May 19, 2011

Creatures of Syrene: Arcurean Dragon

Arcurean dragons are lesser dragons that can reach up to 30 feet in length.  Like all of dragonkind their bodies are serpentine, with four short legs, a long neck, long tail, and a head adorned with fin-like crests and horns.  Their scales are usually of dull green and bronze hues. Arcurean dragons prefer an inland habitat with plenty of forest cover, where they hunt prey using their powers of illusion and their flaming venom.

An Arcurean dragon can mask its presence through illusion, and make a natural feature such as a freshwater spring seem more attractive to its intended prey.  When prey comes close enough the dragon lets loose with a blast of flaming venom, which usually cripples or kills the victim outright. 

Arcurean dragons are sometimes called “vanishing” dragons because of a little-known power: when they sleep, which they do for days on end after a meal, they shapeshift into the form of a local lizard, no more than a foot long.  The lizard has none of the powers of the dragon, but it can transform back if awakened.  If caught sleeping in lizard form, though, it can be killed with a single blow of even a mere stick.  Nevertheless, this ability has made the Arcurean a difficult dragon to deal with, as it can lair anywhere and appear out of nowhere only to vanish again when hunted.

May 18, 2011

Lands of Syrene: Ferouz

Mountainous, landlocked Ferouz is the oldest of the Palmarian kingdoms, the birthplace of the legendary King Ilkanun the Lawgiver, also called the Wise. Nestled against the forbiddingly tall Karashahr Mountains, Ferouz is a majestic land of craggy slopes, deep and lushly green valleys cut by loud foaming rivers, alpine meadows and forests of cedar and pine sitting above the desert plains.  The valleys of Ferouz are well-watered by icy streams fed by snow from the mountaintops, and are known for their rich fields and orchards.

The Ferouzan people pride themselves on being the longest-settled of the Palmarian race, having lived in cities when all other Palmarians were living in tents as nomads, and they regard themselves as the most learned and refined of all Palmarians.  The kingdom is known for its poets, scholars, sorcerers, astrologers, and physicians.  Ferouz is also known for its exquisite and elaborate cuisine, its wines especially from the valley of Sharizad, and its weaving, specially the rugs made by the highland tribes. 

These craggy highlands are also home to the fiercely independent Zahrids, Tughrids, Lakmids and Zyroushans, non-Palmarian tribes who speak their own languages and have their own distinct cultures.  They are an even older people than the Palmarians, being the original inhabitants of the region, and sometimes they rebel against the sultans of Ferouz.

Ferouz is also renowned as a land of legends and lost cities, for there were many tribes and small kingdoms here during the dawn ages of Syrene that no longer exist. Many of their cities were destroyed or buried during the Man-Deev War, and later after the rise of the necromantic empire of Sekhmet the ruins were invaded by Sekhmetian creations such as carnivorous scarabs, giant scorpions, and ghouls. 

The city of Yarkand is known for the picturesque beauty of its flower gardens and fountains, and for the skill of its Tughrid smiths, who forge here the best steel in Palmaria. It is said Yarkandi steel can only be made in Yarkand because only here are the high-quality ore, the fine charcoal from the mountains, and the pure water of the Sihr river all found together with the smiths who know their secrets. 

The historic city of Farsana is the capital of Ferouz, and is the second-oldest city in Palmaria. Nestled in a high alpine valley overlooking the charming Lake Zan, the city is known for its blue-tiled buildings, stately gardens and ancient statuary, its lakeside festivals and water gardens, and its centers of knowledge and learning. 

Here are numerous libraries and universities, and in an old hilltop palace a few miles away is the Ilkanun Observatory, the center of Palmarian astrology.  Students from across Palmaria come to study in Farsana, bringing back with them a touch of Ferouz’s ancient elegance and fine taste along with their knowledge.

The sleepy walled town of Samurrad is the oldest city in all Palmaria, now shrunken in population and wealth since the wells supplying its surrounding fields dried up.  Samurrad is known for its weaving, and Samurradi carpets are distinguished by a unique shade of royal blue made from local dyes found nowhere else.  Most of the city’s inhabitants now are Zahrids, a fiercely independent tribe that has rebelled against the sultans of Ferouz quite a few times. 

Red Desert
The Red Desert is a strip of uninhabited sandy desert whose dunes are the red of rust or dried blood.  Local legends warn all travelers to avoid the place, for it is inhabited by drughs and by the ghosts of Ilshar, a city that long ago was buried by a sandstorm lasting a whole day and night by the sorcery of a rival king when the land was divided between warring petty kingdoms. 

The high valley of Bakhtiara is one of the most beautiful natural spots in all Syrene, and is also the main source of lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone highly prized by all Palmarians.  The valley however is also known as the haunt of peris, whose capricious humor and bewitching beauty are a source of both wonder and fear to travelers.  Peris have been known to kidnap humans who fascinate them and keep them in the mountains under enchantment for years on end, and those who have tasted the delights of such a life are never really fit for the mortal world again.

Suram Pass
The snowy Suram Pass is one of the highest mountain passes known in the world, and is the only route through the Karashahr Mountains into the Western Outland kingdoms: Zhirgestan of the sapphire mines, Meharistan of the thousand princes and fine horses, and more lands even the Palmarians know little about.  Few Palmarians ever see these regions, and they are as distant and fabulous to them as the Empire of T’sin in the east.  Suram Pass is also known as the haunt of snow leopards, who grow strong and bold enough here to attack horses, and of giant eagles that sometimes prey on men.

The ancient city of Makhtam lies along the old caravan route from Bakhtiara to Yarkand, but travelers avoid it now in dread of its inhabitants.  Long ago it is said that a deev in human guise entered the city, and though they welcomed him at first, the people demanded he pay for his lodgings and turned him out with curses when he showed he had no money.  In anger the deev resumed his true form, and turned the Makhtami into baboons.  Troops of savage baboons still roam the city and its surroundings, attacking and devouring travelers whenever they can overpower them.  The baboons retain some shred of human intelligence, and know enough to stage ambushes, throw rocks from the clifftops (Makhtam overlooks a sheer-walled mountain pass), and to use distractions to divide groups and defeat them in detail.

May 16, 2011

Lands of Syrene: The Lakhonese Jungle Kingdoms

The mighty Narvari River and its tributaries drain an enormous low basin of lush jungle south of the T’sin Empire, and is the largest river in Syrene.  Halfway down to sea the river expands, like the belly of a just-fed python, into an enormous lake – Lake Lakhon.

Surrounding this lake and along the rivers are dozens of city-states whose people share a common language and culture, each an island of civilization surrounded by miles of trackless rain forest.  The Lakhonese kingdoms are hard for sea rovers to reach because of the long and dangerous voyage upriver, but offer so much wealth that there will always be those who will dare.

The Lakhonese jungle kings rule from palaces of elaborately carved stone in great temple-cities, and vie with each other in constructing ever-larger temples and monuments.  An order of priests called the Golden Council runs the temples in all the kingdoms and encourages the kings to compete in construction as an alternative to war.  At stake is the prestigious title of Radyahari – Sun King – given by the Golden Council every twenty years to the monarch who recently finished the grandest construction project. 

The Lakhonese enjoy a great and easily harvested bounty of natural wealth. The yearly flooding of the rivers nourishes their rice fields and practically delivers large, even gigantic fish to their doorsteps.  The jungle yields many treasures, such as ebony and aromatic sandalwood, mahogany and teak, exotic resins and waxes, spices, perfumes, and wild elephants which are captured and trained as draft and fighting beasts.  The beds of some rivers are also known to contain diamonds, sapphires, emeralds and rubies, tempting prospectors to brave the dangers of carnivorous fish and giant snakes to dig for gems.

Indeed, the Lakhonese are so rich in land and resources that the most valuable thing to them are the warm bodies needed to work their fields and gem mines.  When the jungle kingdoms go to war, they do so not to conquer more land but to take slaves.  The more slaves a kingdom has, the more rice it can grow, the more warriors it can field, and the more slaves it can take in the next war.  And the more slaves a kingdom has, the grander the monuments it can build.  Thus in a way the Golden Council’s  building contest has failed to produce lasting peace, for one way to win it is to be successful in war.

The White City of Langkor lies at the northern end of Lake Lakhon, and has never been reached by sea rovers before. The city is built entirely of white sandstone, quarried from distant cliffs and brought down the Narvari in great rafts.  The kings of Langkor are proud to have won the title of Radyahari no less than four times in a row, but the titanic effort of building so many grand temples has exhausted the kingdom.

The people are seething with resentment at the draconian steps the current king, Arjunaraj III, took to finish his last temple, and the ministers are trying to hide the fact that the treasuries are near-empty.  The only thing propping up Arjunaraj is the fact that he is still the Radyahari; when in a few years from now the Golden Council judges the kings again, he is sure to lose the title and with it the prestige and the stream of gifts that he has been using to prop up his regime. 

Langkor used to be the prime producer of sandalwood in the region, but to pay for his temples the king has had nearly all the kingdom’s sandalwood trees cut down, and it will be years before the groves can recover. 

Khannyavar is a kingdom that comprises three cities – Khannya, Varanga, and Phao.  Khannya and Varanga were once at war, but when a T’sin admiral mistakenly sank a ship carrying the Khannyan princess on a peace mission to Varanga, the two kingdoms united to throw the T’sin out. 

Now the Kingdom of the Three Cities forms one of the most powerful and influential nations of the Narvari basin.  Khannyavar dominates the southern side of Lake Lakhon, and leads in the gem and sandalwood trades.

Mandalam is called the City of The Trophies, for in the climactic Battle of Yellow Cliffs its forces played a key role in wiping out a T’sin tribute fleet, and later scavenged much of the fleet’s treasure.

The gate of Mandalam is flanked by the prows of two huge T’sin warships, the king’s throneroom features a high colonnade of ships’ masts,  and gold-and-red-lacquer panels from the T’sin ships adorn the dwellings of the royalty and nobility.  It is said there is a secret Imperial edict offering a great reward and honorary titles to whoever can sack Mandalam and raze the Empire’s shame away.

Mandalam lies along the Sarantha, a tributary of the Narvari that joins the great river near Yellow Cliffs.  It is one of the few Lakhonese cities that lies on high land, being built on a bluff overlooking the river.  Sea rovers can  reach the city only by leaving their ships behind near Yellow Cliffs and taking canoes up the Sarantha, but the journey is usually worthwhile: Mandalam produces the best cardamom, and the art of its jade-carvers is highly prized.

May 11, 2011

Secret of the Emerald Isle

A Hyborian Age adventure, for any system. I found this adventure in my archives yesterday, having almost forgotten its existence. It was intended for a game of Conan using FUDGE, but was never run due to scheduling difficulties.  Here’s the intro story below, and a download link to the adventure in PDF.

Our story begins with a battle on the Vilayet Sea

A catapult-launched stone splashed beside the desperately fleeing corsair galley, sending up a great spout of water that sparkled like diamonds under the Hyrkanian sun. Racing flat-out like a hare with the hound-pack snapping at its heels, a lone corsair galley fled before a squadron of Turanian warships. A mile behind, the wreckage of another ship lay scattered across the water, all that remained of another corsair galley. It was a black day for the freebooters of the Vilayet coast.

May 7, 2011

The Warlord’s Own

michael whelan_edgar burroughs_the chessmen of mars_med

The Warlord's Own is the usual nickname for the 121st Umak of the Heliumite Army, recently reformed and reorganized as John Carter's personal bodyguard and special missions unit. Many of the heroes from the canon are numbered among its officers, or hold honorary commissions in the regiment (this gives a perfect chance for the GM to bring in these personages as "guest stars").

The 121st is the very first multi-racial unit on all Barsoom, intended by Carter to be a showcase of the idea That the peoples of Mars can get coexist in peace. While The majority is composed of red men from the Heliumite Empire, there are utans contributed by the allied states (at least one from each state) - including the Green horde of Thark and Firstborn of Dor, and a single utan from frozen Okar. As neither Horz nor Lothar have responded to (cautious) diplomatic overtures, no Orovar contingent exists Yet though there are a few individual Orovars enlisted (they serve in the Heliumite contingent).

Each contingent serves in its own utans, there are no mixed Utans - Carter is being cautious, and should it come to a fight units of the same kind fight better - but for individual missions men may be drawn from several different Utans of different races.

Aside from the Heliumites, all the men of the regiment were handpicked by the jed or jeddak of their home state for this assignment; they are all "on loan" to Helium from their home state. All the officers from dwar and up were personally screened by John Carter, first in an interview and then in a friendly sword match; in fact one of the main duties of the Officers from panthan and up is to take turns as John Carter's sparring partner in his daily practice sesssion.

Assignment to the regiment is very prestigious, though of course it remains a bit awkward for some of the non-Red members. Any Red Man serving in the 121st will be regarded as special, and can expect to be popular at balls and highly sought after as mates by Heliumite women.

As for the non-Reds, specially the Tharks, both they and Heliumite society are still getting used to each other and there are still occasional difficulties. However their prestige was firmly established when at a grand reception at Tardos Mors' palace Dejah Thoris graciously danced with Tars Tarkas and then Xodar; it was the talk of Helium for weeks!

Since of course Dejah Thoris is THE fashion-setter of Helium, some of the bolder Heliumite noblewomen have been leading the way in bringing the foreigners of the 121st into society at large.

Characters from the Series

  • Tars Tarkas - holds honorary commission as Jedwar
  • Xodar - no commission, but his kinsman Dator
  • Xandros is Dwar of the Firstborn utan
  • Tan Hadron - Odwar, regiment CO
  • Ptor Fak - Teedwar (staff officer), scientific
  • Advisor and resident artificer (don't call him Q!)
  • Jad Han - Dwar
  • Thuvan Dinh - honorary commission as Jedwar
  • Kulan Tith - holds honorary commission as Jedwar

Missions and Enemies
The main, official mission of the 121st Umak is to be John Carter's personal honor guard/ bodyguard; units take turns guarding the Warlord's palace and family members, while other units and individuals are detached from time to time to guard or escort the Warlord's guests, visiting foreign Jeddaks and other high dignitaries.

Units are also sent on "friendship" tours to allied cities, and accompany Heliumite envoys on "first contact" missions to peoples who have never had relations with Helium before. As befitting the most elite military unit on Barsoom, one of their main tasks on these diplomatic tours is of course to give exhibitions in swordsmanship and other fighting disciplines. These expeditions often also include scientists, and the officers and men are expected to help bring back as much information to Helium as possible.

The unification of Barsoom is a slow and bumpy process, and there are of course many who oppose it. No one dares open war against Helium now, but this merely increases the amount and intensity of skullduggery going on. There are plots to kill or abduct personages from the courts of Helium and allied states, plots to usurp thrones, plots to create terrible new secret weapons, plots to discredit the Warlord or his friends, and so on and so on.

There is also a secret war raging in the back streets of Barsoom's cities: true to his word, John Carter is following up on his vow to stamp out the assassin guilds of Mars and The 121st are his front line. The 121st has standing orders to investigate all cases involving the assassins, find the culprits, and execute them on the spot; while the assassin guilds, no less well-informed, are also always after the members of the umak.

Outside of Helium and Hastor, any member of the Warlord's Own had better be prepared to fight for his life at any time, even off-duty.

May 6, 2011

Creatures of Syrene: Tainted Hyena

It is said that among the plagues the Sekhmetians loosed against Palmaria and Axuma are the tainted hyenas of the southern deserts.  The Sekhmetian necromancers are said to have fed some hyenas with human flesh over which dark spells had been cast, thus opening the beasts to possession by evil spirits.   Some of these still survive, and have interbred with natural hyenas to produce more of their evil kind.  A tainted hyena may be a little larger and stronger than an ordinary hyena, and on close inspection its eyes may look a little different, but otherwise there is no way to tell them apart.

Unlike normal hyenas which run in packs, the tainted hyena is a lone hunter,.  It stalks the desert alone, always on the lookout for human prey – solitary travelers, small groups, herdsmen or villagers – and uses its magic to lead them farther out into the open desert where it can kill and devour at leisure.  A tainted hyena’s gaze has the power to fascinate and rob human beings of their will, causing them to follow the creature wherever it goes.    

Sometimes a tainted hyena will maul livestock and leave a trail to follow, enticing villagers to hunt for it, and then ambush its hunters one by one.

May 4, 2011

Hari Ragat: Pledges

To kick off the role-playing in the game, I’m thinking of having every expedition open with the offering of pledges.  Any player who wants to go on a voyage may speak up and give his character’s reason for voyaging, and offer pledges to other player characters to have them come along.

What can be pledged? Items from your Treasure pile (everybody starts with several items), points of Wealth, an oath to go along on the other character’s next voyage, marriage into the family, even a blood compact.

Why offer pledges?  Because the character who leads a voyage, or has the most personal reason for voyaging, will likely get the biggest Renown increase if it’s successful.  To tempt other heroes into coming along, possibly for less Renown, you have to offer something of value.

May 2, 2011

Gondwane: First Impressions

The heat of the jungle is oppressive. You are in a jungle the likes of which you have never seen before, for there are no trees here but giant ferns and cycads, and some of the humming insects are as big as birds. Somewhere behind you, you can hear the scrunch of something big stalking through the undergrowth. Something is hunting you. Then through a break in the ferns, you catch a glimpse of teeth the size of steak knives, and a mad yellow eye …

A herd of enormous sauropods strides across a hot and dusty plain, their towering necks held high and swaying from side to side, their booming calls seeming to shake the sky. Smaller creatures scatter from their path like the bow waves from a great ship’s prow. Only when the sauropods get closer do you notice the colorful pennons fluttering atop large howdahs on their backs, and in each howdah, the glint of sunlight on bronze spearheads …

A hurled stone axe flashes past your ear. The air is filled with inhuman hoots and yowls as the Golgar hunting party moves in for the kill. Though they are squat and misshapen by the standards of modern man, though their low brows and heavy jaws give them the appearance of dumb beasts, you can still recognize their kinship to you. But as they bare their big yellow teeth at you, you come to the sick realization that these Golgars are man-eaters …

You are taken to a sprawling temple-city, thick with the smells of smoke and incense and burning flesh, ringing with the music of brass gongs and the chanting of the crowds. At the very center of the city, guarded by cyclopean statues of armored warriors and snarling dragons, is a low, wide ziggurat where the sacrifices are being held. And at the top of the ziggurat, chained with massive bronze links to a basalt throne, is a creature that could never have been born on this Earth …

These vignettes form my introduction to Gods of Gondwane for new players.  Knowing that I have to work with short attention spans, I’ve tried to find a way to compress what Gods of Gondwane is like in terms of physical environment, visuals, and the pulp-ish adventure tropes around which stories in Gondwane are built.  These four paragraphs are the result.

May 1, 2011

Creatures of Syrene: Rakushan Black

The Rakushan breed of horses is the most admired and sought after in Palmaria and Elsayal.  These horses trace their descent to a magical Rakushan Firesteed not more than three generations back (the fourth generation and onward will produce normal horses).  The breed always produces black horses, never any other color; they are known for their intelligence, courage, fiery temper, and speed.  Also, it takes courage and patience to befriend a Rakushan black, and they often will allow no other human near them but their original tamer – but their loyalty is for life.

Rakushan Firesteed

The Rakushan Firesteed is a supernatural horse that sometimes visits the hidden valleys and oases of Khalistan, Zhirgestan and the Tagrus Mountains on moonlit nights.  The fabled warhorses of the deevs, the coal-black, copper-eyed Firesteeds are allowed to run free until needed by their masters.  They can gallop on the winds, feet never touching the ground, and when angered their gaze when held  is enough to cause things to burst into flame.  (A mere glance is not enough; if a Firesteed wants to burn something, it must stare at it for several seconds uninterrupted).

No living man can ride a Rakushan Firesteed – they will run away or attack if a human comes too close and moreover being bridled is fatal to them. Firesteed stallions however may be induced to mate with mortal mares, and the Rakushan hybrids thus produced are the most precious of all horses. Prolonged contact between a Firesteed and a mortal horse will also turn the mortal horse into a Firesteed, so to get a hybrid the Firesteed must be driven away from its mate before the transformation can be completed.

The bedouin of Khalistan sometimes bring their mares to the isolated valleys and leave them overnight, and if a Firesteed mates with the mare they rush out and try to drive it away before it can transform the mare.  A few dozen bedouin die every year attempting this feat … 

The Firesteed’s “cannot be ridden by a man” Hook is purposely worded with a loophole.  If you wish, you can make it part of your story that a Firesteed can be befriended by a female or a child character, perhaps for just one special ride to some distant land, for some epic need.
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