Every once in a while an RPG supplement unveils a taint mechanic of some kind.* While on the whole I don’t feel the need for too many bolted-on systems, I tend to like taint rules, since they do an nice job of marrying atmosphere/story with game mechanics/penalties in a way that disturbs the players as well as their PCs.
Or you can just throw a death dog at them. Taint achieved!
Because nothing says a land is tainted like horse-sized, two-headed, worm-infested dogs. They're just…wrong. And that’s what I love about them. If they were undead, you could channel some positive energy and call it a day. If they were three-headed like cerberi, you’d immediately know fiends were involved and arm up for that. But death dogs… Is it something in the water? A mutation or mutagen? Are the worms and the two heads tied to a similar cause, or are they separate syndromes? Is the land cursed? Did the lord anger the local nature spirits? Has the doorway between life and death been cracked open? Did the hand of a daemon or god of disease touch this place? It’s all wide open.
The end result is a dog that’s much scarier than its base CR would suggest—especially if it brings a pack of its friends and a death worg along.
A cult of hobgoblins devoted to diseased Irduin Death’s Hand displaces the local goblinoids. Despite a series of grisly raids, most of the hobs have succumbed to infection by the time adventurers find them. Their death dog allies are still alive and well, however. Nor do all the hobgoblins lie quiet, as those who faltered in their faith at the end of their painful lives have risen as huecuvas.
A rich merchant has been made a lord. He rides to Fairview to claim his barony, but refuses to participate in the local rites of investiture, which he regards as pagan nonsense. Within weeks, strange centaurs begin to appear, standing silent vigil on certain ancient hills. Meanwhile death dogs begin to harass local shepherds and livestock. One of them, a death worg, shocks everyone by marching into the local temple during services to demand the lord’s fealty (or his daughters liver, the other head adds). As weapons are discouraged during services, he escapes before the guards can be roused. Now the furious lord hires adventurers to bring him the wolf’s pelt.
Necromancy is a dead branch of magic—literally. The last practitioners were killed 200 years ago, and no magic lies in the necromantic words of the few scrolls and spellbooks of the Black Art that remain. Then some novice adventurers save a child from a two-headed, disease-ridden wolf. Following the wolf’s trail, they find more of its corrupted fellows, along with foul streams, rotting carrion, and blighted greenery. It’s as if the land itself is cursed. Their journey eventually leads to a grotto that local tales name as the entrance to the Land of the Dead. To the adventurers’ surprise, they find there is a door there…and it is ajar. It closes at the warmth of their touch, but the damage is done. Someone opened the door to Death, and the Black Art lives again.
—Pathfinder Bestiary 4 44
*For my 3.0/3.5 readers the taint rules in Oriental Adventures, Book of Vile Darkness, and Heroes of Horror come to mind. I believe 2e Ravenloft had some as well, as did the D&D/AD&D setting Savage Coast. I know lots other systems make a big deal of taint or similar mechanics, Call of Cthulhu especially, but I’m less familiar with them. I don't recall off the top of my head if Pathfinder has explored this much, though I did find this homebrew post by Jason Bulmahn.
Can we all agree that “Death Dog” is an amazing name for a band. I want to be the drummer in Death Dog?
Finally, bear with me if my posts are late or short this and next week. Life got weird.
Radio time! This week’s show was kind of a “Best Of” show, as I was a) kicking the tires on our new board and b) introducing myself to a whole new bloc of listeners, since the university has agreed to start broadcasting WMUC in select dining halls. I also gave some love to the 20th anniversaries of Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York and Tom Petty’s Wildflowers. But all I really want you to do (besides listen to my show) is play the hell out of Holychild.
(Link good till Friday, 11/14, at midnight. If the feed skips, let the file load and Save As an mp3.)