Monday, January 21, 2019

Paradise Dragon

(Illustration by Leesha Hannigan comes from the PathfinderWiki and is © Paizo Publishing.)

It was pretty much inevitable that we’d get planar dragons.  (Honestly, I expected them sooner than Bestiary 6, but outer and esoteric dragons arrived instead, a sign of Pathfinder’s pulp sci-fi/horror obsession).

What’s not inevitable is their naming convention.  It would have been really easy to just slap planar monikers like “Abyssal” or “Maelstrom” on top of these dragons.  Instead, we got something far more interesting: names that seem more conceptual, more distilled, that tap into essential aspects of those planes—apocalypse, bliss, crypt, edict, havoc, infernal, paradise, rift.  You feel like each dragon species could have its own planar layer or demiplane based on its specific descriptor.  (Elysium probably has many fields; Havoc feels like a specific one.)  It’s not a huge difference, but it’s a subtle and meaningful one. More importantly, it’s a surprise from the authors, and this late in the Bestiary life cycle surprises are to be treasured.

So…the paradise dragon.  Like all planar dragons, it manifests a chunk of its home plane around itself (a nice touch that feels very video-gamey or anime but still awesome).  The paradise dragon’s specific special abilities also pack a lot of heavenly flavor.  The text indicates that they create holy sanctums of light and harmony to shield their followers, and that extends to their abilities, which aid, heal, resurrect, rebound, bull rush, or banish as needed, allowing them to reshape even the battlefield to their liking.

Like archons, these dragons are pretty much the ne plus ultra of right and good…but for adventure design purposes, there’s always that one bad apple more concerned with his particular rightness than the public goodness.  Also, in the single sentence of descriptive text we get, B6 mentions these dragons attract followers…and what policies or actions a planar dragon deems necessary to protect its followers may not jibe with PCs’ plans.

The paradise dragon Pearl of Moonlight discovered the long-hidden prison lair of Alefbetraxus, an elder wyrm.  Overawed and a little infatuated by his age and grandeur, Pearl seeks to free the primordial dragon, and she will brook no interference.  Unfortunately, Alefbetraxus is still guided by his instinctual drives, one of which (in fact, the reason for his imprisonment) is to eradicate any and all forms of elemental planar pollution.  Poor Pearl has no inkling what he might do to the world she guards, where one in twenty humans has geniekin blood.

Paradise dragons are discouraged from dwelling too long on the Material Plane, as cults inevitably form around them.  The empyreal lord Enoch the Admonisher, Scourge of Pride, makes it his business to test the character of these paradise dragons, often using powerful adventurers as cat’s-paws.

Since the Shattering, there has been no single lawful good plane—a triumph of existential undermining sponsored by the daemons of the Shroud.  What remains are scattered islands of conceptual reality—the Seven-and-Seventy Heavens—each one held together and defended only by the iron will and adamantine claws of a paradise dragon and its followers.  (This includes whichever archons haven't yet fled the multiverse in shame.)

Pathfinder Bestiary 6 104–105

Not all the planar dragons appear in Bestiary 6; some show up in Pathfinder Adventure Path issues.  I think at time of writing we’re still missing one from the Maelstrom (PathfinderWiki indicates it’s the tumult dragon).  (Or maybe that plane rejects having a designated dragon species as being too orderly…or maybe doesn’t need one, thanks to the protean race…)

Speaking of the dragons we got (or didn’t)…we were probably never going to get all of the abomination, humour, mineral, thaumaturgic, sin, and virtue dragons that Mike McArtor teased all the way back in Pathfinder #4: Fortress of the Stone Giants.  But I fervently wish we had gotten some of them, and to this day I love the weirder, wilder Golarion they suggested.  If you ever get the chance to dig up the early Pathfinder issues—especially those explosive first 18 issues—do it!

Sunday, January 13, 2019


(Illustration by Dave Allsop comes from the Paizo Blog and is © Paizo Publishing.)

As this blog has unfolded, one of the themes we’ve hit on many, many times before is that the larger and more powerful giants become, the more they move into the realm of folklore and myth.  You can envision a world where ogres, hill giants, and even certain conceptions of stone and fire giants could be natural outgrowth of evolutionary and environmental forces (for a given value of “natural”).  But once you get past frost giants, natural shoves out of the way in favor of supernatural.

The paradigm for this is the cloud giant race, which comes to us not from Norse myths, but children’s fairy tales—and boy does it show.  Between their magical powers, their cloud castles*, and the Manichean, good/evil alignment split of cloud giant societies, it’s clear we’re dealing with creatures out of story and legend. (*Cloud castles seem to be more a D&D thing than a Pathfinder thing if you’re reading the manuals closely, but I like them so let’s just go with it.)

Now, if you ever shivered in fear when your parents read “Jack and the Beanstalk” to you at bedtime…imagine the stories cloud giants tell their kids.  What could terrify a monster child who regularly helps his mother grind human bones into bread?  The answer is the papinijuwari.

As you might guess from the name, the papinijuwari is a monster from Australia’s indigenous people, specifically the Tiwi of Bathurst and Melville Islands.  It’s a cyclops but worse, searching with its single lambent eye for the young and the weak to devour.  They’re such figures of terror that shooting stars are thought to be papinijuwaris flying overhead (a pretty stark departure from the wishing stars we Americans grow up with!).  All in all, it's a hell of a monster.

What I love about Pathfinder’s papinijuwari is that the designers have translated the monster into game stats without sanding down any of the horror.  They feed on disease. They wear skulls, because of course they do.  And they fly through the air by clutching a burning torch, a detail from folklore I’m so glad the Bestiary 5 designers retained.  (Interestingly, according to the rules this talent works only when the papinijuwari is 500 ft. above the ground, which raises questions about how they take off and land—can they only fly from mountaintop to mountaintop, or magical cloudbank to magical cloudbank…and do they just plummet to the ground …or are they allowed to land?)  But never mind the physics—take a look at that image from Dave Allsop.  Now imagine that thing hurtling down from overhead, landing with a thud in a three-point stance straight out of Iron Man, torch held aloft, hunger gleaming in its eye as it sniffs the air for its prey.  Now that’s a monster.

In fact, it might be my favorite monster in Bestiary 5, and that’s a book that includes the liminal sprite.  Best of all, I never even noticed it—not once—until I sat down to write this entry.  Which is a great reminder that, even in a book I think I know, there are always surprises waiting—and the reason I blog is to find them and share the excitement with you all.

Now to spoil that valedictory ending with a postscript: I think the best way to deploy papinijuwaris is to drop mention of them in your very first session.  Make them sound like an old wives’ tale; make them sound positively ridiculous—nothing like the grim and gritty horrors your players are actually going to face.  Drop another mention at 4th level or so, and then say nothing for ages  And then, when they least expect it, rain evil giants down upon them with a vengeance.

Adventurers use an ancient ritual to call a meteor shower down upon the necropolis of a lich.  The aerial bombardment destroys the hated undead’s tower and reduces his city-state to rubble.  But the devastation also draws the attention of a tribe of papinijuwaris eager to feast on the lich’s diseased subjects…and perhaps make a home for themselves in this new untapped hunting ground.

In addition to its usual reprehensible cargo, a slave ship arrives in port with a strange cyclops chained in the hold and a crew sick with blister fever.  The slavers quickly grease the palms they need to slip free of quarantine, and soon plague and a papinijuwari run rampant through the city.

An adventuring party is brought together by loss. They are all survivor of cloud giant depredations—some lost family to raiders, others were raised in villages overseen (quite literally) by lords in cloud castles overhead, and still others had their homes just scooped away by giant dredges.  No matter where their travels take them, they all know that they are gaining in power and resources until the day they can challenge the giants on their own misty turf.  And just as they are gearing up for their first assault on their oppressors, the king—the high king!—of the cloud giants approaches them.  “I need your help,” he tells the shocked adventurers, “for my oracles have read the signs.  The enemies of both our races, the papinijuwaris, are coming.”

Pathfinder Bestiary 5 188

If you’re looking for ways to break out of Pathfinder’s and especially D&D’s default Eurocentric atmosphere, I think there’s an amazing campaign just waiting to be constructed out of fragments of Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, Australian and other Pacific myths, and your own imagination.  Start with the papinijuwari and go nuts.

Monday, January 7, 2019


(Illustration by Jose Parodi comes from the Pathfinder Facebook page and is © Paizo Publishing.)

Pakalchis feed on the fear and insecurity of failing relationships,” says Bestiary 5.  And if you’ve ever been in a failing relationship, that’s pretty much all you need to know to convince you that these sahkils are the absolute worst monsters in B5—end of story, full stop, done.

And that’s even before you take into account that they can skip between the Material and Ethereal Planes (never a good thing) as a move action (even worse)…dominate you into giving into your worst instincts, fears, and insecurities and sabotage your love…and then strangle, poison, or pierce you to death when it’s all over and you’re no longer amusing to toy with.  Remember how mad Iago made you when you read Othello in high school?  This is Iago with game stats and semi-immortality.  She may be CR 9 on the page, but she’s CR 29 against your heart.

Also, one last note to underscore why pakalchis are the absolute worst: they feed on “failing relationships.”  Not troubled, not star-crossed, not tumultuous—failing.  (And since sahkils are former psychopomps, from a lore/flavor perspective it’s not unreasonable to assume that they have at least a little foresight/precognition about such matters.).  In other words, these relationships were already doomed.  The hurt was already there.  Pakalchis make it vastly worse so as to feed on the couple’s misery…but if you slay a pakalchi, that’s not going to lift the dark clouds over its victims and make flowers spring up in their footsteps.  It just means the relationship is likely going to flounder and fail anyway…and when the end comes, there won’t even be a monster to blame.

Young men in town have been disappearing—often after violent quarrels that leave their sweethearts heartbroken (and too often sobbing and bruised).  Certain signs—vines in unlikely places, bits of clothing caught on thorns, and trails of flower petals—suggest a nymph or some other fey influence.  But the true culprit is a pakalchi whose domain includes a thorny thicket in this world and a grasping, hungry forest on the Ethereal Plane.

Emika and Bez-Sha are twins—budded in the same instant from the same outcropping of direstone in the Cradle of Bones.  Though the catrina sisters were once mirror images of each other, Bez-Sha abandoned the psychopomp order to become a sahkil, gaining in power as she discarded mercy and other weaknesses.  The only hint at their kinship now is the swaying gait of their skeletal forms and the identical shade of tea roses adorning their brows.  The sisters have not spoken since Bez-Sha fled Death’s Realm, but Emika stretches her schedule and her oaths as far as they will allow to search the multiverse for news of her twin. Often this means hiring mortal adventures—sometimes with gold, sometimes with promises of future intercession in matters cosmic.

Napoleon’s occupation of Spain leads to calls for revolt throughout Mexico.  To suppress the uprisings, the Spanish colonial governments rely heavily on mercenary wizards, particularly conjurers whose summoned allies excel at breaking up demonstrations and ferreting out revolutionaries. Doing so, however, pierces the veils between this world and the next, allowing shadows, spectres, and extraplanar threats to creep through.  Recently a pakalchi managed to ooze over from the Realm of Mists.  She has taken to haunting the son of a local marqués and his betrothed, the daughter of a wealthy importer. The lovers’ misery has exacerbated tensions between the families and driven the distracted marqués to ever-harsher reprisals against his people, magnifying the fear and misery that fatten the pakalchi and her allies.

Pathfinder Bestiary 5 216

The original image of La Calavera Catrina that inspired Pathfinder’s catrina psychopomp and possibly the pakalchi actually dates from a century later than the Mexican War of Independence: 1910, rather than 1810.  But today the images of a beautiful woman and/or a friendly skeleton wearing a flower crown is so tied to Mexico I couldn’t resist playing with history a little for that third adventure seed.  Mashing up wizards and Napoleon is, of course, also a big nod toward Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.