in D&D, but I think the weird colonial single celled organism angle and its ability to imitate groups of living creatures make it a bit more interesting. Also, it can't imitate noises nor accurately recreate facial expressions, which provides a much clearer way to identify whether something is an imitation; I always wonder how the hell you're supposed to figure out a doppelgänger is a doppelgänger. Really, I kinda think this is just a 2/5 creature, but it being a slime mold and the ability to imitate a group of creatures connected by a film of protoplasm bumps it up a star for me. I'm a sucker for a gooey guy.

Kinda mid. Yet another tribal humanoid monster that dwells underground, except this time they are mysterious pale shaggy humanoids that uh... wait a minute, why not just use white apes? Yeah, literally just use white apes. These guys are just apemen except no they're not apemen they're like, weird little eared bear men, murderous care bear types. They have leaders, they wield axes and swords, they berserk when they reach a certain HP threshold (that part is at least kind of interesting I guess), and they hate surface dwelling elves and... become slaves of the drow to assist in their war on elves? That's really weird. Why wouldn't they just be allies of the dark elves? Why slaves? That feels weird, justifying themselves... enslaving themselves to the dark elves? Weird. I would just use like, white ape men or something.

These are cold water piranhas. The description even explicitly calls them that. They are bloodthirsty and swarm ravenously if blood is spilt, up to twenty can attack a human sized target at once and it has an... incredibly cumbersome way to handle that. At first I thought it was pretty interesting, since it involved rolling a percentile die to see how many even attempt to attack, but as it turns out you still end up needing to roll an individual attack roll for every single damn fish. That's so stupid. By the way, did you know piranhas don't really do the whole "swarm uncontrollably if even a bit of blood is spilt in the water" thing? Piranhas don't actually devour large animals like humans, cows, etc to the bone under normal circumstances. That myth originated in a piranha attack coordinated by Brazilian fishermen when Theodore Roosevelt visited the country on a hunting trip in 1913 (they blocked off parts of the river and didn't feed them for a very long time so that they would be desperate for meat when they threw a cow into the water) and he wrote about it in a book that he published the next year, popularizing the image of the piranha as a killer fish for American audiences. Having a killer fish is valuable for a D&D bestiary, of course, but this implementation is boring.

Unfortunately also a Russ Nicholson... they can't all be winners

Uh oh!! Uh oh!!! This one looks really racist! A "seemingly insane" race of humanoids that just so happen to... wear animal skins and warpaint? Very unfortunate! I think this, along with the quaggoth, is another great example of the unnecessary inflation of different humanoid types in AD&D; when you get down to it, this is just a pretty overtly weirdly racist humanoid monster. Well, with the exception of its Two Kind Of Interesting Ideas. So, Qullans exude an aura of confusion that causes all attempts at communication and interchange between them and other intelligent peoples to fail; I fear that this is just a weird justification for unquestionable violence directed toward them, but I can't help but find the idea of a whole group of people cursed to supernaturally confuse those around them just interesting! Maybe that supernatural confusion is the cause of their seeming "insanity"? Also, they have swords that are so sharp that they deal +3 damage and have +3 to hit, and if someone manages to get one of these swords the bonuses sticks around... until the sword gets blunted, and unfortunately due to the confusion effect ruining all attempts at communication, nobody knows how they keep their swords so sharp. That's kinda cool actually! Very intriguing! I generally think that making bonuses be from nonmagical stuff is pretty cool, to keep magic sticking to the really genuinely weird stuff, and connecting this mysterious sharpness to their confusion effect makes it all feel very tight conceptually. Too bad its uh, really weird and unnecessary otherwise. This is really a 1/5 monster, but the combination of the confusion effect and the super sharp swords nets it another sword; I'm just more likely to steal those ideas for something else than use this monster as is.

Monday, May 22, 2023

The World of King of Kings: A Brief Timeline and the Enlightened Empire

7th century silver and gold bowl depicting a King of Kings hunting

I've been meaning to get back on writing King of Kings posts, namely world building posts to fill in a lot of the big foundational gaps that have been left in my approach to writing about it on the blog up to now. So here we have a series of posts about the major empires and states of the KoK world, beginning with a brief timeline and description of the Enlightened Empire, the vast realm in which KoK is set. There'll be six of these polity posts, so look out for those when they come by!

But, to begin with, a bit of a reflection. I'm constantly struggling to balance my love for writing world building detail, evocative elements, and things that bring verisimilitude to a setting, with the need to primarily write things that can actually be gameable or primarily just contribute to inspiration rather than telling a referee or reader exactly what to do with a setting. That's been on my mind for a while, but was most clearly brought forward with Prismatic Wasteland's post Lore! What is it Good For? I really want to write lore, in a broad sense, for King of Kings, but also not just make it a boring Forgotten Realms Dragonlance Mystara gazetteer y'know? So, my hope in these posts is to try and strike a balance. Future posts in this series will center on things like character backgrounds, random encounters, and rumors about a given part of the world from the perspective of those in the eastern satrapies. While I'll be writing about places that can be really far afield from where my game currently is, the goal is to always tie things back to the needs of the game.

This first post won't have as much of that, because it is about the very empire that the King of Kings game is set in; it will be given much more detail in plenty of more posts about the game!

Noah and his Ark, from a 16th century Mughal miniature

[This is meant as a small set of events to anchor the world's history on, not a comprehensive history that players would need to memorize.]
Roughly 1,000 years ago, the dreadful Sea Tyrants flooded the world with their sinister star magic, in a last ditch attempt to seize control of all the world. This is the start of history, as before the Deluge there are only vague myths, and a world almost unrecognizable. The First City, now capital of the Enlightened Empire, was able to survive the Deluge with magic stolen for them by a promethean Traitor Frog, ancestor of the Froglings, ensuring the survival of humanity and other land animals. In the Empire of the Great East, they have a different telling; that a sagely lord and his family went to the top of the tallest mountain in the world and made a deal with a great Olm and a Dragon to channel the waters into the Great East's two rivers, draining the land before it could even flood completely.

The below is a general timeline of years since the Deluge:
0-150: The Age of Heroes, wherein half mythic warriors and newly born sorcerers began to seize holdings for themselves, slay lingering batrachian horrors left all over by the Deluge, and scout out the first spells and rituals.
150-400: The Age of Tyrants, wherein the sons and daughters of the Heroes rule arbitrarily and with the legitimacy of their Heroic descent. Tyrant is here meant not solely as a pejorative, though many rulers in this period were murderous despots. Kingdoms rise and fall. This era is when the Dinosaur Kings ruled over what are now the eastern satrapies.
400: Invasion of the Conquering King, wherein the great Ruler of the World conquered most of the known world (other than the Empire of the Great East), from his island homeland in the western archipelago. He would die without an heir and leave his world empire to his generals.
400-500: The Wars of the Successors.
500: The Mountain Uprising which established the Enlightened Empire.
500-800: Golden Age of the Enlightened Empire, the Great Three-Coin Age
800-850: The Fifty Years' Crisis, wherein the Enlightened Empire was brought low by the invasions of the Gnostic Elves to the west and the nomad confederation led by the Amazons from the north, along with a rebellion within its own territory. 
850-present: The Never-ending War with the Gnostic Elves, the Rule of the Kanarang in the east, the Enlightened Empire as it is today.

Ardashir I receiving the ring of power from Ahura Mazda

The Enlightened Empire is a monarchy under the rule of the King of Kings (or Shahanshah), currently a boy of only 9 years named Khosrau III (in the East, he is more commonly known as "He Whose Face is on the Coins"). Ostensibly an absolute monarch, power is in reality delegated to and mediated by a number of lesser authorities, most notably the Satraps that govern the provinces on behalf of the Shahanshah. There are more than a dozen such petty rulers in the satrapies, and an even greater number of lesser leaders, ranging from tribal chiefs to village matriarchs to temple priests and priestesses. The satrap of Elburz satrapy, where the King of Kings campaign is currently set, is an aged former warrior named Gholam Ruyanian, who also serves as the urbanarch of the city of Tabur. The satraps of other satrapies will be detailed when those provinces are described.

While the boy King of Kings plays and studies in the echoing halls of the great palace in the First City, ultimate rule is truly in the hands of two authorities in an uneasy alliance. The boy sovereign's mother governs in his stead, keeping the peace in the First City, greatest city in the whole of the world, with her diplomacy, alliances, and temple obligations. This dowager empress, regent of the greatest empire in the whole of the world, is the most powerful person in the world. However, in the East, there sits the black gloved tyrant, the Kanarang, military governor of the whole of the East. The position of Kanarang was established in the days of the Fifty Years' Crisis, to crush the intrusions of the Amazons, Dog Headed Men, and other Barbarian Nomad Tribes, and since then he has ruled the East. Whatever lines may be drawn on parchment in the libraries and thronerooms of the First City, the East is not truly divided into sovereign satrapies; they are all under the authority of the Kanarang. The Kanarang is a traveling tyrant, always astride his black horse, with his men and their hangers on in tow.

Khosrow II Parwiz on his throne, by 3d artist Joan Francesc Olivera

In the First City, the boy King of Kings sits upon a wooden throne emblazoned with jewels. Next to him stands his mother, and flanking them both are the thrones of the other great rulers of the world: the Moon Emperor of the Great East, the King of the Straits, and, more recently, the Kings of the Southern Dog Headed Men and of the Gnostic Elves. These other four thrones are set at lower heights than the Shahanshah's throne; were they to ever meet in the First City, they would be forced to look up to His Most Glorious and Enlightened Magnanimity, Blessed by Truth and Sunlight.

The symbol of the King of Kings' authority is the Huma bird, whose shadow bestows royalty. A high flying Huma is kept in a cage in the First City, and a ceremony is held shortly before the Shahanshah's coronation where the bird's shadow passes over the crown prince. If the bird refuses to fly over the Mirza, this forebodes doom; anything bad happening to the Imperial Huma is an evil omen.

The inscription of Kartir, most influential Zoroastrian priest in the early Sasanian Empire, at Naqsh-e Rajab

Closely intertwined with temporal authority are the spiritual authorities, the Temple Bureaucracy of the True Religion, official state religion of the Enlightened Empire. It would perhaps be most accurate to describe the Enlightened Empire as a coalition made up of the Imperial system centered on the King of Kings and the Temple hierarchy of the True Religion (the Kanarang is a newer element but could be considered the third pillar of the state, as the premier military leader in an age dominated by armies). The True Religion has as its major centers a number of ancient cities and temples in the Southern Heartland satrapy, where the Mountain Rebellion that founded the Enlightened Empire began, along with the First City. A whole hierarchy of mobads, herbads, and other priests administer state sacrifices and official rituals, maintaining proper practice in order to sustain the Enlightened Empire, under the beloved light of the Sun, manifestation of Truth. Further afield from the core of the Empire, religious practice and belief becomes more heterodox; in the King of Kings campaign, religious life is a mix of official authority, unusual local practices (from the perspective of the core), and heretical sects.

[I'll make a post about religion in King of Kings at some later point. The interactions between a hierarchical state religion and a number of more vaguely defined local practices on the hinterlands of empire is a topic that fascinates me, and I want to communicate that in KoK. I don't want the True Religion to be Too much of just a "fantasy Zoroastrianism," but a lot of that is kind of inevitable (the name "The True Religion" even comes from late antique Zoroastrianism, terming itself "The Good Religion").]

A Sasanian era mosaic from Bishapur

1: Khosrau III, boy King of Kings, delights in torture and mockery. He ties the legs of prisoners and peasants to gryphons and lets them fly in opposite directions, clapping and laughing as the gore rains down from the sky.
2: Khosrau III, boy King of Kings, has a terrible sickness that will likely keep him from reigning for much longer.
3: Khosrau III, boy King of Kings, is a kind hearted soul who loves animal life; there is a constant need for new pets for the curious child.
4: The queen mother has been taken in by a long bearded wilderness wiseman in a horsehair robe, who claims to be able to teach her son sorcery.
5: The harem-in-waiting for the boy shah is currently open to women (and eunuchs, who may be impressed into the guard corps); perhaps an in into court life?
6: The queen mother attempted to appoint a priest at the Holy Mountain in Elburz Satrapy that would be friendly to state interests, but the Kanarang kidnapped the appointee.
7: The uncle of the boy King of Kings is a repugnant pervert who lords over a personal estate in the hills outside the First City, casting an evil shadow over the city in his impurity.
8: A son of House Manati [keepers of the Parrot Fiends!] is kept as a hostage in the imperial palace, not allowed to leave the palace complex.


A very sketchy map of the Enlightened Empire; also, south is on the top here!

I don't think I should outline the geography in too much detail, especially since I've already zoomed in on the geography of the Eastern Satrapies in a previous post

Briefly, though:
  • West of the Enlightened Empire is the Empire of the Gnostic Elves, across the Pazu river, where the Never-ending War has been ongoing for the past 150 years.
  • the Pazu Rud and Arvand Rud form the lowland riverine section of the Empire's heartland. Sitting at the confluence of the Pazu and Arvand is the First City, greatest and most ancient city in the world.
  • Just east are the mountains of the plateau, namely the Heartland Satrapies in the south, which form the highland section of the Empire's heartland.
  • South of the Heartland Satrapies is the Ocean. East are the Hinterland Satrapies which border on the Empire of the Southern Dog Headed Men.
  • North of the Heartland Satrapies is the Kavir-e Bozorg, that desiccated desert which forms the dead center of the Enlightened Empire and divides north from south.
  • North of the Kavir-e Bozorg are the World's Edge Mountains, along with the Wall of the Conquering King, which keeps the giants and barbarians of the Land of Darkness out of the lands of the south.
  • Northeast of the Kavir-e Bozorg are the Eastern Satrapies, Elburz and Numistan.
  • North of the Eastern Satrapies are the Sea of Giants, the Hinterbog, and the Realm of the Client King, that nomad subject of the Shahanshah and Kanarang.
The Empire of the Gnostic Elves
The Kingdom of the Straits
The Kingdom of the Southern Dog Headed Men
The Empire of the Great East
The King of the Nomads
Lesser States

Wednesday, April 12, 2023


Hey so remember in the product identity monsters post from like, way back in December I mentioned that I was gonna make a part 2 riffing on an alternate name for the Beholder that Warren of Prismatic Wasteland came up with? Yeah I never posted that huh. Well anywho, here it is!

Fear the dread PANOPTIKHAN, the Scourge of Gods Underneath, the All-Seeing Eye, the War-Bek of Cave-Mules! Tremble before his twelve fingered majesty, great and terrible Lord of the Conjunction!

Number Encountered: 1
Hit Dice: 9
Attacks: 6 tentacles (1d6) + 1 eye beam (see below) OR 1 feeding (see below)
Armor: as leather and shield (as chain and shield on horseback)
Morale: 10
Horde Lord: The panoptikhan [or panoptikhans, if one wishes this to be a whole race of creatures] rules over a subterranean horde, made up primarily of whatever poor underground dwellers the scourge impressed into service. There will be at least two deputy beks which command sections of the panoptikhan's horde and delegate authority from him.
Mounted: Frequently found riding horses or cave-mules, especially when leading a section of its horde. 
Paranoiavore: The panoptikhan feeds on feelings on paranoia and anxiety through the many eyes on its towering stalk. In combat, if the panoptikhan chooses not to use its eye beam, it can instead choose to feed on any fear or anxiety in any target within view; if it feeds on the worry of a combatant, they must make a Save vs. Overconfidence [I'd probably make that a Save vs. Wands for the five saving throw categories, I just like having kind of silly overly specific saving throws] or begin acting brashly and without thinking, possibly putting themself or others in danger.
All-Seeing Eye Beam: In combat, if the panoptikhan choose not to feed on the worry of a being within view, it can instead choose to release excess waste emotion in the form of an eye beam fired from the singular eye on the top of its stalk. The target of the eye beam must make a Save vs. Anxiety or begin breaking down, laying down their weapons and attempting to flee.
Weaponry: The panoptikhan typically fights with his bare tentacles, but can wield melee weapons, most commonly sabres and pikes.

The panoptikhan is a malformed and monstrous thing which feeds on feelings of paranoia, anxiety, and worry and, in service of providing itself with a neverending supply of paranoid, anxious, and worrisome underlings to feed on, it establishes a warrior host which roves the tunnels and caverns underground, capturing more half-men and underground dwellers along the way. While perhaps a more straightforward prison scenario would instill a constant feeling of paranoia in its prisoners, the panoptikhan's horde provides enough contrasting feeling to allow the scourge to not be glutted with fear and worry, and to give the warlord something which even towers of unblinking eyes need: a feeling of accomplishment.

It is an eight foot tall spindly tower of wide staring eyes atop a cone-shaped base ringed by six tentacles tipped with two-fingered "hands." It also is fond of horseback riding.

Think a Tomyris, Attila, Chinggis Khan, or Timur if they were also a tentacle monster.

I originally came up with this design back when Warren was workshopping alternate, product-identity free names for the copyrighted D&D monsters like the beholder. I said, if I remember correctly at least, that I really liked the name panoptikhan, but that it evoked some kind of monster which took on the role of a steppe warlord in a dungeon environment moreso than the floating sphere of baleful eyes that is the beholder. When I got back to the concept, I just incorporated the "feeding on anxiety" thing as another element on there, taking cues from Jeremy Bentham's original Panopticon (which is also in the design pretty obviously); felt like it needed some extra power/ability, and I think that adds a fun extra dimension to the concept.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

A Forgotten Monster: The Cruel Jackdog

I've shared some of my love and appreciation for the monstrous creations of the early D&D hobby before; the original creatures of referees from the late seventies have been a regular appearance in my Fiend Folio review series (which, as an aside, will return shortly; apologies for the lull in posting). But what I have not been able to share with you all, until now, has been anything truly new, truly undiscovered, truly forgotten to the annals of history... but I (or, rather, my girlfriend) made a discovery! You see, her dad was one of the founders of the fanzine Factsheet Five, one of the early SciFi/Fantasy fanzines, and in that capacity he acquired or was sent an extensive amount of material related to SFF fandom, including Dungeons and Dragons material. Most of the actual zine material is now in an archive in New York, but a lot of the D&D stuff has been handed off to my girlfriend in big cardboard boxes, things that he used in his games or that didn't make it into the zine itself. In going through this collection of material on the early days of the RPG hobby, she found the following creature, sent to Mike Gunderloy by a certain David "Dinkie" Rizzle, an obscure early hobby personality.

Below is the text reproduced in full.

The Cruel Jackdog
Hit Dice: 3
Armor Class: 5
Move: 9"
IQ: 1d6+2
Dext.: 2d6+4
% Lair: 45%
No. Enctd.: 2-24
Alignment: Animal (Chaos)
Attacks: 3 (claw/tail/bite)
Description: Waiste [sic] high reptilian doggies with sharp hooked beaks and featherless wings like a chicken wing, a knifelike spike on the tip. Orignally [sic] dwelling in fetid swamps and sweaty jungles, cruel jackdogs became favorite pets of evil figures like evil MUs and warlords. They are sadistic little shits with a penchant for toying with prey before eating it, and tend to hoard shiny objects. Evil owners of cruel jackdogs often use them as scouts to go out and snatch stuff up to bring back to them. Cruel jackdogs can climb on walls and ceilings with their hooked feet, and will use that to sneak up on interlopers. Their bite is rife with bacteria that will cause any successful hit with the bite to fester, the limb liable to rot off. Their tail spikes can hit multiple targets at once with a swipe, spreading damage rolled between them. Anyone who casts speak with animal [sic] to talk with a cruel jackdog must save vs. wands or be overwhelmed by the freakishly fast thoughts of the jackdog and succumb for 1d6 rounds. They can flare their ears and scream for a fear effect, test hireling morale; if they scream, they lose their bite and claw attack that round.

Note for Mike: Hey man, heard you were wondering about the monsters from my campaign back in Milwaukee. Figured I could at least send a couple your way. Here's one of the oldest, from around when I left Gary's game to start my own. He gave me the mini for this guy at least, I guess that was nice of him. Hope you get some use out of it!



Unfortunately it seems we don't have the other monsters that Mr. Rizzle sent to Mr. Gunderloy, or at least can't find them as of right now. What we do know, at least, from both this document and other available sources on the mysterious Dinkie Rizzle is that he was a player in Gary Gygax's Greyhawk campaign, albeit likely not one of the earliest batch of players. From the "note for Mike" at the bottom of the document, we can tell that he left Gary's game to start his own campaign; not uncommon for the Twin Cities scene at the time, where obviously Arneson had a preexisting game before Gygax, and a number of Gygax's other players also refereed. But it seems that the parting between Gygax and Rizzle was not on the best of terms; there is no mention here of Rizzle returning to play in Gygax's Greyhawk game, and, while maybe this is me reading into it a bit, the aside "I guess that was nice of him" implies to me that he felt Gygax was hostile to him, the only good thing he gave Rizzle being the miniature for the cruel jackdog.

I think it may be possible that Rizzle and Gygax split over personal conflict that manifested itself in fundamental rules disagreements. Notice how idiosyncratic the cruel jackdog stat block is; it incorporates verbiage from OD&D Monsters and Treasure, of course, but lacks a treasure type listing and, most importantly, features IQ and Dexterity. And, unlike in the AD&D Monster Manual, Intelligence here is not listed using an adjective, but with a dice expression! I think that these elements of the stat block show influence from the Perrin Conventions, the rules overhaul for D&D written by Steve Perrin of RuneQuest fame. The Perrin Conventions were before RuneQuest's time, however, and were first widely published in Chaosium's All the World's Monsters in 1977, shortly before the publication of the AD&D Monster Manual. There, every monster has an Intelligence and Dexterity score, sometimes expressed as a static number, sometimes a dice range. Perhaps Dinkie Rizzle had taken an interest in Perrin's attempt at a more "realistic" D&D combat, to the chagrin of Gygax, and started his own campaign to allow him to use elements of the Perrin Conventions, divorced of their original California context, in the heart of the hobby: the Twin Cities.

And what about that miniature Rizzle mentioned? He says that Gary gave it to him, so the ultimate source for the creature must be Gygax, by way of whatever he was using as miniatures. Here's my theory: I think Dinkie Rizzle's cruel jackdog is inspired by one of the "chinasaurs", a set of plastic figurines from Hong Kong that were likely inspired by kaiju from Ultraman (which, as an aside, is one of my favorite shows ever, watched it a lot as a kid). These little plastic figures have a bit of fame in the old school D&D community, since they are the seeming origin of a number of original D&D monsters, such as the bulette and rust monster. However, the chinasaur derived creatures in the AD&D Monster Manual are only a selection of the complete set of figurines; what happened to the other chinasaurs? Did they ever play a part in inspiring a monster in the early days of the hobby?

To be specific, there is one chinasaur in particular that I believe is the origin of Rizzle's cruel jackdog. This guy:

Unfortunately, there's no illustration to go along with the document so I can't confirm for certain that this specific chinasaur is the inspiration, but based on the line about it being a mini from Gygax and elements of the description ("reptilian doggies with sharp hooked beaks and featherless wings like a chicken wing", "Cruel jackdogs can climb on walls and ceilings with their hooked feet", "they can flare their ears", also the mention of a tail attack), I'm pretty confident that it has to be this one. No other figure from the chinasaur set has all of these discrete elements. It's gotta be this guy.

So, to bring it all together:
The cruel jackdog was an original monster made by David "Dinkie" Rizzle for his campaign in Milwaukee, most likely in 1977 or 1978, given 1977 was the year All the World's Monsters came out and made the Perrin Conventions widely available. They were only even created in 1976, and at that time they were only used at DRAGONCON 1 in San Francisco, so no dice on them getting to Rizzle all the way in Milwaukee. Rizzle was a player in Gygax's Greyhawk game (who seems to have traveled from Milwaukee to Lake Geneva just to play in Gygax's game?), who left that campaign and started his own when he and Gygax butted heads, presumably beginning with some personal slight that then expressed itself in game mechanics disagreements. Despite the breakup, Gygax had given Rizzle one of his chinasaurs as a mini, presumably one that Gygax didn't intend on using, which explains why this toy never made it into the Monster Manual or Fiend Folio. And then, some time well after all of this happened, Mike Gunderloy asked Rizzle for some of the monsters from his campaign, and that document ended up in a box collecting all of his TTRPG material from the early hobby, and ended up in the hands of my girlfriend and then on my blog!
Wanted to try my hand at drawing one of these guys!

While this curiosity isn't the most representative item from the Gunderloy collection that is currently in my girlfriend's possession, I figured it'd be something of interest to you all, especially those among you who are dedicated Rizzle sleuths, trying to put together the life story of quite possibly the most obscure figure in the early D&D scene. Hope this small contribution helps!

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Product Identity Schmoduct Schmidentity

 My friend and colleague over at Prismatic Wasteland made a post recently all about coming up with non OGL names for those monsters considered Product Identity by Wizards of the Coast and the Open Gaming License. Check out that post over here! But I noticed some... discrepancies, which left me an opportunity for a post in response.

So the whole premise of Mr. Wasteland's post over there is going through the whole list of Product Identity monsters, cataloguing which legally acceptable names have been used by other games over the years, and coming up with the best new name to use. But I noticed two monsters that I thought were listed as Product Identity which weren't included: the Kuo Toa and the Slaad. Now, this is where the discrepancy comes in. Turns out there's some inconsistency in the listings of Product Identity on different versions of the OGL/websites that refer to the OGL. Namely, the OGL document that he referred to did not include the Kuo toa nor the slaad, but I found them on the d20 SRD, and on multiple online references to the OGL... so what is the truth? It would seem that the law says you can use Kuo Toa and Slaad just fine, but the SRD and just about all online mentions of it include those two. What a conundrum!

But really, who cares? I sure don't! What's more interesting than the question of whether WotC considers these two monsters to be Product Identity is just talking about the monsters themselves and coming up with names for them!

Kuo Toa
I already wrote out my thoughts about the Kuo Toa here in an earlier entry in the Goin' Through the Fiend Folio series [which, as an aside, will make a return soon!]. Suffice to say, I think they're my favorite of the many piscine humanoids in AD&D, perhaps tied only with the morkoth.

Dwiz over at A Knight at the Opera has already begun a list of names for Kuo Toa over here in his response to Warren, including the classic Deep Ones from Lovecraft and Darkest Dungeon's Pelagics. Old School Essentials Advanced Fantasy also uses the term Deep Ones, although they drop some of the more interesting elements of the Kuo Toa lore from the Fiend Folio, basically just making them underground dwelling fishmen led by cultic clerics. A great archetype nonetheless of course! OSRIC, meanwhile, appears to have made an attempt at dodging the Kuo Toa problem; I can't find them or anything like them in the OSRIC monster listing, despite including both of AD&D's other main fishmen types [Locathah and Sahuagin] as well as a number of other monsters from the Fiend Folio. Same for Labyrinth Lord. What gives?!? The Kuo Toa are much much more interesting fishmen than the alternatives, why are they just avoiding them. Outside the realm of retroclones, Pathfinder has the Skum as their replacement for the underground dwelling fishmen niche that the Kuo Toa hold in D&D.

(As an aside, as I was scrolling through a PDF of Advanced Labyrinth Lord, I noticed that while they avoided including the Kuo Toa at all, they renamed the thoul of all things, instead calling it a "throghrin". That is SUCH a terrible name, literally why would you use that fantasy gibberish vaguely orcish sorta name instead of the weird Thoul... I just really like thouls, so I figured I'd comment on it.)

If I'm being completely honest, while I really like iconic well established names like Deep Ones for the Kuo Toa, I am not inclined to use them personally. I'm honestly just more likely to call them fishmen, or even more likely gillmen. I am a Universal monster movie kid after all! Perhaps another option for the Kuo Toa could be something evoking their dark, cultic, superstitious nature... maybe paranoiacs? Yeah, I think I like that. It makes them feel less like dark masters a la Lovecraft's Deep Ones and more like paranoid cultists. The Kuo Toa aren't really their own masters in the Drow series adventures anyway! Perhaps they could be godmakers (of no relation to the Frank Herbert novel of the same name) due to their psychic ability to create their own gods in physical form.

A green Slaad, despite appearances

Oooooohh the slaad. I will save sharing my more detailed thoughts on these nefarious toadies for the future Fiend Folio review post that will feature them, but suffice to say I quite like them. My first introduction to them was actually in the very first D&D book I ever personally owned, the D&D 4e Monster Manual 2, which uh... was not necessarily the best introduction to the game. Nor was it the best form of the Slaad, but I think the basic idea was impressed on me. They ultimately fit into the honestly unnecessary taxonomic impulse in AD&D, as the chaotic neutral inhabitants of the plane of Limbo, but other than that they are honestly more interesting paranormal inhabitants of the outer realms than most demons and devils! Weird sadistic chaotic frogs, coming in a variety of types, led by [in the Fiend Folio version] a strange skeletal warlord riding on a dragon? Vastly prefer these guys to Asmodeus. 

A red Slaad

Now, the Slaad seem to not be featured in the bestiaries of Advanced Labyrinth Lord or Old School Essentials Advanced Fantasy. They also aren't featured in OSRIC, but strangely enough there is a type of devil called "Scaly Devil" that has almost the same colored subtypes as the Slaad; otherwise they don't have anything in common with the Slaad so I'm honestly just confused. They also don't appear in Pathfinder, where instead the inhabitants of Limbo are the serpentine Proteans. A crying shame that it seems most games aren't interested in including these kooky guys!

On to the new names: maybe something emphasizing their amphibian nature... battletoads, perhaps?

Or well, maybe chaos frogs is more honest than a reference to the classic 1991 beat 'em up. To me that evokes the chaos dwarfs from Warhammer Fantasy, a personal favorite of their lesser appreciated armies. If one wants a name in keeping with the sinister otherworldly vibes of the name Slaad, maybe one part or the other of the line from Aristophanes' The Frogs: Brekekekex koax koax. More than a bit unwieldy, but maybe that's the point. I could see Brekekekex koax koax as the proper name for these off brand Slaad, while mortals, fearful of their sadistic mischief, call them some more mundane like chaos toads or something more direct like The Terrors. Otherworldly entities like these are a fantastic opportunity for having a more esoteric name only used by wizards and other spirits and a name used in more normal conversation.

As an aside, isn't it interesting how overrepresented the Fiend Folio is among the product identity monsters? Four on the list are FF originals: Kuo Toa, Slaad, Githyanki, and Githzerai. And only one of those was created by Gary! I find it kinda interesting how, in the case of the slaad and gith, the creations of British fans ended up treated as important copyright by a company that at the time didn't even exist.

Coming Up Next
I'm not quite done with Mr. Warren Wasteland's Product Identity post just yet. Coming up next is going to be a new original monster, an alternate take on his alternate name for a beholder, panoptikhan. Along with that, on an unrelated note, will be the return of the Goin' Through the Fiend Folio series, picking back up with the Penanggalan!

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The Taste Testers (A Monster for Gamma World)

Oozing along the crumbled alleyways of Gamma Ohio are the pitiful taste testers, half mobile and half intelligent, vaguely humanoid forms made from spewing vomit. They grasp at the air with the silhouettes of hands, dripping with sick, bubbling coughs that occasionally reach their permeable surfaces. They tend to congregate in small pitiful packs, huddling together in sewers and ruins, scraping every surface for food to sate their search for deliciousness that they can rarely find. They reach for interlopers' faces with their stinking puke paws, both to get an idea of what they look like since the taste testers lack eyes and to slurp up any dead skin cells or oils accumulated on a traveller's face. Unfortunately for the taste testers, however, most don't take kindly to having their faces fondled by living vomit.

Taste testers are unfortunately maligned and disgusting creatures born into the worst of circumstances. At their core they are ambulatory living entrails, a simple mouth, esophagus, stomach, and set of intestines to be exact, all perfectly human in genetics. Lacking a brain, the taste tester is instead animated by a neural net that it is able to extrude through its mouth in order to puppet objects, most often its own vomit. These accursed things were made this way by a long forgotten candy and chicken byproduct meal company, in house, in an effort to replace human taste testers for their product. Originally centered on the first production center in what was once Cincinnati, they later expanded in their use, including to companies bought up by the taste testers' parent firm. Thus, they were made as a genetically modified human clone, a hominid worm made up of the human digestive system and with the bare minimum of the rest of human anatomy, with the express intention of mass testing product for human consumption with simple binary outputs of acceptable or unacceptable, communicated through the only method left available: vomiting.

That was all before armageddon, of course. With the supply chains drying up and the factories collapsing in on themselves, the vermiform taste testers found themselves surprisingly resilient, fleeing into the sewers to proliferate. The unfortunate thing is, however, that what might be available to eat in sewers or post apocalyptic ruins is nothing compared to the mind numbingly delicious treats they were genetically engineered to taste test, leaving them constantly vomiting up whatever filth they ate. In time, however, the smarter of the taste testers figured out how to extrude their neural net to puppet around their puke, allowing them to venture further afield and be more discerning with what they put in their mouths. They do still have to eat awful things in order to produce the vomit that makes up their very own bodies, however; it is an awful cycle indeed.

Thus the taste tester of today is born: a squirming worm of guts controlling a puppet of puke vaguely shaped into a humanoid form by faint recollections of what their ancestors were and who they were around in the ancient factories. The product of the profit hungry hubris of ancient humanity clinging to existence as a blind pitiful gourmand of discerning taste and hazy memories.

Sometimes, taste testers are kept as an unusual pet by certain distasteful types, or they are taken in by the more well meaning cults and secret societies. They are unlikely to seriously hurt anyone individually, but some warlords and crime lords keep taste testers as torture devices, putting people in a room with an especially stinky vomitoid or keeping a well fed one as a mockery to prisoners they keep starving.

Taste Tester
Number Encountered: 2d6
Hit Dice: 1
Attacks: 1 vomit swipe (1d6)
Armor: none
Morale: 4
Reticent: Taste testers will never initiate combat, although they may approach the players and even touch them without realizing any problems with that.
Stench: Taste testers smell so bad. Those with sensitive senses of smell must save or puke themselves when close to them.
Oozing Body: Attacks to the main body of a taste tester deal no damage; all you're attacking is congealed vomit! To damage it, the worm like digestive system "true body" must be targeted, giving disadvantage to most attacks. When submerged in water or blasted with water, the vomit body dissipates.
Vomit Swipe: Taste testers can attack with a swipe of a pukey tentacle dripping with stomach acid. This weakens armor; for every 2 hits, -1 AC.

Taste Tester for GW 1e
No. Appearing: 2d6
Armor Class: 10
Movement: 5
Hit Dice: 2
These slimy humanoids are the half sapient pitiful result of corporate genetic engineering, now abandoned. They have worm like "true" body made of a stomach and intestines, and a false body made of vomit. They are constantly in search of good tasting food, and rarely find it. They are timid creatures and will never initiate combat. Their vomit bodies take no damage, but dissipate in water; their "true" body is hard to hit due to its relatively smaller size, giving you disadvantage on attempts to hit it. Their acidic swipe gives -1 to AC for every 2 hits.

Taste Tester for GW 2e
Number: 2d6
Morale: 3
Hit Dice: 2d6
Armor: 10
Speed: 5/300/2
MS: 1d6            IN: 1d4
DX: 1d6            CH: 1d4
CN: 1d10+8      PS: 1d6
Attacks: Vomit swipe
Mutations: N/A
Description: see description above

I also do realize that the above drawing takes a lot of cues from Sickly Stomach from Awful Hospital but I'm pretty sure I drew my original doodle of these guys before AH even started, I've had Gamma World vomit oozes kicking around in my head for a while