Thursday, March 16, 2017

Liminal Sprite


Okay, I’m warning you up top: This post is gonna go some weird places.  And it’s as pretentious and bloated as a Harvard admissions officer.  So if you keep reading, remember I gave you a chance to bail before I became utterly insufferable. 

We cool?  Okay, here goes…

Guys.  Guys.  GUYS.  You have no idea how excited I am for the liminal sprite.

My paper for my college’s famously hard Religion 101 midterm?  It was on liminality.  The reason I spend Labor Day and New Year’s playing board games?  I made a lifelong friend tutoring a frosh on her liminality paper.  My favorite school mascot?  The Liminal State Bobcats.

So yeah, this is my kind of monster.  Add to that the fact that it’s a fey with a killer backstory, great art, and a low CR, and this just all adds up to “Squeeeee!” territory for me.

Bestiary 5 gives us plenty to work with: These are sprites cursed to rest neither out in the open or inside any building.  This leaves them only liminal (that is, threshold) spaces in which to make their homes—in sheltered doorways; behind shutters; under eaves, porches, and outside stairs; and so on.  That’s an absolutely fantastic fluff detail that also suggests some nice encounter options.  Need a witness to a burglary?  Liminal sprite.  A guardian for a magical gate?  Liminal sprite.  Servant of your world’s version of Janus?  Liminal sprite. 

Liminal sprites also love comedy, so they might hang around actors and theaters, particularly outdoor stages.  The next time your PCs stop into town for supplies, a side quest involving a liminal sprite wielding a girdle of opposite gender could be a delightfully Shakespearean side trek.  They’re also knowledgeable about local events and stealthy as hell (+17!).  And as familiars, their Repartee (Su) ability, which turns the +2 aid another bonus to +2d4, can help a chaotic sorcerer or bard really punch above their weight on Charisma checks.

But there’s another way to use liminal sprites.  If you remember your college reading of van Gennep and Turner—actually, I think my copy of The Ritual Process is still on my bookshelf somewhere—the original notion of liminality was meant to refer to certain threshold moments in time, not space.  These were transitional phases during rites of passage, or special times of the year, neither sacred nor profane, where the ordinary rules are suspended and society’s low and high temporarily occupy an equal footing.  (The perfect example of this is the move between (profane) Ordinary Time in the Catholic liturgical calendar and the (sacred) Season of Lent.  What falls in between?  Mardi Gras, where we get ready for weeks of repentance by gorging on baked goods and showing our tits.  It doesn't get more liminal than that.  Communitas, bitchez!)

This is perfect for liminal sprites.  Like many outsiders and undead, the best fey not only exist in and of themselves, but also represent or embody a larger something…sometimes a thing (like a dryad’s oak), but sometimes a notion (like the fear of drowning or the joy of the hunt).  The very curse that hampers the liminal sprite ray also gives them a conceptual/spiritual reason for being.  It might even nourish them in some way—I can imagine scenarios where a liminal sprite gets a small bonus during times of ritualized upheaval (like Carnival), certain days of the calendar (like Leap Day), or specific astrological events (such as eclipses).

“But wait,” you remind me, “this is for a game.  That’s a lot of conceptual bull$#!† to hang on a CR 2 sprite.”  And honestly, you’re right. 

But when the party sorcerer’s liminal sprite familiar gets extra antsy or powerful or flat-out vanishes during your game world’s version of New Year’s Eve, you’ve just made that world a little more real.  And if your PCs are planning a Leap Day treasury heist and are agonizing over whether to wait an extra day to recover spells, or go today to take advantage of the ad hoc bonus you’ve announced having a liminal sprite along will confer…but only until midnight…well, suddenly all those ridiculously pretentious paragraphs above have at-the-table, tactical risk/reward consequences.  Not bad for a 3 Hit Dice, size Tiny fey, right?

Gnomish thieves are robbing the citizens of Westphal blind during the summer theater festival.  They pick the pockets of the distracted citizens during performances, then vanish under the stage, where an open manhole allows escape into the sewers.  The gnomes have attracted the attention of a court of liminal sprites, but the faeries are only too happy to guard the portal for the gnomes, so long as they get their cut.  Last night, though, sewer-dwelling derros discovered the open manhole, and now a lot more than treasure is going to disappear into the darkness.

After a contentious year of peasant uprisings and arguments with Parliament, the queen declares a curfew during Winterfeast.  Among other things, this will prevent the midnight crowning of a Lord and Lady of Misrule—conveniently sparing the queen the need to surrender her authority, even if only symbolically, to a couple of upstarts during the week of parades and masked games.  The peasants are disgruntled, even angered, at the news…but the region’s liminal sprites, who delight in the festivities and are spiritually nourished by this time of upheaval, are outraged.  Until a Lord and Lady of Misrule are crowned, the sprites do not intend to let the city have a moment of peace.

In the Polish city of Kraków during King Casimir the Great’s reign, liminal sprites have been delighted to find companionship and shelter under the eaves of Jewish households.  The sprites enjoy eavesdropping on the debates of the rabbis, and they treat guarding the mezuzahs on their neighbors’ front doors as an honored nightly obligation.  So when the day comes that every mezuzah in the Old Town has vanished, and not a liminal sprite is to be found, the concerned Jewish citizens of Kraków want answers.  Acceding to their demands, Kraków’s prezydent hires adventurers to look into the mystery.

Pathfinder Bestiary 5 158

The Liminal State Bobcats are a creation of my college friend, Dorothy Gambrell.  (She lived one floor up and one suite over freshman year.)  Webcomic fans will know her as the creator of Cat and Girl, one of the longest-running webcomics to date.  She actually has a Kickstarter going on right now with about 4 hours left, so this is an excellent time to show her some love.

If you’ll indulge me for a second: That tutoring session I mentioned above has become something of a story among a different set of my college friends.  The short version is that the frosh originally thought I was horrifying.  To her, I was a drunken weirdo.  (I maybe used to bring 40s to pep band rehearsals.  Whoops.)

But then came her brutal Religion 101 paper.  (To give you context, I didn't have to do any reading for the first three weeks of my 600-level grad school courses because of this same Religion 101 class.)  Turned out we’d both written about liminality; turned out I still remembered the course; turned out my advice on revising her paper helped earn her an A.  We’ve been friends ever since. But her roommate later told me she came back to her dorm saying, “The drunk guy from Band saved my paper and I have to lie down because the world doesn’t make sense any more.”

For any of my high school readers about to go to college, there’s an Alien-esque moral here: In a single room, no one can see you study.  (And later on, you’ll really get to mess with people.)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Liavaran Dreamer


(Illustration by Ben Wootten comes from the Paizo Blog and is © Paizo Publishing.)

In the Pathfinder RPG’s default solar system, Liavaran dreamers are relatives of the jellyfish-like Brethedan race.  Residents of a gas giant, the Brethedans sent colonists to their closest planetary neighbor.  After ages of no contact, a second convoy was sent, where they discovered the original Brethedans’ descendants had gone feral, lulled by—or even addicted to—Liavara’s numerous ley lines.  The resulting dreamer is a somnambulant creature more asleep than awake, following the ley lines in a dreamlike state.

None of this seems like the makings of much of a monster, especially since Liavaran dreamers don’t combine like their Brethedan cousins do.  (Even if you mind-link with one, the worst that can happen is that might be temporarily dazzled, too.)  But dreamers still need to eat…and unlike Brethedans, they have an engulf ability, with acid damage and paralysis in the bargain.  They also really, really like their harmonious sleep.  Remove one from its ley line for too long, or reduce it below half its hit points, and you essentially get a raging barbarian of an air jellyfish, liable to crit you into ribbons and/or a bloody pulp courtesy of tentacles that do bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage in an 18–20 range.  Think of them like you would a psychic longhorn—it’s a cow as long as you’re on the other side of the fence, but up close and riled up, it's a bull—and that’s a completely different animal, figuratively speaking.

This blog, however, is setting-neutral.  So if our Brethedans are just brethedans, and our psychic jellyfish aren’t Liavaran, what kind of dreamers do we get instead?

Brethedans are common visitors to the airship-friendly city of Spike—many are even citizens.  So the owners of the Metallos Menagerie should have expected some trouble when they chose to exhibit a flotilla of T’Sharan dreamers.  Still, even the most jaded Spikers were caught by surprise when the brethedans did not just protest the display of their degenerate cousins, but instead rioted and let all the menagerie’s beasts free.  Now wild monsters from three continents roam the Spire City—and the most dangerous of all are the T’Sharan dreamers.  Starved for both meat and the reassuring hum of a ley line, they are hours, if not minutes, away from atavistic fury.

“Don’t split the party.”  Even fledgling dungeon delvers know this.  But when a party of adventurers sets out to kill a psychic parasite, they have to do it on two worlds at once.  On this plane, they have to put down a Medusan dreamer driven mad by the parasite that distorts its precious ley harmonics.  And in the Dreamscape, they have to slay the parasite’s psychic form, that of an ioun stone-juggling munavri rake.  If either half of the parasite persists, it will regenerate in time...and with a vengeance.

“‘Aether prospecting’ they call it.  You dive into the gas giant’s psychic mantle and come up with tanks full of ley energy.  It’s a gig that pays obscene money; on top of that the aether yields are pretty much essential for most large-sale enchantment work.  We’re talking magical vessels or structures, mind you, not your run-of-the-mill sparkly sword.  You just have to make sure a flotilla of dreamers don’t paralyze you and melt you into goo for stealing their stash, or that one of those oma whales doesn't fry you like bacon as it’s swallowing your ship whole.  But you’re tough enough for the job…ain’t you?”

Occult Bestiary 31

Note that I linked to the Archives of Nethys for stats, since I know Paizo folk tend to be fans of that site.  Careful to avoid copyright issues, the d20PFSRD I usually use for such monsters calls them “sky dreamers.”

If you’re looking for the lesser death, it’s back here in the “Grim Reaper” entry.

No radio show tonight.  Post-snow the roads seem okay, but close to an hour commute each way on ice at night still isn’t the best move.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Leng Ghoul


(Illustration by Miguel Regodón Harkness comes from the artist’s DeviantArt page and is © Paizo Publishing.)

There’s no way I can do justice to Leng ghouls here.  For that, you of course need to turn to the work of H. P. Lovecraft, particularly The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.  For a quicker overview of Leng and how it fits into Pathfinder, Greg A. Vaughan’s “Leng: The Terror Beyond Dreams” has a gazetteer of that nightmare realm, courtesy of Pathfinder Adventure Path #65: Into the Nightmare Rift. 

Here, then, is the short-short version: Leng ghouls are more bestial in appearance than other ghouls, having vaguely canine faces.  They’re also substantially more powerful, weighing in at a mighty CR 10 and packing a nasty version of ghoul fever.  (Also of note: Gugs fear them.  Meanwhile, while normal ghasts are fairly close cousins of normal ghouls, Leng ghouls and the bestial Leng ghasts hate each other with a passion.)

But despite all this, what really sets these undead apart is their intellect: Leng ghouls are civilized, even erudite, with close to genius-level intelligence, all Knowledge skills treated as class skills, and the ability to cast pretty much any scroll.  These are ghouls that, when they’re not trying to devour you for dinner, might invite you to a scholarly lecture or chamber music performance.  You just have to watch out around mealtimes.  (And there’s that nasty habit they have of worshipping the Outer God Nyarlathotep…)

The key hook for GMing Leng ghouls is surprise.  There should always be a twist somewhere in the encounter.  Maybe it’s the Leng ghoul delightedly inviting them to peruse its library.  Maybe the Leng ghoul acts like their friend only to betray them at the last minute.  Maybe the PCs descend into a Leng ghoul’s wine cellar only to find themselves climbing a tower on the moon.  Maybe after too long in a Leng ghoul’s company, the PCs find themselves tainted by the touch of the Crawling Chaos, or invited to be guests of honor at a ball in Hell.  The point is, when PCs encounter a Leng ghoul the adventure should either take a sharp left turn into Weirdsville, or else kick into high gear with the pedal to the floor.  Encounters with Leng ghouls don’t have to be a melee; they might be beneficial, even friendly—but they should always lead somewhere unexpected.

Adventurers arrive at the Kingdom of Ghouls during strange times—a delegation from Leng has just arrived for the first tome.  Expecting to have to slaughter their way through waves of feral undead to reach their nemesis, the fabled Ghoul King, the party members are taken utterly aback to find themselves given tokens of protection and asked to arbitrate trade negotiations between the Kingdom of Ghouls and Leng.

Adventurers are fighting gugs underground when the arrival of a Leng ghoul terrifies the great shaggy beasts.  The ghoul invites the adventurers back to its chateau, an otherwise ordinary-looking villa built into a barren cavern.  The Leng ghoul is a charming host, and only when the adventurers try to leave (and discover the villa now sits on a cliff overlooking an oily sea against a black sky) do they discover the ghoul’s true motivation for befriending them—one that involves a moon-beast potentate, drow flagellants, and a stock market for body parts run by the mercane.

Adventurers have found a scroll they cannot translate, written in hieroglyphics that conform to no known language.  Soon they find themselves the subject of a number of assassination attempts.  A Leng ghoul wants the scroll, as it will allow him to bind a good outsider to the helm of a skyship designed to sail on human-skin wings between the stars.

Pathfinder Bestiary 5 120

For another look at the Leng ghoul, check out Daily Planescape’s take.

Original post edited for my Blogger readers:

Last week’s radio show had new Charly Bliss, new Lorde, old Red Five, classic Magnapop, and more.  You can stream or download the show till midnight tonight (Monday, 03/13/17, U.S. Eastern), so grab it immediately and enjoy!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Leechroot


Leechroots look like plant monsters.  But actually, they're undead.  And instead of creeping along like most plant creatures, they tend to burrow.  In fact, they can even grapple creatures and then drag them underground, literally burying them alive.  And their slashing roots cause bleed damage that resists even magical healing.

Bestiary 5 notes that leechroots “emerge from the remains of plants poisoned by the blood-drenched soils of war-torn forests.”  This makes sense—battlefields tend to have coherent battle plans, clear rules of engagement, and hospital tents (however makeshift) nearby.  On the other hand, fighting in the forest is close-up, dirty, and deadly, full of ambushes, quiet knifings, and men dying in the underbrush because their fellows couldn’t find them in time—all providing rich necromantic compost for an undead root.

Though it doesn't provide mechanics for it, B5 also suggests leechroots can turn dead plants into their spawn—a good excuse to slap an undead template onto your favorite plant creature.  And while the exact mechanics are again not explicitly stated, leechroots in groups of four or more can form a sentient network known as a hivemind that serves primarily as a mutual-defense pact…and a promise of deadly, soil-covered retribution.

The secret vampire lords of Ornov quietly encourage the growth of leechroot on their lands, procuring cuttings from over the border in war-torn Haig.  A leechroot’s presence easily explains any poorly buried, exsanguinated corpses, and a posse of men-at-arms leading a militia to burn out a leechroot infestation is a very visible—and popular—symbol of the princes’ dedication to their peasants’ well-being.

Vanaras and humans are engaged in a deadly battle over territory and logging rights.  This long-running conflict has only festered with age—so much so that leechroots are now responsible for most of the casualties.

Wars of ideas can be as deadly as wars of arrows and blades.  Adventurers visit an overgrown agora where philosophers used to debate in public.  Here Galen abandoned the utilitarianism of his teachers, transforming his master’s model of the Cunning Mind to the brutal Culling Blade—his first step to becoming the genocidal monster known as the Hand in Bone.  As the adventurers move throughout the complex, haunts offer glimpses of Galen’s development and fall—or rather, willful leap—from grace.  Not only is surviving the haunts a challenge, but the agora is infested with leechroots, born from the hate engendered by Galen’s cruel, honeyed words.

Pathfinder Bestiary 5 155

Pedro Coelho created the leechroot as an RPG Superstar entry.  Check it and the judges’ comments out here.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Lead Golem


(Illustration by Ertaç Altınöz comes from the artist’s DeviantArt page and is © Paizo Publishing.)

Now this is a golem I can get behind.  (Longtime readers know that I am very skeptical of new golem types.)  Such an unreactive metal is the perfect thematic fit for the notoriously magic-resistant constructs.  Its low melting point means it’s easy to mold into useful forms.  The use of lead predates the ancient Egyptians, so you can stock them in dungeons of any age.  Finally, of course, lead is flat-out dangerous, even poisonous.  Sounds just right for a CR 10 golem.

Lead golems are notoriously hard to enchant.  Only dwarves construct them with any regularity, using them to guard trade secrets and prevent industrial espionage. After the crafting of a certain magical lens goes awry—and after much political deliberation—a beleaguered thane reluctantly sends for some adventurers. He confesses that, because of the accident, an umbral stain pollutes most of the hold’s lower levels.  What he doesn't know is that the adventurers’ cleanup efforts will be hampered by a tarnished scitalis, a colony of moulder dwarves, malfunctioning lead golems, and the ever-shifting shadowy stain itself.

An ancient lead golem knuckle-walks like an ape—and indeed, it resembles a crude gorilla.  It also shows an antipathy for elves…a strange trait, given that elves supposedly arrived on the continent of Davish only recently.  Exploring the tomb that the lead golem guards may upend the published histories of elves, apes, and men alike.

The famed alchemist Nicolas Flamel has cornered the market on lead throughout Paris.  This has caused the work of the stained glass artisans to grind to a halt, and they cry foul at Flamel turning lead into gold while their pockets remain empty.  As Paris is still reeling from Marcel’s rebellion against the Dauphin, the glassmakers are forced to hire outside agents to confront Flamel and demand restitution (or at least bring him to the bargaining table).  Adventurers who investigate his workshop find a secret warehouse guarded by tengu rogues and the beginnings of an army of lead golems.  Clearly, this is bigger than a guild war—Flamel must be stopped before any more of the things can be enchanted.

Pathfinder Bestiary 5 127

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Lamhigyn


I like the lamhigyn.  First off, I just like finding out about things that live in the Abyss that aren’t demons.  I like the greater ecology it suggests, and it’s thematically appropriate that even demons don’t have a lock on this chaotic plane.

Second, with their squat bodies and three eyes and general misbegotten appearance, there’s a cheesy Saturday morning cartoon/afternoon movie quality to lamhigyns.  That’s supported by both their mechanics—their ability to wrap their wings around their victims’ faces to blind them is the kind of move that would have been achieved through practical effects and puppetry in the ’80s—and their descriptive text—with the suggestion that canny PCs could trick a whole hive of lamhigyns into tearing themselves apart, just like a plucky B-movie protagonist in dire straits.

That doesn’t mean lamhigyns aren’t deadly…and in fact that best time to send lamhigyns against the PCs is a) when they’re trying to do something sneaky and shouldn’t be fighting, or b) when they're already worn out and low on resources.  A CR 3 lamhigyn looks a lot scarier when it has 29 friends and a battle will draw other Abyssal residents your way.

A hive of lamhigyns guards a narrow ford near the border of the Abyss.  Ostensibly, the squat outsiders offer a riddle challenge, but since they only speak Abyssal and the “riddles” are rudimentary at best (“What did the lassst man we ate have in hisss pocketsss?”) the challenge is essentially the lamhigyn equivalent of drawing straws to see who gets to dine first.  If adventurers can convince one of their interrogators that they’ve prearranged a deal with another lamhigyn, the whole clutch will fall upon each other in fits of outrage and envy.

The shortest distance from a wizard’s tower to a sealed bank vault is an otherworldly path that at one point travels through the intestines of a giant Abyssal beast.  Fortunately the creature’s digestive tract is so engorged and slow-acting that adventurers have little to fear (treat as nonlethal damage).  But years ago a clutch of lamhigyns took up residence in these dank bowels, and they view live adventurers as a welcome change of menu.

The Abyss births species in unusual ways.  Most lamhigyns are found in ponds and marshes, having hatched from jellied spawn in the manner of frogs.  But some travelers have reported lamhigyns hatching from flying cysts, eating their way out of decaying bile whales, slowly pupating in membranous walls of tissue, and growing in gourd-like bean pods amid the branches of weeping willow trees that actually weep.

Pathfinder Bestiary 5 154

Notice that lamhigyns are Int 5 and speak Abyssal…because in the Abyss, not only does everything want to eat you, but they’ll also talk about that fact incessantly.

It should be noted that the Llamhigyn Y Dwr is a Welsh creature—kind of a bat-armed frog with a stinging tail. I didn’t reference it above because the Paizo version is pretty divorced from the source material.  But if you’re looking to beef up the encounter list for your fantasy Wales, it’s actually a pretty easy tweak: Change its language to Sylvan and its environment to “any rivers or marshes” and you’re good.

(Most likely the legend of the Welsh Llamhigyn Y Dwr came about after an encounter with a stingray.  If that seems unlikely, well…oceans are weird.  A friend of mine once got his picture in the paper when he found a Southeast Asian nautilus on the beach after a storm…which would have been reasonably impressive in, say, California.  We were in Massachusetts.)

PS: Anyone Welsh want to teach us how to say “Lamhigyn”?

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Kurobozu


(Illustration—credited to Kent Hamilton on the Paizo Blog, but to Miguel Regodón Harkness in my printing of Bestiary 5; I believe the former is correct—comes from the Paizo Blog and is © Paizo Publishing.)

There are monks and there are monks.  Which means that when they become undead, there are huecuvas and there are kurobozus. 

The split above hinges on your definition of “monk”—whether the monk in your imagination leans in the direction of the Christian (especially the Benedictine) archetype (in game terms, the cleric character class), or toward a more Eastern archetype à la India’s fakirs or China’s Shaolin monks (and the eponymous monk character class, obviously.)

Obviously, there’s a natural West vs. East split there.  But let’s imagine your game is cosmopolitan enough that both kinds of monks share similar faiths/heritages/backgrounds and monastic communities.  Then the question in cases of undeath is: How did they fail (and/or who failed them)?  If they died after having blasphemed, renounced their faith, or with a stain on their soul, then you get a huecuva.  If they died while violating the precepts of their order, if they failed to remain true to their training, or with a stain on their honor, then you get a kurobozu.  In other words, did they falter in faith or practice, in their dedication to the next world or this one?  The answer determines the type of undead.

Beyond that, kurobozu (also known as black monks) are ki, Wisdom, and breath-stealing menaces.  But unlike many undead who arise from misfortune, they have the (18) Wisdom, lawfulness, and presence of mind to engage very long-term schemes of revenge, even going so far as to recruit mortal allies.  The result is a revenant that can be far more effective than the usual angry spectre, wraith, or ghost in laying low the targets of its vengeance.

In Taito, travel is allowed but carefully monitored, and travelers must often stay overnight at tollhouses that double as inns while their papers are approved.  When Brother Laika died at one such tollhouse deep in debt after a drunken bender, the stain on his honor was such that he returned as a black monk.  Now kurobozu Laika visits inns across Taito in the guise of a thirsty, hooded farmer.  His preys on mendicant priests and serious debtors (those owing more than 50 gp), whose empty pouches and desperation he can smell from a spear’s throw away.

A powerful spell has put the citizens of an entire town to sleep.  What begins as a mystery for a party of adventurers becomes a race against time, as they discover a secret society of ghasts and kurobozus are unaffected by the spell and now brazenly feed on the somnolent citizens.

Adventurers arrive at a monastery just ahead of a brutal snowstorm only to find themselves trapped in a schismatic conflict.  One faction wants to continue to study in peace; the other, full of younger hotheads, believes in testing themselves through battle while demanding increased tribute from the surrounding villages.  A guard of kurobozus is responsible for much of the upheaval, having spent months visiting the leader of the violent faction in secret.  Now that the blizzard has arrived, it is a war of barricades and hallway-by-hallway battles, monk versus monk and monk versus undead, with the adventuring party caught in the middle.

Pathfinder Bestiary 5 153

For more on kurobozus—as well as some really neat info on travel restrictions during the Edo period—read on here.

If you’re looking for the koto-furunishi, it’s back here.

Twenty years ago this February—sadly I can’t tell you the exact date, as I wasn’t smart enough to tape my shows or keep good records back then—my friend George and I trudged through the snow at 2:30 AM for our very first FM radio show.  Twenty years later, I’m still DJing every week and loving every minute of it.  So last night I threw myself an anniversary party to celebrate, and we partied like it was 1997 all over again. 

Stream/download the fun here till Monday, 03/06/17, at midnight.