Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Wild Cats of the Eastern Satrapies

Its been a while! Uh, way too long in fact. I still haven't ran a session of KoK since my last post, but I figured the best thing to get me back into the groove of writing RPG stuff and getting back to running King of Kings would be to just write somethin! Its been a really busy few months since I last posted; in August I moved into my first apartment after graduating, in September I went to see a friend of mine in New York City and another in New Jersey, and that same month my girlfriend started staying with me while she worked on getting an apartment in the same city as me! Then just last month I set a goal of watching a spooky movie a day for the month of October (perhaps something I should write some about... maybe a topic more fitting for my neocities site!) and helped my girlfriend move into her new apartment... but now things have calmed down some so I can get back to blogging!

Something that has been a central part of the King of Kings setting ever since I started working on it is aiming for, in addition to a kind of historical authenticity (a subject I might write more about in future!), a general accuracy of the flora and fauna to those that would have been living in the Iranian plateau and central Asia during late antiquity. I think so much of the distinctive vibe of a place and time can be communicated by the environment, and just as much as someone running a science fiction game might be interested in developing the alien biosphere, or a cyberpunk worldbuilder in describing what sorts of vermin flit about the concrete jungle, I am fascinated by discovering what sorts of animals lived in Iran in late antiquity and including them in my game and in my encounter tables.

So, this post is an example of that! Rather than just writing about this interest in authentic flora and fauna in a generic way, I figured it would be fun to hone in on a specific group of animals that I think highlight the incredible diversity of animalia in the pre-modern world, many species driven to extinction or to ever shrinking ranges due to human action: big cats!

I'm only providing stats for the ones that I think really need it, so big cats and cats used for hunting. Also, I'm pairing this post from Ben L. over at Mazirian's Garden with these wild carnivores; his animal terror grappling rules are one of my all-time favorite takes on this idea that I've seen anywhere! So check out his post too! It might also be a good idea to go check out my post about the geography of the Eastern Satrapies, since I mention a number of locations in this post.

The Persian/Anatolian/Caucasian Leopard
(I'll be noting the real world subspecies names in parentheses)

The Leopard (Persian Leopard, Anatolian Leopard, etc.), known in Shahanistani as Palang, is a mountain-dwelling pouncer that rests in the branches of looming juniper trees, to which it drags its prey, mountain goats and deer and smaller beasts. Its hide is a greyish or reddish color with dark rosettes scattered across, some leopards darker, some paler; its claws and teeth are curved knives that dive into flesh as if it were water, split with the prow of a boat. A male leopard claims sovereignty over a certain section of territory, and is joined by typically up to three females, and their cubs; unlike the glorious lion, King of All Beasts, the palang is jealous and vindictive, and will spar with any rivals who dare entreat on his territory.

Since even before the Deluge, the leopard has been a beast of terrible significance. Antediluvian statuary has washed up on muddy shores depicting long forgotten tyrant-queens on leopard thrones, and pallid shivering naked men brought before the palang as sacrifice. It is an omen of death and chaos, the very symbol of nature's uncaring grip on man. In the valleys of Elburz Satrapy, it is said that leopards appear before mudslides, floods, and terrible storms. The appearance of a palang's hide is a sign, among the Shahanistani sailors of Humakuyun-on-the-Sea, to avoid a seaborne trip; froglings, in their typical hubris, oft ignore this omen, confident in their fly-powered vessels. The leopard is the beastly mirror of the murderer; there are many folk tales of men driven mad by their vengeful killings of wives or sons who find themselves circled by leopards in the rugged wilds, keeping a distance out of respect for one of their own. Kings have slung leopard skins beneath their feet to symbolize victory against evil. The leopard is the favored beast of a drunkard god from a western island, now under the domain of the Gnostic Elves, who pull his sloshing carriage across land as the dolphin pull his dinghy across water. Thus,leopards can be tempted by wine.

Those bitten by a leopard are sought out by mice, who are urged by instinct to urinate on them. If one who has been bitten by a leopard is urinated on by a mouse, they will surely die; the only thing to certainly dispel the rodent is sumac blossom. 

The male Asiatic Lion

The Lion (Asiatic Lion), or Shir, is King of All Beasts, the mirror in the world of animals of the Shahanshah of the Enlightened Empire, or of Truth. He is beige or yellow-grey in color, with a mane cleaving close to his neck or, in the lioness, no mane at all, but commonly faint stripes on the limbs. They live in prides, the males in small groups of only up to three or four, the lionesses in much larger groups of up to twelve not including their cubs. Lionesses are fiercely protective of their cubs, and will fight much more ferociously if they see their cubs threatened or cornered. Despite their more righteous associations, lions are, like leopards, more active at twilight and in darkness, while they sleep during the day.

The lion is the other symbol of kingship, alongside the blessed Huma bird whose shadow bestows royalty. The personal standard of the Shahanshah is a lion and a sun on a purple field, fringed with gold and crimson; in times of strife, such as during the Mountain Uprising which established the Enlightened Empire, and during the Fifty Years' Crisis, the King of Kings has employed a simple lionskin hoisted on a pole as a standard. The killing of lions is heavily restricted; villages under the terrible shadow of a ravenous shir hunting their herds down to nothing must receive special license to catch and kill the beast. At the front of a mob of peasants and herdsmen marches a village headman holding aloft a scroll emblazoned with the satrap's seal; a hunter entrusted to track down a lioness wears the papyrus on her chest. The nomads of the western frontier, on the roiling border of the Neverending War with the Gnostic Elves, carve their headstones in the shapes of lions; it is said that they guard over the dead, and snap their jaws at those who dare attempt grave robbery. 

Lions are a common target of heretical revolutionary sects, who desecrate their bodies as a symbolic act of defiance. A cult hidden deep in the mountains of eastern Elburz has been known to butcher and eat lionflesh around a great fire in a ritual asserting the immortality of flame as against that of the king. The lion is a predatory beast that pounces on the weak, just as a noble dehqan pounces on the peasants; even some of the most orthodox prophets have called upon the rich to not behave as lions do, hungrily snatching at those most vulnerable. The lion is said to have been made by Deceit, but using a model created by Truth. This is the two-sided coin of the shir; righteous king on one side, slavering hunter on the other.

The Caspian/Hyrcanian/Persian/etc. Tiger

This leaves Tigers (Caspian Tiger, Hyrcanian Tiger, etc.), also known as the Babr, final among the three greatest of felines. They are the largest, strongest, and fiercest of cats, broad faced, broad shouldered, and stout. They lack the lion's mane, but instead have orange and black variegated stripes on their fur, each tiger completely individual in its stripe pattern. Lions and tigers respect each other and keep an arm's length when encountered; it is only especially cruel or rabid tigers that provoke lions into battle. Unlike the lion and leopard, the tiger is typically active during the day. They dwell in mountains, foothills, steppes, and coastlines, and while they tend to live solitary lives, they are not hostile to one another and will share their meals.

Learned scholars in the First City assert that the tigress is impregnated by the wind, from which the beast acquires its extraordinary quickness. It is second only to the cheetah for swiftness among the beasts, and it is believed that tying a length of tiger hide to an arrow makes it fly faster and truer. As such powerful and wild beasts, the babr is the subject of much struggle to capture, dominate, and kill. In the grand menageries of the Shahanshah in the First City, a number of portly tigers are kept in gilded cages, who have been rumored to be fed heretics and rebels by some of the especially cruel Kings of Kings. There were once grand gladiatorial games in the lands now ruled by the Gnostic Elves, which pitted ravenous tigers against pit-fighters for the entertainment of the crowds. The Gnostic Elves despise such excesses, and have cracked down on the practice; but the smuggling of eastern tigers still brings lucrative rewards. Amulets and artifacts made from the skin, teeth, claws, bones, and mummified limbs of the babr are vested with the natural qualities of the beast. There are tales of a sect of sorcerers that transform themselves into tigers and dwell in reedy marshes; and it is said that in the far north, in the Land of Darkness, there dwell giant tigers, pale white in place of vivid orange, with teeth that stab through metal as if it wasn't even there.

Big Cat (Lion, Tiger, Leopard)
Number Appearing: 1d4
Hit Dice: 5
Attacks: See below
Armor: as leather and shield
Morale: 9
Pounce: Big cats' preferred mode of attack is pouncing into a grapple with their victim. They receive a bonus of +3 (tiger, lion (+2 STR, +1 size)) or +2 (leopard (+2 STR)) to grappling rolls against human-sized opponents. When in a grapple, they deal 1d6+3 damage; if they fail to enter a grapple, they can attack twice in a turn, dealing 1d6+1 damage with each attack. Big cats can maul and are ferocious (see Ben's post above).

Leopards also drag

The Asiatic Cheetah

Leaving the great cats behind, there are three kinds of middling-sized cat tamed for hunting, each unique to a given territory. 

From south to north, first there is the Cheetah (Asiatic Cheetah), or Yoz, the favored hunting companion of kings and nobles. Its name in Shahanistani means "leap," for that is how it hunts; by chasing down its prey on its extraordinarily quick feet, before bringing down its quarry with "but a single bound," as a poet extolling its virtues once said. It is the fastest creature in the whole world, with tan-colored fur bedecked all over with black spots. The cheetah dwells in arid grasslands and sandy deserts; it was first tamed in the southern continent, although now hunters using cheetahs range as far north as the Kavir-e Bozorg. They are honorable beasts, and much poetry has been penned about them; the yoz is a very moral creature. There is a special saddle design oft used by members of the nobility with a second seat for a cheetah to accompany them on hunts. Subjects of the Gnostic Elves foolishly believe that cheetahs are the bastard offspring of a lion and a leopard, due to their appearance and the difficulty of their breeding in captivity. The yoz is a lucrative item for trade with the Empire of the Great East; their princes and emperors are fascinated by these hunting cats from distant lands.

Number Appearing: 1d6
Hit Dice: 2+1
Attacks: See below
Armor: as leather and shield
Morale: 8
Swiftness: Cheetahs are the fastest of beasts. They have advantage on opposed rolls for chases and on initiative rolls.
Pounce: The cheetah's preferred mode of attack is to chase their quarry before pouncing on them. They receive a bonus of +1 (+1 STR) to all grappling rolls. When in a grapple, they deal 1d6+1 damage. Cheetahs can maul and drag (see Ben's post). 

The Caracal, or Siahgush

Then, in similar arid regions as the cheetah, there is the Caracal, or Siahgush, meaning "black-eared" in Shahanistani. It is of reddish hue, with a handsome face and tall black-tipped ears. This hunting cat is smaller than the cheetah, and is thus more suited to hunting hares and birds; as a result, it is less favored by the nobility, who are most interested in big game, and is instead the hunting cat of choice of bazaaris and the better off peasants. The fur of the siahgush is amazingly soft, oft used for the lining of coats; less expensive than sables from the Land of Darkness, but still rich in quality. The caracal is also known as "the herald of the lion," for it travels before a lion on the prowl, alerting the other beasts of the king's coming. Then, after the lion's attack, the siahgush feasts on the remains, safe in the knowledge that the lion is sated. Thus, the caracal is depicted as the greedy courtier to the lion's kingdom, at once fearful of the sovereign's wrath and reliant on his generosity. A caracal crossing one's path is a sure sign that lions are nearby. 

Two Caucasian Lynxes

In the mountainous north of the Enlightened Empire, in the forested hills surrounding The Conqueror's Wall and the coastal lowlands south of the Sea of Giants, there dwell Lynxes (Caucasian Lynx), also known as the Vashaq, the favored hunting cat of the Land of Darkness. They are larger than the caracal, but with smaller ears and shorter tails, a mottled grey and brown with scattered black spots. Their paws are large and cushioned, making traversing snow easier. Northerners traditionally tame them for hunting similarly to the cheetah and caracal. The sacred order which presides over the Conqueror's Wall keeps 200 lynxes for hunting small game to supply their food. It is said that barbarians in the Land of Darkness, beyond the wall and mountains, don't even keep dogs, instead hunting exclusively with the vashaq. A far northern goddess of love, war, and sorcery rides a chariot pulled by lynxes through the snowy twilit forests; even those barbarians not in the tribes she presides over are wary of killing lynxes or blaspheming in their presence, worrying that they will report back to her. The pelt of the vashaq is soft, warm, and has especial properties: wearing it inspires sexual desire and virility and holds off hemorrhoids and similar illness. Burning lynx hair can heal festering wounds. Lynx urine crystallizes into an amber-like gemstone termed a lynx stone, which cures jaundice and other diseases of the kidney, and when rubbed against cloth has an attractive power on many substances.

Number Appearing: 1d4
Hit Dice: 1+1
Attacks: 2 claw (1d4)
Armor: as leather
Morale: 7
Pounce: Caracals and lynxes' preferred mode of attack is pouncing; however, due to their size, they cannot meaningfully grapple with human-sized opponents. Do you really want to have to roll for a caracal grappling with a duck?

A Sand Cat

A Steppe Cat (Asiatic Wildcat)

A Jungle Cat

Then there are the four kinds of least cats. Three are of similar size and appearance to the cat kept as a pet: the Jungle Cat, Sand Cat, and Steppe Cat (Asiatic Wildcat). Each of these types of cat are solitary hunters that tend to keep a wide berth from towns and villages; thus, they are more often encountered as surprise omens by travelers than beasts sought out for their fur or hunting capability. The jungle cat is widespread in marshy and riverine environments; they are especially notable in the Hinterbog on the edge of Elburz Satrapy and in the lake country of Numistan. Travellers across the Hinterbog must always remember to leave gifts for the jungle cats, for some among their number are jinn in disguise. The bite of the jungle cat is liable to fester and rot more readily than that of other felines. Sand cats are the most elusive cat of them all, small tan-colored things that crawl through the driest depths of the Kavir-e Bozorg, so rare that even most desert-dwellers have never seen one. They are active only at night, and leave small faint footprints where they walk. They often nap in the shade of ancient ruins, to which a traveller can furtively follow them for treasure. The steppe cat is the furtive companion of travellers along the routes between the Enlightened Empire and the Empire of the Great East, dashing in and out of view in its shyness. The Southern Dog-Headed Men despise steppe cats, putting their skins as tassels on their spears and banners.

This is my favorite pallas cat picture

And, finally, there is the strangest cat of them all: the Manul (Pallas' Cat). This most secretive of cats ranges across mountains from the Elburz range north of the Kavir-e Bozorg east through Numistan and into even more arid and wintry plateaus, from whence whispers of fabled Kadath emerge. They are small in size by covered all over with an excessively fluffy coat, giving them a rotund and soft appearance. Their faces are incredibly expressive, and they have qualities in sympathy with humanity that have led some to say that they are the ghosts of mountaineers who perished in avalanches or froze solid from frigid winds. The distinctive image of the eastern mountains is the frostbitten corpse with a manul curled up in its lap. Their coats are so pillowy soft that they are sometimes termed the "eastern sable," so valuable and rich their rare hides are. The hurdle to acquiring sable furs is the great distance and danger in venturing into the Lands of Darkness; the difficulty in hunting the manul is solely their secrecy, for they hide in shadows and snowbanks and are only very rarely seen in person.

And, for those curious, here are some of the sources I used for inspiration when writing this post!
Encyclopaedia Iranica (especially their pages on Mammals of Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, on The Classification of Mammals and Other Animal Classes According to Zoroastrian Tradition, on the Caracal (this page is especially of interest because it includes direct citations from medieval Iranian treatises on hunting cats!), and on Lion Tombstones.
The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition by Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri (Penguin edition)
The Natural History of Pliny the Elder
The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages (A really fantastic resource in general! Gathers all sorts of information from several medieval European bestiaries in one digital location!)
And, to be completely honest, also Wikipedia.

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 Bogleech.com! 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!