“10 monster setting" generator

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Tlön (late antique science-fantasy Mars), Week 1 (in which I hop onboard the Gygax 75 challenge train)

Pitch Points
  • The Empire is dead, but no one is quite willing to admit it. The imperial carpet of Tlön conquered the known world and administered a cosmopolitan empire with surprising efficiency, co-opting local elites when possible and operating with speedy and frank brutality when not... until it didn't; everyone recognizes it, no one's willing to admit it. It's said that Lenin didn't seize power so much as find it lying on the ground. Alternately desperate and bold magician lodges, religious or national movements, and powerful families are picking up power for themselves, but everyone is desperately cooperating with the fiction that all these moves are in accordance with imperial norms and law. It won't last.
  • The world is old, practically collapsing under its own weight. Fossil remains suggest that men live on what once was a sea bed. The remnants of ancient engineering (mechanical and biological) are everywhere; most magic is somehow connected with this. The wicked and wise First Folk, mighty sorcerers all, are still around; they're just reclusive and primarily interested in their own projects.
  • Water is scarce, and growing scarcer. The world is a Martian landscape of red rock, annular lakes, continental uplands. Gardens and fountains - and lots of water-bought retainers and servants - are the best way to display your wealth. Air is thin and chill. Tidal stresses and a deep cave network extending into the cold, crimson earth mean that any given catchment area may find itself in short supply. Finding new aquifers or repairing old engineering constitute the main reasons to go dungeon-diving.
  • A kitchen sink science-fantasy setting within the limits of the above - almost any kind of wizard fits in, as does almost any culture you make up. Science, magic, religion, philosophy are varied - what with all the deep history and cosmopolitan exchange, you can justify the inclusion of almost anything - but should never fit neatly into one of those four categories and not another; the division between them is a modern conceit.

Sources of Inspiration
  • The obvious, but really mostly because the name "Tlön" itself is super compelling for me. Various fantasy Marses, Borroughs and Robinson and so on, are obviously in here as well.
  • The landscape of the American southwest, especially in the Utah-New Mexico parts where lush green pine stands against ancient red rock, and the air is thin and dry. Ever since living in New Mexico I've found this an especially compelling visual environs.
  • Chris Wayan's Planetocopia, especially Tharn but also Mars Reborn, Serrana, and others.
  • The art of Moebius, which I'm not original in loving as a canonical touchstone of weird science-fantasy.
  • Patrick Wyman's Fall of Rome podcast but also Peter Adamson's History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps and Earl Fontanelle's SHWEP.
  • Literature on imperialism in general, but especially those that emphasize how it's a robbery racket but also a robbery racket that co-opts local elites, promotes cultural exchange, and creates ideological structures that can outlast the actual functioning of the racket itself. (Chris Wickham, for instance, frames the early middle ages as a sort of late late antiquity where imperial structures were dead and gone, but imperial notions of legitimacy were still the gold standard.)
  • Visual culture from around the world, befitting the setting's cosmopolitanism, but especially architecture from Southeast Asia and the native American Southwest, and clothing from Central Asia and the Andes. (People are a lot more heavily clothed here than on Barsoom!)

Press the cosmogony button. Press it. You are a god; seize your birthright!

“What food the stars eat, if they are animals:" 1d58 worldbuilding prompts from Adelard of Bath

Adelard of Bath lived in the twelfth century, studied Arabic science, and wrote down what he considered to be prize-winning scientific questions and his own best stab at them. These also make, incidentally, great worldbuilding prompts - they are, after all, something an intelligent person in a medieval milieu could look at and imagine different answers to, hence something where the completely bonkers metaphysics you just made up might produce something very similar to the taverns-and-sword-fights social reality that we all know and love to pretend at. Some of these are just fucking great ("what food the stars eat, if they are animals") some are most interesting for their look at how assumptions differ ("why women, if they are more frigid than men, are more wanton in desire") and some are rather small fry ("why those [animals] which ruminate lie down first on their hind legs and last on their forelegs.") Regardless, lest I impose my own assumptions about what is interesting too much, here is the full list, or at least the fullest version I could find:

  1. Why plants are produced without the sowing of seed.
  2. How some plants are called hot, since all are more of the earth than of fire.
  3. How different plants grow in the same region.
  4. Why they are not produced from water, air, or even from fire, as they are from the earth.
  5. Why, when a plant is grafted, the fruit is that of the grafted part, not the trunk.
  6. Why certain beasts chew the cud, and certain others not at all.
  7. Why those which ruminate lie down first on their hind legs and last on their forelegs.
  8. Why all animals which drink do not make water.
  9. Why certain animals have a stomach, and others do not.
  10. Why certain of them see more sharply by night than by day.
  11. Whether beasts have souls.
  12. Why men are not born with horns or other weapons.
  13. Why those who have good intelligence are lacking in memory or vice versa.
  14. Why the seats of imagination, reason, and memory are found in the brain.
  15. Why the nose is located above the mouth.
  16. Why men get bald in front.
  17. Why we hear echoes.
  18. How, as the voice comes to the ear, it may penetrate any obstacle.
  19. What opinions should be held concerning vision.
  20. Whether the visible spirit is substance or accident.
  21. Why, as one can see from the darkness into the light, one cannot similarly see from the light into darkness.
  22. Why we smell, taste, and touch.
  23. Why joy is the cause of weeping.
  24. Why we breathe out of the same mouth now hot and now cold air.
  25. Why the motion of fanning produces heat.
  26. Why the fingers were made unequal.
  27. Why the palm is concave.
  28. Why men cannot walk when they are born, as animals do.
  29. Why men are nourished more by milk.
  30. Why women, if they are more frigid than men, are more wanton in desire.
  31. Why men universally die.
  32. Why the living are afraid of dead bodies.
  33. How or why the globe of the earth is held up in the middle of the air.
  34. If the sphere of the earth were to be perforated, where a stone thrown into it would fall.
  35. How the earth moves.
  36. Why the waters of the sea are salty.
  37. Whence the ebb and flow of the tides come.
  38. How the ocean does not increase from the the influx of rivers.
  39. Why certain rivers are not salty.
  40. How the course of rivers can be perpetual.
  41. How sprints burst forth on a mountain top.
  42. Whether there may be other true springs.
  43. Why water does not go out of a full vessel open in the lower part, unless an opening is made above.
  44. Whence the winds arise.
  45. Whence the first movement of air proceeds.
  46. Whether, if one atom is set in motion, all are set in motion, since whatever is moved moves something.
  47. Why the wind does not move around the earth to the upper regions.
  48. Where or whence such great impetus comes to it.
  49. Where thunder comes from.
  50. Where lighting comes from.
  51. Why lightning does not come forth from all thunder.
  52. By what power lightning penetrates stones and masses of metal.
  53. Why, when we see the fire, we do not hear the crash, either at once or forever.
  54. Why the planets and especially the sun do not keep their courses through the middle of the aplanon [outermost and immovable sphere of heaven] without revolution.
  55. Whether the stars fall, as they seem to fall.
  56. Whether the stars are animated.
  57. What food the stars eat, if they are animals.
  58. Whether the aplanon should be called an animate body or God.

Quick Combat: a preliminary stab (har har) at a system

(In the course of finding her injury system to link to, I find that Emmy Allen did this exact thing, but without the weird morale bidding mechanic. Go with your preferred version or mix your own, but if you do mix your own, let me know!)

This is a (proto-?) system for those who like "combat" in the sense of a constant possibility of mortal danger that haunts exploration or social scenes, but not "combat" in the sense of taking a long break from exploration/social scenes to play a tactical minigame. This more or less entirely removes "combat as sport" in favor of "combat as war."

0) This system is to represent combat situations that are plausibly in doubt. If five children ambush four dragons, the dragons still win even though the children have numbers and surprise on their side.
1) When combat begins, everybody chooses Morale - a number from 1-12 - secretly passing them to the GM if desired.
2) Roll 1d6. This represents the decisive factor in battle.
  1. Numbers: whichever side has fewer combatants loses.
  2. Might: whiever side has lower average HD loses.
  3. Cohesion: whichever side has lower average higher morale loses.
  4. Leadership: whichever side has the best single combatant - as defined by Morale + HD - does not lose, but rather the other side loses.
  5. Positioning: whichever side has worse circumstantial advantage wins. If in doubt, the defender loses, unless they are defending a fortified position, in which case attacker loses.
  6. Mutual Ruin: both sides lose.
If no side has a clear advantage on the rolled decisive factor, add up each side's raw Morale + HD total. The side with the lower total score loses, unless the scores are equal, in which case both lose.

3) Each combatant on the losing side rolls 2d6. If they roll over their Morale, they ran away (or are captured if escape is impossible and the enemy takes prisoners - or they successfully played dead, or whatever). If they roll under or equal to their Morale, they're dead (or also possibly captured, &c, depending on the circumstances).

(Note that losing combat is a mechanical condition while winning is not. You "win" if making your opponent lose accomplishes whatever extra-combat goal you happened to have.)

4) Regardless of whether your side won or lost, if you didn't die, roll 2d6 (one red die, one blue) and compare it to Morale again, or Morale + 3 if you lost. If it's under (not equal) to your Morale, you sustain injuries. Different opponents may have different charts to determine how they wounded you, but by default consult the red die rolled and the following chart:
  1. Just a scratch.
  2. If you had a shield, light armor, or heavy armor, you're fine. If not, roll 1d6 again.
  3. If you had heavy armor or a shield, it's shattered. If not, roll 1d6 again.
  4. You lost a hand, an eye, or something else useful.
  5. You have a deep wound and are greviously injured. You cannot exert yourself for the next day and will need to be under care.
  6. You are mortally wounded, and though you can move around, you will need to seek treatment in a center of civilization within 1d12 days (referee rolls secretly) or you will die.
Alternatively, steal from Cave Girl's injury system in some way.

of Phantoms; or, what it's like to seem to be

An illusionist who meets their third and final Doom becomes an illusion permanently. Such sad sights - and sights they are - are but one origin of a class of creature called phantoms, variously employed and studied by illusionists the worlds over, and seen and heard by people of all sorts. The lay consensus is that such creatures are not "real," but this is exactly the kind of stray comment that will catch you in the pedantic crosshairs of a stray philosopher or other master of illusion.

The practicing illusionist - or adventurer who has struggled with phantoms - is wont to sneer in response that naturally these creatures are real, insofar as their effects are real. (This is the famed Tomiss Theorem, of the academician-elector Shofas Tomiss' essential Propaedeutics of Sorcerie.) But furtherly philosophical illusionists are likely to respond that this, in turn, lacks ontological nuance as to the precise status of phantoms and other illusions. An illusion must not be regarded as something unreal in the sense that (say) a computer or good demon must be regarded as something unreal (something outside of the world, not existing in the sense of not interacting with all of its other parts) but at the same time it is not like (say) a stone or a unicorn, one ordinary object enjoying the full franchise of existence alongside all the others. Illusions are that which, if they were to cease being observed, go away. These are perfectly efficacious and "real" as far as it goes, like laws and money, but like laws and money, a phantom needs real social supports to keep going, and illusionists approaching their Doom often make arrangements for the same.

This answers the question every novice apprentice has - or every wicked apprentice assumes - about phantoms, that being whether they have an internal life. A phantom has "real" experiences if those experiences are observed. The more astute of the apprentices reply: "but wait, aren't our own conscious experiences the same way? Don't we have 'an inner life' only by virtue of observing our own experiences, self-reflectively?" Exactly so. And the scholarly consensus of illusionists is that illusions properly "feel" pain, heartbreak, hopes, and (above all) dreams - but that they need to be observed doing so in order to, just like anything else. (The bright and terrible angels, who in their calculations disregard the good and bad accrued to phantoms, err here; but that is because they see through all lies, which is why they care not for aforesaid laws or money either.) Specifically, they must in practice be observed by others. In principle, infinite levels of self-reflective awareness - I observe that I observe that I observe that I... - would suffice, but who can manage that?

(It also follows from this that phantoms have, in most cases, no subconscious. Most of us have pains, hopes, and dreams that we are not aware of, but phantoms who wish to retain a subconscious must arrange to be under the continuous observation of a psychotherapist.)

An illusionist that manages to stably maintain their continuity of consciousness (much less subconsciousness) after becoming a phantom may be regarded as the rough equivalent of the necromancer that continues on as a liche. Any competent illusionist by definition can arrange to summon illusions to observe her, but these also require their own observers. Demons can also be summoned by allied or indebted spellcasters, but these wretched creatures cannot see goodness, and the phantoliche existing only in the eye of these beholders is wont to be swift corrupted. Angels see goodness and badness both, and with what awful intensity! - but not, as noted, illusions.

The preferred set of arrangements for an illusionist expecting to meet his Doom consists of some kind of entailed land or other passive income  - bonds, interest collecting in the bank, and other purely financial instruments are often preferred for aesthetic reasons - supporting fawning servants interacting with (and, above all, observing) a network of illlusionists. Often a charitable foundation for the education of bards is involved; these bards act as the literary critics, psychotherapists, dramaturges, and publicists required to ensure that, however indirectly, the phantoliche exists under continuous observation. Another popular option (with similar aesthetic appeal for the profession) is the religious foundation, with the phantoliche presented as a kind of god. Both may hire adventurers, of course, being limited in mobility.

Atheists derive at least two sources of delight from the phantom. The first is that the limited endurance of phantoms disproves any omniscient being, the second is that if minor cults may have sprung around phantoliches, major ones may have as well. What else could explain the desire of the gods for worshipers, or the popular superstition that if they were to cease to be believed in, the gods would fade? That they are acknowledged by angels is a stumbling block to this theory, but perhaps this is an advanced trick - or perhaps the angels, as poppets of these mighty wizards, refuse to acknowledge other illusions for fear of their power being usurped. Many a mystery cult based around evading the tricks of the Grand Illusionists Who Rule the World forms in the undergrad dorms of the illusionists college, before most illusionists become distracted by the ease of worldly achievements - another trap of the these demiurges, say the cults.

Although becoming a phantoliche requires a lot of work, this is ultimately not why most illusionists disdain to do so. To be continuously observed by others even in one's inner life is unbearable to most humans and like mortal folk; for illusionists, who typically entered the profession that others might perceive them as they might prefer, it is an especially horrid fate. The phantoliche is, almost by definition, a primadonna, and probably had a need to be seen even before their proper Doom.

d20x4 prophecies

Velexiraptor's prompt generator gave me "prophecies, NPCs, and d20 tables." That sounds doable.

Knaves of Knecrocarcerus

This was originally Quick Questers of Necrocarcerus, then I was retooling a bit, then blogger ate everything. Anyway, more people use knave, so here's a thing for that and John's Necrocarcerus setting.

Imagine dragon eggs

Imagine a yolky proto-dragon swimming about in its egg - what does it think? What does it want? What does it know?

Does it not have what every dragon wants - to be the absolute master of its universe, to own all that it knows exists? Is that why dragons are the way they are - not because they are foolish, but because they were too precocious, and remember being conscious in their little pre-worlds?

If so, then that first little peck outside must have not been their first assault on the world, but the world's first assault on them. Oh, I do not mean to say that they do not initiate it; that their snouts and talons do not break through the thin film separating baby dragon from the world at large; not even that their dissatisfaction with the gulped yolk - their gnawing wonder, Is this all there is? - is what propelled them outwards. All I mean is - what a horrid surprise.

Us mammals experience much the same trauma, but for us, it instills a fear of abandonment. We were within the panentheistic confines of the mother, thrown into a more or less atheistic world with few means of support. Every dragon in the egg is an autotheist, and the transition from that to atheism is a far more traumatic experience still. The whole ideas of self and world are at once effaced and created. Poor dragon! Do you not yet know that you can belch fire?

(Oh, some, the most precocious yet, do. They end up as fried eggs, sadly. It's the one limit on draconic evolution that we know of. If not for that, they'd end up far smarter than existing dragons, so smart, why, they'd probably be able to hide their own existence.)

Well, there's the little dragon whelp, full for the first time of terror and self-pity, not knowing there's fire to breathe, or a sky to fly through, or hoards more golden yet than one's yolk. That you do not possess the world means you do not press up against its limits, and you can ever experience the self pressing outward - the joy of becoming over the monotony of being. Take heart, little dragon! There's triumphs for you yet, princesses and tributes more than you can imagine!

Perhaps she grows up in a clutch of other eggs; perhaps she hatches alone. Perhaps she was in an egg with competitors against whom she struggled, and, as self-consciousness dimly came into view, gulped up. Were they not princesses, too? Yes, inheritors of a noble lineage, and she had eaten them up, before she was aware of anything else.

Some eggs, one must imagine, open up not from the initiative of their impatient captives, but, teeter-tottering from the ledges on rocky cliffs upon which their mothers have lain them, splatter upon the ground, opening the dead or dying young dragon to the wider world, not just the crust of the egg but the scaly skin as well, splayed out. And we must suppose that - especially as no-one inspects a viable dragon egg for this purpose, their being far too valuable - such finds are greatly valued by scholars, who peer in and see the tentative development of the draconic form. Indeed, it is due to this that whole ontologies have been dislodged from their heavens. It used to be that scholars, looking at the development of human embryos procured from natural or artificial miscarriage, hypothesized that the embryo ascended through the various steps on the chain of being - slime, fish, little mouselike mammal, then into the family of apes of which we form a part. It was supposed that, as dragons are another step above us, that in dragon eggs that were at just the right level of incomplete, that one might find a little man or woman, ready to progress into the face of a dragon. But none such have been found, and upon this was our great leap from the superstition of the the great chain of being to the truth of cladistics. And some people mourned, or still hold out the idea of little men in those dragon eggs, because it struck them as a more romantic notion, perhaps; or because they hoped that further progressions, perhaps in a further life after this one was lived in virtue, were possible. But the world is an unromantic place and we must not imagine that dragons are anything other than they are, a rather plain thing, a dangerous thing, but no more.

Stalactomancers of Tlön

Possible content warning for gross stuff.


In 1937, Nazi sorcerers recruited into the Ahnenerbe from the Armenenschaft, Germanenorden, and Thule Gesselleschaft discovered another world, which they called Niðavellir after one of the worlds of Norse mythology. Their plans to use it - whether as a colonial frontier or source of occult wisdom - were cut short by ensuing events, and the parts of their research team that did not escape there were divided up by American and Soviet intelligence. Niðavellir became a secret front in the Cold War until both agencies, anticipating their liquidation, fled to it in 1979. It has been unknown to any major Earth government since then - although there have been rogue operations.

Thief Guilds: Assasins and Investigators

Beings Guilds (GLOG thief subclass) along the lines of Lexi's template. (I've also both directly lifted some of the skill trees - which, from the initial templates, seems in line with the philosophy - and the idea behind my favorite single power, which being the Historian's "Speak with Art" ability.)

random alignment generator

another day working at the alignment language museum

Everybody wants to know what an alignment is.

almost cliche cults

Cults! Unlike Cthulhu, this post isn't going to break open your mind about that or anything else. Everything in here is just close enough to the cliche that you can substitute it with almost no other changes.

dungeon ecology generator

Inspired by the work pioneered at Chromatic Cauldron and extended by DIY And Dragons (although cruder than their own methods.) No man is an island, but a dungeon may be an island ecology. Results not guaranteed to cohere.

Vancian memory palaces

Vancian wizards get their power from memorizing tremendously complex spell formulae. Therefore, they use the gold standard of memory techniques, the method of loci - placing memories within the layout of a familiar building.

If you want to memorize a deck of cards, any building will do. But you wouldn’t store a spell in any building, any more than you (or a snobbier version of you - wizards are infamous snobs) would hang the Mona Lisa in an outhouse. It’s disrespectful, and degrades the potency of the spells you house there.

Obviously, this is one reason wizards power up by raiding tombs - big, dangerous cavern networks brewing with magical energy tend to twist themselves into geomantically potent shapes. Necromancers may find especially useful models for their spell palaces in crypts, abjurists in fortifications, transmutationists in ancient sorcerous factories.

Temples and magical academies are of course built into shapes of puissant feng shui, and access to wander and familiarize oneself with the deeper levels is restricted to trusted senior members for this reason.

Potent shapes for spell storage are hard to predict a priori, and even with potent visualization techniques, it’s difficult to substitute a blueprint on paper for familiarization with a physical space. (Though to be clear: most spell books do include the relevant maps/blueprints, geometrically transformed through codes that are as elaborate as the wizard is paranoid.) Searching for ideal buildings in lucid dreams is a popular option - and also a popular vector through which hostile interplanar memeplexes come to set up shop in a wizard’s brain.

Tables of Tlön