Monday, August 11, 2014


The claws of a ghoul, the blood drain of vampire, the magic jar of a ghost, and the charming backward feet of a rakshasa: all these add up to the bhuta.  Apparitions from Indian folklore, bhutas are the spirits of those who died in the wilderness, especially those who were murdered, with business unfinished in this world.

Bhutas have several characteristics that make them both tactically and thematically exciting for crunch and lore GMs.  The first is that animals don't fear a bhuta the way they do most spirits—in fact, they’re attracted to it.  This means that a bhuta might have any number of animal servants.  It can also be any animal as well via veil or magic jar, though in each case there is something just a bit off (backward feet or no shadow, respectively) that might alert observant PCs.  Still, adventurers used to relying on too-quiet surroundings and nervous animals to warn them of undead might be in for a rude surprise.

The second is the bhuta’s impatience.  They aren't as geographically limited as some apparitions—particularly when, like vampires, their presence is invited—but they grow uncomfortable outside their domains.  A party that suspects a bhuta might be in their midst might be able to trick it into revealing itself, either by stalling for time or forcing it to go too far from the site of its death.

Finally, bhutas can drain blood from adjacent foes.  An apparition able to drain blood through the air is a chilling sight indeed.  PCs will want to keep any bhutas away from fallen comrades and be extra careful if flanking while wounded.

All in all, then, bhutas manage to feel like undead out of folklore while nevertheless being new and surprising at the gaming table—a neat trick.

Down on their luck (or fulfilling vows of atonement), a party of adventurers takes on the lowest of assignments: escort duty for pilgrims on their way to the shrine at Menkhara.  The insult to their station is compounded by the fact that they must aid all who ask, no matter what rank or caste.  Thus when a pilgrim in heavy robes asks to accompany the caravan, they are obligated to allow him to join, even though he soon becomes a querulous nuisance.  But when they reach Behir Gorge, the stranger cannot maintain his composure any longer.  Ditching his cloak, the pilgrim reveals himself to be floating midair, dangling backwards-turned feet, and snarling in rage…

A spellcaster’s raven familiar has always been a scamp, but over the course of a few days its character degenerates into something genuinely foul-mouthed and nasty—though never while the spellcaster is watching.  Even as the raven causes strains within the party, the bird seems to be doing all it can to manipulate the spellcaster and her friends into going into the woods.

It is tooth versus claw in the forest of Elba.  After the archdruid was ambushed and slain by jealous members of his circle, the nature priest returns to life as a vengeful bhuta.  Now the circle’s own animal companions turn against them and unfriendly eyes watch their every move.  As druids begin dying, the body count soon includes those who never figured in the conspiracy, yet the archdruid bhuta’s wrath continues unabated.

Pathfinder Bestiary 3 41

Back in the day the D&D Creature Catalogue also had a kind of humanoid were-ghoul known as the bhut, presumably inspired by the same sources.  These creatures also showed up in an issue of Dungeon I’ve lost track of.

The latest issue of Baltimore: The Witch of Harju features a foul-mouthed cat—an image too good not to steal.  So I did!

I’m blown away by the response to Friday’s Bhole entry—clearly I need to post early in the day more often.  I’ll follow up on reader comments another time, but for the many folks who asked about the Dune reference, yes, it was tucked behind the Empire Strikes Back reference.  Borrowing from Arabic, “Shaitan” is Dune term for evil, sometimes even for the sandworms themselves.  So “Shaitan’s Tears” is a clue that all is not right with this asteroid belt.  They aren’t the tears of some great earth genie, but rather the torn shards of a world ripped apart by bholes…

After being so pleased with myself for getting completely caught up on Pathfinder books (the softcovers, at least), this summer I’ve fallen appallingly behind once again.  But I just finished The Emerald Spire Superdungeon on Sunday and found it a delightful read.

I use “delightful” on purpose, because that’s what it did.  It delighted me.  I would read a level a night before I went to bed, and I enjoyed seeing each author’s take on their level. For those who don’t know, Emerald Spire is a bit of a stunt, a superdungeon where each level is scripted by a different well-known FRPG author.  Along the way, it also serves as a bit of a “greatest tropes album,” because each author (I’m assuming by design) also tends to tackle their level in a way that reflects their personal brand.  Chris Pramas is your go-to guy on serpentfolk, so of course his level has serpentfolk.  Goblins put Pathfinder on the map, so Paizo CEO Lisa Stevens serves up some goblins.  Golarion loremaster James Jacobs reveals some Golarion lore.  Keith “Eberron” Baker?  A forge of automatons, of course. Do you think you’re going to get an Ed Greenwood level without a new undead monster and floating eyeballs?  Of course not.  (And we already know a certain editor-in-chief snuck in a kyton.)

Of course, the proof of a superdungeon is in the playing, and since I’m not active in a group right now I’ll have to leave that for someone else.  (I’m not the most qualified to judge anyway, since I don't have experience with any of the classic superdungeons…unless you count the Caves of Chaos from The Keep on the Borderlands, and that was middle school.)  

That said, Emerald Spire is aiming to do something different than most Pathfinder products.  It’s not a tightly plotted Adventure Path installment or one of their carefully polished modules.  Instead it’s an old-school, kick-in-the-door romp.  Even the XP progression attests to this, balancing the levels and treasure for fast advancement instead of the usual medium pace.  If you want Emerald Spire to fit into a more rigorous campaign, the elements are there, particularly if you take the dramatis personae and adventure hooks of Fort Inevitable seriously.  (This very fair review comes to a similar conclusion and highlights some of the elements to play up.)  But if you just want to meet up at the game store and clear a level or two a week with whoever shows up, or if you want a resource full of plug-and-play levels for the next time your players go off in an unexpected direction, Emerald Spire delivers for that, too.

For my part, the delight in the delightful was seeing several of my favorite FRPG authors at play.  Granted, that’s nothing new—that’s pretty much their job description—but to see them all in one place, working like chefs from Chopped to put their individual stamps on the ingredients they’d been given…that definitely made my bedside reading something to look forward to these past two weeks.

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