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Monday, August 12, 2019

Dreams and Fevers Turns One!

Piece of Cake by Joy Argento

Last year on August 12, I uploaded my first post to this blog. 'Hello All!'

The passing of the year has got me feeling reflective. I'd like to take some time to consider what I've been aiming to do with this blog. I'd also like to celebrate a little and express some gratitude because this is an anniversary, but it's a delicate balance to strike between thanks and false humility, careful pride and self congratulation. Let's see how I do.

"Blogs shouldn’t be conversations. They should be writing."

As G+ was going down, I shared this blog post by Chris Warley there. It's a post about the consequences of speed, how email and texting and twitter shape the kind of discourse which occur through them. It's about how complex topics demand that we slow down to understand them. It's about the value of reading, of paying attention, of taking one's time. It's about how going too quickly, having too much data to sort through, destroys our ability to understand what we're looking at. It's also about Italian food, but I digress.

I happen to agree with Chris, but he's an English professor. He's trying to understand Adorno and Donne. I'm trying to get prepped for my game this weekend. But I think often about Chris' post and about what I'm trying to do here. Though rpgs may be less complicated than literature and critical theory, that is not to say they are simple. Thinking about them, about system and aesthetics and rulings, in a way which is useful to playing the game also requires a speed which is not as slow as academia or as fast as an exchange over twitter.

Up to this day, I think Straits of Anián is the best D&D blog out there. It hasn't updated since 2014 but I keep coming back to it. Each post, especially We are Eaten Forever, feels complete, rich, and dense. It starts with one idea, devouring spirits, and expands to rules for soul loss, rules for possessions, a warrior society, a whole bestiary of cannibal monsters. I feel like Straits' posts are worth the close attention of reading and rereading, they are slow blog posts.

I probably won't ever run something pulled straight from Straits (except those possession rules, they're great), but I won't forget it either. I find that I don't read blogs to rip things directly from them into my games but to be constantly inspired by them. I probably won't have one of Zedeck Siew's Priests of Want at my table, but I want my Devouring Priests to capture the same sort of terror.

When I write here, on Dreams and Fevers, it is Chris' slow ethos that I follow and Straits' standard of richness that I try to achieve. I want to write things which are worth rereading as much as they are worth using at the table. When I place that dedication at the end of each post I want it to be well earned. I don't think I've always lived up to that standard. I've hit 'publish' on drafts that were a bit too rough, refused to cut for concision too often, but I've gotten better too.

 At the same time, I've been stretching myself into areas where the same standards aren't as applicable. I've written a review and a one page setting, essays and a manifesto. So Dreams and Fevers has changed a little, but I try to keep the same goals as mind even as what I write changes. Richness, completeness, rereadability, slowness. I doubt that these goals will always be fit to the task at hand, but having them close to heart has never hurt.

As I go forward, I want to write more dense, Straits-esque posts while still trying new things. Again, another tricky balance to strike. Maybe I'll try going a tad faster this year, maybe even slower, the future is never easy to describe. All I know is that I'm looking forward to what comes next, be it continuity or change or something else.

Hornsgaten by Night by Eugene Jansson

So that's it, that's me. A lot has changed this year. I'm happy to have made it this far. Thank you all for coming along with me. Special thanks to those of you who have never commented or made yourselves known but just read, I know you're around somewhere and I'm grateful for your silent attention. Thank you to everyone who has put me on their blog list or linked to one of my posts, I appreciate that vote of confidence.

Finally, thank you to everyone who's been inspired by what I do here enough to start their own blog or undertake their own project. Thank you Kai Poh for writing Pipe Dream (which I'll get around to reviewing eventually). Thank you Gundobad for all the excellent posts about history and rpgs. Thank you Paperweight for Akavan. Thank you Lexi for starting A Blasted, Cratered Land, which constantly impresses me. And, finally, finally, thanks to Joe Fatula and Boris Stremlin, who have made a great impression on me.

This is a lot of thanks for just one year on just one small D&D blog, but this is how I feel. I look forward to the next year of Dreams and Fevers, I hope that you do too.

This post is dedicated to Thomas Ligotti

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Cowboys and Conquistadors: Looking for New Models of the Adventurer


Tlaxcalans and Spaniards enter Guadalajara, image from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala

Dungeons and Dragons is about adventurers. A D&D campaign consists of a string of adventures with downtime stretched between them. These ideas didn't come from nowhere. In his 3 part essay, The Sociology of the Murderhobo, Boris Stremlin explores the literary roots of the adventurer, as they are portrayed in D&D, and looks for a model of the adventurer not as a literary archetype but as "a social type" which emerges in early modern history.

In my opinion, Stremlin's essay series is one of the best fruits of the D&D blogosphere. It's articulate but not too inaccessible, well argued, and reveals both the interesting history of D&D and new ways of playing it. Though D&D owes much of its original conception to literature, Boris' analysis suggests that the fantasy of D&D is far from a-historical. The genres which inspired D&D (Weird Fiction, Sword and Sorcery, and Heroic Fantasy) all take influence from the historical and cultural context from which they emerge.

Boris finds that the literary forebears of D&D, in one shape or another, reflect the history of colonialism. The protagonists of Sword and Sorcery are strongly reminiscent of Cowboys from American Westerns. The protagonists of Weird Fiction confront "the immigrant, the politically mobilized but still undereducated industrial worker, the native" as often as they do the cosmic. Though Boris does not touch on the legacy of colonialism and race in Tolkien's epic fantasy, the connection is not difficult to make. (Sidebar: Though James' article explains the history of Tolkien's Orcs well, I feel that he draws too harsh a division between Europe and the steppe. There is a rich and complicated history of interaction between nomadic and sedentary peoples in Eastern Europe.)

All these genres also employ a distinction between a civilized zone, where protagonists hail from, and a frontier where the main narrative action takes place which makes a heavy impression on D&D. In Westerns and Sword and Sorcery this divide is most literal. In Weird Fiction these are frontiers of knowledge as much as physical spaces. The position of Rangers in Tolkien's books attest to a border existing between two civilizations if not between civilization and frontier.

4th edition's so called 'points of light' setting operates on the assumption that the world is composed mostly of "wild, uncontrolled regions" with city states between them. Similarly, in the very title of Gygax's Keep on the Borderlands the same dynamic is represented. There's a Keep, civilization, and the Borderlands, the frontier. Granted, not all D&D settings and adventures maintain a frontier vs civilization theme, but it's telling that this theme stretches from a core assumptions of a modern edition of the game right back to a module intended to introduce new players to it.

Though the legacy of colonialism is certainly sanitized in D&D, it is still present in the game's basic ideas. When we tell stories around the table of civilized heroes venturing beyond the borders to beat back the forces of chaos again and again we should take pause and consider what kind of narrative we are participating in. I'm certainly no less guilty of doing this than anyone else. Boris himself has pointed out how I project the frontier/civilization division onto my own Meager Country.

The connection between D&D and colonialism is also not new. I've begun with Boris' essay but others have reached similar conclusions by different means. But the question remains: in light of this, how should we change the way D&D is played?

 I think we need to base our campaigns off different types of adventurers who are not cowboys or conquistadors and we can find such figures in history. We need to look to the past for new stories, new protagonists, different relationships between 'civilization' and 'frontier.' This effort will not just remove a problematic element from the game but broaden the horizons of what can be represented at the table drastically.

4th Centruy Goth Warriors, Angus McBride

What is an adventurer? 

As Boris describes in the second part of his essay, the early modern adventurer is somebody who manages risk, be they a mercenary, merchant, or financier. The adventurer exists in a time of social change. Established hierarchies are starting to wobble. Great opportunities for disaster and success are emerging. The first adventurers were also the first colonizers. Hernán Cortés, Samuel de Champlain, and John Winthrop fit the word well. But Boris draws our attention to other kinds of adventurers through his discussion of the Ashkenazi Jewish diaspora. This group doesn't appear to be very adventuresome when stood beside the conquistador, but commonalities soon emerge. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the 14th-16th centuries, still developing and capable of offering greater religious freedom, is certainly a kind of frontier. Managing a business and setting up a community far way from one's home certainly requires a skill in managing risk. So an adventurer is not necessarily a colonizer and a frontier is not necessarily a terra nullius. 

What we are looking for is this: other conditions under which the adventurer as social type can exist. We are looking for groups of people who choose or are put into situations which require the management of risk to protect their communities or to move up the social hierarchy. These adventurers will also exist in times of change, whose outcome may depend heavily on their choices, failures, and victories. The frontiers they venture to may be states in crisis, far off lands in need of expertise of all kinds, or regions where valuable resources can be obtained.

Here are a few examples of good models of the adventurer, most drawn from the excellent Gundobad Games blog.

The Sea People (and others) of the Late Bronze Age Collapse

The international order of the Late Bronze Age relied on trade and communication between rulers facilitated by mobile populations. Such populations had great power to support or subvert the social order and can be easily seen as adventurers.

The Visigoths of the Late Roman Empire

The Visigoth were one of many groups forced into Rome's borders by the advancing Huns. The Visigoths faced great challenges in the form of corrupt Roman officials and anti-barbarian politicians as they became more and more integrated into the empire. A campaign based on this period would see the player characters adventure to ensure the safety and continuity of their community in exile.

The Vikings of the Viking Age

The Vikings traded, raided, and explored all the way from the White sea to Constantinople and beyond. Driven to win social status back home, pursuing economic advancement, and stimulating change at home and abroad makes the Vikings fit the model of the adventurer almost perfectly.

These are just three examples but in them is an incredible diversity of campaign concepts. I feel like D&D could have been founded on any of them as easily as on fantasy literature. But more remains to be discovered, more models await discovery by game masters who can pay careful attention to history.

This post is dedicated to Marshall Hodgson

Thursday, July 18, 2019

An Introduction to the Prophetess and the Way

Illustration of Canto 34 of Paradiso,Gustave Dore, 1864

How many countless hundred thousands pray
For patience and true knowledge of the Way
That leads to Him whom reason cannot claim
Nor mortal purity describe or name;
There soul and mind bewildered miss the mark
And, faced by Him, like dazzled eyes, are dark -
No sage could understand His perfect grace,
No seer discern the beauty of His face.
His creatures strive to find a path to Him,
Deluded by each new, deceitful whim,

-The Conference of the Birds by Farid Ud-Din Attar

The Master said, "When a person's knowledge is sufficient to attain it, but his humaneness does not allow him to hold on to it, he may get it but will inevitably lose it again. When his knowledge is sufficient to attain it and his humanness allows him to hold on to it, but yet he cannot govern with dignity, the people will not respect him. If his knowledge is sufficient to attain, and his humanness allows him to hold on to it, and he governs with dignity yet does not act in accordance with the rites, it will still not be good."
-The Analects of Confucius, 15:32

First there was the Lord. He is ultimate, good, merciful, terrifying, other, universally sovereign. He created all that is on earth and beyond it. He shattered his infinite being to do so. The Lord adheres in the whole creation, each part contains a grain of His infinity and the perfection of His Holiness. But all things are also separate from their maker. Everything is doomed to stray from Holiness. Self and selfishness, greed, indulgence, pride and vice arise where the essence of the Lord is first removed from Him.

 Between us and He is the Gate. The Gate is separation, the border between the world we see and the one we don’t. There may be goodness, courage, bravery, humility, but if it does not cross this threshold and return to Fullness with the Lord, it will rot away. 

 The first to turn their backs on the Lord were His Archons, the First Ones, who inherited the greatest share of Holiness. They were charged with maintaining the creation, but resentment was born in their hearts. They wished to govern their own domains where they would wield the Lord’s sovereignty as their own. They became the gods of the earth and they ruled it as tyrants do. Under such cruelty, the people of the world strayed from Holiness and they turned on each other. Animals, plants, and finally the earth and water and air followed them. War, disease, famine, disaster. These are the fruits of the Traitor-Archons’ dominion over the universe.The Traitor-Archons did not fear the Lord. They trusted the Gate to keep the cosmos in their sway. The Archons placed their fingers over it to hold it even tighter.

Despite the Gate, the Lord still holds power in the cosmos. In old Beshara He was regarded as a deity of law and contracts. He elected prophets, people who would bring the nations of the world back to Holiness. None of them overcame the Gate, but they all foreshadowed greater things to come.

File:Beatrice Addressing Dante (by William Blake).jpg
Beatrice Addressing Dante, William Blake, 1824

When she arrives in the First Holy, the Book of Hallaj, she speaks from the background, among the craftsman and fishermen and shepherds. She is already old because she has wandered long years in exile. Her ear is pieced. It is a reminder that she was once property of the great chieftain ‘He Who Kills with a Glance.’ Her eyes have been cut out, for she spoke up for the bastard child abandoned in the desert and the supplicant denied justice in the court of Hujuz.

She calls herself Rashida. We know she is our Prophetess. She is one of the pale people of Beshara. The Lord came to her in the heart of the desert. All her wandering had led to Him, barely to the foot of His throne. He struck no covenant with her. He reminded her of Him. He gave her a phrase: ‘the Way.’

Her voice is always the same, no matter which scribe records her. She holds the Way in her mouth like a banner. She speaks with passion for the Lord and the Way, which is His gift to all the world. Her lips form graceful sentences in the old Besharan language, interlaced with the rough syllables of the tongue of the Bauda people. She denounces the world as it is, ruled by the tyrant pawns, the servants of the Traitor-Archons. 

The Way is the Lord’s plan for the creation. The Way is the formula that leads us through the Gate. The Way returns us to goodness, then to Holiness, then to Fullness with the Lord. Without it, no virtue and no truth can last on earth or beyond it. Some believe that Rashida opened the Gate herself once she ascended mount Arsir and left the world, ensuring that we could follow her. Others believe that she just slipped through the keyhole. You see, the Gate might only open from the other side and when it does only those who know the Way will be let through. 

The Way is a relationship. The creation is truly one with the Lord and it all must be accorded the respect He commands. 

The Way is a belief. It is the conviction that the self and the world can be redeemed through their own will and action. 

The Way is a practice. To stray from Holiness is our natural condition, but ritual keeps the Way in the foreground of our life and Fullness as our goal. 

The Way is all encompassing. It begins with a woman, it embraces the world. It begins with a word and a full sentence rises from it. It begins with one order of creation, the people of earth, and will move to bring the entire cosmos back to Fullness with the Lord. There is no person, no thing, no place, no time to which it is not relevant. 

The Way is a challenge. It demands our attention; it demands we bend our lives around it. It will be the measure of your deeds, your thoughts, and the deepest feelings of your heart. Your family, your community, your city, and your entire society will be held to account by its standard.

Though our responsibility to the Way and to each other weighs heavy on us, we can be assured that as long the as the cosmos retains its essential Holiness the Way will retain its infinite efficacy. But much remains unanswered. What exactly is expected of followers of the Way? What is forbidden? What will be redeemed and what will be destroyed? To whom do we pray - To the Lord? To the Prophetess? To the Way itself? When we fail in our pursuit of Holiness, where do we turn? What will a cosmos returned to Fullness look like? Is the Gate open?

Girl Reciting Qu'ran, Osman Hamdi Bey, 1880

We seek answers in the life of the Prophetess, as her voice comes down to us in the Five Holies. The books of Hallaj, Laila, Emrah, Idris, and the book of Attestations lay bare the deeds of the Prophetess and the knowledge of the Way which she imparted to her earliest assistants. We are reminded that Hallaj was once the Prophetess’ greatest opponent before his conversion. We are filled with hope. We read the tender words spoken between Rashida and Laila before they fled their enemies. We shed tears, knowing that the Way is not easy. Emrah recalls the judgments which the Prophetess gave at the city of Unah. This shows us that the Way sometimes requires as much pragmatism as conviction. Idris watches his Prophetess climb mount Arsir to leave this world behind. His grief, his awe becomes our own. We read the squabbles which occur amongst the assistants as the Prophetess shares her wisdom in the book of Attestations. We sigh, knowing that learning still escapes us.

Aged, pieced, blinded. Slave, serving girl, exile, teacher, judge, leader, Prophetess. 
Wandering, seeking, losing, finding.
Perspective, thought, belief, action. 
Self, community, society, cosmos. 
Pilgrims, commanders, merchants, mystics, princes, servents, farmers, nomads, governors, fishermen, basket weavers, artisans, scribes, builders, scholars, canal diggers, herders, parents.
All of these are joined in the pursuit of the Way. Like a canto being spoken or a tapestry woven, the Way continues on. Tomorrow may be a step toward Fullness or a stumble back to separation, but the Way will continue all the same. 

Our history stretches almost 800 years. Struggle has shaken and divided us. Compromises have been made. Power and the Way are so tangled as to be inseparable. But the spirit of our enterprise remains. The Way is strong, the Way is true, and we continue to rise to its challenge. 

St Francis with a Skull, Francisco de Zurbaran, 1630


I’ve touched on the religion of the Besharan empire before and made it a major mechanic in my last Meager Country campaign. However, I don’t think that last set of rules gives the right impression of the Besharan religion. All the sects seem like their own faiths with wildly different practices, rather than different expression of the same rich and varied religious tradition. I think my players had the same feelings. 

With this post, I wanted to take things from the top and give all the sects a more solid background to work off of. In future, I'll be add more posts detailing the sects and eventually circle back to writing more mechanics for playing priests and paladins and mystics of the Way. 

This post is dedicated to Rabe'eh of Basra

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Fall at Old Uppsala - and a Beyond the Fence post mortem



It's done! The first scenario published for Beyond the Fence, Below the Grave is up on itch.io!

You can download it here! 

It's been really fun play testing the system and developing this scenario for it (which, in my honest option, is the best scenario ever written for Beyond the Fence!). Now I have a much better sense of how the system performs. I wrote it partially because I wanted to explore the Old Norse milieu in more detail (and also because of the folklore jam) but also because I wanted to apply OSR design principles to a game without a dungeon. I'd say that it's been a success. The system's rules are flexible and welcome improvisation. The focus on investigation is a good substitute for the dungeon, probably because players succeed in both situations by asking the right questions.

On the whole, I'm impressed by how engaging Beyond the Fence can be for both players and GMs.  The dropping essence scores keeps the tension building. The need to perform a crisis ritual helps the players stay focused. I've had parties fail while running Fall at Uppsala and others succeed and each time it's been a pleasure to watch them bend under the pressure and try to put all the information together at the last minute.

The system needs a good scenario, with high stakes and dense mystery, to function but when it does it's really, really good. If it has a major issue, it's that the system is a one trick pony. It doesn't have a way to make investigation #6 different from investigation #1 and I have no clue what a Beyond the Fence campaign would look like. I'm also worried that I demand too much familiarity with Old Norse society and mythology for the game to be accessible, but I'm trying to remedy that by adding some basic notes on historical context to everything I publish for Beyond the Fence.

Right now, I feel that each of the specialties could use more play testing, but the potential of Beyond the Fence is still great. There are many more parts of the pre-medieval Scandinavian world that I want to represent in the game. I want to explore trading towns and the borders of Saami territory and shores of a just settled Iceland. I want to write about the concubines of jarls and Muslim merchants in the north and about more fishermen and upstart raiders and farmers.

So the first scenario is done, but there are many more to come!

This post is dedicated to Gustav Strom, translator of Heimskringla

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Dungeon Inspector

Dungeons often seem like the domain of chaos, full as they are of monsters, danger, and opportunity for profit. But there's still some order and it is maintained by the D.S.C. (that is, the Dungeon Standards Commission). The commission supplies traps, wandering monsters, and design advice to wizards, evil overlords, and dragons of all varieties. The commission's regulations apply to all lairs, ruins, tombs, and forbidden temples. But the D.S.C needs boots on the ground, constantly peering into the homes of its clients to make sure everything is done according to code. You have no salary. You have no clear route to promotion. You have almost no authority. You are a Dungeon Inspector. And you are expected to submit a report about each dungeon you encounter.

Remember, this business is not pretty, but it can take you far...
Portrait of Georg Giese, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1532

Note: Sewers ALWAYS count as dungeons

Level 1: Dungeon Research, Friend of Vermin
Level 2: Deputize, Machine Code
Level 3: Enforce Regulation
Level 4: Increased Justification

Dungeon Research
You can spend a day doing research on a dungeon in the D.S.C archives. Roll 1d6 + your Dungeon Inspector Level + 1 for each extra week you spend researching. Divide the result by 2, rounding down. You may learn about a number of features of the dungeon equal to the divided result.

Dungeon Features:
-A treasure
-A monster/faction
-An entrance/architectural feature
-A trap/hazard

Friend of Vermin
Unless you provoke them directly, non-sentient dungeon dwelling creatures (such as slimes, rats, bats, carrion crawlers) will prefer to attack creatures other than you first.

Deputize
You can force a sentient dungeon denizen of roughly grunt rank to do your bidding. It is not obliged to attack its own kind. You are responsible for this creature's well being, if it dies you will be charged a fine equal to the creature's HD x 10gp.

Machine Code
Most dungeon machinery operates on standard principles known to all D.S.C technicians. By examining a machine or other type of mechanism in a dungeon, such as a switch or system of gears, you can figure out what the machine is and does.

Enforce Regulation
Once per dungeon, you can declare a feature of the dungeon to be in violation of the D.S.C code.
If the feature is successfully declared to be in violation, it is immediately scrubbed from the dungeon. Monsters are removed, treasure is liquidated (you get 25% of the value), traps and parts of architecture are moved back into storage. Your deceleration has a your Dungeon Inspector Level in 8 chance of being accepted by the commission. This chance can be increased by 1 in 8 for each specific violation you cite. The council (i.e the GM) has final say over what counts as a violation but feel free to argue. Expect new features to replace ones found to be in violation if you ever return to the dungeon.

Code Violations:
Universal Violations: Does not fit the dungeon's 'theme', Uninspired design/too generic
Treasure: Not hidden well enough, value too high in relation to ease of finding
Monster/Faction: Too aggressive/refuses to negotiate with adventurers
Entrance/Architectural Feature: Reveals nothing of the dungeon's history/present goings on
Trap/Hazard: Impossible to detect preemptively, Impossible to overcome

Increased Justification
You have achieved a high enough rank in the D.S.C that you may treat any multi-floored structure as a dungeon for your purposes.

Skills: 1. Drudgery 2. Bureaucracy 3. History

Starting Equipment: 1d6 sheets of paper, ink and quill, a burlap sack, 20ft of hempen rope, a letter confirming your identity marked with the seal of the D.S.C

Portrait of the Oboi, regent of  the Kangxi Emperor

This post is dedicated to the High Commissioner Lin Zexu 

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Exquisite Organs of the Primordial Flesh

Organic Tile Material, Tyler Smith, 2019 (Source)

The thing came in a jar. Maybe the jar was copper, textured like snake scale. Maybe the jar was clay, painted with black figures of surgeons and their heroes. The jar was full of liquid. The thing sat in the sludge like an embryo in the yoke. It was inert, perfectly so.

You kept the jar in your saddle bag, it bounced with the bolts of linen and the sacks of spices. Your camel didn't seem to mind, it was just a few more pounds to carry. Later, when you had the time, once you had eaten the camel and the spices and sold the linen, when you lived in a house with clay walls right near the temple, you kept the jar on a shelf. A curiosity from the old days, you told guests.

That much was true. You were still quite curious. You didn't tell guests about the other jars. The growths that covered the wall, like tumors turned to stone with age. The vaulted ceiling from which the desiccated bodies hung, tubes pouring from their dry orifices. All that you neglected to mention. But you were still curious.

Cane in hand, you went to the temple. The initiates had no clue. They reminded you to seek fullness with the Lord and washed your feet and meekly speculated about what the words of the Prophetess had really meant.

With your finest robes, you went to the house of wisdom. The historians were full of clues. The jar certainly had telling but strange designs. The anatomists were confused, they took a sample of the fluid. You declined to give them any more. The astronomer did your horoscope and you left.

Putting a veil over your face, you went to the back of a house near the bazaar of irregularities, closed by an agent of the Commander of the Faithful when you were still nimble in the saddle. The Surgeon was pleased. She smiled wide. She brushed the dust from the Codex Universae Medicus and read. She read with a fervor, greater than reciting priests or debating scholars.The tantalizing words flowed down, forming summary and quotation. You could only grasp the important bits.

"The flesh and spirit have always been at odds." You heard "Their method was flawed, they looked out instead of in for the answer... The Complete Supremacy of Flesh... the mystery in ligament and spinal fluid... The flesh will prove to be the cure to itself...to bring about its own perfection.... I cannot imagine any way but the through the Exquisite Organs... there will be a great and primal healing."

She took the Exquisite Organ from the jar, the inheritance of the Primordial Flesh, the glory of the unbroken lineage of Sublime Surgeons dripping in its carefully synthesized amniotic fluid. She counted the lobes, tested the membrane, she saw that it was ready to live again. It was time to operate.

Illustration from a 15-16th century edition of Mansur's Anatomy 

Find Me the Primordial Flesh 
The genesis of the Exquisite Organs is unknown. They have may have been fabricated by the Surgeon-Priests of antiquity, torn from the carcasses of mythical giants, bred over generations for greater and greater perfection. They can be found in specialized jars or preserved in mummified corpses or harvested from the bodies of living hosts. Each is worth its weight in gold to anyone who knows what they're buying. 

Find Me a Doctor
We live in a time of great medical marvels but Sublime Surgeons are hard to come by. They may be found in the halls of schools of medicine and anatomy, or as practicing doctors in slums and border towns, or as the personal physicians of amirs and aristocrats. Most surgeons could attempt to implant the Exquisite Organs if able to educate themselves about the proper procedure by reading the Codex Universae Medicus. Realistically, the chance of rejection is quite high but we can waive that for player characters.

20 Exquisite Organs

1. The Intercession Gland (Emergency Petrification Gland - inserted at the brain stem)
When you are reduced to 0 hitpoints, your body (but not your equipment) rapidly turns to stone. In this form you remain alive and regain hitpoints as if you were resting. When you receive magical healing of any kind, your body becomes unpetrified. A trained magic user can tell how to reverse the petrification process by examining you for a few minutes.

2. The Dragon's Tongue  (Noxious Parotid Gland - inserted in the cheek)
Your saliva is highly acidic. 10 minutes of sustained spitting is enough to melt a fist sized amount of any material as or less durable than metal. If your spit gets in somebody's eyes, it blinds them for a minute (but does no damage). Additionally, you can digest most organic materials, including bone and tough chitin. Food loses all its flavor to you.

3. The Mighty Cord (Fibrous Colonic Reinforcement Complex - inserted in abdomen)
You have a cable made of your calcified and extended large intestinal tract which comes out from your belly button. The cable is about as flexible as rope and as strong as steel, it is 20ft long. If the cable is tugged with a great deal of force, it will be pulled out and take most of your internal organs with it, killing you almost instantly.

4. The Blood Furnace (Energetic Myeloid Stem Cell Sack - inserted in the chest)
Your blood is highly nutritious and about as flammable as lamp oil. 1 hp worth of blood is equivalent to one ration or a flask of lamp oil. You smell absolutely delicious.

5. The Sanguine Mind (Aggressive Lymphoid Stem Cell Sack - inserted in the chest)
Your blood is independent and semi-sentient. When outside your body, you can command your blood to flow and climb in any direction. If your blood contaminates the blood stream of another creature, you can control their body for a minute.

6. The Wizard's Marks (Spell/Marrow Interfacing Complex - inserted in the back)
Your flesh can function as a storage space for spells. When you are the target of a spell, you have a 1 in 6 chance of absorbing it. You can store 1 spell this way and can cast it as if it were a scroll. You can have this organ implanted multiple times. Each implantation increases the number of spells you can store by 1 and increases your chance of absorbing spells by 1 in 6.

7. The Flame Body (Explosive Lymph Nodes- inserted in arms, abdomen, and thighs)
When you die, or when you will it, your body explodes as per a fireball spell. You can will your limbs to explode independently of the rest of your body, treat exploding limbs as a fireball with 1/4 the area of effect and damage. If your limbs/body are regenerated, they maintain their explosive powers.

8. The Priest's Chamber (Adaptive Bone Cavity - inserted in the abdomen or thigh)
You have a box hidden in your body. The box sits under a layer of skin than can be peeled back and is about as strong as a metal safe. There is a code word, chosen by you, that opens the box.

9. The Legislator's Larynx (High Resonance Larynx - inserted in the throat)
You can raise your voice to incredible volumes. When you shout, you can be heard clearly as far as 6 miles away. Once a day, you can shout loud enough to make all non-deafened creatures in your immediate surroundings spend the round clutching their ears in pain. This makes your voice hoarse and you can only whisper for the rest of the day.

10. The Gourmet's Womb (Gastric Reproductive System- inserted in the abdomen)
By eating a raw chunk of a creature's flesh, you can begin to gestate a clone of it in your implanted womb. The clone takes 1d6 weeks to fully gestate, becomes an adult in 3 days, and dies a week after that. Gestating a non-humanoid clone this way is ill advised, beware under cooked food.

Organic Squish, Rafał Mierzejewski, 2018 (Source)

11. The Queen Bee Gland (Apisized Sudoriparous Glands - inserted in the chest)
 You produce a highly adhesive, waxy substance from your pores. The substance remains sticky for an hour after secretion. In a round, you can produce enough of the substance to cover an item or small object. In 10 minutes you can coat a 5' square area in the substance.

12. The Progenitor Gland (Intra-Organ Reproductive Gland - inserted in the abdomen)
This gland encourages other Exquisite Organs to reproduce. Other organs take 1 month to gestate another of their kind in the host body and each organ can only ever produce 1 offspring this way. New organs must be removed from their birth-host and inserted in another before they can reproduce again.

13. The Tortoise Skin (Super Keratinous Dermal Glands - inserted in the neck)
You can no longer feel pain or pleasure. All physical damage you take is reduced by 1d6 and if you would take 2 or less damage, you instead take none. However, you cannot tell how much health you have. The GM records your HP. You or another person can determine how much HP you by spending a round performing a medical examination.

14. The Slave Collar (Controlled Electric Impulse Generator - inserted at the brain stem)
Your body can be controlled using a special device (usually discovered alongside the organ) which looks like a remote control made of bits of bone, copper, and carefully chiseled obsidian. If this device is destroyed, the organ sends an electric shock to your brain, killing you instantly. The device cannot control you or fry your brain if you are more than 100ft away from it.

15. The Alabaster Arsenal (Rib Honing Complex - inserted in the chest)
Your ribs stick out from your chest slightly, all are sharp. You (or anybody else) can pull out a rib to use it as either an arrow, crossbow bolt, or a dagger. Rib weapons disintegrate one day after being removed from your body. By default, you have 24 ribs, you regenerate 1 each day. If more than 8 ribs are removed from you in a single day you take 1d6 damage.

16. The Philosopher's Gallbladder (Saturated Colic Gland - inserted in the abdomen)
Your body produces dark green gallstones. These stones transmit sound from within 10ft of them to your abdomen, from which the muffled sound can be heard. If a stone is cracked open, perhaps after being thrown from a sling, it produces a terrible scent which burns the noses of creatures with acute senses of smell and dissuades those with human-like senses of smell from being it its presence. You can produce 1 of these stones each day, they last for a week outside your body before disintegrating, and their stench lasts for a day.

17. The Piercing Eye (Hyper Sensitive Photoreceptor Groups - inserted behind eyes)
You can activate specialized sensors in your eyes which allow you to see by heat in the dark and see through solid matter. You can see through roughly 2-3ft of most materials but not through metal. You can activate your eyes 3 times a day for 10 minutes each time.

18. The Ocean Lung (Independent Respiratory Lobe - inserted in the abdomen)
You have an extra lung with extraordinary capacity and endurance. You can breathe smoke, ash, and poison gas without risk to your health. You can inhale enough gas/smoke to fill a 15ft radius sphere and can keep the gas inhaled for as long as you can hold your breath.

19. The Usurper Organ (Considered Immune to Categorization - inserted in the chest)
You have a small tube erupting from your chest, it resembles a flower and a mouth at once. When you feed the tube with the marrow of a whole humanoid body, your body begins to regenerate quickly, returning you to full health. If fed once a week, your body begins to age in reverse, returning to a state of unnatural youth in the course of a few months. If not fed weekly, your body ages rapidly. If not fed for a month, you die of old age.

20. The Meteor Heart (Copperous Mesenchymal Stem Cell Sack - inserted in the chest)
You are, essentially, a human electromagnet. You can activate and deactivate your magnetism at will. While active, metal objects up to 20ft away are pulled towards you and will stick to you. Items small enough to be held in one or two hands are pulled at a rate of 20ft per round, larger items are pulled at a rate of 5ft per round. Weapons pulled towards you make an attack against you (as if they had +0 to hit) when they come in contact with you.

This post is dedicated to Hunayn ibn Ishaq, a Nestorian at the heart of the Abbasid Golden Age

Friday, May 3, 2019

Beyond the Fence, Below the Grave

I've just written and released by own rpg for the folklore game jam on itch.io! 




You can download the pdf from itch.io here

It's an investigative role playing game about practitioners of magic in pre-medieval, pre-Christian Scandinavia. Players are tasked with using their magical abilities to investigate supernatural events, determine what kind of entity is responsible for them, and appease that entity before too many lives are lost.

The game dovetails very nicely with the stuff about Vikings I've been writing recently and tries to get into a side of Old Norse belief which is never portrayed with much depth in pop culture. The lines between mythology and folklore, between magic and religion, did not exist in same way in the Viking age as they do today. Much of people's understanding of these subjects is shaped by Snorri Sturluson, who tried to systematize and organize the mythological stories he recounts, in the Prose Edda and other works, into a cohesive whole. Unfortunately, the shape of belief and religious practice in Scandinavia in the 8th-11th centuries was probably much murkier, more complicated, and very different from region to region. I hope my game can portray a little bit of that murkiness.

Perhaps it would have been helpful for players and dms to add a little bit more historical context and explain some of concepts in greater depth, but I think I've done well with what the page limit provided.

 Anyway, I'd appreciate it if you could download and read my game, maybe throw a few dollars my way, or give me the great honor of running it for yourself (please tell me if you do!)

 I'm planning on releasing new scenarios for the system every month as well, so stick around for that.

This post is dedicated to Lee M. Hollander, whose translation of the poetic edda I still rely on