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