Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Skull of God

I'll return to dissecting BattleTech math soon, I promise.

A few years back, in our Pathfinder campaign, I added a gargantuan skull to our game world as a loose connective element between plot lines. (The next DM in rotation graciously agreed to place it in his city quest*.) Ideas have continued to accrete to it, taking up too much of my brain, and I need to exorcise them. Exorcism below the cut.

They're all pretty great, but I just cannot stop laughing at the mug.

The Skull

Imagine an enormous, vaguely inhuman skull some thousand feet across, rolled slightly to one side and mostly buried in Siberian permafrost, with a stone spire jutting six hundred feet up through the raised socket while a mushroom forest spills out of the lowered one. An eyeless crone lives in that sacred hollow, served by one-eyed priestesses, and surrounded by a city of pilgrims who use the giant mushrooms for food, textiles, building materials, and nearly every other purpose. Sporings can be so vast they replace the local weather. Tremors are common.

The Lichen

The fungus extends as a lichen to all horizons. Thicker vines of it clear the best routes from village to village, and tall luminescent bulbs make it possible (though by no means certain) to follow these roads in bad weather. The most mature bulbs are regarded with suspicion, and the vine-roads sometimes dismantle and then abandon villages which displease the sacred grove. Anyone sleeping outdoors will find that tendrils have grown into any pocket or pouch containing precious gems, and any left unprotected for a week are never found again.

At least one fortress crumbles somewhere out in the wastes. The vines assaulting its walls hold its long-dead defenders well out of reach; "only the vegetant shall pass" is graffiti'd above the narrow and decrepit ramp leading to its gate. A fungal ironwood treant stayed on here after the assault, to start a second sacred grove. The ironwood figureheads** of the sacred grove's greatest longships sometimes do the same on foreign shores.

Village chiefs and traveling merchants have learned to stymie assassination by fashioning vine golems in their likeness,** then accompanying the golem in the guise of a servant or still-cruder decoy.

Peasants commonly chew lichen to aid healing. Chewing the wrong part immediately inflicts a point of damage, whereas chewing the right part (DC 10 medicine check to separate it) adds one extra point of healing to every hit die rolled in a short rest.  Flesh healed in this way takes the color of the lichen. If a character heals half or more of their maximum HP while chewing lichen, numerous eyes sprout where the wound was. The sacred grove sees through these eyes.

The Great Stone Swords

Three giant stone swords stand in a valley concealed by a low circle of hills. Long seams of coal mark where lightning has stopped lichen from breaching the valley; the lichen doesn't ordinarily burn, but here it screams and dies in poisonous blue.

A famous palatine knight once quested here from an old kingdom across the mountains. Gold and silver laid into the two faces of his blade track two different journeys across rivers and forests and mountains; the valley lies in an unremarkable spot where the two maps cross.

The region is uninhabited. The few travelers who wander close by accident sometimes report seeing lights glide between distant hill tops.

Sailing Stones

Evil stones are sometimes seen at the head of long tracks of bare ground. It's believed they graze on the lichen, but they never move when observed. Sometimes a grinding noise is heard at night, and in the morning two trails have converged and only one rock can be seen.** (The stones generally move towards sites which have been forgotten and overgrown, though this isn't generally known.)

In a settlement at the edge of the lichen's reach, monks secretly cultivate sailing stones in their rock gardens, from which they have learned to distill a magically attuned wine; it makes an excellent substrate for curative potions, and the longest-aged bottles function as an equivalent value of precious gems or diamond dust. They extract prophecies** as part of the process, though most are hopelessly generic or a variation on "wine must flow."

Siege of Rum

One part Troy and one part Templar fortress, this citadel is a foothold and last remnant of the previous cycle of kingdoms from the other side of the mountains. It's controlled by the Cult of Rum, a holy order of demon hunters who venerate the corpse of the moon. The siege has lasted years. Their greatest hero can be seen standing defiantly atop the battlements, taunting the enemy and shouting "ALL GODS ARE BASTARDS!"** PCs who stick around long enough will eventually realize that they must try to kill the sun.

The blessed mint stamps holy symbols into their coins, which makes the flesh of unholy creatures sizzle. An old storage building full of broken or discarded objects has a locked and forgotten closet, whose door hasn't been opened in decades; it's actually an impossible stairway to the moon, crafted by a legendary dwarf in a contest with the gods. It exits into one of the many vast, ruined lunar cities.*** Windstorms affect how much air is available in the cities, and a person arriving via the Plane Shift spell might not arrive somewhere habitable.

To Be Continued

* I forget why we snuck into that Drow city. Pretty good escapade. Almost a party wipe. I remember the dwarf city was bureaucratically dickish about allowing us access to the river in the first place. They did at least warn us to go left at "the fangs" (a pair of remarkable stalactites, not actual fangs) so we wouldn't go over a waterfall. Fought an Aboleth and its illusory double, got a few jars of Aboleth slime which we were forever after trying to asphyxiate people with. Passed a goblin or kobold camp - maybe they were fighting orcs at the time? - who we bought information from. Snuck through outlying cavern farms until we could get on the stretch of river with the gated checkpoint. Quietly disposed of the first customs rowboat trying to stop us from docking in the city, kept one guy alive from a second group eyeing us from a bridge, then at the inn forgot to keep him quiet when we kicked him out of our Rope Trick. A running battle with the town guard ended with us fighting priestesses in an unlit attic or crawlspace or something before they filled it with poisoned gas and retreated to the armed cordon outside.

**Can't remember where every idea came from. I'm pretty sure dryads riding as the figureheads on the prows of ships, rocks eating other rocks, and slicing rocks into thin plates for fortune telling come from smaller OSR blogs. I think the "oh shit our NPC leader is going to get us killed" siege is from one of the guests on D&D's official DM talk shows.

***Lunar ruins inspired by HPL's Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, which I finally got around to reading. I don't usually like "it was all a dream" plots but this one works for me. There's a lot to recommend in terms of RPG campaign structure too; I particularly like how it introduces elements (like the cats) in escalating stages. It is fifty pages long though, and if you've been GM'ing a while it mostly just reinforces things you already know.


  1. Solid, original fantasy stuff. I'm not sure how the Swords and Rum Cult plug into the skull/lichen thing.

    The rocks moving when people can't see them sounds familiar to me too, but I can't recall from where. It's not Doctor Who's weeping angels. Still though, it's cool.

    1. Thanks. I think it would look a lot less original five to ten years ago, though, and damned if I can find the OSR blog/post this is riffing on. (I know someone else beat me to the punch with a giant skeleton causing tremors, but I can't find that either.)

      The sword-map is possibly the only truly original element. The lichen is basically Zerg creep, and I feel like 'stones moving when unwatched' has equally ancient roots; perhaps David Bowie's Labyrinth or earlier.

      The Swords and the Cult oppose the lichen, and are in geographic proximity to it, but have no deeper relation. The Cult works for me as an additional node (and flashpoint) in the political landscape, but the Swords are just an undeveloped hook right now.