Strange Ecology – Critters, Critters Everywhere!

In this series of posts on Strange Ecology, I am introducing various aspects of the ecological nature of particular regions in my campaign setting, Memory Fading. I hope to let you see a little bit about how I make the decisions I do, and how I am trying to bring just a bit more realism into my setting. The Chulgeth is a large archipelago in the equatorial region of Ord. This land encompasses two main islands, each over three hundred miles across, and a number of smaller islands that surround the two main islands, and expand further south in the shape of an open hand. The majority of the islands are covered with tropical rainforests. The ecosystem of these lands is very diverse, and in this post, we’ll expand a bit on the other unique creatures in the Chulgeth.

At the very bottom of the food chain are the gardlers, those small beetles that have a painful bite. The gardlers live in hives of mud and sticks that are built around the base of banyan trees. The Feng Tower is pretty sure the reason they pick those particular trees is because the large amounts of vines and roots of the banyans give the gardlers easy access to the canopy of the forest. Sometimes, these hives will connect between several trees, creating a massively frightening site of honeycombed mud and twigs with swarms of clicking beetles. These hives get up to dozens of yards around, between the banyan trees, and the Hiths steer far clear of these larger nests.

The gardlers have three main predators in the Chulgeth, the ezhrinoles, the beautiful zhurmbirds, and the frightening scergitur. The ezhrinole is already pretty well detailed, I believe, so let us look at these other two unique creatures.

Zhurmbirds (shortened, zhurms) are large, colorful birds with long, curved beaks made seemingly specifically for eating beetles. These beaks are nearly as long as the rest of the bird’s body, and have amazing power in them, able to take off a human finger, or the leg of a ezhrinole with little effort. The zhurms are arboreal and typically make their nests in already-existing treeholes like natural cavities and holes excavated by other animals. The birds are very long-lived, sometimes living at least fifty years, and they are monogamous, mating for life, and having few eggs in their lifetime. These birds are named as such after the Hith deity of beauty, Zhurma. Hiths have a deep reverence for zhurmbirds, and will go out of their way to protect the creatures. However, their beautiful feathers and beaks are highly sought after by other people of Alsa Eru, so much so that there is even a black market for these body parts poached from the birds. Non-Hiths in the Chulgeth have the very evocative and venereal name for a large group of these birds, a “radiance of zhurms.”

The scergitur is a creature that causes adult humans to jump in fear, and can kill most creatures smaller than a cat with little or no problem. It is a massive insect, with hundreds of legs and powerful pinchers, that can grow as long as an adult human’s leg. They are extremely fast, able to scale a tall tree in just a few moments, and even scarier, they can stand up like a cobra and jump up to five feet into the air. They have no poison, but their mandibles are terribly strong. Perhaps the most terrifying part of the scergiturs, however, are their eyes. They have four multi-faceted eyes that are pitch black, and seem to gleam with a malevolent intelligence. They burrow into the ground and many an unwary traveler has stepped into one of their holes and gotten quite a scary (and painful) surprise.

Other than the ezhrinoles, there are a few other unique reptiles in the Chulgeth, in particular, bhing dragons, circoidilles, and horlitors. Bhing dragons and horlitors are both just large carnivorous lizards, both of them able to grow up to around three feet long (though some people claim to have seen them up to six feet long). The bhing dragons are brown and spiny, while the horlitors are more green and slimy. Circoidilles are even larger reptiles, and feed on both of the two smaller lizards, as well as on most other creatures in the Chulgeth. They can grow up to ten feet long, and have grayish, bumpy skin. They have been known to be man-killers, one of the few creatures in the Chulgeth that goes out of its way to hunt humans, and are possibly one of the main reasons the Hiths live on stilts.

There are many different varieties of mammals in the Chulgeth, but only a few of them make themselves known to adventurers very often, and thus, those are who we’ll focus on next. The most abundant mammals in the rainforest are not large ground-dwelling creatures, but bats. There are dozens of varieties of bats in the rainforest, but one in particular is unique to this strange area.

The nosferubats are small, barely the size of a human adult’s open hand, but they fly in swarms of up to a thousand. They feed on small mammals and reptiles by latching to the poor victims, usually a dozen at a time, and draining the blood out of their prey with their hollow canines. They live in caves, or beneath ridges in a ravine, where they can avoid sunlight during the day. Mostly they hunt at night, but they are not harmed by daylight.

The other mammal unique to the Chulgeth is also the apex predator, and one of the deadliest non-magical creatures known in this part of the world. It is the jaduk cat, a massive and powerful feline that can wrestle a spineyback bear, circoidille, or human with equal ease. The cats grow to five feet tall and up to ten feet long, with paws large enough to cover a man’s head. The retractable claws are not unlike daggers, and the cats have an amazing amount of strength. The jaduks have yellow or brown fur with large, black spots on the fur. Perhaps the deadliest aspect of these creatures is that they make their layer on low branches of trees. More than one skilled Hith warrior has met his quick and bloody end by being literally lifted off the ground while walking beneath a jaduk’s tree. The fur of these cats is highly sought after by poachers from the mainland, but unlike the zhurmbirds, the Hiths don’t have too much problem with the jaduks being hunted.

That should pretty much cover all the interesting critters of the Chulgeth, I’ll talk about the plants in the next post, and then bring everything together after that. The main purpose of the description of these creatures is to show not only the various animals PCs can encounter, but also to show how much is going on in this strange land. Any suggestions for additions, or other ways to use the creatures here? This post turned out a bit longer than I originally meant, I’ll try to make the next few shorter.


Strange Ecology – Even Smaller

In this series of posts on Strange Ecology, I am introducing various aspects of the ecological nature of particular regions in my campaign setting, Memory Fading. I hope to let you see a little bit about how I make the decisions I do, and how I am trying to bring just a bit more realism into my setting.

In my last post, I talked about a small little creature that will be introduced into Memory Fading in a region called the Chulgeth. Ravyn asked how this creature will relate to the overall ecology, considering that it is likely to be low on the prey-list of predators fearing being poisoned. So, we’ll take a look today at how the ecology works around this strange little creature. First things first, though, this little reptile has been given a name. The Hiths apparently believe these little lizard-like creatures have some sort of relationship to the feared God of Plague, Ezhrin, and have thus named the creatures “ezhrinoles,” or “plague-bearers.”

The ezhrinoles do not synthesize their toxins, but sequester them from their food sources. Ezhrinoles are omnivorous reptiles, and their two favorite foods are what give them their poisonous secretions.

The first is type of fungus, known as “bohrinfel” to the locals, that grows in tiny, five-stalk clusters, and have bulbous, blue heads. The fungus, when ground to a fine paste, can be used to coat darts and blades, and thus bring down large and otherwise deadly game by causing a short-term paralysis. Some amongst the Hiths have been known to use this fungus in various ceremonies for communing with spirits.

The second source of the ezhrinoles toxins come from small beetles called “gardlers,” which have a very painful bite. They are only the size of a human child’s thumb nail, but their bite can cause searing, tear-inducing pain in full-grown adults. The bites leave angry, reddish welts on the skin, before causing the skin to swell and blacken, and then finally return to normal. Sometimes this painful reaction can take up to ten days to run its course, which means that Hiths, and other knowledgeable explorers, will steer far clear from the little beetles’ nests. The Hiths have been known to set traps that involve releasing swarms of these beetles on unsuspecting enemies.

Due to the evolved nature of the ezhrinoles, the little reptiles are able to consume both of these food sources without pain or paralysis, and then the chemical reactions in their bodies secret the toxin they are known for. It is suspected by the Feng Tower that the deformities are caused by these reactions, but other than causing physical abnormalities, the creatures seem to be a strong contender in the local ecology.

The toxins on the skin keep smaller predators away, but any creatures at least as large as a wolf seem to have no significant issues by eating the ezhrinoles. They are a main food source for the much larger reptiles of the Chulgeth, such as the bhing dragons, circoidilles, and horlitors. Humans can even eat the lizards if they are properly washed, and in some Hith tribes, they are considered a delicacy.

In recent years, several groups of sirish scholars from the Feng Tower have begun studying these creatures, curious of the strange evolution that has led to the small reptiles being immune to this certain kind of poison.

It is very common in campaign settings and worlds for there to be these very practical uses for ecology (poisons, spirit-wandering, etc). However, what I really want to do is bring in the non-gaming aspects of these ecosystems. So what kinds of uses could indigenous peoples find for these sorts of things? Do you have different ways you may possibly use them in your campaign? Please let me know your thoughts, it will help me decide which direction to go next.


On Being Internetless, and Future Turtle Issues

While out of town for a week for a cousin’s wedding (who didn’t have internet), I’ve been thinking of a few different options I want to focus on. I personally am mostly interested in writing articles here that focus on the various elements of designing campaign settings and worlds. I do want to also help showcase other peoples’ homebrew campaign settings, but I’m going to need a bit of help from the community at large, namely in the suggestions of good settings which I should Showcase. I would love some suggestions on this, as well as if anyone has specific ideas as to what sorts of elements I could work on in the near future that relate to campaign building. I have a full series in the works on fantasy ecologies, and am starting work on a series on fantasy governments as well. If there are any suggestions, I am very open to them. Other than that, this post was mainly to let any of you who were curious know why I was gone for over a week! :)

Strange Ecology – Starting Small

Ever since Exchange of Realities focused on various Ecology For World Builders articles all this past week, I’ve been thinking about how to implement her ideas in my own setting.

There is a region of Memory Fading where the ecology is strange. Animals are deformed or monstrous, and most are quite dangerous due to the amount of natural defenses required just to live in the Chulgeth. Things here run the gamut from mutated wildlife (e.g., the massive spineyback bear, with bony protrusions growing from its back) to occasional Monster Manual creatures (oozes, yrthak, various plant creatures, etc.). The general idea is that nothing here is really sentient, and that everything fits into a hot, humid jungle/swamp/marsh sort of habitat, and most things are clearly wrong in some way: twisted or deformed by mysterious local phenomena.

Anyway, I thought I’d share my thoughts so far on one of the smaller and more common creatures of the Chulgeth. I’m not really good at statting out monsters or anything, so here’s the brief text version:

Unnamed Amphibians (small-sized animals, or perhaps magical beasts?)
These salamander-like creatures are as long as a human’s forearm and twice as wide, with flat, spade-shaped heads and tadpole tails. Their membranous skin is oily and mottled black, and the webbing between their fingers and fanning out on both sides of the tail is a translucent, sickly yellow-green.

These amphibians are numerous in the Chulgeth, but no two seem alike. Most seem to be suffering some sort of deformity: wrong numbers of legs or eyes, a missing or truncated tail, misshapen or lumpy “collars” around the neck and shoulders– rarely even something so drastic as an extra head. The sirish scholars known as the Feng Tower is studying the creatures’ deformities, but the project is low-priority and underfunded, and has produced no conclusive results.

All noted varieties of the creatures are highly toxic to the touch; the slime that lubricates their membranous skin is a dangerous contact poison that causes spreading numbness and muscle paralysis. In some cases, the poison has been lethal, over large amounts of exposure. Some Chulgeth explorers have claimed to have seen the creatures spit their poison, or perhaps squirt it from glands in the flesh beneath the jaw; these claims are unverified.

When alone, these amphibians will typically flee from larger creatures. When in groups, they tend to attack intruders to defend their territory.

For now, that’s all I’ve got. This is my first attempt to pin down this particular area’s ecology system, which has been bouncing around the inside of my skull for about a week now. Thoughts?

Unexplored Genres – The Progressive Apocalypse

This is the first post in a series I plan on working on. I will be focusing on what I’m calling “Unexplored Genres,” but what would much more accurately be called “Non-Typical Genres.” It’s not so much that these genres don’t exist in RPGs, it’s just that they’re so rare, and so … undefined that they could use a little bit of attention. Without further adieu, I present, the Progressive Apocalypse.

What is a Progressive Apocalypse? A progressive apocalypse follows one of two basic premises for the story, though variations are possible: Either the world is undergoing an apocalypse over a slow and drawn out period, or their was a cataclysmic event, followed by a prolonged period of decay. Either way, the defining aspect of the genre is a sense of near hopelessness – although it may not happen for a few hundred or even thousand years, the world is dying slowly but steadily. There is little to no chance of averting the apocalypse.

What makes Progressive Apocalypse different from post apocalypse? Because progressive apocalypse happens during the apocalypse, and creates a sense of decay, urgency, and despair, it works best with settings that have darker themes. The interesting aspect of Progressive Apocalypse settings is that everything will end, no matter what. This may or may not be known to the people who live in this world, but it still shadows the setting, creating a feeling that permeates the air.

How does one play in a Progressive Apocalypse campaign? The way I see it, there are two ways to play in a Prog’Poc campaign. The first, and more obvious way, is to play it much like one would play a Post Apocalyptic campaign – the heroes can change nothing, they can save no one and nothing, and all they can do is make people comfortable while awaiting the inevitable end. The second way is the one in which there is still hope that the apocalypse can be stopped in some way – either through powerful magicks and sciences, or through the fortune of misinterpreting the signs (“Oh, the asteroid was heading for Mars, not for Earth after all! Sorry for the panic!“). This seems to me the more logical choice, but of course, that all depends on the style of gameplay you like – hopeful and inspiring, or dark and dreadful. One can also certainly make the distinction between man-made apocalypses, and natural apocalypses. Generally, I prefer it when the slow decay is human-engineered, and they have only themselves to blame for the slow entropy of their world, but picture our own planet earth 5 billion years from now, as the Sun is expanding and burning out all life on earth – how would you roleplay in those situations?

Have you used Prog’Poc before? How did it work out? Does your setting (or any settings you know of) use this premise as part of the overall theme?

Racial Archetypes as Caricatures of Humans

It seems to me that fantasy races often take on caricaturistic qualities in many (or most) fantasy RPGs. A lot of this comes from the tropes and clich├ęs that have hidden within RPGs for many, many years, but I do believe it runs a bit deeper than just, “that’s how things came to be.”

I was thinking about this on the way home from work yesterday, and it struck me as a discussion that could possibly be entertaining (as well as educational?) to the RPG community. Keep in mind that all of this is strictly conjecture, and I don’t have any kind of evidence to back it up… I’m basically just thinking out loud here.

Note that I’m using basic, general, stereotypical renditions of races for the purposes of this discussion, and I’m using general, stereotypical ideas about real-world people, too.

I’m playing with the idea that many of the features of “standard” fantasy races are exaggerated and magnified versions of specific human traits.

For example, dwarves are pretty much caricatures of masculinity. They’re tough, they can take a lot of pain, the hold their liquor pretty well– the “tough-guy” types. They’re obsessed with their beards. They’re excellent craftsmen of utilitarian things: the fantasy equivalents of modern auto-mechanics, construction workers, architects, and engineers. They’re usually depicted as martial if not aggressive– no invading army is going to catch them unprepared. They’re stoic and reserved, not showing a lot of sissy emotion. This theory also explains why female dwarves are so rarely encountered– if dwarves are a magnification of masculine caricatures, feminine versions of them are almost counterintuitive.

I think halflings, gnomes, and the other smaller races are derived in a similar way from children. Their size was the hint that tipped me off, but their behaviors are often similarly childlike. Two of gnomes’ most strongly represented characteristics are ill-advised, obnoxious, or inappropriate senses of humor, and a tendency to build stuff that doesn’t work. (O, when I think of all my magnificent, ill-fated childhood plans and inventions!) Halflings are the lovable little scamps that can’t keep out of trouble. Goblins are the playground bullies: violent and brutish, but small-time and easy enough to take less-than-seriously.

I was wondering what you all think about this sort of dissection. Any other races jump out at you with a similar analysis?

I think this is, in general, a pretty unuseful thought exercise, though it does seem to explain certain things about the status quo. For example, humans are almost always portrayed as “the adaptable ones” or “the versatile ones”, with no other overarching cultural detail. But that makes perfect sense if you consider that in-game humans are modeled closely after real-world humans and the full spectrum of their personalities and experiences, while every other race in our general collective vocabulary is allegedly modeled after one specific aspect, focused and magnified, of real-world humans’ personalities and experiences. Of course humans are “the versatile ones” if they’re the only ones whose nature has not been defined by a limitation!


Learning History from Weapons

I was watching the Lord of the Rings recently on a day off, and something occurred to me. It struck me as interesting that the major treasures of the world often seem more significant for their historical connections than for their concentrated badguy-whomping power. A highly-treasured sword is highly-treasured not because it’s +5 and Vorpal and Slays Evil With A Single Touch (in fact, it may or may not actually be any more combat-effective than your average weapon), but because it was worn into battle by a king a thousand years ago. Even some of the really powerful artifacts in this mythos (say, the Three elven rings) are practically never used at all, and seem to serve primarily as status symbols for the individuals and nations that control them– by dint of historical inertia, I’d wager.

When you think about it, this is a pretty neat way to connect characters with setting. An adventurer with a mortal’s lifespan has a limited amount of timeline he can really connect to directly. But if that same adventurer leaves home with his great-grandfather’s battleaxe (you know, the one Gramps used when he fought in the Orc Wars of 438?) he inherits a piece of setting history as well as a physical weapon, and connects himself, via the object, to a part of the timeline outside of his natural lifespan. That’s pretty neat!

If an adventurer finds an even more historically significant object (of importance to an entire culture rather than just a family), the “history effect” is magnified. If you are wielding, say, the Axe of the First King, which Kagren the Bold used to win sentience for mortalkind by severing the umbilical cord of the world at the dawn of time, you are wielding an item of unimaginably great importance and power– even if it turns out to be a “mere” masterwork axe.

Role playing games are typically balanced around the assumption that as they gain in level and in power, adventurers accumulate vaster and vaster collections of mighty equipment. You’re expected to replace your old and busted stuff– it’s tough to compete if you don’t. It’s extremely rare to see a world-saving hero at level 20 who still relies on the same sword he left home with at level 1, even if it is the one Gramps used in the Orc Wars of 438.

Heirlooms get set aside when shinier gear comes along, and to me, that’s a pity.

I think the problem happened somewhere along the line, when people were trying to recapture the feel of their favorite epic stories in a game format, and someone made the error of ascribing the mightiness of heroes to the qualities of their equipment. It’s a chicken-and-egg sort of dilemma: if we see a lone warrior stand against an army of thousands armed only with his trusty sword, and he actually survives, is it because he is an exceptionally talented warrior, or because he has an exceptionally nifty sword, or some particular balance of the two? Do adventurers become mighty because they acquire mighty gear, or does gear become coveted because historically it has been used by mighty adventurers to accomplish mighty deeds?

I think I’d prefer it if the balance between person and equipment were shifted a bit. I’ve always been fond of heroes who rely on personal skill more than special tools. (I always like the combat in Jackie Chan movies– hand the man an umbrella or a loaf of bread or a priceless vase, and he does just as well as any master swordsman. To me, that’s fun combat in a nutshell.)

And when power comes from the hand and mind of the adventurer, rather than from the adventurer’s collection of special gear, there’s no reason to throw away great-granddad’s heirloom axe just because you raided a dragon’s lair. Instead, keep the axe, and you keep the Orc Wars of 438 as a talking point that connects your character to significant events in the setting’s timeline.