Friday, August 18, 2017

Munavri


(Illustration by Kim Sokol comes from the Paizo Blog and is © Paizo Publishing.)

After all this time, I think we finally have it: a worthy subterranean human race. 

Drow have elves.  Dwarves have duergar.  Gnomes have svirfneblin.  Orcs have…well, orcs.  Halflings have no one cares (or dark creepers if you’re being kind).  You get the idea. 

But subterranean humans have tended to be confined to lost cities or are so corrupted/devolved by life underground that they are no longer recognizable human.  In the first category we have “basic”/Known World D&D’s Cynidiceans, Greyhawk’s Lerara (once again I’m pointing you to the excellent Dragon #241), and Forgotten Realms’ Deep Imaskarri.  In the latter, we have morlocks, dark folk, and even (in certain canons) skulks or derros.  Those are great races, but none are what you’d call human anymore (and only dark folk really build civilizations of their own, rather than squatting in caverns or occupying ruins).  Unless I’ve majorly overlooked something, we’ve never had a human race that was both recognizably human and spread out throughout the Darklands/Underdark/Deepearth.

And then here come the munavris.  Are they human with a dash of something extra?  Sure, they’re telepathic albinos.  Do they have a distinctive culture?  Yeah, the telepathy and the need for genetic diversity have led to open minds and even opener relationships; they also worship the empyreal lords and fight in jade armor.  Can they go toe-to-toe with the drow and duergar realms?  They don’t have to, because they sail purple-sailed ivory ships across subterranean seas, battling urdefhans and retreating to jade islands that ward off aboleths. And to top it all off, they’ve got a neat object reading ability that lets them use almost any device—including weapons, armor, or spell-trigger items for a short period of time.  That alone makes them instantly iconic.  (And you can even play them as a PC race!)

All in all, I think the munavri are a real coup.  And they belong on the underground seas of your game world.

Based out of the sunken city of Mushroot, adventurers find a magical torc made of a metal they don’t recognize.  Assuming they can smuggle it past the duergar tax agents, their dark dancer fixer agrees to set them up with someone who can help.  He arranges a meeting with a strange, pale humanoid.  The woman, who calls herself a munavri, barely needs to touch the item to recover the command word, and offers hints as to its origin. But she will not reveal more until the adventurers allow her to accompany them on their journey.

Most airships don’t do well on seas—and they have no business being underground!  But when a waterspout seizes the Falcon’s Promise and plucks it out of the sky, that’s where a party of adventurers find themselves: floating on a vast ebony lake in an unthinkably large cavern.  An encounter with a water orm goes badly when a jittery crewmember looses a harpoon at it.  They are only saved by the arrival of munavri corsairs, who warn them that far worse threats await them if they cannot get their ship aloft or under sail soon.  (And how they will get back to the open sky is another question entirely…)

The Spear of Prophecy is a jagged shard of jade the size of a mountain erupting from the Stillwind Plains.  A monastery sits about halfway up, carved into the Spear itself.  Pilgrims who go to treat with the light-shy, prophecy-spinning monks, oracles, occultists who dwell there have no idea that the monastery leads all the way down to a sunken sea miles beneath, patrolled by the monks’ far more piratical kinfolk.

Occult Bestiary 34 & Pathfinder Bestiary 6 197

Personally, I’m not enough of a sci-fi or old-school psionics fan to really geek out over telepathy.  If I were running a campaign I’d probably skip that and just concentrate on the advanced object reading—that’s an awesome enough mental power for any race.

On another personal note, I’m really conflicted by the munavri art. It’s excellently done and all the details are right—that jade armor even actually looks wearable!—but the overall sense is off.  I totally get how it happened…the art order was probably for an agile, good-aligned, albino human psychic race in jade armor…and the artist delivered.  But the pose is that of a fey trickster—every time I see it, I get the sense that if we filled in the white background, we’d see this munavri lounging on a toadstool chatting with Alice and the Caterpillar. For a sense of munavris as badass, aboleth- and urdefhan-fighting sailors of subterranean seas, Darklands Revisited’s art is sketchier in detail but more on point in terms of tone.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Mummy Lord


Say what you will about Brendan Fraser—Lord knows everyone else has—but the Mummy franchise completely reshuffled how we think of mummies on the power scale.  When I was a kid, they were the joke of the monster world: a fourth-stringer, a Halloween costume made out of toilet paper.  Now we expect our mummies to not just deliver the mummy rot, but also whip up a sandstorm, explode into a swarm of beetles, summon elementals out of stone, and generally wreak havoc.  Which is hella RPG fodder right there.

So when you want recreate that cinematic feel at the table, adding class levels to the base mummy isn’t good enough.  Nor is defaulting to the lich template—there’s just not enough flavor in the lich’s special ability list.  Besides, when your PCs finally kill the mummy, you want them grabbing all the treasure they can and running for the exit as the mummy’s pyramid falls apart around them, not setting up an archaeological dig to hunt for a phylactery for the next three play sessions.  Liches are symbols of eternity, but they can slow play down.  Mummies are also symbols of eternity, but once you crack open their tomb, they hit with the fury of a sudden sandstorm.

That’s why we have the mummy lord template.  He’s everything you want in a caster, able to command undead and spit superheated sand, and if you don’t kill him right he’ll return for the sequel.  Sounds like the perfect post-1999 mummy to me.

Assuming you weren’t reading this blog in 2013, here’s the original “Mummy” entry.  And since I’m pretty sure you know how to deploy the mummy lord in a desert setting, here are some seeds that try to get beyond the usual Pyramids & Pharaohs shtick.

Elves have spirits rather than souls—when they die, they return to the earth, only sometimes to be born again.  When a matriarch of a destroyed elven kingdom perishes while her fugitive nation is crossing the desert, rather than surrender her spirit to the unfriendly terrain, her indomitable will causes her to rise as a mummy lord.  The result is a part-elf, part-sand creature.  No longer tethered to the forests of her birth, she begins to build a new kingdom of terror right there in the desert.

A cardinal believed he could not die if his heart was removed.  In a sense, he was right, because the ritual he used turned him into a mummy lord.  Years later, adventurers investigating the illegal trade in saints’ preserved body parts comes across the canopic jar in which the cardinal’s liver is stored (it was stolen without the prelate’s knowledge and placed on the black market).  While they are tracking down the mysterious jar’s provenance, the cardinal (who now secretly rules a principality with an iron fist) assumes they are the original thieves and sets about having them killed.

Private school isn’t easy.  Especially a private school founded on the site of a mass grave.  Led by their debate teacher, who has quietly taught them thaumaturgy on the side, along with a helpful dose of fencing lessons from one of the phys. ed. staff, a ragtag group of students has managed to thwart an invasion of shambling corpses, escaped a book that tried to trap them in a demiplane, and driven off an immature color out of space.  Now corpses begin piling up, each one drained of blood.  The students suspect a vampire, but it is actually their dean, a mummy lord wrapped in layers of illusion, who is the culprit—courtesy of a blood-drinking kukri.

Pathfinder Adventure Path #84 84–85 & Pathfinder Bestiary 5 176–177

Having medical-professional parents, my mummy costumes at least featured real bandages.  #whitecoatprivilege

BTW, I actually like Brendan Fraser a lot.  I think he needs to strangle his agent, though.  Also I love Universal Studios’ Revenge of the Mummy ride, even if mechanical and operator errors did force us to go through it three times in a row once.  (Or was it four?  It was a lot.)

Speaking of which, what are we feeling about the Tom Cruise Mummy reboot?  It looked like a standard B.B.N. (???) F. film to me, so I skipped it.  (Speaking of which, I’ve taking to calling these crappy 2000s franchise movies film bleu, in a nod to the great film noir genre, because among other similarities they are color-graded to filth.  And because they tend to blow.  Who’s with me?)

Hey, here’s last night's radio show.  We played melancholic songs about the end of summer and defiant songs with Charlottesville in mind, including the new benefit song from Wilco.  Stream/download now through Monday, 08/21/17, at midnight.  (PS: No show next week; we’re down for station maintenance.)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Muhuru


The muhuru is cryptid from Kenya, joining the mokele-mbembe as yet another Lost World-type magical beast/super dinosaur you can put in your game.  Wikipedia’s description points to a stegosaurus with an ankylosaurus’s club tail, but Pathfinder went further back in the fossil record, giving us more of a dimetrodon-type beast (still with the club tail!) with a magical sail that can store up sunlight and blind opponents.

Whether your muhuru looks like a dimetrodon, a stegosaurus, a parasaurolophus, a spinosaurus, or even something wholly original is up to you.  Similarly, you might treat the muhuru as a magical dinosaur, an offshoot of the drake family, a never-before-seen species, a magical creation, or any other ecological niche.  For such a big animal, it is stealthy, able to avoid detection in most cases, and blinding, knocking prone, or staggering the few hunters savvy enough to track it.  While muhurus are probably not true nature spirits, despite how rumor labels them, they are certainly representatives of all in nature that is secret and defies easy discovery.

A new Butterfly Queen is to be crowned.  Part of her ceremonial raiment is a set of costume wings made from the blinding fin of a muhuru.  Successfully delivering the sail of a full-grown muhuru will earn the party entrance into a machine valley forbidden to outsiders.

An army needs to pass through the Hissing Jungle, and that means negotiating with a powerful kapre.  If negotiations are successful (ideally helped along by the gift of some particularly fine cigars), the plant creature allows the army to pass, providing that they use no axes during the trip.  Should this stricture not be obeyed, or if negotiations fail outright, the kapre looses a pack of muhurus on the scouting party.

Sir Teveral of the Thorn and Shield has organized an expedition to hunt the fabled muhuru in Xogana.  He invites along a group of adventurers recently returned from this vast continent.  (If they are reluctant, he induces them with the promise to use his influence to get back a piece of treasure that was confiscated from them by the colonial government.)  Actually, though, the entire expedition is nothing more than a complicated scheme to get Sir Teveral’s wizard sister away from the many-layered magical defenses of her tower.  He thinks her diary implicates him in a murder, and he intends to ensure that she is not an obstacle to his plans—even if it means feeding her to a magical dinosaur.

Pathfinder Bestiary 6 196

Lots of great responses to my mountain giant post, including a couple people pointing out that the mountain giant did indeed appear in D&D 3.0, courtesy of Monster Manual II.  Thanks for the reminder—clearly my Google skills were not up to par that day!  You can see most of the comments and follow the conversation here.

One of these days I need to really jot down some notes on MM II, because man, it is a mess and I have thoughts.

Looking for the muckdweller?  It’s back here.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Mountain Giant


It always stuns me when mountain giants are a late addition to a monster series.  It’s always been this way in fantasy role-playing—in 1e AD&D, they didn’t show up until the Fiend Folio; in Mentzer D&D, not till the Master Rules; in 2e AD&D, not till the Monstrous Manual; and I don’t think they even existed in 3.0/3.5.  And I know why this is: As we’ve talked about before, it’s a problem with the GFR (Gygax Fossil Record)—if Gary Gygax didn’t put a particular monster in the 1e Monster Manual, later editions and RPGs tend to forget about it, no matter how glaringly obvious (SEA. SERPENTS.) the monster’s inclusion should be.

It’s weird with mountain giants, though, because they are practically our default giant.  There’s a case to be made that they are the generic jötunn or jotuns of Norse myth.  Stone, fire, and frost giants all have physiognomies and abilities that set them apart…but sometimes you just want a big damn giant, without flaming hair or icicle beards or a clay face or a cloud castle.  When you want your PCs to wait out a blizzard in a cave that turns out to be a boot, a mountain giant should be that boot’s rather grumpy owner.

That said…well, Pathfinder’s mountain giant isn’t quite like D&D/AD&D’s mountain giants.  First off, they’re more magical.  Misleaddimension door…and deeper darkness and invisibility (at will(!?!?!)…that’s a new kind of mountain giant.  And then there are those abilities: Impale (Ex) and Devour (Su), which let them spear victims like salmon and then devour them for fast healing.  The end result is not the ordinary jotun of A/D&D, but a terrifying manifestation of the hunger of the wilderness, of the starvation and cannibalism that occurs in an avalanche-blocked mountain pass.  They are all “Fee-fi-fo-fum” without any pretty wife or helpful singing harp.  Bestiary 6 makes it clear that these are giants that even other giants warn their children about, cannibals who can appear out of nowhere to snatch up the unwary and drag them away to be dismembered.  Almost five stories tall, 3,000 pounds, and resembling the king’s headsman if he dabbled in leather tanning and murder, Pathfinder’s mountain giant is the stuff of nightmares no matter what your size.

Caught between warring drow and aboleth nations in a region that thwarts extraplanar and teleportation magic, adventurers struggle to make their way back to the surface.  Their exodus is thwarted when, during a battle the adventurers had hoped to use to cover their escape, several pairs of mountain giants appear out of nowhere (courtesy of invisibility, dimension door, and deeper darkness) and begin laying waste to drow and aboleth victims alike. 

Adventurers infiltrate a frost giant steading…only to find several frost giant women sobbing, the men muttering darkly, and the children all chained to their parents’ beds like animals.  It is the night before the frost giant New Year, when Father Skewer takes one child away to slice open his or her intestines and devour raw.  Assume the frost giants don’t pound the adventurers into pudding for startling them, they will offer whatever they have to end the threat of Father Skewer—in truth, a crafty mountain giant skald—and restore peace to their New Year’s Eve for the first time in two generations.

Adventurers stumble upon a fort belonging to a mountain giant thane, but they are saved from discovery by his wife, a comparatively beautiful and gentle soul.  Having just lost her only child to crib death, she says, she cannot bear to see such small creatures be gutted and butchered by her brutal husband.  In truth, the giant’s wife is a worse cannibal than he is—it was she who devoured their child in his sleep.  She plans to consume the adventurers at her leisure and simply doesn’t want to share.

Pathfinder Bestiary 6 133

You’ll notice I don’t mention 4e and 5e D&D, because…wait, there was a 4e and a 5e?  But seriously, that’s just beyond my area of expertise.

Another reason mountain giants were outliers in D&D/AD&D is that in general the giants tended to go from mighty (hill/stone) to magical (frost/fire) to mythic (cloud/storm).  A/D&D’s mountain giants, being so tall and powerful but comparatively nonmagical, buck that trend, while Pathfinder’s continue it.

The first mountain giant I ever encountered was in the classic AC10 Bestiary of Dragons and Giants, where PCs aid a tall, supremely brash warrior who is actually a mountain giant tween masquerading as a human adventurer to have some fun.  I played it—actually I think I ran it—and it was cute!

It’s odd that Bestiary 6 has mongrel giants in “M” and mountain giants in “G”…I’m guessing the usual difficulties of trying to arrange where the two-page spreads fall are to blame.  (That’s probably also why the mosslord is out of order in the Table of Contents.)

The term “Gygax Fossil Record” should totally be a thing now.

Ye gods, could you guys imagine me as a YouTuber?  “That’s all for today, guys.  What monsters do YOU think were left out of the Gygax Fossil Record?  Send me a TWEET with HASHTAG GygaxFossilRecord.  And don’t forget to LIKE, COMMENT, AND SUBSCRIBE!”  Thank God I’m too heinous for video.

I’ve got some amazing and lovely emails from a lot of you lately.  If I haven’t replied or mentioned here, I promise, promise, promise you it’s because of sheer busy-ness, and not because I’m a total D.  (I mean, I am a total D, but not for those reasons.)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Mountain Blight


One of the things I appreciate about Pathfinder’s Bestiaries is their thoughtful construction.  (Compare for instance, Bestiary 3’s intentional focus on non-European monsters to the 3.0 Monster Manual II’s throw/wall/whatevsticks design philosophy.)  And even when these books engage in open problem solving, that’s thoughtful as well—the designers are clearly carefully tweaking nobs and dials, not rushing to slather on spackle.  (Again, compare with, say, 3.5’s unpopular and filler-stuffed Monster Manual IV.)

Take oozes, for instance.  At the best of times, they're only so interesting.  And this deep into an edition…yeesh, there are only so many colors of pudding you can serve up.  Having already pretty much taken ordinary oozes as far as they could possibly go (gunpowder oozes, anyone?), for Bestiary 6 James Jacobs & Co. took the next step of rethinking the Ooze type’s core assumptions.  “Oozes are sightless and unintelligent,” the old books say.  James’s reply was, “…But what if they’re…not?”  And so blights were born.

This blog post and (of course) B6 itself go into more detail on blights.  But the short version is that blights are descendants of a terrifying blob monstrosity summoned by serpentfolk druids to wipe out their civilized enemies.  The blob did its work too well—the druids were destroyed along with their kin—and the blob’s descendants spread out into the forgotten places of the world, diversifying per their particular habitats.  They are malevolent, many-eyed, intelligent, and magical.  For the rest, I’ll just quote Mr. Jacobs:

All possess spell-like abilities, a favored terrain, the ability to curse that terrain, and a tendency to rejuvenate if you don't uncurse their realm after defeating them. Blights are also tailor-made to serve as "boss" monsters for wilderness-themed adventures, for while they detest other creatures that have intellects, they understand that such creatures make great agents and soldiers in their campaigns against civilization.

Mountain blights don’t hunt civilized creatures as aggressively as their blobby kin do, but you still don’t want to meet one in a high mountain pass.  Assuming a mountain blight’s dominated thralls haven’t already murdered you, or you haven’t fallen off a cliff courtesy of hallucinatory terrain, it can still always kill you via hypoxia, a localized earthquake tremor, or just slam you into a granite wall.

The monks in an isolated lamasery have been acting strangely, at least according to rumor.  Fearing a yak folk incursion, adventurers journey to investigate for themselves.  The culprit is not yak-headed body snatchers, but something far more alien.  A mountain blight recently woke from a 500-year hibernation, discovered the monks, and promptly enslaved them all.

A family of sphinxes is notorious for difficult riddles and their inevitable brutal aftermath.  The sphinxes are actually not as malevolent as they appear, but they are the terrified thralls of a mountain blight.  They are bloodthirsty because the blight demands regular offerings of man flesh, but at the same time the sphinxes secretly hope that their wicked reputations scare off all but the most foolhardy or arrogant victims.

The asexual blights do not experience romance per se…but unhealthy fascination, that is another matter.  Upon discovering the presence of a nearby, more powerful tundra blight, a mountain blight is determined to impress the superior slime.  It plans to crack open a dwarf hold and present the shattered mountain for the tundra blight to freeze.

Pathfinder Bestiary 6 42

Have yak folk not appeared in Pathfinder yet?  Holy crap, do we need to fix that.  Do turn to the excellent Dragon #241 (browse here, buy here) for more.

The jukebox is in the corner / My mouth is the speaker
It plays your favorite songs / And you know where the coin slot is

Yup, it’s Tuesday’s radio show!  Stream or download now through Monday, 08/15/17, at midnight.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Mosslord

Picture the Green Man.  Or just a green man.  (Don’t worry, we’ll get to that eventually.)  Now picture one…gone wrong.  One rotted.  One that hates civilization.  Now you have a mosslord.  Or even the Mosslord, as he might be a singular entity on your world.  The point is, sometimes nature decides it hates civilization so much that it has to do something about it.  And the mosslord is a great vehicle for doing so—a twisted manikin of moss on a lumber frame with a genius intellect, a head for tactics, a patience for the long game, and that is just humanoid enough to let its victims know that it’s really pissed.

Why use a mosslord versus, say, a powerful fey or blight or a template-packed green dragon or treant?  Easy: really evocative special abilities.  Imagine sheets of moss that entangle and sicken.  Yellow mold blasts that weaken PCs and quickened fungal infestation that turn their skin to fleshy fungus.  Critical hits that straight up turn humanoid limbs to wood.  And practically no way to kill it unless you can lure it to another plane—the way the rules read, even tossing one into a volcano is only going to work if you account for (and blight/diminish plants) every last spore.  It’s no wonder these creatures are often harbingers of apocalypse and social collapse.  This is a monster worth ending a campaign with. 

(And imagine the mingled frustration and glee the players will feel when their characters see the Big Bad Cult they've been chasing all campaign summon a mosslord…only to watch the cult become the uncaring creature’s first victims, denying the PCs their revenge and leaving them with a plant monster to clean up.)

One final note: I like how the Bestiary 6 authors acknowledged that, yes, blights and whisperers are also things in the mosslord’s world, and they don’t get along.  Why this is so is not specified, but I like that there’s some awareness that we have dueling forces of natural anger all vying for our attention (and vying to turn the PCs into compost).

The Irn Islands, Summer’s Haven, and the continent of Niobe each have their own druidic orders that tend the wild places and guide their respective nations toward fruitful coexistence.  Not so the lands south of the Gash, where only nomads dwell and all attempts at civilization have been swallowed under the suffocating green carpet of the Mosslord and his army of fungal boggards and fey.

Having already wiped out the Circle of Oak, a mosslord threatens the nation of Arinoryx unopposed—unopposed, that is, until some doughty adventurers step in.  They have a plan to lure the mosslord north to the Auroran Highlands and then trap it in ice.  If they succeed, they will indeed slow and weaken the raging plant creature…but they’ll also awaken Rumor of the Ever-Midnight, a whisperer equally outraged that both the forces of civilization and a scion of rot have entered the fey’s glacial domain.

Detecting an anomaly wave, a chronomancer sends adventurers back in time to prevent a disruption of the fabled Elven Exodus.  There the adventurers discover that it was they who inspired the endangered elven race to flee by magic to another world for a millennium.  In the end, they end up playing crucial roles, battling the ur-orc hordes, surrendering the Home Forests to the protection of the fey, and holding off the nascent drow houses at the Gate of Mir Talash.  Finally they lead the elves to Sirnam, the Green Hope.  But Sirnam does not want to be colonized, the planet itself manifesting as a mosslord to drive out the elven migration.

Pathfinder Bestiary 6 194–195

Sticklers for detail will notice that Bestiary 6’s Table of Contents has the mosslord out of alphabetical order.

Anyone else have Moss Man growing up?  I sure did.  (I seem to recall later hearing that one of my friends had both Moss Man and Hordak’s Slime Pit, and the combination was (predictably to anyone but a six-year-old) quite unfortunate.)

Last night’s radio show!  Come rock out with your feelings out.  Yes, just your feelings.  Put that other thing away. 

And hey, I gave a Daily Bestiary reader a shout-out!  Maybe you should listen so you can get out a shout-out, too.


Stream or download the whole thing now till Monday, 08/07/17, at midnight.