Monday, December 31, 2018

Painajai Demon

As much as I love Pathfinder and D&D, being a fan can lock your imagination into certain patterns.  You hear the word “demon,” and immediately your brain spits out “chaotic evil outsider native to the Abyss” like a cash register dishing out change.  That’s why I find it essential—particularly after a childhood spent reading way too many shared-world franchise novels—to read as widely as possible to break out of those patterns.  “Demon” can mean the Lovecraftian horrors of Anthony Horowitz’s Gatekeepers series, the annoying imps inside the Discworld’s personal organizers, or even (as “daemons”) children’s souls incarnated as animal familiars in The Golden Compass.

So I dig the painajai demon because—while it definitely is a chaotic evil outsider native to the Abyss—it is also a dream-haunting nightmare that seems outside the norm for Pathfinder/D&D demons.  A spider-eyed, frothing horror that stalks the Dimension of Dreams, it spreads fear and confusion via psychic magic and conjured horrors, while controlling the landscape via mirage arcana and hungry pit. Once it has a bead on its prey, it hurls its chain spear into its victims and then drags them in close to continue their torments.  Combining some of the the worst elements of night hags, kytons, and bolas spiders, it’s a relatively fresh take on the demon category I really like.

You can certainly use painajais as written—psychic-magically gifted foils to Desna’s uinuja azata servants.  But your campaign could easily find other roles for them as well.  Maybe in your home setting painajai demons are the main threat to sleepers, rather than night hags.  What does the world look like when a bad nightmare might lead to the Abyss?  Or imagine a world where fiends are rare, like the Forgotten Realms in 2e AD&D.  What would it look like if painajai demons were the only demons known?  Players who have gotten complacent rolling dice against dretches and babaus will be in for a shock when the word “demon” automatically means a CR 14 horror waiting to ambush your dream self.

Adventurers awaken in an inn to discover every single surface covered in spider silk—and every guest but them is similarly cocooned.  The message is an unsubtle reminder that they owe a favor to the aranea queen, Leilani.  Traveling to her mist-shrouded kingdom, they are given a task that will release them from her web of obligation.  An avatar of the aranea trickster god Nasari has been captured by painajais, and party must travel into the Dreamskein to set him free.

“A stately pleasure dome” is how Armapan Singh envisioned his Taj Berin.  What he did not envision was that it would attract the attention of a pair of fiendish lovers.  An avatarna rakshasa and her painajai demon consort have occupied the palace and turned it into den of pleasures and addictions from this world and the world of dreams.  In addition to cleaning out the Taj, Singh himself must be recovered as well—preferably alive and with his soul intact—for his moderating influence is all that keeps the government’s Circle of Adepts from surrendering to their wizard-supremacist impulses.

The solution to cracking the Vault of Marbled Midnight is not a literal key but a musical one: a note no human voice can sing.  Cameron of the Knife has recruited a fleshsculpter who specializes in demonic grafts to craft a sort of vocal sac implant he believes will do the trick.  But not just any demonflesh will do—they need the throaty resonance of a painajai.  That means hunting down the hunters of the Dimension of Dreams and successfully bringing the grisly trophy home while it is still viable.

Occult Bestiary 19

Happy New Year’s Eve!

Apologies to my Blogger readers: I posted yesterday’s entry before remembering to search for an ouroboros image, and now I’m too scared of Blogger’s buggy interface to try editing the posted file.  You can see the image here, though.

If you’re looking for the outlaw troop, we’ll be covering that when we loop back around to the goblin troop.  If you’re looking for the ovinnik, we covered it back here.

Sunday, December 30, 2018


The ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail, is a common ancient symbol, appearing in Egyptian, Greek, Norse, Gnostic, Vedic, and South American texts and carvings...which is interesting, because there aren’t actually a lot of stories about it (compared to say, dragons or giants or even sphinxes).  Instead, the ouroboros’s value seems to be almost entirely as a symbol—for life and death, consumption and renewal, light and dark, the circle of samsara, and so forth.

Given what a well-established symbol the ouroboros is, the first question about it was always going to be: When would someone turn the ouroboros into a Pathfinder monster?  And the second question was: How would someone turn the ouroboros into a Pathfinder monster?  (A serpent constantly eating its own tail is great from a visual perspective, but it’s going to have trouble making a bite attack.)

But if it’s a snake made of thousands of snakes…on the Astral Plane…constantly devouring and regenerating itself…with blood that’s can raise the dead or baleful polymorph you into a swarm of snakes…and it’s CR 21 for good measure…now that’s a Pathfinder monster.

I also dig the video game-ness (or 4th Ed D&D-ness) of its Self-Consumption (Su) ability—that if you damage it down to half its hit points, it stops eating its own tail, which both makes it more vulnerable, but also unlocks some of its special abilities (and makes it pissed, presumably).  I don’t need every monster to get special abilities for being bloodied, but it is a nice perk for certain significant baddies.  It also works thematically.  One of the exceptions to my “There are no stories about these things” gloss above is the Norse World Serpent, Jörmungandr, who could be considered a kind of ouroboros.  One of the climactic acts of Ragnarök is Jörmungandr releasing his tail from his mouth and surfacing to fight the gods. There’s no reason fighting an ouroboros at your game table can’t be just as epic.

Adventurers discover a divine secret: the goddess of death and the goddess of birth are one and the same. In her gestalt form, the Splintered Queen dwells in a palace ringed not by a moat, but by an ouroboros that both symbolizes her twin portfolios and makes a singularly unforgiving guardian.

Planar travel through the nested Tiers of the Celestine Stairs is difficult.  Even a successful casting of the gate spell opens the archmage’s mind to maddening influences from beyond the Tiers. (An unsuccessful casting may result in disintegration, polymorphing into a gibbering mouther, the calling of a shoggoth, or worse.)  But a few rifts connect the Tiers, the most famous being the Ouroboros Gate—a living ouroboros whose ravenous coils can be traversed to reach the vast expanse of the Astral Tier.

With the awakening of the serpent god Sardsorius, the serpentfolk race, long thought extinct, has erupted from the bowels of the earth. Worse yet, their shamans are poised to succeed in a quest that has eluded them for millennia: piercing the veil hiding Refuge, the last lost retreat of the elves. Embattled on all sides, the elves risk everything to resurrect their mythic hero king, Kin-Yalyn—including tasking a rogue band of adventurers to acquire the ouroboros blood the ritual demands.

Pathfinder Bestiary 6 206–207

Hey!  Remember me?

I think I first read about the ouroboros in the Xanth books…which means I just admitted to reading the Xanth books. (Leave me alone, this was middle school.)  The use of an ouroboros as a moat monster is a direct homage to one of these novels (The Source of Magic, I think).  While we’re at it, any elves vs. serpentfolk scenario I write probably owes a debt to Ghostwalk.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if I’d posted this entry last April, when my article on resurrection was coming out in Pathfinder Adventurer Path?  Yeeeeeah, that would have been smart.