Ran’s Escape pt. 3

“We tried this.” the older wizard told Ran as the group of them walked down an alley and through a small carved opening in the rock wall on the edge of the large subterranean cavern most of the drow city sat in. The wizards were all disguised as drow males, specifics guided by Ran’s suggestions. The disguise consisted of a simple spell, laid over a physical makeup job.

“Right, a group of unknown drow, with no tie to a woman of the town, looking like a surface elf’s caricature of drow men. Now, you are accompanied by the boy-whore of a well respected drow mistress, and actually look like drow men.”

“Yes, which apparently means barely dressed.” piped up one wizard, in the center, who would have been rather a similar shade as the kind of elephants you see while heavily drunk were he not magically disguised.

“It’s as if you haven’t actually seen any of the thousands of men you’ve passed just between the tavern and here…” Ran replied.

“There are men wearing full leather armour. I mean, actual armour, not, er…”

“Leather body suits which cover everything but a strategic hole? There is no way that you would pass for soldiers. You do not have the personality, acting skills, or registered names and carefully kept secret tattoos” Ran said. The group approached a pair of such soldiers, the ones in actual leather armour, half way down the passage, a slight shimmer in the air behind them. The soldiers stopped the group.

“Ran. Weekly trip for Mistress Calathar?”

“Yes. She sent some more hands with me, as she has a lot of errands.”

The soldier raised an eyebrow. “Well, if they’re with your mistress, they should all-”

Ran interrupted him, “Come on, boys, show the guard the mistress’ mark.” His face turned away from the guard, he contrived an expression which very succinctly and quietly expressed a great many things about screwing up and painful torture. The wizards shuffled up to the guard and tugged their pants down, showing the tattoo which Ran had told them to include in their disguises–one which would have been quite painful had it been real. Ran turned to the guard after the wizards had all shuffled by “New. They spent a lot of time above ground.” Ran said to the guard, who nodded in sudden understanding. “Need to see mine, soldier?” he smirked.

“We both know it’s there. I’ve seen it often enough.” he smiled, letting the lot pass through the post.

Once through the shimmer, the wizards each nodded, following Ran further down the tunnel, waiting a moment before the oldest piped up “Portal. Not surprised, are we still on the material realm?”

“Yes and no. It’s something of a transitory plane to the transitory planes. An area where they all overlap more than usual. We are essentially in the material, ethereal, shadow and astral planes all at once.”

“innnteresting…?” the old wizard said somewhat quizzically.

“That can be done?” the young wizard who’d carried cards said hesitantly.

The oldest looked at him, with the careful expression of a wizened instructor carefully not letting on that he himself does not know something about his own area of study. “Well, obviously.”

Ran laughed. “Yes, it can be done. It is reportedly quite difficult,” he said before the group stepped out into a large cave, save that there was no ceiling past a visible mile, but rather a black starless sky. Arches and ships studded a hewn stone dock-like arrangement, as a bustle usual to trade ports went all around them. Drow mingled with all manner of other beings from across the multiverse as the wizards’ careful dispassionate expressions fell away into delight and awe.

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Ran’s Escape pt 2

The door clicked quietly behind the last wizard and Ran padded over to the corner farthest from the table in the room, “just let me know what you gentlemen decide.” He puffed on his pipe.

The wizards leaned their staves against the wall, and sat at the table, leaning on it, all refilling and lighting their own pipes and beginning to confer. Smoke hung in the air, as Ran’s soft humming lilted through. A drow male of his age was well versed in raising the ambient noise in his immediate space to block out what could be heard quite clearly by an elf in a quiet room.

The wizards had no need to question why a dark elf man would turn traitor to his race. The society was matriarchal, which wouldn’t be so bad, but it was also steeped in evil. Rather than simply not being given positions of power, male drow were servants of the women at best, and their slaves at worst. They had no power, save that which they fought for amongst themselves. If a peasant drow woman objected to even the mere presence of a noble-born male, that male could be sure his immediate future would hold painful torments that seemed unending. Every single drow is a murderer and a sadist. By the time they’re born, they’ve killed at least one sibling, murdering their twin in the womb.

The highest honor a male drow could receive was to be allowed to practice wizardry. Ran had the interest, but his mistress had more need of a pair of holes to rent out to clients than she did for a pair of deft hands to weave the threads of the multiverse. The highest honor a drow woman could obtain was high priestess, and Ran’s mistress was far from that position, though her slaves and the shows she performed torturing them and whatever males could be captured in the caves, afforded her wealth and prestige, and the favour of many women who were priestesses.

Drow reproduction comes in two varieties- grim necessary things, where the transfer of genetic material is an after thought, the woman using the man to slake her more visceral lusts; or ribald, debauched ceremonies in which a priestess summons a fell demon from the deepest pits of the abyss to sire a half-demon child in her. Ran’s lot in either was not good.

There was precisely one legitimate path to something resembling freedom for a male in Drow society- service in a military troop sent away from the drow cities for long periods of time. Even then though, a man’s mistress had to let him be trained, and Ran’s was far happier to keep him skilled in other arts. He had no choice for escape but desertion.

The lead wizard beckoned Ran over, and the elf sat on a nearby bed. “Well?” he said, puffing on his pipe again.

“If you can get us the information we seek, we’ll take you out with us. After you’re on the surface, your life is your own. You get into the Order on your own merit, not as further thanks for this.”

“Agreed.” Ran said. “It hasn’t been long enough. If I leave the room now, mistress will be suspicious. Anyone have any cards?”

One of the younger wizards, still old as humans count years, but likely less than half Ran’s age, smirked and pulled out a pouch. Opening it, he took out a deck of cards and poured out an assortment of tokens and dice.

Ran’s Escape pt 1

The men sat at a table in the dark tavern, hewn from one massive stalagmite, lit by phosphorescent gems held to the walls by nets. They carried few weapons to speak of, but each had a staff more than a match for ten armed men, and the weapons they did carry bore runes and glowing auras. each held a wand in one hand, absent mindedly, as they talked and drank and ate.

Most towns would object to such a show of force, but the drow city would have laughed if the men hadn’t so obviously been prepared for a fight. It was well known that visitors to the city would sometimes, even often, just disappear, only ever again seen in the torture-galleries, or as part of some priestess’ harem.

The men, however, had no real reason to fear. Only a particularly foolish dark elf would risk trying to take them. They could be sitting in the street, without their robes, weapons, staves or wands, and would still be a target only a fool would dare aim for. Their bracelets marked them as mages of Hallius. The wizard nation-guild would respond poorly if high standing members were to disappear on a trip to the Underdark. Perhaps the drow could win such a conflict, but one is naturally cautious in dealing with a force that can turn the roof of your underground civilization into millions of tons of mud–or worse, lava–and drop it on you to smother your entire civilization. Even just a few discrete, disguised mage-sabotuers could wreak havoc by moving the very earth from beneath major temples and civic buildings and barracks, dropping them into pits or magma pools that could have been prepared far in advance.

All the same, just because no sane dark elf would target them for slavery does not mean any need help them. The men had traveled to the Underdark searching for information on planar trade rumoured to be conducted by the drow, but had hit a wall.

A slim male, clad in only loose breeches and a thin, open robe, slid into a seat at the table, lighting a long bone and metal pipe and drawing from long and smooth, before slowly exhaling it. The wizards sat patiently, waiting for the young elf-man to finish his little performance, waiting to reject services or defend themselves. He propped his pipe on the ash dish with theirs and leaned in close to their own heads, previously bowed in discussion.

“We all know what you’re looking for. Obviously.” he said. His words wafted like the sweet smoke of his pipe from dark lips. His eyes glowed in the dim light, and he brushed his hair behind one long pointed ear. A couple of the men shifted uncomfortably. “Pretend we’re talking normal business. My mistress would torment me all the more harshly if she had any idea what kind I’m actually about to speak.” he eyed their bracelets.

“What are offering?” one of the men said suddenly. Even a wizard’s patience has it’s limits, and theirs were all frayed by their fruitless search.

“You want to know about drow inter-planar trading. My mistress has some dealings in that arena, and some of the clients she has provided with my services like to talk when they’re exhausted.” Again the men shifted uncomfortably, “Oh, relax. Elves have only the hair on their heads, with our builds, you’d forget what sex we were in the right position.” he smiled. His night-black hands picked up his pipe again. “What I’m proposing-” he took a shorter drag, “is that I show you what you want to find, and help you with whatever information I can, and in exchange…” the dark skinned elf shuddered and–uncharacteristically for a drow, so learned in the ways of awareness and stealth–looked towards the bar where his mistress sat. He shifted closer to the wizard next to him, the one who’d spoke, who was clearly in charge. He put a hand in the man’s lap, and wrapped a look which up close said “I apologize, go with it” in one which at a distance spoke of carnal promises. “You take me with you.” He looked the man hard in the eye, and his pipe tapped the man’s bracelet to make clear just how far he wanted to be taken.

The men looked at one another, before the one next to the drow looked back “We’ll have to confer…”

“So take me to your room. Mistress, strange as it may sound, actually doesn’t observe the rooms. She’s found that when clients do find out, as some always do, it’s terrible for business.” he laid his head on the man’s shoulder, “just make it look convincing. You all can… take your time, and I’ll not mind at all. I’ll be as quiet or vocal as you wish.” he purred.

The wizard then shocked the elf, smiling before breaking into a raucous laugh, one hand grasping the elf’s rump, the laugh being picked up by his fellows. The laugh was an uneven, overly loud thing. A laugh one might expect from a table full of men who couldn’t hold their spider wine.

“My name is Ran, my price is 100 gold. I can make sure you’re recompensed, but it has to look right. Put the gold in the bowl in the center of the table.”

The man nodded and dropped a pouch of gold into the bowl. “Wizards. Don’t worry about recompensing us.” The group all stood, stowing wands and picking up staves. The lead wizard looked to the woman drow that Ran had looked to earlier, and tilted his head in acknowledgement. She smiled to him, a wicked curve on her lips, and tilted her head in response, and Ran led the group through the curtains near the bar.

The brood-matriarchs of Baal

A Brood Matriarch of Baal (as conceptualized, she would probably be nude save for adornment, but this isn't an NSFW site, so she is covered in leather throws)
A Brood Matriarch of Baal (as conceptualized, she would probably be nude save for adornment, but this isn’t an NSFW site, so she is covered in leather throws)

In the center of the continent, lies the fens of Baal, home to a group of goblins which would be called a culture, were those inclined to use the word not loathe to apply it to goblins.

Goblins are, generally speaking, small, fecund and highly variable, and often lacking in much in the way of a social structure more complex than “horde” (or so the general opinion goes). The goblins of Baal, on the other hand, squatting in their murky dens dug into the muck, have established a matri-oligarchy, similar in some ways to a hive of social insects.

The culture of the Baal goblins is ruled over by a group of fertile females, called Brood-matriarchs, whose primary function is to become pregnant and give birth to litter after litter of goblins. Because goblin life tends to be short, often artificially so, due to lack of caution or extermination with extreme prejudice enacted by neighbouring cultures, the typical goblin hyper-fertility has started to be seen as a blessing by the Baali goblins.

Holding the blessing of their god, and controlling, literally, the means of production of new goblin warriors, the fertile females of Baal rose to power. They receive counsel from other goblins more able to travel, but make all decisions for the clan. They are always pregnant, or nursing and receiving males to become pregnant. The opportunity to become the father of part of the next generation has become a highly sought after form of prestige amongst the males, and copulation with a brood-matriarch has become a reward for those who perform valuable services for the clan, and those who perform their duties above and beyond all expectation. The opposite fate, awaiting those who too-frequently fail their clan, is castration, the utter revoking of the opportunity to ever serve the clan as anything more than fodder or labor. Those who fail again after already being castrated are often given the duty of guarding the brood matriarchs. Far from the honor this might be seen as, it is a constant reminder, in the form of the wanton and lascivious brood-matriarchs and their open rutting with more honored clan members, of the guard’s failure and the fact that he cannot perform for his clan the highest service a male goblin can-fathering the next generation.

As they are the direct power behind the greatest strength of the goblins–numbers–the brood matriarchs receive the greatest respect, honor and treasures of the clan. They have no responsibilities, only privileges. The privilege of giving orders, the privilege of not working, the privilege of food at their mere request, the privilege of their pick of mates, and the privilege of the spoils of raids.

Not all females of the clan are brood-matriarchs, however. When a power behind being fertile began to condense, those females of the time who were pregnant sealed that power away. They, essentially, created an eldritch poison which made females barren when ingested, and had shamans enchant their bodies to produce this poison in their milk. They then created an antidote, and jealously guarded that formula. When a female goblin has proven worthy of great honor, she may be selected for possible fertility, and given the choice. Should the female accept, she will be given the antidote, and shortly become fertile and take her place. If she declines, she is given another position of high honor–high priestess. All females of the Baali goblins serve the shrines in some function, usually as acolytes, but only those who have proven their worth to the clan, and decided that brooding is not a life for them, may lead the clan’s holiest rites.

The goblins of Baal are otherwise normal goblins for the most part. However, the brood-matriarchs keep a constant watch for strong males who could potentially pass their strength on to children. Due to the highly adaptable nature of goblins, they are able to be impregnated with almost any male’s material. The mother’s system will pick out the most useful traits and add them to the genetic concoction assembled from her many paramours, and, after a certain period of time, begin to grow the fetuses of the new litter, saving copies of the best genetics to potentially impart on the next, much like a cat’s reproductive system save with a complex and sophisticated intelligence all its own.

Divisions of creatures– race, species, breed and fantasy

Fantasy works often deal with a number of sentient creatures, ranging from subtly to overtly distinct from humans. The classics are elves, dwarves, orcs, and usually at least one flavour of small humanoid, typically at least goblin, and occasionally something more like a typical human, just in miniature, variously called hobbits, halflings, gnomes, boggles, fae, changelings, or the like.

Thanks to the influence of Tolkien which touches all western fantasy works–even when a concerted effort to avoid its influence is made–these are typically called races. It was the 30s, Tolkien was a product of his time, and race wasn’t such a problematic term.

The problem with the term race is that it is now recognized to mean virtually nothing. It is a social construct made to categorize groups of humans with similar pigmentation, hair texture and bone structure. If you take a person who has dark skin, and a person with light skin, they are still genetically identical save for a handful of alleles. If you were to take the ruddiest skinned “white” man, and the lightest skinned “black” man, the white man would actually be darker than the black man, but their respective “races” would still consider them to be “white” and “black” (social prejudices aside).

The clear alternative term is species. This has other problems. The first is that, to the lay person, things are different species if they cannot produce fertile offspring together. A horse and a donkey can produce a mule, but mules are sterile. This makes the term less than ideal in fantasy because humans can often produce fertile offspring with, at least, elves and orcs. Sometimes they can produce fertile offspring with giants or ogres or trolls even. It depends on the setting.

So if humans can produce children with elves and orcs, then maybe race, or better– due to lack of social baggage–breed, works, right?

Well, no.

The problem is that a human can have a child with an elf, and that same human can have a child with an orc, but the orc and elf cannot, typically, breed with one another. I think this would be false in Tolkien, actually, because, if I recall correctly, the orcs were corrupted elves, I’m not sure (I never actually read the Lord of the Rings books in their entirety).

The other issue is that, ok, sure, elves and orcs can be easily said to be breeds of humans, and if you want, you can say that they can interbreed with one another as well so as to fix that problem. But what about elementals or dragons? In at least Dungeons and Dragons, it’s possible for creatures which are sentient collections of pure elemental energy to impregnate a human, or an elf, or dwarf, or whatever else and produce a viable offspring. In a lot of fiction where dragons are themselves sentient, they can do likewise.

It’s really hard (though admittedly not impossible) to say with a straight face that humans, elves, dwarves and orcs are genetically related to dragons. It is fully within the author’s power to say that the sentient races are descended from dragons, and sometimes this tack is taken.

The best solution, at least for the direct problem of elves, orcs and humans, is found in calling Humanoid a ring species, and then terming the individual types breeds, or even races. A ring species is basically a group of closely related populations of a single species. Each population can interbreed with one or more others, but there are some which it cannot. In the given circumstance basically you’d have the populations Orcs, Humans, Elves. Humans are closely related to both Orcs and Elves, and thus can interbreed with both, but Elves and Orcs are too distantly related to interbreed. This could become more of a web-species if additional populations were added which could interbreed with humans, but not others.

There is one final problem with the use of the term species in fantasy.

Eventually you will want characters to talk about these classification in story/world. While it’s fine for erudite wizards or technomages or fantasy anthropologists to use the term species, it’s just weird to here tribal, berserker-focused cultures use the term. Even more so for, say, goblins. But that’s easily dealt with. A berserker can say race or clan, and people should be capable of understanding that that is just the way his culture expresses the idea. A goblin probably says clan, and probably uses the term for both actual family-related groups of people and in place of species.

The other problem is certain magical creatures demonstrably and drastically unrelated to the humanoid species being able to produce half-dragons and fire elemental humanoids and such. That’s, well, magic. Lame cop out I know, but it’s the easiest solution.

Dominia20: the alignment of colour pt 2

I left off with two colours to describe, Red and Green. I’ll cover those here.

Dominia20CharacterSheets

Red

Chaos, Impulse, Freedom, Action, Short-sightedness

Red is the colour of freedom, proactiveness, fire and earth, and emotion.

Obviously individuals of all colours are capable of feeling emotion, but it is Red’s focus. The pain felt from the death of a loved one, or the anger felt towards the one who killed them is felt strongest by Red. Black may be known for hatred, but Red allows that hate to flow through it and come out in the form of lightning bolts or flames.

Whereas White is the colour of healing and prolonging life, and Green is the colour of nature and the life within it, and Black is the colour of creating cruel mockeries of life, Red is the colour of Living. Red wants to go and do things and have experiences and meet people, and yes, probably burn them. Red is defined by constant Action. It’s main elements, Fire and Earth are key symbols of this. While Earth is seen as being very still and very static, beneath the crust there is a constantly moving, roiling, liquid mantle and core, and on the crust, the plates constantly move.

As it is so active, Red acts on Impulse. It decides it wants to do something, and goes and does it. It doesn’t worry about planning. It doesn’t deliberate. These are things for Blue. Red and Blue see a pretty girl, and while Blue tries to figure out what it’s going to say, Red runs over to talk to her, because if you wait too long, she’ll leave. Red’s Impulsiveness stems from the sea of emotion in which it stays. It’s emotions tell it to do something, and it does it.

In order to do as it pleases, Red must be free. It cannot abide rules and restrictions. It has parallels to what Chaos wanted to be in D&D, but it’s more fully realized and not bogged down in structure.

While this may seem very similar to Black’s self-servingness, and is, indeed, why they are allied colours, Red is different in that it may be driven by love to care more for another, or even a small group, such as a family, than it does itself. But contrary to White’s nation-focus, Red chooses who is as or more important than itself.

The best of Red is passion and decisiveness. The worst of Red is ignorance of consequences and wanton destruction.

Red magic deals with fire and destruction. The Red-aligned individual is a passionate adventurer. The iconic Red-aligned races are Dragons and Goblins. The iconic Red-aligned class is Barbarian.

Green

Instinct, Interdependence, Growth, Nature, Naivete

Green is the magic of growth, nature, adaptation, life.

Everyone has a certain amount of instinct, but it is the driving force of Green. In the forests and jungles from which Green mana flows, there is little time for thought, one must obey their instincts, or they will likely die.

Green’s big theme is nature, in all it’s forms. It is the magic behind the smallest squirrel, and the great thundering wurms. It is the magic behind beautiful gardens, and the serpents slithering beneath the flowers. It is fruit and refreshing streams, but it is also survival of the fittest. It is life, but it’s also death.

Green is very straight forward. Even though many creatures in nature use cunning and stealth, Green isn’t all that good at subterfuge. It may be hidden, but you’ll generally see it when it leaps out to claw your face off. At the same time, nature holds no grudge. It is more than willing to let bygones be bygones, and allow the lion to lay down with the lamb. When the lion gets hungry, well, the lamb will probably die, but it’s body will feed the lion, and what isn’t eaten will feed the soil from which the plants grow.

Green’s highest goal is growth. It doesn’t care how it grows, and it doesn’t care why. Plants will grow fertilized by night soil just as readily as they will the bodies of a thousand soldiers. Green doesn’t care. It merely consumes the resources available to it, and uses them to grow bigger. It’s other goal is “the natural order.” However, anyone who has looked hard enough knows that a great many things are natural. From jellyfish which are each the result of long chains of dying and reanimating “zombies” to mothers eating their own offspring to survive lean times.

All of life is interconnected, most obviously in the pattern of predator and prey, and so too, often, are Green-aligned creatures. The elves, for example, are a race which grows healthier and better as more elves are born.

Green, at it’s best, is nurturing. It fosters life and growth, and acts quickly. While Red acts quickly because it doesn’t care about consequences, Green acts quickly because it instinctively knows what to do. At it’s worst, Green doesn’t care to think, and acts viciously.

Green magic brings mana, and most readily summons creatures. The Green-aligned individual is often either a nature-protecting druid, or a machine-choking, flesh rending berserker. They care very much about nature, and mistrust the tools of industry. The iconic Green-aligned races are Elves and Centaurs. The iconic Green-aligned class is Druid.

MaRo Design Challenge

I recently started following Mark Rosewater, head designer of Magic the Gathering for Wizards of the Coast, on Tumblr, and yesterday I started listening to his podcast, Drive to Work.

I have played Magic, as I mentioned in my last blog, since the early 90s. Magic the Gathering came out in 1993, and I started then or in 1994, can’t quite recall. I have Revised and 4th edition cards even now, so I was in pretty close to the start.

I have wanted to work on Magic the Gathering for years, pretty much since I seriously considered a career. I’m at a loss as to how to actually get that job (though I just googled and found an article that should give me an idea).

But someone recently asked if he could give his followers design challenges, and today he put one up:

I need an uncommon artifact creature that costs more than 4. We’re stuck with the name Mercury Golem so make this top down. Go.

Sadly, he cannot look at the designs (legal issues. If they were to design a card too similar to a person’s design, said person could sue), but I can post it here:

Mercury Golem

As the temperature goes, so does he.

Now, I just noticed a big problem with this. Your opponent can kill for just two blue, and you can’t necessarily protect it. So… less than stellar design. But first shot at a design challenge.

Card was designed in Magic Set Editor. The picture comes from Terminator Judgement Day.

The Daily Count: 252