Monday, January 21, 2019

Paradise Dragon

(Illustration by Leesha Hannigan comes from the PathfinderWiki and is © Paizo Publishing.)

It was pretty much inevitable that we’d get planar dragons.  (Honestly, I expected them sooner than Bestiary 6, but outer and esoteric dragons arrived instead, a sign of Pathfinder’s pulp sci-fi/horror obsession).

What’s not inevitable is their naming convention.  It would have been really easy to just slap planar monikers like “Abyssal” or “Maelstrom” on top of these dragons.  Instead, we got something far more interesting: names that seem more conceptual, more distilled, that tap into essential aspects of those planes—apocalypse, bliss, crypt, edict, havoc, infernal, paradise, rift.  You feel like each dragon species could have its own planar layer or demiplane based on its specific descriptor.  (Elysium probably has many fields; Havoc feels like a specific one.)  It’s not a huge difference, but it’s a subtle and meaningful one. More importantly, it’s a surprise from the authors, and this late in the Bestiary life cycle surprises are to be treasured.

So…the paradise dragon.  Like all planar dragons, it manifests a chunk of its home plane around itself (a nice touch that feels very video-gamey or anime but still awesome).  The paradise dragon’s specific special abilities also pack a lot of heavenly flavor.  The text indicates that they create holy sanctums of light and harmony to shield their followers, and that extends to their abilities, which aid, heal, resurrect, rebound, bull rush, or banish as needed, allowing them to reshape even the battlefield to their liking.

Like archons, these dragons are pretty much the ne plus ultra of right and good…but for adventure design purposes, there’s always that one bad apple more concerned with his particular rightness than the public goodness.  Also, in the single sentence of descriptive text we get, B6 mentions these dragons attract followers…and what policies or actions a planar dragon deems necessary to protect its followers may not jibe with PCs’ plans.

The paradise dragon Pearl of Moonlight discovered the long-hidden prison lair of Alefbetraxus, an elder wyrm.  Overawed and a little infatuated by his age and grandeur, Pearl seeks to free the primordial dragon, and she will brook no interference.  Unfortunately, Alefbetraxus is still guided by his instinctual drives, one of which (in fact, the reason for his imprisonment) is to eradicate any and all forms of elemental planar pollution.  Poor Pearl has no inkling what he might do to the world she guards, where one in twenty humans has geniekin blood.

Paradise dragons are discouraged from dwelling too long on the Material Plane, as cults inevitably form around them.  The empyreal lord Enoch the Admonisher, Scourge of Pride, makes it his business to test the character of these paradise dragons, often using powerful adventurers as cat’s-paws.

Since the Shattering, there has been no single lawful good plane—a triumph of existential undermining sponsored by the daemons of the Shroud.  What remains are scattered islands of conceptual reality—the Seven-and-Seventy Heavens—each one held together and defended only by the iron will and adamantine claws of a paradise dragon and its followers.  (This includes whichever archons haven't yet fled the multiverse in shame.)

Pathfinder Bestiary 6 104–105

Not all the planar dragons appear in Bestiary 6; some show up in Pathfinder Adventure Path issues.  I think at time of writing we’re still missing one from the Maelstrom (PathfinderWiki indicates it’s the tumult dragon).  (Or maybe that plane rejects having a designated dragon species as being too orderly…or maybe doesn’t need one, thanks to the protean race…)

Speaking of the dragons we got (or didn’t)…we were probably never going to get all of the abomination, humour, mineral, thaumaturgic, sin, and virtue dragons that Mike McArtor teased all the way back in Pathfinder #4: Fortress of the Stone Giants.  But I fervently wish we had gotten some of them, and to this day I love the weirder, wilder Golarion they suggested.  If you ever get the chance to dig up the early Pathfinder issues—especially those explosive first 18 issues—do it!

Sunday, January 13, 2019


(Illustration by Dave Allsop comes from the Paizo Blog and is © Paizo Publishing.)

As this blog has unfolded, one of the themes we’ve hit on many, many times before is that the larger and more powerful giants become, the more they move into the realm of folklore and myth.  You can envision a world where ogres, hill giants, and even certain conceptions of stone and fire giants could be natural outgrowth of evolutionary and environmental forces (for a given value of “natural”).  But once you get past frost giants, natural shoves out of the way in favor of supernatural.

The paradigm for this is the cloud giant race, which comes to us not from Norse myths, but children’s fairy tales—and boy does it show.  Between their magical powers, their cloud castles*, and the Manichean, good/evil alignment split of cloud giant societies, it’s clear we’re dealing with creatures out of story and legend. (*Cloud castles seem to be more a D&D thing than a Pathfinder thing if you’re reading the manuals closely, but I like them so let’s just go with it.)

Now, if you ever shivered in fear when your parents read “Jack and the Beanstalk” to you at bedtime…imagine the stories cloud giants tell their kids.  What could terrify a monster child who regularly helps his mother grind human bones into bread?  The answer is the papinijuwari.

As you might guess from the name, the papinijuwari is a monster from Australia’s indigenous people, specifically the Tiwi of Bathurst and Melville Islands.  It’s a cyclops but worse, searching with its single lambent eye for the young and the weak to devour.  They’re such figures of terror that shooting stars are thought to be papinijuwaris flying overhead (a pretty stark departure from the wishing stars we Americans grow up with!).  All in all, it's a hell of a monster.

What I love about Pathfinder’s papinijuwari is that the designers have translated the monster into game stats without sanding down any of the horror.  They feed on disease. They wear skulls, because of course they do.  And they fly through the air by clutching a burning torch, a detail from folklore I’m so glad the Bestiary 5 designers retained.  (Interestingly, according to the rules this talent works only when the papinijuwari is 500 ft. above the ground, which raises questions about how they take off and land—can they only fly from mountaintop to mountaintop, or magical cloudbank to magical cloudbank…and do they just plummet to the ground …or are they allowed to land?)  But never mind the physics—take a look at that image from Dave Allsop.  Now imagine that thing hurtling down from overhead, landing with a thud in a three-point stance straight out of Iron Man, torch held aloft, hunger gleaming in its eye as it sniffs the air for its prey.  Now that’s a monster.

In fact, it might be my favorite monster in Bestiary 5, and that’s a book that includes the liminal sprite.  Best of all, I never even noticed it—not once—until I sat down to write this entry.  Which is a great reminder that, even in a book I think I know, there are always surprises waiting—and the reason I blog is to find them and share the excitement with you all.

Now to spoil that valedictory ending with a postscript: I think the best way to deploy papinijuwaris is to drop mention of them in your very first session.  Make them sound like an old wives’ tale; make them sound positively ridiculous—nothing like the grim and gritty horrors your players are actually going to face.  Drop another mention at 4th level or so, and then say nothing for ages  And then, when they least expect it, rain evil giants down upon them with a vengeance.

Adventurers use an ancient ritual to call a meteor shower down upon the necropolis of a lich.  The aerial bombardment destroys the hated undead’s tower and reduces his city-state to rubble.  But the devastation also draws the attention of a tribe of papinijuwaris eager to feast on the lich’s diseased subjects…and perhaps make a home for themselves in this new untapped hunting ground.

In addition to its usual reprehensible cargo, a slave ship arrives in port with a strange cyclops chained in the hold and a crew sick with blister fever.  The slavers quickly grease the palms they need to slip free of quarantine, and soon plague and a papinijuwari run rampant through the city.

An adventuring party is brought together by loss. They are all survivor of cloud giant depredations—some lost family to raiders, others were raised in villages overseen (quite literally) by lords in cloud castles overhead, and still others had their homes just scooped away by giant dredges.  No matter where their travels take them, they all know that they are gaining in power and resources until the day they can challenge the giants on their own misty turf.  And just as they are gearing up for their first assault on their oppressors, the king—the high king!—of the cloud giants approaches them.  “I need your help,” he tells the shocked adventurers, “for my oracles have read the signs.  The enemies of both our races, the papinijuwaris, are coming.”

Pathfinder Bestiary 5 188

If you’re looking for ways to break out of Pathfinder’s and especially D&D’s default Eurocentric atmosphere, I think there’s an amazing campaign just waiting to be constructed out of fragments of Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, Australian and other Pacific myths, and your own imagination.  Start with the papinijuwari and go nuts.

Monday, January 7, 2019


(Illustration by Jose Parodi comes from the Pathfinder Facebook page and is © Paizo Publishing.)

Pakalchis feed on the fear and insecurity of failing relationships,” says Bestiary 5.  And if you’ve ever been in a failing relationship, that’s pretty much all you need to know to convince you that these sahkils are the absolute worst monsters in B5—end of story, full stop, done.

And that’s even before you take into account that they can skip between the Material and Ethereal Planes (never a good thing) as a move action (even worse)…dominate you into giving into your worst instincts, fears, and insecurities and sabotage your love…and then strangle, poison, or pierce you to death when it’s all over and you’re no longer amusing to toy with.  Remember how mad Iago made you when you read Othello in high school?  This is Iago with game stats and semi-immortality.  She may be CR 9 on the page, but she’s CR 29 against your heart.

Also, one last note to underscore why pakalchis are the absolute worst: they feed on “failing relationships.”  Not troubled, not star-crossed, not tumultuous—failing.  (And since sahkils are former psychopomps, from a lore/flavor perspective it’s not unreasonable to assume that they have at least a little foresight/precognition about such matters.).  In other words, these relationships were already doomed.  The hurt was already there.  Pakalchis make it vastly worse so as to feed on the couple’s misery…but if you slay a pakalchi, that’s not going to lift the dark clouds over its victims and make flowers spring up in their footsteps.  It just means the relationship is likely going to flounder and fail anyway…and when the end comes, there won’t even be a monster to blame.

Young men in town have been disappearing—often after violent quarrels that leave their sweethearts heartbroken (and too often sobbing and bruised).  Certain signs—vines in unlikely places, bits of clothing caught on thorns, and trails of flower petals—suggest a nymph or some other fey influence.  But the true culprit is a pakalchi whose domain includes a thorny thicket in this world and a grasping, hungry forest on the Ethereal Plane.

Emika and Bez-Sha are twins—budded in the same instant from the same outcropping of direstone in the Cradle of Bones.  Though the catrina sisters were once mirror images of each other, Bez-Sha abandoned the psychopomp order to become a sahkil, gaining in power as she discarded mercy and other weaknesses.  The only hint at their kinship now is the swaying gait of their skeletal forms and the identical shade of tea roses adorning their brows.  The sisters have not spoken since Bez-Sha fled Death’s Realm, but Emika stretches her schedule and her oaths as far as they will allow to search the multiverse for news of her twin. Often this means hiring mortal adventures—sometimes with gold, sometimes with promises of future intercession in matters cosmic.

Napoleon’s occupation of Spain leads to calls for revolt throughout Mexico.  To suppress the uprisings, the Spanish colonial governments rely heavily on mercenary wizards, particularly conjurers whose summoned allies excel at breaking up demonstrations and ferreting out revolutionaries. Doing so, however, pierces the veils between this world and the next, allowing shadows, spectres, and extraplanar threats to creep through.  Recently a pakalchi managed to ooze over from the Realm of Mists.  She has taken to haunting the son of a local marqués and his betrothed, the daughter of a wealthy importer. The lovers’ misery has exacerbated tensions between the families and driven the distracted marqués to ever-harsher reprisals against his people, magnifying the fear and misery that fatten the pakalchi and her allies.

Pathfinder Bestiary 5 216

The original image of La Calavera Catrina that inspired Pathfinder’s catrina psychopomp and possibly the pakalchi actually dates from a century later than the Mexican War of Independence: 1910, rather than 1810.  But today the images of a beautiful woman and/or a friendly skeleton wearing a flower crown is so tied to Mexico I couldn’t resist playing with history a little for that third adventure seed.  Mashing up wizards and Napoleon is, of course, also a big nod toward Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Painajai Demon

As much as I love Pathfinder and D&D, being a fan can lock your imagination into certain patterns.  You hear the word “demon,” and immediately your brain spits out “chaotic evil outsider native to the Abyss” like a cash register dishing out change.  That’s why I find it essential—particularly after a childhood spent reading way too many shared-world franchise novels—to read as widely as possible to break out of those patterns.  “Demon” can mean the Lovecraftian horrors of Anthony Horowitz’s Gatekeepers series, the annoying imps inside the Discworld’s personal organizers, or even (as “daemons”) children’s souls incarnated as animal familiars in The Golden Compass.

So I dig the painajai demon because—while it definitely is a chaotic evil outsider native to the Abyss—it is also a dream-haunting nightmare that seems outside the norm for Pathfinder/D&D demons.  A spider-eyed, frothing horror that stalks the Dimension of Dreams, it spreads fear and confusion via psychic magic and conjured horrors, while controlling the landscape via mirage arcana and hungry pit. Once it has a bead on its prey, it hurls its chain spear into its victims and then drags them in close to continue their torments.  Combining some of the the worst elements of night hags, kytons, and bolas spiders, it’s a relatively fresh take on the demon category I really like.

You can certainly use painajais as written—psychic-magically gifted foils to Desna’s uinuja azata servants.  But your campaign could easily find other roles for them as well.  Maybe in your home setting painajai demons are the main threat to sleepers, rather than night hags.  What does the world look like when a bad nightmare might lead to the Abyss?  Or imagine a world where fiends are rare, like the Forgotten Realms in 2e AD&D.  What would it look like if painajai demons were the only demons known?  Players who have gotten complacent rolling dice against dretches and babaus will be in for a shock when the word “demon” automatically means a CR 14 horror waiting to ambush your dream self.

Adventurers awaken in an inn to discover every single surface covered in spider silk—and every guest but them is similarly cocooned.  The message is an unsubtle reminder that they owe a favor to the aranea queen, Leilani.  Traveling to her mist-shrouded kingdom, they are given a task that will release them from her web of obligation.  An avatar of the aranea trickster god Nasari has been captured by painajais, and party must travel into the Dreamskein to set him free.

“A stately pleasure dome” is how Armapan Singh envisioned his Taj Berin.  What he did not envision was that it would attract the attention of a pair of fiendish lovers.  An avatarna rakshasa and her painajai demon consort have occupied the palace and turned it into den of pleasures and addictions from this world and the world of dreams.  In addition to cleaning out the Taj, Singh himself must be recovered as well—preferably alive and with his soul intact—for his moderating influence is all that keeps the government’s Circle of Adepts from surrendering to their wizard-supremacist impulses.

The solution to cracking the Vault of Marbled Midnight is not a literal key but a musical one: a note no human voice can sing.  Cameron of the Knife has recruited a fleshsculpter who specializes in demonic grafts to craft a sort of vocal sac implant he believes will do the trick.  But not just any demonflesh will do—they need the throaty resonance of a painajai.  That means hunting down the hunters of the Dimension of Dreams and successfully bringing the grisly trophy home while it is still viable.

Occult Bestiary 19

Happy New Year’s Eve!

Apologies to my Blogger readers: I posted yesterday’s entry before remembering to search for an ouroboros image, and now I’m too scared of Blogger’s buggy interface to try editing the posted file.  You can see the image here, though.

If you’re looking for the outlaw troop, we’ll be covering that when we loop back around to the goblin troop.  If you’re looking for the ovinnik, we covered it back here.

Sunday, December 30, 2018


The ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail, is a common ancient symbol, appearing in Egyptian, Greek, Norse, Gnostic, Vedic, and South American texts and carvings...which is interesting, because there aren’t actually a lot of stories about it (compared to say, dragons or giants or even sphinxes).  Instead, the ouroboros’s value seems to be almost entirely as a symbol—for life and death, consumption and renewal, light and dark, the circle of samsara, and so forth.

Given what a well-established symbol the ouroboros is, the first question about it was always going to be: When would someone turn the ouroboros into a Pathfinder monster?  And the second question was: How would someone turn the ouroboros into a Pathfinder monster?  (A serpent constantly eating its own tail is great from a visual perspective, but it’s going to have trouble making a bite attack.)

But if it’s a snake made of thousands of snakes…on the Astral Plane…constantly devouring and regenerating itself…with blood that’s can raise the dead or baleful polymorph you into a swarm of snakes…and it’s CR 21 for good measure…now that’s a Pathfinder monster.

I also dig the video game-ness (or 4th Ed D&D-ness) of its Self-Consumption (Su) ability—that if you damage it down to half its hit points, it stops eating its own tail, which both makes it more vulnerable, but also unlocks some of its special abilities (and makes it pissed, presumably).  I don’t need every monster to get special abilities for being bloodied, but it is a nice perk for certain significant baddies.  It also works thematically.  One of the exceptions to my “There are no stories about these things” gloss above is the Norse World Serpent, Jörmungandr, who could be considered a kind of ouroboros.  One of the climactic acts of Ragnarök is Jörmungandr releasing his tail from his mouth and surfacing to fight the gods. There’s no reason fighting an ouroboros at your game table can’t be just as epic.

Adventurers discover a divine secret: the goddess of death and the goddess of birth are one and the same. In her gestalt form, the Splintered Queen dwells in a palace ringed not by a moat, but by an ouroboros that both symbolizes her twin portfolios and makes a singularly unforgiving guardian.

Planar travel through the nested Tiers of the Celestine Stairs is difficult.  Even a successful casting of the gate spell opens the archmage’s mind to maddening influences from beyond the Tiers. (An unsuccessful casting may result in disintegration, polymorphing into a gibbering mouther, the calling of a shoggoth, or worse.)  But a few rifts connect the Tiers, the most famous being the Ouroboros Gate—a living ouroboros whose ravenous coils can be traversed to reach the vast expanse of the Astral Tier.

With the awakening of the serpent god Sardsorius, the serpentfolk race, long thought extinct, has erupted from the bowels of the earth. Worse yet, their shamans are poised to succeed in a quest that has eluded them for millennia: piercing the veil hiding Refuge, the last lost retreat of the elves. Embattled on all sides, the elves risk everything to resurrect their mythic hero king, Kin-Yalyn—including tasking a rogue band of adventurers to acquire the ouroboros blood the ritual demands.

Pathfinder Bestiary 6 206–207

Hey!  Remember me?

I think I first read about the ouroboros in the Xanth books…which means I just admitted to reading the Xanth books. (Leave me alone, this was middle school.)  The use of an ouroboros as a moat monster is a direct homage to one of these novels (The Source of Magic, I think).  While we’re at it, any elves vs. serpentfolk scenario I write probably owes a debt to Ghostwalk.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if I’d posted this entry last April, when my article on resurrection was coming out in Pathfinder Adventurer Path?  Yeeeeeah, that would have been smart.

Thursday, March 8, 2018


In the entry on ourdivars, Bestiary 6 states:

Ourdivars are spontaneously formed when called forth via spells like lesser planar ally.  They toil at the behest of their conjurer creators, acting as tools of chaos across the planes.

This is suuuuuper interesting to me.  The creature-spontaneously-created-in-the-act-of-conjuration is a common trope of fantasy fiction.  But in fantasy gaming, we tend to assume all outsiders come from a specific somewhere—after all, our characters can visit those planes.  Even summoners, who call into being conjured creatures the way most people conjure up chili fries, supposedly get the spirits they call from…someplace.  That makes an outsider brought into existence purely in the moment of conjuration an interesting beast indeed.

Now give it the body of a crystal lamia, with a weapon hand that can morph from spear to saber to morning star with just an effort of will (as if they were Junkions in Act 2 of The Transformers: The Movie!)…well, that’s a monster worth conjuring/creating. 

But once they're created, how do they react?  As living embodiments of chaos, following orders to the letter isn't going to be a strong suit, even in the service of a chaotic caster.  Are they thrilled at their sudden coming-into-being, or do they seek to return to the Maelstrom, à la Mr. Meeseeks (“Existence is pain!”)?  That leaves a lot of room to play for an inventive GM and a chaos-loving conjurer.

The enemies of Mortis Minelus have all wound up dead.  But each time, the method has been different—beaten to death, bludgeoned, pierced, slashed, even warped by some form of raw magic.  Minelus himself wears the purple and blue robes of the pacifist Morning Glory sect, having sworn “to raise no weapon, nor fire a spell in anger”—and spells testing his veracity have returned nothing incriminating.  The truth is that Mortis Minelus is an accomplished conjurer, using called ourdivars to do his wicked work.

Debtors know they can always find refuge in the Abbey of Alms.  First, the land the abbey sits upon is properly part of the March of Lady Weatherall, and thus not within the jurisdiction of the Lord-Mayor or his Dunners.  Second and more importantly, the constantly shifting stained glass window in the ramshackle abbey calls ourdivars to fend off any scion of law—be they archons, devils, paladins, or even humble local watchmen trying to fulfill a writ of collection.

Lamias and spirit nagas sometimes summon ourdivars for coitus, not combat.  The resulting entropic creatures are inventively deadly and hate the trappings of humanoid civilization even more than their serpentine mothers.

Pathfinder Bestiary 6 213

Do I get to say I’m the authority on nagas?  Yeah, I’m gonna say it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018


High-CR aeons are concerned with the great dualities of existence: creation and destruction, life and death, the peaks and ebbs of karma as it ripples like a sine wave through existence.

The othaos, being only CR 5, handles a more elemental duality: light and darkness, protecting the one from the other so that the worlds of shine and shadow remain in harmony.  If a mysterious obelisk casts an unnaturally large shadow or outsiders made of light make an incursion onto the Material Plane, expect an othaos to manifest.

The Spear of Dumar is an incandescent stalactite of unspeakable size that casts a rosy glow over the dwarf city below.  It is lovingly tended by the Glowstones, a sect of earth druids and elementalists, as well as an othaos that has spent more than a generation inspecting the unique crystal.  When the Spear of Dumar begins to dim unexpectedly, the Glowstones recruit adventurers to rule out sabotage.  They also seek a way to contain the othaos—the aeon seems mad with grief and has already attacked two innocent citizens.

The Mirror Plane actually moves through the Shadow Plane, a ribbon of glowing silver in the eternal darkness.  Othaoses guard crucial passages and intersections along this winding road, preventing incursions from the Shadow Plane onto the Mirrorways, and vice versa.  Owbs are these aeons’ particular foes, and they will attack anyone who seems marked by their stain—including adventurers injured in combat by the magical weapons or death throes of the dark folk.

The expansion of the Incandium, Porthos’s college of magic, has led to an explosion of magical innovations and curiosities, with recent graduates eager to apply their new talents for the public good (or at least for public acclaim).  Chief among these are Porthos’s new streetlights—some magical, some alchemical—which shine brighter than torches throughout the city.  An othaos takes exception to this interruption in the cycle of night and day, dimming or consuming every streetlamp he can find.  With no Lamplighters’ Guild to pick up the slack, Porthos is facing a rash of muggings, assaults, burglaries, and attacks from cloakers, gremlins, and other photophobic monstrosities.

Pathfinder Bestiary 5 10

I’m no expert in the subject, but I’m pretty sure the othaos would make a kickass Pokemon. 

Also, I could use an othaos to do something about the apartment building across the street that has taken a chunk out of my bedroom’s natural light.

Longtime reader/encyclopedic dr-archeville gave me the heads-up about the Pathfinder Second Edition playtest.  I was really hoping this day wouldn’t come anytime soon, but given the life cycle of the product line—they’d splatted pretty much all the hardcover splatbooks it seems reasonable to splat—and the general veering of the tabletop world away from complexity/having a stat for every situation to ease of creation/use, 2e Pathfinder was probably inevitable.   (The learnings from the development of Starfinder was probably also a big third factor.)

So naturally I’m a little bit nervous (like Garth in Wayne’s World, I fear change), but of course I’m excited too.  Any time an edition switches over, that creates opportunities for hungry creatives like yours truly—and possibly for many of you out there as well. 

Last night The New Indie Canon went architectural and intellectual, courtesy of our guest DJ, mcmansionhell’s Kate Wagner.  We had a great time spinning songs about buildings, architecture, the financial crash, and masses great and smol.  A huge thank-you to her for coming out and to many of you for listening.  If you missed the fun, stream/download it now till Monday, 03/12/18, at midnight.