Tag Archives: dying earth

The Runes Of Doom, Part IV

The Runes Of Doom, Part IV

Deodanths, Saurigs, and Phraints


(You See What I Did There…)

Last week, I noted that much of the material was a rehash of existing classes for “most other roleplaying games”, part of Dave Hargrave’s gradual evolution of Arduin from a supplement to a stand-alone system, a migration not to be completed for a long, long, time. (And by the time it was done, it had mutated far beyond its roots). This week, we look at a few things very much not found in the default assumptions of the setting zeitgeist of the era.

Undead Hybrid Elves… From The Future!

Loosely based (sort of like the relationship of “Total Recall” to “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”) on Jack Vance’s deodands, the deodanths of Arduin are “an evolutionary hybrid of ‘undead’ Elven kind and some ‘other’ dark and unknown ‘thing'”. Legend claims they are “lost time travellers from eons in the future”, where “the suns are dieing”. (Spellcheck suggests “dieting”.)

They have a “vampire-like” ability to charm/hypnotize opponents, which “requires concentration, seldom found in combat”. That’s cool. Let’s see, this ability has a range of… uhm… and the actual effects are… hmm… and the degree of concentration needed is… erm… and it can be used as frequently as.. well. Basically, it’s tossed out there with no mechanics at all, which might be acceptable (given the tenor of the age, also the soprano) for monsters, but this is in the section entitled “Deodanths As Player Characters”, which means abilities do need a little definition. I went back to the Arduin Grimoire, where they have a monster listing. Nothing there about mind control powers, but it does say they’re 50% magic resistant. Perhaps “vampire-like” means “use whatever rules you use for vampires, don’t worry if they don’t make sense for a first level fighter”? That’s my guess.

Doesn’t matter. They’re awesome even if you can’t use them to mind-control the entire dungeon at once. They are brilliant tacticians either as “sole(sic) warriors in sword to sword melee’s(sic)” or as “Star Corsairs par excellance in spaceship to spaceship battles”. Because those happen a lot in high fantasy — why else would you have a spell to summon spaceships? Duh! (And if you think I’m against mixing Swords & Starships… and wouldn’t that be a great name for a retro-RPG? Hmmm… it’s not like I don’t have enough ongoing, incomplete, projects currently1… you haven’t read most of my stuff. Genre purists can bite me. Or, perhaps, I am a genre purist, and recognize that D&D is not a rules system, it is a genre, and that genre is “Fahfrd, Merlin, John Carter, Batman, and Elric team up to fight Dracula, Sauron, and Darth Vader (and their zombie ninja minions) in the Hollow Earth. While riding dragons. Cyborg dragons. Cyborg dragon wizards!” (/me begins singing “Ultimate Showdown“)

They generally eat their prisoners, being “omniverous”(sic), but those they don’t eat, they torture, sometimes for up to a decade. So, probably not suited for Paladins, is that the message I’m getting here?

In addition to being undead elf hybrid vampires from the future, they can jump in time! They can time-skip 1-3 melee rounds forward, 1/day per level, at a cost of one point of Con, Agi, Str, and Dexterity each time, each of which takes five hours (not contiguous!) to restore.

They also jump in space —  20-30 feet horizontally, 15 feet vertically, and hate elves for “historical reasons”. (See the Skull Tower walkthrough for more on that!)

I got your Fantasy Fucking Vietnam right here, pal. Along with your “waaaah! Modern games are like video games!” cliche. Back in the real old school, we had, as player character options, time-skipping high-jumping undead hybrid elf vampires from the future! But, yeah, you go ahead and play your dwarf fighter whose highest stat is a 12, because that’s “roleplaying, not rollplaying”. Go on. Have fun with that, Groin, son of Loin, or whatever your name is. I’ve got to go kill a star spyder(sic) with my deodanth. (We’ll get to star spyders, and much, much, more, when we do monsters… but that’s a ways in the future, I’m afraid.)

We also had…

Vulcan Mantis-Men From Outer Space!

No secret, here: Phraints are one of my favorite races. They’re visually distinctive, they have a cool backstory, and they actually fit in pretty well in a sword-and-sorcery world.

My Money's On The Phraint

My Money’s On The Phraint

Phraints are born into a caste system, as follows:

Phraint Gandhi Tried To Ban The Caste System, But It Pesisted

Phraint Gandhi Tried To Ban The Caste System, But It Persisted

There are also Black Phraints, who, with very minor technological aid, can survive in hard vacuum, and who shoot off monomolecular edged shuriken. Imagine a boarding party of them landing on the hull of your spaceship! Pack extra underwear! But on Arduin, they’re extinct, as the supporting technology to create them no longer exists.

Phraints are perfectly logical and unemotional, which is why they try to conquer the universe. It’s obvious they’re superior and should rule, so the illogical lesser races ought to just accept it. They don’t, which proves they’re illogical and inferior. “Tautology” is a class skill for Phraints.

They can stand motionless, waiting in ambush, for up to three days, drink pureed horse meat for fun, and get totally plastered off the juice of the Red Lotus. They also leap as well as deodanths, leading to spectacular battles between the two races, which make the most extreme wire-fu fight scenes look like a sedate chess match.

Sheldon Cooper Plays Nothing Else

Sheldon Cooper Plays Nothing Else

Yeah, it’s a real roleplaying stretch for someone like me to play a character with no understanding of emotion or normal human interaction. Really exercises the old acting chops, y’know, getting into a mindset completely alien to my own and viewing the world through a lens utterly antithetical to my normal perceptions.

Savage Lizard-Men From The Forgotten Past!

OK, compared to undead elf vampire time-hoppers from the future and insect men from outer space, lizard men, even when called “saurigs”, are kind of… meh. Still, a lot more interesting than wood elf, tree elf, root elf, leaf elf, branch elf, twig elf… (though ‘root elf’ does have potential…).

Saurigs are descended from “the dread reptilian Kthoi”, who ruled the world some 600,000 years previously… and ideas such as this, of a scope and scale orders of magnitude beyond the limits of human history, found fertile ground in my adolescent mind, and let’s not juxtapose ‘fertile’ and ‘adolescent’ ever again, OK? One of the interesting aspects of this whole exercise is seeing where a lot of my personal inspiration comes from, decades after I forgot the source.

After the tactical sadism of the deodanths, and the imperialist logic of the phraints, it’s nice to know the saurigs were bred as mindless killing machines. After the fall of the Kthoi, they divided into two groups — the tailed swamp saurigs and the tailless desert saurigs. (The delicious dessert saurigs were eaten into extinction.) After untold ages, they have achieved a modicum of sophistication, existing as tribal bands, which occasionally play gigs down at the oasis.

Desert saurigs are valued as mercenaries; swamp saurigs are valued as luggage. OK, it doesn’t say that exactly, but although the swamp-dwellers are larger and stronger, they are undisciplined and savage, and are thus of little worth as soldiers. However, you can get 1d4 suitcases of medium size out of one, with enough left over for 1d6+3 belts, and OK, I’ll drop it for now.

Keeping up the trend of “everyone hates everyone”, the saurigs hate the phraints — desert saurigs because “they took er jerbs!” (i.e., they compete for mercenary contracts) and swamp saurigs because… no, I’m not going to make another luggage joke… because phraints consider saurig eggs a delicacy for baby phraints to nom on. No, that’s not a joke. That’s in there. So, you kind of have to feel a little bit for the saurigs getting slaughtered on the cover of the Arduin Grimoire. They could have been like the horta, avenging their fallen young. So it goes.

And In Conclusion…

Next week, we dive deep into assorted variant mechanics and rules, presented in the usual orderly, logical, fashion, where each idea builds on the previous in a coherent and sensible manner.

My apologies to anyone whose sarcasm detector blew out reading that.

1:Do you know there are people out there afraid someone is going to “steal their ideas”? That would be like stealing paper clips when you live in a house built out of paper clips, that you use mostly to store your supply of paper clips that constantly expands, no matter what you do.

Welcome To Skull Tower, Part XVII

Welcome To Skull Tower, Part XVII — Special Double-Size End Of Book Edition!

Those Who Do Not Study History Are Doomed To Have The GM Lecture Them On It

Because He Worked Six Months On This Background And You’re Going To Appreciate It

Thus it was, that there came the eighteenth segment of the second chronicle of the three tomes, wherein A’pos’tro’phe The Sl’augh’ter’but’cher did battle Vwlss The Bldyfstd[1] on the Fields Of Fauxtolkienia, or, in other words, we reach the section on the history of Arduin, the world and the nation. After we cover some other things.

But First! The Mystery Of Jim(!) Resolved!

Back a few weeks, I noted that Greyhawk included an odd little shout-out in the description of the meteor swarm spell, and wondered what it meant. Well, thanks to Yancy (and the fact I checked my spam folder, where his post was crudely and maliciously exiled for no good reason), we have an answer. Yes, it was Jim Ward, and yes, there was a story behind it, and a damn good one that points, once more, to the very personal and connected nature of those earliest days of gaming. (See my PrinceCon walkthrough for more.)

Crime And Punishment

(No Brothers Karam… Karma… Karaom… Russian Brothers!)

So, we need a brief digression here (shocking, I know, at least as shocking as my parenthetical asides where I repeat the same ‘I bet you’re shocked there’s a digression’ joke I’ve used a dozen times before… and now my digression from my digression to discuss my digression has digressed. I am Laurence Steme, reborn!) to discuss the early history of RPGs. First, wargames were purely episodic… you set up your miniatures for the Battle of Waterloo, you played through each turn (as described way back in the beginning of this series), you removed your figures from your opponent’s nostrils, and you packed up. Then came larger campaigns, where multiple battles would be fought in a sequence. This then mutated to the idea of specific figures on the battlefield representing individuals, not units, and gaining in power from one scenario to the next. And then came the idea of each player controlling one individual while another player controlled the rest of the world, and at some point, an impossible-to-define line was crossed and we had role playing games. (Important to note: Neither “role playing game” nor “dungeon master” appeared in the “three brown books” version of D&D. ‘struth!)

Where am I going with all this? OK. See, at some point in this evolution, it became understood or implied that the characters, and the world, actually had a kind of existence even when not being actively played. No one wondered, or cared, what their Napoleonic figures might be doing between battles; they didn’t unpack them and then roll on the ‘Consequences Of Being At Liberty’ tables before each fight.  When continuity between games started to matter, when you had acquired loot to sell and could engage in activities like making magic items or researching spells, there needed to be a place to do this, and then something clicked and people realized you could explore a town as you could a dungeon or a wilderness, that it could be a place as well, and then a kind of cognitive dissonance hit, as players noticed that while heedless slaughter and pillage made a kind of sense where no one else was portrayed as an actual person, just as sacks of hit points that bled gold and XP when you stabbed them, but, when put in a context of taverns and brothels (and, eventually, other, less important, buildings), it seemed a bit… odd. So it came to pass that as actual settings and worlds grew out of the primordial fog of wargaming abstraction, there would be codes of law that might be applied to errant PCs, and, eventually, such things began to be used to help define different cultures and nations in a world, continuing the transition from wargaming’s “every battle is unique in itself” to “a single world can hold uncounted adventures, with multiple campaigns occurring in the same, shared, setting”. Sort of how games like Wizardry I evolved, over time, into World of Warcraft.

After all that, we come to this:

Beheading Someone For Both The First And Second Offense Makes Sense In This Setting, Trust Me

Beheading Someone For Both The First And Second Offense Makes Sense In This Setting, Trust Me

A footnote to the chart notes that all prison time is at hard labor, which is proper… the idea of a prisoner just sitting in his cell, costing money but doing nothing, is a fairly modern invention. Most medieval punishments were harsh and physical because you couldn’t keep someone around for a long period of time; you punished them and then let them go, presumably to either sin no more, or to sin so egregiously you could justify killing them.

War And Peace

(Because History Tends To Be Cycles Of Such, And Because It’s A Hilarious[2] Callback To The Prior Section Heading)

And now, after inns, timekeeping, holidays, guilds, and religious sects… we get to the actual history of Arduin.

We start with this introduction:

So, About A Five Percent Survival Rate...

So, About A Five Percent Survival Rate…

For context, D&D was published in 1974. Welcome To Skull Tower was published in 1978. That works out to about 120 characters killed per real-world year of actual gameplay. I assume Dave ran games more frequently than the traditional once a week. (He did… see below.)

The history itself is many pages of dense text. I’m loathe to just scan and upload it in full, but I’m also disinclined to type out long excerpts. So I’ll write out a bullet-pointed list of highlights and asides, my usual lazy solution to problems of this nature. (Until it hit the point where the awesome-o-meter just exploded, then I gave in and did some scanning. Some stuff is just too cool to paraphrase or condense. See below.)

  • The first rulers of the world were the “dread reptilian Kthoi”.
  • They warred against the “first true men”, the Rune Weavers, who won.
  • But the Rune Weavers met their downfall a half million years later, battling the Titans and the Star Powered mages “against the rest of Allmanity”.
  • Though the Rune Weavers won (I think… the text is a little unclear, a bit too poetic for its own good), they were so weakened that “a bare 20,000 years later”, when the Time Lords threatened, the Rune Weavers could only trap them (the Time Lords, I think), in the Caverns of the Ancients and then “fade from the kin of Allmanity”.
  • We’re about 20% of the way through the second paragraph, by the way.
  • This allowed the Free Mages Of The Circle to predominate, followed by 3,000 years of relative peace.
  • Then a bunch of aliens invaded, destroying the fifth continent and leading to the Interregnum Of The Dark Years for the next five millennia.
  • Civilization restarted on Khaera, the third continent.
  • The world is named Khaas now, because the old name, Ssas-Khaa, has been forgotten. (Well, that answers my question in the prior article on if the world was named in the original trilogy or not. I’m not sure how I forgot this, as it’s so prominently called out in roughly the middle of a long paragraph on page 88 in a locked filing cabinet in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door reading ‘Beware Of The Leopard’.)
  • Many nations held power as many wars were fought. Or, in other words, like every part of history in what we like to call reality.
  • The real problem, though, was when the College of Sages in Falohyr discovered multiple transdimensional space kablooies (I, erm, may be paraphrasing slightly) manifesting in an area contiguous with the small kingdom of Arduin.
  • This began the “Wars Of When” (oooohhhh, awesome name!), which lasted another 10,000 years, “bleeding the world white of population and magic”.
  • During an unusually long pause in the fighting (presumably to hump like bunnies to produce more grist for the mill), the “Accord of Arduin” was developed. In short, Arduin would be a neutral kingdom, with every other nation committed to enforcing that neutrality. All of the major factions (wizards, technos, sages, etc) would set up colleges or universities to oversee exploration of the gates, with that MacGuyver guy in charge. (I, uhm, may have made up that bit, too.)
  • We just finished the second paragraph.
  • In paragraph three, we learn every nation in the Accord sent settlers to Arduin, as the original population was wiped out in the war; for 500 years, it was forbidden to marry anyone of your own original nationality. So, wait… after the first generation, everyone has two ancestral nationalities… so they’re equally forbidden to marry either… and then the third generation has four forbidden groups, then eight… I don’t think Dave did the math on this bit.
  • It’s no longer a law, but it’s traditional to marry outside one’s nationality, which, by now, must include every nation on Khaas, so, I guess, people in Arduin just live in sin.
  • The Accord has lasted 1,211 years. Pretty good.
  • However, we can’t forget about the Elf-Human wars. You didn’t forget about the Elf-Human wars, did you? I sure hope you didn’t! Never forget about the Elf-Human wars that weren’t mentioned until just now!

The Elf-Human Wars

(Alternatively, “The War Of Elven Aggression” or “The War Against Human Imperialism”)

Trigger Warning: Reaping

No, That’s Not A Typo

The phrase “Twice the iron grey cataphracts of Viruelandia surged up from the south” appears in the text I am about to summarize. If that alone is not justification for the existence of the Arduin trilogy, what could be? Please note, I saved y’all some googling by linking to the definition of ‘cataphract’. I hope you appreciate that.

  • The wars began “dim thousands of years in the dark and bloody past”, or well before the “Accord of Arduin”. They began early on, when King Tarafass Dawnstar of the Royal House Of The Rising Sun heard what the sages of Falohyr had found, and he “called up his silver mailed cavalry, his bronze-sheathed and rock-steady spearmen, and his silent archers all clothed in forest green”.
  • Then he got a letter from Morvaen, a human kingdom to the east, demanding a merger, and with a really low buy out offer for the common stock. Tarafass said “Take us if you can!”, and Morvaen said “Challenge accepted!” and it was on like Donkey Kong. (Some paraphrasing may have occurred.)
  • The invading horde poured into the Forest of Flame, where the archers of Arduin inflicted a “green glowing arrow rain [that] sleeted into the ranks of the invaders like a scythe through ripe wheat”, and “a grim red harvest was reaped, and reaped, and reaped yet again”. Clearly, they were cereal reapists. (See, ’cause wheat is a kind of cereal, and… OK. Moving on.)
  • The Forest of Flame is now the Weeping Woods due to the massacres that occurred there.
  • The humans retreated back to the mountain pass they’d invaded from, only to find the Elven king, Tarafass, and his host waiting for them. The Morvaens charged, believing themselves to have superior numbers, but then Tarafass reminded them they were in a universe where magic worked[3], by revealing the massive cavalry hidden under an illusion. Long story short, Morvaen’s army got massively pwned, to the point where, for decades afterwards, every town message board was covered with “nerf invisibility” demands.
  • The elves won that battle, but not the war, as seven more invasions followed, including two that involved “iron grey cataphracts”. All failed except the seventh (which kind of makes sense, because you don’t stage invasions after you’ve invaded), which came (irony alert!) from “one of the very gates the elves were trying to protect”. A horde of deodanths from “a dying Earth” came, “their flickering swords a match for even elven blades”.
  • In 13 days, they’d conquered all but the great keep of the high king.
  • And then…. well, I’ll deal with it next week, as we finish out the history of Arduin, and get back to the inns and roadhouses of Arduin. Yes, really.

Hah! Fooled You!

Double-Length Season Finale Post!

Mostly ‘Cause My Sunday Shadowrun Game Got Cancelled

That’s Two In A Row I’ve Missed. I’m Going Through Chinese Food Withdrawal.

Anyway… when last we left our intrepid heroes, about five lines above, the deodanth army had almost conquered Arduin. And then…

This needs a scan, sorry. It’s too awesome to bullet point.

I use ‘awesome’ a lot, don’t I? Let me try again.

It’s too freakin’ unbelievably mega-awesome to bullet point.

There. That’s better.

"Bespattered" Is A Perfectly Cromulent Word

“Bespattered” Is A Perfectly Cromulent Word

“…sending the clouds themselves fleeing before them in abject terror.”
“…as the weird music sang its song of elven power.”
“…a withering stain that would take three centuries to fade.”
“This is bladework, my brothers!” Aw, hell yes! (Imagine a heavy metal power chord right here. BWAAANG!)

See what I mean? When I write histories and backstories and the like for my own settings, unless constrained by editorial fiat (well, given the budgets of most game companies, more like editorial Used 1992 Honda), I write in this style. This is pure purple pulp, perfect for RPGs and alliteration.

The tale continues…

  • Slaughtering the deodanths took two more weeks.
  • The King was ambushed and slain.
  • The defeat of the deodanths, “one of hell’s own armies”, gave “many a grasping and scheming king pause”.
  • The daughter of the slain king, Tarathala Dawnstar, declared herself queen of Arduin.
  • “The human wolves gathered round their borders in ever growing numbers”.

And then?

Elf Magic: It's Not Just For Cookies Anymore

Elf Magic: It’s Not Just For Cookies Anymore

“…the road to gods and demons, the trail of tears and danger.” So. Freakin’. Awesome.

This is a major part of the appeal of old school. The power. The energy. The “turn it up to eleven” attitude long before “turn it up to eleven” was a phrase.

Eventually, the elvish and human armies met in battle, 1,100 elves against over 100,000 humans…

"...screamed to the high winds of hell..."

“…screamed to the high winds of hell…”

Yeah! This needs to be animated, Heavy Metal style. Seriously. Why hasn’t it been? Get a Kickstarter going, or something.

Well, the Wars Of When went won… went on … for another 10,000 years after that, until the aforementioned Accord of Arduin. And we learn something of the nature of play in those long-lost glory days of gaming…

"Organized Play", Thirty Years Early

“Organized Play”, Thirty Years Early

The Inns And Roadhouses (Again) Of Arduin

So, now that we’ve finished the epic history of the world, stretching back a million years or more, what next?

A list of inns and roadhouses, of course! Only 14 pages past where they were discussed originally. Old school, dude. What can you do?

Few Modern Dives Include The Word 'Carnelian'

Few Modern Dives Include The Word ‘Carnelian’

This table goes on for four full pages. This says a lot about the detail Dave put into his world, or maybe he just liked making up bar names. We will (probably) never know if they were each written up specifically, or if nothing but a name and a rating were ever defined.

There’s a footnote on one page…

Three Out Of Four Alehouses In Arduin Are Alliterative

OK, we’ve covered inns, dates, holidays, religions, guilds, history, and inns… what’s next?

Undead Attacks

What else?

The list of inns is followed by a small table explaining the attacks of various undead — how much damage they do, and additional effects such as paralysis or drain. And this note:

Quite Simple, Really

Quite Simple, Really

Another classic example of Dave in his best “All you of Earth are idiots!” mode. Of course the time required is based on the attacking monster’s hit dice level! Note the use of italics to emphasize the obviousness of the answer. Why are you people bothering Dave with these stupid questions? He’s got awesome things to write about the iron-grey cataphracts of Viruelandia. (Damn, but I love that phrase. I’m going to have to work it into my next project. If I stick to my plan to write the next Rogue Planet novel, it will fit well, come to think of it.)

Space Aliens And Angry Players

We end — almost — with two disconnected (?) rants:

First, Dave wisely and correctly (and I mean that without sarcasm) dismisses those who would insist on “purity” in their world where Howard’s barbarians, Vance’s wizards, and Tolkien’s elves battle Poul Anderson’s troll and Van Vogt’s displacer beast. (To be clear, that bit after ‘world’ is my boilerplate example of the ‘purity’ of D&D, not Dave’s, though I’m sure, were he here, he’d concur with my description.) He points out that an alien with a blaster is no stranger than a dragon which breathes fire, and the inhabitants of a fantasy city, exposed to phraints and centaurs and rune weavers and the like, would consider aliens just one more species, the blaster merely an exotic magic item. He goes on to write:

"Whittle Till It Fits" Is A Good Motto For Any DM

“Whittle ‘Till It Fits” Is A Good Motto For Any DM

Damn skippy!

I have a love, in my own games, of pan-dimensional, alternate-reality, genre mashup themes. I like vast canvases I can paint on, usually in broad strokes, but sometimes drilling down to ridiculously fine details… like covering a million years of history in one long paragraph and then having four pages of inns. I’ve mentioned the “variable detail” aspect of old school before; this is just another example.

Next, Dave produces an early, though probably not the first, rant on what do you do with a cranky player, early in the morning? Remind him you’ve got the viking hat on (x3), early in the morning. (I’ve been listening to Marc Gunn’s “Drinking Songs For Cat Lovers”)

Here you go:

Boy, You'd Almost Think RPGS Tend To Draw People With Poor Social Skills Into Highly Social Situations For The First Time In Their Lives, Or Something

Boy, You’d Almost Think RPGs Tend To Draw People With Poor Social Skills Into Highly Social Situations For The First Time In Their Lives, Or Something

Well said, Mr. Hargrave. There are times to not only say “No”, but “Hell, no!”, and “Hell, no, and never darken my doorway again! Begone, foul spawn of the pits!”

And With That…

We reach nearly the end of Welcome To Skull Tower. What’s at the very end? The Table of Contents, of course. Seriously. It’s on the inside back cover. Perhaps Dave should not have asked Bizarro Number One to help with the layout.

Next time… maybe next week, maybe not, I might decide to take a brief break for other projects, or I might keep on with this… weekly content is good, and knowing what I’m going to write about each week really helps me produce something… we will get to the third book, The Runes Of Doom!

If you enjoy this series, please, pass the links around. If you don’t enjoy this series, pass the links around to people you hate.

[1]Or Bldfstd, according to some scholars.

[2]For sufficiently small values of ‘hilarious’.

[3]”Nobody told me we were in a universe with magic space wizards!