Saturday, March 29, 2014

[Urbis] Locations of the Cold Frontier - Alpluachra Infestation and Field of Ravens

At the slow-moving confluence of two rivers where dense thickets of reeds cover the banks, numerous alpluachra laze their days away and eat whatever small creatures are careless enough to pass by. These newt-like fey are only dangerous to humanoids if the latter are careless enough to sleep nearby, in which case they will attempt to crawl into the gullets of their chosen victim (decreasing their size, if necessary) where they will devour whatever the victim swallows. The victim will feel increasingly hungry and thirsty without realizing the cause of their predicament, thanks to the creature's numbing slime. While it is possible to kill the alpluachra with sufficiently inventive home remedies (as opposed to the recommended massive amounts of salt), these are likely to have side effects for the victim.

Northwest of the alpluachras, large flocks of ravens frequently congregate in an area where the grass is shorter than elsewhere in the lowlands. They are curious and friendly, and will certainly appreciate offers of food. However, they are also likely to pick up phrases of human speech said near them, and soon the whole flock will repeat the same phrases over and over again, making it difficult to sleep nearby. They will also remember these phrases and utter them again when the explorers revisit, or if they come across other ravens elsewhere.

Someone looking for a raven familiar or animal companion would certainly have good odds of finding one here.

Note: A list of all Urbis-related posts can be found here.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Setting Idea - Fantastic Colony

Over the decades, D&D and its various incarnations (such as Pathfinder) have accumulated some truly bizarre creatures in their various monster manuals. I am not talking about creatures from real world mythology. I am also not talking about hybrid critters like the infamous owlbear. No, I am talking about beings which look like they couldn't have possibly evolved in an Earth-like environment, such as the tentamort:
the yrthak:

 or even the abominable flumph:
So how do all these strange creatures come into contact with fantasy worlds which are, though not exactly Earth, at least very similar to our own world? While you could always claim "A Wizard Did It!" and leave it at that, but I, for one, prefer my settings with a bit more internal logic.

For Urbis, I ruled that all those creatures which look like they couldn't have possibly evolved in an Earth-like environment... in fact didn't, but usually came from other planets in the same solar system, implying that there was travel between the planets in the distant past and these creatures represent invasive species to the local ecosystem. This works well enough if you want to keep those creatures around as an occasional novelty. Still, there is another approach one could take - what if these creatures are not the invasive species, but humans (and elves, and dwarves, and...)?

Let's imagine the following scenario. We start out with a fairly standard D&Desque fantasy world with all the usual tropes and a fairly usual Earth-like environment.

Unfortunately, that world is doomed to die. In 10 years or so, the sun is going to explode, or a similar catastrophe of equal magnitude which is going to leave no survivors. And everyone knows this. Civilzation is still able to function, but the impending doom puts a damper on things.

Then one of the wealthier nations comes up with a plan - evacuate everyone to another world. Sages scry the multiverse, and while most worlds they find are too hostile, there is one fairly "nearby" (in magical terms) which is suitable - a terrestrial world with breathable atmosphere, with plants and animals digestible by humans.

And vice versa.

However, life there evolved along rather different lines. Instead of the birds and mammals and reptiles, the flowers and trees we are familiar with, the ecosystems on this world are extrapolated from the strange life froms of D&D history. With some limitations - if I want to publish this, I would have to limit myself to creatures published under the OGL. In particular, the primary resources would be:
  • The Pathfinder Bestiaries
  • The Tome of Horrors Complete, since that book has been able to collect all sorts of classic D&D monsters due to a special deal with Wizards of the Coast.
Further limitations would be:
  • No "Earth-like" creatures - no recognizable mammals, birds, reptiles and so forth.
  • In particular, no recognizably humanoid creatures, as this would present seemingly relatable people and take away from the alien atmosphere of the setting.
This should still provide a rather lengthy list of suitable creatures. From these, I could find common links which indicate "families" of species, and from there I could fill out the holes in the alien ecosystem, eventually reaching a level of detail similar to that of the Blue Planet RPG (in particular, its excellent Natural Selection sourcebook).

So this is the world which is chosen by the inhabitants of our doomed fantasy world. Magical portals are being built - their cost is vast, equivalent to the wealth of a city-state, yet when the very survival of one's civilization is at stake then the cost must be paid. It is now Year Three of the colonization effort, and various nations have established beachheads and a ring of rapidly growing settlements on this alien world which struggle to make this land fertile for their crops so that they can feed the teeming, desperate masses pouring through the gates. Some of the gates have fallen to orcs and other marauding monsters who are now fleeing to this world as well. But the biggest challenge is the alien environment itself - its many inhabitants, many of which are deadly and many of which are not, and few of the refugees know enough to tell the difference. A number of seemingly intelligent creatures have been encountered, though nothing the refugees would recognize as native civilization - so far, although explorers have found long-abandoned ruins in remote regions...

The PCs can be peacekeepers solving the problems among the settlers, merchants seeking to exploit the riches of this new world, leaders trying to carve their own nations into the wild, or exploers uncovering the secrets of the land.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Setting Idea - Spelljammer Redone

When I first discovered the Spelljammer setting for AD&D way back in the 1980s I was rather exited, and the vision of fantasy heroes traveling through space in sailing ships is still rather compelling. However, over time I came disenchanted with the actual execution. The main problem, to my mind, was that Spelljammer was less a setting than a toolkit to make a setting, and while there is nothing wrong with toolkits I am a setting junkie at heart who thrives on all the socio-economic-cultural details.

Oh, sure, there was the Astromundi Cluster - but that was only a single crystal sphere instead of a network of them, and what's worse it trapped visitors inside. And there were also supplements for the crystal spheres of Faerun (Forgotten Realms), Krynn (Dragonlance), and Oerth (Greyhawk) - but those always felt a poor fit, emphasizing Wildspace as a place to get from Setting A to Setting B instead of a setting in its own right and causing all sorts of problematic questions on why spaceships haven't changed those worlds in any noteworthy way.

So if I were to redo Spelljammer, I'd build an actual setting consisting of multiple star systems from the ground up. But more on that in a moment - if I were to redo Spelljammer, and I actually wanted to publish it, I would also have to alter many of the basic principles for copyright reasons. No beholders, no mind flayers, and no direct copying of ships and other prominent elements - instead I would only use the elements already published for Pathfinder or the OGL license.. Instead, I'd start with the basic premise:
"Fantasy heroes traveling through space in sailing ships."
and see what I can build from there.

Let's start with how our sailing ships are moving through space. In Spelljammer, this was usually done via "spelljamming helms" - which required one of the spellcasters to give up all their spellcasting abilities for the day just so that they could move the ship. Bo-ring! How about moving them via actual sails which are enchanted to catch the solar wind - the ether emitted by the stars? (Implying that this "solar wind" travels fast enough to reach other star systems in a reasonable amount of time, but since this is fantasy we are not bound by real world physics...) Since the star ships require sunlight, this also implies that the easiest time to get off-planet is at dawn on the open ocean (since then the solar wind can hit the ship from directly behind), and the easiest time to land is in the late afternoon, approaching dusk, as the solar wind will then be able to slow down the speed of the ship (but woe to the ship which is caught in the planetary shadow while it attempts to land!) Needless to say, during night any star ships which have landed on a planet are stuck there.

As the ether is emitted by stars, planets can cause "ether wakes" (stealing from Space: 1889 here) which make travel difficult - and not surprisingly, space pirates will frequently lurk there. In deep space, ships generally have too great speed differences to intercept them directly. Thus, to intercept another ship, you have to (a) be faster and (b) explode some "ether bombs" in its path which cause localized ether disruption which force the other ship to lose some of its speed.

Between star systems there are vast currents of ether which ships can use to travel between them (using cross-sailing if they have to go in the wrong direction). Of course, given that the stars are the sources of ether, there also must be sinks. These are the "dark stars" which absorb the ether and slowly grow larger over the eons. As their mass grows, they also accumulate stellar detritus up to and including rogue planetoids and planets. Needless to say, only the most desperate humans are willing to travel to these locations (which is why they make swell pirate bases and the like) - but there are all sorts of nasty life forms which thrive there.

Which brings us to the actual setting. Spelljammer got a lot of its imagery from the Age of Sail - so let's model the worlds of the setting on the actual Age of Sail. In general, the following regions exist on the star maps:
  • Core Worlds: These star systems are the seats of a number of interstellar empires, some of which are clear analogues to the real world empires of the Age of Sail while others fill out some of the more common fantasy tropes (like the home worlds of the Elven Space Armada and so forth). Presumably, there used to be an older "Precursor" empire which scattered the humans across different world (whether or not those precursors were human is another question I will need to examine later). In general, these worlds are highly developed and orderly, which is not the same as "peaceful", let alone "free of intrigue".
  • Colonial Space: The various stellar empires compete for colonial worlds and their treasures, and thus there is a wider ring of such planets and star systems surrounding the Core Worlds. There will be major settlements which are fairly civilized, but the whole area is still a fairly chaotic frontier. Needless to say, this is where pirates and privateers will be the most active, as the trade routes are the most profitable here.
  • Wildspace: Here Be Space Dragons. The distant star systems beyond the reach of the empires of the Core Worlds. Explorers may go there, but only heavily armed. Anything might be out there, including entire civilizations of the more disturbing creatures.
Those are my first ideas for the setting. What are your thoughts?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

[Urbis] Locations of the Cold Frontier - Grass Circles and Cloning Vats

In a certain region of the southern grasslands, on days when the sun is shining particularly brightly, the tall grass will ripple in waves and eventually flatten down in circles. The locals know to stay away at such times, as this is when invisible spirits will enter this world from the realm of Faerie, especially Lurkers in Light. They will mercilessly harrass anyone they find nearby and even kill them. Animals will instinctively flee from such grass circles, and wise explorers will follow their examples. As the Lurkers become partially visible as the sunlight fades, they will not stay after darkness. A cloud passing the sun might also reveal their presence.

When war between the First City and its Nardhome colony became inevitable, many archmages of the colony prepared for the worst and established hidden sanctums where they could regroup. This sanctum, near the Crystal Falls, was established by Zohar, one of the disciples of Nyros himself - the man who would become a god. The facility is entirely underground, covered by grass and surrounded by magically enhanced stone highly resistant to the spells of intruders. However, time and erosion have weakened its foundations, allowing ground water to seep in at the sides and half-submerging the compound. Furthermore, the bio-alchemical substances produced to this day by the autonomously working magitech have started to seep outside, which gives the grass above strange discolorations and mutations - and thus, a clue to the facility's existence. However, explorers who wish to enter through the weakened sides by digging into the ground should probably take care to protect themselves from the somewhat toxic, not to mention mutagenic waters. They didn't know about this in advance? Well, that's too bad...

The facility is protected against teleportation (as well as scrying), except for a hidden teleportation beacon. A careful search of the premises - which will require either draining the murky water or a lot of diving - will reveal numerous enchanted items useful for alchemy and bio-thaumaturgy, beyond anything the Flannish Cities can produce at the moment. The heart of the complex are five cloning vats, which within the span of four weeks would grow clones of creatures whose blood was inserted into them via a special receptacle - and if the original were slain, their souls would automatically enter the clone. However, only one of these vats still works (and it might produce odd mutations in the clones, given its age). The others were heavily damaged ages ago, and have malfunctioned and broken open. The malfunctioning vats have produced two gibbering mouthers, which hibernate in the murky waters most of the time but will awake there is a lot of activity near them.

Note: A list of all Urbis-related posts can be found here.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

[Urbis] Locations of the Cold Frontier - Sovereign Crab Fossils and Plague Pits

South of the Fungal Gardens, a number of low, roughly shield-shaped hills break through the otherwise flat grasslands. These hills are up to 50 yards in diameter and have fairly steep edges but flat tops. If one were to remove the topsoil, it would be possible to discover that these are in fact fossils of massive crabs, similar to the fossilized megafauna currently excavated at Falkhofen. Turning them into gargantuan fossil golems would be difficult, but not impossible.

In the vast conflict that ultimately destroyed the First City colony of Nardhome, multiple artificial plagues were deliberately released to weaken the defenders, and in some places these plagues still linger. One of these is a swamp area west of the inland volcano, where a virulent zombie virus still lingers. Given its origin as a bioweapon, the virus only affects humanoids, turning them into plague zombies if they are not treated. The locals know enough to stay away, and to shoot zombies from a long way off, but explorers might be less prepared. Draining the swamp might lead to the discovery of First City artifacts still remaining here, though it will also threaten to spread the zombie virus over a larger area.

Note: A list of all Urbis-related locations can be found here.