Thursday, September 28, 2017

Neothelid Overlord

The neothelid, as I’ve written before, was Pathfinder’s answer to D&D’s proprietary mind flayers.  But it served another purpose as well.  Remember that, originally, Pathfinder was not a game system; it was a game setting—and as such, it needed to differentiate itself from the other 3.5 settings out there.  Neothelids, with their wormlike shapes, suite of mental powers, and seugathi servants, confirmed what other early Pathfinder products had already begun to suggest: Golarion was a world where Lovecraft’s Old Ones and Outer Gods had a definite footprint...or rather, a definite pseudopodprint.  

The neothelid overlord is a neothelid on its way to becoming…something else.  Something much closer to those entities that dwell in the blackness between the stars.  The overlord’s head splits.  Its consciousness begins to transcend its biology.  Its tails dig as if they want to become roots.  Its psychic powers become true psychic magic.  And just looking at it risks madness.

At CR 20, neothelid overlords are campaign-ending villains.  Defeating a conclave of these creatures should be the culmination of years of effort in game time (and possibly even real time).  Of course, failing to defeat a neothelid overlord conclave…well, that doesn't even bear thinking about.

Adventurers bring down a city’s ruling class of necromancers…in the process, exposing a subterranean kingdom of ghouls to the notice of the surface world as well.  But it turns out the ghoul kingdom is a necessary evil, for they are all that keeps a neothelid overlord in check in his mushroom-forest vault.

Strange benefactors have aided a party of adventurers against demons and devils throughout their career.  But then these same benefactors begin to suggest strikes against druid stone circles, goodly temples, and even angelic redoubts and hidden celestial cities—a pantheistic hatred alarming in its intensity.  Careful investigation uncovers seugathi cultists and rumors of dark wormlike lords older than the gods themselves, who worship Powers from a reality that predates this one.

The world of Chasm should have split in two—as is all too apparent from the near-bottomless canyon that circles the planet like a hellish meridian.  The only thing holding the shattered sphere together is a monstrous bhole trapped in stasis long ago.  Now, a neothelid conclave seeks to awaken the bhole and free the worm to split Chasm like an apple in an offering to their dark gods.

Occult Bestiary 36–37

This week’s radio show had a pretty big AAA radio (adult album alternative) feel to it.  Listen for new Courtney Barnett and Sunny & Gabe, some great Mason Jennings, and even a Judy Collins song for the protest-minded, written by Where the Sidewalk Ends author Shel Silverstein.  (I even play some songs I know you like, dear online readers.)  Stream or download it now till Monday, 10/02/17), at midnight.

Sunday, September 24, 2017


Named after an Irish war goddess, the nemhain (pronounced “NAY-wuhn,” because Irish spelling is the world’s greatest exercise in trolling) is an undead creature who is interesting on a number of levels:

1) The nemhain chose to become undeadBestiary 5 says “as a means of protecting a person, object, place, or ideal.”  That’s automatically interesting to me—committing yourself (and your loved ones; see below) to eternal unlife to protect something is devotion/fanaticism on a grand scale.  You don't do that just to guard treasure in a 10’x10’ room…but you might for a holy (or unholy) relic, a political movement, a beloved hero, etc.  Every nemhain once made a choice, and that means every nemhain has a story…perhaps one that your PCs would be wise to ferret out.

2) The nemhain is surrounded by a cloud of bound spirits—usually the spirits of her relatives or friends.  I love this because it recalls one of my favorite undead of all time, the gray philosopher (from the Creature Catalogue and the Monstrous Compendium: Mystara Appendix), whose malevolent thoughts took shape as wispy spirits called malices.  I also love it for the pure horror of this scenario—B5 makes it clear that these souls were usually unaware that they would be drawn into the nemhain-to-be’s self-sacrifice.  It’s one thing to consign yourself to eternity; it’s quite another to bring the local PTA along with you.  And speaking of which…

3) Some nemhains start out good—but they all become evil.  No matter how pure a nemhain-to-be’s motives, the vileness of undeath and the violation inherent in harvesting the souls of her loved ones seals her fate.  So the nemhain is at best a tragic figure whose single-mindedness damned both herself and those around her.  At worst, she’s an abomination willing to sacrifice anything—and anyone—to her cause.

All in all then, every nemhain is special, every nemhain has an interesting story, and every nemhain is deadly (CR 15) at the gaming table.

The pride of elves is dangerous indeed.  When a wild elf soothsayer foretold that the Rose Chamber would be claimed by the dead, the grey elf princess Dharotea swore it should never come to pass.  She promptly closed the borders to the human mage-scholars, the halfling river traders, and especially the dwarf nations and their necromancer-kings.  Even as her self-isolated nation suffered, Dharotea, now queen, never wavered—she would protect the capital, the palace, and its glittering Rose Chamber at any cost.  Finally, to stave off her own death, she performed the Act of Reaping to become a nemhain…inadvertently slaying the rest of the royal court and fulfilling the vision the soothsayer warned of so long ago.

No one expects a bardic college to be deadly—especially not one famous for its jugglers, tumblers, and acrobats.  But the nemhain known as the First Harlequin roams the Laernuin College grounds, and those he selects to perform in his monthly pantomimes must have the ancient forms memorized exactly or be struck down mid-performance.

The worst revolutionaries are the time-traveling ones.  After thwarting a dangerous anarchist—a fiendishly charismatic bard with enough alchemy under his belt to be a literal bomb thrower—adventures discover that he has hatched plots in both the future and the past to undo their hard work.  Worse yet, defeating the anarchist’s allies in one time period doesn’t always mean they’re off the game board.  While in their own time the anarchist’s chief lieutenant, Victoria Graves, is too elderly to do more than fund whisper campaigns against them, in the past she is a dashing vigilante, and in the future she is a nemhain determined to see the Scarlet Revolution come to pass.

Pathfinder Bestiary 5 182

I’ve always wanted to learn Irish (I’m still in touch with my whatever-cousins-however-removed in Carndonagh) but I’m pretty sure I’m 20 years too late for my brain to expand as far as it needs to.  (Hell, I bought a bodhrán in Donegal when I was 17 and I still can't play it, and I’ve been drumming since fourth grade.)

If you’re looking for a fantastic fall-from-grace tale that echoes the nemhain’s, I highly recommend Garth Nix’s Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen, as well as the rest of The Old Kingdom series.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


To say I am a cat person is an understatement.  (If I did not have allergies, I swear I would have five.  And I would be creepy about it.  Like, I’d name them all after Roman emperors and give them each their own Instagram account.  …I should stop talking now.) 

But even I am willing to acknowledge that yeah, if you die in your house with only your cats around, they are probably going to eat your corpse.

The nekomata goes one better: It doesn’t eat your corpse; it animates it—just by licking it!  Oh, and the animated corpse is a free-willed juju zombie or skeletal champion, because of course it is.

But let’s go back a second.  A nekomata comes about when a cat lives past its allotted lifespan.  Should that happen, the cat becomes an evil spirit, grows in size (with its tail splitting in two along the way), and begins casting spells and taking on the shape of nearby humanoids.  It then goes about humiliating them, ruining their reputations, driving them mad, killing them, and then animating the corpses—starting with the family that loved and cared for it.  And after everyone is dead, it picks a new family and starts all over. For no reason than that it overstayed its welcome in life. 

In other words, it’s a goddamn CAT-LICH. With a SNUFF-CEST FETISH.

Now that’s a monster.

I love having a fresh shapechanger-that-impersonates-your-friends-and-neighbors to work with, especially one with a bit more CR heft than the doppelganger.  I love the friendly housecat suddenly becoming a malevolent beast merely because it had its claws too deep in life to die.  And I’m a sucker for any living creature that creates undead—lookin’ at you, pukwudgie!—and the fact that the nekomata creates intelligent undead is just icing on the cake.  And since it’s a reputation destroyer, put it in any context where honor and shame are on the line—samurai clans, knightly orders, paladins on crusade, etc.—and it can do damage in your campaign that far outlasts a single encounter.

This would also be a killer monster for a solo adventure or one-shot. Next time you want to run a game for just one player, or if one character needs a side quest for character development or XP catch-up, the nekomata is waiting

Beset by orcs from the Wastes and fevers borne by the yearly swamp flooding, the city of Engelyn prospers because of the ceaseless labors of Kelman the Robed.  With no heir to take up his mantle, he has extended his life twice through dangerous magic so that Engelyn remains protected.  But the same magic preserved his feline familiar…with dire consequences.  While Kelman was away fighting orcs, the cat became a nekomata under the black of the new moon.  The magical creature then triggered the wards which seal Engelyn Castle from disease, trapping the duke’s family and his retinue inside a magical bubble.  Now the nekomata stalks the halls in stolen shapes, murdering as it goes and creating undead monsters in its wake.  Adventurers in the duke’s service must act to save the duke’s family—and themselves—or the entire household will be slaughtered before Kelman can return to undo the ward.

Adventurers are on the trail of a necromancer…or so they think.  Actually, they hunt a nekomata that was once a barge cat.  The nekomata happily goes from town to town along the river spreading undeath.  If it realizes the adventurers are on its trail, it tries to frame them as necromancers instead.

A nekomata impersonated Lord Tono, and its actions nearly sparked war between the Third Shogunate and the ninja clans of Cliffreach.  Outraged, the shogun demands Tono cut his hair and make the Walk of Repentance or be executed.  Tono plans to acquiesce, but his son, First Lord of the Admiralty, swears to lead the navy in revolt if his father is so shamed.  Tono’s wife, once a renowned geisha, uses her underworld contacts to recruit sellswords to find the nekomata and prove Lord Tono’s innocence before the Walk occurs.

Pathfinder Bestiary 6 201

There are hints of Daniel Polansky’s Low Town in that first seed.

Also: Hey, nekomata, whaddaya say? / I just got back from the auto-da-fé

That’s been in my head all day, and now it’s in yours.

Switching gears entirely, have you guys been following Lindsay Ellis?  She always kills it, but she’s been killin’ it to the killeth power lately.  For a critical one-two punch of awesome, check out her look at the male gaze in Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise and her take on the theme of fatherhood in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.  Both are must-watches.  (And since I referenced Mel Brooks’s Spanish Inquisition song, maybe check out her take on his movies, too.)

And hey, Shanah Tovah to my Jewish readers.  5777 wasn’t exactly an easy year, so best wishes to all in 5778.

Oh, and if you’re looking for the narwhal, it’s here.


Stream/download last night’s radio show here!  New Blondie, classic Jawbreaker, Professor Elemental for the nerds, and “Dammit” turns 20.  Enjoy!  (Link good till Monday, 9/25, at midnight.)

Oh, and I finally met my Dream Daddy.  Specifically, Dream Daddy director/lead developer Tyler J. Hutchison. He was at SPX, conveniently tucked between Abby Howard (of Strip Search/Junior Scientist Power Hour fame), who I was excited to meet, and writer/illustrator team Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr, who I went to college with.

Naturally, Tyler and I got someone to take our picture.  Three guesses who we sent it to.

Monday, September 18, 2017


Having checked off the nymph, dryad, oread (well, sort of; don’t get me started), nereid, oceanid, and even the cave-dwelling lampad (talk about a deep cut, amirite?), the Bestiaries were way overdue to serve up Greek mythology’s naiad.  But with nixies, nereids, and rusalkas all operating in a similar design space/ecological niche, there just hasn’t been the urgency…until now.

The good news is, it was worth the wait.  Not only do we get a decent low-CR fey creature—I like the inspiration tokens that recall Pathfinder’s Fey Revisited book, and the water bond is true to mythology while being more flexible than the dryad’s tree bond—but we also get naiads as a player character race as well!  That’s right, you can now play a full-on fey straight from your favorite myth.  (And we’re not talking just Greek myths—you find near-human river spirits in folktales across the world.)  If you want a wise, sorcerous master of water, play an undine, but if you want to play a mysterious, charming fey with a mystic connection to the rivers and streams around her, the naiad is ya girl.

The naiad also lets us do something we haven't been able to do as much on this blog lately: talk about the thematic potential of a monster.  (That's a problem once you get to the higher-number Bestiaries—you get more original monsters, which is great, but they lack the years of shared folklore and fictional heft that more established creatures have accreted.)  And naiads suggest at least two themes worth very worth exploring:

The first is transformation and journeys.  In myth, naiads are constantly getting transformed into other things: rivers, plants, animals, and so forth.  Now that’s not something you have to literally have happen in your adventures (aside from the odd baleful polymorph).  But I think on a metaphorical level it ties nicely to the naiad’s ability to shift her water bond.  You can easily imagine a naiad PC shifting her bond as she adventures…from the local creek to a nearby stream to the wide river…and then to waters she has only dreamed of…fast rapids, raging waterfalls, even great inland seas. At the same time, she’s also changing as a character, growing in terms of power and responsibility.  Your naiad PC probably won’t be turned into a laurel tree like Daphne, but she may be unrecognizable by the time she completes her final quest.  Water is always flowing, always moving, traveling across the world, taking new shapes and touching new shores as it goes along…why not your naiad PC, too?

The second theme is why so many of those mythical naiads wind up getting transformed into something else: assault/rape, lack of consent, and the aftermath thereof.  In these tales, naiads are always being chased by Zeus/Apollo/Pan or any number of minor gods or satyrs…and when they quite sensibly run and call for help, they tend to wind up transformed into something else.  Which is, when you think about it, a pretty goddamn high cost for not giving in to assault.  Take Daphne: She asked her father to save her from Apollo, and his best answer was to turn her into a laurel tree for the rest of eternity.  Gosh, thanks Dad!  Syrinx, fleeing from Pan, got it even worse: Her sisters turned her into a reed…and Pan, not sure which reed was her, cut them all down and then made the first panpipes so he could still hear her mournful voice every time he blew on them.  And most books still tell this story like Pan is a rascal who just went too far this one time.  Is that isn't male supremacy BS, I don't know what is.

But at your gaming table…in your myths…maybe the story doesn't have to end that way.  Maybe the PCs can step in and stop the assault.  Or maybe they can get justice for the transformed naiad.  Or, if you’re playing a naiad PC, maybe an assault is what launched her adventuring career...because she’s determined such an act won't be the end of her story, but rather its beginning.  No one can cut her down if she’s the one wielding the blade.

This is tough material to tackle sensitively, and not appropriate for every gaming table.  But if your group is a group that can handle hard questions and big themes, naiads offer a window into stories that don’t usually get told in an ordinary dungeon crawl.

Adventurers are warned that a certain fey lord is bound to betray them.  They will be put to sleep for 100 years, pixy-led into another realm, offered fruit that will trap them in Faerie, given seven-league boots that will rip them in half the first time they're used—any number of these awful fates and more.  Prepared for this, the adventurers are stunned to find the lord to be an amiable host, who immediately and publicly names them his guests, offers them safe passage, and aids them in their quest.  It is only on their return to his lodge that his trap is sprung.  The fey lord’s daughter is a naiad whom the demon-possessed satyr Blackhoof has named as his betrothed—whether she consents or not.  Blackhoof is coming to take his intended away with him this very night…and the adventurers, having partaken in the oaths of hospitality, are honor-bound to defend her with their lives while the fey lord watches.

A naiad gives a ranger her token, fortifying his will and steadying his hand so that every arrow he fletches flies a little straighter.  Unfortunately, at the next river he comes to he is immediately set upon by boggards.  The boggards are the thralls of the naiad’s jealous sister, who recognizes her sibling’s token and is determined to slay anyone who bears it out of spite.

The new dam at Carter Bridge is weeks behind schedule.  The delay is the fault of a naiad who has been working to charm, distract, and if necessary harm the workers there, fearing what the dam will do to her beloved stream.  But the snows were heavy this year, and if the dam is not built, the snowmelt may destroy whole villages during the spring floods.  Adventurers may use force or diplomacy to bring the naiad to their side.  If the dam is built, though, the change from wild stream to man-made lake causes the naiad to morph from female to male.  How the naiad reacts to this gender transformation could be the germ of many adventures to come…

Pathfinder Bestiary 6 200

Do you find a race of comely, all-female nymphs to be a somewhat sexist notion?  Guyads are a thing in Pathfinder, so I’m sure gaiads are too.

If you’re looking for more Pathfinder monster content, the new blog monstersdownthepath has a similar passion for our favorite beasts.  Dive in and see some fresh takes on your favorite beasts!

Looking for the myrmidon?  Look way back here.

Audio News #1: Last June I was on the Pathfinder comedy podcast Laughfinder (find out more here and here).  It was absurdly fun, and I’m delighted that my out-of-game rivalry with fellow (and much more professional) DJ Aaron Henkin has since become a running joke on the series.  (Laughfinder has also since been nominated for the City Paper’s Best of Baltimore awards!)

The guys were kind enough to ask me back to reprise my role as the shapechanging urban ranger Renn Tallshoe in their special end-of-season epilogue.

This is a bit of a weird episode, as it’s inspired by Aaron Henkin’s award-winning Out of the Blocks series.  So we trade the laughs and Dick Jokes™ for wry chuckles and a more thoughtful look at Red Point and its citizens.  Nevertheless it’s a lot of fun and features a number of Baltimore comedians, including special guests Erik Woodworth, Todd Fleming, and Bunny Themelis.  Enjoy!

Audio News #2: Ohmanohmanohmanohman.  It’s Tuesday’s radio show!  Youguysyouguysyouguys, I’m really excited about this one.  New SPORTS, new Phoebe Bridgers, Sufjan Stevens “Illinois” turns gold, and more!  This episode is a keeper, so stream/download here.  (Sadly, because I’m posting this on Blogger pretty late, the link is only good till midnight tonight (Monday, 09/18/17).  That’s less than an hour away, so grab it now!)

PS: Seriously, oh my God, the SPORTS happens at minute 2.  Trust me.

Monday, September 11, 2017


(Illustration by James Krause comes from GeekDad and is © Paizo Publishing.)

We’ve covered mutants in this space before—the Inner Sea Bestiary’s Mana Wastes mutants, of course—but Bestiary 5’s mutants are their own breed and deserve their own entry.  Besides, by and large Mana Wastes mutants all fit mostly the same mold (or template, as it were): the same ability bonuses, a shared list of benefits, a few acid- and disease-focused special abilities, and a small menu of deformities…which makes sense for mutants all forged in the same brutal crucible.

On the other hand, Bestiary 5’s mutant template throws open the ability bonus/penalty doors and unlocks a pretty full spectrum of 20 beneficial mutations and 12 harmful deformities for the GM to choose from.  This allows you to customize your mutants at the colony level (maybe all the mutants in this sewer have gills…) or by individual (…but the one about to sneak attack you also has an extra arm and a terrible stench).  (Oh, and wouldn’t you know it, 20 and 12 just happen to be numbers you have icosahedral dice for—perfect for those of you who love rolling on random mutation tables like it’s 1978.)

Once you’ve statted up your mutants, it’s time to turn to the eternal questions: 1) How did they get that way; 2) is however they got that way another wrinkle/challenge you can use to enrich your players’ experience (swamp muties gonna swamp, but is that swampiness reflective of their environment or perhaps because of a radioactive MacGuffin?); and 3) what do they want right this minute?  Fantasy RPGs being what they are, usually what these fantasy mutants want right this minute is not to found an integrated private school in Westchester, NY, to learn to hone their powers in a world that hates and fears them (RIP Len Wein, BTW), but rather they’d prefer to club the PCs’ brains in and roast them on a spit.  After all, swamp muties gonna swamp.

Adventurers are cornered by mutants in a radioactive wasteland.  They are quickly overwhelmed and nearly pummeled to paste by a three-armed ettin.  At the last minute, they are saved by the appearance of an undead creature with glowing eyes and sore-covered, flaking orange skin.  This is one of the irradiated dead (see Pathfinder Adventure Path #87: The Choking Tower), and its very presence inspires terror in the mutants.  If the adventures defeat the ravening undead—particular if they use divine magic, which the mutants have failed to master—the twisted humanoids are willing to parley with the adventurers.

The Bone Star is not a star at all, but a miles-long satellite roughly resembling a human femur.  Normally a teleportation gate connects the two ends of the Bone Star, allowing the telepathic sages on each extremity to pursue their research, trade ideas, and share shipments of food and supplies from the worlds beyond.  But when the gate goes down and a solar cyclone delays the resupply ships, adventures must venture into the mysterious and disused central shaft.  Here the biosphere chambers were long ago overrun by sentient molds, malfunctioning robots, and mutant descendants of the original scientists who failed in their stewardship of the satellite.

Mutations are a plague in most subterranean realms.  Some even breed true—the drow underclass of Civ Po’Dan are extremely quick but bird-boned, while their counterparts in Chevar Yith tend toward armored scales and mad fits of rage.  Meanwhile, one in five troglodytes is born mindless; their sacrifice to the roper philosopher-beasts is a tradition on its way to becoming a sacrament.  The mutations are actually a side effect of the ceremonies that imbue drow nobles with their magical legacies.  If anyone knew this, it would change the politics of the Underrealms forever.

Pathfinder Bestiary 5 180–181

Last time I was posting late because of the eclipse; this time I was busy with the usual hospital stuff and helping my mom celebrate my dad’s 70th birthday.  But I’m thrilled as always to be back hanging out in your Tumblr feed!

Bummed to see James L. Sutter move on from Paizo but psyched for him as well.  I don’t have enough hours in my day today to give him a proper sendoff (hell, I still owe Wes a proper sendoff and his departure was in May) but suffice it to say I’m a big fan of James, I’ve enjoyed every one of his books I’ve read and our interactions out in Seattle (he was my tour guide through the Paizo offices), I think he’s making a smart move, and I wish him all the best.

Oh snap!  Only a few hours left to stream/download my first show of the fall semester!  (The link expires at midnight.  Sorry about the tardiness, guys.)  While it lasts, enjoy Labor Day tunes for you rebellious proles and some wistful tunes for you sophomore sad sacks.  If you miss it, don’t worry—there’s a new one happening tomorrow (Tuesday night, 09/12/17) at 10 PM U.S. Eastern.  Tune in!