Monday, February 27, 2017

Knight & Megapon Ants

Knight ants are a special caste of ants dedicated to defending their colony’s home.  They grow particularly wide heads to protect their colonymates, who also benefit from the greater coordination signaled by the knight ants’ pheromones. 

Megapon ants, meanwhile, have the rare distinction of being (in the editions I own, anyway) the only Bestiary species I’ve seen to not merit a description.  (Heck, I can’t even Google a good definition for megapon.)  But at CR 6, they’re nothing to sneeze at; they can carry prodigious amounts of weight; and their Strength-sapping poison suggests the sting of a fire ant or some aggressive, prehistoric lineage.

A clan of dwarves uses alchemical scents to tame and coax behaviors out of their ant livestock.  A local war calls most of the clan elders away from the hold, and when they return they discover that the artificial scents have spoiled.  Their knight ant guards now bar the way to the lower levels, no longer recognizing the dwarves as friends.

A martial arts master with some training as a druid believes in basing his forms and stances off of those in nature.  In order to learn his specialized skills (in game terms, teamwork feats), adventurers must study knight ants in the tunnels of their hill—without killing a single one.

Adventurers are racing through the canopy of the great god’s-home trees, fleeing cannibals hot on their trail.  They come across a column of megapon ants using their bodies to create a bridge for themselves and their giant aphid thralls.  If the adventurers can find a way to sneak across the ant bridge, they will easily lose their pursuers.  Otherwise they might have to fight the enormous ants and the kuru-maddened cannibals at the same time.

Pathfinder Bestiary 5 27

I recently relistened to the audiobook version of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, read by the outstanding Simon Prebble.  I first listened to it during a massive, speeding ticket-filled, two-day road trip from San Francisco to Portland via Crater Lake several years ago.  I’m happy to say I loved it then—so much so that in my hunger for more I discovered Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin books—and I loved it now—so much so that I accrued $28 in overdue fines because I had other books checked out and didn’t want to give any of them back.  (If you throw in the speeding tickets, that’s compelling evidence that good books make me make bad choices, apparently.)

JS&MN truly is an extraordinary book—all the more so because it’s a first novel.  (Neil Gaiman’s quote about a fragment from one of Clarke’s early drafts—“It was like watching someone sit down to play the piano for the first time and she plays a sonata”—still holds up.)  The true-to-the-1800s language, the sense of place, and the treatment of academic arguments as being as important as a battle are nearly perfect.  I love the characters; I love the world; I love the faerie lore; I love almost everything.

Because I love it so much, certain things still drive me nuts.  Most of these little things are insufficiently answered (to my mind, at least) questions or breakdowns in verisimilitude: How can Mr Norrell justify obstructing the progress of all other magicians if he publicly claims to want to restore English magic…why does Childermass remain with Mr Norrell for so long even after the meanness of his master’s character is revealed…why do Lady Pole and Stephen Strange’s maladies go so long undiagnosed, even with a faerie glamour to blame…things like that.  In reality, the book may be better for not answering these questions, but they still leave me fidgety with agitation.

A second listen did also confirm a major beef I had the first time I listened to it, though: It is a figure eight of a work, its whole shape constantly circling around two black holes of noninformation. 

The first is that the actual working of magic is barely shown and never explained.  Clarke has said that she “really like[s] magicians,” but weirdly she seems willing to gloss over the magic they do almost entirely.  (Early in the book this is amusing—even the characters are impatient to see magic done—but by 2/3s of the way in it’s infuriatingly coy.)  We almost never get a sense of how it feels for the magicians to do magic, or why these two men have succeeded where almost no one else has.  (That they were prophesied doesn’t cut it.)  It’s a staggeringly strange omission, especially to a fantasy fan audience used to reading about how it feels to come into one’s power, whatever that power may be.  Strange in particular stumbles into magic and then the narrative curtain closes; when it reopens he is already a thaumaturgical Mozart.  That is, as the South Park kids would say, some total BS right there.

The second problem is that this is a work of alternate history that refuses to share its alternate history.  True, the novel purports to be written by someone from Strange’s acquaintance only a generation or so later, so much of this knowledge is assumed to be held by the reader.  But despite all its many, many, many footnotes, the book barely gives us a coherent alternate timeline, and so much of how the novel’s history diverges from our own is unclear.  (For comparison, Philip K. Dick is a downright clumsy author compared to Clarke, but I can tell you more about the history of Man in the High Castle, and it’s a mere pamphlet next to the Bible-fat JS&MN.)  I don't need much more detail, but I do need more.

Worse yet, not only has Clarke created a fictional northern England with a fictional Raven King that we don't know enough about, but she also seems to have fallen a little in love with him.  (Strong evidence of this is that the characters positively won’t shut up about him; he even gives his name to the novel’s third act.)  It is dangerous to fall in love with fictional people or settings, and doing so is a surefire way to undermine the story.  (Notice, for instance, how Tolkien burns the Shire, and how J. K. Rowling—whose writerly smarts are often underrated—is careful to get her characters out of Hogwarts after the love letter to it that is The Order of the Phoenix.  Now compare that to, say, The Name of the Wind, which struck me as loving its central character just a bit too much, or the insufferable anime Clamp School Detectives, whose love for its own impossible setting is a veritable fountain of onanism (see what I did there?) that eventually feels like a taunt to the viewer who will never attend there.  You can’t love your fictional children too hard, and Clarke loves John Uskglass.

So as I said, a great novel, but a figure eight thanks to these two crucial holes.  Do not under *any* circumstances let these prevent you from reading it though!

Unfortunately, a new qualm came up as I was listening this time: the novel’s hagiography of Englishness.  In a 2005 interview with Locus, Susanna Clarke practically quoted Tolkien word for word in her lament that England did not have a myth of its own.  (Sidebar: English culture is odd in that its most famous legend, Beowulf, takes place in Denmark, a divorce of a people from its mythic geography that seems to really bother certain writers.  In fact, this lack is responsible for both The Silmarillion and JS&MN.  King Arthur doesn’t work for them for some reason; he’s either too British rather than English—a distinction too arcane for my American mind, but there it is—or too Welsh, and his legend has definitely become too French.  Robin Hood doesn’t work either, for some reason, despite his being safely nestled in the East Midlands.  The tl;dr of all this is that there is no understanding the English mythic imagination when you’re a fat Yank git.)  So Clarke fills JS&MN with her love for England—its people, its cities, and its countryside, especially the North, where she revels in its preindustrial wildness.  And Englishness as a laudatory attribute fills nearly every page.  (More on this can be found over on Wikipedia, but don’t go there until you’ve read/listened to the book, because it’s spoiler central.)

The thing is though, Clarke is smart enough to know that glorifying England, Englishness, Englishmen (emphasis on the “men” there), and king/queen and country has caused a lot of pain for other folks in the world.  So she works very hard to undercut this worship of Englishness, giving strong roles to women, nonwhite, and poor characters, and amplifying their voicelessness in the society of that time through the narrative.  It’s all a genius balancing act, and it all serves to intentionally undercut and deflate the project of England worship that the novel is busily engaged in…

…And yet, Englishness, in the end, wins out.  England remains the hero.  The English countryside itself in instrumental in turning the tide in the final encounter.  Lovely, lush green, hilly, moor-covered England is still the hero.

Which should be all well and good, but…  Well, I’m just not on board with cheering for England right now. 

I’m a Top Gear fan.  And I watched Jeremy Clarkson’s no-one-is-better-than-us casual racism—as an American I’m spared the overt racism of his other appearances—wax stronger with every season, slowly curdling my affection.  And I watched Brexit throw my expatriate scientist friends’ careers into a tumult and imperil their research.  It was also, more to the point, a triumph of Englishness over the needs of Britishness. 

And here on this side of the pond, I’ve watched a similar dynamic play out, as many Americans have taken to celebrating America—or at least, their mean, small-minded, and resentful notion of it—to the point that pride of place and race have become more important than the principals that make America work.

So I still love JS&MN.  And I think you should read and even love JS&MN.  And zero of what I’ve said in the previous two paragraphs is Susanna Clarke’s fault.  But in JS&MN, a country is a character—the protagonist even.  And right now, in 2017, loving a place more than people doesn’t feel that good.

So I’m going to return JS&MN back to the library for another 7 years or so, or maybe for longer.  And the next time I get it out, I hope I’ve fallen back in love with England and America. 

Because that is the magic I most want to see.

Sunday, February 26, 2017


Remember the Quintessons from The Transformers: The Movie?  (Of course you do.  They were amazing.)  Now imagine taking a giant Quintesson and skinning it—alive.  Now imagine that after you peeled back its metal plates, you found not the circuitry you expected, but instead shrieking organic skulls and tissue?  With extra faces trying to pull away from its body in terror?  Scared and grossed out yet?  Now make that thing a former servant of the goddess of death, only it rebelled to torment the souls of the living with fear instead.  And have it hang out on the Ethereal Plane and make it really adapt at abducting victims. 

Starting to get the picture?

Oh, and make it CR 20. 

That’s right…kimenhuls are the pit fiends of fear.

And we’re talking serious fear.  Check out the Eternal Fear (Su) ability.  Once a character has proved susceptible to a kimenhul’s eternal fear, it can telepathically communicate with that creature once per day as long as they are anywhere on the same plane.  Worse yet, after the initial encounter, subsequent stressful situations can retrigger the fear, leaving the character shaken—even after the kimenhul is dead!  Said stressful conversations include any and all combat…not something a professional adventurer wants to hear.  (Oh, you want to cure it?  Better have a wish or miracle handy.)

If that sounds like a horrific fantasy version of PTSD or anxiety…well, that’s because it is.  And I’m not just hypothesizing that—I checked in with Adam Daigle (@thedaigle), creator of the sahkils (along with @wesschneider and John Compton), and he’s the one who pointed that out.  Other sahkils embody specific fears; the kimenhul is, if not fear itself, certainly the next best thing—the persistence of fear, the fear you live with day after day, the anxiety attack that might be triggered at any moment.  Kimenhuls are the fear that simply won’t let go.  Worse yet, they particularly focus on hunting society’s strong and the powerful, humbling and incapacitating the very cream of the crop of humanity…including high-level adventurers.

I doubt most campaigns will have kimenhuls as the Big Bad.  The two scenarios that spring to mind are: 1) campaigns very closely tied to the politics of the afterlife, where the rebel sahkils are one of the main threats to orderly march of souls, and 2) a campaign where fighting and defeating your fears is the main theme.  (That could actually be pretty cathartic actually.) 

In most campaigns, though, a kimenhul is probably the penultimate threat, the spoiler that must be defeated before the Ultimate Big Bad can be brought down—a very nice story-beat.  Otherwise, the PCs risk being incapacitated or undermined just when they need to be at their best—another great story option.  And here’s a GM pro tip: If PCs do face their fears and defeat the kimenhul, giving out, say, a morale bonus or ability score boost instead of treasure might be a great way to both reward the PCs and symbolize the renewed vigor with which they can now face their foes…

A ruler who was once an adventuring party’s patron has grown secretive and remote.  He has also grown terrified of mirrors, stained glass, and snails.  After some investigation—possibly even a red herring involving vampires—adventurers discover that a mirror in the king’s throne room leads to the Ethereal Plane.  There sits a mirror version of the king’s palace staffed by sahkils, enslaved members of the snail-like psychopomp race known as shokis, and rakshasas—all ruled over by a horrifying sahkil high justice who has his hooks deep in the mortal king’s psyche.

A half-fiend cetus of mythic proportions and abilities terrorizes a city.  The citizens expect their god-hero Tynin to drive off the beast, as he has done once a decade as far back as anyone can remember.  But in the past ten years, age has begun to catch up to the nearly divine god-hero—and with it, fear of mortality, failure, ridicule, and countless other pitfalls.  This growing anxiety has been helped along in no small part thanks to a run-in Tynin had with a kimenhul.  With Tynin dragging his feet, it looks like some out-of-town adventurers may have to face the sea monster…but their initiative may not sit well with the hero-worshipping citizens, the well-heeled clerical bureaucracy built up around god-hero worship, or Tynin himself, who cannot afford to look weak on so large a stage.

Adventures have declared war on the night hags, busting up their markets in Faerie and the Dream Shore and harassing the soul trade in the Ether.  Their efforts hit a snag when the hags suddenly abandon the pursuit of souls for the harvesting of liquid fear, taking them into territories like the Deep Dream and the Gray Lands that are much more dangerous for the adventurers to pursue.  A kimenhul with aspirations of ascending to tormentor status has declared dominion over the night hags and is pulling their strings.

Pathfinder Bestiary 5 214–215

I had such an abysmal posting rate last week I thought I better give you all some weekend love.

One last note from @thedaigle:

For another behind the scenes tidbit, the word sahkil is from a Yucatec Maya dialect and it means fear.

The more you know!

Oh snap, it’s Tuesday’s show!  Nothing special to report, although I did get a Tiny Tim request that will put a smile on y’all’s faces.  (But you definitely want to tune in this coming Tuesday…for reasons.)

Stream/download it here till tomorrow (Monday), 02/27/17, at midnight.  Bros, don’t panic as the breastfeeding PSA comes up.

(Also, special apology to my Blogger readers, who never got linked to last week’s show because I wasn’t able to post an entry.  Message me if you feel left out and I’ll find a way to get a copy to you.)

Monday, February 13, 2017


(Photograph comes from the Paizo Blog and is © Paizo Publishing.)

I’m thrilled that the Reign of Winter Adventure Path and Bestiary 5 introduced us to more Eastern European fey.  Particularly because so many of these fey are just the right amount of troublesome.  It’s really easy with fey to go too twee (this was a problem in 1e AD&D) or too grimdark and murdery (I love Paizo’s tooth fairies, but not every GM will).

The bird-beaked kikimoras, then, are a Goldilocksian just right.  A kikimora will torment his or her adopted family for months and even years, making the house appear dirty, sending illusionary (and real) swarms of vermin, or breaking things in order to be offered bribes to fix them.  Worse yet, kikimoras drive away potentially helpful brownies and house spirits, then go about ruining the reputation of these charitable creatures by posing as mean, mercenary versions of them.*

If all this sounds relatively harmless, remember again that this is for years.  (A redcap’s attentions may be fatal, but at least they’re over in a night or two.)  And when the fey aren't masquerading as brownies, they’re playacting as ghosts…and the prices most exorcists charge will likely beggar a poor family. Even once the fey is identified, its extradimensonal hidey-hole makes it exceedingly difficult to flush out.  And even if the poor farmwife could corner the kikimora, a fight with a CR 5 nasty house spirit is likely to be fatal to the average peasant.  But that’s the good news: Fighting a kikimora is a perfect job for journeyman adventurers.

The other reason I like the kikimora is that it’s a relatively powerful domestic terror.  That makes it perfect for nonstandard, magic-light, or slow-progression Pathfinder campaigns such as the Hogwarts-inspired school of magic or modern private school adventure seeds I sometimes post.  And while I’m not the biggest E6 fan around (E6, for the uninitiated, is a take on D&D/Pathfinder that caps out around Level 6, before wizards and clerics get too reality-bending), a kikimora is a truly mystical creature and a proper threat in such a low-powered campaign.  Heck, in most campaigns Baba Yaga is a Mythic (Pathfinder) or Epic (3.0/3.5) encounter…but I can easily see a low-magic campaign where she’s simply an Advanced kikimora with some scores to settle…

A kikimora tormented a local brickmaker for years.  Then one day he spotted the sigil she used to mark her hidey-hole scrawled into the baseboard.  Thinking quickly, he left out a growler full of barley wine.  When the growler disappeared, the bricklayer quickly bricked up the wall in front of the baseboard, gambling he could have her sealed in before the drunk fey would notice.  Years later, adventurers investigate the bricklayer as part of a murder case/exorcism (the victim was bricked up in an alcove and left to perish, and his starving spirit still thirsts for blood).  If during their search the adventurers dismantle the suspicious-looking, out-of-place wall in the man’s home, they release a kikimora driven to near-berserk fury from her long years of confinement and boredom.

On the lam, a gang of redcaps demand aid and shelter from a kikimora, citing ancient fey compacts and invoking the Queen of Air and Darkness.  The kikimora reluctantly agrees to hide the redcaps on her humans’ farm, but this becomes more and more difficult as their bloodthirsty natures take hold and local villagers begin to go missing.  If adventurers find her in the redcaps’ company, the kikimora is honor-bound to fight to the death (or at least until she can plausibly slip away via invisibility).  But if they encounter her separately, the bird-beaked fey (who knows she has a pretty sweet setup already) may agree to ally with the adventurers…for the right price.

Having achieved notoriety in the newspapers for averting a horrible dirigible crash at the London Aerodrome, adventurers are hired as private security for the maiden voyage of the new Geistzeppelin.  An already-difficult voyage involving a prickly captain, some would-be saboteurs, and a Sicilian magician’s pet girallon becomes even moreso when it turns out that a kikimora stowaway is loose on the magical zeppelin, courtesy of a hidey-hole glyph scratched on the Russian ambassador’s steamer trunk.

Pathfinder Bestiary 5 152

*Weird.  For some reason I’m having a really hard time avoiding comparisons between these Russian fey and certain misinformation campaigns, fake news websites, and Russian-supported U.S. presidential candidates…  Something about replacing noble and beneficial institutions with kleptocratic mockeries of the same  Crazy, right?

My readers: You’re going to use any mention of fey as an excuse to link to that one issue of Dragon Magazine you always link to, right?

Me:  …No. 

Me: You don’t know me. 

My readers: Whatever.

Me: (Aw yiss.)

By the way, sorry for last week’s utterly pathetic posting schedule.  A slow recovery from being sick and some bad time management decisions undercut me all week.  If it’s any consolation, I also had to skip two radio shows, so everything I love has taken a hit.

Thursday, February 2, 2017


Over time, one-off dragon species have become one of my favorite monster categories.  I love their wildness and their weirdness, how they harken back to early folktales and myths, and how each one’s set of abilities and characteristics is a surprise instead of checkboxes on a five-dragon matrix.

So naturally I’m delighted by the khala, a female water dragon from Bulgarian mythology.  Introduced to Pathfinder via the Golarion’s dark, vaguely Slavic fairytale land of Irrisen, the khala has added supernatural cold to her portfolio as well.  A three-headed, snake-like, ice-spewing beast, she brings winter with her wherever she goes.  Even her bite is laced with a poisonous chilling disease.

The presence of a khala implies both history and corruption, because there is a warping in the race’s past.  Somewhere back in the distant strands of time, they were prouder wyrms and their lands more beautiful or fertile places…but no more.  Khalas tend to linger in the same regions as witches, hags, cruel magical or military tyrants, and frost giants…anywhere where decades or centuries of cold, corruption, coercion, and control have worn down the land and its people.

There’s also the mystery of how khalas reproduce, and the fate of their male zmey counterparts.  Ecologically minded adventurers might wish to see the zmeys restored; defenders of civilization might wish the khalas wiped out completely.  Other dragons might fill in for the zmeys as well—the flame-spewing, multinecked gorynyches seem a particularly good fit.  But the demise of the zmeys might also serve as an origin for the cursed taninivers or the mysterious damned azi as well…

A mysterious wood has grown up around Dun Harrow, hiding the ancient fort and its renowned, possibly magical stone carvings.  Even the weather seems to linger chill and stormy over the surrounding shire.  A khala has used repeated suggestions to take a dryad queen as her lover and force the fey’s kinswomen to reshape their forest as she desires.

When the shattering of the Sphere of Black Omens corrupted the Elflands, Par Tarthelion suffered the worst.  Its crystal towers grew dark and cracked; its trees turned thorny and brittle; its rivers ran with blood and the weeping of sores.  And when the cold winds blew from the north, no longer held at bay by elf weather magic, Par Tarthelion’s guardian green dragons shriveled and split, each one transforming into—or was it birthing?—a khala.  If there is one small consolation, it’s that the nightmarish beasts cannot breed, the guardian greens all having been female.  At least, that is what the elven exiles hope…

When the Bohemians left the poor, overworked foothills of their homeland in search of the rich plains of the American Midwest, they brought their work ethic and their mournful songs…but also their nightmares.  Through possession, subterfuge, and the mysterious Grey Roads of the Otherlands, hags, soulbound dolls, dybbuks, ice devils, and the terrible khalas all found their way to the Great Lakes region.  Canadian gnomish settlers and furriers report that monsters hold the northern shore of Lake Huron, and Lake Superior is nearly entirely overrun.  Adventurers who were running guns to the Lakota Indians and the Lake Crowfolk tengu tribes now find themselves being offered pardons if they will go with a U.S. Army detachment to drive the khalas out of the Great Lakes.

Irrisen: Land of Eternal Winter 59 & Pathfinder Bestiary 5 151

Irrisen pluralizes khala as “khala”; B5 uses khalas.”  I like the former but went with the latter for consistency.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017


The ketesthius is the classic wolf-headed sea serpent you find scrawled in the corners of old maps.  Since Pathfinder already has plenty of sea serpent-y beasts, this one clearly needed a hook…and boy did it get one: an extradimensional stomach so big entire ecosystems can live in there!

Of course, now that I think of it, I’m kind of surprised that we don’t have more monsters with magic/livable stomachs.  It’s not exactly a fantasy trope (aside from maybe Pinocchio), but as a cartoon trope it’s one of the most common and enduring ones there is.  (Seriously, name me a cartoon character who hasn’t being carried inside a whale, air whale, space whale, or a whale-like robot/starship at least once.)

If you're a GM, you’re probably way more excited by what you can put inside the ketesthius’s stomach than you are about anything else in its stat block.  Hell, I’d be tempted to waive the bite damage if it gave me an excuse to dump PCs inside.  Who cares about a +22 bite/claw/claw routine when you can make a dungeon out of intestines?

(Also, how does such a slow-acting, practically benevolent digestive system even work?  It must operate on the thousand-year scale of a sarlacc.  Actually, the most likely answer is that the ketesthius is essentially a carrion or filter feeder, with the live creatures in its stomach doing it the courtesy of either consuming each other or expiring from starvation, after which the resulting nutrients can be absorbed at leisure.)

Then again, CR 13 is nothing to sneeze at.  When you need a shipping lane bottled up or a coastal city tormented, the ketesthius is compelling terror, even setting aside its magical gullet.  If I were forced to compare, I’d say Bestiary 5’s cetus is probably the better combatant, good as the penultimate or final challenge of a given adventure, while the ketesthius is a better side trek encounter on a long sea voyage, or even an adventure opener if its stomach leads somewhere particularly interesting.

Also, given the ketesthius’s high CR, the average party who interacts with one will almost certainly be packing extradimensional gear of their own.  It’s up to you whether this is a problem you hand-wave away, a potential escape route for magic-poor parties, or an excuse to recreate the end of Jaws…with your PCs and their bags of holding standing in for the oxygen tank.

Adventurers hunt a ravenous ketesthius that has recently disrupted shipping up and down the Saffron Coast.  The creature shows the marks of having fought with a giant cephalopod, which may indicate a kraken drove it this close to shore…or is even directing the wolf-serpent’s actions.  Any adventurers who wind up inside the ketesthius find half-chewed tentacles to support this theory…as well as an aged dragon turtle, nearly albino-white after centuries of slow digestion, who is desperate for either freedom or the sweet release of death.

Engulfed en masse by a ketesthius, an already debased deep merfolk tribe has struggled to both survive and hold on to its identity inside the creature’s extradimensional stomach.  Breeding is carefully regulated, a tradition of ritual sacrifice has morphed into ritualistic cannibalism, and the tribe’s mingled reverence and fear of the Old Ones has expanded to include their gluttonous captor.  Adventurers who find themselves in the merfolks’ domain will likely have to fight their way out (and out of the ketesthius as well).  Before they do, though, they may pick up some useful information, as the deep merfolk have preserved lore and rites pertaining to the Old Ones that no land-dweller recalls.

Reports on the landscape inside a ketesthius’s stomach vary from account to account.  Some describe, as one would expect, dark seas within cramped rubbery chambers, islands of flesh peopled by desperate victims, or even bioluminescent coral reefs.  Yet more fanciful tales exist of wolf-serpent stomachs that hide a sleeping ocean giant’s bridal chamber; a fey stone circle complete with centaur seer; a demiplane of sliding cubic chambers peopled by mites, pixies, and worms that walk in bishop’s regalia; and at least two gates to planar realms: one to Pandemoniak, the other to the Violet City of Loss.

Pathfinder Bestiary 5 150

The Pathfinder team had to dig—or get playful with Greek, I’m assuming—to come up with the ketesthius’s name, because Google is giving me nothing.

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